On my dearie’s wedding morning I wakened early and went to her room. Long and long ago she had made me promise that I would be the one to wake her on the morning of her wedding day.
“You were the first to take me in your arms when I came into the world, Aunt Rachel,” she had said, “and I want you to be the first to greet me on that wonderful day.”
But that was long ago, and now my heart foreboded that there would be no need of wakening her. And there was not. She was lying there awake, very quiet, with her hand under her cheek, and her big blue eyes fixed on the window, through which a pale, dull light was creeping in—a joyless light it was, and enough to make a body shiver. I felt more like weeping than rejoicing, and my heart took to aching when I saw her there so white and patient, more like a girl who was waiting for a winding-sheet than for a bridal veil. But she smiled brave-like, when I sat down on her bed and took her hand.
“You look as if you haven’t slept all night, dearie,” I said.
“I didn’t—not a great deal,” she answered me. “But the night didn’t seem long; no, it seemed too short. I was thinking of a great many things. What time is it, Aunt Rachel?”
“Then in six hours more—”
She suddenly sat up in her bed, her great, thick rope of brown hair falling over her white shoulders, and flung her arms about me, and burst into tears on my old breast. I petted and soothed her, and said not a word; and, after a while, she stopped crying; but she still sat with her head so that I couldn’t see her face.
“We didn’t think it would be like this once, did we, Aunt
Rachel?” she said, very softly.
“It shouldn’t be like this, now,” I said. I had to say it. I never could hide the thought of that marriage, and I couldn’t pretend to. It was all her stepmother’s doings—right well I knew that. My dearie would never have taken Mark Foster else.
“Don’t let us talk of that,” she said, soft and beseeching, just the same way she used to speak when she was a baby-child and wanted to coax me into something. “Let us talk about the old days—and HIM.”
“I don’t see much use in talking of HIM, when you’re going to marry Mark Foster to-day,” I said.
But she put her hand on my mouth.
“It’s for the last time, Aunt Rachel. After to-day I can never talk of him, or even think of him. It’s four years since he went away. Do you remember how he looked, Aunt Rachel?”
“I mind well enough, I reckon,” I said, kind of curt-like. And I did. Owen Blair hadn’t a face a body could forget—that long face of his with its clean color and its eyes made to look love into a woman’s. When I thought of Mark Foster’s sallow skin and lank jaws I felt sick-like. Not that Mark was ugly—he was just a common-looking fellow.
“He was so handsome, wasn’t he, Aunt Rachel?” my dearie went on, in that patient voice of hers. “So tall and strong and handsome. I wish we hadn’t parted in anger. It was so foolish of us to quarrel. But it would have been all right if he had lived to come back. I know it would have been all right. I know he didn’t carry any bitterness against me to his death. I thought once, Aunt Rachel, that I would go through life true to him, and then, over on the other side, I’d meet him just as before, all his and his only. But it isn’t to be.”
“Thanks to your stepma’s wheedling and Mark Foster’s scheming,” said I.
“No, Mark didn’t scheme,” she said patiently. “Don’t be unjust to Mark, Aunt Rachel. He has been very good and kind.”
“He’s as stupid as an owlet and as stubborn as Solomon’s mule,” I said, for I WOULD say it. “He’s just a common fellow, and yet he thinks he’s good enough for my beauty.”
“Don’t talk about Mark,” she pleaded again. “I mean to be a good, faithful wife to him. But I’m my own woman yet—YET—for just a few more sweet hours, and I want to give them to HIM. The last hours of my maidenhood—they must belong to HIM.”
So she talked of him, me sitting there and holding her, with her lovely hair hanging down over my arm, and my heart aching so for her that it hurt bitter. She didn’t feel as bad as I did, because she’d made up her mind what to do and was resigned. She was going to marry Mark Foster, but her heart was in France, in that grave nobody knew of, where the Huns had buried Owen Blair—if they had buried him at all. And she went over all they had been to each other, since they were mites of babies, going to school together and meaning, even then, to be married when they grew up; and the first words of love he’d said to her, and what she’d dreamed and hoped for. The only thing she didn’t bring up was the time he thrashed Mark Foster for bringing her apples. She never mentioned Mark’s name; it was all Owen—Owen—and how he looked, and what might have been, if he hadn’t gone off to the awful war and got shot. And there was me, holding her and listening to it all, and her stepma sleeping sound and triumphant in the next room.
When she had talked it all out she lay down on her pillow again. I got up and went downstairs to light the fire. I felt terrible old and tired. My feet seemed to drag, and the tears kept coming to my eyes, though I tried to keep them away, for well I knew it was a bad omen to be weeping on a wedding day.
Before long Isabella Clark came down; bright and pleased-looking enough, SHE was. I’d never liked Isabella, from the day Phillippa’s father brought her here; and I liked her less than ever this morning. She was one of your sly, deep women, always smiling smooth, and scheming underneath it. I’ll say it for her, though, she had been good to Phillippa; but it was her doings that my dearie was to marry Mark Foster that day.
“Up betimes, Rachel,” she said, smiling and speaking me fair, as she always did, and hating me in her heart, as I well knew. “That is right, for we’ll have plenty to do to-day. A wedding makes lots of work.”
“Not this sort of a wedding,” I said, sour-like. “I don’t call it a wedding when two people get married and sneak off as if they were ashamed of it—as well they might be in this case.”
“It was Phillippa’s own wish that all should be very quiet,” said Isabella, as smooth as cream. “You know I’d have given her a big wedding, if she’d wanted it.”
“Oh, it’s better quiet,” I said. “The fewer to see Phillippa marry a man like Mark Foster the better.”
“Mark Foster is a good man, Rachel.”
“No good man would be content to buy a girl as he’s bought Phillippa,” I said, determined to give it in to her. “He’s a common fellow, not fit for my dearie to wipe her feet on. It’s well that her mother didn’t live to see this day; but this day would never have come, if she’d lived.”
“I dare say Phillippa’s mother would have remembered that Mark
Foster is very well off, quite as readily as worse people,” said
Isabella, a little spitefully.
I liked her better when she was spiteful than when she was smooth. I didn’t feel so scared of her then.
The marriage was to be at eleven o’clock, and, at nine, I went up to help Phillippa dress. She was no fussy bride, caring much what she looked like. If Owen had been the bridegroom it would have been different. Nothing would have pleased her then; but now it was only just “That will do very well, Aunt Rachel,” without even glancing at it.
Still, nothing could prevent her from looking lovely when she was dressed. My dearie would have been a beauty in a beggarmaid’s rags. In her white dress and veil she was as fair as a queen. And she was as good as she was pretty. It was the right sort of goodness, too, with just enough spice of original sin in it to keep it from spoiling by reason of over-sweetness.
Then she sent me out.
“I want to be alone my last hour,” she said. “Kiss me, Aunt
When I’d gone down, crying like the old fool I was, I heard a rap at the door. My first thought was to go out and send Isabella to it, for I supposed it was Mark Foster, come ahead of time, and small stomach I had for seeing him. I fall trembling, even yet, when I think, “What if I had sent Isabella to that door?”
But go I did, and opened it, defiant-like, kind of hoping it was Mark Foster to see the tears on my face. I opened it—and staggered back like I’d got a blow.
“Owen! Lord ha’ mercy on us! Owen!” I said, just like that, going cold all over, for it’s the truth that I thought it was his spirit come back to forbid that unholy marriage.
But he sprang right in, and caught my wrinkled old hands in a grasp that was of flesh and blood.
“Aunt Rachel, I’m not too late?” he said, savage-like. “Tell me
I’m in time.”
I looked up at him, standing over me there, tall and handsome, no change in him except he was so brown and had a little white scar on his forehead; and, though I couldn’t understand at all, being all bewildered-like, I felt a great deep thankfulness.
“No, you’re not too late,” I said.
“Thank God,” said he, under his breath. And then he pulled me into the parlor and shut the door.
“They told me at the station that Phillippa was to be married to Mark Foster to-day. I couldn’t believe it, but I came here as fast as horse-flesh could bring me. Aunt Rachel, it can’t be true! She can’t care for Mark Foster, even if she had forgotten me!”
“It’s true enough that she is to marry Mark,” I said, half-laughing, half-crying, “but she doesn’t care for him. Every beat of her heart is for you. It’s all her stepma’s doings. Mark has got a mortgage on the place, and he told Isabella Clark that, if Phillippa would marry him, he’d burn the mortgage, and, if she wouldn’t, he’d foreclose. Phillippa is sacrificing herself to save her stepma for her dead father’s sake. It’s all your fault,” I cried, getting over my bewilderment. “We thought you were dead. Why didn’t you come home when you were alive? Why didn’t you write?”
“I DID write, after I got out of the hospital, several times,” he said, “and never a word in answer, Aunt Rachel. What was I to think when Phillippa wouldn’t answer my letters?”
“She never got one,” I cried. “She wept her sweet eyes out over you. SOMEBODY must have got those letters.”
And I knew then, and I know now, though never a shadow of proof have I, that Isabella Clark had got them—and kept them. That woman would stick at nothing.
“Well, we’ll sift that matter some other time,” said Owen impatiently. “There are other things to think of now. I must see Phillippa.”
“I’ll manage it for you,” I said eagerly; but, just as I spoke, the door opened and Isabella and Mark came in. Never shall I forget the look on Isabella’s face. I almost felt sorry for her. She turned sickly yellow and her eyes went wild; they were looking at the downfall of all her schemes and hopes. I didn’t look at Mark Foster, at first, and, when I did, there wasn’t anything to see. His face was just as sallow and wooden as ever; he looked undersized and common beside Owen. Nobody’d ever have picked him out for a bridegroom.
Owen spoke first.
“I want to see Phillippa,” he said, as if it were but yesterday that he had gone away.
All Isabella’s smoothness and policy had dropped away from her, and the real woman stood there, plotting and unscrupulous, as I’d always know her.
“You can’t see her,” she said desperate-like. “She doesn’t want to see you. You went and left her and never wrote, and she knew you weren’t worth fretting over, and she has learned to care for a better man.”
“I DID write and I think you know that better than most folks,” said Owen, trying hard to speak quiet. “As for the rest, I’m not going to discuss it with you. When I hear from Phillippa’s own lips that she cares for another man I’ll believe it—and not before.”
“You’ll never hear it from her lips,” said I.
Isabella gave me a venomous look.
“You’ll not see Phillippa until she is a better man’s wife,” she said stubbornly, “and I order you to leave my house, Owen Blair!”
It was Mark Foster who spoke. He hadn’t said a word; but he came forward now, and stood before Owen. Such a difference as there was between them! But he looked Owen right in the face, quiet-like, and Owen glared back in fury.
“Will it satisfy you, Owen, if Phillippa comes down here and chooses between us?”
“Yes, it will,” said Owen.
Mark Foster turned to me.
“Go and bring her down,” said he.
Isabella, judging Phillippa by herself, gave a little moan of despair, and Owen, blinded by love and hope, thought his cause was won. But I knew my dearie too well to be glad, and Mark Foster did, too, and I hated him for it.
I went up to my dearie’s room, all pale and shaking. When I went in she came to meet me, like a girl going to meet death.
“Is—it—time?” she said, with her hands locked tight together.
I said not a word, hoping that the unlooked-for sight of Owen would break down her resolution. I just held out my hand to her, and led her downstairs. She clung to me and her hands were as cold as snow. When I opened the parlor door I stood back, and pushed her in before me.
She just cried, “Owen!” and shook so that I put my arms about her to steady her.
Owen made a step towards her, his face and eyes all aflame with his love and longing, but Mark barred his way.
“Wait till she has made her choice,” he said, and then he turned
to Phillippa. I couldn’t see my dearie’s face, but I could see
Mark’s, and there wasn’t a spark of feeling in it. Behind it was
Isabella’s, all pinched and gray.
“Phillippa,” said Mark, “Owen Blair has come back. He says he has never forgotten you, and that he wrote to you several times. I have told him that you have promised me, but I leave you freedom of choice. Which of us will you marry, Phillippa?”
My dearie stood straight up and the trembling left her. She stepped back, and I could see her face, white as the dead, but calm and resolved.
“I have promised to marry you, Mark, and I will keep my word,” she said.
The color came back to Isabella Clark’s face; but Mark’s did not change.
“Phillippa,” said Owen, and the pain in his voice made my old heart ache bitterer than ever, “have you ceased to love me?”
My dearie would have been more than human, if she could have resisted the pleading in his tone. She said no word, but just looked at him for a moment. We all saw the look; her whole soul, full of love for Owen, showed out in it. Then she turned and stood by Mark.
Owen never said a word. He went as white as death, and started for the door. But again Mark Foster put himself in the way.
“Wait,” he said. “She has made her choice, as I knew she would; but I have yet to make mine. And I choose to marry no woman whose love belongs to another living man. Phillippa, I thought Owen Blair was dead, and I believed that, when you were my wife, I could win your love. But I love you too well to make you miserable. Go to the man you love—you are free!”
“And what is to become of me?” wailed Isabella.
“Oh, you!—I had forgotten about you,” said Mark, kind of weary-like. He took a paper from his pocket, and dropped it in the grate. “There is the mortgage. That is all you care about, I think. Good-morning.”
He went out. He was only a common fellow, but, somehow, just then he looked every inch the gentleman. I would have gone after him and said something but—the look on his face—no, it was no time for my foolish old words!
Phillippa was crying, with her head on Owen’s shoulder. Isabella Clark waited to see the mortgage burned up, and then she came to me in the hall, all smooth and smiling again.
“Really, it’s all very romantic, isn’t it? I suppose it’s better as it is, all things considered. Mark behaved splendidly, didn’t he? Not many men would have done as he did.”
For once in my life I agreed with Isabella. But I felt like having a good cry over it all—and I had it. I was glad for my dearie’s sake and Owen’s; but Mark Foster had paid the price of their joy, and I knew it had beggared him of happiness for life.