Until that summer nobody in our village had ever taken boarders. There had been no real necessity for it, and we had always been rather proud of the fact. While we were certainly not rich—there was not one positively rich family among us—we were comfortably provided with all the necessities of life. We did not need to open our houses, and our closets, and our bureau drawers, and give the freedom of our domestic hearths, and, as it were, our household gods for playthings, to strangers and their children.
Many of us had to work for our daily bread, but, we were thankful to say, not in that way. We prided ourselves because there was no summer hotel with a demoralizing bowling-alley, and one of those dangerous chutes, in our village. We felt forbiddingly calm and superior when now and then some strange city people from Grover, the large summer resort six miles from us, travelled up and down our main street seeking board in vain. We plumed ourselves upon our reputation of not taking boarders for love or money.
Nobody had dreamed that there was to be a break at last in our long-established custom, and nobody dreamed that the break was to be made in such a quarter. One of the most well-to-do, if not the most well-to-do, of us all, took the first boarders ever taken in Linnville. When Amelia Powers heard of it she said, “Them that has, gits.”
On the afternoon of the first day of June, six years ago, I was sewing at my sitting-room window. I was making a white muslin dress for little Alice, my niece, to wear to the Seventeenth-of-June picnic. I had been sitting there alone all the afternoon, and it was almost four o'clock when I saw Amelia Powers, who lives opposite, and who had been sewing at her window—I had noticed her arm moving back and forth, disturbing the shadows of the horse-chestnut tree in the yard—fling open her front door, run out on the piazza, and stand peering around the corner post, with her neck so stretched that it looked twice as long as before. Then her sister Candace, who has poor health and seldom ventures out-of-doors, threw up the front chamber window and leaned out as far as she was able, and stared with her hand shading her eyes from the sun. I could just see her head through an opening in the horse-chestnut branches.
Then I heard another door open, and Mrs. Peter Jones, who lives in the house next below the Powers', came running out. She ran down the walk to her front gate and leaned over, all twisted sideways, to see.
Then I heard voices, and there were Adeline Ketchum and her mother coming down the street, all in a flutter of hurry. Adeline is slender and nervous; her elbows jerked out, her chin jerked up, and her skirts switched her thin ankles; Mrs. Ketchum is very stout, and she walked with a kind of quivering flounce. Her face was blazing, and I knew her bonnet was on hindside before—I was sure that the sprig of purple flowers belonged on the front.
When Adeline and her mother reached Mrs. Peter Jones' gate they stopped, and they all stood there together looking. Then I saw Tommy Gregg racing along, and I felt positive that his mother had sent him to see what the matter was. She is a good woman, but the most curious person in our village. She never seems to have enough affairs of her own to thoroughly amuse her. I never saw a boy run as fast as Tommy did—as if his mother's curiosity and his own were a sort of motor compelling him to his utmost speed. His legs seemed never to come out of their running crooks, and his shock of hair was fairly stiffened out behind with the wind.
Then I began to wonder if it were possible there was a fire anywhere. I ran to my front door and called:
“Tommy! Tommy!” said I, “where is the fire?”
Tommy did not hear me, but all of a sudden the fire-bell began to ring.
Then I ran across the street to Mrs. Peter Jones' gate, and Amelia Powers came hurrying out of her yard.
“Where is it? Oh, where is it?” said she, and Candace put her head out of the window and called out, “Where is it? Is it near here?”
We all sniffed for smoke and strained our eyes for a red fire glare on the horizon, but we could neither smell nor see anything unusual.
Pretty soon we heard the fire-engine coming, and Amelia Powers cried out: “Oh, it's going to Mrs. Liscom's! It's her house! It's Mrs. Liscom's house!”
Candace Powers put her head farther out of the window, and screamed in a queer voice that echoed like a parrot's, “Oh, 'Melia! 'Melia! it's Mrs. Liscom's, it's Mrs. Liscom's, and the wind's this way! Come, quick, and help me get out the best feather bed, and the counterpane that mother knit! Quick! Quick!”
Amelia had to run in and quiet Candace, who was very apt to have a bad spell when she was over-excited, and the rest of us started for the fire.
As we hurried down the street I asked Mrs. Jones how she had known there was a fire in the first place, for I supposed that was why she had run out to her front door and looked down the street. Then I learned about the city boarders. She and Amelia, from the way they faced at their sitting-room windows, had seen the Grover stage-coach stop at Mrs. Liscom's, and had run out to see the boarders alight. Mrs. Jones said there were five of them—the mother, grandmother, two daughters, and a son.
I said that I did not know Mrs. Liscom was going to take boarders; I was very much surprised.
“I suppose she thought she would earn some money and have some extra things,” said Mrs. Jones.
“It must have been that,” said Mrs. Ketchum, panting—she was almost out of breath—“for, of course, the Liscoms don't need the money.”
I laughed and said I thought not. I felt a little pride about it, because Mrs. Liscom was a second cousin of my husband, and he used to think a great deal of her.
“They must own that nice place clear, if it ain't going to burn to the ground, and have something in the bank besides,” assented Mrs. Peter Jones.
Ever so many people were running down the street with us, and the air seemed full of that brazen clang of the fire-bell; still we could not see any fire, nor even smell any smoke, until we got to the head of the lane where the Liscom house stands a few rods from the main street.
The lane was about choked up with the fire-engine, the hose-cart, the fire department in their red shirts, and, I should think, half the village. We climbed over the stone wall into Mrs. Liscom's oat-field; it was hard work for Mrs. Ketchum, but Mrs. Jones and I pushed and Adeline pulled, and then we ran along close to the wall toward the house. We certainly began to smell smoke, though we still could not see any fire. The firemen were racing in and out of the house, bringing out the furniture, as were some of the village boys, and the engine was playing upon the south end, where the kitchen is.
Mrs. Peter Jones, who is very small and alert, said suddenly that it looked to her as if the smoke were coming out of the kitchen chimney, but Mrs. Ketchum said of course it was on fire inside in the woodwork. “Oh, only to think of Mrs. Liscom's nice house being all burned up, and what a dreadful reception for those boarders!” she groaned out.
I never saw such a hubbub, and apparently over nothing at all, as there was. There was a steady yell of fire from a crowd of boys who seemed to enjoy it; the water was swishing, the firemen's arms were pumping in unison, and everybody generally running in aimless circles like a swarm of ants. Then we saw the boarders coming out. “Oh, the house must be all in a light blaze inside!” groaned Mrs. Ketchum.
There were five of the boarders. The mother, a large, fair woman with a long, massive face, her reddish hair crinkling and curling around it in a sort of ivy-tendril fashion, came first. Her two daughters, in blue gowns, with pretty, agitated faces, followed; then the young son, fairly teetering with excitement; then the grandmother, a little, tremulous old lady in an auburn wig.
The woman at the head carried a bucket, and what should she do but form her family into a line toward the well at the north side of the house where we were!
Of course, the family did not nearly reach to the well, and she beckoned to us imperatively. “Come immediately!” said she; “if the men of this village have no head in an emergency like this, let the women arise! Come immediately.”
So Mrs. Peter Jones, Mrs. Ketchum, Adeline, and I stepped into the line, and the mother boarder filled the bucket at the well, and we passed it back from hand to hand, and the boy at the end flung it into Mrs. Liscom's front entry all over her nice carpet.
Then suddenly we saw Caroline Liscom appear. She snatched the bucket out of the hands of the boy boarder and gave it a toss into the lilac-bush beside the door; then she stood there, looking as I had never seen her look before. Caroline Liscom has always had the reputation of being a woman of a strong character; she is manifestly the head of her family. It is always, “Mrs. Liscom's house,” and “Mrs. Liscom's property,” instead of Mr. Liscom's.
It is always understood that, though Mr. Liscom is the nominal voter in town matters, not a selectman goes into office with Mr. Liscom's vote unless it is authorized by Mrs. Liscom. Mr. Liscom is, so to speak, seldom taken without Mrs. Liscom's indorsement.
Of course, Mrs. Liscom being such a character has always more or less authority in her bearing, but that day she displayed a real majesty which I had never seen in her before. She stood there a second, then she turned and made a backward and forward motion of her arm as if she were sweeping, and directly red-shirted firemen and boys began to fly out of the house as if impelled by it.
“You just get out of my house; every one of you!” said Caroline in a loud but slow voice, as if she were so angry that she was fairly reining herself in; and they got out. Then she called to the firemen who were working the engine, and they heard her above all the uproar.
“You stop drenching my house with water, and go home!” said she.
Everybody began to hush and stare, but Tommy Gregg gave one squeaking cry of fire as if in defiance.
“There is no fire,” said Caroline Liscom. “My house is not on fire, and has not been on fire. I am getting tea, and the kitchen chimney always smokes when the wind is west. I don't thank you, any of you, for coming here and turning my house upside down and drenching it with water, and lugging my furniture out-of-doors. Now you can go home. I don't see what fool ever sent you here!”
The engine stopped playing, and you could hear the water dripping off the south end of the house. The windows were streaming as if there had been a shower. Everybody looked abashed, and the chief engineer of the fire department—who is a little nervous man who always works as if the river were on fire and he had started it—asked meekly if they shouldn't bring the furniture back.
“No,” said Caroline Liscom, “I want you to go home, and that is all I do want of you.”
Then the mother boarder spoke—she was evidently not easily put down. “I refuse to return to the house or to allow my family to do so unless I am officially notified by the fire department that the fire is extinguished,” said she.
“Then you can stay out-of-doors,” said Caroline Liscom, and we all gasped to hear her, though we secretly admired her for it.
The boarder glared at her in a curious kind of way, like a broadside of stoniness, but Caroline did not seem to mind it at all. Then the boarder changed her tactics like a general on the verge of defeat. She sidled up to Mr. Spear, the chief engineer, who was giving orders to drag home the engine, and said in an unexpectedly sweet voice, like a trickle of honey off the face of a rock: “My good man, am I to understand that I need apprehend no further danger from fire! I ask for the sake of my precious family.”
Mr. Spear looked at her as if she had spoken to him in Choctaw, and she was obliged to ask him over again. “My good man,” said she, “is the fire out?”
Mr. Spear looked at her as if he were half daft then, but he answered: “Yes, ma'am, yes, ma'am, certainly, ma'am, no danger at all, ma'am.” Then he went on ordering the men: “A leetle more to the right, boys! All together!”
“Thank you, my good man, your word is sufficient,” said the boarder, though Mr. Spear did not seem to hear her.
Then she sailed into the house, and her son, her two daughters, and the grandmother after her. Mrs. Peter Jones and Adeline and her mother went home, but I ventured, since I was a sort of relation, to go in and offer to help Caroline set things to rights. She thanked me, and said that she did not want any help; when Jacob and Harry came home they would set the furniture in out of the yard.
“I am sorry for you, Caroline,” said I.
“Look at my house, Sophia Lane,” said she, and that was all she would say. She shut her mouth tight over that. That house was enough to make a strong-minded woman like Caroline dumb, and send a weak one into hysterics. It was dripping with water, and nearly all the furniture out in the yard piled up pell-mell. I could not see how she was going to get supper for the boarders: the kitchen fire was out and the stove drenched, with a panful of biscuits in the oven.
“What are you going to give them for supper, Caroline?” said I, and she just shook her head. I knew that those boarders would have to take what they could get, or go without.
When Caroline was in any difficulty there never was any help for her, except from the working of circumstances to their own salvation. I thought I might as well go home. I offered to give her some pie or cake if hers were spoiled, but she only shook her head again, and I knew she must have some stored away in the parlor china-closet, where the water had not penetrated.
I went through the house to the front entry, thinking I would go out the front door—the side one was dripping as if it were under a waterfall. Just as I reached it I heard a die-away voice from the front chamber say, “My good woman.”
I did not dream that I was addressed, never having been called by that name, though always having hoped that I was a good woman.
So I kept right on. Then I heard a despairing sigh, and the voice said, “You speak to her, Harriet.”
Then I heard another voice, very sweet and a little timid, “Will you please step upstairs? Mamma wishes to speak to you.”
I began to wonder if they were talking to me. I looked up, and there discovered a pretty, innocent, rosy little face, peering over the balustrade at the head of the stairs. “Will you please step upstairs?” said she again, in the same sweet tones. “Mamma wishes to speak to you.”
I have a little weakness of the heart, and do not like to climb stairs more than I am positively obliged to; it always puts me so out of breath. I sleep downstairs on that account. I looked at Caroline's front stairs, which are rather steep, with some hesitation. I felt shaken, too, on account of the alarm of fire. Then I heard the first voice again with a sort of languishing authority: “My good woman, will you be so kind as to step upstairs immediately?”
I went upstairs. The girl who had spoken to me—I found afterward that she was the elder of the daughters—motioned me to go into the north chamber. I found them all there. The mother, Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson, as I afterward knew her name to be, was lying on the bed, her head propped high with pillows; the younger daughter was fanning her, and she was panting softly as if she were almost exhausted. The grandmother sat beside the north window, with a paper-covered book on her knees. She was eating something from a little white box on the window-sill. The boy was at another window, also with a book in which he did not seem to be interested. He looked up at me, as I entered, with a most peculiar expression of mingled innocence and shyness which was almost terror. I could not see why the boy should possibly be afraid of me, but I learned afterward that it was either his natural attitude or natural expression. He was either afraid of every mortal thing or else appeared to be. The singular elevated arch of his eyebrows over his wide-open blue eyes, and his mouth, which was always parted a little, no doubt served to give this impression. He was a pretty boy, with a fair pink-and-white complexion, and long hair curled like a girl's, which looked odd to me, for he was quite large.
Mrs. Jameson beckoned me up to the bed with one languid finger, as if she could not possibly do more. I began to think that perhaps she had some trouble with her heart like myself, and the fire had overcome her, and I felt very sympathetic.
“I am sorry you have had such an unpleasant experience,” I began, but she cut me short.
“My good woman,” said she in little more than a whisper, “do you know of any house in a sanitary location where we can obtain board immediately? I am very particular about the location. There must be no standing water near the house, there must not be trees near on account of the dampness, the neighbors must not keep hens—of course, the people of the house must not keep hens—and the woman must have an even temper. I must particularly insist upon an even temper. My nerves are exceedingly weak; I cannot endure such a rasping manner as that which I have encountered to-day.”
When she stopped and looked at me for an answer I was so astonished that I did not know what to say. There she was, just arrived; had not eaten one meal in the house, and wanting to find another boarding-place.
Finally I said, rather stupidly I suppose, that I doubted if she could find another boarding-place in our village as good as the one which she already had.
She gave another sigh, as if of the most determined patience. “Have I not already told you, my good woman,” said she, “that I cannot endure such a rasping manner and voice as that of the woman of the house? It is most imperative that I have another boarding-place at once.”
She said this in a manner which nettled me a little, as if I had boarding-places, for which she had paid liberally and had a right to demand, in my hand, and was withholding them from her. I replied that I knew of no other boarding-place of any kind whatsoever in the village. Then she looked at me in what I suppose was meant to be an ingratiating way.
“My good woman,” said she, “you look very neat and tidy yourself, and I don't doubt are a good plain cook; I am willing to try your house if it is not surrounded by trees and there is no standing water near; I do not object to running water.”
In the midst of this speech the elder daughter had said in a frightened way, “Oh, mamma!” but her mother had paid no attention. As for myself, I was angry. The memory of my two years at Wardville Young Ladies' Seminary in my youth and my frugally independent life as wife and widow was strong upon me. I had read and improved my mind. I was a prominent member of the Ladies' Literary Society of our village: I wrote papers which were read at the meetings; I felt, in reality, not one whit below Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson, and, moreover, large sleeves were the fashion, and my sleeves were every bit as large as hers, though she had just come from the city. That added to my conviction of my own importance.
“Madam,” said I, “I do not take boarders. I have never taken boarders, and I never shall take boarders.” Then I turned and went out of the room, and downstairs, with, it seemed to me, much dignity.
However, Mrs. Jameson was not impressed by it, for she called after me: “My good woman, will you please tell Mrs. Liscom that I must have some hot water to make my health food with immediately? Tell her to send up a pitcher at once, very hot.”
I did not tell Caroline about the hot water. I left that for them to manage themselves. I did not care to mention hot water with Caroline's stove as wet as if it had been dipped in the pond, even if I had not been too indignant at the persistent ignoring of my own dignity. I went home and found Louisa Field, my brother's widow, and her little daughter Alice, who live with me, already there. Louisa keeps the district school, and with her salary, besides the little which my brother left her, gets along very comfortably. I have a small sum in bank, besides my house, and we have plenty to live on, even if we don't have much to spare.
Louisa was full of excitement over the false alarm of fire, and had heard a reason for it which we never fairly knew to be true, though nearly all the village believed it. It seems that the little Jameson boy, so the story ran, had peeped into the kitchen and had seen it full of smoke from Caroline's smoky chimney when she was kindling the fire; then had run out into the yard, and seeing the smoke out there too, and being of such an exceedingly timid temperament, had run out to the head of the lane calling fire, and had there met Tommy Gregg, who had spread the alarm and been the means of calling out the fire department.
Indeed, the story purported to come from Tommy Gregg, who declared that the boy at Liscom's had “hollered” fire, and when he was asked where it was had told him at Liscom's. However that may have been, I looked around at our humble little home, at the lounge which I had covered myself, at the threadbare carpet on the sitting-room floor, at the wallpaper which was put on the year before my husband died, at the vases on the shelf, which had belonged to my mother, and I was very thankful that I did not care for “extra things” or new furniture and carpets enough to take boarders who made one feel as if one were simply a colonist of their superior state, and the Republic was over and gone.