From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXVI No. 11 (March 18, 1893)
It was eight o'clock at night, and still the white linen window-curtains were not drawn. Hester and Letitia Lyman sat playing chess. Letitia had her back toward the street windows; Hester fronted them. Now and then Hester would pause, holding an ivory figure over the board, and stare with wide-open pale eyes, her thin lips parting before her quick breath, over Letitia's shoulder at the uncurtained window. Then Letitia's eyes, full of alarmed inquiry, would fasten upon her sister's face, until it withdrew its scrutiny from the window and turned again to the chess-board, knitting with reflections.
“What did you think you saw?” Letitia whispered.
“Nothing,” replied her sister, poising a white pawn in her pale pointed fingers.
“I thought you looked as if you saw something.”
“It wasn't anything. There's nothing for you to get nervous about, Letitia.”
“I am not nervous,” said Letitia. And she turned her head and looked squarely at the window behind her. It was snowing hard outside. There was a strong wind which drove the snow before it in a fierce slant against that side of the Lyman house.
Shreds of snow clung like wool to the window-sashes; new flakes whitened out of the dark void against the panes, the wind shrieked, and Letitia's eyes started as if there were a presence to be seen at its back. Then she turned around.
“There's nothing there,” said she.
“I told you there wasn't,” said her sister; and she made her move, which was quite disastrous to Letitia.
Letitia bent her sharp gentle face, and studied the chess-board as a general the field of battle. She was quite reassured: her courage was always the reflection of her sister's. Hester's had to originate within herself, being whipped into being by her sense of Divine Providence.
Nobody knew what a terror the curtainless windows were of a night to Hester and Letitia Lyman, and what self-control it required not to pull down these linen shades with sharp jerks and shut out the wide night full of dark possibilities. They had been the same terror to their gentle, nervous mother before them, and had been endured by her with the same loyal patience. Her husband, and Hester and Letitia's father, old Doctor John Lyman, had belonged to the stern old school of medicine. He had cauterized, and bled, and dosed with mercury, but the sharpest of all his sharp treatment had been the mental one for the weak whims and the nervous foibles of the women of his family. A wife and four daughters had old Doctor Lyman possessed, and every one of them delicate and hysterical, with her nervous system on the surface of life and exposed to all its suns and storms. Doctor John Lyman had dosed them all rigidly and impartially with a kind of spiritual mercury, which sometimes salivated their very souls, and had applied a ruthless spiritual cautery to all of their nervous weaknesses.
From her very childhood Mrs. Lyman had been afraid to sit in a lighted room after nightfall with the curtains up, and her four daughters had seemed to inherit her terror. Old Doctor Lyman would never allow a curtain to be drawn, and not one dared rebel even when he was away from home. The little timorous old mother and the four timorous daughters would sit meekly together while the dark night pressed openly at their long curtainless windows, and their imaginations filled every pane with a ghostly or evil face.
Still Doctor Lyman's treatment had not been effectual. They sat with the curtains undrawn, but they still quaked. They swallowed his heroic medicines, but the ailments remained. Once in her childhood Letitia had had a terrific nightmare. Her choking screams aroused the whole family, and her father, tipping her little head back with one hand, administered castor oil in a spoon which stretched her gasping mouth. Letitia had the nightmare again, but she never screamed.
Doctor John Lyman died before any of his family, but his will was still paramount after death, and his evening lamplight still streamed unobstructed from his windows. His widow and the two younger daughters did not long survive him. Hester and Letitia had lived alone in the Lyman house with their one servant-woman for thirty years, and never pulled their curtains down of a night, and always been afraid.
They had tea at six o'clock, knitted or sewed until quarter of eight, then played chess until quarter of nine, then went to bed. That was their invariable rule. They read a great deal, and always solid and improving books, mostly by the earlier standard English writers, but they never read in the evening, as their eyes were weak.
To-night Hester won the game of chess, which was somewhat unusual. Letitia generally was victorious at chess, although her mind was not considered quite as active as her sister's. “Hester Lyman is the smartest,” the village critics said. However, Letitia led her knights and bishops to victory upon the field of chess oftener than her sister.
Hester looked quite triumphant when she arose and put away the chess-board. Letitia did not look crestfallen, but abstracted. She glanced at the clock, then at her sister.
“I suppose we must go to bed,” said she.
“Of course we must,” returned Hester. “We can get up in about an hour.”
“I wish we could sew upstairs.”
“You know we can't, Letitia. It is too cold.” Hester spoke in a sharp whisper. She gave an uneasy look at the door.
“It is shut,” Letitia whispered back.
“I know it. Well, we must go to bed now.”
Hester went to the door then, opened it, and called quite loudly and naturally: “We are going to bed now, Betsey. Please bring in the wood for the stove.”
There was a harsh murmur in response from a room beyond. Then there was the dull clatter of wood, and presently a woman came in with her arms heaped to her chin with great knotty sticks.
Hester opened the door of the great air-tight stove, and the woman put the sticks in, pushing a refractory one with hoarse grunts.
“I guess that will hold till morning,” remarked Letitia, and her voice had a curious ostentation of easy cheerfulness.
The woman made no reply. After she had put the wood in the stove she stood upright and stared past the sisters at a window. There was no fear in her eyes, but she looked as if she really saw something. Hester and Letitia followed her gaze.
“Do you see anything, Betsey?” whispered Letitia.
“Nothin' more'n common,” replied the woman. Her words had the inarticulate slur of the underbred New Englander, but her voice had a strange quality in it, a savage guttural intonation, which came with a sudden surprise, like a sound from without the windows of civilization. She was squat, high-hipped, and flat-bosomed; her large feet in their felt slippers were planted at sharp angles with each other below her full brown skirt. Her eyes were blue with the small sharpness of black ones. Her cheek-bones were high, her wide mouth calm and sullen, her complexion dry and dark. People said that Betsey Somerset had Indian blood in her veins. There was a tradition in the village of an Englishman of a great family who had come generations ago to the wilds of Canada, then wedded with a daughter of the savage Iroquois, and himself became an Indian chief. There had been, according to the tale, a line of stalwart braves with half-English features bearing the English name, then had come an intermarriage with a captive girl from Massachusetts, and the English strain was strengthened, for her sons came southward and wedded wives of their mother's people.
Whether the tale was legendary or not, the suspicion concerning the old proud but wild blood had always clung to the Somerset family. Moreover, the characters of many of the members thereof strengthened this suspicion. The men were usually possessed of strong traits, yet were singularly averse to the settled industry and thrift of the New England villager. Their lives were active but restless, impatient of the hammer, the anvil, and the plough, and given rather to the hunting of such poor game as was left in the New England forests, fishing, and braving the rapid river in their light boats. The current of the river was considered much too rapid for safe travel; scarcely any man in the village, except a Somerset, was daring enough to venture upon it.
In spite of the half-odium which clung to his race as unstable bread-winners, and born with a slight slant off the fine equilibrium of civilization, Betsey's father had found a girl from one of the oldest and best families in the village to marry him. However, it had ostracized her from her kindred, and had been considered a righteous judgment upon her that she lived miserably poor, since her husband would settle to no regular work, and died before she was middle-aged. She left one child, Betsey, who lived a half-wild life in almost primitive squalor and freedom with her father and an old aunt of his for a few years.
But the old aunt died, and then the father, before Betsey was twelve. Then Doctor John Lyman took her into his family to make herself as useful as she might, and to be trained up in a sober and industrious life. She was sent to school until she was fifteen, and she set her daily footsteps after the measure which old Doctor John Lyman dictated. She usually obeyed him as faithfully as did his wife and daughters, but the obedience was of another sort, being, indeed, rather the proud and forced submission of a strong nature to its own environments than a weak yielding to another's will. She had rebelled only a very few times, and then old Doctor John Lyman had, from his stern sense of duty and obligation, as well as the natural resentment of his own thwarted will, switched Betsey with a birch stick over her broad girlish shoulders.
But her untamable spirit always looked out at him from her keen blue eyes all through the blows, and she never uttered a cry. However, his difficulty in dealing with her never arose from the same cause as in the case of his own family: Betsey had no nervous weakness; she had no fear in her. She was not disturbed by curtainless windows at night, but rather liked to stand by them and gaze out into the wide mystery of darkness, as if in anticipation of some wild visitant, some ancient kin of hers, coming out it. Betsey never had the nightmare, or she might have clinched her teeth against the castor oil.
Betsey was ten years older than Hester, and that made her quite an old woman. When Mrs. Lyman died, she had taken the attitude of a fierce foster-mother to the sisters. As she grew older she did not realize that they were following out so many years behind; she thought of them always as young girls. Their rule over her was nominal, hers over them was almost absolute. They were quite in subjection to her. The village people said they should think that the Lyman girls would be afraid of Betsey Somerset. Children were scared to go to the door of the Lyman house, lest she should answer their knocks, and her dark face scowl at them through the doorway instead of the mild visage of Hester or Letitia. The old woman had a hard reputation for surly tyranny in the village. But the two sisters, who had been born and bred under rule as under high atmospheric pressure, had realized no inconvenience from it, and no desire of emancipation until lately.
That night the sisters went to bed up the spiral stairs with their flaring candle. Betsey plodded heavily out through the hall and the kitchen to her bedroom.
For over an hour the large low-ceiled sitting-room was quite dark and silent, except for the red glow through the damper of the stove, the occasional snapping of the burning wood, and the ticking of the clock. Then a board creaked out in the entry under stealthy feet, a line of golden light showed under the door, then it swung open slowly. Hester Lyman's pale face set in a white cap was thrust around it; she held her candle aloft from her. Letitia peered around her shoulder, and she had her arms full of white cloth and flannel.
“Is it all right?” Letitia whispered close to her sister's ear.
“I think so,” returned Hester, and she stepped boldly into the room; and Letitia slid after her, with her arms clasped around her white bundle.
Hester set her candle on the shelf, then she lighted the lamp on the table, and the two women sat down close to it and fell to work.
Hester laid little yellow garments, baby skirts, and slips upon new white linen, and cut others by them. Letitia sewed with nervous, trembling fingers, her spectacles over her gentle eyes.
They sat there and cut and sewed until long after midnight. Outside, the storm raged steadily, the snow slanted higher on the window-panes. There was scarcely a clear space for any eyes without to spy upon the two old women sewing the little garments, with trembling haste, beside their midnight lamp; still, now and then they glanced fearfully around for them, and they always kept nervous watch upon the door, lest their old handmaiden should enter and discover them.
Their ears were alert for the slightest sound, yet they did not hear a footstep the whole length of the front hall — a footstep inherited, it may have been, from savage ancestors, who had learned it from the swift padded tread of wild beasts, and practised it on the trail of their enemies through pathless forests; a footstep that avoided a creaking board in the floor as if it were a crackling twig in the woodland way. They did not hear the front door opened and shut as noiselessly as if it had been the skin-flap of a wigwam. They did not see two eyes at a window as watchful and wary as if their owner were in an ambuscade.
At half past one o'clock the sisters folded up their work, extinguished the lamp, lighted the candle, and crept softly upstairs to bed. They never dreamed that Betsey Somerset's ear had been at the door and her eye at the window every night as they sewed, and would be for every night to come. The two old sisters sewed by night on their little wardrobe for two weeks, and their old servant watched them.
Then one sunny day Hester and Letitia put on their wraps directly after dinner, and set forth for the North village. They said to Betsey that they were going, but did not say for what purpose. They tried to appear quite easy and independent; but they did not deceive Betsey; she knew.
When she saw the two sisters going down the road to the railroad station she knew on just what errand they were bound. The snow was melting fast. The sisters held up their nice black skirts, and showed their slender ankles and their white stockings as they walked away. Their smooth little circles of gray hair could be seen under their black bonnets, their shoulders in their black shawls swayed primly as they walked. Betsey Somerset watched them out of sight, peering around a corner of a sitting-room window. Not a muscle of her face moved.
The sisters disappeared down the street, and presently she heard the whistle of the train. She went away from the window then, and into her bedroom. There was a bedstead in there, and two chairs, a bureau with a gilt-framed mirror over it, and a little hair trunk.
Betsey got a key from under a pile of clothing in the bottom bureau drawer. Then she unlocked the hair trunk, and took out a small rosewood work-box, with a gilded knob on each corner for feet. It was one that Mrs. Lyman had given her when she first came to the Lyman house to live. She opened it, and took out a little flat parcel. She unfolded the white tissue-paper carefully, and held up one long fair curl before her scowling eyes. Letitia had been almost a baby with a head covered with curls when Betsey Somerset came to live at the Lyman house. Letitia's curls had been the admiration of her life; every chance she could get she would twist soft spirals around her rough dark fingers.
When Letitia grew a few years older and the curls were clipped by order of her father, Mrs. Lyman gave one to Betsey, who stored it away in her precious work-box as one of her life treasures.
Betsey also took out of a little box a small mosaic brooch which Hester had given her, which she had always gloated over with the inmost joy of possession, but wore few times. There was, too, a yellow letter which Hester had written her in her girlhood, when she was away on a visit; it was the only letter which Betsey had ever received. There was a scrap of blue and orange changeable silk from Letitia's first silk gown, a little pin-cushion of painted velvet stuck between two scallop shells which she had given her, and a little red rose from a beautiful old bonnet of Hester's. There were other little treasures of which nobody but the old woman herself knew the value, and which indeed had no value except in her own heart, which had stamped them, like coins, with the royal mark, to her eyes alone.
She gathered up her dark cotton apron into a bag; she heaped therein all her dearly beloved little treasures which were in any way connected with Hester and Letitia; she carried them out into the kitchen, and lifted a cover from the stove. The flames from the wood fire leaped up toward her face; she dropped the treasures in, one after another, and put the cover on again. Then she drew a chair close to the stove, and sat down huddled over it, bent almost double.
All the afternoon the snow-water ran along the eaves, and gushed noisily from the spout at the corner of the house. The sunlight, full of watery reflections, lay upon the kitchen floor, and the old woman's dark curved back never stirred.
It was twilight when she heard the front door open, and almost at the same time instant a wailing cry. She never moved. She heard the sisters' voices, full of strange cadences which she had never heard in them before, but the wail was persistent.
The kitchen door was opened, and Letitia spoke. When that soft curl, now ashes, had hung from her childish head, she could not have spoken more timidly, with a more anxious and deprecating appeal. “You there, Betsey?” she said, peering out into the dusky room.
Betsey never moved.
“Betsey” — Letitia came forward and touched Betsey's shoulder, which seemed to resist her likewise — “Betsey, you are not sick, are you?” she cried out, quickly.
The wail from the sitting-room was more peremptory. “Ask her to please be quick!” Hester's voice called from the distance.
“Betsey —” Letitia began again. Then she stopped, and fled back to her sister.
Betsey sat still. She did not stir when she heard Hester's voice close at her side. It rang more decidedly than Letitia's; there was a faint touch of temper in it. That piteous wailing had almost overcome the absolute power of her old servant. She and her sister had started off with an actual sense of guilt and shame; they had quaked at the thought of discovering their undertaking to Betsey; but now she felt suddenly courageous. She stood over Betsey, and made a little speech which she and Letitia had planned with grave dignity.
“Betsey,” said Hester, “we have thought it wise and best for us to adopt a child, a little boy, whose father and mother died a little while ago over in the North village. We have brought him home to-night. We trust that you will be as fond of him as we shall, and that he will grow to be a comfort to us all in our old age.”
There was not a sound from Betsey Somerset.
Hester's voice, which had grown tender and tremulous on the last words, sharpened suddenly. It might almost have been Doctor John Lyman who spoke. “Betsey,” said she, “please start up the fire, and make some hot porridge for the baby. He is cold and hungry.”
The old woman did not move.
“Immediately,” said Hester, but she quavered a little.
She stood waiting. Letitia appeared in the doorway with the weeping baby. His little red convulsed face showed over her shoulder, his little legs kicked wildly under her arm. “Betsey,” she said, softly, “just look at him!” and she might, from her tone, have held a glorified cherub instead of a little mad mortal baby.
She laid her thin long old maiden hand on the little downy head which bumped her shoulder. “Betsey, just look at him,” she said. “See how pretty he is. See how smart he is for only six months old. And he's hungry, poor little thing. Won't you make his porridge for him right away, Betsey?”
Suddenly Betsey arose, stalked into her bedroom, and shut the door. The sisters looked at each other; Letitia's own eyes filled with tears as she patted the baby's little heaving back.
“We ought to have told her,” she whispered.
“It wouldn't have made any difference,” returned Hester, moodily. “She would never have approved of it. I thought this was the best way.”
“I thought, when she saw him, she couldn't make any objections,” said Letitia. “But she never looked at him.”
Hester took off the stove cover. “I am going to start up the fire and make the porridge, or the child will starve,” said she, desperately. “You take him back into the sitting-room and see if you can't stop his crying. I'm afraid he'll hurt himself. Perhaps you can trot him.”
“I did, but he didn't seem to like being trotted,” responded Letitia, piteously. “Some children don't; I've heard mother say I never did.”
She went away into the sitting-room with the poor baby, and employed all the cajoleries which she knew by instinct or tradition. She trotted him on her thin black-draped knees, she strove to make it cuddle down into the great feather cushions of the chintz covered rocking-chair, holding it with one hand and rocking with the other. She laid it on the hair-cloth sofa, and pushed her thin forefinger at its unhappy little face, and chuckled in a vain attempt to coax a responsive smile.
The baby wept and wailed until Hester came with his supper. That was what he had wanted, and insisted upon having in his blind innocent wrath and the passion for life with which he was born. Hester held him in her lap and fed him his porridge with one of the old Lyman teaspoons out of an old pink china bowl, which had used to delight her own childish eyes. The baby swallowed greedily, his head tipped back in the hollow of Hester's shoulder, his eyes upturned with comfort. The porridge was spluttered all over his little weary face. He doubled up his two little fists. Letitia stood over her sister and the baby. “Just see him eat,” she sighed out. She watched as exultingly as if he had been her own baby, and her elder sister's face bending over him took on all the maternal light of which nature had made it capable.
They almost forgot the old maidservant sitting alone in her dark bedroom nursing her jealousy and injured love. They forgot that they had not had their own supper. After the baby had finished his, they laid him carefully in the rocking-chair, drawn up close to the wall, and the rockers braced with a book — a copy of Burton's Anatomy; then, between them, they brought the old cradle down-stairs. It had been fitted up with new pillows and coverlids, and hidden in Hester's closet, but Betsey had seen it there.
That night the sisters slept in a bedroom off the sitting-room, which their parents had used to occupy. They kept the lamp burning all night, and the cradle stood in full view from their bed. The baby slept quietly, he awoke only once, and Hester heated his porridge on the air-tight stove and fed him; then he fell asleep again. The sisters did not sleep much; one or the other tiptoed softly to the baby's side many a time. Once Letitia thought he did not breathe properly, and called her sister to see.
Hester listened awhile, then she put on her slippers, wrapped a shawl over her night-gown, and stole through the icy house to the old study, where her father had kept his books and medicine bottles. She came back with a bottle of croup mixture, but they did not give it to the baby, for they thought he breathed better. Still, after that, both of them slept with their ears all ready to catch the first sound of that terrible croupy cough of which they had heard; and the spoon lay handy to the medicine bottle.
Betsey Somerset, lying in her bedroom off the kitchen, knew all about it. She heard them come down stairs with the cradle. She knew they slept in the sitting-room bedroom to take care of the baby. Her room was in the L, and she saw the light flash from the study windows, and Hester's figure pass before them, and knew that she was after medicine for the baby.
In Betsey's veins flowed still a certain proportion of the blood of an old race that slew where it hated. It was crossed and purified by that of a race of finer principles and nobler practices; but that night the old savage blood seemed to surge over the other. Betsey opened her door a little way and listened for the croupy cough of the child.
She had not had any supper that night; she had not got any for the sisters. She knew that Hester had made a cup of tea for them. The next morning she got up as usual and prepared breakfast. She made the hot biscuits that the sisters loved, and cooked a slice of ham.
Hester came out to the kitchen looking worn but radiant. She greeted Betsey with joyful readiness, but the old woman turned the sputtering ham and made no response. She saw Hester make more porridge for the baby, and carry it to the sitting-room with some hot water. She set the ham and the hot biscuits and the silver teapot on the table in the dining-room, and went to the sitting-room door.
“Breakfast is ready,” she announced. Then she went back to the kitchen. She had caught a glimpse of the baby, naked and rosy, and crowing on Letitia's lap.
“There are very few babies who don't cry when they are washed,” said Letitia. “I have heard mother say so.”
Betsey sat out in the kitchen huddled over the stove. The breakfast was cold when the sisters came to eat it. They brought the baby with them wrapped up in a shawl, and Letitia held him while she ate.
After breakfast there were always family prayers in the Lyman house. Old Doctor Lyman had set up his family altar as soon as he was married, and his descendants bowed before it faithfully. Betsey was always present, and she was to-day; but she did not kneel when Hester and Letitia went down with soft flops of their black skirts, Letitia keeping one guardian hand on the baby's cradle. She sat upright and inflexible. The baby crowed and gurgled, and something like a shadow seemed to move over her dark face, but not a muscle strayed perceptibly.
After breakfast the sisters had what they called a serious talk with Betsey Somerset. They reasoned and argued with her; they explained with a certain dignified pathos their notions for taking the child; they fairly pleaded for her sympathy and forgiveness. Betsey answered not one word. She stood waiting until they finished talking, then she went out into the kitchen.
She did her work and prepared the meals as usual, but she did not speak. The armed peace went on for several days. The sisters cared for and worshipped the baby in troubled happiness. They pleaded with Betsey, and worried over the matter to each other. They tried to show the baby in his best dress, with little coral clasps in his sleeves, and an attempt at a curl on the top of his head, to Betsey, and move her heart. But she was obdurate. She did not speak until they had had the baby nearly a week.
Then, one pleasant afternoon, the two sisters carried the baby back to the North village. They carried the baby, and all his little wardrobe which they had made, and they came back patient and lonely.
Betsey Somerset, standing before them grim and inflexible, had told them that morning that unless the child left, she should, and go upon the town in her old age.
The sisters had not hesitated for a moment. The old woman belonged to all their past. She called out all the loyalty of their conservative natures; the baby merely filled and satisfied a hunger of their hearts from which they had always suffered. They could suffer it again, but the old woman with all her sacred prior claims which had no roots in their own selfishness must stay.
So they carried the baby back. They left him in charge of a woman who would care for him faithfully; they gave her his little clothes over which they had toiled so secretly and lovingly, and arranged to pay her well. The Lyman sisters had quite a large property.
Their manner toward Betsey was just the same; there was not a tinge of upbraiding or blame in it. Betsey became more inflexibly protective than ever. She cooked their favorite dishes, and often under her eye they ate when they would fain have not. When she saw that Letitia looked paler than usual, she brought up a little of the doctor's old port from the cellar, and Letitia drank a glass three times a day. It became quite evident that Letitia was not well. She had caught a cold, and she had never had much power of resistance. Presently the chess game was cut short, and she went to bed earlier.
They called in the doctor who had taken their father's practice when he died, and Betsey listened at the door. He said that Letitia was run down. She needed change, a little pleasurable excitement, that the cold was not all her malady. He talked quite seriously to Hester at the door, and Betsey stood in the gloom at the end of the hall and heard that.
Presently Hester came out into the kitchen and pretended to be busy about something, but it was only in order that the redness should disappear from her eyes before she returned to Letitia.
“He thinks she's pretty poorly?” said Betsey, with harsh interrogatory.
“She wasn't ever very strong,” Hester replied, evasively. Then she said, as if in spite of herself, “She's been terribly disheartened lately. That is at the root of the matter.”
Betsey did not say any more. She made a stew of which Letitia had always been very fond for dinner, but Letitia could scarcely eat a mouthful in spite of her efforts. When Betsey carried out her plate, she tasted it herself. Then she shook her head with a tragic gesture. “It ain't the stew,” she muttered.
Hester tried faithfully to fulfil the doctor's instructions regarding her sister. They had always led a rather reserved life, and had not mingled to any extent with their neighbors. Although not realizing it themselves, the two old gentlewomen had a certain innocent sense of exclusiveness, and a mild appreciation of their position as old Doctor John Lyman's daughters, aside from their naturally retiring dispositions. They had always felt themselves in their youth a little aloof, by the ordering of Providence, from the other village girls. Then, too, their education had been superior. They had read Bacon and Young when the other young ladies had read the story page of a religious newspaper, and even the almanac. Their pencil drawings of bouquets of roses, and fine landscapes, wherein churches and castles and winding rivers were sweetly represented, hung on their walls instead of samplers. They had played chess instead of checkers; they had even played the piano, for which in their early girlhood there was, indeed, no parallel. Probably Doctor John Lyman had been somewhat responsible for this half-unconscious pride of his daughters, and it was the reflection in their obedient natures of a like unacknowledged quality in him.
But now Hester invited two ladies, her old schoolmates, with their husbands, to tea. She took out the best Indian china and the little solid silver tea service, and was anxiously and painfully social. She even had a wild dream of inviting an old bachelor, whom village gossip had always paired off with one of the Lyman girls, and the doctor's uncle, who was a widower, to spend the evening and have a game of whist. But she did not quite venture upon that, considering it a rather desperate and dangerous remedy, like some on her father's shelves.
Hester read aloud to Letitia the most cheerful and humorous of lamb's Essays, and even John Gilpin's Ride, by way of extreme diversion. But Letitia drooped more and more in spite of the unwonted festivity which was to serve as tonic to her flagging spirits. And Hester also grew thin, and Betsey saw that she did.
The baby had been gone six weeks when, one day after dinner, Betsey disappeared. Hester missed her, and supposed she had gone to the store. As time went on, and she did not return, she felt a little anxious and puzzled, since Betsey never went into a neighbor's house. However, she said nothing to Letitia, who was lying upon the sofa. All that afternoon Hester read aloud to her sister, who tried to smile in the proper places.
At six o'clock Betsey had not returned, for Hester had kept a sharp eye on the window as she read. The sisters were in the dusk, Hester had laid down her book and was wondering with growing alarm what she had better do — whether she had better go to the neighbors or set out in search of Betsey herself. Suddenly she gave a start of relief. “There she is!” she cried.
“Who?” asked Letitia, weakly.
“Betsey. She's been gone all the afternoon, and I have been wondering where she was.”
“You suppose Mrs. Knowlton treats the baby well, don't you, Hester?” asked Letitia; and she asked her sister the same question many times a day.
“Of course she does. She is one of the best women I ever saw,” replied Hester, soothingly.
Suddenly Letitia sat up, and clutched her sister's arm hard. “What's that? what's that?” said she. Hester gasped and looked at her. They both listened.
Suddenly the door was flung open, and Betsey Somerset strode in. She held the wailing baby with a stern clutch across her bosom. She had walked all the way from the North village, four miles, with him, and he had cried all the way. Her brown dress was wet nearly to her knees where it had dipped into the slush of the roads, her face was rigid, but there was an effect from it like a smile — a smile which did not depend upon any action of the muscles. She put the baby forcibly into Hester's lap.
“There,” said she.
Letitia sprang up from the sofa and threw her arms around Betsey, and wept hysterically upon her shoulder. Betsey stood stiff and straight, her arms hanging at her sides, like a soldier. Hester was soothing the baby. “He knows me, I do believe he knows me!” she cried in a rapture.
Betsey disengaged Letitia's clinging hands, and urged her toward the sofa. “You'd better lay down again now,” said she.
“You dear, blessed woman!” sobbed Letitia.
“I've always thought more of you two than anything else in the world,” said Betsey in a slow voice. “I ain't never wanted anything else. I'll go out now, and make his porridge.”
Betsey Somerset as she made the porridge saw no reflection of herself in her own thoughts. Her hand slipped as she poured out the boiling milk, and she burned it severely. She carried in the porridge before she bound it up that the sisters might not know. She even stood for a moment and watched the baby eat. Then she went back to the kitchen, bound an old linen rag around her hand, and got supper. The fiery smart of a martyr shot through her whole body from her hand, but the triumphant peace of a martyr was in her heart.