Mary E. Wilkins
Author of "A Humble Romance, and other stories" "A New England Nun, and other stories" "Young Lucretia, and other stories"
Harper & Brothers Publishers
Amanda Pratt's cottage-house was raised upon two banks above the road-level. Here and there the banks showed irregular patches of yellow-green, where a little milky-stemmed plant grew. It had come up every spring since Amanda could remember.
There was a great pink-lined shell on each side of the front door-step, and the path down over the banks to the road was bordered with smaller shells. The house was white, and the front door was dark green, with an old-fashioned knocker in the centre.
There were four front windows, and the roof sloped down to them; two were in Amanda's parlor, and two were in Mrs. Field's. She rented half of her house to Mrs. Jane Field.
There was a head at each of Amanda's front windows. One was hers, the other was Mrs. Babcock's. Amanda's old blond face, with its folds of yellow-gray hair over the ears and sections of the softly-wrinkled, pinky cheeks, was bent over some needle-work. So was Mrs. Babcock's, darkly dim with age, as if the hearth-fires of her life had always smoked, with a loose flabbiness about the jaw-bones, which seemed to make more evident the firm structure underneath.
Amanda was sewing a braided rug; her little veiny hands jerked the stout thread through with a nervous energy that was out of accord with her calm expression and the droop of her long slender body.
"It's pretty hard sewin' braided mats, ain't it?" said Mrs. Babcock.
"I don't care how hard 'tis if I can get 'em sewed strong," replied Amanda, and her voice was unexpectedly quick and decided. "I never had any feelin' that anything was hard, if I could only do it."
"Well, you ain't had so much hard work to do as some folks. Settin' in a rockin'-chair sewin' braided mats ain't like doin' the housework for a whole family. If you'd had the cookin' to do for four men-folks, the way I have, you'd felt it was pretty hard work, even if you did make out to fill 'em up." Mrs. Babcock smiled, and showed that she did not forget she was company, but her tone was quite fierce.
"Mebbe I should," returned Amanda, stiffly.
There was a silence.
"Let me see, how many mats does that make?" Mrs. Babcock asked, finally, in an amiable voice.
"Like this one?"
"This makes the ninth."
Mrs. Babcock scrutinized the floor. It was almost covered with braided rugs, and they were all alike.
"I declare I don't see where you'll put another in here," said she.
"I guess I can lay 'em a little thicker over there by the what-not."
"Well, mebbe you can; but I declare I shouldn't scarcely think you needed another. I shouldn't think your carpet would wear out till the day of judgment. What made you have them mats all jest alike?"
"I like 'em better so," replied Amanda, with dignity.
"Well, of course, if you do there ain't nothin' to say; it's your carpet an' your mats," returned Mrs. Babcock, with grim apology.
There were two curious features about Amanda Pratt's parlor: one was a gentle monotony of details; the other, a certain savor of the sea. It was like holding a shell to one's ear to enter Amanda's parlor. There was a faint suggestion of far-away sandy beaches, the breaking of waves, and the rush of salt winds. In the centre of the mantel-shelf stood a stuffed sea-gull; on either side shells were banked. The fire-place was flanked by great branches of coral, and on the top of the air-tight stove there stood always in summer-time, when there was no fire, a superb nautilus shell, like a little pearl vessel. The corner what-not, too, had its shelves heaped with shells and coral and choice bits of rainbow lava from volcanic islands. Between the windows, instead of the conventional mahogany cardtable, stood one of Indian lacquer, and on it was a little inlaid cabinet that was brought from over seas. The whole room in this little inland cottage, far beyond the salt fragrance of the sea, seemed like one of those marine fossils sometimes found miles from the coast. It indicated the presence of the sea in the lives of Amanda's race. Her grandfather had been a seafaring man, and so had her father, until late in life, when he had married an inland woman, and settled down among waves of timothy and clover on her paternal acres.
Amanda was like her mother, she had nothing of the sea tastes in her nature. She was full of loyal conservatism toward the marine ornaments of her parlor, but she secretly preferred her own braided rugs, and the popular village fancy-work, in which she was quite skilful. On each of her chairs was a tidy, and the tidies were all alike; in the corners of the room were lambrequins, all worked after the same pattern in red worsted and beads. On one wall hung a group of pictures framed in cardboard, four little colored prints of crosses twined with flowers, and they were all alike. "Why didn't you get them crosses different?" many a neighbor had said to her—these crosses, with some variation of the entwining foliage, had been very popular in the rural neighborhood—and Amanda had replied with quick dignity that she liked them better the way she had them. Amanda maintained the monotony of her life as fiercely as her fathers had pursued the sea. She was like a little animal born with a rebound to its own track, from whence no amount of pushing could keep it long.
Mrs. Babcock glanced sharply around the room as she sewed; she was anxious to divert Amanda's mind from the mats. "Don't the moths ever git into that stuffed bird over there?" she asked suddenly, indicating the gull on the shelf with a side-wise jerk of her head.
"No; I ain't never had a mite of trouble with 'em," replied Amanda. "I always keep a little piece of camphor tucked under his wing feathers."
"Well, you're lucky. Mis' Jackson she had a stuffed canary-bird all eat up with 'em. She had to put him in the stove; couldn't do nothin' with him. She felt real bad about it. She'd thought a good deal of the bird when he was alive, an' he was stuffed real handsome, an' settin' on a little green sprig. She use to keep him on her parlor shelf; he was jest the right size. It's a pity your bird is quite so big, ain't it?"
"I s'pose he's jest the way he was made," returned Amanda shortly.
"Of course he is. I ain't findin' no fault with him; all is, I thought he was kind of big for the shelf; but then birds do perch on dreadful little places." Mrs. Babcock, full of persistency in exposing herself to rebuffs, was very sensitive and easily cowed by one. "Let me see—he's quite old. Your grandfather bought him, didn't he?" said she, in a mollifying tone.
Amanda nodded. "He's a good deal older than I am," said she.
"It's queer how some things that ain't of no account really in the world last, while others that's worth so much more don't," Mrs. Babcock remarked, meditatively. "Now, there's that bird there, lookin' jest as nice and handsome, and there's the one that bought him and brought him home, in his grave out of sight."
"There's a good many queer things in this world," rejoined Amanda, with a sigh.
"I guess there is," said Mrs. Babcock. "Now you can jest look round this room, an' see all the things that belonged to your folks that's dead an' gone, and it seems almost as if they was immortal instead of them. An' it's goin' to be jest the same way with us; the clothes that's hangin' up in our closets are goin' to outlast us. Well, there's one thing about it—this world ain't our abidin'-place."
Mrs. Babcock shook her head resolutely, and began to fold up her work. She rolled the unbleached cloth into a hard smooth bundle, with the scissors, thimble, and thread inside, and the needle quilted in.
"You ain't goin'?" said Amanda.
"Yes, I guess I must. I've got to be home by half-past five to get supper, an' I thought I'd jest look in at Mis' Field's a minute. Do you s'pose she's to home?"
"I shouldn't wonder if she was. I ain't seen her go out anywhere."
"Well, I dun'no' when I've been in there, an' I dun'no' but she'd think it was kinder queer if I went right into the house and didn't go near her."
Amanda arose, letting the mat slide to the floor, and went into the bedroom to get Mrs. Babcock's bonnet and light shawl.
"I wish you wouldn't be in such a hurry," said she, using the village formula of hospitality to a departing guest.
"It don't seem to me I've been in much of a hurry. I've stayed here the whole afternoon."
Suddenly Mrs. Babcock, pinning on her shawl, thrust her face close to Amanda's. "I want to know if it's true Lois Field is so miserable?" she whispered.
"Well, I dun'no'. She don't look jest right, but she an' her mother won't own up but what she's well."
"Goin' the way Mis' Maxwell did, ain't she?"
"I dun'no'. I'm worried about her myself—dreadful worried. Lois is a nice girl as ever was."
"She ain't give up her school?"
Amanda shook her head.
"I shouldn't think her mother'd have her."
"I s'pose she feels as if she'd got to." Mrs. Babcock dropped her voice still lower. "They're real poor, ain't they?"
"I guess they ain't got much."
"I s'pose they hadn't. Well, I hope Lois ain't goin' down. I heard she looked dreadful. Mis' Jackson she was in yesterday, talkin' about it. Well, you come over an' see me, Mandy. Bring your sewin' over some afternoon."
"Well, mebbe I will. I don't go out a great deal, you know."
The two women grimaced to each other in a friendly fashion, then Amanda shut her door, and Mrs. Babcock pattered softly and heavily across the little entry, and opened Mrs. Field's door. She pressed the old brass latch with a slight show of ceremonious hesitancy, but she never thought of knocking. There was no one in the room, which had a clean and sparse air. The chairs all stood back against the walls, and left in the centre a wide extent of faded carpet, full of shadowy gray scrolls.
Mrs. Babcock stood for a moment staring in and listening.
There was a faint sound of a voice seemingly from a room beyond. She called, softly, "Mis' Field!" There was no response. She advanced then resolutely over the stretch of carpet toward the bedroom door. She opened it, then gave a little embarrassed grunt, and began backing away.
Mrs. Field was in there, kneeling beside the bed, praying. She started and looked up at Mrs. Babcock with a kind of solemn abashedness, her long face flushed. Then she got up. "Good-afternoon," said she.
"Good-afternoon," returned Mrs. Babcock. She tried to smile and recover her equanimity. "I've been into Mandy Pratt's," she went on, "an' I thought I'd jest look in here a minute before I went home, but I wouldn't have come in so if I'd known you was—busy."
"Come out in the other room an' sit down," said Mrs. Field.
Mrs. Babcock's agitated bulk followed her over the gray carpet, and settled into the rocking-chair at one of the front windows. Mrs. Field seated herself at the other.
"It's been a pleasant day, ain't it?" said she.
"Real pleasant. I told Mr. Babcock this noon that I was goin' to git out somewheres this afternoon come what would. I've been cooped up all the spring house-cleanin', an' now I'm goin' to git out. I dun'no' when I've been anywhere. I ain't been into Mandy's sence Christmas that I know of—I ain't been in to set down, anyway; an' I've been meanin' to run in an' see you all winter, Mis' Field." All the trace of confusion now left in Mrs. Babcock's manner was a weak volubility.
"It's about all anybody can do to do their housework, if they do it thorough," returned Mrs. Field. "I s'pose you've been takin' up carpets?"
"Took up every carpet in the house. I do every year. Some folks don't, but I can't stand it. I'm afraid of moths, too. I s'pose you've got your cleanin' all done?"
"Yes, I've got it about done."
"Well, I shouldn't think you could do so much, Mis' Field, with your hands."
Mrs. Field's hands lay in her lap, yellow and heavily corrugated, the finger-joints in great knots, which looked as if they had been tied in the bone. Mrs. Babcock eyed them pitilessly.
"How are they now?" she inquired. "Seems to me they look worse than they used to."
Mrs. Field regarded her hands with a staid, melancholy air. "Well, I dun'no'."
"Seems to me they look worse. How's Lois, Mis' Field?"
"She's pretty well, I guess. I dun'no' why she ain't."
"Somebody was sayin' the other day that she looked dreadfully."
Mrs. Field had heretofore held herself with a certain slow dignity. Now her manner suddenly changed, and she spoke fast. "I dun'no' what folks mean talkin' so," said she. "Lois ain't been lookin' very well, as I know of, lately; but it's the spring of the year, an' she's always apt to feel it."
"Mebbe that is it," replied the other, with a doubtful inflection. "Let's see, you called it consumption that ailed your sister, didn't you, Mis' Field?"
"I s'pose it was."
Mrs. Babcock stared with cool reflection at the other woman's long, pale face, with its high cheek-bones and deep-set eyes and wide, drooping mouth. She was deliberating whether or not to ask for some information that she wanted. "Speakin' of your sister," said she finally, with a casual air, "her husband's father is livin', ain't he?"
"He was the last I knew."
"I s'pose he's worth considerable property?"
"Yes, I s'pose he is."
"Well, I want to know. Somebody was speakin' about it the other day, an' they said they thought he did, an' I told 'em I didn't believe it. He never helped your sister's husband any, did he?"
Mrs. Field did not reply for a moment. Mrs. Babcock was leaning forward and smiling ingratiatingly, with keen eyes upon her face.
"I dun'no' as he did. But I guess Edward never expected he would much," said she.
"Well, I told 'em I didn't believe he did. I declare! it seemed pretty tough, didn't it?"
"I dun'no'. I thought of it some along there when Edward was sick."
"I declare, I should have thought you'd wrote to him about it."
Mrs. Field said nothing.
"Didn't you ever?" Mrs. Babcock asked.
"Well, yes; I wrote once when he was first taken sick."
"An' he didn't take any notice of it?"
Mrs. Field shook her head.
"He's a regular old skinflint, ain't he?" said Mrs. Babcock.
"I guess he's a pretty set kind of a man."
"Set! I should call it more'n set. Now, Mis' Field, I'd really like to know something. I ain't curious, but I've heard so many stories about it that I'd really like to know the truth of it once. Somebody was speakin' about it the other day, an' it don't seem right for stories to be goin' the rounds when there ain't no truth in 'em. Mis' Field, what was it set Edward Maxwell's father agin' him?" Mrs. Babcock's voice sank to a whisper, she leaned farther forward, and gazed at Mrs. Field with crafty sweetness.
Mrs. Field looked out of the window.
"Well, I s'pose it was some trouble about money matters."
"Yes, I s'pose so."
"Mis' Field, what did he do?"
Mrs. Field did not reply. She looked out of the window at the green banks in front. Her face was inscrutable.
Mrs. Babcock drew herself up. "Course I don't want you to tell me nothin' you don't want to," said she, with injured dignity. "I ain't pryin' into things that folks don't want me to know about; it wa'n't never my way. All is, I thought I'd like to know the truth of it, whether there was anything in them stories or not."
"Oh, I'd jest as soon tell you," rejoined Mrs. Field quietly. "I was jest a-thinkin'. As near as I can tell you, Mis' Babcock, Edward's father he let him have some money, and Edward he speculated with it on something contrary to his advice, an' lost it, an' that made the trouble."
"Was that all?" asked Mrs. Babcock, with a disappointed air.
"Yes, I s'pose it was."
"I want to know!" Mrs. Babcock leaned back with a sigh. "Well, there's another thing," she said presently. "Somebody was sayin' the other day that you thought Esther caught the consumption from her husband. I wanted to know if you did."
Mrs. Field's face twitched. "Well," she replied, "I dun'no'. I've heard consumption was catchin', an' she was right over him the whole time."
"Well, I don't know. I ain't never been able to take much stock in catchin' consumption. There was Mis' Gay night an' day with Susan for ten years, an' she's jest as well as anybody. I should be afraid 'twas a good deal likelier to be in your family. Does Lois cough?"
"None to speak of."
"Well, there's more kinds of consumption than one."
Mrs. Babcock made quite a long call. She shook Mrs. Field's hand warmly at parting. "I want to know, does Lois like honey?" said she.
"Yes, she's real fond of it."
"Well, I'm goin' to send her over a dish of it. Ours was uncommon nice this year. It's real good for a cough."
On her way home Mrs. Babcock met Lois Field coming from school attended by a little flock of children. Mrs. Babcock stopped, and looked sharply at her small, delicately pretty face, with its pointed chin and deep-set blue eyes.
"How are you feelin' to-night, Lois?" she inquired, in a tone of forcible commiseration.
"I'm pretty well, thank you," said Lois.
"Seems to me you're lookin' pretty slim. You'd ought to take a little vacation." Mrs. Babcock surveyed her with a kind of pugnacious pity.
Lois stood quite erect in the midst of the children. "I don't think I need any vacation," said she, smiling constrainedly. She pushed gently past Mrs. Babcock, with the children at her heels.
"You'd better take a little one," Mrs. Babcock called after her.
Lois kept on as if she did not hear. Her face was flushed, and her head seemed full of beating pulses.
One of the children, a thin little girl in a blue dress, turned around and grimaced at Mrs. Babcock; another pulled Lois' dress. "Teacher, Jenny Whitcomb is makin' faces at Mis' Babcock," she drawled.
"Jenny!" said Lois sharply; and the little girl turned her face with a scared nervous giggle. "You mustn't ever do such a thing as that again," said Lois. She reached down and took the child's little restive hand and led her along.
Lois had not much farther to go. The children all clamored, "Good-by, teacher!" when she turned in at her own gate.
She went in through the sitting-room to the kitchen, and settled down into a chair with her hat on.
"Well, so you've got home," said her mother; she was moving about preparing supper. She smiled anxiously at Lois as she spoke.
Lois smiled faintly, but her forehead was frowning. "Has that Mrs. Babcock been here?" she asked.
"Yes. Did you meet her?"
"Yes, I did; and I'd like to know what she meant telling me I'd ought to take a vacation, and I looked bad. I wish people would let me alone tellin' me how I look."
"She meant well, I guess," said her mother, soothingly. "She said she was goin' to send you over a dish of her honey."
"I don't want any of her honey. I don't see what folks want to send things in to me, as if I were sick, for."
"Oh, I guess she thought I'd like some too," returned her mother, with a kind of stiff playfulness. "You needn't think you're goin' to have all that honey."
"I don't want any of it," said Lois. The window beside which she sat was open; under it, in the back yard, was a little thicket of mint, and some long sprays of sweetbrier bowing over it. Lois reached out and broke off a piece of the sweetbrier and smelled it.
"Supper's ready," said her mother, presently; and she took off her hat and went listlessly over to the table.
The table, covered with a white cloth, was set back against the wall, with only one leaf spread. There were bread and butter and custards and a small glass dish of rhubarb sauce for supper.
Lois looked at the dish. "I didn't know the rhubarb was grown," said she.
"I managed to get enough for supper," replied her mother, in a casual voice.
Nobody would have dreamed how day after day she had journeyed stiffly down to the old garden spot behind the house to watch the progress of the rhubarb, and how triumphantly she had brought up those green and rosy stalks. Lois had always been very fond of rhubarb.
She ate it now with a keen relish. Her mother contrived that she should have nearly all of it; she made a show of helping herself twice, but she took very little. But it was to her as if she also tasted every spoonful which her daughter ate, and as if it had the flavor of a fruit of Paradise and satisfied her very soul.
After supper Lois began packing up the cups and saucers.
"Now you go in the other room an' set down, an' let me take care of the dishes," said Mrs. Field, timidly.
Lois faced about instantly. "Now, mother, I'd just like to know what you mean?" said she. "I guess I ain't quite so far gone but what I can wash up a few dishes. You act as if you wanted to make me out sick in spite of myself."
"I thought mebbe you was kind of tired," said her mother, apologetically.
"I ain't tired. I'm jest as well able to wash up the supper dishes as I ever was." Lois carried the cups and saucers to the sink with a resolute air, and Mrs. Field said no more. She went into her bedroom to change her dress; she was going to evening meeting.
Lois washed and put away the dishes; then she went into the sitting-room, and sat down by the open window. She leaned her cheek against the chairback and looked out; a sweet almond fragrance of cherry and apple blossoms came into her face; over across the fields a bird was calling. Lois did not think it tangibly, but it was to her as if the blossom scent and the bird call came out of her own future. She was ill, poor, and overworked, but she was not unhappy, for her future was yet, in a way, untouched; she had not learned to judge of it by hard precedent, nor had any mistake of hers made a miserable certainty of it. It still looked to her as fair ahead as an untrodden field of heaven.
She was quite happy as she sat there; but when her mother, in her black woollen dress, entered, she felt instantly nervous and fretted. Mrs. Field said nothing, but the volume and impetus of her anxiety when she saw her daughter's head in the window seemed to actually misplace the air.
Presently she went to the window, and leaned over to shut it.
"Don't shut the window, mother," said Lois.
"I'm dreadful afraid you'll catch cold, child."
"No, I sha'n't, either. I wish you wouldn't fuss so, mother."
Mrs. Field stood back; the meeting bell began to ring.
"Goin' to meetin', mother?" Lois asked, in a pleasanter voice.
"I thought mebbe I would."
"I guess I won't go. I want to sew some on my dress this evenin'."
"Sha'n't you mind stayin' alone, if I go?"
"Mind stayin' alone? of course I sha'n't. You get the strangest ideas lately, mother."
Mrs. Field put on her black bonnet and shawl, and started. The bell tolled, and she passed down the village street with a stiff steadiness of gait. She felt eager to go to meeting to-night. This old New England woman, all of whose traditions were purely orthodox, was all unknowingly a fetich-worshipper in a time of trouble. Ever since her daughter had been ill, she had had a terrified impulse in her meeting-going. It seemed to her that if she stayed away, Lois might be worse. Unconsciously her church attendance became a species of spell, or propitiation to a terrifying deity, and the wild instinct of the African awoke in the New England woman.
When she reached the church the bell had stopped ringing, and the vestry windows were parallelograms of yellow light; the meeting was in the vestry.
Mrs. Field entered, and took a seat well toward the front. The room was half filled with people, and the mass of them were elderly and middle-aged women. There were rows of their homely, faded, and strong-lined faces set in sober bonnets, a sprinkling of solemn old men, a few bright-ribboned girls, and in the background a settee or two of smart young fellows. Right in front of Mrs. Field sat a pretty girl with roses in her hat. She was about Lois' age, and had been to school with her.
Mrs. Field, erect and gaunt, with a look of goodness so settled and pre-eminent in her face that it had almost the effect of a smile, sat and listened to the minister. He was a young man with boyish shoulders, and a round face, which he screwed nervously as he talked. He was vehement, and strung to wiriness with new enthusiasm; he seemed to toss the doctrines like footballs back and forth before the eyes of the people.
Mrs. Field listened intently, but all the time it was as if she were shut up in a corner with her own God and her own religion. There are as many side chapels as there are individual sorrows in every church.
After the minister finished his discourse, the old men muttered prayers, with long pauses between. Now and then a young woman played a gospel tune on a melodeon, and a woman in the same seat with Mrs. Field led the singing. She was past middle age, but her voice was still sweet, although once in a while it quavered. She had sung in the church choir ever since she was a child, and was the prima donna of the village. The young girl with roses in her hat who sat in front of Mrs. Field also sang with fervor, although her voice was little more than a sweetly husky breath. She kept her eyes, at once bold and timid, fixed upon the young minister as she sang.
When meeting was done, and Mrs. Field arose, the girl spoke to her. She had a pretty blush on her round cheeks, and she smiled at Mrs. Field in the same way that she would soon smile at the young minister.
"How's Lois to-night, Mrs. Field?" said she.
"She's pretty well, thank you, Ida."
"I heard she was sick."
"Oh, no, she ain't sick. The spring weather has made her feel kind of tired out, that's all. It 'most always does."
"Well, I'm glad she isn't sick," said the girl, her radiant absent eyes turned upon the minister, who was talking with some one at the desk. "She wasn't out to meeting, and I didn't know but she might be."
"She thought she wouldn't—" began Mrs. Field, but the girl was gone. The minister had started down the other aisle, and she met him at the door.
Several other people inquired for Lois as Mrs. Field made her way out; some had heard she was ill in bed. She had an errand to do at the store on her way home; when she reached it she went in, and stood waiting at the counter.
There were a number of men lounging about the large, rank, becluttered room, and there were several customers. The village post-office was in one corner of the store. There were only two clerks besides the proprietor, who was postmaster as well. Mrs. Field had to wait quite a while; but at last she had made her purchases, and was just stepping out the door, when a voice arrested her. "Mis' Field," it said.
She turned, and saw the postmaster coming toward her with a letter in his hand. The lounging men twisted about and stared lazily. The postmaster was a short, elderly man with shelving gray whiskers, and a wide, smiling mouth, which he was drawing down solemnly.
"Mis' Field, here's a letter I want you to look at; it come this mornin'," he said, in a low voice.
Mrs. Field took the letter. It was directed, in a fair round hand, to Mrs. Esther Maxwell; that had been her dead sister's name. She stood looking at it, her face drooping severely. "It was sent to my sister," said she.
"I s'posed so. Well, I thought I'd hand it to you."
Mrs. Field nodded gravely, and put the letter in her pocket. She was again passing out, when somebody nudged her heavily. It was Mrs. Green, a woman who lived in the next house beyond hers.
"Jest wait a minute," she said, "an' I'll go along with you."
So Mrs. Field stood back and waited, while her neighbor pushed forward to the counter. After a little she drew the letter from her pocket and studied the superscription. The post-mark was Elliot. She supposed the letter to be from her dead sister's father-in-law, who lived there.
"I may jest as well open it an' see what it is while I'm waitin'," she thought.
She tore open the envelope slowly and clumsily with her stiff fingers, and held up the letter so the light struck it. She could not read strange writing easily, and this was a nearly illegible scrawl. However, after the first few words, she seemed to absorb it by some higher faculty than reading. In a short time she had the gist of the letter. It was from a lawyer who signed himself Daniel Tuxbury. He stated formally that Thomas Maxwell was dead; that he had left a will greatly to Esther Maxwell's advantage, and that it would be advisable for her to come to Elliot at an early date if possible. Inclosed was a copy of the will. It was dated several years ago. All Thomas Maxwell's property was bequeathed without reserve to his son's widow, Esther Maxwell, should she survive him. In case of her decease before his own, the whole was to revert to his brother's daughter, Flora Maxwell.
Jane Field read the letter through twice, then she folded it, replaced it in the envelope, and stood erect by the store door. She could see Mrs. Green's broad shawled back among the customers at the calico counter. Once in a while she looked around with a beseeching and apologetic smile.
Mrs. Field thought, "I won't say a word to her about it." However, she was conscious of no evil motive; it was simply because she was naturally secretive. She looked pale and rigid.
Mrs. Green remarked it when she finally approached with her parcel of calico.
"Why, what's the matter, Mis' Field?" she exclaimed. "You ain't sick, be you?"
"Seems to me you look dreadful pale. It was too bad to keep you standin' there so long, but I couldn't get waited on before. I think Mr. Robbins had ought to have more help. It's too much for him with only two clerks, an' the post-office to tend, too. I see you got a letter." Mrs. Field nodded. The two women went down the steps into the street.
"How's Lois to-night?" Mrs. Green asked as they went along.
"I guess she's about as usual. She didn't say but what she was."
"She ain't left off her school, has she?"
"No," replied Mrs. Field, stiffly, "she ain't."
Suddenly Mrs. Green stopped and laid a heavy hand on Mrs. Field's arm. "Look here, Mis' Field, I dun'no' as you'll thank me for it, but I'm goin' to speak real plain to you, the way I'd thank anybody to if 'twas my Jenny. I'm dreadful afraid you don't realize how bad Lois is, Mis' Field."
"Mebbe I don't." Mrs. Field's voice sounded hard.
The other woman looked perplexedly at her for a moment, then she went on:
"Well, if you do, mebbe I hadn't ought to said anything; but I was dreadful afraid you didn't, an' then when you come to, perhaps when 'twas too late, you'd never forgive yourself. She hadn't ought to teach school another day, Mis' Field."
"I dun'no how it's goin' to be helped," Mrs. Field said again, in her hard voice.
"Mis' Field, I know it ain't any of my business, an' I don't know but you'll think I'm interferin'; but I can't help it nohow when I think of—my Abby, an' how—she went down. Ain't you got anybody that could help you a little while till she gets better an' able to work?"
"I dun'no' of anybody."
"Wouldn't your sister's husband's father? Ain't he got considerable property?"
Mrs. Field turned suddenly, her voice sharpened, "I've asked him all I'm ever goin' to—there! I let Esther's husband have fifteen hundred dollars that my poor husband saved out of his hard earnin's, an' he lost it in his business; an' after he died I wrote to his father, an' I told him about it. I thought mebbe he'd be willin' to be fair, an' pay his son's debts, if he didn't have much feelin'. There was Esther an' Lois an' me, an' not a cent to live on, an' Esther she was beginnin' to be feeble. But he jest sent me back my letter, an' he'd wrote on the back of it that he wa'n't responsible for any of his son's debts. I said then I'd never go to him agin, and I didn't; an' Esther didn't when she was sick an' dyin'; an' I never let him know when she died, an' I don't s'pose he knows she is dead to this day."
"Oh, Mis' Field, you didn't have to lose all that money!"
"Yes, I did, every dollar of it."
"I declare it's wicked."
"There's a good many things that's wicked, an' sometimes I think some things ain't wicked that we've always thought was. I don't know but the Lord meant everybody to have what belonged to them in spite of everything."
Mrs. Green stared. "I guess I don't know jest what you mean, Mis' Field."
"I meant everybody ought to have what's their just due, an' I believe the Lord will uphold them in it. I've about come to the conclusion that folks ought to lay hold of justice themselves if there ain't no other way, an' that's what we've got hands for." Suddenly Mrs. Field's manner changed. "I know Lois hadn't ought to be teachin' school as well as you do," said she. "I ain't said much about it, it ain't my way, but I've known it all the time."
"She'd ought to take a vacation, Mis' Field, an' get away from here for a spell. Folks say Green River ain't very healthy. They say these low meadow-lands are bad. I worried enough about it after my Abby died, thinkin' what might have been done. It does seem to me that if something was done right away, Lois might get up; but there ain't no use waitin'. I've seen young girls go down; it seems sometimes as if there wa'n't nothin' more to them than flowers, an' they fade away in a day. I've been all through it. Mis' Field, you don't mind my speakin' so, do you? Oh, Mis' Field, don't feel so bad! I'm real sorry I said anythin'."
Mrs. Field was shaking with great sobs. "I ain't—blamin' you," she said, brokenly.
Mrs. Green got out her own handkerchief. "Mis' Field, I wouldn't have spoken a word, but—I felt as if something ought to be done, if there could be; an'—I thought—so much about my—poor Abby. Lois always makes me think of her; she's jest about her build; an'—I didn't know as you—realized."
"I realized enough," returned Mrs. Field, catching her breath as she walked on.
"Now I hope you don't feel any worse because I spoke as I did," Mrs. Green said, when they reached the gate of the Pratt house.
"You ain't told me anything I didn't know," replied Mrs. Field.
Mrs. Green felt for one of her distorted hands; she held it a second, then she dropped it. Mrs. Field let it hang stiffly the while. It was a fervent demonstration to them, the evidence of unwonted excitement and the deepest feeling. When Mrs. Field entered her sitting-room, the first object that met her eyes was Lois' face. She was tilted back in the rocking-chair, her slender throat was exposed, her lips were slightly parted, and there was a glassy gleam between her half-open eyelids. Her mother stood looking at her.
Suddenly Lois opened her eyes wide and sat up. "What are you standing there looking at me so for, mother?" she said, in her weak, peevish voice.
"I ain't lookin' at you, child. I've jest come home from meetin'. I guess you've been asleep."
"I haven't been asleep a minute. I heard you open the outside door."
Mrs. Field's hand verged toward the letter in her pocket. Then she began untying her bonnet.
Lois arose, and lighted another lamp. "Well, I guess I'll go to bed," said she.
"Wait a minute," her mother returned.
Lois paused inquiringly.
"Never mind," her mother said, hastily. "You needn't stop. I can tell you jest as well to-morrow."
"What was it?"
"Nothin' of any account. Run along."
The next morning Lois had gone to her school and her mother had not yet shown the letter to her. She went about as usual, doing her housework slowly and vigorously. Mrs. Field's cleanliness was proverbial in this cleanly New England neighborhood. It almost amounted to asceticism; her rooms, when her work was finished, had the bareness and purity of a nun's cell. There was never any bloom of dust on Mrs. Field's furniture; there was only the hard, dull glitter of the wood. Her few chairs and tables looked as if waxed; the paint was polished in places from her doors and window-casings; her window-glass gave out green lights like jewels; and all this she did with infinite pains and slowness, as there was hardly a natural movement left in her rheumatic hands. But there was in her nature an element of stern activity that must have its outcome in some direction, and it took the one that it could find. Jane had used to take in sewing before her hands were diseased. In her youth she had learned the trade of a tailoress; when ready-made clothing, even for children, came into use, she made dresses. Her dresses had been long-waisted and stiffly boned, with high, straight biases, seemingly fitted to her own nature instead of her customers' forms; but they had been strongly and faithfully sewed, and her stitches held fast as the rivets on a coat of mail. Now she could not sew. She could knit, and that was all, besides her housework, that she could do.
This morning, while dusting a little triangular what-not that stood in a corner of her sitting-room, she came across a small box that held some old photographs. The box was made of a kind of stucco-work—shells held in place by a bed of putty. Amanda Pratt had made it and given it to her. Mrs. Field took up this box and dusted it carefully; then she opened it, and took out the photographs one by one.
After a while she stopped; she did not take out any more, but she looked intently at one; then she replaced all but that one, got painfully up from the low foot-stool where she had been sitting, and went out of her room across the entry to Amanda's, with the photograph in her hand.
Amanda sat at her usual window, sewing on her rug. The sunlight came in, and her shadow, set in a bright square, wavered on the floor; the clock out in the kitchen ticked. Amanda looked up when Mrs. Field entered. "Oh, it's you?" said she. "I wondered who was comin'. Set down, won't you?"
Mrs. Field went over to Amanda and held out the photograph. "I want to see if you can tell me who this is."
Amanda took the photograph and held it toward the light. She compressed her lips and wrinkled her forehead. "Why, it's you, of course—ain't it?"
Mrs. Field made no reply; she stood looking at her.
"Why, ain't it you?" Amanda asked, looking from the picture to her in a bewildered way.
"No; it's Esther."
"Yes, it's Esther."
"Well, I declare! When was it took?"
"About ten years ago, when she was in Elliot."
"Well, all I've got to say is, if anybody had asked me, I'd have said it was took for you yesterday. Why, Mis' Field, what's the matter?"
"There ain't anything the matter."
"Why, you look dreadfully."
Mrs. Field's face was pale, and there was a curious look about her whole figure. It seemed as if shrinking from something, twisting itself rigidly, as a fossil tree might shrink in a wind that could move it.
"I feel well 'nough," said she. "I guess it's the light."
"Well, mebbe 'tis," replied Amanda, still looking anxiously at her. "Of course you know if you feel well, but you do look dreadful white to me. Don't you want some water, or a swaller of cold tea?"
"No, I don't want a single thing; I'm well enough." Mrs. Field's tone was almost surly. She held out her hand for the photograph. "I must be goin'," she continued; "I ain't got my dustin' done. I jest come across this, an' I thought I'd show it to you, an' see what you said."
"Well, I shouldn't have dreamed but what it was yours; but then you an' your sister did look jest alike. I never could tell you apart when you first came here."
"Folks always said we looked alike. We always used to be took for each other when we was girls, an' I think we looked full as much alike after our hair begun to turn. Mine was a little lighter than hers, an' that made some difference betwixt us before. It didn't show when we was both gray."
"I shouldn't have thought 'twould. Well, I must say, I shouldn't dream but what that picture was meant for you."
Mrs. Field took her way out of the room.
"How's Lois this mornin'?" Amanda called after her.
"About the same, I guess."
"I saw her goin' out of the yard this mornin', an' I thought she walked dreadful weak."
"I guess she don't walk any too strong."
When Mrs. Field was in her own room she stowed away the photograph in the shell box; then she got a little broom and brushed the shell-work carefully; she thought it looked dusty in spite of her rubbing.
When the dusting was done it was time for her to get her dinner ready. Indeed, there was not much leisure for Mrs. Field all day. She seldom sat down for long at a time. From morning until night she kept up her stiff resolute march about her house.
At half-past twelve she had the dinner on the table, but Lois did not come. Her mother went into the sitting-room, sat down beside a window, and watched. The town clock struck one. Mrs. Field went outdoors and stood by the front gate, looking down the road. She saw a girl coming in the distance with a flutter of light skirts, and she exclaimed with gladness, "There she is!" The girl drew nearer, and she saw it was Ida Starr in a dress that looked like Lois'.
The girl stopped when she saw Mrs. Field at the gate. "Good-morning," said she.
"It's a beautiful day."
Mrs. Field did not reply; she gazed past her down the road, her face all one pale frown.
The girl looked curiously at her. "I hope Lois is pretty well this morning?" she said, in her amiable voice.
Mrs. Field responded with a harsh outburst that fairly made her start back.
"No," she cried out, "she ain't well; she's sick. She wa'n't fit to go to school. She couldn't hardly crawl out of the yard. She ain't got home, an' I'm terrible worried. I dun'no' but she's fell down."
"Maybe she just thought she wouldn't come home."
"No; that ain't it. She never did such a thing as that without saying something about it; she'd know I'd worry."
Mrs. Field craned her neck farther over the gate, and peered down the road. Beside the gate stood two tall bushes, all white with flowers that grew in long white racemes, and they framed her distressed face.
"Look here, Mrs. Field," said the girl, "I'll tell you what I'll do. The school-house isn't much beyond my house; I'll just run over there and see if there's anything the matter; then I'll come back right off, and let you know."
"Oh, will you?"
"Of course I will. Now don't you worry, Mrs. Field; I don't believe it's anything."
The girl nodded back at her with her pretty smile; then she sped away with a light tilting motion. Mrs. Field stood a few minutes longer, then she went up the steps into the house. She opened Amanda Pratt's door instead of her own, and went through the sitting-room to the kitchen, from whence she could hear the clink of dishes.
"Lois ain't got home yet," said she, standing in the doorway.
Amanda set down the dish she was wiping. "Mis' Field, what do you mean?"
"What I say."
"Ain't she got home yet?"
"No, she ain't."
"Why, it's half-past one o'clock! She ain't comin'; it's time for school to begin. Look here, Mis' Field, I guess she felt kind of tired, an' thought she wouldn't come."
Mrs. Field shook her head with a sort of remorselessness toward all comfort. "She's fell down."
"Oh, Mis' Field! you don't s'pose so?"
"The Starr girl's gone to find out."
Mrs. Field turned to go.
"Hadn't you better stay here till she comes?" asked Amanda, anxiously.
"No; I must go home." Suddenly Mrs. Field looked fiercely around. "I'll tell you what 'tis, Mandy Pratt, an' you mark my words! I ain't goin' to stan' this kind of work much longer! I ain't goin' to see all the child I've got in the world murdered; for that's what it is—it's murder!"
Mrs. Field went through the sitting-room with a stiff rush, and Amanda followed her.
"Oh, Mis' Field, don't take on so—don't!" she kept saying.
Mrs. Field went through the house into her own kitchen. The little white-laid table stood against the wall; the tea-kettle steamed and rocked on the stove; the room was full of savory odors. Mrs. Field set the tea-kettle back where it would not boil so hard. These little household duties had become to her almost as involuntary as the tick of her own pulses. No matter what hours of agony they told off, the pulses ticked; and in every stress of life she would set the tea-kettle back if it were necessary. Amanda stood in the door, trembling. All at once there was a swift roll of wheels in the yard past the window. "Somebody's come!" gasped Amanda. Mrs. Field rushed to the back door, and Amanda after her. There was a buggy drawn up close to the step, and a man was trying to lift Lois out.
Mrs. Field burst out in a great wail. "Oh, Lois! Lois! She's dead—she's dead!"
"No, she ain't dead," replied the man, in a drawling, jocular tone. "She's worth a dozen dead ones—ain't you, Lois? I found her layin' down side of the road kind of tuckered out, that's all, and I thought I'd give her a lift. Don't you be scared, Mis' Field. Now, Lois, you jest rest all your heft on me."
Lois' pale face and little reaching hands appeared around the wing of the buggy. Amanda ran around to the horse's head. He did not offer to start; but she stood there, and said, "Whoa, whoa," over and over, in a pleading, nervous voice. She was afraid to touch the bridle; she had a great terror of horses.
The man, who was Ida Starr's father, lifted Lois out, and carried her into the house. She struggled a little.
"I can walk," said she, in a weakly indignant voice.
Mr. Starr carried her into the sitting-room and laid her down on the sofa. She raised herself immediately, and sat up with a defiant air.
"Oh, dear child, do lay down," sobbed her mother.
She put her hand on Lois' shoulder and tried to force her gently backward, but the girl resisted.
"Don't, mother," said she. "I don't want to lie down."
Amanda had run into her own room for the camphor bottle. Now she leaned over Lois and put it to her nose. "Jest smell of this a little," she said. Lois pushed it away feebly.
"I guess Lois will have to take a little vacation," said Mr. Starr. "I guess I shall have to see about it, and let her have a little rest."
He was one of the school committee.
"I don't need any vacation," said Lois, in a peremptory tone.
"I guess we shall have to see about it," repeated Mr. Starr. There was an odd undertone of decision in his drawling voice. He was a large man, with a pleasant face full of double curves. "Good-day," said he, after a minute. "I guess I must be goin'."
"Good-day," said Lois. "I'm much obliged to you for bringing me home."
Amanda nodded politely when he withdrew, but Mrs. Field never looked at him. She stood with her eyes fixed upon Lois.
"What are you looking at me so for, mother?" said Lois, impatiently, turning her own face away.
Mrs. Field sank down on her knees before the sofa. "Oh, my child!" she wailed. "My child! my child!"
She threw her arms around the girl's slender waist, and clung to her convulsively. Lois cast a terrified glance up at Amanda.
"Does she think I ain't going to get well?" she asked, as if her mother were not present.
"Of course she don't," replied Amanda, with decision. She stooped and took hold of Mrs. Field's shoulders. "Now look here, Mis' Field," said she, "you ain't actin' like yourself. You're goin' to make Lois sick, if she ain't now, if you go on this way. You get up an' make her a cup of tea, an' get her somethin' to eat. Ten chances to one, that's all that ailed her. I don't believe she's eat enough to-day to keep a cat alive."
"I know all about it," moaned Mrs. Field. "It's jest what I expected. Oh, my child! my child! I have prayed an' done all I could, an' now it's come to this. I've got to give up. Oh, my child! my child!"
It was to this mother as though her daughter was not there, although she held her in her arms. She was in that abandon of grief which is the purest selfishness.
Amanda fairly pulled her to her feet. "Mis' Field, I'm ashamed of you!" said she, severely. "I should think you were beside yourself. Here's Lois better—"
"No, she ain't better. I know."
Mrs. Field straightened herself, and went out into the kitchen.
Lois looked again at Amanda, in a piteous, terrified fashion. "Oh," said she, "you don't think I'm so very sick, do you?"
"Very sick? No; of course you ain't. Your mother got dreadful nervous because you didn't come home. That's what made her act so. You look a good deal better than you did when you first came in."
"I feel better," said Lois. "I never saw mother act so in my life."
"She got all wrought up, waitin'. If I was you, I'd lay down a few minutes, jest on her account. I think it would make her feel easier."
"Well, I will, if you think I'd better; but there ain't a mite of need of it."
Lois laid her head down on the sofa arm.
"That's right," said Amanda. "You can jest lay there a little while. I'm goin' out to tell your mother to make you a cup of tea. That'll set you right up."
Amanda found Mrs. Field already making the tea. She measured it out carefully, and never looked around. Amanda stepped close to her.
"Mis' Field," she whispered, "I hope you wa'n't hurt by what I said. I meant it for the best."
"I sha'n't give way so again," said Mrs. Field. Her face had a curious determined expression.
"I hope you don't feel hurt?"
"No, I don't. I sha'n't give way so again." She poured the boiling water into the teapot, and set it on the stove.
Amanda looked at a covered dish on the stove hearth. "What was you goin' to have for dinner?" said she.
"Lamb broth. I'm goin' to heat up some for her. She didn't eat hardly a mouthful of breakfast."
"That's jest the thing for her. I'll get out the kettle and put it on to heat. I dun'no' of anything that gits cold any quicker than lamb broth, unless it's love."
Amanda put on a cheerful air as she helped Mrs. Field. Presently the two women carried in the little repast to Lois.
"She's asleep," whispered Amanda, who went first with the tea.
They stood looking at the young girl, stretched out her slender length, her white delicate profile showing against the black arm of the sofa.
Her mother caught her breath. "She's got to be waked up; she's got to have some nourishment, anyhow," said she. "Come, Lois, wake up, and have your dinner."
Lois opened her eyes. All the animation and defiance were gone from her face. She was so exhausted that she made no resistance to anything. She let them raise her, prop her up with a pillow, and nearly feed her with the dinner. Then she lay back, and her eyes closed.
Amanda went home, and Mrs. Field went back to the kitchen to put away the dinner dishes. She had eaten nothing herself, and now she poured some of the broth into a cup, and drank it down with great gulps without tasting it. It was simply filling of a necessity the lamp of life with oil.
After her housework was done, she sat down in the kitchen with her knitting. There was no sound from the other room.
The latter part of the afternoon Amanda came past the window and entered the back door. She carried a glass of foaming beer. Amanda was famous through the neighborhood for this beer, which she concocted from roots and herbs after an ancient recipe. It was pleasantly flavored with aromatic roots, and instinct with agreeable bitterness, being an innocently tonic old-maiden brew.
"I thought mebbe she'd like a glass of my beer," whispered Amanda. "I came round the house so's not to disturb her. How is she?"
"I guess she's asleep. I ain't heard a sound."
Amanda set the glass on the table. "Don't you think you'd ought to have a doctor, Mis' Field?" said she.
It seemed impossible that Lois could have heard, but her voice came shrilly from the other room: "No, I ain't going to have a doctor; there's no need of it. I sha'n't like it if you get one, mother."
"No, you sha'n't have one, dear child," her mother called back. "She was always jest so about havin' a doctor," she whispered to Amanda.
"I'll take in the beer if she's awake," said Amanda.
Lois looked up when she entered. "I don't want a doctor," said she, pitifully, rolling her blue eyes.
"Of course you sha'n't have a doctor if you don't want one," returned Amanda, soothingly. "I thought mebbe you'd like a glass of my beer."
Lois drank the beer eagerly, then she sank back and closed her eyes. "I'm going to get up in a minute, and sew on my dress," she murmured.
But she did not stir until her mother helped her to bed early in the evening.
The next day she seemed a little better. Luckily it was Saturday, so there was no worry about her school for her. She would not lie down, but sat in the rocking-chair with her needle-work in her lap. When any one came in, she took it up and sewed. Several of the neighbors had heard she was ill, and came to inquire. She told them, with a defiant air, that she was very well, and they looked shocked and nonplussed. Some of them beckoned her mother out into the entry when they took leave, and Lois heard them whispering together.
The next day, Sunday, Lois seemed about the same. She said once that she was going to church, but she did not speak of it again. Mrs. Field went. She suggested staying at home, but Lois was indignant.
"Stay at home with me, no sicker than I am! I should think you were crazy, mother," said she.
So Mrs. Field got out her Sunday clothes and went to meeting. As soon as she had gone, Lois coughed; she had been choking the cough back. She stood at the window, well back that people might not see her, and watched her mother pass down the street with her stiff glide. Mrs. Field's back and shoulders were rigidly steady when she walked; she might have carried a jar of water on her head without spilling it, like an Indian woman. Lois, small and slight although she was, walked like her mother. She held herself with the same resolute stateliness, when she could hold herself at all. The two women might, as far as their carriage went, have marched in a battalion with propriety.
Lois felt a certain relief when her mother had gone. Even when Mrs. Field made no expression of anxiety, there was a covert distress about her which seemed to enervate the atmosphere, and hinder the girl in the fight she was making against her own weakness. Lois had a feeling that if nobody would look at her nor speak about her illness, she could get well quickly of herself.
As for Mrs. Field, she was no longer eager to attend meeting; she went rather than annoy Lois. She was present at both the morning and afternoon services. They still had two services in Green River.
Jane Field, sitting in her place in church through the long sermons, had a mental experience that was wholly new to her. She looked at the white walls of the audience-room, the pulpit, the carpet, the pews. She noted the familiar faces of the people in their Sunday gear, the green light stealing through the long blinds, and all these accustomed sights gave her a sense of awful strangeness and separation. And this impression did not leave her when she was out on the street mingling with the homeward people; every greeting of an old neighbor strengthened it. She regarded the peaceful village houses with their yards full of new green grass and flowering bushes, and they seemed to have a receding dimness as she neared some awful shore. Even the click of her own gate as she opened it, the sound of her own feet on the path, the feel of the door-latch to her hand—all the little common belongings of her daily life were turned into so many stationary landmarks to prove her own retrogression and fill her with horror.
To-day, when people inquired for Lois, her mother no longer gave her customary replies. She said openly that her daughter was real miserable, and she was worried about her.
"I guess she's beginning to realize it," the women whispered to each other with a kind of pitying triumph. For there is a certain aggravation in our friends' not owning to even those facts which we deplore for them. It is provoking to have an object of pity balk. Mrs. Field's assumption that her daughter was not ill had half incensed her sympathizing neighbors; even Amanda had marvelled indignantly at it. But now the sudden change in her friend caused her to marvel still more. She felt a vague fear every time she thought of her. After Lois had gone to bed that Sunday night, her mother came into Amanda's room, and the two women sat together in the dusk. It was so warm that Amanda had set all the windows open, and the room was full of the hollow gurgling of the frogs—there was some low meadow-land behind the house.
"I want to know what you think of Lois?" said Mrs. Field, suddenly; her voice was high and harsh.
"Why, I don't know, hardly, Mis' Field."
"Well, I know. She's runnin' down. She won't ever be any better, unless I can do something. She's dyin' for the want of a little money, so she can stop work an' go away to some healthier place an' rest. She is; the Lord knows she is." Mrs. Field's voice was solemn, almost oratorical.
Amanda sat still; her long face looked pallid and quite unmoved in the low light; she was thinking what she could say.
But Mrs. Field went on; she was herself so excited to speech and action, the outward tendency of her own nature was so strong, that she failed to notice the course of another's. "She is," she repeated, argumentatively, as if Amanda had spoken, or she was acute enough to hear the voice behind silence; "there ain't any use talkin'."
There was a pause, a soft wind came into the room, the noise of the frogs grew louder, a whippoorwill called; it seemed as if the wide night were flowing in at the windows.
"What I want to know is," said Mrs. Field, "if you will take Lois in here to meals, an' look after her a week or two. Be you willin' to?"
"You ain't goin' away, Mis' Field?" There was a slow and contained surprise in Amanda's tone.
"Yes, I be; to-morrow mornin', if I live, on the early train. I be, if you're willin' to take Lois. I don't see how I can leave her any other way as she is now. You sha'n't be any loser by it, if you'll take her."
"Where be you goin', Mis' Field?"
"I don't want you to say anything about it. I don't want it all over town."
"I sha'n't say anything."
"Well, I'm goin' down to Elliot."
"Yes, I be. Old Mr. Maxwell's dead. I had a letter a night or two ago."
Amanda gasped, "He's dead?"
"What was the matter, do you know?"
"They called it paralysis. It was sudden."
Amanda hesitated. "I s'pose—you know anything about—his property?" said she.
"Yes; he left it all to my sister."
"Why, Mis' Field!"
"Yes; he left every cent of it to her."
"Oh, ain't it dreadful she's dead?"
"It's all been dreadful right along," said Mrs. Field.
"Of course," said Amanda, "I know she's better off than she'd be with all the money in the world; it ain't that; but it would do so much good to the livin'. Why, look here, Mis' Field, I dun'no' anything about law, but won't you have it if your sister's dead?"
"I'm goin' down there."
"It seems as if you'd ought to have somethin' anyway, after all you've done, lettin' his son have your money an' everything."
Amanda spoke with stern warmth. She had known about this grievance of her neighbor's for a long time.
"I'm goin' down there," repeated Mrs. Field.
"I would," said Amanda.
"I hate to leave Lois," said Mrs. Field; "but I don't see any other way."
"I'll take her," said Amanda, "if you're willin' to trust her with me."
"I've got to," replied Mrs. Field.
"Well, I'll do the best I can," replied Amanda.
She was considerably shaken. She felt her knees tremble. It was as if she were working a new tidy or rug pattern. Any variation of her peaceful monotony of existence jarred her whole nature like heavy wheels, and this was a startling one.
She wondered how Mrs. Field could bring herself to leave Lois. It seemed to her that she must have hopes of all the old man's property.
After Mrs. Field had gone home, and she, primly comfortable in her starched and ruffled dimities, lay on her high feather-bed between her smooth sheets, she settled it in her own mind that her neighbor would certainly have the property. She wondered if she and Lois would go to Elliot to live, and who would live in her tenement. The change was hard for her to contemplate, and she wept a little. Many a happiness comes to its object with outriders of sorrows to others.
Poor Amanda bemoaned herself over the changes that might come to her little home, and planned nervously her manner of living with Lois during the next week. Amanda had lived entirely alone for over twenty years; this admitting another to her own territory seemed as grave a matter to her as the admission of foreigners did to Japan. Indeed, all her kind were in a certain way foreigners to Amanda; and she was shy of them, she had so withdrawn herself by her solitary life, for solitariness is the farthest country of them all.
Amanda did not sleep much, and it was very early in the morning—she was standing before the kitchen looking-glass, twisting the rosettes of her front hair—when Mrs. Field came in to say good-by. Mrs. Field was gaunt and erect in her straight black clothes. She had her black veil tied over her bonnet to protect it from dust, and the black frame around her strong-featured face gave her a rigid, relentless look, like a female Jesuit. Lois came faltering behind her mother. She had a bewildered air, and she looked from her mother to Amanda with appealing significance, but she did not speak.
"Well, I've come to say good-by," said Mrs. Field.
Amanda had one side of her front hair between her lips while she twisted the other; she took it out. "Good-by, Mis' Field," she said. "I'll do the best I can for Lois. How soon do you s'pose you'll be back?"
"It's accordin' to how I get along. I've been tellin' Lois she ain't goin' to school to-day. She's afraid Mr. Starr will put Ida in if she don't; but there ain't no need of her worryin'; mebbe a way will be opened. I want you to lookout she don't go. There ain't no need of it."
"I'll do the best I can," said Amanda, with a doubtful glance at Lois.
Lois said nothing, but her pale little mouth contracted obstinately. She and Amanda followed her mother to the door. The departing woman said good-by, and went down the steps over the terraces. She never looked back. She went on out the gate, and turned into the long road. She had a mile walk to the railroad station.
Amanda and Lois went back into the sitting-room.
"When did she tell you she was going?" Lois asked suddenly.
"She didn't tell me till this morning."
Lois held her head high, but her eyes were surprised and pitiful, and the corners of her mouth drooped. She faced about to the window with a haughty motion, and watched her mother out of sight, a gaunt, dark old figure disappearing under low green elm branches.
It was many years since Mrs. Field had taken any but the most trivial journeys. Elliot was a hundred and twenty miles away. She must go to Boston; then cross the city to the other depot, where she would take the Elliot train. This elderly unsophisticated woman might very reasonably have been terrified at the idea of taking this journey alone, but she was not. She never thought of it.
The latter half of the road to the Green River station lay through an unsettled district. There were acres of low birch woods and lusty meadow-lands. This morning they were covered with a gold-green dazzle of leaves. To one looking across them, they almost seemed played over by little green flames; now and then a young birch tree stood away from the others, and shone by itself like a very torch of spring. Mrs. Field walked steadily through it. She had never paused to take much thought of the beauty of nature; to-day a tree all alive and twinkling with leaves might, for all her notice, have been naked and stiff with frost.
She did not seem to walk fast, but her long steps carried her over the ground well. It was long before train-time when she came in sight of the little station with its projecting piazza roofs. She entered the ladies' room and bought her ticket, then she sat down and waited. There were two other women there—middle-aged countrywomen in awkward wool gowns and flat straw bonnets, with a certain repressed excitement in their homely faces. They were setting their large, faithful, cloth-gaitered feet a little outside their daily ruts, and going to visit some relatives in a neighboring town; they were almost overcome by the unusualness of it.
Jane Field was a woman after their kind, and the look on their faces had its grand multiple in the look on hers. She had not only stepped out of her rut, but she was going out of sight of it forever.
She sat there stiff and silent, her two feet braced against the floor, ready to lift her at the signal of the train, her black leather bag grasped firmly in her right hand.
The two women eyed her furtively. One nudged the other. "Know who that is?" she whispered. But neither of them knew. They were from the adjoining town, which this railroad served as well as Green River.
Sometimes Mrs. Field looked at them, but with no speculation; the next moment she looked in the same way upon the belongings of the little country depot—the battered yellow settees, the time-tables, the long stove in its tract of littered sawdust, the man's face in the window of the ticket-office.
"Dreadful cross-lookin', ain't she?" one of the women whispered in the other's ear.
Jane heard the whisper, and looked at them. The women gave each other violent pokes, they reddened and tittered nervously, then they tried to look out of the window with an innocent and absent air. But they need not have been troubled. Jane, although she heard the whisper perfectly, did not connect it with herself at all. She never thought much about her own appearance; this morning she had as little vanity as though she were dead.
When the whistle of the train sounded, the women all pushed anxiously out on the platform.
"Is this the train that goes to Boston?" Mrs. Field asked one of the other two.
"I s'pose so," she replied, with a reciprocative flutter. "I'm goin' to ask so's to be sure. I'm goin' to Dale."
"I always ask," her friend remarked, with decision.
When the train stopped, Mrs. Field inquired of a brakeman. She was hardly satisfied with his affirmative answer. "Are you the conductor?" said she, sternly peering.
The young fellow gave a hurried wave of his hand toward the conductor, "There he is, ma'am."
Mrs. Field asked him also, then she hoisted herself into the car. When she had taken her seat, she put the same question to a woman in front of her.
It was a five-hours' ride to Boston. Mrs. Field sat all the while in her place with her bag in her lap, and never stirred. There was a look of rigid preparation about her, as if all her muscles were strained for an instant leap.
Two young girls in an opposite seat noticed her and tittered. They had considerable merriment over her, twisting their pretty silly faces, and rolling their blue eyes in her direction, and then averting them with soft repressed chuckles.
Occasionally Mrs. Field looked over at them, thought of her Lois, and noted their merriment gravely. She never dreamed that they were laughing at her. If she had, she would not have considered it twice.
It was four o'clock when Mrs. Field arrived in Boston. She had been in the city but once before, when she was a young girl. Still she set out with no hesitation to walk across the city to the depot where she must take the cars for Elliot. She could not afford a carriage, and she would not trust herself in a street car. She knew her own head and her old muscles; she could allow for their limitations, and preferred to rely upon them.
Every few steps she stopped and asked a question as to her route, listening sharply to the reply. Then she went straight enough, speeding between the informers like guide-posts. This old provincial threaded the city streets as unappreciatively as she had that morning the country one. Once in a while the magnificence of some shop window, a dark flash of jet, or a flutter of lace on a woman's dress caught her eye, but she did not see it. She had nothing in common with anything of that kind; she had to do with the primal facts of life. Coming as she was out of the country quiet, she was quite unmoved by the thundering rush of the city streets. She might have been deaf and blind for all the impression it had upon her. Her own nature had grown so intense that it apparently had emanations, and surrounded her with an atmosphere of her own impenetrable to the world.
It was nearly five o'clock when she reached her station, and the train was ready. It was half-past five when she arrived in Elliot. She got off the train and stalked, as if with a definite object, around the depot platform. She did not for one second hesitate or falter. She went up to a man who was loading some trunks on a wagon, and asked him to direct her to Lawyer Tuxbury's office. Her voice was so abrupt and harsh that the man started.
"Cross the track, an' go up the street till you come to it, on the right-hand side," he answered. Then he stared curiously after her as she went on.
Lawyer Tuxbury's small neat sign was fastened upon the door of the L of a large white house. There was a green yard, and some newly started flower-beds. In one there was a clump of yellow daffodils. Two yellow-haired little girls were playing out in the yard. They both stood still, staring with large, wary blue eyes at Mrs. Field as she came up the path. She never glanced toward them.
She stood like a black-draped statue before the office door, and knocked. Nobody answered.
She knocked again louder. Then a voice responded "Come in." Mrs. Field turned the knob carefully, and opened the door. It led directly into the room. There was a dull oil-cloth carpet, some beetling cases of heavy books, a few old arm-chairs, and one battered leather easy-chair. A great desk stood against the farther wall, and a man was seated at it, with his back toward the door. He had white hair, to which the sunlight coming through the west window gave a red-gold tinge.
Mrs. Field stood still, just inside the door. Apart from anything else, the room itself had a certain awe-inspiring quality for her. She had never before been in a lawyer's office. She was fully possessed with the rural and feminine ignorance and holy fear of all legal appurtenances. From all her traditions, this office door should have displayed a grinning man or woman trap, which she must warily shun.
She eyed the dusty oil-cloth—the files of black books—the chairs—the man at the desk, with his gilded white head. He wrote on steadily, and never stirred for a minute. Then he again sang out, sharply, "Come in."
He was deaf, and had, along with his insensibility to sounds, that occasional abnormal perception of them which the deaf seem sometimes to possess. He often heard sounds when none were recognizable to other people.
Now, evidently having perceived no result from his first response, he had heard this second knock, which did not exist except in his own supposition and the waiting woman's intent. She had, indeed, just at this point said to herself that she would slip out and knock again if he did not look around. She had not the courage to speak. It was almost as if the deaf lawyer, piecing out his defective ears with a subtler perception, had actually become aware of her intention, which had thundered upon him like the knock itself.
Mrs. Field made an inarticulate response, and took a grating step forward. The old man turned suddenly and saw her. She stood back again; there was a shrinking stiffness about her attitude, but she looked him full in the face.
"Why, good-day!" he exclaimed. "Good-day, madam. I didn't hear you come in."
Mrs. Field murmured a good-day in return.
"Take a seat, madam." The lawyer had risen, and was advancing toward her. He was a small, sharp-eyed man, whose youthful agility had crystallized into a nervous pomposity. Suddenly he stopped short; he had passed a broad slant of dusty sunlight which had lain between him and his visitor, and he could see her face plainly. His own elongated for a second, his under jaw lopped, and his brows contracted. Then he stepped forward. "Why, Mrs. Maxwell!" said he; "how do you do?"
"I'm pretty well, thank you," replied Mrs. Field. She tried to bow, but her back would not bend.
"I am delighted to see you," said the lawyer. "I recognize you perfectly now. I should have before, if the sun had not been in my eyes. I never forget a face."
He took her by the hand, and shook it up and down effusively. Then he pushed forward the leather easy-chair with gracious insinuation. Mrs. Field sat down, bolt-upright, on the extreme verge of it.
The lawyer drew a chair to her side, seated himself, leaned forward until his face fronted hers, and talked. His manner was florid, almost bombastic. He had a fashion of working his face a good deal when he talked. He conversed quite rapidly and fluently, but was wont to interlard his conversation with what seemed majestically reflective pauses, during which he leaned back in his chair and tapped the arm slowly. In fact his flow of ideas failed him for a moment, his mind being so constituted that they came in rapid and temporary bursts, geyser fashion. He inquired when Mrs. Field arrived, was kindly circumstantial as to her health, touched decorously but not too mournfully upon the late Thomas Maxwell's illness and decease. He alluded to the letter which he had written her, mentioning as a singular coincidence that at the moment of her entrance he was engaged in writing another to her, to inquire if the former had been received.
He spoke in terms of congratulation of the property to which she had fallen heir, and intimated that further discussion concerning it, as a matter of business, had better be postponed until morning. Daniel Tuxbury was very methodical in his care for himself, and was loath to attend to any business after six o'clock.
Mrs. Field sat like a bolt of iron while the lawyer talked to her. Unless a direct question demanded it, she never spoke herself. But he did not seem to notice it; he had enough garnered-in complacency to delight himself, as a bee with its own honey. He rarely realized it when another person did not talk.
After one of his pauses, he sprang up with alacrity. "Mrs. Maxwell, will you be so kind as to excuse me for a moment?" said he, and went out of the office with a fussy hitch, as if he wore invisible petticoats. Mrs. Field heard his voice in the yard.
When he returned there was an old lady following in his wake. Mrs. Field saw her before he did. She came with a whispering of silk, but his deaf ears did not perceive that. He did not notice her at all until he had entered the office, then he saw Mrs. Field looking past him at the door, and turned himself.
He went toward her with a little flourish of words, but the old lady ignored him entirely. She held up her chin with a kind of ancient pertness, and eyed Mrs. Field. She was a small, straight-backed woman, full of nervous vibrations. She stood apparently still, but her black silk whispered all the time, and loose ends of black ribbon trembled. The black silk had an air of old gentility about it, but it was very shiny; there were many bows, but the ribbons were limp, having been pressed and dyed. Her face, yellow and deeply wrinkled, but sharply vivacious, was overtopped by a bunch of purple flowers in a nest of rusty black lace and velvet.
So far Mrs. Field had maintained a certain strained composure, but now her long, stern face began flushing beneath this old lady's gaze.
"I conclude you know this lady," said the lawyer, with a blandly facetious air to the new-comer.
At that she stepped forward promptly, with a jerk as if to throw off her irresolution, and a certain consternation. "Yes, I s'pose I do," said she, in a voice like a shrill high chirp. "It's Mis' Maxwell, ain't it—Edward's wife? How do you do, Esther? I hadn't seen you for so long, I wasn't quite sure, but I see who you are now. How do you do?"
"I'm pretty well, thank you," said Mrs. Field, with a struggle, putting her twisted hand into the other woman's, extended quiveringly in a rusty black glove.
"When did you come to town, Esther?"
"Let me see, where from? I can't seem to remember the name of the place where you've been livin'. I know it, too."
"Oh, yes, Green River. Well, I'm glad to see you, Esther. You ain't changed much, come to look at you; not so much as I have, I s'pose. I don't expect you'd know me, would you?"
"I—don't know as I would." Mrs. Field recoiled from a lie even in the midst of falsehood.
The old lady's face contracted a little, but she could spring above her emotions. "Well, I don't s'pose you would, either," responded she, with fine alacrity. "I've grown old and wrinkled and yellow, though I ain't gray," with a swift glance at Mrs. Field's smooth curves of white hair. "You turned gray pretty young, didn't you, Esther?"
"Yes, I did."
The old lady's front hair hung in dark-brown spirals, a little bunch of them against either cheek, outside her bonnet. She set them dancing with a little dip of her head when she spoke again. "I thought you did," said she. "Well, you're comin' over to my house, ain't you, Esther? You'll find a good many changes there. My daughter Flora and I are all that's left now, you know, I s'pose."
Mrs. Field moved her head uncertainly. This old woman, with her straight demands for truth or falsehood, was torture to her.
"I suppose you'll come right over with me pretty soon," the old lady went on. "I don't want to hurry you in your business with Mr. Tuxbury, but I suppose my nephew will be home, and—"
"I'm jest as much obliged to you, but I guess I'd better not. I've made some other plans," said Mrs. Field.
"Oh, we are going to keep Mrs. Maxwell with us to-night," interposed the lawyer. He had stood by smilingly while the two women talked.
"I'm jest as much obliged, but I guess I'd better not," repeated Mrs. Field, looking at both of them.
The old lady straightened herself in her flimsy silk draperies. "Well, of course, if you've got other plans made, I ain't goin' to urge you, Esther," said she; "but any time you feel disposed to come, you'll be welcome. Good-evenin', Esther. Good-evenin', Mr. Tuxbury." She turned with a rustling bob, and was out the door.
The lawyer pressed forward hurriedly. "Why, Mrs. Maxwell, weren't you coming in? Isn't there something I can do for you?" said he.
"No, thank you," replied the old lady, shortly. "I've got to go home; it's my tea-time. I was goin' by, and I thought I'd jest look in a minute; that was all. It wa'n't anything. Good-evenin'." She was half down the walk before she finished speaking. She never looked around.
The lawyer turned to Mrs. Field. "Mrs. Henry Maxwell was not any too much please to see you sitting here," he whispered, with a confidential smile. "She wouldn't say anything; she's as proud as Lucifer; but she was considerably taken aback."
Mrs. Field nodded. She felt numb. She had not understood who this other woman was. She knew now—the mother of the young woman who was the rightful heir to Thomas Maxwell's property.
"The old lady has been pretty anxious," Mr. Tuxbury went on. "She's been in here a good many times—made excuses to come in and see if I had any news. She has been twice as much concerned as her daughter about it. Well, she has had a pretty hard time. That branch of the family lost a good deal of property."
Mrs. Field rose abruptly. "I guess I'd better be goin'," said she. "It must be your tea-time. I'll come in again to-morrow."
The lawyer put up his hand deprecatingly. "Mrs. Maxwell, you will, of course, stay and take tea with us, and remain with us to-night."
"I'm jest as much obliged to you for invitin' me, but I guess I'd better be goin'."
"My sister is expecting you. You remember my sister, Mrs. Lowe. I've just sent word to her. You had better come right over to the house with me now, and to-morrow morning we can attend to business. You must be fatigued with your journey."
"I'm real sorry if your sister's put herself out, but I guess I'd better not stay."
The lawyer turned his ear interrogatively. "I beg your pardon, but I didn't quite understand. You think you can't stay?"
"I'm—much obliged to your sister an' you for invitin' me, but—I guess—I'd better—not."
"Why—but—Mrs. Maxwell! Just be seated again for a moment, and let me speak to my sister; perhaps she—"
"I'm jest as much obliged to her, but I feel as if I'd better be goin'." Mrs. Field stood before him, mildly unyielding. She seemed to waver toward his will, but all the time she abided toughly in her own self like a willow bough. "But, Mrs. Maxwell, what can you do?" said the lawyer, his manner full of perplexity, and impatience thinly veiled by courtesy. "The hotel here is not very desirable, and—"
"Can't I go right up to—the house?"
"The Maxwell house?"
"Yes, sir; if there ain't anything to hinder."
Mr. Tuxbury stared at her. "Why, I don't know that there is really anything to hinder," he said, slowly. "Although it is rather— No, I don't know as there is any actual objection to your going. I suppose the house belongs to you. But it is shut up. I think you would find it much pleasanter here, Mrs. Maxwell." His eyebrows were raised, his mouth pursed up.
"I guess I'd better go, if I can jest as well as not; if I can get into the house." Mrs. Field spoke with deprecating persistency.
Mr. Tuxbury turned abruptly toward his desk, and began fumbling in a drawer. She stood hesitatingly watchful. "If you would jest tell me where I'd find the key," she ventured to remark. She had a vague idea that she would be told to look under a parlor blind for the key, that being the innocent country hiding-place when the house was left alone.
"I have the key, and I will go to the house with you myself directly."
"I hate to make you so much trouble. I guess I could find it myself, if—"
"I will be ready immediately, Mrs. Maxwell," said the lawyer, in a smoothly conclusive voice which abashed her.
She stood silently by the door until he was ready. He took her black bag peremptorily, and they went side by side down the street. He held his head well back, his lips were still tightly pursed, and he swung his cane with asperity. His important and irascible nature was oddly disturbed by this awkwardly obstinate old woman stalking at his side in her black clothes. Feminine opposition, even in slight matters, was wont to aggravate him, but in no such degree as this. He found it hard to recover his usual courtesy of manner, and indeed scarcely spoke a word during the walk. He could not himself understand his discomposure. But Mrs. Field did not seem to notice. She walked on, with her stern, impassive old face set straight ahead. Once they met a young girl who made her think of Lois, her floating draperies brushed against her black gown, for a second there was a pale, innocent little face looking up into her own.
It was not a very long walk to the Maxwell house.
"Here we are," said the lawyer, coldly, and unlatched a gate, and held it open with stiff courtesy for his companion to pass.
They proceeded in silence up the long curve of walk which led to the front door. The walk was brown and slippery with pine needles. Tall old pine trees stood in groups about the yard. There were also elm and horse-chestnut trees. The horse-chestnuts were in blossom, holding up their white bouquets, which showed dimly. It was now quite dusky.
Back of the trees the house loomed up. It was white and bulky, with fluted cornices and corner posts, and a pillared porch to the front door. Mrs. Field passed between the two outstanding pillars, which reared themselves whitely over her, like ghostly sentries, and stood waiting while Mr. Tuxbury fitted the key to the lock.
It took quite a little time; he could not see very well, he had forgotten his spectacles in his impatient departure. But at last he jerked open the door, and a strange conglomerate odor, the very breath of the life of the old Maxwell house, steamed out in their faces.
All bridal and funeral feasts, all daily food, all garments which had hung in the closets and rustled through the rooms, every piece of furniture, every carpet and hanging had a part in it.
The rank and bitter emanations of life, as well as spices and sweet herbs and delicate perfumes, went to make up the breath which smote one in the face upon the opening of the door. Still it was not a disagreeable, but rather a suggestive and poetical odor, which should affect one like a reminiscent dream. However, the village people sniffed at it, and said "How musty that old house is!"
That was what Daniel Tuxbury said now. "The house is musty," he remarked, with stately nose in the air.
Mrs. Field made no response. She stepped inside at once. "I'm much obliged to you," said she.
The lawyer looked at her, then past her into the dark depths of the house. "You can't see," said he, "you must let me go in with you and get a light." He spoke in a tone of short politeness. He was in his heart utterly out of patience with this strange, stiff old woman.
"I guess I can find one. I hate to make you so much trouble."
Mr. Tuxbury stepped forward with decision, and began fumbling in his pocket for a match. "Of course you cannot find one in the dark, Mrs. Maxwell," said he, with open exasperation.
She said nothing more, but stood meekly in the hall until a light flared out from a room on the left. The lawyer had found a lamp, he was himself somewhat familiar with the surroundings, but on the way to it he stumbled over a chair with an exclamation. It sounded like an oath to Mrs. Field, but she thought she must be mistaken. She had never in her life heard many oaths, and when she did had never been able to believe her ears.
"I hope you didn't hurt you," said she, deprecatingly, stepping forward.
"I am not hurt, thank you." But the twinge in the lawyer's ankle was confirming his resolution to say nothing more to her on the subject of his regret and unwillingness that she should choose to refuse his hospitality, and spend such a lonely and uncomfortable night. "I won't say another word to her about it," he declared to himself. So he simply made arrangements with her for a meeting at his office the next morning to attend to the business for which there had been no time to-night, and took his leave.
"I never saw such a woman," was his conclusion of the story, which he related to his sister upon his return home. His sister was a widow, and just then her married daughter and two children were visiting her.
"I wish you'd let me know she wa'n't comin'," said she. "I cut the fruit cake an' opened a jar of peach, an' I've put clean sheets on the front chamber bed. It's made considerable work for nothin'." She eyed, as she spoke, the two children, who were happily eating the peach preserve. She and her brother were both quite well-to-do, but she had a parsimonious turn.
"I'd like to know what she'll have for supper," she remarked further.
"I didn't ask her," said the lawyer, dryly, taking a sip of his sauce. He was rather glad of the peach himself.
"I shouldn't think she'd sleep a wink, all alone in that great old house. I know I shouldn't," observed the children's mother. She was a fair, fleshy, quite pretty young woman.
"That woman would sleep on a tomb-stone if she set out to," said the lawyer. His speech, when alone with his own household, was more forcible and not so well regulated. Indeed, he did not come of a polished family; he was the only educated one among them. His sister, Mrs. Low, regarded him with all the deference and respect which her own decided and self-sufficient character could admit of, and often sounded his praises in her unrestrained New England dialect.
"She seemed like a real set kind of a woman, then?" said she now.
"Set is no name for it," replied her brother.
"Well, if that's so, I guess old Mr. Maxwell wa'n't so far wrong when he didn't have her down here before," she remarked, with a judicial air. Her spectacles glittered, and her harsh, florid face bent severely over the sugar-bowl and the cups and saucers.
The lamp-light was mellow in the neat, homely dining-room, and there was a soft aroma of boiling tea all about. The pink and white children ate their peach sauce in happy silence, with their pretty eyes upon the prospective cake.
"I suppose there must be some bed made up in all that big house," remarked their mother; "but it must be awful lonesome."
Of the awful lonesomeness of it truly, this smiling, comfortable young soul had no conception. At that moment, while they were drinking their tea and talking her over, Jane Field sat bolt-upright in one of the old flag-bottomed chairs in the Maxwell sitting-room. She had dropped into it when the lawyer closed the door after him, and she never stirred afterward. She sat there all night.
The oil was low in the lamp which the lawyer had lighted, and left standing on the table between the windows. She could see distinctly for a while the stately pieces of old furniture standing in their places against the walls. Just opposite where she sat was one of lustreless old mahogany, extending the width of the wall between two doors, rearing itself upon slender legs, set with multitudinous drawers, and surmounted by a clock. A piece of furniture for which she knew no name, an evidence of long-established wealth and old-fashioned luxury, of which she and her plain folk, with their secretaries and desks and bureaus, had known nothing. The clock had stopped at three o'clock. Mrs. Field thought to herself that it might have been the hour on which old Mr. Maxwell died, reflecting that souls were more apt to pass away in the wane of the night. She would have like to wind the clock, and set the hands moving past that ghostly hour, but she did not dare to stir. She gazed at the large, dull figures sprawling over the old carpet, at the glimmering satiny scrolls on the wall-paper. On the mantel-shelf stood a branching gilt candlestick, filled with colored candles, and strung around with prisms, which glittered feebly in the low lamp-light. There was a bulging, sheet-iron wood stove—the Maxwells had always eschewed coal; beside it lay a little pile of sticks, brought in after the chill of death had come over the house. There were a few old engravings—a head of Washington, the Landing of the Pilgrims, the Webster death-bed scene, and one full-length portrait of the old statesman, standing majestically, scroll in hand, in a black frame.
As the oil burned low, the indistinct figures upon the carpet and wall-paper grew more indistinct, the brilliant colors of the prisms turned white, and the fine black and white lights in the death-bed picture ran together.
Finally the lamp went out. Mrs. Field had spied matches over on the shelf, but she did not dare to rise to cross the room to get them and find another lamp. She did not dare to stir.
After her light went out, there was still a pale glimmer upon the opposite wall, and the white face of the silent clock showed out above the cumbersome shadow of the great mahogany piece. The glimmer came from a neighbor's lamp shining through a gap in the trees. Soon that also went out, and the old woman sat there in total darkness.
She folded her hands primly, and held up her bonneted head in the darkness, like some decorous and formal caller who might expect at any moment to hear the soft, heavy step of the host upon the creaking stair and his voice in the room. She sat there so all night.
Gradually this steady-headed, unimaginative old woman became possessed by a legion of morbid fancies, which played like wild fire over the terrible main fact of the case—the fact that underlay everything—that she had sinned, that she had gone over from good to evil, and given up her soul for a handful of gold. Many a time in the night, voices which her straining fancy threw out, after the manner of ventriloquism, from her own brain, seemed actually to vibrate through the house, footsteps pattered, and garments rustled. Often the phantom noises would swell to a very pandemonium surging upon her ears; but she sat there rigid and resolute in the midst of it, her pale old face sharpening out into the darkness. She sat there, and never stirred until morning broke.
When it was fairly light, she got up, took off her bonnet and shawl, and found her way into the kitchen. She washed her face and hands at the sink, and went deliberately to work getting herself some breakfast. She had a little of her yesterday's lunch left; she kindled a fire, and made a cup of tea. She found some in a caddy in the pantry. She set out her meal on the table and drew a chair before it. She had wound up the kitchen clock, and she listened to its tick while she ate. She took time, and finished her slight repast to the last crumb. Then she washed the dishes, and swept and tidied the kitchen.
When that was done it was still too early for her to go to the lawyer's office. She sat down at an open kitchen window and folded her hands. Outside was a broad, green yard, inclosed on two sides by the Maxwell house and barn. A drive-way led to the barn, and on the farther side a row of apple-trees stood. There was a fresh wind blowing, and the apple blossoms were floating about. The drive was quite white with them in places, and they were half impaled upon the sharp green blades of grass.
Over through the trees Mrs. Field could see the white top of a market wagon in a neighboring yard, and the pink dress of a woman who stood beside it trading. She watched them with a dull wonder. What had she now to do with market wagons and daily meals and housewifely matters? That fair-haired woman in the pink dress seemed to her like a woman of another planet.
This narrow-lived old country woman could not consciously moralize. She was no philosopher, but she felt, without putting it into thoughts, as if she had descended far below the surface of all things, and found out that good and evil were the root and the life of them, and the outside leaves and froth and flowers were fathoms away, and no longer to be considered.
At ten o'clock she put on her bonnet and shawl, and set out for the lawyer's office. She locked the front door, put the key under a blind, and proceeded down the front walk into the street.
The spring was earlier here than in Green River. She started at a dancing net-work of leaf shadows on the sidewalk. They were the first she had seen that season. There was a dewy arch of trees overhead, and they were quite fully leaved out. Mr. Tuxbury was in his office when she got there. He rose promptly and greeted her, and pushed forward the leather easy-chair with his old courtly flourish.
"I suppose that old stick of a woman will be in pretty soon," he had remarked to his sister at breakfast-time.
"Well, you'll keep on the right side of her, if you know which side your bread is buttered," she retorted. "You don't want her goin' to Sam Totten's."
Totten was the other lawyer of Elliot.
"I think I am quite aware of all the exigencies of the case," Daniel Tuxbury had replied, lapsing into stateliness, as he always did when his sister waxed too forcible in her advice.