The Underling

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From The Fair Lavinia and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1907)

I

There were five of the Lynde family — three brothers and two sisters. One of the sisters was a widow, one a spinster. The sisters kept house for the brothers, who were all unmarried. The brothers were working a large farm on scientific principles. People said they were getting rich. Their style of living gave evidence of prosperity.

About six o'clock one night the three brothers, with two hired men, came across the stubble of a recently mowed field towards the large white house where supper was awaiting them. The eldest brother, James, came first, walking with a free majesty of carriage. He was a handsome man, nearly forty. Behind James Lynde came his brother Edgar, the youngest of the three. He was also handsome, although with a boyish sort of beauty. He was thirty-five, and looked scarcely more than twenty. The principal expression of his face was one of unquestioning happiness. People said that Edgar Lynde had the happiest disposition of them all. He was a great favorite with everybody, and the hired men would do anything for him. Unquestioning happiness has about it a certain self-centredness. The hired men said that Mr. Edgar would not worry if all the hay on the farm was out and a shower coming up. Women adored him. There was something about this happy-faced man, so happy that he felt no real need of anything more, even of them, which fascinated and allured. The two hired men came after Edgar, walking with the loose, almost disjointed, hip-hop of their kind.

Behind them, last of all, came William Lynde. He was slightly younger than James, but he looked much older. He was small, rather unfitted for manual labor by his physical condition. His delicate bones and muscles had become warped into unnatural shapes by exercise, rather than strengthened. He was bent, and moved with unmistakable weariness, yet with a persistency which gave the impression of reserve strength. His face, originally as handsome as that of either of his brothers, was worn, and had a look of dogged patience and humility which usually years alone bring. He seldom spoke. He was unfailingly industrious, but was popularly supposed to accomplish nothing, to know little, and to be “rather lacking.” The hired men held him in no respect. He never raised a voice of authority. He crept after the others several paces in the rear, with his rake over his shoulder. As he walked — they were all moving towards the west — he gazed at the sunset sky. It was a sea of glory: a daffodil radiance, with clouds like wings of gold and silver and pearl. The man's face, gazing at it, changed. He looked like one for whom a trumpet of action had just sounded. The other men did not notice the sunset at all.

Finally they reached the great white house — a fine structure, with a noble array of outbuildings, barns, and storehouses. The hired men entered the kitchen door; the brothers, with the exception of William, entered a side door, and went directly to their rooms to wash and change their linen before supper. William entered the kitchen door with the hired men. In the kitchen was a masterful maid who had been long with the family. She was capable with a capability almost amounting to genius. The two hired men washed their hands and faces at the sink. William waited his turn, and the maid, whose name was Emma, regarded him with scorn. The kitchen table was set for three. William always ate with the hired men. Emma gave supper to the three men, and to the two brothers and the sisters in the dining-room; then she had her own supper. After she had seen the three men in the kitchen eating, the two hired men with loud gulps and gurgles, and William silently, with his face bent with an indescribable gentle melancholy over his plate, she put on a clean white apron, entered the dining-room, and took up her station at the table there until the others had finished.

Mrs. Meserve, by virtue of her former married estate, as well as her superior age, had the head of the dining-table, which was of solid old mahogany. The dining-room was really charming. Beside the solid old mahogany table was a marvellous old sideboard, and a corner cupboard filled with Canton china. The windows had diamond-shaped panes. Annie Lynde, the spinster sister, was artistic, and she had had the old rectangular panes of distorting glass changed. She had also had the walls papered with dull blue, and there was a moulding with more of the blue Canton-ware. She was a year older than William, very pretty, with a delicate prettiness, and was well dressed. Mrs. Meserve was stouter and older, with a fair hardness of countenance, and she was well dressed. The brothers, now they had changed their working-clothes, appeared distinctly gentlemen.

The two meals progressed, the one in the dining-room, the other in the kitchen. William, of those in the kitchen, finished his supper first. He had not much appetite, and, besides, the alien company of the hired men irritated him more than usual. He rose abruptly and went out of the kitchen and the house, and back across the stubbly field until he reached the nine-acre lot — a noble field, as level as a floor, enclosed with well-kept stone walls, and bordered on two sides with sweeping elms. He crossed to one of those sides, and seated himself on the wall on a large flat stone, where he had often sat before. Then his face took on an almost happy expression. He looked at the trees, which crossed the horizon with majestic arcs of grace; he looked at the sky, which had not yet lost all its sunset glory, but was fading slowly with wonderful gradations of rose and violet and primrose, and at the stubble of the field. The mutilated stalks of grass showed rainbow lights, and the air was sweet and cool. The trees, the sky, the field, the blessed coolness, and the descending shade of the night were all inexpressibly dear to the man. He could just see, across the field, the roof of a house. When he looked at that, his face became at once yearning and benignant. He could hear faintly across the field the sound of a piano and a singing treble voice. It was rather thin, but sweet, and carried far. The song had a pretty air, somewhat plaintive; the words were inaudible. William listened. That was really what he had come to this place for. He came there nearly every warm night, when the windows were open and he could hear the singing.

Miss Rose Willard lived in the house. She was the music-teacher of the village, and sang in the church choir every Sunday. She usually practised the hour after supper. As he listened, William seemed to see her seated at the piano in the pretty little parlor, where he had been a few times years ago. Rose Willard was not so very young, but she was a beauty. He could see just how her face looked: her sweet eyes bent upon the lines of the song, the singing curve of her parted lips. He sighed; and yet not altogether sorrowfully. Suddenly the music ceased; it usually lasted an hour. The man's face fell disappointedly. Then he saw a flutter of something white across the field. It was now nearly dusk. William gazed at the pale, moving flutter across the field, close to the trees, where the stubble was not so trying to delicately shod feet. Then, before he could realize it, Rose Willard stood before him. Her dainty white gown was gathered up, revealing the lace on her petticoat; a lilac ribbon was tied around her waist; her gown was slightly open at the neck, revealing a firm, round throat. Rose was rather below the middle height; she was small and firm, with charming curves. Her face was round, with large blue eyes, and her curling yellow hair was twisted into a little crest at the top of her head. She stood looking at the man on the wall in an odd fashion, half ashamed, half defiant.

“Good-evening, Mr. Lynde,” said she, finally.

Then William collected himself and rose. “Good-evening, Miss Willard,” he replied, and all his miserable timidity and humility were upon him again.

She continued to look at him, and now a scorn and anger were in her look, as well as shamefacedness and defiance.

“I want to ask you something,” she said, abruptly.

William bowed.

“I want to know if you weren't here last evening.”

“Yes, I believe I was,” replied William.

“And the evening before that?”

“I think so.”

“Almost every evening this summer?” continued the woman, pitilessly.

“I don't know but I was.”

“Why?”

William did not answer.

“Why?” insisted the woman.

Then William said something about its being a cool place and pleasant to sit in.

“I should think you would sit on the piazza at your own house with your brothers and sisters,” said Rose. Her voice in speaking was almost a singing voice, loud and sweet, but entirely uncompromising.

William hung his head before her straight blue gaze in a weary, patient fashion which seemed to enrage her.

“Why don't you hold your head up?” she burst out. “Why do you do so? William Lynde, I am all out of patience with you.”

William continued to stand before her as if before a righteous judge.

Rose made an impatient movement, and seated herself on the wall. “I am doing an outrageous thing, and it would be town talk if it got out,” said she, “but I can't help it. I've stood this just as long as I can. Sit down here beside me, William Lynde; I've got something to say to you.” William moved slowly to a stone at some distance from Rose.

“Now,” said Rose, “I am going to ask you some questions, and I want you to answer me. I've heard a good many things said, and now I am coming straight to you to find out how much is true and how much isn't.”

William waited, his head turned away from her. He was conscious of a faint, subtle perfume from her garments, and the malodorousness of his own came in his face and filled him with a sort of despair. What was he to sit beside this white-clad song-bird?

“Have you had your supper?” asked she.

“Yes,” replied William.

“Where?”

William hesitated.

“Where?” demanded the woman.

“In the kitchen.”

“In the kitchen with the hired men?”

“Yes,” admitted William, with a sort of gasp.

“Why didn't you eat in the dining-room with the rest of the family? Why do you eat in the kitchen with the servants? Why don't you dress like a gentleman as your brothers do? You must have your rights in the property as well as they.”

“I can't tell you why,” William said, in a muffled voice.

“Nonsense! Yes, you can tell me, too. Why can't you tell me?”

William remained silent, but his face in the dim light was as the face of a ghost, and he was swallowing convulsively as if he were choking back sobs.

“Before I'd be an underling all the days of my life, when I had as good a right to hold up my head as anybody, I'd —” Rose stopped. She had no expression forcible enough.

The two sat silently on the wall; then Rose spoke again. “I am going to do a dreadful thing, I suppose,” said she. “I am mortified and ashamed of myself for doing it, and you needn't think I am not. Afterwards, when I think it over, I shall be almost crazy, but I am going to do it. I am going to ask you if you remember a night when you walked home with me from church, years ago, when we were very young.”

William nodded. “Yes,” he replied, in a choking voice. “I never forgot.”

“It was just before your father died.”

William nodded again, and again murmured yes.

“Well,” said Rose, “I didn't know but you had forgotten. I am going to say right out — although, as I said before, when I think of it afterwards I shall be most ready to kill myself for it — that I never forgot, and —” She hesitated, then she went on with a sort of shamed resolution. “Of course, I haven't married” — she bridled a little as she spoke — “but, of course, I've had my chances, and now —”

William trembled perceptibly.

“I have a good chance now,” said Rose; “perhaps you can guess who, but — I guess I am not made like a good many women. When I have once —” She paused and hesitated, then she continued, firmly: “When I admitted what I did to you, that time,” she said, “I didn't do it in a flirty kind of way, like some young girls. I was never that kind, and I never forgot, and I have always felt bound to myself because of it, if I didn't to you. Then there was another thing. I have been scolding you for letting yourself be so put upon, but I guess I am one of the kind of women who has a liking for the under dog.” Her defiant voice trembled and broke. She began to weep softly. Her dainty shoulders, turned from the man beside her, were heaving. William looked at her, and his face was convulsed and ghastly. Then he spoke with determination.

“I have always wondered if I owed it to you to tell you something,” he said, “but I wasn't quite sure. Now I know, and I am going to tell you.”

“You needn't on my account, if you have changed your mind,” said Rose, in a bitter, sobbing voice.

“I have never changed my mind.” In spite of himself, William's voice was full of the tenderest inflections. “It wasn't that, but I didn't know how much you had understood or meant, you were so pretty, and there were so many —”

“Enough was said for any girl who had any self-respect to draw one conclusion,” replied Rose, with spirit.

“Yes, but it was a hard thing to tell. I knew you thought I liked you, but you went on just the same, pretty and laughing as ever, and whether you meant —”

“I never was a girl to wear my heart on my sleeve, nor say and do things of that kind unless I did mean them.”

“I didn't know quite what to do. I see now I ought to have told you, but it was hard.”

“What was hard?”

“To tell you.”

“To tell me what?”

“To tell you I had done something wrong, so that I could never marry anybody.”

“What have you done wrong, for Heaven's sake? I don't believe you ever hurt a fly, William Lynde. You were never that kind. You always took the heavy end of things and let yourself be put upon more or less. I don't believe a word of it.”

“It is the truth,” said William, in a heavy voice.

“You don't mean that you ever did anything that would make you liable to arrest, or — anything of that kind, if you were found out?”

“Yes,” replied William.

“I don't believe a word of it,” said Rose. William remained silent. His face had a curious doggedness — the doggedness of a martyr under fire. Rose moved a little nearer. “Well, if you did,” said she, “people can always overlook anything if one is sorry and never does so again.”

“I am not sorry,” said William, “and I should do so again.”

Rose stared and shrank back. “William Lynde,” said she, “what on earth do you mean?”

“I have committed a crime,” said William, in a voice so calm that it sounded hard. “I was tempted, and I yielded, and I should do so again.”

The woman's face changed. She felt a little fear of him. “Do your folks know about it?” asked she.

“They know what I did,” replied William. He spoke evasively, but Rose did not notice that.

“And they have kept quiet about it? I think they have stood by you pretty well.”

“Yes, they have,” assented William, wearily.

“Well, I am not going to urge you to tell what you did, if you don't want to,” said Rose, and her voice was full of suspicious inflections, and the singing quality had disappeared.

“I'll tell you some time,” said William.

“When?”

“I can't tell you while I am living. I'll leave a letter for you to read after I am dead.”

“What nonsense!” said Rose, harshly. “Ten chances to one you'll outlive me.”

“No, I guess I sha'n't. I am not as well as I used to be.”

“Not anything serious?” said Rose, and again the tenderness was in her voice.

“No, I guess not,” replied William, patiently, “but I'll write a letter, anyway.”

Rose's whole body inclined towards him as they sat there. “I am willing to overlook it, not knowing,” said she, in a low voice.

“No, Rose, I can't,” said the man. “It's no use; I can't.”

Rose sprang to her feet. “Well, I guess I've humiliated myself enough for one night!” she cried. “I wouldn't marry you now, William Lynde, if you were to tell me you hadn't done anything worse than to steal a pin.”

William was silent.

“I expect your brother to-night,” she said. “I don't know whether you know it or not, but he has been after me for a long time.”

“Yes, I know it,” said William, in a choking voice.

“Well, I guess I may as well tell him to-night that I'll marry him.”

“I hope you will be happy,” said William, and she could scarcely hear him.

“I guess I shall be as happy as most people,” said she. “Your brother is good-looking, and has a good disposition, and he holds up his head as if he wasn't ashamed of anything he has ever done.”

“He has no call to be,” replied William.

Rose went slowly home across the field. The stubble pricked her feet, and she set them down with a gingerly impatience. She was angry with William, she pitied him, and she felt humiliated. She said to herself that it had come to a pretty pass when she, Rose Willard, had in a measure thrown herself at a man's head to be rejected. Then she wondered what in the world he had done, and evil surmises swarmed in her innocent mind like so many unclean flies. She was a good woman, and had led a pure life, but the imagination for evil is dormant or rampant in all things human. She really stained herself imagining what William might have done, as she crossed the field, her dainty white gown gathered up, the lace of her petticoat ruffling around her carefully stepping feet.

When she reached home she found her widowed aunt, Eliza Ames, and her sister, Gloria. Gloria was a libellous name for Rose's elder sister, but there had always been a Gloria in the Willard family, and the name had fallen to her lot, with none of the meaning implied by it. Gloria was older than Rose, and a fac-simile of her in everything except tints. Nothing more sallow and, where it was not sallow, colorless could be imagined than her face. She seemed homelier than if she had not had Rose for a sister. She had contrast to encounter as well as her own defects. But Gloria did not repine, at least openly. She had an even temperament, which was a blessing to her. Marriage had been dismissed finally from her thoughts when she was eighteen and a young man had walked home from evening meeting with her, and the next week with another girl, whom he had married in three months. Privately Gloria regarded that as the chance which every woman is said to have, and it was a taste of sweet which comforted her.

When Gloria looked up at Rose, lovely as a flower, in the choir, she had a curious pride of proprietorship in her. It really seemed to her that in some way Rose was dependent upon her for her beauty and her sweet singing voice, that to her were due the thanks for both. It was also borne in upon Gloria's mind that Rose owed all the comforts of life to her. She took pleasure in thinking her sister unpractical. Rose made all her own pretty gowns, but Gloria never fairly realized that she herself did not make them; she looked at a hat which Rose had trimmed, and it seemed to her that she was the one who had fastened on the knots of ribbon and the flowers. She even had an odd sense of singing instead of Rose, and, withal, she was entirely sincere. Rose was good-nature itself as regarded her sister. She was as sweet, in fact, with loyalty as a rose is with its essential perfume.

To-night, as Rose entered, Gloria was seated in the lighted parlor, engaged on some fancy-work. She looked at her beautiful sister, and it was as good to her as if she saw herself, and yet not because of unselfishness. Rose seated herself at the piano, and began to sing a foolish, sentimental song, but in a moment her voice broke. She leaned her head over against the music-rack.

“What on earth is the matter?” asked Gloria.

“Too many fools in the world,” replied Rose, in a voice which did not seem like her own, so gibing and bitter was it.

“I don't see what there is to cry about in that,” said Gloria.

Rose laughed a little, and began to sing again. Her voice was triumphantly sweet and clear.

“I guess there isn't much the matter,” said Gloria. Then the door-bell rang, pealing out in the midst of Rose's song.

“I guess you'll be all right now,” whispered Gloria. She admired Edgar Lynde, and felt as proud as if he had been her own lover. Then she gathered up her work and went out of the room.

When Edgar Lynde came in and had seated himself, he begged Rose to go on with her song.

“It is a silly thing,” said Rose. “I don't believe you will like it.”

“It sounded very pretty as I was coming up the walk,” said Edgar. “What is it?”

“Just a little thing I came across the other day in Crosby's.”

“You didn't tell me the name.”

“The name is ‘Who loves once loves for aye,’” said Rose, and there was an odd tone of defiance in her voice.

Edgar laughed his unfailing laugh of merriment. There was to Rose something exasperating about Edgar Lynde's laugh. It did not seem to her as if everything in life was provocative of mirth, or even of good-nature.

“Sounds as if that might be a pretty song,” said Edgar. There was sentiment in his voice, for he was, in his light-hearted way, fond of Rose; still, he laughed.

“I don't see what you are laughing at,” said Rose.

“Oh, nothing,” replied Edgar. “I was only thinking how many widows and widowers, and even folks who have had stacks of love-affairs, would feel singing that song.” There was nothing whatever satirical in his voice, which expressed simply good-humored and happy acquiescence with the laws of life.

Rose set her full lips firmly. “It may be truer than you think, all the same,” said she. “You don't know what is at the bottom of folk's hearts.”

“Well,” retorted Edgar, “if anything like that is at the bottom of a heart, that man or woman had better stick to the one it's meant for; that's all I've got to say.”

A singular expression came over Rose's face; her full lips tightened still more. “That's what I say,” said she. Then she began to sing. Her voice rang out with unusual feeling and sweetness.

The music was light, and the words almost foolish enough to be incomprehensible, but she threw meaning into the song.

“By Jove!” cried Edgar, after Rose had finished, “that is one of the best things I have heard for a long time.”

“I am glad you like it,” said Rose, moving away from the piano.

“It is a pity you can't sing it in the choir,” said Edgar, with his laugh.

“I fear it would hardly answer,” replied Rose. She took some crochet-work of rose-colored wool off the table and sat down.

“It would break up the meeting, I guess,” said Edgar, and he laughed again. He pulled a chair close to her with easy grace. Then he caught at her work.

“Edgar Lynde, you will snarl my wool so I can never get it straight,” said Rose, still impatiently.

“Oh, hang the wool!” said Edgar. Then he pulled the work out of her lap and gave it a toss onto the floor. Rose sat still, with an odd expression as of some one who expects something long looked for and is passive before the fatality of its advance.

“I don't want you to work to-night; I want you to attend to Edgar,” said the man, and there was a childlike tone of tenderness in his voice.

Rose remained sitting, quietly waiting.

Edgar leaned over her. He took one of her hands, which she immediately pulled away, although so gently that the motion did not savor of repulse.

“You are going to marry me, dear, aren't you?” said Edgar.

Rose remained silent. She stared straight ahead. Her face was pale except for red spots on the cheeks; tears stood in her fixed eyes.

“Why don't you answer, dear?”

“I suppose so.”

Edgar gave a little triumphant laugh and flung an arm around Rose's waist. “You suppose so; I like that,” he repeated. “That is all a man gets after he has been hanging around a girl as long as I have.”

“That ought to be enough,” said Rose, soberly. “Of course, I have understood, or thought I did, what your attentions meant. There is no use in pretending I didn't. We are not children.”

“Well, I have had my eye on you ever since you were that high,” said Edgar, indicating a three-feet height from the floor. “I know, dear, you would have been blind if you had not supposed so. But —” Edgar hesitated a second. Then he went on: “I will confess, though, I thought at one time that William had the best chance. That kept me back.”

Rose turned on him abruptly. “What is it about William?” she asked.

“You won't see much of William, anyway, dear,” replied Edgar.

“Why?” said Rose, and her tone was imperative.

Edgar shrugged his shoulders. “William is not much with the rest of the family,” he said.

“Why?”

Edgar's smiling lips became firm. He looked down almost frowningly at her. “Rose,” he said, “I love you, and I am going to do everything I can to make you happy, but there is one thing I cannot do, and none of the rest of us can do, and you must never ask it nor expect it.”

“What is that?”

“You must not ask why William lives as he does, or why he is not, strictly speaking, one of the family.”

“He eats with the hired men, doesn't he?” asked Rose.

“Yes, dear.”

“And you cannot tell me why?”

“No, dear, and you must not ask me. We have good and sufficient reasons for it all. I know it looks as if we were treating William terribly, but we are treating him better than you may think.” Suddenly Edgar's face, looking down at Rose's beautiful one, changed. “Say, Rose, what are you going to be married in?” said he. “White and a veil?”

“If I am not too old,” replied Rose, with a curious angry blush.

“Stuff!” said Edgar. “There is not a young girl in town who can compare with you. White you wear, veil and all. Now I have waited all this time, you need not think I am going to miss anything.” Edgar laughed again, exultingly, and again his exultant laugh irritated Rose. “Why did you make me wait so long, dear?” he asked. “You never even gave me a chance to ask you before.”

“I wasn't in any hurry to get married,” replied Rose, evasively.

“Hurry! I should think not,” returned Edgar, laughing a loud peal. “Well,” he said, “you've got to hurry now, dear; and I am going to have the wedding march played like a jig, and you will have to run up the aisle, with your white veil streaming out behind.” Edgar leaned his face close to Rose to kiss her, but she pushed him away.

“Don't!” said she.

Edgar regarded her with hurt astonishment. “Why,” said he, “aren't you going to let me kiss you, now we are engaged?”

“Once, when you go home,” said Rose.

That night when Edgar had gone it was nearly midnight. Rose went up to her room, and the door of Gloria's opposite was wide open. The room was full of moonlight, and Rose saw Gloria stir in her white bed. She entered softly, setting her candle on a little table in the entry.

“Are you awake, Gloria?” she whispered, softly.

“Yes. What is it?”

“I am going to marry Edgar Lynde before long.”

“I hope you'll be real happy,” Gloria whispered back. Rose went up to the bed, and Gloria kissed her. Then Rose went out. “Please shut my door,” Gloria said, in a muffled voice.

After Rose had gone, Gloria still lay there awake in the moonlight. Her cheeks were quite wet with tears; and yet she was not conscious of unhappiness or of envy because of the sight of her sister's possessing a happiness which she must miss. Still, her self-esteem held her firm. She felt like the background of gloom against which there is only possible the true belief of happiness. She almost felt as if, had there been no Gloria, with her calm self-renunciation, there could have been no Rose — certainly no Rose to the extent of beauty and happiness of which she was capable. She lay awake a long time planning Rose's trousseau.

II

The next Sunday Rose dined with the Lyndes. She was charming in her summer silk of a soft, brown shade and her hat with the brim faced with pink roses. There was a state dinner.

William as usual sat meekly with the hired men in the kitchen, but he ate nothing. He was ghastly pale. He had dressed himself, as he always did on Sunday, in his best clothes. After dinner he went across the field to his accustomed seat on the stone-wall and thought about what was coming, how Rose Willard was going to marry Edgar and would live in the house as his brother's wife. “I've got to stop feeling about her the way I have done,” he said to himself. “There is no use talking, it has got to be done.”

Sitting there, the man strove as resolutely and with as much agony to pluck the love from his heart as a wounded man to pluck a spear from a wound. “It has got to be done,” he kept saying to himself over and over.

At last, when he rose and crept off home across the fields he actually limped. He looked like an old man.

The next afternoon William left the hayfield early; the ` was nearly in, and he considered that they could spare him. James called after him in wonder.

“Where are you going, William?” he asked.

“I must drive over to Askam before supper,” William replied, never turning his head, as he strode across the field in his unwonted self-assertion.

Edgar wiped his forehead, gazed towards the west, where the sun was sinking, and thought of Rose. He fairly laughed with love of her and self-love. He worshipped at a double shrine, and was in an ecstasy. He thought how happy he was, and how happy he was making Rose, and he laughed again. The hired men, watching him furtively, grinned.

“He dunno whether he's on his head or his heels,” one grunted to the other.

Meanwhile William was driving a lame old horse to Askam. He was going to buy a wedding-present for Rose. He had his own account at the Askam bank. He drew generously upon it, and carried home a service of solid silver.

When he reached home supper was over, and Emma had relapsed from her frame of mind of the day before.

“Supper is all over,” she said, sternly, to him when he entered by the kitchen door as usual.

“It's all right,” replied William, carrying his large, neat package from the jeweller's.

Emma eyed it curiously. “I can't have supper standin' round an hour on a washin'-day,” said she.

“It's all right,” repeated William. “I don't want any supper.” Then, much to her astonishment, he passed directly into the sitting-room with his package. He produced as much astonishment there. His sisters, seated near the table with their work, and James with his evening paper (Edgar had gone to see Rose), started. William spoke to his elder sister, Mrs. Meserve. “Will you come into the parlor a minute?” said he. “I want to speak to you.”

Mrs. Meserve cast a glance of wonder and alarm at her sister and James, and rose and followed William into the parlor.

“I got a present,” said William, “and I thought I would like to have you see it.”

“A wedding-present?” asked Mrs. Meserve. William nodded. He was busy unwrapping the package.

“Well, you are in a hurry,” said Mrs. Meserve.

William opened the box and displayed his purchases in their Canton-flannel bags.

Mrs. Meserve gasped. “You don't mean it's solid?” said she.

“You don't suppose I would give her anything that was not solid,” said William. He spoke in a tone of resentment new to him, but Mrs. Meserve was so wrapped in her contemplation of the shining silver pieces, which gave off bluish lights in the room, that she did not notice.

“It is magnificent,” she said, in an awed voice. “Magnificent. I never saw anything to equal it.”

“Then you think it is all right, that I could not have got anything better?” asked William, and his voice expressed a pathetic pleasure.

“Better? Goodness! I should think it was a princess that was going to get married. I never saw anything like it. I don't see when she's going to use it, for my part.”

“Well, I'm glad it's all right,” said William. Then he returned, crossing the sitting-room in his humble fashion, and they heard his steps on the back stairs leading to his room.

Mrs. Meserve, who had followed him, spoke as soon as the door was closed behind him. “He has bought a solid-silver service, ever so many pieces — I never saw anything so magnificent — for a wedding-present,” said she.

Annie dropped her work. “A solid-silver service!” exclaimed she.

“The handsomest one you ever laid your eyes on.”

Annie and James followed Mrs. Meserve into the parlor to inspect William's wedding-present to Rose. He himself, sitting beside the window in his little bedroom, reflected upon it with a measure of self-gratulation new to him. It was a hot night and overcast. There was a fine misting rain. It blew into the open window upon him until he was quite damp. He seemed to see the blue lights of the silver pieces, and he tried to see them as Rose might. At last it seemed to him that he could do so. He became sure that he was reflecting upon the possession of the silver exactly as a woman might do, and he smiled in the darkness, an angelic smile of unselfish love. Then he coughed. He had coughed a good deal lately, but nobody had noticed it. He had not noticed it himself. However, his cough settled a much-deliberated question when the night of the wedding came, a month later. The Lyndes had wondered whether it would be inevitable that he should go.

“He has no clothes fit,” said Mrs. Meserve, “and it seems hardly advisable to get them for just one occasion.”

“That is so,” replied Annie.

William himself had made up his mind. A curious pride in going possessed him. The worm turned. He ordered a suit of clothes in Askam at his brother's tailor's, and the tailor told Edgar.

When Edgar came home after trying on his wedding suit, he told James. “Say,” he said, “William is going.”

“To the wedding?”

“Yes; he is having some clothes made. The tailor told me.”

James frowned. “Well, perhaps it is better,” he said, at length. “People might think it singular for him not to attend his own brother's wedding, and might talk, and that is what we don't want.”

But when the day of the wedding came, William's cough had so increased that it had come to be noticed, and Annie and Mrs. Meserve talked it over.

“It is no use,” said Annie, positively; “leaving everything else out of the question, he cannot go for that reason alone. He coughs every minute. It is incessant. Hear him now.” In fact, at that moment the sound of William's persistent cough was heard from the kitchen.

“Such a cough as that right through the ceremony,” said Annie — “why, it is ridiculous. Of course he can't go.”

“But his clothes have come home from the tailor's, and everything,” Mrs. Meserve said, hesitating.

“Nonsense, Agnes; he can't go. You know yourself that anybody that coughs like that can't possibly go to a wedding.”

That afternoon, when William was sitting alone on the back porch, Mrs. Meserve came out hesitatingly. She did not like what she had to do. She told him that she and Annie had been talking it over, and they both thought that, coughing as he did, it was hardly advisable for him to go to the wedding. William turned his face towards her, and for the first time she saw an expression of something like reproach on it. She noticed, too, for the first time that he had grown thin. He had shaved, and was all ready to don the new suit which lay on his bed up-stairs.

“We both think it best,” said Mrs. Meserve, again, in a faltering tone. Then she added: “It will be a damp night, too, and it is hardly safe for you to go out, coughing as you do, William.”

William looked away. “All right,” he responded.

“You can put on your new clothes, and we will send a carriage and you can go to the reception afterwards at Rose's.”

“All right,” said William.

When Mrs. Meserve joined Annie, she replied rather soberly to her question as to whether she had told William.

“He said all right,” answered Mrs. Meserve. “Annie —”

“What is it?” said Annie. She was fastening pink roses on the front of her dress.

“Do you suppose that cough ought to be looked out for? He has grown very thin. I noticed it for the first time just now.”

“Nonsense! It is only a throat cough,” replied Annie. “Has Edgar gone?”

“Yes; he started just before I came up-stairs. He looked as handsome as a picture. I hope you are right about William's cough.”

But in the mean time something unforeseen and unprecedented was happening at the Willard House.

 

Edgar had proceeded to the house of the bride-elect, because of a note just received from her aunt asking him to do so. The note was evidently written hurriedly and had an agitated air. “Please come at once instead of going to the church first; something has happened,” it said. Edgar felt a little uneasy as he rolled along the old, familiar road, with such a feeling of strangeness in his heart that it almost looked unfamiliar to him. He gazed out at the leafless trees, whose branches gleamed golden under the brilliant winter sun against the blue of the sky, and it did not seem that they could possibly be the same trees which he had seen ever since he could remember, but, instead, trees which had gotten their growth in some unknown paradise. He was very fond of Rose, and very happy. It is true that her aunt's letter made him a little uneasy, but his cheerful optimism sustained him.

When he reached Rose's house, her aunt's face disappeared from the window, and the front door opened directly.

Edgar sprang lightly out of the coach, and ran up the walk and the steps. “Why, what is the matter?” he asked, laughingly.

“Come in a minute,” replied Mrs. Ames, mysteriously.

Edgar followed her into the house and the sitting-room. “What is the matter?” he asked again, and he was still smiling.

Mrs. Ames, who was emotional, began to cry. Even then Edgar's smiling face did not change. “I don't know what has come over Rose,” Mrs. Ames sobbed out.

“She isn't sick?”

“No, but she said she must see you before she went to the church, and —”

“And what?”

“Oh, she looks and acts so queer. I don't know what is the matter.”

Edgar laughed outright. “Oh, Lord! probably her dress doesn't fit,” said he, lightly. “Where is she?”

“She's in the parlor with Gloria. She's all dressed. It isn't that. It fits her beautifully. She's just like marble. I don't know what the matter is. I guess she's told Gloria, but she hasn't said a word to me, her own aunt, that's been just like a mother to her.” Mrs. Ames began to weep weakly.

Edgar frowned a little; then he laughed his everlasting laugh of sheer optimism, and slowly entered parlor. In the midst of the parlor sat Rose enveloped in a cloud of fleecy white, through which her face showed, as her aunt had said, with the rigidity of marble. Not a vestige of her lovely color remained. Even her lips were white and closely compressed. Gloria, who was standing over her, and dressed in her wine-colored silk, which cast a glow over her own usually colorless face, gave a terrified roll of her eyes at Edgar entering. Then she murmured something about the note which Rose had wished sent. Edgar made one stride to Rose, and, thrusting aside her veil, took her hands, which were as cold as ice.

“What on earth is to pay, dear?” he asked.

Gloria stood still, trembling visibly from head to foot. Rose had told her the whole story, and she made no motion to leave the room.

Rose looked up at Edgar, and her features contracted into an odd expression almost of hate and repulsion.

“What is it, sweetheart?” Edgar said again, but he was still smiling. It seemed as if nothing could subdue his expression of a radiant triumph.

“I've got to tell you something,” Rose said, and all the singing sweetness was gone from her voice. It rang harsh and shrill.

Her aunt, out in the entry, heard every word.

“Well, Rose darling, what is it? How lovely you look! But, say, you are awfully pale. Aren't you well?”

“I am doing an awful thing,” Rose replied, in that voice which did not seem like hers.

“Why, Rose dear? Every girl gets married. Say, sweetheart, you are nervous.”

“No, I am not nervous. I must tell you the truth. I am going to be married to you.”

“Well, I rather guess you are.”

“I am going to be married to one man, to promise things before God and man, when —”

“When what?”

“When I love another with all my soul and strength, and have, ever since I can remember.”

Edgar still smiled, but now the smile seemed like simply a contraction of the muscles around his handsome mouth.

“Who is he?”

“Your brother.”

“My brother? James?”

“No; William.”

“Good Lord! Why?”

“I don't know why. I know he has done something dreadful. He told me so himself. I know all that, but I can't break off the habit of loving him. I have loved him ever since I went to school with him.”

“Nonsense, Rose; you are beside yourself. If you knew —”

“It wouldn't make any difference. It wouldn't ever make any difference to me. I have imagined everything. Nobody can imagine anything worse. He could not have done anything worse than the things I have imagined, but I love him just the same, more than anybody in the whole world, and I now feel as if his sin, whatever it is, is mine too. I feel as if I had done just what he did, and I can no more hate him for it than I could hate myself. I love him, and I shall love him just the same after I am married to you.”

“Good Lord!” ejaculated Edgar, still with his mechanical smile.

“Yes, I shall. I thought I should not, but all at once, after I was dressed and looked at myself in the glass, I saw there what would always be — a woman who was married to one man when she loved another enough to die for him; who loved him enough to love even whatever he had done that was wrong, and to feel that she would do it herself.”

The smile slowly faded from Edgar's face, and it was like the going-out of a light. “Do you mean to back out, then, at this late date, when the people must be in the church?” said he.

“No, I don't back out. I will marry you if you say so. I know I am putting you in an awful light and doing you an awful wrong if I don't, but I can't marry you without telling you the truth.”

Edgar Lynde had within him the capacity of men of his make, who are uniformly good-natured and optimistic, of almost devilish revolt when pushed against the wall, of sudden moves of almost incredible daring. His very optimism had its roots in self-esteem. It seemed to him preposterous, almost incredible, that anything like this could happen to him. At the same time he was not a man to force a woman into an unwilling marriage. A sort of contempt was in his face as he gazed at Rose in her bridal attire, with her love for his brother in her heart. He was almost brutal. He turned suddenly and looked at Gloria. Her eyes fell. She had all her life, ever since she could remember, thought there was no one to equal Edgar Lynde in the whole world. His own anger and wonder at her sister were reflected in her face. Her eyes, which were really lovely, were brilliant with unshed tears. The unwonted glow on her cheeks made her almost beautiful.

“Look here,” said Edgar Lynde, “if you think —” He addressed that to Rose, then stopped.

“I will go through with it if you say so,” moaned Rose, “but I had to tell you the truth.”

“If you think I would marry a woman after she had confessed her love for my own brother, and a brother who is unworthy of it, you are mistaken,” said Edgar then. There was no longer even the semblance of a laugh or even a smile on his face. The hardening of their old lines made it seem, instead, fierce. Then he continued: “But,” he said, “if you think I am going to have all those people turned away and have them told that there is to be no wedding —” he paused again. He looked at Gloria. Then he spoke again. “See here, Gloria,” said he, “I know second fiddle isn't the best place in the orchestra, and I know I am asking you to play it, but I'll promise you to do all I can for you if you will.”

Gloria stole a glance at him. The color mounted all over her face.

Edgar went on quite calmly: “I know I have been courting your sister a long time, and I won't pretend that I haven't thought more of her than of you, and I expected to marry her, of course, and now she has decided at the last moment to put me to shame in the face and eyes of the whole town. You can make it right if you will. People will only think a trick has been played on them. I have always been playing tricks on people, and they won't be so surprised as if I were another man. I shall like you well enough, Gloria, and I'll do my best to make you a good husband, and you have not much to look forward to here.”

Gloria again glanced at him. She was so agitated that she almost chattered like an idiot. She was nearly in hysterics.

“Make up your mind quickly,” Edgar said, in a masterful voice. “There isn't any time to lose. Rose's things will fit you. Go up-stairs with her, and change dresses, and go and be married to me. Will you do it, Gloria?”

“You don't love me,” said Gloria then, with a piteous cry — her last cry of affronted maidenhood.

“Oh, Lord!” said Edgar, “I shall love you well enough. I dare say I should have loved you instead of Rose in the first place if you had been as good-looking, and in a few years what do looks amount to? I shall like you well enough. I am not one of the kind of men who go into fits over a woman, anyway. I shall be just as happy with you as with her. Hurry, Gloria. There is the carriage for you and your aunt and Rose now.” In fact, a carriage decorated with white ribbons just then drove up before the parlor windows. Gloria cast one more glance at Edgar — a glance of adoration, of shame, and something like guilt; then she looked at her sister. Rose made an almost imperceptible motion towards the door. Gloria followed her. They both rustled out of the room. “Be as quick as you can,” Edgar called after them. His face was very pale, but it had resumed its look of pride at his awards of life. He called to Mrs. Ames in the entry, and was laughing when he accosted her. “I have something to tell you,” he said. She stared at him, white-faced. “You thought I was going to marry Rose all the time, didn't you?” said Edgar.

“Of course,” gasped Mrs. Ames.

“Well, I'm going to marry Gloria. I think if you go up-stairs and help them change dressed, it might help.”

Mrs. Ames, ascending the stairs tremblingly, cast a scared look over her shoulder at him.

“It would be better for all concerned — for Rose and Gloria and me — if nothing of this got out,” said Edgar. He began whistling as Mrs. Ames kept on up the stairs. He then went out of the house, got into his own carriage, and drove to the church, where most of the wedding-guests were already assembled.

It is probable that there had never been such a sensation in the village as that occasioned by Edgar Lynde meeting Gloria in bridal array instead of Rose, and being married to her. It was a simple wedding. Rose sat in the audience, dressed in the wine-colored silk which had been intended for her sister. Edgar had whispered vehemently to his sisters and brother, and they maintained an outward calmness, as if everything was going forward as had been planned, as did Rose and her aunt. People actually thought that it was one of the whimsical proceedings for which Edgar Lynde had always been noted in the place; that he had stolen a march upon them, and had been courting Gloria all the time instead of Rose, and had meant to marry her. Still, they wondered. Rose was, superficially at least, so superior to Gloria. However, Gloria, in her bridal white, looked better than she had ever done before. The shock of happiness radiated her dull face; her cheeks glowed. People whispered that she was almost as pretty as Rose, after all, and they guessed maybe she would make a better wife.

William went to the reception, and moved mechanically up to greet his brother and his bride. When he saw Gloria's face under the filmy veil instead of Rose's, his own turned ghastly white, and he staggered. A man caught his arm.

“What is the matter? Are you sick?” he asked.

William wavered back amid the crowd. “No, it isn't anything,” he replied, choking back his cough.

“You look dreadful pale,” said the man, kindly. He was a young farmer with a sympathetic nature. He steered William over to a sofa. “You'd better set down,” said he, “and I'll see if Almira can't scare you up a cup of coffee.” Almira was the farmer's wife. Presently she came, bringing the coffee to William, who remained sitting where he had been placed, but whose look was aloof upon Rose in her wine-colored silk, talking with seeming gayety with a knot of people on the other side of the room. Rose's manner was the same as ever, but her look was strange, and people remarked it. They whispered among themselves. William heard a man say to another that Rose Willard had got left, he guessed; that it wasn't always the birds with the finest feathers that got the nest. He himself was fairly dizzy with bewilderment. Edgar had said nothing to him. He had not, in fact, considered it worth while. William gradually gathered consciousness, sitting there on the sofa sipping his coffee, that Rose was not, after all, married; but he also seemed to gather a stronger consciousness than ever before that she was out of his own reach. She had never seemed so far from him as that afternoon, as she stood and chatted with the wedding-guests. She never once looked at him — at least, if she did, he did not know it. He noticed the strange look on her beautiful face, and wondered with the rest what it meant.

It was not long after Edgar's marriage that William moved out of the Lynde house into a little shanty in the field. It had one room and a chimney, and could be warmed, and was comfortable enough. Gloria was the cause of his moving. Now she was married and at a pitch of happiness and success which she had never anticipated, her character took on a higher phase of self-satisfaction. She said openly to Edgar that either they must have a new house or William must live elsewhere. She showed the true imperiousness which had always been dormant in her nature.

“As for living in a family where one of the sons has done some awful thing so he can't live with the others, but has to eat with the hired men, I won't,” said she.

The Lynde property was undivided. It was almost impossible for Edgar to separate his portion from the rest and live separately. The family discussed the matter, and William moved his poor belongings into the little shanty in the field. He was quite uncomplaining. Sometimes he wished that Rose had owned the silver service which glittered on the table when the family entertained, which was quite frequently since Edgar's marriage. However, he took some comfort in the reflection that Rose at least had the use of the silver sugar-bowl and cream-pitcher. But soon he became very ill. Then he was moved, in spite of his protest, into the house, and James gave up his own chamber — a large, sunny room — to him. A specialist was consulted, a nurse was engaged, and Rose stayed at the house a great deal to assist, although she never saw William. She had a knack at delicate cookery, and she prepared the greater part of his meals. She herself grew thin and pale, and her beauty waned. She was torn with grief and love, and horror of that unknown something which William had done. She had locked up in her little rosewood desk a letter which William had written and sent to her the day after their conversation in the field, when he had thought she was to marry Edgar. It was addressed to Miss Rose Willard, and that envelope contained another, on which was inscribed, “To be opened and read after my death.”

She often thought of this letter. William, now he was so ill, seemed the centre around which the whole family revolved. Their very indignation towards him made them more eager to do all that could be done.

At last it was said that William's death was only a matter of days. He no longer left his bed. It was then that Rose made up her mind. She was a woman with a good head and strong sense of justice, and that influenced her as well as her love for the sick man. “I don't know what William has done,” she said to herself, “and they will not tell me; but they must think it is something dreadful or they wouldn't have treated him as they have done. Now it may be that they are mistaken, and this letter which William wrote for me to read after he was dead explains everything. If that is the case, what folly it is for me to wait until he is dead. I should regret it all the days of my life.” She considered her own possible pain as well as the injustice to William when she opened the letter the afternoon before he died.

She locked herself into a room before opening it, although she was quite safe from intrusion. James and Edgar had gone on business to Askam; Annie was lying down; Mrs. Meserve had gone on an errand to the drug-store. Rose, having locked the door, opened the letter and read it. It did not take long. It was very short. Rose thrust the letter into the bosom of her dress, and crossed the hall to William's sick-room. She knocked, and the nurse came to the door. “How is he?” she whispered. She was trembling from head to foot.

“He is quiet now,” replied the nurse. “He had a hard coughing-spell an hour ago, but he has been quiet since.”

“Is he asleep?”

The nurse cast a glance into the room. William was lying very still, with eyes partly closed and a ghastly streak of white visible between the lids. “No, I don't think so,” he replied.

“I want to speak to him a moment,” said Rose, “and I want you to go down-stairs while I do so. I have something particular to say while he is able to understand it.”

The nurse looked hesitatingly at her. “You know it will not do to excite him,” he said.

“I will not excite him to hurt him,” said Rose, “but I must speak to him.”

The nurse went rather reluctantly down-stairs, and Rose entered the room. She went straight to the bed where the sick man lay — a stark shape, dimly outlined beneath the bed-clothes, his head deeply sunken in the pillow as if with an abnormal heaviness, his face ghastly, and his expression fixed in a sort of majestic patience and melancholy.

“William,” said Rose — “William.”

William opened his eyes and looked at her, although seeming at the same time to look at something past her. He essayed a smile, but his face relapsed into its majestic melancholy. He had almost done with the things of earth.

“William,” said Rose. “I — I opened your letter.”

A sudden light of interest leaped into the sick man's face. He tried to speak, but the cough choked him. He made a terrific effort to subdue the cough, and succeeded. “Why didn't you wait?” he asked, in a loud, clear voice, which was startling, coming from those lips, so straight and blue that they looked like those of one already dead.

“I thought it over,” said Rose, in her sweet, singing voice, “and I made up my mind it wasn't just to you to wait till you were gone. I made up my mind that if I had been mistaken I would not want to reproach myself with it all my life.”

William looked at her, and his look was half reproachful, half joyful, as if, in spite of himself, he was glad for what she had done.

Rose glanced at the door, and saw that it was tightly closed. “William, I know it all now,” she said. “How you destroyed your father's will because he had left everything to you, and how they found it out, and thought it was the other way around.”

“If I had told them,” said the sick man, “they would all have gone off and had nothing, and left me here. You don't know how proud —” He struggled again with his cough.

“I know you have been put upon all these years,” said Rose, and her singing voice quavered.

“It was a dreadful thing I did. I made myself liable —” said the sick man. He cleared his voice, which seemed to come not so much from his throat as from his soul, such a far-off quality was in it. “The sense of guilt has always kept me down,” he said. “It wasn't altogether the way they treated me; they had reason. I had made myself an underling. I knew I was guilty.”

“Guilty,” repeated Rose — “guilty for a reason like that!” She began to weep softly, turning away her head that William might not see her.

“Father had a hasty temper,” said William, “and he and James quarrelled; then Edgar got mixed up in it, and Annie, and he didn't like Agnes's husband. He left them each a dollar apiece, and all the rest to me. I couldn't have it so. I don't believe but father has thought better of it himself by this time.”

Rose continued to weep softly.

“If the lawyer who drew up the will hadn't died suddenly, just as father did, I couldn't have done it,” said William. “James was suspicious, and he watched me that night when I went down to father's desk. Father had told me all about the will, and I couldn't get him to change it. We had words about it, and James had overheard something, and put the wrong construction on it. Father was unconscious, and I knew he wouldn't live till morning. James caught me just as I put the will in the fire, and he couldn't save it. It was blazing. He accused me, and told the others. I couldn't deny it. I was guilty.”

Rose wiped her eyes, came close to William, leaned over, and kissed his forehead.

“Now I will have you righted,” said she.

But the sick man roused himself, and sat up with a terrible effort. “Oh, Rose,” he begged, “don't tell them. Don't you see?”

“See what, William?”

“They will never get over it if they know, and I only wanted you to know, and I am almost through.”

“Well,” said Rose, “I won't tell them if you say not to, William.”

“There is no use in the living worrying over the troubles of the dead, when they meant right,” said William.

Rose went over to the hearth, where there was a fire burning, and dropped the letter. It blazed up quickly. William smiled. He had settled down again into a shrunken heap. Rose went up to William and kissed him again. “I didn't marry your brother because I loved you so,” said she. “I told him so at the last minute, and he asked Gloria. I loved you, sin and all, William, and now — I see, I love you, goodness and all. I have never seen such a good man as you, William, and loving you is better than being married to anybody else.”

Then the nurse came in and Rose went out, and shortly afterwards William had a frightful coughing-spell. He became unconscious soon after midnight, in that wane of creation when the vitality of things of the earth is low, and died before morning.

 

It was the evening of the day of the funeral that James told Rose what had been the cause of the dead man's dissension with his family.

“We would not tell you, even though you had become one of us,” he said, “but, now that the poor boy is gone, it can do him no harm, and in a way we owe it to you and to ourselves.”

They were all sitting in the best parlor, and the sisters had reddened eyes. They had been weeping. James spoke tenderly, even while relating what his dead brother had done. It was evident that all rancor on the part of the family had disappeared.

“Poor devil!” said Edgar.

“He always had a sweet disposition,” said Mrs. Meserve, in a weeping voice.

“I think he was out of his mind when he did it,” said Annie, sobbingly.

It seemed incumbent upon Rose to speak. “I never lay up anything against the dead,” said she. “He may have been better in his heart than any of us.”

“God alone sees the heart,” observed Mrs. Meserve, in a solemn voice.

“That is so,” said Gloria.

Rose said no more. She sat beside the window. It was a wonderfully bright moonlight night, and they had not lit the lamps. The field across the road from the house stretched in vast levels of silver light. It seemed to Rose that she could see the underling coming across the field with a glory of his good motives around his head, and bent no longer beneath the burden of his earthly deeds, and she felt like his bride.