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Chapter 23 Between the Past and FutureHuman nature, in common with Mother Nature, has its immutable laws. The people who existed before the flood were, in their primal motives, like those of today. The conventionality of highly civilized society does not change the heart, but it puts so much restraint upon it that not a few appear heartless. They march through life and fight its battles like uniformed men, trained in a certain school of tactics. The monotony of character and action is superficial, in most cases, rather than real, and he who fathoms the eyes of others, who catches the subtle quality of tones and interprets the flexible mouth that utters them, will discover that the whole gamut of human nature exists in those that appear only like certain musical instruments, made by machinery to play a few well-known tunes. Conventional restraint often, no doubt, produces dwarfed and defective human nature. I suppose that if souls could be put under a microscope, the undeveloped rudiments of almost everything would be discovered. It is more satisfactory to study the things themselves than their suggestions; this we are usually better able to do among people of simple and untrammeled modes of life, who are not practiced in disguises. Their peculiar traits and their general and dominant laws and impulses are exhibited with less reserve than by those who have learned to be always on their guard. Of course there are commonplace yeomen as truly as commonplace aristocrats, and simple life abounds in simpletons.When a man in Holcroft's position has decided traits, they are apt to have a somewhat full expression; his rugged nature beside a tamer one outlines itself more vividly, just as a mountain peak is silhouetted against the horizon better than a rounded hill. It probably has been observed that his character possessed much simplicity and directness. He had neither the force nor the ambition to raise him above his circumstances; he was merely decided within the lines of his environment. Perhaps the current of his life was all the stronger for being narrow. His motives were neither complex nor vacillating. He had married to keep his home and to continue in the conditions of life dear from association and the strongest preference, and his heart overflowed with good will and kindness toward Alida because she promised to solve the hard problem of the future satisfactorily. Apart from the sympathy which her misfortune had evoked, he probably could have felt much the same toward any other good, sensible woman, had she rendered him a similar service. It is true, now that Alida was in his home, that she was manifesting agreeable traits which gave him pleasant little surprises. He had not expected that he would have had half so much to say to her, yet felt it his duty to be sociable in order to cheer up and mark the line between even a business marriage and the employment of a domestic. Both his interest and his duty required that he should establish the bonds of strong friendly regard on the basis of perfect equality, and he would have made efforts, similar to those he put forth, in behalf of any woman, if she had consented to marry him with Alida's understanding. Now, however, that his suddenly adopted project of securing a housekeeper and helper had been consummated, he would find that he was not dealing with a business partner in the abstract, but a definite woman, who had already begun to exert over him her natural influence. He had expected more or less constraint and that some time must elapse before his wife would cease to be in a sense company whom he, with conscious and deliberate effort, must entertain. On the contrary she entertained and interested him, although she said so little, and by some subtle power she unloosed his tongue and made it easy for him to talk to her. In the most quiet and unobtrusive way, she was not only making herself at home, but him also; she was very subservient to his wishes, but not servilely so; she did not assert, but only revealed her superiority, and after even so brief an acquaintance he was ready to indorse Tom Watterly's view, "She's out of the common run."While all this was true, the farmer's heart was as untouched as that of a child who simply and instinctively likes a person. He was still quietly and unhesitatingly loyal to his former wife. Apart from his involuntary favor, his shrewd, practical reason was definite enough in its grounds of approval. Reason assured him that she promised to do and to be just what he had married her for, but this might have been true of a capable, yet disagreeable woman whom he could not like, to save himself.Both in regard to himself and Alida, Holcroft accepted the actual facts with the gladness and much of the unquestioning simplicity of a child. This rather risky experiment was turning out well, and for a time he daily became more and more absorbed in his farm and its interests. Alida quietly performed her household tasks and proved that she would not need very much instruction to become a good butter maker. The short spring of the North required that he should be busy early and late to keep pace with the quickly passing seedtime. His hopefulness, his freedom from household worries, prompted him to sow and plant increased areas of land. In brief, he entered on just the business-like honeymoon he had hoped for.
Alida was more than content with the conditions of her life. She saw that Holcroft was not only satisfied, but also pleased with her, and that was all she had expected and indeed all that thus far she had wished or hoped. She had many sad hours; wounds like hers cannot heal readily in a true, sensitive woman's heart. While she gained in cheerfulness and confidence, the terrible and unexpected disaster which had overtaken her rendered impossible the serenity of those with whom all has gone well. Dread of something, she knew not what, haunted her painfully, and memory at times seemed malignantly perverse in recalling one whom she prayed to forget.Next to her faith and Holcroft's kindness her work was her best solace, and she thanked God for the strength to keep busy.Alida was so weary and felt so ill that she went to the parlor and lay down upon the lounge. "My heart feels as if it were bleeding slowly away," she murmured. "If I'm going to be sick the best thing I can do is to die and end it all," and she gave way to that deep dejection in which there seems no remedy for trouble.
The hours dragged slowly by; Jane finished her household tasks very leisurely, then taking a basket, went out to the garden to pick some early peas. While thus engaged, she saw a man coming up the lane. His manner instantly riveted her attention and awakened her curiosity, and she crouched lower behind the pea vines for concealment. All her furtive, watchful instincts were awake, and her conscience was clear, too, for certainly she had a right to spy upon a stranger.The man seemed almost as furtive as herself; his eyes were everywhere and his step slow and hesitating. Instead of going directly to the house he cautiously entered the barn, and she heard him a little later call Mr. Holcroft. Of course there was no answer, and as if reassured, he approached the house, looking here and there on every side, seemingly to see if anyone was about. Jane had associated with men and boys too long to have any childlike timidity, and she also had just confidence in her skulking and running powers. "After all, he don't want nothin' of me and won't hurt me," she reasoned. "He acts mighty queer though and I'm goin' to hear what he says."The moment he passed the angle of the house she dodged around to its rear and stole into the dairy room, being well aware that from this position she could overhear words spoken in ordinary conversational tones in the apartment above. She had barely gained her ambush when she heard Alida half shriek, "Henry Ferguson!"It was indeed the man who had deceived her that had stolen upon her solitude. His somewhat stealthy approach had been due to the wish and expectation of finding her alone, and he had about convinced himself that she was so by exploring the barn and observing the absence of the horses and wagon. Cunning and unscrupulous, it was his plan to appear before the woman who had thought herself his wife, without any warning whatever, believing that in the tumult of her surprise and shock she would be off her guard and that her old affection would reassert itself. He passed through the kitchen to the parlor door. Alida, in her deep, painful abstraction, did not hear him until he stood in the doorway, and, with outstretched arms, breathed her name. Then, as if struck a blow, she had sprung to her feet, half shrieked his name and stood panting, regarding him as if he were a specter.
"Your surprise is natural, Alida, dear," he said gently, "but I've a right to come to you, for my wife is dead," and he advanced toward her."Stand back!" she cried sternly. "You've no right, and never can have."
"Oh, yes, I have!" he replied in a wheedling tone. "Come, come! Your nerves are shaken. Sit down, for I've much to tell you.""No, I won't sit down, and I tell you to leave me instantly. You've no right here and I no right to listen to you.""I can soon prove that you have a better right to listen to me than to anyone else. Were we not married by a minister?""Yes, but that made no difference. You deceived both him and me."
"It made no difference, perhaps, in the eye of the law, while that woman you saw was living, but she's dead, as I can easily prove. How were you married to this man Holcroft?"Alida grew dizzy; everything whirled and grew black before her eyes as she sank into a chair. He came to her and took her hand, but his touch was a most effectual restorative. She threw his hand away and said hoarsely, "Do you--do you mean that you have any claim on me?""Who has a better claim?" he asked cunningly. "I loved you when I married you and I love you now. Do you think I rested a moment after I was free from the woman I detested? No, indeed; nor did I rest till I found out who took you from the almshouse to be his household drudge, not wife. I've seen the justice who aided in the wedding farce, and learned how this man Holcroft made him cut down even the ceremony of a civil marriage to one sentence. It was positively heathenish, and he only took you because he couldn't get a decent servant to live with him.""O God!" murmured the stricken woman. "Can such a horrible thing be?"
"So it seems," he resumed, misinterpreting her. "Come now!" he said confidently, and sitting down, "Don't look so broken up about it. Even while that woman was living I felt that I was married to you and you only; now that I'm free--""But I'm not free and don't wish to be."
"Don't be foolish, Alida. You know this farmer don't care a rap for you. Own up now, does he?"The answer was a low, half-despairing cry.
"There, I knew it was so. What else could you expect? Don't you see I'm your true refuge and not this hard-hearted, money-grasping farmer?""Stop speaking against him!" she cried. "O God!" she wailed, "can the law give this man any claim on me, now his wife is dead?""Yes, and one I mean to enforce," he replied doggedly."I don't believe she's dead, I don't believe anything you say! You deceived me once."I'm not deceiving you now, Alida," he said with much solemnity. "She IS dead. If you were calmer, I have proofs to convince you in these papers. Here's the newspaper, too, containing the notice of her death," and he handed it to her.She read it with her frightened eyes, and then the paper dropped from her half-paralyzed hands to the floor. She was so unsophisticated, and her brain was in such a whirl of confusion and terror, that she was led to believe at the moment that he had a legal claim upon her which he could enforce.
"Oh, that Mr. Holcroft were here!" she cried desperately. "He wouldn't deceive me; he never deceived me.""It is well for him that he isn't here," said Ferguson, assuming a dark look.
"What do you mean?" she gasped."Come, come, Alida!" he said, smiling reassuringly. "You are frightened and nervous, and I don't wish to make you any more so. You know how I would naturally regard the man who I feel has my wife; but let us forget about him. Listen to my plan. All I ask of you is to go with me to some distant place where neither of us are known, and--"
"Never!" she interrupted."Don't say that," he replied coolly. "Do you think I'm a man to be trifled with after what I've been through?"
"You can't compel me to go against my will," and there was an accent of terror in her words which made them a question.He saw his vantage more clearly and said quietly, "I don't want to compel you if it can be helped. You know how true I was to you--""No, no! You deceived me. I won't believe you now.""You may have to. At any rate, you know how fond I was of you, and I tell you plainly, I won't give you up now. This man doesn't love you, nor do you love him--"
"I DO love him, I'd die for him! There now, you know the truth. You wouldn't compel a woman to follow you who shrinks from you in horror, even if you had the right. Although the ceremony was brief it WAS a ceremony; and he was not married then, as you were when you deceived me. He has ever been truth itself, and I won't believe you have any rights till he tells me so himself.""So you shrink from me with horror, do you?" asked Ferguson, rising, his face growing black with passion.
"Yes, I do. Now leave me and let me never see you again.""And you are going to ask this stupid old farmer about my rights?"
"Yes. I'll take proof of them from no other, and even if he confirmed your words I'd never live with you again. I would live alone till I died!""That's all very foolish high tragedy, but if you're not careful there may be some real tragedy. If you care for this Holcroft, as you say, you had better go quietly away with me."
"What do you mean?" she faltered tremblingly."I mean I'm a desperate man whom the world has wronged too much already. You know the old saying, 'Beware of the quiet man!' You know how quiet, contented, and happy I was with you, and so I would be again to the end of my days. You are the only one who can save me from becoming a criminal, a vagabond, for with you only have I known happiness. Why should I live or care to live? If this farmer clod keeps you from me, woe betide him! My one object in living will be his destruction. I shall hate him only as a man robbed as I am can hate.""What would you do?" she could only ask in a horrified whisper."I can only tell you that he'd never be safe a moment. I'm not afraid of him. You see I'm armed," and he showed her a revolver. "He can't quietly keep from me what I feel is my own."
"Merciful Heaven! This is terrible," she gasped."Of course it's terrible--I mean it to be so. You can't order me off as if I were a tramp. Your best course for his safety is to go quietly with me at once. I have a carriage waiting near at hand."
"No, no! I'd rather die than do that, and though he cannot feel as I do, I believe he'd rather die than have me do it.""Oh, well! If you think he's so ready to die--"
"No, I don't mean that! Kill me! I want to die.""Why should I kill you?" he asked with a contemptuous laugh. "That wouldn't do me a particle of good. It will be your own fault if anyone is hurt."