But when Mrs. Field entered his office, every trace of his last night's impatience had vanished. He inquired genially if she had passed a comfortable night, and on being assured that she had, pressed her to drink a cup of coffee which he had requested his sister to keep warm. This declined, with her countrified courtesy, so shy that it seemed grim, he proceeded, with no chill upon his graciousness, to business.
Through the next two hours Mrs. Field sat at the lawyer's desk, and listened to a minute and wearisome description of her new possessions. She listened with very little understanding. She did not feel any interest in it. She never opened her mouth except now and then for a stiff assent to a question from the lawyer.
A little after twelve o'clock he leaned back in his chair with a conclusive sigh, and fixed his eyes reflectively upon the ceiling. "Well, Mrs. Maxwell," said he, "I think that you understand pretty well now the extent and the limitations of your property."
"Yes, sir," said she.
"It is all straight enough. Maxwell was a good business man; he kept his affairs in excellent order. Yes, he was a very good business man."
Suddenly the lawyer straightened himself, and fixed his eyes with genial interest upon his visitor; business over, he had a mind for a little personal interview to show his good-will. "Let me see, Mrs. Maxwell, you had a sister, did you not?" said he.
"Is she living?"
"No, sir." Mrs. Field said it with a gasping readiness to speak one truth.
"Let me see, what was her name?" asked the lawyer. "No; wait a moment; I'll tell you. I've heard it." He held up a hand as if warding off an answer from her, his face became furrowed with reflective wrinkles. "Field!" cried he, suddenly, with a jerk, and beamed at her. "I thought I could remember it," said he. "Yes, your sister's name was Field. When did she die, Mrs. Maxwell?"
"Two years ago."
There was a strange little smothered exclamation from some one near the office door. Mrs. Field turned suddenly, and saw her daughter Lois standing there.
There Lois stood. Her small worn shoes hesitated on the threshold. She was gotten up in her poor little best—her dress of cheap brown wool stuff, with its skimpy velvet panel, her hat trimmed with a fold of silk and a little feather. She had curled her hair over her forehead, and tied on a bit of a lace veil. Distinct among all this forlorn and innocent furbishing was her face, with its pitiful, youthful prettiness, turning toward her mother and the lawyer with a very clutch of vision.
Mrs. Field got up. "Oh, it's you, Lois," she said, calmly. "You thought you'd come too, didn't you?"
Lois gasped out something.
Her mother turned to the lawyer. "I'll make you acquainted with Miss Lois Field," said she. "Lois, I'll make you acquainted with Mr. Tuxbury."
The lawyer was looking surprised, but he rose briskly to the level of the situation, and greeted the young girl with ready grace. "Your sister's daughter, I conclude," he said, smilingly, to Mrs. Field.
Mrs. Field set her mouth hard. She looked defiantly at him and said not one word. There was a fierce resolve in her heart that, come what would, she would not tell this last lie, and deny her daughter before her very face.
But the lawyer did not know she was silent. Not having heard any response, with the vanity of a deaf man, he assumed that she had given one, and so concealed his uncertainty.
"Yes, so I thought," said he, and went on flourishingly in his track of gracious reception.
Lois kept her eyes fixed on his like some little timid animal which suspects an enemy, and watches his eyes for the first impetus of a spring. Once or twice she said, "Yes, sir," faintly.
"Your niece does not look very strong," Mr. Tuxbury said to Mrs. Field.
"She ain't been feelin' very well this spring. I've been considerable worried about her," she answered, with harsh decision.
"Ah, I am very sorry to hear that. Well, she will soon recuperate if she stays here. Elliot is considered a very healthy place. We shall soon have her so hearty and rosy that her old friends won't be able to recognize her." He bowed with a smiling flourish to Lois.
Her lips trembled with a half-smile in response, but she looked more frightened than ever.
"Now, Mrs. Maxwell," said the lawyer, "you and your niece must positively remain and dine with us to-day, can't you?"
"I'm afraid it will put your sister out."
"Oh, no, indeed." The lawyer, however, had a slightly nonplussed expression. "She will be delighted. I will run over to the house, then, and tell her that you will stay, shall I not?"
"I hate to make her extra work," said Mrs. Field. That was her rural form of acceptance.
"You will not, I assure you. Don't distress yourself about that, Mrs. Maxwell."
Nevertheless, he was quite ill at ease as he traversed the yard. In his life with his sister there were exigencies during which he was obliged to descend from his platform of superiority. He foresaw the approach of one now.
Dinner was already served when he entered the dining-room, and his sister was setting the chairs around the table. They kept no servant.
"They are going to stay to dinner, I expect," he remarked, in a appealingly confidential tone.
His sister faced him with a jerk. She was very red from bending over the kitchen fire. "Who's goin' to stay? What do you mean, Daniel?"
"Why, Mrs. Maxwell and her niece."
"Her niece? I didn't know she had any niece. How did she get here?"
"She came this noon; followed along after her aunt, I suppose. I don't think she knew she was coming. She acted kind of surprised, I thought."
"You don't mean they're comin' in here to dinner?"
"I couldn't very well help asking them, you know." His tone was soft and conciliatory, and he kept a nervous eye upon his sister's face.
"Couldn't help askin' 'em! I ruther guess I could 'a' helped askin' 'em!"
"Jane, I hadn't any idea they'd stay."
"Well, you've gone an' done it, that's all I've got to say. Here they didn't come last night, when I got all ready for 'em, an' now they're comin', an' everything we've got is a picked-up dinner; there ain't enough of anything to go round. Flora!"
Her daughter Flora came in from the kitchen, with the children, in blue gingham aprons, at her heels.
"What is it, mother?" said she.
"Nothin', only your uncle Daniel has asked that Maxwell woman an' her niece to dinner, an' they're goin' to stay."
"My goodness! there isn't a thing for dinner!" said Flora, with a half-giggle. She was so young and healthy and happy that she could still see the joke in an annoyance.
Her uncle looked at her beseechingly. "Can't you manage somehow?" said he. "I'll go down to the store and buy something."
"Down to the store!" repeated his sister, contemptuously. "It's one o'clock now."
He looked at the kitchen clock, visible through the open door, and saw that it indicated half-past twelve, but he said nothing.
Flora was frowning reflectively, while her cheeks dimpled. "I tell you what I'll do, mother," said she. "I'll go over to Mrs. Bennett's and borrow a pie. I think we can get along if we have a pie."
"I ain't goin' round the neighborhood borrowin'; that ain't the way I'm accustomed to doin'."
"Land, mother! I'd just as soon ask Mrs. Bennett as not. She borrowed that bread in here the other night."
"There ain't enough steak to go round; there's jest that little piece we had left from yesterday, an' there ain't enough stew," said her mother, with persistent wrath.
"Well, if folks come in unexpectedly, they'll have to take what we've got and make the best of it." Flora tied a hat on over her light hair as she spoke. "I don't see any other way for them," she added, laughingly, going out of the door.
"It's all very well for folks to be easy," said her mother, with a sniff, "but when she's had as much as I've had, I guess she won't take it any easier than I do. I s'pose now I've got to take all these things off, an' put on a clean table-cloth."
"That one doesn't look very bad," ventured her brother, timidly.
"No, I shouldn't think it did! Look at that great coffee stain you got on it this mornin'! Havin' a couple of perfect strangers come in to dinner makes more work than a man knows anything about. Children, you take off the knives, an' pile 'em up on the other table. Be real careful."
"I wonder if the parlor's so I can ask them in there?" Mr. Tuxbury remarked, edging toward the door.
"I s'pose so. I ain't been in there this mornin'; I s'pose it's all right unless the children have been in an' cluttered it up."
"No, we ain't, gramma, we ain't," proclaimed the children in a shrill shout. They danced around the table, removing the knives and forks; their innocent, pinky faces were full of cherubic glee. This occasion was, metaphorically speaking, a whole flock of jubilant infantile larks for them. They loved company with all their souls, and they also felt always a pleasant titillation of their youthful spirits when they saw their grandmother in perturbation. Unless, indeed, they themselves were the cause of it, when it acquired a personal force which rendered it not so entertaining.
Soon, however, a remark of their grandmother's caused their buoyant spirits to realize that there was a force of gravitation for all here below.
"I don't know but you children will have to wait," said she.
There was an instantaneous wail of dismay, the pinky faces elongated, the blue eyes scowled sulkily. "Oh, gramma, we don't want to wait! Can't we sit down with the others? Say, gramma, can't we? Can't we sit down with the others?"
"Of course you can sit down with the others. Don't make such a racket, children." That was their mother coming in, good-natured and triumphant, with the pie.
"I don't know whether they can or not," said their grandmother. "I ain't put in an extra leaf; this table-cloth wa'n't long enough, an' I wa'n't goin' to have the big table-cloth to do up for all the Maxwells in creation."
"Oh, there's room enough," Flora said, easily. "I can squeeze them in beside me. Put the napkins round, children, and stop teasing. Didn't I get a beautiful pie?"
"What kind is it?"
"An' our squashes are all gone, an' I've got to buy one to pay her back. I should have thought you'd known better, Flora."
"It was all the kind she had. I couldn't help it. Squashes don't cost much, mother."
"They cost something, an' I've got all them dried apples to use up for pies."
"Have they come in?" asked Flora, with happy unconcern about the cost of squashes and the utilization of dried apples.
"Yes, I s'pose so. I thought I heard Daniel taking 'em in the front door. I s'pose they're in the parlor."
"You ought to go in a minute, hadn't you?"
"I s'pose so," replied Mrs. Lowe, with a sigh of fierce resignation.
"I'll finish setting the things on the table, and you go in. Take off your apron."
"This dress don't look fit."
"Yes, it does, too; it's clean. Run along."
Mrs. Lowe smoothed her sparse hair severely at the kitchen looking-glass; then she advanced upon the parlor with the air of a pacific grenadier. The children were following slyly in her wake, but their mother caught sight of them and pulled them back.
Mr. Tuxbury had been sitting in the parlor with his guests, trying his best to entertain them. He had gotten out the photograph album for Lois, and a book of views in the Holy Land for her mother. If he had felt in considerable haste to escape from his sister's indignation and return to his visitors, they had been equally anxious for him to come.
When Mrs. Field and her daughter were left alone in the office, their first sensation was that of actual terror of each other.
Mrs. Field concealed hers well enough. She sat up without a tremor in her unbending back, and looked out of the office door, which the lawyer had left open. Just opposite the door, out on the sidewalk, two men stood talking. She kept her eyes fastened upon them.
"What time did you start?" said she presently, in a harsh voice, which seemed to rudely shock the stillness. She did not turn her eyes.
"I—came—on the first—train," answered Lois, pantingly. Once in a while she stole furtive, wildly questioning glances at her mother, but her mother never met them. She continued to look at the talking men on the sidewalk.
"Mother," began Lois finally, in a desperate voice. But just then Mr. Tuxbury had reappeared, and conducted them to his parlor.
The parlor had lace curtains and a Brussles carpet, and looked ornate to Mrs. Field and Lois. The chairs were covered with green plush. The two women sat timidly on the yielding cushions, and gazed during the pauses at the large flower pattern on the carpet. All this fine furniture was, in fact, Mrs. Lowe's; when she had given up her own home, and come to live with her brother, she had brought it with her.
Both of the guests arose awkwardly, Mrs. Field first and Lois after her, when Mrs. Lowe entered, and the lawyer introduced them.
"I'm happy to make your acquaintance," said Mrs. Field.
"I believe I've seen you two or three times when you was here years ago," said Mrs. Lowe, standing before her straight and tall in her faded calico gown, which fitted her uncompromisingly like a cuirass. Mrs. Lowe's gowns, no matter how thin and faded, always fitted her in that way. Stretched over her long flat-chested figure, they seemed to acquire the consistency of armor. "You ain't changed any as I can see," she went on, as she got scarcely any response to her first remark. "I should have known you anywhere. It's a pleasant day, ain't it?"
"Real pleasant," replied Mrs. Field. Mrs. Lowe sat down in one of the plush chairs. To seat herself for a few minutes before announcing dinner was, she supposed, a matter of etiquette. She held up her long rasped chin with a curt air, and, in spite of herself, her voice also was curt. She was too thorough a New England woman to play with any success softening lights over the steel of her character. She disdained to, and she was also unable to. She was not pleased to receive these unexpected guests, and she showed it.
As soon as she thought it decently practicable, she gave a significant look at her brother and arose. "I guess we'll walk out to dinner now," said she, with solemn embarrassment. Mrs. Lowe had nothing of her brother's ease of manner; indeed, she entertained a covert scorn for it. "Daniel can be dreadful smooth an' fine when he sets out," she sometimes remarked to her daughter. The lawyer's suave manner seemed to her downrightness to border upon affectation. She, however, had a certain respect for it as the probable outcome of his superior education.
She marched ahead stiffly now, and left her brother to his flourishing seconding of her announcement. Flora and the children received them beamingly when they entered the dining-room. Flora was quite sure that she remembered Mrs. Maxwell, she was glad to see her, and she was glad to see Lois, and they would please sit right "here," and "here." She had taken off the children's pinafores and washed their faces, and they stood aloof in little starched and embroidered frocks, with their cheeks pinker than ever.
Flora seated one on each side of her, as she had said. "Now, you must be good and not tease," she whispered admonishingly, and their blue eyes stared back at her with innocent gravity, and they folded their small hands demurely.
Nevertheless, it was through them that the whole dignity of the meal was lost. If they had not been present, it would have passed off with a strong undercurrent of uneasiness and discomfort, yet with composure. Mr. Tuxbury would have helped the guests to beefsteak, and the rest of the family would have preferred the warmed-up veal stew. Or had the guests looked approvingly at the stew, the scanty portion of beefsteak would have satisfied the furthest desires of the family. But the perfect understanding among the adults did not extend to the two little girls. They leaned forward, with their red lips parted, and watched their uncle anxiously as he carved the beefsteak. There was evidently not much of it, and their anxiety grew. When it was separated into three portions, two of which were dispensed to the guests, and the other, having been declined by their grandmother and mother, was appropriated by their uncle, anxiety lapsed into certainty.
"I want some beefsteak!" wailed each, in wofully injured tones.
Mr. Tuxbury set his mouth hard, and pushed his plate with a jerk toward his niece. Her face was very red, but she took it—she was aware there was no other course open—divided the meat impartially, and gave each child a piece with a surreptitious thump.
Mr. Tuxbury, with a moodily knitted forehead and a smiling mouth, asked the guests miserably if they would have some veal stew. It was perfectly evident that if they accepted, there would be nothing whatever left for the family to eat. They declined in terrified haste; indeed, both Lois and her mother had been impelled to pass their portions of beefsteak over to the children, but they had not dared.
The children wished for veal stew also, and when they had eaten their meagre spoonfuls, clamored persistently for more.
"There isn't any more," whispered their mother, with two little vigorous side-shakes. "If you don't keep still, I shall take you away from the table. Ain't you ashamed?"
Then the little girls pouted and sniffed, but warily, lest the threat be carried into effect.
The rest of the family tried to ignore the embarrassing situation and converse easily with the guests, but it was a difficult undertaking.
Lois bent miserably over her plate, and every question appeared to shock her painfully. She seemed an obstinately bashful young girl, to whom it was useless to talk. Mrs. Field replied at length to all interrogations with a certain quiet hardness, which had come into her manner since her daughter's arrival, but she never started upon a subject of her own accord.
It was a relief to every one when the meagre dinner lapsed into the borrowed pie. Mrs. Low cut it carefully into the regulation six pieces, while the children as carefully counted the people and watched the distribution. The result was not satisfactory. The older little girl, whose sense of injury was well developed, set up a shrill demand.
"I want a piece of Mis' Bennett's pie," said she. "Mother, I want a piece of Mis' Bennett's pie!"
The younger, viewing the one piece of pie remaining in the plate and her clamorous sister, raised her own jealous little pipe. "I want a piece of Mis' Bennett's pie," she proclaimed, pulling her mother's sleeve. "Mother, can't I have a piece of Mis' Bennett's pie?"
Flora's face was very red, and her mouth was twitching. She hastily pushed her own pie to the elder child, and gave the last piece on the plate to the younger. Their grandmother frowned on them like a rock, but they ate their pie unconcernedly.
"I think Mis' Bennett's pie is a good deal better than grandma's," said the younger little girl, smacking her lips contemplatively; and Flora gave a half-chuckle, while her mother's severity of mien so deepened that she seemed to cast an actual shadow.
"Now, Flora, I tell you what 'tis," said she, when the meal was at last over and the guests were gone—they took their leave very soon afterward—"if you don't punish them children, I shall."
There was a wail of terror from the little girls. "Oh, mother, you do it, you do it!" cried they.
Flora giggled audibly.
"You'll just spoil them children," said her mother, severely; "you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Flora."
Flora tried to draw her face into gravity. "Go right upstairs, children," said she. "It's so funny, I can't help it," she whispered, with another furtive giggle.
"I don't see anything very funny in children's actin' the way they have all dinner-time."
The children thumped merrily over the stairs. It was clear that they stood in no great fear of their mother's chastisement. They knew by experience that her hand was very soft, and the force of its fall tempered by mirth and tender considerateness; their grandmother's fleshless and muscular old palm was another matter.
Soon after Flora followed them there was a series of arduous cries, apparently maintained more from a childish sense of the fitness of things than from any actual stress of pain. They soon ceased.
"She ain't half whipped 'em," Mrs. Lowe, who was listening downstairs, said to herself.
The lawyer was in his office; he had intrenched himself there as soon as possible, covering his retreat with the departure of his guests.
Mrs. Field and Lois, removed from it all the distance of tragedy from comedy, were walking up the street to the Maxwell house. Mrs. Field stalked ahead with her resolute stiffness; Lois followed after her, keeping always several paces behind. No matter how often Mrs. Field, sternly conscious of it, slackened her own pace, Lois never gained upon her.
When they reached the gate at the entrance of the Maxwell grounds, and Mrs. Field stopped, Lois spoke up.
"What place is this?" said she, in a defiantly timorous voice.
"The Maxwell house," replied her mother, shortly, turning up the walk.
"Are you going in here?"
"Of course I am."
"Well, I ain't going in one step."
Mrs. Field turned and faced her. "Lois," said she, "if you want to go away an' desert the mother that's showin' herself willin' to die for you, you can."
Lois said not another word. She turned in at the gate, with her eyes fixed upon her mother's face.
"I'll tell you about it when we get up to the house," said her mother, with appealing conciliation.
Lois slunk mutely behind her again. Her eyes were full of the impulse of flight when she watched her mother unlock the house door, but she followed her in.
Her mother led the way into the sitting-room. "Sit down," said she.
And Lois sat down in the nearest chair. She never took her eyes off her mother.
Mrs. Field took off her bonnet and shawl. She folded the shawl carefully in the creases, and laid it on the table. She pulled up a curtain. Then she turned, and confronted steadily her daughter's eyes. The whole house to her was full of the clamor of their questioning. "Now, Lois," said Mrs. Field, "I'm goin' to tell you about this. I s'pose you think it's funny."
"I don't know what to think of it," said Lois, in a dry voice.
"I don't s'pose you do. Well, I'm goin' to tell you. You know, I s'pose, that Mr. Tuxbury took me for your aunt Esther. You heard him call me Mis' Maxwell?"
Lois nodded; her dilated eyes never wavered from her mother's face.
"I s'pose you heard what he was sayin' to me when you come in. Lois, I didn't tell him I was your aunt Esther. The minute I come in, he took me for her, an' Mis' Henry Maxwell come into his office, an' she did, and so did Mr. Tuxbury's sister. I wa'n't goin' to tell them I wa'n't her."
The impulse of flight in Lois' watchful eyes became so strong that it seemed almost to communicate to her muscles. With her face still turned toward her mother, she appeared to be fleeing from her.
Mrs. Field stood her ground stanchly. "No, I wa'n't," she went on. "An' I'll tell you why. I'm goin' to have that fifteen hundred dollars of your poor father's earnin's that I lent your uncle out of this property, an' this is all the way to do it, an' I'm goin' to do it."
"I thought," gasped Lois—"I thought maybe it belonged to us anyway if Aunt Esther was dead."
"It didn't. The money was all left to old Mr. Maxwell's niece in case Esther died first."
"Couldn't you have asked the lawyer about the fifteen hundred dollars? Wouldn't he have given you some? O mother!"
"I was goin' to if he hadn't took me for her, but it wouldn't have done any good. They wouldn't have been obliged to pay it, an' folks ain't fond of payin' over money when they ain't obliged to. I'd been a fool to have asked him after he took me for her."
"Then—you'd got this—all planned?"
Her mother took her up sharply.
"No, I hadn't got it all planned," said she. "I don't deny it come into my head. I knew how much folks said I looked like Esther, but I didn't go so far as to plan it; there needn't anybody say I did."
"You ain't going to take the money?"
"I'm goin' to take that fifteen hundred dollars out of it."
"Mother, you ain't going to stay here, and make folks think you're Aunt Esther?"
"Yes, I am."
Then all Lois' horror and terror manifested themselves in one cry—"O mother!"
Mrs. Field never flinched. "If you want to act so an' feel so about it, you can," said she. "Your mother is some older than you, an' she knows what is right jest about as well as you can tell her. I've thought it all over. That fifteen hundred dollars was money your poor father worked hard to earn. I lent it to your uncle Edward, an' he lost it. I never see a dollar of it afterward. He never paid me a cent of interest money. It ain't anything more'n fair that I should be paid for it out of his father's property. If poor Esther had lived, the money'd gone to her, an' she'd paid me fast enough. Now the way's opened for me to get it, I ain't goin' to let it go. Talk about it's bein' right, if it ain't right to stoop down an' pick up anybody's just dues, I don't know what right is, for my part."
"You ain't going to live here in this house, and not go back to Green River?"
"I don't see any need of goin' back to Green River. This is a 'nough sight prettier place than Green River. Now you're down here, I don't see any sense in layin' out money to go back at all. Mandy'll send our things down."
"You don't mean to stay right along here in this house, and not go back to Green River at all?"
"I don't see why it ain't jest as well. You'd better take off your things an' lay down a little while on that sofa there, an' get rested."
Lois seldom cried, but she burst out now in a piteous wail. "O mother," sobbed she, "what does it mean? I can't— What does it mean? Oh, I'm so frightened! Mother, you frighten me so! What does it mean?"
Her mother went up to her, and stood close at her side. "Lois," said she, with trembling solemnity, "can't you trust mother?"
"O mother, I don't know! I don't know! You frighten me dreadfully." Lois shrank away from her mother as she wept.
Mrs. Field stood over her, but she did not offer to touch her. Indeed, this New England mother and daughter rarely or never caressed each other. "Lois, dear child, mother don't want you to feel so. Oh, you dear child, you dear child, you don't know what mother's goin' through. But it ain't anything to you. Lois, you remember that; it ain't anything you've done. It's all my doin's. I'm jest goin' to get that money back. An' it's right I should. Don't you worry nothin' about it. Now take your hat off, an' let mother tuck you up on the sofa."
Lois, sobbing still, began pulling off her hat mechanically. Her mother got a pillow, and she lay down on the sofa, turning her face to the wall with another outburst of tears. Her mother spread her black shawl carefully over her.
"Now you lay here still, an' get rested," said she. "I'm goin' out in the kitchen, an' see if I can't start up a fire an' get something for supper."
Mrs. Field went out of the room. Soon her tall black figure sped stealthily past the windows out of the yard. She found a grocery store, and purchased some small necessaries. There were groceries already in the pantry at the Maxwell house. She had spied them, but would not touch a single article. She bought some tea, and when she returned, replaced the drawing she had taken that morning from the Maxwell caddy.
The old woman's will, always vigorous, never giving place to another except through its own choice, now whipped by this great stress into a fierce impetus, carried her daughter's, strong as it was for a young girl, before it. Lois lay quietly on the sofa. When her mother called her, she went out in the kitchen and ate her supper.
They retired early. Lois lay on the sofa until her mother came in and stood over her with a lighted lamp.
"I guess you'd better get up and go to bed now, Lois," said she. "I'm goin' myself, if it is early. I'm pretty tired."
And Lois stirred herself wearily and got up.
There were two adjoining bedrooms opening out of the sitting-room. Mrs. Field had prepared the beds that afternoon. "I thought we'd better sleep in here," said she, leading the way to them.
Lois had the inner room. After the lamp was blown out and everything was dark, her mother heard a soft stir and the pat of a naked foot in there, then she heard the door swing to with a cautious creak and the bolt slide. She knew with a great pang, that Lois had locked her door against her mother.
Elliot was only a little way from the coast, and sometimes seemed to be pervaded by the very spirit of the sea. The air would be full of salt vigor, the horizon sky take on the level, out-reaching blue of a water distance, and the clouds stand one way like white sails.
The next morning Lois sat on the front door-step of the Maxwell house, between the pillars of the porch. She bent over, leaning her elbows on her knees, making a cup of her hands, in which she rested her little face. She could smell the sea, and also the pines in the yard. There were many old pine trees, and their soft musical roar sounded high overhead. The spring air in Green River had been full of sweet moisture and earthiness from these steaming meadow-lands. Always in Green River, above the almond scent of the flowering trees and the live breath of the new grass, came that earthy, moist odor, like a reminder of the grave. Here in Elliot one smelled the spring above the earth.
The gate clicked, and a woman came up the curving path with a kind of clumsy dignity. She was tall and narrow-shouldered, but heavy-hipped; her black skirt flounced as she walked. She stopped in front of Lois, and looked at her hesitatingly. Lois arose.
"Good-mornin'," said the woman. Her voice was gentle; she cleared her throat a little after she spoke.
"Good-morning," returned Lois, faintly.
"Is Mis' Maxwell to home?"
Lois stared at her.
"Is Mis' Maxwell to home? I heard she'd come here to live," repeated the woman, in a deprecating way. She smoothed down the folds of her over-skirt. Lois started; the color spread over her face and neck. "No, she isn't at home," she said sharply.
"Do you know when she will be?"
"No, I don't."
The woman's face also was flushed. She turned about with a little flirt, when suddenly a door slammed somewhere in the house. The woman faced about, with a look of indignant surprise.
Lois said nothing. She opened the front door and went into the house, straight through to the kitchen, where her mother was preparing breakfast. "There's a woman out there," she said.
"Who is it?"
"I don't know. She wants to see—Mrs. Maxwell."
Lois looked full at her mother; her eyes were like an angel's before evil. Mrs. Field looked back at her. Then she turned toward the door.
Lois caught hold of her mother's dress. Mrs. Field twitched it away fiercely, and passed on into the sitting-room. The woman stood there waiting. She had followed Lois in.
"How do you do, Mis' Maxwell?" she said.
"I'm pretty well, thank you," replied Mrs. Field, looking at her with stiff inquiry.
The woman had a pale, pretty face, and stood with a sturdy set-back on her heels. "I guess you don't know me, Mis' Maxwell," said she, smiling deprecatingly.
Mrs. Field tried to smile, but her lips were too stiff. "I guess I—don't," she faltered.
The smile faded from the woman's face. She cast an anxious glance at her own face in the glass over the mantel-shelf; she had placed herself so she could see it. "I ain't got quite so much color as I used to have," she said, "but I ain't thought I'd changed much other ways. Some days I have more color. I know I ain't this mornin'. I ain't had very good health. Maybe that's the reason you don't know me."
Mrs. Field muttered a feeble assent.
"I'd know you anywhere, but you didn't have any color to lose to make a difference. You've always looked jest the way you do now since I've known you. I lived in this house a whole year with you once. I come here to live after Mr. Maxwell's wife died. My name is Jay."
Mrs. Field stood staring. The woman, who had been looking in the glass while she talked, gave her front hair a little shake, and turned toward her inquiringly.
"Won't you sit down in this rockin'-chair, Mis' Jay?" said Mrs. Field.
"No, thank you, I guess I won't set down, I'm in a little of a hurry. I jest wanted to see you a minute."
Mrs. Field waited.
"You know Mr. Maxwell's dyin' so sudden made a good deal of a change for me," Mrs. Jay continued. She took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes softly; then she glanced in the glass. "I'd had my home here a good many years, an' it seemed hard to lose it all in a minute so. There he came home that Sunday noon an' eat a hearty dinner, an' before sunset he had that shock, and never spoke afterward. I've thought maybe there were things he would have said if he could have spoke."
Mrs. Jay sighed heavily; her eyes reddened; she straightened her bonnet absently; her silvered fair hair was frizzed under it.
Mrs. Field stood opposite, her eyes downcast, her face rigid.
"I wanted to speak to you, Mis' Maxwell," the other woman went on. "I ain't obliged to go out anywheres to live; I've got property; but it's kind of lonesome at my sister's, where I'm livin'. It's a little out of the village, an' there ain't much passin'. I like to be where I can see passin', an' get out to meetin' easy if it's bad weather. I've been thinkin'—I didn't know but maybe you'd like to have me—I heard you had some trouble with your hands, an' your niece wa'n't well—that I might be willin' to come an' stay three or four weeks. I shouldn't want to promise to stay very long."
"I ain't never been in the habit of keepin' help," returned Mrs. Field. "I've always done my own work."
The other woman's face flushed deeply; she moved toward the door. "I don't know as anything was said about keepin' help," said she. "I ain't never considered myself help. There ain't any need of my goin' out to live. I've got enough to live on, an' I've got good clothes. I've got a black silk stiff enough to stand alone; cost three dollars a yard. I paid seven dollars to have it made up, and the lace on it cost a dollar a yard. I ain't obliged to be at anybody's beck and call."
"I hope I ain't said anything to hurt your feelin's," said Mrs. Field, following her into the entry. "I've always done my own work, an'—"
"We won't speak of it again," said Mrs. Jay. "I'll bid you good-mornin', Mis' Maxwell." Her voice shook, she held up her black skirt, and never looked around as she went down the steps.
Mrs. Field returned to the kitchen. Lois sat beside the window, her head leaning against the sash, looking out. Her mother took some biscuits out of the stove oven and set them on the table with the coffee. "Breakfast is ready," said she.
She sat down at the table. Lois never stirred.
"You needn't worry," said Mrs. Field, in a sarcastic voice; "everything on this table is bought with your own money. I went out last night and got some flour. There's a whole barrelful in the buttery, but I didn't touch it."
Lois drew her chair up to the table, and ate a biscuit and drank a cup of coffee without saying a word. Her eyes were set straight ahead; all her pale features seemed to point out sharply; her whole face had the look of a wedge that could pierce fate. After breakfast she went out of the room, and returned shortly with her hat on.
"Mother," said she.
"What is it?"
"You'd better know what I'm going to do."
"What are you goin' to do?"
"I'm goin' down to that lawyer's office, and—tell him." Lois turned toward the door.
"I s'pose you know all you're goin' to do," said her mother, in a hard voice.
"I'm going to tell the truth," returned Lois, fiercely.
"You're goin' to put your mother in State's prison."
Lois stopped. "Mother, you can't make me believe that."
"It's true, whether you believe it or not. I don't know anything about law, but I'm sure enough of that."
Lois stood looking at her mother. "Then I'll put you there," said she, in a cruel voice. "That's where you ought to go, mother."
She went out of the room, and shut the door hard behind her; then she kept on through the house to the front porch, and sat down. She sat there all the morning, huddled up against a pillar. Her mother worked about the house; Lois could hear her now and then, and every time she shuddered. She had a feeling that the woman in the house was not her mother. Had she been familiar with the vampire superstition, she might have thought of that, and had a fancy that some fiend animated the sober, rigid body of the old New England woman with evil and abnormal life.
At noon Lois went in and ate some dinner mechanically; then she returned. Presently, as she sat there, a bell began tolling, and a funeral procession passed along the road below. Lois watched it listlessly—the black-draped hearse, the slow-marching bearers, the close-covered wagons, and the nodding horses. She could see it plainly through the thin spring branches. It was quite a long procession; she watched it until it passed. The cemetery was only a little way below the house, on the same side of the street. By twisting her head a little, she could have seen the black throng at the gate.
After a while the hearse and the carriages went past on their homeward road at a lively pace, the gate clicked, and Mrs. Jane Maxwell and a young man came up the walk.
Lois stood up shrinkingly as they approached, the door behind her opened, and she heard her mother's voice.
"Good-afternoon," said Mrs. Field, with rigid ceremony, her mouth widened in a smile.
"Good-afternoon, Esther," returned Mrs. Maxwell. "I've been to the funeral, an' I thought I'd jest run in a minute on my way home. I wanted to ask you an' your niece to come over an' take tea to-morrow. Flora, she'd come, but she didn't get out to the funeral. This is my nephew, Francis Arms, my sister's son. I s'pose you remember him when he was a little boy."
Mrs. Field bowed primly to the young man. The old lady was eying Lois. "I s'pose this is your niece, Esther? I heard she'd come," she said, with sharp graciousness.
"This is Miss Lois Field; I'll make you acquainted, Mis' Maxwell," replied Mrs. Field.
Mrs. Maxwell reached out her hand, and Lois took it trembling; her little girlish figure drooped before them all.
"She don't look much like you, Esther. I s'pose she takes after her mother," said Mrs. Maxwell.
"I think she rather favors her father's folks," said Mrs. Field.
"I heard she wa'n't very well, but seems to me she looks pretty smart."
"She ain't been well at all," returned Mrs. Field, in a quick, resentful manner.
"Well, I guess she'll pick up here; Elliot's a real healthy place. She must come over and see us real often. This is my nephew, Francis Arms, Lois. I shall have to get him to beau you around and show you the sights."
Lois glanced timidly up at the young man, and returned his bow slightly.
"Won't you walk in?" said Mrs. Field.
Lois went into the house with the party; the old lady still held her hand in her black-mitted one.
"I want you and my nephew to get acquainted," she whispered; "he's a real nice young man. I'm goin' to have you an' your aunt come over an' take tea to-morrow."
They all seated themselves in the south front room. Lois sat beside Mrs. Maxwell on the high black sofa; her feet swung clear from the floor. The young man, who was opposite, beside the chimney, glanced now and then kindly across at her.
"Francis didn't have to go to the bank this afternoon," said Mrs. Maxwell. "I don't know as I told you, Esther, but he's cashier in the bank; he's got a real good place. Francis ain't never had anything but a common-school education, but he's always been real smart an' steady. Lawyer Totten's son, that's been through college, wanted the place, but they gave it to Francis. Mr. Perry, whose mother was buried this afternoon, is president of the bank, an' that's why it's shut up. Francis felt as if he'd ought to go to the funeral, an' I told him he'd better come in here with me. I suppose you remember Francis when he was a little boy, Esther?"
"No, I guess I don't."
"Why, I should think you'd be likely to. He lived with me when you was here. He came right after his father died, an' that was before you came here. He was quite a big boy. I should think you'd remember him. You sure you don't, Esther?"
"Yes, I guess I don't."
"Seems to me it's dreadful queer; I guess your memory ain't as good as mine. I s'pose you're beginnin' to feel kind of wonted here, Esther? It's a pretty big house, but then it ain't as if you hadn't been here before. I s'pose it seems kind of familiar to you, if you ain't seen it for so long; I s'pose it all comes back to you, don't it?"
There was a pause. "No, I'm afraid it don't," said Mrs. Field her pale severe face fronting the other woman. Although fairly started forth in the slough of deceit, she still held up her Puritan skirts arduously.
"It's kind of queer it don't, ain't it?" returned Mrs. Maxwell. "The house ain't been altered any, an' the furniture's jest the same. Thomas, he wouldn't have a thing altered; the carpet in his bedroom is wore threadbare, but he wouldn't get a new one nohow. Mis' Jay, she wanted him to get a new cookin'-stove, but he wouldn't hear to it; much as ever he'd let her have a new broom. And it wa'n't because he was stingy; it was jest because he was kind of set, an' had got into the way of thinkin' nothin' had ought to be changed. It wa'n't never my way; I never believed in hangin' on to old shackly things because you've always had 'em. There ain't no use tryin' to set down tables an' chairs as solid as the everlastin' hills. There was Mis' Perry, she that was buried this afternoon, Mr. Perry's mother, when she came here to live after her husband died, she sold off every stick of her old furniture, an' got the handsomest marble-top set that money could buy for her room. She got some pictures in gilt frames too, and a tapestry carpet, and vases and images for her mantel-shelf. She said folks could talk about associations all they wanted to, she hadn't no associations with a lot of old worm-eaten furniture; she'd rather have some that was clean an' new. H'm, anybody to hear folks talk sometimes would think they were blood-relations to old secretaries and bureaus."
Mrs. Maxwell screwed her face contemptuously, as if the talking folk were before her, and there was a pause. The young man looked across at Lois, then turned to her mother, as if about to speak, but his aunt interposed.
"Esther," said she, "I jest wanted to ask you if there wa'n't two of them old swell-front bureaus in the north chamber upstairs."
"I guess there is," replied Mrs. Field. She sat leaning forward toward her callers, with her face fairly strained into hospitable attention.
"Well, I wanted to know. I ain't come beggin', an' I'd 'nough sight rather have a good clean new one, but I'm kind of short of bureau drawers, an' I'd kind of like to have it because 'twas Thomas'. I wonder if you wouldn't jest as soon I'd have one of them bureaus?"
Mrs. Field's face gleamed suddenly. "You can have it jest as well as not," said she.
"Well, there's another thing. I kind of hate to speak about it. Flora said I shouldn't; but I said I would, whether or no. I know you'd rather I would. There's a set of blue china dishes that Nancy, that's Thomas' wife, you know, always said Flora should have when she got done with them. Thomas, he never said anything about it after Nancy died. I didn't know but he might make mention of it in the will. But we all know how that was. I ain't findin' no fault, an' I ain't begrudgin' anything."
"You can have the dishes jest as well as not," returned Mrs. Field, eagerly.
"Well, I didn't know as you'd value them much. I s'posed you'd rather get some new ones. You can get real handsome ones now for ten dollars. Silsbee's got an elegant set in his window. Of course folks that can afford them would rather have them. But I s'pose Flora would think considerable of that old set because it belonged to her aunt Nancy. There's one or two other things I was thinkin' of, but it don't matter about those to-day. It's a beautiful day, ain't it?"
"What be they?" asked Mrs. Field. "If there's anything you want, you're welcome to it."
Mrs. Maxwell glanced at her nephew. He was looking out of the window, with his forehead knitted and his lips compressed. Lois had just thought how cross he looked. "You ain't been out to see anything of the town, have you, Lois?" asked Mrs. Maxwell, sweetly.
Lois started. "No, ma'am," she said, faintly.
"You ain't been into the graveyard, I s'pose?"
"You'd ought to go in there an' see the Mason monument. Francis, don't you want to go over there with her an' show her the Mason monument?"
Francis rose promptly.
"I guess I'd rather not," Lois said, hurriedly.
"Oh, you run right along!" cried Mrs. Maxwell. "You'll want to see the flowers on Mis' Perry's grave, too. I never saw such handsome flowers as they had, an' they carried them all to the grave. Get your hat, and run right along, it'll do you good."
"You'd better," said the young man, smiling pleasantly down at Lois.
She got up and left the room, and presently returned with her hat on.
"Don't sit down on the damp ground," Mrs. Field said as the two went out. And her voice sounded more like herself than it had done since she left Green River.
Lois walked gravely down the street beside Francis Arms. She had never had any masculine attention. This was the first time she had ever walked alone with a young man. She was full of that shy consciousness which comes to a young girl who has had more dreams than lovers, but her steady, sober face quite concealed it.
Francis kept glancing down at her, trying to think of something to say. She never looked at him, and kept her shabby little shoes pointed straight ahead on the extreme inside of the walk, as intently as if she were walking on a line. Nobody would have dreamed how her heart, in spite of the terrible exigency in which she was placed, was panting insensibly with the sweet rhythm of youth. In the midst of all this trouble and bewilderment, she had not been able to help a strange feeling when she first looked into this young man's face. It was as if she were suddenly thrust off her old familiar places, like a young bird from its nest into space, and had to use a strange new motion of her soul to keep herself from falling.
But Francis guessed nothing of this. "It's a pleasant day," he remarked as they walked along.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
The graveyard gates had been left open after the funeral. They entered, and passed up the driveway along the wheel ruts of the funeral procession. Pink garlands of flowering-almond arched over the old graves, and bushes of bridal-wreath sent out white spikes. Weeping-willows swept over them in lines of gold-green light, and evergreen trees stood among them as they had stood all winter. In many of these were sunken vases and bottles of spring flowers, lilacs and violets.
Lois and Francis Arms went on to the Mason monument.
"This is the one Aunt Jane was speaking about," he said, in a deferential tone.
Lois looked up at the four white marble women grouped around the central shaft, their Greek faces outlined against the New England sky.
"It was made by a famous sculptor," said Francis; "and it cost a great deal of money."
"They box it up in the winter, so it won't be injured by the weather," said Francis.
Lois nodded again. Presently they turned away, and went on to a new grave, covered with wreaths and floral devices. The fragrance of tuberoses and carnations came in their faces.
"This is the grave Aunt Jane wanted you to see," said Francis.
"Yes, sir," returned Lois.
They stood staring silently at the long mound covered with flowers. Francis turned.
"Suppose we go over this way," said he.
Lois followed him as he strode along the little grassy paths between the burial lots. On the farther side of the cemetery the ground sloped abruptly to a field of new grass. Francis stooped and felt of the short grass on the bank.
"It's dry," said he. "I don't think your aunt would mind. Suppose we sit down here and rest a few minutes?"
Lois looked at him hesitatingly.
"Oh, sit down just a few minutes," he said, with a pleasant laugh.
They both seated themselves on the bank, and looked down into the field.
"It's pleasant here, isn't it?" said Francis.
The young man looked kindly, although a little constrainedly, down into his companion's face.
"I hear you haven't been very well," said he. "I hope you feel better since you came to Elliot?"
"Yes, thank you; I guess I do," replied Lois.
Francis still looked at her. Her little face bent, faintly rosy, under her hat. There was a grave pitifulness, like an old woman's, about her mouth, but her shoulders looked very young and slender.
"Suppose you take off your hat," said he, "and let the air come on your forehead. I've got mine off; it's more comfortable. You won't catch cold. It's warm as summer."
Lois took off her hat.
"That's better," said Francis, approvingly. "You're going to live right along here in Elliot with your aunt, aren't you?"
Lois looked up at him suddenly. She was very pale, and her eyes were full of terror.
"Why, what is the matter? What have I said?" he cried out, in bewilderment.
Lois bent over and hid her face; her back heaved with sobs.
Francis stared at her. "Why, what is the matter?" he cried again. "Have I done anything?" He hesitated. Then he put his hand on her little moist curly head. Lois' hair was not thick, but it curled softly. "Why, you poor little girl," said he; "don't cry so;" and his voice was full of embarrassed tenderness.
Lois sobbed harder.
"Now, see here," said Francis. "I haven't known you more than an hour, and I don't know what the matter is, and I don't know but you'll think I'm officious, but I'll do anything in the world to help you, if you'll only tell me."
Lois shook off his hand and sat up. "It isn't anything," said she, catching her breath, and setting her tear-stained face defiantly ahead.
"Don't you feel well?"
Lois nodded vaguely, keeping her quivering mouth firmly set. They were both silent for a moment, then Lois spoke without looking at him.
"Do you know if there's any school here that I could get?" said she.
"Yes. I want to get a chance to teach. I've been teaching, but I've lost my school."
"And you want to get one here?"
"Yes. Do you know of any?"
"Why, see here," said Francis. "It's none of my business, but I thought you hadn't been very well. Why don't you take a little vacation?"
"I can't," returned Lois, in a desperate tone. "I've got to do something."
"Why, won't your aunt—" He stopped short. The conviction that the stern old woman who had inherited the Maxwell property was too hard and close to support her little delicate orphan niece seized upon him. Lois' next words strengthened it.
"I lost my school," she went on, still keeping her face turned toward the meadow and speaking fast. "Ida Starr got it away from me. Her father is school-committee-man, and he said he didn't think I was able to teach, just because he brought me home in his buggy one day when I was a little faint. I had a note from him that morning mother—that morning she came down here. I was just going to school, and I was a good deal better, when Mr. Starr's boy brought it. He said he thought it was better for me to take a little vacation. I knew what that meant. I knew Ida had wanted the school right along. I told Amanda I was coming down here. She tried to stop me, but I had money enough. Mr. Starr sent me what was owing to me, and I came. I thought I might just as well. I thought mother—Amanda was dreadfully scared, but I told her I was going to come. I can't go back to Green River; I haven't got money enough." Lois's voice broke; she hid her face again.
"Oh, don't feel so," cried Francis. "You don't want to go back to Green River."
"Yes, I do. I want to get back. It's awful here, awful. I never knew anything so awful."
Francis stared at her pityingly. "Why, you poor little girl, are you as homesick as that?" he said.
Lois only sobbed in answer.
"Look here!" said Francis—he leaned over her, and his voice sank to a whisper—"it's none of my business, but I think you'd better tell me; it won't go any further—isn't your aunt good to you? Doesn't she treat you well?"
Lois shook her head vaguely. "I can't go back anyway," she moaned. "Ida's got my school. I haven't got anything to do there. Don't you think I can get a school here?"
"I am afraid you can't," said Francis. "You see, the schools have all begun now. But you mustn't feel so bad. Don't." He touched her shoulder gently. "Poor little girl!" said he. "Perhaps I ought not to speak so to you, but you make me so sorry for you I can't help it. Now you must cheer up; you'll get along all right. You won't be homesick a bit after a little while; you'll like it here. There are some nice girls about your age. My cousin Flora will come and see you. She's older than you, but she's a real nice girl. She's feeling rather upset over something now, too. Now come, let's get up and go and see some more of the monuments. You don't want a school. Your aunt can lookout for you. I should laugh if she couldn't. She's a rich woman, and you're all she's got in the world. Now come, let's cheer up, and go look at some more gravestones."
"I guess I'd rather go home," said Lois, faintly.
"Too tired? Well, let's sit here a little while longer, then. You mustn't go home with your eyes red, your aunt will think I've been scolding you."
Francis looked down at her with smiling gentleness. He was a handsome young man with a pale straight profile, his face was very steady and grave when he was not animated, and his smile occasioned a certain pleasant surprise. He was tall, and there was a boyish clumsiness about his shoulders in his gray coat. He reached out with a sudden impulse, and took Lois' little thin hand in his own with a warm clasp.
"Now cheer up," said he. "See how pleasant it looks down in the field."
They sat looking out over the field; the horizon sky stretched out infinitely in straight blue lines; one could imagine he saw it melt into the sea which lay beyond; the field itself, with its smooth level of young grass, was like a waveless green sea. A white road lay on the left, and a man was walking on it with a weary, halting gait; he carried a tin dinner-pail, which dipped and caught the western sunlight at every step. A cow lowed, and a pair of white horns tossed over some bars at the right of the field; a boy crossed it with long, loping strides and preliminary swishes of a birch stick. Then a whistle blew with a hoarse musical note, and a bell struck six times.
Lois freed her hand and got up. "I guess I must go," said she. Her cheeks were blushing softly as she put on her hat.
"Well, I should like to sit here an hour longer, but maybe your aunt will think it's growing damp for you to be out-of-doors," said Francis, standing up.
As they went between the graves, he caught her hand again, and led her softly along. When they reached the gate, he dropped it with a kindly pressure.
"Now remember, you are going to cheer up," he said, "and you're going to have real nice times here in Elliot." When they reached the Maxwell house, his aunt was coming down the walk.
"Oh, there you are!" she called out. "I was jest goin' home. Well, what did you think of the Mason monument, Lois?"
"It's real handsome."
"Ain't it handsome? An' wa'n't the flowers on Mis' Perry's grave elegant? Good-night. I'm goin' to have you an' your aunt come over an' take tea to-morrow, an' then you can get acquainted with Flora."
"Good-night," said Francis, smiling, and the aunt and nephew went on down the road. She carried something bulky under her shawl, and she walked with a curious side-wise motion, keeping the side next her nephew well forward.
"Don't you want me to carry your bundle, Aunt Jane?" Lois heard him say as they walked off.
"No," the old woman replied, hastily and peremptorily. "It ain't anything."
When Lois went into the house, her mother gave her a curious look of stern defiance and anxiety. She saw that her eyes were red, as if she had been crying, but she said nothing, and went about getting tea.
After tea the minister and his wife called. Green River was a conservative little New England village; it had always been the custom there when the minister called to invite him to offer a prayer. Mrs. Field felt it incumbent upon her now; if she had any reluctance, she did not yield to it. Just before the callers left she said, with the conventional solemn drop of the voice, "Mr. Wheeler, won't you offer a prayer before you go?"
The minister was an elderly man with a dull benignity of manner; he had not said much; his wife, who was portly and full of gracious volubility, had done most of the talking. Now she immediately sank down upon her knees with a wide flare of her skirts, and her husband then twisted himself out of his chair, clearing his throat impressively. Mrs. Field stood up, and got down on her stiff knees with an effort. Lois slid down from the sofa and went out of the room. She stole through her mother's into her own bedroom, and locked herself in as usual, then she lay down on her bed. She could hear the low rumble of the minister's voice for some time; then it ceased. She heard the chairs pushed back; then the minister's wife's voice in the gracious crescendo of parting; then the closing of the front door. Shortly afterward she heard a door open, and another voice, which she recognized as Mrs. Maxwell's. The voice talked on and on; once in a while she heard her mother's in brief reply. It grew dark; presently she heard heavy shuffling steps on the stairs; something knocked violently against the wall; the side door, which was near her room, was opened. Lois got up and peered out of the window; her mother and Mrs. Maxwell went slowly and painfully down the driveway, carrying a bureau between them.
Mrs. Maxwell had invited Mrs. Field and Lois to take tea with her the next afternoon, and had hinted there might be other company. "There's a good many I should like to ask," she had said, "but I ain't situated so I can jest now, an' it's a dreadful puzzle to know who to leave out without offendin' them. I'm goin' to have the minister an' his wife anyhow, an' Lawyer Tuxbury an' his sister. I should ask Flora, but if she comes the children have got to, an' I can't have them anyhow; they're the worst-actin' young ones at the table I ever saw in my life. There's two or three men I'm goin' to ask. Now you an' Lois come real early, Esther."
Mrs. Field's ideas of early, when invited to spend the afternoon and take tea, were primitive. Directly after the dinner dishes were put away, about one o'clock, she spoke to Lois in the harsh, defiant tone she now used toward her. "You'd better go an' get ready," said she. "She wanted us to come early."
A stubborn look came into Lois's face. "I ain't going," said she, in an undertone.
"What did you say?"
"I ain't going."
"Then you can stay to home, if you want to get your mother into trouble an' make folks think we're guilty of somethin'."
Mrs. Field went into her bedroom to get ready. Presently Lois went softly through on her way to her own. Jane Field stood before her little mirror, brushed her gray hair in smooth curves around her ears, and pinned her black woollen dress with a gold-rimmed brooch containing her dead sister's and her husband's hair.
Lois, before her own glass, twisted up her pretty hair carefully; she pulled a few curly locks loose on her temples, thinking half indignantly and shamefacedly how she should see that young man again. Lois was bewildered and terrified, borne down by reflected guilt, almost as if it were her own. She had a wild dread of this going out to tea, meeting more strangers, and seeing her mother act out a further lie; but she could not help being a young girl, and arranging those little locks on her forehead for Francis Arms to see.
When she and her mother stepped out of the door, a strong wind came in their faces.
"Wait a minute," said Mrs. Field. She went back into the house and got Lois's sack. "Put this on," said she.
And Lois put it on.
The wind was from the east, and had the salt smell of the sea. All the white-flowering bushes in the yards and the fruit trees bowed toward the west. There was a storm of white petals. Lois, as she and her mother walked against the wind, kept putting her hand to her hair, to keep it in place.
Mrs. Maxwell's house was a large cottage with a steep Gothic roof jutting over a piazza on each side. The house was an old one, and originally very simple in its design; but there had been evidently at some time a flood-tide of prosperity in the fortunes of its owner, which had left marks in various improvements. There was a large ornate bay-window in front, which contrasted oddly with the severe white peak of wall above it; the piazzas had railings in elaborate scroll-work; and the windows were set with four large panes of glass, instead of the original twelve small ones. The front yard was inclosed by a fine iron fence. But the highest mark was shown by a little white marble statue in the midst of it. There was no other in the village outside of the cemetery. Mrs. Jane Maxwell's house was always described to inquiring strangers as the one with the statue in front of it.
Lois, as they went up the walk, looked wonderingly at this marble girl standing straight and white in the midst of a votive circle of box. The walk, too, was bordered with box, and there was a strange pungent odor from it.
Mrs. Field rang the door-bell, and she and Lois stood waiting. Nobody came.
Mrs. Field rang again and again. "I'm goin' round to the other door," she announced finally. "Mebbe they don't use this one."
Lois followed her mother around to the other side of the house to the door opening on the south piazza. Mrs. Field rang again, and they waited: then she gave a harder pull. A voice sounded unexpectedly close to them from behind the blinds of a window:
"You jest walk right in," said the voice, which was at once flurried and ceremonious. "Open the door an' go right in, an' turn to the right, an' set down in the parlor. I'll be in in jest a minute. I ain't quite dressed."
Lois and her mother went in as they were directed, and sat down in two of the parlor chairs. The room looked very grand to Mrs. Field. She stared at the red velvet furniture, the tapestry carpet, and the long lace curtains, and thought, with a hardening heart, how, at all events, she was not defrauding this other woman of a fine parlor. It was to her mind much more splendid than the sitting-room in the other house, with its dim old-fashioned state, and even than the great north parlor, whose furniture and paper had been imported from England at great cost nearly a hundred years ago.
Mrs. Maxwell did not appear for a half-hour. Now and then they heard a scurry of feet, the rattle of dishes, and the closing of a door. They sat primly waiting. They had not removed their wraps. Lois looked very pale against the red back of her chair.
"Don't you feel well?" asked her mother.
"Yes, I feel well enough," replied Lois.
"You look sick enough," said her mother harshly.
Lois looked out of the window at the marble girl in the yard, and her mouth quivered.
Presently Mrs. Maxwell came, in her soft flurry of silk and old ribbons. She had on a black lace head-dress trimmed with purple flowers, and she wore her black kid gloves.
"I'm real sorry I had to keep you waitin' so long, Esther," said she; "but we were kinder late about dinner. Do take off your things. Flora she'll be down in a few minutes; she's jest gone upstairs to change her dress an' comb her hair. It's a beautiful day, ain't it?"
The three settled themselves in the parlor. Lois sat beside the window, her hands folded meekly in her lap; her mother and Mrs. Maxwell knitted.
"Don't you do any fancy-work, Lois?" asked Mrs. Maxwell.
"No, she don't do much," replied her mother for her.
"Don't she? I'd like to know! Now Flora, she does considerable. She's makin' a real handsome tidy now. She'll show you how, Lois, if you'd like to make one. It's real easy an' it don't cost a great deal—but then cost ain't much object to you." Mrs. Maxwell laughed an unpleasant snigger. Then she resumed: "Some tidies would look real handsome on some of them great bare chairs over to your house; there ain't one there so far as I know. Thomas he wouldn't never have a new thing in the house; he was terrible set and notional about it and he was terrible tight with his money. I don't care if I do say it; everybody knows it; an' I don't see why it's any worse to say things that's true about the dead than the livin'. With some folks it's all 'Oh, don't say nothin'; he's dead. Cover it all up; he's buried an' bury it too, an' set all the roses an' pinks a-growin' over it.' I tell you sometimes nettles will sprout, an' when they do, it don't make it any better to call 'em pinks. Thomas Maxwell was terrible tight. I ain't forgot how he talked because we bought this parlor furniture and put big lights in the windows, an' had that iron fence. Then my poor husband had gone into business with your husband, an' they seemed to be making money. Why shouldn't he have bought a few things we'd always done without, I'd like to know? You remember what a time the old man made when we bought these things, Esther, I suppose?"
"I can't say as I do," returned Mrs. Field.
"Why, seems to me it's funny you don't. You sure?"
Mrs. Field nodded.
"Well, it's queer you don't. He made an awful time over it; but the worst of it was over that image out in the yard. I b'lieve he always thought my poor husband and yours failed up because we bought that image. There was one thing about it, your husband wa'n't never extravagant, though, was he? Thomas Maxwell couldn't say his son wasted his money, whatever else he said. Your husband was always prudent, wa'n't he, Esther?"
"Yes, I always thought Edward Maxwell was prudent," returned Mrs. Field.
Lois, staring soberly and miserably out of the window, saw just then a stout girlish figure, leant to one side with the weight of a valise, pass hurriedly out of the yard. She wondered if it was Flora Maxwell, and watched the pink flowers in her hat and the blue folds of her dress out of sight down the street.
"I guess your husband took after his father a little; I guess he was a little savin'," said Mrs. Maxwell. "I know Edward looked kind of scared when he came over one night an' saw that image just after we'd got it set up, an' he asked how much it cost. It did cost considerable. We didn't ever tell anybody just how much; but I didn't care; I'd always wanted one; an' I made up my mind I'd rather have that if I had to go without some other things. An' my husband wanted it too; he was one of the Maxwells, you know, an' I think they all had a taste for such things if they wa'n't too tight to get 'em. As for me, I had to do without all my young days, an' I have to now except for the few things we got together along then when my poor husband seemed to be prospering; but I've always been crazy over images, an' I've always thought one in a front yard was about the most ornamental thing anybody could have. I've told Flora a good many times that I believed if I'd had advantages when I was young, I should have made images. Don't you think that one's handsome, Esther?"
"Real handsome," said Mrs. Field.
"Some folks have found fault with it because it didn't have more clothes on, but it ain't as if it was in a cemetery. Of course it would have to be dressed different if it was. An' it ain't anything but marble, when you come right down to it. I think there's such a thing as bein' too particular, for my part, don't you?"
"Yes, I do," replied Mrs. Field, looking out at the marble figure.
"Well, I do. Mis' Jay said, after my husband died, that she should think I'd like to put up that image for a kind of monument for him. I didn't feel as if I could put up anything more than stones; but I did think a little of it, and I knew if I did, I should have to have some wings made on it, and a cape or a shawl over the neck and arms; but out here it's different. I look out at it a good many times, an' I'm thankful it ain't got any more on, clothes do get so out of fashion. You know how they look in photographs sometimes. I s'pose that's the reason that the men who make these images don't put any more on. There! I must show you my photograph album, Esther."
Mrs. Maxwell took a heavy album with gilt clasps from the centre-table, and drew a chair close to Mrs. Field.
"Now you get a chair, an' come on the other side, Lois," said she, "an' I can show 'em to both of you."
Lois obeyed, and Mrs. Maxwell turned over the album leaves and explained the pictures.
"This is a lady I used to know," said she. "She lived in North Elliot. She's dead now. That's her husband; he's married again. His second wife's kind of silly. Ain't much like the first one. She was a real stepper. That's Flora Lowe's baby—the first one—an' that's Flora. I think it flatters her. That's my Flora. It ain't very good. She looks terrible sober. There's my poor husband. I s'pose you remember him, Esther? Of course you know how he used to look. Do you think it's a good likeness?"
"I don't know. I guess it's pretty good, ain't it?" stammered Mrs. Field.
"Well, some think it is, and some don't. I ain't never liked it very well myself, but it was all I had. It was taken some years before he died. I guess jest about the time you was down here. There! I s'pose you know whose this is?"
It was her own photograph that Mrs. Field leant over and saw, and Lois on the other side saw it also.
"Yes, I guess I do," she said.
"Was it a pretty good one of your sister?"
There was a strange gulping sound in Mrs. Field's throat. She did not answer. Mrs. Maxwell thought she did not hear, and repeated her question.
"No, I don't think 'twas, very," said Mrs. Field hoarsely.
"Well, of course I don't know. I never see her. You remember you gave this to me when you was here. I always thought you must look alike, judging from your pictures. I never see pictures so much alike in my life. I don't know how many folks have thought they were taken for the same person, an' I've always thought so too. If anything your sister's picture looks more like you than your own does; but I've always told which was which by that breast-pin in your sister's. Why, you've got on that breast-pin now, ain't you, Esther?"
"Yes, I have," said Mrs. Field.
"I s'pose your sister left it to you. Well, Lois wouldn't want to wear it as I know of. It's rather old for her. Why, Lois, what's the matter?"
Lois had gotten up abruptly. "I guess I'll go over to the window," said she, in a quick trembling voice.
Mrs. Maxwell looked at her sharply. "Why, you're dreadful pale. You ain't faint, are you?"
Mrs. Field turned over another page of the album. Her pale face had a hard, indifferent look. Mrs. Maxwell nudged her, and nodded toward Lois in the window.
"She looks dreadful," she whispered.
"I don't see as she looks any worse than she's been doin' right along," said Mrs. Field, without lowering her voice. "What baby is this?"
"It's Mis' Robinson's; it's dead. Hadn't I better get her something to take? I've got some currant wine. Maybe a little of that would do her good."
"No, thank you; I don't care for any," Lois interposed quickly.
"Hadn't you better have a little? You look real pale."
"No, thank you."
"Now you needn't mind takin' it, Lois, if you do belong to any temperance society. It wouldn't go to the head of a baby kitten."
"I'm just as much obliged, but I don't care for any," said Lois.
Mrs. Maxwell turned over a page of the album. "That's Mis' Robinson's sister. She's dead too. She married a man over at Milton, an' didn't live a year," she said ostentatiously. "Hadn't I better get her a little?" she whispered.
"Mebbe it would do her good, if you've got it to spare," Mrs. Field whispered back.
"Here's the minister's little boy that died," said Mrs. Maxwell. "He wasn't sick but a day. He ate milk an' cherries. I wonder where Flora is? She didn't have a thing to do but comb her hair and change her dress. I guess I'll go call her."
Mrs. Maxwell's face was frowning with innocent purpose, but there was a sly note in her voice. She hurried out of the room and they heard her call, "Flora! Flora!" in the entry. Then they heard her footsteps on the cellar stairs.
Lois turned to her mother. "Mother," said she, "I can't stand it—I can't stand it anyway in the world."
Her mother turned over another page of the photograph album. She looked at a faded picture of a middle-aged woman, whose severe and melancholy face seemed to have betrayed all the sadness and toil of her whole life to the camera. She noted deliberately the old-fashioned sweep of the skirt quite across the little card, and the obsolete sleeves, then she spoke as if she were talking to the picture: "I'm a-followin' out my own law an' my own right," said she. "I ain't ashamed of it. If you want to be you can."
"It's awful. Oh, mother, don't!"
"A good many things are awful," said her mother. "Injustice is awful; if you want to set yourself up against your mother, you can. I've laid out this road that's just an' right, an' I'm goin' on it; you can do jest as you're a-mind to. If you want to tell her when she comes back, you can. I ain't ashamed of it, for I know I'm doin' what is just an' right."
Mrs. Field noted how the photographed woman's dress was trimmed with fringe, after the fashion of one she had worn twenty years ago.
Lois looked across the room at her mother's pale, stern face bending over the album. The garlands on Mrs. Maxwell's parlor carpet might have been the flora of a whole age, she and her mother seemed so far apart, with that recession of soul which can cover more than earthly spaces. To the young girl with her scared, indignant eyes the older woman seemed actually living and breathing under new conditions in some strange element.
"Flora, Flora, where be you?" Mrs. Maxwell called out in the entry.
They heard her climbing the chamber stairs; but she soon came into the parlor with a little glass of currant wine.
"Here, you'd better drink this right down," she said to Lois; "it won't hurt you. I don't see where Flora is, for my part. She ain't upstairs. Drink it right down."
Lois drank the little glass of wine without any demur. Her mother glanced sharply at the album as she took it.
"I can't imagine where Flora is," said Mrs. Maxwell.
"I saw somebody go out of the yard a while ago," said Lois.
"You did? Was she kind of stout with light hair?"
"It was Flora then. I don't see where she's gone. Mebbe she went down to the store to get some more thread for her tidy. Now I guess you'll feel better."
"Who's this a picture of?" asked Mrs. Field.
"Hold it up. Oh, that's Mis' John Robbins! She's dead. Yes, I guess Flora must have gone after that thread. She'll show you how to make that tidy, Lois, if you want to learn; it's real handsome. I guess she'll be here before long."
But when Mrs. Maxwell had shown her guests all the photographs in the album and a book of views in Palestine, and it was nearly four o'clock, Flora still had not come.
"Do you see anybody comin'?" Mrs. Maxwell kept asking Lois at the window.
Before Mrs. Maxwell spoke, a nervous vibration seemed to seize upon her whole body. She cleared her throat sharply. It was like a premonitory click of machinery before motion, and Lois waited, numb with fear, for what she might say. Suppose she should suddenly suspect, and should cry out, "Is this woman here Esther Maxwell?"
But all Mrs. Maxwell's thoughts were on her absent daughter. "I don't see where she is," said she. "Here she's got to make cream-tarter biscuits for tea, an' it's 'most time for the folks to come."
"I'm afraid we came too early," said Mrs. Field.
"Oh, no, you didn't," returned Mrs. Maxwell politely. "It ain't half as pleasant goin' as late as they do here when they're asked out to tea. You don't see anything of 'em; they begin to eat jest as soon as they come, an' it seems as if that was all they come for. The old-fashioned way of goin' right after dinner, an' takin' your sewin's, a good deal better, accordin' to my way of thinkin', but they ain't done so for years here. Elliot is a pretty fashionable place. I s'pose it must be very different up in Green River, where you come from?"
"Yes, I guess 'tis," said Mrs. Field.
The front gate clicked, and Mrs. Maxwell peered cautiously around a lace curtain. Two ladies in their best black dresses came up the walk, stepping with a pleasant ceremony.
"There's Mis' Isaac Robbins an' Ann 'Liza White," Mrs. Maxwell whispered agitatedly. "I shall have to go right out in the kitchen an' make them biscuits the minute they get here. I don't see what Flora Maxwell is thinkin' of."
Mrs. Maxwell greeted her friends at the door with a dignified bustle, showed them into her bedroom to lay aside their bonnets; then she introduced them to Mrs. Field and Lois in the parlor.
"There!" said she; "now I've got to let you entertain each other a few minutes. I've got something to see to. Flora she's stepped out, an' I guess she's forgot how late 'tis."
After Mrs. Maxwell had left the room, the guests sat around with a kind of solemn primness as if they were in meeting; they seemed almost hostile. The elder of the new-comers took out her knitting, and fell to work. She was a tall, pale, severely wrinkled woman, and a ruffled trimming on her dress gave her high shoulders a curiously girlish air. Finally the woman who had come with her asked pantingly how Mrs. Field liked Elliot, and if she thought it changed much. The color flashed over her little face, with its softly scalloping profile, as she spoke. Her hair was crimped in even waves. She wore nice white ruching in her neck and sleeves, and flat satin folds crossed each other exactly over her flat chest. Her nervous self-consciousness did not ruffle her fine order, and she did not smile as she spoke.
"I like it pretty well," replied Mrs. Field. "I dunno as I can tell whether it's changed much or not." She knitted fast.
"The meetin'-house has been made over since you was here," volunteered the elder woman. She did not look up from her knitting.
Presently Lois, at the window, saw Mr. Tuxbury's sister, Mrs. Lowe, coming, and the minister's wife, hurrying with a voluminous swing of her skirts, in her wake. The minister's wife had been calling, but Mrs. Lowe, who was a little deaf, had not heard her, and it was not until she shut the iron gate almost in her face that she saw her. Then the two came up the walk together. Lois watched them. The coming of all these people was to her like the closing in of a crowd of witnesses, and for her guilt instead of her mother's. The minister's wife looked up and nodded graciously to her, setting the bunch of red and white cherries on her bonnet trembling. Lois inclined her pale young face soberly in response.
"That girl looks sick," said the minister's wife to Mrs. Lowe.
There was no more silence and primness after the minister's wife entered. Her florid face beamed on them all with masterly smiles. She put the glasses fastened to her high satin bosom with a gold chain to her eyes, and began sewing on a white apron. "I meant to have come before," said she, "and brought my sewing and had a real sociable time, but one thing after another has delayed me; and I don't know when Mr. Wheeler will get here; I left him with a caller. But we have been delayed very pleasantly in one respect;" she looked smilingly and significantly at Mrs. Maxwell.
All the other ladies stared. Mrs. Maxwell, standing in their midst, with a large cambric apron over her dress, and a powder of flour on one cheek, looked wonderingly back at the minister's wife.
"I suppose you all know what I mean?" said Mrs. Wheeler, still smiling. "I suppose Mrs. Maxwell has not kept the glad tidings to herself." In spite of her smiling face, there was a slight doubt and hesitancy in her manner.
Mrs. Maxwell's old face suddenly paled, and at the same time grew alert. Her black eyes, on Mrs. Wheeler's face, were sharply bright.
"Mebbe I have, an' mebbe I ain't," said she, and she smiled too.
"Well," said the minister's wife, "I told Flora that her mother must be a brave woman to invite company to tea the afternoon her daughter was married, and I thought we all ought to appreciate it."
The other women gasped. Mrs. Maxwell's face was yellow-white in its framework of curls; there was a curious noise in her throat, like a premonitory click of a clock before striking.
"Well," said she, "Flora 'd had this day set for the weddin' for six months. When her uncle died, we talked a little about puttin' of it off, but she thought 'twas a bad sign. So it seemed best for her to get married without any fuss at all about it. An' I thought if I had a little company to tea, it would do as well as a weddin'."
Mrs. Maxwell's old black eyes travelled slowly and unflinchingly around the company, resting on each in turn as if she had with each a bout of single combat. The other women's eyes were full of scared questionings as they met hers.
"They got off in the three-o'clock train," remarked the minister's wife, trying to speak easily.
"That was the one they'd talked of," said Mrs. Maxwell calmly. "Now I guess I shall have to leave you ladies to entertain each other a few minutes."
When Mrs. Maxwell had left the room, the ladies stared at each other.
"Do you s'pose she didn't know about it?" whispered Mrs. Lowe.
"I don't know," whispered the minister's wife. "I was very much afraid she didn't at first. I began to feel very nervous. I knew Mr. Wheeler would have been much distressed if he had suspected anything clandestine."
"Did she have a new dress?" asked Mrs. Robbins.
"No," replied the minister's wife; "and that was one thing that made me suspicious. She wore her old blue one, but George Freeman wore a nice new suit."
"I heard," said Mrs. Lowe, "that Flora had all her under-clothes made before old Mr. Maxwell died, an' she hadn't got any of her dresses. I had it pretty straight. She told my Flora."
"I had heard that the wedding was postponed on account of Mr. Maxwell's death, and so I was a little surprised when Mr. Wheeler came to me and said they were in the parlor to be married," said the minister's wife; "but I put on my dress as quick as I could, and went in to witness it."
"How did Flora appear?" asked Mrs. Lowe.
"Well, I thought she looked rather sober, but I don't know as she looked any more so than girls usually do when they're married. I have seen them come to the parsonage looking more as if they were going to their own funerals than their weddings, they were so scared and quiet and sober. Now Flora—" The minister's wife stopped short, she heard Mrs. Maxwell coming and she turned the conversation with a jolt of conscience into another channel. "Yes, it is very dry," said she effusively; "we need rain very much indeed."
The little woman with the crimped hair colored very painfully.
Mrs. Maxwell made frequent errands into the room, and her daughter's wedding had to be discussed guardedly. Always after she went out, the women looked at each other in an agony of inquiry.
"Do you s'pose she knew?" they whispered.
Mrs. Field said nothing; she sat grimly quiet, knitting. Lois looked silently out of the window. Both of them knew that Mrs. Maxwell had not known of her daughter's wedding. Presently a man's voice could be heard out in the kitchen.
"It's Francis," said Mrs. Lowe. "I wonder if he knew?"
Lois started, and blushed softly, but nobody noticed her.
There was a deep silence in the parlor; the women were listening to the hum of voices in the kitchen.
"Don't you think it's dreadful close here?" said Mrs. Lowe.
"Yes, I think it is," assented the minister's wife.
"I think it would be a good plan to open the door a little ways," said Mrs. Lowe, and she opened it cautiously.
Still they could distinguish nothing from the hum of voices out in the kitchen.
Mrs. Maxwell was in reality speaking low lest they should hear, although she was clutching her nephew's arm hard, and the veins in her thin temples and her throat were swelling purple. When he had entered she had sprung at him. "Did you hear about it? I want to know if you knew about it," said she, grasping his arm with her wiry fingers, as if she were trying to wreak her anger on him.
"Knew about what?" said Francis wonderingly. "What is the matter, Aunt Jane?"
"Did you know Flora went to the minister's and got married this afternoon?"
"No," said Francis slowly, "I didn't; but I knew she would, well enough."
"Did Flora tell you?"
"No, she didn't tell me, but I knew she wouldn't do anything else."
"Knew she wouldn't do anything else? I'd like to know what you're talkin' about, Francis Arms."
"I knew as long as she was Flora Maxwell, and her wedding was set for to-day three months ago, it wasn't very likely that old Mr. Maxwell's dying and not leaving her his money, and your not liking it, was going to stop her."
"Hadn't it ought to have stopped her? Hadn't the wishes of a mother that's slaved for her all her life, and didn't want her to get married without a silk gown to her back to a man that ain't any prospects of being able to buy her any, ought to have stopped her, I'd like to know?"
"I guess Flora didn't think much about silk gowns, Aunt Jane," said Francis, and his face reddened a little. "I guess she didn't think much about anything but George."
"George! What's George Freeman? What's all the Freemans? I ain't never liked them. They wa'n't never up to our folks. His mother ain't never had a black silk dress to her name—never had a thing better than black cashmere, an' they ain't never had a thing but oil-cloth in their front entry, an' the Perry's ain't never noticed them either. I ain't never wanted Flora to go into that family. I never felt as if she was lookin' high enough, an' I knew George couldn't get no kind of a livin' jest being clerk in Mason's store. But I felt different about it before Thomas died, for I thought she'd have money enough of her own, an' she was gettin' a little on in years, and George was good-lookin' enough. After Thomas died an' left all his money to Edward's wife, I hadn't an idea Flora would be such a fool as to think of marryin' George Freeman. She'd been better off if she'd never been married. I thought she'd given up all notions of it."
"Well, don't you worry, Aunt Jane," said Francis in a hearty voice. "Make the best of it. I guess they'll get along all right. If George can't buy Flora a silk dress I will. I'd have bought her one anyway if I'd known."
"You can stand up for her all you want to, Francis Arms," cried his aunt. "It's nothin' more than I ought to expect. What do you s'pose I'm goin' to do? Here I am with all these folks to tea an' Flora gone. She might have waited till to-morrow. Here they are all pryin' an' suspectin'. But they shan't know if I die for it. They shan't know that good-for-nothin' girl went off an' got married unbeknown to me. They've had enough to crow over because we didn't get Thomas Maxwell's money; they shan't have this nohow. You'll have to lend me some money, an' I'm goin' to Boston to-morrow an' I'm goin' to buy a silk dress for Flora an' get it made, so she can go out bride when she comes home; an' they've got to come here an' board. I might jest as well have the board-money as them Freemans, an' folks shan't think we ain't on good terms. Can you let me have some money to-morrow mornin'?"
"Of course I can, Aunt Jane," said Francis soothingly. "I'll make Flora a wedding-present of it."
"I don't want it for a weddin'-present. I'll pay you back some time. If you're goin' to give her a weddin'-present, I'd rather you'd give her somethin' silver that she can show. I ain't goin' to have you give her clothes for a weddin'-present, as if we was poor as the Freemans. You didn't have any pride. There ain't anybody in this family ever had any pride but me, an' I have to keep it up, an' nobody liftin' a finger to help me. Oh, dear!" the old woman quivered from head to foot. Her face worked as if she was in silent hysterics.
"Don't, Aunt Jane," whispered her nephew—"don't feel so bad. Maybe it's all for the best. Why, what is the matter with your wrist?"
"I burned it takin' the biscuit out of the oven," she groaned.
"Why, it's an awful burn. Don't you want something on it?"
"No, I don't mind no burns."
Suddenly Mrs. Maxwell moved away from her nephew. She began arranging the plates on the table. "You go into the parlor," said she sharply, "an' don't you let 'em know you didn't know about it. You act kind of easy an' natural when they speak about it. You go right in; tea won't be ready quite yet. I've got something a little extra to see about."
Francis went into the parlor and greeted the guests, shaking hands with them rather boyishly and awkwardly. The minister's wife made room for him on the sofa beside her.
"I suppose you'd like to hear about your cousin's wedding that I went to this afternoon," said she, with a blandness that had a covert meaning to the other women, who listened eagerly.
"Yes, I would," replied Francis, with steady gravity.
"I suppose it wasn't such a surprise to you as it was to us?" said she directly, and the other women panted.
"No, I suppose it wasn't," said Francis.
Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins glanced at each other.
"He knew," Mrs. Lowe motioned with her lips, nodding.
"She didn't," Mrs. Robbins motioned back, shaking her head.
Francis sat beside the minister's wife. She talked on about the wedding, and he listened soberly and assentingly.
"Well, it will be your turn next, Francis," said she, with a sly graciousness, and the young man reddened, and laughed constrainedly.
Francis seldom glanced at Lois, but it was as if her little figure in the window was all he saw in the room. She seemed so near his consciousness that she shut out all else besides. Lois did not look at him, but once in a while she put up her hand and arranged the hair on her forehead, and after she had done so felt as if she saw herself with his eyes. The air was growing cool; presently Lois coughed.
"You'd better come away from that window," said Mrs. Field, speaking out suddenly.
There was no solicitude in her tone; it was more like harsh command. Everybody looked at Lois; Francis with an anxious interest. He partly arose as if to make room for her on the sofa, but she simply moved her chair farther back. Presently Francis went over and shut the window.
The minister, Mr. Tuxbury, and Mrs. Robbin's husband all arrived together shortly afterward. Mrs. Maxwell announced that tea was ready.
"Will you please walk out to tea?" said she, standing at the door, in a ceremonious hush. And the company arose hesitatingly, looking at one another for precedence, and straggled out.
"You sit here," said Mrs. Maxwell to Lois, and she pointed to a chair beside Francis.
Lois sat down and fixed her eyes upon her green and white plate while the minister asked the blessing.
"It's a pleasant day, isn't it?" said Francis's voice in her ear, when Mrs. Maxwell began pouring the tea.
"Real pleasant," said Lois.
Mrs. Maxwell had on her black gloves pouring the tea. The women eyed them surreptitiously. She wore them always in company, but this was an innovation. They did not know how she had put them on to conceal the burn in her wrist which she had gotten in her blind fury as she flew about the kitchen preparing supper, handling all the household utensils as if they were weapons to attack Providence.
Mrs. Maxwell poured the tea and portioned out the sugar with her black-gloved hands, and Mrs. Field stiffly buttered her biscuits. Nobody dreamed of the wolves at the vitals of these two old women.
However, the eyes of the guests from the first had wandered to a cake in the centre of the table. It was an oblong black cake; it was set on a plate surrounded thickly with sprigs of myrtle, and upon the top lay a little bouquet of white flowers and green leaves. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins, who sat side by side, looked at each other. Mrs. Lowe's eyes said, "Is that a wedding-cake?" and Mrs. Robbin's said: "I dunno; it ain't frosted. It looks jest like a loaf she's had on hand."
But nothing could exceed the repose and dignity with which Mrs. Maxwell, at the last stage of the meal, requested her nephew to pass the cake to her. Nobody could have dreamed as she cut it, every turn of her burned wrist giving her pain, of the frantic haste with which she had taken that old fruit cake out of the jar down-cellar, and pulled those sprigs of myrtle from the bank under the north windows.
"Will you have some weddin'-cake?" said she.
The ladies each took a slice gingerly and respectfully. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins nodded to each other imperceptibly. The cake was not iced with those fine devices which usually make a wedding-loaf, it was rather dry, and not particularly rich; but Mrs. Maxwell's perfect manner as she cut and served it, her acting on her own little histrionic stage, had swayed them to her will. Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Robbins both thought she knew. But the minister's wife still doubted; and later, when the other women were removed from the spell of her acting, their old suspicions returned. It was always a mooted question in Elliot whether or not Mrs. Jane Maxwell had known of her daughter's marriage. Not all her subsequent behavior, her meeting the young couple with open arms at the station on their return, and Flora's appearance at church the next Sunday in the silk dress which her mother had concocted during her absence, could quite allay the suspicion, although it prevented it from gaining ground.
All that evening Mrs. Maxwell's courage never flagged. She entertained her guests as well as a woman of Sparta could have done. She even had the coolness to prosecute other projects which she had in mind. She kept Mrs. Field and Lois behind the rest, and walked home with the mother, that Francis might have the girl to himself. And she went into the house with Mrs. Field, and slipped a parcel into her pocket, while the two young people had a parting word at the gate.
It was a hot afternoon in August. Amanda Pratt had set all her windows wide open, but no breeze came in, only the fervid breath of the fields and the white road outside.
She sat at a front window and darned a white stocking; her long, thin arms and her neck showed faintly through her old loose muslin sacque. The muslin was white, with a close-set lavender sprig, and she wore a cameo brooch at her throat. The blinds were closed, and she had to bend low over her mending in order to see in the green gloom.
Mrs. Babcock came toiling up the bank to the house, but Amanda did not notice her until she reached the front door. Then she fetched a great laboring sigh.
"Oh, hum!" said she, audibly, in a wrathful voice; "if I'd had any idea of it, I wouldn't have come a step."
Then Amanda looked out with a start. "Is that you, Mis' Babcock?" she called hospitably through the blind.
"Yes, it's me—what's left of me. Oh, hum! Oh, hum!"
Amanda ran and opened the door, and Mrs. Babcock entered, panting. She had a green umbrella, which she furled with difficulty at the door, and a palm-leaf fan. Her face, in the depths of her scooping green barege bonnet, was dank with perspiration, and scowling with indignant misery. She sank into a chair, and fanned herself with a desperate air.
Amanda set her umbrella in the corner, then she stood looking sympathetically at her. "It's a pretty hot day, ain't it?" said she.
"I should think 'twas hot. Oh, hum!"
"Don't you want me to get you a tumbler of water?"
"I dunno. I don't drink much cold water; it don't agree with me very well. Oh, dear! You ain't got any of your beer made, I s'pose?"