From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
Esther Gay's house was little and square, and mounted on posts like stilts. A stair led up to the door on the left side. Morning-glories climbed up the stair-railing, the front of the house and the other side were covered with them, all the windows but one were curtained with the matted green vines. Esther sat at the uncurtained window, and knitted. She perked her thin, pale nose up in the air, her pointed chin tilted upward too; she held her knitting high, and the needles clicked loud, and shone in the sun. The bell was ringing for church, and a good many people were passing. They could look in on her, and see very plainly what she was doing. Every time a group went by she pursed her thin old lips tighter, and pointed up her nose higher, and knitted more fiercely. Her skinny shoulders jerked. She cast a sharp glance at every one who passed, but no one caught her looking. She knew them all. This was a little village. By and by the bell had stopped tolling, and even the late church-goers had creaked briskly out of sight. The street, which was narrow here, was still and vacant.
Presently a woman appeared in a little flower-garden in front of the opposite house. She was picking a nosegay. She was little and spare, and she bent over the flowers with a stiffness as of stiff wires. It seemed as if it would take mechanical force to spring her up again.
Esther watched her. “It's dretful hard work for her to git around,” she muttered to herself.
Finally, she laid down her knitting and called across to her. “Laviny!” said she.
The woman came out to the gate with some marigolds and candytuft in her hand. Her dim blue eyes blinked in the light. She looked over and smiled with a sort of helpless inquiry.
“Come over here a minute.”
“I — guess I — can't.”
Esther was very deaf. She could not hear a word, but she saw the deprecating shake of the head, and she knew well enough.
“I'd like to know why you can't, a minute. You kin hear your mother the minute she speaks.”
The woman glanced back at the house, then she looked over at Esther. Her streaked light hair hung in half-curls over her wide crocheted collar; she had a little, narrow, wrinkled face, but her cheeks were as red as roses.
“I guess I'd better not. It's Sunday, you know,” said she. Her soft, timid voice could by no possibility reach those deaf ears across the way.
“I — guess I'd better not — as long as it's Sunday.”
Esther's strained attention caught the last word, and guessed at the rest from a knowledge of the speaker.
“Stuff,” said she, with a sniff through her delicate, uptilted nostrils. “I'd like to know how much worse 'tis for you to step over here a minute, an' tell me how she is when I can't hear across the road, than to stop an' talk comin' out o' meetin'; you'd do that quick enough. You're strainin', Laviny Dodge.”
Lavinia, as if overwhelmed by the argument, cast one anxious glance back at the house, and came through the gate.
Just then a feeble, tremulous voice, with a wonderful quality of fine sharpness in it, broke forth behind her,
“Laviny, Laviny, where be you goin'? Come back here.”
Lavinia, wheeling with such precipitate vigor that it suggested a creak, went up the path.
“I wa'n't goin' anywhere, mother,” she called out. “What's the matter?”
“You can't pull the wool over my eyes. I seed you a-goin' out the gate.”
Lavinia's mother was over ninety and bedridden. That infinitesimal face which had passed through the stages of beauty, commonplaceness, and hideousness, and now arrived at that of the fine grotesqueness which has, as well as beauty, a certain charm of its own, peered out from its great feather pillows. The skin on the pinched face was of a dark-yellow color, the eyes were like black points, the tiny, sunken mouth had a sardonic pucker.
“Esther jest wanted me to come over there a minute. She wanted to ask after you,” said Lavinia, standing beside the bed, holding her flowers.
“She jest wanted me to come over an' tell her how you was.”
“How I was?”
“Did you tell her I was miser'ble?”
“I didn't go, mother.”
“I seed you a-goin' out the gate.”
“I came back. She couldn't hear 'thout I went way over.”
“It's all right, mother,” screamed Lavinia. Then she went about putting the flowers in water.
The old woman's little eyes followed her, with a sharp light like steel.
“I ain't goin' to hev you goin' over to Esther Gay's, Sabbath day,” she went on, her thin voice rasping out from her pillows like a file. “She ain't no kind of a girl. Wa'n't she knittin'?”
“Yes, she was knittin', mother.”
“Y-e-s, she was.”
“I knowed it. Stayin' home from meetin' an' knittin'. I ain't goin' to hev you over thar, Laviny.”
Esther Gay, over in her window, held her knitting up higher, and knitted with fury. “H'm, the old lady called her back,” said she. “If they want to show out they kin, I'm goin' to do what I think's right.”
The morning-glories on the house were beautiful this morning, the purple and white and rosy ones stood out with a soft crispness. Esther Gay's house was not so pretty in winter — there was no paint on it, and some crooked outlines showed. It was a poor little structure, but Esther owned it free of encumbrances. She had also a pension of ninety-six dollars which served her for support. She considered herself well to do. There was not enough for anything besides necessaries, but Esther was one who had always looked upon necessaries as luxuries. Her sharp eyes saw the farthest worth of things. When she bought a half-cord of pine wood with an allotment of her pension-money, she saw in a vision all the warmth and utility which could ever come from it. When it was heaped up in the space under the house which she used for a wood-shed, she used to go and look at it.
“Esther Gay does think so much of her own things,” people said.
That little house, which, with its precipitous stair and festoons of morning-glories, had something of a foreign picturesqueness, looked to her like a real palace. She paid a higher tax upon it than she should have done. A lesser one had been levied, and regarded by her as an insult. “My house is worth more'n that,” she had told the assessor with an indignant bridle. She paid the increased tax with cheerful pride, and frequently spoke of it. To-day she often glanced from her knitting around the room. There was a certain beauty in it, although it was hardly the one which she recognized. It was full of a lovely, wavering, gold-green light, and there was a fine order and cleanness which gave a sense of peace. But Esther saw mainly her striped rag-carpet, her formally set chairs, her lounge covered with Brussels, and her shining cooking-stove.
Still she looked at nothing with the delight with which she surveyed her granddaughter Hatty, when she returned from church.
“Well, you've got home, ain't you?” she said, when the young, slim girl, with her pale, sharp face, which was like her grandmother's, stood before her. Hatty in her meeting-gown of light-brown delaine, and her white meeting-hat trimmed with light-brown ribbons and blue flowers was not pretty, but the old woman admired her.
“Yes,” said Hatty. Then she went into her little bedroom to take off her things. There was a slow shyness about her. She never talked much, even to her grandmother.
“You kin git you somethin' to eat, if you want it,” said the old woman. “I don't want to stop myself till I git this heel done. Was Henry to meetin'?”
“His father an' mother?”
Henry was the young man who had been paying attention to Hatty. Her grandmother was proud and pleased; she liked him.
Hatty generally went to church Sunday evenings, and the young man escorted her home, and came in and made a call. To-night the girl did not go to church as usual. Esther was astonished.
“Why, ain't you goin' to meetin'?” said she.
“No; I guess not.”
“Why? why not?”
“I thought I wouldn't.”
The old woman looked at her sharply. The tea-things were cleared away, and she was at her knitting again, a little lamp at her elbow.
Presently Hatty went out, and sat at the head of the stairs, in the twilight. She sat there by herself until meeting was over, and the people had been straggling by for some time. Then she went down-stairs, and joined a young man who passed at the foot of them. She was gone half an hour.
“Where hev you been?” asked her grandmother, when she returned.
“I went out a little way.”
“Why didn't he come in?”
“He thought he wouldn't.”
“I don't see why.”
Hatty said nothing. She lit her candle to go to bed. Her little thin face was imperturbable.
She worked in a shop, and earned a little money. Her grandmother would not touch a dollar of it; what she did not need to spend for herself, she made her save. Lately the old woman had been considering the advisability of her taking a sum from the saving's bank to buy a silk dress. She thought she might need it soon.
Monday, she opened upon the subject. “Hatty,” said she, “I've been thinkin' — don't you believe it would be a good plan for you to take a little of your money out of the bank an' buy you a nice dress?”
Hatty never answered quickly. She looked at her grandmother, then she kept on with her sewing. It was after supper, her shop-work was done, and she was sitting at the table with her needle. She seemed to be considering her grandmother's remark.
The old woman waited a moment, then she proceeded: “I've been thinkin' — you ain't never had any real nice dress, you know — that it would be a real good plan for you to take some money, now you've got it, an' buy you a silk one. You ain't never had one, an' you're old enough to.”
Still Hatty sewed, and said nothing.
“You might want to go somewhar,” continued Esther, “an' — well, of course, if anythin' should happen, if Henry — It's jest as well not to hev' to do everythin' all to once, an' it's consider'ble work to make a silk dress — Why don't you say somethin'?”
“I don't want any silk dress.”
“I'd like to know why not?”
Hatty made no reply.
“Look here, Hatty, you an' Henry Little ain't had no trouble, hev' you?”
“I don't know as we have.”
“I don't know as we have.”
“Hatty Gay, I know there's somethin' the matter. Now you jest tell me what 'tis. Ain't he comin' here no more?”
Suddenly the girl curved her arm around on the table, and laid her face down on it. She would not speak another word. She did not seem to be crying, but she sat there, hiding her little plain, uncommunicative face.
“Hatty Gay, ain't he comin'? Why ain't he comin'?”
Hatty would give the old woman no information. All she got was that obtained from ensuing events. Henry Little did not come; she ascertained that. The weeks went on, and he had never once climbed those vine-wreathed stairs to see Hatty.
Esther fretted and questioned. One day, in the midst of her nervous conjectures, she struck the chord in Hatty which vibrated with information.
“I hope you want too forrard with Henry, Hatty,” said the old woman. “You didn't act too anxious arter him, did you? That's apt to turn fellows.”
Then Hatty spoke. Some pink spots flared out on her quiet, pale cheeks.
“Grandma,” said she, “I'll tell you, if you want to know, what the trouble is. I wasn't goin' to, because I didn't want to make you feel bad; but, if you're goin' to throw out such things as that to me, I don't care. Henry's mother don't like you, there!”
“Henry's mother don't like you.”
“Don't like me?”
“Why, what hev I done? I don't see what you mean, Hatty Gay.”
“Grace Porter told me. Mrs. Little told her mother. Then I asked him, an' he owned up it was so.”
“I'd like to know what she said.”
Hatty went on, pitilessly, “She told Grace's mother she didn't want her son to marry into the Gay tribe anyhow. She didn't think much of 'em. She said any girl whose folks didn't keep Sunday, an' stayed away from meetin' an' worked, wouldn't amount to much.”
“I don't believe she said it.”
“She did. Henry said his mother took on so he was afraid she'd die, if he didn't give it up.”
Esther sat up straight. She seemed to bristle out suddenly with points, from her knitting-needles to her sharp elbows and thin chin and nose. “Well, he kin give it up then, if he wants to, for all me. I ain't goin' to give up my principles fir him, nor any of his folks, an' they'll find it out. You kin git somebody else jest as good as he is.”
“I don't want anybody else.”
“H'm, you needn't have 'em then, ef you ain't got no more sperit. I shouldn't think you'd want your grandmother to give up doin' what's right yourself, Hatty Gay.”
“I ain't sure it is right.”
“Ain't sure it's right. Then I s'pose you think it would be better for an old woman that's stone deaf, an' can't hear a word of the preachin', to go to meetin' an' set there, doin' nothin' two hours, instead of stayin' to home an' knittin', to airn a leetle money to give to the Lord. All I've got to say is, you kin think so, then. I'm a-goin' to do what's right, no matter what happens.”
Hatty said nothing more. She took up her sewing again; her grandmother kept glancing at her. Finally she said, in a mollifying voice, “Why don't you go an' git you a leetle piece of that cake in the cupboard; you didn't eat no supper hardly.”
“I don't want any.”
“Well, if you want to make yourself sick, an' go without eatin', you kin.”
Hatty did go without eating much through the following weeks. She laid awake nights, too, staring pitifully into the darkness, but she did not make herself ill. There was an unflinching strength in that little, meagre body, which lay even back of her own will. It would take long for her lack of spirit to break her down entirely; but her grandmother did not know that. She watched her and worried. Still she had not the least idea of giving in. She knitted more zealously than ever Sundays; indeed, there was, to her possibly distorted perceptions, a religious zeal in it.
She knitted on week-days too. She reeled off a good many pairs of those reliable blue-yarn stockings, and sold them to a dealer in the city. She gave away every cent which she earned, and carefully concealed the direction of her giving. Even Hatty did not know of it.
Six weeks after Hatty's lover left, the old woman across the way died. After the funeral, when measures were taken for the settlement of the estate, it was discovered that all the little property was gone, eaten up by a mortgage and the interest. The two old women had lived upon the small house and the few acres of land for the last ten years, ever since Lavinia's father had died. He had grubbed away in a boot-shop, and earned enough for their frugal support as long as he lived. Lavinia had never been able to work for her own living; she was not now. “Laviny Dodge will have to go to the poorhouse,” everybody said.
One noon Hatty spoke of it to her grandmother. She rarely spoke of anything now, but this was uncommon news.
“They say Laviny Dodge has got to go to the poorhouse,” said she.
“They say Laviny Dodge has got to go to the poorhouse.”
“I don't believe a word on't.”
“They say it's so.”
That afternoon Esther went over to ascertain the truth of the report for herself. She found Lavinia sitting alone in the kitchen crying. Esther went right in, and stood looking at her.
“It's so, ain't it?” said she.
Lavinia started. There was a momentary glimpse of a red, distorted face; then she hid it again, and went on rocking herself to and fro and sobbing. She had seated herself in the rocking-chair to weep. “Yes,” she wailed, “it's so! I've got to go. Mr. Barnes come in, an' said I had this mornin'; there ain't no other way. I've — got — to go. Oh, what would mother have said!”
Esther stood still, looking. “A place gits run out afore you know it,” she remarked.
“Oh, I didn't s'pose it was quite so near gone. I thought mebbe I could stay — as long as I lived.”
“You'd oughter hev kept account.”
“I s'pose I hed, but I never knew much 'bout money-matters, an' poor mother, she was too old. Father was real sharp, ef he'd lived. Oh, I've got to go! I never thought it would come to this!”
“I don't think you're fit to do any work.”
“No; they say I ain't. My rheumatism has been worse lately. It's been hard work for me to crawl round an' wait on mother. I've got to go. Oh, Esther, it's awful to think I can't die in my own home. Now I've got — to die in the poorhouse! I've — got — to die in the poorhouse!”
“I've got to go now,” said Esther.
“Don't go. You ain't but jest come. I ain't got a soul to speak to.”
“I'll come in agin arter supper,” said Esther, and went out resolutely, with Lavinia wailing after her to come back. At home, she sat down and deliberated. She had a long talk with Hatty when she returned. “I don't care,” was all she could get out of the girl, who was more silent than usual. She ate very little supper.
It was eight o'clock when Esther went over to the Dodge house. The windows were all dark. “Land, I believe she's gone to bed,” said the old woman, fumbling along through the yard. The door was fast, so she knocked. “Laviny, Laviny, be you gone to bed? Laviny Dodge!”
“Who is it?” said a quavering voice on the other side, presently.
“It's me. You gone to bed?”
“It's you, Mis' Gay, ain't it?”
“Yes. Let me in. I want to see you a minute.”
Then Lavinia opened the door and stood there, her old knees knocking together with cold and nervousness. She had got out of bed and put a plaid shawl over her shoulders when she heard Esther.
“I want to come in jest a minute,” said Esther. “I hadn't any idee you'd be gone to bed.”
The fire had gone out, and it was chilly in the kitchen, where the two women sat down.
“You'll ketch your death of cold in your night-gown,” said Esther. “You'd better git somethin' more to put over you.”
“I don't keer if I do ketch cold,” said Lavinia, with an air of feeble recklessness, which sat oddly upon her.
“Laviny Dodge, don't talk so.”
“I don't keer. I'd ruther ketch my death of cold than not; then I shouldn't have to die in the poorhouse.” The old head, in its little cotton night-cap, cocked itself sideways, with pitiful bravado.
Esther rose, went into the bedroom, got a quilt and put it over Lavinia's knees. “There,” said she, “you hev that over you. There ain't no sense in your talkin' that way. You're jest a-flyin' in the face of Providence, an' Providence don't mind the little flappin' you kin make, any more than a barn does a swaller.”
“I can't help it.”
“I — can't help it.”
“Yes, you kin help it, too. Now, I'll tell you what I've come over here for. I've been thinkin' on't all the arternoon, an' I've made up my mind. I want you to come over and live with me.”
Lavinia sat feebly staring at her. “Live with you!”
“Yes. I've got my house an' my pension, an' I pick up some with my knittin'. Two won't cost much more'n one. I reckon we kin git along well enough.”
Lavinia said nothing, she still sat staring. She looked scared.
Esther began to feel hurt. “Mebbe you don't want to come,” she said, stiffly, at last.
Lavinia shivered. “There's jest — one thing —” she commenced.
“There's jest one thing —”
“I dunno what — Mother — You're real good; but — Oh, I don't see how I kin come, Esther!”
“Why not? If there's any reason why you don't want to live with me, I want to know what 'tis.”
Lavinia was crying. “I can't tell you,” she sobbed; “but, mother — If — you didn't work Sundays. Oh!”
“Then you mean to say you'd ruther go to the poorhouse than come to live with me, Lavinia Dodge?”
“I — can't help it.”
“Then, all I've got to say is, you kin go.”
Esther went home, and said no more. In a few days she, peering around her curtain, saw poor Lavinia Dodge, a little, trembling, shivering figure, hoisted into the poorhouse covered wagon, and driven off. After the wagon was out of sight, she sat down and cried.
It was early in the afternoon. Hatty had just gone to her work, having scarcely tasted her dinner. Her grandmother had worked hard to get an extra one to-day, too, but she had no heart to eat. Her mournful silence, which seemed almost obstinate, made the old woman at once angry and wretched. Now she wept over Lavinia Dodge and Hatty, and the two causes combined made bitter tears.
“I wish to the land” she cried out loud once — “I wish to the land I could find some excuse; but I ain't goin' to give up what I think's right.”
Esther Gay had never been so miserable in her life as she was for the three months after Lavinia Dodge left her home. She thought of her, she watched Hatty, and she knitted. Hatty was at last beginning to show the effects of her long worry. She looked badly, and the neighbors began speaking about it to her grandmother. The old woman seemed to resent it when they did. At times she scolded the girl, at times she tried to pet her, and she knitted constantly, week-days and Sundays.
Lavinia had been in the almshouse three months, when one of the neighbors came in one day and told Esther that she was confined to her bed. Her rheumatism was worse, and she was helpless. Esther dropped her knitting, and stared radiantly at the neighbor. “You said she was an awful sight of trouble, didn't you?” said she.
“Yes; Mis' Marvin said it was worse than takin' care of a baby.”
“I should think it would take about all of anybody's time.”
“I should. Why, Esther Gay, you look real tickled 'cause she's sick!” cried the woman, bluntly.
Esther colored. “You talk pretty,” said she.
“Well, I don't care; you looked so. I don't s'pose you was,” said the other, apologetically.
That afternoon Esther Gay made two visits: one at the selectmen's room, in the town-hall, the other at Henry Little's. One of her errands at the selectmen's room was concerning the reduction of her taxes.
“I'm a-payin' too much on that leetle house,” said she, standing up, alert and defiant. “It ain't wuth it.” There was some dickering, but she gained her point. Poor Esther Gay would never make again her foolish little boast about her large tax. More than all her patient, toilsome knitting was the sacrifice of this bit of harmless vanity.
When she arrived at the Littles', Henry was out in the yard. He was very young; his innocent, awkward face flushed when he saw Esther coming up the path.
“Good arternoon,” said she. Henry jerked his head.
“Your mother to home?”
Esther advanced and knocked, while Henry stood staring.
Presently Mrs. Little answered the knock. She was a large woman. The astonished young man saw his mother turn red in the face, and rear herself in order of battle, as it were, when she saw who her caller was; then he heard Esther speak.
“I'm a-comin' right to the p'int afore I come in,” said she. “I've heard you said you didn't want your son to marry my granddaughter because you didn't like some things about me. Now, I want to know if you said it.”
“Yes; I did,” replied Mrs. Little, tremulous with agitation, red, and perspiring, but not weakening.
“Then you didn't have nothin' again' Hatty, you nor Henry? 'Twa'n't an excuse?”
“I ain't never had anything against the girl.”
“Then I want to come in a minute. I've got somethin' I want to say to you, Mrs. Little.”
“Well, you can come in — if you want to.”
After Esther had entered, Henry stood looking wistfully at the windows. It seemed to him that he could not wait to know the reason of Esther's visit. He took things more soberly than Hatty; he had not lost his meals nor his sleep; still he had suffered. He was very fond of the girl, and he had a heart which was not easily diverted. It was hardly possible that he would ever die of grief, but it was quite possible that he might live long with a memory, young as he was.
When his mother escorted Esther to the door, as she took leave, there was a marked difference in her manner. “Come again soon, Mis' Gay,” he heard her say, “run up any time you feel like it, an' stay to tea. I'd really like to have you.”
“Thank ye,” said Esther, as she went down the steps. She had an aspect of sweetness about her which did not seem to mix well with herself.
When she reached home she found Hatty lying on the lounge. “How do you feel to-night?” said she, unpinning her shawl.
“You'd better go an' brush your hair an' change your dress. I've been over to Henry's an' seen his mother, an' I shouldn't wonder if he was over here to-night.”
Hatty sat bolt upright and looked at her grandmother. “What do you mean?”
“What I say. I've been over to Mrs. Little's, an' we've had a talk. I guess she thought she'd been kind of silly to make such a fuss. I reasoned with her, an' I guess she saw I'd been more right about some things than she'd thought for. An' as far as goin' to meetin' an' knittin' Sundays is concerned — Well, I don't s'pose I kin knit any more if I want to. I've been to see about it, an' Laviny Dodge is comin' here Saturday, an' she's so bad with her rheumatiz that she can't move, an' I guess it'll be all I kin do to wait on her, without doin' much knittin'. Mebbe I kin git a few minutes evenin's, but I reckon 'twon't amount to much. Of course I couldn't go to meetin' if I wanted to. I couldn't leave Laviny.”
“Did she say he — was coming?”
“Yes; she said she shouldn't wonder if he was up.”
The young man did come that evening, and Esther retired to her little bedroom early, and lay listening happily to the soft murmur of voices outside. Lavinia Dodge arrived Saturday. The next morning, when Hatty had gone to church, she called Esther. “I want to speak to you a minute,” said she. “I want to know if — Mr. Winter brought me over, and he married the Ball girl that's been in the post-office, you know, and somethin' he said — Esther Gay, I want to know if you're the one that's been sendin' that money to me and mother all along?”
Esther colored, and turned to go. “I don't see why you think it's me.”
“Esther, don't you go. I know 'twas; you can't say 'twa'n't.”
“It wa'n't much, anyhow.”
“'Twas to us. It kept us goin' a good while longer. We never said anythin' about it. Mother was awful proud, you know, but I dunno what we should have done. Esther, how could you do it?”
“Oh, it wa'n't anythin'. It was extra money. I airn'd it.”
Esther jerked her head defiantly. The sick woman began to cry. “If I'd ha' known, I would ha' come. I wouldn't have said a word.”
“Yes, you would, too. You was bound to stan' up for what you thought was right, jest as much as I was. Now, we've both stood up, an' it's all right. Don't you fret no more about it.”
“To think —”
“Land sakes, don't cry. The tea's all steeped, and I'm goin' to bring you in a cup now.”
Henry came that evening. About nine o'clock Esther got a pitcher and went down to the well to draw some water for the invalid. Her old joints were so tired and stiff that she could scarcely move. She had had a hard day. After she had filled her pitcher she stood resting for a moment, staring up at the bright sitting-room windows. Henry and Hatty were in there: just a simple, awkward young pair, with nothing beautiful about them, save the spark of eternal nature, which had its own light. But they sat up stiffly and timidly in their two chairs, looking at each other with full content. They had glanced solemnly and bashfully at Esther when she passed through the room; she appeared not to see them.
Standing at the well, looking up at the windows, she chuckled softly to herself. “It's all settled right,” said she, “an' there don't none of 'em suspect that I'm a-carryin' out my p'int arter all.”