From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
“Don't stan' there lookin' at me that way, Charlotte.”
“Why, Aunt Lucinda!”
Lucinda Moss put her slender red fingers over her face. “I — didn't think it was — anything out of the — way,” she sniffed, weakly.
Charlotte stood before her as relentless and handsome as an accusing angel. Her full, strong young figure seemed to tower over her aunt; her firm, rosy face and clear blue eyes seemed to spy out her inmost weaknesses like sunlight. “I must say I am surprised,” said Charlotte. Her voice was loud and even and sweet. Charlotte, no matter how indignant she might be, never altered her voice.
“I didn't think it was anything so much out of the way, Charlotte.”
“Well, I must say, Aunt Lucinda, I never thought, from all I've known of you, that you'd do such a thing as to sit down and play cards.”
Lucinda's eyes, all pink and watery, rested appealingly on Charlotte, then on the table before her. Charlotte had on a light cambric gown that displayed a rigor of starch and cleanliness. She had worn her white apron in school all day, but it still flared as stiffly as when she had put it on in the morning. Her brown hair was brushed until it shone; there was not a stray lock anywhere. All this perfect order and nicety made her seem more pitiless to her aunt. Lucinda shrank weakly down in her chair. She was lean and delicate, in flimsy old black muslin and a shiny old black silk apron. She wore a tumbled muslin kerchief around her neck, and had lax, faded curls behind her ears. She looked from Charlotte to the table. There was a printed red cloth on it, and a row of books piled up against the wall under the gilt-framed glass. There was an old-fashioned work-box with a gilt ball on each corner, and a little china vase with some violets in it. But Lucinda eyed ruefully the objects directly before her on the corner of the table. There lay a pack of little old-fashioned cards and a large green-covered Bible. The cards were scattered about, and some of them were tucked under the Bible.
“And for you to try to hide the cards under the Bible!” continued Charlotte. “I shouldn't have thought you could have done that, Aunt Lucinda.”
“It was layin' right there. I'd jest been readin' some in it.” Lucinda's voice took on a sharper tone. There is a wall of limitation for all human patience, and she was being crowded against hers. She stood against it, and displayed what small defensive powers she had, although her defence was principally appeal and excuse. “I didn't have anything to do,” she proceeded — “not anything. I'd been knittin' till I got cramps, an' I read a chapter, an' then I thought I'd jest get out the cards. It's dreadful dull sometimes, Charlotte.”
“I should think you could find some amusement in your own mind,” replied Charlotte, with no abatement of severity.
Lucinda eyed her in a bewildered way, as if called upon to consider an argument based upon some unknown equation.
“I know perfectly well,” continued Charlotte, “that it isn't my place to dictate to you, for you are my aunt, and a good deal older than I am. But I must say it surprised me a good deal to come in and find you playing cards, for I wasn't brought up to see them in the house.”
Lucinda sat bolt-upright; there were hot red spots on her cheeks; one near enough could have seen pulses beating here and there through the delicate skin on her neck and forehead. “I wa'n't playin' cards,” said she.
“Why, what were you doing, then? I don't know what you mean, Aunt Lucinda.”
“Well, I was — I s'pose you'll think I'm dreadful silly, Charlotte, but I ain't had much to 'muse me, an' I've kinder got in the way of it.”
“For pity's sake, Aunt Lucinda, what are you coming at?” Charlotte stared at her, and wrinkled her fair high forehead in a way she had when perplexed.
“I didn't mean to do anything out of the way, but I s'pose you'll think it was dreadful silly, Charlotte. I was jest tellin' my fortune.”
The tears stood in the old woman's eyes. She shook visibly. In her simple life her little foolishnesses had come to take the place of sins, and she was shamefaced over them as such. “I was jest — tellin' my fortune.”
“I don't believe I know what you mean, Aunt Lucinda.” Charlotte's blue eyes were raised, her round rosy face was all furrowed with those lines of perplexity.
“Why, don't you know, Charlotte? You can tell your fortune with cards. There's a way of doin' it. I learnt it when I was a girl. Didn't you know it?” asked Lucinda, with tremulous eagerness.
“I've heard of it.”
“I s'pose it is kind of silly; but it's kind of 'musin' sometimes, when I'm feelin' dull, you know.” Lucinda trembled, and still kept her eyes fastened upon her niece's face, which expressed a calm contempt.
Presently Lucinda began again, with more stress of appeal: “I was jest tellin' my fortune, Charlotte; I didn't s'pose there was any harm in it. Once in a while I take a notion to tell it, jest for the fun of it, you know.”
“I shouldn't think it would be much fun.”
“Well, I dun know as 'tis, Charlotte; but it's kind of 'musin' sometimes.”
Charlotte still gazed at her aunt with that look of contemptuous perplexity, and the old woman could not take her eyes from her face.
“It's jest because it's kind of 'musin',” she pleaded again. “An' when anybody ain't had any more change than I've had 'most all their life, it's kind of comfortin' to spread out the cards an' try to calculate if there ain't somethin' different comin'. It don't never come, an' I don't s'pose it's ever goin' to; course I don't put any faith in it, but it's kind of 'musin'.”
Charlotte turned away, and put her face down to the little bunch of violets on the table: one of her scholars had brought them to her. “Well, I can't stop to talk any more about it,” said she. “I must go out and get supper.”
Charlotte righted herself and went out of the room with a firm step, and proceeded to get supper ready. She had her own ideas about supper, and indeed about all the other meals. Lucinda Moss's household plan had been revolutionized since her niece had come to live with her. She had no longer any voice in anything, and she had come almost to forget what her own original note had been. She was growing deprecatory and shamefaced about herself, and she no longer openly confessed in many cases her preferences. It took some new emergency, like this of the cards, to arouse her at all.
Lucinda had always liked a bit of cold pork, some leftover dinner vegetables, some little savory relish, for supper, but now she ate a slice of bread-and-butter and a spoonful of sauce, and drank a glass of milk. Charlotte had decreed that that was better for her. Lucinda had not even her cup of tea since Charlotte reigned.
Lucinda had been fond of a rich cup-cake, which she had also enjoyed stirring up once a week for herself. She had taken an innocent pride in its excellence, and she had treated her few callers to it. She had liked a slice of it between meals. But that was now all done away with; there was no cake baked in the house. “That rich cake is not fit for you to eat, Aunt Lucinda,” Charlotte had said. “I think we had better not have any more of it.” And poor Lucinda came gently down to her niece's views on diet, and put cup-cake and cold pork and vegetables away from her like devices of Satan. She concealed from herself her longing for them; and she felt the most sincere love and gratitude to Charlotte for her interest in her welfare. Indeed, Charlotte did everything from the purest motives. She had meant to do her very best by her old aunt Lucinda when she had come to live with her, after her father's death, from a sense of duty. She had given up her school in her native village, and taken another, that she did not like nearly as well, here in Foster. She had found Lucinda old and feeble, and at once set to work about taking care of her and relieving her from all her household labors.
Charlotte had not much time out of school, but she kept the house, and would have only a modicum of assistance from her aunt. Lucinda soon did not venture to prepare a meal nor set away a dish, she met with such kind and determined remonstrances from her niece. Charlotte was so determined, when she set about being good and doing her whole duty, that she was quite capable of tyrannizing over goodness itself. And then it was undeniably better that an old and feeble woman like her aunt Lucinda should not eat rich cup-cake between meals, nor wear herself out at house-work, although Lucinda had never worn herself out at house-work. There was considerable scandal of a modest kind about her in the village. There was a rumor that Lucinda Moss had not taken up her sitting-room carpet for ten years, nor her parlor carpet within the memory of man, and that she deliberately shut up one or two chambers, and let them stay so, with no application of broom or duster, year after year. But Charlotte had every carpet in the house taken up spring and fall. She hung all the feather-beds out of the windows, and dusted in all the dark corners. Poor old Lucinda sometimes felt as if there was so much cleanliness that she was almost chilly. But she never remonstrated about anything, unless it was for a moment, when she happened to be taken by surprise, as in the matter of the cards. She seemed quite to fall in with Charlotte's views that her own tastes were not to be considered when they interfered with her own good, and that most of them did so interfere.
When she came out to supper that night she looked meekly and unquestioningly at the cold milk, the bread-and-butter, and sauce. Her very soul thirsted for a cup of tea, and she felt as guilty as any wine-biber that it should be so. Charlotte had said that it was as bad to drink tea as to drink strong liquor, and that it was very unhealthy for her.
It did not take long for them to eat supper; they never dallied over their meals. Charlotte did not dally over anything; indeed, she could not, with so much on her hands. She sent Lucinda into the sitting-room while she put away the supper dishes. When that was done she went into the sitting-room herself, and sat down with some needle-work at the window opposite her aunt. There was still an hour of daylight left.
There was a cunning look in Lucinda's face; she was smiling and quite talkative. She spoke about the weather, and the neighbors, and Charlotte's school; then she gave a sudden sharp glance at her niece. “Charlotte?”
“What say, Aunt Lucinda?”
“Charlotte.” The old woman was smiling hard, and her voice was soft and tremulously sweet. “Did you ever have your fortune told?”
“No, I never did.”
“Well, now, Charlotte, don't you want me to tell it?” Lucinda twisted her face up towards her niece, and her smile was as bland and cunning as a witch's.
“No, thank you, Aunt Lucinda,” Charlotte replied, stiffly.
“It's real remarkable how they do turn out sometimes, Charlotte. I might tell you somethin' 'bout — who you was goin' to marry, you know.”
“I haven't any wish to try it, and I am never going to marry anybody.” Charlotte blushed, but she looked with dignified scorn at her aunt's delicate old face, that still smirked up at her. “To say just what I think, Aunt Lucinda,” she continued, “it seems to me very silly, and I should think the cards would be better in the fire than anywhere else.”
“I'd kind of hate to burn 'em, Charlotte. I've had 'em ever since I was a girl.”
Charlotte made no reply. Lucinda watched her pitifully. The cunning smile had faded entirely from her face. She seemed to sit lower in her chair.
“Well, mebbe I had ought to burn 'em,” she remarked, finally, with a hard breath. Pretty soon she arose. “I guess I'll go to bed,” said she.
“Why, it isn't dark yet,” responded Charlotte.
“I know it ain't, but I'm kind of tired somehow.” Lucinda went across the room with a weak shuffle. Charlotte looked after her, and thought to herself that she aged rapidly. She did not think any more about the cards and the fortune-telling. She could not treat any subject lightly, and had to bring her mind down with a heavy step upon all matters, however trivial, that it stopped to consider. She knew quite well that her gentle, weak old aunt's whim for fortune-telling was not a subject for very serious controversy. She expressed her opinion strongly, as was her wont; then let the matter slip away entirely from her thoughts.
The days went on, and nothing more was said about the cards. Charlotte did not know whether they were burned, as she had advised, or not. She thought no more about them. She noticed that her aunt ate even less than usual, and seemed more spiritless. She thought also that she grew thin.
“What's the matter, Aunt Lucinda; don't you feel well?” she asked one night when the old woman announced her intention of going to bed immediately after supper.
Lucinda paused in her onward shuffle. “Well, I dun know,” said she; “I guess I'm well 'nough, but I feel kind of poorly. I've been thinkin' if I had some of that root-beer I used to make, it might kind of set me up.”
“Milk is a good deal better for you,” said Charlotte, promptly. “You don't drink enough milk.”
“Well, I dun know; I drink consider'ble, Charlotte.”
“How much did you drink to-night?”
“Well, I dun know; 'most a cupful, I guess.”
Charlotte went to the table and poured out a cup quite full of milk. “Now, Aunt Lucinda, you just drink this down before you go to bed,” said she.
“Oh, Charlotte, I dun know as I can.”
“Yes, you can, too; it's good for you.”
Lucinda put out her hand for the milk; then she drew it back. “Oh, Charlotte, I can't, noways in the world.”
Charlotte held the milk quite under her nose, and her face contracted with disgust when she looked down at it. “Drink it right down,” said Charlotte.
The old woman took the cup, and drank down the milk with desperate gulps. When she had finished she gave the cup to Charlotte and clapped her hand over her mouth.
“That's right,” said Charlotte, in a commendatory tone. “It'll do you good. You don't drink half enough milk.”
Lucinda gave her head an unmeaning shake. She was quite speechless. She kept her hand pressed tightly to her mouth all the way out of the room.
The next morning Charlotte made her drink two cups of milk for breakfast, and she did so more easily. Lucinda looked quite alert that morning, and Charlotte thought to herself that she was improving.
“You feel better, don't you, Aunt Lucinda?” she said.
“Well, I dun know; I ruther guess I do feel a little rested,” answered Lucinda.
She had an odd expression that morning. Charlotte kept regarding her; she could not think what made her look so strange. Finally she decided that it was because her aunt had her hair pushed back a little farther than usual from her temples. It took away from her expression of gentle weakness, and gave her something of a wild air. Charlotte was not nervous; after she had decided as to the cause of it, her aunt's strange look no longer dwelt in her mind. She taught school placidly all the forenoon. But when she came home at noon, and could find Lucinda nowhere in the house, that odd look of hers started up afresh in her memory. After she had hunted through the house and garden, and inquired at the neighbors', she stood in the middle of the sitting-room, and that strange face swam before her eyes. “It meant something,” she said to herself; “she meant to do something.”
Some of the neighbors came running in. There were three men (two old ones and one young one), two middle-aged women, and two girls. They had just risen from their dinner-tables; the women were in calico gowns and aprons, and the men in their shirt sleeves — all except the young man; he had stopped to put on his coat.
“Oh, have you found her?” two or three of the women gasped out as they entered; the others stared in breathless inquiry. Charlotte shook her head. The neighbors circled around her and asked questions. Nobody knew what to do first. “The trouble is, there don't seem to be anywhere that there's any sense in to look for her,” said one of the women, with a sage air. And it was quite true. There was no reasonable place outside of her own house in which to look for her. Lucinda might almost have been regarded as a gentle and timid crustacean, and that house in which she had been born and lived her whole life as her shell. She never stirred out of it, except into her little garden, from one week's end to the other. She never went into a neighbor's. It had seemed a mere farce to inquire of one. It was almost impossible to imagine Lucinda outside of her own house; the very windows seemed full of her to people on the street, and the neighbors were bewildered, standing there in the sitting-room and trying to think of her as away.
The young man in the company surveyed Charlotte with anxious, honest eyes. He was tall, and his fair curly head overtopped all the others. He was the brother of one of the girls. Charlotte never looked at him. The talk and speculation went on; then finally the young man made a start. “I'll go and put my horse in the buggy,” he said, in a determined tone, “and I'll go a piece on all the roads, and see if anybody has seen anything of her.”
“I'll go an' help you harness,” returned one of the old men, promptly.
Then Charlotte and the others searched the house again from garret to cellar. Charlotte was not easily timorous nor imaginative, but fearful imaginations could come to her, as to all human beings, and when they did come they had weighty presences. Charlotte probably would never see a ghost, but if she ever did it would come with a mighty march upon her. After the second fruitless search through the house was finished, she turned upon the people with her. “Something dreadful has happened,” said she, in a quick, strained tone.
“Oh, mebbe there ain't,” one of the women said, soothingly; but her eyes were wild and scared.
“Yes, there has.”
They all stood in the side entry, where they had come from the second story. Charlotte looked from one to the other; then she set her mouth hard, and went out into the yard. In the middle of the yard there was a well with an old-fashioned sweep. Charlotte went with rigid strides straight to the well, and the people followed her, the young girls hanging back a little. Charlotte stretched herself up, leaned over the curb, and looked down; the others crowded close to her, and did the same. They could see nothing but their own faces in the far-away dark water. They gazed down at the young rosy faces and the old ones, with the flecks of sunlight around them, but they could see nothing beyond. It was that reflection of life which is all that one sees upon the farthest point of investigation.
“We can't see nothin' but ourselves,” said one of the women. “Father, you'd better get a pole somewhere, an' poke down there.”
“Where can I git a pole?” asked the old man, who was the woman's husband. He had an important, solemn voice; his wife, no matter how great her awe, was always sharply vociferous.
One of the young girls clutched the other by the arm when the pole was mentioned. Charlotte and the old man went into the garden, where there was a pile of last year's bean-poles, and he spliced some together with clumsy pains. They all stood back when he stepped up and began probing the well. He had bent a nail in the end of the pole, and he poked about warily. Finally he turned about on his spectators. He had a large face, and he carried himself pompously.
“There ain't nothin' there,” said he. There was a slight savor of disappointment in his tone. He had a natural scent for glory, but he was like an animal reared at a distance from his native prey, and had little opportunity to exercise it. He wished no harm to have befallen poor Lucinda; but if there had, he would have liked that distinction which belonged to the discoverer of it.
“Are you sure?” asked his wife.
“Course I'm sure. There ain't no use standin' pokin' any longer.” The old man stepped down and stood in a stately attitude, with a pole at his side like a spear. “There ain't any other well, is there?” he inquired of Charlotte.
“No cistern nor nothin'? There wa'n't nothin' covered up that she could have stepped into?”
“No, there wasn't,” said Charlotte. She struck out of the yard as she spoke.
“Where you goin'?” one of the women asked.
“Down to the salt-meadow.”
Charlotte kept on down the street, and they all straggled after her. Others joined them, with eager questions, as they progressed. It was quite a crowd that reached the marsh that the Foster people called the salt-meadow. High tides flooded it. The rest of the time it lay a bare level, burned by the sun and swept by the salt wind. Here and there were pools of sea-water quite deep. Charlotte had thought of them.
Away over to the eastward there was a blue line between the marsh and a white cloudy sky; that was the sea. The people ran about here and there over the marsh; they looked taller than they were. There were now many boys in the company, and when they got into the distance, and showed up against the sky, they looked like men on the level meadow. They whooped and hallooed. Charlotte never spoke a word. She went from pool to pool, and the old man with the pole went with her. Here and there lay great mats of long and sunburnt marsh-grass. They looked like fleeces of wild animals. Charlotte eyed one with a desire to lift it up and see if her aunt were not lying hidden beneath it. Charlotte, neither knowing why, nor fully understanding that she was, began to be tortured by remorse. Lucinda had never spoken to blame her, but there was no need, for silence and absence will grind with accusing voices. Charlotte's ears were full of the voices, although she could not yet understand what they said.
She did not until that evening. When she returned from her fruitless search on the marsh she found the house and yard quite full of people. Some of the kindly women had been getting supper. They had brought in of their own stores. The hygienic food in the house looked rather poor to them. They agreed that Lucinda must have been pretty well pinched. The table was loaded with hot biscuits, cake, and cold meats, and there was a pot of strong tea. Charlotte would not eat anything, although the women urged her. Finally they sat down and drank the tea themselves. After supper, the house cleared gradually. Two of the women volunteered to stay with Charlotte all night, and the young girl, sister of the fair-haired young man, was to sleep with her. The two older women went home for a little while to mix some bread and fold clothes, and the young girl and Charlotte were alone in the sitting-room.
Now and then they could hear voices out in the street. Charlotte kept going to the door to listen. Once, as she returned, she hit Lucinda's little old work-box that stood on the corner of the table, and knocked it to the floor. All the things fell out; Charlotte groaned. It seemed as if she hurt her lost aunt. The girl came to her aid, and they began picking up the things and replacing them. Suddenly Charlotte gave a cry, and took something to the light and examined it closely. Then she sank into a chair, and rocked herself to and fro, and cried.
“Oh, dear! oh, dear! poor Aunt Lucinda! poor Aunt Lucinda! What shall I do? what shall I do?” she wailed.
The girl arose, and stood regarding her in a frightened way. She had a sweet, homely face, and was very small, much smaller than Charlotte. She had always been rather afraid of Charlotte, she was so large and handsome and peremptory. Finally she went up to her timidly. “Why, what is it?” she asked; “what is the matter, Charlotte?”
Charlotte held out something. “Look at that,” she said, convulsively.
The girl took it and looked at it curiously. It was a playing-card, the jack of hearts, and one corner was scorched and shrivelled by fire. “Why, it's a card,” said she, vaguely; “and it's been burnt.”
Charlotte uncovered her face, and showed it wet and swollen and distorted. “Yes,” said she, “it's a card. And I'll tell you what I did. I'll tell you all about it. I've been wicked; I've been dreadful wicked and cruel. I found her trying to tell her fortune with those cards one day, and I scolded her for it, and I told her she ought to burn them up. She was telling her fortune, and trying to get a little bit of comfort and amusement out of it, and she's never had much in her life. She was cooped up here in this house all the best part of her life with her mother, that was nervous and half crazy, and had to be taken care of like a baby. She never went anywhere nor had anything, and she got a little bit of comfort out of the cards telling her fortune, and I told her to burn them. And she tried to. Oh, she tried to! — she tried to! Poor Aunt Lucinda! I can see it, just how it was. She put them into the fire, and she felt dreadfully to see them burn. She'd had them ever since she was a girl, and she'd taken so much comfort with them! It was just like burning up all the little hope she had left. And she just pulled out this card, when it was all afire, and saved it. I remember she had burned her fingers, and she wouldn't tell me how. That was how she did it. Oh, poor Aunt Lucinda! poor Aunt Lucinda!”
The other girl looked from her to the card with a puzzled and distressed air. “Don't feel so bad,” she ventured, hesitatingly.
“Oh, I've got to feel bad! I've got to! I've got to all my life! The cards ain't all. Oh, I can tell you things — things that I never knew before. They all come up now. I haven't let her have tea when she wanted it, nor cake, nor cold pork and potatoes for supper, nor anything between meals. And she wanted some root-beer last night, and I said she couldn't have it. I've been setting myself up, because I thought I knew more; and I knew the things weren't good for her perhaps, but they were all her little comforts, all she had, and nobody ought to have taken them away but God. Oh, I've been doing a dreadful thing! I've been stealing from her. And I've done more than that. Oh, I have! I have! I've been stealing her. I've been taking the self out of her. Oh, poor Aunt Lucinda! poor Aunt Lucinda! What shall I do? what shall I do?”
The girl was quite pale; she held her lips parted. She did not comprehend it at all, nor know what to say. Suddenly there was a touch on her shoulder, and she looked around. It was her brother; he had been standing in the room a minute or two, but they had not noticed him.
“What's the matter with her?” he asked his sister in a whisper.
Charlotte went on wailing. Both of them had an odd feeling that she was not fairly there, and that they could speak of her.
“She feels awfully. She thinks she hasn't treated her well.”
“What stuff!” The young man hesitated a moment; his face flushed; he looked at his sister. Finally he went up to Charlotte, knelt down on the floor beside her, and slid his arm around her waist. “Don't take on so — don't; you mustn't,” he whispered. “I'll find her. I'm going now to give my horse his supper, and then I'm going to get a fresh one at Joe Grayson's, and I'm going to start out again. I'll find her before morning, and bring her back safe and sound. Don't take on so.”
But Charlotte never hushed her wail. She did not seem to notice that his arm was around her.
The young man arose; he did not meet his sister's eye when he spoke to her. “I'm going home, and will send mother over right away,” said he.
“She's coming as soon as she's folded the clothes,” replied the sister.
“She's got to come now.”
His steps sounded heavy and quick on the front walk. In spite of his pity he had an odd feeling of elation. He also had been rather afraid of Charlotte; she had seemed like a goddess in armor. He had now a feeling that he had caught her outside of her panoply.
He lived only three houses away, and his mother came running over in a few minutes. She was a woman with as weighty a will as Charlotte's, although her softness and slowness of manner disguised it. Her will to Charlotte's was as feathers to steel, but the weight was there. She made Charlotte drink a bowl of sage tea and go to bed. She and the other woman sat up all night in the sitting-room, and listened and watched. They felt as if dreadful tidings might arrive at any moment, but none did. When Charlotte came down-stairs in the morning nothing more was known about her aunt than when she had gone to bed. Charlotte had not slept any, but she was quite calm. All her old repose of manner had returned, but there was no longer any strength in it. She did not stand as erect, with her shoulders back, as formerly. She looked ten years younger. Charlotte was quite a young girl, but everybody had considered her older.
The search for Lucinda continued: the roads were scoured for miles around, every well and pool was dragged, a close watch was kept upon the sea-shore; but nothing was seen of her until five o'clock in the afternoon. Then she came walking into the house. She entered at the side door, and went straight into the sitting-room. There were some women there with Charlotte. They all sat about the room like mourners. When they saw Lucinda they screamed with shrill voices, and more women came in from the kitchen. Charlotte did not speak nor scream. She went over to her aunt and clutched her arm hard.
Lucinda looked about with a bewildered air. Her cheeks were quite pink, her eyes shone, her curls were all untwisted and lay on her shoulders. Her bonnet, which was flat and old-fashioned, had slipped far back, her cashmere shawl with a green centre was pinned on one side, and the point trailed. But with all her disorder and bewilderment she was full of gentle but triumphant assertion.
“What are they all in here for this way?” she asked Charlotte, quite openly.
“Oh, Aunt Lucinda, where have you been?”
Lucinda looked about on them all with a sort of mild dignity. She stood quite straight. “I've been a-visitin'.”
“I've been a-visitin'.”
“Oh, Aunt Lucinda, where?”
“I've been to Denham.”
“Yes; it's forty mile away, an' I've been on the cars. I've been a-visitin' my cousin on my mother's side that lives there — Mary Ellen Taylor. She's livin' with her oldest son, an' she's situated real pleasant. I hadn't seen her for twenty-five year.”
“Oh! how did you get there?”
“I went on the steam-cars,” replied Lucinda, with a lofty air.
“But how? Nobody saw you. How did you get started, Aunt Lucinda?”
Lucinda surveyed her niece with a look of pleasant cunning. “I jest went down 'cross-lots an' got on. I didn't see nobody,” said she.
It was quite true, and had been quite feasible, as everybody saw. There was no regular depot at Foster, nothing but a little rude shed with a bench, where passengers, if there were any, waited. That day there had been none, and the road was lonely. Lucinda had been quite unseen and unmolested in her journey across-lots and her waiting at the station. Now that she had appeared, it seemed strange that no one had thought of such a solution of her disappearance. But people would have dreamed as soon of a marsh-flower taking to the railroad as of Lucinda Moss. She had been so long in one place that it seemed that it must be with her as with the flower, and that nothing but the wind of death could take her away.
The women had stood about, astonished and panic-stricken. Finally one spoke up. “Well,” said she, “I know one thing: if I was to say what I thought, it would be somethin' pretty plain. All this go-round —”
Charlotte interposed. She stepped before her aunt, who had begun to shrink. “Don't you say a word to blame her; I won't have it,” said she.
“Well, if you want to excuse it, after all the trouble and worry we've had and you've had —”
“I won't hear a word,” repeated Charlotte.
After a while the neighbors had one by one departed, and Charlotte and Lucinda were alone together. Charlotte went directly about getting supper. When she called out Lucinda there was a fine array on the table: plenty of cake and pie, and some cold meat and vegetables. The room was full of the fragrance of tea. Charlotte poured out a cup, and passed it to Lucinda. “I thought we'd have tea to-night,” said she. “And I've been thinking — this cake is some the neighbors brought in, but I don't think it is nearly as good as that cup-cake you used to make, and I wish you'd make some to-morrow, Aunt Lucinda, if you feel like it.”
“I'd jest as lief as not.” Lucinda's face was all trembling with smiles.
The next night, when Charlotte came home from school, she had a little parcel that she handed to Lucinda. “Here's something I bought for you, Aunt Lucinda,” said she. Lucinda opened the parcel. It was a pack of cards. “I don't know but I'll let you tell my fortune, after all, if you'd like to,” observed Charlotte, after a while.
After supper that evening Lucinda moved the things on the table back, and spread out the cards. She bent over them, and her face took on a wise and important expression. “Well,” said she, finally, in a meditative voice, “there's a light-complected man right close to you, Charlotte, an' a weddin'-ring, for the first thing —”