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- The Making of an American - 20/49 -
"They say Jacob Riis is coming home," she observed. Elisabeth knitted away furiously, her cheeks turning pink for all she made believe she did not hear.
"They say he is coming back to propose to a certain young lady again," continued the dowager, pitilessly, her voice rising. There was the stillness of death in the room. Elisabeth dropped a stitch, tried to pick it up, failed, and fled. Her mother from her seat observed with never-failing dignity that it blew like to bring on a flood. You could almost hear the big cathedral bell singing in the tower. And the subject was changed.
But I will warrant that Ribe got no wink of sleep that night, the while I fumed in a wayside Holstein inn. In my wild rush to get home I had taken the wrong train from Hamburg, or forgot to change, or something. I don't to this day know what. I know that night coming on found me stranded in a little town I had never heard of, on a spur of the road I didn't know existed, and there I had to stay, raging at the railroad, at the inn, at everything. In the middle of the night, while I was tossing sleepless on the big four-poster bed, a drunken man who had gone wrong fell into my room with the door and a candle. That man was my friend. I got up and kicked him out, called the landlord and blew him up, and felt much better. The sun had not risen when I was posting back to the junction, counting the mile-posts as we sped, watch in hand.
If mother thought we had all gone mad together, there was certainly something to excuse her. Here she had only a few weeks before forwarded with a heavy heart to her son in America Elisabeth's flat refusal to hear him, and when she expected gloom and despair, all at once his letters overflowed with a hysterical happiness that could only hail from a disordered mind. To cap it all, Christmas Eve brought her the shock of her life. Elisabeth, sitting near her in the old church and remorsefully watching her weep for her buried boys, could not resist the impulse to steal up behind, as they were going out, and whisper into her ear, as she gave her a little vicarious hug: "I have had news from Jacob. He is _very_ happy." The look of measureless astonishment on my mother's face, as she turned, recalled to her that she could not know, and she hurried away, while mother stood and looked after her, for the first time in her life, I verily believe, thinking hard things of a fellow-being--and of her! Oh, mother! could you but have known that that hug was for your boy!
Counting hours no longer, but minutes, till I should claim it myself, I sat straining my eyes in the dark for the first glimmer of lights in the old town, when my train pulled up at a station a dozen miles from home. The guard ran along and threw open the doors of the compartments. I heard voices and the cry:--
"This way, Herr Doctor! There is room in here," and upon the step loomed the tall form of our old family physician. As I started up with a cry of recognition, he settled into a seat with a contented--
"Here, Overlaerer, is one for you," and I was face to face with my father, grown very old and white. My heart smote me at the sight of his venerable head.
[Illustration: "I was face to face with my father."]
"Father!" I cried, and reached out for him. I think he thought he saw a ghost. He stood quite still, steadying himself against the door, and his face grew very pale. It was the doctor, ever the most jovial of men, who first recovered himself.
"Bless my soul!" he cried, "bless my soul if here is not Jacob, come back from the wilds as large as life! Welcome home, boy!" and we laughed and shook hands. They had been out to see a friend in the country and had happened upon my train.
At the door of our house, father, who had picked up two of my brothers at the depot, halted and thought.
"Better let me go in first," he said, and, being a small man, put the door of the dining-room between me and mother, so that she could not see me right away.
"What do you think--" he began, but his voice shook so that mother rose to her feet at once. How do mothers know?
"Jacob!" she cried, and, pushing past him, had me in her embrace.
That was a happy tea-table. If mother's tears fell as she told of my brothers, the sting was taken out of her grief. Perhaps it was never there. To her there is no death of her dear ones, but rejoicing in the midst of human sorrow that they have gone home where she shall find them again. If ever a doubt had arisen in my mind of that home, how could it linger? How could I betray my mother's faith, or question it?
Perfectly happy were we; but when the tea-things were removed and I began to look restlessly at my watch and talk of an errand I must go, a shadow of anxiety came into my father's eyes. Mother looked at me with mute appeal. They were still as far from the truth as ever. A wild notion that I had come for some other man's daughter had entered their minds, or else, God help me, that I had lost mine. I kissed mother and quieted her fears.
"I will tell you when I come back;" and when she would have sent my brothers with me: "No! this walk I must take alone. Thank God for it."
So I went over the river, over the Long Bridge where I first met Her, and from the arch of which I hailed the light in her window, the beacon that had beckoned me all the years while two oceans surged between us; under the wild-rose hedge where I had dreamed of her as a boy, and presently I stood upon the broad stone steps of her father's house, and rang the bell.
An old servant opened the door, and, with a grave nod of recognition, showed me into the room to the left,--the very one where I had taken leave of her six years before,--then went unasked to call "Miss Elisabeth." It was New Year's Eve, and they were having a card party in the parlor.
"Oh, it isn't--?" said she, with her heart in her mouth, pausing on the threshold and looking appealingly at the maid. It was the same who years before had told her how I kept vigil under her window.
"Yes! it is!" she said, mercilessly, "it's him," and she pushed her in.
[Illustration: Bringing the Loved up Flowers]
I think it was I who spoke first.
"Do you remember when the ice broke on the big ditch and I had you in my arms, so, lifting you over?"
"Was I heavy?" she asked, irrelevantly, and we both laughed.
Father's reading-lamp shone upon the open Bible when I returned. He wiped his spectacles and looked up with a patiently questioning "Well, my boy?" Mother laid her hand upon mine.
"I came home," I said unsteadily, "to give you Elisabeth for a daughter. She has promised to be my wife."
Mother clung to me and wept. Father turned the leaves of the book with hands that trembled in spite of himself, and read:--
"Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory for thy mercy--"
His voice faltered and broke.
The old town turned out, to the last man and woman, and crowded the Domkirke on that March day, twenty-five years ago when I bore Her home my bride. From earliest morning the street that led to "the Castle" had seen a strange procession of poor and aged women pass, carrying flowers grown in window-gardens in the scant sunlight of the long Northern winter--"loved up," they say in Danish for "grown"; in no other way could it be done. They were pensioners on her mother's bounty, bringing their gifts to the friend who was going away. And it was their flowers she wore when I led her down the church aisle my wife, my own.
The Castle opened its doors hospitably at last to the carpenter's lad. When they fell to behind us, with father, mother, and friends waving tearful good-bys from the steps, and the wheels of the mail-coach rattled over the cobblestones of the silent streets where old neighbors had set lights in their windows to cheer us on the way,--out into the open country, into the wide world,--our life's journey had begun. Looking steadfastly ahead, over the bleak moor into the unknown beyond, I knew in my soul that I should conquer. For her head was leaning trustfully on my shoulder and her hand was in mine; and all was well.
[Illustration: "Out into the open country into the wide world--our life's journey had begun."]
EARLY MARRIED LIFE; I BECOME AN ADVERTISING BUREAU; ON THE "TRIBUNE"
It was no easy life to which I brought home my young wife. I felt it often with a secret pang when I thought how few friends I had to offer her for those she had left, and how very different was the whole setting of her new home. At such times I set my teeth hard and promised myself that some day she should have the best in the land. She never with word or look betrayed if she, too, felt the pang. We were comrades for better or worse from the day she put her hand in mine, and never was there a more loyal and faithful one. If, when in the twilight she played softly to herself the old airs from home, the tune was smothered in a sob that was not for my ear, and shortly our kitchen resounded with the most tremendously energetic housekeeping on record, I did not hear. I had drunk that cup to the dregs, and I knew. I just put on a gingham apron and turned in to help her. Two can battle with a fit of homesickness much better than one, even if never a word is said about it. And it can very rarely resist a man with an apron on. I suppose he looks too ridiculous.
Besides, housekeeping in double harness was a vastly different matter from going it single. Not that it was plain sailing by any
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