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As soon as thepolygon coin hangi borsaday were alone, he began gently, "Alida--""Please don't speak so to me today. I've endured all I can. I can't keep up another minute unless you let things go on as they were. Tomorrow I'll try to tell you all. It's your right."
"I didn't mean to say anything myself till after supper, and perhaps not till tomorrow, but I think I'd better. It will be better for us both, and our minds will be more at rest. Come with me into the parlor, Alida.""Well, perhaps the sooner it's over the better," she said faintly and huskily.She sunk on the lounge and looked at him with such despairing eyes that tears came into his own."Alida," he began hesitatingly, "after I left you this noon I felt I must speak with and be frank with you.""No, no!!" she cried, with an imploring gesture, "if it must be said, let me say it. I couldn't endure to hear it from you. Before you went away I understood it all, and this afternoon the truth has been burned into my soul. That horrible man has been here--the man I thought my husband--and he has made it clearer, if possible. I don't blame you that you shrink from me as if I were a leper. I feel as if I were one."
"I shrink from YOU!" he exclaimed."Yes. Can you think I haven't seen the repugnance growing in spite of yourself? When I thought of that man--especially when he came today--I understood WHY too well. I cannot stay here any longer. You'd try to be kind and considerate, but I'd know how you felt all the time. It would not be safe for you and it would not be right for me to stay, either, and that settles it. Be--be as kind to me--as you can a few--a few hours longer, and then let me go quietly." Her self-control gave way, and burying her face in her hands, she sobbed convulsively.Like many others with simple, strong natures, Holcroft could not be wrong-headed moderately, and his thoughts, once started in a direction were apt to carry him much farther than the cause warranted. Engrossed in painful and rather bitter musings, he paid no heed to Jane and almost forgot his errand to town. "I was a fool to ask that question," he thought. "I was getting silly and sentimental with my talk about the picture and all that. She laughed at me and reminded me I was wasting time. Of course she can't like an old, hard-featured man like me. I'm beginning to understand her now. She made a business marriage with me and means to live up to her agreement. She's honest; she feels I've done her a real kindness in giving her a home, and she's willing to be as self-sacrificing as the day is long to make it up to me. I wish she wasn't so grateful; there's no occasion for it. I don't want her to feel that every pleasant word and every nice act is so much toward paying a debt. If there was any balance in my favor it was squared up long ago, and I was willing to call it even from the start. She's made me like her for her own sake and not on account of what she does for me, and that's what I had in mind. But she's my superior in every way; she's growing to be a pretty as a picture, and I suppose I appear like a rather rough customer. Well, I can't help if, but it rather goes against me to have her think, 'I've married him and I'm going to do my duty by him, just as I agreed.' She'll do her duty by this Jane in the same self-sacrificing spirit, and will try to make it pleasant for the child just because it's right and because she herself was taken out of trouble. That's the shape her religion takes. 'Tisn't a common form, I know--this returning good for good with compound interest. But her conscience won't let her rest unless she does everything she can for me, and now she'll begin to do everything for Jane because she feels that self-sacrifice is a duty. Anybody can be self-sacrificing. If I made up my mind, I could ask Mrs. Mumpson to visit us all summer, but I couldn't like her to save my life, and I don't suppose Alida can like me, beyond a certain point, to save her life. But she'll do her duty. She'll be pleasant and self-sacrificing and do all the work she can lay her hands on for my sake; but when it comes to feeling toward me as I can't help feeling toward her--that wasn't in the bargain," and he startled Jane with a sudden bitter laugh.
"Say," said the child, as if bent on adding another poignant reflection, "if you hadn't married her, I could 'a' come and cooked for you.""You think I'd been better off if I'd waited for you, eh?""You kinder looked as if yer thought so."He now made the hills echo with a laugh, excited both by his bitter fancies and the preposterous idea. She looked at him inquiringly and was much perplexed by his unwonted behavior. Indeed, he was slightly astonished at his own strange mood, but he yielded to it almost recklessly. "I say, Jane," he began, "I'm not a very good-looking man, am I?"
She shook her head in emphatic agreement."I'm old and rough and hard-featured?"
Again she nodded approvingly."Children and some others speak the truth," he growled."I never had no teachin', but I'm not a fool," remarked Jane keenly."I guess I'm the fool in this case," he added.
"It don't make no difference to me," she said sympathetically. "I'm goin' to mind you and not her. If you ever send her away I'll cook for you.""Send her away!" exclaimed the farmer, with a shiver. "God forbid! There, don't talk any more!"For the next half mile he drove in silence, with a heavy frown on his face; then he broke out sternly, "If you don't promise to mind Mrs. Holcroft and please her in everything, I'll leave you at the poorhouse door and drive home again.""'Course I will, if you tells me to," said the child in trepidation.
"Well, I DO. People will find that making her trouble is the surest way of making themselves trouble.""She's got some hold on 'im," concluded Jane, who, in listening to much gossip, had often heard this expression, and now made a practical application of the idea.
Watterly was greatly relieved when he saw Holcroft drive up with the fugitive. "I was just going out to your place," he said, "for the girl's mother insisted that you had enticed the child away," and the man laughed, as if the idea tickled him immensely.Holcroft frowned, for he was in no mood for his friend's rough jests. "Go to your mother till I send for you," he said to Jane.
"The fact that you had taken two other females from the house gave some color to Mrs. Mumpson's views," pursued Watterly, who could take only the broadest hint as to his social conduct.He received one now. "Tom Watterly," said the farmer sternly, "did I ever insult your wife?""By jocks! No, you nor no other man. I should say not.""Well, then, don't you insult mine. Before I'd seen Mrs. Holcroft, you told me she was out of the common run,--how much out, you little know,--and I don't want her mixed up with the common run, even in your thoughts.""Well, now, I like that," said Watterly, giving Holcroft his hand. "You know I didn't mean any offense, Jim. It was only one of my foolish jokes. You were mighty slow to promise to love, honor, and obey, but hanged if you aint more on that line than any man in town. I can see she's turning out well and keeping her agreement.""Yes, that's just what she's doing," said the farmer gloomily. "She's a good, capable woman that'll sacrifice herself to her duty any day. But it wasn't to talk about her I came. She's a sight better than I am, but she's probably not good enough for anybody in this town to speak to."
"Oh, pshaw; now, Jim!""Well, I've come on disagreeable business. I didn't know that Mrs. Mumpson and her child were here, and I wish to the Lord they could both stay here! You've found out what the mother is, I suppose?"
"I should say so," replied Tom, laughing. "She's talked several of the old women to death already. The first day she was here she called on my wife and claimed social relations, because she's so 'respecterbly connected,' as she says. I thought Angy'd have a fit. Her respectable connections have got to take her off my hands.""I'm not one of 'em, thank goodness!" resumed Holcroft. "But I'm willing to take the girl and give her a chance--at least I'll do it," he corrected himself, in his strict observance of truth. "You can see she's not a child to dote on, but I was sorry for her when I sent her mother away and said I'd try and do something for her. The first thing I knew she was at the house, begging me to either take her in or kill her. I couldn't say no, though I wanted to. Now, you see what kind of a good Samaritan I am."
"Oh, I know you! You'd hit a man between the eyes if he charged you with doing a good deed. But what does your wife say to adopting such a cherub?""We're not going to adopt her or bind ourselves. My wife took the child's part and plead with me in her behalf, though I could see the young one almost made her sick. She thinks it's her duty, you know, and that's enough for her."
"By jocks, Holcroft! She don't feel that way about you, does she?""Why shouldn't she?""Why should she? I can take about anything from Angy, but it wouldn't do for her to let me see that she disliked me so that I kinder made her sick.""Oh, thunder, Tom! You're getting a wrong impression. I was never treated better by anybody in my life than by Mrs. Holcroft. She's a lady, every inch of her. But there's no reason why she should dote on an old fellow like me."
"Yes, there is. I have my opinion of a woman who wouldn't dote on a man that's been such a friend as you have.""Oh, hang it all, Tom! Let's talk about business. She's too grateful--that's what worries me. By the way she took hold and filled the house with comfort she made everything even from the start. She's been as good a friend to me as I to her. She's done all she agreed and more, and I'll never hear a word against her. The point I've been trying to get at is this: If Mrs. Mumpson will agree never to come near us or make trouble in any way, we'll take the child. If she won't so agree, I'll have nothing to do with the girl. I don't want to see her mother, and you'd do me one of the kindest turns you ever did a man by stating the case to her."
"If I do," said Watterly, laughing, "you'll have to forgive me everything in the past and the future.""I will, Tom, for I'd rather have an eye tooth pulled than face that woman. We're all right--just as we used to be at school, always half quarreling, yet ready to stand up for each other to the last drop. But I must have her promise in black and white."
"Well, come to my office and we'll try to arrange it. The law is on your side, for the county won't support people that anyone will take off its hands. Besides I'm going to shame the woman's relations into taking her away, and they'll be glad there's one less to support."They drew up a brief, strong agreement, and Watterly took it to the widow to sign. He found her in great excitement and Jane looking at her defiantly. "I told you he was the one who enticed away my offspring," she began, almost hysterically. "He's a cold-blooded villain! If there's a law in the land, I'll--"
"Stop!" thundered Watterly. His voice was so high and authoritative that she did stop, and with open mouth stared at the superintendent. "Now, be quiet and listen to me," he continued. "Either you are a sane woman and can stop this foolishness, or else you are insane and must be treated as such. You have your choice. You can't tell me anything about Holcroft; I've known him since he was a boy. He doesn't want your girl. She ran away to him, didn't you?" to Jane, who nodded. "But he's willing to take her, to teach her something and give her a chance. His motive is pure kindness, and he has a good wife who'll--""I see it all," cried the widow, tragically clasping her hands. "It's his wife's doings! She wishes to triumph over me, and even to usurp my place in ministering to my child. Was there ever such an outrage? Such a bold, vindictive female--"Here Jane, in a paroxysm of indignant protest, seized her mother and began to shake her so violently that she could not speak."Stop that!" said Watterly, repressing laughter with difficulty. "I see you are insane and the law will have to step in and take care of you both."
"What will it do with us?" gasped the widow."Well, it ought to put you in strait jackets to begin with--"
"I've got some sense if mother aint!" cried Jane, commencing to sob."It's plain the law'll decide your mother's not fit to take care of you. Anyone who can even imagine such silly ridiculous things as she's just said must be looked after. You MAY take a notion, Mrs. Mumpson, that I'm a murderer or a giraffe. It would be just as sensible as your other talk."
"What does Mr. Holcroft offer?" said the widow, cooling off rapidly. If there was an atom of common sense left in any of his pauper charges, Watterly soon brought it into play, and his vague threatenings of law were always awe-inspiring."He makes a very kind offer that you would jump at if you had sense--a good home for your child. You ought to know she can't stay here and live on charity if anyone is willing to take her."