Sylvia Crane's house was the one in which her grandmother had been born, and was the oldest house in the village. It was known as the “old Crane place.” It had never been painted, it was shedding its flapping gray shingles like gray scales, the roof sagged in a mossy hollow before the chimney, the windows and doors were awry, and the whole house was full of undulations and wavering lines, which gave it a curiously unreal look in broad daylight. In the moonlight it was the shadowy edifice built of a dream.
As Sylvia and Charlotte came to the front door it seemed as if they might fairly walk through it as through a gray shadow; but Sylvia stooped, and her shoulders strained with seemingly incongruous force, as if she were spending it to roll away a shadow. On the flat doorstep lay a large round stone, pushed close against the door. There were no locks and keys in the old Crane place; only bolts. Sylvia could not fasten the doors on the inside when she went away, so she adopted this expedient, which had been regarded with favor by her mother and grandmother before her, and illustrated natures full of gentle fallacies which went far to make existence comfortable.
Always on leaving the house alone the Crane women had bolted the side door, which was the one in common use, gone out the front one, and laboriously rolled this same round stone before it. Sylvia reasoned as her mother and grandmother before her, with the same simplicity: “When the stone's in front of the door, folks must know there ain't anybody to home, because they couldn't put it there if they was.”
And when some neighbor had argued that the evil-disposed might roll away the stone and enter at will, Sylvia had replied, with the innocent conservatism with which she settled an argument, “Nobody ever did.”
To-night she rolled away the stone to the corner of the door-step, where it had lain through three generations when the Crane women were at home, and sighed with regret that she had defended the door with it. “I wish I hadn't put the stone up,” she thought. “If I hadn't, mebbe he'd gone in an' waited.” She opened the door, and the gloom of the house, deeper than the gloom of the night, appeared. “You wait here a minute,” she said to Charlotte, “an' I'll go in an' light a candle.”
Charlotte waited, leaning against the door-post. There was a flicker of fire within. Then Sylvia held the flaring candle towards her. “Come in,” she said; “the candle's lit.”
There was a bed of coals on the hearth in the best room; Sylvia had made a fire there before going over to her sister's, but it had burned low. The glow of the coals and the smoky flare of the candle lighted the room uncertainly, scattering and not dispelling the shadows. There was a primly festive air in the room. The flag-bottomed chairs stood by twos, finely canted towards each other, against the wall; the one great hair-cloth rocker stood ostentatiously in advance of them, facing the hearth fire; the long level of the hair-cloth sofa gleamed out under stiff sweeps of the white fringed curtains at the window behind it. The books on the glossy card-table were set canting towards each other like the chairs, and with their gilt edges towards the light. And Sylvia had set also on the table a burnished pitcher of a rosy copper-color full of apple blossoms.
She looked at it when she had set the candle on the shelf. It seemed to her that all the light in the room centred on it, and it shone in her eyes like a copper lamp.
Charlotte also glanced at it. “Why, Richard must have come while you were over to our house,” she said.
“It don't make any odds if he did,” returned Sylvia, with a faint blush and a bridle. Sylvia was much younger than her sister. Standing there in the dim light she did not look so much older than her niece. Her figure had the slim angularity and primness which are sometimes seen in elderly women who are not matrons, and she had donned a little white lace cap at thirty, but her face had still a delicate bloom, and the wistful wonder of expression which belongs to youth.
However, she never thought of Charlotte as anything but a child as compared with herself. Sylvia felt very old, and the more so that she grudged her years painfully. She stirred up the fire a little, holding back her shiny black silk skirt carefully. Charlotte stood leaning against the shelf, looking moodily down at the fire.
“I wouldn't feel bad if I was you, Charlotte,” Sylvia ventured, timidly.
“I guess we'd better go to bed pretty soon,” returned Charlotte. “It must be late.”
“Had you rather sleep with me, Charlotte, or sleep in the spare chamber?”
“I guess I'll go in the spare chamber.”
“Well, I'll get you a night-gown.”
Both of their faces were sober, but perfectly staid. They bade each other good-night without a quiver; but Charlotte, after she had said her dutiful and unquestioning prayer, and lay folded in Sylvia's ruffled night-gown in the best bed, shook with great sobs. “Poor Barney!” she kept muttering. “Poor Barney! poor Barney!”
The doors were all open, and once she thought she heard a sob from below, then concluded she must be mistaken. But she was not, for Sylvia Crane was lamenting as sorely as the younger maiden up-stairs. “Poor Richard!” she repeated, piteously. “Poor Richard! There he came, and the stone was up, and he had to go away.”
The faces which were so clear to the hearts of both women, as if they were before their eyes, had a certain similarity. Indeed, Richard Alger and Barnabas Thayer were distantly related on the mother's side, and people said they looked enough alike to be brothers. Sylvia saw the same type of face as Charlotte, only Richard's face was older, for he was six years older than she.
“If I hadn't put the stone up,” she moaned, “maybe he would have thought I didn't hear him knock, an' he'd come in an' waited. Poor Richard, I dunno what he thought! It's the first time it's happened for eighteen years.”
Sylvia, as she lay there, looked backward, and it seemed to her that the eighteen years were all made up of the Sunday nights on which Richard Alger had come to see her, as if they were all that made them immortal and redeemed them from the dead past. She had endured grief, but love alone made the past years stand out for her. Sylvia, in looking back over eighteen years, forgot the father, mother, and sister who had died in that time; their funeral trains passed before her eyes like so many shadows. She forgot all their cares and her own; she forgot how she had nursed her bedridden mother for ten years; she forgot everything but those blessed Sunday nights on which Richard Alger had come. She called to mind every little circumstance connected with them—how she had adorned the best room by slow degrees, saving a few cents at a time from her sparse income, because he sat in it every Sunday night; how she had had the bed which her mother and grandmother kept there removed because the fashion had changed, and the guilty audacity with which she had purchased a hair-cloth sofa to take its place.
That adorning of the best room had come to be a religion with Sylvia Crane. As faithfully as any worshipper of the Greek deity she laid her offerings, her hair-cloth sofa and rocker, her copper-gilt pitcher of apple blossoms, upon the altar of love.
Sylvia recalled, sobbing more piteously in the darkness, sundry dreams, which had never been realized, of herself and Richard sitting side by side and hand in hand, as confessed lovers, on that sofa. Richard Alger, during all those eighteen years, had never made love to Sylvia, unless his constant attendance upon Sabbath evenings could be so construed, as it was in that rural neighborhood, and as Sylvia was fain to construe it in her innocent heart.
It is doubtful if Sylvia, in her perfect decorum and long-fostered maiden reserve, fairly knew that Richard Alger had never made love to her. She scarcely expected her dreams of endearments to be realized; she regarded them, except in desperate moods, with shame. If her old admirer had, indeed, attempted to sit by her side upon that hair-cloth sofa and hold her hand, she would have arisen as if propelled by stiff springs of modest virtue. She did not fairly know that she was not made love to after the most honorable and orthodox fashion without a word of endearment or a caress; for she had been trained to regard love as one of the most secret of the laws of nature, to be concealed, with shamefaced air, even from herself; but she did know that Richard had never asked her to marry him, and for that she was impatient without any self-reserve; she was even confidential with her sister, Charlotte's mother.
“I don't want to say anything outside,” she once said, “but I do think it would be a good deal better for him if we was settled down. He ain't half taken care of since his mother died.”
“He's got money enough,” returned Mrs. Barnard.
“That can't buy everything.”
“Well, I don't pity him; I pity you,” said Mrs. Barnard.
“I guess I shall get along a while longer, as far as that goes,” Sylvia had replied to her sister, with some pride. “I ain't worried on my account.”
“Women don't worry much on their own accounts, but they've got accounts,” returned Mrs. Barnard, with more contempt for her sister than she had ever shown for herself. “You're gettin' older, Sylvy.”
“I know it,” Sylvia had replied, with a quick shrinking, as if from a blow.
The passing years, as they passed for her, stung her like swarming bees, with bitter humiliation; but never for herself, only for Richard. Nobody knew how painfully she counted the years, how she would fain have held time back with her thin hands, how futilely and pitifully she set her loving heart against it, and not for herself and her own vanity, but for the sake of her lover. She had come, in the singleness of her heart, to regard herself in the light of a species of coin to be expended wholly for the happiness and interest of one man. Any depreciation in its value was of account only as it affected him.
Sylvia Crane, sitting in the meeting-house of a Sunday, used to watch the young girls coming in, as radiant and flawless as new flowers, in their Sunday bests, with a sort of admiring envy, which could do them no harm, but which tore her own heart.
When she should have been contrasting the wickedness of her soul with the grace of the Divine Model, she was contrasting her fading face with the youthful bloom of the young girls. “He'd ought to marry one of them,” she thought; “he'd ought to, by good rights.” It never occurred to Sylvia that Richard also was growing older, and that he was, moreover, a few years older than she. She thought of him as an immortal youth; his face was the same to her as when she had first seen it.
When it came before a subtler vision than her bodily one, there in the darkness and loneliness of this last Sunday night, it wore the beauty and innocent freshness of a child. If Richard Alger could have seen his own face as the woman who loved him saw it, he could never have doubted his own immortality.
“There he came, an' the stone was up, an' he had to go away,” moaned Sylvia, catching her breath softly. Many a time she had pitied Richard because he had not the little womanly care which men need; she had worried lest his stockings were not darned, and his food not properly cooked; but to-night she had another and strange anxiety. She worried lest she herself had hurt him and sent him home with a heavy heart.
Sylvia had gone about for the last few days with her delicate face as irresponsibly calm as a sweet-pea; nobody had dreamed of the turmoil in her heart. On the Wednesday night before she had nearly reached the climax of her wishes. Richard had come, departing from his usual custom—he had never called except on Sunday before—and remained later. It was ten o'clock before he went home. He had been very silent all the evening, and had sat soberly in the great best rocking-chair, which was, in a way, his throne of state, with Sylvia on the sofa on his right. Many a time she had dreamed that he came over there and sat down beside her, and that night it had come to pass.
Just before ten o'clock he had arisen hesitatingly; she thought it was to take leave, but she sat waiting and trembling. They had sat in the twilight and young moonlight all the evening. Richard had checked her when she attempted to light a candle. That had somehow made the evening seem strange, and freighted with consequences; and besides the white light of the moon, full of mystic influence, there was something subtler and more magnetic, which could sway more than the tides, even the passions of the human heart, present, and they both felt it.
Neither had said much, and they had been sitting there nearly two hours, when Richard had arisen, and moved curiously, rather as if he was drawn than walked of his own volition, over to the sofa. He sank down upon it with a little cough. Sylvia moved away a little with an involuntary motion, which was pure maidenliness.
“It's getting late,” remarked Richard, trying to make his voice careless, but it fell in spite of him into deep cadences.
“It ain't very late, I guess,” Sylvia had returned, tremblingly.
“I ought to be going home.”
Then there was silence for a while. Sylvia glanced sidewise, timidly and adoringly, at Richard's smoothly shaven face, pale as marble in the moonlight, and waited, her heart throbbing.
“I've been coming here a good many years,” Richard observed finally, and his own voice had a solemn tremor.
Sylvia made an almost inarticulate assent.
“I've been thinking lately,” said Richard; then he paused. They could hear the great clock out in the kitchen tick. Sylvia waited, her very soul straining, although shrinking at the same time, to hear.
“I've been thinking lately,” said Richard again, “that—maybe—it would be wise for—us both to—make some different arrangement.”
Sylvia bent her head low. Richard paused for the second time. “I have always meant—” he began again, but just then the clock in the kitchen struck the first stroke of ten. Richard caught his breath and arose quickly. Never in his long courtship had he remained as late as that at Sylvia Crane's. It was as if a life-long habit struck as well as the clock, and decided his times for him.
“I must be going,” said he, speaking against the bell notes. Sylvia arose without a word of dissent, but Richard spoke as if she had remonstrated.
“I'll come again next Sunday night,” said he, apologetically.
Sylvia followed him to the door. They bade each other good-night decorously, with never a parting kiss, as they had done for years. Richard went out of sight down the white gleaming road, and she went in and to bed, with her heart in a great tumult of expectation and joyful fear.
She had tried to wait calmly for Sunday night. She had done her neat household tasks as usual, her face and outward demeanor were sweetly unruffled, but her thoughts seemed shivering with rainbows that constantly dazzled her with sweet shocks when her eyes met them. Her feet seemed constantly flying before her into the future, and she could scarcely tell where she might really be, in the present or in her dreams, which had suddenly grown so real.
On Sunday morning she had curled her soft fair hair, and arranged with trepidation one long light curl outside her bonnet on each side of her face. Her bonnet was tied under her chin with a green ribbon, and she had a little feathery green wreath around her face inside the rim. Her wide silk skirt was shot with green and blue, and rustled as she walked up the aisle to her pew. People stared after her without knowing why. There was no tangible change in her appearance. She had worn that same green shot silk many Sabbaths; her bonnet was three summers old; the curls drooping on her cheeks were an innovation, but the people did not recognize the change as due to them. Sylvia herself had looked with pleased wonder at her face in the glass; it was as if all her youthful beauty had suddenly come up, like a withered rose which is dipped in a vase.
“I sha'n't look so terrible old side of him when I go out bride,” she reflected, happily, smiling fondly at herself. All the way to meeting that Sunday morning she saw her face as she had seen it in the glass, and it was as if she walked with something finer than herself.
Richard Alger sat with the choir in a pew beside the pulpit, at right angles with the others. He had a fine tenor voice, and had sung in the choir ever since he was a boy. When Sylvia sat down in her place, which was in full range of his eyes, he glanced at her without turning his head; he meant to look away again directly, so as not to be observed, but her face held him. A color slowly flamed out on his pale brown cheeks; his eyes became intense and abstracted. A soprano singer nudged the girl at her side; they both glanced at him and tittered, but he did not notice it.
Sylvia knew that he was looking at her, but she never looked at him. She sat soberly waving a little brown fan before her face; the light curls stirred softly. She wondered what he thought of them; if he considered them too young for her, and silly; but he did not see them at all. He had no eye for details. And neither did she even hear his fine tenor, still sweet and powerful, leading all the other male voices when the choir stood up to sing. She thought only of Richard himself.
After meeting, when she went down the aisle, several women had spoken to her, inquired concerning her health, and told her, with wondering eyes, that she looked well. Richard was far behind her, but she did not look around. They very seldom accosted each other, unless it was unavoidable, in any public place. Still, Sylvia, going out with gentle flounces of her green shot silk, knew well that Richard's eyes followed her, and his thought was close at her side.
After she got home from meeting that Sunday, Sylvia Crane did not know how to pass the time until the evening. She could not keep herself calm and composed as was her wont on the Sabbath day. She changed her silk for a common gown; she tried to sit down and read the Bible quietly and with understanding, but she could not. She turned to Canticles, and read a page or two. She had always believed loyally and devoutly in the application to Christ and the Church; but suddenly now, as she read, the restrained decorously chanting New England love-song in her maiden heart had leaped into the fervid measures of the oriental King. She shut the Bible with a clap. “I ain't giving the right meaning to it,” she said, sternly, aloud.
She put away the Bible, went into the pantry, and got out some bread and cheese for her luncheon, but she could eat nothing. She picked the apple blossoms and arranged them in the copper-gilt pitcher on the best-room table. She even dusted off the hair-cloth sofa and rocker, with many compunctions, because it was Sunday. “I know I hadn't ought to do it to-day,” she murmured, apologetically, “but they do get terrible dusty, and need dusting every day, and he is real particular, and he'll have on his best clothes.”
Finally, just before twilight, Sylvia, unable to settle herself, had gone over to her sister's for a little call. Richard never came before eight o'clock, except in winter, when it was dark earlier. There was a certain half-shamefaced reserve about his visits. He knew well enough that people looked from their windows as he passed, and said, facetiously, “There goes Richard Alger to court Sylvy Crane.” He preferred slipping past in a half-light, in which he did not seem so plain to himself, and could think himself less plain to other people.
Sylvia, detained at her sister's by the quarrel between Cephas and Barnabas, had arisen many a time to take leave, all palpitating with impatience, but her sister had begged her, in a distressed whisper, to remain.
“I guess you can get along without Richard Alger one Sunday evening,” she had said finally, quite aloud, and quite harshly. “I guess your own sister has just as much claim on you as he has. I dunno what's going to be done. I don't believe Charlotte's father will let her in the house to-night.”
Poor Sylvia had sunk back in her chair. To her sensitive conscience the duty nearest at hand seemed always to bark the loudest, and the precious moments had gone by until she knew that Richard had come, found the stone before the door, and gone away, and all her sweet turmoil of hope and anticipation had gone for naught.
Sylvia, lying there awake that night, her mind carrying her back over all that had gone before, had no doubt that this was the end of everything. Not originally a subtle discerner of character, she had come insensibly to know Richard so well that certain results from certain combinations of circumstances in his life were as plain and inevitable to her as the outcome of a simple sum in mathematics. “He'd got 'most out of his track for once,” she groaned out softly, “but now he's pushed back in so hard he can't get out again if he wants to. I dunno how he's going to get along.”
Sylvia, with the roof settling over her head, with not so much upon her few sterile acres to feed her as to feed the honey-bees and birds, with her heart in greater agony because its string of joy had been strained so high and sweetly before it snapped, did not lament over herself at all; neither did she over the other woman who lay up-stairs suffering in a similar case. She lamented only over Richard living alone and unministered to until he died.
When daylight came she got up, dressed herself, and prepared breakfast. Charlotte came down before it was ready. “Let me help get breakfast,” she said, with an assumption of energy, standing in the kitchen doorway in her pretty mottled purple delaine. The purple was the shade of columbine, and very becoming to Charlotte. In spite of her sleepless night, her fine firm tints had not faded; she was too young and too strong and too full of involuntary resistance. She had done up her fair hair compactly; her chin had its usual proud lift.
Sylvia, shrinking as if before some unseen enemy as she moved about, her face all wan and weary, glanced at her half resentfully. “I guess she 'ain't had any such night as I have,” she thought. “Girls don't know much about it.”
“No, I don't need any help,” she replied, aloud. “I 'ain't got anything to do but to stir up an Injun cake. You've got your best dress on. You'd better go and sit down.”
“It won't hurt my dress any.” Charlotte glanced down half scornfully at her purple skirt. It had lost all its glory for her. She was not even sure that Barney had seen it.
“Set down. I've got breakfast 'most ready,” Sylvia said, again, more peremptorily than she was wont, and Charlotte sat down in the hollow-backed cherry rocking-chair beside the kitchen window, leaned her head back, and looked out indifferently between the lilac-bushes. The bushes were full of pinkish-purple buds. Sylvia's front yard reached the road in a broad slope, and the ground was hard, and green with dampness under the shade of a great elm-tree. The grass would never grow there over the roots of the elm, which were flung out broadly like great recumbent limbs over the whole yard, and were barely covered by the mould.
Across the street, seen under the green sweep of the elm, was an orchard of old apple-trees which had blossomed out bravely that spring. Charlotte looked at the white and rosy masses of bloom.
“I guess there wasn't any frost last night, after all,” she remarked.
“I dunno,” responded Sylvia, in a voice which made her niece look around at her. There was a curious impatient ring in it which was utterly foreign to it. There was a frown between Sylvia's gentle eyes, and she moved with nervous jerks, setting down dishes hard, as if they were refractory children, and lashing out with spoons as if they were whips. The long, steady strain upon her patience had not affected her temper, but this last had seemed to bring out a certain vicious and waspish element which nobody had suspected her to possess, and she herself least of all. She felt this morning disposed to go out of her way to sting, and as if some primal and evil instinct had taken possession of her. She felt shocked at herself, but all the more defiant and disposed to keep on.
“Breakfast is ready,” she announced, finally; “if you don't set right up an' eat it, it will be gettin' cold. I wouldn't give a cent for cold Injun cake.”
Charlotte arose promptly and brought a chair to the table, which Sylvia always set punctiliously in the centre of the kitchen as if for a large family.
“Don't scrape your chair on the floor that way; it wears 'em all out,” cried Sylvia, sharply.
Charlotte stared at her again, but she said nothing; she sat down and began to eat absently. Sylvia watched her angrily between her own mouthfuls, which she swallowed down defiantly like medicine.
“It ain't much use cookin' things if folks don't eat 'em,” said she.
“I am eating,” returned Charlotte.
“Eatin'? Swallowin' down Injun cake as if it was sawdust! I don't call that eatin'. You don't act as if you tasted a mite of it!”
“Aunt Sylvy, what has got into you?” said Charlotte.
“Got into me? I should think you'd talk about anything gettin' into me, when you set there like a stick. I guess you 'ain't got all there is to bear.”
“I never thought I had,” said Charlotte.
“Well, I guess you 'ain't.”
They went on swallowing their food silently; the great clock ticked slowly, and the spring birds called outside; but they heard neither. The shadows of the young elm leaves played over the floor and the white table-cloth. It was much warmer that morning, and the shadows were softer.
Before they had finished breakfast, Charlotte's mother came, advancing ponderously, with soft thuds, across the yard to the side door. She opened it and peered in.
“Here you be,” said she, scanning both their faces with anxious and deprecating inquiry.
“Can't you come in, an' not stand there holdin' the door open?” inquired Sylvia. “I feel the wind on my back, and I've got a bad pain enough in it now.”
Mrs. Barnard stepped in, and shut the door quickly, in an alarmed way.
“Ain't you feelin' well this mornin', Sylvy?” said she.
“Oh yes, I'm feelin' well enough. It ain't any matter how I feel, but it's a good deal how some other folks do.”
Sarah Barnard sank into the rocking-chair, and sat there looking at them hesitatingly, as if she did not dare to open the conversation.
Suddenly Sylvia arose and went out of the kitchen with a rush, carrying a plate of Indian cake to feed the hens. “I can't set here all day; I've got to do something,” she announced as she went.
When the door had closed after her, Mrs. Barnard turned to Charlotte.
“What's the matter with her?” she asked, nodding towards the door.
“I don't know.”
“She ain't sick, is she? I never see her act so. Sylvy's generally just like a lamb. You don't s'pose she's goin' to have a fever, do you?”
“I don't know.”
Suddenly Charlotte, who was still sitting at the table, put up her two hands with a despairing gesture, and bent her head forward upon them.
“Now don't, you poor child,” said her mother, her eyes growing suddenly red. “Didn't he even turn round when you called him back last night?”
Charlotte shook her bowed head dumbly.
“Don't you s'pose he'll ever come again?”
Charlotte shook her head.
“Mebbe he will. I know he's terrible set.”
“Who's set?” demanded Sylvia, coming in with her empty plate.
“Oh, I was jest sayin' that I thought Barney was kinder set,” replied her sister, mildly.
“He ain't no more set than Cephas,” returned Sylvia.
“Cephas ain't set. It's jest his way.”
Sylvia sniffed. She looked scornfully at Charlotte, who had raised her head when she came in, but whose eyes were red. “Folks had better been created without ways, then,” she retorted. “They'd better have been created slaves; they'd been enough sight happier an' better off, an' so would other folks that they have to do with, than to have so many ways, an' not sense enough to manage 'em. I don't believe in free-will, for my part.”
“Sylvy Crane, you ain't goin' to deny one of the doctrines of the Church at your time of life?” demanded a new voice. Sylvia's other sister, Hannah Berry, stood in the doorway.
Sylvia ordinarily was meek before her, but now she faced her. “Yes, I be,” said she; “I don't approve of free-will, and I ain't afraid to say it.”
Sylvia had always been considered very unlike Mrs. Hannah Berry in face and character. Now, as she stood before her, a curious similarity appeared; even her voice sounded like her sister's.
“What on earth ails you, Sylvy?” asked Mrs. Berry, ignoring suddenly the matter in hand.
“Nothin' ails me that I know of. I don't think much of free-will, an' I ain't goin' to say I do when I don't.”
“Then all I've got to say is you'd ought to be ashamed of yourself. Why, I should think you was crazy, Sylvy Crane, settin' up yourself agin' the doctrines of the Word. I'd like to know what you know about them.”
“I know enough to see how they work,” returned Sylvia, undauntedly, “an' I ain't goin' to pretend I'm blind when I can see.”
Sylvia's serene arc of white forehead was shortened by a distressed frown, her mild mouth dropped sourly at the corners, and the lips were compressed. Her white cap was awry, and one of yesterday's curls hung lankly over her left cheek.
“You look an' act like a crazy creature,” said Hannah Berry, eying her with indignant amazement. She walked across the room to another rocking-chair, moving with unexpected heaviness. She was in reality as stout as her sister Sarah Barnard, but she had a long, thin, and rasped face, which misled people.
“Now,” said she, looking around conclusively, “I ain't come over here to argue about free-will. I want to know what all this is about?”
“All what?” returned Mrs. Barnard, feebly. She was distinctly afraid of her imperious sister, yet she was conscious of a quiver of resentment.
“All this fuss about Barney Thayer,” said Hannah Berry.
“How did you hear about it?” Mrs. Barnard asked with a glance at Charlotte, who was sitting erect with her cheeks very red and her mouth tightly closed.
“Never mind how I heard,” replied Hannah. “I did hear, an' that's enough. Now I want to know if you're really goin' to set down like an old hen an' give up, an' let this match between Charlotte an' a good, smart, likely young man like Barnabas Thayer be broken off on account of Cephas Barnard's crazy freaks?”
Sarah stiffened her neck. “There ain't no call for you to speak that way, Hannah. They got to talkin' over the 'lection.”
“The 'lection! I'd like to know what business they had talkin' about it Sabbath night anyway? I ain't blamin' Barnabas so much; he's younger an' easier stirred up; but Cephas Barnard is an old man, an' he has been a church-member for forty year, an' he ought to know enough to set a better example. I'd like to know what difference it makes about the 'lection anyway? What odds does it make which one is President if he rules the country well? An' that they can't tell till they've tried him awhile anyway. I guess they don't think much about the country; it's jest to have their own way about it. I'd like to know what mortal difference it's goin' to make to Barney Thayer or Cephas Barnard which man is President? He won't never hear of them, an' they won't neither of them make him rule any different after he's chose. It's jest like two little boys—one wants to play marbles 'cause the other wants to play puss-in-the-corner, an' that's all the reason either one of 'em's got for standin' out. Men ain't got any too much sense anyhow, when you come right down to it. They don't ever get any too much grown up, the best of 'em. I'd like to know what Cephas Barnard has got to say because he's drove a good, likely young man like Barnabas Thayer off an' broke off his daughter's match? It ain't likely she'll ever get anybody now; young men like him, with nice new houses put up to go right to housekeepin' in as soon as they are married, don't grow on every bush. They ain't quite so thick as wild thimbleberries. An' Charlotte ain't got any money herself, an' her father ain't got any to build a house for her. I'd like to know what he's got to say about it?”
Mrs. Barnard put up her apron and began to weep helplessly.
“Don't, mother,” said Charlotte, in an undertone. But her mother began talking in a piteous wailing fashion.
“You hadn't ought to talk so about Cephas,” she moaned. “He's my husband. I guess you wouldn't like it if anybody talked so about your husband. Cephas ain't any worse than anybody else. It's jest his way. He wa'n't any more to blame than Barney; they both got to talkin'. I know Cephas is terrible upset about it this mornin'; he 'ain't really said so in so many words, but I know by the way he acts. He said this mornin' that he didn't know but we were eatin' the wrong kind of food. Lately he's had an idea that mebbe we'd ought to eat more meat; he's thought it was more strengthenin', an' we'd ought to eat things as near like what we wanted to strengthen as could be. I've made a good deal of bone soup. But now he says he thinks mebbe he's been mistaken, an' animal food kind of quickens the animal nature in us, an' that we'd better eat green things an' garden sass.”
“I guess garden sass will strengthen the other kind of sass that Cephas Barnard has got in him full as much as bone soup has,” interrupted Hannah Berry, with a sarcastic sniff.
“I dunno but he's right,” said Mrs. Barnard. “Cephas thinks a good deal an' looks into things. I kind of wish he'd waited till the garden had got started, though, for there ain't much we can eat now but potatoes an' turnips an' dandelion greens.”
“If you want to live on potatoes an' turnips an' dandelion greens, you can,” cried Hannah Berry; “What I want to know is if you're goin' to settle down an' say nothin', an' have Charlotte lose the best chance she'll ever have in her life, if she lives to be a hundred—”
Charlotte spoke up suddenly; her blue eyes gleamed with steely light. She held her head high as she faced her aunt.
“I don't want any more talk about it, Aunt Hannah,” said she.
“I don't want any more talk about it.”
“Well, I guess you'll have more talk about it; girls don't get jilted without there is talk generally. I guess you'll have to make up your mind to it, for all you put on such airs with your own aunt, who left her washin' an' come over here to take your part. I guess when you stand out in the road half an hour an' call a young man to come back, an' he don't come, that folks are goin' to talk some. Who's that comin' now?”
“It's Cephas,” whispered Mrs. Barnard, with a scared glance at Charlotte.
Cephas Barnard entered abruptly, and stood for a second looking at the company, while they looked back at him. His eyes were stolidly defiant, but he stood well back, and almost shrank against the door. There seemed to be impulses in Hannah's and Sylvia's faces confronting his.
He turned to his wife. “When you comin' home?” said he.
“Oh, Cephas! I jest ran over here a minute. I—wanted to see—if—Sylvy had any emptins. Do you want me an' Charlotte to come now?”
Cephas turned on his heel. “I think it's about time for you both to be home,” he grunted.
Sarah Barnard arose and looked with piteous appeal at Charlotte.
Charlotte hesitated a second, then she arose without a word, and followed her mother, who followed Cephas. They went in a procession of three, with Cephas marching ahead like a general, across the yard, and Sylvia and Hannah stood at a window watching them.
“Well,” said Hannah Berry, “all I've got to say is I'm thankful I 'ain't got a man like that, an' you ought to be mighty thankful you 'ain't got any man at all, Sylvy Crane.”