TALES OF NEW ENGLAND LIFE
BY ALICE BROWN
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
FARMER ELI'S VACATION
TOLD IN THE POORHOUSE
MIS' WADLEIGH'S GUEST
A RIGHTEOUS BARGAIN
JOINT OWNERS IN SPAIN
AT SUDLEIGH FAIR
NANCY BOYD'S LAST SERMON
STROLLERS IN TIVERTON
LOVER OF WOODS AND FIELD AND SEA.
We who are Tiverton born, though false ambition may have ridden us to market, or the world's voice incited us to kindred clamoring, have a way of shutting our eyes, now and then, to present changes, and seeing things as they were once, as they are still, in a certain sleepy yet altogether individual corner of country life. And especially do we delight in one bit of fine mental tracery, etched carelessly, yet for all time, so far as our own' short span is concerned, by the unerring stylus of youth: the outline of a little red schoolhouse, distinguished from the other similar structures within Tiverton bounds by "District No. V.," painted on a shingle, in primitive black letters, and nailed aloft over the door. Up to the very hollow which made its playground and weedy garden, the road was elm-bordered and lined with fair meadows, skirted in the background by shadowy pines, so soft they did not even wave; they only seemed to breathe. The treasures of the road! On either side, the way was plumed and paved with beauties so rare that now, disheartened dwellers in city streets, we covetously con over in memory that roaming walk to school and home again. We know it now for what it was, a daily progress of delight. We see again the old watering-trough, decayed into the mellow loveliness of gray lichen and greenest moss. Here beside the ditch whence the water flowed, grew the pale forget-me-not and sticky star-blossomed cleavers. A step farther, beyond the nook where the spring bubbled first, were the riches of the common roadway; and over the gray, lichen-bearded fence, the growth of stubbly upland pasture. Everywhere, in road and pasture too, thronged milkweed, odorous haunt of the bee and those frailest butterflies of the year, born of one family with drifting blossoms; and straightly tall, the solitary mullein, dust-covered but crowned with a gold softer and more to be desired than the pride of kings. Perhaps the carriage folk from the outer world, who sometimes penetrate Tiverton's leafy quiet, may wonder at the queer little enclosures of sticks and pebbles on many a bare, tree-shaded slope along the road. "Left there from some game!" they say to one another, and drive on, satisfied. But these are no mere discarded playthings, dear ignorant travellers! They are tokens of the mimic earnest with which child-life is ever seeking to sober itself, and rushing unsummoned into the workaday fields of an aimlessly frantic world. They are houses, and the stone boundaries are walls. This tree stump is an armchair, this board a velvet sofa. Not more truly is "this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog."
Across the road, at easy running distance from the schoolhouse at noontime or recess, crawled the little river, with its inevitable "hole," which each mother's son was warned to avoid in swimming, lest he be seized with cramp there where the pool was bottomless. What eerie wonders lurked within the mirror of those shallow brown waters! Long black hairs cleaved and clung in their limpid flowing. To this day, I know not whether they were horse-hairs, far from home, or swaying willow roots; the boys said they were "truly" hairs of the kind destined to become snakes in their last estate; and the girls, listening, shivered with all Mother Eve's premonitory thrill along the backbone. Wish-bugs, too, were here, skimming and darting. The peculiarity of a wish-bug is that he will bestow upon you your heart's desire, if only you hold him in the hand and wish. But the impossible premise defeats the conclusion. You never do hold him long enough, simply because you can't catch him in the first place. Yet the fascinating possibility is like a taste for drink, or the glamour of cards. Does the committee-man drive past to Sudleigh market, suggesting the prospect of a leisurely return that afternoon, and consequent dropping in to hear the geography class? Then do the laziest and most optimistic boys betake them hastily from their dinner-pails to the river, and spend their precious nooning in quest of the potent bug, through whose spell the unwelcome visit may be averted. The time so squandered in riotous gaming might have, fixed the afternoon's "North Poles and Equators" triumphantly in mind, to the everlasting defiance of all alien questioning; but no! for human delight lies ever in the unattainable. The committee-man comes like Nemesis, aequo pede, the lesson is unlearned, and the stern-fibred little teacher orders out the rack known as staying after school. But what durance beyond hours in the indescribably desolate schoolroom ever taught mortal boy to shun the delusive insect created for his special undoing? So long as the heart has woes of its own breeding, so long also will it dodge the discipline of labor, and grasp at the flicker of an easy success.
On either side the little bridge (over which horses pounded with an ominous thunder and a rain of dust on the head of him who lingered beneath the sleepers, in a fearsome joy), the meadows were pranked with purple iris and whispering rushes, mingling each its sweetness with the good, rank smell of mud below. Here were the treasures of the water-course, close hidden, or blowing in the light of day. The pale, golden-hearted arrow-head neighbored the homespun pickerel-weed, and—oh, mysterious glory from an oozy bed!—luscious, sun-golden cow-lilies rose sturdily triumphant, dripping with color, glowing in sheen. The button-bush hung out her balls, and white alder painted the air with faint perfume; willow-herb built her bowery arches, and the flags were ever glancing like swords of roistering knights. These flags, be it known to such as have grown up in grievous ignorance of the lore inseparable from "deestrick school," hold the most practical significance in the mind of boy and girl; for they bring forth (I know we thought for our delight alone!) a delicacy known as flag-buds, everlastingly dear to the childish palate. These were devoured by the wholesale in their season, and little mouths grew oozy-green as those of happy beasties in June, from much champing and chewing. Did we lose our appetite for the delectable dinner-pail through such literal going to pasture? I think not. Tastes were elastic, in those days; and Nature, so bullied, durst seldom revolt.
On one side, the nearest neighbor to the school lived at least a mile away; but on the other, the first house of all owned treasures manifold for the little squad who, though the day were wet or dry, fair or frowning, trotted thither at noon. Here were trees under which lay, in happy season, over-ripe Bartlett pears; here, too, was one mulberry-tree, whereof the suggestion was strange and wonderful, and the fruit less appealing to taste than to a mystical fancy. But outside the bank wall grew the balm-of-Gileads, in a stately, benevolent row,—trees of healing, of fragrance and romantic charm. No child ever sought the old home to beg pears and mulberries, or to fill the school-house pail at its dark-bosomed well, without bearing away a few of the leaves in a covetous grasp. Sweet treasure-trove these, to be pressed to fresh young faces, and held and patted in hot little palms, till they grew flabby but evermore fragrant, still diffusing over the dusty schoolroom that warm odor, whispering to those who read no corner but their own New England, of the myrrh and balsams of the East.
We knew everything in those days, we aimless knights-errant with dinner-pail and slate; the dry, frosty hollow where gentians bloom when the pride of the field is over, the woody slopes of the hepatica's awakening, under coverlet of withered leaves, and the sunny banks where violets love to live with their good gossip, the trembling anemone. At noon, we roved abroad into solitudes so deep that even our unsuspecting hearts sometimes quaked with fear of dark and lonesomeness; and then we came trooping back at the sound of the bell, untamed, happy little savages, ready to settle, with a long breath, to the afternoon's drowsy routine. Arrant nonsense that! the boundary of British America and the conjugation of the verb to be! Who that might loll away the hours upon a bank in silken ease, needed aught even of computation or the tongues? He alone had inherited the earth.
All the little figures flitting through those tranquil early dramas are so sharply drawn, so brightly colored still! I meet Melissa Crane sometimes nowadays, a prosperous matron with space enough on her broad back for the very largest plaid ever woven; but her present identity is hazy and unreal. I see instead, with a sudden throb of memory, the little Melissa, who, one recess, accepted a sugared doughnut from me, and said, with a quaint imitation of old folks' manner,—
"I think your mother will be a real good cook, if she lives!"
I hear of Susie Marden, who went out West, married, and grew up with the country in great magnificence; but to me she is and ever will be the little girl who made seventy pies, one Thanksgiving time, thereby earning the somewhat stinted admiration of those among us who could not cook. Many a great deed, tacitly promised in that springtime, never came to pass; many a brilliant career ingloriously ended. There was Sam Marshall. He could do sums to the admiration of class and teacher, and, Cuvier-like, evolve an entire flock from Colburn's two geese and a half. His memory was prodigious. He could name the Presidents, bound the States and Territories, and rattle off the list of prepositions so fast that you could almost see the spark-shower from his rushing wheels of thought. It was an understood thing among us, when Sam was in his teens, that he should at least enter the Senate; perhaps he would even be President, and scatter offices, like halfpence, among his scampering townsmen. But to-day he patiently does his haying—by hand! and "goes sleddin'" in the winter. The Senate is as far from him as the Polar Star, and I question whether he could even bear the crucial test of two geese and a half. Yet I still look upon him with a thrill of awe, as the man selected by the popular vote to represent us in fame's Valhalla, and mysteriously defeated by some unexpected move of the "unseen hand at a game."
There were a couple of boys such good comrades as never to be happy save when together. They cared only for the games made for two; all their goods were tacitly held in common, and a tradition still lives that David, when a new teacher asked his exact age, claimed his comrade's birthday, and then wondered why everybody laughed. They had a way of wandering off together to the woods, on Saturday. mornings, when the routine of chores could be hurried through, and always they bore with them a store of eggs, apples, or sweet corn, to be cooked in happy seclusion. All this raw material was stolen from the respective haylofts and gardens at home, though, as the fathers owned, with an appreciative grin, the boys might have taken it openly for the asking. That, however, would so have alloyed the charm of gypsying that it was not to be thought of for a moment; and they crept about on their foraging expeditions with all the caution of a hostile tribe. Blessed fathers and mothers to wink at the escapade, and happy boys, wise chiefly in their longing to be free! We had a theory that Jonathan and David would go into business together. Perhaps we thought of them in the same country store, their chairs tilted on either side of the air-tight stove, telling stories, in the intervals of custom, as they apparently did in their earlier estate. For, shy as they were in general company, they chatted together with an intense earnestness all day long; and it was one of the stock questions in our neighborhood, when the social light burned low,—
"What under the sun do you s'pose Dave and Jont find to talk about?"
Alas! again the world had builded foolishly; for with early manhood, they fell in love with the same round-cheeked school-teacher. Jonathan married her, after what wrench of feeling I know not; and the other fled to the town, whence he never returned save for the briefest visit at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. The stay-at-home lad is a warm farmer, and the little school-teacher a mother whose unlined face shows the record of a placid life; but David cannot know even this, save by hearsay, for he never sees them. He is a moneyed man, and not a year ago, gave the town a new library. But is he happy? Or does the old wound still show a ragged edge? For that may be, they tell us, even "when you come to forty year."
Then, clad in brighter vestments of memory, there was the lad who earned unto himself much renown, even among his disapproving relatives, by running away from home, in quest of gold and glory. True, he was brought back at the end of three days, footsore and muddy, and with noble appetite for the griddle-cakes his mother cooked him in lieu of the traditional veal,—but all undaunted. He never tried it again, yet people say he has thrown away all his chances of a thrifty living by perpetual wandering in the woods with gun and fishing-rod, and that he is cursed with a deplorable indifference to the state of his fences and potato-patch. No one could call him an admirable citizen, but I am not sure that he has chosen the worser part; for who is so jovial and sympathetic on a winter evening, when the apples are passed, and even the shining cat purrs content before the blaze, or in the wood solitudes, familiar to him as his own house door?
"Pa'tridges' nests?" he said, one spring, with a cock of his eye calculated to show at once a humorous recognition of his genius and his delinquencies. "Sartain! I wish I was as sure where I keep my scythe sned!"
He has learned all the lore of the woods, the ways of "wild critters," and the most efficacious means both to woo and kill them. Prim spinsters eye him acridly, as a man given over to "shif'less" ways, and wives set him up, like a lurid guidepost, before husbands prone to lapse from domestic thrift; but the dogs smile at him, and children, for whom he is ever ready to make kite or dory, though all his hay should mildew, or to string thimbleberries on a grass spear while supper cools within, tumble merrily at his heels. Such as he should never assume domestic relations, to be fettered with requirements of time and place. Let them rather claim maintenance from a grateful public, and live, like troubadours of old, ministrant to the general joy.
Not all the memories of that early day are quite unspotted by remorse. Although we wore the mask of jocund faces and straightforward glance, we little people repeatedly proclaimed ourselves the victims of Adam's fall. Even then we needed to pray for deliverance from those passions which have since pursued us. There was the little bound girl who lived with a "selec'man's" wife, a woman with children of her own, but a hard taskmistress to the stranger within her gates. Poor little Polly! her clothes, made over from those of her mistress, were of dark, rough flannel, often in uncouth plaids and appalling stripes. Her petticoats were dyed of a sickly hue known as cudbar, and she wore heavy woollen stockings of the same shade. Polly got up early, to milk and drive the cows; she set the table, washed milkpans, and ran hither and thither on her sturdy cudbar legs, always willing, sometimes singing, and often with a mute, questioning look on her little freckled face, as if she had already begun to wonder why it has pleased God to set so many boundary lines over which the feeble may not pass. The selec'man's son—a heavy-faced, greedy boy—was a bully, and Polly became his butt; she did his tasks, hectored by him in private, and with a child's strange reticence, she never told even us how unbearable he made her life. We could see it, however; for not much remains hidden in that communistic atmosphere of the country neighborhood. But sometimes Polly revolted; her temper blazed up, a harmless flash in the pan, and then, it was said, Mis' Jeremiah took her to the shed-chamber and, trounced her soundly. I myself have seen her sitting at the little low window, when I trotted by, in the pride of young life, to "borry some emptin's," or the recipe for a new cake. Often she waved a timid hand to me; and I am glad to remember a certain sunny morning, illuminated now because I tossed her up a bright hollyhock in return. It was little to give out of a full and happy day; but Polly had nothing. Once she came near great good fortune,—and missed it! For a lady, who boarded a few weeks in the neighborhood, took a fancy to Polly, and was stirred to outspoken wrath by our tales of the severity of her life. She gave her a pretty pink cambric dress, and Polly wore it on "last day," at the end of the summer term. She was evidently absorbed in love of it, and sat, smoothing its shiny surface with her little cracked hand, so oblivious to the requirements of the occasion that she only looked up dazed when the teacher told her to describe the Amazon River, and unregretfully let the question pass. The lady meant to take Polly away with, her, but she fell sick with erysipelas in the face, and was hurried off to the city to be nursed, "a sight to behold," as everybody said. And whether she died, or whether she got well and forgot Polly, none of us ever heard. We only knew she did not return, bringing the odor of violets and the rustle of starched petticoats into our placid lives.
But all these thoughts of Polly would be less wearing, when they come in the night-time knocking at the heart, if I could only remember her as glowing under the sympathy and loving-kindness of her little mates. Alas! it was not so. We were senseless little brutes, who, never having learned the taste of misery ourselves, had no pity for the misfortunes of others. She was, indeed, ill-treated; but what were we, to translate the phrase? She was an under dog, and we had no mercy on her. We "plagued" her, God forgive us! And what the word means, in its full horror, only a child can compass. We laughed at her cudbar petticoats, her little "chopped hands;" and when she stumbled over the arithmetic lesson, because she had been up at four o'clock every morning since the first bluebirds came, we laughed at that. Life in general seems to have treated Polly in somewhat the same way. I hear that she did not marry well, and that her children had begun to "turn out bad," when she died, prematurely bent and old, not many weeks ago. But when I think of what we might have given and what we did withhold, when I realize that one drop of water from each of us would have filled her little cup to overflowing, there is one compensating thought, and I murmur, conscience-smitten, "I'm glad she had the pink dress!"
And now the little school is ever present with us, ours still for counsel or reproof. Its long-closed sessions are open, by day and night; and I suppose, as time goes on, and we drop into the estate of those who sit by the fireside, oblivious to present scenes, yet acutely awake to such as
"Flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude,"
it will grow more and more lifelike and more near. Beside it, live all the joys of memory and many a long-past pain. For we who have walked in country ways, walk in them always, and with no divided love, even though brick pavements have been our chosen road this many a year. We follow the market, we buy and sell, and even run across the sea, to fit us with new armor for the soul, to guard it from the hurts of years; but ever do we keep the calendar of this one spring of life. Some unheard angelus summons us to days of feast and mourning; it may be the joy of the fresh-springing willow, or the nameless pain responsive to the croaking of frogs, in the month when twilights are misty, and waves of world-sorrow flood in upon the heart, we know not why. All those trembling half-thoughts of the sleep of the year and its awakening,—we have not escaped them by leaving the routine that brought them forth. We know when the first violets are blowing in the woods, and we paint for ourselves the tasselling of the alder and the red of maple-buds. We taste still the sting of checkerberry and woodsy flavor of the fragrant birch. When fields of corn are shimmering in the sun, we know exactly how it would seem to run through those dusty aisles, swept by that silken drapery, and counselled in whispers from the plumy tops so far above our heads. The ground-sparrow's nest is not strange to us; no, nor the partridge's hidden treasure within the wood. We can make pudding-bags of live-forever, dolls' bonnets, "trimmed up to the nines," out of the velvet mullein leaf, and from the ox-eyed daisies, round, cap-begirt faces, smiling as the sun. All the homely secrets of rural life are ours: the taste of pie, cinnamon-flavored, from the dinner-pails at noon; the smell of "pears a-b'ilin'," at that happiest hour when, in the early dusk, we tumble into the kitchen, to find the table set and the stove redolent of warmth and savor. "What you got for supper?" we cry,—question to be paralleled in the summer days by "What'd you have for dinner?" as, famished little bears, we rush to the dairy-wheel, to feed ravenously on the cold, delicious fragments of the meal eaten without us.
If time ever stood still, if we were condemned to the blank solitude of hospital nights or becalmed, mid-ocean days, and had hours for fruitless dreaming, I wonder what viands we should choose, in setting forth a banquet from that ambrosial past! Foods unknown to poetry and song: "cold b'iled dish," pan-dowdy, or rye drop-cakes dripping with butter! For these do we taste, in moments of retrospect; and perhaps we dwell the more on their homely savor because we dare not think what hands prepared them for our use, or, when the board was set, what faces smiled. We are too wise, with the cunning prudence of the years, to penetrate over-far beyond the rosy boundary of youth, lest we find also that bitter pool which is not Lethe, but the waters of a vain regret.
FARMER ELI'S VACATION
"It don't seem as if we'd really got round to it, does it, father?" asked Mrs. Pike.
The west was paling, and the August insects stirred the air with their crooning chirp. Eli and his wife sat together on the washing-bench outside the back door, waiting for the milk to cool before it should be strained. She was a large, comfortable woman, with an unlined face, and smooth, fine auburn hair; he was spare and somewhat bent, with curly iron-gray locks, growing thin, and crow's-feet about his deep-set gray eyes. He had been smoking the pipe of twilight contentment, but now he took it out and laid it on the bench beside him, uncrossing his legs and straightening himself, with the air of a man to whom it falls, after long pondering, to take some decisive step.
"No; it don't seem as if 'twas goin' to happen," he owned. "It looked pretty dark to me, all last week. It's a good deal of an undertakin', come to think it all over. I dunno's I care about goin'."
"Why, father! After you've thought about it so many years, an' Sereno's got the tents strapped up, an' all! You must be crazy!"
"Well," said the farmer, gently, as he rose and went to carry the milk-pails into the pantry, calling coaxingly, as he did so, "Kitty! kitty! You had your milk? Don't you joggle, now!" For one eager tabby rose on her hind legs, in purring haste, and hit her nose against the foaming saucer.
Mrs. Pike came ponderously to her feet, and followed, with the heavy, swaying motion of one grown fleshy and rheumatic. She was not in the least concerned about Eli's change of mood. He was a gentle soul, and she had always been able to guide him in paths of her own choosing. Moreover, the present undertaking was one involving his own good fortune, and she meant to tolerate no foolish scruples which might interfere with its result. For Eli, though he had lived all his life within easy driving distance of the ocean, had never seen it, and ever since his boyhood he had cherished one darling plan,—some day he would go to the shore, and camp out there for a week. This, in his starved imagination, was like a dream of the Acropolis to an artist stricken blind, or as mountain outlines to the dweller in a lonely plain. But the years had flitted past, and the dream never seemed nearer completion. There were always planting, haying, and harvesting to be considered; and though he was fairly prosperous, excursions were foreign to his simple habit of life. But at last, his wife had stepped into the van, and organized an expedition, with all the valor of a Francis Drake.
"Now, don't you say one word, father," she had said. "We're goin' down to the beach, Sereno, an' Hattie, an' you an' me, an' we're goin' to camp out. It'll do us all good."
For days before the date of the excursion, Eli had been solemn and tremulous, as with joy; but now, on the eve of the great event, he shrank back from it, with an undefined notion that it was like death, and that he was not prepared. Next morning, however, when they all rose and took their early breakfast, preparatory to starting at five, he showed no sign of indecision, and even went about his outdoor tasks with an alacrity calculated, as his wife approvingly remarked, to "for'ard the v'y'ge." He had at last begun to see his way clear, and he looked well satisfied when his daughter Hattie and Sereno, her husband, drove into the yard, in a wagon cheerfully suggestive of a wandering life. The tents and a small hair-trunk were stored in the back, and the horse's pail swung below.
"Well, father," called Hattie, her rosy face like a flower under the large shade-hat she had trimmed for the occasion, "guess we're goin' to have a good day!"
He nodded from the window, where he was patiently holding his head high and undergoing strangulation, while his wife, breathing huskily with haste and importance, put on his stock.
"You come in, Hattie, an' help pack the doughnuts into that lard-pail on the table," she called. "I guess you'll have to take two pails. They ain't very big."
At length, the two teams were ready, and Eli mounted to his place, where he looked very slender beside his towering mate. The hired man stood leaning on the pump, chewing a bit of straw, and the cats rubbed against his legs, with tails like banners; they were all impressed by a sense of the unusual.
"Well, good-by, Luke," Mrs. Pike called, over her shoulder; and Eli gave the man a solemn nod, gathered up the reins, and drove out of the yard. Just outside the gate, he pulled up.
"Whoa!" he called, and Luke lounged forward. "Don't you forgit them cats! Git up, Doll!" And this time, they were gone.
For the first ten miles of the way, familiar in being the road to market, Eli was placidly cheerful. The sense that he was going to do some strange deed, to step into an unknown country, dropped away from him, and he chatted, in his intermittent, serious fashion, of the crops and the lay of the land.
"Pretty bad job up along here, ain't it, father?" called Sereno, as they passed a sterile pasture where two plodding men and a yoke of oxen were redeeming the soil from its rocky fetters.
"There's a good deal o' pastur', in some places, that ain't fit for nothin' but to hold the world together," returned Eli; and then he was silent, his eyes fixed on Doll's eloquent ears, his mouth working a little. For this progress through a less desirable stratum of life caused him to cast a backward glance over his own smooth, middle-aged road.
"We've prospered, 'ain't we, Maria?" he said, at last; and his wife, unconsciously following his thoughts, in the manner of those who have lived long together, stroked her black silk visite, and answered, with a well-satisfied nod:
"I guess we 'ain't got no cause to complain."
The roadside was parched under an August sun; tansy was dust-covered, and ferns had grown ragged and gray. The jogging horses left behind their lazy feet a suffocating cloud.
"My land!" cried Mrs. Pike, "if that ain't goldenrod! I do b'lieve it comes earlier every year, or else the seasons are changin'. See them elderberries! Ain't they purple! You jest remember that bush, an' when we go back, we'll fill some pails. I dunno when I've made elderberry wine."
Like her husband, she was vaguely excited; she began to feel as if life would be all holidays. At noon, they stopped under the shadow of an elm-tree which, from its foothold in a field, completely arched the road; and there they ate a lunch of pie and doughnuts, while the horses, freed from their headstalls, placidly munched a generous feed of oats, near by. Hattie and her mother accepted this picnicking with an air of apologetic amusement; and when one or two passers-by looked at them, they smiled a little at vacancy, with the air of wishing it understood that they were by no means accustomed to such irregularities.
"I guess they think we're gypsies," said Hattie, as one carriage rolled past.
"Well, they needn't trouble themselves," returned her mother, rising with difficulty to brush the crumbs from her capacious lap. "I guess I've got as good an extension-table to home as any on 'em."
But Eli ate sparingly, and with a preoccupied and solemn look.
"Land, father!" exclaimed his wife, "you 'ain't eat no more'n a bird!
"I guess I'll go over to that well," said he, "an' git a drink o' water. I drink more'n I eat, if I ain't workin'." But when he came back, carefully bearing a tin pail brimming with cool, clear water, his face expressed strong disapprobation, and he smacked his lips scornfully.
"Terrible flat water!" he announced. "Tastes as if it come out o' the cistern." But the others could find no fault with it, and Sereno drained the pail.
"Pretty good, I call it," he said; and Mrs. Pike rejoined,—
"You always was pretty particular about water, father."
But Eli still shook his head, and ejaculated, "Brackish, brackish!" as he began to put the bit in Doll's patient mouth. He was thinking, with a passion of loyalty, of the clear, ice-cold water at home, which had never been shut out, by a pump, from the purifying airs of heaven, but lay where the splashing bucket and chain broke, every day, the image of moss and fern. His throat grew parched and dry with longing.
When they were within three miles of the sea, it seemed to them that they could taste the saltness of the incoming breeze; the road was ankle-deep in dust; the garden flowers were glaring in their brightness. It was a new world. And when at last they emerged from the marsh-bordered road upon a ridge of sand, and turned a sudden corner, Mrs. Pike faced her husband in triumph.
"There, father!" she cried. "There 'tis!"
But Eli's eyes were fixed on the dashboard in front of him. He looked pale.
"Why, father," said she, impatiently, "ain't you goin' to look? It's the sea!"
"Yes, yes," said Eli, quietly; "byme-by. I'm goin' to put the horses up fust."
"Well, I never!" said Mrs. Pike; and as they drew up on the sandy tract where Sereno had previously arranged a place for their tents, she added, almost fretfully, turning to Hattie, "I dunno what's come over your father. There's the water, an' he won't even cast his eyes at it."
But Hattie understood her father, by some intuition of love, though not of likeness.
"Don't you bother him, ma," she said. "He'll make up his mind to it pretty soon. Here, le's lift out these little things, while they're unharnessin', and then they can get at the tents."
Mrs. Pike's mind was diverted by the exigencies of labor, and she said no more; but after the horses had been put up at a neighboring house, and Sereno, red-faced with exertion, had superintended the tent-raising, Hattie slipped her arm through her father's, and led him away.
"Come, pa," she said, in a whisper; "le's you and me climb over on them rocks."
Eli went; and when they had picked their way over sand and pools to a headland where the water thundered below, and salt spray dashed up in mist to their feet, he turned and looked at the sea. He faced it as a soul might face Almighty Greatness, only to be stricken blind thereafter; for his eyes filled painfully with slow, hot tears. Hattie did not look at him, but after a while she shouted in his ear, above the outcry of the surf,—
"Here, pa, take my handkerchief. I don't know how 'tis about you, but this spray gets in my eyes."
Eli took it obediently, but he did not speak; he only looked at the sea. The two sat there, chilled and quite content, until six o'clock, when Mrs. Pike came calling to them from the beach, with dramatic shouts, emphasized by the waving of her ample apron,—
"Supper's ready! Sereno's built a bum-fire, an' I've made some tea!"
Then they slowly made their way back to the tents, and sat down to the evening meal. Sereno seemed content, and Mrs. Pike was bustling and triumphant; the familiar act of preparing food had given her the feeling of home.
"Well, father, what think?" she asked, smiling exuberantly, as she passed him his mug of tea. "Does it come up to what you expected?"
Eli turned upon her his mild, dazed eyes.
"I guess it does," he said, gently.
That night, they sat upon the shore while the moon rose and laid in the water her majestic pathway of light. Eli was the last to leave the rocks, and he lay down on his hard couch in the tent, without speaking.
"I wouldn't say much to father," whispered Hattie to her mother, as they parted for the night. "He feels it more 'n we do."
"Well, I s'pose he is some tired," said Mrs. Pike, acquiescing, after a brief look of surprise. "It's a good deal of a jaunt, but I dunno but I feel paid a'ready. Should you take out your hair-pins, Hattie?"
She slept soundly and vocally, but her husband did not close his eyes. He looked, though he could see nothing, through the opening in the tent, in the direction where lay the sea, solemnly clamorous, eternally responsive to some infinite whisper from without his world. The tension of the hour was almost more than he could bear; he longed for morning, in sharp suspense, with a faint hope that the light might bring relief. Just as the stars faded, and one luminous line pencilled the east, he rose, smoothed his hair, and stepped softly out upon the beach. There he saw two shadowy figures, Sereno and Hattie. She hurried forward to meet him.
"You goin' to see the sunrise, too, father?" she asked. "I made Sereno come. He's awful mad at bein' waked up."
Eli grasped her arm.
"Hattie," he said, in a whisper, "don't you tell. I jest come out to see how 'twas here, before I go. I'm goin' home,—I'm goin' now."
"Why, father!" said Hattie; but she peered more closely into his face, and her tone changed. "All right," she added, cheerfully. "Sereno'll go and harness up."
"No; I'm goin' to walk."
"I don't mean to breakup your stayin' here, nor your mother's. You tell her how 'twas. I'm goin' to walk."
Hattie turned and whispered to her husband for a moment. Then she took her father's hand.
"I'll slip into the tent and put you up somethin' for your breakfast and luncheon," she said. "Sereno's gone to harness; for, pa, you must take one horse, and you can send Luke back with it Friday, so's we can get the things home. What do we want of two horses down here, at two and ninepence a day? I guess I know!"
So Eli yielded; but before his wife appeared, he had turned his back on the sea, where the rose of dawn was fast unfolding. As he jogged homeward, the dusty roadsides bloomed with flowers of paradise, and the insects' dry chirp thrilled like the song of angels. He drove into the yard just at the turning of the day, when the fragrant smoke of many a crackling fire curls cheerily upward, in promise of the evening meal.
"What's busted?" asked Luke, swinging himself down from his load of fodder-corn, and beginning to unharness Doll.
"Oh, nothin'," said Eli, leaping, from the wagon as if twenty years had been taken from his bones. "I guess I'm too old for such jaunts. I hope you didn't forgit them cats."
"The land o' gracious!" said Mrs. Lothrop Wilson, laying down her "drawing-in hook" on the rug stretched between two chairs in the middle of the kitchen, and getting up to look from the window. "If there ain't Lucindy comin' out o' the Pitmans' without a thing on her head, an' all them little curls a-flyin'! An' the old Judge ain't cold in his grave!"
"I guess the Judge won't be troubled with cold, any to speak of, arter this," said her husband from the window, where he sat eating his forenoon lunch of apple-pie and cheese. He was a cooper, and perhaps the pleasantest moment in his day was that when he slipped out of his shop, leaving a bit of paper tacked on the door to say he was "on errands," and walked soberly home for his bite and sup. "If he ain't good an' warm about now, then the Scriptur's ain't no more to be depended on than a last year's almanac."
"Late Wilson, I'm ashamed of you," retorted his wife, looking at him with such reproof that, albeit she had no flesh to spare, she made herself a double chin. "An' he your own uncle, too! Well, he was nigh, I'll say that for him; an' if he'd had his way, the sun'd ha' riz an' set when he said the word. But Lucindy's his only darter, an' if she don't so much as pretend to be a mourner, I guess there ain't nobody that will. There! don't you say no more! She's comin' in here!"
A light step sounded on the side piazza, and Lucindy came in, with a little delicate, swaying motion peculiar to her walk. She was a very slender woman, far past middle life, with a thin, smiling face, light blue eyes, shining with an eager brightness, and fine hair, which escaped from its tight twist in little spiral curls about the face.
"How do, Jane?" she said, in an even voice, stirred by a pleasant, reedy thrill. "How do, Lote?"
Lothrop pushed forward a chair, looking at her with an air of great kindliness. There was some slight resemblance between them, but the masculine type seemed entirely lacking in that bright alertness so apparent in her. Mrs. Wilson nodded, and went back to her drawing-in. She was making a very red rose with a pink middle.
"I dunno's I can say I'm surprised to see you, Lucindy," she began, with the duteous aspect of one forced to speak her disapproval, "for I ketched you comin' out o' the Pitmans' yard."
"Yes," said Lucindy, smiling, and plaiting her skirt between her nervous fingers. "Yes, I went in to see if they'd let me take Old Buckskin a spell to-morrow."
"What under the sun—" began Mrs. Wilson; but her husband looked at her, and she stopped. He had become so used to constituting himself Lucindy's champion in the old Judge's day, now just ended, that he kept an unremitting watch on any one who might threaten her peace. But Lucindy evidently guessed at the unspoken question.
"I should have come here, if I'd expected to drive," she said. "But I thought maybe your horse wa'n't much used to women, and I kind o' dreaded to be the first one to try him with a saddle."
Mrs. Wilson put down her hook again, and leaned back in her chair. She looked from her husband to Lucindy, without speaking. But Lucindy went on, with the innocent simplicity of a happy child.
"You know I was always possessed to ride horseback," she said, addressing herself to Lothrop, "and father never would let me. And now he ain't here, I mean to try it, and see if 'tain't full as nice as I thought."
"Lucindy!" burst forth Mrs. Wilson, explosively, "ain't you goin' to pay no respect to your father's memory?"
Lucindy turned to her, smiling still, but with a hint of quizzical shrewdness about her mouth.
"I guess I ain't called on to put myself out," she said, simply, yet not irreverently. "Father had his way in pretty much everything while he was alive. I always made up my mind if I should outlive him, I'd have all the things I wanted then, when young folks want the most. And you know then I couldn't get 'em."
"Well!" said Mrs. Wilson. Her tone spoke volumes of conflicting commentary.
"You got a saddle?" asked Lucindy, turning to her cousin. "I thought I remembered you had one laid away, up attic. I suppose you'd just as soon I'd take it?"
He was neither shocked nor amused. He had been looking at her very sadly, as one who read in every word the entire tragedy of a repressed and lonely life.
"Yes, we have, Lucindy," he said, gently, quieting his wife by a motion of the hand, "but 'tain't what you think. It's a man's saddle. You'd have to set straddle.
"Oh!" said Lucindy, a faint shade of disappointment clouding her face. "Well, no matter! I guess they've got one down to the Mardens'. Jane, should you just as soon come round this afternoon, and look over some bunnit trimmin's with me? I took two kinds of flowers home from Miss West's, and I can't for my life tell which to have."
"Ain't you goin' to wear black?" Mrs. Wilson spoke now in double italics.
"Oh, no! I don't feel called on to do that. I always liked bright colors, and I don't know's 'twould be real honest in me to put on mournin' when I didn't feel it."
"'Honor thy father'—" began Jane, in spite of her husband's warning hand; but Lucindy interrupted her, with some perplexity.
"I have, Jane, I have! I honored father all my life, just as much as ever I could. I done everything he ever told me, little and big! No, though, there's one thing I never fell in with. I did cheat him once. I don't know but I'm sorry for that, now it's all past and gone!"
Her cousin had been drumming absently on the window-sill, but he looked up with awakened interest. Mrs. Wilson, too, felt a wholesale curiosity, and she, at least, saw no reason for curbing it.
"What was it, Lucindy?" she asked. "The old hunks!" she repeated to herself, like an anathema.
Lucindy began her confession, with eyes down-dropped and a faltering voice.
"Father wanted I should have my hair done up tight and firm. So I pretended I done the best I could with it. I told him these curls round my face and down in my neck was too short, and I couldn't pin 'em up. But they wa'n't curls, and they wouldn't ha' been short if I hadn't cut 'em. For every night, and sometimes twice a day, I curled 'em on a pipe-stem."
"Ain't them curls nat'ral, Lucindy?" cried Mrs. Wilson. "Have you been fixin' 'em to blow round your face that way, all these years?"
"I begun when I was a little girl," said Lucindy, guiltily. "It did seem kind o' wrong, but I took real pleasure in it!"
Lothrop could bear no more. He wanted to wipe his eyes, but he chose instead to walk straight out of the room and down to his shop. His wife could only express a part of her amazement by demanding, in a futile sort of way,—
"Where'd you get the pipe?"
"I stole the first one from a hired man we had," said Lucindy, her cheeks growing pink. "Sometimes I had to use slate-pencils."
There was no one else to administer judgment, and Mrs. Wilson felt the necessity.
"Well," she began, "an' you can set there, tellin' that an' smilin'—"
"My smilin' don't mean any more'n some other folks' cryin', I guess," said Lucindy, smiling still more broadly. "I begun that more'n thirty years ago. I looked into the glass one day, and I see the corners of my mouth were goin' down. Sharper 'n, vinegar, I was! So I says to myself, 'I can smile, whether or no. Nobody can't help that!' And I did, and now I guess I don't know when I do it."
Lucindy rose suddenly and brushed her lap, as if she dusted away imaginary cares.
"There!" she exclaimed, "I've said more this mornin' than I have for forty year! Don't you lead me on to talk about what's past and gone! The only thing is, I mean to have a good time now, what there is left of it. Some things you can't get back, and some you can. Well, you step round this afternoon, won't you?"
"I dunno's I can. John's goin' to bring Claribel up, to spend the arternoon an' stay to supper."
"Why, dear heart! that needn't make no difference. I should admire to have her, too. I'll show her some shells and coral I found this mornin', up attic."
Lucindy had almost reached the street when she turned, as with a sudden resolution, and retraced her steps.
"Jane," she called, looking in at the kitchen window. "It's a real bright day, pretty as any 't ever I see. Don't you worry for fear o' my disturbin' them that's gone, if I do try to ketch at somethin' pleasant. If they're wiser now, I guess they'll be glad I had sense enough left to do it!"
That afternoon, Mrs. Wilson, in her best gingham and checked sunbonnet, took her way along the village street to the old Judge Wilson house. It was a colonial mansion, sitting austerely back in a square yard. In spite of its prosperity, everything about it wore a dreary air, as if it were tired of being too well kept; for houses are like people, and carry their own indefinable atmosphere with them. Mrs. Wilson herself lived on a narrower and more secluded street, though it was said that her husband, if he had not defied the old Judge in some crucial matter, might have studied law with him, and possibly shared his speculations in wool. Then he, too, might have risen to be one of the first men in the county, instead of working, in his moderate fashion, for little more than day's wages. Claribel, a pale, dark-eyed child, also dressed in her best gingham, walked seriously by her grandmother's side. Lucindy was waiting for them at the door.
"I declare!" she called, delightedly. "I was 'most afraid you'd forgot to come! Well, Claribel, if you 'ain't grown! They'll have to put a brick on your head, or you'll be taller'n grandma."
Claribel submitted to be kissed, and they entered the large, cool sitting-room, where they took off their things.
"You make yourself at home, Jane," said Lucindy, fluttering about, in pleasant excitement. "I ain't goin' to pay you a mite of attention till I see Claribel fixed. Now, Claribel, remember! you can go anywheres you're a mind to. And you can touch anything there is. You won't find a thing a little girl can hurt. Here, you come here where I be, and look across the entry. See that big lamp on the table? Well, if you unhook them danglin' things and peek through 'em, you'll find the brightest colors! My, how pretty they be! I've been lookin' through 'em this mornin'. I used to creep in and do it when I was little," she continued, in an aside to Mrs. Wilson. "Once I lost one." A strange look settled on her face; she was recalling a bitter experience. "There!" she said, releasing Claribel with a little hug, "now run along! If you look on the lower shelf of the what-not, you'll see some shells and coral I put there for just such a little girl."
Claribel walked soberly away to her playing.
"Don't you hurt nothin'!" called Mrs. Wilson; and Claribel responded properly,—
"There!" said Lucindy, watching the precise little back across the hall, "Now le's talk a mite about vanity. You reach me that green box behind your chair. Here's the best flowers Miss West had for what I wanted. Here's my bunnit, too. You see what you think."
She set the untrimmed bonnet on her curls, and laid first a bunch of bright chrysanthemums against it, and then some strange lavender roses. The roses turned her complexion to an ivory whiteness, and her anxious, intent expression combined strangely with that undesirable effect.
"My soul, Lucindy!" cried Mrs. Wilson, startled into a more robust frankness than usual, "you do look like the Old Nick!"
A shade came over Miss Lucindy's honest face. It seemed, for a moment, as if she were going to cry.
"Don't you like 'em, Jane?" she asked, appealingly. "Won't neither of 'em do?"
Mrs. Wilson was not incapable of compunction, but she felt also the demands of the family honor.
"Well, Lucindy," she began, soothingly, "now 'tain't any use, is it, for us to say we ain't gettin' on in years? We be! You 're my age, an'—Why, look at Claribel in there! What should you say, if you see me settin' out to meetin' with red flowers on my bunnit? I should be nothin' but a laughin'-stock!"
Lucindy laid the flowers back in their box, with as much tenderness as if they held the living fragrance of a dream.
"Well!" she said, wistfully. Then she tried to smile.
"Here!" interposed Mrs. Wilson, not over-pleased with the part she felt called upon to play, "you give me your bunnit. Don't I see your old sheaf o'wheat in the box? Let me pin it on for you. There, now, don't that look more suitable?"
By the time she had laid it on, in conventional flatness, and held it up for inspection, every trace of rebellion had apparently been banished from Lucindy's mind.
"Here," said the victim of social rigor, "you hand me the box, and I'll set it away."
They had a cosey, old-fashioned chat, touching upon nothing in the least revolutionary, and Mrs. Wilson was glad to think Lucindy had forgotten all about the side-saddle. This last incident of the bonnet, she reflected, showed how much real influence she had over Lucindy. She must take care to exert it kindly but seriously now that the old Judge was gone.
"You goin' to keep your same help?" she asked, continuing the conversation.
"Oh, yes! I wouldn't part with Ann Toby for a good deal. She's goin' to have her younger sister come to live with us now. We shall be a passel o' women, sha'n't we?"
"I guess it's well for you Ann Toby's what she is, or she'd cheat you out o' your eye-teeth!"
"Well," answered Lucindy, easily, "I ain't goin' to worry about my eye-teeth. If I be cheated out of 'em, I guess I can get a new set."
At five o'clock, they had some cookies, ostensibly for Claribel, since Mrs. Wilson could not stay to tea; and then, when the little maid had taken hers out to the front steps, Lucindy broached a daring plan, that moment conceived.
"Say, Jane," she whispered, with great pretence of secrecy, "what do you think just come into my head? Do you s'pose Mattie would be put out, if I should give Claribel a hat?"
"Mercy sakes, no! all in the family so! But what set you out on that? She's got a good last year's one now, an' the ribbin's all pressed out an' turned, complete."
"I'll tell you," Said Lucindy, leaning nearer, and speaking as if she feared the very corners might hear. "You know I never was allowed to wear bright colors. And to this day, I see the hats the other girls had, blue on 'em, and pink. And if I could stand by and let a little girl pick out a hat for herself, without a word said to stop her, 'twould be real agreeable to me." Lucindy was shrewd enough to express herself somewhat moderately. She knew by experience how plainly Jane considered it a duty to discourage any overmastering emotion. But Jane Wilson was, at the same instant, feeling very keenly that Lucindy, faded and old as she was, needed to be indulged in all her riotous fancies. She repressed the temptation, however, at its birth.
"Why, I dunno's there's anything in the way of it," she said, soberly.
"Then, if you must go, I'll walk right along now. Claribel and I'll go down to Miss West's, and see what she's got. Nothin''s to be gained by waitin'!"
When they walked out through the hall together, Lucindy cast a quick and eager glance into the parlor. She almost hoped Claribel had unhooked the glass prisms from the lamp, and left them scattered on the floor, or that she had broken the precious shells, more than half a century old. She wanted to put her arms round her, and say fondly, "Never mind!" But the room was in perfect order, and little Claribel waited for them, conscious of a propriety unstained by guilt.
"Lucindy," said Mrs. Wilson, who also had used her eyes, "where's your father's canes? They al'ays stood right here in this corner."
"Jane," she whispered, "don't you tell, but I—I buried 'em! I felt somehow as if I couldn't—do the things I wanted to, if they set there just the same."
Jane could only look at her in silence.
"Well," she said, at length, "it takes all kinds o' people to make a world!"
That, at least, was non-committal.
She left the shoppers at her own gate, and they walked on together. Lucindy was the more excited of the two.
"Now, Claribel," she was saying, "you remember you can choose any hat you see, and have it trimmed just the way you like. What color do you set by most?"
"I don't know," said Claribel. "Blue, I guess."
"Well, there's a hat there all trimmed with it. I see it this mornin'. Real bright, pretty blue! I believe there was some little noddin' yellow flowers on it, too. But mind you don't take it unless you like it."
Miss West's shop occupied the front room of her house, a small yellow one on a side street. The upper part of the door was of glass, and it rang a bell as it opened. Lucindy had had very few occasions for going there, and she entered with some importance. The bell clanged; and Miss West, a portly woman, came in from the back room, whisking off her apron in haste.
"Oh, that you, Miss Lucindy?" she called. "I've just been fryin' some riz doughnuts. Well, how'd the flowers suit?"
"I haven't quite made up my mind," said Lucindy, trying to speak with the dignity befitting her quest. "I just come in with little Claribel here. She's goin' to have a new hat, and her grandma said she might come down with me to pick it out. You've got some all trimmed, I believe?"
Miss West opened a drawer in an old-fashioned bureau.
"Yes," she said, "I've got two my niece trimmed for me before she went to make her visit to Sudleigh. One's blue. I guess you've seen that. Then there's a nice white one. The 'Weekly' says white's all the go, this year."
She took out two little hats, and balanced them on either hand. The blue one was strongly accented. The ribbon was very broad and very bright, and its nodding cowslips gleamed in cheerful yellow.
"Ain't that a beauty?" whispered Lucindy close to the little girl's ear. "But there! Don't you have it unless you'd rather. There's lots of other colors, you know; pink, and all sorts.".
Claribel put out one little brown hand, and timidly touched the other hat.
"This one," she said.
It was very plain, and very pretty; yet there were no flowers, and the modest white ribbon lay smoothly about the crown. Miss Lucindy gave a little cry, as if some one had hurt her.
"O!" she exclaimed, "O Claribel! you sure?" Claribel was sure.
"She's got real good taste," put in Miss West. "Shall I wrop it up?"
"Yes," answered Lucindy, drearily. "We'll take it. But I suppose if she should change, her mind before she wore it—" she added, with some slight accession of hope.
"Oh, yes, bring it right back. I'll give her another choice."
But Claribel was not likely to change her mind. On the way home, she walked sedately, and carried her hat with the utmost care. At her grandmother's gate, she looked up shyly, and spoke of her own accord,—
"Thank you, ever so much!"
Then she fled up the path, her bundle waving before her. That, at least, looked like spontaneous joy, and the sight of it soothed Lucindy into a temporary resignation; yet she was very much disappointed.
The next afternoon, Tiverton saw a strange and wondrous sight. The Crane boy led Old Buckskin, under an ancient saddle, into Miss Lucindy's yard, and waited there before her door. The Crane boy had told all his mates, and they had told their fathers and mothers, so that a wild excitement flew through the village like stubble fire, stirring the inhabitants to futile action. "It's like the 'clipse," said one of the squad of children collected at the gate, "only they ain't no smoked glass." Some of the grown people "made an errand" for the sake of being in the street, but those who lived near-by simply mounted guard at their doors and windows. The horse had not waited long when Miss Lucindy appeared before the gaze of an eager world. Her face had wakened into a keen excitement.
"Here!" she called to the Crane boy's brother, who was lingering in the background grinding his toes on the gravel and then lifting them in sudden agony, "you take this kitchen chair and set it down side of him, so't I can climb up."
The chair was placed, and Miss Lucindy essayed to climb, but vainly.
"Ann!" she called, "you bring me that little cricket."
Ann Toby appeared unwillingly, the little cricket in her hand. She was a tall, red-haired woman, who bore the reputation of being willing to be "tore into inch pieces" for Miss Lucindy. Her freckled face burned red with shame and anger.
"For Heaven's sake, you come back into the house!" she whispered, with tragic meaning. "You jest give it up, an' I'll scatter them boys. Sassy little peeps! what are they starin' round here for, I'd like to know!"
But Lucindy had mounted the cricket with much agility, and seated herself on the horse's back. Once she slipped off; but the Crane boy had the address to mutter, "Put your leg over the horn!" and, owing to that timely advice, she remained. But he was to experience the gratitude of an unfeeling world; for Ann Toby, in the irritation of one tried beyond endurance, fell upon him and cuffed him soundly. And Mrs. Crane, passing the gate at that moment, did not blame her.
"My! it seems a proper high place to set," remarked Lucindy, adjusting herself. "Well, I guess I sha'n't come to no harm. I'll ride round to your place, boys, when I get through, and leave the horse there." She trotted out of the yard amid the silence of the crowd.
The spectacle was too awesome to be funny, even to the boys; it seemed to Tiverton strangely like the work of madness. Only one little boy recovered himself sufficiently to ran after her and hold up a switch he had been peeling.
"Here!" he piped up, daringly, "you want a whip."
Lucindy smiled upon him benignly.
"I never did believe in abusin' dumb creatur's," she said, "but I'm much obliged." She took the switch and rode on.
Now Mrs. Wilson had heard the rumor too late to admit of any interference on her part, and she was staying indoors, suffering an agony of shame, determined not to countenance the scandalous sight by her presence. But as she sat "hooking-in," the window was darkened, and involuntarily she lifted her eyes. There was the huge bulk of a horse, and there was Lucindy. The horsewoman's cheeks were bright red with exercise and joy. She wore a black dress and black mitts. Her little curls were flying; and oh, most unbearable of all! they were surmounted by a bonnet bearing no modest sheaf of wheat, but blossoming brazenly out into lavender roses. The spectacle was too much for Mrs. Wilson. She dropped her hook, and flew to the door.
"Well, I've known a good deal, fust an' last, but I never see the beat o' this! Lucindy, where'd you git that long dress?"
"It's my cashmere," answered Lucindy, joyously. "I set up last night to lengthen it down."
"Well, I should think you did! Lothrop!"
Her husband had been taking a nap in the sitting-room, and he came out, rubbing his eyes. Mrs. Wilson could not speak for curiosity. She watched him with angry intentness. She wondered if he would take Lucindy's part now! But Lothrop only moved forward and felt at the girth.
"You know you want to pull him up if he stumbles," he said; "but I guess he won't. He was a stiddy horse, fifteen year ago."
"Lothrop," began his wife, "do you want to be made a laughin'-stock in this town—";
"I guess if I've lived in a place over sixty year an' hil' my own, I can yet," said Lothrop, quietly. "You don't want to ride too long, Lucindy. You'll be lame to-morrer."
"I didn't suppose 'twould jounce so," said Lucindy; "but it's proper nice. I don't know what 'twould be on a real high horse. Well, good-by!" She turned the horse about, and involuntarily struck him with her little switch. Old Buckskin broke into a really creditable trot, and they disappeared down the village street. Lothrop sensibly took his way down to the shop while his wife was recovering her powers of speech; and for that, Jane herself mentally commended him.
Lucindy kept on out of the village and along the country road. The orioles were singing in the elms, and the leaves still wore the gloss of last night's shower. The earth smiled like a new creation, very green and sweet, and the horse's hoofs made music in Lucindy's mind. It seemed to her that she had lost sight both of youth and crabbed age; the pendulum stood still in the jarring machinery of time, the hands pointing to a moment of joy. She was quite happy, as any of us may be who seek the fellowship of dancing leaves and strong, bright sun. She turned into a cross-road, hardly wider than a lane, and bordered with wild rose and fragrant raspberry. There was but one house here,—a little, time-stained cottage, where Tom McNeil lived with his wife and five children. Perhaps these were the happiest people in all Tiverton, though no one but themselves had ever found it out. Tom made shoes in a desultory fashion, and played the fiddle earnestly all winter, and in summer, peddled essences and medicines from a pack strapped over his shoulders. Sometimes in the warm summer weather Molly, his wife, and all the children tramped with him, so that the house was closed for weeks at a time,—a thing very trying to the conventional sensibilities of Tiverton. Tom might have had a "stiddy job o' work" with some of the farmers; Molly might have helped about the churning and ironing. But no! they were like the birds, nesting happily in summer, and drawing their feet under their feathers when the snow drifted in. The children—lank, wild-eyed creatures—each went to school a few months, and then stopped, unable to bear the cross of confinement within four dull walls. They could not write; it was even rumored that they had never learned to tell time. And, indeed, what good would it have done them when the clock was run down and stood always at the hour of noon? But they knew where thoroughwort grows, and the wholesome goldthread; they gathered cress and peppermint, and could tell the mushroom from its noisome kindred. Day after day, they roamed the woods for simples to be distilled by the father, and made into potent salves and ointments for man and the beasties he loved better.
When Lucindy came in sight of the house, she was glad to find it open. She had scarcely gone so far afield for years, and the reports concerning this strange people had reached her only by hearsay. She felt like a discoverer. In close neighborhood to the house stood a peculiar structure,—the half-finished dwelling McNeil had attempted, in a brief access of ambition, to build with his own hands. The chimney, slightly curving and very ragged at the top, stood foolishly above the unfinished lower story. Lucindy remembered hearing how Tom had begun the chimney first, and built the house round it. But the fulfilment of his worldly dream never came to pass; and perhaps it was quite as well, for thereby would the unity of his existence have been destroyed. He might have lived up to the house; he might even have grown into a proud man, and accumulated dollars. But the bent of birth was too much for him. A day dawned, warm and entrancing; he left his bricks and boards in the midst, and the whole family went joyfully off on a tramp. To Tiverton, the unfinished house continued to serve as an immortal joke, and Tom smiled as broadly as any. He always said he couldn't finish it; he had mislaid the plan.
A little flower-garden bloomed between the two houses, and on the grass, by one of its clove-pink borders, sat a woman, rocking back and forth in an ancient chair, and doing absolutely nothing. She was young, and seemed all brown; for her eyes were dark, and her skin had been tanned to the deep, rich tint sweeter to some eyes than pure roses and milk. Lucindy guided Buckskin up to the gate, and Molly McNeil looked up and smiled without moving.
"How do?" she said, in a soft, slow voice. "Won't you come in?"
Lucindy was delighted. It was long since she had met a stranger.
"Well, I would," she answered, "but I don't know as I can get down. This is new business to me."
"Ellen," called Mrs. McNeil, "you bring out somethin' to step on!"
A little girl appeared with a yellow kitchen chair. Mrs. McNeil rose, carried it outside the gate, and planted it by Buckskin's side.
"There!" she said, "you put your hand on my shoulder and step down. It won't tip. I've got my knee on it."
Lucindy alighted, with some difficulty, and drew a long breath.
"I'll hitch him," said Molly McNeil. "You go in and sit down in that chair, and Ellen'll bring you a drink of water."
Ellen was barelegged and barefooted. Her brown hair hung over her dark eyes in a pleasant tangle. Her even teeth were white, and her lips red. There was no fault nor blemish in her little face; and when she had brought the dipper full of water, and stood rubbing one foot against its neighboring leg, Lucindy thought she had never seen anything so absolutely bewitching. Molly had hitched the horse, in manly and knowing fashion, and then seated herself on the kitchen chair beside Lucindy; but the attitude seemed not to suit her, and presently she rose and lay quietly down at full length on the grass. She did it quite as a matter of course, and her visitor thought it looked very pleasant; possibly she would have tried it herself if she had not been so absorbed in another interest. She was watching the little girl, who was running into the house with the dipper.
"Ain't she complete!" she said. "Your oldest?"
"She ain't mine at 'all." Mrs. McNeil rose on one elbow, and began chewing a grass stem.
It was very restful to Lucindy to see some one who was too much interested in anything, however trivial, to be interested in her. "You know about the Italian that come round with the hand-organ last month? He was her father. Well, he died,—fell off a mow one night,—and the town sold the hand-organ and kept Ellen awhile on the farm. But she run away, and my boys found her hidin' in the woods starved most to death. So I took her in, and the overseer said I was welcome to her. She's a nice little soul."
"She's proper good-lookin'!" Lucindy's eyes were sparkling.
"She don't look as well as common to-day, for the boys went off plummin' without her. She was asleep, and I didn't want to call her. She had a cryin' spell when she waked up, but I didn't know which way they'd gone."
Ellen came wandering round the side of the house, and Lucindy crooked a trembling finger at her.
"Come here!" she called. "You come here and see me!"
Ellen walked up to her with a steady step, and laid one little brown hand on Lucindy's knee. But the old Judge's daughter drew the child covetously to her lap.
"Look here," she said, "should you like to go home and spend a week with me?"
The little maid threw back her tangle of curls, and looked Lucindy squarely in the eyes.
"Yes," she answered.
Lucindy's grasp tightened round her.
"How should you like to live with me?"
The child touched her little breast inquiringly with one finger.
"Me?" She pointed over to Mrs. McNeil, who lay listening and stretching her limbs in lazy comfort. "Leave her?" And then, gravely, "No; she's good to me."
Lucindy's heart sank.
"You could come over to see her," she pleaded, "and I'd come too. We'd all go plummin' together. I should admire to! And we'd have parties, and ask 'em all over. What say?"
The child sat straight and serious, one warm hand clinging to Lucindy's slender palm. But her eyes still sought the face of her older friend. Molly McNeil rose to a sitting posture. She took the straw from her mouth, and spoke with the happy frankness of those who have no fear because they demand nothing save earth and sky room.
"I know who you are," she said to Lucindy. "You're left well off, and I guess you could bring up a child, give you your way. We're as poor as poverty! You take her, if she'll go. Ellen, she's a nice lady; you better say 'yes.'"
Lucindy was trembling all over.
"You come, dear," she urged, piteously. "You come and live with me."
Ellen thought a moment more. Then she nodded.
"I'll come," said she.
Lucindy could not wait.
"I'll send a wagon over after her to-night." She had put Ellen down, and was rising tremblingly. "I won't stop to talk no more now, but you come and see me, won't you? Now, if you'll help me mount up—there! My! it's higher 'n 'twas before! Well, I'll see you again." She turned Old Buckskin's head away from the fence; then she pulled him fiercely round again. "Here!" she called, "what if she should jump up behind me and come now!"
Mrs. McNeil, being the thrall only of the earth, saw no reason, why a thing should not be done as one wanted it. She lifted; the child and set her on the horse behind Lucindy. And so, in this strange fashion, the two entered the high street of Tiverton.
A few weeks after this, Mrs. Wilson and Lucindy went together to the little millinery shop. Ellen trotted between them, taking excursions into the street, now and again, in pursuit of butterflies or thistledown. When they entered, Miss West, who had seen their approach from her position at the ironing-board, came forward with a gay little hat in her hand. It was trimmed with pink, and a wreath of tiny white flowers clung about the crown. She set it on Ellen's curls; and Ellen, her face quite radiant, looked up at Miss Lucindy for approval. But that lady was gazing anxiously at Mrs. Wilson.
"Now, there ain't anything unsuitable about that, is there?" she asked. "I know, it's gay, and I want it to be gay. I can tell about that! But is it all right? Is it such as you'd be willin' to have Claribel wear?"
"It's a real beauty!" Mrs. Wilson answered, cordially; but she could not refrain from adding, while Miss West was doing up the hat, and Ellen surreptitiously tried on a black poke bonnet, "Now, don't you spile her, Lucindy! She's a nice little girl as ever was, but you ain't no more fit to bring up a child than the cat!"
Lucindy did not hear. She was smiling at Ellen, and Ellen smiled back at her. They thought they knew.
TOLD IN THE POORHOUSE.
"Le' me see," said old Sally Flint, "was it fifty year ago, or was it on'y forty? Some'er's betwixt 1825 an' '26 it must ha' been when they were married, an' 'twas in '41 he died."
The other old women in the Poorhouse sitting-room gathered about her. Old Mrs. Forbes, who dearly loved a story, unwound a length of yarn with peculiar satisfaction, and put her worn shoe up to the fire. Everybody knew when Sally Flint was disposed to open her unwritten book of folk-tales for the public entertainment; and to-day, having tied on a fresh apron and bound a new piece of red flannel about her wrist, she was, so to speak, in fighting trim. The other members of the Poorhouse had scanty faith in that red flannel. They were aware that Sally had broken her wrist, some twenty years before, and that the bandage was consequently donned on days when her "hand felt kind o' cold," or was "burnin' like fire embers;" but there was an unspoken suspicion that it really served as token of her inability to work whenever she felt bored by the prescribed routine of knitting and sweeping. No one had dared presume on that theory, however, since the day when an untactful overseer had mentioned it, to be met by such a stream of unpleasant reminiscence concerning his immediate ancestry that he had retreated in dismay, and for a week after, had served extra pieces of pie to his justly offended charge.
"They were married in June," continued Sally. "No, 'twa'n't; 'twas the last o' May. May thirty-fust—no, May 'ain't but thirty days, has it?"
"'Thirty days hath September,'" quoted Mrs. Giles, with importance. "That's about all I've got left o' my schoolin', Miss Flint. May's got thirty-one days, sure enough."
"Call it the thirty-fust, then. It's nigh enough, anyway. Well, Josh Marden an' Lyddy Ann Crane was married, an' for nine year they lived like two kittens. Old Sperry Dyer, that wanted to git Lyddy himself, used to call 'em cup an' sasser, 'There they be,' he'd say, when he stood outside the meetin'-house door an' they drove up; 'there comes cup an' sasser.' Lyddy was a little mite of a thing, with great black eyes; an' if Josh hadn't been as tough as tripe, he'd ha' got all wore out waitin' on her. He even washed the potaters for her, made the fires, an' lugged water. Scairt to death if she was sick! She used to have sick headaches, an' one day he stopped choppin' pine limbs near the house 'cause the noise hurt Lyddy Ann's head. Another time, I recollect, she had erysipelas in her face, an' I went in to carry some elder-blows, an' found him readin' the Bible. 'Lord!' says I, 'Josh; that's on'y Genesis! 'twon't do the erysipelas a mite o' good for you to be settin' there reading the be'gats! You better turn to Revelation.' But 'twa'n't all on his side, nuther. 'Twas give an' take with them. It used to seem as if Lyddy Ann kind o' worshipped him. 'Josh' we all called him; but she used to say 'Joshuay,' an' look at him as if he was the Lord A'mighty."
"My! Sally!" said timid Mrs. Spenser, under her breath; but Sally gave no heed, and swept on in the stream of her recollections.
"Well, it went on for fifteen year, an' then 'Mandy Knowles, Josh's second cousin, come to help 'em with the work. 'Mandy was a queer creatur'. I've studied a good deal over her, an' I dunno's I've quite got to the bottom of her yit. She was one o' them sort o' slow women, with a fat face, an' she hadn't got over dressin' young, though Lyddy an' the rest of us that was over thirty was wearin' caps an' talkin' about false fronts. But she never'd had no beaux; an' when Josh begun to praise her an' say how nice 'twas to have her there, it tickled her e'en a'most to death. She'd lived alone with her mother an' two old-maid aunts, an' she didn't know nothin' about men-folks; I al'ays thought she felt they was different somehow,—kind o' cherubim an' seraphim,—an' you'd got to mind 'em as if you was the Childern of Isr'el an' they was Moses. Josh never meant a mite o' harm, I'll say that for him. He was jest man-like, that's all. There's lots o' different kinds,—here, Mis' Niles, you know; you've buried your third,—an' Josh was the kind that can't see more'n, one woman to a time. He looked at 'Mandy, an' he got over seein' Lyddy Ann, that's all. Things would ha' come out all right—as right as they be for most married folks—if Lyddy Ann hadn't been so high-sperited; but she set the world by Joshuay, an' there 'twas. 'Ain't it nice to have her here?' he kep' on sayin' over'n' over to Lyddy, an' she'd say 'Yes;' but byme-by, when she found he was al'ays on hand to bring a pail o' water for 'Mandy, or to throw away her suds, or even help hang out the clo'es—I see 'em hangin' out clo'es one day when I was goin' across their lot huckleberr'in', an' he did look like a great gump, an' so did she—well, then, Lyddy Ann got to seemin' kind o' worried, an' she had more sick headaches than ever. Twa'n't a year afore that, I'd been in one day when she had a headache, an' he says, as if he was perfessin' his faith in meetin', 'By gum! I wish I could have them headaches for her!' an' I thought o' speakin' of it, about now, when I run in to borrer some saleratus, an' he hollered into the bedroom: 'Lyddy Ann, you got another headache? If I had such a head as that, I'd cut it off!' An' all the time 'Mandy did act like the very Old Nick, jest as any old maid would that hadn't set her mind on menfolks till she was thirty-five. She bought a red-plaid bow an' pinned it on in front, an' one day I ketched her at the lookin'-glass pullin' out a gray hair.
"'Land, 'Mandy,' says I (I spoke right up), 'do you pull 'em out as fast as they come? That's why you ain't no grayer, I s'pose. I was sayin' the other day, "'Mandy Knowles is gittin' on, but she holds her own pretty well. I dunno how she manages it, whether she dyes or not,"' says I.
"An' afore she could stop herself, 'Mandy turned round, red as a beet, to look at Josh an' see if he heard. He stamped out into the wood-house, but Lyddy Ann never took her eyes off her work. Them little spiteful things didn't seem to make no impression on her. I've thought a good many times sence, she didn't care how handsome other women was, nor how scrawny she was herself, if she could on'y keep Josh. An' Josh he got kind o' fretful to her, an' she to him, an' 'Mandy was all honey an' cream. Nothin' would do but she must learn how to make the gingerbread he liked, an' iron his shirts; an' when Lyddy Ann found he seemed to praise things up jest as much as he had when she done 'em, she give 'em up, an' done the hard things herself, an' let 'Mandy see to Josh. She looked pretty pindlin' then, mark my words; but I never see two such eyes in anybody's head. I s'pose 'twas a change for Josh, anyway, to be with a woman like 'Mandy, that never said her soul's her own, for Lyddy'd al'ays had a quick way with her; but, land! you can't tell about men, what changes 'em or what don't. If you're tied to one, you've jest got to bear with him, an' be thankful if he don't run some kind of a rig an' make you town-talk."
There was a murmur from gentle Lucy Staples, who had been constant for fifty years to the lover who died in her youth; but no one took any notice of her, and Sally Flint went on:
"It come spring, an' somehow or nuther 'Mandy found out the last o' March was Josh's birthday, an' nothin' would do but she must make him a present. So she walked over to Sudleigh, an' bought him a great long pocket-book that you could put your bills into without foldin' 'em, an' brought it home, tickled to death because she'd been so smart. Some o' this come out at the time, an' some wa'n't known till arterwards; the hired man told some, an' a good deal the neighbors see themselves. An' I'll be whipped if 'Mandy herself didn't tell the heft on't arter 'twas all over. She wa'n't more'n half baked in a good many things. It got round somehow that the pocket-book was comin', an' when, I see 'Mandy walkin' home that arternoon, I ketched up my shawl an' run in behind her, to borrer some yeast. Nobody thought anything o' birthdays in our neighborhood, an' mebbe that made it seem a good deal more 'n 'twas; but when I got in there, I vow I was sorry I come. There set Josh by the kitchen table, sort o' red an' pleased, with his old pocket-book open afore him, an' he was puttin' all his bills an' papers into the new one, an' sayin', every other word,—
"'Why, 'Mandy, I never see your beat! Ain't this a nice one, Lyddy?'
"An' 'Mandy was b'ilin' over with pride, an' she stood there takin' off her cloud; she'd been in such a hurry to give it to him she hadn't even got her things off fust. Lyddy stood by the cupboard, lookin' straight at the glass spoon-holder. I thought arterwards I didn't b'lieve she see it; an' if she did, I guess she never forgot it.
"'Yes, it's a real nice one,' says I.
"I had to say suthin', but in a minute, I was most scairt. Lyddy turned round, in a kind of a flash; her face blazed all over red, an' her eyes kind o' went through me. She stepped up to the table, an' took up the old pocket-book.
"'You've got a new one,' says she. 'May I have this?'
"'Course you may,' says he.
"He didn't look up to see her face, an' her voice was so soft an' still, I guess he never thought nothin' of it. Then she held the pocket-book up tight ag'inst her dress waist an' walked off into the bedroom. I al'ays thought she never knew I was there. An' arterwards it come out that that old pocket-book was one she'd bought for him afore they was married,—earned it bindin' shoes."
"'Twas kind o' hard," owned Mrs. Niles, bending forward, and, with hands clasped over her knees, peering into the coals for data regarding her own marital experiences. "But if 'twas all wore out—did you say 'twas wore?—well, then I dunno's you could expect him to set by it. An' 'twa'n't as if he'd give it away; they'd got it between 'em."
"I dunno; it's all dark to me," owned Sally Flint. "I guess 'twould puzzle a saint to explain men-folks, anyway, but I've al'ays thought they was sort o' numb about some things. Anyway, Josh Marden was. Well, things went on that way till the fust part o' the summer, an' then they come to a turnin'-p'int. I s'pose they'd got to, some time, an' it might jest as well ha' been fust as last. Lyddy Ann was pretty miserable, an' she'd been dosin' with thoroughwort an' what all when anybody told her to; but I al'ays thought she never cared a mite whether she lived to see another spring. The day I'm comin' to, she was standin' over the fire fryin' fish, an' 'Mandy was sort o' fiddlin' round, settin' the table, an' not doin' much of anything arter all. I dunno how she come to be so aggravatin', for she was al'ays ready to do her part, if she had come between husband an' wife. You know how hard it is to git a fish dinner! Well, Lyddy Ann was tired enough, anyway. An' when Josh come in, 'Mandy she took a cinnamon-rose out of her dress, an' offered it to him.
"'Here's a flower for your button-hole,' says she, as if she wa'n't more 'n sixteen. An' then she set down in a chair, an' fanned herself with a newspaper.
"Now that chair happened to be Lyddy Ann's at the table, an' she see what was bein' done. She turned right round, with the fish-platter in her hand, an' says she, in an awful kind of a voice,—
"'You git up out o' my chair! You've took my husband away, but you sha'n't take my place at the table!'
"The hired man was there, washin' his hands at the sink, an' he told it to me jest as it happened. Well, I guess they all thought they was struck by lightnin', an' Lyddy Ann most of all. Josh he come to, fust. He walked over to Lyddy Ann.
"'You put down that platter!' says he. An' she begun to tremble, an' set it down.
"I guess they thought there was goin' to be murder done, for 'Mandy busted right out cryin' an' come runnin' over to me, an' the hired man took a step an' stood side o' Lyddy Ann. He was a little mite of a man, Cyrus was, but he wouldn't ha' stood no violence.
"Josh opened the door that went into the front entry, an' jest p'inted. 'You walk in there,' he says, 'an' you stay there. That's your half o' the house, an' this is mine. Don't you dast to darken my doors!'
"Lyddy Ann she walked through the entry an' into the fore-room, an' he shet the door."
"I wouldn't ha' done it!" snorted old Mrs. Page, who had spent all her property in lawsuits over a right of way. "Ketch me!"
"You would if you'd 'a' been Lyddy Ann!" said Sally Flint, with an emphatic nod. Then she continued: "I hadn't more'n heard 'Mandy's story afore I was over there; but jest as I put my foot on the door-sill, Josh he come for'ard to meet me.
"'What's wanted?' says he. An' I declare for't I was so scairt I jest turned round an' cut for home. An' there set 'Mandy, wringin' her hands.
"'What be I goin' to do?' says she, over 'n' over. 'Who ever'd ha' thought o' this?'
"'The thing for you to do,' says I, 'is to go, straight home to your mother, an' I'll harness up an' carry you. Don't you step your foot inside that house ag'in. Maybe ma'am will go over an' pack up your things. You've made mischief enough.' So we got her off that arter-noon, an' that was an end of her.
"I never could see what made Josh think so quick that day. We never thought he was brighter 'n common; but jest see how in that flash o' bein' mad with Lyddy Ann he'd planned out what would be most wormwood for her! He gi'n her the half o' the house she'd furnished herself with hair-cloth chairs an' a whatnot, but 'twa'n't the part that was fit to be lived in. She stayed pretty close for three or four days, an' I guess she never had nothin' to eat. It made me kind o' sick to think of her in there settin' on her hair-cloth sofy, an' lookin' at her wax flowers an' the coral on the what-not, an' thinkin' what end she'd made. It was of a Monday she was sent in there, an' Tuesday night I slipped over an' put some luncheon on the winder-sill; but 'twas there the next day, an' Cyrus see the old crower fly up an' git it. An' that same Tuesday mornin', Josh had a j'iner come an' begin a partition right straight through the house. It was all rough boards, like a high fence, an' it cut the front entry in two, an' went right through the kitchen—so't the kitchen stove was one side on't, an' the sink the other. Lyddy Ann's side had the stove. I was glad o' that, though I s'pose she 'most had a fit every day to think o' him tryin' to cook over the airtight in the settin'-room. Seemed kind o' queer to go to the front door, too, for you had to open it wide an' squeeze round the partition to git into Lyddy Ann's part, an' a little mite of a crack would let you into Josh's. But they didn't have many callers. It was a good long while afore anybody dared to say a word to her; an' as for Josh, there wa'n't nobody that cared about seein' him but the tax-collector an' pedlers.
"Well, the trouble Josh took to carry out that mad fit! He split wood an' laid it down at Lyddy Ann's door, an' he divided the eggs an' milk, an' shoved her half inside. He bought her a separate barrel o' flour, an' all the groceries he could think on; they said he laid money on her winder-sill. But, take it all together, he was so busy actin' like a crazed one that he never got his 'taters dug till 'most time for the frost. Lyddy Ann she never showed her head among the neighbors ag'in. When she see she'd got to stay there, she begun to cook for herself; but one day, one o' the neighbors heard her pleadin' with Josh, out in the cow-yard, while he was milkin'.
"'O Joshuay,' she kep' a-sayin' over 'n' over, 'you needn't take me back, if you'll on'y let me do your work! You needn't speak to me, an' I'll live in the other part; but I shall be crazy if you don't let me do your work. O Joshuay! O Joshuay!' She cried an' cried as if her heart would break, but Josh went on milkin', an' never said a word.
"I s'pose she thought he'd let her, the old hunks, for the next day, she baked some pies an' set 'em on the table in his part. She reached in through the winder to do it. But that night, when Josh come home, he hove 'em all out into the back yard, an' the biddies eat 'em up. The last time I was there, I see them very pieces o' pie-plate, white an' blue-edged, under the syringa bush. Then she kind o' give up hope. I guess—But no! I'm gittin' ahead o' my story. She did try him once more. Of course his rooms got to lookin' like a hog's nest—"
"My! I guess when she see him doin' his own washin', she thought the pocket-book was a small affair," interpolated Mrs. Niles.
"She used to go round peerin' into his winders when he wa'n't there, an' one day, arter he'd gone off to trade some steers, she jest spunked up courage an' went in an' cleaned all up. I see the bed airin', an' went over an' ketched her at it. She hadn't more'n got through an' stepped outside when Josh come home, an' what should he do but take the wheelbarrer an', beat out as he was drivin' oxen five mile, go down to the gravel-pit an' get a barrerful o' gravel. He wheeled it up to the side door, an' put a plank over the steps, an' wheeled it right in. An' then he dumped it in the middle o' his clean floor. That was the last o' her tryin' to do for him on the sly.
"I should ha' had some patience with him if 'twa'n't for one thing he done to spite her. Seemed as if he meant to shame her that way afore the whole neighborhood. He wouldn't speak to her himself, but he sent a painter by trade to tell her he was goin' to paint the house, an' to ask her what color she'd ruther have. The painter said she acted sort o' wild, she was so pleased. She told him yaller; an' Josh had him go right to work on't next day. But he had her half painted yaller, an' his a kind of a drab, I guess you'd call it. He sold a piece o' ma'sh to pay for't. Dr. Parks said you might as well kill a woman with a hatchet, as the man did down to Sudleigh, as put her through such treatment. My! ain't it growin' late? Here, let me set back by the winder. I want to see who goes by, to-day. An' I'll cut my story short.
"Well, they lived jest that way. Lyddy Ann she looked like an old woman, in a month or two. She looked every minute as old as you do, Mis' Gridley. Ain't you sixty-nine? Well, she wa'n't but thirty-six. Her hair turned gray, an' she was all stooped over. Sometimes I thought she wa'n't jest right. I used to go in to see if she'd go coltsfootin' with me, or plummin'; but she never'd make me no answer. I recollect two things she said. One day, she set rockin' back'ards an' for'ards in a straight chair, holdin' her hands round her knees, an' she says,—
"'I 'ain't got no pride, Sally Flint! I 'ain't got no pride!'
"An' once she looked up kind o' pitiful an' says, 'Ain't it queer I can't die?' But, poor creatur', I never thought she knew what she was sayin'. She'd ha' been the last one to own she wa'n't contented if she'd had any gover'ment over her words.
"Well, Josh he'd turned the hired man away because he couldn't do for him over the airtight stove, an' he got men to help him by days' works. An' through the winter, he jest set over the fire an' sucked his claws, an' thought how smart he was. But one day 'twas awful cold, an' we'd been tryin' out lard, an' the fat ketched fire, an' everything was all up in arms, anyway. Cyrus he was goin' by Josh's, an' he didn't see no smoke from the settin'-room stove. So he jest went to the side door an' walked in, an' there set Josh in the middle o' the room. Couldn't move hand nor foot! Cyrus didn't stop for no words, but he run over to our house, hollerin', 'Josh Harden's got a stroke!' An' ma'am left the stove all over fat an' run, an' I arter her, I guess Lyddy Ann must ha' seen us comin', for we hadn't more'n got into the settin'-room afore she was there. The place was cold as a barn, an' it looked like a hurrah's nest. Josh never moved, but his eyes follered her when she went into the bedroom to spread up the bed.
"'You help me, Cyrus,' says she, kind, o' twittery-like, but calm. 'We'll carry him in here. I can lift.'
"But our men-folks got there jest about as they was tryin' to plan how to take him, an' they h'isted him onto the bed. Cyrus harnessed up our horse an' went after Dr. Parks, an' by the time he come, we'd got the room so's to look decent. An'—if you'll b'lieve it! Lyddy Ann was in the bedroom tryin' to warm Josh up an' make him take some hot drink; but when I begun to sweep up, an' swop towards that gravel-pile in the middle o' the floor, she come hurryin' up, all out o' breath. She ketched the broom right out o' my hand.
"I'll sweep, byme-by,' says she. 'Don't you touch that gravel, none on ye!' An' so the gravel laid there, an' we walked round it, watchers an' all.
"She wouldn't have no watcher in his bedroom, though; she was determined to do everything but turn him an' lift him herself, but there was al'ays one or two settin' round to keep the fires goin' an' make sure there was enough cooked up. I swan, I never see a woman so happy round a bed o' sickness as Lyddy Ann was! She never made no fuss when Josh was awake, but if he shet his eyes, she'd kind o' hang over the bed an' smooth the clo'es as if they was kittens, an' once I ketched her huggin' up the sleeve of his old barn coat that hung outside the door. If ever a woman made a fool of herself over a man that wa'n't wuth it, 'twas Lyddy Ann Marden!
"Well, Josh he hung on for a good while, an' we couldn't make out whether he had his senses or not. He kep' his eyes shet most o' the time; but when Lyddy Ann's back was turned, he seemed to know it somehow, an' he'd open 'em an' foller her all round the room. But he never spoke. I asked the doctor about it.
"'Can't he speak, doctor?' says I. 'He can move that hand a leetle to-day. Don't you s'pose he could speak, if he'd a mind to?'
"The doctor he squinted up his eyes—he al'ays done that when he didn't want to answer—an' he says,—
"'I guess he's thinkin' on't over.'
"But one day, Lyddy Ann found she was all beat out, an' she laid down in the best bedroom an' went to sleep. I set with Josh. I was narrerin' off, but when I looked up, he was beckonin' with his well hand. I got up, an' went to the bed.
"'Be you dry?' says I. He made a little motion, an' then he lifted his hand an' p'inted out into the settin'-room.
"Do you want Lyddy Ann?' says I. 'She's laid down.' No, he didn't want her. I went to the settin'-room door an' looked out, an'—I dunno how 'twas—it all come to me.
"'Is it that gravel-heap?' says I. 'Do you want it carried off, an' the floor swop up?' An' he made a motion to say 'Yes.' I called Cyrus, an' we made short work o' that gravel. When, I'd took up the last mite on't, I went back to the bed.
"'Josh Marden,' says I, 'can you speak, or can't you?' But he shet his eyes, an' wouldn't say a word.
"When Lyddy Ann come out, I told her what he'd done, an' then she did give way a little mite. Two tears come out o' her eyes, an' jest rolled down her cheeks, but she didn't give up to 'em.
"'Sally,' says she, sort o' peaceful, 'I guess I'll have a cup o' tea.'
"Well, there was times when we thought Josh would git round ag'in, if he didn't have another stroke. I dunno whether he did have another or not, but one night, he seemed to be sort o' sinkin' away. Lyddy Ann she begun to turn white, an' she set down by him an' rubbed his sick hand. He looked at her,—fust time he had, fair an' square,—an' then he begun to wobble his lips round an' make a queer noise with 'em. She put her head down, an' then she says, 'Yes, Joshuay! yes, dear!' An' she got up an' took the pocket-book 'Mandy had gi'n him off the top o' the bureau, an' laid it down on the bed where he could git it. But he shook his head, an' said the word ag'in, an' a queer look—as if she was scairt an' pleased—flashed over Lyddy Ann's face. She run into the parlor, an' come back with that old pocket-book he'd give up to her, an' she put it into his well hand. That was what he wanted. His fingers gripped it up, an' he shet his eyes. He never spoke ag'in. He died that night."