Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company The Riverside Press Cambridge 1910
Copyright, 1910, by Alice Brown All Rights Reserved Published April 1910
THE PLAY HOUSE 1
HIS FIRST WIFE 20
A FLOWER OF APRIL 42
THE AUCTION 53
SATURDAY NIGHT 76
A GRIEF DEFERRED 96
THE CHALLENGE 122
FLOWERS OF PARADISE 171
GARDENER JIM 192
THE SILVER TEA-SET 215
THE OTHER MRS. DILL 237
THE ADVOCATE 265
THE MASQUERADE 285
A POETESS IN SPRING 314
THE MASTER MINDS OF HISTORY 341
THE PLAY HOUSE
Amelia Maxwell sat by the front-chamber window of the great house overlooking the road, and her own "story-an'-a-half" farther toward the west. Every day she was alone under her own roof, save at the times when old lady Knowles of the great house summoned her for work at fine sewing or braiding rags. All Amelia's kin were dead. Now she was used to their solemn absence, and sufficiently at one with her own humble way of life, letting her few acres at the halves, and earning a dollar here and there with her clever fingers. She was but little over forty, yet she was aware that her life, in its keener phases, was already done. She had had her romance and striven to forget it; but out of that time pathetic voices now and then called to her, and old longings awoke, to breathe for a moment and then sleep again.
Amelia seemed, even to old lady Knowles, who knew her best, a cheerful, humorous body; but only Amelia saw the road by which her serenity had come. Chiefly it was through an inexplicable devotion to the great house. She could not remember a time when it was not wonderful to her. While she was a little girl, living alone with her mother, she used to sit on the doorstone with her bread and milk at bedtime, and think of the great house, how grand it was and large. There was a wonderful way the sun had of falling, at twilight, across the pillars of its porch where the elm drooped sweetly, and in the moonlight it was like a fairy city. But the morning was perhaps the best moment of all. The great house was painted a pale yellow, and when Amelia awoke with the sun in her little unshaded chamber, she thought how dark the blinds were there, with such a solemn richness in their green. The flower-beds in front were beautiful to her; but the back garden, lying alongside the orchard, and stretching through tangles of sweet-william and rose, was an enchanted spot to play in. The child that was, used to wander there and feel very rich. Now, a woman, she sat in the great house sewing, and felt rich again. As it happened, for one of the many times it came to her, she was thinking what the great house had done for her. Old lady Knowles had, in her stately way, been a kind of patron saint, and in that summer, years ago, when Amelia's romance died and she had drooped like a starving plant, Rufus, the old lady's son, had seemed to see her trouble and stood by her. He did not speak of it. He only took her for long drives, and made his cheerful presence evident in many ways, and when he died, with a tragic suddenness, Amelia used selfishly to feel that he had lived at least long enough to keep her from failing of that inner blight.
On this day when old lady Knowles had gone with Ann, her faithful help, to see the cousin to whom she made pilgrimage once a year, Amelia resolved to enjoy herself to the full. She laid down her sewing, from time to time, to look about her at the poppy-strewn paper, the four-post bed and flowered tester, the great fireplace with its shining dogs, and the Venus and Cupid mirror. Over and over again she had played that the house was hers, and to-day, through some heralding excitement in the air, it seemed doubly so. She sat in a dream of housewifely possession, conning idly over the pleasant things she might do before the day was over. There was cold tongue for her dinner, Ann had told her, and a clear soup, if she liked to heat it. She might cook vegetables if she chose. And there was the best of tea to be made out of the china caddy, and rich cake in the parlor crock. After one such glad deliberation, she caught her sewing guiltily up from her lap and began to set compensating stitches. But even then her conscience slept unstirred. Old lady Knowles was in no hurry for the work, she knew, and she would make up for her dreaming in the account of her day.
There was a sound without. The gate swung softly shut and a man came up the path. Amelia, at the glance, rose quickly, dropped her sewing, and hurried out and down the stairs. The front door was open, she knew, and though there was never anything to be afraid of, still the house was in her charge. At the door she met him, just lifting his hand to touch the knocker. He was a tall, weedy fellow of something more than her own age, with light hair and blue eyes and a strangely arrested look, as if he obstinately, and against his own advantage, continued to keep young.
Amelia knew him at once, as he did her, though it was twenty years since they had met.
"Why, Jared Beale!" she faltered.
He was much moved. The flush came quickly to his face in a way she had known, and his eyes softened.
"I should ha' recognized ye anywheres, Milly," he asserted.
She still stood looking at him, unable to ask him in or to make apology for the lack.
"I went straight to your house from the train," he said. "'Twas all shut up. Don't anybody live there now?"
"Yes," answered Amelia, "somebody lives there." The red had come into her cheeks, and her eyes burned brightly. Then as he looked at her hesitatingly, in the way he used to look, she trembled a little.
"Come in, Jared," she said, retreating a hospitable space. "Come right in."
She stood aside, and then, when he stepped over the sill, led the way into the dining-room, where there was a cool green light from the darkened blinds, and the only window open to the sun disclosed a trembling grapevine and a vista down the garden path. Amelia drew forward a chair, with a decided motion.
"Sit down," she said, and busied herself with opening a blind.
When she took her own chair opposite him, she found that he had laid his hat beside him on the floor, and, with the tips of his fingers together, was bending forward in an attitude belonging to his youth. He was regarding her with the slightly blurred look of his near-sighted eyes, and she began hastily to speak.
"You stayin' round these parts?"
"No," said Jared, "no. I had to come east on business. There was some property to be settled up in Beulah, so I thought I'd jest step down here an' see how things were."
"Beulah!" she repeated. "Why, that's fifty miles from here!"
"Yes," returned Jared. "It's a matter o' fifty mile. Fact is," he said uneasily, "I didn't know how you was fixed. It's kinder worried me."
A flush ran into her face, to the roots of her pretty hair; yet her frank eyes never left him. Then her evasive speech belied her look.
"I get along real well. I s'pose you knew mother wa'n't with me now?"
"I ain't heard a word from here for seventeen year," he said, half bitterly, as if the silence had been hard to bear. "There's no way for me to hear now. The last was from Tom Merrick. He said you'd begun to go with Rufus Knowles."
Amelia trembled over her whole body.
"That was a good while ago," she ventured.
"Yes, 'twas. A good many things have come an' gone. An' now Rufus is dead—I see his death in an old paper—an' here you be, his widder, livin' in the old house."
"Why!" breathed Amelia, "why!" She choked upon the word, but before she could deny it he had begun again, in gentle reminiscence.
"'Twon't harm nobody to talk over old times a mite, Amelia. Mebbe that's what I come on for, though I thought 'twas to see how you was fixed. I thought mebbe I should find you livin' kinder near the wind, an' mebbe you'd let me look out for you a mite."
The tears came into Amelia's eyes. She looked about her as if she owned the room, the old china, and the house.
"That's real good of you, Jared," she said movingly. "I sha'n't ever forget it. But you see for yourself. I don't want for nothin'."
"I guess we should ha' thought 'twas queer, when you went trottin' by to school," he said irrelevantly, "if anybody'd told you you'd reign over the old Knowles house."
"Yes," said Amelia softly, again looking about her, this time with love and thankfulness, "I guess they would. You leave your wife well?" she asked suddenly, perhaps to suggest the reality of his own house of life.
Jared shook his head.
"She ain't stepped a step for seven year."
"Oh, my!" grieved Amelia. "Won't she ever be any better?"
"No. We've had all the doctors, eclectic an' herb besides, an' they don't give her no hope. She was a great driver. We laid up money steady them years before she was took down. She knew how to make an' she knew how to save."
His face settled into lines of brooding recollection. Immediately Amelia was aware that those years had been bitter to him, and that the fruit of them was stale and dry. She cut by instinct into a pleasant by-path.
"You play your fiddle any now?"
He started out of his maze at life.
"No," he owned, "no!" as if he hardly remembered such a thing had been. "I dropped that more'n fifteen year ago."
"Seems if my feet never could keep still when you played 'Money Musk,'" avowed Amelia, her eyes shining. "'The Road to Boston,' too! My! wa'n't that grand!"
"'Twas mostly dance-music I knew," said Jared. "She never liked it," he added, in a burst of weary confidence.
"She was a church member, old-fashioned kind. Didn't believe in dancin'. 'The devil's tunes,' she called 'em. Well, mebbe they were; but I kinder liked 'em myself."
"Well," said Amelia, in a safe commonplace, "I guess there's some harm in 'most everything. It's 'cordin' to the way you take it." Then one of her quick changes came upon her. The self that played at life when real life failed her, and so kept youth alive, awoke to shine in her eyes and flush her pretty cheek. She looked about the room, as if to seek concurrence from the hearthside gods. "Jared," she said, "you goin' to stay round here long?"
He made an involuntary motion toward his hat.
"No, oh, no," he answered. "I'm goin' 'cross lots to the Junction. I come round the road. I guess 'tain't more'n four mile along by the pine woods an' the b'ilin' spring," he added, smiling at her. "Leastways it didn't use to be. I thought if I could get the seven-o'clock, 'twould take me back to Boston so 's I could ketch my train to-night. She's kinder dull, out there alone," he ended, wearily. "'Twas some o' her property I come to settle up. She'll want to hear about it. I never was no kind of a letter-writer."
"I'll tell you what, then," she said, with a sweet decision, "you stay right here an' have dinner. I'm all alone to-day."
"Ain't old lady Knowles—" He paused decorously, and Amelia laughed. It seemed to her as if old lady Knowles and the house would always be beneficently there because they always had been.
"Law, yes," she said. "She's alive. So's old Ann. They've gone to Wareham, to spend the day."
Jared threw back his head and laughed.
"If that don't make time stand still," he said, "nothin' ever did. Why, when we was in the Third Reader old lady Knowles an' Ann harnessed up one day in the year an' drove over to Wareham to spend the day."
"Yes," Amelia sparkled back at him, "'tis so. They look pretty much the same, both of 'em."
"They must be well along in years?"
Amelia had begun putting up the leaves of the mahogany dining-table. She laughed, a pretty ripple.
"Well, anyway," she qualified, "old Pomp ain't gone with 'em. He's buried out under the August sweet. They've got an old white now. 'Twas the colt long after you left here." She had gone to the dresser and pulled open a drawer. Those were the every-day tablecloths, fine and good; but in the drawer above, she knew, was the best damask, snowdrops and other patterns more wonderful, with birds and butterflies. She debated but a moment, and then pulled out a lovely piece that shone with ironing. "I'll tell you what it is, Jared," she said, returning to spread it on the table with deft touches, "it's we that change, as well as other folks. Ever think o' that? Ever occur to you old lady Knowles wa'n't much over sixty them days when we used to call her old? 'Twas because we were so young ourselves. She don't seem much different to me now from what she did then."
"There's a good deal in that," said Jared, rising. "Want I should draw you up some water out o' the old well?"
"Yes. I shall want some in a minute. I'll make us a cup o' coffee. You like that."
Jared drew the water, and after he had brought it to her he went out into the back garden; and, while she moved back and forth from pantry to table, she caught glimpses of him through the window as he went about from the bees to the flower-beds, in a reminiscent wandering. Once he halted under the sweet-bough and gave one branch a shake, and then, with an unerring remembrance, he crossed the sward to the "sopsy-vine" by the wall.
Amelia could not get over the wonder of having him there. Strangely, he had not changed. Even his speech had the old neighborly tang. Whether he had returned to it as to a never-forgotten tune, she could not know; but it was in her ears, awakening touches of old harmony. Yet these things she dared not dwell upon. She put them aside in haste to live with after he should be gone.
Her preparations were swiftly made, lest she should lose a moment of his stay, and presently she went to the door and summoned him.
"Dinner's ready, Jared!"
It sounded as if she had said it every day, and she knew why; the words and others like them, sweet and commonplace, were inwoven with the texture of her dreams.
Jared came in, an eager look upon his face, as if he also were in a maze, and they sat down at the table, where the viands were arranged in a beautiful order. Jared laid down his knife and fork.
"Well," said he, "old Ann ain't lost her faculty. This tastes for all the world just as old lady Knowles's things used to when I come over here to weed the garden an' stayed to dinner."
Amelia lifted a thankful look.
"I'm proper glad you've come back, Jared," she said simply. "I never had any expectation of seein' you again, leastways not in this world."
Jared spoke irrelevantly:—
"There's a good many things I've wanted to talk over with you, 'Melia, from time to time. Now there's Arthur."
"He ain't done very well, has he?" she inquired. "I never knew much about him after he moved away; but seems if I heard he'd took to drink."
"That's it. Arthur was as good a boy as ever stepped, but he got led away when he wa'n't old enough to know t'other from which. Well, I've always stood by him, 'Melia. Folks say he's only an adopted brother. 'What you want to hang on to him for, an' send good money after bad?' That's what they say. Well, what if he is an adopted brother? Father an' mother set by him, an' I set by him, too."
He had a worried look, and his tone rang fretfully, as if it continued a line of dreary argument.
"Of course you set by him, Jared," said Amelia, almost indignantly. "I shouldn't feel the same towards you if you didn't."
Jared was deep in the relief of his pathetic confidences.
"Arthur married young, an' folks said he'd no business to, nothin' to live on, an' his habits bein' what they were. Well, I couldn't dispute that. But when he got that fall, so 't he laid there paralyzed, I wanted to take the cars an' go right on to York State an' see him. I didn't. I couldn't get away; but I sent him all I could afford to, an' I'm goin' to keep on sendin' jest as long as I'm above ground. An' I've made my will an' provided for him."
His voice had a fractious tone, as if he combated an unseen tyrant. Amelia dared not speak. At a word, she felt, he might say too much. Now Jared was looking at her in a bright appeal, as if, sure as he was of her sympathy, he besought the expression of it.
"There ain't a soul but you knows I've made my will, 'Melia," he said. "There's suthin' in it for you, too."
Amelia shrank, and her eyes betrayed her terror; it was as if she could carry on their relation together quite happily, but as soon as the judgment of the world were challenged she must hide it away, like a treasure in a box.
"No, Jared!" she breathed. "No, oh, no! Don't you do such a thing as that."
Jared laughed a little, but half sadly.
"Seems kinder queer to me now," he owned, "now I see you settin' here, only to put out your hand an' take a thing if you want it. Did Rufus leave a will?"
Amelia shrank still smaller.
"No," she trembled; "no, he didn't leave a will."
"Well, I sha'n't change mine, 'Melia." He spoke with an ostentatious lightness, but Amelia was aware that his mind labored in heavy seas of old regret, buoyed by the futile hope of compensating her age for the joys her youth had lacked. "I guess I'll let it stand as 'tis, an', long as you don't need what I've left ye, why, you can put it into some kind o' folderol an' enjoy it. You was always one to enjoy things."
They sat a long time at the table, and Jared took, as he said, more coffee than was good for him, and praised the making of it. Then he followed her about as she cleared away, and helped her a little with an awkward hand. Amelia left the dishes in the sink.
"I won't clear up till night," she said. "We ain't talked out yet."
She led the way into the garden, and under the grape-trellis, where the tall lilac-hedge shut them from the sight of passers-by, she gave him old lady Knowles's great armchair, and took the little one that was hers when she came over to sit a while with her old friend. The talk went wandering back as if it sought the very sources of youth and life; but somehow it touched commonplaces only. Yet Amelia had the sense, and she was sure he had, too, of wandering there hand in hand, of finding no surprises, but only the old things grown more dear, the old loyalties the more abiding.
Suddenly he spoke, haltingly, voicing her own conviction.
"Don't seem but a minute, 'Melia, sence we set talkin' things over, much as we do now. Seems if we hadn't been so fur separated all these years."
"No," said Amelia, with her beautiful sincerity, "I don't believe we have been, Jared. Maybe that's how it is when folks die. We can't see 'em nor speak to 'em, but maybe they go right along bein' what we like best. I know 'tis so with mother. Seems if, if she walked in here this minute, we shouldn't have so very many stitches to take up. Sometimes I've thought all I should say would be, 'Well, mother, you've got back, ain't you?' Kinder like that."
The beautiful afternoon light lay on the grass and turned the grapevine to a tender green. Jared looked upon the land as if he were treasuring it in his heart for a day of loss. When the sun was low, and green and red were flaming in the west, he rose.
"Well, 'Melia," he said, "I've seen you. Now I'll go."
Amelia stirred, too, recalled to service.
"I want to make you a cup o' tea," she said. "You get me a pail o' fresh water, Jared. 'Twon't take but a minute."
He followed her about, this time, while she set the table; and again they broke bread together. When he rose from his chair now, it was for good.
"Well, 'Melia," he said; and she gave him her hand.
She went with him to the door, and stood there as he started down the path. Half-way he hesitated, and then came back to her. His eyes were soft and kindly.
"'Melia," he said, "I ain't told you the half, an' I dunno 's I can tell it now. I never knew how things were with you. I've laid awake nights, wonderin'. You never was very strong. 'Why,' says I to myself many a night when I'd hear the wind blowin' ag'inst the winder, 'mebbe she's had to go out to work. Mebbe she ain't got a place to lay her head.'"
He was rushing on in a full tide of confidence, and she recalled him. She leaned forward to him, out of the doorway of her beautiful house, and spoke in an assuring tone.
"Don't you worry no more, Jared. I'm safe an' well content, an' you ain't got nothin' to regret. An' when we meet again,—I guess 'twon't be here, dear, it'll be t'other side,—why, we'll sit down an' have another dish o' talk."
Then they shook hands again, and Jared walked away. When he looked back from the top of Schoolma'am Hill, she was still in the doorway, and she waved her hand to him.
After that last glimpse of him, Amelia went soberly about the house, setting it in order. When her dishes were washed and she had fed old Trot, the cat, forgotten all day, she rolled up the fine tablecloth and left it behind the porch-door, where she could take it on her way home. Then she sat down on the front steps and waited for old lady Knowles. Amelia did not think very much about her day. It was still a possession to be laid aside and pondered over all the hours and days until she died. For there would be no other day like it.
The dusk fell and the sounds of night began to rise in their poignant summoning of memory and hope. The past and the present seemed one to her in a beautiful dream; yet it was not so much a dream as life itself, a warm reality. Presently there came the slow thud of horse's feet, and the chaise turned in at the yard. Old lady Knowles was in it, sitting prettily erect, as she had driven away, and Ann was peering forward, as she always did, to see if the house had burned down in their absence. John Trueman, who lived "down the road," was lounging along behind. They had called him as they passed, and bade him come to "tend the horse." Amelia rose and shook herself free from the web of her dream. She hurried forward and at the horse-block offered old lady Knowles her hand.
"Anything happened?" asked old Ann, making her way past to the kitchen.
Amelia only smiled at her, but she followed old lady Knowles in at the porch-door.
"We've had a very enjoyable day, Amelia," said the old lady, untying her bonnet-strings. "Suppose you lay this on the table. Ann must brush it before it's put away. What is it? Child, child, what is it?"
Amelia had taken a fold of her old friend's skirt. It would have seemed to her a liberty to touch her hand.
"Mis' Knowles," she said, "I've had company. 'Twas somebody to see me, an' I got dinner here, an' supper, too, an' I used your best tablecloth, an' I'm goin' to do it up so 't Ann won't know. An' I acted for all the world as if 'twas my own house."
Old lady Knowles laughed a little. She had never been a woman to whom small things seemed large, and now very few things were of any size at all.
"Who was it, Amelia?" she asked. "Who was your company?"
There was a moment's silence, and Amelia heard her own heart beat. But she answered quietly,—
"'Twas Jared Beale."
There was silence again while old lady Knowles thought back over the years. When she spoke, her voice was very soft and kindly.
"You are a good girl, Amelia. You've always been a good girl. Run home, child, now, and come to-morrow. Good-night."
Amelia, out in the path a moment afterwards, the tablecloth under her arm, could hardly believe in what had surely happened to her. Old lady Knowles had bent forward to her; her soft lips had touched Amelia's cheek.
HIS FIRST WIFE
It seemed to Lydia Gale that from the moment she met Eben Jakes she understood what fun it was to laugh. She and her mother and three sisters lived together in a comfortable way, and Lydia, although she was the youngest, had come to feel that she was declining into those middle years when beauty wanes, and though the desire to charm may raise an eager hand, no one will stay to look. She was a delicate blonde, and when she began to recognize these bounds of life she faded a little into a still neutrality that might soon have made an old woman of her. The sisters were dark, wholesome wenches, known as trainers at the gatherings they were always summoned to enliven; but Lydia seldom found their mirth exhilarating. Only when Eben Jakes appeared at the door, that spring twilight, a droll look peering from his blue eyes, and a long forefinger smoothing out the smile from the two lines in his lean cheeks, and asked, as if there were some richness of humor in the supposition, "Anybody heard anything of anybody named Eunice Eliot round here?" she found her own face creasing responsively. Eunice Eliot had been her mother's maiden name, and it proved that she and Eben's mother had been schoolmates. Eben's mother had died some years before; and now, taking a little trip with his own horse and buggy to peddle essences and see the country, he had included his mother's friend within the circle of his wandering.
Mrs. Gale had a welcome ready for him and for the treasured reminiscences of his mother's past, and the three older sisters trained with him to their limit. Lydia sat by and listened, smiling all the time. She thought Eben's long, lank, broad-shouldered figure very manly, and it shocked her beyond speech to hear one of the trainers avow that, for her part, she thought his thin, Yankee face, with its big features and keen eyes, as homely as a hedge-fence. Lydia said nothing, but she wondered what people could expect. She was a greedy novel-reader, and she had shy thoughts of her own. It seemed to her that Eben, who also had passed his first youth, must have been a great favorite in his day. Every commonplace betrayal in those intimate talks with her mother served to show her how good he had been, how simple and true. He had taken care of his mother through a long illness, and then, after her death, lived what must have been a dull life, but one still dutiful toward established bonds, with old Betty, the "help" of many years. Now Betty had died, and before beginning another chapter with some domestic expedient, he had allowed himself this limited trip, to breathe another air and see the world. Lydia felt that he had deserved his vacation. All the weary steps to it, she knew, could scarcely have been climbed so robustly save by a hero.
Eben had stayed a week, and on the morning set for his leaving, Mrs. Gale and the three trainers harnessed in haste to drive over to Fairfax to see the circus come in. Lydia had refused to go, because, for some reason, she felt a little dull that morning, and Eben had soberly declared his peddling would take him another way. He meant to be off before the middle of the forenoon; and while he was in the barn, foddering his horse and greasing the wheels, Lydia bethought her how he had praised the doughnuts several nights before, and, with an aching impulse to do something for him before he should go, hastily made up a batch, judging that a dozen or so would please him upon the road. But she was left-handed that morning, and as she began to fry, the fat caught fire. Then Eben, seeing the blaze and smoke, dashed in, set the kettle safely in the sink, and took Lydia into his arms.
"Say," he whispered to her hidden face, "what if you an' me should get married an' go round some peddlin', an' make our way home towards fall?"
Lydia felt that this was the most beautiful invitation that could possibly have been given her, and she answered accordingly:—
"I'd like it ever so much."
Within the next week they were married, and set out on their enchanted progress, stopping at doors when they liked, and offering bottles whereof the labels sounded delicious and sweet; or if a house looked poor or stingy, passing it by. Sometimes, when Lydia felt very daring, she went to the door herself to show her wares, and Eben stayed in the carriage and laughed. He said she offered a bottle of vanilla as if it were poison and she wanted to get rid of it, or as if it were water, and of no use to anybody. Once, when she had been denied by a sour-faced woman, he stopped under the shade of a tree farther on, and left Lydia there while he went back and, by force of his smile and persuasive tongue, sold the same bottle to the same woman, and came back chuckling in a merry triumph.
This was the day that Lydia's summer happiness felt the touch of blight. She remembered always just the moment when the wind of trouble touched her. They were driving through a long stretch of maple woods with a ravine below, where ferns grew darkly and water hurried over rocks. Lydia was lying back in the carriage, swaying with its motion, and jubilant to her finger-tips. It was young summer now, and she answered back every pulse of the stirring earth with heart-beats of her own. Eben was laughing.
"That's the way to do it," he was saying, in an exaggerated triumph. "Why, you've got to talk to 'em till they think that bottle o' vanilla's the water o' life, an' they'll have to knife ye if they can't git it no other way."
"You're a born peddler," smiled Lydia. Then she asked, "How'd you happen to start out?" She had heard the simple reason many times; but she loved his talk, and her idle mind preferred old tales to new.
Eben fell in with her mood, as one begins an accustomed story to a child.
"Well," he said, and he sobered a little, as memory recalled him, "you know, when mother died, old Betty stayed an' kep' house for me. An' when she died, this last spring, I kinder thought I'd git over it sooner if I traveled round a mite to see the sights. I didn't want to git too fur for fear I'd be sick on 't, like the feller that started off to go round the world, an' run home to spend the first night. You sleepy now?"
He had shrewdly learned that she liked long, dull stories to lull her into the swing of a nap.
"No," said Lydia drowsily. "You go on. Then what?"
"Well, so I got Jim Ross to take over the stock an' run the farm to the halves. I took along a few essences to give me suthin' to think about, an' when I got tired o' rovin' I expected to turn back home an' begin bachin' on 't same's I'd got to end. An' then I stopped at your mother's to kinder talk over old times when my mother was little; an' you come to the door an' let me in."
"Eben," said Lydia, out of her dream and with all her story-book knowledge at hand, "don't you s'pose 'twas ordered?"
"Don't you s'pose 'twas just put into your head to start out that way so 't you could come an' find—me?"
She spoke timidly, but Eben answered with the bluff certainty he had in readiness for such speculations:—
"Ain't a doubt of it. Sleepy now?"
He turned and looked at her as she lay back against the little pillow he had bought for her on the way. The sun and wind had overlaid the delicate bloom of her cheek with rose. The morning damp had curled her hair into rings. Something known as happiness, for want of a better word, hovered about the curves of her mouth and looked shyly out from under her lids. Eben felt his heart stir wonderfully. He bent toward her and spoke half breathlessly.
"Say, Lyddy, I don't know 's I knew half how pretty you were." Then he laughed a little, as if he were ashamed. He was not a man of words, save only when he was joking. Thus far his fondness for her had found expression in an unfailing service and in mute caresses. He spoke bluntly now, chirruping to the horse: "I dunno 's ever I see any eyes quite so blue—unless 'twas my first wife's."
It was as if a sponge had passed over the quivering beauty of the earth and wiped it out. For the moment Lydia felt as if she were not his wife at all. At her silence, Eben turned and glanced at her; but her eyes were closed.
"Tired?" he asked fondly, and she faltered:—
"I guess so."
Then, according to a tender custom, he put his arm about her and drew her to him, and while he thought she slept, she lay there, her eyes closed against his breast, and the hard certainty upon her of something to think about. Blankness had seized upon her, not because he had married a woman before her, but because he had not told. Possibly he had told her mother in some of their desultory talks and had forgotten to say more. The chill wonder of it sprang from her learning it too late. She had to adapt herself to a new man. Until now she had believed that it was spring with them, and that he had waited for her with an involuntary fealty, as she had done for him. They had every guerdon of young love, except that there were not so many years before them. But even that paled beside the triumphant sense that no boy or girl could possibly be as happy as they, with their ripened patience and sense of fun. A phrase came into her mind as she lay there against his heart and knew he was driving slowly to let her rest: "the wife of his youth." It hurt her keenly, and she caught a breath so sharp and sudden that he drew her closer, as one stirs a child to let it fall into an easier pose.
That day they stopped at an old-fashioned tavern in a drowsy town, and Lydia, after dinner, where she talked quite gayly about the house and the garden and the farther hills, said she thought she would go upstairs and lie down a spell. Eben looked at her with concern. She was always as ready as he for "poking about" new places.
"Ain't you feelin' well?" he asked her.
"Oh, yes," said Lydia, "I'm all right. Only I'm kinder sleepy. I guess this air makes me. It's higher up here than 'tis a few miles back."
"Yes," said Eben, "we've been kinder climbin' up for some days. Well, you go an' sleep it off. Do you good. I'll have my pipe, an' then I'll mog round an' see 'f I can't work off a few bottles on the unsuspectin' populace."
When Eben came home from his successful sales, he found a changeling. His wife was not so different in looks or words as in a subtle something he could not define. She laughed at his jokes, and even, in a gentle way, ventured pleasantries of her own; but a strange languor hung about her. It might have been called patience, an acceptance of a situation rather than her eager cheer in it.
"You tired?" he asked her over and over again that day, and she always answered:—
"Mebbe I am, a mite."
So they settled down in the little tavern, and while Eben took excursions round about to place his "trade," she stayed behind, and either shut herself upstairs or sat meditatively in the garden. What moved her now was an overwhelming curiosity. She wondered what the first wife had been like, whether she could make doughnuts, and, above all, if she had been pretty. Sometimes she remembered, with a wild impulse to tell him because it seemed so desperately funny to her, the unhappy couple that had formed a part of her childhood's memories, who used to quarrel violently whenever the husband drank too much, and his wife, in his helplessness, used to go through his pockets.
"Anybody can bear 'most anything," he used to declare, as he steadied himself by the gate, in drunken majesty, and addressed the school-children in a ring, "but goin' through anybody's pockets. That's more'n anybody ought to be called upon to bear."
Lydia smiled sorrowfully upon herself in the midst of her daze, at the wonder whether she also should be tempted to go through her husband's pockets, not thriftily, to save his purse, but to discover the portrait of his first wife. Yet she had resolved to ask him nothing; and then, in the way of womankind, she opened her lips one day and said the thing she would not.
They were sitting in the garden under the pear tree, with beautiful old borders, all a lovely neglect, on both sides. Lydia had been talking about flowers, and getting up now and then to pull a weed,—an ineffectual service where weeds were so plentiful,—and stopping to speak a word to a late sweet-william, as if it were a child. Eben was smoking his pipe contentedly and watching her.
"You like 'em, don't you?" he said fondly, as she came back and took her chair again.
"I guess I do," said Lydia. That day she felt particularly well and freed from the assaults of memory. The sun was on her face and she welcomed it, and a light breeze stirred her hair. "Mother always said I was bewitched over gardens."
"You shall have all the land you can take care of," he avowed, "an' you shall have a hired man of your own. I can foretell his name. It's Eben Jakes."
Lydia laughed, and he went on: "We used to have a few beds, but when mother was taken away I kinder let it slip."
Suddenly Lydia felt her heart beating hard. Something choked her, and her voice stuck in her throat.
"Eben, how'd your mother look?"
"What say?" asked Eben. He was shaking the ashes from his pipe, and the tapping of the bowl against his chair had drowned her mild attempt.
"How did your mother look?"
He pursed his lips and gazed off into the distance of the orchard. Then he laughed a little at his own incompetence.
"I dunno 's I can tell. I ain't much of a hand at that. She was just kinder old an' pindlin' to other folks. But she looked pretty nice to me."
"Ain't you got a photograph of her here with you?"
He shook his head.
"I thought mebbe you'd carry one round."
"Mother never had any real good picture," said Eben meditatively. "I dunno 's she ever set for a photograph. She had an ambrotype taken when she was young, with kinder full sleeves an' her hair brought down over her ears. No, mother never had a picture that was any comfort to me."
Then Lydia dared her first approach.
"Ain't you got any photographs here with you, any of your other folks? I'd like to know how they look."
He shook his head.
"No. They're all to home. You'll find 'em in the album on the centre-table. Gee! I hope the house won't be all full o' dust. I never thought, when I set out, I should bring the quality back with me."
But she could not answer by a lifted eyelash the veiled fondness of his tone. All his emotion had this way of taking little by-paths, as if he skirted courtship without often finding the courage to enter boldly in. It was delightful to her, but at this moment she could not even listen. She was too busy with her own familiar quest. Now she spoke timidly, yet with a hidden purpose.
"I think pictures of folks are a good deal of a comfort, don't you—after death?"
Eben made no answer for a moment. He still gazed reflectively outward, but whether it was into the future or his hidden past she could not tell.
"It's queer about dyin'," he said at last.
She answered him tumultuously:—
"Why—" then he paused, as if to set his thought in order. "I can't tell jest what I mean. Only folks can be here to-day an' there to-morrer. An' they can be all of a bloom of health, or handsome as a pictur'—an' lo ye! they're changed!"
A cold certainty settled upon her heart. The first wife had, then, been handsome. Lydia did not know whether acquired knowledge was a boon or not. Eben had risen, and was standing with his hands in his pockets, still looking into space. It seemed to her that he was miles away.
"An' I dunno which is the worst," he was saying, "to have 'em come down with a long sickness, or drop off sudden. I do, too. It's worse to see 'em suffer. But when they give right up afore your face an' eyes—"
He stopped, and Lydia thought he shuddered. Again she knew. The first wife had died suddenly, and the memory of the shock was too keen upon him to admit of speech. But he shook off reflection as if it had been the dust of the hour. Now he turned to her, and the sweet recognition of his glance was warming her anew. "Don't you go an' play me any such trick," he said, with the whimsical creases deepening in his cheeks.
Yet she thought his eyes were wet.
A new tenderness was born in her at the moment, seeing what he had endured.
"No," she wanted to say, "I hope you won't have to go through that twice." But she only shook her head brightly at him. "Come," said she, "it's time to harness up."
"I'll drive down through that cross-road," said Eben, "an' then I've finished up all them little byways. Byme-by, when we feel like settin' out for good, we can pike right along the old Boston road, an' that'll take us to aunt Phebe's, an' so on home. But we won't start out till we're good an' ready. I guess you got kinder tired afore."
"I'm ready now," said Lydia. The color was in her cheeks. She felt dauntless. At once, born somehow from this sober talk, she felt a melting championship of him, as if life had hurt him too keenly and she was there to make it up to him. Henceforth she meant to be first and second wife in one.
"Hooray!" called Eben. He tossed up his hat; and the tavern-keeper's wife, making pies by the kitchen window, smiled at him and shook her rolling-pin. "Then we'll start off to-morrer, bright an' early. I don't know how you feel, Mis' Jakes, but I'm possessed to git home."
Lydia, for her part, was soberly glad, yet there was a part of her anticipation that was incredible to her. For even after her spiritual uplift of the moment before, the first thought that throbbed into her mind, like a temptation, was that of the album on the centre-table.
They drove off in the morning brightness, and Eben declared he had a good mind to give away his remaining essences and put for home as hard as he could pelt.
"We might cut right across country," he tempted himself. "No matter 'f we planned suthin' different. But then we couldn't see aunt Phebe."
"You're real fond of her, ain't you?" asked Lydia absently. She was wondering if aunt Phebe would speak of his first wife.
"She was mother's only sister," said Eben, in the deeper tone attendant on his mother's name. "She took care of mother in her last days. I guess we never had a mite o' family trouble but aunt Phebe was there about as soon as she could board the train."
"Eben," said his wife, in her timid way of stealing on his confidence. It seemed now like a shy fashion of convincing him that she was worthy, if he would but let her, to know his heart.
"What is it?"
"Don't you think some things—some troubles—are too hard to be talked about?"
"I guess they be," assented Eben.
"We keep thinkin' an' thinkin' 'em over, but we can't speak. Mebbe 'twould be better for us if we could."
"Mebbe 'twould." Then he pulled out his pipe, as he did when the chariot of his affections neared an emotional pass. Eben was willing to graze a wheel by that abyss, but he skillfully avoided falling over.
They were climbing a long hill; and the horse, head down, sagged sleepily along, pulling faithfully. But at the top he halted, as if it seemed he knew what was below, and waited for their wonder. Lydia's eyes were closed, and Eben had drawn the first puff at his pipe.
"There," said he, "what think o' that?"
Lydia opened her eyes and gave a little cry. They seemed to be at the top of everything,—winding roads, like ribbons, patches of green that were ample woods, three dotted villages, and, full flare in their faces, the sunset sky. The red and gold of it had spread and lavished until the eye, to rest itself, was almost forced, for a calming glimpse, back again to the cold blue east. Lydia looked and could not speak. Eben knew too much even to glance at her. He felt all the wonder of it, and the pride, for it seemed to him that it was, in a way, his sky, because it was so much nearer home. They stayed there in silence while the beauty changed but never faded, and the horse dropped his head, to rest.
"Well," said Eben at last, dryly, "I dunno 's ever I see such a sky as that, unless 'twas some I used to see with my first wife."
For the first time he seemed cruel. A bitter thought shot up in Lydia's heart that at every feast there was to be the unbidden guest. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the sky had faded and the air was chill.
"I guess you're gittin' tired again," said Eben tenderly. "Well, we'll be to aunt Phebe's by eight, an' she'll put you straight to bed."
The tears had wet her cheeks. They were the first she had shown him, and he looked at them with dismay. "Hullo!" he cried, "hullo!" It was actual terror in his voice. "'Tain't so bad as that!"
Lydia straightened herself in the buggy and wiped away the tears with an impatient hand.
"I guess 'twas the sunset," she said tremulously. "I never see such a sky."
"That all?" Eben was much relieved. Then he touched up the horse, and told him what a lot of oats were waiting in aunt Phebe's barn. "If that's all," he said, giving his mind to Lydia again, "you'll have to spend most o' your time in salt water. That's the kind o' sunsets we're goin' to have every night arter we get home. The doctor's ordered 'em."
Lydia made herself laugh, and they talked no more until they drove up to a prosperous white house on the outskirts of the first village, and aunt Phebe came to meet them. It was all a joyous tumult that night, and Lydia went to bed early, with a confused sense that aunt Phebe was very kind and that she had gold-bowed glasses and shook the floor when she walked, and that the supper was a product of expert cooking. Eben was uproariously gay, in the degree of approaching home, and took aunt Phebe about the waist to waltz with her, whereupon she cuffed him with a futile hand, remarking:—
"Eben Jakes, I'd be ashamed!"
Lydia had a sense of being in a homely paradise where everything was pleasantly at one, yet that she, companioned by the unclassified memory of a woman whose place she held, had no part in the general harmony. Next morning she overslept, and found herself alone. She heard Eben's whistle from the barn and the guffaw of the hired men, to whom he was telling pleasant tales, and there were women's voices from the kitchen, and the fragrance of frying ham. She dressed in haste, and when she went down the breakfast-table was ready, in great abundance, and everybody waiting by their plates: Eben, aunt Phebe and her mild, soft-spoken husband, and Sarah, the spectacled spinster daughter, who looked benevolently dignified enough to be her mother's mother.
"Late? I guess not," said aunt Phebe, sinking into the chair behind the coffee-pot. "Folks get up here when they're a mind to, an' when it comes to Eben's wife—well, you can't say no more'n that in this house."
Lydia took her place rather shyly, but when Eben had found her hand under the tablecloth and given it a welcoming squeeze, she felt more than half at home. Aunt Phebe passed coffee, and beamed, and forgot to serve herself in pressing food upon the others; but when the first pause came, she leaned back and smiled at her new niece. Lydia looked up. She met the smile and liked it. Aunt Phebe seemed a good deal more than a mother to the nice spinster daughter. She looked as if there were mother-stuff enough in her to pass around and nourish and bless the world. Aunt Phebe was speaking.
"Now," said she, "I didn't have more'n half a glimpse at you last night, Lyddy, such a surprise an' all, an' I had this mornin' to look for'ard to. An' now I'm goin' to take my time an' see for myself what kind of a wife Eben's be'n an' picked out."
She was laughing richly all through the words, and Lydia, though she was blushing, liked the sound of it. She felt quite equal to the scrutiny. She knew the days of driving had given her a color, and she was not unconscious of her new blue waist. Then, too, Eben's hand was again on hers under the friendly cloth. Aunt Phebe looked, took off her glasses, pretended to wipe them, and looked again.
"Well, Eben," said she judicially, "I'll say this for ye, you've done well."
"Pretty good-lookin' old lady, I think myself," said Eben, with a proud carelessness. "Course she's nothin' to what my first wife was at her age; but then, nobody'd expect that kind o' luck twice. Aunt Phebe, here's my cup. You make it jest like the first, or you'll hear from me."
Lydia drooped over her plate. If Eben had sought her hand then, she would have snatched it away from him. All the delicate instincts within her felt suddenly outraged. At last she acknowledged to herself, in a flash, how coarse-minded he must be to mingle the present with his sacred past. But she started and involuntarily looked up. The spinster cousin was giggling like a girl.
"Now you've got back," she was saying to Eben. "Now I know it's you, sure enough. He took that up when he wa'n't hardly out o' pinafores," she said to Lydia.
"What?" Lydia managed, through her anger at him.
"Comparin' everything with his first wife. Where'd he get it, mother?"
"Why," said aunt Phebe, "there was that old Simeon Spence that used to come round clock-mendin'. He was forever tellin' what his first wife used to do, an' Eben he ketched it up, an' then, when we laughed at him, he done it the more. Land o' love, Lyddy, you chokin'?"
Lydia was sobbing and laughing together, and Eben turned in a panic from his talk with uncle Sim, to pound her back.
"No, no," she kept saying. "I'm all right. No! no!"
"Suthin' went the wrong way," commiserated aunt Phebe, when they were all in their places again and Lydia had wiped her eyes.
"Yes," said Lydia joyously, as if choking were a very happy matter. "It went the wrong way. Eben, you pass aunt Phebe my cup."
And while the coffee was coming she sought out Eben's hand again and turned to gaze at him with such tell-tale eyes that the spinster cousin, blushing a little, looked at once away, and wondered how it would seem to be so foolish and so fond.
A FLOWER OF APRIL
Ellen Withington and her mother lived in a garden. There was a house behind it, with great white pillars like a temple, but it played a secondary part to that sweet inclosure—all bees and blossoms. Ellen and her mother duly slept in the house, and through the barren months it did very well for shelter while they talked of slips and bulbs and thirsted over the seed-catalogue come by mail. But from the true birth of the year to the next frost they were steadily out-of-doors, weeding, tending, transplanting, with an untiring passion. All the blossoms New England counts her dearest grew from that ancient mould, enriched with every spring. Ladies'-delights forgathered underneath the hedge, and lilies-of-the-valley were rank with chill sweetness in their time. The flowering currant breathed like fruitage from the East, and there were never such peonies, such poppies, and such dahlias in all the town.
Ellen herself had an apple-bloom face, and violet eyes down-dropped; some one said their lashes were long enough to braid. Fine gold hair flew about her temples, and her innocent chin sank chastely like a nun's. She and her mother never had a minute for thinking about clothes, and so they wore soft sad-colored stuffs rather like the earth; but these quite satisfied Ellen, because they were warm or cool to suit the weather, and beauty, she thought, grew only from the ground.
One spring twilight Mrs. Withington was putting out her geraniums, while Ellen leaned over the gate and talked with Susan Long. The frogs were peeping down by the mill, and a breath of dampness came from the upturned soil. Susan Long was the only one of the old schoolgirls with whom Ellen had kept any semblance of intimacy; the rest of them thought her oddly unsuited to their grown-up pastimes. She was like a bud, all close and green, while they flared their petals to the sun and begged for cherishing.
"Just think," said Ellen in her reedy voice, never loud enough to be heard at "teacher's desk" in school, "while we've been standing here three couples have gone by. I never saw so much pairing off."
Susan laughed exuberantly. She was a big girl, with a mariner's walk and hard red cheeks.
"Anybody but you'd seen 'em a good many times," she remarked. "If you ain't the queerest! Why, they're fellers and girls!"
"Yes, I know it," said Ellen innocently. "One was John Davis and Maria Orne, one was—"
"Oh, I don't mean that! I mean they're goin' together. Ain't you heard what old uncle Zephaniah said down to the Ridge? He told father this year'd be known as the time o' the flood, all creation walkin' two and two. Why, everybody in Countisbury's gettin' married. Courtin' begun in the fall, with singin'-school, and this is the upshot. What do you s'pose I'm waitin' here for, 'sides talkin' with you? Just hold on a minute and you'll see Milt Richardson pokin' along this way. Then there'll be four couples instead o' three."
"O Sue!" said Ellen, in a little bruised tone. She felt disturbed, as if the spring twilight had in some manner turned to a much-revealing day. Sue leaned over the gate and whispered rapidly:
"I'll tell you somethin' else, only don't you let it go no further. Mother says might as well not count your chickens till they're hatched, and aunt Templeton was left at the meetin'-house door. He asked me seven weeks ago come Wednesday, and I've got lots of my sewin' done. Some of my trimmin' 's real pretty. You come over'n' see it. Good-by. Don't you tell."
She walked carelessly away down the road, not casting a glance behind. But Milton was coming, a tall fellow, like his sweetheart heavy and honest of face. They might have been brother and sister for the likeness between them.
Ellen withdrew from the gate and hurried back to her mother. "Come," she urged hastily, "let's go in."
Mrs. Withington was bent almost double, pressing the earth about the cramped geranium roots. She felt the delight of their freedom, with all the world to spread in.
"I ain't got quite through," she said, without looking up. "You cold? Run right along. I'll come."
But Ellen only flitted round the house into a deeper shade and waited. She hardly knew why, except that she was disinclined to see any more people walking two and two, with that significant and terrifying future before them.
The next morning, drawn by some subtle power, she went over to Susan's, and after sitting awhile on the doorstep, they slipped upstairs into the front chamber, and opened drawer after drawer of fine white clothing, wonderfully trimmed.
"Long-cloth!" said Susan, in a whisper. "Here's some unbleached. We had it on the grass last year; seemed as if it never'd whiten out. That's for every day."
Ellen looked, in the short-breathed wonder which sometimes beset her over a new blossom. She touched the fabric delicately and lifted an edge of crocheted lace.
"Let's go over to Maria's," said Susan. "I'll make her show you hers."
They took the short round of the village homes where there were daughters young and still unwed. Everywhere white cloth, serpentine braid, and crocheted lace! Truly it was a marrying year. Ellen said very little, and the girls, talking among themselves, forgot to notice her any more than a flower in a vase.
But that late afternoon was very warm, and when she and her mother sat together on the steps considering rose-bugs, she suddenly broke off to say,—
"Mother, should you just as soon I'd have some new things, trimmed like the girls'?"
Mrs. Withington regarded her in wonder. Ellen did not lift her eyes, but a blush rose delicately in her cheeks.
"Well, I don't know but what 'twould be a good plan," said her mother, after a pause. "You ain't got an individual thing that's trimmed."
So next day they walked the two miles to town, and for weeks thereafter stayed indoors, setting stitches in snowy cloth, with piles of it drifted near. For a time that spring, the garden almost ran to weeds. Then, because a long dormant consciousness stirred in Mrs. Withington, she went into the attic and brought down woven treasures; and one Sunday, Ellen, her cheeks scarlet with the excitement of it, walked to church in a shot silk, all blue and pink, and a hat with a long white feather over her golden hair. There were pink roses under the brim, and they paled beside her face.
"God sakes!" whispered Milton Richardson, in the singing-seats, "Ellen Withington's a beauty!"
The girls rustled their starched petticoats and nudged one another.
"Ain't she come out!" said one; and another answered,—
"My stars! she's the cutest thing I ever see in all my life!"
Even the minister, who was then accounted an old man, being between forty-five and fifty, stopped on his way down the aisle where Ellen waited for her mother, busy in matronly conclave, and shook hands with her.
"I am very glad to see you out, my dear Ellen," said he. "You have been absent quite a while."
She looked up at him, her blue eyes full of wonder; everybody knew she had been regularly to church ever since she was a little girl. But the minister smiled warmly at her and went on.
The next Sunday she came to church in a foam of white like a pear tree. That day Henry Fox, who lingered still unmated, strode up to her and remarked, while a cordial circle stood about to hear, "Pretty warm to-day." This was equivalent to "See you home?" at evening meeting.
"Yes," said she, desperately, "real warm." Then she caught her mother's hand and clung to it; and though Henry kept a dogged step beside them to their gate, it was only Mrs. Withington who spoke.
When the two women were inside the great cool sitting-room, Ellen was holding still by that hard, faithful hand. "Mother," she entreated breathlessly, "I needn't ever be with anybody but you, need I?"
Jealous arms were about her even before the words had time to come.
"No! no! you're mother's own girl."
The very next Wednesday Ellen went alone to match some trimming; her maiden outfit neared completion, and she was in haste to finish it. The garden needed her. When she had struck into the pine woods on her way home a wagon rattled up behind, and Milton Richardson called out, "Ride?"
She was too timid to say, "No," and so she took his hand and climbed up to the seat beside him. The horse fell into a walk, and Ellen blushed more and more because she could not think of anything to say. Midway of the pines the horse stood still.
"Le's wait a minute in the shade," said Milton; and Ellen, glancing swiftly at him, wondered why he seemed so strange. He sought her eyes again, but she was gazing at the pines. Her cheek was rosy red.
"You been shoppin'?" he asked desperately.
"Yes," said Ellen, grateful to him for speech, wherein she was so poor. "I went to get some braid."
"You makin' up pretty things, same 's all the girls?"
"I've made some."
Milton caught his breath.
"O Ellen!" he burst forth, "I wish you'd let me kiss you!"
Suddenly she was gone out of the wagon, like a bird let loose from an imprisoning hand. He saw her running like a swift sweet sprite along the darkening road.
"Ellen, you hold on!" he cried, whipping up to follow. "I didn't mean nothin'! Oh, you let me jest speak one word."
But at the noise of his pursuit she fled over the low stone wall, and without a look behind, dipped into the hollow on her homeward way. Milton swore miserably and drove on. He saw Mrs. Withington gathering cowslip greens in a marsh sufficiently removed from home, and that heartened him to draw rein before the still white house. Ellen would be alone. When he strode into the sitting-room she sprang up from the lounge where she had cast herself. The tears still hung in her long lashes, and her cheeks were white.
"My Lord! Ellen Withington!" he cried, in a shamed and rough remorse. "Couldn't you give me a chance to speak? I don't know what under the light o' the sun made me say that. Only you looked so terrible pretty. But you needn't ha' took it so."
She stood staring at him, fascinated, one brown hand trembling on her heart. Her eyes shot a glance at the door behind him, and he was enraged anew with pity of her.
"You don't know what it is to see a girl as pretty as you be," he went on, as if he scolded her, "and all dressed up to the nines."
She was still looking at him dumbly. She saw beyond him the vista of Sue's broken life.
"Well, then, won't you be friends?" he urged. "Great king! you couldn't be any more offish if I'd done it. You needn't think anything's altered. You're the prettiest creatur' that ever stepped, but I wouldn't give up Sue for the Queen of England. Now will you say it's square?"
So nothing was changed. She could not understand it, but she nodded at him and smiled a little. Her trembling did not cease until he was far upon the road.
When Mrs. Withington came home with her basket of greens, Ellen had supper all ready, and she ran forward and held a corner of her mother's apron while they walked together toward the house.
"You look kind o' peaked," said Mrs. Withington tenderly. "What you got on that old brown thing for?"
"I'm going to weed after supper," Ellen answered. "The garden looks real bad."
Mrs. Withington gazed at her keenly.
"Henry Fox asked if we were goin' to be home this evenin'," she said, with much indifference. "I told him I guessed so."
Ellen held the apron hard.
"O mother!" she whispered; "you see him. I haven't got to, have I?"
"Law! no, child," said the other woman. "I guess you ain't. You're mother's own girl."
So when the dusk came Mrs. Withington sat in the parlor and talked of crops with Henry, wan beside her, while Ellen, safe at the back of the house, weeded a bed of pansies purpling there. A soft after-glow lighted all the windows to flame, and fell full upon the face of one dark flower, quite human in its sombre wistfulness. Ellen knelt and kissed it tremulously.
"You darling one!" she murmured under her breath; and somehow she knew that this was the only sort of kiss she should ever want to give.
Miss Letitia Lamson sat by the open fire, at a point where she could easily reach the tongs for the adjusting of any vagabond stick, and Cap'n Oliver Drown, in the opposite angle, held dominion over the poker. No one else would Miss Letitia have admitted to partnership in the managing of her fire; but Cap'n Oliver wielded an undisputed privilege. The poker suited him because he had a way, in the heat of friendly dissension, of smashing a stick much before it was ready to drop apart of its own charring; and that Miss Letitia never resented. She herself was gentle and persuasive with a fire; but the cap'n's more impetuous method seemed to belong to him, and she understood, without much thinking about it, that when he blustered a little, even over a hard-working blaze, it was because he must. He was a tempestuously organized creature, of a martial front and a baby heart, most fortunate in his breadth of shoulder, his height, and the readiness of the choleric blood to come into his cheeks, the eagerness of his husky voice to bluster.
These outward tokens of an untrammeled spirit helped him to hold his own among his kind, though his oldest friend, Miss Letty, prized him for different reasons. In her soul she had always regarded him as "real cunning," and had even, when she passed to bring up the dish of apples from the cellar, or a mug of cider, longed to touch the queer lock that would straggle down from his sparsely covered poll in absurd travesty of a baby's tended curl.
Probably no one, and certainly not the captain himself, knew exactly how Miss Letty regarded him. Miss Letty had been forty-seven years old the last November that ever was, as she had just told him, in talking over her forthcoming departure from the house where she had lived all the forty-seven years; and he knew, she added, just how she felt about the place and all that was in it. The cap'n nodded gravely, thinking, if it paid to say so, that he knew how the town looked upon her. She was good as gold, the neighbors said, and at that moment she especially looked it, in a still, serious way. She was a wholesome woman, with nothing showy to commend her and little to remark except the extreme earnestness of her upward glance. From her unconscious humility she seemed to be always gazing up at people, even when their eyes were on a level with hers. It might have indicated a habit of mind.
It was only to-night that the rumor of her going had reached Cap'n Oliver, and he had come in to talk it over. Miss Letty's heart quieted as she saw him take her father's capacious armchair and settle on the applique cushion, so sacred to him that whenever the cat stole a nap out of it, stray hairs had to be brushed scrupulously off, lest Cap'n Oliver should appear for an evening's gossip.
Miss Letty's house was at the end of a narrow way, bordered by cinnamon-roses and stragglers from old gardens; and some of the neighbors said it would make them as nervous as a witch to be so far from the road. But it did not make Miss Letty nervous. For some reason, perhaps because of long usage, it helped her feel secure.
"Well," she was saying mildly to Cap'n Oliver, "I'm gettin' along in years. What's the use of denyin' it? That's what Ellery said in his letter. 'You're 'most fifty, Aunt Letty,' says he. 'Time to quit livin' alone an' come out here an' let us take care o' you.'"
Cap'n Oliver scowled at the fire as if he found the freshly burning sticks too strong to be smashed, and resented it.
"Well," said he, "I'm fifty-four. Let 'em come to me."
"Now, be you really?" asked Miss Letty, in a pretty surprise, though she knew all the calendar of his life from the day she went to school for the first time and heard him, in the second reader, profusely interpreting a martial declaration to the Romans. "Well, who'd have thought it!"
"I don't know," said Cap'n Oliver, staring into the fire, "as I'm any less of a man because I'm fifty-four years old. S'pose anybody should come to me an' say: 'Now you're fifty-four, cap'n. You better shut up shop an' go an' live in Washington Territory.'"
"It ain't Washington Territory," said Miss Letty, setting him right with a becoming air of humility. "It's Chicago they live to, Ellery an' Mary."
"Be that as it may," said the cap'n, "I've eat off my own plates an' drinked out o' my own cups a good many year, an' if anybody should try to give me a home, I'll bet ye, Letty, I'd be as mad as a hornet. I wisht you'd be mad, too. I'd think more of ye if ye was."
"You've been blest in a good housekeeper," said Miss Letty, in a gentle recall. "It ain't many men left alone as you be that's got anybody strong an' willin' like Sarah Ann Douglas to heft the burden an' lug it right along."
"It ain't Sarah Ann Douglas," said the cap'n. "Sarah Ann's a good girl, worth her weight in gold, an' growin' more valuable every day, but it ain't she that's kep' a roof over my head. I've kep' it myself because I would have it. So there ye be."
"Well, I dunno how 'tis," said Miss Letty. She was staring placidly into the fire. "But I don't seem to have so much spirit as you have, Oliver. Seems to me, if Ellery an' Mary are goin' to feel worried havin' me livin' on here alone, mebbe I'd better sell off an' go back with 'em. That's the way I look at it."
"You never had any way of your own," said the cap'n.
Miss Letty put out a firm, plump hand and presented him with the poker.
"That stick's 'most fell apart," she said pacifically. "Mebbe you better give it a kind of a knock."
The cap'n did it absently and was soothed by the process. Then Miss Letty laid the shortened pieces together in a workmanlike way, and they blazed afresh.
"What you goin' to do with your things?" asked the cap'n, pointing a broad and expressive thumb about the place.
"Sell 'em off. That's what Ellery wrote. He says I could have an auction mebbe a week 'fore Thanksgivin',—that's about now,—an' then when he an' Mary come we could all go over to cousin Liza's to stay, an' start for Chicago from there. Seems if 'twas all complete."
The cap'n was staring at her.
"You ain't goin' to sell off your things without ay or no?" he inquired. "Don't ye prize 'em—the table you've eat off of an' chairs you've set in sence you were little?"
Miss Letty winced, and then recovered herself.
"Yes," she said, "I do prize 'em. But it seems if they'd got to go."
"Why don't ye take 'em with ye?"
"I couldn't do that, Oliver. Ellery has got his home furnished all complete—oak chamber sets an' I dunno what all. There wouldn't be no room for my old sticks."
The cap'n meditated.
"Letty," said he at length, "if there was anybody you ever set by after your own father an' mother, 'twas my wife Mary."
"Yes," said Letty, with one of her warmly earnest looks. "Mary an' I was always a good deal to one another."
"Well, do you know what she said to me once? 'Twas in her last sickness. She was tracin' back over old times, that year you an' I was together so much, goin' to singin'-school an' all. You had a good voice, Letty—voice like a bird. You recollect that year, don't ye?"
"Yes," said Letty. Her voice trembled a little. "I recollect."
"That was the spring Mary kinder broke down an' went into a decline, an' you journeyed off to Dill River, an' made that long visit. An' when you come back, Mary an' I was engaged. Well, I'm gettin' ahead of my story. What Mary said was, 'Oliver,' says she, 'you don't know half how good Letty is. Nobody knows but me. It's her own fault,' says she. 'She gives up too much, an' it makes the rest of us selfish.'"
"Did she say that?" asked Letty. She was awakened to a vivid recognition of something beyond the outer significance of the words. Then she seemed to lay her momentary emotion aside, as if it were something she could cover out of sight. She laughed a little. "Well," she said, "I guess I don't give up much nowadays. I ain't got so very much to give."
Cap'n Oliver rose and carefully arranged the fire as if there would be no one to do it after he was gone. Miss Letty loved that little custom. It seemed a kind of special service, and often, after he had done it and taken his leave, she went to bed earlier than she had intended because, when his fire had burned out, she could not bear to rearrange it.
"Well," said he, "you bear it in mind, what Mary said. Sometimes you give up too much. You've gi'n up all your life, an' now you're goin' to give up to Ellery an' Mary. You think twice, Letty, that's all I say. Think twice."
He shook hands with her gravely, according to their habit, and she heard his steps along the frozen lane. Then she opened the door softly a crack—this was old custom, too—that she might hear them farther. This time she was sure she actually knew when he turned into the road. She went back to the room and stood for a moment, her hand resting on the table, looking at the orderly fire and then at the chair which seemed to belong more to him than to her father. The cat got up from the lounge where, as she knew perfectly well, she had to content herself when Cap'n Oliver came, stretched, and walked over to the chair as if to assert her ownership. She was gathering her muscles for the easy leap when Miss Letty pounced upon her, gently yet with an involuntary decision.
"Don't you get up there, puss," she said jealously. "Do you think you've got to have a share in everything that's goin'?"
Then she laughed at herself in a gentle shame, lifted puss into the seat of desire, and stroked her ruffled dignity, and still laughing, in that indulgent way, sat down to see the fire out before she went to bed.
The next day Miss Letty set about cleaning her house, the actual first step toward leaving it; and suddenly, as she worked, at a moment she could never identify, it came over her that things which had been hers by such long usage that they were as unconsidered as her hand that wrought upon them, were to be hers no more. Then, as she dusted and rubbed, she stopped from time to time, to regard the rooms and their furnishings musingly and wonder if she should remember every smallest touch of their homely charm. She hoped she should at least remember.
All the week she did not see Cap'n Oliver. He was over at the Pinelands, she understood, making his married sister a little visit, as he always did in the fall of the year. If she thought it a little hard that he should be away the last week her home was to wear its accustomed face, she did not say so, even to herself. It seemed to her a poor habit to wish for what was obviously not to be, and all by herself she set upon the day for the sale of her goods and sent for the auctioneer to come.
An auction was a great event throughout the countryside. It ordinarily happened in the spring, as if people had taken all winter to get used to parting with their possessions; and then wagons of every sort came from whatever region the county paper had reached, and families brought their lunches in butter-boxes and went about scrutinizing the household gear that was to come under the hammer, glad at last to know what the house walls had really held; or they visited with their neighbors in little groups. But this was a day of fall sunshine and drifting leaves. Miss Letty, standing at an upper window looking out on her pear tree, the leaves leathery brown, felt a twitching of the lips. She gazed farther over her domain, and it seemed to her that it had never been so pleasant before, so mellowed and softened by the last light of the year. She knew there were neighbors in the yard below, and could not bring herself to glance at them. A line of horses stood there, and, she was sure, all the way up the lane, and she remembered that was the way they had stood when her mother was buried.
Then some one laughed out, in a way she knew, and she looked down and saw Cap'n Oliver. He was staring up at her window, as he answered a neighbor's greeting, and he gave a little oblique nod at her, and stumped along up the path. At once she recalled herself to the day, and went downstairs to meet him. It seemed very simple and plain now he had come.
The neighbors standing in the entry stood aside to let her pass, but she could scarcely notice them. It began to seem as if she must reach Cap'n Oliver, and then all would be well. The cap'n was in vigorous condition. His face looked ruddier, and he was shaking her hand and saying, as if she had endowed him with her state of mind:—
"Soon be over, Letty, soon be over. Don't you give it a thought."
"No," said Miss Letty, choking, "I won't. I won't give it a thought."
But at that moment Hiram Jackson, who knew everything and was fervidly anxious to be the earliest herald, came stammering out his eagerness to tell.
"Say, Miss Letty. Say! you can't have no auction. You won't have no auctioneer. Old Blaisdell's wife's sister's dead, down to East Branch, an' he's gone."
Miss Letty, breathless, looked at the cap'n. "Well, there!" she said. It was in her mind that now she might not need to have the auction at all; and again she wondered, since she must have it, how she could ever make up her mind to it again.
"Oh, dear!" she breathed. "I'm sorry."
The cap'n was frowning at her, only because he was so deep in thought. He threw up his head a little, then, bluffly, as if he had reached a clearer decision he meant to follow out.
"Not a word, Letty," said he. "Now don't you speak a word. I'm goin' to auction 'em off myself."
She stared at him, her lips apart, in protest.
"Why, Oliver," she said, "you ain't an auctioneer."
"Well, I shall be after this bout. Now you come straight into the sittin'-room an' set down in the corner underneath the ostrich egg, where I can see you good an' plain. An' if I come to anything you want to bid in, you hold up your finger, an' I'll knock it down to you. You understand, don't ye, Letty?"
It was hard to realize that she did, she looked so like a frightened little animal, turning her head this way and that, as if she longed for leaves to cover her.
"You understand, Letty, don't ye?" the cap'n was asking with great gentleness; and because she saw at last some sign of distress in his face also, she quieted, in a dutiful fashion, and nodded at him.
"Yes," she said, "I'll be where you can see me. But I sha'n't bid nothin' in. I don't prize 'em 'specially more'n I prize everything together. If I can give up an' go out West, I guess I can get along without my furniture. Shouldn't you think so?"
She went hurrying away across the hall and into the sitting-room, and Cap'n Oliver, his head bent a little, stroked his chin and watched her. Then he followed, making his way through the friendly crowd in hall and sitting-room, and mounted the dry-goods box prepared for the auctioneer. He looked about him and smiled a little, partly because people were gazing at him sympathetically, and partly over his own embarrassing plight. For he was a shy man. Nobody knew it but himself, and he was afraid that after to-day everybody would know.
"Well, neighbors," said he, "I feel as if I was runnin' for President or hog-reeve or somethin', or goin' to speak in meetin'. But I ain't. I'm goin' to auction off Letty Lamson's things, an' I ain't been to an auction myself sence I was seventeen an' set on the fence an' chewed gum an' played 'twas tobacker while old Dan'el Cummings's farm was auctioned off down to the last stick o' timber. Well, I don't know 's I could say how 'twas done, nor how it's commonly done now, but I can take a try at it. Now, here's some books Miss Letty's brought down out o' the attic. I don't know what they be, but they look to me as if they might ha' come out of her gran'ther's lib'ry—old Parson Lamson, ye know."
"Yes," said Miss Letty, from the low rocking-chair a neighbor had insisted on giving up to her, "they did. Many's the time I've watched him porin' over 'em winter nights with two candles."
"There, you see! they're Parson Lamson's books. Many a good word he got out of 'em for his sermons, I'll bet ye a dollar. Why, ye recollect how much Parson Lamson done for this town, how he got up sewin'-circles in war-time an' set everybody to scrapin' lint, an' climbed out of his bed after he couldn't hardly stand with rheumatism to say good-by to the boys when they enlisted, an' how he wrote to 'em an' prayed for 'em—why, them books are wuth their weight in gold. How much am I offered for Parson Lamson's books? A dollar-seventy—Why, bless you, Tim Fry, there ain't a book there but's wuth a dollar-seventy taken by itself! Why, I'll start it myself at thirteen—"
"Oh, don't you do it, Cap'n, don't you do it!" called Miss Letty piercingly. "I don't want 'em to bid on gran'ther's books. I want them books myself, if I have to work my fingers to the bone."
The cap'n took out his beautiful colored handkerchief with Joseph and his brethren on it, and wiped his face.
"Gone!" said he, "to Miss Letty Lamson. Now, ladies an' gentlemen, here's a little chair. I know that chair, an' so do you. It's the chair little Letty Lamson used to set in when she wa'n't more'n three year old, an' her mother used to keep her out under the sweet-bough tree in that little rocker whilst she was washin' or churnin'! What?"
He paused, for Miss Letty had waved a frantic hand. The tears were running down her cheeks. The others had before them the picture of little Letty Lamson swaying and singing to herself, but she saw the brown apple-stems over her head and smelled the bitter-sweetness of the blooms. She saw her mother's plump bare arms as they went up and down with the churn-dasher or in and out of the suds, and felt again the pang of love that used to tell her that mother was the most beautiful creature in the world.
"Why," said she, regardless of her listeners, "I wouldn't part with that chair for a hundred dollars. How ever come you to think I'd part with my little chair?"
The cap'n was looking at her in a frank perplexity.
"The chair," said he, "remains the property of our friend and neighbor, Miss Letty Lamson. Now, ladies an' gentlemen, here's a fire-set—tongs, shovel, an' andirons. That fire-set has been in this very settin'-room as long as I can remember. Summer-times the andirons have been trimmed up with sparrergrass an' the like o' that, an' winter-times they've been shined up complete an' the fire snappin' behind 'em. What am I offered—"
Miss Letty was standing.
"Oh," she cried, "I never meant to put that fire-set in. Why, don't you remember—"
She was facing the cap'n, and the appeal of her voice and look ran straight to him over the heads of the others, like a message. It bade him recall how he and she had sat together and talked of sad things and happy ones, night after night, for many years. The talks had been mostly cheerful, for the cap'n would have it so, and whenever she felt poorly she had taken pains to put on a lively front, because she reasoned that menfolks hated squally weather. Now, with the passing of the andirons and all they stood for, it looked to her as if a door had shut on that pleasant seclusion where they two had communed together, and there would be no more laughter in the world. "Oliver!" she said, and stopped, because the coming words had choked her.
The cap'n was looking at her over his glasses with extreme benevolence.
"Letty," said he, "I guess you better go upstairs an' sort out some o' the bed-linen an' coverlets. I understood they wa'n't quite ready, an' we shall get to 'em before long. If I come to anything down here I think you set by particularly an' that you can pack up as well as not, I'll bid it in for ye."
The neighbors were nodding in a kindly confirmation, and Miss Letty also understood it to be for the best. She made her way through the friendly aisle cleared for her, and Cap'n Oliver waited until he heard her on the stairs above. He drew a heavy breath.
"Now," said he, "I guess we can poke along. It ain't to be wondered at anybody should want to bid in their own things, but it's kind of distressin' to an auctioneer that wants to earn his money. Now here's this high-boy. I'll rattle it off before Miss Letty gets time to have a change of heart an' come down again. What am I offered for old Parson Lamson's high-boy, bonnet-top an' old brasses all complete?"
Timothy Fry, a bright-eyed youth in the background, started it at fifteen dollars. Timothy had hitherto, in his twenty years, shown no sign of enthusiasm more sophisticated than that of shooting birds in their season and roaming the woods in a happy vagabondage while the law was on. When he made his bid there was a great turning of heads. Some looked at him, but others fixed the cap'n with a challenging glance, because he and the cap'n were great cronies, and it had been jocosely said they were thick as thieves, and if one lied t'other would swear to it. But Timothy, in his Sunday suit, with a blue tie and an elaborate scarf-pin, looked the picture of innocence, and it was concluded that, although no one had suspected it, he was thinking of setting up housekeeping for himself. The cap'n's face had an earnest absorption. He was evidently occupied only in being auctioneer.
"Pshaw!" he said, with a conversational ruthlessness. "Fifteen dollars! Why, I'd give that myself an' set it up out there at the cross-roads for autos to bid on while they run. Its wuth—well, I wouldn't say what 'twas wuth. Maybe you'd laugh, an' I ain't goin' to be laughed at, if I be an auctioneer."
"Twenty-five," piped up Deacon Eli King, won by the lure of city rivalry.
"Twenty-six," Timothy offered quietly.
"Twenty-eight," trembled Hannah Bond, who lived alone and braided mats for the city trade. She had always wanted a high-boy, but the sound of her own voice made it seem as if bidding might be almost too steep a price to pay for one.
"Twenty-nine," said Timothy.
After that there was very little competition. Nobody wanted a high-boy except for commercial possibilities, and about the time the bidding reached thirty-five dollars a foreshadowing timidity began to overspread the assembly. An autumn wind came up and set the bare woodbine sprays to beating on the window, to the tune of nearing snow. Summer buyers seemed far away. When one considered the drifted leaves and the cold sky, it looked as if full purses and credulous minds were a midsummer dream, never to come again. So the high-boy, in this moment of commercial panic, was knocked down to Timothy Fry. Five or six chairs followed, and these also became his.
Then the crowd pressed into the west sitting-room, where there was richer treasure. Here, too, Timothy's unmoved voice beat steadily on, raising every bid, and here, too, he came out victor. In the next room also he swept the field, and now at last the crowd murmurously compared certainties, one woman darkly prophesying he never'd pay for them, because he hadn't a cent—not a cent—laid up, and a man returning that nobody need worry. 'Twas only a joke of Tim's; but Miss Letty'd be the one to suffer. Timothy's eyes and ears were closed to comment. His commercial onslaught continued, and when, in the early dusk, horses were unhitched and there was time for comment at the gate, it was clearly understood that, save for what Miss Letty had bid in at the start, Timothy Fry was the possessor of every stick of furniture, every cup and bowl even, and all the ornaments and articles of common usage in the house. Timothy himself had gone. The men had looked about for him, to rally him on his approaching nuptials, the women for the ruthless cross-questioning his madness had invited; but he had slipped away softly, like the wood-creatures he hunted. Even Cap'n Oliver, who might be supposed to know his inner mind, had betaken himself to the porch, and stood there, hat in hand, wiping his heated brow.