The last of the neighbors was going home; officious Mrs. Peter Downs had lingered late and sought for additional housework with which to prolong her stay. She had talked incessantly, and buzzed like a busy bee as she helped to put away the best crockery after the funeral supper, while the sisters Betsey and Hannah Knowles grew every moment more forbidding and unwilling to speak. They lighted a solitary small oil lamp at last, as if for Sunday evening idleness, and put it on the side table in the kitchen.
“We ain’t intending to make a late evening of it,” announced Betsey, the elder, standing before Mrs. Downs in an expectant, final way, making an irresistible opportunity for saying good-night. “I’m sure we’re more than obleeged to ye,—ain’t we, Hannah?—but I don’t feel’s if we ought to keep ye longer. We ain’t going to do no more to-night, but set down a spell and kind of collect ourselves, and then make for bed.”
Susan Downs offered one more plea. “I’d stop all night with ye an’ welcome; ‘t is gettin’ late—an’ dark,” she added plaintively; but the sisters shook their heads quickly, while Hannah said that they might as well get used to staying alone, since they would have to do it first or last. In spite of herself Mrs. Downs was obliged to put on her funeral best bonnet and shawl and start on her homeward way.
“Closed-mouthed old maids!” she grumbled as the door shut behind her all too soon and denied her the light of the lamp along the footpath. Suddenly there was a bright ray from the window, as if some one had pushed back the curtain and stood with the lamp close to the sash. “That’s Hannah,” said the retreating guest. “She’d told me somethin’ about things, I know, if it hadn’t ‘a’ been for Betsey. Catch me workin’ myself to pieces again for ’em.” But, however grudgingly this was said, Mrs. Downs’s conscience told her that the industry of the past two days had been somewhat selfish on her part; she had hoped that in the excitement of this unexpected funeral season she might for once be taken into the sisters’ confidence. More than this, she knew that they were certain of her motive, and had deliberately refused the expected satisfaction. “‘T ain’t as if I was one o’ them curious busy-bodies anyway,” she said to herself pityingly; “they might ‘a’ neighbored with somebody for once, I do believe.” Everybody would have a question ready for her the next day, for it was known that she had been slaving herself devotedly since the news had come of old Captain Knowles’s sudden death in his bed from a stroke, the last of three which had in the course of a year or two changed him from a strong old man to a feeble, chair-bound cripple.
Mrs. Downs stepped bravely along the dark country road; she could see a light in her own kitchen window half a mile away, and did not stop to notice either the penetrating dampness, or the shadowy woods at her right. It was a cloudy night, but there was a dim light over the open fields. She had a disposition of mind towards the exciting circumstances of death and burial, and was in request at such times among her neighbors; in this she was like a city person who prefers tragedy to comedy, but not having the semblance within her reach, she made the most of looking on at real griefs and departures.
Some one was walking towards her in the road; suddenly she heard footsteps. The figure stopped, then it came forward again.
“Oh, ‘t is you, ain’t it?” with a tone of disappointment. “I cal’lated you’d stop all night, ‘t had got to be so late, an’ I was just going over to the Knowles gals’; well, to kind o’ ask how they be, an'”—Mr. Peter Downs was evidently counting on his visit.
“They never passed me the compliment,” replied the wife. “I declare I didn’t covet the walk home; I’m most beat out, bein’ on foot so much. I was ‘most put out with ’em for letten’ of me see quite so plain that my room was better than my company. But I don’t know’s I blame ’em; they want to look an’ see what they’ve got, an’ kind of git by theirselves, I expect. ‘T was natural.”
Mrs. Downs knew that her husband would resent her first statements, being a sensitive and grumbling man. She had formed a pacific habit of suiting her remarks to his point of view, to save an outburst. He contented Himself with calling the Knowles girls hoggish, and put a direct question as to whether they had let fall any words about their situation, but Martha Downs was obliged to answer in the negative.
“Was Enoch Holt there after the folks come back from the grave?”
“He wa’n’t; they never give him no encouragement neither.”
“He appeared well, I must say,” continued Peter Downs. “He took his place next but one behind us in the procession, ‘long of Melinda Dutch, an’ walked to an’ from with her, give her his arm, and then I never see him after we got back; but I thought he might be somewhere in the house, an’ I was out about the barn an’ so on.”
“They was civil to him. I was by when he come, just steppin’ out of the bedroom after we’d finished layin’ the old Cap’n into his coffin. Hannah looked real pleased when she see Enoch, as if she hadn’t really expected him, but Betsey stuck out her hand’s if ‘t was an eend o’ board, an’ drawed her face solemner ‘n ever. There, they had natural feelin’s. He was their own father when all was said, the Cap’n was, an’ I don’t know but he was clever to ’em in his way, ‘ceptin’ when he disappointed Hannah about her marryin’ Jake Good’in. She l’arned to respect the old Cap’n’s foresight, too.”
“Sakes alive, Marthy, how you do knock folks down with one hand an’ set ’em up with t’ other,” chuckled Mr. Downs. They next discussed the Captain’s appearance as he lay in state in the front room, a subject which, with its endless ramifications, would keep the whole neighborhood interested for weeks to come.
An hour later the twinkling light in the Downs house suddenly disappeared. As Martha Downs took a last look out of doors through her bedroom window she could see no other light; the neighbors had all gone to bed. It was a little past nine, and the night was damp and still.
The Captain Knowles place was eastward from the Downs’s, and a short turn in the road and the piece of hard-wood growth hid one house from the other. At this unwontedly late hour the elderly sisters were still sitting in their warm kitchen; there were bright coals under the singing tea-kettle which hung from the crane by three or four long pothooks. Betsey Knowles objected when her sister offered to put on more wood.
“Father never liked to leave no great of a fire, even though he slept right here in the bedroom. He said this floor was one that would light an’ catch easy, you r’member.”
“Another winter we can move down and take the bedroom ourselves—’t will be warmer for us,” suggested Hannah; but Betsey shook her head doubtfully. The thought of their old father’s grave, unwatched and undefended in the outermost dark field, filled their hearts with a strange tenderness. They had been his dutiful, patient slaves, and it seemed like disloyalty to have abandoned the poor shape; to be sitting there disregarding the thousand requirements and services of the past. More than all, they were facing a free future; they were their own mistresses at last, though past sixty years of age. Hannah was still a child at heart. She chased away a dread suspicion, when Betsey forbade the wood, lest this elder sister, who favored their father’ s looks, might take his place as stern ruler of the household.
“Betsey,” said the younger sister suddenly, “we’ll have us a cook stove, won’t we, next winter? I expect we’re going to have something to do with?”
Betsey did not answer; it was impossible to say whether she truly felt grief or only assumed it. She had been sober and silent for the most part since she routed neighbor Downs, though she answered her sister’s prattling questions with patience and sympathy. Now, she rose from her chair and went to one of the windows, and, pushing back the sash curtain, pulled the wooden shutter across and hasped it.
“I ain’t going to bed just yet,” she explained. “I’ve been a-waiting to make sure nobody was coming in. I don’t know’s there’ll be any better time to look in the chest and see what we’ve got to depend on. We never’ll get no chance to do it by day.”
Hannah looked frightened for a moment, then nodded, and turned to the opposite window and pulled that shutter with much difficulty; it had always caught and hitched and been provoking—a warped piece of red oak, when even-grained white pine would have saved strength and patience to three generations of the Knowles race. Then the sisters crossed the kitchen and opened the bedroom door. Hannah shivered a little as the colder air struck her, and her heart beat loudly. Perhaps it was the same with Betsey.
The bedroom was clean and orderly for the funeral guests. Instead of the blue homespun there was a beautifully quilted white coverlet which had been part of their mother’s wedding furnishing, and this made the bedstead with its four low posts-look unfamiliar and awesome. The lamplight shone through the kitchen door behind them, not very bright at best, but Betsey reached under the bed, and with all the strength she could muster pulled out the end of a great sea chest. The sisters tugged together and pushed, and made the most of their strength before they finally brought it through the narrow door into the kitchen. The solemnity of the deed made them both whisper as they talked, and Hannah did not dare to say what was in her timid heart—that she would rather brave discovery by daylight than such a feeling of being disapprovingly watched now, in the dead of night. There came a slight sound outside the house which made her look anxiously at Betsey, but Betsey remained tranquil.
“It’s nothing but a stick falling down the woodpile,” she answered in a contemptuous whisper, and the younger woman was reassured.
Betsey reached deep into her pocket and found a great key which was worn smooth and bright like silver, and never had been trusted willingly into even her own careful hands. Hannah held the lamp, and the two thin figures bent eagerly over the lid as it opened. Their shadows were waving about the low walls, and looked like strange shapes bowing and dancing behind them.
The chest was stoutly timbered, as if it were built in some ship-yard, and there were heavy wrought-iron hinges and a large escutcheon for the keyhole that the ship’s blacksmith might have hammered out. On the top somebody had scratched deeply the crossed lines for a game of fox and geese, which had a trivial, irreverent look, and might have been the unforgiven fault of some idle ship’s boy. The sisters had hardly dared look at the chest or to signify their knowledge of its existence, at unwary times. They had swept carefully about it year after year, and wondered if it were indeed full of gold as the neighbors used to hint; but no matter how much found a way in, little had found the way out. They had been hampered all their lives for money, and in consequence had developed a wonderful facility for spinning and weaving, mending and making. Their small farm was an early example of intensive farming; they were allowed to use its products in a niggardly way, but the money that was paid for wool, for hay, for wood, and for summer crops had all gone into the chest. The old captain was a hard master; he rarely commended and often blamed. Hannah trembled before him, but Betsey faced him sturdily, being amazingly like him, with a feminine difference; as like as a ruled person can be to a ruler, for the discipline of life had taught the man to aggress, the woman only to defend. In the chest was a fabled sum of prize-money, besides these slender earnings of many years; all the sisters’ hard work and self-sacrifice were there in money and a mysterious largess besides. All their lives they had been looking forward to this hour of ownership.
There was a solemn hush in the house; the two sisters were safe from their neighbors, and there was no fear of interruption at such an hour in that hard-working community, tired with a day’s work that had been early begun. If any one came knocking at the door, both door and windows were securely fastened.
The eager sisters bent above the chest, they held their breath and talked in softest whispers. With stealthy tread a man came out of the woods near by.
He stopped to listen, came nearer, stopped again, and then crept close to the old house. He stepped upon the banking, next the window with the warped shutter; there was a knothole in it high above the women’s heads, towards the top. As they leaned over the chest, an eager eye watched them. If they had turned that way suspiciously, the eye might have caught the flicker of the lamp and betrayed itself. No, they were too busy: the eye at the shutter watched and watched.
There was a certain feeling of relief in the sisters’ minds because the contents of the chest were so commonplace at first sight. There were some old belongings dating back to their father’s early days of seafaring. They unfolded a waistcoat pattern or two of figured stuff which they had seen him fold and put away again and again. Once he had given Betsey a gay China silk handkerchief, and here were two more like it. They had not known what a store of treasures might be waiting for them, but the reality so far was disappointing; there was much spare room to begin with, and the wares within looked pinched and few. There were bundles of papers, old receipts, some letters in two not very thick bundles, some old account books with worn edges, and a blackened silver can which looked very small in comparison with their anticipation, being an heirloom and jealously hoarded and secreted by the old man. The women began to feel as if his lean angry figure were bending with them over the sea chest.
They opened a package wrapped in many layers of old soft paper—a worked piece of Indian muslin, and an embroidered red scarf which they had never seen before. “He must have brought them home to mother,” said Betsey with a great outburst of feeling. “He never was the same man again; he never would let nobody else have them when he found she was dead, poor old father!”
Hannah looked wistfully at the treasures. She rebuked herself for selfishness, but she thought of her pinched girlhood and the delight these things would have been. Ah yes! it was too late now for many things besides the sprigged muslin. “If I was young as I was once there’s lots o’ things I’d like to do now I’m free,” said Hannah with a gentle sigh; but her sister checked her anxiously—it was fitting that they should preserve a semblance of mourning even to themselves.
The lamp stood in a kitchen chair at the chest’s end and shone full across their faces. Betsey looked intent and sober as she turned over the old man’s treasures. Under the India mull was an antique pair of buff trousers, a waistcoat of strange old-fashioned foreign stuff, and a blue coat with brass buttons, brought home from over seas, as the women knew, for their father’s wedding clothes. They had seen him carry them out at long intervals to hang them in the spring sunshine; he had been very feeble the last time, and Hannah remembered that she had longed to take them from his shaking hands.
“I declare for ‘t I wish ‘t we had laid him out in ’em, ‘stead o’ the robe,” she whispered; but Betsey made no answer. She was kneeling still, but held herself upright and looked away. It was evident that she was lost in her own thoughts.
“I can’t find nothing else by eyesight,” she muttered. “This chest never ‘d be so heavy with them old clothes. Stop! Hold that light down, Hannah; there’s a place underneath here. Them papers in the till takes a shallow part. Oh, my gracious! See here, will ye? Hold the light, hold the light!”
There was a hidden drawer in the chest’s side—a long, deep place, and it was full of gold pieces. Hannah had seated herself in the chair to be out of her sister’s way. She held the lamp with one hand and gathered her apron on her lap with the other, while Betsey, exultant and hawk-eyed, took out handful after handful of heavy coins, letting them jingle and chink, letting them shine in the lamp’s rays, letting them roll across the floor—guineas, dollars, doubloons, old French and Spanish and English gold!
Now, now! Look! The eye at the window!
At last they have found it all; the bag of silver, the great roll of bank bills, and the heavy weight of gold—the prize-money that had been like Robinson Crusoe’s in the cave. They were rich women that night; their faces grew young again as they sat side by side and exulted while the old kitchen grew cold. There was nothing they might not do within the range of their timid ambitions; they were women of fortune now and their own mistresses. They were beginning at last to live.
The watcher outside was cramped and chilled. He let himself down softly from the high step of the winter banking, and crept toward the barn, where he might bury himself in the hay and think. His fingers were quick to find the peg that opened the little barn door; the beasts within were startled and stumbled to their feet, then went back to their slumbers. The night wore on; the light spring rain began to fall, and the sound of it on the house roof close down upon the sisters’ bed lulled them quickly to sleep. Twelve, one, two o’clock passed by.
They had put back the money and the clothes and the minor goods and treasures and pulled the chest back into the bedroom so that it was out of sight from the kitchen; the bedroom door was always shut by day. The younger sister wished to carry the money to their own room, but Betsey disdained such precaution. The money had always been safe in the old chest, and there it should stay. The next week they would go to Riverport and put it into the bank; it was no use to lose the interest any longer. Because their father had lost some invested money in his early youth, it did not follow that every bank was faithless. Betsey’s self-assertion was amazing, but they still whispered to each other as they got ready for bed. With strange forgetfulness Betsey had laid the chest key on the white coverlet in the bedroom and left it there.
In August of that year the whole countryside turned out to go to court.
The sisters had been rich for one night; in the morning they waked to find themselves poor with a bitter pang of poverty of which they had never dreamed. They had said little, but they grew suddenly pinched and old. They could not tell how much money they had lost, except that Hannah’s lap was full of gold, a weight she could not lift nor carry. After a few days of stolid misery they had gone to the chief lawyer of their neighborhood to accuse Enoch Holt of the robbery. They dressed in their best and walked solemnly side by side across the fields and along the road, the shortest way to the man of law. Enoch Holt’s daughter saw them go as she stood in her doorway, and felt a cold shiver run through her frame as if in foreboding. Her father was not at home; he had left for Boston late on the afternoon of Captain Knowles’s funeral. He had had notice the day before of the coming in of a ship in which he owned a thirty-second; there was talk of selling the ship, and the owners’ agent had summoned him. He had taken pains to go to the funeral, because he and the old captain had been on bad terms ever since they had bought a piece of woodland together, and the captain declared himself wronged at the settling of accounts. He was growing feeble even then, and had left the business to the younger man. Enoch Holt was not a trusted man, yet he had never before been openly accused of dishonesty. He was not a professor of religion, but foremost on the secular side of church matters. Most of the men in that region were hard men; it was difficult to get money, and there was little real comfort in a community where the sterner, stingier, forbidding side of New England life was well exemplified.
The proper steps had been taken by the officers of the law, and in answer to the writ Enoch Holt appeared, much shocked and very indignant, and was released on bail which covered the sum his shipping interest had brought him. The weeks had dragged by; June and July were long in passing, and here was court day at last, and all the townsfolk hastening by high-roads and by-roads to the court-house. The Knowles girls themselves had risen at break of day and walked the distance steadfastly, like two of the three Fates: who would make the third, to cut the thread for their enemy’s disaster? Public opinion was divided. There were many voices ready to speak on the accused man’s side; a sharp-looking acquaintance left his business in Boston to swear that Holt was in his office before noon on the day following the robbery, and that he had spent most of the night in Boston, as proved by several minor details of their interview. As for Holt’s young married daughter, she was a favorite with the townsfolk, and her husband was away at sea overdue these last few weeks. She sat on one of the hard court benches with a young child in her arms, born since its father sailed; they had been more or less unlucky, the Holt family, though Enoch himself was a man of brag and bluster.
All the hot August morning, until the noon recess, and all the hot August afternoon, fly-teased and wretched with the heavy air, the crowd of neighbors listened to the trial. There was not much evidence brought; everybody knew that Enoch Holt left the funeral procession hurriedly, and went away on horseback towards Boston. His daughter knew no more than this. The Boston man gave his testimony impatiently, and one or two persons insisted that they saw the accused on his way at nightfall, several miles from home.
As the testimony came out, it all tended to prove his innocence, though public opinion was to the contrary. The Knowles sisters looked more stern and gray hour by hour; their vengeance was not to be satisfied; their accusation had been listened to and found wanting, but their instinctive knowledge of the matter counted for nothing. They must have been watched through the knot-hole of the shutter; nobody had noticed it until, some years before, Enoch Holt himself had spoken of the light’s shining through on a winter’s night as he came towards the house. The chief proof was that nobody else could have done the deed. But why linger over pros and cons? The jury returned directly with a verdict of “not proven,” and the tired audience left the court-house.
But not until Hannah Knowles with angry eyes had risen to her feet.
The sterner elder sister tried to pull her back; every one said that they should have looked to Betsey to say the awful words that followed, not to her gentler companion. It was Hannah, broken and disappointed, who cried in a strange high voice as Enoch Holt was passing by without a look:
“You stole it, you thief! You know it in your heart!”
The startled man faltered, then he faced the women. The people who stood near seemed made of eyes as they stared to see what he would say.
“I swear by my right hand I never touched it.”
“Curse your right hand, then!” cried Hannah Knowles, growing tall and thin like a white flame drawing upward. “Curse your right hand, yours and all your folks’ that follow you! May I live to see the day!”
The people drew back, while for a moment accused and accuser stood face to face. Then Holt’s flushed face turned white, and he shrank from the fire in those wild eyes, and walked away clumsily down the courtroom. Nobody followed him, nobody shook hands with him, or told the acquitted man that they were glad of his release. Half an hour later, Betsey and Hannah Knowles took their homeward way, to begin their hard round of work again. The horizon that had widened with such glory for one night, had closed round them again like an iron wall.
Betsey was alarmed and excited by her sister’s uncharacteristic behavior, and she looked at her anxiously from time to time. Hannah had become the harder-faced of the two. Her disappointment was the keener, for she had kept more of the unsatisfied desires of her girlhood until that dreary morning when they found the sea-chest rifled and the treasure gone.
Betsey said inconsequently that it was a pity she did not have that black silk gown that would stand alone. They had planned for it over the open chest, and Hannah’s was to be a handsome green. They might have worn them to court. But even the pathetic facetiousness of her elder sister did not bring a smile to Hannah Knowles’s face, and the next day one was at the loom and the other at the wheel again. The neighbors talked about the curse with horror; in their minds a fabric of sad fate was spun from the bitter words.
The Knowles sisters never had worn silk gowns and they never would. Sometimes Hannah or Betsey would stealthily look over the chest in one or the other’s absence. One day when Betsey was very old and her mind had grown feeble, she tied her own India silk handkerchief about her neck, but they never used the other two. They aired the wedding suit once every spring as long as they lived. They were both too old and forlorn to make up the India mull. Nobody knows how many times they took everything out of the heavy old clamped box, and peered into every nook and corner to see if there was not a single gold piece left. They never answered any one who made bold to speak of their misfortune.
Enoch Holt had been a seafaring man in his early days, and there was news that the owners of a Salem ship in which he held a small interest wished him to go out as supercargo. He was brisk and well in health, and his son-in-law, an honest but an unlucky fellow, had done less well than usual, so that nobody was surprised when Enoch made ready for his voyage. It was nearly a year after the theft, and nothing had come so near to restoring him to public favor as his apparent lack of ready money. He openly said that he put great hope in his adventure to the Spice Islands, and when he said farewell one Sunday to some members of the dispersing congregation, more than one person wished him heartily a pleasant voyage and safe return. He had an insinuating tone of voice and an imploring look that day, and this fact, with his probable long absence and the dangers of the deep, won him much sympathy. It is a shameful thing to accuse a man wrongfully, and Enoch Holt had behaved well since the trial; and, what is more, had shown no accession to his means of living. So away he went, with a fair amount of good wishes, though one or two persons assured remonstrating listeners that they thought it likely Enoch would make a good voyage, better than common, and show himself forwarded when he came to port. Soon after his departure, Mrs. Peter Downs and an intimate acquaintance discussed the ever-exciting subject of the Knowles robbery over a friendly cup of tea.
They were in the Downs kitchen, and quite by themselves. Peter Downs himself had been drawn as a juror, and had been for two days at the county town. Mrs. Downs was giving herself to social interests in his absence, and Mrs. Forder, an asthmatic but very companionable person, had arrived by two o’clock that afternoon with her knitting work, sure of being welcome. The two old friends had first talked over varied subjects of immediate concern, but when supper was nearly finished, they fell back upon the lost Knowles gold, as has been already said.
“They got a dreadful blow, poor gals,” wheezed Mrs. Forder, with compassion. “‘T was harder for them than for most folks; they’d had a long stent with the ol’ gentleman; very arbitrary, very arbitrary.”
“Yes,” answered Mrs. Downs, pushing back her tea-cup, then lifting it again to see if it was quite empty. “Yes, it took holt o’ Hannah, the most. I should ‘a’ said Betsey was a good deal the most set in her ways an’ would ‘a’ been most tore up, but ‘t wa’n’t so.”
“Lucky that Holt’s folks sets on the other aisle in the meetin’-house, I do consider, so ‘t they needn’t face each other sure as Sabbath comes round.”
“I see Hannah an’ him come face to face two Sabbaths afore Enoch left. So happened he dallied to have a word ‘long o’ Deacon Good’in, an’ him an’ Hannah stepped front of each other ‘fore they knowed what they’s about. I sh’d thought her eyes ‘d looked right through him. No one of ’em took the word; Enoch he slinked off pretty quick.”
“I see ’em too,” said Mrs. Forder; “made my blood run cold.”
“Nothin’ ain’t come of the curse yit,”—Mrs. Downs lowered the tone of her voice,—”least, folks says so. It kind o’ worries pore Phœbe Holt—Mis’ Dow, I would say. She was narved all up at the time o’ the trial, an’ when her next baby come into the world, first thin’ she made out t’ ask me was whether it seemed likely, an’ she gived me a pleadin’ look as if I’d got to tell her what she hadn’t heart to ask. ‘Yes, dear,’ says I, ‘put up his little hands to me kind of wonted’; an’ she turned a look on me like another creatur’, so pleased an’ contented.”
“I s’pose you don’t see no great of the Knowles gals?” inquired Mrs. Forder, who lived two miles away in the other direction.
“They stepped to the door yisterday when I was passin’ by, an’ I went in an’ set a spell long of ’em,” replied the hostess. “They’d got pestered with that ol’ loom o’ theirn. ‘Fore I thought, says I, ”T is all worn out, Betsey,’ says I. ‘Why on airth don’t ye git somebody to git some o’ your own wood an’ season it well so ‘t won’t warp, same’s mine done, an’ build ye a new one?’ But Betsey muttered an’ twitched away; ‘t wa’n’t like her, but they’re dis’p’inted at every turn, I s’pose, an’ feel poor where they’ve got the same’s ever to do with. Hannah’s a-coughin’ this spring’s if somethin’ ailed her. I asked her if she had bad feelin’s in her pipes, an’ she said yis, she had, but not to speak of ‘t before Betsey. I’m goin’ to fix her up some hoarhound an’ elecampane quick’s the ground’s nice an’ warm an’ roots livens up a grain more. They’re limp an’ wizened ‘long to the fust of the spring. Them would be service’ble, simmered away to a syrup ‘long o’ molasses; now don’t you think so, Mis’ Forder?”
“Excellent,” replied the wheezing dame. “I covet a portion myself, now you speak. Nothin’ cures my complaint, but a new remedy takes holt clever sometimes, an’ eases me for a spell.” And she gave a plaintive sigh, and began to knit again.
Mrs. Downs rose and pushed the supper-table to the wall and drew her chair nearer to the stove. The April nights were chilly.
“The folks is late comin’ after me,” said Mrs. Forder, ostentatiously. “I may’s well confess that I told ’em if they was late with the work they might let go o’ fetchin’ o’ me an’ I’d walk home in the mornin’; take it easy when I was fresh. Course I mean ef ‘t wouldn’t put you out: I knowed you was all alone, an’ I kind o’ wanted a change.”
“Them words was in my mind to utter while we was to table,” avowed Mrs. Downs, hospitably. “I ain’t reelly afeared, but ‘t is sort o’ creepy fastenin’ up an’ goin’ to bed alone. Nobody can’t help hearkin’, an’ every common noise starts you. I never used to give nothin’ a thought till the Knowleses was robbed, though.”
“‘T was mysterious, I do maintain,” acknowledged Mrs. Forder. “Comes over me sometimes p’raps ‘t wasn’t Enoch; he’d ‘a’ branched out more in course o’ time. I’m waitin’ to see if he does extry well to sea ‘fore I let my mind come to bear on his bein’ clean handed.”
“Plenty thought ‘t was the ole Cap’n come back for it an’ sperited it away. Enough said that ‘t wasn’t no honest gains; most on’t was prize-money o’ slave ships, an’ all kinds o’ devil’s gold was mixed in. I s’pose you’ve heard that said?”
“Time an’ again,” responded Mrs. Forder; “an’ the worst on’t was simple old Pappy Flanders went an’ told the Knowles gals themselves that folks thought the ole Cap’n come back an’ got it, and Hannah done wrong to cuss Enoch Holt an’ his ginerations after him the way she done.”
“I think it took holt on her ter’ble after all she’d gone through,” said Mrs. Downs, compassionately. “He ain’t near so simple as he is ugly, Pappy Flanders ain’t. I’ve seen him set here an’ read the paper sober’s anybody when I’ve been goin’ about my mornin’s work in the shed-room, an’ when I’d come in to look about he’d twist it with his hands an’ roll his eyes an’ begin to git off some o’ his gable. I think them wander-in’ cheap-wits likes the fun on’t an’ ‘scapes stiddy work, an’ gits the rovin’ habit so fixed, it sp’iles ’em.”
“My gran’ther was to the South Seas in his young days,” related Mrs. Forder, impressively, “an’ he said cussin’ was common there. I mean sober spitin’ with a cuss. He seen one o’ them black folks git a gredge against another an’ go an’ set down an’ look stiddy at him in his hut an’ cuss him in his mind an’ set there an’ watch, watch, until the other kind o’ took sick an’ died, all in a fortnight, I believe he said; ‘t would make your blood run cold to hear gran’ther describe it, ‘t would so. He never done nothin’ but set an’ look, an’ folks would give him somethin’ to eat now an’ then, as if they thought ‘t was all right, an’ the other one ‘d try to go an’ come, an’ at last he hived away altogether an’ died. I don’t know what you’d call it that ailed him. There’s suthin’ in cussin’ that’s bad for folks, now I tell ye, Mis’ Downs.”
“Hannah’s eyes always makes me creepy now,” Mrs. Downs confessed uneasily. “They don’t look pleadin’ an’ childish same ‘s they used to. Seems to me as if she’d had the worst on’t.”
“We ain’t seen the end on’t yit,” said Mrs. Forder, impressively. “I feel it within me, Marthy Downs, an’ it’s a terrible thing to have happened right amon’st us in Christian times. If we live long enough we’re goin’ to have plenty to talk over in our old age that’s come o’ that cuss. Some seed’s shy o’ sproutin’ till a spring when the s’ile’s jest right to breed it.”
“There’s lobeely now,” agreed Mrs. Downs, pleased to descend to prosaic and familiar levels. “They ain’t a good crop one year in six, and then you find it in a place where you never observed none to grow afore, like’s not; ain’t it so, reelly?” And she rose to clear the table, pleased with the certainty of a guest that night. Their conversation was not reassuring to the heart of a timid woman, alone in an isolated farmhouse on a dark spring evening, especially so near the anniversary of old Captain Knowles’s death.
Later in these rural lives by many years two aged women were crossing a wide field together, following a footpath such as one often finds between widely separated homes of the New England country. Along these lightly traced thoroughfares, the children go to play, and lovers to plead, and older people to companion one another in work and pleasure, in sickness and sorrow; generation after generation comes and goes again by these country by-ways.
The footpath led from Mrs. Forder’s to another farmhouse half a mile beyond, where there had been a wedding. Mrs. Downs was there, and in the June weather she had been easily persuaded to go home to tea with Mrs. Forder with the promise of being driven home later in the evening. Mrs. Downs’s husband had been dead three years, and her friend’s large family was scattered from the old nest; they were lonely at times in their later years, these old friends, and found it very pleasant now to have a walk together. Thin little Mrs. Forder, with all her wheezing, was the stronger and more active of the two: Downs had grown heavier and weaker with advancing years.
They paced along the footpath slowly, Mrs. Downs rolling in her gait like a sailor, and availing herself of every pretext to stop and look at herbs in the pasture ground they crossed, and at the growing grass in the mowing fields. They discussed the wedding minutely, and then where the way grew wider they walked side by side instead of following each other, and their voices sank to the low tone that betokens confidence.
“You don’t say that you really put faith in all them old stories?”
“It ain’t accident altogether, noways you can fix it in your mind,” maintained Mrs. Downs. “Needn’t tell me that cussin’ don’t do neither good nor harm. I shouldn’t want to marry amon’st the Holts if I was young ag’in! I r’member when this young man was born that’s married to-day, an’ the fust thing his poor mother wanted to know was about his hands bein’ right. I said yes they was, but las’ year he was twenty year old and come home from the frontier with one o’ them hands—his right one—shot off in a fight. They say ‘t happened to sights o’ other fel-lows, an’ their laigs gone too, but I count ’em over on my fingers, them Holts, an’ he’s the third. May say that ‘t was all an accident his mother’s gittin’ throwed out o’ her waggin comin’ home from meetin’, an’ her wrist not bein’ set good, an’ she, bein’ run down at the time, ‘most lost it altogether, but thar’ it is, stiffened up an’ no good to her. There was the second. An’ Enoch Holt hisself come home from the Chiny seas, made a good passage an’ a sight o’ money in the pepper trade, jest’s we expected, an’ goin’ to build him a new house, an’ the frame gives a kind o’ lurch when they was raisin’ of it an’ surges over on to him an’ nips him under. ‘Which arm?’ says everybody along the road when they was comin’ an’ goin’ with the doctor. ‘Right one—got to lose it,’ says the doctor to ’em, an’ next time Enoch Holt got out to meetin’ he stood up in the house o’ God with the hymn-book in his left hand, an’ no right hand to turn his leaf with. He knowed what we was all a-thinkin’.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Forder, very short-breathed with climbing the long slope of the pasture hill, “I don’t know but I’d as soon be them as the Knowles gals. Hannah never knowed no peace again after she spoke them words in the co’t-house. They come back an’ harnted her, an’ you know, Miss Downs, better ‘n I do, being door-neighbors as one may say, how they lived their lives out like wild beasts into a lair.”
“They used to go out some by night to git the air,” pursued Mrs. Downs with interest. “I used to open the door an’ step right in, an’ I used to take their yarn an’ stuff ‘long o’ mine an’ sell ’em, an’ do for the poor stray creatur’s long’s they’d let me. They’d be grateful for a mess o’ early pease or potatoes as ever you see, an’ Peter he allays favored ’em with pork, fresh an’ salt, when we slaughtered. The old Cap’n kept ’em child’n long as he lived, an’ then they was too old to l’arn different. I allays liked Hannah the best till that change struck her. Betsey she held out to the last jest about the same. I don’t know, now I come to think of it, but what she felt it the most o’ the two.”
“They’d never let me’s much as git a look at ’em,” complained Mrs. Forder. “Folks got awful stories a-goin’ one time. I’ve heard it said, an’ it allays creeped me cold all over, that there was somethin’ come an’ lived with ’em—a kind o’ black shadder, a cobweb kind o’ a man-shape that followed ’em about the house an’ made a third to them; but they got hardened to it theirselves, only they was afraid ‘t would follow if they went anywheres from home. You don’t believe no such piece o’ nonsense?—But there, I’ve asked ye times enough before.”
“They’d got shadders enough, poor creatur’s,” said Mrs. Downs with reserve. “Wasn’t no kind o’ need to make ’em up no spooks, as I know on. Well, here’s these young folks a-startin’; I wish ’em well, I’m sure. She likes him with his one hand better than most gals likes them as has a good sound pair. They looked prime happy; I hope no curse won’t foller ’em.”
The friends stopped again—poor, short-winded bodies—on the crest of the low hill and turned to look at the wide landscape, bewildered by the marvelous beauty and the sudden flood of golden sunset light that poured out of the western sky. They could not remember that they had ever observed the wide view before; it was like a revelation or an outlook towards the celestial country, the sight of their own green farms and the countryside that bounded them. It was a pleasant country indeed, their own New England: their petty thoughts and vain imaginings seemed futile and unrelated to so fair a scene of things. But the figure of a man who was crossing the meadow below looked like a malicious black insect. It was an old man, it was Enoch Holt; time had worn and bent him enough to have satisfied his bitterest foe. The women could see his empty coat-sleeve flutter as he walked slowly and unexpectantly in that glorious evening light.