White Bread


White Bread was first published in Harper's Monthly Magazine, July, 1916. "Nobody made white bread like Jane, and no one could find out how she made it. After a few rebuffs, Katy Town understood that the bread was Jane's prerogative...Why should she say what bread should go into that book and what bread should stay out of it?."
White Bread
Stacy's Anadama bread, San Diego, 2010

EVERY one in the room had promised something. Mis' Tyrus Burns offered her receipt for filled cookies. "My filled cookie recipe," she said, "is something that very, very few have ever got out of me. I give it to Mis' Bradford—when she moved away. I've give it to one or two of my kin—by word of mouth and not wrote down. And Carol Beck had it from me when she was married—wrote out on note-paper, formal—but understood to be a personal receipt and not general at all. This 'll be the first time I've ever give in to make it public, and nothing on earth but the church carpet would make me now."

"Me either, with my Christmas cakes," said Mis' Arthur Port. "I've made 'em for fairs and bazaars and suppers, and give the material when needed it for the children's shoes, but I feel like the time had come for the real supreme sacrifice. I'll put 'em in the book with the rest of you."

Mis' Older's salad-dressing, Mis' Eldred's fruit cordial, Mis' Regg's mince-meat, Mis' Emmons's pie-crust—these were all offered up. The basement dining-room of the church was filled with women that spring afternoon, and a spirit was moving among them like a little flame, kindling each one to giving. The place in which they were gathered, its furnace in the corner, its reed melodeon for the Sunday-school, its black-boards, and its locked cupboards filled with dishes which the women had earned when a like flame quickened—this place might have been an austere height where they were face to face with the ultimate purpose of giving, of being. For abruptly children's shoes, parlor curtains, the little hoard accumulating "over back" on a cupboard shelf became as nothing, and the need to be of use was on them all, like a cry involuntarily answered to a cry. That exquisite reflection of each in each was there, obeying strange laws of repetition and contagion—a gentle, positive power, infinitely stronger than the negative infection of mob violence. It was as if the very church carpet which the receipt-book's sale must buy was but the homely means for the exercise of the mysterious force which moved them.

Save only one. Mis' Jane Mellish sat by the serving-pantry door, no more self-forgetful than when she was in her own kitchen.

"What's the book going to be called?" she had asked when they had voted to prepare it.

"The Katy Town First Church Ladies' Choice Receipt Book," they had finally decided.

"How can you call it that if it ain't all the ladies?" Jane had inquired further. "Some o' the ladies 'ain't got a choice receipt to their names nor their brains."

"Such as 'ain't can see to the printing," Mis' Tyrus Burns suggested. "Would you druther do that, Jane?" she added, tartly.

Jane's lips moved before she spoke—a little helpless way that they had, as if they were not equal to what they must do. "Who's going to write the dedication?" she asked.

No one had thought of a dedication, but it occurred to no one to question it. And the answer was inevitable.

"You'd ought to do that," they said to Jane: For who else of their number had ever published poems in the Katy Town Epitome, and whom else had its editor asked to "do special funeral and wedding write-ups"?

Jane nodded and hid her relief, and presently faced the question which all along she had been dreading:

"Now, bread. We'd ought to have some real special breads," they said. "Who's going to do them?"

Mis' Holmes's salt-rising bread, Mis' Jacobs's potato-bread, Mis' Grace's half-graham-and-half-rye—these were all offered. It was Mis' Tyrus Burns who said that which they were all thinking. She turned to Jane Mellish.

"Land! Jane," she said, "what it 'd be to have your white-bread receipt for our volume!"

At this a hush fell, and they looked at Jane. For years her white-bread receipt had baffled them all. Nobody made white bread like Jane, and no one could find out how she made it—whether by flour or mixing, or, as some suspected, a home-made lard, or an unknown baking-powder, or a secret yeast packed in occasional boxes from Jane's relatives oversea. Whatever the process or the component, she kept it. After a few rebuffs, Katy Town understood that the bread was Jane's prerogative. So they praised it to her, and experimented privately, and owned to one another their defeat. No one ever asked Jane any more. When Mis' Tyrus Burns did so, the silence was as if some one had spoken impertinently, or had made an historical reference too little known to be in good taste, or had quoted poetry.

"I'm going to compose an original dedication," Jane said, stiffly. "I guess, ladies, that's my share."

Mis' Tyrus Burns sighed. " 'Most any of us," she said, "could stodge up a dedication to a book. Or we could even go without one, if we just had to. But that white-bread receipt of yours had ought to be in this book by rights, Jane Mellish, with a page all to itself."

Jane was silent. And when little Miss Cold, of her heart's goodness, relieved the moment with, "None of you offered to give my cream cake a page all by itself, I notice," every one laughed gratefully, and spoke no more of Jane's bread.

Jane walked down the street with the others, and she knew of what they were thinking. When she turned alone into her own stint under the new buds, she went with a sick defiance, which her elaborate chatter about house-cleaning had only scotched. She left her door open to the friendly evening. The rooms were pleasant and commonplace in the westering light; her dress was to be changed, there was supper to get, her "clothes" had come home and were waiting to be sprinkled; but all these were become secondary to the disturbing thing.

"Mis' Tyrus Burns always did make things disagreeable for everybody," she thought. "Why should she say what bread should go into that book and what bread should stay out of it?"

Grandma Mellish was in the kitchen. She had an airy room of her own, and the "other" room was warm enough for comfort, but she sat in the kitchen. Sometimes she spent wakeful nights there.

"The other furniture bunts out at me," the old lady had said. "I see it's there. In the kitchen I can think things without truck having to be looked at all the time— Can't I sit where I want?" she would querulously demand of them.

Of late she had been querulous, too, about certain grinning faces on the cook-stove.

"They're makin' fun of what they think you be," she said once. "You can stand there fryin' things, as moral as the minister, but you can't fool them faces. Dum 'em."

She sat in the kitchen now, patching a roller-towel. "Be they done clackin'?" she inquired, as Jane entered.

With the table-cloth in her hand, Jane stooped to her, told her about the book and the new church carpet. "They want I should put my white-bread receipt in," she said.

"The brass!" said Grandma Mellish, shrilly. "The brass!"

"Ain't it?" Jane said, softening to the sympathy, and stopped in her journey from cupboard to table to tell more of the meeting. The old woman listened; she was very bent, and to listen she looked over her stooped shoulder, her lips parted and moving in her effort to follow.

"The brass!" she said again. "That receipt's yours. I don't know how you make it, and I live in the same house with you. They'll want the hair off your head, next. What you goin' to do for their book?"

"It's my book, too," Jane said. "It's our book, I s'pose—it ain't all theirs. I'm going to write the dedication—giving it away on the front page, you know."

"Eh," said Grandma Mellish. "Well, just you make it flowery enough, and put in enough love and heaven, and that had ought to satisfy 'em. They'll want the clothes off your back, next." She broke off and shook her fist at the grinning faces on the cooking-stove. "What you smirkin' at, drat ye?" she inquired.

When supper was ready Jane went out on the porch, and there, in order to be away from the droning voice, she waited for Molly. Molly was late, but Jane was not hungry. The feeling of sick distaste had persisted, so that it was almost physical nausea; and this the old woman's words, which had at first soothed her, now someway intensified.

What was she caring so much about? she asked herself, indignantly. The bread receipt was hers, and that was all there was to it. It had been brought from the old country by her great-grandmother Osthelder, and had been handed down from mother to daughter. She remembered how jealously it had been guarded by her own mother, who had brought the receipt West with her when she married; and straightway in her home town her bread had become an amazement. Her mother had always made the bread for the Communion services, and so had Jane. In a fortnight more Jane would be making bread for the spring Communion of the First Church.

"I do enough for them—I guess I do enough for them with my receipt," she thought. "Besides, it's Molly's. I 'ain't the right to give away what's Molly's."

Molly, coming from her school, seemed not at all disturbed about her rights. She had been teaching for two years, but she looked like a school-girl herself as she came round the house. She came bareheaded, save for a flutter of white veil on her hair; and she was always like one who is met at a day's beginning, and not at an ending. Only to-night there was a cloud on her face, no larger than the white space between her brows. But her mother saw.

"What is it, Molly?" she asked, but the girl laughed and ran up-stairs and managed to keep off the question until supper was done. She had eaten nothing, however; and Jane had eaten nothing, because that sick sense of something wrong possessed her; only Grandma Mellish ate steadily. "What is it, Molly?" her mother asked again, when the old woman had finished.

"Well, mother darling," Molly said, "Ellen Burns has come back. At least she's sent word she's ready to take the school. They've offered it to me if I want to stay, but—"

"But what?" Jane said, sharply.

"I can't keep it," Molly answered. "It was her school. I was just a supply while she was sick. Now she's well, and she wants it back."

"What's that?" said Grandma Mellish. "Mis' Tyrus Burns's girl's got well? She wants back, after you doin' her work the best o' two years? What's the Board say to that?"

"They haven't met yet," Molly said. "But Nat says he knows I can stay if I like. Only—"

"Well, I should think so," said Grandma Mellish. "It's a good school. You stay. Wants back, does she? The brass!"

Molly looked at her mother, but Jane did not meet her eyes. It would be serious, this loss of the school. There were the three of them, and Molly was the breadwinner. If she were to get no other school next year. ...

"You've got the good of the school to think of," Jane said. "You must be the best teacher, or Nat wouldn't be so sure of the Board. The good of the school's the main thing."

Molly shook her head. "I don't know about my being a better teacher," she said. "I think if they let me stay it 'll be because Nat Commons is president of the Board."

"Nonsense!" her mother said, with vigor. "Just because he's taken you to drive once or twice. Anyway, what if it is so? You like him, don't you? You don't want you should hurt his feelings? If you go he'll think you're running away from him. You've got to think of everything."

Grandma Mellish was wiping her spectacles on her petticoat. "You better keep your cap set for Rufus Commons's son," she said. "He's got his pa's pocket and his grandad's jaw. Don't you leave him slip through your fingers."

Molly rose swiftly and went out on the porch. Her mother's eyes followed her, but she said nothing. As Jane turned back to her work, she was aware that her own dull sense of physical ill-being had been multiplied, and she felt a weight within, bearing down her chest, changing her breath.

"I've got to get a-hold of myself," she thought. "I guess I'll take a dose of something and get into the bed."

On her way down-town after supper Mis' Tyrus Burns went round by Jane Mellish's house. It was in her mind that she had been, after all, a little hard on Jane, and she thought of inviting her to go to a motion-picture show.

"Besides," she thought, "if I get round her right, mebbe I can make her see herself and her bread more general."

On the little front porch Molly was sitting alone. It was an exquisite time of daylight and shadow, and, for a third integrant delight, above the bare locust-trees came the moon.

"Gone to bed, has she?" said Mis' Tyrus Burns. "I don'no' but it was a hard meeting for her."

Molly's look questioned her.

"That bread business," Mis' Burns said, briefly. "Molly, look here. Can't you bring something to bear?"

"You mean for her to give the receipt?" Molly asked.

"Certain," said Mis' Burns. "Or don't you want she should do it?"

"She must do as she likes," Molly told her. "I oughtn't to influence her."

"But she says it's for you she's keeping it," Mis' Burns reminded her. "She says it's been handed from mother to daughter for generations, and she won't give away your birthright. She says—"

"Does she say that?" asked Molly.

Mis' Tyrus Burns moved nearer to the girl. The soft, thick face of the woman was momentarily twitched out of drawing. "She don't guess it," she said, "but I bet you she's just hiding herself in under that for a reason." She did not add aloud what she want down the street saying to herself: "Pride's pride, and sin's sin. And I declare I don'no' which Jane Mellish is et by."

Molly looked after Mis' Burns. "She never said a word about Ellen coming home," Molly thought. "But my! how she must wish I was out of the way."

The moon was free of the locust-trees when the gate opened again, and Molly, still alone on the porch, greeted Nat Commons. This great, fine creature, president of the Katy Town School Board, bass singer in the First Church choir, was on his way to his night's work as foreman in the Katy Town Epitome composing-room. The two did not shake hands. At the other extreme of the gamut which makes hand-shaking a form lay Katy Town, where too much hand-shaking might denote that "something was meant."

Nat set one foot on the step, leaned on his knee, and looked across at her. "I come to help you make up your mind," he said.

Through Molly Mellish went a faint, delicious ripple.

All these months she had been running away, with the certainty that his step was a little way behind, patient, unhurrying. To-night it was as if, abruptly, she felt on her cheek the breath of the runner.

"How do you know my mind isn't made up now?" she asked.

"Then," Nat said, "maybe I come to help you make it over—and make it right."

He leaned on his knee, his large hands loosely clasped. His powerful young frame and his young, boyish face cut off from Molly her vision of the street, of the rest of the world. There was about him a sense of enormous capacity for work, for physical accomplishment, which drew her, as knightly powers to kill drew women once.

"You stay!" he said. "Keep the school!"

She shook her head. "I've told you how I feel," she answered.

"You can stay," he said to her. "You can stay! You stay."

"If Ellen wants the school back," said Molly, "then she's got to have it back. The Board told her she could."

"Any time inside a year," he reminded her. "Well, it's two years."

"But it took her the two years to get well!" cried Molly. "And now she wants to be here. And her mother's alone."

"Her mother's got money," Nat Commons argued. "Ellen don't need the school. You do. And that ought to decide it, because one of you is just as good a teacher as the other one."

Molly was silent. All this was true. After all, must she worry, and stint her own mother, and herself face the city with its doubtful chances, just because Ellen Burns had taken it in her head to have back the school?

With no warning at all, Nat Commons came in the dusk of the porch and stooped and laid his cheek against her cheek. "Molly," he said, "I guess you know, don't you? Do you want me?"

She turned her head toward him never so little, but it proved to be enough. It was the moment when innumerable past lines drew together.

"You stay here," he said, in a little while. "It won't be more than a year till we can go to housekeeping—the four of us. Only, till then you and I had ought to be where we can see each other. You stay here, and keep the school."

But, Molly told herself through the night, to stay there without work was impossible. To find work in Katy Town was equally impossible. Why should not Ellen Burns come back and live there quietly until the year was past, and then take back the school?—Ellen Burns, to whom the salary was not important; Ellen Burns, who had no trousseau to buy. ...

A little while after dawn she heard her mother walk through the hall. Molly dressed and went down. Jane was outside the kitchen door, standing idle in the first sun. The morning was upon her, with its pathetic sense of wide-eyed, open-handed promise. The day still hoped for everything from the world. The time was like a child running into a room where there was evil.

"Haven't you been sleeping, mother?" Molly asked.

"Not very well," Jane confessed. "What was Sarah Burns saying to you out on the porch last night?" she added.

"She wanted I should speak to you about your white-bread receipt," Molly told her. "Mother, why not let them have it?"

Jane spoke out with a passion which amazed her daughter. "Why don't Sarah Burns sell her mahogany and her silver tea-set away from Ellen?" she cried. "I 'ain't no such things for you. Everybody in town's crazy over my bread receipt. You'd be the fifth generation that's kep' it secret. I won't give it. It's all we've got. I've made up my mind."

Molly hesitated, and risked it. "If it's on my account, mother—" she said, slowly, and caught the swift look in her mother's eyes, and could not steal away her defenses—"do just as you think you ought, dear," she said only.

Jane's lips thinned and tightened. "They's no 'ought' about this," she said. "It's bigger than 'ought.' It's tradition."

Molly laughed out. "That's beautiful, mother," she said. "Tell me," she added, "did you know what Nat said to me on the porch last night, after Mis' Burns went?"

Jane's look questioned, and the girl's look answered.

"You knew what I'd say to him, didn't you, mother?" said Molly.

"I hoped I knew," Jane said. "Oh, Molly! And you'll keep the school?"

"I guess so," said Molly.

Grandma Mellish appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Jane!" she shouted, needlessly. "Is they any of your white bread old enough to toast?"

Jane frowned. "I'm going to hate the name o' my white bread," she said. "Yes—they's some in the under crock. Let's hurry breakfast," she added to Molly. "I got to be down to the Epitome office to pick the cook-book cover.

The Epitome office was up a flight of sunless stairs, and when Jane reached there toward one o'clock, only the foreman, Nat Commons, was in the composing-room. He strode down between the forms, tying on his ticking apron, and upset Jane's simple dignity by throwing his bare arms about her and kissing her.

"Molly will!" he cried, his head up as if he were singing it.

"So would I if I was Molly, Jane said, primly, and frowned to show how much she was at ease.

"And she's just about made up her mind to keep the school," he added. "Hold her up to that—Mother Mellish!"

"Hold her up to it yourself," Jane warned him, "or what's the use of being president of the Board and her husband-to-be? Show me some cook-book covers."

"The Board don't meet till a week from Saturday," he added, while he brought the paper. "She's got till then to make up her mind."

"Oh, she'll stay," Jane said. "Don't you think this brown's real tasty? And see 't you give me a nice border around my dedication. I laid awake last night and got it half wrote."

The others of the committee arriving, the cook-book took shape before their eyes. It was Nat Commons's ardent hope to give them a different tail-piece for every page, and indefatigably he brought them proofs of dolphins and torches and serpents and ram's horns.

"Land, what's this?" Mis' Arthur Port demanded. "Looks like two loaves of bread. Jane, this must be to go to the foot of your white-bread receipt, sure enough."

"That's an open book," Jane said, tartly. "What makes your jokes so heavy, Martha Port? Your own heft, mebbe."

"Well, we've all been thinking and talking about you and your bread so much since yesterday, I suppose I have got bread on the brain," Mis' Port replied, humbly.

"Must be a surprise to have somethin' on the brain," Jane offered. "Now, black ink or gold, ladies?" she wanted to know.

"Black ink," voted Mis' Arthur Port, with sudden energy. "We can't stand the expense of the gold with some folks holding back stingy on the book's insides!"

Back in her kitchen Jane Mellish turned with definite relief for the sympathy and indorsement of Grandma Mellish. The old woman was before the stove again.

"What do you think!" Jane shouted, sitting on tin wood-box beside her. "Them women can't leave me alone. They keep harping away on my bread receipt."

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish.

Jane said this once more, her indignation a little touched with impatience.

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish, in exactly the same tone. This was evidently one of her ways of entertainment. She had whole days w r hen it was almost impossible to communicate with her, though nothing intervened save her unvaried interrogative.

"My white bread, my bread receipt!" Jane screamed, determined on sympathy at any price. "They want to get my white bread away from me."

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish.

But when Jane had turned from her, despairing of rapport here, the old woman relented.

"Tell 'em," she said, sharply—"tell 'em to go plumb to thunder. Tell the hull church to go plumb to thunder. Tell 'em nothin' in their book is fit to eat at a heathens' picnic. Tell 'em you wouldn't buy it for nothin' to a junk-shop. Tell 'em to go right along, plumb to thunder, afoot or ahossback—"

"There, there, there!" Jane cried, and hurried from the room.

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish, and began all over again.

Molly found her mother with tears on her face.

"Mother!" Molly cried. "You're being miserable over that old bread. It isn't worth it!"

"You go down-town and see if you can find something for supper," Jane said only, and drew away.

"Nobody on earth understands just the way I am," Jane thought, bitterly. "Not even Molly. What do they have me make the Communion bread for, if it ain't something everybody can't do? I've a good notion to tell 'em I won't never make another loaf for 'em."

Nevertheless, on the night before Communion, two weeks later, Jane "set sponge," as usual, for her bread. It was a task in which she always delighted. She brought special pans, kept scrupulously for nothing else; she measured and weighed her flour; for years she had dissolved her yeast in the same blue cup. She moved among her ingredients like a priestess. The time bore less the flavor of a task than of a ceremony.

Nat Commons dropped in the kitchen on his way to the School Board meeting.

"I'm going to stay to it just long enough to see 'em vote to keep you in the school," he said to Molly. "Then I've got to hike for the office. We've got to get the cook-books out by Monday noon."

"I haven't said I'd take the school even if I got it," Molly reminded him.

"You will, though," Nat told her. "It 'll be in the Katy Town Epitome in the morning, and then you'll have to."

Molly went with him to the door, and in the dusk two women were entering—Mis' Tyrus Burns and Mis' Arthur Port. They went by her into the kitchen. When Nat had gone, Molly sat on the porch. The door stood open to the spring night, and she could hear the voices of the women.

"My land!" Mis' Tyrus Burns said, "if Jane ain't setting her white-bread sponge! Want we should shut our eyes, Jane?"

"Why else did you come to this door, if you didn't know that?" Jane countered, intent on her stirring.

"Want we should shut our eyes?" Mis' Port insisted.

"You can watch every move I make, if you want," Jane serenely offered.

"Well," said Mis' Burns, "we don't, I'm sure. We got something better to look at."

She produced the proofs of the receipt-book, and the two turned the leaves while Jane kept on at her work. She knew that her dedication would be there in type, in the women's hands.

"Leona Grace," said Mis' Tyrus Burns, "and her cottage-cheese receipt. She don't set it on the stove at all. I'll bet it ain't fit to put on bread."

"Nor Mis' Kent Carter's cream potatoes, either," Mis' Port contributed. "Sprinkles dry flour on 'em, in the skillet! The idear! Anything to make work easy for Mis' Carter. She's ashamed to fuss decent."

"I don't care what anybody says," observed Mis' Burns. "My mustard pickles is something elegant. They took me three whole forenoons, letting the sauce set and adding in gradual. No shirkin' there."

"Me, either, on my tartare sauce," Mis' Port supplied. "Three-quarters of a cupful of oil, one drop at a time, stirring constant. You can't do it right, with the chopped stuff and all, in a minute under two hours. Onless you slight somewheres."

"Same with Mis' Bold's German kisses," Mis' Burns explained. "She beats 'em, and beats 'em, and beats 'em. One hour by the clock, that woman beats 'em. I'm crazy to try that receipt."

Jane, beating steadily at her sponge, stood this as long as she could. "What do you think of the dedication, ladies?" she asked, finally.

The two women turned to her with humbly admiring faces.

"It's beautiful, Jane—just beautiful," Mis' Burns told her. "There couldn't no one have expressed it nicer."

"I said that when I read it over," Mis' Port added. "I said, 'She's done it, this time. Where anybody else would have used one word, Jane Mellish has used two.' We're all real proud, Jane."

"Hold onto your bread receipt if you want to," Mis' Burns told Jane. "You've earned the right to be stingy till the day of your death, I say."

"What do you do?" Mis' Port asked her, curiously. "Set around, and lay awake nights, and get points, and then write 'em up?"

"Something like that," Jane returned, modestly.

"Whether it's white bread or whether it's poetry," said Mis' Tyrus Burns, with a laugh, "Jane keeps it to herself."

She opened the book and displayed a page blank.

"Thirty-one pages of food and dedication and title," she observed, "besides the cover. And thirty-two pages in the book altogether. They's just one blank page for your receipt, Jane. Better use it up."

Jane beat at her sponge.

"I should think," Mis' Port put in, "you'd be ashamed to withhold so from the Lord, Jane."

Jane beat at her sponge. "The Lord wouldn't earn a cent more by my receipt being in," she answered.

"Earnin' money ain't all the Lord thinks about," Mis' Burns returned, tartly. "They is such a thing as sacrificin' for a sweet savor."

"You tend to your own sweet savors, Sarah Burns," Jane flashed, "and I'll tend to mine."

"Nat Commons has promised 'em for the Monday meeting," Mis' Port put in. "Mebbe Jane can see light by then. Some do, give 'em time."

Jane beat at her sponge.

Molly, on the side porch, felt dull wonder that any one could be so interested in the matters of which these women talked. As for her, she wanted her thought free to go to Nat and to plan the details of her simple wedding finery! Beside her own sharp sense of this muslin and that silk to buy, her mother's passionate guarding of the secret of the bread of four generations seemed to Molly as insubstantial and unallied to the realities as was the hair wreath in the parlor.

She strolled down to the gate, set between flowering currants. The women emerged, and Mis' Port went through the garden to her own house. Mis' Tyrus Burns lingered.

"I got a letter from Ellen to-day," she said to Molly, "and her picture."

"How does she look?" Molly asked, and tried not to show her slow-mounting discomfort at this mention of Ellen Burns.

"Walk along with me and I'll show it to you," Ellen's mother said.

They went on together, Mis' Burns talking of Ellen. Her illness had left her; she had been visiting in the mountains; she had taken a ten-days' motor trip. As this woman talked, Molly looked at her with attention. She was a large, pale creature, with fat cheeks and shapeless ears dragged down by old ear-rings. She wore a rough coat, too tight across the chest, and there her large-veined hand was outspread. She had on a heavy wedding-ring, which cut her thick finger. Her hat, trimmed in front with a weight of short, straight tips, bore down upon her forehead like a constant experience. Her footsteps were heavy and flat on the board side-walk. She was an ugly woman.

"Ellen's been a great comfort to me," she said many times. "As a little girl she was always a great help to me."

"It's fine to know she's well again," Molly ventured.

"Sometimes I think it's enough to know she's in the world and well, even if I never see her again," said Mis' Tyrus Burns.

She lived alone, and when she had taken the key from the saucer of a plant they went into the quiet rooms, which yielded nothing to one entering. The old furniture was crystallized in some motionless medium. The rooms paid no attention to any one.

Ellen's picture was in the parlor. There the hush was more prominent than the furnishings. All had been as it was for a very long time. Old reasons for arrangement had disappeared, but the arrangements stayed. The clock was wrong. The crayon portraits were almost certainly of those no longer living. There was an odor, not of padded carpeting, not of damp wall-paper paste, not of chimney-soot, but an odor unallied to rooms where folks go and come.

"Have a seat," said Mis' Tyrus Burns. "I think you'll find this the most comfortable chair. It's the one my husband was always partial to."

She brought Ellen's photograph. The picture showed a pretty, open face, with the touch of settled sadness which ill-health gives.

"She's an awful good girl," said Mis' Tyrus Burns, "and she was always a good baby. She was never much of any trouble to me. When she was a little thing I use' to take her with me to Ladies' Aid meetings. She knew how to set still. She never teased for anything. She was always a child you could easy give to understand things. She never took advantage. ... When she got through the high school I wanted she should stay home here with us. But no, her pa wanted her to have something. I guess he never did know what. And after that she taught till she got sick. I feel she's been give back to me from the dead. For a long time I just about knew what happiness was every time I said over, 'She ain't dead.' Yes, it's a good photograph. Her waist draws a little mite at the shoulder-seam, though, don't you think so?"

Molly listened. All her life she had known Mis' Tyrus Burns. She might have known that Mis' Tyrus Burns felt all this for Ellen, but to hear it said was like uncovering a new relationship.

Mis' Burns set the picture in its place before the ebony horse which forever stood with one uplifted foot.

"Molly," she said, without preface, "I want you to know I 'ain't mite of feeling about you not giving up the school to Ellen—after two years so."

"Who said I wasn't going to give it up?" Molly asked,

"Why," said Mis' Burns, "I took it for granted. Nobody in their senses would. You want your school—and it's yours to keep a-hold of. Ellen 'ain't no claim."

"But she won't come back here without a position?" Molly asked.

"No," her mother said; "she'll somewheres else."

"But you want her to come back!" Molly cried.

"That ain't it," said Mis' Burns.

She took down the photograph again, and wiped a dust speck from the face. Then she moved about the parlor, touching this or that to rights—picking up a red berry fallen from the asparagus in the fireplace, finding a raveling on the rug. Her hands had done much hard work, and they were shiny, and dark between the cords. Her hair was somewhat fallen, and the throat of her dress was badly fastened. In the midst of her plain and paltry belongings this woman moved, as instinct with wistfulness, with hope, with resignation, as if she had been any beautiful being.

And abruptly, as she looked, Molly Mellish seemed to pass over into the woman, and to become identical with her. And then it was something more. For, with no harbinger of the miracle within, the girl suddenly knew all the wonder of wanting a blessing for the woman more than for herself just as if Mis' Tyrus Burns had been someone whom she very much loved. Molly had wanted things in this way for her mother. As a matter of course, she would rather that a heritage should come to her mother than to herself. And now this process of preference was simply extended, and, quite surprisingly, it embraced Mis' Tyrus Burns.

Molly rose "I haven't told anybody yet what I'll do," she said.

She never forgot the leap of hope which flamed for a moment in the mother's eyes.

"Why, I never dreamed but what you'd keep the place!" Mis' Tyrus Burns said, "Anybody would."

Molly walked home in no agitation, no debate. Her mother was not in the kitchen. Gandma Mellish sat there, shaving sweet flag.

"Your ma's up-stairs," she said. "She wants you should go on up."

When her bread-pan was covered beside the stove, Jane, sitting in the kitchen to pore over the receipt-book, turned straight to t+he dedication. There it was, in a border of pine cones and quill pens and unicorns.

Some one has said that we are what we eat, It is well known that food makes people what we are. The idea that getting up a meal is a moral responsibility is in every one's head, more or less. As the poet Pope has said, "Who can live without cooks!"

God commanded the first pair to eat of the fruit of the fields, They probably did so for some time. Did they cook it? We can only surmise, The likelihood is that they did not. Who can tell but what if Eve had been able to cook right she wouldn't have been reduced to raw apples, and so her and Adam had not been driven from the garden with a flaming sword?

Mother! What sacred feelings pack that name! Who can remember their mother without remembering some of what she could cook? It is part of the divine something which hems mothers round.

In making up this little book, therefore, we have a purpose much wider than mere palatableness. Our roots go deeper. We make this Receipt Book an offering to the

ideal, a sweet savor and flavor unto the Lord. Jane Mellish.

Jane touched the hook lovingly. The time had been when she had dreamed of seeing her name between the covers of a book. Up-stairs, in an old trunk, lay the pile of thin paper, just as it had come back to her from a publisher, years ago. But now here was her name, almost on the title page of the book, and quite as it would have looked at the end of that book's dedication.

"See, grandma!" she cried, as the old woman came into the kitchen.

"I can't see," said Grandma Mellish; "but if you've stuck it full of love and God they'll think they like it. Did you?"

"I'll read it to you," Jane said, and did so, though she knew that the old woman could not hear. Jane loved to read it through.

" '—an offering to the Ideal, a sweet savor and flavor unto the Lord,' " she ended.

"Set around here where them dum faces can't see me," Grandma Mellish said only. "You didn't give 'em your white-bread receipt, did you?" she demanded, shrilly.

"I should say not," answered the author of the dedication.

"Them aid societies is a brassy lot," the old woman volunteered. "Allus got their claws out for somebody's snuff-box."

"Do you like the dedication, grandma?" Jane asked.

"It's good enough, what there is of it," said Grandma Mellish, "and there's enough of it, such as it is."

"It's 'most like I'd wrote a book," said Jane, fingering the pages. "If I'd had a poem in here, now—"

Suddenly she sat straight and stared down at the leaves. She had come on the blank page, the thirty-second page, at the book's end. Why not? Why should she not have a poem of her own there?

Her sewing-machine stood in the kitchen. In its top drawer was an old account-book, long and narrow, which just fitted in above the spools and the button-box. It was scribbled in pencil—pages of verses. They had been written while fires were kindling, while flat-irons were heating, while the potato-water was boiling, while Jane was waiting for her bread to "come out of the oven." Only within the last few years had Jane begun to face the fact that she should never publish a book of poems.

Her thought went now to some verses which of late she had set down at the news of the death of a little child in the neighborhood. These were, she felt, the best that she had ever written. They had come in real stress of feeling, at dawn, when she and Molly had returned from that house of mourning. She found the verses, read them over by the light of the bracket-lamp:

Oh, he was born the other day,
⁠And now he is no more.
He never lived a word to say
⁠And still he is no more.
You might think, "Why was he let live
⁠If he no larger grew?"
O little life, e'en you can give
⁠More than we ever knew.

God has us roses and us buds,
⁠And when we come to die
The heavenly manna and bright foods
⁠Will be for you and I.

"I might call it 'Manna,' " she thought. "Then that would make it real appropriate for a receipt-book."

She hesitated, turning the leaves of the account-book. This poem she had meant to send to a magazine. It had been years since she had tried to have anything published, save in the Epitome. And this was the best that she could do. But why not give this poem to the church book—"an offering to the Ideal, a sweet savor and flavor unto the Lord"?

She stooped to twitch over her pan of bread the old red-cotton table-cover with which it was protected. And from the base of her cooking-range leaped out the grinning faces stamped in the cast iron—the leering, mocking faces which so haunted Grandma Mellish, which looked now at Jane with a world of derisive understanding in their pointed eyes.

"You're using that poem for a sop," went through Jane's mind, as sharp as words.

"No such thing!" she said, aloud, and stood erect, in some strange defiance.

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish.

"I'm going up-stairs," Jane said, abruptly. "Where's Molly? When she comes, you tell her to come on up."

When Molly went up, she found her mother sitting in her room, without a lamp. It was a mean little room, whose china wash-bowl and pitcher were the only high lights.

Jane had meant to turn to Molly and to put upon her the burden of the final decision which now, at last, she was facing. But, instead, Molly ran to her and sat upon her knee, like a little girl.

"Mother," she said, "I'm going to give up my school to Ellen Burns."

"What on earth for?" Jane cried, sharply.

"So her mother can have her here," said Molly. "Her mother's alone—she's alone. I never thought of it that way."

"What about me being alone?" Jane demanded.

"But I'll be living right here after Nat and I are married," Molly told her, "so what if I do go away for a little while first? And maybe, if Ellen don't come home now, she'll get something somewhere else and not come at all. And her mother's alone."

"But—" Jane said, and stopped.

"Oh, mother!" Molly cried. "If you knew how light and good I feel about it! I'm going down to the Epitome office and tell Nat to get it in the paper that way, to-morrow morning."

"You going to the Epitome office? Now?" Jane asked.

Molly rose, and Jane sprang up and stood beside her.

"Mother," said Molly, "I don't know whether you'll know what I mean. But I'd rather Ellen would have the school than to have it myself. Isn't that funny?"

"Wait," said Jane; "I'm coming down."

She brushed at her hair before her dark mirror, and on an invisible cushion found a brooch. They groped down the stairway and into the kitchen. By the stove Grandma Mellish sat sleeping, sweet-flag scattered on her apron.

"I won't be long, mother," Molly said.

"I'm coming, too," said Jane.

At the Epitome office Nat Commons looked in Molly's eyes as he listened. "Just put in the paper that Ellen Burns is well again and is coming to take her school," Molly said.

It may have been that her positiveness bore its own mark of finality; it may have been that his love of her bred understanding. He said little. He glanced swiftly round the city room, and, seeing only bent, absorbed heads and green eye-shades, he kissed Molly, in the comparative shadow of the telephone-booth.

"Nat!" said Jane Mellish.

Her tone was so sharp that the city editor himself looked up.

"I want to put something more in the cook-book," said Jane. "Is they time?"

There was time. Nat took her into the composing-room. By his littered desk Jane stood erect, once more the priestess.

"It's to go on that blank page. Put it down word for word, just exactly like I say it," said Jane. "It's a receipt for bread."

Every one in Katy Town remembers the hours which followed. It was on this night that Mis' Arthur Port's youngest son was hurt in the quarry and brought home to her house to die.

On her return from the office Jane Mellish was confronted with the news. Mis' Port being their nearest neighbor, the duties of the night automatically devolved upon Jane and Molly. Molly ran across the garden to Mis' Port's house, and Jane, about to follow, suddenly stood in stupefaction and looked down at her bread. She thought for a moment, and went close to Grandma Mellish.

"Grandma," she said, "you don't sleep good. Would you just as soon lay here on the settle to-night?"

"Hey?" said Grandma Mellish.

"I want you should mix the bread, the Communion bread," Jane said. Her face had turned white, and she bent over the old woman, and had her by the arm. "Now listen: You'll keep wakin' up like you always do. And it has to be mixed every two hours. Mix it at ten, and again at twelve, and again at two, and again at four. Can you do that? I'll be home to get it into loaves at six. Can you do that?"

"Tarnation nonsense," said Grandma Mellish.

Jane stooped nearer. In the light of the high bracket-lamp she was again the priestess, beside some withered sibyl, before an altar-fire.

"Hush!" said Jane. "Grandma! That's the secret. That's what makes it better than anybody's else's bread. Can you do that?"

"Humph!" said Grandma Mellish. "Yes, I can. I can do that. More fool me!"

Jane said it over to her patiently. Then, hearing on the board walk the tramp of the bearers, she ran through the garden to Mis' Port's house. A sense of fear and solemnity was on her. Twice in an hour she had said aloud the secret of the four generations; and Mis' Arthur Port's son was being brought home on a stretcher.

Communion day in the Katy Town First Church was a day of deep religious and social import. On that day there seemed some return of all the rich reticence of the more formal church interiors, now long lost in democratizations. For the white-cloth-covered table, the tall necks of the decanters, the silver goblets, and the heaped flowers in themselves gave to the time a sense of the ceremonial. Moreover, the service was held an hour earlier, when the slanting sun fell on the ingrain carpet in unwonted ways.

In the congregation, gathering in silence, came Jane Mellish and Molly. They were both pale from a long vigil. The boy had died toward dawn, and, having done all that was required of them, they had breakfasted and dressed, and had come-down early with the Communion bread.

Broken in square bits, the two loaves were piled on silver plates. White, firm, light, its delicate crust delicately browned, Jane saw her bread borne down the aisle with the formal sweep of an elder's arm. She tasted anxiously, and bowed her head on the folded handkerchief in her gloved hand; and her consecration was all compact of thankfulness. Never had her bread been more delectable.

Mis' Tyrus Burns, whose pew was behind Jane's, leaned forward as the hymnals rustled. "I declare, Jane Mellish," she whispered, "that bread is sacrilegious, it's so near without a fault. It's a wicked crime it ain't in the book."

The receipt-book was announced in the church "notices"—"a volume of the choicest receipts of all the ladies of the congregation," the minister said, and Mis' Tyrus Burns poked Jane slyly.

"Ain't you shamed to death and ashes?" Mis' Burns whispered.

Jane smiled, and found the hymn number, and sang. At the close of the service they all came forward, as they always did, to welcome the new members with the hand of fellowship and to praise Jane for her bread. She listened, only half hearing. And when this was done, she walked home with a strange, sweet singing in all her being. She had done it—she had done it! Something right had come into the world through her. There was no dim prescience of the time when the birth of a right should be in itself a thanksgiving. Jane's joy was innocently bound up with her own personal triumph.

"It was a grand Communion," she said, fervently, to Molly.

"Oh, mother," Molly said, "Mis' Tyrus Burns kissed me!"

In the kitchen, Grandma Mellish sat, trim in her white apron for the Sabbath.

"Many out?" she demanded.

"Yes. A big congregation," Jane answered.

"How'd Communion go?" asked Grandma Mellish.

"Same as usual, I guess," Jane told her.

"Many confess?" the old lady wished to know.

"One," Jane told her, complacently, "and two letters."

Grandma Mellish hesitated. "How was the bread?" she inquired, at last.

"Some said it was the best I ever made," Jane answered, proudly. "You deserve the praise of that, grandma."

"Do—do I?" the old woman said. "The best bread you ever made, eh? The brass o' that—the brass! Listen here."

She came over to Jane, and she was laughing soundlessly in a way that moved her shoulders and head.

"Listen here!" said Grandma Mellish. "I mixed that bread at ten o'clock last night, and then it was never touched again till you come home at daylight. I told you it was all tarnation nonsense. I only mixed it up once the whole night long."

White Bread was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Wed, Aug 26, 2020

This story is featured in our delicious collection of Foodie Stories.


facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add White Bread to your library.

Return to the Zona Gale library

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com