Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman

From Harper's Weekly Vol. XLVII No. 2451 (December 12, 1903)

Although it was December in the mountains, there came a day so strangely mild that it suggested spring. A strong soft wind blew from the south, the sun's rays were distinctly warm, the snow around the trees melted imperceptibly until a curious effect was produced. It was as if a tree stood in a whirlpool of blue crystals. On the mountain road and on the cleared fields the tracks of wild animals and birds lost individual characteristics and ran together; the brook, which was almost a torrent in the spring, ran with an insistent roar, being augmented by soft droppings from the shaggy boughs which arched over it. The brook crossed the road under the bridge, within a few feet of William Doane's house. The house stood close to the road, after the old fashion of the times when men built as near the haunts of their kind as possible, when humans huddled together for protection against the savage and inhuman forces of matter and mind. The house was very old, and of an indescribable color, or rather lack of color. It was gloom rather than any tint on the old walls. The house looked almost, so black it was, as if it had been scorched by fire, and, in fact, the fierce suns and storms and winds of over a hundred years had burnt it like fire. Still it was stanch. It had been built by an artisan who worked with the best of his strength. The roof did not sag, except for a slight depression around the central chimney. The roof was scaled with black shingles like some old sea monster, but it did not leak. William Doane cared for the old house as tenderly as if it had been some live thing. Not a black shingle flapped on the roof in a northern gale but the man was prompt in fastening it; not a leak when the wintry snow began to melt was neglected. The house, ancient as it was, would outlast the man, whose house of life had no such strenuous care for its earthly preservation. The walls sagged a little, the floors undulated like waves, the doors swung awry, that could not be avoided. It leaned, as the years went on toward its final end, but it was no nearer falling than a stanch old tree whose roots held with a grasp of life to the soil, and even some rocks of the stern mountain-sides had a more precarious tenure of place than the old human dwelling.

And William Doane exercised the same zealous protection over all the simple, even primitive, furnishings which had endured from his mother's girlhood, and were, in fact, her marriage treasures. There was a wealth of old tables and dressers and bedsteads in the clean icy rooms. William cleaned house, springs and autumns, as scrupulously as a woman. The old carpets sagged the line on the small level under the frown of the mountain back of the house every May and September. Every inch of woodwork was scrubbed. William purchased paint, and kept all the old wainscoting well whitened, the windows shone like sheets of emeralds from faithful polishing, the unused beds were even mounds of white linen, the house was a marvel of exquisite order and cleanliness, and all brought about by one man. He, however, lived only in two rooms of it, the kitchen and adjoining bedroom, except possibly in some summer days, when the heat was intense for a few hours even in that northern country. Then he would tiptoe carefully into the cool dark sitting-room or the parlor, open a window a little way, and sit beside it with his book, gazing now and then at the familiar outlines of the opposite mountain and the long grandeur of the undulations with which it rose from his native valley.

The house, although a cottage with the ceiling of the upper rooms slanting with the slant of the roof, was quite a large building, and had at one time after the marriage of William Doane's parents accommodated two families. The large kitchen and living-room had been divided and the great hearth cut in two. There were two square rooms, one on either side of the front door, and each family used one, and it was the same with the chambers. After the old people had gone, the son, William's father, used the whole house, but the kitchen partition remained. Indeed, each kitchen, although only half of the original, was a large room. It was the half with the southwest exposure which William tenanted, in his solitary estate. He had his nicely kept cooking-stove, his cushioned rocking-chair, his ancient table which served him for cooking and dining, and another old mahogany card-table, which he had removed from the parlor, for his books. That stood between the south windows, and the books were piled thereon in orderly fashion. William literally knew this small library by heart. For most of them he did not in one sense care, but they were to him like familiar companions of his solitude, to whom he owed a certain loyalty. He was conscious of being distinctly at variance with some of the views in these black-bound volumes of religious wisdom produced by the eminent theologians of the last century, and yet he got from them a certain keen enjoyment, they acting as stimulants upon his own mind, and forcing him to silent but none the less eager controversy. Many an evening did William Doane engage in a spirited discussion with some long-dead divine, and come off glowing with triumph in the certainty of his own victory. There was about the man an innocent egotism which buoyed him up above the dead monotony of his life like wings. He had lived alone for fifteen years, ever since Grace Edwards had gone away, after his mother's death. Grace Edwards was the daughter of a farmer in Littlefield, twelve miles down country. She had come, when very young, not more than eighteen, to assist his mother in her household duties. She was practically homeless, her mother being dead and her father married to a woman who grudged her a home. So the girl, who was, moreover, delicate and young and small for her age, had been glad to enter into the dignified domestic service of that part of the country. William's mother had grown speedily very fond of the girl, had petted and coddled her, and come to think of her as her own, especially after Grace's father's death, leaving a will which gave everything to the stepmother and her children. William had been betrothed to her, after Grace had lived with himself and his mother three years, and was twenty years old. At that time the girl, although still delicate, was charming, small and gentle and fair, and yet with a quick flash of spirit in her blue eyes. William, who was grave and sedate as to demeanor, and of an awkward shambling length of limb and neck, adored her. He worked the farm as it had never been worked before for her sake. He made new ventures, he added by tiny driblets to his tiny income. He kept chickens and turkeys, and sold them, with vegetables, to a hotel about three miles distant. He in reality made an unusual income for a farmer in that part of the country. He purchased a parlor organ, and paid for Grace's music lessons in the village of Lowe, six miles away. He painted and furbished up the ancient vehicle in which he carried her back and forth for her lessons. Then he waited patiently during the hour and drove her home. Nothing could exceed the pride and joy which filled him with a species of ecstasy as he sat by the girl's side, carefully driving his horse, which was somewhat skittish, and realized the eyes of people upon him and Grace, and was sure that they were coupling them in their thoughts and reflecting that this fair darling of a girl was his. Sometimes looking with a sort of shy reverence at the soft, fair face beside him his own seemed to lose its characteristics and reflect hers as a mirror of love. At those times the man's face above the long scrawny neck was a marvel, but the girl saw always the long neck and the awkwardness of her lover. She had agreed to marry him, but she did not like to look at him. She had a spiritual inclination toward this other faithful soul who loved her, but she also had a physical repulsion, which her soul was not strong enough to conquer. William about his strenuous work wore no collar, and there was something about the strangely humble and pathetic combination of long neck, prominent Adam's apple, no collar, and loving patient brown eyes which irritated her unaccountably. She could not always conceal it, although she tried. At last William's mother, who was a sharp woman, in spite of a premature feebleness, had taxed her with it. “I'd like to know why you act so standoffish with William,” said she. Then Grace, who was timid with a nature that swayed before a stronger one like a flower before a wind, had professed her innocence of any intentional coldness, still the older woman was not satisfied. She was constantly on the watch for some slight to her son, and at last matters reached a climax. It was one August evening, when William came home from the hay-field, where he had been gathering a small stock of rowen, that he heard, as he drew near the house, the sound of contending voices — his mother's, low-pitched almost as a man's, and the girl's, a sweet-strained treble. William was heated and dusty, his collarless neck looked longer than ever, every line and motion of his gaunt figure was awkward as he entered the sitting-room which was the scene of contention. “You are a good-for-nothing ungrateful girl,” his mother said, distinctly, as he entered. She was pale and gasping for breath; she had a weak heart, but her voice was firm. Grace's face was flushed red with anger, her blue eyes had a hard glitter, her soft mouth was tense. She was transformed. “Then I will go away where my ingratitude will not trouble you any more,” she declared, shrilly. Then the tears came. She felt blindly for her handkerchief, and could not find it, then put up both little hands before her face. William went soberly into his mother's bedroom, which opened out of the sitting-room, got a handkerchief, and gave it to the girl; then he spoke, looking from one to the other. “What is the matter?” he said.

His mother spoke first, to the accompaniment of the girl's sobs. “She treats you like a dog, and you haven't got sense enough to see it, nor spunk enough to pay her back,” said she, fiercely.

“I have had no reason to find fault with Grace,” William replied, with a certain dignity.

“Oh, stand up for her against your own mother if you want,” his mother retorted. Then suddenly her face went paler, and she gasped frightfully, and William caught her and laid her on the lounge, while Grace, still sobbing, ran for water. William's mother only lived a week after that; the strain had been too much. After she was dead and buried, William and the girl had a discussion one evening. He had ventured to ask her to consent to an immediate marriage, but she refused. “I don't want to get married yet,” said she, and remained firm with the impregnable firmness of a gentle nature when it is aroused.

“But, dear, how can we live on here unless we are,” William said, finally, and at once his face and the girl's flushed scarlet.

“I'm going away,” said she.

“Where?” asked William.

“I am going down to Littlefield.”

“What will you do there. Go live with your stepmother?”

“I guess not. I am going to learn millinery. I am going into Mrs. Adkin's store. She said she would take me any time.”

It was quite true that Grace had a pretty taste, and had trimmed her own hats with such success that the milliner's attention had been gained and the place offered.

William looked at her. “But there ain't any need of your working for a living,” said he, pitifully. “I don't want you to work for a living, Grace.”

“I want to be independent,” said she.

“There is no need of your working for a living, even if you don't feel that you want to get married to me at all,” William said, beseeching. “You can live in one side of the house, and me in the other, Grace.”

But the girl was firm in her determination. She packed her trunk, and William carried her in his light wagon to Littlefield, and left her at the milliner's. She was to board with her.

“Now any time you feel that you want to come back and live in the other side of the house you can,” he said at parting. “You needn't worry about getting married if you don't want to. All I want is for you to be happy and not work too hard.” There were tears in the man's eyes; the girl thanked him, and said good-by without looking at him. The milliner noticed at supper that her eyes were red, and wondered if she had been crying.

As for William, he took up his lonely life with its compensations. He lived quite alone for fifteen years. He never heard from Grace, except indirectly. Shortly after her departure, the milliner with whom she worked moved to Boston and the girl with her. William grieved over it, and yet with a sort of sublimity of unselfishness, more for the girl's sake than his own, more because of the fear lest she be overworked, and not as well protected as he would have protected her. Still he knew that the milliner was a good woman, and he heard she was prospering, and Grace was still with her. Knowing this, and possessed by nature of almost abnormal optimism, his life was not unhappy. He seized upon all the small sweets, the minor alleviations of existence which came within his reach, and more than peace filled his soul. He was never idle, and his simple and primitive tasks were a keen delight to him. He kept his house in repair, he tended his grass lands, and his garden, his chickens and his turkeys and his two Jersey cows, and in it all he took delight. The little front yard was gay with flowers every summer, and his very soul seemed to leap to new reaches of life and color to keep pace with the blossoms.

Then when the autumn came and the maples turned red and gold and the frost killed the flowers, his compensations were still enough to delight his soul. He banked his kitchen windows with potted plants. He laid in his winter store of firewood. He bought a few new books to read when he could not, on account of the impassable roads, go to Lowe to the library. He saw to it that his livestock was housed warmly. He was happy even through the long winters. He was a happy man, in spite of the unfilled natural depths of his life. His great sweetness of nature had made even of the legitimate hunger of humanity a blessing for the promoting of spiritual growth. It had fostered within him that grand acquiescence which is the essence of perfect freedom. And his inner growth reacted upon his personal appearance. He dressed himself more carefully now, even alone as he was with no human eye to see him for weeks at a time in winter. He bought collars and adjusted them carefully. He observed with a personal application the style of dress of the men at the hotel in the summer. He thought, with a sort of remorse, how seldom he had worn a collar when Grace had been at home. He saw his own awkward neck, his ungainly motions, and he held himself with a new dignity that overcame awkwardness. He had some clothes made in Lowe, instead of buying ready-made ones, as all his forbears had done. His first suit of clothes from the tailor gave him a certain awe, but he wore them as easily as a prince after the first. Marriageable women in Lowe began to notice him. He was invited in the winter to merrymakings there, but he never went. He was shy of other women than Grace from a species of uncalled-for loyalty, and never once had he given up her return some day. The hopefulness of his nature was inborn; he had not needed to cultivate it. For him storms had always been the precursors of sunshine, winds of calm, spiritual cataclysms of peace. He said always to himself during the long years that each brought Grace nearer. That some day, nearer by many, she would come. The love in his heart made of it a home and a nest, and sooner or later birds fly home. There was a pair of robins which returned to their nest in an old apple-tree on the south side of the house under the kitchen window every spring, and the sight always filled him with new certainty as to his own coming joy. Now it was December, and the tree was bare and the old nest plainly discernible. The snow had all dropped from the branches in the hot sun of that unusual December day, three days before Christmas. The branches looked black and dank, and every twig stood out silhouetted against the clear yellow of the sunset sky. In the sky at sunset was a low reef of violet cloud, which William eyed wisely. “It will be colder to-morrow,” he told himself. When he returned from the barn, having finished his nightly tasks there, a blast from the northwest struck him. The thaw was over, and winter was again abroad. The man faced the bitter wind with delight. The thaw of the day, the soft droppings and gurglings, the warmth of the sun had awakened in him a happy sensitiveness; now the norther did the same. His soul gave out music in his ears to all the phases of nature. “It is cold again,” he told himself, and he filled up his kitchen stove with wood, and got out the frying-pan to cook some ham and eggs for his supper, with a poetical rather than a physical sense of comfort and home in the midst of winter.

He sat at his neatly laid table, for he was as particular as a woman in such matters, and always had his napkin and white tablecloth and polished silver spoons, when suddenly he stopped eating and gave a great start. He had heard a noise on the other side of the partition which separated the kitchens. He sat motionless, listening, and as he listened his face became illuminated. He smiled, then he laughed silently, the laugh of delight of a child. He had not a doubt as to what the noise was. Grace had come home.

There was a door leading from one kitchen to the other. He rose, and opened it, and there was the swift passing of a light and the rush of a figure from the other room. William stopped. Grace did not wish him to see her, and his mind fell at once into its attitude of acquiescence before a demand of love. But the cold air from the other kitchen was deadly. He did not shut the door, but hurriedly got some embers from his own glowing stove, and carried them through on a shovel, and soon had a fire blazing in the other stove. He also carried in a slice of ham and some eggs and a plate of bread and butter and his own tea. He did it swiftly, for he knew that Grace must be shivering in one of the cold rooms the while. Then he returned to his own kitchen and closed the door and sat down before the fire and was happy. Soon he heard movements on the other side of the kitchen. He smelled the ham broiling. He finished his own supper with ineffable content. He never wondered how she had come. He was one to accept events as he did the weather — without question or investigation. She had come, and that was all he wished to know. All the concern he had was for her comfort. After a while he heard a door close on the other side, and he seized the opportunity to carry in a goodly store of wood for her stove. He also, with the thoughtfulness of a woman, took the sheets and quilts from the bed in the little room adjoining the kitchen, where she would presumably sleep for the warmth, and spread them on chairs before the stove, reasoning that Grace had always been sensitive to colds and inclined to be careless, and that it was dangerous to sleep in a long-unused bed. Then he retreated, after placing more ham and eggs and bread on the table, beside coffee and cream, for her breakfast.

The next morning he heard again the soft sounds on the other side of the partition; he smelled the coffee boiling. He killed a chicken that morning, dressed it, and roasted it with vegetables, and watched his chance to deposit it on the table in the other room. The day passed and he had not seen Grace, but he was not impatient. He told himself that for some reason she did not wish yet to see him, that he must wait and do what he could for her comfort. Suddenly it occurred to him that it was only two days before Christmas, and a happy thought came to him. He would go to Lowe and buy some Christmas presents for Grace. That afternoon he put the horse in the old cutter and started. He was gone about two hours. It was a long drive over bad roads, and he was not an experienced shopper and somewhat hard to please. When he returned and had put the horse up and entered the kitchen with his arms full of parcels there was a loaf of frosted cake on the table. There was also a dish of cream toast set back on the stove to keep it warm, and the tea was steeping. The man laughed his silent laugh of extreme delight. He ate his supper, then examined his purchases. He had spent a good deal of money, more than he had ever spent in a day in his whole life, but he gloated over the presents without a thought of the cost. He had gotten more than the value of his money.

The weather was very bitter. He was careful to keep enough wood for the other kitchen stove in readiness; he was obliged to make frequent journeys, but he never saw Grace; she always fled before him. He was very patient, and none the less happy.

He remembered how once he and his mother had made a Christmas tree for her, and her delight, and he resolved that she should have one now she had come home. So he took his axe, and went out into the woods and looked about for a perfect little tree.

He returned an hour later with a fine little tree, as symmetrical as a bouquet, and also with ground pine trailing over his shoulder. As he neared his old house a face swiftly disappeared from one of the front windows, and his own face lit up with a tender smile. That night, after he was sure that Grace had gone to bed, he set up the little fir-tree in the parlor on the other side of the house, hung the presents thereon, and laid some wood ready to kindle in the stove. Early the next morning he arose and lighted the fire in the parlor stove and made up his own kitchen fire and got the turkey in the oven. Then he returned to the parlor with more wood. The icy atmosphere had softened. The little tree made a brave show. He had hung some of the ground pine over two old steel engravings. It looked cheerful, although the morning was dark. There was a driving snow-storm. As he stood surveying the tree the door opened, and Grace entered, and he turned and they stood looking at each other. And the man saw that the woman had changed, that the face of the girl he had known was gone forever, that had he met her on the street of a strange city he might have passed her by unknowing, but the love in him leapt to meet the change, and he loved her as she stood there, timid, worn, and pale, as he had never loved her before.

“You have come,” he said, and held out his hands to her, and she put her little trembling veinous ones in them.

“Yes,” said she. Then she lifted her changed, thin little face to him, and spoke with a certain dignity. “I was not obliged to come,” said she. “I have supported myself well. I have worked hard, but I have supported myself. I have money in the bank.”

“You were always smart,” said the man, gently, gazing at her with faithful eyes. Her own drooped before them.

“I never forgot you,” said she, faintly, “and — and I heard you weren't married.”

“Of course not,” said the man. “You knew I was waiting for you, Grace.” She made a little abrupt motion away from him at that. “If you want to we can live this way awhile, you in this side and me in the other,” said the man, in a soothing voice, as if he were addressing a frightened child.

“The minister could not get here in such a storm as this,” said she, and her averted face blazed. Then suddenly she turned, and her thin little arms were around his neck. “I'm willing to whenever you say so,” she whispered. “I never ought to have gone.”

“That is so,” said William, “and you have had a hard time, dear; but, after all, if you had not gone there could not have been this coming back. You haven't looked at your Christmas tree, Grace.”

But she continued to look at him with childish blue eyes. “Somehow you look different to me,” she said.

“I have grown older,” said William.

“No, you are handsome now,” said she, and it was indeed a stately head of a man that she saw, and the thin long neck with the prominent Adam's apple had filled out and was enclosed by a collar. Tears welled up in her blue eyes and her mouth quivered a little. She raised one little hand and touched her hair. “I have grown gray,” said she, falteringly. “I don't look as I used.” But the man smiled down at her, and suddenly she saw herself as she was in his heart, and a look of wonder and rapture came over her face, transfiguring it, for in a second, as it were, she mastered the conception of love. “I am sorry I went away,” she said, “and I will try to make up for it.”

William laughed. “Look at your tree, dear,” he said.

“I have hung a present on it for you, too,” said she.

That night the storm cleared away. It was arranged that the next morning they were to drive down to Lowe and be married. After all was still in Grace's side of the house, William sat at a window in his kitchen gazing out at the sky in which the stars blazed with a wonderful nearness and surprise of reality. He thought of the sleeping woman on the other side who was to be his wife, with a tenderness which was akin to pain, and then a solitariness of joy was over him.