XXXV. At the Sign of the Golden Spool[1]
 

[1 The author desires to say that this chapter relates to no shop now in existence.]

It was early May and a bright morning in Hillsborough. There were lines of stores and houses on either side of the main thoroughfare from the river to Moosehead Inn, a long, low, white building that faced the public square. Hunters coming off its veranda and gazing down the street, as if sighting over gun-barrels at the bridge, were wont to reckon the distance "nigh on to forty rod." There were "Boston Stores" and "Great Emporiums" and shops, modest as they were small, in that forty rods of Hillsborough. Midway was a little white building, its eaves within reach of one's hand, its gable on the line of the sidewalk overhanging which, from a crane above the door, was a big, golden spool. In its two windows were lace and ribbons and ladies' hats and spools of thread, and blue shades drawn high from seven o'clock in the morning until dark. It was the little shop of Ruth Tole--a house of Fate on the way from happening to history. There secrets, travel-worn, were nourished a while and sent on their way; reputations were made over and often trimmed with excellent taste and discrimination. The wicked might prosper for a time, but by and by the fates were at work on them, there in the little shop, and then every one smiled as the sinner passed, with the decoration of his rank upon him. And the sinner smiled also, seeing not the badge on his own back but only that on the back of his brother, and was highly pleased, for, if he had sin deeper than his brother's he had some discretion. Relentless and not over-just were they of this weird sisterhood. Since the time of the gods they have been without honour but never without work, and often they have had a better purpose than they knew. Those of Hillsborough did their work as if with a sense of its great solemnity. There was a flavour of awe in their nods and whispers, and they seemed to know they were touching immortal souls. But now and then they put on the masque of comedy.

Ruth Tole was behind the counter, sorting threads. She was a maiden of middle life and severe countenance, of few and decisive words. The door of the little shop was ajar, and near it a woman sat knitting. She had a position favourable for eye and ear. She could see all who passed, on either side of the way, and not a word or move in the shop escaped her. In the sisterhood she bore the familiar name of Lize. She had been talking about that old case of Riley Brooke and the Widow Glover.

"Looks to me," said she, thoughtfully, as she tickled her scalp with a knitting-needle, "that she took the kinks out o' him. He's a good deal more respectable."

"Like a panther with his teeth pulled," said a woman who stood by the counter, buying a spool of thread. "Ain't you heard how they made up?"

"Land sakes, no!" said the sister Lize, hurriedly finishing a stitch and then halting her fingers to pull the yarn.

The shopkeeper began rolling ribbons with a look of indifference. She never took part in the gossip and, although she loved to hear it, had, mostly, the air of one without ears.

"Well, that old tinker gave 'em both a good talking to," said the customer. "He brings 'em face to face, and he says to him, says he, 'In the day o' the Judgment God'll mind the look o' your wife,' and then he says the same to her."

"Singular man!" said the comely sister Lize, who now resumed her knitting.

"He never robbed that bank, either, any more 'n I did."

"Men ain't apt to claim a sin that don't belong to 'em--that's my opinion."

"He did it to shield another."

"Sidney Trove?" was the half-whispered query of the sister Lize.

"Trove, no!" said the other, quickly. "It was that old man with a gray beard who never spoke to anybody an' used to visit the tinker."

She was interrupted by a newcomer--a stout woman of middle age who fluttered in, breathing heavily, under a look of pallor and agitation.

"Sh-h-h!" said she, lifting a large hand. She sank upon a chair, fanning herself. She said nothing for a little, as if to give the Recording Angel a chance to dip her pen. The customer, who was now counting a box of beads, turned quickly, and she that was called Lize dropped her knitting.

"What is it, Bet, for mercy's sake?" said the latter.

"Have you heard the news?" said she that was called Bet.

"Land sakes, no!" said both the others.

Then followed a moment of suspense, during which the newcomer sat biting her under lip, a merry smile in her face. She was like a child dallying with a red plum.

"You're too provoking!" said the sister Lize, impatiently. "Why do you keep us hanging by the eyebrows?" She pulled her yarn with some violence, and the ball dropped to the floor, rolling half across it.

"Sh-h-h!" said the dear sister Bet again. Another woman had stopped by the door. Then a scornful whisper from the sister Lize.

"It's that horrible Kate Tredder. Mercy! is she coming in?"

She came in. Long since she had ceased to enjoy credit or confidence at the little shop.

"Nice day," said she.

The sister Lize moved impatiently and picked up her work. This untimely entrance had left her "hanging by the eyebrows" and red with anxiety. She gave the newcomer a sweeping glance, sighed and said, "Yes." The sister Bet grew serious and began tapping the floor with her toe.

"I've been clear 'round the square," said Mrs. Tredder, "an' I guess I'll sit a while. I ain't done a thing to-day, an' I don't b'lieve I'll try 'til after dinner. Miss Tole, you may give me another yard o' that red silk ribbon."

She sat by the counter, and Miss Tole sniffed a little and began to measure the ribbon. She was deeply if secretly offended by this intrusion.

"What's the news?" said the newcomer, turning to the sister Bet.

"Oh, nothing!" said the other, wearily.

"Ain't you heard about that woman up at the Moosehead?"

"Heard all I care to," said the sister Bet, with jealous feeling. Here was another red plum off the same tree.

"What about her?" said the sister Lize, now reaching on tiptoe, as it were. The sister Bet rose impatiently and made for the door.

"Going?" said she that was called Lize, a note of alarm in her voice.

"Yes; do you think I've nothing else to do but sit here and gossip," said sister Bet, disappearing suddenly, her face red.

The newcomer sat in a thoughtful attitude, her elbow on the counter.

"Well?" said the sister Lize.

"You all treat me so funny here I guess I'll go," said Mrs. Tredder, who now got up, her face darkening, and hurried away. They of the plums had both vanished.

"Wretch!" said the sister Lize, hotly; "I could have choked her." She squirmed a little, moving her chair roughly.

"She's forever sticking her nose into other people's business," were the words of the customer who was counting beads. She seemed to be near the point of tears.

"Maybe that's why it's so red," the other answered with unspeakable contempt. "I'm so mad I can hardly sit still."

She wound her yarn close and stuck her needle into the ball.

"Thank goodness!" said she, suddenly; "here comes Serene."

The sister Serene Davis, a frail, fair lady, entered.

"Well," said the latter, "I suppose you've heard--" she paused to get her breath.

"What?" said the sister Lize, in a whisper, approaching the new arrival.

"My heart is all in a flutter--don't hurry me."

The sister Lize went to the door and closed it. Then she turned quickly, facing the other woman.

"Serene Davis," she began solemnly, "you'll never leave this room alive until you tell us."

"Can't you let a body enjoy herself a minute?"

"Tell me," she insisted, threatening with a needle.

Ruth Tole regarded them with a look of firmness which seemed to say, "Stab her if she doesn't tell."

"Well," said the sister Serene, "you know that stylish young widow that came a while ago to the Moosehead--the one that wore the splendid black silk the night o' the ball?"

"Yes."

"She was a detective,"--this in a whisper.

"What!" said the other two, awesomely.

"A detective."

Then a quick movement of chairs and a pulling of yarn. Ruth dropped a spool of thread which rattled, as it fell, and rolled a space and lay neglected.

The sister Serene was now laughing.

"It's ridiculous!" she remarked.

"Go on," said the others, and one of them added, "Land sakes! don't stop now."

"Well, she got sick the other day and sent for a lawyer, an' who do you suppose it was?"

"I dunno," said Ruth Tole. The words had broken away from her, and she covered her mouth, quickly, and began to look out of the window. The speaker had begun to laugh again.

"'Twas Dick Roberts," she went on. "He went over to the tavern; she lay there in bed and had a nurse in the room with her--a woman she got in Ogdensburg. She tells the young lawyer she wants him to make her will. Then she describes her property and he puts it down. There was a palace in Wales and a castle on the Rhine and pearls and diamonds and fifty thousand pounds in a foreign bank, and I don't know what all. Well, ye know, she was pert and handsome, and he began to take notice."

The sisters looked from one to another and gave up to gleeful smiles, but Ruth was, if anything, a bit firmer than before.

"Next day he brought her some flowers, and she began to get better. Then he took her out to ride. One night about ten o'clock the nurse comes into the room sudden like, and finds him on his knees before the widow, kissing her dress an' talking all kinds o' nonsense."

"Here! stop a minute," said the sister Lize, who had now dropped her knitting and begun to fan herself. "You take my breath away." The details were too important for hasty consideration.

"Makin' love?" said she with the beads, thoughtfully.

"I should think likely," said the other, whereupon the three began to laugh again. Their merriment over, through smiles they gave each other looks of dreamy reflection.

"Now go on," said the sister Lize, leaning forward, her chin upon her hands.

"There he knelt, kissing her dress," the narrator continued.

"Why didn't he kiss her face?"

"Because she wouldn't let him, I suppose."

"Oh!" said the others, nodding their heads, thoughtfully.

"When the nurse came," the sister Serene continued, "the widow went to a desk and wrote a letter and brought it to Dick. Then says the widow, says she: 'You take this to my uncle in Boston. If you can make him give his consent, I'd be glad to see you again.'

"Dick, he rushed off that very evening an' took the cars at Madrid. What do you suppose the letter said?"

The sister Serene began to shake with laughter.

"What?" was the eager demand of the two sisters.

"Well, the widow told the nurse and she told Mary Jones and Mary told me. The letter was kind o' short and about like this:--

"'Pardon me for introducing a scamp by the name of Roberts. He's engaged to a very sweet young lady and has the impudence to make love to me. I wish to get him out of this town for a while, and can't think of any better way. Don't use him too roughly. He was a detective once himself.'

"Well, in a couple of days the widow got a telegraph message from her uncle, an' what do you suppose it said?"

The sister Serene covered her face and began to quiver. The other two were leaning toward her, smiling, their mouths open.

"What was it?" said the sister Lize.

"'Kicked him downstairs,'" the narrator quoted.

"Y!" the two whispered.

"Good enough for him." It was the verdict of the little shopkeeper, sharply spoken, as she went on with her work.

"So I say,"--this from the other three, who were now quite serious.

"He'd better not come back here," said the sister Lize.

"He never will, probably."

"Who employed the widow?"

"Nobody knows," said the sister Serene. "Before she left town she had a check cashed, an' it come from Riley Brooke. Some think Martha Vaughn herself knows all about it. Sh-h-h! there goes Sidney Trove."

"Ain't he splendid looking?" said she with the beads.

Ruth Tole had opened the door, and they were now observing the street and those who were passing in it.

"One of these days there'll be some tall love-making up there at the Widow Vaughn's," said she that was called Lize.

"Like to be behind the door"--this from her with the beads.

"I wouldn't," said the sister Serene.

"No, you wouldn't!"

"I'd rather be up next to the young man." A merry laugh, and then a sigh from the sister Lize, who looked a bit dreamy and began to tickle her head with a knitting-needle.

"What are you sighing for?" said she with the beads,

"Oh, well," said the other, yawning, "it makes me think o' the time when I was a girl."

"Look! there's Jeanne Brulet,"--it was a quick whisper.

They gathered close and began to shake their heads and frown. Now, indeed, they were as the Fates of old.

"Look at her clothes," another whispered.

"They're better than I can wear. I'd like to know where she gets the money."

Then a look from one to the other--a look of fateful import, soon to travel far, and loose a hundred tongues. That moment the bowl was broken, but the weird sisters knew not the truth.

She that was called Lize, put up her knitting and rose from her chair.

"There's work waiting for me at home," said she.

"Quilting?"

"No; I'm working on a shroud."