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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBy The Light Of The Soul: A Novel - Chapter 33
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By The Light Of The Soul: A Novel - Chapter 33 Post by :davrick Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2911

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By The Light Of The Soul: A Novel - Chapter 33

Chapter XXXIII

There was a second's hush after Evelyn had said that. It seemed to Maria that her heart stood still. A sort of incredulity, as of the monstrous and the super-human seized her. She felt as one who had survived a railroad accident might feel looking down upon his own dismembered body in which life still quivered. She could not seem to actually sense what Evelyn had said, although the words still rang in her ears. Presently, Evelyn spoke again in her smothered, weeping voice. "Do you think I am so very dreadful, so--immodest, to care so much about a man who has never said he cared about me?"

"He has never said anything?" asked Maria, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears.

"No, never one word that I could make anything of, but he has looked at me, he has, honest, sister." Evelyn burst into fresh sobs.

Then Maria roused herself. She patted the little, soft, dark head.

"Why, Evelyn, precious," she said, "you are imagining all this. You can't care so much about a man whom you have seen so little. You have let your mind dwell on it, and you imagine it. You don't care. You can't, really. You wait, and by-and-by you will find out that you care a good deal more for somebody else."

But then Evelyn raised herself and looked down at her sister in the dark, and there was a ring in her voice which Maria had never before heard. "Not care," she said--"not care! I will stand everything but that. Maria, don't you dare tell me I don't care!"

"But you don't know him at all, dear."

"I know him better than anybody else in the whole world," said Evelyn, still in the same strained voice. "The very minute I saw him I loved him, and then it seemed as if a great bright light made him plain to me. I do love him, Maria. Don't you ever dare say I don't. That is the only thing that makes me feel that I am not ashamed to live, the knowing that I do love him. I should be dreadful if I didn't love him--really love him, I mean, with the love that lasts. Do you suppose that if I only felt about him as some of the other girls do, that I would have told you? I _do love him!"

"What makes you so sure?"

"What makes me so sure? Why, everything. I know there is not another man in the whole world for me that can possibly equal him, and then--I feel as if my whole life were full of him. I can't seem to remember much before he came. When I look back, it is like looking into the dark, and I can't imagine the world being at all without him."

"Would you be willing to be very poor, to go without pretty things if you--married him, to live in a house like the Ramsey's on the other side of the river, not to have enough to eat and drink and wear?"

"I would have enough to eat and drink and wear. I would have as much as a queen if I had him," cried Evelyn. "What do you think I care about pretty things, or even food and life itself, when it comes to anything like this? Live in a house like the Ramsey's! I would live in a cave. I would live on the street, and I should never know it was not a palace. Maria, you do know that I love him, don't you?"

"Yes, I know that you think you do."

"No, say I do."

"Yes, I know you do," Maria said.

Then Evelyn lay down again, and wept quietly.

"Yes, I love him," she moaned, "but he does not love me. You don't think he does, do you? I know you don't."

Maria said nothing. She was sure that he did not.

"No, he does not. I see you know it," Evelyn sobbed, "and all I cared about going to the Christmas-tree and wearing my new gown was on account of him, and I sent a beautiful book. I thought I could do that. All the girls in the senior class gave him something, and I have been saving up every cent, and he never gave me anything, not even a box of candy or flowers. Do you think he gave any of the other girls anything, Maria?"

"I don't think so."

"I can't help hoping he did not. And I don't believe it is so very wicked, because I know that none of the other girls can possibly love him as much as I do. But, Maria--"

"Well?"

"I do love him enough not to complain if he really loved some other girl, and she was good, and would make him happy. I would go down on my knees to her to love him. I would, Maria, honest." Evelyn was almost hysterical. Maria soothed her, and evaded as well as she was able her repeated little, piteous questions as to whether she thought Mr. Lee could ever care for her. "I know I am pretty," Evelyn said naively. "I really think I must be prettier than any other girl in school. I have heard so, and I really think so myself, but being pretty means so little when it comes to anything like this with a man like him. He might love Addie Hemingway instead of me, so far as looks were concerned, but I don't think Addie would make him very happy--do you, Maria?"

"No, dear. I am quite sure he will never think of her. Now try and be quiet and go to sleep."

"I cannot go to sleep," moaned Evelyn, but it was not very long before she was drawing long, even breaths. Her youth had asserted itself. Then, too, she had got certain comfort from this baring of her soul before the soothing love of her sister.

As soon as Maria became sure that Evelyn was soundly asleep she gently unwound the slender, clinging arms and got out of bed, and stole noiselessly into Evelyn's own room, which adjoined hers. She did not get into bed, but took a silk comfortable off, and wrapped it around her, then sat down in a low chair beside the window. It seemed to her that if she could not have a little while to think by herself that she should go mad. The utterly inconceivable to her had happened, and the utterly inconceivable fairly dazzles the brain when it comes to pass. Maria felt as if she were outside all hitherto known tracks of life, almost as if she were in the fourth dimension. The possibility that her own sister might fall in love with the man whom she had married had never entered her mind before. She had checked Evelyn's wonder concerning him, but she had thought no more of it than of the usual foolish exuberance of a young girl. Now she believed that her sister really loved Wollaston. She recalled the fears which she had had with regard to her strenuous nature. She did not believe it to be a passing fancy of an ordinary young girl. She recalled word for word what Evelyn had said, and she believed. Maria sat awhile gazing out of the window at the starlit sky in a sort of blank of realization, of adjustment. She could not at first formulate any plan of action. She could only, as it were, state the problem. She gazed up at the northern constellations, at the mysterious polar star, and it seemed to steady her mind and give it power to deal with her petty problem of life by its far-away and everlasting guiding light. The window was partly open, and the same pungent odor of death and life in one which had endured all day came in her nostrils. She seemed to sense heaven and earth and herself as an atom, but an atom racked with infinite pain between the two.

"There is the great polar star," she said to herself, "there are all the suns and stars, here is the earth, and here am I, Maria Edgham, who am on the earth, but must some day give up my mortal life and become a part of it, and part of the material universe and perhaps also of the spiritual. I am as nothing, and yet this pain in my heart, this love in my heart, makes me shine with my own fire as much as the star. I could not be unless the earth existed, but it is of such as myself that the earth is made up, and without such as myself it could not shine in its place in the heavens."

Maria began to attach a certain importance to her individual existence even while she realized the pettiness of it, comparatively speaking. She was an infinitesimal part, but the whole could not be without that part. Suddenly the religious instruction which she had drank in with her mother's milk took possession of her, but she had a breadth of outlook which would have terrified her mother. Maria said to herself that she believed in God, but that His need of her was as much as her need of Him. She said to herself that without her tiny faith in Him, her tiny speck of love for Him, He would lack something of Himself. Then all at once, in a perfect flood of rapture, something which she had never before known came into her heart: the consciousness of the love of God for herself, of the need of God for herself, poor little Maria Edgham, whose ways of life had been so untoward and so absurd that she almost seemed to herself something to be laughed at rather than pitied, much less loved. But all at once the knowledge of the love of God was over her. She gazed up again at the great polar star overlooking with its eternal light the mysteries of the north, and for the first time in her whole life the primitive instinct of worship asserted itself within her. Maria rose, and fell on her knees, and continued to gaze up at the star which seemed to her like an eye of God Himself, and love seemed to pervade her whole being. She thought now almost lightly of Wollaston Lee. What was any earthly love to love like this, which took hold of the beginning and end of things, of the eternal? A resolution which this sense of love seemed to inspire came over her. It was a resolution almost grotesque, but it was sacred because her heart of hearts was in it, and she made it because of this love of God for her and her new sense of worship for something beyond the earth and all earthly affections which had taken possession of her. She rose, undressed herself, and went to bed. She did not say any prayer as usual. She seemed an incarnate prayer which made formulas unnecessary. Why was it essential to say anything when she was? At last she fell asleep, and did not wake until the dawn light was in the room. She did not wake as usual to a reunion with herself, but to a reunion with another self. She did not feel altogether happy. The resolution of the night before remained, but the ecstasy had vanished. She was not yet an angel, only a poor, human girl with the longings of her kind, which would not be entirely stifled as long as her human heart beat. But she did what she had planned. Maria had an unusually high forehead. It might have given evidence of intellect, of goodness, but it was not beautiful. She had always fluffed her blond hair over it, concealing it with pretty waves. This morning she brushed all her hair as tightly back as possible, and made a hard twist at an ugly angle at the back of her head. By doing this she did not actually destroy her beauty, for her regular features and delicate tints remained, but nobody looking at her would have called her even pretty. Her delicate features became pronounced and hardened, her nose seemed sharpened and elongated, her lips thinner. This display of her forehead hardened and made bold all her face and made her look years older than she was. Maria looked at herself in the glass with a sort of horror. She had always been fond of herself in the glass. She had loved that double of herself which had come and gone at her bidding, but now it was different. She was actually afraid of the stern, thin visage which confronted her, which was herself, yet not herself. When she was fully dressed it was worse still. She put on a gray gown which had never been becoming. It was not properly fitted. It was short-waisted, and gave her figure a short, chunky appearance. This chunky aspect, with her sharp face and strained back hair, made her seem fairly hideous to herself. But she remained firm. Her firmness, in reality, was one cause of the tightening and thinning of her lips. She hesitated when about to go down-stairs. She had not heard Evelyn go down. She wondered whether she had better wait until she went, or go into her room. She finally decided upon the latter course. Evelyn was standing in front of her dresser brushing her hair. When Maria entered she threw with a quick motion the whole curly, fluffy mass over her face, which glowed through it with an intensity of shame. Evelyn, when she awoke that morning, felt as if she had revealed some nakedness of her very soul. The girl was fairly ill. She could not believe that she had said what she remembered herself to have said.

"Good-morning, dear," said Maria.

Evelyn did not notice her changed appearance at all. She continued to brush away at the mist of hair over her face. "Oh, sister!" she murmured.

"Never mind, precious, we won't say anything more about it," said Maria, and her voice had maternal inflections.

"I ought not," stammered Evelyn, but Maria interrupted her.

"I have forgotten all about it, dear," she said. "Now you had better hurry or you will be late."

"When I woke up this morning and remembered, I felt as if I should die," Evelyn said, in a choked voice.

"Nonsense," said Maria. "You won't die, and it will all come out right. Don't worry anything about it or think anything more about it. Why don't you wear your red dress to school to-day? It is pleasant."

"Well, perhaps I had better," Evelyn said. She threw back her hair then, but still she did not look at Maria.

She arranged her hair and removed her little dressing-sack before she looked at Maria, who had seated herself in a rocking-chair beside the window. Aunt Maria always insisted upon getting breakfast without any assistance. The odor of coffee and baking muffins stole into the room. Evelyn got her red dress from the closet and put it on, still avoiding Maria's eyes. But at last she turned towards her.

"I am all ready to go down," she said, in a weak little voice; then she gave a great start, and stared at Maria.

Maria bore the stare calmly, and rose.

"All right, dear," she replied.

But Evelyn continued standing before her, staring incredulously. It was almost as if she doubted Maria's identity.

"Why, Maria Edgham!" she said, finally. "What is the matter?"

"What do you mean, dear?"

"What have you done to yourself to make you look so queer? Oh, I see what it is! It's your hair. Maria, dear, what have you strained it off your forehead in that way for? It makes you look--why--"

Then Maria lied. "My hair has been growing farther and farther off my forehead lately," said she, "and I thought possibly the reason was because I covered it. I thought if I brushed my hair back it would be better for it. Then, too, my head has ached some, and it seemed to me the pain in my forehead would be better if I kept it cooler."

"But, Maria," said Evelyn, "you don't look so pretty. You don't, dear, honest. I hate to say so, but you don't."

"Well I am afraid the pretty part of it will have to go," said Maria, going towards the door.

"Oh, Maria, please pull your hair over your forehead just a little."

"No, dear, I have it all fixed for the day, and it must stay as it is."

Evelyn followed Maria down-stairs. She had a puzzled expression. Maria's hair was diverting her from her own troubles. She could not understand why any girl should deliberately make herself homely. She felt worried. It even occurred to wonder if anything could be the matter with Maria's mind.

When the two girls went into the little dining-room, where breakfast was ready for them, Aunt Maria began to say something about the weather, then she cut herself short when she saw Maria.

"Maria Edgham," said she, "what on earth--"

Maria took her place at the table. "Those gems look delicious," she observed. But Aunt Maria was not to be diverted.

"I don't want to hear anything about gems," said she. "They are good enough, I guess. I always could make gems, but what I want to know is if you have gone clean daft."

"I don't think so," replied Maria, laughing.

But Aunt Maria continued to stare at her with an expression of almost horror.

"What under the sun have you got your hair done up that way for?" said she.

Maria repeated what she had told Evelyn.

"Stuff!" said Aunt Maria. "It will make the hair grow farther back straining it off your forehead that way, I can tell you that. You don't use common-sense, and as for your headache, I guess the hair didn't make it ache. It's the first I've heard of it. You look like a fright, I can tell you that."

"Well, I can't help it," said Maria. "I shall have to behave well to make up."

"Maria Edgham, you don't mean to say you are going to school looking as you do now!"

Maria laughed, and buttered a gem.

"You look old enough to be your own grandmother. You have spoiled your looks."

"Looks don't amount to much," said Maria.

"Maria Edgham, are you crazy?"

"I hope not."

"I told sister she didn't look so pretty," said Evelyn.

"Look so pretty? She looks like a homely old maid. Your nose looks a yard long and your chin looks peaked and your mouth looks as if you were as ugly as sin. Your forehead is too high; it always was, and you ought to thank the Lord that he gave you pretty hair, and enough of it to cover up your forehead, and now you've gone and strained it back just as tight as you can and made a knot like a tough doughnut at the back of your head. You look like a crazy thing, I can tell you that."

Maria said nothing. She ate her breakfast, while Aunt Maria and Evelyn could not eat much and were all the time furtively watching her.

Aunt Maria took Evelyn aside before the sisters left for school, and asked her in a whisper if she thought anything was wrong with Maria, if she had noticed anything, but Evelyn said she had not. But she and Aunt Maria looked at each other with eyes of frightened surmise.

When Maria had her hat on she looked, if anything, worse.

"Good land!" said Aunt Maria, when she saw her. "Well, if you are set on making a spectacle of yourself, I suppose you are."

After the girls had gone she went into the other side of the house and told Eunice. "There she has gone and made herself look like a perfect scarecrow," she said. "I wonder if there is any insanity in her father's family?"

"Did she look so bad?" asked Eunice, with a stare of terror at her sister-in-law.

"Look so bad! She looked as old and homely as you and I every bit."

Maria made as much of a sensation on the trolley as she had done at home. The boy who had persecuted her the night before with his attentions bowed to Evelyn, and glanced at her evidently with no recognition. After a while he came to Evelyn and asked where her sister was that morning. Maria laughed, and he looked at her, then he fairly turned pale, and lifted his hat. He mumbled something and returned to his seat. Maria was conscious of his astonished and puzzled gaze at her all the way. When she reached the academy the other teachers--that is, the women--assailed her openly. One even attempted to loosen by force Maria's tightly strained locks.

"Why, Miss Edgham, you fairly frighten me," she said, when Maria resisted.

Maria realized the amazement of the pupils when they entered her class-room, the amazement of incredulity and almost disgust. Everybody seemed amazed and almost disgusted except Wollaston Lee. He did, indeed, give one slightly surprised glance at her, then he seemed to notice nothing different in her appearance. The man's sense of duty and honor was so strong that in reality his sense of externals was blunted. He had a sort of sublime short-sightedness to everything that was not of the spirit. He had been convinced the night previous that Maria was beginning to regard him with favor, and being convinced of that made him insensible to any mere outward change in her. She looked to him, on the whole, prettier than usual because he seemed to see in her love for himself.

When the noon intermission came he walked into her class-room, and invited Maria and Evelyn to go with him to a near-by restaurant and lunch.

"I would ask you to go home with me," he said, apologetically, to Maria, "but mother has a cold."

Maria turned pale. She wondered if he had possibly told his mother. Then she remembered how he had promised her not to tell without her permission, and was reassured. Evelyn blushed and smiled and dimpled, and cast one of her sweet, dark glances at him, which he did not notice at all. His attention was fixed upon Maria, who hesitated, regarding him with her pale, pinched face. Evelyn took it for granted that Mr. Lee's invitation was only on her account, and that Maria was asked simply as a chaperon, and because, indeed, he could not very well avoid it. She jumped up and got her hat.

"It will be perfectly lovely," she said, and faced them both, her charming face one glow of delight.

But Maria did not rise. She looked at the basket of luncheon which she had begun to unpack, and replied, coldly, "Thank you, Mr. Lee, but we have our luncheon with us."

Wollaston looked at her in a puzzled way.

"But you could have something hot at the restaurant," he said. The words were not much, but in reality he meant, and Maria so understood him, "Why, what do you mean, after last night? You know how I feel about you. Why do you refuse?"

Maria took another sandwich from her basket. "Thank you for asking us, Mr. Lee," she said, "but we have our luncheon."

Her tone was fairly hostile. The hostility was not directed towards him, but towards the weakness in herself. But that he could not understand.

"Very well," he said, in a hurt manner. "Of course I will not urge you, Miss Edgham." Then he walked out of the room, hollowing his back and holding his head very straight in a way he had had from a boy when he was offended.

Evelyn pulled off her hat with a jerk. She looked at Maria with her eyes brilliant with tears. "I think you were mean, sister," she whispered, "awful mean; so there!"

"I thought it was better not to go," Maria replied. Her tone was at once stern and pitiful. Evelyn noticed only her sternness. She began to weep softly.

"There, he wanted me, too," she said, "and of course he had to ask you, and you knew--I think you might have, sister."

"I thought it was better not," repeated Maria. "Now, dear, you had better eat your luncheon."

"I don't want any luncheon."

Maria began to eat a sandwich herself. There was an odd meekness and dejectedness in her manner. Presently she laid the half-eaten sandwich on the table and took out her handkerchief, and shook all over with helpless and silent sobs.

Then Evelyn looked at her, her pouting expression relaxed gradually. She looked bewildered.

"Why, what are you crying for?" she asked, in a low voice.

Maria did not answer.

Presently Evelyn rose and went over to her sister, and laid her cheek alongside hers and kissed her.

"Don't, sister," she whispered. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to be cross. I suppose you were right not to go, only I did want to." Evelyn snivelled a little. "I know he was hurt, too," she said.

Maria raised her head and wiped her eyes. "I did not think it was best," she said yet again. Then she looked at Evelyn and tried to smile. "Don't worry, precious," she said. "Everything will come out all right."

Evelyn gazed wonderingly at her sister's tear-stained face. "I don't see what you cried for, and I don't see why you wouldn't go," she said. "The scholars will see you have been crying, and he will see, too. I don't see why you feel badly. I should think I was the one to feel badly."

"Everything will come out all right," repeated Maria. "Don't worry, sister's own darling."

"Everybody will see that you have been crying," said Evelyn, who was in the greatest bewilderment. "What did make you cry, Maria?"

"Nothing, dear. Don't think any more about it," said Maria rising. She took a tumbler from the lunch-basket. "Go and fill this with water for me, that is a dear," she said. "Then I will bathe my eyes. Nobody would know that you have been crying."

"That is because I am not so fair-skinned," said Evelyn; "but I don't see."

She went out with the tumbler, shaking her head in a puzzled way. When she returned, Maria had the luncheon all spread out on the table, and looked quite cheerful in spite of her swollen eyes. The sisters ate together, and Evelyn was very sweet in spite of her disappointment. She was in reality very sweet and docile before all her negatives of life, and always would be. Her heart was always in leading-strings of love. She looked affectionately at Maria as they ate the luncheon.

"I am so sorry I was cross," she said. "I suppose you thought that it would look particular if we went out to lunch with Mr. Lee."

"Yes, I think it might have," replied Maria.

"Well, I suppose it would," said Evelyn with a sigh, "and I know all the other girls are simply dying for him, but he asked us, after all." Evelyn said the last with an indescribable air of sweet triumph. It was quite evident that she regarded the invitation as meant for herself alone, and that she took ineffable delight in it in spite of the fact that it had been refused. She kept glancing out of the window as she ate. Presently she looked at her sister and laughed. "There he is coming now," she said, "and he is all alone. He didn't take anybody else to luncheon."

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