O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/The Courier of the Czar
HEARING the clock strike twelve Betsey Shindledecker opened her eyes. She had not been asleep, she had merely been waiting for her sister Tilly who lay by her side to be asleep. At eleven o’clock Tilly had spoken, at half past she had turned from one side to the other; but now, for half an hour, she had been lying quietly.
Betsey lay blinking and looking round the room. The windows were dim rectangles outlining a sky which was only a little brighter than the black wall; the ancient bureau and washstand and dower chest showed only as indistinct masses. All other objects were lost: the two coloured prints on the wall, one of “Marianna,” one of “Julianna,” the mirror, the chairs, one draped with the plain Mennonite garb of Betsey, the other with the plain Mennonite garb of Tilly. The two white caps hanging on the tall posts at the foot of the bed were lost and so were the stripes in the carpet and the gay pattern of the coverlet. It would be impossible for any night to be darker, or for any wind to whistle more ominously than the wind whistled at this moment round the corners of the house.
Her mind relieved by Tilly’s quiet breathing, Betsey explored with hand and foot. Her foot sought her woollen slipper, her hand the thick flannel gown which hung on the post near her head. Finding both, she stood in a moment slippered and robed. Still Tilly breathed quietly.
Moving slowly Betsey approached the door. When a board creaked beneath her great weight she stood still a long time; when Tilly sighed, she put out her hand to clutch the corner of the bureau and thus to support herself. She grew no more comfortable in mind as she advanced, because the steps would creak far more loudly than the floor, and when she reached the bottom of the flight she would have to speak a reassuring word to the dog and the cat. This was not a new experience; for almost a month she had been stealing nightly from her sister’s side.
Compared to the bedroom the kitchen was bright. The fire shone through the mica doors of the stove and was reflected from the lustre ware on the mantel and the brass knobs on the ancient cupboard. The black window-panes formed mirrors so that there seemed to be many fires. On one side of the room a quilt was stretched on a frame and on the taut surface lay scissors, spools of thread, a little pincushion, two pairs of spectacles, and two thimbles. The ground of the quilt was dark and spread over it were multitudes of white spots of various sizes.
Other reflecting surfaces were presented by the eyes of a Maltese cat and an Airedale dog, the one lying on a chair, the other beside the stove. Apparently unsurprised by this mysterious advent in the middle of the night, the cat purred and the dog parted his lips and teeth in a grin, and both having raised their heads laid them down. They paid no heed when Betsey, touching a spill to the coals, lit the hanging lamp which illuminated brilliantly the quilt and the sewing implements lying upon it. The background of the quilt was blue and the white spots were star-shaped. The Milky Way crossed the surface diagonally and along the edge and in the dark spaces were set Orion, the Pleiades, Ursa Major, and other familiar constellations. Between the stars the quilt was covered with tiny stitches set close together.
Sinking into one of the Windsor armchairs at the side of the frame, Betsey selected a needle from the pincushion. It was not one of the fine needles with which the delicate quilting had been done, but a larger one, and she used it not to sew, but to destroy sewing. Stitch by stitch she ripped the fine work, sighing as she did so. It was clear that that which she ripped was not as even as the section opposite the other chair.
The hands of the clock pointed to half-past twelve, and presently to one. Then Betsey exchanged the large needle for a smaller one and threading it began to replace the stitches she had ripped out. Those she put in were as straight as a ruler and as much alike as rice grains.
At three o’clock she rose stiffly. Though her back ached, and though her eyes were heavy and her hands stiff she was happy; the catastrophe which she feared and against which she struggled was postponed a little longer. Then, suddenly, she was smitten by terror. She did not exactly hear Tilly move, but she knew that Tilly had moved, moreover, that she was awake. If Tilly spoke she believed she would die of shock. But when Tilly did speak she answered calmly.
“Betsey!” The voice was sharp with terror. “Sister!”
“Yes.” Betsey walked toward the stairway.
“Where are you?”
“I’m coming.” What should she say? It would be easy to invent an excuse, but Betsey did not like to lie. “I did not lock the door, Tilly.”
“Why, no, of course not! I locked it, like always. Come back to bed!”
“I’m coming,” answered Betsey.
Her voice was steady, but her heart jumped in her side. As she grasped the railing to ascend she was aware of her pulse throbbing in her wrist. She felt her way across the room and lay down, slippers, gown, and all. She was trembling, not only because she was frightened, but because she was cold.
“I had a queer dream,” said Tilly, drowsily. “I dreamed I could not see any more to sew straight.”
“Are you awake?” asked Betsey, sharply.
Tilly did not answer. Did she speak from a dream or from full consciousness?
Hearing the clock strike twelve, Betsey opened her eyes, It was harder to open them to-night than last night and last night it had been harder than the night before. It was the twenty-eighth night she had wakened at twelve o’clock and had gone faltering down the stairs.
Beside her Tilly lay quietly, her breathing that of a child. The sky was black outside the rectangle of the window and there was again an uneasy whispering round the frame. The old furniture showed only vague outlines. “I can’t do this forever,” said Betsey to herself. “I’m getting thin, and I’m getting so tired I can’t wake on time, and then what will happen?” Her exploring foot sought her slipper, her exploring hand sought her bed-gown. Anxiety made her nervous; she held her breath to listen. But Tilly slept sweetly. “If I’m no more so heavy the boards won’t creak so under me,”’ she thought as she felt her way across the room. “Ach, but I’m tired!” She repeated the word mentally with each step. “Tired, tired, tired.” In the kitchen there was the same glow of the fire, the same loveliness of light and shadow. The Maltese cat lay on his chair, the Airedale dog lay before the stove. Each lifted his head and each settled himself and closed hiseyes. The starry quilt had advanced a little farther; a new section was set with two varieties of stitches, one short and regular, the other long and irregular. Betsey found her large needle and sat down heavily. She ripped one stitch, then another. The point of the needle caught in the material and made little marks. She bent lower and lower—were her eyes also growing dim? She picked out another stitch and another, then her forehead touched the belt of Orion, her hand lay quietly upon Ursa Major. After a long time she became conscious of some impending danger. Was she hurt and helpless? When she opened her eyes and saw Tilly standing by the quilting frame power was restored to her and she sprang up. ‘Tilly stood tall and bent in her gray bed-gown. Saying nothing, she looked at the starry quilt, then at her sister, then at the starry quilt. . “What is it?” she asked at last. ‘What do you make alone here in the middle of the night?” Betsey stood paralyzed. “You're ripping out my sewing and doing it over. That’s how it gets always all right by morning. Isn’t it so, Betsey?” Betsey did not answer. “You think I can’t see any more?” demanded Tilly. Betsey said not a word. “No, I can’t see any more.”’ Tilly answered her own ques- tion. “This long time already I have trouble. I can’t see to sew. I can’t see to read. Sometimes I can’t see you. I’ve twice stepped on the cat and once on the dog. If I do not step on them all the time it’s because they get nice out of my way. They know me. I’ll give up sewing. You'll have enough trouble with me yet, Betsey, without ripping out my crooked stitches. Now come to bed.”
Betsey looked at the clock—the hands pointed to half-past four.
“It’s not worth while to go to bed. I'll get dressed ready to milk and I’ll watch for Herr when he comes to fetch the milk and I’ll say he shall tell Doctor Landis to come to us. He'll cure you, Tilly. He’ll surely cure you.”
The clock ticked solemnly—it was now eight o’clock, now nine. Soft flakes of snow had begun to fall, the sky seemed to stoop lower and lower. Tilly sat at the end of the settle, her elbow on the arm, her hand supporting her bending face, a finger pressed upon each eye. Now and then a tear rolled down her cheek.
“It’s not that I'm crying,” she explained, angrily. “It’s that my eyes water.”
“Yes,” said Betsey. Betsey was the only moving object except the pendulum of the clock. The dog and cat lay motionless but alert. Even the cupboard and the mantel and the starry quilt seemed to be alert and waiting.
“It’s ten o’clock,” said Betsey at last. ‘Why, then, does he not come?”
“He has perhaps a great many sick ones,” suggested Tilly. Betsey looked up the road and then down.
“You can’t see far in the snow,” she explained.
“Is it snowing?” asked Tilly.
Betsey turned from the window and looked at her sister.
“Do you ask because you want to keep your eyes covered? Or is it that you can’t see?”
“I want to keep my eyes covered,” declared Tilly. Tilly did want to keep her eyes covered, but it was because she believed that if she uncovered them she could not see. “I sewed perhaps a little too late last evening. If you want to sew, Sister,” she said, heroically, “then sew.”
“I don’t need to sew,” answered Betsey. “He’s coming. He has his buggy, not his auto. I guess he’s afraid the snow will get deep for him. He’s driving his Minnie-horse, the yellow one. She’s a good horse; they say when sometimes he’s tired and falls asleep she takes him home. I would rather have a good horse than an auto. He’s stopping at the gate.”’ Betsey’s voice grew shrill, the dog and the cat lifted their heads, the furniture seemed to stir as though that for which they all waited was now imminent. “TI don’t believe he’ll hurt you, Sister.” Doctor Landis tied his horse and came up the path, a stout, ruddy-faced man with a short bristling moustache. He walked heavily, carrying his medicine case in one hand and a book in the other. He was a worldly Lutheran and a great reader. ““He’s carrying his book,’ said Betsey. ‘‘He forgets he has it, I guess. If he would read the Bible, how fine that would be!” e Tilly did not answer. The water which streamed from her eyes burned like fire. Doctor Landis brought in with him a breath of cold air and the pleasant odour of drugs. The room seemed to brighten; Tilly’s spirits rose and Betsey felt so relieved that she sank upon a chair. He laid his medicine case and book on the settle and pulled off his gloves. He was able to speak the fluent Pennsylvania English of his generation though he preferred the Pennsylvania German of his ancestors. “Well!” he said. ‘Did I bring that wicked book along? I have no wife and no child and I’m not a smoker and I must have something to fill in the time in this healthy place. It’s twenty years since I was in this house. Now what’s the matter with the eyes, Tilly?” ‘“‘They burn me and ache me.” Tilly still pressed her fingers against the lids. “TI can’t see any more.” “You mean you can’t see me?”’ “‘T can see you if I take my hand away. But I can’t see to sew.” Doctor Landis bent above the quilt. He made an inquir- ing sign to Betsey, pointing first to the quilt then to Tilly. Betsey nodded and he completed the pantomime by shaking his fist at the starry sky. ‘‘Let’s see these eyes.” He sat down by Tilly on the settle and she put out her hand on the other side. It touched the book which he had laid there and she clutched it and held it as though it were a rope flung to a sinking swimmer. “Open your eyes,” commanded the doctor.
As Tilly obeyed with agony, the hot flood became hotter. She could see the doctor’s face, but nothing beyond it, not even Betsey standing at his elbow.
“It’s worse to-day than yesterday,” she said, as though that lightened the seriousness of the case.
“And worse yesterday than day before, I dare say,” said the doctor. “Yet you kept on sewing?”
“We had the starry quilt to finish,” explained Tilly. “I thought when the starry quilt was done I’d rest my eyes and then it would also be soon time to work in the garden.”
The doctor lifted the lid of Tilly’s right eye, then the lid of the left. Tilly could not suppress a groan, at sound of which Betsey trembled from head to foot. The doctor rose heavily.
“Have you any black muslin, Betsey?”
Betsey took a roll from the cupboard drawer. Standing by the table the doctor folded a thick bandage and laid white gauze upon it, then he turned to Tilly, a bottle and a medicine dropper in his hand.
“Watch me, Betsey. See? Like this, four drops in each eye, night and morning.”
“Oh! Oh!” moaned Tilly.
“Keep your eyes tight shut. Now I’m going to bandage them with a black bandage. If for any reason you have to remove it, you’re to do it in a dark room.”
“Must my eyes be tied shut?” gasped Tilly.
“They must indeed.” The doctor stood at the table spreading salve upon the white gauze. “Put fresh gauze on, Betsey, and fresh salve, night and morning.”
“For how long?” faltered Tilly.
“A week from to-day I’ll be back to look at them.”
“A week!” cried Betsey. “Must she keep them covered for a week?”
Smitten dumb, Tilly said nothing; she merely lifted the doctor’s book and opened it as if to read and thus prove that this was a bad dream.
“A week at least,” announced the doctor. “Then we'll see how they are. Too much quilting, Tilly. How old are you?”
“Only sixty-five,” answered Tilly. “And I have good spectacles. I bought them from such a peddler twenty years ago.” eer bet you did,” mocked the doctor. He came across the room holding the bandage as a child might hold a cat’s cradle and tied it tight round Tilly’s eyes. ““Not a whole week!” wailed Tilly. ““A whole week,” said the doctor, pulling on his gloves. “Betsey can surely amuse you for a week.” It was nine o’clock in the morning and the Shindledecker kitchen was in order for the day. The cow had been milked hours ago, the dog and cat had been fed, the human beings had eaten their breakfasts, the dishes had been washed, and a dozen doughnuts, four pans of rusk, three pies, and one cake had been baked. At the window sat Betsey, a mass of blue, star-dotted material on her lap. The starry quilt was out of the frame and she was putting in the hem. Outside the rain poured upon the sodden earth. From within the landscape looked inexpressibly dreary, but when the door was opened there came in the smell of spring. Tilly did not sit at the window, nor was there sewing in her lap; she sat in the corner of the settle and her hands were empty. The black bandage remained across her eyes. me First it was a week,” she said, despairingly. ‘Then an- other week and another week, and now yet another week.” “T have a feeling that next time it will be different.” Betsey spoke in the strained voice of one determined to be cheerful. “T have no such feeling,” answered Tilly. “TI feel that he will come and come and come and that I will sit and sit and sit. If it was only something in the world to do!” “T’ll read to you,” offered Betsey. “T know the Bible from beginning to end,” declared Tilly. “‘T’ve read it every day since I was little. I don’t believe it’s meant we shall get stale on it. And the hymn book, that I not only know, but I can say it and sing it from the begin- ning to the Doxology, both German and English. And the Martyr Book, that I know, too. I know all about how they were persecuted and driven out and sent to prison and be- headed. I know how one of the brethren was burned with an iron. You can’t catch me on the Martyr Book. And the almanac, that I know also.”
“We could sing,” suggested Betsey. Her voice had a heartbroken quality. Her heart was breaking.
“Sing!” mocked Tilly. “Sing! When I’m blind!”
The clock ticked on and on, the rain fell steadily, silently upon the earth, audibly upon the roof of the porch, noisily through the tin spouting. Another sort of rain fell quietly from Betsey’s eyes upon the starry quilt. Tilly did not cry, the consequent physical agony was too keen.
“If I only could do something for you!” mourned Betsey in her heart.
“You can do something for me if you will,” said Tilly, as though she could see into Betsey’s heart.
“What can I do for you?” asked Betsey, eagerly.
“There’s a book in this house,” said Tilly. “The doctor left it the first time. I guess he forgot it. When he said I must have my eyes tied shut I looked quickly at it. I couldn’t read the reading, but I saw the picture. It was a picture of an old woman kneeling and a sword was pointing at her and a man was standing with a whip over her. Her back was bare and her breast was bare. I must know what happened to that old woman. Will you not”—Tilly’s wheedling voice besought, pleaded; she knew but too well how much she asked—“will you not read me that book, Betsey?”
“Where is the book?” asked Betsey, to gain time.
“Hidden in the upstairs,” confessed Tilly. “I hid it. I was afraid he would ask for it. I hid it first in the churn, then I carried it in the upstairs.”
“He did ask for it,” said Betsey. “He said did I see such a book laying round. I told him no.”
“I heard you,” acknowledged Tilly. “It was before I took it to the upstairs. I was then sitting on it. Will you read me that book, Betsey?”
“I cannot,” said Betsey, weeping. “Anything else I’ll do for you. But that’s the world’s book.”
“You'll not find out what became of that poor old woman with the sword pointing at her and the whip coming down on her?” Tilly’s voice was hard.
“No,” wept Betsey. “I can’t. It’s to resist temptations such as this that we’re given strength. We’ve done our duty all our lives, let’s not now break our rules when we’re old.” The rain fell soddenly, the tears of Betsey fell steadily, Tilly sat motionless and blind on the settle. “The cat is getting all the time fatter,” said Betsey, achiev- ing a brief composure. There was no reply. “But the dog gets a little thinner now that he goes so often out rabbit-chasing.” There was no answer. “Sister,” said Betsey. “Won’t you talk to me?” “‘T have nothing to talk about,” said Tilly. ‘Dogs, cats, rabbits, baking, rain—how sick I am of all these subjects! I'd like something new to talk about. I’d like to know what became of that poor old woman with the sword pointing at her and the whip held over her. I’d like to talk about her.” “It’s a book of the world’s people.” Betsey buried her face in the starry quilt. “Icannot. I cannot!” The sun rose at six o’clock and its earliest beam, shining in the face of Betsey, woke her from sleep and to the conscious- ness of a leaden heart. It was Sunday and all her life until a few weeks ago she had wakened cheerfully on Sunday. She enjoyed the rest from labour, she loved to go to meeting, she loved all the day’s peace and opportunity for meditation. The meeting-house stood across the road and there had never been a rain so heavy or a snow so deep that attendance was impossible. A few times there had been no one else there but William Hershey and once even William had not been able to get through the drifts on the mountain road, but the sisters never missed. | Betsey waked now with no sense of peace or assurance. | She repressed a groan, as, turning, she looked at the bandaged head on the pillow beside her. Six weeks had passed since the doctor’s first visit, but Tilly’s eyes were still useless. She slept quietly and her mouth below the black cloth was not unhappy. The blind are said to resign themselves more quickly than the deaf—perhaps Tilly had resigned herself. Or, her fate still hanging in the balance, she may have felt ope. Betsey had not only her acute and tender anxiety about her sister to trouble her, she had a sin to remember and a cruel penance to look forward to. She had committed an offence and this morning she meant to confess it in meeting.
“I can be a sinner,” said she, weeping. “But a hypocrite I cannot be. I can’t look them any more in the eye over there.”
Slipping carefully from bed she went about her work. Tilly slept late and it was well that she did so; her cruel hours of conscious darkness were that much shorter. Betsey opened the kitchen shutters and let in the horizontal sunshine; then she shook down the fire and slipping into her working jacket took her milk pail on her arm. The morning was not cold; the day which had dawned was to be like a day of May dropped accidentally into March. Tulips and hyacinths were pushing up through the soil of the garden, buds were swelling, the woodland back of the house had begun to have a look of misty purple as the twigs and little branches changed colour. Spring had always meant a foretaste of heaven to Betsey—how strange it was to have an aching heart!
Tilly slept on and on. Betsey prepared the breakfast and still she had not come. She stole upstairs and looked at her and realized after a moment of panic that she was asleep and not dead. Pushing the breakfast to the back of the stove she sat down with her Bible. But she could not read —the book lay strangely in her hand, the words looked unnatural, there was no sense of comfort from touch or sight.
At nine o’clock, when Tilly had not waked, Betsey stole to the room once more and got her Sunday dress and returning to the kitchen, put it on. The devil tempted her to make an excuse of Tilly’s blindness to stay at home, but she resisted him. He seemed to whisper in her ear; she saw his smile, his horns, his cloven hoofs.
“Don’t go this morning,” he said. “Go next Sunday. This morning the meeting will be large. William Hershey will be there with all his family—you don’t wish those little children to hear you make confession. Elder Nunnemacher will be there and you have always stood well before him. Perhaps next Sunday he will have to go elsewhere. The Stauffer sisters will be there—think how stonished they will be! And the Lindakugels and the Erlenbaughs and Herrs and the Schaffers—all will be amazed. Wait, Betsey, wait.” ““No,” said Betsey aloud to the empty room. “TI’ll not wait. I’ll leave my poor sister to find her way down, but I'll not wait.” Walking to the foot of the stairs she called up to Tilly. “It’s time for me to go to meeting, Sister. Can you eat your breakfast alone, do you think? It’s everything ready.”’ “Yes,” answered Tilly. “Or perhaps I'll lay till you come back.” “Yes, well,’’ said Betsey. “You can call the dog to you.” Betsey shuddered—she had told a lie, it was not quite time to go; only William Hershey had driven up to the meet- ing-house and he came early to make the fire. But she dared not wait. On the porch she lingered and breathed in the sweet air. If she could only breathe enough, perhaps she could ease her heart. But contemplation of nature could not heal sin, that was certain as the sin itself. She went slowly down the path to the gate and across the road and into the meeting-house. William Hershey was putting coal into the stove, Mary Hershey sat with her baby in her arms, little Amos and little David walked sedately about.
- ‘Good morning,” said William. “How are you, Betsey,
and how’s poor Tilly? We’re coming soon to see you.’ ‘‘She’s not good,’’ answered Betsey, selecting a seat. She did not smile at the children or answer William’s announce- ment of his visit; she merely turned her face to the wall and sat motionless. Her black bonnet hid her eyes, her stout shoulders were bent, her woe was so apparent that the mem- bers entering happily from the morning sunshine were cast down. Was poor Tilly, indeed, doomed to blindness? Elder Nunnemacher did not appear and William Hershey preached a short sermon. He selected his subject for the benefit of Betsey, pointing to the joys of Heaven as a reward for the sufferings of earth, not dreaming that Betsey believed herself shut out of Heaven. Her heart sank lower and lower, her lips trembled, she could scarcely restrain herself from crying out. She knew that eve rybody was looking at her and feeling sorry for her and the devil tempted her again through self-pity.
“You have nobody in the world but Tilly. You’re not rich. You have no husband and no children. Life has cheated you. Take what pleasure you can. Show some spirit. Don't make a fool of yourself.”
“I will make confession,” said Betsey in her soul. “Wait till after the hymn, anyhow,” advised the devil. “No,” said Betsey. “As William finished she rose slowly. “I have something to say,” she announced in a muffled tone. In the silence which followed Betsey looked at the floor. The Shindledeckers never spoke in meeting; they never spoke to any one who did not first speak to them; they almost never went from home and they never willingly admitted strangers to their house. There was, their friends believed, no one in the world so shy. And here was Betsey on her feet. All sorts of wild notions flew through their astonished minds. Was Tilly dead and had Betsey lost her reason?
“I must confess my sins,” declared Betsey in a stronger tone. “I’ve done wrong. I’ve done what is forbidden among us: I’ve read a worldly book. It’s a large book with pictures, called ‘The Courier of the Czar.’” “The Courier of the Czar” was only a secondary title; upon the real name, “Michael Strogoff,” Betsey did not dare to venture; as it was she pronounced Czar in two syllables, the first k. “It was called 'The Courier of the K-zar.’”
She was heard not with disapproval but with stupefaction; her audience did not understand what she meant. They knew the Bible and the hymnal and some of them knew the Martyr Book but they knew no other literature. They did not know the word “courier” nor the word “K-zar.” Betsey saw their stupefaction. “A courier is a messenger,” she explained. “He’s one that carries messages and goes on errands. A K-zar is a king.”
Still all the Hersheys and Erlenbaughs and Stauffers looked at her blankly.
“It’s a story,” she went on. “We have stories in the Bible and stories in the Martyr Book. But we know all the stories in the Bible and the Martyr Book by heart. This is a new story. This man is to carry a message for the K-zar to his brother who’s in a city with enemies all around it. He must go three thousand miles through enemies and forests and across great rivers. The Susquehanna is nothing to those rivers. A wicked man, Ivan, catches him; and in order to make him tell who he is he takes his mother and puts a sword in front of her and is going to whip her and when she shrinks from the whip the sword will pierce her. That’s what he does. It’s like you read in the Martyr Book when they burned the people and drowned them. Then when this courier defended his poor mother this Ivan burned his eyes with a hot sword and made him blind.” Betsey’s tongue failed her on this word, she repeated it and her effort pro- duced a prolonged and tragic sound—“b-I-i-n-d!” ‘““But he went on and on and a young girl helped him. They find a good young man who’s their friend and this Ivan has had him buried in the sand up to his neck and big birds get after him and he dies. They come at last to the place where he’s to give his message to the brother of the K-zar and they’re floating on an iceberg down the river and there are springs of something like coal-oil near the river and it’s on fire and they’re floating on the ice in the midst of the fire.” Stupefaction continued but it was now not the stupefaction of amazement but of enchantment. Betsey told her story well and every eye was fixed upon her; every pair of lungs was either full of air or empty of air; inhalation and exhala- tion had ceased. Betsey, alas, ceased also. “That’s as far as‘ have gone,” she said, exhausted. ‘But I’m going to finish this book. I’m going to finish it this afternoon on the Sabbath, whether or no.” Now eye met eye, colour came back into pale cheeks. The prevailing expression was one of excitement touched with horror. Betsey remained standing; she seemed about to leave; as though, willing to bear the consequences of her crime, she would excommunicate herself and depart. Only William Hershey was able to reason. He rose slowly, his gentle bearded face turned toward Betsey. Were there tears in William Hershey’s eyes? “‘Betsey,’”’ said he, slowly. ‘Do you do this for your poor sister?” Betsey seized the back of the bench before her. She looked smitten, as he looks the secret of whose heart is discovered. “Don’t blame Tilly. The doctor says she must be yet for a long time in the dark. She knows the Bible and the Martyr Book and the hymns and now her mind has to work all the time on itself.”
“You're reading this to her?”
“I’m reading it aloud,” said Betsey, stubbornly. “If she listens I can’t help it.”
“Sit down,” bade William, gently and commandingly. “It’s here something that this sister must decide. She must do what she thinks is right. Let us sing Number Thirty-seven.”
But Betsey was not through.
“I like this reading,” she confessed, wildly. “I don’t feel wicked in my sin. It makes me feel good, it sort of clears out my soul. I would rather read than quilt. And we have fifty-eight quilts. Many times Tilly and I wept over the poor martyrs—why should we not weep over these poor others? Our forefathers fought with wolves where this meeting-house now stands. The Hersheys were in it, I'll bet, and the Stauffers and the Erlenbaughs—all had to fight. I forgot to say that when this poor courier of the K-zar and the young girl were floating down the fiery river the wolves got after them. They——”
William Hershey was alarmed; he despaired of Betsey’s reason. He started Hymn Number Thirty-seven.
The stewed chicken and the mashed potatoes and dried corn and slaw and cherry pie which composed the Shindledecker dinner were consumed and all evidences of the meal removed. The cat lay on his chair; he slept, then woke and looked about, then slept again. Betsey went to the porch to hang up the dish-towels and the dog came back with her. He had an expectant air and when he lay down he did not rest his head on his paws, but kept it high. Below her black bandage Tilly’s mouth looked happy. Betsey was pale, but she, too, looked happy. Tilly’s head turned, following her sister as though she could see. She looked impatient.
Betsey opened the door of the ancient cupboard and got out a book. The doctor knew now where his book was and he had promised Tilly to bring her others by the same author. One was called “A Journey to the Moon,” another “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” But Tilly knew there was no book like this in the world and she meant to ask Betsey to read it again and perhaps again. Her necessity knew no consideration for others; she would take all the blame for Betsey’s Sin if there were blame; but Betsey must read. “‘I’m ready,” she said. The smile on her face was beatific. Betsey opened the book. Forsaking one of the unities, the author had brought the villainous Ivan into the fore- ground of the narrative. Himself disguised as the Courier of the Czar he had entered the besieged city and was about to betray it. Upon him in a room of the Grand Duke’s palace, having escaped the burning river, came the real courier led by his faithful maiden. In terror, Betsey laid the book upon her knee. ““Now everything is at an end,” she warned her sister. “Remember he cannot see, and here is this wicked Ivan who can see. What can he do?” Her face was pale. “You must be prepared, Sister.” Tilly clasped her hands. “Go on,” she said, weakly. ‘I’m ready.” Betsey’s eyes travelled down the page. “‘Oh, Sister!” she cried, sharply. “What is it?” asked Tilly. “Oh, listen!” “Go on!” urged Tilly. “‘Tvan uttered a cry,’” read Betsey. “ ‘A sudden light flashed across his brava. ‘He sees!” he exclaimed, “he sees!”? And like a wild beast trying to retreat into its den, step by step, he drew back to the edge of the room.’”’ “He’s not blind, then?” gasped Tilly. “But it said he was blind!” Betsey read on: “‘¢Stabbed to the heart the wretched Ivan fell.’” “But how——” Betsey lifted her hand for silence. Here were medical words she could not pronounce, but she could give the blessed sense of what she saw. “Listen once! When they held the hot sword before his eyes, he was crying to think of his poor mother and his tears saved his eyesight.” “Oh, ’'m thankful to God,” cried Tilly. ‘Oh, read that part again, dear sister.”
Betsey looked out the window; she needed suddenly a wider view than she could get across the kitchen, broad as it was. She looked out the window to the east then out the window to the west. She rose and walked first to the one then to the other. “Oh, do read it again!” besought Tilly. “Just once, Sister. I’ll ask for no more. Oh, please!”
Betsey gazed out as though at some strange phenomenon. There was a truly strange phenomenon to be seen. “Oh, I would like to hear it again,” begged Tilly. When Betsey did not answer she was terrified. “Why don’t you speak to me, Betsey?”
Another person spoke for Betsey. The door opened and the two Stauffer sisters came in. They were about the same age as the Shindledeckers and like them one was tall and stout and the other tall and thin. From under their black bonnets they looked out, at once eager and guilty and excited.
“We came——” began one and looked at her sister. “We came to see how that fine man got through,” finished the sister. “We came to see if he’s yet alive. It’s surely no sin!”
Betsey stood looking at them and then out the window. Utterly bewildered, Tilly sat turning her bandaged face first in one direction then in the other.
“Spare your wraps,” invited Betsey, pleasantly. She looked across the fields to the south and saw Eleazar Herr approaching with his long stride, and down the road to the east and saw six Erlenbaughs walking in procession, and up the road to the west and saw William Hershey’s heavily laden buggy. If she was not mistaken Mary was in it and the baby and the little boys.
Her heart swelled; William’s approach removed her last lingering sense of wrong-doing. It had been delightful to have Tilly hang upon her words, it had been thrilling to hold the Improved New Mennonite congregation spellbound; now she would have both pleasures in one. She would make these people sad and then how happy! The muscles of her arms tingled as though preparing for dramatic gestures. “Wait once a little,” she said, addressing Tilly. “Then I will begin again in the beginning.”