At the usual hour he was at Mr. Corey's house, where he arrived footsore, and empty from supperless wanderings, but not hungry and not weary. The serving-man at the door met him with the message that Mr. Corey had gone to dine at his club, and would not be at home till late. He gave Lemuel a letter, which had all the greater effect from being presented to him on the little silver tray employed to bring up the cards and notes of the visitors and correspondents of the family. The envelope was stamped in that ephemeral taste which configured the stationery of a few years ago, with the lines of alligator leather, and it exhaled a perfume so characteristic that it seemed to breathe Statira visibly before him. He knew this far better than the poor, scrawly, uncultivated handwriting which he had seen so little. He took the letter, and turning from the door read it by the light of the next street lamp.
"DEAR LEMUEL—Manda Grier has told me what she said to you and Ime about crazy about it dear Lem I want you should come and see mee O Lem you dont Suppose i could of let Manda Grier talk to you that way if I had of none it but of course you dident only do Say so I give her a real good goen over and she says shes sory she done it i dont want any body should care for mee without itse there free will but I shall alwayes care for you if you dont care for me dont come but if you do Care I want you should come as soon as ever you can I can explane everything Manda Grier dident mean anything but for the best but sometimes she dont know what she is sayin O Lem you mussent be mad But if you are and you dont want to come ennymore dont come But O i hope you wouldent let such a thing set you againste mee recollect that I never done or Said anything to set you against me
A cruel disgust mingled with the remorse that this letter brought him. Its illiteracy made him ashamed, and the helpless fondness it expressed was like a millstone hanged about his neck. He felt the deadly burden of it drag him down.
A passer-by on the other side of the street coughed slightly in the night air, and a thought flashed through Lemuel, from which he cowered, as if he had found himself lifting his hand against another's life.
His impulse was to turn and run, but there was no escape on any side. It seemed to him that he was like that prisoner he had read of, who saw the walls of his cell slowly closing together upon him, and drawing nearer and nearer till they should crush him between them. The inexperience of youth denies it perspective; in that season of fleeting and unsubstantial joys, of feverish hopes, despair wholly darkens a world which after years find full of chances and expedients.
If Mr. Sewell had been in town there might have been some hope through him; or if Mr. Evans were there; or even if Berry were at hand, it would be some one to advise with, to open his heart to in his extremity. He walked down into Bolingbroke Street, knowing well that Mr. Sewell was not at home, but pretending to himself, after the fashion of the young, that if he should see a light in his house it would be a sign that all should come out right with him, and if not, it would come out wrong. He would not let himself lift his eyes to the house front till he arrived before it. When he looked his heart stood still; a light streamed bright and strong from the drawing-room window.
He hurried across the street, and rang; and after some delay, in which the person coming to the door took time to light the gas in the hall, Mr. Sewell himself opened to him. They stood confronted in mutual amazement, and then Sewell said, with a cordiality which he did not keep free from reluctance, "Oh—Mr. Barker! Come in! Come in!" But after they had shaken hands, and Lemuel had come in, he stood there in the hall with him, and did not offer to take him up to his study. "I'm so glad to have this glimpse of you! How in the world did you happen to come?"
"I was passing and saw the light," said Lemuel.
Sewell laughed. "To be sure! We never have any idea how far our little candle throws its beams! I'm just here for the night, on my way from the mountains to the sea; I'm to be the 'supply' in a friend's pulpit at New Bedford; and I'm here quite alone in the house, scrambling a sermon together. But I'm so glad to see you! You're well, I hope? You're looking a little thin, but that's no harm. Do you enjoy your life with Mr. Corey? I was sure you would! When you come to know him, you will find him one of the best of men—kindly, thoughtful, and sympathetic. I've felt very comfortable about your being with him whenever I've thought of you, and you may be sure that I've thought of you often. What about our friends of the St. Albans? Do you see Mrs. Harmon? You knew the Evanses had gone to Europe."
"Yes; I got a letter from him yesterday."
"He didn't pick up so fast as they hoped, and he concluded to try the voyage. I hear very good accounts of him. He said he was going to write you. Well! And Mr. Corey is well?" He smiled more beamingly upon Lemuel, who felt that he wished him to go, and stood haplessly trying to get away.
In the midst of his own uneasiness Sewell noted Lemuel's. "Is there anything—something—you wished to speak with me about?"
"No. No, not anything in particular. I just saw the light, and—"
Sewell took his hand and wrung it with affection.
"It was so good of you to run in and see me. Don't fancy it's been any disturbance. I'd got into rather a dim place in my work, but since I've been standing here with you—ha, ha, ha! those things do happen so curiously!—the whole thing has become perfectly luminous. I'm delighted you're getting on so nicely. Give my love to Mr. Corey. I shall see you soon again. We shall all be back in a little over a fortnight. Glad of this moment with you, if it's only a moment! Good-bye!"
He wrung Lemuel's hand again, this time in perfect sincerity, and eagerly shut him out into the night.
The dim place had not become so luminous to him as it had to the minister. A darkness, which the obscurity of the night faintly typified, closed round him, pierced by one ray only, and from this he tried to turn his face. It was the gleam that lights up every labyrinth where our feet wander and stumble, but it is not always easy to know it from those false lights of feeble-hearted pity, of mock-sacrifice, of sick conscience, which dance before us to betray to worse misery yet.
Some sense of this, broken and faltering, reached Lemuel where he stood, and tried to deal faithfully with his problem. In that one steadfast ray he saw that whatever he did he must not do it for himself; but what his duty was he could not make out. He knew now, if he had not known before, that whatever his feeling for Statira was, he had not released himself from her, and it seemed to him that he could not release himself by any concern for his own advantage. That notion with which he had so long played, her insufficiency for his life now and for the needs of his mind hereafter, revealed itself in its real cruelty. The things that Mr. Sewell had said, that his mother had said, that Berry had said, in what seemed a fatal succession, and all to the same effect, against throwing himself away upon some one inadequate to him at his best, fell to the ground like withered leaves, and the fire of that steadfast ray consumed them.
But whom to turn to for counsel now? The one friend in whom he had trusted, to whom he had just gone, ready to fling down his whole heart before him, had failed him, failed him unwittingly, unwillingly, as he had failed him once before, but this time in infinitely greater stress. He did not blame him now, fiercely, proudly, as he had once blamed him, but again he wandered up and down the city streets, famished and outcast through his defection.
It was late when he went home, but Mr. Corey had not yet returned, and he had time to sit down and write the letter which he had decided to send to Statira, instead of going to see her. It was not easy to write, but after many attempts he wrote it.
Dear Statira,—You must not be troubled, at what Amanda said to me. I assure you that, although I was angry at first, I am entirely willing to overlook it at your request. She probably spoke hastily, and I am now convinced that she spoke without your authority. You must not think that I am provoked at you.
"I received your letter this evening; and I will come to see you very soon. Lemuel Barker."
The letter was colder than he meant to make it, but he felt that he must above all be honest, and he did not see how he could honestly make it less cold. When it came to Statira's hands she read it silently to herself, over and over again, while her tears dripped upon it.
'Manda Grier was by, and she watched her till she could bear the sight no longer. She snatched the letter from the girl's hands and ran it through, and then she flung it on the ground. "Nasty, cold-hearted, stuck-up, shameless thing!"
"Oh, don't, 'Manda; don't, 'Manda!" sobbed Statira, and she plunged her face into the pillows of the bed, where she sat.
"Shameless, cold-hearted, stuck-up, nasty thing!" said 'Manda Grier, varying her denunciation in the repetition, and apparently getting fresh satisfaction out of it in that way. "Don't? St'ira Dudley, if you was a woman—if you was half a woman—you'd never speak to that little corpse-on-ice again."
"O 'Manda, don't call him names-! I can't bear to have you!"
"Names? If you was anybody at all, you wouldn't look at him! You wouldn't think of him!"
"O 'Manda, 'Manda! You know I can't let you talk so," moaned
"Talk? I could talk my head off! 'You must not think I was provoked with you,'" she mimicked Lemuel's dignity of diction in mincing falsetto. "'I will come to see you very soon.' Miserable, worthless, conceited whipper-snapper!"
"O 'Manda, you'll break my heart if you go on so!"
"Well, then, give him up! He's goin' to give you up."
"Oh, he ain't; you know he ain't! He's just busy, and I know he'll come. I'll bet you he'll be here to-morrow. It'll kill me to give him up."
She had lifted herself from the pillow, and she began to cough.
"He'll kill you anyway," cried 'Manda Grier, in a passion of pity and remorse. She ran across the room to get the medicine which Statira had to take in these paroxysms. "There, there! Take it! I sha'n't say anything more about him."
"And do you take it all back?" gasped Statira, holding the proffered spoon away.
"Yes, yes! But do take your med'cine, St'ira, 'f you don't want to die where you set."
"And do you think he'll come?"
"Yes, he'll come."
"Do you say it just to get me to take the medicine?"
"No, I really do believe he'll come."
"O 'Manda, 'Manda!" Statira took her medicine, and then wildly flung her arms round 'Manda Grier's neck, and began to sob and to cry there. "Oh, how hard I am with you, Manda! I should think if I was as hard with everybody else, they'd perfectly hate me."
"Yes, and that's why he hate me. He does hate me. You said he did."
"No, St'ira, I didn't. You never was hard to anybody, and the meanest old iceberg in creation couldn't hate you."
"Then you think he does care for me?"
"And you know he'll come soon?"
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