Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
The Price of a Pair of Shoes
For fifty years the meadow lot had been mowed and the side hill ploughed at the nod of Jeremiah's head; and for the same fifty years the plums had been preserved and the mince-meat chopped at the nod of his wife's-- and now the whole farm from the meadowlot to the mince-meat was to pass into the hands of William, the only son, and William's wife, Sarah Ellen.
"It'll be so much nicer, mother,--no care for you!" Sarah Ellen had declared.
"And so much easier for you, father, too," William had added. "It's time you rested. As for money--of course you'll have plenty in the savings- bank for clothes and such things. You won't need much, anyhow," he finished, "for you'll get your living off the farm just as you always have."
So the matter was settled, and the papers were made out. There was no one to be considered, after all, but themselves, for William was the only living son, and there had been no daughters.
For a time it was delightful. Jeremiah and Hester Whipple were like children let out of school. They told themselves that they were people of leisure now, and they forced themselves to lie abed half an hour later than usual each day. They spent long hours in the attic looking over old treasures, and they loitered about the garden and the barn with no fear that it might be time to get dinner or to feed the stock.
Gradually, however, there came a change. A new restlessness entered their lives, a restlessness that speedily became the worst kind of homesickness--the homesickness of one who is already at home.
The extra half-hour was spent in bed as before--but now Hester lay with one ear listening to make sure that Sarah Ellen did let the cat in for her early breakfast; and Jeremiah lay with his ear listening for the squeak of the barn door which would tell him whether William was early or, late that morning. There were the same long hours in the attic and the garden, too--but in the attic Hester discovered her treasured wax wreath (late of the parlor wall); and in the garden Jeremiah found more weeds than he had ever allowed to grow there, he was sure.
The farm had been in the hands of William and Sarah Ellen just six months when the Huntersville Savings Bank closed its doors. It was the old story of dishonesty and disaster, and when the smoke of Treasurer Hilton's revolver cleared away there was found to be practically nothing for the depositors. Perhaps on no one did the blow fall with more staggering force than on Jeremiah Whipple.
"Why, Hester," he moaned, when he found himself alone with his wife, "here I'm seventy-eight years old--an' no money! What am I goin' ter do?"
"I know, dear," soothed Hester; "but 't ain't as bad for us as 'tis for some. We've got the farm, you know; an'--"
"We hain't got the farm," cut in her husband sharply. "William an' Sarah Ellen's got it."
"Yes, I know, but they--why, they're us, Jeremiah," reminded Hester, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice.
"Mebbe, Hester, mebbe," conceded Jeremiah; but he turned and looked out of the window with gloomy eyes.
There came a letter to the farmhouse soon after this from Nathan Banks, a favorite nephew, suggesting that "uncle and aunt" pay them a little visit.
"Just the thing, father!" cried William. "Go--it'll do you both good!" And after some little talk it was decided that the invitation should be accepted.
Nathan Banks lived thirty miles away, but not until the night before the Whipples were to start did it suddenly occur to Jeremiah that he had now no money for railroad tickets. With a heightened color on his old cheeks he mentioned the fact to William.
"Ye see, I--I s'pose I'll have ter come ter you," he apologized. "Them won't take us!" And he looked ruefully at a few coins he had pulled from his pocket. "They're all the cash I've got left."
William frowned a little and stroked his beard.
"Sure enough!" he muttered. "I forgot the tickets, too, father. 'T is awkward--that bank blowing up; isn't it? Oh, I'll let you have it all right, of course, and glad to, only it so happens that just now I--er, how much is it, anyway?" he broke off abruptly.
"Why, I reckon a couple of dollars'll take us down, an' more, mebbe," stammered the old man, "only, of course, there's comin' back, and--"
"Oh, we don't have to reckon on that part now," interrupted William impatiently, as he thrust his hands into his pockets and brought out a bill and some change. "I can send you down some more when that time comes. There, here's a two; if it doesn't take it all, what's left can go toward bringing you back."
And he handed out the bill, and dropped the change into his pocket.
"Thank you, William," stammered the old man. "I--I'm sorry--"
"Oh, that's all right," cut in William cheerfully, with a wave of his two hands. "Glad to do it, father; glad to do it!"
Mr. and Mrs. Whipple stayed some weeks with their nephew. But, much as they enjoyed their visit, there came a day when home--regardless of weeds that were present and wax wreaths that were absent--seemed to them the one place in the world; and they would have gone there at once had it not been for the railroad fares.
William had not sent down any more money, though his letters had been kind, and had always spoken of the warm welcome that awaited them any time they wished to come home.
Toward the end of the fifth week a bright idea came to Jeremiah.
"We'll go to Cousin Abby's," he announced gleefully to his wife. "Nathan said last night he'd drive us over there any time. We'll go to-morrow, an' we won't come back here at all--it'll be ten miles nearer home there, an' it won't cost us a cent ter get there," he finished triumphantly. And to Cousin Abby's they went.
So elated was Jeremiah with the result of his scheming that he set his wits to work in good earnest, and in less than a week he had formulated an itinerary that embraced the homes of two other cousins, an aunt of Sarah Ellen's, and the niece of a brother-in-law, the latter being only three miles from 'his own farmhouse--or rather William's farmhouse, as he corrected himself bitterly. Before another month had passed, the round of visits was accomplished, and the little old man and the little old woman--having been carried to their destination in each case by their latest host--finally arrived at the farmhouse door. They were weary, penniless, and half-sick from being feasted and fêted at every turn, but they were blissfully conscious that of no one had they been obliged to beg the price of their journey home.
"We didn't write we were comin'," apologized Jeremiah faintly, as he stumbled across the threshold and dropped into the nearest chair. "We were goin' ter write from Keziah's, but we were so tired we hurried right up an' come home. 'Tis nice ter get here; ain't it, Hester?" he finished, settling back in his chair.
"'Nice'!" cried Hester tremulously, tugging at her bonnet strings. "'Nice' ain't no name for it, Jeremiah. Why, Sarah Ellen, seems if I don't want to do nothin' for a whole month but set in my own room an' jest look 'round all day!"
"You poor dear--and that's all you shall do!" soothed Sarah Ellen; and Hester sighed, content. For so many, many weeks now she had sat upon strange chairs and looked out upon an unfamiliar world!
* * * * *
It was midwinter when Jeremiah's last pair of shoes gave out. "An' there ain't a cent ter get any new ones, Hester," he exclaimed, ruefully eying the ominously thin place in the sole.
"I know, Jeremiah, but there's William," murmured Hester. "I'm sure he--"
"Oh, of course, he'd give it to me," cried Jeremiah quickly; "but--I--I sort of hate to ask."
"Pooh! I wouldn't think of that," declared Hester stoutly, but even as she spoke, she tucked her own feet farther under her chair. "We gave them the farm, and they understood they was to take care of us, of course."
"Hm-m, yes, I know, I know. I'll ask him," murmured Jeremiah--but he did not ask him until the ominously thin place in the sole had become a hole, large, round, and unmistakable.
"Well, William," he began jocosely, trying to steady his shaking voice, "guess them won't stand for it much longer!" And he held up the shoe, sole uppermost.
"Well, I should say not!" laughed William; then his face changed. "Oh, and you'll have to have the money for some new ones, of course. By George! It does beat all how I keep forgetting about that bank!"
"I know, William, I'm sorry," stammered the old man miserably.
"Oh, I can let you have it all right, father, and glad to," assured William, still frowning. "It's only that just at this time I'm a little short, and--" He stopped abruptly and thrust his hands into his pockets. "Hm-m," he vouchsafed after a minute. "Well, I'll tell you what--I haven't got any now, but in a day or two I'll take you over to the village and see what Skinner's got that will fit you. Oh, we'll have some shoes, father, never fear!" he laughed. "You don't suppose I'm going to let my father go barefoot!--eh?" And he laughed again.
Things wore out that winter in the most unaccountable fashion--at least those belonging to Jeremiah and Hester did, especially undergarments. One by one they came to mending, and one by one Hester mended them, patch upon patch, until sometimes there was left scarcely a thread of the original garment. Once she asked William for money to buy new ones, but it happened that William was again short, and though the money she had asked for came later, Hester did not make that same request again.
There were two things that Hester could not patch very successfully--her shoes. She fried to patch them to be sure, but the coarse thread knotted in her shaking old hands, and the bits of leather--cut from still older shoes--slipped about and left her poor old thumb exposed to the sharp prick of the needle, so that she finally gave it up in despair. She tucked her feet still farther under her chair these days when Jeremiah was near, and she pieced down two of her dress skirts so that they might touch the floor all round. In spite of all this, however, Jeremiah saw, one day--and understood.
"Hester," he cried sharply, "put out your foot."
Hester did not hear--apparently. She lowered the paper she was reading and laughed a little hysterically.
"Such a good joke, Jeremiah!" she quavered. "Just let me read it. A man--"
"Hester, be them the best shoes you've got?" demanded Jeremiah.
And Hester, with a wisdom born of fifty years' experience of that particular tone of voice, dropped her paper and her subterfuge, and said gently: "Yes, Jeremiah."
There was a moment's pause; then Jeremiah sprang to his feet, thrust his hands into his pockets, and paced the tiny bedroom from end to end.
"Hester, this thing's a-killin' me!" he blurted out at last. "Here I'm seventy-eight years old--an' I hain't got money enough ter buy my wife a pair of shoes!"
"But the farm, Jeremiah--"
"I tell ye the farm ain't mine," cut in Jeremiah savagely. "Look a-here, Hester, how do you s'pose it feels to a man who's paid his own way since he was a boy, bought a farm with his own money an' run it, brought up his boys an' edyercated 'em--how do ye s'pose it feels fur that man ter go ter his own son an' say: 'Please, sir, can't I have a nickel ter buy me a pair o' shoestrings?' How do ye s'pose it feels? I tell ye, Hester, I can't stand it--I jest can't! I'm goin' ter work."
"Well, I am," repeated the old man doggedly. "You're goin' ter have some shoes, an' I'm goin' ter earn 'em. See if I don't!" And he squared his shoulders, and straightened his bent back as if already he felt the weight of a welcome burden.
Spring came, and with it long sunny days and the smell of green things growing. Jeremiah began to be absent day after day from the farmhouse. The few tasks that he performed each morning were soon finished, and after that he disappeared, not to return until night. William wondered a little, but said nothing. Other and more important matters filled his mind.
Only Hester noticed that the old man's step grew more languid and his eye more dull; and only Hester knew that at night he was sometimes too tired to sleep--that he could not "seem ter hit the bed," as he expressed it.
It was at about this time that Hester began to make frequent visits to the half-dozen farmhouses in the settlement about them. She began to be wonderfully busy these days, too, knitting socks and mittens, or piecing up quilts. Sarah Ellen asked her sometimes what she was doing, but Hester's answers were always so cheery and bright that Sarah Ellen did not realize that the point was always evaded and the subject changed.
It was in May that the inevitable happened. William came home one day to find an excited, weeping wife who hurried him into the seclusion of their own room.
"William, William," she moaned, "what shall we do? It's father and mother; they've--oh, William, how can I tell you!" and she covered her face with her hands.
William paled under his coat of tan. He gripped his wife's arm with fingers that hurt.
"What is it--what's happened?" he asked hoarsely. "They aren't hurt or-- dead?"
"No, no," choked Sarah Ellen. "I didn't mean to frighten you. They're all right that way. They--they've gone to work! William, what shall we do?"
Again William Whipple gripped his wife's arm with fingers that hurt.
"Sarah Ellen, quit that crying, for Heaven's sake! What does this mean? What are you talking about?" he demanded.
Sarah Ellen sopped her eyes with her handkerchief and lifted her head.
"It was this morning. I was over to Maria Weston's," she explained brokenly. "Maria dropped something about a quilt mother was piecing for her, and when I asked her what in the world she meant, she looked queer, and said she supposed I knew. Then she tried to change the subject; but I wouldn't let her, and finally I got the whole story out of her."
"Yes, yes, go on," urged William impatiently, as Sarah Ellen paused for breath.
"It seems mother came to her a while ago, and--and she went to others, too. She asked if there wasn't some knitting or patchwork she could do for them. She said she--she wanted to earn some money." Sarah Ellen's voice broke over the last word, and William muttered something under his breath. "She said they'd lost all they had in the bank," went on Sarah Ellen hurriedly, "and that they didn't like to ask you for money."
"Why, I always let them have--" began William defensively; then he stopped short, a slow red staining his face.
"Yes, I know you have," interposed Sarah Ellen eagerly; "and I said so to Maria. But mother had already told her that, it seems. She said that mother said you were always glad to give it to them when they asked for it, but that it hurt father's pride to beg, so he'd gone to work to earn some of his own."
"Father!" exclaimed William. "But I thought you said 'twas mother. Surely father isn't knitting socks and mittens, is he?"
"No, no," cried Sarah Ellen. "I'm coming to that as fast as I can. You see, 'twas father who went to work first. He's been doing all sorts of little odd jobs, even to staying with the Snow children while their folks went to town, and spading up Nancy Howe's flower beds for her. But it's been wearing on him, and he was getting all tired out. Only think of it, William--working out--father and mother! I just can't ever hold up my head again! What shall we do?"
"Do? Why, we'll stop it, of course," declared William savagely. "I guess I can support my own father and mother without their working for a living!"
"But it's money, William, that they want. Don't you see?"
"Well, we'll give them money, then. I always have, anyway,--when they asked for it," finished William in an aggrieved voice.
Sarah Ellen shook her head.
"It won't do," she sighed. "It might have done once--but not now. They've got to the point where they just can't accept money doled out to them like that. Why, just think, 't was all theirs once!"
"Well, 'tis now--in a way."
"I know--but we haven't acted as if it were. I can see that now, when it's too late."
"We'll give it back, then," cried William, his face clearing; "the whole blamed farm!"
Sarah Ellen frowned. She shook her head slowly, then paused, a dawning question in her eyes.
"You don't suppose--William, could we?" she cried with sudden eagerness.
"Well, we can try mighty hard," retorted the man grimly. "But we've got to go easy, Sarah Ellen,--no bungling. We've got to spin some sort of a yarn that won't break, nor have any weak places; and of course, as far as the real work of the farm is concerned, we'll still do the most of it. But the place'll be theirs. See?--theirs! Working out--good Heavens!"
It must have been a week later that Jeremiah burst into his wife's room. Hester sat by the window, bending over numberless scraps of blue, red, and pink calico.
"Put it up, put it up, Hester," he panted joyously. "Ye hain't got to sew no more, an' I hain't neither. The farm is ours!"
"Why, Jeremiah, what--how--"
"I don't know, Hester, no more than you do," laughed Jeremiah happily; "only William says he's tired of runnin' things all alone, an' he wants me to take hold again. They're goin' ter make out the papers right away; an' say, Hester,"--the bent shoulders drew themselves erect with an air of pride,--"I thought mebbe this afternoon we'd drive over ter Huntersville an' get some shoes for you. Ye know you're always needin' shoes!"