From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
There were no trees near the almshouse; it stood in its bare, sandy lot, and there were no leaves or branches to cast shadows on its walls. It seemed like the folks whom it sheltered, out in the full glare of day, without any little kindly shade between itself and the dull, unfeeling stare of curiosity. The almshouse stood upon rising ground, so one could see it for a long distance. It was a new building, Mansard-roofed and well painted. The village took pride in it: no town far or near had such a house for the poor. It was so fine and costly that the village did not feel able to give its insane paupers separate support in a regular asylum; so they lived in the almshouse with the sane paupers, and there was a padded cell in case they waxed too violent.
Around the almshouse lay the town fields. In summer they were green with corn and potatoes, now they showed ugly plough ridges sloping over the uneven ground, and yellow corn stubble. Beyond the field at the west of the almshouse was a little wood of elms and oaks and wild apple-trees. The yellow leaves had all fallen from the elms and the apple-trees, but most of the brown ones stayed on the oaks.
Polly Moss stood at the west window in the women's sitting-room and gazed over at the trees. “It's cur'us how them oak leaves hang on arter the others have all fell off,” she remarked.
A tall old woman sitting beside the stove looked around suddenly. She had singular bright eyes, and a sardonic smile around her mouth. “It's a way they allers have,” she returned, scornfully. “Guess there ain't nothin' very cur'us about it. When the oak leaves fall off an' the others hang on, then you can be lookin' for the end of the world; that's goin' to be one of the signs.”
“Allers a-harpin' on the end of the world,” growled another old woman, in a deep bass voice. “I've got jest about sick on't. Seems as if I should go crazy myself, hearin' on't the whole time.” She was sewing a seam in coarse cloth, and she sat on a stool on the other side of the stove. She was short and stout, and she sat with a heavy settle as if she were stuffed with lead.
The tall old woman took no further notice. She sat rigidly straight, and fixed her bright eyes upon the top of the door, and her sardonic smile deepened.
The stout old woman gave an ugly look at her; then she sewed with more impetus. Now and then she muttered something in her deep voice.
There were, besides herself, three old women in the room — Polly Moss, the tall one, and a pretty one in a white cap and black dress. There was also a young woman; she sat in a rocking-chair and leaned her head back. She was handsome, but she kept her mouth parted miserably, and there were ghastly white streaks around it and her nostrils. She never spoke. Her pretty black hair was rough, and her dress sagged at the neck. She had been living out at a large farm, and had overworked. She had no friends or relatives to take her in; so she had come to the almshouse to rest and try to recover. She had no refuge but the almshouse or the hospital, and she had a terrible horror of a hospital. Dreadful visions arose in her ignorant childish mind whenever she thought of one. She had a lover, but he had not been to see her since she came to the almshouse, six weeks before; she wept most of the time over that and her physical misery.
Polly Moss stood at the window until a little boy trudged into the room, bringing his small feet down with a clapping noise. He went up to Polly and twitched her dress. She looked around at him. “Well, now, Tommy, what do ye want?”
“Come out-doors an' play hide an' coot wis me, Polly.”
Tommy was a stout little boy. He wore a calico tier that sagged to his heels in the back, and showed in front his little calico trousers. His round face was pleasant and innocent and charming.
Polly put her arms around the boy and hugged him. “Tommy's a darlin',” she said; “can't he give poor Polly a kiss?”
Tommy put up his lips. “Come out-doors an' play hide an' coot wis me,” he said again, breathing the words out with the kiss.
“Now, Tommy, jest look out of the winder. Don't he see that it's rainin', hey?”
The child shook his head stubbornly, although he was looking straight at the window, which revealed plainly enough that long sheets of rain were driving over the fields. “Come out-doors and play hide an' coot wis me, Polly.”
“Now, Tommy, jest listen to Polly. Don't he know he can't go out-doors when it's rainin' this way? He'd get all wet, an' Polly too. But I'll tell you what Polly an' Tommy can do. We'll jest go out in the hall an' we'll roll the ball. Tommy go run quick an' get his ball.”
Tommy raised a shout, and clapped out of the room; his sweet nature was easily diverted. Polly followed him. She had a twisting limp, and was so bent that she was not much taller than Tommy, her little pale triangular face seemed to look from the middle of her flat chest.
“The wust-lookin' objeck,” growled the stout old woman when Polly was out of the room: “looks more like an old cat that's had to airn it's own livin' than a human bein'. It 'bout makes me sick to look at her.” Her deep tones travelled far; Polly, out in the corridor waiting for Tommy, heard every word.
“She is a dretful-lookin' cretur,” assented the pretty old woman. As she spoke she puckered her little red mouth daintily, and drew herself up with a genteel air.
The stout old woman surveyed her contemptuously. “Well, good looks don't amount to much, nohow,” said she, “if folks ain't got common-sense to balance 'em. I'd enough sight ruther know a leetle somethin' than have a dolly-face myself.”
“Seems to me she is about the dretfulest-lookin' cretur that I ever did see,” repeated the pretty old woman, quite unmoved. Aspersions on her intellect never aroused her in the least.
The stout old woman looked baffled. “Jest turn your head a leetle that way, will you, Mis' Handy?” she said, presently.
The pretty old woman turned her head obediently. “What is it?” she inquired, with a conscious simper.
“Jest turn your head a leetle more. Yes, it's funny I ain't never noticed it afore. Your nose is a leetle grain crooked — ain't it, Mis' Handy?”
Mrs. Handy's face turned a deep pink — even her little ears and her delicate old neck were suffused; her blue eyes looked like an enraged bird's. “Crooked! H'm! I shouldn't think that folks that's got a nose like some folks had better say much about other folks' noses. There can't nobody tell me nothin' about my nose; I know all about it. Folks that wouldn't wipe their feet on some folks, nor look twice at 'em, has praised it. My nose ain't crooked an' never was, an' if anybody says so it's 'cause they're so spity, 'cause they're so mortal homely themselves. Guess I know.” She drew breath, and paused for a return shot, but she got none. The stout old woman sewed and chuckled to herself, the tall one still fixed her eyes upon the top of the door, and the young woman leaned back with her lips parted, and her black eyes rolled.
The pretty old woman began again in defence of her nose; she talked fiercely, and kept feeling of it. Finally she arose and went out of the room with a flirt.
Then the stout old woman laughed. “She's gone to look at her nose in the lookin'-glass, an' make sure it ain't crooked: if it ain't a good joke!” she exclaimed, delightedly.
But she got no response. The young woman never stirred, and the tall old one only lowered her gaze from the door to the stove, which she regarded disapprovingly. “I call it the devil's stove,” she remarked, after a while.
The stout old woman gave a grunt and sewed her seam; she was done with talking to such an audience. The shouts of children out in the corridor could be heard. “Pesky young ones!” she muttered.
In the corridor Polly Moss played ball with the children. She never caught the ball, and she threw it with weak, aimless jerks; her back ached, but she was patient, and her face was full of simple childish smiles. There were two children besides Tommy — his sister and a little boy.
The corridor was long; doors in both sides led into the paupers' bedrooms. Suddenly one of the doors flew open, and a little figure shot out. She went down the corridor with a swift trot like a child. She had on nothing but a woollen petticoat and a calico waist; she held her head down, and her narrow shoulders worked as she ran; her mop of soft white hair flew out. The children looked around at her; she was a horrible caricature of themselves.
The stout old woman came pressing out of the sitting-room. She went directly to the room that the running figure had left, and peered in; then she looked around significantly. “I knowed it,” she said; “it's tore all to pieces agin. I'd jest been thinkin' to myself that Sally was dretful still, an' I'd bet she was pullin' her bed to pieces. There 'tis, an' made up jest as nice a few minutes ago! I'm goin' to see Mis' Arms.”
Mrs. Arms was the matron. The old woman went off with an important air, and presently she returned with her. The matron was a large woman with a calm, benignant, and weary face.
Polly Moss continued to play ball, but several other old women had assembled, and they all talked volubly. They demonstrated that Sally had torn her bed to pieces, that it had been very nicely made, and that she should be punished.
The matron listened; she did not say much. Then she returned to the kitchen, where she was preparing dinner. Some of the paupers assisted her. An old man, with his baggy trousers hitched high, chopped something in a tray, an old woman peeled potatoes, and a young one washed pans at the sink. The young woman, as she washed, kept looking over her shoulder and rolling her dark eyes at the other people in the room. She was mindful of every motion behind her back.
Mrs. Arms herself worked and directed the others. When dinner was ready the old man clanged a bell in the corridor, and everybody flocked to the dining-room except the young woman at the kitchen sink; she still stood there washing dishes. The dinner was coarse and abundant. The paupers, with the exception of the sick young woman, ate with gusto. The children were all hearty, and although the world had lost all its savor for the hearts and minds of the old ones, it was still somewhat salt to their palates. Now that their thoughts had ceased reaching and grasping, they could still put out their tongues, for that primitive instinct of life with which they had been born still survived and gave them pleasure. In this world it is the child only that is immortal.
The old people and the children ate after the same manner. There was a loud smacking of lips and gurgling noises. The rain drove against the windows of the dining-room, with its bare floor, its board tables and benches, and rows of feeding paupers. The smooth yellow heads of the children seemed to catch all the light in the room. Once in a while they raised imperious clamors. The overseer sat at one end of the table and served the beef. He was stout, and had a handsome, heavy face.
The meal was nearly finished when there was a crash of breaking crockery, a door slammed, and there was a wild shriek out in the corridor. The overseer and one of the old men who was quite able-bodied sprang and rushed out of the room. The matron followed, and the children tagged at her heels. The others continued feeding as if nothing had happened. “That Agnes is wuss agin,” remarked the stout old woman. “I've seed it a-comin' on fer a couple of days. They'd orter have put her in the cell yesterday; I told Mis' Arms so, but they're allers puttin' off, an' puttin' off.”
“They air a-takin' on her up to the cell now,” said the pretty old woman; and she brought around her knifeful of cabbage with a sidewise motion, and stretched her little red mouth to receive it.
Out in the corridor shriek followed shriek; there were loud voices and scuffling. The children were huddled in the doorway, peeping, but the old paupers continued to eat. The sick young woman laid down her knife and fork and wept.
Presently the shrieks and the scuffling grew faint in the distance; the children had followed on. Then, after a little, they all returned and the dinner was finished.
After dinner, when the women paupers had done their share of the clearing away, they were again assembled in their sitting-room. The windows were cloudy with fine mist; the rain continued to drive past them from over the yellow stubbly fields. There was a good fire in the stove, and the room was hot and close. The stout old woman sewed again on her coarse seam, the others were idle. There were now six old women present; one of them was the little creature whom they called Sally. She sat close to the stove, bent over and motionless. Her clothing hardly covered her. The sick young woman was absent; she was lying down on the lounge in the matron's room, and the children too were in there.
Polly Moss sat by the window. The old women began talking among themselves. The pretty old one had taken off her cap and had it in her lap, perking up the lace and straightening it. It was a flimsy rag, like a soiled cobweb. The stout old woman cast a contemptuous glance at it. She raised her nose and her upper lip scornfully. “I don't see how you can wear that nasty thing nohow, Mis' Handy,” said she.
Mrs. Handy flushed pink again. She bridled and began to speak, then she looked at the little soft soiled mass in her lap, and paused. She had not the force of character to proclaim black white while she was looking at it. Had the old cap been in the bureau drawer, or even on her head, she might have defended it to the death, but here before her eyes it silenced her.
But after her momentary subsidence she aroused herself; her blue eyes gleamed dimly at the stout old woman. “It was a handsome cap when it was new, anyhow!” said she; “better'n some folks ever had, I'll warrant. Folks that ain't got no caps at all can't afford to be flingin' at them that has, if they ain't quite so nice as they was. You'd orter have seen the cap I had when my daughter was married! All white wrought lace, an' bows of pink ribbon, an' long streamers, an' some artificial roses on't. I don't s'pose you ever see anythin' like it, Mis' Paine.”
The stout woman was Mrs. Paine. “Mebbe I ain't,” said she, sarcastically.
The tall old woman chimed in suddenly; her thin, nervous voice clanged after the others like a sharply struck bell. “I ain't never had any caps to speak of,” she proclaimed; “never thought much of 'em, anyhow; heatin' things; an' I never heard that folks in heaven wore caps. But I have had some good clothes. I've got a piece of silk in my bureau drawer. That silk would stand alone. An' I had a good thibet; there was rows an' rows of velvet ribbon on it. I always had good clothes; my husband, he wanted I should, an' he got 'em fer me. I airned some myself, too. I 'ain't got any now, an' I dunno as I care if I ain't, fer the signs are increasin'.”
“Allers a-harpin' on that,” muttered the stout old woman.
“I had a handsome blue silk when I was marri'd,” vouchsafed Mrs. Handy.
“I've seen the piece of it,” returned the tall one; “it ain't near so thick as mine is.”
The old woman who had not been present in the morning now spoke. She had been listening with a superior air. She was the only one in the company who had possessed considerable property, and had fallen from a widely differing estate. She was tall and dark and gaunt; she towered up next the pretty old woman like a scraggy old pine beside a faded lily. She was a single woman, and she had lost all her property through an injudicious male relative. “Well,” she proclaimed, “everybody knows I've had things if I ain't got 'em now. There I had a whole house, with Brussels carpets on all the rooms except the kitchen, an' stuffed furniture, an' beddin' packed away in chists, an' bureau drawers full of things. An' I ruther think I've had silk dresses an' bunnits an' caps.”
“I remember you had a real handsome blue bunnit once, but it warn't so becomin' as some you'd had, you was so dark-complected,” remarked the pretty old woman, in a soft, spiteful voice. “I had a white one, drawn silk, an' white feathers on't, when I was married, and they all said it was real becomin'. I was allers real white myself. I had a white muslin dress with a flounce on it, once, too, an' a black silk spencer cape.”
“I had a fitch tippet an' muff that cost twenty-five dollars,” remarked the stout old woman, emphatically, “an' a cashmire shawl.”
“I had two cashmire shawls, an' my tippet cost fifty dollars,” retorted the dark old woman, with dignity.
“My fust baby had an elegant blue cashmire cloak, all worked with silk as deep as that,” said Mrs. Handy. She now had the old cap on her head, and looked more assertive.
“Mine had a little wagon with a velvet cushion to ride in; an' I had a tea-set, real chiny, with a green sprig on't,” said the stout old woman.
“I had a Brittany teapot,” returned Mrs. Handy.
“I had gilt vases as tall as that on my parlor mantel-shelf,” said the dark old woman.
“I had a chiny figger, a girl with a basket of flowers on her arm, once,” rejoined the tall one; “it used to set side of the clock. An' when I was fust married I used to live in a white house, with a flower-garden to one side. I can smell them pinks an' roses now, an' I s'pose I allers shall, jest as far as I go.”
“I had a pump in my kitchen sink, an' things real handy,” said the stout old one; “an' I used to look as well as anybody, an' my husband too, when we went to meetin'. I remember one winter I had a new brown alpaca with velvet buttons, an' he had a new great-coat with a velvet collar.”
Suddenly the little cowering Sally raised herself and gave testimony to her own little crumb of past comfort. Her wits were few and scattering, and had been all her days, but the conversation of the other women seemed to set some vibrating into momentary concord. She laughed, and her bleared blue eyes twinkled. “I had a pink caliker gownd once,” she quavered out. “Mis' Thompson, she gin it me when I lived there.”
“Do hear the poor cretur,” said the pretty old woman, with an indulgent air.
Now everybody had spoken but Polly Moss. She sat by the misty window, and her little pale triangular face looked from her sunken chest at the others. This conversation was a usual one. Many and many an afternoon the almshouse old women sat together and bore witness to their past glories. Now they had nothing, but at one time or another they had had something over which to plume themselves and feel that precious pride of possession. Their present was to them a state of simple existence, they regarded their future with a vague resignation; they were none of them thinkers, and there was no case of rapturous piety among them. In their pasts alone they took real comfort, and they kept, as it were, feeling of them to see if they were not still warm with life.
The old women delighted in these inventories and comparing of notes. Polly Moss alone had never spoken. She alone had never had anything in which to take pride. She had been always deformed and poor and friendless. She had worked for scanty pay as long as she was able, and had then drifted and struck on the almshouse, where she had grown old. She had not even a right to the charity of this particular village: this was merely the place where her working powers had failed her; but no one could trace her back to her birthplace, or the town which was responsible for her support. Polly Moss herself did not know — she went humbly where she was told. All her life the world had seemed to her simply standing-ground; she had gotten little more out of it.
Every day, when the others talked, she listened admiringly, and searched her memory for some little past treasure of her own, but she could not remember any. The dim image of a certain delaine dress, with bright flowers scattered over it, which she had once owned, away back in her girlhood, sometimes floated before her eyes when they were talking, and she had a half-mind to mention that, but her heart would fail her. She feared that it was not worthy to be compared with the others' fine departed gowns; it paled before even Sally's pink calico. Polly's poor clothes, covering her pitiful crookedness, had never given her any firm stimulus to gratulation. So she was always silent, and the other old women had come to talk at her. Their conversation acquired a gusto from this listener who could not join in. When a new item of past property was given, there was always a side-glance in Polly's direction.
None of the old women expected to ever hear a word from Polly, but this afternoon, when they had all, down to Sally, testified, she spoke up:
“You'd orter have seen my sister Liddy,” said she; her voice was very small, it sounded like the piping of a feeble bird in a bush.
There was a dead silence. The other old women looked at each other. “Didn't know you ever had a sister Liddy,” the stout old woman blurted out, finally, with an amazed air.
“My sister Liddy was jest as handsome as a pictur',” Polly returned.
The pretty old woman flushed jealously. “Was she fair-complected?” she inquired.
“She was jest as fair as a lily — a good deal fairer than you ever was, Mis' Handy, an' she had long yaller curls a-hangin' clean down to her waist, an' her cheeks were jest as pink, an' she had the biggest blue eyes I ever see, an' the beautifulest leetle red mouth.”
“Lor'!” ejaculated the stout old woman, and the pretty old woman sniffed.
But Polly went on; she was not to be daunted; she had been silent all this time; and now her category poured forth, not piecemeal, but in a flood, upon her astonished hearers.
“Liddy, she could sing the best of anybody anywheres around,” she continued; “nobody ever heerd sech singin'. It was so dretful loud an' sweet that you could hear it 'way down the road when the winders was shut. She used to sing in the meetin'-house, she did, an' all the folks used to sit up an' look at her when she begun. She used to wear a black silk dress to meetin', an' a white cashmire shawl, an' a bunnit with a pink wreath around the face, an' she had white kid gloves. Folks used to go to that meetin'-house jest to hear Liddy sing an' see her. They thought 'nough sight more of that than they did of the preachin'.
“Liddy had a feather fan, an' she used to sit an' fan her when she wa'n't singin', an' she allers had scent on her handkercher. An' when meetin' was done in the evenin' all the young fellars used to be crowdin' 'round, an' pushin' and bowin' an' scrapin', a-tryin' to get a chance to see her home. But Liddy she wouldn't look at none of them; she married a real rich fellar from Bostown. He was jest as straight as an arrer, an' he had black eyes an' hair, an' he wore a beautiful coat an' a satin vest, an' he spoke jest as perlite.
“When Liddy was married she had a whole chistful of clothes, real fine cotton cloth, all tucks an' laid-work, an' she had a pair of silk stockin's, an' some white shoes. An' her weddin' dress was white satin, with a great long trail to it, an' she had a lace veil, an' she wore great long ear-drops that shone like everythin'. An' she come out bride in a blue silk dress, an' a black lace mantilly, an' a white bunnit trimmed with lutestring ribbon.”
“Where did your sister Liddy live arter she was married?” inquired the pretty old woman, with a subdued air.
“She lived in Bostown, an' she had a great big house with a parlor an' settin'-room, an' a room to eat in besides the kitchen. An' she had real velvet carpets on all the floors down to the kitchen, an' great pictur's in gilt frames a-hangin' on all the walls. An' her furnitur' was all stuffed, an' kivered with red velvet, an' she had a pianner, an' great big marble images a-settin' on her mantel-shelf. An' she had a coach with lamps on the sides, an' blue satin cushings, to ride in, an' four horses to draw it, an' a man to drive. An' she allers had a hired girl in the kitchen. I never knowed Liddy to be without a hired girl.
“Liddy's husband, he thought everythin' of her; he never used to come home from his work without he brought her somethin', an' she used to run out to meet him. She was allers dretful lovin', an' had a good disposition. Liddy, she had the beautifulest baby you ever see, an' she had a cradle lined with blue silk to rock him in, an' he had a white silk cloak, an' a leetle lace cap —”
“I shouldn't think your beautiful sister Liddy an' her husband would let you come to the poor-house,” interrupted the dark old woman.
“Liddy's dead, or she wouldn't.”
“Are her husband an' the baby dead, too?”
“They're all dead,” responded Polly Moss. She looked out of the window again, her face was a burning red, and there were tears in her eyes.
There was silence among the other old women. They were at once overawed and incredulous. Polly left the room before long, then they began to discuss the matter. “I dun know whether to believe it or not,” said the dark old woman.
“Well, I dun know, neither; I never knowed her to tell anythin' that wa'n't so,” responded the stout old one, doubtfully.
The old women could not make up their minds whether to believe or disbelieve. The pretty one was the most incredulous of any. She said openly that she did not believe it possible that such a “homely cretur” as Polly Moss could have had such a handsome sister.
But, credulous or not, their interest and curiosity were lively. Every day Polly Moss was questioned and cross-examined concerning her sister Liddy. She rose to the occasion; she did not often contradict herself, and the glories of her sister were increased daily. Old Polly Moss, her little withered face gleaming with reckless enthusiasm, sang the praises of her sister Liddy as wildly and faithfully as any minnesinger his angel mistress, and the old women listened with ever-increasing bewilderment and awe.
It was two weeks before Polly Moss died with pneumonia that she first mentioned her sister Liddy, and there was not one afternoon until the day when she was taken ill that she did not relate the story, with new and startling additions, to the old women.
Polly was not ill long, she settled meekly down under the disease: her little distorted frame had no resistance in it. She died at three o'clock in the morning. The afternoon before, she seemed better; she was quite rational, and she told the matron that she wanted to see her comrades, the old women. “I've got somethin' to tell 'em, Mis' Arms,” Polly whispered, and her eyes were piteous.
So the other old women came into the room. They stood around Polly's little iron bed and looked at her. “I — want to — tell you — somethin',” she began. But there was a soft rush, and the sick young woman entered. She pressed straight to the matron; she disregarded the others. Her wan face seemed a very lamp of life — to throw a light over and above all present darkness, even of the grave. She moved nimbly; she was so full of joy that her sickly body seemed permeated by it, and almost a spiritual one. She did not appear in the least feeble. She caught the matron's arm. “Charley has come, Mis' Arms!” she cried out. “Charley has come! He's got a house ready. He's goin' to marry me, an' take me home, an' take care of me till I get well. I'm goin' right away!”
The old women all turned away from Polly and stared at the radiant girl. The matron sent her away, with a promise to see her in a few minutes. “Polly's dyin',” she whispered, and the girl stole out with a hushed air, but the light in her face was not dimmed. What was death to her, when she had just stepped on a height of life where one can see beyond it?
“Tell them what you wanted to, now, Polly,” said the matron.
“I — want to tell you — somethin',” Polly repeated. “I s'pose I've been dretful wicked, but I ain't never had nothin' in my whole life. I — s'pose the Lord orter have been enough, but it's dretful hard sometimes to keep holt of him, an' not look anywheres else, when you see other folks a-clawin' an' gettin' other things, an' actin' as if they was wuth havin'. I ain't never had nothin' as fur as them other things go; I don't want nothin' else now. I've — got past 'em. I see I don't want nothin' but the Lord. But I used to feel dretful bad an' wicked when I heerd you all talkin' 'bout things you'd had, an' I hadn't never had nothin', so —” Polly Moss stopped talking, and coughed. The matron supported her. The old women nudged each other; their awed, sympathetic, yet sharply inquiring eyes never left her face. The children were peeping in at the open door; old Sally trotted past — she had just torn her bed to pieces. As soon as she got breath enough, Polly Moss finished what she had to say. “I — s'pose I — was dretful wicked,” she whispered; “but — I never had any sister Liddy.”