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Millstones and Stumbling Blocks by Eliza Calvert Hall

 

“I do believe that's Margaret Williams!” exclaimed Mrs. Martin, thrusting aside the curtain and peering through the tangle of morning-glory vines that shaded her parlor window. She turned away and began arranging the chairs and straightening the table cover with the nervous haste of a fastidious housekeeper unprepared for company.

But there was no need for haste. The expected caller paused at the gate and seemed to be making a critical survey of the house and premises. Her air was that of a person examining a piece of property with a view to purchasing it. She walked slowly along the garden path, gazing up at the sloping roof and the dormer windows, and on the first step of the porch she paused and looked around at the tidy front yard, with its clumps of shrubbery, fine old trees, and beds of blossoming flowers. Within, Mrs. Martin was nervously awaiting her visitor's knock. She had taken off her kitchen apron and smoothed her hair down with her hands. But no knock was heard, for Mrs. Williams placidly continued her survey of the house and its surroundings, until the voice of her hostess interrupted her.

“Why, Mrs. Williams! Have you been standin' out here all this time? I must be losin' my hearin' when I can't hear a person knockin' at the door.”

“Nothin's the matter with your hearin',” responded Mrs. Williams, following her hostess into the shady parlor; “I hadn't knocked.”

She seated herself in a rocking-chair that suited her generous proportions and began looking at the inside of the house with the same business-like scrutiny she had given the outside.

“We're havin' some pleasant weather now,” said Mrs. Martin, by way of a conversational beginning.

“Mighty pleasant weather,” said Mrs. Williams, “but I came here this mornin' to talk about somethin' a good deal more important than the weather.”

Long acquaintance had never wholly accustomed Mrs. Martin to the straightforward bluntness that was known as “Sarah Williams' way", and a look of apprehension and faint alarm crossed her worn, delicate face.

“Oh! I hope there's nothin' wrong,” she said.

Apparently Mrs. Williams did not hear the gently uttered words. There was a look of stern determination on her face, and she drove straight on toward an objective point unknown to her listener.

“Do you know, Mrs. Martin,” she asked, “how long your Henry has been courtin' my Anna Belle?”

Mrs. Martin looked bewildered.

“Why, no,” she said, hesitatingly. “I don't believe I ever thought about it.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Williams with grave emphasis, “it's exactly one year and a month, come next Wednesday. I know, because the first time Henry ever come home from prayer-meetin' with Anna Belle was the day after I fell down the cellar stairs and broke my wrist, and I'm not likely to forget when that was. One year and one month! Now, of course, I know a certain amount of courtin' is all right and proper. It's just as necessary to court before you marry as it is to say grace before you eat; but suppose you sit down to the table and say your grace over and over again, till mealtime's past, and it's pretty near time for the next meal? Why, when you open your eyes and start to eat, everything 'll be cold, and most likely you won't have any appetite for cold victuals, and you'll conclude not to eat at all till the next meal comes round. And that's the way it is with these long courtin's. Folks' feelin's cool just like a meal does. Many a couple gets tired of each other after they're married, and there's such a thing as gettin' tired of each other before you're married.”

Mrs. Martin was listening with rapt intentness. The gift of fluent speech was not hers. She could only think and feel, but it was a delight to listen to one who knew how to express thoughts and feelings in language that went straight to the mark.

“I've always thought that way,” she said with gentle fervor, as her visitor paused for breath.

“Well,” continued Mrs. Williams, “I made up my mind some time ago that Henry and Anna Belle had been sayin' grace long enough, and it was time for them to marry, if they ever intended to marry. And I also made up my mind to find out what was the matter. Of course I couldn't ask Anna Belle why Henry didn't marry her. There's some things that no mother's got a right to speak of to her child, and this is one of 'em; and I couldn't say anything to Henry, for that would 'a' been a thousand times worse, but I says to myself: 'I've got a right to know what's the matter, and I'm goin' to know.'”

Mrs. Martin was leaning forward, listening breathlessly. There was a faint flush on her cheek, and her eyes were the eyes of a young girl who is reading the first pages of a romance. Her son's love affair had been the central point of interest in her life for a year past. But Henry was a taciturn youth, and her delicacy forbade questioning; so, in spite of the deep affection between the two, the rise and progress of her son's courtship was an unknown story to her. Two nights in every week Henry would take his way to the home of the girl he loved, and as she sat alone waiting for his return, and living over the days of her own courtship, she had felt a wistful, unresentful envy of Mrs. Williams because of her nearness to the lovers. The long wooing had been a mystery to her also, and now the mystery was about to be explained.

“I've wondered, myself, why they didn't marry,” she said hesitatingly.

Mrs. Williams hitched her chair nearer to her hostess.

“And what do you reckon I did?” she asked, dropping her voice to a husky whisper.

“I can't imagine,” responded Mrs. Martin, repressed excitement in her voice and face.

Mrs. Williams leaned forward, and her voice dropped a tone lower.

“It's somethin' I never thought I'd do,” she whispered, “and before I tell you, I want you to promise you'll never tell a soul.”

“Of course I won't,” said Mrs. Martin with gentle solemnity, and as she promised, her thoughts went back to that period of her schoolgirl life when every day brought its great secret, with that impressive oath: “I cross my heart and point my finger up to God.” She bent her head in a listening way toward her caller. But the telling of a secret was too delightful a task to be hastily dispatched, and having worked her audience up to the desired point of interest, Mrs. Williams was in no hurry to reach the climax of the story. She leaned back in her chair and resumed her natural tone of voice.

“The way I happened to think there was somethin' wrong,” she continued, “was this: Anna Belle had been doin' a good deal of sewin' and embroiderin' ever since Henry begun to keep company with her, and, all of a sudden, she stopped work and put everything away in the bottom bureau drawer. Well, that set me to thinkin'. If she'd put the things in the top bureau drawer, I wouldn't have noticed it, for the top drawer is the place where you keep the things you expect to finish and the things you're usin' now. But when you fold a thing up and put it in the bottom drawer, it means you haven't any use for it right now, and you don't intend to finish it for some time to come. At first I thought that maybe Henry and Anna Belle had had a fallin' out. But the next Wednesday night here comes Henry just as usual, and he's never stopped comin'; but still Anna Belle never took her things out of the bottom drawer; and the other day I happened to pass by her room, and the door was halfway open, and I saw her kneelin' down by the drawer, lookin' at the things and smoothin' them down. I couldn't see her face, but I know just how she looked as well as if I'd been in front of her instead of behind her.”

Mrs. Martin gave a sympathetic murmur, wholly unheard by Mrs. Williams, who went blithely on with her narrative.

“When your Henry comes to see my Anna Belle, Mrs. Martin, I always make it a point to go as far away from 'em as possible, for courtin' can't be rightly done if there's folks lookin' and listenin' around. So in the winter time I have a fire in my room the nights Henry comes, and sit there, and in summer I generally go out on the back porch and let Henry and Anna Belle have the front porch, and I can truthfully say that I never interfered with Henry's courtin'. But, as I said a while ago, I made up my mind to find out what was the matter. Well, the next time Henry come, they sat out on the front porch, and I was on the back porch as usual. But I had to go into the front room once or twice after somethin' I left there, and it was so dark in the hall, I had to grope my way across right slow, and I heard Anna Belle say: 'I'm all mother has in the world,' and Henry said somethin' I couldn't hear, but I reckon he said that he was all his mother had, and Anna Belle says: 'It wouldn't be right and I never could be happy, thinkin' of your mother and my mother all alone.' Well, by that time I was in the front room and got what I went for and started back; and, as I said, the hall was dark and I had to go slow, and I dropped my pocket handkerchief, and when I stopped to pick it up, I couldn't help hearin' what Anna Belle and Henry was talkin' about.”

She leaned comfortably back in her chair and chuckled heartily as she recalled the scene.

“I reckon I might as well own up that I didn't hurry myself pickin' up that handkerchief and gettin' out o' the hall. I know eavesdroppin' is a disgraceful thing, and this is a plain case of eavesdroppin', but I trust you never to tell this to anybody as long as you live.”

“You can trust me,” said Mrs. Martin firmly. “I never broke a promise in my life.”

“Well,” resumed Mrs. Williams, “as I was savin', I stood there in the hall pickin' up my pocket handkerchief, and I heard your Henry give a sigh,—I could hear it plain,—and says he: 'Well, Anna Belle, I suppose there's nothin' for us to do but wait,' and Anna Belle says: 'I'll wait for you, as long as you'll wait for me, Henry, and longer.' And then they stopped talkin' for awhile, and I knew exactly how they felt, sittin' there in the dark, lovin' each other and thinkin' about each other, and all their plans come to a dead stop, and nothin' ahead of 'em but waitin'. Now, what do you think of that, Mrs. Martin? They're waitin'. Waitin' for what? Why, for us to die, of course. They don't know it, and if we accused 'em of it, they'd deny it hard and fast, for they're good, dutiful children, and they love us. But we're stumblin'-blocks in their way, and they're waitin' for us to die.”

She paused dramatically to let her words have their full weight with the listener. Mrs. Martin was leaning forward, her delicate hands tightly clasped, and her face alight with intense feeling. The visitor's words were like great stones thrown into the placid waters of her mind, and in the turmoil of thought and emotion she found no word of reply. Nor was any needed. The situation was an enjoyable one for Mrs. Williams. The chair in which she sat was a springy rocker, the room was cool, her own voice sounded pleasantly through the quiet house, and the look on the face of her hostess was an inspiration to further speech.

“Now, I don't know how you feel about it, Mrs. Martin,” she continued, “but I never could do anything if somebody was standin' around waitin'. If I know there's anybody waitin' for dinner, I'll burn myself and drop the saucepans and scorch every thing I'm cookin'. If I'm puttin' the last stitches in a dress, and Anna Belle's waitin' to put the dress on, I have to send her out of the room so I can manage my fingers and see to thread the needle. And if Anna Belle and Henry are waitin' for me to die, I verily believe I'll live forever.”

This declaration of possible immortality in the flesh was made with such vehemence that the speaker had to pause suddenly to recover breath, while Mrs. Martin sat expectant, awaiting the next passage in the romance.

“Mrs. Martin,” resumed Mrs. Williams solemnly, “if there's anything I do hate, it's a stumblin'-block. I've had stumblin'-blocks myself, people that got in my way and kept me from doin' what I wanted to do, and I always bore with them as patient as I could. But when it comes to bein' a stumblin'-block myself, I've got no manner of patience. If I'm in anybody's way, I'll take myself out as quick as I can, and if I can't get out of the way, I'll fix it so they can manage to walk around me, for I never was cut out to be a stumblin'-block.”

“Nor me,” said Mrs. Martin with tremulous haste, “especially when it's my own child I'm standin' in the way of. Why, I never dreamed that I was interfering with Henry's happiness. There ain't a thing on earth I wouldn't do for him—my only child.”

Mrs. Williams nodded approvingly. “I'm glad you feel that way,” she said warmly, “for this is a case where it takes two to do what has to be done. And that reminds me of somethin' I saw the other day: I was sittin' by the window, and here comes a big, lumberin' old wagon and two oxen drawin' it and an old man drivin'. They were crawlin' along right in the middle of the road, and just behind the wagon there was a young man and a pretty girl in a nice new buggy and a frisky young horse hitched to it, and the horse was prancin' and tryin' to get by the ox-team, but there wasn't room enough to pass on either side of the road.”

She paused and looked inquiringly at Mrs. Martin to see if the meaning of the allegory was plain to her. But Mrs. Martin's face expressed only perplexity and distress.

“Don't you see,” said Mrs. Williams persuasively, “that you and me are just like that old ox-team? There's happiness up the road for Henry and Anna Belle, but we're blockin' the way, and they can't get by us. Now, what are we goin' to do about it?”

This direct question was very disconcerting to gentle Mrs. Martin. A flush rose to her face, and she clasped and unclasped her hands in nervous embarrassment.

“Why—I'm sure—I don't know—I never thought about it,” she stammered.

The guest did not press the question. Instead, she settled herself more comfortably in her chair, waved her palm-leaf fan, and went calmly on with her monologue. Apparently Mrs. Williams was merely a fat, middle-aged woman making a morning call on a friend, but in reality she was an ambassador from the court of a monarch by whose power the world is said to go round, a diplomat in whose diplomacy the destinies of two human beings were involved. Her words had been carefully chosen before setting out on her envoy, and she was craftily following a line of thought leading up to a climax beyond which lay either victory or defeat. That climax was at hand, but she was not yet ready for it. There was some preliminary work to be done, a certain mental impression to be made on her hearer, before she dared “put it to the touch.”

“I don't know how it is with you, Mrs. Martin,” she continued, “but I'm not one of the kind that thinks children are made for the comfort and convenience of their parents. I've been hearin' sermons all my life about the duty of children to their parents, and I never heard one about the duty of parents to their children.” She broke off with a reminiscent laugh.

“That reminds me of my Uncle Nathan, and what he said to the preacher once. You know, Uncle Nathan wasn't a church member, and he had his own way of lookin' at religious matters and he was mighty free-spoken. Well, one day the preacher was makin' a pastoral call at Mother's, and he asked for a glass of water, and when Mother brought it to him and he'd drunk it, he set the glass down, and says he to Mother: 'Did you ever think, Sister Brown, how kind it is in the Lord to give us such a good and perfect gift as pure, fresh water?' Says he: 'We're not half grateful enough for these gifts of the Lord.' And Uncle Nathan says: 'Well, now, Parson, it never struck me that way.' Says he: 'God made us with a need for water, and if he gives us water, why, it's no more than he ought to do.' And that's the way it is with parents and children. We bring 'em into the world, and there's certain things they have to have, and if we give 'em those things, it's no more than we ought to do.”

“Of course not,” exclaimed Mrs. Martin warmly.

“Every child ought to have a chance for happiness,” said Mrs. Williams.

“Of course he ought,” said Mrs. Martin. It was uncertain to what conclusion the current of her visitor's remarks was carrying her, but Mrs. Williams' statements were so obviously true that dissent was impossible.

“And if you and me are standin' in the way of our children's happiness, we must get out of the way, mustn't we?” pursued Mrs. Williams.

“Indeed, we must,” said Mrs. Martin. There was a tremor in her voice, and in her heart a growing self-reproach that she should have to be reminded of her duty to her son.

“Well, as I said before,” remarked Mrs. Williams, “I'm not cut out to be a millstone or a stumblin'-block, and neither are you, and now somethin's got to be done.”

She paused. Mrs. Martin did not reply. There was a silence that threatened to become awkward. She cleared her throat and looked as nervous and confused as her hostess, then bravely resumed the charge.

“Of course they might live with one of us, but if they lived with me, you'd be jealous, and rightly so, too. And if they lived with you, I'd be jealous. And Anna Belle wouldn't be willin' to have me to live alone, and Henry wouldn't leave you alone; and then there's the mother-in-law question. Did you ever live with your mother-in-law, Mrs. Martin?”

Mrs. Martin hesitated a moment, “Yes, I did,” she said, as if confessing to a misdemeanor.

“Did you enjoy it?” questioned Mrs. Williams.

“No, I didn't,” replied Mrs. Martin with a decisive promptness that she rarely exhibited.

“Neither did I,” echoed Mrs. Williams. “There never was but one Ruth and Naomi, and they lived so long ago nobody knows whether they ever did live. I guess Henry and Anna Belle feel just as we do about mothers-in-law, and, as I said before, what are we goin' to do about it?”

Mrs. Martin's only reply was a look of bewilderment and distress. It was evident to Mrs. Williams that she would have to answer her own question, but she delayed, for there were still a few well considered diplomatic remarks that it might be well to use before the climax was brought on. “Now, I don't want you to answer me, Mrs. Martin. You couldn't be expected to answer that question on such short notice as this. Many's the night I've stayed awake till long after the clock struck twelve askin' myself what could be done about it, and the only thing I can think of is this.”

She paused. Mrs. Martin was listening eagerly. The time had come for the final charge.

“Don't you think, Mrs. Martin,”—there was an anxious, beseeching note in the speaker's voice,—“don't you think that you and me might manage to live together? Your house is big enough for two, and it's a double house, with a hall runnin' through the middle, so you can live on one side and me on the other. And if you'll let me come and live in one side of your house, I'll deed my house to Henry and Anna Belle, and they can get married with a clear conscience. You and me can be company for each other, and we've each got enough money to supply our wants; and I'll keep house on my side of the hall, and you'll keep house on your side, and there's no need of our ever fallin' out or interferin' with each other.”

There! the deed was done, and the doer of the deed, pale with consternation over her own daring, sat waiting a reply.

But no reply came. Apparently Mrs. Martin had not heard her words, for she was looking beyond her visitor with the dreamy gaze of one who sees, but not with the eye of flesh. Was she considering the question, or was her silence a rebuke to an officious meddler? Mrs. Williams' heart was beating as it used to beat on Friday afternoons when she stood up to read her composition before the school, and she tingled from head to foot with a flush of shame.

“I don't know what you think of me for makin' such a proposition to you,” she stammered. “You'll never know what it costs me to say what I've said, and I never could have said it, if it hadn't been for that nightgown put away in the bottom drawer, and the look in Anna Belle's eyes.”

Still Mrs. Martin did not speak. The piteous humiliation in her visitor's eyes deepened. She must make one more effort to break the ice of that cruel silence.

“It's not for myself; I hope you understand that. There's no reason why I should want to give up my home, but it's for Anna Belle. A mother'll do anything for her child, you know.”

Mrs. Martin's eyes were fixed gravely on her visitor's face.

“Yes, I do know,” she said, speaking with sudden resolution. “It's all as plain as day. I don't know what Henry will say, when he finds out that a stranger had to tell his mother what her duty was. I ought to have seen it long ago just as you did.” Her voice faltered, and there were tears in her eyes.

The embarrassment and distress on Mrs. Williams' face changed to joyful relief. She drew a quick breath and laid instant hold on her wonted power of speech.

“You're not to blame at all,” she consoled eagerly. “If Anna Belle was your child, you'd have seen it just as I did. A son's here and there and everywhere, but a daughter's right in the house with you, and you can read her heart like an open book. That's how I happened to know before you did. My goodness! Is that clock strikin' eleven?” She rose with an air of deep contrition, “Here I've taken up nearly all your mornin'. But then, what's a mornin's work by the side of your child's happiness?” On the threshold she paused and stood irresolute for a few seconds.

“I'm glad you think as I do,” she said slowly; “but somethin' tells me that you ought to have time to think it over. It's no light matter to take another woman under your roof and for a lifetime, too. So give yourself a chance to consider, and if you change your mind, we'll still be friends.”

The two were standing with clasped hands, and the majesty of motherhood looked forth from the eyes of each. Mrs. Martin shook her head. “I'm not likely to change my mind,” she said with gentle dignity. “I love my son as well as you love your daughter.”

These simple words seemed to both the conclusion of the whole matter, and they turned away from each other, forgetting the accustomed farewells.

Slowly and thoughtfully Mrs. Williams walked homeward. Her mission had been highly successful, but, instead of the elation of the victor, she felt only the strange depression that comes after we take our fate in our own hands, and make a decided move on the checkerboard of life. On her way to Mrs. Martin's she had felt sure that she was doing “the right thing”; but before she reached home, doubt and uncertainty possessed her mind. At her own gate she stopped, and resting her elbows on the top of one of the posts, she gazed at the place whose surrender meant happiness for her child. It was just a plain little cottage somewhat in need of a coat of paint, but the look in Margaret Williams' eyes was the look of a worshipper who stands before some long-sought shrine. She looked upward at the swaying branches of the elms and drew a quick breath as she thought of a day in early March—how long ago?—when his strong arms had wielded the pick and spade, and she, a girl like Anna Belle, stood by, holding the young trees and smiling at the thought of sitting under their shade when he and she were old. Youth was a reality then, and age a dream, but now it was the other way. Her eyes wandered over the little yard set thick with flowering shrubs and vines. Every one of them had its roots in her heart and in her memory, and a mist dimmed her eyes as she looked again at the house she had first entered when life and love were new.

“He built it for me,” she murmured, and then gave a guilty start as a clear young voice called out: “Why don't you come in, Mother?”

She passed her hand over her eyes and came smiling into the little hall where Anna Belle sat, turning down the hems of some coarse kitchen towels.

“Put up those towels,” she said with motherly severity; “that's no work for a young girl. Where's that nightgown you're embroiderin'? If you must work, work on that.”

The girl glanced up, and in her eyes was the look that for weeks had been like a dagger-thrust in Margaret Williams' heart.

“There's no hurry about getting that nightgown done,” she said quietly.

“No hurry about the towels either,” rejoined her mother. “However, it's so near mealtime there's no use beginnin' anything now. You can set the table, and I'll get a pick-up dinner for us. I stayed so long at Mrs. Martin's I can't cook much.”

At the mention of Henry's mother Anna Belle colored again. A question trembled on her lips, but she said nothing, and went about setting the table in a listless, absent-minded way.

Her mother was watching her furtively, and a pang went through her heart as she noticed how thin the girl's hands were, and how she trifled with the food on her plate.

“Pinin' away right before my eyes,” she thought. “I'm glad I went to see Mrs. Martin. I've done all I could, anyway.”

After the meal was over, Anna Belle, at her mother's second bidding, got out the embroidered gown and bent over the tracery of leaves and flowers. Mrs. Williams went up-stairs, presently returning with a long, narrow box of some dark wood.

“You've heard me speak of your Aunt Matilda,” she said, seating herself and folding her hands over the box. “Well, this box and the things in it belonged to her, and when she died, she willed it to you, because she hadn't any children of her own, and you were the only girl in the family. I've been intendin' for some time to give it to you, and there's no time like to-day.” She opened the box, took out a roll of shining silken tissue such as comes from the looms of the Orient, and threw its soft folds across her daughter's lap. Then from the scented darkness of the treasure box she drew out a bertha and sleeves of filmy lace and laid them on the silk.

“That lace cost a small fortune,” she observed. “Your Uncle Harvey was a merchant, and whenever he went to the East to buy his goods, he'd bring your Aunt Matilda a fine present. This lace was the last thing he ever brought her, and—poor thing!—she didn't live to wear it.”

Anna Belle had dropped her work on the floor and was fingering the lace and silk in a rapture of admiration.

“O Mother,” she breathed, “I never saw anything so beautiful! Is it really mine?”

She shook out the folds of silk, gathered them in her hands, and held them off to note their graceful fall. She laid the bertha across her shoulders and ran to a mirror, laughing at the effect of the costly lace over the striped gingham; she pushed the sleeves of her dress up to her elbows and slipped the lace sleeves over her bare, slender arms. Her eyes gleamed with excitement, her lips were parted in a smile of happy girlhood, and the mother, watching with quiet satisfaction, read the thought in the girl's heart.

“Be careful, Anna Belle,” she warned, “you'll wrinkle the goods. Here, fold it this way and lay it smooth in your trunk. You may not need it now, but some day it will come in handy.”

Anna Belle held the silk and lace on her outstretched hands and carried it up-stairs as tenderly as she would have carried a newborn babe. She lingered in her room a long time and came down silent and dreamy-eyed. All the afternoon she embroidered leaf and flower on the linen gown, while in imagination she was fashioning a wedding robe of silk and lace and beholding herself a bride. When the clock struck five, Mrs. Williams rose hurriedly from her chair and gathered up the lapful of mending.

“Go up-stairs, Anna Belle,” she commanded, “and put on your blue muslin.”

Anna Belle looked surprised. “Is any company coming?” she asked.

“What if there isn't?” replied her mother. “Don't you suppose I like to see you lookin' nice?” She walked out to the kitchen and began preparing the evening meal. All the afternoon a strange nervousness had been growing on her. She was beginning to understand the momentousness of her morning interview with Mrs. Martin, and she saw herself as one who has risked all on a single throw. She had laid bare to Henry's mother the sacred desires of her own mother-heart and the yet more sacred desires of her daughter's maiden-heart. What if this humiliation should be to no purpose? Or, worse still, suppose she had misinterpreted the fragments of conversation that she had overheard. Suppose Henry's visits were after all only friendly ones? Her hands trembled, and her whole body was in a hot flush of fear and apprehension. She glanced at the kitchen clock.

“It won't be long till I know,” she murmured. “If Henry's mother falls in with my plans, Henry'll come to see Anna Belle to-night.”

She tried to reassure herself by recalling all that gentle Mrs. Martin had said, but as the moments passed, her apprehension grew, and when she tried to eat, the food almost choked her.

As soon as the dishes were washed, Anna Belle stole out to the front porch. She did not expect her lover to-night, but at least she could sit in the gathering dusk, thinking of Henry and of that wonderful wedding gown. Meanwhile Mrs. Williams was up-stairs, leaning from her bedroom window, listening for Henry's step and peering anxiously in the direction from which Henry must come. How slow the minutes were! The kitchen clock struck seven. Half-past seven was Henry's usual hour, but surely to-night he would come earlier. Ten minutes passed. She heard footsteps up the street, and her heart began to beat like a girl's. Nearer the footsteps sounded. Could that quick, firm tread be Henry's? Henry was usually rather slow of speech and movement. A hand was on the latch of the gate. She heard Anna Belle's exclamation of surprise and pleasure, then Henry's laugh and Henry's voice.

In the love affairs of her daughter, every mother finds a resurrection of her own youthful romance, no matter how long it may have been buried; and as the young man's tones, low, earnest and charged with a lover's joy, rose on the summer air, Anna Belle's mother turned away from the window, and covering her face with her hands, tried to beat back a tide of emotions that have no place in the heart of middle age. The moments passed uncounted now, and twilight had faded into night before she heard Anna Belle's voice calling from below:

“Mother! Where are you, Mother? Come right down. Henry wants to see you;” and like one who walks in her sleep she obeyed the summons.

They stood before her, hand in hand, smiling, breathless, encircled by the aura of love's young dream; but there was a far-away look in Margaret Williams' eyes, as she looked at their radiant faces. How many years was it since she and Anna Belle's father had stood before her mother! And now that mother's name was carved on a graveyard stone, and she was in her mother's place with a mother's blessing in her hands for young lovers.

Anna Belle was looking up at Henry, waiting for him to put into words the gratitude and happiness that filled their hearts. But the gift of the ready tongue was not Henry's. How could a man find words to thank a mother for giving him her daughter? How poor and mean were all the customary phrases of appreciation to be offered for such a gift! But while he hesitated, his eyes met the eyes of Anna Belle's mother, and with a quick impulse of the heart, his tongue was loosed to the utterance of one word that made all other words superfluous.

“Mother!” he said; and as their hands met, Anna Belle's arms were around her neck, and Anna Belle's voice was whispering in her ear: “You are the very best mother in all the world.” Yet in that moment of supreme happiness for the lovers, Margaret Williams realized what she was giving up, and tasted the bitterness and the sweetness of the cup of self-abnegation that her own hands had prepared. The hot tears of anguish smarted in her eyes. But the tears did not fall, and the emotion passed as swiftly as it had come. She straightened herself in her chair and pushed Anna Belle gently away.

“It seems to me we're makin' a great fuss over a mighty little matter,” she said carelessly. “I'd have been a poor sort o' mother to stand in the way of my own child's happiness, and it wouldn't suit me at all to be a millstone or a stumblin'-block. That's all there is to it. Now, go out on the front porch, you two, and set your weddin' day.”

       * * * * *

It was the afternoon of the wedding day, and the two mothers were sitting on the porch of their joint home, both in festal attire, and both in the state of pleasurable excitement that follows any great change, and that precludes an immediate return to the commonplace routine of daily life.

“I might just as well be sewin' or mendin',” said Mrs. Williams, “but it seems like Sunday or Christmas day, and I don't feel like settlin' down to anything.”

“There's nothing like a weddin' for makin' you feel unsettled,” said Mrs. Martin, as she smoothed down her black silk dress. “It'll be a long time before we get over this day.”

“It was a pretty weddin', wasn't it?” said Mrs. Williams, “And I never saw a happier lookin' couple than Anna Belle and Henry. Most brides and grooms look more like scared rabbits than anything else, but Anna Belle and Henry were so happy they actually forgot to be scared. I reckon they think that married life's a smooth, straight road with flowers on both sides, just like that garden path. You and me have been over it, and we know better.”

“They'll have their trials,” smiled Mrs. Martin, “but if they love each other, they can stand whatever comes.”

“Yes,” agreed Mrs. Williams, “love's like a rubber tire; it softens the jolts and carries you easy over the rough places in the road.”

“Henry was the image of his father,” said Mrs. Martin dreamily.

“I couldn't help thinkin' of myself when I looked at Anna Belle,” said Mrs. Williams. “You may not believe it, but I was as slim as Anna Belle, when I was her age.”

“I wish their fathers could have seen them,” sighed Mrs. Martin.

Mrs. Williams leaned toward her companion. “Maybe they did,” she said in a half whisper. “I'm no believer in table-walkin' and such as that, but many a time I've felt the dead just as near me as you are, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Henry's father and Anna Belle's father were at the weddin'.”

“Every weddin' makes you think of your own weddin',” said Mrs. Martin timidly.

“So it does,” assured Mrs. Williams, “and I was married just such a day as this. We'd set the fifteenth of May for our weddin', but Aunt Martha McDavid said May was an unlucky month, and so we changed it to the first of June.”

“I was married in the fall,” said Mrs. Martin placidly. “I remember one of my dresses was a plaid silk, green and brown and yellow, and the first time I put it on, Henry's father went out in the yard and pulled some leaves off the sugar maples, and laid 'em on my lap, and said they matched the colors of my dress. I pressed the leaves, and they're in my Bible to this day.”

“I had a dark blue silk with a black satin stripe runnin' through it,” confided Mrs. Williams, “and after I got through wearin' it, I lined a quilt with it, and it's on Anna Belle's bed now.”

The two women were rocking gently to and fro; both were smiling faintly, and there was a retrospective look in their eyes. Memory, like a questing dove, was flying between the past and the present, bringing back now a leaf and now a flower plucked from the shores of old romance, and they were no longer the middle-aged mothers of married children, but young brides with life before them; and as they talked, more to themselves than to each other, with long intervals of silence, the afternoon waned, the sun was low, and the little garden lay in shadow.

“What a long day this has been!” exclaimed Mrs. Williams, rousing herself from a reverie. “Why, it seems to me I've lived a hundred years since I got up this mornin'.”

“I'd better see about makin' the fire and gettin' a cup of tea,” said Mrs. Martin. “I can tell by the shadow of that maple tree, that it's near supper time.” Then hesitatingly, as if it were a doubtful point of etiquette, “It looks like foolishness to have two fires. Mine's already laid; suppose you eat supper with me to-night.”

“I'll be glad to,” responded Mrs. Williams heartily, “for I haven't half got my things in order yet.” She followed Mrs. Martin to the kitchen, and together they set the table and waited for the kettle to boil. Mrs. Martin was pleased to find that Mrs. Williams preferred black tea to green, and while she was slicing the bread, Mrs. Williams disappeared for a moment, returning with something wrapped in a napkin. She unfolded it, disclosing huge slices of wedding cake, white cake, golden cake, and spice cake dark and fragrant.

“There!” she said complacently. “You and me were too flustered to eat much at the weddin', but maybe we'll enjoy a piece of this cake now.”

Silently and abstractedly the two women ate the simple meal. Now and then Mrs. Martin looked across the table at the vacant place where Henry had always sat, and as Mrs. Williams ate wedding cake, her thoughts were with the daughter whose face for twenty years had smiled at her across the little square leaf-table in the old home; also, she had a queer, uneasy feeling, as if she had spent the afternoon with her friend and should have gone home before supper. After the dishes were washed, they seated themselves again on the cool, shadowy porch. Both were feeling the depression that follows an emotional strain; besides, it was night, the time when the heart throws off the smothering cares of the day and cries aloud for its own. It was Mrs. Williams who finally broke the silence.

“While I think of it,” she said, dropping her voice to a confidential whisper, “I want to tell you what I heard Job Andrews and Sam Moreman say when they brought my trunk in this mornin'. They didn't know I could hear 'em, and they were laughin' and whisperin' as they set the trunk down on the porch, and Job says: 'Some of these days these two women are goin' to have a rippet that you can hear from one end of this town to the other,' and Sam says: 'Yes, they'll be dissolvin' partnership in less than two months.'”

“Did you ever!” ejaculated Mrs. Martin.

“I thought once I'd go out and say somethin' to 'em,” pursued Mrs. Williams, “but I didn't. I just shut my mouth tight, and I made a solemn resolution right there that there'd never be any rippet if I could help it, and if there was any, I'd take care that those men never heard of it, There's nothin' in the world men enjoy so much as seein' women fall out and quarrel, and I don't intend to furnish 'em with that sort o' pleasure.”

“Nor I,” said Mrs. Martin warmly. “I don't see why two women can't live in peace under the same roof. For my part, quarrelin' comes hard with me. It's not Christian, and it's not ladylike.”

“Well, if I felt inclined to quarrel,” said Mrs. Williams, “the thought of Sam and Job would be enough to keep me from it, and if that's not enough, there's the thought of Anna Belle and Henry. They can't be happy unless we get along well together, and we mustn't do anything to spoil their happiness.”

Mrs. Martin made an assenting murmur, and another silence fell between them, Both were conscious of the strangeness of their new relation. To Mrs. Martin it seemed that Mrs. Williams was her guest, and she was vaguely wondering if it would be polite to suggest that it was time to go to bed. Mrs. Williams rocked to and fro, and the squeak of the old chair mingled with the shrill notes of the crickets. Presently she stopped rocking and heaved a deep sigh.

“It's curious,” she said, “how grown folks never get over bein' children. When I was a little girl I used to go out to the country to visit my Aunt Mary Meadows. I'd get along all right durin' the day, but when night come, and the frogs and the katydids begun to holler, I'd think about home and wish I was there; and when Aunt Mary put me to bed and carried the light away, I'd bury my face in the pillow and cry myself to sleep. And just now, when I heard that katydid up yonder in the old locust tree, I felt just like I used to feel at Aunt Mary's.”

Her voice quivered on the last word, but once more she laughed bravely. A flash of comprehension crossed Mary Martin's brain. She leaned over and laid her hand on the other woman's arm.

“You're homesick,” she said, with a note of deep sympathy in her voice. “All day I've been thinkin' about it, and I've come to the conclusion that you've got the hardest part of this matter. Henry and Anna Belle owe more to you than they do to me. We've both given up a child, but you've given up your home, too, and that's a hard thing to do at your time of life.” At her time of life! The words were like a spur to a jaded horse. Mrs. Williams straightened her shoulders, raised her head, and laughed again.

“Shuh!” she said carelessly, “changin' your house ain't any more than changin' your dress. I ain't so far gone in years yet that I have to stick in the same old place to keep from dyin'. But I reckon I'm like that spring branch that used to run through the field back of Father's house. It was always overflowin' and ruinin' a part o' the crop, and one fall Father went to work and turned it out of its course into a rocky old pasture where it couldn't do any harm. I was just a little child, but I remember how sorry I felt for that little stream runnin' along between the new banks, and I used to wonder if it wasn't homesick for the old course, and if it didn't miss the purple flags and the willers and cat-tails that used to grow alongside of it; but just let me get a good night's rest and my things all straightened out, and I'll soon get used to the new banks and be as much at home as you are.”

She rose heavily from her chair. “I believe I'll go to bed now,” she said briskly. “Movin' 's no light work, and we're both tired.”

“If you should get sick in the night or need anything,” said Mrs. Martin, following her into the house, “don't fail to call me.”

“I'm goin' to sleep the minute my head hits the pillow and sleep till it's time to get up,” replied Mrs. Williams, “and you do the same. Good night!”

She closed the door and stood for a few seconds in the darkness. Then she groped her way to the table and lighted her lamp. Its cheerful radiance flooded every part of the little room, and showed each familiar piece of furniture in its new surroundings. Yes, there was the high chest of drawers that Grandfather Means had made from the wood of a cherry tree on the old home place; there was the colonial sewing-table, and the splint-bottomed rocker, the old bookcase, and all the rest of the belongings that she cherished because they belonged to “the family.” But how strange her brass candlesticks looked on that mantel! It was not her mantel, and the wall-paper was not hers. Her wall-paper was gray with purple lilacs all over it, and this was pink and green and white! And the windows and doors were not in their right places. Ah! the hold of Place and Custom! The memories and associations of a lifetime twined themselves around her heart closer and closer, and the hand of Change seemed to be tearing at every root and tendril. Pale and trembling she sank into a chair, and the same tears she had shed sixty years ago, the tears of a homesick child, fell over her wrinkled cheeks, while in her brain one thought repeated itself with a terrifying emphasis: “I can't get used to it. I can't get used to it.

But the sound of her own sobs put a stop to her grief. She brushed the tears away with the back of her hand and glanced toward the door. The other woman across the hall must not know her weakness. She rose, walked forlornly to a side window, and parting the curtains, looked fearfully out. Why, where was the lilac bush and the Lombardy poplar and the box-wood hedge? Again the hand tore at her heart; she peered bewilderedly into the night. Alas! the stream turned from its course cannot at once forget the old channel and the old banks. Again the tears came, but as she wiped them away, a fresh wind arose, parting the light clouds that lay in the western sky and showing a crescent moon and near it the evening star. Like a message from heaven came a memory that dried her tears and swept away the homesick longing. Twenty-five years ago she had looked at the new moon on her wedding night, and this was Anna Belle's wedding night—her daughter's wedding night! Fairer than moon or star, the face of the young bride seemed to look into hers; she felt the girl's clinging arms around her neck and heard the fervent whisper: “You are the very best mother in the whole wide world.

She lifted her eyes once more, not to the moon or the star, but to Something beyond them.

“O God!” she whispered brokenly, “it's harder than I thought it would be; but for my child's sake I can stand it, and anyway, I'm glad I'm not a millstone or a stumblin'-block.”

 
 
 

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