BY ALICE BROWN
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
The Riverside Press, Cambridge
COPYRIGHT, 1899, BY ALICE BROWN
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
TO M. H. R.
A MASTER MAGICIAN
A MARCH WIND
THE MORTUARY CHEST
A STOLEN FESTIVAL
A LAST ASSEMBLING
THE WAY OF PEACE
THE EXPERIENCE OF HANNAH PRIME
HONEY AND MYRRH
A SECOND MARRIAGE
THE FLAT-IRON LOT
THE END OF ALL LIVING
Tiverton has breezy, upland roads, and damp, sweet valleys; but should you tarry there a summer long, you might find it wasteful to take many excursions abroad. For, having once received the freedom of family living, you will own yourself disinclined to get beyond dooryards, those outer courts of domesticity. Homely joys spill over into them, and, when children are afoot, surge and riot there. In them do the common occupations of life find niche and channel. While bright weather holds, we wash out of doors on a Monday morning, the wash-bench in the solid block of shadow thrown by the house. We churn there, also, at the hour when Sweet-Breath, the cow, goes afield, modestly unconscious of her own sovereignty over the time. There are all the varying fortunes of butter-making recorded. Sometimes it comes merrily to the tune of
"Come, butter, come! Peter stands a-waiting at the gate, Waiting for his butter-cake. Come, butter, come!"
chanted in time with the dasher; again it doth willfully refuse, and then, lest it be too cool, we contribute a dash of hot water, or too hot, and we lend it a dash of cold. Or we toss in a magical handful of salt, to encourage it. Possibly, if we be not the thriftiest of householders, we feed the hens here in the yard, and then "shoo" them away, when they would fain take profligate dust-baths under the syringa, leaving unsightly hollows. But however, and with what complexion, our dooryards may face the later year, they begin it with purification. Here are they an unfailing index of the severer virtues; for, in Tiverton, there is no housewife who, in her spring cleaning, omits to set in order this outer pale of the temple. Long before the merry months are well under way, or the cows go kicking up their heels to pasture, or plants are taken from the south window and clapped into chilly ground, orderly passions begin to riot within us, and we "clear up" our yards. We gather stray chips, and pieces of bone brought in by the scavenger dog, who sits now with his tail tucked under him, oblivious of such vagrom ways. We rake the grass, and then, gilding refined gold, we sweep it. There is a tradition that Miss Lois May once went to the length of trimming her grass about the doorstone and clothes-pole with embroidery scissors; but that was a too-hasty encomium bestowed by a widower whom she rejected next week, and who qualified his statement by saying they were pruning-shears.
After this preliminary skirmishing arises much anxious inspection of ancient shrubs and the faithful among old-fashioned plants, to see whether they have "stood the winter." The fresh, brown "piny" heads are brooded over with a motherly care; wormwood roots are loosened, and the horse-radish plant is given a thrifty touch. There is more than the delight of occupation in thus stirring the wheels of the year. We are Nature's poor handmaidens, and our labor gives us joy.
But sweet as these homespun spots can make themselves, in their mixture of thrift and prodigality, they are dearer than ever at the points where they register family traits, and so touch the humanity of us all. Here is imprinted the story of the man who owns the farm, that of the father who inherited it, and the grandfather who reclaimed it from waste; here have they and their womenkind set the foot of daily living and traced indelible paths. They have left here the marks of tragedy, of pathos, or of joy. One yard has a level bit of grassless ground between barn and pump, and you may call it a battlefield, if you will, since famine and desire have striven there together. Or, if you choose to read fine meanings into threadbare things, you may see in it a field of the cloth of gold, where simple love of life and childlike pleasure met and sparkled for no eye to see. It was a croquet ground, laid out in the days when croquet first inundated the land, and laid out by a woman. This was Della Smith, the mother of two grave children, and the wife of a farmer who never learned to smile. Eben was duller than the ox which ploughs all day long for his handful of hay at night and his heavy slumber; but Della, though she carried her end of the yoke with a gallant spirit, had dreams and desires forever bursting from brown shells, only to live a moment in the air, and then, like bubbles, die. She had a perpetual appetite for joy. When the circus came to town, she walked miles to see the procession; and, in a dream of satisfied delight, dropped potatoes all the afternoon, to make up. Once, a hand-organ and monkey strayed that way, and it was she alone who followed them; for the children were little, and all the saner house-mothers contented themselves with leaning over the gates till the wandering train had passed. But Della drained her draught of joy to the dregs, and then tilted her cup anew. With croquet came her supremest joy,—one that leavened her days till God took her, somewhere, we hope, where there is playtime. Della had no money to buy a croquet set, but she had something far better, an alert and undiscouraged mind. On one dizzy afternoon, at a Fourth of July picnic, when wickets had been set up near the wood, she had played with the minister, and beaten him. The game opened before her an endless vista of delight. She saw herself perpetually knocking red-striped balls through an eternity of wickets; and she knew that here was the one pastime of which no soul could tire. Afterwards, driving home with her husband and two children, still in a daze of satisfied delight, she murmured absently:—
"Wonder how much they cost?"
"What?" asked Eben, and Della turned, flushed scarlet, and replied:—
That night, she lay awake for one rapt hour, and then she slept the sleep of conquerors. In the morning, after Eben had gone safely off to work, and the children were still asleep, she began singing, in a monotonous, high voice, and took her way out of doors. She always sang at moments when she purposed leaping the bounds of domestic custom. Even Eben had learned that, dull as he was. If he heard that guilty crooning from the buttery, he knew she might be breaking extra eggs, or using more sugar than was conformable.
"What you doin' of?" he was accustomed to call. But Della never answered, and he did not interfere. The question was a necessary concession to marital authority; he had no wish to curb her ways.
Della scudded about the yard like a willful wind. She gathered withes from a waiting pile, and set them in that one level space for wickets. Then she took a handsaw, and, pale about the lips, returned to the house and to her bedroom. She had made her choice. She was sacrificing old associations to her present need; and, one after another, she sawed the ornamenting balls from her mother's high-post bedstead. Perhaps the one element of tragedy lay in the fact that Della was no mechanician, and she had not foreseen that, having one flat side, her balls might decline to roll. But that dismay was brief. A weaker soul would have flinched; to Della it was a futile check, a pebble under the wave. She laid her balls calmly aside. Some day she would whittle them into shape; for there were always coming to Della days full of roomy leisure and large content. Meanwhile apples would serve her turn,—good alike to draw a weary mind out of its channel or teach the shape of spheres. And so, with two russets for balls and the clothes-slice for a mallet (the heavy sledge-hammer having failed), Della serenely, yet in triumph, played her first game against herself.
"Don't you drive over them wickets!" she called imperiously, when Eben came up from the lot in his dingle cart.
"Them what?" returned he, and Della had to go out to explain. He looked at them gravely; hers had been a ragged piece of work.
"What under the sun 'd you do that for?" he inquired. "The young ones wouldn't turn their hand over for 't. They ain't big enough."
"Well, I be," said Della briefly. "Don't you drive over 'em."
Eben looked at her and then at his path to the barn, and he turned his horse aside.
Thereafter, until we got used to it, we found a vivid source of interest in seeing Della playing croquet, and always playing alone. That was a very busy summer, because the famous drought came then, and water had to be carried for weary rods from spring and river. Sometimes Della did not get her playtime till three in the afternoon, sometimes not till after dark; but she was faithful to her joy. The croquet ground suffered varying fortunes. It might happen that the balls were potatoes, when apples failed to be in season; often her wickets broke, and stood up in two ragged horns. Sometimes one fell away altogether, and Della, like the planets, kept an unseen track. Once or twice, the mistaken benevolence of others gave her real distress. The minister's daughter, noting her solitary game, mistook it for forlornness, and, in the warmth of her maiden heart, came to ask if she might share. It was a timid though official benevolence; but Della's bright eyes grew dark. She clung to her kitchen chair.
"I guess I won't," she said, and, in some dim way, everybody began to understand that this was but an intimate and solitary joy. She had grown so used to spreading her banquets for one alone that she was frightened at the sight of other cups upon the board; for although loneliness begins in pain, by and by, perhaps, it creates its own species of sad and shy content.
Della did not have a long life; and that was some relief to us who were not altogether satisfied with her outlook here. The place she left need not be always desolate. There was a good maiden sister to keep the house, and Eben and the children would be but briefly sorry. They could recover their poise; he with the health of a simple mind, and they as children will. Yet he was truly stunned by the blow; and I hoped, on the day of the funeral, that he did not see what I did. When we went out to get our horse and wagon, I caught my foot in something which at once gave way. I looked down—at a broken wicket and a withered apple by the stake.
Quite at the other end of the town is a dooryard which, in my own mind, at least, I call the traveling garden. Miss Nancy, its presiding mistress, is the victim of a love of change; and since she may not wander herself, she transplants shrubs and herbs from nook to nook. No sooner does a green thing get safely rooted than Miss Nancy snatches it up and sets it elsewhere. Her yard is a varying pageant of plants in all stages of misfortune. Here is a shrub, with faded leaves, torn from the lap of prosperity in a well-sunned corner to languish under different conditions. There stands a hardy bush, shrinking, one might guess, under all its bravery of new spring green, from the premonition that Miss Nancy may move it to-morrow. Even the ladies'-delights have their months of garish prosperity, wherein they sicken like country maids; for no sooner do they get their little feet settled in a dark, still corner than they are summoned out of it, to sunlight bright and strong. Miss Nancy lives with a bedridden father, who has grown peevish through long patience; can it be that slow, senile decay which has roused in her a fierce impatience against the sluggishness of life, and that she hurries her plants into motion because she herself must halt? Her father does not theorize about it. He says, "Nancy never has no luck with plants." And that, indeed, is true.
There is another dooryard with its infallible index finger pointing to tell a tale. You can scarcely thread your way through it for vehicles of all sorts congregated there to undergo slow decomposition at the hands of wind and weather. This farmer is a tradesman by nature, and though, for thrift's sake, his fields must be tilled, he is yet inwardly constrained to keep on buying and selling, albeit to no purpose. He is everlastingly swapping and bargaining, giving play to a faculty which might, in its legitimate place, have worked out the definite and tangible, but which now goes automatically clicking on under vain conditions. The house, too, is overrun with useless articles, presently to be exchanged for others as unavailing, and in the farmer's pocket ticks a watch which to-morrow will replace with another more problematic still. But in the yard are the undisputable evidences of his wild unthrift. Old rusty mowing-machines, buggies with torn and flapping canvas, sleighs ready to yawn at every crack, all are here: poor relations in a broken-down family. But children love this yard. They come, hand in hand, with a timid confidence in their right, and ask at the back door for the privilege of playing in it. They take long, entrancing journeys in the mouldy old chaise; they endure Siberian nights of sleighing, and throw out their helpless dolls to the pursuing wolves; or the more mercantile-minded among the boys mount a three-wheeled express wagon, and drive noisily away to traffic upon the road. This, in its dramatic possibilities, is not a yard to be despised.
Not far away are two neighboring houses once held in affectionate communion by a straight path through the clover and a gap in the wall. This was the road to much friendly gossip, and there were few bright days which did not find two matrons met at the wall, their heads together over some amiable yarn. But now one house is closed, its windows boarded up, like eyes shut down forever, and the grass has grown over the little path: a line erased, perhaps never to be renewed. It is easier to wipe out a story from nature than to wipe it from the heart; and these mutilated pages of the outer life perpetually renew in us the pangs of loss and grief.
But not all our dooryard reminiscences are instinct with pain. Do I not remember one swept and garnished plot, never defiled by weed or disordered with ornamental plants, where stood old Deacon Pitts, upon an historic day, and woke the echoes with a herald's joy? Deacon Pitts had the ghoulish delight of the ennuied country mind in funerals and the mortality of man; and this morning the butcher had brought him news of death in a neighboring town. The butcher had gone by, and I was going; but Deacon Pitts stood there, dramatically intent upon his mournful morsel. I judged that he was pondering on the possibility of attending the funeral without the waste of too much precious time now due the crops. Suddenly, as he turned back toward the house, bearing a pan of liver, his pondering eye caught sight of his aged wife toiling across the fields, laden with pennyroyal. He set the pan down hastily—yea, even before the advancing cat!—and made a trumpet of his hands.
"Sarah!" he called piercingly. "Sarah! Mr. Amasa Blake's passed away! Died yesterday!"
I do not know whether he was present at that funeral, but it would be strange if he were not; for time and tide both served him, and he was always on the spot. Indeed, one day he reached a house of mourning in such season that he found the rooms quite empty, and was forced to wait until the bereaved family should assemble. There they sat, he and his wife, a portentous couple in their dead black and anticipatory gloom, until even their patience had well-nigh fled. And then an arriving mourner overheard the deacon, as he bent forward and challenged his wife in a suspicious and discouraged whisper:—
"Say, Sarah, ye don't s'pose it's all goin' to fush out, do ye?"
They had their funeral.
To the childish memory, so many of the yards are redolent now of wonder and a strange, sweet fragrance of the fancy not to be described! One, where lived a notable cook, had, in a quiet corner, a little grove of caraway. It seemed mysteriously connected with the oak-leaf cookies, which only she could make; and the child, brushing through the delicate bushes grown above his head, used to feel vaguely that, on some fortunate day, cookies would be found there, "a-blowin' and a-growin'." That he had seen them stirred and mixed and taken from the oven was an empty matter; the cookies belonged to the caraway grove, and there they hang ungathered still. In the very same yard was a hogshead filled with rainwater, where insects came daily to their death and floated pathetically in a film of gauzy wings. The child feared this innocent black pool, feared it too much to let it alone; and day by day he would hang upon the rim with trembling fingers, and search the black, smooth depths, with all Ophelia's pangs. And to this moment, no rushing river is half so ministrant to dread as is a still, dull hogshead, where insects float and fly.
These are our dooryards. I wish we lived in them more; that there were vines to sing under, and shade enough for the table, with its wheaten loaf and good farm butter, and its smoking tea. But all that may come when we give up our frantic haste, and sit down to look, and breathe, and listen.
A MARCH WIND
When the clouds hung low, or chimneys refused to draw, or the bread soured over night, a pessimistic public, turning for relief to the local drama, said that Amelia Titcomb had married a tramp. But as soon as the heavens smiled again, it was conceded that she must have been getting lonely in her middle age, and that she had taken the way of wisdom so to furbish up mansions for the coming years. Whatever was set down on either side of the page, Amelia did not care. She was whole-heartedly content with her husband and their farm.
It had happened, one autumn day, that she was trying, all alone, to clean out the cistern. This was while she was still Amelia Titcomb, innocent that there lived a man in the world who could set his foot upon her maiden state, and flourish there. She was an impatient creature. She never could delay for a fostering time to put her plants into the ground, and her fall cleaning was done long before the flies were gone. So, to-day, while other house mistresses sat cosily by the fire, awaiting a milder season, she was toiling up and down the ladder set in the cistern, dipping pails of sediment from the bottom, and, hardy as she was, almost repenting her of a too-fierce desire. Her thick brown hair was roughened and blown about her face, her cheeks bloomed out in a frosty pink, and the plaid kerchief, tied in a hard knot under her chin, seemed foolishly ineffectual against the cold. Her hands ached, holding the pail, and she rebelled inwardly against the inclemency of the time. It never occurred to her that she could have put off this exacting job. She would sooner have expected Heaven to put off the weather. Just as she reached the top of the cistern, and lifted her pail of refuse over the edge, a man appeared from the other side of the house, and stood confronting her. He was tall and gaunt, and his deeply graven face was framed by grizzled hair. Amelia had a rapid thought that he was not so old as he looked; experience, rather than years, must have wrought its trace upon him. He was leading a little girl, dressed with a very patent regard for warmth, and none for beauty. Amelia, with a quick, feminine glance, noted that the child's bungled skirt and hideous waist had been made from an old army overcoat. The little maid's brown eyes were sweet and seeking; they seemed to petition for something. Amelia's heart did not respond at that time, she had no reason for thinking she was fond of children. Yet she felt a curious disturbance at sight of the pair. She afterwards explained it adequately to the man, by asserting that they looked as odd as Dick's hatband.
"Want any farmwork done?" asked he. "Enough to pay for a night's lodgin'?" His voice sounded strangely soft from one so large and rugged. It hinted at unused possibilities. But though Amelia felt impressed, she was conscious of little more than her own cold and stiffness, and she answered sharply,—
"No, I don't. I don't calculate to hire, except in hayin' time, an' then I don't take tramps."
The man dropped the child's hand, and pushed her gently to one side.
"Stan' there, Rosie," said he. Then he went forward, and drew the pail from Amelia's unwilling grasp. "Where do you empt' it?" he asked. "There? It ought to be carried further. You don't want to let it gully down into that beet bed. Here, I'll see to it."
Perhaps this was the very first time in Amelia's life that a man had offered her an unpaid service for chivalry alone. And somehow, though she might have scoffed, knowing what the tramp had to gain, she believed in him and in his kindliness. The little girl stood by, as if she were long used to doing as she had been told, with no expectation of difficult reasons; and the man, as soberly, went about his task. He emptied the cistern, and cleansed it, with plentiful washings. Then, as if guessing by instinct what he should find, he went into the kitchen, where were two tubs full of the water which Amelia had pumped up at the start. It had to be carried back again to the cistern; and when the job was quite finished, he opened the bulkhead, set the tubs in the cellar, and then, covering the cistern and cellar-case, rubbed his cold hands on his trousers, and turned to the child.
"Come, Rosie," said he, "we'll be goin'."
It was a very effective finale, but still Amelia suspected no trickery. The situation seemed to her, just as the two new actors did, entirely simple, like the course of nature. Only, the day was a little warmer because they had appeared. She had a new sensation of welcome company. So it was that, quite to her own surprise, she answered as quickly as he spoke, and her reply also seemed an inevitable part of the drama:—
"Walk right in. It's 'most dinner-time, an' I'll put on the pot." The two stepped in before her, and they did not go away.
Amelia herself never quite knew how it happened; but, like all the other natural things of life, this had no need to be explained. At first, there were excellent reasons for delay. The man, whose name proved to be Enoch Willis, was a marvelous hand at a blow, and she kept him a week, splitting some pine knots that defied her and the boy who ordinarily chopped her wood. At the end of the week, Amelia confessed that she was "terrible tired seein' Rosie round in that gormin' kind of a dress;" so she cut and fitted her a neat little gown from her own red cashmere. That was the second reason. Then the neighbors heard of the mysterious guest, and dropped in, to place and label him. At first, following the lead of undiscouraged fancy, they declared that he must be some of cousin Silas's connections from Omaha; but even before Amelia had time to deny that, his ignorance of local tradition denied it for him. He must have heard of this or that, by way of cousin Silas; but he owned to nothing defining place or time, save that he had been in the war—"all through it." He seemed to be a man quite weary of the past and indifferent to the future. After a half hour's talk with him, unseasonable callers were likely to withdraw, perhaps into the pantry, whither Amelia had retreated to escape catechism, and remark jovially, "Well, 'Melia, you ain't told us who your company is!"
"Mr. Willis," said Amelia. She was emulating his habit of reserve. It made a part of her new loyalty.
Even to her, Enoch had told no tales; and strangely enough, she was quite satisfied. She trusted him. He did say that Rosie's mother was dead; for the last five years, he said, she had been out of her mind. At that, Amelia's heart gave a fierce, amazing leap. It struck a note she never knew, and wakened her to life and longing. She was glad Rosie's mother had not made him too content. He went on a step or two into the story of his life. His wife's last illness had eaten up the little place, and after she went, he got no work. So, he tramped. He must go again. Amelia's voice sounded sharp and thin, even to her, as she answered,—
"Go! I dunno what you want to do that for. Rosie's terrible contented here."
His brown eyes turned upon her in a kindly glance.
"I've got to make a start somewhere," said he. "I've been thinkin' a machine shop's the best thing. I shall have to depend on somethin' better'n days' works."
Amelia flushed the painful red of emotion without beauty.
"I dunno what we're all comin' to," said she brokenly.
Then the tramp knew. He put his gnarled hand over one of hers. Rosie looked up curiously from the speckled beans she was counting into a bag, and then went on singing to herself an unformed, baby song. "Folks'll talk," said Enoch gently. "They do now. A man an' woman ain't never too old to be hauled up, an' made to answer for livin'. If I was younger, an' had suthin' to depend on, you'd see; but I'm no good now. The better part o' my life's gone."
Amelia flashed at him a pathetic look, half agony over her own lost pride, and all a longing of maternal love.
"I don't want you should be younger," said she. And next week they were married.
Comment ran races with itself, and brought up nowhere. The treasuries of local speech were all too poor to clothe so wild a venture. It was agreed that there's no fool like an old fool, and that folks who ride to market may come home afoot. Everybody forgot that Amelia had had no previous romance, and dismally pictured her as going through the woods, and getting a crooked stick at last. Even the milder among her judges were not content with prophesying the betrayal of her trust alone. They argued from the tramp nature to inevitable results, and declared it would be a mercy if she were not murdered in her bed. According to the popular mind, a tramp is a distinct species, with latent tendencies toward crime. It was recalled that a white woman had, in the old days, married a comely Indian, whose first drink of fire-water, after six months of blameless happiness, had sent him raging home, to kill her "in her tracks." Could a tramp, pledged to the traditions of an awful brotherhood, do less? No, even in honor, no! Amelia never knew how the tide of public apprehension surged about her, nor how her next-door neighbor looked anxiously out, the first thing on rising, to exclaim, with a sigh of relief, and possibly a dramatic pang, "There! her smoke's a-goin'."
Meantime, the tramp fell into all the usages of life indoors; and without, he worked revolution. He took his natural place at the head of affairs, and Amelia stood by, rejoicing. Her besetting error of doing things at the wrong moment had disarranged great combinations as well as small. Her impetuosity was constantly misleading her, bidding her try, this one time, whether harvest might not follow faster on the steps of spring. Enoch's mind was of another cast. For him, tradition reigned, and law was ever laying out the way. Some months after their marriage, Amelia had urged him to take away the winter banking about the house, for no reason save that the Mardens clung to theirs; but he only replied that he'd known of cold snaps way on into May, and he guessed there was no particular hurry. The very next day brought a bitter air, laden with sleet, and Amelia, shivering at the open door, exulted in her feminine soul at finding him triumphant on his own ground. Enoch seemed, as usual, unconscious of victory. His immobility had no personal flavor. He merely acted from an inevitable devotion to the laws of life; and however often they might prove him right, he never seemed to reason that Amelia was consequently wrong. Perhaps that was what made it so pleasant to live with him.
It was "easy sleddin'" now. Amelia grew very young. Her cheeks gained a bloom, her eyes brightened. She even, as the matrons noticed, took to crimping her hair. They looked on with a pitying awe. It seemed a fearsome thing, to do so much for a tramp who would only kill you in the end. Amelia stepped deftly about the house. She was a large woman, whose ways had been devoid of grace; but now the richness of her spiritual condition informed her with a charm. She crooned a little about her work. Singing voice she had none, but she grew into a way of putting words together, sometimes a line from the psalms, sometimes a name she loved, and chanting the sounds, in unrecorded melody. Meanwhile, little Rosie, always irreproachably dressed, with a jealous care lest she fall below the popular standard, roamed in and out of the house, and lightened its dull intervals. She, like the others, grew at once very happy, because, like them, she accepted her place without a qualm, as if it had been hers from the beginning. They were simple natures, and when their joy came, they knew how to meet it.
But if Enoch was content to follow the beaten ways of life, there was one window through which he looked into the upper heaven of all: thereby he saw what it is to create. He was a born mechanician. A revolving wheel would set him to dreaming, and still him to that lethargy of mind which is an involuntary sharing in the things that are. He could lose himself in the life of rhythmic motion; and when he discovered rusted springs, or cogs unprepared to fulfill their purpose, he fell upon them with the ardor of a worshiper, and tried to set them right. Amelia thought he should have invented something, and he confessed that he had invented many things, but somehow failed in getting them on the market. That process he mentioned with the indifference of a man to whom a practical outcome is vague, and who finds in the ideal a bright reality. Even Amelia could see that to be a maker was his joy; to reap rewards of making was another and a lower task.
One cold day in the early spring, he went "up garret" to hunt out an old saddle, gathering mildew there, and came upon a greater treasure, a disabled clock. He stepped heavily down, bearing it aloft in both hands.
"See here, 'Melia," asked he, "why don't this go?"
Amelia was scouring tins on the kitchen table. There was a teasing wind outside, with a flurry of snow, and she had acknowledged that the irritating weather made her as nervous as a witch. So she had taken to a job to quiet herself.
"That clock?" she replied. "That was gran'ther Eli's. It give up strikin', an' then the hands stuck, an' I lost all patience with it. So I bought this nickel one, an' carted t' other off into the attic. 'T ain't worth fixin'."
"Worth it!" repeated Enoch. "Well, I guess I'll give it a chance."
He drew a chair to the stove, and there hesitated. "Say, 'Melia," said he, "should you jest as soon I'd bring in that old shoemaker's bench out o' the shed? It's low, an' I could reach my tools off'n the floor."
Amelia lacked the discipline of contact with her kind, but she was nevertheless smooth as silk in her new wifehood.
"Law, yes, bring it along," said she. "It's a good day to clutter up. The' won't be nobody in."
So, while Enoch laid apart the clock with a delicacy of touch known only to square, mechanical fingers, and Rosie played with the button-box on the floor, assorting colors and matching white with white, Amelia scoured the tins. Her energy kept pace with the wind; it whirled in gusts and snatches, yet her precision never failed.
"Made up your mind which cow to sell?" she asked, opening a discussion still unsettled, after days of animated talk.
"Ain't much to choose," said Enoch. He had frankly set Amelia right on the subject of livestock; and she smilingly acquiesced in his larger knowledge. "Elbridge True's got a mighty nice Alderney, an' if he's goin' to sell milk another year, he'll be glad to get two good milkers like these. What he wants is ten quarts apiece, no matter if it's bluer'n a whetstone. I guess I can swap off with him; but I don't want to run arter him. I put the case last Thursday. Mebbe he'll drop round."
"Well," concluded Amelia, "I guess you're pretty sure to do what's right."
The forenoon galloped fast, and it was half past eleven before she thought of dinner.
"Why," said she, "ain't it butcher day? I've been lottin' on a piece o' liver."
"Butcher day is Thursday," said Enoch. "You've lost count."
"My land!" responded Amelia. "Well, I guess we can put up with some fried pork an' apples." There came a long, insistent knock at the outer door. "Good heavens! Who's there! Rosie, you run to the side-light, an' peek. It can't be a neighbor. They'd come right in. I hope my soul it ain't company, a day like this."
Rosie got on her fat legs with difficulty. She held her pinafore full of buttons, but disaster lies in doing too many things at once; there came a slip, a despairing clutch, and the buttons fell over the floor. There were a great many round ones, and they rolled very fast. Amelia washed the sand from her parboiled fingers, and drew a nervous breath. She had a presentiment of coming ill, painfully heightened by her consciousness that the kitchen was "riding out," and that she and her family rode with it. Rosie came running back from her peephole, husky with importance. The errant buttons did not trouble her. She had an eternity of time wherein to pick them up; and, indeed, the chances were that some tall, benevolent being would do it for her.
"It's a man," she said. "He's got on a light coat with bright buttons, and a fuzzy hat. He's got a big nose."
Now, indeed, despair entered into Amelia, and sat enthroned. She sank down on a straight-backed chair, and put her hands on her knees, while the knock came again, a little querulously.
"Enoch," said she, "do you know what's happened? That's cousin Josiah Pease out there." Her voice bore the tragedy of a thousand past encounters; but that Enoch could not know.
"Is it?" asked he, with but a mild appearance of interest. "Want me to go to the door?"
"Go to the door!" echoed Amelia, so stridently that he looked up at her again. "No; I don't want anybody should go to the door till this room's cleared up. If 't w'an't so everlastin' cold, I'd take him right into the clock-room, an' blaze a fire; but he'd see right through that. You gether up them tools an' things, an' I'll help carry out the bench."
If Enoch had not just then been absorbed in a delicate combination of brass, he might have spoken more sympathetically. As it was, he seemed kindly, but remote.
"Look out!" said he, "you'll joggle. No, I guess I won't move. If he's any kind of a man, he'll know what 't is to clean a clock."
Amelia was not a crying woman, but the hot tears stood in her eyes. She was experiencing, for the first time, that helpless pang born from the wounding of pride in what we love.
"Don't you see, Enoch?" she insisted. "This room looks like the Old Boy—an' so do you—an' he'll go home an' tell all the folks at the Ridge. Why, he's heard we're married, an' come over here to spy out the land. He hates the cold. He never stirs till 'way on into June; an' now he's come to find out."
"Find out what?" inquired Enoch absorbedly. "Well, if you're anyways put to 't, you send him to me." That manly utterance enunciated from a "best-room" sofa, by an Enoch clad in his Sunday suit, would have filled Amelia with rapture; she could have leaned on it as on the Tables of the Law. But, alas! the scene-setting was meagre, and though Enoch was very clean, he had no good clothes. He had pointedly refused to buy them with his wife's money until he should have worked on the farm to a corresponding amount. She had loved him for it; but every day his outer poverty hurt her pride. "I guess you better ask him in," concluded Enoch. "Don't you let him bother you."
Amelia turned about with the grand air of a woman repulsed.
"He don't bother me," said she, "an' I will let him in." She walked to the door, stepping on buttons as she went, and conscious, when she broke them, of a bitter pleasure. It added to her martyrdom.
She flung open the door, and called herself a fool in the doing; for the little old man outside was in the act of turning away. In another instant, she might have escaped. But he was only too eager to come back again, and it seemed to Amelia as if he would run over her, in his desire to get in.
"There! there! 'Melia," said he, pushing past her, "can't stop to talk till I git near the fire. Guess you were settin' in the kitchen, wa'n't ye? Don't make no stranger o' me. That your man?"
She had shut the door, and entered, exasperated anew by the rising wind. "That's my husband," said she coldly. "Enoch, here's cousin Josiah Pease."
Enoch looked up benevolently over his spectacles, and put out a horny left hand, the while the other guarded his heap of treasures. "Pleased to meet you, sir," said he. "You see I'm tinkerin' a clock."
To Enoch, the explanation was enough. All the simple conventions of his life might well wait upon a reason potent as this. Josiah Pease went to the stove, and stood holding his tremulous hands over a cover. He was a little man, eclipsed in a butternut coat of many capes, and his parchment face shaded gradually up from it, as if into a harder medium. His eyes were light, and they had an exceedingly uncomfortable way of darting from one thing to another, like some insect born to spear and sting. His head was entirely bald, all save a thin fringe of hair not worth mentioning, since it disappeared so effectually beneath his collar; and his general antiquity was grotesquely emphasized by two sets of aggressive teeth, displaying their falsity from every crown.
Amelia took out the broom, and began sweeping up buttons. She had an acrid consciousness that by sacrificing them she was somehow completing the tragedy of her day. Rosie gave a little cry; but Amelia pointed to the corner where stood the child's chair, exhumed from the attic, after forty years of rest. "You set there," she said, in an undertone, "an' keep still."
Rosie obeyed without a word. Such an atmosphere had not enveloped her since she entered this wonderful house. Remembering vaguely the days when her own mother had "spells," and she and her father effaced themselves until times should change, she folded her little hands, and lapsed back into a condition of mental servitude.
Meanwhile, Amelia followed nervously in the track of Enoch's talk with cousin Josiah, though her mind kept its undercurrent of foolish musing. Like all of us, snatched up by the wheels of great emergencies, she caught at trifles while they whirled her round. Here were "soldier-buttons." All the other girls had collected them, though she, having no lover in the war, had traded for her few. Here were the gold-stones that held her changeable silk, there the little clouded pearls from her sister's raglan. Annie had died in youth; its glamour still enwrapped her. Poor Annie! But Rosie had seemed to bring her back. Amelia swept litter, buttons and all, into the dustpan, and marched to the stove to throw her booty in. Nobody marked her save Rosie, whose playthings were endangered; but Enoch's very obtuseness to the situation was what stayed her hand. She carried the dustpan away into a closet, and came back, to gather up her tins. A cold rage of nervousness beset her, so overpowering that she herself was amazed at it.
Meantime, Josiah Pease had divested himself of his coat, and drawn the grandfather chair into a space behind the stove.
"You a clock-mender by trade?" he asked of Enoch.
"No," said Enoch absently, "I ain't got any reg'lar trade."
"Jest goin' round the country?" amended cousin Josiah, with the preliminary insinuation Amelia knew so well. He was, it had been said, in the habit of inventing lies, and challenging other folks to stick to 'em. But Enoch made no reply. He went soberly on with his work.
"Law, 'Melia, to think o' your bein' married," continued Josiah, turning to her. "I never should ha' thought that o' you."
"I never thought it of myself," said Amelia tartly. "You don't know what you'll do till you're tried."
"No! no!" said Josiah Pease. "Never in the world. You remember Sally Flint, how plain-spoken she is? Well, Betsy Marden's darter Ann rode down to the poor-house t' other day with some sweet trade, an' took a young sprig with her. He turned his back a minute, to look out o' winder, an' Sally spoke right up, as ye might say, afore him. 'That your beau?' says she. Well, o' course Ann couldn't own it, an' him right there, so to speak. So she shook her head. 'Well, I'm glad on 't,' says Sally. 'If I couldn't have anything to eat, I'd have suthin' to look at!' He was the most unsignifyin'est creatur' you ever put your eyes on. But they say Ann's started in on her clo'es."
Amelia's face had grown scarlet. "I dunno's any such speech is called for here," said she, in a furious self-betrayal. Josiah Pease had always been able to storm her reserves.
"Law, no," answered he comfortably. "It come into my mind,—that's all."
She looked at Enoch with a passionate sympathy, knowing too well how the hidden sting was intended to work. But Enoch had not heard. He was absorbed in a finer problem of brass and iron; and though Amelia had wished to save him from hurt, in that instant she scorned him for his blindness. "I guess I shall have to ask you to move," she said to her husband coldly. "I've got to git to that stove, if we're goin' to have any dinner to-day."
It seemed to her that even Enoch might take the hint, and clear away his rubbish. Her feelings might have been assuaged by a clean hearth and some acquiescence in her own mood. But he only moved back a little, and went on fitting and musing. He was not thinking of her in the least, nor even of Josiah Pease. His mind had entered its brighter, more alluring world. She began to fry her pork and apples, with a perfunctory attempt at conversation. "You don't often git round so early in the spring," said she.
"No," returned cousin Josiah. "I kind o' got started out, this time, I don't rightly know why. I guess I've had you in mind more of late, for some Tiverton folks come over our way, tradin', an' they brought all the news. It sort o' stirred me up to come."
Amelia turned her apples vigorously, well aware that the slices were breaking. That made a part of her bitter day.
"Folks needn't take the trouble to carry news about me," she said. There was an angry gleam in her eyes. "If anybody wants to know anything, let 'em come right here, an' I'll settle 'em." The ring of her voice penetrated even to Enoch's perception, and he looked up in mild surprise. She seemed to have thrown open, for an instant, a little window into a part of her nature he had never seen.
"How good them apples smell!" said Josiah innocently. "Last time I had 'em was down to cousin Amasa True's, he that married his third wife, an' she run through all he had. I went down to see 'em arter the vandoo,—you know they got red o' most everything,—an' they had fried pork an' apples for dinner. Old Bashaby dropped in. 'Law!' says she. 'Fried pork an' apples! Well, I call that livin' pretty nigh the wind!'" Josiah chuckled. He was very warm now, and the savory smell of the dish he decried was mounting to what served him for fancy. "'Melia, you ain't never had your teeth out, have ye?" he asked, as one who spoke from richer memories.
"I guess my teeth'll last me as long as I want 'em," said Amelia curtly.
"Well, I didn't know. They looked real white an' firm last time I see 'em, but you never can tell how they be underneath. I knew the folks would ask me when I got home. I thought I'd speak."
"Dinner's ready," said Amelia. She turned an alien look upon her husband. "You want to wash your hands?"
Enoch rose cheerfully. He had got to a hopeful place with the clock.
"Set ri' down," said he. "Don't wait a minute. I'll be along."
So Amelia and the guest began their meal, while little Rosie climbed, rather soberly, into her higher chair, and held out her plate.
"You wait," said Amelia harshly. "Can't you let other folks eat a mouthful before you have to have yours?" Yet as she said it, she remembered, with a remorseful pang, that she had always helped the child first; it had been so sweet to see her pleased and satisfied.
Josiah was never talkative during meals. Not being absolute master of his teeth, his mind dwelt with them. Amelia remembered that, with a malicious satisfaction. But he could not be altogether dumb. That, people said, would never happen to Josiah Pease while he was above ground.
"That his girl?" he asked, indicating Rosie with his knife, in a gustatory pause.
"Whose?" inquired Amelia willfully.
"His." He pointed again, this time to the back room, where Enoch was still washing his hands.
Amelia sprang from her chair, while Rosie looked at her with the frightened glance of a child to whom some half-forgotten grief has suddenly returned.
"Josiah Pease!" said Amelia. "I never thought a poor, insignificant creatur' like you could rile me so,—when I know what you're doin' it for, too. But you've brought it about. Her mother dead? Ain't I been an' married her father?"
"Law, Amelia, do se' down!" said Josiah indulgently. There was a mince-pie warming on the back of the stove. He saw it there. "I didn't mean nuthin'. I'll be bound you thought she's dead, or you wouldn't ha' took such a step. I only meant, did ye see her death in the paper, for example, or anything like that?"
"'Melia," called Enoch, from the doorway, "I won't come in to dinner jest now. Elbridge True's drove into the yard. I guess he's got it in mind to talk it over about them cows. I don't want to lose the chance."
"All right," answered Amelia. She took her seat again, while Enoch's footsteps went briskly out through the shed. With the clanging of the door, she felt secure. If she had to deal with Josiah Pease, she could do it better alone, clutching at the certainty that was with her from of old, that, if you could only keep your temper with cousin Josiah, you had one chance of victory. Flame out at him, and you were lost. "Some more potatoes?" asked she, with a deceptive calm.
"Don't care if I do," returned Josiah, selecting greedily, his fork hovering in air. "Little mite watery, ain't they? Dig 'em yourself?"
"We dug 'em," said Amelia coldly.
Rosie stepped down from her chair, unnoticed. To Amelia, she was then no bigger than some little winged thing flitting about the room in time of tragedy. Our greatest emotions sometimes stay unnamed. At that moment, Amelia was swayed by as tumultuous a love as ever animated damsel of verse or story; but it merely seemed to her that she was an ill-used woman, married to a man for whom she was called on to be ashamed. Rosie tiptoed into the entry, put on her little shawl and hood, and stole out to play in the corn-house. When domestic squalls were gathering, she knew where to go. The great outdoors was safer. Her past had taught her that.
"Don't like to eat with folks, does he? Well, it's all in what you're brought up to."
Amelia was ready with her counter-charge. "Have some tea?"
She poured it as if it were poison, and Josiah became conscious of her tragic self-control.
"You ain't eat a thing," said he, with an ostentatious kindliness. He bent forward a little, with the air of inviting a confidence. "Got suthin' on your mind, ain't you, 'Melia?" he whispered. "Kind o' worried? Find he's a drinkin' man?"
Amelia was not to be beguiled, even by that anger which veils itself as justice. She looked at him steadily, with scorching eyes.
"You ain't took any sugar," said she. "There 't is, settin' by you. Help yourself."
Josiah addressed himself to his tea, and then Amelia poured him another cup. She had some fierce satisfaction in making it good and strong. It seemed to her that she was heartening her adversary for the fray, and she took pleasure in doing it effectually. So great was the spirit within her that she knew he could not be too valiant, for her keener joy in laying him low. Then they rose from the table, and Josiah took his old place by the stove, while Amelia began carrying the dishes to the sink. Her mind was a little hazy now; her next move must depend on his, and cousin Josiah, somewhat drowsy from his good dinner, was not at once inclined to talk. Suddenly he raised his head snakily from those sunken shoulders, and pointed a lean finger to the window.
"'Melia!" cried he sharply. "I'll be buttered if he ain't been and traded off both your cows. My Lord! be you goin' to stan' there an' let them two cows go?"
Amelia gave one swift glance from the window, following the path marked out by that insinuating index. It was true. Elbridge was driving her two cows out of the yard, and her husband stood by, watching him. She walked quietly into the entry, and Josiah laid his old hands together in the rapturous certainty that she was going to open the door, and send her anger forth. But Amelia only took down his butternut coat from the nail, and returned with it, holding it ready for him to insert his arms.
"Here's your coat," said she, with that strange, deceptive calmness. "Stan' up, an' I'll help you put it on."
Josiah looked at her with helplessly open mouth, and eyes so vacuous that Amelia felt, even at that moment, the grim humor of his plight.
"I was in hopes he'd harness up"—he began, but she ruthlessly cut him short.
"Stan' up! Here, put t' other arm in fust. This han'kercher yours? Goes round your neck? There 't is. Here's your hat. Got any mittens? There they be, in your pocket. This way. This is the door you come in, an' this is the door you'll go out of." She preceded him, her head thrown up, her shoulders back. Amelia had no idea of dramatic values, but she was playing an effective part. She reached the door and flung it open, but Josiah, a poor figure in its huddled capes, still stood abjectly in the middle of the kitchen. "Come!" she called peremptorily. "Come, Josiah Pease! Out you go." And Josiah went, though, contrary to his usual habit, he did not talk. He quavered uncertainly down the steps, and Amelia called a halt. "Josiah Pease!"
He turned, and looked up at her. His mouth had dropped, and he was nothing but a very helpless old child. Vicious as he was, Amelia realized the mental poverty of her adversary, and despised herself for despising him. "Josiah Pease!" she repeated. "This is the end. Don't you darken my doors ag'in. I've done with you,—egg an' bird!" She closed the door, shutting out Josiah and the keen spring wind, and went back to the window, to watch him down the drive. His back looked poor and mean. It emphasized the pettiness of her victory. Even at that moment, she realized that it was the poorer part of her which had resented attack on a citadel which should be impregnable as time itself. Just then Enoch stepped into the kitchen behind her, and his voice jarred upon her tingling nerves.
"Well," said he, more jovially than he was wont to speak, "I guess I've made a good trade for ye. Company gone? Come here an' se' down while I eat, an' I'll tell ye all about it."
Amelia turned about and walked slowly up to him, by no volition of her conscious self. Again love, that august creature, veiled itself in an unjust anger, because it was love and nothing else.
"You've made a good bargain, have you?" she repeated. "You've sold my cows, an' had 'em drove off the place without if or but. That's what you call a good bargain!" Her voice frightened her. It amazed the man who heard. These two middle-aged people were waking up to passions neither had felt in youth. Life was strong in them because love was there.
"Why, 'Melia!" said the man. "Why, 'Melia!"
Amelia was hurried on before the wind of her destiny. Her voice grew sharper. Little white stripes, like the lashes from a whip, showed themselves on her cheeks. She seemed to be speaking from a dream, which left her no will save that of speaking.
"It's been so ever sence you set foot in this house. Have I had my say once? Have I been mistress on my own farm? No! You took the head o' things, an' you've kep' it. What's mine is yours."
Her triumph over Josiah seemed to be strangely repeated; the scene was almost identical. The man before her stood with his hands hanging by his sides, the fingers limp, in an attitude of the profoundest patience. He was thinking things out. She knew that. Her hurrying mind anticipated all he might have said, and would not. And because he had too abiding a gentleness to say it, the insanity of her anger rose anew. "I'm the laughin'-stock o' the town," she went on bitterly. "There ain't a man or woman in it that don't say I've married a tramp."
Enoch winced, with a sharp, brief quiver of the lips; but before she could dwell upon the sight, to the resurrection of her tenderness, he turned away from her, and went over to the bench.
"I guess I'll move this back where't was," he said, in a very still voice, and Amelia stood watching him, conscious of a new and bitterer pang: a fierce contempt that he could go on with his poor, methodical way of living, when greater issues waited at the door. He moved the bench into its old place, gathered up the clock, with its dismantled machinery, and carried it into the attic. She heard his step on the stairs, regular and unhalting, and despised him again; but in all those moments, the meaning of his movements had not struck her. When he came back, he brought in the broom; and while he swept up the fragments of his work, Amelia stood and watched him. He carried the dustpan and broom away to their places, but he did not reenter the room. He spoke to her from the doorway, and she could not see his face.
"I guess you won't mind if I leave the clock as 't is. It needs some new cogs, an' if anybody should come along, he wouldn't find it any the worse for what I've done. I've jest thought it over about the cows, an' I guess I'll leave that, too, jest as it is. I made you a good bargain, an' when you come to think it over, I guess you'd ruther it'd stan' so than run the resk of havin' folks make a handle of it. Good-by, 'Melia. You've been good to me,—better'n anybody ever was in the world."
She heard his step, swift and steady, through the shed and out at the door. He was gone. Amelia turned to the window, to look after him, and then, finding he had not taken the driveway, she ran into the bedroom, to gaze across the fields. There he was, a lonely figure, striking vigorously out. He seemed glad to go; and seeing his haste, her heart hardened against him. She gave a little disdainful laugh.
"Well," said Amelia, "that's over. I'll wash my dishes now."
Coming back into the kitchen, with an assured step, she moved calmly about her work, as if the world were there to see. Her pride enveloped her like a garment. She handled the dishes as if she scorned them, yet her method and care were exquisite. Presently there came a little imperative pounding at the side door. It was Rosie. She had forgotten the cloudy atmosphere of the house, and being cold, had come, in all her old, imperious certainty of love and warmth, to be let in. Amelia stopped short in her work, and an ugly frown roughened her brow. Josiah Pease, with all his evil imaginings, seemed to be at her side, his lean forefinger pointing out the baseness of mankind. In that instant, she realized where Enoch had gone. He meant to take the three o'clock train where it halted, down at the Crossing, and he had left the child behind. Tearing off her apron, she threw it over her head. She ran to the door, and, opening it, almost knocked the child down, in her haste to be out and away. Rosie had lifted her frosty face in a smile of welcome, but Amelia did not see it. She gathered the child in her arms, and hurried down the steps, through the bars, and along the narrow path toward the pine woods. The sharp brown stubble of the field merged into the thin grasses of the greener lowland, and she heard the trickling of the little dark brook, where gentians lived in the fall, and where, still earlier, the cardinal flower and forget-me-not crowded in lavish color. She knew every inch of the way; her feet had an intelligence of their own. The farm was a part of her inherited life; but at that moment, she prized it as nothing beside that newly discovered wealth which she was rushing to cast away. Rosie had not striven in the least against her capture. She knew too much of life, in some patient fashion, to resist it, in any of its phases. She put her arms about Amelia's neck, to cling the closer, and Amelia, turning her face while she staggered on, set her lips passionately to the little sleeve.
"You cold?" asked she—"dear?" But she told herself it was a kiss of farewell.
She stepped deftly over the low stone wall into the Marden woods, and took the slippery downward path, over pine needles. Sometimes a rounded root lay above the surface, and she stumbled on it; but the child only tightened her grasp. Amelia walked and ran with the prescience of those without fear; for her eyes were unseeing, and her thoughts hurrying forward, she depicted to herself the little drama at its close. She would be at the Crossing and away again, before the train came in; nobody need guess her trouble. Enoch must be there, waiting. She would drop the child at his side,—the child he had deserted,—and before he could say a word, turn back to her desolate home. And at the thought, she kissed the little sleeve again, and thought how good it would be if she could only be there again, though alone, in the shielding walls of her house, and the parting were over and done. She felt her breath come chokingly.
"You'll have to walk a minute," she whispered, setting the child down at her side. "There's time enough. I can't hurry."
At that instant, she felt the slight warning of the ground beneath her feet, shaken by another step, and saw, through the pines, her husband running toward her. Rosie started to meet him, with a little cry, but Amelia thrust her aside, and hurried swiftly on in advance, her eyes feeding upon his face. It had miraculously changed. Sorrow, the great despair of life, had eaten into it, and aged it more than years of patient want. His eyes were like lamps burned low, and the wrinkles under them had guttered into misery. But to Amelia, his look had all the sweet familiarity of faces we shall see in Paradise. She did not stop to interpret his meeting glance, nor ask him to read hers. Coming upon him like a whirlwind, she put both her shaking hands on his shoulders, and laid her wet face to his.
"Enoch! Enoch!" she cried sharply, "in the name of God, come home with me!"
She felt him trembling under her hands, but he only put up his own, and very gently loosed the passionate grasp. "There! there!" he said, in a whisper. "Don't feel so bad. It's all right. I jest turned back for Rosie. Mebbe you won't believe it, but I forgot all about her."
He lowered his voice, for Rosie had gone close to him, and laid her hands clingingly upon his coat. She did not understand, but she could wait. A branch had almost barred the path, and Amelia, her dull gaze fallen, noted idly how bright the moss had kept, and how the scarlet cups enriched it. Her strength would not sustain her, void of his, and she sank down on the wood, her hands laid limply in her lap. "Enoch," she said, from her new sense of the awe of life, "don't lay up anything ag'inst me. You couldn't if you knew."
"Knew what?" asked Enoch gently. He did not forget that circumstance had laid a blow at the roots of his being; but he could not turn away while she still suffered.
Amelia began, stumblingly,—
"He talked about you. I couldn't stan' it."
"Did you believe it?" he queried sternly.
"There wa'n't anything to believe. That's neither here nor there. But—Enoch, if anybody should cut my right hand off—Enoch"—Her voice fell brokenly. She was a New England woman, accustomed neither to analyze nor talk. She could only suffer in the elemental way of dumb things who sometimes need a language of the heart. One thing she knew. The man was hers; and if she reft herself away from him, then she must die.
He had taken Rosie's hand, and Amelia was aware that he turned away.
"I don't want to bring up anything," he said hesitatingly, "but I couldn't stan' bein' any less'n other men would, jest because the woman had the money, an' I hadn't. I dunno's 't was exactly fair about the cows, but somehow you kind o' set me at the head o' things, in the beginnin', an' it never come into my mind"—
Amelia sat looking wanly past him. She began to see how slightly argument would serve. Suddenly the conventions of life fell away from her and left her young.
"Enoch," she said vigorously, "you've got to take me. Somehow, you've got to. Talkin' won't make you see that what I said never meant no more than the wind that blows. But you've got to keep me, or remember, all your life, how you murdered me by goin' away. The farm's come between us. Le's leave it! It's 'most time for the cars. You take me with you now. If you tramp, I'll tramp. If you work out, so 'll I. But where you go, I've got to go, too."
Some understanding of her began to creep upon him; he dropped the child's hand, and came a step nearer. Enoch, in these latter days of his life, had forgotten how to smile; but now a sudden, mirthful gleam struck upon his face, and lighted it with the candles of hope. He stood beside her, and Amelia did not look at him.
"Would you go with me, 'Melia?" he asked.
"I'm goin'," said she doggedly. Her case had been lost, but she could not abandon it. She seemed to be holding to it in the face of righteous judgment.
"S'pose I don't ask you?"
"I'll foller on behind."
"Don't ye want to go home, an' lock up, an' git a bunnit?"
She put one trembling hand to the calico apron about her head.
"Don't ye want to leave the key with some o' the neighbors?"
"I don't want anything in the world but you," owned Amelia shamelessly.
Enoch bent suddenly, and drew her to her feet. "'Melia," said he, "you look up here."
She raised her drawn face and looked at him, not because she wished, but because she must. In her abasement, there was no obedience which she would deny him. But she could only see that he was strangely happy, and so the more removed from her own despair. Enoch swiftly passed his arm about her, and turned her homeward. He laughed a little. Being a man, he must laugh when that bitter ache in the throat presaged more bitter tears.
"Come, 'Melia," said he, "come along home, an' I'll tell you all about the cows. I made a real good bargain. Come, Rosie."
Amelia could not answer. It seemed to her as if love had dealt with her as she had not deserved; and she went on, exalted, afraid of breaking the moment, and knowing only that he was hers again. But just before they left the shadow of the woods, he stopped, holding her still, and their hearts beat together.
"'Melia," said he brokenly, "I guess I never told you in so many words, but it's the truth: if God Almighty was to make me a woman, I'd have her you, not a hair altered. I never cared a straw for any other. I know that now. You're all there is in the world."
When they walked up over the brown field, the sun lay very warmly there with a promise of spring fulfilled. The wind had miraculously died, and soft clouds ran over the sky in flocks. Rosie danced on ahead, singing her queer little song, and Enoch struggled with himself to speak the word his wife might wish.
"'Melia," said he at last, "there ain't anything in my life I couldn't tell you. I jest ain't dwelt on it, that's all. If you want to have me go over it—"
"I don't want anything," said Amelia firmly. Her eyes were suffused, and yet lambent. The light in them seemed to be drinking up their tears. Her steps, she knew, were set within a shining way. At the door only she paused and fixed him with a glance. "Enoch," said she threateningly, "whose cows were them you sold to-day?"
He opened his lips, but she looked him down. One word he rejected, and then another. His cheeks wrinkled up into obstinate smiling, and he made the grimace of a child over its bitter draught.
"'Melia, it ain't fair," he complained. "No, it ain't. I'll take one of 'em, if you say so, or I'll own it don't make a mite o' difference whose they be. But as to lyin'—"
"Say it!" commanded Amelia. "Whose were they?"
"Mine!" said Enoch. They broke into laughter, like children, and held each other's hands.
"I ain't had a mite o' dinner," said Amelia happily, as they stepped together into the kitchen. "Nor you! An' Rosie didn't eat her pie. You blaze up the fire, an' I'll fry some eggs."
THE MORTUARY CHEST
"Now we've got red o' the men-folks," said Mrs. Robbins, "le's se' down an' talk it over." The last man of all the crowd accustomed to seek the country store at noontime was closing the church door behind him as she spoke. "Here, Ezry," she called after him, "you hurry up, or you won't git there afore cockcrow to-morrer, an' I wouldn't have that letter miss for a good deal."
Mrs. Robbins was slight, and hung on wires,—so said her neighbors. They also remarked that her nose was as picked as a pin, and that anybody with them freckles and that red hair was sure to be smart. You could always tell. Mrs. Robbins knew her reputation for extreme acuteness, and tried to live up to it.
"Law! don't you go to stirrin' on him up," said Mrs. Solomon Page comfortably, putting on the cover of her butter-box, which had contained the family lunch. "If the store's closed, he can slip the letter into the box, an' three cents with it, an' they'll put a stamp on in the mornin'."
By this time, there was a general dusting of crumbs from Sunday gowns, a settling of boxes and baskets, and the feminine portion of the East Tiverton congregation, according to ancient custom, passed into the pews nearest the stove, and arranged itself more compactly for the midday gossip. This was a pleasant interlude in the religious decorum of the day; no Sunday came when the men did not trail off to the store for their special council, and the women, with a restful sense of sympathy alloyed by no disturbing element, settled down for an exclusively feminine view of the universe. Mrs. Page took the head of the pew, and disposed her portly frame so as to survey the scene with ease. She was a large woman, with red cheeks and black, shining hair. One powerful arm lay along the back of the pew, and, as she talked, she meditatively beat the rail in time. Her sister, Mrs. Ellison, according to an intermittent custom, had come over from Saltash to attend church, and incidentally to indulge in a family chat. It was said that Tilly rode over about jes' so often to get the Tiverton news for her son Leonard, who furnished local items to the Sudleigh "Star;" and, indeed, she made no secret of sitting down in social conclave with a bit of paper and a worn pencil in hand, to jog her memory. She, too, had smooth black hair, but her dark eyes were illumined by no steadfast glow; they snapped and shone with alert intelligence, and her great forehead dominated the rest of her face, scarred with a thousand wrinkles by intensity of nature rather than by time. A pleasant warmth had diffused itself over the room, so cold during the morning service that foot-stoves had been in requisition. Bonnet strings were thrown back and shawls unpinned. The little world relaxed and lay at ease.
"What's the news over your way, sister?" asked Mrs. Ellison, as an informal preliminary.
"Tilly don't want to give; she'd ruther take," said Mrs. Baxter, before the other could answer. "She's like old Mis' Pepper. Seliny Hazlitt went over there, when she was fust married an' come to the neighborhood, an' asked her if she'd got a sieve to put squash through. Poor Seliny! she didn't know a sieve from a colander, in them days."
"I guess she found out soon enough," volunteered Mrs. Page. "He was one o' them kind o' men that can keep house as well as a woman. I'd ruther live with a born fool."
"Well, old Mis' Pepper she ris up an' smoothed down her apron (recollect them little dots she used to wear?—made her look as broad as a barn door!), an' she says, 'Yes, we've got a sieve for flour, an' a sieve for meal, an' a sieve for rye, an' a sieve for blue-monge, an' we could have a sieve for squash if we was a mind to, but I don't wish to lend.' That's the way with Tilly. She's terrible cropein' about news, but she won't lend."
"How's your cistern?" asked Mrs. John Cole, who, with an exclusively practical turn of mind, saw no reason why talk should be consecutive. "Got all the water you want?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Page; "that last rain filled it up higher'n it's been sence November."
But Mrs. Ellison was not to be thrown off the track.
"Ain't there been consid'able talk over here about Parson Bond?" she asked.
Miss Sally Ware, a plump and pleasing maiden lady, whose gold beads lay in a crease especially designed for them, stirred uneasily in her seat and gave her sisters an appealing glance. But she did not speak, beyond uttering a little dissentient noise in her throat. She was loyal to her minister. An embarrassed silence fell like a vapor over the assemblage. Everybody longed to talk; nobody wanted the responsibility of beginning. Mrs. Page was the first to gather her forces.
"Now, Tilly," said she, with decision, "you ain't comin' over here to tole us into haulin' our own pastor over the coals, unless you'll say right out you won't pass it on to Saltash folks. As for puttin' it in the paper, it ain't the kind you can."
Tilly's eyes burned.
"I guess I know when to speak an' when not to," she remarked. "Now don't beat about the bush; the men-folks'll be back to-rights. I never in my life give Len a mite o' news he couldn't ha' picked up for himself."
"Well, some master silly pieces have got into the paper, fust an' last," said Mrs. Robbins. "Recollect how your Len come 'way over here to git his shoes cobbled, the week arter Tom Brewer moved int' the Holler, an' folks hadn't got over swappin' the queer things he said? an' when Tom got the shoes done afore he promised, Len says to him, 'You're better'n your word.' 'Well,' says Tom, 'I flew at 'em with all the venom o' my specie.' An' it wa'n't a fortnight afore that speech come out in a New York paper, an' then the Sudleigh 'Star' got hold on 't, an' so 't went. If folks want that kind o' thing, they can git a plenty, I say." She set her lips defiantly, and looked round on the assembled group. This was something she had meant to mention; now she had done it.
The informal meeting was aghast. A flavor of robust humor was accustomed to enliven it, but not of a sort to induce dissension.
"There! there!" murmured Sally Ware. "It's the Sabbath day!"
"Well, nobody's breakin' of it, as I know of," said Mrs. Ellison. Her eyes were brighter than usual, but she composed herself into a careful disregard of annoyance. When desire of news assailed her, she could easily conceal her personal resentments, cannily sacrificing small issues to great. "I guess there's no danger o' Parson Bond's gittin' into the paper, so long's he behaves himself; but if anybody's got eyes, they can't help seein'. I hadn't been in the Bible class five minutes afore I guessed how he was carryin' on. Has he begun to go with Isabel North, an' his wife not cold in her grave?"
"Well, I think, for my part, he does want Isabel," said Mrs. Robbins sharply, "an' I say it's a sin an' a shame. Why, she ain't twenty, an' he's sixty if he's a day. My soul! Sally Ware, you better be settin' your cap for my William Henry. He's 'most nineteen."
Miss Ware flushed, and her plump hands tightened upon each other under her shawl. She was never entirely at ease in the atmosphere of these assured married women; it was always a little bracing.
"Well, how's she take it?" asked Tilly, turning from one to the other. "Tickled to death, I s'pose?"
"Well, I guess she ain't!" broke in a younger woman, whose wedding finery was not yet outworn. "She's most sick over it, and so she has been ever since her sister married and went away. I believe she'd hate the sight of him, if 't wasn't the minister; but 't is the minister, and when she's put face to face with him, she can't help saying yes and no."
"I dunno'," said Mrs. Page, with her unctuous laugh. "Remember the party over to Tiverton t' other night, an' them tarts? You see, Rosanna Maria Pike asked us all over; an' you know how flaky her pie-crust is. Well, the minister was stan'in' side of Isabel when the tarts was passed. He was sort o' shinin' up to her that night, an' I guess he felt a mite twittery; so when the tarts come to him, he reached out kind o' delicate, with his little finger straight out, an' tried to take one. An' a ring o' crust come off on his finger. Then he tried it ag'in, an' got another ring. Everybody'd ha' laughed, if it hadn't been the minister; but Isabel she tickled right out, an' says, 'You don't take jelly, do you, Mr. Bond?' An' he turned as red as fire, an' says, 'No, I thank you.'"
"She wouldn't ha' said it, if she hadn't ha' been so nervous," remarked Miss Sally, taking a little parcel of peppermints from her pocket, and proceeding to divide them.
"No, I don't s'pose she would," owned Mrs. Page reflectively. "But if what they say is true, she's been pretty sassy to him, fust an' last. Why, you know, no matter how the parson begins his prayer, he's sure to end up on one line: 'Lord, we thank Thee we have not been left to live by the dim light of natur'.' 'Lisha Cole, when he come home from Illinois, walked over here to meetin', to surprise some o' the folks. He waited in the entry to ketch 'em comin' out, an' the fust word he heard was, 'Lord, we thank Thee we have not been left to live by the dim light of natur'.' 'Lisha said he'd had time to be shipwrecked (you know he went to California fust an' made the v'yage), an' be married twice, an' lay by enough to keep him, and come home poor; but when he heard that, he felt as if the world hadn't moved sence he started."
Sally Ware dropped her mitten, to avoid listening and the necessity of reply; it was too evident that the conversational tone was becoming profane. But Mrs. Page's eyes were gleaming with pure dramatic joy, and she continued:—
"Well, a fortnight or so ago he went over to see Isabel, an' Sadie an' her husband happened to be there. They were all settin' purrin' in the dark, because they'd forgot to send for any kerosene. 'No light?' says he, hittin' his head ag'inst the chimbly-piece goin' in,—'no light?' 'No,' says Isabel, 'none but the dim light of natur'.'"
There was a chime of delighted laughter in many keys. The company felt the ease of unrestricted speech. They wished the nooning might be indefinitely prolonged.
"Sometimes I think she sets out to make him believe she's wuss 'n she is," remarked Mrs. Cole. "Remember how she carried on last Sabbath?"
"I guess so!" returned Mrs. Page. "You see, Tilly, he's kind o' pushin' her for'ard to make her seem more suitable,—he'd like to have her as old as the hills!—an' nothin' would do but she must go into the Bible class. Ain't a member that's under fifty, but there that little young thing sets, cheeks red as a beet, an' the elder asks her questions, when he gits to her, as if he was coverin' on her over with cotton wool. Well, last Sabbath old Deacon Pitts—le's see, there ain't any o' his folks present, be they?—well, he was late, an' he hadn't looked at his lesson besides. 'T was the fust chapter in Ruth, where it begins, 'In the days when the judges ruled.' You recollect Naomi told the two darters they'd got to set sail, an' then the Bible says, 'they lifted up their voice an' wept.' 'Who wept?' says the parson to Deacon Pitts, afore he'd got fairly se' down. The deacon he opened his Bible, an' whirled over the leaves. 'Who wept, Brother Pitts?' says the parson over ag'in. Somebody found the deacon the place, an' p'inted. He was growin' redder an' redder, an' his spe'tacles kep' slippin' down, but he did manage to see the chapter begun suthin' about the judges. Well, by that time parson spoke out sort o' sharp. 'Brother Pitts,' says he, 'who wept?' The deacon see 't he'd got to put some kind of a face on 't, an' he looked up an' spoke out, as bold as brass. 'I conclude,' says he,—'I conclude 't was the judges!'"
Even Miss Ware smiled a little, and adjusted her gold beads. The others laughed out rich and free.
"Well, what'd that have to do with Isabel?" asked Mrs. Ellison, who never forgot the main issue.
"Why, everybody else drawed down their faces, an' tried to keep 'em straight, but Isabel, she begun to laugh, an' she laughed till the tears streamed down her cheeks. Deacon Pitts was real put out, for him, an' the parson tried not to take no notice. But it went so fur he couldn't help it, an' so he says, 'Miss Isabel, I'm real pained,' says he. But 't was jest as you'd cuff the kitten for snarlin' up your yarn."
"Well, what's Isabel goin' to do?" asked Mrs. Ellison. "S'pose she'll marry him?"
"Why, she won't unless he tells her to. If he does, I dunno but she'll think she's got to."
"I say it's a shame," put in Mrs. Robbins incisively; "an' Isabel with everything all fixed complete so 't she could have a good time. Her sister's well married, an' Isabel stays every night with her. Them two girls have been together ever sence their father died. An' here she's got the school, an' she's goin' to Sudleigh every Saturday to take lessons in readin', an' she'd be as happy as a cricket, if on'y he'd let her alone."
"She reads real well," said Mrs. Ellison. "She come over to our sociable an' read for us. She could turn herself into anybody she'd a mind to. Len wrote a notice of it for the 'Star.' That's the only time we've had oysters over our way."
"I'd let it be the last," piped up a thin old lady, with a long figured veil over her face. "It's my opinion oysters lead to dancin'."
"Well, let 'em lead," said optimistic Mrs. Page. "I guess we needn't foller."
"Them that have got rheumatism in their knees can stay behind," said the young married woman, drawn by the heat of the moment into a daring at once to be repented. "Mrs. Ellison, you're getting ahead of us over in your parish. They say you sing out of sheet music."
"Yes, they do say so," interrupted the old lady under the figured veil. "If there's any worship in sheet music, I'd like to know it!"
"Come, come!" said peace-loving Mrs. Page; "there's the men filin' in. We mustn't let 'em see us squabblin'. They think we're a lot o' cacklin' hens anyway, tickled to death over a piece o' chalk. There's Isabel, now. She's goin' to look like her aunt Mary Ellen, over to Saltash."
Isabel preceded the men, who were pausing for a word at the door, and went down the aisle to her pew. She bowed to one and another, in passing, and her color rose. They could not altogether restrain their guiltily curious gaze, and Isabel knew she had been talked over. She was a healthy-looking girl, with clear blue eyes and a quantity of soft brown hair. Her face was rather large-featured, and one could see that, if the world went well with her, she would be among those who develop beauty in middle life.
The group of dames dispersed to their several pews, and settled their faces into expressions more becoming a Sunday mood. The village folk, who had time for a hot dinner, dropped in, one by one, and by and by the parson came,—a gaunt man, with thick red-brown hair streaked with dull gray, and red-brown, sanguine eyes. He was much beloved, but something impulsive and unevenly balanced in his nature led even his people to regard him with more or less patronage. He kept his eyes rigorously averted from Isabel's pew, in passing; but when he reached the pulpit, and began unpinning his heavy gray shawl, he did glance at her, and his face grew warm. But Isabel did not look at him, and all through the service she sat with a haughty pose of the head, gazing down into her lap. When it was over, she waited for no one, since her sister was not at church, but sped away down the snowy road.
The next day, Isabel stayed after school, and so it was in the wintry twilight that she walked home, guarded by the few among her flock who had been kept to learn the inner significance of common fractions. Approaching her own house, she quickened her steps, for there before the gate (taken from its hinges and resting for the winter) stood a blue pung. The horse was dozing, his Roman nose sunken almost to the snow at his feet. He looked as if he had come to stay. Isabel withdrew her hand from the persistent little fingers clinging to it.
"Good-night, children," said she. "I guess I've got company. I must hurry in. Come bright and early to-morrow."
The little group marched away, swathed in comforters, each child carrying the dinner-pail with an easy swing. Their reddened faces lighted over the chorusing good-nights, and they kept looking back, while Isabel ran up the icy path to her own door. It was opened from within, before she reached it, and a tall, florid woman, with smoothly banded hair, stood there to receive her. Though she had a powerful frame, she gave one at the outset an impression of weak gentleness, and the hands she extended, albeit cordial, were somewhat limp. She wore her bonnet still, though she had untied the strings and thrown them back; and her ample figure was tightly laced under a sontag.
"Why, aunt Luceba!" cried Isabel, radiant. "I'm as glad as I can be. When did you rain down?"
"Be you glad?" returned aunt Luceba, her somewhat anxious look relaxing into a smile. "Well, I'm pleased if you be. Fact is, I run away, an' I'm jest comin' to myself, an' wonderin' what under the sun set me out to do it."
"Run away!" repeated Isabel, drawing her in, and at once peeping into the stove. "Oh, you fixed the fire, didn't you? It keeps real well. I put on coal in the morning, and then again at night."
"Isabel," began her aunt, standing by the stove, and drumming on it with agitated fingers, "I hate to have you live as you do. Why under the sun can't you come over to Saltash, an' stay with us?"
Isabel had thrown off her shawl and hat, and was standing on the other side of the stove; she was tingling with cold and youthful spirits.
"I'm keeping school," said she. "School can't keep without me. And I'm going over to Sudleigh, every Saturday, to take elocution lessons. I'm having my own way, and I'm happy as a clam. Now, why can't you come and live with me? You said you would, the very day aunt Eliza died."
"I know I did," owned the visitor, lowering her voice, and casting a glance over her shoulder. "But I never had an idea then how Mary Ellen 'd feel about it. She said she wouldn't live in this town, not if she was switched. I dunno why she's so ag'in' it, but she seems to be, an' there 't is!"
"Why, aunt Luceba!" Isabel had left her position to draw forward a chair. "What's that?" She pointed to the foot of the lounge, where, half hidden in shadow, stood a large, old-fashioned blue chest.
"'Sh! that's it! that's what I come for. It's her chist."
"Your aunt 'Liza's." She looked Isabel in the face with an absurd triumph and awe. She had done a brave deed, the nature of which was not at once apparent.
"What's in it?" asked Isabel, walking over to it.
"Don't you touch it!" cried her aunt, in agitation. "I wouldn't have you meddle with it—But there! it's locked. I al'ays forgit that. I feel as if the things could git out an' walk. Here! you let it alone, an' byme-by we'll open it. Se' down here on the lounge. There, now! I guess I can tell ye. It was sister 'Liza's chist, an' she kep' it up attic. She begun it when we wa'n't more'n girls goin' to Number Six, an' she's been fillin' on 't ever sence."
"Begun it! You talk as if 't was a quilt!" Isabel began to laugh.
"Now don't!" said her aunt, in great distress. "Don't ye! I s'pose 't was because we was such little girls an' all when 'Liza started it, but it makes me as nervous as a witch, an' al'ays did. You see, 'Liza was a great hand for deaths an' buryin's; an' as for funerals, she'd ruther go to 'em than eat. I'd say that if she was here this minute, for more'n once I said it to her face. Well, everybody 't died, she saved suthin' they wore or handled the last thing, an' laid it away in this chist; an' last time I see it opened, 't was full, an' she kind o' smacked her lips, an' said she should have to begin another. But the very next week she was took away."
"Aunt Luceba," said Isabel suddenly, "was aunt Eliza hard to live with? Did you and aunt Mary Ellen have to toe the mark?"
"Don't you say one word," answered her aunt hastily. "That's all past an' gone. There ain't no way of settlin' old scores but buryin' of 'em. She was older'n we were, an' on'y a step-sister, arter all. We must think o' that. Well, I must come to the end o' my story, an' then we'll open the chist. Next day arter we laid her away, it come into my head, 'Now we can burn up them things.' It may ha' been wicked, but there 't was, an' the thought kep' arter me, till all I could think of was the chist; an' byme-by I says to Mary Ellen, one mornin', 'Le's open it to-day an' make a burnfire!' An' Mary Ellen she turned as white as a sheet, an' dropped her spoon into her sasser, an' she says: 'Not yet! Luceba, don't you ask me to touch it yet.' An' I found out, though she never 'd say another word, that it unset her more'n it did me. One day, I come on her up attic stan'in' over it with the key in her hand, an' she turned round as if I'd ketched her stealin', an' slipped off downstairs. An' this arternoon, she went into Tilly Ellison's with her work, an' it come to me all of a sudden how I'd git Tim Yatter to harness an' load the chist onto the pung, an' I'd bring it over here, an' we'd look it over together; an' then, if there's nothin' in it but what I think, I'd leave it behind, an' maybe you or Sadie 'd burn it. John Cole happened to ride by, and he helped me in with it. I ain't a-goin' to have Mary Ellen worried. She's different from me. She went to school, same's you have, an' she's different somehow. She's been meddled with all her life, an' I'll be whipped if she sha'n't make a new start. Should you jest as lieves ask Sadie or John?"