From Quaint Courtships: Harper's Novelettes edited by William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden, London and New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906.
Mrs. Leah Bloodgood walked heavily, without the painstaking little springy leaps she usually adopted as an offset to her stoutness. She mounted Cornelia Opp's door-steps with an air of gloomy abstraction that sat uneasily on the plump terraces of her face as if at any moment it might slide off. It slid off now at sight of Cornelia Opp's serene, sweet face.
"My gracious! Cornelia, is this your house?" laughed Mrs. Bloodgood, pantingly. "Here I thought I was going up Marilla Merritt's steps! You don't mean to tell me that I turned into Ridgway Street instead of Penn?"
"This isn't Penn Street," smiled Cornelia Opp. She had flung the door wide with a gesture of welcome.
"No--mercy, no, I can't come in!" panted the woman on the steps. "I've got to see Marilla Merritt, right off. When I come calling on _you_, Cornelia, I want my mind easy so we can have a good time."
"Poor Mrs. Merritt!"
"Well, Marilla ought to suffer if I do--she's on the Suffering Committee! Good-by, Cornelia. Don't you go and tell anybody how absent-minded I was. They'll say it's catching."
"It's the minister, then," mused Cornelia in the doorway, watching the stout figure go down the street. "Now what has the poor man been doing this time?" A gentle pity grew in her beautiful gray eyes. It was so hard on ministers to be all alone in the world, especially certain kinds of ministers. No matter how long-suffering Suffering Committees might be, they could not make allowances _enough_. "Poor man! Well, the Lord's on his side," smiled in the doorway Cornelia Opp.
Marilla Merritt was not like Mrs. Leah Bloodgood. Marilla was little where Leah was big, and nothing daunted Marilla. She was shaking a rug out on her sunny piazza, and descried the toiling figure while it was yet afar off.
"There's Leah Bloodgood coming, or my name's Sarah! _What_ is Leah Bloodgood out this time of day for, with the minister's dinner to get? Something is up." She waved the rug gayly. "Mis' Merritt isn't at home!" she called; "she's out--on the door-steps shaking rugs! Leah Bloodgood," as the figure drew near, "you look all tuckered out! Come in quick and sit down. Don't try to talk. You needn't tell me something's up--just say _what_. Has that blessed man been--"
"Yes, he has!" panted the caller, vindictively. It is harder to be long-suffering when one is out of breath. "You listen to this. I've brought his letter to read to you."
"His letter!" Marilla could not have been much more astonished if the other had taken the minister himself out of her dangling black bag.
"Yes; it came this morn--Mercy! Marilla, don't look so amazed! Didn't you know he'd gone away on his vacation? He forgot it was next month instead of this, and I found him packing his things, and hadn't the heart to tell him. I thought a man with a pleased look like that on his face better _go_,--but, mercy! didn't I send you word? It _is_ catching. I shall be bad as he is."
"Good as he is, do you mean? Don't worry about being that!" laughed little Marilla Merritt. "Well, I'm glad he's gone, dear man."
"You won't be glad long, 'dear man'! Here's his letter. Take a long breath before you read it. I suppose I ought to prepare you, but I want you see how I felt."
"I might count ten first," deliberated smiling Marilla, fingering the white envelope with a certain tenderness. A certain tenderness and the minister went together with them all. "But, no, I'm going to sail right in."
"Take your own risks, of course, but my advice is to reef all your main--er--jibsails first," Mrs. Leah Bloodgood wearily murmured. "You'll find the sea choppy."
"'Dear Sister Bloodgood,'" read Marilla, aloud, with reckless glibness, "'Will you be so kind as to send me my best suit? I am going to marry my old friend whom I have met here after twenty years. The wedding will take place next Wednesday morn--'
"Read on," groaned Mrs. Bloodgood. "He says the fishing's excellent."
"I should say so! And that's what he's caught! Leah Bloodgood, what did you ever let him go away for without a body-guard? That poor dear, innocent, kind-hearted man, to go and fall among--among _thieves_ like that!"
"He's just absent-minded enough to go and do it himself. I don't suppose we ought to blame _them_. Read on."
"'Next Wednesday morning, at ten o'clock,'" moaned little Marilla, glibness all gone. "'It would be most embarrassing to do so in these clothes, as I am sure you will see, dear sister. Kindly see that my best white tie is included. I would not wish to be unbecomingly attired on so joyous an occasion. She is a widow with five chil--'"
"Mercy! don't faint away! Where's your fans? Didn't I tell you there were breakers ahead? I don't wonder you're all broken up! Give it to me; I'll read the rest. M--m--m, 'joyous occasion'--'five children'--'she is a widow with five children, all of them most lovable little creatures. You know my fondness for children. I have been greatly benefited by my sojourn in this lovely spot. I cannot thank you too warmly for recommending it. I find the fish--'"
"Leah Bloodgood, that will do! Don't read another word. Don't fan me, don't ask me how I feel now. Let me get my breath, and then we will go over and open the parsonage windows. That, I suppose, is the first thing to do. It's something to be thankful for that it's a good-sized parsonage."
"Be thankful, then--_I'm_ not. I'm not anything but incensed clear through. After I'd taken every precaution that was ever thought of, and some that weren't ever, to keep that man out of mischief! I thought of all the absent-minded things he might do, but I never thought of this, no, I never! And we wanted him to marry Cornelia so much, Marilla! Cornelia would have made him such a beautiful wife!"
"Beautiful!" sighed Marilla, hopelessly. It had been the dear pet plan they had nursed in common with all the parish. Everybody but the minister and Cornelia had shared in it.
"And five children! Marilla Merritt, think of five children romping over our parsonage, knocking all the corners off!"
"I'm thinking," mourned Marilla, gustily. She felt a dismal suspicion that this was going to daunt her. But her habit of facing things came to the front. "Wednesday's only four days off," she said, with a fine assumption of briskness. "I don't suppose he said anything about a wedding tour, did he?"
"No. But even if he took one he'd probably forget and stop off here. So we can't count on that. What's done has got to be done in four days. What _has_ got to be done, Marilla?"
"Everything. We must start this minute, Leah Bloodgood! The house must be aired and painted and papered, and window-glass set--there's no end! And all in four days! We can't let our minister bring his wife and five children home to a shabby house. Cornelia Opp must go round and get money for new dining-room chairs, and there ought to be more beds with a family like that. Dishes, too. Cornelia ought to start at _once_. She's the best solicitor we have."
"There's another thing," broke out Mrs. Bloodgood; "the minister must have some new shirts. He ought to have a whole trousseau. He hasn't boarded with me, and I done all his mending, without my knowing what he ought to have, now that he's going to go and get married. We can't let _him_ be shabby, either."
"Then, of course, there ought to be a lot of cooked food in the house, and supper all ready for them when they come. Oh, I guess we'll find plenty to do! I guess we can't stop to groan much. But, oh, how different we'd all feel if it was Cornelia!"
"Different! I'd give 'em my dining-room chairs and my cellar stairs! I'd make shirts and sit up all night to cook! It's--it's wicked, Marilla, that's what it is."
"I know _it_ is, but he isn't," championed Marilla. "He's just a good man gone wrong. It's his guardian angel that's to blame--a guardian angel has no business to be napping."
At best, it was pretty late in the day to overhaul a parsonage that had been closed so long and sinking gently into mild decay. The little parish woke with a dismayed start and went to work, to a woman. Operations were begun within an amazingly brief time; cleaners and repairers were hurried to the parsonage, and the women of the parish were told off into relays to assist them.
"Somebody go to Mrs. Higginbotham Taylor's and get a high chair," directed Marilla Merritt. "I'll lend my tea-chair for the next-to-the-baby, anyway, till they can get something better. We don't want our minister's children sitting round on dictionaries and encyclopaedias."
The minister had come to them, a lone bachelor, with kind, absent eyes and the faculty of making himself beloved. For six years they had taken care of him and loved him--watched over his outgoings and his incomings and forgiven all his absent-mindednesses. They had picked out Cornelia Opp for him, and added it to their prayers like an earnest codicil--"O Lord, bring Cornelia Opp and the minister together. Amen."
Cornelia Opp herself lived on her sweet, unselfish, single life, and prayed, "Lord, bless the minister," unsuspectingly. She was as much beloved among them all as the minister. They were proud of her slender, beautiful figure and her serene face, and of her many capabilities. What the minister lacked, Cornelia had; Cornelia lacked nothing.
Marilla Merritt and Cornelia Opp were appointed receiving committee, to be at the parsonage when the minister and his wife and five children arrived. A bountiful supper was to be in readiness, prepared by all the good women impartially. The duty of the receiving committee was merely, as Mrs. Leah Bloodgood said, "to smile, and tell pleasant little lies--'Such a delightful surprise,--so glad to welcome, etc.'
"Cornelia and Marilla Merritt are just the ones," she said, succinctly. "_I_ should say: 'You awful man, you! Can't we trust you out of our sights?' And I suppose that wouldn't be the best way to welcome 'em."
The minister had sent a brief notice of his expected arrival home on Wednesday evening, and, unless he forgot and went somewhere else, there was good reason to expect him then. Everything was hurried into readiness. At the last moment some one sent in a doll to make the minister's children feel more at home. Cornelia laughed and set the little thing on the sofa, stiffly erect and endlessly smiling.
"Looks nice, doesn't it?" sighed tired little Marilla, returning from a last round of the tidy rooms. "I don't see anything else left to do, unless--Is that dust?"
"No, it's bloom," hastened Cornelia, covertly wiping it off. "You poor, tired thing, don't look at anything else! Just go home and rest a little bit before you change your dress. Mine's all changed, and I can stay here and mount guard. I can be practising my lies!"
"I've got mine by heart," laughed Marilla, "I could say 'so delighted' if he brought two wives and ten children!"
"Don't!" Cornelia's sweet voice sounded a little severe. "We've said enough about the poor man. It's four o'clock. If you're going--"
"I am. Cornelia Opp, turn that child back to! She makes me nervous sitting there on that sofa staring at me! Will you see her!"
"She does look a little out of place," Cornelia admitted, but she left the stiff little figure undisturbed. After the other woman had gone she sat down beside it on the sofa, and smoothed absently its gaudy little dress. Cornelia's face was gently pensive, she could scarcely have told why. Not the minister, but the trimly appointed house with its indefinable atmosphere of a home with little children in it was what she was thinking of without conscious effort of her own. The smiling doll beside her, the high chair that she could see through an inner door, and the foolish little gilt mug that some one had donated to the minister's babyest one--they all contributed to the gentle pensiveness on Cornelia's sweet face. She was but a step by thirty, and a woman at thirty has not settled down resignedly into a lonely old age. Let a little child come tilting by, or a little child's foolish belongings intrude themselves upon her vision, and old, odd longings creep out of secret crannies and haunt her, willy-nilly. It is the latent motherhood within her that has been denied its own. It was the secret of the soft wistfulness in Cornelia's eyes. So she sat until the minister came home. It was the sound of his big step on the walk that roused her and sent the color into her face and made it perilously beautiful.
Cornelia was frightened. Where was Marilla Merritt? Why had they come so soon? Must she meet them alone? She hurried to the door, her perturbed mind groping blindly for the "lies" she had misplaced while she sat and dreamed.
The minister was striding up the walk alone! He did not even look back at the village hack that was turning away with his wife and five children! He looked instead at the beautiful vision that stood in the parsonage doorway, glimpses of home behind it, welcome and comfort in it. The minister was in need of welcome and comfort. His loneliness had been accentuated cruelly by the bit of happiness he had caught a brief glimpse of and left behind him. Perhaps the loneliness was in his face.
"Welcome home," Cornelia said, in the doorway. She put aside her astonishment at his coming alone, and answered the need in his face. Her hands were out in a gracious greeting. To the minister how good it was!
"They told me to come right here," he said, "or I should have gone to Mrs. Bloodgood's as usual. I don't quite understand--"
"Never mind understanding," Cornelia smiled, leading the way into the pretty parlor, "anyway, till you get into a comfortable rocker. It's so much easier to understand in a rocking-chair! I--well, I think I need one, too! You see, we expected--we _didn't_ expect you alone."
"No?" his puzzled gaze taking in all the kind little appointments of the room, and coming to a stop at the smiling doll. The two of them sat and stared at each other.
"We thought you would bring--we got all ready for your wife and the children," Cornelia was saying. The doll stared on, but the minister looked up.
"My wife and the children?" he repeated after her. "I don't think I know what you mean, Miss Cornelia. I must be dreaming--No, wait; please don't tell me what it all means just yet! Give me a little time to enjoy the dream." But Cornelia went on.
"You wrote Mrs. Bloodgood about your marriage," she said. Sweet voices can be severe. "It hurried us a little, but we have tried to get everything in readiness. If there is another bed needed for the chil--"
"I wrote Mrs. Bloodgood about my marriage?" he said, slowly; then as understanding dawned upon him the puzzled lines in his face loosened into laughter that would out. He leaned back in his rocker and gave himself up to it helplessly. As helplessly Cornelia joined in. The doll on the sofa smiled on--no more, no less.
"Will you ex--excuse me?" he laughed.
"No," laughed she.
"But I can't help it, and you're l-laughing yourself."
He got to his feet and caught her hands.
"Let's keep on," he pleaded, unministerially. "I'm having a beautiful time. Aren't you? I wish you'd say yes, Miss Cornelia!"
"Yes," she smiled, "but we can't sit here laughing all the rest of the afternoon. Marilla Merritt will be here--"
"Oh, Marilla Merritt--" He sighed. The minister was young, too.
"And she will want to know--things," hinted Cornelia, mildly. She drew the smiling doll into her lap and smoothed its dress absently. The minister retreated to his rocker again.
"I think I would rather tell you," he said, quietly. "I did marry my old friend this morning, but I married her to another man. It was a mistake--all a mistake."
"Then you ought not to have married her, ought you?" commented Cornelia, demurely. Over the doll's little foolish head her eyes were dancing. Marilla Merritt might not see that it was funny, Mrs. Bloodgood mightn't, but it was. Unless--unless it was pathetic. Suddenly Cornelia felt that it was.
The minister was no longer laughing. He sat in the rocker strangely quiet. Perhaps he did not realize that his eyes were on Cornelia's beautiful face; perhaps he thought he was looking at the doll. He knew what he was thinking of. The utter loneliness behind him and ahead of him appalled him in its contrast to this. This woman sitting opposite him with the face of the woman that a man would like always near him, this little home with the two of them in it alone--the minister knew what it was he wanted. He wanted it to go right on--never to end. He knew that he had always wanted it. All the soul of the man rose up to claim it. And because there was need of hurry, because Marilla Merritt was coming, he held out his hands to Cornelia and the foolish, unastonished doll.
"Come," he said, pleadingly, and of course the doll could not have gone alone. He dropped it gently back into its place on the sofa.
Marilla Merritt had been unwarrantably delayed. She came in flushed and panting, but indomitably smiling. Her sharp glance sought for a wife and five children.
"Such a delightful surprise!" she panted, holding out her hand to the minister. "We are so glad to welcome--Why!--have you shown them to their rooms, Cornelia?"
"They--they didn't come," murmured Cornelia, retreating to her unfailing ally on the sofa. In the stress of the moment--for Cornelia was not ready for Marilla Merritt--it had seemed to her that the time for "lies" had come. She had even beckoned to the nearest one. But the ghosts of ministers' wives that had been and that were to be had risen in a warning cloud about her and saved her.
"Didn't come!" shrilled Marilla Merritt in her astonishment. "His wife and children didn't come! Do you know what you are saying, Cornelia? You don't mean--Then I don't wonder you look flustered--" She caught herself up hurriedly, but her thoughts ran on unchecked. Of all things that ever! Could absent-mindedness go further than this--to marry a wife and forget to bring her home with him?--and _five children!_
Marilla Merritt turned sharply upon the minister.
"Where is your wife?" she demanded, the frayed ends of her patience trailing from her tone. The minister crossed the room to Cornelia and the doll. He laid his big white hand gently on Cornelia's small white one. There was protective tenderness in the gesture and the touch.
"I found her here waiting for me," the minister said.