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Chapter 21

XXI.

A week passed, and Lemuel had not tried to see Statira again. He said to himself that even when he had tried to do what was right, and to show those young ladies how much he thought of her by bringing her to see their pictures, she had acted very ungratefully, and had as good as tried to quarrel with him. Then, when he went to see her before his visit home, she was out; she had never been out before when he called.

Now, he had told Berry that they were not engaged. At first, this shocked him as if it were a lie. Then he said to himself that he had a right to make that answer because Berry had no right to ask the questions that led to it. Then he asked himself if he really were engaged to Statira. He had told her that he liked her better than any one else in the world, and she had said as much to him. But he pretended that he did not know whether it could be called an engagement.

There was no one who could solve the question for him, and it kept asking itself that whole week, and especially when he was with Miss Carver, as happened two or three times through Berry's connivance. Once he had spent the greater part of an evening in the studio, where he talked nearly all the time with Miss Carver, and he found out that she was the daughter of an old ship's captain at Corbitant; her mother was dead, and her aunt had kept house for her father. It was an old square house that her grandfather built, in the days when Corbitant had direct trade with France. She described it minutely, and told how a French gentleman had died there in exile at the time of the French revolution and who was said to haunt the house; but Miss Carver had never seen any ghosts in it. They all began to talk of ghosts and weird experiences; even Berry had had some strange things happen to him in the West. Then the talk broke in two again, and Lemuel sat apart with Miss Carver, who told at length the plot of a story she had been reading; it was a story called Romola; and she said she would lend it to Lemuel; she said she did not see how any one could bear to be the least selfish or untrue after reading it. That made Lemuel feel cold; but he could not break away from her charm. She sat where the shaded lamp threw its soft light on one side of her face; it looked almost like the face of a spirit, and her eyes were full of a heavenly gentleness.

Lemuel asked himself how he could ever have thought them proud eyes. He asked himself at the same time and perpetually, whether he was really engaged to Statira or not. He thought how different this evening was from those he spent with her. She could not talk about anything but him and her dress; and 'Manda Grier could not do anything but say saucy things which she thought were smart. Miss Swan was really witty; it was as good as the theatre to hear her and Berry going on together. Berry was pretty bright; there was no denying it. He sang to his banjo that night; one of the songs was Spanish; he had learned it in New Mexico.

Lemuel began to understand better how such nice young ladies could go with Berry. At first, after Berry talked so to him that night in the office against Statira, he determined that he would keep away from him. But Berry was so sociable and good-natured that he could not. The first thing he knew, Lemuel was laughing at something Berry said, and then he could not help himself.

Berry was coming now, every chance he had, to talk about the art- students. He seemed to take it for granted that Lemuel was as much interested in Miss Carver as he was himself in Miss Swan; and Lemuel did begin to speak of her in a shy way. Berry asked him if he had noticed that she looked like that Spanish picture of the Virgin that Miss Swan had pinned up next to the door; and Lemuel admitted that there was some resemblance.

"Notice those eyes of hers, so deep, and sorry for everybody in general? If it was anybody in particular, that fellow would be in luck. Oh. she's a dumpling, there's no mistake about it! 'Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered!' That's Miss Carver's style. She looks as if she just wanted to forgive somebody something. I'm afraid you ain't wicked enough, Barker. Look here! What's the reason we can't make up a little party for the Easter service at the Catholic cathedral Sunday night? The girls would like to go, I know."

"No, no, I can't! I mustn't!" said Lemuel, and he remained steadfast in his refusal. It would be the second Sunday night that he had not seen Statira, and he felt that he must not let it pass so. Berry went off to the cathedral with the art-students; and he kept out of the way till they were gone.

He said to himself that he would go a little later than usual to see Statira, to let her know that he was not so very anxious; but when he found her alone, and she cried on his neck, and owned that she had not behaved as she should that night when she went to see the pictures, and that she had been afraid he hated her, and was not coming any more, he had stayed away so long, his heart was melted, and he did everything to soothe and comfort her, and they were more loving together than they had been since the first time. 'Manda Grier came in, and said through her nose, like an old country-woman, "'The falling out of faithful friends, renewing is of love!'" and Statira exclaimed in the old way, "'Manda!" that he had once thought so cunning, and rested there in his arms with her cheek tight pressed against his.

She did not talk; except when she was greatly excited about something, she rarely had anything to say. She had certain little tricks, poutings, bridlings, starts, outcries, which had seemed the most bewitching things in the world to Lemuel. She tried all these now, unaffectedly enough, in listening to his account of his visit home, and so far as she could she vividly sympathised with him.

He came away heavy and unhappy. Somehow, these things no longer sufficed for him. He compared this evening with the last he had spent with the art-students, which had left his brain in a glow, and kept him awake for hours with luminous thoughts. But he had got over that unkindness to Statira, and he was glad of that. He pitied her now, and he said to himself that if he could get her away from 'Manda Grier, and under the influence of such girls as Miss Swan and Miss Carver, it would be much better for her. He did not relent toward 'Manda Grier; he disliked her more than ever, and in the friendship which he dramatised between Statira and Miss Carver, he saw her cast adrift without remorse.

Sewell had told him that he was always at leisure Monday night, and the next evening Lemuel went to pay his first visit to the minister since his first day in Boston. It was early, and Evans, who usually came that evening, had not arrived yet, but Sewell had him in his thought when he hurried forward to meet his visitor.

"Oh, is it you, Mr. Barker?" he asked in a note of surprise. "I am glad to see you. I had been intending to come and look you up again. Will you sit down? Mr. Evans was here the other night, and we were talking of you. I hope you are all well?"

"Very well, thank you," said Lemuel, taking the hand the minister offered, and then taking the chair he indicated. Sewell did not know exactly whether to like the greater ease which Lemuel showed in his presence; but there was nothing presumptuous in it, and he could not help seeing the increased refinement of the young man's beauty. The knot between his eyes gave him interest, while it inflicted a vague pang upon the minister. "I have been at home since I saw you." Lemuel looked down at his neat shoes to see if they were in fit state for the minister's study-carpet, and Sewell's eye sympathetically following, wandered to the various details of Lemuel's simple and becoming dress,—the light spring suit which he had indulged himself in at the Misfit Parlours since his mother had bidden him keep his money for himself and not send so much of it home.

"Ah, have you?" cried the minister. "I hope you found your people all well? How is the place looking? I suppose the season isn't quite so advanced as it is with us."

"There's some snow in the woods yet," said Lemuel, laying the stick he carried across the hat-brim on his knees. "Mother was well; but my sister and her husband have had a good deal of sickness."

"Oh, I'm sorry for that," said Sewell, with the general sympathy which Evans accused him of keeping on tap professionally. "Well, how did you like the looks of Willoughby Pastures compared with Boston? Rather quieter, I suppose."

"Yes, it was quieter," answered Lemuel.

"But the first touch of spring must be very lovely there! I find myself very impatient with these sweet, early days in town. I envy you your escape to such a place."

Lemuel opposed a cold silence to the lurking didacticism of these sentences, and Sewell hastened to add, "And I wish I could have had your experience in contrasting the country and the town, after your long sojourn here, on your first return home. Such a chance can come but once in a lifetime, and to very few."

"There are some pleasant things about the country," Lemuel began.

"Oh, I am sure of it!" cried Sewell, with cheerful aimlessness.

"The stillness was a kind of rest, after the noise here; I think any one might be glad to get back to such a place——"

"I was sure you would," interrupted Sewell.

"If he was discouraged or broken down any way," Lemuel calmly added.

"Oh!" said Sewell. "You mean that you found more sympathy among your old friends and neighbours than you do here?"

"No," said Lemuel bluntly. "That's what city people think. But it's all a mistake. There isn't half the sympathy in the country that there is in the city. Folks pry into each other's business more, but they don't really care so much. What I mean is that you could live cheaper, and the fight isn't so hard. You might have to use your hands more, but you wouldn't have to use your head hardly at all. There isn't so much opposition—competition."

"Oh," said Sewell a second time. "But this competition—this struggle—in which one or the other must go to the wall, isn't that painful?"

"I don't know as it is," answered Lemuel, "as long as you're young and strong. And it don't always follow that one must go to the wall. I've seen some things where both got on better."

Sewell succumbed to this worldly wisdom. He was frequently at the disadvantage men of cloistered lives must be, in having his theories in advance of his facts. He now left this point, and covertly touched another that had come up in his last talk with Evans about Barker. "But you find in the country, don't you, a greater equality of social condition? People are more on a level, and have fewer artificial distinctions."

"Yes, there's that," admitted Lemuel. "I've worried a good deal about that, for I've had to take a servant's place in a good many things, and I've thought folks looked down on me for it, even when they didn't seem to intend to do it. But I guess it isn't so bad as I thought when I first began to notice it. Do you suppose it is?" His voice was suddenly tense with personal interest in the question which had ceased to be abstract.

"Oh, certainly not," said the minister, with an ease which he did not feel.

"I presume I had what you may call a servant's place at Miss Vane's," pursued Lemuel unflinchingly, "and I've been what you may call head waiter at the St. Albans, since I've been there. If a person heard afterwards, when I had made out something, if I ever did, that I had been a servant, would they—they—despise me for it?"

"Not unless they were very silly people," said Sewell cordially, "I can assure you."

"But if they had ever seen me doing a servant's work, wouldn't they always remember it, no matter what I was afterwards?" Sewell hesitated, and Lemuel hurried to add, "I ask because I've made up my mind not to be anything but clerk after this."

Sewell pitied the simple shame, the simple pride. "That isn't the question for you to ask, my dear boy," he answered gently, and with an affection which he had never felt for his charge before. "There's another question, more important, and one which you must ask yourself: 'Should I care if they did?' After all, the matter's in your own hands. Your soul's always your own till you do something wrong."

"Yes, I understand that." Lemuel sat silently thoughtful, fingering his hat-band. It seemed to Sewell that he wished to ask something else, and was mustering his courage; but if this was so, it exhaled in a sigh, and he remained silent.

"I should be sorry," pursued the minister, "to have you dwell upon such things. There are certain ignoble facts in life which we can best combat by ignoring them. A slight of almost any sort ceases to be when you cease to consider it." This did not strike Sewell as wholly true when he had said it, and he was formulating some modification of it in his mind, when Lemuel said—

"I presume a person can help himself some by being ashamed of caring for such things, and that's what I've tried to do."

"Yes, that's what I meant——"

"I guess I've exaggerated the whole thing some. But if a thing is so, thinking it ain't won't unmake it."

"No," admitted Sewell reluctantly. "But I should be sorry, all the same, if you let it annoy—grieve you. What has pleased me in what I've been able to observe in you, has been your willingness to take hold of any kind of honest work. I liked finding you with your coat off washing dishes, that morning, at the Wayfarer's Lodge, and I liked your going at once to Miss Vane's in a—as you did——"

"Of course," Lemuel interrupted, "I could do it before I knew how it was looked at here."

"And couldn't you do it now?"

"Not if there was anything else."

"Ah, that's the great curse of it; that's what I deplore," Sewell broke out, "in our young people coming from the country to the city. They must all have some genteel occupation! I don't blame them; but I would gladly have saved you this experience—this knowledge—if I could. I felt that I had done you a kind of wrong in being the means, however indirectly and innocently, of your coming to Boston, and I would willingly have done anything to have you go back to the country. But you seemed to distrust me—to find something hostile in me—and I did not know how to influence you."

"Yes, I understand that," said Lemuel. "I couldn't help it, at first. But I've got to see it all in a different light since then. I know that you meant the best by me. I know now that what I wrote wasn't worth anything, and just how you must have looked at it. I didn't know some things then that I do now; and since I have got to know a little more I have understood better what you meant by all you said."

"I am very glad," said Sewell, with sincere humility, "that you have kept no hard feeling against me."

"Oh, not at all. It's all right now. I couldn't explain very well that I hadn't come to the city just to be in the city, but because I had to do something to help along at home. You didn't seem to understand that there wa'n't anything there for me to take hold of."

"No, I'm afraid I didn't, or wouldn't quite understand that; I was talking and acting, I'm afraid, from a preconceived notion." Lemuel made no reply, not having learned yet to utter the pleasant generalities with which city people left a subject; and after a while Sewell added, "I am glad to have seen your face so often at church. You have been a great deal in my mind, and I have wished to do something to make your life happy, and useful to you in the best way, here, but I haven't quite known how." At this point Sewell realised that it was nearly eight months since Lemuel had come to Boston, and he said contritely, "I have not made the proper effort, I'm afraid; but I did not know exactly how to approach you. You were rather a difficult subject," he continued, with a smile in which Lemuel consented to join, "but now that we've come to a clearer understanding—" He broke off and asked, "Have you many acquaintances in Boston?"

Lemuel hesitated, and cleared his throat, "Not many."

Something in his manner prompted the minister to say, "That is such a very important thing for young men in a strange place. I wish you would come oftener to see us, hereafter. Young men, in the want of companionship, often form disadvantageous acquaintances, which they can't shake off afterwards, when they might wish to do so. I don't mean evil acquaintance; I certainly couldn't mean that in your case; but frivolous ones, from which nothing high or noble can come— nothing of improvement or development."

Lemuel started at the word and blushed. It was Berry's word. Sewell put his own construction on the start and the blush.

"Especially," he went on, "I should wish any young man whom I was interested in to know refined and noble woman." He felt that this was perhaps in Lemuel's case too much like prescribing port wine and carriage exercise to an indigent patient, and he added, "If you cannot know such women, it is better to know none at all. It is not what women say or do, so much as the art they have of inspiring a man to make the best of himself. The accidental acquaintances that young people are so apt to form are in most cases very detrimental. There is no harm in them of themselves, perhaps, but all irregularity in the life of the young is to be deplored."

"Do you mean," asked Lemuel, with that concreteness which had alarmed Sewell before, "that they ought to be regularly introduced?"

"I mean that a young girl who allowed a young man to make her acquaintance outside of the—the—social sanctions—would be apt to be a silly or romantic person, at the best. Of course, there are exceptions. But I should be very sorry if any young man I knew—no; why shouldn't I say you, at once?—should involve himself in any such way. One thing leads to another, especially with the young; and the very fact of irregularity, of romance, of strangeness in an acquaintance, throws a false glamour over the relation, and appeals to the sentiments in an unwarranted degree."

"Yes, that is so," said Lemuel.

The admission stimulated Sewell in the belief that he had a clue in his hand which it was his duty to follow up. "The whole affair loses proportion and balance. The fancy becomes excited, and some of the most important interests—the very most important interests of life—are committed to impulse." Lemuel remained silent, and it seemed the silence of conviction. "A young man is better for knowing women older than himself, more cultivated, devoted to higher things. Of course, young people must see each other, must fall in love and get married; but there need be no haste about such things. If there is haste—if there is rashness, thoughtlessness—there is sure to be unhappiness. Men are apt to outgrow their wives intellectually, if their wives' minds are set on home and children, as they should be, and allowance for this ought to be made, if possible. I would rather that in the beginning the wife should be the mental superior. I hope it will be several years yet before you think seriously of such things, but when the time comes, I hope you will have seen some young girl—there are such for every one of us—whom it is civilisation and enlightenment, refinement, and elevation, simply to know. On the other hand, a silly girl's influence is degrading and ruinous. She either drags those attached to her down to her own level; or she remains a weight and a clog upon the life of a man who loves her."

"Yes," said Lemuel, with a sigh which Sewell interpreted as that of relief from danger recognised in time.

He pursued eagerly. "I could not warn any one too earnestly against such an entanglement."

Lemuel rose and looked about with a troubled glance. Sewell continued: "Any such marriage—a marriage upon any such conditions— is sure to be calamitous; and if the conditions are recognised beforehand, it is sure to be iniquitous. So far from urging the fulfilment of even a promise, in such a case, I would have every such engagement broken, in the interest of humanity—of morality——"

Mrs. Sewell came into the room, and gave a little start of surprise, apparently not mixed with pleasure, at seeing Lemuel. She had never been able to share her husband's interest in him, while insisting upon his responsibility; she disliked him not logically, but naturally, for the wrong and folly which he had been the means of her husband's involving himself in; Miss Vane's kindliness toward Lemuel, which still survived, and which expressed itself in questions about him whenever she met the minister, was something that Mrs. Sewell could not understand. She now said, "Oh! Mr. Barker!" and coldly gave him her hand. "Have you been well? Must you go?"

"Yes, thank you. I have got to be getting back. Well, good evening."
He bowed to the Sewells.

"You must come again to see me," said the minister, and looked at his wife.

"Yes, it has been a very long time since you were here," Mrs. Sewell added.

"I haven't had a great deal of time to myself," said Lemuel, and he contrived to get himself out of the room.

Sewell followed him down to the door, in the endeavour to say something more on the subject his wife had interrupted, but he only contrived to utter some feeble repetitions. He came back in vexation, which he visited upon Lemuel. "Silly fellow!" he exclaimed.

"What has he been doing now?" asked Mrs. Sewell, with reproachful discouragement.

"Oh, I don't know! I suspect that he's been involving himself in some ridiculous love affair!" Mrs. Sewell looked a silent inculpation. "It's largely conjecture on my part, of course,—he's about as confiding as an oyster!—but I fancy I have said some things in a conditional way that will give him pause. I suspect from his manner that he has entangled himself with some other young simpleton, and that he's ashamed of it, or tired of it, already. If that's the case, I have hit the nail on the head. I told him that a foolish, rash engagement was better broken than kept. The foolish marriages that people rush into are the greatest bane of life!"

"And would you really have advised him, David," asked his wife, "to break off an engagement if he had made one?"

"Of course I should! I——"

"Then I am glad I came in in time to prevent your doing anything so wicked."

"Wicked?" Sewell turned from his desk, where he was about to sit down, in astonishment.

"Yes! Do you think that nobody else is to be considered in such a thing? What about the poor, silly girl if he breaks off with her? Oh, you men are all alike! Even the best! You think it is a dreadful thing for a young man to be burdened with a foolish love affair at the beginning of his career; but you never think of the girl whose whole career is spoiled, perhaps, if the affair is broken off! Hasn't she any right to be considered?"

"I should think," said Sewell, distinctly daunted, "that they were equally fortunate, if it were broken off."

"O my dear, you know you don't think anything of the kind! If he has more mind than she has, and is capable of doing something in the world, he goes on and forgets her; but she remembers him. Perhaps it's her one chance in life to get married—to have a home. You know very well that in a case of that kind—a rash engagement, as you call it—both are to blame; and shall one do all the suffering? Very probably his fancy was taken first, and he followed her up, and flattered her into liking him; and now shall he leave her because he's tired of her?"

"Yes," said Sewell, recovering from the first confusion which his wife's unexpected difference of opinion had thrown him into, "I should think that was the very best reason in the world why he should leave her. Would his marrying make matters worse or better if he were tired of her? As for wickedness, I should feel myself guilty if I did not do my utmost to prevent marriages between people when one or other wished to break their engagement, and had not the moral courage to do so. There is no more pernicious delusion than that one's word ought to be kept in such an affair, after the heart has gone out of it, simply because it's been given."

"David!"

But Sewell was not to be restrained. "I am right about this, Lucy, and you know it. Half the miserable marriages in the world could be prevented, if there were only some frank and fearless adviser at hand to say to the foolish things that if they no longer fully and freely love each other they can commit no treason so deadly as being true to their word. I wish," he now added, "that I could be the means of breaking off every marriage that the slightest element of doubt enters into beforehand. I should leave much less work for the divorce courts. The trouble comes from that crazy and mischievous principle of false self-sacrifice that I'm always crying out against. If a man has ceased to love the woman he has promised to marry—or vice versa—the best possible thing they can do, the only righteous thing, is not to marry."

Mrs. Sewell could not deny this. She directed an oblique attack from another quarter, as women do, while affecting not to have changed her ground at all. "Very well, then, David, I wish you would have nothing to do with that crazy and mischievous principle yourself. I wish you would let this ridiculous Barker of yours alone from this time forth. He has found a good place, where he is of use, and where he is doing very well. Now I think your responsibility is fairly ended. I hope you won't meddle with his love affairs, if he has any; for if you do, you will probably have your hands full. He is very good looking, and all sorts of silly little geese will be falling in love with him."

"Well, so far his love troubles are purely conjectural," said Sewell with a laugh. "I'm bound to say that Barker himself didn't say a word to justify the conjecture that he was either in love or wished to be out of it. However, I've given him some wholesome advice which he'll be all the better for taking, merely as a prophylactic, if nothing else."

"I am tired of him," sighed Mrs. Sewell. "Is he going to keep perpetually turning up, in this way? I hope you were not very pressing with him in your invitations to him to call again?"

Sewell smiled. "You were not, my dear."

"You let him take too much of your time. I was so provoked, when I heard you going on with him, that I came down to put an end to it."

"Well, you succeeded," said Sewell easily. "Don't you think he's greatly improved in the short time he's been in the city?"

"He's very well dressed. I hope he isn't extravagant."

"He's not only well dressed, but he's beginning to be well spoken. I believe he's beginning to observe that there is such a thing as not talking through the nose. He still says, 'I don't know as,' but most of the men they turn out of Harvard say that; I've heard some of the professors say it."

Mrs. Sewell was not apparently interested in this.

William Dean Howells