"Oh, no, I ain't. I'm dreadful sorry. Don't you want a swaller of cold tea?"
"Well, I dunno but I'll have jest a swaller, if you've got some. Oh, dear me, hum!"
Amanda went out hurriedly, and returned with a britannia teapot and a tumbler. She poured out some tea, and Mrs. Babcock drank with desperate gulps.
"I think cold tea is better for anybody than cold water in hot weather," said Amanda. "Won't you have another swaller, Mis' Babcock?"
Mrs. Babcock shook her head, and Amanda carried the teapot and tumbler back to the kitchen, then she seated herself again, and resumed her mending. Mrs. Babcock fanned and panted, and eyed Amanda.
"You look cool enough in that old muslin sacque," said she, in a tone of vicious injury.
"Yes, it is real cool. I've kept this sacque on purpose for a real hot day."
"Well, it's dreadful long in the shoulder seams, 'cordin' to the way they make 'em now, but I s'pose it's cool. Oh, hum! I ruther guess I shouldn't have come out of the house, if I'd any idea how hot 'twas in the sun. Seems to me it's hot as an oven here. I should think you'd air off your house early in the mornin', an' then shut your windows tight, an' keep the heat out."
"I know some folks do that way," said Amanda.
"Well, I always do, an' I guess 'most everybody does that's good housekeepers. It makes a sight of difference."
Amanda said nothing, but she sat straighter.
"I s'pose you don't have to make any fire from mornin' till night; seems as if you might keep cool."
"No, I don't have to."
"Well, I do. There I had to go to work to-day an' cook squash an' beans an' green corn. The men folks ain't satisfied if they don't have 'em in the time of 'em. I wish sometimes there wasn't no such thing as garden sauce. I tell 'em sometimes I guess if they had to get the things ready an' cook 'em themselves, they'd go without. Seems sometimes as if the whole creation was like a kitchen without any pump in it, specially contrived to make women folks extra work. Looks to me as if pease without pods could have been contrived pretty easy, and it does seem as if there wasn't any need of havin' strings on the beans."
"Mis' Green has got a kind of beans without any strings," said Amanda. "She brought me over some the other day, an' they were about the best I ever eat."
"Well, I know there is a kind without strings," returned Mrs. Babcock; "but I ain't got none in my garden, an' I never shall have. It ain't my lot to have things come easy. Seems as if it got hotter an' hotter. Why don't you open your front door?"
"Jest as sure as I do, the house will be swarmin' with flies."
"You'd ought to have a screen-door. I made Adoniram make me one five years ago, an' it's a real nice one; but I know, of course, you ain't got nobody to make one for you. Once in a while it seems as if men folks come in kinder handy, an' they'd ought to, when women work an' slave the way I do to fill 'em up. Mebbe some time when Adoniram ain't drove, I could get him to make a door for you. Mebbe some time next winter."
"I s'pose it would be nice," replied Amanda. "You're real kind to offer, Mis' Babcock."
"Well, I s'pose women that have men folks to do for 'em ought to be kind of obligin' sometimes to them that ain't. I'll see if I can get Adoniram to make you a screen-door next winter. Seems to me it does get hotter an' hotter. For the land sakes, Amanda Pratt! what are you cuttin' that great hole in that stockin' heel for? Are you crazy?"
Amanda colored. "The other stockin's got a hole in it," said she, "an' I'm makin' 'em match."
"Cuttin' a great big hole in a stockin' heel on purpose to darn? Mandy Pratt, you ain't?"
"I am," replied Amanda, with dignity.
"Well, if you ain't a double and twisted old maid!" gasped Mrs. Babcock.
Amanda's long face and her neck were a delicate red.
Mrs. Babcock laughed a loud, sarcastic cackle. "I never—did!" she giggled.
Amanda opened her mouth as if to speak, then she shut it tightly, remembering the offer of the screen-door. She had had so few gifts in her whole life that she had a meek impulse of gratitude even if one were thrust into her hand hard enough to hurt her.
"Well," Mrs. Babcock continued, still sniggering unpleasantly, "I don't want to hurt your feelin's, Mandy; you needn't color up so; but I can't help laughin'."
"Laugh, then, if you want to," said Amanda, with a quick flash. She forgot the screen-door.
Mrs. Babcock drew her face down quickly. "Land, Mandy," said she, "don't get mad. I didn't mean anything. Anybody knows that old maids is jest as good as them that gets married. I ain't told you what I come over here for. I declare I got so terrible heated up, I couldn't think of nothin'. Look here, Mandy."
Amanda mended on the stocking foot drawn tightly over her left hand, and did not raise her eyes.
"Mandy, you ain't mad, be you? You know I didn't mean nothin'."
"I ain't mad," replied Amanda, in a constrained tone.
"Well, there ain't nothin' to be mad about. Look here, Mandy, how long is it since Mis' Field and Lois went?"
"About three months."
"Look here! I dunno what you'll say, but I think Mis' Green thought real favorable of it. Do you know how cheap you can go down to Boston an' back now?"
Amanda looked up. "No. Why?" said she.
Mrs. Babcock stopped fanning and leaned forward. "Amanda Pratt, you can go down to Boston an' back, an' be gone a week, for—three dollars an' sixty cents."
Amanda stared back at her in a startled way.
"Let's you an' me an' Mis' Green go down an' see Mis' Field an' Lois," said Mrs. Babcock, in a tragic voice.
Amanda turned pale. "They don't live in Boston," she said, with a bewildered air.
"We can go down to Boston on the early train," replied Mrs. Babcock, importantly. "Then we can have all the afternoon to go round Boston an' see the sights, an' then, toward night, we can go out to Mis' Field's. Land, here's Mis' Green now! She said she'd come over as soon as Abby got home from school. I'm jest tellin' her about it, Mis' Green."
Mrs. Green stood in the doorway, smiling half-shamefacedly. "I s'pose you think it's a dreadful silly plan, Mandy," said she deprecatingly.
Amanda got up and pushed the rocking-chair in which she had been sitting toward the new-comer.
"Set down, do," said she. "I dunno, Mis' Green. I ain't had time to think it over, it's come so sudden." Amanda's face was collected, but her voice was full of agitation.
"Well," said Mrs. Green, "I ain't known which end my head is on since Mis' Babcock come in an' spoke of it. First I thought I couldn't go nohow, an' I dunno as I can now. Still, it does seem dreadful cheap to go down to Boston an' back, an' I ain't been down more'n four times in the last twenty years. I ain't been out gaddin' much, an' that's a fact."
"The longer you set down in one corner, the longer you can," remarked Mrs. Babcock. "I believe in goin' while you've got a chance, for my part."
"I ain't ever been to Boston," said Amanda, and her face had the wishful, far-away look that her grandfather's might have had when he thought of the sea.
"It does seem as if you'd ought to go once," said Mrs. Green.
"I say, let's start up an' go!" cried Mrs. Babcock, in an intense voice.
The three women looked at each other.
"Abby could keep house for father a few days," said Mrs. Green, as if to some carping judge; "an' it ain't goin' to cost much, an' I know father'd say go."
"Well, I guess I can cook up enough victuals to last Adoniram and the boys whilst I'm gone," said Mrs. Babcock defiantly; "I guess they can get along. Adoniram can make rye puddin', an' they can fill up on rye puddin' an' molasses. I'm a-goin'."
"I dunno," said Amanda, trembling. "I'm dreadful afraid I hadn't ought to."
"Well, I should think you could go, if Mis' Green an' I could," said Mrs. Babcock. "Here you ain't got nobody but jest yourself, an' ain't got to leave a thing cooked up nor nothin'."
"I would like to see Mis' Field an' Lois again, but it seems like a great undertakin'," sighed Amanda. "Then it's goin' to cost something."
"It ain't goin' to cost but jest three dollars an' sixty cents," said Mrs. Babcock. "I guess you can afford that, Mandy. There your tenement didn't stay vacant two weeks after the Fields went; the Simmonses came right in. I guess if I had rent-money, an' nobody but myself, I could afford to travel once in a while."
"Now you'd better make up your mind to go, Mandy," Mrs. Green said. "I think Mis' Field would be more pleased to see you than anybody in Green River. That's one thing I think about goin'. I know she'll be tickled almost to death to see us comin' in. Mis' Field's a real good woman. There wa'n't anybody in town I set more by than I did by her."
"When did you hear from her last, Mandy?" interposed Mrs. Babcock.
"About a month ago."
"I s'pose Lois is a good deal better?"
"Yes, I guess she is. Her mother said she seemed pretty well for her. I s'pose it agrees with her better down there."
"I s'pose there was a good deal more fuss made about her when she was here than there was any need of," said Mrs. Babcock, her whole face wrinkled upward contemptuously; "a great deal more fuss. There wa'n't nothin' ailed the girl if folks had let her alone, talkin' an' scarin' her mother to death. She was jest kind of run down with the spring weather. Young girls wilt down dreadful easy, an' spring up again. I've seen 'em. 'Twa'n't nothin'."
"Well, I dunno; she looked dreadfully," Mrs. Green said, with mild opposition.
"Well, you can see how much it amounted to," returned Mrs. Babcock, with a triumphant sniff. "Folks ought to have been ashamed of themselves, scarin' Mis' Field the way they did about her. Seemed as if they was determined to have Lois go into consumption whether or no, an' was goin' to push her in, if they couldn't manage it in no other way. I s'pose you've sent all Mis' Field's things down there, Mandy?"
"The furniture is all up garret," said Amanda. "All I've sent down was their clothes. Mis' Field had me pack 'em up in their two trunks, an' send 'em down to Lois. I didn't see why she didn't have me mark 'em to her."
"I should think it was kind of queer," said Mrs. Green. "Now s'pose we go, what had we better carry for clothes? We don't need no trunk."
"Of course we don't," said Mrs. Babcock promptly. "We can each carry a bag. We ain't going to need much."
"I guess, if I went," said Amanda, "that I should carry this sacque to slip on, if it's as hot weather as 'tis now. I should have to do it up, but that ain't much work."
Mrs. Babcock eyed it. "Well, I dunno," said she; "it's pretty long in the shoulders seams. I dunno how much they dress down there where Mis' Field lives. Mebbe 'twould do."
"There's one thing I've been thinkin' about," Mrs. Green said, with an anxious air. "If we go down on that early train, an' stay all day in Boston, we shall have to buy us something to eat; we should get dreadful faint before we got out to Mis' Field's, and things are dreadful high in those places."
"Oh, land!" cried Mrs. Babcock in a superior tone. "All we've got to do is to carry some luncheon with us. I'll make some pies, and you can bake some cookies, an' then we'll set down in Boston Common an' eat it. That's the way lots of folks do. That ain't nothin' to worry about. Well, now, I think it's about time for us to decide whether or no we're goin'. I've got to go home an' git supper."
"I'll do jest as the rest say," said Mrs. Green. "I s'pose I can go. I s'pose father'll say I'd better. An' Abby she was all for it, when I spoke about it to her. She thinks she can have the Fay girl over to stay with her, an' she wants me to buy her a dress in Boston, instead of gettin' it here."
"Well," said Amanda, with a sigh—she was quite pale—"I'll think of it."
"We've got to make up our minds," said Mrs. Babcock sharply. "There ain't time for much thinkin'. The excursion starts a day after to-morrow."
"I'll have my mind made up to-morrow mornin'," said Amanda. "I've got to think of it over-night, anyhow. I can't start right up an' say I'll go, without a minute to think about it." Her voice trembled nervously, but decision underlay it.
"I don't see why it ain't time enough if we decide to-morrow morning. I'd ruther like to think of it a little while longer," said Mrs. Green.
Mrs. Babcock got up. "Well," said she, "I'll send Adoniram round to-morrow mornin', an' you tell him what you've decided. I guess I shall go whether or no. I've got three men folks to leave, an' it's a good deal more of an undertakin' for me than some, but I ain't easy scart. I b'lieve in goin' once in a while."
"Well, I'll let you know in the mornin'. I jest want to think of it over-night," repeated Amanda, with dignified apology.
She went to the door with her guests. Mrs. Babcock spread her green umbrella, and descended the steps with a stiff side-wise motion.
"It is hotter than ever, I do believe," she groaned.
"Well, now, I was jest thinkin' it was a little grain cooler," returned Mrs. Green, following in her wake. Her back was meekly bent; her face, shaded by a black sun-hat, was thrust forward with patient persistency. "There, I feel a little breeze now," she added.
"I guess all the breeze there is, is in your own motion," retorted Mrs. Babcock. Her green umbrella bobbed energetically. She fanned at every step.
"Mebbe it's your fan," said the other woman.
Amanda went into the house and shut the door. She stood in the middle of the parlor and looked around. There was a certain amaze in her eyes, as if everything wore a new aspect. "They can talk all they've a mind to," she muttered, "it's a great undertakin'. S'pose anything happened? If anything happened to them whilst they were gone, there's folks enough to home to see to things. S'pose anything happened to me, there ain't anybody. If I go, I've got to leave this house jest so. I've got to be sure the bureau drawers are all packed up, an' things swept an' dusted, so folks won't make remarks. There's other things, too. Everything's got to be thought of. There's the cat. I s'pose I could get Abby Green to come over an' feed her, but I dassen't trust her. Young girls ain't to be depended on. Ten chances to one she'd get to carryin' on with that Fay girl an' forgit all about that cat. She won't lap her milk out of anything but a clean saucer, neither, and I don't believe Abby would look out for that. She always seemed to me kind of heedless. I dunno about the whole of it."
Amanda shook her head; her eyes were dilated; there was an anxious and eager expression in her face. She went into the kitchen, kindled the fire, and made herself a cup of tea, which she drank absently. She could not eat anything.
The cat came mewing at the door, and she let her in and fed her. "I dunno how she'd manage," she said, as she watched her lap the milk from the clean saucer beside the cooking-stove.
After she had put away the cat's saucer and her own tea-cup, she stood hesitating.
"Well, I don't care," said she, in a decisive tone; "I'm goin' to do it. It's got to be done, anyhow, whether I go or not. It's been on my mind for some time."
Amanda got out her best black dress from the closet, and sat down to alter the shoulder seams. "I don't care nothin' about this muslin sacque," said she, "but I ain't goin' to have Mis' Babcock measurin' my shoulder seams every single minute if I do go, an' they may be real dressy down where Mis' Field is."
Amanda sewed until ten o'clock; then she went to bed, but she slept little. She was up early the next morning. Adoniram Babcock came over about eight o'clock; the windows and blinds were all flung wide open, the braided rugs lay out in the yard. He put his gentle grizzled face in at one of the windows. There was a dusty odor. Amanda was sweeping vigorously, with a white handkerchief tied over her head. Her delicate face was all of a deep pink color.
"Ann Lizy sent over to see if you'd made up your mind," said Adoniram.
Amanda started. "Good-mornin', Mr. Babcock. Yes, you can tell her I have. I'm a-goin'."
There was a reckless defiance of faith in Amanda's voice. She had a wild air as she stood there with the broom in a faint swirl of dust.
"Well, Ann Lizy'll be glad you've made up your mind to. She's gone to bakin'," said the old man in the window.
"I've got to bake some, too," said Amanda. She began sweeping again.
"I've jest been over to Mis' Green's, an' she says she's goin' if you do," said Mr. Babcock.
"Well, you tell her I'm goin'," said Amanda, with a long breath.
"I guess you'll have a good time," said the old man, turning away. "I tell Ann Lizy she can stay a month if she wants to. Me an' the boys can git along." He laughed a pleasant chuckle as he went off.
Amanda glanced after him. "I shouldn't care if I had a man to leave to look after the house," said she.
Amanda toiled all day; she swept and dusted every room in her little domicile. She put all her bureau drawers and closets in exquisite order. She did not neglect even the cellar and the garret. Mrs. Babcock, looking in at night, found her rolling out sugar gingerbread.
"For the land sakes, Mandy!" said she, "what are you cookin' by lamp-light for this awful hot night?"
"I'm makin' a little short gingerbread for luncheon."
"I don't see what you left it till this time of day for. What you got them irons on the stove for?"
"I've got to iron my muslin sacque. I've got it all washed and starched."
"Ironin' this time of day! I'd like to know what you've been doin' ever since you got up?"
"I've been getting everything in order, in case anything happened," replied Amanda. She tried to speak with cool composure, but her voice trembled. Her dignity failed her in this unwonted excitement.
"What's goin' to happen, for the land sake?" cried Mrs. Babcock.
"I dunno. None of us know. Things do happen sometimes."
Mrs. Babcock stared at her, half in contempt, half in alarm. "I hope you ain't had no forewarnin' that you ain't goin' to live nor anything," said she. "If you have, I should think you'd better stay to home."
"I ain't had no more forewarnin' than anybody," said Amanda. "All is, there ain't nobody in the other part of the house. The Simmonses all went yesterday to make a visit at her mother's, and in case anything should happen, I'm goin' to leave things lookin' so I'm willin' anybody should see 'em."
"Well," said Mrs. Babcock, "I guess you couldn't leave things so you'd be willin' anybody'd see 'em if you had three men folks afoul of 'em for three days. I've got to be goin' if I git up for that four-o'clock train in the mornin'. I've made fifteen pies an' five loaves of bread, besides bakin' beans, to say nothin' of a great panful of doughnuts an' some cake. I ain't been up garret nor down cellar cleanin', an' if anything happens to me, I s'pose folks'll see some dust and cobwebs, but I've done considerable. Adoniram's goin' to take us all down in the covered wagon; he'll be round about half-past four."
Amanda lighted Mrs. Babcock out the front door; then she returned to her tasks. She did not go to bed that night. She had put her bedroom in perfect order, and would not disturb it. She lay down on her hard parlor sofa awhile, but she slept very little. At two o'clock she kindled a fire, made some tea, and cooked an egg for her breakfast. Then she arrayed herself in her best dress. She was all ready, her bag and basket of luncheon packed and her bonnet on, at three o'clock. She sat down and folded her hands to wait, but presently started up. "I'm going to do it," said she. "I don't care, I am. I can't feel easy unless I do."
She got some writing-paper and pen and ink from the chimney cupboard and sat down at the table. She wrote rapidly, her lips pursed, her head to one side. Then she folded the paper, wrote on the outside, and arranged it conspicuously on the top of a leather-covered Bible on the centre of the table. "There!" said she. "It ain't regular, I s'pose, an' I ain't had any lawyer, but I guess they'd carry out my wishes if anything happened to me. I ain't got nobody but Cousin Rhoda Hill, an' Cousin Maria Bennet; an' Rhoda don't need a cent, an' Maria'd ought to have it all. This house will make her real comfortable, an' my clothes will fit her. I s'pose I'd have this dress on, but my black alpaca's pretty good. I s'pose Mis' Babcock would laugh, but I feel a good deal easier about goin'."
Amanda waited again; she blew out her lamp, for the early dawnlight strengthened. She listened intently for wheels, and looked anxiously at the clock. "It would be dreadful if we got left, after all," she said.
Suddenly the covered wagon came in sight; the white horse trotted at a good pace. Adoniram held the reins and his wife sat beside him. Mrs. Green peered out from the back seat. "Mandy! Mandy!" Mrs. Babcock called, before they reached the gate. But Amanda was already on the front door-step, fitting the key in the lock.
"I'm all ready," she answered, "jest as soon as I can get the door locked."
"We ain't got any too much time," cried Mrs. Babcock.
Amanda went down the path with her basket and black valise and parasol. Adoniram got out and helped her into the wagon. She had to climb over the front seat. As they drove off she leaned out and gazed back at the house. Her tortoise-shell cat was coming around the corner. "I do hope the cat will get along all right," she said agitatedly. "I've fed her this mornin', an' I've left her enough milk till I get back—a saucerful for each day—an' Abby said she'd give her all the scraps off the table, you know, Mis' Green."
Mrs. Babcock turned around. "Now, Amanda Pratt," said she, "I'd like to know how in creation you've left a saucerful of milk for that cat for every day till you get back."
"I set ten saucers full of milk down cellar," replied Amanda, still staring back anxiously at the cat—"one for each day. I got extra milk last night on purpose. She likes it jest as well if it's sour, if the saucer's clean."
Amanda looked up with serious wonder at Mrs. Babcock, who was laughing shrilly. Mrs. Green, too, was smiling, and Adoniram chuckled.
"For the land sakes, Amanda Pratt!" gasped Mrs. Babcock, "you don't s'pose that cat is goin' to stint herself to a saucer a day? Why, she'll eat half of it all up before night."
Amanda stood up in the carriage. "I've got to go back, that's all," said she. "I ain't goin' to have that cat starve."
"Land sakes, set down!" cried Mrs. Babcock. "She won't starve. She can hunt."
"Abby'll feed her, I know," said Mrs. Green, pulling gently at her companion's arm. "Don't you worry, Mandy."
"Well, I guess I shouldn't worry about a cat with claws to catch mice in warm weather," said Mrs. Babcock, with a sarcastic titter. "It's goin' to be a dreadful hot day. Set down, Mandy. There ain't no use talkin' about goin' back. There ain't any time. Mis' Green an' me ain't goin' to stay to home on account of a cat."
Amanda subsided weakly. She felt strange, and not like herself. Mrs. Babcock seemed to recognize it by some subtle intuition. She would never have dared use such a tone toward her without subsequent concessions. Amanda had always had a certain dignity and persistency which had served to intimidate too presuming people; now she had lost it all.
"I'll write to Abby, jest as soon as I get down there, to give the cat her milk," whispered Mrs. Green soothingly; and Amanda was comforted.
The covered wagon rolled along the country road toward the railroad station. Adoniram drove, and the three women sat up straight, and looked out with a strange interest, as if they had never seen the landscape before. The meadows were all filmy with cobwebs; there were patches of corn in the midst of them, and the long blades drooped limply. The flies swarmed thickly over the horse's back. The air was scalding; there was a slight current of cool freshness from the dewy ground, but it would soon be gone.
"It ain't goin' to rain," said Mrs. Babcock, "there's cobwebs on the grass, but it's goin' to be terrible hot."
They reached the station fifteen minutes before the train. After Adoniram had driven away, they sat in a row on a bench on the platform, with their baggage around them. They did not talk much; even Mrs. Babcock looked serious and contemplative in this momentary lull. Their thoughts reached past and beyond them to the homes they had left, and the new scenes ahead.
When the whistle of the train sounded they all stood up, and grasped their valises tightly. Mrs. Green looked toward the coming train; her worn face under her black bonnet, between its smooth curves of gray hair, had all the sensitive earnestness which comes from generations of high breeding. She was, on her father's side, of a race of old New England ministers.
"Well, I dunno but I've been pretty faithful, an' minded my household the way women are enjoined to in the Scriptures; mebbe it's right for me to take this little vacation," she said, and her serious eyes were full of tears.
When Jane Field, in her assumed character, had lived three months in Elliot, she was still unsuspected. She was not liked, and that made her secret safer. She was full of dogged resolution and audacity. She never refused to see a caller nor accept an invitation, but people never called upon her nor invited her when they could avoid it, and thus she was not so often exposed to contradictions and inconsistencies which might have betrayed her. Elliot people not only disliked her, they were full of out-spoken indignation against her. The defiant, watchful austerity which made her repel when she intended to encourage their advances had turned them against her, but more than that her supposed ill-treatment of her orphan niece.
When Lois, the third week of her stay in Elliot, had gone to a dressmaker and asked for some sewing to do, the news was well over the village by night. "That woman, who has all John Maxwell's money, is too stingy and mean to support her niece, and she too delicate to work," people said. The dressmaker to whom Lois appealed did not for a minute hesitate to give her work, although she had already many women sewing for her, and she had just given some to Mrs. Maxwell's daughter Flora.
"There!" said she, when Lois had gone out. "I ain't worth five hundred dollars in the world, I don't know how she'll sew, and I didn't need any extra help—it's takin' it right out of my pocket, likely as not—but I couldn't turn off a cat that looked up at me the way that child did. She looks pinched. I don't believe that old woman gives her enough to eat. Of all the mean work—worth all that money, and sending her niece out to get sewing to do! I don't believe but what she's most starved her."
It was true that Lois for the last week had not had enough to eat, but neither had her mother. The two had been eking out the remnants of Lois's school-money as best they might. There were many provisions in the pantry and cellar of the Maxwell house, but they would touch none of them. Some money which Mr. Tuxbury had paid to Mrs. Field—the first instalment from the revenue of her estate—she had put carefully away in a sugar-bowl on the top shelf of the china closet, and had not spent a penny of it. After Lois began to sew, her slender earnings provided them with the most frugal fare. Mrs. Field eked it out in every way that she could. She had a little vegetable garden and kept a few hens. As the season advanced, she scoured the berry pastures, and spent many hours stooping painfully over the low bushes. Three months from the time at which she came to Elliot, on the day on which her neighbors started from Green River to visit her, she was out in the pasture trying to fill her pail with blueberries. All the sunlight seemed to centre on her black figure like a burning-glass; the thick growth of sweet-fern around the blueberry bushes sent a hot and stifling aroma into her face; the wild flowers hung limply, like delicate painted rags, and the rocks were like furnaces. Mrs. Field went out soon after dinner, and at half-past five she was still picking; the berries were not very plentiful.
Lois, at home, wondered why she did not return, and the more because there was a thunder-storm coming up. There was a heavy cloud in the northwest, and a steady low rumble of thunder. Lois sat out in the front yard sewing; her face was pink and moist with the heat; the sleeves of her old white muslin dress clung to her arms. Presently the gate clicked, and Mrs. Jane Maxwell's daughter Flora came toward her over the grass.
"Hullo!" said she.
"Hullo!" returned Lois.
"It's a terrible day—isn't it?"
Lois got up, but Flora would not take her chair. She sat down clumsily on the pine needles, and fanned herself with the cover of a book she carried.
"I've just been down to the library, an' got this book," she remarked.
"Is it good?"
"They say it's real good. Addie Green's been reading it."
Flora wore a bright blue cambric dress and a brown straw hat. Her figure was stout and high-shouldered, her dull-complexioned face full of placid force. She was not very young, and she looked much older than she was; and people had wondered how George Freeman, who was handsome and much courted by the girls, as well as younger than she, had come to marry her. They also wondered how her mother, who had been so bitterly opposed to the match, had given in, and was now living so amicably with the young couple; they had been on the alert for a furious village feud. But when Flora and her husband had returned from their stolen wedding tour, Mrs. Maxwell had met them at the depot and bidden them home with her with vociferous ardor, and the next Sunday Flora had gone to church in the new silk. There had been a conflict of two wills, and one had covered its defeat with a parade of victory. Mrs. Maxwell had talked a great deal about her daughter's marriage and how well she had done.
"There's a thunder-shower coming up," Flora said after a little. "Where's your aunt?"
"She'll get caught in the shower if she don't look out. What makes you work so steady this hot day, Lois?"
"I've got to get this done."
"There isn't any need of your working so hard."
Lois said nothing.
"If your aunt ain't willing to do for you it's time you had somebody else to," persisted Flora. "I wish I had had the money on your account. I wouldn't have let you work so. You look better than you did when you came here, but you look tired. I heard somebody else say so the other day."
Flora said the last with a meaning smile.
"Yes, I did," Flora repeated. "I don't suppose you can guess who 'twas?"
Lois said nothing; she bent her hot face closer over her work.
"See here, Lois," said Flora. She hesitated with her eyes fixed warily on Lois; then she went on: "What makes you treat Francis so queer lately?"
"I didn't know I had," replied Lois, evasively.
"You don't treat him a bit the way you did at first."
"I don't know what you mean, Flora."
"Well, if you don't, it's no matter," returned Flora. "Francis hasn't said anything about it to me; you needn't think he has. All is, you'll never find a better fellow than he is, Lois Field, I don't care where you go."
Flora spoke with slow warmth. Lois's face quivered. "If you don't take care you'll never get married at all," said Flora, half laughing.
Lois sat up straight. "I shall never get married to anybody," said she. "That's one thing I won't do. I'll die first."
Flora stared at her. "Why, why not?" said she.
"I never knew what happiness was until I got married," said Flora. Then she flushed up suddenly all over her steady face.
Lois, too, started and blushed, as if the other girl's speech had struck some answering chord in her. The two were silent a moment. Lois sewed; Flora stared off through the trees at the darkening sky. The low rumble of thunder was incessant.
"George is one of the best husbands that ever a girl had," said Flora, in a tender, shamed voice; "but Francis would make just as good a one."
Lois made no reply. She almost turned her back toward Flora as she sewed.
"I guess you'll change your mind some time about getting married," Flora said.
"No, I never will," returned Lois.
"Well, I suppose if you don't, you'll have money enough to take care of yourself with some time, as far as that goes," said Flora. Her voice had a sarcastic ring.
"I shall never have one cent of that Maxwell money," said Lois, with sudden fire. "I'll tell you that much, once for all!" Her eyes fairly gleamed in her delicate, burning face.
"Why, you scare me! What is the matter?" cried Flora.
Lois took a stitch. "Nothing," said she.
"You'd ought to have the money, of course," said Flora, in a bewildered way. "Who else would have it?"
"I don't know," said Lois. "You are the one that ought to have it."
Flora laughed. "Land, I don't want it!" said she. "George earns plenty for us to live on. She's your own aunt, and of course she'll have to leave it to you, if she does act so miserly with it now. There, I know she's your aunt, Lois, and I don't suppose I ought to speak so, but I can't help it. After all, it don't make much difference, or it needn't, whether you have it or not. I've begun to think money is the very least part of anything in this world, and I want you to be looking out for something else, too, Lois."
"I can't look out for money, or something else, either. You don't know," said Lois, in a pitiful voice.
There came a flash, and then a great crash of thunder. The tempest was about to break.
Flora started up abruptly. "I must run," she shouted through a sudden gust of wind. "Good-by."
Flora sped out of the yard. Her blue dress, lashing around her feet, changed color in the ghastly light of the storm. Some flying leaves struck her in the face. At the gate a cloud of dust from the road nearly blinded her. She realized in a bewildered fashion that there were three women on the other side struggling frantically with the latch.
"Does Mis' Jane Field live here?" inquired one of them, breathlessly.
"No," replied Flora; "that isn't her name."
"No," gasped Flora, her head lowered before the wind.
"Well, I want to know, ain't this the old Maxwell place?"
"Yes," said Flora.
Some great drops of rain began to fall; there was another flash. The woman struggled mightily, and prevailed over the gate-latch. She pushed it open. "Well, I don't care," said she, "I'm comin' in, whether or no. I dunno but my bonnet-strings will spot, an' I ain't goin' to have my best clothes soaked. It's mighty funny nobody knows where Mis' Field lives; but this is the old Maxwell house, where she wrote Mandy she lived, an' I'm goin' in."
Flora stood aside, and the three women entered with a rush. Lois, standing near the door front, saw them coming through the greenish-yellow gloom, their three black figures scudding before the wind like black-sailed ships.
"Land sakes!" shrieked out Mrs. Babcock, "there's Lois now! Lois, how are you? I'd like to know what that girl we met at the gate meant telling us they didn't live here. Why, Lois Field, how do you do? Where's your mother? I guess we'd better step right in, an' not stop to talk. It's an awful tempest. I'm dreadful afraid my bonnet trimmin' will spot."
They all scurried up the steps and into the house. Then the women turned and kissed Lois, and raised a little clamor of delight over her. She stood panting. She did not ask them into the sitting-room. Her head whirled. It seemed to her that the end of everything had come.
But Mrs. Babcock turned toward the sitting-room door. She had pulled off her bonnet, and was wiping it anxiously with her handkerchief. "This is the way, ain't it?" she said.
Lois followed them in helplessly. The room was dark as night, for the shutters were closed. Mrs. Babcock flung one open peremptorily.
"We'll break our necks here, if we don't have some light," she said. The hail began to rattle on the window-panes.
"It's hailin'!" the women chorussed.
"Are your windows all shut?" Mrs. Babcock demanded of Lois.
And the girl said, in a dazed way, that the bedroom windows were open, and then went mechanically to shut them.
"Shut the blinds, too!" screamed Mrs. Babcock. "The hail's comin' in this side terrible heavy. I'm afraid it'll break the glass." Mrs. Babcock herself, her face screwed tightly against an onslaught of wind and hail, shut the blinds, and the room was again plunged in darkness. "We'll have to stan' it," said she. "Mis' Field don't want her windows all broke in. That's dreadful sharp."
Thunder shook the house like an explosion. The women looked at each other with awed faces.
"Where is your mother? Why don't she come in here?" Mrs. Babcock asked excitedly of Lois returning from the bedroom.
"She's gone berrying," replied Lois, feebly. She sank into a chair.
"Gone berryin'!" screamed Mrs. Babcock, and the other women echoed her.
"When did she go?"
"Right after dinner."
"Right after dinner, an' she ain't got home yet! Out in this awful tempest! Well, she'll be killed. You'll never see her again, that's all. A berry pasture is the most dangerous place in creation in a thunder-shower. Out berryin' in all this hail an' thunder an' lightnin'!"
Mrs. Green pressed close up to Lois. "Ain't you any idea where she's gone?" said she. "If you have, I'll jest slip off my dress skirt, an' you give me an old shawl, an' I'll go with you an' see if we can't find her."
"I'll go, too," cried Amanda. "Don't you know which way they went, Lois?"
Just then the south side-door slammed sharply.
"She's come," said Lois, in a strained voice.
"Well, I'm thankful!" cried Mrs. Green. "Hadn't you better run out an' help her off with her wet things, Lois?"
But the sitting-room door opened, and Mrs. Field stood there, a tall black shadow hardly shaped out from the gloom. The women all arose and hurried toward her. There was a shrill flurry of greeting. Mrs. Field's voice arose high and terrified above it.
"Who is it?" she cried out. "Who's here?"
"Why, your old neighbors, Mrs. Field. Don't you know us—Mandy an' Mis' Green an' Mis' Babcock? We come down on an excursion ticket to Boston—only three dollars an' sixty cents—an' we thought we'd surprise you."
"Ain't you dreadful wet, Mis' Field?" interposed Mrs. Green's solicitous voice.
"You'd better go and change your dress," said Amanda.
"When did you come?" said Mrs. Field.
"Jest now. For the land sakes, Mis' Field, your dress is soppin' wet! Do go an' change it, or you'll catch your death of cold."
Mrs. Field did not stir. The hail pelted on the windows. "Now, you go right along an' change it," cried Mrs. Babcock.
"Well," said Mrs. Field vaguely, "mebbe I'd better." She fumbled her way unsteadily toward her bedroom door.
"You go help her; it's dark as a pocket," said Mrs. Babcock imperatively to Lois; and the girl followed her mother.
"They act dreadful queer, seems to me," whispered Mrs. Babcock, when the bedroom door was closed.
"I guess it's jest because they're so surprised to see us," Mrs. Green whispered back.
"Well, if I ain't wanted, I can go back to where I come from, if I do have to throw the money away," Mrs. Babcock said, almost aloud. "I think they act queer, both on 'em. I should think they might seem a little mite more pleased to see three old neighbors so."
"Mebbe it's the thunder-shower that's kind of dazed 'em," said Amanda. She herself was much afraid of a thunder-shower. She had her feet well drawn up, and her hand over her eyes.
"It's a mercy Mis' Field wa'n't killed out in it," said Mrs. Green.
"I don't see what in creation she stayed out so in it for," rejoined Mrs. Babcock. "She must have seen the cloud comin' up. This is a pretty big house, ain't it? An' I should think it was furnished nice, near's I can see, but it's terrible old-fashioned."
Amanda huddled up in her chair, looked warily at the strange shadows in this unfamiliar room, and wished she were at home.
The storm increased rather than diminished. When Mrs. Field and Lois returned, all the women, at Mrs. Babcock's order, drew their chairs close together in the middle of the room.
"I've always heard that was the safest place," said she. "That was the way old Dr. Barnes always used to do. He had thirteen children; nine of 'em was girls. Whenever he saw a thunder-shower comin' up, he used to make Mis' Barnes an' the children go into the parlor, an' then they'd all set in the middle of the floor, an' he'd offer prayer. He used to say he'd do his part an' get in the safest place he knew of, an' then ask the Lord to help him. Mandy Pratt!"
"What say, Mis' Babcock?" returned Amanda, trembling.
"Have you got your hoop-skirt on?"
Amanda sprang up. "Yes, I have. I forgot it!"
"For the land sakes! I should think you'd thought of that, scared as you pretend to be in a thunder-shower. Do go in the bedroom an' drop it off this minute! Lois, you go with her."
While Amanda and Lois were gone there was a slight lull in the storm.
"I guess it's kind of lettin' up," said Mrs. Babcock. "This is a nice house you've got here, ain't it, Mis' Field?"
"Yes, 'tis," replied Jane Field.
"I s'pose there was a good deal of nice furniture in it, wa'n't there?"
"Was there nice beddin'?"
"I s'pose there was plenty of table-cloths an' such things? Have you bought any new furniture, Mis' Field?"
"No, I ain't," said Mrs. Field. She moved her chair a little to make room for Lois and Amanda when they returned. Lois sat next her mother.
"I didn't know but you had. I thought mebbe the furniture was kind of old-fashioned. Have you—oh, ain't it awful?"
The storm had gathered itself like an animal for a fiercer onset. The room was lit up with a wild play of blue fire. The thunder crashed closely in its wake.
"Oh, we hadn't ought to talk of anything but the mercy of the Lord an' our sins!" wailed Mrs. Babcock. "Don't let's talk of anything else. That struck somewheres near. There's no knowin' where it'll come next. I never see such a shower. We don't have any like it in Green River. Oh, I hope we're all prepared!"
"That's the principal thing," said Mrs. Green, in a solemn trembling voice.
Amanda said nothing. She thought of her will; a vision of the nicely ordered rooms she had left seemed to show out before her in the flare of the lightning; in spite of her terror it was a comfort to her.
"We'd ought to be thankful in a time like this that we ain't any of us got any great wickedness on our consciences," said Mrs. Babcock. "It must be terrible for them that have, thinkin' they may die any minute when the next flash comes. I don't envy 'em."
"It must be terrible," assented Mrs. Green, like an amen.
"It's bad enough with the sins we've got on all our minds, the best of us," continued Mrs. Babcock. "Think how them that's broken God's commandments an' committed murders an' robberies must feel. I shouldn't think they could stan' it, unless they burst right out an' confessed to everybody—should you, Mis' Field?"
"I guess so," said Mrs. Field, in a hard voice.
Mrs. Babcock said no more; somehow she and the others felt repelled. They all sat in silence except for awed ejaculations when now and then came a louder crash of thunder. All at once, after a sharp flash, there was a wild clamor in the street; a bell clanged out.
"It's struck! it's struck!" shrieked Mrs. Babcock.
"Oh, it ain't this house, is it?" Amanda wailed.
They all rushed to the windows and flung open the blinds; a red glare filled the room; a large barn nearly opposite was on fire. They clutched each other, and watched the red gush of flame. The barn burned as if lighted at every corner.
"Are there any cows or horses in it?" panted Mrs. Babcock. "Oh, ain't it dreadful? Are there any, Mis' Field?"
"I dunno," said Mrs. Field.
She stood like a grim statue, the red light of the fire in her face. Lois was sobbing. Mrs. Green had put an arm around her.
"Don't, Lois, don't," she kept saying, in a solemn, agitated voice. "The Lord will overrule it all; it is He speakin' in it."
The women watched while the street filled with people, and the barn burned down. It did not take long. The storm began to lull rapidly. The thunder came at long intervals, and the hail turned into a gentle rain. Finally Mrs. Field went out into the kitchen to prepare supper, and Lois followed her.
"I never see anything like the way she acts," said Mrs. Babcock cautiously.
"She always was kind of quiet," rejoined Mrs. Green.
"Quiet! She acts as if she'd had thunder an' lightnin' an' hail an' barns burnt down every day since she's been here. I never see anybody act so queer."
"I 'most wish I'd stayed to home," said Amanda.
"Well, I wouldn't be backin' out the minute I'd got here, if I was you," returned Mrs. Babcock sharply. "It's comin' cooler, that's one thing, an' you won't need that white sacque. I should think you'd feel kinder glad of it, for them shoulder seams did look pretty long to what they wear 'em. An' I dare say folks here are pretty dressy. I declare I shall be kinder glad when supper's ready. I feel real faint to my stomach, as if I'd like somethin' hearty. I should have gone into one of them places in Boston if things hadn't been so awful dear."
But when Mrs. Field finally called them out to partake of the meal which she had prepared, there was little to satisfy an eager appetite. Nothing but the berries for which she had toiled so hard, a few thin slices of bread, no butter, and no tea, so little sugar in the bowl that the guests sprinkled it sparingly on their berries.
"I'll tell you what 'tis," Mrs. Babcock whispered when they were upstairs in their chambers that night, "Mis' Field has grown tight since she got all that money. Sometimes it does work that way. I believe we should starve to death if we stayed here long. If it wa'n't for gittin' my money's worth, I should be for goin' home to-morrow. No butter an' no tea after we've come that long journey. I never heard of such a thing."
"I don't care anything about the butter and the tea," rejoined Amanda, "but I 'most feel as if I'd better go home to-morrow."
"If," said Mrs. Babcock, "you want to go home instead of gittin' the good of that excursion ticket, that you can stay a week on, you can, Amanda Pratt. I'm goin' to stay now, if it kills me."
The three women from Green River had been six days in Elliot, they were going to leave the next morning, and Mrs. Field's secret had not been discovered. Nothing but her ill favor in the village had saved her. Nobody except Mrs. Jane Maxwell had come to call. Mrs. Babcock talked and wondered about it a great deal to Mrs. Green and Amanda.
"It's mighty queer, seems to me, that there ain't a soul but that one old woman set foot inside this house since we've been here," said she. "It don't look to me as if folks here thought much of Mis' Field. I know one thing: there couldn't three strange ladies come visitin' to Green River without I should feel as if I'd ought to go an' call an' find out who they was, an' pay 'em a little attention, if I thought anything at all of the folks they was visitin'. There's considerable more dress here, but I guess, on the whole, it ain't any better a place to live in than Green River."
The three women had not had a very lively or pleasant visit in Elliot. Jane Field, full of grim defiance of her own guilt and misery and of them, was not a successful entertainer of guests. She fed them as best she could with her scanty resources, and after her house-work was done, took her knitting-work and sat with them in her gloomy sitting-room, while they also kept busy at the little pieces of handiwork they had brought with them.
They talked desperately of Green River and the people there; they told Mrs. Field of this one and that one whom she had known, and in whom she had been interested; but she seemed to have forgotten everybody and everything connected with her old life.
"Ida Starr is goin' to marry the minister in October," Mrs. Babcock had said the day but one after their arrival. "You know there was some talk about it before you went away, Mis' Field. You remember hearin' about it, don't you?"
"I guess I don't remember it," said Mrs. Field.
"Don't remember it? Why, Mis' Field, I should think you'd remember that! It was town's talk how she followed him up. Well, she's got him, an' she's been teachin'—you know she had Lois's school—to get money for her weddin' outfit. They say she's got a brown silk dress to be married in, an' a new black silk one too. Should you think the Starrs could afford any such outlay?"
"I dunno as I should," replied Mrs. Field.
When she went out of the room presently, Mrs. Babcock turned to the others. "She didn't act as if she cared no more about it than nothin' at all," she said indignantly. "She don't act to me as if she had any more interest in Green River than Jerusalem, nor the folks that live there. I keep thinkin' I won't tell her another thing about it. I never see anybody so changed as she is."
"Mebbe she ain't well," said Mrs. Green. "I think she looks awfully. She's as thin as a rail, an' she ain't a mite of color. Lois looks better."
"Mis' Field never did have any flesh on her bones," Mrs. Babcock rejoined; "an' as for Lois, nothin' ever did ail her but spring weather an' fussin'. I guess Mis' Field's well enough, but havin' all this property left her has made a different woman of her. I've seen people's noses teeter up in the air when their purses got heavy before now."
"It ain't that," said Amanda.
"What is it, then?" asked Mrs. Babcock sharply.
"I dunno. I know one thing: home's the best place for everybody if they've got one."
"I don't think 'tis always. I b'lieve when you're off on an excursion ticket in makin' the best of things, for my part. To-morrow's Sunday, an' I expect to enjoy the meetin' an' seein' the folks. I shall be kinder glad, for my part, not to see exactly the same old bonnets an' made-over silks that I see every Sunday to home. I like a change sometimes. It puts new ideas into your head, an' I feel as if I had spunk enough to stan' it."
On Sunday Mrs. Field led her procession of guests into church; and they, in their best black gowns and bonnets, sat listening to the sermon, and looking about with decorous and furtive curiosity.
Mrs. Babcock had a handsome fan with spangles on it, and she fanned herself airily, lifting her head up with the innocent importance of a stranger.
She had quite a fine bonnet, and a new mantle with some beaded fringe on it; when she stirred, it tinkled. She looked around and did not see another woman with one as handsome. It was the gala moment of her visit to Elliot. Afterward she was wont to say that when she was in Elliot she did not go out much, nobody came to the house nor anything, but she went to meeting and she enjoyed that.
It was the evening following that Mrs. Jane Maxwell came. Mrs. Field, sitting with her guests, felt a strange contraction of her heart when she heard the door open.
"Who's that comin'?" asked Mrs. Babcock.
"I guess it's old Mr. Maxwell's brother Henry's wife," replied Mrs. Field.
She arose. Lois went quickly and softly out of the other door. She felt sure that exposure was near, and her first impulse was to be out of sound and hearing of it. She sat there in the dark on the front door-step awhile, then she went into the house. Sitting there in doubt, half hearing what might be dreadful to hear, was worse than certainty. She had at once a benumbing terror and a fierce desire that her mother should be betrayed, and withal a sudden impulse of loyalty toward her, a feeling that she would stand by her when everybody else turned against her.
She crept in and sat down. Mrs. Maxwell was talking to Mrs. Babcock about the state of the church in Elliot. It was wonderful that this call was made without exposure, but it was. Twice Mrs. Maxwell called Jane Field "Esther," but nobody noticed it except Amanda, and she said nothing. She only caught her breath each time with a little gasp.
Mrs. Maxwell addressed herself almost wholly to Mrs. Babcock concerning her daughter, her daughter's husband, and the people of Elliot. Mrs. Babcock constantly bore down upon her, and swerved her aside with her own topics. Indeed, all the conversation lay between these two. There was a curious similarity between them. They belonged apparently to some one subdivision of human nature, being as birds of the same feather, and seemed to instinctively recognize this fact.
They were at once attracted, and regarded each other with a kind of tentative cordiality, which might later become antagonism, for they were on a level for either friendship or enmity.
Mrs. Maxwell made a long call, as she was accustomed to do. She was a frequent visitor, generally coming in the evening, and going home laden with spoil, creeping from cover to cover like a cat. She was afraid to have her daughter and nephew know of all the booty she obtained. She had many things snugly tucked away in bureau drawers and the depths of closets which she had carried home under her shawl by night. Jane Field was only too glad to give her all for which she asked or hinted.
To-night, as Mrs. Maxwell took leave of the three strange women standing in a prim row, she gave a meaning nod to Mrs. Field, who followed her to the door.
"I was thinkin' about that old glass preserve-dish," she whispered. "I don't s'pose it's worth much, but if you don't use it ever, I s'pose I might as well have it. Flora has considerable company now, an' ours ain't a very good size."
When Mrs. Maxwell had gone out of the yard with the heavy cut-glass dish pressed firmly against her side under her black silk shawl, Jane Field felt like one who had had a reprieve from instant execution, although she had already suffered the slow torture. She went back to her guests as steady-faced as ever. She was quite sure none of them had noticed Mrs. Maxwell's calling her Esther, but her eyes were like a wary animal's as she entered the room, although not a line in her long pale face was unsteady.
The time went on and nobody said, "Why did she call you Esther instead of Jane?"
They seemed as usual. Mrs. Babcock questioned her sharply about Mrs. Maxwell—how much property she had and if her daughter had married well. Amanda never looked in her face, and said nothing, but she was often quiet and engrossed in a new tidy she was knitting.
"They don't suspect," Mrs. Field said to herself.
They were going home the next day but one; she went to bed nearly as secure as she had been for the last three months. Mrs. Maxwell was to be busy the next day—she had spoken of making pear sauce—she would not be in again. The danger of exposure from the coming of these three women to Elliot was probably past. But Jane Field lay awake all night. Suddenly at dawn she formed a plan; her mind was settled. There was seemingly no struggle. It was to her as if she turned a corner, once turned there was no other way, and no question about it. When it was time, she got up, dressed herself, and went about the house, as usual. There was no difference in her look or manner, but all the morning Lois kept glancing at her in a startled, half-involuntary way; then she would look away again, seeing nothing to warrant it, but ere long her eyes turned again toward her mother's face. It was as if she had a subtle consciousness of something there which was beyond vision, and to which her vision gave the lie. When she looked away she saw it again, but it vanished when her eyes were turned, like a black robe through a door.
After dinner, when the dishes were cleared away, the three visitors sat as usual in company state with their needle-work. Amanda's bag upstairs was all neatly packed. She would need to unpack it again that night, but it was a comfort to her. She had scarcely spoken all day; her thin mouth had a set look.
"Mandy's gettin' so homesick she can't speak," said Mrs. Babcock. "She can't hardly wait till to-morrow to start, can you, Mandy?"
"No, I can't," replied Amanda.
Mrs. Field was in her bedroom changing her dress when Lois put on her hat and went down the street with some finished work for the dressmaker for whom she sewed.
"Where you goin', Lois?" asked Mrs. Babcock, when she came through the room with her hat on.
"I'm going out a little ways," answered Lois evasively. She had tried to keep the fact of her sewing for a living from the Green River women. She knew how people in Elliot talked about it, and estranged as she was from her mother, she wanted no more reflections cast upon her.
But Mrs. Babcock peeped out of a window as Lois went down the path. "She's got a bundle," she whispered. "I tell you what 'tis, I suspect that girl is sewin' for somebody to earn money. I should think her mother would be ashamed of herself."
Lois had a half mile to walk, and she stayed awhile at the dressmaker's to sew. When she started homeward it was nearly three o'clock.
It was a beautiful afternoon, the house yards were full of the late summer flowers, the fields were white and gold with arnica and wild-carrot instead of buttercups and daisies, the blackberries were ripe along the road-side, and there were sturdy thickets of weeds picked out with golden buttons of tansy over the stone walls. Lois stepped along lightly. She did not look like the same girl of three months ago. It was strange that in spite of all her terrible distress of mind and hard struggles since she came to Elliot it should have been so, but it was. Every life has its own conditions, although some are poisons. Whether it had been as Mrs. Babcock thought, that the girl had been afflicted with no real malady, only the languor of the spring, intensified and fostered in some subtle fashion by her mother's anxiety, or whether it had been the purer air of Elliot that had brought about the change, to whatever it might have been due, she was certainly better.
Lois had on an old pink muslin dress that she had worn many a summer, indeed the tucks had been let down to accord with her growth, and showed in bars of brighter pink around the skirt. But the color of the dress became her well, her young shoulders filled out the thin fabric with sweet curves that overcame the old fashion of its make; her slender arms showed through the sleeves; and her small fair face was set in a muslin frill like a pink corolla. She had to pass the cemetery on her way home. As she came in sight of its white shafts, and headstones gleaming out from its dark foliage, she met Francis Arms. She started when she saw him, and said, "Good-afternoon" nervously; then was passing on, but he stopped her.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I was going home."
"See here—I don't know as you want to—but—do you remember how we went to walk in the cemetery that first day after you came?"
Lois nodded. He could see only the tip of her chin under her broad hat.
"Suppose—if you haven't anything else to do—if you are not busy—that we go in there now a little ways?" said Francis.
"I guess I'd better not," replied Lois, in a trembling voice.
"It's real cool in there."
"I'm afraid I'd better not."
"Well," said Francis, "of course I won't tease you if you don't want to."
He tried to make his tone quite unconcerned and to smile. He was passing on, but Lois spoke.
"I might go in there just a minute," she said.
Francis turned quickly, his face lighted up. They walked along together to the cemetery gate; he opened it and they entered and passed slowly down the drive-way.
The yard was largely overhung by evergreen trees, which held in their boughs cool masses of blue gloom. It was cool there, as Francis had said, although it was quite a warm day. The flowers on the sunny graves hung low, unless they had been freshly tended, when they stood erect in dark circles. Some of the old uncared-for graves were covered with rank growths of grass and weeds, which seemed fairly instinct with merry life this summer afternoon. Crickets and cicadas thrilled through them; now and then a bird flew up. It was like a resurrection stir.
"Let's go where we went that first day," said Francis; "it's always pleasant there on the bank."
Lois followed him without a word. They sat down on the grass at the edge of the terrace, and a cool breeze came in their faces from over the great hollow of the meadows below. The grass on them had been cut short, and now had dried and turned a rosy color in the sun. The two kept their eyes turned away from each other, and looked down into the meadow as into the rosy hollow of a cup; but they seemed to see each other's faces there.
"It's cool here, isn't it?" said Francis.
"It always is on the hottest day. There is always a breeze here, if there isn't anywhere else."
Francis's words were casual, but his voice was unsteady with a tender tone that seemed to overweight it.
Lois seemed to hear only this tone, and not the words. It was one of the primitive tones that came before any language was made, and related to the first necessities of man. Suddenly she had ears for that only. She did not say anything. Her hands were folded in her lap quietly, but her fingers tingled.
"Lois," Francis began; then he stopped.
Lois did not look up.
"See here, Lois," he went on, "I don't know as there is much use in my saying anything. You've hardly noticed me lately. There was one spell when I thought maybe— But— Well, I'm going to ask you, and have it over with one way or the other. Lois, do you think—well, do you feel as if you could ever—marry me some time?"
Lois dropped her head down on her hands.
"Now don't you go to feeling bad if you can't," said Francis. "It won't be your fault. But if you'd just tell me, Lois."
Lois did not speak.
"If you'd just tell me one way or the other, Lois."
"I can't. I can't anyway!" cried Lois then, with a great sob.
"Well, if you can't, don't cry, little girl. There's nothing to cry about. I can stand it. All the trouble is, it does seem to me that I could take care of you better than any other fellow on earth, but maybe that's my conceit, and you'll find somebody else that will do better than I. Now don't cry." Francis pulled her hat off gently, and patted her head. His face was quite white, but he tried to smile. "Don't cry, dear," he said again. "It was nothing you could help. I didn't much suppose you liked me. There's nothing much in me to like. I'm an ordinary kind of a fellow."
Francis got up and walked off a little way.
Lois sobbed harder. Finally she stole a glance at him between her fingers. She could see his profile quite pale and stern as he stood on the edge of the terrace. She made a little inarticulate call, and he turned quickly.
"What is it, Lois?" he asked, coming toward her.
"I didn't say—I—didn't like you," she whispered faintly.
"I didn't say so."
"Lois, do you? Answer me quick."
She hid her face again.
"Lois, you must answer me now."
"I like you well enough, but I can't marry you."
"Lois, is there any fellow in Green River that wants you? Is that the reason?"
She shook her head. "I can't ever marry anybody," she said, and her voice was suddenly quite firm. She wiped her eyes.
Francis sat down beside her. "O Lois, you do love me, after all?"
"I can't marry you," said she.
"Why not, dear?"
"I can't. You mustn't ask me why."
Francis looked down at her half laughing. "Some dreadful obstacle in the way?"
She nodded solemnly.
Francis put his arm around her. "Oh, my dear," he said, "don't you know obstacles go for nothing if you do like me, after all? Wait a little and you'll find out. O Lois, are you sure you do like me? You are so pretty."
"I can't," repeated Lois, trembling.
"Suppose this obstacle were removed, dear, you would then?"
"It never can be."
"But if it were, you would? Yes, of course you would. Then I shall remove it, you depend upon it, I shall, dear. Lois, I liked you the minute I saw you, and, it's terribly conceited, but I do believe you liked me a little. Dear, if it ever can be, I'll take care of you all my life."
The two sat there together, and the long summer afternoon passed humming and singing with bees and birds, and breathing sweetly through the pine branches. They themselves were as a fixed heart of love in the midst of it, and all around them in their graves lay the dead who had known and gone beyond it all, but nobody could tell if they had forgotten.
When Lois left home that afternoon her mother had been in her bedroom changing her dress. When she came out she had on her best black dress, her black shawl and gloves, and her best bonnet. The three women stared at her. She stood before them a second without speaking. The strange look, for which Lois had watched her face, had appeared.
"Why, what is the matter, Mis' Field?" cried Mrs. Babcock. "Where be you going?"
"I'm goin' out a little ways," replied Mrs. Field. Then she raised her voice suddenly. "I've got something to say to all of you before I go," said she. "I've been deceivin' you, and everybody here in Elliot. When I came down here, they all took me for my sister, Esther Maxwell, and I let them think so. They've all called me Esther Maxwell here. That's how I got the money. Old Mr. Maxwell left it to Flora Maxwell if my sister didn't outlive him. I shouldn't have had a cent. I stole it. I thought my daughter would die if we didn't have it an' get away from Green River; but that wa'n't any excuse. Edward Maxwell had that fifteen hundred dollars of my husband's, an' I never had a cent of it; but that wa'n't any excuse. I thought I'd jest stay here an' carry it out till I got the money back; but that wa'n't any excuse. I ain't spent a cent of the money; it's all put away just as it was paid in, in a sugar-bowl in the china closet; but that ain't any excuse. I took it on myself to do justice instead of the Lord, an' that ain't for any human bein' to do. I ain't Esther Maxwell. I'm brought up short. I ain't Esther Maxwell!" Her voice rose to a stern shriek.
The three women stared at her, then at each other. Their faces were white. Amanda was catching her breath in faint gasps. Jane Field rushed out of the room. The door closed heavily after her.
Three wild, pale faces huddled together in a window watched her out of the yard. Mrs. Babcock called weakly after her to come back, but she kept on. She went out of the yard and down the street. At the first house she stopped, went up to the door and rang the bell. When a woman answered her ring, she looked at her and said, "I ain't Esther Maxwell!" Then she turned and went down the walk between the rows of marigolds and asters, and the woman stood staring after her for a minute, then ran in, and the windows filled with wondering faces.
Jane Field stopped at the next house with the same message. After she left a woman pelted across the yard in a panic to compare notes with her neighbors. She kept on down the street, and she stopped at every door and said, "I ain't Esther Maxwell."
Now and then somebody tried to delay her to question her and obtain an explanation, but she broke away. There was about her a terrible mental impetus which intimidated. People stood instinctively out of her way, as before some rushing force which might overwhelm them.
Daniel Tuxbury followed her out to the street; then he fell back. Mrs. Jane Maxwell caught hold of her dress, but she let go, and leaned trembling over her iron gate looking after the relentless black figure speeding to the next door.
She went on and on, all the summer afternoon, and canvassed the little village with her remorse and confession of crime. Finally the four words which she said at the doors seemed almost involuntary. They became her one natural note, the expression of her whole life. It was as if she had never said any others. At last, going along the street, she repeated them to everybody she met. Some she had told before, but she did not know it. She said them to a little girl in a white frock, with her hair freshly curled, carrying a doll, and she ran away crying with fright. She said them to three barefooted boys loping along in the dust, with berry-pails, and they laughed and turned around and mocked her, calling the words after her. When she went up the path to the Maxwell house, she said them where the shadow of a pine-tree fell darkly in front of her like the shadow of a man. She said them when she stood before the door of the house whose hospitality she had usurped. There was a little crowd at her heels, but she did not notice them until she was entering the door. Then she said the words over to them: "I ain't Esther Maxwell."
She entered the sitting-room, the people following. There were her three old friends and neighbors, the minister and his wife, Daniel Tuxbury, his sister and her daughter, Mrs. Jane Maxwell and her daughter, and her own Lois. She faced them all and said it again: "I ain't Esther Maxwell."
The lawyer jerked himself forward; his face was twitching. "This woman's mind is affected," he declared with loud importance. "She is Esther Maxwell. I will swear to it in any court. I recognize her, and I never forget a face."
"I ain't Esther Maxwell," said Jane Field, in her voice that was as remorseless and conclusive as fate.
Lois pressed forward and clung to her.
"Mother!" she moaned; "mother!"
Then for once her mother varied her set speech. "Lois wa'n't to blame," she said; "I want you to know it, all of you. Lois wa'n't to blame. She didn't know until after I'd done it. She wanted to tell, but I told her they'd put me in prison. Lois wa'n't to blame. I ain't Esther Maxwell."
"O mother, don't, don't!" Lois sobbed.
She hung about her mother's neck, and pressed her lips to that pale wrinkled face, whose wrinkles seemed now to be laid in stone. Not a muscle of Jane Field's face changed. She kept repeating at intervals, in precisely the same tone, her terrible under-chord to all the excitement about her: "I ain't Esther Maxwell."
Some of the women were crying. Amanda Pratt sat sewing fast, with her mouth set. She clung to her familiar needle as if it were a rope to save her from destruction. Francis Arms had come in, and stood close to Lois and her mother.
Suddenly Jane Maxwell spoke. She was pale, and her head-dress was askew.
"I call this pretty work," said she.
Then Mrs. Babcock faced her. "I should call it pretty work for somebody else besides poor Mis' Field," she cried. "I'd like to know what business your folks had takin' her money an' keepin' it. She wa'n't goin' to take any more than belonged to her, an' she had a perfect right to, accordin' to my way of thinkin'."
Mrs. Maxwell gasped. Flora laid her hand on her arm when she tried to speak again.
"I'm goin' to tell her how I've been without a decent dress, an' how I've been luggin' my own things out of this house, an' now I've got to lug 'em all back again," she whispered defiantly.
"Mother, you keep still," said Flora.
Mrs. Green went across the room and put her arm around Lois, standing by her mother. "Let's you an' me get her in her bedroom, an' have her lay down on the bed, an' try an' quiet her," she whispered. "She's all unstrung. Mebbe she'll be better."
Mrs. Field at once turned toward her.
"I ain't Esther Maxwell," said she.
"O Mis' Field! oh, poor woman! it ain't for us to judge you," returned Mrs. Green, in her tender, inexpressibly solemn voice. "Come, Lois."
"Yes, that'll be a good plan," chimed in Mrs. Babcock. "She'd better go in her bedroom where it's quiet, or she'll wind up with a fever. There's too many folks here."
"I wonder if some of my currant wine wouldn't be good for her?" said Mrs. Jane Maxwell, with an air of irrepressible virtue.
"She don't want none of your currant wine," rejoined Mrs. Babcock fiercely. "She's suffered enough by your family."
"I guess you needn't be so mighty smart," returned Mrs. Maxwell, jerking her arm away from Flora. "I dunno of anything she's suffered. I should think Flora an' me had been the ones to suffer, an' now we shan't never go to law, nor make any fuss about it. I ain't goin' to stay here an' be talked to so any longer if I know, especially by folks that ain't got any business meddlin' with it, anyway. I suppose this is my daughter's house, an' I've got a perfect right in it, but I'm a-goin'."
Mrs. Jane Maxwell went out, her ribbons and silken draperies fluttering as if her own indignation were a wind, but Flora stayed.
The women led Jane Field into her little bedroom, took off her bonnet and shawl and dress as if she were dead, and made her lie down. They bathed her head with camphor, they plied her with soothing arguments, but she kept on her one strain. She was singularly docile in all but that. Mrs. Green dropped on her knees beside the bed and prayed. When she said amen, Jane Field called out her confession as if in the ear of God. They sent for the doctor and he gave her a soothing draught, and she slept. The women watched with her, as ever and anon she stirred and murmured in her sleep, "I ain't Esther Maxwell." And she said it when she first awoke in the morning.
"She's sayin' it now," whispered Mrs. Babcock to Mrs. Green, "and I believe she'll say it her whole life."
And Jane Field did. The stern will of the New England woman had warped her whole nature into one groove. Gradually she seemed more like herself, and her mind was in other respects apparently clear, but never did she meet a stranger unless she said for greeting, "I ain't Esther Maxwell."
And she said it to her own daughter on her wedding-day, when she came in her white dress from the minister's with Francis. The new joy in Lois's face affected her like the face of a stranger, and she turned on her and said, "I ain't Esther Maxwell."