No News, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
None at all. Understand that, please, to begin with. That you will at
once, and distinctly, recall Dr. Sharpe—and his wife, I make no doubt.
Indeed, it is because the history is a familiar one, some of the
unfamiliar incidents of which have come into my possession, that I
undertake to tell it.
My relation to the Doctor, his wife, and their friend, has been in many
respects peculiar. Without entering into explanations which I am not at
liberty to make, let me say, that those portions of their story which
concern our present purpose, whether or not they fell under my personal
observation, are accurately, and to the best of my judgment impartially,
Nobody, I think, who was at the wedding, dreamed that there would ever
be such a story to tell. It was such a pretty, peaceful wedding! If you
were there, you remember it as you remember a rare sunrise, or a
peculiarly delicate May-flower, or that strain in a simple old song
which is like orioles and butterflies and dew-drops.
There were not many of us; we were all acquainted with one another; the
day was bright, and Harrie did not faint nor cry. There were a couple
of bridesmaids,—Pauline Dallas, and a Miss—Jones, I think,—besides
Harrie's little sisters; and the people were well dressed and well
looking, but everybody was thoroughly at home, comfortable, and on a
level. There was no annihilating of little country friends in gray
alpacas by city cousins in point and pearls, no crowding and no crush,
and, I believe, not a single "front breadth" spoiled by the ices.
Harrie is not called exactly pretty, but she must be a very plain woman
who is not pleasant to see upon her wedding day. Harrie's eyes shone,—I
never saw such eyes! and she threw her head back like a queen whom they
Her father married them. Old Mr. Bird was an odd man, with odd notions
of many things, of which marriage was one. The service was his own. I
afterwards asked him for a copy of it, which I have preserved. The
Covenant ran thus:—
"Appealing to your Father who is in heaven to witness your sincerity,
you …. do now take this woman whose hand you hold—choosing her alone
from all the world—to be your lawfully wedded wife. You trust her as
your best earthly friend. You promise to love, to cherish, and to
protect her; to be considerate of her happiness in your plans of life;
to cultivate for her sake all manly virtues; and in all things to seek
her welfare as you seek your own. You pledge yourself thus honorably to
her, to be her husband in good faith, so long as the providence of God
shall spare you to each other.
"In like manner, looking to your Heavenly Father for his blessing, you
… do now receive this man, whose hand you hold, to be your lawfully
wedded husband. You choose him from all the world as he has chosen you.
You pledge your trust to him as your best earthly friend. You promise to
love, to comfort, and to honor him; to cultivate for his sake all
womanly graces; to guard his reputation, and assist him in his life's
work; and in all things to esteem his happiness as your own. You give
yourself thus trustfully to him, to be his wife in good faith, so long
as the providence of God shall spare you to each other."
When Harrie lifted her shining eyes to say, "I do!" the two little
happy words ran through the silent room like a silver bell; they would
have tinkled in your ears for weeks to come if you had heard them.
I have been thus particular in noting the words of the service, partly
because they pleased me, partly because I have since had some occasion
to recall them, and partly because I remember having wondered, at the
time, how many married men and women of your and my acquaintance, if
honestly subjecting their union to the test and full interpretation and
remotest bearing of such vows as these, could live in the sight of God
and man as "lawfully wedded" husband and wife.
Weddings are always very sad things to me; as much sadder than burials
as the beginning of life should be sadder than the end of it. The
readiness with which young girls will flit out of a tried, proved, happy
home into the sole care and keeping of a man whom they have known three
months, six, twelve, I do not profess to understand. Such knowledge is
too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. But that may
be because I am fifty-five, an old maid, and have spent twenty years in
A woman reads the graces of a man at sight. His faults she cannot
thoroughly detect till she has been for years his wife. And his faults
are so much more serious a matter to her than hers to him!
I was thinking of this the day before the wedding. I had stepped in from
the kitchen to ask Mrs. Bird about the salad, when I came abruptly, at
the door of the sitting-room, upon as choice a picture as one is likely
The doors were open through the house, and the wind swept in and out. A
scarlet woodbine swung lazily back and forth beyond the window. Dimples
of light burned through it, dotting the carpet and the black-and-white
marbled oilcloth of the hall. Beyond, in the little front parlor, framed
in by the series of doorways, was Harrie, all in a cloud of white. It
floated about her with an idle, wavelike motion. She had a veil like
fretted pearls through which her tinted arm shone faintly, and the
shadow of a single scarlet leaf trembled through a curtain upon her
Her mother, crying a little, as mothers will cry the day before the
wedding, was smoothing with tender touch a tiny crease upon the cloud; a
bridesmaid or two sat chattering on the floor; gloves, and favors, and
flowers, and bits of lace like hoar frost, lay scattered about; and the
whole was repictured and reflected and reshaded in the great
old-fashioned mirrors before which Harrie turned herself about.
It seemed a pity that Myron Sharpe should miss that, so I called him in
from the porch where he sat reading Stuart Mill on Liberty.
If you form your own opinion of a man who might spend a livelong
morning,—an October morning, quivering with color, alive with light,
sweet with the breath of dropping pines, soft with the caress of a wind
that had filtered through miles of sunshine,—and that the morning of
the day before his wedding,—reading Stuart Mill on Liberty,—I cannot
Harrie, turning suddenly, saw us,—met her lover's eyes, stood a moment
with lifted lashes and bright cheeks,—crept with a quick, impulsive
movement into her mother's arms, kissed her, and floated away up the
"It's a perfect fit," said Mrs. Bird; coming out with one corner of a
very dingy handkerchief—somebody had just used it to dust the Parian
vases—at her eyes.
And though, to be sure, it was none of my business, I caught myself
saying, under my breath,—
"It's a fit for life; for a life, Dr. Sharpe."
Dr. Sharpe smiled serenely. He was very much in love with the little
pink-and-white cloud that had just fluttered up the stairs. If it had
been drifting to him for the venture of twenty lifetimes, he would have
felt no doubt of the "fit."
Nor, I am sure, would Harrie. She stole out to him that evening after
the bridal finery was put away, and knelt at his feet in her plain
little muslin dress, her hair all out of crimp, slipping from her net
behind her ears,—Harrie's ears were very small, and shaded off in the
colors of a pale apple-blossom,—up-turning her flushed and weary face.
"Put away the book, please, Myron."
Myron put away the book (somebody on Bilious Affections), and looked for
a moment without speaking at the up-turned face.
Dr. Sharpe had spasms of distrusting himself amazingly; perhaps most men
have,—and ought to. His face grew grave just then. That little girl's
clear eyes shone upon him like the lights upon an altar. In very
unworthiness of soul he would have put the shoes from off his feet. The
ground on which he trod was holy.
When he spoke to the child, it was in a whisper:—
"Harrie, are you afraid of me? I know I am not very good."
And Harrie, kneeling with the shadows of the scarlet leaves upon her
hair, said softly, "How could I be afraid of you? It is I who am not
Dr. Sharpe could not have made much progress in Bilious Affections that
evening. All the time that the skies were fading, we saw them wandering
in and out among the apple-trees,—she with those shining eyes, and her
hand in his. And when to-morrow had come and gone, and in the dying
light they drove away, and Miss Dallas threw old Grandmother Bird's
little satin boot after the carriage, the last we saw of her was that
her hand was clasped in his, and that her eyes were shining.
Well, I believe that they got along very well till the first baby came.
As far as my observation goes, young people usually get along very well
till the first baby comes. These particular young people had a clear
conscience,—as young people's consciences go,—fair health, a
comfortable income for two, and a very pleasant home.
This home was on the coast. The townspeople made shoes, and minded their
own business. Dr. Sharpe bought the dying practice of an antediluvian
who believed in camomile and castor-oil. Harrie mended a few stockings,
made a few pies, and watched the sea.
It was almost enough of itself to make one happy—the sea—as it
tumbled about the shores of Lime. Harrie had a little seat hollowed out
in the cliffs, and a little scarlet bathing-dress, which was
surprisingly becoming, and a little boat of her own, moored in a little
bay,—a pretty shell which her husband had had made to order, that she
might be able to row herself on a calm water. He was very thoughtful for
her in those days.
She used to take her sewing out upon the cliff; she would be demure and
busy; she would finish the selvage seam; but the sun blazed, the sea
shone, the birds sang, all the world was at play,—what could it matter
about selvage seams? So the little gold thimble would drop off, the
spool trundle down the cliff, and Harrie, sinking back into a cushion of
green and crimson sea-weed, would open her wide eyes and dream. The
waves purpled and silvered, and broke into a mist like powdered amber,
the blue distances melted softly, the white sand glittered, the gulls
were chattering shrilly. What a world it was!
"And he is in it!" thought Harrie. Then she would smile and shut her
eyes. "And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that Moses'
face shone, and they were afraid to come nigh him." Harrie wondered if
everybody's joy were too great to look upon, and wondered, in a
childish, frightened way, how it might be with sorrow; if people stood
with veiled faces before it, dumb with pain as she with peace,—and then
it was dinner-time, and Myron came down to walk up the beach with her,
and she forgot all about it.
She forgot all about everything but the bare joy of life and the sea,
when she had donned the pretty scarlet suit, and crept out into the
surf,—at the proper medicinal hour, for the Doctor was very particular
with her,—when the warm brown waves broke over her face, the long
sea-weeds slipped through her fingers, the foam sprinkled her hair with
crystals, and the strong wind was up.
She was a swift swimmer, and as one watched from the shore, her lithe
scarlet shoulders seemed to glide like a trail of fire through the
lighted water; and when she sat in shallow foam with sunshine on her, or
flashed through the dark green pools among the rocks, or floated with
the incoming tide, her great bathing-hat dropping shadows on her wet
little happy face, and her laugh ringing out, it was a pretty sight.
But a prettier one than that, her husband thought, was to see her in her
boat at sunset; when sea and sky were aflame, when every flake of foam
was a rainbow, and the great chalk-cliffs were blood-red; when the wind
blew her net off, and in pretty petulance she pulled her hair down, and
it rippled all about her as she dipped into the blazing West.
Dr. Sharpe used to drive home by the beach, on a fair night, always,
that he might see it. Then Harrie would row swiftly in, and spring into
the low, broad buggy beside him, and they rode home together in the
fragrant dusk. Sometimes she used to chatter on these twilight drives;
but more often she crept up to him and shut her eyes, and was as still
as a sleepy bird. It was so pleasant to do nothing but be happy!
I believe that at this time Dr. Sharpe loved his wife as unselfishly as
he knew how. Harrie often wrote me that he was "very good." She was
sometimes a little troubled that he should "know so much more" than she,
and had fits of reading the newspapers and reviewing her French, and
studying cases of hydrophobia, or some other pleasant subject which had
a professional air. Her husband laughed at her for her pains, but
nevertheless he found her so much the more entertaining. Sometimes she
drove about with him on his calls, or amused herself by making jellies
in fancy moulds for his poor, or sat in his lap and discoursed like a
bobolink of croup and measles, pulling his whiskers the while with her
All this, as I have said, was before the first baby came.
It is surprising what vague ideas young people in general, and young men
in particular, have of the rubs and jars of domestic life; especially
domestic life on an income of eighteen hundred, American constitutions
and country servants thrown in.
Dr. Sharpe knew something of illness and babies and worry and watching;
but that his own individual baby should deliberately lie and scream till
two o'clock in the morning, was a source of perpetual astonishment to
him; and that it,—he and Mrs. Sharpe had their first quarrel over his
persistence in calling the child an "it,"—that it should invariably
feel called upon to have the colic just as he had fallen into a nap,
after a night spent with a dying patient, was a phenomenon of the infant
mind for which he was, to say the least, unprepared.
It was for a long time a mystery to his masculine understanding, that
Biddy could not be nursery-maid as well as cook. "Why, what has she to
do now? Nothing but to broil steaks and make tea for two people!" That
whenever he had Harrie quietly to himself for a peculiarly pleasant
tea-table, the house should resound with sudden shrieks from the
nursery, and there was always a pin in that baby, was forever a fresh
surprise; and why, when they had a house full of company, no "girl," and
Harrie down with a sick-headache, his son and heir should of necessity
be threatened with scarlatina, was a philosophical problem over which he
speculated long and profoundly.
So, gradually, in the old way, the old sweet habits of the long
honeymoon were broken. Harrie dreamed no more on the cliffs by the
bright noon sea; had no time to spend making scarlet pictures in the
little bathing-suit; had seldom strength to row into the sunset, her
hair loose, the bay on fire, and one to watch her from the shore. There
were no more walks up the beach to dinner; there came an end to the
drives in the happy twilight; she could not climb now upon her husband's
knee, because of the heavy baby on her own.
The spasms of newspaper reading subsided rapidly; Corinne and Racine
gathered the dust in peace upon their shelves; Mrs. Sharpe made no more
fancy jellies, and found no time to inquire after other people's babies.
One becomes used to anything after a while, especially if one happens to
be a man. It would have surprised Dr. Sharpe, if he had taken the pains
to notice,—which I believe he never did,—how easily he became used to
his solitary drives and disturbed teas; to missing Harrie's watching
face at door or window; to sitting whole evenings by himself while she
sang to the fretful baby overhead with her sweet little tired voice; to
slipping off into the "spare room" to sleep when the child cried at
night, and Harrie, up and down with him by the hour, flitted from cradle
to bed, or paced the room, or sat and sang, or lay and cried herself, in
sheer despair of rest; to wandering away on lonely walks; to stepping
often into a neighbor's to discuss the election or the typhoid in the
village; to forgetting that his wife's conversational capacities could
extend beyond Biddy and teething; to forgetting that she might ever
hunger for a twilight drive, a sunny sail, for the sparkle and
freshness, the dreaming, the petting, the caresses, all the silly little
lovers' habits of their early married days; to going his own ways, and
letting her go hers.
Yet he loved her, and loved her only, and loved her well. That he never
doubted, nor, to my surprise, did she. I remember once, when on a visit
there, being fairly frightened out of the proprieties by hearing her
call him "Dr. Sharpe." I called her away from the children soon after,
on pretence of helping me unpack. I locked the door, pulled her down
upon a trunk tray beside me, folded both her hands in mine, and studied
her face; it had grown to be a very thin little face, less pretty than
it was in the shadow of the woodbine, with absent eyes and a sad mouth.
She knew that I loved her, and my heart was full for the child; and so,
for I could not help it, I said,—"Harrie, is all well between you? Is
he quite the same?"
She looked at me with a perplexed and musing air.
"The same? O yes, he is quite the same to me. He would always be the
same to me. Only there are the children, and we are so busy. He—why, he
loves me, you know,—" she turned her head from side to side wearily,
with the puzzled expression growing on her forehead,—"he loves me just
the same,—just the same. I am his wife; don't you see?"
She drew herself up a little haughtily, said that she heard the baby
crying, and slipped away.
But the perplexed knot upon her forehead did not slip away. I was rather
glad that it did not. I liked it better than the absent eyes. That
afternoon she left her baby with Biddy for a couple of hours, went away
by herself into the garden, sat down upon a stone and thought.
Harrie took a great deal of comfort in her babies, quite as much as I
wished to have her. Women whose dream of marriage has faded a little
have a way of transferring their passionate devotion and content from
husband to child. It is like anchoring in a harbor,—a pleasant harbor,
and one in which it is good to be,—but never on shore and never at
home. Whatever a woman's children may be to her, her husband should be
always something beyond and more; forever crowned for her as first,
dearest, best, on a throne that neither son nor daughter can usurp.
Through mistake and misery the throne may be left vacant or voiceless:
but what man cometh after the King?
So, when Harrie forgot the baby for a whole afternoon, and sat out on
her stone there in the garden thinking, I felt rather glad than sorry.
It was when little Harrie was a baby, I believe, that Mrs. Sharpe took
that notion about having company. She was growing out of the world, she
said; turning into a fungus; petrifying; had forgotten whether you
called your seats at the Music Hall pews or settees, and was as afraid
of a well-dressed woman as she was of the croup.
So the Doctor's house at Lime was for two or three months overrun with
visitors and vivacity. Fathers and mothers made fatherly and motherly
stays, with the hottest of air-tights put up for their benefit in the
front room; sisters and sisters-in-law brought the fashions and got up
tableaux; cousins came on the jump; Miss Jones, Pauline Dallas, and I
were invited in turn, and the children had the mumps at cheerful
The Doctor was not much in the mood for entertaining Miss Dallas; he was
a little tired of company, and had had a hard week's work with an
epidemic down town. Harrie had not seen her since her wedding day, and
was pleased and excited at the prospect of the visit. Pauline had been
one of her eternal friendships at school.
Miss Dallas came a day earlier than she was expected, and, as chance
would have it, Harrie was devoting the afternoon to cutting out shirts.
Any one who has sat from two till six at that engaging occupation, will
understand precisely how her back ached and her temples throbbed, and
her fingers stung, and her neck stiffened; why her eyes swam, her cheeks
burned, her brain was deadened, the children's voices were insufferable,
the slamming of a door an agony, the past a blot, the future
unendurable, life a burden, friendship a myth, her hair down, and her
Miss Dallas had never cut a shirt, nor, I believe, had Dr. Sharpe.
Harrie was groaning over the last wristband but one, when she heard her
husband's voice in the hall.
"Harrie, Harrie, your friend is here. I found her, by a charming
accident, at the station, and drove her home." And Miss Dallas, gloved,
perfumed, rustling, in a very becoming veil and travelling-suit of the
latest mode, swept in upon her.
Harrie was too much of a lady to waste any words on apology, so she ran
just as she was, in her calico dress, with the collar hanging, into
Pauline's stately arms, and held up her little burning cheeks to be
But her husband looked annoyed.
He came down before tea in his best coat to entertain their guest. Biddy
was "taking an afternoon" that day, and Harrie bustled about with her
aching back to make tea and wash the children. She had no time to spend
upon herself, and, rather than keep a hungry traveller waiting, smoothed
her hair, knotted a ribbon at the collar, and came down in her calico
Dr. Sharpe glanced at it in some surprise. He repeated the glances
several times in the course of the evening, as he sat chatting with his
wife's friend. Miss Dallas was very sprightly in conversation; had read
some, had thought some; and had the appearance of having read and
thought about twice as much as she had.
Myron Sharpe had always considered his wife a handsome woman. That
nobody else thought her so had made no difference to him. He had often
looked into the saucy eyes of little Harrie Bird, and told her that she
was very pretty. As a matter of theory, he supposed her to be very
pretty, now that she was the mother of his three children, and breaking
her back to cut out his shirts.
Miss Dallas was a generously framed, well-proportioned woman, who
carried long trains, and tied her hair with crimson velvet. She had
large, serene eyes, white hands, and a very pleasant smile. A delicate
perfume stirred as she stirred, and she wore a creamy lace about her
throat and wrists.
Calicoes were never becoming to Harrie, and that one with the palm-leaf
did not fit her well,—she cut it herself, to save expense. As the
evening passed, in reaction from the weariness of shirt-cutting she grew
pale, and the sallow tints upon her face came out; her features
sharpened, as they had a way of doing when she was tired; and she had
little else to do that evening than think how tired she was, for her
husband observing, as he remarked afterwards, that she did not feel like
talking, kindly entertained her friend himself.
As they went up stairs for the night, it struck him, for the first time
in his life, that Harrie had a snubbed nose. It annoyed him, because she
was his wife, and he loved her, and liked to feel that she was as well
looking as other women.
"Your friend is a bright girl," he said, encouragingly, when Harrie had
hushed a couple of children, and sat wearily down to unbutton her boots.
"I think you will find her more easy to entertain than Cousin
Then, seeing that Harrie answered absently, and how exhausted she
looked, he expressed his sorrow that she should have worked so long over
the shirts, and kissed her as he spoke; while Harrie cried a little, and
felt as if she would cut them all over again for that.
The next day Miss Dallas and Mrs. Sharpe sat sewing together; Harrie
cramping her shoulders and blackening her hands over a patch on Rocko's
rough little trousers; Pauline playing idly with purple and orange
wools,—her fingers were white, and she sank with grace into the warm
colors of the arm-chair; the door was opened into the hall, and Dr.
Sharpe passed by, glancing in as he passed.
"Your husband is a very intelligent man, Harrie," observed Miss Dallas,
studying her lavenders and lemons thoughtfully. "I was much interested
in what he said about pre-Adamic man, last evening."
"Yes," said Harrie, "he knows a great deal. I always thought so." The
little trousers slipped from her black fingers by and by, and her eyes
wandered out of the window absently.
She did not know anything about pre-Adamic man.
In the afternoon they walked down the beach together,—the Doctor, his
wife, and their guest,—accompanied by as few children as circumstances
would admit of. Pauline was stately in a beach-dress of bright browns,
which shaded softly into one another; it was one of Miss Dallas's
peculiarities, that she never wore more than one color, or two, at the
same time. Harrie, as it chanced, wore over her purple dress (Rocko had
tipped over two ink-bottles and a vinegar-cruet on the sack which should
have matched it) a dull gray shawl; her bonnet was blue,—it had been a
present from Myron's sister, and she had no other way than to wear it.
Miss Dallas bounded with pretty feet from rock to rock. Rocko hung
heavily to his mother's fingers; she had no gloves, the child would have
spoiled them; her dress dragged in the sand,—she could not afford two
skirts, and one must be long,—and between Rocko and the wind she held
it up awkwardly.
Dr. Sharpe seldom noticed a woman's dress; he could not have told now
whether his wife's shawl was sky-blue or pea-green; he knew nothing
about the ink-spots; he had never heard of the unfortunate blue bonnet,
or the mysteries of short and long skirts. He might have gone to walk
with her a dozen times and thought her very pretty and "proper" in her
appearance. Now, without the vaguest idea what was the trouble, he
understood that something was wrong. A woman would have said, Mrs.
Sharpe looks dowdy and old-fashioned; he only considered that Miss
Dallas had a pleasant air, like a soft brown picture with crimson lights
let in, and that it was an air which his wife lacked. So, when Rocko
dragged heavily and more heavily at his mother's skirts, and the Doctor
and Pauline wandered off to climb the cliffs, Harrie did not seek to
follow or to call them back. She sat down with Rocko on the beach,
wrapped herself with a savage hug in the ugly shawl, and wondered with a
bitterness with which only women can wonder over such trifles, why God
should send Pauline all the pretty beach-dresses and deny them to
her,—for Harrie, like many another "dowdy" woman whom you see upon the
street, my dear madam, was a woman of fine, keen tastes, and would have
appreciated the soft browns no less than yourself. It seemed to her the
very sting of poverty, just then, that one must wear purple dresses and
At the tea-table the Doctor fell to reconstructing the country, and Miss
Dallas, who was quite a politician in Miss Dallas's way, observed that
the horizon looked brighter since Tennessee's admittance, and that she
hoped that the clouds, &c.,—and what did he think of Brownlow? &c.,
"Tennessee!" exclaimed Harrie; "why, how long has Tennessee been in? I
didn't know anything about it."
Miss Dallas smiled kindly. Dr. Sharpe bit his lip, and his face flushed.
"Harrie, you really ought to read the papers," he said, with some
impatience; "it's no wonder you don't know anything."
"How should I know anything, tied to the children all day?" Harrie spoke
quickly, for the hot tears sprang. "Why didn't you tell me something
about Tennessee? You never talk politics with me."
This began to be awkward; Miss Dallas, who never interfered—on
principle—between husband and wife, gracefully took up the baby, and
gracefully swung her dainty Geneva watch for the child's amusement,
smiling brilliantly. She could not endure babies, but you would never
have suspected it.
In fact, when Pauline had been in the house four or five days, Harrie,
who never thought very much of herself, became so painfully alive to her
own deficiencies, that she fell into a permanent fit of low spirits,
which did not add either to her appearance or her vivacity.
"Pauline is so pretty and bright!" she wrote to me. "I always knew I was
a little fool. You can be a fool before you're married, just as well as
not. Then, when you have three babies to look after, it is too late to
make yourself over. I try very hard now to read the newspapers, only
Myron does not know it."
One morning something occurred to Mrs. Sharpe. It was simply that her
husband had spent every evening at home for a week. She was in the
nursery when the thought struck her, rocking slowly in her low
sewing-chair, holding the baby on one arm and trying to darn stockings
with the other.
Pauline was—she did not really know where. Was not that her voice upon
the porch? The rocking-chair stopped sharply, and Harrie looked down
through the blinds. The Doctor's horse was tied at the gate. The Doctor
sat fanning himself with his hat in one of the garden chairs; Miss
Dallas occupied the other; she was chatting, and twisting her golden
wools about her fingers,—it was noticeable that she used only golden
wools that morning; her dress was pale blue, and the effect of the
purples would not have been good.
"I thought your calls were going to take till dinner, Myron," called
Harrie, through the blinds.
"I thought so too," said Myron, placidly, "but they do not seem to.
Won't you come down?"
Harrie thanked him, saying, in a pleasant nonchalant way, that she
could not leave the baby. It was almost the first bit of acting that the
child had ever been guilty of,—for the baby was just going to sleep,
and she knew it.
She turned away from the window quietly. She could not have been angry,
and scolded; or noisy, and cried. She put little Harrie into her cradle,
crept upon the bed, and lay perfectly still for a long time.
When the dinner-bell rang, and she got up to brush her hair, that
absent, apathetic look of which I have spoken had left her eyes. A
stealthy brightness came and went in them, which her husband might have
observed if he and Miss Dallas had not been deep in the Woman question.
Pauline saw it; Pauline saw everything.
"Why did you not come down and sit with us this morning?" she asked,
reproachfully, when she and Harrie were alone after dinner. "I don't
want your husband to feel that he must run away from you to entertain
"My husband's ideas of hospitality are generous," said Mrs. Sharpe. "I
have always found him as ready to make it pleasant here for my company
as for his own."
She made this little speech with dignity. Did both women know it for the
farce it was? To do Miss Dallas justice,—I am not sure. She was not a
bad-hearted woman. She was a handsome woman. She had come to Lime to
enjoy herself. Those September days and nights were fair there by the
dreamy sea. On the whole I am inclined to think that she did not know
exactly what she was about.
"My perfumery never lasts," said Harrie, once, stooping to pick up
Pauline's fine handkerchief, to which a faint scent like unseen
heliotrope clung; it clung to everything of Pauline's; you would never
see a heliotrope without thinking of her, as Dr. Sharpe had often said.
"Myron used to like good cologne, but I can't afford to buy it, so I
make it myself, and use it Sundays, and it's all blown away by the time
I get to church. Myron says he is glad of it, for it is more like Mrs.
Allen's Hair Restorer than anything else. What do you use, Pauline?"
"Sachet powder of course," said Miss Dallas, smiling.
That evening Harrie stole away by herself to the village apothecary's.
Myron should not know for what she went. If it were the breath of a
heliotrope, thought foolish Harrie, which made it so pleasant for people
to be near Pauline, that was a matter easily remedied. But sachet
powder, you should know, is a dollar an ounce, and Harrie must needs
content herself with "the American," which could be had for fifty cents;
and so, of course, after she had spent her money, and made her little
silk bags, and put them away into her bureau drawers, Myron never told
her, for all her pains, that she reminded him of a heliotrope with the
dew on it. One day a pink silk bag fell out from under her dress, where
she had tucked it.
"What's all this nonsense, Harrie?" said her husband, in a sharp tone.
At another time, the Doctor and Pauline were driving upon the beach at
sunset, when, turning a sudden corner, Miss Dallas cried out, in real
"See! That beautiful creature! Who can it be?"
And there was Harrie, out on a rock in the opal surf,—a little scarlet
mermaid, combing her hair with her thin fingers, from which the water
almost washed the wedding ring. It was—who knew how long, since the
pretty bathing-suit had been taken down from the garret nails? What
sudden yearning for the wash of waves, and the spring of girlhood, and
the consciousness that one is fair to see, had overtaken her? She
watched through her hair and her fingers for the love in her husband's
But he waded out to her, ill-pleased.
"Harrie, this is very imprudent,—very! I don't see what could have
Myron Sharpe loved his wife. Of course he did. He began, about this
time, to state the fact to himself several times a day. Had she not been
all the world to him when he wooed and won her in her rosy, ripening
days? Was she not all the world to him now that a bit of searness had
crept upon her, in a married life of eight hard-working years?
That she had grown a little sear, he felt somewhat keenly of late. She
had a dreary, draggled look at breakfast, after the children had cried
at night,—and the nights when Mrs. Sharpe's children did not cry were
like angels' visits. It was perhaps the more noticeable, because Miss
Dallas had a peculiar color and coolness and sparkle in the morning,
like that of opening flowers. She had not been up till midnight with a
Harrie was apt to be too busy in the kitchen to run and meet him when he
came home at dusk. Or, if she came, it was with her sleeves rolled up
and an apron on. Miss Dallas sat at the window; the lace curtain waved
about her; she nodded and smiled as he walked up the path. In the
evening Harrie talked of Rocko, or the price of butter; she did not
venture beyond, poor thing! since her experience with Tennessee.
Miss Dallas quoted Browning, and discussed Goethe, and talked Parepa;
and they had no lights, and the September moon shone in. Sometimes Mrs.
Sharpe had mending to do, and, as she could not sew on her husband's
buttons satisfactorily by moonlight, would slip into the dining-room
with kerosene and mosquitoes for company. The Doctor may have noticed,
or he may not, how comfortably he could, if he made the proper effort,
pass the evening without her.
But Myron Sharpe loved his wife. To be sure he did. If his wife doubted
it,—but why should she doubt it? Who thought she doubted it? If she
did, she gave no sign. Her eyes, he observed, had brightened, of late;
and when they went to her from the moonlit parlor, there was such a
pretty color upon her cheeks, that he used to stoop and kiss them, while
Miss Dallas discreetly occupied herself in killing mosquitoes. Of course
he loved his wife!
It was observable that, in proportion to the frequency with which he
found it natural to remark his fondness for Harrie, his attentions to
her increased. He inquired tenderly after her headaches; he brought her
flowers, when he and Miss Dallas walked in the autumn woods; he was
particular about her shawls and wraps; he begged her to sail and drive
with them; he took pains to draw his chair beside hers on the porch; he
patted her hands, and played with her soft hair.
Harrie's clear eyes puzzled over this for a day or two; but by and by
it might have been noticed that she refused his rides, shawled herself,
was apt to be with the children when he called her, and shrank, in a
quiet way, from his touch.
She went into her room one afternoon, and locked the children out. An
east wind blew, and the rain fell drearily. The Doctor and Pauline were
playing chess down stairs; she should not be missed. She took out her
wedding-dress from the drawer where she had laid it tenderly away; the
hoar-frost and fretted pearl fell down upon her faded morning-dress; the
little creamy gloves hung loosely upon her worn fingers. Poor little
gloves! Poor little pearly dress! She felt a kind of pity for their
innocence and ignorance and trustfulness. Her hot tears fell and spotted
them. What if there were any way of creeping back through them to be
little Harrie Bird again? Would she take it?
Her children's voices sounded crying for her in the hall. Three innocent
babies—and how many more?—to grow into life under the shadow of a
wrecked and loveless home! What had she done? What had they done?
Harrie's was a strong, healthy little soul, with a strong, healthy love
of life; but she fell down there that dreary afternoon, prone upon the
nursery floor, among the yellow wedding lace, and prayed God to let her
Yet Myron Sharpe loved his wife, you understand. Discussing elective
affinities down there over the chessboard with Miss Dallas,—he loved
his wife, most certainly; and, pray, why was she not content?
It was quite late when they came up for Harrie. She had fallen into a
sleep or faint, and the window had been open all the time. Her eyes
burned sharply, and she complained of a chill, which did not leave her
the next day nor the next.
One morning, at the breakfast-table, Miss Dallas calmly observed that
she should go home on Friday.
Dr. Sharpe dropped his cup; Harrie wiped up the tea.
"My dear Miss Dallas—surely—we cannot let you go yet! Harrie! Can't
you keep your friend?"
Harrie said the proper thing in a low tone. Pauline repeated her
determination with much decision, and was afraid that her visit had been
more of a burden than Harrie, with all her care, was able to bear. Dr.
Sharpe pushed back his chair noisily, and left the room.
He went and stood by the parlor window. The man's face was white. What
business had the days to close down before him like a granite wall,
because a woman with long trains and white hands was going out of them?
Harrie's patient voice came in through the open door:—
"Yes, yes, yes, Rocko; mother is tired to-day; wait a minute."
Pauline, sweeping by the piano, brushed the keys a little, and sang:—
"Drifting, drifting on and on,
Mast and oar and rudder gone,
Fatal danger for each one,
We helpless as in dreams."
What had he been about?
The air grew sweet with the sudden scent of heliotrope, and Miss Dallas
pushed aside the curtain gently.
"I may have that sail across the bay before I go? It promises to be fair
"I suppose it will be our last," said the lady, softly.
She was rather sorry when she had spoken, for she really did not mean
anything, and was surprised at the sound of her own voice.
But they took the sail.
Harrie watched them off—her husband did not invite her to go on that
occasion—with that stealthy sharpness in her eyes. Her lips and hands
and forehead were burning. She had been cold all day. A sound like the
tolling of a bell beat in her ears. The children's voices were choked
and distant. She wondered if Biddy were drunk, she seemed to dance about
so at her ironing-table, and wondered if she must dismiss her, and who
could supply her place. She tried to put my room in order, for she was
expecting me that night by the last train, but gave up the undertaking
in weariness and confusion.
In fact, if Harrie had been one of the Doctor's patients, he would have
sent her to bed and prescribed for brain-fever. As she was not a
patient, but only his wife, he had not found out that anything ailed
Nothing happened while he was gone, except that a friend of Biddy's
"dropped in," and Mrs. Sharpe, burning and shivering in her
sewing-chair, dreamily caught through the open door, and dreamily
repeated to herself, a dozen words of compassionate Irish brogue:—
"Folks as laves folks cryin' to home and goes sailin' round with other
Then the wind latched the door.
The Doctor and Miss Dallas drew in their oars, and floated softly.
There were gray and silver clouds overhead, and all the light upon the
sea slanted from low in the west: it was a red light, in which the bay
grew warm; it struck across Pauline's hands, which she dipped, as the
mood took her, into the waves, leaning upon the side of the boat,
looking down into the water. One other sail only was to be seen upon the
bay. They watched it for a while. It dropped into the west, and sunk
They were silent for a time, and then they talked of friendship, and
nature, and eternity, and then were silent for a time again, and then
spoke—in a very general and proper way—of separation and communion in
spirit, and broke off softly, and the boat rose and fell upon the strong
"Drifting, drifting on and on," hummed Pauline.
The west, paling a little, left a haggard look upon the Doctor's face.
"An honest man," the Doctor was saying, "an honest man, who loves his
wife devotedly, but who cannot find in her that sympathy which his
higher nature requires, that comprehension of his intellectual needs,
"I always feel a deep compassion for such a man," interrupted Miss
"Such a man," questioned the Doctor in a pensive tone, "need not be
debarred, by the shallow conventionalities of an unappreciative world,
from a friendship which will rest, strengthen, and ennoble his weary
"Certainly not," said Pauline, with her eyes upon the water; dull
yellow, green, and indigo shades were creeping now upon its ruddiness.
"Pauline,"—Dr. Sharpe's voice was low,—"Pauline!"
Pauline turned her beautiful head. "There are marriages for this world;
true and honorable marriages, but for this world. But there is a
marriage for eternity,—a marriage of souls."
Now Myron Sharpe is not a fool, but that is precisely what he said to
Miss Pauline Dallas, out in the boat on that September night. If wiser
men than Myron Sharpe never uttered more unpardonable nonsense under
similar circumstances, cast your stones at him.
"Perhaps so," said Miss Dallas, with a sigh; "but see! How dark it has
grown while we have been talking. We shall be caught in a squall; but I
shall not be at all afraid—with you."
They were caught indeed, not only in a squall, but in the steady force
of a driving northeasterly storm setting in doggedly with a very ugly
fog. If Miss Dallas was not at all afraid—with him, she was
nevertheless not sorry when they grated safely on the dull white beach.
They had had a hard pull in against the tide. Sky and sea were black.
The fog crawled like a ghost over flat and cliff and field. The rain
beat upon them as they turned to walk up the beach.
Pauline stopped once suddenly.
"What was that?"
"I heard nothing."
"A cry,—I fancied a cry down there in the fog."
They went back, and walked down the slippery shore for a space. Miss
Dallas took off her hat to listen.
"You will take cold," said Dr. Sharpe, anxiously. She put it on; she
heard nothing,—she was tired and excited, he said.
They walked home together. Miss Dallas had sprained her white wrist,
trying to help at the oars; he drew it gently through his arm.
It was quite dark when they reached the house. No lamps were lighted.
The parlor window had been left open, and the rain was beating in. "How
careless in Harrie!" said her husband, impatiently.
He remembered those words, and the sound of his own voice in saying
them, for a long time to come; he remembers them now, indeed, I fancy,
on rainy nights when the house is dark.
The hall was cold and dreary. No table was set for supper. The children
were all crying. Dr. Sharpe pushed open the kitchen door with a stern
"Biddy! Biddy! what does all this mean? Where is Mrs. Sharpe?"
"The Lord only knows what it manes, or where is Mrs. Sharpe," said
Biddy, sullenly. "It's high time, in me own belafe, for her husband to
come ashkin' and inquirin' her close all in a hape on the floor
upstairs, with her bath-dress gone from the nails, and the front door
swingin',—me never findin' of it out till it cooms tay-time, with all
the children cryin' on me, and me head shplit with the noise, and—"
Dr. Sharpe strode in a bewildered way to the front door. Oddly enough,
the first thing he did was to take down the thermometer and look at it.
Gone out to bathe in a temperature like that! His mind ran like
lightning, while he hung the thing back upon its nail, over Harrie's
ancestry. Was there not a traditionary great-uncle who died in an
asylum? The whole future of three children with an insane mother spread
itself out before him while he was buttoning his overcoat.
"Shall I go and help you find her?" asked Miss Dallas, tremulously; "or
shall I stay and look after hot flannels and—things? What shall I do?"
"I don't care what you do!" said the Doctor, savagely. To his justice
be it recorded that he did not. He would not have exchanged one glimpse
of Harrie's little homely face just then for an eternity of
sunset-sailing with the "friend of his soul." A sudden cold loathing of
her possessed him; he hated the sound of her soft voice; he hated the
rustle of her garments, as she leaned against the door with her
handkerchief at her eyes. Did he remember at that moment an old vow,
spoken on an old October day, to that little missing face? Did he
comfort himself thus, as he stepped out into the storm, "You have
'trusted her,' Myron Sharpe, as 'your best earthly friend'"?
As luck, or providence or God—whichever word you prefer—decreed it,
the Doctor had but just shut the door when he saw me driving from the
station through the rain. I heard enough of the story while he was
helping me down the carriage steps. I left my bonnet and bag with Miss
Dallas, pulled my water-proof over my head, and we turned our faces to
the sea without a word.
The Doctor is a man who thinks and acts rapidly in emergencies, and
little time was lost about help and lights. Yet when all was done which
could be done, we stood there upon the slippery weed-strewn sand, and
looked in one another's faces helplessly. Harrie's little boat was gone.
The sea thundered out beyond the bar. The fog hung, a dead weight, upon
a buried world. Our lanterns cut it for a foot or two in a ghostly way,
throwing a pale white light back upon our faces and the weeds and bits
of wreck under our feet.
The tide had turned. We put out into the surf not knowing what else to
do, and called for Harrie; we leaned on our oars to listen, and heard
the water drip into the boat, and the dull thunder beyond the bar; we
called again, and heard a frightened sea-gull scream.
"This yere's wastin' valooable time," said Hansom, decidedly. I
forgot to say that it was George Hansom whom Myron had picked up to help
us. Anybody in Lime will tell you who George Hansom is,—a clear-eyed,
open-hearted sailor; a man to whom you would turn in trouble as
instinctively as a rheumatic man turns to the sun.
I cannot accurately tell you what he did with us that night. I have
confused memories of searching shore and cliffs and caves; of touching
at little islands and inlets that Harrie fancied; of the peculiar echo
which answered our shouting; of the look that settled little by little
about Dr. Sharpe's mouth; of the sobbing of the low wind; of the flare
of lanterns on gaping, green waves; of spots of foam that writhed like
nests of white snakes; of noticing the puddles in the bottom of the
boat, and of wondering confusedly what they would do with my
travelling-dress, at the very moment when I saw—I was the first to see
it—little empty boat; of our hauling alongside of the tossing, silent
thing; of a bit of a red scarf that lay coiled in its stern; of our
drifting by, and speaking never a word; of our coasting along after that
for a mile down the bay, because there was nothing in the world to take
us there but the dread of seeing the Doctor's eyes when we should turn.
It was there that we heard the first cry.
"It's shoreward!" said Hansom.
"It is seaward!" cried the Doctor.
"It is behind us!" said I.
Where was it? A sharp, sobbing cry, striking the mist three or four
times in rapid succession,—hushing suddenly,—breaking into shrieks
like a frightened child's,—dying plaintively down.
We struggled desperately after it, through the fog. Wind and water took
the sound up and tossed it about. Confused and bewildered, we beat about
it and about it; it was behind us, before us, at our right, at our
left,—crying on in a blind, aimless way, making us no replies,—beckoning
us, slipping from us, mocking us utterly.
The Doctor stretched his hands out upon the solid wall of mist; he
groped with them like a man struck blind.
"To die there,—in my very hearing,—without a chance—"
And while the words were upon his lips the cries ceased.
He turned a gray face slowly around, shivered a little, then smiled a
little, then began to argue with ghastly cheerfulness:—
"It must be only for a moment, you know. We shall hear it again,—I am
quite sure we shall it again, Hansom!"
Hansom, making a false stroke, I believe for the first time in his life,
snapped an oar and overturned a lantern. Some drift-wood, covered with
slimy weeds, washed heavily up at our feet. I remember that a little
disabled ground-sparrow, chased by the tide, was fluttering and drowning
just in sight, and that Myron drew it out of the water, and held it up
for a moment to his cheek.
Bending over the ropes, George spoke between his teeth to me:—
"It may be a night's job on 't, findin' of the body."
The poor little sparrow dropped from Dr. Sharpe's hand. He took a step
backward, scanned our faces, sat down dizzily, and fell over upon the
He is a man of good nerves and great self-possession, but he fell like
a woman, and lay like the dead.
"It's no place for him," Hansom said, softly. "Get him home. Me and the
neighbors can do the rest. Get him home, and put his baby into his arms,
and shet the door, and go about your business."
I had left him in the dark on the office floor at last. Miss Dallas and
I sat in the cold parlor and looked at each other.
The fire was low and the lamp dull. The rain beat in an uncanny way upon
the windows. I never like to hear the rain upon the windows. I liked it
less than usual that night, and was just trying to brighten the fire a
little, when the front door blew open.
"Shut it, please," said I, between the jerks of my poker.
But Miss Dallas looked over her shoulder and shivered.
"Just look at that latch!" I looked at that latch.
It rose and fell in a feeble fluttering way,—was still for a
minute,—rose and fell again.
When the door swung in and Harrie—or the ghost of her—staggered into
the chilly room and fell down in a scarlet heap at my feet, Pauline
bounded against the wall with a scream which pierced into the dark
office where the Doctor lay with his face upon the floor.
It was long before we knew how it happened. Indeed, I suppose we have
never known it all. How she glided down, a little red wraith, through
the dusk and damp to her boat; how she tossed about, with some dim,
delirious idea of finding Myron on the ebbing waves; that she found
herself stranded and tangled at last in the long, matted grass of that
muddy cove, started to wade home, and sunk in the ugly ooze, held,
chilled, and scratched by the sharp grass, blinded and frightened by the
fog, and calling, as she thought of it, for help; that in the first
shallow wash of the flowing tide she must have struggled free, and found
her way home across the fields,—she can tell us, but she can tell no
This very morning on which I write, an unknown man, imprisoned in the
same spot in the same way overnight, was found by George Hansom dead
there from exposure in the salt grass.
It was the walk home, and only that, which could have saved her.
Yet for many weeks we fought, her husband and I, hand to hand with
death, seeming to see the life slip out of her, and watching for
wandering minutes when she might look upon us with sane eyes.
We kept her—just. A mere little wreck, with drawn lips, and great eyes,
and shattered nerves,—but we kept her.
I remember one night, when she had fallen into her first healthful nap,
that the Doctor came down to rest a few minutes in the parlor where I
sat alone. Pauline was washing the tea-things.
He began to pace the room with a weary abstracted look,—he was much
worn by watching,—and, seeing that he was in no mood for words, I took
up a book which lay upon the table. It chanced to be one of Alger's,
which somebody had lent to the Doctor before Harrie's illness; it was a
marked book, and I ran my eye over the pencilled passages. I recollect
having been struck with this one: "A man's best friend is a wife of good
sense and good heart, whom he loves and who loves him."
"You believe that?" said Myron, suddenly, behind my shoulder.
"I believe that a man's wife ought to be his best friend,—in every
sense of the word, his best friend,—or she ought never to be his
"And if—there will be differences of temperament, and—other things. If
you were a man now, for instance, Miss Hannah—"
I interrupted him with hot cheeks and sudden courage.
"If I were a man, and my wife were not the best friend I had or could
have in the world, nobody should ever know it,—she, least of
Young people will bear a great deal of impertinence from an old lady,
but we had both gone further than we meant to. I closed Mr. Alger with a
snap, and went up to Harrie.
The day that Mrs. Sharpe sat up in the easy-chair for two hours, Miss
Dallas, who had felt called upon to stay and nurse her dear Harrie to
recovery, and had really been of service, detailed on duty among the
babies, went home.
Dr. Sharpe drove her to the station. I accompanied them at his request.
Miss Dallas intended, I think, to look a little pensive, but had her
lunch to cram into a very full travelling-bag, and forgot it. The
Doctor, with clear, courteous eyes, shook hands, and wished her a
He drove home in silence, and went directly to his wife's room. A bright
blaze flickered on the old-fashioned fireplace, and the walls bowed with
pretty dancing shadows. Harrie, all alone, turned her face weakly and
Well, they made no fuss about it, after all. Her husband came and stood
beside her; a cricket on which one of the baby's dresses had been
thrown, lay between them; it seemed, for the moment, as if he dared not
cross the tiny barrier. Something of that old fancy about the lights
upon the altar may have crossed his thought.
"So Miss Dallas has fairly gone, Harrie," said he, pleasantly, after a
"Yes. She has been very kind to the children while I have been sick."
"You must miss her," said poor Harrie, trembling; she was very weak yet.
The Doctor knocked away the cricket, folded his wife's two shadowy
hands into his own, and said:—
"Harrie we have no strength to waste, either of us, upon a scene; but I
am sorry, and I love you."
She broke all down at that, and, dear me! they almost had a scene in
spite of themselves. For O, she had always known what a little goose she
was; and Pauline never meant any harm, and how handsome she was, you
know! only she didn't have three babies to look after, nor a snubbed
nose either, and the sachet powder was only American, and the very
servants knew, and, O Myron! she had wanted to be dead so long, and
"Harrie!" said the Doctor, at his wit's end, "this will never do in the
world. I believe—I declare!—Miss Hannah!—I believe I must send you to
"And then I'm SUCH a little skeleton!" finished Harrie, royally, with a
Dr. Sharpe gathered the little skeleton all into a heap in his arms,—it
was a very funny heap, by the way, but that doesn't matter,—and to the
best of my knowledge and belief he cried just about as hard as she did.