From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
The cottage house had been painted white, but the paint was now only a film in some places. One could see the gray wood through it. The establishment had a generally declining look; the shingles were scaling from the roof, the fences were leaning. All the bit of newness and smartness about it was the front door. That was painted a bright blue.
Cinnamon rose-bushes grew in the square front yard. They were full of their little, sweet, ragged roses now. With their silent, lowly persistency they had overrun the whole yard. There was no stepping-room between them. They formed a green bank against the house walls; their branches reached droopingly across the front walk, and pushed through the fence. Children on the sidewalk could pick the roses.
Four men coming up the street with a business air looked hesitatingly at this rose-crowded front yard when they neared it.
“Thar ain't no use goin' in thar into that mess of prickly roses,” said one — a large man with a happy smile and swagger.
“We are obliged by law to have the sale on the premises,” remarked another, blandly and authoritatively. He was a light-whiskered young fellow, who wore better clothes than the others, and held a large roll of papers ostentatiously.
“Come round to the side of the house, then,” spoke another, with low gruffness. He was a man of fifty. He had a lean, sinewy figure, and a severe, sharp-featured face. His skin was dark reddish-brown from exposure to the sun.
So the four filed around into the side yard, with its short grass and its well and well-sweep. Here a red flag was blowing, fastened to a cherry-tree. The men stood together in close consultation, the light-whiskered young man, who was a lawyer, being chief spokesman.
“We may as well begin,” he said, finally, standing off from the others. “The hour has passed; no one else is likely to come.”
Then they took their places with a show of ceremony — the large man, who now held the roll of papers, a little aloof, the lawyer, and the fourth man, who was old, and had a stupid, anxious face, at one side, and the man with the severe, red face, leaning carelessly against the cherry-tree.
The large man began to read in a loud voice. As he did so, a loud wail came from the house. He stopped reading, and all turned their faces towards it.
“Oh dear!” they heard distinctly, in a shrill, weak, womanish voice, with an unnatural strain on it — “oh dear! oh dear me! Dear me! dear me! dear me!” Then followed loud hysterical sobs; then the voice kept on: “Oh, father, what made you leave me? — what made you die an' leave me? I wa'n't fit to be left alone. Oh, father! oh, mother! oh, Luciny! I 'ain't got anybody — I 'ain't, not anybody. Oh dear! oh dear me! dear me!”
“I heard she took on awfully 'bout it,” said the auctioneer.
“Well, you might as well go on,” said the lawyer; “duty has to be performed, no matter how unpleasant.”
“That's so,” assented the auctioneer. Then he proceeded, trying to drown out these distressing cries with his powerful utterance. But the cries rang through and above it always. He kept on smilingly; it was the lawyer who grew impatient.
“For God's sake,” cried he, “can't something be done to stop that woman? Why didn't somebody take her away?”
“I guess her brother's wife is in thar with her; I thought I see her at the window a minute ago,” said the auctioneer, coming down from his high hill of declamation.
“Well, go on quickly, and have done with it,” said the lawyer. “This is awful.”
The man at the cherry-tree kept clinching his hands, but he said nothing.
The auctioneer resumed his reading of the long statement of the conditions of the sale, then the bidding began. That was soon over, since there were only two bidders. The old man, who held the mortgage, which had been foreclosed, bid with nervous promptness the exact amount of his claim. Then the man at the cherry-tree made a bid of a few dollars more, and he was pronounced the purchaser.
“Going, going — gone!” said the auctioneer, “to William Havers.”
William Havers lingered about his new estate until the others had departed, which they did as soon as the necessary arrangements were completed. They wanted to be out of hearing of those sad cries and complaints.
Havers strolled out to the road with them. When he saw them fairly started, he went swiftly back to the house, to the side door.
He knocked cautiously. Directly the cries broke out louder and shriller. “They've come to order me out. Oh dear! oh dear! dear! dear! They've come to order me out — they hev, they hev!”
Steps approached the door swiftly; it opened, and a woman appeared. She looked pale and troubled, but she was not the one in such bitter distress, for the cries still sounded from the interior of the house.
“How do you do, Mr. Havers?” said the woman, with grave formality.
“Can I see her a minute?” he asked, hoarsely.
“Elsie? I don't know. She's takin' on dreadfully. She ain't fit to see anybody. I'm afraid she wouldn't.”
“If she'd only see me a minute. I've got something I want to say particular.”
“Well, I'll see.”
She disappeared, and directly the voice, which had been a little more subdued, waxed louder.
“No, I won't see him; I won't; I can't. I won't see anybody. I never want to see anybody again as long as I live. Oh dear! dear!”
“It ain't any use,” said the woman, coming back. “She ain't fit to see anybody; she's 'most crazy. She don't know what she's sayin', anyhow.”
“Then you tell her — you go right in an' tell her now — she kin stay here. It don't make any odds about my buyin' the place; I won't live here. She kin keep right on stayin' here jest the same.”
A door opened suddenly, and another woman appeared. She was a pitiful sight. She had a little, slim, bony figure, which seemed to tremble in every joint. Every line in her small face wavered and quivered; her blue eyes were watery and bloodshot; her skin all blotched and stained with tears. She was so disfigured by grief that it was impossible to judge of her natural appearance. She would have been hideous, had not her smallness and frailty in her distress made her piteous.
Now, however, something besides sorrow seemed to move her. She was all alive with a strange, impotent wrath, which was directed against William Havers.
She clinched her red, bony hands; her poor eyes flashed with indignation, though the force of it was lost through their tearful weakness.
“I guess I won't keep on stayin' here,” she snapped, in her thin, hoarse voice. “I guess I won't. You needn't offer me a home. I've got one pervided. I ain't quite destitute yet. You needn't think you're goin' to come round now an' smooth matters over. I know why you've done it. You can't blind me. You've been watchin' all the time for a chance to pay us back.”
“I don't know what she means,” said Havers, helplessly, to the other woman.
“She don't know neither. She's 'most beside herself.”
Havers began again, trying to speak soothingly: “Now don't you go to feelin' so, Miss Mills. You 'ain't got to leave. I ain't a-goin' to live here myself anyway. I'm goin' —”
“I ain't goin' to stay here another night. I ain't goin' to be livin' on you. I guess you'll find out. Oh, Luciny, what would you have said if you'd knowed what was comin' twenty year ago! Oh dear! dear!”
The other woman took her by the shoulders. “Now, Elsie, you've got to walk right in an' stop this. You ain't talkin' with any reason. You'll be ashamed of yourself when you come to.”
She walked her forcibly out of the entry, and shut the door. Then she turned to Havers.
“You mustn't mind what she says,” said she. “She's been about as near crazy as anybody can be, and not be, all day.”
“I don't know what she kin mean by my tryin' to pay her back, Mis' Wing.”
“Lor', she don't know herself. She's got kind of a notion that you're to blame for buyin' the place. She'll know better to-morrow.”
“It's a good deal better for me to buy it than Steadman,” said Havers, with a troubled look. “I shall let her keep right on here. To tell the truth, I bought the place more fur —”
“You're a real good man,” said Mrs. Wing, warmly. She was Elsie Mills's brother's wife. “She'll be ashamed of herself to-morrow. But she's comin' to live with Silas an' me. She's welcome to a home with us jest as long as she lives. She ain't fit to live alone anyway. We knew when her father died that she'd run the place out in no time. Well, she's takin' on so, I shall have to go in. I don't like to leave her a minute. Don't you mind anything she said.”
Contrary to Mrs. Wing's expectations, Elsie Mills was not disposed to retract her words. The next day, when she was peacefully domiciled in her brother's house, and seemed a little calmer, her sister-in-law opened on the subject.
“What in creation made you talk so to William Havers last night?” said she. “Not one man in a hundred would have made you the offer that he did after he'd bought a place.”
Elsie fired up at once. “I guess I know why,” said she. “Luciny gave him the mitten once — that's why. He's doin' it to show out.”
“Why, Elsie Mills, are you in your right mind?”
“Yes, I am. He acted awful cut up. He never got over it. He always meant to pay us back. Now he's bought the place an' invited me to live on him, he'll feel better.”
“Well, I never!”
Mrs. Wing repeated the conversation to her husband, and told him that she was really scared about Elsie: she did not act with any reason.
Silas Wing laughed. “Don't you worry, Maria,” said he. “Elsie always had that notion. I never really believed that Luciny give Havers the mitten, myself; but she did, an' she always went on the notion that he was dreadful upset over it. Elsie's queer. She's mighty meek an' yieldin' generally; she seems to be kinder goin' sideways at things fur the most part; but if she ever does git p'inted straight at anything, thar ain't no turnin' her.”
“Do you remember anything about William Havers waitin' on Luciny?”
“Yes. He was round some two years before she died. I didn't think much about it. Luciny was always havin' beaux. An' no wonder; thar wa'n't many girls like her. Lord! I kin see her now, jest how she used to look. Poor Elsie wa'n't much beside her, but I don't believe she ever give that a thought. She thought Luciny was beautiful, an' thar wa'n't anything too good fur her. She'd slave herself 'most to death to save her. No; don't you worry, Maria. Elsie's always run on that notion.”
Silas Wing was Elsie Mills's half-brother; the dead Lucina had been her own sister. The house which had just been sold was her inheritance from her father.
Silas Wing was an easy, prosperous man, with a shrewd streak in his character. His sister's property was sadly deteriorated, and a poor investment. He had no idea of sinking money to secure it for her, but he was perfectly willing to provide for her, and gave her a most cordial invitation to his home.
He gave her a front chamber in his large, square white house, and furnished it with her own things, to make it seem like home.
“Thar ain't any reason why Elsie shouldn't be as happy as a queen here as long as she lives,” he told his wife. “Thar ain't many women fare any better. She ain't much over forty. She'd hev to work hard if she was in some places, an' she ain't fit to. Now she'll jest hev to help you round a little, an' live jest as comfortable as can be.”
Elsie's chamber commanded a good view of her old home, which was a little farther down on the opposite side of the street. She could see the yard full of cinnamon roses, and the blue front door, which stood out bravely. That blue door was due to her; she had painted it herself. Silas had some blue paint left after painting his farm wagon, and she had begged it. Then she had stood on a chair — a small, lean figure in clinging calico — and plastered the brilliant blue thickly over the front door, wielding the brush stiffly in her little knotty hand, stretching herself up on her slight, long limbs.
She had always viewed the effect with innocent delight. The unusualness of a blue front door did not trouble her. She was as crude and original as a child in her tastes. It looked bright and fresh in itself, and to her thinking relieved the worn look of the house. She would have painted farther had her paint lasted. After the door was painted blue, she had held up her head better under a neighbor's insinuation that the house was “run down.” That, indeed, had led her to do it.
Now she sat forlornly at her chamber window, her elbows on the sill, her sharp chin in her hands, for many an hour, staring over at the blue door and the cinnamon roses, as she might have stared at lost jewels. Nothing about the place seemed so distinctly her own as that blue door; nothing seemed so dear as those cinnamon roses, because her dead sister Lucina had planted them. It is sad work looking at things that were once one's own, when they have not been given away for love, and one still wants them. Elsie was meekly unhappy over it. She was no longer violent and openly despairing, as she had been at first. That had been very unusual with her. She was fond of her brother and his wife, and conformed gently to all the requirements of her new life. She had very little enduring resistance to circumstances in her; she did not kick against the pricks. Still she lay close to them, and was tender enough to be cruelly stung by them.
She grew old, and her friends noticed it.
“It ain't any use,” Mrs. Wing told her husband: “Elsie ain't never goin' to be the same as she was before she lost her house. She's grown ten years older in a week.”
“She's a silly girl; that's all I've got to say,” replied Silas Wing.
One evening Elsie, at her open chamber window, overheard a conversation between her brother and his wife. They were sitting on the doorstep.
“Havers came over to-night,” said Silas. “I see him out at the gate as I come along. He's goin' to let his other house and live here, he says. I declare I'd hardly think he'd want to, this is so much further from town. But the other'll let better, I s'pose. Reckon that's the reason.”
“Is he goin' to fix this one up?” asked Mrs. Wing.
“Yes; he's goin' to paint it up some, an' hev the roof shingled. He was kinder laughin' about that blue door, but he didn't seem to think he'd hev it altered afterwards. I told him how poor Elsie painted it herself.”
“Lord! I shouldn't think he'd want to keep that blue door.”
“He seemed to think it wouldn't look bad if the house was painted new to go with it. He's goin' to cut down all them cinnamon roses in the front yard to-morrow. He's brought over his sickle to-night.”
That was all Elsie heard. She did not know how long they talked after that. He was going to cut down Lucina's cinnamon roses!
She kept saying it over to herself, as if it were a task she had to learn, and she could not easily understand. “Luciny's cinnamon roses. He's goin' to cut down all Luciny's cinnamon roses to-morrow.”
It was twelve o'clock that night when Elsie crept down the stairs and out the front door. There was no sound, except her brother's heavy breathing, in the house. He and his wife had been asleep three hours. Elsie sidled out of the yard, keeping on the grass, then sped across the road, and down it a little way to her old home. There were only these two houses for a long way; there was not a light visible in either. No one would be passing at this time of the night; there was no danger of her being observed; moreover, she could not have been very easily. Great elms grew on both sides of the street, and they cast broad, flickering shadows. Elsie, keeping close with the shadows, as if they were friends, and progressing with soft starts, after little pauses to listen and peer, might have passed for a shadow herself.
She stopped for a minute at the corner of the yard, and stared fearfully over at the periled roses. The moon was coming up, and she could see them distinctly. She fell to remembering. To this innocent, simple-hearted creature, clinging so closely to old holy loves and loyalties that she meditated what to her was a desperate deed in defence of them, that fair dead Lucina became visible among her cinnamon roses.
Elsie for a minute, as she stood there, was all memory; the past seemed to come back in pity for her agony of regret, and overshine the present.
The light of an old morning lay on those roses, and young Lucina stood among them, lovely and triumphant. She had just set them in the earth with her own dear hands.
When Elsie moved again she was ready for anything.
Oh, those cinnamon roses! the only traces which that beautiful, beloved maiden had left of her presence in the world! Oh, those cinnamon roses! the one little legacy of grace which she had been able to bequeath to it!
When Elsie came out on the road again she had something carefully covered by her apron, lest the moon should make it glitter. She ran home faster than she had come, with no watchful pauses now. But she had to make another cautious journey to the Wing barn before she returned to her room. Finally she gained it successfully: no one had heard her.
The next morning some one knocked while the family were at the breakfast table. Silas went to the door.
“The queerest thing,” he said, when he returned. “Havers has lost his sickle, the one he brought over last night, an' he wants to borrow mine, an' I can't find that high or low. I would ha' sworn it was hangin' on the hook in the barn. He wants to get them cinnamon roses cut.”
“Well, I should think it was queer!” said his wife. “I know I saw it out there yesterday. Are you sure it's gone?”
“Course I am. Don't you s'pose I've got eyes?”
Elsie said nothing. She bent her head over her plate and tried to eat. They did not notice how white she was. She kept a sharp watch all day; she started every time any one spoke; she kept close to the others; she dreaded to hear what might be said, but she dreaded more not to hear.
“Has Mr. Havers found his sickle yet?” Mrs. Wing asked, when her husband came home at night. He had been over to the village. “I see you ridin' home with him.”
“No, he 'ain't. He's gone and bought a new one. Says he's bound to hev them roses cut down to-morrow. 'Ain't seen anything of ourn yet, hev ye?”
“No; I've been out myself an' looked.”
“Well, it beats everything — two sickles right in the neighborhood! I ruther think some one must ha' took 'em.”
“Land! Silas, nobody's took 'em. I know all about you. I've known you to hev things stole before, an' it always turned out you was the thief. When you lose a thing, it's always stole.”
Elsie found it harder to start out to-night; a little of the first impetus was wasted. Still, she did not hesitate. When the house was quiet she crept out again, and went over to the old place.
She did not stop to reflect over the roses to-night. She was braced up to do her errand; but it must be done quickly, or she would give way. She went straight around the house to the woodshed, where she had found the sickle the night before. As she came close to the open arch which served as entrance, there was a swift rush, and William Havers stood beside her holding her arm.
“Oh!” she said, then began feebly gasping for breath.
“Elsie Mills! what in the world are you doin' here?”
She looked up in his face, but did not speak.
“Why, Elsie, what is it? Don't you be afraid, you poor little thing. What was it you wanted? Tell me.”
“Let me go!”
“Of course I will, but I think you'd better tell me what you wanted, an' let me get it. I'd be glad enough to. I didn't mean to scare you. I suspected I'd hed a sickle stole, an' I was kinder keepin' a lookout. When I jumped out I didn't see who 'twas.”
“I stole your sickle, an' I'll steal it again if you offer to tech Luciny's roses.”
“You — stole my sickle — I offer to tech Luciny's roses! I guess I don't know what you mean, Elsie.”
“I mean jest what I say. I'll steal your sickle every time you offer to cut down Luciny's roses.”
“You mean them roses out in the front yard?”
“Course I do. Didn't she set 'em out?”
“Lord! I didn't know. I didn't know nothin' about it. I hadn't no notion of your feelin' bad. If I had, I guess — Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you come right over? I'd hev mown off my own fingers before I'd offered to tech them roses if I'd known.”
“Do you s'pose I was goin' to come over here an' ask you not to, when I knew you was jest doin' it for spite 'cause Luciny wouldn't hev you?”
“'Cause Luciny wouldn't hev me?”
“Yes, 'cause Luciny wouldn't hev you.”
“I didn't never ask her to hev me, Elsie.”
“I didn't never ask her.”
“I don't see what you mean by that.”
“Why, I mean I didn't.”
“What was you hangin' round her so fur, then? An' what made you act so awful cut up?”
“Didn't you never know 'twas you, Elsie?”
“Well, all I've got to say is, you'd orter to be ashamed of yourself. A girl like Luciny — you wa'n't fit to look at her. I guess there wa'n't many fellers round but would ruther hev hed her than anybody else. I guess it's sour grapes.”
“I knew Luciny was the handsomest girl anywheres round, but that didn't make no difference. I always liked you best. I don't think you'd orter be mad, Elsie.”
“I ain't; but I don't like to see anybody like Luciny slighted. I wa'n't nothin' side of Luciny.”
“Well, I reckon your thinkin' you wa'n't was what made me take to you in the first place. Look a-here, Elsie. I'm a-goin' to tell you. I've been wantin' to, but I didn't know but I'd die before I got a chance. I come over an' bought this place jest on your account, when I heard the mortgage was goin' to be foreclosed. I didn't reely s'pose you'd be willin' to marry me, you treated me so indiff'rent in Luciny's day; but I didn't pay no attention to that. I wanted you to keep on livin' here. When you acted so mad 'cause I spoke about it, I didn't dare to say anything more. But I wish you'd come now. Won't you? I'll go back to my old home; 'twon't put me out a mite. An' I sha'n't do it because I've got any spite, nor want to show out. It'll be because I've always liked you better'n anybody else, an' wanted to do something fur you.”
Elsie was crying. “I've got to get used to thinkin' of it,” she sobbed.
“Well, you think it over, an' you come back here. It's your home, where you've always lived, an' I know you'll be happier, no matter how much your brother's folks do fur you. You make up your mind an' come back. I'll hev the house painted, an' it 'll look real pretty with the blue door; an' I won't hev a single one of them cinnamon roses cut down, if I find out that their roots are tangled up in a gold mine.”
“No; I sha'n't let you give me the house fur nothing; I sha'n't, William.”
“Now, Elsie, thar ain't no reason in your feelin' so. When anybody gets to thinkin' a good deal of anybody else, why it don't make so much difference about yourself; the other one stands first. If you kin see the other one happy, you don't know any difference betwixt that an' bein' happy yourself, an' if you kin only do something to make the other one happy, why, it comes before anything else. That's jest the way I feel. I've got eddicated up to it. So don't you worry about takin' the house fur nothing. You ain't. Now you'll git cold standin' here. I'm goin' to see you safe to your brother's, an' you think it over.”
Her little nervous hand clutched at his coat sleeve to detain him.
“Look-a here a minute. I want to tell you. I ain't never had anything like this to say before, an' I don't know how. When I got to thinkin' about anything of this kind, I always put Luciny in instead of me. But I want to tell you — I'm all took by surprise, an' I don't know — but mebbe, if I could get used to thinkin' of it, I — could —”
“I guess I don't know what you mean, Elsie.”
“Well, it don't seem as if thar would be much sense in my gittin' married now, anyway.”
Elsie Mills and William Havers were married at the bride's brother's. When the bridal couple went to their own home, they did not enter at the front door. They passed around to the side one, because the front yard was so full of cinnamon roses.