Barney went to see Rebecca the next day, but the minister's wife came to the door and would not admit him. She puckered her lips painfully, and a blush shot over her face and little thin throat as she stood there before him. “I guess you had better not come in,” said she, nervously. “I guess you had better wait until Mrs. Berry gets settled in her house. Mr. Berry is going to hire the old Bennett place. I guess it would be pleasanter.”
Barney turned away, blushing also as he stammered an assent. Always keenly alive to the shame of the matter, it seemed as if his sense of it were for the moment intensified. The minister's wife's whole nature seemed turned into a broadside of mirrors towards Rebecca's shame and misery, and it was as if the reflection was multiplied in Barney as he looked at her.
Still, he could not take the shame to his own nature as she could, being a woman. He looked back furtively at the house as he went down the road, thinking he might catch a glimpse of poor Rebecca at the window.
But Rebecca kept herself well hid. After William had hired the old Bennet house and established her there, she lived with curtains down and doors bolted. Never a neighbor saw her face at door or window, although all the women who lived near did their housework with eyes that way. She would not go to the door if anybody knocked. The caller would hear her scurrying away. Nobody could gain admittance if William were not at home.
Barney went to the door once, and her voice sounded unexpectedly loud and piteously shrill in response to his knock.
“You can't come in! go away!” cried Rebecca.
“I don't want to say anything hard to you,” said Barney.
“Go away, go away!” repeated Rebecca, and then he heard her sob.
“Don't cry,” pleaded Barney, futilely, through the door. But he heard his sister's retreating steps and her sobs dying away in the distance.
He went away, and did not try to see her again.
Rose went to see Rebecca, stealing out of a back door and scudding across snowy fields lest her mother should espy her and stop her. But Rebecca had not come to the door, although Rose had stood there a long time in a bitter wind.
“She wouldn't let me in,” she whispered to her brother in the store, when she returned. She was friendly to him in a shamefaced, evasive sort of way, and she alone of his family. His father and mother scarcely noticed him.
“Much as ever as she'll let me in, poor girl,” responded William, looking miserably aside from his sister's eyes and weighing out some meal.
“She wouldn't let mother in if she went there,” said Rose. She felt a little piqued at Rebecca's refusing her admittance. It was as if all her pity and generous sympathy had been thrust back upon her, and her pride in it swamped.
“There's no danger of her going there,” William returned, bitterly.
And there was not. Hannah Berry would have set herself up in a pillory as soon as she would have visited her son's wife. She scarcely went into a neighbor's lest she should hear some allusion to it.
Rebecca's father often walked past her house with furtive, wistful eyes towards the windows. Once or twice when nobody was looking he knocked timidly, but he never got any response. He always took a circuitous route home, that his wife might not know where he had been. Deborah never spoke of Rebecca; neither Caleb nor Ephraim dared mention her name in her hearing.
Although Deborah never asked a question, and although people were shy of alluding to Rebecca, she yet seemed to know, in some occult and instinctive fashion, all about her.
When a funeral procession passed the Thayer house one afternoon Deborah knew quite well whose little coffin was in the hearse, although she could scarcely have said that anybody had told her.
Caleb came to her after dinner, with a strange, defiant air. “I want a clean dicky, mother; I'm agoin',” said he. And Deborah got out the old man's Sunday clothes for him without a word. She even brushed his hair with hard, careful strokes, and helped him on with his great-coat; but she never said a word about Rebecca and her baby's funeral.
“They had some white posies on it,” Caleb volunteered, tremblingly, when he got home.
Deborah made no reply.
“There was quite a lot there,” added Caleb.
“Go an' bring me in some kindlin' wood,” said Deborah.
Ephraim stood by, staring alternately at his father and mother. He had watched the funeral procession pass with furtive interest.
“It won't hurt you none to make a few lamp-lighters,” said his mother. “You set right down here, an' I'll get you some paper.”
Ephraim clapped his hand to his side, and rolled his eyes agonizingly towards his mother, but she took no notice. She got some paper out of the cupboard, and Ephraim sat down and began quirling it into long spirals with a wretched sulky air.
Since his sister's marriage Ephraim had had a sterner experience than had ever fallen to his lot before. His mother redoubled her discipline over him. It was as if she had resolved, since all her vigorous training had failed in the case of his sister, that she would intensify it to such purpose that it should not fail with him.
So strait and narrow was the path in which Ephraim was forced to tread those wintry days, so bound and fettered was he by precept and admonition, that it seemed as if his very soul could do no more than shuffle along where his mother pointed.
A scanty and simple diet had Ephraim, and it seemed to him not so much from a solicitude for his health as from a desire to mortify his flesh for the good of his spirit. Ephraim obeyed perforce; he was sincerely afraid of his mother, but he had within him a dogged and growing resentment against those attempts to improve his spirit.
Not a bit of cake was he allowed to taste. When the door of a certain closet in which pound-cake for possible guests was always kept in a jar, and had been ever since Ephraim could remember, was opened, the boy's eyes would fairly glare with desire. “Jest gimme a little scrap, mother,” he would whine. He had formerly, on rare occasions, been allowed a small modicum of cake, but now his mother was unyielding. He got not a crumb; he could only sniff hungrily at the rich, spicy, and fruity aroma which came forth from the closet, and swallow at it vainly and unsatisfactorily with straining palate.
Ephraim was not allowed a soft-stoned plum from a piece of mince-pie; the pie had always been tabooed. He was not even allowed to pick over the plums for the pies, unless under the steady watch of his mother's eyes. Once she seemed to see him approach a plum to his mouth when her back was towards him.
“What are you doing, Ephraim?” she said, and her voice sounded to the boy like one from the Old Testament. He put the plum promptly into the bowl instead of his mouth.
“I ain't doin' nothin', mother,” said he; but his eyes rolled alarmedly after his mother as she went across the kitchen. That frightened Ephraim. He was a practical boy and not easily imposed upon, but it really seemed to him that his mother had seen him, after some occult and uncanny fashion, from the back of her head. A vague and preposterous fancy actually passed through his bewildered boyish brain that the little, tightly twisted knob of hair on the back of a feminine head might have some strange visual power of its own.
He never dared taste another plum, even if the knob of hair directly faced him.
Every day Ephraim had a double task to learn in his catechism, for Deborah held that no labor, however arduous, which savored of the Word and the Spirit could work him bodily ill. If Ephraim had been enterprising and daring enough, he would have fairly cursed the Westminster divines, as he sat hour after hour, crooking his boyish back painfully over their consolidated wisdom, driving the letter of their dogmas into his boyish brain, while the sense of them utterly escaped him.
There was one whole day during which Ephraim toiled, laboriously conning over the majestic sentences in loud whispers, and received thereby only a vague impression and maudlin hope that he himself might be one of the elect of which they treated, because he was so strenuously deprived of plums in this life, and might therefore reasonably expect his share of them in the life to come.
That day poor Ephraim—glancing between whiles at some boys out coasting over in a field, down a fine icy slope, hearing now and then their shouts of glee—had a certain sense of superiority and complacency along with the piteous and wistful longing which always abode in his heart.
“Maybe,” thought Ephraim, half unconsciously, not framing the thought in words to his mind—“maybe if I am a good boy, and don't have any plums, nor go out coasting like them, I shall go to heaven, and maybe they won't.” Ephraim's poor purple face at the window-pane took on a strange, serious expression as he evolved his childish tenet of theology. His mother came in from another room. “Have you got that learned?” said she, and Ephraim bent over his task again.
Ephraim had not been quite as well as usual this winter, and his mother had been more than usually anxious about him. She called the doctor in finally, and followed him out into the cold entry when he left. “He's worse than he has been, ain't he?” she said, abruptly.
The doctor hesitated. He was an old man with a moderate manner. He buttoned his old great-coat, redolent of drugs, closer, his breath steamed out in the frosty entry. “I guess you had better be a little careful about getting him excited,” he said at last, evasively. “You had better get along as easy as you can with him.” The doctor's manner implied more than his words; he had his own opinion of Deborah Thayer's sternness of rule, and he had sympathy with Rebecca.
Deborah seemed to have an intuition of it, for she looked at him, and raised her voice after a manner which would have become the Deborah of the scriptures.
“What would you have me do?” she demanded. “Would you have me let him have his own way if it were for the injury of his soul?” It was curious that Deborah, as she spoke, seemed to look only at the spiritual side of the matter. The idea that her discipline was actually necessary for her son's bodily weal did not occur to her, and she did not urge it as an argument.
“I guess you had better be a little careful and get along as easy as you can,” repeated the doctor, opening the door.
“That ain't all that's to be thought of,” said Deborah, with stern and tragic emphasis, as the doctor went out.
“What did the doctor say, mother?” Ephraim inquired, when she went into the room again. He looked half scared, half important, as he sat in the great rocking-chair by the fire. He breathed short, and his words were disconnected as he spoke.
His mother, for answer, took the catechism from the shelf, and extended it towards him with a decisive thrust of her arm.
“It is time you studied some more,” said she.
Ephraim jerked himself away from the proffered book. “I don't want to study any more now, mother,” he whined.
“Take it,” said Deborah.
Caleb was paring apples for pies on the other side of the hearth. Ephraim looked across at him desperately. “I want to play holly-gull with father,” he said.
“Can't I play holly-gull with father jest a little while?”
“You take this book and study your lesson,” said Deborah, between nearly closed lips.
Ephraim began to weep; he took the book with a vicious snatch and an angry sob. “Won't never let me do anythin' I want to,” he cried, convulsively.
“Not another word,” said Deborah. Ephraim bent over his catechism with half-suppressed sobs. He dared not weep aloud. Deborah went into the pantry with the medicine-bottle which the doctor had left; she wanted a spoon. Caleb caught hold of her dress as she was passing him.
“What is it?” said she.
“Look here, jest a minute, mother.”
“I can't stop, father; Ephraim has got to have his medicine.”
“Jest look here a minute, mother.”
Deborah bent her head impatiently, and Caleb whispered. “No, he can't; I told him he couldn't,” she said aloud, and passed on into the pantry.
Caleb looked over at Ephraim with piteous and helpless sympathy. “Never you mind, sonny,” he said, cautiously.
“She—makes—” began Ephraim with a responsive plaint; but his mother came out of the pantry, and he stopped short. Caleb dropped a pared apple noisily into the pan.
“You'll dent that pan, father, if you fling the apples in that way,” said Deborah. She had a thick silver spoon, and she measured out a dose of the medicine for Ephraim. She approached him, extending the spoon carefully. “Open your mouth,” commanded she.
“Oh, mother, I don't want to take it!”
“Open your mouth!”
“Oh, mother—I don't—want to—ta-ke it!”
“Now, sonny, I wouldn't mind takin' of it. It's real good medicine that the doctor left you, an' father's payin' consid'able for it. The doctor thinks it's goin' to make you well,” said Caleb, who was looking on anxiously.
“Open your mouth and take it!” said Deborah, sternly. She presented the spoon at Ephraim as if it were a bayonet and there were death at the point.
“Oh, mother,” whimpered Ephraim.
“Mebbe mother will let you have a little taste of lasses arter it, if you take it real good,” ventured Caleb.
“No, he won't have any lasses after it,” said Deborah. “I'm a-tendin' to him, father. Now, Ephraim, you take this medicine this minute, or I shall give you somethin' worse than medicine. Open your mouth!” And Ephraim opened his mouth as if his mother's will were a veritable wedge between his teeth, swallowed the medicine with a miserable gulp, and made a grotesque face of wrath and disgust. Caleb, watching, swallowed and grimaced at the same instant that his son did. There were tears in his old eyes as he took up another apple to pare.
Deborah set the bottle on the shelf and laid the spoon beside it. “You've got to take this every hour for a spell,” said she, “an' I ain't goin' to have any such work, if you be sick; you can make up your mind to it.”
And make up his mind to this unwelcome dose Ephraim did. Once an hour his mother stood over him with the spoon, and the fierce odor of the medicine came to his nostrils; he screwed his eyes tight, opened his mouth, and swallowed without a word. There were limits to his mother's patience which Ephraim dared not pass. He had only vague ideas of what might happen if he did, but he preferred to be on the safe side. So he took the medicine, and did not lift his voice against it, although he had his thoughts.
It did seem as if the medicine benefited him. He breathed more easily after a while, and his color was more natural. Deborah felt encouraged; she even went down upon her stiff knees after her family were in bed, and thanked the Lord from the depths of her sorely chastened but proud heart. She did not foresee what was to come of it; for that very night Ephraim, induced thereto by the salutary effect of the medicine, which removed somewhat the restriction of his laboring heart upon his boyish spirits, perpetrated the crowning act of revolt and rebellion of his short life.
The moon was bright that night. The snow was frozen hard. The long hills where the boys coasted looked like slopes of silver. Ephraim had to go to bed at eight. He lay, well propped up on pillows, in his little bedroom, and he could hear the shouts of the coasting boys. Now that he could breathe more easily the superiority of his enforced deprivation of such joys no longer comforted him as much as it had done. His curtain was up, and the moonlight lay on his bed. The mystic influence of that strange white orb which moves the soul of the lover to dream of love and yearnings after it, which saddens with sweet wounds the soul who has lost it forever, which increases the terrible freedom of the maniac, and perhaps moves the tides, apparently increased the longing in the heart of one poor boy for all the innocent hilarity of his youth which he had missed.
Ephraim lay there in the moonlight, and longed as he had never longed before to go forth and run and play and halloo, to career down those wonderful shining slants of snow, to be free and equal with those other boys, whose hearts told off their healthy lives after the Creator's plan.
The clock in the kitchen struck nine, then ten. Caleb and Deborah went to bed, and Ephraim could hear his father's snores and his mother's heavy breathing from a distant room. Ephraim could not go to sleep. He lay there and longed for the frosty night air, the sled, and the swift flight down the white hill as never lover longed for his mistress.
At half-past ten o'clock Ephraim rose up. He dressed himself in the moonlight—all except his shoes; those he carried in his hand—and stole out in his stocking-feet to the entryway, where his warm coat and cap, which he so seldom wore, hung. Ephraim pulled the cap over his ears, put on the coat, cautiously unbolted the door, and stepped forth like a captive from prison.
He sat down on the doorstep and put on his shoes, tying them with trembling, fumbling fingers. He expected every minute to hear his mother's voice.
Then he ran down the yard to the wood shed. It was so intensely cold that the snow did not yield to his tread, but gave out quick sibilant sounds. It seemed to him like a whispering multitude called up by his footsteps, and as if his mother must hear.
He knew where Barney's old sled hung in the woodshed, and the woodshed door was unlocked.
Presently a boyish figure fled swiftly out of the Thayer yard with a bobbing sled in his wake. He expected every minute to hear the door or window open; but he cleared the yard and dashed up the road, and nobody arrested him.
Ephraim knew well the way to the coasting-hill, which was considered the best in the village, although he had never coasted there himself, except twice or thrice, surreptitiously, on another boy's sled, and not once this winter. He heard no more shouts; the frosty air was very still. He thought to himself that the other boys had gone home, but he did not care.
However, when he reached the top of the hill there was another boy with his sled. He had been all ready to coast down, but had seen Ephraim coming, and waited.
“Hullo!” he called.
“Hullo!” returned Ephraim, panting.
Then the boy stared. “It ain't you, Ephraim Thayer!” he demanded.
“Why ain't it me?” returned Ephraim, with a manful air, swaggering back his shoulders at the other boy, who was Ezra Ray.
“Why, I didn't know your mother ever let you out,” said Ezra, in a bewildered fashion. In fact, the vision of Ephraim Thayer out with a sled, coasting, at eleven o'clock at night, was startling. Ezra remembered dazedly how he had heard his mother say that very afternoon that Ephraim was worse, that the doctor had been there last Saturday, and she didn't believe he would live long. He looked at Ephraim standing there in the moonlight almost as if he were a spirit.
“She ain't let me for some time; I've been sick,” admitted Ephraim, yet with defiance.
“I heard you was awful sick,” said Ezra.
“I was; but the doctor give me some medicine that cured me.”
Ephraim placed his sled in position and got on stiffly. The other boy still watched. “She know you're out to-night?” he inquired, abruptly.
Ephraim looked up at him. “S'pose you think you'll go an' tell her, if she don't,” said he.
“No, I won't, honest.”
“Hope to die if you do?”
“Well, then, I run out of the side door.”
“Both on 'em asleep?”
Ezra Ray whistled. “You'll get a whippin' when your mother finds it out.”
“No, I sha'n't. Mother can't whip me, because the doctor says it ain't good for me. You goin' down?”
“Can't go down but once. I've got to go home, or mother 'll give it to me.”
“Does she ever whip you?”
“Mine don't,” said Ephraim, and he felt a superiority over Ezra Ray. He thought, too, that his sled was a better one. It was not painted, nor was it as new as Ezra's, but it had a reputation. Barney had won many coasting laurels with it in his boyhood, and his little brother, who had never used it himself, had always looked upon it with unbounded faith and admiration.
He gathered up his sled-rope, spurred himself into a start with his heels, and went swiftly down the long hill, gathering speed as he went. Poor Ephraim had an instinct for steering; he did not swerve from the track. The frosty wind smote his face, his breath nearly failed him, but half-way down he gave a triumphant whoop. When he reached the foot of the hill he had barely wind enough to get off his sled and drag it to one side, for Ezra Ray was coming down.
Ezra did not slide as far as Ephraim had done. Ephraim watched anxiously lest he should. “That sled of yours ain't no good,” he panted, when Ezra had stopped several yards from where he stood.
“Guess it ain't quite so fast as yours,” admitted Ezra. “That's your brother's, ain't it?”
“Well, that sled can't be beat in town. Mine's 'bout as good as any, 'cept that. I've always heard my brother say that your brother's sled was the best one he ever see.”
Ephraim stood looking at his brother's old battered but distinguished sled as if it had been a blood-horse. “Guess it can't be beat,” he chuckled.
“No sir, it can't,” said Ezra. He started off past Ephraim down the road, with his sled trailing at his heels.
“Hullo!” called Ephraim, “ain't you goin' up again?”
“Can't, got to go home.”
“Less try it jest once more, an' see if you can't go further.”
“No, I can't, nohow. Mother won't like it as 'tis.”
“'Spect so; don't mind it if she does.” Ezra brought a great show of courage to balance the other's immunity from danger. “Don't mind nothin' 'bout a little whippin',” he added, with a brave and contemptuous air. He whistled as he went on.
Ephraim stood watching him. He had enough brave blood in his veins to feel that this contempt of a whipping was a greater thing than not being whipped. He felt an envious admiration of Ezra Ray, but that did not prevent his calling after him:
“You ain't goin' to tell my mother?”
“Didn't I say I wasn't? I don't tell fibs. Hope to die if I do.”
Ezra's brave whistle, as cheerfully defiant of his mother's prospective wrath as the note of a bugler advancing to the charge, died away in the distance. For Ephraim now began the one unrestrained hilarity of his whole life. All by himself in the white moonlight and the keen night air he climbed the long hill, and slid down over and over. He ignored his feeble and laboring breath of life. He trod upon, he outspeeded all infirmities of the flesh in his wild triumph of the spirit. He shouted and hallooed as he shot down the hill. His mother could not have recognized his voice had she heard it, for it was the first time that the boy had ever given full cry to the natural voice of youth and his heart. A few stolen races, and sorties up apple-trees, a few stolen slides had poor Ephraim Thayer had; they had been snatched in odd minutes, at the imminent danger of discovery; but now he had the wide night before him; he had broken over all his trammels, and he was free.
Up and down the hill went Ephraim Thayer, having the one playtime of his life, speeding on his brother's famous sled against bondage and deprivation and death. It was after midnight when he went home; all the village lights were out; the white road stretched before him, as still and deserted as a road through solitude itself. Ephraim had never been out-of-doors so late before, he had never been so alone in his life, but he was not afraid. He was not afraid of anything in the lonely night, and he was not afraid of his mother at home. He thought to himself exultantly that Ezra Ray had been no more courageous than he, although, to be sure, he had not a whipping to fear like Ezra. His heart was full of joyful triumph that he was not wholly guilty, since it was the outcome of an innocent desire.
As he walked along he tipped up his face and stared with his stupid boyish eyes at the stars paling in the full moonlight, and the great moon herself overriding the clouds and the stars. It made him think of the catechism and the Commandments, and then a little pang of terror shot through him, but even that did not daunt him. He did not look up at the stars again, but bent his head and trudged on, with the sled-rope pulling at his weak chest.
When he reached his own yard he stepped as carefully as he could; still he was not afraid. He put the sled back in the shed; then he stole into the house. He took off his shoes in the entry, and got safely into his own room. He was in his night-gown and all ready for bed when another daring thought struck him.
Ephraim padded softly on his bare feet out through the kitchen to the pantry. Every third step or so he stopped and listened to the heavy double breathing from the bedroom beyond. So long as that continued he was safe. He listened, and then slid on a pace or two as noiseless as a shadow in the moonlight.
Ephraim knew well where the mince-pies were kept. There was a long row of them covered with towels on an upper shelf.
Ephraim hoisted himself painfully upon a meal-bucket, and clawed a pie over the edge of the shelf. He could scarcely reach, and there was quite a loud grating noise. He stood trembling on the bucket and listened, but the double breathing continued. Deborah had been unusually tired that night; she had gone to bed earlier, and slept more soundly.
Ephraim broke a great jagged half from the mince-pie; then replaced it with another grating slide. Again he listened, but his mother had not been awakened.
Ephraim crept back to his bedroom. There he sat on the edge of his bed and devoured his pie. The rich spicy compound and the fat plums melted on his tongue, and the savor thereof delighted his very soul. Then Ephraim got into bed and pulled the quilts over him. For the first and only occasion in his life he had had a good time.
The next morning Ephraim felt very ill, but he kept it from his mother. He took his medicine of his own accord several times, and turned his head from her, that she might not notice his laboring breath.
In the middle of the forenoon Deborah went out. She had to drive over to Bolton to get some sugar and tea. She would not buy anything now at Berry's store. Caleb had gone down to the lot to cut a little wood; he had harnessed the horse for her before he went. It was a cold day, and she wrapped herself up well in two shawls and a thick veil over her hood. When she was all ready she gave Ephraim his parting instructions, rearing over him with stern gestures, like a veiled justice.
“Now,” said she, “you listen to what I tell you. When your father comes in you tell him I want him to set right down and finish parin' them apples. They are spoilin', an' I'm goin' to make 'em into sauce. You tell him to set right down and go to work on 'em; he can get 'em done by the time I get home, an' I can make the sauce this afternoon. You set here an' take your medicine an' learn your catechism. You can study over the Commandments, too; you ain't got 'em any too well. Do you hear?”
“Yes, ma'am,” said Ephraim. He looked away from his mother as he spoke, and his panting breath clouded the clear space on the frosty window-pane. He sat beside the window in the rocking-chair.
“Mind you tell your father about them apples,” repeated his mother as she went out.
“Yes, ma'am,” said Ephraim. He watched his mother drive out of the yard, guiding the horse carefully through the frozen ridges of the drive. Presently he took another spoonful of his medicine. He felt a little easier, but still very ill. His father came a few minutes after his mother had gone. He heard him stamping in through the back door; then his frost-reddened old face looked in on Ephraim.
“Mother gone?” said he.
“She's jest gone,” replied Ephraim. His father came in. He looked at the boy with a childish and anxious sweetness. “Don't you feel quite as well as you did?” he inquired.
“Dunno as I do.”
“Took your medicine reg'lar?”
“I guess it's good medicine,” said Caleb; “it come real high; I guess the doctor thought consid'ble of it. I'd take it reg'lar if I was you. I thought you looked as if you didn't feel quite so well as common when I come in.”
Caleb took off his boots and tended the fire. Ephraim began to feel a little better; his heart did not beat quite so laboriously.
He did not say a word to his father about paring the apples. Caleb went into the pantry and came back eating a slice of mince-pie.
“I found there was a pie cut, and I thought mother wouldn't mind if I took a leetle piece,” he remarked, apologetically. He would never have dared take the pie without permission had his wife been at home. “She ain't goin' to be home till arter dinner-time, an' I began to feel kinder gone,” added Caleb. He stood by the fire, and munched the pie with a relish slightly lessened by remorse. “Don't you want nothin'” he asked of Ephraim. “Mebbe a little piece of pie wouldn't hurt you none.”
Caleb's ideas of hygienic food were primitive. He believed, as innocently as if he had lived in Eden before the Prohibition, that all food which he liked was good for him, and he applied his theory to all mankind. He had deferred to Deborah's imperious will, but he had never been able to understand why she would not allow Ephraim to eat mince-pie or anything else which his soul loved and craved.
“No, guess I don't,” Ephraim replied. He gazed moodily out of the window. “Father,” said he, suddenly.
“What say, sonny?”
“I eat some of that pie last night.”
“Mother give it to you?”
“No; I clim up on the meal-bucket, an' got it in the night.”
“You might have fell, an' then I dunno what mother'd ha' said to you,” said Caleb.
“An' I did somethin' else.”
“What else did you do?”
“I went out a-coastin' after you an' her was asleep.”
“You didn't, now?”
“Yes, I did.”
“An' we didn't neither on us wake up?”
“You was a-snorin' the whole time.”
“I don't s'pose you'd oughter have done it, Ephraim,” said Caleb, and he tried to make his tone severe.
“I never went a-coastin' in my whole life before,” said Ephraim; “it ain't fair.”
“I dunno what mother 'd say if she was to find out about it,” said Caleb, and he shook his head.
“Ezra Ray was the only one that was out there, an' he said he wouldn't tell.”
“Well, mebbe he won't, mebbe he won't. I guess you most hadn't oughter gone unbeknownst to your mother, sonny.”
“Barney's sled jest beat Ezra's all holler.”
“It did, hey? That allers was a good sled,” returned the old man, chuckling.
Caleb went into the pantry again, and returned rattling a handful of corn. “Want a game of holly-gull?” he asked. “I've got a leetle time to spare now while mother's gone.”
“Guess so,” replied Ephraim. He dragged his chair forward to the hearth; he and his father sat opposite each other and played the old childish game of holly-gull. Ephraim was very fond of the game, and would have played it happily hour after hour had not Deborah esteemed it a sinful waste of time. When Caleb held up his old fist, wherein he had securely stowed a certain number of kernels of corn, and demanded, “Holly-gull, hand full, passel how many?” Ephraim's spirit was thrilled with a fine stimulation, of which he had known little in his life. If he guessed the number of kernels right and confiscated the contents of his father's hand, he felt the gratified ambition of a successful financier; if he lost, his heart sank, only to bound higher with new hope for the next chance. A veritable gambling game was holly-gull, but they gambled for innocent Indian-corn instead of the coin of the realm, and nobody suspected it. The lack of value of the stakes made the game quite harmless and unquestioned in public opinion.
The waste of time was all Deborah's objection to the game. Caleb and Ephraim said not a word about it to each other, but both kept an anxious ear towards Deborah's returning sleigh-bells.
At last they both heard the loud, brazen jingle entering the yard, and Caleb gathered all the corn together and stowed it away in his pocket. Then he stood on the hearth, looking like a guilty child. Ephraim went slowly over to the window; he did not feel quite so well again.
Deborah's harsh “Whoa!” sounded before the door; presently she came in, her garments radiating cold air, her arms full of bundles.
“What you standin' there for, father?” she demanded of Caleb. “Why didn't you come out an' take some of these bundles? Why ain't you goin' out an' puttin' the horse up instead of standin' there starin'?”
“I'm goin' right off, mother,” Caleb answered, apologetically; and he turned his old back towards her and scuffled out in haste.
“Put on your cap!” Deborah called after him.
She laid off her many wraps, her hood and veil, and mufflers and shawls, folded them carefully, and carried them into her bedroom, to be laid in her bureau drawers. Deborah was very orderly and methodical.
“Did you take your medicine?” she asked Ephraim as she went out of the room.
“Yes, ma'am,” said he. He did not feel nearly as well; he kept his face turned from his mother. Ephraim was accustomed to complain freely, but now the coasting and the mince-pie had made him patient. He was quite sure that his bad feelings were due to that, and suppose his mother should suspect and ask him what he had been doing! He was also terrified by the thought of the holly-gull and her unfulfilled order about the apple-paring. He sat very still; his heart shook his whole body, which had grown thin lately. He looked very small, in spite of his sturdy build.
Deborah was gone quite a while; she had left some work unfinished in her bedroom that morning. Caleb returned before she did, and pulled up a chair close to the fire. He was holding his reddened fingers out towards the blaze to warm them when Deborah came in.
She looked at him, then around the room, inquiringly.
“Where did you put the apples?” said she to Caleb.
Caleb stared around at her. “What apples, mother?” he asked, feebly.
“The apples I left for you to pare. I want to put 'em on before I get dinner.”
“I ain't heard nothin' about apples, mother.”
“Ain't you pared any apples this forenoon?”
“I didn't know as you wanted any pared, mother.”
Deborah turned fiercely on Ephraim.
“Ephraim Thayer, look here!” said she. Ephraim turned his poor blue face slowly; his breath came shortly between his parted lips; he clapped one hand to his side. “Didn't you tell your father to pare them apples, the way I told you to?” she demanded.
Ephraim dropped his chin lower.
“What have you been a-doin' of?”
Deborah stood quite still for a moment. Her mouth tightened; she grew quite pale. Ephraim and Caleb watched her. Deborah strode across the room, out into the shed.
“I guess she won't say much; don't you be scared, Ephraim,” whispered Caleb.
But Ephraim, curious to say, did not feel scared. Suddenly his mother seemed to have lost all her terrifying influence over him. He felt very strange, and as if he were sinking away from it all through deep abysses.
His mother came back, and she held a stout stick in her right hand. Caleb gasped when he saw it. “Mother, you ain't goin' to whip him?” he cried out.
“Father, you keep still!” commanded Deborah. “Ephraim, you come with me!”
She led the way into Ephraim's little bedroom, and he stumbled up and followed her. He saw the stick before him in his mother's hand; he knew she was going to whip him, but he did not feel in the least disturbed or afraid. Ezra Ray could not have faced a whipping any more courageously than Ephraim. But he staggered as he went, and his feet met the floor with strange shocks, since he had prepared his steps for those deep abysses.
He and his mother stood together in his little bedroom. She, when she faced him, saw how ill he looked, but she steeled herself against that. She had seen him look as badly before; she was not to be daunted by that from her high purpose. For it was a high purpose to Deborah Thayer. She did not realize the part which her own human will had in it.
She lifted up her voice and spoke solemnly. Caleb, listening, all trembling, at the kitchen door, heard her.
“Ephraim,” said his mother, “I have spared the rod with you all my life because you were sick. Your brother and your sister have both rebelled against the Lord and against me. You are all the child I've got left. You've got to mind me and do right. I ain't goin' to spare you any longer because you ain't well. It is better you should be sick than be well and wicked and disobedient. It is better that your body should suffer than your immortal soul. Stand still.”
Deborah raised her stick, and brought it down. She raised it again, but suddenly Ephraim made a strange noise and sunk away before it, down in a heap on the floor.
Caleb heard him fall, and came quickly.
“Oh, mother,” he sobbed, “is he dead? What ails him?”
“He's got a bad spell,” said Deborah. “Help me lay him on the bed.” Her face was ghastly. She spoke with hoarse pulls for breath, but she did not flinch. She and Caleb laid Ephraim on his bed; then she worked over him for a few minutes with mustard and hot-water—all the simple remedies in which she was skilled. She tried to pour a little of the doctor's medicine into his mouth, but he did not swallow, and she wiped it away.
“Go an' get Barney to run for the doctor, quick!” she told Caleb at last. Caleb fled, sobbing aloud like a child, out of the house. Deborah closed the boy's eyes, and straightened him a little in the bed. Then she stood over him there, and began to pray aloud. It was a strange prayer, full of remorse, of awful agony, of self-defense of her own act, and her own position as the vicar of God upon earth for her child. “I couldn't let him go astray too!” she shrieked out. “I couldn't, I couldn't! O Lord, thou knowest that I couldn't! I would—have lain him upon—the altar, as Abraham laid Isaac! Oh, Ephraim, my son, my son, my son!”
Deborah prayed on and on. The doctor and a throng of pale women came in; the yard was full of shocked and staring people. Deborah heeded nothing; she prayed on.
Some of the women got her into her own room. She stayed there, with a sort of rigid settling into the spot where she was placed and she pleaded with the Lord for upholding and justification until the daylight faded, and all night. The women, Mrs. Ray and the doctor's wife, who watched with poor Ephraim, heard her praying all night long. They sat in grave silence, and their eyes kept meeting with shocked significance as they listened to her. Now and then they wet the cloth on Ephraim's face. About two o'clock Mrs. Ray tiptoed into the pantry, and brought forth a mince-pie. “I found one that had been cut on the top shelf,” she whispered. She and the doctor's wife ate the remainder of poor Ephraim's pie.
The two women stayed next day and assisted in preparations for the funeral. Deborah seemed to have no thought for any of her household duties. She stayed in her bedroom most of the time, and her praying voice could be heard at intervals.
Some other women came in, and they went about with silent efficiency, performing their services to the dead and setting the house in order; but they said very little to Deborah. When she came out of her room they eyed her with a certain grim furtiveness, and they never said a word to her about Ephraim.
It was already known all over the village that she had been whipping Ephraim when he died. Poor old Caleb, when the neighbors had come flocking in, had kept repeating with childish sobs, “Mother hadn't ought to have whipped him! mother hadn't ought to have whipped him!”
“Did Mrs. Thayer whip that boy?” the doctor had questioned, sharply, before all the women, and Caleb had sobbed back, hoarsely, “She was jest a-whippin' of him; I told her she hadn't ought to.”
That had been enough. “She whipped him,” the women repeated to each other in shocked pantomime. They all knew how corporal punishment had been tabooed for Ephraim.
The Thayer house was crowded the afternoon of the funeral. The decent black-clad village people, with reddening eyes and mouths drooping with melancholy, came in throngs into the snowy yard. The men in their Sunday gear tiptoed creaking across the floors; the women, feeling for their pocket-handkerchiefs, padded softly and heavily after them, folded in their black shawls like mourning birds.
Caleb and Deborah and Barney sat in the north parlor, where Ephraim lay. Deborah's hoarse laments, which were not like the ordinary hysterical demonstrations of feminine grief, being rather a stern uprising and clamor of herself against her own heart, filled the house.
The minister had to pray and speak against it; scarcely any one beyond the mourners' room could hear his voice. It was a hard task that the poor young minister had. He was quite aware of the feeling against Deborah, and it required finesse to avoid jarring that, and yet display the proper amount of Christian sympathy for the afflicted. Then there were other difficulties. The minister had prayed in his closet for a small share of the wisdom of Solomon before setting forth.
The people in the other rooms leaned forward and strained their ears. The minister's wife sat beside her husband with bright spots of color in her cheeks, her little figure nervously contracted in her chair. They had had a discussion concerning the advisability of his mentioning the sister and daughter in his prayer, and she had pleaded with him strenuously that he should not.
When the minister prayed for the afflicted “sister and daughter, who was now languishing upon a bed of sickness,” his wife's mouth tightened, her feet and hands grew cold. It seemed to her that her own tongue pronounced every word that her husband spoke. And there was, moreover, a little nervous thrill through the audience. Oddly enough, everybody seemed to hear that portion of the minister's prayer quite distinctly. Even one old deaf man in the farthest corner of the kitchen looked meaningly at his neighbor.
The service was a long one. The village hearse and the line of black covered wagons waited in front of the Thayer house over an hour. There had been another fall of snow the night before, and now the north wind blew it over the country. Outside ghostly spirals of snow raised from the new drifts heaped along the road-sides like graves, disappeared over the fields, and moved on the borders of distant woods, while in-doors the minister held forth, and the choir sang funeral hymns with a sweet uneven drone of grief and consolation.
When at last the funeral was over and the people came out, they bent their heads before this wild storm which came from the earth instead of the sky.
The cemetery was a mile out of the village; when the procession came driving rapidly home it was nearly sunset, and the thoughts of the people turned from poor Ephraim to their suppers. It is only for a minute that death can blur life for the living. Still, when the evening smoke hung over the roofs the people talked untiringly of Ephraim and his mother.
As time went on the dark gossip in the village swelled louder. It was said quite openly that Deborah Thayer had killed her son Ephraim. The neighbors did not darken her doors. The minister and his wife called once. The minister offered prayer and spoke formal words of consolation as if he were reading from invisible notes. His wife sat by in stiff, scared silence. Deborah nodded in response; she said very little.
Indeed, Deborah had become very silent. She scarcely spoke to Caleb. For hours after he had gone to bed the poor bewildered old man could hear his wife wrestling in prayer with the terrible angel of the Lord whom she had evoked by the stern magic of grief and remorse. He could hear her harsh, solemn voice in self-justification and agonized appeal. After a while he learned to sleep with it still ringing in his ears, and his heavy breathing kept pace with Deborah's prayer.
Deborah had not the least doubt that she had killed her son Ephraim.
There was some talk of the church's dealing with her, some women declared that they would not go to meeting if she did; but no stringent measures were taken, and she went to church every Sunday all the rest of the winter and during the spring.
It was an afternoon in June when the doctor's wife and Mrs. Ray went into Deborah Thayer's yard. They paused hesitatingly before the door.
“I think you're the one that ought to tell her,” said Mrs. Ray.
“I think it's your place to, seeing as 'twas your Ezra that knew about it,” returned the doctor's wife. Her voice sounded like the hum of a bee, being full of husky vibrations; her double chin sank into her broad heaving bosom, folded over with white plaided muslin.
“Seems to me it belongs to you, as long as you're the doctor's wife,” said Mrs. Ray. She was very small and lean beside the soft bulk of the other woman, but there was a sort of mental uplifting about her which made her unconscious of it. Mrs. Ray had never considered herself a small woman; she seemed always to see the tops of other women's heads.
The doctor's wife looked at her dubiously, panting softly all over her great body. It was a warm afternoon. The low red and white rose-bushes sprayed all around the step-stone, and they were full of roses. The doctor's wife raised the brass knocker. “Well, I'd just as lieves,” said she, resignedly. “She'd ought to be told, anyway; the doctor said so.” The knocker fell with a clang of brass.
Deborah opened the door at once. “Good-afternoon,” said she.
“We thought we'd come over a few minutes, it's so pleasant this afternoon,” said the doctor's wife.
“Walk in,” said Deborah. She aided them in through the kitchen to the north parlor. She always entertained guests there on warm afternoons.
The north parlor was very cool and dark; the curtains were down, and undulated softly like sails. Deborah placed the big haircloth rocking-chair for the doctor's wife, and Mrs. Ray sat down on the sofa.
There was a silence. The doctor's wife flushed red. Mrs. Ray's sharp face was imperturbable. Deborah, sitting erect in one of her best flag-bottomed chairs, looked as if she were alone in the room.
The doctor's wife cleared her throat. “Mis' Thayer,” she began.
Deborah looked at her with calm expectation.
“Mis' Thayer,” said the doctor's wife, “Mis' Ray and I thought we ought to come over here this afternoon. Mis' Ray heard something last night, an' she came over an' told the doctor, an' he said you ought to know—”
The doctor's wife paused, panting. Then the door opened and Caleb peered in. He bowed stiffly to the two guests; then, with apprehensive glances at his wife, slid into a chair near the door.
“Mis' Ray's Ezra told her last night,” proceeded the doctor's wife, “that the night before your son died he run away unbeknown to you, an' went slidin' down hill. The doctor says mebbe that was what killed him. He said you'd ought to know.”
Deborah leaned forward; her face worked like the breaking up of an icy river. “Be you sure?” said she.
“Ezra told me last night,” interposed Mrs. Ray. “I had a hard time gettin' it out of him; he promised Ephraim he wouldn't tell. But somethin' he said made me suspect, an' I got it out of him. He said Ephraim told him he run away, an' he left him there slidin' when he came home. 'Twas as much as 'leven o'clock then; I remember I give Ezra a whippin' next mornin' for stayin' out so late. But then, of course, whippin' Ezra wa'n't nothin' like whippin' Ephraim.”
“The doctor says most likely that was what killed him, after all, an' you'd ought to know,” said the doctor's wife.
“Be you sure?” said Deborah again.
“Ephraim wa'n't to blame. He never had no show; he never went a-slidin' like the other little fellers,” said Caleb, suddenly, out of his corner; and he snivelled as he spoke.
Deborah turned on him sharply. “Did you know anything about it?” said she.
“He told me on 't that mornin',” said Caleb; “he told me how he'd been a-slidin', an' how he eat some mince-pie.”
“Eat—some—mince-pie!” gasped Deborah, and there was a great light of hope in her face.
“Well,” said the doctor's wife, “if that boy eat mince-pie, an' slid down hill, too, I guess you ain't much call to worry about anything you've done, Mis' Thayer. I know what the doctor has said right along.”
The doctor's wife arose with a certain mild impressiveness, as if some mantle of her husband's authority had fallen upon her. She shook out her ample skirts as if they were redolent of rhubarb and mint. “Well, I guess we had better be going,” said she, and her inflections were like the doctor's.
Mrs. Ray rose also. “Well, we thought you'd ought to know,” said she.
“I'm much obliged to you,” said Deborah.
She went through the kitchen with them. When the door was shut behind them she turned to Caleb, who had shuffled along at her heels. “Oh, father, why didn't you tell me if you knew, why didn't you tell me?” she gasped out.
Caleb stared at her. “Why, mother?” he returned.
“Didn't you know I thought I'd killed him, father? didn't you know I thought I'd killed my son? An' now maybe I haven't! maybe I haven't! O Lord, I thank thee for letting me know before I die! Maybe I haven't killed him, after all!”
“I didn't s'pose it would make any difference,” said Caleb, helplessly.
Suddenly, to the old man's great terror, his wife caught hold of him and clung to him. He staggered a little; his arms hung straight at his sides. “Why, what ails you, mother?” he stammered out. “I didn't tell you, 'cause I thought you'd be blamin' him for 't. Mother, don't you take on so; now don't!”
“I—wish—you'd go an' get Rebecca an' Barney, father,” said Deborah, faintly. She suddenly wavered so that her old husband wavered with her, and they reeled back and forth like two old trees in a wind.
“Why, what ails you, mother, what ails you?” Caleb gasped out. He caught Deborah's arm, and clutched out at something to save himself. Then they sank to the floor together.
Barney had just come up from the field, and was at his own door when his father came panting into the yard. “What is it? what's the matter?” he cried out.
“Mother's fell!” gasped Caleb.
“Fell! has she hurt her?”
“Dunno—she can't get up; come quick!”
As Barney rushed out of the yard he cast a glance up the hill towards Charlotte's house; in every crisis of his life his mind turned involuntarily to her, as if she were another self, to be made acquainted with all its exigencies. But when he came out on the road he met Charlotte herself face to face; she had been over to her Aunt Sylvia's.
“Something is wrong with mother,” Barney said, with a strange appeal. Then he went on, and Charlotte was at his side, running as fast as he. Caleb hurried after them, panting, the tears running down his old cheeks.
“Father says she's fell!” Barney said, as they sped along.
“Maybe she's only fainted,” responded Charlotte's steady, faithful voice.
But Deborah Thayer had more than fainted. It might have been that Ephraim had inherited from her the heart-taint that had afflicted and shortened his life, and it might have been that her terrible experiences of the last few months would have strained her heart to its undoing, had its valves been made of steel.
Barney carried his mother into the bedroom, and laid her on the bed. He and Charlotte worked over her, but she never spoke nor moved again. At last Charlotte laid her hand on Barney's arm. “Come out now,” said she, and Barney followed her out.
When they were out in the kitchen Barney looked in her face. “It's no use, she's gone!” he said, hoarsely. Charlotte nodded. Suddenly she put her arms up around his neck, and drew his head down to her bosom, and held it there, stroking his cheek.
“Oh, Charlotte,” Barney sobbed. Charlotte bent over him, whispering softly, smoothing his hair and cheek with her tender hand.
Caleb had gone for the doctor and Rebecca while they tried to restore Deborah, and had given the alarm on the way. Some women came hurrying in with white faces, staring curiously even then at Barney and Charlotte; but she never heeded them, except to answer in the affirmative when they asked, in shocked voices, if Deborah was dead. She went on soothing Barney, as if he had been her child, with no more shame in it, until he raised his white face from her breast of his own accord.
“Oh, Charlotte, you will stay to-night, won't you?” he pleaded.
“Yes, I'll stay,” said Charlotte. Young as Charlotte was, she had watched with the sick and sat up with the dead many a time. So she and the doctor's wife watched with Deborah Thayer that night. Rebecca came, but she was not strong enough to stay. The next day Charlotte assisted in the funeral preparations. It made a great deal of talk in the village. People wondered if Barney would marry her now, and if she would sit with the mourners at the funeral. But she sat with her father and mother in the south room, and time went on after Deborah died, and Barney did not marry her.