II. Miss Mehitable
 

The slanting sunbeams of late afternoon crept through the cobwebbed window, and Miss Evelina stirred uneasily in her sleep. The mocking dream vanished and she awoke to feel, as always, the iron, icy hand that unmercifully clutched her heart. The room was cold and she shivered as she lay beneath her insufficient covering.

At length she rose, and dressed mechanically, avoiding the mirror, and pinning her veil securely to her hair. She went downstairs slowly, clinging to the railing from sheer weakness. She was as frail and ghostly as some disembodied spirit of Grief.

Soon, she had a fire. As the warmth increased, she opened the rear door of the house to dispel the musty atmosphere. The March wind blew strong and clear through the lonely rooms, stirring the dust before it and swaying the cobwebs. Suddenly, Miss Evelina heard a footstep outside and instinctively drew down her veil.

Before she could close the door, a woman, with a shawl over her head, appeared on the threshold, peered curiously into the house, then unhesitatingly entered.

"For the land's sake!" cried a cheery voice. "You scared me most to death! I saw the smoke coming from the chimney and thought the house was afire, so I come over to see."

Miss Evelina stiffened, and made no reply.

"I don't know who you are," said the woman again, mildly defiant, "but this is Evelina Grey's house."

"And I," answered Miss Evelina, almost inaudibly, "am Evelina Grey."

"For the land's sake!" cried the visitor again. "Don't you remember me? Why, Evelina, you and I used to go to school together. You----"

She stopped, abruptly. The fact of the veiled face confronted her stubbornly. She ransacked her memory for a forgotten catastrophe, a quarter of a century back. Impenetrably, a wall was reared between them.

"I--I'm afraid I don't remember," stammered Miss Evelina, in a low voice, hoping that the intruder would go.

"I used to be Mehitable Smith, and that's what I am still, having been spared marriage. Mehitable is my name, but folks calls me Hitty--Miss Hitty," she added, with a slight accent on the "Miss."

"Oh," answered Miss Evelina, "I remember," though she did not remember at all.

"Well, I'm glad you've come back," went on the guest, politely. Altogether in the manner of one invited to do so, she removed her shawl and sat down, furtively eyeing Miss Evelina, yet affecting to look carelessly about the house.

She was a woman of fifty or more, brisk and active of body and kindly, though inquisitive, of countenance. Her dark hair, scarcely touched with grey, was parted smoothly in the exact centre and plastered down on both sides, as one guessed, by a brush and cold water. Her black eyes were bright and keen, and her gold-bowed spectacles were habitually worn half-way down her nose. Her mouth and chin were indicative of great firmness--those whose misfortune it was to differ from Miss Hitty were accustomed to call it obstinacy. People of plainer speech said it was "mulishness."

Her gown was dark calico, stiffly starched, and made according to the durable and comfortable pattern of her school-days. "All in one piece," Miss Hitty was wont to say. "Then when I bend over, as folks that does housework has to bend over, occasionally, I don't come apart in the back. For my part, I never could see sense in wearing clothes that's held by a safety-pin in the back instead of good, firm cloth, and, moreover, a belt that either slides around or pinches where it ain't pleasant to be pinched, ain't my notion of comfort. Apron strings is bad enough, for you have to have 'em tight to keep from slipping." Miss Hitty had never worn corsets, and had the straight, slender figure of a boy.

The situation became awkward. Miss Evelina still stood in the middle of the room, her veiled face slightly averted. The impenetrable shelter of chiffon awed Miss Mehitable, but she was not a woman to give up easily when embarked upon the quest for knowledge. Some unusual state of mind kept her from asking a direct question about the veil, and meanwhile she continually racked her memory.

Miss Evelina's white, slender hands opened and closed nervously. Miss Hitty set her feet squarely on the floor, and tucked her immaculate white apron closely about her knees. "When did you come?" she demanded finally, with the air of the attorney for the prosecution.

"Last night," murmured Miss Evelina.

"On that late train?"

"Yes."

"I heard it stop, but I never sensed it was you. Seemed to me I heard somebody go by, too, but I was too sleepy to get up and see. I thought I must be dreaming, but I was sure I heard somebody on the walk. If I'd known it was you, I'd have made you stop at my house for the rest of the night, instead of coming up here alone."

"Very kind," said Miss Evelina, after an uncomfortable pause.

"You might as well set down," remarked Miss Hitty, with a new gentleness of manner. "I'm going to set a spell."

Miss Evelina sat, helplessly, in the hair-cloth chair which she hated, and turned her veiled face yet farther away from her guest. Seeing that her hostess did not intend to talk, Miss Hitty began a conversation, if anything wholly one-sided may be so termed.

"I live in the same place," she said. "Ma died seventeen years ago on the eighteenth of next April, and left the house and the income for me. There was enough to take care of two, and so I took my sister's child, Araminta, to bring up. You know my poor sister got married. She ought to have known better, but she didn't. She just put her head into the noose, and it slipped up on her, as I told her it would, both before and after the ceremony. Having seen all the trouble men make in the world, I sh'd think women would know enough to keep away from 'em, but they don't--that is, some women don't." Miss Hitty smoothed her stiff white apron with an air of conscious virtue.

"Araminta was only a year old when her ma got enough of marrying and went to her reward in Heaven. What she 'd been through would have tried the patience of a saint, and Barbara wasn't no saint. None of the Smith family have ever grown wings here on earth, but it's my belief that we'll all be awarded our proper plumage in Heaven.

"He--" the pronoun was sufficiently definite to indicate Araminta's hapless father--"was always tracking dirt into the clean kitchen, and he had an appetite like a horse. Barbara would make a cake to set away for company, and he'd gobble it all up at one meal just as if 't was a doughnut. She was forever cooking and washing dishes and sweeping up after him. When he come into the house, she'd run for the broom and dustpan, and follow him around, sweeping up, and if you'll believe me, the brute scolded her for it. He actually said once, in my presence, that if he'd known how neat she was, he didn't believe he'd have married her. That shows what men are--if it needs showing. It's no wonder poor Barbara died. I hope there ain't any brooms in Heaven and that she's havin' a good rest now.

"Araminta's goin' on nineteen, and she's a sensible girl, if I do say it as shouldn't. She's never spoke to a man except to say 'yes' and 'no.' I've taught her to steer clear of 'em, and even when she was only seven years old, she'd run if she saw one coming. She knows they 're pizen and I don't believe I'll ever have any cause to worry about Minty.

"I've got the minister boarding with me," pursued Miss Hitty, undaunted, and cheerfully taking a fresh start. "Ministers don't count, and I must say that, for a man, Mr. Thorpe is very little trouble. He wipes his feet sometimes for as much as five minutes when he's coming in, and mostly, when it's pleasant weather, he's out. When he's in, he usually stays in his room, except at meals. He don't eat much more 'n a canary, and likes what he eats, and don't need hardly any pickin' up after, though a week ago last Saturday he left a collar layin' on the bureau instead of putting it into his bag.

"I left it right where 't was, and Sunday morning he put it where it belonged. He's never been married and he's learned to pick up after himself. I wouldn't have had him, on Araminta's account, only that there wasn't no other place for him to stay, and it was put to me by the elders as being my Christian duty. I wouldn't have took him, otherwise, and we've never had an unmarried minister before.

"Besides, Mr. Thorpe ain't pleasing the congregation, and I don't know that he'll stay long. He's been here six months and three Sundays over, and I've been to every single service, church and Sunday-school and prayer-meeting, and he ain't never said one word about hell. It's all of the joys of Heaven and a sure reward in the hereafter for everybody that's done what they think is right--nothing much, mind you, about what is right. Why, when Mr. Brewster was preaching for us, some of the sinners would get up and run right out of the church when he got started on hell and the lost souls writhin' in the flames. That was a minister worth having.

"But Mr. Thorpe, now, he doesn't seem to have no sense of the duties of his position. Week before last, I heard of his walkin' along the river with Andy Rogers--arm in arm, if you'll believe me, with the worst drunkard and chicken thief in town. The very idea of a minister associatin' with sinners! Mr. Brewster would never have done that. Why, Andy was one of them that run out of the church the day the minister give us that movin' sermon on hell, and he ain't never dared to show his face in a place of worship since.

"As I said, I don't think Mr. Thorpe 'll be with us long, for the vestry and the congregation is getting dissatisfied. There ain't been any open talk, except in the Ladies' Aid Society, but public opinion is settin' pretty strongly in that direction." Miss Hitty dropped her final g's when she got thoroughly interested in her subject and at times became deeply involved in grammatical complications.

"Us older ones, that's strong in the faith, ain't likely to be injured by it, I suppose, but there's always the young ones to be considered, and it's highly important for Araminta to have the right kind of influence. Of course Mr. Thorpe don't talk on religious subjects at home, and I ain't let Araminta go to church the last two Sundays. Meanwhile, I've talked hell to her stronger 'n common.

"But, upon my soul, I don't know what Rushton is comin' to. A month or so ago, there was an outlandish, heathen character come here that beats anything I've ever heard tell of. His name is Tom Barnaby and he's set up a store on the edge of town, in the front parlour of Widow Simon's house. She's went and rented it to him, and she says he pays his rent regular.

"He wears leather leggings and a hat with a red feather stuck in it, and he's gone into competition with Mrs. Allen, who's kept the dry-goods here for the last twenty years.

"Of course," she went on, a little wistfully, "I've always patronised Mrs. Allen, and I always shall. They do say Barnaby's goods is a great deal cheaper, but I'd feel it my duty to buy of a woman, anyhow, even though she has been married. She's been a widow for so long, it's most the same as if she'd never been married at ail.

"Barnaby lives with a dog and does for himself, but he's hardly ever in his store. People go there to buy things and find the door propped open with a brick, and a sign says to come in and take what you want. The price of everything is marked good and plain, and another sign says to put the money in the drawer and make your own change. The blacksmith was at him for doing business so shiftless, and Barnaby laughed and said that if anybody wanted anything he had bad enough to steal it, whoever it was, he was good and welcome to it. That just shows how crazy he is. Most of the time he's roaming around the country, with his yellow dog at his heels, making outlandish noises on some kind of a flute. He can't play a tune, but he keeps trying. Folks around here call him Piper Tom.

"Of course I wouldn't want Mrs. Allen to know, but I've thought that sometime when he was away and there was nobody there to see, I'd just step in for a few minutes and take a look at his goods. Elmiry Jones says his calico is beautiful, and that for her part, she's going to trade there instead of at Allen's. I suppose it is a temptation. I might do it myself, if 't want for my principles."

The speaker paused for breath, but Miss Evelina still sat silently in her chair. "What was it?" thought Miss Hitty. "I was here, and I knew at the time, but what happened? How did I come to forget? I must be getting old!"

She searched her memory without result. Her house was situated at the crossroads, and, being on higher ground, commanded a good view of the village below. Gradually, her dooryard had become a sort of clearing house for neighbourhood gossip. Travellers going and coming stopped at Miss Hitty's to drink from the moss-grown well, give their bit of news, and receive, in return, the scandal of the countryside. Had it not been for the faithful and industrious Miss Mehitable, the town might have needed a daily paper.

"Strange I can't think," she said to herself. "I don't doubt it'll come to me, though. Something happened to Evelina, and she went away, and her mother went with her to take care of her, and then her mother died, all at once, of heart failure. It happened the same week old Mis' Hicks had a doctor from the city for an operation, and the Millerses barn was struck by lightning and burnt up, and so I s'pose it's no wonder I've sorter lost track of it."

Miss Evelina's veiled face was wholly averted now, and Miss Hitty studied her shrewdly. She noted that the black gown was well-worn, and had, indeed, been patched in several places. The shoes which tapped impatiently on the floor were undeniably shabby, though they had been carefully blacked. Against the unrelieved sombreness of her gown. Miss Evelina's hands were singularly frail and transparent. Every line of her body was eloquent of weakness and well-nigh insupportable grief.

"Well," said Miss Hitty, again, though she felt that the words were flat; "I'm glad you've come back. It seems like old times for us to be settin' here, talkin', and--" here she laughed shrilly--"we've both been spared marriage."

A small, slender hand clutched convulsively at the arm of the haircloth chair, but Miss Evelina did not speak.

"I see," went on Miss Hitty, not unkindly, "that you're still in mourning for your mother. You mustn't take it so hard. Sometimes folks get to feeling so sorry about something that they can't never get over it, and they keep on going round and round all the time like a squirrel in a wheel, and keep on getting weaker till it gets to be a kind of disease there ain't no cure for. Leastwise, that's what Doctor Dexter says."

"Doctor Dexter!" With a cry, Miss Evelina sprang to her feet, her hands tightly pressed to her heart.

"The same," nodded Miss Hitty, overjoyed to discover that at last her hostess was interested. "Doctor Anthony Dexter, our old schoolmate, as had just graduated when you lived here before. He went away for a year and then he came back, bringing a pretty young wife. She's dead, but he has a son, Ralph, who's away studying to be a doctor. He'll graduate this Spring and then he's coming here to help his father with his practice. Doctor Dexter's getting old, like the rest of us, and he don't like the night work. Some folks is inconsiderate enough to get sick in the night. They orter have regular hours for it, same as a doctor has hours for business. Things would fit better.

"Well, I must be going, for I left soup on the stove, and Araminta's likely as not to let it burn. I'm going to send your supper over to you, and next week, if the weather's favourable, we'll clean this house. Goodness knows it needs it. I'd just as soon send over all your meals till you get settled--'t wouldn't be any trouble. Or, you can come over to my house if you wouldn't mind eating with the minister. It seems queer to set down to the table with a man, and not altogether natural, but I'm beginning to get used to it, and it gives us the advantage of a blessing, and, anyway, ministers don't count. Come over when you can. Goodbye!"

With a rustle of stiffly starched garments Miss Mehitable took her departure, carefully closing the door and avoiding the appearance of haste. This was an effort, for every fibre of her being ached to get back to the clearing house, where she might speculate upon Evelina's return. It was her desire, also, to hunt up the oldest inhabitant before nightfall and correct her pitiful lapse of memory.

At the same time, she was planning to send Araminta over with a nice hot supper, for Miss Evelina seemed to be far from strong, and, even to one lacking in discernment, acutely unhappy.

Down the road she went, her head bowed in deep and fruitless thought. Swiftly, as in a lightning flash, and without premonition, she remembered.

"Evelina was burnt," she said to herself, triumphantly, "over to Doctor Dexter's, and they took her on the train to the hospital. I guess she wears that veil all the time."

Then Miss Hitty stopped at her own gate, catching her breath quickly. "She must have been burnt awful," she thought. "Poor soul!" she murmured, her sharp eyes softening with tears. "Poor soul!"