THE great clock ticked with loud insistence in the immaculate room. Things had to be immaculate where Mrs. Dacre was. The sunlight sifting through bare branches gilded the brown shadows of the walls ceiled in old pine, and now the color of the dead leaves whirling without. The bed was of snowy whiteness, and the old woman propped on her pillows was whiter yet.
"There, mother dear," said Nancy. "It's all apple-pie. And I'll go to work. There's consider'ble i'ning to do out there. But if any one comes in, you're as neat as a pin and as pretty as a pink."
"My! There's no need of any one's comin' in, sence we got the phone. Jes' give it here, Nancy, and I'm content."
The telephone was at the head of the bed. It was a recent acquisition in the little community, and regarded as a delightful toy with which one could not play too much.
The daughter took down the receiver and laid it on the pillow by her mother's ear. "I suppose it's all right," she said, hesitatingly, as she had said before.
"Of course it is!" was the swift reply. "If any one finds fault with a bedridden old woman for tryin' to keep along with the world, they can! Why, the satusfaction I've had out o' this sence we put it in passes all I could git out o' sewin'-circle an' perrish meetin' put together!"
"I don't believe any one cares if you do use it," Nancy said, comforting her conscience.
"Only old Mis' Monroe. An' she ses to Mis' Plumer—I heern her myself—' I can't talk any more now,' ses she. 'Old Mis' Dacre's listenin',' ses she. 'I ain't, either!' ses I, real sharp."
"Well, I wa'n't. I had the handle down, because I can't stan' the ringin' clost to my ear, it's so sudding. An', too, I wanted to hear if Ann Mari' Speer 'd sold her chickings for enough to buy her plum-color dress. It 'll set off her skin lovely. Why shouldn't I? Ann Mari' 'd tell me herself. Fact is, Nancy, it's like a continnered story in the papers. I'm reely curus to know if Almedy Bent's goin' to cut her skirt bell-shape or gored. Gored 'd fit her figger best. This piller ain't jes' right, Nancy. There—that's it. Deacon Morse was callin' up Mis' Morse—he was to West Centre. Didn't git her, fust call. Seems he couldn't raise but a dollar and a half for his apples, an' won't sell. So I guess we'd better keep our'n for one seventy-five. If some spile, they'll more'n everage up."
"The ground was covered with a hoar frost this mornin'—it looked beautiful on the brown grass."
"Means a thaw. Have the suller winders opened then. When Danny comes round wouldn't you better send a basketful to Mis' Ruggles? Them won't spile. I never could see why everybody don't hev an apple tree as much as a back door. They're motherly creeturs with their broodin' boughs. It makes me feel dretful bad to think of Johnny runnin' off to sea an' forsakin' Ann Mari'. It's mos' broke Mis' Ruggles down. Don't you forgit about sendin' the apples, Nancy. I declare to man, I do'no' w'at we done afore we hed the rural telephone. It's better'n rural free delivery; for that comes now an' then, but this comes all the time. I useter lie here like a dead tree—nothin' stirrin' but the pend'lum of the clock tickin' off my days like a sentence of death. An' now I'm all alive an' full o' the life of folks. I don't need to see 'em the way I did when the days was so long. An' w'en they do come in I've got lots to tell 'em. Now the days ain't long enough."
There was a whir, sudden as the challenge of a rattlesnake, and the receiver was at Mrs. Dacre's ear. "Tut, tut!" she said. "It's only Mis' Monroe a-tellin' Mamy to wear her rubbers. Them sort o' no-account messages make me disappointed as I be when I'm readin' the paper if there ain't anybody I know in the deaths an' marriages. There! you won't never git to your work. I'm reel comf'able. Comf'able as I can be, I cal'klate. It does seem one o' the mysteries, when I useter be head of everythin' here, that I can't set foot to the floor—"
"P'r'aps you could, mother dear, if you tried."
"Nancy! You go right about your work! If that's all the symperthy I git—"
And Nancy laughed and kissed her mother and was gone.
"Oh, you pretty flower!" said Mrs. Dacre—when the door was closed.
But what she had said was quite true; Mrs. Dacre was a personage in the settlement. A native desire to rule had made it impossible for her not to meddle. She was never too tired to wake in the night and walk a couple of miles to a sick-bed. Few were born in the place without her help; few died that she did not close their eyes. She had sprung from slippery stone to slippery stone, crossing the brook, the ice breaking up; she had gone through the hills in driving snow where many a shepherd lost the way; and the summer lightnings never held her back on her errands of mercy. She could hardly have told you if they were errands of mercy or of desire to be a part of all that was going on. She was the confidante of the village; they reported to her, consulted her, came to her in trouble; her curiosity conquered, her vivacity cheered; her love of ruling gave support.
Of course all this had been a strain on strength and nerve, although she had plenty of both. "I'm mos' beat out," she used to say. "Troubles always come when you least expect them most." But she would not abate her activities; they had become a habit with cravings like those of an opium-eater.
And then came Nancy's love-affair, and her wild objection to it, and Nancy's quiet persistence; and in a passion of angry excitement she had taken to her bed and had remained there ever since. The telephone then had become a mild substitute for her drug.
That Saul Manley, one of the Black Manleys, should dare lift his eyes to her Nancy—her white, delicate Nancy! He, a Manley of the Hollow, a race always shiftless, always thriftless, sometimes beggars, maybe worse! To be sure, a wife from far away had once come there, a proud, defiant creature—Saul had her burning black eyes—but she had faded out of light and life and left her boy among them. Mrs. Dacre never forgot the illumination that kindled in those eyes of hers at the moment she understood there was only an hour or two more to live and the opening gates showed her the way to freedom. And Nancy! It was making the nest of a silver dove out of the common mud. The Dacres were poor, perhaps, land-poor still; but they were the old settlers, the first proprietors, the aristocrats of the region. They had always held their heads high. And now to have him—"Why, when he was a boy he useter come for our skim-milk!" she cried.
"He don't now," said Nancy. "And all them are dead and gone. And he's sold the Hollow, an' got a place on the hill, an' paid for it, an' don't scant on anythin'."
"Reg'lar driver. But he ain't a-goin' to drive my Nancy to her death."
"Mother! He loves me!"
"Calf-love," said the old woman, wrathfully adjusting the pillows herself. "He'll love a good many girls yet."
"Never, never, mother! And you'll break his heart, and mine too."
"I ain't no symperthy for these early loves an' heart-breaks. As if there wa'n't nothin' else in the world but keepin' company! Your heart ain't so brittle. He loves himself. That's who! And it 'd be a great lift to him to git into our fam'bly. My brick's gittin' cold, Nancy. My feet are like the clods of the valley. Marry! How can you marry anybody, 'ith me on your han's!"
"He'd help. He'd be a reel son to you," sobbed Nancy, as she bent to find the brick.
"I've got a daughter. I don't want no sons of the Manley sort—always nine o'clock with them till it's ten! And I ain't one o' them that whiffles about, Nancy. I ain't willin' to have him come in here an' master me, and I ain't goin' to be took care of in any house o' his'n. An' there it is!" And the paler and thinner and sadder Nancy looked, as she went about her tasks, the fiercer the old woman grew with the sense of her responsibility for it. But that her child should condescend from the high estate of a Dacre to that of the Black Manleys, the low-browed, beggarly crew—it was not to be thought of!
"It's no use, Saul," said Nancy, when her lover came to the foot of the garden, one night of the last spring. "I can't leave mother."
"I don't ask you to leave her! Dear, my dear, I'd make her more comfortable than she ever dreamed."
Nancy was crying softly, hiding her face in his arm.
"There, there!" he said, as one might soothe a child, and laying his face on her soft hair. "We're better off than some, for we've got each other. If we never marry, I'll be faithful to you, Nancy, till the day I die and after."
"Oh, oh, I don't want to keep you bound, and cut off from a home and—and all!"
"I am bound! There's nothing in the world can undo that. I'm yours, single or married, and into the other life. And if there's no marryin' nor givin' in marriage there, there's no divorcing, neither!"
The freshness of upturned furrows came on the breath of the south wind blowing up rain, and the fragrance of the apple blossoms streamed round them in long wafts as they stood there hidden by the mists of the kindly night; and full of the invincible spirit of youth that feels its immortality, the earth was beautiful and life was sweet even in their trouble. To-morrow—well, to-morrow the roses might be in bloom. And Nancy stayed half happy in the thought of her lover, and trusting to time for her mother, a shade of sadness clouding the happiness and giving her a pathetic sweetness that moved the heart of every one but her mother—her mother who adored her, but would not have let her know it for anything under heaven.
But indeed all the village regarded the girl tenderly. Ann Maria Speer wanted her father, when he bought her a new print, to buy another for Nancy. Mrs. Bent told her mother that if anything happened to her she would take Nancy for her own. "There's nothing goin' to happen," said Mrs. Dacre, with sublime confidence. The child took every one's affection for granted; a rosy, darling thing, her head sunning over with curls, her smile always kindling, her pretty pouting kisses always ready. Every little while she went the tour of the village. "I'm glad I come to dinner here," she said, where pork and greens made the feast. "I sorrow for you," she said, where some illness was. "Ev'ybody wuvs me ve'y much, and I wuv ev'ybody," she declared elsewhere. And everybody did; from the time she took off her own shoes to give them to a child who had none, till long after she had turned up her lovely locks, everybody felt an ownership in her and her affections. "I can't think why people are so good to me," Nancy once said.
"Why shouldn't they be?" said her mother. "Ain't you John Dacre's daughter?"
John Dacre's daughter! Although Nancy felt her mother a part of the walls of the world, it was her father, in his always subdued and quiet mood, toward whom her heart yearned.
But this wilful old woman had not always been a Dacre herself, although she had so completely identified herself with her husband's family that she had half forgotten the fact. There was a time when she was a much humbler person, a handsome, spirited girl who earned her bread with carding and spinning from house to house. Strange to say, every one else seemed to have forgotten that, too, with such force and assurance had she taken hold of life when she became John Dacre's wife. And John Dacre had not been the only man who cared for her. There had been a dark and reckless young scamp who had made her feel his power. She had seen him shoot the bird on the wing, she had seen him breaking his great white horse, she had seen him diving in the lake for a drowning man—alas! his name was Mauley. He overtook her when her work was done, and went along with her; he met her by the brook, and skipped pebbles there; he leaned over the bridge with her, and each was to the other a part of the magical beauty when twilight veils the day and the stars tremble out. He followed her up on the high pastures knee-deep in the spicy sweet-fern and bayberry, and into the green shadows of the wood. Once, through a gap of crowding trees she saw the red flame of the sunset repeated and flashing in Aleck Manley's eyes; and once, that once, his arms were about her, and his lips were on hers, and in that moment she comprehended all the sweetness, all the honeyed richness, of life—and in the next she broke away and ran; she had half plighted faith with John Dacre, and John Dacre was a comfortable man. She always hated the sight of that wood; she closed the window of her room that commanded it and the sunset glow shining through it, and set the head of her bed against it. For years she could see that flame burning in Aleck Manley's eyes whenever she shut her own. But in time she outgrew it. It made her shudder then to think she might have been one of those miserable Manleys. But love seemed to be burned out of her in that one fiery moment. She was a good wife; she took faithful care of John Dacre, with an aggressive loyalty, standing somewhat in awe of the silent man; but not till her little Nancy came did she ever forget herself in another. The child appeared to her like a wonderful white flower blossoming out of the deadness of her inner life. Her child and John Dacre's—she was a miracle! Her innocence, her exquisite infantile delicacy, were a perpetual marvel; the universe had come to its perfection in Nancy. When she saw the wind stirring the fine fair hair, and the blue eyes mirroring heaven, she felt this was the top of beauty. In her long cloak, the child in her arms, she went into the green woods as if to teach her the spell of weaving branches; she dipped her in the brook, and the sparkle of the waters on the little rosy limbs seemed the radiance of some young angelic creature; you would have met her down any lane when the wild roses were in bloom, as if the loveliness of the earth were her darling's only fit companion. Then, living in the child, worshipping her, she began to love the children of others; and loving the children, their fathers and mothers grew dear, and so presently she ruled and mastered the small community through serving them. When she went out at night to watch by some sick-bed, the child was under her cloak, cradled by and by on a pillow, but there as if she were a part of the healing forces. And in the bright dawning it seemed to the mother as if cure lay in the sight of that sweet countenance. Wars crashed over the land; it did not signify. The great elements were harnessed; it did not signify. John Dacre died; it—did not signify. So long as there was Nancy the world rolled on serenely; there was need of nothing else.
Nancy's going out of the house sent shadow into every room; sunshine came with her returning. The hours when she herself was away from Nancy seemed time lost out of life; she looked forward to being at home with her again as to some festival. All the passion, all the fire, of her powerful nature wrapped the child. She thought—until she was tried—that she would have given Nancy her heart's blood. She had a certain fierce protecting instinct of the wild creature for its whelp; she felt that she could never die while Nancy needed her. She wondered what the child's dreams were about; she was jealous of the young woman's thoughts—tranquil thoughts they were, for Nancy was a Dacre. When Nancy joined the church, it seemed unnecessary; Nancy had been born perfect. When summer days were long and fine, they seemed the promise of long, fine life to Nancy; and when great winter storms were raging, the mother lay in a transport of content, shut in with her sleeping Nancy.
The bitterness of it, then, when from this depth of satisfaction she woke to the fact that Nancy loved some one other than herself—and that other a Manley! In a day, an hour, she grew old. Her sins had found her out, the sin of the world had come to her door and was visited on her head. The blush branded her face so that the stain remained. The son of Aleck Manley! She remembered that man's love, his kiss, as a crime she had committed. That his son should love Nancy was profanation, was sacrilege! Had Nancy been overtaken by any dangerous illness, although it tore her heart, she would have given her bitter medicine. She must have bitter medicine now.
So, Saul being forbidden the borders, Mrs. Dacre contrived work enough for Nancy to keep her hands and her thoughts full through her waking hours. But she could not hinder Nancy's dreams at night, and perhaps it was their sweetness that gave her every morning the soft flush on her cheek, the brightness of the beaming eye, the tender smile about the lips, until they faded into the light of common day, and the patient look of endurance that came in their place.
"You ain't eatin' enough, Nancy," her mother said.
"I ain't much appetite."
"That's no matter," said the indomitable old spirit. "You eat! You'll git the good of it whether you want it or not. You had the combs fetched in? Honey's fust-rate for you. Who took 'em? You?"
"Saul took them, mother."
" 'D you pay him?"
"That honey 'd orter make you sick! Oh, me, me, there ain't a trouble sharper 'n an ongrateful child gives ye!" But just then the telephone bell tinkled, and Mrs. Dacre surmounted her own trouble temporarily in her lively interest in the affairs of others.
It was late that afternoon that Mrs. Ruggles passed the window and came in. She had a branch of witch-hazel, strung with its threads of bloom, in her hand. "I thought I'd fetch it over," she said. "jest 's a token that summer ain't all gone. I mind you like the nat'ral thin's. Somehow I feel when this blows that it's a sign the Lord's lookin' out for us still, as much as when the bow was set in heaven. Ain't that so, Mis' Dacre? I take it as a promise o' spring flowers."
"It's most excellent for a bruise," said Mrs. Dacre. "I was jes' tellin' Mis' Bent to git the flowers an' make a poultice for Tom's hurt—"
"Wy, I didn't know— How'd you hear?"
"They phoned for Dr. Bly. But he'd gone down to Salt Water. So I told her what to do. She was obleeged an' thankful."
Mrs. Ruggles was a colorless little woman, who would have looked hardly more than the shadow of some one else if a black eye had not animated the ashes like a coal of fire and given her life and personality. She fidgeted now, took another chair, raised the window-shade, and tied its cord and tassel again. "You phoned?" she said. "Mis' Dacre, I'm half a mind to tell you sunthin'."
"Make it a whole one, Phœbe. I knowed you hed sunthin' on your mind. 'Tain't nat'ral for you to talk about posies."
"I do'no'. Wal, anyways—Mis' Dacre, the folks is all mad as hornets at your tappin' the phone so."
"Yes. They found out 'twas you—fust, because thin's that sot 'em all by the ears come from you direct. An' nex', because they could hear a big clock tickin' away like an ingine, an' you're the only one that's got a gran'ther's clock—"
"They was tappin' then."
"An' they're a-talkin' of goin' down to headquarters an' hev it put a stop to—"
Mrs. Dacre sat up straight—she had not done such a thing in months. "Me!" she said. "Put a stop to!" Her great eyes were like a wild creature's. "Mis' Ruggles," she said, "do you mean to say that any of my neighbors grudge me—shut in from meetin' an' from prayer-meetin' as I be—gittin' what plaisure I can out o' this telephone?" She stopped a moment, as if in review. "Why," she said then, "they've allus come to me with everythin' all their lives, or sent for me to come to them, an' told me all their worriments. An' why shouldn't I have it this way, now when I can't go out? I vow to man—"
"I'm only speakin' to save you trouble, Mis' Dacre," said Mrs. Ruggles, laying the witch-hazel aside, as one making ready for a fray. "I come over a-purpose, at consider'ble pains. I have a lot to do, now Johnny's gone, and I mos' broke my back choppin' kindlin's, tel Saul Manley see me, an' come in the goodness o' his heart an' sawed an' split all my winter's wood, free gift. I thought you'd orter know."
"You're all right, Mis' Ruggles. But it's cruelty! That's what it is! It's small business to crowd an old woman this way. And then, too," she said, in a calmer tone, "it's mighty hard besides—for Mis' Monroe's be'n tellin' Mis' Plumer a story she's be'n readin' in some story paper, as I gather, and it's jest at the most interestin' p'int—"
"Do tell! What's it all about?"
"Lemme see. Why, it's about a gel, a young gel—she warn't a beauty, you know, but there was sunthin' to her—maybe like you an' me, when we was young, don't you see—"
"No, I don't!" said the other, with emphasis. "Cap'n Ruggles allus said I was a beauty."
"So. Every eye makes its own, ye know. And there's some thinks faculty's better 'n any show o' good looks. John Dacre did. Anyways, this young gel—they ain't called her by name—had faculty, an' had that, whatever it is, that makes folks set by her. Folks was fond on her—the minister, the deacon, the doctor—there was nobody that wa'n't. And of course there was some one wanted to marry her, an' she him. A fine feller, han'some, sober, forehanded, 'most a church member. An' the course o' true love, you know, never did run smooth; an' there was an old woman in the fam'bly jes' put her foot down an' forbid the bans. There wa'n't no reason why; but she did. An' she kerried her p'int. An' they said 'twas jes' like them thin's in outlandish stories—an old vampire gittin' the gel's life-blood—an' then somebody cut the phone off, an' the last thin' they said was that the gel was goin' in a gallopin' consumption. An' there ain't a cure known for gallopin' consumption! My Lord, Mis' Ruggles, what if it 'd be'n my Nancy!" And suddenly Mrs. Dacre stopped, her eyes, that had been welling with tears, shedding thorn like pearls as they opened wider and wider. She clapped her hand over her mouth.
"What is it, Mis' Dacre! My grief, what is it!"
For a moment Mrs. Dacre did not speak. She was staring into vacancy as if she saw something horrible there. And then she fell back on her pillow, gasping. "My Nancy!" she was whispering to herself. "My Nancy!"
"Where's the camphire?" cried Mrs. Ruggles. But the old woman pushed her aside when she brought it.
"You'll find a pair o' shoes in that cluset," she whispered presently. "An' some stockin's in the left-han' corner of the lower drawer o' the chist. Fetch 'em here—quick as winkin'—any on 'em! An' now, if you'll give me a helpin' han', I'll see what I can do, the Lord helpin', too." And presently Mrs. Dacre was sitting on the side of the bed, with a foot on the ground. "Do you s'pose I can walk acrost the floor?" she asked.
"I s'pose you can do most anythin' you set out to do," answered the obedient Phœbe.
"I guess some folks 'll be supprised," said Mrs. Dacre, drawing in her breath, and gingerly following one foot with the other. "There!" she exclaimed, triumphantly, as, grasping the bedpost, she stood up. "When I was a baby and could pull myself up by a cheer, I walked off. I wouldn't wonder if I could do it again!" And slightly tottering, but imperiously waving Mrs. Ruggles away, she crossed the room to the big chest of drawers, and found the various garments she wanted. "You jest toss that bed together, Phœbe, if you wanter help," she said. "There!" she exclaimed at last. "I guess I kin du without the phone. You tell the folks, Phœbe. A man in the house makes a consider'ble diffrunce. Now," she said, retracing her steps, "I'm clothed, and in my right mind. But I do feel wobbly. Where's the phone? Central! Gimme 9—0—9, ring three. I want the Elder."
"Mother! Mother!" cried Nancy, running in, breathlessly, her flat-iron holder in hand. "Oh, what has happened! Get right back into bed! Oh, mother dear, do! Oh, you ain't a-goin' to die!" And she threw her arms around the recent invalid in a resisting terror.
"Die? Nonsense, Nancy! Die! I'm as well as ever I was in my life. I've had a beautiful rest. Where's your cambric dress?"
"My—what—which one?" asked Nancy, not knowing what she said, and trembling as if before some catastrophe.
"Which one? The only one you got! The one I stood up in with your father an' made over for you! Put it on quick—here's Mis' Ruggles 'll hook it up. There ain't a-goin' to be any gallopin' consumption in this house! I'm callin' the Elder to fetch Saul Manley here, out o' hand. What for? Don't you see I've got my silk gownd on? I'm a-goin' to a weddin'! My heart, what a blessin' the telephone is!"