Story type: Literature
The story begins one afternoon in June just after dinner. Miss Catherine Spring was the heroine; and she lived alone in her house, which stood on the long village street in Brookton,–up in the country city people would say,–a town certainly not famous, but pleasant enough because it was on the outer edge of the mountain region, near some great hills. One never hears much about Brookton when one is away from it, but, for all that, life is as important and exciting there as it is anywhere; and it is like every other town, a miniature world, with its great people and small people, bad people and good people, its jealousy and rivalry, kindness and patient heroism.
Miss Spring had finished her dinner that day, and had washed the few dishes, and put them away. She never could get used to there being so few, because she had been one of a large family. She had put on the gray alpaca dress which she wore afternoons at home, and had taken her sewing, and sat down at one of the front windows in the sitting-room, which was shaded by a green old lilac-bush. But she did not sew as if she were much interested in the work, or were in any hurry; and presently she laid it down altogether, and tapped on the window-sill with her thimble, looking as if she were lost in not very pleasant thought. She was a very good woman, and a very pleasant woman; a good neighbor all the people would tell you; and they would add also, very comfortably left. But of late she had been somewhat troubled; to tell the truth, her money affairs had gone wrong, and just now she did not exactly know what to do. She felt more solitary than she had for a long time before. Her father, the last of the family except herself, had been dead for many years; and she had been living alone, growing more and more contented in the comfortable, prim, white house, after the first sharp grief of her loneliness had worn away into a more resigned and familiar sorrow. It is, after all, a great satisfaction to do as one pleases.
Now, as I have said, she had lost part of her already small income, and she did not know what to do. The first loss could be borne; but the second seemed to put housekeeping out of the question, and this was a dreadful thing to think of. She knew no other way of living, beside having her own house and her own fashion of doing things. If it had been possible, she would have liked to take some boarders; but summer boarders had not yet found out Brookton. Mr. Elden, the kind old lawyer who was her chief adviser, had told her to put an advertisement in one of the Boston papers, and she had done so; but it never had been answered, which was not only a disappointment but a mortification as well. Her money was not actually lost: it was the failure of a certain railway to pay its dividend, that was making her so much trouble.
Miss Spring tapped her thimble still faster on the window-sill, and thought busily. “I’m going to think it out, and settle it this afternoon,” said she to herself. “I must settle it somehow, I will not live on here any longer as if I could afford it.” There was a niece of hers who lived in Lowell, who was married and not at all strong. There were three children, with nobody in particular to look after them. Miss Catherine was sure this niece would like nothing better than to have her come to stay with her. She thought with satisfaction how well she could manage there, and how well her housekeeping capabilities would come into play. It had grieved her in her last visit to see the house half cared for, and she remembered the wistful way Mary had said, “How I wish I could have you here all the time, Aunt Catherine!” and at once Aunt Catherine went on to build a little castle in the air, until she had a chilly consciousness that her own house was to be shut up. She compared the attractions of Lowell and Brookton most disdainfully: the dread came over her that most elderly people feel at leaving their familiar homes and the surroundings to which they have grown used. But she bravely faced all this, and resolved to write Mary that evening, so the letter could go by the morning’s mail. If Mary liked the plan, which Miss Catherine never for an instant doubted, she would stay through the early fall at any rate, and then see what was best to be done.
She took up her sewing again, and looked critically at it through her spectacles, and then went on with her stitching, feeling lighter-hearted now that the question was decided. The tall clock struck three slowly; and she said to herself how fast the last hour had gone. There was a little breeze outside which came rustling through the lilac-leaves. The wide street was left to itself, nobody had driven by since she had sat at the window. She heard some children laughing and calling to each other where they were at play in a yard not far away, and smiled in sympathy; for her heart had never grown old. The smell of the roses by the gate came blowing in sweet and fresh, and she could see the great red peonies in generous bloom on the borders each side the front walk. And, when she looked round the room, it seemed very pleasant to her, the clock ticked steadily; and the old-fashioned chairs, and the narrow high mirror with the gilt eagle at the top, the stiff faded portraits of her father and mother in their young days, the wide old brass-nailed sofa with its dim worsted-worked cushion at either end,–how comfortable it all was! and a great thrill of fondness for the room and the house came over our friend. “I didn’t know I cared so much about the old place,” said she. “‘There’s no place like home.’–I believe I never knew that meant so much before;” and she laid down her sewing again, and fell into a reverie.
In a little while she heard the click of the gate-latch; and, with the start and curiosity a village woman instinctively feels at the knowledge of somebody’s coming in at the front-door, she hurried to the other front-window to take a look at her visitor through the blinds. It was only a child, and Miss Catherine did not wait for her to rap with the high and heavy knocker, but was standing in the open doorway when the little girl reached the steps.
“Come in, dear!” said Miss Catherine kindly, “did you come of an errand?”
“I wanted to ask you something,” said the child, following her into the sitting-room, and taking the chair next the door with a shy smile that had something appealing about it. “I came to ask you if you want a girl this summer.”
“Why, no, I never keep help,” said Miss Spring. “There is a woman who comes Mondays and Tuesdays, and other days when I need her. Who is it that wants to come?”
“It’s only me,” said the child. “I’m small of my age; but I’m past ten, and I can work real smart about house.” A great cloud of disappointment came over her face.
“Whose child are you?”
“I’m Katy Dunning, and I live with my aunt down by Sandy-river Bridge. Her girl is big enough to help round now, and she said I must find a place. She would keep me if she could,” said the little girl in a grown-up, old-fashioned way; “but times are going to be dreadful hard, they say, and it takes a good deal to keep so many.”
“What made you come here?” asked Miss Catherine, whose heart went out toward this hard-worked, womanly little thing. It seemed so pitiful that so young a child, who ought to be still at play, should already know about hard times, and have begun to fight the battle of life. A year ago she had thought of taking just such a girl to save steps, and for the sake of having somebody in the house; but it never could be more out of the question than now. “What made you come to me?”
“Mr. Rand, at the post-office, told aunt that perhaps you might want me: he couldn’t think of anybody else.”
She was such a neat-looking, well-mended child, and looked Miss Catherine in the face so honestly! She might cry a little after she was outside the gate, but not now.
“I’m really sorry,” said Miss Spring; “but you see, I’m thinking about shutting my house up this summer.” She would not allow to herself that it was for any longer. “But you keep up a good heart. I know a good many folks, and perhaps I can hear of a place for you. I suppose you could mind a baby, couldn’t you? No: you sit still a minute!” as the child thanked her, and rose to go away; and she went out to her dining-room closet to a deep jar, and took out two of her best pound-cakes, which she made so seldom now, and saved with great care. She put these on a pretty pink-and-white china plate, and filled a mug with milk. “Here,” said she, as she came back, “I want you to eat these cakes. You have walked a long ways, and it’ll do you good. Sit right up to the table, and I’ll spread a newspaper over the cloth.”
Katy looked at her with surprise and gratitude. “I’m very much obliged,” said she; and her first bite of the cake seemed the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.
Yes, I suppose bread and butter would have been quite as good for her, and much less extravagant on Miss Catherine’s part; but of all the people who had praised her pound-cakes, nobody had so delighted in their goodness as this hungry little girl, who had hardly ever eaten any thing but bread all her days, and not very good bread at that.
“Don’t hurry,” said Miss Spring kindly, “you’re a good girl, and I wish I could take you,–I declare I do.” And, with a little sigh, she sat down by the window again, and took up the much-neglected sewing, looking up now and then at her happy guest. When she saw the mug was empty, and that Katy looked at it wistfully as she put it down, she took it without a word, and went to the shelf in the cellar-way where the cream-pitcher stood, and poured out every drop that was in it, afterward filling the mug to the brim with milk, for her little pitcher did not hold much. “I’ll get along one night without cream in my tea,” said she to herself. “That was only skim-milk she had first, and she looks hungry.”
“It’s real pleasant here,” said Katy, “you’re so good! Aunt said I could tell you, if you wanted to take me, that I don’t tear my clothes, and I’m careful about the dishes. She thought I wouldn’t be a bother. Would you tell the other people? I should be real glad to get a place.”
“I’ll tell ’em you’re a good girl,” said Miss Catherine; “and I’ll get you a good home if I can.” For she thought of her niece in Lowell, and how much trouble there was when she was there about getting a careful young girl to take care of the smallest child. Then it occurred to her that Katy was very small herself, and did not look very strong, and Mary might not hear to it; so, after Katy had gone, she began to be sorrowful again, and to wish she had promised less, and need not disappoint the little thing.
Another hour had gone, and it was four o’clock now, and in a few minutes she heard a carriage stop at the gate. She heard several voices, and was discouraged for a minute. Three people were coming in; and she was so glad when she saw it was a nephew and his wife from a town a dozen miles away, and a friend with them whom she had often seen at their house. They came in with good-natured chatter and much laughing. They had started out for a drive early after dinner, and had found the weather so pleasant that they had kept on to Brookton.
“I don’t know what the folks will think,” said they: “we meant to be back right away.”–“Well,” said the niece, “I’m so glad we found you at home; and how well you do look, Aunt Catherine! I declare, you’re smarter than any of us.”
“I guess she is,” said her nephew, who was a great favorite. “I tell you she’s the salt of the earth.” And he gave her a most affectionate and resounding great kiss, and then they were all merrier than ever.
“What are you sitting down for, without laying off your bonnets?” asked the hostess. “You must stay and get supper before you ride home. I’ll have it early, and there’s a moon. You take the horse right round into the yard, Joseph: there’s some more of that old hay in the barn; you know where to find it.” And, after some persuasion, the visitors yielded, and settled themselves quietly for the rest of the afternoon. They had said, as they came over, that they were sure Aunt Catherine would ask them to stay until evening, and she always had such good suppers. Miss Stanby had never been at the house before, and only once as far as Brookton; and she seemed very pleased. She took care of her step-mother, who was very old, and a great deal crosser than there was any need of being. This little excursion would do her a world of good; and luckily her married sister happened to be at home for a day or two’s visit, so she did not feel anxious about being away. She was a sharp-faced, harassed-looking little woman, who might have been pretty if she had been richer and less worried and disappointed. She was a pleasant and patient soul, and this drive and visit were more to her than a journey to Boston would be to her companions. They were well-to-do village people, comfortable and happy and unenvious as it is possible for village people, or any other people, to be.
Miss Spring was a little distracted and a bit formal for a few minutes, while she was thinking what she could get for tea; but that being settled, she gave her whole mind to enjoying the guests. She regretted the absence of the two pound-cakes Katy Dunning had eaten, but it was only for an instant. She could make out with new gingerbread, and no matter if she couldn’t! It was all very pleasant and sociable: and they talked together for a while busily, telling the news and asking and answering questions; and, by and by, Joseph took his hat, saying that he must go down to the post-office to see Mr. Rand, the storekeeper. Soon after this it was time to get supper. Just as Miss Spring was going out, her niece said, “I had a letter from Lowell yesterday, from Mary.”
“How is she now?” Miss Spring meant to talk over her plans a little with Joseph after supper, but was silent enough about them now.
“Her husband’s oldest sister is coming to stay all summer with them. She is a widow, and has been living out West. It’ll be a great help to Mary, and John sets every thing by this sister. She is a good deal older than he, and brought him up.”
“It is a good thing,” said Miss Catherine emphatically, and with perfect composure. “I have been thinking about Mary lately. I pitied her so when I was there. I have had half a mind to go and stay with her a while myself.”
“You might have got sick going to Lowell in hot weather. Sha’n’t I come out and help you, Aunt Catherine?” who said, “No indeed;” and went out to the kitchen, and dropped into a chair. “Oh, what am I going to do?” said she; for she never had felt so helpless and hopeless in her life.
The old clock gave its quick little cluck, by way of reminder that in five minutes it would be five o’clock. She had promised to have tea early; so she opened a drawer to take out a big calico apron, and went to work. Her eyes were full of tears. Poor woman! she felt as if she had come face to face with a great wall, but she bravely went to work to make the cream-tartar biscuit. Somehow she couldn’t remember how much to take of any thing. She was quite confused when she tried to remember the familiar rule. It was silly!–she had made them hundreds of times, and was celebrated for her skill. Cream-tartar biscuit, and some cold bread, and some preserved plums; or was it citron-melon she meant to have?–and some of that cold meat she had for dinner, for a relish, with a bit of cheese.
She would have felt much more miserable if she had not had to hurry; and after a few minutes, when the first shock of her bad news had been dulled a little, she was herself again; and tea was nearly ready, the biscuits baking in the oven, and some molasses gingerbread beside, when she happened to remember that there was not a drop of cream in the cream-pitcher, she had given it all to poor little Katy. Joseph was very particular about having cream in his tea; so she called her niece Martha to the kitchen, and asked her to watch the oven while she went down the road to a neighbor’s. She did not stop even to take her sun-bonnet: it was not a great way, and shady under the elms; so away she went with the pitcher. Mrs. Hilton, the neighbor, was a generous soul, and when she heard of the unexpected company, with ready sympathy and interest she said; “Now, what did you bring such a mite of a pitcher for? Do take this one of mine. I’d just as soon you’d have the cream as not. I don’t calculate to make any butter this week, and it’ll be well to have it to eat with your preserves. It’s nice and sweet as ever you saw.”
“I’m sure you are kind,” said Miss Spring; and with a word or two more she went hurrying home. As I have said, it was not far; but the railroad came between, and our friend had to cross the track. It seemed very provoking that a long train should be standing across the road. It seemed to be waiting for something; an accident might have happened, for the station was a little distance back.
Miss Catherine waited in great anxiety; she could not afford to waste a minute. She would have to cross an impossible culvert in going around the train either way. She saw some passengers or brakemen walking about on the other side, and with great heroism mounted the high step of the platform with the full intention of going down the other side, when, to her horror, the train suddenly moved. She screamed, “Stop! stop!” but nobody saw her, and nobody heard her; and off she went, cream-pitcher and all, without a bit of a bonnet. It was simply awful.
The car behind her was the smoking-car, and the one on which she stood happened to be the Pullman. She was dizzy, and did not dare to stay where she was; so she opened the door and went in. There was a young lady standing in the passage-way, getting a drink of water for some one in a dainty little tumbler; and she looked over her shoulder, thinking Miss Spring was the conductor, to whom she wished to speak; and she smiled, for who could help it?
“I’m carried off,” said poor Aunt Catherine hysterically. “I had company come to tea unexpectedly, and I was all out of cream, and I went out to Mrs. Hilton’s, and I was in a great hurry to get back, and there seemed no sign in the world of the cars starting. I wish we never had sold our land for the track! Oh! what shall I do? I’m a mile from home already; they’ll be frightened to death, and I wanted to have supper early for them, so they could start for home; it’s a long ride. And the biscuit ought to be eaten hot. Dear me! they’ll be so worried!”
“I’m very sorry, indeed,” said the young lady, who was quivering with laughter in spite of her heartfelt sympathy for such a calamity as this. “I suppose you will have to go on to the next station; is it very far?”
“Half an hour,” said Miss Spring despairingly; “and the down train doesn’t get into Brookton until seven; and I haven’t a cent of money with me, either. I shall be crazy! I don’t see why I didn’t get off; but it took all my wits away the minute I found I was going.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t try to get off,” said the girl gravely: “you might have been terribly hurt. Won’t you come into the compartment just here with my aunt and me? She is an invalid, and we are all by ourselves; you need not see any one else. Let me take your pitcher.” And Miss Spring, glad to find so kind a friend in such an emergency, followed her.
There were two sofas running the length of the compartment, and on one of these was lying a most kind and refined-looking woman, with gray hair and the sweetest eyes. Poor Aunt Catherine somehow felt comforted at once; and when this new friend looked up wonderingly, and her niece tried to keep from even smiling while she told the story discreetly, she began to laugh at herself heartily.
“I know you want to laugh, dear,” said she. “It’s ridiculous, only I’m so afraid they’ll be worried about me at home. If anybody had only seen me as I rode off, and could tell them!”
Miss Ashton had not laughed so much in a long time, the fun of the thing outweighed the misery, and they were all very merry for a few minutes. There was something straightforward and homelike and pleasant in Miss Catherine’s face, and the other travellers liked her at once, as she did them. They were going to a town nearer the mountains for the summer. Miss Ashton was just getting over a severe illness; and they asked about the place to which they were bound, but Miss Spring could tell them little about it.
“The country is beautiful around here, isn’t it?” said Alice West, when there was a pause: the shadows were growing long, and the sun was almost ready to go down among the hills. “Brookton! didn’t you notice an advertisement of some one who wanted boarders there, aunty? You thought it was hardly near enough to the mountains, didn’t you? but this is beautiful.”
“Why, that was my notice,” said Miss Spring; and then she stopped, and flushed a little. I believe, if she had thought a moment, she would not have spoken; but Miss Ashton saw the hesitation and the flush.
“I wish I were going to spend the summer with you,” said she by and by, in her frank, pleasant way. And Miss Catherine said, “I wish you were,” and sighed quietly; she felt wonderfully at home with these strangers, and, in spite of her annoyance when she thought of her guests, she was enjoying herself. “I live all alone,” she said once, in speaking of something else; and, if she had been alone with Miss Ashton, I think she would have told her something of her troubles, of which we know her heart was very full. Everybody found it easy to talk to Miss Ashton, but there was the niece; and Miss Catherine, like most elderly women of strong character who live alone, was used to keeping her affairs to herself, and felt a certain pride in being uncommunicative.
When the conductor looked in, with surprise at seeing the new passenger, Alice West asked him the fare to Hillsfield, the next station; and, after paying him, gave as much money to Miss Spring, who took it reluctantly, though there was nothing else to be done.
“I’m sure I don’t know how to thank you,” said she; “but you must tell me how to direct to you and I will send the money back tomorrow.”
“No, indeed!” said the girl: but Miss Spring looked unhappy; and Miss Ashton, with truer kindness, gave her the direction, saying,–
“Please tell us how you found your friends at home; because Alice and I will wish very much to know what they thought.”
“You have been so kind; I sha’n’t forget it,” said Miss Catherine, with a little shake in her voice that was not made by the cars.
Alice had taken from her travelling-bag a little white hood which she had seen in a drawer that morning after her trunk was locked and strapped, and had put it over Miss Catherine’s head. It was very becoming, and it did not look at all unsuitable for an elderly woman to wear in the evening, just from one station to the next. And she was going to wrap the cream-pitcher in some paper, when Miss Catherine said softly,–
“Does your aunty care any thing about cream?”
“She likes it dearly,” said the girl, looking so much pleased. “I had half a mind to ask you if you could spare just a little;” and Miss Ashton’s little tumbler was at once delightedly filled to the very brim.
Its owner said she had not tasted any thing so delicious in a long time; and would not Miss Spring take some little biscuit and some grapes to eat while she waited in the station? Yes, indeed: they had more than they wanted, and she must not forget it was tea-time already. Alice would wrap some up for her in a paper.
And at last they shook hands most cordially, and were so sorry to say good-by.
“I never shall forget your kindness as long as I live,” said Miss Catherine; and Alice helped her off the car, and nodded good-by as it started.
“I wish with all my heart we could board with that dear good soul this summer,” said Miss Ashton, “and I believe she has been dreadfully grieved because her advertisement was not answered; perhaps it may be yet. She looked sad and worried, and it was something besides this mishap. What a kind face she had! I wish we knew more about her. I’m so glad we happened to be just here, and that she didn’t have to go into the car.”
“Yes,” said Alice; “but, aunty, I think it was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life, when she appeared to me with that horror-stricken face and her cream-pitcher.”
And Miss Catherine, as she seated herself in the little station to wait for the down-train, said to herself, “God bless them! how good they were! How I should have hated to go into the car with all the people, and be stared at and made fun of.” They had been so courteous and simple and kind: why are there not more such people in the world? And she thought about them, and ate her crackers and the hot-house grapes, and was very comfortable. It might have been such a disagreeable experience, yet she had really enjoyed herself. It did not seem long before she again took her seat in the cars, with the cream-pitcher respectably disguised in white paper, and herself looking well enough in the soft little white hood, with its corner just in the middle of her gray hair over her forehead; she paid her fare as if her pocket were full of money, and watched the other people in the car; and by the time she reached home she was her own composed and reliable self again.
There had been a great excitement at her house. The biscuit were done and the gingerbread; and the niece took them out of the oven, and thought her aunt was gone a good while, and went back to the sitting-room. After a few minutes she went to the front-gate to look down the street. Miss Stanby joined her; and they stood watching until Joseph Spring came hurrying back, thinking he was late, and ready with his apologies, when they told him how long Miss Catherine had been gone.
“She’s stopped for something or other: they’re always asking her advice about things,” said he carelessly. “She will be along soon.” And then they went into the house; and nobody said much, and the tall clock ticked louder and louder; and Joseph began to whistle and drum with his fingers, meaning to show his unconcern, but in reality betraying the opposite feeling.
“You don’t suppose she’s sick, do you?” asked Miss Stanby timidly.
“More likely somebody else is,” said Mr. Spring. “Did you say she had gone to Mrs. Hilton’s, Martha? I’ll walk down there, and see what the matter is.”
“I wish you would,” said his wife. “It’s after six o’clock.”
“Hasn’t got home yet!” said Mrs. Hilton in dismay. “Why, what can have become of her? She came in before half-past five, in a great hurry; and she left her pitcher here on the table. I suppose she forgot it. I lent her mine, because it was bigger. There’s no house between but the Donalds’, and they’re all off at his mother’s funeral to Lancaster. You don’t suppose the cars run over her?”
“I don’t know,” said Miss Spring’s nephew, in real trouble by this time.
They went out together, and looked everywhere along the road, apologizing to each other as they did so. They went up and down the railroad for some little distance, and it was a great relief not to find her there. Joseph asked some men if they had seen his aunt; and when they said no, wonderingly, and expected an explanation, he did not give it, he hardly knew why. They went to the house beyond Miss Catherine’s, though Martha and Miss Stanby were sure she had not gone by. They looked in the barn even: they went out into the garden and through the house, for she might possibly have come in without being seen; but she had apparently disappeared from the face of the earth.
It had seemed so foolish at first to tell the neighbors; but by seven o’clock, or nearly that, Martha Spring said decisively, “She cannot have gone far unless she has been carried off. I think you had better get some men, and have a regular hunt for her before it gets any darker. I’m not going home to-night until we find her.” And they owned to each other that it was a very serious and frightful thing. Miss Stanby looked most concerned and apprehensive of the three, and suggested what had been uppermost in her mind all the time,–that it would be so awful if poor Miss Spring had been murdered, or could she have killed herself? There was something so uncharacteristic in the idea of Miss Catherine’s committing suicide, that for a moment her nephew could not resist a smile; but he was grave enough again directly, for it might be true, after all, and he remembered with a thrill of horror that old Mr. Elden, the lawyer, had told him in confidence, that Miss Spring was somewhat pinched for money,–that her affairs were in rather a bad way, and perhaps he had better talk with her, as he himself did not like to have all the responsibility of advising her.
“Poor old lady!” thought Joseph Spring, who was a tender-hearted man. “She looked to-day as if she felt bad about something. She has grown old this last year, that’s a fact!” It seemed to him as if she were in truth dead already. “You had better look all over the house,” said he to his wife. “Did you look in the garret?” He remembered the story that his great-grandfather had been found hanging there, and could not have gone to the garret himself to save his life.
He went hurrying out of the house, determined now to make the disappearance public. He would go to the depot, there were always some men there at this time. The church-bell began to ring for Wednesday-evening meeting, and she had always gone so regularly; he would hurry back there, and tell the people as they came. The train went by slowly to stop at the station, it was a little behind time. He hurried on, looking down as he walked. To tell the truth, he was thinking about the funeral, and suddenly he heard a familiar voice say,–
“Well, Joseph! I suppose you thought I was lost!”
“Heavens and earth, Aunt Catherine! Where have you been?” And he caught her by the shoulder, and felt suddenly like crying and laughing together. “I never had any thing come over me so in all my life,” said he to his wife and Miss Stanby, as they went home later that evening. “I declare, it took the wits right out of me.”
Miss Catherine looked brighter than she had that afternoon, the excitement really had done her good; she told her adventure as they hurried home together. When they reached the house Martha Spring and Miss Stanby kissed her, and cried as if their hearts would break. Joseph looked out of the window a few minutes, and then announced that he would go out and see to the horse.
The tears were soon over with; and, as soon as it seemed decent, Mrs. Martha said, “Aunt Catherine, do tell me where you got that pretty hood! I wish I had seen it when I first got here, to take the pattern. Isn’t it a new stitch?”
“Dear me! haven’t I taken it off?” said Miss Catherine. “Well, you must excuse me if I am scatter-witted. I feel as if I had been gone a week.”
They had supper directly–that very late supper! They were all as hungry as hunters, even poor little Miss Stanby; and the re-action from such suspense made the guests merry enough, while, as was often said, Miss Catherine was always good company. The cream-tartar biscuits were none the less good for being cold. Joseph hadn’t eaten such gingerbread since he was there before; and the tea was made fresh over a dry-shingle fire, which blazes in a minute, as every one knows. There were more than enough pound-cakes; and Martha asked all over again how Miss Catherine made her preserves, for somehow hers were never so good; while Miss Catherine meekly said that she had not had such good luck as usual with the last she made.
At last they drove off down the road. The moon had come up, and was shining through the trees. It was so cool and fresh and bright an evening, with a little yellow still lingering in the west after the sunset! The guests went away very happy and light-hearted, for it seemed as if they had been spared a terrible sorrow.
“I saw the prettiest little old-fashioned table up in the garret,” said Mrs. Martha. “It only needs fixing up a little. I mean to ask your Aunt Catherine if I can’t have it when I go over again.”
“No, you won’t,” said her husband, with more authority than was usual with him.
Miss Catherine stood watching at the gate until they were out of sight. “I must settle down,” said she. “I feel as if it had been a wedding or a funeral or something; and I declare if it isn’t Wednesday evening, and what will they think has become of me at meeting?” though she could have trusted Mrs. Hilton to spread the story far and wide–by which you must not suppose that good Mrs. Hilton was a naughty gossip.
The next morning Miss Catherine waked up even more heavy-hearted than she had been the day before. I suppose she was tired after the unusual excitement. She wished she had talked to Joseph, she must talk with somebody. She wished she had not been such a fool as to get on those cars, for she was sure she never should hear the last of the joke; and, after the morning work was done, she sat down in the sitting-room with the clock ticking mockingly, and that intolerable feeling of despair and disgust came over her; there is nothing much harder to bear than that, if you know what it is I am sure you will pity her.
The afternoon seemed very long. It rained; and nobody came in until the evening, when Mrs. Hilton’s boy came with a letter. Miss Catherine had been to the post-office just before dinner, to send the money to Miss Ashton; and this surprised her very much. “It must have come by the seven-o’clock train,” said she. “I never get letters from that way;” and she took it to the window, and looked curiously at the address, and at last she opened it. It was a pretty letter to look at, and it proved a pleasant one to read. It was from Alice West, Miss Ashton’s niece; and Miss Catherine read it slowly, and felt as if she were in a dream.
“My Dear Miss Spring,–My aunt, Miss Ashton, wishes me to write to you, to ask if it would be convenient for you to take us to board. We are very much disappointed here, and are glad we did not positively engage our rooms until we had seen them. It is a very damp house, and I am sure my aunt ought not to stay, and would be uncomfortable in many ways. We should like two rooms close to each other, and we were each to pay ten dollars a week here, but are perfectly willing to pay more than that. We are almost certain that we shall like your house; but perhaps it will be the better way for me to come down and see you, and then I can make all the arrangements. If Brookton suits my aunt, we may wish to stay as late as October; and should you mind if one of my friends comes to stay with us by and by? She would share my room. If you will write me to-morrow morning, and if you think you can take us, I will go down in the early afternoon train.
“We hope you reached home all right, and that your friends were not much worried. We begin to think that your adventure was a fortunate thing for us. With kind regards from us both,
Did you ever know any thing more fortunate than this? Poor Miss Catherine sat down and cried about it; and the cat came and rubbed against her foot, and purred sympathizingly, and was taken up and wept over, which I believe had never happened to her before. Of all people, who could be pleasanter boarders than these? They had won her heart in the half-hour she had already spent with them. She had wished then that they were coming to her: it would be such a pleasure to make them comfortable. And twenty dollars a week,–that would surely be more than enough for them all to live upon with what she had beside. And there was Katy, who could save so many steps, and could wait on Miss Ashton; she would have the child come at once. She could have Mrs. Brown come every day for a while, beside Mondays and Tuesdays; and how glad she would be of the extra pay! Miss Catherine even went up stairs in the late June twilight, to look at the two familiar front-chambers, with only the small square hall separating them. They looked so pleasant, and were so airy and of such good size, they could not help being suited. She patted the pillow of her best bed affectionately, and thought with pride that they would find no fault with her way of cooking, and her house never was damp; there was not a better house in Brookton. Life had rarely looked brighter to Miss Catherine than it did that night.
Alice West came down the next afternoon, and found the house and the rooms and Miss Catherine herself were all exactly what wise Miss Ashton had said they would be. And the two boarders thought themselves lucky to have found such a pleasant house for the summer; they were so considerate, and became favorites with many people beside their hostess. They brought a great deal of pleasure and good-will to sober little Brookton, as two cultivated, thoughtful, helpful women may make any place pleasanter if they choose. Miss Ashton is a help and a comfort and a pleasure wherever she goes, while Alice West is learning to be like her more and more every year. Miss Catherine remembered sometimes with great thankfulness, that it was the loss of her money for a while that had brought her these friends. Katy Dunning was so happy to go to live at Miss Spring’s after all, and did her very best,–a patient, steady, willing little creature she was! and I am sure she never had had so many good times in her life as she did that summer.
I might tell you so much more about these people, but a story must end somewhere. You may hope that Miss Catherine’s fortunes bettered, and that she never will have to give up her home; that she can keep Katy all the time; that Miss Ashton will come back to Brookton the next year, and the next.
I am sure you will think, in reading all this, just what I have thought as I told it,–and what Miss Catherine herself felt,–that it was such a wonderfully linked-together chain. All the time she thought she was going wrong, that it was a series of mistakes. “I never will be so miserable again,” said she. “It was all ordered for the best; and may the Lord forgive me for doubting his care and goodness as I did that day!” It went straight to her heart the next Sunday, when the old minister said in his sermon, “Dear friends, do not let us forget what the Psalmist says, that the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. He plans the way we go; and so let us always try to see what he means in sending us this way or that. Do not let us go astray from wilfulness, or blame him for the work he gives us to do, or the burdens he gives us to carry, since he knows best.”
So often, in looking back, we find that what seemed the unluckiest day of the week really proved most fortunate, and what we called bad luck proved just the other thing. We trace out the good results of what we thought must make every thing go wrong: we say, “If it had not been for this or that, I should have missed and lost so much.” I once happened to open a book of sermons, and to see the title of one, “Every Man’s Life a Plan of God.” I did not read the sermon itself, and have never seen the book again; but I have thought of it a great many times. Since it is true that our lives are planned with the greatest love and wisdom, must it not be that our sorrows and hindrances come just from our taking things wrong?
And here, for the last of the story, is a verse that Robert Browning wrote, that Miss Ashton said one morning, and Miss Catherine liked:–
“Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’”