A few days after Deborah's funeral Charlotte had an errand at the store after supper. When she went down the hill the sun had quite set, but there was a clear green light. The sky gave it out, and there seemed to be also a green glow from the earth. Charlotte went down the hill with the evening air fresh and damp in her face. Lilacs were in blossom all about, and their fragrance was so vital and intense that it seemed almost like a wide presence in the green twilight.
She reached Barney's house, and passed it; then she came to the Thayer house. Before that lay the garden. The ranks of pease and beans were in white blossom, and there was a pale shimmer as of a cobweb veil over it.
Charlotte had passed the garden when she heard a voice behind her:
She stopped, and Barney came up.
“Good-evening,” said he.
“Good-evening,” said Charlotte.
“I saw you going by,” said Barney. Then he paused again, and Charlotte waited.
“I saw you going by,” he repeated, “and—I thought I'd like to speak to you. I wanted to thank you for what you did—about mother.”
“You're very welcome,” replied Charlotte.
Barney ground a stone beneath his heel. “I sha'n't ever forget it, and—father won't, either,” he said. His voice trembled, and yet there was a certain doggedness in it.
Charlotte stood waiting. Barney turned slowly away. “Good-night,” he said.
“Good-night,” returned Charlotte, quickly, and she fairly sprang away from him and down the road. Her limbs trembled, but she held her head up proudly. She understood it all perfectly. Barney had meant to inform her that his behavior towards her on the day his mother died had been due to a momentary weakness; that she was to expect nothing further. She went on to the store and did her errand, then went home. As she entered the kitchen her mother came through from the front room. She had been sitting at a window watching for Charlotte to return; she thought Barney might be with her.
“Well, you've got home,” said she, and it sounded like a question.
“Yes,” said Charlotte. She laid her parcels on the table. “I guess I'll go to bed,” she added.
“Why, it's dreadful early to go to bed, ain't it?”
“Well, I'm tired; I guess I'll go.”
The candle-light was dim in the room, but Sarah eyed her daughter sharply. She thought she looked pale.
“Did you meet anybody?” she asked.
“I don't know; there wasn't many folks out.”
“You didn't see Barney, did you?”
“Yes, I met him.”
Charlotte lighted another candle, and opened the door.
“Look here,” said her mother.
“Well?” replied Charlotte, with a sort of despairing patience.
“What did he say to you? I want to know.”
“He didn't say much of anything. He thanked me for what I did about his mother.”
“Didn't he say anything about anything else?”
“No, he didn't.” Charlotte went out, shielding her candle.
“You don't mean that he didn't say anything, after the way he acted that day his mother died?”
“I didn't expect him to say anything.”
“He's treated you mean, Charlotte,” her mother cried out, with a half sob. “He'd ought to be strung up after he acted so, huggin' an' kissin' you right before folk's face and eyes.”
“It was more my fault than 'twas his,” returned Charlotte; and she shut the door.
“Then I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself,” Sarah called after her, but Charlotte did not seem to hear.
“I never see such work, for my part,” Sarah wailed out to herself.
“Mother, you come in here a minute,” Cephas called out of the bedroom. He had gone to bed soon after supper.
“Anythin' new about Barney?” he asked, when his wife stood beside him.
“Barney ain't no more notion of comin' back than he had before, in spite of all the talk. I never see such work,” replied Sarah, in a voice strained high with tears.
“I call it pretty doin's,” assented Cephas. His pale face, with its venerable beard, was closely set about with his white nightcap. He lay staring straight before him with a solemnly reflective air.
“I wish you hadn't brought up 'lection that time, father,” ventured Sarah, with a piteous sniff.
“If the Democratic party had only lived different, an' hadn't eat so much meat, there wouldn't have been any trouble,” returned Cephas, magisterially. “If you go far enough, you'll always get back to that. A man is what he puts into his mouth. Meat victuals is at the bottom of democracy. If there wa'n't any meat eat there wouldn't be any Democratic party, an' there wouldn't be any wranglin' in the state. There'd be one party, jest as there'd ought to be.”
“I wish you hadn't brought it up, father,” Sarah lamented again; “it's most killin' me.”
“If we hadn't both of us been eatin' so much animal food there wouldn't have been any trouble,” repeated Cephas.
“Well, I dunno much about animal food, but I know I'm about discouraged,” said Sarah. And she went back to the kitchen, and sat down in the rocking-chair and cried a long time, with her apron over her face. Her heartache was nearly as sore as her daughter's up-stairs.
Charlotte did not speak to Barney again all summer—indeed, she scarcely ever saw him. She had an occasional half-averted glimpse of his figure across the fields, and that was all. Barney had gone back to the old house to live with his father, and remained there through the summer and fall; but Caleb died in November. He had never been the same since Deborah's death; whether, like an old tree whose roots are no longer so firm in the earth that they can withstand every wind of affliction, the shock itself had shaken him to his fall, or the lack of that strange wontedness which takes the place of early love and passion had enfeebled him, no one could tell. He had seemed to simply stare at life from a sunny place on a stone-wall or a door-step all summer.
When the autumn set in he sat in his old chair by the fire. Caleb had always felt cold since Deborah died. When the bell tolled off his years, one morning in November, nobody felt surprised. People had said to each other for some time that Caleb Thayer was failing.
Barney, after his father died, went back to his own forlorn new house to live, and his sister Rebecca and her husband came to live in the old one. Rebecca went to meeting now every Sunday, wearing her mother's black shawl and a black ribbon on her bonnet, and sitting in her mother's place in the Thayer pew. She never went anywhere else, her rosy color had gone, and she looked old and haggard.
Barney went into his sister's now and then of a Sunday night, and sat with her and William an hour or so. He and William would sometimes warm into quite an animated discussion over politics or theology, while Rebecca sat silently by. Barney went nowhere else, not even to meeting. Sundays he used to watch furtively for Charlotte to go past with her father and mother. Quite often Sylvia Crane used to appear from her road and join them, and walk along with Charlotte. Barney used to look at her moving down the road at Charlotte's side, as at the merest supernumerary on his own tragic stage. But every tragedy has its multiplying glass to infinity, and every actor has his own tragedy. Sylvia Crane that winter, all secretly and silently, was acting her own principal rôle in hers. She had quite come to the end of her small resources, and nobody, except the selectmen of Pembroke, knew it. They were three saturnine, phlegmatic, elderly men, old Squire Payne being the chairman, and they kept her secret well. Sylvia waylaid them in by-places, she stole around to the back door of Squire Payne's house by night, she conducted herself as if it were a guilty intrigue, and all to keep her poverty hid as long as may be.
Old Squire Payne was a widower, a grave old man of few words. He advanced poor Sylvia meagre moneys on her little lands, and he told nobody. There came a day when he gave her the last dollar upon her New England soil, full of old plough-ridges and dried weeds and stones.
Sylvia went home with it in the pocket of her quilted petticoat under her dress skirt. She kept feeling of it to see if it were safe as she walked along. The snow was quite deep, the road was not well broken out, and she plodded forward with bent head, her black skirt gathering a crusty border of snow.
She had to pass Richard Alger's house, but she never looked up. It was six o'clock, and quite dark; it had been dark when she set out at five. The housewives were preparing supper; there was a smell of burning pine-wood in the air, and now and then a savory scent of frying meat. Sylvia had smelled brewing tea and baking bread in Squire Payne's house, and she had heard old Margaret, the Scotch woman who had lived with the squire's family ever since she could remember, stepping around in another room. Old Margaret was almost the only servant, the only regular and permanent servant, in Pembroke, and she enjoyed a curious sort of menial distinction: she dressed well, wore a handsome cashmere shawl which had come from Scotland, and held her head high in the squire's pew. People saluted her with respect, and her isolation of inequality gave her a reversed dignity.
Sylvia had hoped Margaret would not come in while she sat with the squire. She was afraid of her eyes, which flashed keen like a man's under shaggy brows. She did not want her to see the squire counting out the money from his leather purse, although she knew that Margaret would keep her own counsel.
She had been glad enough to escape and not see her appear behind the bulk of the squire in the doorway. Squire Payne was full of laborious courtesy, and always himself aided Sylvia to the door when she came for money, and that always alarmed her. She would drop a meek courtesy on trembling knees and hurry away.
Sylvia had almost reached the old road leading to her own house, when she saw a figure advancing towards her through the dusk. She saw it was a woman by the wide swing of the skirts, and trembled. She felt a presentiment as to who it was. She held her head down and well to one side, she bent over and tried to hurry past, but the figure stopped.
“Is that you, Sylvy Crane?” said her sister, Hannah Berry.
Sylvia did not stop. “Yes, it's me,” she stammered. “Good-evenin', Hannah.”
She tried to pass, but Hannah stood in her way. “What you hurryin' so for?” she asked, sharply; “where you been?”
“Where you been?” returned Sylvia, trembling.
“Up to Sarah's. Charlotte, she's gone down to Rebecca's. She's terrible thick with Rebecca. Well, I've been to see Rebecca; an' Rose, she's been, an' I ain't nothin' to say. William has got her for a wife, an' we've got to hold up our heads before folks; an' when it comes right down to it, there's a good many folks can't say much. If Charlotte Barnard wants to be thick with Rebecca, she can. Her mother won't say nothin'. She always was as easy as old Tilly; an' as for Cephas, he's either eatin' grass, or he ain't eatin' grass, an' that's all he cares about, unless he gets stirred up about politics, the way he did with Barney Thayer. I dunno but Charlotte thinks she'll get him back again goin' to see Rebecca. I miss my guess but what she sees him there sometimes. I wouldn't have a daughter of mine chasin' a fellar that had give her the mitten; but Charlotte ain't got no pride, nor her mother, neither. Where did you say you'd been, trapesin' through the snow?”
“Has Rose got her things most done?” asked Sylvia, desperately. Distress was awakening duplicity in her simple, straightforward heart. All Hannah Berry's thought slid, as it were, in well-greased grooves; only give one a starting push and it went on indefinitely and left all others behind, and her sister Sylvia knew it.
“Well, she's got 'em pretty near done,” replied Hannah Berry. “Her underclothes are all done, an' the quilts; the weddin'-dress ain't bought yet, an' she's got to have a mantilla. Do you know Charlotte ain't never wore that handsome mantilla she had when she was expectin' to marry Barney?”
“No, she ain't, nor her silk gown neither. I said all I darsed to. I thought mebbe she or Sarah would offer; they both of 'em know how hard it is to get anything out of Silas; but they didn't, an' I wa'n't goin' to ask, nohow. I shall get a new silk an' a mantilla for Rose, an' not be beholden to nobody, if I have to sell the spoons I had when I was married.”
“I don't s'pose they have much to do with,” said Sylvia. She began to gradually edge past her sister.
“Of course they haven't; I know that jest as well as you do. But if Charlotte ain't goin' to get married she don't want any weddin'-gown an' mantilla, an' she won't ever get married. She let Thomas Payne slip, an' there ain't nobody else I can think of for her. If she ain't goin' to want weddin'-clothes, I don't see why she an' her mother would be any poorer for givin' hers away. 'Twouldn't cost 'em any more than to let 'em lay in the chest. Well, I've got to go home; it's supper-time. Where did you say you'd been, Sylvy?”
Sylvia was well past her sister; she pretended not to hear. “You ain't been over for quite a spell,” she called back, faintly.
“I know I ain't,” returned Hannah. “I've been tellin' Rose we'd come over to tea some afternoon before she was married.”
“Do,” said Sylvia, but the cordiality in her voice seemed to overweigh it.
“Well, mebbe we'll come over to-morrow,” said Hannah. “We've got some pillow-slips to trim, an' we can bring them. You'd better ask Sarah an' Charlotte, if she can stay away from Rebecca Thayer's long enough.”
“Yes, I will,” said Sylvia, feebly, over her shoulder.
“We'll come early,” said Hannah. Then the sisters sped apart through the early winter darkness. Poor Sylvia fairly groaned out loud when her sister was out of hearing and she had turned the corner of the old road.
“What shall I do? what shall I do?” she muttered.
Her sisters to tea meant hot biscuits and plum sauce and pie and pound-cake and tea. Sylvia had yet a little damson sauce at the bottom of a jar, although she had not preserved last year, for lack of sugar; but hot biscuits and pie, the pound-cake and tea would have to be provided.
She felt again of the little money-store in her pocket; that was all that stood between her and the poor-house; every penny was a barrier and had its carefully calculated value. This outlay would reduce terribly her little period of respite and independence; yet she hesitated as little as Fouquet planning the splendid entertainment, which would ruin him, for Louis XIII.
Her sisters and nieces must come to tea; and all the food, which was the village fashion and as absolute in its way as court etiquette, must be provided.
“They'll suspect if I don't,” said Sylvia Crane.
She rolled away the stone from the door and entered her solitary house. She lighted her candle and prepared for bed. She did not get any supper. She said to herself with a sudden fierceness, which came over her at times—a mild impulse of rebellion which indicated perhaps some strain from far-off, untempered ancestors, which had survived New England generations—that she did not care if she never ate supper again.
“They're all comin' troopin' in here to-morrow, an' it's goin' to take about all the little I've got left to get victuals for 'em, an' I've got to go without to-night if I starve!” she cried out quite loud and defiantly, as if her hard providence lurked within hearing in some dark recess of the room.
She raked ashes over the coals in the fireplace. “I'll go to bed an' save the fire, too,” she said; “it'll take about all the wood I've got left to-morrow. I've got to heat the oven. Might as well go to bed, an' lay there forever, anyway. If I stayed up till doomsday nobody'd come.”
Sylvia set the shovel back with a vicious clatter; then she struck out—like a wilful child who hurts itself because of its rage and impotent helplessness to hurt aught else—her thin, red hand against the bricks of the chimney. She looked at the bruises on it with bitter exultation, as if she saw in them some evidence of her own freedom and power, even to her own hurt.
When she went to bed she stowed away her money under the feather-bed. She could not go to sleep. Some time in the night a shutter in another room up-stairs banged. She got up, lighted the candle, and trod over the icy floors to the room relentlessly with her bare feet. There was a pane of glass broken behind the shutter, and the wind had loosened the fastening. Sylvia forced the shutter back; in a strange rage she heard another pane of glass crack. “I don't care if every pane of glass in the window is broken,” she muttered, as she hooked the fastening with angry, trembling fingers.
Her thin body in its cotton night-gown, cramped with long rigors of cold, her delicate face reddened as if before a fire, her jaws felt almost locked as she went through the deadly cold of the lonely house back to bed; but that strange rage in her heart enabled her to defy it, and awakened within her something like blasphemy against life and all the conditions thereof, but never against Richard Alger. She never felt one throb of resentment against him. She even wondered, when she was back in bed, if he had bedclothing enough, if the quilts and bed-puffs that his mother had left were not worn out; her own were very thin.
The next day Sylvia heated her brick oven; she went to the store and bought materials, and made pound-cake and pies. While they were baking she ran over and invited Charlotte and her mother. She did not see Cephas; he had gone to draw some wood.
“I'd like to have him come, too,” she said, as she went out; “but I dunno as he'd eat anything I've got for tea.”
“Land! he eats anything when he goes out anywhere to tea,” replied Mrs. Barnard. “He was over to Hannah's a while ago, an' he eat everything. He eats pie-crust with shortenin' now, anyway. He got so he couldn't stan' it without. I guess he'd like to come. He'll have to draw wood some this afternoon, but he can come in time for tea. I'll lay out his clothes on the bed for him.”
“Well, have him come, then,” said Sylvia. Sylvia was nearly out of the yard when Charlotte called after her: “Don't you want me to come over and help you, Aunt Sylvia?” she called out. She stood in the door with her apron flying out in the wind like a blue flag.
“No, I guess not,” replied Sylvia; “I don't need any help. I ain't got much to do.”
“I think Aunt Sylvia looks sick,” Charlotte said to her mother when she went in.
“I thought she looked kind of peaked,” said Sarah. But neither of them dreamed of the true state of affairs: how poor Sylvia Crane, half-starved and half-frozen in heart and stomach, was on the verge of bankruptcy of all her little worldly possessions.
Sylvia's sisters, practical enough in other respects, were singularly ignorant and incompetent concerning any property except the few dollars and cents in their own purses.
They had always supposed Sylvia had enough to live on, as long as she lived at all. They had a comfortable sense of generosity and self-sacrifice, since they had let her have all the old homestead after her mother's death without a word, and even against covert remonstrances on the parts of their husbands.
Silas Berry had once said out quite openly to his wife and Sarah Barnard: “That will had ought to be broke, accordin' to my way of thinkin',” and Hannah had returned with spirit: “It won't ever be broke unless it's against my will, Silas Berry. I know it seems considerable for Sylvy to have it all, but she's took care of mother all those years, an' I don't begrutch it to her, an' she's a-goin' to have it. I don't much believe Richard Alger will ever have her now she's got so old, an' she'd ought to have enough to live on the rest of her life an' keep her comfortable.”
Therefore Sylvia's sisters had a conviction that she was comfortably provided with worldly gear. Mrs. Berry was even speculating upon the probability of her giving Rose something wherewith to begin house-keeping when her marriage with Tommy Ray took place.
The two sisters, with their daughters, came early that afternoon. Mrs. Berry and Rose sewed knitted lace on pillow-slips; Mrs. Barnard and Charlotte were making new shirts for Cephas; Charlotte sat by the window and set beautiful stitches in her father's linen shirt-bosoms, while her aunt Hannah's tongue pricked her ceaselessly as with small goading thorns.
“I s'pose this seems kind of natural to you, don't it, Charlotte, gettin' pillow-slips ready?” said Mrs. Berry.
“I don't know but it does,” answered Charlotte, never raising her eyes from her work. Her mother flushed angrily. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then she shut it again hard.
“Let me see, how many did you make?” asked Mrs. Berry.
“She made two dozen pair,” Charlotte's mother answered for her.
“An' you've got 'em all laid away, yellowin'?”
“I guess they ain't yellowed much,” said Sarah Barnard.
“I don't see when you're ever goin' to use 'em.”
“Mebbe there'd be chances enough to use 'em if some folks was as crazy to take up with 'em as some other folks,” returned Sarah Barnard.
“I'd like to know what you mean?”
“Oh, nothin'. If folks want chances to make pillow-slips bad enough there's generally poor tools enough layin' 'round, that's all.”
“I'd like to know what you mean, Sarah Barnard.”
“Oh, I don't mean nothin',” answered Sarah Barnard. She glanced at her daughter Charlotte and smiled slyly, but Charlotte never returned the glance and smile. She sewed steadily. Rose colored, but she said nothing. She looked very pretty and happy, as she sat there, sewing knitted lace on her wedding-pillows; and she really was happy. Her passionate heart had really satisfied itself with the boyish lover whom she would have despised except for lack of a better. She was and would be happy enough; it was only a question of deterioration of character, and the nobility of applying to the need of love the rules of ordinary hunger and thirst, and eating contentedly the crust when one could not get the pie, of drinking the water when one could not get the wine. Contentment may be sometimes a degradation; but she was happier than she had ever been in her life, although she had a little sense of humiliation when she reflected that Tommy Ray, younger than herself, tending store under her brother, was not exactly a brilliant match for her, and that everybody in the village would think so. So she colored angrily when her aunt Sarah spoke as she did, although she said nothing. But her mother, although she had rebelled in private bitterly against her daughter's choice, was ready enough to take up the cudgels for her in public.
“Well,” said Hannah Berry, “two old maids in the family is about enough, accordin' to my way of thinkin'.”
“It's better to be an old maid than to marry somebody you don't want, jest for the sake of bein' married,” retorted Sarah Barnard, fiercely.
The two sisters clashed like two thorny bushes of one family in a gale the whole afternoon. The two daughters sewed silently, and Sylvia knitted a stocking with scarcely a word until she arose to get tea.
Cephas and Silas both came to tea, which was served in state, with a fine linen table-cloth, and Sylvia's mother's green and white sprigged china. Nobody suspected, as they tasted the damson sauce with the thin silver spoons, as they tilted the green and white teacups to their lips, and ate the rich pound-cake and pie, what a very feast of renunciation and tragedy this was to poor Sylvia Crane. Cephas and Silas, indeed, knew that money had been advanced her by the town upon her estate, but they were far from suspecting, and, indeed, were unwilling to suspect, how nearly it was exhausted and the property lived out. It was only a meagre estimate that the town of Pembroke had made of the Crane ancestral acres. If Silas and Cephas had ever known what it was, they had dismissed it from their minds, they were interested in not knowing. Suppose their wives should want to give her a home and support.
The women knew nothing whatever.
When they went home, an hour after tea, Hannah Berry turned to Sylvia in the doorway. “I suppose you know the weddin' is comin' off pretty soon now,” said she.
“Yes, I s'posed 'twas,” answered Sylvia, trying to smile.
“Well, I thought I'd jest mention it, so you could get your present ready,” said Hannah. She nudged Rose violently as she spoke.
“I don't care; I meant to give her a hint,” she said, chuckling, when they were outside. “She can give you something jest as well as not; she might give you some silver teaspoons, or a table, or sofa. There! she bought that handsome sofa for herself a few years ago, an' she didn't need it more'n nothin' at all. I suppose she thought Richard Alger was comin' steady, but now he's stopped.”
Rose was married in a few weeks. The morning of the wedding-day Sylvia went into Berry's store and called William aside.
“If you can, I wish you'd come 'round by-an'-by with your horse an' your wood-sled,” said she.
“Yes, guess I can; what is it you want?” asked William, eying her curiously. She was very pale; there were red circles around her eyes, and her mouth trembled.
“Oh, it ain't anything, only a little present I wanted to send to Rose,” replied Sylvia.
“Well,” said William, “I'll be along by-an'-by.” He looked after her in a perplexed way as she went out.
Silas was in the back of the store, and presently he came forward. “What she want you to do?” he inquired of his son.
William told him. The old man chuckled. “Hannah give her a hint 'tother day, an' I guess she took it,” he said.
“I thought she looked pretty poorly,” said William—“looked as if she'd been crying or something. How do you suppose that property holds out, father? I heard the town was allowing her on it.”
“Oh, I guess it'll last her as long as she lives,” replied Silas, gruffly. “Your mother had ought to had her thirds in it.”
“I don't know about that,” said William. “Aunt Sylvy had a hard time takin' care of grandmother.”
“She was paid for 't,” returned Silas.
“Richard Alger treated her mean.”
“Guess he sat out considerable firewood an' candle-grease,” assented the old man.
A customer came in then, and Ezra Ray sprang forward. He was all excited over his brother's wedding, and was tending store in his place that day. His mother was making him a new suit to wear to the wedding, and he felt as if the whole affair hung, as it were, upon the buttons of his new jacket and the straps of his new trousers.
“Guess I might as well go over to Aunt Sylvy's now as any time,” said William.
“Don't see what she wanted you to fetch the horse an' sled for,” ruminated Silas. “Mother thought most likely she'd give some silver teaspoons if she give anything.”
William went out to the barn, put the horse in the sled, and drove down the hill towards Sylvia's. When he returned the old thin silver teaspoons of the Crane family were in his coat-pocket, and Sylvia's dearly beloved and fondly cherished hair-cloth sofa was on the sled behind him.
“What in creation did she send them old teaspoons and that old sofa for?” his mother asked, disgustedly.
“I don't know,” replied William, soberly; “but I do know one thing: I hated to take them bad enough. She acted all upset over it. I think she'd better have kept her sofa and teaspoons as long as she lived.”
“Course she was upset givin' away anything,” scolded his mother. “It was jest like her, givin' away a passel of old truck ruther than spend any money. Well, I s'pose you may as well set that sofa in the parlor. It ain't hurt much, anyway.”
Rose and her husband were to live with her parents for the present. She was married that evening. She wore a blue silk dress, and some rose-geranium blossoms and leaves in her hair. Tommy Ray sat by her side on Sylvia's sofa until the company and the minister were all there. Then they stood up and were married.
Sylvia came to the wedding in her best silk gown; she had trembled lest Richard Alger should be there, but he had not been invited. Hannah Berry cherished a deep resentment against him.
“I ain't goin' to have any man that's treated one of my folks as mean as he has set foot in my house to a weddin', not if I know it,” she told Rose.
After the marriage-cake and cider were passed around, the old people sat solemnly around the borders of the rooms, and the young people played games. William and his wife were not there. Hannah had not dared to slight them, but William could not prevail upon Rebecca to go.
Barney, also, had not been invited to the wedding. Mrs. Berry had an open grudge against him on her niece's account, and a covert one on her daughter's. Hannah Berry had a species of loyalty in her nature, inasmuch as she would tolerate ill-treatment of her kin from nobody but her own self.
Charlotte Barnard came with her father and mother, and sat quietly with them all the evening. She was beginning insensibly to rather hold herself aloof from the young people, and avoid joining in their games. She felt older. People had wondered if she would not wear the dress she had had made for her own wedding, but she did not. She wore her old purple silk, which had been made over from one of her mother's, and a freshly-starched muslin collar. The air was full of the rich sweetness of cake; there was a loud discord of laughter and high shrill voices, through which yet ran a subtle harmony of mirth. Laughing faces nodded and uplifted like flowers in the merry romping throngs in the middle of the room, while the sober ones against the walls watched with grave, elderly, retrospective eyes.
As soon as she could, Sylvia Crane stole into her sister's bedroom, where the women's outside garments were heaped high on the bed, got her own, opened the side door softly, and went home. The next day she was going to the poor-house, and nobody but the three selectmen of Pembroke knew it. She had begged them, almost on her knees, to tell nobody until she was there.
That night she rolled away the guardian stone from before the door with the feeling that it was for the last time. All that night she worked. She could not go to bed, she could not sleep, and she had gone beyond any frenzy of sorrow and tears. All her blind and helpless rage against life and the obdurately beneficent force, which had been her conception of Providence, was gone. When the battle is over there is no more need for the fury of combat. Sylvia felt her battle was over, and she felt the peace of defeat.
She was to take a few necessaries to the poor-house with her; she had them to pack, and she also had some cleaning to do.
She had a vague idea that the town, which seemed to loom over her like some dreadful shadowy giant of a child's story, would sell the house, and it must be left in neat order for the inspection of seller and buyer. “I ain't goin' to have the town lookin' over the house an' sayin' it ain't kept decent,” she said. So she worked hard all night, and her candle lit up first one window, then another, moving all over the house like a will-o'-the-wisp.
The man who had charge of the poor-house came for her the next morning at ten o'clock. Sylvia was all ready. At quarter past ten he drove out of the old road where the Crane house stood and down the village street. The man's name was Jonathan Leavitt. He was quite old but hearty, with a stubbly fringe of white beard around a ruddy face. He had come on a wood-sled for the greater convenience of bringing Sylvia's goods. There were a feather-bed, bolster, and pillows, tied up in an old homespun blanket, on the rear of the sled; there was also a red chest, and a great bundle of bedclothing. Sylvia sat in her best rocking-chair just behind Jonathan Leavitt, who drove standing.
“It's a pleasant day for this time of year,” he observed to Sylvia when they started. Sylvia nodded assent.
Jonathan Leavitt had had a fear lest Sylvia might make a disturbance about going. Many a time had it taken hours for him to induce a poor woman to leave her own door-stone; and when at length they had set forth, it was to an accompaniment of shrill, piteous lamentations, so strained and persistent that they seemed scarcely human, and more like the cries of a scared cat being hauled away from her home. Everybody on the road had turned to look after the sled, and Jonathan Leavitt had driven on, looking straight ahead, his face screwed hard, lashing now and then his old horse, with a gruff shout. Now he felt relieved and grateful to Sylvia for going so quietly. He was disposed to be very friendly to her.
“You'd better keep your rockin'-chair kind of stiddy,” he said, when they turned the corner into the new road, and the chair oscillated like an uneasy berth at sea.
Sylvia sat up straight in the chair. She had on her best bonnet and shawl, and her worked lace veil over her face. Her poor blue eyes stared out between the black silk leaves and roses. If she had been a dead woman and riding to her grave, and it had been possible for her to see as she was borne along the familiar road, she would have regarded everything in much the same fashion that she did now. She looked at everything—every tree, every house and wall—with a pang of parting forever. She felt as if she should never see them again in their old light.
The poor-house was three miles out of the village; the road lay past Richard Alger's house. When they drew near it Sylvia bent her head low and averted her face; she shut her eyes behind the black roses. She did not want to know when she passed the house. An awful shame that Richard should see her riding past to the poor-house seized upon her.
The wood-sled went grating on, a chain rattled; she calculated that they were nearly past when there was a jerk, and Jonathan Leavitt cried “Hullo!”
“Where are you going?” shouted another voice. Sylvia knew it. Her heart pounded. She turned her face farther to one side, and did not open her eyes.
Richard Alger came plunging down out of his yard. His handsome face was quite pale under a slight grizzle of beard, he was in his shirt-sleeves, he had on no dicky or stock, and his sinewy throat showed.
“Where you goin'?” he gasped out again, as he came up to the sled.
“I'm a takin' Sylvy home. Why?” inquired Jonathan Leavitt, with a dazed look.
“Home? What are you headed this way for? What are all those things on the sled?”
“She's lived out her place, an' the town's jest took it; guess you didn't know, Richard,” said Jonathan Leavitt. His eyes upon the other man were half shrewdly inquiring, half bewildered.
Sylvia never turned her head. She sat with her eyes closed behind her veil.
“Just turn that sled 'round,” said Richard Alger.
“Turn the sled 'round?”
“Yes, turn it 'round!” Richard himself grasped the bay horse by the bit as he spoke. “Back, back!” he shouted.
“What are you doin' on, Richard?” cried the old man; but he pulled his right rein mechanically, and the sled slewed slowly and safely around.
Richard jumped on and stood just beside Sylvia, holding to a stake. “Where d'ye want to go?” asked the old man.
“But the town—”
“I'll take care of the town.”
Jonathan Leavitt drove back. Sylvia opened her eyes a little way, and saw Richard's back. “You'll catch cold without your coat,” she half gasped.
“No, I sha'n't,” returned Richard, but he did not turn his head.
Sylvia did not say any more. She was trembling so that her very thoughts seemed to waver. They turned the corner of the old road, and drove up to her old house. Richard stepped off the sled, and held out his hands to Sylvia. “Come, get off,” said he.
“I dunno about this,” said Jonathan Leavitt. “I'm willin' as far as I'm concerned, Richard, but I've had my instructions.”
“I tell you I'll take care of it,” said Richard Alger. “I'll settle all the damages with the town. Come, Sylvia, get off.”
And Sylvia Crane stepped weakly off the wood-sled, and Richard Alger helped her into the house. “Why, you can't hardly walk,” said he, and Sylvia had never heard anything like the tenderness in his tone. He bent down and rolled away the stone. Sylvia had rolled it in front of the door herself, when she went out, as she supposed, for the last time. Then he opened the door, and took hold of her slender shawled arm, and half lifted her in.
“Go in an' sit down,” said he, “while we get the things in.”
Sylvia went mechanically into her clean, fireless parlor; it was the room where she had always received Richard. She sat down in a flag-bottomed chair and waited.
Richard and Jonathan Leavitt came into the house tugging the feather-bed between them. “We'll put it in the kitchen,” she heard Richard say. They brought in the chest and the bundle of bedding. Then Richard came into the parlor carrying the rocking-chair before him. “You want this in here, don't you?” he said.
“It belongs here,” said Sylvia, faintly. Jonathan Leavitt gathered up his reins and drove out of the yard.
Richard set down the chair; then he went and stood before Sylvia.
“Look here, Sylvia,” said he. Then he stopped and put his hands over his face. His whole frame shook. Sylvia stood up. “Don't, Richard,” she said.
“I never had any idea of this,” said Richard Alger, with a great groaning sob.
“Don't you feel so bad, Richard,” said Sylvia.
Suddenly Richard put is arm around Sylvia, and pulled her close to him. “I'll look out and do better by you the rest of your life, anyhow,” he said. He took hold of Sylvia's veil and pulled it back. Her pale face drooped before him.
“You look—half—starved,” he groaned. Sylvia looked up and saw tears on his rough cheeks.
“Don't you feel bad, Richard,” she said again.
“I'd ought to feel bad,” said Richard, fiercely.
“I couldn't help it, that night you come an' found me gone. It was that night Charlotte had the trouble with Barney. Sarah, she wouldn't let me come home any sooner. I was dreadful upset about it.”
“I've been meaner than sin, an' I don't know as it makes it any better, because I couldn't seem to help it,” said Richard Alger. “I didn't forget you a single minute, Sylvia, an' I was awful sorry for you, an' there wasn't a Sabbath night that I didn't want to come more than I wanted to go to Heaven! But I couldn't, I couldn't nohow. I've always had to travel in tracks, an' no man livin' knows how deep a track he's in till he gets jolted out of it an' can't get back. But I've got into a track now, an' I'll die before I get out of it. There ain't any use in your lookin' at me, Sylvia, but if you can make up your mind to have me, I'll try my best, an' do all I can to make it all up to you in the time that's left.”
“I'm afraid you've had a dreadful hard time, livin' alone so long, an' tryin' to do for yourself,” said Sylvia, pitifully.
“I'm glad I have,” replied Richard, grimly.
He clasped Sylvia closer; her best bonnet was all crushed against his breast. He looked around over her head, as if searching for something.
“Where's the sofa gone?” he asked.
“I gave it to Rose for a weddin' present. I thought I shouldn't ever need it,” Sylvia murmured.
“Well, I've got one, it ain't any matter,” said Richard.
He moved towards the rocking-chair, drawing Sylvia gently along with him.
“Sit down, Sylvia,” said he, softly.
“No, you sit down in the rocking-chair, Richard,” said Sylvia. She reached out and pulled a flag-bottomed chair close and sat down herself. Richard sat in the rocking-chair.
Sylvia untied her bonnet, took it off, and straightened it. Richard watched her. “I want you to have a white bonnet,” said he.
“I'm too old, Richard,” Sylvia replied, blushing.
“No, you ain't,” he said, defiantly; “you've got to have a white bonnet.”
Sylvia looked in his face—and indeed hers looked young enough for a white bonnet; it flushed and lit up, like an old flower revived in a new spring.
Richard leaned over towards her, and the two old lovers kissed each other. Richard moved his chair close to hers, and Sylvia felt his arm coming around her waist. She sat still. “Put your head down on my shoulder,” whispered Richard.
And Sylvia laid her head on Richard's shoulder. She felt as if she were dreaming of a dream.