From The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1927)
Copyright, 1900, by Mary E. Wilkins.
Richard Stone was nearly seventy-five years old when he died; his wife was over sixty, and his daughter Narcissa past middle age. Narcissa Stone had been very pretty, and would have been pretty still had it not been for those lines, as distinctly garrulous of discontent and worry as any words of mouth, which come so easily in the face of a nervous, delicate-skinned woman. They were around Narcissa's blue eyes, her firmly closed lips, her thin nose; a frown like a crying repetition of some old anxiety and indecision was on her forehead; and she had turned her long neck so much to look over her shoulder for new troubles on her track that the lines of fearful expectation had settled there. Narcissa had yet her beautiful thick hair, which the people in the village had never quite liked because it was red; her cheeks were still pink, and she stooped only a little from her slender height when she walked. Some people said that Narcissa Stone would be quite good-looking now if she had a decent dress and bonnet. Neither she nor her mother had any clothes which were not deemed shabby, even by the humbly attired women in the little mountain village. “Mis' Richard Stone, she ain't had a new silk dress since Narcissa was born,” they said; “and as for Narcissa, she ain't never had anything that looked fit to wear to meeting.”
When Richard Stone died, people wondered if his widow and Narcissa would not have something new. Mrs. Nathan Wheat, who was a third cousin to Richard Stone, went, the day before the funeral, a half mile down the brook road to see Hannah Turbin, the dressmaker. The road was little traveled; she walked through an undergrowth of late autumn flowers, and when she reached the Turbins' house her black Thibet gown was gold-powdered and white-flecked to the knees with pollen and winged seeds of passed flowers.
Hannah Turbin's arm, brown and wrinkled like a monkey's, in its woolen sleeve, described arcs of jerky energy past the window, and never ceased when Mrs. Wheat came up the path and entered the house. Hannah herself scarcely raised her seamy brown face from her work.
“Good afternoon,” said Mrs. Wheat.
Hannah nodded. “Good afternoon,” she responded then, as if words were an after-thought.
Mrs. Wheat shook her black skirts vigorously. “I'm all over dust from them yaller weeds,” said she. “Well, I don't care about this old Thibet.” She pulled a rocking-chair forward and seated herself. “Warm for this time of year,” said she.
Hannah drew her thread through her work. “Yes, 'tis,” she returned, with a certain pucker of scorn, as if the utter foolishness of allusions to obvious conditions of nature struck her. Hannah Turbin was not a favorite in the village, but she was credited with having much common sense, and people held her in somewhat distant respect.
“Guess it's Injun summer,” remarked Mrs. Wheat.
Hannah Turbin said nothing at all to that. Mrs. Wheat cast furtive glances around the room as she swayed in her rocking-chair. Everything was very tidy and there were few indications of its owner's calling. A number of fashion papers were neatly piled on a bureau in the corner, and some nicely folded breadths of silk lay beside them. There was not a scrap or shred of cloth upon the floor; not a thread, even. Hannah was basting a brown silk basque. Mrs. Wheat could see nowhere the slightest evidence of what she had come to ascertain, so was finally driven to inquiry, still, however, by devious windings.
“Seems sad about Richard,” she said.
“Yes,” returned Hannah, with a sudden contraction of her brown face, which seemed to flash a light over a recollection in Mrs. Wheat's mind. She remembered that there was a time, years ago, when Richard Stone had paid some attention to Hannah Turbin, and people had thought he might marry her instead of Jane Basset. However, it had happened so long ago that she did not really believe that Hannah dwelt upon it, and it faded immediately from her own mind.
“Well,” said she, with a sigh, “it is a happy release, after all; he's been such a sufferer so long. It's better for him, and it's better for Jane and Narcissa. He's left 'em comfortable; they've got the farm, and his life's insured, you know. Besides, I suppose Narcissa'll marry William Crane now. Most likely they'll rent the farm, and Jane will go and live with Narcissa when she's married. I want to know —”
Hannah Turbin sewed.
“I was wondering,” continued Mrs. Wheat, “if Jane and Narcissa wasn't going to have some new black dresses for the funeral. They ain't got a thing that's fit to wear, I know. I don't suppose they've got much money on hand now except what little Richard saved up for his funeral expenses. I know he had a little for that because he told me so, but the life insurance is coming in, and anybody would trust them. There's a nice piece of black cashmere down to the store, a dollar a yard. I didn't know but they'd get dresses off it; but Jane she never tells me anything — anybody'd think she might, seeing as I was poor Richard's cousin; and as for Narcissa, she's as close as her mother.”
Hannah Turbin sewed.
“Ain't Jane and Narcissa said anything to you about making them any new black dresses to wear to the funeral?” asked Mrs. Wheat, with desperate directness.
“No, they ain't,” replied Hannah Turbin.
“Well, then, all I've got to say is they'd ought to be ashamed of themselves. There they've got fourteen if not fifteen hundred dollars coming in from poor Richard's insurance money, and they ain't even going to get decent clothes to wear to his funeral out of it. They ain't made any plans for new bonnets, I know. It ain't showing proper respect to the poor man. Don't you say so?”
“I suppose folks are their own best judges,” said Hannah Turbin, in her conclusive, half-surly fashion, which intimidated most of their neighbors. Mrs. Wheat did not stay much longer. When she went home through the ghostly weeds and grasses of the country road she was almost as indignant with Hannah Turbin as with Jane Stone and Narcissa. “Never saw anybody so close in my life,” said she to herself. “Needn't talk if she don't want to. Dun'no' as thar's any harm in my wanting to know if my own third cousin is going to have mourning wore for him.”
Mrs. Wheat, when she reached home, got a black shawl which had belonged to her mother out of the chest, where it had lain in camphor, and hung it on the clothesline to air. She also removed a spray of bright velvet flowers from her bonnet, and sewed in its place a black ostrich feather. She found an old crêpe veil, too, and steamed it into stiffness. “I'm going to go to that funeral looking decent, if his own wife and daughter ain't,” she told her husband.
“If I wa'n't along, folks would take you for the widder,” said Nathan Wheat with a chuckle. Nathan Wheat was rather inclined to be facetious with his wife.
However, Mrs. Wheat was not the only person who attended poor Richard Stone's funeral in suitable attire. Hannah Turbin was black from head to foot; the material, it is true, was not of the conventional mourning kind, but the color was. She wore a black silk gown, a black ladies'-cloth mantle, a black velvet bonnet trimmed with black flowers, and a black lace veil.
“Hannah Turbin looked as if she was dressed in second mourning,” Mrs. Wheat said to her husband after the funeral. “I should have thought she'd most have worn some color, seeing as some folks might remember she was disappointed about Richard Stone; but, anyway, it was better than to go looking the way Jane and Narcissa did. There was Jane in that old brown dress, and Narcissa in her green, with a blue flower in her bonnet. I think it was dreadful, and poor Richard leaving them all that money through his dying, too.”
In truth, all the village was scandalized at the strange attire of the widow and daughter of Richard Stone at his funeral, except William Crane. He could not have told what Mrs. Stone wore, through scarcely admitting her in any guise into his inmost consciousness, and as for Narcissa, he admitted her so fully that he could not see her robes at all in such a dazzlement of vision.
“William Crane never took his eyes off Narcissa Stone all through the funeral; shouldn't be surprised if he married her in a month or six weeks,” people said.
William Crane took Jane and Narcissa to the grave in his covered wagon, keeping his old white horse at a decorous jog behind the hearse in the little funeral procession, and people noted that. They wondered if he would go over to the Stones' that evening, and watched, but he did not. He left the mother and daughter to their closer communion of grief that night, but the next the neighbors saw him in his best suit going down the road before dark. “Must have done up his chores early to get started soon as this,” they said.
William Crane was about Narcissa's age but he looked older. His gait was shuffling, his hair scanty and gray, and, moreover, he had that expression of patience which comes only from long abiding, both of body and of soul. He went through the south yard to the side door of the house, stepping between the rocks. The yard abounded in mossy slopes of half-sunken rocks, as did the entire farm. Folks often remarked of Richard Stone's place, as well as himself, “Stone by name, and stone by nature.” Underneath nearly all his fields, cropping plentifully to the surface, were rock ledges. The grass could be mown only by hand. As for this south yard, it required skilful maneuvering to drive a team through it. When William Crane knocked that evening, Narcissa opened the door. “Oh, it's you!” she said. “How do you do?”
“How do you do, Narcissa?” William responded, and walked in. He could have kissed his old love in the gloom of the little entry, but he did not think of that. He looked at her anxiously with his soft, patient eyes. “How are you gettin' on?” he asked.
“Well as can be expected,” replied Narcissa.
“How's your mother?”
“She's as well as can be expected.”
William followed Narcissa, who led the way, not into the parlor as he had hoped, but into the kitchen. The kitchen's great interior of smoky gloom was very familiar to him, but tonight it looked strange. For one thing, the armchair to which Richard Stone had been bound with his rheumatism for the last fifteen years was vacant, and pushed away into a corner. William looked at it, and it seemed to him that he must see the crooked, stern old figure in it, and hear again the peremptory tap of the stick which he kept always at his side to summon assistance. After his first involuntary glance at the dead man's chair, William saw his widow coming forward out of her bedroom with a great quilt over her arm.
“Good evenin', William,” she said, with faint melancholy, then lapsed into feeble weeping.
“Now, mother, you said you wouldn't; you know it don't do any good, and you'll be sick,” Narcissa cried out, impatiently.
“I know it, Narcissa, but I can't help it, I can't. I'm dreadful upset! Oh, William, I'm dreadful upset! It ain't his death alone — it's —”
“Mother, I'd rather tell him myself,” interrupted Narcissa. She took the quilt from her mother, and drew the rocking chair toward her. “Do sit down and keep calm, mother,” said she.
But it was not easy for the older woman, in her bewilderment of grief and change, to keep calm.
“Oh, William, do you know what we're goin' to do?” she wailed, yet seating herself obediently in the rocking chair. “We're goin' to New York. Narcissa says so. We're goin' to take the insurance money, when we get it, an' we're goin' to New York. I tell her we hadn't ought to, but she won't listen to it! There's the trunk. Look at there, William! She dragged it down from the garret this forenoon. Look at there, William!”
William's startled eyes followed the direction of Mrs. Stone's wavering index finger, and saw a great ancient trunk lined with blue-and-white wall paper, standing open against the opposite wall.
“She dragged it down from the garret this forenoon,” continued Mrs. Stone, in the same tone of unfaltering tragedy, while Narcissa, her delicate lips pursed tightly, folded up the bed quilt which her mother had brought. “It bumped so hard on those garret stairs I thought she'd break it, or fall herself, but she wouldn't let me help her. Then she cleaned it, an' made some paste, an' lined it with some of the parlor paper. There ain't any key to it — I never remember none. The trunk was in this house when I come here. Richard had it when he went West before we were married. Narcissa she says she is goin' to tie it up with the clothesline. William, can't you talk to her? Seems to me I can't go to New York, nohow.”
William turned then to Narcissa, who was laying the folded bed quilt in the trunk. He looked pale and bewildered, and his voice trembled when he spoke. “This ain't true, is it, Narcissa?” he said.
“Yes, it is,” she replied, shortly, still bending over the trunk.
“We ain't goin' for a month,” interposed her mother again; “we can't get the insurance money before then, Lawyer Maxham says; but she says she's goin' to have the trunk standin' there, an' put things in when she thinks of it, so she won't forgit nothin'. She says we'd better take one bed quilt with us, in case they don't have 'nough clothes on the bed. We've got to stay to a hotel. Oh, William, can't you say anything to stop her?”
“This ain't true, Narcissa?” William repeated, helplessly.
Narcissa raised herself and faced him. Her cheeks were red, her blue eyes glowing, her hair tossing over her temples in loose waves. She looked as she had when he first courted her. “Yes, it is, William Crane,” she cried. “Yes, it is.”
William looked at her so strangely and piteously that she softened a little. “I've got my reasons,” said she. “Maybe I owe it to you to tell them. I suppose you were expecting something different.” She hesitated a minute, looking at her mother, who cried out again:
“Oh, William, say somethin' to stop her! Can't you say somethin' to stop her?”
Then Narcissa motioned to him resolutely. “Come into the parlor, William,” said she, and he followed her out across the entry. The parlor was chilly; the chairs stood as they had done at the funeral, primly against the walls glimmering faintly in the dusk with blue and white paper like the trunk lining. Narcissa stood before William and talked with feverish haste. “I'm going,” said she — “I'm going to take that money and go with mother to New York, and you mustn't try to stop me, William. I know what you've been expecting. I know, now father's gone, you think there ain't anything to hinder our getting married; you think we'll rent this house, and mother and me will settle down in yours for the rest of our lives. I know you ain't counting on that insurance money; it ain't like you.”
“The Lord knows it ain't, Narcissa,” William broke out with pathetic pride.
“I know that as well as you do. You thought we'd put it in the bank for a rainy day, in case mother got feeble, or anything, and that is all you did think. Maybe I'd ought to. I s'pose I had, but I ain't going to. I ain't never done anything my whole life that I thought I ought not to do, but now I'm going to. I'm going to if it's wicked. I've made up my mind. I ain't never had one good time in my whole life, and now I'm going to even if I have to suffer for it afterward.
“I ain't never had anything like other women. I've never had any clothes nor gone anywhere. I've just stayed at home here and drudged. I've done a man's work on the farm. I've milked and made butter and cheese; I've waited on father; I've got up early and gone to bed late. I've just drudged, drudged, ever since I can remember. I don't know anything about the world nor life. I don't know anything but my own old tracks, and — I'm going to get out of them for a while, whether or no.”
“How long are you calculating to stay?”
“I don't know.”
“I've been thinking,” said William, “I'd have some new gilt paper on the sitting room at my house, and a new stove in the kitchen. I thought —”
“I know what you thought,” interrupted Narcissa, still trembling and glowing with nervous fervor. “And you're real good, William. It ain't many men would have waited for me as you've done, when father wouldn't let me get married as long as he lived. I know by good rights I hadn't ought to keep you waiting, but I'm going to, and it ain't because I don't think enough of you — it ain't that; I can't help it. If you give up having me at all, if you think you'd rather marry somebody else, I can't help it; I won't blame you —”
“Maybe you want me to, Narcissa,” said William, with a sad dignity. “If you do, if you want to get rid of me, if that's it —”
Narcissa started. “That ain't it,” said she. She hesitated, and added, with formal embarrassment — she had the usual reticence of a New England village woman about expressions of affection, and had never even told her lover in actual words that she loved him — “My feelings toward you are the same as they have always been, William.”
It was almost dark in the parlor. They could see only each other's faces gleaming as with pale light. “It would be a blow to me if I thought they wa'n't, Narcissa,” William returned, simply.
William put his arm around her waist, and they stood close together for a moment. He stroked back her tumbled red hair with clumsy tenderness. “You have had a hard time, Narcissa,” he whispered, brokenly. “If you want to go, I ain't going to say anything against it. I ain't going to deny I'm kind of disappointed. I've been living alone so long, and I feel kind of sore sometimes with waitin' but —”
“I shouldn't make you any kind of a wife if I married you now, without waiting,” Narcissa said, in a voice at once stern and tender. She stood apart from him, and put up her hand with a sort of involuntary maiden primness to smooth her hair where his had stroked it awry. “If,” she went on, “I had to settle down in your house, as I have done in father's, and see the years stretching ahead like a long road without any turn, and nothing but the same old dog trot of washing and ironing and scrubbing and cooking and sewing and washing dishes till I drop into my grave, I should hate you, William Crane.”
“I could fetch an' carry all the water for the washin', Narcissa, and I could wash the dishes,” said William, with humble beseeching.
“It ain't that. I know you'd do all you could. It's — Oh, William! I've got to have a break; I've got to have one good time. I — like you, and — I liked father; but love ain't enough sometimes when it ties anybody. Everybody has got their own feet and their own wanting to use 'em, and sometimes when love comes in the way of that, it ain't anything but a dead wall. Once we had a black heifer that would jump all the walls; we had to sell her. She always made me think of myself. I tell you, William, I've got to jump my wall, and I've got to have one good time.”
William Crane nodded his gray head in patient acquiescence. His forehead was knitted helplessly; he could not in the least understand what his sweetheart meant; in her present mood she was in altogether a foreign language for him, but still the unintelligible sound of her was sweet as a song to his ears. This poor village lover had at least gained the crown of absolute faith through his weary years of waiting; the woman he loved was still a star, and her rays not yet resolved into human reachings and graspings.
“How long do you calculate to be gone, Narcissa?” he asked again.
“I don't know,” she replied. “Fifteen hundred dollars is a good deal of money. I s'pose it'll take us quite a while to spend it, even if we ain't very saving.”
“You ain't goin' to spend it all, Narcissa!” William gave a little dismayed gasp in spite of himself.
“Land, no! we couldn't, unless we stayed three years, an' I ain't calculating to be gone as long as that. I'm going to bring home what we don't want, and put it in the bank; but — I shouldn't be surprised if it took 'most a year to spend what I've laid out to.”
“'Most a year!”
“Yes; I've got to buy us both new clothes, for one thing. We ain't neither of us got anything fit to wear, and ain't had for years. We didn't go to the funeral lookin' decent, and I know folks talked. Mother felt bad about it, but I couldn't help it. I wa'n't goin' to lay out money foolish and get things here when I was going to New York and could have others the way they ought to be. I'm going to buy us some jewelry, too; I 'ain't never had a good breastpin even; and as for mother, father never even bought her a ring when they were married. I ain't saying anything against him; it wa'n't the fashion so much in those days.”
“I was calculatin' —” William stammered, blushing. “I always meant to, Narcissa.”
“Yes, I know you have; but you mustn't lay out too much on it, and I don't care anything about a stone ring — just a plain gold one. There's another thing I'm going to have, too, an' that's a gold watch. I've wanted one all my life.”
“Mebbe —” began William, painfully.
“No!” cried Narcissa, peremptorily. “I don't want you to buy me one. I ain't ever thought of it. I'm going to buy it myself. I'm going to buy mother a real cashmere shawl, too, like the one that New York lady had that came to visit Lawyer Maxham's wife. I've got a list of things written down on paper. I guess I'll have to buy another trunk in New York to put them in.”
“Well,” said William, with a great sigh, “I guess I'd better be goin'. I hope you'll have as good a time as you're countin' on, Narcissa.”
“It's the first good time I ever did count on, and I'd ought to,” said Narcissa. “I'm going to take mother to the theatre, too. I don't know but it's wicked, but I'm going to.” Narcissa fluttered out of the parlor and William shuffled after her. He would not go into the kitchen again.
“Well, good night,” said Narcissa, and William also said good night, with another heavy sigh. “Look out for them rocks going out of the yard, an' don't tumble over 'em,” she called after him.
“I'm used to 'em,” he answered back, sadly, from the darkness.
Narcissa shut and bolted the door. “He don't like it; he feels real bad about it; but I can't help it — I'm going.”
Through the next few weeks Narcissa Stone's face looked strange to those who had known her from childhood. While the features were the same, her soul informed them with a new purpose, which overlighted all the old ones of her life, and even the simple village folks saw the effect, though with no understanding. Soon the news that Narcissa and her mother were going to New York was abroad. On the morning they started, in the three-seated open wagon which served as stage to connect the little village with the railroad ten miles away, all the windows were set with furtively peering faces.
“There they go,” the women told one another. “Narcissa an' her mother an' the trunk. Wonder if Narcissa's got that money put away safe? They're wearin' the same old clothes. S'pose we sha'n't know 'em when they get back. Heard they was goin' to stay a year. Guess old Mr. Stone would rise up in his grave if he knew it. Lizzy saw William Crane a-helpin' Narcissa h'ist the trunk out ready for the stage. I wouldn't stan' it if I was him. Ten chances to one Narcissa'll pick up somebody down to New York, with all that money. She's good-lookin', and she looks better since her father died.”
Narcissa, riding out of her native village to those unknown fields in which her imagination had laid the scene of the one good time of her life, regarded nothing around her. She sat straight, her slender body resisting stiffly the jolt of the stage. She said not a word, but looked ahead with shining eyes. Her mother wept, a fold of her old shawl before her face. Now and then she lamented aloud, but softly, lest the driver hear. “Goin' away from the place where I was born an' married an' have lived ever since I knew anything, to stay a year. I can't stan' it, I can't.”
“Hush, mother! You'll have a real good time.”
“No, I sha'n't, I sha'n't. Goin' — to stay a whole — year. I — can't, nohow.”
“S'pose we sha'n't see you back in these parts for some time,” the stage driver said, when he helped them out at the railroad station. He was an old man, and had known Narcissa since her childhood.
“Most likely not,” she replied. Her mother's face was quite stiff with repressed emotion when the stage driver lifted her out. She did not want him to report in the village that she was crying when she started for New York. She had some pride in spite of her distress.
“Well, I'll be on the lookout for ye a year from today,” said the stage driver, with a jocular twist of his face. There were no passengers for his village on the in-coming train, so he had to drive home alone through the melancholy autumn woods. The sky hung low with pale, freezing clouds; over everything was that strange hush which prevails before snow. The stage driver, holding the reins loosely over his tramping team, settled forward with elbows on his knees, and old brows bent with aimless brooding. Over and over again his brain worked the thought, like a peaceful cud of contemplation. “They're goin' to be gone a year. Narcissa Stone an' her mother are goin' to be gone a year afore I'll drive 'em home.”
So little imagination had the routine of his life fostered that he speculated not, even upon the possible weather of that far-off day, or the chances of his living to see it. It was simply, “They're goin' to be gone a year afore I'll drive 'em home.”
So fixed was his mind upon that one outcome of the situation that when Narcissa and her mother reappeared in less than one week — in six days — he could not for a moment bring his mind intelligently to bear upon it. The old stage driver may have grown something like his own horses through his long sojourn in their company, and his intelligence, like theirs, been given to only the halts and gaits of its first breaking.
For a second he had a bewildered feeling that time had flown fast, that a week was a year. Everybody in the village had said the travelers would not return for a year. He hoisted the ancient paper-lined trunk into his stage, then a fine new one, nailed and clamped with shining brass, then a number of packages, all the time with puzzled eyes askant upon Narcissa and her mother. He would scarcely have known them, as far as their dress was concerned. Mrs. Stone wore a fine black satin gown; her perturbed old face looked out of luxurious environments of fur and lace and rich black plumage. As for Narcissa, she was almost regal. The old stage driver backed and ducked awkwardly, as if she were a stranger, when she approached. Her fine skirts flared imposingly and rustled with unseen silk; her slender shoulders were made shapely by the graceful spread of rich fur; her red hair shone under a hat fit for a princess, and there was about her a faint perfume of violets which made the stage driver gaze confusedly at the snowy ground under the trees when they had started on the homeward road. “Seems as if I smelt posies, but I know there ain't none hereabouts this time of year,” he remarked, finally, in a tone of mild ingratiation, as if more to himself than to his passengers.
“It's some perfumery Narcissa's got on her pocket handkerchief that she bought in New York,” said Mrs. Stone, with a sort of sad pride. She looked worn and bewildered, ready to weep at the sight of familiar things, and yet distinctly superior to all such weakness. As for Narcissa, she looked like a child thrilled with scared triumph at getting its own way, who rejoices even in the midst of correction at its own assertion of freedom.
“That so?” said the stage driver, admiringly. Then he added, doubtfully, bringing one white-browed eye to bear over his shoulder, “Didn't stay quite so long as you calculated on?”
“No, we didn't,” replied Narcissa, calmly. She nudged her mother with a stealthy, firm elbow, and her mother understood well that she was to maintain silence.
“I ain't going to tell a living soul about it but William Crane; I owe it to him,” Narcissa had said to her mother before they started on their homeward journey. “The other folks sha'n't know. They can guess and surmise all they want to, but they sha'n't know. I sha'n't tell; and William, he's as close-mouthed as a rock; and as for you, mother, you always did know enough to hold your tongue when you made up your mind to it.”
Mrs. Stone had compressed her mouth until it looked like her daughter's. She nodded. “Yes,” said she; “I know some things that I ain't never told you, Narcissa.”
The stage passed William Crane's house. He was shuffling around to the side door from the barn, with a milk pail in each hand, when they reached it.
“Stop a minute,” Narcissa said to the driver. She beckoned to William, who stared, standing stockstill, holding his pails. Narcissa beckoned again imperatively. Then William set the pails down on the snowy ground and came to the fence. He looked over it, quite pale, and gaping.
“We've got home,” said Narcissa.
William nodded; he could not speak.
“Come over by-and-by,” said Narcissa.
“I'm ready to go now,” Narcissa said to the stage driver. “That's all.”
That evening, when William Crane reached his sweetheart's house, a bright light shone on the road from the parlor windows. Narcissa opened the door. He stared at her open-mouthed. She wore a gown the like of which he had never seen before — soft lengths of blue silk and lace trailed about her; blue ribbons fluttered.
“How do you do?” said she.
William nodded solemnly.
William followed her into the parlor, with a wary eye upon his feet, lest they trample her trailing draperies. Narcissa settled gracefully into the rocking chair; William sat opposite and looked at her. Narcissa was a little pale, still her face wore that look of insistent triumph.
“Home quicker'n you expected,” William said, at length.
“Yes,” said Narcissa. There was a wonderful twist on her red hair, and she wore a high shell comb. William's dazzled eyes noted something sparkling in the laces at her throat; she moved her hand, and something on that flashed like a point of white flame. William remembered vaguely how, often in the summertime when he had opened his house door in the sunny morning, the dewdrops on the grass had flashed in his eyes. He had never seen diamonds.
“What started you home so much sooner than you expected?” he asked, after a little.
“I spent — all the money —”
“All — that money.”
“Fifteen hundred dollars in less'n a week?”
“I spent more'n that.”
“More'n that?” William could scarcely bring out the words. He was very white.
“Yes,” said Narcissa. She was paler than when he had entered, but she spoke quite decidedly. “I'm going to tell you all about it, William. I ain't going to make a long story of it. If after you've heard it you think you'd rather not marry me, I sha'n't blame you. I sha'n't have anything to say against it. I'm going to tell you just what I've been doing; then you can make up your mind.
“Today's Tuesday, and we went away last Thursday. We've been gone just six days. Mother an' me got to New York Thursday night, an' when we got out of the cars the men come round hollering this hotel an' that hotel. I picked out a man that looked as if he didn't drink and would drive straight, an' he took us to an elegant carriage, an' mother an' me got in. Then we waited till he got the trunk an' put it up on the seat with him where he drove. Mother, she hollered to him not to let it fall off.
“We went to a beautiful hotel. There was a parlor with a red velvet carpet and red stuffed furniture, and a green sitting room and a blue one. The ceilin' had pictures on it. There was a handsome young gentleman downstairs at a counter in the room where we went first, and mother asked him, before I could stop her, if the folks in the hotel was all honest. She'd been worrying all the way for fear somebody'd steal the money.
“The gentleman said — he was real polite — if we had any money or valuables, we had better leave them with him, and he would put them in the safe. So we did. Then a young man with brass buttons on his coat took us to the elevator and showed us our rooms. We had a parlor with a velvet carpet an' stuffed furniture and a gilt clock on the mantel shelf, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. There ain't anything in town equal to it. Lawyer Maxham ain't got anything to come up to it. The young man offered to untie the rope on the trunk, so I let him. He seemed real kind about it.
“Soon's the young man went I says to mother, ‘We ain't going down to get any tea tonight.’
“‘Why not?’ says she.
“‘I ain't going down a step in this old dress,’ says I, ‘an' you ain't going in yours.’
“Mother didn't like it very well. She said she was faint to her stomach, and wanted some tea, but I made her eat some gingerbread we'd brought from home, an' get along. The young man with the brass buttons come again after a while an' asked if there was anything we wanted, but I thanked him an' told him there wasn't.
“I would have asked him to bring up mother some tea and a hot biscuit, but I didn't know but what it would put 'em out; it was after seven o'clock then. So we got along till morning.
“The next morning mother an' me went out real early, an' went into a bakery an' bought some cookies. We ate 'em as we went down the street, just to stay our stomachs; then we went to buying. I'd taken some of the money in my purse, an' I got mother an' me, first of all, two handsome black silk dresses, and we put 'em on as soon as we got back to the hotel, and went down to breakfast.
“You never see anythin' like the dining room, and the kinds of things to eat. We couldn't begin to eat 'em all. There were men standin' behind our chairs to wait on us all the time.
“Right after breakfast mother an' me put our rooms to rights; then we went out again and bought things at the stores. Everybody was buying Christmas presents, an' the stores were all trimmed with evergreen — you never see anything like it. Mother an' me never had any Christmas presents, an' I told her we'd begin, an' buy 'em for each other. When the money I'd taken with us was gone, I sent things to the hotel for the gentleman at the counter to pay, the way he'd told me to. That day we bought our breastpins and this ring, an' mother's and my gold watches, an' — I got one for you, too, William. Don't you say anything — it's your Christmas present. That afternoon we went to Central Park, an' that evenin' we went to the theatre. The next day we went to the stores again, an' I bought mother a black satin dress, and me a green one. I got this I've got on, too. It's what they call a tea gown. I always wore it to tea in the hotel after I got it. I got a hat, too, an' mother a bonnet; an' I got a fur cape, and mother a cloak with fur on the neck an' all around it. That evening mother an' me went to the opera; we sat in something they call a box. I wore my new green silk and breastpin, an' mother wore her black satin. We both of us took our bonnets off. The music was splendid; but I wouldn't have young folks go to it much.
“The next day was Sunday. Mother an' me went to meeting in a splendid church, and wore our new black silks. They gave us seats way up in front, an' there was a real good sermon, though mother thought it wa'n't very practical, an' folks got up an' sat down more'n we do. Mother an' me set still, for fear we'd get up an' down in the wrong place. That evening we went to a sacred concert. Everywhere we went we rode in a carriage. They invited us to at the hotel, an' I s'posed it was free, but it wa'n't, I found out afterward.
“The next day was Monday — that's yesterday. Mother an' me went out to the stores again. I bought a silk bed quilt, an' some handsome vases, an' some green-an'-gilt teacups setting in a tray to match. I've got 'em home without breaking. We got some silk stockings, too, an' some shoes, an' some gold-bowed spectacles for mother, an' two more silk dresses, an' mother a real Cashmere shawl. Then we went to see some waxworks, and the pictures and curiosities in the Art Museum; then in the afternoon we went to ride again, and we were goin' to the theatre in the evening; but the gentleman at the counter called out to me when I was going past an' said he wanted to speak to me a minute.
“Then I found out we'd spent all that fifteen hundred dollars, an' more, too. We owed 'em 'most ten dollars at the hotel; an' that wa'n't the worst of it — we didn't have enough money to take us home.
“Mother, she broke right down an' cried, an' said it was all we had in the world besides the farm, an' it was poor father's insurance money, an' we couldn't get home, an' we'd have to go to prison.
“Folks come crowding round, an' I couldn't stop her. I don't know what I did do myself; I felt kind of dizzy, an' things looked dark. A lady come an' held a smelling bottle to my nose, an' the gentleman at the counter sent a man with brass buttons for some wine.
“After I felt better an' could talk steady they questioned me up pretty sharp, an' I told 'em the whole story — about father an' his rheumatism, an' everything, just how I was situated, an' I must say they treated us like Christian folks, though, after all, I don't know as we were much beholden to 'em. We never begun to eat all there was on the list, an' we were real careful of the furniture; we didn't really get our money's worth after all was said. But they said the rest of our bill to them was no matter, an' they gave us our tickets to come home.”
There was a pause. William looked at Narcissa in her blue gown as if she were a riddle whose answer was lost in his memory. His honest eyes were fairly pitiful from excess of questioning.
“Well,” said Narcissa, “I've come back, an' I've spent all that money. I've been wasteful an' extravagant an' — There was a gentleman beautifully dressed who sat at our table, an' he talked real pleasant about the weather, an' — I got to thinking about him a little. Of course I didn't like him as well as you, William, for what comes first comes last with all our folks, but somehow he seemed to be kind of a part of the good time. I sha'n't never see him again, an' all there was betwixt us was his saying twice it was a pleasant day, an' once it was cold, an' me saying yes; but I'm going to tell you the whole. I've been an' wasted fifteen hundred dollars; I've let my thoughts wander from you; an' that ain't all. I've had a good time an' I can't say I 'ain't. I've had one good time, an' — I ain't sorry. You can — do just what you think best, William, an' — I won't blame you.”
William Crane went over to the window. When he turned round and looked at Narcissa his eyes were full of tears and his wide mouth was trembling. “Do you think you can be contented to — stay on my side of the wall now, Narcissa?” he said, with a sweet and pathetic dignity.
Narcissa in her blue robes went over to him and put, for the first time of her own accord, an arm around his faithful neck. “I wouldn't go out again if the bars were down,” said she.