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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMadelon: A Novel - Chapter 26
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Madelon: A Novel - Chapter 26 Post by :jimmorris Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1870

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Madelon: A Novel - Chapter 26

Chapter XXVI

In this little Vermont village, lying among peacefully sloping hills, away from boisterous river-courses, there was small chance of those physical convulsions which sometimes disturb the quiet of generations. The roar of a spring freshet never smote the ears of the dwellers therein, and the winters passed with no danger of avalanches. From its sheltered situation destructive storms seldom launched themselves upon it; the oldest inhabitant could remember little injury from lightning or hail or wind.

However, there is no village in this world so sheltered in situation that it is not exposed to the full brunt of the great forces of human passion, when they lash themselves at times into the fury of storm. It was here in this little village of Ware Centre, which could never know flood or volcanic fire, as if a sort of spiritual whirlpool had appeared suddenly in its midst. The thoughts of all the people, lying down upon their pillows, or rising for their daily tasks, centred upon it, and it was as if the minds of all were prone upon the edge of it, gazing curiously into the vortex.

The Sunday after Burr Gordon's disastrous wedding-day the faces of all the people on their way to meeting wore the same expression, in different degrees of intensity. One emotion of strained curiosity and wonder made one family of the whole village. The people thought and spoke of only one subject; they asked each other one question--"Will any of them be at meeting?" The Unitarian church was nearly deserted that Sunday, for Parson Fair's former parishioners returned to their old gathering place, under stronger pressure, for the time, than religious tenets.

It was a burning day for May--as hot as midsummer. The flowers were blossoming visibly under the eyes of the people, but they did not notice. They flocked into the meeting-house and looked about them, all with the same expression in their eyes.

When Burr Gordon and his mother entered, a thrill seemed to pass through the whole congregation. Nobody had thought they would come. Mrs. Gordon, gliding with even pace, softly murmurous in her Sunday silk, followed her son, who walked with brave front, although he was undeniably pale, up the aisle to their pew. He stood about to let his mother enter, meeting the eyes of the people as he did so; then sat down himself, and a long glance and a long nudge of shoulders passed over the meeting-house. Burr and his mother both knew it, but she sat in undisturbed serenity of pallor, and he stirred not a muscle, though a red spot blazed out on each cheek.

Madelon Hautville sat in the singing seats, but he never looked at her nor she at him. There were curious eyes upon her also, for people wondered if Burr would turn to her now Dorothy Fair had jilted him; but she did not know it. She heeded nobody but Burr, though she did not look at him, and when she stood up in the midst of her brothers and sang, she sang neither to the Lord nor to the people, but to this one weak and humiliated man whom she loved. The people thought that she had never sung so before, recognizing, though ignorantly, that she struck that great chord of the heart whose capability of sound was in them also. For the time she stood before and led all the actors in that small drama of human life which was on the village stage, and in which she took involuntary part; and the audience saw and heard nobody but her.

Burr, stiff as a soldier, at the end of his pew, felt his heart leap to hope and resolve through the sound of this woman's voice in the old orthodox hymns, and laid hold unknowingly, by means of it, of the love and force which are at the roots of things for the strengthening of the world. With weak and false starts and tardy retrogrades he had woven around his feet a labyrinth of crossing paths of life, but now, of a sudden, he saw clearly his way out. He trampled down the scruples which hampered and blinded him like thorns and had their roots in a false pride of honor, and recognized that divine call of love to worship which simplifies all perplexities. He would take that girl singing yonder for is wife, if she were indeed so generous-minded after all, not now, but later, when there could be no possibility of slight to Dorothy Fair. His honest work in the world he would do, were it in the ploughshares or the wayside ditches, with no striving for aggrandizement through untoward ways, and so would he humbly attain the full dignity of his being.

When Madelon Hautville stopped singing not one in the meeting-house had seen Burr Gordon stir, but the soul in him had surely turned and faced about with a great rending as of swathing wills that bound it.

Parson Fair preached that morning. Great had been the speculation as to whether he would or not. When he stood up in his pulpit and faced the crowded pews and the steely glances of curious eyes through the shifting flutter of fans, he was as austerely composed as ever; but a buzzing whisper went through the audience like a veritable bee of gossip. "He looks dreadful," they hissed in each other's ears, with nudges and nods.

All the principal participants in the village commotion were there except Lot Gordon and Dorothy Fair. Dorothy had not come, in spite of her father's stern commands, and sterner they had been than any commands of his to his beloved child before. Dorothy had cowered before her father, in utter misery and trepidation, after the company had left that wedding-night, but yielded she had not--only fallen ill again of that light fever which so easily beset her under stress of mind.

That Sunday morning, striving to rise and go to meeting as her father said, and being in truth willing enough, since she had a terrified longing to see Eugene Hautville in the choir and ascertain if he were angry or glad, she fell back weak and dizzy on her pillows, and the doctor was called. Dorothy's fever ran lightly, as all ailments of hers, whether mental or physical, were wont to do; and yet she had a delicacy of organization which caused her to be shaken sorely by slight causes. A butterfly may not have the capacity for despair, but the touch of a finger can crush it; and had it more capacity, there would be no butterflies.

It was a full month before Dorothy was able to go out of doors, and all that time the gossips were cheated out of the sight of her, and her father was constrained to treat her with a sort of conscience-stricken tenderness, in spite of her grave fault. Her mother had never risen from a fever which seemed akin to this; and Dorothy, in spite of his stern Puritan creed, was yet dearer to him than that abstraction of her which he deemed her soul.

Looking at the girl, flushed softly with fever, her blue eyes shining like jewels, as she lay in her white nest, he knew that he loved her life more fiercely than he judged her sins. He would turn his back upon her and go out of her chamber, his black height bowed like a penitent, and down to his study, and wrestle there upon his knees for hours with that earthly and natural love which he accounted as of the Tempter, yet might after all have been an angel, and of the Lord. And when Dorothy came weakly down-stairs at last, with the great black woman guarding her steps as if she were a baby, he found not in himself the power of stern counsel and reproof which he had decided upon when she should have left her chamber.

All the neighbors knew when Dorothy Fair first stepped her foot out of doors, and told one another suspiciously that she did not look very sick, and that they guessed she might have come out sooner, and gone to meeting, had she been so minded.

And in truth the girl, beyond slight deflections in the curves of her soft cheeks, and a wistful enlarging and brightening of her blue eyes, as in thoughtful shadows, was not much changed. The first Sunday when she appeared in the meeting-house she wore, to the delight and scandal of the women, one of the new gowns and hats of her bridal outfit. Dorothy Fair, in a great plumed hat of peach-blow silk, in a pearly silk gown and pink-silk mitts, in a white-muslin pelerine all wrought with cunning needlework, sat in the parson's pew, and uplifted her lovely face towards her father in the pulpit, and nobody knew how her whole mind and fancy were set, not upon the sermon, but upon Eugene Hautville in the singing-seats behind her. And nobody dreamed how, as she sat there, she held before her face, as it were, a sort of mental hand-mirror, in which she could see her head of fair curls, her peach-blow hat, and her slender white-muslin shoulders reflected from Eugene's dark eyes. The fall of every curl had she studied well that morning, and the folds of the muslin pelerine over her shoulders. And when the congregation arose for the hymns and faced about towards the singers, then did Dorothy let her blue eyes seek, with an innocent unconsciousness, as of blue flowers, which would have deceived the very elect, Eugene's face.

But his black eyes met hers with no more fiery glances. Eugene never even looked at her, but sang, with stern averted face, which was paler and thinner than Dorothy's, though he had had no illness save of the spirit. In vain Dorothy sought his eyes, with her blue appealing ones, during every hymn; in vain once or twice during the sermon she even cast a glance around her shoulder with a slight fling of her curls aside, and a little shiver, as if she felt a draught. Eugene never looked her way that she could see.

When the long service was over, Dorothy, with sly, watchful eyes, quickened her pace, and strove so to manage that she and Eugene should emerge from the meeting-house side by side. But he was striding far ahead, with never a backward glance, when she came out, lifting daintily her pearly skirts. Burr was near her, but him she never thought of, even to avoid, and his mother's stately aside movement was not even seen by her. She courtesied prettily to those who met her face to face, from force of habit, and went on thinking of no one but Eugene.

Again, in the afternoon, Dorothy went to meeting, though her pulses began to beat, with a slight return of the fever, and again she strove with her cunning maiden wiles to attract this obdurate Eugene, and again in vain. That night Dorothy lay and wept awhile before she fell asleep, and dreamed that she and Eugene were a-walking in the lane and that he kissed her. And when she awoke, blushing in the darkness, she resolved that she would go a-walking in the lane on every pleasant day, in the hope that the dream might come true.

And Mistress Dorothy Fair, with many eyes in the neighbors' windows watching, went pacing slowly, for her delicate limbs as yet did not bear her strongly, day after day down the road and into the lane, and, with frequent rests upon wayside stones, to the farther end of it. And yet she did not meet Eugene therein, and her dream did not come true.

But it happened at last, about the middle of the month of June, when the great red and white roses in the dooryards were in such full bloom that in another day they would be past it and fall, that Dorothy and Eugene met in the lane; for there is room enough in time for most dreams to come true, and for the others there is eternity.

That afternoon Dorothy had gone forth as usual, but she said to herself that he would not come; and half-way down the lane she ceased peering into the green distances for him, and sat herself down on a stone, and leaned back against the trunk of a young maple, and shut her eyes wearily, and told herself in a sort of sad penitence that she would look no more for him, for he would not come.

The grass in the lane was grown long now, with a pink mist over the top of it; the trees at the sides leaned together heavy with foliage, and the bordering walls were all hidden under bushes and vines. Everywhere on bush and vine were spikes and corymbs of lusty blossoms. Birds were calling to their mates and their young; the locusts were shrilling out of depths of sunlight. Dorothy, in the midst of this uncontrolled passion of summer, was herself in utter tune and harmony with it. She was just as sweet and gracefully courtesying among her sisters as any flower among the host of the field; and she had silently and inconsequently, like the flower, her own little lust of life and bloom which none could overcome, and against which she could know no religion. This Dorothy, meekly leaning her slender shoulders against the maple-tree, with her blue eyes closed, and her little hands folded in her lap, could no more develop into aught towards which she herself inclined not than a daisy plant out in the field could grow a clover blossom. Moreover her heart, which had after all enough of the sweetness of love in it, opened or shut like the cup of a sensitive plant, with seemingly no volition of hers; therefore was she in a manner innocently helpless and docile before her own emotions and her own destiny.

She sat still a few minutes and kept her eyes closed. Then she thought she heard a stir down the lane, but she would not open her eyes to look, so sadly and impatiently sure was she that he would not come. Even when she knew there was a footstep drawing near she would not look. She kept her eyes closed, and made as if she were asleep; and some one passed her, and she would not look, so sure was she that it was not Eugene.

But that afternoon Eugene Hautville, who had gone all this time the long way to the village, felt his own instincts, or the natural towardness of his heart, too strong for him. Often, watching from a distance across the fields, he had seen a pale flutter of skirts in the lane, and knew well enough that Dorothy was there, and had turned back; but this time he walked on. When he came to Dorothy he cast one glance at her, then set his face sternly and kept on, with his heart pulling him back at every step. Dorothy did not open her eyes until he had fairly passed her, and then she looked and saw him going away from her without a word. Then she gave a little cry that no one could have interpreted with any written language. She called not Eugene by his name; she said no word; but her heart gave that ancient cry for its lover which was before all speech; and that human love-call drowned out suddenly all the others.

But when Eugene stopped and turned, Dorothy blushed so before his eyes that her very neck and arms glowed pink through her lace tucker and sleeves. She shrank away, twisting herself and hiding her face, so that he could see naught of her but the flow of her muslin skirts and her curling fair locks.

Eugene stood a minute looking at her. His dark face was as red as Dorothy's. He made a motion towards her, then drew back and held up his head resolutely.

"It is a pleasant day," he said, as if they were exchanging the everyday courtesies of life; and then when she made no reply, he added that he hoped she was quite recovered from her sickness.

And then he was pressing on again, white in the face now and wrestling fiercely with himself that he might, as it were, pass his own heart which stood in the way; but Dorothy rose up, with a sob, and pressed before him, touching his arm with her slender one in her lace sleeve, and shaking out like any flower the rose and lavender scent in her garments.

"I want to speak to you," she said, and strove in vain to command her voice.

Eugene bowed and tried to smile, and waited, and looked above her head, through the tree branches into the field.

"I want to know if--you are angry with me because--I would not--marry Burr," said Dorothy, catching her breath between her words.

"I told you that you had no reason--that he was not guilty," Eugene said, with a kind of stern doggedness; and still he did not look at her.

"I could not marry--him," Dorothy panted, softly.

"I told you you had no reason," Eugene said again, as if he were saying a lesson that he had taught himself.

"Are you angry--with me because I could not marry him?" Dorothy asked, with her soft persistency in her own line of thought, and not his.

Then Eugene in desperation looked down at her, and saw her face worn into sweet wistfulness by her illness, her dilated eyes and lips parted and quivering into sobs, like a baby's.

"I am not angry, but I encourage no woman to be false to her betrothal vows," he said, and strove to make his voice hard; but Dorothy bent her head, and the sobs came, and he took her in his arms.

"Are you angry with me?" Dorothy sobbed, piteously, against his breast.

"No, not with you, but myself," said Eugene. "It is all with myself. I will take the blame of it all, sweet," and he smoothed her hair and kissed her and held her close and tried to comfort her; and it seemed to him that he could indeed take all the blame of her inconstancy and distrust, and could even bear his self-reproach for her sake, so much he loved her.

"I would not have married Burr--even if--he had told me--he was innocent," Dorothy said, after a while. She was hushing her sobs, and her very soul was smiling within her for joy as Eugene's fond whispers reached her ears.

"Why?" said Eugene.

"Because--you came first--when you looked at me in the meeting-house," Dorothy whispered back. Then she suddenly lifted her face a little, and looked up at him, with one soft flushed cheek crushed against his breast, and Eugene bent his face down to hers. They stood so, and for a minute had, indeed, the whole world to their two selves, for love as well as death has the power of annihilation; and then there was a stir in the lane, a crisp rustle of petticoats and a hiss of whispering voices; and they started and fell apart. There in the lane before them, their eyes as keen as foxes, with the scent of curiosity and gossip, their cheeks red with the shame of it, and their lips forming into apologetic and terrified smiles, stood Margaret Bean and two others--the tavern-keeper's wife and the wife of the man who kept the village store.

For a second the three women fairly cowered beneath Eugene Hautville's eyes, and Margaret Bean began to stammer as if her old tongue were palsied. Then Eugene collected himself, made them one of his courtly bows, turned to Dorothy with another, offered her his arm, and walked away with her out of the lane, before the eyes of the prying gossips.

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Chapter XXVIIIt was four o'clock that summer afternoon when the three women--Margaret Bean, the tavern-keeper's wife, and the storekeeper's wife--who had followed Dorothy and Eugene into the lane to pry upon them set forth to communicate by word of mouth the scandalous proceedings they had witnessed; and long before midnight all the village knew. The women crept cautiously at a good distance behind Dorothy and Eugene out of the lane, and watched, with incredulous eyes turning to each other for confirmation, the pair walk into Parson Fair's house together. Then they could do no more, since their ears were not long
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