Read Chapter II. of Mercy Philbrick's Choice, free online book, by Helen Hunt Jackson, on

In the mean time, the young widow, Mercy Philbrick, and her old and almost childish mother, Mercy Carr, were coming by slow and tiring stage journeys up the dreary length of Cape Cod.  For thirty years the elder woman had never gone out of sight of the village graveyard in which her husband and four children were buried.  To transplant her was like transplanting an old weather-beaten tree, already dead at the top.  Yet the physicians had said that the only chance of prolonging her life was to take her away from the fierce winds of the sea.  She herself, while she loved them, shrank from them.  They seemed to pierce her lungs like arrows of ice-cold steel, at once wounding and benumbing.  Yet the habit and love of the seashore life were so strong upon her that she would never have been able to tear herself away from her old home, had it not been for her daughter’s determined will.  Mercy Philbrick was a woman of slight frame, gentle, laughing, brown eyes, a pale skin, pale ash-brown hair, a small nose; a sweet and changeful mouth, the upper lip too short, the lower lip much too full; little hands, little feet, little wrists.  Not one indication of great physical or great mental strength could you point out in Mercy Philbrick; but she was rarely ill; and she had never been known to give up a point, small or great, on which her will had been fully set.  Even the cheerfulness of which her minister, Harley Allen, had written to Stephen, was very largely a matter of will with Mercy.  She confronted grief as she would confront an antagonist force of any sort:  it was something to be battled with, to be conquered.  Fate should not worst her:  come what might, she would be the stronger of the two.  When the doctor said to her,-

“Mrs. Philbrick, I fear that your mother cannot live through another winter in this climate,” Mercy looked at him for a moment with an expression of terror.  In an instant more, the expression had given place to one of resolute and searching inquiry.

“You think, then, that she might be well in a different climate?”

“Perhaps not well, but she might live for years in a dryer, milder air.  There is as yet no actual disease in her lungs,” the doctor replied.

Mercy interrupted him.

“You think she might live in comparative comfort?  It would not be merely prolonging her life as a suffering invalid?” she said; adding in an undertone, as if to herself, “I would not subject her to that.”

“Oh, yes, undoubtedly,” said the doctor.  “She need never die of consumption at all, if she could breathe only inland air.  She will never be strong again, but she may live years without any especial liability to suffering.”

“Then I will take her away immediately,” replied Mercy, in as confident and simple a manner as if she had been proposing only to move her from one room into another.  It would not seem so easy a matter for two lonely women, in a little Cape Cod village, without a male relative to help them, and with only a few thousand dollars in the world, to sell their house, break up all their life-long associations, and go out into the world to find a new home.  Associations crystallize around people in lonely and out of the way spots, where the days are all alike, and years follow years in an undeviating monotony.  Perhaps the process might be more aptly called one of petrifaction.  There are pieces of exquisite agate which were once soft wood.  Ages ago, the bit of wood fell into a stream, where the water was largely impregnated with some chemical matter which had the power to eat out the fibre of the wood, and in each spot thus left empty to deposit itself in an exact image of the wood it had eaten away.  Molecule by molecule, in a mystery too small for human eye to detect, even had a watchful human eye been lying in wait to observe, the marvellous process went on; until, after the lapse of nobody knows how many centuries, the wood was gone, and in its place lay its exact image in stone,-rings of growth, individual peculiarities of structure, knots, broken slivers and chips; color, shape, all perfect.  Men call it agatized wood, by a feeble effort to translate the mystery of its existence; but it is not wood, except to the eye.  To the touch, and in fact, it is stone,-hard, cold, unalterable, eternal stone.  The slow wear of monotonous life in a set groove does very much such a thing as this to human beings.  To the eye they retain the semblance of other beings; but try them by touch, that is by contact with people, with events outside their groove, and they are stone,-agatized men and women.  Carry them where you please, after they have reached middle or old age, and they will not change.  There is no magic water, a drop of which will restore to them the vitality and pliability of their youth.  They last well, such people,-as well, almost, as agatized wood on museum shelves; and the most you can do for them is to keep them well dusted.

Old Mrs. Carr belonged, in a degree, to this order of persons.  Only the coming of Mercy’s young life into the feeble current of her own had saved it from entire stagnation.  But she was already past middle age when Mercy was born; and the child with her wonderful joyousness, and the maiden with her wondrous cheer, came too late to undo what the years had done.  The most they could do was to interrupt the process, to stay it at that point.  The consequence was that Mrs. Carr at sixty-five was a placid sort of middle-aged old lady, very pleasant to talk with as you would talk with a child, very easy to take care of as you would take care of a child, but, for all purposes of practical management or efficient force, as helpless as a baby.

When Mercy told her what the doctor had said of her health, and that they must sell the house and move away before the winter set in, she literally opened her mouth too wide to speak for a minute, and then gasped out like a frightened child,-

“O Mercy, don’t let’s do it!”

As Mercy went on explaining to her the necessity of the change, and the arrangements she proposed to make, the poor old woman’s face grew longer and longer; but, some time before Mercy had come to the end of her explanation, the childish soul had accepted the whole thing as fixed, had begun already to project itself in childish imaginations of detail; and to Mercy’s infinite relief and half-sad amusement, when she ceased speaking, her mother’s first words were, eagerly,-

“Well, Mercy, if we go ’n the stage, ‘n’ I s’pose we shall hev to, don’t ye think my old brown merino’ll do to wear?”

Fortune favored Mercy’s desire to sell the house.  Stephen’s friend, the young minister, had said to himself many times, as he walked up to its door between the quaint, trim beds of old-fashioned pinks and ladies’ delights and sweet-williams which bordered the little path, “This is the only house in this town I want to live in.”  As soon as he heard that it was for sale, he put on his hat, and fairly ran to buy it.  Out of breath, he took Mercy’s hands in his, and exclaimed,-

“O Mercy, do you really want to sell this house?”

Very unworldly were this young man and this young woman, in the matter of sale and purchase.  Adepts in traffic would have laughed, had they overheard the conversation.

“Yes, indeed, Mr. Allen, I do.  I must sell it; and I am afraid I shall have to sell it for a great deal less than it is worth,” replied Mercy.

“No, you sha’n’t, Mercy!  I’ll buy it myself.  I’ve always wanted it.  But why in the world do you want to sell it?  Where will you live yourself?  There isn’t another house in the village you’d like half so well.  Is it too large for you?” continued Mr. Allen, hurriedly.  Then Mercy told him all her plans, and the sad necessity for her making the change.  The young minister did not speak for some moments.  He seemed lost in thought.  Then he exclaimed,-

“I do believe it’s a kind of Providence!” and drew a letter from his pocket, which he had only two days before received from Stephen White.  “Mercy,” he went on, “I believe I’ve got the very thing you want right here;” and he read her the concluding paragraph of the letter, in which Stephen had said:  “Meantime, I am waiting as patiently as I can for a tenant for the other half of this house.  It seems to be very hard to find just the right sort of person.  I cannot take in any of the mill operatives.  They are noisy and untidy; and the bare thought of their being just the other side of the partition would drive my mother frantic.  I wish so much I could get some people in that would be real friends for her.  She is very lonely.  She never leaves her bed; and I have to be away all day.”

Mercy’s face lighted up.  She liked the sound of each word that this unknown man wrote.  Very eagerly she questioned Mr. Allen about the town, its situation, its healthfulness, and so forth.  As he gave her detail after detail, she nodded her head with increasing emphasis, and finally exclaimed:  “That is precisely such a spot as Dr. Wheeler said we ought to go to.  I think you’re right, Mr. Allen.  It’s a Providence.  And I’d be so glad to be good to that poor old woman, too.  What a companion she’d be for mother! that is, if I could keep them from comparing notes for ever about their diseases.  That’s the worst of putting invalid old women together,” laughed Mercy with a kindly, merry little laugh.

Mr. Allen had visited Penfield only once.  When he and Stephen were boys at school together, he had passed one of the short vacations at Stephen’s house.  He remembered very little of Stephen’s father and mother, or of their way of life.  He was at the age when house and home mean little to boys, except a spot where shelter and food are obtained in the enforced intervals between their hours of out-door life.  But he had never forgotten the grand out-look and off-look from the town.  Lying itself high up on the western slope of what must once have been a great river terrace, it commanded a view of a wide and fertile meadow country, near enough to be a most beautiful feature in the landscape, but far enough away to prevent any danger from its moisture.  To the south and south-west rose a fine range of mountains, bold and sharp-cut, though they were not very high, and were heavily wooded to their summits.  The westernmost peak of this range was separated from the rest by a wide river, which had cut its way through in some of those forgotten ages when, if we are to believe the geologists, every thing was topsy-turvy on this now meek and well-regulated planet.

The town, although, as I said, it lay on the western slope of a great river terrace, held in its site three distinctly marked plateaus.  From the two highest of these, the views were grand.  It was like living on a mountain, and yet there was the rich beauty of coloring of the river interval.  Nowhere in all New England was there a fairer country than this to look upon, nor a goodlier one in which to live.

Mr. Allen’s enthusiasm in describing the beauties of the place, and Mercy’s enthusiasm in listening, were fast driving out of their minds the thought of the sale, which had been mentioned in the beginning of their conversation.  Mercy was the first to recall it.  She blushed and hesitated, as she said,-

“But, Mr. Allen, we can’t go, you know, until I have sold this house.  Did you really want to buy it?  And how much do you think I ought to ask for it?”

“To be sure, to be sure!” exclaimed the young minister.  “Dear me, what children we are!  Mercy, I don’t honestly know what you ought to ask for the house.  I’ll find out.”

“Deacon Jones said he thought, taking in the cranberry meadow, it was worth three thousand dollars,” said Mercy; “but that seems a great deal to me:  though not in a good cranberry year, perhaps,” added she, ingenuously, “for last year the cranberries brought us in seventy-five dollars, besides paying for the picking.”

“And the meadow ought to go with the house, by all means,” said Mr. Allen.  “I want it for color in the background, when I look at the house as I come down from the meeting-house hill.  I wouldn’t like to have anybody else own the canvas on which the picture of my home will be oftenest painted for my eyes.  I’ll give you three thousand dollars for the house, Mercy.  I can only pay two thousand down, and pay you interest on the other thousand for a year or two.  I’ll soon clear it off.  Will that do?”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Allen.  It will more than do,” said poor Mercy, who could not believe in such sudden good fortune; “but do you think you ought to buy it so quick?  Perhaps it wouldn’t bring so much money as that.  I had not asked anybody except Deacon Jones.”

Mr. Allen laughed.  “If you don’t look out for yourself sharper than this, Mercy,” he said, “in the new place ’where you’re going to live, you’ll fare badly.  Perhaps it may be true, as you say, that nobody else would give you three thousand dollars for the house, because nobody might happen to want to live in it.  But Deacon Jones knows better than anybody else the value of property here, and I am perfectly willing to give you the price he set on the place.  I had laid by this two thousand dollars towards my house; and I could not build such a house as this, to-day, for three thousand dollars.  But really, Mercy, you must look ’out for yourself better than this.”

“I don’t know,” replied Mercy, looking out of the window, with an earnest gaze, as if she were reading a writing a great way off,-“I don’t know about that.  I doubt very much if looking out for one’s self, as you call it, is the best way to provide for one’s self.”

That very night Mr. Allen wrote to Stephen; in two weeks, the whole matter was settled, and Mercy and her mother had set out on their journey.  They carried with them but one small valise.  The rest of their simple wardrobe had gone in boxes, with the furniture, by sailing vessel, to a city which was within three hours by rail of their new home.  This was the feature of the situation which poor Mrs. Carr could not accept.  In the bottom of her heart, she fully believed that they would never again see one of those boxes.  The contents of some which she had herself packed were of a most motley description.  In the beginning of the breaking up, while Mercy was at her wits’ end, with the unwonted perplexities of packing the whole belongings of a house, her mother had tormented her incessantly by bringing to her every few minutes some utterly incongruous and frequently worthless article, and begging her to put it in at once, whatever she might be packing.  Any one who has ever packed for a long journey, with an eager and excited child running up every minute with more and more cumbrous toys, dogs, cats, Noah’s arks, and so on, to be put in among books and under-clothing, can imagine Mercy’s despair at her mother’s restless activity.

“Oh, mother, not in this box!  Not in with the china!” would groan poor Mercy, as her mother appeared with armfuls of ancient relics from the garret, such as old umbrellas, bonnets, bundles of old newspapers, broken spinning-wheels, andirons, and rolls of remains of old wall-paper, the last of which had disappeared from the walls of the house, long before Mercy was born.  No old magpie was ever a more indiscriminate hoarder than Mrs. Carr had been; and, among all her hoardings, there was none more amusing than her hoarding of old wall-papers.  A scrap a foot square seemed to her too precious to throw away.  “It might be jest the right size to cover suthin’ with,” she would say; and, to do her justice, she did use in the course of a year a most unexampled amount of such fragments.  She had a mania for papering and repapering and papering again every shelf, every box, every corner she could get hold of.  The paste and brush were like toys to her; and she delighted in gay combinations, sticking on old bits of borders in fantastic ways, in most inappropriate situations.

“I do believe you’ll paper the pigsty next, mother,” said Mercy one day:  “there’s nothing left you can paper except that.”  Mrs. Carr took the suggestion in perfect good faith, and convulsed Mercy a few days later by entering the kitchen with the following extraordinary remark,-

“I don’t believe it’s worth while to paper the pigsty.  I’ve been looking at it, and the boards they’re so rough, the paper wouldn’t lay smooth, anyhow; and I couldn’t well get at the inside o’ the roof, while the pig’s in.  It would look real neat, though.  I’d like to do it.”

Mercy endured her mother’s help in packing for one day.  Then the desperateness of the trouble suggested a remedy.  Selecting a large, strong box, she had it carried into the garret.

“There, mother,” she said, “now you can pack in this box all the old lumber of all sorts which you want to carry.  And, if this box isn’t large enough, you shall have two more.  Don’t tire yourself out:  there’s plenty of time; and, if you don’t get it all packed by the time I am done, I can help you.”

Then Mercy went downstairs feeling half-guilty, as one does when one has practised a subterfuge on a child.

How many times that poor old woman packed and unpacked that box, nobody could dream.  All day long she trotted up and down, up and down; ransacking closets, chests, barrels; sorting and resorting, and forgetting as fast as she sorted.  Now and then she would come across something which would rouse an electric chain of memories in the dim chambers of her old, worn-out brain, and she would sit motionless for a long time on the garret floor, in a sort of trance.  Once Mercy found her leaning back against a beam, with her knees covered by a piece of faded blue Canton crape, on which her eyes were fastened.  She did not speak till Mercy touched her shoulder.

“Oh, my! how you scared me, child!” she exclaimed.  “D’ye see this ere blue stuff?  I hed a gown o’ thet once:  it was drefful kind o’ clingy stuff.  I never felt exzackly decent in it, somehow:  it hung a good deal like a night-gownd; but your father he bought it for the color.  He traded off some shells for it in some o’ them furrin places.  You wouldn’t think it now, but it used to be jest the color o’ a robin’s egg or a light-blue ‘bachelor’s button;’ and your father he used to stick one o’ them in my belt whenever they was in blossom, when I hed the gownd on.  He hed a heap o’ notions about things matchin’.  He brought me that gownd the v’yage he made jest afore Caleb was born; and I never hed a chance to wear it much, the children come so fast.  It warn’t re’ly worn at all, ‘n’ I hed it dyed black for veils arterwards.”

It was from this father who used to “stick” pale-blue flowers in his wife’s belt, and whose love of delicate fabrics and tints made him courageous enough to lead her draped in Canton crape into the unpainted Cape Cod meeting-house, where her fellow-women bristled in homespun, that Mercy inherited all the artistic side of her nature.  She knew this instinctively, and all her tenderest sentiment centred around the vague memory she retained of a tall, dark-bearded man, who, when she was only three years old, lifted her in his arms, called her his “little Mercy,” and kissed her over and over again.  She was most loyally affectionate to her mother, but the sentiment was not a wholly filial one.  There was too much reversal of the natural order of the protector and the protected in it; and her life was on too different a plane of thought, feeling, and interest from the life of the uncultured, undeveloped, childish, old woman.  Yet no one who saw them together would have detected any trace of this shortcoming in Mercy’s feeling towards her mother.  She had in her nature a fine and lofty fibre of loyalty which could never condescend even to parley with a thought derogatory to its object; was lifted above all consciousness of the possibility of any other course.  This is a sort of organic integrity of affection, which is to those who receive it a tower of strength, that is impregnable to all assault except that of death itself.  It is a rare type of love, the best the world knows; but the men and the women whose hearts are capable of it are often thought not to be of a loving nature.  The cheaper and less lasting types of love are so much louder of voice and readier of phrase, as in cloths cheap fabrics, poor to wear, are often found printed in gay colors and big patterns.

The day before they left home, Mercy, becoming alarmed by a longer interval than usual without any sound from the garret, where her mother was still at work over her fantastic collections of old odds and ends, ran up to see what it meant.

Mrs. Carr was on her knees before a barrel, which had held rags and papers.  The rags and papers were spread around her on the floor.  She had leaned her head on the barrel, and was crying bitterly.

“Mother! mother! what is the matter?” exclaimed Mercy, really alarmed; for she had very few times in her life seen her mother cry.  Without speaking, Mrs. Carr held up a little piece of carved ivory.  It was of a creamy yellow, and shone like satin:  a long shred of frayed pink ribbon hung from it.  As she held it up to Mercy, a sunbeam flashed in at the garret window, and fell across it, sending long glints of light to right and left.

“What a lovely bit of carving!  What is it, mother?  Why does it make you cry?” asked Mercy, stretching out her hand to take the ivory.

“It’s Caley’s whistle,” sobbed Mrs. Carr.  “We allus thought Patience Swift must ha’ took it.  She nussed me a spell when he was a little feller, an’ jest arter she went away we missed the whistle.  Your father he brought that hum the same v’yage I told ye he brought the blue crape.  He knowed I was a expectin’ to be sick, and he was drefful afraid he wouldn’t get hum in time; but he did.  He jest come a sailin’ into th’ harbor, with every mite o’ sail the old brig ‘d carry, two days afore Caley was born.  An’ the next mornin’,-oh, dear me! it don’t seem no longer ago ’n yesterday,-while he was a dressin’, an’ I lay lookin’ at him, he tossed that little thing over to me on the bed, ‘n’ sez he,-”

“T ’ll be a boy, Mercy, I know ‘twill; an’ here’s his bos’u’n’s whistle all ready for him,’ an’ that night he bought that very yard o’ pink rebbin, and tied it on himself, and laid it in the upper drawer into one o’ the little pink socks I’d got all ready.  Oh, it don’t seem any longer ago ‘n yesterday!  An’ sure enough it was a boy; an’ your father he allus used to call him ‘Bos’u’n,’ and he’d stick this ere whistle into his mouth an’ try to make him blow it afore he was a month old.  But by the time he was nine months old he’d blow it ez loud ez I could.  And his father he’d just lay back ’n his chair, and laugh ‘n’ laugh, ‘n’ call out, ’Blow away, my hearty!’ Oh, my! it don’t seem any longer ago’n yesterday.  I wish I’d ha’ known.  I wa’n’t never friends with Patience any more arter that.  I never misgave me but what she’d got the whistle.  It was such a curious cut thing, and cost a heap o’ money.  Your father wouldn’t never tell what he gin for ’t.  Oh, my! it don’t seem any longer ago ’n yesterday,” and the old woman wiped her eyes on her apron, and struggling up on her feet took the whistle again from Mercy’s hands.

“How old would my brother Caley be now, if he had lived, mother?” said Mercy, anxious to bring her mother gently back to the present.

“Well, let me see, child.  Why, Caley-Caley, he’d be-How old am I, Mercy?  Dear me! hain’t I lost my memory, sure enough, except about these ere old things?  They seem’s clear’s daylight.”

“Sixty-five last July, mother,” said Mercy.  “Don’t you know I gave you your new specs then?”

“Oh, yes, child,-yes.  Well, I’m sixty-five, be I?  Then Caley,-Caley, he’d be, let me see-you reckon it, Mercy.  I wuz goin’ on nineteen when Caley was born.”

“Why, mother,” exclaimed Mercy, “is it really so long ago?  Then my brother Caleb would be forty-six years old now!” and mercy took again in her hand the yellow ivory whistle, and ran her fingers over the faded and frayed pink ribbon, and looked at it with an indefinable sense of its being a strange link between her and a distant past, which, though she had never shared it, belonged to her by right.  Hardly thinking what she did, she raised the whistle to her lips, and blew a loud, shrill whistle on it.  Her mother started.  “O Mercy, don’t, don’t!” she cried.  “I can’t bear to hear it.”

“Now, mother, don’t you be foolish,” said Mercy, cheerily.  “A whistle’s a whistle, old or young, and made to be whistled with.  We’ll keep this to amuse children with:  you carry it in your pocket.  Perhaps we shall meet some children on the journey; and it’ll be so nice for you to pop this out of your pocket, and give it to them to blow.”

“So it will, Mercy, I declare.  That ’ud be real nice.  You’re a master-piece for thinkin’ o’ things.”  And, easily diverted as a child, the old woman dropped the whistle into her deep pocket, and, forgetting all her tears, returned to her packing.

Not so Mercy.  Having attained her end of cheering her mother, her own thoughts reverted again and again all day long, and many times in after years, whenever she saw the ivory whistle, to the strange picture of the lonely old woman in the garret coming upon her first-born child’s first toy, lost for forty years; the picture, too, of the history of the quaint piece of carving itself; the day it was slowly cut and chiselled by a patient and ill-paid toiler in some city of China; its voyage in the keeping of the ardent young husband hastening home to welcome his first child; its forty years of silence and darkness in the old garret; and then its return to life and light and sound, in the hands and lips of new generations of children.

The journey which Mercy had so much dreaded was unexpectedly pleasant.  Mrs. Carr proved an admirable traveller with the exception of her incessant and garrulous anxiety about the boxes which had been left behind on the deck of the schooner “Maria Jane,” and could not by any possibility overtake them for three weeks to come.  She was, in fact, so much of a child that she was in a state of eager delight at every new scene and person.  Her childishness proved the best of claims upon every one’s courtesy.  Everybody was ready to help “that poor sweet old woman;” and she was so simply and touchingly grateful for the smallest kindness that everybody who had helped her once wanted to help her again.  More than one of their fellow-travellers remembered for a long time the bright-faced young woman with her childish mother, and wondered where they could have been going, and what was to be their life.

On the fourth day, just as the sun was sinking behind the hills, they entered the beautiful river interval, through which the road to their new home lay.  Mercy sat with her face almost pressed against the panes of the car-windows, eagerly scanning every feature of the landscape, to her so new and wonderful.  To the dweller by the sea, the first sight of mountains is like the sight of a new heavens and a new earth.  It is a revelation of a new life.  Mercy felt strangely stirred and overawed.  She looked around in astonishment at her fellow-passengers, not one of whom apparently observed that on either hand were stretching away to the east and the west fields that were, even in this late autumn, like carpets of gold and green.  Through these fertile meadows ran a majestic river, curving and doubling as if loath to leave such fair shores.  The wooded mountains changed fast from green to purple, from purple to dark gray; and almost before Mercy had comprehended the beauty of the region, it was lost from her sight, veiled in the twilight’s pale, indistinguishable tints.  Her mother was fast asleep in her seat.  The train stopped every few moments at some insignificant station, of which Mercy could see nothing but a narrow platform, a dim lantern, and a sleepy-looking station-master.  Slowly, one or two at a time, the passengers disappeared, until she and her mother were left alone in the car.  The conductor and the brakeman, as they passed through, looked at them with renewed interest:  it was evident now that they were going through to the terminus of the road.

“Goin’ through, be ye?” said the conductor.  “It’ll be dark when we get in; an’ it’s beginnin’ to rain.  ‘S anybody comin’ to meet ye?”

“No,” said Mercy, uneasily.  “Will there not be carriages at the depot?  We are going to the hotel.  I believe there is but one.”

“Well, there may be a kerridge down to-night, an’ there may not:  there’s no knowin’.  Ef it don’t rain too hard, I reckon Seth’ll be down.”

Mercy’s sense of humor never failed her.  She laughed heartily, as she said,-

“Then Seth stays away, does he, on the nights when he would be sure of passengers?”

The conductor laughed too, as he replied, –­

“Well, ’tisn’t quite so bad’s that.  Ye see this here road’s only a piece of a road.  It’s goin’ up through to connect with the northern roads; but they ‘ve come to a stand-still for want o’ funds, an’ more ’n half the time I don’t carry nobody over this last ten miles.  Most o’ the people from our town go the other way, on the river road.  It’s shorter, an’ some cheaper.  There isn’t much travellin’ done by our folks, anyhow.  We’re a mighty dead an’ alive set up here.  Goin’ to stay a spell?” he continued, with increasing interest, as he looked longer into Mercy’s face.

“Probably,” said Mercy, in a grave tone, suddenly recollecting that she ought not to talk with this man as if he were one of her own village people.  The conductor, sensitive as are most New England people, spite of their apparent familiarity of address, to the least rebuff, felt the change in Mercy’s tone, and walked away, thinking half surlily, “She needn’t put on airs.  A schoolma’am, I reckon.  Wonder if it can be her that’s going to teach the Academy?”

When they reached the station, it was, as the conductor had said, very dark; and it was raining hard.  For the first time, a sense of her unprotected loneliness fell upon Mercy’s heart.  Her mother, but half-awake, clung nervously to her, asking purposeless and incoherent questions.  The conductor, still surly from his fancied rebuff at Mercy’s hands, walked away, and took no notice of them.  The station-master was nowhere to be seen.  The two women stood huddling together under one umbrella, gazing blankly about them.

“Is this Mrs. Philbrick?” came in clear, firm tones, out of the darkness behind them; and, in a second more, Mercy had turned and looked up into Stephen White’s face.

“Oh, how good you were to come and meet us!” exclaimed Mercy.  “You are Mr. Allen’s friend, I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Stephen, curtly.  “But I did not come to meet you.  You must not thank me.  I had business here.  However, I made the one carriage which the town boasts, wait, in case you should be here.  Here it is!” And, before Mercy had time to analyze or even to realize the vague sense of disappointment she felt at his words, she found herself and her mother placed in the carriage, and the door shut.

“Your trunks cannot go up until morning,” he said, speaking through the carriage window; “but, if you will give me your checks, I will see that they are sent.”

“We have only one small valise,” said Mercy:  “that was under our seat.  The brakeman said he would take it out for us; but he forgot it, and so did I.”

The train was already backing out of the station.  Stephen smothered some very unchivalrous words on his lips, as he ran out into the rain, overtook the train, and swung himself on the last car, in search of the “one small valise” belonging to his tenants.  It was a very shabby valise:  it had made many a voyage with its first owner, Captain Carr.  It was a very little valise:  it could not have held one gown of any of the modern fashions.

“Dear me,” thought Stephen, as he put it into the carriage at Mercy’s feet, “what sort of women are these I’ve taken under my roof!  I expect they’ll be very unpleasing sights to my eyes.  I did hope she’d be good-looking.”  How many times in after years did Stephen recall with laughter his first impressions of Mercy Philbrick, and wonder how he could have argued so unhesitatingly that a woman who travelled with only one small valise could not be good-looking.

“Will you come to the house to-morrow?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” replied Mercy, “not for three or four weeks yet.  Our furniture will not be here under that time.”

“Ah!” said Stephen, “I had not thought of that.  I will call on you at the hotel, then, in a day or two.”

His adieus were civil, but only civil:  that most depressing of all things to a sensitive nature, a kindly indifference, was manifest in every word he said, and in every tone of his voice.

Mercy felt it to the quick; but she was ashamed of herself for the feeling.  “What business had I to expect that he was going to be our friend?” she said in her heart.  “We are only tenants to him.”

“What a kind-spoken young man he is, to be sure, Mercy!” said Mrs. Carr.

So all-sufficient is bare kindliness of tone and speech to the unsensitive nature.

“Yes, mother, he was very kind,” said Mercy; “but I don’t think we shall ever know him very well.”

“Why, Mercy, why not?” exclaimed her mother.  “I should say he was most uncommon friendly for a stranger, running back after our valise in the rain, and a goin’ to call on you to oncet.”

Mercy made no reply.  The carriage rolled along over the rough and muddy road.  It was too dark to see any thing except the shadowy black shapes of houses, outlined on a still deeper blackness by the light streaming from their windows.  There is no sight in the world so hard for lonely, homeless people to see, as the sight of the lighted windows of houses after nightfall.  Why houses should look so much more homelike, so much more suggestive of shelter and cheer and companionship and love, when the curtains are snug-drawn and the doors shut, and nobody can look in, though the lights of fires and lamps shine out, than they do in broad daylight, with open windows and people coming and going through open doors, and a general air of comradeship and busy living, it is hard to see.  But there is not a lonely vagabond in the world who does not know that they do.  One may see on a dark night many a wistful face of lonely man or lonely woman, hurrying resolutely past, and looking away from, the illumined houses which mean nothing to them except the keen reminder of what they are without.  Oh, the homeless people there are in this world!  Did anybody ever think to count up the thousands there are in every great city, who live in lodgings and not in homes; from the luxurious lodger who lodges in the costliest rooms of the costliest hotel, down to the most poverty-stricken lodger who lodges in a corner of the poorest tenement-house?  Homeless all of them; their common vagabondage is only a matter of degrees of decency.  All honor to the bravery of those who are homeless because they must be, and who make the best of it.  But only scorn and pity for those who are homeless because they choose to be, and are foolish enough to like it.

Mercy had never before felt the sensation of being a homeless wanderer.  She was utterly unprepared for it.  All through the breaking up of their home and the preparations for their journey, she had been buoyed up by excitement and anticipation.  Much as she had grieved to part from some of the friends of her early life, and to leave the old home in which she was born, there was still a certain sense of elation in the prospect of new scenes and new people.  She had felt, without realizing it, a most unreasonable confidence that it was to be at once a change from one home to another home.  In her native town, she had had a position of importance.  Their house was the best house in the town; judged by the simple standards of a Cape Cod village, they were well-to-do.  Everybody knew, and everybody spoke with respect and consideration, of “Old Mis’ Carr,” or, as she was perhaps more often called, “Widder Carr.”  Mercy had not thought-in her utter inexperience of change, it could not have occurred to her-what a very different thing it was to be simply unknown and poor people in a strange place.  The sense of all this smote upon her suddenly and keenly, as they jolted along in the noisy old carriage on this dark, rainy night.  Stephen White’s indifferent though kindly manner first brought to her the thought, or rather the feeling, of this.  Each new glimmer of the home-lights deepened her sense of desolation.  Every gust of rain that beat on the carriage roof and windows made her feel more and more like an outcast.  She never forgot these moments.  She used to say that in them she had lived the whole life of the loneliest outcast that was ever born.  Long years afterward, she wrote a poem, called “The Outcast,” which was so intense in its feeling one could have easily believed that it was written by Ishmael.  When she was asked once how and when she wrote this poem, she replied, “I did not write it:  I lived it one night in entering a strange town.”  In vain she struggled against the strange and unexpected emotion.  A nervous terror of arriving at the hotel oppressed her more and more; although, thanks to Harley Allen’s thoughtfulness, she knew that their rooms were already engaged for them.  She felt as if she would rather drive on and on, in all the darkness and rain, no matter where, all night long, rather than enter the door of the strange and public house, in which she must give her name and her mother’s name on the threshold.

When the carriage stopped, she moved so slowly to alight that her mother exclaimed petulantly,-

“Dear me, child, what’s the matter with you?  Ain’t you goin’ to git out?  Ain’t this the tavern?”

“Yes, mother, this is our place,” said Mercy, in a low voice, unlike her usual cheery, ringing tones, as she assisted her mother down the clumsy steps from the old-fashioned, high vehicle.  “They’re expecting us:  it is all right.”  But her voice and face belied her words.  She moved all through the rest of the evening like one in a dream.  She said little, but busied herself in making her mother as comfortable as it was possible to be in the dingy and unattractive little rooms; and, as soon as the tired old woman had fallen asleep, Mercy sat down on the floor by the window, and leaning her head on the sill cried hard.