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Chapter 28

XXVIII.

Lemuel went through the next day in that licence of revolt which every human soul has experienced in some measure at some time. We look back at it afterwards, and see it a hideous bondage. But for the moment Lemuel rejoiced in it; and he abandoned himself boldly to thoughts that had hitherto been a furtive and trembling rapture.

In the afternoon, when he was most at leisure, he walked down to the Public Garden, and found a seat on a bench near the fountain where the Venus had shocked his inexperience the first time he saw her; he remembered that simple boy with a smile of pity, and then went back into his cloud of reverie. There, safely hid from trouble and wrong, he told his ideal how dear she was to him, and how she had shaped and governed his life, and made it better and nobler from the first moment they had met. The fumes of the romances which he had read mixed with the love-born delirium in his brain; he was no longer low, but a hero of lofty line, kept from his rightful place by machinations that had failed at last, and now he was leading her, his bride, into the ancient halls which were to be their home, and the source of beneficence and hope to all the poor and humbly-born around them. His eyes were so full of this fantastic vision, the soul of his youth dwelt so deeply within this dream-built tabernacle, that it was with a shock of anguish he saw coming up the walk towards him the young girl herself. His airy structure fell in ruins around him; he was again common and immeasurably beneath her; she was again in her own world, where, if she thought of him at all, it must be as a squalid vagabond and the accomplice of a thief. If he could have escaped, he would, but he could not move; he sat still and waited with fallen eyes for her to pass him.

At sight of him she hesitated and wavered; then she came towards him, and at a second impulse held out her hand, smiling with a radiant pleasure.

"I didn't know it was you at first," she said. "It seems so strange to see any one that I know!"

"I didn't expect to see you, either," he stammered out, getting somehow upon his feet, and taking her hand, while his face burned, and he could not keep his eyes on hers; "I—didn't know you were here."

"I've only been here a few days. I'm drawing at the Museum. I've just got back. Have you been here all summer?"

"Yes—all summer. I hope you've been well—I suppose you've been away—"

"Yes, I've just got back," she repeated.

"Oh yes! I meant that!"

She smiled at his confusion, as kindly as the ideal of his day-dream. "I've been spending the summer with Madeline, and I've spent most of it out-of-doors, sketching. Have you been well?"

"Yes—not very; oh yes, I'm well—" She had begun to move forward with the last question, and he found himself walking with her. "Did she—has Miss Swan come back with you?" he asked, looking her in the eyes with more question than he had put into his words.

"No, I don't think she'll come back this winter," said the girl. "You know," she went on, colouring a little, "that she's married now?"

"No," said Lemuel.

"Yes. To Mr. Berry. And I have a letter from him for you."

"Was he there with you, this summer?" asked Lemuel, ignoring alike
Berry's marriage and the letter from him.

"Oh yes; of course! And I liked him better than I used to. He is very good, and if Madeline didn't have to go so far West to live! He will know how to appreciate her, and there are not many who can do that! Her father thinks he has a great deal of ability. Yes, if Madeline had to get married!"

She talked as if convincing and consoling herself, and there was an accent of loneliness in it all that pierced Lemuel's preoccupation; he had hardly noted how almost pathetically glad she was to see him. "You'll miss her here," he ventured.

"Oh, I don't dare to think of it," cried the girl. "I don't know what I shall do! When I first saw you, just now, it brought up Madeline and last winter so that it seemed too much to bear!"

They had walked out of the garden across Charles Street, and were climbing the slope of Beacon Street Mall, in the Common. "I suppose," she continued, "the only way will be to work harder, and try to forget it. They wanted me to go out and stay with them; but of course I couldn't. I shall work, and I shall read. I shall not find another Madeline Swan! You must have been reading a great deal this summer, Mr. Barker," she said, in turning upon him from her bereavement. "Have you seen any of the old boarders? Or Mrs. Harmon? I shall never have another winter like that at the poor old St. Albans!"

Lemuel made what answer he could. There was happiness enough in merely being with her to have counterbalanced all the pain he was suffering; and when she made him partner of her interests and associations, and appealed to their common memories in confidence of his sympathy, his heavy heart stirred with strange joy. He had supposed that Berry must have warned her against him; but she was treating him as if he had not. Perhaps he had not, and perhaps he had done so, and this was her way of showing that she did not believe it. He tried to think so; he knew it was a subterfuge, but he lingered in it with a fleeting, fearful pleasure. They had crossed from the Common and were walking up under the lindens of Chestnut Street, and from time to time they stopped, in the earnestness of their parley, and stood talking, and then loitered on again in the summer security from oversight which they were too rapt to recognise. They reached the top of the hill, and came to a door where she stopped. He fell back a pace. "Good-bye—" It was eternal loss, but it was escape.

She smiled in timorous hesitation. "Won't you come in? And I will get Mr. Berry's letter."

She opened the door with a latch-key, and he followed her within; a servant-girl came half-way up the basement stairs to see who it was, and then went down. She left him in the dim parlour a moment, while she went to get the letter. When she returned, "I have a little room for my work at the top of the house," she said, "but it will never be like the St. Albans. There's no one else here yet, and it's pretty lonesome—without Madeline."

She sank into a chair, but he remained standing, and seemed not to heed her when she asked him to sit down. He put Berry's letter into his pocket without looking at it, and she rose again.

She must have thought he was going, and she said with a smile of gentle trust, "It's been like having last winter back again to see you. We thought you must have gone home right after the fire; we didn't see anything of you again. We went ourselves in about a week."

Then she did not know, and he must tell her himself.

"Did Mr. Berry say anything about me—at the fire—that last day?" he began bluntly.

"No!" she said, looking at him with surprise; there was a new sound in his voice. "He had no need to say anything! I wanted to tell you—to write and tell you—how much I honoured you for it—how ashamed I was for misunderstanding you just before, when—"

He knew that she meant when they all pitied him for a coward.

Her voice trembled; he could tell that the tears were in her eyes. He tried to put the sweetness of her praise from him. "Oh, it wasn't that that I meant," he groaned; and he wrenched the words out. "That fellow, who said he was a friend of mine, and got into the house that way, was a thief; and Mr. Berry caught him robbing his room the day of the fire, and treated me as if I knew it and was helping him on—"

"Oh!" cried the girl. "How cruel! How could he do that?"

Lemuel could not suffer himself to take refuge in her generous faith now.

"When I first came to Boston, I had my money stolen, and there were two days when I had nothing to eat; and then I was arrested by mistake for stealing a girl's satchel; and when I was acquitted, I slept the next night in the tramp's lodging-house, and that fellow was there, and when he came to the St. Albans I was ashamed to tell where I had known him, and so I let him pass himself off for my friend."

He kept his eyes fixed on hers, but he could not see them change from their pity of him, or light up with a sense of any squalor in his history.

"And I used to think that my life had been hard!" she cried.
"Oh, how much you have been through!"

"And after that," he pursued, "Mr. Sewell got me a place, a sort of servant's place, and when I lost that I came to be the man-of-all work at the St. Albans."

In her eyes the pity was changing to admiration; his confession which he had meant to be so abject had kindled her fancy like a boastful tale.

"How little we know about people and what they have suffered! But I thank you for telling me this—oh yes!—and I shall always think of myself with contempt. How easy and pleasant my life has been! And you—"

She stopped, and he stood helpless against her misconception. He told her about the poverty he had left at home, and the wretched circumstance of his life, but she could not see it as anything but honourable to his present endeavour. She listened with breathless interest to it all, and, "Well," she sighed at last, "it will always be something for you to look back to, and be proud of. And that girl—did she never say or do anything to show that she was sorry for that cruel mistake? Did you ever see her afterwards?"

"Yes," said Lemuel, sick at heart, and feeling how much more triumphantly he could have borne ignominy and rejection than this sweet sympathy.

She seemed to think he would say something more, but he turned away from her, and after a little silence of expectance she let him go, with promises to come again, which she seemed to win from him for his own sake.

In the street he took out Berry's letter and read it.

"DEAR OLD MAN,—I've been trying to get off a letter to you almost any time the last three months; but I've been round so much, and upside down so much since I saw you—out to W. T. and on my head in Western Mass.—that I've not been able to fetch it. I don't know as I could fetch it now, if it wasn't for the prospective Mrs. A. W. B., Jr., standing over me with a revolver, and waiting to see me do it. I've just been telling her about that little interview of ours with Williams, that day, and she thinks I ought to be man enough to write and say that I guess I was all wrong about you; I had a sneaking idea of the kind from the start almost, but if a fellow's proud at all, he's proud of his mistakes, and he hates to give them up. I'm pretty badly balled up now, and I can't seem to get the right words about remorse, and so forth; but you know how it is yourself. I am sorry, there's no two ways about that; but I've kept my suspicions as well as my regrets to myself, and now I do the best thing I can by way of reparation. I send this letter by Miss Carver. She hasn't read it, and she don't know what it's all about; but I guess you'd better tell her. Don't spare, yours truly, A. W. BERRY, JR."

The letter did not soften Lemuel at all towards Berry, and he was bitterly proud that he had spoken without this bidding, though he had seemed to speak to no end that he had expected. After a while he lost himself in his day-dreams again, and in the fantastic future which he built up this became a great source of comfort to him and to his ideal. Now he parted with her in sublime renunciation, and now he triumphed over all the obstacles between them; but whatever turn he willed his fortunes to take, she still praised him, and he prided himself that he had shown himself at his worst to her of his own free impulse. Sewell praised him for it in his reverie; Mr. Corey and Mr. Bellingham both made him delicate compliments upon his noble behaviour, which he feigned had somehow become known to them.

William Dean Howells