The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter III

I have taken out my book, and am going to write again. But there is an excellent reason. I have something else than myself to write about.

This morning Phœbe persuaded me to walk down to the office, “To keep up my spirits and get some salt pork.”

She brought my things and put them on me while I was hesitating; tied my victorine and buttoned my gloves; warmed my boots, and fussed about me as if I had been a baby. It did me good to be taken care of, and I thanked her softly; a little more softly than I am apt to speak to Phœbe.

“Bless your soul, my dear!” she said, winking briskly, “I don’t want no thanks. It’s thanks enough jest to see one of your old looks comin’ over you for a spell, sence—”

She knocked over a chair with her broom, and left her sentence unfinished. Phœbe has always had a queer, clinging, superior sort of love for us both. She dandled us on her knees, and made all our rag-dolls, and carried us through measles and mumps and the rest. Then mother’s early death threw all the care upon her. I believe that in her secret heart she considers me more her child than her mistress. It cost a great many battles to become established as “Miss Mary.”

“I should like to know,” she would say, throwing back her great, square shoulders and towering up in front of me,—“I should like to know if you s’pose I’m a goin’ to ‘Miss’ anybody that I’ve trotted to Bamberry Cross as many times as I have you, Mary Cabot! Catch me!”

I remember how she would insist on calling me “her baby” after I was in long dresses, and that it mortified me cruelly once when Meta Tripp was here to tea with some Boston cousins. Poor, good Phœbe! Her rough love seems worth more to me, now that it is all I have left me in the world. It occurs to me that I may not have taken notice enough of her lately. She has done her honest best to comfort me, and she loved Roy, too.

But about the letter. I wrapped my face up closely in the crêpe, so that, if I met Deacon Quirk, he should not recognize me, and, thinking that the air was pleasant as I walked, came home with the pork for Phœbe and a letter for myself. I did not open it; in fact, I forgot all about it, till I had been at home for half an hour. I cannot bear to open a letter since that morning when the lances of light fell on the snow. They have written to me from everywhere,—uncles and cousins and old school-friends; well-meaning people; saying each the same thing in the same way,—no, not that exactly, and very likely I should feel hurt and lonely if they did not write; but sometimes I wish it did not all have to be read.

So I did not notice much about my letter this morning, till presently it occurred to me that what must be done had better be done quickly; so I drew up my chair to the desk, prepared to read and answer on the spot. Something about the writing and the signature rather pleased me: it was dated from Kansas, and was signed with the name of my mother’s youngest sister, Winifred Forceythe. I will lay the letter in between these two leaves, for it seems to suit the pleasant, spring-like day; besides, I took out the green book again on account of it.

Lawrence, Kansas, February 21.

My dear Child,—I have been thinking how happy you will be by and by because Roy is happy.

And yet I know—I understand—

You have been in all my thoughts, and they have been such pitiful, tender thoughts, that I cannot help letting you know that somebody is sorry for you. For the rest, the heart knoweth its own, and I am, after all, too much of a stranger to my sister’s child to intermeddle.

So my letter dies upon my pen. You cannot bear words yet. How should I dare to fret you with them? I can only reach you by my silence, and leave you with the Heart that bled and broke for you and Roy.

Your Aunt,

Winifred Forceythe.

Postscript, February 23.

I open my letter to add, that I am thinking of coming to New England with Faith,—you know Faith and I have nobody but each other{28} now. Indeed, I may be on my way by the time this reaches you. It is just possible that I may not come back to the West. I shall be for a time at your uncle Calvin’s, and then my husband’s friends think that they must have me. I should like to see you for a day or two, but if you do not care to see me, say so. If you let me come because you think you must, I shall find it out from your face in an hour. I should like to be something to you, or do something for you; but if I cannot, I would rather not come.

I like that letter.

I have written to her to come, and in such a way that I think she will understand me to mean what I say. I have not seen her since I was a child. I know that she was very much younger than my mother; that she spent her young ladyhood teaching at the South;—grandfather had enough with which to support her, but I have heard it said that she preferred to take care of herself;—that she finally married a poor minister, whose sermons people liked, but whose coat was shockingly shabby; that she left the comforts and elegances and friends of New England to go to the West and bury herself in an unheard-of little place with him (I think she must have loved him); that he afterwards settled in Lawrence; that there, after they had been married some childless years, this little Faith was born; and that there Uncle Forceythe died about three years ago; that is about all I know of her. I suppose her share of Grandfather Burleigh’s little property supports her respectably. I understand that she has been living a sort of missionary life among her husband’s people since his death, and that they think they shall never see her like again. It is they who keep her from coming home again, Uncle Calvin’s wife told me once; they and one other thing,—her husband’s grave.

I hope she will come to see me. I notice one strange thing about her letter. She does not use the ugly words “death” and “dying.” I don’t know exactly what she put in their places, but something that had a pleasant sound.

“To be happy because Roy is happy.” I wonder if she really thinks it is possible.

I wonder what makes the words chase me about.

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