Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
The Long Road
"Is the house locked up?"
"Are ye sure, now?"
"Why, yes, dear; I just did it."
"Well, won't ye see?"
"But I have seen, father." Jane did not often make so many words about this little matter, but she was particularly tired to-night.
The old man fell back wearily.
"Seems ter me, Jane, ye might jest see," he fretted. "'T ain't much I'm askin' of ye, an' ye know them spoons--"
"Yes, yes, dear, I'll go," interrupted the woman hurriedly.
"Yes." The woman turned and waited. She knew quite well what was coming, but it was the very exquisiteness of her patient care that allowed her to give no sign that she had waited in that same spot to hear those same words every night for long years past.
"An' ye might count 'em--them spoons," said the old man.
"An' the forks."
"An' them photygraph pictures in the parlor."
"All right, father." The woman turned away. Her step was slow, but confident--the last word had been said.
To Jane Pendergast her father had gone with the going of his keen, clear mind, twenty years before. This fretful, childish, exacting old man that pottered about the house all day was but the shell that had held the kernel--the casket that had held the jewel. But because of what it had held, Jane guarded it tenderly, laying at its feet her life as a willing sacrifice.
There had been four children: Edgar, the eldest; Jane, Mary, and Fred. Edgar had left home early, and was a successful business man in Boston. Mary had married a wealthy lawyer of the same city; and Fred had opened a real estate office in a thriving Southern town.
Jane had stayed at home. There had been a time, it is true, when she had planned to go away to school; but the death of Mrs. Pendergast left no one at home to care for Mary and Fred, so Jane had abandoned the idea. Later, after Mary had married and Fred had gone away, there was still her father to be cared for, though at this time he was well and strong.
Jane had passed her thirty-fifth birthday, when she became palpitatingly aware of a pair of blue-gray eyes, and a determined, smooth-shaven chin belonging to the recently arrived principal of the village school. In spite of her stern admonition to herself to remember her years and not quite lose her head, she was fast drifting into a rosy dream of romance that was all the more enthralling because so belated, when the summons of a small boy brought her sharply back to the realities.
"It's yer father, miss. They want ye ter come," he panted. "Somethin' has took him. He's in Mackey's drug store, talkin' awful queer. He ain't his self, ye know. They thought maybe you could--do somethin'."
Jane went at once--but she could do nothing except to lead gently home the chattering, shifting-eyed thing that had once been her father. One after another the village physicians shook their heads--they could do nothing. Skilled alienists from the city--they, too, could do nothing. There was nothing that could be done, they said, except to care for him as one would for a child. He would live years, probably. His constitution was wonderfully good. He would not be violent--just foolish and childish, with perhaps a growing irritability as the years passed and his physical strength failed.
Mary and Edgar had come home at once. Mary had stayed two days and Edgar five hours. They were shocked and dismayed at their father's condition. So overwhelmed with grief were they, indeed, that they fled from the room almost immediately upon seeing him, and Edgar took the first train out of town.
Mary, shiveringly, crept from room to room, trying to find a place where the cackling laugh and the fretful voice would not reach her. But the old man, like a child with a new toy, was pleased at his daughter's arrival, and followed her about the house with unfailing persistence.
"But, Mary, he won't hurt you. Why do you run?" remonstrated Jane.
Mary shuddered and covered her face with her hands.
"Jane, Jane, how can you take it so calmly!" she moaned. "How can you bear it?"
There was a moment's pause. A curious expression had come to Jane's face.
"Some one--has to," she said at last, quietly.
Jane went down to the village the next afternoon, leaving her sister in charge at home. When she returned, an hour later, Mary met her at the gate, crying and wringing her hands.
"Jane, Jane, I thought you would never come! I can't do a thing with him. He insists that he isn't at home, and that he wants to go there. I told him, over and over again, that he was at home already, but it didn't do a bit of good. I've had a perfectly awful time."
"Yes, I know. Where is he?"
"In the kitchen. I--I tied him. He just would go, and I couldn't hold him."
"Oh, Mary!" And Jane fairly flew up the walk to the kitchen door. A minute later she appeared, leading an old man, who was whimpering pitifully.
"Home, Jane. I want ter go home."
"Yes, dear, I know. We'll go." And Mary watched with wondering eyes while the two walked down the path, through the gate and across the street to the next corner, then slowly crossed again and came back through the familiar doorway.
"Home!" chuckled the old man gleefully.
"We've come home!"
Mary went back to Boston the next day. She said it was fortunate, indeed, that Jane's nerves were so strong. For her part, she could not have stood it another day.
The days slipped into weeks, and the weeks into months. Jane took the entire care of her father, except that she hired a woman to come in for an hour or two once or twice a week, when she herself was obliged to leave the house.
The owner of the blue-gray eyes did not belie the determination of his chin, but made a valiant effort to establish himself on the basis of the old intimacy; but Miss Pendergast held herself sternly aloof, and refused to listen to him. In a year he had left town--but it was not his fault that he was obliged to go away alone, as Jane Pendergast well knew.
One by one the years passed. Twenty had gone by now since the small boy came with his fateful summons that June day. Jane was fifty-five now, a thin-faced, stoop-shouldered, tired woman--but a woman to whom release from this constant care was soon to come, for she was not yet fifty-six when her father died.
All the children and some of the grandchildren came to the funeral. In the evening the family, with the exception of Jane, gathered in the sitting-room and discussed the future, while upstairs the woman whose fate was most concerned laid herself wearily in bed with almost a pang that she need not now first be doubly sure that doors were locked and spoons were counted.
In the sitting-room below, discussion waxed warm.
"But what shall we do with her?" demanded Mary. "I had meant to give her my share of the property," she added with an air of great generosity, "but it seems there's nothing to give."
"No, there's nothing to give," returned Edgar. "The house had to be mortgaged long ago to pay their living expenses, and it will have to be sold."
"But she's got to live somewhere!" Mary's voice was fretful, questioning.
For a moment there was silence; then Edgar stirrad in his chair.
"Well, why can't she go to you, Mary?" he asked.
"Me!" Mary almost screamed the word.
"Why, Edgar!--when you know how much I have on my hands with my great house and all my social duties, to say nothing of Belle's engagement!"
"Well, maybe Jane could help."
"Help! How. pray?--to entertain my guests?" And even Edgar smiled as he thought of Jane, in her five-year-old bonnet and her ten-year-old black gown, standing in the receiving line at an exclusive Commonwealth Avenue reception.
"Well, but--" Edgar paused impotently.
"Why don't you take her?" It was Mary who made the suggestion.
"I? Oh, but I--" Edgar stopped and glanced uneasily at his wife.
"Why, of course, if it's necessary," murmured Mrs. Edgar, with a resigned air. "I should certainly never wish it said that I refused a home to any of my husband's poor relations."
"Oh, good Heavens! Let her come to us," cut in Fred sharply. "I reckon we can take care of our 'poor relations' for a spell yet; eh, Sally?"
"Why, sure we can," retorted. Fred's wife, in her soft Southern drawl. "We'll be right glad to take her, I reckon." And there the matter ended.
* * * * *
Jane Pendergast had been South two months, when one day Edgar received a letter from his brother Fred.
Jane's going North [wrote Fred]. Sally says she can't have her in the house another week. 'Course, we don't want to tell Jane exactly that-- but we've fixed it so she's going to leave.
I'm sorry if this move causes you folks any trouble, but there just wasn't any other way out of it. You see, Sally is Southern and easy- going, and I suppose not over-particular in the eyes of you stiff Northerners. I don't mind things, either, and I suppose I'm easy, too.
Well, great Scott!--Jane hadn't been down here five minutes before she began to "slick up," as she called it--and she's been "slickin' up" ever since. Sally always left things round handy, and so've the children; but since Jane came, we haven't been able to find a thing when we wanted it. All our boots and shoes are put away, turned toes out, and all our hats and coats are snatched up and hung on pegs the minute we toss them off.
Maybe this don't seem much to you, but it's lots to us. Anyhow, Jane's going North. She says she's going to visit Edgar a little while, and I told her I'd write and tell you she's coming. She'll be there about the 2Oth. Will wire you what train.
Your affectionate brother
As gently as possible Edgar broke to his wife the news of the prospective guest. Julia Pendergast was a good woman. At least she often said that she was, adding, at the same time, that she never knowingly refused to do her duty. She said the same thing now to her husband, and she immediately made some very elaborate and very apparent changes in her home and in her plans, all with an eye to the expected guest. At four o'clock Wednesday afternoon Edgar met his sister at the station.
"Well, I don't see as you've changed much," he said kindly.
"Haven't I? Why, seems as if I must look changed a lot," chirruped Jane. "I'm so rested, and Fred and Sally were so good to me! Why, they tried not to have me do a thing--and I didn't do much, only a little puttering around just to help out with the work."
"Hm-m," murmured Edgar. "Well, I'm glad to see you're--rested."
Julia met them in the hall of the beautiful Brookline residence. Lined up with her were the four younger children, who lived at home. They made an imposing array, and Jane was visibly affected.
"Oh, it's so good of you--to meet me--like this!" she faltered.
"Why, we wished to, I'm sure," returned Mrs. Pendergast, with a half- stifled sigh. "I hope I understand my duty to my guest and my sister-in- law sufficiently to know what is her due. I did not allow anything--not even my committee meeting to-day--to interfere with this call for duty at home."
Jane fell back. All the glow fled from her face.
"Oh, then you did stay at home--and for me! I'm so sorry," she stammered.
But Mrs. Pendergast raised a deprecatory hand.
"Say no more. It was nothing. Now come, let me show you to your room. I've given you Ella's room, and put Ella in Tom's, and Tom in Bert's, and moved Bert upstairs to the little room over--"
"Oh, don't!" interrupted Jane, in quick distress. "I don't want to put people out so! Let me go upstairs." Mrs. Pendergast frowned and sighed. She had the air of one whose kindest efforts are misunderstood.
"My dear Jane, I am sorry, but I shall have to ask you to be as satisfied as you can be with the arrangements I am able to make for you. You see, even though this house is large, I am, in a way, cramped for room. I always have to keep three guest-rooms ready for immediate occupancy. I am a member of four clubs and six charitable and religious organizations, besides the church, and there are always ministers and delegates whom I feel it my duty to entertain."
"But that is all the more reason why I should go upstairs, and not put all those children out of their rooms," begged Jane.
Mrs. Pendergast shook her head.
"It does them good," she said decidely, "to learn to be self- sacrificing. That is a virtue we all must learn to practice."
Jane flushed again; then she turned abruptly. "Julia, did you want me to--to come to see you?" she asked.
"Why, certainly; what a question!" returned Mrs. Pendergast, in a properly shocked tone of voice. "As if I could do otherwise than to want my husband's sister to come to us."
Jane smiled faintly, but her eyes were troubled.
"Thank you; I'm glad you feel--that way. You see, at Fred's--I wouldn't have them know it for the world, they were so good to me--but I thought, lately, that maybe they didn't want--But it wasn't so, of course. It couldn't have been. I--I ought not even to think it."
"Hm-m; no," returned Mrs. Pendergast, with noncommittal briefness.
Not six weeks later Mary, in her beautiful Commonwealth Avenue home, received a call from a little, thin-faced woman, who curtsied to the butler and asked him to please tell her sister that she wished to speak to her.
Mary looked worried and not over-cordial when she rustled into the room.
"Why, Jane, did you find your way here all alone?" she cried.
"Yes--no--well, I asked a man at the last; but, you know, I've been here twice before with the others."
"Yes, I know," said Mary.
There was a pause; then Jane cleared her throat timidly.
"Mary, I--I've been thinking. You see, just as soon as I'm strong enough, I--I'm going to take care of myself, and then I won't be a burden to--to anybody." Jane was talking very fast now. Her words came tremulously between short, broken breaths. "But until I get well enough to earn money, I can't, you see. And I've been thinking;--would you be willing to take me until--until I can? I'm lots better, already, and getting stronger every day. It wouldn't be for--long."
"Why, of course, Jane!" Mary spoke cheerfully, and in a tone a little higher than her ordinary voice. "I should have asked you to come here before, only I feared you wouldn't be happy here--such a different life for you, and so much noise and confusion with Belle's wedding coming on, and all!"
Jane gave her a grateful glance.
"I know, of course,--you'd think that,--and it isn't that I'm finding fault with Julia and Edgar. I couldn't do that--they're so good to me. But, you see, I put them out so. Now, there's my room, for one thing. 'T was Ella's, and Ella has to keep running in for things she's left, and she says it's the same with the others. You see, I've got Ella's room, and Ella's got Tom's, and Tom's got Bert's. It's a regular 'house that Jack built'--and I'm the'Jack'!"
"I see," laughed Mary constrainedly. "And you want to come here? Well, you shall. You--you may come a week from Saturday," she added, after a pause. "I have a reception and a dinner here the first of the week, and --you'd better stay away until after that."
"Oh, thank you," sighed Jane. "You are so good. I shall tell Julia that I'm invited here, so she won't think I'm dissatisfied. They're so good to me--I wouldn't want to hurt their feelings!"
"Of course not," murmured Mary.
* * * * *
The big, fat tire of the touring-car popped like a pistol shot directly in front of the large white house with the green blinds.
"This is the time we're in luck, Belle," laughed the good-natured young fellow who had been driving the car. "Do you see that big piazza just aching for you to come and sit on it?"
"Are we really stalled, Will?" asked the girl.
"Looks like it--for a while. I'll have to telephone Peters to bring down a tire. Of course, to-day is the day we didn't take it!"
Some minutes later the girl found herself on the cool piazza, in charge of a wonderfully hospitable old lady, while down the road the good- looking young fellow was making long strides toward the next house and a telephone.
"We are staying at the Lindsays', in North Belton," explained the girl, when he was gone, "and we came out for a little spin before dinner. Isn't this Belton? I have an aunt who used to live here somewhere--Aunt Jane Pendergast"
The old lady sat suddenly erect in her chair.
"My dear," she cried, "you don't mean to say that you're Jane Pendergast's niece! Now, that is queer! Why, this was her very house--we bought it when the old gentleman died last year. But, come, we'll go inside. You'll want to see everything, of course!"
It was some time before the young man came back from telephoning, and it was longer still before Peters came with the new tire, and helped get the touring-car ready for the road. The girl was very quiet when they finally left the house, and there was a troubled look deep in her eyes.
"Why, Belle, what's the matter?" asked the young fellow concernedly, as he slackened speed in the cool twilight of the woods, some minutes later. "What's troubling you, dear?"
"Will"--the girl's voice shook--"Will, that was Aunt Jane's house. That old lady--told me."
"Yes, yes--the little gray-haired woman that came to live with us two months ago. You know her."
"Why, y-yes; I think I've--seen her."
The girl winced, as from a blow.
"Will, don't! I can't bear it," she choked. "It only shows how we've treated her--how little we've made of her, when we ought to have done everything--everything to make her happy. Instead of that, we were brutes--all of us!"
"Belle!"--the tone was an indignant protest.
"But we were--listen! She lived in that house all her life till last year. She never went anywhere or did anything. For twenty years she lived with an old man who had lost his mind, and she tended him like a baby--only a baby grows older all the time and more interesting, while he--oh, Will, it was awful! That old lady--told me."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the young fellow, under his breath.
"And there were other things," hurried on the girl, tremulously. "Some way, I never thought of Aunt Jane only as old and timid; but she was young like us, once. She wanted to go away to school--but she couldn't go; and there was some one who--loved her--once--later, and she sent him--away. That was after--after grandfather lost his mind. Mother and Uncle Edgar and Uncle Fred--they all went away and lived their own lives, but she stayed on. Then last year grandfather died."
The girl paused and moistened her lips. The man did not speak. His eyes were on the road ahead of the slow-moving car.
"I heard to-day--how--how proud and happy Aunt Jane was that Uncle Fred had asked her to come and live with him," resumed the girl, after a minute. "That old lady told me how Aunt Jane talked and talked about it before she went away, and how she said that all her life she had taken care of others, and it would be so good to feel that now some one was going to look out for her, though, of course, she should do everything she could to help, and she hoped she could still be of some use."
"Well, she has been, hasn't she?"
The girl shook her head.
"That's the worst of it. We haven't made her think she was. She stayed at Uncle Fred's for a while, and then he sent her to Uncle Edgar's. Something must have been wrong there, for she asked mother two months ago if she might come to us."
"Well, I'm sure you've been--good to her."
"But we haven't!" cried the girl. "Mother meant all right, I know, but she didn't think. And I've been--horrid. Aunt Jane tried to show her interest in my wedding plans, but I only laughed at her and said she wouldn't understand. We've pushed her aside, always,--we've never made her one of us; and--we've always made her feel her dependence."
"But you'll do differently now, dear,--now that you understand."
Again the girl shook her head.
"We can't," she moaned. "It's too late. I had a letter from mother last night. Aunt Jane's sick--awfully sick. Mother said I might expect to--to hear of the end any day."
"But there's some time left--a little!"--his voice broke and choked into silence. Suddenly he made a quick movement, and the car beneath them leaped forward like a charger that feels the prick of the spur.
The girl gave a frightened cry, then a tremulous little sob of joy. The man had cried in her ear, in response to her questioning eyes:
And to them both, at the moment, there seemed to be waiting at the end of the road a little bent old woman, into whose wistful eyes they were to bring the light of joy and peace.