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Rose O' the River (10)

2006-09-08 20:48


    Stephen stood absolutely still in front of the opening in the trees, and as Rose turned she met him face to face. She had never dreamed his eyes could be so stern, his mouth so hard, and she gave a sob like a child.

    "You seem to be in trouble," Stephen said in a voice so cold she thought it could not be his.

    "I am not in trouble, exactly," Rose stammered, concealing her discomfiture as well as possible. "I am a little unhappy because I have made some one else unhappy; and now that you know it, you will be unhappy too, and angry besides, I suppose, though you've seen everything there was to see."

    "There is no occasion for sorrow, Stephen said. "I didn't mean to break in on any interview; I came over to give you back your freedom. If you ever cared enough for me to marry me, the time has gone by. I am willing to own that I over-persuaded you, but I am not the man to take a girl against her inclinations, so we will say good-by and end the thing here and now. I can only wish ——here his smothered rage at fate almost choked him——"that, when you were selecting another husband, you had chosen a whole man!"

    Rose quivered with the scorn of his tone. "Size isn't everything!" she blazed.

    "Not in bodies, perhaps; but it counts for something in hearts and brains, and it is convenient to have a sense of honor that's at least as big as a grain of mustard-seed."

    "Claude Merrill is not dishonorable," Rose exclaimed impetuously; "or at least he isn't as bad as you think: he has never asked me to marry him."

    "Then he probably was not quite ready to speak, or perhaps you were not quite ready to hear," retorted Stephen, bitterly; "but don't let us have words,——there'll be enough to regret without adding those. I have seen, ever since New Year's, that you were not really happy or contented; only I wouldn't allow it to myself: I kept hoping against hope that I was mistaken. There have been times when I would have married you, willing or unwilling, but I didn't love you so well then; and now that there's another man in the case, it's different, and I'm strong enough to do the right thing. Follow your heart and be happy; in a year or two I shall be glad I had the grit to tell you so. Good-by, Rose!"

    Rose, pale with amazement, summoned all her pride, and drawing the turquoise engagement ring from her finger, handed it silently to Stephen, hiding her face as he flung it vehemently down the river-bank. His dull eyes followed it and half uncomprehendingly saw it settle and glisten in a nest of brown pine-needles. Then he put out his hand for a last clasp and strode away without a word.

    Presently Rose heard first the scrape of his boat on the sand, then the soft sound of his paddles against the water, then nothing but the squirrels and the woodpeckers and the thrushes, then not even these,——nothing but the beating of her own heart.

    She sat down heavily, feeling as if she were wide awake for the first time in many weeks. How had things come to this pass with her?

    Claude Merrill had flattered her vanity and given her some moments of restlessness and dissatisfaction with her lot; but he had not until to-day really touched her heart or tempted her, even momentarily, from her allegiance to Stephen. His eyes had always looked unspeakable things; his voice had seemed to breathe feelings that he had never dared put in words; but to-day he had really stirred her, for although he had still been vague, it was easy to see that his love for her had passed all bounds of discretion. She remembered his impassioned farewells, his despair, his doubt as to whether he could forget her by plunging into the vortex of business, or whether he had better end it all in the river, as so many other broken-hearted fellows had done. She had been touched by his misery, even against her better judgment; and she had intended to confess it all to Stephen sometime, telling him that she should never again accept attentions from a stranger, lest a tragedy like this should happen twice in a lifetime.

    She had imagined that Stephen would be his large-minded, greathearted, magnanimous self, and beg her to forget this fascinating will-o'the-wisp by resting in his deeper, serener love. She had meant to be contrite and faithful, praying nightly that poor Claude might live down his present anguish, of which she had been the innocent cause.

    Instead, what had happened? She had been put altogether in the wrong. Stephen had almost cast her off, and that, too, without argument. He had given her her liberty before she had asked for it, taking it for granted, without question, that she desired to be rid of him. Instead of comforting her in her remorse, or sympathizing with her for so nobly refusing to shine in Claude's larger world of Boston, Stephen had assumed that she was disloyal in every particular.

    And pray how was she to cope with such a disagreeable and complicated situation?

    It would not be long before the gossips rolled under their tongues the delicious morsel of a broken engagement, and sooner or later she must brave the displeasure of her grandmother.

    And the little house——that was worse than anything. Her tears flowed faster as she thought of Stephen's joy in it, of his faithful labor, of the savings he had invested in it. She hated and despised her self when she thought of the house, and for the first time in her life she realized the limitations of her nature, the poverty of her ideals.

    What should she do? She had lost Stephen and ruined his life. Now, in order that she need not blight a second career, must she contrive to return Claude's love! To be sure, she thought, it seemed indecent to marry any other man than Stephen, when they had built a house together, and chosen wall-papers, and a kitchen stove, and dining-room chairs; but was it not the only way to evade the difficulties?

    Suppose that Stephen, in a fit of pique, should ask somebody else to share the new cottage?

    As this dreadful possibility came into view, Rose's sobs actually frightened the birds and the squirrels. She paced back and forth under the trees, wondering how she could have been engaged to a man for eight months and know so little about him as she seemed to know about Stephen Waterman to-day. Who would have believed he could be so autocratic, so severe, so unapproachable! Who could have foreseen that she, Rose Wiley, would ever be given up to another man,——handed over as coolly as if she had been a bale of cotton? She wanted to return Claude Merrill's love because it was the only way out of the tangle; but at the moment she almost hated him for making so much trouble, for hurting Stephen, for abasing her in her own eyes, and, above all, for giving her rustic lover the chance of impersonating an injured emperor.

    It did not simplify the situation to have Mite Shapley come in during the evening and run upstairs, uninvited, to sit on the toot of her bed and chatter.

    Rose had closed her blinds and lay in the dark, pleading a headache. Mite was in high feather. She had met Claude Merrill going to the station that afternoon. He was much too early for the train, which the station agent reported to be behind time, so he had asked her to take a drive. She didn't know how it happened, for he looked at his watch every now and then; but, anyway, they got to laughing and "carrying on," and when they came back to the station the train had gone. Wasn't that the greatest joke of the season? What did Rose suppose they did next?

    Rose didn't know and didn't care; her head ached too badly.

    Well, they had driven to Wareham, and Claude had hired a livery team there, and had been taken into Portland with his trunk, and she had brought Mrs. Brooks's horse back to Edgewood. Wasn't that ridiculous? And hadn't she cut out Rose where she least expected?

    Rose was distinctly apathetic, and Mite Shapley departed after a very brief call, leaving behind her an entirely new train of thought.

    If Claude Merrill were so love-blighted that he could only by the greatest self-control keep from flinging himself into the river, how could he conceal his sufferings so completely from Mite Shapley,——little shallowpated, scheming coquette?

    "So that pretty Merrill feller has gone, has he, mother?" inquired Old Kennebec that night, as he took off his wet shoes and warmed his feet at the kitchen oven. "Well, it ain't a mite too soon. I allers distrust that pink-an'-white, rosy-posy kind of a man. One of the most turrible things that ever happened in Gard'ner was brought about by jest sech a feller. Mothers hedn't hardly ought to name their boy babies Claude without they expect 'em to play the dickens with the girls. I don' know nothin' 'bout the fust Claude, there ain't none of 'em in the Bible, air they, but whoever he was, I bate ye he hed a deceivin' tongue. If it hedn't be'n for me, that Claude in Gard'ner would 'a' run away with my brother's fust wife; an' I'll tell ye jest how I contrived to put a spoke in his wheel."

    But Mrs. Wiley, being already somewhat familiar with the circumstances, had taken her candle and retired to her virtuous couch. ROSE SEES THE WORLD

    Was this the world, after all? Rose asked herself; and, if so, what was amiss with it, and where was the charm, the bewilderment, the intoxication, the glamour!

    She had been glad to come to Boston, for the last two weeks in Edgewood had proved intolerable. She had always been a favorite heretofore, from the days when the boys fought for the privilege of dragging her sled up the hills, and filling her tiny mitten with peppermints, down to the year when she came home from the Wareham Female Seminary, an acknowledged belle and beauty. Suddenly she had felt her popularity dwindling. There was no real change in the demeanor of her acquaintances, but there was a certain subtle difference of atmosphere. Everybody sympathized tacitly with Stephen, and she did not wonder, for there were times when she secretly took his part against herself. Only a few candid friends had referred to the rupture openly in conversation, but these had been bluntin their disapproval.

    It seemed part of her ill fortune that just at this time Rufus should be threatened with partial blindness, and that Stephen's heart, already sore, should be torn with new anxieties. She could hardly bear to see the doctor's carriage drive by day after day, and hear night after night that Rufus was unresigned, melancholy, half mad; while Stephen, as the doctor said, was brother, mother, and father in one, as gentle as a woman, as firm as Gibraltar.

    These foes to her peace of mind all came from within; but without was the hourly reproach of her grandmother, whose scorching tongue touched every sensitive spot in the girl's nature and burned it like fire.

    Finally a way of escape opened. Mrs. Wealthy Brooks, who had always been rheumatic, grew suddenly worse. She had heard of a "magnetic" physician in Boston, also of one who used electricity with wonderful effect, and she announced her intention of taking both treatments impartially and alternately. The neighbors were quite willing that Wealthy Ann Brooks should spend the deceased Ezra's money in any way she pleased,——she had earned it, goodness knows, by living with him for twenty-five years,——but before the day for her departure arrived her right arm and knee became so much more painful that it was impossible for her to travel alone.

    At this juncture Rose was called upon to act as nurse and companion in a friendly way. She seized the opportunity hungrily as a way out of her present trouble; but, knowing what Mrs. Brooks's temper was in time of health, she could see clearly what it was likely to prove when pain and anguish wrung the brow.

    Rose had been in Boston now for some weeks, and she was sitting in the Joy Street boarding-house,——Joy Street, forsooth! It was nearly bedtime, and she was looking out upon a huddle of roofs and back yards, upon a landscape filled with clothes-lines, ash-barrels, and ill-fed cats. There were no sleek country tabbies, with the memory in their eyes of tasted cream, nothing but city-born, city-bred, thin, despairing cats of the pavement, cats no more forlorn than Rose herself.

    She had "seen Boston," for she had accompanied Mrs. Brooks in the horse-cars daily to the two different temples of healing where that lady worshipped and offered sacrifices. She had also gone with Maude Arthurlena to Claude Merrill's store to buy pair of gloves, and had overheard Miss Dir (the fashionable "lady-assistant" before mentioned) say to Miss Brackett of the ribbon department, that she thought Mr. Merrill must have worn his blinders that time he stayed so long in Edgewood. This bit of polished irony was unintelligible to Rose at first, but she mastered it after an hour's reflection. She wasn't looking her best that day, she knew; the cotton dresses that seemed so pretty at home were common and countrified here, and her best black cashmere looked cheap and shapeless beside Miss Dir's brilliantine. Miss Dir's figure was her strong point, and her dressmaker was particularly skillful in the arts of suggestion, concealment, and revelation. Beauty has its chosen backgrounds. Rose in white dimity, standing knee deep in her blossoming brier bushes, the river running at her feet, dark pine trees behind her graceful head, sounded depths and touched heights of harmony forever beyond the reach of the modish Miss Dir, but she was out of her element and suffered accordingly. Rose had gone to walk with Claude one evening when she first arrived. He had shown her the State House and the Park Street Church, and sat with her on one of the benches in the Common until nearly ten. She knew that Mrs. Brooks had told her nephew of the broken engagement, but he made no reference to the matter, save to congratulate her that she was rid of a man who was so clumsy, so dull and behind the times, as Stephen Waterman, saying that he had always marveled she could engage herself to anybody who could insult her by offering her a turquoise ring.

    Claude was very interesting that evening, Rose thought, but rather gloomy and unlike his former self. He referred to his grave responsibilities, to the frail health of Maude Arthurlena, and to the vicissitudes of business. He vaguely intimated that his daily life in the store was not so pleasant as it had been formerly; that there were "those" (he would speak no more plainly) who embarrassed him with undesired attentions, "those" who, without the smallest shadow of right, vexed him with petty jealousies.

    Rose dared not ask questions on so delicate a topic, but she remembered in a flash Miss Dir's heavy eyebrows, snapping eyes, and high color. Claude seemed very happy that Rose had come to Boston, though he was surprised, knowing what a trial his aunt must be, now that she was so helpless. It was unfortunate, also, that Rose could not go on excursions without leaving his aunt alone, or he should have been glad to offer his escort. He pressed her hand when he left her at her door, telling her she could never realize what a comfort her friendship was to him; could never imagine how thankful he was that she had courageously freed herself from ties that in time would have made her wretched. His heart was full, he said, of feelings he dared not utter; but in the near future, when certain clouds had rolled by, he would unlock its treasures, and then-but no more to-night: he could not trust himself.

    Rose felt as if she were assuming one of the characters in a mysterious romance, such as unfolded itself only in books or in Boston; but, thrilling as it was, it was nevertheless extremely unsatisfactory.

    Convinced that Claude Merrill was passionately in love with her, one of her reasons for coming to Boston had been to fall more deeply in love with him, and thus heal some, at least, of the wounds she had inflicted. It may have been a foolish idea, but after three weeks it seemed still worse,-a useless one; for after several interviews she felt herself drifting farther and farther from Claude; and if he felt any burning ambition to make her his own, he certainly concealed it with admirable art. Given up, with the most offensive magnanimity, by Stephen, and not greatly desired by Claude,——that seemed the present status of proud Rose Wiley of the Brier Neighborhood.

    It was June, she remembered, as she leaned out of the open window; at least it was June in Edgewood, and she supposed for convenience's sake they called it June in Boston. Not that it mattered much what the poor city prisoners called it. How beautiful the river would be at home, with the trees along the banks in full leaf! How she hungered and thirsted for the river, ——to see it sparkle in the sunlight; to watch the moonglade stretching from one bank to the other; to hear the soft lap of the water on the shore, and the distant murmur of the falls at the bridge! And the Brier Neighborhood would be at its loveliest, for the wild roses were in blossom by now. And the little house!

    How sweet it must look under the shade of the elms, with the Saco rippling at the back! Was poor Rufus still lying in a darkened room, and was Stephen nursing him,—— disappointed Stephen,——dear, noble old Stephen?

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