A Conquest of Humility
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Two o’clock had been the hour set for the wedding. It was now four, and the bridegroom had not yet appeared. The relatives who had been bidden to the festivities had been waiting impatiently in the two square front rooms of Maria Caldwell’s house, but now some had straggled out into the front yard, from which they could look up the road to better advantage.
They were talking excitedly. A shrill feminine babble, with an undertone of masculine bass, floated about the house and yard. It had been swelling in volume from a mere whisper for the last half hour — ever since Hiram Caldwell had set out for the bridegroom’s house to ascertain the reason for his tardiness at his own wedding.
Hiram, who was a young fellow, had gotten into his shiny buggy with a red, important face, and driven off at a furious rate. He was own cousin to Delia Caldwell, the prospective bride. All the people assembled were Thayers or Caldwells, or connections thereof. The tardy bridegroom’s name was Lawrence Thayer.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon. The air was hot and sweet. Around the Caldwell house it was spicy sweet with pinks; there was a great bed of them at the foot of the green bank which extended under the front windows.
Some of the women and young girls pulled pinks and sniffed them as they stood waiting. Mrs. Erastus Thayer had stuck two or three in the bosom of her cinnamon-brown silk dress. She stood beside the gate; occasionally she craned her neck over it and peered down the road. The sun was hot upon her silken shoulders; the horizontal wrinkles shone, but she did not mind.
“See anything of him?” some one called out.
“No. I’m dreadful afraid somethin’ has happened.”
“Oh, mother, what do you think’s happened?” asked a young girl at her side, hitting her with a sharp elbow. The girl was young, slim, and tall; she stooped a little; her pointed elbows showed redly through her loose white muslin sleeves; her face was pretty.
“Hush, child! I don’t know,” said her mother.
The girl stood staring at her with helpless, awed eyes.
At last the woman in cinnamon-brown silk turned excitedly about. “He’s comin’!” she proclaimed, in a shrill whisper.
The whisper passed from one to another.
“He’s coming!” everybody repeated. Heads crowded together at the window; all the company was in motion.
“It ain’t Lawrence,” said a woman’s voice, disappointedly. “It ain’t nobody but his father, with Hiram.”
“Somethin’ has happened,” repeated Mrs. Thayer. The young girl trembled and caught hold of her mother’s dress; her eyes grew big and wild. Hiram Caldwell drove up the road. He met the gaze of the people with a look of solemn embarrassment. But he was not so important as he had been. There was a large, white-headed old man with him, who drew the larger share of attention. He got lumberingly out of the buggy when Hiram drew rein at the gate. Then he proceeded up the gravel walk to the house. The people stood back and stared. No one dared speak to him except Mrs. Erastus Thayer. She darted before him in the path; her brown silk skirts swished.
“Mr. Thayer,” cried she, “what is the matter? Do tell us! What has happened?”
“Where’s Delia?” said the old man.
“Oh, she’s in the bedroom out of the parlor. She ain’t been out yet. Mr. Thayer, for mercy’s sake, what is the matter? What has happened to him?”
David Thayer waved her aside and kept straight on, his long yellow face immovable, his gaunt old shoulders resolutely braced, through the parlor, and knocked at the bedroom door.
A nervously shaking woman in black silk opened it. She screamed when she saw him. “Oh, Mr. Thayer, it’s you! What is the matter? Where is he?” she gasped, clutching his arm.
A young woman in a pearl-colored silk gown stood, straight and silent, behind her. She had a tall, full figure, and there was something grand in her attitude. She stood like a young pine tree, as if she had all necessary elements of support in her own self. Her features were strong and fine. She would have been handsome if her complexion had been better. Her skin was thick and dull.
She did not speak, but stood looking at David Thayer. Her mouth was shut tightly, her eyes steady. She might have been braced to meet a wind.
There were several other women in the little room. Mr. Thayer looked at them uneasily. “I want to see Delia an’ her mother, an’ nobody else,” said he, finally.
The women started and looked at each other; they then left. The old man closed the door after them and turned to Delia.
Her mother had begun to cry. “Oh dear! oh dear!” she wailed. “I knew somethin’ dreadful had happened.”
“Delia,” said he, “I don’t know what you’re goin’ to say. It ain’t very pleasant for me to tell you. I wish this minute Lawrence Thayer didn’t belong to me. But that don’t better matters any. He does, an’ somebody’s got to tell you.”
“Oh, is he dead?” asked Delia’s mother, brokenly.
“No, he ain’t dead,” said the old man; “an’ he ain’t sick. I don’t know of anything that ails him except he’s a fool. He won’t come — that’s the whole of it.”
“Won’t come!” shrieked the mother. Delia stood stiff and straight.
“No, he won’t come. His mother an’ I have been talkin’ an’ reasonin’ with him, but it hasn’t done any good. I don’t know but it’ll kill his mother. It’s all on account of that Briggs girl; you might as well know it. I wish she’d never come near the house. I’ve seen what way the wind blew for some time, but I never dreamed it would come to this. I think it’s a sudden start on his part. I believe he meant to come, this noon, as much as could be; but Olive came home, an’ they were talkin’ together in the parlor, an’ I see she’d been cryin’. His mother an’ I got ready, an’ when he didn’t come downstairs she went up to see where he was. He had his door locked an’ he called out he wasn’t goin’; that was all we could get out of him. He wouldn’t say another word, but we knew what the trouble was. His mother had noticed how red Olive’s eyes were when she went back to the shop. She’d been takin’ on, I suppose, an’ so he decided, all of a sudden, he’d back out. There ain’t any excuse for him, an’ I ain’t goin’ to make up any. He’s treated you mean, Delia, an’ I’d rather have cut off my right hand than had it happened; that’s all I can say about it, an’ that don’t do any good.”
Mrs. Caldwell stepped forward suddenly. “I should think he had treated her mean!” she said — her voice rose loud and shrill. “I never heard anything like it. If I had a son like that, I wouldn’t tell of it. That Briggs girl! He ought to be strung up. If you an’ his mother had had any sort of spunk you’d made him come. You always babied him to death. He’s a rascal. I’d like to get hold of him, that’s all. I —”
Delia caught her mother by the arm. “Mother, if you have any sense, or feeling for me, don’t talk so loud; all those folks out there will hear.”
The older woman’s shrill vituperation flowed through the daughter’s remonstrance and beyond it. “I would like to show him he couldn’t do such things as this without gettin’ some punishment for it. I —”
Mrs. Caldwell changed her tone suddenly. She began to cry weakly. “Oh, Delia, you poor child, what will you do?” she sobbed.
“It isn’t going to do any good to go on so, mother.”
“There’s all them folks out there. Oh dear! What will they say? I wouldn’t care so much if it wa’n’t for all them Thayers an’ Caldwells. They’ll jest crow. Oh dear! you poor child!”
Delia turned to Mr. Thayer. “Somebody ought to tell them,” said she, “that — there won’t be any — wedding.”
“Oh, Delia, how can you take it so calm?” wailed her mother.
“I suppose so,” assented the old man; “but I declare I can’t tell ’em such a thing about a son of mine. I feel as if I’d been through about all I could.”
“The minister would be a good one, wouldn’t he?” said Delia.
Mr. Thayer took up with the suggestion eagerly. He opened the door a chink, and asked one of the waiting officious guests to summon the minister. When he came he gave him instructions in an agitated whisper; then retreated. The trio in the bedroom became conscious of a great hush without; then the minister’s solemnly inflected voice broke upon it. He was telling them that the wedding was postponed. Then there was a little responsive murmur, and the minister knocked on the door.
“Shall I tell them when it will take place? They are inquiring,” he whispered.
Delia heard him. “You can tell them it will never take place,” said she, in a clear voice.
The minister stared at her wonderingly. “Oh!” groaned her mother. Then the minister’s voice rose again, and directly there were a creaking and rustling, and subdued clatter of voices. The guests were departing.
After a little, Delia approached the door as if she were going out into the parlor.
“Oh, Delia, don’t go! wait till they’re all gone!” wailed her mother. “All them Thayers and Caldwells!”
“They are gone, most of them. I’ve stood in this hot little room long enough,” said Delia, and threw open the door. Directly opposite was a mahogany table with the wedding presents on it. Three or four women, among them Mrs. Erastus Thayer and her daughter, were bending over them and whispering.
When the door opened they turned and stared at Delia standing there in her pearl-colored silk, with some drooping white bridal flowers on her breast. They looked stiff and embarrassed. Then Mrs. Thayer recovered herself and came forward.
“Delia,” said she, in a soft whisper, “dear girl.”
She put her arm around Delia, and attempted to draw her toward herself; but the girl released herself and gave her a slight backward push.
“Please don’t make any fuss over me, Mrs. Thayer,” said she; “it isn’t necessary.”
Mrs. Thayer started back and went toward the door. Her face was very red. She tried to smile. Her daughter and the other woman followed her.
“I’m real glad she can show some temper about it,” she whispered when they were all out in the entry. “It’s a good deal better for her.”
“Ask her why he didn’t come,” one of the women whispered, nudging her.
“I’m kind of afraid to. I’ll stop and ask Hiram on my way home. Mebbe Mr. Thayer told him.”
Delia, in her bridal gear, stood majestically beside one of the parlor windows. She was plainly waiting for her guests to go. They kept peering in at her, while they whispered among themselves. Presently Mrs. Thayer’s daughter came across the room tremblingly. She had hesitated on the parlor threshold, but her mother had given her a slight push on her slender shoulders and she had entered suddenly. She kept looking back as she advanced toward Delia.
“Mother wants to know,” she faltered, in her thin girlish pipe, “if — you wouldn’t rather — she’d — take back that toilet set she brought. She says she don’t know but it will make you feel bad to see it.”
“Of course you can take it.”
“Mrs. Emmons says she’ll take her mats, too, if you’d like to have her.”
“Of course she can take them.”
The young girls shrank over to the table, snatched up the toilet set and mats, and fled to her mother.
When they were all gone, David Thayer approached Delia. He had been sitting on a chair by the bedroom door, holding his head in his hands.
“I’m goin’ now,” said he. “If there’s anything I can do, you let me know.”
“There won’t be anything,” said Delia. “I shall get along all right.”
He shook her hand hard in his old trembling one. “You’re more of a man than Lawrence is,” said he. He was a very old man, and his voice, although it was still deep, quavered.
“There isn’t any use in your saying much to him,” said Delia. “I don’t want you to, on my account.”
“Delia, don’t you go to standin’ up for him. He don’t deserve it.”
“I ain’t standing up for him. I know he’s your son, but it doesn’t seem to me there’s a great deal to stand up for. What he’s done is natural enough; he’s been carried away by a pretty face; but he has shown out what he is.”
“I don’t blame you a bit for feelin’ so, Delia.”
“I don’t see any other way to feel; it’s the truth.”
“Well, good-by, Delia. I hope you won’t lay up anything again’ his mother an’ me. We’ll always think a good deal of you.”
“I haven’t any reason to lay up anything against you that I know of,” said Delia. Her manner was stern, although she did not mean it to be. She could not, as it were, relax her muscles enough to be cordial. All the strength in Delia Caldwell’s nature was now concentrated. It could accomplish great things, but it might grind little ones to pieces.
“Well, good-by, Delia,” said the old man, piteously. He was himself a strong character, but he seemed weak beside her.
After he had gone, Delia went into the bedroom to her mother. Mrs. Caldwell was sitting there crying. She looked up when her daughter entered.
“Oh, Delia,” she sobbed, “what are you goin’ to do? What are you goin’ to do?”
“I am going to take off this dress, for one thing.”
“I don’t see what you will do. There you’ve got this dress and your black silk, two new silk dresses, and your new brown woollen one, and your new bonnet and mantle, all these new things, and the weddin’ cake.”
“I suppose I can wear dresses and bonnets just as well if I ain’t married; and as for the wedding cake, we’ll have some of it for supper.”
“What’s the matter, mother?”
Delia slipped off the long shimmering skirt of her pearl-colored silk, shook it out, and laid it carefully over a chair.
“Are you crazy?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“You don’t act natural.”
“I’m acting the way that’s natural to me.”
“What are you going to do? Oh, you poor child!”
Mrs. Caldwell laid hold of her daughter’s hand as she passed near her, and attempted to pull her to her side.
“Don’t, please, mother,” said Delia.
Her mother relinquished her hold and sobbed afresh. “I won’t pity you if you don’t want me to,” said she, “but it’s dreadful. There’s — another — thing. You’ve lost your school. Flora Strong’s spoke for it, an’ she won’t want to give it up.”
“I don’t want her to. I’ll get another one.”
Delia put on a calico dress and kindled a fire and made tea as usual. She put some slices of wedding cake on the table; perhaps her will extended to her palate and kept it from tasting like dust and ashes to her. Her mother drank a cup of tea between her lamentations.
After supper Delia packed up her wedding gifts and addressed them to their respective donors. There were a few bits of silver, but the greater number of the presents were pieces of fancywork from female relatives. She folded these mats and tidies relentlessly with her firm brown fingers. There was no tenderness in her touch. She felt not the least sentiment toward inanimate things.
“I think they’re actin’ awful mean to want to grab these things back so quick,” said her mother, her wrath gaining upon her grief a little.
“It goes well with the rest,” said Delia.
Among the gifts which she returned was a little embroidered tidy from Flora Strong, the girl who had been engaged to teach her former school.
Flora came over early the next morning. She opened the door and stood there hesitating. She was bashful before the trouble in the house. “Good morning, Mrs. Caldwell; good morning, Delia,” she faltered, deprecatingly. She had a thin, pretty face, with very red lips and cheeks. She fumbled a little parcel nervously.
“Good mornin’, Flora,” said Mrs. Caldwell. Then she turned her back and went into the pantry.
Delia was washing dishes at the sink. She spoke just as she always did. “Good morning,” said she. “Sit down, won’t you, Flora?”
Then Flora began. “Oh, Delia,” she burst out, “what made you send this back? What made you? You didn’t think I’d take it?”
“This tidy. Oh, Delia, I made it for you! It doesn’t make any difference whether —” Flora choked with sobs. She dropped into a chair and put her handkerchief over her face. Mrs. Caldwell heard her, and began weeping, as she stood in the pantry. Delia went on with her dishes.
“Oh, Delia, you’ll — take it back, won’t you?” Flora said, finally.
“Of course I will, if you want me to. It’s real pretty.”
“When I heard of it,” the girl went on — “I don’t know as you want me to speak of it, but I’ve got to — I felt as if — I declare I’d like to see Lawrence Thayer come up with. I’ll never speak to him again as long as I live. Delia, you aren’t standing up for him, are you? You don’t care if I do say he’s — a villain?”
“I hope she don’t,” wailed her mother in the pantry.
“No,” said Delia, “I don’t care.”
Then Flora offered to give up the school. She pleaded that she should take it, but Delia would not. She could get another, she said.
That afternoon, indeed, she went to see the committee. She had put the house to rights, pinned Flora’s tidy on the big rocking-chair in the parlor, and dressed herself carefully in a blue-sprigged muslin, one of her wedding gowns. Passing down the hot village street, she saw women sewing at their cool sitting-room windows. She looked up at them and nodded as usual. She knew of a school whose teacher had left to be married, as she had done. She thought the vacancy had possibly not been filled. Very little of the vacation had passed. Moreover, the school was not a desirable one: the pay was small, and it was three miles from the village. Delia obtained the position.
Early in September she began her duties. She went stanchly back and forth over the rough, dusty road day after day. She had the reputation of being a very fine teacher, although the children were a little in awe of her. They never came to meet her and hang about her on her way to the schoolhouse. Her road lay past the Thayer house, where she would have been living now had all gone well. Occasionally she met Lawrence; she passed him without a look. Quite often she met Olive Briggs, who worked in a milliner’s shop and boarded at Lawrence’s father’s. She always bowed to her pleasantly. She had seen her in the shop, although she had no real acquaintance with her. The girl was pretty, with the prettiness that Delia lacked. Her face was sweet and rosy and laughing. She was fine and small, and moved with a sort of tremulous lightness like a butterfly. Delia, meeting her, seemed to tramp.
Everybody thought Lawrence and Olive Briggs would be married. They went to evening meetings together, and to ride. Lawrence had a fine horse. Delia was at every evening meeting. She watched her old lover enter with the other girl, and never shrank. She also looked at them riding past.
“Did you see them, Delia?” her mother asked in a fluttering voice one afternoon. She and Delia were sitting at the front windows, and Lawrence and Olive had just whirled by the house.
“You kept so still, I didn’t know as you did.”
People kept close watch over Lawrence and Olive and Delia. Lawrence was subjected to a mild species of ostracism by a certain set of the village girls, Delia’s mates — honest, simple young souls; they would not speak to him on the street. They treated Olive with rough, rural stiffness when they traded with her in the one milliner’s shop. She was an out-of-town girl, and had always been regarded with something of suspicion. These village women had a strong local conservatism. They eyed strangers long before they admitted them.
As for Delia, the young women friends of her own age treated her with a sort of deferential sympathy. They dared not openly condole with her, but they made her aware of their partisanship. As a general thing no one except a Thayer or a Caldwell alluded to the matter in her presence. The relatives of the two families were open enough in expressing themselves either with recrimination or excuse for Lawrence, or with sympathy or covert blame for Delia. She heard the most of it, directly or indirectly. Like many New England towns, this was almost overshadowed by the ramifications of a few family trees. A considerable portion of the population was made up of these Thayers and Caldwells — two honorable and respectable old names. They were really, for the most part, kindly and respectable people, conscious of no ill intentions, and probably possessed of few. Some of them expostulated against receiving back those vain bridal gifts, but Delia insisted. Some of them were more willing to give than she to receive their honest and most genuine sympathy, however ungracefully they might proffer it.
Still the fine and exquisite stabs which Delia Caldwell had to take from her own relations and those of her forsworn bridegroom were innumerable. There are those good and innocent-hearted people who seem to be furnished with stings only for those of their own kind; they are stingless toward others. In one way this fact may have proved beneficial to Delia: while engaged in active defense against outside attacks, she had no time to sting herself.
She girded on that pearl-colored silk as if it were chain armor, and went to merrymakings. She made calls in that fine black silk and white-plumed wedding bonnet. It seemed at times as if she were fairly running after her trouble; she did more than look it in the face.
It was in February, when Delia had been teaching her new school nearly two terms, that Olive Briggs left town. People said she had given up her work and gone home to get ready to be married.
Delia’s mother heard of it, and told her. “I should think she’d be awful afraid he wouldn’t come to the weddin’,” she said, bitterly.
“So should I,” assented Delia. She echoed everybody’s severe remarks about Lawrence.
It might have been a month later when Flora Strong ran in one morning before school. “I’ve just heard the greatest news!” she panted. “What do you think — she’s jilted him!”
“Olive Briggs — she’s jilted Lawrence Thayer. She’s going to be married to another fellow in May. I had it from Milly Davis; she writes to her. It’s so.”
“I can’t believe it,” Mrs. Caldwell said, quivering.
“Well, it’s so. I declare I jumped right up and down when I heard of it. Delia, aren’t you glad?”
“I don’t know what difference it can make to me.”
“I mean aren’t you glad he’s got his pay?”
“Yes, I am,” said Delia, with slow decision.
“She wouldn’t be human if she wasn’t,” said her mother. Mrs. Caldwell was cold and trembling with nervousness. She stood grasping the back of a chair. “But I’m afraid it ain’t so. Are you sure it’s so, Flora?”
“Mrs. Caldwell, I know it’s so.”
Delia on her way to school that morning looked at the Thayer house as she passed. “I wonder how he feels,” she said to herself. She saw Lawrence Thayer, in her stead, in the midst of all that covert ridicule and obloquy, that galling sympathy, that agony of jealousy and betrayed trust. They distorted his face like flames; she saw him writhe through their liquid wavering.
She pressed her lips together and marched along. At that moment, had she met Lawrence, she would have passed him with a fiercer coldness than ever, but if she had seen the girl she would have been ready to fly at her.
The village tongues were even harder on Lawrence than they had been on her. The sight of a person bending toward the earth with the weight of his just deserts upon his shoulders is generally gratifying and amusing even to his friends. Then there was more open rudeness among the young men who were Lawrence’s mates. They jeered him everywhere. He went about doggedly. He was strong in silence, but he had a sweet womanish face which showed the marks of words quickly. He was still very young. Delia was two years older than he, and looked ten. Still, Lawrence seemed as old in some respects. He was a quiet, shy young man, who liked to stay at home with his parents and never went about much with the young people. Before Olive came he had seldom spoken to any girl besides Delia. They had been together soberly and steadily ever since their school days.
Some people said now, “Don’t you suppose Lawrence Thayer will go with Delia again?” But the answer always was, “She won’t look at him.”
One Sunday afternoon, about a year after Olive Briggs’s marriage, Mrs. Caldwell said to Delia, as they were walking home from church, “I jest want to know if you noticed how Lawrence Thayer stared at you in meetin’ this afternoon?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Delia. She was looking uncommonly well that day. She wore her black silk, and had some dark-red roses in her bonnet.
“Well, he never took his eyes off you. Delia, that feller would give all his old shoes to come back, if you’d have him.”
“Don’t talk so foolish, mother.”
“He would — you depend on it.”
“I’d like to see him,” said Delia, sternly. There was a red glow on her dull, thick cheeks.
“Well, I say so, too,” said her mother.
The next night, when Delia reached the Thayer house on her way from school, Lawrence’s mother stood at the gate. She had a little green shawl over her head. She was shivering; the wind blew up cool. Just behind her in the yard there was a little peach tree all in blossom.
She held out her hand mutely when Delia reached her. The girl did not take it. “Good evening,” said she, and was passing.
“Can’t you stop jest a minute, Delia?”
“Was there anything you wanted?”
“Can’t you come into the house jest a minute? I wanted to see you about somethin’.”
“I don’t believe I can tonight, Mrs. Thayer.”
“There ain’t anybody there. There was somethin’ I wanted to see you about.”
The green shawl was bound severely around her small, old face with its peaked chin. She reached out her long, wrinkled hand over the gate, and clutched Delia’s arm softly.
“Well, I’ll come in a minute.” Delia followed Mrs. Thayer past the blooming peach tree into the house.
The old woman dragged forward the best rocking-chair tremblingly. “Sit down, dear,” said she. Then she seated herself close beside her, and, leaning forward, gazed into her face with a sort of deprecating mildness. She even laid hold of one of her hands, but the girl drew it away softly. There was a gentle rustic demonstrativeness about Lawrence’s mother which had always rather abashed Delia, who was typically reserved. “I wanted to speak to you about Lawrence,” said the old woman. Delia sat stiffly erect, her head turned away. “I can’t bear to think you are always goin’ to feel so hard toward him, Delia. Did you know it?”
Delia half arose. “There isn’t any use in bringing all this up again, Mrs. Thayer; it’s all past now.”
“Sit down jest a minute, dear. I want to talk to you. I know you’ve got good reason to blame him; but there’s some excuse. He wa’n’t nothin’ but a boy, an’ she was sweet-lookin’, an’ she took on dreadful. You’d thought she was goin’ to die. It’s turned out jest the way I knew ‘twould. I told Lawrence how ‘twould be then. I see right through her. She meant well enough. I s’pose she thought she was in love with Lawrence; but she was flighty. She went home and saw another fellow, an’ Lawrence was nowhere. He didn’t care so much as folks thought. Delia, I’m goin’ to tell you the truth: he thought more of you than he did of her the whole time. You look as if you thought I was crazy, but I ain’t. She jest bewitched him a little spell, but you was at the bottom of his heart always — you was, Delia.” The old woman broke into sobs.
Delia rose. “I’d better go. There isn’t any use in bringing this up, Mrs. Thayer.”
“Don’t go, Delia — don’t. I wanted to tell you. He got to talkin’ with me a little the other Sabbath night. It’s the first time he’s said a word, but he felt awful bad, an’ I questioned him. Says he, ‘Mother, I don’t dream of such a thing as her havin’ of me, or carin’ anything about me again; but I do feel as if I should like to do somethin’ if I could, to make up to her a little for the awful wrong I’ve done her.’ That was jest the words he said. Delia, he ain’t such a bad boy as you think he is, after all. You hadn’t ought to despise him.”
“He’ll have to do something to show I’ve got some reason not to, then,” said Delia. She looked immovably at the old woman, who was struggling with her sobs. She told her mother of the conversation after she got home.
“You did jest right,” said Mrs. Caldwell. “I wouldn’t knuckle to ’em if I was in your place.” She was getting tea. After they had finished the meal and sat idly at the table for a few minutes, she looked across at her daughter suddenly, with embarrassed sharpness. “Speakin’ about Lawrence, you wouldn’t feel as if you ever could take him, anyhow, would you?” said she.
“Mother, what are you talking about?”
In a few weeks the anniversary of Delia’s defeated wedding came. She spoke of it herself after dinner. She and her mother were making currant jelly.
“Why, it’s my wedding day, mother,” said she. “I ought to have put on my wedding gown and eaten some wedding cake, instead of making jelly.”
“Don’t talk so, child,” said her mother. Sometimes Delia’s hardihood startled her.
Delia was pressing the currants in a muslin bag, and the juice was running through her fingers, when there was a loud knock at the door.
“Why, who’s that?” her mother said, fluttering. She ran and peeped through the sitting-room blinds. “It’s Mrs. ‘Rastus Thayer,” she motioned back, “an’ Milly.”
“I’ll go to the door,” said Delia. She washed her hands hurriedly and went. She noticed with surprise that the two visitors were dressed in their Sunday best, Mrs. Thayer in her nicely kept cinnamon-brown silk, and Milly in her freshly starched white muslin. They had an air of constrained curiosity about them as they entered and took their seats in the parlor.
Delia sat down with them and tried to talk. Pretty soon her mother, who had prinked a little, entered; but just as she did so there was another knock. Some of the Caldwell cousins had come this time. They also were finely dressed, and entered with that same soberly expectant air. They were hardly seated before others arrived. Delia, going to the door this time, saw the people coming by twos and threes up the street. They flocked in, and she brought chairs. Nothing disturbed her outward composure; but her mother grew pale and tremulous. She no longer tried to speak; she sat staring. At two o’clock the rooms were filled with that same company who had assembled to see Delia wedded two years before.
They sat around the walls in stiff silence; they seemed to be waiting. Delia was not imaginative, nor given to morbid fancies; but sitting there in the midst of that mysterious company, in her cotton gown, with her hands stained with currant juice, she fairly began to believe that it was a dream. Were not these people mere phantoms of the familiar village folk assembling after this truly fantastic manner, and sitting here in this ghostly silence? Was not the whole a phantasmagoria of the last moments of her sweet old happiness and belief in truth? Was not she, herself, disenchanted, with her cotton gown and stained hands, the one real thing in it?
The scent of the pinks came in the window, and she noticed that. “How real it all is!” she thought. “But I shall wake up before long.” It was like one of those dreams in which one clings stanchly to the consciousness of the dream and will not sink beneath its terrors.
When Lawrence Thayer entered she seemed to wake violently. She half rose from her seat, then sank down again. Her mother screamed.
Lawrence Thayer stood by the parlor door, where everybody in the two rooms could hear him. His gentle, beardless face was pale as death, but the pallor revealed some strong lines which his youthful bloom had softened. He was slender, and stooped a little naturally; now he was straight as a reed. He had a strange look to these people who had always known him.
“Friends,” he began, in a solemn, panting voice, “I — have — asked you to come here on the anniversary of the day on which Delia Caldwell and I were to have been married, to make to her, before you all, the restitution in my power. I don’t do it to put myself before you in a better light: God, who knows everything, knows I don’t; it’s for her. I was a coward, and mean, and it’s going to last. Nothing that I can do now is going to alter that. All I want now is to make up to her a little for what she’s been through. Two years ago today she stood before you all rejected and slighted. Now look at me in her place.”
Then he turned to Delia with a stiff motion. It was like solemn, formal oratory, but his terrible earnestness gave it heat. “Delia Caldwell, I humbly beg your pardon. I love you better than the whole world, and I ask you to be my wife.”
“I never will.” It was as if Delia’s whole nature had been set to these words; they had to be spoken. She had risen, and stood staring at him so intently that the whole concourse of people vanished in blackness. She saw only his white face. All the thoughts in her brain spread wings and flew, swiftly circling. She heard what he said, and she heard her own thoughts with a strange double consciousness. All those days came back — the sweet old confidences, the old looks and ways. That pale speaking face was Lawrence’s — Lawrence’s; not that strange other’s who had left her for that pink-faced girl. This revelation of his inner self, which smote the others with a sense of strangeness, thrilled her with the recognition of love. “A coward and mean.” Yes, he had been, but — Yes, there was some excuse for him — there was. Is not every fault wedded to its own excuse, that pity may be born into the world? He was as honest in what he was saying as a man could be. He could have had no hope that she would marry him. He knew her enduring will, her power of indignation. This was no subtle scheme for his own advantage. Even these people would not think that. They would not, indeed, believe him capable of it. The system of terrible but coolly calculated ventures for success was one with which this man would not be likely to grapple. He was honest in this. There sat all the Thayers and Caldwells. How they would talk and laugh at him!
Lawrence turned to go. He had bowed silently when she gave him her quick answer. There was a certain dignity about him. He had in reality pulled himself up to the level of his own noble, avowed sentiments.
Delia stood gazing after him. She looked so relentless that she was almost terrible. One young girl, staring at her, began to cry.
Mrs. Erastus Thayer sat near the door. Delia’s eyes glanced from Lawrence to her face. Then she sprang forward.
“You needn’t look at him in that way,” she cried out. “I am going to marry him. Lawrence, come back!”