From Christian Union Vol. 40 No. 25 (December 19, 1889)
It was a cold morning; there was no snow on the ground, but the gray sky seemed to hang low with the weight of it. The main street of the village was long and straight, with a gradual slope for a mile. One standing at the head of the slope had an uninterrupted view of the street for a long distance. This morning of the day before Christmas, at nine o'clock there was only one person to be seen upon it. At nine o'clock in the morning there were seldom many to be seen on the road; the men had gone to work, and the women were rarely out-of-doors at any time. Most of them did their own housework and sewing, and an outdoor walk looked to them like an arduous undertaking. Not another woman in the whole village was on the street as much as old Lucy Cragin, who was then going up the slope. She was short, and wide-shouldered. She planted her stubbed feet far apart, and walked with a kind of a stiff hop like a sparrow. She was rolled in old shawls, and wore a white hood with long ends which swung to her knees. She carried a brown cloth knotted into a bag.
Old Lucy's face was purplish red with the cold; she kept sniffing; her coarse shoes clattered on the frozen ground. Once in a while a woman's face peered out at her over the greenhouse plants in a window, but Lucy never noticed it — she kept on stiffly.
Finally she strode into a driveway at the side of a large white farmhouse, trudged up to the side door, and knocked. No one came, although she could hear voices in the house. She knocked again, and waited. Her face grew more purple; the wind beat upon her back; at last she opened the door and walked into the kitchen. She settled down in the nearest chair and sat still, looking across at the cooking-stove; waves of heat were swimming over it. Now she was in the house, the voices were quite audible; there were two of them, a woman's and a man's, and they came from the sitting-room.
The woman's voice was predominant; it was shrill with grief and wrath. “I can't have it so, nohow,” she said. “I can't have you going out West — I can't! And I don't want to pull up stakes, and go out there in the spring, and I ain't a-goin' to. I ain't goin' to leave all my folks, and the place where I was born and brought up, at my time of life, and go 'way out West. I ain't goin' to, once for all, and you ain't goin', Hiram Lovering, neither, not if I can help it! I won't have you goin'!”
The man's voice opposed itself to hers like the face of a rock. “I am goin',” said he.
The woman's voice swelled into a shriek. “Goin' off, and leavin' your wife and home, on account of a wicked quarrel with all the brother you've got — about nothin' at all! You know he'd be glad enough to make up, if you was! Goin' way out West!”
“No, he wouldn't make up, neither. I know John Lovering as well as you do. He looked ugly enough to kill me when I met him in the road this mornin'. Thinkin' I've been tryin' to cheat him! I'm goin' to get out of it. I'm sick of the whole business. I know him. If I tried to patch it up, he'd turn round and laugh at me. I guess I ain't goin' to stan' it. I ain't goin' to knuckle down to him!”
“Goin' out West in the dead of winter! Oh, dear! I never thought I should live to see this! Oh, dear!”
The sitting-room door was swung wide open, and an old man strode violently through the kitchen. He caught a hat off a nail, thrust it on his head, and went out. He did not notice Lucy.
In a minute a woman, catching her breath with sobs, entered. Her face was all red and convulsed. She saw Lucy at once. Lucy's face had a stolid expression; it looked as if she had heard nothing.
The other woman straightened herself. “Oh, you are here waitin'?” said she, trying to make her voice steady.
“Well, I dun'no as I've got much of anything on hand this mornin'; I didn't bake yesterday. Hiram is talkin' about goin' out West, and it kind of upset me. I'll see what I can find.”
She went into the pantry, and presently emerged with a plate. There were three biscuits on it. “There,” said she, in a very strained voice, that had an impatient tone in it — “there's everything I've got in the house for you, and I s'pose they are dry. Every doughnut is gone, and there ain't a piece of pie left. I don't s'pose you'll think it much, but I can't help it.”
Lucy arose, took the biscuits and put them into a corner of her knotted bag. “It's all right,” said she; “these will do well enough.”
“They'll have to.”
“They look real nice. It's a pretty cold mornin'.”
“Yes, I s'pose 'tis. I ain't thought much about it.”
Lucy pulled her shawls closer around her, and tightened her hood-strings. “Good-by,” said she.
Lucy clumped out in the road again; she walked a quarter of a mile farther, until she came to a handsome cottage with ornamental brackets under the eaves. When she knocked at the back door, it was promptly opened. “Oh, it's you!” said the woman who opened it. She had a delicate face, with dark lines under the eyes; her hands were white with flour. “I don't know as I've got much,” she continued; “I'm jest goin' to bakin'. Lucy is hurryin' over her Christmas presents, so she ain't been able to help me much. Come in, and I'll see.”
Lucy went in, and sat down. A pretty young girl, with her lap full of bright silks, looked smilingly at her. An old man with a newspaper, and his feet on the stove-hearth, nodded.
The woman clattered dishes in the pantry. Presently she came out with one piece of apple pie on a plate. “This is every mite I've got,” said she, “and I guess this ain't none too good.”
“It's all right. I'm much obliged,” said Lucy. She stowed the pie carefully in her bundle, but she did not offer to go for a moment. She looked at the old man beside the stove. It was seldom, when upon her rounds, that she volunteered a remark, except about the weather; she never gossiped. This village beggar bore herself with a reticent dignity which would have become a professor. But now she spoke. “I've jest heerd,” said she, “that your brother Hiram is goin' out West to live.” There was a keen glance in her steady eyes fastened upon the old man's face.
The old man gave a great start. “Who told you he was?” he grunted.
“I heerd him say so.”
The old man, John Lovering, sat staring straight ahead; he was quite pale. His wife cried out sharply: “There,” said she, “now you can see what you've done, John Lovering! Hiram feels so bad, he's goin' out West; he said he was goin' to the day you had the fuss. There! he is the only brother you've got, and I shouldn't wonder a mite if you never see him again, goin' out there where they have all them dreadful winds and blizzards — a man at his time of life, too! And all because you won't go over there, and make it up with him. I don't see how you can stand it, for my part. I think it's awful, and I'd like to know what poor Maria will do! I'm goin' to leave my bakin', and go over there.”
John Lovering arose. “Don't you go over there one step, Nancy,” said he. “I tell you, once for all, I won't have it. Hiram told me right to my face that I lied, and I'm the oldest man. When he comes over here, and seems all right about it, I sha'n't open my head on the subject again. He needn't make no excuses, but he's got to come, and that's all I've got to say about it. If he wants to go out West, because he wants to get out of sight and sound of me, he can go.”
The old man took his hat, and went out with lumbering dignity.
Lucy arose; her face had resumed its usual impassive expression. “Good-by,” she said, as she opened the door; but Mrs. Lovering did not reply. She had gone into the pantry, where she stood with her apron over her face. The young girl looked frightened.
After Lucy left this house, she went straight back the way she had come. She had only some dozen regular places where she foraged twice a week and picked up enough food for herself and her old invalid husband. She was unable to work, as she could not leave him long at a time. She owned the little house where she lived, the town allowed her some firewood, and the dozen families bestowed upon her a variable and fragmentary sustenance. She had now been all her rounds, and the rude bag was still limp. The snow was beginning to fall, and her old shawls were soon flecked with it. It was a fine, sleety snow, and it drove into her face and eyes. She bent her head before it, and kept on sturdily.
When she reached the Lovering house again, she stopped. Through the driving flurry of the snow she could see Hiram Lovering out in the yard, preparing to drag a wagon into the barn for shelter.
“Mr. Lovering!” called Lucy.
The old man did not hear.
“Mr. Lovering!” she called again.
Then he turned and looked at her; she began walking toward him, and he advanced hesitatingly to meet her. He had a handsome, nervous old face, full of anxious wrinkles.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I've been over to your brother John's.”
“Well, what if you have?”
“I told him you was goin' out West, and he acted dreadful cut up. I heerd him tell his wife if you come over there and acted the same as ever, he didn't want no excuses made, ner nothin'; he'd be willin' to let bygones be bygones.”
The old man looked at her; he was frowning in a surly way, but his mouth relaxed.
“You heerd him say that?”
“Yes, the amount of that.”
The old man's face gleamed white through the swarming storm. “Well,” said he, “I'm much obliged, Lucy.” He had a look of suppressed delight.
Lucy did not smile at all. “I thought mebbe I'd better tell you,” said she; then she trudged out into the road again. The storm thickened. She had a mile to walk against it. On the outskirts of the village, in a thinly settled neighborhood, she drew up before her house. It was hardly more than a cabin — two rooms upon the ground floor and a loft above. She had banked it all around with dried leaves and boards to keep the cold out. In a severe winter the structure was a poor shelter.
Lucy went in, and at once an irritable voice greeted her. “That you?”
“Yes, it's me.”
“Thought you never was comin'. My back's terrible. Rub it, can't ye? I want some of them hot drops on't. Can't ye rub it? What ye waitin' fur?”
The old man, yellow and distorted, his face covered with gray bristles, lay on a bed in the corner. There was a chair near him, with a cup of water and a bit of cake on it. The room was quite warm and comfortable from a fire in a little box-stove.
Old Lucy took off her hood and shawls, got the liniment bottle, and rubbed the old man's twisted, rheumatic back.
“What did ye git?” he asked between his groans.
“Well, I didn't git so very much to-day. Folks was mostly out of vittles, and hadn't got their bakin's done.”
“Jest the way, allers. Never knowed it to be any other way when I felt wuss than common. Didn't ye git no meat bone fur a stew?”
“No, they didn't have none this time.”
“No raisin' cake?”
Lucy shook her head.
“Allers the way. You might have gone somewheres else.”
Old Lucy made no reply to that. It was, perhaps, an odd pride, but she was too proud to go begging to any families but those twelve.
She put a shawl over her head, took the pail, and went over to the well in the next house-yard to pump some water. On her way back she met a team loaded with Christmas greens; great boughs of pine and hemlock trailed along the snowy ground in its rear.
Old Lucy turned and looked after it.
“I s'pose them's fer Christmas,” she muttered.
She went into the house, put some water on the stove to heat, and sorted out some fragments for her old husband's dinner.
All that afternoon the storm came thicker and faster, and it did not clear at sunset. The snow fell all night, and drifted up the windows of Lucy's house; but on Christmas morning the sun shone out.
Old Lucy, with her shawl tied back under her arms, worked hard clearing the snow from her yard. She used the shovel as handily as a man, although she had often to stop and rest.
She had just finished, and was going in when a sleigh stopped before her house. The two old brothers, John and Hiram Lovering, were in it, Hiram driving his great bay mare.
“Here, Lucy; here's something for you,” Hiram called out. He got a basket out from under the robe, while John held the horse.
Lucy went forward, and took the basket.
“There's a roast chicken and some pies in it,” said Hiram.
Then John also handed Lucy something wrapped in a white towel. “Nancy sent you a loaf of cake,” said he.
“I'm much obleeged to both of you,” said Lucy.
The two old men looked smilingly at her, then Hiram touched the horse, and they glided away with a flourish of bells over the new snow that lay before them in the sun like a great field of light.
Old Lucy went into the house with her Christmas dinner. She was the poorest soul in the whole village, but she had, all unknowingly, given the most royal Christmas gift of any.