The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XXVI. Peace to this House
Mrs. Remsen and her delicate daughter had driven away to avoid excitement and the night air.
Chauncey hovered round the piazza steps, talking, with but little encouragement, to Miss Sallie and the young man who had become the centre of all eyes.
"I don't see how anybody on the face of the earth could blame her, nor me either!" Chauncey protested. "If the critter wanted to git out, why couldn't he say so? I stood there holdin' the door open much as five minutes. 'Who's in there?' I says. I called it loud enough to wake the dead. 'Nobody wants to hurt ye,' says I. There want nothing to be afraid of. He hadn't done nothing anyway. It's the strangest case ever I heard tell of. And the doctor don't think he was much crazy either."
"Can he live?" asked Miss Sallie.
"He's alive now, but doctor don't know how long he'll last. There he comes now. I must go and git his horse."
The doctor, who seemed nervous,--he was a young local practitioner,--asked to speak with Miss Sallie's hero apart.
"Did Mrs. Bogardus say anything when she first saw that man? Did you notice what she said?--how she took it?"
The hero, who was also a gentleman, looked at the doctor coolly.
"It was not a nice thing," he said. "I saw just as little as I could."
"You don't understand me," said the doctor. "I want to know if Mrs. Bogardus appeared to you to have made any discovery--received any shock not to be accounted for by--by what you both saw?"
"I shouldn't attempt to answer such a question," said the youngster bluntly. "I never saw Mrs. Bogardus in my life before to-day."
The doctor colored. "Mrs. Bogardus has given me a telegram to send, and I don't know whether to send it or not. It's going to make a whole lot of talk. I am not much acquainted with Mrs. Bogardus myself, except by hearsay. That's partly what surprises me. It looks a little reckless to send out such a message as that, by the first hand that comes along. Hadn't we better give her time to think it over?" He opened the telegram for the other to read. "The man himself can't speak. But he just pants for breath every time she comes near him: he tries to hide his face. He acts like a criminal afraid of being caught."
"He didn't look that way to me--what was left of him. Not in the least like a criminal."
"Well, no; that's a fact, too. Now they've got him laid out clean and neat, he looks as if he might have been a very decent sort of man. But that, you know--that's incredible. If she knows him, why doesn't he know her? Why won't he own her? He's afraid of her. His eyes are ready to burst out of his head whenever she comes near him."
"Did Mrs. Bogardus write that telegram herself?"
"And what did she tell you to do with it?"
"Send it to her son."
"Then why don't you send it?"
This was the disputed message: "Come. Your father has been found. Bring Doctor Gainsworth."
In the local man's opinion, the writer of that dispatch was Doctor Gainsworth's true patient. What could induce a woman in Mrs. Bogardus's position to give such hasty publicity to this shocking disclosure, allowing it were true? The more he dwelt on it the less he liked the responsibility he was taking. He discussed it openly; and, with the best intentions, this much-impressed young man gave out his own counter-theory of the case, hoping to forestall whatever mischief might have been done. He put himself in the place of Mr. Paul Bogardus, whom he liked extremely, and tried to imagine that young gentleman's state of mind when he should look upon this new-found parent, and learn the manner of his resurrection.
This was the explanation he boldly set forth in behalf of those most nearly concerned. [He was getting up his diagnosis for an interesting half hour with the great doctor who had been called in consultation.] The shock of that awful discovery in the locked chamber, he attested, had put Mrs. Bogardus temporarily beside herself. Outwardly composed, her nerves were ripped and torn by the terrible sight that met her eyes. She was the prey of an hallucination founded on memories of former suffering, which had worn a channel for every fresh fear to seek. There was something truly noble and loyal and pathetic in the nature of her possession. It threw a softened light upon her past. How must she have brooded, all these years, for that one thought to have ploughed so deep! It was quite commonly known in the neighborhood that she had come back from the West years ago without her husband, yet with no proof of his death. But who could have believed she would cling for half a lifetime to this forlorn expectancy, depicting her own loss in every sad hulk of humanity cast upon her prosperous shores!
Every one believed she was deceiving herself, but great honor was hers among the neighbors for the plain truth and courage of her astonishing avowal. They had thought her proud, exclusive, hard in the security of wealth. Here she stood by a pauper's bed in the name of simple constancy, stripping herself of all earthly surplusage, exposing her deepest wound, proclaiming the bond--herself its only witness--between her and this speechless wreck, drifting out on the tide of death. She had but to let him go. It was the wild word she had spoken in the name of truth and deathless love that fired the imagination of that slow countryside. It was the touch beyond nature that appeals to the higher sense of a community, and there is no community without a soul.
The straight demands of justice are frequently hard to meet, but its ironies are crushing. Mrs. Bogardus had fallen back on the line of a mother's duty since that moment of personal accountability. She read the unspoken reverence in the eyes of all around her, but she put in no disclaimer. Her past was not her own. She could not sin alone. Only those who have been honest are privileged under all conditions to remain so.
On his arrival with the doctor, Paul endeavored first to see his mother alone. For some reason she would not have it so. She took the unspeakable situation as it came. He was shown into the room where she sat, and by her orders Doctor Gainsworth was with him.
She rose quietly and came to meet them. Placing her hand in her son's arm, and looking towards the bed, she said:--
"Madam!" said Doctor Gainsworth. He had been Mrs. Bogardus's family physician for many years.
"My husband," she repeated.
The doctor appeared to accept the statement. As the three approached the bed Mrs. Bogardus leaned heavily upon her son. Paul released his arm and placed it firmly around her. He felt her shudder. "Mother," he said to her with an indescribable accent that tore her heart.
The doctor began his examination. He addressed his patient as "Mr. Bogardus."
"Mistake," said a low, husky voice from the bed. "This ain't the man."
Doctor Gainsworth pursued his investigations. "What is your name?" he asked the patient suddenly.
The hunted eyes turned with ghastly appeal upon the faces around him.
"Paul, speak to him! Own your father," Mrs. Bogardus whispered passionately.
"It is for him to speak now," said Paul. "When he is well, Doctor," he added aloud, "he will know his own name."
"This man will never be well," the doctor answered. "If there is anything to prove, for or against the identity you claim for him, it will have to be done within a very few days."
Doctor Gainsworth rose and held out his hand. He was a man of delicate perceptions. His respect at that moment for Mrs. Bogardus, though founded on blindest conjecture, was an emotion which the mask of his professional manner could barely conceal. "As a friend, Mrs. Bogardus, I hope you will command me--but you need no doctor here."
"As a friend I ask you to believe me," she said. "This man is my husband. He came back here because this was his home. I cannot tell you any more, but this we expect you and every one who knows"--
The dissenting voice from the bed closed her assertion with a hoarse "No! Not the man."
"Good-by, Mrs. Bogardus," said the doctor. "Don't trouble to explain. You and I have lived too long and seen too much of life not to recognize its fatalities: the mysterious trend in the actions of men and women that cannot be comprised in--in the locking of a door."
"It is of little consequence--what was done, compared to what was not done." This was all the room for truth she could give herself to turn in. The doctor did not try to understand her: yet she had snatched a little comfort from merely uttering the words.
Paul and the doctor dined together, Mrs. Bogardus excusing herself.
"There seems to be an impression here," said the doctor, examining the initials on his fish-fork, "that your mother is indulging an overstrained fancy in this melancholy resemblance she has traced. It does not appear to have made much headway as a fact, which rather surprises me in a country neighborhood. Possibly your doctor here, who seems a very good fellow, has wished to spare the family any unnecessary explanations. If you'll let me advise you, Paul, I would leave it as it is,--open to conjecture. But, in whatever shape this impression may reach you from outside, I hope you won't let it disturb you in the least, so far as it describes your mother's condition. She is one of the few well-balanced women I have had the honor to know."
Paul did not take advantage of the doctor's period. He went on.
"Not that I do know her. Possibly you may not yourself feel that you altogether understand your mother? She has had many demands upon her powers of adaptation. I should imagine her not one who would adapt herself easily, yet, once she had recognized a necessity of that sort, I believe she would fit herself to its conditions with an exacting thoroughness which in time would become almost, one might say, a second, an external self. The 'lendings' we must all of us wear."
"There will be no explanations," said Paul, not coldly, but helplessly.
"Much the best way," said the doctor relieved, and glad to be done with a difficult undertaking. "If we are ever understood in this world, it is not through our own explanations, but in spite of them. My daughters hope to see a good deal of your charming wife this winter. I hear great pleasure expressed at your coming back to town."
"Thank you, Doctor. She will be up this evening. We shall stay here with my mother for a time. It will be her desire to carry out this--recognition--to the end. We must honor her wishes in the matter."
The talk then fell upon the patient's condition. The doctor left certain directions and took shelter in professional platitudes, but his eyes rested with candid kindness upon the young man, and his farewell hand-clasp was a second prolonged.
He went away in a state of simple wonderment, deeply marveling at Paul's serenity.
"Extraordinary poise! Where does it come from? No: the boy is happy! He hides it; but it is the one change in him. He has experienced a great relief. Is it possible"--
On his way down the river the doctor continued to muse upon the dignity, the amazingly beautiful behavior of this rising family in whose somewhat commonplace city fortunes he had taken a friendly interest for years. He owned that he had sounded them with too short a line.
* * * * *
Watching with the dying man hours when she was with him alone, Emily Bogardus continued to test his resolution. He never retracted by a look--faithful to the word she had spoken which made them strangers.
It was the slightest shell of mortality that ever detained a soul on earth. The face, small like the face of an old, old child, waxed finer and more spiritual, yet ever more startlingly did it bear the stamp of that individuality which the spirit had held so cheap--the earthly so impenetrated with the spiritual part that the face had become a sublimation. As one sees a sheet of paper covered with writing wither in flame and become a quivering ash, yet to the last attenuation of its fibre the human characters will stand forth, till all is blown up chimney to the stars.
Still, peaceful, implacable in its peace, settling down for the silence of eternity. Still no sign.
The younger ones came and went. The little boy stole in alone and pushed against his grandmother's knee,--she seated always by the bed,--gazed, puzzled, at the strange, still face, and whispered obediently, "Gran'faver." There was no response. Once she took the boy and drew him close and placed his little tender hand within the dry, crumpled husk extended on the bedclothes. The eyes unclosed and rested long and earnestly on the face of the child, who yawned as if hypnotized and flung his head back on the grandmother's breast. She bent suddenly and laid her own hand where the child's had been. The eyes turned inward and shut again, but a sigh, so deep it seemed that another breath might never come, was all her answer.
Past midnight of the fourth night's watch Paul was awakened by a light in his room. His mother stood beside him, white and worn. "He is going," she said. It was the final rally of the body's resistance. A few moments' expenditure, and that stubborn vitality would loose its hold.--The strength of the soil!
The wife stood aside and gave up her place to the children. Her expression was noble, like a queen rebuked before her people. There was comfort in that, too. A great, solemn, mutual understanding drew this death-bed group together. Within the sickle's compass so they stood: the woman God gave this man to found a home; the son who inherited his father's gentleness and purity of purpose; the fair flower of the generations that father's sacrifice had helped him win; the bud of promise on the topmost bough. Those astonished eyes shed their last earthly light on this human group, turned and rested in the eyes of the woman, faded, and the light went out. He died, blessing her in one whispered word. Her name.
Before daybreak on the morning of the funeral, Paul awoke under pressure of disturbing dreams. There were sounds of hushed movements in the house. He traced them to the door of the room below stairs where his father lay. Some one had softly unlocked that door, and entered. He knew who that one must be. His place was there alone with his mother, before they were called together as a family, and the mask of decency resumed for those ironic rites in the presence of the unaccusing dead.
The windows had been lowered behind closed curtains, and the air of the death chamber, as he entered, was like the touch of chilled iron to the warm pulse of sleep. Without, a still dark night of November had frosted the dead grass.
The unappeasable curiosity of the living concerning the Great Transition, for the moment appeared to have swept all that was personal out of the watcher's gaze, as she bent above the straightened body. And something of the peace there dawning on the cold, still face was reflected in her own.
"You have never seen your father before. There he is." She drew a deep sigh, as if she had been too intent to breathe naturally. All her self-consciousness suddenly was gone. And Paul remembered his dream, that had goaded him out of sleep, and vanished with the shock of waking. It gave him the key to this long-expected moment of confidence.
"The old likeness has come back," his mother repeated, with that new quietness which restored her to herself.
"I dreamed of that likeness," said Paul, "only it was much stronger--startling--so that the room was full of whispers and exclamations as the neighbors--there were hundreds of them--filed past. And you stood there, mother, flushed, and talking to each person who passed and looked at him and then at you; you said--you"--
Mrs. Bogardus raised her head. "I know! I have been thinking all night. Am I to do that? Is that what you wish me to do? Don't hesitate--to spare me."
"Mother! I could not imagine you doing such a thing. It was like insanity. I wanted to tell you how horrible, how unseemly it was, because I was sure you had been dwelling on some form--some outward"--
"No," she said. "I know how I should face this if it were left to me. But you are my only earthly judge, my son. Judge now between us two. Ask of me anything you think is due to him. As to outsiders, what do they matter! I will do anything you say."
"I say! Oh, mother! Every hand he loved was against him--bruising his gentle will. Each one of us has cast a stone upon his grave. But you took the brunt of it. You spoke out plain the denial that was in my coward's heart from the first. And I judged you! I--who uncovered my father's soul to ease my own conscience, and put him to shame and torture, and you to a trial worse than death. Now let us think of the whole of his life. I have much to tell you. You could not listen before; but now he is listening. I speak for him. This is how he loved us!"
In hard, brief words Paul told the story of his father's sin and self-judgment; his abdication in the flesh; what he esteemed the rights to be of a woman placed as he had placed his wife; how carefully he had guarded her in those rights, and perjured himself at the last to leave her free in peace and honor with her children. She listened, not weeping, but with her great eyes shining in her pallid face.
"All that came after," said Paul, taking her cold hands in his--"after his last solemn recantation does not touch the true spirit of his sacrifice. It was finished. My father died to us then as he meant to die. The body remained--to serve out its time, as he said. But his brain was tired. I do not think he connected the past very clearly with the present. I think you should forget what has happened here. It was a hideous net of circumstance that did it."
"There is no such thing as circumstance," said Mrs. Bogardus with loftiness. Her face was calm and sweet in its exaltation. "I cannot say things as you can, but this is what I mean. I was the wife of his body--sworn flesh of his flesh. In the flesh that made us one I denied him, and caused his death. And if I could believe as I used to about punishment, I would lock myself in that room, and for every hour he suffered there, I would suffer two. And no one should prevent me, or hasten the end. And the feet of the young men that carried out my husband who lied to save me, should wait there for me who lied to save myself. All lies are death. But what is a made-up punishment to me! I shall take it as it comes--drop by drop--slowly."
"Mother--my mother! The fashion of this world does not last; but one thing does. Is it nothing to you, mother?"
"Have I my son--after all?" she said as one dreaming.
The night lamp expired in smoke that tainted the cold air. Paul drew back the curtains one by one, and let in the new-born day.
"'Peace to this house,'" he said; "'not as the world giveth,'" his thought concluded.