From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
“We can, Mis' Rowe; this winder ain't fastened. I can slide it up easy 'nough.”
“Where does it go to?”
“Into the kitchen. I declare, there's the tea-kittle on the stove; an' I should think the door was open into the butt'ry. Yes, 'tis. Mis' Rowe, the dishes are settin' on the shelves jest the way they were left.”
“Can you see 'em?”
“Yes, I can. I don't b'lieve there's one speck of harm in our gettin' in an' lookin' round a little.”
“Oh, Mis' Daggett, do you think we'd ought to?”
“I'd like to know what harm 'twould do.”
“S'pose they should find it out?”
“I don't see who they is. There ain't one of the Primroses left but Maria, an' it ain't likely she'll be round here to find it out very soon.”
“It's awful 'bout her, ain't it?”
“I dun know as I think it's very awful; it ain't any more than she deserves for treatin' Abel Rice the way she did.”
“I've heard her husband had spent 'most all her money.”
“Guess it's true 'nough. They said once she was goin' to leave him.”
“I never really believed he struck her the way they said he did; did you?”
“Guess it's true 'nough. I tell you what it is, Mis' Rowe, I b'lieve folks get their desarts in this world sometimes. — We can get in here jest as easy as not, if we are a mind to.”
“Oh, Mis' Daggett, I dun know 'bout it.”
“There ain't a bit of harm in't,” said Mrs. Daggett, who was long and vigorous and sinewy. Then with no more ado she pushed up the grating old window.
Mrs. Rowe, who was a delicate little body, stood timorously aloof in a bed of mint that had grown up around the kitchen door of the old Primrose house. There was a small wilderness of mint and sweetbrier and low pink-flowering mallow around the door. All the old foot-tracks were concealed by them.
The window was not very high; Mrs. Daggett put one knee on the sill and climbed in easily enough. Mrs. Rowe watched her with dilated eyes; occasionally she peered behind her; she had a sideway poise like a deer. It was perfectly evident that if she were to see any one approaching she would fly and leave her companion to her fate.
“Come, you get in now,” said Mrs. Daggett. Her harsh, yellow old face peered out of the window; back of it was a dark green gloom. All the windows but that were closed and blinded.
“Oh, Mis' Daggett, I dun know as I darse to!”
“I don't b'lieve I can get in.”
“Yes, you can; it ain't high.”
Mrs. Rowe approached slowly; she lifted one feeble knee. “It's no use, I can't noway,” said she.
Mrs. Daggett caught hold of her arms and pulled. “Now you climb while I pull!” she cried.
“Oh, I can't noway, Mis' Daggett! You'll pull my arms out by the roots. I guess you'd better stop.”
“I'll get out an' boost you in,” Mrs. Daggett said, briskly, and strode over the window-sill.
But the “boosting” was not successful; finally little Mrs. Rowe recoiled in terror. “I'm afraid you'll make me go in there head-first,” said she. “I guess you'd better stop, Mis' Daggett. You go in an' look round, an' I'll wait here for you.”
“I'll tell you what we can do: I'll set out a chair; you can climb in jest as easy as not, then.”
Mrs. Daggett again climbed in, set out one of the dusty kitchen chairs, and Mrs. Rowe with many quavers made her entry. For a moment the two women stood close together, looking about them; Mrs. Rowe was quite pale, Mrs. Daggett shrewdly observant. “I'm goin' to open them other blinds an' have a little more light,” she declared at length.
“Oh, do you s'pose you'd better?”
“I'd like to know what harm it can do.” Mrs. Daggett forced up the old windows, and defiantly threw open the blinds.
The kitchen was a large one, with an old billowy floor and the usual furnishings. Mrs. Daggett lifted the tea-kettle and examined it. “It's all one bed of rust,” said she; “set up with water in't, most likely; that Mis' Loomis that was here when old Mr. Primrose died wa'n't no kind of a housekeeper. I'm a-goin' into the butt'ry.”
“Oh, do you think we'd better?”
“I'd like to know what harm it can do.”
Mrs. Daggett advanced with virtuous steadfastness, and the other woman, casting fearful backward glances, followed hesitatingly in her wake. They entered the pantry, which was as large as a small room, and stood with their chins tipped, scanning the shelves. “There's a whole set of white ware,” said Mrs. Daggett, “an' there's some blue packed away on the top shelf. I s'pose there's a chiny closet in the parlor, where the chiny is: they must have had some chiny dishes. Ain't that a nice platter? That's jest what I want, a platter that size. What's in here?”
“Oh, don't, Mis' Daggett; seems to me I wouldn't!”
“What's the harm, I'd like to know?”
Mrs. Daggett lifted the cover from a small jar. “It's quince sauce, sure's you live,” said she, sniffing cautiously. “It don't look to me as if it was hurt one mite. I'm goin' to taste of it.”
“Oh, Mis' Daggett!”
“I am.” Mrs. Daggett found a knife, and plunged it defiantly into the quince sauce. “It's jest as good as ever 'twas; it ain't worked one mite. You taste of it, Mis' Rowe.”
“Oh, I don't b'lieve I'd better, Mis' Daggett.” Mrs. Rowe looked with tremulous longing at the sauce which her friend held towards her on the tip of the knife.
“Land sakes! take it! What harm can it do?” Mrs. Daggett gave the knife a shove nearer, and Mrs. Rowe opened her mouth.
“It is good, ain't it?” she said, after tasting reflectively.
“I don't see why it ain't. Have some more.”
“I guess I hadn't better.”
“I'm goin' to. Might just as well; it's only spoilin' here.” Mrs. Daggett helped herself to some generous dips of the sauce, and Mrs. Rowe also took sundry tastes between her remonstrances. They found nothing else that was edible, except some spices. Mrs. Daggett took a pinch of the cinnamon. “Ain't lost its strength one mite,” she remarked; “thought I'd like to see if it had.”
The Primrose house was a large, old-fashioned edifice. It had been the mansion-house of this tiny village, and its owners had been the grandees. The town was named for them; they had been almost like feudal lords of the little settlement. Now they all were dead with the exception of one daughter, and she had not been near her old home for twenty years. The house had been shut up since her father's death, five years ago. The great square rooms were damp and musty, and even the furniture seemed to have acquired an air of distance and reserve.
When the two curious women penetrated the statelier and more withdrawn recesses of the house, Mrs. Rowe eyed every chair as if it were alive and drawing up itself haughtily before interlopers. But Mrs. Daggett had no such feelings. She investigated everything unsparingly. She began opening a bureau drawer in one of the front chambers. Mrs. Rowe, watching her, fairly danced with weak and fascinated terror. “Oh, don't, Mis' Daggett — don't you open them drawers! You scare me dreadfully!” she cried.
“I'd like to know what harm it can do.” Mrs. Daggett pulled out the drawer with a jerk. “Oh, my!” she exclaimed; “ain't this elegant!”
Mrs. Rowe tremblingly slid towards her and peeped around her shoulder, and just then came a loud peal of the door-bell. Mrs. Rowe clutched Mrs. Daggett: “Oh, Mis' Daggett, come — come quick, for mercy sake! That's the door-bell! Oh, Mis' Daggett, they'll ketch us here — they will! they will!”
“Keep still!” returned Mrs. Daggett. “No, they won't ketch us, neither. I dun know as we're doin' any harm if they did.” She gave the bureau drawer a shove to, and led the retreat. “Come on down the back stairs,” she said. “Don't break your neck; there's time 'nough.”
When they were half-way down the stairs the bell rang again. “Oh!” gasped Mrs. Rowe — “oh, Mis' Daggett, they'll ketch us!”
“No, they won't, neither; come along.” Mrs. Daggett climbed first out of the kitchen window. She thought that she could assist her friend better in that way. “I'll stand outside here and lift you down,” she said. “Don't hurry so; you'll fall an' break your bones.”
Mrs. Rowe mounted a chair with frantic haste, and got into the window. Mrs. Daggett extended both arms, and she jumped. “Mercy sakes! I'm ketched onto somethin'!” she screamed. “Oh, Mis' Daggett!” In fact, Mrs. Rowe's skirt had caught on something inside, and she pitched helplessly against her friend. “I hear 'em a-comin',” she groaned. “Oh, what shall I do! what shall I do!”
“Can't you hang here a minute, till I reach in an' unhitch it?”
“Oh, I can't! — I can't! Don't you let go of me, Mis' Daggett — don't you! I shall fall and break my bones if you do. Oh, I hear 'em a-comin'! Oh, Mis' Daggett, you pull as hard as you can! It's my alpacky dress. I ain't had it but three years, but I don't care nothin' 'bout that. Oh, Mis' Daggett!”
Mrs. Rowe struggled wildly, and Mrs. Daggett pulled; finally the alpaca skirt gave way. Mrs. Rowe as she turned and fled cast one despairing glance at it. “It's spoilt!” she groaned; “a great three-cornered piece gouged out of it. Oh, Mis' Daggett, do hurry!”
Mrs. Daggett paused to shut the window; then she overtook her friend with long, vigorous strides. “I wa'n't goin' to leave that window up,” she remarked, “not if I knew it.”
The women skirted the house well to the right, and passed into the road.
“Now I'm goin' to walk by an' see who 'tis,” said Mrs. Daggett.
“Oh, don't, Mis' Daggett; let's go right home.”
“I'm jest goin' to walk up by the path where I can see in. Come along; they won't know we've been in the house.”
Mrs. Daggett fairly pushed her timid friend in the direction that she wished.
The Primrose house was thickly surrounded by trees, and stood far back from the road; one could only get an uninterrupted view of the front door by looking directly up the walk.
Mrs. Daggett took a cautious glance as she passed the gate; then she stopped short. “Good land!” she exclaimed, “it ain't anybody but Abel Rice. If we ain't a passel of fools!” She could see between the trees a tall man with a yellow beard leaning against the front door of the Primrose house.
“Are you sure it's him?” quavered Mrs. Rowe.
“Course I'm sure. Don't you s'pose I know Abel Rice? If it ain't the greatest piece of work! There, I knew all about his goin' there an' ringin' the bell.”
“I never knew as he did really.”
“Well, I knew he did. Mrs. Adoniram White said she'd seen him time an' time again. To think of our runnin' away for a luny like Abel Rice!”
“It's awful 'bout his goin' there, ain't it?”
“Yes, 'tis awful. They say they've talked an' talked to him, but they can't make him b'lieve Maria Primrose don't live there; an' every once in a while, no matter what he's doin', hoein' potatoes or what, he'll steal off an' go up there an' ring the door-bell. I wish Maria could see him sometimes, an' realize what she did when she jilted him for that rich feller she married.”
“It would serve her jest right; don't you think 'twould?”
“Yes, I do think it would serve her jest right.”
The two were now walking along the sidewalk, leaving the Primrose house out of sight. Presently they came to the house where Mrs. Rowe lived, and she turned in at the gate. “Good-afternoon, Mis' Daggett,” said she.
“Good-afternoon. Say, Mis' Rowe, look here a minute.”
Mrs. Rowe stepped back obediently. Mrs. Daggett approached her lips to her ear and dropped her voice to a whisper: “If — I was you, I wouldn't say nothin' about our goin' in there to Marthy.”
“I ain't goin' to,” rejoined Mrs. Rowe, with a wise air; “you needn't be afraid of that, Mis' Daggett.”
“I ain't done nothin' I'm ashamed of, but it's jest as well not to tell everything you know. I'm dreadful sorry you tore your dress so, Mis' Rowe.”
The rent in Mrs. Rowe's black alpaca dress attracted immediate attention when she entered the house; she turned herself cautiously, but her sister, Mrs. Joy, noticed it at once. “Why, Hannah, how did you tear your dress so?” said she.
“I ketched it,” replied Mrs. Rowe, with a meek sigh, turning her head to look at the three-cornered rent.
“Why, I should think you did! I guess you'll have one job mendin' it. What did you ketch it onto?”
“On a nail. I see Abel Rice a-standin' ringin' the front-door bell at the Primrose house when I come by.” Mrs. Rowe had very little diplomacy in her nature, but she could fly as skittishly as any other woman from a distasteful subject.
“I want to know!” said Mrs. Joy, with ready interest. “I never really knew whether to b'lieve them stories about his ringin' that bell or not.”
“I see him with my own eyes.” Mrs. Rowe was laying aside her bonnet and shawl, uncovering her small gray head and her narrow alpaca shoulders, which had a deprecating slope to them. One could judge more correctly of her character from her shoulders than from her face, which was shifty, reflecting lights and shadows from others; her shoulders were the immovable sign of herself.
Mrs. Joy did not resemble her in the least; she was larger and stouter, with a rosy face whose lines were all drawn with decision. When she was talking she surveyed one steadily with her full bright eyes that seldom winked. People called her a handsome woman. Her daughter Annie, who sat at the window with her crochet-work, resembled her, only she was young and girlishly slim, her bright, clear eyes were blue instead of black, and her hair was light. There was a brilliant color on her rather thin cheeks. She crocheted some scarlet worsted very rapidly, making her slender fingers fly. Her mother had a significant side tone for her in her voice when she spoke again.
“Well, there's no use talkin', Abel Rice couldn't have had any brains to speak of, or he wouldn't have lost 'em so easy,” said she. “This goin' crazy for love is something I don't put much stock in, for my part. Folks must have a weak spot somewhere, or it would take something more than love to tip 'em over. I guess none of the Rices are any too smart, when it comes right down to it. It ain't a family I should want to get into.”
Annie never said a word; she crocheted faster.
Mrs. Rowe had dropped her shawl-pin, and had been hunting for it. Just then she found it, and rose up. “I should be kind of afraid if Frank Rice had any — such kind of trouble, it might affect him the same way. Shouldn't you?” said she.
She fairly jumped when her sister replied: “Afraid of it? No, I guess I shouldn't be afraid of it. I guess there don't many folks get crazy for — love.” Mrs. Joy pronounced “love” with an affectedly sweet drawl.
Mrs. Rowe colored shamefacedly. “I s'pose Abel did; don't you?”
“No, I don't, neither. Most likely he'd got crazy anyway; it was in him.”
“Well, I dun know.” Mrs. Rowe always departed from an argument with a mild profession of ignorance. She stood in awe of her sister.
When she left the room to put away her bonnet, Mrs. Joy turned to Annie: “Ain't you goin' to see him to-night?” she asked.
“I — haven't made up my mind.”
“I should think it was about time you did. There's the picnic comin' off to-morrow.”
“No, it isn't, either.”
“When is it, I'd like to know?”
“The day after to-morrow.”
“Well, you ain't got any too much time; you'd ought to let him know a little beforehand, so he can get somebody else. I should think you'd better see him when he goes home to-night; it will do jest as well as any way.”
Annie kept her eyes upon her crocheting; her cheeks grew redder. “I've — about made up my mind that I shall go with him, anyway,” she muttered.
“I've about made up my mind to go with Frank the way I said I would.”
Mrs. Joy's eyes snapped. “Well, if you do, you'll have to give up all thoughts of Henry Simpson, that's all,” said she. “If he sees you at that picnic with Frank Rice, he'll think it's all decided, an' he'll let you alone.”
“Sometimes I think I'd rather wish he would.”
“I'd like to know what you mean.”
“I've made up my mind that I don't want him, anyway.”
“H'm! I'd like to know why.”
Annie crocheted silently for a minute. “Well, I suppose that I like Frank the best,” she murmured, with a shamefaced air.
“Oh! Well, I s'pose that's all that's necessary, then. I s'pose if you — love him, there ain't anything more to be said.”
The manner with which her mother's voice lingered upon love made it seem at once shameful and ridiculous to the girl; but she raised a plea in her own defence.
“I don't care,” said she; “I don't think it's right to get married unless you do love the one you marry.”
“I guess you'll find out that there's something besides love if you do get married to Frank Rice, or I'll miss my guess. When you get settled down there in that little cooped-up house with his father and mother and crazy uncle, an' don't have enough money to buy you a calico dress, you'll find out it ain't all — love.”
“He'd build a piece on to the house.”
“An' run in debt for it; you know he ain't got a cent. Well, Annie Joy, I've said all I'm goin' to. You know how things are jest as well as I can tell you. You know how I've dug an' scrimped all my life, an' you know how we're situated now; it's jest all we can do to get along, an' your father's an old man. If you marry Frank Rice you'll have to live jest as I've done, only you won't be so well off, if anything; your father had a good house, all paid for, when we started. You'll have to work an' slave, an' never go anywhere nor have anything; you'll have to make up your mind to it. An' if you have Henry Simpson, you'll live over in Lennox, an' have everything nice, an' people will look up to you. You'll have to take your choice, that's all I've got to say.”
Mrs. Joy got up and went out of the room with a heavy flourish. On the threshold she turned: “Ain't it most time for him to go by?”
Annie nodded. Soon after her mother left the room she saw at a swift glance the young man of whom they had been speaking coming down the sidewalk. She looked quickly away, and never raised her eyes from her crocheting when he went by.
“Has he been past?” asked her mother when she came in.
Mrs. Joy compressed her lips. “Well, you can do jest as you are a mind to,” said she.
Yet she continued to talk and advance arguments. If Annie did not go to the picnic with Frank, she had little doubt that matters would be brought to a favorable climax with regard to the other young man, who had lately paid her much attention. She was making a new dress for Annie to wear, and she sewed and reasoned with her all that evening and during the next day.
In the afternoon a young girl, an acquaintance of Annie's, came in. She had just returned from Lennox, where she had been shopping. Lennox was a large village — the city for this little hamlet of Primrose Hill.
“I saw somebody there,” said the girl, with a significant smile at Annie, “and he looked real handsome. He was driving a beautiful horse, and he's got one of those new-style carriages. If I was some folks I should feel pretty fine.”
“Alice would give all her old shoes to get a chance like you,” remarked Mrs. Joy after the visitor had gone.
“I don't believe she'd treat another fellow mean to get it,” said Annie. She had looked doubtfully pleased at the girl's joking.
“I don't see as your treatin' him mean if you let him know beforehand. I guess you ain't the only girl that changes her mind. Mebbe he'll take up with Alice. I should think she'd make him a real good wife.”
“He won't: I can tell you that much. He can't bear her.”
“Well, he'll find somebody. It's 'most time for him to go by, ain't it?”
“I suppose so,” replied Annie, coldly.
It was late in the afternoon. An hour ago Mrs. Daggett had called for Mrs. Rowe, and the two old women had sauntered up the street together. “I didn't tell you what I see in that bureau drawer,” Mrs. Daggett had whispered when they started forth; “it was the handsomest black satin I ever laid my eyes on. I — mean to see it again.”
“Oh, Mis' Daggett!”
“I'd like to know what harm it can do.”
The two, in their homely black gowns, had moved on towards the Primrose house. Frank Rice would have to pass it on his way home from his work: he lived a half-mile beyond.
Mrs. Joy, as she talked to Annie, kept her face turned towards the road, watching for him. “There he is,” she said, presently. Annie bent over her work. “Do you hear?” her mother repeated, sharply.
“Yes, I hear.” Suddenly Annie sat up straight and looked in her mother's eyes. “I can't do it,” said she.
“I'd like to know why not. Hurry, or he'll be gone by.”
Annie sat quite still for a minute; her eyes were staring and her mouth set hard. Then she arose and went out of the front door and down the walk. The man reached the gate just as she did. She started, and turned a white face back towards the window; it was Frank Rice's uncle Abel, who, people said, had lost his wits because Maria Primrose had jilted him. He passed, and Annie clung to the gate. An awful voice of prophetic denunciation seemed to cry through all her weakness and ignoble ambition. Her mother appeared in the door, and drew back hastily; she had seen Frank Rice coming, following in the track of his uncle. She remarked for the first time a strong resemblance between the two men, and it thrilled her with a strange horror. She went back into the sitting-room, and peered around a corner of a window. When Frank reached the gate, she saw Annie step forward. She saw them stand and talk for a few minutes; then they walked slowly up the street together.
“What's she doin' that for?” muttered her mother with a bewildered air; she felt singularly shocked and subdued. Annie and Frank went out of sight in the direction of the Primrose house:
It might have been an hour later when a woman came slowly up the hill which gave its name to the little settlement. She had walked from Lennox; she had not money enough to pay her fare in the coach which ran between the two villages. It rattled past her on the road; the passengers thrust out their heads and stared at her. “I declare, I believe that's Maria Primrose,” said one woman to another. Maria Primrose, to call her as her old neighbors did by her maiden name, toiled slowly up Primrose Hill. She was a middle-aged woman, with a slender figure like a girl's; but her face, which had been handsome, had not kept its youth so well; one on passing her saw it with a certain disappointment. Her black clothes had an elegant and almost foreign air; some of the rich silk pleatings were frayed, but that did not hurt the general effect.
When she had come within half a mile of the Primrose house she saw a man at work in a potato field on the left of the road. She stopped and looked at him. Everything was very dusty, and the wind blew; great clouds of dust rolled up from the road, and passed like smoke over the fields; now the setting sun shone through it and gave it a gold color. Maria saw the man through a cloud of golden dust.
He threw down his hoe and came towards her, and she stood waiting. When he was near enough, on the other side of the stone wall, she looked in his face. His large blue eyes looked straight at her with a gentle and indifferent stare, his yellow-bearded mouth smiled pleasantly and vacantly.
Maria went on. Presently she heard a quick shuffle behind her, and Abel Rice passed, never turning his head; he was soon out of sight. When Maria Primrose went up the path to her old home, he stood straight and gaunt before the door; he had pulled the bell, and he was listening. When he saw Maria he shuffled off the end of the piazza, and disappeared among the trees. She looked after him for a second, then she unlocked the door.
There was a scream and a patter of feet up in the second story, then a scramble over the back stairs; Mrs. Daggett and Mrs. Rowe were making their escape from the house. Annie Joy and Frank Rice were also fleeing from the precincts of the Primrose house. Its front piazza had looked quiet and isolated, and they had strolled up there and seated themselves. They arose and went away when Abel Rice came and rang the bell to summon his lost sweetheart; they held each other's hands, and sped along between the trees. They saw Maria, and quickened their pace; but before they had passed out into the road, Frank cast a hasty glance around, and the two kissed each other.
Maria Primrose entered her old home to pass the remainder of her life in lonely and unavailing regret and a dulness which was not peace; the two curious old women hustled guiltily out of the kitchen window; Abel Rice went his solemn and miserable way; and the young lovers passed happily forth, starting up before her like doves. There had been a wreck, and the sight of it had prevented another.