"Jane!" gasped Mrs. Mumpsovertcoin miningn, as she sank into the chair and rocked violently.
Jane, quite forgotten, was oppressed with a miserable presentiment of evil. Her pinched but intense little mind was concentrated on two facts--Holcroft's anger and her mother's lack of sense. From such premises it did not take her long to reason out but one conclusion--"visitin' again;" and this was the summing up of all evils. Now and then a tear would force its way out of one of her little eyes, but otherwise she kept her troubles to herself.solana defi tvlMrs. Wiggins was the only complacent personage in the house, and she unbent with a garrulous affability to Jane, which could be accounted for in but one way--Holcroft had forgotten about his cider barrel, thereby unconsciously giving her the chance to sample its contents freely. She was now smoking her pipe with much content, and indulging in pleasing reminiscences which the facts of her life scarcely warranted.
"Ven hi vas as leetle a gal as ye are," she began, and then she related experiences quite devoid of the simplicity and innocence of childhood. The girl soon forgot her fears and listened with avidity until the old dame's face grew heavier, if possible, with sleep, and she stumbled off to bed.Having no wish to see or speak to her mother again, the child blew out the candle and stole silently up the stairway. At last Mrs. Mumpson took her light and went noisily around, seeing to the fastenings of doors and windows. "I know he is listening to every sound from me, and he shall learn what a caretaker I am," she murmured softly.Once out of doors in the morning, with his foot on the native heath of his farm, Holcroft's hopefulness and courage always returned. He was half angry with himself at his nervous irritation of the evening before. "If she becomes so cranky that I can't stand her, I'll pay the three months' wages and clear her out," he had concluded, and he went about his morning work with a grim purpose to submit to very little nonsense.Cider is akin to vinegar, and Mrs. Wiggins' liberal potations of the evening before had evidently imparted a marked acidity to her temper. She laid hold of the kitchen utensils as if she had a spite against them, and when Jane, confiding in her friendliness shown so recently, came down to assist, she was chased out of doors with language we forbear to repeat. Mrs. Mumpson, therefore, had no intimation of the low state of the barometer in the region of the kitchen. "I have taken time to think deeply and calmly," she murmured. "The proper course has been made clear to me. He is somewhat uncouth; he is silent and unable to express his thoughts and emotions--in brief, undeveloped; he is awfully irreligious. Moth and rust are busy in this house; much that would be so useful is going to waste. He must learn to look upon me as the developer, the caretaker, a patient and healthful embodiment of female influence. I will now begin actively my mission of making him an ornerment to society. That mountainous Mrs. Viggins must be replaced by a deferential girl who will naturally look up to me. How can I be a true caretaker--how can I bring repose and refinement to this dwelling with two hundred pounds of female impudence in my way? Mr. Holcroft shall see that Mrs. Viggins is an unseemly and jarring discord in our home," and she brought the rocking chair from the parlor to the kitchen, with a serene and lofty air. Jane hovered near the window, watching.At first, there was an ominous silence in respect to words. Portentous sounds increased, however, for Mrs. Wiggins strode about with martial tread, making the boards creak and the dishes clatter, while her red eyes shot lurid and sanguinary gleams. She would seize a dipper as if it were a foe, slamming it upon the table again as if striking an enemy. Under her vigorous manipulation, kettles and pans resounded with reports like firearms.
Mrs. Mumpson was evidently perturbed; her calm superiority was forsaking her; every moment she rocked faster--a sure indication that she was not at peace. At last she said, with great dignity: "Mrs. Viggins, I must request you to perform your tasks with less clamor. My nerves are not equal to this peculiar way of taking up and laying down things.""Vell, jes' ye vait a minute, han hi'll show ye 'ow hi kin take hup things han put 'em down hag'in hout o' my vay," and before Mrs. Mumpson could interfere, she found herself lifted, chair and all bodily, and carried to the parlor. Between trepidation and anger, she could only gasp during the transit, and when left in the middle of the parlor floor she looked around in utter bewilderment.And she did so. Holcroft entered and said heartily, "That's right, Alida! You are here to stay, you know. You mustn't think it amiss that I left you a few moments alone for I had to get that talkative old man off home. He's getting a little childish and would fire questions at you point-blank."
"But shouldn't you have taken him home in the wagon? I don't mind being alone.""Oh, no! He's spry enough to walk twice the distance and often does. It's light as day outside, and I made it right with him. You can leave your things upstairs in your room, and I'll carry up your bundles also if you are rested enough for the journey.""Oh, yes!" she replied, "I'm feeling better already."He led the way to the apartment that Mrs. Mumpson had occupied and said regretfully, "I'm sorry the room looks so bare and comfortless, but that will all be mended in time. When you come down, we'll have some coffee and supper."
She soon reappeared in the kitchen, and he continued, "Now I'll show you that I'm not such a very helpless sort of man, after all; so if you're sick you needn't worry. I'm going to get you a good cup of coffee and broil you a piece of steak.""Oh! Please let me--" she began.
"No, can't allow you to do anything tonight but sit in that chair. You promised to mind, you know," and he smiled so genially that she smiled back at him although tears came into her eyes."I can't realize it all," she said in a low voice. "To think how this day began and how it is ending!""It's ending in a poor man's kitchen, Alida. It was rather rough to bring you in here first, but the parlor is cold and comfortless."I would rather be brought here. It seems to me that it must be a light and cheerful room."
"Yes, the sun shines in these east windows, and there's another window facing the south, so it's light all day long."She watched him curiously and with not a little self-reproach as he deftly prepared supper. "It's too bad for me to sit idle while you do such things, yet you do everything so well that I fear I shall seem awkward. Still, I think I do at least know how to cook a little.""If you knew what I've had to put up with for a year or more, you wouldn't worry about satisfying me in this respect. Except when old Mrs. Wiggins was here, I had few decent meals that I didn't get myself," and then, to cheer her up, he laughingly told her of Mrs. Mumpson's essay at making coffee. He had a certain dry humor, and his unwonted effort at mimicry was so droll in itself that Alida was startled to hear her own voice in laughter, and she looked almost frightened, so deeply had she been impressed that it would never be possible or even right for her to laugh again.The farmer was secretly much pleased at his success. If she would laugh, be cheerful and not brood, he felt sure she would get well and be more contented. The desperate view she had taken of her misfortunes troubled him, and he had thought it possible that she might sink into despondency and something like invalidism; but that involuntary bubble of laughter reassured him. "Quiet, wholesome, cheerful life will restore her to health," he thought, as he put his favorite beverage and the sputtering steak on the table. "Now," he said, placing a chair at the table, "you can pour me a cup of coffee."
"I'm glad I can do something," she answered, "for I can't get over the strangeness of being so waited on. Indeed, everything that was unexpected or undreamt of has happened," and there was just the faintest bit of color on her cheeks as she sat down opposite him.Few men are insensible to simple, natural, womanly grace, and poor Holcroft, who so long had been compelled to see at his table "perfect terrors," as he called them, was agreeably impressed by the contrast she made with the Mumpson and Malony species. Alida unconsciously had a subtle charm of carriage and action, learned in her long past and happy girlhood when all her associations were good and refined. Still, in its truest explanation, this grace is native and not acquired; it is a personal trait. Incapable of nice analysis or fine definitions, he only thought, "How much pleasanter it is to see at the table a quiet, sensible woman instead of a 'peculiar female!'" and it was not long before he supplemented her remark by saying, "Perhaps things are turning out for both of us better than we expected. I had made up my mind this morning to live here like a hermit, get my own meals, and all that. I actually had the rough draught of an auction bill in my pocket,--yes, here it is now,--and was going to sell my cows, give up my dairy, and try to make my living in a way that wouldn't require any woman help. That's what took me up to Tom Watterly's; I wanted him to help me put the bill in shape. He wouldn't look at it, and talked me right out of trying to live like Robinson Crusoe, as he expressed it. I had been quite cheerful over my prospects; indeed, I was almost happy in being alone again after having such terrors in the house. But, as I said, Watterly talked all the courage and hope right out of me, and made it clear that I couldn't go it alone. You see, Tom and I have been friends since we were boys together, and that's the reason he talks so plain to me."
"He has a good, kind heart," said Alida. "I don't think I could have kept up at all had it not been for his kindness.""Yes, Tom's a rough diamond. He don't make any pretenses, and looks upon himself as a rather hard case, but I fancy he's doing kind things in his rough way half the time. Well, as we were talking, he remembered you, and he spoke of you so feelingly and told your story with so much honest sympathy that he awoke my sympathy. Now you know how it has all come about. You see it's all natural enough and simple enough, and probably it's the best thing that could have happened for us both. All you have to do is to get strong and well, and then it won't be any one-sided affair, as you've been too much inclined to think. I can go on and keep my farm and home just as my heart is bent on doing. I want you to understand everything for then your mind will be more satisfied and at rest, and that's half the battle in getting over sickness and trouble like yours."
"I can only thank God and you for the great change in my prospects. This quiet and escape from strangers are just what I most craved, and I am already beginning to hope that if I can learn to do all you wish, I shall find a content that I never hoped for," and the tears that stood in her eyes were witnesses of her sincerity."Well, don't expect to learn everything at once. Let me have my way for a while, and then you'll find, as you get strong, and the busy season comes on, that I'll be so taken up with the farm that you'll have your own way. Won't you have some more steak? No? Well, you've enjoyed your supper a little, haven't you?""Yes," she replied, smiling. "I actually felt hungry when I sat down, and the coffee has taken away the tired, faint feeling.""I hope you'll soon be good and hungry three times a day," he said, laughing pleasantly."You'll at least let me clear the table?" she asked. "I feel so much better.""Yes, if you are sure you're strong enough. It may make you feel more at home. But drop everything till tomorrow when tired. I must go out and do my night work, and it's night work now, sure enough--"
"It's too bad!" she said sympathetically."What! To go out and feed my stock this clear, bright night? And after a hearty supper too? Such farming is fun. I feel, too, as if I wanted to go and pat the cows all around in my gladness that I'm not going to sell them. Now remember, let everything go till morning as soon as you feel tired."
She nodded smilingly and set to work. Standing in the shadow of a hemlock, he watched her for a few moments. Her movements were slow, as would be natural to one who had been so reduced by illness, but this every evidence of feebleness touched his feelings. "She is eager to begin--too eager. No nonsense there about 'menial tasks.' Well, it does give one hope to see such a woman as that in the old kitchen," and then the hungry cattle welcomed him.The traveler feels safe after the fierce Arab of the desert has broken bread with him. It would seem that a deep principle of human nature is involved in this act. More than the restoring power of the nourishment itself was the moral effect for Alida of that first meal in her husband's home. It was another step in what he had said was essential--the forming of his acquaintance. She had seen from the first that he was plain and unpolished--that he had not the veneer of gentility of the man she had so mistakenly married; yet, in his simple truth, he was inspiring a respect which she had never felt for any man before. "What element of real courtesy has been wanting?" she asked herself. "If this is an earnest of the future, thank God for the real. I've found to my cost what a clever imitation of a man means."
It was as sweet as it was strange to think that she, who had trembled at the necessity of becoming almost a slave to unfeeling strangers, had been compelled to rest while a husband performed tasks naturally hers. It was all very homely, yet the significance of the act was chivalrous consideration for her weakness; the place, the nature of the ministry could not degrade the meaning of his action. Then, too, during the meal he had spoken natural, kindly words which gave to their breaking of bread together the true interpretation. Although so feeble and wary, she found a deep satisfaction in beginning her household work. "It does make me feel more at home," she said. "Strange that he should have thought of it!"She had finished her task and sat down again when he entered with a pail of milk. Taking a dipper with a strainer on one side of it, he poured out a tumblerful. "Now, take this," he said, "I've always heard that milk fresh from the cow was very strengthening. Then go and sleep till you are thoroughly rested, and don't think of coming down in the morning till you feel like it. I'll make the fire and get breakfast. You have seen how easily I can do it. I have several more cows to milk, and so will say 'Goodnight.'"
For the first time since chaos had come into her life Alida slept soundly and refreshingly, unpursued by the fears which had haunted even her dreams. When she awoke she expected to see the gray locks and repulsive features of the woman who had occupied the apartment with her at the almshouse, but she was alone in a small, strange room. Then memory gathered up the threads of the past; but so strange, so blessed did the truth seem that she hastened to dress and go down to the old kitchen and assure herself that her mind had not become shattered by her troubles and was mocking her with unreal fancies. The scene she looked upon would have soothed and reassured her even had her mind been as disordered as she, for the moment, had been tempted to believe. There was the same homely room which had pictured itself so deeply in her memory the evening before. Now it was more attractive for the morning sun was shining into it, lighting up its homely details with a wholesome, cheerful reality which made it difficult to believe that there were tragic experiences in the world. The wood fire in the stove crackled merrily, and the lid of the kettle was already bobbing up and down from internal commotion.As she opened the door a burst of song entered, securing her attention. She had heard the birds before without recognizing consciousness, as is so often true of our own condition in regard to the familiar sounds of nature. It was now almost as if she had received another sense, so strong, sweet, and cheering was the symphony. Robins, song-sparrows, blackbirds, seemed to have gathered in the trees nearby, to give her a jubilant welcome; but she soon found that the music shaded off to distant, dreamlike notes, and remembered that it was a morning chorus of a hemisphere. This universality did not render the melody less personally grateful. We can appreciate all that is lovely in Nature, yet leave all for others. As she stood listening, and inhaling the soft air, full of the delicious perfume of the grass and expanding buds, and looking through the misty sunshine on the half-veiled landscape, she heard Holcroft's voice, chiding some unruly animal in the barnyard.This recalled her, and with the elasticity of returning health and hope she set about getting breakfast."It seems to me that I never heard birds sing before," she thought, "and their songs this morning are almost like the music of heaven. They seem as happy and unconscious of fear and trouble as if they were angels. Mother and I used to talk about the Garden of Eden, but could the air have been sweeter, or the sunshine more tempered to just the right degree of warmth and brightness than here about my home? Oh, thank God again, again and forever, for a home like this!" and for a few moments something of the ecstasy of one delivered from the black thraldom of evil filled her soul. She paused now and then to listen to the birds for only their songs seemed capable of expressing her emotion. It was but another proof that heavenly thoughts and homely work may go on together.
Chapter 22 Getting AcquaintedIt was still early, and Holcroft was under the impression that Alida would sleep late after the severe fatigues of the preceding day. He therefore continued his work at the barn sufficiently long to give his wife time for her little surprise. She was not long in finding and laying her hands on the simple materials for breakfast. A ham hung in the pantry and beneath it was a great basket of eggs, while the flour barrel stood in the corner. Biscuits were soon in the oven, eggs conjured into an omelet, and the ham cut into delicate slices, instead of great coarse steaks.
Remembering Mrs. Mumpson's failure with the coffee, she made it a trifle strong and boiled the milk that should temper without cooling it. The biscuits rose like her own spirits, the omelet speedily began to take on color like her own flushed face as she busied herself about the stove.Everything was nearly ready when she saw Holcroft coming toward the house with two pails of milk. He took them to the large dairy room under the parlor and then came briskly to the kitchen.
She stood, screened by the door as he entered, then stopped and stared at the table all set and at the inviting breakfast on the stove.Seeing Alida's half-smiling, half-questioning face, seeking his approval, he exclaimed, "Well, you HAVE stolen a march on me! I supposed you were asleep yet."
"I felt so much stronger and better when I awoke that I thought you wouldn't mind if I came down and made a beginning.""You call this a beginning do you? Such a breakfast as this before seven in the morning? I hope you haven't overtaxed yourself.""No, only a little of just the right kind of tired feeling.""Haven't you left anything for me to do?"
"Perhaps. You will know when I've put all on the table. What I've prepared is ready.""Well, this is famous. I'll go and wash and fix up a little and be right down."
When Holcroft returned, he looked at her curiously, for he felt that he, too, was getting acquainted. Her thin face was made more youthful by color; a pleased look was in her blue eyes, and a certain neatness and trimness about her dress to which he had not been accustomed. He scanned the table wonderingly, for things were not put upon it at haphazard; the light biscuits turned their brown cheeks invitingly toward him,--she had arranged that they should do that,--the ham was crisp, not sodden, and the omelet as russet as a November leaf. "This is a new dish," he said, looking at it closely. "What do you call it?""Omelet. Perhaps you won't like it, but mother used to be very fond of it."
"No matter. We'll have it if you like it and it brings you pleasant thoughts of your mother." Then he took a good sip of coffee and set the cup down again as he had before under the Mumpson regime, but with a very different expression. She looked anxiously at him, but was quickly reassured. "I thought I knew how to make coffee, but I find I don't. I never tasted anything so good as that. How DO you make it?""Just as mother taught me."