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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLife And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 1. Presents A Shameless Heroine
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Life And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 1. Presents A Shameless Heroine Post by :chris26 Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1886

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Life And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 1. Presents A Shameless Heroine

BOOK I. THE AGE OF FAITH
CHAPTER I. PRESENTS A SHAMELESS HEROINE

After a day of rain the sun came out suddenly at five o'clock and threw a golden bar into the deep Victorian gloom of the front parlour. On the window-sill, midway between the white curtains, a pot of blue hyacinths stood in a cracked china plate, and as the sunlight shone into the room, the scent of the blossoms floated to the corner where Gabriella was patiently pulling basting threads out of the hem of a skirt. For a minute her capable hands stopped at their work, and raising her smooth dark head she looked compassionately at her sister Jane, who was sitting, like a frozen image of martyrdom, in the middle of the long horsehair sofa. Three times within the last twelve months Jane had fled from her husband's roof to the protection of her widowed mother, a weak person of excellent ancestry, who could hardly have protected a sparrow had one taken refuge beneath her skirt. Twice before Mrs. Carr had wept over her daughter's woes and returned her, a sullen saint, to the arms of the discreetly repentant Charley; but to-day, while the four older children were bribed to good behaviour with bread and damson preserves in the pantry, and the baby was contentedly playing with his rubber ring in his mother's arms, Gabriella had passionately declared that "Jane must never, never go back!" Nothing so dreadful as this had ever happened before, for the repentant Charley had been discovered making love to his wife's dressmaker, a pretty French girl whom Jane had engaged for her spring sewing because she had more "style" than had fallen to the austerely virtuous lot of the Carr's regular seamstress, Miss Folly Hatch. "I might have known she was too pretty to be good," moaned Jane, while Mrs. Carr, in her willow rocking-chair by the window, wiped her reddened eyelids on the strip of cambric ruffling she was hemming.

Unmoved among them the baby beat methodically on his mother's breast with his rubber ring, as indifferent to her sobs as to the intermittent tearful "coos" of his grandmother. He had a smooth bald head, fringed, like the head of a very old man, with pale silken hair that was almost white in the sunshine, and his eyes, as expressionless as marbles, stared over the pot of hyacinths at a sparrow perched against the deep blue sky on the red brick wall of the opposite house. From beneath his starched little skirt his feet, in pink crocheted shoes, protruded with a forlorn and helpless air as if they hardly belonged to him.

"Oh, my poor child, what are we going to do?" asked Mrs. Carr in a resigned voice as she returned to her hemming.

"There's nothing to do, mother," answered Jane, without lifting her eyes from the baby's head, without moving an inch out of the position she had dropped into when she entered the room. Then, after a sobbing pause, she defined in a classic formula her whole philosophy of life: "It wasn't my fault," she said.

"But one can always do something if it's only to scream," rejoined Gabriella with spirit.

"I wouldn't scream," replied Jane, while the pale cast of resolution hardened her small flat features, "not--not if he killed me. My one comfort," she added pathetically, "is that only you and mother know how he treats me."

Her pretty vacant face with its faded bloom resembled a pastel portrait in which the artist had forgotten to paint an expression. "Poor Jane Gracey," as she was generally called, had wasted the last ten years in a futile effort to hide the fact of an unfortunate marriage beneath an excessively cheerful manner. She talked continually because talking seemed to her the most successful way of "keeping up an appearance." Though everybody who knew her knew also that Charley Gracey neglected her shamefully, she spent twelve hours of the twenty-four pretending that she was perfectly happy. At nineteen she had been a belle and beauty of the willowy sort; but at thirty she had relapsed into one of the women whom men admire in theory and despise in reality. She had started with a natural tendency to clinging sweetness; as the years went on the sweetness, instead of growing fainter, had become almost cloying, while the clinging had hysterically tightened into a clutch. Charley Gracey, who had married her under the mistaken impression that her type was restful for a reforming rake, (not realizing that there is nothing so mentally disturbing as a fool) had been changed by marriage from a gay bird of the barnyard into a veritable hawk of the air. His behaviour was the scandal of the town, yet the greater his sins, the intenser grew Jane's sweetness, the more twining her hold. "Nobody will ever think of blaming you, darling," said Mrs. Carr consolingly. "You have behaved beautifully from the beginning. We all know what a perfect wife you have been."

"I've tried to do my duty even if Charley failed in his," replied the perfect wife, unfastening the hooks of her small heliotrope wrap trimmed with tarnished silver passementerie. Above her short flaxen "bang" she wore a crumpled purple hat ornamented with bunches of velvet pansies; and though it was two years old, and out of fashion at a period when fashions changed less rapidly, it lent an air of indecent festivity to her tearful face. Her youth was already gone, for her beauty had been of the fragile kind that breaks early, and her wan, aristocratic features had settled into the downward droop which comes to the faces of people who habitually "expect the worst."

"I know, Jane, I know," murmured Mrs. Carr, dropping her thimble as she nervously tried to hasten her sewing. "But don't you think it would be a comfort, dear, to have the advice of a man about Charley? Won't you let me send Marthy for your Cousin Jimmy Wrenn?"

"Oh, mother, I couldn't. It would kill me to have everybody know I'm unhappy!" wailed Jane, breaking down.

"But everybody knows anyway, Jane," said Gabriella, sticking the point of her scissors into a strip of buckram, for she was stiffening the bottom of the skirt after the fashion of the middle 'nineties.

"Of course I'm foolishly sensitive," returned Jane, while she lifted the baby from her lap and placed him in a pile of cushions by the deep arm of the sofa, where he sat imperturbably gazing at the blue sky and the red wall from which the sparrow had flown. "You can never understand my feelings because you are so different."

"Gabriella is not married," observed Mrs. Carr, with sentimental finality. "But I'm sure, Jane--I'm just as sure as I can be of anything that it wouldn't do a bit of harm to speak to Cousin Jimmy Wrenn. Men know so much more than women about such matters."

In her effort to recover her thimble she dropped her spool of thread, which rolled under the sofa on which Jane was sitting, and while she waited for Gabriella to find it, she gazed pensively into the almost deserted street where the slender shadows of poplar trees slanted over the wet cobblestones. Though Mrs. Carr worked every instant of her time, except the few hours when she lay in bed trying to sleep, and the few minutes when she sat at the table trying to eat, nothing that she began was ever finished until Gabriella took it out of her hands. She did her best, for she was as conscientious in her way as poor Jane, yet through some tragic perversity of fate her best seemed always to fall short of the simplest requirements of life. Her face, like Jane's, was long and thin, with a pathetic droop at the corners of the mouth, a small bony nose, always slightly reddened at the tip, and faded blue eyes beneath an even row of little flat round curls which looked as if they were plastered on her forehead.

Thirty-three years before, in the romantic and fiery 'sixties, she had married dashing young Gabriel Carr for no better reason apparently than that she was falling vaguely in love with love; and the marriage, which had been one of reckless passion on his side, had been for her scarcely more than the dreamer's hesitating compromise with reality. Passion, which she had been taught to regard as an unholy attribute implanted by the Creator, with inscrutable wisdom, in the nature of man, and left out of the nature of woman, had never troubled her gentle and affectionate soul; and not until the sudden death of her husband did she begin even remotely to fall in love with the man. But when he was once safely dead she worshipped his memory with an ardour which would have seemed to her indelicate had he been still alive. For sixteen years she had worn a crape veil on her bonnet, and she still went occasionally, after the morning service was over on Sunday, to place fresh flowers on his grave. Now that his "earthly nature," against which she had struggled so earnestly while he was living, was no longer in need of the pious exorcisms with which she had treated its frequent manifestations, she remembered only the dark beauty of his face, his robust and vigorous youth, the tenderness and gallantry of his passion. For her daughters she had drawn an imaginary portrait of him which combined the pagan beauty of Antinous with the militant purity of Saint Paul; and this romantic blending of the heathen and the Presbyterian virtues had passed through her young imagination into the awakening soul of Gabriella.

By the town at large Mrs. Carr's sorrow was alluded to as "a beautiful grief," yet so deeply rooted in her being was the instinct to twine, that for the first few years of her bereavement she had simply sat in her widow's weeds, with her rent paid by Cousin Jimmy Wrenn and her market bills settled monthly by Uncle Beverly Blair, and waited patiently for some man to come and support her.

When no man came, and Uncle Beverly died of a stroke of apoplexy with his will unsigned, she had turned, with the wasted energy of the unfit and the incompetent, to solve the inexplicable problem of indigent ladyhood. And it was at this crucial instant that Becky Bollingbroke had put her awful question: "Have you made up your mind, Fanny, what you are going to do?" That was twelve years ago, but deep down in some secret cave of Fanny's being the ghastly echo of the words still reverberated through the emptiness and the silence.

"Don't you think, darling," she pleaded now, as she had pleaded to Becky on that other dreadful occasion, "that we had better send immediately for Cousin Jimmy Wrenn?"

"I--I can't think," gasped Jane, "but you may if you want to, mother."

"Send, Gabriella," said Mrs. Carr quickly, and she added tenderly, while Gabriella dropped her work and ran to the outside kitchen for Marthy, the coloured drudge, "you will feel so much better, Jane, after you have had his advice."

Then at the sight of Jane's stricken face, which had turned blue as if from a sudden chill, she hurriedly opened the drawer of her sewing machine, and taking out a bottle of camphor she kept there, began tremulously rubbing her daughter's forehead. As she did so, she remembered, with the startling irrelevance of the intellectually untrained, the way Jane had looked in her veil and orange blossoms on the day of her wedding.

"I wonder what on earth we have done to deserve our troubles?" she found herself thinking while she put the stopper back into the bottle and returned to her sewing.

"Marthy has gone, mother," said Gabriella, with her cheerful air as she came back into the room, "and I shut the children in the laundry with Dolly who is doing the washing."

"I hope they won't make themselves sick with preserves," remarked Jane, with the first dart of energy she had shown. "Perhaps I'd better go and see. If Fanny eats too much we'll be up all night with her."

"I told Dolly not to let them stuff," answered Gabriella, as she sat down by the window and threaded her needle. She was a tall, dark girl, slender and straight as a young poplar, with a face that was frank and pleasant rather than pretty, and sparkling brown eyes which turned golden and grew bright as swords when she was angry. Seen by the strong light of the window, her face showed sallow in tone, with a certain nobility about the bony structure beneath the soft girlish flesh, and a look of almost stern decision in the square chin and in the full rich curve of the mouth. Her hair, which was too fine and soft to show its thickness, drooped from its parting at the side in a dark wing over her forehead, where it shadowed her arched black eyebrows and the clear sweet gravity of her eyes. As she bent over her sewing the thin pure lines of her body had a look of arrested energy, of relaxed but exuberant vitality.

"You won't go to the dance to-night, will you, Gabriella?" inquired Mrs. Carr nervously.

"No, I'm not going," answered the girl regretfully, for she loved dancing, and her white organdie dress, trimmed with quillings of blue ribbon, lay upstairs on the bed. "I'll never dance again if only Jane won't go back to Charley. I'll work my fingers to the bone to help her take care of the children."

"I'll never, never go back," chanted Jane with feverish passion.

"But I thought Arthur Peyton was coming for you," said Mrs. Carr. "He will be so disappointed."

"Oh, he'll understand--he'll have to," replied Gabriella carelessly.

The sunshine faded slowly from the hyacinths on the window-sill, and drawing her crocheted cape of purple wool closer about her, Mrs. Carr moved a little nearer the fireplace. Outside the March wind was blowing with a melancholy sound up the long straight street, and rocking the glossy boughs of an old magnolia tree in the yard From the shining leaves of the tree a few drops of water fell on the brick pavement, where several joyous sparrows were drinking, and farther off, as bright as silver in the clear wind, a solitary church spire rose above the huddled roofs of the town. When the wind lulled, as it did now and then, a warm breath seemed to stir in the sunshine, which grew suddenly brighter, while a promise of spring floated like a faint provocative scent on the air. And this scent, so vague, so roving, that it was like the ghostly perfume of flowers, stole at last into the memory, and made the old dream of youth and the young grow restless at the call of Life, which sang to the music of flutes in the brain. But the wind, rising afresh, drove the spirit of spring from the street, and swept the broken leaves of the magnolia tree over the drenched grass to the green-painted iron urns on either side of the steps.

The house, a small brick dwelling, set midway of an expressionless row and wearing on its front a look of desiccated gentility, stood in one of those forgotten streets where needy gentlewomen do "light housekeeping" in an obscure hinterland of respectability. Hill Street, which had once known fashion, and that only yesterday, as old ladies count, had sunk at last into a humble state of decay. Here and there the edges of porches had crumbled; grass was beginning to sprout by the curbstone; and the once comfortable homes had opened their doors to boarders or let their large, high-ceiled rooms to the impoverished relicts of Confederate soldiers. Only a few blocks away the stream of modern progress, sweeping along Broad Street, was rapidly changing the old Southern city into one of those bustling centres of activity which the press of the community agreed to describe as "a metropolis"; but this river of industrialism was spanned by no social bridge connecting Hill Street and its wistful relicts with the statelier dignities and the more ephemeral gaieties of the opposite side. To be really "in society" one must cross over, either for good and all, or in the dilapidated "hack" which carried Gabriella to the parties of her schoolmates in West Franklin Street.

For in the middle 'nineties, before social life in Richmond had become both complicated and expensive, it was still possible for a girl in Gabriella's position--provided, of course, she came of a "good family"--to sew all day over the plain sewing of her relatives, and in the evening to reign as the acknowledged belle of a ball. "Society," it is true, did not reach any longer, except in the historic sense, to Hill Street; but the inhabitants of Hill Street, if they were young and energetic, not infrequently made triumphant excursions into "society." Though Gabriella was poor and sewed for her living, she had been, from the moment she left school, one of the most popular girls in town. To be sure, she was neither so pretty as Florrie Spencer nor so clever as Julia Caperton, but in the words of Julia's brother Algernon, she was "the sort you could count on." Even in her childhood it had become the habit of those about her to count on Gabriella. Without Gabriella, her mother was fond of saying, it would have been impossible to keep a roof over their heads.

Twelve years before, when they had moved into the house in Hill Street, Mrs. Carr had accepted from Jimmy Wrenn the rent of the first floor and the outside kitchen, which was connected with the back porch by a winding brick walk, overgrown with wild violets, while the upper story was let to two elderly spinsters, bearing the lordly, though fallen, name of Peterborough. These spinsters, like Mrs. Carr, spent their lives in a beautiful and futile pretence--the pretence of keeping up an appearance. They also took in the plain sewing of their richer relatives, who lived in Franklin Street, and sent them little trays of sweet things as soon as the midday dinner was over on Sunday. Sometimes they would drop in to see Mrs. Carr just before supper was ready, and then they would pretend that they lived on tea and toast because they were naturally "light eaters," and that they sewed all day, not for the money, but because they liked to have "something to do with their hands" They were tall thin women in organdie caps and black alpaca dresses made with long basques which showed a greenish cast in the daylight. The walls of their rooms were covered with family portraits of the colonial period, and Mrs. Carr, who had parted with most of her treasures, often wondered how they had preserved so many proofs of a distinguished descent. Even her silver had gone--first the quaint old service with the Bolton crest, which had belonged to her mother; then, one by one, the forks and spoons; and, last of all, Gabriella's silver mug, which was carried, wrapped in a shawl, to the shop of old Mr. Camberwell. She was a woman who loved inanimate things with the passion which other women give only to children, and a thousand delicate fibres of sentiment knit her soul to the portraits on the wall, to the furniture with which she lived, to the silver and glass that had once belonged to her mother. When one after one these things went from her, she felt as if the very roots of her being were torn up from the warm familiar earth in which they had grown. "There's nothing left in the parlour that I shouldn't be ashamed to have your grandmother look at," she had once confessed to her daughters.

Seen by the light of history, this parlour, in which so much of Gabriella's childhood was spent, was not without interest as an archaic survival of the fundamental errors of the mid-Victorian mind. The walls were covered with bottle-green paper on which endless processions of dwarfed blue peacocks marched relentlessly toward an embossed border--the result of an artistic frenzy of the early 'eighties. Neither Mrs. Carr nor Jimmy Wrenn, who paid the rent, had chosen this paper, but having been left on the dealer's hands, it had come under the eye of the landlord, who, since he did not have to live with it had secured it at a bargain. Too unused to remonstrance to make it effective, Mrs. Carr had suffered the offending decoration in meekness, while Jimmy, having a taste for embossment, honestly regarded the peacocks as "handsome." From the centre of the ceiling a massive gilt chandelier, elaborately festooned with damaged garlands, shed, when it was lighted, a dim and troubled gloom down on the threadbare Axminster carpet. Above the white marble mantelpiece, the old French mirror, one of the few good things left over from a public sale of Mrs. Carr's possessions, reflected a pair of bronze candelabra with crystal pendants, and a mahogany clock, which had kept excellent time for half a century and then had stopped suddenly one day while Marthy was cleaning. In the corner, between the door and the window, there was a rosewood bookcase, with the bare shelves hidden behind plaited magenta silk, and directly above it hung an engraving of a group of amiable children feeding fish in a pond. Across the room, over the walnut whatnot, a companion picture represented the same group of children scattering crumbs before a polite brood of chickens in a barnyard. Between the windows a third engraving immortalized the "Burial of Latané" in the presence of several sad and resigned ladies in crinolines, while the sofa on which Jane sat was presided over by a Sully portrait of the beautiful Angelica Carr, wearing a white scarf on her head and holding a single rose in her hand. This portrait and a Saint Memin drawing of Mrs. Carr's grandfather, the Reverend Bartholomew Berkeley as a young man in a high stock, were the solitary existing relics of that consecrated past when Fanny Berkeley was "not brought up to do anything."

To Mrs. Carr, whose mind was so constituted that any change in her surroundings produced a sensation of shock, the room was hallowed by the simple fact that she had lived in it for a number of years. That an object or a custom had existed in the past appeared to her to be an incontestible reason why it should continue to exist in the present. It was distressing to her to be obliged to move a picture or to alter the position of a piece of furniture, and she had worn one shape of bonnet and one style of hairdressing, slightly modified to suit the changing fashions, for almost twenty years. Her long pale face, her pensive blue eyes, and her look of anxious sweetness, made a touching picture of feminine incompetence; and yet it was from this pallid warmth, this gentle inefficiency of soul, that the buoyant spirit of Gabriella had sprung.

For Gabriella was the incarnation of energy. From the moment of her birth when, in the words of her negro "mammy" she had looked "as peart as life," she had begun her battle against the enveloping twin powers of decay and inertia. To the intense secret mortification of her mother, who had prayed for a second waxlike infant after the fashion of poor Jane, she had been a notoriously ugly baby (almost as ugly as her Aunt Becky Bollingbroke who had never married), and as she grew up, this ugliness was barely redeemed by what Jane, in her vague way, described as "the something else in her face." According to Cousin Jimmy, who never recognized charm unless its manifestations were soft and purring, this "something else" was merely "a sunny temper"; and one of the constant afflictions of Gabriella's childhood was overhearing her mother remark to visitors: "No, she isn't so pretty as poor Jane, but, as Cousin Jimmy tells us, she is blessed with a sunny temper."

"Give me that ruffle, mother, and I'll whip the lace on while we're waiting," she said now, laying aside the skirt of her Easter dress, and stretching out her hand for the strip of cambric in her mother's lap. But Mrs. Carr did not hear, for she was gazing, with the concentrated stare of Jane's baby, at a beautiful old lady who was walking slowly through the faint sunshine on the opposite pavement.

"I wonder where Mrs. Peyton can be coming from in her best dress?" she remarked, forgetting Jane for an instant while her sense of tragedy yielded to the keener impulse of curiosity.

"She never goes anywhere but to church or to the Old Ladies' home," replied Gabriella. "Arthur says she hasn't paid a call since her husband's death."

"Well, I haven't made one, except of course to my relatives, for fifteen years," rejoined Mrs. Carr a trifle tartly. Then her manner lost its unusual asperity, and she added excitedly, "They're coming now, Jane. There's Cousin Jimmy and he's bringing Cousin Pussy and Uncle Meriweather!"

"Oh, mother, I can't possibly see them! I feel as if it would kill me!" cried Jane in desperation.

"Give her the camphor, mother," said Gabriella with grim humour as she went to open the door.

"Brace yourself, my darling. They are coming," pleaded Mrs. Carr, as she slipped her arm under Jane's head. At the first hint of any excitement she invariably lost her presence of mind and became distracted; and Jane's hysterical outbursts never failed to convince her, though they usually left the more skeptical Gabriella unmoved. "Don't you think you would feel better if you lay back on the pillows?" she urged.

Then the bell rang, and before Jane could swallow her sobs, her sister ushered in Jimmy and Pussy Wrenn, who were closely followed by the ponderous figure of Uncle Meriweather, a gouty but benign old gentleman, whose jet-black eyebrows and white imperial gave him a misleading military air.

"Well, well, my dear, what's this I hear about Charley?" demanded Cousin Jimmy, whose sprightly manner was never sprightlier than in the hour of tragedy or the house of mourning. "What does he mean by letting you run away from him?"

"I've done my duty by Charley. I've never, never failed in my duty!" wept Jane, breaking down on Pussy's tender bosom, and waking the sleeping baby.

"We know, darling, we know," said Pussy, patting Jane's shoulder, while Jimmy drew a white silk handkerchief from his pocket, and hid his face under the pretence of blowing his nose.

To see a woman cry never failed to wring a sympathetic tear from Jimmy. Though he was a man of hard common sense, possessed of an inflexible determination to make money, there was a soft spot inside of him which was reached only by the distress of one of the opposite sex. The suffering--particularly the financial suffering--of men left him unmoved. He could foreclose a mortgage or press a debt (as long as the debtor's wife or daughter did not appeal to him) as well as another; but the instant a skirt fluttered on the horizon that soft something inside of him appeared, as he expressed it, "to give way." Apart from their afflictions, he had an eye, he used to boast, for but one woman in the world, and she, thank God, was his wife. Handsome, portly, full-blooded, and slightly overfed, he had let Pussy twine him about her little finger ever since the afternoon when he had first seen her, small, trim, and with "a way with her," at the age of six.

"Poor, poor child," said Pussy, cuddling Jane and the baby together against her sympathetic bosom. "Something must be done, Cousin Fanny. Something must be done, as Mr. Wrenn said on the way down, if it's only for the satisfaction of letting Charley know what we think of him."

"We've got to put down our pride and take some step," declared Jimmy, wondering vaguely how he could have forgotten the spirited utterance his wife attributed to him. "I'm all for the authority of the husband, of course, and the sanctity of the home, and everything according to the Bible and all that--but, bless my soul, there's got to be a limit to what a woman is expected to stand. There're some things, and I know Uncle Meriweather will agree with me, that it isn't in human nature to put up with."

"If I were forty years younger I'd call him out and give him a whipping he wouldn't forget in a jiffy," blustered Uncle Meriweather, feebly violent. "There's no way of defending a lady in these Godforsaken days. Why, I remember when I was a boy, my poor father--God bless him!--you recollect him, don't you Fanny?--never used a walking stick in his life and could read print without glasses at ninety--"

"Making love to the dressmaker," pursued Jimmy, whose righteous anger refused to be turned aside from its end.

"Don't you think, Cousin Fanny," whispered Pussy, "that Gabriella had better leave the room?"

"Gabriella? Why, how on earth can we spare her?" Mrs. Carr whispered back rather nervously. Then, beneath Pussy's compelling glance, she added timidly: "Hadn't you better go, darling, and see what the children are doing?"

"They are playing in the laundry," replied Gabriella reassuringly. "I told Dolly not to let them go out of her sight."

"She knows so much already for her age," murmured Mrs. Carr apologetically to Pussy.

"I don't know what Mr. Wrenn will think of your staying, dear," said Pussy, smiling archly at the girl. "Mr. Wrenn, I was just saying that I didn't know what you would think of Gabriella's staying in the room."

Jimmy's large handsome face, with its look of perpetual innocence--the incorruptible innocence of a man who has never imagined anything--turned helplessly in the direction of his wife. All things relating to propriety came, he felt instinctively, within the natural sphere of woman, and to be forced, on the spur of the moment, to decide a delicate question of manners, awoke in him the dismay of one who sees his accustomed prop of authority beginning to crumble. Surely Pussy knew best about things like that! He would as soon have thought of interfering with her housekeeping as of instructing her in the details of ladylike conduct. And, indeed, he had not observed that Gabriella was in the room until his wife, for her own purpose, had adroitly presented the fact to his notice.

"Gabriella in the room?" he repeated in perplexity. "Why, you'd better go, hadn't you, Gabriella? Oughtn't she to go, Pussy?"

"Just as you think best, dear, but it seems to me--"

"Certainly she ought to go," said Uncle Meriweather decisively. "The less women and girls know about such matters, the better. I don't understand, Fanny, how you could possibly have consented to Gabriella's being present."

"I didn't consent, Uncle Meriweather," protested poor Mrs. Carr, who could not bear the mildest rebuke without tears; "I only said to Pussy that Gabriella knew a great deal more already than she ought to, and I'm sure I'm not to blame for it. If I'd had my way she would have been just as sheltered as other girls."

"Don't cry, mother, it isn't your fault," said Gabriella. "Uncle Meriweather, if you make mother cry I'll never forgive you. How can she help all these dreadful things going on?"

She was sensible, she was composed, she was perfectly sweet about it; but, and this fact made Pussy gasp with dismay, she did not budge an inch from her position. With her clear grave eyes, which lost their sparkle when she grew serious, and her manner of eager sympathy, she appeared, indeed, to be the only one in the room who was capable of facing the situation with frankness. That she meant to face it to the end, Pussy could not doubt while she looked at her.

"Oh, it doesn't matter about Gabriella. She knows everything," said Jane, with the prickly sweetness of suffering virtue.

"But she's a young girl--young girls oughtn't to hear such things," argued Uncle Meriweather, feeling helplessly that something was wrong with the universe, and that, since it was different from anything he had ever known in the past, he was unable to cope with it. Into his eyes, gentle and bloodshot above his fierce white moustache--the eyes of one who has never suffered the painful process of thinking things out, but has accepted his opinions as unquestioningly as he has accepted his religion or the cut of his clothes--there came the troubled look of one who is struggling against forces that he does not understand. For Gabriella was serious. There was not the slightest hope in the disturbed mind of Uncle Meriweather that she was anything but perfectly serious. Caprice, being a womanly quality, was not without a certain charm for him. He was quite used to it; he knew how to take it; he had been taught to recognize it from his childhood up. It was pretty, it was playful; and his mind, if so ponderous a vehicle could indulge in such activity, was fond of play. But after the first perplexed minute or two he had relinquished forever the hope that Gabriella was merely capricious. Clearly the girl knew what she was talking about; and this knowledge, so surprising in one of her age and sex, gave him a strange dreamy sense of having just awakened from sleep.

"I must say I like girls to be girls, Fanny," he pursued testily; "I reckon I'm only an old fogy, but I like girls to be girls. When a woman loses her innocence, she loses her greatest charm in the eyes of a man--of the right sort of a man. Pluck the peach with the bloom on it, my poor father used to say. He didn't believe in all this new-fangled nonsense about the higher education of women--none of his daughters could do more I than read and write and spell after a fashion, and yet look what wives and mothers they made! Pokey married three times, and was the mother of fourteen children, nine of them sons. And are we any better off now than then, I ask? Whoever heard of a woman running away from her husband before the war, and now here is poor Jane--"

"But it isn't my fault, Uncle Meriweather!" cried Jane, in desperation at his obtuseness. "I've tried to be the best wife I could--ask Charley if I haven't. He neglected me long before I let any one know--even mother. I forgave him again and again, and I'd go on forgiving him forever if he would let me. I've told him over and over that I was going to be a faithful wife to him if he killed me."

"Of course, my dear, I'm not meaning to reproach you," said Uncle Meriweather, overcome by the effect of his words. "We all know that you've stood as much as any woman could and keep her self-respect. It isn't possible, I suppose, for you to go on living with Charley?"

"Oh, I couldn't bear a separation, not a legal one at any rate," groaned Mrs. Carr. "Of course she must come away for a time, but nobody must hear of it or it would kill me. They are one in the sight of God, and my dear old father had such a horror of separations."

"Well, I'd kick him out--I'd kick him out so quickly he wouldn't know it," declared Jimmy. "If a daughter of mine were married to that scamp, she'd never lay eyes on him except over my dead body. I reckon God would enjoy the sight of his getting his deserts."

Deep down in Cousin Jimmy, deeper than sentiment, deeper than tradition, deeper even than the solid bedrock of common sense, there was the romantic essence of his soul, which hated baseness with a fiery hatred. His ruddy face, still boyish in spite of his fifty years, blanched slowly, and there came into his soft dark eyes the look he had worn at Malvern Hill under the fire of the enemy.

At the sight Gabriella thrilled as she did when drums were beating and armies were marching. "Oh, Cousin Jimmy, don't let her go back!" she cried.

"I can't go back to him now! I can never, never go back to him again!" intoned Jane with passionate energy.

"No, God bless her, she shan't go back," declared Jimmy, as profoundly stirred as Gabriella.

"But the children? What will become of the children?" demanded Mrs. Carr, not of Jimmy, but of the universe. Her helpless gaze, roving wildly from face to face, and resting nowhere, was like the gaze of a small animal caught in a trap. "If Jane separates the children from their father what will people think of her?" she asked, still vainly addressing Heaven.

"As long as she is right it doesn't matter what people think," retorted Gabriella; but her protest, unlike her mother's, was directed to the visible rather than to the invisible powers. The thought of Jane's children--of the innocent souls so unaware of the awful predicament in which they were placed that their bodies could be devouring bread and damson preserves in the laundry. The poignant thought of these children moved her more deeply than she had ever been moved before in her twenty years. A passion for self-sacrifice rushed through her with the piercing sweetness of religious ecstasy. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before--not when she was confirmed, not when she had stood at the head of her class, not when she had engaged herself to Arthur Peyton two years before. It was the pure flame of experience at its highest point that burned in her.

"I will take care of the children," she said breathlessly. "I will give up my whole life to them. I will get a place in a store and work my fingers to the bone, if only Jane will never go back."

For a moment there was silence; but while Gabriella waited for somebody to answer, she felt that it was a silence which had become vocal with inexpressible things. The traditions of Uncle Meriweather, the conventions of Mrs. Carr, the prejudices of Jimmy, and the weak impulses of Jane, all these filled the dusk through which the blank faces of her family stared back at her. Then, while she stood white and trembling with her resolve--with the passionate desire to give herself, body and soul, to Jane and to Jane's children--the voice of Experience spoke pleasantly, but firmly, through Cousin Pussy's lips, and it dealt with Gabriella's outburst as Experience usually deals with Youth.

"You are a dear child, Gabriella," it said; "but how in the world could you help Jane by going into a store?"

In the midst of the emotional scene, Cousin Pussy alone remained sweetly matter-of-fact. Though she was not without orderly sentiments, her character had long ago been swept of heroics, and from her arched gray hair, worn à la Pompadour, to her pretty foot in its small neat boot, she was a practical soul who had as little use for religious ecstasy as she had for downright infidelity. There seemed to her something positively unnatural in Gabriella's manner--a hint of that "sudden conversion" she associated with the lower classes or with the negroes.

"You are a dear child," she repeated, biting her fresh lips; "but how will you help Jane by going into a store?"

"I can trim hats," returned Gabriella stubbornly. "Mr. Brandywine will take me into his new millinery department, I know, for I said something to him about it the other day."

"Oh, Gabriella, not in a store! It would kill mother!" cried Jane, with the prophetic wail of Cassandra.

"Not in a store!" echoed Mrs. Carr; "you couldn't work in a store. If you want to work," she concluded feebly, "why can't you work just as well in your home?"

"But it isn't the same thing, mother," explained Gabriella, with angelic patience. "Nobody will get me to make hats at home, and, besides, I've got to learn how to do it. I've got to learn business methods."

"But not in a shop, my dear," protested Uncle Meriweather in the precise English of his youth.

"Bless my heart!" chuckled Cousin Jimmy. "Business methods! You're as good as a show, Gabriella, and, by George! you've plenty of pluck. I like pluck in man or woman."

"I shouldn't encourage her if I were you, Mr. Wrenn," said Cousin Pussy, almost forgetting to be indirect.

"Well, of course, I don't approve of that store business," replied Jimmy, deprecatingly, "but I can't help liking pluck when I see it. Look here, Gabriella, if you're bent on working, why don't you turn in and teach?"

"Yes, let her teach by all means," agreed Uncle Meriweather, with genuine enthusiasm for the idea. "I've always regarded teaching as an occupation that ought to be restricted by law to needy ladies."

"But I can't teach, I don't know enough, and, besides, I'd hate it," protested Gabriella.

"I'm sure you might start a school for very little children," said Mrs. Carr. "You don't have to know much, to teach them, and you write a very good hand."

"What about plain sewing?" asked Pussy in her ready way. "Couldn't you learn to make those new waists all the girls are wearing?"

"I haven't the patience to sew well. Look how hard mother works, making buttonholes with stitches so fine you can hardly see them, and yet she doesn't get enough to put bread into her mouth, and but for her relatives she'd have been in the poorhouse long ago. I'm tired of being on charity just because we are women. Now that Jane has come home for good I am simply obliged to find something to do."

"I don't mind your wanting to work, dear, I think it's splendid of you," returned Pussy, "but I do feel that you ought to work in a ladylike way--a way that wouldn't interfere with your social position and your going to germans and having attention from young men and all that."

"Why don't you make lampshades, Gabriella?" demanded Jane in an emphatic burst of inspiration. "Sophy Madison earns enough from lampshades to send her sister and herself to the White Sulphur Springs every summer."

"Sophy makes all the lampshades that anybody wants, and, besides, she gets orders from the North--she told me so yesterday."

"Gabriella crochets beautifully," remarked Mrs. Carr a little nervously because of the failure of her first suggestion. "The last time I went to see Miss Matoaca Chambers in the Old Ladies' Home, she told me she made quite a nice little sum for her church by crocheting mats."

"And Gabriella can cook, too," rejoined Pussy, with exaggerated sprightliness, for she felt that Mrs. Carr's solution of the problem had not been entirely felicitous. "Why doesn't she try sending some of her angel food to the Woman's Exchange?"

Jimmy, who had listened to this advice with the expression of tolerant amusement he always wore when women began to talk about the more serious affairs of life in his presence, made an honest, if vulgar, attempt to lighten the solemnity of the situation with a joke.

"Gabriella isn't trying to earn church money. You're out gunning for a living, aren't you, Ella?" he inquired.

"I'm sick of being dependent," repeated Gabriella, while her face grew stern. "Do you think if Jane had had enough money to live on that she would ever have stood Charley so long?"

"Oh, yes, I should, Gabriella. Marriage is sacred to me!" exclaimed Jane, whose perfect wifeliness atoned, even in the opinion of Jimmy, for any discrepancies in logic. "Nothing on earth could have induced me to leave him until--until this happened."

The conviction that she had never at any moment since her marriage "failed in her duty to Charley" lent a touching sanctity to her expression, while the bitter lines around her mouth faded in the wan glow that flooded her face. Whatever her affliction, however intense her humiliation, Jane was supported always by the most comforting of beliefs--the belief that she had been absolutely right and Charley absolutely wrong through the ten disillusioning years of their married life. Never for an instant--never even in a nightmare--had she been visited by the disquieting suspicion that she was not entirely blameless.

"Well, you've left him now anyway," said Gabriella, with the disarming candour which delighted Jimmy and perplexed Uncle Meriweather, "so somebody has got to help you take care of the children."

"She shall never come to want as long as Pussy and I have a cent left," declared Cousin Jimmy, and his voice expressed what Mrs. Carr described afterward as "proper feeling."

"And we'd really rather that you'd earn less and keep in your own station of life," said Pussy decisively.

"If you mean that you'd rather I'd work buttonholes or crochet mats than go into a store and earn a salary, then I can't do it," answered Gabriella, as resolute, though not so right-minded, as poor Jane. "I'd rather die than be dependent all my life, and I'm going to earn my living if I have to break rocks to do it."

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