From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXIII No. 37 (September 13, 1890)
“I don't see what kind of ideas you've got in your head, for my part.” Mrs. Britton looked sharply at her daughter Louisa, but she got no response.
Louisa sat in one of the kitchen chairs close to the door. She had dropped into it when she first entered. Her hands were all brown and grimy with garden-mould; it clung to the bottom of her old dress and her coarse shoes.
Mrs. Britton, sitting opposite by the window, waited, looking at her. Suddenly Louisa's silence seemed to strike her mother's will with an electric shock; she recoiled, with an angry jerk of her head. “You don't know nothin' about it. You'd like him well enough after you was married to him,” said she, as if in answer to an argument.
Louisa's face looked fairly dull; her obstinacy seemed to cast a film over it. Her eyelids were cast down; she leaned her head back against the wall.
“Sit there like a stick if you want to!” cried her mother.
Louisa got up. As she stirred, a faint earthy odor diffused itself through the room. It was like a breath from a ploughed field.
Mrs. Britton's little sallow face contracted more forcibly. “I s'pose now you're goin' back to your potater patch,” said she. “Plantin' potaters out there jest like a man, for all the neighbors to see. Pretty sight, I call it.”
“If they don't like it, they needn't look,” returned Louisa. She spoke quite evenly. Her young back was stiff with bending over the potatoes, but she straightened it rigorously. She pulled her old hat further over her eyes.
There was a shuffling sound outside the door and a fumble at the latch. It opened, and an old man came in, scraping his feet heavily over the threshold. He carried an old basket.
“What you got in that basket, father?” asked Mrs. Britton.
The old man looked at her. His old face had the round outlines and naïve grin of a child.
“Father, what you got in that basket?”
Louisa peered apprehensively into the basket. “Where did you get those potatoes, grandfather?” said she.
“Digged 'em.” The old man's grin deepened. He chuckled hoarsely.
“Well, I'll give up if he 'ain't been an' dug up all them potaters you've been plantin'!” said Mrs. Britton.
“Yes, he has,” said Louisa. “Oh, grandfather, didn't you know I'd jest planted those potatoes?”
The old man fastened his bleared blue eyes on her face, and still grinned.
“Didn't you know better, grandfather?” she asked again.
But the old man only chuckled. He was so old that he had come back into the mystery of childhood. His motives were hidden and inscrutable; his amalgamation with the human race was so much weaker.
“Land sakes! don't waste no more time talkin' to him,” said Mrs. Britton. “You can't make out whether he knows what he's doin' or not. I've give it up. Father, you jest set them pertaters down, an' you come over here an' set down in the rockin'-chair; you've done about 'nough work to-day.”
The old man shook his head with slow mutiny.
“Come right over here.”
Louisa pulled at the basket of potatoes. “Let me have 'em, grandfather,” said she. “I've got to have 'em.”
The old man resisted. His grin disappeared, and he set his mouth. Mrs. Britton got up, with a determined air, and went over to him. She was a sickly, frail-looking woman, but the voice came firm, with deep bass tones, from her little lean throat.
“Now, father,” said she, “you jest give her that basket, an' you walk across the room, and you set down in that rockin'-chair.”
The old man looked down into her little pale, wedge-shaped face. His grasp on the basket weakened. Louisa pulled it away, and pushed past out of the door, and the old man followed his daughter sullenly across the room to the rocking-chair.
The Brittons did not have a large potato field; they had only an acre of land in all. Louisa had planted two-thirds of her potatoes; now she had to plant them all over again. She had gone to the house for a drink of water; her mother had detained her, and in the mean time the old man had undone her work. She begun putting the cut potatoes back in the ground. She was careful and laborious about it. A strong wind full of moisture was blowing from the east. The smell of the sea was in it, although this was some miles inland. Louisa's brown calico skirt blew out in it like a sail. It beat her in the face when she raised her head.
“I've got to get these in to-day somehow,” she muttered. “It 'll rain to-morrow.”
She worked as fast as she could, and the afternoon wore on. About five o'clock she happened to glance at the road — the potato field lay beside it — and she saw Jonathan Nye driving past with his gray horse and buggy. She turned her back to the road quickly, and listened until the rattle of the wheels died away. At six o'clock her mother looked out of the kitchen window and called her to supper.
“I'm comin' in a minute,” Louisa shouted back. Then she worked faster than ever. At half past six she went into the house, and the potatoes were all in the ground.
“Why didn't you come when I called you?” asked her mother.
“I had to get the potatoes in.”
“I guess you wa'n't bound to get 'em all in to-night. It's kind of discouragin' when you work, an' get supper all ready, to have it stan' an hour, I call it. An' you've worked 'bout long enough for one day out in this damp wind, I should say.”
Louisa washed her hands and face at the kitchen sink, and smoothed her hair at the little glass over it. She had wet her hair too, and made it look darker: it was quite a light brown. She brushed it in smooth straight lines back from her temples. Her whole face had a clear bright look from being exposed to the moist wind. She noticed it herself, and gave her head a little conscious turn.
When she sat down to the table her mother looked at her with admiration, which she veiled with disapproval.
“Jest look at your face,” said she; “red as a beet. You'll be a pretty-lookin' sight before the summer's out, at this rate.”
Louisa thought to herself that the light was not very strong, and the glass must have flattered her. She could not look as well as she had imagined. She spread some butter on her bread very sparsely. There was nothing for supper but some bread and butter and weak tea, though the old man had his dish of Indian-meal porridge. He could not eat much solid food. The porridge was covered with milk and molasses. He bent low over it, and ate large spoonfuls with loud noises. His daughter had tied a towel around his neck as she would have tied a pinafore on a child. She had also spread a towel over the table-cloth in front of him, and she watched him sharply lest he should spill his food.
“I wish I could have somethin' to eat that I could relish the way he does that porridge and molasses,” said she. She had scarcely tasted anything. She sipped her weak tea laboriously.
Louisa looked across at her mother's meagre little figure in its neat old dress, at her poor small head bending over the teacup, showing the wide parting in the thin hair.
“Why don't you toast your bread, mother?” said she. “I'll toast it for you.”
“No, I don't want it. I'd jest as soon have it this way as any. I don't want no bread, nohow. I want somethin' to relish — a herrin', or a little mite of cold meat, or somethin'. I s'pose I could eat as well as anybody if I had as much as some folks have. Mis' Mitchell was sayin' the other day that she didn't believe but what they had butcher's meat up to Mis' Nye's every day in the week. She said Jonathan he went to Wolfsborough and brought home great pieces in a market basket every week. I guess they have everything.”
Louisa was not eating much herself, but now she took another slice of bread with a resolute air. “I guess some folks would be thankful to get this,” said she.
“Yes, I s'pose we'd ought to be thankful for enough to keep us alive, anybody takes so much comfort livin',” returned her mother, with a tragic bitterness that sat oddly upon her, she was so small and feeble. Her face worked and strained under the stress of emotion; her eyes were full of tears; she sipped her tea fiercely.
“There's some sugar,” said Louisa. “We might have had a little cake.”
The old man caught the word. “Cake?” he mumbled, with pleased inquiry, looking up, and extending his grasping old hand.
“I guess we 'ain't got no sugar to waste in cake,” returned Mrs. Britton. “Eat your porridge, father, an' stop teasin'. There ain't no cake.”
After supper Louisa cleared away the dishes; then she put on her shawl and hat.
“Where you goin'?” asked her mother.
“Down to the store.”
“The oil's out. There wasn't enough to fill the lamps this mornin'. I 'ain't had a chance to get it before.”
It was nearly dark. The mist was so heavy it was almost rain. Louisa went swiftly down the road with the oil can. It was a half-mile to the store where the few staples were kept that sufficed the simple folk in this little settlement. She was gone a half-hour. When she returned, she had besides the oil can a package under her arm. She went into the kitchen and set them down. The old man was asleep in the rocking-chair. She heard voices in the adjoining room. She frowned, and stood still, listening.
“Louisa!” called her mother. Her voice was sweet, and higher pitched than usual. She sounded the i in Louisa long.
“Come in here after you've taken your things off.”
Louisa knew that Jonathan Nye was in the sitting-room. She flung off her hat and shawl. Her old dress was damp, and had still some earth stains on it; her hair was roughened by the wind, but she would not look again in the glass; she went into the sitting-room just as she was.
“It's Mr. Nye, Louisa,” said her mother, with effusion.
“Good-evenin', Mr. Nye,” said Louisa.
Jonathan Nye half arose and extended is hand, but she did not notice it. She sat down peremptorily in a chair at the other side of the room. Jonathan had the one rocking-chair; Mrs. Britton's frail little body was poised anxiously on the hard rounded top of the carpet-covered lounge. She looked at Louisa's dress and hair, and her eyes were stony with disapproval, but her lips still smirked, and she kept her voice sweet. She pointed to a glass dish on the table.
“See what Mr. Nye has brought us over, Louisa,” said she.
Louisa looked indifferently at the dish.
“It's honey,” said her mother; “some of his own bees made it. Don't you want to get a dish an' taste of it? One of them little glass sauce dishes.”
“No, I guess not,” replied Louisa. “I never cared much about honey. Grandfather 'll like it.”
The smile vanished momentarily from Mrs. Britton's lips, but she recovered herself. She arose and went across the room to the china closet. Her set of china dishes was on the top shelves, the lower were filled with books and papers. “I've got somethin' to show you, Mr. Nye,” said she.
This was scarcely more than a hamlet, but it was incorporated, and had its town books. She brought forth a pile of them, and laid them on the table beside Jonathan Nye. “There,” said she, “I thought mebbe you'd like to look at these.” She opened one and pointed to the school report. This mother could not display her daughter's accomplishments to attract a suitor, for she had none. Louisa did not own a piano or organ; she could not paint; but she had taught school acceptably for eight years — ever since she was sixteen — and in every one of the town books was testimonial to that effect, intermixed with glowing eulogy. Jonathan Nye looked soberly through the books; he was a slow reader. He was a few years older than Louisa, tall and clumsy, long-featured and long-necked. His face was a deep red with embarrassment, and it contrasted oddly with his stiff dignity of demeanor.
Mrs. Britton drew a chair close to him while he read. “You see, Louisa taught that school for eight year,” said she; “an' she'd be teachin' it now if Mr. Mosely's daughter hadn't grown up an' wanted somethin' to do, an' he put her in. He was committee, you know. I dun'no' as I'd ought to say so, an' I wouldn't want you to repeat it, but they do say Ida Mosely don't give very good satisfaction, an' I guess she won't have no reports like these in the town books unless her father writes 'em. See this one.”
Jonathan Nye pondered over the fulsome testimony to Louisa's capability, general worth, and amiability, while she sat in sulky silence at the further corner of the room. Once in a while her mother, after a furtive glance at Jonathan engrossed in a town book, would look at her and gesticulate fiercely for her to come over, but she did not stir. Her eyes were dull and quiet, her mouth closely shut; she looked homely. Louisa was very pretty when pleased and animated, at other times she had a look like a closed flower. One could see no prettiness in her.
Jonathan Nye read all the school reports; then he arose heavily. “They're real good,” said he. He glanced at Louisa and tried to smile; his blushes deepened.
“Now don't be in a hurry,” said Mrs. Britton.
“I guess I'd better be goin'; mother's alone.”
“She won't be afraid; it's jest on the edge of the evenin'.”
“I don't know as she will. But I guess I'd better be goin'.” He looked hesitatingly at Louisa.
She arose and stood with an indifferent air.
“You'd better set down again,” said Mrs. Britton.
“No; I guess I'd better be goin'.” Jonathan turned toward Louisa. “Good-evenin',” said he.
Mrs. Britton followed him to the door. She looked back and beckoned imperiously to Louisa, but she stood still. “Now come again, do,” Mrs. Britton said to the departing caller. “Run in any time; we're real lonesome evenin's. Father he sets an' sleeps in his chair, an' Louisa an' me often wish somebody'd drop in; folks round here ain't none too neighborly. Come in any time you happen to feel like it, an' we'll both of us be glad to see you. Tell your mother I'll send home that dish to-morror, an' we shall have a real feast off that beautiful honey.”
When Mrs. Britton had fairly shut the outer door upon Jonathan Nye, she came back into the sitting-room as if her anger had a propelling power like steam upon her body.
“Now, Louisa Britton,” said she, “you'd ought to be ashamed of yourself — ashamed of yourself! You've treated him like a — hog!”
“I couldn't help it.”
“Couldn't help it! I guess you could treat anybody decent if you tried. I never saw such actions! I guess you needn't be afraid of him. I guess he ain't so set on you that he means to ketch you up an' run off. There's other girls in town full as good as you an' better lookin'. Why didn't you go an' put on your other dress? Comin' into the room with that old thing on, an' your hair all in a frowse! I guess he won't want to come again.”
“I hope he won't,” said Louisa, under her breath. She was trembling all over.
“I shouldn't think you'd want to say anything, treatin' him that way, when he came over and brought all that beautiful honey! He was all dressed up too. He had on a real nice coat — cloth jest as fine as it could be, an' it was kinder damp when he come in. Then he dressed all up to come over here this rainy night an' bring this honey.” Mrs. Britton snatched the dish of honey and scudded into the kitchen with it. “Sayin' you didn't like honey after he took all that pains to bring it over!” said she. “I'd said I liked it if I'd lied up hill and down.” She set the dish in the pantry. “What in creation smells so kinder strong an' smoky in here?” said she, sharply.
“I guess it's the herrin'. I got two or three down to the store.”
“I'd like to know what you got herrin' for?”
“I thought maybe you'd relish 'em.”
“I don't want no herrin's, now we've got this honey. But I don't know but you've got money to throw away.” She shook the old man by the stove into partial wakefulness, and steered him into his little bedroom off the kitchen. She herself slept in one off the sitting-rooms; Louisa's room was upstairs.
Louisa lighted her candle and went to bed, her mother's scolding voice pursuing her like a wrathful spirit. She cried when she was in bed in the dark, but she soon went to sleep. She was too healthfully tired with her out-door work not to. All her young bones ached with the strain of manual labor as they had ached many a time this last year since she had lost her school.
The Brittons had been and were in sore straits. All they had in the world was this little house with the acre of land. Louisa's meagre school money had bought their food and clothing since her father died. Now it was almost starvation for them. Louisa was struggling to wrest a little sustenance from their stony acre of land, toiling like a European peasant woman, sacrificing her New England dignity. Lately she had herself split up a cord of wood which she had bought of a neighbor, paying for it in instalments with work for his wife.
“Think of a school-teacher goin' into Mis' Mitchell's house to help clean!” said her mother.
She, although she had been of poor, hard-working people all her life, with the humblest surrounding, was a born aristocrat, with that fiercest and most bigoted aristocracy which sometimes arises from independent poverty. She had the feeling of a queen for a princess of the blood about her school-teacher daughter; her working in a neighbor's kitchen was as galling and terrible to her. The projected marriage with Jonathan Nye was like a royal alliance for the good of the state. Jonathan Nye was the only eligible young man in the place; he was the largest land-owner; he had the best house. There were only himself and his mother; after her death the property would all be his. Mrs. Nye was an older woman than Mrs. Britton, who forgot her own frailty in calculating their chances of life.
“Mis' Nye is considerable over seventy,” she said often to herself; “an' then Jonathan will have it all.”
She saw herself installed in that large white house as reigning dowager. All the obstacle was Louisa's obstinacy, which her mother could not understand. She could see no fault in Jonathan Nye. So far as absolute approval went, she herself was in love with him. There was no more sense, to her mind, in Louisa's refusing him than there would have been in a princess refusing the fairy prince and spoiling the story.
“I'd like to know what you've got against him,” she said often to Louisa.
“I 'ain't got anything against him.”
“Why don't you treat him different, then, I want to know?”
“I don't like him.” Louisa said “like” shamefacedly, for she meant love, and dared not say it.
“Like! Well, I don't know nothin' about such likin's as some pretend to, an' I don't want to. If I see anybody is good an' worthy, I like 'em, an' that's all there is about it.”
“I don't — believe that's the way you felt about — father,” said Louisa, softly, her young face flushed red.
“Yes, it was. I had some common-sense about it.”
And Mrs. Britton believed it. Many hard middle-aged years lay between her and her own love-time, and nothing is so changed by distance as the realities of youth. She believed herself to have been actuated by the same calm reason in marrying young John Britton, who had had fair prospects, which she thought should actuate her daughter in marrying Jonathan Nye.
Louisa got no sympathy from her, but she persisted in her refusal. She worked harder and harder. She did not spare herself in doors or out. As the summer wore on, her face grew as sunburnt as a boy's, her hands were hard and brown. When she put on her white dress to go to meeting on a Sunday there was a white ring around her neck where the sun had not touched it. Above it her face and neck showed browner. Her sleeves were rather short, and there were also white rings above her brown wrists.
“You look as if you were turnin' Injun by inches,” said her mother.
Louisa, when she sat in the meeting-house, tried slyly to pull her sleeves down to the brown on her wrists; she gave a little twitch to the ruffle around her neck. Then she glanced across, and Jonathan Nye was looking at her. She thrust her hands, in their short-wristed, loose cotton gloves, as far out of the sleeves as she could; her brown wrists showed conspicuously on her white lap. She had never heard of the princess who destroyed her beauty that she might not be forced to wed the man whom she did not love, but she had something of the same feeling, although she did not have it for the sake of any tangible lover. Louisa had never seen anybody whom she would have preferred to Jonathan Nye. There was no other marriageable young man in the place. She had only her dreams, which she had in common with other girls.
That Sunday evening before she went to meeting her mother took some old wide lace out of her bureau drawer. “There,” said she, “I'm goin' to sew this in your neck an' sleeves before you put your dress on. It 'll cover up a little; it's wider than the ruffle.”
“I don't want it in,” said Louisa.
“I'd like to know why not? You look like a fright. I was ashamed of you this mornin'.”
Louisa thrust her arms into the white dress sleeves peremptorily. Her mother did not speak to her all the way to meeting. After meeting, Jonathan Nye walked home with them, and Louisa kept on the other side of her mother. He went into the house and staid an hour. Mrs. Britton entertained him, while Louisa sat silent. When he had gone, she looked at her daughter as if she could have used bodily force, but she said nothing. She shot the bolt of the kitchen door noisily. Louisa lighted her candle. The old man's loud breathing sounded from his room; he had been put to bed for safety before they went to meeting; through the open windows sounded the loud murmur of the summer night, as if that too slept heavily.
“Good-night, mother,” said Louisa, as she went up stairs; but her mother did not answer.
The next day was very warm. This was an exceptionally hot summer. Louisa went out early; her mother would not ask her where she was going. She did not come home until noon. Her face was burning; her wet dress clung to her arms and shoulders.
“Where have you been?” asked her mother.
“Oh, I've been out in the field.”
“What have you been doin' out there?”
“Rakin' hay with the men?”
“There wasn't anybody but Mr. Mitchell and Johnny. Don't, mother!”
Mrs. Britton had turned white. She sank into a chair. “I can't stan' it nohow,” she moaned. “All the daughter I've got.”
“Don't, mother! I 'ain't done any harm. What harm is it? Why can't I rake hay as well as a man? Lots of women do such things, if nobody round here does. He's goin' to pay me right off, and we need the money. Don't, mother!” Louisa got a tumbler of water. “Here, mother, drink this.”
Mrs. Britton pushed it away. Louisa stood looking anxiously at her. Lately her mother had grown thinner than ever; she looked scarcely bigger than a child. Presently she got up and went to the stove.
“Don't try to do anything, mother; let me finish getting dinner,” pleaded Louisa. She tried to take the pan of biscuits out of her mother's hands, but she jerked it away.
The old man was sitting on the door-step, huddled up loosely in the sun, like an old dog.
“Come, father,” Mrs. Britton called in a dry voice, “dinner's ready — what there is of it!”
The old man shuffled in, smiling.
There was nothing for dinner but the hot biscuits and tea. The fare was daily becoming more meagre. All Louisa's little hoard of school money was gone, and her earnings were very uncertain and slender. Their chief dependence for food through the summer was their garden, but that had failed them in some respects.
One day the old man had come in radiant, with his shaking hands full of potato blossoms; his old eyes twinkled over them like a mischievous child's. Reproaches were useless; the little potato crop was sadly damaged. Lately, in spite of close watching, he had picked the squash blossoms, piling them in a yellow mass beside the kitchen door. Still, it was nearly time for the pease and beans and beets; they would keep them from starvation while they lasted.
But when they came, and Louisa could pick plenty of green food every morning, there was still a difficulty: Mrs. Britton's appetite and digestion were poor; she could not live upon a green-vegetable diet; and the old man missed his porridge, for the meal was all gone.
One morning in August he cried at the breakfast table like a baby, because he wanted his porridge, and Mrs. Britton pushed away her own plate with a despairing gesture.
“There ain't no use,” said she. “I can't eat no more garden-sauce nohow. I don't blame poor father a mite. You 'ain't got no feelin' at all.”
“I don't know what I can do; I've worked as hard as I can,” said Louisa, miserably.
“I know what you can do, and so do you.”
“No, I don't, mother,” returned Louisa, with alacrity. “He 'ain't been here for two weeks now, and I saw him with my own eyes yesterday, carryin' a dish into the Moselys', and I knew 'twas honey. I think he's after Ida.”
“Carryin' honey into the Moselys'? I don't believe it.”
“He was; I saw him.”
“Well, I don't care if he was. If you're a mind to act decent now, you can bring him round again. He was dead set on you, an' I don't believe he's changed round to that Mosely girl as quick as this.”
“You don't want me to ask him to come back here, do you?”
“I want you to act decent. You can go to meetin' to-night, if you're a mind to — I sha'n't go; I 'ain't got strength 'nough — an' 'twouldn't hurt you none to hang back a little after meetin', and kind of edge round his way. 'Twouldn't take more'n a look.”
“Well, I don't care. 'Twouldn't hurt you none. It's the way more'n one girl does, whether you believe it or not. Men don't do all the courtin' — not by a long shot. 'Twon't hurt you none. You needn't look so scart.”
Mrs. Britton's own face was a burning red. She looked angrily away from her daughter's honest indignant eyes.
“I wouldn't do such a thing as that for a man I liked,” said Louisa; “and I certainly sha'n't for a man I don't like.”
“Then me an' your grandfather'll starve,” said her mother; “that's all there is about it. We can't neither of us stan' it much longer.”
“We could —”
“Put a — little mortgage on the house.”
Mrs. Britton faced her daughter. She trembled in every inch of her weak frame. “Put a mortgage on this house, an' by-an'-by not have a roof to cover us! Are you crazy? I tell you what 'tis, Louisa Britton, we may starve, your grandfather an' me, an' you can follow us to the graveyard over there, but there's only one way I'll ever put a mortgage on this house. If you have Jonathan Nye, I'll ask him to take a little one to tide us along an' get your weddin' things.”
“Mother, I'll tell you what I'm goin' to do.”
“I am goin' to ask Uncle Solomon.”
“I guess when Solomon Mears does anythin' for us you'll know it. He never forgave your father about that wood lot, an' he's hated the whole of us ever since. When I went to his wife's funeral he never answered when I spoke to him. I guess 'f you go to him you'll take it out in goin'.”
Louisa said nothing more. She begun clearing away the breakfast dishes and setting the house to rights. Her mother was actually so weak that she could scarcely stand, and she recognized it. She had settled into the rocking-chair, and leaned her head back. Her profile looked pale and sharp against the dark calico cover.
When the house was in order, Louisa stole up stairs to her own chamber. She put on her clean old blue muslin and her hat, then she went slyly down and out the front way.
It was seven miles to her uncle Solomon Mears's, and she had made up her mind to walk them. She walked quite swiftly until the house windows were out of sight, then she slackened her pace a little. It was one of the fiercest dog-days. A damp heat settled heavily down upon the earth; the sun scalded.
At the foot of the hill Louisa passed a house where one of her girl acquaintances lived. She was going in the gate with a pan of early apples. “Hullo, Louisa,” she called.
“Where you goin'?”
“Oh, I'm goin' a little way.”
“Ain't it awful hot? Say, Louisa, do you know Ida Mosely's cuttin' you out?”
The other girl, who was larger and stouter than Louisa, with a sallow, unhealthy face, looked at her curiously. “I don't see why you wouldn't have him,” said she. “I should have thought you'd jumped at the chance.”
“Should you if you didn't like him, I'd like to know?”
“I'd like him if he had such a nice house and as much money as Jonathan Nye,” returned the other girl.
She offered Louisa some apples, and she went along the road eating them. She herself had scarcely tasted food that day.
It was about nine o'clock; she had risen early. She calculated how many hours it would take her to walk the seven miles. She walked as fast as she could to hold out. The heat seemed to increase as the sun stood higher. She had walked about three miles when she heard wheels behind her. Presently a team stopped at her side.
“Good-mornin',” said an embarrassed voice.
She looked around. It was Jonathan Nye, with his gray horse and light wagon.
“Good-mornin',” said she.
“A little ways.”
“Won't you — ride?”
“No, thank you. I guess I'd rather walk.”
Jonathan Nye nodded, made an inarticulate noise in his throat, and drove on. Louisa watched the wagon bowling lightly along. The dust flew back. She took out her handkerchief and wiped her dripping face.
It was about noon when she came in sight of her uncle Solomon Mears's house in Wolfsborough. It stood far back from the road, behind a green expanse of untrodden yard. The blinds on the great square front were all closed; it looked as if everybody were away. Louisa went around to the side door. It stood wide open. There was a thin blue cloud of tobacco smoke issuing from it. Solomon Mears sat there in the large old kitchen smoking his pipe. On the table near him was an empty bowl. He had just eaten his dinner of bread and milk. He got his own dinner. He had lived alone since his wife died. He looked at Louisa. Evidently he did not recognize her.
“How do you do, Uncle Solomon?” said Louisa.
“Oh, it's John Britton's daughter! How d'ye do?”
He took his pipe out of his mouth long enough to speak, then replaced it. His eyes, sharp under their shaggy brows, were fixed on Louisa; his broad bristling face had a look of stolid rebuff like an ox; his stout figure, in his soiled farmer dress, surged over his chair. He sat full in the doorway. Louisa standing before him, the perspiration trickling over her burning face, set forth her case with a certain dignity. This old man was her mother's nearest relative. He had property and to spare. Should she survive him, it would be hers, unless willed away. She, with her unsophisticated sense of justice, had a feeling that he ought to help her.
The old man listened. When she stopped speaking, he took the pipe out of his mouth slowly, and stared gloomily past her at his hay field, where the grass was now a green stubble.
“I 'ain't got no money I can spare jest now,” said he. “I s'pose you know your father cheated me out of consider'ble once?”
“We don't care so much about money, if you have got something you could spare to — eat. We 'ain't got anything but garden-stuff.”
Solomon Mears still frowned past her at the hay field. Presently he arose slowly and went across the kitchen. Louisa sat down on the door-step, and waited. Her uncle was gone quite a while. She too stared over at the field, which seemed to undulate like a lake in the hot light.
“Here's some things you can take, if you want 'em,” said her uncle, at her back.
She got up quickly. He pointed grimly to the kitchen table. He was a deacon, an orthodox believer; he recognized the claims of the poor, but he gave alms as a soldier might yield up his sword. Benevolence was the result of warfare with his own conscience.
On the table lay a ham, a bag of meal, one of flour, and a basket of eggs.
“I'm afraid I can't carry 'em all,” said Louisa.
“Leave what you can't, then.” Solomon caught up his hat and went out. He muttered something about not spending any more time as he went.
Louisa stood looking at the packages. It was utterly impossible for her to carry them all at once. She heard her uncle shout to some oxen he was turning out of the barn. She took up the bag of meal and the basket of eggs, and carried them out to the gate; then she returned, got the flour and ham, and went with them to a point beyond. Then she returned for the meal and eggs, and carried them past the others. In that way she traversed the seven miles home. The heat increased. She had eaten nothing since morning but the apples that her friend had given her. Her head was swimming, but she kept on. Her resolution was as immovable under the power of the sun as a rock. Once in a while she rested for a moment under a tree, but she soon arose and went on. It was like a pilgrimage, and the Mecca at the end of the burning, desert-like road was her own maiden independence.
It was after eight o'clock when she reached home. Her mother stood in the doorway watching for her, straining her eyes in the dusk.
“For goodness' sake, Louisa Britton! where have you been?” she begun; but Louisa laid the meal and eggs down on the step.
“I've got to go back a little ways,” she panted.
When she returned with the flour and ham, she could hardly get into the house. She laid them on the kitchen table, where her mother had put the other parcels, and sank into a chair.
“Is this the way you've brought all these things home?” asked her mother.
“All the way from Uncle Solomon's?”
Her mother went to her and took her hat off. “It's a mercy if you 'ain't got a sunstroke,” said she, with a sharp tenderness. “I've got somethin' to tell you. What do you s'pose has happened? Mr. Mosely has been here, an' he wants you to take the school again when it opens next week. He says Ida ain't very well, but I guess that ain't it. They think she's goin' to get somebody. Mis' Mitchell says so. She's been in. She says he's carryin' things over there the whole time, but she don't b'lieve there's anything settled yet. She says they feel so sure of it, they're goin' to have Ida give the school up. I told her I thought Ida would make him a good wife, an' she was easier suited than some girls. What do you s'pose Mis' Mitchell says? She says old Mis' Nye told her that there was one thing about it: if Jonathan had you, he wa'n't goin' to have me an' father hitched on to him; he'd look out for that. I told Mis' Mitchell that I guess there wa'n't none of us willin' to hitch, you nor anybody else. I hope she'll tell Mis' Nye. Now I'm a-goin' to turn you out a tumbler of milk — Mis' Mitchell she brought over a whole pitcherful; says she's got more'n they can use — they 'ain't got no pig now — an' then you go an' lay down on the sittin'-room lounge, an' cool off; an' I'll stir up some porridge for supper, an' boil some eggs. Father 'll be tickled to death. Go right in there. I'm dreadful afraid you'll be sick. I never heard of anybody doin' such a thing as you have.”
Louisa drank the milk, and crept into the sitting-room. It was warm and close there, so she opened the front door, and sat down on the step. The twilight was deep, but there was a clear yellow glow in the west. One great star had come out in the midst of it. A dewy coolness was spreading over everything. The air was full of bird calls and children's voices. Now and then there was a shout of laughter. Louisa leaned her head against the door-post.
The house was quite near the road. Some one passed — a man carrying a basket. Louisa glanced at him, and recognized Jonathan Nye by his gait. He kept on down the road toward the Moselys', and Louisa turned again from him to her sweet mysterious girlish dreams.