A Village Stradivarius by Kate Douglas Wiggin
"Nor scour the seas, nor sift mankind,
Lyddy Butterfield's hen turkey was of a roving disposition. She had never appreciated her luxurious country quarters in Edgewood, and was seemingly anxious to return to the modest back yard in her native city. At any rate, she was in the habit of straying far from home, and the habit was growing upon her to such an extent that she would even lead her docile little gobblers down to visit Anthony Croft's hens and share their corn.
Lyddy had caught her at it once, and was now pursuing her to that end for the second time. She paused in front of the house, but there were no turkeys to be seen. Could they have wandered up the hill road--the discontented, "traipsing," exasperating things? She started in that direction, when she heard a crash in the Croft kitchen, and then the sound of a boy's voice coming from an inner room--a weak and querulous voice, as if the child were ill.
She drew nearer, in spite of her dread of meeting people, or above all of intruding, and saw Anthony Croft standing over the stove, with an expression of utter helplessness on his usually placid face. She had never really seen him before in the daylight, and there was something about his appearance that startled her. The teakettle was on the floor, and a sea of water was flooding the man's feet, yet he seemed to be gazing into vacancy. Presently he stooped, and fumbled gropingly for the kettle. It was too hot to be touched with impunity, and he finally left it in a despairing sort of way, and walked in the direction of a shelf, from under which a row of coats was hanging. The boy called again in a louder and more insistent tone, ending in a whimper of restless pain. This seemed to make the man more nervous than ever. His hands went patiently over and over the shelf, then paused at each separate nail.
"Bless the poor dear!" thought Lyddy. "Is he trying to find his hat, or what is he trying to do? I wonder if he is music mad?" and she drew still nearer the steps.
At this moment he turned and came rapidly toward the door. She looked straight in his face. There was no mistaking it: he was blind. The magician who had told her, through his violin, secrets that she had scarcely dreamed of, the wizard who had set her heart to throbbing and aching and longing as it had never throbbed and ached and longed before, the being who had worn a halo of romance and genius to her simple mind, was stone blind! A wave of impetuous anguish, as sharp and passionate as any she had ever felt for her own misfortunes, swept over her soul at the spectacle of the man's helplessness. His sightless eyes struck her like a blow. But there was no time to lose. She was directly in his path: if she stood still he would certainly walk over her, and if she moved he would hear her, so, on the spur of the moment, she gave a nervous cough and said, "Good-morning, Mr. Croft."
He stopped short. "Who is it?" he asked.
"I am--it is--I am--your new neighbour," said Lyddy, with a trembling attempt at cheerfulness.
"Oh, Miss Butterfield! I should have called up to see you before this if it hadn't been for the boy's sickness. But I am a good-for- nothing neighbour, as you have doubtless heard. Nobody expects anything of me."
("Nobody expects anything of me." Her own plaint, uttered in her own tone!)
"I don't know about that," she answered swiftly. "You've given me, for one, a great deal of pleasure with your wonderful music. I often hear you as you play after supper, and it has kept me from being lonesome. That isn't very much, to be sure."
"You are fond of music, then?"
"I didn't know I was; I never heard any before," said Lyddy simply; "but it seems to help people to say things they couldn't say for themselves, don't you think so? It comforts me even to hear it, and I think it must be still more beautiful to make it."
Now, Lyddy Ann Butterfield had no sooner uttered this commonplace speech than the reflection darted through her mind like a lightning flash that she had never spoken a bit of her heart out like this in all her life before. The reason came to her in the same flash: she was not being looked at; her disfigured face was hidden. This man, at least, could not shrink, turn away, shiver, affect indifference, fix his eyes on hers with a fascinated horror, as others had done. Her heart was divided between a great throb of pity and sympathy for him and an irresistible sense of gratitude for herself. Sure of protection and comprehension, her lovely soul came out of her poor eyes and sat in the sunshine. She spoke her mind at ease, as we utter sacred things sometimes under cover of darkness.
"You seem to have had an accident; what can I do to help you?" she asked.
"Nothing, thank you. The boy has been sick for some days, but he seems worse since last night. Nothing is in its right place in the house, so I have given up trying to find anything, and am just going to Edgewood to see if somebody will help me for a few days."
"Uncle Tony! Uncle To-ny! where are you? Do give me another drink, I'm so hot!" came the boy's voice from within.
"Coming, laddie! I don't believe he ought to drink so much water, but what can I do? He is burning up with fever."
"Now look here, Mr. Croft," and Lydia's tone was cheerfully decisive. "You sit down in that rocker, please, and let me command the ship for a while. This is one of the cases where a woman is necessary. First and foremost, what were you hunting for?"
"My hat and the butter," said Anthony meekly, and at this unique combination they both laughed. Lyddy's laugh was particularly fresh, childlike, and pleased; one that would have astonished the Reynolds children. She had seldom laughed heartily since little Rufus had cried and told her she frightened him when she twisted her face so.
"Your hat is in the wood-box, and I'll find the butter in the twinkling of an eye, though why you want it now is more than--My patience, Mr. Croft, your hand is burned to a blister!"
"Don't mind me. Be good enough to look at the boy and tell me what ails him; nothing else matters much."
"I will with pleasure, but let me ease you a little first. Here's a rag that will be just the thing," and Lyddy, suiting the pretty action to the mendacious word, took a good handkerchief from her pocket and tore it in three strips, after spreading it with tallow from a candle heated over the stove. This done, she bound up the burned hand skilfully, and, crossing the dining-room, disappeared within the little chamber door beyond. She came out presently, and said half hesitatingly, "Would you--mind--going out in the orchard for an hour or so? You seem to be rather in the way here, and I should like the place to myself, if you'll excuse me for saying so. I'm ever so much more capable than Mrs. Buck; won't you give me a trial, sir? Here's your violin and your hat. I'll call you if you can help or advise me."
"But I can't let a stranger come in and do my housework," he objected. "I can't, you know, though I appreciate your kindness all the same."
"I am your nearest neighbour, and your only one, for that matter," said Lyddy firmly; "it's nothing more than right that I should look after that sick child, and I must do it. I haven't got a thing to do in my own house. I am nothing but a poor lonely old maid, who's been used to children all her life, and likes nothing better than to work over them."
A calm settled upon Anthony's perturbed spirit, as he sat under the apple-trees and heard Lyddy going to and fro in the cottage. "She isn't any old maid," he thought; "she doesn't step like one; she has soft shoes and a springy walk. She must be a very handsome woman, with a hand like that; and such a voice!--I knew the moment she spoke that she didn't belong in this village."
As a matter of fact, his keen ear had caught the melody in Lyddy's voice, a voice full of dignity, sweetness, and reserve power. His sense of touch, too, had captured the beauty of her hand, and held it in remembrance--the soft palm, the fine skin, supple fingers, smooth nails, and firm round wrist. These charms would never have been noted by any seeing man in Edgewood, but they were revealed to Anthony Croft while Lyddy, like the good Samaritan, bound up his wounds. It is these saving stars that light the eternal darkness of the blind.
Lyddy thought she had met her Waterloo when, with arms akimbo, she gazed about the Croft establishment, which was a scene of desolation for the moment. Anthony's cousin from Bridgton was in the habit of visiting him every two months for a solemn house-cleaning, and Mrs. Buck from Pleasant River came every Saturday and Monday for baking and washing. Between times Davy and his uncle did the housework together; and although it was respectably done, there was no pink- and-white daintiness about it, you may be sure.
Lyddy came out to the apple-trees in about an hour, laughing nervously as she said, "I'm sorry to have taken a mean advantage of you, Mr. Croft, but I know everything you have in your house, and exactly where it is. I couldn't help it, you see, when I was making things tidy. It would do you good to look at the boy. His room was too light, and the flies were devouring him. I swept him and dusted him, put on clean sheets and pillow-slips, sponged him with bay rum, brushed his hair, drove out the flies, and tacked a green curtain up to the window. Fifteen minutes after he was sleeping like a kitten. He has a sore throat and considerable fever. Could you--can you--at least, will you, go up to my house on an errand?"
"Certainly I can. I know it inside and out as well as my own."
"Very good. On the clock shelf in the sitting-room there is a bottle of sweet spirits of nitre; it's the only bottle there, so you can't make any mistake. It will help until the doctor comes. I wonder you didn't send for him yesterday?"
"Davy wouldn't have him," apologised his uncle.
"Wouldn't he?" inquired Lyddy with cheerful scorn. "He has you under pretty good control, hasn't he? But children are unmerciful tyrants."
"Couldn't you coax him into it before you go home?" asked Anthony in a wheedling voice.
"I can try; but it isn't likely I can influence him, if you can't. Still, if we both fail, I really don't see what's to prevent our sending for the doctor in spite of him. He is as weak as a baby, you know, and can't sit up in bed: what could he do? I will risk the consequences, if you will!"
There was a note of such amiable and winning sarcasm in all this, such a cheery, invincible courage, such a friendly neighbourliness and co-operation, above all, such a different tone from any he was accustomed to hear in Edgewood, that Anthony Croft felt warmed through to the core.
As he walked quickly along the road, he conjured up a vision of autumn beauty from the few hints nature gave even to her sightless ones on this glorious morning--the rustle of a few fallen leaves under his feet, the clear wine of the air, the full rush of the swollen river, the whisking of the squirrels in the boughs, the crunch of their teeth on the nuts, the spicy odour of the apples lying under the trees. He missed his mother that morning more than he had missed her for years. How neat she was, how thrifty, how comfortable, and how comforting! His life was so dreary and aimless; and was it the best or the right one for Davy, with his talent and dawning ambition? Would it not be better to have Mrs. Buck live with them altogether, instead of coming twice a week, as heretofore? No; he shrank from that with a hopeless aversion born of Saturday and Monday dinners in her company. He could hear her pour her coffee into the saucer; hear the scraping of the cup on the rim, and know that she was setting it sloppily down on the cloth. He could remember her noisy drinking, the weight of her elbow on the table, the creaking of her dress under the pressure of superabundant flesh. Besides, she had tried to scrub his favourite violin with sapolio. No, anything was better than Mrs. Buck as a constancy.
He took off his hat unconsciously as he entered Lyddy's sitting-room. A gentle breeze blew one of the full red curtains towards him till it fluttered about his shoulders like a frolicsome, teasing hand. There was a sweet pungent odour of pine-boughs, a canary sang in the window, the clock was trimmed with a blackberry vine; he knew the prickles, and they called up to his mind the glowing tints he had loved so well. His sensitive hand, that carried a divining rod in every finger-tip, met a vase on the shelf, and, travelling upward, touched a full branch of alder berries tied about with a ribbon. The ribbon would be red; the woman who arranged this room would make no mistake; for in one morning Anthony Croft had penetrated the secret of Lyddy's true personality, and in a measure had sounded the shallows that led to the depths of her nature.
Lyddy went home at seven o'clock that night rather reluctantly. The doctor had said Mr. Croft could sit up with the boy unless he grew much worse, and there was no propriety in her staying longer unless there was danger.
"You have been very good to me," Anthony said gravely, as he shook her hand at parting--"very good."
They stood together on the doorstep. A distant bell called to evening prayer-meeting; the restless murmur of the river and the whisper of the wind in the pines broke the twilight stillness. The long, quiet day together, part of it spent by the sick child's bedside, had brought the two strangers curiously near to each other.
"The house hasn't seemed so sweet and fresh since my mother died," he went on, as he dropped her hand, "and I haven't had so many flowers and green things in it since I lost my eyesight."
"Was it long ago?"
"Ten years. Is that long?"
"Long to bear a burden."
"I hope you know little of burden-bearing?"
"I know little else."
"I might have guessed it from the alacrity with which you took up Davy's and mine. You must be very happy to have the power to make things straight and sunny and wholesome; to breathe your strength into helplessness such as mine. I thank you, and I envy you. Good- night."
Lyddy turned on her heel without a word; her mind was beyond and above words. The sky seemed to have descended upon, enveloped her, caught her up into its heaven, as she rose into unaccustomed heights of feeling, like Elijah in his chariot of fire. She very happy! She with power--power to make things straight and sunny and wholesome! She able to breathe strength into helplessness, even a consecrated, God-smitten helplessness like his! She not only to be thanked, but envied!
Her house seemed strange to her that night. She went to bed in the dark, dreading even the light of a candle; and before she turned down her counterpane she flung herself on her knees, and poured out her soul in a prayer that had been growing, waiting, and waited for, perhaps, for years:
"O Lord, I thank Thee for health and strength and life. I never could do it before, but I thank Thee to-night for life on any terms. I thank Thee for this home; for the chance of helping another human creature, stricken like myself; for the privilege of ministering to a motherless child. Make me to long only for the beauty of holiness, and to be satisfied if I attain to it. Wash my soul pure and clean, and let that be the only mirror in which I see my face. I have tried to be useful. Forgive me if it always seemed so hard and dreary a life. Forgive me if I am too happy because for one short day I have really helped in a beautiful way, and found a friend who saw, because he was blind, the real me underneath; the me that never was burned by the fire; the me that isn't disfigured, unless my wicked discontent has done it; the me that has lived on and on and on, starving to death for the friendship and sympathy and love that come to other women. I have spent my forty years in the wilderness, feeding on wrath and bitterness and tears. Forgive me, Lord, and give me one more vision of the blessed land of Canaan, even if I never dwell there."