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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJane Field: A Novel - Chapter 2
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Jane Field: A Novel - Chapter 2 Post by :ralphkaeppeli Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2988

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Jane Field: A Novel - Chapter 2

Chapter II

The next morning Lois had gone to her school and her mother had not yet shown the letter to her. She went about as usual, doing her housework slowly and vigorously. Mrs. Field's cleanliness was proverbial in this cleanly New England neighborhood. It almost amounted to asceticism; her rooms, when her work was finished, had the bareness and purity of a nun's cell. There was never any bloom of dust on Mrs. Field's furniture; there was only the hard, dull glitter of the wood. Her few chairs and tables looked as if waxed; the paint was polished in places from her doors and window-casings; her window-glass gave out green lights like jewels; and all this she did with infinite pains and slowness, as there was hardly a natural movement left in her rheumatic hands. But there was in her nature an element of stern activity that must have its outcome in some direction, and it took the one that it could find. Jane had used to take in sewing before her hands were diseased. In her youth she had learned the trade of a tailoress; when ready-made clothing, even for children, came into use, she made dresses. Her dresses had been long-waisted and stiffly boned, with high, straight biases, seemingly fitted to her own nature instead of her customers' forms; but they had been strongly and faithfully sewed, and her stitches held fast as the rivets on a coat of mail. Now she could not sew. She could knit, and that was all, besides her housework, that she could do.

This morning, while dusting a little triangular what-not that stood in a corner of her sitting-room, she came across a small box that held some old photographs. The box was made of a kind of stucco-work--shells held in place by a bed of putty. Amanda Pratt had made it and given it to her. Mrs. Field took up this box and dusted it carefully; then she opened it, and took out the photographs one by one.

After a while she stopped; she did not take out any more, but she looked intently at one; then she replaced all but that one, got painfully up from the low foot-stool where she had been sitting, and went out of her room across the entry to Amanda's, with the photograph in her hand.

Amanda sat at her usual window, sewing on her rug. The sunlight came in, and her shadow, set in a bright square, wavered on the floor; the clock out in the kitchen ticked. Amanda looked up when Mrs. Field entered. "Oh, it's you?" said she. "I wondered who was comin'. Set down, won't you?"

Mrs. Field went over to Amanda and held out the photograph. "I want to see if you can tell me who this is."

Amanda took the photograph and held it toward the light. She compressed her lips and wrinkled her forehead. "Why, it's you, of course--ain't it?"

Mrs. Field made no reply; she stood looking at her.

"Why, ain't it you?" Amanda asked, looking from the picture to her in a bewildered way.

"No; it's Esther."

"Esther?"

"Yes, it's Esther."

"Well, I declare! When was it took?"

"About ten years ago, when she was in Elliot."

"Well, all I've got to say is, if anybody had asked me, I'd have said it was took for you yesterday. Why, Mis' Field, what's the matter?"

"There ain't anything the matter."

"Why, you look dreadfully."

Mrs. Field's face was pale, and there was a curious look about her whole figure. It seemed as if shrinking from something, twisting itself rigidly, as a fossil tree might shrink in a wind that could move it.

"I feel well 'nough," said she. "I guess it's the light."

"Well, mebbe 'tis," replied Amanda, still looking anxiously at her. "Of course you know if you feel well, but you do look dreadful white to me. Don't you want some water, or a swaller of cold tea?"

"No, I don't want a single thing; I'm well enough." Mrs. Field's tone was almost surly. She held out her hand for the photograph. "I must be goin'," she continued; "I ain't got my dustin' done. I jest come across this, an' I thought I'd show it to you, an' see what you said."

"Well, I shouldn't have dreamed but what it was yours; but then you an' your sister did look jest alike. I never could tell you apart when you first came here."

"Folks always said we looked alike. We always used to be took for each other when we was girls, an' I think we looked full as much alike after our hair begun to turn. Mine was a little lighter than hers, an' that made some difference betwixt us before. It didn't show when we was both gray."

"I shouldn't have thought 'twould. Well, I must say, I shouldn't dream but what that picture was meant for you."

Mrs. Field took her way out of the room.

"How's Lois this mornin'?" Amanda called after her.

"About the same, I guess."

"I saw her goin' out of the yard this mornin', an' I thought she walked dreadful weak."

"I guess she don't walk any too strong."

When Mrs. Field was in her own room she stowed away the photograph in the shell box; then she got a little broom and brushed the shell-work carefully; she thought it looked dusty in spite of her rubbing.

When the dusting was done it was time for her to get her dinner ready. Indeed, there was not much leisure for Mrs. Field all day. She seldom sat down for long at a time. From morning until night she kept up her stiff resolute march about her house.

At half-past twelve she had the dinner on the table, but Lois did not come. Her mother went into the sitting-room, sat down beside a window, and watched. The town clock struck one. Mrs. Field went outdoors and stood by the front gate, looking down the road. She saw a girl coming in the distance with a flutter of light skirts, and she exclaimed with gladness, "There she is!" The girl drew nearer, and she saw it was Ida Starr in a dress that looked like Lois'.

The girl stopped when she saw Mrs. Field at the gate. "Good-morning," said she.

"Good-mornin', Ida."

"It's a beautiful day."

Mrs. Field did not reply; she gazed past her down the road, her face all one pale frown.

The girl looked curiously at her. "I hope Lois is pretty well this morning?" she said, in her amiable voice.

Mrs. Field responded with a harsh outburst that fairly made her start back.

"No," she cried out, "she ain't well; she's sick. She wa'n't fit to go to school. She couldn't hardly crawl out of the yard. She ain't got home, an' I'm terrible worried. I dun'no' but she's fell down."

"Maybe she just thought she wouldn't come home."

"No; that ain't it. She never did such a thing as that without saying something about it; she'd know I'd worry."

Mrs. Field craned her neck farther over the gate, and peered down the road. Beside the gate stood two tall bushes, all white with flowers that grew in long white racemes, and they framed her distressed face.

"Look here, Mrs. Field," said the girl, "I'll tell you what I'll do. The school-house isn't much beyond my house; I'll just run over there and see if there's anything the matter; then I'll come back right off, and let you know."

"Oh, will you?"

"Of course I will. Now don't you worry, Mrs. Field; I don't believe it's anything."

The girl nodded back at her with her pretty smile; then she sped away with a light tilting motion. Mrs. Field stood a few minutes longer, then she went up the steps into the house. She opened Amanda Pratt's door instead of her own, and went through the sitting-room to the kitchen, from whence she could hear the clink of dishes.

"Lois ain't got home yet," said she, standing in the doorway.

Amanda set down the dish she was wiping. "Mis' Field, what do you mean?"

"What I say."

"Ain't she got home yet?"

"No, she ain't."

"Why, it's half-past one o'clock! She ain't comin'; it's time for school to begin. Look here, Mis' Field, I guess she felt kind of tired, an' thought she wouldn't come."

Mrs. Field shook her head with a sort of remorselessness toward all comfort. "She's fell down."

"Oh, Mis' Field! you don't s'pose so?"

"The Starr girl's gone to find out."

Mrs. Field turned to go.

"Hadn't you better stay here till she comes?" asked Amanda, anxiously.

"No; I must go home." Suddenly Mrs. Field looked fiercely around. "I'll tell you what 'tis, Mandy Pratt, an' you mark my words! I ain't goin' to stan' this kind of work much longer! I ain't goin' to see all the child I've got in the world murdered; for that's what it is--it's murder!"

Mrs. Field went through the sitting-room with a stiff rush, and Amanda followed her.

"Oh, Mis' Field, don't take on so--don't!" she kept saying.

Mrs. Field went through the house into her own kitchen. The little white-laid table stood against the wall; the tea-kettle steamed and rocked on the stove; the room was full of savory odors. Mrs. Field set the tea-kettle back where it would not boil so hard. These little household duties had become to her almost as involuntary as the tick of her own pulses. No matter what hours of agony they told off, the pulses ticked; and in every stress of life she would set the tea-kettle back if it were necessary. Amanda stood in the door, trembling. All at once there was a swift roll of wheels in the yard past the window. "Somebody's come!" gasped Amanda. Mrs. Field rushed to the back door, and Amanda after her. There was a buggy drawn up close to the step, and a man was trying to lift Lois out.

Mrs. Field burst out in a great wail. "Oh, Lois! Lois! She's dead--she's dead!"

"No, she ain't dead," replied the man, in a drawling, jocular tone. "She's worth a dozen dead ones--ain't you, Lois? I found her layin' down side of the road kind of tuckered out, that's all, and I thought I'd give her a lift. Don't you be scared, Mis' Field. Now, Lois, you jest rest all your heft on me."

Lois' pale face and little reaching hands appeared around the wing of the buggy. Amanda ran around to the horse's head. He did not offer to start; but she stood there, and said, "Whoa, whoa," over and over, in a pleading, nervous voice. She was afraid to touch the bridle; she had a great terror of horses.

The man, who was Ida Starr's father, lifted Lois out, and carried her into the house. She struggled a little.

"I can walk," said she, in a weakly indignant voice.

Mr. Starr carried her into the sitting-room and laid her down on the sofa. She raised herself immediately, and sat up with a defiant air.

"Oh, dear child, do lay down," sobbed her mother.

She put her hand on Lois' shoulder and tried to force her gently backward, but the girl resisted.

"Don't, mother," said she. "I don't want to lie down."

Amanda had run into her own room for the camphor bottle. Now she leaned over Lois and put it to her nose. "Jest smell of this a little," she said. Lois pushed it away feebly.

"I guess Lois will have to take a little vacation," said Mr. Starr. "I guess I shall have to see about it, and let her have a little rest."

He was one of the school committee.

"I don't need any vacation," said Lois, in a peremptory tone.

"I guess we shall have to see about it," repeated Mr. Starr. There was an odd undertone of decision in his drawling voice. He was a large man, with a pleasant face full of double curves. "Good-day," said he, after a minute. "I guess I must be goin'."

"Good-day," said Lois. "I'm much obliged to you for bringing me home."

"You're welcome."

Amanda nodded politely when he withdrew, but Mrs. Field never looked at him. She stood with her eyes fixed upon Lois.

"What are you looking at me so for, mother?" said Lois, impatiently, turning her own face away.

Mrs. Field sank down on her knees before the sofa. "Oh, my child!" she wailed. "My child! my child!"

She threw her arms around the girl's slender waist, and clung to her convulsively. Lois cast a terrified glance up at Amanda.

"Does she think I ain't going to get well?" she asked, as if her mother were not present.

"Of course she don't," replied Amanda, with decision. She stooped and took hold of Mrs. Field's shoulders. "Now look here, Mis' Field," said she, "you ain't actin' like yourself. You're goin' to make Lois sick, if she ain't now, if you go on this way. You get up an' make her a cup of tea, an' get her somethin' to eat. Ten chances to one, that's all that ailed her. I don't believe she's eat enough to-day to keep a cat alive."

"I know all about it," moaned Mrs. Field. "It's jest what I expected. Oh, my child! my child! I have prayed an' done all I could, an' now it's come to this. I've got to give up. Oh, my child! my child!"

It was to this mother as though her daughter was not there, although she held her in her arms. She was in that abandon of grief which is the purest selfishness.

Amanda fairly pulled her to her feet. "Mis' Field, I'm ashamed of you!" said she, severely. "I should think you were beside yourself. Here's Lois better--"

"No, she ain't better. I know."

Mrs. Field straightened herself, and went out into the kitchen.

Lois looked again at Amanda, in a piteous, terrified fashion. "Oh," said she, "you don't think I'm so very sick, do you?"

"Very sick? No; of course you ain't. Your mother got dreadful nervous because you didn't come home. That's what made her act so. You look a good deal better than you did when you first came in."

"I feel better," said Lois. "I never saw mother act so in my life."

"She got all wrought up, waitin'. If I was you, I'd lay down a few minutes, jest on her account. I think it would make her feel easier."

"Well, I will, if you think I'd better; but there ain't a mite of need of it."

Lois laid her head down on the sofa arm.

"That's right," said Amanda. "You can jest lay there a little while. I'm goin' out to tell your mother to make you a cup of tea. That'll set you right up."

Amanda found Mrs. Field already making the tea. She measured it out carefully, and never looked around. Amanda stepped close to her.

"Mis' Field," she whispered, "I hope you wa'n't hurt by what I said. I meant it for the best."

"I sha'n't give way so again," said Mrs. Field. Her face had a curious determined expression.

"I hope you don't feel hurt?"

"No, I don't. I sha'n't give way so again." She poured the boiling water into the teapot, and set it on the stove.

Amanda looked at a covered dish on the stove hearth. "What was you goin' to have for dinner?" said she.

"Lamb broth. I'm goin' to heat up some for her. She didn't eat hardly a mouthful of breakfast."

"That's jest the thing for her. I'll get out the kettle and put it on to heat. I dun'no' of anything that gits cold any quicker than lamb broth, unless it's love."

Amanda put on a cheerful air as she helped Mrs. Field. Presently the two women carried in the little repast to Lois.

"She's asleep," whispered Amanda, who went first with the tea.

They stood looking at the young girl, stretched out her slender length, her white delicate profile showing against the black arm of the sofa.

Her mother caught her breath. "She's got to be waked up; she's got to have some nourishment, anyhow," said she. "Come, Lois, wake up, and have your dinner."

Lois opened her eyes. All the animation and defiance were gone from her face. She was so exhausted that she made no resistance to anything. She let them raise her, prop her up with a pillow, and nearly feed her with the dinner. Then she lay back, and her eyes closed.

Amanda went home, and Mrs. Field went back to the kitchen to put away the dinner dishes. She had eaten nothing herself, and now she poured some of the broth into a cup, and drank it down with great gulps without tasting it. It was simply filling of a necessity the lamp of life with oil.

After her housework was done, she sat down in the kitchen with her knitting. There was no sound from the other room.

The latter part of the afternoon Amanda came past the window and entered the back door. She carried a glass of foaming beer. Amanda was famous through the neighborhood for this beer, which she concocted from roots and herbs after an ancient recipe. It was pleasantly flavored with aromatic roots, and instinct with agreeable bitterness, being an innocently tonic old-maiden brew.

"I thought mebbe she'd like a glass of my beer," whispered Amanda. "I came round the house so's not to disturb her. How is she?"

"I guess she's asleep. I ain't heard a sound."

Amanda set the glass on the table. "Don't you think you'd ought to have a doctor, Mis' Field?" said she.

It seemed impossible that Lois could have heard, but her voice came shrilly from the other room: "No, I ain't going to have a doctor; there's no need of it. I sha'n't like it if you get one, mother."

"No, you sha'n't have one, dear child," her mother called back. "She was always jest so about havin' a doctor," she whispered to Amanda.

"I'll take in the beer if she's awake," said Amanda.

Lois looked up when she entered. "I don't want a doctor," said she, pitifully, rolling her blue eyes.

"Of course you sha'n't have a doctor if you don't want one," returned Amanda, soothingly. "I thought mebbe you'd like a glass of my beer."

Lois drank the beer eagerly, then she sank back and closed her eyes. "I'm going to get up in a minute, and sew on my dress," she murmured.

But she did not stir until her mother helped her to bed early in the evening.

The next day she seemed a little better. Luckily it was Saturday, so there was no worry about her school for her. She would not lie down, but sat in the rocking-chair with her needle-work in her lap. When any one came in, she took it up and sewed. Several of the neighbors had heard she was ill, and came to inquire. She told them, with a defiant air, that she was very well, and they looked shocked and nonplussed. Some of them beckoned her mother out into the entry when they took leave, and Lois heard them whispering together.

The next day, Sunday, Lois seemed about the same. She said once that she was going to church, but she did not speak of it again. Mrs. Field went. She suggested staying at home, but Lois was indignant.

"Stay at home with me, no sicker than I am! I should think you were crazy, mother," said she.

So Mrs. Field got out her Sunday clothes and went to meeting. As soon as she had gone, Lois coughed; she had been choking the cough back. She stood at the window, well back that people might not see her, and watched her mother pass down the street with her stiff glide. Mrs. Field's back and shoulders were rigidly steady when she walked; she might have carried a jar of water on her head without spilling it, like an Indian woman. Lois, small and slight although she was, walked like her mother. She held herself with the same resolute stateliness, when she could hold herself at all. The two women might, as far as their carriage went, have marched in a battalion with propriety.

Lois felt a certain relief when her mother had gone. Even when Mrs. Field made no expression of anxiety, there was a covert distress about her which seemed to enervate the atmosphere, and hinder the girl in the fight she was making against her own weakness. Lois had a feeling that if nobody would look at her nor speak about her illness, she could get well quickly of herself.

As for Mrs. Field, she was no longer eager to attend meeting; she went rather than annoy Lois. She was present at both the morning and afternoon services. They still had two services in Green River.

Jane Field, sitting in her place in church through the long sermons, had a mental experience that was wholly new to her. She looked at the white walls of the audience-room, the pulpit, the carpet, the pews. She noted the familiar faces of the people in their Sunday gear, the green light stealing through the long blinds, and all these accustomed sights gave her a sense of awful strangeness and separation. And this impression did not leave her when she was out on the street mingling with the homeward people; every greeting of an old neighbor strengthened it. She regarded the peaceful village houses with their yards full of new green grass and flowering bushes, and they seemed to have a receding dimness as she neared some awful shore. Even the click of her own gate as she opened it, the sound of her own feet on the path, the feel of the door-latch to her hand--all the little common belongings of her daily life were turned into so many stationary landmarks to prove her own retrogression and fill her with horror.

To-day, when people inquired for Lois, her mother no longer gave her customary replies. She said openly that her daughter was real miserable, and she was worried about her.

"I guess she's beginning to realize it," the women whispered to each other with a kind of pitying triumph. For there is a certain aggravation in our friends' not owning to even those facts which we deplore for them. It is provoking to have an object of pity balk. Mrs. Field's assumption that her daughter was not ill had half incensed her sympathizing neighbors; even Amanda had marvelled indignantly at it. But now the sudden change in her friend caused her to marvel still more. She felt a vague fear every time she thought of her. After Lois had gone to bed that Sunday night, her mother came into Amanda's room, and the two women sat together in the dusk. It was so warm that Amanda had set all the windows open, and the room was full of the hollow gurgling of the frogs--there was some low meadow-land behind the house.

"I want to know what you think of Lois?" said Mrs. Field, suddenly; her voice was high and harsh.

"Why, I don't know, hardly, Mis' Field."

"Well, I know. She's runnin' down. She won't ever be any better, unless I can do something. She's dyin' for the want of a little money, so she can stop work an' go away to some healthier place an' rest. She is; the Lord knows she is." Mrs. Field's voice was solemn, almost oratorical.

Amanda sat still; her long face looked pallid and quite unmoved in the low light; she was thinking what she could say.

But Mrs. Field went on; she was herself so excited to speech and action, the outward tendency of her own nature was so strong, that she failed to notice the course of another's. "She is," she repeated, argumentatively, as if Amanda had spoken, or she was acute enough to hear the voice behind silence; "there ain't any use talkin'."

There was a pause, a soft wind came into the room, the noise of the frogs grew louder, a whippoorwill called; it seemed as if the wide night were flowing in at the windows.

"What I want to know is," said Mrs. Field, "if you will take Lois in here to meals, an' look after her a week or two. Be you willin' to?"

"You ain't goin' away, Mis' Field?" There was a slow and contained surprise in Amanda's tone.

"Yes, I be; to-morrow mornin', if I live, on the early train. I be, if you're willin' to take Lois. I don't see how I can leave her any other way as she is now. You sha'n't be any loser by it, if you'll take her."

"Where be you goin', Mis' Field?"

"I don't want you to say anything about it. I don't want it all over town."

"I sha'n't say anything."

"Well, I'm goin' down to Elliot."

"You be?"

"Yes, I be. Old Mr. Maxwell's dead. I had a letter a night or two ago."

Amanda gasped, "He's dead?"

"Yes."

"What was the matter, do you know?"

"They called it paralysis. It was sudden."

Amanda hesitated. "I s'pose--you know anything about--his property?" said she.

"Yes; he left it all to my sister."

"Why, Mis' Field!"

"Yes; he left every cent of it to her."

"Oh, ain't it dreadful she's dead?"

"It's all been dreadful right along," said Mrs. Field.

"Of course," said Amanda, "I know she's better off than she'd be with all the money in the world; it ain't that; but it would do so much good to the livin'. Why, look here, Mis' Field, I dun'no' anything about law, but won't you have it if your sister's dead?"

"I'm goin' down there."

"It seems as if you'd ought to have somethin' anyway, after all you've done, lettin' his son have your money an' everything."

Amanda spoke with stern warmth. She had known about this grievance of her neighbor's for a long time.

"I'm goin' down there," repeated Mrs. Field.

"I would," said Amanda.

"I hate to leave Lois," said Mrs. Field; "but I don't see any other way."

"I'll take her," said Amanda, "if you're willin' to trust her with me."

"I've got to," replied Mrs. Field.

"Well, I'll do the best I can," replied Amanda.

She was considerably shaken. She felt her knees tremble. It was as if she were working a new tidy or rug pattern. Any variation of her peaceful monotony of existence jarred her whole nature like heavy wheels, and this was a startling one.

She wondered how Mrs. Field could bring herself to leave Lois. It seemed to her that she must have hopes of all the old man's property.

After Mrs. Field had gone home, and she, primly comfortable in her starched and ruffled dimities, lay on her high feather-bed between her smooth sheets, she settled it in her own mind that her neighbor would certainly have the property. She wondered if she and Lois would go to Elliot to live, and who would live in her tenement. The change was hard for her to contemplate, and she wept a little. Many a happiness comes to its object with outriders of sorrows to others.

Poor Amanda bemoaned herself over the changes that might come to her little home, and planned nervously her manner of living with Lois during the next week. Amanda had lived entirely alone for over twenty years; this admitting another to her own territory seemed as grave a matter to her as the admission of foreigners did to Japan. Indeed, all her kind were in a certain way foreigners to Amanda; and she was shy of them, she had so withdrawn herself by her solitary life, for solitariness is the farthest country of them all.

Amanda did not sleep much, and it was very early in the morning--she was standing before the kitchen looking-glass, twisting the rosettes of her front hair--when Mrs. Field came in to say good-by. Mrs. Field was gaunt and erect in her straight black clothes. She had her black veil tied over her bonnet to protect it from dust, and the black frame around her strong-featured face gave her a rigid, relentless look, like a female Jesuit. Lois came faltering behind her mother. She had a bewildered air, and she looked from her mother to Amanda with appealing significance, but she did not speak.

"Well, I've come to say good-by," said Mrs. Field.

Amanda had one side of her front hair between her lips while she twisted the other; she took it out. "Good-by, Mis' Field," she said. "I'll do the best I can for Lois. How soon do you s'pose you'll be back?"

"It's accordin' to how I get along. I've been tellin' Lois she ain't goin' to school to-day. She's afraid Mr. Starr will put Ida in if she don't; but there ain't no need of her worryin'; mebbe a way will be opened. I want you to lookout she don't go. There ain't no need of it."

"I'll do the best I can," said Amanda, with a doubtful glance at Lois.

Lois said nothing, but her pale little mouth contracted obstinately. She and Amanda followed her mother to the door. The departing woman said good-by, and went down the steps over the terraces. She never looked back. She went on out the gate, and turned into the long road. She had a mile walk to the railroad station.

Amanda and Lois went back into the sitting-room.

"When did she tell you she was going?" Lois asked suddenly.

"Last night."

"She didn't tell me till this morning."

Lois held her head high, but her eyes were surprised and pitiful, and the corners of her mouth drooped. She faced about to the window with a haughty motion, and watched her mother out of sight, a gaunt, dark old figure disappearing under low green elm branches.

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Chapter IAmanda Pratt's cottage-house was raised upon two banks above the road-level. Here and there the banks showed irregular patches of yellow-green a little milky-stemmed plant grew. It had come up every spring since Amanda could remember.There was a great pink-lined shell on each side of the front door-step, and the path down over the banks to the road was bordered with smaller shells. The house was white, and the front door was dark green, with an old-fashioned knocker in the centre.There were four front windows, and the roof sloped down to them; two were in Amanda's parlor, and two
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