The nearer the time has come for Aunt Winifred to go, the more it has seemed impossible to part with her. I have run away from the thought like a craven, till she made me face it this morning, by saying decidedly that she should go on the first of the week.
I dropped my sewing; the work-basket tipped over, and all my spools rolled away under the chairs. I had a little time to think while I was picking them up.
“There is the rest of my visit at Norwich to be made, you know,” she said, “and while I am there I shall form some definite plans for the summer; I have hardly decided what, yet. I had better leave here by the seven o’clock train, if such an early start will not incommode you.”
I wound up the last spool, and turned away to the window. There was a confused, dreary sky of scurrying clouds, and a cold wind was bruising the apple-buds. I hate a cold wind in May. It made me choke a little, thinking how I should sit and listen to it after she was gone,—of the old, blank, comfortless days that must come and go,—of what she had brought, and what she would take away. I was a bit faint, I think, for a minute. I had not really thought the prospect through, before.
“Mary,” she said, “what’s the matter? Come here.”
I went over, and she drew me into her lap, and I put my arms about her neck.
“I can not bear it,” said I, “and that is the matter.”
She smiled, but her smile faded when she looked at me.
And then I told her, sobbing, how it was; that I could not go into my future alone,—I could not do it! that she did not know how weak I was,—and reckless,—and wicked; that she did not know what she had been to me. I begged her not to leave me. I begged her to stay and help me bear my life.
“My dear! you are as bad as Faith when I put her to bed alone.”
“But,” I said, “when Faith cries, you go to her, you know.”
“Are you quite in earnest, Mary?” she asked, after a pause. “You don’t know very much about me, after all, and there is the child. It is always an experiment, bringing two families into lifelong relations under one roof. If I could think it best, you might repent your bargain.”
“I am not ‘a family,’” I said, feebly trying to laugh. “Aunt Winifred, if you and Faith only will make this your home, I can never thank you, never. I shall be entertaining my good angels, and that is the whole of it.”
“I have had some thought of not going back,” she said at last, in a low, constrained voice, as if she were touching something that gave her great pain, “for Faith’s sake. I should like to educate her in New England, if—I had intended if we stayed to rent or buy a little home of our own somewhere, but I had been putting off a decision. We are most weak and most selfish sometimes when we think ourselves strongest and noblest, Mary. I love my husband’s people. I think they love me. I was almost happy with them. It seemed as if I were carrying on his work for him. That was so pleasant!”
She put me down out of her arms and walked across the room.
“I will think the matter over,” she said, by and by, in her natural tones, “and let you know to-night.”
She went away up stairs then, and I did not see her again until to-night. I sent Faith up with her dinner and tea, judging that she would rather see the child than me. I observed, when the dishes came down, that she had touched nothing but a cup of coffee.
I began to understand, as I sat alone in the parlor through the afternoon, how much I had asked of her. In my selfish distress at losing her, I had not thought of that. Faces that her husband loved, meadows and hills and sunsets that he has watched, the home where his last step sounded and his last word was spoken, the grave where she has laid him,—this last more than all,—call after her, and cling to her with yearning closeness. To leave them, is to leave the last faint shadow of her beautiful past. It hurts, but she is too brave to cry out.
Tea was over, and Faith in bed, but still she did not come down. I was sitting by the window, watching a little crescent moon climb over the hills, and wondering whether I had better go up, when she came in and stood behind me, and said, attempting to laugh:—
“Very impolite in me to run off so, wasn’t it? Cowardly, too, I think. Well, Mary?”
“Have you not repented your proposition yet?”
“You would excel as an inquisitor, Mrs. Forceythe!”
“Then it shall be as you say; as long as you want us you shall have us,—Faith and me.”
I turned to thank her, but could not when I saw her face. It was very pale; there was something inexpressibly sad about her mouth, and her eyelids drooped heavily, like one weary from a great struggle.
Feeling for the moment guilty and ashamed before her, as if I had done her wrong, “It is going to be very hard for you,” I said.
“Never mind about that,” she answered, quickly. “We will not talk about that. I knew, though I did not wish to know, that it was best for Faith. Your hands about my neck have settled it. Where the work is, there the laborer must be. It is quite plain now. I have been talking it over with them all the afternoon; it seems to be what they want.”
“With them”? I started at the words; who had been in her lonely chamber? Ah, it is simply real to her. Who, indeed, but her Saviour and her husband?
She did not seem inclined to talk, and stole away from me presently, and out of doors; she was wrapped in her blanket shawl, and had thrown a shimmering white hood over her gray hair. I wondered where she could be going, and sat still at the window watching her. She opened and shut the gate softly; and, turning her face towards the churchyard, walked up the street and out of my sight.
She feels nearer to him in the resting-place of the dead. Her heart cries after the grave by which she will never sit and weep again; on which she will never plant the roses any more.
As I sat watching and thinking this, the faint light struck her slight figure and little shimmering hood again, and she walked down the street and in with steady step.
When she came up and stood beside me, smiling, with the light knitted thing thrown back on her shoulders, her face seemed to rise from it as from a snowy cloud; and for her look,—I wish Raphael could have had it for one of his rapt Madonnas.
“Now, Mary,” she said, with the sparkle back again in her voice, “I am ready to be entertaining, and promise not to play the hermit again very soon. Shall I sit here on the sofa with you? Yes, my dear, I am happy, quite happy.”
So then we took this new promise of home that has come to make my life, if not joyful, something less than desolate, and analyzed it in its practical bearings. What a pity that all pretty dreams have to be analyzed! I had some notion about throwing our little incomes into a joint family fund, but she put a veto to that; I suppose because mine is the larger. She prefers to take board for herself and Faith; but, if I know myself, she shall never be suffered to have the feeling of a boarder, and I will make her so much at home in my house that she shall not remember that it is not her own.
Her visit to Norwich she has decided to put off until the autumn, so that I shall have her to myself undisturbed all summer.
I have been looking at Roy’s picture a long time, and wondering how he would like the new plan. I said something of the sort to her.
“Why put any ‘would’ in that sentence?” she said, smiling. “It belongs in the present tense.”
“Then I am sure he likes it,” I answered,—“he likes it,” and I said the words over till I was ready to cry for rest in their sweet sound.
It is Roy’s birthday. But I have not spoken of it. We used to make a great deal of these little festivals,—but it is of no use to write about that.
I am afraid I have been bearing it very badly all day. She noticed my face, but said nothing till to-night. Mrs. Bland was down stairs, and I had come away alone up here in the dark. I heard her asking for me, but would not go down. By and by Aunt Winifred knocked, and I let her in.
“Mrs. Bland cannot understand why you don’t see her, Mary,” she said, gently. “You know you have not thanked her for those English violets that she sent the other day. I only thought I would remind you; she might feel a little pained.”
“I can’t to-night,—not to-night, Aunt Winifred. You must excuse me to her somehow. I don’t want to go down.”
“Is it that you don’t ‘want to,’ or is it that you can’t?” she said, in that gentle, motherly way of hers, at which I can never take offence. “Mary, I wonder if Roy would not a little rather that you would go down?”
It might have been Roy himself who spoke.
I went down.