English Literature

By the Light of the Soul by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

By the Light of the Soul by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.jpg

Chapter I

Maria Edgham, who was a very young girl, sat in the church vestry beside a window during the weekly prayer-meeting.

As was the custom, a young man had charge of the meeting, and he stood, with a sort of embarrassed dignity, on the little platform behind the desk. He was reading a selection from the Bible. Maria heard him drone out in a scarcely audible voice: “Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth,” and then she heard, in a quick response, a soft sob from the seat behind her. She knew who sobbed: Mrs. Jasper Cone, who had lost her baby the week before. The odor of crape came in Maria’s face, making a species of discordance with the fragrance of the summer night, which came in at the open window. Maria felt irritated by it, and she wondered why Mrs. Cone felt so badly about the loss of her baby. It had always seemed to Maria a most unattractive child, large-headed, flabby, and mottled, with ever an open mouth of resistance, and a loud wail of opposition to existence in general. Maria felt sure that she could never have loved such a baby. Even the unfrequent smiles of that baby had not been winning; they had seemed reminiscent of the commonest and coarsest things of life, rather than of heavenly innocence. Maria gazed at the young man on the platform, who presently bent his head devoutly, and after saying, “Let us pray,” gave utterance to an unintelligible flood of supplication intermingled with information to the Lord of the state of things on the earth, and the needs of his people. Maria wondered why, when God knew everything, Leon Barber told him about it, and she also hoped that God heard better than most of the congregation did. But she looked with a timid wonder of admiration at the young man himself. He was so much older than she, that her romantic fancies, which even at such an early age had seized upon her, never included him. She as yet dreamed only of other dreamers like herself, Wollaston Lee, for instance, who went to the same school, and was only a year older. Maria had made sure that he was there, by a glance, directly after she had entered, then she never glanced at him again, but she wove him into her dreams along with the sweetness of the midsummer night, and the morally tuneful atmosphere of the place. She was utterly innocent, her farthest dreams were white, but she dreamed. She gazed out of the window through which came the wind on her little golden-cropped head (she wore her hair short) in cool puffs, and she saw great, plumy masses of shadow, themselves like the substance of which dreams were made. The trees grew thickly down the slope, which the church crowned, and at the bottom of the slope rushed the river, which she heard like a refrain through the intermittent soughing of the trees. A whippoorwill was singing somewhere out there, and the katydids shrieked so high that they almost surmounted dreams. She could smell wild grapes and pine and other mingled odors of unknown herbs, and the earth itself. There had been a hard shower that afternoon, and the earth still seemed to cry out with pleasure because of it. Maria had worn her old shoes to church, lest she spoil her best ones; but she wore her pretty pink gingham gown, and her hat with a wreath of rosebuds, and she felt to the utmost the attractiveness of her appearance. She, however, felt somewhat conscience-stricken on account of the pink gingham gown. It was a new one, and her mother had been obliged to have it made by a dress-maker, and had paid three dollars for that, beside the trimmings, which were lace and ribbon. Maria wore the gown without her mother’s knowledge. She had in fact stolen down the backstairs on that account, and gone out the south door in order that her mother should not see her. Maria’s mother was ill lately, and had not been able to go to church, nor even to perform her usual tasks. She had always made Maria’s gowns herself until this pink gingham.

Maria’s mother was originally from New England, and her conscience was abnormally active. Her father was of New Jersey, and his conscience, while no one would venture to say that it was defective, did not in the least interfere with his enjoyment of life.

“Oh, well, Abby,” her father would reply, easily, when her mother expressed her distress that she was unable to work as she had done, “we shall manage somehow. Don’t worry, Abby.” Worry in another irritated him even more than in himself.

“Well, Maria can’t help much while she is in school. She is a delicate little thing, and sometimes I am worried about her.”

“Oh, Maria can’t be expected to do much while she is in school,” her father said, easily. “We’ll manage somehow, only for Heaven’s sake don’t worry.”

Then Maria’s father had taken his hat and gone down street. He always went down street of an evening. Maria, who had been sitting on the porch, had heard every word of the conversation which had been carried on in the sitting-room that very evening. It did not alarm her at all because her mother considered her delicate. Instead, she had a vague sense of distinction on account of it. It was as if she realized being a flower rather than a vegetable. She thought of it that night as she sat in meeting. She glanced across at a girl who went to the same school—a large, heavily built child with a coarseness of grain showing in every feature—and a sense of superiority at once exalted and humiliated her. She said to herself that she was much finer and prettier than Lottie Sears, but that she ought to be thankful and not proud because she was. She felt vain, but she was sorry because of her vanity. She knew how charming her pink gingham gown was, but she knew that she ought to have asked her mother if she might wear it. She knew that her mother would scold her—she had a ready tongue—and she realized that she would deserve it. She had put on the pink gingham on account of Wollaston Lee, who was usually at prayer-meeting. That, of course, she could not tell her mother. There are some things too sacred for little girls to tell their mothers. She wondered if Wollaston would ask leave to walk home with her. She had seen a boy step out of a waiting file at the vestry door to a blushing girl, and had seen the girl, with a coy readiness, slip her hand into the waiting crook of his arm, and walk off, and she had wondered when such bliss would come to her. It never had. She wondered if the pink gingham might bring it to pass to-night. The pink gingham was as the mating plumage of a bird. All unconsciously she glanced sideways over the fall of lace-trimmed pink ruffles at her slender shoulders at Wollaston Lee. He was gazing straight at Miss Slome, Miss Ida Slome, who was the school-teacher, and his young face wore an expression of devotion. Maria’s eyes followed his; she did not dream of being jealous; Miss Slome seemed too incalculably old to her for that. She was not so very old, in her early thirties, but the early thirties to a young girl are venerable. Miss Ida Slome was called a beauty. She, as well as Maria, wore a pink dress, at which Maria privately wondered. The teacher seemed to her too old to wear pink. She thought she ought wear black like her mother. Miss Slome’s pink dress had knots of black velvet about it which accentuated it, even as Miss Slome’s face was accentuated by the clear darkness of her eyes and the black puff of her hair above her finely arched brows. Her cheeks were of the sweetest red—not pink but red—which seemed a further tone of the pink of her attire, and she wore a hat encircled with a wreath of red roses. Maria thought that she should have worn a bonnet. Maria felt an odd sort of instinctive antagonism for her. She wondered why Wollaston looked at the teacher so instead of at herself. She gave her head a charming cant, and glanced again, but the boy still had his eyes fixed upon the elder woman, with that rapt expression which is seen only in the eyes of a boy upon an older woman, and which is primeval, involving the adoration and awe of womanhood itself. The boy had not reached the age when he was capable of falling in love, but he had reached the age of adoration, and there was nothing in little Maria Edgham in her pink gingham, with her shy, sidelong glances, to excite it. She was only a girl, the other was a goddess. His worship of the teacher interfered with Wollaston’s studies. He was wondering as he sat there if he could not walk home with her that night, if by chance any man would be in waiting for her. How he hated that imaginary man. He glanced around, and as he did so, the door opened softly, and Harry Edgham, Maria’s father, entered. He was very late, but he had waited in the vestibule, in order not to attract attention, until the people began singing a hymn, “Jesus, Lover of my Soul,” to the tune of “When the Swallows Homeward Fly.” He was a distinctly handsome man. He looked much younger than Maria’s mother, his wife. People said that Harry Edgham’s wife might, from her looks, have been his mother. She was a tall, dark, rather harsh-featured woman. In her youth she had had a beauty of color; now that had passed, and she was sallow, and she disdained to try to make the most of herself, to soften her stern face by a judicious arrangement of her still plentiful hair. She strained it back from her hollow temples, and fastened it securely on the top of her head. She had a scorn of fashions in hair or dress except for Maria. “Maria is young,” she said, with an ineffable expression of love and pride, and a tincture of defiance, as if she were defying her own age, in the ownership of the youth of her child. She was like a rose-bush which possessed a perfect bud of beauty, and her own long dwelling upon the earth could on account of that be ignored. But Maria’s father was different. He was quite openly a vain man. He was handsome, and he held fast to his youth, and would not let it pass by. His hair, curling slightly over temples boyish in outlines, although marked, was not in the least gray. His mustache was carefully trimmed. After he had seated himself unobtrusively in a rear seat, he looked around for his daughter, who saw him with dismay. “Now,” she thought, her chances of Wollaston Lee walking home with her were lost. Father would go home with her. Her mother had often admonished Harry Edgham that when Maria went to meeting alone, he ought to be in waiting to go home with her, and he obeyed his wife, generally speaking, unless her wishes conflicted too strenuously with his own. He did not in the least object to-night, for instance, to dropping late into the prayer-meeting. There were not many people there, and all the windows were open, and there was something poetical and sweet about the atmosphere. Besides, the singing was unusually good for such a place. Above all the other voices arose Ida Slome’s sweet soprano. She sang like a bird; her voice, although not powerful, was thrillingly sweet. Harry looked at her as she sang, and thought how pretty she was, but there was no disloyalty to his wife in the look. He was, in fact, not that sort of man. While he did not love his Abby with utter passion, all the women of the world could not have swerved him from her.

Harry Edgham came of perhaps the best old family in that vicinity, Edgham itself had been named for it, and while he partook of that degeneracy which comes to the descendants of the large old families, while it is as inevitable that they should run out, so to speak, as flowers which have flourished too many years in a garden, whose soil they have exhausted, he had not lost the habit of rectitude of his ancestors. Virtue was a hereditary trait of the Edghams.

Harry Edgham looked at Ida Slome with as innocent admiration as another woman might have done. Then he looked again at his daughter’s little flower-like head, and a feeling of love made his heart warm. Maria could sing herself, but she was afraid. Once in a while she droned out a sweet, husky note, then her delicate cheeks flushed crimson as if all the people had heard her, when they had not heard at all, and she turned her head, and gazed out of the open window at the plumed darkness. She thought again with annoyance how she would have to go with her father, and Wollaston Lee would not dare accost her, even if he were so disposed; then she took a genuine pleasure in the window space of sweet night and the singing. Her passions were yet so young that they did not disturb her long if interrupted. She was also always conscious of the prettiness of her appearance, and she loved herself for it with that love which brings previsions of unknown joys of the future. Her charming little face, in her realization of it, was as the untried sword of the young warrior which is to bring him all the glory of earth for which his soul longs.

After the meeting was closed, and Harry Edgham, with his little daughter lagging behind him with covert eyes upon Wollaston Lee, went out of the vestry, a number inquired for his wife. “Oh, she is very comfortable,” he replied, with his cheerful optimism which solaced him in all vicissitudes, except the single one of actually witnessing the sorrow and distress of those who belonged to him.

“I heard,” said one man, who was noted in the place for his outspokenness, which would have been brutal had it not been for his naïveté—“I heard she wasn’t going to get out again.”

“Nonsense,” replied Harry Edgham.

“Then she is?”

“Of course she is. She would have come to meeting to-night if it had not been so damp.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” said the man, with a curious congratulation which gave the impression of disappointment.

Little Maria Edgham and her father went up the village street; Harry Edgham walked quite swiftly. “I guess we had better hurry along,” he observed, “your mother is all alone.”

Maria tagged behind him. Her father had to stop at a grocery-store on the corner of the street where they lived, to get a bag of peaches which he had left there. “I got some peaches on my way,” he explained, “and I didn’t want to carry them to church. I thought your mother might like them. The doctor said she might eat fruit.” With that he darted into the store with the agility of a boy.

Maria stood on the dusty sidewalk in the glare of electric light, and waited. Her pink gingham dress was quite short, but she held it up daintily, like a young lady, pinching a fold between her little thumb and forefinger. Mrs. Jasper Cone, with another woman, came up, and to Maria’s astonishment, Mrs. Cone stopped, clasped her in her arms and kissed her. As she did so, she sobbed, and Maria felt her tears of bereavement on her cheek with an odd mixture of pity and awe and disgust. “If my Minnie had—lived, she might have grown up to be like her,” she gasped out to her friend. “I always thought she looked like her.” The friend made a sympathetic murmur of assent. Mrs. Cone kissed Maria again, holding her little form to her crape-trimmed bosom almost convulsively, then the two passed on. Maria heard her say again that she always had thought the baby looked like her, and she felt humiliated. She looked after the poor mother’s streaming black veil with resentment. Then Miss Ida Slome passed by, and Wollaston Lee was clinging to her arm, pressing as closely to her side as he dared. Miss Slome saw Maria, and spoke in her sweet, crisp tone. “Good-evening, Maria,” said she.

Maria stood gazing after them. Her father emerged from the store with the bag of peaches dangling from his hand. He looked incongruous. Her father had too much the air of a gentleman to carry a paper bag. “I do hope your mother will like these peaches,” he said.

Maria walked along with her father, and she thought with pain and scorn how singular it was for a boy to want to go home with an old woman like Miss Slome, when there were little girls like her.

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Categories: English Literature

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