Mary E. Wilkins

From Fifty-Two Stories of Girl-Life At Home and Abroad (Hutchinson & Co.; London: 1894)

“Now, father, you jest lift this drawer out, so's to make sure it ain't slipped down behind. Sometimes things will.”

Abel Lawton lifted out the top of the drawer of the secretary. Then he and his wife peered anxiously into the narrow space behind it.

“It ain't there,” said Mrs. Lawton. She turned away, and slipped her spectacles up over her anxious forehead. “There ain't any use lookin' any farther, as I can see.”

Abel slid the drawer in again, adjusting it with some difficulty. Then he sat down in a chair near the stove, and stretched his feet out on the hearth.

His wife stood looking at him. She was a tall, pale woman, and her face was distorted with perplexity.

“What are you goin' to do about it, father?” said she. “You can't lose that ten dollars, anyhow.”

“I know one thing,” returned Abel. “I never took that money out of the house, and I put it right in the left-hand corner of that top secretary drawer.”

“You know you're dreadful forgitful, father.”

“I don't know that I'm any more forgitful than other folks. I know where I put that money, and I know I ain't touched it since.”

“You're sure you ain't put it anywhere else?”

Abel shook his head with an obstinate air.

“Well, we've looked everywhere in the house that I can think of,” said Mrs. Lawton. “We've looked in all your pockets, and I've emptied all the secretary and bureau drawers. I can't think of any other place to hunt, unless it's —”

She stopped, and she and Abel looked at each other.

“I ain't got any such idea as that,” said Abel.

“Well, I ain't, either, but we don't know anything about her, and she came from a low-down family. I ain't seen a thing out of the way in her since she came here, and I've got to thinkin' a good deal of her myself, but you can't always tell by appearances; and that secretary drawer was unlocked and dreadful handy.”

“I never saw a nicer appearin' girl,” said Abel, “and she's took right hold and helped you ever since Aunt Rhody went away.”

“I don't know what I should have done without her,” returned his wife, “and she's been to meetin' and Sunday School, and her clothes are fixed up so she looks as nice as any of the girls. I can't believe it. But where's that money gone to?”

“It ain't gone without hands,” said Abel gloomily.

“Course it ain't, father. I think we ought to look in her things.”

“Mebbe we had.”

“I don't see no other way. You can't lose that ten dollars. I'll send her down to the stores to get some sal'ratus, and then we'll look.”

Mrs. Lawton opened the door. “Johanna!” she called.

“Yes, ma'am,” came in response from somewhere in the upper part of the house.

“Come down here. I want to see you about something.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Mrs. Lawton closed the door and waited. “I hate to do it, awfully,” she said, in a trembling voice.

Presently there were quick steps on the stairs, and Johanna came in and stood looking inquiringly at Mrs. Lawton. She was a slight young girl, and stooped a little.

“I want you to put on your cloak and hat, and go down to the store and get half a pound of sal'ratus,” said Mrs. Lawton, in a dry voice.

She packed up some dishes on the kitchen table, and avoided looking at Johanna. Abel bent over the stove, with his head on his hands.

“Yes, ma'am,” replied Johanna. She got her hood and shawl out of the entry, and put them on. Then she stood waiting.

“What you waitin' fer?” asked Mrs. Lawton.

“The money.”

Mrs. Lawton started. “You can tell Mr. Pierce I'll be in and pay for it,” Abel spoke up, in a gruff voice.

Johanna looked at him as if she were startled.

“Yes, sir,” said she, and went out at once.

Mrs. Lawton set a dish down on the table with a thud. “Come, father,” said she. “I want to go right up, and have it over with before she comes back. It won't take her long.”

Abel got up reluctantly. “I call it a pretty piece of business!” he grunted.

“So do I. It's the first time I ever suspected anybody in my house of stealin', an' I don't really now. I don't imagine we shall find a thing, but I'm goin' to be sure.”

The old man followed his wife up the uncarpeted back stairs, which creaked at his every step. Mrs. Lawton opened the door of a chamber near the head of the stairs. It was a pleasant south room, with comfortable, old-fashioned furniture.

“I don't imagine we shall find a thing,” Mrs. Lawton said again. She went to the bulky mahogany bureau, and opened the top drawer.

Abel peered over her shoulder. The drawer contained some neatly folded little girlish ribbons and neck-ruffles.

“I gave her some of these little things Mary had,” Mrs. Lawton whispered. “I thought they might as well do somebody some good.” She turned over the ribbons tenderly. “There ain't anything here,” she said, in a tearful voice.

She opened the next drawer, and turned over the contents; then the next and the next.

“There ain't any money here,” said she finally. “The poor child keeps her drawers packed up real nice.”

Abel went to the fireplace, and opened a little old-fashioned closet high up in the chimney-side.

“I wouldn't rummage that all over,” said Mrs. Lawton. “There ain't any use. We shan't find it, and I'm glad of it. I'd rather lose a hundred dollars than find it here.”

Suddenly Abel turned. “Look here, mother!” he said, in a solemn voice. He held out a bank-note toward her.

“Father! It ain't!”

“Yes, 'tis.”

“Where'd you find it?”

“In the corner of the top shelf under the towel.”

“Oh dear me!” gasped Mrs. Lawton. She took the note from her husband's hand and examined it; then she looked up at the top shelf of the closet. There, on a neatly folded towel, lay a girl's hat, trimmed with blue velvet and a blue feather.

“There's her best hat,” said Mrs. Lawton, “that I had Miss Stone fix up for her, and she's kept it jest as nice there. Aunt Rhody had that towel there, and it was all away out of the dust. Oh dear me!”

Mrs. Lawton sank into a chair, and sobbed. Abel stood holding the money and staring gloomily at the closet shelf, whence he had taken it.

“Well,” said he, “there 'tis, an' there's where 'twas. There ain't no gittin' around it.”

“I know it,” sobbed his wife, “but I can't hardly believe it now. Her bureau drawers are all packed up so nice, poor child, it don't seem as she could have stole it. I don't see how I ever can send her away in this world.”

“Mebbe she wouldn't ever take anything again, if we talked to her and kinder reasoned with her,” ventured Abel.

“Now, father, there ain't any use talkin' that way,” returned his wife, with tearful energy. “We can't have anybody in the house that steals. You'll have to tell her when she comes.”

“No, you'd better do it, mother.”

“No, I ain't goin' to have it put off on me; it is your money,” said Mrs. Lawton. “There she is now. She's real spry about goin' errands. Father, you look at her now. Don't you see she looks like Mary? She walks jest the way she used to — real quick, but kind of tired. She stoops jest like her. Don't you see it?”

“I dunno but I do,” assented Abel.

Mary had been their only child; she had died two years before, when about Johanna's age.

Mrs. Lawton, looking out of the window, wept again. Johanna's slight, advancing figure was distorted through a mist of tears. There were loud creaks on the stairs. Abel was going heavily and quickly down.

“Father!” Mrs. Lawton called after him. He did not reply, and she followed. “He jest tryin' to git out of the way,” she muttered.

Abel Lawton was not quick in his movements ordinarily, but when she reached the kitchen he had disappeared. She called after him at all the doors, but got no response.

“Jest like a man, leavin' everything that takes a little pluck to a woman!” said she.

She turned to the table, and was kneading some bread when Johanna entered. She did not turn her head. Johanna came to the table and laid down the package of saleratus; but Mrs. Lawton did not act as if she knew the girl had come in.

Johanna took off her hood and shawl, and hung them up in the entry. Her heart beat loudly; she felt frightened without knowing why. When she came back she stood warming her cold, thin little hands at the stove, and casting timid glances at Mrs. Lawton's back.

Suddenly Mrs. Lawton turned. “Johanna,” said she, in a solemn, strained voice, “I've got something to say to you, an' I may as well say it an' have it over with. Father had a ten-dollar bill that he had been savin' to pay his grain-bill with. He kept it in the top drawer of the secretary. He went to look for it, and it was gone, an' — we found it in the chimney cupboard in your chamber, under your best hat.”

Johanna stared at her. Everything but Mrs. Lawton's accusing eyes looked dark; but she did not seem to know what she meant.

“Of course you know you stole it,” Mrs. Lawton went on, “an' there ain't any use in your sayin' you didn't, because we found it there.”

Johanna gasped. She flushed all over her face and neck. Then she found her voice. “Oh, Mis' Lawton,” she cried, “I didn't steal it! I didn't! I didn't!”

“Johanna,” returned Mrs. Lawton solemnly, “there ain't any use for you to add falsehood to your wickedness. The money was there.”

“I didn't!” Johanna sobbed wildly. “I didn't! I didn't! Oh, Mis' Lawton, I didn't!”

Johanna was an excitable girl. She wrung her hands and trembled violently.

Mrs. Lawton, too, began to weep. “Oh, Johanna,” she sobbed, “how could you do it? Steal poor father's money, when he's always been so good to you, and we've both got to set so much by you, and I'd given you some of Mary's things, an' now for you to deny it!”

“I didn't!” returned Johanna, “I didn't! Oh, Mis' Lawton I didn't!”

Mrs. Lawton could not move her. It was of no use for her to reason and beseech.

“See here,” said Mrs. Lawton finally, in a desperate tone of voice, “you come along upstairs with me.”

Johanna followed her weakly upstairs to her own chamber. There Mrs. Lawton pointed at the shelf in the chimney cupboard.

“There,” said she, “there was where the money was. Johanna, you can't deny you put it there. You're a dreadful wicked girl, if you do.”

“I didn't!” moaned Johanna. She stood clinging to the foot of the bed.

The stairs creaked, and Abel came in.

“Father,” said his wife, “she won't even own that she put it there, after all we've done for her.”

Abel stepped close to Johanna. “See here,” said he, in a half whisper. “You be a good girl, an' say you took it, an' you're sorry, an' we won't be hard on you. I shouldn't wonder a mite if mother thought better of it, an' let you stay.”

Johanna turned her pitiful face toward him.

“Mr. Lawton, I didn't take your money!”

Finally Mr. Lawton and his wife went downstairs. “You stay here, and think,” said Mrs. Lawton, “an' when you've made up your mind to own how wicked you've been, you come down.”

But Johanna did not go down. She lay on her bed, a forlorn, convulsed little figure, and repeated over and over again, “I didn't, I didn't, I didn't!”

Mrs. Lawton came again at noon, and brought a plate of dinner. “Ain't you made up your mind to confess yet?” she asked, in a tearful voice.

“I — didn't!” sobbed Johanna.

Mrs. Lawton went downstairs, and left the plate, but Johanna could eat nothing. The dinner remained there untouched all the afternoon. Toward sunset Mrs. Lawton came again, and when she saw that Johanna had eaten nothing, she took up the plate.

“Now,” she said, “you sit up and eat this dinner, every mite of it.”

Johanna sat up in bed and obeyed, swallowing the food in convulsive gulps.

“There,” said Mrs. Lawton, when she had finished, “I ain't goin' to have you sick. Oh, Johanna, ain't you goin' to tell me now?”

“I didn't!” sobbed Johanna, burying her face in the pillow.

Johanna stayed alone until nine o'clock. Then Mr. and Mrs. Lawton both came. They argued and pleaded again, with no effect.

“Well, Johanna,” Abel said finally, “mother an' I have talked it over, an' we're goin' to give you till to-morrow mornin'. If you'll own then that you took the money, and say you're sorry for it, we're goin' to let you stay here. Otherways we shall have to carry you back where we took you from.”

Abel's voice broke. Mrs. Lawton sobbed outright, and they went downstairs.

In the middle of the night, Mrs. Lawton crept to the foot of the stairs. She had heard Johanna's voice, and wakened. Johanna seemed to be praying.

“O Lord,” she was saying, “don't let me tell 'em that I did it — don't let me tell!”

Mrs. Lawton went back to her bed bewildered.

In the morning she got breakfast all ready before she went up to Johanna's room. When she opened the door, the girl sat on the bed looking at her. She had not undressed all night. Her girlish face looked ten years older.

“I didn't!” said she. “I didn't take it, Mis' Lawton!”

There was a certain piteous defiance in her manner. Mrs. Lawton looked severer than she had ever done.

“Well,” said she, “you come downstairs and eat your breakfast, and I'll get father to harness.”

Johanna obeyed. She went downstairs, and ate the breakfast that Mrs. Lawton bade her eat. She did not cry any more. There was a miserable resolution in her face.

After breakfast Abel went out to harness the horse, and Mrs. Lawton packed up Johanna's little possessions. She hesitated over Mary's little ribbons and ruffles, but finally she put them into the old valise.

Johanna waited down in the kitchen. She understood that Mrs. Lawton would not trust her to pack the valise, for fear she should put in some stolen property.

Abel had put the horse in the light waggon, and tied him to the post at the gate. Then he had gone to the store; he had resolved that he would not carry Johanna back to the almshouse.

Mrs. Lawton had to go herself. She shoved the valise in at the back of the waggon, and sat beside Johanna on the seat and drove. There was a motherly severity about her broad shoulders in the cashmere shawl. She was becoming hardened by Johanna's defiance.

The almshouse was half a mile distant. Neither spoke a word all the way. When they reached the place, Mrs. Lawton left Johanna in the waggon a few minutes while she spoke to the overseer's wife. Then she told her to get out, gave her the valise, and bade her good-bye.

Her voice trembled, and tears stood in her eyes.

“If ever you make up your mind to own up how wicked you've been, you must let me know, Johanna,” said she; “father an' I have always meant well by you.”

Mrs. Lawton drove off, and Johanna tugged her valise miserably into the almshouse. Mrs. Brown, the overseer's wife, stood in the doorway.

“Well, I must say, you ain't showed much sense,” said she. “I should have thought you'd known which side your bread was buttered, better'n to have stole that money.”

“I didn't!”

“Now, Johanna, there ain't no need of you're talkin' that kind of talk. You know you stole it, an' you'd ought to go to jail. Now you go an' put on that old dress you left here, and clean the potatoes for dinner. You'll find out if you've come back here, that you've got to work.”

Mrs. Brown was herself overworked and irascible. Johanna, putting herself into her poor old discarded dress, knew well enough what was before her. Her past seemed stretching beyond her into the future.

She was fifteen now, and the almshouse had been her home, with the exception of the last six months at the Lawtons', ever since she was ten. She had come there after her mother's death.

Johanna was so delicate that none of the farmers' wives wanted her merely for the sake of the work she could do, now that the Lawtons, who had taken her because they were lonely without Mary, had turned her away.

There were about twenty paupers beside herself, most of them old people, some of them idiotic with age and want. Nobody was glad to see her save one old woman and she did not believe her innocent, but pleaded with her daily to confess and return.

“You're a dreadful silly gal, if you don't,” said she.

The overseer was surly, and much rougher with her than his wife. Both of them kept her constantly at work. She grew thin, and stooped more. The old woman told her she would go into a decline if she stayed there. She found the life harder than ever before.

She had been in the almshouse three weeks, when Abel Lawton came and begged her again to confess. “I'll take you right home with me,” said he; “mother's got supper all ready.”

But Johanna would not confess.

The overseer's wife was very hard upon her after Abel had gone. “You don't work enough to earn your salt,” said she, “an' I don't want a thief in the house, for my part. I've got things I think a good deal of, as well as the Lawtons.”

It was four weeks after that, when Mrs. Lawton came with Abel. Johanna, washing dishes at the kitchen-sink, heard their voices out in the yard, talking to the overseer. Then Mrs. Lawton came in hastily. Though not a demonstrative woman, she caught Johanna, and hugged and kissed her.

“Oh, you poor child!” she panted. “You poor child! Go an' get your things on, an' pack your bag, an' come right home with me.”

She turned to Mrs. Brown, who, with two or three old paupers, was listening open-mouthed. “Johanna didn't take that money,” she went on. “Aunt Rhody, she come yesterday. Abner drove her over from Stoughton; an' the first thing she did was to go straight to that chimney cupboard in Johanna's chamber, after a ten-dollar bill she'd hid away there in the corner of the top shelf under the towel. And she made an awful to-do when she found out 'twas gone.

“Father an' I never thought of Aunt Rhody's havin' ten dollars anyhow; but John give it to her three years ago, she said, an' she'd kept it, an' never let on she had it. She didn't want to take it to Abner's, for fear she should lose it, so she hid it there. She didn't know 't I was goin' to have anybody else in that chamber.

“Well, father an' me see then Johanna hadn't stole that ten dollars, but we couldn't tell any more where his that he'd saved up for the grain-bill had gone; an' we puzzled over that all last night. But this mornin', father he thought he'd go down to the store, an' pay that bill.

“He'd used that ten dollars he took from the cupboard for something else after all, an' — there he'd paid it, an' clean forgot it! He's dreadful forgitful, but I never knew him to do anything quite so bad as this before. Then he come home, an' told of it, an' cried, he felt so bad, an' he paid that ten dollars back to Aunt Rhody.

“Johanna, you'd better go an' get ready, poor child, for the horse don't like to stand very well, this cold weather.”

When Johanna was seated between Mr. and Mrs. Lawton, and riding away from the almshouse, she cried, she was so happy.

“Don't cry, poor child, it's all over now,” said Mrs. Lawton. But her own voice shook. “I'm goin' to make over a pretty red dress, that I've got laid by for you.”

“You sha'n't go away again, as long as there's a roof over our own heads,” said Abel, huskily. “Don't you worry, Johanna. You were a real good girl not to tell a lie, an' say you took that money, when you didn't.”

“It's just what Mary would have done,” said Mrs. Lawton. “I never see such a truthful girl as she was. I don't believe you could have made her tell a lie. Johanna's behaved just the way Mary would.”