From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)
The peony returned with the rose to her old haunt in the garden. The garden was in the front yard; the long rectangle on either side of the front walk was laid out in box-bordered beds of flowers, prominent among which were the roses and the peonies. The roses were the old-fashioned kinds — great single red and white ones and blushing-roses. The peonies were themselves exaggerated copies of the roses, like coarse country wenches following in the track of the queen, clad in a tawdry, flaunting imitation of her fine, royal splendor. They, too, were colored red and a delicate rose and white, and their great petals curved like the rose's, but they had nothing of her subtle fragrance. However, Arabella Lambert did not believe that. To her the strong sweetness of the rose-colored and the white ones, and the simple odor of the red, full of the healthy virility of the flower, was much finer than the scent of the rose.
She was fond of plunging her face into the great inflorescence of color, and inhaling with loud sniffs of rapture. “Folks that want to smell of roses, can,” she was wont to say. “Roses to me are sickish, and apt to give a head-cold. To my mind, the peony goes far beyond them, and it is enough sight handsomer flower, too. Roses is short-lived, and apt to be eat by rose-bugs. Look at them blushing-roses; it's seldom they ever blow out perfect; but look at the peonies!”
The neighbor to whom she was descanting would profess admiration, if she were given to polite concealment of her own views, but her outside comment would be different. “No wonder Arabella Lambert likes peonies better than roses,” she said; “she's as coarse as one. Arabella is dreadful coarse; she always was.”
All around Arabella lived extreme types of her countrywomen, thin and pale, with closely shut, thin lips, delicately sharp chins and noses, and high, narrow foreheads, from which the hair was strained back with fierce pulls of nervous, veinous hands. They looked like ascetics, and were, nourishing their souls only on unwatered and unsweetened doctrines and laws, and their bodies on bread and pastry. In them the fine and intense strain of New England obtained in full force. They were delicate, yet more enduring than their sturdy husbands and sons. The women in the village always outlived the men. Some of these women had lived so long and worked so hard that they seemed like automatons, kept in motion by some past effort of the will. They were the survival of the type of women who had breasted the early hardships of the country; their bodies were getting thin, but they endured through the might of that strong essence of spirit within them.
To such women as these Arabella Lambert was an anachronism, belonging to another time and type. She was as foreign as if she had been born at the antipodes. This great, overblown, rosy, easy, sensuous creature, who never cared whether she spent or saved, who never cared, nor even knew, whether her house was swept and garnished or not, who did not even seem much concerned as to the salvation of her immortal soul, was to them a perpetual scandal and rock of offence. Then, too, her lack of self-repression, her exuberance of emotion before every stress of life, whether of joy or sorrow, shamed them with a curious vicarious shame. They blushed as they spoke in mortified whispers of this or that which Arabella Lambert had said or done.
But Arabella herself never dreamed of their state of mind, and, if she had, would never have been disturbed by it. Her own life was enough for this woman, and yet it was an exceedingly simple life, consisting of little more than the simplest and most primitive delights. Arabella loved dearly to sit on her door-step, in the shade of her green-hooded porch, and doze; she loved to sleep all night in her high feather-bed in the south chamber; she loved to eat some simple fare which did not require much labor to prepare; she loved to potter around her flower-garden; and she loved to give things away. Arabella was as prodigal of her belongings as the peony out in the yard of its bloom. She had no power of reserve, whether of herself or her earthly possessions. When an afflicted neighbor came to her with an account of her trials, Arabella gave way to such wild sympathy of grief that the woman was abashed and alarmed, and turned comforter herself; and she gave so lavishly to tramps that they avoided the house, thinking she was crazy. Arabella lived alone in a fine old house filled with a goodly store of furniture still, though it had been considerably diminished. Arabella had had some money in the bank, but she had given most of it away. She had never married, and it was confidently believed that she had never had a chance. As one woman astutely remarked, if any man had ever asked Arabella to marry him, she would have felt so badly to say no that she would have had him whether she had wanted him or not. Arabella was believed never to have refused any living creature anything which she had the power to give, and she had had ample opportunities.
Though Arabella had no nearer relatives than one niece, her sister's daughter, she had a host of far-away ones. This tender heart had been besieged for years by an army of cousins, twice and thrice removed, and especially the Stebbinses. Years before, Arabella's second cousin Maria had married a Stebbins. He had at the time four children by a former marriage, and Maria two. From this marriage came four more children. Now the three sets of children had long ago married and had families, and there had been few deaths, consequently the Stebbins family, with ramifications, numbered a multitude. Strangers were bewildered by the number of Stebbinses in the village. Most of them were in straitened circumstances, if not actually needy, and they made the most of Arabella, though they met with one obstacle in the shape of her niece, who was a smart, sharp, single woman, a school-teacher in a town seven miles distant. This niece had some property of her own and was earning a good salary, and so was herself in no need of Arabella's assistance. She kept as sharp a watch as possible that her aunt should not be robbed by her impecunious relatives. She used to say much about it to Arabella. “You know, Aunt Arabella,” she would say, “that you have not enough yourself to give so much. One of these days you will be stranded without a cent, and nobody will thank you for it. There is no sense in your giving so much.”
“Erastus Stebbins has been real sick and not able to work, Sarah,” the old woman replied, “and Abby Ann came over here and cried.”
“Let her cry,” replied the niece. She had a delicate face which could be pitiless.
“She felt dreadful bad,” said Arabella, and she wiped her own eyes, overflowing at the recollection.
“I'd die before I'd come crying to anybody,” said the niece; “but that isn't all. You gave away all the wood on the south wood lot to Sam Stebbins last week, Aunt Arabella.”
“I had to, I really had to, Sarah,” replied Arabella, eagerly. “Samuel's son Billy, he'd been and signed a note, and couldn't get enough money to pay, and Sam, he had to help him out, and it took every cent he had, and they were actually suffering for wood. They actually were, Sarah, and there was Billy's wife with that little baby.”
“Let them suffer, then. Better to suffer than to steal.”
“Oh, Sarah, it wasn't stealing.”
“Yes, it was. The door of your heart is always open, and they walk in and take advantage of it,” returned Sarah, stoutly.
“But they would have suffered, Sarah — Billy's wife and that little baby.”
“Let them suffer; it doesn't hurt people to suffer.”
“But you wouldn't want that little baby to freeze, Sarah?”
“I guess they could have kept that little baby warm without stealing your wood,” replied Sarah, contracting her lips.
She had come over to spend a week of her vacation with her aunt, her school having closed earlier than usual on account of the measles. The next week she was to visit a cousin; then she was going on an excursion to the mountains. “You had better go with me, Aunt Arabella,” she said, presently. “It would do you good, and it isn't going to cost much — only twenty-five dollars — and we can be gone ten days. Lottie White, the grammar-school teacher, is going with me, and you could go, too, just as well as not.”
Arabella laughed. Her enormous bulk quite filled up the doorway where she sat. Sarah was in a straight chair on the porch beside her. Arabella gave a facetious glance at the swelling slant, unbroken by any waist-line, which swept from under her double chin to her widely planted feet in their cloth slippers. “I'd look pretty climbing mountains, wouldn't I?” said she. Then she laughed again, a hoarsely sweet chuckle disturbing the depths of her great body.
Sarah did not laugh in response. She had not a quick sense of humor. Other people's laughter puzzled her much more than their deeds. She could discover motives for everything else with greater success. “You would not have to climb, of course,” she replied, gravely. “You could ride everywhere. Of course, you could not climb mountains, Aunt Arabella.”
“Well, I guess I couldn't go, anyway. I'm just as much obliged to you for thinkin' of it,” said Arabella.
“If it is the money,” said Sarah, slowly, “I must say I don't feel right about your going without things to give to an able-bodied man like Sam Stebbins, but I've got enough, and it's only twenty-five dollars — and —”
“Oh no, thank you; you're real good, Sarah, but I couldn't take it, nohow. I've got the money; it ain't that. It's only because I don't think it's best.”
“Why don't you think it is best?” asked the niece, bluntly.
Arabella colored all over her great face of overlapping curves like a rose or a peony. “There are reasons,” said she, with a curious attempt at dignity.
“Well,” said Sarah, coldly, “I don't want to pry into your secrets, Aunt Arabella, but I think it would do you good, and I see no sense in your going without everything for the sake of the shiftless, begging Stebbinses.”
“Now, Sarah, Eben Stebbins ain't shiftless; nobody ever said he was. He's always worked hard, but he's been dreadful unfortunate. He's had fire and sickness, and he's sick himself. Look how lame he is with the rheumatism, poor man!”
“Well, I wasn't saying anything against Eben Stebbins,” admitted Sarah; “but if he comes begging, he's no better than the rest of them — a man begging of a woman!”
“He hasn't, Sarah,” Arabella cried, eagerly. “He hasn't said a word, but I know if he has a wheel-chair, he could get around in it. But nobody has said a word about it. That was what I thought I'd use the money for. Poor Eben has had a dreadful hard time, and I'm dreadful sorry for his daughter Minnie, too.”
“What about her?”
“Nothing, only she was going to get married to that Leavitt boy, and he'd just got his nice new little house built, and he had enough money saved up to buy the furniture, and the bank he kept it in has failed up, and he's lost every dollar, and they've got to put off the weddin'. Eben offered to take them in with him, but the young man has got to live on his farm; you know it's three miles out of the village. Minnie said she didn't mind if there wasn't any furniture except the little her father could spare her — he hasn't got much, you know — but the young feller is real proud, and says she sha'n't live so, and he won't borrow. They feel dreadfully about it, and I should think they would. I've always heard it was a bad sign to put off a weddin'.”
“Well, I don't see what you can do about it,” said Sarah. She looked suspiciously at her aunt, who fidgeted a little and made an evasive answer.
“I don't know as I can do anything,” said she, meekly. She was rather afraid of her niece. She was, on the whole, relieved when she went away the first of the following week. She found it very peaceful to sit undisturbed in her disordered room, and not have Sarah raising a dust with the broom and making her move to facilitate the sweeping. She did not like a way Sarah had of always shutting the doors. She loved her doors to be open, and her windows. She felt aggrieved when Sarah insisted on having the windows on the sunny side of the house shut, though she said nothing. The minute Sarah was gone Arabella waddled about softly and ponderously, flinging wide open doors and windows to admit anything which chose to enter — sunshine, winds, flies, stray cats — anything. Arabella minded nothing, not even bats or bumble-bees or hornets. She made everything which chose to enter her home welcome, being instinct with a spirit of hospitality which included the little as well as the great. Arabella was no heartier in her welcome to the minister than to the old ragman to whom she sold no rags, but with whom she shared her dinner. It was not very much of a dinner. Arabella did not get up very elaborate repasts, but they were plentiful. She boiled vegetables or greens, she had baker's bread, eggs, and fruit, currants in their season, and apples. Arabella had quite an orchard. The village boys had the run of it. It was only through their generosity, which spared Arabella some of her own bounty, that she had any apples from her own orchard. The boys used to pick some for her, and bring them to the house, and she was exceedingly grateful, and never once thought that they had discharged any obligation towards herself by so doing. Once she spoke to one of the boys' mothers about it, and the woman looked at her wonderingly. “Why, I don't see that it is anything for you to thank them for,” said she. “I told Franky that he and Albert and George ought to go to work and pick your apples for you, you had been so good about giving them so many. Franky has come home with his pockets stuffed day after day. I shouldn't have thought you would have had enough to make any pies.”
“Oh, I never make any pies; it's too much work,” said Arabella; “and the boys have been real good. They have brought ever so many to me. Sometimes I have been afraid they have robbed themselves.”
“Good land!” cried the woman. “Whose orchard is it?”
When she went home she told her sister she didn't know as Arabella Lambert was altogether right.
The village children descended like a flock of birds upon Arabella's garden, and pillaged it at their will. They did not seem to care as much about the peonies as about the other flowers, like roses or pinks. Their mothers told them not to bring those great coarse things home; they were in the way. Arabella was glad it was so. She would have suffered had the children been too free with the peonies; she might have forbidden them. Her one streak of parsimoniousness showed itself in the case of those great fully blown flowers. She used to watch jealously lest the children trample them. The peonies were in bud the week after Sarah went away, and in full blossom the week after that, and they still endured when Sarah came up the walk one afternoon about five o'clock.
Arabella put on her glasses and stared in a bewildered fashion at the straight, slim, genteel figure in the black India silk coming up the box-bordered path. She herself was sitting as usual in her doorway.
“Why, Sarah Bisbee, that ain't you?” cried Arabella, as her niece drew near. There was a note of dismay as well as surprise in her voice. Sarah put down her black-silk parasol carefully before she replied. She never talked while she was doing anything else.
“Yes, it is I, Aunt Arabella,” said she. “Are you surprised?”
“Yes, I guess I be a little. I thought you was up to the mountains.”
“Well, I expected to be there,” replied Sarah, “but the excursion was given up on account of the illness of the gentleman who was to conduct the party. It is postponed for three weeks. So I thought I would come over here. I thought I would give your house a thorough cleaning, and put up some currant-jelly for you. Then I saw when I was here that some of your sitting-room chairs, and the parlor ones, too, for that matter, needed fixing up. The wood ought to be rubbed. I've got a nice recipe for furniture polish. Then I want to see about the spare-chamber curtains and the bedspread being done up, too.”
Arabella stared at her niece, and her expression of dismay deepened. “I wouldn't bother about them, Sarah,” said she, frankly. “Seems to me I wouldn't. It would be a good deal of work, and you must be tired out.”
“I am not half so tired when I am doing something,” replied Sarah, firmly. She made as if to enter, but her aunt Arabella did not move aside to allow her to do so.
“I guess I'll go in and lay aside my bonnet,” remarked Sarah. Still Arabella did not move.
Sarah looked at her in growing surprise, but she spoke easily enough. “I guess if you will just move a little, Aunt Arabella,” said she, “then I'll go in.”
Arabella did not stir. She sat perfectly still, filling up the doorway. Her eyes were fixed upon a great clump of red peonies beside the path.
The thought came to Sarah that possibly her aunt's hearing was failing. She spoke in the loud, clear, imperative voice which she used in the school-room. “If you will move a little, please, Aunt Arabella,” said she, “I will go in and lay aside my bonnet.”
Arabella did not move. The look of astonishment on Sarah's face deepened to alarm. She touched her aunt, leaning over her, and shook her gently by the shoulders. “Why, Aunt Arabella,” she shouted, “what is the matter? Can't you hear anything I say?”
“Yes, Sarah, I hear every word,” replied Arabella, unexpectedly.
“Well, then, why don't you move a little and let me go in? I want to take off my bonnet.”
Arabella sat immovable, with her eyes riveted upon the clump of peonies.
Then Sarah straightened herself and stood staring at her aunt in consternation and astonishment which almost convulsed her steady face. Arabella wore an old-fashioned muslin covered with a large pattern in purple cross-bars, between which were little bunches of pink roses. This voluminosity of purple muslin over Arabella's bulk filled up the doorway completely with the apparent lightness of a flower. Out of the soft frills of the muslin arose Arabella's creasy neck and her large, rosy, imperturbable face. Nothing could exceed the obstinacy of gentleness and mildness on that face; it was a power of a kind to stop an army. Sarah continued to stare. “Don't you want me to go in, Aunt Arabella?” she asked, finally.
Arabella made no reply, but her face twitched. It was the first time in her whole life that she had ever held the door of her house against her own kith and kin.
“Well,” said Sarah, in a high, thin voice that trembled slightly, “if you don't want me to go in your house, perhaps I had better go home, only it is too late for the stage-coach, and if I go to any of the neighbors to stay all night, they may think it strange that I don't stay here.”
Arabella made no reply to that. She was afraid of her niece with the unreasoning and uncalculating fear of a child. She held that door, knowing all the time that it was a futile measure, that her niece must finally enter, that the evil day was only postponed.
Sarah stood for a moment longer undecided. Then she gave her bonneted head a toss and straight to the sitting-room windows she went. They were wide open, and the shutters thrown back.
Sarah gave a long look through a window, then she turned to her aunt, who kept her eyes fixed on the clump of peonies as if she found strength and support therefrom.
“There are only that little card-table, and the shovel and tongs, and two chairs, and a cricket left in the sitting-room,” said Sarah.
Arabella said nothing.
Sarah went to a parlor window and raised herself on tiptoe to look therein. Then she turned to her aunt. “All the parlor furniture is gone,” said she.
Then Arabella spoke. “I knew how you'd feel about it,” said she, “and I hated to have you know, but Minnie she came over here and she cried. She didn't think of havin' my furniture, but she cried, and the next morning I got Jonas Tibbets, and he loaded the furniture into his express-wagon and carried it over to the new house.”
“All the parlor furniture, and almost all the sitting-room gone,” said Sarah, slowly, as if she were informing herself.
“I never sat in the parlor, and no more than two at a time ever come into the sitting-room, and I can sit on the cricket,” said Arabella.
“Have you given them the chamber furniture?”
“Enough to furnish two chambers — that is all, Sarah.”
“The spare-chamber furniture, I suppose?”
“Yes, I did. You know I never have any company to stay all night, except you, Sarah; and you know you always like the east room better; that ain't touched.”
“Well,” said Sarah, grimly, “I sha'n't have to do up the spare-chamber spread and curtains.”
“They would have been a sight of work,” said Arabella, eagerly.
Sarah stepped forward. “Well,” said she, “it was your own furniture, and I suppose you had a right to do what you wanted to with it. When you have given away the roof off your house, and the clap-boards and shingles, and the floor-boards, as you'll be sure to do before you die, you can come to my house, I suppose, and I won't sit in the door and keep you out. Now, Aunt Arabella, if that was the reason why you didn't want me to go in, I know now, and there is no reason for keeping me out any longer. If you will move a little now, I'll go in and lay aside my bonnet.”
Arabella moved, half rising, and the slim, black silk-clad figure of her niece pressed past her into the house.
Then Arabella sat down again, and a beatific expression was on her face. She looked like a child who had escaped a scolding, and was radiant and triumphant in the supremacy of its own way, and beyond that look was another, which comes only to the face of the giver, out of all the faces of earth.
She sat there filling up the doorway with her vast bulk, overspread with waves of purple-barred muslin, a woman with no fine development of imagination or intellect, a woman whose whole scheme of existence was on lines so simple that they were fairly coarse, like those of the peony beside the gate, in which the mystery of the rose was lost in the grossness of utter revelation. She only knew enough to bloom like the flower, whether to her own grace or glory it mattered not, so long as it was to her farthest compass, and to yield unstintingly all her largess of life to whomsoever crossed her path with a heart or hand of need for it.
p. 201 changed [ “Well, I guess I couldn't go, anyway. I'm just as much obliged to you for thinkin' of it,” said Arabella.” ] to [ thinkin' of it,” said Arabella. ]