The Old Gray Homestead
Frances Parkinson Keyes
Part 4 out of 4
startled, to find Austin leaning over her, shaking her gently, and
calling her name in a low, troubled voice.
"What is it? What has happened?" she murmured drowsily, reaching
instinctively for the dressing-gown which lay at the foot of the bed.
Austin had already begun to wrap it around her.
"Forgive me, sweetheart, for disturbing you--and for coming in like
this. I tried the telephone, and called you over and over again
outside your window--you must have been awfully sound asleep. I was at
my wits' end, and couldn't think of anything to do but this--are you
very angry with me?"
"No, no--why did you need me?"
"Oh, Sylvia, it's Edith! She's terribly sick, and she keeps begging for
you so that I just _had_ to come and get you! She was all right at
supper-time--it's so sudden and violent that--"
Sylvia had slipped out of bed as if hardly conscious that he was beside
her. "Go out on the porch and wait for me," she commanded breathlessly;
"you've got the motor, haven't you? I won't be but a minute."
She was, indeed, scarcely longer than that. They were almost instantly
speeding down the road together, while she asked, "Have you sent for
"Yes, but there isn't any there yet. Dr. Wells was off on a confinement
case, and we've had to telephone to Wallacetown--she was perfectly
determined not to have one, anyway. Oh, Sylvia, what can it be? And why
should she want you so?"
"I don't know yet, dear."
"Do you suppose she's going to die?"
"No, I'm afraid--I mean I don't think she is. Why didn't I take better
care of her? Austin, can't you drive any faster?"
As they reached the house, she broke away from him, and ran swiftly up
the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Gray were both standing, white and helpless with
terror, beside their daughter's bed. She was lying quite still when
Sylvia entered, but suddenly a violent spasm of pain shook her like a
leaf, and she flung her hands above her head, groaning between her
clenched teeth. Sylvia bent over her and took her in her arms.
"My dear little sister," she said.
When the long, hideous night was over, and Edith lay, very white and
still, her wide, frightened eyes never leaving Sylvia's face, the doctor,
gathering up his belongings, touched the latter lightly on the arm.
"She'll have to have constant care for several days, perfect quiet for
two weeks at least. But if I send for a nurse--"
"I know. I'm sure I can do everything necessary for her. I've had some
experience with sickness before."
The doctor nodded, a look of relief and satisfaction passing over his
face. "I see that you have. Get her to drink this. She must have some
sleep at once."
But when Sylvia, left alone with her, held the glass to Edith's lips, she
shrank back in terror.
"No, no, no! I don't want to go to sleep--I mustn't--I shall dream!"
"Dear child, you won't--and if you do, I shall be right here beside you,
holding your hand like this, and you can feel it, and know that, after
all, dreams are slight things."
"You promise me?"
"Indeed I do."
"Oh, Sylvia, you're so brave--you told the doctor you'd taken care of
some one that was sick before--who was it?"
It was Sylvia's turn to shudder, but she controlled it quickly, and spoke
"I was married for two years to a man who finally died of delirium
tremens. No paid nurse--would have stayed with him--through certain
times. I can't tell you about it, dear, and I'm trying hard to forget
it--you won't ask me about it again, will you?"
"Oh, _Sylvia_! Please forgive me! I--I didn't guess--I'll drink the
medicine--or do anything else you say!"
So Edith fell asleep, and when she woke again, the sun was setting, and
Sylvia still sat beside her, their fingers intertwined. Sylvia looked
"The doctor has been here to see you, but you didn't wake, and we both
felt it was better not to disturb you. He thinks that all is going
well with you. Will you drink some milk, and let me bathe your face
"No--not--not yet. Have you really been here--all these hours?"
"With no rest--nothing to eat or drink?"
"Oh, yes, Austin brought me my dinner, but I ate it sitting beside you,
and wouldn't let him stay--he's so big, he can't help making a noise."
"Does he know?"
"And father and mother?"
Sylvia was silent.
"Oh, Sylvia, I'm a wicked, wicked girl, but I'm not what you must think!
I'm not a--a murderess! Peter came up behind me on the stairs in the dark
last night, and spoke to me suddenly. It startled me--everything seems to
have startled me lately--and I slipped, and fell, and hurt myself--I
didn't do it on purpose."
"You poor child--you don't need to tell me that--I never would have
believed it of you for a single instant." Then she added, in the strained
voice which she could not help using on the very rare occasions when she
forced herself to speak of something that had occurred during her
marriage, but still as if she felt that no word which might give comfort
should be left unsaid, "Perhaps your mother has told you that the little
baby who died when it was two weeks old wasn't the first that
I--expected. A fall or--or a blow--or any shock of--fear or grief--often
ends--in a disaster like this."
"Will the others believe me, too?"
"Of course they will. Don't talk, dear, it's going to be all right."
"I must talk. I've got to tell--I've got to tell _you_. And you can
explain--to the family. You always understand everything--and you never
blame anybody. I often wonder why it is--you're so good yourself--and
yet you never say a word against any living creature, or let anybody
else do it when you're around; but lots of girls, who've--done just what
I have--and didn't happen to get found out--are the ones who speak most
bitterly and cruelly--I know two or three who will be just _glad_ if
"They're not going to know."
"Then you will listen, and--and believe me--and _help_?"
"I thought it happened only in books, or when girls had no one to take
care of them--not to girls with fathers and mothers and good
homes--didn't you, Sylvia?"
"No, dear. I knew it happened sometimes--oh, more often than
_sometimes_--to girls--just like you."
"And what happens afterwards?"
Sylvia shuddered, but it was too dark in the carefully shuttered room for
Edith to see her. She said quite quietly:
"That depends. In many cases--nothing dreadful."
"Ever anything good?"
"Yes, yes, _good_ things can happen. They can be _made_ to."
"Will you make good things happen to me?"
"I will, indeed I will."
"And not hate me?"
"May I tell you now?"
"If you believe that it will make you feel better; and if you will
promise, after you have told me, to let me give you the treatment
"I promise--Do you remember that in the spring Hugh Elliott came to spend
a couple of months with Fred?"
Sylvia's fingers twitched, but all she said was, "Yes, Edith."
"He used to be in love with Sally; but he got all over that. He said he
was in love with me. I thought he was--he certainly acted that way.
Saying--fresh things, and--and always trying to touch me--and--that's the
way men usually do when they begin to fall in love, isn't it, Sylvia?"
"No, darling, not _usually_--not--some kinds of men." And Sylvia's
thoughts flew back, for one happy instant, to the man who had knelt at
her feet on Christmas night. "But--I know what you mean--"
"And--I liked it. I mean, I thought the talk was fun to listen to, and
that the--rest was--oh, Sylvia, do you understand--"
"Yes, dear, I understand."
"And he was awfully jolly, and gave me such a good time. I felt flattered
to think he didn't treat me like a child, that he paid me more attention
than the older girls."
"And I thought what fun it would be to marry him, instead of some slow,
poky farmer, and have a beautiful house, and servants, and lovely
clothes. I kept thinking, every night, he would ask me to; but he didn't.
And finally, one time, just before we got home after a dance, he said--he
was going away in the morning."
"Oh, I was so disappointed, and sore, and--angry! That was it, just plain
angry. I had been going with Jack all along when Hugh didn't come for me,
and Jack came the very night after Hugh went away, and took me for a long
ride. He told me how terribly jealous he had been, and how thankful he
was that Hugh was out of the way at last, and that Peter was going, too.
So I laughed, and said that Peter didn't count at all, and that I hated
Hugh--of course neither of those things was true, but I was so hurt, I
felt _I'd_ like to hurt somebody, too. And finally, I blurted out how
mean Hugh had been, to make me think he cared for me, when he was
just--having a good time. Then Jack said, 'Well, _I_ care about you--I'm
just crazy over you.' 'I don't believe you,' I said; 'I'll never believe
any man again.' Just to tease him--that was all.' I'll show you whether I
love you,' he said, and began to kiss me. I think he had been
drinking--he does, you know. Of course, I ought to have stopped him, but
I--had let Hugh--it meant a lot to me, too--the first time. But after I
found it didn't mean anything to him--it didn't seem to matter--if some
one else _did_--kiss me--I was flattered--and pleased--and--comforted.
You mustn't think that what--happened afterwards--was all Jack's fault. I
think I could have stopped it even then--if he'd been sober, anyway. But
I didn't guess--I never dreamed--how far you could--get carried away--and
how quickly. Oh, Sylvia, why didn't somebody tell me? At home--in the
sunshine--with people all around you--it's like another world--you're
like another person--than when there's nothing but stillness and darkness
everywhere, and a man who loves you, pleading, with his arms around you--
"And afterwards I thought no one would ever know. Jack thought so, too.
Besides, you see, he is crazy to marry me--he'd give anything to. But I
wouldn't marry him for anything in the world--whatever happened--the
great ignorant, dirty drunkard! Only he isn't unkind--or cowardly--don't
think that--or let the others think so! He's willing to take his share
of the blame--he's _sorry_--
"Then, just a little while ago--I began to be afraid of--what had
happened. But I didn't know much about that, either. I thought, some way,
I might be mistaken--I hoped so, anyhow. I wanted to come--and tell you
all about it--but I didn't dare. I never saw you kiss Austin but
once--you're so quiet when you're with him, Sylvia, and other people are
around--and it was--it was just like--_a prayer_. After seeing that, I
_couldn't_ come to you--with my story--unless _I had_ to--I felt as if it
would be just like throwing mud on a flower.
"Then, yesterday, after the work was done, Peter asked me to go to walk
with him. It was so late, when he and Austin got home, that I had
scarcely seen him. I was going upstairs, in the dark, and I didn't know
that he was anywhere near--it frightened me when he called. So--so I
slipped--and fell--all the way down. I knew, right away, that I was
hurt; but, of course, I didn't guess how much. I went to walk with him
just the same, because it seemed as if it--would feel good to be with
Peter--he's always been so--well, I can't explain--_so square_. And
while we were out, I began to feel sick--and now, of course, he'll never
be willing--to take me to walk--to be seen anywhere with me again! I
can't bear it! I mind--not having been square to him--more than anything
else--more than half-killing mother, even! Oh, Sylvia, tell them,
please, _quickly_! and have it over with--tell them, too, that it was my
own fault--don't forget that part! And then take me away with you, where
I won't see them--or any one else I know--and teach me to be good--even
if you can't help me to forget!"
* * * * *
Two hours later, when Edith was sleeping again, Mrs. Gray came into the
room with a mute, haggard expression on her kind, homely face which
Sylvia never forgot, and put her arms around the younger woman.
"Austin's askin' for you, dearie. It's been a hard day for him, too--I
think you ought to go to him. I'll sit here until you come back."
Sylvia nodded, and stole silently out of the room. Austin was waiting for
her at the foot of the stairs, his smile of welcome changing to an
expression of stern solicitude as he looked at her.
"Have you been seeing ghosts? You're whiter than chalk--no wonder, shut
up in that hot, dark room all day, without any rest and almost without
any food! No matter if Edith does want you most, you'll have to take
turns with mother after this. Come out with me where it's cool for a
little while--and then you must have some supper, and a bath, and
Sally's room to sleep in--if you won't go home, which is really the best
place for you."
She allowed him to lead her, without saying a word, to the sheltered
slope of the river, and sat down under a great elm, while he flung
himself down beside her, laying his head in her lap.
"Sylvia--just think--less than three weeks now! It's been running through
my head all day--I've almost got it down to hours, minutes, and
seconds--What's the matter with Edith, anyway? Father and mother are as
dumb as posts."
"The matter is--oh, my darling boy--I might as well tell you at once--we
can't--I've got to go away with Edith. Austin, you must wait for
me--another year--" And her courage giving out completely, she threw
herself into his arms, and sobbed out the tragic story.
"Sylvia, I won't give you up--_I can't!"_
"Darling, it isn't giving me up--it's only waiting a little longer for
"Don't you think I've waited long enough already?"
"Yes, Austin, but--Perhaps I won't have to stay away a whole
year--perhaps by spring--or we might be married now, just as we planned,
and take Edith with us."
"No, no!" he cried; "you know I wouldn't do that--I want you all to
myself!" Then, still more passionately, "You're only twenty-two
yourself--you shan't darken your own youth with--this--this horrible
thing. You've seen sorrow and sin enough--far, far too much! You've a
right to be happy now, to live your own life--and so have I."
"And hasn't Edith any right?"
"No--she's forfeited hers."
"Do you really think so? Do you believe that a young, innocent, sheltered
girl, so pretty and so magnetic that she attracts immediate attention
wherever she goes, who has starved for pretty things and a good time, and
suddenly finds them within her reach, whose parents wilfully shut their
eyes to the fact that she's growing up, and boast that 'they've kept
everything from her'--and then let her go wherever she chooses, with that
pitiful lack of armor, doesn't deserve another chance? And I think if you
had stayed with her through last night--and seen the change that
suffering--and shame--and hopelessness have wrought in that little gay,
lovely, thoughtless creature, you'd feel that she had paid a pitifully
large forfeit already--and realize that no matter how much we help her,
she'll have to go on paying it as long as she lives."
Austin was silent for a moment; then he muttered:
"Well, why doesn't she marry Jack Weston? She admits that it was half her
fault--and that he really does care for her."
"_Marry_ him!" Sylvia cried,--"_after that_! He cares for her as much as
it is in him to care for anybody--but you know perfectly well what he is!
Do you want her to tie herself forever to an ignorant, intemperate,
sensual man? Put herself where the nightmare of her folly would stare her
perpetually in the face! Where he'd throw it in her teeth every time he
was angry with her, that he married her out of charity--and probably tell
the whole countryside the same thing the first time he went to
Wallacetown on a Saturday evening and began to 'celebrate'? How much
chance for hope and salvation would be left for her then? Have you
forgotten something you said to me once--something which wiped away in
one instant all the bitterness and agony of three years, and sent
me--straight into your arms? 'The best part of a decent man's love is not
passion, but reverence; his greatest desire, not possession, but
protection; his ultimate aim, not gratification, but sacrifice.'"
"I didn't guess then what a beautiful and wonderful thing passion could
be--I'd only seen the other side of it."
Sylvia winced, but she only said, very gently: "Then can you, with that
knowledge, wish Edith to keep on seeing it all her life? It's--it's
pretty dreadful, I think--remember I've seen it too."
"Good God, Sylvia, do stop talking as if the cases were synonymous! _You
were married_! It's revolting to me to hear you keep saying that you
'understand.' There's no more likeness between you and Edith than there
is between a lily growing in a queen's garden and a sweet-brier rose
springing up on a dusty highroad."
"I know how you feel, dear; but remember, the sweet-brier rose isn't a
_weed_! They're both flowers--and fragrant--and--and fragile, aren't
they?" Then, very softly: "Besides, the lily growing in the queen's
garden, even though the wicked king may own it for a time, is usually
picked in the end--by the fairy prince--to adorn his palace; while the
little sweet-brier rose any tramp may pluck and stick in his hat--and
fling away when it is faded. And if it was really the property of an
honest woodman and his wife, and the highroad ran very close to the
border of a sheltered wood, where their cottage was--wouldn't they feel
very badly when they found their rose was gone?"
"You plead very well," said Austin almost roughly, "and you're pleading
for every one _but me_--for Edith and father and mother, who've all done
wrong--and now you want to take the burden of their wrongdoing on your
own innocent shoulders, and make me help you--no matter how _I_ suffer!
_I've_ tried to do _right_--never so hard in all my life--and mostly--I
've succeeded. You've helped--I never could have done it without you--but
a lot of it has been pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. Now I've
reached the end of my rope--and I suppose, instead of thinking of that
--the next thing you do will be to make excuses for Jack Weston."
"Yes," said Sylvia, very gently, "that's just what I'm going to do. I
know how hard you've tried--I know how well you've succeeded. I know
there aren't many men like you--_as good as you_--in the whole world. I'm
not saying that because I'm in love with you--I'm not saying it to
encourage you--I'm saying it because it's true. You've conquered--all
along the line. It's so wonderful--and so glorious--that sometimes it
almost takes my breath away. Darling--you know I've never reproached
you--even in my own mind--for anything that may have happened before you
knew me--and _I_ know, that much as you wish now it never had
happened--still you can comfort yourself with the old platitudes of 'the
double standard.' 'All men do this some time--or nearly all men. I
haven't been any worse than lots of others--and I've always respected
_good_ women'--oh, I've heard it all, hundreds of times! Some day I hope
you'll feel differently about that, too--that you won't teach _your_ son
to argue that way--not only because it's wrong, but because it's
dangerous--and very much out of date, besides. This isn't the time to go
into all that--but I wonder if you would be willing to tell me everything
that went through your mind for five minutes--when I came to you the
night of the Graduation Ball, and you took me in your arms?"
"_Sylvia!_" The cry came from the hidden depths of Austin's soul, wrung
with grief and shame. "I thought you never guessed---Since you did--how
could you go on loving me so--how can you say what you just have--about
"Darling, _don't_! I never would have let you know that I guessed--if
everything else I said hadn't failed! That wasn't a reproach! 'Go on
loving you'--how could I help loving you a thousand times more than
ever--when you won the greatest fight of all? It's no sin to be
tempted--I'm glad you're strong enough--and human enough--for that. And
I'm thankful from the bottom of my heart--that you're strong
enough--and _divine_ enough--to resist temptation. But you know--even a
man like you--what a sorceress plain human nature can be. What chance
has a weakling like Jack Weston against her, when she leads him in the
For all answer, he buried his face in the folds of her dress, and lay
with it hidden, while she stroked his hair with soft and soothing
fingers; she knew that she had wounded him to the quick, knew that this
battle was the hardest of all, knew most surely that it was his last one,
and that he would win it. Meanwhile there was nothing for her to do but
to wait, unable to help him, and forced to bear alone the burden of
weariness and sacrifice which was nearly crushing her. Should Austin
sense, even dimly, how the sight of Edith's suffering through the long,
sleepless night had brought back her own, by its reawakened memories of
agony which he had taught her to forget; should divine that she, too, had
counted the days to their marriage, and rejoiced that the long waiting
was over, she knew that Edith's cause would be lost. She counted on the
strength of the belief that most men hold--they never guess how
mistakenly--that fatigue and pain are matters of slight importance among
the really big things of life, and that women do not feel as strongly as
they do, that there is less passion in the giving than in the taking,
that mother-love is the greatest thing they ever know. Some day, she
would convince him that he was wrong; but now--At last he looked up, with
an expression in his eyes, dimly seen in the starlight, which brought
fresh tears to hers, but new courage to her tired heart.
"If you do love me, and I know you do," he said brokenly, "never speak to
me about that again. You've forgiven it--you forgive everything--but I
never shall forgive myself, or feel that I can atone, for what I
meant--for that one moment--to do, as long as I live. On Christmas night,
when there was no evil in my heart, you thought you saw it there, because
your trust had been betrayed before; I vowed then that I would teach you
at least that I was worthy of your confidence, and that most men were;
and when I had taught you, not only to trust me, but to love me, so that
you saw no evil even when it existed--I very nearly betrayed you. It
wasn't my strength that saved us _both_--it was your wonderful love and
faith. There's no desire in the world that would profane such an altar
of holiness as you unveiled before me that night." He lifted her soft
dress, and kissed the hem of her skirt. "I haven't forgiven myself
about--what happened before I knew you, either," he whispered; "you're
wrong there. I used those arguments, once, myself, but I can't any more.
We'll teach--_our son_--better, won't we, so that he'll have a cleaner
heritage to offer his wife than I've got for mine--but he won't love her
any more. Now, darling, go back to the house, and get some rest, if you
can, but before you go to sleep, pray for me--that when Edith doesn't
need you any more--I may have you for my own. And now, please, leave
me--I've got to be alone--"
"Dat," said a voice out of the darkness, "is just vat she must nod do."
Austin sprang to his feet. It was too dark to see more than a few feet.
But there could be no doubt that the speaker was very near, and the
accent was unmistakable. Austin's voice was heavy with anger.
"No--pardon, missus; pardon, Mr. Gray. Frieda is sick. I been lookin'
ev'ywhere for Mr. Gray to tell him. At last I hear him speak out here, I
come to find. Then I overhear--I cannot help it. I try--vat you
say--interrupt--it vas my vish. Beliefe me, please. But somet'ing hold
me--here." He put his hand to his throat. "I could not. I ver' sorry. But
as it is so I haf heard--I haf also some few words to speak.
"Dere vas vonce a grade lady," he said, coming up closer to them, "who
vas so good, and so lofly, and so sveet, that no vone who saw her
could help lofing her; and she vas glad to help ev'y vone, and gif to
ev'y vone, and she vas so rich and vise dat she could help and gif a
"And dere vas a poor boy who vas stupid and homely and poor, and he did
nodings for any vone. But it happened vone time dat dis boy t'ought dat
he and the grade lady could help the same person. So he vent to her and
say--but ve'r respectful, like he alvays felt to her, 'Dis is my turn.
Please, missus, let me haf it.'"
"What do you mean, Peter?" asked Sylvia gently.
He came closer still. It was not too dark, as he did so, to see the
furrows which fresh tears had made on his grimy face, to be conscious of
his soiled and stained working clothes, and his clumsiness of manner and
carriage; but the earnest voice went on, more doggedly than sadly:
"Vat I heard 'bout Edit' to-night, I guessed dis long time ago.
Missus--if you hear that Mr. Gray done som ver' vrong t'ing--even _dis_
ver' vrong t'ing--"
"I know," said Sylvia quickly; "it wouldn't make any difference now--I
care too much. I'd want him--if he still wanted me--just the same. I'd be
hurt--oh, dreadfully hurt--but I wouldn't feel angry--or
revengeful--that's what you mean, isn't it, Peter?"
"Ya-as," said Peter gratefully, "dats yust it, missus, only, of course I
couldn't say it like dat. I t'ank you, missus. Vell, den, I lof Edit'
ever since I come here last fall, ver' much, yust like you lof Mr.
Gray--only, of course, you can't believe dat, missus."
"Yes, I can," said Sylvia.
"So I say," went on Peter, looking only at Sylvia now, "Edit' need you,
but Mr. Gray, he need you, too. No vone in t'e vorld need me but Edit'.
You shall say, 'Peter's fat'er haf sent for him, Peter go back to Holland
ver' quick'--vat you say, suddenly. 'Let Edit' marry Peter and go mit.'
Ve stay all vinter mit my fat'er and moder--"
"You'll travel," interrupted Sylvia. "Edith will have the same dowry from
me that Sally had for a wedding present. She won't be poor. You can take
her everywhere--oh, Peter, you can--_give her a good time_!"
Peter bowed his head. There was a humble grace about the gesture which
Sylvia never forgot.
"You ver' yust lady, missus," he said simply; "dat must be for you to
say. Vell, den, after my fat'er and moder haf welcomed her, ve shall
travel. Dem in de spring if you need me for de cows--Mr. Gray--if
you don't t'ink shame to haf boy like me for your broder--ve come
back. If nod, ve'll stay in Holland. You need no fear to haf--I vill
make Edit' happy--"
Some way, Austin found Peter's hand. He was beyond speech. But Sylvia
asked one more question.
"Edith thinks you can't possibly love her any more," she said--"that you
won't even be willing to see her again. If she thought you were marrying
her out of charity, she'd die before she'd let you. How are you going to
convince her that you want to marry her because you love her?"
"Vill you gif me one chance to try?" replied Peter, looking straight
into her eyes.
"Well, I declare it's so sudden like, I should think your breath would be
Mrs. Gray smiled at Mrs. Elliott, and went on with her sewing, rocking
back and forth placidly in her favorite chair. If the latter had been a
woman who talked less and observed more, she would have noticed how drawn
and furrowed her old friend's rosy, peaceful face had grown, how much
repression there was about the lips which smiled so bravely. But these
details escaped her.
"'Course it does look that way to an outsider," said Mrs. Gray, slowly,
as if rehearsing a part which had been carefully taught her, "but when
you come to know the facts, it ain't so strange, after all."
"Would you feel to tell them?" asked Mrs. Elliott eagerly.
"Why, sure. Edith an' Peter's been sort of engaged this long time back,
but they was so young we urged 'em to wait. Then Peter's father wrote
sayin' he was so poorly, he wished Peter could fix it so's to come home,
through the cold weather, an' Edith took on terrible at bein' separated
from him, an' Peter declared he wouldn't leave without her; an'
then--well, Sylvia sided with 'em, an' that settled it."
Mrs. Elliott nodded. "You'd never think that little soft-lookin'
creature could be so set an' determined, now, would you?" she asked. "I
never see any one to beat her. An' mum! She shuts her mouth tighter'n a
"If any family ever had a livin' blessin' showered on 'em right out of
heaven," said Mrs. Gray, "we did, the day Sylvia come here. Funny,
Austin's the only one of us can see's she's got a single fault. He says
she's got lots of 'em, just like any other woman--but I bet he'd cut the
tongue out of any one else who said so. Seems as if I couldn't wait for
the third of September to come so's she'll really be my daughter, though
I haven't got one that seems any dearer to me, even now."
"Speakin' of weddin's," said Mrs. Elliott, "why didn't you have a regular
one for Edith, same as for Sally?"
"Land! I can't spend my whole time workin' up weddin's! Seems like they
was some kind of contagious disease in this family. James was married
only last December, an' even if we wasn't to that, we got all het up over
it just the same. An' now we've hardly got our breath since Sally's, an'
Austin's is starin' us in the face! I couldn't see my way clear to
house-cleanin' this whole great ark in dog-days for nobody, an' Edith
an' Peter's got to leave the very day after Sylvia 'n Austin get married.
Peter was hangin' round outside Edith's door the whole blessed time,
after her fall--"
"Strange she should be so sick, just from a fall, ain't it?"
"Yes, 't is, but the doctor says they're often more serious than you'd
think for. Well, as I was sayin', Sylvia come out of Edith's room an'
found Peter settin' on the top of the stairs for the third time that day,
an' she flared right up, an' says, 'For Heaven's sake, why don't you get
married right off--now--to-day--then you can go in an' out as you like!'
And before we half knew what she was up to she had telephoned the new
minister. Austin said he wished she'd shown more of that haste about
gettin' married herself, an' she answered him right back, if she'd been
lucky enough to get as good a feller as Peter, maybe she might have. It's
real fun to hear 'em tease each other. Sylvia likes the new minister. She
says the best thing about the Methodist Church that she knows of is the
way it shifts its pastors around--nothin' like variety, she says--an' a
new one once in three years keeps things hummin'. She says as long as so
many Methodists don't believe in cards an' dancin' an' such, they deserve
to have a little fun some way, an'--"
"You was talkin' about Edith," interrupted Mrs. Elliott, rather tartly,
"you've got kinder switched off."
"Excuse me, Eliza--so I have. Well, Sylvia got Edith up onto the couch
(the doctor had said she might get up for a little while that day,
anyhow) an' give her one of her prettiest wrappers--"
"What color? White?"
"No, Sylvia thought she was too pale. It was a lovely yellow, like the
dress she wore to the Graduation Ball. We all scurried 'round an' changed
our clothes--Austin's the most stunnin'-lookin' thing in that white
flannel suit of his, Sylvia wants he should wear it to his own weddin',
'stead of a dress-suit--an' I wore my gray--Well, it was all over before
you could say 'Jack Robinson' an' I never sweat a drop gettin' ready for
it, either! I shall miss Edith somethin' terrible this winter, but she'll
have an elegant trip, same as she's always wanted to, an' Peter says he
knows his parents'll be tickled to death to have such a pretty
"Don't you feel disappointed any," Mrs. Elliott could not help asking,
"to have a feller like Peter in the family?"
Mrs. Gray bit her thread. "I don't know what you got against Peter," she
said; "I look to like him the best of my son-in-laws, so far."
But that evening, as she sat with her husband beside the old
reading-lamp which all the electricity that Sylvia had installed had not
caused them to give up, her courage deserted her. Howard, sensing that
something was wrong, looked up from "Hoard's Dairyman," which he was
eagerly devouring, to see that the _Wallacetown Bugle_ had slipped to her
knees, and that she sat staring straight ahead of her, the tears rolling
down her cheeks.
"Why, Mary," he said in amazement--"Mary--"
The old-fashioned New Englander is as unemotional as he is
undemonstrative. For a moment Howard, always slow of speech and action,
was too nonplussed to know what to do, deeply sorry as he felt for his
wife. Then he leaned over and patted her hand--the hand that was scarcely
less rough and scarred than his own--with his big calloused one.
"You must stop grieving over Edith," he said gently, "and blaming
yourself for what's happened. You've been a wonderful mother--there
aren't many like you in the world. Think how well the other seven
children are coming along, instead of how the eighth slipped up.
Think how blessed we've been never to lose a single one of them by
"I do think, Howard." Mrs. Gray pressed his hand in return, smiling
bravely through her tears. "I'm an old fool to give way like this, an' a
worse one to let you catch me at it. But it ain't wholly Edith I'm
cryin' about. Land, every time I start to curse the devil for Jack
Weston, I get interrupted because I have to stop an' thank the Lord for
Peter. An' all the angels in heaven together singin' Halleluia led by
Gabriel for choir-master, couldn't half express my feelin's for Sylvia! I
guess 'twould always be that way if we'd stop to think. Our blessin's is
so much thicker than our troubles, that the troubles don't show up no
more than a little yellow mustard growin' up in a fine piece of
oats--unless we're bound to look at the mustard instead of the oats. As
it happens, I wasn't thinkin' of Edith at all at that moment, or really
grievin' either. It was just--"
"Yes?" asked Howard.
"This room," said Mrs. Gray, gulping a little, "is about the only one in
the house that ain't changed a mite. The others are improved somethin'
wonderful, but I'm kinder glad we've kept this just as it was. There's
the braided rugs on the floor that I made when you was courtin' me,
Howard, an' we used to set out on the doorstep together. An' the fringed
tidies over the chairs an' sofa that Eliza give me for a weddin'
present--they're faded considerable, but that good red wool never wears
out. There's the crayon portraits we had done when we was on our
honeymoon, an' the ones of James an' Sally when they was babies. Do you
remember how I took it to heart because we couldn't scrape together the
money no way to get one of Austin when he come along? He was the
prettiest baby we ever had, too, except--except Edith, of course. An'
after Austin we didn't even bring up the subject again--we was pretty
well occupied wonderin' how we was goin' to feed an' clothe 'em all, let
alone havin' pictures of 'em. Then there's the wax flowers on the
mantelpiece. I always trembled for fear one of the youngsters would knock
'em off an' break the glass shade to smithereens, but they never did. An'
there's your Grandfather Gray's clock. I was a little disappointed at
first because it had a brass face, 'stead o' bein' white with scenes on
it, like they usually was--an' then it was such a chore, with everything
else there was to do, to keep it shinin' like it ought to. But now I
think I like it better than the other kind, an' it's tickin' away, same
as it has this last hundred years an' more. Do you remember when we began
to wind it up, Saturday nights, 'together?--All this is the same, praise
"Yes?" asked Howard Gray again.
"For years, evenin's," went on Mrs. Gray, "this room was full of kids.
There was generally a baby sleepin'--or refusin', rather loud, to
sleep!--in the cradle over in the corner. The older ones was settin'
around doin' sums on their slates, or playin' checkers an' cat's-cradle.
They quarrelled considerable, an' they was pretty shabby, an' I never had
a chance to set down an' read the _Bugle_ quiet-like, after supper,
because the mendin'-basket was always waitin' for me, piled right up to
the brim. Saturday nights, what a job it was all winter to get enough
water het to fill the hat-tub over an' over again, an' fetch in front of
the air-tight. Often I was tempted to wash two or three of 'em in the
same water, but, as you know, I never done it. Thank goodness, we'd never
heard of such a thing as takin' a bath every day then! I don't deny it's
a comfort, with all the elegant plumbin' we've got now, not to feel
you've got to wait for a certain day to come 'round to take a good soak
when you're hot or dirty, but it would have been an awful strain on my
conscience an' my back both in them days. I used to think sometimes, 'Oh,
how glad I shall be when this pack of unruly youngsters is grown up an'
out of the way, an' Howard an' I can have a little peace.' An' now that
time's come, an' I set here feelin' lonely, an' thinkin' the old room
_ain't_ the same, in spite of the fact, as I said before, that it ain't
changed a mite, because we haven't got the whole eight tumblin' 'round
under our heels. I know they're doin' well--they're doin' most _too_
well. I'm scared the time's comin' when they'll look down on us, Howard,
me especially. Not that they'll mean to--but they're all gettin' so--so
different. You had a good education, an' talk right, but I can't even do
that. I found an old grammar the other day, an' set down an' tried to
learn somethin' out of it, but it warn't no use--I couldn't make head or
tail of it. An' then they're all away--an' they're goin' to keep on bein'
away. James is South, an' Thomas is at college, an' Molly's studyin'
music in Boston, an' before we know it Katherine'll be at college too,
an' Edith an' Austin in Europe. That leaves just Ruth an' Sally near us,
an' they're both married. I don't begrudge it to 'em one bit. I'm glad
an' thankful they're all havin' a better chance than we did. If I could
just feel that some day they'd all come back to the Homestead, an' to
us--an' come because they _wanted_ to--"
Howard put his arm around his wife, and drew her down beside him on the
old horsehair sofa. One of the precious red wool tidies slipped to the
floor, and lay there unnoticed. Slowly, while Mrs. Gray had been talking,
the full depth of her trouble became clear to him, and the words to
comfort her rose to his lips.
"They will, Mary," he said; "they will; you wait and see. How could you
think for one moment that our children could look down on their mother?
It's mighty seldom, let me tell you, that any boy or girl does that, and
only with pretty good reason then--never when they've been blessed with
one like you. I haven't been able to do what I wanted for ours, but at
least I gave them the best thing they possibly could have--a good
mother--and with that I don't think the hardships have hurt them much!
Have you forgotten--you mustn't think I'm sacrilegious, dear--that the
greatest mother we know anything about was just a poor carpenter's
wife--and how much her Great Son loved her? Her name was Mary, too--I'm
glad we gave Molly that name--she's a good girl--somehow it seems to me
it always carries a halo of sacredness with it, even now!--Then,
besides--Thomas and Austin are both going to be farmers, and live right
here on the old place. Austin's so smart, he may do other things besides,
but this will always be his home and Sylvia's. Peter and Edith'll be
here, too, and Sally and Ruth aren't more than a stone's-throw off, as
you might say. That makes four out of the eight--more than most parents
get. The others will come back, fast enough, to visit, with us and them
here! And think of the grandchildren coming along! Why, in the next
generation, there'll be more kids piling in and out of this living-room
than you could lug water and mend socks for if you never turned your hand
to another thing! And, thank God, you won't have to do that now--you can
just sit back and take solid comfort with them. You had to work so hard
when our own children were babies, Mary, that you never could do that.
But with Ruth's and Austin's and Sally's--"
He paused, smiling, as he looked into the future. Then he kissed her,
almost as shyly as he had first done more than thirty years before.
"Besides," he said, "I'm disappointed if you're lonely here with me, just
for a little while, because I'm enjoying it a whole lot. Haven't you ever
noticed that when two people that love each other first get married,
there's a kind of _glow_ to their happiness, like the glow of a sunrise?
It's mighty beautiful and splendid. Then the burden and heat of the day,
as the Bible says, comes along. It doesn't mean that they don't care for
each other any more. But they're so tired and so pressed and so worried
that they don't say much about their feelings, and sometimes they even
avoid talking to each other, or quarrel. But when the hard hours are
over, and the sun's gone down--not so bright as it was in the morning,
maybe, but softer, and spreading its color over the whole sky--the stars
come out--and they know the best part of the day's ahead of them still.
They can take time then to sit down, and take each other's hands, and
thank God for all his blessings, but most of all for the life of a man
and a woman together. Austin and Sylvia think they're going to have the
best part now, in the little brick cottage. But they're not. They'll be
having it thirty years from now, just as you and I are, in the Old Gray
Mary Gray wiped her eyes. "Why, Howard," she said, "you used to say you
wanted to be a poet, but I never knew till now that you _was_ one! I'd
rather you'd ha' said all that to me than--than to have been married to
Shakespeare!" she ended with a happy sob, and put her white head down on
Uncle Mat, whose long-postponed visit was at last taking place, sat
talking in front of the fire in Sylvia's living-room with the "new
minister." The room was bright with many candles, and early fall flowers
from her own garden stood about in clear glass vases. In the dining-room
beyond, they could see the two servants moving around the table, laid for
supper. A man's voice, whistling, and the sound of rapidly approaching
footsteps, came up the footpath from the Homestead. And at the same
moment, the door of Sylvia's own room opened and shut and there was the
rustle of silk and the scent of roses in the hall.
A moment later she came in, her arm on Austin's. Her neck and arms were
bare, as he loved to see them, and her white silk dress, brocaded in tiny
pink rosebuds, swept soft and full about her. A single string of great
pearls fell over the lace on her breast, and almost down to her waist,
and there was a high, jewelled comb in her low-dressed hair. She leaned
over her uncle's chair.
"Austin says the others are on their way. Am I all right, do you think,
"You look to me as if you had stepped out of an old French painting," he
said, pinching her rosy cheek; "I'm satisfied with you. But the question
arises, is Austin? He's so fussy."
Austin laughed, straightening his tie. "I can't fuss about this dress,"
he said, "for I chose it myself. But I'm not half the tyrant you all make
me out--I'm wearing white flannel to please her. Is there plenty of
supper, Sylvia? I'm almost starved."
"I know enough to expect a man to be hungry, even if he's going to be
hanged--or married," she retorted, "but I'll run out to the kitchen once
more, just to make sure that everything is all right."
The third of September had come at last. There was no question, this
time, of a wedding in St. Bartholomew's Church, with twelve bridesmaids
and a breakfast at Sherry's; no wonderful jewels, no press notices,
almost no trousseau. Austin's family, Uncle Mat, and a few close friends
came to Sylvia's own little house, and when the small circle was
complete, she took her uncle's arm and stood by Austin's side, while the
"new minister" married them. Thomas was best man; Molly, for the second
time that summer, maid-of-honor. Sadie and James were missing, but as "a
wedding present" came a telegram, announcing the safe arrival of a
nine-pound baby-girl. Edith was not there, either, and the date of
sailing for Holland had been postponed. She had gained less rapidly than
they had hoped, and still lay, very pale and quiet, on the sofa between
the big windows in her room. But she was not left alone when the rest of
the family departed for Sylvia's house; for Peter sat beside her in the
twilight, his big rough fingers clasping her thin white ones.
There proved to be "plenty of supper," and soon after it was finished the
guests began to leave, Uncle Mat with many imprecations at Sylvia's "lack
of hospitality in turning them out, such a cold night." Even the two
capable servants, having removed all traces of the feast, came to her
with many expressions of good-will, and the assurance of "comin' back
next season if they was wanted," and departed to take the night train
from Wallacetown for New York. By ten o'clock the white-panelled front
door with its brass knocker had opened and shut for the last time, and
Austin bolted it, and turned to Sylvia, smiling.
"Well, _Mrs. Gray_," he said, "you're locked in now--far from all the
sights and sounds that made your youth happy--shop-windows, and hotel
dining-rooms, the slamming of limousine doors, and the clinking of ice in
cocktail-shakers. Your last chance of escape is gone--you've signed and
sealed your own death-warrant."
"Austin! don't joke--to-night!"
"My dear," he asked, lifting her face in his hands, "did you never joke
because you were afraid--to show how much you really felt?"
"Yes," she replied, "very often. But there's nothing in the whole world
for me to be afraid of now."
"So you're really ready for me at last?" he whispered.
* * * * *
Whatever she answered--or even if she did not answer at all--to all
appearances, Austin was satisfied. His mother, seeing him for the first
time three days later, was almost startled at the radiance in his face.
It was, perhaps, a strange honeymoon. But those who thought so had felt,
and rightly, that it was a strange marriage. After the first few days,
Austin spent every day at the farm, as usual, walking back to the little
brick cottage for his noonday dinner, and leaving after the milking was
done at night; and Sylvia, dressed in blue gingham, cooked and cleaned
and sewed, and put her garden in shape for the winter. In spite of her
year's training at Mrs. Gray's capable hands, she made mistakes; she
burnt the grape jelly, and forgot to put the brown sugar into the sweet
pickle, and took the varnish off the dining-room table by polishing it
with raw linseed oil, and boiled the color out of her sheerest chiffon
blouse; and they laughed together over her blunders. Then, when evening
came, she was all in white again, and there was the simple supper served
by candle-light in the little dining-room, and the quiet hours in front
of the glowing fire afterwards, and the long, still nights with the soft
stars shining in, and the cool air blowing through the open windows of
Then, when the Old Gray Homestead had settled down to the blessed
peacefulness and security which, the harvest safely in, the snows still a
long way off, comes to every New England farm in the late fall, they
closed their white-panelled front door behind them, and sailed away
together, as Austin had wished to do. There were a few gay weeks in
London and Paris, The Hague and Rome--"enough," wrote Sylvia, "so that we
won't forget there _is_ any one else in the world, and use the wrong fork
when we go out to dine." There was a fortnight at the little Dutch house
where by this time Peter and Edith were spending the winter with Peter's
parents--"where our bed," wrote Sylvia, "was a great big box built into
the wall, but, oh! so soft and comfortable; with another box for the very
best cow just around the corner from it, and the music of Peter's
mother's scrubbing-brush for our morning hymn." And then there were
several months of wandering--"without undue haste, but otherwise just
like any other tourists," wrote Sylvia. They went leisurely from place to
place, as the weather dictated and their own inclinations advised. Part
of the time Edith and Peter were with them, but even then they were
nearly always alone, for Edith was not strong enough to keep up, even
with their moderate pace. They revisited places dear to both of them,
they sought out many new ones; early spring found them in Paris; and it
was here that there finally came an evening when Austin put his arms
around his wife's shoulders--they had made a longer day of sight-seeing
than usual, and she looked pale and tired, as having finished dressing
earlier than he she sat in the window, looking down at the brilliant
street beneath them, waiting for him to take her down to dinner--and
spoke in the unmistakably firm tone that he so seldom used.
"It's time you were at home, Sylvia--we're overstaying our holiday. I'll
make sailing arrangements to-morrow."
So, by the end of May, they were back in the little brick cottage again,
and the two capable servants were there, too, for there must be no
danger, now, of Sylvia's getting over-tired. Those were days when Austin
seldom left his wife for long if he could help it; found it hard, indeed,
not to watch her constantly, and to keep the expression of anxiety and
dread from his eyes. He had not proved to be among those men, who, as
some French cynic, more clever than wise, has expressed it, find "the
chase the best part of the game." His engagement had been a period
containing much joy, it is true, but also, much doubt, much
self-adjusting and repression--his marriage had not held one imperfect
hour. Sylvia, as his wife, with all the petty barriers which social
inequality and money and restraint had reared between them broken down by
the very weight of their love, was a being even much more desired and
hallowed than the pale, black-robed, unattainable lady of his first
worship had been; that Sylvia should suffer, because of him, was
horrible; that he might possibly lose her altogether was a fear which
grew as the days went on. It fell to her to dispel that, as she had so
"Why do you look at me so?" she asked, very quietly, as, according to
their old custom, they sat by the riverbank watching the sun go down.
"I don't mean to. But sometimes it seems as if I couldn't bear all this
that's coming. Nothing on earth can be worth it."
"You don't know," said Sylvia softly. "You won't feel that way--after
you've seen him. You'll know then--that whatever price we pay--our life
wouldn't have been complete without this."
"I can't understand why men should have all the pleasure--and women all
"My darling boy, they don't! That's only an old false theory, that
exploded years ago, along with the one about everlasting damnation, and
several other abominable ones of like ilk. Do you honestly believe--if
you will think sanely for a moment--that you have had more joy than I? Or
that you are not suffering twice as much as I am, or ever shall?"
"You say all that to comfort me, because you're twice as brave as I am."
"I say it to make you realize the truth, because I'm honest."
Molly and Katherine were busy at the Homestead in those days, Sally and
Ruth in their own little houses; but Edith was at the brick cottage a
great deal. In spite of all Peter's loving care, and the treatment of a
great doctor whom Sylvia had insisted she should see in London, she was
not very strong, and found that she must still let the long days slip by
quietly, while the white hands, that had once been so plump and brown,
grew steadily whiter and slimmer. She came upon Sylvia one sultry
afternoon, folding and sorting little clothes, arranging them in neat,
tiny piles in the scented, silk-lined drawers of a new bureau, and after
she had helped her put them all in order, with hardly a word, she leaned
her head against Sylvia's and whispered:
"I do wish there were some for me."
"I know, dear; but you're very young yet. Many wives are glad when this
doesn't happen right away. Sally is."
"I know. But, you see, I feel that perhaps there never will be any for
me--and that seems really only fair--doesn't it?"
Sylvia was silent. Her sympathy would not allow her to tell all the
London doctor had said to her about her young sister-in-law; neither
would it allow her to be untruthful. But certain phrases he had used came
back to her with tragic intensity.
"Many a woman who can recuperate almost miraculously from organic disease
fails to rally from shock--we've been overlooking that too long."--"Every
sleepless night undoes the good that the sunshine during the daytime has
wrought, and after many sleepless nights the days become simply horrible
preludes to more terrors."--"I can't drug a child like that to a long
life of uselessness--make her as happy as you can, but let her have it
over with as quickly as Nature will allow it--or take her to some other
man--I can't in charity to her tell you anything else."
So Sylvia and Peter made her "as happy as they could," and that they
hoped at times was very happy, indeed; but the look of dread never left
her eyes for long, and the tired smile which had replaced her ringing
laugh came less and less often to her pale lips.
There was another faithful visitor at the brick cottage that summer, for
after the end of June, Thomas, who came home from college at that time,
seemed to be on hand a good deal. He, as well as Austin, had proved false
to Uncle Mat's prophecy; for far from falling in love with another girl
within a year, he showed not the slightest indication of doing so, but
seemed to find perfect satisfaction in the society of his own family,
especially that portion of it in which Sylvia was, for the moment, to be
found. Austin at first marvelled at the ease with which he had accepted
her for a sister; but the boy's perfect transparency of behavior made it
impossible to feel that the new and totally different affection which he
now felt for her was a pose. Gradually he grew to depend on Thomas to
"look after Sylvia" when, for one reason or another, he was called away.
His interests at the bank took him more and more frequently to
Wallacetown; there were cattle auctions, too important to neglect, a
day's journey from home; there was even a tiny opening beginning to loom
up on the political horizon. Austin was too bound by every tie of blood
and affection to the Homestead ever to build his hearth-fire permanently
elsewhere; but he was also rapidly growing too big to be confined by it
to the exclusion of the new opportunities which seemed to be offering
themselves to him in such rapid succession in every direction.
Coming in very late one evening in August after one of these necessary
absences, he found Sylvia already in bed, their room dark. She had never
failed to wait up for him before. He felt a sudden pang of anxiety and
"Are you ill, darling? I didn't mean to be so late."
"No, not ill--just a little more tired than usual." She drew his head
down to her breast, and for some minutes they held each other so,
silently, their hearts beating together. "But I think it would be better
if we sent for the doctor now--I didn't want to until you came home."
She slipped out of bed, and walked over to the open window, his arm still
around her. The river shone like a ribbon of silver in the moonlight; the
green meadows lay in soft shadows for miles around it; in the distance
the Homestead stood silhouetted against the starlit sky.
"What a year it's been!" she whispered, "for you and me alone together!
And how many years there are before us--and our children--and the
Homestead--and all that we stand for--as long as the New England farms
and the Great Glorious Spirit which watches over them shall endure!"
A cloud passed over the moon dimming its brightness. It brought them to
the realization that the long, hard hours of the night were before them
both, to be faced and conquered. The New York doctor, whom Sylvia had
once before refused to send for, and the fresh-faced, rosy nurse, who
had both been staying at the brick cottage for the last few days, were
called, the servants roused to activity. There came a time when Austin,
impotent to serve Sylvia, marvelling at her bravery, wrung by her
suffering, felt that such agony was beyond endurance, beyond hope, beyond
anything in life worth gaining. But when the breathless, horrible night
had dragged its interminable black length up to the skirts of the radiant
dawn, the mist rose slowly from the quiet river and still more quiet
mountains, the first singing of the birds broke the heavy stillness, and
Austin and Sylvia kissed each other and their first-born son in the glory
of the golden morning.
Back to Full Books