From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXII No. 52 (December 28, 1889)
“I never heard of a woman's bein' saxton.”
“I dun'no' what difference that makes; I don't see why they shouldn't have women saxtons as well as men saxtons, for my part, nor nobody else neither. They'd keep dusted 'nough sight cleaner. I've seen the dust layin' on my pew thick enough to write my name in a good many times, an' 'ain't said nothin' about it. An' I ain't goin' to say nothin' now again Joe Sowen, now he's dead an' gone. He did jest as well as most men do. Men git in a good many places where they don't belong, an' where they set as awkward as a cow on a hen-roost, jest because they push in ahead of women. I ain't blamin' 'em; I s'pose if I could push in I should jest the same way. But there ain't no reason that I can see, nor nobody else neither, why a woman shouldn't be saxton.”
Hetty Fifield stood in the rowen hay-field before Caleb Gale. He was a deacon, the chairman of the selectmen, and the rich and influential man of the village. One looking at him would not have guessed it. There was nothing imposing about his lumbering figure in his calico shirt and baggy trousers. However, his large face, red and moist with perspiration, scanned the distant horizon with a stiff and reserved air; he did not look at Hetty.
“How'd you go to work to ring the bell?” said he. “It would have to be tolled, too, if anybody died.”
“I'd jest as lief ring that little meetin'-house bell as to stan' out here and jingle a cow-bell,” said Hetty; “an' as for tollin', I'd jest as soon toll the bell for Methusaleh, if he was livin' here! I'd laugh if I 'ain't got strength 'nough for that.”
“It takes a kind of a knack.”
“If I 'ain't got as much knack as old Joe Sowen ever had, I'll give up the ship.”
“You couldn't tend the fires.”
“Couldn't tend the fires — when I've cut an' carried in all the wood I've burned for forty year! Couldn't keep the fires a-goin' in them two little wood-stoves!”
“It's consider'ble work to sweep the meetin'-house.”
“I guess I've done 'bout as much work as to sweep that little meetin'-house, I ruther guess I have.”
“There's one thing you 'ain't thought of.”
“Where'd you live? All old Sowen got for bein' saxton was twenty dollar a year, an' we couldn't pay a woman so much as that. You wouldn't have enough to pay for your livin' anywheres.”
“Where am I goin' to live whether I'm saxton or not?”
Caleb Gale was silent.
There was a wind blowing, the rowen hay drifted round Hetty like a brown-green sea touched with ripples of blue and gold by the asters and golden-rod. She stood in the midst of it like a May-weed that had gathered a slender toughness through the long summer; her brown cotton gown clung about her like a wilting leaf, outlining her harsh little form. She was as sallow as a squaw, and she had pretty black eyes; they were bright, although she was old. She kept them fixed upon Caleb. Suddenly she raised herself upon her toes; the wind caught her dress and made it blow out; her eyes flashed. “I'll tell you where I'm goin' to live,” said she. “I'm goin' to live in the meetin'-house.”
Caleb looked at her. “Goin' to live in the meetin'-house!”
“Yes, I be.”
“Live in the meetin'-house!”
“I'd like to know why not.”
“Why — you couldn't — live in the meetin'-house. You're crazy.”
Caleb flung out the rake which he was holding, and drew it in full of rowen. Hetty moved around in front of him, he raked imperturbably, she moved again right in the path of the rake, then he stopped. “There ain't no sense in such talk.”
“All I want is jest the east corner of the back gall'ry, where the chimbly goes up. I'll set up my cookin' stove there, an' my bed, an' I'll curtain it off with my sunflower quilt, to keep off the wind.”
“A cookin' stove an' a bed in the meetin'-house!”
“Mis' Grout she give me that cookin' stove, an' that bed I've allers slept on, before she died. She give 'em to me before Mary Anne Thomas, an' I moved 'em out. They air settin' out in the yard now, an' if it rains that stove an' that bed will be spoilt. It looks some like rain now. I guess you'd better give me the meetin'-house key right off.”
“You don't think you can move that cookin' stove an' that bed into the meetin'-house — I ain't goin' to stop to hear such talk.”
“My worsted-work, all my mottoes I've done, an' my wool flowers, air out there in the yard.”
Caleb raked. Hetty kept standing herself about until he was forced to stop, or gather her in with the rowen hay. He looked straight at her, and scowled; the perspiration trickled down his cheeks. “If I go up to the house can Mis' Gale git me the key to the meetin'-house?” said Hetty.
“No, she can't.”
“Be you goin' up before long?”
“No, I ain't.” Suddenly Caleb's voice changed: it had been full of stubborn vexation, now it was blandly argumentative. “Don't you see it ain't no use talkin' such nonsense, Hetty? You'd better go right along, an' make up your mind it ain't to be thought of.”
“Where be I goin' to-night, then?”
“Yes; where be I a-goin'?”
“'Ain't you got any place to go to?”
“Where do you s'pose I've got any place? Them folks air movin' into Mis' Grout's house, an' they as good as told me to clear out. I 'ain't got no folks to take me in. I dun'no' where I'm goin'; mebbe I can go to your house?”
Caleb gave a start. “We've got company to home,” said he, hastily. “I'm 'fraid Mis' Gale wouldn't think it was convenient.”
Hetty laughed. “Most everybody in the town has got company,” said she.
Caleb dug his rake into the ground as if it were a hoe, then he leaned on it, and stared at the horizon. There was a fringe of yellow birches on the edge of the hay-field; beyond them was a low range of misty blue hills. “You 'ain't got no place to go to, then?”
“I dun'no' of any. There ain't no poorhouse here, an' I 'ain't got no folks.”
Caleb stood like a statue. Some crows flew cawing over the field. Hetty waited. “I s'pose that key is where Mis' Gale can find it?” she said, finally.
Caleb turned and threw out his rake with a jerk. “She knows where 'tis; it's hangin' up behind the settin'-room door. I s'pose you can stay there to-night, as long as you 'ain't got no other place. We shall have to see what can be done.”
Hetty scuttled off across the field. “You mustn't take no stove nor bed into the meetin'-house,” Caleb called after her; “we can't have that nohow.”
Hetty went on as if she did not hear.
The golden-rod at the sides of the road was turning brown; the asters were in their prime, blue and white ones; here and there were rows of thistles with white tops. The dust was thick; Hetty, when she emerged from Caleb's house, trotted along in a cloud of it. She did not look to the right or left, she kept her small eager face fixed straight ahead, and moved forward like some little animal with the purpose to which it was born strong within it.
Presently she came to a large cottage house on the right of the road; there she stopped. The front yard was full of furniture, tables and chairs standing among the dahlias and clumps of marigolds. Hetty leaned over the fence at one corner of the yard, and inspected a little knot of household goods set aside from the others. Here was a small cooking stove, a hair trunk, a yellow bedstead stacked up against the fence, and a pile of bedding. Some children in the yard stood in a group, and eyed Hetty. A woman appeared in the door — she was small, there was a black smutch on her face, which was haggard with fatigue, and she scowled in the sun as she looked over at Hetty. “Well, got a place to stay in?” said she, in an unexpectedly deep voice.
“Yes, I guess so,” replied Hetty.
“I dun'no' how in the world I can have you. All the beds will be full — I expect his mother some to-night, an' I'm dreadful stirred up anyhow.”
“Everybody's havin' company; I never see anything like it.” Hetty's voice was inscrutable. The other woman looked sharply at her.
“You've got a place, 'ain't you?” she asked, doubtfully.
“Yes, I have.”
At the left of this house, quite back from the road, was a little unpainted cottage, hardly more than a hut. There was smoke coming out of the chimney, and a tall youth lounged in the door. Hetty, with the woman and children staring after her, struck out across the field in the little foot-path toward the cottage. “I wonder if she's goin' to stay there?” the woman muttered, meditating.
The youth did not see Hetty until she was quite near him, then he aroused suddenly as if from sleep, and tried to slink off around the cottage. But Hetty called after him. “Sammy,” she cried, “Sammy, come back here, I want you!”
“What d'ye want?”
“Come back here!”
The youth lounged back sulkily, and a tall woman came to the door. She bent out of it anxiously to hear Hetty.
“I want you to come an' help me move my stove an' things,” said Hetty.
“Into the meetin'-house.”
“Yes, the meetin'-house.”
The woman in the door had sodden hands; behind her arose the steam of a wash-tub. She and the youth stared at Hetty, but surprise was too strong an emotion for them to grasp firmly.
“I want Sammy to come right over an' help me,” said Hetty.
“He ain't strong enough to move a stove,” said the woman.
“Ain't strong enough!”
“He's apt to git lame.”
“Most folks are. Guess I've got lame. Come right along, Sammy!”
“He ain't able to lift much.”
“I s'pose he's able to be lifted, ain't he?”
“I dun'no' what you mean.”
“The stove don't weigh nothin',” said Hetty; “I could carry it myself if I could git hold of it. Come, Sammy!”
Hetty turned down the path, and the youth moved a little way after her, as if perforce. Then he stopped, and cast an appealing glance back at his mother. Her face was distressed. “Oh, Sammy, I'm afraid you'll git sick,” said she.
“No, he ain't goin' to git sick,” said Hetty. “Come, Sammy.” And Sammy followed her down the path.
It was four o'clock then. At dusk Hetty had her gay sunflower quilt curtaining off the chimney-corner of the church gallery; her stove and little bedstead were set up, and she had entered upon a life which endured successfully for three months. All that time a storm brewed; then it broke; but Hetty sailed in her own course for the three months.
It was on a Saturday that she took up her habitation in the meeting-house. The next morning, when the boy who had been supplying the dead sexton's place came and shook the door, Hetty was prompt on the other side. “Deacon Gale said for you to let me in so I could ring the bell,” called the boy.
“Go away,” responded Hetty. “I'm goin' to ring the bell; I'm saxton.”
Hetty rang the bell with vigor, but she made a wild, irregular jangle at first; at the last it was better. The village people said to each other that a new hand was ringing. Only a few knew that Hetty was in the meeting-house. When the congregation had assembled, and saw that gaudy tent pitched in the house of the Lord, and the resolute little pilgrim at the door of it, there was a commotion. The farmers and their wives were stirred out of their Sabbath decorum. After the service was over, Hetty, sitting in a pew corner of the gallery, her little face dark and watchful against the flaming background of her quilt, saw the people below gathering in groups, whispering, and looking at her.
Presently the minister, Caleb Gale, and the other deacon came up the gallery stairs. Hetty sat stiffly erect. Caleb Gale went up to the sunflower quilt, slipped it aside, and looked in. He turned to Hetty with a frown. To-day his dignity was supported by important witnesses. “Did you bring that stove an' bedstead here?”
“What made you do such a thing?”
“What was I goin' to do if I didn't? How's a woman as old as me goin' to sleep in a pew, an' go without a cup of tea?”
The men looked at each other. They withdrew to another corner of the gallery and conferred in low tones; then they went down-stairs and out of the church. Hetty smiled when she heard the door shut. When one is hard pressed, one, however simple, gets wisdom as to vantage-points. Hetty comprehended hers perfectly. She was the propounder of a problem; as long as it was unguessed, she was sure of her foothold as propounder. This little village in which she had lived all her life had removed the shelter from her head; she being penniless, it was beholden to provide her another; she asked it what. When the old woman with whom she had lived died, the town promptly seized the estate for taxes — none had been paid for years. Hetty had not laid up a cent; indeed, for the most of the time she had received no wages. There had been no money in the house; all she had gotten for her labor for a sickly, impecunious old woman was a frugal board. When the old woman died, Hetty gathered in the few household articles for which she had stipulated, and made no complaint. She walked out of the house when the new tenants came in; all she asked was, “What are you going to do with me?” This little settlement of narrow-minded, prosperous farmers, however hard a task charity might be to them, could not turn an old woman out into the fields and highways to seek for food as they would a Jersey cow. They had their Puritan consciences, and her note of distress would sound louder in their ears than the Jersey's bell echoing down the valley in the stillest night. But the question as to Hetty Fifield's disposal was a hard one to answer. There was no almshouse in the village, and no private family was willing to take her in. Hetty was strong and capable; although she was old, she could well have paid for her food and shelter by her labor; but this could not secure her an entrance even among this hard-working and thrifty people, who would ordinarily grasp quickly enough at service without wage in dollars and cents. Hetty had somehow gotten for herself an unfortunate name in the village. She was held in the light of a long-thorned brier among the beanpoles, or a fierce little animal with claws and teeth bared. People were afraid to take her into their families; she had the reputation of always taking her own way, and never heeding the voice of authority. “I'd take her in an' have her give me a lift with the work,” said one sickly farmer's wife; “but, near's I can find out, I couldn't never be sure that I'd get molasses in the beans, nor saleratus in my sour-milk cakes, if she took a notion not to put it in. I don't dare to risk it.”
Stories were about concerning Hetty's authority over the old woman with whom she had lived. “Old Mis' Grout never dared to say her soul was her own,” people said. Then Hetty's sharp, sarcastic sayings were repeated; the justice of them made them sting. People did not want a tongue like that in their homes.
Hetty as a church sexton was directly opposed to all their ideas of church decorum and propriety in general; her pitching her tent in the Lord's house was almost sacrilege; but what could they do? Hetty jangled the Sabbath bells for the three months; once she tolled the bell for an old man, and it seemed by the sound of the bell as if his long, calm years had swung by in a weak delirium; but people bore it. She swept and dusted the little meeting-house, and she garnished the walls with her treasures of worsted-work. The neatness and the garniture went far to quiet the dissatisfaction of the people. They had a crude taste. Hetty's skill in fancy-work was quite celebrated. Her wool flowers were much talked of, and young girls tried to copy them. So these wreaths and clusters of red and blue and yellow wool roses and lilies hung as acceptably between the meeting-house windows as pictures of saints in a cathedral.
Hetty hung a worsted motto over the pulpit; on it she set her chiefest treasure of art, a white wax cross with an ivy vine trailing over it, all covered with silver frost-work. Hetty always surveyed this cross with a species of awe; she felt the irresponsibility and amazement of a genius at his own work.
When she set it on the pulpit, no queen casting her rich robes and her jewels upon a shrine could have surpassed her in generous enthusiasm. “I guess when they see that they won't say no more,” she said.
But the people, although they shared Hetty's admiration for the cross, were doubtful. They, looking at it, had a double vision of a little wax Virgin upon an altar. They wondered if it savored of popery. But the cross remained, and the minister was mindful not to jostle it in his gestures.
It was three months from the time Hetty took up her abode in the church, and a week before Christmas, when the problem was solved. Hetty herself precipitated the solution. She prepared a boiled dish in the meeting-house, upon a Saturday, and the next day the odors of turnip and cabbage were strong in the senses of the worshippers. They sniffed and looked at one another. This superseding the legitimate savor of the sanctuary, the fragrance of peppermint lozenges and wintergreen, the breath of Sunday clothes, by the homely week-day odors of kitchen vegetables, was too much for the sensibilities of the people. They looked indignantly around at Hetty, sitting before her sunflower hanging, comfortable from her good dinner of the day before, radiant with the consciousness of a great plateful of cold vegetables in her tent for her Sabbath dinner.
Poor Hetty had not many comfortable dinners. The selectmen doled out a small weekly sum to her, which she took with dignity as being her hire; then she had a mild forage in the neighbors' cellars and kitchens, of poor apples and stale bread and pie, paying for it in teaching her art of worsted-work to the daughters. Her Saturday's dinner had been a banquet to her: she had actually bought a piece of pork to boil with the vegetables; somebody had given her a nice little cabbage and some turnips, without a thought of the limitations of her house-keeping. Hetty herself had not a thought. She made the fires as usual that Sunday morning; the meeting-house was very clean, there was not a speck of dust anywhere, the wax cross on the pulpit glistened in a sunbeam slanting through the house. Hetty, sitting in the gallery, thought innocently how nice it looked.
After the meeting, Caleb Gale approached the other deacon. “Somethin's got to be done,” said he. And the other deacon nodded. He had not smelt the cabbage until his wife nudged him and mentioned it; neither had Caleb Gale.
In the afternoon of the next Thursday, Caleb and the other two selectmen waited upon Hetty in her tabernacle. They stumped up the gallery stairs, and Hetty emerged from behind the quilt, and stood looking at them scared and defiant. The three men nodded stiffly; there was a pause; Caleb Gale motioned meaningly to one of the others, who shook his head; finally he himself had to speak. “I'm 'fraid you find it pretty cold here, don't you, Hetty?” said he.
“No, thank ye; it's very comfortable,” replied Hetty, polite and wary.
“It ain't very convenient for you to do your cookin' here, I guess.”
“It's jest as convenient as I want. I don't find no fault.”
“I guess it's rayther lonesome here nights, ain't it?”
“I'd 'nough sight ruther be alone than have comp'ny, any day.”
“It ain't fit for an old woman like you to be livin' alone here this way.”
“Well, I dun'no' of anything that's any fitter; mebbe you do.”
Caleb looked appealingly at his companions; they stood stiff and irresponsive. Hetty's eyes were sharp and watchful upon them all.
“Well, Hetty,” said Caleb, “we've found a nice comfortable place for you, an' I guess you'd better pack up your things, an' I'll carry you right over there.” Caleb stepped back a little closer to the other men. Hetty, small and trembling and helpless before them, looked vicious. She was like a little animal driven from its cover, for whom there is nothing left but desperate warfare and death.
“Where to?” asked Hetty. Her voice shrilled up into a squeak.
Caleb hesitated. He looked again at the other selectmen. There was a solemn, far-away expression upon their faces. “Well,” said he, “Mis' Radway wants to git somebody, an' —”
“You ain't goin' to take me to that woman's?”
“You'd be real comfortable —”
“I ain't goin'.”
“Now, why not, I'd like to know?”
“I don't like Susan Radway, hain't never liked her, an' I ain't goin' to live with her.”
“Mis' Radway's a good Christian woman. You hadn't ought to speak that way about her.”
“You know what Susan Radway is, jest as well as I do; an' everybody else does too. I ain't goin' a step, an' you might jest as well make up your mind to it.”
Then Hetty seated herself in the corner of the pew nearest her tent, and folded her hands in her lap. She looked over at the pulpit as if she were listening to preaching. She panted, and her eyes glittered, but she had an immovable air.
“Now, Hetty, you've got sense enough to know you can't stay here,” said Caleb. “You'd better put on your bonnet, an' come right along before dark. You'll have a nice ride.”
Hetty made no response.
The three men stood looking at her. “Come, Hetty,” said Caleb, feebly; and another selectman spoke. “Yes, you'd better come,” he said, in a mild voice.
Hetty continued to stare at the pulpit.
The three men withdrew a little and conferred. They did not know how to act. This was a new emergency in their simple, even lives. They were not constables; these three steady, sober old men did not want to drag an old woman by main force out of the meeting-house, and thrust her into Caleb Gale's buggy as if it were a police wagon.
Finally Caleb brightened. “I'll go over an' git mother,” said he. He started with a brisk air, and went down the gallery stairs; the others followed. They took up their stand in the meeting-house yard, and Caleb got into his buggy and gathered up the reins. The wind blew cold over the hill. “Hadn't you better go inside and wait out of the wind?” said Caleb.
“I guess we'll wait out here,” replied one; and the other nodded.
“Well, I sha'n't be gone long,” said Caleb. “Mother'll know how to manage her.” He drove carefully down the hill; his buggy wings rattled in the wind. The other men pulled up their coat collars, and met the blast stubbornly.
“Pretty ticklish piece of business to tackle,” said one, in a low grunt.
“That's so,” assented the other. Then they were silent, and waited for Caleb. Once in a while they stamped their feet and slapped their mittened hands. They did not hear Hetty slip the bolt and turn the key of the meeting-house door, nor see her peeping at them from a gallery window.
Caleb returned in twenty minutes; he had not far to go. His wife, stout and handsome and full of vigor, sat beside him in the buggy. Her face was red with the cold wind; her thick cashmere shawl was pinned tightly over her broad bosom. “Has she come down yet?” she called out, in an imperious way.
The two selectmen shook their heads. Caleb kept the horse quiet while his wife got heavily and briskly out of the buggy. She went up the meeting-house steps, and reached out confidently to open the door. Then she drew back and looked around. “Why,” said she, “the door's locked; she's locked the door. I call this pretty work!”
She turned again quite fiercely, and began beating on the door. “Hetty!” she called; “Hetty, Hetty Fifield! Let me in! What have you locked this door for?”
She stopped and turned to her husband.
“Don't you s'pose the barn key would unlock it?” she asked.
“I don't b'lieve 'twould.”
“Well, you'd better go home and fetch it.”
Caleb again drove down the hill, and the other men searched their pockets for keys. One had the key of his corn-house, and produced it hopefully; but it would not unlock the meeting-house door.
A crowd seldom gathered in the little village for anything short of a fire; but to-day in a short time quite a number of people stood on the meeting-house hill, and more kept coming. When Caleb Gale returned with the barn key his daughter, a tall, pretty young girl, sat beside him, her little face alert and smiling in her red hood. The other selectmen's wives toiled eagerly up the hill, with a young daughter of one of them speeding on ahead. Then the two young girls stood close to each other and watched the proceedings. Key after key was tried; men brought all the large keys they could find, running importantly up the hill, but none would unlock the meeting-house door. After Caleb had tried the last available key, stooping and screwing it anxiously, he turned around. “There ain't no use in it, any way,” said he; “most likely the door's bolted.”
“You don't mean there's a bolt on that door?” cried his wife.
“Yes, there is.”
“Then you might jest as well have tore 'round for hen's feathers as keys. Of course she's bolted it if she's got any wit, an' I guess she's got most as much as some of you men that have been bringin' keys. Try the windows.”
But the windows were fast. Hetty had made her sacred castle impregnable except to violence. Either the door would have to be forced, or a window broken, to gain an entrance.
The people conferred with one another. Some were for retreating, and leaving Hetty in peaceful possession until time drove her to capitulate. “She'll open it to-morrow,” they said. Others were for extreme measures, and their impetuousity gave them the lead. The project of forcing the door was urged; one man started for a crow-bar.
“They are a parcel of fools to do such a thing,” said Caleb Gale's wife to another woman. “Spoil that good door! They'd better leave the poor thing alone till to-morrow. I dun'no' what's goin' to be done with her when they git in. I ain't goin' to have father draggin' her over to Mis' Radway's by the hair of her head.”
“That's jest what I say,” returned the other woman.
Mrs. Gale went up to Caleb and nudged him. “Don't you let them break that door down, father,” said she.
“Well, well, we'll see,” Caleb replied. He moved away a little; his wife's voice had been drowned out lately by a masculine clamor, and he took advantage of it.
All the people talked at once; the wind was keen, and all their garments fluttered; the two young girls had their arms around each other under their shawls; the man with the crow-bar came stalking up the hill.
“Don't you let them break down that door, father,” said Mrs. Gale.
“Well, well,” grunted Caleb.
Regardless of remonstrances, the man set the crow-bar against the door; suddenly there was a cry, “There she is!” Everybody looked up. There was Hetty looking out of a gallery window.
Everybody was still. Hetty began to speak. Her dark old face, peering out of the window, looked ghastly; the wind blew her poor gray locks over it. She extended her little wrinkled hands. “Jest let me say one word,” said she; “jest one word.” Her voice shook. All her coolness was gone. The magnitude of her last act of defiance had caused it to react upon herself like an overloaded gun.
“Say all you want to, Hetty, an' don't be afraid,” Mrs. Gale called out.
“I jest want to say a word,” repeated Hetty. “Can't I stay here, nohow? It don't seem as if I could go to Mis' Radway's. I 'ain't nothin' again' her. I s'pose she's a good woman, but she's used to havin' her own way, and I've been livin' all my life with them that was, an' I've had to fight to keep a footin' on the earth, an' now I'm gittin' too old for't. If I can jest stay here in the meetin'-house, I won't ask for nothin' any better. I sha'n't need much to keep me, I wa'n't never a hefty eater; an' I'll keep the meetin'-house jest as clean as I know how. An' I'll make some more of them wool flowers. I'll make a wreath to go the whole length of the gallery, if I can git wool 'nough. Won't you let me stay? I ain't complainin', but I've always had a dretful hard time; seems as if now I might take a little comfort the last of it, if I could stay here. I can't go to Mis' Radway's nohow.” Hetty covered her face with her hands; her words ended in a weak wail.
Mrs. Gale's voice rang out clear and strong and irrepressible. “Of course you can stay in the meetin'-house,” said she; “I should laugh if you couldn't. Don't you worry another mite about it. You sha'n't go one step to Mis' Radway's; you couldn't live a day with her. You can stay jest where you are; you've kept the meetin'-house enough sight cleaner than I've ever seen it. Don't you worry another mite, Hetty.”
Mrs. Gale stood majestically, and looked defiantly around; tears were in her eyes. Another woman edged up to her. “Why couldn't she have that little room side of the pulpit, where the minister hangs his hat?” she whispered. “He could hang it somewheres else.”
“Course she could,” responded Mrs. Gale, with alacrity, “jest as well as not. The minister can have a hook in the entry for his hat. She can have her stove an' her bed in there, an' be jest as comfortable as can be. I should laugh if she couldn't. Don't you worry, Hetty.”
The crowd gradually dispersed, sending out stragglers down the hill until it was all gone. Mrs. Gale waited until the last, sitting in the buggy in state. When her husband gathered up the reins, she called back to Hetty: “Don't you worry one mite more about it, Hetty. I'm comin' up to see you in the mornin'!”
It was almost dusk when Caleb drove down the hill; he was the last of the besiegers, and the feeble garrison was left triumphant.
The next day but one was Christmas, the next night, Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve Hetty had reached what to her was the flood-tide of peace and prosperity. Established in that small, lofty room, with her bed and her stove, with gifts of a rocking-chair, and table, and a goodly store of food, with no one to molest or disturb her, she had nothing to wish for on earth. All her small desires were satisfied. No happy girl could have a merrier Christmas than this old woman with her little measure full of gifts. That Christmas Eve Hetty lay down under her sunflower quilt, and all her old hardships looked dim in the distance, like far-away hills, while her new joys came out like stars.
She was a light sleeper; the next morning she was up early. She opened the meeting-house door and stood looking out. The smoke from the village chimneys had not yet begun to rise blue and rosy in the clear frosty air. There was no snow, but over all the hill there was a silver rime of frost; the bare branches of the trees glistened. Hetty stood looking. “Why, it's Christmas mornin',” she said, suddenly. Christmas had never been a gala-day to this old woman. Christmas had not been kept at all in this New England village when she was young. She was led to think of it now only in connection with the dinner Mrs. Gale had promised to bring her to-day.
Mrs. Gale had told her she should have some of her Christmas dinner, some turkey and plum-pudding. She called it to mind now with a thrill of delight. Her face grew momentarily more radiant. There was a certain beauty in it. A finer morning light than that which lit up the wintry earth seemed to shine over the furrows of her old face. “I'm goin' to have turkey an' plum-puddin' to-day,” said she; “it's Christmas.” Suddenly she started, and went into the meeting-house, straight up the gallery stairs. There in a clear space hung the bell-rope. Hetty grasped it. Never before had a Christmas bell been rung in this village; Hetty had probably never heard of Christmas bells. She was prompted by pure artless enthusiasm and grateful happiness. Her old arms pulled on the rope with a will, the bell sounded peal on peal. Down in the village, curtains rolled up, letting in the morning light, happy faces looked out of the windows. Hetty had awakened the whole village to Christmas Day.