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Chapter 32

XXXII.

Sewell returned to town for the last time in the third week of
September, bringing his family with him.

This was before the greater part of his oddly assorted congregation had thought of leaving the country, either the rich cottagers whose family tradition or liberal opinions kept them in his church, or the boarding and camping elements who were uniting a love of cheapness with a love of nature in their prolonged sojourn among the woods and fields. Certain families, perhaps half of his parish in all, were returning because the schools were opening, and they must put their children into them; and it was both to minister to the spiritual needs of these and to get his own children back to their studies that the minister was at home so early.

It was, as I have hinted already, a difficult and laborious season with him; he himself was always a little rusty in his vocation after his summer's outing, and felt weakened rather than strengthened by his rest. The domestic machine started reluctantly; there was a new cook to be got in, and Mrs. Sewell had to fight a battle with herself, in which she invited him to share, before she could settle down for the winter to the cares of housekeeping. The wide skies, the dim mountain slopes, the long, delicious drives, the fresh mornings, the sweet, silvery afternoons of their idle country life, haunted their nerves and enfeebled their wills.

One evening in the first days of this moral disability, while Sewell sat at his desk trying to get himself together for a sermon, Barker's name was brought up to him.

"Really," said his wife, who had transmitted it from the maid, "I think it's time you protected yourself, David. You can't let this go on for ever. He has been in Boston nearly two years now; he has regular employment, where if there's anything in him at all, he ought to prosper and improve without coming to you every other night. What can he want now?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said the minister, leaning back in his chair, and passing his hand wearily over his forehead.

"Then send down and excuse yourself. Tell him you're busy, and ask him to come another time!"

"Ah, you know I can't do that, my dear."

"Very well, then; I will go down and see him. You sha'n't be interrupted."

"Would you, my dear? That would be very kind of you! Do get me off some way; tell him I'm coming to see him very soon." He went stupidly back to his writing, without looking to see whether his wife had meant all she said; and after a moment's hesitation she descended in fulfilment of her promise; or, perhaps rather it was a threat.

She met Lemuel not unkindly, for she was a kind-hearted woman; but she placed duty before charity even, and she could not help making him feel that she was there in the discharge of a duty. She explained that Mr. Sewell was very unusually busy that evening, and had sent her in his place, and hoped soon to see him. She bade Lemuel sit down, and he obeyed, answering all the questions as to the summer and his occupations and health, and his mother's health, which she put to him in proof of her interest in him; in further evidence of it, she gave him an account of the Sewell family's doings since they last met. He did not stay long, and she returned slowly and pensively to her husband.

"Well?" he asked, without looking round.

"Well; it's all right," she answered, with rather a deep breath. "He didn't seem to have come for anything in particular; I told him that if he wished specially to speak with you, you would come down."

Sewell went on with his writing, and after a moment his wife said, "But you must go and see him very soon, David; you must go to- morrow."

"Why?"

"He looks wretchedly, though he says he's very well. It made my heart ache. He looks perfectly wan and haggard. I wish," she burst out, "I wish I had let you go down and see him!"

"Why—why, what was the matter?" asked Sewell, turning about now.
"Did you think he had something on his mind?"

"No, but he looked fairly sick. Oh, I wish he had never come into our lives!"

"I'm afraid he hasn't got much good from us," sighed the minister. "But I'll go round and look him up in the morning. His trouble will keep overnight, if it's a real trouble. There's that comfort, at least. And now, do go away, my dear, and leave me to my writing."

Mrs. Sewell looked at him, but turned and left him, apparently reserving whatever sermon she might have in her mind till he should have finished his.

The next morning he went to inquire for Lemuel at Mr. Corey's. The man was sending him away from the door with the fact merely that Lemuel was not then in the house, when the voice of Mr. Corey descending the stairs called from within: "Is that you, Sewell? Don't go away! Come in!"

The old gentleman took him into the library and confessed in a bit of new slang, which he said was delightful, that he was all balled up by Lemuel's leaving him, and asked Sewell what he supposed it meant.

"Left you? Meant?" echoed Sewell.

When they got at each other it was understood that Lemuel, the day before, had given up his employment with Mr. Corey, expressing a fit sense of all his kindness and a fit regret at leaving him, but alleging no reasons for his course; and that this was the first that Sewell knew of the affair.

"It must have been that which he came to see me about last night," he said, with a sort of anticipative remorse. "Mrs. Sewell saw him— I was busy."

"Well! Get him to come back, Sewell," said Mr. Corey, with his whimsical imperiousness; "I can't get on without him. All my moral and intellectual being has stopped like a watch."

Sewell went to the boarding-house where Lemuel took his meals, but found that he no longer came there, and had left no other address. He knew nowhere else to ask, and he went home to a day of latent trouble of mind, which whenever it came to the light defined itself as helpless question and self-reproach in regard to Barker.

That evening as he sat at tea, the maid came with the announcement that there was a person in the reception-room who would not send in any name, but wished to see Mr. Sewell, and would wait.

Sewell threw down his napkin, and said, "I'll bring him in to tea."

Mrs. Sewell did not resist; she bade the girl lay another plate.

Sewell was so sure of finding Lemuel in the reception-room, that he recoiled in dismay from the girlish figure that turned timidly from the window to meet him with a face thickly veiled. He was vexed, too; here, he knew from the mystery put on, was one of those cases of feminine trouble, real or unreal, which he most disliked to meddle with.

"Will you sit down?" he said, as kindly as he could, and the girl obeyed.

"I thought they would let me wait. I didn't mean to interrupt you," she began, in a voice singularly gentle and unaffected.

"Oh, no matter!" cried Sewell. "I'm very glad to see you,"

"I thought you could help me. I'm in great trouble—doubt—"

The voice was almost childlike in its appealing innocence. Sewell sat down opposite the girl and bent sympathetically forward. "Well?"

She waited a moment. Then, "I don't know how to begin," she said hoarsely, and stopped again.

Sewell was touched. He forgot Lemuel; he forgot everything but the heartache which he divined before him, and his Christ-derived office, his holy privilege, of helping any in want of comfort or guidance. "Perhaps," he said, in his loveliest way,—the way that had won his wife's heart, and that still provoked her severest criticism for its insincerity; it was so purely impersonal,— "perhaps that isn't necessary, if you mean beginning at the beginning. If you've any trouble that you think I can advise you in, perhaps it's better for both of us that I shouldn't know very much of it."

"Yes?" murmured the girl questioningly.

"I mean that if you tell me much, you will go away feeling that you have somehow parted with yourself, that you're no longer in your own keeping, but in mine; and you know that in everything our help must really come from within our own free consciences."

"Yes," said the girl again, from behind the veil which completely hid her face. She now hesitated a long time. She put her handkerchief under her veil; and at last she said: "I know what you mean." Her voice quivered pathetically; she tried to control it. "Perhaps," she whispered huskily, after another interval, "I can put it in the form of a question."

"That would be best," said Sewell.

She hesitated; the tears fell down upon her hands behind her veil; she no longer wiped them. "It's because I've often—heard you; because I know you will tell me what's true and right—"

"Your own heart must do that," said the minister, "but I will gladly help you all I can."

She did not heed him now, but continued as if rapt quite away from him.

"If there was some one—something—if there was something that it would be right for you to do—to have, if there was no one else; but if there were some else that had a right first—" She broke off and asked abruptly, "Don't you think it is always right to prefer another—the interest of another to your own?"

Sewell could not help smiling. "There is only one thing for us to do when we are in any doubt or perplexity," he said cheerily, "and that is the unselfish thing."

"Yes," she gasped; she seemed to be speaking to herself. "I saw it, I knew it! Even if it kills us, we must do it! Nothing ought to weigh against it! Oh, I thank you!"

Sewell was puzzled. He felt dimly that she was thanking him for anguish and despair. "I'm afraid that I don't quite understand you."

"I thought I told you," she answered, with a certain reproach, and a fall of courage in view of the fresh effort she must make. It was some moments before she could say, "If you knew that some one—some one who was—everything to you—and that you knew—believed—"

At fifty it is hard to be serious about these things, and it was well for the girl that she was no longer conscious of Sewell's mood.

"—Cared for you; and if you knew that before he had cared for you there had been some else—some else that he was as much to as he was to you, and that couldn't give him up, what—should you—"

Sewell fetched a long sigh of relief; he had been afraid of a much darker problem than this. He almost smiled.

"My dear child,"—she seemed but a child there before the mature man with her poor little love-trouble, so intricate and hopeless to her, so simple and easy to him—"that depends upon a great many circumstances."

He could feel through her veil the surprise with which she turned to him: "You said, whenever we are in doubt, we must act unselfishly."

"Yes, I said that. But you must first be sure what is really selfish—"

"I know what is selfish in this case," said the girl with a sublimity which, if foolish, was still sublimity. "She is sick—it will kill her to lose him—You have said what I expected, and I thank you, thank you, thank you! And I will do it! Oh, don't fear now but I shall; I have done it! No matter," she went on in her exaltation, "no matter how much we care for each other, now!"

"No," said Sewell decidedly. "That doesn't follow. I have thought of such things; there was such a case within my experience once,"—he could not help alleging this case, in which he had long triumphed,— "and I have always felt that I did right in advising against a romantic notion of self-sacrifice in such matters. You may commit a greater wrong in that than in an act of apparent self-interest. You have not put the case fully before me, and it isn't necessary that you should, but if you contemplate any rash sacrifice, I warn you against it."

"You said that we ought to act unselfishly."

"Yes, but you must beware of the refined selfishness which shrinks from righteous self-assertion because it is painful. You must make sure of your real motive; you must consider whether your sacrifice is not going to do more harm than good. But why do you come to me with your trouble? Why don't you go to your father—your mother?"

"I have none."

"Ah—"

She had risen and pushed by him to the outer door, though he tried to keep her. "Don't be rash," he urged. "I advise you to take time to think of this—"

She did not answer; she seemed now only to wish to escape, as if in terror of him.

She pulled open the door, and was gone.

Sewell went back to his tea, bewildered, confounded.

"What's the matter? Why didn't he come in to tea with you?" asked his wife.

"Who?"

"Barker."

"What Barker?"

"David, what is the matter?"

Sewell started from his daze, and glanced at his children: "I'll tell you by and by, Lucy."

William Dean Howells