The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter IV. Disgrace.
For of fortune's sharp adversitie The worst kind of infortune is this: A man that hath been in prosperitie, And it remember when it passed is. -- Chaucer.
Harry Glen's perfect self-complacency did not molt a feather when the victors returned to camp flushed with their triumph, which, in the eyes of those inexperienced three-months men, had the dimensions of Waterloo. He did not know that in proportion as they magnified their exploit, so was the depth of their contempt felt for those of their comrades who had declined to share the perils and the honors of the expedition with them. He was too thoroughly satisfied with himself and his motives to even imagine that any one could have just cause for complaint at anything he chose to do.
This kept him from understanding or appreciating the force of the biting innuendoes and sarcasms which were made to his very face; and he had stood so aloof from all, that there was nobody who cared to take the friendly trouble of telling him how free the camp conversation was making with his reputation.
He could not help, however, understanding that in some way he had lost caste with the regiment: but he serenely attributed this to mean-spirited jealousy of the superior advantages he was enjoying, and it only made him more anxious for the coming of the time when he could "cut the whole mob of beggars," as Ned Burnleigh phrased it."
A few days more would end the regiment's term of service, and he readily obtained permission to return him in advance.
The first real blow his confidence received was when he walked down the one principal street of Sardis, and was forced to a perception of the fact that there was an absence of that effusive warmth with which the Sardis people had ever before welcomed back their young townsman, of whose good looks and gentlemanliness they had always been proud. Now people looked at him in a curious way. They turned to whisper to each other, with sarcastic smiles and knowing winks, as he came into view, and they did not come forward to offer him their hands as of old. It astonished him that nobody alluded to the company or to anything that had happened to it.
Turning at length from the main street, he entered the lateral one leading to his home. As he did so, he heard one boy call out to another in that piercing treble which boys employ in making their confidential communications to one another, across a street,
"S-a-y-, did you know that Hank Glen 'd got back? and they say he looks pale yet?"
"Has he?" the reply came in high falsetto, palpably tinged with that fine scorn of a healthy boy, for anything which does not exactly square with his young highness's ideas. "Come back to mammy, eh? Well, it's a pity she ever let him go away from her. Hope she'll keep him with her now. He don't seem to do well out of reach of her apron strings."
The whole truth flashed upon him: Envious ones had slandered him at home, as a coward.
He walked onward in a flurry of rage. The thought that he had done anything to deserve criticism could not obtrude itself between the joints of his triple-plated armor of self-esteem.
A swelling contempt for his village critics flushed his heart.
"Spiteful, little-minded country boobies," he said to himself with an impatient shake of his head, as if to adjust his hair, which was his usual sign of excitement, "they've always hated me because I was above them. They take advantage of the least opportunity to show their mean jealousy."
After a moment's pause: "But I don't care. I'd a little rather have their dislike than their good-will. It'll save me a world of trouble in being polite to a lot of curs that I despise. I'm going to leave this dull little burg anyhow, as soon as I can get away. I'm going to Cincinnati, and be with Ned Burnleigh. There is more life there in a day than here in a year. After all, there's nobody here that I care anything for, except father and mother--and--Rachel."
A new train of thought introduced itself at this tardy remembrance of his betrothed. His heat abated. He stopped, and leaning against a shady silver maple began anew a meditation that had occupied his mind very frequently since that memorable night under the old apple tree on the hill-top.
There had been for him but little of that spiritual exaltation which made that night the one supreme one in Rachel's existence; when the rapture of gratified pride and love blended with the radiant moonlight and the subtle fragrance of the flowers into a sweet symphony that would well chord with the song the stars sang together in the morning.
He was denied the pleasure that comes from success, after harrowing doubts and fears. His unfailing consciousness of his own worth had left him little doubt that a favorable answer would promptly follow when he chose to propose to Rachel Bond, or to any other girl, and when this came with the anticipated readiness, he could not help in the midst of his gratification at her assent the intrusion of the disagreeable suspicion that, peradventure, he had not done the best with his personal wares that he might. Possibly there would appear in time some other girl, whom he might prefer to Rachel, and at all events there was no necessity for his committing himself when he did, for Rachel "would have kept," as Ned Burnleigh coarsely put it, when made the recipient of Harry's confidence.
Three months of companionship with Ned Burnleigh, and daily imbibation of that young man's stories of his wonderful conquests among young women of peerless beauty and exalted social station confirmed this feeling, and led him to wish for at least such slackening of the betrothal tether as would permit excursions into a charmed realm like that where Ned reigned supreme.
For the thousandth time--and in each recurrence becoming a little clearer defined and more urgent--came the question:
"Shall I break with Rachel? How can I? And what possible excuse can I assign for it?"
There came no answer to this save the spurs with which base self-love was pricking the sides of his intent, and he recoiled from it--ashamed of himself, it is true, but less ashamed at each renewed consideration of the query.
He hastened home that he might receive a greeting that would efface the memory of the reception he had met with in the street. There, at least, he would be regarded as a hero, returning laurel-crowned from the conflict.
As he entered the door his father, tall, spare and iron-gray, laid down the paper he was reading, and with a noticeable lowering of the temperature of his wonted calm but earnest cordiality, said simply:
"How do you do? When did you get in?"
"Very well, and on the 10:30 train."
"Did all your company come?"
Harry winced, for there was something in his father's manner, more than his words, expressive of strong disapproval. He answered:
"No; I was unwell. The water and the exposure disagreed with me, and I was allowed to come on in advance."
Mr. Glen, the elder, carefully folded the paper he was reading and laid it on the stand, as if its presence would embarrass him in what he was about to say. He took off his eye-glasses, wiped them deliberately, closed them up and hesitated for a moment, holding them between the thumb and fore finger of one hand, before placing them in their case, which he had taken from his pocket with the other.
These were all gestures with which experience had made Harry painfully familiar. He used to describe them to his boy intimates as "the Governor clearing for action." There was something very disagreeable coming, and he awaited it apprehensively.
"Were you"--the father's cold, searching eyes rested for an instant on the glasses in his hand, and then were fixed on his son's face--"were you too ill the day of the fight to accompany your command?"
Harry's glance quailed under the penetrating scrutiny, as was his custom when his father subjected him to a relentless catechism; then he summoned assurance and assumed anger.
"Father," he said, "I certainly did not expect that you would join these mean-spirited curs in their abuse of me, but now I see that---"
"Henry, you evade the question." The calm eyes took on a steely hardness. "You certainly know by this time that I always require direct answers to my questions. Now the point is this: You entered this company to be its leader, and to share all its duties with it. It went into a fight while you remained back in camp. Why was this so? Were you too sick to accompany it?"
"I certainly was not feeling well."
"Were you too ill to go along with your company?"
and--there--was--some--work--in--camp that--needed--to--be--done--and there was enough without me, and--I--I--"
"That is sufficient," said the elder man with a look of scorn that presently changed into one of deeply wounded pride. "Henry, I know too well your disposition to shirk the unpleasant duties of life, to be much surprised that, when tried by this test, you were found wanting. But this wounds me deeply. People in Sardis think my disposition hard and exacting; they think I care for little except to get all that is due me. But no man here can say that in all his long life Robert Glen shirked or evaded a single duty that he owed to the community or his fellow-men, no matter how dangerous or disagreeable that duty might be. To have you fail in this respect and to take and maintain your place in the front rank with other men is a terrible blow to my pride."
"O, Harry, is that you?" said his mother, coming into the room at that moment and throwing herself into her son's arms. "I was lying down when I heard your voice, and I dressed and hurried down as quickly as possible. I am so glad that you have come home all safe and well. I know that you'll contradict, for your poor mother's sake, all these horrible stories that are worrying her almost to death."
"Unfortunately he has just admitted that those stories are substantially true," said the father curtly.
"I won't believe it," sobbed his mother, "until he tells me so himself. You didn't, did you, back out of a fight, and let that Bob Bennett, whose mother used to be my sewing girl, and whom I supported for months after he was born, and his father died with the cholera and left her nothing, by giving her work and paying her cash, and who is now putting on all sorts of airs because everybody's congratulating her on having such a wonderful son, and nobody's congratulating me at all, and sometimes I almost which I was dead.
Clearness of statement was never one of Mrs. Glen's salient characteristics. Nor did deep emotion help her in this regard. Still it was only too evident that the fountains of her being were moved by having another woman's son exalted over her own. Her maternal pride and social prestige were both quivering under the blow.
Harry met this with a flank movement.
"You both seem decidedly disappointed that I did not get myself wounded or killed," he said.
"That's an unmanly whimper," said his father contemptuously.
"Why, Harry, Bob Bennett didn't get either killed or wounded," said his mother with that defective ratiocination which it is a pretty woman's privilege to indulge in at her own sweet will.
Harry withdrew from the mortifying conference under the plea of the necessity of going to his room to remove the grime of travel.
He was smarting with rage and humiliation. His panoply of conceit was pierced for the first time since the completion of his collegiate course sent him forth into the world a being superior, in his own esteem, to the accidents and conditions that the mass of inferior mortals are subject to. Yet he found reasons to account for his parent's defection to the ranks of his enemies.
"It's no new thing," he said, while carefully dressing for a call upon Rachel in the evening, "for father to be harsh and unjust to me, and mother has one of her nervous spells, when everything goes wrong with her."
"Anyhow," he continued, "there's Ned Burnleigh, who understands me and will do me justice, and he amounts to more than all of Sardis--except Rachel, who loves me and will always believe that what I do is right."
He sat down at his desk and wrote a long letter to Ned, inveighing bitterly against the stupidity and malice of people living in small villages, and informing him of his intention to remove to Cincinnati as soon as an opening could be found for him there, which he begged Ned to busy himself in discovering.
Attired in his most becoming garb, and neglecting nothing that could enhance his personal appearance, he walked slowly up the hill in the evening to Rachel Bond's house. The shrinkage which his self-sufficiency had suffered had left room for a wonderful expansion of his affection for Rachel, whose love and loyalty were now essential to him, to compensate for the falling away of others. The question of whether he should break with her was now one the answering of which could be postponed indefinitely. There was no reason why he should not enjoy the sweet privileges of an affianced lover during his stay in Sardis. What would happen afterward would depend upon the shape that things took in his new home.
He found Rachel sitting on the piazza. Though dressed in the deepest and plainest black she had never looked so surpassingly beautiful. As is usually the case with young women of her type of beauty, grief had toned down the rich coloring that had at times seemed almost too exuberant into that delicate shell-like tint which is the perfection of nature's painting. Her round white arms shone like Juno's, as the outlines were revealed by the graceful motions which threw back the wide sleeves. Her wealth of silken black hair was drawn smoothly back from her white forehead, over her shapely head, and gathered into a simple knot behind. Save a black brooch at her throat, she wore no ornaments--not even a plain ring.
She rose as Harry came upon the piazza, and for a moment her face was rigid with intensity of feeling. This evidence of emotion went as quickly as it came, however, and she extended her hand with calm dignity, saying simply:
"You have returned, Mr. Glen."
In his anxiety to so play the impassioned lover as to conceal the recreancy he had fostered in his own heart, Harry did not notice the coolness of this greeting. Then, too, his self-satisfaction had always done him the invaluable service of preventing a ready perception of the repellant attitudes of others.
He came forward eagerly to press a kiss upon her lips, but she checked him with uplifted hand.
"O, the family's in there, are they?" said he, looking toward the open windows of the parlor. "Well, what matter? Isn't it expected that a fellow will kiss his affianced wife on his return, and not care who knows it?"
He pointed to the old apple-tree where they had plighted their troth that happy night, with a gesture and a look that was a reminder of their former meeting and an invitation to go thither again. She comprehended, but refused with a shudder, and, turning, motioned him to the farther end of the piazza, to which she led the way, moving with a sweeping gracefulness of carriage that Harry thought had wonderfully ripened and perfected in the three months that had elapsed since their parting.
"'Fore gad," he said to himself. (This was a new addition to his expletory vocabulary, which had accrued from Ned Burnleigh's companionship.) "I'd like to put her alongside of one of the girls that Ned's always talking about. I don't believe she's got her equal anywhere."
Arriving at the end of the piazza he impetuously renewed his attempt at an embrace, but her repulse was now unmistakable.
"Sit down," she said, pointing to a chair; "I have something to say to you."
Harry's first thought was a rush of jealously. "Some rascal has supplanted me," he said bitterly, but under his breath.
She took a chair near by, put away the arm he would have placed about her waist, drew from her pocket a dainty handkerchief bordered with black, and opened it deliberately. It shed a delicate odor of violets.
Harry waited anxiously for her to speak.
"This mourning which I wear," she began gently, "I put on when I received the news of your downfall."
"My downfall?" broke in Harry hotly. "Great heavens, you don't say that you, too, have been carried away by this wretched village slander?"
"I put it on," she continued, unmindful of the interruption, "because I suffered a loss which was greater than any merely physical death could have occasioned."
"I don't understand you."
"My faith in you as a man superior to your fellows died then. This was a much more cruel blow than your bodily death would have been."
"'Fore gad, you take a pleasant view of my decease--a much cooler one, I must confess, than I am able to take of that interesting event in my history."
Her great eyes blazed, and she seemed about to reply hotly, but she restrained herself and went on with measured calmness:
"The reason I selected you from among all other men, and loved you, and joyfully accepted as my lot in life to be your devoted wife and helpmate, was that I believed you superior in all manly things to other men. Without such a belief I could love no man."
She paused for an instant, and Harry managed to stammer:
"But what have I done to deserve being thrown over in this unexpected way?"
"You have not done anything. That is the trouble. You have failed to do that which was rightfully expected of you. You have allowed others, who had no better opportunities, to surpass you in doing your manly duty. Whatever else my husband may not be he must not fail in this."
"Rachel, you are hard and cruel."
"No, I am only kind to you and to myself. I know myself too well to make a mistake in this respect. I have seen too many women who have been compelled to defend, apologize, or blush for their husband's acts, and have felt too keenly the abject misery of their lives to take the least chance of adding myself to their sorrowful number. If I were married to you I could endure to be beaten by you and perhaps love you still, but the moment I was compelled to confess your inferiority to some other woman's husband I should hate you, and in the end drag both of us down to miserable graves."
"But let me explain this."
"It would be a waste of time," she answered coldly. "It is sufficient for me to know that you are convicted by general opinion of having failed where a number of commonplace fellows succeeded. You, yourself, admit the justice of this verdict by tame submission to it, making no effort to retrieve your reputation. I can not understand how this could be so if you had any of the qualities that I fondly imagined you possessed in a high degree. But this interview is being protracted to a painful extent. Let us say good night and part."
"Forever?" he stammered.
She held out her hand for farewell. Harry caught it and would have carried it to his lips, but she drew it away.
"No; all that must be ended now," she said, with the first touch of gentleness that had shaded her sad, serious eyes.
"Will you give me no hope?" said Harry, pleadingly.
"When you can make people forget the past--if ever--" she said, "then I will change this dress and you can come back to me."
She bowed and entered the house.