Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.

Men, Women, and Ghosts online

. (page 15 of 19)
Online LibraryElizabeth Stuart PhelpsMen, Women, and Ghosts → online text (page 15 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


poorly of her as to suppose she wasn't just as sorry now as I was for
what had happened. I knew well enough how she would jump and throw down
her sewing with a little scream, and run and put her arms about my neck
and cry, and couldn't help herself.

So I didn't mind about the snow, for planning it all out, till all at
once I looked up, and something slashed into my eyes and stung me, - it
was sleet.

"Oho!" said I to myself, with a whistle, - it was a very long whistle,
Johnny; I knew well enough then it was no play-work I had before me till
the sun went down, nor till morning either.

That was about noon, - it couldn't have been half an hour since I'd eaten
my dinner; I eat it driving, for I couldn't bear to waste time.

The road wasn't broken there an inch, and the trees were thin; there'd
been a clearing there years ago, and wide, white, level places wound off
among the trees; one looked as much like a road as another, for the
matter of that. I pulled my visor down over my eyes to keep the sleet
out, - after they're stung too much they're good for nothing to see with,
and I _must_ see, if I meant to keep that road.

It began to be cold. You don't know what it is to be cold, you don't,
Johnny, in the warm gentleman's life you've lived. I was used to Maine
forests, and I was used to January, but that was what I call cold.

The wind blew from the ocean, straight as an arrow. The sleet blew every
way, - into your eyes, down your neck, in like a knife into your cheeks.
I could feel the snow crunching in under the runners, crisp, turned to
ice in a minute. I reached out to give Bess a cut on the neck, and the
sleeve of my coat was stiff as pasteboard before I bent my elbow up
again.

If you looked up at the sky, your eyes were shut with a snap as if
somebody'd shot them. If you looked in under the trees, you could see
the icicles a minute, and the purple shadows. If you looked straight
ahead, you couldn't see a thing.

By and by I thought I had dropped the reins, I looked at my hands, and
there I was holding them tight. I knew then that it was time to get out
and walk.

I didn't try much after that to look ahead; it was of no use, for the
sleet was fine, like needles, twenty of 'em in your eye at a wink; then
it was growing dark. Bess and Beauty knew the road as well as I did, so
I had to trust to them. I thought I must be coming near the clearing
where I'd counted on putting up overnight, in case I couldn't reach the
deaf old woman's.

There was a man just out of Bangor the winter before, walking just so
beside his team, and he kept on walking, some folks said, after the
breath was gone, and they found him frozen up against the sleigh-poles.
I would have given a good deal if I needn't have thought of that just
then. But I did, and I kept walking on.

Pretty soon Bess stopped short. Beauty was pulling on, - Beauty always
did pull on, - but she stopped too. I couldn't stop so easily, so I
walked along like a machine, up on a line with the creaturs' ears. I
_did_ stop then, or you never would have heard this story, Johnny.

Two paces, - and those two hundred feet shot down like a plummet. A great
cloud of snow-flakes puffed up over the edge. There were rocks at my
right hand, and rocks at my left. There was the sky overhead. I was in
the Gray Goth!

I sat down as weak as a baby. If I didn't think of Ben Gurnell then, I
never thought of him. It roused me up a bit, perhaps, for I had the
sense left to know that I couldn't afford to sit down just yet, and I
remembered a shanty that I must have passed without seeing; it was just
at the opening of the place where the rocks narrowed, built, as they
build their light-houses, to warn folks to one side. There was a log or
something put up after Gurnell went over, but it was of no account,
coming on it suddenly. There was no going any farther that night, that
was clear; so I put about into the hut, and got my fire going, and Bess
and Beauty and I, we slept together.

It was an outlandish name to give it, seems to me, anyway. I don't know
what a Goth is, Johnny; maybe you do. There was a great figger up on the
rock, about eight feet high; some folks thought it looked like a man. I
never thought so before, but that night it did kind of stare in through
the door as natural as life.

When I woke up in the morning I thought I was on fire. I stirred and
turned over, and I was ice. My tongue was swollen up so I couldn't
swallow without strangling. I crawled up to my feet, and every bone in
me was stiff as a shingle.

Bess was looking hard at me, whinnying for her breakfast. "Bess," says
I, very slow, "we must get home - to-night - _any_ - how."

I pushed open the door. It creaked out into a great drift, and slammed
back. I squeezed through and limped out. The shanty stood up a little,
in the highest part of the Goth. I went down a little, - I went as far as
I could go. There was a pole lying there, blown down in the night; it
came about up to my head. I sunk it into the snow, and drew it up.

Just six feet.

I went back to Bess and Beauty, and I shut the door. I told them I
couldn't help it, - something ailed my arms, - I couldn't shovel them out
to-day. I must lie down and wait till to-morrow.

I waited till to-morrow. It snowed all day, and it snowed all night. It
was snowing when I pushed the door out again into the drift. I went back
and lay down. I didn't seem to care.

The third day the sun came out, and I thought about Nannie. I was going
to surprise her. She would jump up and run and put her arms about my
neck. I took the shovel, and crawled out on my hands and knees. I dug
it down, and fell over on it like a baby.

After that, I understood. I'd never had a fever in my life, and it's not
strange that I shouldn't have known before.

It came all over me in a minute, I think. I couldn't shovel through.
Nobody could hear. I might call, and I might shout. By and by the fire
would go out. Nancy would not come. Nancy did not know. Nancy and I
should never kiss and make up now.

I struck my arm out into the air, and shouted out her name, and yelled
it out. Then I crawled out once more into the drift.

I tell you, Johnny, I was a stout-hearted man, who'd never known a fear.
I could freeze. I could burn up there alone in the horrid place with
fever. I could starve. It wasn't death nor awfulness I couldn't
face, - not that, not _that_; but I loved her true, I say, - I loved her
true, and I'd spoken my last words to her, my very last; I had left her
_those_ to remember, day in and day out, and year upon year, as long as
she remembered her husband, as long as she remembered anything.

I think I must have gone pretty nearly mad with the fever and the
thinking. I fell down there like a log, and lay groaning. "God Almighty!
God Almighty!" over and over, not knowing what it was that I was saying,
till the words strangled in my throat.

Next day, I was too weak so much as to push open the door. I crawled
around the hut on my knees with my hands up over my head, shouting out
as I did before, and fell, a helpless heap, into the corner; after that
I never stirred.

How many days had gone, or how many nights, I had no more notion than
the dead. I knew afterwards; when I knew how they waited and expected
and talked and grew anxious, and sent down home to see if I was there,
and how she - But no matter, no matter about that.

I used to scoop up a little snow when I woke up from the stupors. The
bread was the other side of the fire; I couldn't reach round. Beauty eat
it up one day; I saw her. Then the wood was used up. I clawed out chips
with my nails from the old rotten logs the shanty was made of, and kept
up a little blaze. By and by I couldn't pull any more. Then there were
only some coals, - then a little spark. I blew at that spark a long
while, - I hadn't much breath. One night it went out, and the wind blew
in. One day I opened my eyes, and Bess had fallen down in the corner,
dead and stiff. Beauty had pushed out of the door somehow and gone. I
shut up my eyes. I don't think I cared about seeing Bess, - I can't
remember very well.

Sometimes I thought Nancy was there in the plaid shawl, walking round
the ashes where the spark went out. Then again I thought Mary Ann was
there, and Isaac, and the baby. But they never were. I used to wonder
if I wasn't dead, and hadn't made a mistake about the place that I was
going to.

One day there was a noise. I had heard a great many noises, so I didn't
take much notice. It came up crunching on the snow, and I didn't know
but it was Gabriel or somebody with his chariot. Then I thought more
likely it was a wolf.

Pretty soon I looked up, and the door was open; some men were coming in,
and a woman. She was ahead of them all, she was; she came in with a
great spring, and had my head against her neck, and her arm holding me
up, and her cheek down to mine, with her dear, sweet, warm breath all
over me; and that was all I knew.

Well, there was brandy, and there was a fire, and there were blankets,
and there was hot water, and I don't know what; but warmer than all the
rest I felt her breath against my cheek, and her arms about my neck, and
her long hair, which she had wrapped all in, about my hands.

So by and by my voice came. "Nannie!" said I.

"O don't!" said she, and first I knew she was crying.

"But I will," says I, "for I'm sorry."

"Well, so am I," says she.

Said I, "I thought I was dead, and hadn't made up, Nannie."

"O _dear_!" said she; and down fell a great hot splash right on my face.

Says I, "It was all me, for I ought to have gone back and kissed you."

"No, it was _me_" said she, "for I wasn't asleep, not any such thing. I
peeked out, this way, through my lashes, to see if you wouldn't come
back. I meant to wake up then. Dear me!" says she, "to think what a
couple of fools we were, now!"

"Nannie," says I, "you can let the lamp smoke all you want to!"

"Aaron - " she began, just as she had begun that other night, - "Aaron - "
but she didn't finish, and - Well, well, no matter; I guess you don't
want to hear any more, do you?

But sometimes I think, Johnny, when it comes my time to go, - if ever it
does, - I've waited a good while for it, - the first thing I shall see
will be her face, looking as it looked at me just then.




Calico.



It was about time for the four-o'clock train.

After all, I wonder if it is worth telling, - such a simple, plotless
record of a young girl's life, made up of Mondays and Tuesdays and
Wednesdays, like yours or mine. Sharley was so exactly like other
people! How can it be helped that nothing remarkable happened to her?
But you would like the story?

It was about time for the four-o'clock train, then.

Sharley, at the cost of half a sugar-bowl (never mind syntax; you know I
mean the sugar, not the glass), had enticed Moppet to betake himself out
of sight and out of mind till somebody should signify a desire for his
engaging presence; had steered clear of Nate and Methuselah, and was
standing now alone on the back doorsteps opposite the chaise-house. One
could see a variety of things from those doorsteps, - the chaise-house,
for instance, with the old, solid, square-built wagon rolled into it
(Sharley passed many a long "mending morning" stowed in among the
cushions of that old wagon); the great sweet-kept barn, where the sun
stole in warm at the chinks and filtered through the hay; the well-curb
folded in by a shadow; the wood-pile, and the chickens, and the
kitchen-garden; a little slope, too, with a maple on it and shades of
brown and gold upon the grass; brown and golden tints across the hills,
and a sky of blue and gold to dazzle one. Then there was a flock of
robins dipping southward. There was also the railroad.

Sharley may have had her dim consciousness of the cosey barn and
chicken's chirp, of brown and gold and blue and dazzle and glory; but
you don't suppose _that_ was what she had outgeneralled Moppet and
stolen the march upon Nate and Methuselah for. The truth is, that the
child had need of none of these things - neither skies nor dazzle nor
glory - that golden autumn afternoon. Had the railroad bounded the
universe just then, she would have been content. For Sharley was only a
girl, - a very young, not very happy, little girl, - and Halcombe Dike was
coming home to spend the Sunday.

Halcombe Dike, - her old friend Halcombe Dike. She said the words over,
apologizing a bit to herself for being there to watch that railroad. Hal
used to be good to her when she was bothered with the children and more
than half tired of life. "Keep up good courage, Sharley," he would say.
For the long summer he had not been here to say it. And to-night he
would be here. To-night - to-night! Why should not one be glad when one's
old friends come back?

Mrs. Guest, peering through the pantry window, observed - and observed
with some motherly displeasure, which she would have expressed had it
not been too much trouble to open the window - that Sharley had put on
her barbe, - that black barbe with the pink watered ribbons run through
it. So extravagant in Sharley! Sharley would fain have been so
extravagant as to put on her pink muslin too this afternoon; she had
been more than half inclined to cry because she could not; but as it was
not orthodox in Green Valley to wear one's "best clothes" on week-days,
except at picnics or prayer-meetings, she had submitted, sighing, to her
sprigged calico. It would have been worth while, though, to have seen
her half an hour ago up in her room under the eaves, considering the
question; she standing there with the sleeves of her dressing-sack
fallen away from her pink, bare arms, and the hair clinging loose and
moist to her bare white neck; to see her smooth the shimmering
folds, - there were rose-buds on that muslin, - and look and long, hang it
up, and turn away. Why could there not be a little more rose-bud and
shimmer in people's lives! "Seems to me it's all calico!" cried Sharley.

Then to see her overturning her ribbon-box! Nobody but a girl knows how
girls dream over their ribbons.

"He is coming!" whispered Sharley to the little bright barbe, and to the
little bright face that flushed and fluttered at her in the glass, - "He
is coming!"

Sharley looked well, waiting there in the calico and lace upon the
doorstep. It is not everybody who would look well in calico and lace;
yet if you were to ask me, I could not tell you how pretty Sharley is,
or if she is pretty at all. I have a memory of soft hair - brown, I
think - and wistful eyes; and that I never saw her without a desire to
stroke her, and make her pur as I would a kitten.

How stiff and stark and black the railroad lay on its yellow ridge!
Sharley drew her breath when the sudden four-o'clock whistle smote the
air, and a faint, far trail of smoke puffed through the woods, and wound
over the barren outline.

Her mother, seeing her steal away through the kitchen-garden, and down
the slope, called after her: -

"Charlotte! going to walk? I wish you'd let the baby go too. Well, she
doesn't hear!"

I will not assert that Sharley did not hear. To be frank, she was rather
tired of that baby.

There was a foot-path through the brown and golden grass, and Sharley
ran over it, under the maple, which was dropping yellow leaves, and down
to the knot of trees which lined the farther walls. There was a nook
here - she knew just where - into which one might creep, tangled in with
the low-hanging green of apple and spruce, and wound about with
grape-vines. Stooping down, careful not to catch that barbe upon the
brambles, and careful not to soil so much as a sprig of the clean light
calico, Sharley hid herself in the shadow. She could see unseen now the
great puffs of purple smoke, the burning line of sandy bank, the
station, and the uphill road to the village. Oddly enough, some old
Scripture words - Sharley was not much in the habit of quoting
Scripture - came into her thoughts just as she had curled herself
comfortably up beside the wall, her watching face against the
grape-leaves: "But what went ye out for to see?" "What went ye out for
to see?" She went on, dreamily finishing, "A prophet? Yea, I say unto
you, and more than a prophet," and stopped, scarlet. What had prophets
to do with her old friend Halcombe Dike?

Ah, but he was coming! he was coming! To Sharley's eyes the laboring,
crazy locomotive which puffed him asthmatically up to the little depot
was a benevolent dragon, - if there were such things as benevolent
dragons, - very horrible, and she was very much afraid of it; but very
gracious, and she should like to go out and pat it on the shoulder.

The train slackened, jarred, and stopped. An old woman with thirteen
bundles climbed out laboriously. Two small boys turned somersaults from
the platform. Sharley strained her wistful eyes till they ached. There
was nobody else. Sharley was very young, and very much disappointed, and
she cried. The glory had died from the skies. The world had gone out.

She was sitting there all in a heap, her face in her hands, and her
heart in her foolish eyes, when a step sounded near, and a voice humming
an old army song. She knew it; he had taught it to her himself. She knew
the step; for she had long ago trained her slippered feet to keep pace
with it. He had stepped from the wrong side of the car, perhaps, or her
eager eyes had missed him; at any rate here he was, - a young man, with
honest eyes, and mouth a little grave; a very plainly dressed young
man, - his coat was not as new as Sharley's calico, - but a young man with
a good step of his own, - strong, elastic, - and a nervous hand.

He passed, humming his army song, and never knew how the world lighted
up again within a foot of him. He passed so near that Sharley by
stretching out her hand could have touched him, - so near that she could
hear the breath he drew. He was thinking to himself, perhaps, that no
one had come from home to meet him, and he had been long away; but then,
it was not his mother's fashion of welcome, and quickening his pace at
the thought of her, he left the tangle of green behind, and the little
wet face crushed breathless up against the grape-leaves, and was out of
sight and knew nothing.

Sharley sprang up and bounded home. Her mother opened her languid eyes
wide when the child came in.

"Dear me, Charlotte, how you do go chirping and hopping round, and me
with this great baby and my sick-headache! _I_ can't chirp and hop. You
look as if somebody'd set you on fire! What's the matter with you,
child?"

What was the matter, indeed! Sharley, in a little spasm of
penitence, - one can afford to be penitent when one is happy, - took the
baby and went away to think about it. Surely he would come to see her
to-night; he did not often come home without seeing Sharley; and he had
been long away. At any rate he was here; in this very Green Valley where
the days had dragged so drearily without him; his eyes saw the same sky
that hers saw; his breath drank the same sweet evening wind; his feet
trod the roads that she had trodden yesterday, and would tread again
to-morrow. But I will not tell them any more of this, - shall I, Sharley?

She threw her head back and looked up, as she walked to and fro through
the yard with the heavy baby fretting on her shoulder. The skies were
aflame now, for the sun was dropping slowly. "He is here!" they said. A
belated robin took up the word: "He is here!" The yellow maple glittered
all over with it: "Sharley, he is here!"

"The butter is here," called her mother relevantly from the house. "The
butter is here now, and it's time to see about supper, Charlotte."

"More calico!" said impatient Sharley, and she gave the baby a jerk.

Whether he came or whether he did not come, there was no more time for
Sharley to dream that night. In fact, there seldom was any time to dream
in Mrs. Guest's household. Mrs. Guest believed in keeping people busy.
She was busy enough herself when her head did not ache. When it did, it
was the least she could do to see that other people were busy.

So Sharley had the table to set, and the biscuit to bake, and the tea to
make, and the pears to pick over; she must run upstairs to bring her
mother a handkerchief; she must hurry for her father's clothes-brush
when he came in tired, and not so good-humored as he might be, from his
store; she must stop to rebuild the baby's block-house, that Moppet had
kicked over, and snap Moppet's dirty, dimpled fingers for kicking it
over, and endure the shriek that Moppet set up therefor. She must
suggest to Methuselah that he could find, perhaps, a more suitable
book-mark for Robinson Crusoe than his piece of bread and molasses, and
intimate doubts as to the propriety of Nate's standing on the
table-cloth and sitting on the toast-rack. And then Moppet was at that
baby again, dropping very cold pennies down his neck. They must be made
presentable for supper, too, Moppet and Nate and Methuselah, - Methuselah,
Nate, and Moppet; brushed and washed and dusted and coaxed and scolded
and borne with. There was no end to it. Would there ever be any end to
it? Sharley sometimes asked of her weary thoughts. Sharley's life, like
the lives of most girls at her age, was one great unanswered question.
It grew tiresome occasionally, as monologues are apt to do.

"I'm going to holler to-night," announced Moppet at supper, pausing in
the midst of his berry-cake, by way of diversion, to lift the cat up by
her tail. "I'm going to holler awful, and make you sit up and tell me
about that little boy that ate the giant, and Cinderella, - how she lived
in the stove-pipe, - and that man that builded his house out of a bungle
of straws: and - well, there's some more, but I don't remember 'em just
now, you know."

"O Moppet!"

"I am," glared Moppet over his mug. "You made me put on a clean collar.
You see if I don't holler an' holler an' holler an' keep-a-hollerin'!"

Sharley's heart sank; but she patiently cleared away her dishes, mixed
her mother's ipecac, read her father his paper, went upstairs with the
children, treated Moppet with respect as to his buttons and boot-lacing,
and tremblingly bided her time.

"Well," condescended that young gentleman, before his prayers were over,
"I b'lieve - give us our debts - I'll keep that hollerin' - forever 'n
ever - Namen - till to-morrow night. I ain't a - bit - sleepy, but - " And
nobody heard anything more from Moppet.

The coast was clear now, and happy Sharley, with bright cheeks, took her
little fall hat that she was trimming, and sat down on the front
doorsteps; sat there to wait and watch, and hope and dream and flutter,
and sat in vain. Twilight crept up the path, up to her feet, folded her
in; the warm color of her plaided ribbons faded away under her eyes, and
dropped from her listless fingers; with them had faded her bit of a hope
for that night; Hal always came before dark.

"Who cares?" said Sharley, with a toss of her soft, brown head. Somebody
did care nevertheless. Somebody winked hard as she went upstairs.

However, she could light a lamp and finish her hat. That was one
comfort. It always _is_ a comfort to finish one's hat. Girls have
forgotten graver troubles than Sharley's in the excitement of hurried
Saturday-night millinery.

A bonnet is a picture in its way, and grows up under one's fingers with
a pretty sense of artistic triumph. Besides, there is always the
question: Will it be becoming? So Sharley put her lamp on a cricket, and
herself on the floor, and began to sing over her work. A pretty sight it
was, - the low, dark room with the heavy shadows in its corners; all the
light and color drawn to a focus in the middle of it; Sharley, with her
head bent - bits of silk like broken rainbows tossed about her - and that
little musing smile, considering gravely, Should the white squares of
the plaid turn outward? and where should she put the coral? and would it
be becoming after all? A pretty, girlish sight, and you may laugh at it
if you choose; but there was a prettier woman's tenderness underlying
it, just as a strain of fine, coy sadness will wind through a mazourka
or a waltz. For who would see the poor little hat to-morrow at church?
and would he like it? and when he came to-morrow night, - for of course
he would come to-morrow night, - would he tell her so?

When everybody else was in bed and the house still, Sharley locked her
door, furtively stole to the bureau-glass, shyly tied on that hat, and
more shyly peeped in. A flutter of October colors and two great brown
eyes looked back at her encouragingly.

"I should like to be pretty," said Sharley, and asked the next minute to


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19

Online LibraryElizabeth Stuart PhelpsMen, Women, and Ghosts → online text (page 15 of 19)