Two Friends

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XX No. 26 (June 25, 1887)

“I wish you'd jest look down the road again, Mis' Dunbar, an' see if you see anything of Abby comin'.”

“I don't see a sign of her. It's a real trial for you to be so short-sighted, ain't it, Sarah?”

“I guess it is. Why, you wouldn't believe it, but I can't see anybody out in the road to tell who 'tis. I can see somethin' movin', an' that's all, unless there's somethin' peculiar about 'em that I can tell 'em by. I can always tell old Mr. Whitcomb — he's got a kind of a hitch when he walks, you know; an' Mis' Addison White always carries a parasol, an' I can tell her. I can see somethin' bobbin' overhead, an' I know who 'tis.”

“Queer, ain't it, how she always carries that parasol? Why, I've seen her with it in the dead of winter, when the sun was shinin', an' 'twas freezin' cold; no more need of a parasol —”

“She has to carry it to keep off the sun an' wind, 'cause her eyes are weak, I s'pose.”

“Why, I never knew that.”

“Abby said she told her so. Abby giggled right in her face one day when she met her with it.”

“She didn't!”

“She did — laughed right out. She said she couldn't help it nohow: you know Abby laughs terrible easy. There was Mis' White sailin' along with her parasol h'isted, she said, as fine as a fiddle. You know Mis' White always walks kind of nippin' anyhow, an' she's pretty dressy. An' then it was an awful cold, cloudy day, Abby said. The sun didn't shine, an' it didn't storm, an' there wa'n't no earthly use for a parasol anyway, that she could see. So she kind of snickered. I s'pose it struck her funny all of a sudden. Mis' White took it jest as quick, Abby said, an' told her kind of short that her eyes were terrible weak, an' she had to keep 'em shaded all the time she was outdoors; the doctor had give her orders to. Abby felt pretty streaked about it. You don't see her comin' yet, do you?”

“No, I don't. I thought I see somebody then, but it ain't her. It's the Patch boy, I guess. Yes, 'tis him. What do you think of Abby, Sarah?”

“Think of Abby! What do you mean, Mis' Dunbar?”

“Why, I mean, how do you think she is? Do you think her cough is as bad as 'twas?”

Sarah Arnold, who was a little light woman of fifty, thin-necked and round-backed, with blue protruding eyes in her tiny pale face, pursed up her mouth and went on with her work. She was sewing some red roses on to a black lace bonnet.

“I never thought her cough was very bad anyhow, as far as I was concerned,” said she, finally.

“Why, you didn't? I thought it sounded pretty bad. I've been feelin' kind of worried about her.”

“'Tain't nothin' in the world but a throat cough. Her mother before her used to cough jest the same way. It sounds kind of hard, but 'tain't the kind of cough that kills folks. Why, I cough myself half the time.”

Sarah hacked a little as she spoke.

“Old Mis' Vane died of consumption, didn't she?”

“Consumption! Jest about as much consumption as I've got. Mis' Vane died of liver complaint. I guess I know. I was livin' right in the house.”

“Well, of course you'd be likely to know. I was thinkin' that was what I'd heard, that was all.”

“Some folks did call it consumption, but it wa'n't. See anything of Abby?”

“No, I don't. You ain't worried about her, are you?”

“Worried? — no. I ain't got no reason to be worried that I know of. She's old enough to take care of herself. All is, the supper table's been settin' an hour, an' I don't see where she is. She jest went down to the store to git some coffee.”

“It's kind of damp to-night.”

“'Tain't damp enough to hurt her, I guess, well as she is.”

“Mebbe not. That's a pretty bonnet you're makin'.”

“Well, I think it's goin' to look pretty well. I didn't know as 'twould. I didn't have much to do with.”

“I s'pose it's Abby's.”

“Course it's Abby's. I guess you wouldn't see me comin' out in no such bonnet as this.”

“Why, you ain't any older than Abby, Sarah.”

“I'm different-lookin',” said Sarah, with a look which might have meant pride.

The two women were sitting on a little piazza at the side of the story-and-a-half white house.

Before the house was a small green yard with two cherry-trees in it. Then came the road, then some flat green meadow-lands where the frogs were singing. The grass on these meadows was a wet green, and there were some clumps of blue lilies which showed a long way off in it. Beyond the meadows was the southwest sky, which looked low and red and clear, and had birds in it. It was seven o'clock of a summer evening.

Mrs. Dunbar, tall and straight, with a dark, leathery face whose features were gracefully cut, sat primly in a wooden chair, which was higher than Sarah's little rocker.

“I know Abby looks well in 'most everything,” said she.

“I never saw her try on anything that she didn't look well in. There's good-lookin' women, but there ain't many like Abby. Most folks are a little dependent on their bonnets, but she wa'n't, never. Sky blue or grass green, 'twas all one; she'd look as if 'twas jest made for her. See anything of her comin'?”

Mrs. Dunbar turned her head, and her dark profile stood out in the clear air. “There's somebody comin', but I guess it ain't — Yes, 'tis, too. She's comin'.”

“I can see her,” said Sarah, joyfully, in a minute.

“Abby Vane, where have you been?” she called out.

The approaching woman looked up and laughed. “Did you think you'd lost me?” said she, as she came up the piazza step. “I went into Mis' Parson's, an' I staid longer'n I meant to. Agnes was there — she'd jest got home — an' —” She began to cough violently.

“You hadn't ought to give way to that ticklin' in your throat, Abby,” said Sarah, sharply.

“She'd better go into the house out of this damp air,” said Mrs. Dunbar.

“Land! the air won't hurt her none. But mebbe you had better come in, Abby. I want to try on this bonnet. I wish you'd come too, Mis' Dunbar. I want you to see if you think it's deep enough in the back.”

“There!” said Sarah, after the three women had entered, and she had tied the bonnet on to Abby's head, picking the bows out daintily.

“It's real handsome on her,” said Mrs. Dunbar.

“Red roses on a woman of my age!” laughed Abby. “Sarah's bound to rig me up like a young girl.”

Abby stood in the little sitting-room before the glass. The blinds were wide open to let the evening light in. Abby was a large, well-formed woman. She held her bonneted head up, and drew her chin back with an air of arch pride. The red roses bloomed meetly enough above her candid, womanly forehead.

“If you can't wear red roses, I don't know who can,” said Sarah, looking up at her with pride and resentment. “You could wear a white dress to meetin' an' look as well as any of 'em.”

“Look here, where did you git the lace for this bonnet?” asked Abby, suddenly. She had taken it off and was examining it closely.

“Oh, 'twas some I had.”

“See here, you tell the truth now, Sarah Arnold. Didn't you take this off your black silk dress?”

“It don't make no odds where I took it from.”

“You did. What made you do it?”

“'Tain't worth talkin' 'bout. I always despised it on the dress.”

“Why, Sarah Arnold! That's jest the way she does,” said Abby to Mrs. Dunbar. “If I didn't watch her, she wouldn't leave herself a thing to put on.”

After Mrs. Dunbar had gone, Abby sat down in a large covered rocking-chair and leaned her head back. Her eyes were parted a little, and her teeth showed. She looked ghastly all at once.

“What ails you?” said Sarah.

“Nothin'. I'm a little tired, that's all.”

“What are you holdin' on to your side for?”

“Oh, nothin'. It ached a little, that's all.”

“Mine's been achin' all the afternoon. I should think you'd better come out an' have somethin' to eat; the table's been settin' an hour an' a half.”

Abby rose meekly and followed Sarah into the kitchen with a sort of weak stateliness. She had always had a queenly way of walking. If Abby Vane should fall a victim to consumption some day, no one could say that she had brought it upon herself by non-observance of hygienic rules. Long miles of country road had she traversed with her fine swinging step, her shoulders thrown well back, her head erect, in her day. She had had the whole care of their vegetable garden, she had weeded and hoed and dug, she had chopped wood and raked hay, and picked apples and cherries.

There had always been a settled and amicable division of labor between the two women. Abby did the rough work, the man's work of the establishment, and Sarah, with her little, slim, nervous frame, the woman's work. All the dress-making and millinery was Sarah's department, all the cooking, all the tidying and furbishing of the house. Abby rose first in the morning and made the fire, and she pumped the water and brought the tubs for the washing. Abby carried the purse, too. The two had literally one between them — one worn black leather wallet. When they went to the village store, if Sarah made the purchase, Abby drew forth the money to pay the bill.

The house belonged to Abby; she had inherited it from her mother. Sarah had some shares in the village bank, which kept them in food and clothes.

Nearly all the new clothes bought would be for Abby, though Sarah had to employ many a subterfuge to bring it about. She alone could have unravelled the subtlety of that diplomacy by which the new cashmere was made for Abby instead of herself, by which the new mantle was fitted to Abby's full, shapely shoulders instead of her own lean, stooping ones.

If Abby had been a barbarous empress, who exacted her cook's head as a penalty for a failure, she could have found no more faithful and anxious artist than Sarah. All the homely New England recipes which Abby loved shone out to Sarah as if written in letters of gold. That nicety of adjustment through which the appetite should neither be cloyed by frequency nor tantalized by desire was a constant study with her. “I've found out just how many times a week Abby likes mince-pie,” she told Mrs. Dunbar, triumphantly, once. “I've been studyin' it out. She likes mince-pie jest about twice to really relish it. She eats it other times, but she don't really hanker after it. I've been keepin' count about six weeks now, an' I can tell pretty well.”

Sarah had not eaten her own supper to-night, so she sat down with Abby at the little square table against the kitchen wall. Abby could not eat much, though she tried. Sarah watched her, scarcely taking a mouthful herself. She had a trick of swallowing convulsively every time Abby did, whether she was eating herself or not.

“Ain't goin' to have any custard pie?” said Sarah. “Why not? I went to work an' made it on purpose.”

Abby began to laugh. “Well, I'll tell you what 'tis, Sarah,” said she, “near's I can put it: I've got jest about as much feelin' about takin' vittles as a pillow-tick has about bein' stuffed with feathers.”

“Ain't you been eatin' nothin' this afternoon?”

“Nothin' but them few cherries before I went out.”

“That was jest enough to take your appetite off. I never can taste a thing between meals without feelin' it.”

“Well, I dare say that was it. Any of them cherries in the house now?”

“Yes; there's some in the cupboard. Want some?”

“I'll git 'em.”

Sarah jumped up and got a plate of beautiful red cherries and set them on the table.

“Let me see, these came off the Sarah-tree,” said Abby, meditatively. “There wa'n't any on the Abby one this year.”

“No,” said Sarah, shortly.

“Kind of queer, wa'n't it? It's always bore, ever since I can remember.”

“I don't see nothin' very queer about it. It was frost-bit that cold spell last spring; that's all that ails it.”

“Why, the other one wa'n't.”

“This one's more exposed.”

The two round, symmetrical cherry-trees in the front yard had been called Abby and Sarah ever since the two women could remember. The fancy had originated somehow far back in their childhood, and ever since it had been the “Abby-tree” and the “Sarah-tree.” Both had borne plentifully until this season, when the Abby-tree displayed only her fine green leaves in fruit-time, and the Sarah-tree alone was rosy with cherries. Sarah had picked some that evening, standing primly on a chair under the branches, a little basket on her arm, poking her pale inquisitive face into the perennial beauties of her woody namesake. Abby had been used to picking cherries after a more vigorous fashion, with a ladder, but she had not offered to this season.

“I couldn't git many — couldn't reach nothin' but the lowest branches,” said Sarah to-night, watching Abby eat the cherries. “I guess you'd better take the ladder out there to-morrow. They're dead ripe, an' the birds are gittin' 'em. I scared off a whole flock to-day.”

“Well, I will if I can,” said Abby.

“Will if you can! Why, there ain't no reason why you can't, is there?”

“No, not that I know of.”

The next morning Abby painfully dragged the long ladder around the house to the tree, and did her appointed task. Sarah came to the door to watch her once, and Abby was coughing distressingly up amongst the green boughs.

“Don't give up to that ticklin' in your throat, for pity's sake, Abby,” she called out.

Abby's laugh floated back in answer, like a brave song, from the tree.

Presently Mrs. Dunbar came up the path; she lived alone herself, and was a constant visitor. She stood under the tree, tall and lank and vigorous in her straight-skirted brown cotton gown.

“For the land sake, Abby! you don't mean to say you're pickin' cherries?” she called out. “Are you crazy?”

“Hush!” whispered Abby, between the leaves.

“I don't see why she's crazy,” spoke up Sarah; “she always picks 'em.”

“You don't catch me givin' up pickin' cherries till I'm a hundred,” said Abby, loudly. “I'm a regular cherry bird.”

Sarah went into the house soon, and directly Abby crawled down the ladder. She was dripping with perspiration, and trembling.

“Abby Vane, I'm all out of patience,” said Mrs. Dunbar.

Abby sank down on the ground. “It's this cherry bird's last season,” said she, with a pathetic twinkle in her eyes.

“There ain't no sense in your doin' so.”

“Well, I've picked enough for a while, I guess.”

“Give me that other basket,” said Mrs. Dunbar, harshly, “an' I'll go up an' pick.”

“You can pick some for yourself,” coughed Abby.

“I don't like 'em,” said Mrs. Dunbar, jerking herself up the ladder. “Git up off the ground, an' go in.”

Abby obeyed without further words. She sat down in the sitting-room rocker, and leaned her head back. Sarah was stepping about in the kitchen, and did not come in, and she was glad.

In the course of a few months this old-fashioned chair, with its green cushion, held Abby from morning till night. She did not go out any more. She had kept about as long as she could. Every summer Sunday she had sat smartly beside Sarah in church, with those brave red roses on her head. But when the cold weather came her enemy's arrows were too sharp even for her strong mail of love and resolution.

Sarah's behavior seemed inexplicable. Even now that Abby was undeniably helpless, she was constantly goading her to her old tasks. She refused to admit that she was ill. She rebelled when the doctor was called. “No more need of a doctor than nothin' at all,” she said.

Affairs went on so till the middle of the winter. Abby grew weaker and weaker, but Sarah seemed to ignore it. One day she went over to Mrs. Dunbar's. One of the other neighbors was sitting with Abby. Sarah walked in suddenly. The outer door opened directly in Mrs. Dunbar's living-room, and a whiff of icy air came in with her.

“How's Abby?” asked Mrs. Dunbar.

“'Bout the same.” Sarah stood upright, staring. She had a blue plaid shawl over her head, and she clutched it together with her red bony fingers. “I've got something on my mind,” said she, “an' I've got to tell somebody. I'm goin' crazy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Abby's goin' to die, an' I've got something on my mind. I 'ain't treated her right.”

“Sarah Arnold, do, for pity's sake, sit down, an' keep calm!”

“I'm calm enough. Oh, what shall I do?”

Mrs. Dunbar forced Sarah into a chair, and took her shawl. “You mustn't feel so,” said she. “You've been just devoted to Abby all your life, an' everybody knows it. I know when folks die we're very apt to feel as if we hadn't done right by 'em, but there ain't no sense in your feelin' so.”

“I know what I'm talkin' about. I've got something awful on my mind. I've got to tell somebody.”

“Sarah Arnold, what do you mean?”

“I've got to tell.”

There was a puzzled look on the other woman's thin, strong face. “Well, if you've got anything you want to tell, you can tell it, but I can't think what you're drivin' at.”

Sarah fixed her eyes on the wall at the right of Mrs. Dunbar. “It begins 'way back when we was girls. You know I went to live with Abby an' her mother after my folks died. Abby an' me had always been together. You remember that John Marshall that used to keep store where Simmons is, about thirty year ago. When Abby was about twenty, he begun waitin' on her. He was a good-lookin' fellar, an' I guess he was smart, though I never took a fancy to him.

“He was crazy after Abby; but her mother didn't like him. She talked again' him from the very first of it, and wouldn't take no notice of him. She declared she shouldn't have him. Abby didn't say much. She'd laugh an' tell her mother not to fret, but she'd treat him pretty well when he came.

“I s'pose she liked him. I used to watch her, an' think she did. An' he kep' comin' an' comin'. All the fellars were crazy 'bout her anyhow. She was the handsomest girl that was ever seen, about. She'd laugh an' talk with all of 'em, but I s'pose Marshall was the one.

“Well, finally Mis' Vane made such a fuss that he stopped comin'. 'Twas along about a year before she died. I never knew, but I s'pose Abby told him. He went right off to Mexico. Abby didn't say a word, but I knew she felt bad. She didn't seem to care much about goin' into company, an' didn't act jest like herself.

“Well, old Mis' Vane died sudden, you know. She'd had the consumption for years, coughed ever since I could remember, but she went real quick at last, an' Abby was away. She'd gone over to her Aunt Abby's in Colebrook to stay a couple of days. Her aunt wa'n't well neither, an' wanted to see her, an' her mother seemed comfortable, so she thought she could go. We sent for her jest as soon as Mis' Vane was took worse, but she couldn't git home in time.

“So I was with Mis' Vane when she died. She had her senses, and she left word for Abby. She said to tell her she'd give her consent to her marryin' John Marshall.”

Sarah stopped. Mrs. Dunbar waited, staring.

“I 'ain't told her from that day to this.”


“I 'ain't never told what her mother said.”

“Why, Sarah Arnold, why not?”

“Oh, I couldn't have it nohow — I couldn't — I couldn't, Mis' Dunbar. Seemed as if it would kill me to think of it. I couldn't have her likin' anybody else, an' gittin' married. You don't know what I'd been through. All my own folks had died before I was sixteen years old, an' Mis' Vane was gone, an' she'd been jest like a mother to me. I didn't have nobody in the world but Abby. I couldn't have it so — I couldn't — I couldn't.”

“Sarah Arnold, you've been livin' with her all these years, an' been such friends, an' had this shut up in your mind. What are you made of?”

“Oh, I've done everything I could for Abby — everything.”

“You couldn't make it up to her in such a way as that.”

“She 'ain't seemed as if she fretted much, she 'ain't.”

“You can't tell nothin' by that.”

“I know it. Oh, Mis' Dunbar, have I got to tell her? Have I?”

Mrs. Dunbar, with her intent, ascetic face, confronted Sarah like an embodied conscience.

“Tell her? Sarah Arnold, don't you let another sun go down over your head before you tell her.”

“Oh, it don't seem as if I could.”

“Don't you wait another minute. You go right home now an' tell her, if you ever want any more peace in this world.”

Sarah stood gazing at her a minute, trembling. Then she pulled her shawl up over her head and turned toward the door.

“Well, I'll see,” said she.

“Don't you wait a minute!” Mrs. Dunbar called after her again. Then she stood watching the lean, pitiful figure slink down the street. She wondered a good many times afterward if Sarah had told; she suspected that she had not.

Sarah avoided her, and never alluded to the matter again. She fell back on her old philosophy. “'Tain't nothin' but Abby's goin' to git over,” she told people. “'Tain't on her lungs. She'll git up as soon as it comes warmer weather.”

She treated Abby now with the greatest tenderness. She toiled for her day and night. Every delicacy which the sick woman had ever fancied stood waiting on the pantry shelves. Sarah went without shoes and flannels to purchase them, though the chance that they would be tasted was small.

Every spare moment which she could get she sewed for Abby, and folded and hung away new garments which would never be worn. If Abby ventured to remonstrate, Sarah was indignant, and sewed the more; sitting up through long winter nights, she stitched and hemmed with fierce zeal. She ransacked her own wardrobe for material, and hardly left herself a whole article to wear.

Toward spring, when her little dividends came in, she bought stuff for a new dress for Abby — soft cashmere of a beautiful blue. She got patterns, and cut and fitted and pleated with the best of her poor country skill.

“There,” said she, when it was completed, “you've got a decent dress to put on, Abby, when you get out again.”

“It's real handsome, Sarah,” said Abby, smiling.

Abby did not die till the last of May. She sat in her chair by the window, and watched feebly the young grass springing up and the green film spreading over the tree boughs. Way over across in a neighbor's garden was a little peach-tree. Abby could just see it.

“Jest see that peach-tree over there,” she whispered to Sarah one evening. It was all rosy with bloom. “It's the first tree I've seen blowed out this year. S'pose the Abby-tree's goin' to blossom?”

“I guess so,” said Sarah; “it's leavin' out.”

Abby seemed to dwell on the blossoming of the Abby-tree. She kept talking about it. One morning she saw some cherry-trees in the next yard had blossomed, and she called Sarah eagerly.

“Sarah, have you looked to see if the Abby-tree's blossomed?”

“Of course it has. What's to hender?”

Abby's face was radiant. “Oh, Sarah, I want to see it.”

“Well, you wait till afternoon,” said Sarah, with a tremble in her voice. “I'll draw you round to the front-room door after dinner, an' you can look through at it.”

People passing that morning stared to see Sarah Arnold doing some curious work in the front yard. Not one blossom was there on the Abby-tree, but the Sarah-tree was white. It's delicate garlanded boughs stirred softly, and gave out a sweet smell. Bees murmured through them. Sarah had a ladder plunged into the roadward side of all this bloom and sweetness, and she was sawing and hacking at the white boughs. Then she would stagger across to the other tree with her arms full of them. They trailed on the green turf, they lay over her shoulders like white bayonets. All the air around her was full of flying petals. She looked like some homely Spring Angel. Then she bound these fair branches and twigs into the houseward side of the Abby-tree. She worked hard and fast. That afternoon one looking at the tree from the house would have been misled. That side of the Abby-tree was brave with bloom.

Sarah drew Abby in her chair a little way into the front room. “There!” said she.

“Oh! ain't it beautiful?” cried Abby.

The white branches waved before the window. Abby sat looking at it with a peaceful smile on her face.

When she was back in her old place in the sitting-room, she gave a bright look up at Sarah.

“It ain't any use to worry,” said she, “the Abby-tree is bound to blossom.”

Sarah cried out suddenly, “Oh, Abby! Abby! Abby! what shall I do! oh, what shall I do!” She flung herself down by Abby's chair, and put her face on her thin knees. “Oh, Abby! Abby!”

“Why, Sarah, you mustn't,” said Abby.

“I ain't goin' to,” said Sarah, in a minute. She stood up, and wiped her eyes. “I know you're better, Abby, an' you'll be out pretty soon. All is, you've been sick pretty long, an' it's kind of wore on me, an' it come over me all of a sudden.”

“Sarah,” said Abby, solemnly, “what's got to come has got to. You've got to look at things reasonable. There's two of us, an' one would have to go before the other one; we've always known it. It ain't goin' to be so bad as you think. Mis' Dunbar is comin' here to live with you. I've got it all fixed with her. She's real strong, an' she can make up the fires, an' git the water an' the tubs. You're fifty years old, an' you're goin' to have some more years to live. But it's just goin' to be gittin' up one day after another an' goin' to bed at night, an' they'll be gone. It can be got through with. There's roads trod out through everything, an' there's folks ahead with lanterns, as it were. You —”

“Oh, Abby! Abby! stop!” Sarah broke in. “If you knew all there was to it. You don't know — you don't know! I 'ain't treated you right, Abby, I 'ain't. I've been keepin' something from you.”

“What have you been keepin', Sarah?”

Then Abby listened. Sarah told. There had always been an arch curve to Abby's handsome mouth — a look of sweet amusement at life. It showed forth plainly toward the close of Sarah's tale. Then it deepened suddenly. The poor sick woman laughed out, with a charming, gleeful ring.

A look of joyful wonder flashed over Sarah's despairing face. She stood staring.

“Sarah,” said Abby, “I wouldn't have had John Marshall if he'd come on his knees after me all the way from Mexico!”