Martha's Lady by Sarah Orne Jewett
One day, many years ago, the old Judge Pyne house wore an unwonted
look of gayety and youthfulness. The high-fenced green garden was
bright with June flowers. Under the elms in the large shady front yard
you might see some chairs placed near together, as they often used to
be when the family were all at home and life was going on gayly with
eager talk and pleasure-making; when the elder judge, the grandfather,
used to quote that great author, Dr. Johnson, and say to his girls, "Be
brisk, be splendid, and be public."
One of the chairs had a crimson silk shawl thrown carelessly over
its straight back, and a passer-by, who looked in through the latticed
gate between the tall gate-posts with their white urns, might think
that this piece of shining East Indian color was a huge red lily that
had suddenly bloomed against the syringa bush. There were certain
windows thrown wide open that were usually shut, and their curtains
were blowing free in the light wind of a summer afternoon; it looked as
if a large household had returned to the old house to fill the prim
best rooms and find them full of cheer.
It was evident to every one in town that Miss Harriet Pyne, to use
the village phrase, had company. She was the last of her family, and
was by no means old; but being the last, and wonted to live with people
much older than herself, she had formed all the habits of a serious
elderly person. Ladies of her age, something past thirty, often wore
discreet caps in those days, especially if they were married, but being
single, Miss Harriet clung to youth in this respect, making the one
concession of keeping her waving chestnut hair as smooth and stiffly
arranged as possible. She had been the dutiful companion of her father
and mother in their latest years, all her elder brothers and sisters
having married and gone, or died and gone, out of the old house. Now
that she was left alone it seemed quite the best thing frankly to
accept the fact of age, and to turn more resolutely than ever to the
companionship of duty and serious books. She was more serious and given
to routine than her elders themselves, as sometimes happened when the
daughters of New England gentlefolks were brought up wholly in the
society of their elders. At thirty-five she had more reluctance than
her mother to face an unforeseen occasion, certainly more than her
grandmother, who had preserved some cheerful inheritance of gayety and
worldliness from colonial times.
There was something about the look of the crimson silk shawl in the
front yard to make one suspect that the sober customs of the best house
in a quiet New England village were all being set at defiance, and once
when the mistress of the house came to stand in her own doorway, she
wore the pleased but somewhat apprehensive look of a guest. In these
days New England life held the necessity of much dignity and discretion
of behavior; there was the truest hospitality and good cheer in all
occasional festivities, but it was sometimes a self-conscious
hospitality, followed by an inexorable return to asceticism both of
diet and of behavior. Miss Harriet Pyne belonged to the very dullest
days of New England, those which perhaps held the most priggishness for
the learned professions, the most limited interpretation of the word
"evangelical," and the pettiest indifference to large things. The
outbreak of a desire for larger religious freedom caused at first a
most determined reaction toward formalism, especially in small and
quiet villages like Ashford, intently busy with their own concerns. It
was high time for a little leaven to begin its work, in this moment
when the great impulses of the war for liberty had died away and those
of the coming war for patriotism and a new freedom had hardly yet
The dull interior, the changed life of the old house, whose former
activities seemed to have fallen sound asleep, really typified these
larger conditions, and a little leaven had made its easily recognized
appearance in the shape of a light-hearted girl. She was Miss Harriet's
young Boston cousin, Helena Vernon, who, half-amused and half-impatient
at the unnecessary sober-mindedness of her hostess and of Ashford in
general, had set herself to the difficult task of gayety. Cousin
Harriet looked on at a succession of ingenious and, on the whole,
innocent attempts at pleasure, as she might have looked on at the
frolics of a kitten who easily substitutes a ball of yarn for the
uncertainties of a bird or a wind-blown leaf, and who may at any moment
ravel the fringe of a sacred curtain-tassel in preference to either.
Helena, with her mischievous appealing eyes, with her enchanting
old songs and her guitar, seemed the more delightful and even
reasonable because she was so kind to everybody, and because she was a
beauty. She had the gift of most charming manners. There was all the
unconscious lovely ease and grace that had come with the good breeding
of her city home, where many pleasant people came and went; she had no
fear, one had almost said no respect, of the individual, and she did
not need to think of herself. Cousin Harriet turned cold with
apprehension when she saw the minister coming in at the front gate, and
wondered in agony if Martha were properly attired to go to the door,
and would by any chance hear the knocker; it was Helena who, delighted
to have anything happen, ran to the door to welcome the Reverend Mr.
Crofton as if he were a congenial friend of her own age. She could
behave with more or less propriety during the stately first visit, and
even contrive to lighten it with modest mirth, and to extort the
confession that the guest had a tenor voice, though sadly out of
practice; but when the minister departed a little flattered, and hoping
that he had not expressed himself too strongly for a pastor upon the
poems of Emerson, and feeling the unusual stir of gallantry in his
proper heart, it was Helena who caught the honored hat of the late
Judge Pyne from its last resting-place in the hall, and holding it
securely in both hands, mimicked the minister's self-conscious
entrance. She copied his pompous and anxious expression in the dim
parlor in such delicious fashion that Miss Harriet, who could not
always extinguish a ready spark of the original sin of humor, laughed
"My dear!" she exclaimed severely the next moment, "I am ashamed of
your being so disrespectful!" and then laughed again, and took the
affecting old hat and carried it back to its place.
"I would not have had any one else see you for the world," she said
sorrowfully as she returned, feeling quite self-possessed again, to the
parlor doorway; but Helena still sat in the minister's chair, with her
small feet placed as his stiff boots had been, and a copy of his solemn
expression before they came to speaking of Emerson and of the guitar.
"I wish I had asked him if he would be so kind as to climb the
cherry-tree," said Helena, unbending a little at the discovery that her
cousin would consent to laugh no more. "There are all those ripe
cherries on the top branches. I can climb as high as he, but I can't
reach far enough from the last branch that will bear me. The minister
is so long and thin"--
"I don't know what Mr. Crofton would have thought of you; he is a
very serious young man," said cousin Harriet, still ashamed of her
laughter. "Martha will get the cherries for you, or one of the men. I
should not like to have Mr. Crofton think you were frivolous, a young
lady of your opportunities -- but Helena had escaped through the hall
and out at the garden door at the mention of Martha's name. Miss
Harriet Pyne sighed anxiously, and then smiled, in spite of her deep
convictions, as she shut the blinds and tried to make the house look
The front door might be shut, but the garden door at the other end
of the broad hall was wide open upon the large sunshiny garden, where
the last of the red and white peonies and the golden lilies, and the
first of the tall blue larkspurs lent their colors in generous fashion.
The straight box borders were all in fresh and shining green of their
new leaves, and there was a fragrance of the old garden's inmost life
and soul blowing from the honeysuckle blossoms on a long trellis. It
was now late in the afternoon' and the sun was low behind great
apple-trees at the garden's end, which threw their shadows over the
short turf of the bleaching-green. The cherry-trees stood at one side
in full sunshine, and Miss Harriet, who presently came to the garden
steps to watch like a hen at the water's edge, saw her cousin's pretty
figure in its white dress of India muslin hurrying across the grass.
She was accompanied by the tall, ungainly shape of Martha the new maid,
who, dull and indifferent to every one else, showed a surprising
willingness and allegiance to the young guest.
"Martha ought to be in the dining-room, already, slow as she is; it
wants but half an hour of tea-time," said Miss Harriet, as she turned
and went into the shaded house. It was Martha's duty to wait at table,
and there had been many trying scenes and defeated efforts toward her
education. Martha was certainly very clumsy, and she seemed the
clumsier because she had replaced her aunt, a most skillful person, who
had but lately married a thriving farm and its prosperous owner. It
must be confessed that Miss Harriet was a most bewildering instructor,
and that her pupil's brain was easily confused and prone to blunders.
The coming of Helena had been somewhat dreaded by reason of this
incompetent service, but the guest took no notice of frowns or futile
gestures at the first tea-table, except to establish friendly relations
with Martha on her own account by a reassuring smile. They were about
the same age, and next morning, before cousin Harriet came down, Helena
showed by a word and a quick touch the right way to do something that
had gone wrong and been impossible to understand the night before. A
moment later the anxious mistress came in without suspicion, but
Martha's eyes were as affectionate as a dog's, and there was a new look
of hopefulness on her face; this dreaded guest was a friend after all,
and not a foe come from proud Boston to confound her ignorance and
The two young creatures, mistress and maid, were hurrying across
"I can't reach the ripest cherries," explained Helena politely,
"and I think that Miss Pyne ought to send some to the minister. He has
just made us a call. Why Martha, you haven't been crying again!"
"Yes 'm," said Martha sadly. "Miss Pyne always loves to send
something to the minister," she acknowledged with interest, as if she
did not wish to be asked to explain these latest tears.
"We'll arrange some of the best cherries in a pretty dish. I'll
show you how, and you shall carry them over to the parsonage after
tea," said Helena cheerfully, and Martha accepted the embassy with
pleasure. Life was beginning to hold moments of something like delight
in the last few days.
"You'll spoil your pretty dress, Miss Helena," Martha gave shy
warning, and Miss Helena stood back and held up her skirts with unusual
care while the country girl, in her heavy blue checked gingham, began
to climb the cherry-tree like a boy.
Down came the scarlet fruit like bright rain into the green grass.
"Break some nice twigs with the cherries and leaves together; oh,
you're a duck, Martha!" and Martha, flushed with delight, and looking
far more like a thin and solemn blue heron, came rustling down to earth
again, and gathered the spoils into her clean apron.
That night at tea, during her hand-maiden's temporary absence, Miss
Harriet announced, as if by way of apology, that she thought Martha was
beginning to understand something about her work. "Her aunt was a
treasure, she never had to be told anything twice; but Martha has been
as clumsy as a calf," said the precise mistress of the house. "I have
been afraid sometimes that I never could teach her anything. I was
quite ashamed to have you come just now, and find me so unprepared to
entertain a visitor."
"Oh, Martha will learn fast enough because she cares so much," said
the visitor eagerly. "I think she is a dear good girl. I do hope that
she will never go away. I think she does things better every day,
cousin Harriet," added Helena pleadingly, with all her kind young
heart. The china-closet door was open a little way, and Martha heard
every word. From that moment, she not only knew what love was like, but
she knew love's dear ambitions. To have come from a stony hill-farm and
a bare small wooden house, was like a cave-dweller's coming to make a
permanent home in an art museum, such had seemed the elaborateness and
elegance of Miss Pyne's fashion of life; and Martha's simple brain was
slow enough in its processes and recognitions. But with this
sympathetic ally and defender, this exquisite Miss Helena who believed
in her, all difficulties appeared to vanish.
Later that evening, no longer homesick or hopeless, Martha returned
from her polite errand to the minister, and stood with a sort of
triumph before the two ladies, who were sitting in the front doorway,
as if they were waiting for visitors, Helena still in her white muslin
and red ribbons, and Miss Harriet in a thin black silk. Being happily
self-forgetful in the greatness of the moment, Martha's manners were
perfect, and she looked for once almost pretty and quite as young as
"The minister came to the door himself, and returned his thanks. He
said that cherries were always his favorite fruit, and he was much
obliged to both Miss Pyne and Miss Vernon. He kept me waiting a few
minutes, while he got this book ready to send to you, Miss Helena."
"What are you saying, Martha? I have sent him nothing!" exclaimed
Miss Pyne, much astonished. "What does she mean, Helena?"
"Only a few cherries," explained Helena. "I thought Mr. Crofton
would like them after his afternoon of parish calls. Martha and I
arranged them before tea, and I sent them with our compliments."
"Oh, I am very glad you did," said Miss Harriet, wondering, but
much relieved. "I was afraid"--
"No, it was none of my mischief," answered Helena daringly. "I did
not think that Martha would be ready to go so soon. I should have shown
you how pretty they looked among their green leaves. We put them in one
of your best white dishes with the openwork edge. Martha shall show you
to-morrow; mamma always likes to have them so." Helena's fingers were
busy with the hard knot of a parcel.
"See this, cousin Harriet!" she announced proudly, as Martha
disappeared round the corner of the house, beaming with the pleasures
of adventure and success. "Look! the minister has sent me a book:
Sermons on what? Sermons -- it is so dark that I can't quite see."
"It must be his 'Sermons on the Seriousness of Life;' they are the
only ones he has printed, I believe," said Miss Harriet, with much
pleasure. "They are considered very fine discourses. He pays you a
great compliment, my dear. I feared that he noticed your girlish
"I behaved beautifully while he stayed," insisted Helena.
"Ministers are only men," but she blushed with pleasure. It was
certainly something to receive a book from its author, and such a
tribute made her of more value to the whole reverent household. The
minister was not only a man, but a bachelor, and Helena was at the age
that best loves conquest; it was at any rate comfortable to be
reinstated in cousin Harriet's good graces.
"Do ask the kind gentleman to tea! He needs a little cheering up,"
begged the siren in India muslin, as she laid the shiny black volume of
sermons on the stone doorstep with an air of approval, but as if they
had quite finished their mission.
"Perhaps I shall, if Martha improves as much as she has within the
last day or two," Miss Harriet promised hopefully. "It is something I
always dread a little when I am all alone, but I think Mr. Crofton
likes to come. He converses so elegantly."
These were the days of long visits, before affectionate friends
thought it quite worth while to take a hundred miles' journey merely to
dine or to pass a night in one another's houses. Helena lingered
through the pleasant weeks of early summer, and departed unwillingly at
last to join her family at the White Hills, where they had gone, like
other households of high social station, to pass the month of August
out of town. The happy-hearted young guest left many lamenting friends
behind her, and promised each that she would come back again next year.
She left the minister a rejected lover, as well as the preceptor of the
academy, but with their pride unwounded, and it may have been with
wider outlooks upon the world and a less narrow sympathy both for their
own work in life and for their neighbors' work and hindrances. Even
Miss Harriet Pyne herself had lost some of the unnecessary
provincialism and prejudice which had begun to harden a naturally good
and open mind and affectionate heart. She was conscious of feeling
younger and more free, and not so lonely. Nobody had ever been so gay,
so fascinating, or so kind as Helena, so full of social resource, so
simple and undemanding in her friendliness. The light of her young life
cast no shadow on either young or old companions, her pretty clothes
never seemed to make other girls look dull or out of fashion. When she
went away up the street in Miss Harriet's carriage to take the slow
train toward Boston and the gayeties of the new Profile House, where
her mother waited impatiently with a group of Southern friends, it
seemed as if there would never be any more picnics or parties in
Ashford, and as if society had nothing left to do but to grow old and
get ready for winter.
Martha came into Miss Helena's bedroom that last morning, and it
was easy to see that she had been crying; she looked just as she did in
that first sad week of homesickness and despair. All for love's sake
she had been learning to do many things, and to do them exactly right;
her eyes had grown quick to see the smallest chance for personal
service. Nobody could be more humble and devoted; she looked years
older than Helena, and wore already a touching air of caretaking.
"You spoil me, you dear Martha!" said Helena from the bed. "I don't
know what they will say at home, I am so spoiled."
Martha went on opening the blinds to let in the brightness of the
summer morning, but she did not speak.
"You are getting on splendidly, aren't you?" continued the little
mistress. "You have tried so hard that you make me ashamed of myself.
At first you crammed all the flowers together, and now you make them
look beautiful. Last night cousin Harriet was so pleased when the table
was so charming, that I told her that you did everything yourself,
every bit. Won't you keep the flowers fresh and pretty in the house
until I come back? It's so much pleasanter for Miss Pyne, and you'll
feed my little sparrows, won't you? They're growing so tame."
"Oh, yes, Miss Helena!" and Martha looked almost angry for a
moment, then she burst into tears and covered her face with her apron.
"I couldn't understand a single thing when I first came. I never had
been anywhere to see anything, and Miss Pyne frightened me when she
talked. It was you made me think I could ever learn. I wanted to keep
the place, 'count of mother and the little boys; we're dreadful hard
pushed. Hepsy has been good in the kitchen; she said she ought to have
patience with me, for she was awkward herself when she first came."
Helena laughed; she looked so pretty under the tasseled white
"I dare say Hepsy tells the truth," she said. "I wish you had told
me about your mother. When I come again, some day we'll drive up
country, as you call it, to see her. Martha! I wish you would think of
me sometimes after I go away. Won't you promise?" and the bright young
face suddenly grew grave. "I have hard times myself; I don't always
learn things that I ought to learn, I don't always put things straight.
I wish you wouldn't forget me ever, and would just believe in me. I
think it does help more than anything."
"I won't forget," said Martha slowly. "I shall think of you every
day." She spoke almost with indifference, as if she had been asked to
dust a room, but she turned aside quickly and pulled the little mat
under the hot water jug quite out of its former straightness; then she
hastened away down the long white entry, weeping as she went.
To lose out of sight the friend whom one has loved and lived to
please is to lose joy out of life. But if love is true, there comes
presently a higher joy of pleasing the ideal, that is to say, the
perfect friend. The same old happiness is lifted to a higher level. As
for Martha, the girl who stayed behind in Ashford, nobody's life could
seem duller to those who could not understand; she was slow of step,
and her eyes were almost always downcast as if intent upon incessant
toil; but they startled you when she looked up, with their shining
light. She was capable of the happiness of holding fast to a great
sentiment, the ineffable satisfaction of trying to please one whom she
truly loved. She never thought of trying to make other people pleased
with herself; all she lived for was to do the best she could for
others, and to conform to an ideal, which grew at last to be like a
saint's vision, a heavenly figure painted upon the sky.
On Sunday afternoons in summer, Martha sat by the window of her
chamber, a low-storied little room, which looked into the side yard and
the great branches of an elm-tree. She never sat in the old wooden
rocking-chair except on Sundays like this; it belonged to the day of
rest and to happy meditation. She wore her plain black dress and a
clean white apron, and held in her lap a little wooden box, with a
brass ring on top for a handle. She was past sixty years of age and
looked even older, but there was the same look on her face that it had
sometimes worn in girlhood. She was the same Martha; her hands were
old-looking and work-worn, but her face still shone. It seemed like
yesterday that Helena Vernon had gone away, and it was more than forty
War and peace had brought their changes and great anxieties, the
face of the earth was furrowed by floods and fire, the faces of
mistress and maid were furrowed by smiles and tears, and in the sky the
stars shone on as if nothing had happened. The village of Ashford added
a few pages to its unexciting history, the minister preached, the
people listened; now and then a funeral crept along the street, and now
and then the bright face of a little child rose above the horizon of a
family pew. Miss Harriet Pyne lived on in the large white house, which
gained more and more distinction because it suffered no changes, save
successive repaintings and a new railing about its stately roof. Miss
Harriet herself had moved far beyond the uncertainties of an anxious
youth. She had long ago made all her decisions, and settled all
necessary questions; her scheme of life was as faultless as the
miniature landscape of a Japanese garden, and as easily kept in order.
The only important change she would ever be capable of making was the
final change to another and a better world; and for that nature itself
would gently provide, and her own innocent life.
Hardly any great social event had ruffled the easy current of life
since Helena Vernon's marriage. To this Miss Pyne had gone, stately in
appearance and carrying gifts of some old family silver which bore the
Vernon crest, but not without some protest in her heart against the
uncertainties of married life. Helena was so equal to a happy
independence and even to the assistance of other lives grown strangely
dependent upon her quick sympathies and instinctive decisions, that it
was hard to let her sink her personality in the affairs of another. Yet
a brilliant English match was not without its attractions to an
old-fashioned gentlewoman like Miss Pyne, and Helena herself was
amazingly happy; one day there had come a letter to Ashford, in which
her very heart seemed to beat with love and self-forgetfulness, to tell
cousin Harriet of such new happiness and high hope. "Tell Martha all
that I say about my dear Jack," wrote the eager girl; "please show my
letter to Martha, and tell her that I shall come home next summer and
bring the handsomest and best man in the world to Ashford. I have told
him all about the dear house and the dear garden; there never was such
a lad to reach for cherries with his six-foot-two." Miss Pyne,
wondering a little, gave the letter to Martha, who took it deliberately
and as if she wondered too, and went away to read it slowly by herself.
Martha cried over it, and felt a strange sense of loss and pain; it
hurt her heart a little to read about the cherry-picking. Her idol
seemed to be less her own since she had become the idol of a stranger.
She never had taken such a letter in her hands before, but love at last
prevailed, since Miss Helena was happy, and she kissed the last page
where her name was written, feeling overbold, and laid the envelope on
Miss Pyne's secretary without a word.
The most generous love cannot but long for reassurance, and Martha
had the joy of being remembered. She was not forgotten when the day of
the wedding drew near, but she never knew that Miss Helena had asked if
cousin Harriet would not bring Martha to town; she should like to have
Martha there to see her married. "She would help about the flowers,"
wrote the happy girl; "I know she will like to come, and I'll ask mamma
to plan to have some one take her all about Boston and make her have a
pleasant time after the hurry of the great day is over."
Cousin Harriet thought it was very kind and exactly like Helena,
but Martha would be out of her element; it was most imprudent and
girlish to have thought of such a thing. Helena's mother would be far
from wishing for any unnecessary guest just then, in the busiest part
of her household, and it was best not to speak of the invitation. Some
day Martha should go to Boston if she did well, but not now. Helena did
not forget to ask if Martha had come, and was astonished by the
indifference of the answer. It was the first thing which reminded her
that she was not a fairy princess having everything her own way in that
last day before the wedding. She knew that Martha would have loved to
be near, for she could not help understanding in that moment of her own
happiness the love that was hidden in another heart. Next day this
happy young princess, the bride, cut a piece of a great cake and put it
into a pretty box that had held one of her wedding presents. With eager
voices calling her, and all her friends about her, and her mother's
face growing more and more wistful at the thought of parting, she still
lingered and ran to take one or two trifles from her dressing-table, a
little mirror and some tiny scissors that Martha would remember, and
one of the pretty handkerchiefs marked with her maiden name. These she
put in the box too; it was half a girlish freak and fancy, but she
could not help trying to share her happiness, and Martha's life was so
plain and dull. She whispered a message, and put the little package
into cousin Harriet's hand for Martha as she said good-by. She was very
fond of cousin Harriet. She smiled with a gleam of her old fun;
Martha's puzzled look and tall awkward figure seemed to stand suddenly
before her eyes, as she promised to come again to Ashford. Impatient
voices called to Helena, her lover was at the door, and she hurried
away, leaving her old home and her girlhood gladly. If she had only
known it, as she kissed cousin Harriet good-by, they were never going
to see each other again until they were old women. The first step that
she took out of her father's house that day, married, and full of hope
and joy, was a step that led her away from the green elms of Boston
Common and away from her own country and those she loved best, to a
brilliant, much-varied foreign life, and to nearly all the sorrows and
nearly all the joys that the heart of one woman could hold or know.
On Sunday afternoons Martha used to sit by the window in Ashford
and hold the wooden box which a favorite young brother, who afterward
died at sea, had made for her, and she used to take out of it the
pretty little box with a gilded cover that had held the piece of
wedding-cake, and the small scissors, and the blurred bit of a mirror
in its silver case; as for the handkerchief with the narrow lace edge,
once in two or three years she sprinkled it as if it were a flower, and
spread it out in the sun on the old bleaching-green, and sat near by in
the shrubbery to watch lest some bold robin or cherry-bird should seize
it and fly away.
Miss Harriet Pyne was often congratulated upon the good fortune of
having such a helper and friend as Martha. As time went on this tall,
gaunt woman, always thin, always slow, gained a dignity of behavior and
simple affectionateness of look which suited the charm and dignity of
the ancient house She was unconsciously beautiful like a saint, like
the picturesqueness of a lonely tree which lives to shelter unnumbered
lives and to stand quietly in its place. There was such rustic
homeliness and constancy belonging to her, such beautiful powers of
apprehension, such reticence, such gentleness for those who were
troubled or sick; all these gifts and graces Martha hid in her heart.
She never joined the church because she thought she was not good
enough, but life was such a passion and happiness of service that it
was impossible not to be devout, and she was always in her humble place
on Sundays, in the back pew next the door. She had been educated by a
remembrance; Helena's young eyes forever looked at her reassuringly
from a gay girlish face. Helena's sweet patience in teaching her own
awkwardness could never be forgotten.
"I owe everything to Miss Helena," said Martha, half aloud, as she
sat alone by the window; she had said it to herself a thousand times.
When she looked in the little keepsake mirror she always hoped to see
some faint reflection of Helena Vernon, but there was only her own
brown old New England face to look back at her wonderingly.
Miss Pyne went less and less often to pay visits to her friends in
Boston; there were very few friends left to come to Ashford and make
long visits in the summer, and life grew more and more monotonous. Now
and then there came news from across the sea and messages of
remembrance, letters that were closely written on thin sheets of paper,
and that spoke of lords and ladies, of great journeys, of the death of
little children and the proud successes of boys at school, of the
wedding of Helena Dysart's only daughter; but even that had happened
years ago. These things seemed far away and vague, as if they belonged
to a story and not to life itself; the true links with the past were
quite different. There was the unvarying flock of ground-sparrows that
Helena had begun to feed; every morning Martha scattered crumbs for
them from the side doorsteps while Miss Pyne watched from the
dining-room window, and they were counted and cherished year by year.
Miss Pyne herself had many fixed habits, but little ideality or
imagination, and so at last it was Martha who took thought for her
mistress, and gave freedom to her own good taste. After a while,
without any one's observing the change, the every-day ways of doing
things in the house came to be the stately ways that had once belonged
only to the entertainment of guests. Happily both mistress and maid
seized all possible chances for hospitality, yet Miss Harriet nearly
always sat alone at her exquisitely served table with its fresh
flowers, and the beautiful old china which Martha handled so lovingly
that there was no good excuse for keeping it hidden on closet shelves.
Every year when the old cherry-trees were in fruit, Martha carried the
round white old English dish with a fretwork edge, full of pointed
green leaves and scarlet cherries, to the minister, and his wife never
quite understood why every year he blushed and looked so conscious of
the pleasure, and thanked Martha as if he had received a very
particular attention. There was no pretty suggestion toward the pursuit
of the fine art of housekeeping in Martha's limited acquaintance with
newspapers that she did not adopt; there was no refined old custom of
the Pyne housekeeping that she consented to let go. And every day, as
she had promised, she thought of Miss Helena, -- oh, many times in
every day: whether this thing would please her, or that be likely to
fall in with her fancy or ideas of fitness. As far as was possible the
rare news that reached Ashford through an occasional letter or the talk
of guests was made part of Martha's own life, the history of her own
heart. A worn old geography often stood open at the map of Europe on
the light-stand in her room, and a little old-fashioned gilt button,
set with a bit of glass like a ruby, that had broken and fallen from
the trimming of one of Helena's dresses, was used to mark the city of
her dwelling-place. In the changes of a diplomatic life Martha followed
her lady all about the map. Sometimes the button was at Paris, and
sometimes at Madrid; once, to her great anxiety, it remained long at
St. Petersburg. For such a slow scholar Martha was not unlearned at
last, since everything about life in these foreign towns was of
interest to her faithful heart. She satisfied her own mind as she threw
crumbs to the tame sparrows; it was all part of the same thing and for
the same affectionate reasons.
One Sunday afternoon in early summer Miss Harriet Pyne came
hurrying along the entry that led to Martha's room and called two or
three times before its inhabitant could reach the door. Miss Harriet
looked unusually cheerful and excited, and she held something in her
hand. "Where are you, Martha?" she called again. "Come quick, I have
something to tell you!"
"Here I am, Miss Pyne," said Martha, who had only stopped to put
her precious box in the drawer, and to shut the geography.
"Who do you think is coming this very night at half-past six? We
must have everything as nice as we can; I must see Hannah at once. Do
you remember my cousin Helena who has lived abroad so long? Miss Helena
Vernon,--the Honorable Mrs. Dysart, she is now."
"Yes, I remember her," answered Martha, turning a little pale.
"I knew that she was in this country, and I had written to ask her
to come for a long visit," continued Miss Harriet, who did not often
explain things, even to Martha, though she was always conscientious
about the kind messages that were sent back by grateful guests. "She
telegraphs that she means to anticipate her visit by a few days and
come to me at once. The heat is beginning in town, I suppose. I
daresay, having been a foreigner so long, she does not mind traveling
on Sunday. Do you think Hannah will be prepared? We must have tea a
"Yes, Miss Harriet," said Martha. She wondered that she could speak
as usual, there was such a ringing in her ears. "I shall have time to
pick some fresh strawberries; Miss Helena is so fond of our
"Why, I had forgotten," said Miss Pyne, a little puzzled by
something quite unusual in Martha's face. "We must expect to find Mrs.
Dysart a good deal changed, Martha; it is a great many years since she
was here; I have not seen her since her wedding, and she has had a
great deal of trouble, poor girl. You had better open the parlor
chamber, and make it ready before you go down."
"It is all ready," said Martha. "I can carry some of those little
sweet-brier roses upstairs before she comes."
"Yes, you are always thoughtful," said Miss Pyne, with unwonted
Martha did not answer. She glanced at the telegram wistfully. She
had never really suspected before that Miss Pyne knew nothing of the
love that had been in her heart all these years; it was half a pain and
half a golden joy to keep such a secret; she could hardly bear this
moment of surprise.
Presently the news gave wings to her willing feet. When Hannah, the
cook, who never had known Miss Helena, went to the parlor an hour later
on some errand to her old mistress, she discovered that this stranger
guest must be a very important person. She had never seen the tea-table
look exactly as it did that night, and in the parlor itself there were
fresh blossoming boughs in the old East India jars, and lilies in the
paneled hall, and flowers everywhere, as if there were some high
Miss Pyne sat by the window watching, in her best dress, looking
stately and calm; she seldom went out now, and it was almost time for
the carriage. Martha was just coming in from the garden with the
strawberries, and with more flowers in her apron. It was a bright cool
evening in June, the golden robins sang in the elms, and the sun was
going down behind the apple-trees at the foot of the garden. The
beautiful old house stood wide open to the long-expected guest.
"I think that I shall go down to the gate," said Miss Pyne, looking
at Martha for approval, and Martha nodded and they went together slowly
down the broad front walk.
There was a sound of horses and wheels on the roadside turf: Martha
could not see at first; she stood back inside the gate behind the white
lilac-bushes as the carriage came. Miss Pyne was there; she was holding
out both arms and taking a tired, bent little figure in black to her
heart. "Oh, my Miss Helena is an old woman like me!" and Martha gave a
pitiful sob; she had never dreamed it would be like this; this was the
one thing she could not bear.
"Where are you, Martha?" called Miss Pyne. "Martha will bring these
in; you have not forgotten my good Martha, Helena?" Then Mrs. Dysart
looked up and smiled just as she used to smile in the old days. The
young eyes were there still in the changed face, and Miss Helena had
That night Martha waited in her lady's room just as she used,
humble and silent, and went through with the old unforgotten loving
services. The long years seemed like days. At last she lingered a
moment trying to think of something else that might be done, then she
was going silently away, but Helena called her back. She suddenly knew
the whole story and could hardly speak.
"Oh, my dear Martha!" she cried, "won't you kiss me good-night? Oh,
Martha, have you remembered like this, all these long years!"