Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
When Aunt Abby Waked Up
The room was very still. The gaunt figure on the bed lay motionless save for a slight lifting of the chest at long intervals. The face was turned toward the wall, leaving a trail of thin gray hair-wisps across the pillow. Just outside the door two physicians talked together in low tones, with an occasional troubled glance toward the silent figure on the bed.
"If there could be something that would rouse her," murmured one; "something that would prick her will-power and goad it into action! But this lethargy--this wholesale giving up!" he finished with a gesture of despair.
"I know," frowned the other; "and I've tried--day after day I've tried. But there's nothing. I've exhausted every means in my power. I didn't know but you--" He paused questioningly.
The younger man shook his head.
"No," he said. "If you can't, I can't. You've been her physician for years. If anyone knows how to reach her, you should know. I suppose you've thought of--her son?"
"Oh, yes. Jed was sent for long ago, but he had gone somewhere into the interior on a prospecting trip, and was very hard to reach. It is doubtful if word gets to him at all until--too late. As you know, perhaps, it is rather an unfortunate case. He has not been home for years, anyway, and the Nortons--James is Mrs. Darling's nephew--have been making all the capital they can out of it, and have been prejudicing her against him--quite unjustly, in my opinion, for I think it's nothing more nor less than thoughtlessness on the boy's part."
"Hm-m; too bad, too bad!" murmured the other, as he turned and led the way to the street door.
Back in the sick-room the old woman still lay motionless on the bed. She was wondering--as she had wondered so often before--why it took so long to die. For days now she had been trying to die, decently and in order. There was really no particular use in living, so far as she could see. Ella and Jim were very kind; but, after all, they were not Jed, and Jed was away--hopelessly away. He did not even want to come back, so Ella and Jim said.
There was the money, too. She did not like to think of the money. It seemed to her that every nickel and dime and quarter that she had painfully wrested from the cost of keeping soul and body together all these past years lay now on her breast with a weight that crushed like lead. She had meant that money for Jed. Ella and Jim were kind, of course, and she was willing they should have it; yet Jed--but Jed was away.
And she was so tired. She had ceased to rouse herself, either for the medicine or for the watery broths they forced through her lips. It was so hopelessly dragged out--this dying; yet it must be over soon. She had heard them tell the neighbors only yesterday that she was unconscious and that she did not know a thing of what was passing around her; and she had smiled--but only in her mind. Her lips, she knew, had not moved.
They were talking now--Ella and Jim--out in the other room. Their voices, even their words, were quite distinct, and dreamily, indifferently, she listened.
"You see," said Jim, "as long as I've got ter go ter town ter-morrer, anyhow, it seems a pity not ter do it all up at once. I could order the coffin an' the undertaker--it's only a question of a few hours, anyway, an' it seems such a pity ter make another trip--jest fer that!"
In the bedroom the old woman stirred suddenly. Somewhere, away back behind the consciousness of things, something snapped, and sent the blood tingling from toes to fingertips. A fierce anger sprang instantly into life and brushed the cobwebs of lethargy and indifference from her brain. She turned and opened her eyes, fixing them upon the oblong patch of light that marked the doorway leading to the room beyond where sat Ella and Jim.
"Jest fer that," Jim had said, and "that" was her death. It was not worth, it seemed, even an extra trip to town! And she had done so much-- so much for those two out there!
"Let's see; ter-day's Monday," Jim went on. "We might fix the fun'ral for Saturday, I guess, an' I'll tell the folks at the store ter spread it. Puttin' it on Sat'day'll give us a leetle extry time if she shouldn't happen ter go soon's we expect--though there ain't much fear o' that now, I guess, she's so low. An' it'll save me 'most half a day ter do it all up this trip. I ain't--what's that?" he broke off sharply.
From the inner room had seemed to come a choking, inarticulate cry.
With a smothered ejaculation Jim picked up the lamp, hurried into the sick-room, and tiptoed to the bed. The gaunt figure lay motionless, face to the wall, leaving a trail of thin gray hair-wisps across the pillow.
"Gosh!" muttered the man as he turned away.
"There's nothin' doin'-but it did give me a start!"
On the bed the woman smiled grimly--but the man did not see it.
It was snowing hard when Jim got back from town Tuesday night. He came blustering into the kitchen with stamping feet and wide-flung arms, scattering the powdery whiteness in all directions.
"Whew! It's a reg'lar blizzard," he began, but he stopped short at the expression on his wife's face. "Why, Ella!" he cried.
"Jim--Aunt Abby sat up ten minutes in bed ter-day. She called fer toast an' tea."
Jim dropped into a chair. His jaw fell open.
"S-sat up!" he stammered.
"But she--hang it all, Herrick's comin' ter-morrer with the coffin!"
"Well, I can't help it! You know how she was this mornin'," retorted Jim sharply. "I thought she was dead once. Why, I 'most had Herrick come back with me ter-night, I was so sure."
"I know it," shivered Ella, "but you hadn't been gone an hour 'fore she began to stir an' notice things. I found her lookin' at me first, an' it give me such a turn I 'most dropped the medicine bottle in my hand. I was clearin' off the little table by her bed, an' she was followin' me around with them big gray eyes. 'Slickin' up?' she asks after a minute; an' I could 'a' dropped right there an' then, 'cause I was slickin' up, fer her fun'ral. 'Where's Jim?' she asks then. 'Gone ter town,' says I, kind o' faint-like. 'Umph!' she says, an' snaps her lips tight shet. After a minute she opens 'em again. 'I think I'll have some tea and toast,' she says, casual-like, jest as if she'd been callin' fer victuals ev'ry day fer a month past. An' when I brought it, if she didn't drag herself up in bed an' call fer a piller to her back, so's she could set up. An' there she stayed, pantin' an' gaspin', but settin' up--an' she stayed there till the toast an' tea was gone."
"Gosh!" groaned Jim. "Who'd 'a' thought it? 'Course 't ain't that I grudge the old lady's livin'," he added hurriedly, "but jest now it's so-- unhandy, things bein' as they be. We can't very well--" He stopped, a swift change coming to his face. "Say, Ella," he cried, "mebbe it's jest a spurt 'fore--'fore the last. Don't it happen some-times that way--when folks is dyin'?"
"I don't know," shuddered Ella. "Sh-h! I thought I heard her." And she hurried across the hall to the sitting-room and the bedroom beyond.
It did not snow much through the night, but in the early morning it began again with increased severity. The wind rose, too, and by the time Herrick, the undertaker, drove into the yard, the storm had become a blizzard.
"I calc'lated if I didn't git this 'ere coffin here purty quick there wouldn't be no gettin' it here yet awhile," called Herrick cheerfully, as Jim came to the door.
Jim flushed and raised a warning hand.
"Sh-h! Herrick, look out!" he whispered hoarsely. "She ain't dead yet. You'll have ter go back."
"Go back!" snorted Herrick. "Why, man alive, 'twas as much as my life's worth to get here. There won't be no goin' back yet awhile fer me nor no one else, I calc'late. An' the quicker you get this 'ere coffin in out of the snow, the better't will be," he went on authoritatively as he leaped to the ground.
It was not without talk and a great deal of commotion that the untimely addition to James Norton's household effects was finally deposited in the darkened parlor; neither was it accomplished without some echo of the confusion reaching the sick-room, despite all efforts of concealment. Jim, perspiring, redfaced, and palpably nervous, was passing on tiptoe through the sitting-room when a quavering voice from the bedroom brought him to a halt.
"Jim, is that you?"
"Yes, Aunt Abby."
Jim's face grew white, then red.
"C-ome?" he stammered.
"Yes, I heard a sleigh and voices. Who is it?"
"Why, jest-jest a man on--on business," he flung over his shoulder, as he fled through the hall.
Not half an hour later came Ella's turn. In accordance with the sick woman's orders she had prepared tea, toast, and a boiled egg; but she had not set the tray on the bed when the old woman turned upon her two keen eyes.
"Who's in the kitchen, Ella, with Jim?"
Ella started guiltily.
"Why, jest a--a man."
"Who is it?"
Ella hesitated; then, knowing that deceit was useless, she stammered out the truth.
"Why, er--only Mr. Herrick."
"Not William Herrick, the undertaker!" There was apparently only pleased surprise in the old woman's voice.
"Yes," nodded Ella feverishly, "he had business out this way, and--and got snowed up," she explained with some haste.
"Ye don't say," murmured the old woman. "Well, ask him in; I'd like ter see him."
"Aunt Abby!"--Ella's teeth fairly chattered with dismay.
"Yes, I'd like ter see him," repeated the old woman with cordial interest. "Call him in."
And Ella could do nothing but obey.
Herrick, however, did not stay long in the sick-room. The situation was uncommon for him, and not without its difficulties. As soon as possible he fled to the kitchen, telling Jim that it gave him "the creeps" to have her ask him where he'd started for, and if business was good.
All that day it snowed and all that night; nor did the dawn of Friday bring clear skies. For hours the wind had swept the snow from roofs and hilltops, piling it into great drifts that grew moment by moment deeper and more impassable.
In the farmhouse Herrick was still a prisoner.
The sick woman was better. Even Jim knew now that it was no momentary flare of the candle before it went out. Mrs. Darling was undeniably improving in health. She had sat up several times in bed, and had begun to talk of wrappers and slippers. She ate toast, eggs, and jellies, and hinted at chicken and beefsteak. She was weak, to be sure, but behind her, supporting and encouraging, there seemed to be a curious strength-- a strength that sent a determined gleam to her eyes, and a grim tenseness to her lips.
At noon the sun came out, and the wind died into fitful gusts. The two men attacked the drifts with a will, and made a path to the gate. They even attempted to break out the road, and Herrick harnessed his horse and started for home; but he had not gone ten rods before he was forced to turn back.
"'T ain't no use," he grumbled. "I calc'late I'm booked here till the crack o' doom!"
"An' ter-morrer's the fun'ral," groaned Jim. "An' I can't git nowhere-- nowhere ter tell 'em not ter come!"
"Well, it don't look now as if anybody'd come--or go," snapped the undertaker.
Saturday dawned fair and cold. Early in the morning the casket was moved from the parlor to the attic.
There had been sharp words at the breakfast table, Herrick declaring that he had made a sale, and refusing to take the casket back to town; hence the move to the attic; but in spite of their caution, the sick woman heard the commotion.
"What ye been cartin' upstairs?" she asked in a mildly curious voice.
Ella was ready for her.
"A chair," she explained smoothly; "the one that was broke in the front room, ye know." And she did not think it was necessary to add that the chair was not all that had been moved. She winced and changed color, however, when her aunt observed:
"Humph! Must be you're expectin' company, Ella."
It was almost two o'clock when loud voices and the crunch of heavy teams told that the road-breakers had come. All morning the Nortons had been hoping against hope that the fateful hour would pass, and the road be still left in unbroken whiteness. Someone, however, had known his duty too well--and had done it.
"I set ter work first thing on this road," said the man triumphantly to Ella as he stood, shovel in hand, at the door. "The parson's right behind, an' there's a lot more behind him. Gorry! I was afraid I wouldn't git here in time, but the fun'ral wan't till two, was it?"
Ella's dry lips refused to move. She shook her head.
"There's a mistake," she said faintly. "There ain't no fun'ral. Aunt Abby's better."
The man stared, then he whistled softly.
"Gorry!" he muttered, as he turned away.
If Jim and Ella had supposed that they could keep their aunt from attending her own "funeral"--as Herrick persisted in calling it--they soon found their mistake. Mrs. Darling heard the bells of the first arrival.
"I guess mebbe I'll git up an' set up a spell," she announced calmly to Ella. "I'll have my wrapper an' my slippers, an' I'll set in the big chair out in the settin'-room. That's Parson Gerry's voice, an' I want ter see him."
"But, Aunt Abby--" began Ella, feverishly.
"Well, I declare, if there ain't another sleigh drivin' in," cried the old woman excitedly, sitting up in bed and peering through the little window. "Must be they're givin' us a s'prise party. Now hurry, Ella, an' git them slippers. I ain't a-goin' to lose none o' the fun!" And Ella, nervous, perplexed, and thoroughly frightened, did as she was bid.
In state, in the big rocking-chair, the old woman received her guests. She said little, it is true, but she was there; and if she noticed that no guest entered the room without a few whispered words from Ella in the hall, she made no sign. Neither did she apparently consider it strange that ten women and six men should have braved the cold to spend fifteen rather embarrassed minutes in her sitting-room--and for this last both Ella and Jim were devoutly grateful. They could not help wondering about it, however, after she had gone to bed, and the house was still.
"What do ye s'pose she thought?" whispered Jim.
"I don't know," shivered Ella, "but, Jim, wan't it awful?--Mis' Blair brought a white wreath--everlastin's!"
One by one the days passed, and Jim and Ella ceased to tremble every time the old woman opened her lips. There was still that fearsome thing in the attic, but the chance of discovery was small now.
"If she should find out," Ella had said, "'twould be the end of the money--fer us."
"But she ain't a-goin' ter find out," Jim had retorted. "She can't last long, 'course, an' I guess she won't change the will now--unless some one tells her; an' I'll be plaguy careful there don't no one do that!"
The "funeral" was a week old when Mrs. Darling came into the sitting- room one day, fully dressed.
"I put on all my clo's," she said smilingly, in answer to Ella's shocked exclamation. "I got restless, somehow, an' sick o' wrappers. Besides, I wanted to walk around the house a little. I git kind o' tired o' jest one room." And she limped across the floor to the hall door.
"But, Aunt Abby, where ye goin' now?" faltered Ella.
"Jest up in the attic. I wanted ter see--" She stopped in apparent surprise. Ella and Jim had sprung to their feet.
"The attic!" they gasped.
"But you mustn't!--you ain't strong enough!--you'll fall!--there's nothin' there!" they exclaimed wildly, talking both together and hurrying forward.
"Oh, I guess 't won't kill me," said the old woman; and something in the tone of her voice made them fall back. They were still staring into each other's eyes when the hall door closed sharply behind her.
"It's all--up!" breathed Jim.
Fully fifteen minutes passed before the old woman came back. She entered the room quietly, and limped across the floor to the chair by the window.
"It's real pretty," she said. "I allers did like gray."
"Gray?" stammered Ella.
"Yes!--fer coffins, ye know." Jim made a sudden movement, and started to speak; but the old woman raised her hand. "You don't need ter say anythin'," she interposed cheerfully. "I jest wanted ter make sure where 'twas, so I went up. You see, Jed's comin' home, an' I thought he might feel--queer if he run on to it, casual-like."
The old woman smiled oddly.
"Oh, I didn't tell ye, did I? The doctor had this telegram yesterday, an' brought it over to me. Ye know he was here last night. Read it." And she pulled from her pocket a crumpled slip of paper. And Jim read:
Shall be there the 8th. For God's sake don't let me be too late.
J. D. DARLING