The Axminster Path by Eleanor H. Porter
“There, dear, here we are, all dressed for the day!” said the girl
gayly, as she led the frail little woman along the strip of Axminster
carpet that led to the big chair.
“And Kathie?” asked the woman, turning her head with the groping
uncertainty of the blind.
“Here, mother,” answered a cheery voice. “I'm right here by the
“Oh!” And the woman smiled happily. “Painting, I suppose, as usual.”
“Oh, I'm working, as usual,” returned the same cheery voice, its
owner changing the position of the garment in her lap and reaching for
a spool of silk.
“There!” breathed the blind woman, as she sank into the great chair.
“Now I am all ready for my breakfast. Tell cook, please, Margaret, that
I will have tea this morning, and just a roll besides my orange.” And
she smoothed the folds of her black silk gown and picked daintily at
the lace in her sleeves.
“Very well, dearie,” returned her daughter. “You shall have it right
away,” she added over her shoulder as she left the room.
In the tiny kitchen beyond the sitting-room Margaret Whitmore
lighted the gas-stove and set the water on to boil. Then she arranged a
small tray with a bit of worn damask and the only cup and saucer of
delicate china that the shelves contained. Some minutes later she went
back to her mother, tray in hand.
“'Most starved to death?” she demanded merrily, as she set the tray
upon the table Katherine had made ready before the blind woman. “You
have your roll, your tea, your orange, as you ordered, dear, and just a
bit of currant jelly besides.”
“Currant jelly? Well, I don't know,—perhaps it will taste good. 'T
was so like Nora to send it up; she's always trying to tempt my
appetite, you know. Dear me, girls, I wonder if you realize what a
treasure we have in that cook!”
“Yes, dear, I know,” murmured Margaret hastily. “And now the tea,
Mother—it's getting colder every minute. Will you have the orange
The slender hands of the blind woman hovered for a moment over the
table, then dropped slowly and found by touch the position of spoons,
plates, and the cup of tea.
“Yes, I have everything. I don't need you any longer, Meg. I don't
like to take so much of your time, dear—you should let Betty do for
“But I want to do it,” laughed Margaret. “Don't you want me?”
“Want you! That isn't the question, dear,” objected Mrs. Whitmore
gently. “Of course, a maid's service can't be compared for an instant
with a daughter's love and care; but I don't want to be selfish—and
you and Kathie never let Betty do a thing for me. There, there! I won't
scold any more. What are you going to do to-day, Meg?”
Margaret hesitated. She was sitting by the window now, in a low
chair near her sister's. In her hands was a garment similar to that
upon which Katherine was still at work.
“Why, I thought,” she began slowly, “I'd stay here with you and
Katherine a while.”
Mrs. Whitmore set down her empty cup and turned a troubled face
toward the sound of her daughter's voice.
“Meg, dear,” she remonstrated, “is it that fancy-work?”
“Well, isn't fancy-work all right?” The girl's voice shook a little.
Mrs. Whitmore stirred uneasily.
“No, it—it isn't—in this case,” she protested. “Meg, Kathie, I
don't like it. You are young; you should go out more—both of you. I
understand, of course; it's your unselfishness. You stay with me lest I
get lonely; and you play at painting and fancy-work for an excuse. Now,
dearies, there must be a change. You must go out. You must take your
place in society. I will not have you waste your young lives.”
“Mother!” Margaret was on her feet, and Katherine had dropped her
work. “Mother!” they cried again.
“I—I shan't even listen,” faltered Margaret. “I shall go and leave
you right away,” she finished tremulously, picking up the tray and
hurrying from the room.
It was hours later, after the little woman had trailed once more
along the Axminster path to the bed in the room beyond and had dropped
asleep, that Margaret Whitmore faced her sister with despairing eyes.
“Katherine, what shall we do? This thing is killing me!”
The elder girl's lips tightened. For an instant she paused in her
work— but for only an instant.
“I know,” she said feverishly; “but we mustn't give up—we mustn't!”
“But how can we help it? It grows worse and worse. She wants us to
go out—to sing, dance, and make merry as we used to.”
“Then we'll go out and—tell her we dance.”
“But there's the work.”
“We'll take it with us. We can't both leave at once, of course, but
old Mrs. Austin, downstairs, will be glad to have one or the other of
us sit with her an occasional afternoon or evening.”
Margaret sprang to her feet and walked twice the length of the room.
“But I've—lied so much already!” she moaned, pausing before her
sister. “It's all a lie—my whole life!”
“Yes, yes, I know,” murmured the other, with a hurried glance toward
the bedroom door. “But, Meg, we mustn't give up—'twould kill her to
know now. And, after all, it's only a little while!—such a little
Her voice broke with a half-stifled sob. The younger girl shivered,
but did not speak. She walked again the length of the room and back;
then she sat down to her work, her lips a tense line of determination,
and her thoughts delving into the few past years for a strength that
might help her to bear the burden of the days to come.
* * * * *
Ten years before, and one week after James Whitmore's death, Mrs.
James Whitmore had been thrown from her carriage, striking on her head
When she came to consciousness, hours afterward, she opened her eyes
on midnight darkness, though the room was flooded with sunlight. The
optic nerve had been injured, the doctor said. It was doubtful if she
would ever be able to see again.
Nor was this all. There were breaks and bruises, and a bad injury to
the spine. It was doubtful if she would ever walk again. To the little
woman lying back on the pillow it seemed a living death—this thing
that had come to her.
It was then that Margaret and Katherine constituted themselves a
veritable wall of defense between their mother and the world. Nothing
that was not inspected and approved by one or the other was allowed to
pass Mrs. Whitmore's chamber door.
For young women only seventeen and nineteen, whose greatest
responsibility hitherto had been the selection of a gown or a ribbon,
this was a new experience.
At first the question of expense did not enter into consideration.
Accustomed all their lives to luxury, they unhesitatingly demanded it
now; and doctors, nurses, wines, fruits, flowers, and delicacies were
summoned as a matter of course.
Then came the crash. The estate of the supposedly rich James
Whitmore was found to be deeply involved, and in the end there was only
a pittance for the widow and her two daughters.
Mrs. Whitmore was not told of this at once. She was so ill and
helpless that a more convenient season was awaited. That was nearly ten
years ago—and she had not been told yet.
Concealment had not been difficult at first. The girls had, indeed,
drifted into the deception almost unconsciously, as it certainly was
not necessary to burden the ears of the already sorely afflicted woman
with the petty details of the economy and retrenchment on the other
side of her door.
If her own luxuries grew fewer, the change was so gradual that the
invalid did not notice it, and always her blindness made easy the
deception of those about her.
Even the move to another home was accomplished without her realizing
it —she was taken to the hospital for a month's treatment, and when
the month was ended she was tenderly carried home and laid on her own
bed; and she did not know that “home” now was a cheap little flat in
Harlem instead of the luxurious house on the avenue where her children
She was too ill to receive visitors, and was therefore all the more
dependent on her daughters for entertainment.
She pitied them openly for the grief and care she had brought upon
them, and in the next breath congratulated them and herself that at
least they had all that money could do to smooth the difficult way. In
the face of this, it naturally did not grow any easier for the girls to
tell the truth—and they kept silent.
For six years Mrs. Whitmore did not step; then her limbs and back
grew stronger, and she began to sit up, and to stand for a moment on
her feet. Her daughters now bought the strip of Axminster carpet and
laid a path across the bedroom, and another one from the bedroom door
to the great chair in the sitting-room, so that her feet might not note
the straw matting on the floor and question its being there.
In her own sitting-room at home—which had opened, like this, out of
her bedroom—the rugs were soft and the chairs sumptuous with springs
and satin damask. One such chair had been saved from the wreck—the one
at the end of the strip of carpet.
Day by day and month by month the years passed. The frail little
woman walked the Axminster path and sat in the tufted chair. For her
there were a china cup and plate, and a cook and maids below to serve.
For her the endless sewing over which Katherine and Margaret bent their
backs to eke out their scanty income was a picture or a bit of
embriodery, designed to while away the time.
As Margaret thought of it it seemed incredible—this tissue of
fabrications that enmeshed them; but even as she wondered she knew that
the very years that marked its gradual growth made now its strength.
And in a little while would come the end—a very little while, the
Margaret tightened her lips and echoed her sister's words: “We
mustn't give up—we mustn't!”
Two days later the doctor called. He was a bit out of the old life.
His home, too, had been—and was now, for that matter—on the
avenue. He lived with his aunt, whose heir he was, and he was the only
one outside of the Whitmore family that knew the house of illusions in
which Mrs. Whitmore lived.
His visits to the little Harlem flat had long ceased to have more
than a semblance of being professional, and it was an open secret that
he wished to make Margaret his wife. Margaret said no, though with a
heightened color and a quickened breath—which told at least herself
how easily the “no” might have been a “yes.”
Dr. Littlejohn was young and poor, and he had only his profession,
for all he was heir to one of the richest women on the avenue; and
Margaret refused to burden him with what she knew it would mean to
marry her. In spite of argument, therefore, and a pair of earnest brown
eyes that pleaded even more powerfully, she held to her convictions and
continued to say no.
All this, however, did not prevent Dr. Littlejohn from making
frequent visits to the Whitmore home, and always his coming meant joy
to three weary, troubled hearts. To-day he brought a great handful of
pink carnations and dropped them into the lap of the blind woman.
“Sweets to the sweet!” he cried gayly, as he patted the slim hand on
the arm of the chair.
“Doctor Ned—you dear boy! Oh, how lovely!” exclaimed Mrs. Whitmore,
burying her face in the fragrant flowers. “And, doctor, I want to speak
to you,” she broke off earnestly. “I want you to talk to Meg and
Kathie. Perhaps they will listen to you. I want them to go out more.
Tell them, please, that I don't need them all the time now.”
“Dear me, how independent we are going to be!” laughed the doctor.
“And so we don't need any more attention now, eh?”
“Betty will do.”
“Betty?” It was hard, sometimes, for the doctor to remember.
“The maid,” explained Mrs. Whitmore; “though, for that matter, there
might as well be no maid—the girls never let her do a thing for me.”
“No?” returned the doctor easily, sure now of where he stood. “But
you don't expect me to interfere in this housekeeping business!”
“Somebody must,” urged Mrs. Whitmore. “The girls must leave me more.
It isn't as if we were poor and couldn't hire nurses and maids. I
should die if it were like that, and I were such a burden.”
“Mother, dearest!” broke in Margaret feverishly, with an
imploring glance toward her sister and the doctor.
“Oh, by the way,” interposed the doctor airily, “it has occurred to
me that the very object of my visit to-day is right along the lines of
what you ask. I want Miss Margaret to go driving with me. I have a call
to make out Washington Heights way.”
“Oh, but—” began Margaret, and paused at a gesture from her mother.
“There aren't any 'buts' about it,” declared Mrs. Whitmore. “Meg
“Of course she'll go!” echoed Katherine. And with three against her,
Margaret's protests were in vain.
* * * * *
Mrs. Whitmore was nervous that night. She could not sleep.
It seemed to her that if she could get up and walk, back and forth,
back and forth, she could rest afterward. She had not stepped alone
yet, to be sure, since the accident, but, after all, the girls did
little more than guide her feet, and she was sure that she could walk
alone if she tried.
The more she thought of it the more she longed to test her strength.
Just a few steps back and forth, back and forth—then sleep. She was
sure she could sleep then. Very quietly, that she might not disturb the
sleepers in the bedroom beyond, the blind woman sat up in bed and
slipped her feet to the floor.
Within reach were her knit slippers and the heavy shawl always kept
at the head of her bed. With trembling hands she put them on and rose
At last she was on her feet, and alone. To a woman who for ten years
had depended on others for almost everything but the mere act of
breathing, it was joy unspeakable. She stepped once, twice, and again
along the side of her bed; then she stopped with a puzzled frown—under
her feet was the unyielding, unfamiliar straw matting. She took four
more steps, hesitatingly, and with her arms outstretched at full length
before her. The next instant she recoiled and caught her breath
sharply; her hands had encountered a wall and a window—and there
should have been no wall or windows there!
The joy was gone now.
Shaking with fear and weakness, the little woman crept along the
wall and felt for something that would tell her that she was still at
home. Her feet made no sound, and only her hurried breathing broke the
Through the open door to the sitting-room, and down the wall to the
right-on and on she crept.
Here and there a familiar chair or stand met her groping hands and
held them hesitatingly for a moment, only to release them to the terror
of an unfamiliar corner or window-sill.
The blind woman herself had long since lost all realization of what
she was doing. There was only the frenzied longing to find her own. She
did not hesitate even at the outer door of the apartment, but turned
the key with shaking hands and stepped fearlessly into the hall. The
next moment there came a scream and a heavy fall. The Whitmore
apartment was just at the head of the stairs, and almost the first step
of the blind woman had been off into space.
* * * * *
When Mrs. Whitmore regained consciousness she was alone in her own
Out in the sitting-room, Margaret, Katherine, and the doctor talked
together in low tones. At last the girls hurried into the kitchen, and
the doctor turned and entered the bedroom. With a low ejaculation he
Mrs. Whitmore flung out her arm and clutched his hand; then she lay
back on the pillow and closed her eyes.
“Doctor,” she whispered, “where am I?”
“At home, in your own bed.”
“Where is this place?”
Dr. Littlejohn paled. He sent an anxious glance toward the
sitting-room door, though he knew very well that Margaret and Katherine
were in the kitchen and could not hear.
“Where is this place?” begged the woman again.
“Why, it—it—is—” The man paused helplessly.
Five thin fingers tightened their clasp on his hand, and the low
voice again broke the silence.
“Doctor, did you ever know—did you ever hear that a fall could give
Dr. Littlejohn started and peered into the wan face lying back on
the pillow. Its impassiveness reassured him.
“Why, perhaps—once or twice,” he returned slowly, falling back into
his old position, “though rarely—very rarely.”
“But it has happened?”
“Yes, it has happened. There was a case recently in England. The
shock and blow released the pressure on the optic nerve; but—”
Something in the face he was watching brought him suddenly forward
in his chair. “My dear woman, you don't mean—you can't—”
He did not finish his sentence. Mrs. Whitmore opened her eyes and
met his gaze unflinchingly. Then she turned her head.
“Doctor,” she said, “that picture on the wall there at the foot of
the bed—it doesn't hang quite straight.”
“Mrs. Whitmore!” breathed the man incredulously, half rising from
“Hush! Not yet!” The woman's insistent hand had pulled him back.
“Why am I here? Where is this place?”
There was no answer.
“Doctor, you must tell me. I must know.”
Again the man hesitated. He noted the flushed cheeks and shaking
hands of the woman before him. It was true, she must know; and perhaps,
after all, it was best she should know through him. He drew a long
breath and plunged straight into the heart of the story.
Five minutes later a glad voice came from the doorway.
“Mother, dearest—then you're awake!” The doctor was conscious of a
low- breathed “Hush, don't tell her!” in his ears; then, to his
amazement, he saw the woman on the bed turn her head and hold out her
hand with the old groping uncertainty of the blind.
“Margaret! It is Margaret, isn't it?”
Days afterward, when the weary, painracked body of the little mother
was forever at rest, Margaret lifted her head from her lover's
shoulder, where she had been sobbing out her grief.
“Ned, I can't be thankful enough,” she cried, “that we kept it from
Mother to the end. It's my only comfort. She didn't know.”
“And I'm sure she would wish that thought to be a comfort to you,
dear,” said the doctor gently. “I am sure she would.”