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

The beautiful white New England winter had set in.  As far as the eye could reach, nothing but white could be seen.  The boundary, lines of stone walls and fences were gone, or were indicated only by raised and rounded lines of the same soft white.  On one side of these were faintly pencilled dark shadows in the morning and in the afternoon; but at high noon the fields were as unbroken a white as ever Arctic explorer saw, and the roads shone in the sun like white satin ribbons flung out in all directions.  The groves of maple and hickory and beech were bare.  Their delicate gray tints spread in masses over the hillsides like a transparent, gray veil, through which every outline of the hills was clear, but softened.  The massive pines and spruces looked almost black against the white of the snow, and the whole landscape was at once shining and sombre; an effect which is peculiar to the New England winter in the hill country, and is always either very depressing or very stimulating to the soul.  Dreamy and inert and phlegmatic people shiver and huddle, see only the sombreness, and find the winter one long imprisonment in the dark.  But to a joyous, brisk, sanguine soul, the clear, crisp, cold air is like wine; and the whiteness and sparkle and shine of the snow are like martial music, a constant excitement and spell.

Mercy’s soul thrilled within her with new delight and impulse each day.  The winter had always oppressed her before.  On the seashore, winter means raw cold, a pale, gray, angry ocean, fierce winds, and scanty wet snows.  This brilliant, frosty air, so still and dry that it never seemed cold, this luxuriance of snow piled soft and high as if it meant shelter and warmth,-as indeed it does,-were very wonderful to Mercy.  She would have liked to be out of doors all day long:  it seemed to her a fairer than summer-time.  She followed the partially broken trails of the wood-cutters far into the depths of the forests, and found there on sunny days, in sheltered spots, where the feet of the men and horses and the runners of the heavy sledges had worn away the snow, green mosses and glossy ferns and shining clumps of the hepatica.  It was a startling sight on a December day, when the snow was lying many inches deep, to come suddenly on Mercy walking in the middle of the road, her hands filled with green ferns and mosses and vines.  There were three different species of ground-pine in these woods, and hepatica and pyrola and wintergreen, and thickets of laurel.  What wealth for a lover of wild, out-door things!  Each day Mercy bore home new treasures, until the house was almost as green and fragrant as a summer wood.  Day after day, Mrs. White, from her point of observation at her window, watched the lithe young figure coming down the road, bearing her sheaves of boughs and vines, sometimes on her shoulder, as lightly and gracefully as a peasant girl of Italy might bear her poised basket of grapes.  Gradually a deep wonder took possession of the lonely old woman’s soul.

“Whatever can she do with all that green stuff?” she thought.  “She’s carried in enough to trim the ’Piscopal church twice over.”

At last she shared her perplexity with Marty.

“Marty,” said she one day, “have you ever seen Mrs. Philbrick come into the house without somethin’ green in her hands?  What do you suppose she’s goin’ to do with it all?”

“Lord knows,” answered Marty.  “I’ve been a speckkerlatin’ about that very thing myself.  They can’t be a brewin’ beer this time o’ year; but I see her yesterday with her hands full o’ pyroly.”

“I wish you would make an errand in there, Marty,” said Mrs. White, “and see if you can any way find out what it’s all for.  She’s carried in pretty near a grove of pine-trees, I should say.”

The willing Marty went, and returned with a most surprising tale.  Every room was wreathed with green vines.  There were evergreen trees in boxes; the window-seats were filled with pots of green things growing; waving masses of ferns hung down from brackets on the walls.

“I jest stood like a dumb critter the minnit I got in,” said Marty.  “I didn’t know whether I wuz in the house or out in the woods, the whole place smelled o’ hemlock so, an’ looked so kind o’ sunny and shady all ter oncet.-I jest wished Steve could see it.  He’d go wild,” added the unconsciously injudicious Marty.

Mrs. White’s face darkened instantly.

“It must be very unwholesome to have rooms made so dark and damp,” she said.  “I should think people might have more sense.”

“Oh, it wa’n’t dark a mite!” interrupted Marty, eagerly.  “There wuz a blazin’ fire on the hearth in the settin’-room, an’ the sun a-streamin’ into both the south winders.  It made shadders on the floor, jest as it does in the woods.  I’d jest ha’ liked to set down there a spell, and not do nothin’ but watch ’em.”

At this moment, a low knock at the door interrupted the conversation.  Marty opened the door, and there stood Mercy herself, holding in her hands some wreaths of laurel and pine, and a large earthen dish with ferns growing in it.  It was the day before Christmas; and Mercy had been busy all day, putting up the Christmas decorations in her rooms.  As she hung cross after cross, and wreath after wreath, she thought of the poor, lonely, and peevish old woman she had seen there weeks before, and wondered if she would have any Christmas evergreens to brighten her room.

“I don’t suppose a man would ever think of such things,” thought Mercy.  “I’ve a great mind to carry her in some.  I’ll never muster courage to go in there, unless I go to carry her something; and I may as well do it first as last.  Perhaps she doesn’t care any thing about things from the woods; but I think they may do her good without her knowing it.  Besides, I promised to go.”  It was now ten days since Stephen, meeting Mercy in the town one day, had stopped, and said to her, in a half-sad tone which had touched her,-

“Do you really never mean to come again to see my mother?  I do assure you it would be a great kindness.”

His tone conveyed a great deal,-his tone and his eyes.  They said as plainly as words could have said,-

“I know that my mother treated you abominably, I know she is very disagreeable; but, after all, she is helpless and alone, and if you could only once get her to like you, and would come and see her now and then, it would be a kindness to her, and a great help to me; and I do yearn to know you better; and I never can, unless you will begin the acquaintance by being on good terms with my mother.”

All this Stephen’s voice and eyes had said to Mercy’s eyes and heart, while his lips, pronounced the few commonplace words which were addressed to her ear.  All this Mercy was revolving in her thoughts, as she deftly and with almost a magic touch laid the soft mosses in the earthen dish, and planted them thick with ferns and hepatica and partridge-berry vines and wintergreen.  But all she was conscious of saying to herself was, “Mr. White asked me to go; and it really is not civil not to do it, and I may as well have it over with.”

When Mrs. White’s eyes first fell on Mercy in the doorway, they rested on her with the same cold gaze which had so repelled her on their first interview.  But no sooner did she see the dish of mosses than her face lighted up, and exclaiming, “Oh, where did you get those partridge-berry vines?” she involuntarily stretched out her hands.  The ice was broken.  Mercy felt at home at once, and at once conceived a true sentiment of pity for Mrs. White, which never wholly died out of her heart.  Kneeling on the floor by her bed, she said eagerly,-

“I am so glad you like them, Mrs. White.  Let me hold them down low, where you can look at them.”

Some subtle spell must have linked itself in Mrs. White’s brain with the dainty red partridge berries.  Her eyes filled with tears, as she lifted the vines gently in her fingers, and looked at them.  Mercy watched her with great surprise; but with the quick instinct of a poet’s temperament she thought, “She hasn’t seen them very likely since she was a little girl.”

“Did you use to like them when you were a child, Mrs. White?” she asked.

“I used to pick them when I was young,” replied Mrs. White, dreamily,-“when I was young:  not when I was a child, though.  May I have one of them to keep?” she asked presently, still holding an end of one of the vines in her fingers.

“Oh, I brought them in for you, for Christmas,” exclaimed Mercy.  “They are all for you.”

Mrs. White was genuinely astonished.  No one had ever done this kind of thing for her before.  Stephen always gave her on her birthday and on Christmas a dutiful and somewhat appropriate gift, though very sorely he was often puzzled to select a thing which should not jar either on his own taste or his mother’s sense of utility.  But a gift of this kind, a simple little tribute to her supposed womanly love of the beautiful, a thoughtful arrangement to give her something pleasant to look upon for a time, no one had ever before made.  It gave her an emotion of real gratitude, such as she had seldom felt.

“You are very kind, indeed,-very,” she said with emphasis, and in a gentler tone than Mercy had before heard from her lips.  “I shall have a great deal of comfort out of it.”

Then Mercy set the dish on a small table, and hung up the wreaths in the windows.  As she moved about the room lightly, now and then speaking in her gay, light-hearted voice, Mrs. White thought to herself,-

“Steve was right.  She is a wonderful cheery body.”  And, long after Mercy had gone, she continued to think happily of the pleasant incident of the fresh bright face and the sweet voice.  For the time being, her jealous distrust of the possible effect of these upon her son slumbered.

When Stephen entered his mother’s room that night, his heart gave a sudden bound at the sight of the green wreaths and the dish of ferns.  He saw them on fhe first instant after opening the door; he knew in the same instant that the hands of Mercy Philbrick must have placed them there; but, also, in that same brief instant came to him an involuntary impulse to pretend that he did not observe them; to wait till his mother should have spoken of them first, that he might know whether she were pleased or not by the gift.  So infinitely small are the first beginnings of the course of deceit into which tyranny always drives its victim.  It could not be called a deceit, the simple forbearing to speak of a new object which one observed in a room.  No; but the motive made it a sure seed of a deceit:  for when Mrs. White said, “Why, Stephen, you haven’t noticed the greens!  Look in the windows!” his exclamation of apparent surprise, “Why, how lovely!  Where did they come from?” was a lie.  It did not seem so, however, to Stephen.  It seemed to him simply a politic suppression of a truth, to save his mother’s feelings, to avoid a possibility of a war of words.  Mercy Philbrick, under the same circumstances, would have replied,-

“Oh, yes, I saw them as soon as I came in.  I was waiting for you to tell me about them,” and even then would have been tortured by her conscience, because she did not say why she was waiting.

While his mother was telling him of Mercy’s call, and of the report Marty had brought back of the decorations of the rooms, Stephen stood with his face bent over the ferns, apparently absorbed in studying each leaf minutely; then he walked to the windows and examined the wreaths.  He felt himself so suddenly gladdened by these tokens of Mercy’s presence, and by his mother’s evident change of feeling towards her, that he feared his face would betray too much pleasure; he feared to speak, lest his voice should do the same thing.  He was forced to make a great effort to speak in a judiciously indifferent tone, as he said,-

“Indeed, they are very pretty.  I never saw mosses so beautifully arranged; and it was so thoughtful of her to bring them in for you for Christmas Eve.  I wish we had something to send in to them, don’t you?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking,” said his mother, “that we might ask them to come in and take dinner with us to-morrow.  Marty’s made some capital mince-pies, and is going to roast a turkey.  I don’t believe they’ll be goin’ to have any thing better, do you, Stephen?”

Stephen walked very suddenly to the fire, and made a feint of rearranging it, that he might turn his face entirely away from his mother’s sight.  He was almost dumb with astonishment.  A certain fear mingled with it.  What meant this sudden change?  Did it portend good or evil?  It seemed too sudden, too inexplicable, to be genuine.  Stephen had yet to learn the magic power which Mercy Philbrick had to compel the liking even of people who did not choose to like her.

“Why, yes, mother,” he said, “that would be very nice.  It is a long time since we had anybody to Christmas dinner.”

“Well, suppose you run in after tea and ask them,” replied Mrs. White, in the friendliest of tones.

“Yes, I’ll go,” answered Stephen, feeling as if he were a man talking in a dream.  “I have been meaning to go in ever since they came.”

After tea, Stephen sat counting the minutes till he should go.  To all appearances, he was buried in his newspaper, occasionally reading a paragraph aloud to his mother.  He thought it better that she should remind him of his intention to go; that the call should be purely at her suggestion.  The patience and silence with which he sat waiting for her to remember and speak of it were the very essence of deceit again,-twice in this one hour an acted lie, of which his dulled conscience took no note or heed.  Fine and impalpable as the meshes of the spider’s-web are the bands and bonds of a habit of concealment; swift-growing, too, and in ever-widening circles, like the same glittering net woven for death.

At last Mrs. White said, “Steve, I think it’s getting near nine o’clock.  You’d better go in next door before it’s any later.”

Stephen pulled out his watch.  By his own sensations, he would have said that it must be midnight.

“Yes, it is half-past eight.  I suppose I had better go now,” he said, and bade his mother good-night.

He went out into the night with a sense of ecstasy of relief and joy.  He was bewildered at himself.  How this strong sentiment towards Mercy Philbrick had taken possession of him he could not tell.  He walked up and down in the snowy path in front of the house for some minutes, questioning himself, sounding with a delicious dread the depths of this strange sea in which he suddenly found himself drifting.  He went back to the day when Harley Allen’s letter first told him of the two women who might become his tenants.  He felt then a presentiment that a new element was to be introduced into his life; a vague, prophetic sense of some change at hand.  Then came the first interview, and his sudden disappointment, which he now blushed to recollect.  It seemed to him as if some magician must have laid a spell upon his eyes, that he did not see even in that darkness how lovely a face Mercy had, did not feel even through all the embarrassment and strangeness the fascination of her personal presence.  Then he dwelt lingeringly on the picture, which had never faded from his brain, of his next sight of her, as she sat on the old stone wall, with the gay maple-leaves and blackberry-vines in her lap.  From that day to the present, he had seen her only a half dozen times, and only for a chance greeting as they had passed each other in the street; but it seemed to him that she had never been really absent from him, so conscious was he of her all the time.  So absorbed was he in these thoughts that a half-hour was gone before he realized it, and the village bells were ringing for nine o’ clock when he knocked on the door of the wing.

Mrs. Carr had rolled up her knitting, and was just on the point of going upstairs.  Their little maid of all work had already gone to bed, when Stephen’s loud knock startled them all.

“Gracious alive!  Mercy, what’s that?” exclaimed Mrs. Carr, all sorts of formless terrors springing upon her at once.  Mercy herself was astonished, and ran hastily to open the door.  When she saw Stephen standing there, her astonishment was increased, and she looked it so undisguisedly that he said,-

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Philbrick.  I know it is late, but my mother sent me in with a message.” ...

“Pray come in, Mr. White,” interrupted Mercy.  “It is not really late, only we keep such absurdly early hours, and are so quiet, as we know nobody here, that a knock at the door in the evening makes us all jump.  Pray come in,” and she threw open the door into the sitting-room, where the lamps had already been put out, and the light of a blazing hickory log made long flickering shadows on the crimson carpet.  In this dancing light, the room looked still more like a grove than it had to Marty at high noon.  Stephen’s eyes fastened hungrily on the sight.

“Your room is almost too much to resist,” he said; “but I will not come in now.  I did not know it was so late.  My mother wishes to know if you and your mother will not come in and eat a Christmas dinner with us to-morrow.  We live in the plainest way, and cannot entertain in the ordinary acceptation of the term.  We only ask you to our ordinary home-dinner,” he added, with a sudden sense of the incongruity between the atmosphere of refined elegance which pervaded Mercy’s simple, little room, and the expression which all his efforts had never been able to banish from his mother’s parlor.

“Oh thank you, Mr. White.  You are very good.  I think we should like to come very much.  Mother and I were just saying that it would be the first Christmas dinner we ever ate alone.  But you must come in, Mr. White,-I insist upon it,” replied Mercy, stretching out one hand towards him, as if to draw him in.

Stephen went.  On the threshold of the sitting-room he paused and stood silent for some minutes.  Mercy was relighting the lamps.

“Oh, Mrs. Philbrick!” he exclaimed, “won’t you please not light the lamps.  This firelight on these evergreens is the loveliest thing I ever saw.”

Too unconventional to think of any reasons why she should not sit with Stephen White alone by firelight in her own house, Mercy blew out the lamp she had lighted, and drawing a chair close up to the hearth sat down, and clasping her hands in her lap looked eagerly into Stephen’s face, and said as simply as a child,-

“I like firelight, too, a great deal better than any other light.  Some evenings we do not light the lamps at all.  Mother can knit just as well without much light, and I can think better.”

Mercy was sitting in a chair so low that, to look at Stephen, she had to lift her face.  It was the position in which her face was sweetest.  Some lines, which were a shade too strong and positive when her face fully confronted you, disappeared entirely when it was thrown back and her eyes were lifted.  It was then as ingenuous and tender and trustful a face as if she had been but eight instead of eighteen.

Stephen forgot himself, forgot the fact that Mercy was comparatively a stranger, forgot every thing, except the one intense consciousness of this sweet woman-face looking up into his.  Bending towards her, he said suddenly,-

“Mrs. Philbrick, your face is the very loveliest face I have ever seen in my life.  Do not be angry with me.  Oh, do not!” he continued, seeing the color deepen in Mercy’s cheeks, and a stern expression gathering in her eyes, as she looked steadily at him with unutterable surprise.  “Do not be angry with me.  I could not help saying it; but I do not say it as men generally say such things.  I am not like other men:  I have lived alone all my life with my mother.  You need not mind my saying your face is lovely, any more than my saying that the ferns on the walls are lovely.”

If Stephen had known Mercy from her childhood, he could not have framed his words more wisely.  Every fibre of her artistic nature recognized the possibility of a subtle truth in what he said, and his calm, dreamy tone and look heightened this impression.  Moreover, as Stephen’s soul had been during all the past four weeks slowly growing into the feeling which made it inevitable that he should say these words on first looking closely and intimately into Mercy’s face, so had her soul been slowly growing into the feeling which made it seem not really foreign or unnatural to her that he should say them.

She answered him with hesitating syllables, quite unlike her usual fluent speech.

“I think you must mean what you say, Mr. White; and you do not say it as other men have said it.  But will you please to remember not to say it again?  We cannot be friends, if you do.”

“Never again, Mrs. Philbrick?” he said,-he could almost have said “Mercy,”-and looked at her with a gaze of whose intentness he was hardly aware.

Mercy felt a strange terror of this man; a few minutes ago a stranger, now already asking at her hands she hardly knew what, and compelling her in spite of herself.  But she replied very quietly, with a slight smile,-

“Never, Mr. White.  Now talk of something else, please.  Your mother seemed very much pleased with the ferns I carried her to-day.  Did she love the woods, when she was well?”

“I do not know.  I never heard her say,” answered Stephen, absently, still gazing into Mercy’s face.

“But you would have known, surely, if she had cared for them,” said Mercy, laughing; for she perceived that Stephen had spoken at random.

“Oh, yes, certainly,-certainly.  I should have known,” said Stephen, still with a preoccupied air, and rising to go.  “I thank you for letting me come into this beautiful room with you.  I shall always think of your face framed in evergreens, and with flickering firelight on it.”

“You are not going away, are you, Mr. White?” asked Mercy, mischievously.

“Oh, no, certainly not.  I never go away.  How could I go away?  Why did you ask?”

“Oh,” laughed Mercy, “because you spoke as if you never expected to see my face after to-night.  That’s all.”

Stephen smiled.  “I am afraid I seem a very absent-minded person,” he said.  “I did not mean that at all.  I hope to see you very often, if I may.  Good-night.”

“Good-night, Mr. White.  We shall be very glad to see you as often as you like to come.  You may be sure of that; but you must come earlier, or you will find us all asleep.  Good-night.”

Stephen spent another half-hour pacing up and down in the snowy path in front of the house.  He did not wish to go in until his mother was asleep.  Very well he knew that it would be better that she did not see his face that night.  When he went in, the house was dark and still.  As he passed his mother’s door, she called, “Steve!”

“All right, mother.  They’ll come,” he replied, and ran swiftly up to his own room.

During this half-hour, Mercy had been sitting in her low chair by the fire, looking steadily into the leaping blaze, and communing very sternly with her own heart on the subject of Stephen White.  Her pitiless honesty of nature was just as inexorable in its dealing with her own soul as with others; she never paltered with, nor evaded an accusation of, her consciousness.  At this moment, she was indignantly admitting to herself that her conduct and her feeling towards Stephen were both deserving of condemnation.  But, when she asked herself for their reason, no answer came framed in words, no explanation suggested itself, only Stephen’s face rose up before her, vivid, pleading, as he had looked when he said, “Never again, Mrs. Philbrick?” and as she looked again into the dark blue eyes, and heard the low tones over again, she sank into a deeper and deeper reverie, from which gradually all self-accusation, all perplexity, faded away, leaving behind them only a vague happiness, a dreamy sense of joy.  If lovers could look back on the first quickening of love in their souls, how precious would be the memories; but the unawakened heart never knows the precise instant of the quickening.  It is wrapped in a half-conscious wonder and anticipation; and, by the time the full revelation comes, the impress of the first moments has been wiped out by intenser experiences.  How many lovers have longed to trace the sweet stream back to its very source, to the hidden spring which no man saw, but have lost themselves presently in the broad greenness, undisturbed and fertile, through which, like a hidden stream through an emerald meadow, the love had been flowing undiscovered.

Months after, when Mercy’s thoughts reverted to this evening, all she could recollect was that on the night of Stephen’s first call she had been much puzzled by his manner and his words, had thought it very strange that he should seem to care-so much for her, and perhaps still more strange that she herself found it not unpleasing that he did so.  Stephen’s reminiscences were at once more distinct and more indistinct,-more distinct of his emotions, more indistinct of the incidents.  He could not recollect one word which had been said:  only his own vivid consciousness of Mercy’s beauty; her face “framed in evergreens, with the firelight flickering on it,” as he had told her he should always think of it.

Christmas morning came, clear, cold, shining bright.  A slight thaw the day before had left every bough and twig and pine-needle covered with a moisture that had frozen in the night into glittering crystal sheaths, which flashed like millions of prisms in the sun.  The beauty of the scene was almost solemn.  The air was so frosty cold that even the noon sun did not melt these ice-sheaths; and, under the flood of the full mid-day light, the whole landscape seemed one blaze of jewels.  When Mercy and her mother entered Mrs. White’s room, half an hour before the dinner-hour, they found her sitting with the curtains drawn, because the light had hurt her eyes.

“Oh, Mrs. White!” exclaimed Mercy.  “It is cruel you should not see this glorious spectacle!  If you had the window open, the light would not hurt your eyes.  It is the glare of it coming through the glass.  Let us wrap you up, and draw you close to the window, and open it wide, so that you can see the colors for a few minutes.  It is just like fairy-land.”

Mrs. White looked bewildered.  Such a plan as this of getting out-door air she had never thought of.

“Won’t it make the room too cold?” she said.

“Oh, no, no!” cried Mercy; “and no matter if it does.  We can soon warm it up again.  Please let me ask Marty to come?” And, hardly waiting for permission, she ran to call Marty.  Wrapped up in blankets, Mrs. White was then drawn in her bed close to the open window, and lay there with a look of almost perplexed delight on her face.  When Stephen came in, Mercy stood behind her, a fleecy white cloud thrown over her head, pointing out eagerly every point of beauty in the view.  A high bush of sweet-brier, with long, slender, curving branches, grew just in front of the window.  Many of the cup-like seed-vessels still hung on the boughs:  they were all finely encrusted with frost.  As the wind faintly stirred the branches, every frost-globule flashed its full rainbow of color; the long sprays looked like wands strung with tiny fairy beakers, inlaid with pearls and diamonds.  Mercy sprang to the window, took one of these sprays in her fingers, and slowly waved it up and down in the sunlight.

“Oh, look at it against the blue sky!” she cried.  “Isn’t it enough to make one cry just to see it?”

“Oh, how can mother help loving her?” thought Stephen.  “She is the sweetest woman that ever drew breath.”

Mrs. White seemed indeed to have lost all her former distrust and antagonism.  She followed Mercy’s movements with eyes not much less eager and pleased than Stephen’s.  It was like a great burst of sunlight into a dark place, the coming of this earnest, joyous, outspoken nature into the old woman’s narrow and monotonous and comparatively uncheered life.  She had never seen a person of Mercy’s temperament.  The clear, decided, incisive manner commanded her respect, while the sunny gayety won her liking.  Stephen had gentle, placid sweetness and much love of the beautiful; but his love of the beautiful was an indolent, and one might almost say a-haughty, demand in his nature.  Mercy’s was a bounding and delighted acceptance.  She was cheery:  he was only placid.  She was full of delight; he, only of satisfaction.  In her, joy was of the spirit, spiritual.  Keen as were her senses, it was her soul which marshalled them all.  In him, though the soul’s forces were not feeble, the senses foreran them,-compelled them, sometimes conquered them.  It would have been impossible to put Mercy in any circumstances, in any situation, out of which, or in spite of which, she would not find joy.  But in Stephen circumstance and place might as easily destroy as create happiness.  His enjoyment was as far inferior to Mercy’s in genuineness and enduringness as is the shallow lake to the quenchless spring.  The waters of each may leap and sparkle alike, to the eye, in the sunshine; but when drought has fallen on the lake, and the place that knew it knows it no more, the spring is full, free, and glad as ever.

Mrs. White’s pleasure in Mercy’s presence was short-lived.  Long before the simple dinner was over, she had relapsed into her old forbidding manner, and into a silence which was more chilly than any words could have been.  The reason was manifest.  She read in every glance of Stephen’s eyes, in every tone of his voice, the depth and the warmth of his feeling towards Mercy.  The jealous distrust which she had felt at first, and which had slept for a brief time under the spell of Mercy’s kindliness towards herself, sprang into fiercer life than ever.  Stephen and Mercy, in utter unconsciousness of the change which was gradually taking place, talked and laughed together in an evident gay delight, which made matters worse every moment.  A short and surly reply from Mrs. White to an innocent question of Mrs. Carr’s fell suddenly on Mercy’s ear.  Keenly alive to the smallest slight to her mother, she turned quickly towards Mrs. White, and, to her consternation, met the same steady, pitiless, aggressive look which she had seen on her face in their first interview.  Mercy’s first emotion was one of great indignation:  her second was a quick flash of comprehension of the whole thing.  A great wave of rosy color swept over her face; and, without knowing what she was doing, she looked appealingly at Stephen.  Already there was between them so subtle a bond that each understood the other without words.  Stephen knew all that Mercy thought in that instant, and an answering flush mounted to his forehead.  Mrs. White saw both these flushes, and compressed her lips still more closely in a grimmer silence than before.  Poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Carr kept on and on with her meaningless and childish remarks and inquiries; and Mercy and Stephen were both very grateful for them.  The dinner came to an untimely end; and almost immediately Mercy, with a nervous and embarrassed air, totally foreign to her, said to her mother,-

“We must go home now.  I have letters to write.”

Mrs. Carr was disappointed.  She had anticipated a long afternoon of chatty gossip with her neighbor; but she saw that Mercy had some strong reason for hurrying home, and she acquiesced unhesitatingly.

Mrs. White did not urge them to remain.  To all Mrs. White’s faults it must be confessed that she added the virtue of absolute sincerity.

“Good-afternoon, Mrs. Carr,” and “Good-afternoon, Mrs. Philbrick,” fell from her lips in the same measured syllables and the same cold, unhuman voice which had so startled Mercy once before.

“What a perfectly horrid old woman!” exclaimed Mercy, as soon as they had crossed the threshold of their own door.  “I’ll never go near her again as long as I live!”

“Why, Mercy Carr!” exclaimed her mother, “what do you mean?  I don’t think so.  She got very tired before dinner was over.  I could see that, poor thing!  She’s drefful weak, an’ it stan’s to reason she’d be kind o’ snappish sometimes.”

Mercy opened her lips to reply, but changed her mind and said nothing.

“It’s just as well for mother to keep on good terms with her, if she can,” she thought.  “Maybe it’ll help divert a little of Mrs. White’s temper from him, poor fellow!”

Stephen had followed them to the door, saying little; but at the last moment, when Mercy said “good-by,” he had suddenly held out his hand, and, clasping hers tightly, had looked at her sadly, with a world of regret and appeal and affection and almost despair in the look.

“What a life he must lead of it!” thought Mercy.  “Dear me!  I should go wild or else get very wicked.  I believe I’d get very wicked.  I wonder he shuts himself up so with her.  It is all nonsense:  it only makes her more and more selfish.  How mean, how base of her, to be so jealous of his talking with me!  If she were his wife, it would be another thing.  But he doesn’t belong to her body and soul, if she is his mother.  If ever I know him well enough, I’ll tell him so.  It isn’t manly in him to let her tyrannize over him and everybody else that comes into the house.  I never saw any human being that made one so afraid, somehow.  Her tone and look are enough to freeze your blood.”

While Mercy was buried in these indignant thoughts, Stephen and his mother, only a few feet away, separated from her only by a wall, were having a fierce and angry talk.  No sooner had the door closed upon Mercy than Mrs. White had said to Stephen,-

“Have you the slightest idea how much excitement you showed in conversing with Mrs. Philbrick?  I have never seen you look or speak in this way.”

The flush had not yet died away on Stephen’s face.  At this attack, it grew deeper still.  He made no reply.  Mrs. White continued,-

“I wish you could see your face.  It is almost purple now.”

“It is enough to make the blood mount to any man’s face, mother, to be accused so,” replied Stephen, with a spirit unusual for him.

“I don’t accuse you of any thing,” she retorted.  “I am only speaking of what I observe.  You needn’t think you can deceive me about the least thing, ever.  Your face is a perfect tell-tale of your thoughts, always.”

Poor Stephen groaned inwardly.  Too well he knew his inability to control his unfortunate face.

“Mother!” he exclaimed with almost vehemence of tone, “mother! do not carry this thing too far.  I do not in the least understand what you are driving at about Mrs. Philbrick, nor why you show these capricious changes of feeling towards her.  I think you have treated her so to-day that she will never darken your doors again.  I never should, if I were in her place.”

“Very well, I hope she never will, if her presence is to produce such an effect on you.  It is enough to turn her head to see that she has such power over a man like you.  She is a very vain woman, anyway,-vain of her power over people, I think.”

Stephen could bear no more.  With a half-smothered ejaculation of “O mother!” he left the room.

And thus the old year went out and the new year came in for Mercy Philbrick and Stephen White,-the old year in which they had been nothing, and the new year in which they were to be every thing to each other.