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Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Old Woman's Story


 

THE OLD WOMAN'S STORY

 

 

THE OLD WOMAN'S STORY


BEHIND the fat hedge, there was a lawn like a public park. The grass was as close and fine as green plush; the undulations of the ground were padded and upholstered with it; the sun and shadow lay upon it in a figured design of leaves. Great trees stood about it, as stolid and dignified as if they had been set out by a butler. And in the midst of it, surrounded by formal beds of flowers and bushes, a huge building of ruddy sandstone, with innumerable windows, lifted heavily a square, squat tower.

It was the almshouse. On this millionaire's lawn, under these pompous trees, groups of old women in dresses of blue denim, with gingham aprons, sat gossiping over their sewing, smoking clay pipes, counting the beads of their rosaries, or dozing in the heat of the sun—as wrinkled as lizards, and blinking against the blaze of sunlight that gave an almost reptilian sparkle to their puckered eyes. Veterans in the unending battle of life, no longer able to struggle for the food to keep them struggling, they had been brought here to die in peace.

Among them was a Mrs. Judd, an old Englishwoman who had impressed the nurses with her patience and capability. They did not have to use any stratagems to draw her to her weekly bath. She kept her room neat with her own hands. She did not hide between her mattresses any of the useless trifles which the others misered up in a senile acquisitiveness that went even to the rubbish heap for tins, and stole cutlery from the tables, and made a hoard of moldy crusts. She did not complain of her meals. She quarreled with nobody. She sat alone, placid, white-haired, and frail; and her skin, that had evidently once been beautiful, still preserved on her old cheeks the soft whiteness of a dried peach.

When a nurse joined her on her bench under a magnolia tree, her eyelids fluttered—wakening from the blind gaze of a day-dream—but she did not turn to greet the attendant.

"Lonely?" the girl asked.

"No, miss," she said.

The nurse was a dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman with a deep voice. She had irregular features of more charm than beauty. "I 'm going to leave you next week."

"Yes, miss."

She showed no interest; and the girl explained, importantly: "I 'm going to be married."

"Yes, miss," she replied in the same tone. In a moment, she added: "When the men want you, there 's no denyin' them. It 'as to be, miss."

The girl smiled at this resigned view of her fate. "You know what it is to be married."

"Yes, miss. I 've been married twice." She kept her eyes on the empty lawn, and the nurse wondered what she saw there to hold her thoughts—what memories, what faces, what ghosts of old events.

"Had you any children?"

"Children? Yes, miss." She folded her hands on her checked apron. "Children are the great thing while they last, but they go off an' leave you, an' 'ave children o' their own."

"They don't come to see you here?"

"No, miss." The tone in which she answered was not merely indifferent; it was absent-minded. She nodded at the view before her. "That 's like the bit o' cropped paddock we 'ad between th' 'ouse an' the beck."

The nurse looked at it. It was nothing but trees and grass. She asked: "What 's a beck?"

"A stream, miss—with big stones in it. The one we 'ad, in the floodtime, it made such a noise as you never 'eard, all night long, when you would be sleepin'."

"Was that in England?"

"Yes, miss. I 'ad a room, up-stairs, that looked out a window over the kitchen garden—an' the bit o' paddock—an' the beck."

"You must miss it here," the nurse said—for something to say.

"The beck? Ah, miss, when we left Liverpool, aboard ship, the sound o' the water made me cry for it. An' in my sleep, at night, with the ship tossin' about, I dreamt of it. An' all day long the clouds went by, 'igh over 'ead, back to Ol' Cuniston—an' the meadows—an' the beck—while I sat on the deck watchin' which way we went, so I 'd know the way back again."

The girl waited, touched. She asked, at last, gently: "Were you all alone?"

"No, miss. 'E was with me. We 'd run away together."

"Run away?"

"Yes, miss."

"Why?"

She shook her head. "It 's a long story. It began before we ever knew it, when we went to school together. An' not such schools as you 'ave 'ere, miss. The floor was all stone like a sidewalk. An' there was no stove but a fireplace that burned peat. An' in the big pot that 'ung there, we put the potatoes we brought for our dinners—boys an' girls—an' marked them so we'd know our own. An' put the peat on the top o' the potlid, red-hot. An' roasted them all together. There 's no such potatoes now, miss—none so big an' mealy."

"That was in the country?"

"Yes, miss. In Cumberland. You see, miss, I was born in London, but they brought me to Cumberland when I was a wee thing—because my mother was dead an' my father gone off with 'is regiment. An' when you come to the fields, so, from the choke of 'ouses an' streets, it 's the wonder of life, an' you never forget it. I remember to this day, drivin' across the fells with Uncle Wilson the first time I come to th' 'ouse—an' 'ow red the sky was over th' 'ills."

"It must have been beautiful."

"It was, miss. It was a great large farm, with a stone 'ouse as big as an inn. An' it 'ad slates on the roof an' slates down the front. An' in the side was a gate, like you 'd see to a prison. An' it opened into the yard, where the carts were, an' the doors to the barn. An' the barn was all stone like th' 'ouse. An' th' 'ouse an' the barn were joined into one by the wall an' the gate. But to come in th' 'ouse by the front door, you went through a gate in the garden wall, an' smelled the sweet briar, an' lifted the knocker. An' downstairs the floors were slate, miss, an' they washed them with milk."

"How quaint!"

"Yes, miss. It was all a great marvel to me. I used to wake up in the mornings with joy—the air was so sweet in my lungs. An' I 'd lie an' listen to the beck an' the birds together." She paused to turn over in her memory, wistfully, these treasured recollections. "Uncle Wilson was a red-faced man, as big as a giant. 'E worked with the men all day in the fields, or 'e was away at market by three o'clock in the mornin' an' not back again till night. An' my aunt was tall, too, but spare, with a long face like you see on an old ewe—an' a good 'ousekeeper, but so savin' that when she sewed she 'd make me pick up her bastin' threads an' wind them on a spool to 'em dish-towels. An' there was my Cousin William an' the baby. An' that was all—except the servants that were 'ired by Uncle Wilson at the fairs on Michaelmas an' Candlemas, twice a year, men an' women, the women to work in the fields as well as the men.

"They all treated me the same as if I was one o' their own—though my aunt 'eld it against me that my mother 'ad run away with a soldier before I was born—an' made me work, too, as soon as I was old enough to mind the baby an' 'elp in the kitchen an' sweep the floors. But it was Cousin William that made trouble, plaguin' me the way boys plague their sisters an' teasin' me about my red 'air. That 's the way it is with some boys, miss. Because they like you, they plague you an' drive you about. An' when you turn against them for it, they almost 'ate you—because they like you still, an' you don't like them."

The nurse nodded and smiled.

"At first, it was just that we went to school with 'Arry when 'e would come down the road from 'is father's farm. An' 'e 'd walk back with us when school was over, an' go berryin' with us, an' nuttin'—all children together an' no thought of 'arm—ridin' in the carts to th' 'ayfields or 'elpin' pile the peat when they cut it in the spring to dry. 'E was a strange lad. 'Arry, miss. 'E 'ated 'is books an' 'e would n't learn in them, because at nights 'e could n't sleep like the others that worked on the farm—an' tired themselves out—an' snored when 'e would be awake, starin' at the dark. But then 'e found picture books at 'ome an' began to be always readin' them an' bringin' them to read to us. An' 'is father would buy them in town when 'e went to market, an' put them under the pillow for 'Arry to find when 'e waked—'Robinson Crusoe,' I remember—for it was after 'e read us from 'Robinson Crusoe' that we played it among the rocks up the beck, an' killed a lamb, an' 'ad to bury it in the peat bog so Uncle Wilson would n't know—an' stories about America an' Indians. An' that was 'ow 'Arry began to be a scholar.

"Those were the good days, miss, when we were all young. We played 'jacks' with pebbles, an' hop-scotch on the stones of the walk, an' 'ad games up the beck, an' went pickin' wild apples an' all. My Uncle Wilson 'ad an oatmeal mill—with an ugly big waterwheel that made a great noise—an 'orrid big wheel that splashed an' rattled in a box. An' 'Arry played it was a giant turnin' the wheel, an' frightened us so I dreamed of it at nights, an' woke with my legs tremblin'."

"Yes?" the nurse said. "And so?"

"Well, miss, to tell the truth, before we were big enough to leave school, I was mad about the boy, an' 'e would be nowhere without me. 'E was as lean an' quick as a 'ound, an' 'e 'd do things to make me scream—like leapin' across the rocks o' the beck when it was in flood, or jumpin' from the eaves o' the barn into th' 'ay carts as they drove in. An' Cousin William was 'eavy like 'is father—an' slow like 'is father—an' though 'e could throw 'Arry in a wrastle 'e never dared fight. But it was 'im that carried stories to my aunt. An' she said 'Arry was a wild young ruffian. An' at last she ordered 'im away from the 'ouse, one day that Cousin William fell from th' 'ayloft because he tried to follow 'Arry in some pranks. An' I was told to play no more with 'im.

"You know 'ow such things grow, miss. There was a sheep stole. An' Cousin William told 'ow 'Arry killed a lamb an' buried it in the peat bog—though 'twas a year gone. An' then there was bickerin' between the farms—an' 'Arry's father took the boy's part an' quarreled. All the farmers 'ad shares in a meadows where they cut 'ay, an' there started a dispute about our share an' theirs. An' so it went, till 'Arry 'ad to pass me without lookin' aside when we were comin' to church, an' we only met up the beck when I could steal away from the others an' 'ave ourselves alone.

That was near the end o' the good days. Cousin William grew to be a strong lad—so fat 'is cheeks shook when 'e walked—fer 'e walked 'eavy on 'is 'eels. An' 'e talked 'thee' an' 'thou,' like the rest, with their way o' speakin' without endin' the words, as if they got the mouth open on a broad 'oo' an' 'ad their jaws stuck. An' 'e plagued me now with 'is calf's eyes—an' 'is ribands bought on market days. An' 'is mother plagued me because she saw 'ow it was with 'im, an' she 'd not 'ave 'er son marry a girl with naught. An' 'Arry went away to town to study to be a scholar, just when they were mowin' the bracken on the fells for the winter's kindlin's. An' my schooldays were over. An' I thought there 'd be no more 'appiness for me in this world, miss."

"Did n't you write to him?"

"No, miss. There was no way to get the letters. But when 'e come 'ome for Christmas, we met again down by the bridge, an' told each other everything there was to tell. 'E called me 'Little Miss Muffet' an' teased me because I was so small—but I knew 'e liked me small an' light-footed—for all the other girls were big an' clumsy. An' when 'e kissed me good-by, I knew it was the same with 'im that it was with me—an' I went singin' about the kitchen till I saw Aunt Wilson lookin' at me out o' the corner of 'er eye—an' after that I only sung soft in my own room, sittin' at the window an' lookin' out at the frosty beck."

She was smiling the smile of memory and soft thoughts, her eyes set and vacant. The girl beside her had something of the same expression. But the girl's smile was clear-cut, freshly minted; and the old woman's was like the face on an old silver coin.

The girl sighed. "And so," she said, "you ran away together?"

"No, miss. Not then. Not till long after. Not till 'Arry's father 'prenticed 'im to a lawyer, an' Uncle Wilson went against my aunt, an' said I 'd make a good wife for Cousin William, an' I began to plot an' plan 'ow I should do.

"'Arry would come 'ome Sundays, an' we 'd meet unknown to any one unless my aunt—an' I think she knew, miss. She found ways to let me run off unknown to Cousin William, tho' she said nothing. She 'd sooner I 'ad 'Arry than 'er son. An' if Cousin William knew of 'Arry, 'e 'id it for the sake o' bein' right with me. An' from what 'e said, I knew 'e thought 'Arry 'd forget me in town. An' so I went to church with 'im Sundays, an' pulled the wool over 'is eyes. An' there we were, all playin' double, miss, the one with the other. An' 'Arry deceivin' 'is family the way I did mine.

"What troubled me most was that 'Arry chafed at 'is 'prenticeship, an' was all for runnin' away to London—or to America—to make 'is fortune, if I 'd come. 'E wouldn't go so far away an' leave me to Cousin William, though I swore I 'd as soon be wed to an ox. We 'ad no money. I saw never a penny from year's end to year's end on the farm, miss. An' 'Arry was not much better. But we used to meet an' talk plans—the way young folk will—an' make love as if money for marryin' was no matter.

Then one Sunday 'e did n't come, an' I was afeard that what Cousin William 'oped was comin' true about 'Arry, an' this the beginnin'. But that night there was a tap on my window, an' the casement rattled, an' I saw it was 'Arry, dark against the sky that was full o' moonlight. 'E was standin' on a ladder that 'e 'd carried from the barnyard, an' 'e laughed an' kissed me, an' said it was because 'is father 'ad found 'im out an' forbade 'im to be wastin' 'is time runnin' after a girl when 'e should be thinkin' of 'is studies. An' now 'e 'd 'ave to see me Sunday nights, after all were abed."

The girl had turned, as if she were about to speak.

The old woman hurried on: "It was 'is nature to do such things, miss, an' to take more delight in them because o' the risk. I was afeard for 'im—an' for myself. But that wore off with his comin' again an' again. 'E was a dear lad, an' made love like a book. We met at the window, or sat by it, with scarce light enough sometimes to see each other's faces when we kissed—whisperin' an' makin' our promises an' namin' each other fond names. An' the guilt of it made it all the sweeter." She lingered on it, smiling. Her smile faltered and changed slowly.

The girl said: "You were—They found out?"

"Yes, miss. Cousin William—'e must 'ave guessed what was goin' on, though 'Arry was careful to put the ladder back where 'e found it, an' leave no footprints in the garden under my window. Cousin William—We never knew 'ow it was. But one black night, when the summer was just warmin', an' 'Arry 'ad no more than reached the top o' the ladder an' put 'is arms up to me, some one rushed around the side o' th' 'ouse from the kitchen, an' 'Arry jumped."

She dropped her voice. "It was dark, miss. 'E didn't do it o' purpose. But 'e came down on my Cousin William—an' there was n't so much as a groan. 'E was all in a 'eap with 'is 'at crushed down on his face an' 'is chin' on 'is chest, 'is neck broke, dead, miss. I saw 'im when I come down the ladder an' clung to 'Arry an' told 'im to run for 'is life."

"Good Heavens!" the nurse gasped.

She made the gesture of a fatalist. "There was no undoin' it. An' 'Arry 'd not go without me. An' 'e 'ad to go, miss. It would be found out. It would be said they 'd quarreled about me. So I climbed back an' made a bundle o' my clothes. An' when I came to the window 'Arry called to me to get all Cousin William's clothes, too. An' I did n't know why 'e wanted them, but I crep' to 'is room an' got them. An' I was shakin' so my teeth chattered in the dark."

"You—"

"I 'ad but the one thought—that 'Arry 'd be 'anged for murder, an' I 'd 'ave to 'elp 'im get away. 'E told me what to do, an' I did it. I 've often wondered since, miss, where I found the strength. But I was like a mad woman with fear, an' I breathed so 'oarse that 'Arry put 'is 'and over my mouth for fear I 'd be 'eard indoors."

"Good Heavens!"

"'E shut my window. An' took down the ladder. An' smoothed over the marks in the loam with 'is 'and. An' laid Cousin William on the ladder, covered up with the clothes I 'd brought. An' then 'e took one end, an' bade me take the other. An' we stumbled down the paths to the back door o' the kitchen, an' out into the paddock, an' so over the fields to the peat bog. I fell once, miss. An' after it was all over, my teeth were sore to the roots with the way I 'd clenched them. But it 'ad to be done.

"'Arry said: 'We must 'ide 'im somewhere, till we get away.' An' so we come to the place where they 'd been diggin' peats, an' left their spades for the morrow. An' there was a pile o' the peats already stacked to dry, an' 'Arry went at them with 'is 'ands to shift them, an' I 'elped. I was cryin', miss—whimperin' with fright. An' we 'ad to wait every now an' then for the moon to break out of a cloud—an' I don't know whether I was more feared o' tbe dark that 'indered us or the moon that showed us what we 'ad to 'ide. An' 'Arry said never a word, but worked slow an' careful, with only a glance about 'im—when the moon came out clear—to see that no one watched.

"An' then we 'ad the pile moved. An' then 'e dug in the bog with a spade. An' then 'e told me to go away an' turn my back. An' I fell on my knees an' prayed, miss—prayed for 'Arry to get away safe—till I thought it was not my prayers but my 'ands that 'd aid 'im, an' came back to 'elp 'im put back the peats—prayin' to myself but workin' too—till it was all as we 'd found it, an' no sign of anything 'id. An' then 'Arry went to put back the ladder in the barnyard, an' I fainted, miss."

"Horrible!" the girl said.

The old woman wagged her head. "It was the only way, miss. We went over it an' over it 'undreds o' times after. An' it was the only way that 'd saved us. 'They 'll think 'e 's run off with you,' 'Arry said. That 's why 'e wanted the clothes from 'is room, miss. 'An' when I go,' 'e said, 'they 'll think I 've followed to try an' find you. We 'll get to Liverpool,' 'e said. 'An' long before they know where 'e is, we 'll be 'idden away in America.'

"An' it all turned out so. 'E 'id me in 'is father's barn—in a 'idin' place 'e 'd used as a boy—between the joists of the 'ay loft an' the roof, where there was old 'arness an' broken tools. An' 'e brought me food in the mornin', an' told me Uncle Wilson was out an' off to town, an' the news was abroad that I 'd run away with Cousin William. 'E went over to the Beck Farm, then, like a man crazed with jealousy. An' my aunt railed out on me—an' there was no one workin' in the peat bog—an' 'e saw that all was safe. 'Is father, out o' pity for 'im, said naught of goin' back to his studies that day. An' in the night, 'e came to me with clothes of 'is own, an' a sheep shears to cut my 'air, an' money in 'is pocket for our passage. An' when I was dressed like a lad, an' our clothes in a bundle together, we fled away across the moors."

The nurse, stiff and silent, her eyes averted, sat as if in judgment on guilt, not knowing what to say. And the old woman went on:

"At first, it was all 'orror an' grief to me, like a bad dream. An' my feet blistered with the 'eavy clogs I wore. An' my legs were wrung with pain, miss. But when I thought that we 'd done nothing wrong—unless the money that 'Arry took, an' I made 'im promise 'e 'd send that back from America—an' there we were, all alone in the world together, an' 'im lovin' me an' carryin' me in 'is arms when I could walk no further—why, miss, I said to myself: '’E 'll be caught an' taken from me, some day, an' I 'll be 'appy now while I 'ave 'im.' An' so we were. We 'id by day in the 'edges an' waste places, an' walked by night barefooted with our bundles. An' it was sweet to 'ave 'im with his arm about me, an' sweet to lie on 'is shoulder sleepin' in the grass.

"'Appiness 'ides in strange places, miss. We found it there, in the midst o' fear. We were like the wild things o' the wood that know nothin' o' this world but what we saw passin' us on the roads when we were 'id. We had clapbread from 'is father's kitchen—the kind they make of oatmeal an' store in barrels. An' 'e would leave me 'idden an' go alone to buy food from th' 'ouses—though we did n't dare do this till we were far away. An' we were wetted by the rains, an' burned by the sun, an' 'ungry, an' footsore, but 'appy as never was. It was our 'oneymoon, miss—such as it was—an' I was wishin' it 'd never end. I could 've gone on with 'im fer all time, wanderin' like gipsies, with none to plague us.

I made a fine figure of a boy, an' once when we were caught among the trees at a brookside, 'e named me 'is young brother come down with 'im from the North to work on the farms. An' I was so brown an' 'ardy no one would suspect. Just to be free o' skirts an' petticoats, an' able to run an' climb like a boy, was a joy of itself. An' when we came at last outside Liverpool, an' I 'ad to put on my own clothes again, I felt as if my wings were clipped to go back to a cage.

Down amid the big ware'ouses, built in stone the color o' smoke, we found a lodgin' 'ouse, an' stayed there till 'Arry learned about the ships an' bought an old chest an' some clothes for us both, an' went aboard with me at night. We were away nex' mornin' over the water. An' then I cried, miss, for th' 'ills an' the beck, an' promised myself that some day when all was forgotten I 'd come back. An' even now, miss, when I sit at my window upstairs, I think what it 'd be to be in my own little room over the garden at 'ome—with children, per'aps, an' grandchildren about me—instead o' what it is."

She relapsed into the silence from which the nurse had first roused her, and there was no change in her expression except for the tears that brightened her eyes.

"What became of him?" the girl asked.

"'E died, miss, in the West, where 'e went under a new name."

"And you married again?"

"Yes, miss. An' my second 'usband never came back from the war, an' my boys went further west, an' I thought to make my way to Cumberland maybe, so I came to New York an' worked 'ere. But I got myself no further, an' never 'eard word o' the farm—I was afeard to ask—but peat bogs preserve a body, miss, like mummies in a case, an' I doubt not they found 'im at last, an' buried 'im right."

"What a life!"

"Yes, miss. It 'as its own way with you—life. I can't complain. It all 'ad to be. An' now I can sit 'ere an' see it all, just as plain as I could with my old eyes if it was 'ere before me. Your body grows old, miss, but not yourself. You 'll see, miss. You 'll see."