From The Winning Lady and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1909)
It was a morning in late February. The day before there had been a storm of unusually damp, clogging snow, which had lodged upon everything in strange, shapeless masses. The trees bore big blobs of snow, caught here and there in forks or upon extremities. They looked as if the northwester had pelted them with snowballs. Below the rise of ground on which the Lamkin house stood there was a low growth of trees, and they resembled snowball-bushes in full bloom. Amelia Lamkin at her breakfast-table could see them. There were seven persons at the breakfast-table: Josiah Lamkin and his wife Amelia; Annie Sears, the eldest daughter, who was married and lived at home; Addie Lamkin, the second daughter, a pretty girl of eighteen; Tommy Lamkin, aged thirteen; little Johnny Field, a child of four, and orphan grandchild of Amelia Lamkin; and Jane Strong, Amelia's unmarried sister, who was visiting her. Annie Sears was eating, with dainty little bites, toast and eggs prepared in a particular way. She was delicate, and careful about her diet. The one maid in the household was not trusted to prepare Annie's eggs. Amelia did that. She was obliged to rise early in any case. Harry Sears, Annie's husband, left for the city at seven o'clock, and he was also particular about his eggs, although he was not delicate. Addie loathed eggs in any form except an omelet, and Hannah, the maid, could not achieve one. Therefore, Amelia cooked Addie's nice, fluffy omelet. Tommy was not particular about quality, but about quantity, and Amelia had that very much upon her mind. Johnny's rice was cooked in a special way which Hannah had not mastered, and Amelia prepared that. Josiah liked porterhouse beefsteak broiled to an exact degree of rareness, and Hannah could not be trusted with that. Hannah's coffee was always muddy, and the Lamkins detested muddy coffee; therefore, Amelia made the coffee.
Hannah's morning duties resolved themselves into standing heavily about, resting her weight first upon one large flat foot, then upon the other, while her mistress prepared breakfast, then waiting upon the table in an absent, desultory fashion. There was a theory in the Lamkin household that poor Hannah worked very hard, since she was the only maid in a family of seven. The neighbors also acquiesced in that opinion, and Hannah herself felt pleasantly and comfortably injured. Nobody pitied Amelia Lamkin, least of all her own family. She had always waited upon them and obliterated herself to that extent that she seemed scarcely to have a foothold at all upon the earth, but to balance timidly upon the extreme edge of existence. Now and then Amelia's unmarried sister, Jane Strong, visited the Lamkins, and always expressed her unsolicited opinion. The Lamkins were justly incensed, and even Amelia herself bristled her soft plumage of indignation. She would say privately to her sister that she realized that she meant well, but she did wish that she would let her live her own way without interference; that she, Amelia, got her happiness in ways that Jane could not understand. Amelia would be quite disagreeable, and her references to Jane's single condition would be obvious; then later, being gentle to the very core, she would beg Jane's pardon, which would be granted stiffly, without the slightest retreat from the position of attack. “Of course I don't mind a straw about what you threw out about my not being married,” said Jane. “You know as well as I do that it was my own choice.”
“Of course,” responded Amelia, meekly, but she looked reminiscent. She was trying to remember what serious suitors Jane had really had. Jane saw the expression and understood. She was nothing if not honest.
“Land! I don't mean to say there was a line of men on their knees to marry me,” she said, brusquely. “There wasn't a run as there was on that New York bank, and men hanging round from dawn till dark. Most of them got married afterward, and I guess they were pretty well satisfied, and I don't believe one of them lost a meal of victuals or a night's sleep. But you know as well as I do that there were chances I might have followed up if I wanted to.”
“Yes, I know,” returned Amelia, with more assurance. Really she had no doubt that if her sister had chosen to follow up any man, even her own husband Josiah, he might have capitulated. There had always been something fascinating about Jane, and she had been and was still handsome. She was much handsomer than Amelia, although she was ten years older. Amelia was faded almost out as to color, and intense solicitude for others and perfect meekness had crossed her little face with deep lines, and bowed her slender figure like that of a patient old horse, accustomed to having his lameness ignored, and standing before doors in harness through all kinds of weather. Amelia's neck, which was long and slender, had the same curve of utter submission which one sees in the neck of a weary old beast of burden. She would slightly raise that drooping neck to expostulate with Jane. There would be a faint suggestion of ancient spirit; then it would disappear. Jane, her own chin raised splendidly, eyed her sister with a sort of tender resentment and contempt.
“Of course you know,” said Jane, “that I'm enough sight better off the way I am. I'm freer than any married woman in the world. Then I've kept my looks. My figure is just as good as it ever was, and my hair's just as thick and not a thread of gray. I suppose the time's got to come, if I live long enough, that I shall look in my glass, and see my skin yellow and flabby; but now the only change is that I'm settled past change. I know that means I'm not young, and some may think not as good-looking, but I am.” Jane regarded her sister with a sort of defiance. What she said was true. Her face was quite as handsome as in her youth; all the change lay in the fact of its impregnability to the shift and play of emotions. A laugh no longer transformed her features. These reigned triumphant over mirth and joy, even grief. She was handsome, but she was not young. She was immovably Jane Strong.
“I think you are just as good-looking as you ever were,” replied Amelia. As she spoke she gave a gentle sigh. Amelia, after all, was human. As a girl she had loved the soft, sweet face, suffused with bloom like an apple blossom, which she had seen in her looking-glass. She had enjoyed arranging the pretty, fair hair around it. Now that enjoyment was quite gone out of her life. The other face had been so dear and pleasant to see. She could not feel the same toward this little seamed countenance, with its shade of grayish hair over the lined temples, and its meek, downward arc of thin lips. However, she told herself, with a little feeling of self-scorn, that she, Josiah Lamkin's wife, and mother and grandmother, could not possibly be so foolish as to regret the loss of her beauty when she could see it renewed so many-fold in the faces of her loved ones. She told herself that she was so thankful that her husband had kept his looks so well. Josiah, although older than she, was still fresh-colored and full-faced, and he had not a gray hair. Amelia knew that it would have been harder for her to see her husband's face grown old and worn in the faithful mirror of her heart than to view her own altered face in her looking-glass.
When Amelia sighed, Jane looked at her with a sort of angry pity. “You might be just as good-looking as you ever were if you had taken decent care of yourself, and not worn yourself out for other folks,” said she. “There was no real need of your getting all bent over, no older than you were, and no need of your hair getting so thin and gray. You ought to have taken the time to put a tonic on it, and you ought to have stretched yourself out on the bed a good hour every afternoon, and remembered to hold your shoulders back.”
“I haven't had much time to lie down every afternoon.”
“You might have had if you had set others to doing what they ought, instead of doing it yourself.”
Amelia bristled again, this time with more vigor. “You know,” said she, “that Hannah can't cook. It isn't in her.”
“I'd get a girl who could cook,” returned Jane, setting her lips hard and doubling her chin in an obstinate fashion.
“I can't discharge Hannah after all the years she has been with me. She is honest and faithful.”
“She is faithful,” said Amelia, with decision. “She is cranky, too, and I doubt if she could stay long with anybody except me. I know just how to manage her.”
“She knows just how to manage you. They all do.”
“Jane Strong, I won't hear you talk so about my family and poor Hannah.”
“I should think it was poor Amelia.”
“I have everything to be thankful for,” said Amelia. “I have the best husband and children that ever a woman had, and Hannah is just as faithful as she can be; and as for the cooking, you know I always liked to do it, Jane.”
“Yes, you always liked to do everything that everybody else didn't; no doubt about that. And you always pretended you liked to eat everything that everybody else didn't.”
“I have everything I want to eat.”
“What did you make your breakfast of this morning?” demanded Jane.
Amelia reflected. She colored a little, then she looked defiantly at her sister. “Beefsteak, and omelet, and biscuit, and coffee,” said she.
Jane sniffed. “Yes, a little scraggy bit of steak that Josiah didn't want, and that little burnt corner of Addie's omelet, and that under crust of Tommy's biscuit, and a muddy cup of watered coffee, after all the others had had two cups apiece. You needn't think I didn't see. Amelia Lamkin, you are a fool! You are killing yourself, and you are hurting your whole family and that good-for-nothing Hannah thrown in.”
Then Amelia looked at Jane with sudden distress. “What do you mean, Jane?” she quavered.
“Just what I say. You are simply making your whole family a set of pigs, and Hannah too, and you know you have an awful responsibility toward an ignorant person like that, and you are ruining your own health.”
“I am very well, indeed, Jane,” said Amelia, but she spoke with a slight hesitation.
“You are not well. No mortal woman who has lived her whole life on the fag ends of food and rest and happiness that nobody else had any use for can be well. You hear about dogs feeding on crumbs, and I suppose they may thrive on them, though I never saw a dog yet that didn't seem to me to get along better on bones with considerable meat sticking to them; but you don't hear about human beings living in such a fashion, and it isn't required of them. You've been doing your duty all your life so hard that you haven't given other people a chance to do theirs. You've been a very selfish woman as far as duty is concerned, Amelia Lamkin, and you have made other people selfish. If Addie marries Arthur Henderson, what kind of a wife will she make after the way you have brought her up? He's a poor man, and Addie has no more idea of waiting on herself than if she were a millionairess.”
“I don't know that they have come to an understanding yet,” said Amelia, and as she spoke she blushed softly. She was as delicate over her daughter's romance as over her own.
“Oh, they will,” said Jane, with a sniff, “though I don't see, for my part, what Addie Lamkin, with her looks, is in such a hurry for. I don't mean that Arthur Henderson isn't well enough, but Addie might do better when it comes to money.”
“Money isn't everything.”
“It is a good deal,” responded Jane, sententiously, “and I guess Addie Lamkin will find it is if she marries Arthur Henderson and has to live on next to nothing a year, with everything going up the way it is now, when you have to stretch on your tiptoes and reach your arms up as if you were hanging for dear life to a strap on a universe trolley-car to keep going at all.”
“Oh, I don't think they have even thought of marriage yet,” said Amelia.
“Lord!” said Jane, with infinite scorn. After a little she continued: “I don't care. You are miserable. You can't hide it from me. You have lost flesh. You needn't pretend you haven't. You don't weigh nearly as much as you did when I was here last fall.”
“I haven't been weighed lately.”
“You don't need to get weighed. You can tell by your clothes. That gray silk dress you wore last night fairly hung on you.”
“I always went up and down in my weight; you know I did, Jane.”
“One of these days you will go down and never come up,” retorted Jane, with grim assurance. Then Addie Lamkin, young and vigorous and instinct with beauty and health, marched into the room, and in her wake trailed Annie, sweet and dainty in a pale blue cashmere wrapper.
Addie, with her young cheeks full of roses, with her young yellow hair standing up crispy above her full temples, with her blue eyes blazing, with her red mouth pouting, opened fire. “Now, Aunt Jane,” said Addie, “you know we always like to have you visit us, but Annie and I couldn't help overhearing — the door has been open all the time — and we have made up our minds to speak right out and tell you what we think. We love to have you here, don't we, Annie?”
“Yes, indeed, we love to have you, Aunt Jane,” assented Annie, in her soft voice, which was very like her mother's.
Amelia made a little distressed noise.
“Don't you say a word, mother,” said Addie. “We are going to say just what we think. We have made up our minds.” Addie's face had the expression of one who dives. “We simply can't have you making mother miserable, Aunt Jane,” said she, “and you might just as well understand. Don't you agree with me, Annie?”
“Yes,” said Annie.
“Don't, dear,” said Amelia.
“I must,” Addie replied, firmly. “We both feel that it is our duty. We both love Aunt Jane, and we are not lacking in respect to her as to an older woman, but we must do our duty. We must speak. Aunt Jane, you simply must not interfere with mother. We will not have it.”
Jane's face wore a curious expression. “How do I interfere?” asked she.
“You interfere with mother's having her own way and doing exactly what she likes,” said Addie.
“And you never do?”
“No,” replied Addie, “we never do. None of us do.”
“No, we really don't,” said Annie. She spoke apologetically. She was not as direct as Addie.
“You are quite right,” said Jane Strong. “I don't think any of you ever do interfere with your mother. You let her have her own way about slaving for you and waiting upon you. Your father has, ever since he was married, and all you children have, ever since you were born; not the slightest doubt of it.”
Addie looked fairly afire with righteous wrath. “Really, Aunt Jane,” said she, “I don't feel that, as long as it makes mother's whole happiness to live as she does, you are called upon to hinder her.”
Amelia in her turn was full of wrath. “I am sure I don't want to be hindered,” said she.
“We know you don't, mother dear,” said Addie, “and you shall not be.”
“You need not worry,” Jane said, slowly. “I shall not hinder your mother, but I miss my guess if she isn't hindered.” Then she went out of the room, her head up, her carriage as majestic as that of a queen.
“Aunt Jane is hopping,” said Addie, “but I don't care; as for having poor mother teased and made miserable every time she comes here, I won't, for one!”
“Your aunt has never had a family and she doesn't understand, dear,” said Amelia. She was a trifle bewildered by her daughter's partisanship. She was not well, and had had visions of Addie's offering to assist about luncheon. Now she realized that Addie would consider that such an offer would make her unhappy.
“No, mother dear, you shall have your own way,” Annie said, caressingly. “Your own family knows what makes you happy, and you shall do just what you like.” Annie put her arm around her mother's poor little waist and kissed her softly. “I am feeling wretchedly this morning,” said Annie. “I think I will follow Doctor Emerson's advice to wrap myself up and sit out on the piazza an hour. I can finish that new book.”
“Mind you wrap up well,” Amelia said, anxiously.
“I think I will finish embroidering my silk waist,” said Addie. “I want to wear it to the Simpsons' party Saturday night.”
Then the daughters went away, and Amelia Lamkin went into the kitchen and prepared some scalloped fish and a cake for luncheon. She attended to some soup stock, and had consultations with the butcher and grocer. She also assisted Hannah about the breakfast dishes.
Amelia worked all the morning. She did not sit down for a moment until lunch-time. Then suddenly the hindrance which Jane Strong had foretold that morning came without a moment's warning. There had not been enough fish left from the dinner of the day before to prepare the ramekins for the family and allow Tommy two, unless Amelia went without. She was patiently eating a slice of bread and butter and drinking tea when she fell over in a faint. The little, thin creature slid gently into her swoon, not even upsetting her teacup. She fainted considerately, as she had always done everything else. Jane, who sat next her sister, caught her before she had fallen from her chair. Josiah sprang up, and stood looking intensely shocked and perfectly helpless. Addie ran for a smelling-bottle, and Annie leaped back and gasped, as if she were about to faint herself. Tommy stared, with a spoon half-way to his mouth. Then he swallowed the contents of the spoon from force of habit. Then he stared again, and turned pale under his freckles. The baby cried and pounded the table with his fists.
Amelia's face, under its thin film of gray hair, was very ghastly. Jane, supporting that poor head, looked impatiently at Josiah standing inert, with his fresh countenance fixed in that stare of helpless, almost angry, astonishment. “For goodness' sake, Josiah Lamkin,” said his sister-in-law, “don't stand there gaping like a nincompoop, but go for Doctor Emerson, if you've got sense enough!” Jane came from New England, and in moments of excitement she showed plainly the influence of the land of her birth. She spoke with forcible, almost vulgar, inelegance, but she spoke with the effect of an Ethan Allen or a Stark.
Josiah moved. He made one stride for the door. Then he shot past the window on his way for the doctor.
“Stop fainting away, Annie Sears,” said Jane, “and hand me that glass of water for your mother, then spank that bawling young one. You are no more faint than I am. Tommy, tell Hannah to march up-stairs lively and get your mother's bed ready.” Hannah at that moment appeared in the doorway, and she promptly dropped a cup of coffee, which crashed and broke into fragments with a gush of brown liquid. At the sound of that crash there was a slight flicker of poor Amelia Lamkin's eyelids, but they immediately closed. “Let that coffee and that cup be, now you have smashed it,” said Jane Strong to Hannah, “and, for goodness' sake, stop staring, and get up-stairs lively and get Mrs. Lamkin's bed ready. Why don't you move?”
Hannah moved, and the house shook with the trembling thud of her steps on the stairs. Annie came falteringly around with the glass of water. Tommy, who, once awakened to the situation, showed remarkable sense, caught up the morning paper, and fanned his mother, while the tears rolled over his hard, boyish cheeks, and he gulped convulsively.
“Oh, what ails her?” gasped Annie, holding the glass of water to her mother's white lips.
Jane was pitiless. “She's dead, for all I know,” said she. “She's an awful time coming to. For the land's sake, don't spill that water all over her! Dip your fingers in and sprinkle some on her forehead. Haven't you got any sense at all?”
Annie sprinkled her mother's forehead as if she were baptizing her. “Oh, what is it?” she moaned again.
“She's dead if she ain't fainted away,” said Jane. “How do I know? But I can tell you what the matter is, Annie Sears, and you too, Addie Lamkin” (for Addie was just returning with the little green smelling-bottle): “your mother is worn out with hard work because you've all been so afraid to cross her in slaving for everybody else and having nothing for herself. She's worked out and starved out.”
Addie, holding the green bottle to her mother's little pinched nostrils, aroused at that, although her pretty, healthy young face retained a pale, shocked expression. “Mother isn't starved,” she whispered.
“Yes, she is, too, living on odds and ends. She hasn't eaten a good square meal since I've been here. Hens can live on such truck, but your mother can't. She ain't a hen. Here, for goodness' sake, set down that old smelling-bottle, and, Tommy, you come here and help hold her head, and, Annie, you stop sniffing and shaking and help Addie, and we'll lay her down on the floor. She'll never come to, sitting up.”
“I knew that all the time,” volunteered Tommy, in a shaking voice. “Teacher said to lay Jim Addison down that time when he bumped his nose against his desk reaching down for a marble he dropped.”
Between them they lowered the little inanimate form to the floor, and Tommy got a sofa cushion from the sitting-room and put it under his mother's head. Then Jane broke down completely. She became hysterical.
“Oh, Amelia, Amelia!” she wailed, in a dreadful voice of ascending notes, “my sister, the only sister I've got! Amelia, speak to me! Amelia, can't you hear? Speak to me!”
Annie sank down on the floor beside her unconscious mother and wept weakly. Addie, with her lips firmly set, rubbed her mother's hands. Tommy fanned with all his might! The morning paper made a steady breeze above the still, white face. The baby had succeeded in reaching the sugar-bowl and had stopped crying. He was eating the lumps in the bowl, with one wary eye of mischief on the group.
Amelia did not revive. Those around her became more and more alarmed. Hannah stood in the door. She stammered out that the bed was ready; then she, too, wailed the wail of her sort, lifting high a voice of uncouth animal woe.
“She's dead, she's dead!” at last sobbed Jane. “She'll never speak to any of us again. Oh, Amelia, Amelia, to think it should come to this!”
Addie, with one furious glance at her aunt, stopped rubbing her mother's hands. She stood back. She looked very stiff and straight. Her face was still, but tears rolled over her cheeks as if they had been marble. Annie wept with gentle grief. Jane continued to lament, as did Hannah. The baby steadily ate sugar. Tommy was the only one who held steadfast. He never whimpered, and he fanned as if life depended upon the newspaper gale.
Then there was a quick rattle of wheels, and Jane rushed to the door and shrieked out, as the doctor was fumbling for his medicine-chest:
“You're too late, doctor, you're too late!”
Poor Josiah, who had driven back with the doctor and was already out of the buggy, turned ghastly white.
“Oh, my God, doctor, she's gone!” he gasped.
The doctor, who was young and optimistic, clapped him on the shoulder. “Brace up, man!” he said, in a loud voice. Then he entered the house and the dining-room where poor Amelia lay. He pushed rather rudely past Jane and Hannah and Addie and Annie. He knelt down beside the prostrate woman, looked at her keenly, felt her wrist, and held his head to her breast. Then he addressed Tommy. “How long has your mother been unconscious?” he asked.
Tommy glanced up at the clock. “Most half an hour,” he replied. His mouth and eyes and nose twitched, but he spoke quite firmly. There was the making of a man in Tommy.
“Oh, she's dead!” wailed Jane. “Oh, Amelia! Oh, my sister, my sister!”
Doctor Emerson rose and looked at Jane Strong with cool hostility. “She is not dead unless you make her so by your lack of self-control,” said he. “You must all be as quiet as you can.”
Jane stopped wailing and regarded him with awed eyes, the eyes of a feminine thing cowed by the superior coolness in adversity of a male. She was afraid of that clear, pink-and-white, young masculine face, with its steady outlook of rather cold blue eyes and its firm mouth. All became quiet and obeyed Doctor Emerson's orders. Josiah, Hannah, and the doctor carried Amelia to her room, and laid her, still unconscious, upon her bed. Then, after a while, she awakened, but she was a broken creature. They hardly recognized her as Amelia. Amelia without her ready hand for them all, her ready step for their comfort, seemed hardly credible. She lay sunken among her pillows in a curious, inert fashion. She was very small and slight, but she gave an impression of great weight, so complete was her abandonment to exhaustion, so entirely her bed sustained her, without any effort upon her part.
Addie cornered the doctor in the front hall on his way out. “What do you think is the matter with mother?” she whispered. The doctor looked at Addie's pretty, pale face. He was unmarried, and had had dreams about Addie Lamkin. He had dismissed those dreams upon the advent of Arthur Henderson. Still, the girl had almost the interest of an old love for him.
“Your mother is simply worn out, Miss Lamkin,” said Doctor Emerson, curtly; yet his eyes, regarding that pretty face, were pitying.
“Worn out?” repeated Addie.
“Yes. To put it plainly, she has worked too hard for everybody else, and not hard enough for herself.”
Soft rose suffused Addie's face and neck. She looked piteously at the doctor, with round eyes like a baby's, pleading not to be hurt. The doctor's tone softened a little.
“Of course I realize how almost impossible it is to prevent self-sacrificing women like your mother from offering themselves up,” he said.
Tears stood in Addie's eyes. “Mother never complained, and she seemed to want —” she returned, brokenly.
“Yes, she seemed to want to do everything and not let anybody else do anything, and every body indulged her.”
“I don't think any of us realized,” said Addie.
“Of course you didn't,” said Doctor Emerson, and his voice, while slightly sarcastic, was still almost caressing.
“Of course now we shall see that mother does not overdo,” said Addie.
“She can't — now.”
Addie turned very white. “You don't mean —”
“I don't know. I shall do everything I can, but she is very weak. I never saw a case of more complete exhaustion.”
After Doctor Emerson had driven out of the yard, Addie and Annie talked together, Jane Strong made gruel, and Tommy sat beside his mother. Josiah paced up and down the front walk. He had a feeling as if the solid ground was cut from under his feet. He had not known for so many years what it was to live without the sense of Amelia's sustaining care that he felt at once unreasoning anger with her, a monstrous self-pity, and an agony of anxious love. The one clear thing in his mind was that Amelia ever since their marriage had put in his sleeve-buttons and shirt-studs. Always he saw those little, nervous, frail hands struggling with the stiff linen and the studs and buttons. It seemed to him that of all her wrongs, that was the one which he should definitely grasp. He felt that she was worn out, maybe come to her death, through putting in those buttons and studs. Josiah was a great, lumbering masculine creature, full of helpless tenderness. He paced up and down the walk. He looked at his thick fingers, and he saw always those little, slender, nervous ones struggling with his linen and buttons, and he knew what remorse was. Finally he could bear it no longer, and he entered the house and the kitchen where Jane was making the gruel.
“Doctor Emerson says she is all worn out,” he said, thickly.
Jane looked at him viciously. “Of course she is worn out.”
“Jane, do you think putting in my sleeve-buttons and studs hurt her?”
Jane stared at him. “Everything has hurt her together, I suppose,” she replied, grimly.
Josiah went into the dining-room, where Addie and Annie stood talking together in low voices, and sobbing softly between the words. The baby was asleep in his chair, his curly head hanging sidewise. “Your mother seems to be all worn out,” Josiah said to his daughters.
“Yes, she is, I am afraid,” Annie said, tearfully. “If I had only been stronger.”
“If mother had only known she wasn't strong,” Addie said, fiercely, and Annie did not resent it. “Here I've been saying mother must be let alone to do things because it worried her not to,” said Addie. “Great fool, great hypocrite!” She gave a sob of fury at herself.
“I have been thinking how she has always put in my sleeve-buttons and shirt-studs,” said Josiah.
Neither Annie nor Addie seemed to hear what he said.
“If only I had been stronger,” repeated Annie.
Addie turned on her. “You have always been enough sight stronger than mother, Annie Sears,” said she. “You fairly enjoy thinking you are delicate. You think it is a feather in your cap; you know you do!”
Annie was so astonished she fairly gaped at her sister. She could not speak. Addie made a dart toward Johnny and caught him up in her arms. “Here we are letting mother's baby break his neck,” said she, furiously, “Standing here like great gumps. Next thing he would have tumbled out of his chair.” Johnny began to wail, and Addie kissed him, then shook him. “Johnny, hush up for mercy's sake,” said she. “Grandma's very sick. Here, don't cry, and auntie will give you a lump of sugar.” With that Addie poked a lump of sugar into the little, soft, red mouth, and Johnny was appeased and began sucking it.
“She's always put in my sleeve-buttons and studs,” said Josiah, in his miserable monotone. Then he returned to the front walk, and began pacing up and down.
Addie turned to Annie. “Annie Sears,” said she, “do you know mother is up there all alone with Tommy? Why don't you go up there?”
“Let me take Johnny, and you go, Addie,” Annie said, faintly.
Addie thrust Johnny upon Annie, and turned and went up-stairs. Tommy looked up as she entered the room and gave an inaudible “hush!” “Mother is asleep,” he motioned with his lips. Amelia, indeed, lay as if asleep, with her eyes partly open, and a ghastly line of white eyeball showing. Addie sat beside the bed and looked at her mother. Tommy broke down, and curved his arm in its rough sleeve around his freckled face and wept bitterly. Addie did not weep. Gradually the expression of those who renunciate stole over her face. She was making up her mind to relinquish all thoughts of marriage, to live at home single, and devote her life to her mother. Addie's face, which had been pretty with a rather hard prettiness, grew beautiful. She looked as her mother had done as a girl. The possibilities of entire self-renunciation lit it with spiritual glory. She realized that she was very unhappy; she thought of Arthur Henderson, but she said to herself that he was a man and young, and men could forget. She knew quite well that his character was not one capable of going through life without snatching at one sweet if he could not obtain another. She felt glad that it was so. She had never been so miserable and so blissful in her whole life as she was, sitting beside her mother's bed; for she, for the first time, saw beyond her own self, and realized the unspeakable glory there. She reached out a hand and patted Tommy's heaving shoulder.
“We'll all take care of her, and she'll get well; don't cry, dear,” she whispered, very softly.
But Tommy gave his shoulder an impatient shrug and wept on. He was remembering how he had worn so many holes in his mittens and his mother had mended them, and it seemed to him as if mending those mittens was the one thing which had tired her out. He made up his mind, whether she lived or died, that he would never get holes in his mittens again for anybody to mend. He would start to school with mittens on his hands, and when once out of sight of home, into his pockets they would go, and he would use his bare hands if they did get frost-bitten.
Down-stairs Annie Sears sat beside little Johnny and told him a story. She never knew what the story was about. Johnny had eaten all the sugar in the bowl, and he nestled his little curly head against Annie's shoulder while she talked in her unhappy voice. After a while Johnny's eyes closed, and Annie lifted him and carried him up-stairs and laid him on her own bed. He was a heavy child, and she bent painfully beneath his weight, and reflected, the while she did so, how many times she had seen her mother toil up-stairs with him — her little mother, whose shoulders were narrower than her own.
Jane finished the bowl of gruel, while Hannah stood looking on. Jane turned upon the girl with sudden fury.
“For the land's sake, get to work, can't you?” she said. “What are you standing there for? Clear off the table, and wash the dishes, and sweep up the kitchen!”
Hannah did not resent the angry voice. She began to weep without covering her face, bawling aloud like a baby. “Oh, Lord! oh, Lord!” she wailed. “Here's that poor blessed soul all wore out doing my work while I've been standing watching her!”
“Well, you haven't got her to watch now,” said Jane. “Get to work!” Hannah paddled into the dining-room, and the clatter of dishes accompanied her loud sobs. Jane carried the bowl of gruel to her sister, but poor Amelia was too spent to take more than a spoonful or two, for all her gentle willingness. “There's no use,” said Jane, grimly. “She's got to have something to put some life in her. There's that bottle of port wine down cellar that the doctor ordered for Annie, and she didn't like. I'm going to put some in this gruel.”
“Won't it be an awful mess?” whispered Addie.
“Mess or not, she's got to take it. She's got to have something to put some life in her.”
The cellar in the Lamkin house was approached by a trap-door in a pantry opening out of the parlor. It was a strange arrangement, but there were many strange arrangements in the Lamkin house, which was very old, had suffered many alterations, and had been built originally by an eccentric man. Nobody saw Jane Strong enter the parlor and the pantry, raise the trap-door, and descend the main stairs. Jane knew just where the port wine was kept. It was standing by itself, giving out a dusky red glow like a carbuncle, in the southwest corner of the very neat cellar. Jane had her hand on the bottle when she heard a thud, and realized that the trap-door had fallen. She did not feel at all dismayed, but when she had climbed the stairs with her wine-bottle she found herself in difficulty. The trap-door was very heavy, and there was nothing whatever to take hold of on the under side. Jane raised herself as near the top of the stairs as she could and pushed in vain with her hands, then she butted the door with her little head banded with sleek black hair. Jane's neck was very slender, and her head was very small. She could not make the slightest impression upon the door. She descended the stairs and found a clean, empty stone jar in the northwest corner of the cellar. Jane took the lid of the jar, and with the wine-bottle still under her arm, she climbed the stairs again. Then she pounded upon the door viciously with the lid of the jar, until it suddenly broke in halves, and she, taken by surprise, fell down the stairs, with the wine-bottle, which broke. Jane Strong sat on the cellar floor and felt faint. Then came the consciousness of extreme pain in her foot and ankle. “I have spilled all that wine over my dress, I am soaked to my skin with wine, and I've sprained my ankle, maybe I've broken it; and there's Amelia up-stairs the way she is,” said Jane Strong aloud, in a curiously cool, reflective voice. She had a judicial turn of mind, and she pulled herself together and considered the whole situation. “I've got to make somebody hear somehow,” she said, also aloud. Jane had a very thin, reedy voice which did not carry far. She raised it as loud as she possibly could, and she called by name, each in turn, the members of the family. She thought that possibly Tommy had the most acute hearing, and she called, “Tommy! Tommy!” oftener than any other name. Nobody came. After a while she got incensed. “Might as well give it up,” said she. She wore cloth shoes with elastic at the sides, and succeeded in pulling the one on the injured foot off, although it caused her agony. She eyed the swollen foot and ankle sternly. She felt of the ankle, and became almost sure that a bone was broken. She sat still, thinking. It seemed to her that she had never really thought in all her life before. Jane Strong had kept all the commandments from her youth up. She had always been considered a most exemplary woman by other people, and she had acquiesced in their opinion. Now suddenly she differed with other people and with her own previous estimation of herself. She had blamed her sister Amelia Lamkin for her sweet, subtle selfishness, which possibly loved the happiness of other people rather than their own spiritual gain; she had blamed all the Lamkin family for allowing a martyr to live among them, with no effort to save her from the flame of her own self-sacrifice. Now suddenly she blamed herself. She pictured to herself her easy, unhampered life in her nice little apartment, and was convicted of enormous selfishness in her own righteous person. “Lord!” she said, “what on earth have I been thinking about? I knew Amelia was overworked. What was to hinder my coming here at least half the year and taking some of the burden off her? I knew Addie was young, and Annie none too strong, and Josiah fussy, like all men. Why didn't I come? And now here she is flat on her back, and maybe she'll never get up; and here I am with a broken ankle, and can't do a thing. You've made a nice mess of it, Jane Strong! Instead of snooping around to find the sins of other folks, you'd better have looked at home. Good land!” Tears rolled down Jane's cheeks. Then she wiped them away with a hand wet with port wine, and she raised her voice and called again. She sat there vainly calling until the light began to wane; then it was Josiah who heard. Josiah, who had been in the house, gazing at his prostrate wife, and going to his daughters for comfort, and then returned to his miserable promenade on the front walk, heard her through the cellar window. He hurried into the house and met Addie.
“Somebody's calling me, and it sounds like it came from the cellar,” he stammered. His nerves were so unstrung that he felt a shiver of superstition.
Addie also felt an answering thrill of horror. “What do you think it is, father?” she whispered, fearfully.
“Don't know. Sounds like a cat calling ‘Josiah!’ as near as anything else.”
The two stood looking at each other.
“Where is Aunt Jane?” asked Addie.
“I don't know.”
“Annie and I have been looking for her, and she doesn't seem to be in the house.”
“If she were here she would go down cellar and see what it was,” said Josiah, with open weakness.
Addie straightened herself. “Nonsense, father! We will go together,” said she.
When they had opened the trap-door in the parlor pantry, and peered down into the gloom, and heard the faint voice from below, Addie gave a cry and hurried down the stairs.
“Goodness, Aunt Jane!” said she, “is that you?”
“Yes, it's me.” groaned Jane. Then she began to weep. “Oh, Lord, it's a judgment on me!” said she.
“Are you hurt? How did you come down here?”
“Fell down. Oh, Lord, it's a judgment on me!”
“What did you come here for? How came the trap-door shut?”
“It fell down. I came for that bottle of port wine for your poor mother. It broke when I fell. I was trying to knock on the trap-door with the lid of that jar, and I fell. I'm all wine from head to foot.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Guess my ankle is broken. It pains me something dreadful, but I don't care. It's a judgment on me! I've been terrible selfish about your mother. It's a judgment on me!”
“Seems to me there's judgments on all of us,” said Addie, rather sharply, although there was pity in her voice as she stooped over her aunt, but she was wondering what could be done, with her mother so ill and her aunt crippled.
Josiah stood over his sister-in-law, a helpless bulk of a man, drooping in every muscle before this new calamity.
“Can't you get up, Jane?” he inquired, quaveringly.
“For the land's sake, Josiah Lamkin, do you suppose I'd sit here catching my death of cold on this cellar floor if I could get up?” responded Jane.
“Father, you had better run as fast as you can and get Doctor Emerson. He said he would come again to see mother, but he may not until after his office hour,” said Addie. “I'll get some pillows and a shawl, and Hannah can make some hot tea. Then I think you and Doctor Emerson can get her up-stairs. Hannah and I will have everything ready in her room.”
Josiah, for the second time that day, raced for the doctor. Annie came and sat on the cellar stairs, while poor Jane drank her tea, and wept softly at this disaster.
Jane gulped down the tea in a sort of fury. “I don't deserve this tea,” said she, “and I wouldn't touch it, but I've got to make trouble enough as it is without getting pneumonia. I don't know whether it is as dangerous to set soaked through with wine as it is with water, but I'm wet to the skin, anyhow, and all of a shake. How is she?”
“She just lies there, and she looks like death,” moaned Annie.
“We've all been killing her, and now she's killed, I guess,” said Jane.
“We didn't realize,” said Annie. “If only I had been stronger!”
“For the Lord's sake, don't talk any more about being strong,” said Jane. “You'd better hustle round and get strong. You've been as strong as your mother right along, and she has never said a word.”
“I know it,” Annie said. She bent over, and her whole slender body shook with sobs.
“For the land's sake,” said Jane, “stop crying! You don't want to make yourself sick and have another to take care of. There's enough as it is. If Harry comes home and finds you've been crying, there'll be an awful to-do. He acts like a pox fool about you, and always did. I believe he's put it into your head about not being strong, anyhow. He's seen your mother getting up and getting his early breakfast for him, and he hasn't thought it was anything.”
“I'm going to get Harry's breakfast now.”
“You'd better. If a woman has married a man who has to gulp his breakfast and race for an early train, it's her place to get it for him, and not her poor old mother's.”
“I am going to,” said Annie. Then she wept again.
Meanwhile, Amelia Lamkin was lying in her peaceful bed up-stairs in a very trance of happiness. She was quite conscious. She had not a pain. She realized an enormous weakness and sheer inability to move, but along with it came the blessed sense of release from hard duties. Almost for the first time in her life Amelia Lamkin's conscience did not sting her because she was not up and doing for others. She knew that it was impossible. She felt like one who has received absolution. The weight of her life had slipped from her shoulders. She regarded Tommy's pale, disturbed face, but even that did not trouble her, so sunken was she in the peace of weakness and sweet irresponsibility. She made one effort to speak to him, to comfort him; then she gave it up, and lay smiling the ghost of a smile. It did not seem to her that he could be really distressed when she was not suffering and was relieved of the weight of existence under which she had staggered so long. The faces of the other members of her family came before her mental vision, and she beheld them with immense love and no anxiety. The sense of being herself so entirely in the arms of Providence, of being undriven by any lash of duty, filled her with peace concerning them. She was beatifically happy, while the others were bemoaning her condition, and while Jane was being attended to in another room for her badly sprained ankle, which would disable her for weeks, perhaps for life. They worried lest Amelia should hear some noise which would awaken her suspicion, lest she should ask for her sister, and be alarmed at her absence, but they had no occasion for worry. Amelia, for the time being, was past alarm. She missed nobody. She wanted nothing except to lie there in her clean white bed and feel that she need not move. The days went on, and her condition did not change.
She lay still day after day, opening her mouth obediently for the spoonfuls of sustenance which were given her, half dozing, half waking, and wholly happy. All her life she had done what she could, and all her life she had been anxious lest she should not do what she could. Now that she knew that she could do no more there came upon her a perfect peace. She did not know that Jane was confined to her bed with her injured foot. She did not know that Addie had turned a cold shoulder to Arthur Henderson, and that he was already engaged to Eliza Loomis. She did not know of the harrowing anxiety concerning her. She knew naught but her conviction that nothing was required of her except to lie still, that other people required nothing except that, that God required nothing except that. Addie always wore a cheerful face when with her mother. Indeed, the readiness with which Arthur Henderson had given her up had caused her pride to act as a tonic, and her eyes had been opened. She knew that she had never cared for a man who could relinquish her without more effort, and whose loss had caused her no more pain. At first she thought that her love and anxiety for her mother had made her callous, but after a little she knew. She even laughed at herself because she had once thought it possible for her to marry Arthur Henderson. She could not yet laugh at the prospect of the life of self-immolation which she ordered for herself since the day her mother had been taken ill, but she was schooling herself to contemplate it cheerfully, although the doctor, with his daily visits to her mother, was now making it hard. Addie began to realize that this man, had she allowed herself to think of him, might have been more difficult to relinquish than the other. After a while she saw him as little as possible, and received his directions through Annie. Addie and Annie had their days full. They were glad when Tommy's spring vacation came. Tommy was of much assistance, and he developed a curious aptitude for making Hannah work. “Now, Hannah, if you are any girl at all, if you ever mean to get married yourself and not have your fellow light out the first week, it's time for you to brace up and hustle,” said Tommy; and the next morning Hannah achieved surprising biscuits and well-cooked eggs. Addie ate her eggs cooked any way now, and so did Annie, and Josiah Lamkin never said a word if his steak were not quite as rare as usual, and Johnny ate his rice half-cooked, and survived.
Amelia's window-shades were up all day, for the doctor said she should have all the light and sun possible; and as spring advanced she could see, with those patient eyes which apparently saw nothing, the blue sky crossed with tree branches deepening in color before they burst into leaf and flower. Amelia saw not only those branches, but beyond them, as though they were transparent, other branches, but those other branches grew on the trees of God, and were full of wonderful blooms; and beyond the trees she saw the far-away slope of mountains, and through them in turn the curves of beauty of the Delectable Hills. When Amelia closed her eyes, the picture of those trees beyond trees, those mountains beyond mountains, was still with her, and she saw also heavenly landscapes, rich green meadows, and pearly floods, and gardens of lilies, and her vision, which had been content for years with only the dear simple beauties of her little village, was fed to her soul's delight and surfeit. But she was too weak to speak more than a word at a time, and she scarcely seemed to know one of her dear ones. Poor Amelia Lamkin was so tired out in their service that she had gone almost out of their reach for her rest.
At last came a warm day during the first of May, when people said about the village that Mrs. Amelia Lamkin was very low indeed. The air was very soft and full of sweet languor, and those partly opened eyes of Amelia's saw blossoms through blossoms on the tree branches. In the afternoon Doctor Emerson came, and Addie did not shun him. Her mind was too full of her mother for a thought of any human soul beside. She and the young man stood in Amelia's room over the prostrate little figure, and the doctor took up the slender hand and felt for the pulse in the blue-veined wrist. Then he went over by the window, and stood there with Addie, and Amelia's eyes, which had been closed, opened slowly, and she saw the blooming boughs of the trees of heaven through them also. Addie was weeping softly, but her mother did not know it, at first, in her rapt contemplation. She did not see Doctor Emerson put an arm around the girl's waist, she did not hear what he said to her, but suddenly she did hear what the girl said. She heard it more clearly than anything since she had been taken ill. “I can't think of such things with mother lying there the way she is,” Addie said, in a whisper. “I wonder at you.”
“She can't hear a word; she does not know,” said the young man; and Amelia, listening, was surprised to learn how little a physician really knows himself, when she was hearing and understanding every word, and presently seeing. “I would not speak now,” Doctor Emerson continued. “I know it must seem untimely to you, but you have been through so much all these weeks, and it is possible that more still is before you soon, and I feel that if you can consent to lean upon me as one who loves you more than anybody else in the world, I may take it all easier. You know I love you, dear.”
“You can't love me. I have been an unworthy daughter,” Addie sobbed.
“An unworthy daughter? I have never seen such devotion.”
“The devotion came too late,” Addie replied, bitterly. “If mother had had a little more devotion years ago, she would be up and about now. There is no use talking, Doctor Emerson; you don't know me as I know myself or you wouldn't once think of me; but, anyway, it is out of the question.”
“Because,” said Addie, firmly, “I have resolved never to marry, never to allow any other love or interest to come between me and my own family. If mother —” Addie could not finish the sentence. She went on, with a word omitted: “I must make all the restitution to her in my power by devoting my whole life to her dear ones, to Tommy and the baby and father. Annie is delicate, although now she tries to think she isn't, and is doing so much, and Aunt Jane will never be able to walk as well as before she sprained her ankle falling down those cellar stairs. You know that.”
Amelia heard. It was the first she had known of Jane's accident.
“She is getting on very well,” Doctor Emerson said, rather evasively.
“Yes, but she is lame. That is the reason she won't come in here, though I have told her poor mother wouldn't notice. Aunt Jane has said that if it were not for her lameness she would come here and keep house, but she is a woman older than mother, and she is lame. There is nobody except myself to keep up the home here, and any other arrangement is out of the question.”
“We could live here, dear,” said the young man, and his voice sounded young and pleasing and pitiful. Amelia herself loved him as he spoke. But Addie turned upon him with a sort of fierceness.
“Don't talk to me any more,” she said. “Haven't you eyes? Don't you see I can't bear it? We could live here, but you — and maybe others — would come between me and my sacred trust. It can't be, Edward. If mother had lived —” (she spoke of her mother as already dead). “Of course with Aunt Jane — I think she will live here now, anyway, and she can do a good deal — and with Annie, they could have got along, and I don't say I would not have. Of course it must cost me something to give up the sort of life a girl naturally expects. Don't talk to me any more.”
Then Amelia sat up in bed. Her eyes were opened wide; they had seen her last of heavenly visions until the time when they should close forever. In a flash she saw how selfish it was for her, this patient, loving woman, who had thought of others all her life, to be happy in giving up her life. She realized, too, what she had never felt when in the midst of them, the torture and the fires of martyrdom in which her life had been spent. Now that the unselfishness of others had quenched those fires, she knew what had been, and saw how fair the world might yet be for her. She reached back her loving, longing, willing hands to her loved ones of earth and her earthly home. Amelia spoke in quite a clear, strong voice. Addie turned with a great start, and screamed, “Mother!” and Doctor Emerson was by her side in an instant. Amelia looked at them and smiled the smile of a happy, awakening infant.
“I am better,” said she; “I am going to get well now. I have lain here long enough.”