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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Martha - Chapter 36. In The Shade Of The Oak
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The House Of Martha - Chapter 36. In The Shade Of The Oak Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1606

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The House Of Martha - Chapter 36. In The Shade Of The Oak

XXXVI. IN THE SHADE OF THE OAK

I found my home at Arden very empty and dreary. The servants did not expect me, my grandmother had not returned, and the absence of Walkirk added much to my dissatisfaction with the premises.

I was never a man who could sit down and wait for things to happen, and I felt now that it was absolutely necessary that I should do something, that I should talk to somebody; and accordingly, on the morning after my arrival, I determined to walk over to the House of Martha and talk to Mother Anastasia. For a man to consult with the Mother Superior of a religious institution about his love affairs was certainly an uncommon proceeding, with very prominent features of inappropriateness; but this did not deter me, for, apart from the fact that there was no one else to talk to, I considered that Mother Anastasia owed me some advice and explanation, and without hesitation I went to ask for it.

When I reached the House of Martha, and made known my desire to speak to the head of the institution, I was ushered into a room which was barer and harder than I had supposed, from Walkirk's description of it. It did not even contain the religious pictures or the crucifixes which would have relieved the blankness of the walls in a Roman Catholic establishment of the kind.

As I stood gazing about me, with a feeling of indignation that such a place as this should ever have been the home of such a woman as Sylvia, a door opened, and Mother Anastasia entered.

Her appearance shocked me. I had in my mind the figure of a woman with whom I had talked,--a woman glowing with the warmth of a rich beauty, draped in graceful folds of white, with a broad hat shadowing her face, and a bunch of wild flowers in her belt. Here was a tall woman clothed in solemn gray, her face pale, her eyes fixed upon the ground; but it was Mother Anastasia; it was the woman who had talked to me of Sylvia, who had promised to help me with Sylvia.

Still gazing on the floor, with her hands folded before her, she asked me what I wished. At first I could not answer her. It seemed impossible to open my heart to a woman such as this one. But if I said anything, I must say it without hesitation, and so I began.

"Of course," I said, "I have come to see you about Sylvia Raynor. I am in much trouble regarding her. You promised to aid me, and I have come to ask for the fulfillment of that promise. My love for that girl grows stronger day by day, hour by hour, and I have been thwarted, mystified, and I may say deceived. I have come"--

"She of whom you speak," interrupted Mother Anastasia, "is not to be discussed in that way. She has declared her intention to unite herself permanently with our sisterhood, and to devote her life to our work. She can have nothing more to do with you, nor you with her."

"That will not do at all," I said excitedly. "When I last saw you, you did not talk like that, and the opinions you expressed at that time are just as good now as they were then. I want to go over this matter with you. There are things that I have a right to know."

A little frown appeared upon her brow. "This conversation must cease," she said; "the subjects you wish to discuss are forbidden to our sisterhood. You must mention them no more."

I tried hard to restrain myself and speak quietly. "Madam"--said I.

"You must not call me 'madam,'" she broke in. "I am the Mother Superior of this house."

"I understand that," I continued, "and I understand your feeling of duty. But you have other duties besides those you owe to your sisterhood. You made me a promise, which I accepted with an honest and confiding heart. If you cannot do what you promised, you owe it to me to explain why you cannot do it. I do not know what has happened to change your views and her views, and, so far as I am concerned, the whole world. You can set me right; you can explain everything to me."

The frown disappeared, and her face seemed paler. "It is absolutely impossible to discuss anything of the sort in this house. I must insist"--

I did not permit her to finish her sentence. "Very well, then," I exclaimed, "if you cannot talk to me here, talk to me somewhere else. When you desire it, you go outside of these walls, and you speak freely and fully. You have so spoken with me; and because you have done so, it is absolutely necessary that you do it again. Your own heart, your conscience, must tell you that after what you have said to me, and after what I have said to you, it is unjust, to say no more, to leave me in this state of cruel mystification; not to tell me why you have set aside your promise to me, or even to tell me, when we talked together of Sylvia, that we were then at the home of Sylvia's mother."

For the first time she looked at me, straight in my eyes, as a true woman would naturally look at a man who was speaking strongly to her. I think I made her forget, for a few moments at least, that she was a Mother Superior. Then her eyes fell again, and she stood silent.

"Perhaps," she said presently, and speaking slowly, "I ought to explain these things to you. It is a great mistake, as I now see, that I ever said anything to you on the subject; but things were different then, and I did not know that I was doing wrong. Still, if you rely on me to set you right, you shall be set right. I see that this is quite as necessary from other points of view as from your own. I cannot speak with you to-day, but to-morrow, about this time, I shall be on the road to Maple Ridge, where I am going to visit a sick woman."

"I shall join you on the road," I answered, and took my leave.

For the rest of the day I thought of little but the promised interview on the morrow. To this I looked forward with the greatest interest, but also with the greatest anxiety. I feared that Mother Anastasia would prove to me that I must give up all thoughts of Sylvia. In fact, if Sylvia had resolved to devote herself to the service of the House of Martha,--and she had told me herself that she had so resolved,--I was quite sure she would do so. Then what was there for Mother Anastasia to say, or me to do? The case was settled. Sylvia Raynor must be nothing to me.

I greatly wished for Walkirk. I knew he would encourage me, in spite of the obvious blackness of the situation. It was impossible for me to encourage myself. But, however black my fate might be, I longed to know why it had been made black and all about it, and so waited with a savage impatience for the morning and Mother Anastasia.

Immediately after breakfast, the next day, I was on the Maple Ridge road, strolling from our village toward the top of a hill a mile or more away, whence I could see the rest of the road, as it wound through the lonely country, and at last lost itself in the woods. Back again to Arden I came, and had covered the distance between the village and the hilltop five times, when, turning and coming down the hill, I saw, far away, the figure of a woman walking.

I knew it was Mother Anastasia, but I did not hasten to meet her. In fact, I thought the further she was from the village, when our interview took place, the more likely she would be to make it long enough to be satisfactory. I came slowly down the hill, and, reaching a place where a great oak-tree shaded the road, I waited.

She came on quickly, her gray dress appearing heavier and more sombre against the sun-lighted grass and foliage than it had appeared in the dreary room of the House of Martha. As she approached the tree I advanced to meet her.

"You made me come too far," she said reproachfully, as soon as we were near each other. "The lane which leads to the house I came to visit is a quarter of a mile behind me."

"I am sorry," I replied, "that I have made you walk any farther than necessary on such a warm morning, but I did not know that you intended to turn from this road. Let us step into the shade of this tree; we can talk more comfortably there."

She looked at the tree, but did not move. "What I have to say," she remarked, "can be said here; it will not take long."

"You must not stand in the sun," I replied; "you are already heated. Come into the shade," and, without waiting her answer, I walked toward the tree; she followed me.

"Now, then," said I, "here is a great stone conveniently placed, upon which we can sit and rest while we talk."

She fixed her large eyes upon me with a certain surprise. "Truly, you have no regard for conventionalities. It is sufficiently out of the way for a sister of the House of Martha to meet a gentleman in this manner, but to sit with him under a tree would be ridiculously absurd, to say the least of it."

"It does not strike me in that light," I said. "You are tired and warm, and must sit down. You came here on my account, and I regard you, in a manner, as a guest."

She smiled, and looked at the rock which I had pointed out. It was a flat one, about three feet long, and it seemed as if it had been put there on purpose to serve for a seat.

"I am tired," she said, and sat down upon it. As she did so, she gave a look about her, and at the same time made a movement with her right hand, which I often before had noticed in women. It was the involuntary expression of the female soul, longing for a fan. A fan, however, made up no part of the paraphernalia of a sister of the House of Martha.

"Allow me," I said, and, taking off my straw hat, I gently fanned her.

Mother Anastasia laughed. "This is really too much; please stop it. But you may lend me your hat. I did not know the morning would be so warm, and I am afraid I walked too fast. But we are losing time. Will you tell me precisely what it is you wish to know of me?"

"I can soon do that," I answered; "but I must first say that I believe you will suffocate if you try to talk from under that cavernous bonnet. Why don't you take it off, and get the good of this cool shade? You had discarded all that sort of thing when I last talked with you, and you were then just as much a Mother Superior as you are now."

She smiled. "The case was very different then. I was actually obliged, by the will of another, to discard the garb of our sisterhood."

"I most earnestly wish," said I, "that you could be obliged to do partially the same thing now. With that bonnet on, you do not seem at all the same person with whom I talked on Tangent Island. You appear like some one to whom I must open the whole subject anew."

"Oh, don't do that," she said, with a deprecating movement of her hand,--"I really haven't the time to listen; and if my bonnet hinders your speech, off it shall come. Now, then, I suppose you want to know the reason of my change of position in regard to Sylvia and you." As she said this she took off her bonnet; not with a jerk, as Sylvia had once removed hers, but carefully, without disturbing the dark hair which was disposed plainly about her head. I was greatly relieved; this was an entirely different woman to talk to.

"Yes," I replied, "that is what I want to know."

"I will briefly give you my reasons," she said, still fanning herself with my hat, while I stood before her, earnestly listening, "and you will find them very good and conclusive reasons. When I spoke to you before, the case was this: Sylvia Raynor had had a trouble, which made her think she was the most miserable girl in the whole world, and she threw herself into our sisterhood. Her mother did not object to this, because of course Sylvia entered as a probationer, and she thought a few months of the House of Martha life would do her good. That her daughter would permanently join the sisterhood never occurred to her. As I was a relative, it was a natural thing that the girl should enter a house of which I was the head. I did not approve of the step, but at first I had no fears about it. After a while, however, I began to have fears. She never liked our life and never sympathized with it, and her heart was never enlisted in the cause of the sisterhood; but after a time I found she was endeavoring to conquer herself, and when a woman with a will--and Sylvia is one of these--undertakes in earnest to conquer herself, she generally succeeds. Then it was I began to have my fears, and then it was I wished to divert her mind from the life of the sisterhood, and send her back to the world to which she belongs."

"Then it was you gave me your promise?" I added.

"Yes," she answered; "and I gave it honestly. I would have helped you all I could. I truly believed that in so doing I was acting for Sylvia's good."

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart," I said; "and tell me, did Mrs. Raynor know, when I was on the island, of my affection for Sylvia?"

"She knew as much as I knew," was the answer, "for I went to the island on purpose to consult with her on the subject; and when you confided in me, and I gave you my promise to help you, I also told her about that."

"And did she approve?" I asked anxiously.

"She did not disapprove. She knew all about you and your family, although she had never seen you until you were at her island."

"It is strange," said I, "that I should have happened to go to that place at that time."

"Yes," she continued, "it does seem rather odd. But, as I was going to say, a letter came not more than an hour after we had had our conversation, which totally altered the face of affairs. Sylvia wrote that she had resolved to devote her life to the sisterhood. This was a great blow to her mother and to me, but Mrs. Raynor had firmly resolved not to interfere with her daughter's resolutions in regard to her future life. She had done so once, and the results had been very unfortunate. I was of an entirely different mind, and I resolved, if the thing could be done, to change Sylvia's purpose; but I failed, and that is the end of it. She is not to be moved. I know her well, and her conviction and determination are not to be changed. She is now on a visit to her mother, and when she returns she will enter the House of Martha as an inmate for life."

"Yes," said I, after a little pause, "I know that. I saw her a few days ago, and she told me of her purpose."

"What!" cried Mother Anastasia, "you have seen her! A few days ago! She told you all this! Why did you not say so? Why did you come to me?"

"Do not be displeased," I said, and as I spoke I seated myself beside her on the stone. She made no objections. I think she was too much agitated even to notice it. "I had no intention of keeping anything from you, but I first wanted to hear what you had to tell me. Sylvia did not tell me everything, nor have you."

"Met her, and talked with her!" ejaculated Mother Anastasia. "Will you tell me how this happened?"

She listened with the greatest attention to my story.

"It is wonderful," she said, when I had finished. "It seems like a tantalizing fate. But it is well you did not overtake Mrs. Raynor. It would have been of no good to you, and the interview would have greatly troubled her."

"Now tell me," I asked, "what I most want to know: what was the reason of Sylvia's sudden determination?"

Mother Anastasia fixed her dark eyes on mine; they were full of a tender sadness. "I thought of you nearly all last night," she said, "and I determined that if you should ask me that question to-day I would answer it. It is a hard thing to do, but it is the best thing. Sylvia's resolve was caused by her conviction that she loved you. Feeling assured of that, she unhesitatingly took the path which her conscience pointed out to her."

"Conscience!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," said Mother Anastasia, "it was her conscience. She was far more in earnest than we had thought her. It was conviction, not desire or sympathy, which had prompted her to enter the sisterhood. Now her convictions, her conscience, prompt her to crush everything which would interfere with the life she has chosen. All this she has told me. Her conscience stands between you and her, and you must understand that what you wish is absolutely impossible. You must be strong, and give up all thought of her. Will you promise me to do this?" and as she spoke she laid her hand upon my arm. "Promise it, and I shall feel that I have devoted myself this morning to as true a mission of charity as anything to which our sisters vow themselves."

I did not respond, but sat silent, with bowed head.

"I must go now," said Mother Anastasia. "Reflect on what I have said, and your heart and your practical sense will tell you that what I ask you to do is what you ought to do and must do. Good-by," and she held out her hand to me.

I took her hand and held it. The thought flashed into my mind that when I released that hand the last tie between Sylvia and myself would be broken.

Presently the hand was adroitly withdrawn, Mother Anastasia rose, and I was left alone, sitting in the shadow of the tree.

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