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Chapter 27

XXVII

Statira and 'Manda Grier had given up their plan of getting places in a summer hotel when Lemuel absolutely refused to take part in it, and were working through the summer in the box-factory. Lemuel came less regularly to see them now, for his Sunday nights had to be at Mr. Corey's disposition; but Statira was always happy in his coming, and made him more excuses than he had thought of, if he had let a longer interval than usual pass. He could not help feeling the loveliness of her patience, the sweetness of her constancy; but he disliked 'Manda Grier more and more, and she grew stiffer and sharper with him. Sometimes the aimlessness of his relation to Statira hung round him like a cloud, which he could not see beyond. When he was with her he contented himself with the pleasure he felt in her devotion, and the tenderness this awakened in his own heart; but when he was away from her there was a strange disgust and bitterness in these.

Sometimes, when Statira and 'Manda Grier took a Saturday afternoon off, he went with them into the country on one of the horse-car lines, or else to some matinee at a garden-theatre in the suburbs. Statira liked the theatre better than anything else; and she used to meet other girls whom she knew there, and had a gay time. She introduced Lemuel to them, and after a few moments of high civility and distance they treated him familiarly, as Statira's beau. Their talk, after that he was now used to, was flat and foolish, and their pert ease incensed him. He came away bruised and burning, and feeling himself unfit to breathe the refined and gentle air to which he returned in Mr. Corey's presence. Then he would vow in his heart never to expose himself to such things again; but he could not tell Statira that he despised the friends she was happy with; he could only go with a reluctance it was not easy to hide, and atone by greater tenderness for a manner that wounded her. One day toward the end of August, when they were together at a suburban theatre, Statira wandered off to a pond there was in the grounds with some other girls, who had asked him to go and row them, and had called him a bear for refusing, and told him to look out for Barnum. They left him sitting alone with 'Manda Grier, at a table where they had all been having ice-cream at his expense; and though it was no longer any pleasure to be with her, it was better than to be with them, for she was not a fool, at any rate. Statira turned round at a little distance to mock them with a gesture and a laugh, and the laugh ended in a cough, long and shattering, so that one of her companions had to stop with her, and put her arm round her till she could recover herself and go on.

It sent a cold thrill through Lemuel, and then he turned angry.
"What is it Statira does to keep taking more cold?"

"Oh, I guess 'tain't 'ny more cold," said 'Manda Grier.

"What do you mean?"

"I guess 'f you cared a great deal you'd noticed that cough 'f hers before now. 'Tain't done it any too much good workin' in that arsenic paper all summer long."

'Manda Grier talked with her face turned away from him.

It provoked him more and more. "I do care," he retorted, eager to quarrel, "and you know it. Who got her into the box- factory, I should like to know?"

"I did!" said 'Manda Grier, turning sharply on him, "and you kept her there; and between us we've killed her."

"How have I kept her there, I should like to know?"

"'F you'd done's she wanted you should, she might 'a' been at some pleasant place in the country—the mount'ns, or somewhere 't she'd been ov'r her cough by this time. But no! You was too nasty proud for that, Lemuel Barker!"

A heavy load of guilt dropped upon Lemuel's heart, but he flung it off, and he retorted furiously,

"You ought to have been ashamed of yourself to ever want her to take a servant's place."

"Oh, a servant's place! If she'd been ashamed of a servant when you came meechin' round her, where'd you been, I sh'd like to know? And now I wish she had; 'n' if she wa'n't such a little fool, 'n' all wrapped in you, the way 't she is, I could wish 't she'd never set eyes on you again, servant or no servant. But I presume it's too late now, and I presume she's got to go on suff'rin' for you and wonderin' what she's done to offend you when you don't come, and what she's done when you do, with your stuck-up, masterful airs, and your double-faced ways. But don't you try to pretend to me, Lemuel Barker, 't you care the least mite for her any more, 'f you ever did, because it won't go down! 'N' if S'tira wa'n't such a perfect little blind fool, she could see 't you didn't care for her any more than the ground 't you walk on, 'n' 't you'd be glad enough if she was under it, if you couldn't be rid of her any other way!" 'Manda Grier pulled her handkerchief out and began to cry into it.

Lemuel was powerfully shaken by this attack; he did feel responsible for Statira's staying in town all summer; but the spectacle of 'Manda Grier publicly crying at his side in a place like that helped to counteract the effect of her words. "'Sh! Don't cry!" he began, looking fearfully round him. "Everybody 'll see you!"

"I don't care! Let them!" sobbed the girl. "If they knowed what I know, and could see you not cryin', I guess they'd think you looked worse than I do!"

"You don't understand—I can explain—"

"No, you can't explain, Mr. Barker!" said 'Manda Grier, whipping down her handkerchief, and fiercely confronting him across the table. "You can't explain anything so 's to blind me any longer! I was a big fool to ever suppose you had any heart in you; but when you came round at first, and was so meek you couldn't say your soul was your own, and was so glad if S'tira spoke to you, or looked at you, that you was ready to go crazy, I did suppose there was some little something to you! And yes, I helped you on all I could, and helped you to fool that poor thing that you ain't worthy to kiss the ground she walks on, Lord forgive me for it! But it's all changed now! You seem to think it's the greatest favour if you come round once a fortnight, and set and let her talk to you, and show you how she dotes upon you, the poor little silly coot! And if you ever speak a word, it's like the Lord unto Moses, it's so grand! But I understand! You've got other friends now! You after that art-student? Oh, you can blush and try to turn it off! I've seen you blush before, and I know you! And I know you're in love with that girl, and you're just waitin' to break off with S'tira; but you hain't got the spirit to up and do it like a man! You want to let it lag along, and lag along, and see 'f something won't happen to get you out of it! You waitin' for her to die? Well, you won't have to wait long! But if I was a man, I'd spoil your beauty for you first."

The torrent of her words rolled him on, bruising and tearing his soul, which their truth pierced like jagged points. From time to time he opened his lips to protest or deny, but no words came, and in his silence a fury of scorn for the poor, faithful, scolding thing, so just, so wildly unjust, gathered head in him.

"Be still!" he ground between his teeth. "Be still, you—" He stopped for the word, and that saved him from the outrage he had meant to pay her back with. He rose from the table. "You can tell Statira what you've said to me. I'm going home."

He rushed away; the anger was like strong drink in his brain; he was like one drunk all the way back to the city in the car.

He could not go to Mr. Corey's at once; he felt as if physically besmeared with shame; he could not go to his boarding-house; it would have been as if he had shown himself there in a coat of tar and feathers. Those insolent, true, degrading words hissed in his ears, and stung him incessantly. They accused, they condemned with pitiless iteration; and yet there were instants when he knew himself guiltless of all the wrong of which in another sense he knew himself guilty. In his room he renewed the battle within himself that he had fought so long in his wanderings up and down the street, and he conquered himself at last into the theory that Statira had authorised or permitted 'Manda Grier to talk to him in that way. This simplified the whole affair; it offered him the release which he now knew he had longed for. As he stretched himself in the sheets at daybreak, he told himself that he need never see either of them again. He was free.

William Dean Howells