“You can’t keep such things quiet always. People are bound to find out. They come to me and said, ‘Why don’t you leave him?’ but I wouldn’t. I could have divorced him easy enough, there was reasons plenty, but I wouldn’t do that. Then word came that he was dead, drowned off in the East Indies somewheres. I come back here to keep house for Sol, my brother, and I kept house for him till he died and they offered me this place here at the parsonage. There! that’s my story, part of it, more’n I ever told a livin’ soul afore, except Sol.”
She ceased speaking. The minister, who had sat silent by the window, apathetically listening or trying to listen, turned his head.
“I apologize, Mrs. Coffin,” he said dully, “you have had trials, hard ones. But—”
“But they ain’t as hard as yours, you think? Well, I haven’t quite finished yet. After word come of my husband’s death, the other man come and wanted me to marry him. And I wanted to—oh, how I wanted to! I cared as much for him as I ever did; more, I guess. But I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t, though it wrung my heart out to say no. I give him up—why? ’cause I thought I had a duty laid on me.”
Ellery sighed. “I can see but one duty,” he said. “That is the duty given us by God, to marry the one we love.”
Keziah’s agitation, which had grown as she told her story, suddenly flashed into flame.
“Is that as fur as you can see?” she asked fiercely. “It’s an easy duty, then—or looks easy now. I’ve got a harder one; it’s to stand by the promise I gave and the man I married.”
He looked at her as if he thought she had lost her wits.
“The man you married?” he replied. “Why, the man you married is dead.”
“No, he ain’t. You remember the letter you saw me readin’ that night when you come back from Come-Outers’ meetin’? Well, that letter was from him. He’s alive.”
For the first time during the interview the minister rose to his feet, shocked out of his despair and apathy by this astounding revelation.
“Alive?” he repeated. “Your husband alive? Why, Mrs. Coffin, this is—”
She waved him to silence. “Don’t stop me now,” she said. “I’ve told so much; let me tell the rest. Yes, he’s alive. Alive and knockin’ round the world somewheres. Every little while he writes me for money and, if I have any, I send it to him. Why? Why ’cause I’m a coward, after all, I guess, and I’m scared he’ll do what he says he will and come back. Perhaps you think I’m a fool to put up with it; that’s what most folks would say if they knew it. They’d tell me I ought to divorce him. Well, I can’t, I can’t. I walked into the mess blindfold; I married him in spite of warnin’s and everything. I took him for better or for worse, and now that he’s turned out worse, I must take my medicine. I can’t live with him—that I can’t do—but while he lives I’ll stay his wife and give him what money I can spare. That’s the duty I told you was laid on me, and it’s a hard one, but I don’t run away from it.”