John Munroe Bell had been a lawyer in Albany, State of New York, and as such had thriven well. He had thriven well as long as thrift and thriving on this earth had been allowed to him. But the Almighty had seen fit to shorten his span.
Early in life he had married a timid, anxious, pretty, good little wife, whose whole heart and mind had been given up to do his bidding and deserve his love. She had not only deserved it but had possessed it, and as long as John Munroe Bell had lived, Henrietta Bell — Hetta as he called her — had been a woman rich in blessings. After twelve years of such blessings he had left her, and had left with her two daughters, a second Hetta, and the heroine of our little story, Susan Bell.
A lawyer in Albany may thrive passing well for eight or ten years, and yet not leave behind him any very large sum of money if he dies at the end of that time. Some small modicum, some few thousand dollars, John Bell had amassed, so that his widow and daughters were not absolutely driven to look for work or bread.
In those happy days when cash had begun to flow in plenteously to the young father of the family, he had taken it into his head to build for himself, or rather for his young female brood, a small neat house in the outskirts of Saratoga Springs. In doing so he was instigated as much by the excellence of the investment for his pocket as by the salubrity of the place for his girls. He furnished the house well, and then during some summer weeks his wife lived there, and sometimes he let it.
How the widow grieved when the lord of her heart and master of her mind was laid in the grave, I need not tell. She had already counted ten years of widowhood, and her children had grown to be young women beside her at the time of which I am now about to speak. Since that sad day on which they had left Albany they had lived together at the cottage at the Springs. In winter their life had been lonely enough; but as soon as the hot weather began to drive the fainting citizens out from New York, they had always received two or three boarders — old ladies generally, and occasionally an old gentleman — persons of very steady habits, with whose pockets the widow’s moderate demands agreed better than the hotel charges. And so the Bells lived for ten years.
That Saratoga is a gay place in July, August, and September, the world knows well enough. To girls who go there with trunks full of muslin and crinoline, for whom a carriage and pair of horses is always waiting immediately after dinner, whose fathers’ pockets are bursting with dollars, it is a very gay place. Dancing and flirtations come as a matter of course, and matrimony follows after with only too great rapidity. But the place was not very gay for Hetta or Susan Bell.
In the first place the widow was a timid woman, and among other fears feared greatly that she should be thought guilty of setting traps for husbands. Poor mothers! how often are they charged with this sin when their honest desires go no further than that their bairns may be “respectit like the lave.” And then she feared flirtations; flirtations that should be that and nothing more, flirtations that are so destructive of the heart’s sweetest essence. She feared love also, though she longed for that as well as feared it; — for her girls, I mean; all such feelings for herself were long laid under ground; — and then, like a timid creature as she was, she had other indefinite fears, and among them a great fear that those girls of hers would be left husbandless — a phase of life which after her twelve years of bliss she regarded as anything but desirable. But the upshot was — the upshot of so many fears and such small means — that Hetta and Susan Bell had but a dull life of it.
Were it not that I am somewhat closely restricted in the number of my pages, I would describe at full the merits and beauties of Hetta and Susan Bell. As it is I can but say a few words. At our period of their lives Hetta was nearly one-and-twenty, and Susan was just nineteen. Hetta was a short, plump, demure young woman, with the softest smoothed hair, and the brownest brightest eyes. She was very useful in the house, good at corn cakes, and thought much, particularly in these latter months, of her religious duties. Her sister in the privacy of their own little room would sometimes twit her with the admiring patience with which she would listen to the lengthened eloquence of Mr. Phineas Beckard, the Baptist minister. Now Mr. Phineas Beckard was a bachelor.
Susan was not so good a girl in the kitchen or about the house as was her sister; but she was bright in the parlour, and if that motherly heart could have been made to give out its inmost secret — which however, it could not have been made to give out in any way painful to dear Hetta — perhaps it might have been found that Susan was loved with the closest love. She was taller than her sister, and lighter; her eyes were blue as were her mother’s; her hair was brighter than Hetta’s, but not always so singularly neat. She had a dimple on her chin, whereas Hetta had none; dimples on her cheeks too, when she smiled; and, oh, such a mouth! There; my allowance of pages permits no more.
One piercing cold winter’s day there came knocking at the widow’s door — a young man. Winter days, when the ice of January is refrozen by the wind of February, are very cold at Saratoga Springs. In these days there was not often much to disturb the serenity of Mrs. Bell’s house; but on the day in question there came knocking at the door — a young man.
Mrs. Bell kept an old domestic, who had lived with them in those happy Albany days. Her name was Kate O’Brien, but though picturesque in name she was hardly so in person. She was a thick- set, noisy, good-natured old Irishwoman, who had joined her lot to that of Mrs. Bell when the latter first began housekeeping, and knowing when she was well off; had remained in the same place from that day forth. She had known Hetta as a baby, and, so to say, had seen Susan’s birth.
“And what might you be wanting, sir?” said Kate O’Brien, apparently not quite pleased as she opened the door and let in all the cold air.
“I wish to see Mrs. Bell. Is not this Mrs. Bell’s house?” said the young man, shaking the snow from out of the breast of his coat.
He did see Mrs. Bell, and we will now tell who he was, and why he had come, and how it came to pass that his carpet-bag was brought down to the widow’s house and one of the front bedrooms was prepared for him, and that he drank tea that night in the widow’s parlour.
His name was Aaron Dunn, and by profession he was an engineer. What peculiar misfortune in those days of frost and snow had befallen the line of rails which runs from Schenectady to Lake Champlain, I never quite understood. Banks and bridges had in some way come to grief, and on Aaron Dunn’s shoulders was thrown the burden of seeing that they were duly repaired. Saratoga Springs was the centre of these mishaps, and therefore at Saratoga Springs it was necessary that he should take up his temporary abode.
Now there was at that time in New York city a Mr. Bell, great in railway matters — an uncle of the once thriving but now departed Albany lawyer. He was a rich man, but he liked his riches himself; or at any rate had not found himself called upon to share them with the widow and daughters of his nephew. But when it chanced to come to pass that he had a hand in despatching Aaron Dunn to Saratoga, he took the young man aside and recommended him to lodge with the widow. “There,” said he, “show her my card.” So much the rich uncle thought he might vouchsafe to do for the nephew’s widow.
Mrs. Bell and both her daughters were in the parlour when Aaron Dunn was shown in, snow and all. He told his story in a rough, shaky voice, for his teeth chattered; and he gave the card, almost wishing that he had gone to the empty big hotel, for the widow’s welcome was not at first quite warm.
The widow listened to him as he gave his message, and then she took the card and looked at it. Hetta, who was sitting on the side of the fireplace facing the door, went on demurely with her work. Susan gave one glance round — her back was to the stranger — and then another; and then she moved her chair a little nearer to the wall, so as to give the young man room to come to the fire, if he would. He did not come, but his eyes glanced upon Susan Bell; and he thought that the old man in New York was right, and that the big hotel would be cold and dull. It was a pretty face to look on that cold evening as she turned it up from the stocking she was mending.
“Perhaps you don’t wish to take winter boarders, ma’am?” said Aaron Dunn.
“We never have done so yet, sir,” said Mrs. Bell timidly. Could she let this young wolf in among her lamb-fold? He might be a wolf; — who could tell?
“Mr. Bell seemed to think it would suit,” said Aaron.
Had he acquiesced in her timidity and not pressed the point, it would have been all up with him. But the widow did not like to go against the big uncle; and so she said, “Perhaps it may, sir.”
“I guess it will, finely,” said Aaron. And then the widow seeing that the matter was so far settled, put down her work and came round into the passage. Hetta followed her, for there would be housework to do. Aaron gave himself another shake, settled the weekly number of dollars — with very little difficulty on his part, for he had caught another glance at Susan’s face; and then went after his bag. ’Twas thus that Aaron Dunn obtained an entrance into Mrs. Bell’s house. “But what if he be a wolf?” she said to herself over and over again that night, though not exactly in those words. Ay, but there is another side to that question. What if he be a stalwart man, honest-minded, with clever eye, cunning hand, ready brain, broad back, and warm heart; in want of a wife mayhap; a man that can earn his own bread and another’s; — half a dozen others’ when the half dozen come? Would not that be a good sort of lodger? Such a question as that too did flit, just flit, across the widow’s sleepless mind. But then she thought so much more of the wolf! Wolves, she had taught herself to think, were more common than stalwart, honest-minded, wife-desirous men.
“I wonder mother consented to take him,” said Hetta, when they were in the little room together.
“And why shouldn’t she?” said Susan. “It will be a help.”
“Yes, it will be a little help,” said Hetta. “But we have done very well hitherto without winter lodgers.”
“But uncle Bell said she was to.”
“What is uncle Bell to us?” said Hetta, who had a spirit of her own. And she began to surmise within herself whether Aaron Dunn would join the Baptist congregation, and whether Phineas Beckard would approve of this new move.
“He is a very well-behaved young man at any rate,” said Susan, “and he draws beautifully. Did you see those things he was doing?”
“He draws very well, I dare say,” said Hetta, who regarded this as but a poor warranty for good behaviour. Hetta also had some fear of wolves — not for herself perhaps; but for her sister.
Aaron Dunn’s work — the commencement of his work — lay at some distance from the Springs, and he left every morning with a lot of workmen by an early train — almost before daylight. And every morning, cold and wintry as the mornings were, the widow got him his breakfast with her own hands. She took his dollars and would not leave him altogether to the awkward mercies of Kate O’Brien; nor would she trust her girls to attend upon the young man. Hetta she might have trusted; but then Susan would have asked why she was spared her share of such hardship.
In the evening, leaving his work when it was dark, Aaron always returned, and then the evening was passed together. But they were passed with the most demure propriety. These women would make the tea, cut the bread and butter, and then sew; while Aaron Dunn, when the cups were removed, would always go to his plans and drawings.
On Sundays they were more together; but even on this day there was cause of separation, for Aaron went to the Episcopalian church, rather to the disgust of Hetta. In the afternoon, however, they were together; and then Phineas Beckard came in to tea on Sundays, and he and Aaron got to talking on religion; and though they disagreed pretty much, and would not give an inch either one or the other, nevertheless the minister told the widow, and Hetta too probably, that the lad had good stuff in him, though he was so stiff-necked.
“But he should be more modest in talking on such matters with a minister,” said Hetta.
The Rev. Phineas acknowledged that perhaps he should; but he was honest enough to repeat that the lad had stuff in him. “Perhaps after all he is not a wolf,” said the widow to herself.
Things went on in this way for above a month. Aaron had declared to himself over and over again that that face was sweet to look upon, and had unconsciously promised to himself certain delights in talking and perhaps walking with the owner of it. But the walkings had not been achieved — nor even the talkings as yet. The truth was that Dunn was bashful with young women, though he could be so stiff- necked with the minister.
And then he felt angry with himself, inasmuch as he had advanced no further; and as he lay in his bed — which perhaps those pretty hands had helped to make — he resolved that he would be a thought bolder in his bearing. He had no idea of making love to Susan Bell; of course not. But why should he not amuse himself by talking to a pretty girl when she sat so near him, evening after evening?
“What a very quiet young man he is,” said Susan to her sister.
“He has his bread to earn, and sticks to his work,” said Hetta. “No doubt he has his amusement when he is in the city,” added the elder sister, not wishing to leave too strong an impression of the young man’s virtue.
They had all now their settled places in the parlour. Hetta sat on one side of the fire, close to the table, having that side to herself. There she sat always busy. She must have made every dress and bit of linen worn in the house, and hemmed every sheet and towel, so busy was she always. Sometimes, once in a week or so, Phineas Beckard would come in, and then place was made for him between Hetta’s usual seat and the table. For when there he would read out loud. On the other side, close also to the table, sat the widow, busy, but not savagely busy as her elder daughter. Between Mrs. Bell and the wall, with her feet ever on the fender, Susan used to sit; not absolutely idle, but doing work of some slender pretty sort, and talking ever and anon to her mother. Opposite to them all, at the other side of the table, far away from the fire, would Aaron Dunn place himself with his plans and drawings before him.
“Are you a judge of bridges, ma’am?” said Aaron, the evening after he had made his resolution. ’Twas thus he began his courtship.
“Of bridges?” said Mrs. Bell —“oh dear no, sir.” But she put out her hand to take the little drawing which Aaron handed to her.
“Because that’s one I’ve planned for our bit of a new branch from Moreau up to Lake George. I guess Miss Susan knows something about bridges.”
“I guess I don’t,” said Susan —“only that they oughtn’t to tumble down when the frost comes.”
“Ha, ha, ha; no more they ought. I’ll tell McEvoy that.” McEvoy had been a former engineer on the line. “Well, that won’t burst with any frost, I guess.”
“Oh my! how pretty!” said the widow, and then Susan of course jumped up to look over her mother’s shoulder.
The artful dodger! he had drawn and coloured a beautiful little sketch of a bridge; not an engineer’s plan with sections and measurements, vexatious to a woman’s eye, but a graceful little bridge with a string of cars running under it. You could almost hear the bell going.
“Well; that is a pretty bridge,” said Susan. “Isn’t it, Hetta?”
“I don’t know anything about bridges,” said Hetta, to whose clever eyes the dodge was quite apparent. But in spite of her cleverness Mrs. Bell and Susan had soon moved their chairs round to the table, and were looking through the contents of Aaron’s portfolio. “But yet he may be a wolf,” thought the poor widow, just as she was kneeling down to say her prayers.
That evening certainly made a commencement. Though Hetta went on pertinaciously with the body of a new dress, the other two ladies did not put in another stitch that night. From his drawings Aaron got to his instruments, and before bedtime was teaching Susan how to draw parallel lines. Susan found that she had quite an aptitude for parallel lines, and altogether had a good time of it that evening. It is dull to go on week after week, and month after month, talking only to one’s mother and sister. It is dull though one does not oneself recognise it to be so. A little change in such matters is so very pleasant. Susan had not the slightest idea of regarding Aaron as even a possible lover. But young ladies do like the conversation of young gentlemen. Oh, my exceedingly proper prim old lady, you who are so shocked at this as a general doctrine, has it never occurred to you that the Creator has so intended it?
Susan understanding little of the how and why, knew that she had had a good time, and was rather in spirits as she went to bed. But Hetta had been frightened by the dodge.
“Oh, Hetta, you should have looked at those drawings. He is so clever!” said Susan.
“I don’t know that they would have done me much good,” replied Hetta.
“Good! Well, they’d do me more good than a long sermon, I know,” said Susan; “except on a Sunday, of course,” she added apologetically. This was an ill-tempered attack both on Hetta and Hetta’s admirer. But then why had Hetta been so snappish?
“I’m sure he’s a wolf;” thought Hetta as she went to bed.
“What a very clever young man he is!” thought Susan to herself as she pulled the warm clothes round about her shoulders and ears.
“Well that certainly was an improvement,” thought Aaron as he went through the same operation, with a stronger feeling of self- approbation than he had enjoyed for some time past.
In the course of the next fortnight the family arrangements all altered themselves. Unless when Beckard was there Aaron would sit in the widow’s place, the widow would take Susan’s chair, and the two girls would be opposite. And then Dunn would read to them; not sermons, but passages from Shakspeare, and Byron, and Longfellow. “He reads much better than Mr. Beckard,” Susan had said one night. “Of course you’re a competent judge!” had been Hetta’s retort. “I mean that I like it better,” said Susan. “It’s well that all people don’t think alike,” replied Hetta.
And then there was a deal of talking. The widow herself, as unconscious in this respect as her youngest daughter, certainly did find that a little variety was agreeable on those long winter nights; and talked herself with unaccustomed freedom. And Beckard came there oftener and talked very much. When he was there the two young men did all the talking, and they pounded each other immensely. But still there grew up a sort of friendship between them.
“Mr. Beckard seems quite to take to him,” said Mrs. Bell to her eldest daughter.
“It is his great good nature, mother,” replied Hetta.
It was at the end of the second month when Aaron took another step in advance — a perilous step. Sometimes on evenings he still went on with his drawing for an hour or so; but during three or four evenings he never asked any one to look at what he was doing. On one Friday he sat over his work till late, without any reading or talking at all; so late that at last Mrs. Bell said, “If you’re going to sit much longer, Mr. Dunn, I’ll get you to put out the candles.” Thereby showing, had he known it or had she, that the mother’s confidence in the young man was growing fast. Hetta knew all about it, and dreaded that the growth was too quick.
“I’ve finished now,” said Aaron; and he looked carefully at the cardboard on which he had been washing in his water-colours. “I’ve finished now.” He then hesitated a moment; but ultimately he put the card into his portfolio and carried it up to his bedroom. Who does not perceive that it was intended as a present to Susan Bell?
The question which Aaron asked himself that night, and which he hardly knew how to answer, was this. Should he offer the drawing to Susan in the presence of her mother and sister, or on some occasion when they two might be alone together? No such occasion had ever yet occurred, but Aaron thought that it might probably be brought about. But then he wanted to make no fuss about it. His first intention had been to chuck the drawing lightly across the table when it was completed, and so make nothing of it. But he had finished it with more care than he had at first intended; and then he had hesitated when he had finished it. It was too late now for that plan of chucking it over the table.
On the Saturday evening when he came down from his room, Mr. Beckard was there, and there was no opportunity that night. On the Sunday, in conformity with a previous engagement, he went to hear Mr. Beckard preach, and walked to and from meeting with the family. This pleased Mrs. Bell, and they were all very gracious that afternoon. But Sunday was no day for the picture.
On Monday the thing had become of importance to him. Things always do when they are kept over. Before tea that evening when he came down Mrs. Bell and Susan only were in the room. He knew Hetta for his foe, and therefore determined to use this occasion.
“Miss Susan,” he said, stammering somewhat, and blushing too, poor fool! “I have done a little drawing which I want you to accept,” and he put his portfolio down on the table.
“Oh! I don’t know,” said Susan, who had seen the blush.
Mrs. Bell had seen the blush also, and pursed her mouth up, and looked grave. Had there been no stammering and no blush, she might have thought nothing of it.
Aaron saw at once that his little gift was not to go down smoothly. He was, however, in for it now, so he picked it out from among the other papers in the case and brought it over to Susan. He endeavoured to hand it to her with an air of indifference, but I cannot say that he succeeded.
It was a very pretty, well-finished, water-coloured drawing, representing still the same bridge, but with more adjuncts. In Susan’s eyes it was a work of high art. Of pictures probably she had seen but little, and her liking for the artist no doubt added to her admiration. But the more she admired it and wished for it, the stronger was her feeling that she ought not to take it.
Poor Susan! she stood for a minute looking at the drawing, but she said nothing; not even a word of praise. She felt that she was red in the face, and uncourteous to their lodger; but her mother was looking at her and she did not know how to behave herself.
Mrs. Bell put out her hand for the sketch, trying to bethink herself as she did so in what least uncivil way she could refuse the present. She took a moment to look at it collecting her thoughts, and as she did so her woman’s wit came to her aid.
“Oh dear, Mr. Dunn, it is very pretty; quite a beautiful picture. I cannot let Susan rob you of that. You must keep that for some of your own particular friends.”
“But I did it for her,” said Aaron innocently.
Susan looked down at the ground, half pleased at the declaration. The drawing would look very pretty in a small gilt frame put over her dressing-table. But the matter now was altogether in her mother’s hands.
“I am afraid it is too valuable, sir, for Susan to accept.”
“It is not valuable at all,” said Aaron, declining to take it back from the widow’s hand.
“Oh, I am quite sure it is. It is worth ten dollars at least — or twenty,” said poor Mrs. Bell, not in the very best taste. But she was perplexed, and did not know how to get out of the scrape. The article in question now lay upon the table-cloth, appropriated by no one, and at this moment Hetta came into the room.
“It is not worth ten cents,” said Aaron, with something like a frown on his brow. “But as we had been talking about the bridge, I thought Miss Susan would accept it.”
“Accept what?” said Hetta. And then her eye fell upon the drawing and she took it up.
“It is beautifully done,” said Mrs. Bell, wishing much to soften the matter; perhaps the more so that Hetta the demure was now present. “I am telling Mr. Dunn that we can’t take a present of anything so valuable.”
“Oh dear no,” said Hetta. “It wouldn’t be right.”
It was a cold frosty evening in March, and the fire was burning brightly on the hearth. Aaron Dunn took up the drawing quietly — very quietly — and rolling it up, as such drawings are rolled, put it between the blazing logs. It was the work of four evenings, and his chef-d’oeuvre in the way of art.
Susan, when she saw what he had done, burst out into tears. The widow could very readily have done so also, but she was able to refrain herself, and merely exclaimed —“Oh, Mr. Dunn!”
“If Mr. Dunn chooses to burn his own picture, he has certainly a right to do so,” said Hetta.
Aaron immediately felt ashamed of what he had done; and he also could have cried, but for his manliness. He walked away to one of the parlour-windows, and looked out upon the frosty night. It was dark, but the stars were bright, and he thought that he should like to be walking fast by himself along the line of rails towards Balston. There he stood, perhaps for three minutes. He thought it would be proper to give Susan time to recover from her tears.
“Will you please to come to your tea, sir?” said the soft voice of Mrs. Bell.
He turned round to do so, and found that Susan was gone. It was not quite in her power to recover from her tears in three minutes. And then the drawing had been so beautiful! It had been done expressly for her too! And there had been something, she knew not what, in his eye as he had so declared. She had watched him intently over those four evenings’ work, wondering why he did not show it, till her feminine curiosity had become rather strong. It was something very particular, she was sure, and she had learned that all that precious work had been for her. Now all that precious work was destroyed. How was it possible that she should not cry for more than three minutes?
The others took their meal in perfect silence, and when it was over the two women sat down to their work. Aaron had a book which he pretended to read, but instead of reading he was bethinking himself that he had behaved badly. What right had he to throw them all into such confusion by indulging in his passion? He was ashamed of what he had done, and fancied that Susan would hate him. Fancying that, he began to find at the same time that he by no means hated her.
At last Hetta got up and left the room. She knew that her sister was sitting alone in the cold, and Hetta was affectionate. Susan had not been in fault, and therefore Hetta went up to console her.
“Mrs. Bell,” said Aaron, as soon as the door was closed, “I beg your pardon for what I did just now.”
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry that the picture is burnt,” said poor Mrs. Bell.
“The picture does not matter a straw,” said Aaron. “But I see that I have disturbed you all — and I am afraid I have made Miss Susan unhappy.”
“She was grieved because your picture was burnt,” said Mrs. Bell, putting some emphasis on the “your,” intending to show that her daughter had not regarded the drawing as her own. But the emphasis bore another meaning; and so the widow perceived as soon as she had spoken.
“Oh, I can do twenty more of the same if anybody wanted them,” said Aaron. “If I do another like it, will you let her take it, Mrs. Bell? — just to show that you have forgiven me, and that we are friends as we were before?”
Was he, or was he not a wolf? That was the question which Mrs. Bell scarcely knew how to answer. Hetta had given her voice, saying he was lupine. Mr. Beckard’s opinion she had not liked to ask directly. Mr. Beckard she thought would probably propose to Hetta; but as yet he had not done so. And, as he was still a stranger in the family, she did not like in any way to compromise Susan’s name. Indirectly she had asked the question, and, indirectly also, Mr. Beckard’s answer had been favourable.
“But it mustn’t mean anything, sir,” was the widow’s weak answer, when she had paused on the question for a moment.
“Oh no, of course not,” said Aaron, joyously, and his face became radiant and happy. “And I do beg your pardon for burning it; and the young ladies’ pardon too.” And then he rapidly got out his cardboard, and set himself to work about another bridge. The widow, meditating many things in her heart, commenced the hemming of a handkerchief.
In about an hour the two girls came back to the room and silently took their accustomed places. Aaron hardly looked up, but went on diligently with his drawing. This bridge should be a better bridge than that other. Its acceptance was now assured. Of course it was to mean nothing. That was a matter of course. So he worked away diligently, and said nothing to anybody.
When they went off to bed the two girls went into the mother’s room. “Oh, mother, I hope he is not very angry,” said Susan.
“Angry!” said Hetta, “if anybody should be angry, it is mother. He ought to have known that Susan could not accept it. He should never have offered it.”
“But he’s doing another,” said Mrs. Bell.
“Not for her,” said Hetta.
“Yes he is,” said Mrs. Bell, “and I have promised that she shall take it.” Susan as she heard this sank gently into the chair behind her, and her eyes became full of tears. The intimation was almost too much for her.
“Oh, mother!” said Hetta.
“But I particularly said that it was to mean nothing.”
“Oh, mother, that makes it worse.”
Why should Hetta interfere in this way, thought Susan to herself. Had she interfered when Mr. Beckard gave Hetta a testament bound in Morocco? had not she smiled, and looked gratified, and kissed her sister, and declared that Phineas Beckard was a nice dear man, and by far the most elegant preacher at the Springs? Why should Hetta be so cruel?
“I don’t see that, my dear,” said the mother. Hetta would not explain before her sister, so they all went to bed.
On the Thursday evening the drawing was finished. Not a word had been said about it, at any rate in his presence, and he had gone on working in silence. “There,” said he, late on the Thursday evening, “I don’t know that it will be any better if I go on daubing for another hour. There, Miss Susan; there’s another bridge. I hope that will neither burst with the frost, nor yet be destroyed by fire,” and he gave it a light flip with his fingers and sent it skimming over the table.
Susan blushed and smiled, and took it up. “Oh, it is beautiful,” she said. “Isn’t it beautifully done, mother?” and then all the three got up to look at it, and all confessed that it was excellently done.
“And I am sure we are very much obliged to you,” said Susan after a pause, remembering that she had not yet thanked him.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said he, not quite liking the word “we.” On the following day he returned from his work to Saratoga about noon. This he had never done before, and therefore no one expected that he would be seen in the house before the evening. On this occasion, however, he went straight thither, and as chance would have it, both the widow and her elder daughter were out. Susan was there alone in charge of the house.
He walked in and opened the parlour door. There she sat, with her feet on the fender, with her work unheeded on the table behind her, and the picture, Aaron’s drawing, lying on her knees. She was gazing at it intently as he entered, thinking in her young heart that it possessed all the beauties which a picture could possess.
“Oh, Mr. Dunn,” she said, getting up and holding the telltale sketch behind the skirt of her dress.
“Miss Susan, I have come here to tell your mother that I must start for New York this afternoon and be there for six weeks, or perhaps longer.”
“Mother is out,” said she; “I’m so sorry.”
“Is she?” said Aaron.
“And Hetta too. Dear me. And you’ll be wanting dinner. I’ll go and see about it.”
Aaron began to swear that he could not possibly eat any dinner. He had dined once, and was going to dine again; — anything to keep her from going.
“But you must have something, Mr. Dunn,” and she walked towards the door.
But he put his back to it. “Miss Susan,” said he, “I guess I’ve been here nearly two months.”
“Yes, sir, I believe you have,” she replied, shaking in her shoes, and not knowing which way to look.
“And I hope we have been good friends.”
“Yes, sir,” said Susan, almost beside herself as to what she was saying.
“I’m going away now, and it seems to be such a time before I’ll be back.”
“Will it, Sir?”
“Six weeks, Miss Susan!” and then he paused, looking into her eyes, to see what he could read there. She leant against the table, pulling to pieces a morsel of half-ravelled muslin which she held in her hand; but her eyes were turned to the ground, and he could hardly see them.
“Miss Susan,” he continued, “I may as well speak out now as at another time.” He too was looking towards the ground, and clearly did not know what to do with his hands. “The truth is just this. I— I love you dearly, with all my heart. I never saw any one I ever thought so beautiful, so nice, and so good; — and what’s more, I never shall. I’m not very good at this sort of thing, I know; but I couldn’t go away from Saratoga for six weeks and not tell you.” And then he ceased. He did not ask for any love in return. His presumption had not got so far as that yet. He merely declared his passion, leaning against the door, and there he stood twiddling his thumbs.
Susan had not the slightest conception of the way in which she ought to receive such a declaration. She had never had a lover before; nor had she ever thought of Aaron absolutely as a lover, though something very like love for him had been crossing over her spirit. Now, at this moment, she felt that he was the beau-ideal of manhood, though his boots were covered with the railway mud, and though his pantaloons were tucked up in rolls round his ankles. He was a fine, well-grown, open-faced fellow, whose eye was bold and yet tender, whose brow was full and broad, and all his bearing manly. Love him! Of course she loved him. Why else had her heart melted with pleasure when her mother said that that second picture was to be accepted?
But what was she to say? Anything but the open truth; she well knew that. The open truth would not do at all. What would her mother say and Hetta if she were rashly to say that? Hetta, she knew, would be dead against such a lover, and of her mother’s approbation she had hardly more hope. Why they should disapprove of Aaron as a lover she had never asked herself. There are many nice things that seem to be wrong only because they are so nice. Maybe that Susan regarded a lover as one of them. “Oh, Mr. Dunn, you shouldn’t.” That in fact was all that she could say.
“Should not I?” said he. “Well, perhaps not; but there’s the truth, and no harm ever comes of that. Perhaps I’d better not ask you for an answer now, but I thought it better you should know it all. And remember this — I only care for one thing now in the world, and that is for your love.” And then he paused, thinking possibly that in spite of what he had said he might perhaps get some sort of an answer, some inkling of the state of her heart’s disposition towards him.
But Susan had at once resolved to take him at his word when he suggested that an immediate reply was not necessary. To say that she loved him was of course impossible, and to say that she did not was equally so. She determined therefore to close at once with the offer of silence.
When he ceased speaking there was a moment’s pause, during which he strove hard to read what might be written on her down-turned face. But he was not good at such reading. “Well, I guess I’ll go and get my things ready now,” he said, and then turned round to open the door.
“Mother will be in before you are gone, I suppose,” said Susan.
“I have only got twenty minutes,” said he, looking at his watch. “But, Susan, tell her what I have said to you. Goodbye.” And he put out his hand. He knew he should see her again, but this had been his plan to get her hand in his.
“Good-bye, Mr. Dunn,” and she gave him her hand.
He held it tight for a moment, so that she could not draw it away — could not if she would. “Will you tell your mother?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered, quite in a whisper. “I guess I’d better tell her.” And then she gave a long sigh. He pressed her hand again and got it up to his lips.
“Mr. Dunn, don’t,” she said. But he did kiss it. “God bless you, my own dearest, dearest girl! I’ll just open the door as I come down. Perhaps Mrs. Bell will be here.” And then he rushed up stairs.
But Mrs. Bell did not come in. She and Hetta were at a weekly service at Mr. Beckard’s meeting-house, and Mr. Beckard it seemed had much to say. Susan, when left alone, sat down and tried to think. But she could not think; she could only love. She could use her mind only in recounting to herself the perfections of that demigod whose heavy steps were so audible overhead, as he walked to and fro collecting his things and putting them into his bag.
And then, just when he had finished, she bethought herself that he must be hungry. She flew to the kitchen, but she was too late. Before she could even reach at the loaf of bread he descended the stairs, with a clattering noise, and heard her voice as she spoke quickly to Kate O’Brien.
“Miss Susan,” he said, “don’t get anything for me, for I’m off.”
“Oh, Mr. Dunn, I am so sorry. You’ll be so hungry on your journey,” and she came out to him in the passage.
“I shall want nothing on the journey, dearest, if you’ll say one kind word to me.”
Again her eyes went to the ground. “What do you want me to say, Mr. Dunn?”
“Say, God bless you, Aaron.”
“God bless you, Aaron,” said she; and yet she was sure that she had not declared her love. He however thought otherwise, and went up to New York with a happy heart.
Things happened in the next fortnight rather quickly. Susan at once resolved to tell her mother, but she resolved also not to tell Hetta. That afternoon she got her mother to herself in Mrs. Bell’s own room, and then she made a clean breast of it.
“And what did you say to him, Susan?”
“I said nothing, mother.”
“No, mother; not a word. He told me he didn’t want it.” She forgot how she had used his Christian name in bidding God bless him.
“Oh dear!” said the widow.
“Was it very wrong?” asked Susan.
“But what do you think yourself, my child?” asked Mrs. Bell after a while. “What are your own feelings.”
Mrs. Bell was sitting on a chair and Susan was standing opposite to her against the post of the bed. She made no answer, but moving from her place, she threw herself into her mother’s arms, and hid her face on her mother’s shoulder. It was easy enough to guess what were her feelings.
“But, my darling,” said her mother, “you must not think that it is an engagement.”
“No,” said Susan, sorrowfully.
“Young men say those things to amuse themselves.” Wolves, she would have said, had she spoken out her mind freely.
“Oh, mother, he is not like that.”
The daughter contrived to extract a promise from the mother that Hetta should not be told just at present. Mrs. Bell calculated that she had six weeks before her; as yet Mr. Beckard had not spoken out, but there was reason to suppose that he would do so before those six weeks would be over, and then she would be able to seek counsel from him.
Mr. Beckard spoke out at the end of six days, and Hetta frankly accepted him. “I hope you’ll love your brother-in-law,” said she to Susan.
“Oh, I will indeed,” said Susan; and in the softness of her heart at the moment she almost made up her mind to tell; but Hetta was full of her own affairs, and thus it passed off.
It was then arranged that Hetta should go and spend a week with Mr. Beckard’s parents. Old Mr. Beckard was a farmer living near Utica, and now that the match was declared and approved, it was thought well that Hetta should know her future husband’s family. So she went for a week, and Mr. Beckard went with her. “He will be back in plenty of time for me to speak to him before Aaron Dunn’s six weeks are over,” said Mrs. Bell to herself.
But things did not go exactly as she expected. On the very morning after the departure of the engaged couple, there came a letter from Aaron, saying that he would be at Saratoga that very evening. The railway people had ordered him down again for some days’ special work; then he was to go elsewhere, and not to return to Saratoga till June. “But he hoped,” so said the letter, “that Mrs. Bell would not turn him into the street even then, though the summer might have come, and her regular lodgers might be expected.”
“Oh dear, oh dear!” said Mrs. Bell to herself, reflecting that she had no one of whom she could ask advice, and that she must decide that very day. Why had she let Mr. Beckard go without telling him? Then she told Susan, and Susan spent the day trembling. Perhaps, thought Mrs. Bell, he will say nothing about it. In such case, however, would it not be her duty to say something? Poor mother! She trembled nearly as much as Susan.
It was dark when the fatal knock came at the door. The tea-things were already laid, and the tea-cake was already baked; for it would at any rate be necessary to give Mr. Dunn his tea. Susan, when she heard the knock, rushed from her chair and took refuge up stairs. The widow gave a long sigh and settled her dress. Kate O’Brien with willing step opened the door, and bade her old friend welcome.
“How are the ladies?” asked Aaron, trying to gather something from the face and voice of the domestic.
“Miss Hetta and Mr. Beckard be gone off to Utica, just man-and-wife like! and so they are, more power to them.”
“Oh indeed; I’m very glad,” said Aaron — and so he was; very glad to have Hetta the demure out of the way. And then he made his way into the parlour, doubting much, and hoping much.
Mrs. Bell rose from her chair, and tried to look grave. Aaron glancing round the room saw that Susan was not there. He walked straight up to the widow, and offered her his hand, which she took. It might be that Susan had not thought fit to tell, and in such case it would not be right for him to compromise her; so he said never a word.
But the subject was too important to the mother to allow of her being silent when the young man stood before her. “Oh, Mr. Dunn,” said she, “what is this you have been saying to Susan?”
“I have asked her to be my wife,” said he, drawing himself up and looking her full in the face. Mrs. Bell’s heart was almost as soft as her daughter’s, and it was nearly gone; but at the moment she had nothing to say but, “Oh dear, oh dear!”
“May I not call you mother?” said he, taking both her hands in his.
“Oh dear — oh dear! But will you be good to her? Oh, Aaron Dunn, if you deceive my child!”
In another quarter of an hour, Susan was kneeling at her mother’s knee, with her face on her mother’s lap; the mother was wiping tears out of her eyes; and Aaron was standing by holding one of the widow’s hands.
“You are my mother too, now,” said he. What would Hetta and Mr. Beckard say, when they came back? But then he surely was not a wolf!
There were four or five days left for courtship before Hetta and Mr. Beckard would return; four or five days during which Susan might be happy, Aaron triumphant, and Mrs. Bell nervous. Days I have said, but after all it was only the evenings that were so left. Every morning Susan got up to give Aaron his breakfast, but Mrs. Bell got up also. Susan boldly declared her right to do so, and Mrs. Bell found no objection which she could urge.
But after that Aaron was always absent till seven or eight in the evening, when he would return to his tea. Then came the hour or two of lovers’ intercourse.
But they were very tame, those hours. The widow still felt an undefined fear that she was wrong, and though her heart yearned to know that her daughter was happy in the sweet happiness of accepted love, yet she dreaded to be too confident. Not a word had been said about money matters; not a word of Aaron Dunn’s relatives. So she did not leave them by themselves, but waited with what patience she could for the return of her wise counsellors.
And then Susan hardly knew how to behave herself with her accepted suitor. She felt that she was very happy; but perhaps she was most happy when she was thinking about him through the long day, assisting in fixing little things for his comfort, and waiting for his evening return. And as he sat there in the parlour, she could be happy then too, if she were but allowed to sit still and look at him — not stare at him, but raise her eyes every now and again to his face for the shortest possible glance, as she had been used to do ever since he came there.
But he, unconscionable lover, wanted to hear her speak, was desirous of being talked to, and perhaps thought that he should by rights be allowed to sit by her, and hold her hand. No such privileges were accorded to him. If they had been alone together, walking side by side on the green turf, as lovers should walk, she would soon have found the use of her tongue — have talked fast enough no doubt. Under such circumstances, when a girl’s shyness has given way to real intimacy, there is in general no end to her power of chatting. But though there was much love between Aaron and Susan, there was as yet but little intimacy. And then, let a mother be ever so motherly — and no mother could have more of a mother’s tenderness than Mrs. Bell — still her presence must be a restraint. Aaron was very fond of Mrs. Bell; but nevertheless he did sometimes wish that some domestic duty would take her out of the parlour for a few happy minutes. Susan went out very often, but Mrs. Bell seemed to be a fixture.
Once for a moment he did find his love alone, immediately as he came into the house. “My own Susan, you do love me? do say so to me once.” And he contrived to slip his arm round her waist. “Yes,” she whispered; but she slipped like an eel from his hands, and left him only preparing himself for a kiss. And then when she got to her room, half frightened, she clasped her hands together, and bethought herself that she did really love him with a strength and depth of love which filled her whole existence. Why could she not have told him something of all this?
And so the few days of his second sojourn at Saratoga passed away, not altogether satisfactorily. It was settled that he should return to New York on Saturday night, leaving Saratoga on that evening; and as the Beckards — Hetta was already regarded quite as a Beckard — were to be back to dinner on that day, Mrs. Bell would have an opportunity of telling her wondrous tale. It might be well that Mr. Beckard should see Aaron before his departure.
On that Saturday the Beckards did arrive just in time for dinner. It may be imagined that Susan’s appetite was not very keen, nor her manner very collected. But all this passed by unobserved in the importance attached to the various Beckard arrangements which came under discussion. Ladies and gentlemen circumstanced as were Hetta and Mr. Beckard are perhaps a little too apt to think that their own affairs are paramount. But after dinner Susan vanished at once, and when Hetta prepared to follow her, desirous of further talk about matrimonial arrangements, her mother stopped her, and the disclosure was made.
“Proposed to her!” said Hetta, who perhaps thought that one marriage in a family was enough at a time.
“Yes, my love — and he did it, I must say, in a very honourable way, telling her not to make any answer till she had spoken to me; — now that was very nice; was it not, Phineas?” Mrs. Bell had become very anxious that Aaron should not be voted a wolf.
“And what has been said to him since?” asked the discreet Phineas.
“Why — nothing absolutely decisive.” Oh, Mrs. Bell! “You see I know nothing as to his means.”
“Nothing at all,” said Hetta.
“He is a man that will always earn his bread,” said Mr. Beckard; and Mrs. Bell blessed him in her heart for saying it.
“But has he been encouraged?” asked Hetta.
“Well; yes, he has,” said the widow.
“Then Susan I suppose likes him?” asked Phineas.
“Well; yes, she does,” said the widow. And the conference ended in a resolution that Phineas Beckard should have a conversation with Aaron Dunn, as to his worldly means and position; and that he, Phineas, should decide whether Aaron might, or might not be at once accepted as a lover, according to the tenor of that conversation. Poor Susan was not told anything of all this. “Better not,” said Hetta the demure. “It will only flurry her the more.” How would she have liked it, if without consulting her, they had left it to Aaron to decide whether or no she might marry Phineas?
They knew where on the works Aaron was to be found, and thither Mr. Beckard rode after dinner. We need not narrate at length the conference between the young men. Aaron at once declared that he had nothing but what he made as an engineer, and explained that he held no permanent situation on the line. He was well paid at that present moment, but at the end of summer he would have to look for employment.
“Then you can hardly marry quite at present,” said the discreet minister.
“Perhaps not quite immediately.”
“And long engagements are never wise,” said the other.
“Three or four months,” suggested Aaron. But Mr. Beckard shook his head.
The afternoon at Mrs. Bell’s house was melancholy. The final decision of the three judges was as follows. There was to be no engagement; of course no correspondence. Aaron was to be told that it would be better that he should get lodgings elsewhere when he returned; but that he would be allowed to visit at Mrs. Bell’s house — and at Mrs. Beckard’s, which was very considerate. If he should succeed in getting a permanent appointment, and if he and Susan still held the same mind, why then —&c. &c. Such was Susan’s fate, as communicated to her by Mrs. Bell and Hetta. She sat still and wept when she heard it; but she did not complain. She had always felt that Hetta would be against her.
“Mayn’t I see him, then?” she said through her tears.
Hetta thought she had better not. Mrs. Bell thought she might. Phineas decided that they might shake hands, but only in full conclave. There was to be no lovers’ farewell. Aaron was to leave the house at half-past five; but before he went Susan should be called down. Poor Susan! She sat down and bemoaned herself; uncomplaining, but very sad.
Susan was soft, feminine, and manageable. But Aaron Dunn was not very soft, was especially masculine, and in some matters not easily manageable. When Mr. Beckard in the widow’s presence — Hetta had retired in obedience to her lover — informed him of the court’s decision, there came over his face the look which he had worn when he burned the picture. “Mrs. Bell,” he said, “had encouraged his engagement; and he did not understand why other people should now come and disturb it.”
“Not an engagement, Aaron,” said Mrs. Bell piteously.
“He was able and willing to work,” he said, “and knew his profession. What young man of his age had done better than he had?” and he glanced round at them with perhaps more pride than was quite becoming.
Then Mr. Beckard spoke out, very wisely no doubt, but perhaps a little too much at length. Sons and daughters, as well as fathers and mothers, will know very well what he said; so I need not repeat his words. I cannot say that Aaron listened with much attention, but he understood perfectly what the upshot of it was. Many a man understands the purport of many a sermon without listening to one word in ten. Mr. Beckard meant to be kind in his manner; indeed was so, only that Aaron could not accept as kindness any interference on his part.
“I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Bell,” said he. “I look upon myself as engaged to her. And I look on her as engaged to me. I tell you so fairly; and I believe that’s her mind as well as mine.”
“But, Aaron, you won’t try to see her — or to write to her — not in secret; will you?”
“When I try to see her, I’ll come and knock at this door; and if I write to her, I’ll write to her full address by the post. I never did and never will do anything in secret.”
“I know you’re good and honest,” said the widow with her handkerchief to her eyes.
“Then why do you separate us?” asked he, almost roughly. “I suppose I may see her at any rate before I go. My time’s nearly up now, I guess.”
And then Susan was called for, and she and Hetta came down together. Susan crept in behind her sister. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her appearance was altogether disconsolate. She had had a lover for a week, and now she was to be robbed of him.
“Good-bye, Susan,” said Aaron, and he walked up to her without bashfulness or embarrassment. Had they all been compliant and gracious to him he would have been as bashful as his love; but now his temper was hot. “Good-bye, Susan,” and she took his hand, and he held hers till he had finished. “And remember this, I look upon you as my promised wife, and I don’t fear that you’ll deceive me. At any rate I shan’t deceive you.”
“Good-bye, Aaron,” she sobbed.
“Good-bye, and God bless you, my own darling!” And then without saying a word to any one else, he turned his back upon them and went his way.
There had been something very consolatory, very sweet, to the poor girl in her lover’s last words. And yet they had almost made her tremble. He had been so bold, and stern, and confident. He had seemed so utterly to defy the impregnable discretion of Mr. Beckard, so to despise the demure propriety of Hetta. But of this she felt sure, when she came to question her heart, that she could never, never, never cease to love him better than all the world beside. She would wait — patiently if she could find patience — and then, if he deserted her, she would die.
In another month Hetta became Mrs. Beckard. Susan brisked up a little for the occasion, and looked very pretty as bridesmaid. She was serviceable too in arranging household matters, hemming linen and sewing table-cloths; though of course in these matters she did not do a tenth of what Hetta did.
Then the summer came, the Saratoga summer of July, August, and September, during which the widow’s house was full; and Susan’s hands saved the pain of her heart, for she was forced into occupation. Now that Hetta was gone to her own duties, it was necessary that Susan’s part in the household should be more prominent.
Aaron did not come back to his work at Saratoga. Why he did not they could not then learn. During the whole long summer they heard not a word of him nor from him; and then when the cold winter months came and their boarders had left them, Mrs. Beckard congratulated her sister in that she had given no further encouragement to a lover who cared so little for her. This was very hard to bear. But Susan did bear it.
That winter was very sad. They learned nothing of Aaron Dunn till about January; and then they heard that he was doing very well. He was engaged on the Erie trunk line, was paid highly, and was much esteemed. And yet he neither came nor sent! “He has an excellent situation,” their informant told them. “And a permanent one?” asked the widow. “Oh, yes, no doubt,” said the gentleman, “for I happen to know that they count greatly on him.” And yet he sent no word of love.
After that the winter became very sad indeed. Mrs. Bell thought it to be her duty now to teach her daughter that in all probability she would see Aaron Dunn no more. It was open to him to leave her without being absolutely a wolf. He had been driven from the house when he was poor, and they had no right to expect that he would return, now that he had made some rise in the world. “Men do amuse themselves in that way,” the widow tried to teach her.
“He is not like that, mother,” she said again.
“But they do not think so much of these things as we do,” urged the mother.
“Don’t they?” said Susan, oh, so sorrowfully; and so through the whole long winter months she became paler and paler, and thinner and thinner.
And then Hetta tried to console her with religion, and that perhaps did not make things any better. Religious consolation is the best cure for all griefs; but it must not be looked for specially with regard to any individual sorrow. A religious man, should he become bankrupt through the misfortunes of the world, will find true consolation in his religion even for that sorrow. But a bankrupt, who has not thought much of such things, will hardly find solace by taking up religion for that special occasion.
And Hetta perhaps was hardly prudent in her attempts. She thought that it was wicked in Susan to grow thin and pale for love of Aaron Dunn, and she hardly hid her thoughts. Susan was not sure but that it might be wicked, but this doubt in no way tended to make her plump or rosy. So that in those days she found no comfort in her sister.
But her mother’s pity and soft love did ease her sufferings, though it could not make them cease. Her mother did not tell her that she was wicked, or bid her read long sermons, or force her to go oftener to the meeting-house.
“He will never come again, I think,” she said one day, as with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she leant with her head upon her mother’s bosom.
“My own darling,” said the mother, pressing her child closely to her side.
“You think he never will, eh, mother?” What could Mrs. Bell say? In her heart of hearts she did not think he ever would come again.
“No, my child. I do not think he will.” And then the hot tears ran down, and the sobs came thick and frequent.
“My darling, my darling!” exclaimed the mother; and they wept together.
“Was I wicked to love him at the first,” she asked that night.
“No, my child; you were not wicked at all. At least I think not.”
“Then why —” Why was he sent away? It was on her tongue to ask that question; but she paused and spared her mother. This was as they were going to bed. The next morning Susan did not get up. She was not ill, she said; but weak and weary. Would her mother let her lie that day? And then Mrs. Bell went down alone to her room, and sorrowed with all her heart for the sorrow of her child. Why, oh why, had she driven away from her door-sill the love of an honest man?
On the next morning Susan again did not get up; — nor did she hear, or if she heard she did not recognise, the step of the postman who brought a letter to the door. Early, before the widow’s breakfast, the postman came, and the letter which he brought was as follows:-
“MY DEAR MRS. BELL,
“I have now got a permanent situation on the Erie line, and the salary is enough for myself and a wife. At least I think so, and I hope you will too. I shall be down at Saratoga to-morrow evening, and I hope neither Susan nor you will refuse to receive me.
That was all. It was very short, and did not contain one word of love; but it made the widow’s heart leap for joy. She was rather afraid that Aaron was angry, he wrote so curtly and with such a brusque business-like attention to mere facts; but surely he could have but one object in coming there. And then he alluded specially to a wife. So the widow’s heart leapt with joy.
But how was she to tell Susan? She ran up stairs almost breathless with haste, to the bedroom door; but then she stopped; too much joy she had heard was as dangerous as too much sorrow; she must think it over for a while, and so she crept back again.
But after breakfast — that is, when she had sat for a while over her teacup — she returned to the room, and this time she entered it. The letter was in her hand, but held so as to be hidden; — in her left hand as she sat down with her right arm towards the invalid.
“Susan dear,” she said, and smiled at her child, “you’ll be able to get up this morning? eh, dear?”
“Yes, mother,” said Susan, thinking that her mother objected to this idleness of her lying in bed. And so she began to bestir herself.
“I don’t mean this very moment, love. Indeed, I want to sit with you for a little while,” and she put her right arm affectionately round her daughter’s waist.
“Dearest mother,” said Susan.
“Ah! there’s one dearer than me, I guess,” and Mrs. Bell smiled sweetly, as she made the maternal charge against her daughter.
Susan raised herself quickly in the bed, and looked straight into her mother’s face. “Mother, mother,” she said, “what is it? You’ve something to tell. Oh, mother!” And stretching herself over, she struck her hand against the corner of Aaron’s letter. “Mother, you’ve a letter. Is he coming, mother?” and with eager eyes and open lips, she sat up, holding tight to her mother’s arm.
“Yes, love. I have got a letter.”
“Is he — is he coming?”
How the mother answered, I can hardly tell; but she did answer, and they were soon lying in each other’s arms, warm with each other’s tears. It was almost hard to say which was the happier.
Aaron was to be there that evening — that very evening. “Oh, mother, let me get up,” said Susan.
But Mrs. Bell said no, not yet; her darling was pale and thin, and she almost wished that Aaron was not coming for another week. What if he should come and look at her, and finding her beauty gone, vanish again and seek a wife elsewhere!
So Susan lay in bed, thinking of her happiness, dozing now and again, and fearing as she waked that it was a dream, looking constantly at that drawing of his, which she kept outside upon the bed, nursing her love and thinking of it, and endeavouring, vainly endeavouring, to arrange what she would say to him.
“Mother,” she said, when Mrs. Bell once went up to her, “you won’t tell Hetta and Phineas, will you? Not to-day, I mean?” Mrs. Bell agreed that it would be better not to tell them. Perhaps she thought that she had already depended too much on Hetta and Phineas in the matter.
Susan’s finery in the way of dress had never been extensive, and now lately, in these last sad winter days, she had thought but little of the fashion of her clothes. But when she began to dress herself for the evening, she did ask her mother with some anxiety what she had better wear. “If he loves you he will hardly see what you have on,” said the mother. But not the less was she careful to smooth her daughter’s hair, and make the most that might be made of those faded roses.
How Susan’s heart beat — how both their hearts beat as the hands of the clock came round to seven! And then, sharp at seven, came the knock; that same short bold ringing knock which Susan had so soon learned to know as belonging to Aaron Dunn. “Oh mother, I had better go up stairs,” she cried, starting from her chair.
“No dear; you would only be more nervous.”
“I will, mother.”
“No, no, dear; you have not time;” and then Aaron Dunn was in the room.
She had thought much what she would say to him, but had not yet quite made up her mind. It mattered however but very little. On whatever she might have resolved, her resolution would have vanished to the wind. Aaron Dunn came into the room, and in one second she found herself in the centre of a whirlwind, and his arms were the storms that enveloped her on every side.
“My own, own darling girl,” he said over and over again, as he pressed her to his heart, quite regardless of Mrs. Bell, who stood by, sobbing with joy. “My own Susan.”
“Aaron, dear Aaron,” she whispered. But she had already recognised the fact that for the present meeting a passive part would become her well, and save her a deal of trouble. She had her lover there quite safe, safe beyond anything that Mr. or Mrs. Beckard might have to say to the contrary. She was quite happy; only that there were symptoms now and again that the whirlwind was about to engulf her yet once more.
“Dear Aaron, I am so glad you are come,” said the innocent-minded widow, as she went up stairs with him, to show him his room; and then he embraced her also. “Dear, dear mother,” he said.
On the next day there was, as a matter of course, a family conclave. Hetta and Phineas came down, and discussed the whole subject of the coming marriage with Mrs. Bell. Hetta at first was not quite certain; — ought they not to inquire whether the situation was permanent?
“I won’t inquire at all,” said Mrs. Bell, with an energy that startled both the daughter and son-in-law. “I would not part them now; no, not if —” and the widow shuddered as she thought of her daughter’s sunken eyes, and pale cheeks.
“He is a good lad,” said Phineas, “and I trust she will make him a sober steady wife;” and so the matter was settled.
During this time, Susan and Aaron were walking along the Balston road; and they also had settled the matter — quite as satisfactorily.
Such was the courtship of Susan Dunn.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01