The Old Gray Homestead, page 1
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THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD
BY FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES
To the farmers, and their mothers, wives, and daughters, who have beenmy nearest neighbors and my best friends for the last fifteen years, andwho have taught me to love the country and the people in it, this quietstory of a farm is affectionately and gratefully dedicated.
THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD
"For Heaven's sake, Sally, don't say, 'Isn't it hot?' or, 'Did you everknow such weather for April?' or, 'Doesn't it seem as if the mud was justas bad as it used to be before we had the State Road?' again. It _is_hot. I never did see such weather. The mud is _worse_ if anything. I'vesaid all this several times, and if you can't think of anything moreinteresting to talk about, I wish you'd keep still."
Sally Gray pushed back the lock of crinkly brown hair that was alwaysgetting in her eyes, puckered her lips a little, and glanced at herbrother Austin without replying, but with a slight ripple of concerndisturbing her usual calm. She was plain and plump and placid, as sweetand wholesome as clover, and as nerveless as a cow, and she secretlyenvied her brother's lean, dark handsomeness; but she was conscious of alittle pang of regret that the young, eager face beside her was alreadybecoming furrowed with lines of discontent and bitterness, and that theexpression of the fine mouth was rapidly growing more and more hard andsullen. Austin had been all the way from Hamstead to White Water thatday, stopping on his way back at Wallacetown, to bring Sally, who taughtschool there, home for over Sunday; his little old horse, never eitherstrong or swift, was tired and hot and muddy, and hung its unkempt headdejectedly, apparently having lost all willingness to drag thedilapidated top-buggy and its two occupants another step. Austin'smanner, Sally reflected, was not much more cheerful than that of hishorse; while his clothes were certainly as dirty, as shabby, and asout-of-date as the rest of his equipage.
"It's a shame," she thought, "that Austin takes everything so hard. Therest of us don't mind half so much. If he could only have a little bit ofencouragement and help--something that would make him really happy! If hecould earn some money--or find out that, after all, money isn'teverything--or fall in love with some nice girl--" She checked herself,blushing and sighing. The blush was occasioned by her own quiet happinessin that direction; but the sigh was because Austin, though he was wellknown to have been "rather wild," never paid any "nice girl" theslightest attention, and jeered cynically at the mere suggestion that heshould do so.
"How lovely the valley is!" she said aloud at last; "I don't believethere's a prettier stretch of road in the whole world than this betweenWallacetown and Hamstead, especially in the spring, when the river is sohigh, and everything is looking so fresh and green."
"Fortunate it is pretty; probably it's the only thing we'll have to lookat as long as we live--and certainly it's about all we've seen so far! Ifthere'd been only you and I, Sally, we could have gone off to school, andmaybe to college, too, but with eight of us to feed and clothe, it's nowonder that father is dead sunk in debt! Certainly I shan't travel much,"he added, laughing bitterly, "when he thinks we can't have even one hiredman in the future--and certainly you won't either, if you're fool enoughto marry Fred, and go straight from the frying-pan of onepoverty-stricken home to the fire of another!"
"Oh, Austin, it's wrong of you to talk so! I'm going to be ever sohappy!"
"Wrong! How else do you expect me to talk?--if I talk at all! Doesn't itmean anything to you that the farm's mortgaged to the very last cent, andthat it doesn't begin to produce what it ought to because we can't beg,borrow, or steal the money that ought to be put into it? Can you justshut your eyes to the fact that the house--the finest in the county whenGrandfather Gray built it--is falling to pieces for want of necessaryrepairs? And look at our barns and sheds--or don't look at them if youcan help it! Doesn't it gall you to dress as you do, because you have toturn over most of what you can earn teaching to the family--of course,you never can earn much, because you haven't had a good enough educationyourself to get a first-class position--so that the younger girls can goto school at all, instead of going out as hired help? Can't you feel theinjustice of being poor, and dirty, and ignorant, when thousands of otherpeople are just _rotten_ with money?"
"I've heard of such people, but I've never met any of them around here,"returned his sister quietly. "We're no worse off than lots of people,better off than some. I think we've got a good deal to be thankful for,living where we can see green things growing, and being well, and havinga mother like ours. I wish you could come to feel that way. Perhaps youwill some day."
"Why don't you marry Fred's cousin, instead of Fred?" asked her brother,changing the subject abruptly. "You could get him just as easy as not--Icould see that when he was here last summer. Then you could go to Bostonto live, get something out of life yourself, and help your family, too."
"No one in the family but you would want help from me--at that price,"returned Sally, still speaking quietly, but betraying by the slightunevenness of her voice that her quiet spirit was at last disturbed morethan she cared to show. "Why, Austin, you know how I lo--care for Fred,and that I gave him my word more than two years ago! Besides, I heard yousay yourself, before you knew he fancied me, that Hugh Elliott drank--anddid all sorts of other dreadful things--he wouldn't be consideredrespectable in Hamstead."
Austin laughed again. "All right. I won't bring up the subject again. Tenyears from now you may be sorry you wouldn't put up with an occasionalspree, and sacrifice a silly little love-affair, for the sake ofeverything else you'd get. But suit yourself. Cook and wash and iron andscrub, lose your color and your figure and your disposition, and bringhalf-a-dozen children into the world with no better heritage than that,if it's your idea of bliss--and it seems to be!"
"I didn't mean to be cross, Sally," he said, after they had driven alongin heavy silence for some minutes. "I've been trying to do a littlebusiness for father in White Water to-day, and met with my usual run ofluck--none at all. Here comes one of the livery-stable teams ploughingtowards us through the mud. Who's in it, do you suppose? Doesn't lookfamiliar, some way."
As the livery-stable in Hamstead boasted only four turn-outs, it was notstrange that Austin recognized one of them at sight, and as strangerswere few and far between, they were objects of considerable interest.
Sally leaned forward.
"No, she doesn't. She's all in black--and my! isn't she pretty? She seemsto be stopping and looking around--why don't you ask her if you could beof any help?"
Austin nodded, and pulled in his reins. "I wonder if I could--" he began,but stopped abruptly, realizing that the lady in the buggy coming towardsthem had also stopped, and spoken the very same words. Inevitably theyall smiled, and the stranger began again.
"I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Mr. Howard Gray's house,"she said. "I was told at the hotel to drive along this road as far as alarge white house--the first one I came to--and then turn to the right.But I don't see any road."
"There isn't any, at this time of year," said Sally, laughing,--"nothingbut mud. You have to wallow through that field, and go up a hill, anddown a hill, and along a little farther, and then you come to the house.Just follow us--we're going there. I'm Howard Gray's eldest daughterSally, and this is my brother Austin."
"Oh! then perhaps you can tell me--before I intrude--if it would be anyuse--whether you think that possibly--whether under any circumstances--well, if your mother would be good enough to let me come and liveat her house a little while?"
By this time Sally and Austin had both realized two things: fir
"I'm not very well," she went on rapidly, before they could answer, "andmy doctor told me to go away to some quiet place in the country until Icould get--get rested a little. I spent a summer here with my mother whenI was a little girl, and I remembered how lovely it was, and so I cameback. But the hotel has run down so that I don't think I can possiblystay there; and yet I can't bear to go away from this beautiful, peacefulriver-valley--it's just what I've been longing to find. I happened tooverhear some one talking about Mrs. Gray, and saying that she mightconsider taking me in. So I hired this buggy and started out to find herand ask. Oh, don't you think she would?"
Sally and Austin exchanged glances. "Mother never has taken any boarders,she's always been too busy," began the former; then, seeing the swiftlook of disappointment on the sad little face, "but she might. Itwouldn't do any harm to ask, anyway. We'll drive ahead, and show you howto get there."
The Gray family had been one of local prominence ever since Colonialdays, and James Gray, who built the dignified, spacious homestead nowoccupied by his grandson's family, had been a man of some education andwealth. His son Thomas inherited the house, but only a fourth of thefortune, as he had three sisters. Thomas had but one child, Howard, whoseprospects for prosperity seemed excellent; but he grew up a dreamy,irresolute, studious chap, a striking contrast to the sturdy yeoman typefrom which he had sprung--one of those freaks of heredity that are hardto explain. He went to Dartmouth College, travelled a little, showed adisposition to read--and even to write--verses. As a teacher he probablywould have been successful; but his father was determined that he shouldbecome a farmer, and Howard had neither the energy nor the disposition tooppose him; he proved a complete failure. He married young, and, it wasgenerally considered, beneath him; for Mary Austin, with a heart of goldand a disposition like sunshine, had little wealth or breeding and lesseducation to commend her; and she was herself too easy-going andcontented to prove the prod that Howard sadly needed in his wife.Children came thick and fast; the eldest, James, had now gone South; thesecond daughter, Ruth, was already married to a struggling storekeeperliving in White Water; Sally taught school; but the others were all stillat home, and all, except Austin, too young to be self-supporting--Thomas,Molly, Katherine, and Edith. They had all caught their father's facilityfor correct speech, rare in northern New England; most of them his loveof books, his formless and unfulfilled ambitions; more than one theshiftlessness and incompetence that come partly from natural bent andpartly from hopelessness; while Sally and Thomas alone possessed thesunny disposition and the ability to see the bright side of everythingand the good in everybody which was their mother's legacy to them.
The old house, set well back from the main road and near the river, withelms and maples and clumps of lilac bushes about it, was almost bare ofthe cheerful white paint that had once adorned it, and the green blindswere faded and broken; the barns never had been painted, and werehuddled close to the house, hiding its fine Colonial lines, black,ungainly, and half fallen to pieces; all kinds of farm implements, rustyfrom age and neglect, were scattered about, and two dogs and severalcats lay on the kitchen porch amidst the general litter of milk-pails,half-broken chairs, and rush mats. There was no one in sight as the twomuddy buggies pulled up at the little-used front door. Howard Gray andThomas were milking, both somewhat out-of-sorts because of thenon-appearance of Austin, for there were too many cows for them tomanage alone--a long row of dirty, lean animals of uncertain age andbreed. Molly was helping her mother to "get supper," and the redtablecloth and heavy white china, never removed from the kitchen tableexcept to be washed, were beginning to be heaped with pickles,doughnuts, pie, and cake, and there were potatoes and pork frying on thestove. Katherine was studying, and Edith had gone to hastily "spread up"the beds that had not been made that morning.
On the whole, however, the inside of the house was more tidy than theoutside, and the girl in black was aware of the homely comfort and goodcheer of the living-room into which she was ushered (since there was notime to open up the cold "parlor") more than she was of its shabbiness.
"Come right in an' set down," said Mrs. Gray cheerfully, leading theway; "awful tryin' weather we're havin', ain't it? An' the mud--my, it'ssomethin' fierce! The men-folks track it in so, there's no keepin' itswept up, an' there's so many of us here! But there's nothin' like alarge family for keepin' things hummin' just the same, now, is there?"Mrs. Gray had had scant time to prepare her mind either for herunexpected visitor or the object of her visit; but her mother-wit wasready, for all that; one glance at the slight, black-robed littlefigure, and the thin white face, with its tired, dark-ringed eyes, wasenough for her. Here was need of help; and therefore help of some sortshe must certainly give. "Now, then," she went on quickly, "you lookjust plum tuckered out; set down an' rest a spell, an' tell me what Ican do for you."
"My name is Sylvia Cary--Mrs. Mortimer Cary, I mean." She shivered,paused, and went on. "I live in New York--that is, I always have--I'mnever going to any more, if I can help it. My husband died two monthsago, my baby--just before that. I've felt so--so--tired ever since, Ijust had to get away somewhere--away from the noise, and the hurry, andthe crowds of people I know. I was in Hamstead once, ten years ago, and Iremembered it, and came back. I want most dreadfully to stay--could youpossibly make room for me here?"
"Oh, you poor lamb! I'd do anything I could for you--but this ain't thesort of home you've been used to--" began Mrs. Gray; but she wasinterrupted.
"No, no, of course it isn't! Don't you understand--I can't bear what I'vebeen used to another minute! And I'll honestly try not to be a bit oftrouble if you'll only let me stay!"
Mrs. Gray twisted in her chair, fingering her apron. "Well, now, Idon't know! You've come so sudden-like--if I'd only had a littlenotice! There's no place fit for a lady like you; but there are tworooms we never use--the northeast parlor and the parlor-chamber off it.You could have one of them--after I got it cleaned up a mite--an' tryit here for a while."
"Couldn't I have them both? I'd like a sitting-room as well as abedroom."
"Land! You ain't even seen 'em yet! maybe they won't suit you at all!But, come, I'll show 'em to you an' if you want to stay, you shan't goback to that filthy hotel. I'll get the bedroom so's you can sleep in itto-night--just a lick an' a promise; an' to-morrow I'll house-clean 'emboth thorough, if 't is the Sabbath--the 'better the day, the better thedeed,' I've heard some say, an' I believe that's true, don't you, Mrs.Cary?" She bustled ahead, pulling up the shades, and flinging open thewindows in the unused rooms. "My, but the dust is thick! Don't you toucha thing--just see if you think they'll do."
Sylvia Cary glanced quickly about the two great square rooms, with theirwhite wainscotting, and shutters, their large, stopped-up fireplaces,dingy wall-paper, and beautiful, neglected furniture. "Indeed they will!"she exclaimed; "they'll be lovely when we get them fixed. And may Itruly stay--right now? I brought my hand-bag with me, you see, hopingthat I might, and my trunks are still at the station--wait, I'll give youthe checks, and perhaps your son will get them after supper."
She put the bag on a chair, and began to open it, hurriedly, as ifunwilling to wait a minute longer before making sure of remaining. Mrs.Gray, who was standing near her, drew back with a gasp of surprise. Thebag was lined with heavy purple silk, and elaborately fitted with toiletarticles of shining gold. Mrs. Cary plunged her hands in and tossed outan embroidered white satin negligee, a pair of white satin bed-slippers,and a nightgown that was a mere wisp of sheer silk and lace; then drewforth three trunk-checks, and a bundle an inch thick of crisp, newbank-notes, and pulled one out, blushing and hesitating.
"I don't know how to thank you for taking me in to-night," she said;"some
And she folded the bill into a tiny square, and crushed it into Mrs.Gray's reluctant hand.
Fifteen minutes later, when Howard Gray and Thomas came into the kitchenfor their supper, bringing the last full milk-pails with them, theyfound the pork and potatoes burnt to a frazzle, the girls all talking atonce, and Austin bending over his mother, who sat in the big rocker withthe tears rolling down her cheeks, and a hundred-dollar bill spread outon her lap.