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Narcissa, or the Road to Rome; In Verona

Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards

  Produced by Mary Akers, Suzanne Shell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at (Thisfile was produced from images generously made availableby The Internet Archive/American Libraries.)








  _Copyright, 1892_, BY THE TWO TALES PUBLISHING CO.

  _Copyright, 1894_, BY LAURA E. RICHARDS.

  _Copyright, 1894_, BY ESTES AND LAURIAT.

  _All Rights Reserved._











  Part I.


  Narcissa was sitting in the doorway, feeding the young turkeys. It wasthe back door of the old gray house,--no one would have thought ofsitting in the front doorway,--and there were crooked flagstonesleading up to it, cracked and seamed, with grass growing in thecracks. Close by the door-post, against which the girl was leaning,stood a great bush of tansy, with waving feathery leaves and yellowblossoms, like small gold buttons. Narcissa was very fond of thistansy-bush, and liked to pluck a leaf and crush it in her hands, tobring out the keen, wholesome smell. She had one in her hand now, andwas wondering if ever any one had a dress of green velvet,tansy-color, with gold buttons. The minister's wife once had a bow ofgreen velvet on her black straw bonnet, and Narcissa had loved to lookat it, and to wish it were somewhere else, with things that belongedto it. She often thought of splendid clothes, though she had neverseen anything finer than the black silk of the minister's wife, andthat always made her think of a newly-blacked stove. When she wasyounger, she had made a romance about every scrap of silk or satin inthe crazy-quilt that Aunt Pinker's daughter, the milliner, had senther one Christmas. The gown she had had out of that yellow satin--itdid her good to think about it even now!--and there was a scrap ofpale pink silk which came--was it really nothing but fancy?--from along, trailing robe, trimmed with filmy lace (the lace in thestory-papers was always filmy), in which she had passed many happy,dreamy hours.

  It never occurred to Narcissa that she needed no fine clothes to setoff her beauty; in truth, she never dreamed that she had any beauty.Color meant so much to her, that she had always accepted the generalverdict that she was "pindlin'-lookin'," and joined sincerely in thechorus of praise which always greeted the rosy cheeks andsolid-looking yellow hair of Delilah Parshley, who lived at the nexthouse below the old gray one.

  Yet it was true that Narcissa had no need of finery; and it was apretty picture she made, sitting in the doorway, leaning against thedoor-post. Her hair was nearly black, with no gloss or sparkle, only asoft, dusky cloudiness. It curled in little rings about her broad,low forehead, and round her soft, pale cheeks. Her eyes were dusky,too, but more gray than brown, and the only vivid color was in thescarlet line of her lips. There was nothing unhealthy in her clearpallor, no hint of sallowness, but a soft, white glow. The nostrils ofher little straight nose were cut high, which gave them a look ofbeing always slightly dilated; this caused the neighbors to say thatNarcissa White was proud, though dear knew what she had to be proudof. As for her dress, it was of blue jean, a good deal faded, but allthe better for that; and her white apron, though coarse, was spotlessand carefully starched.

  The turkeys seemed to approve of her appearance, for they gatheredeagerly round her, trying to get their beaks into the dish she held,gobbling and fluttering, and making a great commotion. Narcissa wasfond of the turkeys, and had names for all her favorites. The finestyoung gobbler was called Black Diamond, and he was apt to take unfairadvantage of his mistress's partiality, and to get more than hisshare. So noisy they all were, that Narcissa did not hear the sound ofapproaching footsteps, nor know that some one had spoken to her twicein vain, and was now standing in silent amusement, watching thestruggle for food.

  It was a young man who had come so lightly up the steps of the oldhouse that no sound had been heard. He had gone first to the frontdoor, but his knock had brought no answer, and catching the flutterof Narcissa's apron he had come round to the back porch and wasstanding within three feet of the girl and her clamorous brood.

  A very young man, hardly more than a boy, yet with a steady, manlylook in his blue eyes, which contradicted the boyish curves of cheekand chin. He was plainly but neatly dressed, and he carried in onehand a small satchel, such as travelling agents affect. His eyes werebright and quick, and glanced about with keen interest, taking inevery outline of the house, but coming always back to the girl who satin the doorway, and who was unlike any girl he had seen before. Thehouse was dim and gaunt, with a look of great age. One did not often,in this part of the country, see such tall doors, such quaintchimneys, such irregular outlines of roof and gable. The green-paintedfront door, with its brass knocker, and its huge, old-world hinges,seemed to him a great curiosity; so did the high stone steps, whoseforlorn dignity suffered perpetual insult from the malapert weeds andgrasses that laughed and nodded through the cracks and seams.

  And in the dim, sunken doorway sat this girl, herself all soft andshadowy, with a twilight look in her eyes and in her dusky hair. Theturkeys were the only part of it all that seemed to belong to the sortof life about here, the hard, bustling life of New Englandfarm-people, such as he had seen at the other houses along the way.If it were not for the turkeys, he felt that he should hardly findcourage to speak, for fear it might all melt away into the gatheringtwilight,--house, maiden, and all,--and leave nothing but the tallelms that waved their spectral arms over the sunken roofs.

  As it was, however,--as the turkeys were making such a racket that thegirl would never become aware of his presence unless he assertedhimself in some way,--he stepped boldly forward and lifted his hat,for he had been taught good manners, if he was a tree-agent.

  "Excuse me, lady," he said. "Is this the road to Rome?"

  Narcissa started violently, and came out of her dream. She hadactually been dressed in the green velvet, and was fastening the lastgold button, ready to step into the chariot that was waiting forher,--she loved the word chariot, though the pictures in the Biblemade her feel uncertain about the manner of riding in one,--and todrive along the road, the road to Rome. How strange that at this verymoment some one should ask about the road!

  She raised her eyes, still shining with the dream-light, and lookedattentively at the stranger.

  "Yes, sir," she answered. "This is the road,--the road to Rome. Butit's a long way from here," she added, rousing herself, and risingfrom her seat. "Shoo! go away, now;" and she waved a signal ofdismissal with her apron which the turkeys understood, and at sight ofwhich they withdrew, not without angry cluckings and gobblingsdirected at the disturber of their evening meal.

  "Won't you set down and rest a spell? It's ben real hot to-day, thoughit's some cooler now."

  "It has so!" assented the young man, taking off his hat again to wipehis brow, and dropping his satchel on the doorstep.

  "I should be pleased to set a few minutes, if I'm not intruding. Anddo you suppose I could have a drink of water, if it wouldn't be toomuch trouble?"

  Narcissa went away without a word, and br
ought back the water,ice-cold and clear as crystal, in a queer brown mug with a twistedhandle, and an inscription in white letters.

  "I'm sorry I haven't got a glass," she said. "But the water is good."

  The young man drank deeply, and then looked curiously at the mug. "I'drather have this than a glass," he said. "It's quite a curiosity,ain't it? 'Be Merry!' Well, that's a good sentiment, I'm sure. Thankyou, lady. I'm ever so much obliged."

  "You no need to," responded Narcissa, civilly.

  "I--I don't suppose you want any trees or plants to set out, do you?"said the stranger. "I am travelling for a house near Portland, andI've got some first-rate things,--real chances, I call 'em."

  "I--guess not," said Narcissa, with an apprehensive glance over hershoulder. "I only keep house for the man here,--he's my father'suncle,--and he