Read CHAPTER XXIII of The Morgesons, free online book, by Elizabeth Stoddard, on ReadCentral.com.

Veronica’s room was like no other place. I was in a new atmosphere there. A green carpet covered the floor, and the windows had light blue silk curtains.

“Green and blue together, Veronica?”

“Why not? The sky is blue, and the carpet of the earth is green.”

“If you intend to represent the heavens and the earth here, it is very well.”

The paper on the wall was ash-colored, with penciled lines. She had cloudy days probably. A large-eyed Saint Cecilia, with white roses in her hair, was pasted on the wall. This frameless picture had a curious effect. Veronica, in some mysterious way, had contrived to dispose of the white margin of the picture, and the saint looked out from the soft ashy tint of the wallpaper. Opposite was an exquisite engraving, which was framed with dark red velvet. At the end of an avenue of old trees, gnarled and twisted into each other, a man stood. One hand grasped the stalk of a ragged vine, which ran over the tree near him; the other hung helpless by his side, as if the wrist was broken. His eyes were fixed on some object behind the trees, where nothing was visible but a portion of the wall of a house. His expression of concentrated fury his attitude of waiting testified that he would surely accomplish his intention.

“What a picture!”

“The foliage attracted me, and I bought it; but when I unpacked it, the man seemed to come out for the first time. Will you take it?”

“No; I mean to give my room a somnolent aspect. The man is too terribly sleepless.”

A table stood near the window, methodically covered with labelled blank-books, a morocco portfolio, and a Wedgewood inkstand and vase. In an arch, which she had manufactured from the space under the garret stairs, stood her bed. At its foot, against the wall, a bunch of crimson autumn leaves was fastened, and a bough, black and bare, with an empty nest on it.

“Where is the feminine portion of your furnishing?”

“Look in the closet.”

I opened a door. What had formerly been appropriated by mother to blankets and comfortables, she had turned into a magazine of toilet articles. There were drawers and boxes for everything which pertained to a wardrobe, arranged with beautiful skill and neatness. She directed my attention to her books, on hanging shelves, within reach of the bed. Beneath them was a small stand, with a wax candle in a silver candlestick.

“You read o’ nights?”

“Yes; and the wax candle is my pet weakness.”

“Have you put away Gray, and Pope, and Thomson?”

“The Arabian Nights and the Bible are still there. Mother thought you would like to refurnish your room. It is the same as when we moved, you know.”

“Did she? I will have it done. Good-by.”

“Good-by.”

She was at the window now, and had opened a pane.

“What’s that you are doing?”

“Looking through my wicket.”

I went back again to understand the wicket. It had been made, she said, so that she might have fresh air in all weathers, without raising the windows. In the night she could look out without danger of taking cold. We looked over the autumn fields; the crows were flying seaward over the stubble, or settling in the branches of an old fir, standing alone, midway between the woods and the orchard. The ground before us, rising so gradually, and shortening the horizon, reminded me of my childish notion that we were near the North Pole, and that if we could get behind the low rim of sky we should be in the Arctic Zone.

“The Northern Lights have not deserted us, Veronica?”

“No; they beckon me over there, in winter.”

“Do you never tire of this limited, monotonous view of a few uneven fields, squared by grim stone walls?”

“That is not all. See those eternal travelers, the clouds, that hurry up from some mysterious region to go over your way, where I never look. If the landscape were wider, I could never learn it. And the orchard have you noticed that? There are bird and butterfly lives in it, every year. Why, morning and night are wonderful from these windows. But I must say the charm vanishes if I go from them. Surrey is not lovely.” She closed the wicket, and sat down by the table. My dullness vanished with her. There might be something to interest me beneath the calm surface of our family life after all.

“Veronica, do you think mother is changed? I think so.”

“She is always the same to me. But I have had fears respecting her health.”

Outside the door I met Temperance, with a clothes-basket.

“Oh ho!” she said, “you are going the rounds. Verry’s room beats all possessed, don’t it? It is cleaned spick and span every three months. She calls it inaugurating the seasons. She is as queer as Dick’s hatband. Have you any fine things to do up?”

Her question put me in mind of my trunks, and I hastened to them, with the determination of putting my room to rights. The call to dinner interrupted me before I had begun, and the call to supper came before anything in the way of improvement had been accomplished. My mind was chaotic by bed-time. The picture of Veronica, reading by her wax candle, or looking through the wicket, collected and happy in her orderly perfection, came into my mind, and with it an admiration which never ceased, though I had no sympathy with her. We seemed as far apart as when we were children.

I was eager for employment, promising to perform many tasks, but the attempt killed my purpose and interest. My will was nerveless, when I contemplated Time, which stretched before me a vague, limitless sea; and I only kept Endeavor in view, near enough to be tormented.

One day father asked me to go to Milford, and I then asked him for money to spend for the adornment of my room.

“Be prudent,” he replied. “I am not so rich as people think me. Although the Locke Morgeson was insured, she was a loss. But you need not speak of this to your mother. I never worry her with my business cares. As for Veronica, she has not the least idea of the value of money, or care for what it represents.”

When we went into the shops, I found him disposed to be more extravagant than I was. I bought a blue and white carpet; a piece of blue and white flowered chintz; two stuffed chairs, covered with hair-cloth (father remonstrated against these), and a long mirror to go between the windows, astonishing him with my vanity. What I wanted besides I could construct myself, with the help of the cabinet maker in Surrey.

In one of the shops I heard a familiar voice, which gave me a thrill of anger. I turned and saw Charlotte Alden, of Barmouth, the girl who had given me the fall on the tilt. She could not control an expression of surprise at the sight of the well-dressed woman before her. It was my dress that astonished her. Where could I have obtained style?

“Miss Alden, how do you do? Pray tell me whether you have collected any correct legends respecting my mother’s early history. And do you tilt off little girls nowadays?”

She made no reply, and I left her standing where she was when I began speaking. When we got out of town, my anger cooled, and I grew ashamed of my spitefulness, and by way of penance I related the affair to father. He laughed at what I said to her, and told me that he had long known her family. Charlotte’s uncle had paid his addresses to mother. There might have been an engagement; whether there was or not, the influence of his family had broken the acquaintance. This explained what Charlotte said to me in Miss Black’s school about mother’s being in love.

“You might have been angry with the girl, but you should not have felt hurt at the fact implied. Are you so young still as to believe that only those who love marry? or that those who marry have never loved, except each other?”

“I have thought of these things; but I am afraid that Love, like Theology, if examined, makes one skeptical.”

We jogged along in silence for a mile or two.

“Whether every man’s children overpower him, I wonder? I am positively afraid of you and Veronica.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am always unprepared for the demonstrations of character you and she make. My traditional estimate, which comes from thoughtfulness, or the putting off of responsibility, or God knows what, I find will not answer. I have been on my guard against that which everyday life might present a lie, a theft, or a meanness; but of the undercurrent, which really bears you on, I have known nothing.”

“If you happen to dive below the surface, and find the roots of our actions which are fixed beneath its tide what then? Must you lament over us?”

“No, no; but this is vague talk.”

Was he dissatisfied with me? What could he expect? We all went our separate ways, it is true; was it that? Perhaps he felt alone. I studied his face; it was not so cheerful as I remembered it once, but still open, honest, and wholesome. I promised myself to observe his tastes and consult them. It might be that his self-love had never been encouraged. But I failed in that design, as in all others.

“Much of my time is consumed in passing between Milford and Surrey, you perceive.”

“I will go with you often.”

According to habit, on arriving, I went into the kitchen. It was dusk there, and still. Temperance was by the fire, attending to something which was cooking.

“What is there for supper, Temperance? I am hungry.”

“I spose you are,” she answered crossly. “You’ll see when it’s on the table.”

She took a coal of fire with the tongs, and blew it fiercely, to light a lamp by. When it was alight, she set it on the chimney-shelf, revealing thereby a man at the back of the room, balancing his chair on two legs against the wail; his feet were on its highest round, and he twirled his thumbs.

“Hum,” he said, when he saw me observing him; “this is the oldest darter, is it?”

“Yes,” Temperance bawled.

“She is a good solid gal; but I can’t recollect her christened name.”

“It is Cassandra.”

“Why, ’taint Scriptur’.”

“Why don’t you go and take off your things?” Temperance asked, abruptly.

“I’ll leave them here; the fire is agreeable.”

“There is a better fire in the keeping-room.”

“How are you, Mr. Handy?” father inquired, coming in.

“I should be well, if my grinders didn’t trouble me; they play the mischief o’nights. Have you heard from the Adamant, Mr. Morgeson? I should like to get my poor boy’s chist. The Lord ha’ mercy on him, whose bones are in the caverns of the deep.”

“Now, Abram, do shut up. Tea is ready, Mr. Morgeson. I’ll bring in the ham directly,” said Temperance.

There was no news from the Adamant. I lingered in the hope of discovering why Mr. Handy irritated Temperance. He was a man of sixty, with a round head, and a large, tender wart on one cheek; the two tusks under his upper lip suggested a walrus. Though he was no beauty, he looked thoroughly respectable, in garments whose primal colors had disappeared, and blue woolen stockings gartered to a miracle of tightness.

“Temperance,” he said, “my quinces have done fust rate this year. I haint pulled ’em yet; but I’ve counted them over and over agin. But my pig wont weigh nothin’ like what I calkerlated on. Sarved me right. I needn’t have bought him out of a drove; if Charity had been alive, I shouldn’t ha’ done it. A man can’t I say, Tempy a man can’t git along while here below, without a woman.”

She gave my arm a severe pinch as she passed with the ham, and I thought it best to follow her. Mother looked at her with a smile, and said: “Deal gently with Brother Abram, Temperance.”

“Brother be fiddlesticked!” she said tartly. “Miss Morgeson, do you want some quinces?”

“Certainly.”

“We’ll make hard marmalade this year, then. You shall have the quinces to-morrow.” And she retired with a softened face. I was told that Abram Handy was a widower anxious to take Temperance for a second helpmeet, and that she could not decide whether to accept or refuse him. She had confessed to mother that she was on the fence, and didn’t know which way to jump. He was a poor, witless thing, she knew; but he was as good a man as ever breathed, and stood as good a chance of being saved as the wisest church-member that ever lived! Mother thought her inclined to be mistress of an establishment over which she might have sole control. Abram owned a house, a garden, and kept pigs, hens, and a cow; these were his themes of conversation. Mother could not help thinking he was influenced by Temperance’s fortune. She was worth two thousand dollars, at least. The care of her wood-lot, the cutting, selling, or burning the wood on it, would be a supreme happiness to Abram, who loved property next to the kingdom of heaven. The tragedy of the old man’s life was the loss of his only son, who had been killed by a whale a year since. The Adamant, the ship he sailed in, had not returned, and it was a consoling hope with Abram that his boy’s chist might come back.

“We heard of poor Charming Handy’s death the tenth of September, about three months after Abram began his visits to Temperance,” Veronica said.

“Was his name Charming?” I asked.

“His mother named him,” Abram said, “with a name that she had picked out of Novel’s works, which she was forever and ’tarnally reading.”

“What day of the month is it, Verry?”

“Third of October.”

“What happened a year ago to-day?”

“Arthur fell off the roof of the wood-house.”

“Verry,” he cried, “you needn’t tell my sister of that; now she knows about my scar. You tell everything; she does not. You have scars,” he whispered to me; “they look red sometimes. May I put my finger on your cheek?”

I took his hand, and rubbed his fingers over the cuts; they were not deep, but they would never go away.

“I wish mine were as nice; it is only a little hole under my hair. Soldiers ought to have long scars, made with great big swords, and I am a soldier, ain’t I, Cassy?”

“Have I heard you sing, Cassy?” asked father. “Come, let us have some music.”

“‘And the cares which infest the day,’” added Verry.

I had scarcely been in the parlor since my return, though the fact had not been noticed. Our tacit compact was that we should be ignorant of each other’s movements. I ran up to my room for some music, and, not having a lamp, stumbled over my shawl and bonnet and various bundles which somebody had deposited on the floor. I went down by the back way, to the kitchen; Fanny was there alone, standing before the fire, and whistling a sharp air.

“Did you carry my bonnet and shawl upstairs?”

“I did.”

“Will you be good enough to take this music to the parlor for me?”

She turned and put her hands behind her. “Who was your waiter last year?”

“I had one,” putting the leaves under her arm; they fluttered to the floor, one by one.

“You must pick them up, or we shall spend the night here, and father is waiting for me.”

“Is he?” and she began to take them up.

“I am quite sure, Fanny, that I could punish you awfully. I am sick to try.”

She moved toward the door slowly. “Don’t tell him,” she said, stopping before it.

“I’ll tell nobody, but I am angry. Let us arrive.”

She marched to the piano, laid the music on it, and marched out.

“By the way, Fanny,” I whispered, “the bonnet and shawl are yours, if you need them.”

“I guess I do,” she whispered back.

When I returned to my room, I found it in order and the bundles removed.

One day some Surrey friends called. They told me I had changed very much, and I inferred from their tone they did not consider the change one for the better.

“How much Veronica has improved,” they continued, “do not you think so?”

“You know,” she interrupted, “that Cassandra has been dangerously ill, and has barely recovered.”

Yes, they had heard of the accident, everybody had; Mr. Morgeson must be a loss to his family, a man in the prime of life, too.

“The prime of life,” Veronica repeated.

She was asked to play, and immediately went to the piano. Strange girl; her music was so filled with a wild lament that I again fathomed my desires and my despair. Her eyes wandered toward me, burning with the fires of her creative power, not with the feelings which stung me to the quick. Her face was calm, white, and fixed. She stopped and touched her eyelids, as if she were weeping, but there were no tears in her eyes. They were in mine, welling painfully beneath the lids. I turned over the music books to hide them.

“That is a singular piece,” said one. “Now, Cassandra, will you favor us? We expect to find you highly accomplished.”

“I sang myself out before you came in.”

In the bustle of their going, Veronica stooped over my hand and kissed it, unseen. It was more like a sigh upon it than a kiss, but it swept through me, tingling the scars on my face, as if the flesh had become alive again.

“Take tea with us soon, do. We do not see you in the street or at church. It must be dull for you after coming from a boarding-school. Still, Surrey has its advantages.” And the doors closed on them.

“Still, Surrey has its advantages,” Veronica repeated.

“Yes, the air is sleepy; I am going to bed.”

I made resolutions before I slept that night, which I kept, for I said, “Let the dead bury its dead.”