"Mrs. Mumpson," said Holcroft, half desperately, "if anyone comes it'll be out of pure curiosity, and I don't want such company. Selling enough butter, eggs, and produce to pay expenses will encourage minvesting vs owning bitcoine more than all the people of Oakville, if they should come in a body. What's the use of talking in this way? I've done without the neighbors so far, and I'm sure they've been very careful to do without me. I shall have nothing to do with them except in the way of business, and as I said to you down at Lemuel Weeks's, business must be the first consideration with us all," and he rose from the table.
She stole toward him like some slitecoin (ltc) mining poolmall, wild, fearful animal in doubt of its reception. "Sit down there on that rock," he said.She obeyed with a sly, sidelong look, and he saw that she kept her feet gathered under her so as to spring away if he made the slightest hostile movement.
"Jane, do you think it's right to watch people so?" he asked gravely."She told me to.""Your mother?"The girl nodded."But do you think it's right yourself?"
"Dunno. 'Taint best if you get caught.""Well, Jane," said Holcroft, with something like a smile lurking in his deep-set eyes. "I don't think it's right at all. I don't want you to watch me any more, no matter who tells you to. Will you promise not to?""Don't trouble yourself to do that," said the groom. "I'll call for it some evening soon."
Never had she seen Ostrom in such gay spirits as on their return; and, woman-like, she was happy chiefly because she had made him happy. She also felt a glad sense of security. Her mother's dying wish had been fulfilled; she had now a protector, and would soon have a home instead of a boarding place among strangers.Her husband speedily found the rooms to which the reader has been introduced. The street on which they were located was no thoroughfare. Its farther end was closed by a fence and beyond were fields. With the exception of those who dwelt upon it or had business with the residents, few people came thither. To this locality, Ostrom brought his bride, and selected rooms whose windows were above those of the surrounding houses. So far from regretting this isolation and remoteness from the central life of the town, Alida's feelings sanctioned his choice. The sense of possessing security and a refuge was increased, and it was as natural for her to set about making the rooms homelike as it was to breathe. Her husband appeared to have exhausted his tendencies toward close economy in the choice of apartments, and she was given more money than she desired with which to furnish and decorate. He said, "fix everything up to suit your mind, and I'll be satisfied."This she did with such skill, taste, and good management that she returned a large portion of the sum he had given her, whereupon he laughingly remarked that she had already saved more than she owed him. He seemed disinclined to accompany her in the selection of their simple outfit, but professed himself so pleased with her choice of everything that she was gratified and happy in the thought of relieving him from trouble.Thus their married life began under what appeared to her the most promising and congenial circumstances. She soon insisted on having work again, and her busy fingers did much to increase his income.
Alida was not an exacting woman, and recognized from the beginning that her husband would naturally have peculiar ways of his own. Unlike Mrs. Mumpson, she never expatiated on "adaptation," but Ostrom soon learned, with much inward relief, that his wife would accept unquestioningly what appeared to be his habits and preferences. He went early to his place of work, taking the nice little lunch which she prepared, and returned in the dusk of the evening when he always found a warm dinner in readiness. After this, he was ready enough to walk with her, but, as before, chose the least frequented streets. Places of amusement and resort seemed distasteful. On Sundays he enjoyed a ramble in the country as long as the season permitted, and then showed a great disinclination to leave the fireside. For a time he went with her in the evening to church, but gradually persuaded her to remain at home and read or talk to him.His wife felt that she had little cause to complain of his quiet ways and methodical habits. He had exhibited them before marriage and they were conducive to her absolute sense of proprietorship in him--an assurance so dear to a woman's heart. The pleasures of his home and her society appeared to be all that he craved. At times she had wondered a little at a certain air of apprehensiveness in his manner when steps were heard upon the stairs, but as the quiet days and weeks passed, such manifestations of nervousness ceased. Occasionally, he would start violently and mutter strange words in his sleep, but noting disturbed the growing sense of security and satisfaction in Alida's heart. The charm of a regular, quiet life grows upon one who has a nature fitted for it, and this was true to an unusual degree of Alida Ostrom. Her content was also increased by the fact that her husband was able each month to deposit a goodly portion of their united earnings in a savings bank.
Every day, every week, was so like the preceding ones that it seemed as if their happy life might go on forever. She was gladly conscious that there was more than gratitude and good will in her heart. She now cherished a deep affection for her husband and felt that he had become essential to her life."Oh, how happy mother would be if she knew how safe and protected I am!" she murmured one March evening, as she was preparing her husband's dinner. "Leaving me alone in the world was far worse to her than dying."At that very moment a gaunt-looking woman, with a child in her arms, stood in the twilight on the opposite side of the street, looking up at the windows.Chapter 7 From Home to the Street
As the shadows of the gloomy March evening deepened, Alida lighted the lamp, and was then a little surprised to hear a knock at the door. No presentiment of trouble crossed her mind; she merely thought that one of her neighbors on the lower floors had stepped up to borrow something."Come in!" she cried, as she adjusted the shade of the lamp.A tall, thin, pale woman entered, carrying a child that was partly hidden by a thin shawl, their only outer protection against the chill winds which had been blustering all day. Alida looked at the stranger inquiringly and kindly, expecting an appeal for charity. The woman sank into a chair as if exhausted, and fixed her dark hollow eyes on Mrs. Ostrom. She appeared consumed by a terrible curiosity.Alida wondered at the strange chill of apprehension with which she encountered this gaze. It was so intent, so searching, yet so utterly devoid of a trace of good will. She began gently, "Can I do anything for you?"
For a moment or two longer there was no response other than the same cold, questioning scrutiny, as if, instead of a sweet-faced woman, something monstrously unnatural was present. At last, in slow, icy utterance, came the words, "So you are--HER!""Is this woman insane?" thought Alida. "Why else does she look at me so? Oh, that Wilson would come! I'm sorry for you, my good woman," she began kindly. "You are laboring under some mistake. My husband--"
"YOUR husband!" exclaimed the stranger, with an indescribable accent of scorn and reproach."Yes," replied Alida with quiet dignity. "MY husband will be home soon and he will protect me. You have no right to enter my rooms and act as you do. If you are sick and in trouble, I and my husband--"
"Please tell me, miss, how he became YOUR husband?""By lawful marriage, by my pastor.""We'll soon see how LAWFUL it was," replied the woman, with a bitter laugh. "I'd like you to tell me how often a man can be married lawfully.""What do you mean?" cried Alida, with a sudden flash in her blue eyes. Then, as if reproaching herself, she added kindly, "Pardon me. I see you are not well. You do not realize what you are saying or where you are. Take a seat nearer the fire, and when Mr. Ostrom comes from his work he'll take you to your friends."All the while she was speaking the woman regarded her with a hard, stony gaze; then replied, coldly and decisively, "You are wrong, miss"--how that title grated on Alida's ears!--"I am neither insane nor drunk. I do know what I am saying and where I am. You are playing a bold game or else you have been deceived, and very easily deceived, too. They say some women are so eager to be married that they ask no questions, but jump at the first chance. Whether deceived or deceiving, it doesn't matter now. But you and he shall learn that there is a law in the land which will protect an honest woman in her sacred rights. You needn't look so shocked and bewildered. You are not a young, giddy girl if I may judge from your face. What else could you expect when you took up with a stranger you knew nothing about? Do you know that likeness?" and she drew from her bosom a daguerreotype.Alida waved it away as she said indignantly, "I won't believe ill of my husband. I--"
"No, miss," interrupted the woman sternly, "you are right for once. You won't indeed believe ill of YOUR husband, but you'll have to believe ill of MINE. There's no use of your putting on such airs any longer. No matter how rash and silly you may have been, if you have a spark of honesty you'll be open to proof. If you and he try to brazen it out, the law will open both your eyes. Look at that likeness, look at these letters; and I have other proof and witnesses which can't be disputed. The name of the man you are living with is not Wilson Ostrom. His name is Henry Ferguson. I am Mrs. Ferguson, and I have my marriage certificate, and--What! Are you going to faint? Well, I can wait till you recover and till HE comes," and she coolly sat down again.Alida had glanced at the proofs which the woman had thrust into her hands, then staggered back to a lounge that stood near. She might have fainted, but at that awful moment she heard a familiar step on the stairs. She was facing the door; the terrible stranger sat at one side, with her back toward it.
When Ostrom entered he first saw Alida looking pale and ill. He hastened toward her exclaiming, "Why, Lida, dear, what is the matter? You are sick!"Instinctively she sprang to his arms, crying, "Oh, thank God! You've come. Take away this awful woman!"
"Yes, Henry Ferguson; it's very proper you should take me away from a place like this."As the man who had called himself Wilson Ostrom heard that voice he trembled like an aspen; his clasp of Alida relaxed, his arms dropped to his side, and, as he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands, he groaned, "Lost!"
"Found out, you mean," was the woman's reply.Step by step, with horror-stricken eyes, Alida retreated from the man to whose protection and embrace she had flown. "Then it's true?" she said in a hoarse whisper.He was speechless."You are willfully blind now, miss, if you don't see it's true," was the stranger's biting comment.
Paying no heed to her, Alida's eyes rested on the man whom she had believed to be her husband. She took an irresolute step toward him. "Speak, Wilson!" she cried. "I gave you my whole faith and no one shall destroy it but yourself. Speak, explain! Show me that there's some horrible mistake.""Lida," said the man, lifting his bloodless face, "if you knew all the circumstances--"
"She shall know them!" half shrieked the woman, as if at last stung to fury. "I see that you both hope to get through this affair with a little high tragedy, then escape and come together again in some other hiding place. As for this creature, she can go where she pleases, after hearing the truth; but you, Henry Ferguson, have got to do your duty by me and your child or go to prison. Let me tell you, miss, that this man was also married to me by a minister. I have my certificate and can produce witnesses. There's one little point you'll do well to consider," she continued, in bitter sarcasm, "he married me first. I suppose you are not so young and innocent as not to know where this fact places YOU. He courted and won me as other girls are courted and married. He promised me all that he ever promised you. Then, when I lost my rosy cheeks--when I became sick and feeble from child-bearing--he deserted and left me almost penniless. You needn't think you will have to take my word for this. I have proof enough. And now, Henry Ferguson, I've a few words for you, and then you must take your choice. You can't escape. I and my brother have tracked you here. You can't leave these rooms without going to prison. You'd be taken at the very door. But I give you one more chance. If you will promise before God to do your duty by me and your child, I'll forgive as far as a wronged woman can forgive. Neither I nor my brother will take proceedings against you. What this woman will do I don't know. If she prosecutes you, and you are true to me, I'll stand by you, but I won't stand another false step or a false word from you."Ferguson had again sunk into his chair, buried his face in his hands, and sat trembling and speechless. Never for an instant had Alida taken her eyes from him; and now, with a long, wailing cry, she exclaimed, "Thank God, thank God! Mother's dead."
This was now her best consolation. She rushed into her bedchamber, and a moment later came out, wearing her hat and cloak. Ferguson started up and was about to speak, but she silenced him by a gesture, and her tones were sad and stern as she said, "Mr. Ferguson, from your manner more truly than from this woman, I learn the truth. You took advantage of my misfortunes, my sorrow and friendlessness, to deceive me. You know how false are your wife's words about my eagerness to be deceived and married. But you have nothing to fear from me. I shall not prosecute you as she suggests, and I charge you before God to do your duty by your wife and child and never to speak to me again." Turning, she hastened toward the door."Where are you going?" Ferguson exclaimed, seeking to intercept her.
She waved him off. "I don't know," she replied. "I've no right to be here," and she fled down the stairway and out into the darkness.The child had not wakened. It was well that it had not looked upon such a scene, even in utter ignorance of its meaning.Chapter 8 Holcroft's View of MatrimonyHolcroft was indeed very lonely as he drove through the bare March fields and leafless woods on his way to town. The sky had clouded again, like his prospects, and he had the dreary sense of desolation which overwhelms a quiet, domestic man who feels that his home and all to which he clings are slipping from him. His lot was hard enough at best, and he had a bitter sense of being imposed upon and wronged by Lemuel Weeks. It was now evident enough that the widow and her daughter had been an intolerable burden to his neighbor, who had taken advantage of his need and induced him to assume the burden through false representation. To a man of Holcroft's simple, straightforward nature, any phase of trickery was intensely repugnant, and the fact that he had been overreached in a matter relating to his dearest hopes galled him to the quick. He possessed the strong common sense of his class; his wife had been like him in this respect, and her influence had intensified the trait. Queer people with abnormal manners excited his intense aversion. The most charitable view that he could take of Mrs. Mumpson was that her mind--such as she had--was unbalanced, that it was an impossibility for her to see any subject or duty in a sensible light or its right proportions.
Her course, so prejudicial to her own interests, and her incessant and stilted talk, were proof to his mind of a certain degree of insanity, and he had heard that people in this condition often united to their unnatural ways a wonderful degree of cunning. Her child was almost as uncanny as herself and gave him a shivering sense of discomfort whenever he caught her small, greenish eyes fixed upon him."Yet, she'll be the only one who'll earn her salt. I don't see how I'm going to stand 'em--I don't, indeed, but suppose I'll have to for three months, or else sell out and clear out."
By the time he reached town a cold rain had set in. He went at once to the intelligence office, but could obtain no girl for Mrs. Mumpson to "superintend," nor any certain promise of one. He did not much care, for he felt that the new plan was not going to work. Having bartered all his eggs for groceries, he sold the old stove and bought a new one, then drew from the bank a little ready money. Since his butter was so inferior, he took it to his friend Tom Watterly, the keeper of the poorhouse.Prosperous Tom slapped his old friend on the back and said, "You look awfully glum and chopfallen, Jim. Come now, don't look at the world as if it was made of tar, pitch, and turpentine. I know your luck's been hard, but you make it a sight harder by being so set in all your ways. You think there's no place to live on God's earth but that old up-and-down-hill farm of yours that I wouldn't take as a gift. Why, man alive, there's a dozen things you can turn your hand to; but if you will stay there, do as other men do. Pick out a smart, handy woman that can make butter yaller as gold, that'll bring gold, and not such limpsy-slimsy, ghostly-looking stuff as you've brought me. Bein' it's you, I'll take it and give as much for it as I'd pay for better, but you can't run your old ranch in this fashion."
"I know it, Tom," replied Holcroft ruefully. "I'm all at sea; but, as you say, I'm set in my ways, and I'd rather live on bread and milk and keep my farm than make money anywhere else. I guess I'll have to give it all up, though, and pull out, but it's like rooting up one of the old oaks in the meadow lot. The fact is, Tom, I've been fooled into one of the worst scrapes I've got into yet.""I see how it is," said Tom heartily and complacently, "you want a practical, foresighted man to talk straight at you for an hour or two and clear up the fog you're in. You study and brood over little things out there alone until they seem mountains which you can't get over nohow, when, if you'd take one good jump out, they'd be behind you. Now, you've got to stay and take a bite with me, and then we'll light our pipes and untangle this snarl. No backing out! I can do you more good than all the preachin' you ever heard. Hey, there, Bill!" shouting to one of the paupers who was detailed for such work, "take this team to the barn and feed 'em. Come in, come in, old feller! You'll find that Tom Watterly allus has a snack and a good word for an old crony."