The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter V. The Lint-scraping and Bandage-making Union.
At length I have acted my severest part: I feel the woman breaking in upon me, And melt about my heart: My tears will flow. -- Addison.
Rachel Bond's will had carried her triumphantly through a terrible ordeal--how terrible no one could guess, unless he followed her to her room after the interview and saw her alone with her agony. She did not weep. Tears did not lie near the surface with her. The lachrymal glands had none of that ready sensitiveness which gives many superficial women the credit of deep feeling. But when she did weep it was not an April shower, but a midsummer tempest.
Now it was as if her intense grief were a powerful cautery which seared and sealed every duct of the fountain of tears and left her eyes hot and dry as her heart was ashes.
With pallid face and lips set until the blood was forced from them, and they made a thin purplish line in the pale flesh, she walked the floor back and forth, ever back and forth, until a half-stumble, as she was turning in a dreary round, revealed to her that she was almost dropping from exhaustion.
She had thought her love for Harry had received its death-blow when her pride in him had been so rudely shattered. But this meeting, in which she played the part set for herself with a brave perfection that she had hardly deemed possible, had resurrected every dear memory, and her passion sprung into life again to mock and jeer at her efforts to throttle it out of existence. With him toppling from the pedestal on which her husband must stand, she had told herself that there was naught left but to roll a great stone against the sepulcher in which her love must henceforth lie buried, hopeless of the coming of any bright angle to unseal the gloomy vault. Yet, despite the entire approval given this by her judgment, her woman's heart cried bitterly for a return of the joys out of which the beauty had fled forever.
Hours passed in this wrestle with pain. How many she did not know, but when she came forth it was with the composure of one who had fought the fight and won the victory, but at a cost that forbade exultation.
There was one ordeal that thus far she had not been called upon to endure. From the day on which she had donned her sable robes to that of Harry's return no one had ventured to speak his name in her presence. Even her father and mother, after the first burst of indignation, had kept silence in pity for her suffering, and there was that in her bearing that forbade others touching upon a subject in her hearing that elsewhere was discussed with the hungry avidity of village gossips masticating a fresh scandal.
But she could not be always spared thus. She had not been so careful of the feelings of less favored women and girls, inferior to her in brightness, as to gain any claim for clement treatment now, when the displacement of a portion of her armor of superiority gave those who envied or disliked her an unprotected spot upon which to launch their irritating little darts.
All the sewing, dorcas and mite societies of the several churches in Sardis had been merged into one consolidated Lint-Scraping and Bandage-Making Union, in whose enlarged confines the waves of gossip flowed with as much more force and volume as other waves gain when the floods unite a number of small pools into one great lake.
In other days a sensational ripple starting, say in the Episcopalian "Dorcas," was stilled into calmness ere it passed the calm and stately church boundaries. It would not do to let its existence be even suspected by the keen eyes of the freely-censorious Presbyterian dames, or the sharp-witted, agile-tongued Methodist ladies.
And, much as these latter were disposed to talk over the weaknesses and foibles of their absent sisters in the confidential environments of the Mite Society or the Sewing Circle, they were as reluctant to expose these to the invidious criticisms of the women of the other churches as if the discussed ones had been their sisters in fact, and not simply through sectarian affiliation. Church pride, if nothing else, contributed to the bridling of their tongues, and checking the free circulation of gossip.
"Them stuck-up Presbyterian and Episcopalian women think little enough on us now, the land knows," Mrs. Deborah Pancake explained to a newly-received sister, whom she was instructing in elementary duties. "There's no use giving 'em more reason for looking down upon us. We may talk over each other's short-comings among ourselves, private like, because the Bible tells us to admonish and watch over each other. But it don't say that we're to give outsiders any chance to speak ill of our sisters-in-Christ."
And Mrs. Euphrosyne Pursifer remarked to the latest agreeable accession to the parish of St. Marks, with that graceful indirection that gave her the reputation in Sardis of being a feminine Talleyrand:
"Undoubtedly the ladies in these outside denominations are very worthy women, dear, but a certain circumspection seems advisable in conversing with them on subjects that we may speak of rather freely among ourselves."
The rising fervor of the war spirit melted away most of these barriers to a free interchange of gossip. With the first thrill of pleasure at finding that patriotism had drawn together those whom the churches had long held aloof came to all the gushing impulse to cement the newly-formed relationship by confiding to each other secrets heretofore jealously guarded. Nor should be forgotten the "narrative stimulus" every one feels on gaining new listeners to old stories.
It was so graciously condescending in Mrs. Euphrosyne Pursifer to communicate to Mrs. Elizabeth Baker some few particulars in which her aristocratic associates of St. Marks had grieved her by not rising to her standard of womanly dignity and Christian duty, that Mrs. Baker in turn was only too happy to reciprocate with a similar confidence in regard to her intimate friends of Wesley Chapel.
It was this sudden lapsing of all restraint that made the waves of gossip surge like sweeping billows.
And the flotsam that appeared most frequently of late on their crests, and that was tossed most relentlessly hither and thither, was Rachel Bond's and Harry Glen's conduct and relations to each other.
The Consolidated Lint-scraping and Bandage-making Union was holding a regular session, and gossip was at spring-tide.
"It is certainly queer," said Mrs. Tufis, one of her regulation smiles illuminating her very artificial countenance; "it is singular to the last degree that we don't have Miss Rachel Bond among us. She is such a lovely girl. I am very, very fond of her, and her heart is thoroughly in unison with our objects. It would seem impossible for her to keep away."
All this with the acrid sub-flavor of irony and insincerity with which an insincere woman can not help tainting even her most sincere words.
"Yes," said Mrs. Tabitha Grimes, with a premeditated acerbity apparent even in the threading of her needle, into the eye of which she thrust the thread as if piercing the flesh of an enemy with a barb; "yes;" she pulled the thread through with a motion as if she enjoyed its rasping against the steel. "Rachel Bond started into this work quite as brash as Harry Glen started into the war. Her enthusiasm died out about as quickly as his courage, when it came to the actual business, and she found there was nobody to admire her industry, or the way she got herself up, except a parcel of married women."
The milk of human kindness had begun to curdle in Mrs. Grimes's bosom, at an early and now rather remote age. Years of unavailing struggle to convince Mr. Jason Grimes that more of his valuable time should be devoted to providing for the wants of his family, and less to leading the discussion on the condition of the country in the free parliament that met around the stove in the corner grocery, had carried forward this lacteal fermentation until it had converted the milky fluid into a vinegarish whey.
"Well, why not?" asked Elmira Spelter, the main grief of whose life was time's cruel inflexibility in scoring upon her face unconcealable tallies of every one of his yearly flights over her head, "why shouldn't she enjoy these golden days? Youth is passing, to her and to all of us, like an arrow from the bow. It'd be absurd for her to waste her time in this stuffy old place, when there are so many more attractive ones. It ought to be enough that those of us who have only a few remnants of beauty left, should devote them to this work."
"Well," snapped Mrs. Grimes, "your donation of good looks to the cause--even if you give all you got--will be quite modest, something on the widow's mite order. You might easily obey the scriptural injunction, and give them with your right hand without your left knowing what was being done."
Elmira winced under this spiteful bludgeoning, but she rallied and came back at her antagonist.
"Well, my dear," she said quietly, "the thought often occurs to me, that one great reason why we both have been able to keep in the straight and narrow path, is the entire lack of that beauty which so often proves a snare to the feet of even the best-intentioned women."
It was Mrs. Grimes's turn to wince.
"A hit! a palpable hit!" laughed pretty Anna Bayne, who studied and quoted Shakespeare.
"The mention of snares reminds me," said Mrs. Grimes, "that I, at least, did not have to spread any to catch a husband."
"No," returned Elmira, with irritating composure, "the poorer kinds of game are caught without taking that trouble."
"Well"--Mrs. Grimes's temper was rising so rapidly that she was losing her usual skill in this verbal fence--"Jason Grimes, no doubt, has his faults, as all men have; but he is certainly better than no husband at all."
"That's the way for you to think," said Elmira, composedly, disregarding the thrust at her own celibacy. "It's very nice in you to take so cheerful a view of it. Somebody had to marry him, doubtless, and it's real gratifying to see one accepting the visitations of Providence in so commendable a spirit."
To use the language of diplomacy, the relations between these ladies had now become so strained that a rupture seemed unavoidable.
"Heavens, will this quarrel ne'er be mended?" quoted Anna Bayne, not all sorry that these veteran word-swordsmen, dreaded by everybody, were for once turning their weapons on each other.
Peace-making was one of the prerogatives assumed by Mrs. Tufis, as belonging to the social leadership to which she had elected herself. She now hastened to check the rapidly-opening breach.
"Ladies," she said blandly, "the discussion has wandered. Our first remarks were, I believe about Miss Bond, and there was a surmise as to her reasons for discontinuing attendance upon our meetings."
The diversion had the anticipated effect. The two disputants gladly quit each other, to turn upon and rend the object flung in between them.
"Why Rachel Bond don't come here any more?" said Mrs. Grimes, with a sniff that was one of the keenest-edged weapons in her controversial armory. "When you know how little likely she is to do anything that's not going to be for her benefit in some way. She's mighty particular in everything, but more particular in that than in anything else."
"I'll admit that there is reason to suspect a strain of selfishness in Rachel's nature," said Anna Bayne; "but it's the only blemish among her many good qualities. Still, I think you do her an injustice in attributing her absence from our meetings to purely selfish motives."
"Of course, we all know what you mean," said Elmira. "She set her cap for Harry Glen, and played her cards so openly and boldly--"
"I should say 'shamelessly,'" interrupted Mrs. Grimes.
"Shamelessly, my dear?" This from Mrs. Tufis, as if in mild expostulation.
"Shamelessly," repeated Mrs. Grimes, firmly.
"Well, so shamelessly, if you choose," continued Elmira, "as to incur the ill-will of all the rest of the girls--"
"Whom she beat at a game in which they all played their best," interrupted Anna.
"That's an unworthy insinuation," said Elmira, getting very red. "At least, no one can say I played any cards for that stake."
"Wasn't it because all your trumps and suit had been played out in previous games?" This from Mrs. Grimes, whose smarting wounds still called for vengeance.
For an instant a resumption of hostilities was threatened. Mrs. Tufis hastened to interpose:
"There's no doubt in my mind that the poor, dear girl really took very deeply to heart the stories that have been circulated about Harry Glen's conduct, though there are people ready to say that she was quite willing to play the role of the stricken one. It really makes her look very interesting. Mourning and the plain style of wearing her hair suit her very, very well. I do not think I ever saw her looking so lovely as she has lately, and I have heard quite a number of gentlemen say the same thing.
"If she'd had real spirit," said Mrs. Grimes, "she'd have dropped Harry Glen without all this heroine-of-a-yellow-covered-novel demonstration, and showed her contempt of the fellow by going ahead just as usual, pretending that his conduct was nothing to her; but she's a deep one. I'll venture anything she's got a well-laid scheme, that none of us dream of."
"Mrs. Tufis,"--it was the calm, even tones of Rachel Bond's voice that fell upon the startled ears of the little coterie of gossipers. She had glided in unobserved by them in the earnestness of their debate. "How long has she been here and what has she heard?" was the thrilling question that each addressed to herself. When they summoned courage to look up at her, they saw her standing with perfectly composed mien, her pale face bearing the pensive expression it had worn for weeks. With subdued and kindly manner she returned the affectionate greetings that each bestowed on her, in imitation of Mrs. Tufis, who was the first to recover her wits and then continued:
"Mrs. Tufis, I come to you, as president of this society, to apologize for my absence from so many of your meetings, and to excuse myself on the ground of indisposition." (Mrs. Grimes darted a significant look at Elmira.) "I also want to announce that, as I have determined to join the corps of nurses for the field hospitals, which Miss Dix, of New York, is organizing, and as I will start for the front soon, I shall have to ask you to excuse me from any farther attendance upon your meetings, and drop my name from your roll."
She replied pleasantly to a flood of questions and expostulations, which the crowd that gathered around poured upon her, and turning, walked quietly away to her home.