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The Immediate Jewel by Margaret Deland

 

  “Good name, in man and woman, dear my lord,
   Is
the immediate jewel of their souls.”
                     —Othello.

I

When James Graham, carpenter, enlisted, it was with the assurance that if he lost his life his grateful country would provide for his widow. He did lose it, and Mrs. Graham received, in exchange for a husband and his small earnings, the sum of $12 a month. But when you own your own very little house, with a dooryard for chickens (and such stray dogs and cats as quarter themselves upon you), and enough grass for a cow, and a friendly neighbor to remember your potato-barrel, why, you can get along—somehow. In Lizzie Graham's case nobody knew just how, because she was not one of the confidential kind. But certainly there were days in winter when the house was chilly, and months when fresh meat was unknown, and years when a new dress was not thought of. This state of things is not remarkable, taken in connection with an income of $144 a year, and a New England village where people all do their own work, so that a woman has no chance to hire out.

All the same, Mrs. Graham was not an object of charity. Had she been that, she would have been promptly sent to the Poor Farm. No sentimental consideration of a grateful country would have moved Jonesville to philanthropy; it sent its paupers to the Poor Farm with prompt common sense.

When Jonesville's old school-teacher, Mr. Nathaniel May, came wandering back from the great world, quite penniless, almost blind, and with a faint mist across his pleasant mind, Jonesville saw nothing for him but the Poor Farm.... Nathaniel had been away from home for many years; rumors came back, occasionally, that he was going to make his fortune by some patent, and Jonesville said that if he did it would be a good thing for the town, for Nathaniel wasn't one to forget his friends. “He'll give us a library,” said Jonesville, grinning; “Nat was a great un for books.” However, Jonesville was still without its library, when, one August day, the stage dropped a gentle, forlorn figure at the door of Dyer's Hotel.

“I'm Nat May,” he said; “well, it's good to get home!”

He brought with him, as the sum of his possessions, a dilapidated leather hand-bag full of strange wheels and little reflectors, and small, scratched lenses; the poor clothes upon his back; and twenty-four cents in his pocket. He walked hesitatingly, with one hand outstretched to feel his way, for he was nearly blind; but he recognized old friends by their voices, and was full of simple joy at meeting them.

“I have a very wonderful invention,” he said, in his eager voice, his blind eyes wide and luminous; “and very valuable. But I have not been financially successful, so far. I shall be, of course. But in the city no one seemed willing to wait for payment for my board, so the authorities advised me to come home; and, in fact, assisted me to do so. But when I finish my invention, I shall have ample means.”

Jonesville, lounging on the porch of Dyer's Hotel, grinned, and said, “That's all right, Nat; you'll be a rich man one of these days!” And then it tapped its forehead significantly, and whispered, “Too bad!” and added (with ill-concealed pleasure at finding new misfortune to talk about) that the Selectmen had told Mr. Dean, the superintendent, that he could call at Dyer's Hotel—to which Nathaniel, peacefully and pennilessly, had drifted—and take him out to the Farm.

“Sam Dyer says he'll keep him till next week,” Mrs. Butterfield told Lizzie Graham; “but, course, he can't just let him set down at the hotel for the rest of his natural life. And Nat May would do it, you know.”

“I believe he would,” Lizzie Graham admitted; “he was always kind of simple that way, willin' to take and willin' to give. Don't you mind how he used to be always sharin' anything he had? James used to say Nat never knowed his own things belonged to him.”

“Folks like that don't never get rich,” Mrs. Butterfield said; “but there! you like 'em.”

The two women were walking down a stony hillside, each with a lard-pail full of blueberries. It was a hot August afternoon; a northwest wind, harsh and dry, tore fiercely across the scrub-pines and twinkling birches of the sun-baked pastures. Lizzie Graham held on to her sun-bonnet, and stopped in a scrap of shade under a meagre oak to get breath.

“My! I don't like wind,” she said, laughing.

“Let's set down a while,” Mrs. Butterfield suggested.

“I'd just as leaves,” Lizzie said, and took off her blue sunbonnet and fanned herself. She was a pretty woman still, though she was nearly fifty; her hair was russet red, and blew about her forehead in little curls; her eyes, brown like a brook in shady places, and kind. It was a mild face, but not weak. Below them the valley shimmered in the heat; the grass was hot and brittle underfoot; popples bent and twisted in a scorching wind, and a soft, dark glitter of movement ran through the pines on the opposite hillside.

“The Farm ain't got a mite of shade round it,” Lizzie said; “just sets there at the crossroads and bakes.”

“You was always great for trees,” Mrs. Butterfield said; “your house is too dark for my taste. If I was you, I'd cut down that biggest ellum.”

“Cut it down! Well, I suppose you'll laugh, but them trees are real kind o' friends. There! I knowed you'd laugh; but I wouldn't cut down a tree any more 'an I'd—I don't know what!”

“They do darken.”

“Some. But only in summer; and then you want 'em to. And the Poor Farm ain't got a scrap of shade!—I wonder if he feels it, bein' sent there?”

“I ain't seen, him, but Josh, told me he was terrible broke up over it. Told me he just set and wrung his hands when Hiram Wells told him he'd got to go. Josh said it was real pitiful. But what can you do? He's 'bout blind; and he ain't just right, either.”

“How ain't he just right?”

“Well, you know, Nathaniel was always one of the dreamin' kind; a real good man, but he wa'n't like folks.”

Lizzie nodded.

“And if you remember, he was all the time inventin' things. Well, now he's got set that he can invent a machine so as you can see the dead. I mean spirits. Well, of course he's crazy. Josh says he's crazy as a bluefish. But what's troublin' him now is that he can't finish his machine. He says that if he goes to the Farm, what with him bein' blindish and not able to do for himself, that his glasses and wheels—and dear knows what all that he's got for ghost-seein'—will get all smashed up. An' I guess he's 'bout right. They're terrible crowded, Mis' Dean says. Nat allows that if he could stay at Dyer's, or some place, a couple of months, where he could work, quiet, he'd make so much money that he'd pay his board ten times over. Crazy. But then, I can't help bein' sorry for him. Some folks don't mind the troubles of crazy folks, but I don't know why they ain't as hard to bear as sensible folks' troubles.”

“Harder maybe,” Lizzie said.

“Josh said he just set and wrung his hands together, and he says to Hiram Wells, he says, 'Gimme a month—and I'll finish it. For the sake,' he says, 'of the blessed dead.' Gave you goose-flesh, Josh said.”

“You can see that he believes in his machine.”

“Oh, he's just as sure as he's alive!”

“But why can't he finish it at the Farm? I guess Mis' Dean would give him a closet to keep it in.”

“Closet? Mercy! He's got it all spread out on a table in his room at the hotel. Them loafers go up and look at it, and bust right out laughin'. Josh says it's all little wheels and lookin'-glasses, and they got to be balanced just so. Mis' Dean ain't got a spot he could have for ten minutes at a time.”

They were silent for a few minutes, and then Lizzie Graham said: “Does he feel bad at bein' a pauper? The Mays was always respectable. Old Mis' May was real proud.”

Mrs. Butterfield ruminated: “Well, he don't like it, course. But he said (you know he's crazy)—'I am nothin',' he says, 'and my pride is less than nothin'. But for the sake of the poor Dead, grant me time,' he says. Ain't it pitiful? Almost makes you feel like lettin' him wait. But what's the use?”

Lizzie Graham nodded. “But there's people would pay money for one of them machines—if it worked.”

“That's what he said; he said he'd make a pile of money. But he didn't care about that, except then he could pay board to Dyer, if Dyer'd let him stay.”

“An' won't he?”

“No; and I don't see as he has any call to, any more 'an you or me.”

Lizzie Graham plucked at the dry grass at her side. “That's so. 'Tain't one person's chore more 'an another's. But—there! If this wa'n't Jonesville, I believe I'd let him stay with me till he finishes up his machine.”

“Why, Lizzie Graham!” cried Mrs. Butterfield, “what you talkin' about? You couldn't do it—you. You ain't got to spare, in the first place. And anyway, him an unmarried man, and you a widow woman! Besides, he'll never finish it.”

Lizzie's face reddened angrily. “Guess I could have a visitor as well as anybody.”

“Oh, I didn't mean you wouldn't be a good provider,” Mrs. Butterfield said, turning red herself. “I meant folks would talk.”

“Folks could find something better to talk about,” Lizzie said; “Jonesville is just nothin' but a nest o' real mean, lyin' gossip!”

“Well, that's so,” Mrs. Butterfield agreed, placidly.

Lizzie Graham put on her sunbonnet. “Better be gettin' along,” she said.

Mrs. Butterfield rose ponderously. “And they'd say you was a spiritualist, too; they'd say you took him to get his ghost-machine made.”

“That's just what I would do,” the other answered, sharply. “I ain't a mite of a spiritualist, and I don't believe in ghosts; but I believe in bein' kind.”

“I believe in keepin' a good name,” Mrs. Butterfield said, dryly.

They went on down the windy pasture slope in silence; the mullein candles blossomed shoulder-high, and from underfoot came the warm, aromatic scent of sweet-fern. Once they stopped for some more blueberries, with a desultory word about the heat; then they picked their way around juniper-bushes, and over great knees of granite, hot and slippery, and through low, sweet thickets of bay. At the foot of the hill the shadows were stretching across the road, and the wind was flagging.

“My, ain't the shade good?” Lizzie said, when they stopped under her great elm; “I couldn't bear to live where there wa'n't trees.”

“There's always shade on one side or another of the Poor Farm, anyway,” Mrs. Butterfield said, “'cept at noon. And then he could set indoors. It won't be anything so bad, Lizzie. Now don't you get to worryin' 'bout him;—I know you, Lizzie Graham!” she ended, her eyes twinkling.

Lizzie took off her sunbonnet again and fanned herself; she looked at her old neighbor anxiously.

“Say, now, Mis' Butterfield, honest: do you think folks would talk?”

“If you took Nat in and kep' him? Course they would! You know they would; you know this here town. And no wonder they'd talk. You're a nice-appearin' woman, Lizzie, yet. No; I ain't one to flatter; you be. And ain't he a man? and a likely man, too, for all he's crazy. Course they'd talk! Now, Lizzie, don't you get to figgerin' on this. It's just like you! How many cats have you got on your hands now? I bet you're feedin' that lame dog yet.”

Mrs. Graham laughed, but would not say.

“Nat will get along at the Farm real good, after he gets used to it,” Mrs. Butterfield went on, coaxingly; “Dean ain't hard. And Mis' Dean's many a time told me what a good table they set.”

“'Tain't the victuals that would trouble Nat May.”

“Well, Lizzie, now you promise me you won't think anything more about him visitin' you?” Mrs. Butterfield looked at her anxiously.

“I guess Jonesville knows me, after I've lived here all my life!” Lizzie said, evasively.

“Knows you?” Mrs. Butterfield said; “what's that got to do with it? You know Jonesville; that's more to the point.”

“It's a mean place!” Lizzie said, angrily.

“I'm not sayin' it ain't,” Mrs. Butterfield agreed. “Well, Lizzie, you're good, but you ain't real sensible,” she ended, affectionately.

Lizzie laughed, and swung her gate shut. She stood leaning on it a minute, looking after Mrs. Butterfield laboriously climbing the hill, until the road between its walls of rusty hazel-bushes and its fringe of joepye-weed and goldenrod turned to the left and the stout, kindly figure disappeared. The great elm moved softly overhead, and Lizzie glanced up through its branches, all hung with feathery twigs, at the deep August sky.

“Jonesville's never talked about me!” she said to herself, proudly. “I mayn't be wealthy, but I got a good name. Course it wouldn't do to take Nat; but my! ain't it a poor planet where you can't do a kind act?”

II

Nathaniel May sat in his darkness, brooding over his machine. Since it had been definitely arranged that he was to go to the Poor Farm, he did not care how soon he went; there was no need, he told Dyer, to keep him for the few days which had been promised.

“I had thought,” he said, patiently, “that some one would take me in and help me finish my machine—for the certain profit that I could promise them. But nobody seems to believe in me,” he ended.

“Oh, folks believe in you, all right, Mr. May,” Dyer told him; “but they don't believe in your machine. See?”

Nathaniel's face darkened. “Blind—blind!” he said.

“How did it come on you?” Dyer asked, sympathetically.

“I was not speaking of myself,” Nathaniel told him, hopelessly.

There was really no doubt that the poor, gentle mind had staggered under the weight of hope; but it was hardly more than a deepening of old vagueness, an intensity of absorbed thought upon unpractical things. The line between sanity and insanity is sometimes a very faint one; no one can quite dare to say just when it has been crossed. But this mild creature had crossed it somewhere in the beginning of his certainty that he was going to give the world the means of seeing the unseen. That this great gift should be flung into oblivion, all for the want, as he believed, of a little time, broke his poor heart. When Lizzie Graham came to see him, she found him sitting in his twilight, his elbows on his knees, his head in his long, thin hands. On one hollow cheek there was a glistening wet streak. He put up a forlornly trembling hand and wiped it away when he heard her voice.

“Yes; yes, I do recognize it, ma'am,” he said; “I can tell voices better than I used to be able to tell faces. You are Jim Graham's wife? Yes; yes, Lizzie Graham. Have you heard about me, Lizzie? I am not going to finish my machine. I am to be sent to the Farm.”

“Yes, I heard,” she said.

They were in the big, bare office of the hotel. The August sunshine lay dim upon the dingy window-panes; the walls, stained by years of smoke and grime, were hidden by yellowing advertisements of reapers and horse liniments; in the centre was a dirty iron stove. A poor, gaunt room, but a haven to Nathaniel May, awaiting the end of hope.

“I heard,” Lizzie Graham said; she leaned forward and stroked his hand. “But maybe you can finish it at the Farm, Nathaniel?”

“No,” he said, sadly; “no; I know what it's like at the Farm. There is no room there for anything but bodies. No time for anything but Death.”

“How long would it take you to put it together?” she asked; and Dyer, who was lounging across his counter, shook his head at her, warningly.

“There ain't nothin' to it, Mrs. Graham,” he said, under his breath; “he's—” He tapped his forehead significantly.

“Oh, man!” Nathaniel cried out, passionately, “you don't know what you say! Are the souls of the departed 'nothing'? I have it in my hand—right here in my hand, Lizzie Graham—to give the world the gift of sight. And they won't give me a crust of bread and a roof over my head till I can offer it to them!”

“Couldn't somebody put it together for you?” she asked, the tears in her eyes. “I would try, Nathaniel;—you could explain it to me; I could come and see you every day, and you could tell me.”

His face brightened into a smile. “No, kind woman. Only I can do it. I can't see very clearly, but there is a glimmer of light, enough to get it together. But it would take at least two months; at least two months. The doctor said the light would last, perhaps, three months. Then I shall be blind. But if I could give eyes to the blind world before I go into the dark, what matter? What matter, I say?” he cried, brokenly.

Lizzie was silent. Dyer shook his head, and tapped his forehead again; then he lounged out from behind his counter, and settled himself in one of the armchairs outside the office door.

Nathaniel dropped his head upon his breast, and sunk back into his dreams. The office was very still, except for two bluebottle flies butting against the ceiling and buzzing up and down the window-panes. A hot wind wandered in and flapped a mowing-machine poster on the wall; then dropped, and the room was still again, except that leaf shadows moved across the square of sunshine on the bare boards by the open door. When Lizzie got up to go, he did not hear her kind good-by until she repeated it, touching his shoulder with her friendly hand. Then he said, hastily, with a faint frown: “Good-by. Good-by.” And sank again into his daze of disappointment.

Lizzie wiped her eyes furtively before she went out upon the hotel porch; there Dyer, balancing comfortably on two legs of his chair, detained her with drawling gossip until Hiram Wells came up, and, lounging against a zinc-sheathed bar between two hitching-posts, added his opinion upon Nathaniel May's affairs.

“Well, Lizzie, seen any ghosts?” he began.

“I seen somebody that'll be a ghost pretty soon if you send him off to the Farm,” Lizzie said, sharply.

“Well,” Hiram said, “I don't see what's to be done—'less some nice, likely woman comes along and marries him.”

Dyer snickered. Lizzie turned very red, and started home down the elm-shaded street. When she reached her little gray house under its big tree, she went first into the cow-barn—a crumbling lean-to with a sagging roof—to see if a sick dog which had found shelter there was comfortable. It seemed to Lizzie that his bleared eyes should be washed; and she did this before she went through her kitchen into a shed-room where she slept. There she sat down in hurried and frowning preoccupation, resting her elbows on her knees and staring blankly at the braided mat on the floor. As she sat there her face reddened; and once she laughed, nervously. “An' me 'most fifty!” she said to herself....

The next morning she went to see Nathaniel again.

He was up-stairs in a little hot room under the sloping eaves. He was bending over, straining his poor eyes close to some small wheels and bands and reflectors arranged on a shaky table. He welcomed her eagerly, and with all the excitement of conviction plunged at once into an explanation of his principle. Then suddenly conviction broke into despair: “I am not to be allowed to finish it!” He gave a quick sob, like a child. He had forgotten Lizzie's presence.

“Nathaniel,” she said, and paused; then began again: “Nathaniel—”

“Who is here? Oh yes: Lizzie Graham. Kind woman; kind woman.”

“Nathaniel, you know I ain't got means; I'm real poor,—”

“Are you?” he said, with instant concern. “I am sorry. If I could help you—if I had anything of my own—or if they will let me finish my machine; then I shall have all the money I want, and I will help you; I will give you all you need. I will give to all who ask!” he said, joyfully; then again, abruptly: “But no; but no; I am not allowed to finish it.”

“Nathaniel, what I was going to say was—I am real poor. I got James's pension, and our house out on the upper road;—do you mind it—a mite of a house, with a big elm right by the gate? And woods on the other side of the road? Real shady and pleasant. And I got eight hens and a cow;—well, she'll come in in September, and I'll have real good milk all winter. Maybe this time I could raise the calf, if it's a heifer. Generally I sell it; but if you—well, it might pay to raise it, if—we—” Lizzie stammered with embarrassment.

Nathaniel had forgotten her again; his head had fallen forward on his breast, and he sighed heavily.

“You see, I am poor,” Lizzie said; “you wouldn't have comforts.”

Nathaniel was silent.

Lizzie laughed, nervously. “Well? Seems queer; but—will you?”

Nathaniel, waking from his troubled dream, said, patiently: “What did you say? I ask your pardon; I was not listening.”

“Why,” Lizzie said, her face very red, “I was just saying—if—if you didn't mind getting married, Nathaniel, you could come and live with me?”

“Married?” he said, vacantly. “To whom?”

“Me,” she said.

Nathaniel turned toward her in astonishment. “Married!” he repeated.

“If you lived with me, you could finish the machine; there's an attic over my house; I guess it's big enough. Only, we'd have to be married, I'm afraid. Jonesville is a mean place, Nathaniel. We'd have to be married. But you could finish the machine.”

He stood up, trembling, the tears suddenly running down his face. “Finish it?” he said, in a whisper. “Oh, you are not deceiving me? You would not deceive me?”

“I don't see why you couldn't finish it,” she told him, kindly. “But, Nathaniel, mind, I am poor. You wouldn't get as good victuals even as you would at the Farm. And you'd have to marry me, or folks would talk about me. But you could finish your machine.”

Nathaniel lifted his dim eyes to heaven.

III

“Well,” said Mrs. Butterfield, “I suppose you know your own business. But my goodness sakes alive!”

“I just thought I'd tell you,” Lizzie said.

“But, Lizzie Graham! you ain't got the means.”

“I can feed him.”

“There's his clothes; why, my land—”

“I told Hiram Wells that if the town would see to his clothes, I'd do the rest. They'd have to clothe him if he went to the Farm.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Butterfield, “I never in all my born days—Lizzie, now don't. My goodness,—I—I ain't got no words! Why, his victuals—”

“He ain't hearty. Sam Dyer told me he wa'n't hearty.”

“Well, then, Sam Dyer had better feed him, 'stid o' puttin' it onto you!”

Lizzie was silent. Then she said, with a short sigh, “Course if I could 'a' just taken him in an' kep' him—but you said folks would talk—”

“Well, I guess so. Course they'd talk—you know this place. You've always been well thought of in Jonesville, but that would 'a' been the end of you, far as bein' respectable goes.”

“Well, you can't say this ain't respectable.”

“No; I can't say it ain't respectable; but I can say it's the foolishest thing I ever heard of. An' wrong too; 'cause anything foolish is wrong.”

“Anything cruel is wrong,” Lizzie said, stubbornly.

“Well, you was crazy to think of havin' him visit you. But it don't follow, 'cause he can't be visitin' you, that you got to go marry him.”

“I got to do something,” Lizzie said, desperately; “I'd never have a minute's peace if he had to go to the Farm.”

“He'd be more comfortable there.”

“His stomach might be,” Lizzie admitted.

“Well, then!” Mrs. Butterfield declared, triumphantly. “Now you just let him go, Lizzie. You just be sensible.”

“I'm goin' to marry him. I'm goin' to take him round to Rev. Niles day after to-morrow; he said he'd marry us.”

Mrs. Butterfield gasped. “Well, if Rev. Niles does that!—There! You know he was a 'Piscopal; they'll do anything. What did he say when you told him?”

“Oh, nothin' much; I asked him about him visitin' me, an' he said it wa'n't just customary. Said it was better to get married. Said we must avoid the appearance of evil.”

“Well, I ain't sayin' he ain't right; but—” Then, in despair, she turned to ridicule: “Folks'll say you're marryin' him 'cause you expect he'll make money on his ghost-machine!”

“Well, you tell 'em I don't believe in ghosts. That'll settle that.”

“If folks knew you didn't believe in any hereafter, they'd say you was a wicked woman!” cried Mrs. Butterfield, angrily;—“an' that fool machine—”

“I never said I didn't believe in a hereafter. Course his machine ain't sense. That's what makes it so pitiful.”

“He'll never finish it.”

“Course he won't. That's why I'm takin' him.”

“Well, my sakes!” said Mrs. Butterfield, helplessly. And then, angrily again, “Course if you set out to go your own way, I suppose you don't expect no help from them as thinks you are all wrong?”

“I do not,” Lizzie said, steadily; and then a spark glinted in her leaf-brown eye: “Folks that have means, and yet would let that poor unfortunate be taken to the Farm—I wouldn't expect no help from 'em.”

“Well, Mis' Graham, you can't say I ain't warned you.”

“No, Mis' Butterfield, I can't,” Lizzie responded; and the two old friends parted stiffly.

The word that Lizzie Graham—“poor as Job's turkey!”—was going to marry Nathaniel May spread like grass fire through Jonesville. Mrs. Butterfield preserved a cold silence, for her distress was great. To hear people snicker and say that Lizzie Graham must be “dyin' anxious to get married”; that she must be “lottin' considerable on a good ghost-market”; that she “took a new way o' gettin' a hired man without payin' no wages,”—these things stung her sore heart into actual anger at the friend she loved. But she did not show it.

“Mis' Graham probably knows her own business,” she said, stiffly, to any one who spoke to her of the matter. Even to her own husband she was non-committal. Josh sat out by the kitchen door, tilting back against the gray-shingled side of the house, his hands in his pockets, his feet tucked under him on the rung of his chair. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and he had unbuttoned his baggy old waistcoat, for it was a hot night. Mrs. Butterfield was on the kitchen door-step. They could look across a patch of grass at the great barn, connected with the little house by a shed. Its doors were still open, and Josh could see the hay, put in that afternoon. The rick in the yard stood like a skeleton against the fading yellow of the sky; some fowls were roosting comfortably on the tongue. It was very peaceful; but Mrs. Butterfield's face was puckered with anxiety. “Yet I don't know as I can do anything about it,” she said, her foot tapping the stone step nervously; “she ain't got no call to be so foolish.”

“Well,” Josh said, removing his pipe from his lips and spitting thoughtfully, “seems Mis' Graham's bound to get some kind of a husband!” Then he chuckled, and thrust his pipe back under his long, shaven upper lip.

“Now look a-here, Josh Butterfield; you don't want to be talkin' that way,” his wife said, bitterly. “Bad enough to have folks that don't know no better pokin' fun at her; but I ain't a-goin' to have you do it.”

“Well, I was only just sayin'—”

“Well, don't you say it; that's all.”

Josh poked a gnarled thumb down into the bowl of his pipe, reflectively. “You ain't got a match about you, have you, Emmy?” he said, coaxingly.

Mrs. Butterfield rose and went into the kitchen to get the match; when she handed it to him, she said, sighing, “I'm just 'most sick over it.”

“You do seem consid'able shuck up,” Josh said, kindly.

“Well,—I know Lizzie's just doin' it out of pure goodness; but she'll 'most starve.”

“I don't see myself how she's calculatin' to run things,” Josh ruminated; “course Jim's pension wa'n't much, but it was somethin'. And without it—”

“Without it?—land! Is the government goin' to stop pensions? There! I never did like the President!”

“No; the government ain't goin' to stop it. Lizzie Graham's goin' to stop it.”

“What on airth you talkin' about?”

“Why, Emmy woman, don't ye know the United States government ain't no such fool as to go on payin' a woman for havin' a dead husband when she catches holt of a livin' one? Don't you know that?”

“Josh Butterfield!—you don't mean—”

“Why, that's true. Didn't you know that? Well, well! Why, a smart widow woman could get consid'able of a income by sendin' husbands to wars, if it wa'n't for that. Well, well; to think you didn't know that! Wonder if Lizzie does?”

“She don't!” Mrs. Butterfield said, excitedly; “course she don't. She's calculatin' on havin' that pension same as ever. Why, she can't marry Nat. Goodness! I guess I'll just step down and tell her. Lucky you told me to-night; to-morrow it would 'a' been too late!”

IV

Lizzie Graham was sitting in the dark on her door-step; a cat had curled up comfortably in her lap; her elm was faintly murmurous with a constant soft rustling and whispering of the lace of leaves around its great boughs. Now and then a tree-toad spoke, or from the pasture pond behind the house came the metallic twang of a bullfrog. But nothing else broke the deep stillness of the summer night. Lizzie's elbow was on her knee, her chin in her hand; she was listening to the peace, and thinking—not anxiously, but seriously. After all, it was a great undertaking: Nathaniel wasn't “hearty,” perhaps,—but when you don't average four eggs a day (for in November and December the hens do act like they are possessed!); when sometimes your cow will be dry; when your neighbor is mad and won't remember the potato-barrel—the outlook for one is not simple; for two it is sobering.

“But I can do it,” Lizzie said to herself, and set her lips hard together.

The gate clicked shut, and Mrs. Butterfield came in, running almost. “Look here, Lizzie Graham,—oh my! wait till I get my breath;— Lizzie, you can't do it. Because—” And then, panting, she explained. “So, you see, you just can't,” she repeated.

Lizzie said something under her breath, and stared with blank bewilderment at her informant.

“Maybe Josh don't know?”

“Maybe he does know,” retorted Mrs. Butterfield. “Goodness! makes me tremble to think if he hadn't told me to-night! Supposin' he hadn't let on about it till this time to-morrow?”

Lizzie put her hands over her face with an exclamation of dismay.

“Oh, well, there!” Mrs. Butterfield said, comfortably; “I don't believe Nat'll mind after he's been at the Farm a bit. Honest, I don't, Lizzie. How comes it you didn't know yourself?”

“I'm sure I don't know; it ain't on my certificate, anyhow. Maybe it's on the voucher; but I ain't read that since I first went to sign it. I just go every three months and draw my money, and think no more about it. Maybe—if they knew at Washington—”

“Sho! they couldn't make a difference for one; and it's just what Josh says—they ain't goin' to pay you for havin' a dead husband if you got a live one. Well, it wouldn't be sense, Lizzie.”

Lizzie shook her head. “Wait till I look at my paper—”

Mrs. Butterfield followed her into the house, and waited while she lighted a lamp and lifted a blue china vase off the shelf above the stove. “I keep it in here,” Lizzie said, shaking the paper out. Then, unfolding it on the kitchen table, the two women, the lamplight shining upon their excited faces, read the certificate together, aloud, with agitated voices:

“BUREAU OF PENSIONS

“It is hereby certified that in conformity with the laws of the United States—” and on through to the end.

“It don't say a word about not marryin' again,” Lizzie declared.

“Well, all the same, it's the law. Josh knows.”

Lizzie blew out the lamp, and they went back to the door-step. Mrs. Butterfield's hard feelings were all gone; her heart warmed to Nathaniel; warmed even to the mangy dog that limped out from the barn and curled up on Lizzie's skirt. But when she went away, “comfortable in her mind,” as she told her husband, Lizzie Graham still sat in the dark under her elm, trying to get her wits together.

“I know Josh is right,” she told herself; “he's a careful talker. I can't do it!” But she winced, and drew in her breath; poor Nathaniel!

She had seen him that afternoon, and had told him, this time with no embarrassment (for he was as simple as a child about it), that she had arranged with Mr. Niles to marry them. “An' you fetch your bag along, Nathaniel, and we'll put the machine together, evenin's,” she said.

“Yes, kind woman,” he answered, joyously. “Oh, what a weight you have taken from my soul!”

His half-blind eyes were luminous with belief. Lizzie had smiled, and shaken her head slightly, looking at the battered rubbish in the bag—the little, tarnished mirrors, one of them cracked; the two small lenses, scratched and dim; the handful of rusty cogs and wheels. With what passion he had dreamed that he would see that which it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive! He began to talk, eagerly, of his invention; but reasonably, it seemed to Lizzie. Indeed, except for the idea itself, there was nothing that betrayed the unbalanced mind. His gratitude, too, was sane enough; he had been planning how he could he useful to her, how he was to do this or that sort of work for her—at least until his eyes gave out, he said, cheerfully. “But by that time, kind woman, my invention will be perfected, and you shall have no need to consider ways and means.”

Lizzie, smiling, had left him to his joy, and gone back to sit under her elm in the twilight, and think soberly of the economies which a husband—such a husband—would necessitate.

And then Mrs. Butterfield had come panting up to the gate; and now—

“I don't see as I can tell him!” she thought, desperately. To go and say to Nathaniel, all eager and happy and full of hope as he was, “You must go to the Farm,”—would be like striking in the face some child that is holding out its arms to you. Lizzie twisted her hands together. “I just can't!” But, of course, she would have to. That was all there was to it. If she married him, why, there would be two to go to the Farm instead of one. Oh, why wouldn't they give her her pension if she married again! Her eyes smarted with tears; Nathaniel's pain seemed to her unendurable.

But all the same, the next morning, heavily, she set out to tell him.

At Dyer's, Jonesville had gathered to see the sight; and as she came up to the porch, there were nudgings and whisperings, and Hiram Wells, bolder than the rest, said, “Well, Mis' Graham, this is a fine day for a weddin'—”

Lizzie Graham, without turning her head, said, coldly, “There ain't goin' to be no weddin'.” Then she went on upstairs to Nathaniel's room.

The idlers on the porch looked at each other and guffawed. “I knowed Sam was foolin' us,” somebody said.

But Sam defended himself. “I tell you I wa'n't foolin'. You ask Rev. Niles; she told me only yesterday he said he'd tie the knot. I ain't foolin'. She's changed her mind, that's all.”

“Lookin' for a handsomer man,” Hiram suggested;—“chance for yourself, Sam!”

Lizzie, hot-cheeked, heard the laughter, and went on up-stairs. Nathaniel was sitting on the edge of his bed, his hat on, his poor coat buttoned to his chin; he was holding his precious bag, gripped in two nervous hands, on his knee. When he heard her step, he drew a deep breath.

“Oh, kind woman!” he said; “I'd begun to fear you were not coming.”

“I am—a little late,” Lizzie said. “I—I was detained.”

“It does not matter,” he said, cheerfully; “I have had much food for thought while awaiting you. I have been thinking that this wonderful invention will be really your gift to humanity, not mine. Had I gone to the Farm, it would never have been. Now—!” His voice broke for joy.

“Oh, well, I don't know 'bout that,” Lizzie said, nervously; “I guess you could 'a' done it anywheres.”

“No, no; it would have been impossible. And think, Lizzie Graham, what it will mean to the sorrowful world! See,” he explained, solemnly; “we poor creatures have not been able to conceive that of which we have had no experience; the unborn child cannot know the meaning of life. If the babe in the womb questioned, What is birth? what is living? could even its own mother tell it? Nay! So we, questioning: 'God, what is death? what is immortality?' Not even God can tell us. The unborn soul, carried in the womb of Time, has waited death to know the things of Eternity, just as the unborn babe waits birth to know the things of life. But now, now, is coming to the world the gift of sight!”

There was a pause; Lizzie Graham swallowed once, and set her lips; then she said, “I am afraid, Nathaniel, that I—I can't marry you—because—”

“Marry me?” he said, with a confused look.

“We were to get married to-day, you know, Nathaniel?”

“Oh yes,” he said.

“Yes; but—but I can't, Nathaniel.”

“Never mind,” he said. “Shall we go now, kind woman?” He rose, smiling, and stretched out one groping hand. Involuntarily she took it; then stood still, and tried to speak. He turned patiently towards her. “Must we wait longer?” he asked, gently.

“Oh, Nathaniel, I—I don't know what to say, but—”

A startled look came into his face. “Is anything the matter?”

Oh!” Lizzie said. “It just breaks my heart!”

His face turned suddenly gray; he sat down, trembling; the contents of his bag rattled, and something snapped—perhaps another mirror broke. He put one hand up to his head.

“It's that pension,” Lizzie said, brokenly; “if I get married, I lose it. An' we wouldn't have a cent to live on. You—you see how it is, Nathaniel?”

He began to whisper to himself, not listening to her. There was a long pause, broken by his strange whispering.

Lizzie Graham looked at him, and turned her eyes away, wincing with pain;—the tears were rolling slowly down his cheeks. She put her hand on his shoulder in a passion of pity; then, suddenly, fiercely, she gathered the poor bowed head against her soft breast. “I don't care! My name ain't worth as much as that! Let 'em talk. Nathaniel, are you willin' not to get married?”

But she had to speak twice before he heard her. Then he said, looking up at her out of his despair: “What? What did you say?”

“Nathaniel,” she explained, kneeling beside him and holding his hand against her bosom, “if you were to come and live with me, and we were not married—”

But he was not listening. A door opened down-stairs, and there was a noisy burst of laughter; then it closed, and the hot room was still.

“Emily Butterfield will stand my friend,” she said, her lips tightening. Then, gently: “We won't get married; Nathaniel. You will just come and visit me until—until the machine is finished.”

“You will let me come?” he said, with a gasp; “you will let me finish my invention?” He got up, trembling, clutching his bag, and holding out one hand to clasp hers.

Lizzie Graham took it, and stood stock-still for one hard moment....

Then she led him down-stairs, out upon the porch, past the loafers gaping and nudging each other.

“Goin' to be married, after all, Mis' Graham?” some one said.

And Lizzie Graham turned and faced them. “No,” she said, calmly.

Then they went out into the sunshine together.

 
 
 

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