A Town Guest
A Town Guest
BY JENNETTE LEE
"I DON'T see but what she'll hev to."
Asa Gardner rubbed his week's stub of beard and looked out of the window. He was the richest man in Tolland Centre. He was also a deacon in the Congregational church and visiting school committee and first selectman. It was as first selectman that he was called upon to dispose of Aunt Nancy Gibson. She was eighty-nine years old and a town pauper. "I don't see but what she'll hev to," repeated Asa, rubbing his chin uneasily.
His companion drummed with two fingers on the table. "She's too old to do any more work, ain't she?" he asked. He was a young man, perhaps thirty. He kept the village store, and was second selectman. He was in a hurry to get back to the store.
Asa looked at him mildly. "Yes, she's too old."
"Then she'd better go, wouldn't she? Sooner it's done the better. I'm going down that way in an hour or two. You might go along too and get it done with."
Asa reached out a detaining hand. He drew it back after a minute. "Yes, she'll hev to go," he said, with a gruff sigh.
The young man nodded. "I thought so. I'll be 'round. Good mornin'.—Good mornin', Mis' Gardner." He was passing through the wood-shed on his way to the yard.
The woman who stood at work at a table by the wall did not look up or speak. She wore a large calico sunbonnet, and she may not have heard him.
When the second selectman had disappeared down the long lane and through the gate, she stepped to the sitting-room door. "You there, Asa?"
A subdued response came from the room beyond. She went leisurely across.
"What you doin'?"
"Lookin' for my other coat."
"What you want it for?"
There was no response.
He came out thrusting his arms into the sleeves. His eyes carefully avoided the gray one under the sunbonnet, and they regarded him mildly. "What 'd Hiram Benson want?"
"Jest some town business," mumbled the deacon.
She nodded. "I thought so. Aunt Nancy Gibson, I s'pose."
"Yes," assented the deacon, helplessly.
She nodded again. "What's his idea?"
The deacon shuffled his feet. He was looking for the comb in its pocket against the wall. "She's too old to do any more work," he said, resentfully.
The deacon looked at her hopefully. "That's just it! Suthin's got to be done." His voice had a note of relief.
She continued to look at him mildly. "She's earned a home—and a good one," she said, non-committally.
The deacon drew the comb viciously through his shaggy locks. "Well, she hain't got it."
"No—but she will have." The tone was quiet and matter-of-fact.
The deacon eyed her suspiciously. "I can't find it for her," he said, throwing the comb back into the rack.
"Then the town 'll hev to," she responded. She was rocking gently in the big chair by the window, and her sunbonnet had fallen on the back of her neck.
Asa grunted. "Why didn't she ever save up anything?" he demanded.
She looked thoughtfully out of the window. "I don't see's she ever had much chance," she said, slowly, as if watching pictures on the smooth lawn. "She's allays been takin' care of somebody that was sick. There wa'n't no chance to get ahead."
"She's had her board and clothes for it," grumbled the deacon.
"Much as ever.—She's been a good nurse." She was looking at him inquiringly.
The deacon nodded. "First rate," he said, emphatically.
"An' a good nurse gets 's much as twenty dollar a week in the city, they say."
The deacon was looking at her, with his mouth a little open.
"She took care of you four weeks once."
The mild voice carried no hint. But the deacon's mouth closed swiftly. "There ain't no place for her," he said, stubbornly.
"She might board out the eighty dollars with us 'fore she goes on the town." She was looking at him, and the gray eyes were a little misty.
The deacon's face weakened. "Where'd she go after that?" he asked.
"There's the Downses. She took care of them, off and on, more'n a year, all told, I should think. And they're well off. They could have paid her as well as not."
"She wouldn't take no pay—not for going in neighborly like in sickness."
"She stayed weeks at a time." Mrs. Gardner straightened herself in her chair and looked at him keenly. "How'd you like it, Asa, just because you're the best farmer anywhere round, to be called on to nurse up all the poor, good-for-nothin' farms in the neighborhood?"
He shifted uneasily. Logic in a woman is unseemly; joined to imagination it is sometimes painful. Whenever his wife began, "How'd you feel if so and so," the deacon always changed the subject. It was not fitting that a deacon in the church should figure in the unseemliness of a woman's imagination.
"She has to have her pipe," he objected.
"They stood it when she could work."
"And she allays wants to come to the table."
"She came as long as she could work."
In the end the deacon gave in. Perhaps he had known all along that he should give in, and his objections were only a pleasant little manner of having his own way.
"Then you'll tell Hi Benson, will you?" asked his wife, rocking placidly.
"I'll tell him she won't need to go yet a while," responded the deacon, with slow caution.
His wife's gaze followed him approvingly as he left the house and crossed the yard to the barn. Then she rose and opened the door of a room off the kitchen. It was a small room, but the patchwork quilt on the bed was spotless, and the sun that poured in at the south window filled it with comfort. She crossed to the window and threw it up, straightening the muslin curtains with strong, competent fingers.
"It's a good place for her," she said, looking about and nodding. She went up to the back chamber and brought down a rocking-chair covered with calico roses, and a small, boxlike cricket, which she placed in front of the chair. As she straightened her back to survey it, a shadow crossed the window. The deacon drew rein in front of the window and looked in. She seated herself among the calico roses and smiled back at him.
"You want me to change them milk-pans?" he said, stolidly.
She started up. "Wait a minute, Asa. Don't go till I get 'em."
The deacon flicked the reins on the gray horse and smiled a little to himself.
She came out, with the pile of shining pans balanced skilfully on her arm. They glinted in the sun, and the deacon winked a little as he stowed them away on the seat beside him.
"Want the same kind, without seams, do you?" he said, gathering up the reins.
She nodded absently. The gray eyes were fixed on him anxiously. "You're goin' to bring her back, ain't you, Asa?"
He looked down on her from the wagon height and smiled imperturbably. "Wal, ef you can stan' it, I guess I can. The quicker she comes, the quicker she goes."
A smile irradiated the face looking up to him. She laid a hand on the sill of the open window and patted it a little. "We'll put her in here," she said.
The deacon nodded as he tightened on the reins. "All right. 'Twon't make no difference to me where you put her. She ain't my comp'ny."
The deacon's shoulders were as square and immovable as ever as he drove down the long lane; but his wife surveyed them proudly.
"He wouldn't ever 'a' done it," she said, with conviction. "There ain't a mean bone in his body."
Two hours later, when he returned, Aunt Nancy Gibson sat proudly beside him, her rusty crape veil floating in the wind. The veil was not mourning for any one. Aunt Nancy had never had any folks for that veil to mourn. The bonnet had descended to her from Mrs. Squire Halleck when she "took off" mourning: and Nancy, liking the look of the veil, had not removed it. So the Squire achieved a second lease of mourning, and Aunt Nancy had a sense of folks. Most of her joys and sorrows had been of this sort. She had brought other women's babies into the world and nursed them through all kinds of disease. She had cooked for them and sewed when sickness was slack; and at the end, after sixty years or more of life, she had laid them out, one by one, straight and quiet, and covered the looking-glass, and sat up with them through the lonely first night that must come to all of us when we leave the accustomed, pain-racked body and wander, strange and unfitted, in a new world, flitting through material objects without sound, and looking down upon that other body, lying still and mysterious, half in longing, half relief. Nancy had never felt the awe of it. It was all a part of having folks—that they should die and be laid out and have mourning worn for them. She was not a philosopher. But she was a terrible good hand in sickness. And for eighty-nine years she had followed the bent of her nature, not for money, but for love of doing.
Now, as she sat perched aloft on the wagon seat, her veil floating in the wind, she held herself, in spite of her eighty-nine years, erect and important.
Mrs. Gardner came to the door and looked out. "Wait a minute. Aunt Nancy; I'll bring a chair," she called out. "Stay right where you be, Mary Gardner. I don't need no cheer," responded Aunt Nancy. She clambered down over the wagon wheel and came around the back of the wagon, her head shaking a little with palsy, but her back held stiff and proud. She carried in one hand a large red handkerchief knotted at the corners, and in the other a loose newspaper bundle.
"Let me take it. Aunt Nancy," said her hostess, meeting her half-way down the flagged stones.
Aunt Nancy surveyed it suspiciously as she gave it up. "My second-best bunnit," she said.
The other nodded. "I'll be careful. Come right in here." She threw open the door of the little room. "I'm real glad Asa got you to come."
Aunt Nancy drew a large-checked apron from her pocket and fastened it in place, tying the bow in front with fingers that trembled a little. "Anybody sick?" she asked, looking up.
"No," said Mrs. Gardner. Her gray eyes, watching the trim, trembling little figure, had grown moist. "No; we're all pretty well. Aunt Nancy."
The old lady mounted a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles and looked at her sharply. "That's what Asa said," she commented. "I couldn't get much out of him, 'cept that you wanted me to come up for a while." The eyes behind the spectacles seemed looking out almost pleadingly.
Mrs. Gardner nodded. "Yes, we wanted you. We thought maybe you'd make us a little visit."
Aunt Nancy's fingers were hovering over the knotted handkerchief. She looked up quickly. "And not do anything?" she demanded.
Mrs. Gardner shook her head. "Not unless you want to," she said, lightly. "I don't know's you've ever been anywhere just for a visit. Have you?" she added.
The old woman looked up at her in perplexity. "I don't b'lieve I hev," she said, slowly. "But I guess I shall like it turrible well—when I get used to it. I'm real pleased you wanted me."
The sight of the compact, bent little figure measuring its holiday was too much for Mrs. Gardner, and she bustled suddenly from the room, calling back as she went. "Come out to dinner when you're ready, Aunt Nancy."
Seated at table, Aunt Nancy chewed very loud, and her false teeth clattered briskly. They were probably the one thing about her that was not second hand; though they would perhaps better have been. The local dentist who had made them for her had utilized bits and scraps of left-over material, with the natural but somewhat astonishing result that Aunt Nancy displayed on the left side of her smile an eye-tooth intended for Deacon Caleb Barton, and on the other one that had been ordered as a sample for young Mrs. Mills, but had been rejected for a more expensive kind. So far as beauty went, the result was not altogether inevitable; but for purposes of chewing there were none better in Tolland Centre, as Aunt Nancy took pains to demonstrate. She did it loudly and complacently.
Asa's eye caught his wife's. He himself was not perhaps a model as to table manners; but beside Aunt Nancy his gusto was that of an innocent snow-white lamb beside the big steam-thresher.
His wife avoided his piercing gaze, and heaped Aunt Nancy's plate with vegetables. Later, in the quiet of the wood-shed, she took him to task: "If we're goin' to have her at all, we've got to make her comfortable, and not be winkin' and noddin'."
The deacon looked a little guilty.
"I do' know's she chews any louder'n Aunt Persis, anyway."
"Mebbe she don't," said the deacon, meekly. Aunt Persis was on his side of the house. "Anyway"—he roused himself with a little spirit—"she ain't my comp'ny."
As for Aunt Nancy, guileless of offence, she seemed to renew her youth. She smoked her pipe in the chimney-corner, or sat with her prunella feet planted gently on the stove hearth, watching with calm eye the labors of others. "Putty hefty, ain't it?" she would cackle to the deacon, as, with a puff of relief, he deposited an armful of wood in the box; or, "Seems to me you're gettin' the rheumatiz a leetle, Mary," she would comment, as Mrs. Gardner rose stiffly from before the oven door.
"Like enough, Aunt Nancy,—like enough," Mrs. Gardner would respond, equably. The deacon made no response, unless more or less articulate grunts could be held to stand for such. For, as time went on, it became evident that Aunt Nancy's presence was not a joy to the deacon. He wished, beyond doubt, to do his duty by her. But he would have preferred to do it at somebody else's fireside. The deacon never smoked, and when he came into the kitchen and found it vacant of the trim, bent little figure, he would throw open the windows with an ostentatious "Phew!"
"I don't see's it smells any worse 'n it did the summer you had the typhoid," Mrs. Gardner commented, placidly.
And the deacon would retire, silent but hurt. If he had been a literary man, it would doubtless have been said that Aunt Nancy got on his nerves. As it was, he muttered to himself in the privacy of the barn that he "jest couldn't stummick it."
Aunt Nancy meanwhile grew chipper and young. She would pin a small plaided shawl about her shoulders and trip gayly down the road, announcing proudly at each house where she called that she was "visitin' a spell up to the Gardners."
Every one but Aunt Nancy was now in the secret, and a dozen homes were open to her. She brought back from each excursion her sheaf of invitations, proud as any girl at her coming-out ball. "The Simpsons ast me to-day," she would announce. "I told 'em I guessed I'd stay here a spell longer, till you got kinder tired of me."
"That's right, Aunt Nancy,—that's right," Mrs. Gardner responded, cheerily. "Don't let any one go to coaxing you away."
And Aunt Nancy would glow and bridle, and her false teeth would beat a soft accompaniment.
The deacon would perhaps glower and shuffle an impatient foot under the table. But a warning glance from his wife held him in check. "I don't see why in thunder you don't let her," he would grumble later in the depths of the wood-shed.
"There, there, Asa, I wouldn't talk like that! They wouldn't none of them be real good to her—not after the first. I can see that, plain as daylight. And I ain't goin' to have her feelin's hurt—not if I can help it. I've been thinkin' about it a good deal since she came—how she always took care of folks and never had good times herself; and 'tain't anything strange if she is a little queer about it, having her first good time when she's eighty-nine or so. I guess if you'd—"
"Yes, yes," said the deacon, hastily. "Like enough, like enough."
"And she took care of both ourn, when they was born and when they died—Willie and Freddie both."
The deacon cleared his throat and stalked to the door. "Looks like rain," he said. "Well, mother, hev it the way you want. I guess I can stan' it."
As winter came on, Aunt Nancy's brightness faded. It was as if Nature were avenging herself for the late flowering; and the little figure shrivelled perceptibly from day to day and dwindled among its calico flowers. The chair had been moved to the warm chimney-corner, and there Aunt Nancy hovered, smoking her pipe and cackling feebly in the warmth. Queer, wandering notions began to flit through her brain and mingle with her talk, and it went abroad through the village that Aunt Nancy Gibson was losing her mind. Some of the younger generation, who had known her only as a trembling old woman, said flippantly that she had never had any mind to lose. But their elders rebuked them; and sober-faced women in shawls made their way up the snowy lane to Deacon Gardner's, carrying a bowl of jelly or a bit of chicken to Aunt Nancy. There seemed to have come to Tolland Centre a belated sense that the laborer is worthy of his hire.
Aunt Nancy in her chimney-corner received the gifts in state, and cackled merrily. Sometimes she chatted a little with her guests or recited poetry for them—old rhymes that had come creeping back out of the past and beguiled the hours for her. It was a sight not to be forgotten to have seen her there among her roses, her pipe held aloft in her trembling hand, reciting:
"Now you're married, you must obey."
"Said the blackbird to the crow.
'If you ain't black, then I don't know;
For ever since old Adam was born,
You've been accused of stealing corn.'
Fly to the east and fly to the west.
And fly to the girl that you like best:
Fly to the north and fly to the south.
And fly to the girl with the sugar in her mouth."
At the word sugar, pronounced with long-drawn succulent sweetness, the pipe would return with a flourish to her lips, and Aunt Nancy would draw a slow, restful puff, peering over the top of the bowl with eyes that twinkled and blinked.
The neighbors listened patiently and blankly, and went away saying to each other that it must be a dreadful chore to take care of her. Sometimes they said it to Mrs. Gardner. But she declared stoutly that Aunt Nancy was no trouble at all—not near so much as a baby; and that her mind some days was real peart—as good as anybody's mind. And the neighbors, suspecting perhaps an unkind reference to facts in the babies, changed the subject. Among themselves they said that anybody'd think Mary Gardner owned Aunt Nancy, the way she hung on to her and never let other folks do for her.
But by the time spring had passed into summer even Mary Gardner was forced to admit that Aunt Nancy's mind was touched a little. Her chair had been moved back to the bedroom by the window; and there she sat all day, among her calico roses, nodding feebly to the white ones that peeped in at the open window, and mumbling quietly to herself.
Asa Gardner, as he passed and repassed the window, would throw in jovial remarks, over which the old head nodded and wagged gently. For as weakness overtook Nancy, the deacon's antipathy seemed to drop from him. Not Mrs. Gardner herself was more intent on seeing that Aunt Nancy's last days were happy ones.
It was in haying-time, as he was bumping along on the mowing-machine toward the south meadow, that he drew rein one morning at the rose-framed window. "Mornin', Aunt Nancy," he called out, cheerily.
The old eyes blinked at him, and Aunt Nancy's wrinkled hand went up to shield them from the sun as she peered out into the June day. "Mornin', Josiah," she cackled, feebly.
"Ready to go hayin' this mornin'?" said the deacon, jocosely.
"Not this mornin', Josiah, not this mornin', not this mornin',—not—this —mornin'—" Her head was nodding over the sill.
The deacon chuckled a little to himself, and the mowing-machine rattled away down the lane. "Josiah?" he said to himself, bumping and jouncing comfortably on the iron seat,—"Josiah?—That must be Josiah Hadley—him that kep' comp'ny with her as a girl. How long ago was it? Fifty years—sixty—no, seventy; Lord! yes, seventy years ago, and more. Now that's curus;" and the deacon jolted on to the south meadow.
Whether he was pondering on Aunt Nancy and Josiah and grew careless of his reins, or whether the gray mare stepped in a hornet's nest, or what happened, no one will know. . . . There was a sudden sound of running and shouting, a hurrying of white-sleeved figures across the meadow, and a hush of awe and terror on the beating June day.
Aunt Nancy leaned from her window as the staggering procession came up the long lane. Her blinking eyes fixed them selves on the white board they carried and on the limp figure huddled together on it. Blood stained the white shirt and dripped a little from the board. It lay in clots on the relaxed hand.
The vital color seemed to leap at the bleared eyes and strike them. The old woman sank back, covering them with her hand. Her breath sobbed a little. When she took down the hand her eyes were clear. A sane light glowed in them as she stepped quickly across to the kitchen and took down the big shears hanging by the chimney-shelf and turned to confront the men at the door.
"Take him in here," she said. She had thrown open the door of the best bedroom, and stood waiting.
They hesitated a second. Across the room Mary Gardner had fainted. Her gray-white face framed in its sunbonnet looked out at them blankly.
"In here," repeated Aunt Nancy. There was an accent of impatience in the cracked voice.
Lumberingly they obeyed her, stooping to lift the figure that lay huddled on the board.
"Don't tech him," said Aunt Nancy, sharply. "You'll kill him. Take it up, I tell ye!"
They lifted the board, looking at each other a little askance, and hesitating again at the smooth, white bed.
"Lift him over, can't ye?" she said, impatiently. The shears clicked in her hand.
"You don't want to turn back the spread, do you, Aunt Nancy?" It was Hiram Benson that whispered, deprecatingly. He knew what Mrs. Gardner paid for the spread. It was a handsome one.
"Lay him down, I tell ye." Aunt Nancy's eyes leaped at him and back to the limp figure. "Don't I tell ye there ain't a minit to lose— Jest as he is—board and all— There! Keerful—keerful!"
Slowly the board descended on the white spread, and Aunt Nancy's shears were at work, clipping, cutting, laying back folds of cloth—directing and scolding: "Out of the way, all of ye. Give him air, can't ye? Hi Benson can stay. The rest of ye clear out, every one of ye— Go tend to Mis' Gardner. Open that drawer, Hiram—the one behind ye— That's it. Now that sheet—the top one—linen. Tear it up. So— Keerful, now— Help me slide this under— That's good. Now hold tight— Keerful— Keerful—"
A faint moan came from the mangled figure.
Aunt Nancy glanced sharply at the white face. "That's good," she muttered. The sinews in her tough little hands stood out as she drew another bandage and fastened it in place.
She straightened herself with a long breath. "There, that's all we can do till the doctor comes. He won't bleed to death now. Jest git a bowl of water and bathe his face a mite, and hev some whiskey ready against the doctor wants it." She turned toward the door, groping a little. A subtle change had come over her face. A veil was descending, shutting out the light. Mary Gardner, coming in the door, looked at her sharply.
"It's all, Mary," cackled Aunt Nancy.—"all right, you know. So— 'Now you're married you must obey, You must be kind in all you say. You must be kind, you must be good, And make your husband chop the wood.'—Yes, yes— Make your husband chop the wood." The old voice trailed feebly away, crooning and chattering to itself.
When the doctor came there was much to be done. But he did not hesitate to say that had it not been for Aunt Nancy there would have been nothing. Asa would have slipped beyond their reach long before help could have come.
But Aunt Nancy, crooning in her rose-framed window, knew nothing of glory or of skill; and when, three weeks later, Asa, white and shaking, crept in to thank her, she greeted him with charming irrelevance. When he tried to explain to her what she had done for him, she looked up slowly with something like intelligence in the old eyes.
"I'm real glad I was here to do it for ye, Josiah," she said, simply.
That night another guest came to the deacon's house. He did not stay so long as Aunt Nancy had, and he made no sound. But when he crossed the floor and touched Aunt Nancy and whispered to her, she opened her eyes for a moment to look at him. Then, with the lightest breath, she fell into a deep, quiet sleep.