Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
A Couple of Capitalists
On the top of the hill stood the big brick house--a mansion, compared to the other houses of the New England village. At the foot of the hill nestled the tiny brown farmhouse, half buried in lilacs, climbing roses, and hollyhocks.
Years ago, when Reuben had first brought Emily to that little brown cottage, he had said to her, ruefully: "Sweetheart, 'tain't much of a place, I know, but we'll save and save, every cent we can get, an' by an' by we'll go up to live in the big house on the hill!" And he kissed so tenderly the pretty little woman he had married only that morning that she smiled brightly and declared that the small brown house was the very nicest place in the world.
But, as time passed, the "big house" came to be the Mecca of all their hopes, and penny by penny the savings grew. It was slow work, though, and to hearts less courageous the thing would have seemed an impossibility. No luxuries--and scarcely the bare necessities of life-- came to the little house under the hill, but every month a tiny sum found its way into the savings bank. Fortunately, air and sunshine were cheap, and, if inside the house there was lack of beauty and cheer, outside there was a riotous wealth of color and bloom--the flowers under Emily's loving care flourished and multiplied.
The few gowns in the modest trousseau had been turned inside out and upside down, only to be dyed and turned and twisted all over again. But what was a dyed gown, when one had all that money in the bank and the big house on the hill in prospect! Reuben's best suit grew rusty and seedy, but the man patiently, even gleefully, wore it as long as it would hang together; and when the time came that new garments must be bought for both husband and wife, only the cheapest and flimsiest of material was purchased--but the money in the bank grew.
Reuben never smoked. While other men used the fragrant weed to calm their weary brains and bodies, Reuben--ate peanuts. It had been a curious passion of his, from the time when as a boy he was first presented with a penny for his very own, to spend all his spare cash on this peculiar luxury; and the slow munching of this plebeian delicacy had the same soothing effect on him that a good cigar or an old clay pipe had upon his brother-man. But from the day of his marriage all this was changed; the dimes and the nickels bought no more peanuts, but went to swell the common fund.
It is doubtful if even this heroic economy would have accomplished the desired end had not a certain railroad company cast envious eyes upon the level valley and forthwith sent long arms of steel bearing a puffing engine up through the quiet village. A large tract of waste land belonging to Reuben Gray suddenly became surprisingly valuable, and a sum that trebled twice over the scanty savings of years grew all in a night.
One crisp October day, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Gray awoke to the fact that they were a little under sixty years of age, and in possession of more than the big sum of money necessary to enable them to carry out the dreams of their youth. They began joyous preparations at once.
The big brick house at the top of the hill had changed hands twice during the last forty years, and the present owner expressed himself as nothing loath to part, not only with the house itself, but with many of its furnishings; and before the winter snow fell the little brown cottage was sold to a thrifty young couple from the neighboring village, and the Grays took up their abode in their new home.
"Well, Em'ly, this is livin', now, ain't it?" said Reuben, as he carefully let himself down into the depths of a velvet-covered chair in the great parlor. "My! ain't this nice!"
"Just perfectly lovely," quavered the thin voice of his wife, as she threw a surreptitious glance at Reuben's shoes to see if they were quite clean enough for such sacred precincts.
It was their first evening in their new abode, and they were a little weary, for they had spent the entire day in exploring every room, peering into every closet, and trying every chair that the establishment contained. It was still quite early when they trudged anxiously about the house, intent on fastening the numerous doors and windows.
"Dear me!" exclaimed the little woman nervously, "I'm 'most afraid to go to bed, Reuben, for fear some one will break in an' steal all these nice things."
"Well, you can sit up if you want to," replied her husband dryly, "but I shall go to bed. Most of these things have been here nigh on to twenty years, an' I guess they'll last the night through." And he marched solemnly upstairs to the big east chamber, meekly followed by his wife.
It was the next morning when Mrs. Gray was washing the breakfast dishes that her husband came in at the kitchen door and stood looking thoughtfully at her.
"Say, Emily," said he, "you'd oughter have a hired girl. 'T ain't your place to be doin' work like this now."
Mrs. Gray gasped--half terrified, half pleased--and shook her head; but her husband was not to be silenced.
"Well, you had--an' you've got to, too. An' you must buy some new clothes--lots of 'em! Why, Em'ly, we've got heaps of money now, an' we hadn't oughter wear such lookin' things."
Emily nodded; she had thought of this before. And the hired-girl hint must have found a warm spot in her heart in which to grow, for that very afternoon she sallied forth, intent on a visit to her counselor on all occasions--the doctor's wife.
"Well, Mis' Steele, I don't know what to do. Reuben says I ought to have a hired girl; but I hain't no more idea where to get one than anything, an' I don't know's I want one, if I did."
And Mrs. Gray sat back in her chair and rocked violently to and fro, eying her hostess with the evident consciousness of having presented a poser. That resourceful woman, however, was far from being nonplussed; she beamed upon her visitor with a joyful smile.
"Just the thing, my dear Mrs. Gray! You know I am to go South with May for the winter. The house will be closed and the doctor at the hotel. I had just been wondering what to do with Nancy, for I want her again in the spring. Now, you can have her until then, and by that time you will know how you like the idea of keeping a girl. She is a perfect treasure, capable of carrying along the entire work of the household, only"--and Mrs. Steele paused long enough to look doubtfully at her friend--"she is a little independent, and won't stand much interference."
Fifteen minutes later Mrs. Gray departed, well pleased though withal a little frightened. She spent the rest of the afternoon in trying to decide between a black alpaca and a green cashmere dress.
That night Reuben brought home a large bag of peanuts and put them down in triumph on the kitchen table.
"There!" he announced in high glee, "I'm goin' to have a bang-up good time!"
"Why, Reuben," remonstrated his wife gently, "you can't eat them things-- you hain't got no teeth to chew 'em with!"
The man's lower jaw dropped.
"Well, I'm a-goin' to try it, anyhow," he insisted. And try he did; but the way his poor old stomach rebelled against the half-masticated things effectually prevented a repetition of the feast.
Early on Monday morning Nancy appeared. Mrs. Gray assumed a brave aspect, but she quaked in her shoes as she showed the big strapping girl to her room. Five minutes later Nancy came into the kitchen to find Mrs. Gray bending over an obstinate coal fire in the range--with neither coal nor range was the little woman in the least familiar.
"There, now," said Nancy briskly, "I'll fix that. You just tell me what you want for dinner, and I can find the things myself." And she attacked the stove with such a clatter and din that Mrs. Gray retreated in terror, murmuring "ham and eggs, if you please," as she fled through the door. Once in the parlor, she seated herself in the middle of the room and thought how nice it was not to get dinner; but she jumped nervously at every sound from the kitchen.
On Tuesday she had mastered her fear sufficiently to go into the kitchen and make a cottage cheese. She did not notice the unfavorable glances of her maid-of-all-work. Wednesday morning she spent happily puttering over "doing up" some handkerchiefs, and she wondered why Nancy kept banging the oven door so often. Thursday she made a special kind of pie that Reuben liked, and remarked pointedly to Nancy that she herself never washed dishes without wearing an extra apron; furthermore, she always placed the pans the other way in the sink. Friday she rearranged the tins on the pantry shelves, that Nancy had so unaccountably mussed up. On Saturday the inevitable explosion came:
"If you please, mum, I'm willin' to do your work, but seems to me it don't make no difference to you whether I wear one apron or six, or whether I hang my dish-towels on a string or on the bars, or whether I wash goblets or kittles first; and I ain't in the habit of havin' folks spyin' round on me. If you want me to go, I'll go; but if I stay, I want to be let alone!"
Poor little Mrs. Gray fled to her seat in the parlor, and for the rest of that winter she did not dare to call her soul her own; but her table was beautifully set and served, and her house was as neat as wax.
The weeks passed and Reuben began to be restless. One day he came in from the postoffice fairly bubbling over with excitement.
"Say, Em'ly, when folks have money they travel. Let's go somewhere!"
"Why, Reuben--where?" quavered his wife, dropping into the nearest chair.
"Oh, I dunno," with cheerful vagueness; then, suddenly animated, "Let's go to Boston and see the sights!"
"But, Reuben, we don't know no one there," ventured his wife doubtfully.
"Pooh! What if we don't? Hain't we got money? Can't we stay at a hotel? Well, I guess we can!"
And his overwhelming courage put some semblance of confidence into the more timid heart of his wife, until by the end of the week she was as eager as he.
Nancy was tremblingly requested to take a two weeks' vacation, and great was the rejoicing when she graciously acquiesced.
On a bright February morning the journey began. It was not a long one-- four hours only--and the time flew by as on wings of the wind. Reuben assumed an air of worldly wisdom, quite awe-inspiring to his wife. He had visited Boston as a boy, and so had a dim idea of what to expect; moreover, he had sold stock and produce in the large towns near his home, and on the whole felt quite self-sufficient.
As the long train drew into the station, and they alighted and followed the crowd, Mrs. Gray looked with round eyes of wonder at the people--she had not realized that there were so many in the world, and she clung closer and closer to Reuben, who was marching along with a fine show of indifference.
"There," said he, as he deposited his wife and his bags in a seat in the huge waiting-room; "now you stay right here, an' don't you move. I'm goin' to find out about hotels and things."
He was gone so long that she was nearly fainting from fright before she spied his dear form coming toward her. His thin, plain face looked wonderfully beautiful to her, and she almost hugged him right before all those people.
"Well, I've got a hotel all right; but I hain't been here for so long I've kinder forgot about the streets, so the man said we'd better have a team to take us there." And he picked up the bags and trudged off, closely followed by Emily.
His shrewd Yankee wit carried him safely through a bargain with the driver, and they were soon jolting and rumbling along to their destination. He had asked the man behind the news-stand about a hotel, casually mentioning that he had money--plenty of it--and wanted a "bang- up good place." The spirit of mischief had entered the heart of the news-man, and he had given Reuben the name of one of the very highest- priced, most luxurious hotels in the city.
As the carriage stopped, Reuben marched boldly up the broad steps and entered the palatial office, with Emily close at his heels. Two bell- boys sprang forward--the one to take the bags, the other to offer to show Mrs. Gray to the reception-room.
"No, thank you, I ain't particular," said she sweetly; "I'll wait for Reuben here." And she dropped into the nearest chair, while her husband advanced toward the desk. She noticed that men were looking curiously at her, and she felt relieved when Reuben and the pretty boy came back and said they would go up to their room.
She stood the elevator pretty well, though she gave a little gasp (which she tried to choke into a cough) as it started. Reuben turned to the boy.
"Where can I get somethin' to eat?"
"Luncheon is being served in the main dining-room on the first floor, sir."
Visions of a lunch as he knew it in Emily's pantry came to him, and he looked a little dubious.
"Well, I'm pretty hungry; but if that's all I can get I suppose it will have to do."
Ten minutes later an officious head waiter, whom Emily looked upon with timid awe, was seating them in a superbly appointed dining-room. Reuben looked at the menu doubtfully, while an attentive, soft-voiced man at his elbow bent low to catch his order. Few of the strange-looking words conveyed any sort of meaning to the poor hungry man. At length spying "chicken" halfway down the card, he pointed to it in relief.
"I guess I'll take some of that," he said, briefly; then he added, "I don't know how much it costs--you hain't got no price after it."
The waiter comprehended at once.
"The luncheon is served in courses, sir; you pay for the whole--whether you eat it or not," he added shrewdly. "If you will let me serve you according to my judgment, sir, I think I can please you."
And there the forlorn little couple sat, amazed and hungry, through six courses, each one of which seemed to their uneducated palate one degree worse than the last.
Two hours later they started for a long walk down the wonderful, fascinating street. Each marvelous window display came in for its full share of attention, but they stood longest before bakeries and restaurants. Finally, upon coming to one of the latter, where an enticing sign announced "Boiled Dinner To-day, Served Hot at All Hours," Reuben could endure it no longer.
"By Jinks, Em'ly, I've just got to have some of that. That stodged-up mess I ate at the hotel didn't go to the spot at all. Come on, let's have a good square meal."
The hotel knew them just one night. The next morning before breakfast Reuben manfully paid his--to him astounding--bill and departed for more congenial quarters, which they soon found on a neighboring side street.
The rest of the visit was, of course, delightful, only the streets were pretty crowded and noisy, and they couldn't sleep very well at night; moreover, Reuben lost his pocketbook with a small sum of money in it; so, on the whole, they concluded to go home a little before the two weeks ended.
When spring came Nancy returned to her former mistress, and her vacant throne remained unoccupied. Little by little the dust gathered on the big velvet chairs in the parlor, and the room was opened less and less. When the first green things commenced to send tender shoots up through the wet, brown earth, Reuben's restlessness was very noticeable. By and by he began to go off very early in the morning, returning at noon for a hasty dinner, then away again till night. To his wife's repeated questioning he would reply, sheepishly, "Oh, just loafin', that's all."
And Emily was nervous, too. Of late she had taken a great fancy to a daily walk, and it always led in one direction--down past the little brown house. Of course, she glanced over the fence at the roses and lilacs, and she couldn't help seeing that they all looked sadly neglected. By and by the weeds came, grew, and multiplied; and every time she passed the gate her throat fairly choked in sympathy with her old pets.
Evenings, she and Reuben spent very happily on the back stoop, talking of their great good fortune in being able to live in such a fine large house. Somehow they said more than usual about it this spring, and Reuben often mentioned how glad he was that his wife didn't have to dig in the garden any more; and Emily would reply that she, too, was glad that he was having so easy a time. Then they would look down at the little brown farmhouse and wonder how they ever managed to get along in so tiny a place.
One day, in passing this same little house, Emily stopped a moment and leaned over the gate, that she might gain a better view of her favorite rosebush.
She evinced the same interest the next two mornings, and on the third she timidly opened the gate and walked up the old path to the door. A buxom woman with a big baby in her arms, and a bigger one hanging to her skirts, answered her knock.
"How do you do, Mis' Gray. Won't you come in?" said she civilly, looking mildly surprised.
"No, thank you--yes--I mean--I came to see you," stammered Emily confusedly.
"You're very good," murmured the woman, still standing in the doorway.
"Your flowers are so pretty," ventured Mrs. Gray, unable to keep the wistfulness out of her voice.
"Do you think so?" carelessly; "I s'pose they need weedin'. What with my babies an' all, I don't get much time for posies."
"Oh, please,--would it be too much trouble to let me come an' putter around in the beds?" queried the little woman eagerly. "Oh, I would like it so much!"
The other laughed heartily.
"Well, I really don't see how it's goin' to trouble me to have you weedin' my flowers; in fact, I should think the shoe would be on the other foot." Then the red showed in her face a little. "You're welcome to do whatever you want, Mis' Gray."
"Oh, thank you!" exclaimed Emily, as she quickly pulled up an enormous weed at her feet.
It took but a few hours' work to bring about a wonderfully happy change in that forlorn garden, and then Mrs. Gray found that she had a big pile of weeds to dispose of. Filling her apron with a portion of them, she started to go behind the house in search of a garbage heap. Around the corner she came face to face with her husband, hoe in hand.
"Why, Reuben Gray! Whatever in the world are you doing?"
For a moment the man was crushed with the enormity of his crime; then he caught sight of his wife's dirt-stained fingers.
"Well, I guess I ain't doin' no worse than you be!" And he turned his back and began to hoe vigorously.
Emily dropped the weeds where she stood, turned about, and walked through the garden and up the hill, pondering many things.
Supper was strangely quiet that night. Mrs. Gray had asked a single question: "Reuben, do you want the little house back?"
A glad light leaped into the old man's eyes.
"Em'ly--would you be willin' to?"
After the supper dishes were put away, Mrs. Gray, with a light shawl over her head, came to her husband on the back stoop.
"Come, dear; I think we'd better go down to-night."
A few minutes later they sat stiffly in the best room of the farmhouse, while the buxom woman and her husband looked wonderingly at them.
"You wan't thinkin' of sellin', was ye?" began Reuben insinuatingly.
The younger man's eyelid quivered a little. "Well, no,--I can't hardly say that I was. I hain't but just bought."
Reuben hitched his chair a bit and glanced at Emily.
"Well, me and my wife have concluded that we're too old to transplant-- we don't seem to take root very easy--and we've been thinkin'--would you swap even, now?"
* * * * *
It must have been a month later that Reuben Gray and his wife were contentedly sitting in the old familiar kitchen of the little brown house.
"I've been wondering, Reuben," said his wife--"I've been wondering if 'twouldn't have been just as well if we'd taken some of the good things while they was goin'--before we got too old to enjoy 'em."
"Yes--peanuts, for instance," acquiesced her husband ruefully.