From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
The garden-patch at the right of the house was all a gay spangle with sweet-peas and red-flowering beans, and flanked with feathery asparagus. A woman in blue was moving about there. Another woman, in a black bonnet, stood at the front door of the house. She knocked and waited. She could not see from where she stood the blue-clad woman in the garden. The house was very close to the road, from which a tall evergreen hedge separated it, and the view to the side was in a measure cut off.
The front door was open; the woman had to reach to knock on it, as it swung into the entry. She was a small woman and quite young, with a bright alertness about her which had almost the effect of prettiness. It was to her what greenness and crispness are to a plant. She poked her little face forward, and her sharp pretty eyes took in the entry and a room at the left, of which the door stood open. The entry was small and square and unfurnished, except for a well-rubbed old card-table against the back wall. The room was full of green light from the tall hedge, and bristling with grasses and flowers and asparagus stalks.
“Betsey, you there?” called the woman. When she spoke, a yellow canary, whose cage hung beside the front door, began to chirp and twitter.
“Betsey, you there?” the woman called again. The bird's chirps came in a quick volley; then he began to trill and sing.
“She ain't there,” said the woman. She turned and went out of the yard through the gap in the hedge; then she looked around. She caught sight of the blue figure in the garden. “There she is,” said she.
She went around the house to the garden. She wore a gay cashmere-patterned calico dress with her mourning bonnet, and she held it carefully away from the dewy grass and vines.
The other woman did not notice her until she was close to her and said, “Good-mornin', Betsey.” Then she started and turned around.
“Why, Mis' Caxton! That you?” said she.
“Yes. I've been standin' at your door for the last half-hour. I was jest goin' away when I caught sight of you out here.”
In spite of her brisk speech her manner was subdued. She drew down the corners of her mouth sadly.
“I declare I'm dreadful sorry you had to stan' there so long!” said the other woman.
She set a pan partly filled with beans on the ground, wiped her hands, which were damp and green from the wet vines, on her apron, then extended her right one with a solemn and sympathetic air.
“It don't make much odds, Betsey,” replied Mrs. Caxton. “I ain't got much to take up my time nowadays.” She sighed heavily as she shook hands, and the other echoed her.
“We'll go right in now. I'm dreadful sorry you stood there so long,” said Betsey.
“You'd better finish pickin' your beans.”
“No; I wa'n't goin' to pick any more. I was jest goin' in.”
“I declare, Betsey Dole, I shouldn't think you'd got enough for a cat!” said Mrs. Caxton, eying the pan.
“I've got pretty near all there is. I guess I've got more flowerin' beans than eatin' ones, anyway.”
“I should think you had,” said Mrs. Caxton, surveying the row of bean-poles topped with swarms of delicate red flowers. “I should think they were pretty near all flowerin' ones. Had any peas?”
“I didn't have more'n three or four messes. I guess I planted sweet-peas mostly. I don't know hardly how I happened to.”
“Had any summer squash?”
“Two or three. There's some more set, if they ever get ripe. I planted some gourds. I think they look real pretty on the kitchen shelf in the winter.”
“I should think you'd got a sage bed big enough for the whole town.”
“Well, I have got a pretty good-sized one. I always liked them blue sage-blows. You'd better hold up your dress real careful goin' through here, Mis' Caxton, or you'll get it wet.”
The two women picked their way through the dewy grass, around a corner of the hedge, and Betsey ushered her visitor into the house.
“Set right down in the rockin-chair,” said she. “I'll jest carry these beans out into the kitchen.”
“I should think you'd better get another pan and string 'em, or you won't get 'em done for dinner.”
“Well, mebbe I will, if you'll excuse it, Mis' Caxton. The beans had ought to boil quite a while; they're pretty old.”
Betsey went into the kitchen and returned with a pan and an old knife. She seated herself opposite Mrs. Caxton, and began to string and cut the beans.
“If I was in your place I shouldn't feel as if I'd got enough to boil a kettle for,” said Mrs. Caxton, eying the beans. “I should 'most have thought when you didn't have any more room for a garden than you've got that you'd planted more real beans and peas instead of so many flowerin' ones. I'd rather have a good mess of green peas boiled with a piece of salt pork than all the sweet-peas you could give me. I like flowers well enough, but I never set up for a butterfly, an' I want something else to live on.” She looked at Betsey with pensive superiority.
Betsey was near-sighted; she had to bend low over the beans in order to string them. She was fifty years old, but she wore her streaky light hair in curls like a young girl. The curls hung over her faded cheeks and almost concealed them. Once in a while she flung them back with a childish gesture which sat strangely upon her.
“I dare say you're in the right of it,” she said, meekly.
“I know I am. You folks that write poetry wouldn't have a single thing to eat growin' if they were left alone. And that brings to mind what I come for. I've been thinkin' about it ever since — our — little Willie — left us.” Mrs. Caxton's manner was suddenly full of shamefaced dramatic fervor, her eyes reddened with tears.
Betsey looked up inquiringly, throwing back her curls. Her face took on unconsciously lines of grief so like the other woman's that she looked like her for the minute.
“I thought maybe,” Mrs. Caxton went on, tremulously, “you'd be willin' to — write a few lines.”
“Of course I will, Mis' Caxton. I'll be glad to, if I can do 'em to suit you,” Betsey said, tearfully.
“I thought jest a few — lines. You could mention how — handsome he was, and good, and I never had to punish him but once in his life, and how pleased he was with his little new suit, and what a sufferer he was, and — how we hope he is at rest — in a better land.”
“I'll try, Mis' Caxton, I'll try,” sobbed Betsey. The two women wept together for a few minutes.
“It seems as if — I couldn't have it so sometimes,” Mrs. Caxton said, brokenly. “I keep thinkin' he's in the other — room. Every time I go back home when I've been away it's like — losin' him again. Oh, it don't seem as if I could go home and not find him there — it don't, it don't! Oh, you don't know anything about it, Betsey. You never had any children!”
“I don't s'pose I do, Mis' Caxton; I don't s'pose I do.”
Presently Mrs. Caxton wiped her eyes. “I've been thinkin',” said she, keeping her mouth steady with an effort, “that it would be real pretty to have — some lines printed on some sheets of white paper with a neat black border. I'd like to send some to my folks, and one to the Perkinses in Brigham, and there's a good many others I thought would value 'em.”
“I'll do jest the best I can, Mis' Caxton, an' be glad to. It's little enough anybody can do at such times.”
Mrs. Caxton broke out weeping again. “Oh, it's true, it's true, Betsey!” she sobbed. “Nobody can do anything, and nothin' amounts to anything — poetry or anything else — when he's gone. Nothin' can bring him back. Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?”
Mrs. Caxton dried her tears again, and arose to take leave. “Well, I must be goin', or Wilson won't have any dinner,” she said, with an effort at self-control.
“Well, I'll do jest the best I can with the poetry,” said Betsey. “I'll write it this afternoon.” She had set down her pan of beans and was standing beside Mrs. Caxton. She reached up and straightened her black bonnet, which had slipped backward.
“I've got to get a pin,” said Mrs. Caxton, tearfully. “I can't keep it anywheres. It drags right off my head, the veil is so heavy.”
Betsey went to the door with her visitor. “It's dreadful dusty, ain't it?” she remarked, in that sad, contemptuous tone with which one speaks of discomforts in the presence of affliction.
“Terrible,” replied Mrs. Caxton. “I wouldn't wear my black dress in it nohow; a black bonnet is bad enough. This dress is 'most too good. It's enough to spoil everything. Well, I'm much obliged to you, Betsey, for bein' willin' to do that.”
“I'll do jest the best I can, Mis' Caxton.”
After Betsey had watched her visitor out of the yard she returned to the sitting-room and took up the pan of beans. She looked doubtfully at the handful of beans all nicely strung and cut up. “I declare I don't know what to do,” said she. “Seems as if I should kind of relish these, but it's goin' to take some time to cook 'em, tendin' the fire an' everything, an' I'd ought to go to work on that poetry. Then, there's another thing, if I have 'em to-day, I can't to-morrow. Mebbe I shall take more comfort thinkin' about 'em. I guess I'll leave 'em over till to-morrow.”
Betsey carried the pan of beans out into the kitchen and set them away in the pantry. She stood scrutinizing the shelves like a veritable Mother Hubbard. There was a plate containing three or four potatoes and a slice of cold boiled pork, and a spoonful of red jelly in a tumbler; that was all the food in sight. Betsey stooped and lifted the lid from an earthen jar on the floor. She took out two slices of bread. “There!” said she. “I'll have this bread and that jelly this noon, an' to-night I'll have a kind of dinner-supper with them potatoes warmed up with the pork. An' then I can sit right down an' go to work on that poetry.”
It was scarcely eleven o'clock, and not time for dinner. Betsey returned to the sitting-room, got an old black portfolio and pen and ink out of the chimney cupboard, and seated herself to work. She meditated, and wrote one line, then another. Now and then she read aloud what she had written with a solemn intonation. She sat there thinking and writing, and the time went on. The twelve-o'clock bell rang, but she never noticed it; she had quite forgotten the bread and jelly. The long curls drooped over her cheeks; her thin yellow hand, cramped around the pen, moved slowly and fitfully over the paper. The light in the room was dim and green, like the light in an arbor, from the tall hedge before the windows. Great plumy bunches of asparagus waved over the tops of the looking-glass; a framed sampler, a steel engraving of a female head taken from some old magazine, and sheaves of dried grasses hung on or were fastened to the walls; vases and tumblers of flowers stood on the shelf and table. The air was heavy and sweet.
Betsey in this room, bending over her portfolio, looked like the very genius of gentle, old-fashioned, sentimental poetry. It seemed as if one, given the premises of herself and the room, could easily deduce what she would write, and read without seeing those lines wherein flowers rhymed sweetly with vernal bowers, home with beyond the tomb, and heaven with even.
The summer afternoon wore on. It grew warmer and closer; the air was full of the rasping babble of insects, with the cicadas shrilling over them; now and then a team passed, and a dust cloud floated over the top of the hedge; the canary at the door chirped and trilled, and Betsey wrote poor little Willie Caxton's obituary poetry.
Tears stood in her pale blue eyes; occasionally they rolled down her cheeks, and she wiped them away. She kept her handkerchief in her lap with her portfolio. When she looked away from the paper she seemed to see two childish forms in the room — one purely human, a boy clad in his little girl petticoats, with a fair chubby face; the other in a little straight white night-gown, with long, shining wings, and the same face. Betsey had not enough imagination to change the face. Little Willie Caxton's angel was still himself to her, although decked in the paraphernalia of the resurrection.
“I s'pose I can't feel about it nor write about it anything the way I could if I'd had any children of my own an' lost 'em. I s'pose it would have come home to me different,” Betsey murmured once, sniffing. A soft color flamed up under her curls at the thought. For a second the room seemed all aslant with white wings, and smiling with the faces of children that had never been. Betsey straightened herself as if she were trying to be dignified to her inner consciousness. “That's one trouble I've been clear of, anyhow,” said she; “an' I guess I can enter into her feelin's considerable.”
She glanced at a great pink shell on the shelf, and remembered how she had often given it to the dead child to play with when he had been in with his mother, and how he had put it to his ear to hear the sea.
“Dear little fellow!” she sobbed, and sat awhile with her handkerchief at her face.
Betsey wrote her poem upon backs of old letters and odd scraps of paper. She found it difficult to procure enough paper for fair copies of her poems when composed; she was forced to be very economical with the first draft. Her portfolio was piled with a loose litter of written papers when she at length arose and stretched her stiff limbs. It was near sunset; men with dinner-pails were tramping past the gate, going home from their work.
Betsey laid the portfolio on the table. “There! I've wrote sixteen verses,” said she, “an' I guess I've got everything in. I guess she'll think that's enough. I can copy it off nice to-morrow. I can't see to-night to do it, anyhow.”
There were red spots on Betsey's cheeks; her knees were unsteady when she walked. She went into the kitchen and made a fire, and set on the tea-kettle. “I guess I won't warm up them potatoes to-night,” said she; “I'll have the bread an' jelly, an' save 'em for breakfast. Somehow I don't seem to feel so much like 'em as I did, an' fried potatoes is apt to lay heavy at night.”
When the kettle boiled, Betsey drank her cup of tea and soaked her slice of bread in it; then she put away her cup and saucer and plate, and went out to water her garden. The weather was so dry and hot it had to be watered every night. Betsey had to carry the water from a neighbor's well; her own was dry. Back and forth she went in the deepening twilight, her slender body strained to one side with the heavy water-pail, until the garden-mould looked dark and wet. Then she took in the canary-bird, locked up her house, and soon her light went out. Often on these summer nights Betsey went to bed without lighting a lamp at all. There was no moon, but it was a beautiful starlight night. She lay awake nearly all night, thinking of her poem. She altered several lines in her mind.
She arose early, made herself a cup of tea, and warmed over the potatoes, then sat down to copy the poem. She wrote it out on both sides of note-paper, in a neat, cramped hand. It was the middle of the afternoon before it was finished. She had been obliged to stop work and cook the beans for dinner, although she begrudged the time. When the poem was fairly copied, she rolled it neatly and tied it with a bit of black ribbon; then she made herself ready to carry it to Mrs. Caxton's.
It was a hot afternoon. Betsey went down the street in her thinnest dress — an old delaine, with delicate bunches of faded flowers on a faded green ground. There was a narrow green belt ribbon around her long waist. She wore a green barège bonnet, stiffened with rattans, scooping over her face, with her curls pushed forward over her thin cheeks in two bunches, and she carried a small green parasol with a jointed handle. Her costume was obsolete, even in the little country village where she lived. She had worn it every summer for the last twenty years. She made no more change in her attire than the old perennials in her garden. She had no money with which to buy new clothes, and the old satisfied her. She had come to regard them as being as unalterably a part of herself as her body.
Betsey went on, setting her slim, cloth-gaitered feet daintily in the hot sand of the road. She carried her roll of poetry in a black-mitted hand. She walked rather slowly. She was not very strong; there was a limp feeling in her knees; her face, under the green shade of her bonnet, was pale and moist with the heat.
She was glad to reach Mrs. Caxton's and sit down in her parlor, damp and cool and dark as twilight, for the blinds and curtains had been drawn all day. Not a breath of the fervid out-door air had penetrated it.
“Come right in this way; it's cooler than the sittin'-room,” Mrs. Caxton said; and Betsey sank into the hair-cloth rocker and waved a palm-leaf fan.
Mrs. Caxton sat close to the window in the dim light, and read the poem. She took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes as she read. “It's beautiful, beautiful,” she said, tearfully, when she had finished. “It's jest as comfortin' as it can be, and you worked that in about his new suit so nice. I feel real obliged to you, Betsey, and you shall have one of the printed ones when they're done. I'm goin' to see to it right off.”
Betsey flushed and smiled. It was to her as if her poem had been approved and accepted by one of the great magazines. She had the pride and self-wonderment of recognized genius. She went home buoyantly, under the wilting sun, after her call was done. When she reached home there was no one to whom she could tell her triumph, but the hot spicy breath of the evergreen hedge and the fervent sweetness of the sweet-peas seemed to greet her like the voices of friends.
She could scarcely wait for the printed poem. Mrs. Caxton brought it, and she inspected it, neatly printed in its black border. She was quite overcome with innocent pride.
“Well, I don't know but it does read pretty well,” said she.
“It's beautiful,” said Mrs. Caxton, fervently. “Mr. White said he never read anything any more touchin', when I carried it to him to print. I think folks are goin' to think a good deal of havin' it. I've had two dozen printed.”
It was to Betsey like a large edition of a book. She had written obituary poems before, but never one had been printed in this sumptuous fashion. “I declare I think it would look pretty framed!” said she.
“Well, I don't know but it would,” said Mrs. Caxton. “Anybody might have a neat little black frame, and it would look real appropriate.”
“I wonder how much it would cost?” said Betsey.
After Mrs. Caxton had gone, she sat long, staring admiringly at the poem, and speculating as to the cost of a frame. “There ain't no use; I can't have it nohow, not if it don't cost more'n a quarter of a dollar,” said she.
Then she put the poem away and got her supper. Nobody knew how frugal Betsey Dole's suppers and breakfasts and dinners were. Nearly all her food in the summer came from the scanty vegetables which flourished between the flowers in her garden. She ate scarcely more than her canary-bird, and sang as assiduously. Her income was almost infinitesimal: the interest at a low per cent. of a tiny sum in the village savings-bank, the remnant of her father's little hoard after his funeral expenses had been paid. Betsey had lived upon it for twenty years, and considered herself well-to-do. She had never received a cent for her poems; she had not thought of such a thing as possible. The appearance of this last in such shape was worth more to her than its words represented in as many dollars.
Betsey kept the poem pinned on the wall under the looking-glass; if any one came in, she tried with delicate hints to call attention to it. It was two weeks after she received it that the downfall of her innocent pride came.
One afternoon Mrs. Caxton called. It was raining hard. Betsey could scarcely believe it was she when she went to the door and found her standing there.
“Why, Mis' Caxton!” said she. “Ain't you wet to your skin?”
“Yes, I guess I be, pretty near. I s'pose I hadn't ought to come 'way down here in such a soak; but I went into Sarah Rogers's a minute after dinner, and something she said made me so mad, I made up my mind I'd come down here and tell you about it if I got drowned.” Mrs. Caxton was out of breath; rain-drops trickled from her hair over her face; she stood in the door and shut her umbrella with a vicious shake to scatter the water from it. “I don't know what you're goin' to do with this,” said she; “it's drippin'.”
“I'll take it out an' put it in the kitchen sink.”
“Well, I'll take off my shawl here too, and you can hang it out in the kitchen. I spread this shawl out. I thought it would keep the rain off me some. I know one thing, I'm goin' to have a waterproof if I live.”
When the two women were seated in the sitting-room, Mrs. Caxton was quiet for a moment. There was a hesitating look on her face, fresh with the moist wind, with strands of wet hair clinging to the temples.
“I don't know as I had ought to tell you,” she said, doubtfully.
“Why hadn't you ought to?”
“Well, I don't care; I'm goin' to, anyhow. I think you'd ought to know, an' it ain't so bad for you as it is for me. It don't begin to be. I put considerable money into 'em. I think Mr. White was pretty high, myself.”
Betsey looked scared. “What is it?” she asked, in a weak voice.
“Sarah Rogers says that the minister told her Ida that that poetry you wrote was jest as poor as it could be, an' it was in dreadful bad taste to have it printed an' sent round that way. What do you think of that?”
Betsey did not reply. She sat looking at Mrs. Caxton as a victim whom the first blow had not killed might look at her executioner. Her face was like a pale wedge of ice between her curls.
Mrs. Caxton went on. “Yes, she said that right to my face, word for word. An' there was something else. She said the minister said that you had never wrote anything that could be called poetry, an' it was a dreadful waste of time. I don't s'pose he thought 'twas comin' back to you. You know he goes with Ida Rogers, an' I s'pose he said it to her kind of confidential when she showed him the poetry. There! I gave Sarah Rogers one of them nice printed ones, an' she acted glad enough to have it. Bad taste! H'm! If anybody wants to say anything against that beautiful poetry, printed with that nice black border, they can. I don't care if it's the minister, or who it is. I don't care if he does write poetry himself, an' has had some printed in a magazine. Maybe his ain't quite so fine as he thinks 'tis. Maybe them magazine folks jest took his for lack of something better. I'd like to have you send that poetry there. Bad taste! I jest got right up. ‘Sarah Rogers,’ says I, ‘I hope you won't never do anything yourself in any worse taste.’ I trembled so I could hardly speak, and I made up my mind I'd come right straight over here.”
Mrs. Caxton went on and on. Betsey sat listening, and saying nothing. She looked ghastly. Just before Mrs. Caxton went home she noticed it. “Why, Betsey Dole,” she cried, “you look as white as a sheet. You ain't takin' it to heart as much as all that comes to, I hope. Goodness, I wish I hadn't told you!”
“I'd a good deal ruther you told me,” replied Betsey, with a certain dignity. She looked at Mrs. Caxton. Her back was as stiff as if she were bound to a stake.
“Well, I thought you would,” said Mrs. Caxton, uneasily; “and you're dreadful silly if you take it to heart, Betsey, that's all I've got to say. Goodness, I guess I don't, and it's full as hard on me as 'tis on you!”
Mrs. Caxton arose to go. Betsey brought her shawl and umbrella from the kitchen, and helped her off. Mrs. Caxton turned on the door-step and looked back at Betsey's white face. “Now don't go to thinkin' about it any more,” said she. “I ain't goin' to. It ain't worth mindin'. Everybody knows what Sarah Rogers is. Good-by.”
“Good-by, Mis' Caxton,” said Betsey. She went back into the sitting-room. It was a cold rain, and the room was gloomy and chilly. She stood looking out of the window, watching the rain pelt on the hedge. The bird-cage hung at the other window. The bird watched her with his head on one side; then he begun to chirp.
Suddenly Betsey faced about and began talking. It was not as if she were talking to herself; it seemed as if she recognized some other presence in the room. “I'd like to know if it's fair,” said she. “I'd like to know if you think it's fair. Had I ought to have been born with the wantin' to write poetry if I couldn't write it — had I? Had I ought to have been let to write all my life, an' not know before there wa'n't any use in it? Would it be fair if that canary-bird there, that ain't never done anything but sing, should turn out not to be singin'? Would it, I'd like to know? S'pose them sweet-peas shouldn't be smellin' the right way? I ain't been dealt with as fair as they have, I'd like to know if I have.”
The bird trilled and trilled. It was as if the golden down on his throat bubbled. Betsey went across the room to a cupboard beside the chimney. On the shelves were neatly stacked newspapers and little white rolls of writing-paper. Betsey began clearing the shelves. She took out the newspapers first, got the scissors, and cut a poem neatly out of the corner of each. Then she took up the clipped poems and the white rolls in her apron, and carried them into the kitchen. She cleaned out the stove carefully, removing every trace of ashes; then she put in the papers, and set them on fire. She stood watching them as their edges curled and blackened, then leaped into flame. Her face twisted as if the fire were curling over it also. Other women might have burned their lovers' letters in agony of heart. Betsey had never had any lover, but she was burning all the love-letters that had passed between her and life. When the flames died out she got a blue china sugar-bowl from the pantry and dipped the ashes into it with one of her thin silver teaspoons; then she put on the cover and set it away in the sitting-room cupboard.
The bird, who had been silent while she was out, began chirping again. Betsey went back to the pantry and got a lump of sugar, which she stuck between the cage wires. She looked at the clock on the kitchen shelf as she went by. It was after six. “I guess I don't want any supper to-night,” she muttered.
She sat down by the window again. The bird pecked at his sugar. Betsey shivered and coughed. She had coughed more or less for years. People said she had the old-fashioned consumption. She sat at the window until it was quite dark; then she went to bed in her little bedroom out of the sitting-room. She shivered so she could not hold herself upright crossing the room. She coughed a great deal in the night.
Betsey was always an early riser. She was up at five the next morning. The sun shone, but it was very cold for the season. The leaves showed white in a north wind, and the flowers looked brighter than usual, though they were bent with the rain of the day before. Betsey went out in the garden to straighten her sweet-peas.
Coming back, a neighbor passing in the street eyed her curiously. “Why, Betsey, you sick?” said she.
“No; I'm kinder chilly, that's all,” replied Betsey.
But the woman went home and reported that Betsey Dole looked dreadfully, and she didn't believe she'd ever see another summer.
It was now late August. Before October it was quite generally recognized that Betsey Dole's life was nearly over. She had no relatives, and hired nurses were rare in this little village. Mrs. Caxton came voluntarily and took care of her, only going home to prepare her husband's meals. Betsey's bed was moved into the sitting-room, and the neighbors came every day to see her, and brought little delicacies. Betsey had talked very little all her life; she talked less now, and there was a reticence about her which somewhat intimidated the other women. They would look pityingly and solemnly at her, and whisper in the entry when they went out.
Betsey never complained; but she kept asking if the minister had got home. He had been called away by his mother's illness, and returned only a week before Betsey died.
He came over at once to see her. Mrs. Caxton ushered him in one afternoon.
“Here's Mr. Lang come to see you, Betsey,” said she, in the tone she would have used towards a little child. She placed the rocking-chair for the minister, and was about to seat herself, when Betsey spoke:
“Would you mind goin' out in the kitchen jest a few minutes, Mis' Caxton?” said she.
Mrs. Caxton arose, and went out with an embarrassed trot. Then there was silence. The minister was a young man — a country boy who had worked his way through a country college. He was gaunt and awkward, but sturdy in his loose clothes. He had a homely, impetuous face, with a good forehead.
He looked at Betsey's gentle, wasted face, sunken in the pillow, framed by its clusters of curls; finally he began to speak in the stilted fashion, yet with a certain force by reason of his unpolished honesty, about her spiritual welfare. Betsey listened quietly; now and then she assented. She had been a church member for years. It seemed now to the young man that this elderly maiden, drawing near the end of her simple, innocent life, had indeed her lamp, which no strong winds of temptation had ever met, well trimmed and burning.
When he paused, Betsey spoke. “Will you go to the cupboard side of the chimney and bring me the blue sugar-bowl on the top shelf?” said she, feebly.
The young man stared at her a minute; then he went to the cupboard, and brought the sugar-bowl to her. He held it, and Betsey took off the lid with her weak hand. “Do you see what's in there?” said she.
“It looks like ashes.”
“It's — the ashes of all — the poetry I — ever wrote.”
“Why, what made you burn it, Miss Dole?”
“I found out it wa'n't worth nothin'.”
The minister looked at her in a bewildered way. He began to question if she were not wandering in her mind. He did not once suspect his own connection with the matter.
Betsey fastened her eager, sunken eyes upon his face. “What I want to know is — if you'll 'tend to — havin' this — buried with me.”
The minister recoiled. He thought to himself that she certainly was wandering.
“No, I ain't out of my head,” said Betsey. “I know what I'm sayin'. Maybe it's queer soundin', but it's a notion I've took. If you'll — 'tend to it, I shall be — much obliged. I don't know anybody else I can ask.”
“Well, I'll attend to it, if you wish me to, Miss Dole,” said the minister, in a serious, perplexed manner. She replaced the lid on the sugar-bowl, and left it in his hands.
“Well, I shall be much obliged if you will 'tend to it; an' now there's something else,” said she.
“What is it, Miss Dole?”
She hesitated a moment. “You write poetry, don't you?”
The minister colored. “Why, yes; a little sometimes.”
“It's good poetry, ain't it? They printed some in a magazine.”
The minister laughed confusedly. “Well, Miss Dole, I don't know how good poetry it may be, but they did print some in a magazine.”
Betsey lay looking at him. “I never wrote none that was — good,” she whispered, presently; “but I've been thinkin' — if you would jest write a few — lines about me — afterward — I've been thinkin' that — mebbe my — dyin' was goin' to make me — a good subject for — poetry, if I never wrote none. If you would jest write a few lines.”
The minister stood holding the sugar-bowl; he was quite pale with bewilderment and sympathy. “I'll — do the best I can, Miss Dole,” he stammered.
“I'll be much obliged,” said Betsey, as if the sense of grateful obligation was immortal like herself. She smiled, and the sweetness of the smile was as evident through the drawn lines of her mouth as the old red in the leaves of a withered rose. The sun was setting; a red beam flashed softly over the top of the hedge and lay along the opposite wall; then the bird in his cage began to chirp. He chirped faster and faster until he trilled into a triumphant song.