EVENINGS, at seven o’clock, the new Timber Library opened for an hour. Unless there was a band concert, or a moving-picture show, or a night that Timber called “ real bad and sloppy out,” Emmons’s store was, for that hour, the centre of village life. A corner of the store was the City Library. There Bethany Emmons kept sacred to books a section of shelves, beyond the canned goods and above the salt-fish barrel. The top shelf, too high to be reached by Lissa Bard, the librarian, held the dried-fruit boxes. The grocery was not large; and by seven o’clock, one winter Saturday night, it was filled with women borrowers.
Lissa Bard had not come in. However, it not infrequently happened that Lissa, by the newness of her duties or by her nature, was late at her post. And of this, and of other things about her, three women, near the threshold of the little dark, coffee-smelling back room of the store, talked enjoyably while they waited.
“ It’s often that way with sisters, so,” Mis’ Hibbard observed. (Mis’ Hibbard always set the t in “ often,” and the n in “ column,” “ because,” she defended, “ there they are, all ready to say ’em. It ain’t like the psalm p — that’s Bible, an’ old-fashioned, an’ not a real necessary word anyway. But ' often ' an’ ' column ’ you hear every day, an’ that’s all the more reason to take pains with ’em.”)
“ Yes, you look at the Clark girls,” Mis’ Arthur, with her challenging emphasis, agreed; " one is light skin an’ no life, an’ the other one’s black hair, an’ goes like the wind. An’ the Mosses: one of ’em like real folks, an’ the other one just kind o’ big, an’ in the way. But the two Bards: they’re more differ’nt than it’s possible to be.”
“ Lissy always was a real scholar,” Mis’ Main said, sighing, " an’ real intelligent, too. But of them two, poor Kate is the only housekeeper.”
Mis’ Arthur nodded, tapping an emphasis on the cook-book she was returning.
“ Well,” she said, " if you ain’t a good housekeeper, with all that means, what are you? An’ Kate is. The run o’ books is all very well, an’ nobody likes to see ’em in anybody’s parlor more than our family, but there’s no contradictin’: they ain’t to eat nor drink, nor sweep the floor with. Kate Bard keeps house like wax-works if Lissy has got the brains.”
In the moment of strained silence that fell as the three women became conscious of her presence, Kate Bard, who had entered the store through the little dark back room, stood at their elbows, nodded to them all, and looked elaborately as if she had not heard. But they ail knew that she must have heard.
Mis’ Arthur, as the culprit, did her part, and laughed out, heartily and guiltily.
“ Lawsey, Kate,” she said, " you listenin’ ? Well, nobody born keeps house any neater ’n you do, an’ you know it.”
Kate Bard, little, flat-waisted, her pointed face held slightly down, her large eyes raised, the gray shawl about her head caught tightly beneath her chin, looked at the three with a faint twist of a smile, and briefly-closed lids.
“ Shucks,” she said, and passed them.
Seeing her, Bethany Emmons took down the lamp from its bracket above his desk, and set it on the deal table of the City Library.
“ Lissa’s late gettin’ started,” Kate explained to every one, throwing off her shawl, with a stiff swing of her head to keep her hair free of it. “ She wanted’t I should come on ahead, an’ say ’t she ’d be right over. She was afraid somebody might get tired waitin’, an’ try to go off.”
She sat at the table awkwardly; the librarianship was new to Lissa, and Kate had not before been asked to take her sister’s place. She fell to rearranging the little articles: the petrified potato inkwell, the pretty stone, the smart plush case of the thermometer. The movement displayed on her wrists broad, tortoiseshell bracelets over which fell the loose sleeves of her figured blue dressing-sack.
Mis’ Arthur, who had followed her to the table, laid down the cook-book.
“ I’ve got to get back home, an’ hunt up the clean clothes,” Mis’ Arthur said, “so mebbe you could give me some book yourself, Kate, I thought of The Pathfinder. I’ve been readin’ that all my life, off an’ on. I guess I ’ll get it out, an’ read a couple or two more chapters on it. I can’t seem to think of the name of any other book.”
Kate rose, and took up the lamp, and held it in both hands while she looked along the lowest shelf, squinting in the light, her lips moving as she read the titles. The lowest shelf held the set of Dickens, bound in four volumes, and that of Scott, in eight, and of Dumas in eight: tall, startled-looking tomes, each appearing to wonder at itself for being so many books in one. Half-way across the row Kate turned, frowning a little.
“ Know who wrote it? ” she inquired.
“ Well-a, was n’t his name Cooper, or like that ? ” Mis’ Arthur hesitated. “ I’ve got that name around in my head, anyhow.”
“ Is it poetry or readin’ ? ” Kate demanded.
“ Oh, readin’,” Mis’ Arthur said hastily. “ Land! It’s for myself.”
“ Anybody got it out ? ” Kate called ill a moment. “ Anybody got out a book called Pathfinder?” she repeated overshoulder.
“ I’ve read it.” “ I’ve read it twice,” several volunteered. And, “ I ain’t ever read it, but I’ve heard of it,” offered Mis’ Hibbard pleasantly. “ I donno but what you’re lookin’ at the wrong writers,” she added to Kate. “Mr. Cooper ain’t a set. He’s just that one.”
And now Kate’s search was extending laboriously over the titles on the Histories and Lives. And at last it touched at a big, black book without a binding, and she set down the lamp to take the volume from the shelf. But when it was in her hands she did not see the title.
“ My soul,” she said, “ look at the dust.”
From the top of the black book she blew a fine, quite visible cloud, in evidence for one full breath; and at one more breath there was a little second cloud. And from the book’s edge fine tentacles of cobweb clung and outwavered and caught at Kate’s hands, and drew about her wrists like airy manacles. Quite instinctively she turned to the side of the shelves, where a dust-cloth might be native; and, the cloth not being there, she opened the table-drawer and reached capably back among its tumbled papers. Evidently Lissa had no dust-cloth, and Kate glanced perplexedly about. “ I never come out without my handkerchief, that I ain’t sure to need it for something,” she observed, and caught up a corner of her dressing-sack, and dusted the black book. Then she took down another book and another — the Histories and the Lives — and from each she blew fine, condemnatory dust, and each she carefully brushed with the dressing-sack until the blue cloth, like her hands, was cobweb-covered.
She was still at her task when the bell above the store’s front door jingled noisily, much as if a gay little wind had prevailed against it. The wind — that one or another — entering with the opening of the door, breathed on a kerosene lamp a-swing from the ceiling, and momentarily it flared up and brightened all the store. Then the door was smartly shut, and Lissa Bard came down the room, a little, tender, blown leaf of a figure, wind still in her soft strayed hair, and brightness in her face. She was very tiny — frail of waist and wrist, evidently unable to undertake tasks of the hand, but armored with the distinction of her bookcraft, and with mere charm ; so that whatever was her excuse, — and no one quite caught it, — it seemed admirably to answer, and no one seemed really to care that, when the librarian reached the City Library, the clock above the cheese pointed to fifteen past seven.
Kate stood hitching her shawl from side to side, upward from waist to shoulder.
“ Have you got Cooper’s Pathfinder in the library? ” she asked, and, intent on her shawl, missed the shade of amused surprise in Lissa’s look.
“ Why yes! ” Lissa said. “ Don’t you know — ”
“ Well, somebody must have it out,” Kate went on. “ It ain’t in the shelves. I’ve read through ’most every name.”
Lissa’s eyes danced.
“ Why, we’ve got it out! ” she cried. ” I read it out loud to you last night.”
At that the women about the table laughed, frankly and unrestrainedly. On which Kate Bard colored slowly, her thin cheeks burning in two high, bright spots. Then she made her twisted smile, and closed her eyes momentarily, pinning the shawl tightly about her face.
“ I ain’t no hand to look at the name of a book I’m interested in,” she said. “ Every man’s name that writes ’em sounds just alike to me, anyhow. Goodnight, all.”
But as she crossed the alley from the store to the house where, until Lissa’s recent home-coming, she had lived alone, Kate’s smile went out. She fumbled in the pump-spout for the key, stepped into the chill cheer of the kitchen, went about the unimportant offices of her return; and in her breast something hurt and seemed heavy, so that she felt a sickness almost physical. But then for days she had not been well, — “sort o’ spindlin’ an’ petered out, an’ peaked-feelin’,” she had described her state to Lissa, — and now she tried to think that this was the weakness that she felt. She knew better than that, though; and when she had turned up the wick, and poked at the fire in the cooking-stove, she sat down before the open oven door, her skirt turned back to dry its hern, and tried to brave the thing that hurt. And what she had to brave were Lissa’s eyes, dancing to her own reply, and Lissa’s light laughter threading the inadvertent, wounding mockery of the women.
From her school, Lissa had lately come into Kate’s orderly life and home, and quite casually had accepted both. Kate’s surprise, first amused, then grieved, grew to an understanding that her own talent in what she called “ flyin’ ’round the house ” was to Lissa a matter of course — as spring must be a matter of course to a tributary wind. Kate observed that Lissa at her “ book-readin’ ” quickened as she never quickened in the presence of that vague spirit of home to which Kate sacrificed with her exquisite housewifery. And of all this the older sister had come to think with tender tolerance for the child ill-equipped for home-craft, and promptness, and all exactitudes. Yet this child and the women had laughed at her for not knowing about Pathfinding, and nobody had laughed at the dust on the City Library books. And Mis’ Arthur had used a kind of defense in: “ Kate Bard keeps house like wax-works if Lissy has got all the brains.”
Her resentment toward Lissa could not all have come in that hour, for now it was big in her heart, a living thing. Lissa had laughed with the rest; and since her return home there must have been other things at which she had laughed, secretly. In spite of Kate’s own chieftainship in the home, Lissa must have all this time been making allowance for her, Lissa, who had always been auxiliary in the household and not a burden-bearer, who was temperamentally alien to responsibility, who was of those who never turn the soil for a garden, but merely drop in the seeds. " She’s a poor little stick of a housekeeper and always will be,” Kate thought miserably; “ everybody in Timber knows that. An’ yet they’ll bow down to her, knee to dust, because she knows a few funny names,” So she thought about it, burning, resolutely overcoming her own tenderness.
After a time, as she tended her skirt’s hem in the growing warmth, her look fell on her cooking-stove oven, from which she had drawn thousands of loaves and cakes. Behind the sink looking-glass there was a paper on which she had once tried to compute these loaves, and to reckon how many times she had turned the clock-key. And by the wood-box stood the little toy broom which she used for sweeping the top of the long stovepipe, where dust and cobwebs never gathered, and of the cupboard, where no spider ever lived a day. The cupboards locked away the dishes which she knew; oh, as Lissa knew the City Library books, Kate knew those dishes, line and crack and nick: knew what should be piled in what on the ordered shelves; knew every stain and knot-hole of the unpainted floor; and the look of the other rooms, lying beyond in the dark, — spotless, dustless, their parts adjusted in all the scrupulous nicety with which men should legislate a nation. It was the work of her hands. And suddenly her heart leaped within her, as a heart leaps when eyes rest upon their kingdom. Her glowing was that of the creator who greets his achievement and his waiting material, and lords it over them, and in them passionately sees, for his spirit, the way out. All this was hers, as peculiarly hers as Lissa’s little toy kingdom of funny names. Here she was mistress, here her skill was of sovereign importance, here — she sank in the consciousness as into cherishing arms — Lissa could never enter in.
“ An’ they ain’t a housekeeper in Timber but what knows that! ” Kate thought, with her little twisted smile.
When her sister came from the library, Kate still sat by the open oven door. Unaccustomed to fathom mood, to divine the tentacle-like, waving things that web it round, Lissa, bright and uncorrelated, chattered while her wraps came off.
“ Oh, so many books went out. I have n’t started keeping the cards yet, but I guess Bethany could tell how many. Everybody that took a book bought something: Kenilworth and ten cents’ worth of crackers; David Copperfield and a jug of vinegar; Vanity Fair and a pound of prunes. We had to stop the whole circulating department while Bethany climbed the library desk to get those prunes down. O Kate! And little Aggie Ellsworth asked me for Thweet Pickelth, and I reached for the catalogue before I saw the tin pail and sent her across to Bethany! ”
Kate did not laugh.
“ Been me,” she said sombrely, “ I’d ’a’ been huntin’ along the shelves for it yet. Without,” she added, “ Aggie’d ’a’ spoke the pickle man’s name. Them pickle authors I can seem to keep pretty straight in my head.”
Something in her sister’s attitude, as obvious as drooping wings, arrested Lissa’s look as she came to the stove.
“ You cold? ” she inquired.
“ No,” Kate answered listlessly. “ I donno. I feel some chilly — on my shoulders. But I guess I just like to be warm.”
“ You are n’t well,” Lissa said with decision. “ You have n’t felt well for days. I’ll put a flat-iron on. You sit there and toast your feet and I’ll read to you while the iron heats.”
Without waiting for assent, Lissa brought The Pathfinder from the “ other ” room and set the table lamp on a woodenbottomed chair drawn to the hearth. She herself sat on the braided hearth-rug. As she read, Kate looked down at her — a frail little figure whose bent head showed her fair curls at their best. The warm light from the open draft fell on the sweet, small-featured face, no longer in its first youth, but having that perennial youth of a body remote from the activities that age, of a spirit without flight, but perpetually fanning little wings. And as she looked, Kate for the first time became conscious of, say, these little wings. Maybe Lissa’s “ book-readin’ ” was a kingdom of more than funny names. Maybe it was as real a comfort to her as “ flyin’ round the house ” to Kate herself. Maybe it was a bigger, better place to be, and this the women in the store knew, and that was why they had laughed. The perception came to the older woman in an impression as sharp, and as wordless, as a hurt. And the conviction possessed her the more that her perceptions could not be ordered or explained by her, but merely suffered.
“ It’s somethin’ inside of her that I ain’t got an’ never did hev,” Kate thought. “ We’re differ’nt, but it ain’t the same kind of differ’nt as her likin’ her bread thin an’ me likin’ mine thick, or her openin’ her window nights an’ me shuttin’ mine most down, or her turnin’ the lamp wick down an’ me blazin’ it ’way up. She’s got some woke-up thing in her that bites a-hold o’ i-dees the way I spy onto dust an’ cobwebs. She’s more than differ’nt. She’s the otherest a person can be.”
And as the understanding grew upon her, Kate turned the more passionately to her own place, as if her little way of skill were a very pleasance where her soul might have its ease, take its way out. Lissa might have some dimly-guessed, bigger, better kingdom; but Kate’s kingdom was her own. She was like a word, envious of an idea, glorying in the certainty that the idea could not be spelled without her.
Until Lissa had finished a chapter and had gone away to iron the chill sheets of her sister’s bedroom, Kate brooded and burned. Then she rose and took the book from the wing of the stove where Lissa had laid it, and turned to the title-page. So many books! So many different names! But it would not be a disgrace not to remember who had been president of the United States in a certain year, and that was far more important than book names. Yet all those women had laughed at her, and Lissa’s eyes had laughed. If only Lissa would laugh at her now for that blunder in the library! “ No need o’ her keepin’ such a nasty, delicate silence,” Kate thought.
“ The bed’s all ready when you are,” Lissa called.
Kate closed the book and spoke overshoulder to the open door.
“ I ain’t anywheres near ready,” she said tartly. “Lissa Bard! You’ve let the books down to the City Library get a perfect sight. They’s dust on ’em like feathers, an’ cobwebs a regular fringe. An’ now you’ve laid Mr. Cooper’s book on the stove-wing out here so’s it’ll get all splattered with the grease. If I was so crazy about book-readin’, I declare if I would n’t do differ’nt.”
In Lissa’s amazed silence, away there in the bedroom, Kate looked about the kitchen. Then she opened the cupboard door, and, tiptoe, laid the book on the top shelf. There, with the toy broom kept for stovepipe cobwebs, she thrust The Pathfinder far back beside the cherry pitter.
Her chilliness and weariness had foretold the illness which seized Kate that night, and when the Sunday morning came she was hot with fever and throbbing with pain. Lissa woke, vaguely alarmed not to hear her sister already astir, and for a little lay listening, then went softly to her door.
“ I do’ want no doctor,” Kate observed weakly. “I’d just as lives have a cat open the door an’ walk around the bed. You heat me a cup o’ hot water.”
Lissa, trembling, hurried her dressing, built a fire in the frosty kitchen, waited interminably for the kettle to boil. Kate’s silence and her inability to drink even the water terrified the girl as if in the little house some sinister presence had appeared. And when it was church time, and from the kitchen window she saw Mis’ Arthur and Mis’ Hibbard coming down the street, she threw her apron over her head and, not to pass Kate’s window, stumbled through the deep snow on the side of the yard that was pathless.
“ Oh,” she told them. “ I don’t know what’s the matter with Kate. She’s sick and in the bed.”
The women, accustomed to treat all crises as their own, followed Lissa to the house, accepting the pathless way as a matter of course, and briskly questioning. Was Kate conscious ? When was she taken ? There was a lots o’ colds everywhere an’ it was real pneumonia weather. Had she had her sister’s hands and feet in good, hot water ? They laid their hymn-books by the unwashed dishes, and stalked through the cold dining-room to Kate’s little grave of a chamber.
“ Lawsey, Kate Bard, thought you’d take down to relieve the monotony, did you ? ” one of them greeted her.
Kate, opening her eyes, saw them standing in a place without walls and from which she was infinitely remote. She knew them, but instantly she was conscious that they were allied against her, and with them was Lissa. Secure in some friendly and infinitely companionable understanding to which she was alien, they were all laughing at her. And so thought drifted out, without her power to grasp at one association to stay its drifting.
In the weeks that followed, her wandering look often rested unseeingly on one or other of those two faces, or on the face of Mis’ Main, who forever crossed the alley from her home to bring a covered bowl of something steaming. Sometimes Kate saw them quite clearly; sometimes the faces blurred and flickered, the better to menace her; always they were quick with an understanding of something which she did not know. But even a greater vexation was the face which hovered constantly above her — that of Lissa. The stricken brain, become a thing of sick impressions which outwavered and clung and fled, lay as if webbed about by its last sane sensation. They were all persistently “ against her,” they all knew something that she did not know — and with them was Lissa, who could not even take care of her books. Lissa’s books were all dust and cobwebs. The dust and cobwebs were what shut away the meaning in the books so that she could not know all about them, as Lissa knew. And before she, too, could know, the dust and cobwebs must all be swept away with the toy broom.
Dust and cobwebs — dust and cobwebs. In her fever this became to her a kind of refrain. And it was no great gulf to have bridged from fantasy to faculty when at last one day Kate lay quiet, listening to what the women were saying, and realized that she had been listening for some moments before she was selfconscious.
“ . . . awful. I donno how it is folks can do as they do do. Some seems just bent on gettin’ along ’most any way they can. Should n’t you think she’d ’a’ noticed it by now if she was calculatin’ to do any noticin’ ? ”
It was Mis’ Hibbard’s voice; without lifting her tired lids Kate knew that. Mis’ Arthur’s emphasis seemed as usual to make a kind of groove for her own reply.
“Well,” Mis’ Arthur put it, “if ever I see anybody no hand to take notice, it’s her. She don’t seem to go by no rhyme nor rule. If she was a clock you could n’t tell the time by her no more than you could tell time by a wild duck. She just sort o’ goes along, an’ goes along—”
Kate’s little figure lay tense. They meant her!
“... for eight days, hand-runnin’,” Mis’ Main was saying. “ And there it is, full the way it was when I first laid look to it —floatin’ away as hard as could float, an’ just like it was made for floatin’.”
And “ It don’t seem,” Mis’ Arthur said, “ as if two sisters could be so opposite. Do you s’pose Kate Bard, in her well days, would ever leave a cobweb swingin’ that long? ”
At that a pang of fierce delight shot through Kate’s whole body. It was not she whom they meant. It was not she!
“ The idea,” the hushed voices went on, “ of takin’ no more responsibility. It’s plumb over Kate’s head when she lays on the back pillow. It might drop on her any minute.”
“ The only wonder is it ain’t fell on her long before now. But it’s a good strong cobweb — it’s old enough to hev body to it, the dear land knows. How long do you s’pose Lissy’ll leave it be there ? ”
“ I’ve set an’ watched her when she dusts, an’ she goes right past it like it hed been a wreath in the border. I s’pose it’s mean, but I declare I’ve got real interested seein’ how long it’ll stay there. Why, Kate Bard’d die rather’n hev a cobweb in the family that long.”
When the women, still talking, had left the room, Kate lay for a long time without opening her eyes. Like a warm lapping bath it rested her, this indignant praise of her, yes, and this arraignment of Lissa. She lay, luxuriously glad, smiling a little, alive and praised. And after a very long time she languidly opened her eyes, and, almost with a sense of gratitude, looked about for the cobweb.
In all Kate’s lifetime there had never been, in the bare little room, a cobweb like that. It hung from the corner above the bed, attached just where the eagle on the side-wall border met the stars on the ceiling. To eagle and stars it clung by many a visible filament and, escaping these, it floated, in vagrant currents, its full yard of length. It was, Kate thought dreamily, like an attic cobweb, a cobweb of behind the storeroom blinds in housecleaning. But a house cobweb, a bedroom cobweb like that — her head drooped sidewise on its pillow, and her eyes fell on the little toy broom in a corner — she must have brought the little broom in with her from the kitchen on the night of her illness, and Lissa had left it there. Its uselessness and isolation in the face of so obvious a task moved her to laughter, without her knowing why she laughed. She lay for a little, shaken with silent mirth, until from very weakness she fell asleep.
When she awoke, Lissa sat by the bed with a book. If only Lissa had been sewing, the return to life would have been a simpler matter; but Lissa was reading. For some time she did not lift her eyes from the page, and Kate lay watching her. The girl’s face was pleased and quiet, and it shut Kate out.
“ What you readin’ ? ” Kate demanded abruptly.
Lissa started, tossed aside the book, hung above her sister with little happy exclamations; but these and the many tender questions Kate passed impatiently.
“What you readin’?” she persisted. “ Pathfinder ?”
“ No,” Lissa said. “ Kate, I found The Pathfinder away on the top shelf of the cupboard, when I was looking for the potato-masher. How do you suppose it ever got up there? ”
To which, with closed eyes and a mere shadow of her twisted smile, Kate responded, “ Who ever heard o’ keepin’ anybody’s potato-masher on the top shelf ? What you readin’ ? ”
In some wonder Lissa named her book, a strange, singing name which told Kate nothing.
“ Read some out loud,” she commanded; and at Lissa’s look, “ Go on! ” she added. “ I ain’t out o’ my head. I feel just like life.”
So Lissa read to her at random, wondering very much, secretly simplifying, or making in her voice little shallows of shadow and crests of clearness, more safely to bear meaning. But she knew that she was alone as she read, and that it was Kate who could not come to her. When the reading paused, —
“ Keep it up,” Kate said, “ I donno what it means, but it kind o’ rubs around nice on the outside o’ my brain.”
But Lissa, Kate was brooding, did know what it meant. Lissa knew, not just with her brain, outside or inside, but with the “ woke-up thing ” in her, the thing that somehow could “ bite a-hold o’ life.” She could not have told why she had wanted Lissa to read, whether in some dim wistfulness to try to share whatever Lissa had, or whether for a kind of dogged strengthening of her own resentment. As she lay with closed eyes, listening, her thought returned and beat upon Lissa, and her own irritation increased and mounted and possessed her. So then she turned passionately to the warm spot in her consciousness, the certainty, unformulated but secure, that for her the way of “ bitin’ a-hold o’ life ” lay in manipulating those little engineries of home which she called “ flyin’ round the house.”
She moved her head, and lay looking up at where the eagle met the stars, above the back pillow. Oh, it was thick and gray and dusty, that cobweb. And all this time, in spite of that mysterious, wise, “ woke-up thing ” within her, Lissa had missed the cobweb, — as of course Lissa would miss it! A little glow crept and warmed Kate. Poor Lissa, she thought. She said it over and over, luxuriously as, lulled by the singing things freed from the book, she fell asleep.
The four o’clock sun streamed across the blue coverlet, illumining the rose wax blossoms of a begonia on the windowsill, wakening Kate as if spirit had signaled to spirit. In the bedroom it was deliciously quiet. A wood-fire was crackling in the parlor stove. On the table a napkin-covered dish of something delectable awaited her mood. Murmur of voices penetrated the closed kitchen door, both eloquent of the gentleness that tended her. The convalescent’s sense of well-being filled Kate, like response.
In a week, she thought, she would be about again — flyin’ round the house. How long it had been since she had seen her oven. It would be good to shut the hot door on a batch of bread, a tin of cake, a pan of cookies. She must get at her cupboards, and give them “ a good going-over.” Lissa never could remember what was to be piled in what. She found herself even wanting to wind the clock, — Lissa had probably let it run down and, when she set it, had guessed at the time. (Poor Lissa! she thought pleasurably.) Yes, the whole house must be gone over thoroughly, must be swept and dusted and rid of its cobwebs — the very first day that she was about again, down should come that cobweb wavering there over her head. Then, when Mis’ Hibbard and Mis’ Arthur and Mis’ Main dropped in, she would make excuse to lead them into the bedroom. She would pretend not to see them look up in the cobweb corner, not to see them exchange glances of approval of her and of her housekeeping, that was so much better than Lissa’s. Poor Lissa.
On that, as at a motif, Lissa came into the room, in her hand a blue dust-cloth and a feather-duster. From the kitchen still sounded the voices, and Lissa answered Kate’s questioning look.
“I was just coming to wipe up the dust a little, if you were awake,” she explained, “ when Mis’ Hibbard and Mis’ Arthur and Mis’ Main came in. They’d heard you were conscious. They told me to go right ahead, I’d had to neglect this room so long, an’ they’d sit there, and get warm, and come in and see you afterward.”
“ Oh,” said Kate, “ that’s how they done it.”
She lay quite still while Lissa dusted. When she was well it had immeasurably irritated Kate to see Lissa dust. To all wide, flat, horizontal surfaces the girl gave the prettiest attention, bending to her task till the curls in her neck were at their best. But all narrow edges, the tops of chairs, of splashers, of pictures, she neglected as if these were in another dimension, and flat vertical surfaces she treated as if they were in no dimension at all. For Lissa, dust that was immaterial was non-existent. For Kate, even if dust were non-existent, dusting was dusting. Yet that day it was with definite enjoyment that Kate lay with half-closed eyes and watched.
A gay little wind would have dusted a room much as did Lissa. The wind — that one, or another — would have entered and breathed on this and that, touching and lifting, rearranging a disorder rather than ordering. And so Lissa did, omitting needs in all the pretty complaisance with which a housekeeper divines them. Ordinarily Kate would have crashed down on the process with the finality of a drawn blind. Now she lay, benignly indulgent — as Mother Spring at the sweet gaucheries of some little tributary wind.
But there had always been, in Kate’s attitude to Lissa, much of this attitude of motherhood. Lissa’s little body had constantly demanded the guardianship of which her mind was childishly impatient. And this late resentment of Kate’s was wholly toward that mysterious, “ wokeup thing,” unfostered of her, which made Lissa remote, versed in baffling matters. Yet now, as she worked, these matters were no longer evident. Instead, in her own unwonted leisure and supineness, she was suddenly immeasurably struck with the littleness of her sister, with her physical unfitness for tasks of the hand. Her slenderness of throat, of waist, of wrist, her narrowness of shoulder and thigh, — these smote Kate with a sudden pitying sense of the girl’s utter inadequacy for her woman’s work. Poor little Lissa — poor little Lissa. That was it: poor little Lissa!
Lissa came, in her dusting, to the bed’s head, and this, presumably because of Kate’s presence, she did not touch at all. Lying so that she could see the cobweb, Kate held her breath as Lissa moved about its corner. Because of her long habit of getting good things for her, almost Kate wished that Lissa would look up to where it hung. There came a little still-born impulse to tell her. But Kate watched her turn away without an upward glance toward eagles and stars, and then, when the impulse to tell her had not yet wholly passed, the girl serenely shook the dust-cloth in the room, in the mere general direction of the paper basket.
“ Shall I have Mis’ Hibbard and Mis’ Arthur and Mis’ Main come in a minute?” she asked, while she was guilty of this.
“ Yes ! ” Kate burst out. “ My land, yes. Hev ’em in here! An’ you get back to your book.”
Lissa looked at her inquiringly.
“ I’ve got the supper to get pretty soon now,” she said, quite gently.
As one divining the tentacle-like, waving things that web one round, Kate heard the under-note of weariness in the girl’s voice. Her fragility had always made Kate fear that she might be tired, or ill, or even merely cold. The older sister threw out her hand on the coverlet.
“ Well, you keep ’em out there a minute or two,” she said irresolutely. “ I’ll pound on the wall with the little broom there — you set it by the bed — in just a minute. Then you can let ’em in.”
Left alone, Kate shut her eyes tightly, grotesquely, in her unwonted will to think swiftly, and to a purpose. And in that troubled darkness she visualized the faces of the three women, looking her over sympathetically enough, asking their inlimate questions, honestly glad of her recovery, but all the while waiting for a chance to peer up in that cobweb corner, and then to look at one another, moving confirmatory eyebrows, or lids, or lips. It all came to Kate as a picture only, but she knew its truth. She knew how they would go away telling scornfully about Lissa Bard’s housekeeping, and praising her — Kate — in the comparison; these very women who had laughed at her, as Lissa had laughed. Oh, but they must not laugh at Lissa too, poor little Lissa!
Kate lifted her head tentatively from the pillow, and then drew herself to sit erect, a scant, gaunt figure in its outing flannel, with a thin, tight little braid of gray hair, reaching hardly half-way down the gown’s yoke. Something seemed tipping her poor, dizzy head like a weight when, with infinite difficulty, she groped out for the toy broom. In the faintness that seized her as she pulled herself to her knees on the bed, then unsteadily to her feet, the darkness within her closed lids changed to a glow of red. She saw nothing of what she was doing as she laboriously lifted the little broom up the wall, and swept long, random strokes about the corner, freeing from its hold the flaunting filaments which clung and wavered very near her hair, as if they would have webbed her about. Then she sank, her head jarred to dull aching, throbbing and chill in all her body. So she lay, huddled outside the covers until, hearing some stir in the kitchen, she crept into her place, and the toy broom slipped behind the bed to the floor.
Mis’ Hibbard and Mis’ Arthur and Mis’ Main came tiptoeing through the parlor, and pushed the bedroom door.
“ We’ll just peek in an’ see if she’s awake, anyhow,” they said to Lissa, who had thought to wait the summons. “ You ’wake, Kate ? ” one put it fairly.
In the whimsical, faint answer there was all the old vitality.
“ If you’re the nightmare, I ain’t,” she said, “ an’ if you’re a call, I am. Come along in, why don’t you ? ”
They came to the bedside, their shawls, worn for “ runnin’ round the neighborhood,” slipping loosely down blue calico, and flannel dressing-sack, and “ mornin’ house-work dress.”
“ Showed the sense to get well, did n’t you, Kate ? ” said one. “ Well said. I’m real pleased you’ve come to.”
“ May be you think we ain’t danced round lively over you while you’ve been lazin’ here in the bed,” said another. “ My soul, if you’re threatenin’ well I donno who’s got the biggest chore done, you or us.”
“ Lawsey, Kate Bard,” said the third, “ I thought one while ’t your coffin was cut, but I guess it’s green wood yet awhile, an’ mebbe growin’.”
And, having told her like this of their genuine gladness at her recovery, they all three, with one accord, looked up at the corner of the eagle and the stars. Kate saw them look, and look again, and risk peering this way and that. Mis’ Hibbard stepped about the foot of the bed to try a new light, Mis’ Arthur came close to Kate’s head, as if her assurance was almost reluctant. And then, certainty being fully established, they glanced at one another, and moved surprised, commendatory heads.
Lissa, tying on her big gingham apron, came to the bedroom door.
“ Well, sir, Kate,” Mis’ Hibbard said, “ I tell you, Lissy’s gettin’ to be quite a first-class housekeeper. She’ll beat you at it if you don’t look out.”
In Kate’s unimportant reply they could not divine the leaping exultation, — as it were, the very romance of renunciation. Nor did they understand her little twisted smile.