A Stress Of Conscience

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXV No. 26 (June 25, 1892)

Seth Easty sat on the door-step in the twilight. It had been a hot day, but now there was a damp coolness settling over everything. The grass began to drip with dew; there was a new moon and a great star in the west, but both of them shone dimly, with crossed rays, as through a watery veil.

The old man on the door-step had been working hard in the fields all day; his old bones had ached, and his face had streamed with perspiration under the fervent sun. Now he sat there in the cool dusk, and a feeling of physical comfort stole over him; he almost disregarded for a moment his heartache. He was in his vest and shirt sleeves; he leaned his head back against the door-post. He had a pale bald forehead like a prophet, his white locks fell softly around his ears, and his white beard looked like a white mist on his breast.

On either side of the door-step were his wife's flower beds, and they sweetened out strongly in the damp air. Seth was fond of flowers. He sniffed the bouquet of rose-geranium, sweet-alyssum, thyme, and mignonette pleasantly.

Suddenly a bell sounded out over the fields; the clear notes seemed to float aloft as tangibly as a bird. Seth settled his elbows down on his knees, rested his head between his palms, and gave a great sigh. The bell continued ringing. There was a soft stir at the old man's back. A small face appeared in the gloom of the entry, like a dim pale lamp.

“Seth,” said a voice.

Seth never stirred. His wife reached over and touched him softly on his bent back.

“What is it?” he grunted.

“Be you a'goin' to meetin', Seth? The bell's ringin'.”

The old man jerked his shoulders and muttered something, but the old woman did not hear.

“Be you, Seth?” she repeated.

“No, I ain't.”

The old woman drew in her breath like a sob; she pushed gently against Seth, and he moved to one side to let her pass; then she went waveringly and uncertainly, like a shadow, out of the yard and down the road.

Just as she emerged on the road, two other women came along.

“Is that you, Mis' Easty?” said one.

“Yes. That you, Mis' Briggs?”

“Yes; it's me an' Liza. Goin' to meetin'?”

“Yes, I was calculatin' to.”

“I s'pose the deacon's goin'?” Mrs. Briggs, who was a large woman, breathing heavily as she walked, nudged her daughter Eliza, who was a tall, slender girl in a light dress, which she gathered up on her hips to keep it out of the dew.

“No, I ruther guess he won't go to-night,” returned Mrs. Easty's faltering, weak voice from the dusk beside them.

“Why, he ain't sick, is he?” Mrs. Briggs nudged her daughter again.

“No, I dun know as he's sick. He's been hayin' all day. I guess he's pretty tired.”

“I noticed he wa'n't out Sunday, an' the minister prayed for somebody that was sick; I didn't know but that was him; but I heard afterward it was Sam Barne's wife's mother.”

“Yes, it was,” assented Mrs. Easty, feebly.

“I hope the deacon wa'n't sick Sunday?”

“No, I dun know as he was sick. I guess he was kind of tired.”

“Well, the deacon's gettin' old, like everybody else.” Mrs. Briggs tried to make her tone affable and calm, but there was a sarcastic twang in it. She nudged her daughter again.

“Yes, I ruther think he feels his work more'n he used,” said Mrs. Easty. She gave a distressed little cough after she said it — a cough that seemed produced by irritation in her soul rather than her throat.

They were drawing near the church; the meeting was in the vestry, and had already begun. They could hear the long sweet drone of the parlor-organ, and a shrill soprano voice dragging after it a lagging chorus.

“Why, meetin's begun!” whispered Mrs. Briggs. “I hadn't an idea we were so late.”

“Let's go in while they're singin',” said her daughter.

She let down her light skirts, and felt of her front hair to see if the dampness had taken it out of curl. Then they filed in between the singing rows of people. Mrs. Easty was the last, moving with a nervous little slide up the aisle, and looking neither to the right nor to the left.

Mrs. Briggs went on until she found an empty settee, then the three stood before it, somebody handed them books with a finger on the hymn, and suddenly Eliza Briggs burst forth in a high, sweet voice. She sang with panting ardor, but slightly off the key. There were two more stanzas, then the people sat down.

“Let us pray,” said the minister, standing on the platform. The heads of the people bent over like wheat in a wind. Just at that moment a man tiptoed softly into the vestibule. He came only a little way inside the door, and remained standing there in a shadow, listening to the murmur of supplication within. He took off his hat, and held it with decorous stiffness, while he bowed his head.

There was a stir in the vestry — a shuffling of feet and muffled rustle of women's clothes. The minister gave out a hymn. The man in the vestibule took a step forward, then he drew back. When the people began singing he twisted himself softly around the corner of the door, went down the steps on his toes, and quickly up the road. He turned in at Seth Easty's yard and settled down on the door-step again.

It was dark, except for the young moon, which lit the earth faintly, like a pearl; the trees over in the field were dark blurs — there was not enough light for them to make shadows. Seth Easty sat on the door-step, and it seemed to his orthodox and single New England mind that the devil sat there with him. For the first time in his life that he could remember he had something on his conscience which could not be slid off, after the manner of Christian's pack in the Pilgrim's Progress.

Deacon Seth Easty, when called upon to relate his experience when he had joined the church at the age of fifteen, and many a time afterward, for the encouragement of young converts, had always stated, and seemingly with some regret, that he had never known the pangs of the so-called “conviction of sin,” having from his very cradle, so far as he could tell, loved the gospel and resisted not its call.

Now he looked out over the fields, and a shadow as of evil wings hung dark over his very soul. “I dun know what to do,” he groaned.

Presently he heard voices out in the road; then his wife came into the yard. She did not speak, nor did he. He moved aside to let her pass into the house, and she slipped by him with a soft flirt of her black shawl.

There was not a lamp lighted in the house. She fumbled about in the kitchen, found a match, and lighted one. She went through the entry into the sitting-room and took off her bonnet and shawl. Then she stood peeking timidly around the door at Seth on the door-step. She noted with wonder that he had on his Sunday coat, but she said nothing. The clock struck nine. She waited a minute, then she spoke timidly:

“It's nine o'clock, Seth.”

“I know 'tis.”

“I didn't know as you heard the clock strike. You comin' in before long?”

Seth grunted an inarticulate reply.

“I'm kinder afraid you'll ketch cold settin' there in the damp,” said Mrs. Easty. There was a curious quality in her weak voice, a muffled echo, as if she spoke within walls. She began undressing herself, and went to bed in the little bedroom off the sitting-room.

Seth did not come in for half an hour. She lay awake, hearing him talk to himself out on the door-step; it was a habit he had. She could seldom distinguish a word, but once she heard him say, quite loudly and fiercely, as if to some opponent in argument, “The wear an' tear wa'n't more'n a millionth of a cent; it didn't cost 'em nothin'.”

Finally Mrs. Easty heard the front door shut and the bolt shot, then Seth entered the sitting-room with a heavy shuffle. The lamp stood on the table; Seth moved it nearer the edge, got a slate and pencil out of the dining-room cupboard, and sat down. Mrs. Easty raised herself in bed and peeped out at him; her little pale face was set in lopping white frills, like a withered daisy. “You ain't goin' to set up any longer, be you, Seth?” she said.

“I've got to figger a little while.”

“Seems to me I wouldn't set up figgerin' to-night, Seth.”

“I've got to a little while.”

Seth sat there until after midnight. His wife lay awake listening to the grating dots of the pencil on the slate. After Seth had retired at last, and both he and his wife had fallen asleep, he had the nightmare, and awakened her by stifled yells. Then she could sleep no more. “He's got somethin' on his mind,” was the thought that lay in hers heavier than any incubus.

The next morning, after Seth had gone out in the field, she put on a little flapping green sun-bonnet, which she wore when she ran into a neighbor's house of a morning, and she took a little basket of eggs on her arm.

Seth was at work in a field near the road, raking in a green litter of grass and clover. He saw his wife scudding by, and noted her purple calico dress, her gingham apron, the sun-bonnet, and the basket. A thought crossed his mind lightly, like a shadow over the field. “She's goin' in to Mis' Briggs's,” he thought.

But Mrs. Easty kept on with her rapid scudding step, past Mrs. Briggs's, past house after house, until she came to the minister's — a story-and-a-half white house, set back from the road in a green mist of pine-trees.

The path to the door was brown with pine needles; there was a sound like the sea over her head. Mrs. Easty straightened her sun-bonnet before she knocked — it was the first time in her life that she had ever been to the minister's door in anything but her best bonnet. This morning she had come poorly arrayed that her husband might not know where she was going; but she had hurried by the hay field with great qualms of conscience.

She knocked on the minister's door and waited. She could hear the feeble wail of a young baby in the house; presently another child with a stronger voice joined in, then another still. Mrs. Easty knocked again. The wails swelled louder and louder, and a shrill, beseeching voice wrestled with them; it was like a very conflict of sounds.

“They can't hear me knock,” Mrs. Easty muttered, despairingly. She shrank up against the door-post and waited. Finally the wails subsided a little, and she knocked again, doubling up her little bony fist and pounding with all her might. Presently there were straggling steps and a little tumult of voices in the entry, and the door was opened.

The minister's wife, with a baby in her arms, the back of the little downy head shining in the hollow of her shoulder, a fat baby boy in petticoats clinging to her hand pulling her back, and a baby girl sitting on the floor hitching herself along behind.

“Why, good-morning, Mrs. Easty,” said the minister's wife. Her face was all sharp pallor; the outlines seemed transparent. She had been a beautiful girl; her beauty was all gone, but she smiled as if she had forgotten it.

“Good-mornin',” returned Mrs. Easty. “I thought I'd bring you over a few eggs. I didn't know but you'd like 'em. I knew you didn't keep hens.”

The minister's wife thanked her radiantly. “Do come in, won't you, Mrs. Easty?” said she.

Mrs. Easty hesitated. Her face flushed. “Is the minister busy?”

“I don't think he's too busy to see you, Mrs. Easty. Do come in.”

Mrs. Easty stepped inside the entry, murmuring something about Seth's being busy haying and not able to come himself. It seemed to her that her conscience was actually throbbing against her bosom like her heart. She was deceiving the minister's wife, giving her to understand that she had come on business for her husband, the deacon, because he was busy.

The minister's wife threw open the door of a room on the left of the entry. “Here's Mrs. Easty, who would like to see you, Frank,” she called out, and immediately the baby girl on the floor began to cry again, and her brother followed. “The children are fractious this morning,” said the minister's wife, with an unfaltering smile, and she went away through the entry, the triumphant leader of a doleful chorus.

The minister came forward to the door and greeted Mrs. Easty. He was a small fair man with a down of blond beard on his cheeks, and looked much younger than his wife. He set a chair for his caller with mild courtesy.

“I hope the deacon is well to-day?” said he.

“He's pretty well, thank you.”

“Has he finished haying?”

“No, he 'ain't quite. He's to work in the seven-acre lot this mornin'.” Mrs. Easty caught her breath as she talked; her hands and arms tingled as if with cold.

The minister sat opposite her in a straight hair-cloth upholstered chair drawn back from the table where he had been writing. The table, with its litter of papers and books, was all that gave the room the air of a study. It was only a little square front parlor, furnished with the minister's wife's bridal presents. Her father had been well-to-do, and had given her a comfortable outfit when she married, and there had been also many gifts from parishioners, which were considered her due as minister's bride.

All the pretty chairs were ornamented with tidies, the tapestry-carpet was covered with rugs of many devices, and the walls with quaint conceits in the way of wall-pockets, gilded rolling-pins, dust-pans, worked Scripture mottoes, and painted silk banners. Scarfs waved from the pictures, and there were decorated ginger-jars and paper flowers on the shelf. The poor young minister, laboring with his sermons, might well have found it hard to abstract his thoughts from his surroundings, and have interwoven those tidies and picture-draperies with the hangings of the sacred temple.

Mrs. Easty sat straight up in her chair; behind her was a tidy so delicate that she dared not lean against it. “There's somethin' I wanted to speak to you about,” she whispered, hoarsely.

The minister leaned forward with ready query and sympathy.

“It's about Seth,” said she.

The minister nodded acquiescingly.

“He's got somethin' on his mind.” Mrs. Easty's voice grew shrill; she went on rapidly, as if her tongue were suddenly loosened. “I dun know what to do. He don't say nothin', but I know there's somethin' on his mind. He acts queer. He don't go to meetin', an' that most kills me. Then we've always been meetin'-folks, his folks an' mine, an' his in particular. Old Mis' Easty was a saint on earth; she'd 'a' crawled to meetin' on her hands an' knees. I dun know what she'd said if she'd knowed about Seth's stayin' away Sabbath after Sabbath. Nobody knows what I've suffered thinkin' about it, an' I've wondered what you've thought, an' him a deacon in the church. Then he 'ain't been to communion, an' he 'ain't been sick, an' he 'ain't been tired. Sometimes I've kinder hinted he was, but he 'ain't. There's somethin' on his mind.”

The minister listened with a grave, anxious expression. “When did you first notice this change in your husband?” he inquired.

“Jest about six months ago. I know jest when 'twas. He'd been on the cars to Powell to buy him a new hat — his old one had got so it didn't look hardly fit to wear to meetin' — an' when he come home he acted queer. He was kind of grouty, an' Seth 'ain't never been grouty. He'd got the hat too big, so it slipped 'way down over his ears, an' he seemed terrible mad about it. He said he believed the devil was in it, an' I told him he hadn't ought to use such expressions, an' him a deacon in the church, but it didn't do no good. I had to work the longest time to get him to go to Powell an' take that hat back an' change it; he acted as if he was scart to go. Finally when I did get him started I had a terrible time. When I put on his clean dicky, he said I stuck a pin in his neck, an' he said a word I never expected to hear him say, an' he wouldn't wear his tippet round his neck, an' it was a terrible cold day. Then when he'd got started he come back twice, an' I couldn't see what he'd come back for. His forehead was all screwed up, an' his mouth looked as if he'd gin up. He looked jest that way when he got home from Powell that night, an' he's looked so ever since. He got the hat changed for one that didn't fit him a mite better. I thought it was the same one, but he said it wa'n't. He didn't seem to care anything about it, an' he 'ain't been to meetin', so it didn't make no difference. The hat's a-settin' in the parlor-closet now. I dun know what to do. Some days he don't scarcely speak, an' he sets up till twelve o'clock at night figgerin'.”


“Yes; he sets there with a slate a-figgerin' for hours an' hours, when he'd ought to be in bed. An' then he has bad dreams, an' hollers out in the night. He's grown as thin as a rail. He don't eat 'nough to keep a cat alive. I dun know what to do.”

The minister looked across at her, bending his brows solemnly over his blue eyes.

“I needn't ask if you have carried this matter to the source of all strength, Mrs. Easty,” said he.

“Yes, I've prayed.”

“You have not the least suspicion as to what is preying upon his mind?” the minister said, reflecting.

“No, I 'ain't. Oh, Mr. Duncan, won't you go an' talk with him?”

“I have talked with him once.”

“Oh, what did he say?”

“He didn't say much of anything.”

“Oh, Mr. Duncan, won't you talk with him again? It does seem as if I couldn't have this go on so, nohow.”

“Will he be at home this evening?” asked the minister, hesitatingly.

“Yes, he'll be at home. He sets on the door-step after sundown mutterin' to himself, or else he sets in the settin'-room an' figgers.”

“I think I'll come over this evening,” said the minister. He looked as much disturbed as Mrs. Easty. He had not a dogmatic turn of mind, and dealing with refractory members of his flock was not easy for him. Nobody knew how timidly he had approached Deacon Seth Easty before. He privately resolved, as he accompanied Mrs. Easty to the door, that he would consult his wife about it.

Mrs. Easty hurried home. When she passed the hay field her husband was raking further from the road, and she was thankful. She felt like a hypocrite. She nodded to Mrs. Briggs, looking curiously out of her sitting-room window, and a deep flush covered her face in the green recesses of her sun-bonnet.

“What would she say if she knew?” she thought. “An' what would Seth say?”

That evening the minister came. Mrs. Easty had surreptitiously opened and aired the parlor, and she ushered him in there.

When she told Seth on the door-step that the minister was in the parlor and wanted to see him, he rose up and went through the sitting-room with dogged defiance, like a criminal to a sheriff. Mrs. Easty sat alone in the sitting-room, waiting and trembling. When the front door closed after the minister and her husband entered the room, she glanced anxiously up at him.

“It 'ain't done a mite of good,” she thought.

That night Seth sat up later than ever, hard at work with his pencil and slate, and his wife lay in bed, and wept softly, lest he should hear.

The next day was Sunday, and she hoped against hope that the minister's call had produced its good result, and Seth would go to church. She laid out his Sunday clothes and his clean shirt and collar ostentatiously on the bed, but Seth ignored them. When the bell began to ring she gave it up.

“He 'ain't even washed himself. He ain't goin',” she whispered, with a little sob, as she tied on her bonnet at the sitting-room glass. Seth was sitting moodily out in the kitchen, tilting back in one of the yellow wooden chairs.

Mrs. Easty felt as miserably forlorn and shamed with a helpless innocent shame as a jilted girl as she went alone down the road to meeting, but she jerked her meek chin upwards when she met Mrs. Briggs and her daughter.

“Ain't the deacon well to-day?” inquired Mrs. Briggs.

“I s'pose it ain't likely he is,” returned Mrs. Easty. “He's generally been to meetin' when he's been able his whole life.”

Mrs. Briggs eyed her warily. “Yes, I s'pose he has. I didn't mean nothin',” she said, and said no more except to remark about the beauty of the weather.

Indeed, it soon begun to be recognized among the village people that it was not wise for any one to say a word in disparagement of the deacon to his wife. She bristled all over with soft fierceness like a hen at the first insinuation against her husband; and as time went on it seemed as if Seth's goodness, in spite of the suspicion under which it lay, was augmenting in some respects. He had a little shoe-cobbling shop attached to his house, and there he had turned many an honest penny ever since he was a boy. He was the only cobbler in the village; he was a swift and skilful workman. Trade had been good, and he had asked fair prices. Perhaps a keen sense of the value of money had been the nearest approach to a fault in Seth Easty's nature. He had led a singularly innocent and blameless life. Born and bred in this same little house in this same little new England village, with a father who had ordered his life by the ten commandments, and a mother who was the synonyme for saintliness in the neighborhood, he had seemed as much the true and inevitable outcome of it all as the lilac-bushes in the front yard of the slips his grandfather had planted a hundred years ago. Life had brought out the same old virtues in him as the sun had brought out the same old colors in the lilacs.

The worst that had ever been whispered about Seth Easty was, “He's a little close.” But even that met with doubtful assent, for his closeness was so allied to justice that it was difficult to discriminate. If he asked a large price for a patch on a shoe, the patch was well and faithfully applied, and many held that his work was much better done than that of a cheaper cobbler in Powell.

Now Seth Easty, after his haying was finished, settled himself upon the sagging leather seat in his little shop and astonished the people by working cheaper than the cobbler in Powell, by working cheaper than ever cobbler had worked before.

When the wayside hedges seemed vanishing in blue smoke with asters, and the pasture slopes were gilded with golden-rod, did Seth Easty on his bench, through the September days, put patches on worn shoes, half-sole them, and sew them for almost nothing. The poorest body in the village could go tidily shod at such prices. One poor woman there was, indeed, who lived on such a tiny income that a feather's weight could empty her pocket. She would have gone without shoes for a month and staid indoors had it not been for Seth, who would not take a penny for the new soles. She went home, blessing him doubtfully, for such stories were afloat concerning him that she was almost afraid to go alone to his shop, and had made some excuse to induce Mrs. Easty to go in with her.

It was whispered that Deacon Easty — for his title still clung to him, although some one else bore it — had loaned money to Henry Sargent, whose house mortgage was about being foreclosed by a bank in Powell; and when the mission fund was suddenly and unaccountably swelled by a large sum, he was reputed to be the donor.

And, indeed, Seth Easty did many other good deeds of which he was not suspected, and which were all unwonted to him, from some new and hidden motive, perhaps in an attempt to overbalance with them that mysterious crime of which he was suspected, and of which he seemed to stand convicted in his own mind. Seth Easty, by inheritance and thrifty labor, possessed quite a comfortable little property, and was able to give somewhat; but he gave more than he was able, with a curious desperation which availed him nothing.

Seth's wife watched him with increasing terror as he became more and more of a problem to her. She did not know of all his generous deeds, but a few came of necessity to her knowledge, and fairly appalled her. She was naturally thrifty herself, and giving money outside of the annual allowance for missions was a virtue which shocked her like a sin, and especially when practised by her husband, for it made him seem abnormal to her. Looking at him sometimes, she fairly shivered with uncanny dread, for his face appeared strange to her, as if this strange new trait in his character showed out another man, like an awesome double of Seth Easty. She moved about her own house with a scared, wistful face, but she held up her head outside. She had always been so proud of Seth, and so proud of his being a deacon, but now she felt anxious lest he should be dethroned from his high office. She started whenever there was a knock on the door, lest a church committee might have come to wait upon her husband, and inquire into his non-attendance at church before proceeding to more stringent measures.

At last, one Wednesday afternoon in November, when there was a deep level of new snow stretching in flashing sheets of blue over the fields, the committee came. Mrs. Easty spied them when they first came in sight far down the road. She watched them, panting. “Who be them comin'?” she whispered. They advanced nearer and nearer. There were three men, plodding solemnly in single file in the middle of the snowy road. The two men behind stepped in the leader's tracks; their long black coats dipped in the snow, like the drooping tail feathers of black-birds. They frowned heavily as the snow threw back the white glare of the sunlight into their eyes.

“They've come!” gasped Mrs. Easty.

She rushed out to the little shop, where Set sat on his bench, his white head bent over his lapstone. He glanced up at her, then down again at his work.

“They've come!” she repeated.

Seth said nothing. He drove a peg into the sole of a shoe.

“They're most — to the door!”

Seth said nothing.

“Seth, you've got to see 'em. Oh, I knew it was comin'! I knew it was comin'!”

Seth's face was quite unmoved.

“They're knockin'!” his wife cried out. “Seth, you must come.”

Seth did not stir.

“They're knockin' again!” Mrs. Easty turned and went out with a desperate air. The iron clang of an old-fashioned knocker sounded through the little house. She went to the front door and opened it, and the three men stood there.

She tried to speak, but only gasped in their faces.

“Is your husband to home?” asked the oldest man in the party, who had an anxiously severe face, and was the other deacon.

“Yes. I think he's out in the shop.”

“We've come to see him a few minutes on a little business.”

Mrs. Easty stood aside; the three men stamped on the snowy door-step, and came in. She motioned them into the sitting-room.

“Take some chairs,” she said, faintly, “an' I'll speak to Seth.”

The deacon cleared his throat as he settled into the rocking-chair. “Considerable snowy out,” he remarked.

Mrs. Easty did not hear him. She went straight out of the room, shutting the door behind her, and to the shop again.

“They're in the settin'-room,” she said, briefly, standing before Seth. Then she went back to the kitchen and sat down.

Presently she heard the shop door opened and shut, and Seth entered. “You'd better brush your hair a little before you go in,” she said, in a strained voice.

Seth took a brush from the shelf and stood before the little glass.

His wife arose. “Hold your head down,” said she, and she smoothed his white hair in a broad sweep over the top of his head. Then she dusted his coat collar with her apron, and he went into the sitting-room.

Mrs. Easty sat in the kitchen and waited. She could hear the low rumble of male voices, but could not distinguish a word. It was an hour before she heard the front door shut, and Seth entered the room. She did not glance at him. She filled the teakettle from the water-pail in the sink, and he stood staring out of a window.

“Did they track in much snow?” she said finally, in a voice that had a stronger meaning than her words.

“I dun know whether they did or not.”

“I guess I'll carry in the dust-pan an' brush an' see; their feet were loaded with snow when they came in.”

Mrs. Easty went into the sitting-room with the dust-pan and brush, and Seth returned to his shop and bench. At supper he did not refer to the affair of the afternoon, and his wife did not; but her voice had inflections of tragedy when she asked him to pass his cup for more tea.

That evening there was a prayer-meeting, and Mrs. Easty went in spite of the snow. After the service the minister detained the people for a minute in order to thank, as he said, some unknown brother who had sent him an envelope containing a generous sum of money, which the needs of his little family made particularly acceptable.

There was a gentle murmur and stir among the people. The minister's wife's face was softly reddened under a new bonnet trimmed with blue plumes.

Mrs. Briggs pressed close to Mrs. Easty as they came out of church. “The minister's wife must have bought that new bonnet with them blue feathers with the money,” she whispered. “Who do you s'pose give it, Mis' Easty?”

“I dun know.”

“I can't imagine. I shouldn't have thought she'd wore it out to-night, snowy as 'tis. If any snow dropped on it from the trees it would jest spoil them blue feathers. I wonder how much money was in the envelope? I should think it must have been considerable, or they wouldn't have laid it out in new bonnets, with all the ways they've got for money. Their milk bill alone must eat up considerable. Who do you s'pose could have give that money?”

“I dun know,” replied Mrs. Easty, holding up her black skirts high, and wading painfully through the snow.

“Seth,” she said, timidly, when she got home, and was warming herself by the sitting-room air-tight, “ain't the interest on them bonds due now?”

“'Twas,” returned Seth, shortly.

“Have you drawn it?”

“Yes, I have.”

Mrs. Easty said no more, but she shivered over the hot stove. She knew well what measure that call of the church committee portended. Every Sunday now she sat in trembling expectancy lest the minister should announce a special meeting of the church members. At last it came. Mrs. Easty turned white, and her pulses beat in her ears. A woman behind her extended a fan over the back of the pew, punching her shoulder vigorously with the handle, but she had strength enough to shake her head. She stood up for the benediction, and went quite steadily down the aisle. People looked askance at her, she was so pale. Mrs. Briggs was beside her when she reached the door.

“Be you sick, Mis' Easty?” she whispered.

“No, I ain't sick.”

“You look white as a sheet.”

Mrs. Briggs put out her hand to steady her down the steps, but Mrs. Easty jerked herself away and went down alone with a weak rush.

Mrs. Briggs followed her closely, and they went up the street together. Mrs. Easty walked rapidly, with her delicate nose and chin pointing straight ahead. She never looked at her companion, who talked continually in a tone of veiled condolence. “I wonder what that special meetin' is called for?” said she.

Mrs. Easty made no response.

“I dun know what 'tis called for,” said Mrs. Briggs. “I don't see no need of anybody's bein' upset by it till they know.”

Mrs. Briggs kept glancing with a certain compulsory compassion at the other woman's pale face, but finally lack of response and an odd dignity in Mrs. Easty's bearing made her ruthless.

“Mis' Easty, I want to know, have you got any idea of what 'tis the deacon's done?” said she.

“I dun know as he's done anything,” replied Mrs. Easty, in a quick, strained voice.

“You don't s'pose it's anything about that hat he went over to Powell for? You don't s'pose he was kinder tempted, an' — took it?”

“I don't s'pose he took it any more'n you did. I don't s'pose he took it so much as your father used to take the neighbors' pease an' beans out of their gardens. I've heard my mother tell. You'd better not say much to me about Seth. I won't stan' it; I'm his wife.”

Mrs. Easty turned into her own gate, and her black skirts flung back defiantly like an enemy's flag. Mrs. Briggs stood still a second staring after her; her large florid face under her green-bowed bonnet looked vacant, her mouth gaped, then she kept on.

Mrs. Easty went straight into the house and into the kitchen. Seth sat there still in his week-day clothes. His wife stood before him, and he stared up at her. “They've called a special meetin',” said she, “an' you know what 'tis for.”

Seth looked up at her as if against his will.

“There's somethin' I want to say,” said his wife. “I don't know what you've done, but whatever 'tis, I'm goin' to stan' by you. I don't care if you've stole or committed murder, I ain't goin' to leave you. You needn't be afraid I am. There needn't anybody say anything again' you to me; I won't bear it. I'm goin' to stan' by you, Seth.”

It was very seldom that Mrs. Easty had ever caressed her husband. What she did now was so unusual as to seem abnormal. She went close to Seth, put her arm around his neck, drew his white head to her black-shawled bosom, and smoothed his hair. He hid his face against her, and groaned, “Oh dear! oh dear!”

Presently he raised his head, and pushed her away softly. “You'd better go an' take off your bonnet an' shawl, Milly,” he said, in a husky voice.

Mrs. Easty, taking off her Sunday bonnet in her bedroom, felt an enthusiasm of faithful love which was almost worth in itself more than she had suffered. “I don't care what they do; I don't care if they do turn him out,” she thought; “I don't care what he's done — I'm goin' to stan' by him, an' I won't hear a word again' him.”

Indeed, it soon began to be recognized among the village people that it was not wise for anybody to say a word, however veiled, in disparagement of the deacon before his wife. She would immediately bristle all over with soft fierceness like a hen. The special meeting was held, and Seth was suspended for a year from his office as deacon on account of his unexplained absence from the communion service and church. The next Sunday Mrs. Easty herself did not go to church. She was reading the Bible at her sitting-room window when the people went by. She held the leather-covered book well up before her face; but she saw, aside from the sacred text, Mrs. Briggs glance up at her wonderingly as she hurried past.

“Look if you want to,” Mrs. Easty thought. “You can't do nothin' to me if I do stay to home. I ain't deacon. I ain't goin' when my husband ain't good enough to go.”

Seth came into the room, bringing some wood for the stove. He looked at his wife in a perplexed way, to which she responded at once. “I thought I wouldn't go to-day,” she said, in a pleasant voice.

Seth's face flushed; he put a great chunk of wood in the stove. “Thought mebbe it wa'n't quite warm enough for you here,” he said, with a kind of tender gruffness.

People talked about Mrs. Easty for staying away from church, but nobody talked to her. Mrs. Briggs came in one afternoon, but she durst not allude to the matter uppermost in her mind. Something in Mrs. Easty's face intimidated her.

Seth sat up night after night and labored at his sums on the slate, wiping them out with a heavy hand, and doing them over and over; he cobbled almost gratuitously for his neighbors all day; but still the old care lay in his heart.

It was little more than a year after that visit to Powell, whence all the trouble dated, when, one Friday night, the night of the regular weekly prayer-meeting, Seth Easty and his wife appeared in the vestry. They came rather late. Everybody stared furtively when the door opened and they appeared in the warm light.

Seth advanced with a fairly martial air up the aisle; he wore a hat much too large for him, which slipped over his ears. His wife slid unwaveringly after him like his shadow. It was a cold night; her little face was all gray and shrunken from the bitter wind.

Seth took a seat near the centre of the room, and his wife crept in beside him. He did not remove his hat for a few minutes; then he suddenly slipped it from his head and slid it under the settee.

The meeting went on as usual. When the hour had expired, the minister requested the church members to remain for a little space. Then he pronounced the benediction, and the few who were not members flocked out.

When at length the vestry door was closed, and none but church members remained, there was a solemn hush. The minister sat behind his desk, with his hand over his eyes. A woman coughed sharply, then colored with confusion.

Seth Easty arose in his place. His wife sat stiff and straight, with a look on her face as if she were on the edge of creation and gazing out into space. He looked slowly around the vestry; then he cleared his throat and began, half panting, ending sentences with gasps for breath, but persistent, and never once faltering:

“Brothers and sisters in — the church: I stand here to-night to confess — what has been on my mind a whole year. I've tried to hold out, but I can't. I've tried to make out I 'ain't done wrong, but I can't. I've got to give in. I have staid away from the sanctuary and the communion table because I was a guilty man. I have tried to think I wasn't, but I was. I counted up all the good deeds I'd ever done, to excuse me, and I did more, but they only made my sin look blacker. I tried to cover up dishonesty with honesty. I calculate I've put near five hundred dollars on to cover up a quarter of a dollar; but I tell you, brothers and sisters in the church, that quarter has heaved up over everything, like the body of a man that's been murdered. I couldn't make it stay — covered up.

“I have figgered on the slate night after night, and tried to make out I hadn't cost the railroad company nothin', and didn't owe them nothin'. I figgered up the wear and tear I'd done on the rails — and the car fixin's — goin' once to Powell, and I made it out a little less than nothin'.

“But it wasn't less than nothin'. There was a sin in it, brothers and sisters, that made it cost me heavy, and wore out more than steel rails and red velvet cushions. It was — the sin — that's been doggin' me — my whole life, and — come up behind me — then — so little — I didn't scarcely know it. But it was the sin, brothers and sisters! It was the sin!”

Seth's voice ended in a broken cry. He cast a curious backward glance over his right shoulder, and the eyes of the people followed his with a strange horror in theirs. It was as if they fairly expected to see embodied in some small fiendish guise Seth Easty's tempter.

Seth went on again. “I've had to give it up,” he cried out. “I've stopped — figgerin' — and tryin' to make out I 'ain't — done nothin' wrong, and tryin' to make the good outbalance the bad. This mornin' — I sent off — a quarter of a dollar, and five cents extra for a year's interest, to the railroad company, and now — I'm goin' to confess.”

Seth fairly gasped for breath. Suddenly his wife stood up beside him. He began again, and his voice was like a hoarse sobbing that filled the whole vestry; it did not sound like his own; it was hardly a human voice, and the words struck the ear almost like those of a strange tongue. His wife's lips moved as his did, as if she also were confessing his sin, although she made no sound. Her little face took on a strange likeness to her husband's as she stood there.

“A year ago,” Seth sobbed out, “I — went to Powell to — buy a hat.” Seth reached down, took his hat from under the seat, and extended it. “It was — too big for me, as — this one is.” Seth put on the hat with trembling hands, and it slipped well down over his ears; he kept it on in his forgetful excitement, and continued: “I — bought the hat at — C. F. Lamson's store, and — I — started for home on the railroad train. I had my ticket all bought, and had paid a quarter for it. I wasn't intendin' to do wrong. But the conductor — he — never come near me. I had the ticket ready, but he never come near me; and when I got home, I had that ticket, not punched nor nothin', and jest as good as ever 'twas. And — the hat was too big — it seemed as if the tempter was fairly crowdin' at my heels — and my wife said I'd have to take it back to Powell and — change; and she was at me till I did. I went over there in about a week; and I took the hat to C. F. Lamson's store, and changed it, and got this hat that's jest as big.” (Suddenly Seth remembered, and caught the hat from his head.) “But that ain't any matter. The matter is — that — when I come home from Powell that night, I come home on that ticket the conductor had forgot to take before, and I'd given in to the tempter.” Again Seth gave that curious backward glance over his shoulder, and the eyes of the people followed his. Then he made a strong backward sweep with his right arm, as if he were thrusting with some unseen and mighty sword of the spirit. His old voice rang out like a trumpet. “But I've got the better of him now,” he shouted. “He's been doggin' me my whole life to make me sin my besettin' sin, and at last he did it. But now I've got the better of him. Let us pray.”