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me and caught me by the shoulders in a sort of tender excitement.
"Why, Helen Mortimer!"
She seemed not to be able to say another word, and I felt equally inexpressive. With a rush all the old feeling for her swept over me. She was just the same, barring a ten years' dimming of her brightness. But the old eager kindliness, the unquenchable vivacity, beamed still in her wrinkled little face and faded-blue eyes. She was much shorter than I, and she stood looking up into my face with something of a child's ardor of questioning.
"How did you get here? Come right up on the piazza and sit down and tell me all about it."
"In your part of the country I suppose it is n't polite to say folks have grown old, but up here we admit it. I've improved."
"You could n't. You were a saint ten years ago." She laughed at that, a thin, rippling treble of old woman's laughter; but it was good to hear.
Then we talked, first of all the people we knew, and of all their relatives and circumstances; then of those who had passed and the days that were forever gone. There was not a trace of sentimentality in Cousin Abigail's make-up, and her comments upon her dead friends and relatives were precisely as incisive as the criticisms she made of the living. But neither was there any hint of ill will in anything she said, and she had a wide
flung cloak of charity for all shortcomings. Only she knew perfectly well what was under the cloak.
At last, reaching some natural pause in the flow of our reminiscences, we stopped to take breath. Watching her mobile face, I divined the process by which Cousin Abigail's flying thoughts circled ever nearer and nearer to the loss of her house. Finally they perched. Something very subtle and beseeching in her look brought the long-unuttered words to my lips.
"I have n't spoken of it, Cousin Abigail," I faltered, "but you must know how I 've thought of it! It 's heartbreaking your beautiful old house!"
Cousin Abigail sat very still. Her eyes had a curious inward look; I knew what they saw. I dared say no more and waited for her to speak. With a quick intake of breath she turned and met my look.
"It was a beautiful house, was n't it?" she said, smiling happily. "I'm so glad Great-grandfather Baxter faced it toward the west. I shall always have those sunsets to remember. Sometimes they were like heaven opened."
An almost imperceptible turn of the head indicated her present western outlook: it was the next neighbor's combination garage and chicken-house. She moved her rocking-chair to a slightly different angle and looked straight into my eyes.
"Helen, let's talk about it. You're the only human being that I've ever wanted to mention it to except in the most casual way. But you understand things. I've done a good deal of thinking since it happened. I'd like you to judge whether or not I 've got anywhere by it. You see, this has been my one great life experience."
She laughed as she said it, but underneath I perceived a profound seriousness. Like Dr. Holmes, she was laughing only on the outside.
"I will; only I don't know where to begin. You remember the house, of course."
"So well! You have n't forgotten that afternoon in the cemetery?"
"No, indeed." She laughed again, most inappropriately. "Well, the ceme
tery 's still there; there 's nothing more permanent than a country graveyard. But it's three miles away now, so I don't visit 'em so often as I did. Now, that's a thing I was going to speak of." Again she gave me that quaint sidelong look. "That place of mine was too close to the cemetery and too far from the movies." "But, Cousin Abigail," I gasped, "you don't go to the movies!"
She nodded gaily, with emphasis.
"I do! Lucy Wyman and I go three times a week regularly, and if it's a case of troops being reviewed, we make it four. I like the movies. Why, just think, everything that 's gone on in the world for the last four years, and plenty that has n't, I 've seen right before my eyes, and not still, either, but going! Maybe after a spell I shall get tired of 'em, but I have n't yet. And then there 's church." Her animation subsided decorously. "You see, I never could go to church regularly before. There was the bad weather, and the bad roads, and it got to be pretty hard to
harness up and start. I used to read sermons instead. But it was n't so satisfying. I'd rather hear a man talk, any day. I like folks."
"I know. Is your minister a good talker?"
"Well, we could afford a better if the Baptists and Methodists could see their way clear to worship along with the Congregationalists and Unitarians; but they can't. They seem to look at God a little differently from the way we do, so we all travel our separate paths with such shepherds as we can get. No, it is n't always inspiring; but once in a while we have a Dartmouth professor, and then I go morning and evening, and get enough to think of for a week." "Philosopher!"
"Well, I don't know," she deprecated. "Maybe I am. I've seen a good deal of life in most seventy years, and had a good deal of time to think over what I've seen. That is, I did have. Now, of course, I'm living in a whirl."
No débutante could have sparkled
"As I went up the path, a woman working there looked up, and I saw that it was Cousin Abigail"
more delightedly; but in a moment she was serious again.
"I know how queer it must seem to you, Helen, to hear me say I know something about life. You can't help thinking of me as a sort of fossil buried on a New England farm, with my nearest neighbor half a mile away. And of course it has been what you'd call vicarious, a good deal of what I've felt, not direct or personal. Useless, too, maybe. But let me tell you," she sat of a sudden very straight and pressed a thin brown hand down hard on my knee, "when the people in my little tenement turned their seventeen-yearold daughter out of doors one November night, and she came sobbing round to me, and I put her to bed and got the doctor (it was just a week after I'd had the telephone put in), and the baby was born before morning-somehow I felt as if I was pretty close to real living. I had that baby to love for most two months."
"It died. It was just as well." Neither of us spoke for several min
"Well, that family moved away," pursued Cousin Abigail, "and the next one had a son in one of the training camps. I 'd never seen him until he came home on his last leave before he went to France. He was a splendid boy; I did n't wonder his mother was proud of him. I can see him this minute, standing there in the doorway, laughing, and eating the hot doughnuts she 'd made for him. He had one in each hand. I was in the garden, and she called to me from the window, 'Ain't he grand in his uniform, Miss Baxter?' And he was; just grand. If I'd had a boy like thatwell! He went off, and pretty soon sailed and she did n't hear from him very often. But when she did get a letter she 'd come running in to tell me, and read it, happy as a girl. He must have done well, for he got to be a corporal before oh, yes, it came. She got the despatch one afternoon about five o'clock. I thought for a while it might be a mistake, and I used to read the casualtylists without losing a line, hoping I 'd find a correction. But it was so.' She stopped abruptly. "I ought not to tell you this."
She looked at me sharply and went on with her story.
"In a month or so a letter came from a neighbor's son telling about it. After the shell struck him they carried him in an army overcoat for a stretcher to the first-aid station, and he died that night. I tried to make her see it was a mercy it was so quick, still more a mercy he did n't live to come home. But she could n't. She could n't see anything-anywhere that was any comfort to her. I could n't do a thing for her; nobody could."
Cousin Abigail sighed. All at once she looked very old. Again we were silent.
I felt sort of poor." Her eyes were fixed on a swaying spray of the rambler rose that climbed the porch, but I knew she did not see it.
"Maybe you don't see," she went on after a while, "what connection these things I 've been telling you and others I could tell have with the house and my losing it. I don't know as I can make it clear to you, though it 's plain enough to me. Anyway, I'll have to go back a little. You know my cousin Annie Goodell's daughter is a teacher down to Holyoke. It's a college now; I remember how I used to long to go to school there when it was just a ladies' seminary. Well, sometimes Florence Goodell used to come to stay with me in the summer, and she always had her trunk loaded with books, so that it was a job to get it up to her room. I read in 'em a good deal and found a number of my own ideas in some of 'em. Now and then I got hold of a new one. One man-I think he was a Harvard professor said that having trouble is a sort of initiation; that you can't ever really understand life without it. I thought about that considerable. And I could see that nothing had ever really happened to me; all the experiences I'd been through and suffered so much going through had been other people's trials. Not one of 'em had actually belonged to me. And
"It was this way," she went on after a moment, looking at me with an odd smile: "there was nothing human for me to lose. How could I be initiated except through that house-and the loss of it? It meant everything to me; it was all I had. It was my past and my present and my future. I loved every inch of it. I loved my hills and my sunsets and my garden, and I loved the cemetery, too. If I'd ever married or had a child, it would have been different. I could have wound every fiber around a child. But I had only the house. And so, for my enrichment, the house had to go. And it went in a beautiful death. Oh, I tell you it was glorious to see it go up to the sky in those banners of flame! It was a translation! I stood down by the road and watched it. Folks thought I acted queer. They wanted me to save things, but I put 'em off, somehow. I did n't want to save anything. It was all mineeverything I had on earth going upup-" Her voice broke, and her chin trembled, but her eyes were dry and bright. She drew a long breath and went on steadily:
"Oh, I know it 's only a tiny hint of what great bereavements mean to happier people than I, but it was all that could happen to me. I've been stripped, too. I understand, and I 'm free!"
She squared her frail shoulders gallantly, the blood of her fighting forebears glowing in her thin old cheeks. I leaned forward and kissed her. "You-soldier!"
The minister's son was driving up to the gate. We stood, with hands clasped, close. Suddenly her eyes brimmed.
"I know your boy will come home safe from France," she whispered. "You see, you 've been initiated."