From A Far-away Melody and Other Stories (David Douglas, Castle Street; Edinburgh: 1902)
There were no clouds in the whole sky except a few bleak violet-coloured ones in the west. Between them the sky showed a clear, cold yellow. The air was very still, and the trees stood out distinctly.
“Thar's goin' to be a heavy frost, sure enough,” said Ann Millet. “I'll hev to git the squashes in.”
She stood in the door, surveying the look outside as she said this. Then she went in, and presently emerged with a little black shawl pinned closely over her head, and began work.
This was a tiny white-painted house, with a door and one window in front, and a little piazza, over which the roof jutted, and on which the kitchen door opened, on the rear corner. The squashes were piled up on this piazza in a great yellow and green heap.
“A splendid lot they air,” said Ann. “I'd orter be thankful.” Ann always spoke of her obligation to duty, and never seemed to think of herself as performing the duty itself. “I'd orter be thankful,” said she always.
Her shawl, pinned closely over her hair and ears, showed the small oval of her face. The greater part of it seemed to be taken up by a heavy forehead, from under which her deep-set blue eyes looked with a strange, solemn expression. She looked alike at everything, the clear cold sky and the squashes, soberly and solemnly.
This expression, taken in connection with her little delicate old face, had something almost uncanny about it. Some people complained of feeling nervous when Ann looked at them.
“Thar's Mis' Stone comin',” said she. “Hope to goodness she won't stop an' hinder me! Lor' sakes! I'd orter hev more patience.”
A tall, stooping figure came up the street, and paused at her gate hesitatingly.
“Good evenin', Ann.”
“Good evenin', Mis' Stone. Come in, won't ye?”
Mrs. Stone came through the gate, walked up to the piazza, and stopped.
“Gettin' in your squashes, ain't you?”
“Yes. I didn't dare resk 'em out to-night, it's so cold. I left 'em out last year, an' they got touched, an' it about spoilt 'em.”
“Well, I should be kinder afraid to resk 'em; it's a good deal colder than I hed any idea of when I come out. I thought I'd run over to Mis' Maxwell's a minute, so I jest clapped on this head-tie an' this little cape over my shoulders, an' I'm chilled clean through. I don' know but I've tuk cold. Yes; I'd take 'em in. We got ourn in last week, such as they was. We ain't got more'n half as many as you hev. I shouldn't think you could use 'em all, Ann.”
“Well, I do. I allers liked squashes, an' Willy likes 'em too. You'd orter see him brush round me, a-roundin' up his back an' purrin' when I'm a-scrapin' of 'em out of the shell. He likes 'em better'n fresh meat.”
“Seems queer for a cat to like sech things. Ourn won't touch 'em; he's awful dainty. How nice an' big your cat looks a-settin' thar in the window!”
“He's a-watchin' of me. He jumped up thar jest the minute I come out.”
“He's a good deal of company for you, ain't he?”
“Yes, he is. What on airth I should do this long winter that's comin', without him, I don' know. Everybody wants somethin' that's alive in the house.”
“That's so. It must be pretty lonesome for you anyway. Ruth an' me often speak of it when we look over here, 'specially in the winter season, some of them awful stormy nights we hev.”
“Well, I don't mean to complain, anyway. I'd orter be thankful. I've got my Bible an' Willy, an' a roof over my head, an' enough to eat an' wear; an' a good many folks hev to be alone, as fur as other folks is concerned, on this airth. An' p'rhaps some other woman ain't lonesome because I am, an' may be she'd be one of the kind that didn't like cats, an' wouldn't hev got along half as well as me. No: I've got a good many mercies to be thankful fur — more'n I deserve. I never orter complain.”
“Well, if all of us looked at our mercies more'n our trials, we'd be a great deal happier. But, sakes! I must be goin'. I'm catchin' cold, an' I'm henderin' you. It's supper-time, too. You've got somethin' cookin' in the house that smells good.”
“Yes; it's some stewed tomarter. I allers like somethin' I kin eat butter an' pepper on sech a night as this.”
“Well, somethin' of that kind is good. Good night, Ann.”
“Good night, Mis' Stone. Goin' to meetin' to-night?”
“I'm goin' ef Ruth don't. One of us has to stay with the children, you know. Good night.”
Mrs. Stone had spoken in a very high-pitched tone all the while. Ann was somewhat deaf. She had spoken loudly and shrilly, too; so now there was a sudden lull, and one could hear a cricket chirping somewhere about the door.
Mrs. Stone, pulling her tiny drab cape tighter across her stooping, rounded shoulders, hitched rapidly down the street to her own home, which stood on the opposite side, a little below Ann's, and Ann went on tugging in her squashes.
“I'm glad she's gone,” she muttered, looking after Mrs. Stone's retreating figure. “I didn't know how to be hendered a minute. I'd orter hev more patience.”
She had to carry in the squashes one at a time. She was a little woman, and although she had been used to hard work all her life, it had not been of a kind to strengthen her muscles: she had been a dressmaker. So she stepped patiently into her kitchen with a squash, and out without one; then in again with one. She piled them up in a heap on the floor in a corner.
“They'll hev to go up on that shelf over the mantle,” said she, “to-morrow. I can't git 'em up thar to-night an' go to meetin' nohow.”
She had a double shelf of unpainted pine rigged over the ordinary one for her squashes.
After the squashes were all in Ann took off her shawl and hung it on a nail behind the kitchen door. Then she set her bowl of smoking hot tomato stew on a little table between the windows, and sat down contentedly.
There was a white cloth on the table, and some bread and butter and pie beside the stew. Ann looked at it solemnly. “I'd orter be thankful,” said she. That was her way of saying grace. Then she fell to eating with a relish. This solemn, spiritual-looking old woman loved her food, and had a keen lookout for it. Perhaps she got a spiritual enjoyment out of it too, besides the lower material one. Perhaps hot stewed tomatoes, made savoury with butter and pepper and salt, on a frosty November night, had for her a subtle flavour of home comfort and shelter and coziness, appealing to her imagination, besides the commoner one appealing to her palate.
Before anything else, though — before seating herself — she had given her cat his saucer of warm milk in a snug corner by the stove. He was a beautiful little animal, with a handsome dark striped coat on his back, and white paws and face.
When he had finished lapping his milk, he came and stood beside his mistress's chair while she ate, and purred — he rarely mewed — and she gave him bits of bread from her plate now and then. She talked to him too. “Nice Willy,” said she, “nice cat. Got up on the window to see me bring in the squashes, didn't he? There's a beautiful lot of 'em, an' he shall hev some stewed for his dinner, to-morrow, so he shall.”
And the cat would purr, and rub his soft coat against her, and look as if he knew just what she meant.
There was a prayer-meeting in the church vestry that evening, and Ann Millet went. She never missed one. The minister, when he entered, always found her sitting there at the head of the third seat from the front, in the right-hand row — always in the same place, a meek, erect little figure, in a poor, tidy black bonnet and an obsolete black coat, with no seam in the whole of the voluminous back. That had been the style of outside garments when Miss Millet had laid aside dressmaking, and she had never gone a step further in fashions. She had stopped just where she was, and treated her old patterns as conservatively as she did her Bible.
She had had a pretty voice when she was young, people said, and she sang now in a thin sweet quaver the hymns which the minister gave out. She listened in solemn enjoyment to the stereotyped prayers and the speaker's remarks. He was a dull, middle-aged preacher in a dull country town.
After meeting Ann went up and told him how much she had enjoyed his remarks, and inquired after his wife and children. She always did. To her a minister was an unpublished apostle, and his wife and family were set apart on the earth. No matter how dull a parson laboured here, he would always have one disciple in this old woman.
When Ann had walked home through the frosty starlight, she lit her lamp first, and then she called her cat. She had expected to find him waiting to be let in, but he was not. She stood out on her little piazza, which ran along the rear corner of her house by her kitchen door, and called, “Willy! Willy! Willy!”
She thought every minute she would see him come bounding around the corner, but she did not. She called over and over and over, in her shrill, anxious pipe, “Willy! Willy! Willy! Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!”
Finally she went into the house and waited awhile, crouching, shivering with cold and nervousness, over the kitchen stove. Then she went outside and called again, “Willy! Willy! Willy!” over and over, waiting between the calls, trembling, her dull old ears alert, her dim old eyes strained. She ran out to the road, and looked and called, and down to the dreary garden-patch behind the house, among the withered corn-stalks and the mouldering squash-vines all white with frost. Once her heart leaped; she thought she saw Willy coming; but it was only a black cat which belonged to one of the neighbours. Then she went into the house and waited a little while; then out again; calling shrilly, “Willy! Willy!”
There were northern lights streaking the sky; the stars shone steadily through the rosy glow; it was very still and lonesome and cold. The little thin, shivering old woman standing outdoors, all alone in the rude, chilly night air, under these splendid stars and streaming lights, called over and over the poor little creature which was everything earthly she had to keep her company in the great universe in which she herself was so small.
“Willy! Willy! Willy!” called Ann. “Oh, where is that cat? Oh dear! Willy! Willy!”
She spent the night that way. Mrs. Stone's daughter Ruth, who was up with a sick child, heard her.
“Miss Millet must have lost her cat,” she told her mother in the morning; “I heard her calling him all night long.”
Pretty soon, indeed, Ann came over, her small old face wild and wan. “Hev you seen anything of Willy?” she asked. “He's been out all night, an' I'm afraid somethin's happened to him. I never knowed him to stay out so before.”
When they told her they had not, she went on to the next neighbour's to inquire. But no one had seen anything of the cat. All that day and night, at intervals, people heard her plaintive, inquiring call, “Willy! Willy? Willy? Willy!”
The next Sunday Ann was not out at church. It was a beautiful day too.
“I'm goin' to run over an' see if Ann Millet's sick,” Mrs. Stone told her daughter, when she returned from church. “She wa'n't out to meetin' to-day, and I'm afraid somethin's the matter. I never knew her to miss goin'.”
So she went over. Miss Millet was sitting in her little wooden rocking-chair in her kitchen, when she opened the door.
“Why, Ann Millet, are you sick?”
“No, I ain't sick.”
“You wa'n't out to meetin', an' I didn't know —”
“I ain't never goin' to meetin' agin.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
Mrs. Stone dropped into a chair, and stared at her neighbour.
“I mean jest what I say. I ain't never goin' to meetin' agin. Folks go to meetin' to thank the Lord for blessin's, I s'pose. I've lost mine, an' I ain't goin'.”
“What hev you lost, Ann?”
“'Ain't I lost Willy?”
“You don't mean to say you're makin' such a fuss as this over a cat?”
Mrs. Stone could make a good deal of disapprobation and contempt manifest in her pale, high-featured face, and she did now.
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I 'ain't nothin' agin cats, but I must say I'm beat. Why, Ann Millet, it's downright sinful fur you to feel so. Of course you set a good deal by Willy; but it ain't as ef he was a human creature. Cats is cats. For my part, I never thought it was right to set by animals as ef they was babies.”
“I can't hear what you say.”
“I never thought it was right to set by animals as ef they was babies.”
“I don't keer. It's comfortin' to have live creatures about you, an' I 'ain't never hed anything like other women. I 'ain't hed no folks of my own sence I kin remember, I've worked hard all my life, an' hed nothin' at all to love, an' I've thought I'd orter be thankful all the same. But I did want as much as a cat.”
“Well, as I said before, I've nothin' agin cats. But I don't understand any human bein' with an immortal soul a-settin' so much by one.”
“I can't hear what you say.” Ann could usually hear Mrs. Stone's high voice without difficulty, but to-day she seemed deafer.
“I don't understand any human bein' with an immortal soul a-settin' so much by a cat.”
“You've got folks, Mis' Stone.”
“I know I hev; but folks is trials sometimes. Not that my children are, though. I've got a good deal to be thankful for, I'll own, in that way. But, Ann Millet, I didn't think you was one to sink down so under any trial. I thought the Lord would be a comfort to you.”
“I know all that, Mis' Stone. But when it comes to it, I'm here an' I ain't thar; an' I've got hands, an' I want somethin' I kin touch.” Then the poor soul broke down, and sobbed out loud, like a baby: “I ain't — never felt as ef I'd orter begrutch other — women their homes an' their folks. I thought — p'rhaps — I could git along better without 'em than — some; an' the Lord knowed it, an' seein' thar wa'n't enough to go round, he gave 'em to them that needed 'em most. I 'ain't — never — felt — as ef I'd orter complain. But — thar — was — cats — enough. I might 'a hed — that — much.”
“You kin git another cat, Ann. Mis' Maxwell's got some real smart kittens, an' I know she wants to get rid of 'em.”
“I don't want any of Mis' Maxwell's kittens; I don't never want any other cat.”
“P'rhaps yourn will come back. Now don't take on so.”
“P'rhaps yourn will come back.”
“No, he won't. I'll never see him agin. I've felt jest that way about it from the first. Somebody's stole him, or he's been p'isoned and crawled away an' died, or he's been shot fur his fur. I heerd thar was a boy over the river makin' a cat-skin kerridge blanket, an' I went over thar an' asked him, an' he said he hadn't never shot a cat like Willy. But I don' know. Boys ain't brought up any too strict. I hope he spoke the truth.”
“Hark! I declar' I thought I heard a cat mew somewhar! But I guess I didn't. I don't hear it now. Well, I'm sorry, Ann. I s'pose I've got to go; thar's dinner to git, an' the baby's consider'ble fretty to-day. Why, Ann Millet, whar's your squashes?”
“Where are your squashes?”
“I throwed 'em away out in the field. Willy can't hev none of 'em now, an' I don't keer about 'em myself.”
Mrs. Stone looked at her in horror. When she got home she told her daughter that Ann Millet was in a dreadful state of mind, and she thought the minister ought to see her. She believed she should tell him if she were not out to meeting that night.
She was not. This touch of grief had goaded that meek, reverential nature into fierceness. The childish earnestness which she had had in religion she had now in the other direction. Ann Millet, in spite of all excuses that could be made for her, was for the time a wicked, rebellious old woman. And she was as truly so as if this petty occasion for it had been a graver one in other people's estimation.
The next day the minister called on her, stimulated by Mrs. Stone's report. He did not find her so outspoken; her awe of him restrained her. Still, this phase of her character was a revelation to him. He told his wife, when he returned home, that he never should have known it was Ann Millet.
In the course of the call a rap came at the kitchen door.
Ann rose and answered it, hopping nervously across the floor. She returned to the minister with more distress in her face than ever.
“Nothin' but a little gal with a Malty cat,” said she. “The children hev got wind of my losin' Willy, an' they mean it all right, but it seems as ef I should fly! They keep comin' and bringin' cats. They'll find a cat that they think mebbe is Willy, an' so they bring him to show me. They've brought Malty and white cats, an' cats all Malty. They've brought yaller cats and black, an' thar wa'n't one of 'em looked any like Willy. Then they've brought kittens that they knowed wa'n't Willy, but they thought mebbe I'd like 'em instead of him. They mean all right, I know; they're real tender-hearted; but it 'most kills me. Why, they brought me two little kittens that hadn't got their eyes open jest before you come. They was striped an white, an' they said they thought they'd grow up to look like Willy. They were the Hooper children, an' they knowed him.”
It would have been ludicrous if the poor old woman's distress had not been so genuine. However, Mr. Beal, the minister, was not a man to see the ridiculous side; he could simply be puzzled, and that he was.
It was a case entirely outside his experience, and he did not know how to deal with it. He wondered anxiously what he had best say to her. Finally he went away without saying much of anything, he was so afraid that what he said might be out of proportion to the demands of the case.
It seemed to him bordering on sacrilege to treat this trouble of Ann Millet's like a genuine affliction, though, on the other hand, that treatment was what her state of mind seemed to require.
Going out the door, he stopped and listened a minute; he thought he heard a cat mew. Then he concluded he was mistaken, and went on. He watched eagerly for Ann the next meeting night, but she did not come. It is doubtful whether or not she ever would have done so if she had not found the cat. She had a nature which could rally an enormous amount of strength for persistency.
But the day after the meeting, she had occasion to go down cellar for something. The cellar stairs led up to the front part of the house; indeed, the cellar was under that part only. Ann went through her chilly sitting-room — she never used it except in summer — and opened the cellar door, which was in the front entry. There was a quick rush from the gloom below, and Willy flew up the cellar stairs.
“Lor' sakes!” said Ann, with a white, shocked face. “He has been down thar all the while. Now I remember. He followed me when I came through here to git my cloak that meetin' night, an' he wanted to go down cellar, an' I let him. I thought he wanted to hunt. Lor' sakes!”
She went back into the kitchen, her knees trembling. The cat followed, brushing against her and purring. She poured out a saucer of milk, and watched him hungrily lapping. He did not look as if he had suffered, though he had been in the cellar a week. But mice were plenty in this old house, and he had probably foraged successfully for himself.
Ann watched him, the white, awed look still on her face. “I s'pose he mewed an' I didn't hear him. Thar he was all the time, jest whar I put him; an' me a-blamin' of the Lord, an' puttin' of it on him. I've been an awful wicked woman. I ain't been to meetin', an' I've talked, an' — Them squashes I threw away! It's been so warm they 'ain't froze, an' I don't deserve it. I hadn't orter hev one of 'em; I hadn't orter hev anythin'. I'd orter offer up Willy. Lor' sakes! think of me a-sayin' what I did, an' him down cellar!”
That afternoon Mrs. Stone looked across from her sitting-room window where she was sewing, and saw Ann slowly and painfully bringing in squashes one at a time.
“Look here, Ruth,” she called to her daughter. “Jest you see. Ann Millet's bringing in them squashes she threw away. I don't believe but what she's come to her senses.”
The next meeting-night Ann was in her place. The minister saw her, rejoicing. After meeting he hurried out of his desk to speak to her. She did not seem to be coming to see him as usual.
When she looked up at him there was an odd expression on her face. Her old cheeks were flushing.
“I am rejoiced to see you out, Miss Millet,” said the minister, shaking her hand.
“Yes. I thought I'd come out to-night.”
“I am so happy to see you are feeling better.”
“The cat has come back,” said Ann.