To old Mrs. Prentiss, watching apprehensively each slow mountain dawn, the long, golden days of the warm autumn formed a series of blessed reprieves from the doom which hung over her. With her inherited and trained sense of reality, she could not cheat herself into forgetting, even for a moment, that her fate was certain, but, nevertheless, she took a breathless enjoyment in each day, as it passed and did not bring the dreaded change in her life. She spoke to her husband about this feeling as they sat on the front step one October evening, when the air was as mild as in late May, breaking the calm silence, in which they usually sat, by saying, "Seems as though this weather was just made for us, don't it father?"
The old man stirred uneasily in his chair. "I dun'no'—seems sometimes to me as though I'd ruther have winter come and be done with it. If we've got to go as soon as cold weather sets in, we might as well go and have it over with. As 'tis, I keep on saying good-by in my mind to things and folks every minute, and then get up in the morning to begin it all again. This afternoon I was down the river where I saved Hiram's life when he was a little fellow—the old black whirl-hole. I got to thinking about that time. I never was real sure till then I wouldn't be a coward if it come right down to it. Seems as though I'd been more of a man ever since. It's been a real comfort to me to look at that whirl-hole, and this afternoon it come over me that after this there wouldn't be a single thing any more to remind us of anything, good or bad, we've ever done. It'll be most as if we hadn't lived at all. I just felt as though I couldn't go away from everything and everybody I've ever known, down to Hiram's stuffy little flat. And yet I suppose we are real lucky to have such a good son as Hiram, now the others are all gone. I dun'no' what we'd do if 'tweren't for him."
"Do!" cried his wife bitterly. "We could go on living right in this valley where we belong, if 'twas only in the poor-house!"
The old man answered reasonably, as though trying to convince himself, "Well, I suppose it's really flying in the face of Providence to feel so. The doctor says your lungs ain't strong enough to stand another of our winters in the mountains, fussing over stove fires, and zero weather and all, and I'm so ailing I probably wouldn't last through, either. He says it's a special dispensation that we've got such a nice place to go where there's steam heat, and warm as summer, day and night."
"Nathaniel!" exclaimed his wife, attempting to turn her bulky body toward him in the energy of her protest, "how can you talk so! We've visited Hiram and we know what an awful place he lives in. I keep a-seeing that little narrow room that's to be all the place you and I'll have, with the one window that gets flapped by the wash of the Lord knows who, and that kitchen as big as the closet to my bedroom here, and that long narrow hall—why, it's as much as ever I can walk down that hall without sticking fast—and Hiram's queer Dutch wife——"
She stopped, silenced by the scantiness of her vocabulary, but through her mind still whirled wordless out cries of rebellion. Her one brief visit to the city rose before her with all the horror of the inexplicable, strange, and repellent life which it had revealed to her. The very conveniences of the compact city apartment were included in her revulsion from all that it meant. The very kindnesses of the pretty, plump German woman who was her daughter-in-law startled and repelled her, as did the familiar, easy, loud-voiced affection of the blond young German-Americans who were her grandchildren. Even her own son, Hiram, become half Teutonic through the influence of his business and social relations among the Germans, seemed alien and remote to her. The stout, beer-drinking, good-natured and easygoing man seemed another person from the shy, stiff lad who had gone away from them many years ago, looking so like his father at nineteen that his mother choked to see him.
She passed in review all the small rooms of her son's home, "strung along the hall like buttons on a string," and thought of the three flights of stairs which were the only escape from them—three long, steep flights, which left her breathless, her knees trembling under her great weight, and which led out on the narrow side street, full of noisy, impertinent children and clattering traffic. Beyond that, nothing—a city full of strangers whose every thought and way of life were foreign to her, whose very breath came in hurried, feverish gasps, who exhaled, as they passed her, an almost palpable emanation of hostile indifference to her and her existence. It was no new vision to her. Ever since the doctor's verdict had made it impossible longer to resist her son's dutiful urging of his parents to make his home theirs she had spent scarcely an hour without a sudden sick wave of dread of what lay before her; but the picture was the none the less horrifying because of familiarity, and she struck her hands together with a sharp indrawn breath.
The gaunt old man turned toward her, a helpless sympathy twisting his seamed and weather-marked face. "It's too bad, mother," he said. "I know just how you feel about it. But Hiram's a good son, and"—he hesitated, casting about for a redeeming feature—"there's always the Natural History Museum and the birds."
"That's just it, Nathaniel," returned the old rebel against fate. "You have something there that's going on with one thing you've done here. You've always noticed birds and studied 'em in the woods, and you can go on doing it in a museum. But there ain't a thing for me! All I've ever done is to live right here in this house ever since I was born, and look out at the mountains and the big meadows and the river and the churchyard, and keep house and take care of you and the children.
"Now the children are all gone, and I haven't the strength to take care of you the way you need; my life is all done—there ain't no more to it!
"It's like a book—there's still a chapter you can write, or one you can finish up; but me—I've come right down to Finis, only the Lord won't write it for me. It's as if somebody wanted to scrawl on the back flyleaf something that hasn't a thing to do with the rest of the book, some scratching stuff in a furrin' language that I can't even understand."
Her husband did not contradict her. He sighed heavily and they both fell again into a cheerless silence. The moon rose with a strange, eerie swiftness over the wall of mountain before them, and its wavering reflection sprang at once to life in the swirling waters of the black hole in the Necronsett on the other side of the meadow. The old woman's heart gave a painful leap in her breast at the sight. It was probably one of the last times she would see it. Numberless occasions when she had noted it before hurried through her mind.
She felt herself again the little girl who had sat in summer evenings, miles away from the talk of her elders in a happy child's reverie, and who had grown dizzy with watching the swimming reflection in the whirlpool. She had a strange fleeting hallucination that she was again sitting in the moonlight, her cheeks flushed and her strong young pulse beating high to hear Nathaniel's footfall draw nearer down the road. She felt again the warm, soft weight of her little son, the first-born, the one who had died young, as she remembered how proud she and Nathaniel had been when he first noticed the moon.
An odd passion of recollection possessed her. As the moon rose higher she seemed to be living over at one time a thousand hours of her busy, ardent life. She looked at the high, drooping line of the mountains with her childhood's delight in its clear outline against the sky; she saw the white stones of the old graveyard, next door, glimmer through the shadow cast by the church tower, with the half uneasy, fearful pleasure of her romantic girlhood; she felt about her the solidity and permanency of the old house, her father's and her grandfather's home, with the joy in protected security of her young married life; and through it all there ran a heartsick realization that she was, in fact, a helpless old woman, grown too feeble to conduct her own life, and who was to be forced to die two deaths, one of the spirit and one of the body.
"Come, mother," said Nathaniel, rising, "we'd better go to bed. We both of us get notiony sitting here in the moonlight."
He helped her raise her weighty body with the deftness of long practice and they both went dully into the house.
The knowledge of the sky and of the signs of weather, which was almost an instinct with the descendant of generations of farmers, was put to an anxious use during the days which followed.
Not since the days when, as a young girl, she had roamed the mountains, as much a part of the forest and fields as any wild inhabitant, had she so scanned the face of the valley which was her world.
She had stopped hoping for any release from her sentence. She only prayed now for one more clay of grace, and into each day she crowded a fullness of life which was like a renewal of her vigorous youth.
Of late years, existence had flowed so uniform a passage through the channels of habit that it had become but half sentient. The two old people had lived in almost as harmoniously vacant and vital a silence as the old trees in the forest back of the house. In the surroundings which generations of human use had worn to an exquisite fitness for their needs, and to which a long lifetime had adjusted their every action, they conducted their life with the unthinking sureness of a process of Nature. But now the old woman, feeling exile close upon her, drew from every moment of the familiar life an essential savor.
She knew there was no hope for her; the repeated visits of the doctor and his decided judgments left her no illusions as to the possibility of escape. "The very first cold snap you must certainly go," he said, with the inflexibility of the young. "Mr. Prentiss is likely to have one of his bad turns and you simply cannot give him the care he must have. Besides, when he is sick, you will have to look after the fires, and the slightest exposure would mean pneumonia. I've just written your son so." He drew on his overcoat. He was so recently from the hospital that it was still of a fashionable cut and texture. "I can't see anyway why you object to going. Your son can't afford to keep you both here, and hire somebody to look after you into the bargain. Think of the advantages you have there, theaters and museums and the like."
Mrs. Prentiss spoke sharply. "I've never been in a theater in my life and I hope I'll go to my grave without being; and as for museums and things, look at me! I'm so big I can hardly get into the cars, and my city grandchildren are ashamed to go out with me and have all the folks looking at the fat old woman from the country."
The doctor laughed involuntarily at this picture as he turned away.
"Do you think you are so big it takes the whole Necronsett valley to hold you?" he called lightly over his shoulder.
Mrs. Prentiss looked after him with burning eyes. What did he know about the continuity of human life? He had told her himself that he had never lived more than four years in one place. What did he know of ordering your life, not only for yourself, but for your parents and grandparents? She felt often as she looked upon the unchanging line of the mountains guarding the valley, as in her great-grandfather's time, that she saw with the eyes of her ancestors as well as her own. The room in which she stood had been her grandmother's bedroom, and her father had been born there, as she had been herself, and as her children had been. In her childhood she had looked up to the top of the tall chest of drawers as to a mountain peak, and her children had, after her. Every inequality in the floor was as familiar to her feet as to those of her great-grandmother. The big chest, where she had always kept her children's clothes, had guarded hers and her mother's, and as often as she had knelt by it, she had so vivid a recollection of seeing her mother and her grandmother in the same attitude, that she seemed to lose for a moment the small and confining sense of individual personality, and to be come merged in a noble procession of mothers of the race.
She had been an undisciplined girl, called a tomboy in those days, whose farmer forbears had given to her a pagan passion for the soil and the open sky. Although brought up with a rigid training in theology, religion had never meant more to her than a certainty of hell as a punishment for misdeeds which neither she nor any of the valley people were likely to commit—murder, suicide, false swearing, and the like. Of definite religious feeling she had none, although the discipline of a hard if happy life had brought her spiritual life in an unconsciously profound form. She had shrunk from that discipline with all the force of her nature, and in her girl's heart had vowed that she would never marry and lead the slave's life of a New England farmer's wife. But then had arrived Nathaniel, the big, handsome lad who had taken her wild, shy heart and lost his own when they first met.
So, half rebellious, she had begun the life of a wife in the old house from which her mother had just gone to the churchyard next door, and which was yet filled with her brave and gentle spirit. The old woman, looking miserably about her, remembered how at every crisis of her life the old house had spoken to her of the line of submissive wives and mothers which lay back of her, and had tamed her to a happy resignation in the common fate of women. On her mother's bed she had borne the agony of childbirth without a murmur, she whose strong young body had never known pain of any kind. She had been a joyful prisoner to her little children, she who had always roamed so foot-free in her girlhood, and with a patience inspired by the thought of her place in the pilgrimage of her race, she had turned the great strength of her love for her husband toward a contented acceptance of the narrow life which was all he could give her.
Each smallest detail in the room had a significance running back over years. The ragged cuts in the window-sill moved her to a sudden recollection of how naughty little Hiram had cut them with his first knife. With what a repressed intensity she had loved the child while she had reproved him! How could she go away and leave every reminder of her children! With a quick and characteristic turn she caught herself in the flagrant contradiction involved in her reluctance to leave behind her mere senseless reminders of her son when she was going to his actual self. And then, with the despairing clear sight of one in a crisis of life, she knew that, in very fact, Hiram was no longer the boy who had left them years ago. Away from all that made up her life, under influences utterly foreign and alien, he had spent almost twice as many years as he had with her. Not only had the reaction from his severe training carried him to another extreme of laxness, but as result of his continued absence he had lost all contact with her world. He no longer consciously repudiated it, he had crossed the deeper gulf of forgetting it. He was a stranger to her.
Always before the memories which clung about every corner of the dark old house had helped her, but now she was forced to face a crisis which none of her people had known. It was not one of the hardships of life which were to be accepted, and the hot rebellion of her girlhood burned in her aching old heart. She thought resentfully of the doctor s blind and stony lack of understanding. His last ironic sentence came to her mind and she flamed at the recollection. Yes, it did take the whole valley to hold her, the valley which was as much a part of her as her eyes which beheld it. There were moments when she stood under the hazy autumn sky, so acutely conscious of every line and color of the great wall of mountains surrounding her that she grew in very fact to be an indivisible portion of the whole—felt herself as actually rooted to that soil and as permanent under that sky as the great elm before the door.
She made no more outcries against fate to her husband, partly because of the anguish which came upon his gentle old face at the sight of her suffering, and partly because she felt herself to have no tangible reason for rebellion. During the last years they had gone drearily around and around the circle which they felt closing so inexorably upon them, and there was no longer any use to wear themselves out in futile discussions of impossible plans. They had both been trained to regard reasonableness as one of the cardinal virtues, and to the mild nature of the old man it was a natural one, so they tried conscientiously to force themselves not only to act, but to feel, "like sensible folks," as they put it bravely to themselves.
"Other folks have gone to live with their children, and not near such good sons as Hiram either, and they didn't make such a fuss about it," said Mr. Prentiss one evening, out of a long silence, as they sat in front of the hearth. He looked at his wife, hoping for a cheerful response, but her lips were set in a quivering line of pain, and the flickering light showed her fair broad face glistening with tears. "Oh, mother!" he cried, in a helpless misery of sympathy. "Oh, mother, don't! I can't stand it! If I could only do it for you! But we can't stay, you know."
The other nodded dumbly, although after a moment she said, "Every day I live all my life over again, and my mother's, and all my folks. It has never seemed as though they really died as long as we lived here same as they did. It's like killing them all again to go away and sell the house to strangers."
There was a silence and then, "Oh, Nathaniel, what was that?" she cried, her voice rising in a quaver of apprehension.
"The wind," said her husband, stirring the fire.
"I know. But what wind? It sounds like the first beginning of the wind over Eagle Rock, and that means snow!"
She hastened heavily to the window, and raised the shade. "There's a ring around the moon as plain as my wedding ring!" And then as she looked there clung to the window-pane a single flake of snow, showing ghastly white in the instant before it melted.
"Nathaniel, the end has come," she said solemnly. "Help me get to bed."
The next morning there was a foot of snow and the thermometer was going steadily down. When the doctor arrived, red-nosed and gasping from the knife-like thrusts of the wind over Eagle Rock, he announced that it was only eight above zero, and he brought a kindly telegram from Hiram, saying that he had started for the mountains to accompany his parents back to the city. "I envy you!" said the doctor, blowing on his stiff fingers. "Think of the bliss of being where you have only to turn a screw in your steam-radiator to escape from this beastly cold. Your son will be here on the evening train, and I'll bring him right over. You'll be ready to start to morrow, won't you? You've had all the autumn to get packed up in."
Mrs. Prentiss did not answer. She was so irrationally angry with him that she could not trust herself to speak. She stood looking out of the low window at the Necronsett, running swift and black between the white banks. She felt a wave of her old obsession that in her still lived the bygone dwellers in the old house, that through her eyes they still saw the infinitely dear and familiar scenes. Something in her own attitude reminded her of how her father had looked as he stood every morning at that same vindow and speculated on the weather. For a moment she had an almost dizzy conviction that he did in all reality stand there again.
Then she heard the doctor saying, "I'm coming over here myself when you start for the station, to see that you're well wrapped up. The least exposure——" He looked at Mrs. Prentiss's broad and obstinate back, turned to her husband, and tapped his chest significantly.
After he had gone the room was intensely quiet. Mr. Prentiss sat by the fire, looking vacantly at his withered old hands on his knees, and his wife did not stir from the window. Her heavy, wide figure was immovable, but a veritable whirlwind of despair raged within her. She had supposed she knew all along how bad it was going to be, but it had been a foolish child s play, like shutting your eyes to pretend you were blind. Now that utter darkness was upon her, it was as great a shock as though it came with the most extreme and cruel surprise. A thousand furious fancies went through her mind, although she continued to gaze out of the window with the same blank look of stunned incredulity. The whirlpool in the river caught her eye and she had a wild impulse to throw herself into it. Even in her frenzy, however, there came the thought, instantly dissuading, of the scandal in the village and family which such an action would cause.
No, there was no escape at all, since that simple and obvious one was closed.
The valley lay about her, the mountain walls iridescent with snow in sunshine, the river gleaming with its curious, rapid, serpentine life, in all the peaceful death of winter; everything was as it always had been. Her mind refused to accept the possibility of her living under other conditions with as irresistible and final a certainty as if she had been called upon to believe she could live with her head separated from her body.
And yet, battering at that instinctive feeling, came the knowledge that she was to start for New York the next day. She felt suddenly that she could not. "I can't! I can't!" she cried dumbly. "I can't, even if I have to!"
An instant later, like an echo, a fiercer gust than usual swept down off the ledge of rock above the little house, rattled the loose old window, and sent a sharp blade of icy air full in the old woman s eyes. She gasped and started back. And then, all in a breath, her face grew calm and smooth, and her eyes bright with a sudden resolve. Without a moment's hesitation, she turned to her husband and said in a tone more like her old self than he had heard for some time, "Father, I wish you'd go over to Mrs. Warner's and take back that pattern. If we're going to leave to-morrow, you know——"
The old man rose obediently, and began putting on his wraps. His wife helped him, and hurried him eagerly off. When she was alone, she tore at the fastening of her gown in a fury of haste, baring her wrinkled old throat widely. Then without a glance about her, she opened the door to the woodshed, stepped out, and closed it behind her. The cold clutched at her throat like a palpable hand of ice, and her first involuntary gasp set her into a fit of coughing.
She sat down on the stump where kindlings were always split and opened her gown wider. She noticed how fair and smooth the skin on her shoulders still was and remembered that her husband had always been proud of her pretty neck. She had worn a low-necked dress when he had told her he loved her. That had been in the garden, into which she could now look as she sat on the stump. She had been picking currants for tea, and he had gone out to see her. The scene came up before her so vividly that she heard his voice, and felt herself turn to him with the light grace of her girlhood and cry again, in an ecstasy of surprised joy, "Oh, Nathaniel!"
A gust of wind whirled a handful of snow against her and some of it settled on her bare shoulders. She watched it melt and felt the icy little trickle with a curious aloofness. Suddenly she began to shiver, gripped by a dreadful chill, which shook her like a strong hand. After that she was very still again, the death-like cold penetrating deeper and deeper until her breath came in constricted gasps. She did not stir until she heard the front door bang to her husband's return. Then she rose with infinite effort and struggled back into the kitchen. When he came in, she was standing by the sink, fumbling idly with the dishes. Already her head was whirling, and she scarcely knew what she was doing.
In the nightmare of horror which his wife's sudden sickness brought upon him, old Mr. Prentiss felt that he could bear everything except the sight and sound of his wife's struggles for breath. He hardly saw the neighbor women who filled the house, taking advantage of this opportunity to inspect the furniture with an eye to the auction which would follow the removal of the old people to the city. He hardly heeded the doctor's desperate attempts with all varieties of new-fangled scientific contrivances to stay the hand of death. He hardly knew that his son had come, and in his competent, prosperous way was managing everything for him. He sat in one corner of the sick-room, and agonized over the unconscious sick woman, fighting for every breath.
On the third day he was left alone with her, by some chance, and suddenly the dreadful, heaving gasp was still. He sprang to the bedside, sick with apprehension, but his wife looked up at him with recognition in her eyes. "This is the end, Nathaniel," she said in so low a whisper that he laid his ear to her lips to hear. "Don't let anybody in till I'm gone. I don't want 'em to see how happy I look." Her face wore, indeed, an unearthly look of beatitude.
"Nathaniel," she went on, "I hope there's no life after this—for me anyway. I don't think I ever had very much soul. It was always enough for me to live in the valley with you. When I go back into the ground I'll be where I belong. I ain't fit for heaven, and, anyway, I'm tired. We've lived hard, you and I, Nathaniel; we loved hard when we were young, and we've lived all our lives right out to the end. Now I want to rest."
The old man sat down heavily in a chair by the bed. His lips quivered, but he said nothing. His wife's brief respite from pain had passed as suddenly as it came, and her huge frame began again to shake in the agony of straining breath. She managed to speak between gasps. "Don't let a soul in here, Nathaniel. I'll be gone in a few minutes. I don't want 'em to see——"
The old man stepped to the door and locked it. As he came back, the sick woman motioned him to come closer. "Natty, I thought I could keep it, but I never did have a secret from you, and I can't die without telling you. If there is a heaven and hell—— Oh, Natty, I've done a wicked thing, and I'm dying without repenting. I'd do it again. That time you went to Mrs. Warner's with the pattern—this cold I got that day I went out——"
Her husband interrupted her. For the first time in years he did not call her "mother," but used the pet name of their courtship. The long years of their parenthood had vanished. They had gone back to the days when each had made up all the world to the other. "I know, Matey," he said. "I met young Warner out in the road and give the pattern to him, and I come right back, and see you sitting out there. I knew what 'twas for."
His wife stared at him, amazement silencing her.
"I thought it was the only thing left I could do for you, Matey, to let you stay there. You know I never wished for anything but that you should have what you wanted." He had spoken in a steady, even tone, which now broke into an irrepressible wail of selfish, human anguish. "But you leave me all alone, Matey! How can I get on without you! I thought I'd die myself as I sat inside the house watching you. You're all I ever had, Matey! All there has ever been in the world for me!"
The old woman stopped her gasping by a superhuman effort. "Why, Natty, I never supposed you thought so much of me still. I thought that had gone when we got old. But, oh, my dear! I'm afraid I've dragged you down with me to destruction. It wa'n't any matter about me, but I'm afraid you've lost your soul. That was a wicked thing for us to do!"
Her husband lifted his tear-stained, old face and laid it on the pillow beside her. He did not put his arms about her, as a younger lover or one of another country might have done, but because he was a man who had loved deeply all his life, his answer came with the solemn significance and sincerity of a speech before the Judgment Seat. "I ain't afraid of hell if you're there, Matey," he said.
His wife turned her head and looked at him, her whole face transfigured. She was no longer a fat old woman on her deathbed. Before his very eyes she grew again to be the girl among the currant bushes, and with the same amazed intonation of incredulous joy she cried his name aloud. "Oh, Nathaniel!" she said, and with the word the longed for Finis was written to her life.