OLD LADY NUMBER 31
BY LOUISE FORSSLUND
AUTHOR OF "THE STORY OF SARAH," "THE SHIP OF DREAMS," ETC.
TO MY MOTHER
I. THE TEA-TABLE
III. THE CANDIDATE
IV. ONE OF THEM
V. THE HEAD OF THE CORNER
VI. INDIAN SUMMER
VII. OLD LETTERS AND NEW
VIII. THE ANNIVERSARY
IX. A WINTER BUTTERFLY
X. THE TURN OF THE TIDE
XI. MENTAL TREATMENT
XII. "A PASSEL OF MEDDLERS"
XIII. THE PRODIGAL'S DEPARTURE
XIV. CUTTING THE APRON-STRINGS
XV. THE "HARDENING" PROCESS
XVI. "A REG'LAR HOSS"
XVII. THE DESERTER
XVIII. SAMUEL'S WELCOME
XIX. EXCHANGING THE OLIVE-BRANCH
XX. THE FATTED CALF
XXI. "OUR BELOVED BROTHER"
Angeline's slender, wiry form and small, glossy gray head bent over the squat brown tea-pot as she shook out the last bit of leaf from the canister. The canister was no longer hers, neither the tea-pot, nor even the battered old pewter spoon with which she tapped the bottom of the tin to dislodge the last flicker of tea-leaf dust. The three had been sold at auction that day in response to the auctioneer's inquiry, "What am I bid for the lot?"
Nothing in the familiar old kitchen was hers, Angeline reflected, except Abraham, her aged husband, who was taking his last gentle ride in the old rocking-chair—the old arm-chair with painted roses blooming as brilliantly across its back as they had bloomed when the chair was first purchased forty years ago. Those roses had come to be a source of perpetual wonder to the old wife, an ever present example.
Neither time nor stress could wilt them in a single leaf. When Abe took the first mortgage on the house in order to invest in an indefinitely located Mexican gold-mine, the melodeon dropped one of its keys, but the roses nodded on with the same old sunny hope; when Abe had to take the second mortgage and Tenafly Gold became a forbidden topic of conversation, the minute-hand fell off the parlor clock, but the flowers on the back of the old chair blossomed on none the less serenely.
The soil grew more and more barren as the years went by; but still the roses had kept fresh and young, so why, argued Angy, should not she? If old age and the pinch of poverty had failed to conquer their valiant spirit, why should she listen to the croaking tale? If they bloomed on with the same crimson flaunt of color, though the rockers beneath them had grown warped and the body of the chair creaked and groaned every time one ventured to sit in it, why should she not ignore the stiffness which the years seemed to bring to her joints, the complaints which her body threatened every now and again to utter, and fare on herself, a hardy perennial bravely facing life's winter-time?
Even this dreaded day had not taken one fraction of a shade from the glory of the roses, as Angeline could see in the bud at one side of Abraham's head and the full-blown flower below his right ear; so why should she droop because the sale of her household goods had been somewhat disappointing? Somewhat? When the childless old couple, still sailing under the banner of a charity-forbidding pride, became practically reduced to their last copper, just as Abe's joints were "loosenin' up" after a five years' siege of rheumatism, and decided to sell all their worldly possessions, apart from their patched and threadbare wardrobes and a few meager keepsakes, they had depended upon raising at least two hundred dollars, one half of which was to secure Abe a berth in the Old Men's Home at Indian Village, and the other half to make Angeline comfortable for life, if a little lonely, in the Old Ladies' Home in their own native hamlet of Shoreville. Both institutions had been generously endowed by the same estate, and were separated by a distance of but five miles.
"Might as waal be five hunderd, with my rheumatiz an' yer weak heart," Abraham had growled when Angy first proposed the plan as the only dignified solution to their problem of living.
"But," the little wife had rejoined, "it'll be a mite o' comfort a-knowin' a body's so near, even ef yer can't git tew 'em."
Now, another solution must be found to the problem; for the auction was over, and instead of two hundred dollars they had succeeded in raising but one hundred dollars and two cents.
"That air tew cents was fer the flour-sifter," inwardly mourned Angy, "an' it was wuth double an' tribble, fer it's been a good friend ter me fer nigh on ter eight year."
"Tew cents on the second hunderd," said Abe for the tenth time. "I've counted it over an' over. One hunderd dollars an' tew pesky pennies. An' I never hear a man tell so many lies in my life as that air auctioneer. Yew'd 'a' thought he was sellin' out the Empery o' Rooshy. Hy-guy, it sounded splendid. Fust off I thought he'd raise us more 'n we expected. An' mebbe he would have tew, Angy," a bit ruefully, "ef yew'd 'a' let me advertise a leetle sooner. I don't s'pose half Shoreville knows yit that we was gwine ter have a auction sale." He watched the color rising in her cheeks with a curious mixture of pride in her pride and regret at its consequences. "It's no use a-talkin', Mother, Pride an' Poverty makes oneasy bed-fellers."
He leaned back in the old chair, creaking out a dismal echo to the auctioneer's, "Going, going, gone!" while the flush deepened in Angy's cheek. Again she fastened her gaze upon the indomitable red rose which hung a pendant ear-ring on the right side of Abraham's head.
"Yew wouldn't 'a' had folks a-comin' here ter bid jest out o' charity, would yew?" she demanded. "An' anyhow," in a more gentle tone,—the gently positive tone which she had acquired through forty years of living with Abraham,—"we hain't so bad off with one hunderd dollars an' tew cents, an'—beholden ter nobody! It's tew cents more 'n yew need ter git yew inter the Old Men's, an' them extry tew cents'll pervide fer me jest bewtiful." Abraham stopped rocking to stare hard at his resourceful wife, an involuntary twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes. With increased firmness, she repeated, "Jest bewtiful!" whereupon Abe, scenting self-sacrifice on his wife's part, sat up straight and snapped, "Haow so, haow so, Mother?"
"It'll buy a postage-stamp, won't it?"—she was fairly aggressive now,—"an' thar's a envelop what wa'n't put up ter auction in the cupboard an' a paper-bag I kin iron out,—ketch me a-gwine ter the neighbors an' a-beggin' fer writin'-paper—an' I'll jest set daown an' write a line ter Mis' Halsey. Her house hain't a stun's throw from the Old Men's; an' I'll offer ter come an' take keer o' them air young 'uns o' her'n fer my board an' keep an'—ten cents a week. I was a-gwine ter say a quarter, but I don't want ter impose on nobody. Seein' that they hain't over well-ter-do, I would go fer nothin', but I got ter have somethin' ter keep up appearances on, so yew won't have no call ter feel ashamed of me when I come a-visitin' ter the hum." Involuntarily, as she spoke, Angy lifted her knotted old hand and smoothed back the hair from her brow; for through all the struggling years she had kept a certain, not unpleasing, girlish pride in her personal appearance.
Abraham had risen with creaks of his rheumatic joints, and was now walking up and down the room, his feet lifted slowly and painfully with every step, yet still his blue eyes flashing with the fire of indignant protest.
"Me a-bunkin' comfortable in the Old Men's, an' yew a-takin' keer o' them Halsey young 'uns fer ten cents a week! I wouldn't take keer o' 'em fer ten cents a short breath. Thar be young 'uns an' young 'uns," he elucidated, "but they be tartars! Yew'd be in yer grave afore the fust frost; an' who's a-gwine ter bury yer—the taown?" His tone became gentle and broken: "No, no, Angy. Yew be a good gal, an' dew jest as we calc'lated on. Yew jine the Old Ladies'; yew've got friends over thar, yew'll git erlong splendid. An' I'll git erlong tew. Yer know"—throwing his shoulders back, he assumed the light, bantering tone so familiar to his wife—"the poorhouse doors is always open. I'd jest admire ter go thar. Thar's a rocking-chair in every room, and they say the grub is A No. 1." He winked at her, smiling his broadest smile in his attempt to deceive.
Both wink and smile, however, were lost upon Angy, who was busy dividing the apple-sauce in such a way that Abe would have the larger share without suspecting it, hoping the while that he would not notice the absence of butter at this last home meal. She herself had never believed in buttering bread when there was "sass" to eat with it; but Abe's extravagant tastes had always carried him to the point of desiring both butter and sauce as a relish to his loaf.
"Naow, fur 's I'm concerned," pursued Abe, "I hain't got nothin' agin the poorhouse fer neither man ner woman. I'd as lief let yew go thar 'stid o' me; fer I know very well that's what yew're a-layin' out fer ter do. Yes, yes, Mother, yew can't fool me. But think what folks would say! Think what they would say! They 'd crow, 'Thar's Abe a-takin' his comfort in the Old Men's Hum, an' Angeline, she's a-eatin' her heart out in the poorhouse!'"
Angeline had, indeed, determined to be the one to go to the poorhouse; but all her life long she had cared, perhaps to a faulty degree, for "what folks would say." Above all, she cared now for what they had said and what they still might say about her husband and this final ending to his down-hill road. She rested her two hands on the table and looked hard at the apple-sauce until it danced before her eyes. She could not think with any degree of clearness. Vaguely she wondered if their supper would dance out of sight before they could sit down to eat it. So many of the good things of life had vanished ere she and Abe could touch their lips to them. Then she felt his shaking hand upon her shoulder and heard him mutter with husky tenderness:
"My dear, this is the fust chance since we've been married that I've had to take the wust of it. Don't say a word agin it naow, Mother, don't yer. I've brought yer ter this pass. Lemme bear the brunt o' it."
Ah, the greatest good of all had not vanished, and that was the love they bore one to the other. The sunshine came flooding back into Mother's heart. She lifted her face, beautiful, rosy, eternally young. This was the man for whom she had gladly risked want and poverty, the displeasure of her own people, almost half a century ago. Now at last she could point him out to all her little world and say, "See, he gives me the red side of the apple!" She lifted her eyes, two bright sapphires swimming with the diamond dew of unshed, happy tears.
"I'm a-thinkin', Father," she twittered, "that naow me an' yew be a-gwine so fur apart, we be a-gittin' closer tergether in sperit than we 've ever been afore."
Abe bent down stiffly to brush her cheek with his rough beard, and then, awkward, as when a boy of sixteen he had first kissed her, shy, ashamed at this approach to a return of the old-time love-making, he seated himself at the small, bare table.
This warped, hill-and-dale table of the drop-leaves, which had been brought from the attic only to-day after resting there for ten years, had served as their first dining-table when the honeymoon was young. Abe thoughtfully drummed his hand on the board, and as Angy brought the tea-pot and sat down opposite him, he recalled:
"We had bread an' tea an' apple-sass the day we set up housekeeping dew yew remember, Angy?"
"An' I burned the apple-sass," she supplemented, whereupon Abe chuckled, and Angy went on with a thrill of genuine gladness over the fact that he remembered the details of that long-ago honeymoon as well as she: "Yew don't mind havin' no butter to-night, dew yer, Father?"
He recalled how he had said to her at that first simple home meal: "Yew don't mind bein' poor with me, dew yer, Angy?" Now, with a silent shake of his head, he stared at her, wondering how it would seem to eat at table when her face no longer looked at him across the board, to sleep at night when her faithful hand no longer lay within reach of his own. She lifted her teacup, he lifted his, the two gazing at each other over the brims, both half-distressed, half-comforted by the fact that Love still remained their toast-master after the passing of all the years. Of a sudden Angy exclaimed, "We fergot ter say grace." Shocked and contrite, they covered their eyes with their trembling old hands and murmured together, "Dear Lord, we thank Thee this day for our daily bread."
Angy opened her eyes to find the red roses cheerfully facing her from the back of the rocking-chair. A robin had hopped upon the window-sill just outside the patched and rusty screen and was joyfully caroling to her his views of life. Through the window vines in which the bird was almost meshed the sunlight sifted softly into the stripped, bare, and lonely room. Angy felt strangely encouraged and comforted. The roses became symbolical to her of the "lilies of the field which toil not, neither do they spin"; the robin was one of the "two sparrows sold for a farthing, and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father"; while the sunlight seemed to call out to the little old lady who hoped and believed and loved much: "Fear ye not therefor. Ye are of more value than many sparrows!"
When the last look of parting had been given to the old kitchen and the couple passed out-of-doors, hushed and trembling, they presented an incongruously brave, gala-day appearance. Both were dressed in their best. To be sure, Abraham's Sunday suit had long since become his only, every-day suit as well, but he wore his Sabbath-day hat, a beaver of ancient design, with an air that cast its reflection over all his apparel. Angeline had on a black silk gown as shiny as the freshly polished stove she was leaving in her kitchen—a gown which testified from its voluminous hem to the soft yellow net at the throat that Angeline was as neat a mender and darner as could be found in Suffolk county.
A black silk bonnet snuggled close to her head, from under its brim peeping a single pink rose. Every spring for ten years Angeline had renewed the youth of this rose by treating its petals with the tender red dye of a budding oak.
Under the pink rose, a soft pink flush bloomed on either of the old lady's cheeks. Her eyes flashed with unconquerable pride, and her square, firm chin she held very high; for now, indeed, she was filled with terror of what "folks would say" to this home-leaving, and it was a bright June afternoon, too clear for an umbrella with which to hide one's face from prying neighbors, too late in the day for a sunshade.
Angy tucked the green-black affair which served them as both under her arm and swung Abe's figured old carpet-bag in her hand with the manner of one setting out on a pleasant journey. Abe, though resting heavily on his stout, crooked cane, dragged behind him Angy's little horsehair trunk upon a creaking, old, unusually large, toy express-wagon which he had bought at some forgotten auction long ago.
The husband and wife passed into the garden between borders of boxwood, beyond which nodded the heads of Angy's carefully tended, out-door "children"—her roses, her snowballs, her sweet-smelling syringas, her wax-like bleeding-hearts, and her shrub of bridal-wreath.
"Jest a minute," she murmured, as Abe would have hastened on to the gate. She bent her proud head and kissed with furtive, half-ashamed passion a fluffy white spray of the bridal-wreath. Now overtopping the husband's silk hat, the shrub had not come so high as his knee when they two had planted it nearly a half-century ago.
"You're mine!" Angy's heart cried out to the shrub and to every growing thing in the garden. "You're mine. I planted you, tended you, loved you into growing. You're all the children I ever had, and I'm leaving you."
But the old wife did not pluck a single flower, for she could never bear to see a blossom wither in her hand, while all she said aloud was: "I'm glad 't was Mis' Holmes that bought in the house. They say she's a great hand ter dig in the garden."
Angy's voice faltered. Abe did not answer. Something had caused a swimming before his eyes which he did not wish his wife to see; so he let fall the handle of the express-wagon and, bending his slow back, plucked a sprig of "old-man." Though he could not have expressed his sentiments in words, the garden brought poignant recollections of the hopes and promises which had thrown their rose color about the young days of his marriage. His hopes had never blossomed into fulfilment. His promises to the little wife had been choked by the weeds of his own inefficiency. Worse than this, the bursting into bloom of seeds of selfish recklessness in himself was what had turned the garden of their life into an arid waste. And now, in their dry and withered old age, he and Angy were being torn up by the roots, flung as so much rubbish by the roadside.
"Mother, I be dretful sorry ter take yew away from your posies," muttered Abraham as he arose with his green sprig in his hand.
With shaking fingers, Angy sought a pin hidden beneath her basque. "Father, shall I pin yer 'old-man' in yer buttonhole?" she quavered. Then as he stooped for her to arrange the posy, she whispered: "I wouldn't care, 'cept fer what folks must say. Le' 's hurry before any one sees us. I told everybody that we wa'n't a-gwine ter break up till ter-morrer mornin'."
Fortunately, there was a way across lots to the Old Ladies' Home, an unfrequented by-path over a field and through a bit of woodland, which would bring the couple almost unobserved to a side gate.
Under ordinary circumstances, Angeline would never have taken this path; for it exposed her carefully patched and newly polished shoes to scratches, her fragile, worn silk skirt and stiff, white petticoat to brambles. Moreover, the dragging of the loaded little wagon was more difficult here for Abraham. But they both preferred the narrower, rougher way to facing the curious eyes of all Shoreville now, the pitying windows of the village street.
As the couple came to the edge of the woodland, they turned with one accord and looked back for the last glimpse of the home. Blazing gold-red against the kitchen window flamed the afternoon sunlight.
"Look a' that!" Angy cried eagerly, as one who beholds a promise in the skies. "Jest see, Father; we couldn't 'a' made out that winder this fur at all ef the sun hadn't struck it jest so. I declar' it seems almost as ef we could see the rocker, tew. It's tew bad, Abe, that we had ter let yer old rocker go. D'yew remember—?" She laid her hand on his arm, and lifted her gaze, growing clouded and wistful, to his face. "When we bought the chair, we thought mebbe some day I'd be rocking a leetle baby in it. 'T was then, yew ricollec', we sorter got in the habit of callin' each other 'father' an' 'mother.' I wonder ef the young 'uns had come—"
"Le' 's hurry," interrupted Abe almost gruffly. "Le' 's hurry."
They stumbled forward with bowed heads in silence, until of a sudden they were startled by a surprised hail of recognition, and looked up to find themselves confronted by a bent and gray old man, a village character, a harmless, slightly demented public charge known as "Ishmael" or "Captain Rover."
"Whar yew goin', Cap'n Rose?"
The old couple had drawn back at the sight of the gentle vagabond, and Angy clutched at her husband's arm, her heart contracting at the thought that he, too, had become a pauper.
"I'm a-takin' my wife ter jine the old ladies over thar ter the Hum," Abe answered, and would have passed on, shrinking from the sight of himself as reflected in poor Ishmael.
But the "innocent" placed himself in their path.
"Yew ain't a-goin' ter jine 'em, tew?" he bantered.
Abe forced a laugh to his lips in response.
"No, no; I'm goin' over ter Yaphank ter board on the county."
Again the couple would have passed on, their faces flushed, their eyes lowered, had not Ishmael flung out one hand to detain them while he plunged the other hurriedly into his pocket.
"Here." He drew out a meager handful of nickels and pennies, his vacant smile grown wistful. "Here, take it, Cap'n Rose. It's all I got. I can't count it myself, but yew can. Don't yew think it's enough ter set yew up in business, so yew won't have ter go ter the poorhouse? The poorhouse is a bad place. I was there last winter. I don't like the poorhouse."
He rambled on of the poorhouse. Angy, panting for breath, one hand against the smothering pain at her heart, was trying, with the other, to drag "Father" along. "Father" was shaking his head at Ishmael, at the proffered nickels and pennies—shaking his head and choking. At length he found his voice, and was able to smile at his would-be benefactor with even the ghost of a twinkle in his eye.
"Much obliged, Cap'n Rover; but yew keep yer money fer terbaccy. I ain't so high-toned as yew. I'll take real comfort at the poorhouse. S' long; thank yer. S' long."
Ishmael went on his way muttering to himself, unhappily jingling his rejected alms; while Angy and Abe resumed their journey.
As they came to the gate of the Old Ladies' Home, Angy seized hold of her husband's arm, and looking up into his face pleaded earnestly:
"Father, let's take the hunderd dollars fer a fambly tombstun an' go ter the poorhouse tergether!"
He shook her off almost roughly and lifted the latch of the gate.
"Folks'd say we was crazy, Mother."
There was no one in sight as he dragged in the express-cart and laid down the handle. Before him was a long, clean-swept path ending apparently in a mass of shrubbery; to the left was a field of sweet corn reaching to the hedge; to the right a strong and sturdy growth of pole lima beans; and just within the entrance, beneath the sweeping plumes of a weeping-willow tree, was a shabby but inviting green bench.
Abe's glance wandered from the bench to his wife's face. Angy could not lift her eyes to him; with bowed head she was latching and unlatching the gate through which he must pass. He looked at the sun and thoughtfully made reckon of the time. There were still two hours before he could take the train which—
"Lef 's go set deown a spell afore—" he faltered—"afore we say good-by."
She made no answer. She told herself over and over that she must—simply must—stop that "all-of-a-tremble" feeling which was going on inside of her. She stepped from the gate to the bench blindly, with Abe's hand on her arm, though, still blindly, with exaggerated care she placed his carpet-bag on the grass beside her.
He laid down his cane, took off his high hat and wiped his brow. He looked at her anxiously. Still she could not lift her blurred eyes, nor could she check her trembling.
Seeing how she shook, he passed his arm around her shoulder. He murmured something—what, neither he nor she knew—but the love of his youth spoke in the murmur, and again fell the silence.
Angy's eyes cleared. She struggled to speak, aghast at the thought that life itself might be done before ever they could have one hour together again; but no words came. So much—so much to say! She reached out her hand to where his rested upon his knee. Their fingers gripped, and each felt a sense of dreary cheer to know that the touch was speaking what the tongue could not utter.
Time passed swiftly. The silent hour sped on. The young blades of corn gossiped gently along the field. Above, the branches of the willow swished and swayed to the rhythm of the soft, south wind.
"How still, how still it is!" whispered the breeze.
"Rest, rest, rest!" was the lullaby swish of the willow.
The old wife nestled closer to Abraham until her head touched his shoulder. He laid his cheek against her hair and the carefully preserved old bonnet. Involuntarily she raised her hand, trained by the years of pinching economy, to lift the fragile rose into a safer position. He smiled at her action; then his arm closed about her spasmodically and he swallowed a lump in his throat.
The afternoon was waning. Gradually over the turmoil of their hearts stole the garden's June-time spirit of drowsy repose.
They leaned even closer to each other. The gray of the old man's hair mingled with the gray beneath Angeline's little bonnet. Slowly his eyes closed. Then even as Angy wondered who would watch over the slumbers of his worn old age in the poorhouse, she, too, fell asleep.
The butcher's boy brought the tidings of the auction sale in at the kitchen door of the Old Ladies' Home even while Angy and Abe were lingering over their posies, and the inmates of the Home were waiting to receive the old wife with the greater sympathy and the deeper spirit of welcome from the fact that two of the twenty-nine members had known her from girlhood, away back in the boarding-school days.
"Yop," said the boy, with one eye upon the stout matron, who was critically examining the meat that he had brought. "Yop, the auction's over, an' Cap'n Rose, he—Don't that cut suit you, Miss Abigail? You won't find a better, nicer, tenderer, and more juicier piece of shoulder this side of New York. Take it back, did you say? All right, ma'am, all right!" His face assumed a look of resignation: these old ladies made his life a martyrdom. He used to tell the "fellers" that he spent one half his time carrying orders back and forth from the Old Ladies' Home. But now, in spite of his meekness of manner, he did not intend to take this cut back. So with Machiavellian skill he hastened on with his gossip.
"Yop, an' they only riz one hundred dollars an' two cents—one hundred dollars an' a postage-stamp. I guess it's all up with the cap'n an' the Old Men's. I don't see 'em hangin' out no 'Welcome' sign on the strength of that."
"You're a horrid, heartless little boy!" burst forth Miss Abigail, and, flinging the disputed meat on the table, she sank down into the chair, completely overcome by sorrow and indignation. "You'll be old yerself some day," she sobbed, not noticing that he was stealthily edging toward the door, one eye on her, one on to-morrow's pot-roast. "I tell yew, Tommy," regaining her accustomed confiding amiability, as she lifted the corner of her apron to wipe her eyes, "Miss Ellie will feel some kind o' bad, tew. Yer know me an' her an' Angy all went ter school tergether, although Miss Ellie is so much younger 'n the rest o' us that we call her the baby. Here! Where—"
But he was gone. Sighing heavily, the matron put the meat in the ice-box, and then made her slow, lumbering way into the front hall, or community-room, where the sisters were gathered in a body to await the new arrival.
"Waal, say!" she supplemented, after she had finished telling her pitiably brief story, "thar's trouble ernough ter go 'round, hain't thar?"
Aunt Nancy Smith, who never believed in wearing her heart on her sleeve, sniffed and thumped her cane on the floor.
"Yew young folks," she affirmed, herself having seen ninety-nine winters, while Abigail had known but a paltry sixty-five, "yew allers go an' cut yer pity on the skew-gee. I don't see nothin' ter bawl an' beller erbout. I say that a'ny man what can't take kere o' himself, not ter mention his wife, should orter go ter the poorhouse."
But the matriarch's voice quavered even more than usual, and as she finished she hastily bent down and felt in her deep skirt-pocket for her snuff-box.
Now the Amazonian Mrs. Homan, a widow for the third time, made sturdy retort:
"That's jest like yew old maids—always a-blamin' the men. Yew kin jest bet I never would have let one of my husbands go ter the poorhouse. It would have mortified me dretful. It must be a purty poor sort of a woman what can't take care of one man and keep a roof over his head. Why, my second, Oliver G., used ter say—"
"Oh!" Miss Ellie wrung her hands, "can't we do somethin'?"
"I could do a-plenty," mourned Miss Abigail, "ef I only had been savin'. Here I git a salary o' four dollars a month, an' not one penny laid away."
"Yew fergit," spoke some one gently, "that it takes consid'able ter dress a matron proper."
Aunt Nancy, who had been sneezing furiously at her own impotence, now found her speech again.
"We're a nice set ter talk erbout dewin' somethin'—a passel o' poor ole critters like us!" Her cackle of embittered laughter was interrupted by the low, cultivated voice of the belle of the Home, "Butterfly Blossy."
"We've got to do something," said Blossy firmly.
When Blossy spoke with such decision, every one of the sisters pricked up her ears. Blossy might be "a shaller-pate"; she might arrange the golden-white hair of her head as befitted the crowning glory of a young girl, with puffs and rolls and little curls, and—more than one sister suspected—with the aid of "rats"; she might gown herself elaborately in the mended finery of the long ago, the better years; she might dress her lovely big room—the only double bedchamber in the house, for which she had paid a double entrance fee—in all sorts of gewgaws, little ornaments, hand-painted plaques of her own producing, lace bedspreads, embroidered splashers and pillow-shams; she might even permit herself a suitor who came twice a year more punctually than the line-storms, to ask her withered little hand in marriage—but her heart was in the right place, and on occasion she had proved herself a master hand at "fixin' things."
"Yes," said she, rising to her feet and flinging out her arms with an eloquent gesture, "we've got to do something, and there's just one thing to do, girls: take the captain right here—here"—she brought her hands to the laces on her bosom—"to our hearts!"
At first there was silence, with the ladies staring blankly at Blossy and then at one another. Had they heard aright? Then there came murmurs and exclamations, with Miss Abigail's voice gasping above the others:
"What would the directors say?"
"What do they always say when we ask a favor?" demanded Blossy. "'How much will it cost?' It won't cost a cent."
"Won't, eh?" snapped Aunt Nancy. "How on arth be yew goin' ter vittle him? I hain't had a second dish o' peas this year."
"Some men eat more an' some less," remarked Sarah Jane, as ill-favored a spinster as ever the sun shone on; "generally it means so much grub ter so much weight."
Miss Abigail glanced up at the ceiling, while Lazy Daisy, who had refused to tip the beam for ten years, surreptitiously hid an apple into which she had been biting.
"Le' 's have 'em weighed," suggested a widow, Ruby Lee, with a pretty, well-preserved little face and figure, "an' ef tergether they don't come up to the heartiest one of us—"
Miss Abigail made hasty interruption:
"Gals, hain't yew never noticed that the more yew need the more yew git? Before Jenny Bell went to live with her darter I didn't know what I should dew, for the taters was gittin' pooty low. Yew know she used ter eat twenty ter a meal an' then look hungry at the platter. An' then ef old Square Ely didn't come a-drivin' up one mornin' with ten bushel in the farm wagon! He'd been savin' 'em fer us all winter fer fear we might run short in the spring. Gals, thar's one thing yew kin depend on, the foresightedness of the Lord. I hain't afraid ter risk a-stretchin' the board an' keep o' thirty ter pervide ample fer thirty-one. Naow, haow many of yew is willin' ter try it?"
Every head nodded, "I am"; every eye was wet with the dew of merciful kindness; and Mrs. Homan and Sarah Jane, who had flung plates at each other only that morning, were observed to be holding hands.
"But haow on arth be we a-goin' ter sleep him?" proceeded the matron uneasily. "Thar hain't a extry corner in the hull place. Puttin' tew people in No. 30 is out of the question—it's jest erbout the size of a Cinderella shoebox, anyhow, an' the garret leaks—"
She paused, for Blossy was pulling at her sleeve, the real Blossy, warmhearted, generous, self-deprecating.
"I think No. 30 is just the coziest little place for one! Do let me take it, Miss Abigail, and give the couple my great big barn of a room."
Aunt Nancy eyed her suspiciously. "Yew ain't a-gwine ter make a fool o' yerself, an' jump over the broomstick ag'in?" For Blossy's old suitor, Samuel Darby, had made one of his semiannual visits only that morning.
The belle burst into hysterical and self-conscious laughter, as she found every glance bent upon her.
"Oh, no, no; not that. But I confess that I am tired to death of this perpetual dove-party. I just simply can't live another minute without a man in the house.
"Now, Miss Abigail," she added imperiously, "you run across lots and fetch him home."
ONE OF THEM
Ah! but Abraham slept that night as if he had been drawn to rest under the compelling shelter of the wings of all that flock which in happier days he had dubbed contemptuously "them air old hens." Never afterward could the dazed old gentleman remember how he had been persuaded to come into the house and up the stairs with Angeline. He only knew that in the midst of that heart-breaking farewell at the gate, Miss Abigail, all out of breath with running, red in the face, but exceedingly hearty of manner, had suddenly appeared.
"Shoo, shoo, shoo!" this stout angel had gasped. "Naow, Cap'n Abe, yew needn't git narvous. We 're as harmless as doves. Run right erlong. Yew won't see anybody ter-night. Don't say a word. It's all right. Sssh! Shoo!" And then, lo! he was not in the County Almshouse, but in a beautiful bright bedchamber with a wreath of immortelles over the mantel, alone with Angy.
Afterward, it all seemed the blur of a dream to him, a dream which ended when he had found his head upon a cool, white pillow, and had felt glad, glad—dear God, how glad!—to know that Angy was still within reach of his outstretched hand; and so he had fallen asleep. But when he awoke in the morning, there stood Angeline in front of the glass taking her hair out of curl papers; and then he slowly began to realize the tremendous change that had come into their lives, when his wife committed the unprecedented act of taking her crimps out before breakfast. He realized' that they were to eat among strangers. He had become the guest of thirty "women-folks." No doubt he should be called "Old Gal Thirty-one." He got up and dressed very, very slowly. The bewildered gratitude, the incredulous thanksgiving of last night, were as far away as yesterday's sunset. A great seriousness settled upon Abe's lean face. At last he burst forth:
"One to thirty! Hy-guy, I'm in fer it!" How had it happened, he wondered. They had given him no time to think. They had swooped down upon him when his brain was dulled with anguish. Virtually, they had kidnapped him. Why had they brought him here to accept charity of a women's institution? Why need they thus intensify his sense of shame at his life's failure, and, above all, at his failure to provide for Angeline? In the poorhouse he would have been only one more derelict; but here he stood alone to be stared at and pitied and thrown a sickly-satisfying crumb. With a sigh from the very cellar of his being, he muttered:
"Aye, Mother, why didn't yew let me go on ter the County House? That air's the place fer a worn-out old hull like me. Hy-guy!" he ejaculated, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead, "I'd ruther lay deown an' die th'n face them air women."
"Thar, thar!" soothingly spoke Angy, laying her hand on his arm. "Thar, thar, Father! Jest think haow dretful I'd feel a-goin' deown without yer."
"So you would!" strangely comforted. "So you would, my dear!" For her sake he tried to brighten up. He joked clumsily as they stood on the threshold of the chamber, whispering, blinking his eyes to make up for the lack of their usually ready twinkle.
"Hol' on a minute; supposin' I fergit whether I be a man er a woman?"
Her love gave inspiration to her answer: "I'll lean on yer, Abe."
Just then there came the loud, imperative clanging of the breakfast-bell; and she urged him to hurry, as "it wouldn't dew" for them to be late the first morning of all times. But he only answered by going back into the room to make an anxious survey of his reflection in the glass. He shook his head reprovingly at the bearded countenance, as if to say: "You need not pride yourself any longer on looking like Abraham Lincoln, for you have been turned into a miserable old woman."
Picking up the hair-brush, he held it out at arm's length to Angy. "Won't yew slick up my hair a leetle bit, Mother?" he asked, somewhat shamefacedly. "I can't see extry well this mornin'."
"Why, Abe! It's slicked ez slick ez it kin be naow." However, the old wife reached up as he bent his tall, angular form over her, and smoothed again his thin, wet locks. He laughed a little, self-mockingly, and she laughed back, then urged him into the hall, and, slipping ahead, led the way down-stairs. At the first landing, which brought them into full view of the lower hall, he paused, possessed with the mad desire to run away and hide, for at the foot of the stairway stood the entire flock of old ladies. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes were lifted to him and Angy, twenty-nine pairs of lips were smiling at them. To the end of his days Abraham remembered those smiles. Reassuring, unselfish, and tender, they made the old man's heart swell, his emotions go warring together.
He wondered, was grateful, yet he grew more confused and afraid. He stared amazed at Angeline, who seemed the embodiment of self-possession, lifting her dainty, proud little gray head higher and higher. She turned to Abraham with a protecting, motherly little gesture of command for him to follow, and marched gallantly on down the stairs. Humbly, trembling at the knees, he came with gingerly steps after the little old wife. How unworthy he was of her now! How unworthy he had always been, yet never realized to the full until this moment. He knew what those smiles meant, he told himself, watching the uplifted faces; they were to soothe his sense of shame and humiliation, to touch with rose this dull gray color of the culmination of his failures. He passed his hand over his eyes, fiercely praying that the tears might not come to add to his disgrace.
And all the while brave little Angy kept smiling, until with a truly glad leap of the heart she caught sight of a blue ribbon painted in gold shining on the breast of each one of the twenty-nine women. A pale blue ribbon painted in gold with—yes, peering her eyes she discovered that it was the word "WELCOME!" The forced smile vanished from Angeline's face. Her eyes grew wet, her cheek white. Her proud figure shrank. She turned and looked back at her husband. Not for one instant did she appropriate the compliment to herself. "This is for you!" her spirit called out to him, while a new pride dawned in her working face.
Forty years had she spent apologizing for Abraham, and now she understood how these twenty-nine generous old hearts had raided him to the pedestal of a hero, while she stood a heroine beside him. Angy it was who trembled now, and Abe, gaining a manly courage from that, took hold of her arm to steady her—they had paused on a step near the foot of the stairs—and, looking around with his whimsical smile, he demanded of the bedecked company in general, "Ladies, be yew 'spectin' the President?"
Cackle went the cracked old voices of the twenty-nine in a chorus of appreciative laughter, while the old heads bobbed at one another as if to say, "Won't he be an acquisition?" And then, from among the group there came forward Blossy—Blossy, who had sacrificed most that this should come to pass; Blossy, who had sat till midnight painting the gold-and-blue ribbons; Blossy, the pride and beauty of the Home, in a delicate, old, yellow, real lace gown. She held her two hands gracefully and mysteriously behind her back as she advanced to the foot of the stairs. Looking steadily into Abraham's eyes, she kept a-smiling until he felt as if the warmth of a belated spring had beamed upon him.
"The President!" Her mellow, well-modulated voice shook, and she laughed with a mingling of generous joy and tender pity. "Are we expecting the President? You dear modest man! We are welcoming—you!"
Abe looked to Angy as if to say, "How shall I take it?" and behold! the miracle of his wife's bosom swelling and swelling with pride in him. He turned back, for Blossy was making a speech. His hand to his head, he bent his good ear to listen. In terms poetical and touching she described the loneliness of the life at the Home as it had been with no man under the roof of the house and only a deaf-and-dumb gardener, who hated her sex, in the barn. Then in contrast she painted life as it must be for the sisters now that the thirty tender vines had found a stanch old oak for their clinging. "Me?" queried Abraham of himself and, with another silent glance, of Angy.
But what was this? Blossy, leading all the others in a resounding call of "Welcome!" and then Blossy drawing her two hands from behind her back. One held a huge blue cup, the other, the saucer to match. She placed the cup in the saucer and held it out to Abraham. He trudged down the few steps to receive it, unashamed now of the tears that coursed down his cheeks. With a burst of delight he perceived that it was a mustache cup, such as the one he had always used at home until it had been set for safe-keeping on the top pantry shelf to await the auction, where it had brought the price of eleven cents with half a paper of tacks thrown in.
And now as the tears cleared away he saw also, what Angy's eyes had already noted, the inscription in warm crimson letters on the shining blue side of the cup, "To Our Beloved Brother."
"Sisters," he mumbled, for he could do no more than mumble as he took his gift, "ef yew'd been gittin' ready fer me six months, yew couldn't have done no better."
THE HEAD OF THE CORNER
Everybody wore their company manners to the breakfast-table—the first time in the whole history of the Home when company manners had graced the initial meal of the day. Being pleasant at supper was easy enough, Aunt Nancy used to say, for every one save the unreasonably cantankerous, and being agreeable at dinner was not especially difficult; but no one short of a saint could be expected to smile of mornings until sufficient time had been given to discover whether one had stepped out on the wrong or the right side of the bed.
This morning, however, no time was needed to demonstrate that everybody in the place had gotten out on the happy side of his couch. Even the deaf-and-dumb gardener had untwisted his surly temper, and as Abraham entered the dining-room, looked in at the east window with a conciliatory grin and nod which said as plainly as words:
"'T is a welcome sight indeed to see one of my own kind around this establishment!"
"Why don't he come in?" questioned Abe, waving back a greeting as well as he could with the treasured cup in one of his hands and the saucer in the other; whereupon Sarah Jane, that ugly duckling, explained that the fellow, being a confirmed woman-hater, cooked all his own meals in the smokehouse, and insisted upon all his orders being left on a slate outside the tool-house door. Abe sniffed disdainfully, contemplating her homely countenance, over which this morning's mood had cast a not unlovely, transforming glow.
"Why, the scalawag!" He frowned so at the face in the window that it immediately disappeared. "Yew don't mean ter tell me he's sot ag'in' yew gals? He must be crazy! Sech a handsome, clever set o' women I never did see!"
Sarah Jane blushed to the roots of her thin, straight hair and sat down, suddenly disarmed of every porcupine quill that she had hidden under her wings; while there was an agreeable little stir among the sisters.
"Set deown, all hands! Set deown!" enjoined Miss Abigail, fluttering about with the heaviness of a fat goose. "Brother Abe,—that 's what we've all agreed to call yew, by unanimous vote,—yew set right here at the foot of the table. Aunt Nancy always had the head an' me the foot; but I only kept the foot, partly becuz thar wa'n't no man fer the place, an' partly becuz I was tew sizable ter squeeze in any-whar else. Seein' as Sister Angy is sech a leetle mite, though, I guess she kin easy make room fer me t' other side o' her."
Abe could only bow his thanks as he put his gift down on the table and took the prominent place assigned to him. The others seated, there was a solemn moment of waiting with bowed heads. Aunt Nancy's trembling voice arose,—the voice which had jealously guarded the right of saying grace at table in the Old Ladies' Home for twenty years,—not, however, in the customary words of thanksgiving, but in a peremptory "Brother Abe!"
Abraham looked up. Could she possibly mean that he was to establish himself as the head of the household by repeating grace? "Brother Abe!" she called upon him again. "Yew've askt a blessin' fer one woman fer many a year; supposin' neow yew ask it fer thirty!"
Amid the amazement of the other sisters, Abe mumbled, and muttered, and murmured—no one knew what words; but all understood the overwhelming gratitude behind his incoherency, and all joined heartily in the Amen. Then, while Mrs. Homan, the cook of the week, went bustling out into the kitchen, Aunt Nancy felt that it devolved upon her to explain her action. It would never do, she thought, for her to gain a reputation for self-effacement and sweetness of disposition at her time of life.
"Son, I want yew ter understand one thing naow at the start. Yew treat us right, an' we'll treat yew right. That's all we ask o' yew. Miss Ellie, pass the radishes."
"I'll do my best," Abe hastened to assure her. "Hy-guy, that coffee smells some kind o' good, don't it? Between the smell o' the stuff an' the looks o' my cup, it'll be so temptin' that I'll wish I had the neck of a gi-raffe, an' could taste it all the way deown. Angy, I be afraid we'll git the gout a-livin' so high. Look at this here cream!"
Smiling, appreciative, his lips insisting upon joking to cover the natural feeling of embarrassment incident to this first meal among the sisters, but with his voice breaking now and again with emotion, while from time to time he had to steal his handkerchief to his old eyes, Abe passed successfully through the—to him—elaborate breakfast. And Angy sat in rapt silence, but with her face shining so that her quiet was the stillness of eloquence. Once Abe startled them all by rising stealthily from the table and seizing the morning's newspaper which lay upon the buffet.
"I knowed it!" caviled Lazy Daisy sotto voce to no one in particular. "He couldn't wait for the news till he was through eatin'!" But Abe had folded the paper into a stout weapon, and, creeping toward the window, despatched by a quick, adroit movement a fly which had alighted upon the screen.
"I hate the very sight o' them air pesky critters," he explained half apologetically. "Thar, thar's another one," and slaughtered that.
"My, but yew kin git 'em, can't yew?" spoke Miss Abigail admiringly. "Them tew be the very ones I tried ter ketch all day yiste'day; I kin see as a fly-ketcher yew be a-goin' ter be wuth a farm ter me. Set deown an' try some o' this here strawberry presarve."
But Abe protested that he could not eat another bite unless he should get up and run around the house to "joggle deown" what he had already swallowed. He leaned back in his chair and surveyed the family: on his right, generous-hearted Blossy, who had been smiling approval and encouragement at him all through the repast; at his left, and just beyond Angy, Miss Abigail indulging in what remained on the dishes now that she discovered the others to have finished; Aunt Nancy keenly watching him from the head of the board; and all the other sisters "betwixt an' between."
He caught Mrs. Homan's eye where she stood in the doorway leading into the kitchen, and remarked pleasantly: "Ma'am, yew oughter set up a pancake shop in 'York. Yew could make a fortune at it. I hain't had sech a meal o' vittles sence I turned fifty year o' age."
A flattered smile overspread Mrs. Homan's visage, and the other sisters, noting it, wondered how long it would be before she showed her claws in Abraham's presence.
"Hy-guy, Angy," Abe went on, "yew can't believe nothin' yew hear, kin yer? Why, folks have told me that yew ladies—What yew hittin' my foot fer, Mother? Folks have told me," a twinkle of amusement in his eye at the absurdity, "that yew fight among yerselves like cats an' dogs, when, law! I never see sech a clever lot o' women gathered tergether in all my life. An' I believe—Mother, I hain't a-sayin' nothin'! I jest want ter let 'em know what I think on 'em. I believe that thar must be three hunderd hearts in this here place 'stid o' thirty. But dew yew know, gals, folks outside even go so fur's ter say that yew throw plates at one another!"
There was a moment's silence; then a little gasp first from one and then from another of the group. Every one looked at Mrs. Homan, and from Mrs. Homan to Sarah Jane. Mrs. Homan tightened her grip on the pancake turner; Sarah Jane uneasily moved her long fingers within reach of a sturdy little red-and-white pepper-pot. Another moment passed, in which the air seemed filled with the promise of an electric storm. Then Blossy spoke hurriedly—Blossy the tactician, clasping her hands together and bringing Abe's attention to herself.
"Really! You surprise me! You don't mean to say that folks talk about us like that!"
"Slander is a dretful long-legged critter," amended Miss Abigail, smiling and sighing in the same breath.
"Sary Jane," inquired Mrs. Homan sweetly, "what 's the matter with that pepper-pot? Does it need fillin'?"
And so began the reign of peace in the Old Ladies' Home.
Miss Abigail had not banked in vain on the "foresightedness of the Lord." At the end of six months, instead of there being a shortage in her accounts because of Abe's presence, she was able to show the directors such a balance-sheet as excelled all her previous commendable records.
"How do you explain it?" they asked her.
"We cast our bread on the waters," she answered, "an' Providence jest kept a-handin' out the loaves." Again she said, "'T was grinnin' that done it. Brother Abe he kept the gardener good-natured, an' the gardener he jest grinned at the garden sass until it was ashamed not ter flourish; an' Brother Abe kept the gals good-natured an' they wa'n't so niasy about what they eat; an' he kept the visitors a-laughin' jest ter see him here, an' when yew make folks laugh they want ter turn around an' dew somethin' fer yew. I tell yew, ef yew kin only keep grit ernough ter grin, yew kin drive away a drought."
In truth, there had been no drought in the garden that summer, but almost a double yield of corn and beans; no drought in the gifts sent to the Home, but showers of plenty. Some of these came in the form of fresh fish and clams left at the back door; some in luscious fruits; some in barrels of clothing. And the barrels of clothing solved another problem; for no longer did their contents consist solely of articles of feminine attire. "Biled shirts" poured out of them; socks and breeches, derby hats, coats and negligees; until Aunt Nancy with a humorous twist to her thin lips inquired if there were thirty men in this establishment and one woman.
"I never thought I'd come to wearin' a quilted silk basque with tossels on it," Abe remarked one day on being urged to try on a handsome smoking-jacket. "Dew I look like one of them sissy-boys, er jest a dude?"
"It's dretful becoming," insisted Angy, "bewtiful! Ain't it, gals?"
Every old lady nodded her head with an air of proud proprietorship, as if to say, "Nothing could fail to become our brother." And Angy nodded her head, too, in delighted approval of their appreciation of "our brother" and "my husband."
Beautiful, joy-steeped, pleasure-filled days these were for the couple, who had been cramped for life's smallest necessities so many meager years. Angy felt that she had been made miraculously young by the birth of this new Abraham—almost as if at last she had been given the son for whom in her youth she had prayed with impassioned appeal. Her old-wife love became rejuvenated into a curious mixture of proud mother-love and young-wife leaning, as she saw Abe win every heart and become the center of the community.
"Why, the sisters all think the sun rises an' sets in him," Angy would whisper to herself sometimes, awed by the glorious wonder of it all.
The sisters fairly vied with one another to see how much each could do for the one man among them. Their own preferences and prejudices were magnanimously thrust aside. In a body they besought their guest to smoke as freely in the house as out of doors. Miss Abigail even traded some of her garden produce for tobacco, while Miss Ellie made the old gentleman a tobacco-pouch of red flannel so generous in its proportions that on a pinch it could be used as a chest-protector.
Then Ruby Lee, not to be outdone by anybody, produced, from no one ever discovered where, a mother-of-pearl manicure set for the delight and mystification of the hero; and even Lazy Daisy went so far as to cut some red and yellow tissue-paper into squares under the delusion that some time, somehow, she would find the energy to roll these into spills for the lighting of Abe's pipe. And each and every sister from time to time contributed some gift or suggestion to her "brother's" comfort.
It "plagued" the others, however, to see that none of them could get ahead of Blossy in their noble endeavors to make Abraham feel himself a light and welcome burden. She it was who discovered that Abe's contentment could not be absolute without griddle-cakes for breakfast three hundred and sixty-five times a year; she it was who first baked him little saucer-cakes and pies because he was partial to edges; and Blossy it was who made out a list of "Don'ts" for the sisters to follow in their treatment of this grown-up, young-old boy.
"Don't scold him when he leaves the doors open. Don't tell him to wipe his feet. Don't ever mention gold-mines or shiftless husbands," etc., etc.
All these triumphs of Blossy's intuition served naturally to spur the others on to do even more for Brother Abe than they had already done, until the old man began to worry for fear that he should "git sp'ilt." When he lay down for his afternoon nap and the house was dull and quiet without his waking presence, the ladies would gather in groups outside his door as if in a king's antechamber, waiting for him to awaken, saying to one another ever and again, "Sh, sh!" He professed to scoff at the attentions he received, would grunt and growl "Humbug!" yet nevertheless he thrived in this latter-day sunlight. His old bones took on flesh. His aged kindly face, all seamed with care as it had been, filled out, the wrinkles turning into twinkles. Abraham had grown young again. With the return of his youth came the spirit of youth to the Old Ladies' Home. Verily, verily, as Blossy had avowed from the first, they had been in sore need of the masculine presence. The ancient coat and hat which had hung in the hall so long had perhaps served its purpose in keeping the burglars away, but this lifeless substitute had not prevented the crabbed gnomes of loneliness and discontent from stealing in. Spinster, wife, and widow, they had every one been warped by the testy just-so-ness of the old maid.
Now, instead of fretful discussions of health and food, recriminations and wrangling, there came to be laughter and good-humored chatter all the day long, each sister striving with all her strength to preserve the new-found harmony of the Home. There were musical evenings, when Miss Abigail opened the melodeon and played "Old Hundred," and Abraham was encouraged to pick out with one stiff forefinger "My Grandfather's Clock." "Hymn tunes" were sung in chorus; and then, in answer to Abe's appeal for something livelier, there came time-tried ditties and old, old love-songs. And at last, one night, after leaving the instrument silent, mute in the corner of the parlor for many years, Aunt Nancy Smith dragged out her harp, and, seating herself, reached out her knotted, trembling hands and brought forth what seemed the very echo, so faint and faltering it was, of "Douglas, Douglas, Tender and True."
There was a long silence after she had finished, her head bowed on her chest, her hands dropped to her sides. Abraham spoke first, clearing his throat before he could make the words come.
"I wish I could git a husband fer every one of yer," said he.
And no one was angry, and no one laughed; for they all knew that he was only seeking to express the message conveyed by Nancy's playing—the message of Love, Love triumphant, which cannot age, which over the years and over Death itself always hath the victory.
OLD LETTERS AND NEW
Blossy left the room without a word, and went stealing up the stairs to the little cupboard where she now slept, and where was hung on the wall, in a frame of yellow hollyhocks, painted by her own hand, a photograph of Captain Samuel Darby, the man who had remained obstinately devoted to her since her days of pinafores.
The picture betrayed that Captain Darby wore a wig designed for a larger man, and that the visage beneath was gnarled and weather-beaten, marked with the signs of a stubborn and unreasonable will.
Even now the aged belle could hear him saying: "Here I be, come eround ter pop ag'in. Ready ter hitch?"
Samuel's inelegant English had always been a source of distress to Blossy; yet still she stared long at the picture.
Six months had passed since his last visit; to-morrow would be the date of his winter advent.
Should she give the old unvarying answer to his tireless formula?
She glanced around the tiny room. Ashamed though she was to admit it even to herself, she missed that ample and cozy chamber which she had so freely surrendered to Abraham and his wife. She missed it, as she felt they must crave their very own fireside; and the thought that they missed the old homestead made her yearn for the home that she might have had—the home that she still might have.
Again she brought her eyes back to the portrait; and now she saw, not the characteristics which had always made it seem impossible for her and Samuel to jog together down life's road, but the great truth that the face was honest and wholesome, while the eyes looked back into hers with the promise of an unswerving care and affection.
The next morning found Blossy kneeling before a plump, little, leather-bound, time-worn trunk which she kept under the eaves of the kitchen chamber. The trunk was packed hard with bundles of old letters. Some her younger fingers had tied with violet ribbon; some they had bound with pink; others she had fastened together with white silk cord; and there were more and more bundles, both slim and stout, which Blossy had distinguished by some special hue of ribbon in the long ago, each tint marking a different suitor's missives.
To her still sentimental eye the colors remained unfaded, and each would bring to her mind instantly the picture of the writer as he had been in the golden days. But save to Blossy's eye alone there were no longer any rainbow tints in the little, old trunk; for every ribbon and every cord had faded into that musty, yellow brown which is dyed by the passing of many years.
Abraham discovered her there, too engrossed in the perusal of one of the old letters to have heeded his creaking steps upon the stairs.
"Didn't see yer, till I 'most stumbled on yer," he began apologetically. "I come fer the apple-picker. Thar's a handful of russets in the orchard yit, that's calc'latin' ter spend Christmas up close ter heaven; but—Say, Blossy," he added more loudly, since she did not raise her head, "yew seen anythin' o' that air picker?"
Blossy glanced up from her ragged-edged crackly billet-doux with a start, and dropped the envelop to the floor.
For the moment, so deep in reminiscence was she, she thought Captain Darby himself had surprised her; then, recognizing Abe and recalling that Samuel's winter visits were invariably paid in the afternoon, she broke into a shamefaced laugh.
"Oh, is that you, Brother Abe? Don't tell the others what you found me doing. These," with a wave of her delicate, blue-veined hands over the trunk and its contents, "are all old love-letters of mine. Do you think I'm a silly old goose to keep them cluttering around so long?"
"Wa'al,"—Abe with an equally deprecatory gesture indicated Angy's horsehair trunk in the far corner of the loft,—"yew ain't no more foolisher, I guess, over yer old trash 'n me an' Angy be a-keepin' that air minin' stock of mine. One lot is wuth 'bout as much as t'other."
Recovering the envelop that she had dropped, he squinted at the superscription. "Not meanin' ter be inquisitive or personal, Sister Blossy," a teasing twinkle appearing in his eye, "but this looks dretful familitary, this here handwritin' does. When I run the beach—yew've heard me tell of the time I was on the Life-savin' Crew over ter Bleak Hill fer a spell—my cap'n he had a fist jest like that. Useter make out the spickest, spannest reports. Lemme see," the twinkle deepening, "didn't the gals say yew was a 'spectin' somebody ter-day? Law, I ain't saw Cap'n Sam'l fer ten year or more. I guess on these here poppin' trips o' his'n he hain't wastin' time on no men-folks. But, Blossy, yew better give me a chance ter talk to him this arternoon, an' mebbe I'll speak a good word fer yer."
Blossy, not always keen to see a joke, and with her vanity now in the ascendant, felt the color rise into her withered cheek.
"Oh, you needn't take the trouble to speak a good word for me. Any man who could ever write a letter like this doesn't need to be coaxed. Just listen:
"The man you take for a mate is the luckiest dog in the whole round world. I'd rather be him than king of all the countries on earth. I'd rather be him than strike a gold-mine reaching from here to China. I'd rather be him than master of the finest vessel that ever sailed blue water. That's what I would. Why, the man who couldn't be happy with you would spill tears all over heaven."
Blossy's cheek was still flushed, but no longer with pique. Her voice quavered, and broke; and finally there fell upon the faded page of the letter two sparkling tears.
Abraham shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the other; then, muttering something about the "pesky apple-hook," went scuffing across the floor in the direction of the chimney.
Blossy, however, called him back. "I was crying, Brother Abe, because the man I did take for a mate once was not happy, and—and neither was I. I was utterly wretched; so that I've always felt I never cared to marry again. And—and Samuel's wig is always slipping down over one eye, and I simply cannot endure that trick he has of carrying his head to one side, as if he had a left-handed spell of the mumps. It nearly drives me frantic.
"Brother Abe, now tell me honestly: do you think he would make a good husband?"
Abe cleared his throat. Blossy was in earnest. Blossy could not be laughed at. She was his friend, and Angy's friend; and she had come to him as to a brother for advice. He too had known Samuel as man to man, which was more than any of the sisters could say.
Stroking his beard thoughtfully, therefore, he seated himself upon a convenient wooden chest, while Blossy slipped her old love-letter in and out of the envelop, with that essentially feminine manner of weighing and considering.
"Naow," began Abe at length, "this is somep'n that requires keerful debatin'. Fust off, haowsomever, yew must remember that wigs an' ways never made a man yit. Ez I riccollec' Sam'l, he was pooty good ez men go. I should say he wouldn't be any more of a risk tew yew than I was tew Angy; mebbe less. He's got quite a leetle laid by, I understand, an' a tidy story-an'-a-half house, an' front stoop, an', by golly, can't he cook! He's a splendid housekeeper."
"Housewifery," remarked Blossy sagely, as she began to gather her missives together, "is an accomplishment to be scorned in a young husband, but not in an old one. They say there hasn't been a woman inside Samuel's house since he built it, but it's as clean as soap and sand can make it."
"I bet yer," agreed Abe. "Hain't never been no fly inside it, neither, I warrant yer. Fly can't light arter Sam'l's cleanin' up nohaow; he's got ter skate."
"He says he built that little house for me," said the old lady, as she closed down the lid of the trunk. There was a wistful note in Blossy's voice, which made Abraham declare with a burst of sympathy:
"'T ain't no disgrace ter git married at no time of life. Sam'l's a good pervider; why don't yew snap him up ter-day? We'll miss yew a lot; but—"
"Here's the apple-picker right over your head," interrupted Blossy tartly, and Abe felt himself peremptorily dismissed.
Scarcely had he left the attic, however, than she too hastened down the steep, narrow stairs. She spent the remaining hours before train-time in donning her beautiful lace gown, and in making the woman within it as young and ravishing as possible. And lovely, indeed, Blossy looked this day, with a natural flush of excitement on her cheek, a new sparkle in her bright, dark eyes, and with her white hair arranged in a fashion which might have excited a young girl's envy.
The hour for the train came and went, and, lo! for the first time in the history of twenty years Captain Darby did not appear.
Blossy pretended to be relieved, protesting that she was delighted to find that she would now have an extra hour in which to ponder the question. But the second train came and went, and still no Captain Darby.
All the afternoon long Blossy wore her lace gown, thinking although there were no more trains from the eastward that day, that Samuel would still find his way to her. He might drive, as he usually did in June, or he might even walk from his home at Twin Coves, she said.
At night, however, she was obliged to admit that he could not be coming; and then, quivering with honest anxiety for her old friend, Blossy dipped into her emergency fund, which she kept in the heart of a little pink china pig on a shelf in her room,—a pink china pig with a lid made of stiff black hair standing on edge in the middle of his back,—and sent a telegram to Captain Darby, asking if he were sick.
The answer came back slowly by mail, to find Blossy on the verge of a nervous collapse, under the care of all the women in the house.
That letter Blossy never showed to Brother Abe, nor to any one else. Neither did she treasure it in the sentimental trunk beneath the attic eaves. The letter ran:
DEAR BETSY ANN: I never felt better in my life. Ain't been sick a minute. Just made up my mind I was a old fool, and was going to quit. If you change your intentions at any time, just drop me a postal. As ever,
SAM'L DARBY, ESQ.
"This, Captain Darby, makes your rejection final," vowed Blossy to herself, as she tore the note into fragments and drowned them in the spirits of lavender with which the sisters had been seeking to soothe her distracted nerves.
About this time Blossy developed a tendency to draw Brother Abraham aside at every opportunity, convenient or inconvenient, in order to put such questions as these to him:
"Did you say it is fully thirty-five years since you and Captain Darby were on the beach together? Do you think he has grown much older? Had he lost his hair then? Did he care for the opposite sex? Was he very brave—or would you say more brave than stubborn and contrary? Isn't it a blessing that I never married him?"
Fearful of the ridicule of the sisters, Blossy was always careful to conduct these inquiries in whispers, or at least in undertones with a great observance of secrecy, sometimes stopping Abe on the stairs, sometimes beckoning him to her side when she was busy about her household tasks on the pretense of requiring his assistance. On one occasion she even went so far as to inveigle him into holding a skein of wool about his clumsy hands, while she wound the violet worsted into a ball, and delicately inquired if he believed Samuel spoke the truth when he had protested that he had never paid court to any other woman.
Alas, Blossy's frequent tete-a-tetes with the amused but sometimes impatient Abraham started an exceedingly foolish suspicion. When, asked the sisters of one another, did Abe ever help any one, save Blossy, shell dried beans or pick over prunes? When had he ever been known to hold wool for Angy's winding? Not once since wooing-time, I warrant you. What could this continual hobnobbing and going off into corners mean, except—flirtation?
Ruby Lee whispered it first into Aunt Nancy's good ear. Aunt Nancy indulged in four pinches of snuff in rapid succession, sneezed an amazing number of times, and then acridly informed Ruby Lee that she was a "jealous cat" and always had been one.
However, Aunt Nancy could not refrain from carrying the gossip to Miss Ellie, adding that she herself had been suspicious of Abe's behavior from the start.
"Oh, no, no!" cried the shocked and shrinking spinster. "And Angy so cheerful all the time? I don't believe it."
But whisper, whisper, buzz, buzz, went the gossip, until finally it reached the pink little ears at the side of Miss Abigail's generously proportioned head. The pink ears turned crimson, likewise the adjoining cheeks, and Miss Abigail panted with righteous indignation.
"It all comes of this plagued old winter-time," she declared, sharply biting her thread, for she was mending a table-cloth. "Shet the winders on summer, an' yew ketch the tail of slander in the latch every time. Naow, ef I hear one word about this 'tarnal foolishness comin' to Angy's ears, or Brother Abe's, or Blossy's either, fer that matter, we'll all have to eat off'n oil-cloth Sundays, the same as weekdays, until I see a more Christian sperit in the house."
She gave the Sunday damask across her lap a pat which showed she was in earnest; and the rebuked sisters glanced at one another, as if to say:
"Suppose the minister should walk in some Sabbath afternoon and find oil-cloth on the table, and ask the reason why?"
They one and all determined to take Aunt Nancy's advice and "sew a button on their lips."
Fortunately, too, the February thaws had already set in, and the remainder of the winter passed without any severe strain on the "buttonholes." And at length the welcome spring began to peep forth, calling to the old folks, "Come out, and grow young with the young year!"
With the bursting forth of the new springtide the winter's talk seemed to drop as a withered and dead oak-leaf falls from its winter-bound branches; and Abe stood once more alive to the blessings of renewed approval.
Angy went out of doors with Miss Abigail, and puttered around among the flowers as if they were her own, thanking God for Abe's increasing popularity in the same breath that she gave thanks for the new buds of the spring.
The anniversary of the Roses' entrance into the Home drew nearer, and Blossy suggested that the best way to celebrate the event would be by means of a "pink tea."
Neither Angy nor Abe, nor in fact half the sisters, had any clear conception of what a tinted function might be; but they one and all seized upon Blossy's idea as if it were a veritable inspiration, and for the time jealousies were forgotten, misunderstandings erased.
Such preparations as were made for that tea! The deaf-and-dumb gardener was sent with a detachment of small boys to fetch from the wayside and meadows armfuls of wild roses for the decorations. Miss Abigail made pink icing for the cake. Ruby Lee hung bleeding-hearts over the dining-room door. Aunt Nancy resurrected from the bottom of her trunk a white lace cap with a rakish-looking pink bow for an adornment, and fastened it to her scant gray hairs in honor of the occasion. Blossy turned her pink china pig, his lid left up-stairs, into a sugar-bowl.
Pink, pink, pink, everywhere; even in Angy's proud cheeks! Pink, and pink, and pink! Abe used to grow dizzy, afterward, trying to recall the various pink articles which graced that tea.
But most delightful surprise of all was his anniversary gift, which was slyly slipped to his place after the discussion of the rose-colored strawberry gelatin. It was a square, five-pound parcel wrapped in pink tissue-paper, tied with pink string, and found to contain so much Virginia tobacco, which Blossy had inveigled an old Southern admirer into sending her for "charitable purposes."
After the presentation of this valuable gift, Abraham felt that the time had come for him to make a speech—practically his maiden speech.
He said at the beginning, more suavely at his ease than he would have believed possible, secure of sympathy and approbation, with Angy's glowing old eyes upon her prodigy, that all the while he had been at the Home, he had never before felt the power to express his gratitude for the welcome which had been accorded him—the welcome which seemed to wear and wear, as if it were all wool and a yard wide, and could never wear out.
The old ladies nodded their heads in approval of this, every face beaming; but as the speech went on the others perceived that Abe had singled out Blossy for special mention,—blind, blind Abraham!—Blossy, who had first proposed admitting him into this paradise; Blossy, who had given up her sunny south chamber to his comfort and Angy's; Blossy, who had been as a "guardeen angel" to him; Blossy, who as a fitting climax to all her sisterly attentions had given him to-day this wonderful, wonderful pink tea, and "this five hull pound o' Virginny terbaccer."
He held the parcel close to his bosom, and went on, still praising Blossy,—this innocent old gentleman,—heedless of Angy's gentle tug at his coat-tail; while Blossy buried her absurdly lovely old face in the pink flush of a wild-rose spray, and the other old ladies stared from him to her, their faces growing hard and cold.
When Abraham sat down, aglow with pride over his oratorical triumphs, his chest expanded, his countenance wrinkled into a thousand guileless, grateful smiles, there was absolute silence.
Then Blossy, her head still bowed as if in shy confusion, began to clap her hands daintily together, whereat a few of the others joined her half-heartedly. A sense of chill crept over Abraham. Accustomed as a rule to deferential attention, did he but say good-morning, by no means aware that his throne had toppled during the winter, he was still forced to perceive that something had gone amiss.
As always when aught troubled his mind, "Father" turned to Angy; but instead of his composed and resourceful little wife he found a scared-faced and trembling woman. Angy had suddenly become conscious of the shadow of the green-eyed monster. Angy's loyal heart was crying out to her mate: "Don't git the sisters daown on yer, Abe, 'cuz then, mebbe, yew'll lose yer hum!" But poor Angeline's lips were so stiff with terror over the prospect of the County House for her husband, that she could not persuade them to speech.
Abraham, completely at sea, turned next to her whom he had called his guardian angel; but Blossy was rising from her seat, a baffling smile of expectancy on her face, the rose spray swinging in her delicate hand as if to the measure of some music too far back in youth for any one else to hear. Blossy had worn that expectant look all day. She might have been delightedly hugging to herself a secret which she had not shared even with the trusted Abraham. She was gowned in her yellow lace, the beauty and grace of which had defied the changing fashions as Blossy's remarkable elegance of appearance had defied the passing of the years.
"Brother Abe,"—in her heedlessness of the mischief she had wrought, Blossy seemed almost to sing,—"I never shall forget your speech as long as I live. Will you excuse me now?"
She swept out of the door, her skirts rustling behind her.
Abe collected himself so far as to bow in the direction she had taken; then with lamblike eyes of inquiry met the exasperated glances cast upon him.
Not a sister moved or spoke. They all sat as if glued to their chairs, in a silence that was fast growing appalling.
Abe turned his head and looked behind his chair for an explanation; but nothing met his eye, save the familiar picture on the wall of two white kittens playing in the midst of a huge bunch of purple lilacs.
Then there broke upon the stillness the quavering old voice of Aunt Nancy, from her place opposite Abe's at the head of the board. The aged dame had her two hands clasped before her on the edge of the table, vainly trying to steady their palsied shaking. Her eyes, bright, piercing, age-defying, she fixed upon the bewildered Abraham with a look of deep and sorrowful reproach. Her unsteady head bobbed backward and forward with many an accusing nod, and the cap with its rakish pink bow bobbed backward and forward too. Abe watched her, fascinated, unconsciously wondering, even in the midst of his disquietude, why the cap did not slide off her bald scalp entirely. To his amazement, she addressed not himself, but Angy.
"Sister Rose, yew kin leave the room." Implacable purpose spoke in Aunt Nancy's tone. Angy started, looked up, going first red and then white; but she did not move. She opened her lips to speak.
"I don't want ter hear a word from yew, nor anybody else," sternly interposed Aunt Nancy. "I'm old enough ter be yer mother. Go up-stairs!"
Angy's glance sought Miss Abigail, but the matron's eyes avoided hers. The little wife sighed, rose reluctantly, dropped her hand doubtfully reassuring on Abe's shoulder, and then went obediently to the door.
From the threshold she looked wistfully back; but an imperious wave from Aunt Nancy banished her altogether, and Abe found himself alone—not with the sisters whom he loved, but with twenty-eight hard-visaged strangers.
A WINTER BUTTERFLY
"Cap'n Rose," began Aunt Nancy. Brother Abe pricked up his eats at the formal address. "Cap'n Rose," she repeated, deliberately dwelling on the title. "I never believe in callin' a man tew account in front of his wife. It gives him somebody handy ter blame things on tew jest like ole Adam. Naow, look a-here! What I want is ter ask yew jest one question: Whar, whar on 'arth kin we look fer a decent behavin' ole man ef not in a Old Ladies' Hum? Would yew—" she exhorted earnestly, pointing her crooked forefinger at him. "Would yew—"
Abraham caught his breath. Beads of sweat had appeared on his brow. He broke in huskily:
"Wait a minute, Aunt Nancy. Jest tell me what I've been an' done."
The ladies glanced at one another, contemptuous, incredulous smiles on their faces, while Aunt Nancy almost wept at his deceitfulness.
"Cap'n Rose," she vowed mournfully, "I've lived in this house fer many, many years, an' all the while I been here I never hearn tell o' a breath o' scandal ag'in' the place until yew come an' commenced ter kick up yer heels."
Lazy Daisy, who had long been an inmate, also nodded her unwieldy head in confirmation, while a low murmur of assent arose from the others. Abraham could only pass his hand over his brow, uneasily shuffle his maligned heels over the floor and await further developments; for he did not have the slightest conception as to "what they were driving at."
"Cap'n Rose," the matriarch proceeded, as in the earnestness of her indignation she arose, trembling, in her seat and stood with her palsied and shaking hands on the board, "Cap'n Rose, yer conduct with this here Mis' Betsey Ann Blossom has been somethin' reediculous! It's been disgraceful!"
Aunt Nancy sat down, incongruously disreputable in appearance, her pink bow having slipped down over her right ear during the harangue. Over the culprit's countenance light had dawned, but, shame to tell! it was a light not wholly remorseful. Then silent laughter shook the old man's shoulders, and then—could it be?—there crept about his lips and eyes a smile of superbly masculine conceit. The sisters were fighting over him. Wouldn't Mother be amused when he should tell her what all this fuss was about.
Now, kindly, short-sighted Miss Abigail determined that it was time for the matron's voice to be heard.
"Of course, Brother Abe, we understand perfectly that yew never stopped ter take inter consideration haow susceptible some folks is made."
There being plain evidence from Abe's blank expression that he did not understand the meaning of the word, Ruby Lee hastened to explain.
"Susceptible is the same as flighty-headed. Blossy allers was a fool over anything that wore breeches."
Abe pushed his chair back from the table and crossed his legs comfortably. For him all the chill had gone out of the air. Suppose that there was something in this? An old, old devil of vanity came back to the aged husband's heart. He recalled that he had been somewhat of a beau before he learned the joy of loving Angy. More than one Long Island lassie had thrown herself at his head. Of course Blossy would "get over" this; and Angy knew that his heart was hers as much as it had been the day he purchased his wedding-beaver; but Abe could not refrain from a chuckle of complacent amusement as he stroked his beard.
His very evident hardness of heart so horrified the old ladies that they all began to attack him at once.
"Seems ter me I'd have the decency ter show some shame!" grimly avowed Sarah Jane.
Abe could not help it. He sputtered. Even Miss Abigail's, "Yew were a stranger an' we took yew in" did not sober him.
"Ef any one o' my husbands had acted the way you've acted, Abe Rose," began Mrs. Homan.
"Poor leetle Angy," broke in the gentle Miss Ellie pityingly. "She must 'a' lost six pounds."
Abraham's mobile face clouded over.
"Angy?" he faltered. "Yew don't mean that Angy—" Silence again fell on the group, while every glance was fastened on Abraham. "See here," he flashed his faded blue eye, "Angy's got more sense than that!"
No one answered, but there was a significant shrugging of shoulders and lifting of eyebrows. Abraham was distressed and concerned enough now. Rising from his place he besought the sisters:
"Yew don't think Angy's feelin's have been hurt—dew yew, gals?"
Their faces softened, their figures relaxed, the tide of feeling changed in Abraham's favor. Miss Ellie spoke very softly:
"Yew know that even 'the Lord thy God is a jealous God.'"
Abraham grasped the back of his chair for support, his figure growing limp with astonishment. "Mother, jealous of me?" he whispered to himself, the memory of all the years and all the great happenings of all the years coming back to him. "Mother jealous of me?" He remembered how he had once been tormented by jealousy in the long, the ever-so-long ago, and of a sudden he hastened into the hall and went half-running up the stairs. He took hold of the latch of his bedroom door. It did not open. The door was locked.
"Angy!" he called, a fear of he knew not what gripping at his heart. "Angy!" he repeated as she did not answer.
The little old wife had locked herself in out of very shame of the rare tears which had been brought to the surface by the sisters' cruel treatment of Abraham. When she heard his call she hastened to the blue wash-basin and began hurriedly to dab her eyes. He would be alarmed if he saw the traces of her weeping. Whatever had happened to him, for his sake she must face it valiantly. He called again. Again she did not answer, knowing that her voice would be full of the telltale tears. Abe waited. He heard the tramp of feet passing out of the dining-room into the hall. He heard Blossy emerge from her room at the end of the passage and go tripping down the stairs. The time to Angy, guiltily bathing her face, was short; the time to her anxious husband unaccountably long. The sound of wheels driving up to the front door came to Abe's ears. Still Angy made him no response.
"Angy!" he raised his voice in piteous pleading. What mattered if the sisters gathered in the lower hall heard him? What mattered if the chance guest who had just arrived heard him also? He had his peace to make with his wife and he would make it. "Angy!"
She flung the door open hastily. The signs of the tears had not been obliterated, and her face was drawn and old. Straightway she put her hand on his arm and searched his face inquiringly.
"What did the gals say ter yew?" she whispered. "Abe, yew made a mistake when yew picked out Bl—"
"Poor leetle Mother!" he interrupted. "Poor leetle Mother!" a world of remorseful pity in his tone. "So yew been jealous of yer ole man?"
Angeline, astonished and indignant, withdrew her hand sharply, demanding to know if he had lost his senses; but the blinded old gentleman slipped his arm around her and, bending, brushed his lips against her cheek. "Thar, thar," he murmured soothingly, "I didn't mean no harm. I can't help it ef all the gals git stuck on me!"
Before Angy could make any reply, Blossy called to the couple softly but insistently from the foot of the stairs; and Angy, wrenching herself free, hastened down the steps, for once in her life glad to get away from Abe. He lost no time in following. No matter where Angy went, he would follow until all was well between her and him again.
But what was this? At the landing, Angy halted and so did Abe, for in the center of the sisters stood Blossy with her Sunday bonnet perched on her silver-gold hair and her white India shawl over her shoulders, and beside Blossy stood Captain Samuel Darby with a countenance exceedingly radiant, his hand clasped fast in that of the aged beauty.
"Oh, hurry, Sister Angy and Brother Abe!" called Blossy. "We were waiting for you, and I've got some news for all my friends." She waited smilingly for them to join the others; then with a gesture which included every member of the household, she proceeded: "The pink tea, I want you all to know, had a double significance, and first, of course, it was to celebrate the anniversary of Brother Abe's sojourn with us; but next it was my farewell to the Home." Here Blossy gurgled and gave the man at her right so coy a glance that Samuel's face flamed red and he hung his head lower to one side than usual, like a little boy that had been caught stealing apples. "I left the tea a trifle early—you must forgive me, Brother Abe, but I heard the train-whistle." Abe stood beside Angeline, rooted in astonishment, while Blossy continued to address him directly. "You gave Samuel so many good recommendations, dear brother, that when the time approached for his June visit, I felt that I simply could not let him miss it as he did in December. Last year, on the day you entered, he was here through no desire of mine. To-day he is here at my request. My friends," again she included the entire Home in her glance, "we'll come back a little later to say Good-by. Now, we're on the way to the minister's."
The pair, Samuel tongue-tied and bewildered by the joy of his finally won success, moved toward the door. On the threshold of the Home Blossy turned and waved farewell to the companions of her widowhood, while Samuel bowed in a dazed fashion, his face still as red as it was blissful. Then quickly the two passed out upon the porch. No one moved to see them off. Abe looked everywhere yet nowhere at all. Not a word was spoken even when the carriage was heard rolling down the drive; but the sound of the wheels seemed to arouse Angy from her stupor of amazement; and presently Abraham became conscious of a touch,—a touch sympathetic, tender and true,—a touch all-understanding—the touch of Angy's hand within his own.