From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
A damp air was blowing up, and the frogs were beginning to peep. The sun was setting in a low red sky. On both sides of the road were rich green meadows intersected by little canal-like brooks. Beyond the meadows on the west was a distant stretch of pine woods, that showed dark against the clear sky. Aurelia Flower was going along the road towards her home, with a great sheaf of leaves and flowers in her arms. There were the rosy spikes of hardhack; the great white corymbs of thoroughwort, and the long blue racemes of lobelia. Then there were great bunches of the odorous tansy and pennyroyal in with the rest.
Aurelia was a tall, strongly-built woman; she was not much over thirty, but she looked older. Her complexion had a hard red tinge from exposure to sun and wind, and showed seams as unreservedly as granite. Her face was thin, and her cheek-bones high. She had a profusion of auburn hair, showing in a loose slipping coil beneath her limp black straw hat. Her dress, as a matter of fashion, was execrable; in point of harmony with her immediate surroundings, very well, though she had not thought of it in that way. There was a green under-skirt, and a brown over-skirt and basque of an obsolete cut. She had worn it just so for a good many years, and never thought of altering it. It did not seem to occur to her that though her name was Flower, she was not really a flower in regard to apparel, and had not its right of unchangeableness in the spring. When the trees hung out their catkins, she flaunted her poor old greens and browns under them, rejoicing, and never dreamed but they looked all right. As far as dress went, Aurelia was a happy woman. She went over the road to-night at a good pace, her armful of leaves and blossoms nodding; her spare, muscular limbs bore her along easily. She had been over a good many miles since noon, but she never thought of being tired.
Presently she came in sight of her home, a square unpainted building, black with age. It stood a little back from the road on a gentle slope. There were three great maple-trees in front of the house; their branches rustled against the roof. On the left was a small garden; some tall poles thickly twined with hops were prominent in it.
Aurelia went round to the side door of the house with her armful of green things. The door opened directly into the great kitchen. One on entering would have started back as one would on seeing unexpected company in a room. The walls were as green as a lady's bower with bunches and festoons of all sorts of New England herbs. There they hung, their brave blossoms turning gray and black, giving out strange, half-pleasant, half-disgusting odors. Aurelia took them in like her native air. “It's good to get home,” murmured she to herself, for there was no one else: she lived alone.
She took off her hat and disposed of her burden; then she got herself some supper. She did not build a fire in the cooking-stove, for she never drank tea in warm weather. Instead, she had a tumbler of root-beer which she had made herself. She set it out on one end of her kitchen-table with a slice of coarse bread and a saucer of cold beans. She sat down to them and ate with a good appetite. She looked better with her hat off. Her forehead was an important part of her face; it was white and womanly, and her reddish hair lay round it in pretty curves; then her brown eyes, under very strongly arched brows, showed to better advantage. Taken by herself, and not compared with other women, Aurelia was not so bad-looking; but she never was taken by herself in that way, and nobody had ever given her any credit for comeliness. It would have been like looking at a jack-in-the-pulpit and losing all the impression that had ever been made on one by roses and hyacinths, and seeing absolutely nothing else but its green and brown lines: it is doubtful if it could be done.
She had finished her supper, and was sorting her fresh herbs, when the door opened and a woman walked in. She had no bonnet on her head: she was a neighbor, and this was an unceremonious little country place.
“Good-evenin', 'Relia,” said she. There was an important look on her plain face, as if there were more to follow.
“Good-evenin', Mis' Atwood. Take a chair.”
“Been herbin' again?”
“Yes; I went out a little while this afternoon.”
“Where'd you go? — upon Green Mountain?”
“No; I went over to White's Woods. There were some kinds there I wanted.”
“You don't say so! That's a matter of six miles, ain't it? Ain't you tired?”
“Lor', no,” said Aurelia. “I reckon I'm pretty strong, or mebbe the smell of the herbs keeps me up;” and she laughed.
So did the other. “Sure enough — well, mebbe it does. I never thought of that. But it seems like a pretty long tramp to me, though my bein' so fleshy may make a difference. I could have walked it easier once.”
“I shouldn't wonder if it did make a difference. I ain't got much flesh to carry round to tire me out.”
“You're always pretty well, too, ain't you, 'Relia?”
“Lor', yes; I never knew what 'twas to be sick. How's your folks, Mis' Atwood? Is Viny any better than she was?”
“I don't know as she is, much. She feels pretty poorly most of the time. I guess I'll hev you fix some more of that root-beer for her. I thought that seemed to 'liven her up a little.”
“I've got a jug of it all made, down cellar, and you can take it when you go home, if you want to.”
“So I will, if you've got it. I was in hopes you might hev it.”
The important look had not vanished from Mrs. Atwood's face, but she was not the woman to tell important news in a hurry, and have the gusto of it so soon over. She was one of the natures who always dispose of bread before pie. Now she came to it, however.
“I heard some news to-night, 'Relia,” said she.
Aurelia picked out another spray of hardhack. “What was it?”
“Thomas Rankin's dead.”
Aurelia clutched the hardhack mechanically. “You don't mean it, Mis' Atwood! When did he die? I hadn't heard he was sick.”
“He wasn't, long. Had a kind of a fit this noon, and died right off. The doctor — they sent for Dr. Smith from Alden — called it sunstroke. You know 'twas awful hot, and he'd been out in the field to work all the mornin'. I think 'twas heart trouble; it's in the Rankin family; his father died of it. Doctors don't know everything.”
“Well, it's a dreadful thing,” said Aurelia. “I can't realize it. There he's left four little children, and it ain't more'n a year since Mis' Rankin died. It ain't a year, is it?”
“It ain't a year into a month and sixteen days,” said Mrs. Atwood, solemnly. “Viny and I was countin' of it up just before I come in here.”
“Well, I guess 'tisn't, come to think of it. I couldn't have told exactly. The oldest of those children ain't more than eight, is she?”
“Ethelind is eight, coming next month: Viny and I was reckinin' it up. Then Edith is six, and Isadore is five, and Myrtie ain't but two, poor little thing.”
“What do you s'pose will be done with 'em?”
“I don't know. Viny an' me was talking of it over, and got it settled that her sister, Mis' Loomis, over to Alden, would hev to hev 'em. It'll be considerable for her, too, for she's got two of her own, and I don't s'pose Sam Loomis has got much. But I don't see what else can be done. Of course strangers ain't goin' to take children when there is folks.”
“Wouldn't his mother take 'em?”
“What, old-lady Sears? Lor', no. You know she was dreadful put out 'bout Thomas marryin' where he did, and declared he shouldn't hev a cent of her money. It was all her second husband's, anyway. John Rankin wasn't worth anything. She won't do anything for 'em. She's livin' in great style down near the city, they say. Got a nice house, and keeps help. She might hev 'em just as well as not, but she won't. She's a hard woman to get along with, anyhow. She nagged both her husbands to death, an' Thomas never had no peace at home. Guess that was one reason why he was in such a hurry to get married. Mis' Rankin was a good-tempered soul, if she wasn't quite so drivin' as some.”
“I do feel dreadfully to think of those children,” said Aurelia.
“'Tis hard; but we must try an' believe it will be ruled for the best. I s'pose I must go, for I left Viny all alone.”
“Well, if you must, I'll get that root-beer for you, Mis' Atwood. I shall keep thinking 'bout those children all night.”
A week or two after that, Mrs. Atwood had some more news; but she didn't go to Aurelia with it, for Aurelia was the very sub-essence of it herself. She unfolded it gingerly to her daughter Lavinia — a pale, peaked young woman, who looked as if it would take more than Aurelia's root-beer to make her robust. Aurelia had taken the youngest Rankin child for her own, and Mrs. Atwood had just heard of it. “It's true,” said she; “I see her with it myself. Old-lady Sears never so much as sent a letter, let alone not coming to the funeral, and Mis' Loomis was glad enough to get rid of it.”
Viny drank in the story as if it had been so much nourishing jelly. Her too narrow life was killing her as much as anything else.
Meanwhile Aurelia had the child, and was actively happy, for the first time in her life, to her own naïve astonishment, for she had never known that she was not so before. She had naturally strong affections, of an outward rather than an inward tendency. She was capable of much enjoyment from pure living, but she had never had anything of which to be so very fond. She could only remember her father as a gloomy, hard-working man, who never noticed her much. He had a melancholy temperament, which resulted in a tragical end when Aurelia was a mere child. When she thought of him, the same horror which she had when they brought him home from the river crept over her now. They had never known certainly just how Martin Flower had come to die; but folks never spoke of him to Aurelia and her mother, and the two never talked of him together. They knew that everybody said Martin Flower had drowned himself; they felt shame and a Puritan shrinking from the sin.
Aurelia's mother had been a hard, silent woman before; she grew more hard and silent afterwards. She worked hard, and taught Aurelia to. Their work was peculiar; they hardly knew themselves how they had happened to drift into it; it had seemed to creep in with other work, till finally it usurped it altogether. At first, after her husband's death, Mrs. Flower had tried millinery: she had learned the trade in her youth. But she made no headway now in sewing rosebuds and dainty bows on to bonnets; it did not suit with tragedy. The bonnets seemed infected with her own mood; the bows lay flat with stern resolve, and the rosebuds stood up fiercely; she did not please her customers, even among those uncritical country folk, and they dropped off. She had always made excellent root-beer, and had had quite a reputation in the neighborhood for it. How it happened she could not tell, but she found herself selling it; then she made hop yeast, and sold that. Then she was a woman of fertile brain, and another project suggested itself to her.
She and Aurelia ransacked the woods thereabouts for medicinal herbs, and disposed of them to druggists in a neighboring town. They had a garden of some sorts — the different mints, thyme, lavender, coriander, rosemary, and others. It was an unusual business for two women to engage in, but it increased, and they prospered, according to their small ideas. But Mrs. Flower grew more and more bitter with success. What regrets and longing that her husband could have lived and shared it, and been spared his final agony, she had in her heart, nobody but the poor woman herself knew; she never spoke of them. She died when Aurelia was twenty, and a woman far beyond her years. She mourned for her mother, but although she never knew it, her warmest love had not been called out. It had been hardly possible. Mrs. Flower had not been a lovable mother; she had rarely spoken to Aurelia but with cold censure for the last few years. People whispered that it was a happy release for the poor girl when her mother died; they had begun to think she was growing like her husband, and perhaps was not “just right.”
Aurelia went on with the business with calm equanimity, and made even profits every year. They were small, but more than enough for her to live on, and she paid the last dollar of the mortgage which had so fretted her father, and owned the whole house clear. She led a peaceful, innocent life, with her green herbs for companions; she associated little with the people around, except in a business way. They came to see her, but she rarely entered their houses. Every room in her house was festooned with herbs; she knew every kind that grew in the New England woods, and hunted them out in their season and brought them home; she was a simple, sweet soul, with none of the morbid melancholy of her parents about her. She loved her work, and the greenwood things were to her as friends, and the healing qualities of sarsaparilla and thoroughwort, and the sweetness of thyme and lavender, seemed to have entered into her nature, till she almost could talk with them in that way. She had never thought of being unhappy; but now she wondered at herself over this child. It was a darling of a child; as dainty and winsome a girl baby as ever was. Her poor young mother had had a fondness for romantic names, which she had bestowed, as the only heritage within her power, on all her children. This one was Myrtilla — Myrtie for short. The little thing clung to Aurelia from the first, and Aurelia found that she had another way of loving besides the way in which she loved lavender and thoroughwort. The comfort she took with the child through the next winter was unspeakable. The herbs were banished from the south room, which was turned into a nursery, and a warm carpet was put on the floor, that the baby might not take cold. She learned to cook for the baby — her own diet had been chiefly vegetarian. She became a charming nursing mother. People wondered. “It does beat all how handy 'Relia is with that baby,” Mrs. Atwood told Viny.
Aurelia took even more comfort with the little thing when spring came, and she could take her out with her; then she bought a little straw carriage, and the two went after herbs together. Home they would come in the tender spring twilight, the baby asleep in her carriage, with a great sheaf of flowers beside her, and Aurelia with another over her shoulder.
She felt all through that summer as if she were too happy to have it last. Once she said so to one of the neighbors. “I feel as if it wa'n't right for me to be so perfectly happy,” said she. “I feel some days as if I was walkin' an' walkin' an' walkin' through a garden of sweet-smellin' herbs, an' nothin' else; an' as for Myrtie, she's a bundle of myrtle an' camphor out of King Solomon's garden. I'm so afraid it can't last.”
Happiness had seemed to awake in Aurelia a taint of her father's foreboding melancholy. But she apparently had no reason for it until early fall. Then, returning with Myrtie one night from a trip to the woods, she found an old lady seated on her door-step, grimly waiting for her. She was an old woman and tremulous, but still undaunted and unshaken as to her spirit. Her tall, shrunken form was loaded with silk and jet. She stood up as Aurelia approached, wondering, and her dim old eyes peered at her aggressively through fine gold spectacles, which lent an additional glare to them.
“I suppose you are Miss Flower?” began the old lady, with no prefatory parley.
“Yes,” said Aurelia, trembling.
“Well, my name's Mrs. Matthew Sears, an' I've come for my grandchild there.”
Aurelia turned very white. She let her herbs slide to the ground. “I — hardly understand — I guess,” faltered she. “Can't you let me keep her?”
“Well, I guess I won't have one of my grandchildren brought up by an old yarb-woman — not if I know it.”
The old lady sniffed. Aurelia stood looking at her. She felt as if she had fallen down from heaven, and the hard reality of the earth had jarred the voice out of her. Then the old lady made a step towards the carriage, and caught up Myrtie in her trembling arms. The child screamed with fright. She had been asleep. She turned her little frightened face towards Aurelia, and held out her arms, and cried, “Mamma! mamma! mamma!” in a perfect frenzy of terror. The old lady tried in vain to hush her. Aurelia found her voice then. “You'd better let me take her and give her her supper,” she said, “and when she is asleep again I will bring her over to you.”
“Well,” said the old lady, doubtfully. She was glad to get the frantic little thing out of her arms, though.
Aurelia held her close and hushed her, and she subsided into occasional convulsive sobs, and furtive, frightened glances at her grandmother.
“I s'pose you are stopping at the hotel?” said Aurelia.
“Yes, I am,” said the old lady, stoutly. “You kin bring her over as soon as she's asleep.” Then she marched off with uncertain majesty.
Some women would have argued the case longer, but Aurelia felt that there was simply no use in it. The old lady was the child's grandmother: if she wanted her, she saw no way but to give her up. She never thought of pleading, she was so convinced of the old lady's determination.
She carried Myrtie into the house, gave her her supper, washed her, and dressed her in her little best dress. Then she took her up in her lap and tried to explain to her childish mind the change that was to be made in her life. She told her she was going to live with her grandmother, and she must be a good little girl, and love her, and do just as she told her to. Myrtie sobbed with unreasoning grief, and clung to Aurelia; but she wholly failed to take in the full meaning of it all.
She was still fretful, and bewildered by her rude wakening from her nap. Presently she fell asleep again, and Aurelia laid her down while she got together her little wardrobe. There was a hop pillow in a little linen case, on which Myrtie had always slept; she packed that up with the other things.
Then she rolled up the little sleeping girl in a blanket, laid her in her carriage, and went over to the hotel. It was not much of a hotel — merely an ordinary two-story house, where two or three spare rooms were ample accommodation for the few straggling guests who came to this little rural place. It was only a few steps from Aurelia's house. The old lady had the chamber of honor — a large square room on the first floor, opening directly on to the piazza. In spite of all Aurelia's care, Myrtie woke up and began to cry when she was carried in. She had to go off and leave her screaming piteously after her. Out on the piazza she uttered the first complaint, almost, of her life to the hostess, Mrs. Simonds, who had followed her there.
“Don't feel bad, 'Relia,” said the woman, who was almost crying herself. “I know it's awful hard, when you was taking so much comfort. We all feel for you.”
Aurelia looked straight ahead. She had the bundle of little clothes and the hop pillow in her arms; the old lady had said, in a way that would have been funny if it had not been for the poor heart that listened, that she didn't want any yarb pillows, nor any clothes scented with yarbs nuther.
“I don't mean to be wicked,” said Aurelia, “but I can't help thinking that Providence ought to provide for women. I wish Myrtie was mine.”
The other woman wiped her eyes at the hungry way in which she said “mine.”
“Well, I can't do anything; but I'm sorry for you, if that's all. You'd make enough sight better mother for Myrtie than that cross old woman. I don't b'lieve she more'n half wants her, only she's sot. She doesn't care anything about having the other children; she's going to leave them with Mis' Loomis; but she says her grandchildren ain't going to be living with strangers, an' she ought to hev been consulted. After all you've done for the child, to treat you as she has to-night, she's the most ungrateful — I know one thing; I'd charge her for Myrtie's board — a good price, too.”
“Oh, I don't want anything of that sort,” said poor Aurelia, dejectedly, listening to her darling's sobs. “You go in an' try to hush her, Mis' Simonds. Oh!”
“So I will. Her grandmother can't do anything with her, poor little thing! I've got some peppermints. I do believe she's spankin' her — the —”
Aurelia did not run in with Mrs. Simonds; she listened outside till the pitiful cries hushed a little; then she went desolately home.
She sat down in the kitchen, with the little clothes in her lap. She did not think of going to bed; she did not cry nor moan to herself; she just sat there still. It was not very late when she came home — between eight and nine. In about half an hour, perhaps, she heard a sound outside that made her heart leap — a little voice crying pitifully, and saying, between the sobs, “Mamma! mamma!”
Aurelia made one spring to the door. There was the tiny creature in her little nightgown, shaking all over with cold and sobs.
Aurelia caught her up, and all her calm was over. “Oh, you darling! you darling! you darling!” she cried, covering her little cold body all over with kisses. “You sha'n't leave me — you sha'n't! you sha'n't! Little sweetheart — all I've got in the world. I guess they sha'n't take you away when you don't want to go. Did you cry, and mamma go off and leave you? Did they whip you? They never shall again — never! never! There, there, blessed, don't cry; mamma'll get you all warm, and you shall go to sleep on your own little pillow. Oh, you darling! darling! darling!”
Aurelia busied herself about the child, rubbing the little numb limbs, and getting some milk heated. She never asked how she came to get away; she never thought of anything except that she had her. She stopped every other minute to kiss her and croon to her; she laughed and cried. Now she gave way to her feelings; she was almost beside herself. She had the child all warm and fed and comforted by the kitchen fire when she heard steps outside, and she knew at once what was coming, and a fierce resolve sprang up in her heart: they should not have that child again to-night. She cast a hurried glance around; there was hardly a second's time. In the corner of the kitchen was a great heap of herbs which she had taken down from the walls where they had been drying; the next day she had intended to pack them and send them off. She caught up Myrtie and covered her with them. “Lie still, darling!” she whispered. “Don't make a bit of noise, or your grandmother will get you again.” Myrtie crouched under them, trembling.
Then the door opened; Mr. Simonds stood there with a lantern. “That little girl's run away,” he began — “slipped out while the old lady was out of the room a minute. Beats all how such a little thing knew enough. She's here, ain't she?”
“No,” said Aurelia, “she ain't.”
“You don't mean it?”
“Ain't you seen her, though?”
Mr. Simonds, who was fat and placid, began to look grave. “Then, all there is about it, we've got to have a hunt,” said he. “'Twon't do to have that little tot out in her nightgown long. We hadn't a thought but that she was here. Must have lost her way.”
Aurelia watched him stride down the yard. Then she ran after him. “Mr. Simonds!” He turned. “I told you a lie. Myrtie's in the corner of the kitchen under a heap of herbs.”
“Why, what on earth —”
“I wanted to keep her so to-night.” Aurelia burst right out in loud sobs.
“There, 'Relia! It's a confounded shame. You shall keep her. I'll make it all right with the old lady somehow. I reckon, as long as the child's safe, she'll be glad to get rid of her to-night. She wouldn't have slept much. Go right into the house, 'Relia, and don't worry.”
Aurelia obeyed. She hung over the little creature, asleep in her crib, all night. She watched her every breath. She never thought of sleeping herself — her last night with Myrtie. The seconds were so many grains of gold-dust. Her heart failed her when day broke. She washed and dressed Myrtie at the usual time, and gave her her breakfast. Then she sat down with her and waited. The child's sorrow was soon forgotten, and she played about as usual. Aurelia watched her despairingly. She began to wonder at length why they did not come for her. It grew later and later. She would not carry her back herself, she was resolved on that.
It was ten o'clock before any one came; then it was Mrs. Simonds. She had a strange look on her face.
“'Relia,” she said, standing in the door and looking at her and Myrtie, “you ain't heard what has happened to our house this mornin', hev you?”
“No,” said Aurelia, awed.
“Old Mis' Sears is dead. Had her third shock: she's had two in the last three years. She was took soon after Mr. Simonds got home. We got a doctor right off, but she died 'bout an hour ago.”
“Oh,” said Aurelia, “I've been a wicked woman.”
“No you ain't, Aurelia; don't you go to feeling so. There's no call for the living to be unjust to themselves because folks are dead. You did the best you could. An' now you're glad you can keep the child; you can't help it. I thought of it myself the first thing.”
“Oh, I was such a wicked woman to think of it myself,” said Aurelia. “If I could only have done something for the poor old soul! Why didn't you call me?”
“I told Mr. Simonds I wouldn't; you'd had enough.”
There was one thing, however, which Aurelia found to do — a simple and touching thing, though it probably meant more to her than to most of those who knew of it.
On the day of the funeral the poor old woman's grave was found lined with fragrant herbs from Aurelia's garden — thyme and lavender and rosemary. She had cried when she picked them, because she could not help being glad, and they were all she could give for atonement.