The pale, drooping girl started guiltily at her mother’s sharp exclamation, and made an effort to throw back her shoulders. Then she bit her nails nervously, but soon desisted, remembering that that also, as well as yielding to a relaxed tendency of the spinal column, was a forbidden indulgence.
“Put on your hat and go on out and get a breath of fresh air; you’re as white as milk-man’s cream.”
Lucilla rose and obeyed her mother’s order with the precision of a soldier, following the directions of his commander.
“How submissive and gentle your daughter is,” remarked Thérèse.
“Well, she’s got to be, and she knows it. Why, I haven’t got to do more than look at that girl most times for her to understand what I want. You didn’t notice, did you, how she straightened up when I called ‘Lucilla’ to her? She knows by the tone of my voice what she’s got to do.”
“Most mothers can’t boast of having such power over their daughters.”
“Well, I’m not the woman to stand any shenanigans from a child of mine. I could name you dead loads of women that are just completely walked over by their children. It’s a blessing that boy of Fanny’s died, between you and I; its what I’ve always said. Why, Mrs. Laferm, she couldn’t any more look after a youngster than she could after a baby elephant. By the by, what do you guess is the matter with her, any way?”
“How, the matter?” Thérèse asked; the too ready blood flushing her face and neck as she laid down her work and looked up at Mrs. Worthington.
“Why, she’s acting mighty queer, that’s all I can say for her.”
“I haven’t been able to see her for some time,” Thérèse returned, going back to her sewing, “but I suppose she got a little upset and nervous over her husband; he had a few days of very serious illness before you came.”
“Oh, I’ve seen her in all sorts of states and conditions, and I’ve never seen her like that before. Why, she does nothing in the God’s world but whine and sniffle, and wish she was dead; it’s enough to give a person the horrors. She can’t make out she’s sick; I never saw her look better in my life. She must of gained ten pounds since she come down here.”
“Yes,” said Thérèse, “she was looking so well, and—and I thought everything was going well with her too, but—” and she hesitated to go on.
“Oh, I know what you want to say. You can’t help that. No use bothering your brains about that—now you just take my advice,” exclaimed Mrs. Worthington brusquely.
Then she laughed so loud and suddenly that Thérèse, being already nervous, pricked her finger with her needle till the blood came; a mishap which decided her to lay aside her work.
“If you never saw a fish out of water, Mrs. Laferm, do take a peep at Mr. Worthington astride that horse; it’s enough to make a cat expire!”
Mrs. Worthington was on the whole rather inclined to take her husband seriously. As often as he might excite her disapproval, it was seldom that he aroused her mirth. So it may be gathered that his appearance in this unfamiliar rôle of horseman was of the most mirth-provoking.
He and Hosmer were dismounting at the cottage, which decided Mrs. Worthington to go and look after them; Fanny for the time being—in her opinion—not having “the gumption to look after a sick kitten.”
“This is what I call solid comfort,” she said looking around the well appointed sitting-room, before quitting it.
“You ought to be a mighty happy woman, Mrs. Laferm; only I’d think you’d die of lonesomeness, sometimes.”
Thérèse laughed, and told her not to forget that she expected them all over in the evening.
“You can depend on me; and I’ll do my best to drag Fanny over; so-long.”
When left alone, Thérèse at once relapsed into the gloomy train of reflections that had occupied her since the day she had seen with her bodily eyes something of the wretched life that she had brought upon the man she loved. And yet that wretchedness in its refinement of cruelty and immorality she could not guess and was never to know. Still, she had seen enough to cause her to ask herself with a shudder “was I right—was I right?”
She had always thought this lesson of right and wrong a very plain one. So easy of interpretation that the simplest minded might solve it if they would. And here had come for the first time in her life a staggering doubt as to its nature. She did not suspect that she was submitting one of those knotty problems to her unpracticed judgment that philosophers and theologians delight in disagreeing upon, and her inability to unravel it staggered her. She tried to convince herself that a very insistent sting of remorse which she felt, came from selfishness—from the pain that her own heart suffered in the knowledge of Hosmer’s unhappiness. She was not callous enough to quiet her soul with the balm of having intended the best. She continued to ask herself only “was I right?” and it was by the answer to that question that she would abide, whether in the stony content of accomplished righteousness, or in an enduring remorse that pointed to a goal in whose labyrinthine possibilities her soul lost itself and fainted away.
Lucilla went out to get a breath of fresh air as her mother had commanded, but she did not go far to seek it. Not further than the end of the back veranda, where she stood for some time motionless, before beginning to occupy herself in a way which Aunt Belindy, who was watching her from the kitchen window, considered highly problematical. The negress was wiping a dish and giving it a fine polish in her absence of mind. When her curiosity could no longer contain itself she called out:
“W’ats dat you’se doin’ dah, you li’le gal? Come heah an’ le’ me see.” Lucilla turned with the startled look which seemed to be usual with her when addressed.
“Le’ me see,” repeated Aunt Belindy pleasantly.
Lucilla approached the window and handed the woman a small square of stiff writing paper which was stuck with myriad tiny pin-holes; some of which she had been making when interrupted by Aunt Belindy.
“W’at in God A’Mighty’s name you call dat ’ar?” the darkey asked examining the paper critically, as though expecting the riddle would solve itself before her eyes.
“Those are my acts I’ve been counting,” the girl replied a little gingerly.
“Yo’ ax? I don’ see nuttin’ ’cep’ a piece o’ papah plum fill up wid holes. W’at you call ax?”
“Acts—acts. Don’t you know what acts are?”
“How you want me know? I neva ben to no school whar you larn all dat.”
“Why, an act is something you do that you don’t want to do—or something you don’t want to do, that you do—I mean that you don’t do. Or if you want to eat something and don’t. Or an aspiration; that’s an act, too.”
“Go long! W’ats dat—aspiration?”
“Why, to say any kind of little prayer; or if you invoke our Lord, or our Blessed Lady, or one of the saints, that’s an aspiration. You can make them just as quick as you can think—you can make hundreds and hundreds in a day.”
“My Lan’! Dat’s w’at you’se studyin’ ’bout w’en you’se steppin’ ’roun’ heah like a droopy pullet? An’ I t’ought you was studyin’ ’bout dat beau you lef’ yonda to Sent Lous.”
“You mustn’t say such things to me; I’m going to be a religious.”
“How dat gwine henda you have a beau ef you’se religious?”
“The religious never get married,” turning very red, “and don’t live in the world like others.”
“Look heah, chile, you t’inks I’se fool? Religion—no religion, whar you gwine live ef you don’ live in de word? Gwine live up in de moon?”
“You’re a very ignorant person,” replied Lucilla, highly offended. “A religious devotes her life to God, and lives in the convent.”
“Den w’y you neva said ‘convent’? I knows all ’bout convent. W’at you gwine do wid dem ax w’en de papah done all fill up?” handing the singular tablet back to her.
“Oh,” replied Lucilla, “when I have thousands and thousands I gain twenty-five years’ indulgence.”
“Is dat so?”
“Yes,” said the girl; and divining that Aunt Belindy had not understood, “twenty-five years that I don’t have to go to purgatory. You see most people have to spend years and years in purgatory, before they can get to Heaven.”
“How you know dat?”
If Aunt Belindy had asked Lucilla how she knew that the sun shone, she could not have answered with more assurance “because I know” as she turned and walked rather scornfully away.
“W’at dat kine o’ fool talk dey larns gals up yonda tu Sent Lous? An’ huh ma a putty woman; yas, bless me; all dress up fittin’ to kill. Don’ ’pear like she studyin’ ’bout ax.”