Indian Summer

THE Widow Collins sat on the arm of a large easy-chair, ironing. The odor of lilac-blossoms from the great bush outside the window drifted in and mingled with the prosaic fragrance of what the widow called “ boiled pot.” A great yellow cat sat blinking and purring on the doorstep with the shifting shadow of the maple leaves wavering over his back ; and a robin somewhere overhead chirped tenderly to his brooding mate. Without and within life seemed like an unwrinkled lake, with nothing darker to be reflected than a floating fleecy cloud.

For a long time there was only the purring and chirping and boiling, with the measured chud of Mrs. Collins’s iron, and now and then the creaking of a discontented board as she walked across the floor to change it. Then of a sudden the garden gate swung to with a clack, and there came a step up the path and then a shadow in the doorway.

“ I want to know if that is you, Mrs. Evelyn,” said the widow, looking up and running the hot iron against her finger.

“ Yes, I suppose it is,” rejoined Mrs. Evelyn, heavily, dropping upon a chair and beginning at once to pull the stems from a basin of currants she held in her hand. “ I thought I might as well run in here and pick over my currants as to do it at home.”

“That’s right; I am glad you did,” returned the widow. “ And when you go home, don’t forget to take some artichokes to the children.”

“ Thank you,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, absently. “ I am worried half to pieces about my husband,” she added, throwing a handful of currants out of the window and putting the steins in her bowl. “ Where do you suppose he is ? ”

“Your husband ! I’m sure I don’t know,” rejoined Mrs. Collins, glancing at the corner cupboard as though wondering if it were possible she had put him away by mistake along with her bunches of sweet-flag root and wild mint. “ No,” she added, shaking her head as if she had made up her mind on that point. “ Why, where do you think he is? Where did he go?”

“ He went to Boston yesterday morning,” replied Mrs. Evelyn. “ He brought me in a pail of water after breakfast, and then said he, ‘ I ’ve a great mind to go over to the city today. Anything you want to send for ? ’ said he. Then I named over half a dozen little things, and he wrote them down in his note-book and went off. I expected him back to supper, sure, but he has n’t come yet.”

“Gone out to Framingham, likely. His brother or some of the folks was in with a team maybe, and so he took the chance to ride out and see his mother,” returned Mrs. Collins, with satisfied assurance.

“ I wish I knew it,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, throwing another handful of currants out of the window.

“ He ’ll be at home to-morrow all right,” pursued Mrs. Collins. “See! Is n’t that he coming now?”

No ! no ! It was nobody but Captain Fanning, who stopped as he came against the window, nodded, and said, “ Pretty good weather we are getting nowadays.”

“ Very growing weather,” responded the widow, glancing at her garden.

“ See here, Captain ! ” called Mrs. Evelyn, as with another nod he was about moving on. “ You have n’t seen anything of my husband, have you, today or yesterday ? ”

“ Your husband ? No. Why, he has n’t run off and left you, has he ? ” replied the Captain, with a sailor laugh.

“ He went to the city yesterday, and I suspect he must have gone out to his mother’s to spend the night,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, in a tone of cheerful carelessness, but with a nervous quickness of manner that belied her tone.

“ Likely. He told me last week he was making his calculations to go to Framingham before long, and I believe this is the week of old Hunt’s vandoo out there,” responded the Captain, swinging off down the street.

Mrs. Evelyn looked relieved.

“Sure enough, so it is, and I know James never thought of it before he left home,” said she, stooping to pick up some stray currants from the floor. Then she went home, singing along the path in happy thankfulness for the stone rolled away from her heart. But “day called unto day and night answered to night,” while no one answered to her calling. It seemed Mr. Evelyn had not been to Framingham. He had not been to Boston, so far as anybody could prove. From the moment when his wife, calling after him at her door to be sure and not forget the saleratus, had seen him looking back with a smile and nod, he had vanished as the dew vanishes.

“ Did your husband take much money with him ? ” asked Captain Fanning, who never found time to attend to his own affairs.

“ He could n’t have taken much,” replied Mrs. Evelyn. And she might have added, neither could he leave much.

“ What for clothes did he have on when you saw him last ? ” queried Captain Fanning, who was self-appointed detective police for the whole village.

“ A mixed pepper-and-salt suit, with a soft hat and a blue necktie,” repeated poor Mrs. Evelyn for the hundredth time, — for the hundredth time in an agony of dread, lest this time she was furnishing proof for some fatal identification.

No ! Not this time, nor another time. From the pitiless blue sky to the pitiless blue sea, all things were dumb.

One evening Captain Fanning stopped at Mrs. Evelyn’s door, as he often did of an evening.

“ My papa’s come! Him has come ! ” cried little Jamie, turning his eager face toward the sound of the coming footsteps. But when he saw the stout ruddy figure of the Captain on the threshold he opened his mouth, threw back his head, and began to call, while the tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘ Dames ! Dames ! Dames ! Come, papa, come ! Damie wants you !

“ Poor little fellow!” said Captain Fanning, stroking the child’s head tenderly. " “ He takes it hard, does n’t he ? ”

Mrs. Evelyn sighed in a dreary way. “ He fairly worries me,”she said. “ He won’t eat a meal of victuals without a plate and chair being put for his father. And every time a cart stops before the door he calls out that he has come. He cries for his father in his sleep almost every night, and sometimes I am afraid he will fret himself to death,”

“ It is pretty rough on you all round, that is a fact,” observed the Captain, pitifully. ‘‘There is one thing we have n’t thought of,” he continued, after a pause.

Mrs. Evelyn’s white face grew whiter. What horrible thing could there be that she had not already fancied, dragged at the heels of one dreadful foreboding after another that flew with her like wild horses ?

“ Lincoln’s Woods, they have n’t been searched,” said the Captain.

“ What should take my husband to Lincoln’s Woods? ” rejoined Mrs. Evelyn, impatiently. So many weary nights she had lain awake groping with the fingers of her mind under every heap of last year’s leaves and among the boughs of every thicket in Lincoln’s Woods, and with the dawning light of so many mornings she had thrust aside the hideous suggestions of the night !

“ Lincoln’s Woods would be a master handy place to secrete a dead corpse,” observed the Widow Collins, who sat with her white sun-bonnet on in Mrs. Evelyn’s rocking-chair, her nose looking more like a weasel’s than ever.

The Widow Collins was not what one would call a sentimental woman. She knew no difference between having a thought and expressing it in bald English. So she did not understand the shiver that ran over Mrs. Evelyn and the dash of pain that touched even the Captain’s sturdy frame, but went on.

“ There’s no doubt in my mind but what Evelyn has been made way with. There is a plenty of rough fellows that would as soon kill you as not for sixpence,” said she, sniffing cheerfully at a great red peony.

“ I suppose it would be best to have the woods searched ; but don’t give yourself any trouble about it, Mrs. Evelyn ; I ’ll see to that,” resumed Captain Fanning, wishing to the depths of his great warm heart that he could take also the heavier trouble of the spirit from the fragile woman who looked like an anemone trying to breast the north-wind. Captain Fanning “ saw to that.” He saw to fifty other things with and without Mrs. Evelyn’s knowledge. There was not an unknown body found in a hundred miles around but Captain Fanning went to see if he could identify it. He visited every prison and hospital, and saw the face of every convict and patient. He put the police of Boston and also of New York upon the search, and gave all his whole time to it for weeks. Meanwhile he beamed in like the afternoon sun at Mrs. Evelyn’s door. He carried candy to the children and all the comfort he could find or imagine to the mother.

“ I thought I must drop in to kind o’ chirk your spirits up,” said the Widow Collins, one evening, coming through the shed door just as Captain Fanning went out the front way. “No news, I take it. ' No news is good news,’ as the saying is; but I tell them it is n’t so in every identical case.”

Mrs. Collins seated herself and drew from her pocket a long gray stocking that she was toeing with black yarn.

“You need n’t think I haven’t got any gray yarn,” she pursued. “ It’s that I don’t want to get clear out and then not have any. You ’ll find, Mrs. Evelyn, you ’ll have to be pretty frugal now you have n’t got any provider. I know what it is to be left, and I can tell you a good many ways how to contrive. Do you lay out to put on mourning ? ”

Mrs. Evelyn drew her breath with a sharp cry.

“Barbara Collins !” said she, “ why do you speak like that to me ? My husband is coming back.”

Mrs. Collins shut her eyes and shook her head. “Don’t you give him up yet ? ” said she. “ Well, I don’t know : but kinder seems to me as though ’t would n’t be any privilege to think your husband had deserted you. He would n’t be more than half a man if he would do such a thing as that. I would n’t give fifty cents on a dollar for such a kind of a man. And now that we are on the subject, as it were, I will say, there is one thing I’ve had it on my mind to give you a warning word about. I wouldn’t have Captain Fanning calling here so often if I was you. It’ll make talk, and in your situation you can’t be too particular. If you feel delicate about giving him a hint, I ’ll do it.”

Mrs. Evelyn did not reply to this proffered kindness, and when Mrs. Collins looked around she found Mrs. Evelyn had gone in her bedroom and shut the door.

The widow sat and knitted complacently away till she had toed off her stocking. Then she went serenely home in the self-approving consciousness of having done her duty as well as “ chirked up ” her neighbor’s spirits.

“Are you brought me some candy, ma ? Did you ? ” called out a little creature standing in her own doorway, with corn silk for hair and bachelor’s-buttons for eyes.

My g’acious ! ” responded the mother, fondly, “ where do you think I’ve been to get candy, Clara ? I’d have had to pick it from the currant-bushes.”

“Jamie Evelyn lie’s always got a crumb of candy in his drawer,” returned the child, looking aggrieved and stepping on her mother’s dress in her eagerness. “ He ’s never without a drop of candy. When he gets a tittle ways out, then he goes and buys more. He’s got some when he buys more : sticks, and lozenges, a-a-a-a-n-d candyrabbits, and lots o’ things.”

“ Fanning’s work ! ” said the widow, rolling her eyes. “ That’s where it comes from.”

One year, another, and another were “added to the mass of buried ages,” when suddenly Mrs. Evelyn disappeared.

“Where’s your ma gone?” asked the Widow Collins of Jamie as he came in to bring Clara a red rooster’s feather.

“ I do’ know. To Framingham I guess, or else to Townsend,” replied Jamie, who was entirely absorbed in watching Clara try the effect of the feather on her hat.

“ How long does she calculate to be gone?” pursued the Widow.

“ She did n’t tell. Polly Slicker is there,” returned Jamie, over his shoulder. “ Clara,” he continued, “ the rain has budded up the rose on my rosybush, or else I was going to carry it to you.”

“ O, Polly Slicker ! I ’ve a good mint I ’ll slip over and borrow a cup of molasses. My jug is pretty low,” soliloquized the widow, picking up her sun-bonnet that was always lying conveniently near.

She found Polly Slicker mopping the sitting-room floor, — a little berry-faced woman with a mouth like a knot-hole, that she never opened if she could help.

So you ’re here, Polly,” began Mrs. Collins.

Polly gave an extra wring to her mop, by way of admitting that she was.

“ Come to stay a spell ? ”

Polly nodded, without looking around.

“ Mrs. Evelyn gone farther than Framingham ?”

Polly grunted a grunt that might mean yes or it might mean no ; but it did not mean anything.

“ Funny that Mrs. Evelyn should go off so, without saying nothing to nobody. But Mrs. Evelyn ’s a little pecuhar, and she don’t care for the speech of people. Not so much, I think sometimes, as she ought to,” pursued Mrs. Collins. “ I don't calculate there is anything wrong about her, though. I’ve always looked upon her as a likely woman. Did she take a carpet-bag ? ”

“ Certain,” replied Polly, beginning to pump a pail of water.

“ I never could determine,” said Mrs. Collins to herself on the way home, “ whether Polly Slicker is a compos or a non. But it is odd as election in the winter, for Mrs. Evelyn to steal off in the dead of the night, as you may say, without a word to her nearest neighbor.”

For two weeks Polly Slicker drew up her mouth, stuck a little brass comb in her back hair, and kept Mrs. Evelyn’s house. And then one morning, as Mrs. Collins was picking lettuce in her garden, always with an eye upon the things that were her neighbor’s, according to Scripture, she saw Mrs. Evelyn shaking a tablecloth at her own door, and at the same time Captain Fanning going in through the front gate.

“The land!” ejaculated Mrs. Collins, referring perhaps to her lettucebed, but with two eyes now upon her neighbor.

Mrs. Evelyn shook her tablecloth, folded it mechanically in the old creases, smoothed it out, and put it in the tabledrawer, as Captain Fanning entered the open door.

“Did you see him?” he asked at once.

“ Yes, I saw him, but it was n’t he,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, steadying her voice. “ I knew it would n’t be,” she added, with a touch of pride.

“ Jabe was very confident, and he said he ought to know Evelyn,” said the Captain, in a musing way.

“ Not so well as I do,” she replied. “And I saw that man wasn’t my husband before I heard the sound of his voice, though to be sure there is a resemblance.”

“ Did you have any conversation with him ? ” asked the Captain.

“ Only a general one. I did n’t tell him my object in going to Indiana, and the postmaster promised he would n’t mention the letters from you to him. I should be sorry to have the man’s wife hear there had been even the rumor of a suspicion about her husband,” said Mrs. Evelyn.

Captain Fanning sat picking at a shred on his coat for a long time in thoughtful silence. Then he looked up suddenly.

“ Mrs. Evelyn,” said he, “ I don’t think there is a possibility that your husband is living.”

The blood curdled back upon Mrs. Evelyn’s heart, but she did not speak, and the Captain went on. “ I wish I could tell you how glad I would be to take his place,” said he, softly.

“ My husband is not dead,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, putting out her hand with a warning motion.

“ Then he has left you,” resumed the Captain, more boldly. “ Do you know you can get a divorce now, for desertion ?”

There was a tender and longing look in the Captain’s face that made it luminous, as he stood there offering help and home and love, while on the other side stretched out a lonely road hedged in by care and poverty. But Mrs. Evelyn turned away her head and waved him back.

“ Never, never ! My husband is not dead,” she repeated. “ He is coming back.”

Captain Fanning went away, and the years slipped on and on and on ; while Mrs. Evelyn did everything that could be done without leaving woman’s sphere ; and unless digging her own potatoes belongs to woman’s sphere, she sometimes overstepped it. She sewed straw, she bound shoes, she sold garden vegetables and milk, she dried apples and picked berries, and took boarders when she could get them to take ; until at last her two boys, with her help and their own, were through Harvard, and her two girls were well educated, the one teaching in the city and the other married and gone to California. Then Captain Fanning came again.

“Don’t you give him up yet?” he asked.

“ I don’t give him up yet,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, without a ripple of doubt.

“ I ’ll be buttered if I don’t believe she knows all the while where Evelyn is,” quoth the Captain, as he walked away stroking his silver-gray beard, and casting one backward look at the silver-gray dress among the trumpethoneysuckles, where he had come upon her as she stood nailing them to the wall. Mrs. Evelyn’s lovely bloom was all gone, her shining hair faded and thin, her delicate skin parched and wrinkled. But along with the soft Quaker colors into which she had slipped had come the look of peace and repose we see on the faces of elderly Friends, as of those who after great tribulation have overcome at last. The quiet face was only the title-page to a quiet heart, as the Widow Collins knew, although she did not express it exactly so.

“ Proud ! I never saw a woman who wore higher heeled shoes than your ma used to, but she has mellowed down since her trouble, like a russet does when it comes June,” she was saying at this very time to James Evelyn, who sat on her threshold making frogs of house-leeks, and waiting for Clara to appear.

James heard Mrs. Collins’s steady drip of words, as he heard the old eight-day clock ticking behind her. So he had no idea upon what bridge her conversation crossed, when suddenly he heard her say, “ ' A wild goose never laid a tame egg,’ as the saying is, and I can’t give my consent for a daughter of mine to run a chance of undergoing any such a trial as your ma has underwent.”

James clasped his hands behind his head, and lay back upon the kitchen floor. ,

“ O, now, Mrs. Collins, you know I’m the tamest kind of an egg,” said he, lightly; “just my mother right over again. Ask Captain Fanning if I am not ; he knows.”

“ What do I know ? ” asked Captain Fanning, who stood, as though James had been a diviner, at the gate.

“ O you ’re there, are you, Captain ? Well, I say you know Mrs. Collins can’t do better than to give Clara to me.”

The Captain threw his arm around the gate-post, and swung himself off in a sailor-like way.

“That’s all right, but Mrs. Collins can do one thing still better,” said he, after a pause.

Mrs. Collins looked out from behind the lilacs, sharp-eyed and positive, and Clara peeped through the shutters in the chamber above, with wet eyelashes and pink blotches on her pretty young cheeks.

“ One thing still better,” repeated the Captain, “she can give herself to somebody.”

“To whom, for instance?” asked James, pulling a blade of grass by the doorstep and beginning to eat it.”

“To whom? To me,” rejoined the Captain. “ I ’m in sober earnest, Mrs. Collins. You need n’t look so incredulous. I’ve made up my mind to be married, and I wish you would make up your mind to the same thing.”

The widow rubbed her forehead.

“ What do you mean, Captain Fanning ? ” said she.

“ I mean exactly what I say,” he replied. “ Seriously, I am heartily sick of boarding-house fare, and wish to come and keep house with you.”

“ He has an eye on your apple-dumplings, Mrs. Collins,” interposed James. At which a faint giggle sounded from behind the chamber window blinds. But the elderly admirers took no notice of these asides.

“ Have you any objection to taking me in ? ” asked the Captain.

“ I don’t know as I think of any,” answered the widow, after a little consideration, having apparently argued the case for and against in her own mind. “ I ’d sooner marry you than any other man I know.”

“Then don’t let’s make two bites of a cherry. For my part, I’ve no time to lose,” rejoined the Captain, immediately coming in with the air of the proprietor.

“ And as sure as you live, mother, they are going to be married on the 25th,” said James Evelyn, an hour after. “ But whether the Captain had thought of such a thing as marrying five minutes before, or only threw himself into the gulf to distract Mrs. Collins’s attention from us, Clara and I can’t make out. He is self-sacrificing enough to do it, I’ve no doubt. Anyhow he made it all right ; I don’t exactly know how, but you know he has what Mrs. Collins calls a coaxing way ; and Clara and I are going to be married on the 25th too,” continued James, crowning himself with one of Clara’s ringlets. “ Mrs. Collins was going to begin to take care of Clara, so she had got her up stairs crying ; little Miss Silliness, just as though I should have stood that ! ”

“ Mother seemed very decided, Jamie ; and I did n’t believe I should ever smile again,” protested Clara, with a happy quiver in her voice.

So there were two weddings on the 25th ; and then Captain Fanning took his two dogs, Lill and Fan, his canarybird with one eye and his canary-bird with one leg, his writing-desk and reading-chair and his Encyclopædias, over to the house of “ her that was ” the Widow Collins.

On the other hand, several boxes of ribbons and laces, five bottles of cologne, and a closet full of pink and blue dresses, moved across the garden to Mrs. Evelyn’s front chamber. At the same time, along went a great many curls the color of pecan-nuts, several deep dimples, a pair of tender eyes, and two cheeks like the heart of a watermelon.

James edited one newspaper and wrote for a dozen, his mother kept house, and Clara smiled and said, “ Yes, indeed ! ”

Somewhat in this way the family labors were divided, until Mrs. Evelyn’s hair was as gray as her gowns, and there were four little Evelyns with dimples and tender eyes and ringlets the color of pecan-nuts.

“ Mother,” said James, upon one of these far-off Junes, “had n’t you better take the children and go up to Hatt’s ? The change will do you good.”

“O no, my son,” replied Mrs. Evelyn, “ I’m getting too old to travelHarr’et must come here if she wants to see mother. I doubt if I ever get so far from home as that again.”

Harriet was Mrs. Evelyn’s youngest daughter, who was married and living on a farm in Vermont. Her brothers had each furnished themselves a chamber in her house as a summer resort.

But this year James’s children went to the country with their nurse, while Mrs. Evelyn slipped farther and farther into the ways of an old woman.

One day Captain Fanning and his dog Bill happened in James Evelyn’s editorial office, and found him sitting with his hands behind his head, and his hair stuck full of pens.

“ I’ve had the most remarkable letter from Emily,” he said, at once. “ She has seen father.”

The Captain dropped upon a chair, and felt that if he had been a woman he might have fainted. As it was he only stared at James without speaking, which showed how far gone he was.

“ Emily says the day father disappeared he happened on an East Indiaman that was lading, and before he knew it she had left her dock,” continued James.

“ Your father always had a great itch for travel, but your mother was as much of a stay-at-home as an oyster, and she never would hear a word to it,” interposed the Captain.

“ So Emily says. And father thought, seeing he bad been taken off without his intention, he’d make the best of it and see something of the world. He does n't seem to have realized the worry and trouble he was giving the folks at home,” said James, with a kind of filial apology in his tone.

“No. It wasn’t his make to think much about anything that was out of sight,” again interposed the Captain. “ He was always as easily diverted and as thoughtless as a child.”

“ So he drifted about,” continued James, “ pretty much wherever it happened, till he found himself in California. Then he took a fancy he would make a fortune before he came home. But I judge his success has n’t been great.”

“ I can easily believe it,” returned the Captain, dryly. “ Does your mother know it ? ”

“No,” replied James, “and that is what I ’m considering, how best to tell her. Mother is getting old and is rather feeble, and I am afraid of the shock of an excitement.”

“ Send for her husband and let him tell her himself,” said the Captain, decidedly.

And so, wisely or unwisely, it was done.

James sent the old appeal, though not in the old pathetic words of his childhood. And in good time the answer came.

A gray, weather-worn man, with the eagerness and hopefulness of a boy, with the heart of a kitten, and the foresight of a lamb: that was Mr. Evelyn.

Mrs. Evelyn had put the yeast rising and gone to her room for the night, when he arrived, and they would not excite her by the news till morning.

So in the morning she went unconsciously into the breakfast-room with her muslin cap, her silvery gray gown, and her placid face. She paused at the doorway at sight of a stranger, looked sharply at him, went forward a few steps, stopped and looked again, then going forward with her hands out she said, “ The Lord be praised, James ! I knew you would come.”

They need not have feared for the excitement on her. It was like a draught from the fountain of youth. She sat all that day with her hand in her husband’s, but the next she was up and doing with her old energy.

“ I want Penelope should see something besides Essex County,” said Mr. Evelyn, comfortably. “ She has always been rather homebound. but she is foot-free now, and there seems to be nothing in the way of her taking a tour and enjoying herself.”

“Yes, we’ve concluded after we’ve been to see Harr’et and William, that we ’ll pay Emily a visit,” assented Mrs. Evelyn, radiantly. “Poor thing! she misses us all, off there by herself so. I always was rather skittish about the water, but now the cars have got to running through, it does n’t seem like much of a journey to California.”

“ To see that poor bewitched woman you’d suppose she’d just had her first offer,” said Mrs. Captain Fanning, paring apples for a dumpling, by her kitchen window. “ She has got herself a regular setting out of clothes. I counted laid out on her bed one day, ready for packing, eight India silks, all different shades of this ’ere dirt color she takes such a notion to.”

And so, on a hazy brooding-day in late autumn a train of cars glided off over the first mile of its journey to San Francisco, bearing the married pair, who, after the heats and tempests of summer and the harvests and vintages of early autumn, had now begun together the Indian summer of their wedded life.

Frances Lee Pratt.