To Hephzibah the world was a place of weary days and unrestful nights, and life was a thing of dishes that were never quite washed and of bread that was never quite baked—leaving something always to be done.
The sun rose and the sun set, and Hephzibah came to envy the sun. To her mind, his work extended from the first level ray shot into her room in the morning to the last rose-flush at night; while as for herself, there were the supper dishes and the mending-basket yet waiting. To be sure, she knew, if she stopped to think, that her sunset must be a sunrise somewhere else; but Hephzibah never stopped to think; she would have said, had you asked her, that she had no time.
First there was the breakfast for Theron and the hired man in the chill gray dawn of each day;—if one were to wrest a living from the stones and sand of the hillside farm, one must be up and at work betimes. Then Harry, Tom, and Nellie must be roused, dressed, fed, and made ready for the half-mile walk to the red schoolhouse at the cross-roads. After that the day was one blur of steam, dust, heat, and stifling fumes from the oven and the fat-kettle, broken always at regular intervals by meal-getting and chicken-feeding.
What mattered the blue of the heavens or the green of the earth outside? To Hephzibah the one was "sky" and the other "grass." What mattered the sheen of silver on the emerald velvet of the valley far below? Hephzibah would have told you that it was only the sun on Otter Creek down in Johnson's meadows.
As for the nights, even sleep brought little relief to Hephzibah; for her dreams were of hungry mouths that could not be filled, and of dirt-streaked floors that would not come clean.
Last summer a visitor had spent a week at the farm—Helen Raymond, Hephzibah's niece from New York; and now a letter had come from this same Helen Raymond, telling Hephzibah to look out for a package by express.
A package by express!
Hephzibah laid the letter down, left the dishes cooling in the pan, and went out into the open yard where she could look far down the road toward the village.
When had she received a package before? Even Christmas brought no fascinating boxes or mysterious bundles to her! It would be interesting to open it; and yet—it probably held a book which she would have no time to read, or a pretty waist which she would have no chance to wear.
Hephzibah turned and walked listlessly back to her kitchen and her dish-washing. Twelve hours later her unaccustomed lips were spelling out the words on a small white card which had come with a handsomely framed photograph:
The Angelus. Jean François Millet. 1859.
Hephzibah looked from the card to the picture, and from the picture back again to the card. Gradually an angry light took the place of the dazed wonder in her eyes. She turned fiercely to her husband.
"Theron, why did Helen send me that picture?" she demanded.
"Why, Hetty, I—I dunno," faltered the man, "’nless she—she—wanted ter please ye."
"Please me!—please me!" scoffed Hephzibah. "Did she expect to please me with a thing like that? Look here, Theron, look!" she cried, snatching up the photograph and bringing it close to her husband's face. "Look at that woman and that man—they're us, Theron,—us, I tell you!"
"Oh, come, Hetty," remonstrated Theron; "they ain't jest the same, yer know. She did n't mean nothin'—Helen did n't."
"Did n't mean nothing!" repeated Hephzibah scornfully; "then why did n't she send something pretty?—something that showed up pretty things—not just fields and farm-folks! Why did n't she, Theron,—why did n't she?"
"Why, Hetty, don't! She—why, she—"
"I know," cut in the woman, a bright red flaming into her cheeks. "’T was 'cause she thought that was all we could understand—dirt, and old clothes, and folks that look like us! Don't we dig and dig like them? Ain't our hands twisted and old and—"
"Hetty—yer ain't yerself! Yer—"
"Yes, I am—I am! I'm always myself—there's never anything else I can be, Theron,—never!" And Hephzibah threw her apron over her head and ran from the room, crying bitterly.
"Well, by gum!" muttered the man, as he dropped heavily into the nearest chair.
For some days the picture stayed on the shelf over the kitchen sink, where it had been placed by Theron as the quickest means of its disposal. Hephzibah did not seem to notice it after that first day, and Theron was most willing to let the matter drop.
It must have been a week after the picture's arrival that the minister made his semi-yearly call.
"Oh, you have an Angelus! That's fine," he cried, appreciatively;—the minister always begged to stay in Hephzibah's kitchen, that room being much more to his mind than was the parlor, carefully guarded from sun and air.
"'Fine'!—that thing!" laughed Hephzibah.
"Aye, that thing," returned the man, quick to detect the scorn in her voice; then, with an appeal to the only side of her nature he thought could be reached, he added:
"Why, my dear woman, 'that thing,' as you call it, is a copy of a picture which in the original was sold only a few years ago for more than a hundred thousand dollars—a hundred and fifty, I think."
"Humph! Who could have bought it! That thing!" laughed Hephzibah again, and changed the subject. But she remembered,—she must have remembered; for, after the minister had gone, she took the picture from the shelf and carried it to the light of the window.
"A hundred and fifty thousand dollars," she murmured; "and to think what I'd do with that money!" For some minutes she studied the picture in silence, then she sighed: "Well, they do look natural like; but only think what a fool to pay a hundred and fifty thousand for a couple of farm-folks out in a field!"
And yet—it was not to the kitchen shelf Hephzibah carried the picture that night, but to the parlor—the somber, sacred parlor. There she propped it up on the center-table among plush photograph-albums and crocheted mats—the dearest of Hephzibah's treasures.
Hephzibah could scarcely have explained it herself, but after the minister's call that day she fell into the way of going often into the parlor to look at her picture. At first its famous price graced it with a halo of gold; but in time this was forgotten, and the picture itself, with its silent, bowed figures, appealed to her with a power she could not understand.
"There's a story to it—I know there's a story to it!" she cried at last one day; and forthwith she hunted up an old lead-pencil stub and a bit of yellowed note-paper.
It was a long hour Hephzibah spent then, an hour of labored thinking and of careful guiding of cramped fingers along an unfamiliar way; yet the completed note, when it reached Helen Raymond's hands, was wonderfully short.
The return letter was long, and, though Hephzibah did not know it, represented hours of research in bookstores and in libraries. It answered not only Hephzibah's questions, but attempted to respond to the longing and heart-hunger Miss Raymond was sure she detected between the lines of Hephzibah's note. Twelve hours after it was written, Hephzibah was on her knees before the picture.
"I know you now—I know you!" she whispered exultingly. "I know why you're real and true. Your master who painted you was like us once—like us, and like you! He knew what it was to dig and dig; he knew what it was to work and work until his back and his head and his feet and his hands ached and ached—he knew! And so he painted you!
"She says you're praying; that you've stopped your work and 'turned to higher things.' She says we all should have an Angelus in our lives each day. Good God!—as if she knew!"—Hephzibah was on her feet now, her hands to her head.
"An Angelus?—me?" continued the woman scornfully. "And where? The dish-pan?—the wash-tub?—the chicken-yard? A fine Angelus, that! And yet"—Hephzibah dropped to her knees again—"you look so quiet, so peaceful, and, oh, so—rested!"
"For the land's sake, Hetty, what be you doin'? Have you gone clean crazy?"—It was Theron in the parlor doorway.
Hephzibah rose wearily to her feet. "Sometimes I think I have, Theron," she said.
"Well,"—he hesitated,—"ain't it 'most—supper-time?"
"I s'pose 'tis," she assented, listlessly, and dragged herself from the room.
It was not long after this that the picture disappeared from the parlor. Hephzibah had borne it very carefully to her room and hung it on the wall at the foot of her bed, where her eyes would open upon it the first thing every morning. Each day she talked to it, and each day it grew to be more and more a part of her very self. Not until the picture had been there a week, however, did she suddenly realize that it represented the twilight hour; then, like a flash of light, came her inspiration.
"It's at sunset—I'll go out at sunset! Now my Angelus will come to me," she cried softly. "I know it will!"
Then did the little hillside farmhouse see strange sights indeed. Each night, as the sun dropped behind the far-away hills, Hephzibah left her work and passed through the kitchen door, her face uplifted, and her eyes on the distant sky-line.
Sometimes she would turn to the left to the open field and stand there motionless, unconsciously falling into the reverent attitude now so familiar to her; sometimes she would turn to the right and pause at the brow of the hill, where the valley in all its panorama of loveliness lay before her; and sometimes she would walk straight ahead to the old tumble-down gate where she might face the west and watch the rose change to palest amber in the sky.
At first her eyes saw but grass, sky, and dull-brown earth, and her thoughts turned in bitterness to her unfinished tasks; but gradually the witchery of the summer night entered her soul and left room for little else. Strange faces, peeping in and out of the clouds, looked at her from the sky; and fantastic figures, clothed in the evening mist, swept up the valley to her feet. The grass assumed a deeper green, and the trees stood out like sentinels along the hilltop behind the house. Even when she turned and went back to the kitchen, and took upon herself once more the accustomed tasks, her eyes still faintly glowed with the memory of what they had seen.
"It do beat all," said Theron a month later to Helen Raymond, who was again a visitor at the farm,—"it do beat all, Helen, what's come over yer aunt. She used ter be nervous-like, and fretted, an' things never went ter suit. Now she's calm, an' her eyes kind o' shine—'specially when she comes in from one of them tramps of hers outdoors. She says it's her Angelus—if ye know what that is; but it strikes me as mighty queer—it do, Helen, it do!"
And Helen smiled, content.