Saxe Holm's Stories, Second Series/Joe Hale's Red Stockings
JOE HALE'S RED STOCKINGS
It was a hot day in August, and it was hotter in the linen room of the Menthaven Hospital than it was anywhere else on the New England shore. At least so thought Netty Lamed, as she sank back in her chair,—if one can sink back in a wooden chair,—and exclaimed:—
"Thank heaven, the last of those stockings is darned."
Sarah Lincoln and her cousin, Netty Larned, in a fit of mingled patriotism and romance, had undertaken the charge of the linen room in the Menthaven Hospital for the summer. Their cousin, Clara Winthrop, was superintending the diet kitchen, and Rebecca Jones and Mrs. Kate Seeley, and several more of Menthaven's "first ladies," were nursing in the wards. It was in the second year of our war; just at the time when the fever of enthusiastic work for the soldiers and the cause was at its greatest and most unreasonable height among the women of the North. Not to be sacrificing one's self in some way on the shrine of the country's need seemed to prove one to be next door to a traitor—in fact worse. It seems ungracious, even at this distance of time, to call in question either the motives or the results of this great outburst on the part of the women; but no one who was familiar, in even a small degree, with the practical results in many of our hospitals of the average headlong enthusiasm of the average woman, will deny that in very many instances it could have been advantageously dispensed with.
The meek and satirical gratitude of the soldier who, being inquired of by one of these restless benevolences, if she should comb his hair for him, replied: "Thank you, ma'am, you can if you want to; there 's nineteen ladies has done it already to-day," pointed a moral which was too generally overlooked.
Some dim suspicions as to the common sense of their work had more than once crossed the minds of both Sarah Lincoln and Netty Larned. They were clear-headed, energetic women, without a trace of sentimentalism about them. It had appeared to them in the outset that there was a grand field of work in the Menthaven Hospital, and that it was clearly the duty of the Menthaven women to take hold of it. Being, as I say, clear-headed, they had too distinct a consciousness of their incapacity as nurses, to undertake ward work; in fact, when they came to discuss seriously what they could do, the charge of the linen room was the only thing they were not afraid to undertake.
"I can keep things in order, and mend, and make out lists, and give out clothes," said Netty; "and that 's about all I can do and be sure of doing it well."
"I think so too," said Sarah, "and we 'll take it together, and then we can change with each other and have a day's rest now and then; we shall not be very busy, and one or the other of us can go about in the wards and write letters for the men, or help the nurses. But I would n't take any responsibility about them for anything."
"Nor I either," said Netty.
But when they saw Clara Winthrop, who had never in her life cooked anything more nutritious than sponge-cake, and who was used, in her father's house, to having four servants at her command, gravely assuming the entire control of the diet kitchen; and flighty Mrs. Kate Seely, who could not even be trusted with her own baby when it had croup, installed as head nurse in one of the largest wards, Sarah and Netty looked at each other, and said, in the expressive New England vernacular,—
"Did you ever!"
And when they saw, day by day, the sentry opposite their linen room door, simply overborne and disregarded by numbers of most respectable women of their own acquaintance filing in, with baskets of all sorts of edibles, proper and improper, which they proposed to distribute indiscriminately among the patients, they looked at each other again and again, and said:—
"Would you have believed women were such geese?"
"Did you tell those women that Doctor Hale's strict orders were that no one should be admitted to the wards without a pass from him?" exclaimed Sarah one day, indignantly, to the sentry.
"Indeed ma'am, and I did," he replied, "but it did n't stop her. She said she knew Doctor Hale very well, and he would let her go in."
"But they must not go in," persisted Sarah. "It is against orders."
"What am I to do ma'am?" said the sentry.
"Put your bayonet straight across the door, and hold it there, John," said Sarah.
"Ah, ma'am, an I could n't to a woman. If it was a man I could; but I could n't to a woman. Besides, she 'd jump over."
The next time, however, John tried it. Sarah heard a parley and flew to her door to reënforce John by the moral support of her countenance.
What to her horror did she see? Her own aunt, Mrs. Winthrop, red with rage, and Clara behind her, both abusing the poor sentry in no measured terms, and threatening to report him for insolence.
"I am in charge of the diet kitchen," said Clara, "and my mother can go where she pleases in this Hospital."
John lowered his bayonet, and the two angry women walked past him, darting withering glances at his discomfited face.
"It 's no use, Netty," said Sarah after this. "It 's no use. I do believe that ninety-nine women out of a hundred are absolutely destitute of logic. If you were to talk to Clara till the millennium, you could never make her see that her being in charge of the diet kitchen gives her no right to break Doctor Hale's rules."
As week after week went by, and Sarah and Netty set in the two hard wooden chairs in the linen room, mending, mending, mending, eight hours a day. there began, as I said, to cross their minds a dim distrust of the common sense of their proceedings.
"How much do you suppose I have saved the United States Government by mending that stocking?" said Netty, one day, holding up on her little round fist a stocking whose foot was one solid mass of darns.
Sarah laughed. "Oh, Netty," she said, "what did you mend that for? It was n't worth it."
"I know that as well as you do," retorted Netty. "But we have barely enough to go round, and to morrow's Saturday. I did hope that box from Provincetown would have had some stockings in it, but there was only one pair. Look at them!" and Netty held up a pair of socks knit of fine scarlet worsted on very fine needles. They were really beautiful socks, barring the color, which was a fiery yellow scarlet, but one remove from orange.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Sarah. "What lunatic ever knit those stockings? I don't believe a man in this ospital would put them on; do you?"
"No," said Netty. "It would n't be any use to offer them to them. I 'll put them at the bottom of the pile." As she slipped them under, she felt something in the toe of one. "Why, there is something in the toe," she said, and turned the stocking wrong side out. A small bit of pink paper, folded many times, fell to the floor. Netty picked it up and unfolded it. It was a half sheet of pink note paper, with a little stamped Cupid at top. In the middle of the sheet was written in a cramped but neat hand—
"Miss Matilda Bennet,
Netty exclaimed as she read this: "Why, how queer! Some girl 's put her name in here. What do you suppose she did that for?" and she read it aloud—
"Miss Matilda Bennet,
"What could she have done it for?" I wonder if she knit the stockings?"
"Perhaps she has a brother or lover in the war and does n't know where he may be, and thought the stockings might happen to hit him," said Sarah. reaching out her hand for the paper, and looking at it curiously. "Is n't it odd? Who knows, now, but the man she meant that for may be in this very hospital!"
"I guess not," said Netty. "There is n't a single Massachusetts man here. They 're mostly from New York, and Maine, and Connecticut, so far as I have found out. I suppose I'd better put it back," she said, folding the paper up, and holding the stocking open.
"Yes, indeed," said Sarah. "Put it back, by all means. Who knows what 'll come of it. It 's something like a letter in a bottle at sea!"
"What!" exclaimed Netty, in unutterable amazement; "like a bottle at sea! What 's the matter with you? What do you mean?"
Sarah colored: hidden very deep in her heart she had a vein of romance which did not show on the surface of her shrewd, active nature, and which never took form in words.
"Why, I mean," she replied, "that it is trusting a thing to just as blind chance to stick it in a stocking and send it to the Sanitary Commission to be allotted to any hospital between Maine and Mississippi, as it is to cork it in a bottle and toss it out in the Atlantic Ocean. Of course that girl put that name in that stocking to reach somebody, and I just hope it will reach him. I don't suppose it ever will, though, and yet, I imagine stranger things have happened."
"Perhaps she put it in just for fun," said Netty, as she pushed the little roll of paper tight down again into the stocking from which she had taken it. "I think that 's quite as likely. "
"Why, I don't see any fun in it," said Sarah.
"Nor I either," replied Netty; "but then things may seem funny in Provincetown which would n't anywhere else. It 's a real New England name, Matilda Bennet. I wonder how she looks. An old maid, I guess. I don't know why I think so."
"Well, if she did it for fun, as you say, it 's more likely to be a young girl," said Sarah. "A girl too young to think whether it were proper or not."
Early every Saturday morning clean clothes were given out in the hospital. All the convalescent men who were able came for their own; and the ward nurses came for what they needed for the men who were in bed. It was always an interesting day to Netty and Sarah. They liked to survey the faces of the men, and to watch their behavior as they received the clothes. It was pathetic to see the importance which the little incident assumed in the lives of some of them, the child-like pleasure they would show in an especially nice garment, the difficulty they would find in selecting a pocket-handkerchief. The stockings were Netty's especial department; and she had endless amusement on the subject of sizes.
"Never yet did I hand a man a pair of stockings," she said, "that he did n't look at them, turn them over, and hand them back to me, and say he 'd like a pair either a little longer or a little shorter. It 's too droll."
On this particular Saturday morning, Netty was much afraid the stockings would not hold out to go round. One or two pairs had come out of the wash so hopelessly ragged that even her patience had not been equal to the trials of mending them; and the washerwomen were still in arrears with part of the wash, so that the piles on the stocking shelf looked ominously low. By noon there were not a dozen pairs left.
"I 'm going to begin to offer the scarlet ones, now," said Netty. "It 's a shame not to use them, they 're so nice. Perhaps I can put them off on somebody who is color-blind."
No man so color-blind as not to be startled at that flaming red! Man after man refused them. Netty held them out, saying with her most winning smile, "Here is a very nice pair of stockings; perhaps you like red;" but man after man replied, some timidly, some brusquely, that they 'd rather have any other color. At last came a man who wanted two pairs,—one for himself, one for the man who slept in the next bed to him, and was asleep now; and the nurse thought he 'd most likely not wake up before night, for he 'd been taking laudanum for the toothache.
"Here 's my chance," thought Netty, and laid the red stockings on the pile of clean clothes to be carried to the unconscious victim of the toothache.
"I suppose he 'll like these red stockings as well as any," said she, quietly. "They are very nice.
The man looked askance at them.
"Powerful bright, aint they? I should n't like 'em myself; but perhaps he won't mind;" and he walked away with them.
"What 'll you wager they don't come back?" said Sarah.
"Nothing," said Netty. "I expect them."
The afternoon wore on, and the red stockings did not come back. The last man from the last ward had come, taken his Sunday ration of clean clothes, and gone, and not a single pair of stockings was left on the shelf.
"Was n't it lucky I put those red stockings off on that poor toothache fellow in his sleep?" laughed Netty. "I should have come one pair short if I had n't." The words had not more than left her lips when a shadow darkened the linen room. She looked up; there in the door-way stood the man who had taken the red stockings; he held them in his hand, and fidgeted with them uneasily as he said:—
"Sorry to trouble ye, marm, but Wilson 's waked up, and he won't have these stockings no how; and I had to bring 'em back, if it would n't trouble ye too much to change 'em for something else; anything 'll do, he said, that aint red."
Netty pointed to the empty shelf; "I 'm very sorry," she said; "but you can see, that is my stocking shelf; I have n't a pair left."
With a crestfallen face the man laid the stockings down and turned to go.
"Don't you think he would rather have those than none?" asked Netty.
"No, marm," replied the man. "He said he 'd rather go barefoot than wear 'em. He can make the ones he 's got do."
"I will give him a clean pair as soon as some more come in from the wash," said Netty. "You tell him he won't have to wait till next Saturday; by Tuesday we shall have more;" and she put the rejected stockings back on the empty shelf. Sarah was shaking with suppressed laughter.
"Poor Miss Matilda Bennet," said she, as soon as the man had gone away. "Her red stockings will never reach their destination, I fear. Who knows? Perhaps the very man they were for has already refused them. You 'd better mention the card in the toe to the next man you offer them to. You might hit the right person."
"No," said Netty, "I shall not offer them any more. I 'll give them to a poor man I know in town, who will not be so particular. They are really beautiful socks. Any gentleman might wear them."
The linen room was darkened again; another tall figure stood in the door-way. It was Joe Hale, the tallest, handsomest, best-natured man in the hospital,—favorite alike with surgeons, nurses, and men; so brave while he lay ill with a terrible wound in his shoulder; so brave when the arm had to come off; so jolly—which was the best bravery of all—now that it had been off and buried for many a week, and he was only waiting for his discharge papers to come from Washington before starting for home.
He stood in the door-way, twirling his cap nervously in his right hand; luckily for Joe, it was the left arm which had gone.
Netty looked up.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Hale?" she said.
"Have you got a pair of red stockings here?" he said, and a gleam of respectfully restrained mirth twinkled in his bright blue eyes.
Netty laughed outright.
"To be sure I have," she said, and took them from the shelf. "Here they are. I can't find anybody who will wear them."
"I 'll take them," said Joe, holding out his right hand, cap and all. "I gave mine to Wilson; he is sort o' sick and fussy, and he was so mad with Craig for bringing them to him, it seemed to quite upset him—that and the laudanum together; so I gave him mine. I had n't put them on; and if you have n't any use for the red ones, I 'll take them, and obliged to ye. Craig said they were the last you 'd got left."
"So they are," replied Netty, laying them on the cap in Joe's hand. "I 'm very glad you don't dislike red. It 's a beautiful pair of stockings."
"Would you be so very good, ma'am, as to just put them in my pocket here?" said Joe, awkwardly. "I can't manage it very well."
Netty put them in the pocket, and with a military salute, Joe lifted his cap to his head and walked away.
"How thoughtless of me," said Netty, "to have laid them on the poor fellow's cap in his hand! He could n't put his cap on without their falling on the ground. Was n't it nice of him to give his to Wilson? I don't believe he likes the red any better than the other men did."
"It 's just like Joe Hale," said Sarah.
"The ward-master in his ward told me the other day, he had n't the least idea what he 'd do when Joe went away. He said he was equal to any two nurses in the ward. I 've a notion, though, that he has a great fancy for the color red, for I 've seen him a dozen times with a bit of red geranium or red salvia in his cap; he always picks out the red ones when Mrs. Winthrop brings her flowers."
Joe Hale was a methodical fellow. When he was preparing to go to bed, he laid all his clean clothes on the chair at the head of his bed to be ready in the morning. On the top of the pile he laid the red stockings.
"Hullo! Fire away, Joe!" called out one man,
"Warm yer toes, Joe, won't they?"
"What possessed a woman to knit stockings o' such a color 's that, do you suppose? Why, the turkey-cocks 'll chase ye, Joe, when ye get them things on."
Joe only laughed good-naturedly.
"Go it, boys," he said. "I can stand it 's long 's you can. I think the stockings are a real handsome color."
"So they be," said the first speaker. It was the very Wilson who had rejected them with such scorn. "So they be, a splendid color for a rooster's wattles; that 's the only thing I ever see sech a color."
Joe took one of the stockings up and began mechanically to turn the heel out; he felt the paper in the toe, drew it out in surprise, looked at it, read the name, and slipped the paper quickly into his pocket. The whole thing had not taken a minute, and nobody had chanced to notice it.
"What in thunder did any girl go and do that for?" thought Joe.
Presently he rose and walked out of the ward.
"Say, Joe, don't leave them red stockings o' yourn out that way; they might be stole," called one of the men.
"All right, boys," he said, "laugh away. It 's good for you; cure you quicker 'n medicine;" and Joe walked away. He wanted to look again at the queer little pink paper. Underneath the big lantern swung at the door of the surgeon's room, he stood still and read again the words:—
"Miss Matilda Bennet,
He looked attentively at the little stamped Cupid on the top of the sheet. Joe had no experience in mythological art, and did not know a Cupid when he saw one. A naked baby with a bow and arrow was as much of a puzzle to him as an unprecedented fossil to a naturalist. The word "Provincetown" also set Joe to thinking. He recollected dimly how on the map he studied at school the word Provincetown stretched away from the tip of Massachusetts out into the blue space of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It seemed to fly like a signal at a prow, and the little dot which represented the town had been half on, half off, the coast, he remembered. "Poor thing!" he thought, "she lives away down there. I wonder what sort of a girl she is, and what she ever stuck her name into these stockings for. I might write and thank her for them."
This last idea Joe dismissed with a scornful laugh at himself as a "silly booby;" but he folded up the little pink paper, and put it away carefully in his big leather wallet
Three days later Joe Hale lay flat on his back delirious with fever. He had been devoted in his attentions to a poor fellow who was dying in one of the outside tents from a gangrened wound, and in some way that subtlest and most dangerous of poisons had penetrated his veins. For several days he lay at the point of death; a general gloom pervaded the hospital; the surgeon-in-charge himself spent hours at Joe's bedside; everybody grieved at the thought of the brave, cheery fellow's dying. But Joe's time to die was a long way off yet; good blood, and a constitution made strong by an early out-door life on a farm, triumphed,—to everybody's surprise and joy. Joe began to get well. He was as weak as a new-born infant at first, and sat propped up in his bed among pillows, fed by spoonfuls at a time, looking a strange mixture of giant and baby. There was great danger of Joe's being spoiled now. it became such a fashion to pet him. All the visitors wanted to see him; everybody brought him something, generally something to eat; as for quince marmalade and tamarinds, for years afterward the very name of them made Joe ill, he had such a surfeit of them now. Every day, as soon as his too generous friends had left the ward, he would summon the boys around his bed and distribute his supplies; and very sumptuously that ward fared for a good many weeks. Foremost and most devoted among Joe's admirers was Clara Winthrop. There were petty-minded and gossiping people about who even declared that Miss Winthrop really neglected the diet kitchen, she spent so much time over "that Hale." One day, early in Joe's convalescence, Clara went to the linen room and called Sarah.
"Come here," she said. "I want to tell you something. You know that splendid fellow, Joe Hale, that's been so ill. Well, he is n't going to die. He's had his senses perfectly clear for two days now, and Dr. Wilkes says he 'll pull through."
"Yes, I know," said Sarah. "I saw him this morning and he knew me perfectly."
"Oh, you saw him, did you?" said Clara, with a little dignified surprise in her manner.
"Oh, yes," said Sarah. "Netty and I have seen him every day."
"Ah!" said Clara, "I did n't know you had been seeing him all along."
Not least among the semi-comic things inwoven with all the tragedy of hospital life, was the queer, sexless sort of jealousy which women unconsciously and perpetually manifested among themselves, in regard to one and another of their pet patients.
"Well, I 'm perfectly sure that he is engaged to some girl, or in love with her; and I think she ought to be sent for. Thomas, the ward-master, has been telling me about it. Thomas says that all the time Joe was out of his head, he was talking about a Matilda Somebody. He never made out the other name; but Thomas says he 'd talk about her all night, and about red stockings; was n't that queer? Thomas said he had on a pair and the men laughed at him about them. Now, don't you think we ought to ask him about the Matilda, and write to her?"
Sarah opened her lips to say hastily, "Oh, I know all about that," but suddenly recollecting Clara Winthrop's constitutional inability to keep a secret, she merely said:—
"I don't think he would like to know he had been talking about his affairs that way. Joe is n't like the common soldiers here; he is a very different sort of man. I should just ask him if there was any friend or relative he 'd like to have written to, and if he wants to have her sent for."
"Oh, yes," said Clara. "That would be a great deal better. I 'll do that," and she hurried off, to lose no time in following Sarah's advice.
"Why did n't you tell her?" said Netty.
"Tell Clara Winthrop!" ejaculated Sarah. "I should think you 'd known the Winthrops as long as I have. Why, I would n't tell her anything which I should have the slightest objection to seeing up in posters on Main Street."
"Oh, that 's too bad," she said. "Clara would n't tell anything that she thought would do any harm."
"I dare say not," retorted Sarah; "but she never thinks beforehand whether a thing will do harm or not. She is not a bit malicious; but she does twice as much harm as if she were; a malicious person plots and plans, and has intervals and occasions of reticence; but Clara,—why, Clara's conversation is like nothing in earth but a waste-pipe from a cistern; as soon as it is full it overflows, no matter where, when, or on whom. Give me a good, malignant, intentional gossip any day, rather than one of these perpetual leaky people. What do you suppose she 'll say to Joe now?"
"Oh, just what you told her to," said Netty.
"She is a well-meaning soul, and always ready to take advice."
"After all," said Sarah, "we don't know that Joe never heard of Matilda Bennet, except in that stocking."
"And as for that matter," continued the sensible Netty, "we don't know that it is not some other Matilda he was talking about."
"No," said Sarah, "of course we don't. I never once thought of that."
"Here are the red stockings again," said Netty, taking them out of the basket at her feet. "They don't want mending; that 's one comfort. I 'll lay them up till Joe gets well; I should n't wonder a bit if he fancied them. It will be a long time, though, poor fellow, before he 'll do much walking."
That evening as Sarah and Netty and Clara were walking home from the hospital together, Sarah said:—
"Did you write a letter for Joe Hale to-day?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Clara. "That 's just what I was going to tell you. It 's the queerest thing about that Matilda; I don't believe there 's any such girl at all. I guess it was nothing but crazy fancies. I asked him this morning if there were not some one he would like to have me write to,—somebody who could come on and stay here with him till he got well; and do you think, the poor fellow said, 'Miss Winthrop, I have n't a near relative in the world,—nothing nearer than a cousin; and I don't know any of my cousins; they all live in Iowa, and I 've never seen one of them. Then I said, 'Well, have n't you some friend that could come? or at any rate that you 'd like to have me write to?' And he said, 'No, I have n't any friend that could come, unless it were a neighbor of mine, Ethan Lovejoy, he might come, but I guess I don't want him. I 'm getting on first rate.' 'Is n't there any woman?' I said. I just was determined to see if there was n't something in it. And he got as red in the face as if I 'd asked him something improper, and said he, 'Any woman! Why I told you I had n't any relative in the world. I had one sister, but she died when I was little. I don't remember her and the only aunt I have lives in Iowa, I told you.' So I gave up then. Is n't it too bad; the poor lonely fellow! I 'm really disappointed, I thought it would be so interesting if that Matilda should come on, and we could see them together. Perhaps there has been something in it, some time or other; but it 's all broken off now. If it was only craziness it 's very queer he should stick to that one name all the time."
Sarah and Netty exchanged glances, but said nothing; and the voluble Clara ran on and on, with her loose-jointed talk, till they reached the gate of her father's house. After she had gone in, Netty said to Sarah:—
"I 'm going into that ward to-morrow to write letters for Wilson and Craig. I think I 'll offer to write a letter for Joe, and see what he says to me. I think it 's just possible he did n't want Clara to write. She always thinks that she knows the men better than anybody else; but the truth is, she does n't know them half so well as either you or I. She is n't quiet enough with them."
"Yes, I would if I were you," replied Sarah; "but you must n't tell Clara if he does let you write. She would be vexed about it."
"No, indeed," said Netty, "I won't tell her."
While Netty was writing the letters for Wilson and Craig, she saw Joe Hale watching her wistfully. When she had finished, she went to his bed and said:—
"Is n't there anybody you 'd like to send a letter to, Mr. Hale? I have plenty of time to write another."
Joe glanced to the right and the left: the beds near him were empty; no one was within hearing distance of a low tone. Speaking almost in a whisper, he said:—
"Well, it does feel real lonesome to see all the boys sending off their letters home; but the fact is, Miss Larned, I have n' t got a relation to write to—not one."
"Oh, I am perfectly sure your neighbors would be very glad to hear from you." Netty said, cheerily.
Joe glanced around again, and then speaking still lower, said:—
"No, there ain't one of them that I 'd bother with a letter. But there is a letter I 'd like to send, if you think it 's proper," and with his feeble right hand he managed to take from under his pillow the big leather wallet, and laying it near the edge of the bed, he tried to open it.
"Let me open it for you," said Netty. "Is the letter you want to answer in here?"
"’Taint exactly a letter," said Joe. "That 's it," he said, pointing to the little bit of pink paper in one of the compartments, as Netty held them open.
"It ain't a letter," he continued. "It 's only a name. It was in one of those red stockings I took to please Wilson. Do you remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember all about it."
"I did n't dislike the color," said Joe, "though the boys did make most too much fun of them. Well, this paper was in the toe of one of those stockings, and I suppose it 's the name of the girl that knit them. Should n't you think so?"
"Yes, I think it must be," said Netty.
"I 've been thinking," said Joe, "that it would n't be any more than civil, seeing she put her name in them, just to write and thank her for them. May be she 'd like to know the name of the man that wore them. I thought may be it was some little girl that would be pleased to get a letter from a soldier."
"Why, certainly, Mr. Hale," replied Netty. "I think it would be a very nice thing to write and thank her for them. I dare say it was some little girl who would be proud enough to have a letter from a soldier. What did you say the name was?"
"It 's on the paper," said Joe, languidly. He was growing tired. "Matilda 's the first name. I 've forgotten the last, but she lives in Provincetown."
"Miss Matilda Bennet," said Netty, reading it from the paper.
"Oh, yes," said Joe, "that 's it."
Netty wrote the address on an envelope, and then, taking a sheet of note paper, looked at Joe, inquiringly, and said:—
"Well, what shall I say?"
"Oh, anything you like," was the embarrassing reply, and Joe closed his eyes with an expression of perfect content and assurance that all would be right.
"Why, Mr. Hale," she said, "I 'm afraid I don't know what to say. What do you want said?"
"Oh, just thank her—that 's all," murmured Joe, sleepily. "I guess it 's a little girl. I suppose a grown-up woman would n't have sent her name that way, would she? You might ask her to write to me. Then I 'd have somebody to write to me. It 's the only thing makes me feel lonesome, when the boys all get letters."
"I 'd better write in my own name, I think," she said, "and tell her about you. Shall I do it that way?"
"There isn't any use in telling her anything about me," said Joe, more energetically than he had spoken for some time; "only just to thank her,—that 's all."
This is what Netty wrote:—
"Dear Miss Bennet: You will be surprised to receive this letter from an entire stranger. Perhaps you remember putting your name on a piece of paper in a pair of red stockings you sent to the soldiers. Those stockings came to this hospital, and were given to a soldier by the name of Hale—Mr. Joseph Hale, of New York. He is very ill now—not able to sit up; and he asked me to write and thank you for the stockings. If you would like to write him a letter, he would be very glad to hear from you. There is no greater pleasure to soldiers in hospital than to get letters from friends. Yours truly,
The coming in of the stage, and the distribution of the mail it carried were the great events of each day in Provincetown. When the stage was on time it got in at six o'clock; but its being on time depended on so many incalculable chances all the way along that sandy promontory, that nobody in Provincetown thought of placing any dependence on getting his letters the same night they came. Least of all did the Bennets, who lived over on Light-house Spit; they had kept the light-house for twenty-five years,—ever since Matilda, or "Tilly," as she was universally called, could remember. It was a strange life that she had led on that lonely rock,—child, girl, woman, she had known nothing else. Her father had been a sea-captain. He had had a leg broken by the falling of a mast one night in a terrible storm; had been brought into Provincetown harbor with the leg rudely spliced and lashed to a spar, and had never walked without a crutch again. The light-house was the next best thing to a ship, and Captain Bennet was glad to get it. The worse the storm, the more the old tower—none too safe at best—rocked, the happier he grew. His wife used to say:—
"I believe, 'Lisha, you 'll never be contented till we break loose here some night, and go head foremost out to sea;" and the old man would reply:—
"Well, Lyddy, I 'd as soon go that way 's any. I never had any kind o' fancy for rottin' in a graveyard. The sea 's always seemed to me wholesomer; and if ye could manage it anyhow, I 'd like to be buried in it; but I s'pose ye could n't fix it so very well."
Mrs. Bennet did not in the least share her husband's love of the water. It frightened her, and it bored her, and she hated the isolation with which it surrounded her. She paced the narrow sand-spit which linked the light-house rock to the main land like a prisoner. When Tilly was a baby she carried her in her arms; as soon as the little thing could toddle, she led her by the hand back and forth, back and forth, on the narrow belt, always gazing across at the town with a hungry yearning for its streets and people, and with a restless watching for some boat to put out toward the light-house. The child soon shared her mother's feeling, and the earliest emotion which Tilly could recollect was an intense consciousness of being imprisoned. In the summer there were visitors at the light-house almost every day. All travelers who visited Provincetown came over to see the beautiful Fresnel light, and the townspeople themselves frequently sailed across and anchored for fishing just beyond the spit. These visitors were Mrs. Bennet's one consolation; by means of them she seemed to keep some tangible hold on life and dry land; and, moreover, they were the only foundation of her one air-castle. Poor, lonely, circumscribed, discontented woman! she had but one, yet that one seemed at first as far removed from the possibility of her attaining it as could the wildest dream of the most visionary worldly ambition, Mrs. Bennet wanted a melodeon for Tilly. When she went on Sundays to church in Provincetown and heard the first line of the psalm-tune played over and over on the wheezy melodeon, she thought that if she could only sometimes hear such sounds as that in the light-house, instead of the endless boom and thud and swash of the water, life might become endurable to her. She had a marvelous knack at crocheting mats, tidies, and the like; and as soon as Tilly's little fingers were strong enough to hold a needle, they were instructed in the same art. In the long winter months a great stock of these crocheted articles was accumulated to be sold to the summer visitors. Braided rugs, also, Mrs. Bennet made to sell, and bed-quilts of scarlet and white cottons sewed in intricate patterns. The small sums thus saved she hoarded as religiously as if they were a trust and not her own. She did not reveal her purpose to Tilly for years,—not until the child herself grew impatient of the mystery, and of being told that it was "for something nice" the quarters and half-dollars were being put away. When Tilly knew what they were for she worked harder than ever; and at last, one June, when she was sixteen years old, there came a day—a proud day for Mrs. Bennet and a joyful one for Tilly—when a small sloop pushed out from the Provincetown wharves and made straight for the light-house, bearing the melodeon, spick-span new, smelling horribly of varnish, and not much more musical than a jew's-harp; it was yet beautiful beyond words to the two lonely women who had worked so many years to buy it. In Mrs. Bennet's early youth she had made some pretense of being a piano-player, and she thought that she could now recall enough of her old knowledge to give Tilly the elementary instructions; but she was sadly disappointed; the working of the pedals was a hopeless mystery to her, and the action of the keys, so unlike that of piano-keys, threw her all "out," as she said. "I never mistrusted 't was so different from a piano," she cried. "It 's worse 'n a sewing-machine."
There was nothing to be done now but to let the child go to Provincetown to be taught. Luckily the purchase of the melodeon had not exhausted the treasury of the crochet money. There was enough left to give Tilly a winter's schooling in Provincetown; and if she spent more time over her melodeon than over her arithmetic, and tried all her teachers by her indifference to books, it was only a filial carrying out of the instructions of her mother, whose last words to her had been: "Now, learn all you can, Tilly. It 's the only chance you 'll get; but don't let anything hinder your learning to play the melodeon."
How long the lonely winter seemed to Mrs. Bennet, nobody, not even her husband, knew. For days at a time all communication between the light-house and the town was cut off, and the poor mother lay awake by night, and walked the floor by day, praying that all might be well with Tilly. But when, early in May, Tilly came home one afternoon, looking as fresh and blooming as a rose, and sat down at the melodeon and played "The Soldier's Joy, with Variations," Mrs Bennet was more than repaid for all she had borne. The six months had told on Tilly in many ways. She had smartened up in the matter of clothes; wore bows like other girls, and liked a bit of color in her hair; had learned to talk in a freer way, and could even toss her head a little, when a young man spoke to her. All the little awkward arts of the Provincetown belles Tilly had observed, and in a manner caught. Yet she was not spoiled. She was glad to come home: her mother was still more to her than all the rest of the world; and when Mrs. Bennet saw this she was content. Captain 'Lisha took little notice one way or another of either of them. His heart had always been, and always would be, on the sea. He tended and scrubbed and loved the light-house as he used to tend and love his ship. He always called the light "she," and if a point of its machinery seemed clogged, worried and fussed over "her" as another man might over a woman who was ill. But of the two women whose days were spent on this rock because of him, and whose whole lives revolved around him as husband and father, he thought comparatively little, They were housed, fed, clothed, and busy; what more did they want? They seemed good-humored and contented; and so was Captain 'Lisha.
The melodeon made a change. Captain 'Lisha had a better ear for tunes than either his wife or his daughter. His whistling was worth hearing, and in his youth he had sung a good tenor. When he first heard Tilly's little feeble tunes mingling with the roar of the wind and water, he laughed, and thought it would do very well to amuse the women; but as time went on, and Tilly, who practiced with an untiring faithfulness worthy of a better instrument and a better talent, began to play something finer than "Fisher's Hornpipe" and "Soldier's Joy," the old man came to take pleasure in it. And this drew the three nearer together, so that after the melodeon had been in the house a couple of years the family were really much happier and had more animation in their life.
"Practice psalm-tunes, Tilly; practice psalm-tunes," her mother continually said. "There 's no knowing what may happen,"—by which Mrs. Bennet meant that out of her first air-castle had sprung up a second, in this wise: who could tell but that some day Tilly might be asked to play the melodeon in church. The Bennets were good Methodists and never missed a Sunday when the weather was fair enough for their sail-boat to get across to own. The melodeon in church was played by the minister's wife; but he would be going away pretty soon,—his two years were nearly up, and why should not Tilly be asked then to take Mrs. Sharp's place?
Into the placid, monotonous and innocent dreams of these lives in the Provincetown light-house, the first news of the first days of our great war broke like a thunder-bolt; nobody in all these United States felt the shock, felt the strain, felt the power of the war, as did lonely and inexperienced women in remote places. Every word of news from battles was pondered by them and wept over; long intervals of no news, harder still to bear, were endured in the meek silence which is born in women who live in solitude. Tilly and her mother were not exceptions to this. They were transformed by the excitement of the time. The melodeon was shut, and for a few weeks Tilly did nothing but implore her father to go to town for news; and on days when he could not go, she watched on the rocks for the sight of somebody who might tell her the latest tidings. At last, one Sunday, when the minister called from the pulpit for all the women of the church to meet in the meeting-house the next day, to sew, to scrape lint, and to roll bandages, Mrs. Bennet could stand inaction no longer.
"I tell you what it is, Tilly," said she. "We 'll go home and cook up a lot of things for your father, and then we 'll come over here, and just stay an' work till this box is sent off. He can get along without us for a few days. It 's the least he can do."
Captain 'Lisha made no objection, and on Tuesday morning he took Mrs. Bennet and Tilly over to the town, and left them there.
Tilly's cheeks were crimson with excitement. She was the swiftest-handed maiden in the meeting house that week and her mother was not behind her. When on Saturday they went home they took with them an enormous bundle of shirts to be made.
"We can't be idle, either of us," said Mrs. Bennet. "Can we, Tilly?"
"No, indeed," said Tilly. "I wish I had a hundred hands."
All day long they sewed, saving every minute of time possible from their household toils.
At twilight one evening, Tilly said:—
"Oh dear, I wish we 'd brought over some yarn too. There 's just this time between daylight and dark when we can't do anything, and I might be knitting."
"So we might," said Mrs. Bennet. "We have n't got any yarn, have we?"
"There 's that scarlet worsted," said Tilly. "I don't see why that would n't do. There 's enough for two pairs I guess; and we sha'n't ever use it up in the world."
This scarlet worsted was one of good Captain 'Lisha's blunders. He had been commissioned on a certain day, to buy in Provincetown, a few ounces of scarlet worsted. Mrs. Bennet wanted it for making narrow scarlet edges around some of her tidies and mats. Captain 'Lisha had made the mistake of buying pounds instead of ounces, and the shop-keeper had refused to take it back except in exchange for other goods; whereupon Mrs. Bennet, not wanting any other goods, and wanting the money very much, had lost her temper, and carried the unlucky worsted home with her.
"It 's pretty bright," said Mrs. Bennet, "but I don't suppose the soldiers 'll be very particular about colors; and we 've got it, that 's a good deal; 't won't cost anything. I guess you 'd better set up a pair."
So Tilly set up the red stockings; and after her hard day's sewing was done, she used to take the bright knitting-work and go out and sit on the rocks and knit, till her mother lighted the lamp in the kitchen, and her father lighted the lamp in the tower. Then she would go in and sew again till nine o'clock. While the women sewed, Captain 'Lisha read them the newspaper. Since the war began, Captain 'Lisha sailed to town every day; rain or shine, blow high or blow low, his newspaper he must have. In the old times he had not cared if he did not get it for a week; and sometimes when they had accumulated, did not even take the trouble to bring the whole pile home, which was a sore trial to his wife and daughter.
And this was the way the red stockings were knitted,—at short intervals of twilight on the rocks; sunset hues, and quivering lights on the far ocean, and an honest-souled girl's reveries and sorrows about the war,—all went into them stitch by stitch, by stitch. What put it into Tilly's head to send her name in the stockings there is no knowing. She said:—
"I do wonder what poor fellow 'll get these. I 'd just like to stick my name in; it would seem sort of friendly, would n't it mother?"
"Why, yes, Tilly, I 'd put it in. Some poor fellow might be real glad to know who was a-thinking of him."
And Tilly put it in. And the big box from Provincetown was sent up to Boston; and from the rooms of the Sanitary Commission there it was sent on to the Menthaven Hospital.
One darkish night at Provincetown, Captain 'Lisha was just on the point of going home without his mail, the stage was so late. Not being very firm on his legs in a boat he did not like sailing across after dark.
"Hold on, Cap'n!" sang out Tommy Swift, the postmaster. "Hold on, I 'll give ye your mail in a jiffy: here she comes."
The great, creaking, swinging coach rolled up to the door in a cloud of dust, the mail-bag was thrown from the top of the coach on to the post-office counter by a dexterous fling, and without even stopping, the coach rolled away again.
The Bennets very seldom had letters. They had a daily paper from Boston; and they had a good many miscellaneous newspapers sent them by a minister uncle of Mrs. Bennet's, who was well to do, and had more newspapers than he knew what to do with. But a letter was an event; and a letter to Tilly was still more of one.
Captain 'Lisha turned Netty's neat little letter over and over again, and puzzled his brains vainly trying to make out the postmark of which only the ".… haven" could be read.
"There 's lots of 'havens' all over the country," thought Captain 'Lisha; "but we don't know anybody in any of 'em. It 's a woman's writing; it might be some one of the last summer's folks writing for tidies."
"Here 's a letter for you, Tilly," said Captain 'Lisha, as he entered the kitchen.
"A letter for me!" cried Tilly. "Why, who can it be from?"
"I was a wondering myself," said her father. "I did n't know you wrote to anybody."
"I don't," said Tilly, slowly cutting the envelope with a case-knife.
Mrs. Bennet dropped the skimmer, with which she was taking doughnuts out of the boiling fat, and came and looked over Tilly's shoulder.
"Oh, mother, mother! The doughnuts will burn," exclaimed Tilly. "I 'll read it out loud to you;" and she followed her mother back to the cooking-stove, and standing close by her side while she held the dripping doughnuts over the kettle, and shook them up and down on the skimmer, read aloud Netty's letter.
"Well, I must say that's a very proper kind of a letter," said Captain 'Lisha in a gratified tone. "That fellow 's got the right feeling, whoever he is."
"What a pretty name Henrietta Larned is!" she said. "How pretty it looks written! She must be real nice, I 'm sure."
"Well, the man 's got a nice name, too," said Mrs. Bennet. "I like the sound of his name,—Joseph Hale. That 's a good name. A New York man, she says?"
Yes," said Tilly, slowly. "Perhaps he 's dead before this time. She says he was too sick to sit up."
"Ye 'll answer it, won't ye, Tilly?" said her father. "’T would n't be any more than civil, just to let him know ye got his message."
"I don't know," said Tilly, very slowly. "I hate to write letters. I have n't got anything to say to him. I might write to her."
"But she says write to him," said honest Mrs. Bennet; "she says they 're so glad to get letters in the hospital. Poor fellows, I should think they would be. I expect hospitals are horrid places. I 'd write to him if I was you, Tilly."
"You write, mother," said Tilly, laughing. "I don't know anything to say."
"Me, child?" said her mother. "I have n't written a letter for ten years; I could n't write; but I think you ought to. He might be a waitin to hear; sick folks think a heap of little things like that."
"Well, I might just write and say I 'd got the letter," said Tilly. "’T was real pleasant in him to send me the message."
"Yes," said Captain Lisha. "That fellow 's got right feelings. I tell you that."
Tilly carried the letter into her little bedroom and stuck it into the looking-glass frame, as she had seen cards placed.
The next morning her mother said:—
"Now, Tilly, I 'd answer that letter if I was you. It is n't often we get a chance to hear anything from the rest o' the world. I wish you 'd write. Besides," she added, "after sending him your name so, it don't seem friendly not to."
"That 's true, mother," said Tilly. "I never thought of that, and I' d just as lieves write as not, if I could think of anything to say."
That evening after all the work was done, the little kitchen in order, the lamps lighted, the big one for the great, wandering ships at sea, and the little one for the quiet, humble family at home, Tilly took out a small papeterie of dark-blue embossed leather, and, opening it with a sigh, said:—
"I 'll try to write that letter now, mother."
"That 's right," said her mother. "I 'd write if I was you."
This papeterie had been Tilly's one Christmas present the winter that she had been at school in town. It was given to her by a young man, who in a languid and shame-faced way had, in the Provincetown vernacular "courted" her a little. But he had never found courage to take any more decided steps than to give her this papeterie filled with pink paper and envelopes all stamped with cupids, which so far as their mythological significance was concerned, were as much thrown away on Tilly as on Joe Hale. She merely thought them babies with bows and arrows,—quite ridiculous, and not very pretty. But there was no other letter-paper in the house, except the big sheets of ruled paper on which her father sent his official reports to Washington, and Tilly would as soon have thought of writing a book as of writing on paper of such size.
It was very hard work writing that letter. Tilly could not think of anything to say. She spoiled several sheets of paper, and at last the poor little letter stood as follows:—
This last phrase was suggested by Captain 'Lisha, on being consulted by Tilly and her mother as to what was the proper form of beginning such a letter. Captain 'Lisha could not think of anything more appropriate and dignified than the form he himself used when he wrote to an officer of the Light-house Board.
"Respected sir," therefore, the letter began, and continued as follows:—
"I am much obliged to you for your message. Please thank the lady that wrote it. I hope you are better now. We had the red worsted in the house; that was the reason the stockings were that color. I knit them on the rocks. We live in the light-house. My father keeps it. We hope you are well——"
"You said that once before, Tilly," interrupted her mother, as Tilly read the letter aloud.
Tilly looked distressed.
"Oh, so I did," she said, turning back, "No, not exactly. I said I hoped he was better. Won't it do?"
"Yes, yes," said Mrs. Bennet, impatiently. She was quite vexed that Tilly's letter did not sound more like the elegant and flowing epistles which people always wrote to each other in the novels and magazine stories with which she was familiar. "I suppose it will do. It don't seem to me much of a letter, though."
"I can't think of anything to say," reiterated Tilly, hopelessly; but thus adjured and coerced she added one more sentence.
"It is very pleasant here now; in the winter it is very cold."
Then there came another interval of perplexity and consultation as to the signature. Captain 'Lisha had nothing better to offer than the "obedient servant" which represented his own relation to the officials at Washington. But to this Tilly stoutly objected.
"I ain't going to say I 'm his obedient servant!" she exclaimed defiantly. "I 'll just sign my name, and nothing more."
"You might say your friend, I should think," said her mother, hesitatingly. "I don't think anybody ends off letters with just the name. I never saw one."
"Well, all the letters we ever have are from real friends or relations, said Tilly, firmly. "This is very different. I don't suppose it 's often anybody does write to a person they don't know."
Mrs. Bennet persisted in her argument for a more friendly ending; but on this point Tilly was firm, and the queer, stiff little letter went off, with its incongruous pink cupids hovering, like false colors at a mast-head, above the curt, cool sentences, and the brusque signature, "Matilda Bennet."
After the letter had gone, Mrs. Bennet frequently referred to it. The incident had really stirred her imagination more than it had Tilly's.
"I should n't wonder if that soldier wrote to you himself some day when he 's a gettin' better," she said.
"Perhaps he died," said Tilly; "that 's just as likely."
"I suppose 't is," replied her mother. "But somehow I don't feel 's if he did. I wish you 'd written him more of a letter, and asked him to write to us. It would be real nice to get letters regular from somebody in the war."
"Why, mother!" exclaimed Tilly, "perhaps we should n't like him a bit if we knew him; we don't know anything about him."
"Well," said Mrs. Bennet, "I don't believe that lady would have written for him if he had n't been a real good fellow. And anyhow, it was real good his thinking to thank you for the stockings."
"Yes. That was real thoughtful of him," said Tilly, candidly.
How would both Mrs. Bennet and Tilly have laughed and wondered could they have seen Joe when he read his Provincetown letter! He had looked forward to its coming with considerable interest. More than once he had said to Netty:—
"Do you think she 'll answer that letter—that little girl, or whoever 't is, in Provincetown?" and Netty always replied:—
"Yes, I rather think she will, before long; I think she will want to hear from you again."
When the letter came at last, Joe was really astonished at himself, for the eagerness with which he tore it open. He read it twice, then folded it up, laughing heartily as he did so, and put it in his wallet in the same compartment with the first bit of pink paper.
"Now, I guess Miss Larned will say I was right," he thought. "If that ain't a little girl's letter, I never read one," and Joe watched impatiently for a chance to show the letter to Netty. It did not come for many days. Netty was busy, and did not go to the wards as usual. At last Joe could not wait any longer, and made bold to carry the letter to the linen room. He was so far recovered now that he walked about, and in a very few days would be well enough to go home. He found Netty alone in the linen room.
"Miss Larned," he said, "I hope you will excuse me if I interrupt you. I 've had a letter in answer to the one you wrote, and I thought, perhaps, you 'd like to see it, so I brought it."
"Indeed I should, very much," said Netty. "I was wondering the other day whether you had heard."
Joe watched Netty's face while she read the letter. The amused expression which stole over her features as she read did not escape him. His own eyes twinkled as he held out his hand to take the letter, and said:—
"You see it 's a little girl, Miss Larned. I 'll set all the more by them stockings for that; could n't I take them home with me if I give you the price of another pair? I 'd just like to keep them always, to think of the little thing, sitting out on the rocks, knitting away on stockings for the soldiers."
Netty was still studying the letter. She was somewhat familiar with the constrained and reticent forms of rural New England's letter-writing.
"I 'm not sure yet about its being a little girl, Mr. Hale," she said. "It may be; but I incline now to think that it is a grown-up woman, who hardly ever writes a letter."
"Do you think so?" said Joe, earnestly. "Well, if it 's a woman, I 'd like first-rate to see her. I 've come to have a real feeling, as if I ought to know her, somehow."
"Nothing easier, Mr. Hale. It is not a very long journey to Provincetown," she said.
"That 's so," said Joe; "but it 's the last place a man 's likely ever to go to, especially from New York State."
"Sarah! I do believe there 's a kind of romance growing out of these red stockings, after all," said Netty, when Sarah came in. "Joe Hale 's been here, and showed me the drollest letter you ever saw, from that Matilda Bennet. It begins: 'Respected sir,' and has just such droll, stiff, short sentences as country people always write. He thinks it is a little girl; but I don't believe it. I did n't want to tell him so; but I 've a notion it 's an old maid—a pretty old one, too. Still, some of the phrases did sound simple enough for a child. Joe wants to buy the stockings and carry them home with him. He says he sets a store by them, because this little thing knit them."
"Give them to him," said Sarah. "They are n't any use here; nobody else will wear them."
"I don't know that I 've any right to give them away, without putting another pair in their place," replied Netty. "I think I 'll let him give me a gray pair for them. He seems to have money of his own; I think I 'll let him buy them."
So a few days later, Joe set out for home with the red stockings tucked snugly in a corner of his valise, and a good new pair of gray ones in their place on Netty's stocking shelf.
"Dear old fellow," said Netty to Sarah, after he had bade them good-by; "we have never had his like in this hospital, and I don't believe we ever shall."
"His like is n't very often found," replied Sarah, quietly. "I consider Joe Hale a remarkable man. If he had had education, he would have been a real force in the world, somewhere; he is, as it is, by the sheer weight of his superb physique and overflowing good-heartedness; but I 'd have liked to see what breeding and education could have done for him."
"Hurt the physique, very likely, and cooled the good-heartedness," replied Netty. "That 's the way, too often; but I don't call Joe Hale exactly an uneducated man, Sarah."
"No, not as uneducated as he might be," replied Sarah. "He is just the sort of man, so far as education goes, which America is filling up with fast; a creature too much informed to be called ignorant, but too ignorant to be called educated in any sense of the word. I am not at all sure that masses of this sort of well-informed ignorance are desirable material for a nation."
"Oh, you traitor to the republic!" cried Netty.
"Yes," replied Sarah, severely; "my countrymen prevent my thinking so well of my country as I would like to."
"Walpole said that better," retorted Netty. "Of all things to plagiarize a treason!"
Joe Hale's home was in Western New York, in the beautiful Genesee Valley. His father had been one of the pioneer settlers in that region, and the log-cabin in which Joe's oldest brothers and sisters had been born was still standing, and did good duty as a wheat barn. The farm was a large and productive one, and the Hales had always taken their position among the well-to-do and influential people of the county. But a strange fatality of death seemed to pursue the family. Joe's father was killed by falling from a beam in his own barn; and Joe's eldest brother was crushed to death by a favorite bull of his. It was never known whether the animal did it in play or in rage. Joe's eldest sister had married and gone to Iowa to live; the other had died when Joe was a little boy, and Joe and his mother lived alone on the farm for many years. Mrs. Hale was a singularly strong, vigorous woman, but she was cut down in a single week by a sharp attack of pneumonia the very spring before the war broke out. This left Joe all alone in the world, and when he found the men in his town holding back from enlisting, and buying substitutes, he said, half sadly, half cheerily, "I 'm one of the men to go, that 's certain. There 's nobody needs me."
And now after one short year's fighting, he had come home a crippled man, to take up the old life alone. It was not a cheering outlook; and as he drew near the homestead, and saw again the grand stretches of old woods in which he had so often made his axe ring on the hickory trees, Joe thought to himself:—
"I don't know what a one-armed man is good for, anyhow."
The cordiality with which his neighbors welcomed him back, the eager interest with which they all listened to his accounts of the battles he had been in, lessened this sense of loneliness for a short time. But the town was a small, thinly-settled one; in a few weeks everybody had heard all Joe had to tell; nobody said any longer, "Have you seen poor Joe Hale with his one arm?" The novelty had all worn off, the town went its way as before, and Joe found himself more solitary than ever.
When he went to the war he left the farm in charge of a faithful laborer who had worked on it for years; this man had married, and he and his wife and children now occupied the house in which Joe had lived so long with his mother. The house was large, and there was room enough and to spare for Joe; but it seemed sadly unlike home; yet any other place seemed still more unlike home. Poor Joe did not know what to do.
"You 'll have to get married, Joe, now, and settle down," the neighbors said to him continually.
"Married!" Joe would answer, and point to his empty coat-sleeve. "That looks like it, does n't it!" And an almost bitter sense of deprivation took root in his heart.
One night, when he felt especially lonely, he went up stairs to his room early. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked about the room. It had been his mother's room. All the furniture stood as she had left it; and yet an indefinable air of neglect and disorder had crept into the room.
"I can't live this way," thought Joe; "that 's certain. But I don't suppose any woman would marry a fellow with only one arm. I 'll have to get a housekeeper;" and Joe ran over in his mind the names of all the possible candidates he could think of for that office; not one seemed endurable to him, and, with a sigh, he tried to dismiss the subject from his mind. As he undressed, his big wallet fell to the floor, and out of it fell Tilly's little pink letter. He picked it up carelessly, not seeing, at first, what it was. As he recognized it, he felt a thrill of pleasure. There seemed one link at least between himself and some human being.
"I declare I 'll write to that child to-morrow," he thought. "I wonder if she would n't like to come up here and stay a spell this fall,—she and her mother,—and get away from those rocks. It would be a real change for them," thought kind-hearted Joe. "I guess I 'll ask them. I reckon they 're plain people that would n't be put out by the way things go here."
And somewhat cheered by this thought, Joe fell asleep. In the morning he wrote his letter and sent it off. It was not quite so stiffly phrased as Tilly's, but it was by no means a fair exponent of Joe's off-hand, merry, and affectionate nature. It answered the main point, however. It continued the correspondence, and it carried Joe's good will.
"Well, really!" exclaimed Mrs. Bennet, after Tilly had read it aloud to her; "well, really, I call that the handsomest kind of a letter; don't you, 'Lisha? Of course we should n't think of going, but I think it was uncommon good of him to ask us; don't you, 'Lisha?"
Tilly said nothing.
"Ye-es," replied Captain 'Lisha, slowly, as if he were not sure whether he intended to say yes or no. "Ye-es, it s a very handsome invitation, certain; nobody can dispute that; but it seems queer he should want to invite folks he don't know any thing about. It 's bounden queer, I think. Let me see the letter." Captain 'Lisha straightened his spectacles on his nose, and read the letter through very slowly. Then he folded it and laid it on the table, and brought down his hand hard on it, and said again: "It 's bounden queer."
Tilly said nothing.
"What 's the matter with you?" said her mother, a little sharply. "What 's your notion about it."
Tilly laughed an odd little laugh.
"He 's got the idea I 'm a little girl," she said. "I see it just as plain as anything. That 's what makes him write 's he does."
"No such a thing, Tilly," said Mrs. Bennet, in an excited tone. "What makes you think so? I 'm sure I don't see it."
It was an instinct rather than a specific interpretation of any one sentence which had made Tilly so sure; she could hardly justify it to her mother, though it was clear enough to herself; so she replied, meekly:—
"I don't know."
Mrs. Bennet snatched the letter, and exclaimed: "I 'll read it again! It 's the silliest notion I ever heard of. I don't see what put it into your head, Matilda Bennet!"
Tilly said nothing. On a second reading of the tetter, Mrs. Bennet was more vehement than ever.
"It 's no such thing!" she exclaimed. "Do you think so, 'Lisha? Do you see anything in it?"
"I don't know," answered Captain 'Lisha, slowly as before. "It 's bounden queer; it' s a handsome invitation, but it 's bounden queer;" and that was all that could be got out of Captain 'Lisha.
"Well, I 'm goin to answer this letter myself," said Mrs. Bennet resolutely. "I aint no hand to letter-write; but I 'm goin to write this time myself."
"Oh, mother, will you?" exclaimed Tilly, with great animation. "That 's good. I was dreading it so."
"Humph!" said Mrs. Bennet. "When I was your age, I 'd ha' jumped at the chance of getting letters from most anybody, ef I 'd ha' been cooped up 's you are on a narrow strip o' what 's neither land nor water. But you need n't answer Mr. Hale's letter if you don't want to. I can make out to write something that 'll pass muster for a letter, I reckon; and I think the man 's real friendly."
"All right, mother," said Tilly. "I 'm real glad vou 're going to write the letter. You might tell him that I was twenty-six years old last August, and see what he says to that when he writes. You 'll find I was right. I know he thinks I 'm a little girl," and Tilly laughed out a merry and mischievous laugh.
What Mrs. Bennet wrote they never knew; to neither Captain 'Lisha nor Tilly would she read her letter.
"Seems to me this is a mighty thick letter, wife," said Captain 'Lisha when he took it from her hands to carry it to the office. "What have you been sayin'?"
"Oh, not much," replied Mrs. Bennet. "It 's on that thick paper o' yours. I just thanked him for his invitation and told him how much we 'd like to come; but we could n't think on 't—and a few more things."
"The "few more things" were the gist of the letter. After the opening generalities of courtesy, which Mrs. Bennet managed much better than Tilly had in her little note, came the following extra ordinary paragraph:—
"Yours with respect,
"P. S. If you should ever be traveling in these parts, which I don't suppose is any ways likely, we should be glad to see you in our house; and a room ready for you, and welcome, if you could get along with the water."
When Joe first read Mrs. Bennet's letter, he said "Whew!" then he read the letter over, and said again louder than before,—
"Whew! Did n't I put my foot in it that time. I don't wonder the girl got her mother to write for her! She must have thought me monstrous impudent to write her to come out here visiting,—a woman—as old as I am, pretty nearly. By jingoes, I don't know what to do now. I 'd like to see what sort of a girl she is, anyhow. I don't care!—that letter of hers did sound just like a child's letter! I expect she 's a real innocent kind of a woman, and that 's the kind I like."
At last, out of the honesty of his nature came the solution of the dilemma; he told the exact truth, and it had a gracious and civil sound, even in Joe's unvarnished speech.
"I did wonder if it was n't a little girl," he wrote, "because she spoke so honest about the red yarn and about the light-house, and most of the grown up women I know ain't quite so honest spoken. But the lady at the hospital who wrote for me first—Miss Larned—said she did n't think it was a little girl; and of course she could tell better than I could, being a woman herself."
Then Joe said that he should like to come to Provincetown, but his business never took him that way, and then he reiterated his invitation to them to come to see him.
"Since I made so bold as to ask you the first time, you 'll forgive my asking you over again. I do really wish you could see your way to come," he said. It 's very pretty here in the fall, our apples are just beginning to be ripe, and there ain't any such apples anywhere ever I 've been as in the Genesee Valley."
Then Joe added his "best respects" to Mrs. Bennet's daughter, and closed his letter.
If there had been in the circle of Joe's acquaintance now one even moderately attractive marriageable woman, Joe would have drifted into falling in love with her, as inevitably as an apple falls off its stem when its days of ripening are numbered; but there was not. Joe's own set of boys and girls were heads of households now, and for the next younger set, Joe was too old. Young girls did not please him, partly perhaps, because he saw, or fancied, that they shrank a little from his aimless sleeve. By imperceptible degrees, vague thoughts began to form and float in Joe's mind, akin to thoughts which floated in Mrs, Bennet's before she wrote her letter; not tangible enough to be stated, or to be matter of distinct consciousness, never going further in words than "who knows;" but all the while drawing Joe slowly, surely toward Provincetown. He had thought that he would take a journey to Iowa before the winter set in, and see his aunt and his cousins and his married sister there; but gradually he fell into the way of thinking about a journey to the East first. Now, to suppose from all this that Joe had a romantic sentiment toward the unknown Matilda Bennet would be quite wrong. He had nothing of the kind. He had merely a vague but growing impulse to go and see, as he phrased it, "what she was like." As week after week passed and he received no reply to his letter, this impulse increased. He had thought Mrs. Bennet would write again; she seemed to Joe to wield rather a glib pen; he had supposed he should have an active correspondence "with the old lady," as he always called her in his own mind but no letter came. Mrs. Bennet builded better than she knew, when she left Joe to himself so many weeks. His letter had given her great satisfaction. She read it aloud to Tilly and to her husband, and consoled herself by her partial defeat in her argument with Tilly by saying: "Well, he only says he wondered; and the lady told him it was n't a child, and he knew she knew best; that ain't really making up his mind; I don't call it so by a long shot;" and there the quarrel rested. Tilly was content, and if the whole truth were known, a little more than content, that "the soldier," as she always called their unknown correspondent, knew now that she was "grown up." Tilly had built no air-castles. She often thought she wished she could see "the soldier," but she had no more expectation of seeing him than of seeing General McClellan. Tilly was, as her mother had said, a good girl. She loved her melodeon; and she still spent two hours a day at her practicing. She had for several weeks now played in church, and that gave her a new stimulus to practice. For the rest, she helped her mother, she sewed for the soldiers, and still knitted at twilight on the rocks, stockings—of gray yarn,—now to be sent to hospitals.
One night, late in October, when the stage drove up to the Provincetown Hotel, the loungers on the piazza were surprised to see alighting from it a one-armed man, in a heavy army overcoat. His speech was not that of a military man, and his reticence as to his plans and purposes was baffling.
"Been in the war, eh?" said one, nodding toward the empty sleeve.
"Yes," said Joe, curtly.
"Discharged, I suppose."
"Yes," said Joe. "They don't have much use for men in my fix."
"Got leisure to look round ye, a little, now, then," said the first speaker.
"Yes," said Joe.
They could not make anything out of him, and the street speculated no little before it went to sleep that night, as to what that "army feller" was after. If anybody had said that the "army feller" had come all the way to Provincetown solely to see what "Tilly Bennet was like," the town would have given utterance to one ejaculation of astonishment, and wondered what on earth there was in Tilly Bennet to bring a man all that distance.
But Joe did not think so the next morning, when, having hired a man to take him over to the light house, he landed on the rocks at noon, just as Tilly was hanging out clothes. The clothes-line was fastened to iron stanchions in the light-house itself, and in high cliffs to the back of it; a gale was blowing; in fact, it had been so high that the boatman had demurred at first about taking Joe across, as he was not used to the sea.
"Go ahead," said Joe. "If you can stand it, I can."
But, if the truth were told, Joe was pretty white about the lips, and not very steady on the legs when he stepped ashore.
"A half hour longer 'd have made you sicker 'n death," said the man, eying him.
"That 's so," said Joe, with a desperate qualm. "Dry land for me, thank you."
"How long do ye want to stay?" said the boat man.
Joe looked up at the light-house—then at the tossing white-capped waves.
"Always," he said, laughing, "if it 's going to heave like that—not more than an hour, or may be half an hour," he added, seriously; "it is n't going to blow any worse, is it?"
"Oh no," said the man, "it 'll quiet down before long," and he prepared to make his boat fast.
Tilly was hard at work trying to fasten her clothes on the line. They never waited for quiet weather before hanging out their clothes at the light-house. It was of no use. Tilly's back was toward the wharf where Joe had landed. Her sleeves were rolled up to her shoulders, and her arms shone white in the sun. She had twisted a red silk handkerchief of her father's tight round her head; a few straggling curls of dark hair blew out from under this; her cheeks were scarlet, and her brown eyes flashed in her contest with the wind. Nobody ever called Tilly pretty; but she had a healthy, honest face, and at this moment she was pretty; no—not pretty; picturesque, which is far better than pretty, though Joe did not know that, and in his simplicity only wondered how a woman could look so handsome, blowing about in such a gale.
Tilly saw a stranger walking up to the light-house door; but she did not pause in her work. Strangers came every day. Joe's left side was farthest away from Tilly. She did not see the loose, hanging sleeve; and the blue of the army coat did not attract her notice, so she went on with her clothes without giving a second thought to the man who had disappeared in the big door of the light-house. Somebody to see her father, no doubt, or to see the light.
When Tilly went into the kitchen and saw the stranger sitting by the table talking familiarly with her mother, she was somewhat surprised, but was passing through the room with her big clothes-basket, when her mother, with an air of unconcealable triumph, said:—
"Tilly, you could n't guess who this is."
Tilly halted, basket in hand, and turned her scarlet cheeks and bright brown eyes full toward Joe.
"No,—I have n't the least idea," she said, and as she said it she looked so pretty, that Joe, absurd as it might seem, fell in love with her on the spot.
The words "I have n't the least idea," had hardly left her lips, when her eyes fell on the empty sleeve; and, although in no letter had it ever been said that Joe had lost an arm, this sight suggested him to her mind.
"Why, it isn t Mr. Hale, is it?" she said, turning still redder.
"It is, though," said Joe, rising and coming toward her, offering her his one hand. "You and your mother would n't come to see me, and so I came to see you."
Tilly's hand having been all the morning in hot soap-suds, was red and swollen and puckered, but it looked beautiful to Joe; so did Tilly's awkward little laugh, as she said, half drawing back her hand:—
"I 've been washing; that 's what makes my hands look so."
There was something in the infantile and superfluous honesty of this remark which reminded Joe instantly of the sentence in Tilly's letter: "We had the red worsted in the house. That is the reason the stockings were that color," and he smiled at the memory. His smile was such a cordial one that Tilly did not misinterpret it, and his spontaneous reply, as he took her hand in his, was worthy of a courtier.
"I often saw my mother's hands look like this, Miss Bennet. She always did a great part of the washing."
Tilly stood still looking ill at ease, and Joe stood still, also looking ill at ease. There seemed to be nothing now to say. Mrs. Bennet cut the Gordian knot, as she had cut one or two already.
"Go along, Tilly," she said. "Get off your washing duds; it 's near dinner time."
Tilly was glad to escape to her own room. Once safe in refuge she sank into a chair with a most bewildered face and tried to collect her thoughts. She seemed like one in a dream. "The soldier" had come. How her heart ached over the thought of that armless sleeve!
"He never said anything about his arm being gone," thought Tilly. "It 's too bad. How blue his eyes are! I never saw such blue eyes!" in a maze of innocent wonder and excitement. Her thoughts so ran away with her that when her mother called through the door, "Dinner 's ready, Tilly," poor Tilly was not half dressed, and kept them waiting ten minutes or more, which drew down upon her from her father a rebuke that it hurt her sorely to have "the soldier" hear. But "the soldier" was too happy to be disturbed by small things. Since his mother's death Joe had not seen anything so homelike, so familiar, as this dinner in Mrs. Bennet's little kitchen. He made friends with Captain 'Lisha at once; the old man could not ask questions enough about the war, and Joe answered them all with a patience which was perhaps more commendable than his accuracy. Tilly sat by, listening in eager silence not a word escaped her; when her eyes met Joe's she colored and looked away.
"I don't care if she is twenty-six," thought Joe, "she is just like a child."
Mrs. Bennet, with hospitable fervor, had insisted that Joe should not go back to the town, but should stay with them; "that is," she added, "if you think you can sleep with the water swash, swash, swashing in your ears. 'T was years before I ever could learn to sleep here; and there 's times now when I don't sleep for whole nights together."
Joe thought he could sleep in spite of the water, and with the greatest alacrity sent his boatman back to town for his valise.
"After all," said the citizens, on hearing this, "after all he was only some relation of the Bennets."
But when day after day passed, and he did not return, the town began again to speculate as to his purposes. Some fishermen going or coming, had seen him walking on the rocks with Tilly; and very soon a rumor took to itself wings and went up and down the town, that the one-armed soldier was "courting Tilly Bennet."
The seclusion of the light-house had its advantages now,—very little could the Provincetown gossips know of what went on among those distant rocks. Very safe were Joe and Tilly in the nooks which they explored in the long bright afternoons. How strangely changed seemed the lonely spot to Tilly! Each rod of the wave-washed beach was transformed as she paced it with Joe by her side. No word of love-making did Joe say—not because it was not warm and ready in his heart, but he was afraid.
"Of course she can't care anything about me, all of a sudden so," said sensible Joe, "She haint been a longing and a longing for somebody 's I have."
So at the end of the week he went away,—merely saying to Tilly and Mrs. Bennet as he bade them good-by, that he would write very soon. But Tilly's heart had not been so idle as Joe thought, and she was not surprised one day, a few weeks later, when she read in a letter of Joe's that he did n't know whether she knew it or not, but he had come to the conclusion that she was just about the nicest girl in all the country, and if she thought she could take up with a fellow that had n't but one arm, he was hers to command for the rest of her life.
Tilly had a happy little cry over the letter before she showed it to her mother.
"Do you think you can like him, Tilly?" asked Mrs. Bennet, anxiously.
"Yes," said Tilly, "I do like him; and he 's real good."
And when they told Captain 'Lisha, he said, vehemently, that nothing short of going to sea again could have pleased him so much.
So it was settled that at Christmas Joe should come back for Tilly.
When the engagement became known in town, there was great wonderment about it. How did the acquaintance begin? What brought the New Yorker to Provincetown?
But Tilly and her mother kept their secret to themselves, and not a soul in Provincetown ever heard a word of the red stockings, which was much better for all parties concerned.
The wedding was to be on Christmas day. Two weeks before that day, there swept over Provincetown harbor a storm the like of which had not been seen for half a century. The steeple of the old church fell; the sea cut new paths for itself here and there among the low sand-dunes, and washed away landmarks older than men could remember; great ships parted anchor, and were driven helplessly on the rocks, and the light-house swayed and rocked like a mast in the tempest. In the middle of the night the storm burst with a sudden fury. At its first roar Captain 'Lisha sprang up, and said,—
"Martha, this is going to be the devil's own night. I must go up into the light. I can't leave her alone such a storm 's this."
From the dwelling-house to the light-house tower was only a short distance; the rocks were shelving, but a stout iron railing protected the path on one side. Whether Captain 'Lisha failed to grasp this rail and slipped on the icy rocks, or whether he was swept off by the violence of the gale, could only be conjectured, but in the morning he did not come back. As soon as the storm had lulled a little, Mrs. Bennet crept cautiously across the slippery path-way, and climbed the winding stair to the light. In a short time she returned, with a white, horror-stricken face, and in reply to Tilly's cry of alarm, gasped:—
"Your father 's gone!"
After the first shock of the death was over, Mrs. Bennet saw much to be grateful for in its manner; in her own inimitable way, she dilated on the satisfaction it must have been to Captain 'Lisha.
"It 's just what he was forever a sayin' he 'd like, to be buried in the sea, and especially to be washed overboard; if I 've heard him say so once, I 've heard him a hundred times, and the Lord 's took him at his word, and I don't believe there 's a happier spirit anywhere than 'Lisha's is, wherever 'tis he 's gone to."
In the Provincetown way of thinking, Captain 'Lisha's death was no reason why Tilly's marriage should be deferred, but rather why it should be hastened. It took place, as had been planned, on Christmas day.
The next day when Tilly and her mother bade everybody good-by, and went away with Tilly's manly, tall, kindly-eyed husband, everybody said, "What a Providence!" and I make no manner of doubt that Joe and Tilly got on quite as well together, and were quite as happy as if they had known each other better and taken more time to consider the question of marrying
It may not be foreign to our story to add that after Joe had been married a week he recollected to send to Miss Henrietta Larned, at the Menthaven Hospital, a newspaper containing the announcement of his marriage. When Netty read it, she exclaimed in a low voice:—
"What is it?" said Sarah. "Who 's married now?"
"What put it into your head it was a marriage?" said Netty.
"I don't know," said Sarah, "your tone, I suppose."
Netty read the notice aloud.
"The very girl!" cried Sarah. "What a queer thing!"
"It 's perfectly splendid!" said Netty. "What a nice husband Joe Hale will make! And now we 'll tell Clara Winthrop!"