That Akers Girl.
Miss Cabell had just finished breakfast. A tall mulatto in a turban brought in a pan of hot water and a supply of white towels, and Miss Cabell proceeded, after the custom of housewives in Delaware, to wash the dainty cups and spoons with which she and her brother had sipped their coffee. The sun shone brightly into the little breakfast-room, though the fields stretching down to the bay were white with frost, and a keen wind writhed and twisted the leafless branches of the trees upon the lawn.
It was an octagon room: six of its sides were lined with books, a fire burned in the low grate in the seventh, and in the last a wide window opened; beyond were the frost, the driving wind, and the bay, which stretched out desolate and stormy as the sea.
Anybody with penetration could know at a glance that this cozy exquisitely-neat room belonged to middle-aged single people. No boys had ever tramped over the great skin of the California grizzly which lay before the fire—Miss Cabell always sat with her feet at one side of it; no baby fingers dimmed the gloss upon the old mahogany tables, or disturbed the even piles of papers on the Doctor’s desk. Miss Cabell herself had that air of leisurely uninterested calm, which is impossible to a matron. She was a woman of forty, with a plump, erect, tightly-laced figure, and a coil of fair colorless hair above a fair and colorless face. She finished her task, washed her white fingers, and watched Zoar brush half a dozen crumbs from the floor.
“Miss Cecelia Blynn is coming to spend a few days with me, brother,” she said. “I suppose you will not allow her to take her meals in this sanctum?”
“No. Lay the table in the dining-room, Zoar. You can bring me something on a tray here.”
Miss Cabell laughed. “Poor Cecelia! There are worse people in Kent County. I really felt we ought to ask her. She has been twice round visiting this year. The Hartmans had her in preserving-time, and the Foulkes when they were making Janey’s clothes for the wedding, and I really must get my quilts out of the frame. Besides, you are bidden to entertain the widow and children.”
“Entertain anybody you please, Jane. But Miss Cecelia is such a palpable fraud that she irritates me like the rouged faces or sham jewelry. Why need she keep up this farce of being a homeless orphan visiting here friends? Why can’t she take money for her work, like any honest woman?”
Miss Cabell was provoked, for she foresaw Cecelia’s stay would be short, and how should she finish the quilting? She was silent a moment, watching the Doctor’s back and iron-gray hair as he bent over his writing.
“Well,” she said, judicially, “I suppose Cecelia is a humbug; anybody can see that. But there are other frauds in this village, which your eyes are not keen enough to discover.”
The Doctor gave the inarticulate grunt, half assenting and half patient, with which he usually replied to his sister’s flood of talk. His pen went on—scratch, scratch. She hesitated, not sure that he heard her. He must hear her! This was a more important matter than Janey Foulke’s wedding or Zoar’s shortcomings, which usually formed the staple of her conversations.
“You seem perfectly blind, brother, to the fact that Johnny is completely infatuated with that Akers girl.”
The Doctor directed his letter, sealed it, and laid it aside. As he drew up the paper to begin another, he said absently:
“Johnny infatuated again? He has been madly in love since he was nine years old.”
“Very likely; but it was always with his equals. Now, these Akerses—I really think, Gilbert, that, as you promised poor brother William, on his death-bed, to be a father to his son, you should concern yourself in some degree about his interests.”
Doctor Cabell gathered up his letters and rose. His saw that there was a little heat on his usually pale quiet face.
“It is for John to decide whether I have filled his father’s place, Jane,” he said; “not for me or you.”
“But this Akers girl—”
“You know I will not listen to village gossip. Mrs. Akers was a woman whom every man of right feeling would respect and honor. Now that she is dead, and her daughter is left alone and unprotected in the world, with no fault but her youth and beauty, no man would throw stones at her. What women would do—”
He shrugged his shoulders and paused significantly.
The angry tears rose to Jane’s light eyes. “Very well, Gilbert! If you choose to encourage Johnny to marry that girl, you may bring her home to be mistress here. I have spent six years in this stupid town, solely to make you comfortable. I had a delightful home at the Gurney House, in Wilmington, and I should be only too glad to go back there, heaven knows. Bring her here as soon as you like.”
The Doctor laughed, the quizzical twinkle coming back to his eyes.
“Well, well, Janey, it will be some time before you go back to Gurney House. You have threatened it every week for six years, you know.” He put on his fur cap, buttoned his coat, and went out. But, as he waited in the hall until his horse was brought round, he glanced about him with sparkling eyes, as eager and impatient as when he was a boy.
“‘Bring her home’? ‘To be mistress here’?” he said, half aloud. Then his face lowered, as if he suddenly recognized his own folly, and, mounting his horse, he rode quickly away.
Meanwhile, Miss Cecelia Blynn had arrived, and in a few minutes she and her hostess were seated before the quilting-frame—thread, needles, and wax in readiness. She was a little woman, with long black spiral ringlets on either side of her face, and she had black eyes that had grown keen computing in each house how many days she could extend her “visit,” and whether the board and old gowns given to her would pay for her work. She was a notable worker: her fingers moved as fast as her tongue.
“Oh, there can be no doubt,” she was saying, “that your nephew is engaged to Antonia Akers. Every day, a bouquet of hot-house flowers is sent up there, with Mr. John Cabell’s card; and three times last week he serenaded her with his guitar.”
“If Johnny Cabell marries her, it will be against the consent of his family,” said Jane, sharply. “I authorize you to say so, Ceely. A pretty how-dy’-do! The Cabells are the oldest family in this Hundred; and the Akerses—who are the Akerses?”
“Goodness knows!—the chalk, please, Miss Jane. I remember when Mrs. Akers come to town with this girl, a lank creature of fourteen. The widow was dressed in deep mourning. She took Halston’s house, and lived there till she died, last year. Very quiet—too quiet. There’s always a mystery about people that hold themselves aloof; and, where there’s a mystery, there’s something shameful, you may depend. Why should the girl stay alone in the house now? Nobody there but that old negro woman. She was advised by the rector—and everybody, in fact—to take boarding at Mrs. Rice’s. I’m sure I told her to do it. But no: she must have her own way. ’Tisn’t safe nor proper.”
“Well, I don’t know, Ceely,” said Miss Jane, who was not malicious at the bottom of her cool selfish heart. “The girl is probably attached to the house where she lived with her mother, naturally—and to the old servant. A woman couldn’t live alone in that way, in a city like Wilmington; but, in this village, it’s different. By the way, I’m thinking of going back to Wilmington—the Gurney House is a most fashionable resort now. I do so long for society!”
“Indeed and you must, Miss Jane—you who adorned it so. Oh, I’ve heard! Mrs. Foulke told me about Major Carter and plenty of others, who—” etc., etc.
While Miss Jane was being thus patted and flattered into good humor, her nephew, John Cabell, was walking down the road which lead to the Akers house, with its owner. He was a tall and perfectly well-dressed man, with Greek features, dazzling teeth, and sparkling blue eyes. Nobody ever saw him without being impressed with his singular beauty and faultless dress: nobody was ever impressed by him any further. If you knew him for twenty years, you would still only think of his wonderful eyes or the fit of his gloves. An odd effect of the flaccid nature of the man was that the whole village called him Johnny—never John nor Jack.
The small slight girl, clad in deep black, who walked beside him, on the contrary, would make at first sight a sudden deep mark on your mind. You must love or hate her; you could not be indifferent to her.
“There, now!” said Johnny, petulantly, gloom settling in his noble features, “there’s your house, and I have told you nothing of all I wanted to say. I suppose you won’t ask me to come in?”
“No, Johnny; I receive no visitors, since my mother’s death.”
“It’s very hard on me. I never can speak a word to you, unless I catch you going home like this; and walking in the rain or shivering cold, as it is to-day, one appears to such disadvantage!”
“You never do that, Johnny,” she said, with a furtive smile.
“Nonsense! I never could see my good looks that people talk of,” said the young fellow, anxiously. “I get so tired of the same face in the glass. But never mind me, Antonia. If I could only have time to talk to you, I could explain—”
“What I want you to do. I know you don’t care for me, but you might come to it in time. I’ve lots of couples who cared nothing for each other at first, that, by dint of sitting at the same table and consulting about their clothes and the butcher’s bills and such like for years, come to be very fond and comfortable together. No! stop—don’t speak yet, Antonia. It seems this way to me: You’re pretty lonely now; you refuse to visit any of the young folks, and discourage them from coming to your hours; and you live there alone with Sinty; and it’s queer, you know—and folks thinks it’s queer, and they—they—”
“They are talking of me?” cried Antonia, stopping short in the road. Her dark eyes dilated with a sudden terror, and she caught her breath sharply. She looked so small and childish and forlorn, that Johnny’s voice grew hoarse with his excitement.
“You know what tongues some scandal-mongers here have. But what need it matter? I love you. Great heavens, I wish I could tell you how I love you! I haven’t words, Antonia. And I’m my own master: I can marry when I choose. My father left me a good income. The Cabells have connections in the best society in Wilmington. We’ll live there, and you shall be like a queen in the house. Nobody would dare to suspect you there.”
She held out both hands to him.
“You’re a good soul, Johnny,” she said.
“Then you will come?” But his countenance fell a little, for what young fellow with the form of Hercules and the features of Antinous likes to be called “a good soul”?
She looked at him without speaking, for a minute, and then shook her head slowly.
“No, I could not wrong you so much. But, Johnny—”
“What is it?” He tried to draw her nearer. His own eyes were full of tears; his heart was torn with her distress. “What is wrong? Let me help you. I’ll give my life to you. You think, because I’ve been a little fickle— But I’ll never look at another girl now—”
“Yes, you will. You’ll love some nice girl—some woman that has no shame upon her—and be happy. But never suspect me, Johnny—that’s all I ask. Do you stand my friend, no matter what you hear, nor what the proof is against me?”
She wrung her hands, sobbing, as she spoke, and then, turning, ran swiftly into the garden before her house, and disappeared in the thick shrubbery.
Johnny stood irresolute a few minutes, then he struck across the fields, in the direction to intercept Doctor Cabell on his rounds. Had he not always carried his troubles to his uncle?
“I’ll tell him the whole story,” he thought. “He’ll straighten it out and make her marry me!”
The Akers house, as it was called in the village, lay a mile beyond the suburbs, in a secluded valley. A garden and orchard, with a couple of fields, belonged to the house. It was a solitary place, but, in this quiet neighborhood, it was regarded as a perfectly safe abode for the young girl and her old nurse, until her anxiety to prevent visits from any of her mother’s old friends had aroused suspicion and the storm of gossip which swept through the village. These people were not, at heart, unkind folk; but, like most small communities, they suffered from a famine of ideas, and, when a subject for conversation came in their way, they tore and worried it as hungry dogs would a bone.
Antonia, who before her mother’s death had been a frank friendly little girl, had, in the two years that had elapsed, grown silent and reticent. She had long ceased to enter a house in the village. She had been mysteriously absent twice, with Sinty, giving no account of herself on her return. All this, with Johnny’s hopeless passion for her, was a savory dish of gossip for the village.
About sunset of the day on which Johnny had met Antonia, Doctor Cabell passed down the same road and pushed open the little gate leading into the garden. The Doctor, with his compact figure closely buttoned in a gray frieze coat, his resolute step, his homely features lighted by kindly quizzical eyes, was an odd contrast to that magnificent flower of youth, Johnny. He crossed the porch, and, tapping at the door, pushed it open, as he had been in the habit of doing during the years of his attendance on Mrs. Akers.
Antonia was seated on a low chair before the fire, her sewing in her hand. The Doctor had often found her there at work, for she was an industrious little girl. But now her hands had fallen on her lap, and her face was wet with tears. He came up to her quietly and laid his hand on the back of her chair.
“What is wrong, my child?”
She started up, glancing quickly, as he noticed, at a door into an inner room, which stood ajar. The old negro—Sinty—from within, closed it hastily. Antonia held out her hand, drew it back, assured him that she “was quite well, quite well! would he sit down? it was long since he had been there, and she was very glad”—growing paler with every word, with furtive terrified glances at the closed door. She broke down at last, in the middle of a sentence, and stood looking at him helplessly. He silently led her to a chair and seated himself beside her.
“You forget, Antonia, that I promised your mother to help her little girl, if ever she should call on me for help.”
“I have asked for none,” she said, in a whisper.
The Doctor did not hear her. He continued hurriedly, as if reciting a task:
“I came, to-day, not because you needed me. It is my nephew who asked my aid. He thinks I have influence with you, and—”
He stopped abruptly. Her eyes were raised slowly, and met his. Neither spoke. Then she said, as though the words were drawn from her by force:
“You have influence with me, Doctor Cabell.”
“That is very natural,” her interrupted, hastily. “I understand that. I was your mother’s friend. You regard me as a guardian, an old fatherly protector; that is natural. I do not mistake you.”
His gray eyes, full of a wordless pain, were fixed upon the childish pleading face upturned to his. She half rose and drew away from him, as if shaking off some hold upon her.
“And so you come as my guardian, to ask me to marry John Cabell?”
The Doctor rose, walked across the room, and then, coming back, leaned against the mantel.
“John has told me,” he said, in a measured voice, “that he believes you love him; that you refuse to marry him because you fancy that you would bring some trouble or injury upon him. He thinks you are lonely and morbid, and—”
“He thinks that I am the victim of the village slander, and he wants to shelter me from it,” she cried. “It is good—it is noble in Johnny!”
“He is a good honest fellow,” said the elder man, deliberately, after a moment’s silence. “He will be a kind husband. If you love him, Antonia—”
“Well? If I love him—”
“You should not fear to bring trouble to him. What is trouble, to the man whom you love?”
“I do not love John Cabell,” she said. “But I will never bring disgrace to any man. Oh, what have I said?”
For the Doctor was beside her, his eyes on fire, his voice hoarse and broken.
“You do not love him?” he cried. “Antonia, is there any hope that— I am mad! I might almost be your father! Gray hairs—and you, soft and white and sweet as a little lamb! I have told her at last! I am a fool—a fool!”
He dropped into a seat and covered his face.
Antonia’s little figure, as she stood before him, thrilled and dilated. This was not the child he knew, but a woman—airy, coquettish, triumphant.
She put out one finger and touched his head lightly.
“I see no gray hairs,” she said, simply.
He raised his head and looked at her, the question of his life on his face.
“I always have thought of you as a child,” he said, “and myself as an old man. And yet—” he stretched out his arms to her—“you are the woman I love! I did not marry in my youth, because I never cared for any woman. My life has been so long and bare! God sent you into it. Must a few years separate us?”
“I know nothing of years,” she said, with a soft little laugh.
It was not Johnny’s limp arms that clasped her, nor Johnny’s uncertain lips that met her own. For one minute, the world was full of a strong rapturous love that shut her out from all trouble. She sobbed a little, and then the tears came.
“I have been so lonely since mother died,” she said. “Sometimes I hoped you cared for me, and then I was not sure.”
“You shall never be lonely again.”
The closed door creaked. Antonia pushed him from her, and stood, dazed, looking at him and then at the door.
“Oh, I had forgotten!” she said, in hoarse whisper. “You must never speak to me again as you have done. I can never marry. I can be nothing to you—nothing!”
Doctor Cabell was a physician, as well as a lover.
“Sit down, Antonia,” he said, soothingly. “You do not know what to say. The nervous strain of these last months has been more than you could bear. Do not think nor worry any more; you are mine now.”
She stood, listening intently to him, but keeping her eyes on the door. It moved slightly.
“Go!” she cried. “Never come back—never think of me again!”
“What do you mean? What bar is there between us?” As he said this, he came gently closer, in doubt whether the girl’s reason were not actually shaken.
“There is a bar as strong as death.”
“You have said you loved me. After that, nothing will force me to give you up, unless”—a sudden startled doubt in his eyes—“another man has a prior claim on you.”
Her childish features grew rigid as she stared at him, nodding assent.
“Is this true, Antonia?”
“It is true.”
“There is someone in that room, besides Sinty. Who is it?”
“It is a man to whom I owe love and care. I try to give it to him—God knows I do! Now go—only go!”
More than once, in Doctor Cabell’s experience, he had known girls as innocent and young as Antonia to yield to some mad infatuation and marry men who afterward became their tyrants. Could the child have fallen into such a trap?
“Tell me the truth,” he said. “Let me know what I have to face.”
“No—you can do nothing; I am bound for life. Every minute you stay will only add to my load. Oh, go—go!”
She almost forced him to the door, and, without a word of farewell, closed it behind him.
Doctor Cabell’s usual prompt decision forsook him. He paced aimlessly up and down the road. Should he force the door and discover who and what it was that had mastered the girl? A man to whom she owed love? There had been unexplained absences since her mother’s death. Could any villain—
He came toward the house, resolved on forcing an entrance, when the shadow of a man crossed the curtain—a tall, thin form, walking with tottering steps. Antonia’s little figure passed across the curtain, too. She came up to him, put her arm in his to support him: he stooped, and their lips met.
Doctor Cabell, dumb to the heart, turned into the road and walked slowly homeward.
Miss Cabell’s breakfast was late, the next morning. The Doctor had made his round of early visits and returned to his study before she seated herself at the urn in the dining-room. Johnny, who lived in the village, came in for a cup of coffee, and Miss Cecelia Blynn presented herself, the tip of her nose blushing scarlet from the morning wind.
“I knew you would be late, dear Miss Jane,” she said, “and so I took a run to Emma Wood’s, to borrow her pattern of Paradise: you must have a quilt made by it. But such news! The village is done with the Akerses at last.”
“What has happened?” asked Miss Cabell, with a warning glance at Johnny, whose white hand shook as he dropped the sugar into his cup.
“Gone—bag and baggage! Antonia and old Sinty drove, early this morning, over to Canterbury, to take the train for Philadelphia. And with them—hear to this, Johnny!—with them was a man whom nobody in town ever saw before. Ike Purly, who drove them over, says he has no doubt that Antonia is engaged or married to him, from the care she gave him. The man was evidently recovering from the effects of an prolonged debauch.”
“Poor girl!” said Miss Jane, who felt she could now afford to be merciful. “Even she does not deserve to be united to an intemperate man.”
“Even she?” thundered Johnny, rising in hot wrath. “She is one of the purest and sweetest of God’s creatures!” He banged the door after him, as he went out.
Before the day was over, however, he found the storm of gossip unpleasant to face, and determined to run up to Dover, for a ball to which he had been invited. There he met Miss Gibson, whose waltzing was so famous. He married her after a week’s courtship, and they were undoubtedly the handsomest couple in Kent County.
The winter was dull for Miss Cabell. She wrote to her old friends in Wilmington that Gilbert, who had always been taciturn, had become almost dumb: that he was now wholly absorbed in his profession. “Kind enough, but totally unsympathetic.” She could not resist their entreaties to come up to the Gurney House and patronize a church bazaar, at which all the beauty and fashion of the city would appear.
Two weeks after she had gone, Doctor Cabell met Miss Blynn, one day, on the street.
“Did you know Antonia has returned?” she said. “And old Sinty? And the man? He was so weak. Ike told me he had to be carried into the house. But he cursed Antonia all the way. Gracious! what an escape Johnny made!”
Doctor Cabell sat over his fire late, that night. He knew that Antonia was in need of him and would send for him. The summons came, near morning. He entered the house just before dawn. She met him at the door, pale from long loss of sleep.
“It is too late,” was her greeting. “He is dying. No doctors have been able to help him, but you can perhaps save him pain.”
Doctor Cabell worked with his patient for hours. He was the wreck of a strong handsome man, of more than middle age. He fought death step by step with an impotent fury, cursing the Doctor, the old negress, and Antonia more than all. Only once, with a gleam of sanity, he said to her, quietly: “Poor Nony! You’ve done your duty to me, little woman!”
When at last he was dead, and Antonia’s long task was done, old Sinty carried her out and laid her unconscious in her own room.
An hour later, Doctor Cabell went to her.
“Who was this man, Antonia?” he said. “I must answer the questions that will be asked.”
“He was my father, George Akers. He deserted my mother. She heard of his death in California. After she was gone, he came back to me. He had served out a term of fifteen years in prison for manslaughter. You understand now why I—I—”
“Why you could not ‘bring disgrace on me,’ I think you said. Why, child, you brought misery worse than death: I thought you were his wife. I will go now and silence the village; afterward—”
The village was too proud and fond of Doctor Cabell to disobey his edicts. “That Akers girl” became a heroine. As to what happened afterward, Miss Cabell is the best authority:
“When I read Gilbert’s letter telling me that he was about to bring a new mistress into the house, and that mistress Antonia, I felt as if I had received a mortal blow. He assured me my home was always open to me. My home! under the rule of that Akers girl! I have visited them once, upon the most formal footing; but I am homeless. As for the Gurney House, the society there is becoming very mixed indeed, and the soups are atrocious. But it is by trials and humiliations that we reach perfection in this vale of tears!”
1. Hercules, a figure in Roman mythology, is known for his heroic endeavors and great strength; Antinous (c.111-130), Greek youth known for his beauty, was the lover of the emperor Hadrian and has come to symbolize homosexuality.
2. Biblical, Psalm 84:6, referring to the hardships of life that will only be escaped once one has died and gone to Heaven.