From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)
In July Bouncing Bet came again, appearing silently, with imperceptible gradations of progress, as was her wont. There were first an upflinging and outreaching as of tender naked fingers and arms; then came the unfolding of her stout, oval-lanceolate leaves; then the swelling of her buds; then that morning when the sun was hot and the wind blew in frequent soft gusts from the south she was present for the first time that year in her old place. She was almost identical with herself of the year before; there were no changes in her except those inevitable ones which pertain to the sequence of existence. She might be a little stockier, her roots might have thickened, but there were those same corymbs of loosely flapping, rose-colored flowers crowning her stout growth, exhaling the same odor, which was merely the breath of fresh life, not a compelling fragrance, as was the case with her cousins of the same race. She was far-removed kin to the garden pinks, exiled, none knew in what prehistoric age of flowers, from close relationship with them to the dusty, pilgrim ranks of the world, yet holding to life with undaunted zeal, and maintaining her own creed of bloom in spite of scorn and slights.
It was not so long since that she had been held in some honor; she had been planted and watered and tended; she had bloomed a welcome guest in a colonial garden. She was now like a dainty rag and shred of past fashion, left fluttering by the wayside from the passing of some former pageantry, but she knew no difference between her former estate and her last, being only a flower. Since her first setting in motion in her little cycle, her pendulum-swing between life and death, she had simply obeyed her law of creation. She was, indeed, obedience itself manifested in a clump of oval-lanceolate leaves of dusty green, and a meek, crowned head of delicate rose-colored flowers.
Behind Bouncing Bet was the remnant of the old garden where she had first seen life. Old Parson Lyman had planted the seeds, which he had brought over from England, in a border of his garden. The parson had been a gentle soul, fond of gentle things, like flowers and singing-birds and murmuring brooks and green grass. He had preached fire and brimstone with qualms of unbelief which he strove hard to swallow, and he died repenting with his last breath, and humbly confessing his inability to doubt the loving kindness and mercy of the Lord. Often in the parson's day the flower used to be over-shadowed by a slender height of benignity, and regarded with affection by eyes which had not dwelt long upon things more material than flowers in the world. However, that made no difference to the flower, which was simply a thing set in motion by the old man's will, but immovable as to its principle of existence by any sentiment of his. The flower put to bloom by the man was as free as the man put to bloom by God.
This old parson had been a rich man, and his house had been accounted a mansion. After his death his married son came there to live. He had four daughters and two sons, one of whom afterwards died in the French and Indian War. Then came a time when, had the flower been alive in the fullest sense, she would have seen to remember. The garden was adorned by fairer things than flowers — by damsels in hooped petticoats of silks more gorgeous than the roses; there was an arbor where lovers sat, and the air was full of the mystery of love. Then all that passed, and more of the same, and the past lay more and more thickly buried under the past, and finally, when Bouncing Bet returned in this hot July, everything was so changed as almost to have passed that limit of change where identity ceases.
The road had widened, the old garden had retreated. Bouncing Bet was far beyond the precincts in the common highway along with the common weeds, herself a weed, if she were ranked with her intimates. The stately old house leaned heavily towards its fall, its gambrel roof sagged, there were patches of moss and mould in the hollows, its walls were flapping with gray shingles, and in it lived alone the last survivor of the line of the old parson who planted the flower. The last survivor was a woman, of course. It is generally the woman who survives, either from her pliability of strength, which no storm nor stress can affect, or from the fact that she holds to existence with less tenacity of grasp, and so does not waste her life with her effort to save it.
Be that as it may, she lived alone there, her husband and children being so long dead that she thought of them with the utter peace of acquiescence. She had, indeed, acquiesced, with no questioning, in most of the decrees of fate. She had a placid temperament, and was disposed to get her honey from small things in lieu of great ones. People said that she had not felt her trials as most would have done, and, in proof of it, pointed to her face, young beyond her years, with a blowsy, yet delicate, bloom of round cheeks, a calm clearness of blue eyes, and smooth crinkles of yellow hair. “Any woman that can go through what Ann Lyman has gone through and not have a gray hair hasn't got feelings,” said they, especially Mrs. John Evarts, who lived in her daughter's new house across the street. Mrs. John Evarts, who kept house in the north side, used to sit in her bay-window and watch proceedings over the way. She was the one who instigated the plan to take Ann from her old home and have her board with Mrs. Jackson Smith, with whom the town occasionally boarded people whose former estate and some remnant of present means seemed to prohibit from the town farm. Mrs. Jackson Smith was, moreover, a distant relative of the Lymans, and that made it seem a milder measure.
“It won't seem anything but going to live with her cousin,” said Mrs. John Evarts. She furthermore said that she had lain awake nights worrying over it. She knew Ann Lyman would set herself afire, she would starve to death, she would bring an epidemic of typhoid into the neighborhood, living the way she did.
Poor Ann Lyman's easy acquiescence in circumstances extended to conditions of natural dirt and disorder. It is possible that it might have extended as well to original sin had her lines been cast in different places. Her neighbors, the rigorously tidy village women, said that Ann Lyman couldn't see dirt; possibly she might not have seen sin had it come in her way; but it never had. That had not been so inevitable. The dust of life had not come in her windows to settle on her soul, but the dust of the country roads had entered and settled on her furniture, and she let it remain.
“I don't believe you ever dust, Ann Lyman,” Mrs. Evarts said one day.
Ann only laughed.
“Do you?” insisted the other woman, scowling above her forced smile.
“No,” said Ann.
Ann might have argued, with justice, that she had not much worth dusting. Piece by piece the stately old furniture of the mansion-house had been disposed of to the dealers. There was now little left; the paint was worn from the fine panel-work, and rags of carpets clung to the nails on the edges of the slanting floors, but Ann could accomplish a great multiple of disorder with a few factors. The interior of the old house resembled nothing so much as the interior of a wrecked ship. Its broken furnishings were all set askance at one another, every shred of former splendor was in full and defiant evidence, and, in addition, there was a general effect of all the lines of construction being awry and off their true levels. There was not a horizontal line in the whole house; there were only the reckless slants of waste and destruction by that fiercest storm of the world, the storm of time. But all this did not trouble Ann in the least. When a rocker of her old chair, in which she had sat by her favorite window for more than forty years, gave out, she put a stick of wood in its place, and sat still, and concluded that she fancied that better than rocking. When the glass was broken out of her favorite window, she moved over to another, and thought the new outlook pleasanter. Every new groove of life had fitted this easily sliding, jelly-like old woman; she took her shape from circumstances; nothing rubbed her to her discomfort; she was the happiest woman in the village. But her time came.
The afternoon the selectmen, headed by Jonathan Lyman, the far-away kinsman of the old Lyman family to which she and the old house belonged, came to interview her about the proposed change in her way of living, there was a transformation. This smoothly-oscillating-at-every-touch creature became of a sudden vibrant with pure individuality. Her flaccid muscles seemed to harden, the faint bloom on her cheeks blazed, her loosely smiling mouth was rigid, her mild eyes pointed as with the glitter of steel. All human beings, however unassertive they may be, have some footholds of self, impregnable against assault. Ann's had been touched, and she stood firm with a great shock of revolt. She stood up, clinched and stiffened; her voice rang out with such an echo that the selectmen turned simultaneously and stared over their shoulders.
There were three of the selectmen; two were elderly, the third was young Lyman. He had been pushed forward to do the speaking to Ann. He had opened glibly enough. He was confident by nature, and of an imperious turn. Then, too, his sweetheart was Mrs. John Evarts's granddaughter, and she had advised this measure. He stated, pitilessly candid, and yet with no thought that his candor was pitiless, being one of those to whom the truth is its own vindication, the facts of the case. He pointed out to this lone woman her poverty, her untidiness, her lack of thrift, her indolence; he descanted upon the injury to herself and others; he descanted upon the superior advantages of the home which had been provided for her; he mentioned the fact that the savings-bank held an overdue mortgage on the property; he concluded by ordering Ann to be in readiness to move the next day.
But even he, as well as his colleagues, was aghast at the result. When they turned to face Ann after that first incredulous glance over shoulders for some other source of that unexpected voice, each had the same helpless gape of astonishment. They listened speechless, too amazed to shuffle in their chairs.
“This old house,” said Ann, with a ringing eloquence of desperation — “this old house has belonged to my father's family for over a hundred years, and you talk about turning me out of it! Me! Me! Why don't you turn the chimney out? Why don't you pull down the door-post? I'm as much a part of it. Root up the box out in the yard; pull up that clump of pinies; tear up the lilac bushes; chop down the poplar-tree that my grandfather planted! Pull down, root up, but I tell you leave me be! I belong here! I am the live thing that keeps it together. What if I ain't neat? What's neatness to things that belong to life itself, I want to know? What if I ain't orderly? Ain't I alive? I tell you I'm the soul of this old place, and you want to turn a soul out of a body! I was born here, and my father before me, and my grandfather before him. I lived right along here when I was married; my children were born here, and they all died here. Talk about the savings-bank holding a mortgage! What's a mortgage? You can't mortgage things with any show of reason that are a part and parcel of a human being. Turn me out! Me! Me!”
Suddenly Ann sat down in her broken rocking-chair again, and a curious defiance of immovability seemed to settle over her. She actually looked as if it would need more than human strength to dislodge her. She in her rocking-chair seemed as rigidly impossible of movement as the pyramids.
The two elder selectmen looked at the young chairman. There was a flush on his cheeks. He arose.
“Well, Mrs. Lyman,” said he, “I regret to see that you are in such a frame of mind, but my opinion remains the same, and so will that of all your friends. At two o'clock to-morrow I will be here with a carriage, and I must beg that you will be ready.”
Ann made no reply, but she looked at him as if her soul was rooted fast in all the ages.
The three selectmen went out. One of them, quite an old man, was fairly pale. “She's going to take on terribly about going,” he said to the chairman, who smiled scornfully. There was a cruel vein in him; his handsome face was quite unmoved.
The next afternoon he presented himself at the old house without his colleagues, who had excuses ready for their absence. He fastened the horse, hitched in a large covered wagon, to the old post at the gate; then he went up to the front door and raised the knocker. He waited, but no one came. He knocked again, with no better result. He looked at the windows, which were dusty blanks. He glanced across the way, and saw Mrs. John Evarts standing in her front door watching curiously. A girl's pretty, fair face looked over her shoulder, and he knew it for his sweetheart's, Flora Evarts. After he had knocked again in vain, she came running over, her grandmother following, and presently her aunt Hannah, who lived in the house, and had just returned from making calls, and wore her black silk, which rustled a good deal and tinkled with jet, and a bonnet nodding with grasses.
Thus reinforced, the selectman opened the front door and entered the house. A shadow moved across the old hall with the spiral stair in the midst, and they all started; but it was only due to a curtain in an open window swaying in the sudden draught from the door. They went through all the squalid rooms. The little party became gradually augmented until nearly all the neighbors were there. Most of them were women. They opened door after door; they eyed the revelations of squalor with disgust and a growing horror. “Something's happened to her,” one and another whispered. They peered fearfully into close clothes-presses; they searched the evil-smelling cellar glooms and the long, dusty shadows under the garret eaves. All the party fell back with pale, shocked faces, even the chairman of the selectmen, at the sight of an old gown hanging from a high bedpost. But young Lyman's terror was over in a moment; he was to the front, and had gingerly dislodged the garment.
“To think of a Christian woman wearing a dress like that!” said Mrs. John Evarts. The old woman held her skirts wrapped closely around her thin figure; she held her nose averted, ready with a sniff of disgust. The malice in her was only half intimidated by the fear of what she might at any minute see in these poor rooms. She had never loved Ann Lyman, and the reason therefor dated back to their girlhood. The flaws of her neighbor had been her chief savor of life, and she was tasting it now to the uttermost.
At last they had searched the old house from garret to cellar, and Ann was not there. There could be no doubt of it. They all stood together in the north chamber and conferred as to the situation. The north chamber had been the guest-room of the old mansion, and was in some respects the best preserved. There was still a decent straw matting on the floor, and an ancient green-and-white paper on the walls, and the ceiling was not precarious. There lingered also the splendid carved bureau and the high-posted bedstead. Ann had refused to sell these, on account of associations, the violation of which even her placidity could not face. “My husband had his last sickness in this room,” she told the dealer, “and it was fitted up for me with a new carpet when I was married. I'm going to let it be a while longer.” It was in this room that the one attempt at housewifery was evident. The great feather-bed hung from the window to air, suspended on the stout blind-hooks.
“I didn't know she ever aired anything,” remarked Mrs. John Evarts, in a harsh whisper.
Flora looked at her disapprovingly.
“You don't know but she's dead, grandmother,” said she.
“I should be ashamed to be dead and leave a house looking like this,” said her grandmother, stoutly.
“She's run away,” suggested one of the neighbors.
“She's drowned herself in the well, mebbe,” whispered another, trembling.
“She must have felt pretty desperate, poor thing!” said Mrs. John Evarts's daughter. There were glass dew-drops on the nodding grasses on her bonnet, and they tinkled as did the jet beads on her bodice; the silken breadths of her dress rustled, and her best shoes creaked when she eased her weight. She was a stout woman; her cheeks were blazing, and her mouth drooped piteously at the corners. “I wish you hadn't said anything about her to the selectmen,” she said to her mother.
“Look at this house,” retorted Mrs. John Evarts.
“Well, you might have let her be as long as she lived,” said her daughter. “She didn't hurt anybody but herself with the dirt.”
“She didn't, hey?” retorted the old woman. She leaned over her daughter, and whispered fiercely some further disclosures as to the missing woman's untidiness and actual indecency of squalor; but her daughter only shook her tinkling head; “I'm dreadful sorry you did anything about it,” she repeated.
Suddenly, as they all stood there conferring as to what was best to be done next, the girl, Flora Evarts, in her pretty pink muslin dress, with a pink rose tucked in her belt, gave a great start. They all turned and looked at her.
“What on earth is the matter, Flora?” cried her grandmother, sharply.
“Nothing,” replied the girl, quickly; but her pretty face was very pale.
The young selectman stepped close to her and looked at her anxiously, but she turned her back on him sharply.
“What ails you all?” she cried, pettishly. “If there isn't enough to make anybody jump! Why don't you go and have the well dragged and send out some parties to search, and not stand here talking any longer?”
“What made you jump so, Flora?” persisted the selectman.
“Nothing, I tell you,” said the girl, sharply. Then she turned with sudden passion. “For Heaven's sake,” she demanded, “why don't you do something? That poor soul will die if somebody doesn't do something.” She caught her breath in a sob, and again the selectman looked at her anxiously and wonderingly. He had never seen her like that. She was a girl of remarkable poise. But her energy moved them all. They dispersed, to drag the well and a near-by pond, and to organize searching-parties. Not one of the neighbors had seen her pass. It was as if the old woman had vanished.
At last the north chamber was quite deserted. The last woman had been gone a minute or so, when Flora Evarts came speeding back like a deer. She rushed to the window where the feather-bed hung. She caught hold of it; she leaned over it.
“Are you there?” she whispered. “Answer quick. Don't be afraid. Are you there?”
There was a slight convulsive motion of the feather-bed, but no other response.
“Don't be afraid. They sha'n't take you away if you don't want to go,” repeated the girl. “Are you there? Are you most dead? I must help you out! Answer me. I'm Flora Evarts! I'll take care of you! Are you there?”
Then there came a stifled groan, then a gasping sob from the feather-bed. Then the girl, grasping the edge of the bed with two nervous little hands, began to tug frantically. She heard a slight sound of rending cloth. The bed wriggled convulsively. Flora cast a glance of horror at the ground below. It was not far into the growth of sweet-brier and caraway bushes beneath the window in the back yard, but it was too far to fall.
“Reach out your arms if you can,” she cried; and up came, with a desperate effort, two skinny, piteous old arms, and the girl clutched them.
“Oh, you poor soul!” she half sobbed. “Don't be afraid; don't be afraid.”
“You let go if I've got to be carried away,” said a muffled voice. She could see the struggling shape of the old woman's head in the feather-bed. The tick tore a little more at the hooks. Flora held to the lean old hands desperately. She braced her feet and pulled. Somehow she managed it. Ann got her feet on the edge of the window below, and helped herself a little. Finally she fell into the north chamber, and she and the girl sank on the floor together. Flora struggled to her feet and helped the old woman out of the feather-bed. She was grotesquely tragic, her cheeks shining with heat, her eyes red-rimmed like an owl's; she was bristling with feathers. But she held herself with a dignity of misery which forbade mirth.
“I knew they would find me anywhere else,” said she. “I didn't care if I did fall and break my neck. I heard it tear while you all stood here. You heard it, didn't you, Flora?”
Flora nodded. She kept her mouth firmly set, but the tears were streaming over her cheeks.
“You won't let them take me away, will you, Flora?”
“No, I won't,” declared Flora, in a firm voice. She heard just then a noise below, and she flung open the north chamber door and called. Her lover, the selectman, answered her.
“Come here,” said Flora.
“I'm after a rope — I can't stop,” he returned.
“You don't need any rope. She's here,” said Flora.
The young man came rushing up-stairs, but Flora stood in the north chamber door.
“You can't come in; you can't touch her,” she declared.
“You sha'n't take away this woman from this house as long as she lives!”
“You shall not, I say.”
“If you do, I will never marry you as long as I live,” said Flora.
With that she flung up her hands, still cramped with the effort of holding to those other helpless ones of the poor old woman, and the young man caught her in his arms.
The old woman slipped past them and went down-stairs to her place by the window. She leaned her head back in her rickety chair, and smiled with perfect contentment. She did not trouble herself to pick off any of the feathers still clinging to her garments. She was beyond such matters, as much beyond as any flower of the field at the mercy of the wings of winds and settling foreign things.
After a while her kind neighbors came and assured her that she should remain in her old home as long as she lived. Mrs. John Evarts tidied up the kitchen and made her a cup of tea. Flora brought in some floating-island, and another woman some custard-pie. When the last one went away her larder was quite full.
At sunset Ann Lyman crept out to her front door-step and sat there in the full of the passing radiance. Beyond the gate bloomed the clump of Bouncing Bet. Mrs. John Evarts looked across from her window and saw them both — the old woman and the flower, both with a strange unkemptness of late bloom, both fulfilling to the utmost their one law of obedience to their first conditions of life. And she also saw, without comprehension, two parallels, separated perhaps by the width of the eternity of the spirit, yet as perfect and undeviating as any on the terrestrial globe.