Brakes and White Vi'lets

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XVII No. 45 (November 8, 1884)

One afternoon Marm Lawson had company to tea. There were three women near her own age — she was seventy. Her withered, aged figure sat up pert and erect at the head of the table, pouring the tea from the shiny britannia tea-pot into the best pink china cups. She never leaned back in a chair: there seemed to be a kind of springy stiffness about her spine which forbade it. Her black cashmere gown fitted her long shrunken form as tightly and trimly as a girl's; she had on her best cap, made of very pretty old figured lace, with bows of purple satin ribbon. She wore her iron-gray hair in two little thin dancing curls, one on each side of her narrow sallow face, just forward of her cap.

In some other positions she would have been called a stately old lady; she could be now with perfect truth. Her old character had in itself a true New World stateliness and aristocratic feeling wholly independent of birth or riches or education.

Marm Lawson was not a duchess; but she was Marm Lawson. The “Marm” itself was a title.

In a more ambitious and cultured town than this it would have been Madam; but the Marm proved just as well her simple neighbors' recognition of her latent dignity of character.

Her three guests sat each at one of the three remaining sides of the square table. Levina sat meekly, half transfixed apparently, at a corner.

She was a slender young girl, Marm Lawson's granddaughter, her son Charles's daughter. She had lived with her grandmother ever since the death of her mother, some ten years back. Her fair colorless hair was combed smoothly straight back from her pale high forehead; her serious blue eyes looked solemnly out from beneath it. She ate her warm biscuit and damson sauce decorously, never speaking a word in the presence of her elders: she had been taught old-fashioned manners, and they clung to her, though she was important fifteen.

Conversation did not flow very glibly amongst the guests, though they were ordinarily garrulous old souls enough. When they spoke, it was precisely, and not like themselves. Every nerve in them was braced up to meet the occasion with propriety. This state afternoon, Marm Lawson's china tea-cups, and company damson sauce and pound-cakes, coming right in the midst of their common every-days, were embarrassing and awe-inspiring. They were like children; they regarded Marm Lawson, as children will a suddenly elevated playmate, with a feeling of strangeness and respect. The one who felt this the least was a pretty, silly old woman, with a front piece of reddish-brown hair. She crimped it every night. Her cheeks were as fair and pink as a young girl's, her china blue eyes as bright.

She ate her supper with a relish, and now and then eyed Marm Lawson with a pleased consciousness of her own pinky old cheeks. “How awful yaller she is!” she thought. But there was never any evidence of the thought in her placid blue eyes, nor about her tiny thin mouth, into which she was stuffing great pieces of cake like a greedy baby.

The one next her, who looked younger than she was, from being fleshy, and so having no deep wrinkles, was a widow, who lived with her married daughter; the fair old woman was a widow too, and so was Marm Lawson; but the fourth had an old husband living. He was a deacon of the orthodox church. He had been asked to tea, but had been too busy planting to come. “I'm dretful sorry the deacon couldn't come,” Marm Lawson had said, when she was seating her guests at the table. The pink old lady mentally resolved that she wouldn't have sat at a corner if he had; she was jealous, and always on the lookout for slights, and careful of her own interests. She had fixed on the largest piece of cake in the plate before it was passed; then she took it, defiantly.

After tea, when they all sat in the north room with their knitting again, they felt more at ease, and their tongues moved faster. Marm Lawson had opened the north room to-day. The south, on the opposite side of the entry, was her usual sitting-room. The north one was shut up except on occasions.

The china closet, where she kept her best china, was in there, the best hair-cloth rocking-chairs, and Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Sigourney in red and gold on the mahogany work-table. Everything — the hair-cloth furniture, the books, the beaded lamp mat — had a peculiar north room smell, not disagreeable, but characteristic, as much the room's own odor as a flower's. It clung to the things when long removed from it, too. Levina, years afterward, and far away, putting her face down to the red and gold Hemans book, could smell the north room.

She overheard the old ladies speaking her name several times as she went about clearing away the tea-things, which was her work; but she paid no heed. She had no morbid interest in herself, and therefore no unlawful curiosity. She was a quietly strong-minded, conscientious young girl; but she was too delicate. That was what her elders were talking about.

“Seems to me Leviny's lookin' kinder pindlin', ain't she?” said the fleshy old lady, who was Mrs. Potter; she had buried a good many children of her own, years ago. There had been two young daughters about Levina's age.

“I thought so too,” agreed the deacon's wife. “I couldn't keep my eyes off her when we was havin' tea. She made me think a sight of your Jenny, Mis' Potter.”

Marm Lawson sat up straighter and knitted firmly. “I don't see any reason why Leviny ain't well. She allers looks pale; it's her natural color.”

“It ain't so much the pale,” said Mrs. Potter, “but thar's somethin' else, a kind of a look around the nose an' the mouth that I've seen a good many times,” and she sighed. “Don't you think it's jest a leetle damp here, Mis' Lawson? Do you s'pose it altogether suits Leviny?”

Marm Lawson's knitting-needles clicked furiously, and the lavender bows on her cap trembled. “No, I don't think this house is any damper than any other house. I've heard 'bout 'nough 'bout it. I've lived here all my life, an' been well 'nough. I don't see why Leviny can't.”

Now, Mis' Lawson,” said the fair old lady, “how kin you say it ain't damp? Jest look at all them brakes under the winders; they allers grow whar it's damp, an' the whole medder out this side is too wet to walk on, an' jest kivered with white vi'lets.”

“Thar's a good many other houses in town got brakes under the winders, an' medders of white vi'lets pretty near 'em.”

“Leviny's mother died here, you know,” added the fair old lady.

“She'd 'a died anywhar; consumption was in the Crane family. Leviny's well 'nough; guess I'd know if she wasn't. I've got 'bout as good opportunities of jedgin' as anybody.”

The others subsided under this thrust. Poor Marm Lawson was so excited as to be near forgetting her hospitality. But the subject was revived amongst themselves on their way home.

“Marm Lawson was dretful riled 'cause I said what I did,” said the fair old lady; “but I don't keer. I b'lieve that gal's goin' jest like her mother.”

“I wish her father'd take her away,” said Mrs. Potter, “somewhar whar it's drier.”

“Talk about that house not bein' damp! Jest look at that great streak of mildew on the front of it; they can't keep it off. It comes right through the paint every time.”

“She won't ever own it.”

But poor Marm Lawson had to succumb to it, if she would not own it. Six months later she was living alone in the beloved old house, which sat closely down on the ground, with no foundation stones showing, and had, indeed, its great blotch of mildew ever present on its white-painted front. The grass in the little front yard was always rank and short, and a lighter green than elsewhere; a thick row of trees stood just outside it, along the sidewalk.

“Of course it's damp, mother,” Charles Lawson had said, looking in dismay at his fading daughter, whom he had come to see from his home in Lincoln, a town fifty miles distant; and he took her away with him on the next train in spite of all his mother's objections. He had a good deal of her own decision of character. He had a second wife now, a good woman, so Levina would be well cared for, and have a home. He urged his mother very strongly to sell the house and go to live with him: but she scorned the idea.

Give up her home! she said; she'd like to see herself: she knew all about old women livin' with their sons' wives. No: she'd lived fifty year in the old place, if it was damp, an' she guessed she could stan' it a while longer. Thar wa'n't no need of Leviny's goin'.

She kept up a stern, indignant front till the coach containing Levina and her father had rumbled out of sight; then she went back into the house, into her south room, and sat down and cried. “Charles might hev let me keep her; she wa'n't sick much; she'd been pickin' up an' eatin' a good deal more lately; she'd get well here jest as well as anywhar. Charles might hev let me keep her. He's got a wife now. I'll warrant she don't understand nothin 'bout nursin'. Poor lonesome old woman I be! Oh dear! oh dear!”

The poor old woman did have a hard, solitary life through the next winter. Charles was a good son, and it troubled him; he wrote to her again and again, begging her to come to him. His wife wrote, and Levina, who was mending, wrote little loving, precise letters. But the old lady staid resolutely where she was. She wouldn't leave her home — no, not for a short visit. She knew all about that; the house would be sold afore she knew it, if she left it, if 'twa'n't fur more'n a week, an' then she wouldn't hev any home.

Early in spring, however, her resolution seemed to give way. The longing to see her granddaughter grew stronger and stronger. Just before the ferns and white violets came up around the house she wrote to her son, and told him she would come an' stay just one week, an' not any more; they needn't tease her to.

The morning she started, Mrs. Potter and her daughter came in to help her off. They lived opposite, in a house a little back from the road, on a hill. She had to ride ten miles in a stage-coach to a little isolated station to take the cars. When she got into the coach there was a queer expression on her face. Mrs. Potter's daughter, Mrs. Cartwright, noticed it, and spoke about it to her mother.

“Marm Lawson looked sort of funny to me when she went off,” she told her mother.

“She felt awfully 'bout leavin' the place.”

“'Twa'n't that. She had a look as if she was makin' up her mind to something.”

The poor old woman was making up her mind all that long ten-mile drive, between the budding willows and maples, to Cold Brook. She was torn betwixt two loves and two longings, for her dear Levina, and her dear home, with its setting of green brakes and white violets. She was the only passenger. Sitting up straight in the lumbering coach, clutching her valise and her bandbox, she argued with herself: “Here's Leviny, poor child, expectin' to see grandma — wonder if she's growed any? An' here's the old place — seems as ef 'twas tearin' of me in two to leave it. Oh dear! I know I sha'n't sleep a wink at Charles's, nor eat a morsel; I never could eat strange cookin'. But, my sakes, seems to me I don't keer, ef I kin only see Leviny, dear child. S'pose the house should ketch fire while I was gone? Oh dear!”

Her mind was not made up when she arrived at Cold Brook, where she was to take the cars. The train was late. She sat down in the little station, and watched the coach roll off, all of a tremble. Should she go, or stay? The station was nothing more than a long bench with a roof over it as a shelter from the rain. One side was entirely open. She was all alone there. In two or three minutes she heard the far-off whistle of the train. Should she go or stay? Oh, Levina! Oh, the old house! Even while she was asking herself she was dragging her little trunk around to the rear of the station. Then she carried her valise and bandbox round, and crouched down there with them, a wretched, determined, guilty little old lady. She had decided: the house had triumphed over Levina. The train came nearer and nearer, the engine-bell ringing. It gave a half halt at the little station; then, as there were no passengers in sight, went on. Days passed without any passengers at this little out-of-the-way place sometimes.

When the train had gone, the old lady dragged her baggage round to the front of the station again, and sat down. She hoped vaguely that a coach would come before long and take her home; but she knew nothing about it. There she sat, hour after hour; freight trains thundered past, and one or two passenger trains; none of them stopped. She could see people looking curiously at her sitting there; and then they were gone. She had some gingerbread and cheese in her valise, and she took them out and ate them. It grew dusky, and no coach had come; she began to realize that none would come that night. Marm Lawson had a great deal of spirit. When she understood that she would either have to remain where she was through the night, or strike off into the woods until she came to the road and a house, she faced the situation bravely. She did not really think of the latter alternative for a minute. She would not have left her trunk unguarded there for anything. She was always accustomed to retire early. She opened her valise, took out her Bible and read a chapter; then she went down on her knees beside the rough bench and said her prayers. Then she made up a bed on the bench with her shawl and cloak, and a folded dress for a pillow, and lay quietly down. She looked across and saw the railroad track in the dusk, and the fringe of low woods on the other side.

“It's a queer place to go to sleep in,” said she; “but I s'pose His overrulin' providence is jest as strong here as anywhar. I only hope I 'ain't committed a sin agin Him in not goin' to see Leviny.”

The soft spring twilight deepened; when the stars had come out faintly, the poor strong old soul, wearied out, had fallen asleep.

The stage-driver in the morning found her seated there, erect and pert as ever, waiting for him. He eyed her curiously; she was a stranger to him; but he had not a suspicion that she had staid in the station all night. He thought she had been brought early that morning from one of the neighboring farms to take the stage.

Marm Lawson got home about noon. She went into her own house defiantly. She almost felt as if she had no right there. The neighbors, who saw her come, came running in, wild with curiosity. But they got very little satisfaction out of her. All she would say was that she had made up her mind not to go any further when she had got to Cold Brook, and she s'posed she had a perfect right to. She could not help owning that she had staid all night there — they knew when the stages ran. She met their consternation on this point with the same severe self-possession, however. It was a strong proof of Marm Lawson's obstinate force of character that she went erectly through this without the slightest abatement of her dignity or self-confidence.

She did not falter at all even when her son Charles came a few days later. He was more severe with her for her folly and imprudence than he had ever been in his life. If she cared more for that damp, musty old place than she did for Levina or himself, or her own life, she had better say so, and done with it.

She eyed him with stern indignation. “Charles,” said she, “your mother has got all her faculties yet, an' she knows what's best for her a leetle better'n you kin tell her. 'Tain't for you to dictate, yet a while.”

Still, in spite of her defiance, she was wretched after her son had gone away. Even the meadow of white violets and the brakes could not console her. She hungered pitifully after Levina. Still, she could not make up her mind to leave home to go to her. She complained bitterly because they would not let her granddaughter come back; she “knowed” it wouldn't hurt her, she said. It wa'n't any damper here than anywhere else; she hadn't seen a speck of mould on her bread all summer. Without any doubt her constant struggle with herself wore on her. Being away from what she loved was the very bitterness of death to this strong-affectioned old woman; and when the being away was voluntary, and something which she had to blame herself for, it was bitterness on bitterness.

Toward the last of August she was taken ill — quite alarmingly so — and they sent for her son. He came, and brought Levina, who would not be left behind.

When the coach stopped, Marm Lawson, who was perfectly conscious all the while, heard it. Then she heard Levina's voice. “Who's that?” she said, with a startled look, to Mrs. Cartwright, who was taking care of her. “'Tain't Leviny?”

In another minute Levina was in the room.

“Oh, dear grandma!”

Her grandmother gave one hungry look at her; then she turned her face on the pillow. “Now, Levina Lawson, you ain't goin' to stay in this damp house one minute, an' git to coughin' agin. You kin go right over to Mis' Cartwright's, on the hill, an' stay to-night, an' to-morrow mornin' you take the stage an' go home. I won't hev you here. You've just got a leetle better. Go right away! Levina Lawson, why don't you mind?”

Her grandmother sat straight up in bed with a ghastly expression of anger. The poor little girl ran out of the room then, sobbing. She staid in the house, but they had to hide her being there from her grandmother. All that night and the next day she kept listening suspiciously.

“Charles,” she would say, “you wouldn't keep Leviny here when you know it's as much as her life's worth, I know; but I keep thinkin' I hear her.”

Toward night she grew worse; indeed, she died about one in the morning. A little before, she stretched out a withered hand and beckoned her son up to her.

“Charles,” whispered she, huskily, “I want — to tell you — somethin'. I've made up my mind to — sell the place, an' — go to live with you an' Leviny — only — I want you to go out in the mornin' an' dig up a root of white vi'lets an' some brakes, so — I kin take 'em with me.”