It was natural that it should be quiet for Mrs. Cairnes in her empty house. Once there had been such a family of brothers and sisters there! But one by one they had married, or died, and at any rate had drifted out of the house, so that she was quite alone with her work, and her memories, and the echoes in her vacant rooms. She hadn't a great deal of work; her memories were not pleasant; and the echoes were no pleasanter. Her house was as comfortable otherwise as one could wish; in the very centre of the village it was, too, so that no one could go to church, or to shop, or to call, unless Mrs. Cairnes was aware of the fact, if she chose; and the only thing that protected the neighbors from this supervision was Mrs. Cairnes's mortal dread of the sun on her carpet; for the sun lay in that bay-windowed corner nearly all the day, and even though she filled the window full of geraniums and vines and calla-lilies she could not quite shut it out, till she resorted to sweeping inner curtains.
Mrs. Cairnes did her own work, because, as she said, then she knew it was done. She had refused the company of various individuals, because, as she said again, she wouldn't give them house-room. Perhaps it was for the same reason that she had refused several offers of marriage; although the only reason that she gave was that one was quite enough, and she didn't want any boots bringing in mud for her to wipe up. But the fact was that Captain Cairnes had been a mistake; and his relict[Pg 1638] never allowed herself to dwell upon the fact of her loss, but she felt herself obliged to say with too much feeling that all was for the best; and she dared not risk the experiment again.
Mrs. Cairnes, however, might have been lonelier if she had been very much at home; but she was President of the First Charitable, and Secretary of the Second, and belonged to a reading-club, and a sewing-circle, and a bible-class, and had every case of illness in town more or less to oversee, and the circulation of the news to attend to, and so she was away from home a good deal, and took many teas out. Some people thought that if she hadn't to feed her cat she never would go home. But the cat was all she had, she used to say, and nobody knew the comfort it was to her. Yet, for all this, there were hours and seasons when, obliged to stay in the house, it was intolerably dreary there, and she longed for companionship. "Some one with an interest," she said. "Some one who loves the same things that I do, who cares for me, and for my pursuits. Some one like Sophia Maybury. Oh! how I should have liked to spend my last days with Sophia! What keeps Dr. Maybury alive so, I can't imagine. If he had only—gone to his rest"—said the good woman, "Sophia and I could join our forces and live together in clover. And how we should enjoy it! We could talk together, read together, sew together. No more long, dull evenings and lonely nights listening to the mice. But a friend, a dear sister, constantly at hand! Sophia was the gentlest young woman, the prettiest,—oh, how I loved her in those days! She was a part of my youth. I love her just as much now. I wish she could come and live here. She might, if there weren't any Dr. Maybury. I can't stand this solitude. Why did fate make me such a social old body, and then set me here all alone?"
If Sophia was the prettiest young woman in those days, she was an exceedingly pretty old woman in these, with her fresh face and her bright eyes, and if her hair was not all her own, she had companions in bangs. Dr. Maybury made a darling of her all his lifetime, and when he died he left her what he had; not much,—the rent of the Webster House,—but enough.
But there had always been a pea-hen in Mrs. Maybury's lot. It was all very well to have an adoring husband,—but to have no home! The Doctor had insisted for years upon living in the tavern, which he owned, and if there was one thing that his wife detested more than another, it was life in a tavern. The strange faces, the strange voices, the going and coming, the dreary halls, the soiled table-cloths, the thick crockery, the damp napkins, the flies, the tiresome menu—every roast tasting of every other, no gravy to any,—the all out-doors feeling of the whole business, your affairs in everybody's mouth, the banging doors, the restless feet, the stamping of horses in the not distant stable, the pandemonium of it all! She tried to make a little home in the corner of it; but it was useless. And when one day Dr. Maybury suddenly died, missing him and mourning him, and half distracted as she was, a thrill shot across the darkness for half a thought,—now at any rate she could have a home of her own! But presently she saw the folly of the thought,—a home without a husband! She staid on at the tavern, and took no pleasure in life.
But with Dr. Maybury's departure, the thought recurred again and again to Mrs. Cairnes of her and Sophia's old dream of living together. "We used to say, when we were girls, that we should keep house together, for neither of us would ever marry. And it's a great, great pity we did! I dare say, though, she's been very happy. I know she has, in fact. But then if she hadn't been so happy with him, she wouldn't be so unhappy without him. So it evens up. Well, it's half a century gone; but perhaps she'll remember it. I should like to have her come here. I never could bear Dr. Maybury, it's true; but then I could avoid the subject with her. I mean to try. What a sweet, comfortable, peaceful time we should have of it!"
A sweet, comfortable, peaceful time! Well; you shall see. For Mrs. Maybury came; of course she came. Her dear, old friend Julia! Oh, if anything could make up for Dr. Maybury's loss, it would be living with Julia! What castles they used to build about living together and working with the heathen around home. And Julia always went to the old East Church, too; and they had believed just the same things, the same election, and predestination and damnation and all; at one time they had thought of going out missionaries together to the Polynesian Island, but that had been before Julia took Captain Cairnes for better or worse, principally worse, and before she herself undertook all she could in converting Dr. Maybury,—a perfect Penelope's web of a work; for Dr. Maybury died as he had lived, holding her fondest beliefs to be old wives' fables, but not quarreling with her fidelity to them, any more than with her finger-rings or her false bangs, her ribbons, and what she considered her folderols in general. And how kind, she went on in her thoughts, it was of Julia to want her now! what comfort they would be to each other! Go,—of course she would!
She took Allida with her; Allida who had been her maid so long that she was a part of herself; and who, for the sake of still being with her mistress, agreed to do the cooking at Mrs. Cairnes's and help in the house-work. The house was warm and light on the night she arrived;[Pg 1641] other friends had dropped in to receive her, too; there were flowers on the table in the cosy red dining-room, delicate slices of ham that had been stuffed with olives and sweet herbs, a cold queen's pudding rich with frosting, a mold of coffee jelly in a basin of whipped cream, and little thin bread-and-butter sandwiches.
"Oh, how delightful, how homelike!" cried Mrs. Maybury. How unlike the great barn of a dining-room at the Webster House! What delicious bread and butter! Julia had always been such a famous cook! "Oh, this is home indeed, Julia!" she cried.
Alas! The queen's pudding appeared in one shape or another till it lost all resemblance to itself, and that ham after a fortnight became too familiar for respect.
Mrs. Cairnes, when all was reëstablished and at rights, Sophia in the best bedroom, Allida in the kitchen, Sophia's board paying Allida's wages and all extra expense, Sophia's bird singing like a little fountain of melody in the distance, Mrs. Cairnes then felt that after a long life of nothingness, fate was smiling on her; here was friendship, interest, comfort, company, content. No more lonesomeness now. Here was a motive for coming home; here was somebody to come home to! And she straightway put the thing to touch, by coming home from her prayer-meeting, her bible-class, her Ladies' Circle, her First Charitable, and taking in a whole world of pleasure in Sophia's waiting presence, her welcoming smile, her voice asking for the news. And if Sophia were asking for the news, news there must be to give Sophia! And she went about with fresh eagerness, and dropped in here, there, and everywhere, and picked up items at every corner to retail to Sophia. She found it a little difficult to please Sophia about the table. Used to all the variety of a public-house, Mrs. Maybury did not take very kindly to the simple fare, did not quite understand why three people must be a whole week getting through with a roast,—a roast that, served underdone, served overdone, served cold, served warmed up with herbs, served in a pie, made five dinners; she didn't quite see why one must have salt fish on every Saturday, and baked beans on Sunday; she hankered after the flesh-pots that, when she had them, she had found tiresome, and than which she had frequently remarked she would rather have the simplest home-made bread and butter. Apples, too. Mrs. Cairnes's three apple-trees had been turned to great account in her larder always; but now,—Mrs. Maybury never touched apple-sauce, disliked apple-jelly, thought apple-pie unfit for human digestion, apple-pudding worse; would have nothing with apples in it, except the very little in mince-pie which she liked as rich as brandy and sherry and costly spices could make it.
"No profit in this sort of boarder," thought the thrifty Mrs. Cairnes. But then she didn't have Sophia for profit, only for friendliness and companionship; and of course there must be some little drawbacks. Sophia was not at all slow in expressing her likes and dislikes. Well, Mrs. Cairnes meant she should have no more dislikes to express than need be. Nevertheless, it made Mrs. Cairnes quite nervous with apprehension concerning Mrs. Maybury's face on coming to the dinner-table; she left off having roasts, and had a slice of steak; chops and tomato-sauce; a young chicken. But even that chicken had to make its reappearance till it might have been an old hen. "I declare," said Mrs. Cairnes, in the privacy of her own emotions, "when I lived by myself I had only one person to please! If Sophia had ever been any sort of a housekeeper herself—it's easy to see why Dr. Maybury chose to live at a hotel!" Still the gentle face opposite her at the table, the lively warmth of a greeting when she opened the door, the delight of some one with whom to talk things over, the source of life and movement in the house; all this far outweighed the necessity of having to plan for variety in the little dinners.
"I really shall starve to death if this thing does on," Mrs. Maybury had meanwhile said to herself. "It isn't that I care so much for what I have to eat; but I really can't eat enough here to keep me alive. If I went out as Julia does, walking and talking all over town, I daresay I could get up the same sort of appetite for sole-leather. But I haven't the heart for it. I can't do it. I have to sit at home and haven't any relish for anything. I really will see if Allida can't start something different." But Allida could not make bricks without straw; she could only prepare what Mrs. Cairnes provided, and as Mrs. Cairnes had never had a servant before, she looked on the whole tribe of them as marauders and natural enemies, and doled out everything from a locked store-room at so much a head. "Well," sighed Mrs. Maybury, "perhaps I shall get used to it." From which it will be seen that Julia's efforts after all were not particularly successful. But if Mrs. Cairnes had been lonely before Mrs. Maybury came, Mrs. Maybury was intolerably lonely, having come; the greater part of the time, Allida being in the kitchen, or out herself, and no one in the house but the sunshine, the cat, and the bird; and she detested cats, and had a shudder if one touched her. However, this was Julia's cat, this great black and white evil spirit, looking like an imp of darkness; she would be kind to it if it didn't touch her. But if it touched her—she shivered at the thought—she couldn't answer for the consequences. Julia was so good in taking her into her house, and listening to her woes, and trying to make her comfortable,—only if[Pg 1644] this monster tried to kill her bird,—Mrs. Maybury, sitting by herself, wept at the thought. How early it was dark now, too! She didn't see what kept Julia so,—really she was doing too much at her age. She hinted that gently to Julia when Mrs. Cairnes did return. And Mrs. Cairnes could not quite have told what it was that was so unpleasant in the remark. "My age," she said, laughing. "Why, I am as young as ever I was, and as full of life. I could start on an exploring expedition to Africa, to-morrow!" But she began to experience a novel sense of bondage,—she who had all her life been responsible to no one. And presently, whenever she went out, she had a dim consciousness in her mental background of Sophia's eyes following her, of Sophia's thoughts upon her trail, of Sophia's face peering from the bay-window as she went from one door to another. She begged some slips, and put a half dozen new flower-pots on a bracket-shelf in the window, in order to obscure the casual view, and left the inner curtain drawn.
She came in one day, and there was that inner curtain strung wide open, and the sun pouring through the plants in a broad radiance. Before she took off her bonnet she stepped to the window and drew the curtain.
"Oh!" cried Mrs. Maybury, "what made you do that? The sunshine is so pleasant."
"I can't have the sun streaming in here and taking all the color out of my carpet, Sophia!" said Julia, with some asperity.
"But the sun is so very healthy," urged Mrs. Maybury.
"Oh, well! I can't be getting a new carpet every day."
"You feel," said Mrs. Maybury, turning away wrath, "as you did when you were a little girl, and the teacher told you to lay your wet slate in your lap: 'It'll take the fade out of my gown,' said you. How long ago is it! Does it seem as if it were you and I?"
"I don't know," said Julia tartly. "I don't bother myself much with abstractions. I know it is you and I." And she put her things on the hall-rack, as she was going out again in the afternoon to bible-class.
She had no sooner gone out than Mrs. Maybury went and strung up every curtain in the house where the sun was shining, and sat down triumphantly and rocked contentedly for five minutes in the glow, when her conscience overcame her, and she put them all down again, and went out into the kitchen for a little comfort from Allida. But Allida had gone out, too; so she came back to the sitting-room, and longed for the stir and bustle and frequent faces of the tavern, and welcomed a book-canvasser presently as if she had been a dear friend.
Perhaps Julia's conscience stirred a little, too; for she came home earlier than usual, put away her wraps, lighted an extra lamp, and said, "Now we'll have a long, cosy evening to ourselves."
"We might have a little game of cards," said Sophia, timidly. "I know a capital double solitaire—"
"Cards!" cried Julia.
"Cards! And I just came from bible-class!"
"What in the world has that got to do with it?"
"Why, the Doctor and I used—"
"That doesn't make it any better."
"Why, Julia, you can't possibly mean that there's any harm,—that,—that it's wicked—"
"I think we'd better drop the subject, Sophia," said Julia loftily.
"But I don't want to drop the subject!" exclaimed Mrs. Maybury. "I don't want you to think that the Doctor would—"[Pg 1646]
"I can't help what the Doctor did. I think cards are wicked! And that's enough for me!"
"Well!" cried Mrs. Maybury, then in great dudgeon. "I'm not a member of the old East Church in good and regular standing for forty years to be told what's right and what's wrong by any one now!"
"If you're in good and regular standing, then the church is very lax in its discipline, Sophia; that's all I've got to say."
"But, Julia, things have been very much liberalized of late years. The minister's own daughter has been to dancing-school." The toss of Julia's head, and her snort of contempt only said, "So much the worse for the minister's daughter!"
"Nobody believes in infant damnation now," continued Mrs. Maybury.
"O Julia!" cried Mrs. Maybury, for the moment quite faint, "that is because," she said, as soon as she had rallied, and breaking the dreadful silence, "you never had any little babies of your own, Julia." This was adding insult to injury, and still there was silence. "I don't believe it of you, Julia," she continued, "your kind heart—"
"I don't know what a kind heart has to do with the immutable decrees of an offended deity!" cried the exasperated Julia. "And this only goes to show what forty years' association with a free-thinking—"
"You were right in the beginning, Julia; we had better drop the subject," said Mrs. Maybury; and she gathered up her Afghan wools gently, and went to her room.
Mrs. Maybury came down, however, when tea was ready, and all was serene again, especially as Susan Peyster came in to tell the news about Dean Hampton's defalcation at the village bank, and had a seat at the table.
"But I don't understand what on earth he has done with the money," said Mrs. Maybury.
"Gambled," said Susan.
"Cards," said Mrs. Cairnes. "You see!"
"Not that sort of gambling!" cried Susan. "But stocks and that."
"It's the same thing," said Mrs. Cairnes.
"And that's the least part of it! They do say"—said Susan, balancing her teaspoon as if in doubt about speaking.
"They say what?" cried Mrs. Cairnes.
But for our part, as we don't know Mr. Dean Hampton, and, therefore, can not relish his misdoings with the same zest as if we did, we will not waste time on what was said. Only when Susan had gone, Mrs. Maybury rose, too, and said, "I must say, Julia, that I think this dreadful conversation is infinitely worse and more wicked than any game of cards could be!"
"What are you talking about?" said Julia, jocosely, and quite good-humored again.
"And the amount of shocking gossip of this description that I've heard since I've been in your house is already more than I've heard in the whole course of my life! Dr. Maybury would never allow a word of gossip in our rooms." And she went to bed.
"You shall never have another word in mine!" said the thunderstricken Julia to herself. And if she had heard that the North Pole had tipped all its ice off into space, she wouldn't have told her a syllable about it all that week.
But in the course of a fortnight, a particularly choice bit of news having turned up, and the edge of her resentment having worn away, Mrs. Cairnes could not keep it to herself. And poor Mrs. Maybury, famishing now for some object of interest, received it so kindly that[Pg 1648] things returned to their former footing. Perhaps not quite to their former footing, for Julia had now a feeling of restraint about her news, and didn't tell the most piquant, and winked to her visitors if the details trenched too much on what had better be unspoken. "Not that it was really so very—so very—but then Mrs. Maybury, you know," she said afterward. But she had never been accustomed to this restraint, and she didn't like it.
In fact Mrs. Cairnes found herself under restraints that were amounting to a mild bondage. She must be at home for meals, of course; she had been in the habit of being at home or not as she chose, and often of taking the bite and sup at other houses, which precluded the necessity of preparing anything at home. She must have the meals to suit another and very different palate, which was irksome and troublesome. She must exercise a carefulness concerning her conversation, and that of her gossips, too, which destroyed both zest and freedom. She strongly suspected that in her absence the curtains were up and the sun was allowed to play havoc with her carpets. She was remonstrated with on her goings and comings, she who had had the largest liberty for two score years. And then, when the minister came to see her, she never had the least good of the call, so much of it was absorbed by Mrs. Maybury. And Mrs. Maybury's health was delicate, she fussed and complained and whined; she cared for the things that Mrs. Cairnes didn't care for, and didn't care for the things that Mrs. Cairnes did care for; Mrs. Cairnes was conscious of her unspoken surprise at much that she said and did, and resented the somewhat superior gentleness and refinement of her old friend as much as the old friend resented her superior strength and liveliness.
"What has changed Sophia so? It isn't Sophia at all![Pg 1649] And I thought so much of her, and I looked forward to spending my old age with her so happily!" murmured Julia. "But perhaps it will come right," she reasoned cheerily. "I may get used to it. I didn't suppose there'd be any rubbing of corners. But as there is, the sooner they're rubbed off the better, and we shall settle down into comfort again, at last instead of at first, as I had hoped in the beginning."
Alas! "I really can't stand these plants of yours, Julia, dear," said Mrs. Maybury, soon afterward. "I've tried to. I've said nothing. I've waited, to be very sure. But I never have been able to have plants about me. They act like poison to me. They always make me sneeze so. And you see I'm all stuffed up—"
Her plants! Almost as dear to her as children might have been! The chief ornament of her parlors! And just ready to bloom! This was really asking too much. "I don't believe it's the plants at all," said Julia. "That's sheer nonsense. Anybody living on this green and vegetating earth to be poisoned by plants in a window! I don't suppose they trouble you any more than your lamp all night does me; but I've never said anything about that. I can't bear lamplight at night; I want it perfectly dark, and the light streams out of your room—"
"Why don't you shut the door, then?"
"Because I never shut my door. I want to hear if anything disturbs the house. Why don't you shut yours?"
"I never do, either. I've always had several rooms, and kept the doors open between. It isn't healthy to sleep with closed doors."
"Healthy! Healthy! I don't hear anything else from morning till night when I'm in the house."
"You can't hear very much of it, then."
"I should think, Sophia Maybury, you wanted to live forever!"
"Goodness knows I don't!" cried Mrs. Maybury, bursting into tears. And that night she shut her bedroom door and opened the window, and sneezed worse than ever all day afterward, in spite of the fact that Mrs. Cairnes had put all her cherished plants into the dining-room alcove.
"I can't imagine what has changed Julia so," sighed Mrs. Maybury. "She used to be so bright and sweet and good-tempered. And now I really don't know what sort of an answer I'm to have to anything I say. It keeps my nerves stretched on the qui vive all day. I am so disappointed. I am sure the Doctor would be very unhappy if he knew how I felt."
But Mrs. Maybury had need to pity herself; Julia didn't pity her. "She's been made a baby of so long," said Julia, "that now she really can't go alone." And perhaps she was a little bitterer about it than she would have been had Captain Cairnes ever made a baby of her in the least, at any time.
They were sitting together one afternoon, a thunderstorm of unusual severity having detained Mrs. Cairnes at home, and the conversation had been more or less acrimonious, as often of late. Just before dusk there came a great burst of sun, and the whole heavens were suffused with splendor.
"O Julia! Come here, come quick, and see this sunset!" cried Mrs. Maybury. But Julia did not come. "Oh! I can't bear to have you lose it," urged the philanthropic lover of nature again. "There! It's streaming up the very zenith. I never saw such color—do come."
"Mercy, Sophia! You're always wanting people to leave what they're about and see something! My lap's full of worsteds."
"Well," said Sophia. "It's for your own sake. I don't know that it will do me any good. Only if one enjoys beautiful sights."
"Dear me! Well, there! Is that all? I don't see anything remarkable. The idea of making one get up to see that!" And as she took her seat, up jumped the great black and white cat to look out in his turn. Mrs. Maybury would have been more than human if she had not said "Scat! scat! scat!" and she did say it, shaking herself in horror.
It was the last straw. Mrs. Cairnes took her cat in her arms and moved majestically out of the room, put on her rubbers, and went out to tea, and did not come home till the light up stairs told her that Mrs. Maybury had gone to her room.
Where was it all going to end? Mrs. Cairnes could not send Sophia away after all the protestations she had made. Mrs. Maybury could never put such a slight on Julia as to go away without more overt cause for displeasure. It seemed as though they would have to fight it out in the union.
But that night a glare lit the sky which quite outdid the sunset; the fire-bells and clattering engines called attention to it much more loudly than Sophia had announced the larger conflagration. And in the morning it was found that the Webster House was in ashes. All of Mrs. Maybury's property was in the building. The insurance had run out the week before, and meaning to attend to it every day she had let it go, and here she was penniless.
But no one need commiserate with her. Instead of any terror at her situation a wild joy sprang up within her. Relief and freedom clapped their wings above her.
It was Mrs. Cairnes who felt that she herself needed pity. A lamp at nights, oceans of fresh air careering round the house, the everlasting canary-bird's singing to[Pg 1652] bear, her plants exiled, her table revolutionized, her movements watched, her conversation restrained, her cat abused, the board of two people and the wages of one to come out of her narrow hoard. But she rose to the emergency. Sophia was penniless. Sophia was homeless. The things which it was the ashes of bitterness to allow her as a right, she could well give her as a benefactress. Sophia was welcome to all she had. She went into the room, meaning to overwhelm the weeping, helpless Sophia with her benevolence. Sophia was not there.
Mrs. Maybury came in some hours later, a carriage and a job-wagon presently following her to the door. "You are very good, Julia," said she, when Julia received her with the rapid sentences of welcome and assurance that she had been accumulating. "And you mustn't think I'm not sensible of all your kindness. I am. But my husband gave the institution advice for nothing for forty years, and I think I have rights there now without feeling under obligations to any. I've visited the directors, and I've had a meeting called and attended,—I've had all your energy, Julia, and have hurried things along in quite your own fashion. And as I had just one hundred dollars in my purse after I sold my watch this morning, I've paid it over for the entrance-fee, and I've been admitted and am going to spend the rest of my days in the Old Ladies' Home. I've the upper corner front room, and I hope you will come and see me there."
"Don't speak! Don't say one word! My mind was made up irrevocably when I went out. Nothing you, nothing any one, can say, will change it. I'm one of the old ladies now."
Mrs. Cairnes brought all her plants back into the parlor, pulled down the shades, drew the inside curtain, had the cat's cushion again in its familiar corner, and gave Allida warning, within half an hour. She looked about a little while and luxuriated in her freedom,—no one to supervise her conversation, her movements, her opinions, her food. Never mind the empty rooms, or the echoes there! She read an angry psalm or two, looked over some texts denouncing pharisees and hypocrites, thought indignantly of the ingratitude there was in the world, felt that any way, and on the whole, she was where she was before Sophia came, and went out to spend the evening, and came in at the nine-o'clock bell-ringing with such a sense of freedom, that she sat up till midnight to enjoy it.
And Sophia spent the day putting her multitudinous belongings into place, hanging up her bird-cage, arranging her books and her bureau-drawers, setting up a stocking, and making the acquaintance of the old ladies next her. She taught one of them to play double solitaire that very evening. And then she talked a little while concerning Dr. Maybury, about whom Julia had never seemed willing to hear a word; and then she read, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," and went to bed perfectly happy.
Julia came to see her the next day, and Sophia received her with open arms. Every one knew that Julia had begged her to stay and live with her always, and share what she had. Julia goes now to see her every day of her life, rain or snow, storm or shine; and the whole village says that the friendship between those two old women is something ideal.