Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
The Giving Thanks of Cyrus and Huldah
For two months Cyrus Gregg and his wife Huldah had not spoken to each other, yet all the while they had lived under the same roof, driven to church side by side, and attended various festivities and church prayer- meetings together.
The cause of the quarrel had been an insignificant something that speedily lost itself in the torrent of angry words that burst from the lips of the irate husband and wife, until by night it would have been difficult for either the man or the woman to tell exactly what had been the first point of difference. By that time, however, the quarrel had assumed such proportions that it loomed in their lives larger than anything else; and each had vowed never to speak to the other until that other had made the advance.
On both sides they came of a stubborn race, and from the first it was a battle royally fought. The night of the quarrel Cyrus betook himself in solitary state to the "spare-room" over the parlor. After that he slept on a makeshift bed that he had prepared for himself in the shed-chamber, hitherto sacred to trunks, dried corn, and cobwebs.
For a month the two sat opposite to each other and partook of Huldah's excellent cooking; then one day the woman found at her plate a piece--of brown paper on which had been scrawled:
If I ain't worth speakin' to I ain't worth cookin' for. Hereafter I'll take care of myself.
A day later came the retort. Cyrus found it tucked under the shed- chamber door.
Huldah's note showed her "schooling." It was well written, carefully spelled, and enclosed in a square white envelope.
Sir [it ran stiffly]: I shall be obliged if you do not chop any more wood for me. Hereafter I shall use the oil stove. HULDAH PENDLETON GREGG.
Cyrus choked, and peered at the name with suddenly blurred eyes: the "Huldah Pendleton" was fiercely black and distinct; the "Gregg" was so faint it could scarcely be discerned.
"Why, it's 'most like a d'vorce!" he shivered.
If it had not been so pitiful, it would have been ludicrous--what followed. Day after day, in one corner of the kitchen, an old man boiled his potatoes and fried his unappetizing eggs over a dusty, unblacked stove; in the other corner an old woman baked and brewed over a shining idol of brass and black enamel--and always the baking and brewing carried to the nostrils of the hungry man across the room the aroma of some dainty that was a particular favorite of his own.
The man whistled, and the woman hummed--at times; but they did not talk, except when some neighbor came in; and then they both talked very loud and very fast--to the neighbor. On this one point were Cyrus Gregg and his wife Huldah agreed; under no circumstances whatever must any gossiping outsider know.
One by one the weeks had passed. It was November now, and very cold. Outdoors a dull gray sky and a dull brown earth combined into a dismal hopelessness. Indoors the dull monotony of a two-months-old quarrel and a growing heartache made a combination that carried even less of cheer.
Huldah never hummed now, and Cyrus seldom whistled; yet neither was one whit nearer speaking. Each saw this, and, curiously enough, was pleased. In fact, it was just here that, in spite of the heartache, each found an odd satisfaction.
"By sugar--but she's a spunky one!" Cyrus would chuckle admiringly, as he discovered some new evidence of his wife's shrewdness in obtaining what she wanted with yet no spoken word.
"There isn't another man in town who could do it--and stick to it!" exulted Huldah proudly, her eyes on her husband's form, bent over his egg-frying at the other side of the room.
Not only the cause of the quarrel, but almost the quarrel itself, had now long since been forgotten; in fact, to both Cyrus and his wife it had come to be a sort of game in which each player watched the other's progress with fully as much interest as he did his own. And yet, with it all there was the heartache; for the question came to them at times with sickening force--just when and how could it possibly end?
It was at about this time that each began to worry about the other. Huldah shuddered at the changeless fried eggs and boiled potatoes; and Cyrus ordered a heavy storm window for the room where Huldah slept alone. Huldah slyly left a new apple pie almost under her husband's nose one day, and Cyrus slipped a five-dollar bill beneath his wife's napkin ring. When both pie and greenback remained untouched, Huldah cried, and Cyrus said, "Gosh darn it!" three times in succession behind the woodshed door.
A week before Thanksgiving a letter came from the married daughter, and another from the married son. They were good letters, kind and loving; and each closed with a suggestion that all go home at Thanksgiving for a family reunion.
Huldah read the letters eagerly, but at their close she frowned and looked anxious. In a moment she had passed them to Cyrus with a toss of her head. Five minutes later Cyrus had flung them back with these words trailing across one of the envelopes:
Huldah answered the letters that night. She, too, wrote kindly and lovingly; but at the end she said that much as she and father would like to see them, it did not seem wise to undertake to entertain such a family gathering just now. It would be better to postpone it.
Both Huldah and Cyrus hoped that this would end the subject of Thanksgiving; but it did not. The very next day Cyrus encountered neighbor Wiley in the village store. Wiley's round red face shone like the full moon.
"Well, well, Cy, what ye doin' down your way Thanksgivin'--eh?" he queried.
Cyrus stiffened; but before he could answer he discovered that Wiley had asked the question, not for information, but as a mere introduction to a recital of his own plans.
"We're doin' great things," announced the man. "Sam an' Jennie an' the hull kit on 'em's comin' home an' bring all the chicks. Tell ye what, Cy, we be a-Thanksgivin' this year! Ain't nothin' like a good old fam'ly reunion, when ye come right down to it."
"Yes, I know," said Cyrus gloomily. "But we--we ain't doin' much this year."
A day later came Huldah's turn. She had taken some calf's-foot jelly to Mrs. Taylor in the little house at the foot of the hill. The Widow Taylor was crying.
"You see, it's Thanksgiving!" she sobbed, in answer to Huldah's dismayed questions.
"Yes. And last year I had--him!"
Huldah sighed, and murmured something comforting, appropriate; but almost at once she stopped, for the woman had turned searching eyes upon her.
"Huldah Gregg, do you appreciate Cyrus?"
Huldah bridled angrily, but there was no time for a reply, for the woman answered her own question, and hurried on wildly.
"No. Did I appreciate my husband? No. Does Sally Clark appreciate her husband? No. And there don't none of us do it till he's gone--gone-- gone!"
As soon as possible Huldah went home. She was not a little disconcerted. The "gone--gone--gone" rang unpleasantly in her ears, and before her eyes rose a hateful vision of unappetizing fried eggs and boiled potatoes. As to her not appreciating Cyrus--that was all nonsense; she had always appreciated him, and that, too, far beyond his just deserts, she told herself angrily.
There was no escaping Thanksgiving after that for either Huldah or Cyrus. It looked from every eager eye, and dropped from every joyous lip, until, of all the world Huldah and Cyrus came to regard themselves as the most forlorn, and the most abused.
It was then that to Huldah came her great idea; she would cook for Cyrus the best Thanksgiving dinner he had ever eaten. Just because he was obstinate was no reason why he should starve, she told herself; and very gayly she set about carrying out her plans. First the oil stove, with the help of a jobman, was removed to the unfinished room over the kitchen, for the chief charm of the dinner was to be its secret preparation. Then, with the treasured butter-and-egg money the turkey, cranberries, nuts, and raisins were bought and smuggled into the house and upstairs to the chamber of mystery.
Two days before Thanksgiving Cyrus came home to find a silent and almost empty kitchen. His heart skipped a beat and his jaw fell open in frightened amazement; then a step on the floor above sent the blood back to his face and a new bitterness to his heart.
"So I ain't even good enough ter stay with!" he muttered. "Fool!--fool!" he snarled, glaring at the oblong brown paper in his arms. "As if she'd care for this--now!" he finished, flinging the parcel into the farthest corner of the room.
Unhappy Cyrus! To him, also, had come a great idea. Thanksgiving was not Christmas, to be sure, but if he chose to give presents on that day, surely it was no one's business but his own, he argued. In the brown paper parcel at that moment lay the soft, shimmering folds of yards upon yards of black silk--and Huldah had been longing for a new black silk gown. Yet it was almost dark when Cyrus stumbled over to the corner, picked up the parcel, and carried it ruefully away to the shed-chamber.
Thanksgiving dawned clear and unusually warm. The sun shone, and the air felt like spring. The sparrows twittered in the treetops as if the branches were green with leaves.
To Cyrus, however, it was a world of gloom. Upstairs Huldah was singing-- singing!--and it was Thanksgiving. He could hear her feet patter, patter on the floor above, and the sound had a cheery self-reliance that was maddening. Huldah was happy, evidently--and it was Thanksgiving! Twice he had walked resolutely to the back stairs with a brown-paper parcel in his arms; and twice a quavering song of triumph from the room above had sent him back in defeat. As if she could care for a present of his!
Suddenly, now, Cyrus sprang forward in his chair, sniffing the air hungrily. Turkey! Huldah was roasting turkey, while he--
The old man dropped back in his seat and turned his eyes disconsolately on the ill-kept stove--fried eggs and boiled potatoes are not the most toothsome prospect for a Thanksgiving dinner, particularly when one has the smell of a New England housewife's turkey in one's nostrils.
For a time Cyrus sat motionless; then he rose to his feet, shuffled out of the house, and across the road to the barn.
In the room above the kitchen, at that moment, something happened. Perhaps the old hands slipped in their eagerness, or perhaps the old eyes judged a distance wrongly. Whatever it was, there came a puff of smoke, a sputter, and a flare of light; then red-yellow flames leaped to the flimsy shade at the window, and swept on to the century-seasoned timbers above.
With a choking cry, Huldah turned and stumbled across the room to the stairway. Out at the barn door Cyrus, too, saw the flare of light at the window, and he, too, turned with a choking cry.
They met at the foot of the stairway.
It was as if one voice had spoken, so exactly were the words simultaneous. Then Cyrus cried:
"You ain't hurt?"
"No, no! Quick--the things--we must get them out!"
Obediently Cyrus turned and began to work; and the first thing that his arms tenderly bore to safety was an oblong brown-paper parcel.
From all directions then came the neighbors running. The farming settlement was miles from a town or a fire-engine. The house was small, and stood quite by itself; and there was little, after all, that could be done, except to save the household goods and gods. This was soon accomplished, and there was nothing to do but to watch the old house burn.
Cyrus and Huldah sat hand in hand on an old stone wall, quite apart from their sympathetic neighbors, and--talked. And about them was a curious air of elation, a buoyancy as if long-pent forces had suddenly found a joyous escape.
"'T ain't as if our things wan't all out," cried Cyrus; his voice was actually exultant.
"Or as if we hadn't wanted to build a new one for years," chirruped his wife.
"Now you can have that 'ere closet under the front stairs, Huldah!"
"And you can have the room for your tools where it'll be warm in the winter!"
"An' there'll be the bow-winder out of the settin' room, Huldah!"
"Yes, and a real bathroom, with water coming right out of the wall, same as the Wileys have!"
"An' a tub, Huldah--one o' them pretty white chiny ones!"
"Oh, Cyrus, ain't it almost too good to be true!" sighed Huldah: then her face changed. "Why, Cyrus, it's gone," she cried with sudden sharpness.
"Your dinner--I was cooking such a beautiful turkey and all the fixings for you."
A dull red came into the man's face.
"For--me?" stammered Cyrus.
"Y-yes," faltered Huldah; then her chin came up defiantly.
The man laughed; and there was a boyish ring to his voice.
"Well, Huldah, I didn't have any turkey, but I did have a tidy little piece o' black silk for yer gown, an' I saved it, too. Mebbe we could eat that!--eh?"
It was not until just as they were falling asleep that night in Deacon Clark's spare bedroom that Mr. and Mrs. Gregg so much as hinted that there ever had been a quarrel.
Then, under cover of the dark, Cyrus stammered:
"Huldah, did ye sense it? Them 'ere words we said at the foot of the stairs was spoke--exactly--together!"
"Yes, I know, dear," murmured Huldah, with a little break in her voice. Then:
"Cyrus, ain't it wonderful--this Thanksgiving, for us?"
Downstairs the Clarks were talking of poor old Mr. and Mrs. Gregg and their "sad loss;" but the Clarks did not--know.