Robins and Hammers

Mary E. Wilkins

From Cinnamon Roses (Hodder and Stoughton; London: 1908)

It was Monday morning; Lois had her washing all done and her kitchen cleaned up, and it was yet not ten o'clock; the dew had not dried off the grass, and the surprise of the morning had not worn off in her heart. Lois was a girl who felt such things. After she had finished her kitchen work, she came with her broom into the front entry, with its unpainted, uneven floor; she was going to sweep that out; then her work in the lower part of the house was done, and she had nothing more to do before dinner except to put her own room upstairs in order.

She opened the front door after she had come the length of the narrow entry; then she could not help standing there a little while and staring out, leaning on her broom. It was beautiful outside, and, apart from that, the outdoors gave her somehow a sweet sense of companionship. The soft wind, and the sunshine, and the sweet spring smells came in by the open door like people. Lois felt it, though she did not get so far as thinking it. She had been lonesome, without knowing she was so till then. She was always alone in the house all day while her father was at work. Her mother was dead, and she had no brothers nor sisters.

The house faced south east, and there was a weeping-willow tree in front of it. Its long boughs, which were more like tender green garlands than branches, swayed gently in the wind, and the sun shone through them. Lois looked at it radiantly. The spring birds were singing very shrill and sweet. There were bluebirds and orioles, and, more than anything else, robins. Lois always seemed to hear the robins plainest, maybe because she loved them best. She had always liked robins ever since she was a child. But now there was something else she liked to listen to better than the robins, and that was the sound of the carpenters' hammers on a house over the way. She could see its pinky unpainted pine walls through the trees. That was to be her house, where she and John Elliot were to live when they should be married in the autumn. The taps of the hammers seemed to Lois to harmonize sweetly with the calls of the bluebirds and the robins; they were of the same kind to her; both sounds belonged to love and hope and the spring.

Lois was small and compact in figure; her light-brown hair crinkled closely around her forehead and hung in tight curls on her neck. She had a pretty, thin face, with bright eyes, sensitive lips, and a clear skin. She was neat in her poor calico dress. There was no money in the Arms family, though once they had been comfortably off. Hiram Arms had been a prosperous farmer on his own account up in Rowe; now he was renting this great, unpainted, weather-beaten old house in Pawlet, and letting himself out to other farmers for low hire. A good many causes had brought it about: fire and mortgages and sickness. It had not happened until after Sarah Arms's death — that was always a comfort to her daughter Lois. Sarah Arms had been a high-spirited woman; there were people who said that her ambition and extravagance had brought about her husband's failure. There had been a bay window and a new piazza on that snug farmhouse in Rowe, of which the old neighbours spoke dubiously now. “Hiram Arms never ought to have put on them additions,” said they; “but Mis' Arms would hev 'em, poor woman.”

So now the father and daughter grubbed along in Pawlet, the daughter uncomplainingly, the father complainingly. He was naturally a nervous man, and trouble had shaken him. But at last, since Lois' engagement to John Elliot, their affairs began to look brighter. John had not much money; he would have to mortgage his new house; but he had steady work and good pay, and a prospect of better. Hiram Arms was to give up, on his daughter's marriage, the desolate old house which he rented, and go to live with her in her new one. He was very proud and happy about it, and talked it over a good deal among the neighbours; he had always been almost foolishly fond of his daughter, and he was growing garrulous.

Finally Lois took her broom and went about her work. She had been brought up on the rigid New England plan, and had a guilty feeling that it was a waste of time if she stopped a minute to be happy. There was very little furniture in these large, square, low-walled rooms, but everything was scrupulously clean. After her sweeping was done and her own room put in order, Lois had a little time to sit down and sew before she got dinner; after dinner, when the dishes were put away and her father gone back to his work, she had a long quiet spell the whole afternoon till six o'clock.

There Lois sat in the one of the two square front apartments which they used for a sitting room, sewing. She was making a kind of coarse cotton edging. She could not think of such things as boughten trimming for her poor little wedding outfit; but it was no matter, for she thought this was beautiful. Hattie Smith had taught her how to do it. She was her nearest girl neighbour, and she lived a quarter of a mile away, with no houses between. Lois, as she sat there, wished Hattie would come over that afternoon, and by three o'clock she did come in sight: a stout, girlish figure, in an ugly light-brown woollen dress fitting tightly over her curving shoulders. She had her plaid shawl over her arm, the afternoon was so warm.

“Oh, Hattie,” cried Lois, running to the door and opening it, “I am so glad you've come! I was awful lonesome.”

“Well, I thought I'd come over two or three minutes. Mother an' I got our washin' out of the way real early to-day, and there wasn't anything to do at home, an' I thought I'd bring my sewing over here.”

The two girls sat peacefully down at their work in the sitting-room. Hattie was running up some breadths of a dress, and Lois kept on with her edging.

“You get along real fast with that edging, don't you?” said Hattie.

“Well, I don't know. I haven't worked on it very steady.”

“I think it's real pretty.”

“So do I; beautiful.”

Hattie dropped her sewing after a little, and stared at Lois with an odd expression on her large face, half of concealed pleasure, half of doubt and commiseration.

“Lois,” said she, “I heard something to-day, an' I don't know whether to tell you of it or not. I told mother I was half a mind to, for I thought you ought to know it. It made me real mad.”

“What is it, Hattie?”

“Why, I don't know as I ought to tell. I'm afraid it'll make you feel bad.”

“No, it won't.”

“Well, if you're sure it won't. I wouldn't mind it a bit if I was you. It made me real mad. I think she was just as mean as she could be. You see, old Mis' Elliot run over to borrow some soap this morning, an' she sat down a minute, an' we got to talkin' about John, an' his new house, an' you. I don't believe I'd better tell you, Lois.”

“Yes: I won't mind. Go on.”

“Well, mother said something about what a pretty girl you was, an' Mis' Elliot said, yes, you was pretty enough, but she couldn't help wishing sometimes that you had something to help John along with a little. She always thought the woman ought to furnish the house — she did when she was married — an' it was a dreadful hinderance to a young man to have to do everything. John worked terrible hard, an' she was afraid he'd get sick. And then she said she always thought a girl ought to have at least two silk dresses when she was married, a black one an' a coloured one, and a good stock of clothes, so her husband wouldn't have to buy anything for her for two years certain. Now, Lois, you won't feel bad? Why, Lois, don't cry!”

Lois's poor little cotton edging lay unnoticed in her lap, and she was sobbing pitifully in her little coarse handkerchief.

“Now, Lois, I wouldn't have told you if I'd thought you'd felt so bad.”

Lois wiped her eyes, and raised her head bravely. “I don't feel bad,” said she; “only I wouldn't have believed that Mis' Elliot would have spoken so, when she knew I was doing the best I could.”

“Well, I wouldn't; I think she was awful mean. I wouldn't mind it a bit, Lois.”

“I don't,” said Lois, and took up the cotton edging again and went on working, trying to look pleasant and unconcerned with her red eyes. She would talk no more on the subject, however, though Hattie kept alluding to it.

Hattie went home a little before teatime, saying to herself she didn't know what to make of Lois Arms. Lois felt nothing but honest distress; no anger against any one — none against Hattie, nor even against Mrs. Elliot. Her mother, before she died, had told her a good many times that she had not enough spirit, and would have a hard time going through the world, and she would have told her that now had she been alive.

After Hattie went she sat there listening to the carpenters' hammers and the birds, but they no longer sounded to her as they had done. She kept saying it over to herself in a discordant refrain that drowned everything else, and took away the sweetness of it, with a bitter aftertaste:

“Two silk dresses, a black one and a coloured one; and I ought to furnish the house, and it's going to be a burden to John if I don't.”

She had her father's supper all ready for him when he came from his work, though, in spite of her trouble; and they ate it peacefully together in the great barnlike kitchen, which stretched the width of the house behind the other rooms.

It was odd enough that her father, of his own accord, should broach the subject of her anxiety that night; but he did, after supper, in the sitting room.

“Lois,” said he, “don't you want something to buy you some clothes with? Ain't you got to make some new things before fall?”

Lois choked a little before she answered. “I guess you've got about ways enough for your money, father.”

“Well, I could let you hev a leetle. I ain't got much jest now. Ef two or three dollars would do you any good —”

“I really don't need it now, father. I've got plenty.”

“Well, you know best. I got to thinkin' 'bout it this afternoon — I don't know what put it into my head — when I was ploughin'. Ef things were as they was once, you'd hev enough. When I look back I wish your mother hadn't been quite so set 'bout hevin' them bay winders and piazzas.”

“Oh, father, don't.”

“No, I won't. I don't mean to find fault. Your mother was a good woman and a smart one, and she meant all right. Sometimes I can't help thinkin' it over; that's all.”

Lois kept thinking it all over and over and over. Sunday night John Elliot came; that was his regular courting night. He came early, long before dusk; everything, down to his love making, was prompt, and earnest, and day lighted with John Elliot. He looked just as he was. His tall, stout figure bore his ill-fitting Sunday clothes so sturdily that it made up for their want of grace; his large face, with firm, brown cheeks, and heavy but strong mouth and chin, fronted Lois, and her father, and life, squarely.

The three sat solemnly in the front room for a little while after he came. Then Mr. Arms went out into the kitchen, and sat down patiently in his old armchair, drawn into the back doorway, and listened to the frogs, and the low hum of voices in the next room. Both sounds seemed to belong to a spring he had left behind. He generally went to bed, in his little room which opened out of the kitchen, long before John left, though this sober young man never kept his love up late. But to-night he still sat there in his chair, though half asleep, when the front door closed. He wondered dreamily why John went so soon — an hour earlier than usual. Then he heard Lois go up the front stairs to her room, and then he locked the door and went to bed himself.

Next morning he looked curiously at Lois a good many times, when she was going about getting breakfast for him in the early light. He thought she looked very sober. Once he asked her if she did not feel well, and she said yes. After breakfast, however, she said more. He was just putting on his hat to go to his work when she stopped him.

“Father,” said she, “I s'pose you ought to know it; John and I ain't going to get married in the fall.”

“You don't mean you've broke it off?”

“No; I haven't broke it off, father. I hope some time it'll be all right, and that's all I can say about it. Don't talk any more about it, father. I tell you this, for I think you ought to know.”

It was not so easy, however, to stop her nervous, distressed father in his wonderment and conjecturing. He lingered and talked and questioned, but Lois would say no more than she had said, and he went off to work in an anxious bewilderment.

He had been very confidential about his daughter's prospects with the farmer whom he was helping. He had said a good deal about the new house, and how likely the young man was. To-day he said nothing. When he came home he looked very old and dejected.

Lois saw it, with an awful sinking at her heart, but she never faltered in her purpose. A corner of her resolute mother's mantle seemed to have fallen upon her gentle, humble little daughter. She never would marry John Elliot until she could go to him well enough provided with womanly gear not to be a burden at the outset. There was no anger in her determination, and no pride deserving the name.

She had asked him the night before to defer their marriage a year. She gave him no reason; she thought she could not, without, perhaps, having his mother's remarks traced back and trouble made; then, too, she knew he would not consent to the plan.

The result was inevitable with a young man of John Elliot's turn of mind. He broke the engagement squarely and went home. Next day the carpenters stopped working on the new house. The silence of the hammers smote Lois with a dreadful sense of loneliness all day. Her father did not notice it till Tuesday night; then he asked her abruptly, “Have they stopped work on the house?”

“Yes,” said Lois, with a great sob. Then she ran upstairs, threw herself on her bed, and cried bitterly. She could not help it. Still, strangely enough, she was very far from giving up all hope. She had never believed more firmly in her life that the new house would be finished and she and John live in it some day. She was going to work and earn some pretty dresses and some furniture; then John would come back, and it would be all right. In spite of her yielding nature there was in her a capability of fine concentration of purpose, which she might not use more than once in her life, but which would work wonders then. Whether it would work wonders with a practical, unimaginative, evenly resolute nature like John's, remained to be seen. Some might have questioned if her subtle fineness of strength was on a plane equal enough to admit of any struggle.

She had not a doubt about it. John loved her, and by and by, when she had earned enough money, and had her clothes and her furniture, they would be married, and the carpenters would finish the new house.

Her greatest present distress was her father's dejection and her not seeing John Sunday nights, and she made the best of that. It was odd that she did not worry much over poor John's possible unhappiness; but she was so engaged in acting against her own heart for his happiness that she did not think of that consideration.

So she got the district school to teach, and passed the summer that way, instead of making edging and listening to the carpenters' hammers. The school was half a mile from her home, and she had to keep the house tidy and get meals for her father, besides teaching, so she had to work hard. Back and forth she went, passing first the wild roses and then the golden rod on the country road, morning and noon and night, never faltering. Her pretty face got a strained, earnest look on it, but never a hopeless one. If John had only known — but he worked on in the shop over in Pawlet village, and never came near Lois. If she were in his thoughts, he kept her there so secretly that nobody knew. He went to work on week days and to meeting on Sundays just as usual. He never alluded to Lois, or his broken engagement, or his unfinished house, and silenced his mother with, “I don't want to hear a word about this, mother; you may as well understand it first as last.”

She never mentioned the matter to him afterwards, though she got a good deal of comfort from talking it over among her neighbours. She was not sorry, on the whole, she said, that the match was broken off. She had nothing against Lois Arms; she was a real pretty little thing, and a good girl too, she guessed; but she always thought John might do a little better.

Then, on John's marriage, she was to have been left alone in her neat cottage house, which her husband had bequeathed her; and although she had not wanted to live with the young couple and sell her house, or have the young couple live with her, she did not altogether wish to be left alone. If she had told the whole truth, she would have said that she was jealous of her son, and did not really want him to get married at all.

Lois used to meet John's mother sometimes, and would return her stiff bow wistfully. She never thought of being angry with her. John she never met. She used to glance timidly across the church of a Sunday sometimes, and see him upright and grave in his pew; but he never turned his head her way, and never seemed to see her.

Lois taught all that year till the next spring; then she had two hundred dollars in money. She had not spent one cent of her salary, but had saved it jealously. She had not given any to her father; that troubled her most. To see him coming home from his hard, pitiful jobs of woodcutting and hauling through the winter, his shoulders bent, his thin, nervous face with its white beard growing thinner and more anxious, and she with her little hoard, worried her. But she kept thinking it would be all right soon. She knew his disappointment was wearing on him; but soon it would be over, and this precious money would bring it about.

Lois had it all planned, just what she would do with her money. Seventy-five dollars would buy her dresses, she thought, and one hundred and twenty-five her furniture. She anticipated a sumptuous housekeeping outfit from that. She was as innocent as a child about the cost of things. Then John would come back to her, and the taps of the hammers on the new house would chime in again with the songs of the robins.

Lois was thinking what day she should go over to the village to buy her dresses, and how she should send a little note to John, when one day, shortly after her school closed, her father was brought home with a broken arm. That settled the matter. The dresses were not bought, the note was not written, and the carpenters' hammers remained silent when the robins began to sing. Lois's school money paid the rent and the doctor's bill, and bought food for herself and father. She nursed her father till he was about again, and then she took up her school work and began anew. She went without everything. She wore her poor little shoes out at the toes; in the winter she wrapped her shawl round her little red fingers and went without gloves. She went past the wild roses again, then the golden rod and asters, then the red maple boughs, then the snow drifts, back and forth between her home and the school house, with her pretty, enduring, eager face, till spring came once more.

A few weeks after her school closed, John Elliot, coming home from the shop at dusk one rainy Saturday night, met a girl on the covered bridge just before he got to his home. She had been standing motionless at the farther entrance till she had seen him enter at the other; then she had walked forward towards him rapidly. She extended her hand, with something white in it, when she reached him.

“Mr. Elliot,” said she, trembling, “here's a note for you, if you'll please read it when you get home.”

Then he saw it was Lois.

“How do you do?” said he, stiffly, and took the note and went on.

When he got home he opened it and read, holding it under the light on the kitchen shelf, when his mother was out of the room. It did not take long to read. It was only:

“Dear John, — Will you please come over to my house a little while to-morrow night? I want to see you about something.

He folded the note then, put it in his pocket, and asked his mother if supper were ready.

The next evening he was so long about getting ready for meeting, and brushed his coat and blacked his boots so punctiliously, that his mother noticed it and wondered. Was he going to see Lois Arms? But he did not go. He only went to meeting, and straight home afterwards.

If he had only known how Lois was watching for him — though then it was doubtful if he could have gone at once. The limitations of his convictions would always be stronger than his own inclination with him. He could not slacken his own tight rein over himself very easily at his own command. He had made up his mind never to go near Lois again, and he could not break his resolve. He tried, though. Many an evening in the following weeks he dressed himself in his Sunday suit, and even started to go to see Lois; but he never went.

Meanwhile it was too much for Lois. It began to be whispered about the neighbourhood that Lois Arms was very poorly; she was going into a decline. John heard nothing of it, however; not till his mother told him one evening, about the first of June.

“John,” said she — they were sitting at the teatable — “I'm goin' to tell you, for I think you'd ought to know it. I've been over to see Lois Arms this afternoon. I heard she wa'n't well, an' I thought I'd ought to; an' I think she's goin' the way your sister Mary did.”

John sat perfectly still, staring at his mother.

“She looks awfully. She was layin' on the settee in the sittin' room when I went in. She was all alone. An' that ain't all, John; I know she's a-frettin' over you. I sat down there side of her, you know, an' she looked up at me so kind of wishful. I can't help cryin' now when I think of it.”

“‘You ain't feeling very well, Lois?’ says I.

“‘No,’ says she, and tried to smile. But she couldn't; she bust right out cryin'. How she did cry! She sobbed an' sobbed till I thought she'd kill herself. She shook all over, and there ain't anything to her. I put my face down close to her.

“‘What's the matter, you poor child?’ says I.

“‘Oh, Mis' Elliot!’ says she, and she put up her poor little thin arms round my neck an' cried harder.

“‘Lois,’ says I, ‘is it anything about John?’

“‘Oh,’ says she — ‘oh, Mis' Elliot!’ again.

“‘Do you want to see him?’ says I.

“She didn't say anything, only jest held me tighter and cried harder; but I knew as well's I wanted to. I wish you'd go over there, John; I think you'd ought to. It's accordin' to what you profess. I'll own I wa'n't jest pleased with the idea of it at first; but she's a real good girl, an' she's seemed real smart lately 'bout teachin' school. An she did make me think so much of your sister Mary, the way she looked. Mary didn't hev anything of that kind on her mind, poor child, I'm thankful to say; but she looked jest like her. I declare I can't bear to think of it.”

Mrs. Elliot broke down and cried. John said nothing, but rose and went away from the table, leaving his supper untasted. Even then he could not bring himself to go and see Lois that night; he had to wait till the next; but he went then.

It was hardly dark. Lois was lying on the settee in the sitting room when he went in without knocking.


“Oh, John!”

“How do you do to-night, Lois? I didn't know you were sick till mother told me last night.”

“I'm better. Oh, John!”

He pulled a chair up beside her, and sat down. “See here, Lois, I read your note you gave me, you know; but — I couldn't bring myself to come, after all that had happened, to tell the truth. I'm sorry enough I couldn't, now.”

“It's all right, John; never mind.”

“Now, Lois, what has all the trouble been about?”

“What trouble?”

“The whole of it from the first. What made you do the way you did, an' put off gettin' married?”

“Don't make me tell you, John.”

“Yes, I'm going to make you. I know you're sick, an' it seems cruel to bother you; but it's the only way. It ain't in me to go on an' pretend everything's all right when it ain't. I can do everything else for you but that, an' I can't do that if it's to save your life. You've got to be open with me now, an' tell me.”

“John, if I do, will you promise me, solemn, that you won't ever tell anybody else?”

“Yes, I'll promise.”

“Well, I thought it wasn't doing right by you if I got married that fall. I didn't have anything hardly, not one silk dress, and I couldn't do anything towards furnishing the house. I thought if I should earn some money it would make it easier for you. I didn't want to begin to be a burden to you right off, John.”

“But — Why, I don't know what to make of you, Lois. What put such a thing into your head all of a sudden?”

“I ought to have thought of it before.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“I couldn't. You wouldn't have let me do it.”

“Lois, I never saw a girl like you. Here you've been working hard these two years, an' 'most killing yourself, an' never letting me know, an' me not knowing what to think.”

“John, I've got a beautiful black-silk dress, and a blue one and lots of other things. Then I've got more'n a hundred dollars saved to buy furniture.”

“What do you think I care about the dresses and the furniture? I wish they were in Gibraltar!”

“Don't scold me, John.”

“Scold you? There! I guess I won't. Poor Lois! poor girl! You meant all right, but it was all wrong. You've 'most killed yourself. But it'll be all right now. Shall I set the carpenters to work to-morrow, darlin'?”

“Oh, John!”

“I'll speak to 'em bright and early, an' you must hurry an' get well. You worryin' about being a burden! Oh, my Lord! Lois, I'll never get over it. You silly, blessed little girl! There's your father coming.”

The next morning Lois did not wake very early, she had slept so soundly; but when she did she heard — incredulously at first, then in a rapture of conviction — the carpenters' hammers. The robins were singing, too.

Then her father called up the stairs: “Lois! Lois! John's begun work on the new house again!”