PETER KUTZ drove along the frozen lane with a great creaking and bouncing of his heavy wagon. He drew up at the kitchen door with a flourish, then he sat still for a moment on the high seat, the reins hanging loosely from his hands, a worried frown darkening his blue eyes. Some difficulty or danger seemed suddenly to disturb him. While he meditated, the door opened.
“ Peter, hurry yourself and come in. It is fearful cold. Did you bring my store things ? ”
“ Yes,” answered Peter absently.
“ Everything ? ”
“ What is the matter ? ” Little Mrs. Kutz took the basket from him, and hastened back to the shelter of the doorway. She looked sharply at him. “ You look as if something was wrong.”
“ Nothing is wrong,” stammered Peter. “ Nothing.”
Mrs. Kutz pulled shut the door between her and the warm kitchen, at the same moment that a little old woman’s face, in a stiff white cap, peered out the window.
“ What have you been doing, Peter ? ” she insisted, sternly.
“ Nothing,” protested Peter once more. “ Get up, Billy! get up, Dan! ”
He heard with a great sigh of relief the closing of the kitchen door. He would have a half hour at least before the news must be told. The stable was warm, he could linger there almost indefinitely, he would milk the cows as slowly as possible, he would feed Elmina’s chickens, he would put in as much time as he could. It was no wonder that Elmina suspected his guilty conscience. Rover, whimpering to his master’s feet after he had caught one of his mistress’s Plymouth Rocks, could not have looked more abject.
Suddenly, like the voice of conscience itself, he heard Elmina’s stern voice. She stood just inside the stable door, a shawl about her shoulders, a sunbonnet tied closely under her chin. She looked as though she had come to stay.
“ Peter,” she said, “ have you bought another farm ? ”
“ Just a little one.” Peter could hardly be heard.
“ Where ? ”
“ Down along the Lehigh. It is a nice little farm. The land is fine. There is a nice barn, and a nice house on it. It was Alec Benner’s farm. He —”
“ Peter,” — Mis. Kutz’s tone seemed to say that these details were irrelevant, — “ has it a dower-lady to it ? ”
“ Well, yes,” confessed Peter. “ She is such a nice lady, she — she — ” His words trailed off into nothingness, as though they withered before the angry beams from Elmina’s eyes. “ Won’t you sit dowm, Elmina? ” he faltered.
Elmina paid no heed to the polite invitation.
“ When we came to this farm, and it had Grandma Kemerer on it, you said she was such an old lady, she could n’t live so long any more. That was twenty years ago. And she is here yet. For twenty years she got her dower-rights, her room, her bed, her board, her cow, her chickens, her carriages to go to church. She was seventy-five, and now she is ninety-five, and — ”
“ You took always such good care of her,” faltered Peter. “ That is why she lived so long.”
But Elmina was not to be mollified.
“ I don’t mind Grandma Kemerer. She is company and I like her. But Mommy Dill — How often must you hear it explained ? When you got that farm, interest was six per cent, and as long as she lives you must pay her that much on a third of the farm. ' Yes,’ you say, but she won’t live long, and then I can pay it off.' But she does live, and it is the same way with Grandma Stuber and Grandma Illick and Grandma Weiss. To all of them you pay more interest than you make from the farms. And now you go and get another yet. What do you mean ? ”
“ Ach, she was such a nice old lady.” Peter knew well enough that the possession of six farms encumbered with dower-ladies proclaimed him a poor man of business. “ But you see there was nobody who would buy this farm, and the old lady cried, and— ”
“ How old is she ? ”
“ About eighty, I guess.” He hoped it was not a lie. He knew that she was only seventy-six.
If he had said a hundred, Mrs. Kutz might have received the news with some equanimity. As it was, she started to speak, then shut her lips and went out, closing the door sharply behind her. Outside, she stopped to wipe her eyes.
Peter sat heavily down to his milking. Affairs were really much worse than Elmina suspected. Not one of the six farms was his outright, nor could it be until the dower-lady died, and he could pay over the last third of the principal. In the mean time, the heavy interest must be paid. And to-day — he realized it with a gasp —he had paid out the last cash he owned. If one of the dower-ladies should die, he would have no money to pay to her heirs, he would have to borrow; he would have to borrow even to pay the next quarter’s interest. He began to be badly frightened. The next quarterday was his birthday, when the dowerladies always came to dinner. He saw himself seated proudly at the head of his table, dealing out good things to six grateful old women. It was always the proudest day of the year. Then, remembering some sharp words of Elmina’s, he flushed hotly.
“ The Bible says you must first look after your own, Peter. It is not right to give everything away.”
“ But somebody must look after these old ladies,” he had answered.
“ But you need n’t look after five of them.”
And now there were six. He acknowledged to himself that to-day’s purchase had been a mistake.
When he saw the cheerful glow of the kitchen fire, his face brightened. He never remained long depressed. He spoke gayly to Grandma Kemerer, who sat by the stove, her hands folded on her stiff white apron. She did not look nearly ninety-five years old; there was no doubt, as Peter had said, that Elmina had taken good care of her. She peered round with bright, inquisitive eyes. She could see that something had provoked Elmina; a stranger might have guessed that from Elmina’s energetic flying about. Grandma Kemerer was disturbed. She was sincerely attached to both the Kutzes. Peter had taken the farm, when her nephew had refused it because she was an encumbrance, and no curious detail of her husband’s will had remained unfulfilled. She was a tactful little old lady : she often soothed Elmina’s ruffled spirit. She began to speak pleasantly as soon as they sat down to supper.
“ It will soon be time for the dowerladies’ dinner,” she said. “ Are you going to have this year chickens or turkey, Elmina ? ”
The hand which was pouring the coffee shook.
“ I don’t know,” answered Elmina shortly.
After that it was plainly to be seen that she could hardly wait until Grandma Kemerer had gone to bed, to finish her remarks to Peter.
“ There is one thing I have to say,” she announced with a trembling voice. “ I ain’t going to cook no dinner for six old ladies that have more to spend than I have. I can’t afford it.”
“ But Elmina ! ” cried Peter. “ For twenty years the dower-ladies have come on my birthday.”
“ I don’t care. We can’t afford it.”
“ But they expect it.”
“ I can’t help that. Such old people ought to stay at home, anyhow. Every one over eighty, and two over ninety! ”
“ The new one is n’t so old,” faltered Peter. “ She is only seventy-six.”
Elmina stared at him. She remembered that he had said that old Mrs. Benner was eighty. She opened her mouth to remind him of it, then closed it with a snap. What was the use ?
“ I can’t have none of them here,” she said.
“ But — but I invited the new one already,” confessed Peter. “ I invited her after I bought the farm.”
In the morning, Grandma Kemerer saw clearly that the cloud still lingered. She tried constantly to dispel it.
“ I hope we will have cold weather now,” she would say; “ then it will be nice and warm in March, and the dowerladies can come.”
Once Peter undertook to plead his cause.
“ It is such a big time for Grandma Kemerer. They are all her old friends. Mommy Dill was her company girl.”
“ I could n’t help it if she was her sister,” said Elmina. “ This new one will have to come because you invited her, and Grandma Kemerer will have to get along with her.”
“ Did you tell her yet ? ”
“ I’ll tell her in time,” said Elmina.
Nevertheless, she postponed it until the evening before Peter’s birthday. Grandma Kemerer did not wish to go to bed, she was as excited as a child.
“ To-morrow we will have to work, Elmina. It will be hard work getting ready for so many.”
“Grandma Kemerer,”— Elmina folded the tablecloth with a wide sweep of her arm, “ we are n’t going to have any — ”
At that moment there was a knock at the door, then some one lifted the latch, as though sure of a welcome. Without stood five shawled and hooded figures.
“ Henry said it would snow to-morrow,” announced Mommy Dill. “ So we came this evening.”
“ He brought us all together,” said Grandma Stuber.
“ My, I am glad to get in! ” cried Grandma Illick.
“ They made me come along,” said Grandma Benner, a little doubtfully. “ They said you would have room.”
“ We are all going to help get ready for the dinner,” announced Mommy Dill. She was ninety-five, but she walked as though she were twenty. She was the only one of the dower-ladies who had an income of her own besides the dower-rights. How much it was, no one knew. “ You expected us, Elmina, did n’t you ? I was away when Peter came last quarter-day.”
“ Ach, yes,” answered Grandma Kemerer, “ of course we expected you.”
Half an hour later, Peter came in. The old ladies were seated round the fire; they wished to bid him good-night. It was a long time before he could have a word with Elmina.
“ Did you do it to surprise me ? ” he asked.
Elmina stood still in the middle of the floor, two quilts over her arm. For a few moments she had thought that he had invited them, and that she would never forgive him. His innocence made her speak more gently.
“ No, they came of themselves. But this is the last time.”
The dower-ladies stayed for three days. That night there was a heavy snow, and Elmina did not think it was safe for them to be taken home.
“ It is not fit,” she said grimly. “ They are here now, they must stay. Perhaps you will have enough of dower-ladies.”
Their colloquy was held in the cellar. Above them the old women could be heard laughing merrily. Mommy Dill was telling a story of her youth. She had been a great belle. These, her contemporaries, remembered it ; the younger generation would have laughed.
Elmina stood at the window the next afternoon, and watched them drive away. They looked like five mummies in their shawls.
“ They are all so good yet,” said Grandma Kemerer at her elbow. “ They look as when they would live to be so old like I.”
Two hours later Elmina met her husband with a white and frightened face. He came in from the barn, rubbing his hands cheerfully. The merry old voices to which he had been listening had brightened his heart, and made him feel once more like Prince Bountiful. He did not see Elmina’s ominous gaze.
“ Peter Kutz.”
“ What is it ? ” gasped Peter. Elmina must be very angry.
“ Elwin Danner was here this afternoon to see about some money you had borrowed from him. Did you borrow money from him ? ”
“ A little.”
“ What for ? ”
“ I needed it.”
“ To pay the interest on the dowers ? ”
“ Why did n’t you tell me about this ? ”
Peter’s glance implied that the reason was evident.
“ Peter, when I was a little girl, my Pop said to me, ' Live on bread and water, but don’t borrow.’ And now ” — Elmina put her head down on the table and cried.
It was with a chastened soul that Peter prepared to make confession. He had borrowed from the doctor, and a little from John Dillfield, who kept the store.
“ Those ladies can’t live so long, any more,” he faltered.
“ But that will only make it worse,” cried Elmina. “ Now you have only to pay the interest ; if one dies, you will have to pay the principal yet. What then ? ”
“ I don’t know,” confessed Peter blankly. “ I might sell a farm, but nobody will buy farms now, especially with dowers on them. I don’t know what I will do, Elmina.”
In two days, Elmina had paid the doctor and the storekeeper. She had been saving egg-money for a long time to buy a large incubator. An incubator was nothing compared to her horror of debt. Peter dispensed with the services of a hired man. When quarter-day came, he paid the interest, but he had to borrow more money. His sanguine spirit failed.
“ If one of those dower-ladies would die, the sheriff would have to sell me out,” he said to Elmina. “ I can’t get a penny, any more, money is so tight.”
Grandma Kemerer watched her benefactors growing old.
“ Peter is getting stoop-shouldered,” she said to herself. ” Elmina is getting thin. What is the matter with these people ? ”
Christmas came and went. Grandma Kemerer had gifts, but Peter and Elmina gave each other nothing. Grandma Kemerer thought he had given Elmina the parlor clock. She forgot that it had stood in its place for five years. She forgot easily, she could not remember her own age.
“ I am ninety-nine years old,” she said one day. “ Soon after Peter’s birthday I will be a hundred, then I don’t want to live any more.”
Elmina gazed at her in fright. She had heard that it was only the desire for life which kept such old persons alive.
“ You are only ninety-six, Grandma Kemerer.”
“ Oh, is that all! ” answered Grandma Kemerer resignedly. “ Well, then.”
Neither Elmina nor Peter thought of the dower-ladies’ dinner that year. Elmina went about with an increasingly pale face and slower step. Peter’s brow was constantly clouded in a vain effort to understand bow a man could be at the same time as rich as he was and as poor. One evening he sat beside the kitchen table, painfully figuring on great sheets of paper. He dared not look at Elmina. He heard Grandma Kemerer say that she wished to go to bed, and Elmina rose at once from her work. Grandma Kemerer stood still in the doorway of her warm room, which opened from the kitchen.
“ Good-night, Peter,” she said. “ Elmina, you need n’t bother to invite the dower-ladies. Henry Stuber was here when you were off, and I said he should go round to tell them.”
When Grandma Kemerer was safely in bed, Peter looked up at his wife.
“ I can go and tell them not to come,” he offered dismally.
“ No,” answered Elmina. “ Nobody was ever invited to my house, and told to stay away. I can kill a few of my hens. They are laying fine, but I can kill a pair. The — the dower-ladies have everything else, they can eat a few of my hens yet. Perhaps it will help them to live longer. Perhaps — perhaps ” — Elmina could not go on.
In the morning, she was sick. Peter hailed the doctor as he drove past, and the doctor shouted that he would return.
“ I am going to see Mommy Dill. She has pneumonia.”
If Peter had been a little less dependent upon Elmina, he would have kept the news to himself. But he could not help telling her.
“ That will mean I must pay out two thousand dollars right away. And I have not two cents. What am I to do ? I — ”
He saw that Elmina had fainted.
The doctor scolded heartily. Elmina had been working too hard. He would give her a tonic, she ought to have a servant for a while. He would come in the next day to see her ; if she were not better he would punish her. He had known Elmina since she was a little girl. As he wrapped his scarf round his neck, he told them the news. Mommy Dill was a little better, but both Grandma Stuber and Grandma Illick were sick.
“ A sharp spell like this is hard on old ladies,” he said. “ I would n’t tell Grandma Kemerer about it, if I were you.”
Elmina did not need to kill her hens. When the day for the dinner came, three of the dower-ladies were sick, and a blizzard kept the others at home. Grandma Kemerer had to be told.
“ Who would a’ thought they would be so delicate?” she said in superior fashion. “ None of them are so old like I. I wonder if they are going to die.” She spoke lightly. She had contemplated death for too many years to fear it.
“ Ach, don’t talk so,” said Elmina weakly. She did as little work as possible, she took the medicine faithfully, knowing that nothing would help her but release from anxiety. Peter unable to pay his debts! Ruin hovered over them, prevented only by the frail tenure of life of these old ladies.
Toward evening the doctor came in again. A great wind was blowing the snow into huge billow’s.
“ Are you better ? ” the doctor asked sternly, as he pulled off his gloves.
“ I guess so,” answered Elmina.
“ Well, you’d better be.”
Grandma Kemerer woke from a nap in her deep rocking-chair. She straightened the frills of her cap, and smoothed her apron.
“ How is Grandma Stuber ? ” she asked.
“ Better,” answered the doctor. “ She said she wanted you to have her gold watch, Peter. But you won’t get it yet awhile. She said you were her best friend.”
Peter’s blue eyes brightened. He forgot his anxiety.
“ And Grandma Illick says her Bible is to go to Peter, and her shawl to Elmina. Everything else goes to the children.”
“ And Mommy Dill ? ” faltered Peter weakly. “ Will she die ?”
He could not even add together all he would have to pay if these old ladies died.
The doctor looked at him sharply, and then at Elmina.
“ Mommy Dill is going to die,” he said, “ but the others are not. I helped to make Mommy Dill’s will two weeks back. Ninety-five, and no will yet! ”
“ What has she besides her dower ? ” asked Peter.
“ Oh, a little,” answered the doctor, laughing. “ Her dower goes to her nephew; that she cannot help, even if he would n’t take the farm. But she had four thousand besides in the bank, and interest to it yet since her man died.”
“ Her nephew will be glad that she has so much,” said Peter.
The doctor laughed again.
“ He don’t get it,” he said. “ He settled that when he would n’t take the farm. She gives it to her two best friends. It is written that way in the will and signed and witnessed. The lawyer and I, we fixed it up.”
“ They are lucky people,” said Peter dully. “ Who are these people ? ”
He saw Elmina flush scarlet, then grow deathly pale.
“ Who do you mean ? ” she said.
“ Sure enough ! ” cried the doctor. “ Who do I mean ! ”