From The Givers (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1904)
“It's time for Vilola to come home again, and B. F. Brown is havin' paintin' and paperin' done,” said Mrs. Abner Wells to her sister. Her sister's name was Mrs. Francis Baker, and she had come over with her work and her baby to spend the afternoon.
“Well, I thought there was something goin' on there when I came past,” responded Mrs. Baker. “I noticed that the front chamber windows were open, and I saw some old room-paper flyin' round the yard.”
“The man just finished it — went away since dinner.”
“That front room is Vilola's, ain't it?”
“Yes, of course it is. Didn't you know it?”
“Why, when did he have that room papered before?”
“He had it papered only the last time she came,” said Mrs. Wells, impressively.
“Why, that couldn't have been more'n a year ago.”
“Of course it couldn't. Don't Vilola Brown always come once a year and spend six months with her father, and then go back to Jefferson and spend six months with her mother? Ain't she done that ever since her father and mother separated when she was a baby? I should think you might know that as well as I do, Elmira Baker.”
“Oh, of course I do,” said Mrs. Baker; “I was only talking at random. I was only wondering what he was having that room papered for if it was done only a year ago.”
“Well, I can tell you,” said Mrs. Wells, with asperity. “Some folks have money to throw away for nothing, or think they do. They may find out they don't have any more than some other folks in the long run. I can tell you why. When we had that heavy spell of rain last fall it leaked in that room around the chimney and there was a place about as big as a saucer stained, that's why.”
“Was that all?”
“Yes, that was all. B. F. Brown ain't goin' to have his precious Vilola comin' home to sleep in a room that's got a spot on the paper, if it ain't any bigger than the head of a pin. I don't know what he thinks that girl is.”
“Couldn't he have had the paper pieced?”
“Oh no. It was faded just a little. He wouldn't have Vilola sleep in a room with a patch of paper showin'. I guess he wouldn't.”
“Now, Susan, you don't mean he's so silly as that?”
“Yes, I do. I had it from the woman he's been having to clean the house. I tell you that house has been cleaned from attic to cellar. Every carpet has been up. Well, it needed it bad enough. I don't believe it had been swept since Vilola went away last July.”
“I wonder if B. F. Brown makes much money in his store?” said Mrs. Baker.
“I don't believe he makes much,” said Mrs. Wells, with angry exultation. “I know lots of folks that won't trade there. They say he never has just what they want. They say Deering, and Lawton, or Hapgood & Lewis have a great deal better assortment. I ain't been inside the door since I bought my brown cashmere there, and it faded so after I'd only wore it six months, and he wouldn't allow me anything for it. I told him then it was the last trading I'd do in his store, and it was the last.”
“I wonder if she's comin' to-night?” said Mrs. Baker.
“No, she ain't comin' to-night. The six months with her mother ain't up till next-week Thursday. I've kept account.”
“It's a queer way for folks to live, ain't it?” said Mrs. Baker. “I rather think it's queer.”
“How long is it since they've lived together? I declare, I've forgot.”
“I ain't forgot. Vilola Brown is just seven years younger than I be. She's nineteen, and her father and mother ain't lived together since she was three years old. That makes sixteen years. I was ten years old when they separated and her mother went to Jefferson to live, and he stayed here, and one had Vilola six months and the other six months, turn and turn about, ever since, and he's paid his wife ten dollars a week all this time, and nobody knows how much Vilola has cost him. She's had everything, and she's never raised her finger to earn a penny herself.”
“What do you 'spose the trouble was?”
“Well, they were dreadful close-mouthed, but I guess it was pretty well known at the time what the matter was. I've heard mother talk about it with the neighbors. Mrs. B. F. Brown had an awful temper, and so has B. F. They couldn't get along together.”
“There wasn't anything against her, was there?”
“No, I never heard a word against her. She was a dreadful pretty woman. I can just remember how she looked. It was when they used to wear curls, and she had real feathery light ones, and the pinkest cheeks, and used to dress real tasty, too. I guess folks sided with her pretty generally. I don't believe B. F. Brown has ever stood quite so well here as he did before.”
“Vilola don't take much after her mother, does she?”
“No, she don't. There ain't a homelier girl anywheres around than Vilola Brown, and she hasn't got a mite of style about her, either.”
B. F. Brown was rather laboriously making milk toast for supper. By dint of long practice he could make milk toast, griddle-cakes, and fry a slice of meat or fish and boil a potato. He was not an expert at any household tasks, though he had served long, having an unusual measure of masculine clumsiness. Although he was not a large man, his fingers were large, with blunt, round ends. He had no deftness of touch. He burned himself seeing if the toast was brown, and finally burned the toast. When the meal was ready he called the cat, which was asleep in a round, yellow ring of luxurious comfort beside the stove. The cat rose lazily at his summons, rounding its back and stretching. The cat belonged to Vilola, and he cherished it like a child during the six months of her absence with her mother. “If anything happened to that cat, I don't know what my daughter would say,” he told his clerk, John Bartlett. B. F. Brown kept a small dry-goods store on the village Main Street, and John Bartlett, who was as old as himself and had been with him ever since he was in business, and a boy constituted his entire force of trade.
“I should think she would have to take the cat with her when she goes to stay with her mother, she thinks so much of her,” replied John Bartlett. The conversation had taken place upon the occasion of a temporary loss and recovery of the cat.
“Oh, she has got another cat she keeps there, a tiger,” said B. F. Brown; “she leaves him there when she comes here; but she don't think near so much of him as she does of this yellow one.”
To-night, as B. F. Brown placed a saucer filled with a share of his own supper on the floor beside the stove for the cat, he talked to it with a pitiful, clumsy, masculine crooning: “Poor Kitty, poor kitty. There now; eat your supper, Kitty.”
“Guess that pussy-cat will be glad to see her,” he muttered, as he sat down to his own supper. Every now and then as he ate he paused, with his fork suspended half-way to his mouth with a bit of toast, and looked upward with an ecstatic expression. His soul was tasting to the full such a savor of anticipatory happiness that he had small comprehension of physical sensations. After he had finished supper he washed his dishes with painful care. He was particular to put every dish in its place on the pantry shelves. He had had the pantry thoroughly cleaned and all the dishes washed and rearranged, and he was fearful lest he disorder them before his daughter arrived. Then he went back to the kitchen and surveyed the clean, shining, yellow surface of the floor anxiously. He had had that newly painted, and he was desperately afraid of marring it before his daughter saw it. He took off his shoes and put on slippers before stepping on it. He kept his slippers in the shed for that purpose and entered through the shed door. He spied a few crumbs on the floor, which he carefully gathered up with his blunted fingers; then he saw a dusty place, which he wiped over with his pocket-handkerchief. He had planned many surprises for his daughter, as he always did on her home-coming. This time he had one which was, in his estimation, almost stupendous. He had purchased a sideboard. Vilola had always talked about a sideboard for the dining-room some time when they got rich. She had never asked for one. That was not Vilola's way. She had seldom asked for anything in her whole life, but her father had taken note and remembered. The week before he had gone about anxiously pricing sideboards. He had saved up a certain amount for one. When he found that he could not only purchase a sideboard with his hoard, but a nice, little rocking-chair for Vilola's room as well, he was jubilant.
He went home whistling under his breath like a boy. He had an idea that there should be a rich display of some sort on a sideboard, and he searched the house for suitable ornaments. He found an old-fashioned glass preserve-dish on a standard, a little painted mug which had been his in babyhood, and a large cup and saucer with “Gift of Friendship” on the front in gold letters. He arranged these in a row on the sideboard with the tall glass dish in the centre. Then he stood off and surveyed the cheap oak piece with its mirror and gaudily carved doors and its decorations doubtfully, not being entirely satisfied.
Then all at once his face lit up. He hastened into his own bedroom out of the sitting-room, and brought forth in triumph his last year's Christmas present from Vilola. It was a brush-and-comb tray decorated with blue roses. He dusted it carefully with his pocket-handkerchief and placed it on the sideboard to the right of the cup and saucer. In the tray were the nice, new brush and comb which had been a part of the present. He had never used them. He thought too much of them for that. He removed the brush and comb and stood for a minute with them in his hand, with his head on one side, surveying the effect of the sideboard without them.
Then he replaced the brush and comb in the tray. He was fully satisfied.
“She'll be tickled 'most to death,” he said. He whistled again as he went up-stairs to see Vilola's room. He whistled “Annie Laurie,” and the words of the old song floated through his mind in company with the air:
“Her brow is like the snow-drift,
Her throat is like the swan, …
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I'd lay me down and die.”
His dear daughter Vilola was in his fancy as Annie Laurie. All the romance of his nature, purified and spiritualized, was represented by his daughter.
When he reached her room, the best chamber in the house, the front one with two windows, he set the little lamp which he carried on the shelf and looked about with delight. The new paper was all on. It was a pretty paper — a white ground with a lustre of satin, covered with garlands of blue violets. There was a deep border and a little white-and-gold picture-moulding. This last was something quite new; Vilola had never had a picture-moulding in her room. “I guess she'll like that,” he chuckled. He joyously anticipated hanging the pictures the next evening. That evening he had to be in his store. The next day the woman was to put down the carpet in the room and clean the paint and windows. The next evening he himself would give the finishing-touches. Never had he looked forward to any treat as he did to this simple service for the sake of his daughter. Vilola was coming in two days. The day after to-morrow was to be devoted by the woman to cooking. When Vilola was at home the fare was very different from his when alone. Anything was good enough for him, nothing good enough for Vilola.
To-night he stood in the dining-room door and surveyed the sideboard again. It looked more beautiful to him than ever. “It's a grand piece of furniture, and no mistake,” he said. Then he sat happily down by the kitchen stove and the cat jumped up in his lap. Suddenly he reflected that a ribbon around the cat's neck would be an appropriate attention. “Want a ribbon bow on your neck when she comes home?” he asked the cat. He stroked the cat, who purred, and the man would have purred had his state of mind been the only essential.
The next morning he bought a great turkey. In the afternoon the house was redolent with savory odors of cooking. The woman who had cleaned the house had come in the morning to put Vilola's room in order, in the afternoon to do the cooking. B. F. had a great store of cakes and pies prepared, and the turkey also was cooked.
He consulted with the woman, and it was agreed that it could be warmed over the next day and be just as good. “I don't want her to have to go right to hard cookin',” he said.
After the woman had gone that night B. F. went about the house viewing the improvements. He gazed blissfully at the loaded pantry shelves. He had refused to touch one of the new pies or cakes for his supper. He and the cat had fared as usual on milk toast.
Then he went up to Vilola's room. The carpet was now down in the room; he had hung the simple pictures, a few photographs, and two or three flower pieces which had come as prizes with periodicals. Everything was in order. The delicate blue-and-white paper was charming. The curtains had been washed and ironed, and hung crisply in ruffling folds of muslin; there was a fresh white cover on the bureau; Vilola's blue pin-cushion had been taken from the top drawer; her father had bought a bottle of violet water, and that stood beside it. There was a clean white counterpane on the bed, and the pillow-shams were stiff surfaces of shiny whiteness. B. F. looked about, and there was something childish in his expression. His joy over his daughter's prospective joy was at once simple, puerile, and almost heavenly in its innocence.
“I guess she'll be pretty pleased,” he said, and he whistled going down-stairs.
Vilola was to arrive the next afternoon, B. F. came home from the store about eleven o'clock in the morning. He made a slow fire in the kitchen stove. He put the turkey in the oven. He laboriously prepared the vegetables himself and put them on to boil. He set the table, putting on a clean table-cloth, awry and wrong side out, and, as a crowning glory, he had bought a dozen carnation pinks. These hung sprawling from a tumbler in the centre of the table. He had also bought four pots of geraniums, all in bloom, and these were on a light stand in the sitting-room window. Then he got ready to go to the station to meet Vilola. He shaved, and put on a clean shirt and collar and black tie. He brushed his clothes carefully. His clothes were all that worried him. He really needed a new suit and a new overcoat, but if he had bought them the sideboard and the new paper could not have been bought, unless he had run in debt. B. F. had a horror of debt, even for the gratification of Vilola. He brushed his clothes very carefully, and hoped that Vilola would not feel ashamed of him. The collar of the overcoat troubled him the most, for there were worn places quite white on the velvet. But just before he set out a lucky expedient occurred to him. He got the ink-bottle and smeared the white places with ink. Then he put on the coat and was quite easy in his mind. He did not know that his face and his white collar were smeared with the ink.
He hurried down the street to the railroad station. It was about half a mile away. The air was raw and the sky overcast, and snow threatened. He noticed that and his joy was enhanced. It would snow, and he and Vilola would be so snug in the warm house, with the flowers and all that good fare. Before his eyes moved ever in advance, as he walked, a little picture of home and innocent love and happiness, projected upon the wintry landscape from the inward light of his soul. He bowed radiantly to everybody whom he met. “Hullo, B. F., have you struck oil?” one man asked, jocosely.
“No,” replied B. F.; “my daughter is coming on the one-six train.”
“Oh!” returned the man, who was on his way home to dinner. When he saw his own daughter, a plump school-girl, he looked at her with a new wonder of tenderness in his eyes. “It would come pretty hard not to see Nellie for six months at a time,” he reflected. He knew B. F.'s story — or as much as anybody knew of it.
B. F. reached the station twenty minutes before the arrival of the train. He went into the waiting-room and sat down on a settee, but he did not remain long. He went out on the platform and paced up and down, his overcoat buttoned tightly. The air had the snow-chill. “I hope she's dressed warm,” he thought. Every time he reached the forward end of the platform he peered down the track for a first glimpse of the train. “Train ain't due for fifteen minutes,” said the village expressman, with friendly importance. “I know it,” responded B. F., but he continued to peer down the track. He got a certain pleasure from so doing; he seemed in that manner to be prolonging the delight of seeing the first approach of the train. He was drawing out the sweetness of a passing moment to its full length.
At last the train came in sight. B. F. saw quite distinctly the puff of smoke from the locomotive. He heard the deep panting like the respiration of a giant. His heart leaped; he felt almost a hysterical impulse to tears. Then all at once a terror gripped him. Suppose she had not come, suppose anything had happened? The terror was so convincing that he felt for a second all the pangs of disappointment. The train came to a stop before the station. The people began streaming out. B. F. drew timidly near, incalculable anxiety and suspense in his face superseding joyous expectation. He felt sure that she had not come. Then he saw her coming rather clumsily down the steps of a car, holding her heavy satchel before her. Vilola was inclined to stoutness, although a young girl, and she had not much muscle. B. F. felt that revulsion of spirits which comes from the realization of a longed-for happiness after the dread of disappointment. He sprang forward. “Here you be,” he said, in a hoarse voice. He clutched Vilola's satchel, he helped her down the steps. He did not look at her, for he felt his face working, but he felt her pleasant, loving, blue eyes on him. “Well, I am glad to get here,” said she, in a sweet, low, droning voice. “I was afraid the snow would come and delay the train. It has been spitting snow half the way. How are you, father?”
“Well — well,” replied B. F., in a sort of ecstatic gasp. He seized Vilola by the arm with a sort of fierceness. “She's here,” he told himself, defiantly. “She's here; nothing can alter that now. She's here.”
When he and Vilola were in the stage-coach — an old-fashioned stage-coach ran to the railroad station — he kept glancing at her with the same exultation, which had in it something challenging. It was as if he said to a hard fate which had hitherto oftener than not pressed him against the wall, “This joy I have, and it cannot be otherwise.”
Suddenly Vilola, looking at him, began to laugh. “What have you got on your face, father?” said she. “A great, black smirch. Your collar, too.” It was the ink. She took her handkerchief and rubbed his face hard. B. F. shut his eyes tightly. She hurt him, but he was blissful. “It won't come off,” said she. “We shall have to wait till we get home. You are a sight!” But she looked at him with the tenderest admiration, even as she laughed.
Vilola chattered pleasantly all the way home. She looked out at her father's little dry-goods store on the Main Street with interest. She asked about business. She asked for one and another of the neighbors. “Oh, how glad I am to be home,” she kept repeating, in a heartfelt tone like a refrain.
“How did you leave your mother?” B. F. asked, in a peculiar tone — the one he always used on these occasions when inquiring for his wife.
“Oh, mother's real well,” replied Vilola, “and she looks younger than ever. She looks young enough to be my daughter. She's as pretty as a picture this winter; she's got a lovely new dress with brown fur on it, and a black hat. Mr. Anderson was in last evening, and he told her she ought to have her picture painted in it. She wore it to church last Sunday. I saw Mr. Anderson looking at her.”
“You say Mr. Anderson came in last evening?” asked B. F., quickly.
“Yes,” replied Vilola, looking at him with wonder.
“What did he come for?”
“He brought home a magazine that mother had lent Mrs. Anderson. She had kept it 'most a month, and mother hadn't read it herself. Why, what makes you look so, father?”
B. F.'s face had sobered as they jolted along in the stage-coach. Vilola looked at him uneasily. “Why, what's the matter, father,” she asked. “What's come over you? Ain't you glad I've come home?”
Then B. F. pulled himself together. He laughed tenderly, and looked at the girl with a beaming face.
“So you think father ain't glad to get you home?” he said. “Well!”
Vilola laughed too. “Well, you looked so solemncholy all at once. I didn't know,” said she, with the pretty little pout of a petted creature who can estimate her power with mathematical accuracy. Vilola had been petted by her mother as well as her father. She was a plain girl who gave the effect of prettiness. Her features were not regular; she had a rippling profile and a wide mouth, but her color was beautiful, and so was her thick, soft, light hair puffing over her broad forehead, and she had an expression of arch amiability which was charming. She was rather stout, but daintily built, and dimpled. She had pulled off her gloves, and she had hold of her father's arm with one little plump hand, dented over the knuckles. On one finger shone a small turquoise ring which her father had given her. He looked at it with proprietary delight.
“Haven't lost your ring, have you?”
“No; and everybody admires it. They ask me where I got my ring. They think some fellow gave it to me, and when they say so I laugh and say, ‘Yes, the nicest fellow in the whole world gave me that ring,’ and then they wonder. Why, it got all around Jefferson that I was engaged, and even mother came to me and asked what it meant. She laughed when I told her. Mother wanted to be remembered to you, father.”
“I'm much obliged to her,” replied B. F., with gravity.
“How long is it since you've seen mother?” said Vilola.
“Oh, about sixteen years next spring, I guess.”
“I guess you'd know her anywhere if you were to see her,” said Vilola. “I don't believe she can be changed a mite. She is just as pretty. She looks like a girl.”
Vilola spoke with a certain wistfulness. She looked at her father with an unspoken plea and question in her eyes. He knew what it was — “Oh, father, why don't you go to see mother? Why don't you live together, and let me live with you both, instead of having these partings? Why, father?”
Once she had put her question into words, and her father had answered with a decision and dignity which she had never seen in him before. “Never, as long as you live, ask me that again, Vilola,” he had said. “I have done the best I can do for us all.” That ended it. Vilola had never spoken on the subject again, but she often looked at him with the question in her eyes.
When the stage-coach drew up in front of B. F.'s little story-and-half cottage where Vilola had been born, and which was more like home to her than any other, more like home than her mother's house inherited from her grandmother, which was more pretentious, the girl dimpled with delight at the sight of the little, familiar place. “Oh, how good it looks!” said she. “I am so glad to get back!” She jumped out of the stage and ran up the path to the door. She danced up and down like a child. She could not wait for her father to unlock the door. “Hurry, hurry!” said she. “I want to get in! I want to see how it looks!”
B. F., looking fairly foolish with rapture, fumbled with the key. He cast a blissfully confidential glance at the man bringing in the trunk, when he straightened himself up and flung open the door, and Vilola flew in before them.
Vilola was in the kitchen doorway, dancing and sniffing. “Oh, I smell something awful good — awful good!” she proclaimed. “I know what it is. You can't cheat me.” She raced into the kitchen and opened the oven door. “I knew, I knew!” cried she, with a shout of exultant laughter. “Oh, isn't it great — isn't it great! I'm home, and I'm going to have roast turkey for dinner!”
“I thought you would like it,” returned B. F., with a queer little embarrassed pucker of his mouth. He was so happy, so enraptured at the success of his preparations, that he was fairly shamefaced. When he had shut the front door after the man, Vilola had penetrated the dining-room and discovered the new sideboard. She stood with the cat in her arms, gazing at it, then at him, alternately, speechless. He laughed; at the same time he felt the tears in his eyes. “Well,” he said, “well!”
Then Vilola spoke. “Father!” said she. “Father Brown — If you aren't — I never — a new —” It was disjointed, but the more expressive. Joy at its extreme is not sequential.
“I thought you would like it,” said B. F.
“Do you think it is a pretty one?” asked B. F., anxiously.
“Pretty? Why, father, it is the most beautiful sideboard I ever saw. It is magnificent — just magnificent!”
“I don't know what you'd like on it,” said B. F., radiantly. “So I thought I would put a few things on it, and you could fix 'em up when you came. Take 'em off if you don't like 'em.”
Vilola's eyes at that moment rested full on the brush-and-comb tray and the brush and comb, but she smiled like an angel at her father — a smile of grateful tenderness which had in it something protecting. “It is all beautiful,” said she — “beautiful!”
When Vilola saw her own room and the new paper she was wild with delight. “Oh, it is lovely!” said she. “Lovely! It is prettier than the paper on my room at mother's, and I thought that was lovely.”
“I'm real glad it suits you,” said B. F.
“It is perfectly lovely, but I didn't need it. Why, the paper on my room at mother's is new, too, and the other in this room was only on six months. You're extravagant, father.”
“Oh, it don't cost much,” said B. F., “and the other paper was stained pretty bad. It leaked in when it rained.”
“The way you and mother spoil me!” said Vilola. “Here both of you have got new paper for my room twice in one year.”
“Guess ther ain't much spoiling,” said B. F. He did not tell her that it was at his instance that the new paper had been put upon her room at her mother's, and that he had paid for it. Neither did he tell her that the pretty, new suit that she wore had been purchased with money provided by him. Vilola believed that her mother had furnished it from her own income. She had a little income besides the ten dollars a week paid her by her husband.
B. F. Brown had guarded all along his wife's good name so carefully that people, generally speaking, believed in it. There had never been any scandal. People opined that she was a good woman as well as a very pretty one.
B. F.'s wife had been quite a favorite, particularly with men, though there had never been a whisper against her in consequence. Other women never accused her of any indiscretion, though they made insinuations against her temper. B. F. had not so strenuously defended her temper, though he never made voluntary mention of it. Vilola supposed that her mother's temper was the reason of the separation. That day, when she and her father were happily seated at dinner, with the turkey and the bouquet of pinks between them, Vilola, when there came a lull in the conversation, said, with an expression which showed that she had had it on her mind to say, “Mother and I have been getting on real nice together lately, father.”
“I'm glad you have,” said B. F.
“I have never seen that mother's temper was so very bad,” said Vilola. “Maybe it's better than it was when I was very young.”
“Maybe it is,” said B. F.
Then he helped Vilola to some turkey, and nothing more was said about the subject. Vilola had had her girlish dreams of bringing about a reconciliation between her parents, but she had always been baffled by both. Her mother had answered her always as her father had done, though with a certain haste and terror instead of his dignified decision. “It ain't best,” said she. “It ain't best for us ever to live together. Don't talk any more about it.”
Vilola had spent many anxious and speculative hours over the whole situation. She was a girl of strongly developed affections, and she adored both her parents. She had never had a lover. She was not that sort of girl, people said. Vilola never considered the matter much herself.
“The girls say I am going to be an old maid,” she told her father. “And I don't know but I am.”
“Well, I hope it will turn out the way that is best for you,” said B. F.
“It looks to me now as if I would full as soon keep house for you and mother as get married,” said Vilola. “I don't know as I care anything about getting married. It looks to me like quite an undertaking.”
“Yes, it's apt to be,” said B. F., soberly.
Vilola was a good housekeeper; she took genuine delight in it. She and her father lived together very happily during the six months. Occasionally Vilola had a tea-party. The day before she was to leave, the last day of June, when her six months with her father were up, she invited Mrs. Abner Wells and her sister, Mrs. Francis Baker, to tea. It was a beautiful tea, and Vilola had cooked everything herself. The house also, as the visitors said, looked like wax. Mrs. Baker told B. F. Brown that his daughter was a wonderful housekeeper and she had never eaten such biscuits. Brown was radiant with pride and affection. Mrs. Wells had been covertly questioning Vilola all the afternoon, now she turned on her father.
“I guess your daughter takes after her mother,” said she, in a sour-sweet voice. “Her mother was a splendid housekeeper, wasn't she?”
“Yes,” said B. F., “Vilola's mother was a splendid housekeeper. I guess Vilola did take it from her.”
“Her mother must have spent a good deal of time teaching her,” said Mrs. Wells. This was while Vilola was in the kitchen putting away the tea dishes.
“Yes,” said B. F., “she did take a sight of pains with her.”
“I just remember your wife,” said Mrs. Wells, “and I used to think she was about the prettiest woman. She was a real pretty woman, wasn't she?”
“Yes, she was, real pretty,” said B. F.
Vilola came in then with some dishes to be put in the parlor china-closet. “Mother's just as handsome now as ever she was,” said she, proudly.
“Yes,” said B. F., “I'm sure she is.”
“She was real tasty, wasn't she, too?” said Mrs. Wells.
“Yes,” said B. F., patiently.
“And real pretty spoken?”
“Oh,” said Vilola, “mother has got the prettiest ways. Everybody is taken with mother.”
“It was always so,” said B. F., with a certain fervor.
He even smiled, as if at the contemplation of something pleasant which was before his eyes.
“And she was real kind-hearted, too; I've heard my mother say so,” continued Mrs. Wells. “She used to say that Mis' B. F. Brown was always ready to do any little thing for a neighbor when they needed it. She'd lend her table-cloths and napkins when they had company, or her spoons, and if they was short of victuals, and company came unexpected, she'd send over cake or pie just as free. And she was always ready to sit up when anybody was sick. Mother said that she was about the kindest-hearted woman and the most generous she ever saw.”
“Yes,” assented B. F., with a joyous expression. “Yes, she was real kind-hearted and always ready to help anybody.”
“She is now,” said Vilola, setting away the best cups and saucers in the parlor china-closet.
Mrs. Wells was baffled; she smiled aimlessly, and repeated that she had heard her mother say so. She was relieved when her sister, Mrs. Baker, gave a sudden cry and diverted attention from the subject.
“For goodness' sake, just look at that, will you!” cried Mrs. Baker.
And they all looked at a gorgeous black-and-gold butterfly sailing about the room, and finally pausing over a vase of June roses on the parlor shelf. “Isn't he a beauty?” said Vilola. “I don't know as I ever saw a butterfly in the house before.”
“It's a dreadful bad sign, I've always heard,” said Mrs. Wells, presagefully.
“A sign of what?” asked Vilola, rather anxiously. She had a vein of superstition.
“I don't know,” replied Mrs. Wells; “something dreadful. Mother always used to say it was. It's worse than a bird.” She gave a glance at B. F., as if she was rather pleased that a misfortune was on his track. Going home that night she told her sister that she had never seen such a double-faced man as B. F. Brown, treating his poor wife the way he did and yet praising her.
After the guest had left, Vilola sat down beside the open window and looked out on the moonlit night, full of soft, waving shadows and breathing with sweet flower-scents. Her father sat at the other front window, also looking out. Finally, Vilola turned to him.
“Father,” said she.
B. F. looked up. “Well?” he replied.
“I can't get something through my head.”
“I can't get it through my head,” said Vilola, quite boldly and simply, “why, when you don't live with mother, and when, of course, you don't think so very much of her, you should say all those nice things about her that you did this evening.”
“They were true,” said B. F.
“Well, I know that; of course they were true, but — you acted as if you were glad they were true.”
B. F. looked out at the moonlit night, and he had an exalted, far-away expression. “Well,” he said, “as near as I can tell you, it's something like this: You know about butterflies, don't you, how there's always a butterfly comin' out of the worm and that little case they crawl into?”
“Why, yes,” replied Vilola, wonderingly.
“Well,” said B. F., in a tone at once shamed and sublime, “I've about come to the conclusion that there's always a butterfly, or something that's got wings, that comes from everything, and if you look sharp you'll see it, and there can't anything hinder your havin' that, anyhow, and — mebbe that's worth more than all the rest.”
“Oh,” said Vilola.
B. F. said no more. He gazed out of the window again, and his face shone in the moonlight. Vilola kept glancing at him. His forehead was knitted perplexedly; her eyes showed a furtive alarm. This speech of B. F.'s was at variance with anything which her New England training had led her to expect. A vague terror of and admiration for her father seized her. “What made him say that?” she kept repeating to herself, even after she was in bed. Her trunk was all packed, for she was going in the morning. She was sorry to go, and her heart was sore with pity for her father to be left alone, but she reflected with joy upon the prospect of seeing her mother. She was going on an earlier train than usual; she usually did not leave until night, arriving in Jefferson the next morning. This time she would travel part of the way by day, and reach her destination about midnight. She had not advised her mother of her change of plan. “I guess mother will be surprised,” she told her father, when he was seeing her off at the station the next day.
“Now, I don't feel very easy about your getting there at midnight and nobody there to meet you,” said B. F. “Hadn't I better send a telegram to your mother?”
“If you do I shall be dreadfully disappointed,” said Vilola. “I've set my heart on surprising mother. There's always a carriage at the midnight train; and it isn't five minutes from the station. Promise you won't telegraph, father.”
“Well,” said B. F., and then the train came.
B. F.'s heart was heavy going home alone. It was noon, and he had not had any dinner. He had a vague idea of eating something before he went to the store, but he sat down beside the kitchen window and remained there a half-hour. It was cool for July. He gazed out at the green yard. There was a cherry-tree full of red fruit, and the robins were clamoring in it. Vilola was fond of the cherries. Yesterday afternoon he had had some picked for her, and she had carried a basketful away. B. F. gazed at the cherry-tree. He could not bear to look at the empty room behind him. He could hear the tick of the clock, and it sounded like the very voice of loneliness. He took out his handkerchief and put it to his eyes, and bent his head, and his narrow, elderly shoulders shook a little. His bowed gray head looked patient and pathetic. Presently he rose and went to the store without eating anything.
The next day, about six o'clock in the afternoon, a thunder-storm was gathering in the northwest. B. F. started for home, and he walked rather quickly in order to reach shelter before the storm broke. The northwest was a livid black with copper lights. There was a confluent mutter of thunder. B. F. came in sight of his house, and saw, to his amazement, that the front chamber windows were open. He had thought they were closed as usual when Vilola went away. He smelled smoke, and, looking up, saw a thin spiral of blue curling out of the kitchen chimney. A sudden alarm seized him. His knees trembled as he hurried around to the kitchen door. The door stood open. There was an odor of tea. B. F. gasped. He entered tremulously. As he did so there was a blue flash of lightning in the room, then there was a sharp fusillade of thunder. Vilola came running out of the dining-room. “Oh, I'm so glad you've come,” said she. “It's going to be a terrible tempest.”
B. F. gazed at her. He strove to speak, but he only stammered.
Vilola looked at him quite firmly, though she was very pale, and there was a curious, shocked expression in her blue eyes. “Yes,” said she, “I've come back.”
B. F. continued to look at her.
“Yes,” said Vilola, “I'm never going to live with mother again.”
Suddenly, as she said mother, a burning, painful red flushed her face and neck.
“Yes, I guess you had better live with me all the time now,” said B. F. There came another blue flash of blinding light, a tremendous jar of thunder, then the rain roared past the windows. “I've left my chamber windows open, and my new paper will be wet!” cried Vilola, as she ran. The teakettle on the stove boiled over with a furious sputter. B. F. rose and set it back. Then he stood staring absently out of the window at the flooding of the rain which was washing off some of the dust of the world.