Part 2 out of 3
powerful intellectual telescope to the doings of her neighbors.
Diadema's seat had formerly been on the less desirable side of
the little light-stand, where Priscilla Hollis was now installed.
Mrs. Bascom was at work on a new fore-room rug, the former one having
been transferred to Miss Hollis's chamber; for, as the teacher at the brick
schoolhouse, a graduate of a Massachusetts normal school, and the daughter
of a deceased judge, she was a boarder of considerable consequence.
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and the two women were alone.
It was a pleasant, peaceful sitting-room, as neat as wax in every part.
The floor was covered by a cheerful patriotic rag carpet woven entirely
of red, white, and blue rags, and protected in various exposed localities
by button rugs,--red, white, and blue disks superimposed one on the other.
Diadema Bascom was a person of some sentiment. When her old father,
Captain Dennett, was dying, he drew a wallet from under his pillow,
and handed her a twenty-dollar bill to get something to remember him by.
This unwonted occurrence burned itself into the daughter's imagination,
and when she came as a bride to the Bascom house she refurnished
the sitting-room as a kind of monument to the departed soldier,
whose sword and musket were now tied to the wall with neatly hemmed bows
of bright red cotton.
The chair cushions were of red-and-white glazed patch,
the turkey wings that served as hearth brushes were hung against
the white-painted chimney-piece with blue skirt braid, and the white
shades were finished with home-made scarlet "tossels."
A little whatnot in one corner was laden with the trophies of battle.
The warrior's brass buttons were strung on a red picture cord and hung
over his daguerreotype on the upper shelf; there was a tarnished
shoulder strap, and a flattened bullet that the captain's jealous
contemporaries swore _he_ never stopped, unless he got it in the rear
when he was flying from the foe. There was also a little tin
canister in which a charge of powder had been sacredly preserved.
The scoffers, again, said that "the cap'n put it in his musket
when he went into the war, and kep' it there till he come out."
These objects were tastefully decorated with the national colors.
In fact, no modern aesthete could have arranged a symbolic symphony
of grief and glory with any more fidelity to an ideal than Diadema Bascom,
in working out her scheme of red, white, and blue.
Rows of ripening tomatoes lay along the ledges of the windows,
and a tortoise-shell cat snoozed on one of the broad sills.
The tall clock in the corner ticked peacefully. Priscilla Hollis
never tired of looking at the jolly red-cheeked moon, the group
of stars on a blue ground, the trig little ship, the old house,
and the jolly moon again, creeping one after another across the open
space at the top.
Jot Bascom was out, as usual, gathering statistics of
the last horse trade; little Jot was building "stickin'" houses
in the barn; Priscilla was sewing long strips for braiding;
while Diadema sat at the drawing-in frame, hook in hand,
and a large basket of cut rags by her side.
Not many weeks before she had paid one of her periodical
visits to the attic. No housekeeper in Pleasant River save
Mrs. Jonathan Bascom would have thought of dusting a garret,
washing the window and sweeping down the cobwebs once a month,
and renewing the camphor bags in the chests twice a year;
but notwithstanding this zealous care the moths had made their
way into one of her treasure-houses, the most precious of all,--
the old hair trunk that had belonged to her sister Lovice.
Once ensconced there, they had eaten through its hoarded relics,
and reduced the faded finery to a state best described by Diadema
as "reg'lar riddlin' sieves." She had brought the tattered
pile down in to the kitchen, and had spent a tearful afternoon
in cutting the good pieces from the perforated garments.
Three heaped-up baskets and a full dish-pan were the result;
and as she had snipped and cut and sorted, one of her sentimental
projects had entered her mind and taken complete possession there.
"I declare," she said, as she drew her hooking-needle
in and out, "I wouldn't set in the room with some folks and work
on these pieces; for every time I draw in a scrap of cloth
Lovice comes up to me for all the world as if she was settin'
on the sofy there. I ain't told you my plan, Miss Hollis,
and there ain't many I shall tell; but this rug is going to be
a kind of a hist'ry of my life and Lovey's wrought in together,
just as we was bound up in one another when she was alive.
Her things and mine was laid in one trunk, and the moths sha'n't
cheat me out of 'em altogether. If I can't look at 'em wet Sundays,
and shake 'em out, and have a good cry over 'em, I'll make 'em
up into a kind of dumb show that will mean something to me,
if it don't to anybody else.
"We was the youngest of thirteen, Lovey and I,
and we was twins. There 's never been more 'n half o'
me left sence she died. We was born together, played and
went to school together, got engaged and married together,
and we all but died together, yet we wa'n't a mite alike.
There was an old lady come to our house once that used to say,
'There's sister Nabby, now: she 'n' I ain't no more alike
'n if we wa'n't two; she 's jest as diff'rent as I am t'
other way.' Well, I know what I want to put into my rag story,
Miss Hollis, but I don't hardly know how to begin."
Priscilla dropped her needle, and bent over the frame with interest.
"A spray of two roses in the centre,--there 's the beginning;
why, don't you see, dear Mrs. Bascom?"
"Course I do," said Diadema, diving to the bottom of
the dish-pan. "I've got my start now, and don't you say a word
for a minute. The two roses grow out of one stalk; they'll be
Lovey and me, though I'm consid'able more like a potato blossom.
The stalk 's got to be green, and here is the very green silk mother
walked bride in, and Lovey and I had roundabouts of it afterwards.
She had the chicken-pox when we was about four years old,
and one of the first things I can remember is climbing up and
looking over mother's footboard at Lovey, all speckled.
Mother had let her slip on her new green roundabout
over her nightgown, just to pacify her, and there she set
playing with the kitten Reuben Granger had brought her.
He was only ten years old then, but he 'd begun courting Lovice.
"The Grangers' farm joined ours. They had eleven children,
and mother and father had thirteen, and we was always playing together.
Mother used to tell a funny story about that. We were all little young
ones and looked pretty much alike, so she didn't take much notice
of us in the daytime when we was running out 'n' in; but at night when
the turn-up bedstead in the kitchen was taken down and the trundle-beds
were full, she used to count us over, to see if we were all there.
One night, when she 'd counted thirteen and set down to her sewing,
father come in and asked if Moses was all right, for one of the neighbors
had seen him playing side of the river about supper-time. Mother knew she
'd counted us straight, but she went round with a candle to make sure.
Now, Mr. Granger had a head as red as a shumac bush; and when she
carried the candle close to the beds to take another tally,
there was thirteen children, sure enough, but if there wa'n't a
red-headed Granger right in amongst our boys in the turn-up bedstead!
While father set out on a hunt for our Moses, mother yanked the sleepy
little red-headed Granger out o' the middle and took him home, and father
found Moses asleep on a pile of shavings under the joiner's bench.
"They don't have such families nowadays. One time when measles
went all over the village, they never came to us, and Jabe Slocum said
there wa'n't enough measles to go through the Dennett family, so they
didn't start in on 'em. There, I ain't going to finish the stalk;
I'm going to draw in a little here and there all over the rug,
while I'm in the sperit of plannin' it, and then it will be plain
work of matching colors and filling out.
"You see the stalk is mother's dress, and the outside green
of the moss roses is the same goods, only it 's our roundabouts.
I meant to make 'em red, when I marked the pattern,
and then fill out round 'em with a light color; but now I
ain't satisfied with anything but white, for nothing will do
in the middle of the rug but our white wedding dresses.
I shall have to fill in dark, then, or mixed. Well, that won't
be out of the way, if it 's going to be a true rag story;
for Lovey's life went out altogether, and mine hasn't been
any too gay.
"I'll begin on Lovey's rose first. She was the prettiest and
the liveliest girl in the village, and she had more beaux than you
could shake a stick at. I generally had to take what she left over.
Reuben Granger was crazy about her from the time she was knee-high;
but when he went away to Bangor to study for the ministry,
the others had it all their own way. She was only seventeen;
she hadn't ever experienced religion, and she was mischeevous
as a kitten.
"You remember you laughed, this morning, when Mr. Bascom told
about Hogshead Jowett? Well, he used to want to keep company
with Lovey; but she couldn't abide him, and whenever he come to court
her she clim' into a hogshead, and hid till after he 'd gone.
The boys found it out, and used to call him 'Hogshead Jowett."
He was the biggest fool in Foxboro' Four Corners; and that 's
saying consid'able, for Foxboro' is famous for its fools,
and always has been. There was thirteen of 'em there one year.
They say a man come out from Portland, and when he got as fur
as Foxboro' he kep' inquiring the way to Dunstan; and I declare
if he didn't meet them thirteen fools, one after another,
standing in their front dooryards ready to answer questions.
When he got to Dunstan, says he, 'For the Lord's sake,
what kind of a village is that I've just went through?
Be they _all_ fools there?'
"Hogshead was scairt to death whenever he come to see Lovice.
One night, when he 'd been there once, and she 'd hid, as she
always done, he come back a second time, and she went to the door,
not mistrusting it was him. 'Did you forget anything?'
says she, sparkling out at him through a little crack.
He was all taken aback by seeing her, and he stammered out,
'Yes, I forgot my han'k'chief; but it don't make no odds,
for I didn't pay out but fifteen cents for it two year ago,
and I don't make no use of it 'ceptins to wipe my nose on.'
How we did laugh over that! Well, he had a conviction of sin
pretty soon afterwards, and p'r'aps it helped his head some;
at any rate he quit farming, and become a Bullockite preacher.
"It seems odd, when Lovice wa'n't a perfessor herself,
she should have drawed the most pious young men in the village,
but she did: she had good Orthodox beaux, Free and Close Baptists,
Millerites and Adventists, all on her string together;
she even had one Cochranite, though the sect had mostly died out.
But when Reuben Granger come home, a full-feathered-out minister,
he seemed to strike her fancy as he never had before, though they
were always good friends from children. He had light hair
and blue eyes and fair skin (his business being under cover kep'
him bleached out), and he and Lovey made the prettiest couple
you ever see; for she was dark complected, and her cheeks no
otherways than scarlit the whole durin' time. She had a change
of heart that winter; in fact she had two of 'em, for she
changed hers for Reuben's, and found a hope at the same time.
'T was a good honest conversion, too, though she did say to me
she was afraid that if Reuben hadn't taught her what love
was or might be, she 'd never have found out enough about it
to love God as she 'd ought to.
"There, I've begun both roses, and hers is 'bout finished.
I sha'n't have more 'n enough white alapaca. It's lucky
the moths spared one breadth of the wedding dresses;
we was married on the same day, you know, and dressed just alike.
Jot wa'n't quite ready to be married, for he wa'n't any
more forehanded 'bout that than he was 'bout other things;
but I told him Lovey and I had kept up with each other from
the start, and he 'd got to fall into line or drop out o'
the percession.--Now what next?"
"Wasn't there anybody at the wedding but you and Lovice?"
asked Priscilla, with an amused smile.
"Land, yes! The meeting-house was cram jam full. Oh, to be sure!
I know what you 're driving at! Well, I have to laugh to think
I should have forgot the husbands! They'll have to be worked
into the story, certain; but it'll be consid'able of a chore,
for I can't make flowers out of coat and pants stuff, and there
ain't any more flowers on this branch anyway."
Diadema sat for a few minutes in rapt thought,
and then made a sudden inspired dash upstairs, where Miss
Hollis presently heard her rummaging in an old chest.
She soon came down, triumphant.
"Wa'n't it a providence I saved Jot's and Reuben's wedding ties!
And here they are,--one yellow and green mixed, and one brown.
Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to draw in a butterfly
hovering over them two roses, and make it out of the neckties,--
green with brown spots. That'll bring in the husbands; and land!
I wouldn't have either of 'em know it for the world. I'll take
a pattern of that lunar moth you pinned on the curtain yesterday."
Miss Hollis smiled in spite of herself. "You have some
very ingenious ideas and some very pretty thoughts, Mrs. Bascom,
do you know it?"
"It's the first time I ever heard tell of it,"
said Diadema cheerfully. "Lovey was the pretty-spoken,
pretty-appearing one; I was always plain and practical. While I think
of it, I'll draw in a little mite of this red into my carnation pink.
It was a red scarf Reuben brought Lovey from Portland.
It was the first thing he ever give her, and aunt Hitty said
if one of the Abel Grangers give away anything that cost money,
it meant business. That was all fol-de-rol, for there never
was a more liberal husband, though he was a poor minister;
but then they always _are_ poor, without they're rich;
there don't seem to be any halfway in ministers.
"We was both lucky that way. There ain't a stingy bone in Jot
Bascom's body. He don't make much money, but what he does make goes
into the bureau drawer, and the one that needs it most takes it out.
He never asks me what I done with the last five cents he give me.
You 've never been married Miss Hollis, and you ain't engaged,
so you don't know much about it; but I tell you there 's a heap o'
foolishness talked about husbands. If you get the one you like yourself,
I don't know as it matters if all the other women folks in town don't
happen to like him as well as you do; they ain't called on to do that.
They see the face he turns to them, not the one he turns to you.
Jot ain't a very good provider, nor he ain't a man that 's much
use round a farm, but he 's such a fav'rite I can't blame him.
There 's one thing: when he does come home he 's got something to say,
and he 's always as lively as a cricket, and smiling as a basket of chips.
I like a man that 's good comp'ny, even if he ain't so forehanded.
There ain't anything specially lovable about forehandedness, when you
come to that. I shouldn't ever feel drawed to a man because
he was on time with his work. He 's got such pleasant ways, Jot has!
The other afternoon he didn't get home early enough to milk;
and after I done the two cows, I split the kindling and brought
in the wood, for I knew he 'd want to go to the tavern and tell
the boys 'bout the robbery up to Boylston. There ain't anybody
but Jot in this village that has wit enough to find out what 's
going on, and tell it in an int'resting way round the tavern fire.
And he can do it without being full of cider, too; he don't need
any apple juice to limber _his_ tongue!
"Well, when he come in, he see the pails of milk,
and the full wood-box, and the supper laid out under the screen
cloth on the kitchen table, and he come up to me at the sink,
and says he, 'Diademy, you 're the best wife in this county,
and the brightest jewel in my crown,--that 's what _you_ are!'
(He got that idea out of a duet he sings with Almiry Berry.)
Now I'd like to know whether that ain't pleasanter than 't
is to have a man do all the shed 'n' barn work up smart,
and then set round the stove looking as doleful as a last
year's bird's nest? Take my advice, Miss Hollis:
get a good provider if you can, but anyhow try to find you
a husband that'll keep on courting a little now and then,
when he ain't too busy; it smooths things consid'able
round the house.
"There, I got so int'rested in what I was saying, I've went
on and finished the carnation, and some of the stem, too.
Now what comes next? Why, the thing that happened next,
of course, and that was little Jot.
"I'll work in a bud on my rose and one on Lovey's,
and my bud'll be made of Jot's first trousers. The goods
ain't very appropriate for a rosebud, but it'll have to do,
for the idee is the most important thing in this rug.
When I put him into pants, I hadn't any cloth in the house,
and it was such bad going Jot couldn't get to Wareham to buy
me anything; so I made 'em out of an old gray cashmere skirt,
and lined 'em with flannel."
"Buds are generally the same color as the roses,
aren't they?" ventured Priscilla.
"I don't care if they be," said Diadema obstinately.
"What's to hender this bud's bein' grafted on? Mrs. Granger
was as black as an Injun, but the little Granger children
were all red-headed, for they took after their father.
But I don't know; you've kind o' got me out o' conceit with it.
I s'pose I could have taken a piece of his baby blanket;
but the moths never et a mite o' that, and it's too good to cut up.
There's one thing I can do: I can make the bud up with a long stem,
and have it growing right up alongside of mine,--would you?"
"No, it must be stalk of your stalk, bone of your bone,
flesh of your flesh, so to speak. I agree with you, the idea
is the first thing. Besides, the gray is a very light shade,
and I dare say it will look like a bluish white."
"I'll try it and see, but I wish to the land the moths
_had_ eat the pinning-blanket, and then I could have used it.
Lovey worked the scallops on the aidge for me.
My grief! what int'rest she took in my baby clothes!
Little Jot was born at Thanksgiving time, and she come over
from Skowhegan, where Reuben was settled pastor of his first church.
I shall never forget them two weeks to the last day of my life.
There was deep snow on the ground. I had that chamber there,
with the door opening into the setting-room. Mother and father
Bascom kep' out in the dining-room and kitchen, where the work
was going on, and Lovey and the baby and me had the front
part of the house to ourselves, with Jot coming in on tiptoe,
heaping up wood in the fireplace so 't he 'most roasted us out.
He don't forget his chores in time o' sickness.
"I never took so much comfort in all my days.
Jot got one of the Billings girls to come over and help
in the housework, so 't I could lay easy 's long as I
wanted to; and I never had such a rest before nor since.
There ain't any heaven in the book o' Revelations that 's any
better than them two weeks was. I used to lay quiet in my good
feather bed, fingering the pattern of my best crochet quilt,
and looking at the fire-light shining on Lovey and the baby.
She 'd hardly leave him in the cradle a minute. When I did
n't want him in bed with me, she 'd have him in her lap.
Babies are common enough to most folks, but Lovey was diff'rent.
She 'd never had any experience with children, either, for we
was the youngest in our family; and it wa'n't long before we
come near being the oldest, too, for mother buried
seven of us before she went herself. Anyway, I never saw
nobody else look as she done when she held my baby.
I don't mean nothing blasphemious when I say 't was for all
the world like your photograph of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
"The nights come in early, so it was 'most dark
at four o'clock. The little chamber was so peaceful!
I could hear Jot rattling the milk-pails, but I'd draw a deep
breath o' comfort, for I knew the milk would be strained
and set away without my stepping foot to the floor.
Lovey used to set by the fire, with a tall candle on the light-stand
behind her, and a little white knit cape over her shoulders.
She had the pinkest cheeks, and the longest eyelashes, and a mouth
like a little red buttonhole; and when she bent over the baby,
and sung to him,--though his ears wa'n't open, I guess for his
eyes wa'n't,--the tears o' joy used to rain down my cheeks.
It was pennyrial hymns she used to sing mostly, and the one I
remember best was
"'Daniel's wisdom may I know,
Stephen's faith and spirit show;
John's divine communion feel,
Moses' meekness, Joshua's zeal,
Run like the unwearied Paul,
Win the day and conquer all.
"'Mary's love may I possess,
Peter's fervent spirit feel,
James's faith by works reveal,
Like young Timothy may I
Every sinful passion fly.'
"'Oh Diademy,' she 'd say, 'you was always the best,
and it 's nothing more 'n right the baby should have come to you.
P'r'aps God will think I'm good enough some time; and if he does,
Diademy, I'll offer up a sacrifice every morning and every evening.
But I'm afraid,' says she, 'he thinks I can't stand any more happiness,
and be a faithful follower of the cross. The Bible says we 've
got to wade through fiery floods before we can enter the kingdom.
I don't hardly know how Reuben and I are going to find any way
to wade through; we're both so happy, they 'd have to be consid'able
hot before we took notice,' says she, with the dimples all breaking
out in her cheeks.
"And that was true as gospel. She thought everything Reuben done
was just right, and he thought everything she done was just right.
There wa'n't nobody else; the world was all Reuben 'n' all Lovey to them.
If you could have seen her when she was looking for him to come
from Skowhegan! She used to watch at the attic window; and when she
seen him at the foot of the hill she 'd up like a squirrel, and run down
the road without stopping for anything but to throw a shawl over her head.
And Reuben would ketch her up as if she was a child, and scold her for
not putting a hat on, and take her under his coat coming up the hill.
They was a sight for the neighbors, I must confess, but it wa'n't one you
could hardly disapprove of, neither. Aunt Hitty said it was tempting
Providence and couldn't last, and God would visit his wrath on 'em
for making idols of sinful human flesh.
"She was right one way,--it didn't last; but nobody
can tell me God was punishing of 'em for being too happy.
I guess he 'ain't got no objection to folks being happy here below,
if they don't forget it ain't the whole story.
"Well, I must mark in a bud on Lovey's stalk now,
and I'm going to make it of her baby's long white cloak.
I earned the money for it myself, making coats, and put four
yards of the finest cashmere into it; for three years after
little Jot was born I went over to Skowhegan to help
Lovey through her time o' trial. Time o' trial! I thought I
was happy, but I didn't know how to be as happy as Lovey did;
I wa'n't made on that pattern.
"When I first showed her the baby (it was a boy,
same as mine), her eyes shone like two evening stars.
She held up her weak arms, and gathered the little bundle o'
warm flannen into 'em; and when she got it close she shut
her eyes and moved her lips, and I knew she was taking
her lamb to the altar and offering it up as a sacrifice.
Then Reuben come in. I seen him give one look at the two
dark heads laying close together on the white piller,
and then go down on his knees by the side of the bed.
'T wa'n't no place for me; I went off, and left 'em together.
We didn't mistrust it then, but they only had three days
more of happiness, and I'm glad I give 'em every minute."
The room grew dusky as twilight stole gently over
the hills of Pleasant River. Priscilla's lip trembled;
Diadema's tears fell thick and fast on the white rosebud,
and she had to keep wiping her eyes as she followed the pattern.
"I ain't said as much as this about it for five years," she went on,
with a tell-tale quiver in her voice, "but now I've got going I can't stop.
I'll have to get the weight out o' my heart somehow.
"Three days after I put Lovey's baby into her arms the Lord
called her home. 'When I prayed so hard for this little
new life, Reuben,' says she holding the baby as if she could never let
it go, 'I didn't think I'd got to give up my own in place of it;
but it's the first fiery flood we've had, dear, and though it burns
to my feet I'll tread it as brave as I know how.'
"She didn't speak a word after that; she just faded
away like a snowdrop, hour by hour. And Reuben and I stared
at one another in the face as if we was dead instead of her,
and we went about that house o' mourning like sleep-walkers
for days and says, not knowing whether we et or slept,
or what we done.
"As for the baby, the poor little mite didn't live
many hours after its mother, and we buried 'em together.
Reuben and I knew what Lovey would have liked. She gave her life
for the baby's, and it was a useless sacrifice, after all.
No, it wa'n't neither; it _could_n't have been!
You needn't tell me God'll let such sacrifices as that come
out useless! But anyhow, we had one coffin for 'em both,
and I opened Lovey's arms and laid the baby in 'em.
When Reuben and I took our last look, we thought she
seemed more 'n ever like Mary, the mother of Jesus.
There never was another like her, and there never will be.
'Nonesuch,' Reuben used to call her."
There was silence in the room, broken only by the ticking
of the old clock and the tinkle of a distant cowbell.
Priscilla made an impetuous movement, flung herself down by the
basket of rags, and buried her head in Diadema's gingham apron.
"Dear Mrs. Bascom, don't cry. I'm sorry, as the children say."
"No, I won't more 'n a minute. Jot can't stand it to see
me give way. You go and touch a match to the kitchen fire,
so 't the kettle will be boiling, and I'll have a minute to myself.
I don't know what the neighbors would think to ketch me crying over my
drawing-in frame; but the spell's over now, or 'bout over, and when I
can muster up courage I'll take the rest of the baby's cloak and put
a border of white everlastings round the outside of the rug.
I'll always mean the baby's birth and Lovey's death to me;
but the flowers will remind me it 's life everlasting for both
of 'em, and so it's the most comforting end I can think of."
It was indeed a beautiful rug when it was finished and laid
in front of the sofa in the fore-room. Diadema was very choice of it.
When company was expected she removed it from its accustomed place,
and spread it in a corner of the room where no profane foot could possibly
tread on it. Unexpected callers were managed by a different method.
If they seated themselves on the sofa, she would fear they did not "set easy"
or "rest comfortable" there, and suggest their moving to the stuffed
chair by the window. The neighbors thought this solicitude merely
another sign of Diadema's "p'ison neatness," excusable in this case
as there was so much white in the new rug.
The fore-room blinds were ordinarily closed, and the chillness
of death pervaded the sacred apartment; but on great occasions,
when the sun was allowed to penetrate the thirty-two tiny panes
of glass in each window, and a blaze was lighted in the fire-place,
Miss Hollis would look in as she went upstairs, and muse
a moment over the pathetic little romance of rags, the story
of two lives worked into a bouquet of old-fashioned posies,
whose gay tints were brought out by a setting of sombre threads.
Existence had gone so quietly in this remote corner of the world that
all its important events, babyhood, childhood, betrothal, marriage,
motherhood, with all their mysteries of love and life and death,
were chronicled in this narrow space not two yards square.
Diadema came in behind the little school-teacher one afternoon.
"I cal'late," she said, "that being kep' in a dark room, and never
being tread on, it will last longer 'n I do. If it does, Priscilla,
you know that white crepe shawl of mine I wear to meeting hot Sundays:
that would make a second row of everlastings round the border.
You could piece out the linings good and smooth on the under side,
draw in the white flowers, and fill 'em round with black to set 'em off.
The rug would be han'somer than ever then, and the story--
would be finished."
A VILLAGE STRADIVARIUS.
"Goodfellow, Puck and goblins,
Know more than any book.
Down with your doleful problems,
And court the sunny brook.
The south-winds are quick-witted,
The schools are sad and slow,
The masters quite omitted
The lore we care to know."
"Find the 317th page, Davy, and begin at the top of
the right-hand column."
The boy turned the leaves of the old instruction book obediently, and
then began to read in a sing-song, monotonous tone:--
"'One of Pag-pag'"--
"'One of Paggernyner's' (I wish all the fellers in your stories
didn't have such tough old names!) 'most dis-as-ter-ous triumphs
he had when playing at Lord Holland's.' (Who was Lord Holland,
uncle Tony?) 'Some one asked him to im-pro-vise on the violin
the story of a son who kills his father, runs a-way, becomes
a highway-man, falls in love with a girl who will not listen to him;
so he leads her to a wild country site, suddenly jumping with her
from a rock into an a-b-y-double-s'"--
"'--a-- rock--into--an--abyss, were they disappear forever.
Paggernyner listened quietly, and when the story was at an end
he asked that all the lights should be distinguished.'"
"Look closer, Davy."
"'Should be extinguished. He then began playing, and so terrible was the
musical in-ter-pre-ta-tion of the idea which had been given him that several
of the ladies fainted, and the sal-salon-s_a_lon, when relighted, looked like
a battle-field.' Cracky! Wouldn't you like to have been there, uncle Tony?
But I don't believe anybody ever played that way, do you?"
"Yes," said the listener, dreamily raising his sightless eyes
to the elm-tree that grew by the kitchen door. "I believe it,
and I can hear it myself when you read the story to me.
I feel that the secret of everything in the world that is beautiful,
or true, or terrible, is hidden in the strings of my violin,
Davy, but only a master can draw it from captivity."
"You make stories on your violin, too, uncle Tony,
even if the ladies don't faint away in heaps, and if the kitchen
doesn't look like a battle-field when you 've finished.
I'm glad it doesn't, for my part, for I should have more
housework to do than ever."
"Poor Davy! you couldn't hate housework any worse if you were a woman;
but it is all done for to-day. Now paint me one of your pictures, laddie;
make me see with your eyes."
The boy put down the book and leaped out of the open door,
barely touching the old millstone that served for a step.
Taking a stand in the well-worn path, he rested his hands
on his hips, swept the landscape with the glance of an eagle,
and began like a young improvisator:--
"The sun is just dropping behind Brigadier Hill."
"What color is it?"
"Red as fire, and there isn't anything near it,--it 's almost alone
in the sky; there 's only teenty little white feather clouds here and there.
The bridge looks as if it was a silver string tying the two sides
of the river together. The water is pink where the sun shines into it.
All the leaves of the trees are kind of swimming in the red light,--
I tell you, nunky, just as if I was looking through red glass.
The weather vane on Squire Bean's barn dazzles so the rooster seems
to be shooting gold arrows into the river. I can see the tip top of
Mount Washington where the peak of its snow-cap touches the pink sky.
The hen-house door is open. The chickens are all on their roost,
with their heads cuddled under their wings."
"Did you feed them?"
The boy clapped his hand over his mouth with a comical gesture
of penitence, and dashed into the shed for a panful of corn, which he
scattered over the ground, enticing the sleepy fowls by insinuating calls
of "Chick, chick, chick, chick!" _Come,_ biddy, biddy, biddy, biddy!
_Come,_ chick, chick, chick, chick, chick!"
The man in the doorway smiled as over the misdemeanor of somebody very
dear and lovable, and rising from his chair felt his way to a corner shelf,
took down a box, and drew from it a violin swathed in a silk bag.
He removed the covering with reverential hands. The tenderness of
the face was like that of a young mother dressing or undressing her child.
As he fingered the instrument his hands seemed to have become all eyes.
They wandered caressingly over the polished surface as if enamored
of the perfect thing that they had created, lingering here and there
with rapturous tenderness on some special beauty,--the graceful arch
of the neck, the melting curves of the cheeks, the delicious swell
of the breasts.
When he had satisfied himself for the moment, he took the bow,
and lifting the violin under his chin, inclined his head fondly
toward it and began to play.
The tune at first seemed muffled, but had a curious bite,
that began in distant echoes, but after a few minutes' the playing
grew firmer and clearer, ringing out at last with velvety richness
and strength until the atmosphere was satiated with harmony.
No more ethereal note ever flew out of a bird's throat than Anthony
Croft set free from this violin, his _liebling_, his "swan song,"
made in the year he had lost his eyesight.
Anthony Croft had been the only son of his mother, and she a widow.
His boyhood had been exactly like that of all the other boys
in Edgewood, save that he hated school a trifle more, if possible,
than any of the others; though there was a unanimity of aversion in this
matter that surprised and wounded teachers and parents.
The school was the ordinary "deestrick" school of that time; there were
not enough scholars for what Cyse Higgins called a "degraded" school.
The difference between Anthony and the other boys lay in the reason as well
as the degree of his abhorrence.
He had come into the world a naked, starving human soul; he longed
to clothe himself, and he was hungry and ever hungrier for knowledge;
but never within the four walls of the village schoolhouse could he get
hold of one fact that would yield him its secret sense, one glimpse
of clear light that would shine in upon the "darkness which may be felt"
in his mind, one thought or word that would feed his soul.
The only place where his longings were ever stilled,
where he seemed at peace with himself, where he understood
what he was made for, was out of doors in the woods.
When he should have been poring over the sweet,
palpitating mysteries of the multiplication table,
his vagrant gaze was always on the open window near which he sat.
He could never study when a fly buzzed on the window-pane;
he was always standing on the toes of his bare feet,
trying to locate and understand the buzz that puzzled him.
The book was a mute, soulless thing that had no relation
to his inner world of thought and feeling. He turned ever
from the dead seven-times-six to the mystery of life about him.
He was never a special favorite with his teachers; that was scarcely
to be expected. In his very early years, his pockets were gone through
with every morning when he entered the school door, and the contents,
when confiscated, would comprise a jew's-harp, a bit of catgut,
screws whittled out of wood, tacks, spools, pins, and the like.
But when robbed of all these he could generally secrete a piece of elastic,
which, when put between his teeth and stretched to its utmost capacity,
would yield a delightful twang when played upon with the forefinger.
He could also fashion an interesting musical instrument in his desk by means
of spools and catgut and bits of broken glass. The chief joy of his life
was an old tuning-fork that the teacher of the singing school had
given him, but, owing to the degrading and arbitrary censorship of pockets
that prevailed, he never dared bring it into the schoolroom. There were ways,
however, of evading inexorable law and circumventing base injustice.
He hid the precious thing under a thistle just outside the window.
The teacher had sometimes a brief season of apathy on hot afternoons,
when she was hearing the primer class read, "_I see a pig. The pig is big.
The big pig can dig;_" which stirring in phrases were always punctuated
by the snores of the Hanks baby, who kept sinking down on his fat
little legs in the line and giving way to slumber during the lesson.
At such a moment Anthony slipped out of the window and snapped
the tuning-fork several times,--just enough to save his soul from death,--
and then slipped in again. He was caught occasionally, but not often;
and even when he was, there were mitigating circumstances,
for he was generally put under the teacher's desk for punishment.
It was a dark, close, sultry spot, but when he was well seated, and had grown
tied of looking at the triangle of elastic in the teacher's congress boot,
and tired of wishing it was his instead of hers, he would tie one end
of a bit of thread to the button of his gingham shirt, and, carrying it
round his left ear several times, make believe he was Paganini languishing
in prison and playing on a violin with a single string.
As he grew older there was no marked improvement, and Tony
Croft was by general assent counted the laziest boy in the village.
That he was lazy in certain matters merely because he was in
a frenzy of industry to pursue certain others had nothing to do
with the case, of course.
If any one had ever given him a task in which he could
have seen cause working to effect, in which he could have found
by personal experiment a single fact that belonged to him,
his own by divine right of discovery, he would have counted
labor or study all joy.
He was one incarnate Why and How, one brooding wonder and
interrogation point. "Why does the sun drive away the stars?
Why do the leaves turn red and gold? What makes the seed swell in the earth?
>From whence comes the life hidden in the egg under the bird's breast?
What holds the moon in the sky? Who regulates her shining?
Who moves the wind? Who made me, and what am I? Who, why, how whither?
If I came from God but only lately, teach me his lessons first,
put me into vital relation with life and law, and then give me your dead
signs and equivalents for real things, that I may learn more and more,
and ever more and ever more."
There was no spirit in Edgewood bold enough to conceive
that Tony learned anything in the woods, but as there was never
sufficient school money to keep the village seat of learning
open more than half the year the boy educated himself at
the fountain head of wisdom, and knowledge of the other half.
His mother, who owned him for a duckling hatched from a hen's egg,
and was never quite sure he would not turn out a black sheep
and a crooked stick to boot, was obliged to confess that Tony
had more useless information than any boy in the village.
He knew just where to find the first Mayflowers, and would bring
home the waxen beauties when other people had scarcely begun to
think about the spring. He could tell where to look for the rare
fringed gentian, the yellow violet, the Indian pipe.
There were clefts in the rocks of the Indian Cellar where,
when every one else failed, he could find harebells and columbines.
When his tasks were done, and the other boys were amusing
themselves each in his own way, you would find Tony lying
flat on the pine needles in the woods, listening to the notes
of the wild birds, and imitating them patiently, til you could
scarcely tell which was boy and which was bird; and if you could,
the birds couldn't, for many a time he coaxed the bobolinks
and thrushes to perch on the low boughs above his head and chirp
to him as if he were a feathered brother. There was nothing
about the building of nests with which he was not familiar.
He could have taken hold and helped if the birds had not been so shy,
and if he had had beak and claw instead of clumsy fingers.
He would sit near a beehive for hours without moving,
or lie prone in the sandy road, under the full glare of
the sun, watching the ants acting out their human comedy;
sometimes surrounding a favorite hill with stones, that the comedy
might not be turned into a tragedy by a careless footfall.
The cottage on the river road grew more and more
to resemble a museum and herbarium as the years went by,
and the Widow Croft's weekly house-cleaning was a matter
that called for the exercise of Christian grace.
Still, Tony was a good son, affectionate, considerate, and obedient.
His mother had no idea that he would ever be able, or indeed willing,
to make a living; but there was a forest of young timber growing up,
a small hay farm to depend upon, and a little hoard that would keep him
out of the poorhouse when she died and left him to his own devices.
It never occurred to her that he was in any way remarkable.
If he were difficult to understand, it reflected more upon his eccentricity
than upon her density. What was a woman to do with a boy of twelve who,
when she urged him to drop the old guitar he was taking apart and hurry off
to school, cried, "Oh, mother! when there is so much to learn in this world,
it is wicked, wicked to waste time in school."
About this period Tony spent hours in the attic
arranging bottles and tumblers into a musical scale.
He also invented an instrument made of small and great,
long and short pins, driven into soft board to different depths,
and when the widow passed his door on the way to bed she
invariable saw this barbaric thing locked up to the boy's breast,
for he often played himself to sleep with it.
At fifteen he had taken to pieces and put together again,
strengthened, soldered, tinkered, mended, and braced
every accordion, guitar, melodeon, dulcimer, and fiddle
in Edgewood, Pleasant River, and the neighboring villages.
There was a little money to be earned in this way, but very little,
as people in general regarded this "tinkering" as a pleasing diversion
in which they could indulge him without danger. As an example
of this attitude, Dr. Berry's wife's melodeon had lost two stops,
the pedals had severed connection with the rest of the works,
it wheezed like an asthmatic, and two black keys were missing.
Anthony worked more than a week on its rehabilitation,
and received in return Mrs. Berry's promise that the doctor
would pull a tooth for him some time! This, of course,
was a guerdon for the future, but it seemed pathetically distant
to the lad who had never had a toothache in his life.
He had to plead with Cyse Higgins for a week before that prudent
young farmer would allow him to touch his five-dollar fiddle.
He obtained permission at last only because by offering to give
Cyse his calf in case he spoiled the violin. "That seems square,"
said Cyse doubtfully, "but after all, you can't play on a calf!"
"Neither will your fiddle give milk, if you keep it long enough,"
retorted Tony; and this argument was convincing.
So great was his confidence in Tony's skill
that Squire Bean trusted his father's violin to him,
one that had been bought in Berlin seventy years before.
It had been hanging on the attic wall for a half century,
so that the back was split in twain, the sound-post lost,
the neck and the tailpiece cracked. The lad took it home,
and studied it for two whole evenings before the open fire.
The problem of restoring it was quite beyond his abilities.
He finally took the savings of two summers' "blueberry money"
and walked sixteen miles to Portland, where he bought a book
called The Practical Violinist. The Supplement proved
to be a mine of wealth. Even the headings appealed to his
imagination and intoxicated him with their suggestions,--
On Scraping, Splitting, and Repairing Violins, Violin Players,
Great Violinists, Solo Playing, etc.; and at the very end
a Treatise on the Construction, Preservation, Repair,
and Improvement of the Violin, by Jacob Augustus Friedheim,
Instrument Maker to the Court of the Archduke of Weimar.
There was a good deal of moral advice in the preface that
sadly puzzled the boy, who was always in a condition of chronic
amazement at the village disapprobation of his favorite fiddle.
That the violin did not in some way receive the confidence
enjoyed by other musical instruments, he perceived from various
paragraphs written by the worthy author of The Practical Violinist,
as for example:--
"Some very excellent Christian people hold a strong
prejudice against the violin because they have always
known it associated with dancing and dissipation.
Let it be understood that your violin is 'converted,'
and such an obligation will no longer lie against it.
. . . Many delightful hours may be enjoyed by a young man,
if he has obtained a respectable knowledge of his instrument,
who otherwise would find the time hang heavy on his hands;
or, for want of some better amusement, would frequent the
dangerous and destructive paths of vice and be ruined forever.
. . . I am in hopes, therefore, my dear young pupil,
that your violin will occupy your attention at just those
very times when, if you were immoral or dissipated, you would
be at the grogshop, gaming-table, or among vicious females.
Such a use of the violin, notwithstanding the prejudices
many hold against it, must contribute to virtue, and furnish
abundance of innocent and entirely unobjectionable amusement.
These are the views with which I hope you have adopted it,
and will continue to cherish and cultivate it."
"There is no bard in all the choir,
. . . . . . .
Not one of all can put in verse,
Or to this presence could rehearse
The sights and voices ravishing
The boy knew on the hills in spring,
When pacing through the oaks he heard
Sharp queries of the sentry-bird,
The heavy grouse's sudden whir,
The rattle of the kingfisher."
Now began an era of infinite happiness, of days that were never
long enough, of evenings when bedtime came all too soon.
Oh that there had been some good angel who would have taken in hand
Anthony Croft the boy, and, training the powers that pointed so
unmistakably in certain directions, given to the world the genius of
Anthony Croft, potential instrument maker to the court of St. Cecilia;
for it was not only that he had the fingers of a wizard; his ear
caught the faintest breath of harmony or hint of discord, as
"Fairy folk a-listening
Hear the seed sprout in the spring,
And for music to their dance
Hear the hedge-rows wake from trance;
Sap that trembles into buds
Sending little rhythmic floods
Of fairy sound in fairy ears.
Thus all beauty that appears
Has birth as sound to finer sense
And lighter-clad intelligence."
As the universe is all mechanism to one man, all form and
color to another, so to Anthony Croft the world was all melody.
Notwithstanding all these gifts and possibilities,
the doctor's wife advised the Widow Croft to make a plumber
of him, intimating delicately that these freaks of nature,
while playing no apparent part in the divine economy,
could sometimes be made self-supporting.
The seventeenth year of his life marked a definite epoch
in his development. He studied Jacob Friedheim's treatise until
he knew the characteristics of all the great violin models,
from the Amatis, Hieronymus, Antonius, and Nicolas, to those
of Stradivarius, Guarnerius, and Steiner.
It was in this year, also, that he made a very precious discovery.
While browsing in the rubbish in Squire Bean's garret to see
if he could find the missing sound-post of the old violin,
he came upon a billet of wood wrapped in cloth and paper.
When unwrapped, it was plainly labeled "Wood from the Bean
Maple at Pleasant Point; the biggest maple in York County,
and believed to be one of the biggest in the State of Maine."
Anthony found that the oldest inhabitant of Pleasant River remembered
the stump of the tree, and that the boys used to jump over it
and admire its proportions whenever they went fishing at the Point.
The wood, therefore, was perhaps eighty or ninety years old.
The squire agreed willingly that it should be used to mend the old violin,
and told Tony he should have what was left for himself.
When, by careful calculation, he found that the remainder would make
a whole violin, he laid it reverently away for another twenty years,
so that he should be sure it had completed its century of patient
waiting for service, and falling on his knees by his bedside said,
"I thank Thee, Heavenly Father, for this precious gift, and I promise
from this moment to gather the most beautiful wood I can find,
and lay it by where it can be used some time to make perfect violins,
so that if any creature as poor and helpless as I am needs the wherewithal
to do good work, I shall have helped him as Thou hast helped me."
And according to his promise so he did, and the pieces of richly
curled maple, of sycamore, and of spruce began to accumulate.
They were cut from the sunny side of the trees, in just the right
season of the year, split so as to have a full inch thickness
towards the bark, and a quarter inch towards the heart.
They were then laid for weeks under one of the falls in Wine Brook,
where the musical tinkle, tinkle of the stream fell on the wood already
wrought upon by years of sunshine and choruses of singing birds.
This boy, toiling not alone for himself, but with full
and conscious purpose for posterity also, was he not worthy
to wear the mantle of Antonius Stradivarius?
"That plain white-aproned man who stood at work
Patient and accurate full fourscore years,
Cherished his sight and touch by temperance,
And since keen sense is love of perfectness,
Made perfect violins, the needed paths
For inspiration and high mastery."
And as if the year were not full enough of glory, the school-teacher
sent him a book with a wonderful poem in it.
That summer's teaching had been the freak of a college student, who had
gone back to his senior year strengthened by his experience of village life.
Anthony Croft, who was only three or four years his junior, had been his
favorite pupil and companion.
"How does Tony get along?" asked the Widow Croft when the teacher
came to call.
"Tony? Oh, I can't teach him anything."
Tears sprang to the mother's eyes.
"I know he ain't much on book learning," she said apologetically,
"but I'm bound he don't make you no trouble in deportment."
"I mean," said the school-teacher gravely, "that I can show
him how to read a little Latin and do a little geometry,
but he knows as much in one day as I shall ever know in a year."
Tony crouched by the old fireplace in the winter evenings,
dropping his knife or his compasses a moment to read aloud to his mother,
who sat in the opposite corner knitting:--
"Of old Antonio Stradivari,--him
Who a good quarter century and a half ago
Put his true work in the brown instrument,
And by the nice adjustment of its frame
Gave it responsive life, continuous
With the master's finger-tips, and perfected
Like them by delicate rectitude of use."
The mother listened with painful intentness. "I like the sound of it,"
she said, "but I can't hardly say I take in the full sense."
"Why mother," said the lad, in a rare moment of self-expression,
"you know the poetry says he cherished his sight and touch by temperance;
that an idiot might see a straggling line and be content,
but he had an eye that winced at false work, and loved the true.
When it says his finger-tips were perfected by delicate rectitude
of use, I think it means doing everything as it is done in heaven,
and that anybody who wants to make a perfect violin must
keep his eye open to all the beautiful things God has made,
and his ear open to all the music he has put into the world,
and then never let his hands touch a piece of work that is crooked
or straggling or false, till, after years and years of rightness,
they are fit to make a violin like the squire's, a violin that can
say everything, a violin that an angel wouldn't be ashamed
to play on."
Do these words seem likely ones to fall from the lips
of a lad who had been at the tail of his class ever since his
primer days? Well, Anthony was seventeen now, and he was
"educated," in spite of sorry recitations,--educated, the Lord
knows how! Yes, in point of fact the Lord does know how!
He knows how the drill and pressure of the daily task,
still more the presence of the high ideal, the inspiration
working from within, how these educate us.
The blind Anthony Croft sitting in the kitchen doorway had
seemingly missed the heights of life he might have trod, and had walked
his close on fifty years through level meadows of mediocrity, a witch
in every finger-tip waiting to be set to work, head among the clouds,
feet stumbling, eyes and ears open to hear God's secret thought;
seeing and hearing it, too, but lacking force to speak it forth again;
for while imperious genius surmounts all obstacles, brushes laws and
formulas from its horizon, and with its own free soul sees its "path
and the outlets of the sky," potential genius forever needs an angel
of deliverance to set it free.
Poor Anthony Croft, or blessed Anthony Croft, I know not which,--
God knows! Poor he certainly was, yet blessed after all.
"One thing I do," said Paul. "One thing I do," said Anthony.
He was not able to realize his ideals, but he had the "angel aim"
by which he idealized his reals.
O waiting heart of God! how soon would thy kingdom
come if we all did our allotted tasks, humble or splendid,
in this consecrated fashion!
"Therein I hear the Parcae reel
The threads of man at their humming wheel,
The threads of life and power and pain,
So sweet and mournful falls the strain."
Old Mrs. Butterfield had had her third stroke of paralysis,
and died of a Sunday night. She was all alone in her little
cottage on the river bank, with no neighbor nearer
than Croft's, and nobody there but a blind man and a small boy.
Everybody had told her it was foolish to live alone in a house
on the river road, and everybody was pleased in a discreet
and chastened fashion of course, that it had turned out exactly
as they had predicted.
Aunt Mehitable Tarbox was walking up to Milliken's Mills,
with her little black reticule hanging over her arm,
and noticing that there was no smoke coming out of the chimney,
and that the hens were gathered about the kitchen door clamoring
for their breakfast, she thought it best to stop and knock.
No response followed the repeated blows from her hard knuckles.
She then tapped smartly on Mrs. Butterfield's bedroom window
with her thimble finger. This proving of no avail, she was
obliged to pry open the kitchen shutter, split open a mosquito
netting with her shears, and crawl into the house over the sink.
This was a considerable feat for a somewhat rheumatic elderly lady,
but this one never grudged trouble when she wanted to find
When she discovered that her premonitions were correct,
and that old Mrs. Butterfield was indeed dead, her grief
at losing a pleasant acquaintance was largely mitigated
by her sense of importance at being first on the spot,
and chosen by Providence to take command of the situation.
There were no relations in the village; there was no woman
neighbor within a mile: it was therefore her obvious Christian
duty not only to take charge of the remains, but to conduct
such a funeral as the remains would have wished for herself.
The fortunate Vice-President suddenly called upon by destiny
to guide the ship of state, the general who sees a possible
Victoria Cross in a hazardous engagement, can have a faint
conception of aunt Hitty's feeling on this momentous occasion.
Funerals were the very breath of her life. There was no ceremony,
either of public or private import, that, to her mind,
approached a funeral in real satisfying interest.
Yet, with distinct talent in this direction, she had always
been "cabined, cribbed, confined" within hopeless limitations.
She had assisted in a secondary capacity at funerals in the families
of other people, but she would have reveled in personally
conducted ones. The members of her own family stubbornly
refused to die, however, even the distant connections living
on and on to a ridiculous old age; and if they ever did die,
by reason of a falling roof, shipwreck, or conflagration,
they generally died in Texas or Iowa, or some remote State where
aunt Hitty could not follow the hearse in the first carriage.
This blighted ambition was a heart sorrow of so deep and sacred
a character that she did not even confess it to "Si," as her
appendage of a husband was called.
Now at last her chance for planning a funeral had come.
Mrs. Butterfield had no kith or kin save her niece, Lyddy Ann,
who lived in Andover, or Lawrence, or Haverhill Massachusetts,--
aunt Hitty couldn't remember which, and hoped nobody else could.
The niece would be sent for when they found out where she lived;
meanwhile the funeral could not be put off.
She glanced round the house preparatory to locking it
up and starting to notify Anthony Croft. She would just run
over and talk to him about ordering the coffin; then she could
attend to all other necessary preliminaries herself.
The remains had been well-to-do, and there was no occasion for
sordid economy, so aunt Hitty determined in her own mind to have
the latest fashion in everything, including a silver coffin plate.
The Butterfield coffin plates were a thing to be proud of.
They had been sacredly preserved for years and years, and the
entire collection--numbering nineteen in all had been framed,
and adorned the walls of the deceased lady's best room.
They were not of solid silver, it is true, but even so it was a
matter of distinction to have belonged to a family that could
afford to have nineteen coffin plates of any sort.
Aunt Hitty planned certain dramatic details as she
walked town the road to Croft's. It came to her in a burst
of inspiration that she would have two ministers: one for
the long prayer, and one for the short prayer and the remarks.
She hoped that Elder Weeks would be adequate in the latter
direction. She knew she couldn't for the life of her think
of anything interesting about Mrs. Butterfield, save that she
possessed nineteen coffin plates, and brought her hens to
Edgewood every summer for their health; but she had heard Elder
Weeks make a moving discourse out of less than that.
To be sure, he needed priming, but she was equal to that.
There was Ivory Brown's funeral: how would that have gone on
if it hadn't been for her? Wasn't the elder ten minutes late,
and what would his remarks have amounted to without her suggestions?
You might almost say she was the author of the discourse,
for she gave him all the appropriate ideas. As she had helped him
out of the wagon she had said: "Are you prepared? I thought not;
but there's no time to lose. Remember there are aged parents;
two brothers living, one railroading in Spokane Falls,
the other clerking in Washington, D. C. Don't mention
the Universalists,--there's ben two in the fam'ly; nor insanity,--
there 's ben one o' them. The girl in the corner by the clock
is the one that the remains has been keeping comp'ny with.
If you can make some genteel allusions to her, it'll be much
appreciated by his folks."
As to the long prayer, she knew that the Rev. Mr. Ford could be relied
on to pray until aunt Becky Burnham should twitch him by the coat tails.
She had done it more than once. She had also, on one occasion,
got up and straightened his ministerial neckerchief, which he had gradually
"prayed" around his saintly neck until it was behind the right ear.
These plans proved so fascinating to aunt Hitty that she walked
quite half a mile beyond Croft's, and was obliged to retrace her steps.
She conceived bands of black alpaca for the sleeves and hats
of the pallbearers, and a festoon of the same over the front gate,
if there should be any left over. She planned the singing by the choir.
There had been no real choir-singing at any funeral in Edgewood since
the Rev. Joshua Beckwith had died. She would ask them to open with--
Rebel mourner, cease your weepin'.
You too must die.
This was a favorite funeral hymn. The only difficulty
would be in keeping aunt Becky Burnham from pitching it
in a key where nobody but a soprano skylark, accustomed to
warble at a great height, could possibly sing it.
It was generally given at the grave, when Elder Weeks officiated;
but it never satisfied aunt Hitty, because the good elder always
looked so unpicturesque when he threw a red bandanna handkerchief
over his head before beginning the twenty-seven verses.
After the long prayer, she would have Almira Berry give
for a solo--
This gro-o-oanin' world 's too dark and
dre-e-ar for the saints' e - ter - nal rest,
This hymn, if it did not wholly reconcile one to death,
enabled one to look upon life with sufficient solemnity.
It was a thousand pities, she thought, that the old hearse was
so shabby and rickety, and that Gooly Eldridge, who drove it,
would insist on wearing a faded peach-blow overcoat.
It was exasperating to think of the public spirit at Egypt,
and contrast it with the state of things at Pleasant River.
In Egypt they had sold the old hearse house for a sausage shop,
and now they were having hearse sociables every month
to raise money for a new one.
All these details flew through aunt Hitty's mind in
fascinating procession. There shouldn't be "a hitch" anywhere.
There had been a hitch at her last funeral, but she had been
only an assistant there. Matt Henderson had been struck
by lightning at the foot of Squire Bean's old nooning tree,
and certain circumstances combined to make the funeral one
of unusual interest, so much so that fat old Mrs. Potter
from Deerwander created a sensation at the cemetery.
She was so anxious to get where she could see everything
to the best advantage that she crowded too near the bier,
stepped on the sliding earth, and pitched into the grave.
As she weighed over two hundred pounds, and was in a position
of some disadvantage, it took five men to extricate her from
the dilemma, and the operation made a long and somewhat
awkward break in the religious services. Aunt Hitty always
said of this catastrophe, "If I'd 'a' ben Mis' Potter, I'd 'a'
ben so mortified I believe I'd 'a' said, 'I wa'n't plannin'
to be buried, but now I'm in here I declare I'll stop!'"
Old Mrs. Butterfield's funeral was not only voted
an entire success by the villagers, but the seal of professional
approval was set upon it by an undertaker from Saco,
who declared that Mrs. Tarbox could make a handsome living
in the funeral line anywhere. Providence, who always assists
those who assist themselves, decreed that the niece Lyddy Ann
should not arrive until the aunt was safely buried; so, there being
none to resist her right or grudge her the privilege aunt Hitty,
for the first time in her life, rode in the next buggy to
the hearse. Si, in his best suit, a broad weed and weepers,
drove Cyse Higgins's black colt, and aunt Hitty was dressed in
deep mourning, with the Widow Buzzell's crape veil over her face,
and in her hand a palmleaf fan tied with a black ribbon.
Her comment to Si, as she went to her virtuous couch that night, was:
"It was an awful dry funeral, but that was the only flaw in it.
It would 'a' ben perfect if there' ben anybody to shed tears.
I come pretty nigh it myself, though I ain't no relation,
when Elder Weeks said, 'You'll go round the house, my sisters,
and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int' the orchard,
and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int'
the barn and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int'
the shed, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int'
the hencoop, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there!'
That would 'a' drawed tears from a stone most, 'specially sence Mis'
Butterfield set such store by her hens."
And this is the way that Lyddy Butterfield came into
her kingdom, a little lone brown house on the river's brim.
She had seen it only once before when she had driven out from Portland,
years ago, with her aunt. Mrs. Butterfield lived in Portland,
but spent her summers in Edgewood on account of her chickens.
She always explained that the country was dreadful dull for her,
but good for the hens; they always laid so much better in
the winter time.
Lyddy liked the place all the better for its loneliness.
She had never had enough of solitude, and this quiet home,
with the song of the river for company, if one needed more
company than chickens and a cat, satisfied all her desires,
particularly as it was accompanied by a snug little income
of two hundred dollars a year, a meagre sum that seemed to open
up mysterious avenues of joy to her starved, impatient heart.
When she was a mere infant, her brother was holding
her on his knee before the great old-fashioned fireplace
heaped with burning logs. A sudden noise startled him,
and the crowing, restless baby gave an unexpected lurch, and slipped,
face downward, into the glowing embers. It was a full minute
before the horror-stricken boy could extricate the little creature
from the cruel flame that had already done its fatal work.
The baby escaped with her life, but was disfigured forever.
As she grew older, the gentle hand of time could not entirely
efface the terrible scars. One cheek was wrinkled and crimson,
while one eye and the mouth were drawn down pathetically.
The accident might have changed the disposition of any child,
but Lyddy chanced to be a sensitive, introspective bit of feminine
humanity, in whose memory the burning flame was never quenched.
Her mother, partly to conceal her own wounded vanity, and partly
to shield the timid, morbid child, kept her out of sight as much
as possible; so that at sixteen, when she was left an orphan,
she had lived almost entirely in solitude.
She became, in course of time, a kind of general nursery
governess in a large family of motherless children.
The father was almost always away from home; his sister kept the house,
and Lyddy stayed in the nursery, bathing the brood and putting
them to bed, dressing them in the morning, and playing with them
in the safe privacy of the back garden or the open attic.
They loved her, disfigured as she was, for the child despises
mere externals, and explores the heart of things to see whether it
be good or evil,--but they could never induce her to see strangers,
nor to join any gathering of people.
The children were grown and married now, and Lyddy was nearly
forty when she came into possession of house and lands and fortune;
forty, with twenty years of unexpended feeling pent within her.
Forty, that is rather old to be interesting, but age is a relative matter.
Haven't you seen girls of four-and-twenty who have nibbled and been
nibbled at ever since they were sixteen, but who have neither caught
anything nor been caught? They are old, if you like, but Lyddy was
forty and still young, with her susceptibilities cherished, not dulled,
and with all the "language of passion fresh and rooted as the lovely
leafage about a spring."
"He shall daily joy dispense
Hid in song's sweet influence."
Lyddy had very few callers during her first month
as a property owner in Edgewood. Her appearance would
have been against her winning friends easily in any case,
even if she had not acquired the habits of a recluse.
It took a certain amount of time, too, for the community
to get used to the fact that old Mrs. Butterfield was dead,
and her niece Lyddy Ann living in the cottage on the river road.
There were numbers of people who had not yet heard that old
Mrs. Butterfield had bought the house from the Thatcher boys,
and that was fifteen years ago; but this was not strange, for,
notwithstanding aunt Hitty's valuable services in disseminating
general information, there was a man living on the Bonny Eagle
road who was surprised to hear that Daniel Webster was dead,
and complained that folks were not so long-lived as they
used to be.
Aunt Hitty thought Lyddy a Goth and a Vandal because she took down
the twenty silver coffin plates and laid them reverently away.
"Mis' Butterfield would turn in her grave," she said, "if she knew it.
She ain't much of a housekeeper, I guess," she went on, as she cut
over Dr. Berry's old trousers into briefer ones for Tommy Berry.
"She gives considerable stuff to her hens that she'd a sight better heat
over and eat herself, in these hard times when the missionary societies can't
hardly keep the heathen fed and clothed and warmed--no, I don't mean warmed,
for most o' the heathens live in hot climates, somehow or 'nother.
My back door's jest opposite hers; it's across the river, to be sure,
but it's the narrer part, and I can see everything she does as plain
as daylight. She washed a Monday, and she ain't taken her clothes in yet,
and it's Thursday. She may be bleachin' of 'em out, but it looks slack.
I said to Si last night I should stand it till 'bout Friday,--seein' 'em lay
on the grass there, but if she didn't take 'em in then, I should go
over and offer to help her. She has a fire in the settin'-room 'most
every night, though we ain't had a frost yet; and as near's I can
make out, she's got full red curtains hangin' up to her windows.
I ain't sure, for she don't open the blinds in that room till I
get away in the morning, and she shuts 'em before I get back at night.
Si don't know red from green, so he's useless in such matters.
I'm going home late to-night, and walk down on that side o' the river,
so't I can call in after dark and see what makes her house light up
as if the sun was settin' inside of it."
As a matter of fact, Lyddy was reveling in house-furnishing
of a humble sort. She had a passion for color. There was
a red-and-white straw matting on the sitting-room floor.
Reckless in the certain possession of twenty dollars a month,
she purchased yards upon yards of turkey red cotton;
enough to cover a mattress for the high-backed settle, for long
curtains at the windows, and for cushions to the rockers.
She knotted white fringes for the table covers and curtains,
painted the inside of the fireplace red, put some pots,
of scarlet geraniums on the window-sills, filled newspaper
rack with ferns and tacked it over an ugly spot in the wall,
edged her work-basket with a tufted trimming of scarlet worsted,
and made an elaborate photograph case of white crash and red
cotton that stretched the entire length of the old-fashioned
mantelshelf, and held pictures of Mr. Reynolds, Miss
Elvira Reynolds, George, Susy, Anna, John, Hazel, Ella,
and Rufus Reynolds, her former charges. When all this was done,
she lighted a little blaze on the hearth, took the red curtains
from their hands, let them fall gracefully to the floor,
and sat down in her rocking-chair, reconciled to her existence
for absolutely the first time in her forty years.
I hope Mrs. Butterfield was happy enough in Paradise to appreciate
and feel Lyddy's joy. I can even believe she was glad to have died,
since her dying could bring such content to any wretched living human soul.
As Lydia sat in the firelight, the left side of her poor face
in shadow, you saw that she was distinctly harmonious. Her figure,
clad in plain black-and-white calico dress, was a graceful, womanly one.
She had beautifully sloping shoulders and a sweet wrist. Her hair was
soft and plentiful, and her hands were fine, strong, and sensitive.
This possibility of rare beauty made her scars and burns more pitiful,
for if a cheap chrome has smirch across its face, we think it a matter
of no moment, but we deplore the smallest scratch or blur on any
work of real art.
Lydia felt a little less bitter and hopeless about life when she
sat in front of her own open fire, after her usual twilight walk.
It was her habit to wander down the wooded road after her simple
five-o'clock supper, gatherings ferns or goldenrod or frost flowers
for her vases; and one night she heard, above the rippling of the river,
the strange, sweet, piercing sound of Anthony Croft's violin.
She drew nearer, and saw a, middle-aged man sitting in the kitchen
doorway, with a lad of ten or twelve years leaning against his knees.
She could tell little of his appearance, save that he had a high forehead,
and hair that waved well back from it in rather an unusual fashion.
He was in his shirt-sleeves, but the gingham was scrupulously clean,
and he had the uncommon refinement of a collar and necktie.
Out of sight herself, Lyddy drew near enough to hear; and this she
did every night without recognizing that the musician was blind.
The music had a curious effect upon her. It was a hitherto unknown influence
in her life, and it interpreted her, so to speak, to herself.
As she sat on the bed of brown pine needles, under a friendly tree,
her head resting against its trunk, her eyes half closed, the tone of
Anthony's violin came like a heavenly message to a tired, despairing soul.
Remember that in her secluded life she had heard only such harmony as Elvira
Reynolds evoked from her piano or George Reynolds from his flute,
and the Reynolds temperament was distinctly inartistic.
Lyddy lived through a lifetime of emotion in these twilight concerts.
Sometimes she was filled with an exquisite melancholy from which there was
no escape; at others, the ethereal purity of the strain stirred her heart with
a strange, sweet vision of mysterious joy; joy that she had never possessed,
would never possess; joy whose bare existence she never before realized.
When the low notes sank lower and lower with their soft wail of delicious woe,
she bent forward into the dark, dreading that something would be lost
in the very struggle of listening; then, after a, pause, a pure human tone
would break the stillness, and soaring, bird-like, higher and higher,
seem to mount to heaven itself, and, "piercing its starry floors,"
lift poor scarred Lydia's soul to the very grates of infinite bliss.
In the gentle moods that stole upon her in those summer twilights she
became a different woman, softer in her prosperity than she had ever
been in her adversity; for some plants only blossom in sunshine.
What wonder if to her the music and the musician became one?
It is sometimes a dangerous thing to fuse the man and his talents
in this way; but it did no harm here, for Anthony Croft was his music,
and the music was Anthony Croft. When he played on his violin, it was
as if the miracle of its fashioning were again enacted; as if the bird
on the quivering bough, the mellow sunshine streaming through the lattice
of green leaves, the tinkle of the woodland stream, spoke in every tone;
and more than this, the hearth-glow in whose light the patient hands
had worked, the breath of the soul bending itself in passionate prayer
for perfection, these, too, seemed to have wrought their blessed influence
on the willing strings until the tone was laden with spiritual harmony.
One might indeed have sung of this little red violin--that looked to Lyddy,
in the sunset glow, as if it were veneered with rubies--all that
Shelley sang of another perfect instrument:--
"The artist who this viol wrought
To echo all harmonious thought,
Fell'd a tree, while on the steep
The woods were in their winter sleep,
Rock'd in that repose divine
Of the wind-swept Apennine;
And dreaming, some of Autumn past,
And some of Spring approaching fast,
And some of April buds and showers,
And some of songs in July bowers,
And all of love; and so this tree--
O that such our death may be!--
Died in sleep, and felt no pain,
To live in happier form again."
The viol "whispers in enamoured tone:"--
"Sweet oracles of woods and dells,
And summer windy ill sylvan cells; . .
The clearest echoes of the hills,
The softest notes of falling rills,
The melodies of birds and bees,
The murmuring of summer seas,
And pattering rain, and breathing dew,
And airs of evening; all it knew....
--All this it knows, but will not tell
To those who cannot question well
The spirit that inhabits it; ...
But, sweetly as its answers will
Flatter hands of perfect skill,
It keeps its highest, holiest tone
For one beloved Friend alone."
Lyddy heard the violin and the man's voice as he talked to the child,--
heard them night after night; and when she went home to the little
brown house to light the fire on the hearth and let down the warm
red curtains, she fell into sweet, sad reveries; and when she blew
out her candle for the night, she fell asleep and dreamed new dreams,
and her heart was stirred with the rustling of new-born hopes that rose
and took wing like birds startled from their nests.
"Nor scour the seas, nor sift mankind,
A poet or a friend to find:
Behold, he watches at the door!
Behold his shadow on the floor!"
Lyddy Butterfield's hen turkey was of a roving disposition.
She had never appreciated her luxurious country quarters in Edgewood, and was
seemingly anxious to return to the modest back yard in her native city.
At any rate, she was in the habit of straying far from home, and the habit
was growing upon her to such an extent that she would even lead her docile
little gobblers down to visit Anthony Croft's hens and share their corn.
Lyddy had caught her at it once, and was now pursuing her to that
end for the second time. She paused in front of the house,
but there were no turkeys to be seen. Could they have wandered up
the hill road,--the discontented, "traipsing," exasperating things?
She started in that direction, when she heard a crash in the Croft kitchen,
and then the sound of a boy's voice coming from an inner room,--
a weak and querulous voice, as if the child were ill.
She drew nearer, in spite of her dread of meeting people,
or above all of intruding, and saw Anthony Croft standing over the stove,
with an expression of utter helplessness on his usually placid face.
She had never really seen him before in the daylight,
and there was something about his appearance that startled her.
The teakettle was on the floor, and a sea of water was flooding
the man's feet, yet he seemed to be gazing into vacancy.
Presently he stooped, and fumbled gropingly for the kettle.
It was too hot to be touched with impunity, and he finally left it
in a despairing sort of way, and walked in the direction of a shelf,
from under which a row of coats was hanging. The boy called again in a
louder and more insistent tone, ending in a whimper of restless pain.
This seemed to make the man more nervous than ever.
His hands went patiently over and over the shelf, then paused
at each separate nail.
"Bless the poor dear!" thought Lyddy. "Is he trying to find
his hat, or what is he trying to do? I wonder if he is music mad?"
and she drew still nearer the steps.
At this moment he turned and came rapidly toward the door.
She looked straight in his face. There was no mistaking it:
he was blind. The magician who had told her through his violin
secrets that she had scarcely dreamed of, the wizard who had set
her heart to throbbing and aching and longing as it had never
throbbed and ached and longed before, the being who had worn a halo
of romance and genius to her simple mind, was stone-blind! A wave
of impetuous anguish, as sharp and passionate as any she had ever
felt for her own misfortunes, swept over her soul at the spectacle
of the man's helplessness. His sightless eyes struck her like a blow.
But there was no time to lose. She was directly in his path:
if she stood still he would certainly walk over her, and if she
moved he would hear her, so, on the spur of the moment, she gave
a nervous cough and said, "Good-morning, Mr. Croft."
He stopped short. "Who is it?" he asked.
"I am--it is--I am--your new neighbor," said Lyddy,
with a trembling attempt at cheerfulness.
"Oh, Miss Butterfield! I should have called up to see
you before this if it hadn't been for the boy's sickness.
But I am a good-for-nothing neighbor, as you have doubtless heard.
Nobody expects anything of me."
("Nobody expects anything of me." Her own plaint,
uttered in her own tone!)
"I don't know about that," she answered swiftly.
"You've given me, for one, a great deal of pleasure with your
wonderful music. I often hear you as you play after supper,
and it has kept me from being lonesome. That isn't very much,
to be sure."
"You are fond of music, then?"
"I didn't know I was; I never heard any before," said Lyddy simply;
"but it seems to help people to say things they couldn't say for themselves,
don't you think so? It comforts me even to hear it, and I think it must
be still more beautiful to make it."
Now, Lyddy Ann Butterfield had no sooner uttered this
commonplace speech than the reflection darted through
her mind like a lightning flash that she had never spoken
a bit of her heart out like this in all her life before.
The reason came to her in the same flash: she was not being
looked at; her disfigured face was hidden. This man, at least,
could not shrink, turn away, shiver, affect indifference,
fix his eyes on hers with a fascinated horror, as others had done.
Her heart was divided between a great throb of pity and sympathy
for him and an irresistible sense of gratitude for herself.
Sure of protection and comprehension, her lovely soul
came out of her poor eyes and sat in the sunshine.
She spoke her mind at ease, as we utter sacred things sometimes
under cover of darkness.
"You seem to have had an accident; what can I do to help you?" she asked.
"Nothing, thank you. The boy has been sick for some days,
but he seems worse since last night. Nothing is in its right
place in the house, so I have given up trying to find anything,
and am just going to Edgewood to see if somebody will help me
for a few days."
"Uncle Tony! Uncle To-ny! where are you? Do give me another drink,
I'm so hot!" came the boy's voice from within.
"Coming, laddie! I don't believe he ought to drink so much water,
but what can I do? He is burning up with fever."
"Now look here, Mr. Croft," and Lydia's tone was cheerfully decisive.
"You sit down in that rocker, please, and let me command the ship
for a while. This is one of the cases where a woman is necessary.
First and foremost, what were you hunting for?"
"My hat and the butter," said Anthony meekly,
and at this unique combination they both laughed.
Lyddy's laugh was particularly fresh, childlike, and pleased;
one that would have astonished the Reynolds children.
She had seldom laughed heartily since little Rufus had cried
and told her she frightened him when she twisted her face so.
"Your hat is in the wood-box, and I'll find the butter in the twinkling
of an eye, though why you want it now is more than--My patience, Mr. Croft,
your hand is burned to a blister!"
"Don't mind me. Be good enough to look at the boy and tell
me what ails him; nothing else matters much."
"I will with pleasure, but let me ease you a little first.
Here's a rag that will be just the thing," and Lyddy,
suiting the pretty action to the mendacious worn, took a
good handkerchief from her pocket and tore it in three strips,
after spreading it with tallow from a candle heated over the stove.
This done, she hound up the burned hand skillfully, and, crossing the
dining-room, disappeared within the little chamber door beyond.
She came out presently, and said half hesitatingly,
"Would you--mind going out in the orchard for an hour or so?
You seem to be rather in the way here, and I should like
the place to myself, if you'll excuse me for saying so.
I'm ever so much more capable than Mrs. Buck; won't you
give me a trial, sir? Here's your violin and your hat.
I'll call you if you can help or advise me."
"But I can't let a stranger come in and do my housework," he objected.
"I can't, you know, though I appreciate your kindness all the same."
"I am your nearest neighbor, and your only one, for that matter,"
said Lyddy firmly; "its nothing more than right that I should look after that
sick child, and I must do it. I haven't got a thing to do in my own house.
I am nothing but a poor lonely old maid, who's been used to children
all her life, and likes nothing better than to work over them."
A calm settled upon Anthony's perturbed spirit, as he sat under
the apple-trees and heard Lyddy going to and fro in the cottage.
"She isn't any old maid," he thought; "she doesn't step like one;
she has soft shoes and a springy walk. She must be a very
handsome woman, with a hand like that; and such a voice!
I knew the moment she spoke that she didn't belong in this village."
As a matter of fact, his keen ear had caught the melody in
Lyddy's voice, a voice full of dignity, sweetness, and reserve power.
His sense of touch, too, had captured the beauty of her hand,
and held it in remembrance,--the soft palm, the fine skin,
supple fingers, smooth nails, and firm round wrist.
These charms would never have been noted by any seeing
man in Edgewood, but they were revealed to Anthony Croft
while Lyddy, like the good Samaritan, bound up his wounds.
It is these saving stars that light the eternal darkness
of the blind.
Lyddy thought she had met her Waterloo when, with arms akimbo,
she gazed about the Croft establishment, which was a scene
of desolation for the moment. Anthony's cousin from
Bridgton was in the habit of visiting him every two months
for a solemn house-cleaning, and Mrs. Buck from Pleasant
River came every Saturday and Monday for baking and washing.
Between times Davy and his uncle did the housework together;
and although it was respectably done, there was no pink-and-white
daintiness about it, you may be sure.
Lyddy came out to the apple-trees in about an hour,
laughing a little nervously as she said, "I'm sorry to
have taken a mean advantage of you, Mr. Croft, but I know
everything you've got in your house, and exactly where it is.
I couldn't help it, you see, when I was making things tidy.
It would do you good to see the boy. His room was too light,
and the flies were devouring him. I swept him and dusted him,
put on clean sheets and pillow slips, sponged him with bay rum,
brushed his hair, drove out the flies, and tacked a green
curtain up to the window. Fifteen minutes after he was sleeping
like a kitten. He has a sore throat and considerable fever.
Could you--can you--at least, will you, go up to my house
on an errand?"
"Certainly I can. I know it inside and out as well as my own."
"Very good. On the clock shelf in the sitting-room there
is a bottle of sweet spirits of nitre; it's the only bottle there,
so you can't make any mistake. It will help until the doctor comes.
I wonder you didn't send for him yesterday?"
"Davy wouldn't have him," apologized his uncle.
"Wouldn't he ?" said Lyddy with cheerful scorn.
"He has you under pretty good control, hasn't he?
But children are unmerciful tyrants."
"Couldn't you coax him into it before you go home?" asked Anthony
in a wheedling voice.
"I can try; but it isn't likely I can
influence him, if you can't. Still, if we both fail, I really don't
see what 's to prevent our sending for the doctor in spite of him.
He is as weak as a baby, you know, and can't sit up in bed:
what could he do? I will risk the consequences, if you will! "
There was a note of such amiable and winning sarcasm in all this,
such a cheery, invincible courage, such a friendly neighborliness
and cooperation, above all such a different tone from any
he was accustomed to hear in Edgewood, that Anthony Croft felt
warmed through to the core.
As he walked quickly along the road, he conjured up a vision
of autumn beauty from the few hints nature gave even to her sightless
ones on this glorious morning,--the rustle of a few fallen leaves under
his feet, the clear wine of the air, the full rush of the swollen river,
the whisking of the squirrels in the boughs, the crunch of their teeth
on the nuts, the spicy odor of the apples lying under the trees.
He missed his mother that morning more than he had missed her for years.
How neat she was, how thrifty, how comfortable, and how comforting!
His life was so dreary and aimless; and was it the best or the right one
for Davy, with his talent and dawning ambition? Would it not be better
to have Mrs. Buck live with them altogether, instead of coming twice a week,
as heretofore ? No; he shrank from that with a hopeless aversion born
of Saturday and Monday dinners in her company. He could hear her pour
her coffee into the saucer; hear the scraping of the cup on the rim,
and know that she was setting it sloppily down on the cloth. He could
remember her noisy drinking, the weight of her elbow on the table,
the creaking of her calico dress under the pressure of superabundant flesh.
Besides, she had tried to scrub his favorite violin with sapolio.
No, anything was better than Mrs. Buck as a constancy.
He took off his hat unconsciously as he entered Lyddy's sitting-room.
A gentle breeze blew one of the full red curtains towards him till
it fluttered about his shoulders like a frolicsome, teasing hand.
There was a sweet, pungent odor of pine boughs, a canary sang in the window,
the clock was trimmed with a blackberry vine; he knew the prickles,
and they called up to his mind the glowing tints he had loved so well.
His sensitive hand, that carried a divining rod in every finger-tip,
met a vase on the shelf, and, traveling upward, touched a full branch
of alder berries tied about with a ribbon. The ribbon would be red;
the woman who arranged this room would make no mistake; for in one morning
Anthony Croft had penetrated the secret of Lyddy's true personality,
and in a measure had sounded the shallows that led to the depths
of her nature.
Lyddy went home at seven o'clock that night rather reluctantly.
The doctor had said Mr. Croft could sit up with the boy unless he grew
much worse, and there was no propriety in her staying longer unless
there was danger.
"You have been very good to me," Anthony said gravely,
as he shook her hand at parting,--"very good."
They stood together on the doorstep. A distant bell,
called to evening prayer-meeting; the restless murmur of the river
and the whisper of the wind in the pines broke the twilight stillness.
The long, quiet day together, part of it spent by the sick child's bedside,
had brought the two strangers curiously near to each other.
"The house hasn't seemed so sweet and fresh since my mother died,"
he went on, as he dropped her hand, "and I haven't had so many flowers
and green things in it since I lost my eyesight."
"Was it long ago?"
"Ten years. Is that long?"
"Long to bear a burden."
"I hope you know little of burden-bearing?"
"I know little else."
"I might have guessed it from the alacrity with which
you took up Davy's and mine. You must be very happy to have
the power to make things straight and sunny and wholesome;
to breathe your strength into helplessness such as mine.
I thank you, and I envy you. Good-night."
Lyddy turned on her heel without a word; her mind was beyond
and above words. The sky seemed to have descended upon, enveloped her,
caught her up into its heaven, as she rose into unaccustomed heights
of feeling, like Elijah in his chariot of fire. She very happy!
She with power, power to make things straight and sunny and wholesome!
She able to breathe strength into helplessness, even a consecrated,
Godsmitten helplessness like his! She not only to be thanked, but envied!
Her house seemed strange to her that night.
She went to bed in the dark, dreading even the light of a candle;
and before she turned down her counterpane she flung herself
on her knees, and poured out her soul in a prayer that had
been growing, waiting, and waited for, perhaps, for years:--
"O Lord, I thank Thee for health and strength and life.
I never could do it before, but I thank Thee to-night for life
on any terms. I thank Thee for this home; for the chance
of helping another human creature, stricken like myself;
for the privilege of ministering to a motherless child.
Make me to long only for the beauty of holiness, and to be
satisfied if I attain to it. Wash my soul pure and clean,
and let that be the only mirror in which I see my face.
I have tried to be useful. Forgive me if it always seemed
so hard and dreary a life. Forgive me if I am too happy because
for one short day I have really helped in a beautiful way,
and found a friend who saw, because he was blind, the real
me underneath; the me that never was burned by the fire;
the me that isn't disfigured, unless my wicked discontent
has done it; the me that has lived on and on and on,
starving to death for the friendship and sympathy and love
that come to other women. I have spent my forty years in
the wilderness, feeding on wrath and bitterness and tears.
Forgive me, Lord, and give me one more vision of the blessed
land of Canaan, even if I never dwell there."
"Nor less the eternal poles
Of tendency distribute souls.
There need no vows to bind
Whom not each other seek, but find."
Emerson's _Celestial Love._
Davy's sickness was a lingering one. Mrs. Buck came for two or
three hours a day, but Lyddy was the self-installed angel of the house;
and before a week had passed the boy's thin arms were around her neck,
his head on her loving shoulder, and his cheek pressed against hers.
Anthony could hear them talk, as he sat in the kitchen busy at
his work. Musical instruments were still brought him to repair,
though less frequently than of yore, and he could still make
many parts of violins far better than his seeing competitors.
A friend and pupil sat by his side in the winter evenings
and supplemented his weakness, helping and learning alternately,
while his blind master's skill filled him with wonder and despair.
The years of struggle for perfection had not been wasted;
and though the eye that once detected the deviation of a hair's
breadth could no longer tell the true from the false, yet nature
had been busy with her divine work of compensation.
The one sense stricken with death, she poured floods of new life and
vigor into the others. Touch became something more than the stupid,
empty grasp of things we seeing mortals know, and in place of the two
eyes he had lost he now had ten in every finger-tip. As for odors,
let other folks be proud of smelling musk and lavender, but let him
tell you by a quiver of the nostrils the various kinds of so-called
scentless flowers, and let him bend his ear and interpret secrets
that the universe is ever whispering to us who are pent in partial
deafness because, forsooth, we see.
He often paused to hear Lydia's low, soothing tones and the boy's
weak treble. Anthony had said to him once, "Miss Butterfield is very
beautiful, isn't she, Davy? You haven't painted me a picture of her yet.
How does she look ?"
Davy was stricken at first with silent embarrassment.
He was a truthful child, but in this he could no more have
told the whole truth than he could have cut off his hand.
He was knit to Lyddy by every tie of gratitude and affection.
He would sit for hours with his expectant face pressed against
the window-pane, and when he saw her coming down the shady
road he was filled with a sense of impending comfort and joy.
"NO," he said hesitatingly, "she isn't pretty, nunky, but she's sweet
and nice and dear, Everything on her shines, it's so clean; and when she
comes through the trees, with her white apron and her purple calico dress,
your heart jumps, because you know she's going to make everything pleasant.
Her hair has a pretty wave in it, and her hand is soft on your forehead;
and it's most worth while being sick just to have her in the house."
Meanwhile, so truly is "praise our fructifying sun," Lydia bloomed
into a hundred hitherto unsuspected graces of mind and heart and speech.
A sly sense of humor woke into life, and a positive talent for conversation,
latent hitherto because she had never known any one who cared
to drop a plummet into the crystal springs of her consciousness.
When the violin was laid away, she would sit in the twilight, by Davy's sofa,
his thin hand in hers, and talk with Anthony about books and flowers
and music, and about the meaning of life, too,--its burdens and mistakes,
and joys and sorrows; groping with him in the darkness to find
a clue to God's purposes.
Davy had long afternoons at Lyddy's house as the autumn
grew into winter. He read to her while she sewed rags
for a new sitting-room carpet, and they played dominoes
and checkers together in the twilight before supper time,--
suppers that were a feast to the boy, after Mrs. Buck's cookery.
Anthony brought his violin sometimes of an evening,
and Almira Berry, the next neighbor on the road to the Mills,
would drop in and join the little party. Almira used to sing
Auld Robin Gray, What Will You Do, Love, and Robin Adair,
to the great enjoyment of everybody; and she persuaded Lyddy
to buy the old church melodeon, and learn to sing alto in Oh,
Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast, Gently, Gently Sighs the Breeze,
and I know a Bank. Nobody sighed for the gayeties and advantages
of a great city when, these concerts being over, Lyddy would
pass crisp seedcakes and raspberry shrub, doughnuts and cider,
or hot popped corn and molasses candy.
"But there, she can afford to," said aunt Hitty Tarbox;
"she's pretty middlin' wealthy for Edgewood. And it's lucky she
is, for she 'bout feeds that boy o' Croft's. No wonder
he wants her to fill him up, after six years of the Widder
Buck's victuals. Aurelia Buck can take good flour and sugar,
sweet butter and fresh eggs, and in ten strokes of her hand she
can make 'em into something the very hogs 'll turn away from.
I declare, it brings the tears to my eyes sometimes
when I see her coming out of Croft's Saturday afternoons,
and think of the stone crocks full of nasty messes she's
left behind her for that innocent man and boy to eat up....
Anthony goes to see Miss Butterfield consid'able often.
Of course it's awstensibly to walk home with Davy,
or do an errand or something, but everybody knows better.
She went down to Croft's pretty nearly every day when his cousin
from Bridgton come to house-clean. She suspicioned something,
I guess. Anyhow, she asked me if Miss Butterfield's two hundred
a year was in gov'ment bonds. Anthony's eyesight ain't good,
but I guess he could make out to cut cowpons off.... It
would be strange if them two left-overs should take an'
marry each other; though, come to think of it, I don't
know's 't would neither. He's blind, to be sure, and can't
see her scarred face. It's a pity she ain't deef,
so't she can't hear his everlastin' fiddle. She's lucky
to get any kind of a husband; she's too humbly to choose.
I declare, she reminds me of a Jack-o'-lantern, though
if you look at the back of her, or see her in meetin'
with a thick veil on, she's about the best appearin' woman in
Edgewood.... I never see anybody stiffen up as Anthony has.
He had me make him three white shirts and three gingham ones,
with collars and cuffs on all of 'em. It seems as if six
shirts at one time must mean something out o' the common!"
Aunt Hitty was right; it did mean something out of the common.
It meant the growth of an all-engrossing, grateful,
divinely tender passion between two love-starved souls.
On the one hand, Lyddy, who though she had scarcely known
the meaning of love in all her dreary life, yet was as full
to the brim of all sweet, womanly possibilities of loving
and giving as any pretty woman; on the other, the blind
violin-maker, who had never loved any woman but his mother,
and who was in the direst need of womanly sympathy and affection.
Anthony Croft, being ministered unto by Lyddy's kind hands,
hearing her sweet voice and her soft footstep, saw her as God sees,
knowing the best; forgiving the worst, like God, and forgetting it,
still more like God, I think.
And Lyddy? There is no pen worthy to write of Lyddy.
Her joy lay deep in her heart like a jewel at the bottom of a clear pool,
so deep that no ripple or ruffle on the surface could disturb
the hidden treasure. If God had smitten these two with one hand,
he had held out the other in tender benediction.
There had been a pitiful scene of unspeakable solemnity
when Anthony first told Lyddy that he loved her, and asked her
to be his wife. He had heard all her sad history by this time,
though not from her own lips, and his heart went out to her
all the more for the heavy cross that had been laid upon her.
He had the wit and wisdom to put her affliction quite out
of the question, and allude only to her sacrifice in marrying
a blind man, hopelessly and helplessly dependent on her sweet
offices for the rest of his life, if she, in her womanly mercy,
would love him and help him bear his burdens.
When his tender words fell upon Lyddy's dazed brain
she sank beside his chair, and, clasping his knees, sobbed:
"I love you, I cannot help loving you, I cannot help
telling you I love you! But you must hear the truth;
you have heard it from others, but perhaps they softened it.
If I marry you, people will always blame me and pity you.
You would never ask me to be your wife if you could see my face;
you could not love me an instant if you were not blind."
"Then I thank God unceasingly for my infirmity," said Anthony Croft,
as he raised her to her feet.
. . . . . .