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The Wall Between

Sara Ware Bassett


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  By Sara Ware Bassett

  The Taming Of Zenas HenryThe Wayfarers at The Angel'sThe Harbor RoadThe Wall Between

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  And now, by some miracle, here were the blossoms ofMartin's raising. Frontispiece. _See page 159._]




  With Frontispiece by Norman Price

  BostonLittle, Brown, and Company1920

  Copyright, 1920,by Sara Ware Bassett.All rights reserved

  Published August, 1920

  "Such are the miracles men call lives."--Edward Rowland Sill.


  CHAPTER PAGE I A Modern Richelieu 1 II The Howes 20 III Lucy 38 IV The Episode of the Eggs 50 V A Clash of Wills 70 VI Ellen Encounters an Enigma 82 VII The Unraveling of the Mystery 95 VIII When the Cat's Away 109 IX Jane Makes a Discovery 135 X A Temptation 147 XI The Crossing of the Rubicon 163 XII The Test 189 XIII Melviny Arrives 205 XIV A Piece of Diplomacy 234 XV Ellen's Vengeance 246 XVI Lucy Comes to a Decision 258 XVII The Great Alternative 270 XVIII Love Triumphant 290




  The Howe and Webster farms adjoined, lying on a sun-flooded, gentlysloping New Hampshire hillside. Between them loomed The Wall. It was not ahigh wall. On the contrary, its formidableness was the result of traditionrather than of fact. For more than a century it had been an estrangingbarrier to neighborliness, to courtesy, to broad-mindedness; a barrier tofriendship, to Christian charity, to peace.

  The builder of the rambling line of gray stone had long since passed away,and had he not acquired a warped importance with the years, his memorywould doubtless have perished with him. All unwittingly, alas, he hadbecome a celebrity. His was the fame of omission, however, rather than ofcommission. Had he, like artist or sculptor, but affixed his signature tohis handiwork, then might he have sunk serenely into oblivion, "unwept,unhonored, and unsung." But unfortunately he was a modest creature.Instead, he had stepped nameless into the silence of the Hereafter,leaving to those who came after him not only the sinister boundary hishands had reared, but also a feud that had seethed hotly for generations.

  If within the narrow confines of his last resting place he had ever beenconscious of the dissension for which he was responsible and had beenhaunted by a desire to utter the magic word he had neglected to speak inlife, he at least gave no sign. His lips remained sealed in death, and hisspirit was never seen to walk abroad. Possibly he retired into his shroudwith this finality because he never found it imperative, as did Hamlet'sghost, to admonish posterity to remember him.

  Only too well was he remembered!

  The Howes and Websters who followed him hurled against the sounding boardof heaven the repeated questions of who built the wall, and whose duty wasit to repair it. Great-grandfather Jabez Howe quibbled withGreat-grandfather Abiatha Webster for a lifetime, and both went down intothe tomb still quibbling over the enigma. Afterward Grandfather NathanHowe and Grandfather Ebenezer Webster took up the dispute, and they, too,were gathered into the Beyond without ever reaching a conclusion. Theirchildren then wrangled and argued and slandered one another, and, liketheir forbears, retired from the field in impotent rage, leaving thecombat a draw.

  In the meantime the outlines of the ancient landmark became lessclear-cut. Rocks toppled from its summit; yawning gaps marred its sharpedges; and at its base vines and growing things began to creep defiantlyin and out the widening fissures that rent its foundation. Almostimperceptibly year by year dissolution went on, the crude structuremelting into picturesqueness and taking on the gentle charm of a ruinuntil Martin Howe and Ellen Webster, its present-day guardians, beheld itan ignominious heap of stone that lay crumbling amid woodbine andclematis.

  Far more beautiful was it in this half-concealed dilapidation than ever ithad been in the pride of its perfection. Then it had stood boldly outagainst the landscape, naked and aggressive; to-day, clothed in Nature'ssoft greenery, it had become so dim a heritage that it might easily havereceded into the past and been forgotten had not the discord of which ithad become the symbol been wilfully fanned into flame.

  As in a bygone age one runner passed a lighted torch on to another, so didone generation of Howes and Websters bequeath to the next the embers of awrath that never died. Each faction disclaimed all responsibility for thewall, and each refused to lay hand to it.

  Adamantine as was the lichen-covered heap of granite, it was of far moremutable a quality than were the dispositions of those who had sostubbornly let it fall into decay. Time's hand had softened the harshstone into mellow beauty; but the flintlike characters of the Howes andWebsters remained uncompromising as of yore.

  And now that Martin Howe and Ellen Webster reigned in their respectivehomesteads, neither one of them was any more graciously inclined towardraising the fallen boundary to its pristine glory than had been theirprogenitors. But for their obstinacy they might have agreed to dispensewith the wall altogether, since long ago it had become merely an emptyemblem of restriction, and without recourse to it each knew beyondquestion where the dividing line between the estates ran; moreover, asboth families shunned the other's land as if it were plague-riddenterritory there was scant temptation for them to invade each other'sdomains. But the man and the woman had inherited too much of the blood ofthe original stock to consider entering into an armistice.

  They had, it is true, bettered their predecessors to the extent ofexchanging a stilted greeting when they met; but this perfunctorysalutation was usually hurtled across the historic borderline and wasseldom concluded without some reference to it. For Ellen Webster was anaggravating old woman dowered with just enough of the harpy never to beable to leave her antagonist in peace if she saw him at work in hisgarden.

  "Mornin', Martin," she would call.

  "Good mornin', Miss Webster."

  "So you're plowin' up a new strip of land."

  "Yes, marm."

  "I s'pose you know it would save you a deal of cartin' if you was to usethe stones you're gettin' out to fix up your wall."

  Then the hector would watch the brick-red color steal slowly from theman's cheek up to his forehead.

  To pile the stones on the heap so near at hand would, he recognized, havesaved both time and trouble; nevertheless, he would have worked until hedropped in his tracks rather than have yielded to the temptation.

  _His_ wall, indeed! The impudence of the vixen!

  Angry in every fiber of his body, he would therefore wheel upon histormentor and flash out:

  "When you see me tinkerin' your tumbledown wall, Miss Ellen Webster, I'llbe some older than I am now. I've work enough of my own to do withouttakin' in repairs for my neighbors."

  At that he would hear a malicious chuckle.

  For some such response Ellen always waited. She liked to see the fire ofrage burn itself through Martin's tan and feel that she had the power tokindle it. He never disappointed her. Sometimes, to be sure, she had toprod him more than once, but eventually his retort, sharp as the sting ofan insect, was certain to come. From it she derived a half-humorous,half-vindictive satisfaction, for she was a keen student of human nature,and no one knew better than she that after the cutting words had left hislips proud-spirited young Martin scorned himself for
having been goadedinto uttering them.

  A tantalizing creature, Ellen Webster!

  Silent, penurious, shrewd to the margin of dishonesty; unrelenting as therock-fronted fastnesses of her native hills; good-humored at times andeven possessed of swift moods of tenderness that disarmed andappealed--such she was. She stood straight as a spruce despite the burdenof her years, and a suggestion of girlhood's bloom still colored hercheek; but the features of her crafty countenance were tightly drawn; theblue eyes glinted with metallic light; and the mouth was saved fromcruelty only by its upward curve of humor.

  She had been an only daughter who since her teens had nursed invalidparents until death had claimed them and left her mistress of thehomestead where she now lived. There had, it is true, been a boy; but inhis early youth he had shaken the New Hampshire dust from off his feetand gone West, from which Utopia he had for a time sent home to his sisteroccasional and peculiarly inappropriate gifts of Mexican saddles,sombreros, leggings, and Indian blankets. He had received but scantgratitude, however, for these well-intentioned offerings. It had alwaysbeen against the traditions of the Websters to spend money freely andEllen, a Webster to the core, resented his lack of prudence; furthermorethe articles were useless and cluttered up the house. Possibly the moreopen-handed Thomas understood the implied rebuke in the meager thanksawarded him and was hurt by it; at any rate, he ceased sending homepresents, and by and by Ellen lost trace of him altogether. Years ofsilence, unbroken by tidings of any sort, followed. Ellen had almostforgotten she had a brother when one day a letter arrived announcing hisdeath.

  The event brought to the sister no grief, for years ago Thomas had passedout of her life. Nevertheless the message left behind it an aftermath ofgrim realizations that stirred her to contemplate the future from quite anew angle. She had never before considered herself old. Now she suddenlypaused and reflected upon her seventy-five years and the uncertainty ofthe stretch of days before her.

  Through the window she could see her prosperous lands, her garden upon thesouthern slope of the hill where warm sun kissed into life its lushlygrowing things; her pasture pierced by jagged rocks, and cattle-trampledstretches of rough turf; her wood lot where straight young pines and oaksaplings lifted their reaching crests toward the sky; her orchard, theindex of her progenitor's foresight. All these had belonged to theWebsters for six generations, and she could not picture them the propertyof any one bearing another name; nor could she endure the thought of thewall being sometime rebuilt by an outsider.

  What was to be the fate of her possessions after she was gone? Suppose astranger purchased the estate. Or, worse than all, suppose that after shewas dead Martin Howe was to buy it in. The Howes had always wanted moreland.

  Imagine Martin Howe plowing up the rich loam of her fields, invading withhis axe the dim silences of her wood lot, enjoying the fruit of herorchard, driving his herds into her pasture! Fancy his feet grating uponthe threshold of her home, his tread vibrating on her stairways! Theirony of it!

  Martin was young. At least, he was not old. He could not be more thanforty. He might marry sometime. Many a man more unapproachable even thanMartin Howe did marry.

  And if he should marry, what would be more likely than that he would giveto his maiden sisters--Mary, Eliza, and Jane--the Howe farm and take forhis own abode the more spacious homestead of the Websters?

  Ellen's brows contracted fiercely; then her mouth twisted into a crookedsmile.

  What a retribution if, after all, it should be Martin whose fate it was torebuild the wall! Why, such a revenge would almost compensate for theproperty falling into his hands! Suppose it should become his lot to cutaway the vines and underbrush; haul hither the great stones and hoist theminto place! And if while he toiled at the hateful task and beads of sweatrolled from his forehead, a sympathetic and indulgent Providence would butpermit her to come back to earth and, standing at his elbow, jeer at himwhile he did it! Ah, that would be revenge indeed!

  Then the mocking light suddenly died from the old woman's eyes. MaybeMartin would not buy the farm, after all.

  Or if he did, he might perhaps leave the wall to crumble into extinction,so that the rancor and bitterness of the Howes and Websters would come toan end, and the enmity of a hundred years be wasted!

  Would not such an inglorious termination of the feud go down to history asa capitulation of the Websters? Why, the broil had become famousthroughout the State. For decades it had been a topic of gossip andspeculation until the Howe and Webster obstinacy had become a byword,almost an adage. To have the whole matter peter out now would beignominious.

  No. Though worms destroyed her mortal body, the hostility bred between thefamilies should not cease. Nor should her ancestral home ever become theprey of her enemies, either.

  Rising decisively, Ellen took from the mahogany secretary the letter shehad received a few days before from Thomas's daughter and reread itmeditatively.

  Twice she scanned its pages. Then she let it drop into her lap. Again hereyes wandered to the stretch of land outside across which slanted theafternoon shadows.

  The day was very still. Up from the tangle of brakes in the pasture camethe lowing of cattle. A faint sweetness from budding apple trees filledthe room. Radiating, narrowing away toward the sky line, row after row oflow green shoots barred the brown earth of the hillside with the promiseof coming harvest. It was a goodly sight,--that plowed land with its linesof upspringing seeds. A goodly sight, too, were the broad mowings stirringgently with the sweep of the western breeze.

  Ellen regarded the panorama before her musingly. Then she seated herselfat the old desk and with deliberation began to write a reply to herbrother's child.

  She was old, she wrote, and her health was failing; at any time she mightfind herself helpless and ill. There was no one to care for her or bearher company. If Lucy would come to Sefton Falls and live, her aunt wouldbe glad to give her a home.

  "As yet," concluded the diplomat, with a Machiavelian stroke of the pen,"I have made no will; but I suppose I shall not be able to take theWebster lands and money with me into the next world. You are my onlyrelative. Think well before making your decision."

  After she had signed and blotted the terse missive, Ellen perused itslines, and her sharp eyes twinkled. It was a good letter, a capitalletter! Without actually promising anything, it was heavy with insidiousbribery.

  Be the girl of whatsoever type she might, some facet of the note could notfail to lure her hither. If a loyal Webster, family obligation would bethe bait; if conscientious, plain duty stared her in the face; ifmercenary, dreams of an inherited fortune would tempt her. The trap wasinescapable.

  In the meantime to grant a home to her orphan flesh and blood would appealto the outside world as an act of Christian charity, and at the same timewould save hiring the help she had for some time feared she would bedriven to secure,--a fact that did not escape the woman's cunning mind.

  She was not so strong as formerly, and of late the toil of the farm taxedher endurance. There was milking, sewing, the housework, and the care ofthe chickens; enough to keep ten pairs of hands busy, let alone one. Oh,Lucy should earn her board, never fear!

  As nearly as the aunt could calculate, her niece must now be about twentyyears old,--a fine, vigorous age! Doubtless, too, the girl was of buxomWestern build, for although Thomas had not married until late in life, hiswife had been a youthful woman of the mining country. This Lucy wasprobably a strapping lass, who in exchange for her three meals would turnoff a generous day's work. Viewed from every standpoint the scheme was aninspiration.

  Ellen hoped it would not fail. Now that she had made up her mind to carrythrough the plan, she could not brook the possibility of being thwarted.

  Once more she took the letter from its envelope and read it. Yes, it wasexcellent. Were she to write it all over again she could not improve it.Therefore she affixed the stamp and address and, summoning Tony, thePortuguese lad who slaved for her, she sent him to the village to mailit.r />
  For two weeks she awaited an answer, visiting the post office each daywith a greater degree of interest than she had exhibited toward anyoutside event for a long stretch of years.

  Her contact with the world was slight and infrequent. Now and then she wasobliged to harness up and drive to the village for provisions; to have thehorse shod; or to sell her garden truck; but she never went unless forcedto do so. A hermit by nature, she had no friends and wanted none.

  Her only neighbors were the Howes, and beyond the impish pleasure shederived from taunting Martin, they had no interest for her. The sisterswere timid, inoffensive beings enough; but had they been three times asinoffensive they were nevertheless Howes; moreover, Ellen did not care fordocile people. She was a fighter herself and loved a fighter. That was thereason she had always cherished a covert admiration for Martin. His temperappealed to her; so did his fearlessness and his mulish attitude towardthe wall. Such qualities she understood. But with these cringing sistersof his who allowed him to tyrannize over them she had nothing in common.Had she not seen them times without number watch him out of sight and thenleap to air his blankets, beat his coat, or perform some service theydared not enact in his presence? Bah! Thank Heaven she was afraid ofnobody and was independent of her fellow men.

  Save for the assistance of the hard-worked Tony whom she paid--paidsparingly she confessed, but nevertheless _paid_--she attended to her ownplowing, planting, and harvesting, and was beholden to nobody. The worldwas her natural enemy. To outwit it; to beat it at a bargain; to conquerwhere it sought to oppress her; to keep its whining dogs of pain, poverty,and loneliness ever at bay; to live without obligation to it; and dieundaunted at leaving it,--this was her ambition.

  The note she had mailed to her niece was the first advance she had madetoward any human being within her memory; and this was not the cry of adependent but rather the first link in a plot to outgeneral circumstancesand place the future within her own control. She prided herself that forhalf a century she had invariably got the better of whosoever andwhatsoever she had come in contact with. What was death, then, but anincident, if after it she might still reign and project her will into theuniverse even from the estranging fastnesses of the grave?

  Therefore the answer from Lucy was of greater import than was any ordinaryletter. It would tell her whether the initial step in her conspiracy totriumph over Destiny was successful. What wonder that her aged fingerstrembled as she tore open the envelope of the message and spread the snowypaper feverishly on the table?

  Summit, Arizona, May 5, 1917. Dear Aunt Ellen:

  I can't tell you what a surprise it was to hear from you, and how much greater a surprise it was to have you ask me to come and live with you.

  I had decided to go abroad and do Red Cross work, and was about to accept a position that had been offered me when your letter arrived. ("Humph!" murmured Ellen.)

  But you write that you are alone in the world and not very well, and this being the case, I feel my place is with you.

  You are my only relative, and I should be a very poor-spirited Webster indeed did I not acknowledge that your claim comes before any other. Therefore I shall be glad to come to New Hampshire and avail myself of your hospitality. I presume you have found, as I have, that living entirely for one's self is not very satisfactory after all. Since my father's death I have had no one to look after and have felt lonely, useless, and selfish in consequence.

  I am certain that in attempting to make you happy, I shall find happiness myself, and I assure you that I will do all I can to be helpful.

  If all goes well I should arrive at Sefton Falls in about ten days. In the meantime, I send my warmest thanks for your kindness and the affectionate greetings of

  Your niece, Lucy Harmon Webster.After she had finished reading the letter, Ellen sat tapping her footimpatiently upon the floor. She was nettled, angry.

  She did not at all relish having this child turn the tables on her charityand make of it a favor. As for the girl's sentimental nonsense about itsnot being satisfactory to live alone, what was she talking about? Livingalone was the most satisfactory thing in the world. Did it not banish allthe friction of opposing wills and make of one a monarch? No, she did notlike the letter, did not like it.

  If this Lucy were sincere, she showed herself to be of that affectionate,conscientious, emotional type Ellen so cordially detested; besides, sheheld her head too high. If on the other hand, she were shamming, and werein reality endowed with a measure of the Howe shrewdness, that wasanother matter.

  Her aunt laughed indulgently at the girl's youthful attempt at subterfuge.She hoped she was humbugging. Worldly wisdom was an admirable trait. Hadnot the Websters always been famed for their business sagacity? She wouldfar rather find Thomas's daughter blessed with a head than with a heart.

  But the letter proved that the child was still a novice at the wiles ofthe world, dissemble as she would.

  Had she been older and more discerning, she would have realized she hadnot actually been promised anything, and she would not have been decoyedinto journeying hundreds of miles from home to pursue the wraith of anephemeral fortune.