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RED BARN FARM
By Zilla George Dexter.
"Watch the risin', Liddy. I wouldn't have that bread sourin' on my hands t'day for all the world, seein' the minister and his new wife is comin' to help eat it. I like dreadful well to show the Elder that Mandy Bowles can cook, if she can't talk in prayer-meetin' like some folks.”
It was Mother's anxious voice penetrating to the big, sunny kitchen from the cool depths of the summer dairy. "Don't worry no more about the bread, Mother, it's all in the tins and set to risin' ag'in; about as harnsum a batch as you ever see." Liddy appeared at the open door. Softly closing it behind her, she came down the worn steps and stood with her mother upon the cool flag-stones that paved the milk-room floor.
"What under the sun's the marter now? What's come over ye to make ye look and act so worrittid, child?" gasped the house-wife, startled by her daughter's unusual air of mystery.
"I wanted to ask you somethin' I didn't want sister Ploomy to be hearin'," whispered Liddy.
"Well," in a tone of relief, "you no need to sca't me so. But fust, let me git this cream inter the churn so'st I can be churnin' whil'st you'r talkin'; it's took so everlastin' long this mornin' to git that cheese out o' press and set up another curd."
"O Mother, don't touch that now for I want you to be listenin' to me." Liddy had laid a restraining hand on her mother's arm, already outstretched to lift the jar of cream from off its shelf.
The woman turned with a rebuke upon her lips but meeting the eyes of
her daughter, always somber, now both determined and appealing, she snapped tartly, "Well, why don't ye talk then, I'm listenin' ain't I? Be spry though, for the square-room ain't dustid yit."
"I've rolled up the curt'ins in the square-room and h'isted all the winders and shook all the rugs and laid 'em, and now I thought perhaps," the girl's voice faltered slightly. "I thought perhaps, maybe you'd let Ploomy do the rest of the dustin'. I've did all the heft of it and jest left them pretty things on the mantletree and round; such things as she used to love to take care on. 'Twill do her sights o' good and can't noways hurt her. It's goin' to be such a day o' happenin's, too. You know Ploomy hain't never seen the minister's wife, yit."
The mother's face paled and her voice shook as she answered the eager petitioner. "I'll finish the dustin' and do all the rest what's got to be done, and sha'n't call on my sick and dyin' daughter to help me nuther. And you, Liddy Bowles, layin' your impudent hands on your mother and tellin' her what not to do, you stiver right up charmber and stay there. I don't need ye. I'm shamed on ye'.'
With a face even whiter than her mother's, the girl started to obey, but stopped and steadily confronted that already relenting parent. "I'm goin' to mind you Mother," she said, "same as I've always did and I'm sorry if I sassed ye. But it's sufferin' cruel to talk as tho'f I ain't bein' lovin' to my sister Ploomy. Nobuddy could love her more than me, ever sence you put her in my warm, cud'lin' little thing. And that's how I dar'st to hinder you today.
I've got somethin' to say and goin' to say it before I go. I seem to have to."
Her mother making no remonstrance, Liddy continued, "I'm tain, Marm, that our Ploomy don't need to fade away and die as she is doin, seein' she hain't got none of them symtums, Prissy Emmons died of. Our Ploomy begun to fail right arfter you sent Alic Stinson off, nobuddy knows where."
"Liddy Bowles, you'r going' too fur now," her mother interrupted sharply.
"I didn't exactly want to speak his name," stammered the girl, "but it was then that Ploomy used to wake me up, cryin' in the night. Sometimes she'd say it was about Prissy's layin' all alone up there in the old grave-yard, and tell me she was growin' cold just like her. Then I'd cuddle her up to me, her the hull time shakin' like a popple leaf. Now you are givin' 'er lotions and 'arb-drinks' she is more quieter but she don't git no better. It seems as tho'f we was lettin' her go on dyin' of somethin' she hain't got. Stop it, Marm, do. You can do most anythin' you set out to," dry sobs choked the pleading
"Be ye through talkin', Liddy?" asked her mother, "cause if you be, I want to say somethin'. I'm sorry I was so hash to ye. I ought not to ben. I'm mindid, myself, how'st I felt jest so about your aunt Ploomy, she that our Ploomy was named arfter, when she was took the same way, she died."
"Liddy, Liddy Bowles, where be you? Where's Mother?" Janey's bird-like voice (a blessed interruption) rang through kitchen and pantry. The child swung wide the milkroom door and stood perilously swinging a basket heaped with fresh-laid eggs. "See," she shouted, "I found two new nests, and where old Spot hid her kittens. Now I'm going blackber'in' with the Bean children,
over round Birch Knoll; I may, mayn't I, Mother? You said I might, some day. And, Liddy, put a lot of bread and butter in my pail; I am hungry now."
"Liddy, do go 'long and take care of them aigs 'fore that young-one smashes 'em." Mrs. Bowles' voice had regained its usual brisk and pleasant tone. "I'm thinkin, Janey, you'll find slim pickin', it's ben so dreadful droughty all summer; but I should love to s'prise the Elder with one of my blackb'ry short-cakes for supper. Git the child a pail, Liddy, and put 'nough o' your good cookies in it for the Bean children, too. They'll like 'em; their own mother was a marster good cook." With squeals of delight Janey fled the kitchen, leaving sunshine behind her.
When at last the hour approached for the expected guests to arrive, there was nothing left to betray the morning's unusual activities save the spicy aroma of plum-cake and caraway cookies that still pervaded the pantry. Even the shining kitchen stove looked cool and innocent of unduly heated transactions.
No less guiltless of bustling anxiety looked good Mrs. Bowles and her daughter Liddy, when, dressed in their seven-breadth ginghams and snowy aprons, they met their visitors under a canopy of woodbine that rioted lawlessly over the front door of the farm-house. Mrs. Bowles' greeting was noisy and voluble; no other would she have deemed sufficiently cordial.
"Good mornin', good mornin', Brother'n Sister Norris. We are dreadful glad to see ye. Looked for ye more'n an hour ago. That's right, Elder, take your little wife right out the waggin and we'll see to her whilst you put up your hoss.
She's a harnsom critter ain't she? Your hoss I mean. But you'll have to unhitch, yourself, Elder, for the menfolks is all down in the field reapin'
With a chuckle the hostess turned to her remaining guest. After feeble hand-shake Liddy had vanished, leaving Mrs. Norris to be volubly ushered by Mrs. Bowles, into square-room, there to be breezily stripped of bonnet and shawl, thrust into a white-cushioned rocking-chair, a big fan of turkey-feathers pressed into her hand, all in a twinkling.
"Now you set right there by that north winder and cool off," commanded Mrs. Bowles, not unpleasantly, "Your pretty face is most pink as our Ploomy's hollyhocks. Per'aps she'll feel like comin' in to set with ye, whilst I and Liddy's gittin' the dinner on. With company and two extry hired men in the field t'day I can't spare a minute to set. 'Twould gin me conniption fits, to have my dinner laggin'. Mandy Bowles' dinner horn blows reg'lar the year round; folks sets their clocks by it, so they say."
The minister's wife might as well have been dumb, for as yet she had not been able to complete a full sen
tence. Now she looked up, surprised at the sudden silence, and started by the changed by the changed expression on the face before her. Its features were working convulsively to repress emotion that threatened tears.
"Don't be sca't, Miss Norris, 'taint nuthin'," the unsteady lips replied to her frightened exclamation. "I stood lookin' at ye and it 'minded me that only last spring our Ploomy had as red cheeks and dancin' eyes as you've got t'day, every bit; if anything, Ploomy's eyes was the harnsumist; the reg'lar Bowles eye, grey with the blue in 'em. Ploomy was the light of the house,-the light of my life, but she's goin' out. Don't open yer lips! Don't pity me! for I jest couldn't stan' it." The woman had lifted a bony hand as in protest. "Twould break me all up if ye talked to me; and I've got to be the head for the hull of 'em. Land sakes alive! What am I thinkin' on? Liddy out there all alone, tewin' over the dinner."
Mandy was herself again, and, Mrs. Morris, watched Mrs. Morris, watched her through the narrow hall, where the kitchen door closed on her.
"Dear me, what a strange person," thought the young wife, "I never offered a word. My eyes were filled with tears, but not one pious thing had I to say; not even a bit of comforting Scripture. O Sally Morris," she whispered, "what a fraud for a minister's wife! Mother dear, you were not far wrong when you warned Charley that I was no more fitted for the position than a blind kitten. You might have spared the adjective, though; and Charley seems to dote on kittens. But what a dear, sweet room this is with 'Ploomy's hollyhocks' peeping in! It makes me think of home.' The green
paper curtains were rolled high, the windows opened wide. Outside, swayed by a gentle wind, slender spires of hollyhocks seemed to be peering within, their fair blos
soms pink with amazement at their own audacity. Between these flower bedecked windows stood a narrow, fall-leaf table, covered with a snowy cloth of home-made linen, deeply fringed with netting and tassels. Here reposed the big Bible sacred to family records, flanked by an orderly array of daguerreotypes, a Gift Book and a Daily Food. Opposite the windows, on the far side of the room was the never absent "squareroom" bed, high-piled with the downiest of "live-geese" feathers and covered with marvels of loom and needle work. This slender-posted, high-canopied bed, the heavy bureau of many drawers, together with the gem of a small table now attracting the admiring gaze of Mrs. Norris, were deservedly the pride of the mistress of Red Barn Farm. She never wearied of repeating this formula, "My greatmother was a Marsh; one of them Marshes, they say, that was distant kin of old Gov'ner Marsh of Varmount. This 'ere bedstid and the hull set was her'n, and it fell on me. The old Gov'ner was a smart man in his day."
There was scarce opportunity to wince at the atrocious plaster o' paris "ornamints" ranged on the mantle, or to shake a wrathful, small first toward the wall where hung the ubiquitous memorial picture, (a very weeping willow, and a very drooping lady with classical features cheerfully resigned); certainly there was time to examine the finely braided and "drawn-in" rugs that so plentifully covered the stainless floor, before the kitchen door softly opened and closed.
Ploomy stood within the small entry, swaying and slender, like a young birch of the forest. Her cheeks were flushed with expectancy and her really beautiful eyes appealed for companionship. At least so interpreted the girl-wife, prompted by hidden pangs of homesickness. Without ceremony
she met the
frail, hesitating young thing with a loving embrace and drew her gently to the one rocking-chair by the cool north window, saying with a tuneful chuckle,
"With those. wonderful eyes, you must be Ploomy, and I am Sally Norris. Now that we are quite properly introduced I will bring my chair and sit close by you if I may. I have a sister about your age and those lovely hollyhocks at the windows reminded me of her and home. Did you plant them? Your mother called them yours."
"Yes, they and the grass pinks were mine but sister Liddy has took the hull care of 'em this summer. It's ben a sight of work for there haint ben a drop of rain, scurcely."
Ploomy's voice was disappointing, hopeless, lifeless, save its bit of whining drawl. Mrs. Norris in her frankly convincing way disarmed the girl's shyness and incited her interest. With even a faint show of eagerness, she was soon asking and answering questions.
After a silence consumed by Sally in looking at family daguerreotypes Ploomy said softly, "Your sister is nineteen years old and past, if she is my age, and she has never had no trouble nor any sorrow has she?"
Not waiting for an answer to so dazing a question, she went on, "There hain't nobuddy told you how much I thought of Prissy. I loved her more'n I did my sister Liddy. We was nigher of age and said our a, b, abs, and worked our samplers together and always set with one 'nuther to school."
"Who is Prissy? asked Mrs. Norris. She was the
"Prissy Emmons. harnsomist girl in these all said, and I know
parts, folks she was the
"Has she gone far away?" still questioned Mrs. Norris.
"Prissy died, and they've buried
her, up in the old grave-yard under the shadder of the mountain; when she was always so tender and timid like. I wish grave-yards was nigher home." Ploomy's voice had again trailed off into hopeless depths, her face pallid, her eyes dilated with vague
Mrs. Norris, bending forward, laid her own warm, pulsing hand upon Ploomy's folded cold and still on the girl's lap. "Now my little friend," she said brightly, "we are not to talk of sad things today. My own heart is heavy too, with homesickness. Your big, solemn, old mountains glooming over us, are behaving horribly, covered with haze or smoke; the air is fairly stifling in the valley. It did seem so good to come up here on the hills where one can breathe." Here Ploomy, in turn, lifted her hand and laid it in shy sympathy upon Sally's.
Acute illness or distress never failed to claim Mrs. Norris' quick pity, while she had small patience with seemingly minor ills. She had much to learn. Here is a confession made later to her husband.
"Ploomy captured me with her lovely eyes and her exquisite figure, and something more that I cannot express; like the cling and curl of baby fingers around one of your own. You can't let go and baby won't. At the same time I fairly ached, at first, to treat her as I used to treat my dolls when they got limp and flabby, chuck in the saw-dust."
Indeed, Ploomy was not easily repulsed. With a new-found friend she was like a brook bursting icy barriers under melting sunbeams. With new color and livelier tone she stammered, "Now certain, Miss Norris, certain, I didn't set out for to make you feel bad, I didn't. But, Oh, I do want somebuddy to talk to and somebuddy to talk with me! Liddy can't think of things to say much, and Mother says talk is weakenin'. Ther's nothin' to do but be
thinkin'. Nothin' like it was before." The minister's wife might now have been grateful for an excellent memory and easy conscience that permitted her to repeat choice thoughts and passages to the eagerly listening girl, nearly all filched from Mr. Norris' latest sermons. "Anything," she thought, "if I may only keep her mind away from the grave-yard until Mandy Bowles' dinner horn' blows. Of course the child can not appreciate all these fine thoughts, but she does. listen, and that is better than half of Charley's audience does, poor boy."
But at last in a voice more tuneful and vibrant than had seemed possible for Ploomy, she interrupted with, "I thank you, Mis' Norris, for all them wonderful words you've ben speakin' to me. I've read em in my Bible. some of 'em, but I never thought they were writ to be lived by every day, easy and comfortable. Father has come the nighest, but it has took a sight of goin' to prayermeetin'. Two things you said I aint never goin' to forgit. You said hate is poison; and that it works just like poison in our blood. A little makes us uncomfortable, and any more is dangerous, and all the biggest doctors know it. They must have a lot of cases. I suppose they call it by some other name more satisfyin'. And you said too, Mis' Norris, that loving was living; that love was all around us and in us all, even when we mayn't be noticin', for God is Love. You said, that love shows up dif'runt in dif'runt folks. And there are many dif'runt folks that ain't alike."
In the short silence, Mrs. Norris, looking into Ploomy's eyes, lighted from within, could, for the first time, imagine this frail, wilted little body, as having once been "the light o' the house."
"I can't say them words as beautiful as you said them to me, Mis' Norris," resumed the girl," but I can see them beautiful, and shinin'. You said,