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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 23
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 23 Post by :alanuk44 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1789

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 23

Chapter XXIII

When a strong normal character which has consciously made wrong moves, averse to the established order of things, and so become a force of negation, comes into contact with weaker or undeveloped natures, it sometimes produces in them an actual change of moral fibre, and they become abnormal. Instead of a right quantity on the wrong track, they are a wrong quantity, and exactly in accordance with their environments. In the case of the Carroll family, Arthur Carroll, who was in himself of a perfect and unassailable balance as to the right estimate of things, and the weighing of cause and effect, who had never in his whole life taken a step blindfold by any imperfection of spiritual vision, who had never for his own solace lost his own sense of responsibility for his lapses, had made his family, in a great measure, irresponsible for the same faults. Except in the possible case of Charlotte, all of them had a certain measure of perverted moral sense in the direction in which Carroll had consciously and unpervertedly failed. Anna Carroll, it is true, had her eyes more or less open, and she had much strength of character; still it was a feminine strength, and even she did not look at affairs as she might have done had she not been under the influence of her brother for years. While she at times waxed bitter over the state of affairs, it was more because of the constant irritation to her own pride, and her impatience at the restraints of an alien and dishonest existence, than from any moral scruples. Even Charlotte herself was scarcely clear-visioned concerning the family taint. The word debt had not to her its full meaning; the inalienable rights of others faded her comprehension when measured beside her own right of existence and of the comforts and delights of existence. Even to her a new hat or a comfortable meal was something of more importance than the need of the vender thereof for reimbursement. The value to herself was the first value, her birthright, indeed, which if others held they must needs yield up to her without money and without price, if her purse happened to be empty. Her compunction and sudden awakening of responsibility in the case of Randolph Anderson were due to an entirely different influence from any which had hitherto come into her life. Charlotte, although she was past the very first of young girlhood, being twenty, was curiously undeveloped emotionally. She had never had any lovers, and the fault had been her own, from a strange persistence of childhood in her temperament. She had not attracted, from her own utter lack of responsiveness. She was like an instrument which will not respond to the touch on certain notes, and presently the player wearies.

She was a girl of strong and jealous affections, but the electric circuits in her nature were not yet established. Then, also, she had not been a child who had made herself the heroine of her own dreams, and that had hindered her emotional development.

"Charlotte," one of her school-mates, had asked her once, "do you ever amuse yourself by imagining that you have a lover?"

Charlotte had stared at the girl, a beautiful, early matured, innocently shameless creature. "No," said she. "I don't understand what you mean, Rosamond."

"The next moonlight night," said the girl, "Imagine that you have a lover."

"What if I did?"

"It would make you very happy, almost as happy as if you had a real one," said the girl, who was only a child in years, though, on account of her size, she had been put into long dresses. She had far outstripped the boys of her own age, who were rather shy of her.

Charlotte, who was still in short dresses, looked at her, full of scorn and a mysterious shame. "I don't want any lover at all," declared she. "I don't want an imaginary one, or a real one, either. I've got my papa, and that's all I want." At that time Charlotte still clung to her doll, and the doll was in her mind, but she did not say doll to the other girl.

"Well, I don't care," said the other girl, defiantly. "You will sometime."

"I sha'n't, either," declared Charlotte. "I never shall be so silly, Rosamond Lane."

"You will, too."

"I never will. You needn't think because you are so awful silly everybody else is."

"I ain't any sillier than anybody else, and you'll be just as silly yourself, so now," said Rosamond.

After that, when Charlotte saw the child sitting sunken in a reverie with the color deepening on her cheeks, her lips pouting, and her eyes misty, she would pass indignantly. She remembered her in after years with contempt. She spoke of her to Ina as the silliest girl she had ever known.

Now the child's words of prophecy, spoken from the oldest reasoning in the world, that of established sequence and precedent, did not recur to Charlotte, but she was fulfilling them.

Ina's marriage and perhaps the natural principle of growth had brought about a change in her. Charlotte had sat by herself and thought a good deal after Ina had gone, and naturally she thought of the possibility of her own marriage. Ina had married; of course she might. But her emotions were very much in abeyance to her affections, and the conditions came before the dreams were possible.

"I shall never marry anybody who will take me far away from papa!" said Charlotte. "Perhaps I shall be less of a burden to poor papa if I am married, but I shall never go far away."

It followed in Charlotte's reasoning that it must be a man in Banbridge. There had been no talk of their leaving the place. Of course she knew that their stay in one locality was usually short, but here they were now, and it must be a man in Banbridge. She thought of a number of the crudely harmless young men of the village; there were one or two not so crude, but not so harmless, who held her thoughts a little longer, but she decided that she did not want any of them, even if they should want her. Then again the face of Randolph Anderson flashed out before her eyes as it had done before. Charlotte, with her inborn convictions, laughed at herself, but the face remained.

"There isn't another man in this town to compare with him," she said to herself, "and he is a gentleman, too." Then she fell to remembering every word he had ever said to her, and all the expressions his face had ever taken on with regard to her, and she found that she could recall them all. Then she reflected how he had trusted them, and had never failed to fill their orders, when all the other tradesmen in Banbridge had refused, and that they must be owing him.

"I shouldn't wonder if we were owing him nearly twenty-five dollars," Charlotte said to herself, and for the first time a thrill of shame and remorse at the consideration of debt was over her. She had heard his story. "There he had to give up his law practice because he could not make a living, and go into the grocery business, and here we are taking his goods and not paying him," thought she. "It is too bad." A feeling of indignation at herself and her family, and of pity for Anderson came over her. She made up her mind that she would ask her father for money to pay that bill at least. "The butcher can wait, and so can all the others," she thought, "but Mr. Anderson ought to be paid." Besides the pity came a faint realization of the other side of the creditor's point of view. "Mr. Anderson must look down upon us for taking his property and not paying our bills," she thought. She knew that some of the wedding bills had been paid, and that led her to think that her father might have more money than usual, but she overheard some conversation which passed between Carroll and his sister on the morning when he gave her the check.

"Now about that?" Anna had asked, evidently referring to some bill.

"I tell you I can't, Anna," Carroll replied. "I used the money as it came on those bills for the wedding. There is very little left." Then he had hurriedly scrawled the check, which she took in spite of her incredulousness of its worth. Therefore Charlotte, when the check had been offered her for a new hat, for Anna had carelessly passed it over to her sister-in-law, had eagerly taken it to pay Anderson.

"I paid the grocery bill," Charlotte told her aunt when she returned.

Anna was in her own room, engaged in an unusual task. She was setting things to rights, and hanging her clothes regularly in her closet, and packing her bureau drawers. Charlotte looked at her in astonishment after she had made the statement concerning the grocery bill.

"What are you doing, Anna?" said she.

Anna looked up from a snarl of lace and ribbons and gloves in a bureau drawer. "I am putting things in order," said she.

Then Mrs. Carroll crossed the hall from her opposite room, and entered, trailing a soft, pink, China-silk dressing-gown. She sank into a chair with a swirl of lace ruffles and viewed her sister-in-law with a comical air of childish dismay. "Don't you feel well, Anna, dear?" asked she.

"Yes. Why?" replied Anna Carroll, folding a yard of blue ribbon.

"Nothing, only I have always heard that if a person does something she has never done before, something at variance with her character, it is a very bad sign, and I never knew you to put things in order before, Anna, dear."

"Order is not at variance with my character," said Anna. "It is one of my fundamental principles."

"You never carried it out," said Mrs. Carroll. "You know you never did, Anna. Your bureau drawers have always looked like a sort of chaos of civilization, just like mine. You know you never carried out the principle, Anna, dear."

"A principle ceases to be one when it is carried out," said Anna.

"Then you don't think you are going to die because you are folding that ribbon, honey?"

Anna took up some yellow ribbon. "There is much more need to worry about Charlotte," said she, in the slightly bitter, sarcastic tone which had grown upon her lately.

Mrs. Carroll looked at Charlotte, who had removed her hat and was pinning up her hair at a little glass in a Florentine frame which hung between the windows. The girl's face, reflected in the glass, flushed softly, and was seen like a blushing picture in the fanciful frame, although she did not turn her head, and made no rejoinder to her aunt's remark.

"What has Charlotte been doing?" asked Mrs. Carroll.

"She has been doing the last thing which any Carroll in his or her senses is ever supposed to do," replied Anna, in the same tone, as she folded her yellow ribbon.

"What do you mean, Anna, dear?"

"She has been paying a bill before the credit was exhausted. That is sheer insanity in a Carroll. If there is anything in the old Scotch superstition, she is fey, if ever anybody was."

"What bill?" asked Mrs. Carroll.

"Mr. Anderson's," replied Charlotte, faintly, still without turning from the glass which reflected her charming pink face in its gilt, scrolled frame.

"Mr. Anderson's?"

"The grocer's bill," said Charlotte.

"Oh! I did not know what his name was," said Mrs. Carroll.

"He probably is well acquainted with ours, on his books," said Anna.

Mrs. Carroll looked in a puzzled way from her to Charlotte, who had turned with a little air of defiance. "Had he refused to let us have any more groceries?" said she.

"No," said Charlotte.

"I told you he had not," said Anna, shaking out a lace handkerchief, which diffused an odor of violet through the room.

"Then why did you pay him, honey?" asked Mrs. Carroll, wonderingly, of Charlotte.

"I paid him just because he had trusted us," said she, in a voice which rang out clearly with the brave honesty of youth.

Suddenly she looked from her mother to her aunt with accusing eyes. "I don't believe it is right to go on forever buying things and never paying for them, just because a gentleman is kind enough to let you," said she.

"I thought you said it was the grocer, Charlotte, honey," said Mrs. Carroll, helplessly.

"He is a gentleman, if he is a grocer," said Charlotte, and her cheek blazed.

Anna Carroll looked sharply at her from her drawer, then went on folding the handkerchief.

"He is a lawyer, and as well-educated as papa," Charlotte said, further, in her clear, brave voice, and she returned her aunt's look unflinchingly, although her cheeks continued to blush.

Mrs. Carroll still looked bewildered. "How much did you pay him, Charlotte, dear?" she asked.

"Twenty-five dollars."

"The whole of the check Arthur gave you?"

"Yes, Amy."

"But you might have bought yourself a hat, honey, and you did need one. I can't quite understand why you paid the grocer, when he had not refused to let us have more groceries, and you might have bought a hat."

Anna, packing the drawer, began to laugh, and Charlotte, after frowning a second, laughed also.

"My hat with the roses looks very nice yet, Amy, dear," said she, sweetly and consolingly.

"But it is getting so late for roses," Mrs. Carroll returned.

"The milliner in New York where Ina got her hats has been paid; maybe she will trust Charlotte for a hat. Don't worry, Amy," said Anna, coolly.

Mrs. Carroll brightened up. "Sure enough, Anna," said she. "She was paid because she wouldn't trust us, and maybe now she will be willing to again. I will go in to-morrow, and I think I can get a hat for myself."

"I saw the dress-maker looking out of the window," said Charlotte.

"She did very well," said Mrs. Carroll.

"I suppose there is no money to pay her?" said Charlotte.

"No, honey, I suppose not, but dear Ina has the dresses and you have your new one."

"That makes me think. I think her bill is on the table. It came two or three days ago. I haven't opened it, because it looked like a bill. Eddy brought it in when I was in here. Yes, there it is." Charlotte, near the table, took up the envelope and opened it. "It is only one hundred and fifty-eight dollars," said she.

"That is very cheap for so many pretty dresses," said Mrs. Carroll, "but I suppose it is all clear profit. I should think dress-makers would get rich very easily."

That night Charlotte was the last to go to her room--that is, the last except her father. He was still smoking in the little room on the left of the hall. They had been playing whist in there; then they had had some sherry and crackers and olives. Major Arms had sent out a case of sherry before the wedding, and it was not all gone. Now Carroll was smoking a last cigar before retiring, and the others except Charlotte had gone. She lingered after she had kissed her father good-night.

"Papa," said she, tentatively. She looked very slim and young in her little white muslin frock, with her pretty hair braided in her neck.

"Well, sweetheart, what is it?" asked Carroll, with a tender look of admiration.

Charlotte hesitated. Then she spoke with such desire not to offend that her voice rang harsh. "Papa," said she, "do you think--"

"Think what, honey?"

"Do you think you can pay the dress-maker's bill?"

"Pretty soon, dear," said Carroll, his face changing.

"To-morrow?"

"I am afraid not to-morrow, Charlotte."

"She worked very hard over those dresses, and she bought the things, and it is quite a while. I think she ought to be paid, papa."

"Pretty soon, dear," said Carroll again.

Charlotte turned without another word and went out of the room. Her silence and her retreat were full of innocent condemnation. Carroll smoked, his face set and tense. Then there was a flutter and Charlotte was back. She did not speak this time, but she ran to her father, threw her slight arms around his neck, and kissed him, and it was the kiss of love which follows the judgment of love. Then she was gone again.

Carroll removed his cigar and sat staring straight ahead for a moment. Then he gave the cigar a fling into a brass bowl and put his head on his arms on the table.

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Chapter XXIVCharlotte, before her sister was married, had been in the habit of taking long walks with her. Now she went alone.The elder women of the family never walked when they could avoid doing so. Mrs. Carroll was, in consequence, putting on a soft roundness of flesh like a baby, and was daily becoming a creature of more curves and dimples. Anna did not gain flesh, but she moved more languidly, and her languor of movement was at curious odds with the subdued eagerness of her eyes. In these days Anna Carroll was not well; her nerves were giving way. She
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Chapter XXIIIt was a week to a day after the wedding, and Anderson had been to the office for the morning mail, and was just returning to the store when a watching face at a window of Madame Griggs's dress-making establishment opposite suddenly disappeared, and when Anderson was mounting the steps of the store piazza he heard a panting breath and rattle of starched petticoats, and turned to see the dress-maker."Good-morning," she gasped."Good-morning, Mrs. Griggs," returned Anderson."Can I see you jest a minute on business? I have been watching for you to come back from the office. I want to buy
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