McClure's Magazine/Volume 4/The Takin' In of Old Mis' Lane
THE TAKIN' IN OF OLD MIS' LANE
By Ella Higginson.
"WELL, I guess I might 's well string them beans for dinner before I clean up," said Mrs. Bridges.
She took a large milkpan full of beans from the table, and sat down by the window.
"Isaphene," she said, presently, "what do you say to an organ an' a horse an' buggy—a horse with some style about him, that you could ride or drive, an' that 'u'd always be up when you wanted to go to town?"
"What do I say?" Isaphene was making a cake, and beating the mixture with a long-handled tin spoon. She had reddish-brown hair, that swept away from her brow and temples in waves so deep you could have lost your finger in any one of them; and good, honest, gray eyes, and a mouth that was worth kissing. She wore a blue cotton gown that looked as if it had just left the ironing table. Her sleeves were rolled to her elbows. She turned and looked at her mother as if she feared one of them had lost her senses; then she returned to the cake-beating with an air of good-natured disdain.
"Oh, you can smile an' turn your head on one side, but you'll whistle another tune before long, or I'll miss my guess. Isaphene, I've been savin' up chicken and butter money ever since we come to Puget Sound; then I've always got the money for the strawberry crop, an' for the geese an' turkeys, an' the calves, an' so on." Mrs. Bridges slopped, and, lowering her voice to a mysterious, whisper, "Somebody's comin'," she exclaimed.
"Who is it?" Isaphene stood up straight, with that little quick beating, of mingled pleasure and dismay, that the cry of "Company" brings to country hearts.
"I can't see. I don't want to be caught peepin'. I can see it's a woman, though; she's just passin' the row of chrysyanthums. Can't you stoop down an' peep? She won't see you 'way over there by the table."
Isaphene stooped, and peered cautiously through the wild cucumber vines that climbed over the kitchen window.
"Oh, it's Mis' Hanna!"
"My goodness! An' the way this house looks! You'll have to bring her out here in the kitchen, too. I s'pose she's come to spen' the day—she's got her bag, ain't she?"
"Yes. What'll we have for dinner? I ain't goin' to cut this cake for her, I want this for Sunday."
"Why, we've got corn' beef to boil, an' a head o' cabbage, an' these here beans; an' there's potatoes; an' watermelon perserves. An' you can make a custard pie. I guess that's a good enough dinner for her. There! She's knockin'! Open the door, can't you! Well, 'f I ever! Look at that grease spot on the floor!"
"Well, I didn't spill it."
"Who did, then, missy?"
"Well, I never."
Isaphene went to the front door, returning presently, followed by a tall, thin lady.
"Here's Mis' Hanna, maw," she said, with the air of having made a pleasant discovery. Mrs, Bridges got up, very much surprised to find who her visitor was, and, shook hands with exaggerated delight.
"Well, I'll declare! It's really you, is it? At last? Well, set right down an' take off your things. Isaphene, take Mis' Hanna's things. My! ain't it warm, walkin'?
"It is so." The visitor gave her bonnet to Isaphene, dropping her black mitts into it after rolling them carefully together. "But it's always nice an' cool in your kitchen." Her eyes wandered about with a look of unabashed curiosity that took in everything. "I brought my crochet with me."
"I'm glad you did. You'll have to excuse the looks o' things. Any news?"
"None perticular." Mrs. Hanna began to crochet, holding the work close to her face. "Ain't it too bad about poor old Mis' Lane?"
"What about her?" Mrs. Bridges snapped a bean into three pieces, and looked at her visitor with a kind of pleased expectancy, as if almost any news, however dreadful, would be welcome as a relief to the monotony of existence. "Is she dead?"
"No, she ain't dead; but the poor old creature 'd better be. She's got to go to the poor-farm, after all."
There was silence in the kitchen, save for the click of the crochet-needle and the snapping of the beans. A soft wind came in the window and drummed with the lightest of touches on Mrs. Bridges's temple. It brought all the sweets of the old-fashioned flower-garden with it—the mingled breaths of mignonette, stock, sweet lavender, sweet peas, and close pinks. The whole kitchen was filled with the fragrance. And what a big, cheerful kitchen it was! Mrs. Bridges contrasted it unconsciously with the poor-farm kitchen, and almost shivered, warm though the day was.
"What's her children about?" she asked, sharply.
"Oh, her children! "satd Mrs. Hanna, with a contemptuous air. "What does her children amount to, I'd like to know!"
"Her son's got a good comf'terble house an' farm."
"Well, what it he has? He got it with his wife, didn't he? An' M'lissy wont let his poor old mother set foot inside the house. I don't say as she is a pleasant body to have about—she's cross an' sick most all the time, an' childish. But that ain't sayin' her children oughtn't to put up with her disagreeableness."
"She's got a married daughter, ain't she?"
"Yes, she's got a married daughter." Mrs. Hanna closed her lips tightly together and looked as if she might say something, if she chose, that would create a sensation.
"Yes, she has. But she got her home along with her husband, an' he won't have the old soul any more 'n M'lissy would."
There was another silence. Isaphene had put the cake in the oven. She knelt on the floor and opened the door very softly now and then, to see that it was not browning too fast. The heat from the oven had crimsoned her face and arms.
"Guess you'd best put a piece of paper on top o' that cake," sand her mother. "It smells kind o' burny like."
"It's all right, maw."
Mrs. Bridges looked out the window.
"Ain't my flowers doin' well, though, Mis' Hanna?
"They are that. When I come up the walk I couldn't help thinkin' of poor old Mis' Lane."
"What's that got to do with her?" There was resentment bristling in Mrs. Bridges's tone and glance.
Mrs. Hanna stopped crocheting, but held her hands stationary in the air, and looked over them in surprise at her questioner.
"Why, she ust to live here, you know."
"She did! In this house?"
"Why, yes. Didn't you know that? Oh, they ust to be right well off 'n her husband's time. I visited here consid'rable. My! the good things she always had to eat! It makes my mouth water to think of them."
"Hunh. I'm sorry I can't give you as good as she did," said Mrs. Bridges, stiffly.
"Well, as if you didn't! You set a beautiful table, Mrs. Bridges, an', what's more, that's your reputation all over. Everybody says that about you."
Mrs. Bridges smiled depracatingly, with a faint blush of pleasure.
"They do, Mis' Bridges. I just told you about Mis' Lane because you'd never think it now of the poor old creature. An' such flowers 's she ust to have on both sides of that walk! Larkspurs an' sweet-williams an' bachelor's buttons an' pomgranates an' mornin' widows, an' all kinds. Guess you didn't know she set out that pink cabbage-rose at the north end o' the front porch, did you? An' that hop-vine that you've got trained over your parlor window—set that out, too. An' that row of young alders between here an' the barn—she set them all out with her own hands; dug the holes herself. It's funny she ain't never told you she lived here."
"Yes, it is," said Mrs. Bridges, slowly and thoughtfully.
"It's a wonder she never broke down an' cried when she was visitin' here. She can't mention the place without cryin'."
A dull red came into Mrs. Bridges's face.
"She never visited here."
"Never visited here!" Mrs. Hanna had her crochet and her hands in her lap, and stared. "Why, she visited everywhere. That's the way she managed to keep out o' the poor-house so long. Everybody was real consid'rate about invitin' her. But I expect she didn't like to come here, because she thought so much of the place."
Isaphene looked over her shoulder at her mother, but the look was not returned. The beans were sputtering nervously into the pan.
"Ain't you got about enough, maw?" she said. "That pan seems to be gettin' hefty."
"Yes, I guess." She got up, brushing the strings off her apron, and set the pan on the table. "I'll watch the cake now, Isaphene. You put the beans on in the pot to boil. Put a piece o' that salt pork in with 'em. Better get 'em on right away. It's pret' near eleven. Ain't this oven too hot with the door shet?"
Then the pleasant preparations for dinner went on. The beans soon began to boil, and an appetizing odor floated through the kitchen. Then the potatoes were pared—big, white fellows, smooth and long—with a sharp, thin knife, round and round and round, each without a break until the whole paring had curled itself about Isaphene's pretty arm to the elbow. The cabbage was chopped finely for the cold-slaw, and the vinegar and butter set on the stove in a saucepan to heat. Then Mrs. Bridges began to set the table, covering it first with a red cloth having a white border and fringe. In the middle of the table she placed an uncommonly large, six-bottled caster.
"I guess you'll excuse a red tablecloth, Mis' Hanna. The men-folks get their shirt-sleeves so dirty out 'n the fields that you can't keep a white one clean no time."
"I used red ones myself most of the time," replied Mrs. Hanna, crocheting industriously. "It saves washin'. I guess poor old Mis' Lane 'll have to see the old place after all these years; they'll take her right past here to the poor-farm."
Mrs. Bridges set on the table a white plate holding a big square of yellow butter, and stood looking through the open door, down the path, with its tall hollyhocks and scarlet poppies on either side. Between the house and the barn some wild mustard had grown, thick and tall, and was now drifting, like a golden cloud, against the pale blue sky. Butterflies were throbbing through the air, and grasshoppers were crackling everywhere. It was all very pleasant and peaceful; while the comfortable house and barns, the wide fields stretching away to the forest, and the cattle feeding on the hillside gave a look of prosperity. Mrs. Bridges wondered how she would feel—after having loved the place—riding by to the poor-farm. Then she pulled herself together and said, sharply:
"I'm afraid you feel a draught, Mis' Hanna, settin' so clost to the door."
"Oh, my, no; I like it. I like lots o' fresh air. If I didn't have six childern an' my own mother to keep, I'd take her myself."
"Take who?" Mrs. Bridges's voice rasped as she asked the question. Isaphene paused on her way to the pantry, and looked at Mrs. Hanna with deeply thoughtful eyes.
"Why, Mis' Lane—who else?—before I'd let her go to the poor-farm."
"Well, I think her children ought to be made to take care of her!" Mrs. Bridges went on setting the table with brisk, angry movements. "That's what I think about it. The law ought to take holt of it."
"Well, you see the law has took holt of it, said Mrs. Hanna, with a grim smile. "It seems a shame that there ain't somebody 'n the neighborhood that 'u'd take her in. She ain't much expense, but a good deal o' trouble. She's sick, in an' out o' bed, nigh onto all the time. My opinion is she's been soured by all her troubles; an' that if somebody 'u'd only take her an' be kind to her, her temper'ment 'u'd emprove wonderful. She's always mighty grateful for every little chore you do her. It just makes my heart ache to think o' her goin' to the poor-farm!"
Mrs. Bridges shut her lips tightly together; all the softness and irresolution went out of her face.
"Well, I'm sorry for her," she said, with an air of dismissing a disagreeable subject; "but the world's full o' troubles, an' if you cried over all o' them you'd be cryin' all the time. Isaphene, you go out an' blow that dinner-horn. I see the men folks ev got the horses about foddered."
"I'm thinkin' about buyin' a horse anbuggy," she announced, with sternly repressed triumph, when the girl had gone out. "An' an organ. Isaphene's been wantin' one, an' I don't believe her pay'll ever get worked up to the pitch o' gettin' it for her. But I've got some money laid by. I'd like to see his eyes when he comes home an' finds a bran new buggy with a top an' all, an' a horse that he can't hetch to a plough, no matter how bad he wants to! I ain't sure but I'll get a phaeton."
"They ain't as strong, but they're handy to get in an' out of—'specially for old, trembly knees."
"I ain't so old that I'm trembly."
"Oh, my—no," said Mrs. Hanna, with a little start. "I was just thinkin' mebbe sometimes you'd go out to the poor-farm and take poor old Mis' Lane for a little ride. It ain't more'n five miles, is it? She ust to have a horse an' buggy o' her own. Somehow, I can't get her off o' my mind at all to-day. I just heard about her 's I was startin' for your house."
The men came to the house, pausing on the back porch to clean their boots on the scraper, and wash their hands and faces with water dipped from the rain-barrel. Their faces shone like brown marble when they came in.
It was five o'clock when Mrs. Hanna, with a sigh, began rolling the lace she had crocheted around the spool, preparatory to taking her departure.
"Well," she said, "I must go. I had no idy it was so late. How the time does go, talkin'. Just see how well I've done—crocheted full a yard since dinner-time! My! how pretty that hop-vine looks. I' makes awful nice shade, too. I guess when Mis' Lane planted 't she thought she'd be settin' under it herself to-day—she took such pleasure in it."
The ladies were sitting on the front porch. It was cool and fragrant out there. The shadow of the house reached almost to the gate now. The bees had been drinking too many sweets—greedy fellows! and were lying in the red poppies, droning stupidly. A soft wind was blowing from Puget Sound and turning over the clover leaves, making here a billow of dark green and there one of light green; it was setting loose the perfume of the blossoms, too, and sifting silken thistle-needles through the air. Along the fence was a hedge, eight feet high, of the beautiful ferns that grow luxuriantly in western Washington. The pasture across the lane was a tangle of royal color, being massed in with golden-rod, pink-weed, yarrow, purple thistles, and field daisies; the cottonwoods that lined the creek at the side of Th wild syringa near the gate, throwing out spray upon spray of white, delicately scented, gold-hearted flowers.
Mrs. Uridges arose and followed her guest into the spare bedroom.
" When they goin' to take her to the poor-farm?" she asked, abruptly.
" Day after to-morrow. Ain't it awful? It just makes me sick to think about it. I couldn't 'a' eat a bite o' dinner 'f I'd stayed at home, just for thinkinabout it. They say the poor old creature ain't done nothin' but cry an' moan sence she know'd she'd got to go."
"Here's your bag," said Mrs. Bridges. " Do you want I should tie your veil?"
"No, thanks; I guess I won't put it on. If I didn't have such a big fam'ly, an' my own mother to keep, I'd take her myself b'fore I'd see her go to the poor-house. If I had a small fam'ly an' plenty o' room, I declare my conscience wouldn't let me rest, no way."
A dull red glow spread slowly over Mrs. Bridges's face.
"Well, I guess you needn't keep hintin' for me to take her," she said, sharply.
"You!" Mrs. Hanna uttered the word in a tone that was an unintentional insult; in fact, Mrs. Bridges affirmed afterward that her look of astonishment, and, for that matter, her whole air of dazed incredulity, were insulting. "I never once thought o' you," she said, with an earnestness that could not be doubted.
"Why not o' me?" demanded Mrs. Bridges, showing something of her resentment. "What you been talkin' about her all day for, 'f you wasn't hintin' for me to take her in?"
"I never thought o' such a thing," repeated her visitor, still looking rather helplessly dazed. "I talked about it because it was on my mind, heavy, too; an', I guess, because I wanted to talk my conscience down."
Mrs. Bridges cooled off a little, and began to drum on the bedpost with her rough fingers.
"Well, if you wasn't hintin'," she said, in a conciliatory tone, "it's all right. You kep' harpin' on the same string till I thought you was; an' it riles me awful to be hinted at. I'll take anything right out to my face, so 's I can answer it, but I won't be hinted at. But why "—having rid herself of the grievance she at once swung around to the insult—"why didn't you think o' me?"
Mrs. Hanna cleared her throat and began to unroll her mitts.
"Well, I don't know just why," she said. helplessly. She drew the mitts on, smoothing them well up over her thin wrists. "I don't know why. I'd thought o' most everybody 'n town—but you never come into my head onct. I was 's innocent o' hintin' 's a baby unborn."
Mrs. Bridges drew a long breath noiselessly.
"Well," she said absent-mindedly, "come again, Mis' Hanna. An' be sure you always fetch your work an' stay the afternoon."
"Well, I will. But it's your turn to come now. Where's Is'phene?"
"I guess she's makin' a fire 'n the cookstove to get supper."
"Well, tell her to come over an' stay all night with Julia some night."
Mrs. Bridges went into the kitchen and sat down, rather heavily, in a chair. Her face wore a puzzled expression.
"Isaphene, did you hear what we was a-sayin' in the bedroom?"
"Yes—most of it, I guess."
"Well, what do you s'pose was the reason she never thought o' me takin' Mis' Lane in? "
"Why, you never thought o' takin' her in yourself, did you?" said Isaphene, turning down the damper of the stove with a clatter. "I don't see how anybody else 'u'd think of it when you didn't yourself."
"Well, don't you think it was awful impudent in her to say that, anyhow?"
"No, I don't. She told the truth."
"Why ought they to think o' everybody takin' her exceptin' me, I'd like to know?"
"Because everybody else, I s'pose, have thought of it theirselves. The neighbors have all been chippin' into help her for years. You never done nothin' for her, did you? You never invited her to visit here, did you?"
"No, I never. But that ain't no sayin' I wouldn't take her 's quick 's the rest of 'em. They ain't none of 'em takin' her very fast, be they?"
"No, they ain't," said Isaphene, facing her mother and looking at her steadily; "they ain't one of 'em but's got their hands full—no spare room, an' lots o' childern or their own folks to take care of."
"Hunh!" said Mrs. Bridges. She began chopping some cold boiled beef for hash.
"I don't believe I'll sleep to-night for thinkin' about it," she said, after a while.
"I won't neither, maw. I wish she wasn't goin' right by here."
"So do I."
After a long silence Mrs. Bridges said, "I don't s'pose your paw 'd hear to our takin' her in."
"I guess he'd hear to 't if we would," said Isaphene, dryly.
"Well, we can't do 't, that's all there is about it," announced Mrs. Bridges, with a great air of having made up her mind. Isaphene did not reply. She was slicing potatoes to fry, and she seemed to agree silently with her mother's decision. Presently, however, Mrs. Bridges said, in a less determined tone, "There's no place to put her exceptin' the spare room, an we can't get along without that, no ways."
"No," said Isaphene, in a non-committal tone.
Mrs. Bridges stopped chopping and looked thoughtfully out the door.
"There's this room openin' out o' the kitchen," she said, slowly. "It's nice anbig an' sunny. It 'u'd be handy 'n winter, too, bein' right off the kitchen. But it ain't furnished."
"No," said Isaphene, "it ain't."
"An' I know your paw wouldn't furnish it."
Isaphene laughed. "No, I guess not," she said.
"Well, there's no use a-thinkin' about it, Isaphene; we just can't take her. Better get them potatoes on; I see the men-folks comin' up to the barn."
The next morning after breakfast Isaphene said suddenly, as she stood washing dishes, "Maw, I guess you better take the organ money an' furnish up that room."
Mrs. Bridges turned so sharply she dropped the turkey-wing with which she was polishing off the stove.
"You don't never mean it," she gasped,
"Yes, I do. I know we'd both feel better to take her in than to take in an organ"—they both laughed rather foolishly at the poor joke. "You can furnish the room real comfter'ble with what it 'u'd take to buy an organ; an' we can get the horse an' buggy, too."
"Oh, Isaphene, I've never meant but what you should have an organ! No, I won't never spen' that money for nothin' but an organ—so you can just shet up about it."
"I want a horse an' buggy worse, maw. We can get a horse that I can ride too. An' we'll get a phaeton, so's we can take Mis' Lane to church an 'round." Then she added, with a regular masterpiece of diplomacy, "We'll show the neighbors that when we do take people in, we take 'em in all over."
"Oh, Isaphene," said her mother, weakly, "wouldn't it just astonish 'em!"
It was ten o'clock of the following morning when Isaphene ran in and announced that she heard wheels coming up the lane. Mrs. Bridges paled a little and breathed quickly as she got her bonnet and went out to the gate. A red spring wagon was coming slowly toward her, drawn by a single horse. The driver was half asleep on the front seat. Behind, in a low chair, sat old Mrs. Lane; she was stooping over, her elbows on her knees, her gray head bowed.
Mrs. Bridges held up her hand, and the driver pulled in the not reluctant horse.
"How d'you do, Mis' Lane? I want you should come in an' visit me a while."
The old creature lifted her trembling head and looked at Mrs. Bridges; then she saw the old house, half hidden by vines and flowers, and her dim eyes filled with bitter tears.
"We ain't got time to stop, ma'am," said the driver, politely. "I'm a-takin' her to the county," he added, in a lower tone, but not so low that the old woman did not hear.
"You'll have to make time," said Mrs. Bridges, bluntly. "You get down anhelp her out. You don't have to wait, When I'm ready for her to go to the county, I'11 take her myself."
Not understanding in the least, but realizing, as he said afterwards, that she "meant business" and wasn't the kind to be fooled with, the man obeyed with alacrity.
"Now you lean all your heft on me," said Mrs. Bridges, kindly. She put her arm around the old woman and led her up the hollyhock path, and through the house into the pleasant kitchen.
"Isaphene, you pull that big chair over here where it's cool. Now, Mis' Lane, you set right down an' rest."
Mrs. Lane wiped the tears from her face with an old cotton handkerchief. She tried to speak, but the sobs had to be swallowed down too fast. At last she said, in a choked voice: "It's awful good in you—to let me see the old place—once more. The Lord bless you—for it! But I'm most sorry I stopped—seems now 's if I—just couldn't go on now."
"Well, you ain't goin' on," said Mrs. Bridges, while Isaphene went to the door and stood looking toward the hill with drowned eyes. "This is our little joke — Isaphene's an' mine. This'll be your home 's long 's its our'n. An' you're goin' to have this nice big room right off the kitchen, 's soon 's we can furnish it up. We'll have to put you in the spare room for a week or two, though. An' we're goin' to get a horse an' buggy—a low buggy, so's you can get in an' out easy like— an' take you to church an' all 'round."
That night, after Mrs. Bridges had put Mrs. Lane to bed and told her good-night, she went out on the front porch and sat down; but presently, remembering that she had not put a candle in the room, she went back, opening the door noiselessly, not to disturb her. Then she stood perfectly still. The old creature had got out of the bed and was kneeling beside it, her face buried in her hands.
"Oh, Lord God," she was saying aloud, "bless these kind people—bless 'em, oh, Lord God! Hear a poor old mis'rable soul's prayer, an' bless 'em! An' if they've ever done a sinful thing, oh, Lord God, forgive 'em for it, because they've kep' me out o' the poor-house——"
Mrs. Bridges shut the door, and stood sobbing as if her heart would break.
"What's the matter, maw?" said Isaphene, coming up suddenly.
"Never you mind what's the matter," said her mother, sharply, to conceal her emotion. "You go to bed, missy, an' don't bother your head about what's the matter with me."
Then she went down the hall and entered her own room, and Isaphene heard the key turned in the lock.
- Note.—This story, in the McClure prize story contest, closed some months ago, was awarded the prize of $500, the highest of the five prizes offered. The author lives at New Whatcom, in the State of Washington.—Editor.