Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
Wristers for Three
The great chair, sumptuous with satin-damask and soft with springs, almost engulfed the tiny figure of the little old lady. To the old lady herself it suddenly seemed the very embodiment of the luxurious ease against which she was so impotently battling. With a spasmodic movement she jerked herself to her feet, and stood there motionless save for the wistful sweep of her eyes about the room.
A level ray from the setting sun shot through the window, gilding the silver of her hair and deepening the faint pink of her cheek; on the opposite wall it threw a sharp silhouette of the alert little figure-- that figure which even the passage of years had been able to bend so very little to its will. For a moment the lace kerchief folded across the black gown rose and fell tumultuously; then its wearer crossed the room and seated herself with uncompromising discomfort in the only straight-backed chair the room contained. This done, Mrs. Nancy Wetherby, for the twentieth time, went over in her mind the whole matter.
For two weeks, now, she had been a member of her son John's family--two vain, unprofitable weeks. When before that had the sunset found her night after night with hands limp from a long day of idleness? When before that had the sunrise found her morning after morning with a mind destitute of worthy aim or helpful plan for the coming twelve hours? When, indeed?
Not in her girlhood, not even in her childhood, had there been days of such utter uselessness--rag dolls and mud pies need some care! As for her married life, there were Eben, the babies, the house, the church--and how absolutely necessary she had been to each one!
The babies had quickly grown to stalwart men and sweet-faced women who had as quickly left the home nest and built new nests of their own. Eben had died; and the church--strange how long and longer still the walk to the church had grown each time she had walked it this last year! After all, perhaps it did not matter; there were new faces at the church, and young, strong hands that did not falter and tremble over these new ways of doing things. For a time there had been only the house that needed her--but how great that need had been! There were the rooms to care for, there was the linen to air, there were the dear treasures of picture and toy to cry and laugh over; and outside there were the roses to train and the pansies to pick.
Now, even the house was not left. It was October, and son John had told her that winter was coming on and she must not remain alone. He had brought her to his own great house and placed her in these beautiful rooms--indeed, son John was most kind to her! If only she could make some return, do something, be of some use!
Her heart failed her as she thought of the grave-faced, preoccupied man who came each morning into the room with the question, "Well, mother, is there anything you need to-day?" What possible service could she render him? Her heart failed her again as she thought of John's pretty, new wife, and of the two big boys, men grown, sons of dear dead Molly. There was the baby, to be sure; but the baby was always attended by one, and maybe two, white-capped, white-aproned young women. Madam Wetherby never felt quite sure of herself when with those young women. There were other young women, too, in whose presence she felt equally ill at ease; young women in still prettier white aprons and still daintier white caps; young women who moved noiselessly in and out of the halls and parlors and who waited at table each day.
Was there not some spot, some creature, some thing, in all that place that needed the touch of her hand, the glance of her eye? Surely the day had not quite come when she could be of no use, no service to her kind! Her work must be waiting; she had only to find it. She would seek it out--and that at once. No more of this slothful waiting for the work to come to her! "Indeed, no!" she finished aloud, her dim eyes alight, her breath coming short and quick, and her whole frail self quivering with courage and excitement.
It was scarcely nine o'clock the next morning when a quaint little figure in a huge gingham apron (slyly abstracted from the bottom of a trunk) slipped out of the rooms given over to the use of John Wetherby's mother. The little figure tripped softly, almost stealthily, along the hall and down the wide main staircase. There was some hesitation and there were a few false moves before the rear stairway leading to the kitchen was gained; and there was a gasp, half triumphant, half dismayed, when the kitchen was reached.
The cook stared, open-mouthed, as though confronted with an apparition. A maid, hurrying across the room with a loaded tray, almost dropped her burden to the floor. There was a dazed moment of silence, then Madam Wetherby took a faltering step forward and spoke.
"Good-morning! I--I've come to help you."
"Ma'am!" gasped the cook.
"To help--to help!" nodded the little old lady briskly, with a sudden overwhelming joy at the near prospect of the realization of her hopes. "Pare apples, beat eggs, or--anything!"
"Indeed, ma'am, I--you--" The cook stopped helplessly, and eyed with frightened fascination the little old lady as she crossed to the table and picked up a pan of potatoes.
"Now a knife, please,--oh, here's one," continued Madam Wetherby happily. "Go right about something else. I'll sit over there in that chair, and I'll have these peeled very soon."
When John Wetherby visited his mother's rooms that morning he found no one there to greet him. A few sharp inquiries disclosed the little lady's whereabouts and sent Margaret Wetherby with flaming cheeks and tightening lips into the kitchen.
"Mother!" she cried; and at the word the knife dropped from the trembling, withered old fingers and clattered to the floor. "Why, mother!"
"I--I was helping," quavered a deprecatory voice.
Something in the appealing eyes sent a softer curve to Margaret Wetherby's lips.
"Yes, mother; that was very kind of you," said John's wife gently. "But such work is quite too hard for you, and there's no need of your doing it. Nora will finish these," she added, lifting the pan of potatoes to the table, "and you and I will go upstairs to your room. Perhaps we'll go driving by and by. Who knows?"
In thinking it over afterwards Nancy Wetherby could find no fault with her daughter-in-law. Margaret had been goodness itself, insisting only that such work was not for a moment to be thought of. John's wife was indeed kind, acknowledged Madam Wetherby to herself, yet two big tears welled to her eyes and were still moist on her cheeks after she had fallen asleep.
It was perhaps three days later that John Wetherby's mother climbed the long flight of stairs near her sitting-room door, and somewhat timidly entered one of the airy, sunlit rooms devoted to Master Philip Wetherby. The young woman in attendance respectfully acknowledged her greeting, and Madam Wetherby advanced with some show of courage to the middle of the room.
"The baby, I--I heard him cry," she faltered.
"Yes, madam," smiled the nurse. "It is Master Philip's nap hour."
Louder and louder swelled the wails from the inner room, yet the nurse did not stir save to reach for her thread.
"But he's crying--yet!" gasped Madam Wetherby.
The girl's lips twitched and an expression came to her face which the little old lady did not in the least understand.
"Can't you--do something?" demanded baby's grandmother, her voice shaking.
"No, madam. I--" began the girl, but she did not finish. The little figure before her drew itself to the full extent of its diminutive height.
"Well, I can," said Madam Wetherby crisply. Then she turned and hurried into the inner room.
The nurse sat mute and motionless until a crooning lullaby and the unmistakable tapping of rockers on a bare floor brought her to her feet in dismay. With an angry frown she strode across the room, but she stopped short at the sight that met her eyes.
In a low chair, her face aglow with the accumulated love of years of baby-brooding, sat the little old lady, one knotted, wrinkled finger tightly elapsed within a dimpled fist. The cries had dropped to sobbing breaths, and the lullaby, feeble and quavering though it was, rose and swelled triumphant. The anger fled from the girl's face, and a queer choking came to her throat so that her words were faint and broken.
"Madam--I beg pardon--I'm sorry, but I must put Master Philip back on his bed."
"But he isn't asleep yet," demurred Madam Wetherby softly, her eyes mutinous.
"But you must--I can't--that is, Master Philip cannot be rocked," faltered the girl.
"Nonsense, my dear!" she said; "babies can always be rocked!" And again the lullaby rose on the air.
"But, madam," persisted the girl--she was almost crying now--"don't you see? I must put Master Philip back. It is Mrs. Wetherby's orders. They-- they don't rock babies so much now."
For an instant fierce rebellion spoke through flashing eyes, stern-set lips, and tightly clutched fingers; then all the light died from the thin old face and the tense muscles relaxed.
"You may put the baby back," said Madam Wetherby tremulously, yet with a sudden dignity that set the maid to curtsying. "I--I should not want to cross my daughter's wishes."
Nancy Wetherby never rocked her grandson again, but for days she haunted the nursery, happy if she could but tie the baby's moccasins or hold his brush or powder-puff; yet a week had scarcely passed when John's wife said to her:
"Mother, dear, I wouldn't tire myself so trotting upstairs each day to the nursery. There isn't a bit of need--Mary and Betty can manage quite well. You fatigue yourself too much!" And to the old lady's denials John's wife returned, with a tinge of sharpness: "But, really, mother, I'd rather you didn't. It frets the nurses and--forgive me-but you know you will forget and talk to him in 'baby-talk'!"
The days came and the days went, and Nancy Wetherby stayed more and more closely to her rooms. She begged one day for the mending-basket, but her daughter-in-law laughed and kissed her.
"Tut, tut, mother, dear!" she remonstrated. "As if I'd have you wearing your eyes and fingers out mending a paltry pair of socks!"
"Then I--I'll knit new ones!" cried the old lady, with sudden inspiration.
"Knit new ones--stockings!" laughed Margaret Wetherby. "Why, dearie, they never in this world would wear them--and if they would, I couldn't let you do it," she added gently, as she noted the swift clouding of the eager face. "Such tiresome work!"
Again the old eyes filled with tears; and yet--John's wife was kind, so very kind!
It was a cheerless, gray December morning that John Wetherby came into his mother's room and found a sob-shaken little figure in the depths of the sumptuous, satin-damask chair. "Mother, mother,--why, mother!" There were amazement and real distress in John Wetherby's voice.
"There, there, John, I--I didn't mean to--truly I didn't!" quavered the little old lady.
John dropped on one knee and caught the fluttering fingers. "Mother, what is it?"
"It--it isn't anything; truly it isn't," urged the tremulous voice.
"Is any one unkind to you?" John's eyes grew stern. "The boys, or-- Margaret?"
The indignant red mounted to the faded cheek. "John! How can you ask? Every one is kind, kind, so very kind to me!"
"Well, then, what is it?"
There was only a sob in reply. "Come, come," he coaxed gently.
For a moment Nancy Wetherby's breath was held suspended, then it came in a burst with a rush of words.
"Oh, John, John, I'm so useless, so useless, so dreadfully useless! Don't you see? Not a thing, not a person needs me. The kitchen has the cook and the maids. The baby has two or three nurses. Not even this room needs me--there's a girl to dust it each day. Once I slipped out of bed and did it first--I did, John; but she came in, and when I told her, she just curtsied and smiled and kept right on, and--she didn't even skip one chair! John, dear John, sometimes it seems as though even my own self doesn't need me. I--I don't even put on my clothes alone; there's always some one to help me!"
"There, there, dear," soothed the man huskily. "I need you, indeed I do, mother." And he pressed his lips to one, then the other, of the wrinkled, soft-skinned hands.
"You don't--you don't!" choked the woman. "There's not one thing I can do for you! Why, John, only think, I sit with idle hands all day, and there was so much once for them to do. There was Eben, and the children, and the house, and the missionary meetings, and--"
On and on went the sweet old voice, but the man scarcely heard. Only one phrase rang over and over in his ears, "There's not one thing I can do for you!" All the interests of now--stocks, bonds, railroads--fell from his mind and left it blank save for the past. He was a boy again at his mother's knee. And what had she done for him then? Surely among all the myriad things there must be one that he might single out and ask her to do for him now! And yet, as he thought, his heart misgave him.
There were pies baked, clothes made, bumped foreheads bathed, lost pencils found; there were--a sudden vision came to him of something warm and red and very soft--something over which his boyish heart had exulted. The next moment his face lighted with joy very like that of the years long ago.
"Mother!" he cried. "I know what you can do for me. I want a pair of wristers--red ones, just like those you used to knit!"
* * * * *
It must have been a month later that John Wetherby, with his two elder sons, turned the first corner that carried him out of sight of his house. Very slowly, and with gentle fingers, he pulled off two bright red wristers. He folded them, patted them, then tucked them away in an inner pocket.
"Bless her dear heart!" he said softly. "You should have seen her eyes shine when I put them on this morning!"
"I can imagine it," said one of his sons in a curiously tender voice. The other one smiled, and said whimsically, "I can hardly wait for mine!" Yet even as he spoke his eyes grew dim with a sudden moisture.
Back at the house John's mother was saying to John's wife: "Did you see them on him, Margaret?--John's wristers? They did look so bright and pretty! And I'm to make more, too; did you know? Frank and Edward want some; John said so. He told them about his, and they wanted some right away. Only think, Margaret," she finished, lifting with both hands the ball of red worsted and pressing it close to her cheek, "I've got two whole pairs to make now!"