From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
Amanda sewed with a diligence which seemed almost fierce. She jerked out her right elbow at sharp angles, and the stout thread made a rasping sound. She was making a braided rug, which lay stiff and heavy over her knees. Love sat at the other front window. She held some white crochet-work, but she kept looking away from it out of the window. The cherry-tree and the rose-bushes in the yard were bowing in a light wind. There were no leaves on them, but it was near spring, and the twigs had a red glisten as they moved in the wind.
Now and then Amanda's pale eyes shot a swift, steady glance at Love. “You won't get that tidy done to-night if you keep lookin' out of the window,” she remarked presently.
Love started, and colored softly. “I'm goin' to work on it,” said she. Then she crocheted steadily, and did not look away from her work for a long time. Love would have been pretty had not her features been too thin and sharply accentuated. She was like a too boldly traced pencil sketch; the beauty of design could not show through such force of outline. Her hair was too heavy for her delicate little head. It was not very tidy; when she bent her head over her crochet-work the great slipping knot showed more plainly.
“It does seem as if you might twist up your hair a little tighter; it don't look neat,” said Amanda.
“I can't make it stay up anyhow,” returned Love, with meek apology.
“I guess I could make it stay up.”
Amanda's light hair was parted and brushed so smoothly that there were lines of pale gloss on the sides of her head; the small knot at the back of it was compact and immovable as one on a statue.
After a while Amanda arose. “I'm goin' out to take in the clothes,” said she. “I guess they must be dry by this time. I ain't goin' to have 'em beatin' in this wind any longer, anyhow.”
“I'll go,” said Love.
“No; you stay jest where you are, an' do your tidy. You've got some cold, an' I ain't goin' to have you out in the wind handlin' damp clothes.”
When Amanda's tall, slim figure erected itself and moved across the room, it had a kind of stiff majesty about it. Her back and neck were absolutely unbending, there was one unbroken line from her head to her heels, even her dress skirt did not swing, but hung rigidly.
As soon as Amanda had gone, Love let her work fall in her lap, leaned her head back, and looked out of the window again. There was the little front yard, with its green-gray mat of grass and glistening tree and bushes; before it stretched the road; once in a while a team passed, or a woman pushed by with her garments flying back in the wind. Love, looking directly at it all, saw nothing. She had come to a place in her life where the future closed around her so plainly that, whether she would or not, she could see nothing else. Possibilities seemed near enough to sing in her ears, and all her dreams were turned to giants. No one but herself could see them; she was innocently ashamed and terrified to look; but no work and no play could divert her eyes.
When Love heard her sister coming back, she took up her work hurriedly, and began to crochet. Her little thin face looked quite sober and intent; she did not even glance at her sister when she entered. Amanda's face was reddened by the wind, but her hair was not roughened. She held her chilly fingers over the stove, and looked at Love.
“Got the tidy 'most done?” she asked.
“Goin' to get it done to-night?”
“I don't know as I can get it quite done. The last rows take longer, you know.”
Amanda went suddenly across to Love. “Let me see it,” said she.
Love extended the tidy nervously. Amanda scrutinized it.
“Now I want to know jest how much you've worked on this since I went out.”
“I don't know as I can tell, Mandy.”
“You can tell pretty near. Have you done half a row?”
“I — don't know as I have.”
“Have you done quarter of one?”
“I guess not quite.”
“Have you done anything at all?”
“Yes, I've done a little.”
“I don't believe you've made more'n three shells. Have you?”
Love looked shamefacedly at the tidy, and made no reply.
“You'd ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Amanda. “It's much as ever you do anything at all lately. I don't see what you think you're comin' to, sittin' all day doin' nothin' at all, starin' out of the window. You act as if you was in a brown study. I'd like to know what ails you.”
Love murmured something, and twisted herself away towards the window. Amanda surveyed her imperturbably; her words had been impatient, but her manner of delivery calm. She stood over her sister implacably benignant, like an embodied duty.
“Now, Love, I want to know — an' I think you'd ought to tell me — what are you thinkin' about when you set doin' nothin' so?”
Love quivered. Secret thoughts have more sensitive surfaces than burns, and it seemed to Love that hers were laid bare. “Don't, Mandy. I don't know,” she faltered.
“If you are thinkin' about what I think you are,” Amanda went on, inexorably, “it's about time you stopped. If you've got any proper pride that a girl ought to have, you won't waste time thinkin' about anybody till you're pretty sure they want you to.”
Love turned on her sister with a look as if she were feeling for the claws which nature had denied her. “I never said I was thinkin' about anybody,” said she. Then she suddenly put her hands up to her face and began to cry.
“There's nothin' for you to cry about,” said Amanda, “nor to get mad about. I'm older than you, an' I know more about the world, an' I'm goin' to look out for you as faithful as I know how, an' that's all there is about it. Now you'd better work on that tidy if you ever want to get it done, while I get supper ready.”
Amanda, as she went out of the room, had a look of defiant embarrassment, and her face was flushed. She had not flinched, but she was a New England woman, and she discussed all topics except purely material ones shamefacedly with her sister. She felt as if she had injured her own delicacy as well as her sister's.
Amanda, out in the kitchen, got supper, and Love, in the sitting-room, wiped her eyes and worked on her tidy. It was really necessary it should be finished; she was going to sell it, and she needed the money. The proceeds of Love's little mats and tidies and pincushions all went for her own clothes, while Amanda's heavier and homelier work bought the food, fuel, and her own scanty wardrobe. Love had many a dainty little feature in her attire which Amanda had not, and never fairly knew that she had not. Love's little beribboned gowns and flower-wreathed hats were to Amanda as her own. She never thought of herself as being without them. Love on a Sunday, in her pretty, best attire, was, in a sweet and subtle fashion, Amanda's looking-glass. The elder sister, in her sober shawl and staid bonnet, walking beside her to meeting, saw all the time herself in this younger and fairer guise.
Amanda was old enough to be Love's mother; the two had been left alone in the world when Love was a baby. They had only their little house and an acre or two of land, but Amanda had the head of a financier. She had managed her pennies as firmly and carefully as dollars. She made every inch of their land pay. She sold hay and vegetables. She did heavy tasks in needlework for the neighbors — quilts and braided rugs and rag carpets. She had a little sum at interest in the savings-bank.
While adhering to the letter of her principles in bringing up Love, Amanda had spared her in every possible way. No rough tasks had been imposed upon this little, slender-armed sister. Amanda bought pretty silks and wools and fine threads, and had her taught to do dainty fancy-work, for which she found quite a market among the village women and the storekeepers in a neighboring large town. There were always finished articles on exhibition in the sisters' little front room, which was a studio on an exceedingly small and humble scale. Love's delicately wrought tidies and scarfs decorated the walls on all sides; the table was covered with mats and pin-cushions. Nothing could exceed Amanda's pride in the display. Love had lately finished a silk patchwork bedquilt, which was draped over the mantelshelf like a triumphal banner. Amanda invited people in to see it. She believed it a work of genius.
Love crocheted fast when she kept herself to it. There was quite a piece done on the tidy when Amanda called her out to supper. Amanda had made some milk toast. Love was very fond of it. The two ate their suppers peacefully in the little kitchen. Amanda gave Love the lowermost and best-soaked slices of toast, and Love, whose eyes were still red, ate them meekly.
After supper, when the dishes were cleared away, it was quite dark. Love lighted a lamp, and started to go up-stairs to her chamber.
“Where you goin'?” asked Amanda.
“I — thought maybe I'd — better change my dress.”
“What are you goin' to change your dress for?”
“I — didn't know but — somebody might come in.”
“I'd like to know who's goin' to come that that brown dress you've got on ain't good enough for? Who do you expect?”
“I — don't know as I expect anybody.”
“I s'pose you think maybe he'll be in.”
“I don't know as anybody'll come. I just thought — I'd change my dress.” Love, slight and flat-chested, her shoulder-blades showing through the back of her brown dress, stood before Amanda. She held the lamp unsteadily in both her little bony hands.
“That dress is plenty good enough whoever comes. I don't care if it's the President,” said Amanda. “An' I can tell you one thing — if you've got any pride, an' any sense of what's proper, you won't go to dressin' up in that blue dress with all that velvet trimmin' on it, if you think anybody's comin'. If you really want to show anybody you like them before you know whether he likes you or not, you can go an' dress up for them. If anybody's got common-sense, they can read it just like A B C. You'd better go an' set down an' finish that tidy.”
Love obeyed. She seated herself at the parlor table with her crochet-work. Once, when her sister was out of the room for a moment, she got up stealthily and looked at herself in the glass behind the table. She smoothed back her hair as well as she could, and adjusted the little brooch at her throat. Then she darted swiftly and noiselessly across the room to the chimney cupboard. A little bottle of cologne stood on the middle shelf. Love sprinkled some on her handkerchief; then she flew back to her chair. She hardly gained it before Amanda entered, and almost at the same moment there was a knock on the front door. Love gave a great start, and half arose. Amanda looked at her.
“I'll go,” said she, sternly. Love sat down.
Amanda had reached the sitting-room door, when she turned around and sniffed sharply. “What's that I smell?” said she.
Love said nothing.
“Have you been puttin' some of that cologne on your handkerchief?”
“You're a silly girl.”
Love crocheted with her heart beating loudly, while her sister opened the front door and let in the visitor. She could hear Amanda's voice and a subdued masculine one. Amanda was asking the visitor to lay aside his hat and coat in very much the same way that she might have asked an enemy to lay down his arms.
Amanda preceded a young man into the sitting-room. She set the lamp on the shelf and blew it out. Love half arose. She and the young man looked at each other; they extended their hands, then drew them back. Love sank into her chair with a soft, bashful titter, and the young man sat gravely and stiffly down on the sofa. Amanda seated herself at the table with her braided rug. She got it in place, and began sewing.
“How's your mother?” she asked the young man, in a dry, constrained voice.
“She's pretty well, thank you,” he replied.
He was young and very tall. His feet, in their well-blacked shoes, sprawled far out from the sofa. His handsome face was red with embarrassment, but his blue eyes looked at Amanda quite sturdily and steadily.
“Has she begun on her cleanin' yet?” said Amanda.
“No, ma'am; I guess not.”
“I s'pose you can help her some about the carpets.”
Amanda sewed, and Love crocheted on her tidy. The young man drew his feet farther in.
“It's a pleasant evening out,” he remarked, after a while.
Amanda nodded, with cold acquiescence.
“Yes, I s'pose 'tis,” said she. Love smiled softly, without looking up.
There was a long silence. The sisters worked steadily. The visitor sat on the sofa, with his unoccupied masculine hands on his knees. Now and then he glanced at Love's bowed head. There was a calla-lily in a big pot behind her, and the broad leaves threw shadows over her. Love herself looked like a flower which for some reason was not giving out its natural fragrance. It seemed as if she needed to be stirred and shaken.
The time went on. Once in a while Amanda vouchsafed an abrupt question, and the young man replied. Love never spoke until he arose to take leave. Then she started and looked up.
“It ain't late,” said she, and the blushes flamed over her cheeks.
“I guess I must be goin',” said he. There was something pitiful about the young fellow, in his Sunday suit and light necktie, with his shiny shoes and curly hair dampened and brushed as smoothly as possible. All these little humble masculine furbishings had gone for naught, and he was going home disappointed and hurt after a painfully dull evening. However, he held up his head like a man, and there was a stiffness in his way of taking leave which betokened resentment as well as dejection.
Amanda went to the door with him, and watched him put on his coat and hat. “Remember me to your mother,” said she, when he went out.
When Amanda returned to the sitting-room, Love had her head bent very low over her work.
“You hadn't ought to have said it wa'n't late when he got up to go,” said Amanda. “It looked dreadful forward, as if you wanted him to stay whether or no. I was surprised at you.”
Love put her hands over her face, and her shoulders twitched.
“What is the matter?” asked Amanda.
“I don't believe he'll — ever — come again as long as he lives.”
“I'd like to know why he won't come?”
Love made no reply. She sobbed convulsively.
“Come, you'd better go to bed,” said Amanda. “You're actin' dreadful silly. Ain't you got any pride at all? I guess before I'd sit and cry because I was afraid a fellow wouldn't come to see me — An' he'll come again fast enough. I'll go an' heat a flat-iron to put to your feet. It'll be kind of chilly up-stairs to-night.”
Amanda got Love into bed with the hot flat-iron at her feet, and herself lay half the night listening to hear if she were awake crying. The sisters slept in the two cottage chambers; Love had the large sunny front one. There were muslin curtains at Love's windows; she had a clean, faded woollen carpet, a large looking-glass over her bureau, and the best feather-bed. Amanda's little room was as bare and poor as could well be, her tiny looking-glass was blurred, and her bed was hard and lumpy.
If Love lay awake weeping, she wept so softly that her sister did not hear her. This was a Wednesday night. Love's admirer had been calling upon her occasionally on Wednesday evenings for some time. The next Wednesday evening he did not come, nor the next, nor the next. The sisters said nothing to each other about it. Love did not attempt to change her dress and make herself smart for him again. Her fancy-work dragged more than ever, but she always tried to be industrious when Amanda was in the room. One afternoon a neighbor called and asked Amanda out in the entry, when she was taking leave, if her sister was well.
“She always did look dreadful delicate,” said she, “but now she looks to me as if you could see the light through her if you held her the right way. I should think you'd better get her something strength'nin' to take, Amanda. You know her mother died of the consumption.”
“I guess she's well enough,” returned Amanda, shortly. “She's always thin as a rail.”
But when she went back into the sitting-room she saw Love with the neighbor's eyes; before, she had seen her with her own, to which her desires had been like soft-hued spectacles. That night she tried to get something for supper that Love would relish, but the girl scarcely tasted it. She only pecked at it like a little thin bird. Amanda made up her mind to get some medicine for her, as the neighbor had advised, and the next day she did, and Love took it, with no perceptible effect.
Five weeks from the Wednesday on which the young man had called, Amanda heard that he had procured some work in another village, and left town. She hesitated whether or not to tell Love. Finally she decided to. Love had just lighted her lamp to go to bed one night when she told her.
“They say he's left town an' gone to Sharon,” said she, in a harsh, constrained voice.
Love did not make a sound, but her face moved as if she screamed. She went weakly up-stairs with her lamp, and Amanda sat down in the parlor and thought. It was mid-night before she went up-stairs.
She listened a minute at Love's door, then she tiptoed in and bent over her. Love was asleep; her little face had a peaceful look, but her skin was dank and pale with perspiration; great beads stood on her forehead.
“That's the way mother used to look when she was asleep,” Amanda said to herself.
Suddenly Love opened her eyes. She did not seem startled, but she turned away from Amanda and the light.
“Now, Love, I want to know what all this means,” said Amanda. “Are you frettin' yourself sick because that fellow don't come?”
Love did not reply; her face was hidden, but her slender shoulders heaved convulsively.
“Well,” said Amanda, slowly, “it beats all. I've heard of such things, but I never knew they were true.” She smoothed out the bedclothes over Love and straightened her pillow. “Now you'd better stop cryin', an' go to sleep,” said she. “He'll come again fast enough, don't you worry.”
Amanda went out with the light. She did not sleep at all that night. She lay in her little chamber and wrestled for another with a problem of nature which she had never had to face for herself.
The next day was Saturday. In the afternoon Amanda dressed herself to go out. “I'm goin' out a little ways, it's so pleasant,” she told Love, when she went into the sitting-room with her bonnet and shawl on.
Love smiled listlessly. She was at the window with her fancy-work as usual. Amanda glanced back as she went down the path to the front gate, but Love did not look after her; her head was bent over her work.
Amanda went down the road until she reached a large white cottage set in a deep yard. There were four front windows. Amanda saw a head at one of them, but it disappeared when she turned in at the gate. She drew her old cashmere shawl tightly over her shoulders, and went, slim and stately, up the front walk. There was a strong sweet odor of pine-apple in the air; it came from an odd brown flowering bush near the gate. It might have been gunpowder, and Amanda might have been marching up to hostile guns, from her feelings. She felt a pair of inimical female eyes upon her behind a closed blind, but she set her face steadily ahead, went up to the door, and knocked.
She waited a long time, but no one came. She knocked again and again. Finally she compressed her lips and tried the door. It was not locked. She went into the entry, and knocked on the sitting-room door. No one came. She opened the door and walked in. Directly the opposite door closed with a bang. Amanda walked across to that door and opened it. There stood an elderly woman in a little entry between the sitting-room and kitchen. She looked at Amanda with a kind of defiant embarrassment. Her handsome fleshy face was quite red.
“Good-afternoon, Mis' Dale,” said Amanda.
There was a pause. “I want to speak to you a minute,” said Amanda.
“Well, come into the sitting-room.”
Amanda began at once when she and Mrs. Dale were seated opposite each other. “I wanted to ask you,” said she, “how your son was.”
“He's well as common.”
“I heard he'd left town.”
“Yes, he has.”
“Does he ever come home?”
“Well, some time when he does come, I should be happy to have him call at our house.”
Mrs. Dale's face grew redder, her round eyes gave out a blue glare. “Well, I'll tell you one thing right to your face, Amandy Perry, an' I ain't afraid to neither. My son ain't comin' over to your house again to be snubbed, not if I can help it. I guess he's full as good as your sister — full as good.”
“It wa'n't that, Mis' Dale.”
“I'd like to know what it was, then.”
“I rather guess I talked to Love, an' said some things that made her act kind of bashful. I ain't never had a thing against your son. I've always thought he was one of the likeliest young men in town.”
“I ruther guess my son is full as good as anybody that little meachin' thing is likely to get — full as good. I don't know what you think you are, nor where you come from: folks that have had to live from hand to mouth the way you have, an' never have had any parlor. My folks have always had parlors an' sittin'-rooms, an' I guess some of 'em would have thought my son was stoopin' if they'd known.”
The channel in which Mrs. Dale's ideas ran was so narrow that it had to be well cleared of one set before others could enter. She was a kindly enough woman, but just now she was possessed of maternal resentment to the exclusion of everything else. Mrs. Dale was like an enraged mother bird with one note, she screamed it over and over in Amanda's ears in spite of all she could say. Finally Amanda arose to go, and Mrs. Dale followed her to the door, still talking. Amanda noticed a hat on the entry table. “He's come home to spend Sunday,” she thought, but she said nothing.
Mrs. Dale closed the door after her with a bang, and Amanda went slowly down the path, looking on either hand. Over in the field south of the house there was a low red fire leaping in the dry grass, and a man's figure moving about, knee-deep in curling smoke. Amanda went straight across to the field and up to the man. She held her skirts close around her, and stepped unflinchingly over the blackened ground.
“Good-afternoon, Willis,” said she.
“Good-afternoon,” the young man returned, stiffly.
“Come to spend Sunday?”
“Why don't you come over and see us? You ain't been for a long time.”
Willis stood straight and tall before Amanda; his eyes looked like his mother's. “Because I ain't goin' anywhere where I'm shown so plain I ain't wanted,” said he.
“You're wanted enough. We should be real glad to see you any time. I s'pose I'm kind of stiff sometimes, but I don't mean to be; an' Love is a little quiet an' bashful, but you mustn't think we mean to act offish. If you ain't goin' anywheres to-morrow night, we'd be glad to see you. Love, she ain't very well.”
Willis moved around and beat a little at the burning grass.
“Love, she ain't very well, an' I guess she's kind of frettin' because she thinks you're put out,” said Amanda, in a pitiful voice.
“Well, maybe I'll come if you'd like to have me,” said Willis, hesitatingly.
“We'll be happy to have you.” Amanda started off; then she turned. “What — are you going to do to-night?” she asked, timidly.
“Nothing particular that I know off.”
“Can't you come to-night?”
“I — don't know but I can,” Willis said, in a bewildered way.
Amanda went home in the early spring afternoon. Her limbs trembled; her face had a shocked, desperate expression. She was full of a solemn shame and terror at what she had done. People when they overstep their bounds of conduct are apt to step high and wide; poor Amanda had cleared hers well. The frogs were singing in a stretch of low meadow-land that she passed. They would have seemed to her like the chorus of a Greek tragedy had she ever heard of one.
When she got home she sat down with Love and sewed until supper-time. She said nothing about Willis Dale. She got supper early, and cleared it away. Then she got a brush and comb and basin of water, and called Love out into the kitchen. “Come here a minute, Love,” said she.
Love crept out obediently.
“I'm goin' to see if I can't make your hair look neat for once,” said Amanda, in a resolute tone.
She dampened Love's pretty wild hair, brushed it energetically, and twisted it tight and hard on the top of her head. Love's thin childish face looked strange and severe with her hair in flat dark curves around her temples. Amanda surveyed her approvingly.
“There,” said she. “Now you'd better go an' put on your other dress; I want to fix that place that's ripped in this one.”
“I thought I'd go to bed pretty soon,” said Love.
“No, you ain't goin' to bed, neither. Now go an' put on your dress. You look nice an' neat for once in your life.”
Willis came at eight o'clock. Amanda let him in, and left him with Love in the sitting-room. She herself sat down at the kitchen window in the deepening dusk, and stared out over the shadowy fields. She could hear the voices of her sister and her lover, now fairly started upon that path of love which was as strange to this rigid-lived single woman as that of death, and whither she was far less able to follow. Amanda sat there, and wept patiently, leaning her head against the window-casing.