ANNIE HEMPSTEAD lived on a large family canvas, being the eldest of six children. There was only one boy. The mother was long since dead. If one can imagine the Hempstead family, the head of which was the Reverend Silas, pastor of the Orthodox Church in Lynn Corners, as being the subject of a mild study in village history, the high light would probably fall upon Imogen, the youngest daughter. As for Annie, she would apparently supply only a part of the background.
This afternoon in late July, Annie was out in the front yard of the parsonage, assisting her brother Benny to rake hay. Benny had not cut it. Annie had hired a man, although the Hempsteads could not afford to hire a man, but she had said to Benny, "Benny, you can rake the hay and get it into the barn if Jim Mullins cuts it, can′t you?" And Benny had smiled and nodded acquiescence. Benny Hemp- stead always smiled and nodded acquiescence, but there was in him the strange persistency of a willow bough, the persistency of pliability, which is the most unconquerable of all. Benny swayed gracefully in response to all the wishes of others, but always he remained in his own inadequate attitude toward life.
Now he was raking to as little purpose as he could and rake at all. The clover-tops, the timothy grass, and the buttercups moved before his rake in a faint foam of gold and green and rose, but his sister Annie raised whirlwinds with hers. The Hempstead yard was large and deep, and had two great squares given over to wild growths on either side of the gravel walk, which was bordered with shrubs, flowering in their turn, like a class of children at school saying their lessons. The spring shrubs had all spelled out their floral recitations, of course, but great clumps of peonies were spreading wide skirts of gigantic bloom, like dancers courtesying low on the stage of summer, and shafts of green-white Yucca lilies and Japan lilies and clove-pinks still remained in their school of bloom.
Benny often stood still, wiped his forehead, leaned on his rake, and inhaled the bouquet of sweet scents, but Annie raked with never-ceasing energy. Annie was small and slender and wiry, and moved with angular grace, her thin, peaked elbows showing be- neath the sleeves of her pink gingham dress, her thin knees outlining beneath the scanty folds of the skirt. Her neck was long, her shoulder-blades troubled the back of her blouse at every movement. She was a creature full of ostentatious joints, but the joints were delicate and rhythmical and charming. Annie had a charming face, too. It was thin and sun- burnt, but still charming, with a sweet, eager, intent- to-please outlook upon life. This last was the real attitude of Annie′s mind; it was, in fact, Annie. She was intent to please from her toes to the crown of her brown head. She radiated good will and loving- kindness as fervently as a lily in the border radiated perfume.
It was very warm, and the northwest sky had a threatening mountain of clouds. Occasionally An- nie glanced at it and raked the faster, and thought complacently of the water-proof covers in the little barn. This hay was valuable for the Reverend Silas′s horse.
Two of the front windows of the house were filled with girls′ heads, and the regular swaying movement of white-clad arms sewing. The girls sat in the house because it was so sunny on the piazza in the afternoon. There were four girls in the sitting- room, all making finery for themselves. On the other side of the front door one of the two windows was blank; in the other was visible a nodding gray head, that of Annie′s father taking his afternoon nap.
Everything was still except the girls′ tongues, an occasional burst of laughter, and the crackling shrill of locusts. Nothing had passed on the dusty road since Benny and Annie had begun their work. Lynn Corners was nothing more than a hamlet. It was even seldom that an automobile got astray there, being diverted from the little city of Anderson, six miles away, by turning to the left instead of the right.
Benny stopped again and wiped his forehead, all pink and beaded with sweat. He was a pretty young man — as pretty as a girl, although large. He glanced furtively at Annie, then he went with a soft, padding glide, like a big cat, to the piazza and settled down. He leaned his head against a post, closed his eyes, and inhaled the sweetness of flowers alive and dying, of new-mown hay. Annie glanced at him and an angelic look came over her face. At that moment the sweetness of her nature seemed actually visible.
"He is tired, poor boy!" she thought. She also thought that probably Benny felt the heat more be- cause he was stout. Then she raked faster and faster. She fairly flew over the yard, raking the severed grass and flowers into heaps. The air grew more sultry. The sun was not yet clouded, but the northwest was darker and rumbled ominously.
The girls in the sitting-room continued to chatter and sew. One of them might have come out to help this little sister toiling alone, but Annie did not think of that. She raked with the uncomplaining sweet- ness of an angel until the storm burst. The rain came down in solid drops, and the sky was a sheet of clamoring flame. Annie made one motion toward the barn, but there was no use. The hay was not half cocked. There was no sense in running for covers. Benny was up and lumbering into the house, and her sisters were shutting windows and crying out to her. Annie deserted her post and fled before the wind, her pink skirts lashing her heels, her hair dripping.
When she entered the sitting-room her sisters, Imogen, Eliza, Jane, and Susan, were all there; also her father, Silas, tall and gaunt and gray. To the Hempsteads a thunder-storm partook of the nature of a religious ceremony. The family gathered to- gether, and it was understood that they were all offering prayer and recognizing God as present on the wings of the tempest. In reality they were all very nervous in thunder-storms, with the exception of Annie. She always sent up a little silent petition that her sisters and brother and father, and the horse and dog and cat, might escape danger, although she had never been quite sure that she was not wicked in including the dog and cat. She was surer about the horse because he was the means by which her father made pastoral calls upon his distant sheep. Then afterward she just sat with the others and waited until the storm was over and it was time to open windows and see if the roof had leaked. To- day, however, she was intent upon the hay. In a lull of the tempest she spoke.
"It is a pity," she said, "that I was not able to get the hay cocked and the covers on."
Then Imogen turned large, sarcastic blue eyes upon her. Imogen was considered a beauty, pink and white, golden-haired, and dimpled, with a curi- ous calculating hardness of character and a sharp tongue, so at variance with her appearance that people doubted the evidence of their senses.
"If," said Imogen, "you had only made Benny work instead of encouraging him to dawdle and finally to stop altogether, and if you had gone out directly after dinner, the hay would have been all raked up and covered."
Nothing could have exceeded the calm and in- structive superiority of Imogen′s tone. A mass of soft white fabric lay upon her lap, although she had removed scissors and needle and thimble to a safe distance. She tilted her chin with a royal air. When the storm lulled she had stopped praying.
Imogen′s sisters echoed her and joined in the at- tack upon Annie.
"Yes," said Jane, "if you had only started earlier, Annie. I told Eliza when you went out in the yard that it looked like a shower."
Eliza nodded energetically.
"It was foolish to start so late," said Susan, with a calm air of wisdom only a shade less exasperating than Imogen′s.
"And you always encourage Benny so in being lazy," said Eliza.
Then the Reverend Silas joined in. "You should have more sense of responsibility toward your broth- er, your only brother, Annie," he said, in his deep pulpit voice.
"It was after two o′clock when you went out," said Imogen.
"And all you had to do was the dinner-dishes, and there were very few to-day," said Jane.
Then Annie turned with a quick, cat-like motion. Her eyes blazed under her brown toss of hair. She gesticulated with her little, nervous hands. Her voice was as sweet and intense as a reed, and withal piercing with anger.
"It was not half past one when I went out," said she, "and there was a whole sinkful of dishes."
"It was after two. I looked at the clock," said Imogen.
"It was not."
"And there were very few dishes," said Jane.
"A whole sinkful," said Annie, tense with wrath.
"You always are rather late about starting," said Susan.
"I am not! I was not! I washed the dishes, and swept the kitchen, and blacked the stove, and cleaned the silver."
"I swept the kitchen," said Imogen, severely. "Annie, I am surprised at you."
"And you know I cleaned the silver yesterday," said Jane.
Annie gave a gasp and looked from one to the other.
"You know you did not sweep the kitchen," said Imogen.
Annie′s father gazed at her severely. "My dear," he said, "how long must I try to correct you of this habit of making false statements?"
"Dear Annie does not realize that they are false statements, father," said Jane. Jane was not pretty, but she gave the effect of a long, sweet stanza of some fine poetess. She was very tall and slender and large-eyed, and wore always a serious smile. She was attired in a purple muslin gown, cut V-shaped at the throat, and, as always, a black velvet ribbon with a little gold locket attached. The locket con- tained a coil of hair. Jane had been engaged to a young minister, now dead three years, and he had given her the locket.
Jane no doubt had mourned for her lover, but she had a covert pleasure in the romance of her situation. She was a year younger than Annie, and she had loved and lost, and so had achieved a sentimental distinction. Imogen always had admirers. Eliza had been courted at intervals half-heartedly by a widower, and Susan had had a few fleeting chances. But Jane was the only one who had been really defi- nite in her heart affairs. As for Annie, nobody ever thought of her in such a connection. It was supposed that Annie had no thought of marriage, that she was foreordained to remain unwed and keep house for her father and Benny.
When Jane said that dear Annie did not realize that she made false statements, she voiced an opinion of the family before which Annie was always abso- lutely helpless. Defense meant counter-accusation. Annie could not accuse her family. She glanced from one to the other. In her blue eyes were still sparks of wrath, but she said nothing. She felt, as always, speechless, when affairs reached such a junc- ture. She began, in spite of her good sense, to feel guiltily responsible for everything — for the spoiling of the hay, even for the thunder-storm. What was more, she even wished to feel guiltily responsible. Anything was better than to be sure her sisters were not speaking the truth, that her father was blaming her unjustly.
Benny, who sat hunched upon himself with the effect of one set of bones and muscles leaning upon others for support, was the only one who spoke for her, and even he spoke to little purpose.
"One of you other girls," said he, in a thick, sweet voice, "might have come out and helped Annie; then she could have got the hay in."
They all turned on him.
"It is all very well for you to talk," said Imogen. "I saw you myself quit raking hay and sit down on the piazza."
"Yes," assented Jane, nodding violently, "I saw you, too."
"You have no sense of your responsibility, Ben- jamin, and your sister Annie abets you in evading it," said Silas Hempstead with dignity.
"Benny feels the heat," said Annie.
"Father is entirely right," said Eliza. "Benja- min has no sense of responsibility, and it is mainly owing to Annie."
"But dear Annie does not realize it," said Jane.
Benny got up lumberingly and left the room. He loved his sister Annie, but he hated the mild simmer of feminine rancor to which even his father′s pres- ence failed to add a masculine flavor. Benny was always leaving the room and allowing his sisters "to fight it out."
Just after he left there was a tremendous peal of thunder and a blue flash, and they all prayed again, except Annie; who was occupied with her own perplexities of life, and not at all afraid. She won- dered, as she had wondered many times before, if she could possibly be in the wrong, if she were spoil- ing Benny, if she said and did things without know- ing that she did so, or the contrary. Then suddenly she tightened her mouth. She knew. This sweet- tempered, anxious-to-please Annie was entirely sane, she had unusual self-poise. She KNEW that she knew what she did and said, and what she did not do or say, and a strange comprehension of her family over- whelmed her. Her sisters were truthful; she would not admit anything else, even to herself; but they confused desires and impulses with accomplishment. They had done so all their lives, some of them from intense egotism, some possibly from slight twists in their mental organisms. As for her father, he had simply rather a weak character, and was swayed by the majority. Annie, as she sat there among the praying group, made the same excuse for her sisters that they made for her. "They don′t realize it," she said to herself.
When the storm finally ceased she hurried up- stairs and opened the windows, letting in the rain- fresh air. Then she got supper, while her sisters resumed their needlework. A curious conviction seized her, as she was hurrying about the kitchen, that in all probability some, if not all, of her sisters considered that they were getting the supper. Pos- sibly Jane had reflected that she ought to get supper, then she had taken another stitch in her work and had not known fairly that her impulse of duty had not been carried out. Imogen, presumably, was sew- ing with the serene consciousness that, since she was herself, it followed as a matter of course that she was performing all the tasks of the house.
While Annie was making an omelet Benny came out into the kitchen and stood regarding her, hands in pockets, making, as usual, one set of muscles rest upon another. His face was full of the utmost good nature, but it also convicted him of too much sloth to obey its commands.
"Say, Annie, what on earth makes them all pick on you so?" he observed.
"Hush, Benny! They don′t mean to. They don′t know it."
"But say, Annie, you must know that they tell whoppers. You DID sweep the kitchen."
"Hush, Benny! Imogen really thinks she swept it."
"Imogen always thinks she has done everything she ought to do, whether she has done it or not," said Benny, with unusual astuteness. "Why don′t you up and tell her she lies, Annie?"
"She doesn′t really lie," said Annie.
"She does lie, even if she doesn′t know it," said Benny; "and what is more, she ought to be made to know it. Say, Annie, it strikes me that you are doing the same by the girls that they accuse you of doing by me. Aren′t you encouraging them in evil ways?"
Annie started, and turned and stared at him.
Benny nodded. "I can′t see any difference," he said. "There isn′t a day but one of the girls thinks she has done something you have done, or hasn′t done something you ought to have done, and they blame you all the time, when you don′t deserve it, and you let them, and they don′t know it, and I don′t think myself that they know they tell whop- pers; but they ought to know. Strikes me you are just spoiling the whole lot, father thrown in, Annie. You are a dear, just as they say, but you are too much of a dear to be good for them."
"You are letting that omelet burn," said Benny. "Say, Annie, I will go out and turn that hay in the morning. I know I don′t amount to much, but I ain′t a girl, anyhow, and I haven′t got a cross-eyed soul. That′s what ails a lot of girls. They mean all right, but their souls have been cross-eyed ever since they came into the world, and it′s just such girls as you who ought to get them straightened out. You know what has happened to-day. Well, here′s what happened yesterday. I don′t tell tales, but you ought to know this, for I believe Tom Reed has his eye on you, in spite of Imogen′s being such a beauty, and Susan′s having manners like silk, and Eliza′s giving everybody the impression that she is too good for this earth, and Jane′s trying to make everybody think she is a sweet martyr, with- out a thought for mortal man, when that is only her way of trying to catch one. You know Tom Reed was here last evening?"
Annie nodded. Her face turned scarlet, then pathetically pale. She bent over her omelet, care- fully lifting it around the edges.
"Well," Benny went on, "I know he came to see you, and Imogen went to the door and ushered him into the parlor, and I was out on the piazza, and she didn′t know it, but I heard her tell him that she thought you had gone out. She hinted, too, that George Wells had taken you to the concert in the town hall. He did ask you, didn′t he?"
"Well, Imogen spoke in this way." Benny lowered his voice and imitated Imogen to the life. "′Yes, we are all well, thank you. Father is busy, of course; Jane has run over to Mrs. Jacobs′s for a pattern; Eliza is writing letters; and Susan is somewhere about the house. Annie — well, Annie — George Wells asked her to go to the concert — I rather —′ Then," said Benny, in his natural voice, "Imogen stopped, and she could say truthfully that she didn′t lie, but anybody would have thought from what she said that you had gone to the concert with George Wells."
"Did Tom inquire for me?" asked Annie, in a low voice.
"Didn′t have a chance. Imogen got ahead of him."
"Oh, well, then it doesn′t matter. I dare say he did come to see Imogen."
"He didn′t," said Benny, stoutly. "And that isn′t all. Say, Annie —"
"Are you going to marry George Wells? It is none of my business, but are you?"
Annie laughed a little, although her face was still pale. She had folded the omelet and was carefully watching it.
"You need not worry about that, Benny dear," she said.
"Then what right have the girls to tell so many people the nice things they hear you say about him?"
Annie removed the omelet skilfully from the pan to a hot plate, which she set on the range shelf, and turned to her brother.
"What nice things do they hear me say?"
"That he is so handsome; that he has such a good position; that he is the very best young man in the place; that you should think every girl would be head over heels in love with him; that every word he speaks is so bright and clever."
Annie looked at her brother.
"I don′t believe you ever said one of those things," remarked Benny.
Annie continued to look at him.
"Benny dear, I am not going to tell you."
"You won′t say you never did, because that would be putting your sisters in the wrong and admitting that they tell lies. Annie, you are a dear, but I do think you are doing wrong and spoiling them as much as they say you are spoiling me."
"Perhaps I am," said Annie. There was a strange, tragic expression on her keen, pretty little face. She looked as if her mind was contemplating strenu- ous action which was changing her very features. She had covered the finished omelet and was now cooking another.
"I wish you would see if everybody is in the house and ready, Benny," said she. "When this omelet is done they must come right away, or nothing will be fit to eat. And, Benny dear, if you don′t mind, please get the butter and the cream-pitcher out of the ice-chest. I have everything else on the table."
"There is another thing," said Benny. "I don′t go about telling tales, but I do think it is time you knew. The girls tell everybody that you like to do the housework so much that they don′t dare inter- fere. And it isn′t so. They may have taught them- selves to think it is so, but it isn′t. You would like a little time for fancy-work and reading as well as they do."
"Please get the cream and butter, and see if they are all in the house," said Annie. She spoke as usual, but the strange expression remained in her face. It was still there when the family were all gathered at the table and she was serving the puffy omelet. Jane noticed it first.
"What makes you look so odd, Annie?" said she.
"I don′t know how I look odd," replied Annie.
They all gazed at her then, her father with some anxiety. "You don′t look yourself," he said. "You are feeling well, aren′t you, Annie?"
"Quite well, thank you, father."
But after the omelet was served and the tea poured Annie rose.
"Where are you going, Annie?" asked Imogen, in her sarcastic voice.
"To my room, or perhaps out in the orchard."
"It will be sopping wet out there after the shower," said Eliza. "Are you crazy, Annie?"
"I have on my black skirt, and I will wear rub- bers," said Annie, quietly. "I want some fresh air."
"I should think you had enough fresh air. You were outdoors all the afternoon, while we were cooped up in the house," said Jane.
"Don′t you feel well, Annie?" her father asked again, a golden bit of omelet poised on his fork, as she was leaving the room.
"Quite well, father dear."
"But you are eating no supper."
"I have always heard that people who cook don′t need so much to eat," said Imogen. "They say the essence of the food soaks in through the pores."
"I am quite well," Annie repeated, and the door closed behind her.
"Dear Annie! She is always doing odd things like this," remarked Jane.
"Yes, she is, things that one cannot account for, but Annie is a dear," said Susan.
"I hope she is well," said Annie′s father.
"Oh, she is well enough. Don′t worry, father," said Imogen. "Dear Annie is always doing the unexpected. She looks very well."
"Yes, dear Annie is quite stout, for her," said Jane.
"I think she is thinner than I have ever seen her, and the rest of you look like stuffed geese," said Benny, rudely.
Imogen turned upon him in dignified wrath. "Benny, you insult your sisters," said she. "Father, you should really tell Benny that he should bridle his tongue a little."
"You ought to bridle yours, every one of you," retorted Benny. "You girls nag poor Annie every single minute. You let her do all the work, then you pick at her for it."
There was a chorus of treble voices. "We nag dear Annie! We pick at dear Annie! We make her do everything! Father, you should remonstrate with Benjamin. You know how we all love dear Annie!"
"Benjamin," began Silas Hempstead, but Benny, with a smothered exclamation, was up and out of the room.
Benny quite frankly disliked his sisters, with the exception of Annie. For his father he had a sort of respectful tolerance. He could not see why he should have anything else. His father had never done anything for him except to admonish him. His scanty revenue for his support and college expenses came from his maternal grandmother, who had been a woman of parts and who had openly scorned her son-in-law.
Grandmother Loomis had left a will which occa- sioned much comment. By its terms she had pro- vided sparsely but adequately for Benjamin′s edu- cation and living until he should graduate; and her house, with all her personal property, and the bulk of the sum from which she had derived her own income, fell to her granddaughter Annie. Annie had always been her grandmother′s favorite. There had been covert dismay when the contents of the will were made known, then one and all had congratulated the beneficiary, and said abroad that they were glad dear Annie was so well provided for. It was inti- mated by Imogen and Eliza that probably dear Annie would not marry, and in that case Grand- mother Loomis′s bequest was so fortunate. She had probably taken that into consideration. Grand- mother Loomis had now been dead four years, and her deserted home had been for rent, furnished, but it had remained vacant.
Annie soon came back from the orchard, and after she had cleared away the supper-table and washed the dishes she went up to her room, carefully re- arranged her hair, and changed her dress. Then she sat down beside a window and waited and watched, her pointed chin in a cup of one little thin hand, her soft muslin skirts circling around her, and the scent of queer old sachet emanating from a flowered ribbon of her grandmother′s which she had tied around her waist. The ancient scent always clung to the rib- bon, suggesting faintly as a dream the musk and roses and violets of some old summer-time.
Annie sat there and gazed out on the front yard, which was silvered over with moonlight. Annie′s four sisters all sat out there. They had spread a rug over the damp grass and brought out chairs. There were five chairs, although there were only four girls. Annie gazed over the yard and down the street. She heard the chatter of the girls, which was inconsequent and absent, as if their minds were on other things than their conversation. Then sud- denly she saw a small red gleam far down the street, evidently that of a cigar, and also a dark, moving figure. Then there ensued a subdued wrangle in the yard. Imogen insisted that her sisters should go into the house. They all resisted, Eliza the most vehemently. Imogen was arrogant and compelling. Finally she drove them all into the house except Eliza, who wavered upon the threshold of yielding. Imogen was obliged to speak very softly lest the ap- proaching man hear, but Annie, in the window above her, heard every word.
"You know he is coming to see me," said Imogen, passionately. "You know — you know, Eliza, and yet every single time he comes, here are you girls, spying and listening."
"He comes to see Annie, I believe," said Eliza, in her stubborn voice, which yet had indecision in it.
"He never asks for her."
"He never has a chance. We all tell him, the minute he comes in, that she is out. But now I am going to stay, anyway."
"Stay if you want to. You are all a jealous lot. If you girls can′t have a beau yourselves, you be- grudge one to me. I never saw such a house as this for a man to come courting in."
"I will stay," said Eliza, and this time her voice was wholly firm. "There is no use in my going, anyway, for the others are coming back."
It was true. Back flitted Jane and Susan, and by that time Tom Reed had reached the gate, and his cigar was going out in a shower of sparks on the gravel walk, and all four sisters were greeting him and urging upon his acceptance the fifth chair. Annie, watching, saw that the young man seemed to hesi- tate. Then her heart leaped and she heard him speak quite plainly, with a note of defiance and irri- tation, albeit with embarrassment.
"Is Miss Annie in?" asked Tom Reed.
Imogen answered first, and her harsh voice was honey-sweet.
"I fear dear Annie is out," she said. "She will be so sorry to miss you."
Annie, at her window, made a sudden passionate motion, then she sat still and listened. She argued fiercely that she was right in so doing. She felt that the time had come when she must know, for the sake of her own individuality, just what she had to deal with in the natures of her own kith and kin. Dear Annie had turned in her groove of sweetness and gentle yielding, as all must turn who have any strength of character underneath the sweetness and gentleness. Therefore Annie, at her window above, listened.
At first she heard little that bore upon herself, for the conversation was desultory, about the weather and general village topics. Then Annie heard her own name. She was "dear Annie," as usual. She listened, fairly faint with amazement. What she heard from that quartette of treble voices down there in the moonlight seemed almost like a fairy-tale. The sisters did not violently incriminate her. They were too astute for that. They told half-truths. They told truths which were as shadows of the real facts, and yet not to be contradicted. They built up between them a story marvelously consist- ent, unless prearranged, and that Annie did not think possible. George Wells figured in the tale, and there were various hints and pauses concerning herself and her own character in daily life, and not one item could be flatly denied, even if the girl could have gone down there and, standing in the midst of that moonlit group, given her sisters the lie.
Everything which they told, the whole structure of falsehood, had beams and rafters of truth. Annie felt helpless before it all. To her fancy, her sisters and Tom Reed seemed actually sitting in a fairy building whose substance was utter falsehood, and yet which could not be utterly denied. An awful sense of isolation possessed her. So these were her own sisters, the sisters whom she had loved as a matter of the simplest nature, whom she had ad- mired, whom she had served.
She made no allowance, since she herself was per- fectly normal, for the motive which underlay it all. She could not comprehend the strife of the women over the one man. Tom Reed was in reality the one desirable match in the village. Annie knew, or thought she knew, that Tom Reed had it in mind to love her, and she innocently had it in mind to love him. She thought of a home of her own and his with delight. She thought of it as she thought of the roses coming into bloom in June, and she thought of it as she thought of the every-day hap- penings of life — cooking, setting rooms in order, washing dishes. However, there was something else to reckon with, and that Annie instinctively knew. She had been long-suffering, and her long- suffering was now regarded as endless. She had cast her pearls, and they had been trampled. She had turned her other cheek, and it had been promptly slapped. It was entirely true that Annie′s sisters were not quite worthy of her, that they had taken advantage of her kindness and gentleness, and had mistaken them for weakness, to be despised. She did not understand them, nor they her. They were, on the whole, better than she thought, but with her there was a stern limit of endurance. Some- thing whiter and hotter than mere wrath was in the girl′s soul as she sat there and listened to the build- ing of that structure of essential falsehood about herself.
She waited until Tom Reed had gone. He did not stay long. Then she went down-stairs with flying feet, and stood among them in the moonlight. Her father had come out of the study, and Benny had just been entering the gate as Tom Reed left. Then dear Annie spoke. She really spoke for the first time in her life, and there was something dread- ful about it all. A sweet nature is always rather dreadful when it turns and strikes, and Annie struck with the whole force of a nature with a foundation of steel. She left nothing unsaid. She defended herself and she accused her sisters as if before a judge. Then came her ultimatum.
"To-morrow morning I am going over to Grand- mother Loomis′s house, and I am going to live there a whole year," she declared, in a slow, steady voice. "As you know, I have enough to live on, and — in order that no word of mine can be garbled and twisted as it has been to-night, I speak not at all. Every- thing which I have to communicate shall be written in black and white, and signed with my own name, and black and white cannot lie."
It was Jane who spoke first. "What will people say?" she whimpered, feebly.
"From what I have heard you all say to-night, whatever you make them," retorted Annie — the Annie who had turned.
Jane gasped. Silas Hempstead stood staring, quite dumb before the sudden problem. Imogen alone seemed to have any command whatever of the situation.
"May I inquire what the butcher and grocer are going to think, no matter what your own sisters think and say, when you give your orders in writ- ing?" she inquired, achieving a jolt from tragedy to the commonplace.
"That is my concern," replied Annie, yet she recognized the difficulty of that phase of the situa- tion. It is just such trifling matters which detract from the dignity of extreme attitudes toward ex- istence. Annie had taken an extreme attitude, yet here were the butcher and the grocer to reckon with. How could she communicate with them in writing without appearing absurd to the verge of insanity? Yet even that difficulty had a solution.
Annie thought it out after she had gone to bed that night. She had been imperturbable with her sisters, who had finally come in a body to make entreaties, although not apologies or retractions. There was a stiff-necked strain in the Hempstead family, and apologies and retractions were bitterer cuds for them to chew than for most. She had been imperturbable with her father, who had quoted Scripture and prayed at her during family worship. She had been imperturbable even with Benny, who had whispered to her: "Say, Annie, I don′t blame you, but it will be a hell of a time without you. Can′t you stick it out?"
But she had had a struggle before her own vision of the butcher and the grocer, and their amazement when she ceased to speak to them. Then she settled that with a sudden leap of inspiration. It sounded too apropos to be life, but there was a little deaf-and- dumb girl, a far-away relative of the Hempsteads, who lived with her aunt Felicia in Anderson. She was a great trial to her aunt Felicia, who was a widow and well-to-do, and liked the elegancies and normalities of life. This unfortunate little Effie Hempstead could not be placed in a charitable insti- tution on account of the name she bore. Aunt Felicia considered it her worldly duty to care for her, but it was a trial.
Annie would take Effie off Aunt Felicia′s hands, and no comment would be excited by a deaf-and- dumb girl carrying written messages to the trades- men, since she obviously could not give them orally. The only comment would be on Annie′s conduct in holding herself aloof from her family and the village people generally.
The next morning, when Annie went away, there was an excited conclave among the sisters.
"She means to do it," said Susan, and she wept.
Imogen′s handsome face looked hard and set. "Let her, if she wants to," said she.
"Only think what people will say!" wailed Jane.
Imogen tossed her head. "I shall have some- thing to say myself," she returned. "I shall say how much we all regret that dear Annie has such a difficult disposition that she felt she could not live with her own family and must be alone."
"But," said Jane, blunt in her distress, "will they believe it?"
"Why will they not believe it, pray?"
"Why, I am afraid people have the impression that dear Annie has —" Jane hesitated.
"What?" asked Imogen, coldly. She looked very handsome that morning. Not a waved golden hair was out of place on her carefully brushed head. She wore the neatest of blue linen skirts and blouses, with a linen collar and white tie. There was some- thing hard but compelling about her blond beauty.
"I am afraid," said Jane, "that people have a sort of general impression that dear Annie has per- haps as sweet a disposition as any of us, perhaps sweeter."
"Nobody says that dear Annie has not a sweet disposition," said Imogen, taking a careful stitch in her embroidery. "But a sweet disposition is very often extremely difficult for other people. It con- stantly puts them in the wrong. I am well aware of the fact that dear Annie does a great deal for all of us, but it is sometimes irritating. Of course it is quite certain that she must have a feeling of superiority because of it, and she should not have it."
Sometimes Eliza made illuminating speeches. "I suppose it follows, then," said she, with slight irony, "that only an angel can have a very sweet disposi- tion without offending others."
But Imogen was not in the least nonplussed. She finished her line of thought. "And with all her sweet disposition," said she, "nobody can deny that dear Annie is peculiar, and peculiarity always makes people difficult for other people. Of course it is horribly peculiar what she is proposing to do now. That in itself will be enough to convince people that dear Annie must be difficult. Only a difficult person could do such a strange thing."
"Who is going to get up and get breakfast in the morning, and wash the dishes?" inquired Jane, irrelevantly.
"All I ever want for breakfast is a bit of fruit, a roll, and an egg, besides my coffee," said Imogen, with her imperious air.
"Somebody has to prepare it."
"That is a mere nothing," said Imogen, and she took another stitch.
After a little, Jane and Eliza went by themselves and discussed the problem.
"It is quite evident that Imogen means to do nothing," said Jane.
"And also that she will justify herself by the theory that there is nothing to be done," said Eliza.
"Oh, well," said Jane, "I will get up and get breakfast, of course. I once contemplated the pros- pect of doing it the rest of my life."
Eliza assented. "I can understand that it will not be so hard for you," she said, "and although I myself always aspired to higher things than preparing breakfasts, still, you did not, and it is true that you would probably have had it to do if poor Henry had lived, for he was not one to ever have a very large salary."
"There are better things than large salaries," said Jane, and her face looked sadly reminiscent. After all, the distinction of being the only one who had been on the brink of preparing matrimonial breakfasts was much. She felt that it would make early rising and early work endurable to her, although she was not an active young woman.
"I will get a dish-mop and wash the dishes," said Eliza. "I can manage to have an instructive book propped open on the kitchen table, and keep my mind upon higher things as I do such menial tasks."
Then Susan stood in the doorway, a tall figure gracefully swaying sidewise, long-throated and promi- nent-eyed. She was the least attractive-looking of any of the sisters, but her manners were so charming, and she was so perfectly the lady, that it made up for any lack of beauty.
"I will dust," said Susan, in a lovely voice, and as she spoke she involuntarily bent and swirled her limp muslins in such a way that she fairly suggested a moral duster. There was the making of an actress in Susan. Nobody had ever been able to decide what her true individual self was. Quite unconsciously, like a chameleon, she took upon herself the charac- teristics of even inanimate things. Just now she was a duster, and a wonderfully creditable duster.
"Who," said Jane, "is going to sweep? Dear Annie has always done that."
"I am not strong enough to sweep. I am very sorry," said Susan, who remained a duster, and did not become a broom.
"If we have system," said Eliza, vaguely, "the work ought not to be so very hard."
"Of course not," said Imogen. She had come in and seated herself. Her three sisters eyed her, but she embroidered imperturbably. The same thought was in the minds of all. Obviously Imogen was the very one to take the task of sweeping upon herself. That hard, compact, young body of hers suggested strenuous household work. Embroidery did not seem to be her role at all.
But Imogen had no intention of sweeping. Indeed, the very imagining of such tasks in connection with herself was beyond her. She did not even dream that her sisters expected it of her.
"I suppose," said Jane, "that we might be able to engage Mrs. Moss to come in once a week and do the sweeping."
"It would cost considerable," said Susan.
"But it has to be done."
"I should think it might be managed, with sys- tem, if you did not hire anybody," said Imogen, calmly.
"You talk of system as if it were a suction cleaner," said Eliza, with a dash of asperity. Sometimes she reflected how she would have hated Imogen had she not been her sister.
"System is invaluable," said Imogen. She looked away from her embroidery to the white stretch of country road, arched over with elms, and her beau- tiful eyes had an expression as if they sighted sys- tem, the justified settler of all problems.
Meantime, Annie Hempstead was traveling to Anderson in the jolting trolley-car, and trying to settle her emotions and her outlook upon life, which jolted worse than the car upon a strange new track. She had not the slightest intention of giving up her plan, but she realized within herself the sensations of a revolutionist. Who in her family, for generations and generations, had ever taken the course which she was taking? She was not exactly frightened — Annie had splendid courage when once her blood was up — but she was conscious of a tumult and grind of adjustment to a new level which made her nervous.
She reached the end of the car line, then walked about half a mile to her Aunt Felicia Hempstead′s house. It was a handsome house, after the standard of nearly half a century ago. It had an opulent air, with its swelling breasts of bay windows, through which showed fine lace curtains; its dormer-windows, each with its carefully draped curtains; its black- walnut front door, whose side-lights were screened with medallioned lace. The house sat high on three terraces of velvet-like grass, and was surmounted by stone steps in three instalments, each of which was flanked by stone lions.
Annie mounted the three tiers of steps between the stone lions and rang the front-door bell, which was polished so brightly that it winked at her like a brazen eye. Almost directly the door was opened by an immaculate, white-capped and white-aproned maid, and Annie was ushered into the parlor. When Annie had been a little thing she had been enamoured of and impressed by the splendor of this parlor. Now she had doubts of it, in spite of the long, magnificent sweep of lace curtains, the sheen of carefully kept upholstery, the gleam of alabaster statuettes, and the even piles of gilt-edged books upon the polished tables.
Soon Mrs. Felicia Hempstead entered, a tall, well- set-up woman, with a handsome face and keen eyes. She wore her usual morning costume — a breakfast sacque of black silk profusely trimmed with lace, and a black silk skirt. She kissed Annie, with a slight peck of closely set lips, for she liked her. Then she sat down opposite her and regarded her with as much of a smile as her sternly set mouth could manage, and inquired politely regarding her health and that of the family. When Annie broached the subject of her call, the set calm of her face relaxed, and she nodded.
"I know what your sisters are. You need not explain to me," she said.
"But," returned Annie, "I do not think they realize. It is only because I —"
"Of course," said Felicia Hempstead. "It is be- cause they need a dose of bitter medicine, and you hope they will be the better for it. I understand you, my dear. You have spirit enough, but you don′t get it up often. That is where they make their mis- take. Often the meek are meek from choice, and they are the ones to beware of. I don′t blame you for trying it. And you can have Effie and welcome. I warn you that she is a little wearing. Of course she can′t help her affliction, poor child, but it is dreadful. I have had her taught. She can read and write very well now, poor child, and she is not lacking, and I have kept her well dressed. I take her out to drive with me every day, and am not ashamed to have her seen with me. If she had all her faculties she would not be a bad-looking little girl. Now, of course, she has something of a vacant expression. That comes, I suppose, from her not being able to hear. She has learned to speak a few words, but I don′t encourage her doing that before people. It is too evident that there is something wrong. She never gets off one tone. But I will let her speak to you. She will be glad to go with you. She likes you, and I dare say you can put up with her. A woman when she is alone will make a com- panion of a brazen image. You can manage all right for everything except her clothes and lessons. I will pay for them."
"Can′t I give her lessons?"
"Well, you can try, but I am afraid you will need to have Mr. Freer come over once a week. It seems to me to be quite a knack to teach the deaf and dumb. You can see. I will have Effie come in and tell her about the plan. I wanted to go to Europe this summer, and did not know how to manage about Effie. It will be a godsend to me, this ar- rangement, and of course after the year is up she can come back."
With that Felicia touched a bell, the maid ap- peared with automatic readiness, and presently a tall little girl entered. She was very well dressed. Her linen frock was hand-embroidered, and her shoes were ultra. Her pretty shock of fair hair was tied with French ribbon in a fetching bow, and she made a courtesy which would have befitted a little prin- cess. Poor Effie′s courtesy was the one feature in which Felicia Hempstead took pride. After making it the child always glanced at her for approval, and her face lighted up with pleasure at the faint smile which her little performance evoked. Effie would have been a pretty little girl had it not been for that vacant, bewildered expression of which Felicia had spoken. It was the expression of one shut up with the darkest silence of life, that of her own self, and beauty was incompatible with it.
Felicia placed her stiff forefinger upon her own lips and nodded, and the child′s face became trans- figured. She spoke in a level, awful voice, utterly devoid of inflection, and full of fright. Her voice was as the first attempt of a skater upon ice. How- ever, it was intelligible.
"Good morning," said she. "I hope you are well." Then she courtesied again. That little speech and one other, "Thank you, I am very well," were all she had mastered. Effie′s instruction had begun rather late, and her teacher was not remarkably skilful.
When Annie′s lips moved in response, Effie′s face fairly glowed with delight and affection. The little girl loved Annie. Then her questioning eyes sought Felicia, who beckoned, and drew from the pocket of her rustling silk skirt a tiny pad and pencil. Effie crossed the room and stood at attention while Felicia wrote. When she had read the words on the pad she gave one look at Annie, then another at Felicia, who nodded.
Effie courtesied before Annie like a fairy dancer. "Good morning. I hope you are well," she said. Then she courtesied again and said, "Thank you, I am very well." Her pretty little face was quite eager with love and pleasure, and yet there was an effect as of a veil before the happy emotion in it. The contrast between the awful, level voice and the grace of motion and evident delight at once shocked and compelled pity. Annie put her arms around Effie and kissed her.
"You dear little thing," she said, quite forgetting that Effie could not hear.
Felicia Hempstead got speedily to work, and soon Effie′s effects were packed and ready for transporta- tion upon the first express to Lynn Corners, and Annie and the little girl had boarded the trolley thither.
Annie Hempstead had the sensation of one who takes a cold plunge — half pain and fright, half exhil- aration and triumph — when she had fairly taken pos- session of her grandmother′s house. There was gen- uine girlish pleasure in looking over the stock of old china and linen and ancient mahoganies, in starting a fire in the kitchen stove, and preparing a meal, the written order for which Effie had taken to the grocer and butcher. There was genuine de- light in sitting down with Effie at her very own table, spread with her grandmother′s old damask and pretty dishes, and eating, without hearing a word of unfavorable comment upon the cookery. But there was a certain pain and terror in trampling upon that which it was difficult to define, either her conscience or sense of the divine right of the conventional.
But that night after Effie had gone to bed, and the house was set to rights, and she in her cool muslin was sitting on the front-door step, under the hooded trellis covered with wistaria, she was conscious of entire emancipation. She fairly gloated over her new estate.
"To-night one of the others will really have to get the supper, and wash the dishes, and not be able to say she did it and I didn′t, when I did," Annie thought with unholy joy. She knew perfectly well that her viewpoint was not sanctified, but she felt that she must allow her soul to have its little witch- caper or she could not answer for the consequences. There might result spiritual atrophy, which would be much more disastrous than sin and repentance. It was either the continuance of her old life in her father′s house, which was the ignominious and harm- ful one of the scapegoat, or this. She at last reveled in this. Here she was mistress. Here what she did, she did, and what she did not do remained undone. Here her silence was her invincible weapon. Here she was free.
The soft summer night enveloped her. The air was sweet with flowers and the grass which lay still unraked in her father′s yard. A momentary feeling of impatience seized her; then she dismissed it, and peace came. What had she to do with that hay? Her father would be obliged to buy hay if it were not raked over and dried, but what of that? She had nothing to do with it.
She heard voices and soft laughter. A dark shadow passed along the street. Her heart quick- ened its beat. The shadow turned in at her father′s gate. There was a babel of welcoming voices, of which Annie could not distinguish one articulate word. She sat leaning forward, her eyes intent upon the road. Then she heard the click of her father′s gate and the dark, shadowy figure reappeared in the road. Annie knew who it was; she knew that Tom Reed was coming to see her. For a second, rapture seized her, then dismay. How well she knew her sisters — how very well! Not one of them would have given him the slightest inkling of the true situation. They would have told him, by the sweetest of insinuations, rather than by straight statements, that she had left her father′s roof and come over here, but not one word would have been told him concerning her vow of silence. They would leave that for him to dis- cover, to his amazement and anger.
Annie rose and fled. She closed the door, turned the key softly, and ran up-stairs in the dark. Kneel- ing before a window on the farther side from her old home, she watched with eager eyes the young man open the gate and come up the path between the old-fashioned shrubs. The clove-like fragrance of the pinks in the border came in her face. Annie watched Tom Reed disappear beneath the trellised hood of the door; then the bell tinkled through the house. It seemed to Annie that she heard it as she had never heard anything before. Every nerve in her body seemed urging her to rise and go down-stairs and admit this young man whom she loved. But her will, turned upon itself, kept her back. She could not rise and go down; something stronger than her own wish restrained her. She suffered horribly, but she remained. The bell tinkled again. There was a pause, then it sounded for the third time.
Annie leaned against the window, faint and trem- bling. It was rather horrible to continue such a fight between will and inclination, but she held out. She would not have been herself had she not done so. Then she saw Tom Reed′s figure emerge from under the shadow of the door, pass down the path between the sweet-flowering shrubs, seeming to stir up the odor of the pinks as he did so. He started to go down the road; then Annie heard a loud, silvery call, with a harsh inflection, from her father′s house. "Imogen is calling him back," she thought.
Annie was out of the room, and, slipping softly down-stairs and out into the yard, crouched close to the fence overgrown with sweetbrier, its founda- tion hidden in the mallow, and there she listened. She wanted to know what Imogen and her other sisters were about to say to Tom Reed, and she meant to know. She heard every word. The dis- tance was not great, and her sisters′ voices carried far, in spite of their honeyed tones and efforts tow- ard secrecy. By the time Tom had reached the gate of the parsonage they had all crowded down there, a fluttering assembly in their snowy summer muslins, like white doves. Annie heard Imogen first. Imogen was always the ringleader.
"Couldn′t you find her?" asked Imogen.
"No. Rang three times," replied Tom. He had a boyish voice, and his chagrin showed plainly in it. Annie knew just how he looked, how dear and big and foolish, with his handsome, bewildered face, blurting out to her sisters his disappointment, with innocent faith in their sympathy.
Then Annie heard Eliza speak in a small, sweet voice, which yet, to one who understood her, carried in it a sting of malice. "How very strange!" said Eliza.
Jane spoke next. She echoed Eliza, but her voice was more emphatic and seemed multiple, as echoes do. "Yes, very strange indeed," said Jane.
"Dear Annie is really very singular lately. It has distressed us all, especially father," said Susan, but deprecatingly.
Then Imogen spoke, and to the point. "Annie must be in that house," said she. "She went in there, and she could not have gone out without our seeing her."
Annie could fairly see the toss of Imogen′s head as she spoke.
"What in thunder do you all mean?" asked Tom Reed, and there was a bluntness, almost a brutality, in his voice which was refreshing.
"I do not think such forcible language is becoming, especially at the parsonage," said Jane.
Annie distinctly heard Tom Reed snort. "Hang it if I care whether it is becoming or not," said he.
"You seem to forget that you are addressing ladies, sir," said Jane.
"Don′t forget it for a blessed minute," returned Tom Reed. "Wish I could. You make it too evi- dent that you are — ladies, with every word you speak, and all your beating about the bush. A man would blurt it out, and then I would know where I am at. Hang it if I know now. You all say that your sister is singular and that she distresses your father, and you" — addressing Imogen — "say that she must be in that house. You are the only one who does make a dab at speaking out; I will say that much for you. Now, if she is in that house, what in thunder is the matter?"
"I really cannot stay here and listen to such pro- fane language," said Jane, and she flitted up the path to the house like an enraged white moth. She had a fleecy white shawl over her head, and her pale outline was triangular.
"If she calls that profane, I pity her," said Tom Reed. He had known the girls since they were children, and had never liked Jane. He continued, still addressing Imogen. "For Heaven′s sake, if she is in that house, what is the matter?" said he. "Doesn′t the bell ring? Yes, it does ring, though it is as cracked as the devil. I heard it. Has Annie gone deaf? Is she sick? Is she asleep? It is only eight o′clock. I don′t believe she is asleep. Doesn′t she want to see me? Is that the trouble? What have I done? Is she angry with me?"
Eliza spoke, smoothly and sweetly. "Dear Annie is singular," said she.
"What the dickens do you mean by singular? I have known Annie ever since she was that high. It never struck me that she was any more singular than other girls, except she stood an awful lot of nagging without making a kick. Here you all say she is singular, as if you meant she was" — Tom hesitated a second — "crazy," said he. "Now, I know that Annie is saner than any girl around here, and that simply does not go down. What do you all mean by singular?"
"Dear Annie may not be singular, but her actions are sometimes singular," said Susan. "We all feel badly about this."
"You mean her going over to her grandmother′s house to live? I don′t know whether I think that is anything but horse-sense. I have eyes in my head, and I have used them. Annie has worked like a dog here; I suppose she needed a rest."
"We all do our share of the work," said Eliza, calmly, "but we do it in a different way from dear Annie. She makes very hard work of work. She has not as much system as we could wish. She tires herself unnecessarily."
"Yes, that is quite true," assented Imogen. "Dear Annie gets very tired over the slightest tasks, whereas if she went a little more slowly and used more system the work would be accomplished well and with no fatigue. There are five of us to do the work here, and the house is very convenient."
There was a silence. Tom Reed was bewildered. "But — doesn′t she want to see me?" he asked, finally.
"Dear Annie takes very singular notions some- times," said Eliza, softly.
"If she took a notion not to go to the door when she heard the bell ring, she simply wouldn′t," said Imogen, whose bluntness of speech was, after all, a relief.
"Then you mean that you think she took a notion not to go to the door?" asked Tom, in a desperate tone.
"Dear Annie is very singular," said Eliza, with such softness and deliberation that it was like a minor chord of music.
"Do you know of anything she has against me?" asked Tom of Imogen; but Eliza answered for her.
"Dear Annie is not in the habit of making confi- dantes of her sisters," said she, "but we do know that she sometimes takes unwarranted dislikes."
"Which time generally cures," said Susan.
"Oh yes," assented Eliza, "which time generally cures. She can have no reason whatever for avoid- ing you. You have always treated her well."
"I have always meant to," said Tom, so miserably and helplessly that Annie, listening, felt her heart go out to this young man, badgered by females, and she formed a sudden resolution.
"You have not seen very much of her, anyway," said Imogen.
"I have always asked for her, but I understood she was busy," said Tom, "and that was the reason why I saw her so seldom."
"Oh," said Eliza, "busy!" She said it with an indescribable tone.
"If," supplemented Imogen, "there was system, there would be no need of any one of us being too busy to see our friends."
"Then she has not been busy? She has not wanted to see me?" said Tom. "I think I understand at last. I have been a fool not to before. You girls have broken it to me as well as you could. Much obliged, I am sure. Good night."
"Won′t you come in?" asked Imogen.
"We might have some music," said Eliza.
"And there is an orange cake, and I will make coffee," said Susan.
Annie reflected rapidly how she herself had made that orange cake, and what queer coffee Susan would be apt to concoct.
"No, thank you," said Tom Reed, briskly. "I will drop in another evening. Think I must go home now. I have some important letters. Good night, all."
Annie made a soft rush to the gate, crouching low that her sisters might not see her. They flocked into the house with irascible murmurings, like scold- ing birds, while Annie stole across the grass, which had begun to glisten with silver wheels of dew. She held her skirts closely wrapped around her, and stepped through a gap in the shrubs beside the walk, then sped swiftly to the gate. She reached it just as Tom Reed was passing with a quick stride.
"Tom," said Annie, and the young man stopped short.
He looked in her direction, but she stood close to a great snowball-bush, and her dress was green muslin, and he did not see her. Thinking that he had been mistaken, he started on, when she called again, and this time she stepped apart from the bush and her voice sounded clear as a flute.
"Tom," she said. "Stop a minute, please."
Tom stopped and came close to her. In the dim light she could see that his face was all aglow, like a child′s, with delight and surprise.
"Is that you, Annie?" he said.
"Yes. I want to speak to you, please."
"I have been here before, and I rang the bell three times. Then you were out, although your sisters thought not."
"No, I was in the house."
"You did not hear the bell?"
"Yes, I heard it every time."
"Then why —?"
"Come into the house with me and I will tell you; at least I will tell you all I can."
Annie led the way and the young man followed. He stood in the dark entry while Annie lit the parlor lamp. The room was on the farther side of the house from the parsonage.
"Come in and sit down," said Annie. Then the young man stepped into a room which was pretty in spite of itself. There was an old Brussels carpet with an enormous rose pattern. The haircloth fur- niture gave out gleams like black diamonds under the light of the lamp. In a corner stood a what-not piled with branches of white coral and shells. Annie′s grandfather had been a sea-captain, and many of his spoils were in the house. Possibly Annie′s own occupation of it was due to an adventurous strain inherited from him. Perhaps the same impulse which led him to voyage to foreign shores had led her to voyage across a green yard to the next house.
Tom Reed sat down on the sofa. Annie sat in a rocking-chair near by. At her side was a Chinese teapoy, a nest of lacquer tables, and on it stood a small, squat idol. Annie′s grandmother had been taken to task by her son-in-law, the Reverend Silas, for harboring a heathen idol, but she had only laughed,
"Guess as long as I don′t keep heathen to bow down before him, he can′t do much harm," she had said.
Now the grotesque face of the thing seemed to stare at the two Occidental lovers with the strange, calm sarcasm of the Orient, but they had no eyes or thought for it.
"Why didn′t you come to the door if you heard the bell ring?" asked Tom Reed, gazing at Annie, slender as a blade of grass in her clinging green gown.
"Because I was not able to break my will then. I had to break it to go out in the yard and ask you to come in, but when the bell rang I hadn′t got to the point where I could break it."
"What on earth do you mean, Annie?"
Annie laughed. "I don′t wonder you ask," she said, "and the worst of it is I can′t half answer you. I wonder how much, or rather how little explanation will content you?"
Tom Reed gazed at her with the eyes of a man who might love a woman and have infinite patience with her, relegating his lack of understanding of her woman′s nature to the background, as a thing of no consequence.
"Mighty little will do for me," he said, "mighty little, Annie dear, if you will only tell a fellow you love him."
Annie looked at him, and her thin, sweet face seemed to have a luminous quality, like a crescent moon. Her look was enough.
"Then you do?" said Tom Reed.
"You have never needed to ask," said Annie. "You knew."
"I haven′t been so sure as you think," said Tom. "Suppose you come over here and sit beside me. You look miles away."
Annie laughed and blushed, but she obeyed. She sat beside Tom and let him put his arm around her. She sat up straight, by force of her instinctive maidenliness, but she kissed him back when he kissed her.
"I haven′t been so sure," repeated Tom. "Annie darling, why have I been unable to see more of you? I have fairly haunted your house, and seen the whole lot of your sisters, especially Imogen, but somehow or other you have been as slippery as an eel. I have always asked for you, but you were always out or busy."
"I have been very busy," said Annie, evasively. She loved this young man with all her heart, but she had an enduring loyalty to her own flesh and blood.
Tom was very literal. "Say, Annie," he blurted out, "I begin to think you have had to do most of the work over there. Now, haven′t you? Own up."
Annie laughed sweetly. She was so happy that no sense of injury could possibly rankle within her. "Oh, well," she said, lightly. "Perhaps. I don′t know. I guess housekeeping comes rather easier to me than to the others. I like it, you know, and work is always easier when one likes it. The other girls don′t take to it so naturally, and they get very tired, and it has seemed often that I was the one who could hurry the work through and not mind."
"I wonder if you will stick up for me the way you do for your sisters when you are my wife?" said Tom, with a burst of love and admiration. Then he added: "Of course you are going to be my wife, Annie? You know what this means?"
"If you think I will make you as good a wife as you can find," said Annie.
"As good a wife! Annie, do you really know what you are?"
"Just an ordinary girl, with no special talent for anything."
"You are the most wonderful girl that ever walked the earth," exclaimed Tom. "And as for talent, you have the best talent in the whole world; you can love people who are not worthy to tie your shoe- strings, and think you are looking up when in reality you are looking down. That is what I call the best talent in the whole world for a woman." Tom Reed was becoming almost subtle.
Annie only laughed happily again. "Well, you will have to wait and find out," said she.
"I suppose," said Tom, "that you came over here because you were tired out, this hot weather. I think you were sensible, but I don′t think you ought to be here alone."
"I am not alone," replied Annie. "I have poor little Effie Hempstead with me."
"That deaf-and-dumb child? I should think this heathen god would be about as much company."
"Why, Tom, she is human, if she is deaf and dumb."
Tom eyed her shrewdly. "What did you mean when you said you had broken your will?" he in- quired.
"My will not to speak for a while," said Annie, faintly.
"Not to speak — to any one?"
"Then you have broken your resolution by speak- ing to me?"
Annie nodded again.
"But why shouldn′t you speak? I don′t under- stand."
"I wondered how little I could say, and have you satisfied," Annie replied, sadly.
Tom tightened his arm around her. "You pre- cious little soul," he said. "I am satisfied. I know you have some good reason for not wanting to speak, but I am plaguey glad you spoke to me, for I should have been pretty well cast down if you hadn′t, and to-morrow I have to go away."
Annie leaned toward him. "Go away!"
"Yes; I have to go to California about that con- founded Ames will case. And I don′t know exactly where, on the Pacific coast, the parties I have to interview may be, and I may have to be away weeks, possibly months. Annie darling, it did seem to me a cruel state of things to have to go so far, and leave you here, living in such a queer fashion, and not know how you felt. Lord! but I′m glad you had sense enough to call me, Annie."
"I couldn′t let you go by, when it came to it, and Tom —"
"I did an awful mean thing: something I never was guilty of before. I — listened."
"Well, I don′t see what harm it did. You didn′t hear much to your or your sisters′ disadvantage, that I can remember. They kept calling you ′dear.′"
"Yes," said Annie, quickly. Again, such was her love and thankfulness that a great wave of love and forgiveness for her sisters swept over her. Annie had a nature compounded of depths of sweetness; nobody could be mistaken with regard to that. What they did mistake was the possibility of even sweetness be- ing at bay at times, and remaining there.
"You don′t mean to speak to anybody else?" asked Tom.
"Not for a year, if I can avoid it without making comment which might hurt father."
"That is what I cannot tell you," replied Annie, looking into his face with a troubled smile.
Tom looked at her in a puzzled way, then he kissed her.
"Oh, well, dear," he said, "it is all right. I know perfectly well you would do nothing in which you were not justified, and you have spoken to me, anyway, and that is the main thing. I think if I had been obliged to start to-morrow without a word from you I shouldn′t have cared a hang whether I ever came back or not. You are the only soul to hold me here; you know that, darling."
"Yes," replied Annie.
"You are the only one," repeated Tom, "but it seems to me this minute as if you were a whole host, you dear little soul. But I don′t quite like to leave you here living alone, except for Effie."
"Oh, I am within a stone′s-throw of father′s," said Annie, lightly.
"I admit that. Still, you are alone. Annie, when are you going to marry me?"
Annie regarded him with a clear, innocent look. She had lived such a busy life that her mind was unfilmed by dreams. "Whenever you like, after you come home," said she.
"It can′t be too soon for me. I want my wife and I want my home. What will you do while I am gone, dear?"
Annie laughed. "Oh, I shall do what I have seen other girls do — get ready to be married."
"That means sewing, lots of hemming and tucking and stitching, doesn′t it?"
"Girls are so funny," said Tom. "Now imagine a man sitting right down and sewing like mad on his collars and neckties and shirts the minute a girl said she′d marry him!"
"Girls like it."
"Well, I suppose they do," said Tom, and he looked down at Annie from a tender height of mascu- linity, and at the same time seemed to look up from the valley of one who cannot understand the subtle and poetical details in a woman′s soul.
He did not stay long after that, for it was late. As he passed through the gate, after a tender fare- well, Annie watched him with shining eyes. She was now to be all alone, but two things she had, her freedom and her love, and they would suffice.
The next morning Silas Hempstead, urged by his daughters, walked solemnly over to the next house, but he derived little satisfaction. Annie did not absolutely refuse to speak. She had begun to realize that carrying out her resolution to the extreme letter was impossible. But she said as little as she could.
"I have come over here to live for the present. I am of age, and have a right to consult my own wishes. My decision is unalterable." Having said this much, Annie closed her mouth and said no more. Silas argued and pleaded. Annie sat placidly sewing beside one front window of the sunny sitting- room. Effie, with a bit of fancy-work, sat at another. Finally Silas went home defeated, with a last word, half condemnatory, half placative. Silas was not the sort to stand firm against such feminine strength as his daughter Annie′s. However, he secretly held her dearer than all his other children.
After her father had gone, Annie sat taking even stitch after even stitch, but a few tears ran over her cheeks and fell upon the soft mass of muslin. Effie watched with shrewd, speculative silence, like a pet cat. Then suddenly she rose and went close to Annie, with her little arms around her neck, and the poor dumb mouth repeating her little speeches: "Thank you, I am very well, thank you, I am very well," over and over.
Annie kissed her fondly, and was aware of a sense of comfort and of love for this poor little Effie. Still, after being nearly two months with the child, she was relieved when Felicia Hempstead came, the first of September, and wished to take Effie home with her. She had not gone to Europe, after all, but to the mountains, and upon her return had missed the little girl.
Effie went willingly enough, but Annie discovered that she too missed her. Now loneliness had her fairly in its grip. She had a telephone installed, and gave her orders over that. Sometimes the sound of a human voice made her emotional to tears. Besides the voices over the telephone, Annie had nobody, for Benny returned to college soon after Effie left. Benny had been in the habit of coming in to see Annie, and she had not had the heart to check him. She talked to him very little, and knew that he was no telltale as far as she was concerned, although he waxed most communicative with regard to the others. A few days before he left he came over and begged her to return.
"I know the girls have nagged you till you are fairly worn out," he said. "I know they don′t tell things straight, but I don′t believe they know it, and I don′t see why you can′t come home, and insist upon your rights, and not work so hard."
"If I come home now it will be as it was before," said Annie.
"Can′t you stand up for yourself and not have it the same?"
Annie shook her head.
"Seems as if you could," said Benny. "I always thought a girl knew how to manage other girls. It is rather awful the way things go now over there. Father must be uncomfortable enough trying to eat the stuff they set before him and living in such a dirty house."
Annie winced. "Is it so very dirty?"
"Is the food so bad?"
Benny whistled again.
"You advised me — or it amounted to the same thing — to take this stand," said Annie.
"I know I did, but I didn′t know how bad it would be. Guess I didn′t half appreciate you myself, Annie. Well, you must do as you think best, but if you could look in over there your heart would ache."
"My heart aches as it is," said Annie, sadly.
Benny put an arm around her. "Poor girl!" he said. "It is a shame, but you are going to marry Tom. You ought not to have the heartache."
"Marriage isn′t everything," said Annie, "and my heart does ache, but — I can′t go back there, unless — I can′t make it clear to you, Benny, but it seems to me as if I couldn′t go back there until the year is up, or I shouldn′t be myself, and it seems, too, as if I should not be doing right by the girls. There are things more important even than doing work for others. I have got it through my head that I can be dreadfully selfish being unselfish."
"Well, I suppose you are right," admitted Benny with a sigh.
Then he kissed Annie and went away, and the blackness of loneliness settled down upon her. She had wondered at first that none of the village people came to see her, although she did not wish to talk to them; then she no longer wondered. She heard, with- out hearing, just what her sisters had said about her.
That was a long winter for Annie Hempstead. Letters did not come very regularly from Tom Reed, for it was a season of heavy snowfalls and the mails were often delayed. The letters were all that she had for comfort and company. She had bought a canary-bird, adopted a stray kitten, and filled her sunny windows with plants. She sat beside them and sewed, and tried to be happy and content, but all the time there was a frightful uncertainty deep down within her heart as to whether or not she was doing right. She knew that her sisters were un- worthy, and yet her love and longing for them waxed greater and greater. As for her father, she loved him as she had never loved him before. The struggle grew terrible. Many a time she dressed herself in outdoor array and started to go home, but something always held her back. It was a strange conflict that endured through the winter months, the conflict of a loving, self-effacing heart with its own instincts.
Toward the last of February her father came over at dusk. Annie ran to the door, and he entered. He looked unkempt and dejected. He did not say much, but sat down and looked about him with a half-angry, half-discouraged air. Annie went out into the kitchen and broiled some beefsteak, and creamed some potatoes, and made tea and toast. Then she called him into the sitting-room, and he ate like one famished.
"Your sister Susan does the best she can," he said, when he had finished, "and lately Jane has been try- ing, but they don′t seem to have the knack. I don′t want to urge you, Annie, but —"
"You know when I am married you will have to get on without me," Annie said, in a low voice.
"Yes, but in the mean time you might, if you were home, show Susan and Jane."
"Father," said Annie, "you know if I came home now it would be just the same as it was before. You know if I give in and break my word with my- self to stay away a year what they will think and do."
"I suppose they might take advantage," admitted Silas, heavily. "I fear you have always given in to them too much for their own good."
"Then I shall not give in now," said Annie, and she shut her mouth tightly.
There came a peal of the cracked door-bell, and Silas started with a curious, guilty look. Annie regarded him sharply. "Who is it, father?"
"Well, I heard Imogen say to Eliza that she thought it was very foolish for them all to stay over there and have the extra care and expense, when you were here."
"You mean that the girls —?"
"I think they did have a little idea that they might come here and make you a little visit —"
Annie was at the front door with a bound. The key turned in the lock and a bolt shot into place. Then she returned to her father, and her face was very white.
"You did not lock your door against your own sisters?" he gasped.
"God forgive me, I did."
The bell pealed again. Annie stood still, her mouth quivering in a strange, rigid fashion. The curtains in the dining-room windows were not drawn. Suddenly one window showed full of her sisters′ faces. It was Susan who spoke.
"Annie, you can′t mean to lock us out?" Susan′s face looked strange and wild, peering in out of the dark. Imogen′s handsome face towered over her shoulder.
"We think it advisable to close our house and make you a visit," she said, quite distinctly through the glass.
Then Jane said, with an inaudible sob, "Dear Annie, you can′t mean to keep us out!"
Annie looked at them and said not a word. Their half-commanding, half-imploring voices continued a while. Then the faces disappeared.
Annie turned to her father. "God knows if I have done right," she said, "but I am doing what you have taken me to account for not doing."
"Yes, I know," said Silas. He sat for a while silent. Then he rose, kissed Annie — something he had seldom done — and went home. After he had gone Annie sat down and cried. She did not go to bed that night. The cat jumped up in her lap, and she was glad of that soft, purring comfort. It seemed to her as if she had committed a great crime, and as if she had suffered martyrdom. She loved her father and her sisters with such intensity that her heart groaned with the weight of pure love. For the time it seemed to her that she loved them more than the man whom she was to marry. She sat there and held herself, as with chains of agony, from rush- ing out into the night, home to them all, and break- ing her vow.
It was never quite so bad after that night, for Annie compromised. She baked bread and cake and pies, and carried them over after nightfall and left them at her father′s door. She even, later on, made a pot of coffee, and hurried over with it in the dawn-light, always watching behind a corner of a curtain until she saw an arm reached out for it. All this comforted Annie, and, moreover, the time was drawing near when she could go home.
Tom Reed had been delayed much longer than he expected. He would not be home before early fall. They would not be married until November, and she would have several months at home first.
At last the day came. Out in Silas Hempstead′s front yard the grass waved tall, dotted with disks of clover. Benny was home, and he had been over to see Annie every day since his return. That morn- ing when Annie looked out of her window the first thing she saw was Benny waving a scythe in awkward sweep among the grass and clover. An immense pity seized her at the sight. She realized that he was doing this for her, conquering his indolence. She almost sobbed.
"Dear, dear boy, he will cut himself," she thought. Then she conquered her own love and pity, even as her brother was conquering his sloth. She under- stood clearly that it was better for Benny to go on with his task even if he did cut himself.
The grass was laid low when she went home, and Benny stood, a conqueror in a battle-field of summer, leaning on his scythe.
"Only look, Annie," he cried out, like a child. "I have cut all the grass."
Annie wanted to hug him. Instead she laughed. "It was time to cut it," she said. Her tone was cool, but her eyes were adoring.
Benny laid down his scythe, took her by the arm, and led her into the house. Silas and his other daugh- ters were in the sitting-room, and the room was so orderly it was painful. The ornaments on the man- tel-shelf stood as regularly as soldiers on parade, and it was the same with the chairs. Even the cush- ions on the sofa were arranged with one corner over- lapping another. The curtains were drawn at ex- actly the same height from the sill. The carpet looked as if swept threadbare.
Annie′s first feeling was of worried astonishment; then her eye caught a glimpse of Susan′s kitchen apron tucked under a sofa pillow, and of layers of dust on the table, and she felt relieved. After all, what she had done had not completely changed the sisters, whom she loved, faults and all. Annie realized how horrible it would have been to find her loved ones completely changed, even for the better. They would have seemed like strange, aloof angels to her.
They all welcomed her with a slight stiffness, yet with cordiality. Then Silas made a little speech.
"Your father and your sisters are glad to welcome you home, dear Annie," he said, "and your sisters wish me to say for them that they realize that pos- sibly they may have underestimated your tasks and overestimated their own. In short, they may not have been —"
Silas hesitated, and Benny finished. "What the girls want you to know, Annie, is that they have found out they have been a parcel of pigs."
"We fear we have been selfish without realizing it," said Jane, and she kissed Annie, as did Susan and Eliza. Imogen, looking very handsome in her blue linen, with her embroidery in her hands, did not kiss her sister. She was not given to demon- strations, but she smiled complacently at her.
"We are all very glad to have dear Annie back, I am sure," said she, "and now that it is all over, we all feel that it has been for the best, although it has seemed very singular, and made, I fear, con- siderable talk. But, of course, when one person in a family insists upon taking everything upon her- self, it must result in making the others selfish."
Annie did not hear one word that Imogen said. She was crying on Susan′s shoulder.
"Oh, I am so glad to be home," she sobbed.
And they all stood gathered about her, rejoicing and fond of her, but she was the one lover among them all who had been capable of hurting them and hurting herself for love′s sake.