Nanny and Martha Pepperill

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXVIII No. 50 (December 14, 1895)

Nanny and Martha Pepperill were walking in the garden one afternoon in December. There was some snow on the ground, and the garden paths were frozen in hard ridges. The stiff branches of the rose-bushes, the bridal-wreaths, and the flowering almonds rattled in the wind, and sometimes struck them sharply as they passed. There was a cold wind from the north-east, and the sky was full of low-scudding violet clouds.

“If it moderates, it will snow,” said Nanny Pepperill. “Are you warm enough, sister?”

“Yes, sister,” replied Martha, in a sweet, muffled voice. She was wrapped from throat to heels in a great camlet cloak which had belonged to her father, and her little face was almost concealed in the depth of a great green silk hood which had belonged to her mother. All one could see were the blue beams of her gentle eyes and her little wistful smile out of the green shade of the hood. Martha Pepperill had been an invalid almost from her birth, all one side of her delicate little body being awry and less developed. She walked always leaning upon a crutch, and seldom without the aid of Nanny's arm also. She and Nanny were twin sisters, and they lived all alone in the old Pepperill house, being too poor to keep a servant.

Every day, unless the weather was too severe, the two walked for an hour in the garden, and timed themselves by the hour-glass set on the south door-step.

This afternoon they walked up and down, up and down, and the sand in the hour-glass dropped grain by grain.

“Are you warm enough, sister?” Nanny kept inquiring, and Martha kept responding, with the sweet invariableness of a katydid, “Yes, sister.”

Nanny bent straightly from her feet before the sudden blasts of wind, like a strongly rooted flower. She was small and slender, but full of fine strength and suppleness. She had tied an old wrought silk shawl of a faded green color over her head; it was not very thick, but she did not feel cold. Her face glowed with a splendid color, like a new rose, between the green folds, and curly locks of her yellow hair tossed back over them.

Nanny's green shawl had belonged to her grandmother Pepperill, and the old crimson satin petticoat she wore to her great-aunt Mehitable.

Nanny and Martha Pepperill had seemingly come into the world as well provided with clothing for their whole lives as two little birds. Scarcely anything had they ever worn that was not ready fashioned, hanging in closets, or laid away in cedar chests when they were born. There had been palmy days in the old Pepperill house when its daughters, in satins and precious brocades and embroidered muslins, with plumes nodding over their fair heads, had stepped daintily over its threshold to and from the stately junketings of that time. Now they had gone, gladly or perforce, from the old home and the old earth altogether, and had left all their goodly garments, except the one needed for the last journey, behind them. There were portions of the wardrobes of Nanny and Martha's mother, of their grandmother Pepperill and great-aunts Fanny and Lucretia Pepperill, who had died unmarried, and of their second-cousin Mehitable Pepperill and her four sisters. Nanny and Martha had been born rather to the shreds and rags and tatters of a past prosperity than to actual poverty, but it sometimes seemed harder to bear.

To sit on old embroidered chairs, dressed without regard to time or occasion, in rich old garments, to eat scanty fare from old china, off old mahogany covered with much-darned damask, seemed sometimes far less endurable than honest cotton gowns and homely plenty served up in pewter dishes.

Nanny and Martha's mother had died when they were three years old; they could scarcely remember her. She had been one Rachel Avery, and her father had been a rich man. He had not favored her marriage, and dying just before it took place, had left a strange and, folk said, a heartless will. A comfortable annuity had been given to his daughter, and that was all. The bulk of his property had gone to his nephew, his sister's son, Solomon Story, and at his daughter's death her annuity reverted to him.

However, Rachel Pepperill had been of a provident turn, and had saved each year such sums as she could spare from her annuity, and her daughters had the accumulation for their inheritance. It was not much, still considerably better than nothing, and until they were twelve years old not a penny had been touched of interest or principal. Then their father died, and the inroads upon it began. Their father, Francis Pepperill, had been a handsome blue-eyed man, with a shy stateliness of manner, and a gentle heart that loved virtue and books and quiet. Not one to hew his way through many difficulties of life had Francis Pepperill been, but one to bear them quietly, with no clamor of complaint. When his wife died he had of worldly goods nothing except his ancestral home, some outlying acres, his books, and a small sum in bank. His daughters' small inheritance he held sacred, and would have starved before touching a penny of it. After his own little fund was exhausted, he sold land and books, and held some clerkly offices in the village government, which brought him in a few dollars, and so eked out a living until he died.

After his death an old cousin of his, Miss Mehitable Pepperill, came to live with the orphan sisters. She had only a little property, of which she spent the principal in careful driblets, trusting that a merciful Providence would remove her from the scene of material needs when it was gone. Her money and the Pepperill girls' little income kept them all in somewhat scanty comfort for about eight years; then she died, and the last dollar of her hoard went for her funeral expenses.

Nanny and Martha were left alone in their old mansion, without enough money in bank to keep them long, and Nanny could not leave her invalid sister to earn a livelihood.

However, they still lived in their grand old house, and still maintained their independence, and asked aid of no one, and that was some three years before this December afternoon on which they went walking in their garden.

When the sand had all run out of the upper half of the hour-glass, Nanny picked it up from the door-step, and she and her sister went into the house.

They took off their wraps, and sat down to their tasks in the great south room, where they staid mostly during the winter. Nanny reversed the hour-glass, and set it on the mantel-shelf beside the candlesticks. “You shall stitch on Deacon Emmon's shirt bosom, sister, and I will write for an hour,” said she, “and then you can scallop a handkerchief, and I will paint for another hour, and then it will be time to get tea.”

“Very well, sister,” said Martha.

“I will bake some potatoes in the ashes, and I think I will make some hot milk porridge, it is so cold,” said Nanny.

“Do you ever remember having plums in porridge, sister?” asked Martha, with the innocent wistfulness of a child, as she began her fine stitching on Deacon Emmon's shirt bosom.

“No,” replied Nanny, sitting at her little writing-table and mending her quill pen; “I know they do put plums in porridge, sister, but I never tasted any.”

“It seems to me I have,” Martha said, reflectively; “it must have been before our mother died.”

“You couldn't remember as long as that, sister.”

“It seems to me I have,” persisted Martha. “Sister —”

“What is it, deary?”

“Let us not have porridge to-night, sister.”

“Well, sister,” replied Nanny; but she saw her quill pen and her paper through a mist of tears, for well she knew that Martha's longing for plums in her porridge had spoiled her slender appetite, and she would eat no supper.

“I suppose Cousin Solomon Story and his wife have plums in their porridge,” Martha said, though wistfully rather than enviously.

“They have our plums; but our grandfather gave them so they are not to blame. People must always take what is given them,” Nanny returned, with something of bitterness. “Now you must not talk any more, sister, for I have to write this letter of condolence for a copy for Betsy Norris to-morrow.”

“I will not speak again, sister,” said Martha. She stitched industriously, with her thoughts still on the plums. Nanny began her letter of condolence with her scratching quill. She had discovered for herself a somewhat novel means of adding to their slender income, and, since her cousin's death, had given lessons in elegant correspondence, at a shilling per week.

Miss Mehitable Pepperill had been a well-educated woman, as female education of that day went, and she had done her best to impart her knowledge to her young kins-women.

The two girls were adepts in fine needle-work, tambour embroidery, and bead-work. They could knit stockings in intricate patterns, and paint on card-board; but Nanny was especially accomplished in elegant composition and letter-writing. So much had been said in praise of Nanny Pepperill's letters that she had been induced to turn her talent to pecuniary account. She instructed carefully divers little maidens in the art of letters of condolence, letters of regret, letters of acceptance, of invitation, of congratulation, and the rest. Whenever these various emergencies arose in the lives of the little docile pupils they were doubtless well prepared to meet them with paper and pen in hand. Nanny toiled conscientiously over the model epistles which she presented to her scholars to copy. To-day she began, “Respected Sir [or Madame, as the case may be], it is with the deepest sorrow that I take my pen in hand to —” when suddenly there was a clang of the knocker on the front door. Nanny turned pale, then red, and jumped up.

“'Tis Harry Jennings, sister; I saw him pass the window,” said Martha; and she looked up from her fine stitching at Nanny with a curious, wondering, anxious expression.

Nanny went out and shut the room door behind her. When she opened the outer one, Lieutenant Harry Jennings stood there, his handsome face flushed with the cold wind.

“Good-day,” he said, with a stately bow, but a loving and daring flash of black eyes at Nanny's face.

“Good-day,” replied Nanny, and courtesied low; then she stood aside and bade him enter, somewhat shyly and primly, with a lowering of her blue eyes before his black ones.

But Lieutenant Harry Jennings leaned over her suddenly, and caught her two little slim white hands in his. “Let me see you alone, Nanny, for a few minutes,” he whispered. “I return to Boston to-morrow.”

Nanny tried feebly to withdraw her hands. “It is better not,” she whispered. All the rosy color had gone out of her face. She was as pale as the lace tucks at the neck of her crimson satin gown.

“Why not?” persisted Harry Jennings, smiling down at her.

“It is better not. It can come to nothing. You had best come and see my sister Martha, and let us both wish you God-speed.” In spite of herself, Nanny Pepperill's voice faltered tearfully on the last words.

“Come out in the garden,” whispered Harry Jennings. Nanny's green silk shawl was folded on the mahogany table beside the stairs. He caught it up and wrapped it around her. “Come,” he whispered — “come, Nanny.”

Martha Pepperill in the south room heard the outer door shut, then her sister's green shawl fluttered past the window like a stray green leaf, accompanied by a flying corner of Lieutenant Jennings's cloak. She stitched patiently on Deacon Emmon's shirt bosom until the sand had all dripped out of the upper half of the hour-glass; then she folded it up, reversed the hour-glass, got a linen handkerchief out of her rosewood work-box, and scalloped the edge in button-hole stitch for another hour. When that task was finished she sat irresolute for a few minutes. If there were to be potatoes for supper, it was high time they were put in the ashes, but she knew Nanny would reproach her for doing it. However, after waiting a little longer, with wistful eyes upon the window, she limped out of the room on her crutch, and presently returned with the potatoes, and stowed them away in the hot ashes on the hearth to bake.

It was half an hour after that, and almost dusk, before Nanny came in. She stood a long time at the door after passing the window, and Martha waited patiently, cowering over the fire. It was getting rather low, but she could not bring in more wood.

“Have you finished your stitching, sister?” Nanny asked, when she came in, and her voice sounded as if she were trying to keep a sob back.

“Yes, sister, and the handkerchief too,” replied Martha.

“I was not away two hours!” said Nanny.

“Two hours and a half, sister.”

Nanny sniffed suddenly. “You did not go down cellar for potatoes, sister?” she cried out. “Yes, you did; I smell them roasting. How could you?”

“I was very careful, sister.”

“You might have fallen. You must never do such a thing again. I will never stay away from you so again.” Nanny lighted a candle. Martha gave a quick glance at her face and saw how pale it was, and how her pretty lips were set hard, as if against her own heart.

“Oh, sister, what is the matter? Why do you look so? What is the matter?” Martha cried out.

Nanny gave her sister's head a stroke, as she went past on her way out for more wood. “Nothing, sister.”

Martha grasped a fold of her sister's gown and held her fast. “I know what it is, sister,” she said. “Lieutenant Harry Jennings has asked you to marry him, and you cannot because of me.”

Nanny looked down at her with a great flash of her tender brave spirit through her blue eyes. “Hush, sister!” she said. “If it is so, I find no fault. You were first with me, before Harry Jennings or any one else on this earth.”

“You love him,” said Martha, “and he loves you, but you cannot marry each other. He has nothing but his pay, and I have heard say that that was small, and he will have his grandfather to support by-and-by, for I have heard that old Colonel Jennings has mortgaged all his house and goods. We have nothing but this old house; our money in the bank all went last winter, when I was sick. Your pupils are dropping off. We shall have to mortgage soon. You will always have your helpless sister on your hands: you are too good, and you love him too well to burden him with two.”

The look on Nanny Pepperill's sweet face might have suited a soldier's in battle.

“It may be so,” she said, with a kind of gentle dignity and fire. “I would go in rags and eat a crust for his sake, but I would die ere I would let him do so for me. Sparing one you love is not the worst trouble on earth; it has something of comfort in it. I am well content, sister, and I will never forsake you as long as we both live. And now do not fret any more or you will be sick.”

“Is he going away?” Martha asked, piteously.


“Is he never coming back, sister?”

Nanny frowned, and yet she blushed, and in spite of herself her stern mouth curved. She turned away from her sister. “He is coming to see his grandfather on Christmas,” she replied. “I will be honest with you, sister. He has such great hopefulness of spirit that it is impossible to quite discourage him. He has wild dreams of I know not what that may happen to make the way smooth for us, even by Christmas. He says he will not give me up, but when he comes again I shall endeavor to make him look at it soberly.”

With that Nanny went out for wood, and the sisters talked no more about Harry Jennings that evening. They had their supper, and afterwards did their tasks by the hour-glass, and at nine o'clock went to bed.

The next morning Lieutenant Harry Jennings set forth in the stage-coach to Boston, back to his task of waiting in readiness to protect the commonwealth in case of war. In spite of his brave attitude of hopefulness, he was himself in desperate case, meditating ruefully upon the sweetness of Nanny Pepperill, and wishing recklessly that an enemy would open fire upon the fort where he mounted guard, and give him a chance to better himself, and win money and promotion and prizes, that he might marry her.

Nanny had forbidden him to write to her. “It is better, as things are, for us to do nothing to engage our affections still further,” she had said, firmly, and kept to it in spite of his pleading.

After he went away her heart was sore for tidings of him, and many a beautiful letter she composed to him, although she told herself severely that she idled away her precious time in so doing; but never one she sent, although she knew 'twould bring an answer by the next post. As the days went on, the hope which had been reflected, in spite of herself, from her lover's on her heart, faded all away. Martha fell ill with a cold. Betsey Norris, her last pupil in letter-writing, was pronounced sufficiently learned by her mother, and taken away. Nobody wanted any fine stitching or embroidery. “Soon I shall have to put the mortgage on the house,” Nanny thought; but she kept her anxiety as best she could from her sister. When Martha questioned her she would laugh and jingle some pennies in her pocket, and tell her her purse was like the widow's cruse, and not to worry.

It was just one week before Christmas. Supper was over, the candles were lighted, and the two sisters were at work in the south room. Nanny was painting a little card-board letter-case with fine sprigs of flowers and little birds holding letters in their beaks, and Martha, who was better, was working a pin-cushion in cross-stitch, when Amanda Billings came in with a letter.

She walked in without rapping; her brown hair was blown all about her great rosy face; her black eyes gleamed with the ignoble light of curiosity. “Here's a letter for you,” said she, and looked hungrily at the folded letter with a black seal when she gave it up to Nanny. “Guess some of your folks are dead,” she added, and waited; but little satisfaction she got. Nanny opened the letter and read it; then, without a word, she put it away in the second drawer of her little work-table. She did not even tell her sister the contents. She set to work on her letter-case again, and painted another little bird with a letter in its beak. Martha cross-stitched on her cushion, and never asked a question. Amanda Billings had seated herself in one of the fiddle-backed chairs. She put her feet on a little worsted footstool and waited. “Any of your folks dead, Nanny Pepperill?” she asked, presently, in a casual voice; but her eyes still snapped.

“Nobody that I consider my folks,” answered Nanny, shortly. Martha started, for she knew from her sister's manner of reply that either Solomon Story or his wife was dead, but Amanda Billings could not read the riddle.

“Going to the funeral?” she asked, desperately, after a pause.

“No,” replied Nanny.

“When is the funeral going to be?” asked Amanda, and this time with a triumphant inflection, for she thought she must obtain a more definite answer.

“There isn't going to be any funeral,” replied Nanny, steadily, and Amanda gasped.

She rose up. “Well, Nanny Pepperill,” said she, “I'm sure I don't want to know anything you don't want to tell me. I ain't got a prying turn. I don't know who's dead, and I don't care; but whoever 'tis, I should think his folks was heathens not to have a funeral.”

Amanda Billings went out with a wide flounce of green skirts and a double whisk of a green tippet around her neck, but turned on the threshold. “Don't know as you know, Nanny Pepperill,” said she; “I guess he 'ain't wrote to you much; but Harry Jennings is coming to spend Christmas with his grandfather. I'm going to have a little company to tea while he's here, and ask him. I suppose you couldn't come if I asked you, on account of not leaving Martha, and I suppose it wouldn't be very pleasant for you to meet him in company, as things are.”

Then Amanda Billings went out, and the door clapped after her with a sudden rush of wind. Nanny Pepperill turned white, then red, and then she laughed at Martha, looking at her with scared eyes. “Do you think I mind what she said?” she whispered, lowering her voice, lest Amanda, impelled by curiosity, should return. “What do you think was in that letter, sister?”

There was an unusual excitement in Nanny Pepperill's pretty face. Her soft cheeks were vivid red instead of pink as she opened the drawer in her work-table and produced again the letter with the black seal. Martha watched her eagerly. Nanny unfolded the letter as if to read it, but she could not wait. “What do you think, sister?” she cried, abruptly. “Cousin Solomon Story is dead and buried, and they want me to go over there day after to-morrow afternoon on important business.”

The two sisters stared at each other.

“But you told Amanda — none — of — our folks,” gasped Martha. Conscience in this tender, gentle young woman always responded first to new happenings, with a fear of blame in them.

“I told her nobody that I considered my folks, and I don't,” returned Nanny, firmly. “Don't you be troubled, sister. Cousin Solomon Story has not considered us as his folks, and I have not considered him as ours for a long time. I told Amanda Billings the truth.”

“You said there wasn't going to be any funeral. He was a deacon of the church, sister —”

“There isn't going to be any funeral. The funeral was day before yesterday. They never even let us know. What do you think they want me to go over there for, sister?”

There was little sleep that night in the old Pepperill house. In one of its great square chambers, side by side in the stately old canopied bedstead, nestling warmly under ancestral quilts, lay the twin Pepperill sisters, and built air castles high as the stars in their own skies of life.

Of course this summons to Cousin Solomon Story's house, written in his widows cramped hand in a formal style, like one of Nanny's own model letters, could mean but one thing: the reading of the will and a legacy. Day after to-morrow they would be rich, Nanny would be free to marry her heart's choice, and Martha would have not her own happiness alone, but her sister's greater happiness by the reflective power of love.

Now, for the first time, Nanny confided to her sister how nearly at the end of their resources they were. “The widow's cruse is almost empty,” she said, and they both laughed out sweetly in the silent night of the great Pepperill house. “We'll fill it up, sister,” said Martha.

“We'll have a roast goose and jelly and a plum-pudding with brandy on fire on the top, like those Cousin Mehitable used to tell about, for our Christmas dinner,” said Nanny.

The next day they tried in vain to perform their accustomed tasks. The sand would drip from the hour-glass, and they had done nothing during the precious flying moments but build their air castles, and talk, talk.

That night Nanny prepared a surprise for her sister's supper. It took nearly the last penny in her purse, but she was reckless. Martha had plum-porridge, and it seemed to her verily a foretaste of future joy and comfort.

The next afternoon Nanny set forth to Dorset. She and Martha had speculated for some time as to whether it would be right, in view of their inheritance, for her to hire a chaise at the tavern; then they decided not. “I'll walk to Dorset,” said Nanny, bravely; “and if we have an inheritance, I'll hire a chase at the tavern there. So watch out for me riding home in state, sister.”

It was one of the bitterest days of the season — a day of white frozen fogs over the sun, a day of silent regions of air worse than winds, and roads as hard ridged as glaciers, with gleams of black ice like cold eyes in every hollow of the fields. Nanny was wrapped in the family camlet cloak, with a shawl under it. She wore the fur-tippet and the warmest of the ancestral hoods. She carried a mighty muff which had belonged to Cousin Mehitable, and was comfortably enough clad in every respect except her feet. When it came to foot-gear for her journey poor Nanny Pepperill had to choose between satin slippers and an old pair of shoes of her father's. Neither she nor Martha had a wearable pair left. So she tied the shoes on with black ribbons around her slender ankles, and trudged on bravely over the frozen road to Dorset, although they grazed her heels cruelly at every step.

Two hours later she trudged back again, a melancholy, drooping little figure, folded in the shabby family wraps, with the skin quite off her heels and hope dead in her heart.

Martha was watching in the south-room window. She did not speak a word when her sister entered, but went up to her and unfastened her cloak tenderly, then clasped her in her slender arms, with a little inarticulate murmur of pity. But Nanny Pepperill all at once burst out laughing, half nervously, half with genuine mirth, and told her sister the tale of her visit to Dorset.

The two sat before the fire in the dusky room, and Nanny depicted, with little peals of merriment, the widow of Cousin Solomon Story, seated in state in her fine best room, with a bevy of sympathizing women from her own side of the family around her. She described her folded hands in black gloves, her great mourning brooch in the midst of her plaited bombazine bosom, her long old face set about with black lace ruching, and the solemn voice pitched as if from the steps of her husband's tomb, in which she had unfolded to poor Nanny the object of her summons. Hearing that she was such an expert in fine letter-writing, having herself seen some of her epistolary productions, she had sent for her to request her to write an obituary notice of the deceased, to be published next week in the Dorset paper. It is highly probable that only Nanny Pepperill's quick sense of humor and enjoyable spirit of gentle sarcasm, and not her Christian grace, made her compliant with this request of the widow of Solomon Story. She agreed to do her humble best to write the obituary notice, and set out on her homeward way without having so much as a crumb of cake or a cup of tea offered her.

Nanny Pepperill wrote the obituary notice the very next day in a curious mood of forced respect and charity for the dead, of humorous appreciation of the situation, and deepest melancholy over her own prospects and her sister's.

Not one word of personal opinion obtruded in the elegantly rounded sentences of Solomon Story's obituary notice. She wrote seemingly with her eyes fixed upon his merits alone, and merits of a certain character Solomon Story had surely possessed. The letter of justice he had always kept, and had walked his path of life by the rule and plummet of the law, if not in the light of love.

“No man fixing his standard according to the equity of the law can lay his finger upon a transgression of the deceased,” wrote Nanny Pepperill, with a sarcastic meaning appreciated probably only by herself and her sister.

The obituary notice of Solomon Story, deceased, appeared the following week in the columns of the Dorset paper. It was universally regarded as a most elegant and just, if laudatory, composition, and excited considerable attention; but three days later a piece of news was circulated from mouth to mouth which aroused a feverish excitement concerning it, and caused the editor of the Dorset paper to reprint it with a copious note below in his next week's issue.

Solomon Story, deceased, had by a most eccentric but characteristic provision of his will bequeathed to Nanny and Martha Pepperill the original sum bequeathed to him by their grandfather, representing their mother's share in her father's estate. But the bequest was upon condition that “either the said Nanny or Martha Pepperill, being unacquaint with the said provision of this the last will and testament of Solomon Story, deceased, shall during the week following the funeral exercises of the deceased write and cause to be published in the Dorset paper an obituary notice setting forth the virtue to which the deceased might in humility lay claim, and making no mention of any unjust censure which the said Nanny and Martha Pepperill might have cherished in their hearts toward the deceased during his lifetime.”

Thus Solomon Story, carrying out the principles of his whole life after he was dead, had exacted a fair price for his act of justice and restitution and his last dealing in the goods of this world.

Still, oftentimes, the happiness that comes after deprivation is produced by it in a manner, and owes much of its sweetness to it.

Nanny and Martha Pepperill, with Lieutenant Harry Jennings, his grandfather, Colonel Abraham Jennings, and the minister and his wife, seated at the old mahogany table in the Pepperill dining-room, with the roast goose and blue-flaming pudding of their dreams before them, were happier than they had ever been had Solomon Story waxed generous before his death. With less lack, they had not tasted the full flavor of plenty.

Nanny Pepperill ate her Christmas dinner, glancing, when the attention of the company seemed elsewhere, with tender shyness at Lieutenant Harry Jennings, and always when she did so Martha looked at her, and over her heart and her sweet face shone a light which was the very reflection of her sister's happiness through unselfish love.