An Old Arithmetician

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Vol. LXXI No. CCCCXXIV (September, 1885)

A strong soft south wind had been blowing the day before, and the trees had dropped nearly all their leaves. There were left only a few brownish-golden ones dangling on the elms, and hardly any at all on the maples. There were many trees on the street, and the fallen leaves were heaped high. Mrs. Wilson Torry's little door-yard was ankle-deep with them. The air was full of their odor, which could affect the spirit like a song, and mingled with it was the scent of grapes.

The minister had been calling on Mrs. Torry that afternoon, and now he stood facing her on the porch, taking leave. He was very young, and this was his first parish. He was small and light and mild-looking; still he had considerable nervous volubility. The simple village women never found him hard to entertain.

Now, all at once, he made an exclamation, and fumbled in his pocket for a folded paper. “There,” said he, “I nearly forgot this. Mr. Plainfield requested me to hand this to you, Mrs. Torry. It is a problem which he has been working over; he gave it to me to try, and wanted me to propose, when I called, that you should see what you could do with it.”

She seized it eagerly. “Well, I'll see what I can do; but you an' he mustn't make no great calculations on me. You know I don't know anything about the 'rithmetic books an' the rules they hev nowadays; but I'm willin' to try.”

“Oh, you'll have it done while Mr. Plainfield and I are thinking of it, Mrs. Torry.”

“You 'ain't neither of you done it, then?”

“He had not at last accounts, and — I have not,” replied the young man, laughing, but coloring a little.

The old lady's eyes gleamed as she looked at him, then at the paper. “I dare say I can't make head nor tail of it,” said she, “but I'll see what I can do by-an'-by.”

She had something of a childish air as she stood there. She was slender, and so short that she was almost dwarfed; her shoulders were curved a little by spinal disease. She had a small round face, and a mouth which widened out innocently into smiles as she talked. Her eyes looked out directly at one, like a child's; over them loomed a high forehead with bulging temples covered with deep wrinkles.

“You have always been very fond of mathematics, haven't you, Mrs. Torry?” said the minister, in his slow retreat.

“Lor', yes. I can't remember the time when I wa'n't crazy to cipher.”

“Arithmetic is a very fascinating study, I think,” remarked the minister, trying to slide easily off the subject and down the porch steps.

“'Tis to me. An' there's somethin' I was thinkin' about this very forenoon — seein' all them leaves on the ground made me, I s'pose. It's always been a sight of comfort to me to count. When I was a little girl I'd 'most rather count than play. I used to sit down and count by the hour together. I remember a little pewter porringer I had, that I used to fill up with beans an' count 'em. Well, it come into my head this forenoon what a blessed privilege it would be to count up all the beautiful things in this creation. Just think of countin' all them red an' gold-colored leaves, an' all the grapes an' apples in the fall; an' when it come to the winter, all the flakes of snow, an' the sparkles of frost; an' when it come to the spring, all the flowers, an' blades of grass, an' the little new light green leaves. I don' know but you'll think it ain't exactly reverent, but it does seem to me that I'd rather do that than sing in the other world. Mebbe somebody does have to do the countin'; mebbe it's singin' for some.”

She stared up into the warm blue air, in which the bare branches of the trees glistened, with a sweet, solemn wonder in her old face.

The minister in a bewildered way pondered all the old woman had said, as he rustled down the street. Later, Mr. Plainfield (the young high-school teacher) and he would have a discussion over it. They often talked over Mrs. Wilson Torry.

After her caller had gone, the old woman entered the house. On the left of the little entry was the best room, where she had been entertaining the minister; on the right, the kitchen. A young girl was in there eating an apple. She looked up when Mrs. Torry stood in the door.

“He's gone, ain't he?” said she.

“Why, Letty, when did you come?”

“A few minutes ago. School's just out. I came in the back door, and heard him talking, so I kept still.”

“Why didn't you come in and see him?”

“Oh, I didn't want to see him. What you got there, grandma?”

“Nothin' but a sum the minister brought me to do. He an' Mr. Plainfield have been workin' over it.”

“Couldn't they do it?”

“Well, he said they hadn't neither of 'em done it yet.”

“Is it awful hard?”

“I don' know. I 'ain't looked at it yet.”

“Let me see. He didn't get it out of any of our books, I know. We never had anything like this.”

“I s'pose it's one he come across somewhere. I guess I'll sit down an' look at it two or three minutes.”

An old bureau stood against the wall; on it were arranged four religious newspapers in the exact order of their issues, the latest on top, Farmers' Almanacs for the last four years filed in the same way, and a slate surmounted by an old arithmetic. The pile of newspapers was in the middle; the slate and almanacs were on either end.

Letty, soberly eating her apple, watched her grandmother getting out the arithmetic and slate. She was a pretty young girl; her small innocent face, in spite of its youthful roundness and fairness, reminded people of Mrs. Torry's.

“I don't think much of Mr. Plainfield, anyhow,” said she, as the click of her grandmother's pencil on the slate began; “and he knows I don't. He overheard me telling Lizzie Bascom so to-day. He came right up behind us on the street, and I know he heard. You ought to have seen his face!”

“I don't see what you've got agin him,” remarked Mrs. Torry, absently, as she dotted down figures.

“I haven't much of anything that I know of against him, only I don't think he's much of a teacher. He can't do examples as quickly as you, I know, and I don't think a man has any business to be school-teaching if he can't do examples as quickly as an old lady.”

Mrs. Torry stopped her work, and fixed her round unwinking eyes full on the girl's face.

“Letty Torry, there's some things you don't understand. You never will understand 'em, if you live to be as old as Methuseleh, as far as that's concerned. But you'll get so you know the things air. Sometimes it don't make any difference if anybody's ignorant, an' 'ain't got any book-learnin'; air old, an' had a hard-workin' life. There'll be somethin' in 'em that everybody else 'ain't got; somethin' that growed, an' didn't have to be learned. I've got this faculty; I can cipher. It ain't nothin' agin Mr. Plainfield if he 'ain't got it; it's a gift.”

Her voice took on a solemn tone and trembled. Letty looked at her with childish wonder. “Well,” said she, with a subdued manner, “he has no right to teach, anyhow, without it. I guess I'll have another apple. I was real hungry.”

So Letty ate another apple silently, while her grandmother worked at the problem again.

She did not solve it as easily as usual. She worked till midnight, her little lamp drawn close to her on the kitchen table; then she went to bed, with the answer still in doubt.

“It ain't goin' to do for me to set up any longer,” said she, forlornly, as she replaced the slate on the bureau. “I shall be sick if I do. But I declare I don't see what's got into me. I hope I ain't losin' my faculty.”

She could not sleep much. The next morning, as soon as their simple breakfast was eaten and Letty had gone to school, she seated herself with her slate and pencil.

When Letty came home at noon she found her grandmother still at work, and no dinner ready.

“I do declare!” cried the old woman. “You don't mean to say you're home, Letty! It ain't twelve o'clock, is it?”

“Course it is; quarter past.”

“I 'ain't got one mite of dinner ready, then. I've been so took up with the sum I hadn't no idea how the time was goin'. I don' know what you will do, child.”

“Oh, I'll get some bread and milk, grandma; just as soon have it as anything else. Got the problem done?”

“No, I 'ain't. I feel real bad about your dinner. I'll kindle up a fire now an' fry you an egg — there be time enough.”

“I'd rather have bread and milk.”

After Letty had gone to school for the afternoon, and Mrs. Torry had been working fruitlessly for an hour longer, she dropped her pencil.

“I declare,” said she, “I'm afraid I am losin' my faculty!”

Tears stood in her eyes. “I won't give up that I am, anyhow,” said she, and took the pencil again.

When Letty returned, in the latter part of the afternoon, she scarcely knew it, with the full meaning of the word. She saw her, but her true consciousness was so full of figures that Letty's fair face could only look in at the door.

Letty ran in hastily; a young girl was waiting for her outside. “Oh, grandma,” cried Letty, “Lizzie's going to Ellsworth to do an errand for her mother; she's coming back on the last train. Can't I go with her?”

Her grandmother stared at her for a minute and made no answer.

“She's got tickets for both of us. Can't I go, grandma?”


Letty smoothed her hair a little, and put on her best hat; then she went.

“Good-by,” said she, looking back at the intent old figure; but she got no answer.

“Grandma's so taken up with an example she's got that she doesn't know anything,” she told her friend when she was outside. “She didn't answer when I said good-by; she forgot to get dinner to-day too.”

Mrs. Torry worked on and on. She never looked up nor thought of anything else until it grew so dark that she could not see her figures. “I'll have to light the lamp,” said she, with a sigh.

After it was lit she went to work again. She never thought of wanting any supper, though she had eaten nothing since morning.

The kitchen clock struck seven — Letty should have been home then — eight, and nine, but she never noticed it. A few minutes afterward some one knocked on the door. She ciphered on. Then the knocks were repeated, louder and quicker.

“Somebody's knockin', I guess,” she muttered, and opened the door. Mr. Plainfield stood there. He was a handsome young man with rosy cheeks; he was always smiling. He looked past her into the room inquiringly. “Is Letty at home?” said he.


“Yes, Letty. Is she at home?”

“Why, yes, she's here. Letty!”

“Has she gone to bed?”

“Why, yes, I guess she has.” Mrs. Torry opened the door at the foot of the stairs. “Letty! Letty!”

“I guess she must be asleep,” said she, turning to the young man, who had stepped into the kitchen. “Want me to go up an' see? Did you want anything pertickler?”

He hesitated. “If you had — just as soon — I — had something special —”

The old woman climbed the steep, uncarpeted stairs, feebly, with a long pat on every step. She came down faster, reckless of her trembling uncertainty. “She ain't there! Letty's gone! Where is she?”

“You knew she went to Ellsworth with Lizzie?”

“No, I didn't.”

“Why, she said something to you about it, didn't she?”

“I don' know whether she did or not.”

“Lizzie just told me that she missed her in the depot. She left her there for a minute while she went back for something she had forgotten. When she came back she was gone. The train was all ready, and Lizzie thought she must be on it, so she got on herself. She did not see her in the depot here, and has been crying about it, and afraid to tell till just now. I came right over as soon as I knew about it.”

“Oh, Letty! Letty! Where's Letty? Oh, Mr. Plainfield, you go an' find her! Go right off! You will, won't you? Letty allers liked you.”

“I always liked Letty,” said the young man, brokenly. “I'll find her — don't you worry.”

“You'll go right off now?”

“Of course I will; I won't wait a minute.”

“Oh, Letty, Letty! Where is she? What shall I do? That little bit of a thing — and she was always one of the frightened kind — out all alone; an' it's night! She never went to Ellsworth alone in her hull life. She didn't know nothin' about the town, an' she didn't have a cent of money in her pocket.”

“I'll send Mrs. Bascom over to stay with you,” Mr. Plainfield called back as he hurried off.

Soon Mrs. Bascom came, poking her white, nervous face in the door inquiringly. “She 'ain't come?”

“No. Oh, Mis' Bascom, what shall I do?”

“Oh, Mis' Torry, I do feel so bad about it I don't know what to do. If Lizzie had only told before! but there she was upstairs crying, and afraid to tell. I've been scolding her, but she felt so bad I had to stop. She called me, an' told me finally; an' I guess 'twa'n't long before Mr. Plainfield started off, to find out if she was home. It was lucky he was boarding with us. He'll find her if anybody can; he's as quick as lightning. He turned white's a sheet when I told him.”

“Oh, Mis' Bascom!”

“Now, don't give up so, Mis' Torry. He'll find her. She can't be very far off. You'll see her walking in here first thing you know. He's got a real fast team, an' he's started for Ellsworth now. He went past me like a streak when I was coming up the road. He'll have her back safe and sound before morning.”

“Oh, Letty! Letty! Oh, what shall I do? It's my own fault, every mite of it's my own fault. 'Tis; you don't know nothin' about it. The minister brought me a sum, he an' Mr. Plainfield had been workin' on, to do, yesterday afternoon, an' I jest sat and ciphered half the night, an' all day. I didn't know no more what Letty asked me, when she came in from school, than nothin' at all. I didn't more'n half know when she come. I didn't know nothin' but them figgers, an' now Letty's lost, an' it's my fault.”

“Why, you might have let her gone if you'd known.”

“I guess I shouldn't let her gone, all alone with your Lizzie, to come home after dark in the last train, little delicate thing as she was. I guess I shouldn't; an' I guess I should have started up an' done something, if I'd known, when she wasn't here at train time. I didn't get the sum done, an' I'm glad of it; it seems to me jest as if I was losin' my faculty as I'm growin' older, an' I hope I am.”

“Now don't talk so, Mis' Torry. Sit down an' try to be calm. You'll be sick.”

“I guess there ain't much bein' calm. I tell you what 'tis, Mis' Bascom, I've been a wicked woman. I've been thinkin' so much of this faculty I've had for cipherin' that I've set it afore everything — I hev. Only yesterday that poor child didn't hev any dinner but crackers an' milk, 'cause I was so took up with the sum that I forgot it. An' she was jest as patient as a lamb about it; said she'd rather hev crackers an' milk than anything else. Oh, dear! dear!”

“Don't cry, Mis' Torry.”

“I can't help it. It don't make no difference what folks are born with a faculty for — whether it's cipherin', or singin', or writin' poetry — the love that's betwixt human beings an' the help that's betwixt 'em ought to come first. I've known it all the time, but I've gone agin it, an' now I've got my pay. What shall I do?”

Mrs. Bascom remained with her all night, but she could not pacify her in the least. She was nearly distracted herself. She was fearful that her Lizzie might be blamed.

The next day people flocked to the house to inquire if there was any news from Letty, and to comfort her grandmother. Sympathy seemed fairly dripping like fragrant oil from these simple, honest hearts; but the poor old woman got no refreshing influence from it. She kept on her old strain in their ears. She had lost Letty, and it was all her own fault, and what should she do? Mr. Plainfield did not come home. The minister took his place in school. Nothing was heard until noon; then a telegram from the teacher came. He thought he was on Letty's track, he said; they should hear again.

Next day there was a second message: Letty was safe; coming home as soon as possible. The following day passed then, and not another word came. The old grandmother's faith and hope seemed to have deserted her. She knew Letty was not found; she never would be found. She and Mr. Plainfield were both lost now. Something dreadful had happened to both of them.

“The worst of it is,” she told Mrs. Bascom one afternoon, with a fierce indignation at herself, “I can't help thinkin' about that awful sum now after all that's happened. Them figgers keep troopin' into my head right in the midst of my thinkin' about Letty. It's all I can do to let that slate alone, an' not take it off the bureau. But I won't — I won't if it kills me not to. An' all the time I jest despise myself for it: a-lettin' my faculty for cipherin' get ahead of things that's higher an' sacreder. I do think I've lost my faculty now, an' I 'most hope I hev. But it won't make no difference 'bout Letty now. Oh dear! dear! What shall I do?”

On the fourth day after Letty's disappearance, between six and seven o'clock in the evening, Mrs. Torry was sitting alone in her kitchen. The last sympathizer had gone home to eat her supper.

The distressed old woman had drank a cup of tea; that was all she would touch. The pot was still on the stove. There was a soft yellow light from the lamp over the room. The warm air was full of the fragrance of boiling tea.

Mrs. Torry sat looking over at the bureau. She would have looked the same way if she had been starving and seen food there.

“Oh,” she whispered, “if — I could — only work on that sum a little while, it does seem as if 'twould comfort me more'n anything. O Lord! I wonder if I was to blame? 'Twas the way I was made, an' I couldn't help that. P'rhaps I should hev let Letty gone, an' she'd been lost, anyway. I wonder if I hev lost my faculty?”

She sat there looking over at the slate. At last she rose and started to cross the room. Midway she stopped.

“Oh, what am I doin'? Letty's lost, an' I'm goin' to cipherin'! S'pose she should come in an' ketch me? She'd be so hurt she'd never get over it. She wouldn't think I cared anything about her.”

She stood looking at the slate and thinking for a moment. Then her face settled into a hard calm.

“Letty won't come back — she won't never come back. I might as well cipher as anything else.”

She went across the room, got the slate and pencil, and returned to her seat. She had been ciphering for a minute or so when a sound outside caused her to start and stop. She sat with mouth open and chin trembling, listening. The sound came nearer; it was at the door. Of all the sweet sounds which had smote that old woman's ears since her birth — songs of birds, choral hymns, Sabbath bells — there had been none so sweet as this. It was Letty's thin girlish treble which she heard just outside the door.

For a second, as she sat listening, her face was rapt, angelic; in spite of its sallowness and wrinkles it might have figured in an altarpiece. Then it changed. The slate was in her lap. What would Letty think?

It was all passing swiftly; the door-latch rattled; she slipped the slate under her gingham apron, and sat still.

“Oh, poor grandma!” cried Letty, running in; “you've been frightened 'most to death about me, haven't you?” She bent over her grandmother and laid her soft pretty cheek against hers.

“Oh, Letty! I didn't think you'd ever come back.”

“I have; but I did have the dreadfulest time. I got carried 'way out West on an express train. Just think of it! I got on the wrong train while I was waiting for Lizzie. I was frightened almost to death. But Mr. Plainfield telegraphed ahead. He found out where I was going, and they took me to a hotel; and then he came for me. You haven't said anything to Mr. Plainfield, grandma.”

The young man was standing smiling behind Letty. She looked astonished when her grandmother did not rise to speak to him, but sat perfectly still as she uttered some broken thanks.

“Why, grandma, you ain't sick, are you?” said she.

“No — I ain't sick,” said her grandmother, with a meek tone.

When Mr. Plainfield left, in a few moments, Letty gave a half-defiant, half-ashamed glance at her grandmother, and followed him out, closing the door.

When she returned, Mrs. Torry was standing by the table pouring out a cup of tea for her. The slate was in its usual place on the bureau.

“Grandma,” said Letty, blushing innocently, “I thought I ought to say something to Mr. Plainfield, you know. I hadn't, and I knew he heard what I said to Lizzie that day. I thought I ought to ask his pardon, when he'd done so much for me. I've made up my mind that I do like him. There's other things besides doing arithmetic examples.”

“I guess there is, child. Them things is all second. I think I'd rather have a man who hadn't got any special faculty, if I was goin' to git married.”

“Nobody said anything about getting married, grandma.”

Pretty soon Letty went to bed. She was worn out with her adventures.

“Ain't you going too, grandma?” asked she, turning around, lamp in hand, at the foot of the stairs.

“Pretty soon, child; pretty soon. I've — got a little somethin' I want to do first.”

The grandmother sat up till nearly morning working over the problem. Once in a while she would lay down her slate and climb upstairs and peep into Letty's little peaceful girl-chamber to see if she was safe.

“If I have got that dear child safe, an' 'ain't lost my faculty, it's more'n I deserve,” muttered she, as she took her slate the last time.

The next evening the minister came over. “So Letty's come,” he said, when Mrs. Torry opened the door.

“Yes, Letty's come, and — I've got that sum, you gave me, done.”