From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
It was almost dark at half-past four. Nancy Pingree stood staring out at one of her front windows. Not a person was passing on the wide country road; not one came up the old brick walk between the dry phlox bushes to the house.
It was the same picture out there which the old woman had looked at hundreds of times before in winter twilights like this. The interest in it had died away with the expectation of new developments in it which she had had in her youth. Nature to Nancy Pingree had never been anything but a background for life.
When she had first gone to the window she had said, “I wish I could see somebody comin' that belonged to me.”
Then she simply stood thinking. The tall, graceful, leafless trees arching over the quiet snowy road, and the glimpse of clear yellow western sky through them, the whole landscape before her, with all the old lights of her life shining on it, became a mirror in which she saw herself reflected.
She started finally, and went across the room with a long shamble. She was lame in one hip; but, for all that, there was a certain poor majesty in her carriage. Her rusty black dress hung in straight long folds, and trailed a little. She held her head erect, and wore an odd black lace turban. She had made the turban herself, with no pattern. It was a direct outcome of her own individuality; perched on the top of her long old head it really was — Nancy Pingree.
She took down a plaid shawl which was hanging in a little side entry, pinned it over her head, and opened the outer door into the clear twilight. Straight from the door, on this side of the old house, an avenue of pine-trees led to a hen-coop. Whatever majestic idea had been in the head of Nancy's grandfather, Abraham Pingree, when he had set out these trees, it had come to this.
Nancy went down between the windy pines, over the crusty snow, to the hen-coop. She came back with two eggs in her hand. “They've done pretty well to-day,” said she to herself.
When she was in the house again she stood shivering for a little while over her sitting-room air-tight stove. She still held the eggs. A question had come up, the answer to which was costing her a struggle.
“Here's two eggs,” said she. “I could have one biled for supper; I kinder feel the need of it too; I ain't had anything hearty to-day. An' I could have the other one fried with a little slice of salt pork for breakfast. Seems to me I should reely relish it. I s'pose Mis' Stevens would admire to have an egg for supper. Jenny ain't had any work this week, an' I know she ain't been out anywhere to buy anything to-day. I should think her mother would actilly go faint sometimes, without meat an' egg an' sech hearty things. She's nothin' but skin an' bone anyway. I've a good mind to kerry her one of these eggs. I would ef I didn't feel as ef I reely needed it myself.”
The poor soul stood there looking at the eggs. Finally she put the smaller one in a cupboard beside the chimney, and went out of the sitting-room into the front hall with the larger one. She climbed stiffly up the stairs, which were fine old winding ones. Then she knocked at a door on the landing.
A thin, pretty-faced young woman opened it. Nancy proffered the egg. She had a stately manner of extending her lean arm.
“Here's a new-laid egg I thought your mother might relish for her supper, Jenny,” said she.
The young woman's sharp, pretty face grew red. “Oh, thank you, Miss Pingree; but I — don't think mother needs it. I am afraid — you will rob yourself.”
Nancy held her wide mouth stiff, only opening it a crack when she spoke. “I've got plenty for myself, plenty. I shouldn't use this one before it spiled, mebbe, ef I kep' it. I thought p'rhaps it would go good for your mother's supper; but you can do just as you like about takin' it.”
The young woman accepted the egg with reserved thanks, then, and Nancy went stiffly back down-stairs.
“I guess ef Jenny Stevens hadn't took that egg, it would have been the last thing I'd ever offered her,” said she, when she was in her sitting-room. “I don't see how she ever got the idea she seems to have that I'm so awful poor.”
She made herself a cup of tea, and ate a slice of bread-and-butter for her supper; she had resolved to save her own egg until morning. Then she sat down for the evening with her knitting. She knitted a good many stockings for a friend's family. That friend came in at the side door presently. Nancy heard her fumbling about in the entry, but she did not rise until the sitting-room door opened.
Then, “Why, how do you do, Mis' Holmes,” said she, rising, in apparent surprise.
“I'm pretty well, thank you, Nancy. How do you do?”
“'Bout as usual. Do take off your things an' set down.”
The visitor had a prosperous look; she was richly dressed to country eyes, and had a large, masterly, middle-aged face.
“I jest heard some sad news,” said she, laying aside her shawl.
“You don't say so!”
“Old Mrs. Powers was found dead in her bed this morning.”
Nancy's face took on an anxious look; she asked many questions about the sudden death of Mrs. Powers. She kept recurring to the same topic all the evening. “Strange how sudden folks go nowadays,” she often repeated.
At length, just before Mrs. Holmes went, she stood up with an air of resolution. “Mis' Holmes,” said she, with a solemn tremor in her voice, “I wish you'd jest step in here a minute.”
Mrs. Holmes followed her into her bedroom, which opened out of the sitting-room. Nancy pulled out the bottom drawer in a tall mahogany bureau.
“Look here, Mis' Holmes. I've been thinkin' of it over for some time, an' wantin' to speak about it; an' hearin' old Mis' Powers was took so sudden, makes me think mebbe I'd better not put it off any longer. In case anything happened to me, you'd probably be one to come in an' see to things, an' you'd want to know where everything was, so you could put your hand on it. Well, all the clothes you'd need are right there, folded up in that drawer. An' Mis' Holmes, you'll never speak of this to anybody?”
“No, I won't.”
“In this corner, under the clothes, you'll find the money to pay for my buryin'. I've been savin' of it up, a few cents at a time, this twenty year. I calculate there's enough for everythin'. I want to be put in that vacant place at the end of the Pingree lot, an' have a flat stone, like the others, you know. If I leave it with you, you'll see that it's all done right, won't you, Mis' Holmes? I feel pretty perticklar about it. I'm the last of the hull family, you know, an' they were pretty smart folks. It's all run out now. I ain't nothin', but I'd kinder like to have my buryin' done like the others. I don't want it done by the town, an' I don't want nobody to give it to me. I want to pay for it with my own money. You'll see to it, won't you?”
“Of course I will. Everything shall be done just as you say, if I have anything to do about it.”
Mrs. Holmes was rarely shocked or painfully touched; but the sight of that poor little hoard of white clothes and burial money called up all the practical kindness in her nature. Every one of Nancy's wishes would be faithfully carried out under her supervision.
“If they put the railroad they're talking about through here, it'll make us rich. The Deacon says it will go through the south part of this land. We'd have enough money for burying and living too,” said Mrs. Holmes, as Nancy shut and locked the drawer.
“I ain't no stock in the railroad; all the money would belong to the Deacon ef it was put through this land. I've got all over carin' for riches. All I want is to be buried independent, like the rest of my folks.”
“How's the woman up-stairs?” asked Mrs. Holmes when she took leave finally. She had three pairs of Nancy's finished stockings in a bundle.
“She's pretty poorly, I think. She keeps me awake 'most all the time.”
Nancy did not go farther than the sitting-room door with her departing visitor. When she had heard the outer door close after her, she went swiftly out into the entry. She held the lamp in her hand, and peered sharply into the corners.
“Yes, she did,” said she, and took up a good-sized covered basket from behind the door eagerly.
She carried it into the sitting-room, and opened it; it was packed with eatables. Done up in a little parcel at the bottom was the pay for the three pairs of stockings.
This was the code of etiquette, which had to be strictly adhered to, in the matter of Nancy's receiving presents or remuneration. Gifts or presents openly proffered her were scornfully rejected, and ignominiously carried back by the donor. Nancy Pingree was a proud old woman. People called her “Old Lady Pingree.” She had not a dollar of her own in the world, except her little hoard of burial money. This immense old mansion, which had been the outcome of the ancient prosperity of the Pingrees, was owned entirely by Mrs. Holmes's husband, through foreclosed mortgages.
“You'd better foreclose, Deacon,” Mrs. Holmes had said, “and make sure you've got the place safe in your own hands; an' then you'd better let the poor old lady stay there just the same as long as she lives. She needn't know any difference.”
Nancy did know a difference. Down in the depths of her proud old heart rankled the knowledge that an outsider owned the home of her fathers, and that she was living in it on toleration. She let some rooms up-stairs, and received the money for them herself. Mrs. Holmes's benevolence was wide, although it was carefully and coolly calculated. All Nancy had to live on was the rent of these rooms, besides the small proceeds from her three hens and her knitting, and neighborly donations. Some days she had not much for sustenance except her pride. She was over eighty.
The people up-stairs were a widow and daughter. The mother, after an absence of many years and much trouble, had turned back, of her nature, to the town in which she had been born and brought up. All her friends were gone now, but they had used to be there. So they came and hired rooms of Miss Pingree, and Jenny did sewing to support herself and her mother. She was a good daughter. They had a hard struggle to live. Jenny did not find work very plentiful; a good many of the women here did their own sewing. She could scarcely pay the rent of fifty cents per week and buy enough to eat. Her mother was sick now — in consumption, it was thought. Jenny did not realize it. She was not confined to her bed.
Jenny came down and knocked at Nancy's door the next morning. She had fifty cents in her hand, with which to pay the rent. She always paid it punctually on Saturday morning.
Nancy cast a glance at the money. “How's your mother?” said she. “I heerd her coughin' a good deal last night.”
“She had a pretty bad night. I'm going for the doctor. This is the money for the rent.”
“Let it go.”
“Why, I owe it. I can pay it just as well now as any time.”
“I don't want it any time. I don't want any pay for this week. I don't need it. I've got enough.”
Jenny's face was crimson. “Thank you, but I'd rather pay what I owe, Miss Pingree.”
“I sha'n't take it.”
The two poor, proud souls stood confronting each other. Then Jenny laid the fifty cents on the window-seat. “You can do just what you've a mind to do with it,” said she. “I certainly sha'n't take it back.” Then she went out of the room quickly.
“Strange how she got the idea I was so awful poor!” said Nancy, staring at the money resentfully. “I won't tetch it, anyway. She'll see it layin' there next time she comes in.”
The next time poor Jenny came in, it was indeed still lying there on the window-seat, a scanty pile of wealth in five and ten cent pieces and coppers.
But Jenny never noticed it; she had something else to think of then. It was very early the next morning, but Miss Pingree was up, kindling the fire in her sitting-room stove. Jenny ran right in without knocking; she had a shawl over her head. “Oh, Miss Pingree,” she cried, “can't you go up-stairs to mother while I run for the doctor?”
Nancy dropped the tongs, and stood up. “Is she —” she began. But Jenny was gone. When the doctor came there was no need for him. Jenny's mother was dead. All that was required now was the aid of some of the friendly, capable women neighbors. Nancy went for them, and they came promptly, Mrs. Holmes and two others.
When they had done all that was necessary they went home. Shortly afterwards Jenny came into Nancy's room; she had on her shawl and hood. She had been very calm through it all, but her pretty face had a fierce, strained look.
“Miss Pingree,” she said, abruptly, “who are the select-men?”
“Why, Deacon Holmes is one. What do you want to know for?”
“I've got to go to them. The town will have to bury mother.”
“Oh!” cried Nancy, with two sharp notes, one of pity, one of horror.
Suddenly at that Jenny's forced composure gave way; she sank helplessly into a chair, and began to half sob, half shriek. “Oh, mother! mother! mother! poor mother! To think it has come to this! To think you must be buried by the town. What would you have said? It's the worst of all. Poor mother! poor mother! oh, poor mother.”
“Haven't you got any money?”
“No. Oh, mother!”
“An' there ain't any of your folks that could help you?”
“We didn't have any folks.”
Then she kept on with her cries and moans. Nancy stood motionless. There is no knowing what a clash of spiritual armies with trumpets and banners there was in her brave old heart; but not a line of her face moved; she hardly breathed.
“Wait a minute, Jenny.”
Nancy went into her bedroom and unlocked the lowest drawer in the bureau. She took out all of her little hoard of money except a few cents. She limped majestically across the sitting-room to Jenny.
“Here, child; there ain't any need of your goin' to the town. I've got some money here that I can let you have jest as well as not.”
“Oh, what do you mean? How can I take it? What will you do?”
“I shall do well enough. This ain't all; I've got some more.”
When all of Jenny's proud scruples which this terrible emergency had left her had been subdued, and she had gone, Nancy took up the fifty cents on the window-seat.
“Guess she's took this now, an' more too,” said she, with an odd tone of satisfaction. Even now, in her splendid self-sacrifice, there was a little leaven of pride. There was no mistaking the fact that it gave her some comfort in this harsh charity, which was almost like giving a piece of her own heart. She inspected the neat appointments of poor Mrs. Stevens's funeral with feelings not wholly of grief at her own deprivation of similar honors, nor yet of honest benevolence. There was a grand though half-smothered consciousness of her own giving in her heart. She felt for herself the respect which she would have felt for an old Pingree in his palmiest days.
As time went on she lost this, however; then the humiliating consciousness of her own condition came uppermost. She dreaded to tell Mrs. Holmes of the change in her resources, and now no vanity over her own benevolence rendered the task easier. She simply felt intense humiliation at having to confess her loss of independence.
However, she never regretted what she had done. She grew very fond of Jenny; indeed, the two had much in common. They generally ate their simple meals together. Jenny had plenty of work to do now; Mrs. Holmes gave her a great deal of sewing. She often told Nancy how she was saving up money to pay her debt; she never suspected the real state of the case. She had taken to thinking that Miss Pingree must have wider resources than she had known.
Nancy would have died rather than let her know of the meagre sum in that consecrated corner of the bureau drawer. It seemed to her sometimes that she would rather die than have Mrs. Holmes know, but that was necessary. Suppose she should be taken away suddenly, what surprise, and perhaps even distrust, would be occasioned by the scantiness of the burial hoard! However, she had not told her when spring came.
At length, she set out after tea one night. She had resolved to put it off no longer.
The cemetery was on the way. She lingered and looked in. Finally she entered.
“I'll jest look around a minute,” said she. “I dare say Mis' Holmes ain't through supper.”
The Pingree lot was almost in sight from the street. Nancy went straight there. The cemetery was itself a spring garden, blue and white with Houstonias and violets. The old graves were green, and many little bushes were flowering around them. The gold-green leaf-buds on the weeping-willows were unfolding.
The Pingree lot, however, partook of none of the general lightness and loveliness. No blessing of spring had fallen on that long rank of dead Pingrees. There they lay, in the order of their deaths, men and women and children, each covered with a flat white stone above the grave mould.
Tall, thickly-set evergreen trees fenced in closely the line of graves. In the midst of the cemetery, where gloom was now rendered tender by the infinite promise of the spring, the whole was a ghastly parallelogram of hopeless death.
Nancy Pingree, looking through the narrow entrance gap in the evergreens on the dark, tomb-like enclosure, had, however, no such impression. She regarded this as the most attractive lot in the cemetery. Its singularity had been in subtle accordance with the Pingree character, and she was a Pingree. At one end of the long row of prostrate stones there was a vacant place: enough for another.
Nancy began with this topic when she was seated, a little later, in Mrs. Holmes's Brussels-carpeted, velvet-upholstered parlor. “I looked in the graveyard a minute on my way here,” said she, “an' went over to the Pingree lot. I'd allers calculated to have a stone like the others when I was laid at the end there; but now I don' know. You remember that money I showed you, Mis' Holmes? Well, it ain't there now; I've had to use it. I thought I'd better tell you, in case you wouldn't know what to make of it, if anything happened.”
Mrs. Holmes stared at her, with a look first of amazement, then of intelligence. “Nancy Pingree, you gave the money to bury that woman up-stairs.”
“Hush! don't you say anything about it, Mis' Holmes. Jenny don't know the hull of it. She took on so, I couldn't help it. It come over me that I hadn't got anybody to feel bad ef I was buried by the town, an' it wouldn't make so much difference.”
“How much money was there?”
“Eighty dollars,” said Nancy, with the tone in which she would have said a million.
Mrs. Holmes was a woman who was seldom governed by hasty impulse; but she was now. She disregarded the strict regulations attached to giving in Nancy's case, and boldly offered to replace the money out of her own pocket. She could well afford to do it.
Nancy looked majestic with resentment. “No,” said she. “If it's got to be done by anybody, I'd enough sight rather 'twould be done by the town. The Pingrees have paid taxes enough in times gone by to make it nothin' more'n fair, after all. Thank you, Mis' Holmes, but I ain't quite come to takin' money out an' out from folks yet.”
“Well, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.”
“I know you didn't, Mis' Holmes. You meant it kind enough. We won't say no more about it.”
“Don't you believe Jenny will be able to pay you back, some time?”
“I don't know. She says she's goin' to, an' I know she means to — she's awful proud. But she can't save up much, poor child, an' I shouldn't wonder ef I died first. Well, never mind. How's the Deacon?”
“He's well, thank you. He's gone to the railroad meeting. Somebody was telling me the other day that Benny Field was waiting on Jenny.”
“Well, I believe he's come home with her from meetin' some lately; but I don't know.”
When Nancy reached home that night she wondered if Benny Field were not really “waiting on Jenny.” She found him sitting with her on the front door-step.
Before long she knew that he was. Jenny came to her one afternoon and told her she was going to marry Benny Field. Nancy had previously received another piece of intelligence on the same day.
Early that morning Mrs. Holmes had come over with an important look on her face, and announced to Nancy that the new railroad was indeed going to be laid through the Pingree land.
“They are going to build the depot down on the corner too,” said she; “and — the Deacon thinks, seeing the property has come up so much in value, that it isn't any more'n fair that — he should make you a little present.”
“I don't want any present.”
“Well, I didn't mean to put it that way. It isn't a present. It's no more than your just due. I don't think the Deacon would ever feel just right in his conscience if he didn't pay you a little something. You know the property wasn't considered worth so much when he foreclosed.”
“How much did he think of payin.”
“I believe he said — about two hundred dollars.”
“Two hundred dollars!”
Nancy had been full of the bliss of it all day, but she had said nothing about it to Jenny.
When the girl told her she was going to be married, Nancy looked at her half in awe.
“Well, I am glad, I'm sure,” said she, finally. “I hope you'll be happy ef you reely think it's a wise thing to do to git married.” Her tone was almost shamefaced. This old woman, who had never had a lover, regarded this young woman with awe, half as if she had stepped on to another level, where it would be indecorous for her to follow even in thought.
“I suppose I am happy,” said Jenny. “I never thought anything of this kind would happen to me. There's one thing, Miss Pingree: I wouldn't think of getting married, I'd never consent to getting married, if I didn't think I could pay up what I owe you, if anything, quicker. Benny says (I've told him about it; I said at first I wouldn't get married anyway till you were paid) that I shall have a sewing-machine, and I can have some help, and set up a little dressmaking shop. I ain't going to buy a single new thing to wear when I get married. I told him I wasn't. I've got a little money for you now, Miss Pingree.”
“Oh,” said Nancy, looking at her with the ecstatic consciousness of her new wealth in her heart, “I don't want it, child, ever. I'm glad I could do it for your poor mother. I've got plenty of money. I wish you'd keep this an' buy yourself some weddin' things with it.”
Even Jenny's pride was softened by her happiness. She looked up at Miss Pingree gratefully; she would have put her arms around her and kissed her had Miss Pingree been a woman to caress and she herself given to caresses. “You are real good to me,” said she, “and you were good to mother. I do thank you; but — I should never take a bit of comfort in a new dress until I had paid you every dollar of that money.”
There was a beautiful clear sunset that night. Nancy Pingree sat looking over at it from her sitting-room window. All her heart was full of a sweet, almost rapturous peace. She had had a bare, hard life; and now the one earthly ambition, pitiful and melancholy as it seemed, which had kept its living fire was gratified.
And perhaps that independent burial in the vacant corner of the ghastly Pingree lot meant more than itself to this old woman, whose great unselfishness had exalted her over her almost cowardly pride.
Perhaps she caught through it more strongly at the only real prospect of delight which all existence could hold for one like her. Perhaps she saw through it, by her own homely light, the Innocent City and the Angel-people, and the Sweet Green Pastures and Gentle Flocks and Still Waters, and herself changed somehow into something beautiful. Perhaps the grosser ambition held the finer one with its wings.
As she sat there, Benny Field came to the door for Jenny. They were going to walk.
Nancy watched them as they went down the path. “I wonder,” said she, “if they are any happier thinkin' about gettin' married than I am thinkin' about gettin' buried?”
p. 155 changed [ “I certainly sha'n't take it back. Then she went out of the room quickly. ] to [ take it back.” Then she went out ]