MORE than twenty years ago Serena Hedding drove through the gateway of her father’s farm, while her little son held the creaking gate open. Her vehicle was a low buggy, with room at
the back for a sack of nubbins, which the scrawny white horse would appreciate on his return trip. The driver was obliged to cluck encouragement to him as he paused, with his head down, in the gateway ; and before he had taken ten steps forward, before Milton could stick the pin back in the post-hole and scamper to his seat at her left side, she lived her girlhood over. She saw her father holding that gate open for camp-meeting or protracted-meeting folks to drive in to dinner with him. She saw Milton Hedding ride through to court her, and the scowl her father gave him ; and the buggy which waited for her in the woods one afternoon, herself getting into it, and Milton whipping up his horse to carry her away forever.
The road wound, folding on itself, through dense woods. Nothing had changed about the road. She noticed that the old log among the haw saplings remained untouched. That log was a link binding her childhood to her girlhood. She sat on it to baste up the hem of her ridiculously long dress before going to school, her dinner-basket waiting near ; and, coming home in the evening, she there ripped the basting out, lest Aunt Lindy should notice that her skirt did not flop against her heels, as proper skirts had done in Aunt Lindy’s childhood. Seated on that log, she and Milton had talked of the impossibility of their marriage, and decided to run away.
It was so near sunset that the woods were in mellow twilight. She heard the cows lowing away off, and a loaded wagon rumbling over the Feeder bridge. The loamy incense of this ancestral land was so sweet that it pained her. Soon the house would come in sight, and seem to strike her on the face. If they had altered it any, she did not know it. M as her father’s sick-bed down-stairs, or did Aunt Lindy keep him above the narrow staircase ? The slippery-elm tree she used to wound for its juicy strips started out at the roadside to give her a scarry welcome. Her fingers brushed her cheeks, and drew the black sun-bonnet further over them.
“What’s the matter, mother?” inquired her light-haired boy. “Are you feared grandfather’s worse ? ”
“ I hope he ain’t,” replied Serena. Then the house, on its rising ground, appeared, crossed by trees. It had a yard in which lilac bushes, and tall hollyhocks bordered the path. The gate opened into an orchard, and the orchard was guarded from the lane by bars, which Serena’s little boy let down, and they drove in.
Her father’s barn was one of those immense structures which early Ohio farmers built to indicate their wealth. It had always seemed bursting with hay and grain, and the stamp of horses resounded from its basement stables.
Serena looked piteously at the house. Vehicles of various kinds were fastened all along the fence. Still, no solemn voice or sound of singing reached her ear. It had long been the Jeffries custom to hold services over their dead at the house. No feather-bed hung across the garden palings ; neither was the hideous cooling - board standing up anywhere, like a wooden tombstone. But the whole neighborhood was there. He must he very low indeed.
The youthful widow and her boy alighted, and tied their horse in a humble corner near the woodpile. Nobody came out to receive them. That was another bad sign. She was cramped by her long ride. If her suspense had not been so great she must have felt a pang of shame at the shabby appearance of her son and herself, on this first return from exile.
The house dog barked, waking suddenly from his meditations to learn who they were and what they wanted. But he recollected that a great many strangers had been coming and going recently, and, considering his duty done, trotted back, and stretched himself to snap flies.
Serena felt obliged to go around to the front of the house, though the back doorstep showed the wear of her childish feet. But as she passed the first rose-bush, Milty trotting in the white path behind her, a woman came from the back porch, holding a handkerchief over her cap, the ribbons of which flew back on each side of her neck. The light glared on her spectacles. She was as trim and quick as a young girl. Her dress, cape, and apron were of the same material, and her waist was fastened in front with a spiky row of pins.
“ Serene Heddin’! ” she exclaimed, with the spring in her voice which Serena remembered comparing to the clip of a mouse-trap, “ you ’re not goin’ into the front door to scare your father to death in his last moments.”
“ Oh, Aunt Lindy,” said the shabby widow, lifting her hands, “ is he as bad as that ? ”
“ He’s been struck with death all the afternoon. You come in this way.”
“ Can’t I see him ? ” asked Mrs. Hedding, climbing over the back doorstoue, like a suddenly exhausted pilgrim, her face quivering under streams of tears.
Through open doors she recognized in the parlor and sitting-room groups of old neighbors, waiting in that hush with which they always accompanied each other to the brink of death. A woman came from among them, whispering, —
“Who’s this, Lindy?” and immediately informing herself: “Why, Sereny Jeffr’s ! Have you got here ? Come right in to your pap. He’s pretty nigh gone.”
“It won’t do no good, Sister McGafferty,” said Aunt Lindy. “ He won’t know her, and’t will disturb him. She was postin’ in at the, front door when I caught her,” declared Aunt Lindy, as if speaking of a thief.
Sister McGafferty, a comfortable, large woman in blue spectacles, the presiding elder’s wife, and therefore a person of authority, still beckoned Serena in, and she passed Aunt Lindy, followed by her barefooted boy. The roundposted bedstead was drawn out from the wall, and under its sheet and manycolored quilt lay the old farmer, his mouth open, his eyes glazed, his narrow brows and knotty features wearing a ghastly pallor. But behind the solemn terror of that face was her father.
Aunt Lindy followed, and twitched her elbow, thereby creating a faction in Serena Hedding’s favor among the spectators. They were all well-to-do people, who noticed her dejected attitude toward the world, and had always disapproved of her thriftless match. But they said within themselves that Lindy Miller was going too far when she tried to pull a daughter away from her dying father.
“ Ain’t you ’shamed to disturb his last peaceful minutes! ” Aunt Lindy hissed with force.
But the returned culprit fastened such desperate interest on the unseeing eyes of her father that Aunt Lindy’s interruption was as remote to her as the gambols of loose horses in the pasture.
If there had now been time and opportunity Serena could not argue her case with him. He never had allowed that. She could not tell how true and happy her marriage was, in spite of his disapproval and its accompanying poverty. She had suffered, but her heart had ripened so that she could discern and love the good in human nature across its narrow bounds. Words or expressions did not occur to her ; but a thousand living thoughts swarmed in her mind. If he would look at her again with reconciliation in his eyes, she could be satisfied, and bear all her future trials like benedictions. Never a loving father, he was, until her disobedience, a fairly kind one. He was a very religious man of the old sort, believing seriousness to be the primary principle of godliness, and levity a fermentation of the inward Satan. He always paid his quarterage and contributed to foreign missions, while every successive preacher on the circuit used his house as home. The deep grooves making a triangle of his upper lip showed how constant and sad his meditations had been. Yet this old farmer was in some matters timid and self-distrustful, and so fond of peace and quiet as to yield his rights for them.
“Father,” pleaded Serena Hedding, bending closer to him. “Father!” Unconsciously she repeated the name like a cry. The hum of the bee-hives against the garden palings could be heard. Did a ray dart across his leaden brain from the afternoon his only child, in short coats, poked a stick in the beehives, and, feeling the results of her folly, wailed thus to him ? Did he imagine himself again dropping the rake and leaping the fence to run with her from her tormentors? A flicker grew through the glazing of his eyes, and became a steady light, a look, a tender gaze, a blessing. She clasped her hands, and rocked before him in ecstasy. He knew her, and revealed, midway over the silent chasm of death, how unalterably close and dear she was to him. In that small eternity of time they were knitted together as never before. His eyes began to glaze again, and she remembered Milty. Pushing the child forward, she cried again, “ My boy, father ! See my boy! ”
The old man saw him. That rigid face was too set to smile, but writh the image of his child’s child on his eyes, the hope of future generations of his blood, he passed away.
A little time was allowed for the wailing that rises around every deathbed. The overtaxed young widow rocked her son against her, while he gazed about him in awe. Aunt Lindy stood by the bedpost, burying her face in her apron. Her son, Hod Miller, a huge creature, very black-eyed, brightcomplexioned, and having the appearance of possessing no immortal soul, sat near the foot of the bed, with his legs crossed and his shoulders hung forward, looking respectfully concerned.
There were no other near relatives except Jesse Jeffries and his wife, who covered their faces while this elder brother lay in the first dignity of death.
Then a quiet bustle began. Sister McGafferty took Serena Hedding out of the parlor, and made her lie down on the sitting-room straw-tick lounge, and smell camphor. Milty wandered out-ofdoors, and was grateful to a neighbor’s hoy, forbidden the house and enjoined to watch the horses, who told him, after an exchange of scrutiny, that he dursn’t take a dare which ’ud reach the medder fence first. The men took charge of the body. They closed the parlor doors, and, with basins of water, clean linen, and the new store suit Aunt Lindy’s forethought had ready in the house, performed those solemn rites to which all our flesh must humbly come. One mounted a horse and rode to Millersport for the undertaker. Little Jimmy Holmes, who was a middle-aged man, but had a father known as Old or Big Jimmy, was informed by his wife that he could go home now, and look after the milkin’ and feedin’; she would stay here and tend to things. Into her capable hands Aunt Lindy appeared to resign the house, while Little Jimmy and their son, Little Jimmy’s Jimmy, drove into the pleasant dusk.
After inquiring about the date of the funeral, and detailing watchers for the intervening nights, the other neighbors slowly dispersed in squads. Lights appeared about the house, and the kitchen and cellar yielded up their prepared good things.
Before they reached home the neighbors began to speculate about the disposition of the property. They said Moses Jeffr’s had been a hard worker, and his sister Lindy had been a hard worker, and she had kept his house for more than twenty year : ’t would n’t be no more than right for him to leave her well off. She had been savin’ with what her man left her, and Hod Miller had done a son’s part by the old man. Money goes to them that lays up. Some said Mr. Jeffr’s had cut off Sereny with a cent in his will. Sereny ought to knowed better than to done as she did. It was a pity, specially as she was left a widowwoman, with a little boy to raise. But when a person makes their bed, they got to lie in it. How tickled Mr. Jeffr’s was when Sereny was a little girl experiencin' religion ! He never thought then she would go and run off. She had a good home, and he would have done well by her.
On the other hand, there was folkstalk among the Serena faction, whose hearts melted toward the girl when she rocked before her father. They said there never would have beeu any trouble between Moses Jeffr’s and his daughter, if Lindy Miller hadn’t managed things. Milt Heddin’ was a good feller, only he had n’t the knack of gettin’ along. But he could have worked the farm as well as Hod Miller. They wanted Sereny to have her rights. It was a scandal and a shame: if that big, able-bodied feller, with land of his own, could turn her off the home place.
Serena wandered about the house, which strangers seemed to possess, crying over familiar objects. She had large violet eyes, and was once considered as pretty a girl as came to meeting, though her lips .were too prominent and full. She looked shabby and piteous. Sister McGafferty combed her hair for her, while her trembling, work-worn hands lay in her lap.
“ They’ve borried a black bonnet and dress for you, Sister Sereny,” said the elder’s wife, who had been around the circuit when this sorrowful creature was a shy child.
“ I might have worn a better dress and bonnet. But, when word came, I felt so bad I did n’t think of anything. They did n’t let me know he was so near gone.”
Milty spent his time out-of-doors. He approved of the barn and did not approve of Aunt Lindy. His mother had said, " Aunt Lindy, this is my boy.”
And Aunt Lindy had said, “ He looks spindlin’, like the Heddin’s. I hope you ’re raisin’ him to obedience. Children set on their own way gives their parents plenty of sorrow to sup.”
This spry great-aunt’s glasses detected him if he touched a daguerreotype among the glaring, upright array on the sittingroom table, or ventured too near the fine men and women pasted on the fireboard.
She took him to see his grandfather after the laying-out, turned back the ghastly sheet, which, was stretched between two chairs, removed cloths from the dead man’s face, and warned the boy to prepare for death. He never afterwards inhaled the pungent odor of camphor without turning faint.
At table he and his mother huddled together, feeling scarcely welcome to the abundant food. Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife, with a number of helpers, kept the table burdened with every country luxury, but Aunt Lindy saw that the best was reserved until the great final dinner on the day of the funeral.
That day was considered a credit to Moses Jeffries. It was one of the largest funerals ever known in those parts. The weather was pleasant, and summer work so well advanced that everybody could feel the pressure of neighborly duty. Carriages and fine horses nearly filled the orchard space in front of the house; the yard was darkened with standing men in their best black clothes. Not half the people could get into the house, to say nothing of getting into the parlor. There Elder McGafferty lifted his hands, praying and preaching over the old farmer, who looked so unused to his collar and neckcloth and brand-new suit when they took off his coffin-lid.
A number of men wandered down by the barn ; the hymn-singing came to them faint and plaintive, in gusts of couplets, just as the preacher lined the words. One of them remarked that old Mr. Jeffr’s left things in pretty good shape, and he s’posed Hod Miller would n’t alter them much. Another thought that Serene Heddin’ would come in for a sheer, if not all. A man may be put out with his children, but he ’ll favor them when it comes to such serious business as makin’ a will. Hod Miller had bought and sold and made money on that farm, enough to pay for his work. He ought n’t to stand in Sereny’s light.
“ What’s she been doin’ since her man died ? ” inquired the first speaker, shaving off long whittlings from a piece of pine.
“ Workin’ out, ’pears like I heard. She got a place near Lancaster, where they’d let her keep her boy with her. It’s my opinion,” said the second speaker, suddenly spitting a flood, and letting his spiky chin work up and down with slow rumination, " that old Lindy kept her away from her pap as long as she could, for fear there’d be a makin’ up.”
“ Oh, sho! The old man was very set in his ways. He did n’t need bullyraggin’ to make up .his mind and keep it made up. Hod Miller might marry the widder now, and that’d settle all claims.”
“ I don’t believe she ’d have him,” said the chewer, smiling slowly. " Jesse Jeffr’s, he thinks Sereny’s all right. He claims lie seen the will.”
The whittler scoffed at such claims. Jesse Jeffries was held in light esteem by his old neighbors. He sold his farm, and had such a hankering for town life as to settle in Millersport, where the Deep Cut of the Ohio canal is, and lose every cent of it in grocery-keeping. What Jesse Jeffries said or did thereafter was of small importance. His record slew him.
There was bustle at the front of the house. Both men squinted in the sun, and watched a long black object with shining dots upon it coming through the door, borne by stout young farmers. The men in the yard raised their hats. After the coffin came Serena, on her Uncle Jesse’s arm. He shuffled along uncomfortably, as if not used to showing such attention to the women-folks. After them came Hod Miller and his mother, and Jesse Jeffries’ wife with Serena’s boy. Sister McGafferty considered this the proper order of procession, and had so managed it. Streams of people gushed from all the outlets of the house ; the carriages filled and were arrayed in line; the long black serpent trailed down through the woods; and the women remaining to prepare dinner stood and counted, until they declared it beat everything. It was a pleasant sensation to be at such a populous funeral.
When Jesse Jeffries foretold the contents of the will he did not speak without authority, for it had been left in his hands. After a hearty dinner, at which many tablefuls of neighbors assisted, he importantly called the possible heirs together, and their factious sat by to listen.
Aunt Lindy was neither nervous nor bowed with grief. She had done her duty, and knew what her deserts were. Her son Hod tipped back in his chair, and twitched his shirt-collar. He wanted to have the thing over, and was not without doubts of his succeeding to the estate. If it came to him he meant to hold to it. His hands were as strong as a vise, and typified his grip on property. Serena might try to break the will, but if she lawed until Judgment Day he would not give her a cent ho was not obliged to give her. Womenfolks were a sort of cattle he had no fancy for.
Curious eyes watched Serena, and speculated on her emotions. She was pale and quiet. Her son stood beside her.
The testator’s brother broke the seal, and began to read.
The testator, after stating his sanity and general ability to execute such a document, giving the numbers of his various lands and enumerating his parcels of property in the tedious and highsounding repetition prescribed by law, bequeathed it all to his beloved daughter Serena Jeffries, and her heirs, the said Serena being enjoined to pay a stated annuity to her aunt, the testator’s beloved sister, and to make over to her certain chattels particularly named; also a legacy of five hundred dollars to her cousin, Howard Miller.
Sister McGafferty poked the camphor bottle toward Serena, but it was declined.
Still the poor girl could not believe this. Disinheritance had been so long accepted as part of the penalty of her marriage that she scarcely thought of it as injustice. But to have the homestead for her own was a rise which made her dizzy.
After gazing on her with satisfaction through his glasses, Uncle Jesse turned the paper over, and rapidly read a small codicil, which nevertheless choked him. He knew nothing about this part of the will. It destroyed Serena Hedding’s claims, on account of her disobedience, and made Howard Miller unconditional heir.
So that settled the matter. Serena turned whiter. It was a shock, after realizing one instant the possession of competence.
“ I ’low Mozy must have put that on the day he took it away to have more added, he said,” remarked Uncle Jesse, huskily. His good wife, who was all cap-rim and beak, with a thin neck and general air of scrawniness, sat with her claws crossed in silent sympathy. Jesse and his wife did not find Lindy a congenial sister.
“ Well,” remarked Aunt Lindy, turning her head so the light fell in a sheet of glare upon her spectacles, “ I’m satisfied. That is, I will be when I’ve said what I’m goin’ to say. I’m a plain speaker, and tell my mind. Things has turned out right. Sereny Heddin’ left her pap, and we stayed by him. She’s got her reward, and we’ve got our’n. I hope you don’t take no exceptions to his will, Sereny ? ”
Sereny replied in a low voice that she did not take any.
“To show that I’m fair-minded and want to do right by you,” said Aunt Lindy, raising her voice to the tone she used in speaking meeting when exhorting sinners, “ I ’ll give you your mother’s spinnin’-wheel that stands in the smoke-house. You ought to have something to remember her by.”
Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife nudged the woman next to her, and whispered, with a curving mouth, “ Just the idy ! And all Sereny’s mother’s spoons, and her quilts and coverlids she had wove ! And the girl never having any settin’out in the first place ! ”
Serena climbed the staircase, to take off her borrowed mourning, and put on her own shabby weeds for her ride back into the world. She passed presses stacked with household linen. The precious things of her childhood, seen and handled in this trying visit, seemed so heart-breakingly precious because Hod Miller’s future wife would throw them about as common. She would like to have the yellow, leather-bound copy of Alonzo and Melissa, the novel of the house; always considered unwholesome by the elders, and as surely read with sly zest by the children. The coverlet with her mother’s name woven into it had never been intended for anybody but the daughter of the house. It was unendurable to go away from home this second time, and into perpetual exile.
“ Now I wisht they ’d find a later will,” said Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife, tying on her bonnet in the best bedroom. The persons who had lingered to support the family through the ordeal of will-reading were driving off, one after another. “ Oh, but Aunt Lindy ’ll carry things before her! Is she anywhere near ? I don’t want her to hear me.”
“ Things don’t turn out that way except in novel-stories,” said another woman, with her mouth full of pins. “They don’t find wills hid around in stockin’s or Bibles. I declare, I’m real sorry for Sereny. I don’t see how old Mr. Jeffr’s can lay easy in his grave, turnin’ his own child out to give place to a big, hearty feller, with money in his own right.”
“ I always thought so much of Serene,” said Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife. “ We was taken into full church membership on the same day ; and we used to run together and swap dinners at the Gum College. Aunt Lindy was so hard on her. I’ve asked Serene to go home with me and stay as long as she wanted to. But she has to take that horse and buggy back. And I don’t think she could stand it, so near the old home.”
“ Now what do you think ? ” said Jesse Jeffries’ wife, coming in, with her blackmitted hands pressed together. “ Things is willed to Sereny, after all.”
The bedroom resounded with ejaculations.
“How do you make that out?” inquired Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife. “ I’d give all my yearlin’calves to have it so.”
“ There was another piece wrote on to the paper, that Jesse missed. ’Pears like Mozy cut her off, and then repented, and went right to another lawyer and had it fixed, for it’s in two different hand writes. Things stands just as they did in the first.”
“ I ’m sorry Lindy gets her yearly portion,” said Mrs. Holmes, in an irreverent aside. “ Let me get out of this crowd : I’m goin’ to hug Serene.”
“ I thought’t was a great pity,” said the woman with pins in her mouth, bestowing them rapidly about her bonnet ribbons, “ if Sereny could n’t have the homestead to bring up her boy in ! ”
“ You said folks never found new wills ! ” observed a neighbor, triumphantly. “ “Well,” retorted the woman, turning her face from side to side to get her chin set properly in the bonnet ribbons, “ they did n't find any. Jesse Jeffr’s only fooled around and did n’t read all of the first one. They might ’a knowed Jesse Jeffr’s ’ud make a mess of it. He don’t know how to do a thing right.”
This opinion was shielded from the ear of Mrs. Jesse. She was busy nodding her leghorn bonnet and exchanging parting civilities with several old neighbors.
But Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife had flown up-stairs, and interfered with Jesse Jeffries and Sister McGafferty and a number of others. Serena lay upon a bed, and the air reeked with camphor.
“ She ’s overcome like,” explained Uncle Jesse.
“ Let me get to her,” said Mrs. Holmes. Having got to her, Mrs. Holmes raised Serena’s head on her arm, and began to laugh.
“ She’s comin’ out of it now,” observed Sister McGafferty. “All of you ’d better go down-stairs except Sister Holmes and me. Let her be without disturbin’ awhile. We ’ll have plenty of other chances to enjoy Sister Heddin’s company.”
The neighbors and Jesse went submissively down-stairs, but Little Jimmy Holmes’s wife kept on laughing with some effort, as if she felt afraid of ending in a sob.
“ Oh, I’m so glad you ’ll be in the neighborhood again, Serene ! ” she said. “ Things would n’t never been right in this world if they’d turned out the other way. Don’t look at me like you’s thinkin’ of the dead. But rouse up and feel better. There’s your Aunt Lindy and Hod standin’ at the gate : I can see ’em through the winder. They ’re talkin’ mighty serious, and she don’t look so well satisfied as she did. But you must do well by her, Sereny. Give her the old spinnin’-wheel that stauds in the smoke-house! ”
M. H. Catherwood.