An Honest Soul

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Vol. LXIX No. CCCCX (July, 1884)

“Thar's Mis' Bliss's pieces in the brown kaliker bag, an' thar's Mis' Bennet's pieces in the bed-tickin' bag,” said she, surveying the two bags leaning against her kitchen wall complacently. “I'll get a dollar for both of them quilts, an' thar'll be two dollars. I've got a dollar an' sixty-three cents on hand now, an' thar's plenty of meal an' merlasses, an' some salt fish an' pertaters in the house. I'll get along middlin' well, I reckon. Thar ain't no call fer me to worry. I'll red up the house a leetle now, an' then I'll begin on Mis' Bliss's pieces.”

The house was an infinitesimal affair, containing only two rooms besides the tiny lean-to which served as wood-shed. It stood far enough back from the road for a pretentious mansion, and there was one curious feature about it — not a door or window was there in front, only a blank, unbroken wall. Strangers passing by used to stare wonderingly at it sometimes, but it was explained easily enough. Old Simeon Patch, years ago, when the longing for a home of his own had grown strong in his heart, and he had only a few hundred dollars saved from his hard earnings to invest in one, had wisely done the best he could with what he had.

Not much remained to spend on the house after the spacious lot was paid for, so he resolved to build as much house as he could with his money, and complete it when better days should come.

This tiny edifice was in reality simply the L of a goodly two-story house which had existed only in the fond and faithful fancies of Simeon Patch and his wife. That blank front wall was designed to be joined to the projected main building; so of course there was no need of doors or windows. Simeon Patch came of a hard-working, honest race, whose pride it had been to keep out of debt, and he was a true child of his ancestors. Not a dollar would he spend that was not in his hand; a mortgaged house was his horror. So he paid cash for every blade of grass on his lot of land, and every nail in his bit of a house, and settled down patiently in it until he should grub together enough more to buy a few additional boards and shingles, and pay the money down.

That time never came: he died in the course of a few years, after a lingering illness, and only had enough saved to pay his doctor's bill and funeral expenses, and leave his wife and daughter entirely without debt in their little fragment of a house on the big sorry lot of land.

There they had lived, mother and daughter, earning and saving in various little petty ways, keeping their heads sturdily above-water, and holding the dreaded mortgage resolutely off the house for many years. Then the mother died, and the daughter, Martha Patch, took up the little homely struggle alone. She was over seventy now, a small, slender old woman, as straight as a rail, with sharp black eyes, and a quick toss of her head when she spoke. She did odd housewifely jobs for the neighbors, wove rag carpets, pieced bed-quilts, braided rugs, etc., and contrived to supply all her simple wants.

This evening, after she had finished putting her house to rights, she fell to investigating the contents of the bags which two of the neighbors had brought in the night before, with orders for quilts, much to her delight.

“Mis' Bliss has got proper harnsome pieces,” said she — “proper harnsome; they'll make a good-lookin' quilt. Mis' Bennet's is good too, but they ain't quite ekal to Mis' Bliss's. I reckon some of 'em's old.”

She began spreading some of the largest, prettiest pieces on her white-scoured table. “Thar,” said she, gazing at one admiringly, “that jest takes my eye; them leetle pink roses is pretty, an' no mistake. I reckon that's French caliker. Thar's some big pieces too. Lor', what bag did I take 'em out on! It must hev been Mis' Bliss's. I mustn't git 'em mixed.”

She cut out some squares, and sat down by the window in a low wooden rocking-chair to sew. This window did not have a very pleasant outlook. The house was situated so far back from the road that it commanded only a rear view of the adjoining one. It was a great cross to Martha Patch. She was one of those women who like to see everything that is going on outside, and who often have excuse enough in the fact that so little is going on with them.

“It's a great divarsion,” she used to say, in her snapping way, which was more nervous than ill-natured, bobbing her head violently at the same time — “a very great divarsion to see Mr. Peters's cows goin' in an' out of the barn day arter day; an' that's about all I do see — never git a sight of the folks goin' to meetin' nor nothin'.”

The lack of a front window was a continual source of grief to her.

“When the minister's prayin' for the widders an' orphans, he'd better make mention of one more,” said she, once, “an' that's women without front winders.”

She and her mother had planned to save money enough to have one some day, but they had never been able to bring it about. A window commanding a view of the street and the passers-by would have been a great source of comfort to the poor old woman, sitting and sewing as she did day in and day out. As it was, the few objects of interest which did come within her vision she seized upon eagerly, and made much of. There were some children who, on their way from school, could make a short-cut through her yard, and reach home quicker. She watched for them every day, and if they did not appear quite as soon as usual she would grow uneasy, and eye the clock, and mutter to herself, “I wonder where them Mosely children can be?” When they came she watched their progress with sharp attention, and thought them over for an hour afterward. Not a bird which passed her window escaped her notice. This innocent old gossip fed her mind upon their small domestic affairs in lieu of larger ones. To-day she often paused between her stitches to gaze absorbedly at a yellow-bird vibrating nervously round the branches of a young tree opposite. It was early spring, and the branches were all of a light green foam.

“That's the same yaller-bird I saw yesterday, I do b'lieve,” said she. “I recken he's goin' to build a nest in that ellum.”

Lately she had been watching the progress of the grass gradually springing up all over the yard. One spot where it grew much greener than elsewhere her mind dwelt upon curiously.

“I can't make out,” she said to a neighbor, “whether that 'ere spot is greener than the rest because the sun shines brightly thar, or because somethin's buried thar.”

She toiled steadily on the patchwork quilts. At the end of a fortnight they were nearly completed. She hurried on the last one one forenoon thinking she would carry them both to their owners that afternoon and get her pay. She did not stop for any dinner.

Spreading them out for one last look before rolling them up in bundles she caught her breath hastily.

“What hev I done?” said she. “Massy sakes! I hevn't gone an' put Mis' Bliss's caliker with the leetle pink roses on't in Mis Bennet's quilt! I hev, jest as sure as preachin'! What shell I do?”

The poor old soul stood staring at the quilts in pitiful dismay. “A hull fortnit's work,” she muttered. “What shell I do? Them pink roses is the prettiest caliker in the hull lot. Mis' Bliss will be mad if they air in Mis' Bennet's quilt. She won't say nothin', an' she'll pay me, but she'll feel it inside, an' it won't be doin' the squar' thing by her. No; if I'm goin' to airn money I'll airn it.”

Martha Patch gave her head a jerk. The spirit which animated her father when he went to housekeeping in a piece of a house without any front window blazed up within her. She made herself a cup of tea, then sat deliberately down by the window to rip the quilts to pieces. It had to be done pretty thoroughly on account of her admiration for the pink calico, and the quantity of it — it figured in nearly every square. “I wish I hed a front winder to set to while I'm doin' on't,” said she; but she patiently plied her scissors till dusk, only stopping for a short survey of the Mosely children. After days of steady work the pieces were put together again, this time the pink rose calico in Mrs. Bliss's quilt. Martha Patch rolled the quilts up with a sigh of relief, and a sense of virtuous triumph.

“I'll sort over the pieces that's left in the bags,” said she, “then I'll take 'em over an' git my pay. I'm gittin' pretty short of vittles.”

She began pulling the pieces out of the bed-ticking bag, laying them on her lap, and smoothing them out, preparatory to doing them up in a neat tight roll to take home — she was very methodical about everything she did. Suddenly she turned pale, and stared wildly at a tiny scrap of calico which she had just fished out of the bag.

“Massy sakes!” she cried; “it ain't, is it?” She clutched Mrs. Bliss's quilt from the table, and laid the bit of calico beside the pink rose squares.

“It's jest the same thing,” she groaned, “an' it came out on Mis' Bennet's bag. Dear me suz! dear me suz!”

She dropped helplessly into her chair by the window, still holding the quilt and the tell-tale scrap of calico, and gazed out in a bewildered sort of way. Her poor old eyes looked dim and weak with tears.

“Thar's the Mosely children comin',” she said — “happy little gals, laughin' an' hollerin', goin' home to their mother to git a good dinner. Me a-settin' here's a lesson they ain't larned in their books yit; hope to goodness they never will; hope they won't ever hev to piece quilts fur a livin', without any front winder to set to. Thar's a dandelion blown out on that green spot. Reckon thar is somethin' buried thar. Lordy massy! hev I got to rip them two quilts to pieces agin an' sew 'em over?”

Finally she resolved to carry a bit of the pink rose calico over to Mrs. Bennet's, and find out, without betraying the dilemma she was in, if it was really hers.

Her poor old knees fairly shook under her when she entered Mrs. Bennet's sitting-room.

“Why, yes, Miss Patch, it's mine,” said Mrs. Bennet, in response to her agitated question. “Hattie had a dress like it, don't you remember? There was a lot of new pieces left, and I thought they would work into a quilt nice. But, for pity's sake, Martha, what is the matter? You look just as white as a sheet. You ain't sick, are you?”

“No,” said Martha, with a feeble toss of her head, to keep up the deception; “I ain't sick, only kinder all gone with the warm weather. I reckon I'll hev to fix me up some thoroughwort tea. Thoroughwort's a great strengthener.”

“I would,” said Mrs. Bennet, sympathizingly; “and don't you work too hard on that quilt; I ain't in a bit of a hurry for it. I sha'n't want it before next winter anyway. I only thought I'd like to have it pieced and ready.”

“I reckon I can't get it done afore another fortni't,” said Martha, trembling.

“I don't care if you don't get it done for the next three months. Don't go yet, Martha; you 'ain't rested a minute, and it's a pretty long walk. Don't you want a bite of something before you go? Have a piece of cake? You look real faint.”

“No, thanky,” said Martha, and departed in spite of all friendly entreaties to tarry. Mrs. Bennet watched her moving slowly down the road, still holding the little pink calico rag in her brown withered fingers.

“Martha Patch is failing; she ain't near so straight as she was,” remarked Mrs. Bennet. “She looks real bent over to-day.”

The little wiry springiness was, indeed, gone from her gait as she crept slowly along the sweet country road, and there was a helpless droop in her thin narrow shoulders. It was a beautiful spring day; the fruit trees were all in blossom. There were more orchards than houses on the way, and more blooming trees to pass than people.

Martha looked up at the white branches as she passed under them. “I kin smell the apple-blows,” said she, “but somehow the goodness is all gone out on 'em. I'd jest as soon smell cabbage. Oh, dear me suz, kin I ever do them quilts over agin?”

When she got home, however, she rallied a little. There was a nervous force about this old woman which was not easily overcome even by an accumulation of misfortunes. She might bend a good deal, but she was almost sure to spring back again. She took off her hood and shawl, and straightened herself up. “Thar's no use puttin' it off; it's got to be done. I'll hev them quilts right ef it kills me!”

She tied on a purple calico apron and sat down at the window again, with a quilt and the scissors. Out came the pink roses. There she sat through the long afternoon, cutting the stitches which she had so laboriously put in — a little, defiant old figure, its head, with a flat black lace cap on it, bobbing up and down in time with its hands. There were some purple bows on the cap, and they fluttered; quite a little wind blew in at the window.

The eight-day clock on the mantel ticked peacefully. It was a queer old timepiece, which had belonged to her grandmother Patch. A painting of a quaint female with puffed hair and a bunch of roses adorned the front of it under the dial-plate. It was flanked on either side by tall green vases.

There was a dull-colored rag carpet of Martha's own manufacture on the floor of the room. Some wooden chairs stood around stiffly; an old yellow map of Massachusetts and a portrait of George Washington hung on the walls. There was not a speck of dust anywhere, nor any disorder. Neatness was one of the chiefest comforts of Martha's life. Putting and keeping things in order was one of the interests which enlivened her dulness and made the world attractive to her.

The poor soul sat at the window, bending over the quilt, till dusk, and she sat there bending over the quilt till dusk many a day after.

It is a hard question to decide whether there was any real merit in such finely strained honesty, or whether it was merely a case of morbid conscientiousness. Perhaps the old woman, inheriting very likely her father's scruples, had had them so itensified by age and childishness that they had become a little off the bias of reason.

Be that as it may, she thought it was the right course for her to make the quilts over, and thinking so, it was all that she could do. She could never have been satisfied otherwise. It took her a considerable time longer to finish the quilts again, and this time she began to suffer from other causes than mere fatigue. Her stock of provisions commenced to run low, and her money was gone. At last she had nothing but a few potatoes in the house to eat. She contrived to dig some dandelion greens once or twice; these with the potatoes were all her diet. There was really no necessity for such a state of things: she was surrounded by kindly, well-to-do people, who would have gone without themselves rather than have let her suffer. But she had always been very reticent about her needs, and felt great pride about accepting anything which she did not pay for.

But she struggled along until the quilts were done, and no one knew. She set the last stitch quite late one evening; then she spread the quilts out and surveyed them. “Thar they air now, all right,” said she; “the pink roses is in Mis' Bennet's, an' I 'ain't cheated nobody out on their caliker, an' I've airned my money. I'll take 'em hum in the mornin', an' then I'll buy somethin' to eat. I begin to feel a dreadful sinkin' at my stummuck.”

She locked up the house carefully — she always felt a great responsibility when she had people's work on hand — and went to bed.

Next morning she woke up so faint and dizzy that she hardly knew herself. She crawled out into the kitchen, and sank down on the floor. She could not move another step.

“Lor sakes!” she moaned, “I reckon I'm 'bout done to!”

The quilts lay near her on the table; she stared up at them with feeble complacency. “Ef I'm goin' to die, I'm glad I got them quilts done right fust. Massy, how sinkin' I do feel! I wish I had a cup of tea.”

There she lay, and the beautiful spring morning wore on. The sun shone in at the window, and moved nearer and nearer, till finally she lay in a sunbeam, a poor, shrivelled, little old woman, whose resolute spirit had nearly been her death, in her scant night-gown and ruffled cap, a little shawl falling from her shoulders. She did not feel ill, only absolutely too weak and helpless to move. Her mind was just as active as ever, and her black eyes peered sharply out of her pinched face. She kept making efforts to rise, but she could not stir.

“Lor sakes!” she snapped out at length, “how long hev I got to lay here! I'm mad!”

She saw some dust on the black paint of a chair which stood in the sun, and she eyed that distressfully.

“Jest look at that dust on the runs of that cheer!” she muttered. “What if anybody come in! I wonder if I can't reach it!”

The chair was near her, and she managed to stretch out her limp old hand and rub the dust off the rounds. Then she let it sink down, panting.

“I wonder ef I ain't goin' to die,” she gasped. “I wonder ef I'm prepared. I never took nothin' that shouldn't belong to me that I knows on. Oh, dear me suz, I wish somebody would come!”

When her strained ears did catch the sound of footsteps outside, a sudden resolve sprang up in her heart.

“I won't let on to nobody how I've made them quilts over, an' how I hevn't had enough to eat — I won't.”

When the door was tried she called out feebly, “Who is thar?”

The voice of Mrs. Peters, her next-door neighbor, came back in response: “It's me. What's the matter, Marthy?”

“I'm kinder used up; don' know how you'll git in; I can't git to the door to unlock it to save my life.”

“Can't I get in at the window?”

“Mebbe you kin.”

Mrs. Peters was a long-limbed, spare woman, and she got in through the window with considerable ease, it being quite low from the ground.

She turned pale when she saw Martha lying on the floor. “Why, Marthy, what is the matter? How long have you been laying there?”

“Ever since I got up. I was kinder dizzy, an' hed a dreadful sinkin' feelin'. It ain't much, I reckon. Ef I could hev a cup of tea it would set me right up. Thar's a spoonful left in the pantry. Ef you jest put a few kindlin's in the stove, Mis' Peters, an' set in the kettle an' make me a cup, I could git up, I know. I've got to go an' kerry them quilts hum to Mis' Bliss an' Mis' Bennet.”

“I don't believe but what you've got all tired out over the quilts. You've been working too hard.”

“No, I 'ain't, Mis' Peters; it's nothin' but play piecin' quilts. All I mind is not havin' a front winder to set to while I'm doin' on't.”

Mrs. Peters was a quiet, sensible woman of few words; she insisted upon carrying Martha into the bedroom and putting her comfortably to bed. It was easily done, she was muscular, and the old woman a very light weight. Then she went in to the pantry. She was beginning to suspect the state of affairs, and her suspicions were strengthened when she saw the bare shelves. She started the fire, put on the tea-kettle, and then slipped across the yard to her own house for further reinforcements.

Pretty soon Martha was drinking her cup of tea and eating her toast and a dropped egg. She had taken the food with some reluctance, half starved as she was. Finally she gave in — the sight of it was too much for her. “Well, I will borry it, Mis' Peters,” said she; “an' I'll pay you jest as soon as I kin git up.”

After she had eaten she felt stronger. Mrs. Peters had hard work to keep her quiet till afternoon; then she would get up and carry the quilts home. The two ladies were profuse in praises. Martha, proud and smiling. Mrs. Bennet noticed the pink roses at once. “How pretty that calico did work in,” she remarked.

“Yes,” assented Martha, between an inclination to chuckle and to cry.

“Ef I ain't thankful I did them quilts over,” thought she, creeping slowly homeward, her hard-earned two dollars knotted into a corner of her handkerchief for security.

About sunset, Mrs. Peters came in again. “Marthy,” she said, after a while, “Sam says he's out of work just now, and he'll cut through a front window for you. He's got some old sash and glass that's been laying round in the barn ever since I can remember. It 'll be a real charity for you to take it off his hands, and he'll like to do it. Sam's as uneasy as a fish out of water when he hasn't got any work.”

Martha eyed her suspiciously. “Thanky; but I don't want nothin' done that I can't pay for,” said she, with a stiff toss of her head.

“It would be pay enough jest letting Sam do it, Marthy; but, if you really feel set about it, I've got some sheets that need turning. You can do them some time this summer, and that will pay us for all it's worth.”

The black eyes looked at her sharply. “Air you sure?”

“Yes; it's fully as much as it's worth,” said Mrs. Peters. “I'm most afraid it's more. There's four sheets, and putting in a window is nothing more than putting in a patch — the old stuff ain't worth anything.”

When Martha fully realized that she was going to have a front window, and that her pride might suffer it to be given to her and yet receive no insult, she was as delighted as a child.

“Lor sakes!” said she, “jest to think that I shall have a front winder to set to! I wish mother could ha' lived to see it. Mebbe you kinder wonder at it, Mis' Peters — you've allers had front winders; but you haven't any idea what a great thing it seems to me. It kinder makes me feel younger. Thar's the Mosely children; they're 'bout all I've ever seen pass this winder, Mis' Peters. Jest see that green spot out thar; it's been greener than the rest of the yard all the spring, an' now thar's lots of dandelions blowed out on it, an' some clover. I b'lieve the sun shines more on it, somehow. Lor me, to think I'm going to hev a front winder!”

“Sarah was in this afternoon,” said Mrs. Peters, further (Sarah was her married daughter), “and she says she wants some braided rugs right away. She'll send the rags over by Willie to-morrow.”

“You don't say so! Well I'll be glad to do it; an' thar's one thing 'bout it, Mis' Peters — mebbe you'll think it queer for me to say so, but I'm kinder thankful it's rugs she wants. I'm kinder sick of bed-quilts somehow.”