AT the door of her low gray cottage, set in the green hollow of the hills, stood Ann M’ria. She, too, was low and gray and weather-beaten ; a tiny, gnarled old woman with a hitching gait. Overhung by the spicy, purple plumes of new-blown lilacs, whose close-pressed stars brushed the worn clapboards, she waited, shading her eyes with her hand, and peering eagerly afield.
Up the pasture slope sped a flying figure. Ann M’ria caught her breath.
“ It’s her ! It’s doctor’s wife ! How pretty she sets her foot. Why, what’s she droppin’ down fur on the grass ? Tuckered out ? She’d oughten ter race so: one minute racin’, next dead beat; that’s her all over. Guess I ’ll go down the path to meet her.”
A twelvemonth since something very wonderful had come into the solitary life of Ann M’ria; something for which she had hungered seventy years, –a bosom friend. And how improbable a friend ! No contemporary ; no withered old maid ; no hard-worked farmer’s daughter like herself, but a young and beautiful foreigner. She had drifted to Pondsville to teach music in the academy, and not Ann M’ria alone had been fired with love for her dark, pathetic eyes. The village doctor could not rest till he had transplanted this rich-hued exotic to his own dooryard. Would she strike root in the bleak New England soil ?
Across the fields from Ann M’ria’s house there wavered a fitful little grassy footpath, and threading this the old woman now went forth with shining eyes to meet her friend. While yet afar off she hailed her.
“ Seems a thousand years sence I set eyes on ye.”
With a joyous cry the doctor’s wife sprang to her feet, and her voice, like her face, carried with it a touch of something remote, romantic, haunting; not of the homely Yankee setting. The homely name, too, of her friend she turned to music, broadening the vowel sounds, and lingering on them with a liquid caress. Ann M’ria caught up the transfigured syllables, and half-shamefacedly tried to repeat them after her.
“ An-na Mareea! An-na Mareea! Don’t you dress my name up pretty ! Anna Mareea ! Seems kinder as if I was some one else. Tickles me to death to hear ye; but sakes, it sorter goes to my heart too, for when you say ‘ Anna Mareea,’ I know you ’re thinkin’ of your folks over to Germany, and when you try to say ‘ Ann M’ria,’ says I to myself, ‘ Thank the Lord, she’s gittin’ wonted. ’ ”
The doctor’s wife pressed first one, then the other wrinkled hand of her friend to her lips, flashed out a smile through dark lashes beaded with bright salt drops, and started with her up the pasture slope.
“ Got it bad to-day, ain’t ye ? ” said Ann M’ria, an added pucker in the crisscross furrows of her face.
“ You comprehend –always. Ah, God was good to give me one soul in this strange land who speaks my speech.”
“ There, there ; doctor speaks your speech, you know he does.”
“ Himmelel, yes, if men and women can ever be said to speak the same speech,– but you –Ach Anna Maria ! ”
Something glistened under Ann M’ria’s lids, but the grotesque lips widened into a quizzical smile.
“ If the neighbors heard you say I talked your language they’d say, ‘ Goodness ! Ann M’ria, who learnt ye to talk Dutch ? ’ My sakes, I ’ll never forgit the evenin’ we did find out we spoke the same speech; that evenin’ we run acrost each other in the medder at sunset and talked and talked ! Next day I jest hed to keep holdin’ on to myself and kep’ a-bustin’ out singin’ over my ironin’, I was so crazy glad to think I ’d found some one else in the world with jest my queer freaky thoughts, and that laughed and cried all in a breath same as me, and did n’t mind a pile o’ dirty dishes in the sink them blue days in spring that jest seem to kinder witch yer out o’ doors, with all the treetops beckonin’. If it ain’t a miracle o’ grace ; you born over to Germany, and your folks so line, and you leavin’ ’em and bein’ an opery singer till you lest your voice ; and your face like a pictur’, and your hands soft as pussy willows, and me a lopsided figur’-o’-fun no man would look at twict, and yit no sooner did we two look deep into each other’s eyes than somethin’ speaks up loud in both on us, sayin’, ' You ’re bone o’ my bone and flesh o’ my flesh! ’ ”
“ I love you ! ” said the doctor’s wife.
By this time they had reached the tiny front yard, blue with trailing periwinkle and sweet with lilac and flowering currant, and, it being too golden a day to waste indoors, Ann M’ria seated herself on the worn kitchen sill and drew the friend of her bosom down beside her.
“ I s’pose livin’ here and livin’ over to Germany or Italy’s somethin’ like the difference between Ann M’ria and Anna Mareea ; and Mis’ Smith, that folks hev to call you now, don’t sound half so pretty as what you used to be called, Alma von Engelberg –angel-mountain you said that meant ? –but then there’s doctor ; I don’t suppose they could beat doctor easy over there.”
The doctor’s wife shook her head and flung out both expressive hands.
“ There’s not one of them over there fit to clasp the latchet of his shoes! ” Then she drooped against Ann M’ria’s shoulder. “ That makes it all the worse,” she sighed.
“ Why all the worse ? ”
“ That I grow restless and wild and cross, and hate the people, –Himmel! They are the kindest people in the world when you get beneath the crust, –and hate the sewing society and the ‘ sociables.’ Gott, do you know how to be ' sociable,’ you New Englanders ? and then, the meeting-house, so cold, so bare, so hideous ! Oh, don’t think I complain to my husband ; I have grace euough not to do that, but, oh, Anna Maria, it grows worse instead of better, this restlessness. What shall I do ? What shall I do?”
The shrewd old eyes rested for an instant on the languid figure nestled against her own.
“ Mebbe it’s jest the spring feelin’, dear, and mebbe –You talk to doctor ; don’t you fret all alone; you tell everythin’ to doctor.”
“ The hills ! They shut me in ; I can’t breathe ! Oh, to push them away ; there are cities beyond ; something doing ; not utter stagnation. Though what should I want of cities and crowds; I had sorrow enough out in the world, and when my voice failed, all I asked for was to forget the world and be forgotten, and so I crept to this quiet corner to end my days in what peace I might.”
The doorway of the solitary little house, fronting sunset and mountain, commanded the windings of the osiered river that leads the eye on and on, till, companioned by the narrowing valley, the glinting waters slip behind a foothill. Then the eye, baffled, falls back yearning to know what lies beyond.
“Yes,” said Ann M’ria slowly, her wistful gaze riveted on the furrowed and forest-dark flanks of Chillion, majestic even in the all-revealing midday glare, “yes, you’ve hed your fling; you’ve seen it all, but here I’ve ben seventy years, girl and woman, eatin’ my heart out for jest one peep t’other side o’ them mountains.”
The doctor’s wife caught at her friend’s hand.
“ What! You have never been beyond ! ”
“ How should I git there ? Walk, with my hitchin’ gait ? And I ain’t never hed no team nor extry pennies to hire.”
“ Your neighbors ? ”
“ Oh, I’ve good neighbors ; but you don’t tell everythin’ to your neighbors.”
“ Anna Maria ! Seventy years! Such a little wish.”
The doctor’s wife had slipped to her knees by Ann M’ria’s side; she was fondling her friend’s hands, pressing them to her soft cheek wet with tears. The old woman looked down at her with chiding love.
44 There, there, you ’re all flushed up, and you’ve forgot all about your own sorror, thinkin’ o’ mine. That’s why folks love you so ; that’s why all the folks to the village set sech store by ye, and you a furriner.”
“ Do they like me ? ”
“ Now don’t you go pertendin’ you did n’t know it. ’T aint only that you’ve got the feelin’ heart, but you know how to show it so pretty. Now what you jumpin’ up to so fast for ? ”
Alma had started to her feet, and was pointing eagerly down the road where a swaying buggy top was emerging from the beech wood.
“ It’s my husband. He said perhaps he could be free this afternoon. Oh, Anna Maria, it is early yet ; to-day, this very day you shall have the desire of your heart.”
Ann M’ria stood as if rooted to the door sill.
“ To-day ! The mountain ! To-day ? ”
The sturdy white horse and the broadshouldered man driving him were drawing steadily nearer. They had passed the last farm and pink-flushed orchard, and were turning into the lane that led up over the pastures. Ann M’ria clutched Alma’s sleeve.
“ Not to-day, dear ; not to-day.” She was visibly trembling.
“ Why not to-day ? ”
“ Seventy years I’ve waited.”
“ Then why put it off an hour ? The time has come.” Atm M’ria fingered her calico dress distressfully, and her eyes sought her friend’s in solemn appeal.
“ I could n’t go in these old duds.”
“ There is time to change your dress.”
“ I ’d always kinder thought — if ever the time come — I’d like to wear my black silk that was mother’s.”
“ By all means, the black silk.”
“ And my best bunnit ? ”
“ Oh yes, the best bonnet.”
“ And grandmother’s gold beads? ”
“ Above all, your gold beads.”
Ann M’ria made one step toward the bedroom, then turned with working face.
“ You think it better be to-day ? ” she asked with the submissive questioning of a child.
“ Yes, yes, to-day. Go and make ready, Anna Maria, while I tell my husband.”
Outside the low paling the white horse had come to a halt, and in a moment more, Alma, her vivid face raised to the doctor’s, had poured out her tale. He nodded once or twice, but it was evident his thoughts were more engaged with his wife than with the story she was rehearsing so dramatically. Touching her flushed cheek with a practiced hand, he told her to ask Ann M’ria for a glass of milk before they started, and to bring along bread and doughnuts or whatever the larder might afford.
Despite previous tremors, despite the glories of the black silk dress, the best " bunnit,” and the golden heirloom clasping her wrinkled throat, who gayer after the start than Ann M’ria. In the capacious seat her slight figure was easily tucked away between her friends, and now her hand clasped Alma’s, now rested on the doctor’s knee, now for pure joy waved in the air.
“ Hear the song sparrers trillin’ ! There war’n’t never sech a hand as me for lovin’ singin’ in bird or human creeter. Seems ’s if I could set and hear singin’ till my soul melted away. They was a hymn they used to sing.” –And in a quavering treble Ann M’ria shrilled it out,–
And then there’s the singin’ of the kittle, and even cake, when you draw it out of the oven and put your ear down to it, there’t is chirrupin’ away to itself. Yes,
I was always a great hand for singin’, and I guess that’s why I always hated my name so ; seemed so harsh soundin’, and why I jest love to hear you say Anna Mareea, –same as if you was puttin’ it to music. Say it again, Mis’ Smith.”
“ Anna Maria, dear, dear Anna Maria.”
“ I guess I’m two folks ; Ann M’ria and Anna Mareea. Ann M’ria’s the one most folks see, twisted and homely ’s a root, and Anna Mareea’s the insides of me that when folks git a peep of they think’s queer and flighty. I’ve days of bein’jest plain Ann M’ria and dustin’ and bakin’ and sortin’ herbs as contented as a rabbit in a clover field, but them other days, when the sight of a dishcloth turns my stomach, and somethin’ seems to be prickin’ in me like cider fermentin’, and I don’t understand what I do want no more than I was talkin’ a furrin language, then I guess I’m Anna Mareea. Don’t you let on to Dick, doctor, –there’s two of me he’s got to draw up the mountain road, –or he ’ll git discouraged.
“ Last night I run out before bedtime, and it was all so still and clean washed, sort of, and the stars so solemn, and I set me down by the well, and little by little they was all around me, father and mother and my three sisters that died before I was born, and I hed n’t a fear, and my soul seemed swellin’ in me, and I guess I set a full hour thinkin’ how beautiful ’t was, and I would n’t never bother no more about earthly things, when all of a suddin somethin’ in me spoke up, commonplace as you please, and says, ' That ’ll do, Ann M’ria, you’ve hed all you can stand. And your shoes are soppin’ wet in the dew. Go in and soak your feet and git to bed.’ And I done it. We ain’t nothin’ but pint pots, after all! ”
The road which the doctor had chosen struck across the valley and then wound up to the high gap between the shoulder of Chillion and a lesser neighbor. Undaunted, though with drooping head, the white horse toiled steadily on, his master to ease him striding alongside. Half the valley, unrolled below them, lay in shadow, but back on the opposite slopes the mellow light yet lingered, and Ann M’ria’s cottage, catching the sun on its panes, flashed recognition. The doctor pointed toward it with his whip, and the old woman nodded solemnly. Silence had fallen upon her. Her hands clasped in her lap, she rode toward the supreme moment of her life. A moment more, and from the crest of the ridge the new world would burst upon her sight.
“ Stop ! ” she broke out suddenly and with a quavering voice. The doctor checked his horse. “ Doctor, I want to git out.”
“ Would you rather walk the rest of the way ? ”
“ I ain’t goin’ no further.”
“ Not going any farther ? ”
Ann M’ria shook her head. " You’ve ben awful good, but I can’t go a step further.”
“ Dear,” said the doctor’s wife, " are you ill ? ”
“ No, no, Mis’ Smith, I ain’t sick. I know it seems dretful of me after you’ve hauled me so fur, and doctor he won’t never understand it mebbe, but you will, you will, won’t you, dear ? ”
The old woman in her limp black silk was clambering nervously out of the buggy, and turned a pathetically pleading face toward the friend of her bosom.
“ Everythin’ I’ve made believe all my life was behind the mountain; all the things I’ve hed to do without. It’s too late; my eyes are too old ; I could n’t see it as I’ve made believe all my life ; I ’d ruther go on makin’ believe and seein’ it as I always hev ; all shinin’ so beautiful; a land flowin’ with milk and honey ; great gleamin’ rivers and mountains clear up to the sky with snow on ’em, and marble cities with church towers with angels carved on to ’em like I’ve read, and somewhere among ’em all a little white farmhouse under some elms with a pass’l of children runnin’ in and out, not favorin’ me exactly, but favorin’ what I might hev looked like if the Lord lied n’t made me on an off day. Don’t make me go up to the top of the ridge, dear; don’t make me go ! ”
“ Dear Anna Maria, no one shall.”
“ You go up with doctor and hev your look off, and I ’ll set here and mind Dick. It’s a dretful pretty evenin’ to be settin’ out with the trees so still they jest seem to be boldin’ on to themselves so’s not to stir and wake the baby birds. Take your time, dear, take your time.”
It must indeed have been a sight of the Promised Land –their own or Ann M’ria’s –that met the eyes of the doctor and his wife from the crest of the ridge road, for when they returned, hand in hand, the witness of the glory still shone transfiguring in their eyes. The old woman read it there, and started exultant from the low stone wall where she had been sitting.
“ Then it’s all true,” she cried, “ it’s true ! You seen it! My ! but it must ’a’ ben beautiful to make your eyes shine like that! ”
Esther B. Tiffany.