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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Martha - Chapter 38. A Broken Trace
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The House Of Martha - Chapter 38. A Broken Trace Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :2337

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The House Of Martha - Chapter 38. A Broken Trace

XXXVIII. A BROKEN TRACE

As soon as my grandmother heard that I was at Arden, she terminated her visit abruptly, and returned home. When she saw me, she expressed the opinion that my holiday had not been of any service to me. She did not remember ever seeing me so greatly out of condition, and was of the opinion that I ought to see the doctor.

"These watering places and islands," she said, "are just as likely to be loaded down with malaria as any other place. In fact, I don't know but it is just as well for our health for us to stay at home. That is, if we live in a place like Arden."

I had no desire to conceal from this nearest and dearest friend and relative the real cause of my appearance, and I laid before her all the facts concerning Sylvia and myself.

She was not affected as I supposed she would be. In fact, my narrative appeared to relieve her mind of some of her anxieties.

"Any way," she remarked, after a moment or two of consideration, "this is better than malaria. If you get anything of that kind into your system, it is probable that you will never get it out, and it is at any time likely to affect your health, one way or another; but love affairs are different. They have a powerful influence upon a person, as I well know, but there is not about them that insidious poison, which, although you may think you have entirely expelled it from your system, is so likely to crop out again, especially in the spring and fall."

To this I made no answer but a sigh. What was the good of saying that, in my present state of mind, health was a matter of indifference to me?

"I am not altogether surprised," continued my grandmother, "that that secretary business turned out in this way. If it had been any other young woman, I should have advised against it, but Sylvia Raynor is a good match,--good in every way; and I thought that if her working with you had made you like her, and had made her like you, it might be very well; but I am sure it never entered my mind that if you did come to like each other she would choose the sisterhood instead of you. I knew that she was not then a full sister, and I hadn't the slightest doubt that if you two really did fall in love with each other she would leave the House of Martha as soon as her time was up. You must not think, my dear boy," she continued, "that I am anxious to get rid of you, but you know you must marry some day."

I solemnly shook my head. "All that," I said, "is at an end. We need speak no more of it."

My grandmother arose, and gently placed her hand upon my shoulder. "Come! come! Do not be so dreadfully cast down. You have yet one strong ground of hope."

"What is that?" I inquired.

My grandmother looked into my face and smiled. "The girl isn't dead yet," she answered.

I now found myself in a very unsettled and unpleasant state of mind. My business affairs, which had been a good deal neglected of late, I put into the charge of Walkirk, who attended to them with much interest and ability. My individual concerns--that is to say, the guidance and direction of myself--I took into my own hands, and a sorry business I made of it.

I spent a great deal of my time wondering whether or not Sylvia had returned to the House of Martha. I longed for her coming. The very thought of her living within a mile of me was a wild and uneasy pleasure. Then I would ask myself why I wished her to come. Her presence in the neighborhood would be of no good to me unless I saw her, and of course I could not see her. And if this could be so, what would be worse for me, or for her, than our seeing each other? From these abstract questions I came to a more practical one: What should I do? To go away seemed to be a sensible thing, but I was tired of going away. I liked my home, and, besides, Sylvia would be in the neighborhood. It also seemed wise to stay, and endeavor to forget her. But how could I forget her, if she were in the neighborhood? If she were to go away, I might be willing to go away also; but the chances were that I should not know where she had gone, and how could I endure to go to any place where I was certain she was not?

During this mental tangle I confided in no one. There was no one who could sympathize with my varying view of the subject, and I knew there was no one with whose view of the subject I could agree. Sometimes it was almost impossible for me to sympathize with myself.

It suited my mood to take long walks in the surrounding country. One morning, returning from one of these, when about half a mile out of the village, I saw in the road, not very far from me, a carriage, which seemed to be in distress. It was a four-wheeled, curtained vehicle, of the kind to be had for hire at the railroad stations; and beside the raw-boned horse which drew it stood a man and a woman, the latter in the gray garb of a sister of the House of Martha.

When I recognized this costume, my heart gave a jump, and I hastened toward the group; but the woman had perceived my approach, and to my surprise came toward me. I quickly saw that it was Mother Anastasia. My heart sank; without any good reason, it must be admitted, but still it sank.

The face of the Mother Superior was slightly flushed, as she walked rapidly in my direction. Saluting her, I inquired what had happened.

"Nothing of importance," she answered; "a trace has broken."

"I will go and look at it," I said. "Sometimes that sort of mishap can be easily remedied."

"Oh, no," said she, "don't trouble yourself. It's broken in the middle, and so you cannot cut a fresh hole in it, or do any of those things which men do to broken traces. I have told the boy that he must take out the horse, and ride it back to the stable and get another set of harness. That is the only thing to be done. I shall wait here for his return, and I am very glad to have met you."

Naturally I was pleased at this. "Then you have something to say to me?" I remarked.

"Yes," she answered, "I have a good deal to say. Let us walk on to a more shaded place."

"Now it strikes me," said I, "that the most pleasant place to wait will be in the carriage; there we can sit and talk quite comfortably."

"Oh, no," she said, with a sort of half laugh, "it is stuffy and horrid. I greatly prefer the fresh air. I have reason to suppose you do not object to conversing under a tree. I see a promising bit of shade a little farther on."

"Would it be wise to go so far from the carriage?" I asked. "Have you left in it anything of value?"

Mother Anastasia was more animated than I had ever seen her before when in the uniform of the house.

"Oh, pshaw!" she answered. "You know the people around here do not steal things out of carriages. Let us step on."

"But first," I said, "I will run down and pull the carriage out of the way of passing vehicles. It now stands almost across the road."

With a movement of impatience, she put her hand upon my arm. "Don't trouble yourself about that hack; let it stand where it is. I wish to speak with you, and do not let us waste our time."

I had no objection to speaking with Mother Anastasia, and, giving no further thought to the abandoned vehicle, I walked with her to a spot where a clump of straggling locust-trees threw a scanty shade upon the sidewalk. I could not but feel that my companion had something important to say to me, for she was evidently a good deal agitated. She stepped a little in front of me, and then turned and faced me.

"There is no place to sit down here," she said, "but I'm not tired, are you?"

I assured her that I was not, and would as soon talk standing as sitting.

"Now, then," she began, "tell me about yourself. What have you been doing? What are your plans?"

"My plans!" I cried. "Of what importance are my plans and actions? I thought you wished to speak to me of Sylvia."

She smiled. "There is really nothing to say about that young person, of whom, by the way, you should not speak as 'Sylvia.' She is now a full member of the sisterhood, and has accepted the name of 'Sister Hagar.' We found that the other sisters would not like it if an exception were made in her favor, in regard to her name."

"'Hagar!'" I groaned. "Horrible!"

"Oh, no," replied Mother Anastasia, "there is nothing horrible about it. 'Hagar' is a little harsh, perhaps, but one soon gets used to that sort of thing."

"I can never get used to it," I said.

"My dear Mr. Vanderley," said the Mother Superior, speaking very earnestly, but with a gentleness that was almost affectionate, "I wish I could impress upon your mind that there is no need of your getting used to the name of our young sister, or of your liking it or disliking it. You ought thoroughly to understand, from what she has told you, and from what I have told you, that she never can be anything to you, and that, out of regard to yourself, if to no one else, you should cease to think of her as I see you do think."

"As long as I live in this world," I replied, "I shall continue to think of her as I do think."

Mother Anastasia gave a sigh. "The unreasonableness of men is something inexplicable. Perhaps you think I am not old enough to give you advice, but I will say that, for your own sake, you ought to crush and obliterate the feelings you have toward our sister; and if you do not choose to do it for your own sake, you ought to do it for her sake and that of our sisterhood. It makes it extremely awkward for us, to say the least of it, to know that there is a gentleman in the village who is in love with one of the sisters of the House of Martha."

"I suppose you would have me exile myself," I replied, "leave forever my home, my grandmother, everything that is dear to me, and all for the sake of the peace and quiet of your sisterhood. Let me assure you I do not care enough for your sisterhood to do that."

The Mother Superior smiled ironically, but not ill-naturedly. "I am very much afraid," she remarked, "that in this matter you care for no one but yourself. There is nothing so selfish as a man in love."

"He needs to be," I answered. "But tell me, is Sylvia here?"

"Sylvia again," said she, half laughing. "Yes, she has returned to the House of Martha, and you can see for yourself that, if you continue in your present state of mind, it will be impossible for her ever to go outside of the house."

"I shall not hurt her," I answered.

"Yes, you will hurt her," quickly replied Mother Anastasia. "You will hurt her very much, if you meet her, and show by your words, looks, or actions that your former attitude toward her is not changed." She came nearer to me, looking into my face with her eyes full of an earnest tenderness, and as she spoke she laid the tips of her fingers gently upon my shoulder. She had a very pleasant way of doing this. "I do wish," she said, "that you would let me prevail upon you to do what your conscience must tell you is right. If you have ever loved the girl who was once Sylvia Raynor, that is the best of reasons why you should cease to love her now. You owe it to her to cease to love her."

I looked steadily into the face of the Mother Superior.

"You promise me that you will do that?" she said, with a smile upon her lips and a light in her eyes which might have won over almost any man to do almost anything. "You promise me that you will allow our young sister, who has hardships enough to bear without any more being thrust upon her, to try to be happy in the way she has chosen, and that you will try to be happy in the way you should have chosen; that you will go out into the world and act your part in life; that you will look upon this affair as something which has vanished into the past; and that you will say to your heart, 'You are free, if not by my will, by the irresistible force of circumstances'?"

I looked at her a few moments in silence, and then answered, very quietly, "I shall do nothing of the kind."

She gave her head a little toss and stepped backward, and then, with a half laugh which seemed to indicate an amused hopelessness, she said: "You are utterly impracticable, and I am certain I do not know what is to be done about it. But I see that the boy has returned with the horse, and I must continue my journey. I am going to the Iron Furnace to see a sick woman. I wish you would think of what I have said, and remember that it was spoken from the depth of my soul. And do not think," she continued, as I turned and accompanied her toward the carriage, "that I do not appreciate the state of your feelings. I understand them thoroughly, and I sympathize with you as perhaps only a woman can sympathize; but still I say to you that there are some things in this world which we must give up, and which we ought to give up promptly and willingly."

"Do you think," said I, "that if Sylvia were to learn typewriting there would be any objection to her copying manuscript for me?"

Mother Anastasia burst into a laugh. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for making a person of my position behave so giddily in the presence of a hack-driver."

We now reached the carriage, and I assisted her to enter it.

"Good-morning," she said, her face still perturbed by her suddenly checked merriment, "and do not forget the counsels I have given you."

I bowed and stepped back, but the driver did not start. He sat for a moment irresolute, and then, turning toward Mother Anastasia, asked, "Shall I wait for the other sister?"

"Oh, go on!" cried the Mother Superior. "There is no other sister."

The boy, startled by her tone, gave his horse a cut, and the equipage rattled away. I walked slowly homeward, meditating earnestly upon Mother Anastasia's words and upon Mother Anastasia.

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