Mehitable Lamb

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From St. Nicholas Magazine Vol. XVIII. No. 4. (February 1891)

Hannah Maria Green sat on the north door-step, and sewed over and over a seam in a sheet. She had just gotten into her teens, and she was tall for her age, although very slim. She wore a low-necked, and short-sleeved, brown delaine dress. That style of dress was not becoming, but it was the fashion that summer. Her neck was very thin, and her collar-bones showed. Her arms were very long and small and knobby. Hannah Maria's brown hair was parted from her forehead to the back of her neck, braided in two tight braids, crossed in a flat mass at the back of her head, and surmounted by a large green ribbon bow. Hannah Maria kept patting the bow to be sure it was on.

It was very cool there on the north door-step. Before it lay the wide north yard full of tall waving grass, with some little cinnamon rose-bushes sunken in it. Hardly anybody used the north door, so there was no path leading to it.

It was nearly four o'clock. Hannah Maria bent her sober freckled face over the sheet, and sewed and sewed. Her mother had gone to the next town to do some shopping, and bidden her to finish the seam before she returned. Hannah Maria was naturally obedient; moreover, her mother was a decided woman, so she had been very diligent; in fact the seam was nearly sewed.

It was very still — that is, there were only the sounds that seem to make a part of stillness. The birds twittered, the locusts shrilled, and the tall clock in the entry ticked. Hannah Maria was not afraid, but she was lonesome. Once in a while she looked around, and sighed. She placed a pin a little way in advance on the seam, and made up her mind that when she had sewed to that place she would go into the house and get a slice of cake. Her mother had told her that she might cut a slice from the one-egg cake which had been made that morning. But before she had sewed to the pin, little Mehitable Lamb came down the road. She was in reality some years younger than Hannah Maria, but not so much younger as Hannah Maria considered her. The girl on the door-step surveyed the one approaching down the road, with a friendly and patronizing air.

“Hullo,” she sang out, when Mehitable was within hailing distance.

“Hullo,” answered back Mehitable's little, sweet, deferential voice.

She came straight on, left the road, and struck across the grassy north yard to Hannah Maria's door-step. She was a round, fair little girl; her auburn hair was curled in a row of neat, smooth “water curls” around her head. She wore a straw hat with a blue ribbon, and a blue and white checked gingham dress; she also wore white stockings and patent leather “ankle-ties.” Her dress was low-necked and short-sleeved, like Hannah Maria's, but her neck and arms were very fair and chubby.

Mehitable drew her big china doll in a doll's carriage. Hannah Maria eyed her with seeming disdain and secret longing. She herself had given up playing with dolls, her mother thought her too big; but they had still a fascination for her, and the old love had not quite died out of her breast.

“Mother said I might come over and stay an hour and a half,” said Mehitable.

Hannah Maria smiled hospitably. “I 'm keepin' house,” said she. “Mother 's gone to Lawrence.”

Mehitable took her doll out of the carriage with a motherly air, and sat down on the door-step with it in her lap.

“How much longer you goin' to play with dolls?” inquired Hannah Maria.

“I don't know,” replied Mehitable, with a little shamed droop of her eyelids.

“You can't when you get a little bigger, anyhow. Is that a new dress she 's got on?”

“Yes; Aunt Susy made it out of a piece of her blue silk.”

“It 's handsome, is n't it? Let me take her a minute.” Hannah Maria took the doll and cuddled it up against her shoulder as she had used to do with her own. She examined the blue silk dress. “My doll had a real handsome plaid silk one,” said she, and she spoke as if the doll were dead. She sighed.

“Have you given her away?” inquired Mehitable in a solemn tone.

“No; she 's packed away. I 'm too old to play with her, you know. Mother said I had other things to 'tend to. Dolls are well 'nough for little girls like you. Here, you 'd better take her; I 've got to finish my sewin'.”

Hannah Maria handed back the doll with a resolute air, but she handed her back tenderly; then she sewed until she reached the pin. Mehitable rocked her doll, and watched.

When Hannah Maria reached the pin she jumped up. “I 'm comin' back in a minute,” said she, and disappeared in the house. Presently Mehitable heard the dishes rattle.

“She 's gone after a cooky,” she thought. Cookies were her usual luncheon.

But Hannah Maria came back with a long slice of one-egg cake with blueberries in it. She broke it into halves, and gave the larger one to Mehitable. “There,” said she, “I 'd give you more, but mother did n't tell me I could cut more 'n one slice.”

Mehitable ate her cake appreciatively; once in a while she slyly fed her doll with a bit.

Hannah Maria took bites of hers between the stitches; she had almost finished the over and over seams.

Presently she rose and shook out the sheet with a triumphant air. “There,” said she, “it 's done.”

“Did you sew all that this afternoon?” asked Mehitable, in an awed tone.

“My! yes. It is n't so very much to do.”

Hannah Maria laid the sheet down in a heap on the entry floor; then she looked at Mehitable. “Now, I 've nothin' more to do,” said she. “S'pose we go to walk a little ways?”

“I don't know as my mother 'd like to have me do that.”

“Oh, yes, she would; she won't care. Come along! I 'll get my hat.”

Hannah Maria dashed, over the sheet, into the entry and got her hat off the peg; then she and Mehitable started. They strolled up the country road. Mehitable trundled her doll-carriage carefully; once in a while she looked in to see if the doll was all right.

“Is n't that carriage kind of heavy for you to drag all alone?” inquired Hannah Maria.

“No; it is n't very heavy.”

“I had just as lief help you drag it as not.”

Hannah Maria reached down and took hold by one side of the handle of the doll-carriage, and the two girls trundled it together.

There were no houses for a long way. The road stretched between pasture-lands and apple-orchards. There was one very fine orchard on both sides of the street a quarter of a mile below Hannah Maria's house. The trees were so heavily loaded with green apples that the branches hung low over the stone walls. Now and then there was among them a tree full of ripe yellow apples.

“Don't you like early apples?” asked Hannah Maria.

Mehitable nodded.

“Had any?”

“No.”

“They don't grow in your field, do they?”

Mehitable shook her head. “Mother makes pies with our apples, but they 're not mellow 'nough to eat now,” she replied.

“Well,” said Hannah Maria, “we have n't got any. All our apples are baldwins, and greenin's. I have n't had an early apple this summer.”

The two went on, trundling the doll-carriage. Suddenly Hannah Maria stopped.

“Look here,” said she; “my Aunt Jenny and my Uncle Timothy have got lots of early apples. You just go along this road a little farther, and you get to the road that leads to their house. S'pose we go.”

“How far is it?”

“Oh, not very far. Father walks over sometimes.”

“I don't believe my mother would like it.”

“Oh, yes, she would! Come along.”

But all Hannah Maria's entreaties could not stir Mehitable Lamb. When they reached the road that led to Uncle Timothy's house, she stood still.

“My mother won't like it,” said she.

“Yes, she will.”

Mehitable stood as if she and the doll-carriage were anchored to the road.

“I think you 're real mean, Mehitable Lamb,” said Hannah Maria. “You 're a terrible 'fraid cat. I 'm goin' anyhow, and I won't bring you a single apple; so there!”

“Don't want any,” returned Mehitable with some spirit. She turned the doll-carriage around. Hannah Maria walked up the road a few steps. Suddenly she faced about. Mehitable had already started homeward.

“Mehitable Lamb!” said she.

Mehitable looked around.

“I s'pose you 'll go right straight home, and tell my mother, just as quick as you can get there.”

Mehitable said nothing.

“You 'll be an awful telltale if you do.”

“Sha'n't tell,” said Mehitable in a sulky voice.

“Will you promise, — ‘Honest and true. Black and blue. Lay me down and cut me in two,’ — that you won't tell?”

Mehitable nodded.

“Say it over then.”

Mehitable repeated the formula. It sounded like inaudible gibberish.

“I shall tell her myself when I get home,” said Hannah Maria. “I shall be back pretty soon anyway, but I don't want her sending father after me. You 're sure you 're not goin' to tell, now, Mehitable Lamb? Say it over again.”

Mehitable said it again.

“Well, you 'll be an awful telltale if you do tell after that!” said Hannah Maria.

She went on up one road toward her Uncle Timothy Dunn's, and Mehitable trundled her doll-carriage homeward down the other. She went straight on past Hannah Maria's house. Hannah Maria's mother, Mrs. Green, had come home. She saw the white horse and buggy out in the south yard. She heard Mrs. Green's voice calling “Hannah Maria, Hannah Maria!” and she scudded by like a rabbit.

Mehitable's own house was up the hill, not far beyond. She lived there with her mother and grandmother and her two aunts; her father was dead. The smoke was coming out of the kitchen chimney; her Aunt Susy was getting supper. Aunt Susy was the younger and prettier of the aunts. Mehitable thought her perfection. She came to the kitchen-door, when Mehitable entered the yard, and stood there smiling at her.

“Well,” said she, “did you have a nice time at Hannah Maria's?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“What makes you look so sober?”

Mehitable said nothing.

“Did you play dolls?”

“Hannah Maria 's too big.”

“Stuff!” cried Aunt Susy. Then her shortcake was burning, and she had to run in to see to it.

Mehitable took her china doll out of the carriage, set her carefully on the step, and then lugged the carriage laboriously to a corner of the piazza, where she always kept it. It was a very nice large carriage, and rather awkward to be kept in the house. Then she took her doll and went in through the kitchen to the sitting-room. Her mother and grandmother and other aunt were in there, and they were all glad to see her, and inquired if she had had a nice time at Hannah Maria's. But Mehitable was very sober. She did not seem like herself. Her mother asked whether she did not feel well, and in spite of her saying that she did, would not let her eat any of her aunt Susy's shortcake for supper. She had to eat some stale bread, and shortly after supper she had to go to bed. Her mother went up-stairs with her, and tucked her in.

“She 's all tired out,” she said to the others, when she came down; “it 's quite a little walk over to the Greens', and I s'pose she played hard. I don't really like to have her play with a girl so much older as Hannah Maria. She is n't big enough to run and race.”

“She did n't seem like herself when she came into the yard,” said Aunt Susy.

“I should have given her a good bowl of thoroughwort tea, when she went to bed,” said her grandmother.

“The kitchen fire is n't out yet; I can steep some thoroughwort now,” said Aunt Susy, and she forthwith started. She brewed a great bowl of thoroughwort tea and carried it up to Mehitable. Mehitable's wistful innocent blue eyes stared up out of the pillows at Aunt Susy and the bowl.

“What is it?” she inquired.

“A bowl of nice hot thoroughwort tea. You sit up and drink it right down, like a good little girl.”

“I 'm not sick, Aunt Susy,” Mehitable pleaded faintly. She hated thoroughwort tea.

“Well, never mind if you 're not. Sit right up. It 'll do you good.”

Aunt Susy's face was full of loving determination. So Mehitable sat up. She drank the thoroughwort tea with convulsive gulps. Once in a while she paused and rolled her eyes piteously over the edge of the bowl.

“Drink it right down,” said Aunt Susy.

And she drank it down. There never was a more obedient little girl than Mehitable Lamb. Then she lay back, and Aunt Susy tucked her up, and went down with the empty bowl.

“Did she drink it all?” inquired her grandmother.

“Every mite.”

“Well, she 'll be all right in the morning, I guess. There is n't anything better than a bowl of good hot thoroughwort tea.”

The twilight was deepening. The Lamb family were all in the sitting-room. They had not lighted the lamp, the summer dusk was so pleasant. The windows were open. All at once a dark shadow appeared at one of them. The women started — all but Grandmother Lamb. She was asleep in her chair.

“Who 's there?” Aunt Susy asked in a grave tone.

“Have you seen anything of Hannah Maria?” said a hoarse voice. Then they knew it was Mr. Green.

Mrs. Lamb and the aunts pressed close to the window.

“No, we have n't,” replied Mrs. Lamb. “Why, what 's the matter?”

“We can't find her anywheres. Mother went over to Lawrence this afternoon, and I was down in the east field hayin'. Mother, she got home first, and Hannah Maria was n't anywhere about the house, an' she 'd kind of an idea she 'd gone over to the Bennets'; she 'd been talkin' about goin' there to get a tidy-pattern of the Bennet girl, so she waited till I got home. I jest put the horse in again, an' drove over there, but she 's not been there. I don't know where she is. Mother 's most crazy.”

“Where is she?” they cried, all together.

“Sittin' out in the road, in the buggy.”

Mrs. Lamb and the aunts hurried out. They and Mr. Green stood beside the buggy, and Mrs. Green thrust her anxious face out.

“Oh, where do you suppose she is?” she groaned.

“Now, do keep calm, Mrs. Green,” said Mrs. Lamb in an agitated voice. “We 've got something to tell you. Mehitable was over there this afternoon.”

“Oh, she was n't, was she?”

“Yes, she was. She went about four o'clock, and she stayed an hour and a half. Hannah Maria was all right then. Now, I tell you what we 'll do, Mrs. Green: you just get right out of the buggy, and Mr. Green will hitch the horse, and we 'll go in and ask Mehitable just how she left Hannah Maria. Don't you worry. You keep calm, and we 'll find her.”

Mrs. Green stepped tremblingly from the buggy. She could scarcely stand. Mrs. Lamb took one arm, and Aunt Susy the other. Mr. Green hitched the horse, and they all went into the house, and up-stairs to Mehitable's room. Mehitable was not asleep. She stared at them in a frightened way, as they all filed into the room. Mrs. Green rushed to the bed.

“Oh, Mehitable,” she cried, “when did you last see my Hannah Maria?”

Mehitable looked at her, and said nothing.

“Tell Mrs. Green when you last saw Hannah Maria,” said Mrs. Lamb.

“I guess 't was 'bout five o'clock,” replied Mehitable in a quavering voice.

“She got home at half-past five,” interposed Mehitable's mother.

“Did she look all right?” asked Mrs. Green.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Nobody came to the house when you were there, did there?” asked Mr. Green.

“No, sir.”

Aunt Susy came forward. “Now look here, Mehitable,” said she. “Do you know anything about what has become of Hannah Maria? Answer me, yes or no.”

Mehitable's eyes were like pale moons; her little face was as white as the pillow.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Well, what has become of her?”

Mehitable was silent.

“Why, Mehitable Lamb!” repeated Aunt Susy, “tell us this minute what has become of Hannah Maria!”

Mehitable was silent.

“Oh,” sobbed Mrs. Green, “you must tell me. Mehitable, you 'll tell Hannah Maria's mother what has become of her, won't you?”

Mehitable's mother bent over her, and whispered, but Mehitable lay there like a little stone image.

“Oh, do make her tell!” pleaded Mrs. Green.

“Come, now, tell, and I 'll buy you a whole pound of candy,” said Mr. Green.

“Mehitable, you must tell,” said Aunt Susy.

Suddenly Mehitable began to cry. She sobbed and sobbed; her little body shook convulsively. They all urged her to tell, but she only shook her head between the sobs.

Grandmother Lamb came into the room. She had awakened from her nap.

“What 's the matter?” she inquired. “What ails Mehitable? Is she sick?”

“Hannah Maria is lost, and Mehitable knows what has become of her, and she won't tell,” explained Aunt Susy.

“Massy sakes!” Grandmother Lamb went up to the bed. “Tell grandmother,” she whispered, “an' she 'll give you a pep'mint.”

But Mehitable shook her head, and sobbed.

They all pleaded, and argued, and commanded, but they got no reply but that shake of the head, and sobs.

“The child will be sick if she keeps on this way,” said Grandmother Lamb.

“She deserves to be sick!” said Hannah Maria's mother in a desperate voice; and Mehitable's mother forgave her.

“We may as well go down,” said Mr. Green with a groan. “I can't waste any more time here; I 've got to do something.”

“Oh, here 't is night coming on, and my poor child lost!” wailed Hannah Maria's mother.

Mehitable sobbed so, that it was pitiful in spite of her obstinacy.

“If that child don't have somethin' to take, she 'll be sick,” said her grandmother. “I dunno as there 's any need of her bein' sick if Hannah Maria is lost.” And she forthwith went stiffly down-stairs. The rest followed — all except Mrs. Lamb. She lingered to plead longer with Mehitable.

“You 're mother's own little girl,” said she, “and nobody shall scold you whatever happens. Now, tell mother what has become of Hannah Maria.”

But it was of no use. Finally, Mrs. Lamb tucked the clothes over Mehitable with a jerk, and went down-stairs herself. They were having a consultation there in the sitting-room. It was decided that Mr. Green should drive to Mr. Pitkin's, about a quarter of a mile away, and see if they knew anything of Hannah Maria, and get Mr. Pitkin to aid in the search.

“I would n't go over to Timothy's to-night, if I were you,” said Mrs. Green. “Jenny 's dreadful nervous, and it would use her all up; she thought so much of Hannah Maria.”

Mrs. Green's voice broke with a sob.

“No, I 'm not going there,” returned Mr. Green. “It is n't any use. It is n't likely they know anything about her. It 's a good five mile off.”

Mr. Green got into his buggy and drove away. Mrs. Green went home, and Aunt Susy and the other aunt with her. Nobody slept in the Lamb or the Green house that night, except Grandmother Lamb. She dozed in her chair, although they could not induce her to go to bed. But first she started the kitchen fire, and made another bowl of thoroughwort tea for Mehitable.

“She 'll be sick jest as sure as the world, if she does n't drink it,” said she. And Mehitable lifted her swollen, teary face from the pillow and drank it. “She don't know any more where that Green girl has gone to than I do,” said Grandmother Lamb, when she went down with the bowl. “There is n't any use in pesterin' the child so.”

Mrs. Lamb watched for Mr. Green to return from Mr. Pitkin's, and ran out to the road. He had with him Mr. Pitkin's hired man and eldest boy.

“Pitkin 's harnessed up, and gone the other way, over to the village, and we 're goin' to look round the place thorough, an' — look in the well,” he said in a husky voice.

“If she would only tell,” groaned Mrs. Lamb. “I 've done all I can. I can't make her speak.”

Mr. Green groaned in response, and drove on. Mrs. Lamb went in, and stood at her sitting-room window and watched the lights over at the Green house. They flitted from one room to another all night. At dawn Aunt Susy ran over with her shawl over her head. She was wan and hollow-eyed.

“They have n't found a sign of her,” said she. “They 've looked everywhere. The Pitkin boy 's been down the well. Mr. Pitkin has just come over from the village, and a lot of men are going out to hunt for her, as soon as it 's light. If Mehitable only would tell!”

“I can't make her,” said Mrs. Lamb, despairingly.

“I know what I think you 'd ought to do,” said Aunt Susy in a desperate voice.

“What?”

Whip her.”

“Oh, Susy, I can't! I never whipped her in my life.”

“Well, I don't care. I should.” Aunt Susy had the tragic and resolute expression of an inquisitor. She might have been proposing the rack. “I think it is your duty,” she added.

Mrs. Lamb sank into the rocking-chair and wept, but, within an hour's time, Mehitable stood shivering and sobbing in her night-gown, and held out her pretty little hands, while her mother switched them with a small stick. Aunt Susy was crying, down in the sitting-room. “Did she tell?” she inquired, when her sister, quite pale and trembling, came in with the stick.

“No,” replied Mrs. Lamb. “I never will whip that dear child again, come what will.” And she broke the stick in two, and threw it out of the window.

As the day advanced, teams began to pass the house. Now and then, one heard a signal horn. The search for Hannah Maria was being organized. Mrs. Lamb and the aunts cooked a hot breakfast, and carried it over to Mr. and Mrs. Green. They felt as if they must do something to prove their regret and sympathy. Mehitable was up and dressed, but her poor little auburn locks were not curled, and the pink roundness seemed gone from her face. She sat quietly in her little chair in the sitting-room, and held her doll. Her mother had punished her very tenderly, but there were some red marks on her little hands. She had not eaten any breakfast, but her grandmother had made her some more thoroughwort tea. The bitterness of life seemed actually tasted, to poor little Mehitable Lamb.

It was about nine o'clock, and Mrs. Lamb and the aunts had just carried the hot breakfast over to the Green's, and were arranging it on the table, when another team drove into the yard. It was a white horse and a covered wagon. On the front seat sat Hannah Maria's aunt, Jenny Dunn, and a young lady, one of Hannah Maria's cousins. Mrs. Green ran to the door. “Oh, Jenny, have you heard?” she gasped. Then she screamed, for Hannah Maria was peeking out of the rear of the covered wagon. She was in there with another young lady cousin, and a great basket of yellow apples.

“Hannah Maria Green, where have you been?” cried her mother.

“Why, what do you think! That child walked 'way over to our house last night,” Aunt Jenny said volubly; “and Timothy was gone with the horse, and there was n't anything to do but to keep her. I knew you would n't be worried about her, for she said the little Lamb girl knew where she 'd gone, and —”

Mrs. Green jerked the wagon-door open, and pulled Hannah Maria out. “Go right into the house!” she said in a stern voice. “Here she would n't tell where you 'd gone. And the whole town hunting! Go in.”

Hannah Maria's face changed from uneasy and deprecating smiles to the certainty of grief. “Oh, I made her promise not to tell, but I s'posed she would,” she sobbed. “I did n't know 't was going to be so far. Oh, mother, I 'm sorry!”

“Go right in,” said her mother.

And Hannah Maria went in. Aunt Susy and Mrs. Lamb pushed past her as she entered. They were flying home to make amends to Mehitable, with kind words and kisses, and to take away the taste of the thoroughwort tea, with sponge cake and some of the best strawberry jam.

Later in the forenoon, Mehitable, with the row of smooth water curls round her head, dressed in her clean pink calico, sat on the door-step with her doll. Her face was as smiling as the china one. Hannah Maria came slowly into the yard. She carried a basket of early apples. Her eyes were red. “Here are some apples for you,” she said. “And I 'm sorry I made you so much trouble. I 'm not going to eat any.”

“Thank you,” said Mehitable. “Did your mother scold?” she inquired timidly.

“She did, first. I 'm dreadful sorry. I won't ever do so again. I — kind of thought you 'd tell.”

“I 'm not a telltale,” said Mehitable.

“No, you 're not,” said Hannah Maria.