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The Bridge Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter

 

John was expected on the five o'clock stage. Mrs. John had been there three days now, and John's father and mother were almost packed up—so Mrs. John said. The auction would be to-morrow at nine o'clock, and with John there to see that things “hustled”—which last was really unnecessary to mention, for John's very presence meant “hustle”—with John there, then, the whole thing ought to be over by one o'clock, and they off in season to 'catch the afternoon express.

And what a time it had been—those three days!

Mrs. John, resting in the big chair on the front porch, thought of those days with complacency—that they were over. Grandpa and Grandma Burton, hovering over old treasures in the attic, thought of them with terrified dismay—that they had ever begun.

I am coming up on Tuesday [Mrs. John had written]. We have been thinking for some time that you and father ought not to be left alone up there on the farm any longer. Now don't worry about the packing. I shall bring Marie, and you won't have to lift your finger. John will come Thursday night, and be there for the auction on Friday. By that time we shall have picked out what is worth saving, and everything will be ready for him to take matters in hand. I think he has already written to the auctioneer, so tell father to give himself no uneasiness on that score.

John says he thinks we can have you back here with us by Friday night, or Saturday at the latest. You know John's way, so you may be sure there will be no tiresome delay. Your rooms here will be all ready before I leave, so that part will be all right.

This may seem a bit sudden to you, but you know we have always told you that the time was surely coming when you couldn't live alone any longer. John thinks it has come now; and, as I said before, you know John, so, after all, you won't be surprised at his going right ahead with things. We shall do everything possible to make you comfortable, and I am sure you will be very happy here.

Good-bye, then, until Tuesday. With love to both of you.

EDITH.

That had been the beginning. To Grandpa and Grandma Burton it had come like a thunderclap on a clear day. They had known, to be sure, that son John frowned a little at their lonely life; but that there should come this sudden transplanting, this ruthless twisting and tearing up of roots that for sixty years had been burrowing deeper and deeper—it was almost beyond one's comprehension.

And there was the auction!

“We shan't need that, anyway,” Grandma Burton had said at once. “What few things we don't want to keep I shall give away. An auction, indeed! Pray, what have we to sell?”

“Hm-m! To be sure, to be sure,” her husband had murmured; but his face was troubled, and later he had said, apologetically: “You see, Hannah, there's the farm things. We don't need them.”

On Tuesday night Mrs. John and the somewhat awesome Maria—to whom Grandpa and Grandma Burton never could learn not to curtsy—arrived; and almost at once Grandma Burton discovered that not only “farm things,” but such precious treasures as the hair wreath and the parlor—set were auctionable. In fact, everything the house contained, except their clothing and a few crayon portraits, seemed to be in the same category.

“But, mother, dear,” Mrs. John had returned, with a laugh, in response to Grandma Burton's horrified remonstrances, “just wait until you see your rooms, and how full they are of beautiful things, and then you'll understand.”

“But they won't be—these,” the old voice had quavered.

And Mrs. John had laughed again, and had patted her mother-in-law's cheek, and had echoed-but with a different shade of meaning—“No, they certainly won't be these!”

In the attic now, on a worn black trunk, sat the little old man, and down on the floor before an antiquated cradle knelt his wife.

“They was all rocked in it, Seth,” she was saying,—“John and the twins and my two little girls; and now there ain't any one left only John—and the cradle.”

“I know, Hannah, but you ain't usin' that nowadays, so you don't really need it,” comforted the old man. “But there's my big chair now— seems as though we jest oughter take that. Why, there ain't a day goes by that I don't set in it!”

“But John's wife says there's better ones there, Seth,” soothed the old woman in her turn, “as much as four or five of 'em right in our rooms.”

“So she did, so she did!” murmured the man. “I'm an ongrateful thing; so I be.” There was a long pause. The old man drummed with his fingers on the trunk and watched a cloud sail across the skylight. The woman gently swung the cradle to and fro. “If only they wan't goin' ter be—sold!” she choked, after a time. “I like ter know that they're where I can look at 'em, an' feel of 'em, an'—an' remember things. Now there's them quilts with all my dress pieces in 'em—a piece of most every dress I've had since I was a girl; an' there's that hair wreath—seems as if I jest couldn't let that go, Seth. Why, there's your hair, an' John's, an' some of the twins', an'—”

“There, there, dear; now I jest wouldn't fret,” cut in the old man quickly. “Like enough when you get used ter them other things on the wall you'll like 'em even better than the hair wreath. John's wife says she's taken lots of pains an' fixed 'em up with pictures an' curtains an' everythin' nice,” went on Seth, talking very fast. “Why, Hannah, it's you that's bein' ongrateful now, dear!”

“So 'tis, so 'tis, Seth, an' it ain't right an' I know it. I ain't a- goin' ter do so no more; now see!” And she bravely turned her back on the cradle and walked, head erect, toward the attic stairs.

John came at five o'clock. He engulfed the little old man and the little old woman in a bearlike hug, and breezily demanded what they had been doing to themselves to make them look so forlorn. In the very next breath, however, he answered his own question, and declared it was because they had been living all cooped up alone so long—so it was; and that it was high time it was stopped, and that he had come to do it! Whereupon the old man and the old woman smiled bravely and told each other what a good, good son they had, to be sure!

Friday dawned clear, and not too warm—an ideal auction-day. Long before nine o'clock the yard was full of teams and the house of people. Among them all, however, there was no sign of the bent old man and the erect little old woman, the owners of the property to be sold. John and Mrs. John were not a little disturbed—they had lost their father and mother.

Nine o'clock came, and with it began the strident call of the auctioneer. Men laughed and joked over their bids, and women looked on and gossiped, adding a bid of their own now and then. Everywhere was the son of the house, and things went through with a rush. Upstairs, in the darkest corner of the attic—which had been cleared of goods—sat, hand in hand on an old packing-box, a little old man and a little old woman who winced and shrank together every time the “Going, going, gone!” floated up to them from the yard below.

At half-past one the last wagon rumbled out of the yard, and five minutes later Mrs. John gave a relieved cry.

“Oh, there you are! Why, mother, father, where have you been?”

There was no reply. The old man choked back a cough and bent to flick a bit of dust from his coat. The old woman turned and crept away, her erect little figure looking suddenly bent and old.

“Why, what—” began John, as his father, too, turned away. “Why, Edith, you don't suppose—” He stopped with a helpless frown.

“Perfectly natural, my dear, perfectly natural,” returned Mrs. John lightly. “We'll get them away immediately. It'll be all right when once they are started.”

Some hours later a very tired old man and a still more tired old woman crept into a pair of sumptuous, canopy-topped twin beds. There was only one remark.

“Why, Seth, mine ain't feathers a mite! Is yours?”

There was no reply. Tired nature had triumphed—Seth was asleep.

They made a brave fight, those two. They told themselves that the chairs were easier, the carpets softer, and the pictures prettier than those that had gone under the hammer that day as they sat hand in hand in the attic. They assured each other that the unaccustomed richness of window and bed hangings and the profusion of strange vases and statuettes did not make them afraid to stir lest they soil or break something. They insisted to each other that they were not homesick, and that they were perfectly satisfied as they were. And yet—

When no one was looking Grandpa Burton tried chair after chair, and wondered why there was only one particular chair in the whole world that just exactly “fitted;” and when the twilight hour came Grandma Burton wondered what she would give to be able just to sit by the old cradle and talk with the past.

       * * * * *

The newspapers said it was a most marvelous escape for the whole family. They gave a detailed account of how the beautiful residence of the Honorable John Burton, with all its costly furnishings, had burned to the ground, and of how the entire family was saved, making special mention of the honorable gentleman's aged father and mother. No one was injured, fortunately, and the family had taken up a temporary residence in the nearest hotel. It was understood that Mr. Burton would begin rebuilding at once.

The newspapers were right—Mr. Burton did begin rebuilding at once; in fact, the ashes of the Burton mansion were not cold before John Burton began to interview architects and contractors.

“It'll be 'way ahead of the old one,” he confided to his wife enthusiastically.

Mrs. John sighed.

“I know, dear,” she began plaintively; “but, don't you see? it won't be the same—it can't be. Why, some of those things we've had ever since we were married. They seemed a part of me, John. I was used to them. I had grown up with some of them—those candlesticks of mamma's, for instance, that she had when I was a bit of a baby. Do you think money can buy another pair that—that were hers?” And Mrs. John burst into tears.

“Come, come, dear,” protested her husband, with a hasty caress and a nervous glance at the clock—he was due at the bank in ten minutes.” Don't fret about what can't be helped; besides"-and he laughed whimsically—“you must look out or you'll be getting as bad as mother over her hair wreath!” And with another hasty pat on her shoulder he was gone.

Mrs. John suddenly stopped her crying. She lowered her handkerchief and stared fixedly at an old print on the wall opposite. The hotel—though strictly modern in cuisine and management—was an old one, and prided itself on the quaintness of its old-time furnishings. Just what the print represented Mrs. John could not have told, though her eyes did not swerve from its face for five long minutes. What she did see was a silent, dismantled farmhouse, and a little old man and a little old woman with drawn faces and dumb lips.

Was it possible? Had she, indeed, been so blind?

Mrs. John rose to her feet, bathed her eyes, straightened her neck-bow, and crossed the hall to Grandma Burton's room.

“Well, mother, and how are you getting along?” she asked cheerily.

“Jest as nice as can be, daughter,—and ain't this room pretty?” returned the little old woman eagerly. “Do you know, it seems kind of natural like; mebbe it's because of that chair there. Seth says it's almost like his at home.”

It was a good beginning, and Mrs. John made the most of it. Under her skillful guidance Grandma Burton, in less than five minutes, had gone from the chair to the old clock which her father used to wind, and from the clock to the bureau where she kept the dead twins' little white shoes and bonnets. She told, too, of the cherished parlor chairs and marble-topped table, and of how she and father had saved and saved for years to buy them; and even now, as she talked, her voice rang with pride of possession—though only for a moment; it shook then with the remembrance of loss.

There was no complaint, it is true, no audible longing for lost treasures. There was only the unwonted joy of pouring into sympathetic ears the story of things loved and lost—things the very mention of which brought sweet faint echoes of voices long since silent.

“There, there,” broke off the little old woman at last, “how I am runnin' on! But, somehow, somethin' set me to talkin' ter-day. Mebbe't was that chair that's like yer father's,” she hazarded.

“Maybe it was,” agreed Mrs. John quietly, as she rose to her feet.

The new house came on apace. In a wonderfully short time John Burton began to urge his wife to see about rugs and hangings. It was then that Mrs. John called him to one side and said a few hurried but very earnest words—words that made the Honorable John open wide his eyes.

“But, Edith,” he remonstrated, “are you crazy? It simply couldn't be done! The things are scattered over half a dozen townships; besides, I haven't the least idea where the auctioneer's list is—if I saved it at all.”

“Never mind, dear; I may try, surely,” begged Mrs. John. And her husband laughed and reached for his check-book.

“Try? Of course you may try! And here's this by way of wishing you good luck,” he finished, as he handed her an oblong bit of paper that would go far toward smoothing the most difficult of ways.

“You dear!” cried Mrs. John. “And now I'm going to work.”

It was at about this time that Mrs. John went away. The children were at college and boarding-school; John was absorbed in business and house- building, and Grandpa and Grandma Burton were contented and well cared for. There really seemed to be no reason why Mrs. John should not go away, if she wished—and she apparently did wish. It was at about this time, too, that certain Vermont villages—one of which was the Honorable John Burton's birthplace—were stirred to sudden interest and action. A persistent, smiling-faced woman had dropped into their midst—a woman who drove from house to house, and who, in every case, left behind her a sworn ally and friend, pledged to serve her cause.

Little by little, in an unused room in the village hotel there began to accumulate a motley collection—a clock, a marble-topped table, a cradle, a patchwork quilt, a bureau, a hair wreath, a chair worn with age and use. And as this collection grew in size and fame, only that family which could not add to it counted itself abused and unfortunate, so great was the spell that the persistent, smiling-faced woman had cast about her.

Just before the Burton house was finished Mrs. John came back to town. She had to hurry a little about the last of the decorations and furnishings to make up for lost time; but there came a day when the place was pronounced ready for occupancy.

It was then that Mrs. John hurried into Grandpa and Grandma Burton's rooms at the hotel.

“Come, dears,” she said gayly. “The house is all ready, and we're going home.”

“Done? So soon?” faltered Grandma Burton, who had not been told very much concerning the new home's progress. “Why, how quick they have built it!”

There was a note of regret in the tremulous old voice, but Mrs. John did not seem to notice. The old man, too, rose from his chair with a long sigh—and again Mrs. John did not seem to notice.

       * * * * *

“Yes, dearie, yes, it's all very nice and fine,” said Grandma Burton wearily, half an hour later as she trudged through the sumptuous parlors and halls of the new house; “but, if you don't mind, I guess I'll go to my room, daughter. I'm tired—turrible tired.”

Up the stairs and along the hall trailed the little procession—Mrs. John, John, the bent old man, and the little old woman. At the end of the hall Mrs. John paused a moment, then flung the door wide open.

There was a gasp and a quick step forward; then came the sudden illumination of two wrinkled old faces.

“John! Edith!”—it was a cry of mingled joy and wonder.

There was no reply. Mrs. John had closed the door and left them there with their treasures.

 
 
 

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