From Collier's Vol. XLII No. 9 (November 21, 1908)
A great house, built over a hundred years ago of seasoned timbers, and with much toil of honest fingers, directed by staunch New England consciences, standing majestically aloof in its great yard, marked off in sections by tall box hedges, was called in Wellbrook “the old Squire Amos K. Price house.”
Squire Amos K. Price had lain many years in his grave, but the enormous local influence of the man, and his importance in his little sphere, were still evident in the simple fact that nobody ever thought, even at this date, of omitting the Amos K. People in Wellbrook were, as a rule, hard-working folk; they rose early and went to bed tired out. It would have been much less trouble to have said “the Squire Price house,” or even “the Price house,” but the Amos K. reigned triumphant, although only one very old man and one old woman of the village could remember him in the flesh.
The old man had been Squire Amos K. Price's faithful satellite; he had worshipped him as a retainer might have worshipped his feudal lord. To this old man, a pensioner upon the bounty of his grandson, who kept the village store, Amos K. Price even now was scarcely defunct. He would talk by the hour, to anyone who would listen, about the departed glories of the man whose grave was sunken below the ground level beside his tall shaft of marble monument. It was of this old man, Josiah Peabody by name, that the story was told of his having been asked how he liked a sermon preached nearly two-thirds of a century ago by a divine who lay in the village graveyard not far from the Price lot, and his famous reply, given from the innocent depths of his simple, adoring heart: “I don't know; I ain't seen Squire Amos K. Price yet.”
The woman, Sylvia White by name, ancient and decrepit, the only other living soul in Wellbrook who had known the dead Squire, subsisted in a wavering, uncertain fashion, seeming to hover over the homes of humanity as an unwelcome bird over a nest which was not hers by right; not exactly living, existing, first upon the bounty of one, then another, who harbored her with her weight of years, and plumed themselves upon their Christian discharge of duty. It is a bitter thing, if one senses it, to live to become the source of self-righteousness to other human beings, and this old woman had come to that. But deep in her heart was a memory which still perfumed it and made her worth while to her own self. It would have seemed a ridiculous little memory to others, had she made it known, but she never had. All her life she had hugged it close, lit with the prismatic fire of her own imagination and love, until it was as a pearl in the depths of her very being. The memory was only that once, once only, when she was a sweet young girl, and Squire Amos K. an ardent youth, he had accompanied her home from some village festivity, and had kissed her good-by at her father's door. That had been the end, as far as the youth was concerned. He had returned to college, and had never noticed the little village girl again. He had married a grand dame from the city. He had lived and died in the great mansion-house. He had held the state of a feudal lord in his native village. His wife had died, and he had married the second time, but neither wife brought him a child. The village girl had never married. She had lived to be old and poor, with that pearl of divine value in her heart. Always she pondered upon it, and the face of Squire Amos K. as he had been in his youth was ever before her mental vision.
The present inmates of the Squire Amos K. Price house were two old women. One was a third cousin of Squire Amos K. The other was a distant cousin of hers upon the maternal side, and, consequently, of no relation whatever to the old Squire. This third cousin, whose name was Eliza Price, had come into possession of the entire property, after having lived in another New England State, upon a scanty income, until she was past middle life.
Squire Amos K. had left no will. He had seemed to have a haughty disdain for death, and an incredulity that the great Transformer would ever dare to approach the door of his stately dwelling; and thus there were no public charities to multiply his monument. The entire estate went to Eliza Price. When she was notified of her inheritance she at once took possession, and she brought to live with her the distant relative, who was entirely penniless, having done plain sewing for sustenance. The relative's name was Sophia Wilton. She was a curious, small creature, old, yet with an effect of youth. Her little blond face was a network of wrinkles, but people looked at her without seeing them, perhaps because of the compelling fire of youth in her blue eyes. Her eyes were young, and would always be young. Life had had no power to dim them. Out of them youth looked and sparkled and flamed. She was so small that no clothes ever fitted her. They hung upon her tiny frame. Her thin hands peeped out of great, overhanging sleeves. She never had a garment of any but an obsolete fashion. She was wearing out the clothes of Squire Amos K.'s second wife, who had been a small woman, but not as small as Sophia.
Eliza Price esteemed it a very fortunate providence that the Squire's first wife had been a large woman, and that she herself, being also large, was provided with a wardrobe for the rest of her life. One thing, however, puzzled her. She could not understand why the second wife, being smaller than the first, had not utilized her predecessor's wardrobe.
“I can't make it out,” she often said to Sophia. “Squire Amos K.'s second wife must have been an awful extravagant woman. There were all those nice clothes laying by in the garret, and she was so little herself there was plenty in them to have made over, and I don't believe she ever used a blessed thing. She must have bought all new, and dear things at that. Here you've got four silk dresses.”
Eliza would eye Sophia with a certain anger at the thought of those four silk dresses, albeit she could think of nothing better to do with them than to bestow them upon Sophia.
Eliza was a very frugal woman. She herself esteemed it something wasteful to be wearing the rich clothes left behind by the first Mrs. Amos K. “It does seem very queer to me that the second wife didn't use the first wife's clothes, and I don't see, either, why the first cared anything about such elegant things, living here in this little town,” she said. Then she looked aggressively at her purple silk lap. The first Mrs. Amos K. had apparently had a fondness for royal purple. There were so many rich royal purple gowns stowed away in the garret that Eliza was clad in that majestic hue most of the time.
“Maybe the second wife kind of hated to wear the first wife's things,” said Sophia timidly.
“Shucks!” replied Eliza. Eliza had none of the marks of high breeding which had distinguished the great Squire. She had lived in a plain way in a plain New England village. Her speech was blunt and inelegant.
Royal purple was horribly incongruous for her. She was large and leaden of hue, with a massive, square-cheeked face and set jaw. She had had a severe attack of rheumatism in one leg shortly after her inheritance had come to her, and she sat all day in a great rocking-chair at a front window of the sitting-room. By dint of pain and perseverance, with the tiny Sophia acting as tug, she could hitch herself across the room to her bedroom. Aside from that, she rarely stirred. Sophia prepared her meals and brought them to her. She moved no more than was absolutely necessary, and would not have moved at all had it not been for her terrible will, and her skill in making the most of the muscles upon which she could still rely. She never complained, but she was always in a state of wrath. She never said it to Sophia, but often to herself, that it was certainly cruel that after living frugally, as she had done all her life, with no opportunity for enjoyment, she should lose her power the moment the opportunity arrived.
And yet she was probably enjoying herself as much as she was capable of enjoying anything. She had much, and she was saving. Nobody knew how much Eliza Price enjoyed the sense of possession. She had always owned so little that new riches seemed to be developing within her character seeds of miserliness. The two women lived upon an inconceivably small amount. Sophia did not object, for she was so tiny that her physical needs were matched. She was entirely content to peck at crumbs, like a bird. But the great, crippled old woman often went hungry, and got a morbid pleasure from it.
“Mrs. John Hughes and Mrs. W. H. Mills came in yesterday near supper-time, just to see what we had,” she told Sophia one day in October. “They hung round and they hung round, and they stood in the doorway a solid half-hour after they had got up to go, but they didn't find out anything. They knew you had been out to set the kettle on, and they were dying to find out what I was going to have for supper, but they didn't.”
Eliza was at that moment making her meal of a slice of toast without any butter, and a cup of very weak tea. Sophia had had her supper in the kitchen.
“I suppose if they had seen me having supper without any cake or sauce, they would have thought I was awful stingy,” she went on. “But you can't have your cake and eat it too, and I was always one that wanted my cake.”
Sophia smiled her sweet, youthful smile, which deepened all her wrinkles and made one forget them.
“Mrs. John Hughes, she was telling about the layer cake and scalloped oysters she was going to have for supper, and Mrs. Mills said her husband always wanted something real hearty, and she was going to have beefsteak. H'm! I miss my guess if both those women don't see the day when they'll wish they had lived on a little less and had a little more. Beefsteak at twenty-eight cents a pound for supper! H'm!”
“It does seem pretty dear,” assented Sophia in her pretty little mild voice.
“Dear! It's robbery. We ain't held up on the high-road the way we read about in books, but the butcher holds us up at our kitchen doors every day, and it's ‘Your money or your life,’ and no mistake. Twenty-eight cents a pound! Well, we ain't fools enough to pay many twenty-eight cents to the butcher. I don't think so much meat is healthy, for my part.”
“I'd just as lief have other things,” assented Sophia sweetly. She sat watching Eliza Price eat her dry toast and sip her tea. There was a red sunset, and the light flushed her little gray head with a curious rosy light. Her youthful blue eyes gleamed like tender stars out of the rosy glow. She was charming as she sat there, but Eliza did not see it. She had never had any eye except for the crude primer of beauty. When she saw the young grass a vivid green in the spring, she admired that; and she recognized the appeal of a full-blown rose and an apple tree in bloom; but to the subtler glories of things she had been born, and would remain, blind. To her, Sophia, sitting there in the red sunset light, was a little, gray, old, wrinkled woman. She saw her in no different aspect than usual. Presently she scowled at her. She was carefully taking out the last remnant of tea in her cup with her thin silver spoon.
“Here is a lot of sugar in the bottom of this cup,” said she severely.
“I only put in one teaspoonful.”
“You must have heaped it up.”
“I don't think I did.”
“Next time you had better bring the sugar-bowl in here, and let me sweeten my tea myself. I ain't going to waste sugar, dear as things are now.”
“Yes,” Sophia said with her unfailing sweetness, “I will.”
Eliza looked out of the window, her attention diverted by some people passing. “Who are those two women?” she asked.
Sophia rose and peered over her shoulder. Her eyes were better than Eliza's, who needed new spectacles, but would not purchase on account of the expense.
“It ain't two women; it's a woman and a man,” said she.
“You know better, Sophia Wilton. Can't I see two skirts swishin'?”
“The man has got on a long coat, and that swishes. It's Amy Horton and Lem Jay.”
“What business has Lem Jay got with a coat with a long tail that swishes? I know it cost no end of money. He's as poor as Job's off ox. He'd better save up his money if he ever expects to marry that girl.”
“I saw old Mis' Horton in the store yesterday,” said Sophia, “and she told me she didn't know as they ever could get married. She says all he gets is sixty dollars a month, and he's smart, too, but the firm he works for has a lot of young men relations they put ahead of him.”
“Land, why don't he get another place?”
“She says it ain't so easy these times, and they are always holding up hope of doing better by him, and sort of hangin' onto him. She says they're real dogs-in-the-manger, and he don't know what to do. She says Amy feels real bad about it. You know Amy is 'most twenty-eight, for all she looks so young, and she and Lem have been going together for 'most ten years, and she says it's all she and Amy and Amy's mother can do to hitch along with what they've got. She says if Amy and Lem would live with them it would be all right, but you know what Amy's mother is. She means well, and she's a real good woman, but she's terrible nervous, and Lem Jay is nervous, and they wouldn't get along nohow. She says if Lem and Amy only had enough money for a little start, to furnish a house and get some clothes ahead, she thinks they might risk it, but they haven't.”
“Why don't Amy Horton teach school and earn enough money to get her fix and furnish her house?”
“You know she did try to, two years ago, but she had to give it up. The doctor said she wasn't strong enough. She couldn't stand the close air in the schoolhouse.”
Sophia said no more. She took the tray which contained Eliza's tea-things into the kitchen, and proceeded to wash the dishes. When she had finished she stood at a window gazing out. It was almost dark. She had been barely able to finish her task, but kerosene was so carefully husbanded in the household that she had not lit a lamp. She saw beyond the window a stretch of field, without trees, sloping in shadowy curves in the dusk, and beyond the field the blur of a great oak, and a light gleaming from a house window next door. The light was in the window of the Horton house. Amy Horton's mother had been a cousin of old Squire Amos K. Price's first wife. If the Squire had not outlived his wife the Hortons would have shared in the inheritance. Sophia always thought of Amy as a relative, and, in a manner, deprived of her rights. Her little face in the deepening dusk took on a curious expression. Sophia had hidden depths of character, and now her face betrayed them. She looked calculating, shrewd, almost impish, and yet there were tears in her eyes.
The cat, a great tiger cat, came and rubbed an arching back against her legs. Sophia turned away from the window and went to the pantry for some milk. In pouring it into the saucer she spilled a little.
“Good land!” said she. She hastily seized a cloth and wiped it up.
“Don't know what she'd say if she knew I'd wasted all that milk,” she muttered. In reality Sophia knew quite well what Eliza would say, and also what she would say if she knew the cat was there at all. Sophia was in terror lest the cat steal into the front part of the house, and betray his existence to Eliza. He was a stray which Sophia had taken in, and she loved him. She fed him with food which she went without herself, and in that her conscience did not assail her; but she felt guilty with regard to harboring him without Eliza's knowledge. Eliza declared that she detested pet animals. “People had better put what cats and dogs cost into their own mouths, and save their money,” she was wont to say.
Once, to Sophia's horror, the cat had actually strayed into the sitting-room, but she got him out before Eliza had seen him, although her suspicion was aroused.
“What was that?” she asked sharply, after the cat had been silently hustled out, and the door, which was behind her chair, closed.
“What?” asked Sophia with duplicity.
“That noise. It sounded like a sort of rumble.”
“Maybe it was thunder,” replied Sophia.
“Thunder without a cloud in the sky! Don't you suppose I know thunder when I hear it?”
“A great wasp got into the room yesterday,” said Sophia. She could be horribly sly. She was culpable, and she knew it. She had driven the wasp out the day before, but she loved the cat.
“Why didn't you say it was a wasp, and done with it?” Eliza had inquired irascibly. “It sounded like a wasp buzzing, but when you talk about thunder I should think you were losing your mind.”
The cat had not been seen by Eliza since that day, for Sophia had guarded her secret well. She knew that Eliza would insist upon his banishment, and felt that she could not bear that. Her heart was full of love, and it had not much upon which to lavish itself directly. Eliza presented, apparently, a granite surface toward the soft impulses of affection, although Sophia loved her with all her heart. Then there were Amy Horton and her mother and grandmother. Sophia loved them, but love was too strong a word to apply to their sentiments toward her. There was, in reality, no reason why people should love Sophia Wilton unless they saw below her surface, and the two elder Hortons were not women to see below surfaces, and Amy was too much engrossed with her love for Lem Jay.
But the cat loved Sophia, and he knew and appreciated her love for himself. It was not the fact that she fed and sheltered him. He loved her, because he came and brushed about her, arching his back, striped as splendidly as if he had but just left the jungle, when he was not in the least hungry. Sophia took a deal of comfort with her stolen treasure, the cat. Sometimes it seemed to her that she had a queer delight in feeling that it was stolen. Sophia had a bit of the devil in her, despite her age and training, and mild and gentle ways. She was not quite regenerate, and, what was worse, the fact did not trouble her, at least not yet. She had all her life had a secret desire for excitement, for some variation in the meek monotony of things, and she had been getting it through her guilty entertainment of the cat, and was now about to get it in a much larger degree.
When Sophia went to bed that night, she lay awake for hours, staring at the light in the window of the Horton house, which her room faced.
“They are sitting up,” she told herself, meaning that Amy and Lem Jay were love-making in the room lit by that lamp. Poor Sophia, generous by her very nature, and even lavish, showed a little taint from her life with Eliza Price, the miserly. She thought with dismay how much the lamp must cost. Three times every week Sophia saw it burning until midnight and past, and she had gotten a habit of lying awake and watching for it to go out.
Sophia had never had a romance in her whole life. Now she was obtaining, through the power of intense sympathy, and of a splendid love for love itself and all that was alive, a vicarious and really happy knowledge of that which had not come to her personally. As she lay there watching that light in the window, she felt almost as if she herself were Amy Horton sitting with her lover.
The next day Sophia, after doing an errand at the store for Eliza, stopped at the Horton house. Only old Mrs. Horton was at home.
“Sarah” (Sarah was her daughter-in-law and Amy's mother) “has gone to the sewing meeting, and Amy has gone out somewheres,” said old Mrs. Horton. She sat beside a south window, which was filled with shelves of geraniums in bloom. The mass of heart-shaped leaves and flower-clusters formed an odd background for her eager, sallow face. Mrs. Horton was long in limb and feature, elongated expressing her better than long. She looked as if she had been stretched upon some rack of life. All the lines in her face were downward. She had a habit of holding her chin down, and her hands, when unoccupied, always drooped. She generally had a sad expression, and to-day it was sadder than ever. There were red stains around her hollow eyes.
“I'm real glad you came in,” she said to Sophia in a melancholy voice.
“I had to go to the store to get some more liniment for Eliza,” said Sophia, “and I thought I'd just run in a minute. I told her maybe I might, and she said she didn't mind.”
“You don't leave her alone much, do you?” said old Mrs. Horton in her listless voice.
“No, I don't like to. If the house got afire I don't know how she'd ever get out.”
“Guess she could manage to hitch out somehow,” said old Mrs. Horton, and there was a sudden animosity in her voice. She did not like Eliza Price. She felt that she, as a relative of the Squire's second wife, should have had some of the property.
“I wouldn't risk it,” said Sophia, “but I don't worry when I'm here, for I can see the least sign of smoke, and run over there in time to get her out.”
“I guess she'd get out. Some folks always do,” said old Mrs. Horton, and now her tone was pessimistic to a degree. “Some folks always get the cream, and other folks have to thank the Lord Almighty for about half enough of skim milk,” she added, and she nodded her long head with a fierce movement.
“Eliza has a good deal to bear, settin' the way she does, day in and day out, in a chair, and she with so much money,” said Sophia mildly.
“There's worse things than settin' in a chair, and knowing where the money's comin' from to pay everything,” said old Mrs. Horton. Tears began to stream down the long furrows of her cheeks, and she raised an angry hand against them. “Here's Lem not comin' any more,” said she, and openly sobbed.
“Not comin' any more?”
“No. Amy told him last night. She said she thought she'd ought to be plain about it. She said there was no chance of their ever getting married, and they'd been going together 'most ten years, and pretty soon it would make talk. Poor Lem; he broke down and cried like a baby, and Amy, too. Sarah and me was in here, and the door was ajar. I say it's wicked for some folks to have so much money they don't know what to do with it, and have to jest let it lay idle, when the happiness of other folks' whole life has to be ruinated for the want of it.”
Sophia looked at old Mrs. Horton, and her face had a singular expression.
“Do you mean they've given up getting married at all?” said she.
“Yes, poor Amy has put her foot down. She says it's no use.”
“It's got to be, whether or no,” said Sophia sharply. She put her handkerchief to her eyes, and she also sobbed. The other woman stared at her. “I'd like to know what you mean?” she said.
“I mean it's got to be, whether or no.”
“I don't see how. You ain't an overruling Providence, be you?”
Sophia sobbed again. She wiped her eyes, then she looked at old Mrs. Horton. “Of course I ain't,” said she, “ but it's got to be, whether or no. It ain't right to have two like them separated after they've been together so long, and got to setting so much by each other; and no overruling Providence is goin' to let things be that ain't right.”
Old Mrs. Horton shook her head with angry hopelessness. “You can talk that way,” said she, “but I've lived a good many years, and I've seen a good many things, that didn't seem any more right than this, allowed.”
Sophia suddenly changed the subject. “How handsome your geraniums be,” said she. “You do have real good luck with flowers, Mis' Horton.”
“I ought to have good luck with something,” replied Mrs. Horton, and she eyed the blooming geraniums as if they were her one trump that ensured her a trick in the game of life.
Sophia did not stay much longer. When she went along the road toward home her face had a pale, scared expression. Eliza Price noticed it when she entered. “What on earth is the matter now?” said she.
“You look as white as a sheet.”
“I feel well enough.”
“Guess you are bilious. You'd better not eat much to-night, and be careful.”
“Maybe I'd better not,” assented Sophia.
The next afternoon she went to the store again, and again stopped at the Horton house. She found not only old Mrs. Horton at home, but Amy and her mother. This time it was poor Amy, with her sweet, sad face, who sat under the blooming geraniums. She was a brave soul, and faced her life smilingly, but her blue eyes were sad. Her mother, a pretty woman with a nervous, irritable scowl between her eyes, and tightly compressed, thin lips, was knitting in a jerky fashion. When Amy inquired sweetly for Miss Price, a sardonic look overspread her face. “I ain't going to waste my breath asking for folks who have nothing to do but set from morning till night, and money enough to spend and don't spend it,” she said in the scolding voice which distinguished her.
“Oh, mother!” said Amy.
Then Mrs. Horton turned upon her. “Keep right on ‘oh, mothering’ me,” said she. “Here you be, doing such a thing as sending Lem Jay off, and you getting older, just because you are so awful set you won't live here. I never did think much of Lem Jay, and I never did agree with anything he said, and I have never made any bones about telling him so, but I'm perfectly willing you should get married to-morrow, if you want to, and come here to live, and I guess there ain't many women that would be.”
Amy said nothing.
There was a second's silence. Then Sophia Wilton faced them, and committed the first deadly sin of her life. She lied straight from the shoulder, without the slightest hesitation.
“There ain't any need for you and Lem not to get married, if you want to,” said she. “Eliza ain't so bad as folks think, and she ain't so stingy. She's better than she knows she is herself.”
A wonderful flush overspread Amy's delicate face. Her eyes shot a quick blue flash at Sophia.
“What on earth do you mean?” said her mother.
“Any time Amy and Lem want to get married, they can,” said Sophia unflinchingly. “There's that nice house next to the Jones place, that she owns, and it ain't rented, and any time they want to go in there they can.”
“I am afraid that would be too much rent for Lem to pay,” quavered Amy. She was blushing all over, and tremulous as a butterfly over some rose of joy.
“There wouldn't be any rent to pay,” said Sophia calmly.
The three women stared at her.
“Has Eliza Price met with a change, close-fisted as she has always been?” said Amy's mother. She tried to speak sneeringly, but her voice faltered.
“She's got to meet with a change before she dies,” said Sophia, with the look of an angel worn with avenging war.
“What's the use of a house without a stick of furniture?” said Amy's mother.
“Eliza is going to give Amy the furniture in the north parlor and the two spare chambers and that extra kitchen that the Squire's second wife had put in to use in cold weather, and the furniture in the dining-room that the first wife called the morning-room.”
“I've always heard what airs Squire Amos K. Price's first wife put on,” said old Mrs. Horton.
Amy sprang to her feet. “I am going right over there and thank her,” she cried, and her voice rang out like a bird's in spring. She was rosy and altogether beautiful in her sudden happiness, but Sophia stopped her.
“If you go over there and thank her, you'll upset the whole apple-cart,” said she. “She can't bear to be thanked; and there's another thing. All that furniture has got to be moved out, just as still as mice, the next moonlight night, after she's gone to sleep.”
Amy's mother eyed her suspiciously. “Why?” she demanded.
Sophia lied like a master. “Eliza has been in the habit of keeping things,” said she, “and now, though she wants Amy to have 'em, she feels that she hasn't quite worked herself up to the point of seeing 'em go. So it has got to be done this way. She don't want any thanks. She don't even want to be spoken to about it, and she don't want to see the things go.”
“Well, I thought the old Adam wasn't quite worked out of her,” said Amy's mother, and again her voice had its scolding tone. “I guess Eliza Price won't die because she's too good to live, jest yet.”
“Oh, mother!” said Amy.
Sophia Wilton, going home that night, felt as if she had passed the frontier into a foreign country. She realized that she was very sinful, but she had a joy in the sin, and the thought of the happiness which was to come to Lem and Amy seemed like a song of triumph in her ears.
All her life Sophia had loved people, and wanted to make them happy, with a want which was like a fierce hunger, and she had been able to do very little. Now she had fallen before a strange temptation, and as yet had no contrition for her fault, only fear lest it should be discovered before her end was gained, the furniture moved, and the house set in order. Had Eliza Price employed an agent, the matter would have been more difficult, but she was parsimonious in that as in everything else. Sophia cautioned everybody about mentioning the subject of Eliza's good works to her, and the caution was heeded. People were a little afraid of the grim old woman.
Eliza heard that Lem Jay and Amy Horton were to be married on Thanksgiving Day, and that was all she did hear. Nobody told her anything else, and nobody told her where they were to live. She was somewhat curious with regard to that, but finally she settled the matter for herself.
“I suppose they must have decided to live with Amy's mother and grandmother,” said she. “I suppose it was the only thing they could do, but I must say, from what I've heard and seen of that woman, it will be like living in a hornets' nest. I've heard that she was a good woman and means well, but she buzzes all the time, and don't say nor do what she means to. Well, it ain't any of my business. You've got too much sugar in my tea again, Sophia.”
“I only put in one spoonful.”
“You must have heaped it up, then. Why didn't you bring in the sugar-bowl, the way I told you to?”
“I forgot it,” replied Sophia meekly. Sophia looked terribly excited, and nervously wrought. Her cheeks were hotly flushed, and a tense trembling shook her from head to foot. Everything she touched rattled and jostled against something else. When she had entered with the tea-tray, everything on it had rung and tinkled.
It was the night before Thanksgiving, and she had been cooking, for Thanksgiving was observed even in that parsimonious household. There were to be roast chicken and vegetables, and Sophia had baked pies.
Eliza noticed Sophia's unusual state. The nearness of Thanksgiving seemed to have an influence over her stern old New England character, for she said, when the cup and saucer and plate and spoon jingled: “I guess you must be tired, Sophia.”
“I ain't, none to speak of,” said Sophia. She sat near Eliza until her meal was quite finished, then she took the tray and set it on the table, and stood before her. Eliza actually turned pale as she gazed up in the strangely agitated little face.
“What ails you, Sophia Wilton? You ain't going to have a fit, be you?” said she.
“No,” replied Sophia. “I'm going to tell the truth.”
“The truth? Why ain't you been telling it all the time?”
“No, I ain't. I've been lying like all possessed, and I ain't been sorry for it, neither. Now I'm sorry I had to lie, and it's just before Thanksgiving, and I don't dare keep it back any longer, and I'm going to tell the truth.”
With that, Sophia took her place behind Eliza's chair, and began to push. “You hitch,” said she firmly to Eliza, who was now herself trembling.
“Where are you going to make me go?” she demanded.
“Into the north parlor. Keep your shawl around you. It's some cold in there.”
“Why are you going to take me into the north parlor, I'd like to know?”
“I've got to tell the truth.”
Sophia pushed as she had never pushed before, and Eliza hitched, and they crossed the entry and entered the north parlor. Sophia had set a lamp on the mantel-shelf. It was the only place on which to set a lamp. The moment the door was opened that peculiar breath, that peculiar echo, of an entirely empty room, were evident. Eliza gazed and gasped. “Where are all the things?”
“I gave them to Amy and Lem to set up housekeeping.”
“You gave 'em?”
Eliza gasped again. Then she said feebly — she was becoming afraid of this meek little woman with whom she lived — “What right had you, I'd like to know?”
“I hadn't any right, but I took it. They needed the things, and they were related to the Squire's second wife.”
Sophia pushed vigorously again, and Eliza mechanically hitched. They crossed the empty parlor, and Sophia threw open another door, that of a spare bedroom. That room was also empty. “I gave the things in here, too,” said Sophia.
Eliza gasped again.
Sophia pushed, and they reached another door. Sophia opened that and revealed a perfectly empty little kitchen.
“This kitchen wasn't ever used,” said she. “The Squire's second wife had it made just for an expense. I gave them the things in here, too.”
Eliza gasped again.
Sophia turned her chair, and made wonderful headway back to the warm sitting-room. Then she stood before Eliza again.
“That ain't all,” said she. “I can't get you upstairs, anyhow, and it's no use trying to take you out to that room the Squire's wife called her morning-room, for I don't know but you've got a chill as it is; but all the things in the north spare chamber are gone too, and the things in the morning-room. And that ain't all. I give them a lot of bed and table linen, and some quilts, and some dresses out of them trunks in the attic, and I gave them Squire Amos K. Price's old swallow-tail coat, the one he wasn't buried in, and two flowered vests, and three pairs of fine broadcloth pants, and —”
But Eliza interrupted her with an outburst of grim laughter. “For goodness' sake! You don't expect Lem Jay is going to wear that old swallow-tail and the Squire's flowered vests and pants?” said she, and laughed again.
But Sophia did not laugh. She was terribly sober. “I give them to him,” she repeated, “and that ain't all. I told them they could have that house of yours, next the Jones place, free of rent, and they are going to live there to-morrow after they are married.”
Sophia stopped. She stood before Eliza, calmly awaiting her verdict.
Eliza gave another queer chuckle, then she looked up at Sophia, and again there were wonder and something like fear in her face.
“You ain't crazy, be you, Sophia Wilton?” said she.
“No, I ain't crazy, but I didn't have anything to give myself, and so I gave your things.”
“Why haven't they even thanked me?” inquired Eliza.
“I lied, and said you didn't want to be thanked.”
“They are going to be married to-morrow, ain't they?”
“To-morrow afternoon at four o'clock.”
Again there was silence. Suddenly a look of terror, but not for herself, came over Sophia's face. “You won't take away the things now? And you won't tell, for if you did, they wouldn't get married, and Amy is so pleased,” she cried.
“Go to that desk drawer in my bedroom, and open that secret place where I keep my money,” said Eliza. “I suppose you haven't touched that.”
“I couldn't be so wicked as to take money,” said Sophia.
“Bring that box out here.”
Sophia obeyed. Eliza called after her: “Bring that box with the pearl beads that belonged to the Squire's first wife here, too.”
Presently Sophia emerged. She gave one rather large, heavy box to Eliza, and a square, rusty, velvet one. Then she pleaded again: “Oh, Eliza, you won't interfere with them? Send me to prison, or anything, but don't interfere with them. I'd just as lief go to prison. I —”
“Fiddlesticks!” said Eliza Price, opening the larger box. A yellow gleam of gold came from it. Eliza counted carefully, and laid the coins on her wide lap until there was a little heap of them. Then she opened the velvet box, and a string of pearls gleamed as they hung over her swollen old hand. She coiled the pearls carefully around, and replaced them in the velvet box, and tucked away beside them the gold pieces in her lap.
“There,” she said. “There's a hundred gold dollars, and them pearl beads, and I want you to go and give them to Amy Horton, and tell her that after she and Lem are married, I wish they'd come here and let me see how they look, before they go home.”
“She's going to be married in that white brocade silk that was in the cedar chest in the garret,” said Sophia.
“Well, what of it? I don't suppose you thought I'd ever wear it,” said Eliza.
“Then you ain't —” began Sophia.
“No, I ain't close-fisted and stingy; never was. Lord! I've been keeping them things jest for the sake of dwelling in my own mind on giving them away. You didn't have any need to take such means to get them, and tell lies — and they wasn't lies, either, though you didn't know it, for I always did hate to be thanked for anything — But I would like to see Amy when she's all decked out a bride. I don't care any great sight about seeing Lem Jay; men don't amount to much; but I suppose he's part of the show.”
Sophia was weeping. “You are real good, Eliza,” she sobbed.
“Mebbe I am better than you've been thinking, and kept it close,” admitted Eliza. “Now, stop crying, Sophia Wilton. I'm gladder that you've done this than I ever was of anything in my life. Just wrap up warm — I know it's only next door, but it's cold — and take them things over, and ask Amy.”
After Sophia, wrapped shapelessly against the cold, her hands laden with the rich gifts, and her heart overflowing with love and contrition and thankfulness, had gone, the other old woman sat and gazed out of the window at the lights in the houses across the way. The room was in darkness, for she had told Sophia to set the lamp in the entry.
Eliza Price gazed at her neighbors' home lights, she smelled the odor of cake and pastry, she smiled happily. Before her eyes was the fair picture of the bride, in her white brocade, with the Price pearls gleaming on her neck.
Then, with no apparent connection, she thought of something else, of Sylvia White. “It's too bad for that poor old woman to be living the way she does, from pillar to post,” she thought. She made up her mind, then and there, to give Sylvia — Sylvia with that unsuspected pearl of love and suffering in her heart — a home for the rest of her life in the Price house.
When Sophia returned Eliza was eager with questions.
“She was so pleased she sat down and cried,” said Sophia, “and so did her mother. I told them the whole story. Her mother says you are a saint on earth.”
Eliza laughed. “Well, Sophia Wilton,” said she, “you've made me sense something in my old age that I ain't never rightly sensed before, and that is, I guess we never can really have any cake in this world except what we give to other folks.”
“I ain't told you everything,” said Sophia. “I've been keeping a stray cat in the house a long time.”
“He's a splendid cat. He's a tiger,” said Sophia.
Eliza laughed, with an actual peal of hilarity. “I always did like cats,” said she, “and I was wondering what we should do with the chicken-bones to-morrow. It seemed wicked to waste them. Call in that cat, for goodness' sake, Sophia Wilton.”
Sophia opened the door and called: “Puss, puss, puss.”
There was a responsive mew, and the great cat, arching his splendid, striped back, lashing his tail, and making an anti-climax, came in.