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

The next morning, while Stephen was dressing, he slowly reviewed the events of the previous day, and took several resolutions.  If Mrs. White could have had the faintest conception of what was passing in her son’s mind, while he sat opposite to her at breakfast, so unusually cheerful and talkative, she would have been very unhappy.  But she, too, had had a season of reflection this morning, and was much absorbed in her own plans.  She heartily regretted having shown so much ill-feeling in regard to Mercy; and she had resolved to atone for it in some way, if she could.  Above all, she had resolved, if possible, to banish from Stephen’s mind the idea that she was jealous of Mercy or hostile towards her.  She had common sense enough to see that to allow him to recognize this feeling on her part was to drive him at once into a course of manoeuvring and concealment.  She flattered herself that it was with a wholly natural and easy air that she began her plan of operations by remarking,-

“Mrs. Philbrick seems to be very fond of her mother, does she not, Stephen?”

“Yes, very,” answered Stephen, indifferently.

“Mrs. Carr is quite an old woman.  She must have been old when Mrs. Philbrick was born.  I don’t think Mrs. Philbrick can be more than twenty, do you?”

“I am sure I don’t know.  I never thought anything about her age,” replied Stephen, still more indifferently.  “I’m no judge of women’s ages.”

“Well, I’m sure she isn’t more than twenty, if she is that,” said Mrs. White; “and she really is a very pretty woman, Steve.  I’ll grant you that.”

“Grant me that, mother?” laughed Stephen, lightly.  “I never said she was pretty, did I?  The first time I saw her, I thought she was uncommonly plain; but afterwards I saw that I had done her injustice.  I don’t think, however, she would usually be thought pretty.”

Mrs. White was much gratified by his careless tone and manner; so much so that she went farther than she had intended, and said in an off-hand way, “I’m real sorry, Steve, you thought I didn’t treat her well yesterday.  I didn’t mean to be rude, but you know it always does vex me to see a woman’s head turned by a man’s taking a little notice of her; and I know very well, Stephy, that women like you.  It wouldn’t take much to make Mrs. Philbrick fancy you were in love with her.”

Stephen also was gratified by his mother’s apparent softening of mood, and instinctively met her more than half way, replying,-

“I didn’t mean to say that you were rude to her, mother; only you showed so plainly that you didn’t want them to stay.  Perhaps she didn’t notice it, only thought you were tired.  It isn’t any great matter, any way.  We’d better keep on good terms with them, if they’re to live under the same roof with us, that’s all.”

“Oh, yes,” replied Mrs. White.  “Much better to be on neighborly terms.  The old mother is a childish old thing, though.  She’d bore me to death, if she came in often.”

“Yes, indeed, she is a bore, sure enough,” said Stephen; “but she’s so simple, and so much like a child you can’t help pitying her.”

They fenced very well, these two, with their respective secrets to keep; but the man fenced best, his secret being the most momentous to shield from discovery.  When he shut the door, having bade his mother good by, he fairly breathed hard with the sense of having come out of a conflict.  One of the resolutions he had taken was that he would wait for Mercy this morning on a street he knew she must pass on her way to market.  He did not define to himself any motive for this act, except the simple longing to see her face.  He had not said to himself what he would do, or what words he would speak, or even that he would speak at all; but one look at her face he must have, and he had though to himself distinctly in making this plan, “Here is one way in which I can see her every day, and my mother never know any thing about it.”

When Mrs. White saw Mercy set off for her usual morning walk, a half hour or more after Stephen had left the house, she thought, as she had often though before on similar occasions, “Well, she won’t overtake Stephen this time.  I dare say she planned to.”  Light-hearted Mercy, meantime, was walking on with her own swift, elastic tread, and thinking warmly and shyly of the look with which Stephen had bade her good-by the day before.  She was walking, as was her habit, with her eyes cast down, and did not observe that any one approached her, until she suddenly heard Stephen’s voice saying, “Good-morning, Mrs. Philbrick.”  It was the second time that he had surprised her in a reverie of which he himself was the subject.  This time the surprise was a joyful one; and the quick flush of rosy color which spread over her cheeks was a flush of gladness,-undisguised and honest gladness.

“Why, Mr. White,” she exclaimed, “I never thought of seeing you.  I thought you were always in your office at this time.”

“I waited to see you this morning,” replied Stephen, in a tone as simply honest as her own.  “I wanted to speak to you.”

Mercy looked up inquiringly, but did not speak.  Stephen smiled.

“Oh, not for any particular thing,” he said:  “only for the pleasure of it.”

Then Mercy smiled, and the two looked into each other’s faces with a joy which neither attempted to disguise.  Stephen took Mercy’s basket from her arm; and they walked along in silence, not knowing that it was silence, so full was it of sweet meanings to them in the simple fact that they were walking by each other’s side.  The few words they did speak were of the purposeless and irrelevant sort in which unacknowledged lovers do so universally express themselves in their earlier moments alone together,-a sort of speech more like birds chirping than like ordinary language.  When they parted at the door of Stephen’s office, he said,-

“I think you always come to the village about this time in the morning, do you not?”

“Yes, always,” replied Mercy.

“Then, if you are willing, I would like sometimes to walk with you,” said Stephen.

“I like it very much, Mr. White,” answered Mercy, eagerly.  “I used to walk a great deal with Mr. Allen, and I miss it sadly.”

A jealous pang shot through Stephen’s heart.  He had been blind.  This was the reason Harley Allen had taken such interest in finding a home for Mrs. Philbrick and her mother.  He remembered now that he had thought at the time some of the expressions in his friend’s letter argued an unusual interest in the young widow.  Of course no man could know Mercy without loving her.  Stephen was wretched; but no trace of it showed on the serene and smiling face with which he bade Mercy “Good-by,” and ran up his office-stairs three steps at a time.

All day Mercy went about her affairs with a new sense of impulse and cheer.  It was not a conscious anticipation of the morrow:  she did not say to herself “To-morrow morning I shall see him for half an hour.”  Love knows the secret of true joy better than that.  Love throws open wider doors,-lifts a great veil from a measureless vista:  all the rest of life is transformed into one shining distance; every present moment is but a round in a ladder whose top disappears in the skies, from which angels are perpetually descending to the dreamer below.

The next morning Mercy saw Stephen leave the house even earlier than usual.  Her first thought was one of blank disappointment.  “Why, I thought he meant to walk down with me,” she said to herself.  Her second thought was a perplexed instinct of the truth:  “I wonder if he can be afraid to have his mother see him with me?” At this thought, Mercy’s face burned, and she tried to banish it; but it would not be banished, and by the time her morning duties were done, and she had set out on her walk, the matter had become quite clear in her mind.

“I shall see him at the corner where he was yesterday,” she said.

But no Stephen was there.  Spite of herself, Mercy lingered and looked back.  She was grieved and she was vexed.

“Why did he say he wanted to walk with me, and then the very first morning not come?” she said, as she walked slowly into the village.

It was a cloudy day, and the clouds seemed to harmonize with Mercy’s mood.  She did her errands in a half-listless way; and more than one of the tradespeople, who had come to know her voice and smile, wondered what had gone wrong with the cheery young lady.  All the way home she looked vainly for Stephen at every cross-street.  She fancied she heard his step behind her; she fancied she saw his tall figure in the distance.  After she reached home and the expectation was over for that day, she took herself angrily to task for her folly.  She reminded herself that Stephen had said “sometimes,” not “always;” and that nothing could have been more unlikely than that he should have joined her the very next day.  Nevertheless, she was full of uneasy wonder how soon he would come again; and, when the next morning dawned clear and bright, her first thought as she sprang up was,-

“This is such a lovely day for a walk!  He will surely come to-day.”

Again she was disappointed.  Stephen left the house at a very early hour, and walked briskly away without looking back.  Mercy forced herself to go through her usual routine of morning work.  She was systematic almost to a fault in the arrangement of her time, and any interference with her hours was usually a severe trial of her patience.  But to-day it was only by a great effort of her will that she refrained from setting out earlier than usual for the village.  She walked rapidly until she approached the street where Stephen had joined her before.  Then she slackened her pace, and fixed her eyes on the street.  No person was to be seen in it.  She walked slower and slower:  she could not believe that he was not there.  Then she began to fear that she had come a little too early.  She turned to retrace her steps; but a sudden sense of shame withheld her, and she turned back again almost immediately, and continued her course towards the village, walking very slowly, and now and then halting and looking back.  Still no Stephen.  Street after street she passed:  no Stephen.  A sort of indignant grief swelled up in Mercy’s bosom; she was indignant with herself, with him, with circumstances, with everybody; she was unreasoning and unreasonable; she longed so to see Stephen’s face that she could not think clearly of any thing else.  And yet she was ashamed of this longing.  All these struggling emotions together were too much for her; tears came into her eyes; then vexation at the tears made them come all the faster; and, for the first time in her life, Mercy Philbrick pulled her veil over her face to hide that she was crying.  Almost in the very moment that she had done this, she heard a quick step behind her, and Stephen’s voice calling,-

“Oh, Mrs. Philbrick!  Mrs. Philbrick! do not walk so fast.  I am trying to overtake you.”

Feeling as guilty as a child detected in some forbidden spot, Mercy stood still, vainly hoping her black veil was thick enough to hide her red eyes; vainly trying to regain her composure enough to speak in her natural voice, and smile her usual smile.  Vainly, indeed!  What crape could blind a lover’s eyes, or what forced tone deceive a lover’s ears?

At his first sight of her face, Stephen started; at the first sound of her voice, he stood still, and exclaimed,-

“Mrs. Philbrick, you have been crying!” There was no gainsaying it, even if Mercy had not been too honest to make the attempt.  She looked up mischievously at him, and tried to say lightly,-

“What then, Mr. White?  Didn’t you know all women cried?”

The voice was too tremulous.  Stephen could not bear it.  Forgetting that they were on a public street, forgetting every thing but that Mercy was crying, he exclaimed,-

“Mercy, what is it?  Do let me help you!  Can’t I?”

She did not even observe that he called her “Mercy.”  It seemed only natural.  Without realizing the full meaning of her words, she said,-

“Oh, you have helped me now,” and threw up her veil, showing a face where smiles were already triumphant.  Instinct told Stephen in the same second what she had meant, and yet had not meant to say.  He dropped her hand, and said in a low voice,-

“Mercy, did you really have tears in your eyes because I did not come?  Bless you, darling!  I don’t dare to speak to you here.  Oh, pray come down this little by-street with me.”

It was a narrow little lane behind the Brick Row into which Stephen and Mercy turned.  Although it was so near the centre of the town, it had never been properly graded, but had been left like a wild bit of uneven field.  One side of it was walled by the Brick Row; on the other side were only a few poverty-stricken houses, in which colored people lived.  The snow lay piled in drifts here all winter, and in spring it was an almost impassable slough of mud.  There was now no trodden path, only the track made by sleighs in the middle of the lane.  Into this strode Stephen, in his excitement walking so fast that Mercy could hardly keep up with him.  They were too much absorbed in their own sensations and in each other to realize the oddity of their appearance, floundering in the deep snow, looking eagerly in each other’s faces, and talking in a breathless and disjointed way.

“Mercy,” said Stephen, “I have been walking up and down waiting for you ever since I came out; but a man whom I could not get away from stopped me, and I had to stand still helpless and see you walk by the street, and I was afraid I could not overtake you.”

“Oh, was that it?” said Mercy, looking up timidly in his face.  “I felt sure you would be there this morning, because”-

“Because what?” said Stephen, gently.

“Because you said you would come sometimes, and I knew very well that that need not have meant this particular morning nor any particular morning; and that was what vexed me so, that I should have been silly and set my heart on it.  That was what made me cry, Mr. White, I was so vexed with myself,” stoutly asserted Mercy, beginning to feel braver and more like herself.

Stephen looked her full in the face without speaking for a moment.  Then,-

“May I call you Mercy?” he said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“May I say to you exactly what I am thinking?”

“Yes,” she replied again, a little more hesitatingly.

“Then, Mercy, this is what I want to say to you,” said Stephen, earnestly.  “There is no reason why you and I should try to deceive each other or ourselves.  I care very, very much for you, and you care very much for me.  We have come very close to each other, and neither of our lives can ever be the same again.  What is in store for us in all this we cannot now see; but it is certain we are very much to each other.”

He spoke more and more slowly and earnestly; his eyes fixed on the distant horizon instead of on Mercy’s face.  A deep sadness gradually gathered on his countenance, and his last words were spoken more in the tone of one who felt a new exaltation of suffering than of one who felt the new ecstasy of a lover.  Looking down into Mercy’s face, with a tenderness which made her very heart thrill, he said,-

“Tell me, Mercy, is it not so?  Are we not very much to each other?”

The strange reticence of his tone, even more reticent than his words, had affected Mercy inexplicably:  it was as if a chill wind had suddenly blown at noonday, and made her shiver in spite of full sunlight.  Her tone was almost as reticent and sad as his, as she said, without raising her eyes,-

“I think it is true.”

“Please look up at me, Mercy,” said Stephen.  “I want to feel sure that you are not sorry I care so much for you.”

“How could I be sorry?” exclaimed Mercy, lifting her eyes suddenly, and looking into Stephen’s face with all the fulness of affection of her glowing nature.  “I shall never be sorry.”

“Bless you for saying that, dear!” said Stephen, solemnly,-“bless you.  You should never be sorry a moment in your life, if I could help it; and now, dear, I must leave you,” he said, looking uneasily about.  “I ought not to have brought you into this lane.  If people were to see us walking here, they would think it strange.”  And, as they reached the entrance of the lane, his manner suddenly became most ceremonious; and, extending his hand to assist her over a drift of snow, he said in tones unnecessarily loud and formal, “Good-morning, Mrs. Philbrick.  I am glad to have helped you through these drifts.  Good-morning,” and was gone.

Mercy stood still, and looked after him for a moment with a blank sense of bewilderment.  His sudden change of tone and manner smote her like a blow.  She comprehended in a flash the subterfuge in it, and her soul recoiled from it with incredulous pain.  “Why should he be afraid to have people see us together?  What does it mean?  What reason can he possibly have?” Scores of questions like these crowded on her mind, and hurt her sorely.  Her conjecture even ran so wide as to suggest the possibility of his being engaged to another woman,-some old and mistaken promise by which he was hampered.  Her direct and honest nature could conceive of nothing less than this which could explain his conduct.  Restlessly her imagination fastened on this solution of the problem, and tortured her in vain efforts to decide what would be right under such circumstances.

The day was a long, hard one for Mercy.  The more she thought, conjectured, remembered, and anticipated, the deeper grew her perplexity.  All the joy which she had at first felt in the consciousness that Stephen loved her died away in the strain of these conflicting uncertainties:  and it was a grave and almost stern look with which she met him that night, when, with an eager bearing, almost radiant, he entered her door.

He felt the change at once, and, stretching both his hands towards her, exclaimed,-

“Mercy, my dear, new, sweet friend! are you not well to-night?”

“Oh, yes, thank you.  I am very well,” replied Mercy, in a tone very gentle, but with a shade of reserve in it.

Stephen’s face fell.  The expression of patient endurance which was habitual to it, and which Mercy knew so well, and found always so irresistibly appealing, settled again on all his features.  Without speaking, he drew his chair close to the hearth, and looked steadfastly into the fire.  Some minutes passed in silence.  Mercy felt the tears coming again into her eyes.  What was this intangible but inexorable thing which stood between this man’s soul and hers?  She could not doubt that he loved her; she knew that her whole soul went out towards him with a love of which she had never before had even a conception.  It seemed to her that the words he had spoken and she had received had already wrought a bond between them which nothing could hinder or harm.  Why should they sit thus silent by each other’s side to-night, when so few hours ago they were full of joy and gladness?  Was it the future or the past which laid this seal on Stephen’s lips?  Mercy was not wont to be helpless or inert.  She saw clearly, acted quickly always; but here she was powerless, because she was in the dark.  She could not even grope her way in this mystery.  At last Stephen spoke.

“Mercy,” he said, “perhaps you are already sorry that I care so much for you.  You said yesterday you never would be.”

“Oh, no, indeed!  I am not,” said Mercy.  “I am very glad you care so much for me.”

“Perhaps you have discovered that you do not care so much for me as you yesterday thought you did.”

“Oh, no, no!” replied poor Mercy, in a low tone.

Again Stephen was silent for a long time.  Then he said,-

“Ever since I can remember, I have longed for a perfect and absorbing friendship.  The peculiar relations of my life have prevented my even hoping for it.  My father’s and my mother’s friends never could be my friends.  I have lived the loneliest life a mortal man ever lived.  Until I saw you, Mercy, I had never even looked on the face of a woman whom it seemed possible to me that any man could love.  Perhaps, when I tell you that, you can imagine what it was to me to look on the face of a woman whom it seems to me no man could help loving.  I suppose many men have loved you, Mercy, and many more men will.  I do not think any man has ever felt for you, or ever will feel for you, as I feel.  My love for you includes every love the heart can know,-the love of father, brother, friend, lover.  Young as I am, you seem to me like my child, to be taken care of; and you seem like my sister, to be trusted and loved; and like my friend, to be leaned upon.  You see what my life is.  You see the burden which I must carry, and which none can share.  Do you think that the friendship I can give you can be worth what it would ask?  I feel withheld and ashamed as I speak to you.  I know how little I can do, how little I can offer.  To fetter you by a word would be base and selfish; but, oh, Mercy, till life brings you something better than my love, let me love you, if it is only till to-morrow!”

Mercy listened to each syllable Stephen spoke, as one in a wilderness, flying for his life from pursuers, would listen to every sound which could give the faintest indications which way safety might lie.  If she had listened dispassionately to such words, spoken to any other woman, her native honesty of soul would have repelled them as unfair.  But every instinct of her nature except the one tender instinct of loving was disarmed and blinded,-disarmed by her affection for Stephen, and blinded by her profound sympathy for his suffering.

She fixed her eyes on him as intently as if she would read the very thoughts of his heart.

“Do you understand me, Mercy?” he said.

“I think I do,” she replied in a whisper.

“If you do not now, you will as time goes on,” he continued.  “I have not a thought I am unwilling for you to know; but there are thoughts which it would be wrong for me to put into words.  I stand where I stand; and no mortal can help me, except you.  You can help me infinitely.  Already the joy of seeing you, hearing you, knowing that you are near, makes all my life seem changed.  It is not very much for you to give me, Mercy, after all, out of the illimitable riches of your beauty, your brightness, your spirit, your strength,-just a few words, just a few smiles, just a little love,-for the few days, or it may be years, that fate sets us by each other’s side?  And you, too, need a friend, Mercy.  Your duty to another has brought you where you are singularly alone, for the time being, just as my duty to another has placed me where I must be singularly alone.  Is it not a strange chance which has thus brought us together?”

“I do not believe any thing is chance,” murmured Mercy.  “I must have been sent here for something.”

“I believe you were, dear,” said Stephen, “sent here for my salvation.  I was thinking last night that, no matter if my life should end without my ever knowing what other men call happiness, if I must live lonely and alone to the end, I should still have the memory of you,-of your face, of your hand, and the voice in which you said you cared for me.  O Mercy, Mercy! you have not the least conception of what you are to me!” And Stephen stretched out both his arms to her, with unspeakable love in the gesture.

So swiftly that he had not the least warning of her intention, Mercy threw herself into them, and laid her head on his shoulder, sobbing.  Shame filled her soul, and burned in her cheeks, when Stephen, lifting her as he would a child, and kissing her forehead gently, placed her again in her chair, and said,-

“My darling, I cannot let you do that.  I will never ask from you any thing that you can by any possibility come to regret at some future time.  I ought perhaps to be unselfish enough not to ask from you any thing at all.  I did not mean to; but I could not help it, and it is too late now.”

“Yes, it is too late now,” said Mercy,-“too late now.”  And she buried her face in her hands.

“Mercy,” exclaimed Stephen, in a voice of anguish, “you will break my heart:  you will make me wish myself dead, if you show such suffering as this.  I thought that you, too, could find joy, and perhaps help, in my love, as I could in yours.  If it is to give you pain and not happiness, it were better for you never to see me again.  I will never voluntarily look on your face after to-night, if you wish it,-if you would be happier so.”

“Oh, no, no!” cried Mercy.  Then, overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the pain she was giving to a man whom she so loved that at that moment she would have died to shield him from pain, she lifted her face, shook back the hair from her forehead, and, looking bravely into his eyes, repeated,-

“No, no!  I am very selfish to feel like this.  I do understand you.  I understand it all; and I will help you, and comfort you all I can.  And I do love you very dearly,” she added in a lower voice, with a tone of such incomparable sweetness that it took almost superhuman control on Stephen’s part to refrain from clasping her to his heart.  But he did not betray the impulse, even by a gesture.  Looking at her with an expression of great thankfulness, he said,-

“I believe that peace will come to us, Mercy.  I believe I can do something to make you happy.  To know that I love you as I do will be a great deal to you, I think.”  He paused.

“Yes,” answered Mercy, “a great deal.”  He went on,-

“And to know that you are perpetually helping and cheering me will be still more to you, I think.  We shall know some joys, Mercy, which joyous lovers never know.  Happy people do not need each other as sad people do.  O Mercy, do try and remember all the time that you are the one bright thing in my life,-in my whole life.”

“I will, Stephen, I will,” said Mercy, resolutely, her whole face glowing with the new purposes forming in her heart.  It was marvellous how clear the relation between herself and Stephen began to seem to her.  It was rather by her magnetic consciousness of all that he was thinking and feeling than by the literal acceptance of any thing or all things which he said.  She seemed to herself to be already one with him in all his trials, burdens, perplexities; in his renunciation; in his self-sacrifice; in his loyalty of reticence; in his humility of uncomplainingness.

When she bade him “good-night,” her face was not only serene:  it was serene with a certain exaltation added, as the face of one who had entered into a great steadfastness of joy.  Stephen wondered greatly at this transition from the excitement and grief she had at first shown.  He had yet to learn what wellsprings of strength lie in the poetic temperament.

As he stood lingering on the threshold, finding it almost impossible to turn away while the sweet face held him by the honest gaze of the loving eyes, he said,

“There will be many times, dear, when things will have to be very hard, when I shall not be able to do as you would like to have me, when you may even be pained by my conduct.  Shall you trust me through it all?”

“I shall trust you till the day of my death,” said Mercy, impetuously.  “One can’t take trust back.  It isn’t a gift:  it is a necessity.”

Stephen smiled,-a smile of sorrow rather than gladness.

“But if you thought me other than you had believed?” he said.

“I could never think you other than you are,” replied Mercy, proudly.  “It is not that I ‘believe’ you.  I know you.  I shall trust you to the day of my death.”

Perhaps nothing could illustrate better the difference between Mercy Philbrick’s nature and Stephen White’s, between her love for him and his for her, than the fact that, after this conversation, she lay awake far into the early hours of the morning, living over every word that he had spoken, looking resolutely and even joyously into the strange future which was opening before her, and scanning with loving intentness every chance that it could possibly hold for her ministrations to him.  He, on the other hand, laid his head on his pillow with a sense of dreamy happiness, and sank at once into sleep, murmuring,-

“The darling! how she does love me!  She shall never regret it,-never.  We can have a great deal of happiness together as it is; and if the time ever should come,” ...

Here his thoughts halted, and refused to be clothed in explicit phrase.  Never once had Stephen White permitted himself to think in words, even in his most secret meditations, “When my mother dies, I shall be free.”  His fine fastidiousness would shrink from it, as from the particular kind of brutality and bad taste involved in a murder.  If the whole truth could have been known of Stephen’s feeling about all crimes and sins, it would have been found to be far more a matter of taste than of principle, of instinct than of conviction.

Surely never in this world did love link together two souls more diametrically opposite than Mercy Philbrick’s and Stephen White’s.  It needed no long study or especial insight into character to know which of the two would receive the more and suffer the less, in the abnormal and unfortunate relation on which they had entered.  But no presentiment warned Mercy of what lay before her.  She was like a traveller going into a country whose language he has never heard, and whose currency he does not understand.  However eloquent he may be in his own land, he is dumb and helpless here; and of the fortune with which he was rich at home he is robbed at every turn by false exchanges which impose on his ignorance.  Poor Mercy!  Vaguely she felt that life was cruel to Stephen and to her; but she accepted its cruelty to her as an inevitable part of her oneness with him.  Whatever he had to bear she must bear too, especially if he were helped by her sharing the burden.  And her heart glowed with happiness, recalling the expression with which he had said,-

“Remember, Mercy, you are the one bright thing in my life.”

She understood, or thought she understood, precisely the position in which he was placed.

“Very possibly he has even promised his mother,” she said to herself, “even promised her he would never be married.  It would be just like her to exact such a promise from him, and never think any thing of it.  And, even if he has not, it is all the same.  He knows very well no human being could live in the house with her, to say nothing of his being so terribly poor.  Poor, dear Stephen! to think of our little rent being more than half his income!  Oh, if there were only some way in which I could contrive to give him money without his knowing it.”

If any one had said to Mercy at this time:  “It was not honorable in this man, knowing or feeling that he could not marry you, to tell you of his love, and to allow you to show him yours for him.  He is putting you in a false position, and may be blighting your whole life,” Mercy would have repelled the accusation most indignantly.  She would have said:  “He has never asked me for any such love as that.  He told me most honestly in the very beginning just how it was.  He always said he would never fetter me by a word; and, once when I forgot myself for a moment, and threw myself into his very arms, he only kissed my forehead as if I were his sister, and put me away from him almost with a reproof.  No, indeed! he is the very soul of honor.  It is I who choose to love him with all my soul and all my strength.  Why should not a woman devote her life to a man without being his wife, if she chooses, and if he so needs her?  It is just as sacred and just as holy a bond as the other, and holier, too; for it is more unselfish.  If he can give up the happiness of being a husband and father, for the sake of his duty to his mother, cannot I give up the happiness of being a wife and mother, for the sake of my affection and duty towards him?”

It looked very plain to Mercy in these first days.  It looked right, and it seemed very full of joy.  Her life seemed now rounded and complete.  It had a ruling motive, without which no life is satisfying; and that motive was the highest motive known to the heart,-the desire to make another human being perfectly happy.  All hindrances and difficulties, all drawbacks and sacrifices, seemed less than nothing to her.  When she saw Stephen, she was happy because she saw him; and when she did not see him, she was happy because she had seen him, and would soon see him again.  Past, present, and future all melt into one great harmonious whole under the spell of love in a nature like Mercy’s.  They are like so many rooms in one great house; and in one or the other the loved being is always to be found, always at home, can never depart!  Could one be lonely for a moment in such a house?

Mercy’s perpetual and abiding joy at times terrified Stephen.  It was a thing so foreign to his own nature that it seemed to him hardly natural.  Calm acquiescence he could understand,-serene endurance:  he himself never chafed at the barriers, little or great, which kept him from Mercy.  But there were many days when his sense of deprivation made him sad, subdued, and quiet.  When, in these moods, he came into Mercy’s presence, and found her radiant, buoyant, mirthful even, he wondered; and sometimes he questioned.  He strove to find out the secret of her joy.  There seemed to him no legitimate reason for it.

“Why, to see that I make you glad, Stephen,” she would say.  “Is not that enough?  Or even, when I cannot make you glad, just to love you is enough.”

“Mercy, how did you ever come to love me?” he said once, stung by a sense of his own unworthiness.  “How do you know you love me, after all?”

“How do I know I love you!” she exclaimed.  “Can any one ever tell that, I wonder?  I know it by this:  that every thing in the whole world, even down to the smallest grass-blade, seems to me different because you are alive.”  She said these words with a passionate vehemence, and tears in her eyes.  Then, changing in a second to a mischievous, laughing mood, she said,-

“Yes:  you make all that odds to me.  But let us not talk about loving each other, Stephen.  That’s the way children do with their flower-seeds,-keep pulling them up, to see how they grow.”

That night, Mercy gave Stephen this sonnet,-the first words she had written out of the great wellspring of her love:-

How was it?”

Why ask, dear one?  I think I cannot tell,
More than I know how clouds so sudden lift
From mountains, or how snowflakes float and drift,
Or springs leave hills.  One secret and one spell
All true things have.  No sunlight ever fell
With sound to bid flowers open.  Still and swift
Come sweetest things on earth. 
So comes true gift
Of Love, and so we know that it is well. 
Sure tokens also, like the cloud, the snow,
And silent flowing of the mountain-springs,
The new gift of true loving always brings. 
In clearer light, in purer paths, we go: 
New currents of deep joy in common things
We find.  These are the tokens, dear, we know!