Read CHAPTER X of The Quality of Mercy , free online book, by William Dean Howells, on

In the morning before her sister was astir, Adeline went out to the coachman’s quarters in the stabling, and met the mother of the dead child at the door.  “Come right in!” she said, fiercely, as she set it wide.  “I presume you want to know if there’s anything you can do for me; that’s what they all ask.  Well, there ain’t, unless you can bring him back to life.  I’ve been up and doin’, as usual, this mornin’,” she said, and a sound of frying came from the kitchen where she had left her work to let her visitor in.  “We got to eat; we got to live.”

The farmer’s wife came in from the next chamber, where the little one lay; she had her bonnet and shawl on as if going home after a night’s watching.  She said, “I tell her he’s better off where he’s gone; but she can’t seem to sense the comfort of it.”

“How do you know he’s better off?” demanded the mother, turning upon her.  “It makes me tired to hear such stuff.  Who’s goin’ to take more care of the child where he’s gone, than what his mother could?  Don’t you talk nonsense, Mrs. Saunders!  You don’t know anything about it, and nobody does.  I can bear it; yes, I’ve got the stren’th to stand up against death, but I don’t want any comfort.  You want to see Elbridge, Miss Northwick?  He’s in the harness room, I guess.  He’s got to keep about, too, if he don’t want to go clear crazy.  One thing, he don’t have to stand any comfortin’.  I guess men don’t say such things to each other as women do, big fools as they be!”

Mrs. Saunders gave Miss Northwick a wink of pity for Mrs. Newton and expressed that she was hardly accountable for what she was saying.

“He used to complain of me for lettin’ Arty get out into the stable among the horses; but I guess he won’t be troubled that way much more,” said the mother; and then something in Miss Northwick’s face seemed to stay her in her wild talk; and she asked, “Want I should call him for you?”

“No, no,” said Adeline, “I’ll go right through to him, myself.”  She knew the way from the coachman’s dwelling into the stable, and she found Elbridge oiling one of the harnesses, with a sort of dogged attention to the work, which he hardly turned from to look at her.  “Elbridge,” she asked, “did you drive father to the depot yesterday morning?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.”

“When did he say he would be back?”

“Well, he said he couldn’t say, exactly.  But I understood in a day or two.”

“Did he expect to be anywhere but Ponkwasset?”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t hear him say as he did.”

“Then it’s a mistake; and of course I knew it was a mistake.  There’s more than one Northwick in the world, I presume.”  She laughed a little hysterically; she had a newspaper in her hand, and it shook with the nervous tremor that passed over her.

“Why, what is it, Miss Northwick?” said Elbridge with a perception of the trouble in her voice through the trouble in his own heart.  He stopped pulling the greasy sponge over the trace in his hand, and turned towards her.

“Oh, nothing.  There’s been an accident on the Union and Dominion Railroad; and of course it’s a mistake.”

She handed him the paper, folded to the column which she wished to show, and he took it between two finger-tips, so as to soil it as little as possible, and stood reading it.  She went on saying, “He wouldn’t be on the train if he was at Ponkwasset; I got the paper when I first came down stairs, but I didn’t happen to read the account till just now; and then I thought I’d run out and see what father said to you about where he was going.  He told us he was going to the Mills, too, and — ” Her voice growing more and more wistful, died away in the fascination of watching the fascination of Elbridge as he first took in the half-column of scare-heads, and then followed down to the meagre details of the dispatch eked out with double-leading to cover space.

It appeared that the Northern express had reached Wellwater Junction, on the Union and Dominion line, several hours behind time, and after the usual stop there for supper, had joined the Boston train, on the United States and Canada, for Montreal, and had, just after leaving the Junction, run off the track.  “The deadly car stove got in its work” on the wreck, and many lives had been lost by the fire, especially in the parlor car.  It was impossible to give a complete list of the killed and wounded, but several bodies were identified, and among the names of passengers in the Pullman that of T. W. Northwick was reported, from a telegram received by the conductor at Wellwater asking to have a seat reserved from that point to Montreal.

“It ain’t him, I know it ain’t, Miss Northwick,” said Elbridge.  He offered to give her the paper, but took another look at it before he finally yielded it.  “There’s lots of folks of the same name, I don’t care what it is, and the initials ain’t the ones.”

“No,” she said, doubtfully, “but I didn’t like the last name being the same.”

“Well, you can’t help that; and as long as it ain’t the initials, and you know your father is safe and sound at the Mills, you don’t want to worry.”

“No,” said Adeline.  “You’re sure he told you he was going to the Mills?”

“Why, didn’t he tell you he was?  I don’t recollect just what he said.  But he told me about that note he left for me, and that had the money in it for the fun’al — ” Elbridge stopped for a moment before he added, “He said he’d telegraph just which train he wanted me to meet him when he was comin’ back....  Why, dumn it!  I guess I must be crazy.  We can settle it in half an hour’s time — or an hour or two at the outside — and no need to worry about it.  Telegraph to the Mills and find out whether he’s there or not.”

He dropped his harness, and went to the telephone and called up the Western Union operator at the station.  He had the usual telephonic contention with her as to who he was, and what he wanted, but he got her at last to take his dispatch to Ponkwasset Falls, asking whether Northwick was at the Mills.

“There!” he said, “I don’t believe but what that’ll fix it all right.  And I’ll bring you in the answer myself, when it comes, Miss Northwick.”

“I do hate to trouble you with my foolishness, when — ”

“I guess you needn’t mind about that,” said Elbridge.  “I guess it wouldn’t make much difference to me, if the whole world was burnt up.  Be a kind of a relief.”  He did not mean just the sense the words conveyed, and she, in her preoccupation with her own anxiety, and her pity for him, interpreted them aright.

She stayed to add, “I don’t know what he could have been on that train for, any way, do you?”

“No, and he wa’n’t on it; you’ll find that out.”

“It’ll be very provoking,” she said, forecasting the minor trouble of the greater trouble’s failure.  “Everybody will wonder if it isn’t father, and we shall have to tell them it isn’t.”

“Well, that won’t be so bad as havin’ to tell ’em it is,” said Elbridge, getting back for the moment to his native dryness.

“That’s true,” Adeline admitted.  “Don’t speak to anybody about it till you hear.”  She knew from his making no answer that he would obey her, and she hid the paper in her pocket, as if she would hide the intelligence it bore from all the rest of the world.

She let Suzette sleep late, after the fatigues of her day in Boston and the excitement of their talk at night, which she suspected had prevented the girl from sleeping early.  Elbridge’s sympathetic incredulity had comforted her, if it had not convinced her, and she possessed herself in such patience as she could till the answer should come from the mills.  If her father were there, then it would be all right; and in the meantime she found some excuses for not believing the worst she feared.  There was no reason in the world why he should be on that train; there was no reason why she should identify him with that T. W. Northwick in the burnt-up car; that was not his name, and that was not the place where he would have been.