A Homely Sacrifice

A Homely Sacrifice  (1914) 
by Harriet Prescott Spofford

From Harper's Magazine, Nov 1914. As Mrs. Farell relates the long history behind her self-embroidered quilt, she may gain a better understanding of both herself and those around her.

I tell ye my fingers tingled ter make his ears smart. Yes, there's been many a time I've jes' longed ter take him acrost my checkered apron, though he's mos' too big. There's some o' the pieces now. Oh, this warn't done all ter onst. Why, it's took years, off an' on.... The work's a kind o' record, 's you may say. Fer all the days o' my life are stitched inter that quilt!"

A Homely Sacrifice


WHAT'S that!" cried Miss Sally, at a sudden rattle of pebbles on the upper window-pane.

"Reddy—only Reddy Blake," said Mrs. Farrell, shifting the weight on her lap. "He's mad 'ith me, an' he's throwin' stuns at the robin that has her nest under the eaves on my porch. He ain't got nothin' agin the robin; fact, he'd ruther not hit her; but he thinks it troubles me, and it doos—"

"Why, Mrs. Farrell, how can any one want to trouble you?"

"Wal, the whole of it is I'm mad 'ith Reddy. You see, he was playin' hookey, an' somebody told on him. An' he thinked 'twas me. 'Twarn't. I tell on a boy! And a boy that's lost his father! But often w'en ye git a notion ye can't git rid of it; an' Reddy's got it fixed in his brain that 'twas me got him his lickin'. Fust thin' he done was ter open my door an' throw in a live mouse. He knew how scared I was of a mouse. An' ter save my soul from harm I couldn't screamin', an' that tickled him to death. The nex' thin' he done was ter steal my cat—an' that mouse in the place! But 'twarn't on account o' the mouse. I missed kitty by night an' day; 'ith her gone I felt 's ef there warn't no one in the house. An', besides, I didn't know surely what that imp might 'a' done to her—ef he'd drownded her or shet her up an' starved her. Sometimes I've thought there was more o' his mother in him than there was o' his father. I do' 'no'. I uster wake up in the night an' seem ter hear Kitty cry. But one evenin' she come hoppin' home on her three legs, sleek an' shinin', an' couldn't make enough o' me. I seen her go an' rub agin Reddy's legs, tew, w'en he was goin' by w'istlin'. Nex' time I see Reddy he put his tongue in his cheek. Then, becos he warn't satisfied 'ith his ill-doin's, he gits up on my roof an' stops up my chimbly with a board an' two big stuns—he was spry as a cat himself them days. He ain't so spry now—poor little bad soul. I can't tell ye w'at I suffered 'ith the smoke a-pourin' back, couldn't git no draught, nor bake nor broil. An' then there come a great gale an' blowed the board off, an' the stuns made a hole in the shinglin' that it took time an' trouble an' money to mend. No, I ain't no use fer Reddy Blake. Leastways, as I feel jes' now. An' he knows it, an' fires at the robin w'ile he's thinkin' up suthin' wuss. One time he come ter the porch where I set a-sewin' an' hed jes' stepped inside a moment, an' he caught up my work-basket an' scattered the thin's in it, the pieces o' this very quilt, so't took me half the fore-noon ter pick em up. I tell ye my fingers tingled ter make his ears smart. Yes, there's been many a time I've jes' longed ter take him acrost my checkered apron, though he's mos' too big. There's some o' the pieces now. Oh, this warn't done all ter onst. Why, it's took years, off an' on. Yes, I set by it. You wouldn't think it of jes' patchwork, but there's been tears shed into it—cotton, too, mostly. The days I was a-linin' an' bindin' of it off, seein' all them bits an' mindin' where they come fum, I must 'a' cried showers. Makes me feel queer in my throat ter-day. That linin' now—w'en they put new fittin's into the eetin'-'us I ast fer the old curtings behind the pulpit. They was faded in reg'lar streaks, one streak reddish an' another streak buff, where the sun hed burned it. I put it on jes' so; looks 's ef 'twas done a-purpose; old-fashion-brocade-lookin'. The work's a kind o' record, 's you may say. Fer all the days o' my life are stitched inter that quilt!"

"How interesting!" said the sympathetic Miss Sally.

"Here, I'll show ye," said Mrs. Farrell, throwing it over the back of a chair, the better to unfold the laps. "You see that little bit o' lavender color? It's French caliker. That was a piece o' my fust long gown. I mind the day I put it on. I felt as ye do w'en ye're goin' ter the circus or any great thin' ye've been lookin' forrud to. It seemed 's ef life was jes' beginnin'. I was goin' inter a world where everythin' was bright. There warn't a thought o' death in that world, no grief, no disappointin'. 'Twas all hope an' gladness. That atom o' lavender! An' that rose-sprigged piece now! Pretty, ain't it? I hed it on the evenin' he said I was more to him than all the world, when he put his arm 'roun' me there in the darkness o' the lawn—the moon jes' gone down, an' the dew on the wild roses sheddin' sweetness 'ith every little breath o' the soft, dark wind—that rose-sprigged piece—full o' love an' joy! I can't a-bear the smell o' them roses summer nights now. That dust-colored scrap! I hed that on the day I larned he'd changed his mind an' was goin' ter marry her. My life's been dust-colored ever since. I'm speakin' reel free, mebbe—"

Miss Sally pressed her hand for reply.

"Yes," resumed Mrs. Farrell. "That blue right by it? It's off'n the gown she stood up ter be married in. That yaller was her fust baby's ni'gown—Reddy's. Oh no, I never quarreled with 'em. 'Twarn't wuth w'ile. 'Twarn't long, I guess, 'fore he found out he'd giv' substence fer shadder. He lost her money—bank busted—an' he died. An' nobody knows jes' how they keep the breath between their teeth."

Mrs. Farrell was silent awhile, tracing her finger up and down the pieces. She started, as if coming back from a distance. "'Twas suthin' later I took John Farrell," she said. "He'd ast and ast, and along ter the last I thought 'twarn't no use two on us bein' onhappy. So we was married. I'd 'a' been a good wife ef he'd lived. But w'en we started off in the chaise the folks throwed thin's arter us, an' suthin' hit the hoss so 't he rared right up, an' we was tossed out, and I was lamed fer life, an' John Farrell never stirred ag'in. His folks give me his propurty. My mother came an' stayed 'ith me. See that gray, like a soft bit o' cloud? It's only a mite, but it holds power. 'Twas hern, my mother's, w'en her hair was the same silver color. Makes me think o' the flower-de-luce in the gardin by moonlight. Mother uster walk there Sabbath evenin's. Yes, yes, oh me! An' this laylock—my sister Mary wore that. 'Twas becomin'. She was a sweet, serious gel. She thought her husban' stood 'roun' w'en the world was made, an' he thought she made it. They was happy. There's the misery o' growin' old—you jes' walk among graves.

"W'en I see that speck o' red and blue, I bring ter mind the time the boys come marchin' hum, what there was left on 'em, an' the band playin' till the music made your heart stan' still. That was a shred o' one o' the old battle-flags that was shot ter pieces. I darned it to proper size. Yes, Reddy's lost his foot, as you was sayin', an' without goin' ter war, either. Spite o' his actions I do' 'no' but I feel sorry fer him; seem ter symperthize. He's been wuss sence he lost it, tew. Havin' ter go thru life limpin' 'ith my lame foot's sort of enlightenin'. An' as ye say, he ain't the money ter buy a new one, them light paper or wood kind. I seen one o' the boys that come hum fum war that hed both legs shot off jes' below the knee, an' he hed two wooden legs, an' he was dancin' a reel. Think of it! There's some scarlet—Cousin Susan wore it the day o' the flag-raisin'. She was dark-complected—sort o' flashin'. I sot out some wild red lilies on her grave. There was lots o' life in her. Cur'us, how life gits blowed out! Oh, my life's lived out in this quilt. I do' 'no' but I'll hev it buried 'ith me. There's nobody ter know w'at it all means."

"I will," said Miss Sally. "And so will Mrs. Holmes."

Mrs. Holmes had but lately come to the village with Miss Sally, her companion; and, having bought an old house, she was humoring herself with the idea that it was old Colonial, was adapting her furnishings to the idea, and was by way of being immensely interested in all pertaining to the place.

"Why," said Miss Sally, "she says this quilt is not only your history, but a history of the place, a real live book of chronicles. She was quite excited about it after you let her see it, and insisted I should. She said she'd give—well, perhaps a hundred dollars for it. She said it was a human document, and it would be a misfortune to the place to have it worn out like any common covering. She said she could hang it over an empty doorway, the lining outside, and when people admired the work of the sun on that crimson stuff, changing it to sun-color, she would turn it about and tell them the story of the place and the people."

"I never thought she was silly as that. A hundred dollars! Ef she's got money to throw away so she'd better buy Reddy his wooden leg!"

"But she doesn't know anything of Reddy, except as a boy jumping off a haymow and having his foot crushed."

"Reddy ain't nothin' to her, I know," said Mrs. Farrell.

"But you can't say it's money thrown away when paid for a thing you value so."

"She couldn't hev that quilt ef she covered it 'ith silver dollars!"

"What a lot one could do with all those dollars, though, Mrs. Farrell," Miss Sally urged, rather plaintively.

"You needn't talk, dear. I'm sot as Mount Pisghy. This quilt's my life writ out. An' my life's goin' inter the grave 'ith me."

"How you talk, Mrs, Farrell!"

"But don't you see them pieces are allers showin' me w'at I wore, an' callin' up picters o' the others in w'at they wore, when we was young. It's better'n a photograph-album. It keeps a-tellin' me I was young onst, I was young onst. I hed the pleasant forenoon o' my life. An' there can't be two forenoons to one day. Your'n ain't all gone. But it's the edge o' the evenin' now 'ith me."

"Oh no, just afternoon."

"An' most o' Reddy's forenoon's gone 'ith that lost foot o' hisn, poor little chap! I do' 'no' w'y I keep the little scamp on my mind so."

"Yes, part of his forenoon is gone," said Miss Sally, who had both Mrs. Holmes's wishes and Reddy's necessities on her mind, "unless—"

"Unless what?"

Miss Sally's pale face flushed, but she did not know how to say more, and she cast down her mild eyes and gently said good-by.

"No," said Mrs. Farrell, as if she still had Miss Sally's ear, "she can't hev it. It can't hang in anybody's empty doorway. It's—it's—too sacred to be seen of everybody!" And as she stood up—wondering then a little about Miss Sally's unfinished sentence and her own unanswered question, and yet in some blind inner consciousness knowing the answer very well—she saw, as she held her hands high in disposing her quilt property, the boys on the green playing ball and Reddy Blake leaning on his crutch just outside the ring. A ball flew wild, and Reddy, lifting his crutch, caught it on the fly and sent it back; and then, his support having failed him with the uplifting of the batting crutch, he sank in a heap, and Mrs. Farrell thought she saw a quivering lip bitten to hold it straight. "The poor little creetur!" she said to herself. "I'm ashamed on ye, M'villa Farrell. Keepin' a grutch agin a child! I ain't no business—ef I'd been his mother—as I might 'a' ben"—she thrust her head through the open window space. "Reddy," she cried, suddenly, "you come here!"

Reddy, his footing regained, turned and looked at her and then looked back at the game.

"Ef that motion ain't jes' the way his father uster—Reddy!" she repeated.

He turned again, then he hesitated, then he started to come, and stopped.

"I'm goin' ter hev cream-a-tartar biscuits an' honey fer supper. You come in an' set by," she called.

Reddy hesitated again. He suspected a trap; he grinned, but he did not advance.

"Honor bright!" called Mrs. Farrell.

Reddy's grimace was brief.

"Come along, now," said Mrs. Farrell.

And although not quite understanding, convinced neither of her friendliness nor his desert, he decided he would chance it. He slowly made his way around to the end door, where—while the biscuits were baking and the honey dripping from the comb—he sat upon the steps holding on his knee the old gray cat, who seemed pleased to renew acquaintance as she purred. She had lost a foot in a trap, and he felt a pleasant sympathy with her as he smoothed her head, somewhat astonished to find himself here watching Mrs. Farrell limping on her little journeys.

"He does favor his father," she was thinking. "I guess the mischief in him's hern."

When he was summoned he put the cat down gently.

"There's three on us," said Mrs. Farrell. "You make a joke o' misfort'n, and it ain't half so misfortinate."

Reddy, after a moment or two of diffidence, proved himself a brilliant trencherman, and Mrs. Farrell felt in a way flattered. He might have had brewis at home, which is filling when you are hungry, but nothing to linger over; and this table had a charm of novelty, and the honey was luxurious.

He was too busy for words at first, but after the third helping, and when Mrs. Farrell had left the table for more biscuits, he came to the conclusion that this was no dream, the biscuits and honey were real, and it was plain that bygones were to be bygones. "I uster be sorry fer you," said Reddy, his knife suspended on the way to the butter.

"Sorry fer me!" exclaimed Mrs. Farrell with a quick suspicion that Reddy's shiftless mother might have said unspeakable things. "Why, for goodness' sake, what for?"

"Sundays," said Reddy. "When you come inter meetin'."

"Oh!" she replied. "I see. Ye mean my foot. Yes, it's too bad. But you know how it is yourself now."

"You bet I do!"

The emphasis of Reddy's tone struck against something in Mrs. Farrell's memory. You could hardly call it memory, however, for the dead-and-gone days were all the time alive and active in her consciousness. She recalled the bitter pangs of shame and sorrow when she first met her recreant lover walking with his bride, and she herself stricken with this deformity. She had learned how to manage it better now and scarcely noticed it. She did not know that a pang of pity, almost as sharp, shook the lover's heart in the midst of his new life.

"I guess I do!" cried Reddy, in a torrent of words let loose. "Oh, Mis' Farrell; w'en I hev to go to the blackboard to schule all the gels puts up their han's 'fore their faces so's not to seem ter see me. It's awful ter be pitied so! W'en my mother wants suthin' in a hurry—an' she's allers in a hurry—the others gits it for her fust. And it's the same way with teacher. And o' course I can't play hare an' houn's, I can't climb a tree, I can't run to base, I can't ever be a missionary, and I can't—"

"There, there, there, Reddy! There ain't but one o' them thin's much conserquens. An' you a missionary, anyways!

"Missionaries travel, an' see the worl', an' do good. An' thin's like that ain't no conserquens? They're the hull of a boy's life, an' a man's, too. An' nobody 'll hire me ter hold a hoss or run an arrant. I ain't no good at all!" And Reddy's tears salted his honey. "And I ain't got money fer a false foot, an' nobody else has!" he concluded.

"You couldn't wear one now whilst ye're growin'," said Mrs. Farrell, scooping up the last of the honey to drop it on Reddy's plate. "'Twould be a sinful extravagance ter buy one fer a growin' boy. In no time at all it wouldn't fit. You wait till you're a man."

"I want it jest as much now as I will then," said Reddy, "'ith the gels an' the fellers an' all—"

And then Reddy broke down altogether and hid his face in his elbow; and Mrs. Farrell came around the table, as if she had no lame foot of her own and were not his ancient enemy, and had his curly head on her shoulder, and was wiping away his tears with her apron, not quite certain, either, whether they were his tears or her own. "And I've been real bad to you!" he sobbed at last.

"Don't ye give up so," she said. "There's no knowin' w'at may happen. There's more ways than one to kill a cat. The Lord looks out fer the lame an' the lazy an' them that won't work. So you an' me an' Kitty's all right."

Mrs. Farrell started to walk home with Reddy after the last of the biscuits and honey had disappeared. "No, Mis' Farrell," said he. "'Twould be puffickly redikerlous—two on us! Two on us goin' along tergether and a lame cat follerin'!" But he took with him all he could labor along with, in the shape of an empty hive, pushing it with his spare arm and foot, a long and tiring task, but buoyed by the promise of Mrs. Farrell's first swarm of bees. "You can be a bee-keeper," she had said, "an' do a lot o' thin's the other boys darsent. I'll larn ye. She went back and washed her dishes, looking after Reddy as she moved about. "I'd like—I'd like fust-rate ter take that child an' fetch him up," she thought.

"But 'twouldn't be fair ter John Farrell ter use his money so, unner the sarcumstances."

But when everything was cleared away and Mrs. Farrell was about to sit down and enjoy the moonlight her eye fell on the quilt that she had dropped on the instant of calling Reddy. The refulgent light of the full moon came through the open window and lay upon the quilt and gave it a certain strange remoteness, a sort of glorifying mingling of its many colors, so that it seemed in the moment something as beautiful and precious as an old tapestry. It was to her—precious and of a value not to be reckoned, something like life itself.

Mrs. Farrell stood a moment irresolute. Then she bent and snatched it up with a sudden eagerness, as if she were snatching it out of a great d anger. "My Lord!" she exclaimed. "My Lord in heaven! To think I'd ruther keep them bits of old gowns than hev that boy git a new foot! What kind of a mother 'd I been!" And she threw the thing over her arm and ran out through the warm summer night as if escaping evil fates, all the way around the green to the old house that Mrs. Holmes had remodeled, to the admiration and consternation of the village. It was a very brief while that she stayed, but she came away empty-handed, except for a folded slip of paper with which she went straight to the doctor's.

"'Tain't no use your talkin', doctor," she said, answering his remonstrance, "a-tellin' me he's a growin' boy, an' ter wait. One half o' this 'll git him a foot now, an' the other half can lie at interess an' so git him another foot, by an' by, that he won't outgrow. I can jes' see him this minute when he's larned ter handle it! I can see his glad little face shine, an' them eyes 'ith their blue blaze light up every freckle. To think them bits o' rags can make folks happy as that! Me an' Mis' Holmes an' Reddy! I s'pose that was what Miss Sally was drivin' at—she's a reel tender heart. My soul alive! w'en I was a-stitchin' away on them shreds an' patches I never thought o' the good work they was boun' ter du!" And Mrs. Farrell went home with a song in her heart which had in it much the same ring as the poet's "He builded better than he knew." But as she shut the drawer of the highboy where she had been wont to keep her treasure and turned to close the window, the smell of the wild roses in the lane came in, and she sat down and in spite of her inner joy she cried bitterly. "I do' 'no' w'at I'm a-cryin' for," she said as she wiped her eyes. "I've lost my quilt, to be sure. But I'm goin' ter have Reddy."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.