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Chapter 24

XXIV.

The evening after the fire Mrs. Sewell sat talking it over with her husband, in the light of the newspaper reports, which made very much more of Lemuel's part in it than she liked. The reporters had flattered the popular love of the heroic in using Mrs. Harmon's version of his exploits, and represented him as having been most efficient and daring throughout, and especially so in regard to the Evanses.

"Well, that doesn't differ materially from what they told us themselves," said Sewell.

"You know very well, David," retorted his wife, "that there couldn't have been the least danger at any time; and when he helped her to get Mr. Evans downstairs, the fire was nearly all out."

"Very well, then; he would have saved their lives if it had been necessary. It was a case of potential heroism, that contained all the elements of self-sacrifice."

Mrs. Sewell could not deny this, but she was not satisfied. She was silent a moment before she asked, "What do you suppose that wretched creature will do now?"

"I think very likely he will come to me," answered Sewell.

"I dare say." The bell rang. "And I suppose that's he now!"

They listened and heard Miss Vane's voice at the door, asking for them.

Mrs. Sewell ran down the stairs and kissed her. "Oh, I'm so glad you came. Isn't it wonderful? I've just come from them, and she's taking the whole care of him, as if he had always been the sick one, and she strong and well."

"What do you mean, Lucy? He isn't ill!"

"Who isn't?"

"What are you talking about?"

"About Mr. Evans—"

"Oh!" said Miss Vane, with cold toleration. She arrived at the study door and gave Sewell her hand. "I scarcely knew him, you know; I only met him casually here. I've come to see," she added nervously, "if you know where Lemuel is, Mr. Sewell. Have you seen anything of him since the fire? How nobly he behaved! But I never saw anything he wasn't equal to!"

"Mrs. Sewell objects to his saving human life," said Sewell, not able to deny himself.

"I don't see how you can take the slightest interest in him," began
Mrs. Sewell, saying a little more than she meant.

"You would, my dear," returned Miss Vane, "if you had wronged him as
I have."

"Or as I," said Sewell.

"I'm thankful I haven't, then," said his wife. "It seems to me that there's nothing else of him. As to his noble behaviour, it isn't possible you believe those newspaper accounts? He didn't save any one's life; there was no danger!"

Miss Vane, preoccupied with her own ideal of the facts, stared at her without replying, and then turned to Sewell.

"I want to find him and ask him to stay with me till he can get something else to do." Sewell's eyebrows arched themselves involuntarily. "Sibyl has gone to New York for a fortnight; I shall be quite alone in the house, and I shall be very glad of his company," she explained to the eyebrows, while ignoring them. Her chin quivered a little, as she added, "I shall be proud of his company. I wish him to understand that he is my guest."

"I suppose I shall see him soon," said Sewell, "and I will give him your message."

"Will you tell him," persisted Miss Vane, a little hysterically, "that if he is in any way embarrassed, I insist upon his coming to me immediately—at once?"

Sewell smiled, "Yes."

"I know that I'm rather ridiculous," said Miss Vane, smiling in sympathy, "and I don't blame Mrs. Sewell for not entering into my feelings. Nobody could, who hadn't felt the peculiar Lemuel glamour."

"I don't imagine he's embarrassed in any way," said Sewell. "He seems to have the gift of lighting on his feet. But I'll tell him how peremptory you are, Miss Vane."

"Well, upon my word," cried Mrs. Sewell, when Miss Vane had taken leave of them in an exaltation precluding every recurrent attempt to enlighten her as to the true proportions of Lemuel's part in the fire, "I really believe people like to be made fools of. Why didn't you tell her, David, that he had done nothing?"

"What would have been the use? She has her own theory of the affair. Besides, he did do something; he did his duty, and my experience is that it's no small thing to do. It wasn't his fault that he didn't do more."

He waited some days for Lemuel to come to him, and he inquired each time he went to see the Evanses if they knew where he was. But they had not heard of him since the night of the fire.

"It's his shyness," said Evans; "I can understand how if he thought he had put me under an obligation he wouldn't come near me—and couldn't."

Evans was to go out of town for a little while; the proprietors of the Saturday Afternoon insisted upon his taking a rest, and they behaved handsomely about his salary. He did not want to go, but his wife got him away finally, after he had failed in two or three attempts at writing.

Lemuel did not appear to Sewell till the evening of the day when the Evanses left town. It seemed as if he had waited till they were gone, so that he could not be urged to visit them. At first the minister scolded him a little for his neglect; but Lemuel said he had heard about them, and knew they were getting along all right. He looked as if he had not been getting along very well himself; his face was thin, and had an air at once dogged and apprehensive. He abruptly left talking of Evans, and said, "I don't know as you heard what happened that night before the fire just after I got back from your house?"

"No, I hadn't."

Lemuel stopped. Then he related briefly and cleanly the whole affair, Sewell interrupting him from time to time with murmurs of sympathy, and "Tchk, tchk, tchk!" and "Shocking, shocking!" At the end he said, "I had hoped somehow that the general calamity had swallowed up your particular trouble in it. Though I don't know that general calamities ever do that with particular troubles," he added, more to himself than to Lemuel; and he put the idea away for some future sermon.

"Mr. Evans stopped and said something to me that night. He said we had to live things down, and not die them down; he wanted I should wait till Saturday before I was sure that I couldn't get through Tuesday. He said, How did we know that death was the end of trouble?"

"Yes," said the minister, with a smile of fondness for his friend; "that was like Evans all over."

"I sha'n't forget those things," said Lemuel. "They've been in my head ever since. If it hadn't been for them, I don't know what I should have done."

He stopped, and after a moment's inattention Sewell perceived that he wished to be asked something more. "I hope," he said, "that nothing more has been going wrong with you?" and as he asked this he laid his hand affectionately on the young man's shoulder, just as Evans had done. Lemuel's eyes dimmed and his breath thickened. "What has become of the person—the discharged convict?"

"I guess I had better tell you," he said; and he told him of the adventure with Berry and Williams.

Sewell listened in silence, and then seemed quite at a loss what to say; but Lemuel saw that he was deeply afflicted. At last he asked, lifting his eyes anxiously to Sewell's, "Do you think I did wrong to say the thief was a friend of mine, and get him off that way?"

"That's a very difficult question," sighed Sewell. "You had a duty to society."

"Yes, I've thought of that since!"

"If I had been in your place, I'm afraid I should be glad not to have thought of it in time; and I'm afraid I'm glad that, as it is, it's too late. But doesn't it involve you with him in the eyes of the other young man?" "Yes, I presume it does," said Lemuel. "I shall have to go away."

"Back to Willoughby Pastures?" asked Sewell, with not so much faith in that panacea for Lemuel's troubles as he had once had.

"No, to some other town. Do you know of anything I could get to do in New York?"

"Oh, no, no!" said the minister. "You needn't let this banish you.
We must seek this young Mr.—"

"Berry."

"—Mr. Berry out, and explain the matter to him."

"Then you'll have to tell him all about me?"

"Yes. Why not?"

Lemuel was silent, and looked down.

"In the meantime," pursued the minister, "I have a message for you from Miss Vane. She has heard, as we all have, of your behaviour during the fire—"

"It wasn't anything," Lemuel interrupted. "There wasn't the least danger; and Mrs. Evans did it all herself, anyway. It made me sick to see how the papers had it. It's a shame!"

Sewell smiled. "I'm afraid you couldn't make Miss Vane think so; but I can understand what you mean. She has never felt quite easy about the way—the terms—on which she parted with you. She has spoken to me several times of it, and—ah—expressed her regret; and now, knowing that you have been—interrupted in your life, she is anxious to have you come to her—"

An angry flash lighted up Lemuel's face.

"I couldn't go back there! I wouldn't do any such work again."

"I don't mean that," Sewell hastened to say "Miss Vane wished me to ask you to come as her guest until you could find something—Miss Sibyl Vane has gone to New York—"

"I'm very much obliged to her," said Lemuel, "but I shouldn't want to give her so much trouble, or any one. I—I liked her very much, and I shouldn't want she should think I didn't appreciate her invitation."

"I will tell her," said the minister. "I had no great hope you would see your way to accepting it. But she will be glad to know that you received it." He added, rather interrogatively than affirmatively, "In the right spirit."

"Oh yes," said Lemuel. "Please to tell her I did."

"Thank you," said Sewell, with bland vagueness. "I don't know that
I've asked yet where you are staying at present?"

"I'm at Mrs. Nash's, 13 Canary Place. Mrs. Harmon went there first."

"Oh! And are you looking forward to rejoining her in a new place?"

"I don't know as I am. I don't know as I should want to go into an hotel again."

Sewell manifested a little embarrassment. "Well, you won't forget your promise to let me be of use to you—pecuniarily, if you should be in need of a small advance at any time."

"Oh no! But I've got enough money for a while yet—till I can get something to do." He rose, and after a moment's hesitation he said, "I don't know as I want you should say anything to that fellow about me. To Mr. Berry, I mean."

"Oh! certainly not," said Sewell, "if you don't wish it."

Whatever it was in that reticent and elusive soul which prompted his request, the minister now felt that he could not know; but perhaps the pang that Lemuel inflicted on himself had as much transport as anguish in it. He believed that he had for ever cut himself off from the companionship that seemed highest and holiest on earth to him; he should never see that girl again; Berry must have told Miss Swan, and long before this Miss Carver had shuddered at the thought of him as the accomplice of a thief. But he proudly said to himself that he must let it all go; for if he had not been a thief, he had been a beggar and a menial, he had come out of a hovel at home, and his mother went about like a scarecrow, and it mattered little what kind of shame she remembered him in.

He thought of her perpetually now, and, in those dialogues which we hold in reverie with the people we think much about, he talked with her all day long. At first, when he began to do this, it seemed a wrong to Statira; but now, since the other was lost to him beyond other approach, he gave himself freely up to the mystical colloquies he held with her, as the devotee abandons himself to imagined converse with a saint. Besides, if he was in love with Statira, he was not in love with Jessie; that he had made clear to himself; for his feeling toward her was wholly different.

Most of the time, in these communings, he was with her in her own home, down at Corbitant, where he fancied she had gone, after the catastrophe at the St. Albans, and he sat there with her on a porch at the front door, which she had once described to him, and looked out under the silver poplars at the vessels in the bay. He formed himself some image of it all from pictures of the seaside which he had seen; and there were times when he tried to go back with her into the life she had led there as a child. Perhaps his ardent guesses at this were as near reality as anything that could be made to appear, for, after her mother and brothers and sisters had died out of the wide old house, her existence there was as lonely as if she had been a little ghost haunting it. She had inherited her mother's temperament with her father's constitution; she was the child born to his last long absence at sea and her mother's last solitude at home. When he returned, he found his wife dead and his maiden sister caring for the child in the desolate house.

This sister of Captain Carver's had been disappointed, as the phrase is, when a young girl; another girl had won her lover from her. Her disappointment had hardened her to the perception of the neighbours; and, by a strange perversion of the sympathies and faculties, she had turned from gossip and censure, from religion, and from all the sources of comfort that the bruised heart of Corbitant naturally turned to, and found such consolation as came to her in books, that is to say romances, and especially the romances that celebrated and deified such sorrow as her own. She had been a pretty little thing when young, and Jessie remembered her as pretty in her early old age. At heart she must still have been young when her hair was grey, for she made a friend and companion of the child, and they fed upon her romances together. When the aunt died, the child, who had known no mother but her, was stricken with a grief so deep and wild that at first her life and then her mind was feared for. To get her away from the associations and influences of the place, her father sent her to school in the western part of the State, where she met Madeline Swan, and formed one of those friendships which are like passions between young girls. During her long absence, her father married again; and she was called home to his deathbed. He was dead when she arrived; he had left a will that made her dependent on her stepmother. When Madeline Swan wrote to announce that she was coming to Boston to study art, Jessie Carver had no trouble in arranging with her stepmother, by the sacrifice of her final claim on her father's estate, to join her friend there, with a little sum of money on which she was to live till she should begin to earn something.

Her life had been a series of romantic episodes; Madeline said that if it could be written out it would be fascinating; but she went to work very practically, and worked hard. She had not much feeling for colour; but she drew better than her friend, and what she hoped to do was to learn to illustrate books.

One evening, after a day of bitter-sweet reveries of Jessie, Lemuel went to see Statira. She and 'Manda Grier were both very gay, and made him very welcome. They had tea for him; Statira tried all her little arts, and 'Manda Grier told some things that had happened in the box-factory. He could not help laughing at them; they were really very funny; but he felt somehow that it was all a preparation for something else. At last the two girls made a set at him, as 'Manda Grier called it, and tried to talk him into their old scheme of going to wait on table at some of the country hotels, or the seaside. They urged that now, while he was out of a place, it was just the time to look up a chance.

He refused, at first kindly, and at last angrily; and he would have gone away in this mood if Statira had not said that she would never say another word to him about it, and hung upon his neck, while 'Manda Grier looked on in sullen resentment. He came away sick and heavy at heart. He said to himself that they would be willing to drag him into the mire; they had no pride; they had no sense; they did not know anything and they could not learn. He tried to get away from them to Miss Carver in his thoughts; but the place where he had left her was vacant, and he could not conjure her back. Out of the void, he was haunted by a look of grieving reproach and wonder from her eyes.

William Dean Howells