"Hope I may never see any of 'em agin," interrupted Jane shortly, and thenbitcoin cash abc maintenance she relapsed into silence while her mother rambled on in her characteristic way, making singularly inapt efforts to assist in the task before them.
"Why, sartinly! S'pose I'dethereum blockchain fees take yer away on sich a 'casion? My wife wouldn't let me in if she knowed it.""Well, you and your wife are good neighbors, and that's more'n I can say for most people in these parts. Here's the money. Mrs. Holcroft isn't strong or well enough to talk any tonight. You got yourself a good supper, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes! Helped myself bount'fully. Good night, and good luck ter yer. I can't help thinkin' it was kind o' suddint though, and then she's sich a sickly lookin' critter. Hope yer haven't been taken in, but then, as you say, the marryin' business, like other kinds o' business, is a man's own business.""I hope everyone will take your sensible view, Uncle Jonathan. Good night."Chapter 21 At HomeAlida was not so cold, weary, and almost faint but that she looked around the old kitchen with the strongest interest. This interest was as unlike Mrs. Mumpson's curiosity as she was unlike the widow. It is true the thought of self was prominent, yet hers were not selfish thoughts. There are some blessed natures in the world that in doing the best for themselves do the best that is possible for others.The genial warmth of the fire was grateful to her chilled and enfeebled frame; the homely kitchen, with its dresser of china ware, its tin closet and pantry, the doors of which old Jonathan had left open, manlike, after helping himself "bount'fully," all suggested more comfort to this pallid bride, sitting there alone, than wealth of ornament in elegant apartments has brought to many others. She saw her chief domain, not in its coarse and common aspect, but as her vantage ground, from which she could minister to the comforts of the one who had rescued her. Few brides would care to enter the kitchen first, but she was pleased; she who had scarcely hoped to smile again looked smilingly around on the quaint, homelike room.
"And this is to be my home!" she murmured. "How strange, unexpected, yet natural it all is! Just what he led me to expect. The little lonely farmhouse, where I can be safe from staring eyes and unwounded by cruel questionings. Yet that old man had a dozen questions on his tongue. I believe HE took him away to save my feelings. It's strange that so plain and simple a man in most respects can be so considerate. Oh, pray God that all goes on as it promises! I couldn't have dreamt it this morning, but I have an odd, homelike feeling already. Well, since I AM at home I may as well take off my hat and cloak."And she did so. Holcroft entered and said heartily, "That's right, Alida! You are here to stay, you know. You mustn't think it amiss that I left you a few moments alone for I had to get that talkative old man off home. He's getting a little childish and would fire questions at you point-blank."Three or four half wrecks of men shuffled to his assistance, and together they bore the unconscious woman to the room which was used as a sort of hospital. Some old crones gathered around with such restoratives as they had at command. Gradually the stricken woman revived, but as the whole miserable truth came back, she turned her face to the wall with a sinking of heart akin to despair. At last, from sheer exhaustion, feverish sleep ensued, from which she often started with moans and low cries. One impression haunted her--she was falling, ever falling into a dark, bottomless abyss.
Hours passed in the same partial stupor, filled with phantoms and horrible dreams. Toward evening, she aroused herself mechanically to take the broth Mrs. Watterly ordered her to swallow, then relapsed into the same lethargy. Late in the night, she became conscious that someone was kneeling at her bedside and fondling her. She started up with a slight cry."Don't be afraid; it's only me, dear," said a quavering voice.In the dim rays of a night lamp, Alida saw an old woman with gray hair falling about her face and on her night robe. At first, in her confused, feverish impressions, the poor waif was dumb with superstitious awe, and trembled between joy and fear. Could her mother have come to comfort her in her sore extremity?"Put yer head on me ould withered breast," said the apparition, "an' ye'll know a mither's heart niver changes. I"ve been a-lookin' for ye and expectin' ye these long, weary years, They said ye wouldn't come back--that I'd niver find ye ag'in; but I knowed I wud, and here ye are in me arms, me darlint. Don't draw away from yer ould mither. Don't ye be afeard or 'shamed loike. No matter what ye've done or where ye've been or who ye've been with, a mither's heart welcomes ye back jist the same as when yes were a babby an' slept on me breast. A mither's heart ud quench the fires o' hell. I'd go inter the burnin' flames o' the pit an' bear ye out in me arms. So niver fear. Now that I've found ye, ye're safe. Ye'll not run away from me ag'in. I'll hould ye--I'll hould ye back," and the poor creature clasped Alida with such conclusive energy that she screamed from pain and terror.
"Ye shall not get away from me, ye shall not go back to evil ways. Whist, whist! Be aisy and let me plead wid ye. Think how many long, weary years I've looked for ye and waited for ye. Niver have I slept night or day in me watchin'. Ye may be so stained an' lost an' ruined that the whole wourld will scorn ye, yet not yer mither, not yer ould mither. Oh, Nora, Nora, why did ye rin away from me? Wasn't I koind? No, no; ye cannot lave me ag'in," and she threw herself on Alida, whose disordered mind was tortured by what she heard. Whether or not it was a more terrible dream than had yet oppressed her, she scarcely knew, but in the excess of her nervous horror she sent out a cry that echoed in every part of the large building. Two old women rushed in and dragged Alida's persecutor screaming away."That's allus the way o' it," she shrieked. "As soon as I find me Nora they snatches me and carries me off, and I have to begin me watchin' and waitin' and lookin' ag'in."
Alida continued sobbing and trembling violently. One of the awakened patients sought to assure her by saying, "Don't mind it so, miss. It's only old crazy Kate. Her daughter ran away from her years and years ago--how many no one knows--and when a young woman's brought here she thinks it's her lost Nora. They oughtn't 'a' let her get out, knowin' you was here."For several days Alida's reason wavered. The nervous shock of her sad experiences had been so great that it did not seem at all improbable that she, like the insane mother, might be haunted for the rest of her life by an overwhelming impression of something lost. In her morbid, shaken mind she confounded the wrong she had received with guilt on her own part. Eventually, she grew calmer and more sensible. Although her conscience acquitted her of intentional evil, nothing could remove the deep-rooted conviction that she was shamed beyond hope of remedy. For a time she was unable to rally from nervous prostration; meanwhile, her mind was preternaturally active, presenting every detail of the past until she was often ready to cry aloud in her despair.Tom Watterly took an unusual interest in her case and exhorted the visiting physician to do his best for her. She finally began to improve, and with the first return of strength sought to do something with her feeble hands. The bread of charity was not sweet.Although the place in which she lodged was clean, and the coarse, unvarying fare abundant, she shrank shuddering, with each day's clearer consciousness, from the majority of those about her. Phases of life of which she had scarcely dreamed were the common topics of conversation. In her mother she had learned to venerate gray hairs, and it was an awful shock to learn that so many of the feeble creatures about her were coarse, wicked, and evil-disposed. How could their withered lips frame the words they spoke? How could they dwell on subjects that were profanation, even to such wrecks of womanhood as themselves?
Moreover, they persecuted her by their curiosity. The good material in her apparel had been examined and commented on; her wedding ring had been seen and its absence soon noted, for Alida, after gaining the power to recall the past fully, had thrown away the metal lie, feeling that it was the last link in a chain binding her to a loathed and hated relationship. Learning from their questions that the inmates of the almshouse did not know her history, she refused to reveal it, thus awakening endless surmises. Many histories were made for her, the beldams vying with each other in constructing the worst one. Poor Alida soon learned that there was public opinion even in an almshouse, and that she was under its ban. In dreary despondency she thought, "They've found out about me. If such creatures as these think I'm hardly fit to speak to, how can I ever find work among good, respectable people?"Her extreme depression, the coarse, vulgar, and uncharitable natures by which she was surrounded, retarded her recovery. By her efforts to do anything in her power for others she disarmed the hostility of some of the women, and those that were more or less demented became fond of her; but the majority probed her wound by every look and word. She was a saint compared with any of these, yet they made her envy their respectability. She often thought, "Would to God that I was as old and ready to die as the feeblest woman here, if I could only hold up my head like her!"One day a woman who had a child left it sleeping in its rude wooden cradle and went downstairs. The babe wakened and began to cry. Alida took it up and found a strange solace in rocking it to sleep again upon her breast. At last the mother returned, glared a moment into Alida's appealing eyes, then snatched the child away with the cruel words, "Don't ye touch my baby ag'in! To think it ud been in the arms o' the loikes o'ye!"Alida went away and sobbed until her strength was gone. She found that there were some others ostracized like herself, but they accepted their position as a matter of course--as if it belonged to them and was the least of their troubles.
Her strength was returning, yet she was still feeble when she sent for Mrs. Watterly and asked, "Do you think I'm strong enough to take a place somewhere?""You ought to know that better than me," was the chilly reply.
"Do you--do you think I could get a place? I would be willing to do any kind of honest work not beyond my strength.""You hardly look able to sit up straight. Better wait till you're stronger. I'll tell my husband. If applications come, he'll see about it," and she turned coldly away.
A day or two later Tom came and said brusquely, but not unkindly, "Don't like my hotel, hey? What can you do?""I'm used to sewing, but I'd try to do almost anything by which I could earn my living.""Best thing to do is to prosecute that scamp and make him pay you a good round sum."She shook her head decidedly. "I don't wish to see him again. I don't wish to go before people and have the--the--past talked about. I'd like a place with some kind, quiet people who keep no other help. Perhaps they wouldn't take me if they knew; but I would be so faithful to them, and try so heard to learn what they wanted--""That's all nonsense, their not taking you. I'll find you a place some day, but you're not strong enough yet. You'd be brought right back here. You're as pale as a ghost--almost look like one. So don't be impatient, but give me a chance to find you a good place. I feel sorry for you, and don't want you to get among folks that have no feelings. Don't you worry now; chirk up, and you'll come out all right.""I--I think that if--if I'm employed, the people who take me ought to know," said Alida with bowed head.
"They'll be blamed fools if they don't think more of you when they do know," was his response. "Still, that shall be as you please. I've told only my wife, and they've kept mum at the police station, so the thing hasn't got into the papers."Alida's head bowed lower still as she replied, "I thank you. My only wish now is to find some quiet place in which I can work and be left to myself."
"Very well," said Tom good-naturedly. "Cheer up! I'll be on the lookout for you."She turned to the window near which she was sitting to hide the tears which his rough kindness evoked. "He don't seem to shrink from me as if I wasn't fit to be spoken to," she thought; "but his wife did. I'm afraid people won't take me when they know."
The April sunshine poured in at the window; the grass was becoming green; a robin alighted on a tree nearby and poured out a jubilant song. For a few moments hope, that had been almost dead in her heart, revived. As she looked gratefully at the bird, thanking it in her heart for the song, it darted upon a string hanging on an adjacent spray and bore it to a crotch between two boughs. Then Alida saw it was building a nest. Her woman's heart gave way. "Oh," she moaned, "I shall never have a home again! No place shared by one who cares for me. To work, and to be tolerated for the sake of my work, is all that's left."Chapter 14 A Pitched Battle
It was an odd household under Holcroft's roof on the evening of the Sunday we have described. The farmer, in a sense, had "taken sanctuary" in his own room, that he might escape the maneuvering wiles of his tormenting housekeeper. If she would content herself with general topics he would try to endure her foolish, high-flown talk until the three months expired; but that she should speedily and openly take the initiative in matrimonial designs was proof of such an unbalanced mind that he was filled with nervous dread. "Hanged if one can tell what such a silly, hairbrained woman will do next!" he thought, as he brooded by the fire. "Sunday or no Sunday, I feel as if I'd like to take my horsewhip and give Lemuel Weeks a piece of my mind."Such musings did not promise well for Mrs. Mumpson, scheming in the parlor below; but, as we have seen, she had the faculty of arranging all future events to her mind. That matters had not turned out in the past as she had expected, counted for nothing. She was one who could not be taught, even by experience. The most insignificant thing in Holcroft's dwelling had not escaped her scrutiny and pretty accurate guess as to value, yet she could not see or understand the intolerable disgust and irritation which her ridiculous conduct excited. In a weak mind egotism and selfishness, beyond a certain point, pass into practical insanity. All sense of delicacy, of the fitness of things, is lost; even the power to consider the rights and feelings of others is wanting. Unlike poor Holcroft, Mrs. Mumpson had few misgivings in regard to coming years. As she rocked unceasingly before the parlor fire, she arranged everything in regard to his future as well as her own.Jane, quite forgotten, was oppressed with a miserable presentiment of evil. Her pinched but intense little mind was concentrated on two facts--Holcroft's anger and her mother's lack of sense. From such premises it did not take her long to reason out but one conclusion--"visitin' again;" and this was the summing up of all evils. Now and then a tear would force its way out of one of her little eyes, but otherwise she kept her troubles to herself.Mrs. Wiggins was the only complacent personage in the house, and she unbent with a garrulous affability to Jane, which could be accounted for in but one way--Holcroft had forgotten about his cider barrel, thereby unconsciously giving her the chance to sample its contents freely. She was now smoking her pipe with much content, and indulging in pleasing reminiscences which the facts of her life scarcely warranted.
"Ven hi vas as leetle a gal as ye are," she began, and then she related experiences quite devoid of the simplicity and innocence of childhood. The girl soon forgot her fears and listened with avidity until the old dame's face grew heavier, if possible, with sleep, and she stumbled off to bed.Having no wish to see or speak to her mother again, the child blew out the candle and stole silently up the stairway. At last Mrs. Mumpson took her light and went noisily around, seeing to the fastenings of doors and windows. "I know he is listening to every sound from me, and he shall learn what a caretaker I am," she murmured softly.
Once out of doors in the morning, with his foot on the native heath of his farm, Holcroft's hopefulness and courage always returned. He was half angry with himself at his nervous irritation of the evening before. "If she becomes so cranky that I can't stand her, I'll pay the three months' wages and clear her out," he had concluded, and he went about his morning work with a grim purpose to submit to very little nonsense.Cider is akin to vinegar, and Mrs. Wiggins' liberal potations of the evening before had evidently imparted a marked acidity to her temper. She laid hold of the kitchen utensils as if she had a spite against them, and when Jane, confiding in her friendliness shown so recently, came down to assist, she was chased out of doors with language we forbear to repeat. Mrs. Mumpson, therefore, had no intimation of the low state of the barometer in the region of the kitchen. "I have taken time to think deeply and calmly," she murmured. "The proper course has been made clear to me. He is somewhat uncouth; he is silent and unable to express his thoughts and emotions--in brief, undeveloped; he is awfully irreligious. Moth and rust are busy in this house; much that would be so useful is going to waste. He must learn to look upon me as the developer, the caretaker, a patient and healthful embodiment of female influence. I will now begin actively my mission of making him an ornerment to society. That mountainous Mrs. Viggins must be replaced by a deferential girl who will naturally look up to me. How can I be a true caretaker--how can I bring repose and refinement to this dwelling with two hundred pounds of female impudence in my way? Mr. Holcroft shall see that Mrs. Viggins is an unseemly and jarring discord in our home," and she brought the rocking chair from the parlor to the kitchen, with a serene and lofty air. Jane hovered near the window, watching.
At first, there was an ominous silence in respect to words. Portentous sounds increased, however, for Mrs. Wiggins strode about with martial tread, making the boards creak and the dishes clatter, while her red eyes shot lurid and sanguinary gleams. She would seize a dipper as if it were a foe, slamming it upon the table again as if striking an enemy. Under her vigorous manipulation, kettles and pans resounded with reports like firearms.Mrs. Mumpson was evidently perturbed; her calm superiority was forsaking her; every moment she rocked faster--a sure indication that she was not at peace. At last she said, with great dignity: "Mrs. Viggins, I must request you to perform your tasks with less clamor. My nerves are not equal to this peculiar way of taking up and laying down things."
"Vell, jes' ye vait a minute, han hi'll show ye 'ow hi kin take hup things han put 'em down hag'in hout o' my vay," and before Mrs. Mumpson could interfere, she found herself lifted, chair and all bodily, and carried to the parlor. Between trepidation and anger, she could only gasp during the transit, and when left in the middle of the parlor floor she looked around in utter bewilderment.It so happened that Holcroft, on his way from the barn, had seen Jane looking in at the window, and, suspecting something amiss, had arrived just in time for the spectacle. Convulsed with laughter, he returned hastily to the barn; while Jane expressed her feelings, whatever they were, by executing something like a hornpipe before the window.Mrs. Mumpson, however, was not vanquished. She had only made a compulsory retreat from the scene of hostilities; and, after rallying her shattered faculties, advanced again with the chair. "How dared you, you disreputerble female?" she began.Mrs. Wiggins turned slowly and ominously upon her. "Ye call me a disrupterbul female hag'in, han ye vont find hit 'ealthy."
Mrs. Mumpson prudently backed toward the door before delivering her return fire."Woman!" she cried, "are you out of your mind? Don't you know I'm housekeeper here, and that it's my duty to superintend you and your work?"
"Vell, then, hi'll double ye hup hand put ye hon the shelf hof the dresser han' lock the glass door hon ye. From hup there ye kin see all that's goin' hon and sup'intend to yer 'eart's content," and she started for her superior officer.Mrs. Mumpson backed so precipitately with her chair that it struck against the door case, and she sat down hard. Seeing that Mrs. Wiggins was almost upon her, she darted back into the parlor, leaving the chair as a trophy in the hands of her enemy. Mrs. Wiggins was somewhat appeased by this second triumph, and with the hope of adding gall and bitterness to Mrs. Mumpson's defeat, she took the chair to her rival's favorite rocking place, lighted her pipe, and sat down in grim complacency. Mrs. Mumpson warily approached to recover a support which, from long habit, had become moral as well as physical, and her indignation knew no bounds when she saw it creaking under the weight of her foe. It must be admitted, however, that her ire was not so great that she did not retain the "better part of valor," for she stepped back, unlocked the front door, and set it ajar. On returning, she opened with a volubility that awed even Mrs. Wiggins for a moment. "You miserable, mountainous pauper; you interloper; you unrefined, irresponserble, unregenerate female, do you know what you have done in thus outraging ME? I'm a respecterble woman, respecterbly connected. I'm here in a responserble station. When Mr. Holcroft appears he'll drive you from the dwelling which you vulgarize. Your presence makes this apartment a den. You are a wild beast--"
"Hi'm a vile beastes, ham hi?" cried Mrs. Wiggins, at last stung into action, and she threw her lighted pipe at the open mouth that was discharging high-sounding epithets by the score.It struck the lintel over the widow's head, was shattered, and sent down upon her a shower of villainously smelling sparks. Mrs. Mumpson shrieked and sought frantically to keep her calico wrapper from taking fire. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wiggins rose and took a step or two that she might assist should there be any positive danger, for she had not yet reached a point of malignity which would lead her to witness calmly an auto-da-fe. This was Jane's opportunity. Mrs. Wiggins had alienated this small and hitherto friendly power, and now, with a returning impulse of loyalty, it took sides with the weaker party. The kitchen door was on a crack; the child pushed it noiselessly open, darted around behind the stove, and withdrew the rocking chair.