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The Ring Fetter.
"At any rate," sighed Hitty, on the breath of a long-drawn sob, "nobody else ever loved me, if I am Judge Hyde's daughter."
So Mrs. Perkins went away, and declared that things had gone too far to be prevented; and Abner Dimock came on her retreating steps, and Hitty forgot everything but that he loved her; and the next week they were married.
Here, by every law of custom, ought my weary pen to fall flat and refuse its office; for it is here that the fate of every heroine culminates. For what are women born but to be married? Old maids are excrescences in the social system, -disagreeable utilities,-persons who have failed to fulfil their destiny,— and of whom it should have been said, rather than of ghosts, that they are always in the wrong. But life, with pertinacious facts, is too apt to transcend custom and the usage of novel-writers; and though the one brings a woman's legal existence to an end when she merges her independence in that of a man, and the other curtails her historic existence at the same point, because the novelist's catechism hath for its preface this creed, -"The chief end of woman is to get married"; still, neither law nor novelists altogether displace this same persistent fact, and a woman lives, in all capacities of suffering and happiness, not only her wonted, but a double life, when legally and religiously she binds herself with bond and vow to another soul.
Happy would it have been for Hitty Hyde, if with the legal fiction had chimed the actual existent fact!-happy indeed for Abner Dimock's wife to have laid her new joy down at the altar, and been carried to sleep by her mother under the mulleins and golden-rods on Greenfield Hill! Scarce was the allotted period of rapture past half its term, scarce had she learned to phrase the tender words aloud that her heart beat and choked with, before Abner Dimock began to tire of his incumbrance, and to invent plans and excuses for absence; for he dared not openly declare as yet that he left his
patient, innocent wife for such scenes of vice and reckless dissipation as she had not even dreamed could exist.
Yet for week after week he lingered away from Greenfield; even months rolled by, and, except for rare and brief visits home, Hitty saw no more of her lapsed into her old solitude, varied only husband than if he were not hers. She Keery, who had lifted up her voice by the mutterings and grumblings of old against Hitty's marriage with more noise though she still staid by her old home and less effect than Mrs. Perkins, and, general and her mistress in particular and haunts, revenged herself on fate in by a continual course of sulking, all the time hiding under this general quarrel with life a heart that ached with the purest tenderness and pity. So some people are made, like chestnuts; one gets so scratched and wounded in the mere attempt to get at the kernel within, that it does not suffer less from wanting their becomes matter of question whether one Yet Hitty Dimock had too little love givaffection than from trying to obtain it. en her to throw away even Keery's habit of kindness to her, and bore with her sustained, it is true, by a hope that now snaps and snarls as meekly as a saint,began to solace and to occupy her, and to raise in her oppressed soul some glimmer that she might yet regain her husband's of a bright possibility, a faint expectation love, a passion which she began in her sedied out. Still, Hitty, out of her meek, cret heart to fear had found its limit and self-distrusting spirit, never blamed Abner Dimock for his absence or his coldness; rather, with the divine unselfishness that such women manifest, did she blame herself for having linked his handsome and athletic prime with her faded age, and struggle daily with the morbid conscience that accused her of having for gotten his best good in the indulgence of her own selfish ends of happiness. She still thought, "He is so good to me!" still idealized the villain to a hero, and, like her kind, predestined to be the prey and the accusing angel of such men, prayed
for and adored her husband as if he had been the best and tenderest of gentlemen. Providence has its mysteries; but if there be one that taxes faith and staggers patience more than another, it is the long misery that makes a good woman cringe and writhe and agonize in silence under the utter rule and life-long sovereignty of a bad man. Perhaps such women do not suffer as we fancy; for after much trial every woman learns that it is possible to love where neither respect nor admiration can find foothold,—that it even becomes necessary to love some men, as the angels love us all, from an untroubled height of pity and tenderness, that, while it sees and condemns the sin and folly and uncleanness of its object, yet broods over it with an all-shielding devotion, laboring and beseeching and waiting for its regeneration, upheld above the depths of suffering and regret by the immortal power of a love so fervent, so pure, so self-forgetting, that it will be a millstone about the necks that disregard its tender clasping now, to sink them into a bottomless abyss in the day of the Lord.
Now had one long and not unhappy autumn, a lingering winter, a desolate spring, a weary summer, passed away, and from an all-unconscious and protracted wrestling with death Hitty Dimock awoke to find her hope fulfilled,— fair baby nestled on her arm, and her husband, not all-insensible, smiling beside her.
It is true, that, had she died then, Abner Dimock would have regretted her death; for, by certain provisions of her father's will, in case of her death, the real estate, otherwise at her own disposal, became a trust for her child or children, and such a contingency ill suited Mr. Dimock's plans. So long as Hitty held a rood of land or a coin of silver at her own disposal, it was also at his; but trustees are not women, happily for the world at large, and the contemplation of that fact brought Hitty Hyde's husband into a state of mind well fitted to give him real joy at her recovery.
So, for a little while, the sun shone on this bare New England hill-side, into this
grim old house. Care and kindness were lavished on the delicate woman, who would scarce have needed either in her present delight; every luxury that could add to her slowly increasing strength, every attention that could quiet her fluttering and unstrung nerves, was showered on her, and for a time her brightest hopes seemed all to have found fruition.
As she recovered and was restored to strength, of course these cares ceased. But now the new instincts of motherhood absorbed her, and, brooding over the rosy child that was her own, caressing its waking, or hanging above its sleep, she scarce noted that her husband's absences from home grew more and more frequent, that strange visitors asked for him, that he came home at midnight oftener than at dusk. Nor was it till her child was near a year old that Hitty discovered her husband's old and rewakened propensity,― that Abner Dimock came home drunk,— not drunk as many men are, foolish and helpless, mere beasts of the field, who know nothing and care for nothing but the filling of their insatiable appetite;this man's nature was too hard, too iron in its moulding, to give way to temporary imbecility; liquor made him savage, fierce, brutal, excited his fiendish temper to its height, nerved his muscular system, inflamed his brain, and gave him the aspect of a devil; and in such guise he entered his wife's peaceful Eden, where she brooded and cooed over her child's slumbers, with one gripe of his hard hand lifted her from her chair, kicked the cradle before him, and, with an awful though muttered oath, thrust mother and child into the entry, locked the door upon them, and fell upon the bed to sleep away his carouse.
Here was an undeniable fact before Hitty Dimock, one she could no way evade or gloss over; no gradual lesson, no shadow of foreboding, preluded the revelation; her husband was unmistakably, savagely drunk. She did not sit down and cry;-drearily she gathered her baby in her arms, hushed it to sleep with kisses, passed down into the kitchen, woke up the brands of the ash-hidden
fire to a flame, laid on more wood, and, dragging old Keery's rush-bottomed chair in front of the blaze, held her baby in her arms till morning broke, careless of anything without or within but her child's sleep and her husband's drunkenness. Long and sadly in that desolate night did she revolve this new misery in her mind; the fact was face to face, and must be provided for,—but how to do it? What could she do, poor weak woman, even to conceal this disgrace, much more to check it? Long since she had discovered that between her and her husband there was no community of tastes or interests; he never talked to her, he never read to her, she did not know that he read at all; the garden he disliked as a useless trouble; he would not drive, except such a gay horse that Hitty dared not risk her neck behind it, and felt a shudder of fear assail her whenever his gig left the door; neither did he care for his child. Nothing at home could keep him from his pursuits; that she well knew; and, hopeful as she tried to be, the future spread out far away in misty horror and dread. What might not become of her boy, with such a father's influence? was her first thought; nay, who could tell but in some fury of drink he might kill or maim him? A chill of horror crept over Hitty at the thought, and then, what had not she to dread? Oh, for some loophole of escape, some way to fly, some refuge for her baby's innocent life! No, no,no! She was his wife; she had married him; she had vowed to love and honor and obey,-vow of fearful import now, though uttered in all pureness and truth, as to a man who owned her whole heart! Love him!—that was not the dread; love was as much her life as her breath was; she knew no interval of loving for the brute fiend who mocked her with the name of husband; no change or chance could alienate her divine tenderness, even as the pitiful blue sky above hangs stainless over reeking battle-fields and pest-smitten cities, piercing with its sad and holy star-eyes down into the hellish orgies of men, untouched and unchanged
by just or unjust, forever shining and forever pure. But honor him! could that be done? What respect or trust was it possible to keep for a self-degraded man like that? And where honor goes down, obedience is sucked into the vortex, and the wreck flies far over the lonely sea, historic and prophetic to ship and shore.
No! there was nothing to do! her vow was taken, past the power of man to break; nothing now remained but endurPerhaps another woman, with a strong will and vivid intellect, might have set herself to work, backed by that very vow that defied poor Hitty, and, by sheer resolution, have dragged her husband up from the gulf and saved him, though as by fire; or a more buoyant and younger wife might have passed it by as a first offence, hopeful of its being also the only one. But an instinctive knowledge of the man bereft Hitty of any such hope; she knew it was not the first time; from his own revelations and penitent confessions while she was yet free, she knew he had sinned as well as suffered, and the past augured the future. Nothing was left her, she could not escape, she must shut her eyes and her mouth, and only keep out of his way as far as she could. So she clasped her child more tightly, and, closing her heavy eyes, rocked back and forth till the half-waked boy slept again; and there old Keery found her mistress, in the morning, white as the cold drifts without, and a depth of settled agony in her quiet eyes that dimmed the old woman's only to look at.
Neither spoke; nor when her husband strode into the breakfast-room and took his usual place, sober enough, but scarcely regretful of the over-night development, did any word of reproach or allusion pass the wife's white lips. A stranger would have thought her careless and cold. Abner Dimock knew that she was heartbroken; but what was that to him? Women live for years without that organ; and while she lived, so long as a cent remained of the Hyde estate, what was it to him if she pined away? She could not leave him; she was utterly in his power;
she was his,-like his boots, his gun, his dog; and till he should tire of her and fling her into some lonely chamber to waste and die, she was bound to serve him; he was safe.
And she offered no sort of barrier to his full indulgence of his will to drink. Had she lifted one of her slender fingers in warning, or given him a look of reproachful meaning, or uttered one cry of entreaty, at least the conscience within him might have visited him with a temporary shame, and restrained the raging propensity for a longer interval; but seeing her apparent apathy, knowing how timid and unresisting was her nature, that nothing on earth will lie still and be trodden on but a woman, Abner Dimock rioted and revelled to his full pleasure, while all his pale and speechless wife could do was to watch with fearful eyes and straining ears for his coming, and slink out of the way with her child, lest both should be beaten as well as cursed; for faithful old Keery, once daring to face him with a volley of reproaches from her shrill tongue, was levelled to the floor by a blow from his rapid hand, and bore bruises for weeks that warned her from interference. Not long, however, was there danger of her meddling. When the baby was a year and a half old, Keery, in her out-door labors, - now grown burdensome enough, since Mr. Dimock neither worked himself nor allowed a man on the premises,-Keery took a heavy cold, and, worn out with a life of hard work, sank into rest quickly, her last act of life being to draw Hitty's face down to her own, wrinkled and wan as it was, scarce so old in expression as her mistress's, and with one long kiss and sob speak the foreboding and anxious farewell she could not utter.
"Only you now!" whispered Hitty to her child, as Keery's peaceful, shrouded face was hidden under the coffin-lid and carried away to Greenfield Hill. Pitiful whisper! happily all-unmeaning to the child, but full of desolation to the mother, floating with but one tiny plank amid the wild wrecks of a midnight ocean, and
clinging as only the desperate can cling to this vague chance of life.
A rough, half-crazed girl, brought from the alms-house, now did the drudgery of the family. Abner Dimock had grown penurious, and not one cent of money was given for comfort in that house, scarce for need. The girl was stupid and rude, but she worked for her board, - recommendation enough in Mr. Dimock's eyes; and so hard work was added to the other burdens loaded upon his silent wife. And soon came another, all-mysterious, but from its very mystery a deeper fear. Abner Dimock began to stay at home, to be visited at late hours by one or two men whose faces were full of evil and daring; and when, in the dead of the long nights, Hitty woke from her broken and feverish sleep, it was to hear muffled sounds from the cellar below, never heard there before; and once, wrapping a shawl about her, she stole down the stairways with bare feet, and saw streams of red light through the chinks of the cellar-door, and heard the ring of metal, and muttered oaths, all carefully dulled by such devices as kept the sounds from chance passers in the street, though vain as far as the inhabitants of the house itself were concerned. Trembling and cold, she stole back to her bed, full of doubts and fears, neither of which she dared whisper to any one, or would have dared, had she possessed a single friend to whom she could speak. Troubles thickened fast over Hitty; her husband was always at home now, and rarely sober; the relief his absences had been was denied her entirely; and in some sunny corner of the uninhabited rooms up-stairs she spent her days, toiling at such sewing as was needful, and silent as the dead, save as her life appealed to God from the ground, and called down the curse of Cain upon a head she would have shielded from evil with her own life.
Keen human legislation! sightless justice of men!-one drunken wretch smites another in a midnight brawl, and sends a soul to its account with one sharp shudder of passion and despair, and the mad
dened creature that remains on earth
suffers the penalty of the law. Every sense sobered from its reeling fury, weeks of terrible expectation heaped upon the cringing soul, and, in full consciousness, that murderer is strangled before men and angels, because he was drunk !—necessary enough, one perceives, to the good of society, which thereby loses two worse than useless members; but what, in the name of God's justice, should His vicegerent, law, visit upon the man who wrings another life away by slow tortures, and torments heart and soul and flesh for lingering years, where the victim is passive and tenacious, and dies only after long-drawn anguish that might fill the cup of a hundred sudden deaths? Yet what escapes the vicegerent shall the King himself visit and judge. "For He cometh! He cometh to judge the earth; with righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity."
Six months passed after Keery's death, and now from the heights of Greenfield and her sunny window Hitty Dimock's white face looked out upon a landscape of sudden glory; for October, the goldbringer, had come, pouring splendor over the earth, and far and wide the forests blazed; scarlet and green maples, with erect heads, sentinelled the street, gay lifeguards of autumn; through dark green cedars the crimson creeper threaded its sprays of blood-red; birches, gilded to their tops, swayed to every wind, and drooped their graceful boughs earthward to shower the mossy sward with glittering leaves; heavy oaks turned purple-crimson through their wide-spread boughs; and the stately chestnuts, with foliage of tawny yellow, opened wide their stinging husks to let the nuts fall for squirrel and bluejay. Splendid sadness clothed all the world, opal-hued mists wandered up and down the valleys or lingered about the undefined horizon, and the leaf-scented south wind sighed in the still noon with foreboding gentleness.
One day, Abner Dimock was gone, and Hitty stole down to the garden-door with her little child, now just trying to
walk, that he might have a little play on the green turf, and she cool her hot eyes and lips in the air. As she sat there watching the pretty clumsiness of her boy, and springing forward to intercept his falls, the influence of sun and air, the playful joy of the child, the soothing stillness of all Nature, stole into her heart till it dreamed a dream of hope. Perhaps the budding blossom of promise might become floral and fruitful; perhaps her child might yet atone for the agony of the past; -a time might come when she should sit in that door, whitehaired and trembling with age, but as peaceful as the autumn day, watching the sports of his children, while his strong arm sustained her into the valley of shadow, and his tender eyes lit the way.
As she sat dreaming, suddenly a figure intercepted the sunshine, and, looking up, she saw Abner Dimock's father, the elder Abner, entering the little wicketgate of the garden. A strange, tottering old figure, his nose and chin grimacing at each other, his bleared eyes telling unmistakable truths of cider-brandy and New England rum, his scant locks of white lying in contusion over his wrinkled forehead and cheeks, his whole air squalid, hopeless, and degraded, — not so much by the poverty of vice as by its demoralizing stamp penetrating from the inner to the outer man, and levelling it even below the plane of brutes that perish.
"Good-day! good-day!" said he to his son's wife, in a squeaking, tremulous tone, that drove the child to his mother's arms,-"Abner to home?"