Fleda seized it, but she could hardly bear the throng of images that started up around it. The smooth worn cover brought so back the childish happy days when it had been her constant companionthe shadows of the Queechy of old, and Cynthia and her grandfather; and the very atmosphere of those times when she had led a light-hearted strange wild life all alone with them, reading the encyclopædia and hunting out the wood-springs. She opened the book and slowly turned over the leaves where her fathers hand had drawn those lines, of remark and affection, round many a passage,the very look of them she knew; but she could not see it now, for her eyes were dim and tears were dropping fast into her lap,she hoped Mr. Carleton did not see them, but she could not help it; she could only keep the book out of the way of being blotted. And there were other and later associations she had with it too,how dear!how tender!how grateful!
And now, said Mr. Carleton after a pause,for some time past, I have got the association again; and I do not choose to have it so. I have come to the resolution to put the book back into your hands, and not receive it again, unless the giver go with the gift.
Fleda looked up, a startled look of wonder, into his face, but the dark eye left no doubt of the meaning of his words; and in unbounded confusion she turned her own and her attention, ostensibly, to the book in her hand, though sight and sense were almost equally out of her power. For a few minutes poor Fleda felt as if all sensation had retreated to her finger-ends. She turned the leaves over and over, as if willing to cheat herself or her companion into the belief that she had something to think of there, while associations and images of the past were gone with a vengeance, swallowed up in a tremendous reality of the present; and the book, which a minute ago was her fathers Bible, was nowwhat was it?something of Mr. Carletons which she must give back to him. But still she held it and looked at itconscious of no one distinct idea but that, and a faint one besides that he might like to be repossessed of his property in some reasonable timetime like everything else was in a whirl; the only steady thing in creation seemed to be that perfectly still and moveless figure by her sidetill her trembling fingers admonished her they would not be able to hold anything much longer; and gently and slowly, without looking, her hand put the book back towards Mr. Carleton. That both were detained together she knew but hardly felt;the thing was that she had given it!
There was no other answer; and there was no further need that Mr. Carleton should make any efforts for diverting her from the scene and the circumstances where they were. Probably he knew that, for he made none. He was perfectly silent for a long time, and Fleda was deaf to any other voice that could be raised, near or far. She could not even think.
Mrs. Renney was happily snoring, and most of the other people had descended into their coat-collars, or figuratively speaking had lowered their blinds, by tilting over their hats in some uncomfortable position that signified sleep; and comparative quiet had blessed the place for some time; as little noticed indeed by Fleda as noise would have been. The sole thing that she clearly recognized in connection with the exterior world was that clasp in which one of her hands lay. She did not know that the car had grown quiet, and that only an occasional grunt of ill-humor, or waking-up colloquy, testified that it was the unwonted domicile of a number of human beings who were harboring there in a disturbed state of mind. But this state of things could not last. The time came that had been threatened, when their last supply of extrinsic warmth was at an end. Despite shut windows, the darkening of the stove was presently followed by a very sensible and fast-increasing change of temperature; and this addition to their causes of discomfort roused every one of the company from his temporary lethargy. The growl of dissatisfied voices awoke again, more gruff than before; the spirit of jesting had long languished and now died outright, and in its stead came some low and deep and bitter-spoken curses. Poor Mrs. Renney shook off her somnolency and shook her shoulders, a little business shake, admonitory to herself to keep cool; and Fleda came to the consciousness that some very disagreeable chills were making their way over her.
Not quite, said Fleda hesitating,I feel the cold a little. Please dont, Mr. Carleton! she added earnestly as she saw him preparing to throw off his cloak, the identical black fox which Constance had described with so much vivacity;pray do not! I am not very coldI can bear a littleI am not so tender as you think me; I do not need it, and you would feel the want very much after wearing itI wont put it on.
But he smilingly bade her stand up, stooping down and taking one of her hands to enforce his words, and giving her at the same time the benefit of one of those looks of good-humored wilfulness to which his mother always yielded, and to which Fleda yielded instantly, though with a color considerably heightened at the slight touch of peremptoriness in his tone.
She was shielded again from all the sights and sounds within reach. She was in a maze. The comfort of the fur cloak was curiously mixed with the feeling of something else, of which that was an emblem,a surrounding of care and strength which would effectually be exerted for her protection,somewhat that Fleda had not known for many a long day,the making up of the old want. Fleda had it in her heart to cry like a baby. Such a dash of sunlight had fallen at her feet that she hardly dared look at it for fear of being dazzled; but she could not look anywhere that she did not see the reflection.
In the mean time the earful of people settled again into sullen quietude. The cold was not found propitious to quarrelling. Those who could subsided anew into lethargy, those who could not gathered in their outposts to make the best defence they might of the citadel. Most happily it was not an extreme night; cold enough to be very disagreeable and even (without a fur cloak) dangerous; but not enough to put even noses and ears in immediate jeopardy. Mr. Carleton had contrived to procure a comfortable wrapper for Mrs. Renney from a Yankee who for the sake of being a warm man as to his pockets was willing to be cold otherwise for a time. The rest of the great coats and cloaks which were so alert and erect a little while ago were doubled up on every side in all sorts of despondent attitudes. A dull quiet brooded over the assembly; and Mr. Carleton walked up and down the vacant space. Once he caught an anxious glance from Fleda, and came immediately to her side.
Somewhere between a town the name of which I have forgotten and a place called Quarrenton, I think; and Quarrenton, they tell me, is but a few miles from Greenfield. Our difficulties will vanish, I hope, with the darkness.
He walked again, and Fleda mused, and wondered at herself in the black fox. She did not venture another look, though her eye took in nothing very distinctly but the outlines of that figure passing up and down through the car. He walked perseveringly; and weariness at last prevailed over everything else with Fleda; she lost herself with her head leaning against the bit of wood between the windows.
The rousing of the great coats, and the growing gray light, roused her before her uneasy sleep had lasted an hour. The lamps were out, the car was again spotted with two long rows of window-panes, through which the light as yet came but dimly. The morning had dawned at last, and seemed to have brought with it a fresh accession of cold, for everybody was on the stir. Fleda put up her window to get a breath of fresh air and see how the day looked.
A change of weather had come with the dawn. It was not fine yet. The snowing had ceased, but the clouds hung overhead still, though not with the leaden uniformity of yesterday; they were higher and broken into many a soft gray fold, that promised to roll away from the sky by and by. The snow was deep on the ground; every visible thing lapped in a thick white covering; a still, very grave, very pretty winter landscape, but somewhat dreary in its aspect to a trainful of people fixed in the midst of it out of sight of human habitation. Fleda felt that, but only in the abstract; to her it did not seem dreary; she enjoyed the wild solitary beauty of the scene very much, with many a grateful thought of what might have been. As it was, she left difficulties entirely to others.
As soon as it was light the various inmates of the strange dormitory gathered themselves up and set out on foot for Quarrenton. By one of them Mr. Carleton sent an order for a sleigh, which in as short a time as possible arrived, and transported him and Fleda and Mrs. Renney, and one other ill-bestead woman, safely to the little town of Quarrenton.