From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
“Wonder what's goin' on in the church?”
Gilman Marlow stopped and stared slowly over at the church. It was a little white building with five pointed windows on each side. The windows were all streaming with light now, and the bright light showed from the door too, for it was open, and people were going in.
Opposite the church, where Marlow stood, the road was lined with thickly set hemlock and pine trees. Behind them was the graveyard: one peering between the branches could see the white stones. The gap for the entrance was a little beyond. There had been a heavy snowfall the day before, and all the trees were loaded with snow now; the boughs bent down heavily; the lowest ones touched the ground.
Marlow stood among the white branches awhile, and looked over at the church with a sort of dull curiosity; then he kept on up the street. He met many little hurrying groups, and he turned out for them readily, plunging into the deep snow at the side of the cleared path.
Some of the people turned and stared after him. “Who was that?” he heard some one say. “I don't know,” said another.
“I guess you don't,” muttered Marlow, with a faint chuckle. When he came in front of a lighted window anywhere, he showed up large and burly, an old rough great-coat shrugged tightly around him, and old fur cap pulled down to his ears. He limped badly.
About a quarter of a mile from the church there was a large white farm-house. The great square front yard was full of smooth snow. Some old rose-bushes under the house walls pricked softly through it, but there was not a foot-track anywhere. All the windows in the house were dark. Marlow stood looking up at the house. A great clod of damp snow struck on his shoulders. It had fallen from a maple-tree which reached out over his head. He shook it off.
“Guess I'll go round to the back door an' see if I can raise anybody,” said he, out loud.
“There ain't anybody livin' in that house now,” said a voice.
Marlow looked around. A small woman stood beside him; her little upturned face stood out of the dark with its soft paleness, but he could not distinguish the features.
“Is that so?” said he.
“Yes; there ain't anybody been livin' there for some time.” The woman caught her breath as she talked.
“Then the old man's dead.”
“He died more'n three years ago. The place has been shut up ever since.”
“I wonder if I could get in there? I s'pose somebody's got the key. You don't happen to know who, do you? I'm Marlow's son. I don't know who you are, but I don't s'pose it's likely you're anybody that knows me.”
“Gilman, is that you?”
“I s'pose it is.”
“I knew you the minute you spoke.”
“You did? Well, I'm glad of it. I didn't count on anybody in the whole town rememberin' the sound of my voice. But I'll own I can't say as much for myself.”
“Don't you know — I live in the next house.”
The man hesitated. “It ain't Lucy — well I don't know as it is Lucy Glynn, now.” He ended with a little uncertain laugh.
“Yes, it is.”
Marlow saw, to his great amazement, that the woman was crying. She was shaken all over with her sobs. She leaned up against the snowy fence. He looked at the house, then at her. He did not know what to do. He had no idea what she was crying about. “I'm real glad to see you, Lucy,” said he, finally, in a nervous, apologetic tone. She made no reply. “Is your father livin'?”
“Yes, father's livin'.”
Marlow shuffled his feet in the snow. He looked at Lucy, then at the house. “Anything I can do for you?” he said at last, in an embarrassed, solemn way. His face felt hot.
“No.” Suddenly the woman straightened herself. “I've got the key to the house,” said she, in a tremulous voice, which caught at every word to recover itself.
“Oh, you have!”
“Yes; it's been left at our house ever since he died. If you'll go back with me —”
The woman went on ahead, her dark skirts dabbled in the snow. Marlow followed, his eyes on her little narrow shoulders, which had somehow a meek air about them. She gathered her gray shawl up primly on her two arms, and kept it tightly pulled around her. She walked with a little nervous scud. Marlow tramped heavily after her. They had but a little way to go.
“What's goin' on in the church to-night?” said he. “I saw it was all lighted up when I came by.”
“They're havin' a Christmas tree there.”
“I declare, it is the night before Christmas, ain't it?”
“Didn't you know it?”
“Well, I guess I'd kind of lost my reckonin'. I haven't thought much about Christmas lately. Folks make a great deal more account of it than they used to, anyhow.”
“Yes, they do.”
The two front windows of the small house in the next lot were golden with light. Some green plants showed in them; the white curtains were drawn only over the upper sashes.
Lucy turned into the gate. As she did so she glanced around at Marlow, and noticed for the first time how he limped. “Why, you're lame,” she said.
“Yes. I hurt my knee awhile ago, and then the rheumatism got into it. I've been in the hospital a spell.”
The woman gave a little cry. “The hospital!”
“Let me help you up the steps.”
“I'm real strong.”
“Oh, I can get up the steps well enough. It ain't very bad now; I've got kind of used to it. I'd feel lonesome without it, you know. Well, it's better to have an ache stick to you than nothin', I s'pose.” Marlow chuckled feebly.
Lucy opened the outer door, then an inner one. The entry was so small that she had to step out of it into the room before her guest could enter at all. There came a rush of warm air, sweet with heliotrope and oleander, and pungent with geraniums.
Marlow snuffed it in, and blinked in the light. “I'll wait here,” said he. “You'd better shut your door or you'll cold your house all off.”
“Why, you're comin' in?”
“No, thank ye; it wouldn't pay. I'll just stand here till you get the key.”
“Ain't you comin' in, just to get warm a minute?”
“No, thank ye; I guess I won't. I'll come some other time. I'll take the key now and go — well, I don't know as I'll say home — over there.” He waved his hand towards the dark mass of buildings at the left. Lucy stood looking at him a minute.
“Why don't you shet the door? — you're coldin' the house all off,” called a voice out of the light and warmth. “Hey!” called the voice again, “why don't you shet the door? Is that you?”
Then Lucy swung to the inner door and stepped up to Marlow. “You must come in. I don't see what you're thinkin' of. Here's that house all cold and dark. It ain't fit to go into; it's been shut up. You'll catch your death of cold; and you're lame; and there ain't — anybody — there.” Her voice sounded weakly sharp; at the end it broke into a sob again.
“Great heavens! she can't want me to come in as bad as that,” he said to himself. “I'll get along well enough,” he said, ardently, after a minute; “I'm used to 'most everything. 'Twouldn't be worth while for me to come in.”
“I was goin' to get you some supper.”
“Oh, thank ye; but it don't make any difference to me whether I have any supper or not.”
“It ain't any trouble,” Lucy said, faintly.
Marlow stood looking irresolutely at her. He could not believe that she was in earnest about wanting him to enter. “I'll track the snow all over your clean house,” he said, finally.
That signified that he was coming in. “That ain't any matter,” said Lucy, and again threw open the sitting-room door.
Marlow stamped heavily on the door-step, and shook his shoulders; then he went in clumsily. The room was small. Out of his very humility and meekness he saw himself larger than he was; there was a swift multiplication, in his own estimation, of his rough clothes and his rough figure. He held his cap in his hand, and did not dare to stir for a moment. In the corner near him was a great pot with an oleander-tree, its spraying top all pink with blossoms. There was a little yellow stand with pots of geranium and heliotrope on it. Take a step forward, and there was an old man warming his feet at an air-tight stove.
“Here's somebody come to see us, father,” said Lucy.
The old man shrank back. He ignored Marlow, who held out his hand, and mumbled something. “I dun know who 'tis,” he said, turning to his daughter.
“Why, it's Mr. Marlow, father — Gilman Marlow. He used to live next door — don't you know?”
“'Tain't, nuther; he's dead.” The old man set his lips together like a child.
“Yes, father, old Mr. Marlow's dead; he died three years ago. But this ain't him; this is his son Gilman. Don't you remember him?”
“The one that sort of slumped through?”
Lucy started pitifully. Marlow colored; then he grinned. “Yes, I reckon that just fits my case,” said he, with a sort of embarrassed and shamefaced mirthfulness. “I'm the one. I've slumped through ever since I come into the world.”
“Father, can't you shake hands with Gilman?”
The old man reached out his hand. His thin mouth curved up at the corners, the wrinkles around his eyes deepened. He would have looked quizzical had he not looked so feeble. Marlow grasped the old hand; then he gave Lucy his cap and coat, and seated himself in the chair which she had proffered him. It was a calico-covered rocker. He sat in it stiffly. It seemed to him that it would be indecorous to relax himself into comfort.
Something brushed his head. He looked up, and it was a soft spray of the oleander blossoms. He moved his chair quickly. Lucy had gone out; he could hear her stepping about in the next room. He wondered vaguely what she was doing. He had no longer any feeling of resistance to her plans. He was nearly exhausted. He was just out of the hospital, and he had walked five miles through the snow that day. His knee began to pain him now. His large, rough-complexioned face was pale.
The old man eyed him intently. He had something which looked like a brown cashmere dress across his knees, and another part of it lay on a chair beside him. “What's she a-doin' on?” he asked Marlow.
“I don't know.”
“Lucy!” called her father; “Lucy!”
“What is it, father?” called Lucy back from the other room.
“What air you a-doin' of?”
“Makin' a little tea for Mr. Marlow.”
“What air you a-makin' tea for him for?” There was no reply. “What is she a-makin' tea for you for?” asked the old man of Marlow.
“I don't know.”
“She never makes any for me this time o' night. 'Twouldn't do me no harm, nuther, a cup on't warm afore I went to bed.” Suddenly the old man caught up the brown cashmere on his lap and threw it over to Marlow. “There,” said he, “you kin pick the bastin's out o' that while you're settin'. I've got to pick 'em out of the waist on't.”
Marlow looked at the brown cashmere in bewilderment. “What?”
“Pick the bastin's out — them long white stitches in the seams. Lucy dress-makes, an' I hev to pick out all the bastin's. It's ruther more'n I want to do some days. You might jest as well take holt while you air a-settin'.”
Marlow began awkwardly pulling at the white thread.
Presently Lucy opened the door. “I've got some tea made,” said she, with gentle stiffness. There was a delicate meagreness about the little figure in the best black silk gown. She wore a full white ruche around her slender neck; she held her thin chin erect above it, but her whole head seemed to droop a little. There were bright spots on her cheeks, which were thin, but still softly curved.
Marlow eyed her with admiration, which was the only distinct sentiment which shaped itself out of his bewilderment and fatigue. Lucy had been very pretty, and was now; still she was not as pretty nor as young as she looked to him. He viewed her in the same glass in which he saw himself reflected. Her face beside his own, which thrilled him with humility, got a wonderful beauty of contrast. He eyed his poor clothes, then her nice black silk; the black gloss of it on her shoulders, the cunning loopings, a flutter of black lace on the over-skirt, filled him with respect and awe.
“Wa'n't you goin' out somewhere?” he asked, with feeble politeness. He got up clumsily, and let the brown cashmere slide to the floor.
“No; I was just goin' to look in at the Christmas tree a minute. I wa'n't goin' to stay. Father, what have you done?”
She picked up the dress, and looked at him and Marlow.
“I ain't done nothin' but set him pickin' out a few bastin's,” said the old man, defiantly. “He might jest as well be workin' as me.”
“Oh, father, you hadn't ought to!”
“I didn't mind,” said Marlow, stupidly.
“Father's real feeble and childish,” Lucy whispered, when she and her guest were in the other room. “I set him pickin' out bastin's to keep him contented. He frets about doin' it, but he likes it. He's just as uneasy as he can be if he gets out of work.”
“It's a great deal better for him, I should think,” Marlow assented.
The fragrance of the tea stole into his nostrils. The nicely piled white bread gave out a sweet odor of its own.
Lucy had set out her mother's china cups and saucers — white, with a little green vine on the rims. She offered him her best damson sauce and her fruit cake. Marlow ate without tasting. He was trying to remember something. He remembered it better and better; it was quite clear in his mind by the time he was left to himself in the little sleeping-room up-stairs. It was Lucy's, which she had given up to him. She would sleep on the sitting-room lounge. A little picture hung over the bed. It caught his attention; it had a familiar look: then he recollected. He had given it to Lucy Glynn twenty years ago; they had thought they were in love with each other, though little had been said about it. It was just before he went away. Gradually he recalled some words, a kiss or two. He had almost forgotten. Now the memory came, it was sweet. He felt as if he were thrusting back his head, old and weary and grizzled, out of this wintry misery into some sweet old spring which he had passed. He looked back at it with pitiful regret.
“Why didn't I marry Lucy,” he said to himself, “and stay at home, and settle down, and behave myself?”
The next day was Christmas. It snowed again heavily. Marlow got his key and tramped over to his old home through the snow-drifts. So far as he knew, the place was all his. It was quite a little fortune to him, this substantial house, with its environment of sixty acres of meadow and woodland. He could not believe in the reality of it; a whimsical doubt as to the rightfulness of his claim possessed him. He felt as if he were extending his hand for a gift which was begrudged. It was natural enough that he should feel so; he could not remember his father as ever giving him anything willingly. If Gilman Marlow had led a hard life, there had been no parental love and softness to point at as the cause of it. Marlow had a few cents in his pocket. These seemed to him a much more tangible property than this solid estate which he was examining. He walked through the bitter cold rooms with a feeling as if he intruded. His father, dead, became to him a more certain possessor than if living. He saw his father's coat and hat hanging on a peg in the kitchen, and he turned away like a culprit.
After a little he went out in the storm again. He thought he might as well see the man who Lucy had told him had charge of the estate. His name was Nelson; he was one of the selectmen. Marlow had to pass the church and the graveyard to reach his house. The evergreen branches hung lower than ever; the new snow-flakes softly bent down the long slim sprays of the graveyard bushes until they lay on the ground; the mildewed fronts of the slanting old gravestones were hung with irregular, shifting snow-garlands.
Marlow stopped and looked in the solemn white enclosure. The snow settled softly upon him. There was no wind; everything was very still. Somewhere over there was his father's grave. He brushed away some tears with the back of his hand. “Good Lord,” he muttered, “I ain't got much, an' that's a fact.” Then he went on. It was a quarter of a mile farther to the selectman's house.
It was noon when he returned along the same road. The snow had gathered a good deal, but he seemed to walk with greater ease — at any rate, he walked faster.
He passed his father's house, and went straight to the Glynns'. He knocked, and the old man shuffled to the door. “Lucy's gone,” he said, querulously. “She's been gone all the forenoon, an' I dun know whar she is. It's dinner-time now, an' thar ain't a pertater on, nor nothin', an' I've been a-pickin' out bastin's ever since daylight. I wish you'd find out whar she's gone, an' send her home.”
“Well, I'll see,” said Marlow. Then he plodded around to the side door of his own house. It opened directly into the kitchen. There was a good fire in the stove, and Lucy stood beside it cooking some eggs. A pot with potatoes was steaming and bubbling over. The table was set out, with a white cloth on it.
“Why, you here?” said Marlow.
Lucy bent over her frying eggs. “I thought I'd get you a little somethin' to eat, seein' you wa'n't willin' to come to our house again. There's a couple of pies in the oven, an' —”
“Lucy,” said Marlow, suddenly, “what made you pay up the interest on that mortgage?”
Lucy suddenly turned white. “What do you mean?” she stammered.
“Nelson told me all about it. What made you do it?”
“Mr. Nelson said he wouldn't tell.”
“He didn't mean to. I guessed it from somethin' he said, an' then I made him tell me. I think I ought to know it. Lucy, he said you'd put a mortgage on your house to pay up that back interest-money, so it shouldn't be foreclosed. Did you?”
“It ain't worth talkin' about.”
“An' then you've paid the interest an' taxes ever since, so I shouldn't lose the place. I don't see how you did it.”
“I've had all the dress-makin' I could do.” Lucy lifted the frying-pan off the stove. Her hands trembled.
“Stop workin' a minute, an' let's talk,” said Marlow.
Lucy set the pan on the hearth, and stood waiting. She cast her eyes down; her face twitched nervously.
“Look here, Lucy, what made you do it?”
“You — was away, an' you didn't know about it.”
“How did you know it was worth while — that I'd ever come back?”
“I thought you might.”
“You didn't know.”
“Mr. Nelson said you would. He got news that you was livin' once; somebody'd seen you; then he lost track of you.”
“What made you do it?”
“I thought you hadn't ought to lose the place.”
“Well, you shall have the money part of it made up to you.” Marlow was silent for a moment. “Lucy,” said he, finally, “I never was so beat in my life as I was when Nelson told me that this mornin'. I've been thinkin' — Look here, didn't we go together a little once, years and years ago?”
Lucy turned paler. “There ain't any use in bringin' that up,” she said, with a certain dignity.
“I want to know about it. Lucy, did I treat you mean? We wa'n't much more'n children, were we? We didn't talk about gettin' married, did we? We just thought we liked each other, an' kept round together a little while before I went away. That was all, wa'n't it?”
“Yes,” whispered Lucy, faintly. Suddenly she put her hands up to her face.
Marlow took a step towards her; then he went back. “Don't cry,” said he. “Lucy, see here, I'm goin' to ask you somethin'. Didn't you forget, all this time? Lucy, tell me.”
She shook her head.
Marlow shut his mouth tight. He partly turned his head away. Then he spoke again. “Look here, Lucy, I'm goin' to tell you the truth: I hadn't remembered as well as you had.”
“I didn't — suppose you had.” She turned with a little state, and tried to move towards the door.
“Don't go; I've got somethin' I want to say.” He hesitated a moment; then he went on. His face was hot. He had an honest, embarrassed air, like a boy. “I wanted to say that — Well, I thank you more'n I ever thanked any human bein' in my life. I'd lay down an' die, if it could do you any good, to show you that I did. An' — if — I'd come home different, if I'd got rich, or if I'd even come home decent — if I'd behaved myself, and if I looked fit and was fit to be seen beside you — I'd ask you to marry me, an' do all I could to pay you for thinkin' of me all this time; but as 'tis, there ain't any use speakin' of that. All I can say is, I wish the last twenty years was to live over.”
Lucy gathered a shawl about her, and turned to go. “I've got to go home and get father's dinner,” she said, brokenly. “There ain't any use in bringin' all this up.”
“I don't s'pose there is much, but I kind of wanted to speak of it,” said Marlow, blushing deeper. “Thank you for gettin' my dinner.”
He watched her going with a sinking heart.
“She wouldn't think of havin' me now,” he said to himself.
Lucy was half out of the yard, when she turned and came back. Marlow opened the door quickly. There she stood, her knees trembling. She gasped for breath between her words.
“There's — one thing — I didn't mean you to think — I didn't — want — you to think that it would — make any difference to me because — you wa'n't rich or —”
“Lucy, you don't mean to say that you'd have me as I am now?” Marlow took hold of one of her thin arms and pulled her in softly. He led her back to the stove; then he stood looking at her again. “Good Lord, Lucy!” he said, “you can't think anything of me, the way I am now!”
“I don't see why you ain't just as well as you ever was.”
“I ain't worth this,” said Marlow. He put his arm around Lucy and kissed her forehead.
She stood stiffly; then she released herself, and went over and looked out of a window.
“I'm afraid you don't think enough of me,” she said, presently, without looking around.
“I guess you needn't worry about that. I know I ain't been thinkin' about you all these years, as much as you have, accordin' to what you say about me. But — I'll put it this way.” He colored and half laughed. These little flights of fancy were natural to him; he took them in his most honest moments; but he was always a little shamefaced about it. “Well, s'pose some day — you know I've been round foreign countries an' on sea-shores a good deal — s'pose some day I'd come across a pearl caught into some sea-weeds, where I hadn't no idea of findin' it. Well, I guess it wouldn't have made much difference to me whether or no I'd been thinkin' about that pearl for twenty years, or whether I'd ever seen it an' forgotten it. There'd been the pearl, an' I'd been the man that had it. I'll think enough of you — you needn't bother about that. I don't know what I'd be made of if I didn't. Good Lord! to think of me havin' you!”
After Lucy had been home and attended to her father's wants, she returned and spent all the afternoon making the house comfortable for Marlow.
It was sunset when she went home the last time. It had stopped snowing, and there was a clear, yellow sky in the west. A flock of sparrows flew whistling around one of the maples. A sled loaded with Christmas greens was creaking down the road. One could hear children's voices in the distance. Lucy Glynn sped along. Whether wisely or not, she was full of all Christmas joy. She had given at last her Christmas gift, which she had been treasuring for twenty years.