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The Day of Their Wedding
By William Dean Howells, 1895
WHEN the train slowed before drawing into the station at Fitchburg, Sister Althea took up her bag from the floor, and began to collect her paper parcels into her lap, as if she were going to leave the car. Then she sat gripping the bag to her side and staring out into the night, blotched everywhere with the city lights and the railway signals--red and green and orange. From time to time she looked round over her shoulder into the car, up and down the aisle, and again set her face towards the window, and held it so rigidly, to keep herself from turning any more, that it hurt her neck.
The car was a day-coach on a night train, and most of the few passengers were taking preparations for leaving it. An old gentleman in the seat across the aisle, whom she had asked more than once whether the train was sure to stop at Fitchburg, was already buttoned up in a light overcoat, which he had the effect of wearing in compliance with charges against exposing himself to the night air. He sat humming to himself while he held fast an umbrella and a bundle such as one married sister might send to another by their father; it was in several sections of wrapping-paper, and was tied with tape. He leaned over towards Sister Althea, and asked, benevolently, "Was you expecting to meet friends in Fitchburg?"
Sister Althea started and looked round. He repeated the question, and she gasped out, "Nay; I am not expecting friends to meet me." She had framed her reply with a certain mechanical exactness which he seemed to feel.
"Oh! ah! From the Family at Yardley, I presume?"
Sister Althea faltered a moment before she answered, "Yee."
She let her head droop forward a little, and with her Shaker bonnet slanting downward over her deeply hidden face she looked like a toucan, except for the gayety of color with which nature mocks that strange bird's grotesqueness. She was in Shaker drabs as to her prim gown, and her shawl crossed fichuwise upon her breast; her huge bonnet was covered with a dove-colored satin. To the eye that could not catch a glimpse of her face, or rightly measure her figure as she sat dejected for the moment following her speech, she must have looked little and old.
The friendly person in the seat opposite began humming to himself again. He stood up before the train halted, and he said to Sister Althea, as he turned to leave the car, "Well, I wish you good-evening."
"Good-evening," said Sister Aithea, faintly; and now, when the train stopped at last, and the noises of the station began to make themselves heard outside, with the bray of a supper-gong above all, she jumped to her feet and started into the aisle as if she were going to leave the car too. She even made some steps towards the door; then she came back, and, after a moment's hesitation, she sat down again, and remained as motionless as before.
People came and took places, and arranged their wraps, and put their parcels into the racks, and settled themselves for their journey. Among the rest a woman came in, followed by a man with a child. When he had put the child in the seat beside her, he stood talking with her till she drove him away. She said she did not want him to get off after the cars began to move. He laughed and kissed her, and after he had got almost to the door he came back and kissed her again. Sister Althea trembled at each kiss. When the man lifted the little one and kissed it, and put it down again on the seat beside its mother, the tears came into her eyes.
"Well, give my love to all the folks!" He called back from the door.
"Yes, yes!" said the woman. "Do get off, quick!"
He laughed again, and in looking back from the door he struck against a young man who was coming in. "Oh, excuse me!" he said, and went out while the young man came forward. He looked from side to side keenly, and then, with a smile that flashed through Sister Althea's tears, he came swiftly down the aisle to where she sat, near the end of the car.
"Well, well!" he cried, and he stood a moment with his hands upon the seat-backs, looking down at her where she sat, helpless to move her bag and parcels from her side. "A'n't you going to let me set with you, Althea? A'n't you going to look round and let me see if it's really you? First, I didn't know but it was Eldress Susan."
"'Sh!" said Sister Althea, and she turned up towards him the deep tunnel of her bonnet, with her young face at the bottom of it, and clutched her parcels into her lap.
He swung her bag to the floor, and let himself sink easily into the seat, and stretched his arm along the top behind her. "Oh, I guess she won't hear us," said the young man. "Did you know me when I came into the car? I don't believe you did!" He laughed, and his eyes shone. They were gay blue eyes, and his hair, now that he took his soft hat off, had glints of gold in the dun tone that the close shingling of the barber gave it. His face was clean shaven and boyishly handsome. He was dressed in a new suit of diagonals which betrayed the clothing-store; but his figure was not vulgar, though his hands, thrusting out of the coat-sleeves without the shirt-cuffs that might have partly hidden them, were large and red, and rough with work. "I saw you through the window as I came along the platform outside, and I wanted to stop and watch you. But you had your head down, as if you wa'n't feeling any too bright, and I hurried right in. I thought you would be frightened if I didn't come in as soon as the cars stopped. But I was waiting here so long expecting the train that I forgot to get my bag checked till the last minute, and I had to run and do it after you got in. That's what kept me. Did you think I wa'n't going to be here, after all?" He let his arm drop from the seat-top, and he sought with his the little hand lying weak on the seat between them. It closed upon his fingers at their touch, and then tried to free itself, and then trembled and remained quiet. "Oh, I guess I did frighten you," he murmured, fondly.
"Hush! Yee," said Althea. "But I knew you would be sure to be here. I wasn't afraid, but I was--scared a little. I was anxious. When you came in I could see it was you, but you looked so strange." She cast a glance up and down the car.
"Don't you like it?" he asked, with a smile of innocent pride and a downward look at his clothes.
"Yee, yee," she said. "But, Lorenzo, do you think--do you think you had ought to--sit in the same seat with me--so close? Won't folks--"
Lorenzo laughed securely. "Think I ought to set across the aisle, same as in meeting? I guess folks won't mind us much." In fact, in the going and coming and settling in place no one seemed to notice them. "If they do, they'll think I'm just your brother or some relation. It's this old bonnet, if anything, that will make them look. I thought Friend Ella Shewall was going to lend you a hat."
"Yee, she was. But I didn't get to her house till it was almost time for the cars, and then we had to just race to the depot. I've got the hat here in this paper, and that's a sack in this bundle. I hadn't time to put it on, either. I was almost ready to drop when I reached Friend Ella's." He peered into the depths of the bonnet she turned towards him, and she added: "I ran nearly the whole way from Harshire to the Junction."
"Yee. I couldn't get out of the house without some of the Family seeing me before dusk; and if they had I should have died. I was so ashamed, Lorenzo, and I felt so--I can't tell you! I kept close to the walls and in the woods all I could, and I had this bag--"
Lorenzo stooped forward and lifted the bag from the floor. "You carried that all the way from Harshire to the Junction?"
"I didn't feel it. It wasn't the bag that was so heavy. Oh, Lorenzo, do you think we're doing right?"
"I know we are! Why, Althea, it's what everybody does in the world-outside."
"In the world-outside, yee."
"Well, we're in the world-outside, ain't we?"
"Yee, I presume we are. We are going to be of the earthly order, Lorenzo; we are going to give up the angelic life! Have you thought enough of it, Lorenzo? Do you think you have? Because if you haven't--"
"Why, haven't we both thought of it till we couldn't think any more? What did Friend Ella Shewall say? Didn't she say that we ought to take our feelin' for each other as a sign from spirit-land that we were meant for each other from all eternity?"
"Yee; but she isn't living with her own husband; she's trying to get a divorce from him, and she used to be so fond of him."
"Well, then, the signs failed in her case--"
"Oh, don't laugh at it, Lorenzo! If they failed in ours, what should we have? Am I worth all you're risking for me in this world and the next? Think of it, Lorenzo! I can get out at the next stopping-place and go back to the Family; I know they'll let me; and you-- Think of it! Am I worth it?" She spoke in a low, intense whisper.
"Am I?" retorted the young man, lightly.
"Oh yee! You are! I'd go through it all for you."
"Then I guess that settles it."
"Nay, nay; it doesn't! I'm wicked, and that's why I feel so. You don't know how bad I am. I deceived! It was all right for you, for you left the Family open and above-board, and you told the Trustees you were going, and you made them give back your proerty and everything; but I stole away like a thief in the night; and I made Friend Ella take part in my deceit; and, Lorenzo, I don't believe there's going to be any end to it. I've told two lies already, here in this very car--just before it stopped. There was a man asked me whether I expected to meet friends at Fitchburg, and I said nay; and he asked me if I wasn't from the Family at Yardley, and I said yee, I was, and--"
"He no business to asked you anything," said Lorenzo, hotly, "and I d' know as you can call it lyin', anyway. I a'n't friends in the sense he meant, and Yardley and Harshire, it's almost the same thing, and it don't matter which Family you come from, so you're out of it."
"Do you think so, Lorenzo?"
"Yee, I do. And now look here, Althea; you're nervous, and you can't see things in the true light, and so everything looks wrong to you. We're doing what we have a perfect right to do, and what everybody in the world-outside does, as I said before. If you had to steal away, as you call it, from the Family, whose fault was it? 'Twa'n't yours. You did it, if anything, to save their fellin's, didn't you?"
"Yee, I presume so."
"Don't you know you did? Now I want you to try and look at it in the light of the world-outside; for that's all the light we've got now, or that we're going to have."
A little troubled sigh exhaled from the depths of the bonnet, and Lorenzo threw himself back in despair. "Oh, well, if that's the way you're goin' to feel about it."
"Nay, nay, Lorenzo! I'm not going to. I shall be all right in a minute. I'm just nervous, that's all. I think just as you do about it. Wasn't I perfectly willing and glad to do it?"
"I guess you wa'n't half so willing nor half so glad as I was," said the young man, and now he drooped towards her again. "And, as you say, I had the easiest part of it, too, as far forth as getting away from the Family went. But, Althea," he added, with a touch of pride, "I haven't had a very easy time since I've been in the world-outside. 'Ta'n't but a few days, but it seems as if it was years, worrying about you all the while, and trying to sell my lot in Fitchburg, and look up something for me to do when we get back."
"Yee, we have got to think of that now, I suppose," said Althea. "In the Family it came without our thinking."
"Yee, too many things came there without our thinking,"said Lorenzo, resentfully. "Not that I want to talk against the Family. I presume I feel just as you do about that. Our own fathers and mothers couldn't have been better to us. But if we was to have each other, we had to leave 'em. There wa'n't any two ways about it. And I guess I do like to think for myself, even of my bread and butter. And I guess I've arranged for all that. I'm going into the drug business with Friend Nason."
"That used to come and buy our herbs at Harshire?"
Lorenzo nodded. "It's just the place for me. He's goin' to put a new remedy on the market for lung difficulty--Pulmine, he calls it--and he wants me, because I know about herbs; it's going to be purely vegetable. He's bought my lot, too, and he's advanced me a hundred dollars on it." The young fellow leaned a little nearer and tapped his breast-pocket. "I've got it with me! And I've seen the nicest little set of rooms for us to go to house-keeping in when we get back. Friend Nason calls it a flat; and I guess when you see that kitchen, Althea! Friend Nason says it's just as well we're going to Saratoga, for we sha'n't have to get a license in York state; and if it had to be in Fitchburg, and we was to settle down there, right from the Family, it might make talk. But if we come back just like anybody else from the world-outside it'll all blow over before anybody notices. He wouldn't want it to get into the newspapers any more than we would or the Family would."