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Chapter 30


Lemuel had promised himself that if he could gain a little time he should be able better to decide what it was right for him to do. His heart lifted as he dropped the letter into the box, and he went through the chapters which Mr. Corey asked him to read, after he came in, with an ease incredible to himself. In the morning he woke with a mind that was almost cheerful. He had been honest in writing that letter, and so far he had done right; he should keep his word about going soon to see Statira, and that would be honest too. He did not look beyond this decision, and he felt, as we all do, more or less vaguely when we have resolved to do right, that he had the merit of a good action.

Statira showed herself so glad to see him that he could not do less than seem to share her joy in their making-up, as she called it, though he insisted that there had been no quarrel between them; and now there began for him a strange double life, the fact of which each reader must reject or accept according to the witness of his own knowledge.

He renewed as far as he could the old warmth of his feeling for Statira, and in his compunction experienced a tenderness for her that he had not known before, the strange tenderness that some spirits feel for those they injure. He went oftener than ever to see her, he was very good to her, and cheered her with his interest in all her little interests; he petted her and comforted her; but he escaped from her as soon as he could, and when he shut her door behind him he shut her within it. He made haste to forget her, and to lose himself in thoughts that were never wholly absent even in her presence. Sometimes he went directly from her to Jessie, whose innocent Bohemianism kept later hours, and who was always glad to see him whenever he came. She welcomed him with talk that they thought related wholly to the books they had been reading, and to the things of deep psychological import which they suggested. He seldom came to her without the excuse of a book to be lent or borrowed; and he never quitted her without feeling inspired with the wish to know more, and to be more; he seemed to be lifted to purer and clearer regions of thought. She received him in the parlour, but their evenings commonly ended in her little studio, whither some errand took them, or some intrusion of the other boarders banished them. There he read to her poems or long chapters out of the essayists or romancers; or else they sat and talked about the strange things they had noticed in themselves that were like the things they found in their books. Once when they had talked a long while in this strain, he told how when he first saw her he thought she was very proud and cold.

She laughed gaily. "And I used to be afraid of you," she said. "You used to be always reading there in your little office. Do you think I'm very proud now?"

"Are you very much afraid of me now?" he retorted.

They laughed together.

"Isn't it strange," she said, "how little we really know about people in the world?"

"Yes," he answered. "I wonder if it will ever be different. I've been wrong about nearly every one I've met since I came to Boston."

"And I have too!" she cried, with that delight in the coincidence of experience which the young feel so keenly.

He had got the habit, with his growing ease in her presence, of walking up and down the room, while she sat, with her arms lifted and clasped above her head, forgetful of everything but the things they were saying, and followed him with her eyes. As he turned about in his walk, he saw how pretty she was, with her slender form cased in the black silk she wore, and thrown into full relief by the lifted arms; he saw the little hands knit above her head, and white as flowers on her dark hair. Her eyes were very bright, and her soft lips, small and fine, were red.

He faltered, and lost the thread of his speech. "I forgot what I was going to say!"

She took down her hands to clasp them over her laughing face a moment. "And I don't remember what you were saying!" They both laughed a long time at this; it seemed incomparably droll, and they became better comrades.

They spent the rest of the evening in laughing and joking.

"I didn't know you were so fond of laughing," he said, when he went away.

"And I always supposed you were very solemn," she replied.

This again seemed the drollest thing in the world. "Well, I always was," he said.

"And I don't know when I've laughed so much before!" She stood at the head of the stairs, and held her lamp up for him to find his way down.

Again looking back, he saw her in the undefended grace that had bewildered him before.

When he came next they met very seriously, but before the evening was past they were laughing together; and so it happened now whenever he came. They both said how strange it was that laughing with any one seemed to make you feel so much better acquainted. She told of a girl at school that she had always disliked till one day something made them laugh, and after that they became the greatest friends.

He tried to think of some experience to match this, but he could not; he asked her if she did not think that you always felt a little gloomy after you had been laughing a great deal. She said yes; after that first night when they laughed so, she felt so depressed that she was sure she was going to have bad news from Madeline. Then she said she had received a letter from Madeline that morning, and she and Mr. Berry had both wished her to give him their regards if she ever saw him. This, when she had said it, seemed a very good joke too; and they laughed at it a little consciously, till he boldly bade her tell them he came so very seldom that she did not know when she could deliver their message.

She answered that she was afraid Madeline would not believe that; and then it came out that he had never replied to Berry's letter.

She said, "Oh! Is that the way you treat your correspondents?" and he was ashamed to confess that he had not forgiven Berry.

"I will write to him to-night, if you say so," he answered hardily.

"Oh, you must do what you think best," she said, lightly refusing the responsibility.

"Whatever you say will be best," he said, with a sudden, passionate fervour that surprised himself.

She tried to escape from it. "Am I so infallible as that?"

"You are for me!" he retorted.

A silence followed, which she endeavoured to break, but she sat still across the little table from him where the shaded lamp spread its glow, leaving the rest of the room, with its red curtains and its sketches pinned about, in a warm, luxurious shadow. Her eyes fell, and she did not speak.

"It must sound very strange to you, I know," he went on; "and it's strange to me, too; but it seems to me that there isn't anything I've done without my thinking whether you would like me to do it."

She rose involuntarily. "You make me ashamed to think that you're so much mistaken about me! I know how we all influence each other—I know I always try to be what I think people expect me to be—I can't be myself—I know what you mean; but you—you must be yourself, and not let—" She stopped in her wandering speech, in strange agitation, and he rose too.

"I hope you're not offended with me!"

"Offended? Why? Why do you—go so soon?"

"I thought you were going," he answered stupidly.

"Why, I'm at home!"

They looked at each other, and then they broke into a happy laugh.

"Sit down again! I don't know what I got up for. It must have been to make some tea. Did you know Madeline had bequeathed me her tea- kettle—the one we had at the St. Albans?" She bustled about, and lit the spirit-lamp under the kettle.

"Blow out that match!" he cried. "You'll set your dress on fire!" He caught her hand, which she was holding with the lighted match in it at her side, after the manner of women with lighted matches, and blew it out himself.

"Oh, thank you!" she said indifferently. "Can you take it without milk?"

"Yes, I like it so."

She got out two of the cups he remembered, and he said, "How much like last winter that seems!"

And "Yes, doesn't it?" she sighed.

The lamp purred and fretted under the kettle, and in the silence in which they waited, the elm tree that rose from the pavement outside seemed to look in consciously upon them.

When the kettle began to sing, she poured out the two cups of tea, and in handing him his their fingers touched, and she gave a little outcry. "Oh! Madeline's precious cup! I thought it was going to drop!"

The soft night-wind blew in through the elm leaves, and their rustling seemed the expression of a profound repose, an endless content.

William Dean Howells