Not far from the village of Bonny Eagle, on the west bank of the Saco, stood two little low-roofed farmhouses; the only two that had survived among others of the same kind that once dotted the green brink of the river.
Long years before, in 1795 or thereabouts, there had been a cluster of log houses on this very spot, known then as the Dalton Right Settlement, and these in turn had been succeeded at a later date by the more comfortable frame-roof farmhouses of the period.
In the old days, before the sound of the axe for the first time disturbed the stillness of the forest, the otter swam in the shadowy coves near the shore and the beaver built his huts near by. The red deer came down to dip his antlers and cool his flanks in the still shallows. The speckled grouse sat on her nest in the low pine boughs, while her mate perched on the mossy logs by the riverside unmolested.
The Sokokis built their bark wigwams here and there on the bank, paddling their birch canoes over the river’s smooth surface, or threading the foamy torrents farther down its course.
Here was the wonderful spring that fed, and still feeds, Aunt Judy’s Brook, the most turbulent little stream in the county. Many a moccasin track has been made in the soft earth around the never-failing fountain, and many the wooden bucket lowered into its crystal depths by the Dalton Righters when in their turn they possessed the land.
The day of the Indian was over now, and the day of the farmer who succeeded him was over, too. The crash of the loom and the whir of the spinning-wheel were heard no longer, but Amanda Dalton, spinster,—descendant of the original Tristram Dalton, to whom the claim belonged,—sat on alone in her house, and not far away sat Caleb Kimball, sole living heir of the original Caleb, himself a Dalton Righter, and contemporary of Tristram Dalton.
Neither of these personages took any interest in pedigree or genealogy. They knew that their ancestors had lived and died on the same acres now possessed by them, but the acres had dwindled sadly, and the ancestors had seemingly left little for which to be grateful. Indeed, in Caleb’s case they had been a distinct disadvantage, since the local sense of humor, proverbially strong in York County, had always preserved a set of Kimball stories among its most cherished possessions. Some of them might have been forgotten in the century and a half that had elapsed, if the Caleb of our story had not been the inheritor of certain family traits famous in their day and generation.
Caleb the first had been the “cuss” of his fellow farmers, because in coming from Scarboro to join the Dalton Righters he had brought whiteweed with the bundle of hay for his cattle when he was clearing the land. The soil of this particular region must have been especially greedy for, and adapted to, this obnoxious grass-killer, for it flourished as in no other part of the county; flourishes yet, indeed—though, if one can forget that its presence means poor feed for cattle where might be a crop of juicy hay, the blossoming fields of the old Dalton Settlement look, in early June, the loveliest, most ethereal, in New England. There, a million million feathery daisies sway and dance in the breeze, lifting their snowy wheels to the blue June sky. There they grow and thrive, the slender green stalks tossing their pearly disks among sister groves of buttercups till the eye is fairly dazzled with the symphony of white and gold. The back-aching farmers of the original Dalton Settlement had indeed tried to root out the lovely pests, but little did our Caleb care! If he had ever trod his ancestral acres either for pleasure or profit he might in time have “stomped out” the whiteweed, so the neighbors said, for he had the family foot, the size of an anvil; but he much preferred a sedentary life, and the whiteweed went on seeding itself from year to year.
Caleb was tall, loose-jointed, and black as a thunder-cloud—the swarthy skin, like the big foot, having been bequeathed to him by the original Caleb, whose long-legged, shaggy-haired sons had been known as “Caleb’s colts.” Tall and black, all of them, the “colts,” so black that the village wits said the Kimball children must have eaten smut and soot and drunk cinder tea during the years their parents were clearing the land. Tall and black also were all the Kimball daughters, so tall it was their boast to be able to look out over the tops of the window curtains; and proud enough of their height to cry with rage when any rival Amazon came into the neighborhood.
Whatever else they were or were not, however, the Kimballs had always been industrious and frugal. It had remained for the last scion of the old stock to furnish a byword for slackness. In a village where stories of outlandish, ungodly, or supernatural laziness were sacredly preserved from year to year, Caleb Kimball’s indolence easily took the palm. His hay commonly went to seed in the field. His cow yielded her morning’s milk about noon, and her evening “mess” was taken from her (when she was lucky) by the light of a lantern. He was a bachelor of forty-five, dwelt alone, had no visitors and made his living, such as it was, off the farm, with the help of a rack-o’-bones horse. He had fifty acres of timber-land, and when his easy-going methods of farming found him without money he simply sold a few trees.
The house and barn were gradually falling into ruins; the farm implements stood in the yard all winter, and the sleigh all summer. The gate flapped on its hinges, the fences were broken down, and the stone walls were full of gaps. His pipe, and a snarling rough-haired dog, were his only companions. Hour after hour he sat on the side steps looking across the sloping meadows that separated his place from Amanda Dalton’s; hour after hour he puffed his pipe and gazed on the distant hills and the sparkling river; gazed and gazed—whether he saw anything or thought anything, remembered anything, or even dreamed anything, nobody could guess, not even Amanda Dalton, who was good at guessing, having very few other mental recreations to keep her mother-wit alive.
Caleb Kimball, as seen on his doorstep from Amanda Dalton’s sink window, was but a speck, to be sure, but he was her nearest neighbor; if a person whose threshold you never cross, and who never crosses yours, can be called a neighbor. There were seldom or never meetings or greetings between the two, yet each unconsciously was very much alive to the existence of the other. In days or evenings of solitude one can make neighbors of very curious things.
The smoke of Amanda’s morning fire cried “Shame” to Caleb’s when it issued languidly from his kitchen chimney an hour later. Amanda’s smoke was like herself, and betokened the brisk fire she would be likely to build; Caleb’s showed wet wood, poor draught, a fallen brick in the chimney.
Later on in the morning Caleb’s dog would sometimes saunter down the road and have a brief conversation with Amanda’s cat. They were neither friends nor enemies, but merely enlivened a deadly, dull existence with a few casual remarks on current topics.
Once Caleb had possessed a flock of hens, but in the course of a few years they had dwindled to one lonely rooster, who stalked gloomily through the wilderness of misplaced objects in the Kimball yard, and wondered why he had been born.
Amanda pitied him, and flung him a surreptitious handful of corn from her apron pocket when she met him walking dejectedly in the road halfway between the two houses. So encouraged he extended his rambles, and one afternoon Amanda, looking out of her window, saw him stop at her gate and hold a tête-à-tête with one of her Plymouth Rock hens. The interview was brief but effective. In a twinkling he had told her of his miserable life and his abject need of sympathy.
“There are times,” he said, “when, I give you my word, I would rather be stewed for dinner than lead my present existence! It is weak for me to trouble you with my difficulties, but you have always understood me from the first.”
“Say no more,” she replied. “I am a woman and pity is akin to love. The fowls of Amanda Dalton’s flock do not need me as you do. Eleven eggs a day are laid here regularly, and I will go where my egg will be a daily source of pleasure and profit.”
“The coop is draughty and the corn scarce,” confessed the rooster, doing his best to be noble.
“I am of the sex created especially to supply companionship,” returned the hen, “therefore I will accompany you, regardless of personal inconvenience.”
Amanda saw the departure of the eloping couple and pursued them not.
“Land sakes!” she exclaimed, “if any male thing hereabouts has sprawl enough to go courtin’ I’m willin’ to encourage ’em. She’ll miss her clean house and good food, I guess, but I ain’t sure. She’s ‘women-folks’ after all, and I should n’t wonder a mite but she’d take real comfort in makin’ things pleasanter up there for that pindlin’, God-forsaken old rooster! She’ll have her hands full, but there, I know what ’tis to get along with empty ones!”
There were not many such romances or comedies as these to enliven Amanda’s mornings. Then afternoon would slip into twilight, darkness would creep over the landscape, and Amanda’s light—clear, steady, bright, serene—would gleam from its place on the sink shelf through the kitchen window, over the meadow, “up to Kimball’s.” It was such a light as would stream from a well-trimmed lamp with a crystal clean chimney, but it met with small response from its neighbor’s light during many months of the year. In late autumn and winter there would be a fugitive candle gleam upstairs in the Kimball house, and on stormy evenings a dull, smoky light in the living-room.
From the illumination in the Dalton sink window, Caleb thought Amanda sat in the kitchen evenings, but she didn’t. She said she kept the second light there because she could afford it, and because the cat liked it. The cat enjoyed the black haircloth sofa in the sitting-room, afternoons, but she greatly preferred the kitchen for evening use; it made a change, and the high-backed cushioned rocker was then vacant. Amanda had nobody to consider but the cat, so she naturally deferred to her in every possible way. It was bad for the cat’s character, but at least it kept Amanda from committing suicide, so what would you? Here was a woman of insistent, unflagging, unending activity. Amanda Dalton had energy enough to attend to a husband and six children—cook, wash, iron, churn, sew, nurse—and she lived alone with a cat. The village was a mile, and her nearest female neighbor, the Widow Thatcher, a half-mile away. She had buried her only sister in Lewiston years before, and she had not a relation in the world. All her irrepressible zeal went into the conduct of her house and plot of ground. Day after day, week after week, year after year, the established routine was carried through. First the washing of the breakfast dishes and the putting to rights of the kitchen, which was radiantly clean before she began upon it. Next her bedroom; the stirring-up of the cornhusk mattress, the shaking of the bed of live geese feathers, the replacing of cotton sheets, homespun blankets, and blue-and-white counterpane. Next came the sitting-room with its tall, red, flag-bottomed chairs, its two-leaved table, its light stand that held the Bible and work-basket and lamp. The chest of drawers and tall clock were piously dusted, and the frames of the Family Register, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” and “Maidens Welcoming Washington in the Streets of Alexandria,” were carefully wiped off. Once a week the parlor was cleaned, the tarlatan was lifted from the two plaster Samuels on the mantelpiece, their kneeling forms were cleaned with a damp cloth, the tarlatan replaced, and the parlor closed again reverently. There was kindling to chop, wood to bring in, the modest cooking, washing, ironing, and sewing to do, the flower-beds to weed, and the little vegetable garden to keep in order.
But Amanda had a quick foot, a neat hand, a light touch, and a peculiar faculty of “turning off” work so that it simply would not last through the day. Why did she never think of going to the nearest city and linking her powers with those of some one who would put them to larger uses? Simply because no one ever did that sort of thing in Bonny Eagle in those days. Girls crowded out of home by poverty sought employment here and there, but that a woman of forty, with a good home and ten acres of land—to say nothing of coupon bonds that yielded a hundred dollars a year in cash—that such a one should seek a larger field in a strange place, would have been thought flying in the face of Providence, as well as custom.
Outside Bonny Eagle, in the roar and din and clamor of cities, were all sorts of wrongs that needed righting, wounds that cried out to be healed. There were motherless children, there were helpless sufferers moaning for the sight of a green field, but the superfluous females of Amanda Dalton’s day had not awakened to any sense of responsibility with regard to their unknown brothers and sisters.
Amanda was a large-hearted woman. She would have shared her soda biscuit, her bean soup, her dandelion greens, her hogshead cheese, her boiled dinner, her custard pie, with any hungry mortal, but no one in Bonny Eagle needed bite nor sup. Therefore she feather-stitched her dish-towels, piled her kindling in a “wheel pattern” in the shed, named her hens and made friends of them, put fourteen tucks in her unbleached cotton petticoats, and fried a pancake every Saturday for her cat.
“It’s either that or blow your brains out, if you’ve got a busy mind!” she said grimly to Susan Benson, her best friend, who was passing a Saturday afternoon with her. It was chilly and they liked the cheerful warmth of the Saturday fire that was baking the beans and steaming the brown bread.
Susan unrolled her patchwork and, giving a flip to the cat with her thimble finger, settled herself comfortably in the kitchen rocker.
The cat leaped down and stalked into the next room with an air of offended majesty, as much as to say: “Of all the manners I ever saw, that woman has the worst! She contrives to pass by three empty chairs and choose the one I chance to be occupying!”
“You would n’t be so lonesome if you could see a bit of life from your house, Mandy,” said Mrs. Benson. “William an’ I were sayin’ last night you’d ought to move into the village winters, though nothin’ could be handsomer than the view from your sink window this minute. Daisies, daisies everywhere! How do you manage to keep ’em out o’ your place, Mandy, when they’re so thick on Caleb Kimball’s?”
“I just root an’ root, an’ keep on rootin’,” Amanda responded cheerfully, “though I don’t take a mite o’ pride out of it, for the better my place looks the worse his does, by comparison.”
“It is a sight!” said Mrs. Benson, standing for a moment by the sink and looking up to Kimball’s.
“I went up there one night after dark, when I knew Caleb ’d gone to Hixam, an’ I patched up some o’ the holes in his stone wall, thinkin’ his whiteweed seeds wouldn’t blow through quite so thick!”—and Amanda joined Mrs. Benson at the window. “I’d ’a’ done a day’s work on his side o’ the wall as lief as not, only I knew folks would talk if they saw me.”
“Land, no, they would n’t, Mandy. Everybody knows you would n’t take him if he was the last man on earth; an’ as for Caleb, I guess he would n’t marry any woman above ground, not if she was a seraphim. I used to think he’d spunk up some time or other, when he got over his mother’s death; but it’s too late now, I’m afraid.”
“Caleb set great store by his mother; that’s one good thing about him,” said Amanda.
“He did for certain,” agreed Mrs. Benson. “If that girl he was engaged to had n’t ’a’ spoken disrespectful to her in his hearin’ there’d ’a’ been a wife an’ children up there now an’ the place would ’a’ looked diff’rent.”
“Not so very diff’rent! He did n’t lose much in Eliza Johnson. I guess he knows that by now!” remarked Amanda serenely; “though I s’pose ’t was quarrelin’ with her that set him runnin’ down hill, all the same.”
“I never thought he cared anything about Eliza. She was determined to have him, an’ he was too lazy to say no, but you see in the end she only got her labor for her pains. The Kimball boys never had any luck with their love affairs. When Caleb an’ his mother was left alone, she was terrible anxious for him to marry. She was allers findin’ girls for him, but part of ’em would n’t look at him, and he would n’t make up to any of ’em.”
“I was livin’ in Lewiston those years,” said Amanda.
“I remember you was. Well, when old Mrs. Kimball broke her arm, Charles, the youngest son, that was a stage-driver, determined he’d get somebody for Caleb, for his own wife would n’t lift her finger to help ’bout the house. He saw a girl up to Steep Falls that he kind o’ liked the looks of, an’ he offered her a ride down to his mother’s to spend the day, thinkin’ if the family liked her she might do for Caleb. However, her eyes was weak an’ she did n’t know how to milk, so they thought she’d better go home by train. That would ’a’ been fair enough for both parties, but when Charles drove her to the station he charged her fifteen cents an’ it made an awful sight o’ talk. She had a hot temper, an’ she kind o’ resented it!”
“I dare say ’t wa’n’t so,” commented Amanda; “but everybody’s dead that could deny it, except Caleb, and he would n’t take the trouble.”
“It’s one of the days when he’s real drove, ain’t it?” asked Susan sarcastically, as she looked across the field to the wood-pile where a gray-shirted figure sat motionless. “If ever a man needed a wife to patch the seat of his pants, it’s Caleb Kimball! I guess it’s the only part of his clothes he ever wears out. He wa’n’t like that before his mother died; the wheels seemed to stop in him then an’ there. He was queer an’ strange an’ shy, but I never used to think he’d develop into a reg’lar hermit. She’d turn in her grave, Mis’ Kimball would, to see him look as he does. I don’t s’pose he gets any proper nourishment. The smartest man in the world won’t take the trouble to make pie for himself, yet he’ll eat it ’s long ’s he can stan’ up! Caleb’s mother was a great pie-baker. I can see her now, shovelin’ ’em in an’ out o’ the oven Saturdays, with her three great black lanky boys standin’ roun’ waitin’ for ’em to cool off.—‘Only one, mother?’ Caleb used to say, kind o’ wheedlin’ly, while she laughed up at him leanin’ against the door-frame.—‘What’s one blueb’ry pie amongst me?’”
“He must ’a’ had some fun in him once,” smiled Amanda.
“They say women-folks ain’t got no sense o’ humor,” remarked Mrs. Benson, with a twitch of her thread. “I notice the men that live without ’em don’t seem to have any! We may not amount to much, but we’re somethin’ to laugh at.”
“Why don’t you bake him a pie now an’ then, an’ send it up, Susan?” asked Amanda.
“Well, there, I don’t feel I hardly know him well enough, though William does. I dare say he would n’t like it, an’ he’d never think to return the plate, so far away.—Besides, there never is an extry pie in a house where there’s a man an’ three boys; which reminds me I’ve got to go home an’ make one for breakfast, with nothin’ to make it out of.”
“I could lend you a handful o’ dried plums.”
“Thank you; I’ll take ’em an’ much obliged. I declare it seems to me, now the rhubarb’s ’bout gone, as if the apples on the trees never would fill out enough to drop off. There does come a time in the early summer, after you’re sick of mince, ’n’ squash, ’n’ punkin, ’n’ cranberry, ’n’ rhubarb, ’n’ custard, ’n’ ’t ain’t time for currant, or green apple, or strawb’ry, or raspb’ry, or blackb’ry—there does come a time when it seems as if Providence might ’a’ had a little more ingenuity in plannin’ pie-fillin’!—You might bake a pie for Caleb now an’ then yourself, Mandy; you’re so near.”
“Mrs. Thatcher lives half a mile away,” replied Amanda; “but I coul dn’t carry Caleb Kimball a pie without her knowin’ it an’ makin’ remarks. I’d bake one an’ willin’ if William ’d take it to him; but there, ’t would only make him want another. He’s made his bed an’ he’s got to lie on it.”
“He lays on his bed sure enough, an’ most o’ the time probably—but do you believe he ever makes it?”
Amanda shuddered. “I don’t know, Susan; it’s one o’ the things that haunts me; whether he makes it or whether he don’t.”
“Do you ever see any wash hung out?” Mrs. Benson’s needle stopped in midair while she waited for Amanda’s answer.
“Ye-es; now an’ then.”
“Sheets; once a gray blanket; underclothes; but naturally I don’t look when they’re hung out. He generally puts ’em on the grass, anyway.”
“Well, it’s a sin for a man to live so in a Christian country, an’ the kindest thing to say about him is that he’s crazy. Some o’ the men folks over to the store declare he is crazy; but William declares he ain’t. He says he’s asleep. William kind o’ likes him. Does he ever pass the time o’ day with you?”
“Hardly ever. I meet him once or twice a year, maybe, in the road. He bows when I go past on an errand an’ holds on to his dog when he tries to run out an’ bite me.”
“That’s real kind o’ gentlemanly,” observed Susan.
“I never thought of it that way,” said Amanda absently; “but perhaps it is. All I can say is, Caleb Kimball’s a regular thorn in my flesh. I can’t do anything for him, an’ I can’t forget him, right under foot as he is—his land joinin’ mine. Mornin’, noon, an’ night for years I’ve wanted to get into that man’s house an’ make it decent for him; wanted to milk the cow the right time o’ day; feed the horse; weed the garden; scrub the floor; wash the windows; black the stove.”
“How you do go on, Mandy!” exclaimed Mrs. Benson. “What diff’rence does it make to you how dirty he is, so long’s you’re clean?”
“It does make a diff’rence, an’ it always will. I hate to see the daisies growin’ so thick, knowin’ how he needs hay. I want to root ’em out same’s I did mine, after I’d been away three years in Lewiston. I hate to take my pot o’ beans out o’ the oven Saturday nights an’ know he ain’t had gumption enough to get himself a Christian meal. Livin’ alone ’s I do, Susan, things ‘bulk up’ in my mind bigger’n they’d ought to.”
“They do so,” agreed Susan; “an’ you must n’t let ’em. You must come over to our house oftener. You know William loves to have you, an’ so do the boys. The Bible may insinuate we are our brother’s keeper, but we can’t none of us help it if he won’t be kept!—There, I must be gettin’ home. I’ve had considerable many reminders the last half-hour that it’s about time! It’s none o’ my business, Mandy, but you do spoil that cat, an’ the time’s not far off when he won’t be a mite o’ comfort to you. Of course, I’m too intimate here to take offense, but if the minister should happen to set in this chair when he calls, an’ see that cat promenade round an’ round the rockers an’ then rustle off into the settin’-room as mad as Cuffy, he’d certainly take notice an’ think he wa’n’t a welcome visitor.”
“Like mistress, like cat!” sighed Amanda. “Tristram an’ I get awful set in our ways.”
“Kind o’ queer, Mandy, namin’ a cat for your grandfather,” Mrs. Benson observed anxiously as she opened the door. “William an’ me don’t want you to get queer.”
“I ain’t got anything better ’n a cat to name for grandfather,” said poor Amanda, in a tone that set her friend Susan thinking as she walked homeward.
The summer wore along and there came a certain Tuesday different from all the other Tuesdays in that year, or in all the forty years that had gone before—a Tuesday when the Kimball side door was not opened in the morning. No smoke issued from the chimney all day. The rooster and his kidnapped hen flew up from the steps and pecked at the door panels vigorously. Seven o’clock in the evening came, then eight, and no light to be seen anywhere. The dog howled; the horse neighed; the cow lowed ominously in the closed barn. At nine o’clock Amanda took a lantern and sped across the field, found a pail in the shed, slipped into the barn, milked the cow, gave the beasts hay and water, and leaving the pail of milk on the steps, went quietly home again, anxious lest she had done too much, anxious also lest she had not done enough.
Next morning she stationed herself at her kitchen window and took account of her signs. The milk-pail was overturned on the steps, the rooster and hen perching on the rim, but there was no smoke coming from the chimney. She thought quickly as she did everything else. She waited long enough to make a cup of coffee, then she slipped out of her door and up to Kimball’s. Her apron was full of kindling, and on her arm she carried a basket with a package of herbs, a tiny bottle of brandy, one of cologne, some arrowroot and matches, a cake of hard soap and a clean towel, bones for the dog and corn for the hen.
Caleb’s door was unlocked. The dog came out of the shed evincing no desire to bark or bite. The kitchen was empty, and—she thanked the Lord silently, as she gave a hasty glance about—not as dreadful as she had anticipated. Untidy beyond words, bare, dreary, cheerless, but not repulsively dirty. She stole softly through the lower part of the house, and then with a beating heart went up the uncarpeted stairs. At the head was an open door that showed her all she expected and feared to find. The sun streamed in at the dusty, uncurtained window over the motionless body of Caleb Kimball, who lay in a strange, deep sleep, unconscious, on the bed. His hair was raven black against the pillow and the lashes on his cheeks looked more ’n a yard long, Amanda told Susan Benson. (She afterward confessed that this was a slight exaggeration due to extreme excitement.) She spoke his name three times, but he did not stir. She must get the doctor and send for William Benson, that was clear; but first she must try her hand at improving the immediate situation.
Stealing downstairs she tied on her apron and lighted a fire in the kitchen stove, with the view of making things respectable before gossipy neighbors came in. Her sister used to say that the minute Amanda tied on her apron things began to move and take a turn for the better, and it was so now. She poured a few drops of cologne into a basin of water, and putting the towel over her arm went upstairs to Caleb’s bedside.
“I’ve done him wrong,” she thought remorsefully as she noted his decent night-clothing and bedding. “He ain’t lost his self-respect in all these years, and every soul in Bonny Eagle thought he was living like an animal!”
She bathed his face and throat and hands, then moistened and smoothed his hair without provoking a movement or a sound. He seemed in a profound stupor, but there was no stertorous breathing. Straightening the bedclothes and giving a hasty wipe to the tops of the pine bureau and table, she opened the window and closed the blinds. At this moment she spied one of the Thatcher boys going along the road, and ran down to the gate to ask him to send William Benson and the doctor as soon as possible.
“Tell them Miss Dalton says please to come quick; Caleb Kimball’s very sick,” she said.
“Don’t you need mother, too?” asked the boy. “She’s wanted to git into his house for years, and she’d do most anything for the chance.”
“No, thank you,” said Amanda pitilessly. “I can do everything for the present, and Mr. Benson will probably want his wife, if anybody.”
“All right,” said the boy as he started off on a dog-trot. News was rare in Bonny Eagle, and Caleb Kimball was a distinguished and interesting figure in village gossip.
Amanda Dalton had never had to hurry in her life. That was one of her crosses, for there probably never was a woman who could do more in less time. It was an hour and a half before William Benson came, and in those ninety minutes she had swept the kitchen and poured a pail or two of hot soap-suds over the floor, that may have felt a mop, but certainly had not known a scrubbing-brush for years. She tore down the fly-specked, tattered, buff shades, and washed the three windows; blackened the stove; fed the dog and horse; milked the cow; strained the milk and carried it down cellar; making three trips upstairs in the meantime to find no change in the patient. His lids stayed down as though they were weighted with lead, his long arms lay motionless on the counterpane.
Amanda’s blood coursed through her veins like lightning. Here was work to her hand; blessed, healing work for days, perhaps weeks to come. In these first moments of emotional excitement I fear she hoped it would be a long case of helpless invalidism, during which it would be her Christian duty to clean the lower part of the house and perhaps make some impression on the shed; but this tempting thought was quickly banished as she reflected that Caleb Kimball was a bachelor, and the Widow Thatcher the person marked out by a just but unsympathetic Providence for sick-nurse and housekeeper.
“She shan’t come!” thought Amanda passionately. “I’ll make the doctor ask me to take charge. William Benson shall stay here nights an’ Susan will run in now an’ then daytimes, or I’ll get little Abby Thatcher to do the rough work an’ keep me company; then her mother won’t make talk.”
“I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with the man,” confessed the doctor, when he came. “There’s a mark and a swelling on the back of his head as if he might have fallen somewhere. He has n’t got any pulse and he’s all skin and bone. He’s starved out, I guess, and his machinery has just stopped. He wants nursing and feeding and all the things a woman can do for him. The Lord never intended men-folks to live alone!”
“If they ain’t got wit enough to find that out for themselves it ain’t likely any woman’ll take the trouble to tell ’em!” exclaimed Amanda with some spirit.
“Don’t get stuffy, Amanda! Just be a good Christian and take hold here for a few days till we see whether we’ve got to have a nurse from Portland. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity; maybe Caleb’ll come to his senses before he gets over this sickness.”
“I wonder if he ever had any senses?” said Amanda.
“Plenty,” the doctor answered as he prepared the medicines; “but he has n’t used them for twenty years.—I’ll come back in an hour and fetch Bill Benson with me. Then I’ll stay till I can bring Caleb back to consciousness. We shall have to get him downstairs as soon as he can be moved; it will be much easier to take care of him there.”
The details of Caleb Kimball’s illness would be such as fill a nurse’s bedside record book. The mainspring of life had been snapped and the machinery refused to move for a long time. When he recovered consciousness his solemn black eyes followed Amanda Dalton’s movements as if fascinated, but he spoke no word save a faltering phrase or two at night to William Benson.
Meantime much had been happening below-stairs, where Amanda Dalton reigned supreme, with Susan Benson and Abby Thatcher taking turns in housework or nursing. William Benson was a painter by trade, and Amanda’s ingenious idea was to persuade him to paint and paper the Kimball kitchen before Caleb was moved downstairs.
This struck William as a most extraordinary and unnecessary performance.
“Israel in Egypt!” he exclaimed. “What’s the matter with you women? I never heard o’ such goin’s-on in my life! I might lay abed a thousand years an’ nobody’d paint my premises. Let Caleb git his strength back an’ then use a little elbow grease on his own house—you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, Susan!”
“’Pends on how old the dog is, an’ what kind o’ tricks you want to teach him,” Susan replied. “It’d be a queer dog that would n’t take to a clean kennel, or three good meals a day ’stead o’ starvation vittles. Amanda says it may be a kind of a turnin’-point in Caleb’s life, an’ she thinks we’d ought to encourage him a little.”
“Ain’t I encouragin’ him by sleepin’ on his settin’-room lounge every night an’ givin’ him medicine every two hours by the alarm clock? I’ve got my own day’s work to do; when would I paint his kitchen, I’d like to know?”
“We thought probably you’d like to do it nights,” suggested his wife timidly.
“Saul in Tarsus! Don’t that beat the devil?” ejaculated William. “Caleb Kimball ain’t done a good day’s work for years, an’ I’m to set up nights paintin’ his kitchen!” Nevertheless the magnificent impertinence of the idea so paralyzed his will that he ended by putting on twelve single rolls of fawn-colored paper and painting the woodwork yellow to harmonize, working from eight to twelve several nights and swearing freely at his own foolishness.
By this time Amanda had made the downstairs chamber all tidy and comfortable for the patient. She had contributed a window shade and dimity curtains; Susan a braided rug and a chair cushion. The chamber (the one in which Caleb’s mother had died) opened from the kitchen and commanded an enticing view of the fresh yellow walls and shining cook-stove. On the day before Caleb’s removal Amanda sat on the foot of the bed and looked through the doorway with silent joy, going to and fro to move a bright tin dipper into plainer view or retire a drying dish-cloth to greater privacy.
Even Abby Thatcher was by this time a trifle exhilarated. She did not understand the situation very well, being of a sternly practical nature herself, but she caught the enthusiasm of the two women and scrubbed the kitchen floor faithfully every morning in order to remove the stains of years of neglect.
“You would n’t think your old hen ’d be such a fool, Miss Dalton,” she said; “but I kind o’ surmised the reason she’s been missin’, an’ I found her to-day in a corner o’ the haymow sittin’ on five eggs. Now, wouldn’t you s’pose at her age she’d know better than to try an’ raise chickens in October?”
“I’m afraid they’ll die if it should be a cold fall, with nobody to look after ’em; but maybe I can take ’em home to my shed an’ lend Mr. Kimball another hen.” (Amanda’s tone was motherly.) “I never like to break up a hen’s nest, somehow; it seems as if they must have feelin’s like other folks.”
“I’d take her off quicker’n scat, an’ keep takin’ her off, till she got some sense,” said Abby, with the Chinese cruelty of sixteen.
“Well, you let her be till Mr. Kimball gets well enough to ask; an’ I think, Abby, you might clean up the dooryard just a little mite this mornin’,” suggested Amanda. “If you could straighten up the fence an’ find a couple of old hinges to hang the gate with, it would kind o’ put new heart into Mr. Kimball when he’s sittin’ up an’ lookin’ out the window.”
“Why did n’t he put heart into hisself by hangin’ his own gate, before he took sick?” grumbled Abby, reducing Amanda to momentary silence by her pitiless logic.
“Why did n’t he, indeed?” echoed her heart gloomily, receiving nothing in the way of answer from her limited experience of men.
Caleb had spoken more frequently the last few days. When by the combined exertions of the Bensons and the doctor he had been brought down into his mother’s old room, Amanda closed the kitchen door, thinking one experience at a time was enough for a man in his weak and exhausted condition. William Benson could n’t see any sense in this precaution, but he never did see much sense in what women-folks did. He wanted to show Caleb the new paint and paper immediately, and remark casually that he had done all the work while he was “night-nursin’.”
The next morning Amanda had seized a good opportunity to open the door between the two rooms, straightway retiring to the side entry to await developments. In a few moments she heard Caleb moving, and going in found him half sitting up in bed, leaning on his elbow.
“What’s the matter with the kitchen?” he asked feebly, staring with wide-open eyes at the unaccustomed prospect.
“Only fresh paint an’ paper; that’s William’s work.”
“O God, I ain’t worth it! I ain’t worth it!” he groaned as he hid his face in the pillow.
“Have you been here all the time?” he asked Amanda when she brought him his gruel later in the day.
“Yes, off an’ on, when I could get away from my own work.”
“Who found me?”
“I did. I knew by the looks somethin’ was wrong up here.”
“Somethin’ wrong, sure enough, an’ always was!” Amanda heard him mutter as he turned his face to the wall.
The next day he opened his eyes suddenly as she was passing through the room.
“Did you make that pie William Benson brought me last month?”
“What made you think I did?”
“Oh, I don’t know; it looked, an’ it tasted like one o’ yours,” he said, closing his eyes again. “If you know a woman, you can tell her pie, somehow!”
When had Caleb Kimball ever tasted any of her cooking? A mysterious remark, but everything he said sounded a trifle lightheaded.
His questions came back to her when she was waiting for William Benson at twilight that same day.
Caleb had been sleeping quietly for an hour or more. Amanda was standing at the stove stirring his arrowroot gruel. The kitchen was still.
A smothered “miaow” and the scratching of claws on wood arrested her attention, and she went hurriedly to the door.
“Tristram Dalton; what are you up here for, away from your own home?” she exclaimed.
Tristram vouchsafed no explanation of his appearance, but his demeanor spoke louder than words to Amanda’s guilty conscience, as he walked in.
“No shelter for me but the shed these days!” he seemed to say. “Instead of well-served meals, a cup of milk set here or there!”
He made the circuit of the kitchen discontentedly and finding nothing to his taste went into the adjoining room, and after walking over the full length of Caleb’s prostrate form curled himself up in a hollow at the foot of the bed.
“I’ve neglected him!” thought Amanda; “but his turn’ll come again soon enough,” and she bent her eyes on the gruel.
The blue bowl sat in the pan of hot water on the stove, and she stirred and stirred, slowly, regularly, continuously, in order that the arrowroot should be of a velvety smoothness.
The days were drawing in, and the October sun was setting very yellow, sending a flood of light over her head and shoulders. She wore her afternoon dress of alpaca, with a worked muslin collar and cuffs and a white apron tied round her trim waist. She was one of your wholesome shining women and her bright brown hair glistened like satin.
Caleb’s black eyes looked yearningly at her as she stood there all unconscious, doing one of her innumerable neighborly kindnesses for him.
She made a picture of sweet, strong, steady womanliness, although she did not know it. Caleb knew something extraordinary was going on inside of him, but under what impulse he was too puzzled and inexperienced to say.
Amanda turned sharply at the sound of his voice as she was lifting the steaming arrowroot out of the water.
“Whose cat is this?”
“Mine.—Come off that bed, Tristram!”
“Don’t disturb him; I like to have him there.—Where’s Abby Thatcher?”
“She’s gone home on an errand; she’ll be back in fifteen minutes now.”
“It’s only five o’clock. He don’t come till six. What can I get for you? Have you had a good sleep?”
She set the gruel on the back of the stove and went in to his bedside.
“I don’t sleep much; I just lie an’ think … Amanda, … now, they’re all away, … if I get over this spell, … an’ take a year to straighten up an’ get hold o’ things like other folks, … do you think … you’d risk … marryin’ me?”
There was a moment’s dead silence; then Amanda said, turning pale: “Are you in your right mind, Caleb Kimball?”
“I am, but I don’t wonder at your askin’,” said the man humbly. “I’ve kind o’ fancied you for years; but you’ve always been way down there across the fields, out o’ reach!”
“I’m too amazed to think it out,” faltered Amanda.
“Don’t you think it out, for God’s sake, or you’ll never do it!” He caught at her hand as if it had been a life-line—her kind, smooth hand, the helpful hand with the bit of white cambric bound round a finger burned in his service.
“It was the kitchen that put the courage into me,” he went on feverishly. “I laid here an’ thought: ‘If she can make a house look so different in a week, what could she do with a man?’”
“I ain’t afraid but I could,” stammered Amanda; “if the man would help—not hinder.”
“Just try me, Amanda. I would n’t need a year—honest, I would n’t—I could show you in three months!”
Caleb’s strength was waning now. His head dropped forward and Amanda caught it on her breast. She put one arm round his shoulders to keep him from falling back, while her other hand supported his head. His cheek was wet and as she felt the tears on her palm, mutely calling to her strength, all the woman in her gathered itself together and rushed to meet the man’s need.
“If only … you could take me … now … right off,” he faltered; “before anything happens … to prevent? I’d be good to you … till the day I die!”
“I ain’t afraid to risk it, Caleb,” said Amanda. “I’ll take you now when you need me the most. We’ll just put our two forlorn houses together an’ see if we can make ’em into a home!”
Caleb gave one choking sob of content and gratitude. His hand relaxed its clasp of Amanda’s; his head dropped and he fainted.
William Benson came in just then.
“What’s the matter?” he cried, coming quickly toward the bed. “Has he had a spell? He was so much better last night I expected to see him settin’ up!”
“He’ll come to in a minute,” said Amanda. “Give me the palm-leaf fan. We’re goin’ to be married in a day or so, an’ he got kind of excited talkin’ it over.”
“Moses in the bulrushes!” ejaculated William Benson, sitting down heavily in the nearest chair.
William Benson was not a sentimental or imaginative person, and he confessed he could n’t make head nor tail out o’ the affair; said it was the queerest an’ beatin’est weddin’ that ever took place in Bonny Eagle; did n’t know when they fixed it up, nor how, nor why, if you come to that. Amanda Dalton had never had a beau, but she was the likeliest woman in the village, spite o’ that, an’ Caleb Kimball was the onlikeliest man. Amanda was the smartest woman, an’ Caleb the laziest man. He kind o’ thought Amanda ’d married Caleb so ’t she could clean house for him; but it seemed an awful high price to pay for a job. He guessed she could n’t bear to have his everlastin’ whiteweed seedin’ itself into her hayfield, an’ the only way she could stop it was to marry him an’ weed it out. He thought, too, that Caleb had kind o’ got int’ the habit o’ watchin’ Mandy flyin’ about down to her place. There’s nothin’ so fascinatin’ as to set still an’ see other folks work. The critter was so busy, an’ so diff’rent from him, mebbe it kind o’ tantalized him.
The Widow Thatcher was convinced that Mandy must have gone for Caleb hammer ’n’ tongs when he was too weak to hold out against her. No woman in her sober senses would paper a man’s kitchen for him unless she intended to get some use out of it herself. “We don’t know what the disciples would ’a’ done,” she said, “nor the apostles, nor the saints, nor the archangels; we only know what women-folks would ’a’ done, and there ain’t one above ground that would ’a’ cleaned Caleb Kimball’s house without she expected to live in it.”
Susan Benson had a vague instinct with regard to the real facts of the case, but even she mustered up courage to ask Amanda once how the wonderful matter came about.
Amanda looked at Mrs. Benson with some embarrassment, for she was not good at confidences.
“Susan, you an’ I’ve been brought up together, gone to school together, experienced religion an’ joined the church together, an’ I stood up with you an’ William when you was married, so ’t I’d speak out freer to you than I would to most.”
“I hope so, I’m sure.”
“Though I would n’t want you to repeat anything, Susan.”
“’Tain’t likely I would, Mandy.”
“Well, I’d no sooner got Caleb into a clean bed an’ a clean room an’ begun to feed him good food than I begun to like him. There’s things in human hearts that I ain’t wise enough to explain, Susan, an’ I ain’t goin’ to try. Caleb Kimball seemed to me like a man that was drownin’, all because there wa’n’t anybody near to put a hand under his chin an’ keep his head out o’ water. I did n’t suspicion he’d let me do it! I thought he’d just lie there an’ drown, but it did n’t turn out that way.”
“Well, it does kind o’ seem as if you’d gone through the woods o’ life to pick up a crooked stick at last,” sighed Susan; “though I will say, now I’ve been under Caleb Kimball’s roof, he’s an awful sight nicer man close to than he is fur off. So, take it all in all, life an’ men-folks bein’ so uncertain, an’ old age a-creepin’ on first thing you know, perhaps it’s for the best; an’ I do hope you’ll make out to be happy, Mandy.”
There was a quiver of real feeling in Susan Benson’s voice, though she made no movement to touch her friend’s hand.
“I’m goin’ to be happy!” said Amanda cheerfully. “I always did like plenty to do, an’ now I’ve got it for the rest o’ my life!”
“I only hope you can stan’ his ways, Amandy,” and Susan’s voice was still doubtful. “That’s all I’m afraid of; that you’re so diff’rent you can’t never stan’ his ways.”
“He won’t have so many ways when we’ve been married a spell,” said Amanda.