From Pictorial Review Vol. XVIII No. 6 (March, 1917)
Maria, Henry Ball's wife, came out on the front porch where her sister, Lucy Ward, was seated with the morning paper. She had a tin pan in one hand and a basket of peas in the other. She was smiling happily.
“Now,” she said, “the breakfast dishes are done, and Henry has picked the peas for dinner, and I can sit down here, where it is cool, and shell, and visit with you.”
“Let me help you, Maria,” said Lucy.
Maria laughed. “You help!” she said fondly. “Now, Lucy, you know yourself just exactly what that means — peas all over the floor and pods mixed up with the peas, and making a heap more work for me than you do. You may teach school, but you never could do housework. You know you could not.”
Lucy laughed. “I will admit I have never proved myself a success at it,” she said, “but it does seem so selfish for me to just sit around here and do nothing, and see you work for me.”
“Henry helps since he gave up the store,” said Maria. “He is sweeping up the kitchen now. I had enough sight rather have a handy man around the house than a woman, anyway.”
“I felt a little uneasy about coming when I heard that Cousin Emmeline had gone away,” said Lucy.
Lucy sniffed slightly. She began shelling peas. “You needn't have worried about that,” said she. “As far as that is concerned, I don't mean to be wicked, but just now Emmeline's room is better than her company. She never worked any more than she could help, anyway; and now, since Henry has given up the store to Sam, he does more in an hour, without any fuss, than she did in a day, with enough fuss to drive anybody crazy. And — Henry don't talk.”
“Cousin Emmeline always was a talker,” agreed Lucy.
“She pretty near talked us out of the village, and some others with us,” replied Maria grimly. “I was glad enough to have her out of the way before you came. Now I hope she stays with her sister out West the rest of her natural life. You got here only yesterday afternoon, but by night, if Emmeline had been here, all the neighbors would have known about your dresses. Everything you brought might just as well have been hung out on the clothes-line flapping for them to see. Emmeline's tongue aired everything. Henry and me lived in a glare of folks' eyes the last part of her stay here. Half the time I don't suppose they wanted to look, but she sort of jerked their heads round and made 'em. I guess Mis' Wallace and Mis' George Gay and Mis' John Hall and the Edwards girls would have known all about that dress you're wearing, by this time; and by night all the rest.”
Maria gazed admiringly at her sister. Lucy was some years younger, and had been very pretty as a girl. She, as a middle-aged woman, had another kind of prettiness, the prettiness of a flower preserved in a vase of fresh water, by extreme daintiness and careful preciseness of life and work.
Lucy taught school in the city. She had a very good position. She worked faithfully, was entirely contented, and enjoyed the world with that moderation which tends to a middle age like the second instalment of the story of youth. She was perfectly clad in embroidered gray linen, and looked more contented than usual. It was a lovely day. She was glad to be in the country. She loved her sister, and had a keen interest in her life.
“As far as I am concerned, I am rather glad Cousin Emmeline has gone,” she agreed. “I only wondered how you would get along without her help, but I understand how Henry more than makes up. I tried to like Emmeline, but she really was not very likable, poor soul.”
“She made trouble, or tried to; and that was worse than not being likable,” said Maria grimly. “She came very near setting the whole place by the ears about the phonograph. You don't know about that.”
“No, but I did notice last evening that the phonograph wasn't where you used to keep it in the sitting-room. I meant to ask what had become of it. Have you moved it into the parlor?”
Maria nodded. “It's settin' in the best parlor, in the corner, where it ain't likely to be noticed if anybody goes in there. I put my green chenille table-cloth over it, and set the Rogers' group on top, and I don't believe anybody will notice it.”
“Don't you ever play it?”
“Play it! I guess we don't play it. I suppose we shall some time, but we wouldn't any more dare play that phonograph now, when it's warm, and the windows are open, and the neighbors could hear, than anything at all. We came too near bein' at war with all the folks in this place.”
“What do you mean, Maria?”
“I mean that it is enough sight more risky trying to do right and follow out the New Testament teaching than it is to do wrong, as far as setting everybody by the ears is concerned,” replied Maria, splitting a long green pea-pod.
“How could you try to do right about that phonograph and have any trouble? I don't understand,” said Lucy.
“Well, I'll tell you. You know how long Henry and I had talked about having a phonograph?”
“Of course we could have had one long before we did. We really had the money, but it was the idea of putting so much into something we didn't really need.”
“You did need it, as much as you needed bread and butter, if you wanted it so much.”
“Well, we couldn't feel quite that way. Maybe you're right, but you know Henry and I begun in a small way, and we've always been careful, and two hundred and fifty dollars right out for a thing we could live without seemed a good deal; but we finally made up our minds to have it, and we got it. And I must say we took more comfort with it than we had expected to. Henry and I would sit and listen to that thing playing and singing till most midnight, and we never got tired of it. It never dawned on us that it might not be exactly right for us to have it, till one evening Emmeline said something.
“The phonograph had just stopped singing a beautiful piece, and Henry and I felt real sort of lifted up. You know Henry always liked music. He used to sing in the choir when he was a young man, and I used to like to listen to him. We had been listening to that singing just as if the man stood right in the corner of our sitting-room, and we felt real happy, when Emmeline speaks up. She had been over to Jane Simmons's that afternoon, and Jane was feeling poorly, and something she had a little money in hadn't paid that month, and she was real down-hearted. Emmeline said she'd tried to cheer her up by telling her about our new phonograph and how much we'd paid for it. I don't want to judge, but it wouldn't have been my way, to cheer up anybody who'd lost something by telling them about something somebody else had got, and it didn't work right with Jane. Emmeline told us just what she said, and mimicked just how she spoke, with a sort of whine, and somehow Henry and I didn't seem to care to hear the phonograph any more that evening.
“After Emmeline had gone to bed, Henry and I sat there looking at each other and thinking about Jane. Presently Henry spoke. ‘Jane was always real fond of music,’ says he, and he eyed the phonograph. I knew just what was in his mind. Henry is a good man, if he is my husband, and when you have lived with goodness as long as I have, you find out it's large print, and easy to read when you're running, even without glasses, and sometimes whether you want to or not.
“‘I suppose you think she ought to have that phonograph instead of us,’ says I.
“Henry sort of hesitated. He knew I thought a lot of it, and so did he. ‘Well,’ says he finally, ‘of course Jane could never get one, and she lives all alone, and —’
“‘I know it,’ says I. ‘I do think myself that owning a phonograph when a woman like Jane Simmons hasn't got one does seem sort of selfish.’
“Henry, he looked sober, but he nodded. ‘Yes,’ says he, ‘and, after all, it ain't the music of this world that matters, in the long run.’
“You know Henry is apt to say things like that, and it always scares me. He said he felt just as well as usual, but I made him take some medicine, to be on the safe side.
“Well, the upshot of it was, Henry and I couldn't rest till we'd given that phonograph to Jane Simmons. It seemed to both of us, every time it played and sung, as if we could hear that forlorn whine of Jane's when she was telling Emmeline her troubles, above the music. So we sent it to her. It was quite an undertaking, too. We didn't want Emmeline to know, after Jane had talked to her the way she had. And Jane was always high-spirited, so Henry had to act in a way that's worried him ever since, he's been so afraid he was deceitful. He knew a good deal about the way the phonograph was made, and he got it out of order himself, and talked, before Emmeline, of sending it to the city to be repaired. We had to send it to the city in good earnest — there wasn't any other way — and then we had it expressed out here to Jane.
“She right away thought we had sent it, and was hopping mad, and pounded on her window one afternoon when Emmeline was going past, and told her about it. Of course Emmeline told her she knew we hadn't sent it because ours was broken, and we had sent it away to be mended. When Emmeline told us about it we both felt pretty guilty, but we kept still. There didn't seem to be anything else to do, if we wanted Jane to keep the phonograph.
“Well, I guess Jane was real tickled with it for a while. She asked folks in evenings to hear it. She even asked Henry and me, and sort of hinted that it must be a better phonograph than ours was, if ours had got broken so soon.
“Then all of a sudden back came that phonograph. I never knew how Jane Simmons found out we had sent it to her. It didn't seem as if Emmeline would do such a thing as listen, but Henry and I could think of no other way. Anyhow, back came that phonograph, loaded on Smith's grocery wagon, and it was raining, and the case was so wet I was afraid the varnish would come off, tho I wiped it as dry as I could. And there was a note from Jane in the post-office that night. She said she guessed she wasn't quite so poor yet, if she had met with reverses, as to accept a pittance (it was the first time I had heard a phonograph called a ‘pittance’), and she guessed she would be just as unselfish as other folks if she had anything to fling at them as if they were the dirt of the street. It did sound as if Emmeline had listened, because Henry and I had talked a good deal about its being our duty to be unselfish.
“Well, at first we tried to take comfort with the phonograph again, but we couldn't get it out of our heads that we were doing wrong, and we begun to think of other folks who needed a phonograph more than we did. Henry thought first of Adam Slocum and his wife. Adam used to sing in the choir, too, but after he had some trouble with his throat, much as ever he could talk, much less sing, and that was twenty-odd years ago. ‘Poor Adam,’ says Henry. ‘How he would enjoy this phonograph, and his wife has never been much company for him, tho she is a good woman.’
“‘Yes,’ says I. ‘Susan Slocum is good just the way sweetened water is good. It ain't sour, and that is just about all you can say for it.’
“Then Henry, he laughed. You know he laughs real easy. He laughed hard, tho I couldn't see much to laugh at. I had always pitied Susan for being herself, and Adam for having to live with her, and somehow it had seemed to me worse because she was good. ‘I'd just as soon live with a pitcher of sweetened water, myself, as with Susan Slocum,’ says he.
“It did seem as if Emmeline must have been listening then, because we sent the phonograph to the Slocums for a Christmas present, and it came right back the next day. Adam drove up in his carryall, and he had the phonograph in back. He had taken the seat out to make room. He got the Lyons boy to help him lift it out, and they set it right on the front piazza and drove away. I run to the door and tried to say something, but Adam he just looked at me the way he has when he's mad, with his under lip about twice as big, and puffed out, and his chin going down in his collar; and he never said one word, and I didn't try to say anything more.
“Henry wasn't home. When he got home I told him, and he acted real upset. When Sam came to supper he helped bring it in, and that evening we had some music, but somehow it didn't sound the way it used to. Emmeline said she didn't know much about music, but she guessed it had got out of tune being lugged around in the damp, and Henry got real mad, for him. He told her right to her face that he didn't think folks that didn't know enough about music to tell a canary's singing from a poll-parrot's squawking had better talk about musical instruments being out of tune. He said maybe some folks was out of tune, and had made others tumble right off the key.
“Emmeline stared at him sort of frightened. She didn't know just what he meant by that. ‘If you mean you think I have been talking to anybody, I can tell you right now I ain't,’ says she. Then Henry and I knew she had. She'd either gone straight to Adam Slocum, or told somebody else in such a way that it was bound to get to him, and Adam Slocum is as proud as they make 'em, and he wasn't going to have presents given to him by folks because they thought they would be selfish if they didn't. If he couldn't be unselfish himself and do the giving, he wouldn't do the taking. I don't know as I blame him much for feeling so, and Henry thinks as I do.
“But there we were with that phonograph, and we had got possessed with the idea that we were dreadful selfish and wicked to keep it if anybody else wanted it and couldn't afford to buy one. We waited a little while. But Adam Slocum never told a soul — I guess he was so proud — and he made his wife hold her tongue. So along about Easter we got to thinking about poor Peter Wall, who has been laid up with rheumatism, you know, for nearly twenty years. One evening when we thought Emmeline had gone to prayer-meeting, Henry and I had been having a little music. We had set the phonograph playing hymn-tunes because it was prayer-meeting night, and when it run down on ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ Henry looked at me and I knew just about what was coming.
“‘I was thinking about poor Peter Wall, setting there all these years, with nothing to take up his mind except reading, and he never was much set on books,’ says he.
“‘A woman with rheumatism, if her hands ain't affected, could get along easier,’ says I, ‘for she can sew and knit and do fancy-work. A man ain't got much to occupy his mind.’
“Then Henry looked at the phonograph. ‘I know what you are thinking,’ says I.
“‘That Easter piece it plays is upliftin',’ says Henry.
“‘For the land sake,’ says I. ‘Let's send it to Peter, but ain't you afraid he won't like it in the end, just the way the others have done?’
“‘I know Peter real well,’ says Henry, ‘and he ain't got any womenfolk except his daughter Emma, and Emma is so meek if we sent an organ that filled their sitting-room up she wouldn't say anything.’
“‘I'll tell you who he has got,’ said I. ‘Who?’ says Henry.
“‘He's got his son's wife, and if Liza Wall ever gets a chance to make trouble, she's bound to do it. She's a nice woman, but she's one of the kind who gets in between good intentions and good deeds and squeezes them both to death. She can't help it; she was born that way.’
“‘I don't know how Liza is going to know we sent it,’ says Henry.
“‘How can you manage it?’ says I. ‘You can't break it again and send it to the city to be mended. It cost too much.’
“‘I'll get Sam to help me, and we can just carry it over there betwixt us, and set it on the piazza,’ says Henry.
“‘What will Emmeline think when she sees the phonograph is gone from here?’ says I.
“Henry looks at me, and all the years we have lived together I have never seen him look madder. He is a professing Christian, but I declare I was afraid for a minute he was going to say something he'd be sorry for. Then all he says is — and heaves a sigh — ‘Emmeline is a poor widow woman, and we've got to make the best of things.’
“‘She'll ask where it is,’ says I.
“Henry he looks sort of desperate. ‘Well, I don't generally believe in roundabout ways, because I ain't sure they are right,’ says he, ‘but I've set my heart on Peter Wall having that for an Easter present. You leave it to me. I've got to sort of hedge, and pull the wool over Emmeline's eyes.’
“‘She can see through all the wool that ever was carded, I'm afraid,’ says I.
“Well, it turned out I was right. Henry, you see, was counting on Emmeline having had a fuss with Peter Wall's son's wife, and never going to see Emma Wall because she was so no-account. But — Emmeline was in the house all the time we were talking, right in the next room. She hadn't gone to prayer-meeting. She was in the parlor making knitted lace. When I went in there to turn off the gas I fairly jumped. ‘Why Emmeline!’ says I.
“‘What's the matter?’ says she. She tried to look real innocent, but she couldn't quite fetch it. ‘I thought you had gone to prayer-meeting,’ says I.
“‘I started to,’ says she, ‘but I decided I wouldn't. I've got a little cold. I thought it would be better for me to sit down here and work on my lace.’ I saw her coat and bonnet on the chair, and she did have a little cold. She was speaking the truth, but I knew she had heard every word Henry and I had been saying, for the parlor door had been ajar. So I spoke right out. ‘I suppose,’ says I, ‘that whatever you may have heard us talking about, thinking we were alone, you won't repeat.’
“‘I never was one to talk, Maria Ball, and you know that,’ says Emmeline, sort of stiff.
“‘I know you won't be apt to talk to Peter Wall's son's wife, nor him, nor Emma,’ says I, ‘but I suppose you won't mention it to anybody else.’
“‘I never was one to talk, and you know that,’ says Emmeline again.
“When I told Henry that Emmeline had heard, he looked pretty well taken aback, but I must confess I did think maybe, seeing as I had spoken to her so, she wouldn't say anything. So Henry got Sam to help him one night, and they lugged the phonograph over to Peter's. Well, he was tickled. The poor man kept the machine going all the time. And Emma was as tickled as her pa. When it got warm enough so the windows were open we could hear it, and I must say Henry is a good man. One night when the phonograph was playing over there, he looks at me and he says, sort of low and sweet and solemn, ‘Maria, I guess it's true.’
“‘What's true?’ says I.
“‘I guess it's true that we can get more real pleasure out of other folks' happiness than out of our own,’ says he.
“I felt sort of scared, as I always do when he says such things, and asked him if he felt well, and he said he did; and I remembered he'd eat a good supper, so I said I thought he was right. Poor Henry did look so happy that night, listening to the phonograph that had been ours, playing in Peter Wall's house, that it seemed cruel that things happened as they did.
“The very next afternoon I was sitting by one window and Emmeline by the other of the parlor, because it was a hot day and that room was cooler. Emmeline was knitting her lace, and I was mending Henry's socks, when all of a sudden she says, ‘For goodness sake, what's that coming?’
“I looked, and at first I thought Liza Wall had set up a hand-organ. Then I saw she was bringing our machine home on a wheelbarrow.”
“How could she manage it?” asked Lucy, the listening sister.
“Liza Wall is little, but she's one of the strongest women I ever saw. She acts as if she was set on steel wires. I've known her do things that meant more strength than lugging a phonograph on a wheelbarrow. She wheeled straight just like a man, and she stopped in front of our house and calls out, ‘Had you rather I'd slide this thing off on the ground anyway, or would you rather come and help me get it into the house?’
“Emmeline, she sort of gasped. You know she's always favored herself, and never thought she was any too strong; but I was mad clean through, for I knew just as well as I wanted to that she was at the bottom of the whole affair. So I says real calm, ‘We'll help, of course, Lizy. We don't want that phonograph spoiled. Come, Emmeline.’
“Emmeline and I helped Liza lug the machine into the house. It was all I could do, and Emmeline got awful red in the face, but Liza didn't seem to make anything of it. She didn't say anything until she got the phonograph into the corner of the sitting-room; then she turns on me. ‘Next time you set out to be a better Christian than your neighbors,’ says she, ‘you better look out that your poor relations, that you keep out of charity, don't go round and brag of it.’
“Then Emmeline, she fired up. ‘I have never said one word in this gossipy town, Liza Wall,’ says she.
“Liza Wall, she sort of sniffs. ‘This town ain't the universe,’ says she. ‘There's other places. There's Linkwater, and folks ain't stuck tight to one place. They are movable, unless they're laid up with the rheumatism, like poor Father-in-law. Now, my husband intends to buy him a new machine, not a second-hand one.’
“With that, out she swishes, and trundles her wheelbarrow down the street. I looked at Emmeline. She had a sort of scared expression, but she faced me just the same. ‘I never said one word where there was the slightest chance it could get back,’ says she.
“I was thinking quick. ‘Did you go to Hattie Rice's in Linkwater the other day?’ says I.
“‘What if I did?’ says Emmeline. ‘Yes, I did, and I suppose I had a perfect right to. Hattie was right on the trolley-line, and I'd missed my car, and I wasn't going to stand on the street waiting a whole half-hour, so I went in there.’
“‘And of course you told Hattie,’ says I.
“‘What if I did? What if I did tell her that Henry and you were the salt of the earth, and a pretty big contrast to other folks in this stingy little town? I knew she never comes here.’
“‘But her sister teaches school here,’ says I, kind of dry.
“‘I asked her not to tell, and she promised,’ says Emmeline.
“‘So did you,’ says I.
“Then Emmeline begun to cry, and she choked out how miserable she was, and how I was always finding fault with her, and she couldn't help it because she was poor and had to take what I gave her or starve, and she didn't like being under obligations any more than I would if I was in her place.
“‘Land sakes,’ says I, ‘if you do this way when you feel under obligations — tho goodness knows I try hard enough not to make you feel you are — what under the sun would you do if you wasn't?’
“Then Emmeline, she boohooed right out loud, and went out of the room.
“When Henry came home and saw the phonograph, he acted real upset. ‘I had taken a lot of comfort hearing poor Peter play it,’ says he, real pitiful. He felt so bad that I went out and made him griddle-cakes with sugar and nutmeg for supper. He didn't say one word about it to Emmeline, tho she did come to supper sort of sidewise, with one eye on Henry, like a shying horse.
“Well, I guess Esther Loomis, Hattie Rice's sister, must have spread it pretty well about Henry and me setting up for better Christians than anybody else, for pretty soon after that presents begun to come to us. Hardly a day would go by that we didn't have something sent in to us; and mostly it was something we didn't want, and didn't have any manner of use for. Somebody would send a five-layer chocolate-cake, and next day somebody else would send a five-layer jelly-cake, and Emmeline was the only one very fond of cake, and she couldn't eat it all. I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't dare feed it to the chickens, because I was afraid the neighbors would see me.
“Finally I had so much cake around I got red ants in the house. Then I was desperate. I told Sam he'd just got to take all that cake, and when he was out with the grocery wagon, he must let it drop somewhere. That made matters worse, for he dropped the chocolate-cake 'side of the road a mile from any house, and if little Lottie Beals — her mother sent the cake — didn't see him, and take it back to her ma, and Mandy Beals came over, and she said real hard things. She said if we thought we were the only folks in town good enough to give away things we were mistaken; and she asked how we would have felt if somebody had dropped our phonograph 'side of the road after we had given it to them. I had to admit she was right. I owned up I ought to have sent the cake right back, when I knew I couldn't use it, and faced the music. Well, Mandy is a good-hearted woman, and when she went away she was all over being mad, and she never told anybody, for the cakes kept coming. And when cake didn't come it would be pies, and floating islands, and lemon-jelly. Then one day somebody sent a great chair upholstered with magenta plush.”
Lucy interrupted. “That is the new chair in the parlor that you have that old India shawl over. I wondered.”
“Yes, I had to cover it up. Magenta was awful with the other things, and I didn't have to exactly lie about it either, Lucy. You see, a lot clubbed together and got the chair, and one evening about a dozen came to call, and I knew as well as I wanted to that they were the ones who sent the chair. You see, they kept it private, the way Henry and I did with the phonograph. I was as uneasy as I could be when they were there, I was so afraid they would ask me why I covered it up. But all they said was that they thought I was real careful to cover up that beautiful plush, because it was a color that faded easy, and plush got dusty, too, and brushing it much wore it out. I didn't say anything. I don't know but it was a sort of dumb lying, but I didn't know what to do.
“After the chair, they sort of let up giving us things, and we breathed easy, and then we begun to think about how we ought to give away the phonograph again. It was Emmeline who set us out on the last giving. Sometimes I've sort of wondered whether or no she really meant to make mischief, but I don't want to wrong her, even in thoughts. But Emmeline didn't have much to do, and she did have an active mind; and sometimes it seems to me as if Satan can do more with idle minds than idle hands, if he sets out. She was never anybody to read, not even the newspapers, and I don't suppose she is any more interested in what is going on in the world outside the little place she happens to live in than a pussy-cat or a cow.
“Anyhow, one evening, when the phonograph was playing, and we were all sitting listening, Emmeline begun to talk right in the middle of a song by one of the most famous singers — I forget who it was. I don't think it was Jenny Lind or Florence Nightingale; I think the name began with C. But that don't make any difference — Emmeline broke right in and said, ‘My land, wouldn't that Miss Atkins, who has come to live in the old Bemis place, appreciate that. She lives all alone except an old woman who works for her.’
“Henry and I stared at her. ‘How do you know?’ says I.
“‘I was calling on Mrs. Spearman Briggs,’ says Emmeline, ‘and she said she had tried to call there twice and nobody came to the door, so she gave it up. She said a lot of other ladies had been treated just the same way, the minister and all. I sort of pitied the poor woman, being a stranger here, and folks all giving up getting acquainted with her so easy; and I had on my kid gloves and my best bonnet, and I thought I'd call anyway,’ says Emmeline, real pious.
“‘Did you get in?’ says I.
“‘Yes, I did,’ says she, sort of flushing up. ‘After I had rung the bell as many as six times, I tried the door, and it wasn't locked, and I walked in.’
“Henry, he looked at her real sort of stern, and Emmeline, she tossed her head at him. ‘I consider I had a perfect right to go in,’ says she. She looked at Henry real pert.
“‘You saw her, then?’ says I. ‘Yes, I saw her,’ says she.
“‘Was she in the sitting-room or parlor?’ says I. I knew the old Bemis house had the sitting-room to the left and the parlor to the right of the front door.
“‘She wasn't in either of them,’ says Emmeline, and she got redder and redder. Henry, he looked at her and she fired up. ‘You needn't look at me that way, Henry Ball,’ says she. ‘I didn't do one single thing out of the way. I just went into the sitting-room first, and there wasn't anybody there, so I sat down and waited awhile. Of course I looked around. She's got the bay-window all filled up with stands of ferns, and there was a cage with a green bird. He wasn't exactly a parrot. I don't know what he was, some sort of foreign bird. He didn't sing. He didn't even squawk. He just hopped round. She didn't have many chairs, and only one table, and there was only one picture, over the mantelpiece. I didn't think much of it. It looked as if the paint had been dropped on it, and flung across the room at it, and I couldn't quite make out what it was about.
“‘After a while, when nobody came into that room, I just went across the hall into the parlor. I sat down there, too. That room looked a good deal like the other, only she had plants as big as trees sitting all around, till I felt as if I was in a grove. There were two pictures in that room, and no carpet, only a dingy-colored mat, and lots of old books and papers on the table. I hadn't sat there long before she came in. I guess she's some older than we are, and she's real straight, and up-and-coming looking. She had on a black dress and some lace that was so old it had turned yellow. When she saw me she gave a little start, and I spoke right up. I told her who I was, and how I'd come to call. I didn't get up; I just kept sitting. After awhile she sat down. I asked her how she liked living here, and she said, Very well; it was quiet, and quiet was what she had always wanted. She spoke polite enough, but she was kind of cool, and I didn't stay long. I guess she's pretty poor, and don't want to be neighborly on that account. I don't suppose she pays much rent for that old Bemis house. The plaster is all cracked, and it has leaked in and stained the paper in some places. She didn't look any too happy, for all she held her head up. I guess she's one of the poor and proud kind that can't take poverty easy.’
“Then Henry, he speaks up. He looked mad, but I guess he was kind of curious. ‘Did you see any sign of a phonograph?’ says he.
“‘No, I didn't,’ says Emmeline. ‘The nearest thing to a musical instrument that I saw was that green bird, that wouldn't even sing or squawk, but just hop, or stand on one leg and look hunchback. I guess that poor soul can't afford any two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar talking-machine.’
“Henry looked at our phonograph, and I knew just what was in his mind. Henry is a sort of saint, if I do say so; and living years with a saint, you can't help knowing what's in his mind. I guess it's more transparent than other folks', anyway. As soon as Emmeline went out of the room, he heaves a sigh, and says he, ‘Poor woman! Think of the company it would be for her.’
“‘Yes, it would,’ says I; ‘and it isn't as if that green bird sang, or was a poll-parrot to talk.’
“Well, the upshot of it was, we sent the phonograph over there. We didn't make any secret of it that time. I wrote a note and told her I was glad she had come to live here, and I knew she must be lonesome, so we took the liberty of sending her a little present, and we hoped she would enjoy it and find it made company for her. Sam took it over, and he had an awful time to get the old woman who came to the door to let him take it in. She wouldn't till Miss Atkins had had the note; and it was a frosty day and the horse didn't stand any too well, and Sam was afraid he would run away and smash up the machine before he got a chance to give it away. Finally, the old woman came back and said Miss Atkins was much obliged, and she told him to put the phonograph in the parlor. I was glad of that, because it showed she would set by it, having it in her best room.
“Well, we never heard one word for about six weeks. Henry and I both felt that it was sort of queer that she didn't thank us, even by letter. I had made up my mind I would call unless I did hear from her, because maybe if she was so poor she felt sensitive. I can understand how any woman feels about having strangers come to call when she hasn't got a carpet.
“Well, one day about two weeks ago, the door-bell rung, and I went to the door, and this strange woman stood there. The minute I saw her I guessed who she was, and I knew Emmeline had made a mistake thinking she was poor. She was dressed plain, but nobody in this town ever wears things that cost as much as hers. She acted sort of stiff, and as if she were angry inside, but she was dignified. She thanked me when I asked her to come in, and said she could not. Then she went right to the point. She said she assumed — I remember that word because I don't often hear it — that I was the person who had so kindly sent a phonograph to her several weeks ago. I told her that Henry was the one that had the idea, and our nephew Sam had brought it.
“Then she said she hadn't really known quite what to do. She realized it was a valuable present for us to make a perfect stranger, and she feared there must be some mistake, and she hadn't known whether it was best to return it, or what. Then she said her maid — she called the old woman her maid — had heard something which led her to come directly to me.
“‘I understand,’ says she, ‘from what my maid overheard in the grocery yesterday, that the impression here is that I am in very destitute circumstances, unable to afford such luxuries as phonographs, and that you sacrificed something which you value very highly yourselves to send to me.’
“Then she said that her circumstances were such — I am trying to speak as she did — as to justify her in buying many musical instruments, but that unfortunately she was not fond of music. She said she had never liked it, and had never even kept a bird until she found one that was dumb. Then she said the phonograph would be sent over directly. She thanked me, and wished me to extend her most cordial thanks to Henry, and said she appreciated the kindly thought which led us to give her such a present; and then she went away.
“Henry was in the sitting-room, and he heard every word. When I went in he was as white as a sheet. You see, we both knew that Miss Atkins, for all she was so dignified and quiet, was hopping mad; and we knew that Emmeline must have been talking, for neither of us had said one word about sending the phonograph to her.
“‘I swun!’ says Henry. You know that is as near as he gets to swearing. I felt as if I'd like to say something myself. I felt as if we had stood about all we could from Emmeline, but we didn't know the worst of it then. We did the next minute, tho, for all the neighbors, that is, the women, came running in. You never saw nor heard anything like it. The way they talked about Miss Atkins was a caution. You see, Emmeline hadn't been satisfied with cutting her off without a dollar; she hadn't left her a shred of character. They wanted to know how I could bear to be seen standing talking in broad daylight to a woman like the one that lived in the old Bemis house, and then they went back to the phonograph. They hashed up the queerest things, about our setting up for such high-and-mighty Christians, giving away talking-machines and then scorning little gifts offered in return.
“Henry listened a while, then he went out. I settled down on the sofa and felt faint. I never knew before how awful it must have been for all the people who have ever lived in this world and honestly tried to give away things they wanted to keep. I begun to get it through my head that they were martyrs, as much as if they'd been burned alive, and that anybody that gives needn't expect gratitude, but be mighty thankful if they don't get kicks. I begun to see that it is enough more dangerous to give than it is to steal, if you want to keep the love of other human beings.
“Well, I didn't say anything. I couldn't if I'd wanted to, for they didn't give me a chance. I suppose I must have looked kind of queer, for after a while they hushed up and looked at me a minute, then out they trooped.
“Emmeline had come in and heard the last of it. When they had all gone, Henry comes in, and he turns on Emmeline. I never thought I'd live to hear him speak as he did to her. ‘Why did you start such stories about Miss Atkins?’ says he.
“Emmeline begun to sort of whimper and say she didn't know what he meant.
“‘You know well enough what I mean,’ says Henry. ‘You have talked because your tongue was so unbridled it ran away with every mite of sense you had, and you have set this whole place by the ears, and made it almost impossible for us to live here, and now you can pack up and go and live with your sister out West. I know she has asked you. I'll send a telegram and pay your fare, and be only too glad to. And don't you ever dare set your meddling feet inside my doors again, or let me hear one yip of your hell-fire tongue.’
“Well, Emmeline, she packed up and went. We had the phonograph set in the parlor with the chenille table-cloth over it, and we don't dare play it while the warm weather lasts, and the doors and windows are open, and we shan't ever dare try to give it away again.”
“But surely, Maria, you will play it again,” said her sister Lucy.
Maria laughed. “Oh, yes, some time, I reckon, when the fires of wrath die down. I guess they are bound to, like all the other fires on this earth.” Then she started. “Goodness!” said she in a whisper. “Here's Liza Wall!”
A very small, very wiry woman dressed in purple silk which seemed to hiss with her every motion, came with a sort of rush up the front walk.
“Good afternoon,” said she with sudden primness. “I thought I'd come over and call on you, Lucy.”
Maria set a chair for her, and Liza Wall sat down amidst the hiss of her purple silk skirts. She tried to make conversation. She spoke of the beautiful day. She asked how long Lucy's vacation was, and how she had enjoyed the months in the city. She talked at length, and all the time with the effect of leading up to some grand crash of final chords.
At last it came. “Maria,” said she, “I, for one, am going to say that I feel as if I had treated you and Henry pesky mean. I know you meant right about that phonograph, and if the rest of us meant as right it wouldn't be a sign we were going to play our harps right away. I come over to tell you so, and I thought maybe you'd play a piece for me, to show you don't bear malice.”
Maria regarded the other woman with a curious, mild dignity, not unmixed with sadness. “I don't bear malice, Liza,” said she. “Henry and I have found out a good deal about this world that we didn't know before we got the phonograph, but we don't neither of us bear malice, and maybe we went to work the wrong way to do right. Anyway, I'm glad you have come over, and I'll set it going just as soon as I've got these peas on the stove.”
Maria went into the house, and the two outside talked, until suddenly from the open parlor windows floated the voice of a great prima donna in a famous song. Liza Wall quivered a little, but she looked unflinchingly at Lucy with her brave eyes of repentance.
“Ain't it wonderful!” said she.