One windy morning in May three
old women sat together near an open window in the shed chamber of Byfleet
Poor-house. The wind was from the northwest, but their window faced the
southeast, and they were only visited by an occasional pleasant waft of
fresh air. They were close together, knee to knee, picking over a bushel
of beans, and commanding a view of the dandelion-starred, green yard below,
and of the winding, sandy road that led to the village, two miles away.
Some captive bees were scolding among the cobwebs of the rafters overhead,
or thumping against the upper panes of glass; two calves were bawling from
the barnyard, where some of the men were at work loading a dump-cart and
shouting as if everyone were deaf. There was a cheerful feeling of activity,
and even an air of comfort, about the Byfleet Poor-house. Almost everyone
was possessed of a most interesting past, though there was less to be said
about the future. The inmates were by no means distressed or unhappy; many
of them retired to this shelter only for the winter season, and would go
out presently, some to begin such work as they could still do, others to
live in their own small houses; old age had impoverished most of them by
limiting their power of endurance; but far from lamenting the fact that
they were town charges, they rather liked the change and excitement of
a winter residence on the poor-farm. There was a sharp-faced, hard-worked
young widow with seven children, who was an exception to the general level
of society, because she deplored the change in her fortunes. The older
women regarded her with suspicion, and were apt to talk about her in moments
like this, when they happened to sit together at their work.
The three bean-pickers were
dressed alike in stout, brown ginghams, checked by a white line, and all
wore great faded aprons of blue drilling, with sufficient pockets convenient
to the right hand. Miss Peggy Bond was a very small, belligerent-looking
person, who wore a huge pair of steel-bowed spectacles, holding her sharp
chin well up in air, as if to supplement an inadequate nose. She was more
than half blind, but the spectacles seemed to face upward instead of square
ahead, as if their wearer were always on the sharp lookout for birds. Miss
Bond had suffered much personal damage from time to time, because she never
took heed where she planted her feet, and so was always tripping and stubbing
her bruised way through the world. She had fallen down hatchways and cellarways,
and stepped composedly into deep ditches and pasture brooks; but she was
proud of stating that she was upsighted, and so was her father before her.
At the poor-house, where an unusual malady was considered a distinction,
upsightedness was looked upon as a most honorable infirmity. Plain rheumatism,
such as afflicted Aunt Lavina Dow, whose twisted hands found even this
light work difficult and tiresome -- plain rheumatism was something of
every-day occurrence, and nobody cared to hear about it. Poor Peggy was
a meek and friendly soul, who never put herself forward; she was just like
other folks, as she always loved to say, but Mrs. Lavina Dow was a different
sort of person altogether, of great dignity, and, occasionally, almost
aggressive behavior. The time had been when she could do a good day's work
with anybody, but for many years now she had not left the town-farm, being
too badly crippled to work; she had no relations or friends to visit, but
from an innate love of authority she could not submit to being one of those
who are forgotten by the world. Mrs. Dow was the hostess and social lawgiver
here, where she remembered every inmate and every item of interest for
nearly forty years, besides an immense amount of town history and biography for three or four generations back.
She was the dear friend of
the third woman, Betsey Lane; together they led thought and opinion, chiefly
opinion; and held sway, not only over Byfleet Poor-farm, but also the selectmen
and all others in authority. Betsey Lane had spent most of her life as
aid-in-general to the respected household of old General Thornton. She
had been much trusted and valued, and, at the breaking up of that once
large and flourishing family, she had been left in good circumstances,
what with legacies and her own comfortable savings; but by sad misfortune
and lavish generosity everything had been scattered, and after much illness
which ended in a stiffened arm and more uncertainty, the good soul had
sensibly decided that it was easier for the whole town to support her than
for a part of it. She had always hoped to see something of the world before
she died; she came of an adventurous, seafaring stock, but had never made
a longer journey than to the towns of Danby and Northville, thirty miles
They were all old women; but
Betsey Lane, who was sixty-nine, and looked much older, was the youngest.
Peggy Bond was far on in the seventies, and Mrs. Dow was at least ten years
older. She made a great secret of her years, and as she sometimes spoke
of events prior to the Revolution with the assertion of having been an
eye-witness, she naturally wore an air of vast antiquity. Her tales were
an inexpressible delight to Betsey Lane, who felt younger by twenty years,
because her friend and comrade was so unconscious of chronological limitations.
The bushel basket of cranberry
beans was within easy reach, and each of the pickers had filled her lap
from it again and again. The shed chamber was not an unpleasant place in
which to sit at work, with its traces of seed-corn hanging from the brown
cross-beams, its spare churns and dusty loom, and rickety wool-wheels,
and a few bits of old furniture. In one far corner was a wide board of
dismal use and suggestion, and close beside it an old cradle. There was
a battered chest of drawers where the keeper of the Poor-house kept his
garden-seeds, with the withered remains of three seed cucumbers ornamenting
the top. Nothing beautiful could be discovered, nothing interesting; but
there was something usable and homely about the place; it was the favorite
and untroubled bower of the bean-pickers, to which they might retreat unmolested
from the public apartments of this rustic institution.
Betsey Lane blew away the chaff
from her handful of beans. The spring breeze blew the chaff back again,
and sifted it over her face and shoulders. She rubbed it out of her eyes
impatiently, and happened to notice old Peggy holding her own handful high
as if it were an oblation, and turning her queer, up-tilted head this way
and that, to look at the beans sharply, as if she were first cousin to
"There, Miss Bond, 'tis kind
of botherin' work for you, ain't it?" Betsey inquired compassionately.
"I feel to enjoy it, anything
that I can do my own way so," responded Peggy. "I like to do my part. Ain't
that old Mis' Fales comin' up the road? It sounds like her step."
The others looked, but they
were not far-sighted, and for a moment Peggy had the advantage. Mrs. Fales
was not a favorite.
"I hope she ain't comin' here
to put up this spring. I guess she won't now, it's gettin' so late," said
Betsey Lane. "She likes to go rovin' soon as the roads is settled."
"'Tis Mis' Fales!" said Peggy
Bond, listening with solemn anxiety. "There, do let's pray her by!"
"I guess she's headin' for
her cousin's folks up Beech Hill way," said Betsey, presently. "If she'd
left her daughter's this mornin', she'd have got just about as far as this.
I kind o' wish she had stepped in just to pass the time o' day, long 's
she wa'n't going to make no stop."
There was a silence as to
further speech in the shed chamber; and even the calves were quiet in the
barn-yard. The men had all gone away to the field where corn-planting was
going on. The beans clicked steadily into the wooden measure at the pickers'
feet. Betsey Lane began to sing a hymn, and the others joined in as best
they might, like autumnal crickets; their voices were sharp and cracked,
with now and then a few low notes of plaintive tone. Betsey herself could
sing pretty well, but the others could only make a kind of accompaniment.
Their voices ceased altogether at the higher notes.
"Oh my! I wish I had the means
to go to the Centennial," mourned Betsey Lane, stopping so suddenly that
the others had to go on croaking and shrilling without her for a moment
before they could stop. "It seems to me as if I can't die happy 'less I
do," she added; "I ain't never seen nothin' of the world, an' here I be."
"What if you was as old as
I be?" suggested Mrs. Dow, pompously. "You've got time enough yet, Betsey;
don't you go an' despair. I knowed of a woman that went clean round the
world four times when she was past eighty, an' enjoyed herself real well.
Her folks followed the sea; she had three sons an' a daughter married --
all shipmasters, and she'd been with her own husband when they was young;
she was left a widder early, and fetched up her family herself -- a real
stirrin', smart woman. After they'd got married off, an' settled, an' was
doing well, she come to be lonesome; and first she tried to stick it out
alone, but she wa'n't one that could; and she got a notion she hadn't nothin'
before her but her last sickness, and she wa'n't a person that enjoyed
havin' other folks do for her. So one on her boys -- I guess 'twas the
oldest -- said he was going to take her to sea; there was ample room, an'
he was sailin' a good time o' year for the Cape o' Good Hope an' way up
to some o' them tea-ports in the Chiny Seas. She was all high to go, but
it made a sight o' talk at her age; an' the minister made it a subject
o' prayer the last Sunday, and all the folks took a last leave; but she
said to some she'd fetch 'em home something real pritty, and so she did.
And then they come home t' other way, round the Horn, an' she done so well,
an' was such a sight o' company, the other child'n was jealous, an' she
promised she'd go a v'y'ge long o' each on 'em. She was as sprightly a
person as ever I see; an' could speak well o' what she'd seen."
"Did she die to sea?" asked
Peggy, with interest.
"No, she died to home between
v'y'ges, or she'd gone to sea again. I was to her funeral. She liked her
son George's ship the best; 'twas the one she was going on to Callao. They
said the men aboard all called her 'gran'ma'am,' an' she kep' [']em mended
up, an' would go below and tend to 'em if they was sick. She might 'a[']
been alive an' enjoyin' of herself a good many years but for the kick of
a cow; 'twas a new cow out of a drove, a dreadful unruly beast."
Mrs. Dow stopped for breath,
and reached down for a new supply of beans; her empty apron was gray with
soft chaff. Betsey Lane, still pondering on the Centennial, began to sing
another verse of her hymn, and again the old women joined her. At this
moment some strangers came driving round into the yard from the front of
the house. The turf was soft, and our friends did not hear the horses'
steps. Their voices cracked and quavered; it was a funny little concert,
and a lady in an open carriage just below listened with sympathy and amusement.
"Betsey! Betsey! Miss Lane!"
a voice called eagerly at the foot of the stairs that led up from the shed.
"Betsey! There's a lady here wants to see you right away."
Betsey was dazed with excitement,
like a country child who knows the rare pleasure of being called out of
school. "Lor', I ain't fit to go down, be I?" she faltered, looking anxiously
at her friends; but Peggy was gazing even nearer to the zenith than usual,
in her excited effort to see down into the yard, and Mrs. Dow only nodded
somewhat jealously and said that she guessed 'twas nobody would do her
any harm. She rose ponderously, while Betsey hesitated, being, as they
would have said, all of a twitter. "It is a lady, certain," Mrs. Dow assured
her; "'tain't often there's a lady comes here."
"While there was any of Mis'
Gen'ral Thornton's folks left, I wa'n't without visits from the gentry,"
said Betsey Lane, turning back proudly at the head of the stairs, with
a touch of old-world pride and sense of high station. Then she disappeared
and closed the door behind her at the stair-foot with a decision quite
unwelcome to the friends above.
"She needn't 'a' been so dreadful
'fraid anybody was goin' to listen. I guess we've got folks to ride an'
see us, or had once, if we hain't now," said Miss Peggy Bond, plaintively.
"I expect 'twas only the wind
shoved it to," said Aunt Lavina. "Betsey is one that gits flustered easier
than some. I wish 'twas somebody to take her off an' give her a kind of
a good time; she's young to settle down 'long of old folks like us. Betsey's
got a notion o' rovin' such as ain't my natur', but I should like to see
her satisfied. She'd been a very understandin' person, if she had the advantages
that some does."
"'Tis so," said Peggy Bond,
tilting her chin high. "I suppose you can't hear nothin' they're saying?
I feel my hearin' ain't up to what it was. I can hear things close to me
well as ever; but there, hearin' ain't everything; 'tain't as if we lived
where there was more goin' on to hear. Seems to me them folks is stoppin'
a good while."
"They surely be," agreed Lavina
"I expect it's somethin' particular.
There ain't none of the Thornton folks left, except one o' the gran'darters,
an' I've often heard Betsey remark that she should never see her more,
for she lives to London. Strange how folks feels contented in them strayaway
places off to the ends of the airth."
The flies and bees were buzzing
against the hot window-panes; the handfuls of beans were clicking into
the brown wooden measure. A bird came and perched on the window-sill and
then flitted away toward the blue sky. Below, in the yard, Betsey Lane
stood talking with the lady; she had put her blue drilling apron over her
head, and her face was shining with delight.
"Lor', dear," she said, for
at least the third time, "I remember ye when I first see ye; an awful pritty
baby you was, an' they all said you looked just like the old gin'ral. Be
you goin' back to foreign parts right away?"
"Yes, I'm going back; you
know that all my children are there. I wish I could take you with me for
a visit," said the charming young guest. "I'm going to carry over some
of the pictures and furniture from the old house; I didn't care half so
much for them when I was younger, as I do now. Perhaps next summer we shall
all come over for awhile. I should like to see my girls and boys playing
under the pines."
"I wish you re'lly was livin'
to the old place," said Betsey Lane. Her imagination was not swift; she
needed time to think over all that was being told her, and she could not
fancy the two strange houses across the sea. The old Thornton house was
to her mind the most delightful and elegant in the world.
"Is there anything I can do
for you?" asked Mrs. Strafford, kindly, "anything that I can do for you
myself, before I go away? I shall be writing to you, and sending some pictures
of the children, and you must let me know how you are getting on."
"Yes, there is one thing,
darlin'. If you could stop in the village an' pick me out a pritty, little,
small lookin' glass, that I can keep for my own an' have to remember you
by. 'Tain't that I want to set me above the rest o' the folks, but I was
always used to havin' my own when I was to your grandma's. There's very
nice folks here, some on 'em, and I'm better off than if I was able to
keep house; but sence you ask me, that's the only thing I feel cropin'
about. What be you goin' right back for? ain't you goin' to see the great
fair to Pheladelphy, that everybody talks about?"
"No," said Mrs. Strafford,
laughing at this eager and almost convicting question. "No, I'm going back
next week. If I were, I believe that I should take you with me. Good-by,
dear old Betsey; you make me feel as if I were a little girl again; you
look just the same."
For full five minutes the
old woman stood out in the sunshine, dazed with delight, and majestic with
a sense of her own consequence. She held something tight in her hand, without
thinking what it might be; but just as the friendly mistress of the Poor-farm
came out to hear the news, she tucked the roll of money into the bosom
of her brown gingham dress. "'Twas my dear Mis' Katy Strafford," she turned
to say proudly. "She come way over from London; she's been sick; they thought
the voyage would do her good. She said most the first thing she had on
her mind was to come an' find me, and see how I was, an' if I was comfortable;
an' now she's goin' right back. She's got two splendid houses; an' said
how she wished I was there to look after things -- she remembered I was
always her gran'ma's right hand. Oh! it does so carry me back, to see her!
Seems if all the rest on 'em must be there together to the old house. There,
I must go right up an' tell Mis' Dow an' Peggy."
"Dinner's all ready -- I was
just goin' to blow the horn for the men-folks," said the keeper's wife.
"They'll he right down. I expect you've got along smart with them beans
-- all three of you together;" but Betsey's mind roved so high and so far
at that moment that no achievements of bean-picking could lure it back.
The long table in the great
kitchen soon gathered its company of waifs and strays -- creatures of improvidence
and misfortune, and the irreparable victims of old age. The dinner was
satisfactory, and there was not much delay for conversation. Peggy Bond
and Mrs. Dow and Betsey Lane always sat together at one end, with an air
of putting the rest of the company below the salt. Betsey was still flushed
with excitement, in fact she could not eat as much as usual, and she looked
up from time to time, expectantly, as if she were likely to be asked to
speak of her guest; but everybody was hungry, and even Mrs. Dow broke in
upon some attempted confidences, by asking inopportunely for a second potato.
There were nearly twenty at the table, counting the keeper and his wife
and two children, noisy little persons who had come from school with the
small flock belonging to the poor widow, who sat just opposite our friends.
She finished her dinner before any one else, and pushed her chair back
-- she always helped with the housework -- a thin, sorry, bad-tempered-looking
poor soul, whom grief had sharpened instead of softening. "I expect you
feel too fine to set with common folks," she said enviously to Betsey.
"Here I be a-settin'," responded
Betsey, calmly. "I don' know 's I behave more unbecomin' than usual." Betsey
prided herself upon her good and proper manners; but the rest of the company
who would have liked to hear the bit of morning news were now defrauded
of that pleasure. The wrong note had been struck; there was a silence after
the clatter of knives and plates, and one by one the cheerful town charges
disappeared. The bean-picking had been finished, and there was a call for
any of the women who felt like planting corn; so Peggy Bond, who could
follow the line of hills pretty fairly, and Betsey herself, who was still
equal to anybody at that work, and Mrs. Dow, all went out to the field
together. Aunt Lavina labored slowly up the yard, carrying a light splint-bottomed
kitchen chair and her knitting-work, and sat near the stone wall on a gentle
rise where she could see the pond and the green country, and exchange a
word with her friends as they came and went up and down the rows. Betsey
vouchsafed a word now and then about Mrs. Strafford, but you would have
thought that she had been suddenly elevated to Mrs. Strafford's own cares
and the responsibilities attending them, and had little in common with
her old associates. Mrs. Dow and Peggy knew well that these high-feeling
times never lasted long, and so they waited with as much patience as they
could muster. They were by no means without that true tact which is only
another word for unselfish sympathy.
The strip of corn land ran
along the side of a great field; at the upper end of it was a field-corner
thicket of young maples and walnut saplings, the children of a great nut-tree
that marked the boundary. Once, when Betsey Lane found herself alone near
this shelter at the end of her row, the other planters having lagged behind
beyond the rising ground, she looked stealthily about and then put her
hand inside her gown and for the first time took out the money that Mrs.
Strafford had given her. She turned it over and over with an astonished
look; there were new bank-bills for a hundred dollars. Betsey gave a funny
little shrug of her shoulders, came out of the bushes and took a step or
two on the narrow edge of turf, as if she were going to dance; then she
hastily tucked away her treasure, and stepped discreetly down into the
soft harrowed and hoed land, and began to drop corn again, five kernels
to a hill. She had seen the top of Peggy Bond's head over the knoll, and
now Peggy herself came entirely into view, gazing upward to the skies,
and stumbling more or less, but counting the corn by touch and twisting
her head about anxiously to gain advantage over her uncertain vision. Betsey
made a friendly, inarticulate little sound as they passed; she was thinking
that somebody said once that Peggy's eyesight might be remedied if she
could go to Boston to the hospital; but that was so remote and impossible
an undertaking that no one had ever taken the first step. Betsey Lane's
brown old face suddenly worked with excitement, but in a moment more she
regained her usual firm expression, and spoke carelessly to Peggy as she
turned and came alongside.
The high spring wind of the
morning had quite fallen; it was a lovely May afternoon. The woods about
the field to the northward were full of birds, and the young leaves scarcely
hid the solemn shapes of a company of crows that patiently attended the
corn-planting. Two of the men had finished their hoeing, and were busy
with the construction of a scarecrow; they knelt in the furrows, chuckling
and looking over some forlorn, discarded garments. It was a time-honored
custom to make the scarecrow resemble one of the Poor-House family; and
this year they intended to have Mrs. Lavina Dow protect the field in effigy;
last year it was the counterfeit of Betsey Lane who stood on guard with
an easily recognized quilted hood and the remains of a valued shawl that
one of the calves had found airing on a fence and chewed to pieces. Behind
the men was the foundation for this rustic attempt at statuary -- an upright
stake and bar in the form of a cross. This stood on the highest part of
the field, and as the men knelt near it and the quaint figures of the corn-planters
went and came, the scene gave a curious suggestion of foreign life. It
was not like New England; the presence of the rude cross appealed strangely
to the imagination.
Life flowed so smoothly, for
the most part, at the Byfleet Poor-farm, that nobody knew what to make,
later in the summer, of a strange disappearance. All the elder inmates
were familiar with illness and death, and the poor pomp of a town-pauper's
funeral. The comings and goings and the various misfortunes of those who
composed this strange family related only through its disasters, hardly
served for the excitement and talk of a single day. Now that the June days
were at their longest, the old people were sure to wake earlier than ever;
but one morning, to the astonishment of everyone, Betsey Lane's bed was
empty; the sheets and blankets, which were her own, and guarded with jealous
care, were carefully folded and placed on a chair not too near the window,
and Betsey had flown. Nobody had heard her go down the creaking stairs.
The kitchen door was unlocked, and the old watchdog lay on the step outside
in the early sunshine, wagging his tail and looking wise, as if he were
left on guard and meant to keep the fugitive's secret.
"Never knowed her to do nothin'
afore, 'thout talking it over a fortnight and paradin' off when we could
all see her," ventured a spiteful voice. "Guess we can wait till night
to hear 'bout it."
Mrs. Dow looked sorrowful
and shook her head. "Betsey had an aunt on her mother's side, that went
and drownded of herself; she was a pritty-appearing woman as ever you see."
"Perhaps she's gone to spend
the day with Decker's folks," suggested Peggy Bond. "She always takes an
extra early start; she was speakin' lately o' going up their way;" but
Mrs. Dow shook her head with a most melancholy look. "I'm impressed that
something's befell her," she insisted. "I heard her a groanin' in her sleep.
I was wakeful the forepart o' the night -- 'tis very unusual with me, too."
"'Twa'n't like Betsey not
to leave us any word," said the other old friend with more resentment than
melancholy. They sat together almost in silence that morning in the shed-chamber.
Mrs. Dow was sorting and cutting rags, and Peggy braided them into long
ropes to be made into mats at a later date. If they had only known where
Betsey Lane had gone, they might have talked about it until dinner-time
at noon; but failing this new subject they could take no interest in any
of their old ones. Out in the field the corn was well up, and the men were
hoeing. It was a hot morning in the shed-chamber, and the woolen rags were
dusty and hot to handle.
Byfleet people knew each other
well, and when this mysteriously absent person did not return to the town-farm
at the end of a week, public interest became much excited; and presently
it was ascertained that Betsey Lane was neither making a visit to her friends
the Deckers on Birch Hill, nor to any nearer acquaintances; in fact she
had disappeared altogether from her wonted haunts. Nobody remembered to
have seen her pass, hers had been such an early flitting; and when somebody
thought of her having gone away by train, he was laughed at for forgetting
that the earliest morning train from South Byfleet, the nearest station,
did not start until long after eight o'clock; and if Betsey had designed
to be one of the passengers, she would have started along the road at seven,
and been seen and known of all women. There was not a kitchen in that part
of Byfleet that did not have windows toward the road. Conversation rarely
left the level of the neighborhood gossip: to see Betsey Lane, in her best
clothes, at that hour in the morning, would have been the signal for much
exercise of imagination; but as day after day went by without news, the
curiosity of those who knew her best turned slowly into fear, and at last
Peggy Bond again gave utterance to the belief that Betsey had either gone
out in the early morning and put an end to her life, or that she had gone
to the Centennial. Some of the people at table were moved to loud laughter
-- it was at supper-time on a Sunday night -- but others listened with
"She never'd put on her good
clothes to drownd herself," said the widow. "She might have thought 'twas
good as takin' 'em with her, though. Old folks has wandered off an' got
lost in the woods afore now."
48. Mrs. Dow and Peggy resented
this impertinent remark, but deigned to take no notice of the speaker.
"She wouldn't have wore her best clothes to the Centennial, would she?"
mildly inquired Peggy, bobbing her head toward the ceiling. "'Twould be
a shame to spoil your best things in such a place. An' I don't know of
her havin' any money; there's the end o' that."
"You're bad as old Mis' Bland
that used to live neighbor to our folks," said one of the old men. "She
was dreadful precise, an' she so begretched to wear a good alapaca dress
that was left to her, that it hung in a press forty year an' baited the
moths at last."
"I often seen Mis' Bland a-goin'
in to meetin' when I was a young girl," said Peggy Bond, approvingly. "She
was a good appearin' woman, an' she left property."
"Wish she'd left it to me,
then," said the poor soul opposite, glancing at her pathetic row of children:
but it was not good manners at the farm to deplore one's situation, and
Mrs. Dow and Peggy only frowned. "Where do you suppose Betsey can be?"
said Mrs. Dow, for the twentieth time. "She didn't have no money. I know
she ain't gone far if it's so that she's yet alive. She's b'en real pinched
all the spring."
"Perhaps that lady that come
one day give her some," the keeper's wife suggested, mildly.
"Then Betsey would have told
me," said Mrs. Dow, with injured dignity.
On the morning of her disappearance,
Betsey rose even before the pewee and the English sparrow, and dressed
herself quietly, though with trembling hands, and stole out of the kitchen
door like a plunderless thief. The old dog licked her hand and looked at
her anxiously; the tortoise-shell cat rubbed against her best gown, and
trotted away up the yard, then she turned anxiously and came after the
old woman, following faithfully until she had to be driven back. Betsey
was used to long country excursions afoot; she dearly loved the early morning;
and finding that there was no dew to trouble her, she began to follow pasture
paths and short cuts across the fields, surprising here and there a flock
of sleepy sheep, or a startled calf that rustled out from the bushes. The
birds were pecking their breakfast from bush and turf; and hardly any of
the wild inhabitants of that rural world were enough alarmed by her presence
to do more than flutter away if they chanced to be in her path. She stepped
along, light-footed and eager as a girl, dressed in her neat old straw
bonnet and black gown, and carrying a few belongings in her best bundle
handkerchief, one that her only brother had brought home from the East
Indies fifty years before. There was an old crow perched as sentinel on
a small, dead pine-tree where he could warn friends who were pulling up
the sprouted corn in a field close by; but he only gave a contemptuous
caw as the adventurer appeared, and she shook her bundle at him in revenge,
and laughed to see him so clumsy as he tried to keep his footing on the
twigs. [55.] "Yes, I be;" she assured him. "I'm a-goin' to Pheladelphy,
to the Centennial, same 's other folks. I'd jest as soon tell ye 's not,
old crow;" and Betsey laughed aloud in pleased content with herself and
her daring, as she walked along. She had only two miles to go to the station
at South Byfleet, and she felt for the money now and then, and found it
safe enough. She took great pride in the success of her escape, and especially
in the long concealment of her wealth. Not a night had passed since Mrs.
Strafford's visit that she had not slept with the roll of money under her
pillow by night, and buttoned safe inside her dress by day. She knew that
everybody would offer advice and even commands about the spending or saving
of it; and she brooked no interference.
The last mile of the foot-path
to South Byfleet was along the railway-track; and Betsey began to feel
in haste, though it was still nearly two hours to train time. She looked
anxiously forward and back along the rails every few minutes, for fear
of being run over; and at last she caught sight of an engine that was apparently
coming toward her, and took flight into the woods before she could gather
courage to follow the path again. The freight train proved to be at a stand-still,
waiting at a turn-out; and some of the men were straying about, eating
their early breakfast comfortably in this time of leisure. As the old woman
came up to them, she stopped too, for a moment of rest and conversation.
"Where be ye goin'?" she asked,
pleasantly; and they told her. It was to the town where she had to change
cars and take the great through train; a point of geography which she had
learned from evening talks between the men at the farm.
"What'll ye carry me there
"We don't run no passenger
cars," said one of the young fellows, laughing. "What makes you in such
"I'm startin' for Pheladelphy,
an' it's a gre't ways to go."
"So 'tis; but you're consid'able
early if you're makin' for the eight-forty train. See here! you haven't
got a needle an' thread 'long of you in that bundle, have you? If you'll sew me on a couple o' buttons, I'll give ye a free ride. I'm in a sight o' distress an' none o' the fellows is provided with as much as a bent pin."
"You poor boy! I'll have you
seen to, in half a minute. I'm troubled with a stiff arm, but I'll do the
best I can."
The obliging Betsey seated
herself stiffly on the slope of the embankment and found her thread and
needle with utmost haste. Two of the train-men stood by and watched the
careful stitches, and even offered her a place as spare brakeman, so that
they might keep her near; and Betsey took the offer with considerable seriousness,
only thinking it necessary to assure them that she was getting most too
old to be out in all weathers. An express went by like an earthquake, and
she was presently hoisted on board an empty box-car, by two of her new
and flattering acquaintances, and found herself before noon at the end
of the first stage of her journey, without having spent a cent, and furnished
with any amount of thrifty advice. One of the young men, being compassionate
of her unprotected state as a traveler, advised her to find out the widow
of an uncle of his in Philadelphia, saying despairingly that he couldn't
tell her just how to find the house; but Miss Betsey Lane said that she
had an English tongue in her head, and should be sure to find whatever
she was looking for. This unexpected incident of the freight-train was
the reason why everybody about the South Byfleet station insisted that
no such person had taken passage by the regular train that same morning,
and why there were those who persuaded themselves that Miss Betsey Lane
was probably lying at the bottom of the poor-farm pond.
Nobody in these United States
has ever felt half grateful enough to the promoters of the Centennial Exhibition
at Philadelphia. It was the first great national occasion of general interest
and opportunity for cultivation; as a people we were untravelled and unconvinced
of many things until we were given this glimpse of the treasures and customs
of the world. Without it we should never have been ready for the more advanced
lessons of the great Columbian Fair at Chicago.
"Land sakes!" said Miss Betsey
Lane, as she watched a Turkish person parading by in his red fez, "I call
it somethin' like the day o' judgment! I wish I was goin' to stop a month,
but I dare say 'twould be the death o' my poor old bones."
She was leaning against the
barrier of a patent-pop-corn establishment which had given her a sudden
reminder of home and of the winter nights when the sharp-kerneled little
red and yellow ears were brought out, and Old Uncle Eph Flanders sat by
the kitchen stove, and solemnly filled a great wooden chopping tray for
the refreshment of the company. She had wandered and loitered and looked
until her eyes and head had grown numb and unreceptive; but it is only
unimaginative persons who can be really astonished. The imagination can
always outrun the possible and actual sights and sounds of the world; and
this plain old body from Byfleet rarely found anything rich and splendid
enough to surprise her. She saw the wonders of the West and the splendors
of the East with equal calmness and satisfaction; she had always known
that there was an amazing world outside the boundaries of Byfleet. There
was a piece of paper in her pocket on which was marked, in her clumsy handwriting,
"If Betsey Lane should meet with accident, notify the selectmen of Byfleet;"
but having made this slight provision for the future, she had thrown herself
boldly into the sea of strangers, and then had made the joyful discovery
that friends were to be found at every turn.
There was something delightfully
companionable about Betsey; she had a way of suddenly looking up over her
big spectacles with a reassuring and expectant smile as if you were going
to speak to her, and you generally did. She must have found out where hundreds
of people came from and whom they had left at home, and what they thought
of the great show, as she sat on a bench to rest, or leaned over the railings
where free luncheons were afforded by the makers of hot waffles and molasses
candy and fried potatoes; and there was not a night when she did not return
to her lodgings with a pocket crammed with samples of spool cotton and
nobody knows what. She had already collected small presents for almost
everybody she knew at home, and she was such a pleasant, beaming old country
body, so unmistakably appreciative and interested, that nobody ever thought
of wishing that she would move on. Nearly all the busy people of the Exhibition
called her either Aunty or Grandma at once, and made little pleasures for
her as best they could. She was a delightful contrast to the indifferent,
stupid crowd that drifted along, with eyes fixed at the same level, and
seeing, even on that level, nothing for fifty feet at a time. "What be
you making here, dear?" Betsey Lane would ask joyfully, and the most perfunctory
guardian hastened to explain. She squandered money as she had never had
the pleasure of doing before; and this hastened the day when she must return
to Byfleet. She was always inquiring if there were any spectacle-sellers
at hand, and received occasional directions; but it was a difficult place
for her to find her way about in, and the very last day of her stay arrived
before she found an exhibitor of the desired sort, an oculist and instrument
"I called to get some specs
for a friend that's up-sighted," she gravely informed the salesman, to
his extreme amusement. "She's dreadful troubled, and jerks her head up
like a hen a-drinkin'. She's got a blur a-growin' an' spreadin', an' sometimes
she can see out to one side on 't, and more times she can't."
"Cataracts," said a middle-aged
gentleman at her side; and Betsey Lane turned to regard him with approval
"'Tis Peggy Bond I was mentioning,
of Byfleet Poor-farm," she explained. "I count on gettin' some glasses
to relieve her trouble, if there's any to be found."
"Glasses won't do her any
good," said the stranger. "Suppose you come and sit down on this bench,
and tell me all about it. First, where is Byfleet?" and Betsey gave the
directions at length.
"I thought so," said the surgeon.
"How old is this friend of yours?"
Betsey cleared her throat
decisively and smoothed her gown over her knees as if it were an apron;
then she turned to take a good look at her new acquaintance as they sat
on the rustic bench together [to-together]. "Who be you, sir, I should
like to know?" she asked, in a friendly tone.
"My name's Dunster."
"I take it you're a doctor,"
continued Betsey, as if they had overtaken each other walking from Byfleet
to South Byfleet on a summer morning.
"I'm a doctor; part of one
at least," said he. "I know more or less about eyes; and I spend my summers
down on the shore at the mouth of your river; some day I'll come up and
look at this person. How old is she?"
"Peggy Bond is one that never
tells her age; 'tain't come quite up to where she'll begin to brag of it,
you see," explained Betsey, reluctantly; "but I know her to be nigh to
seventy-six, one way or t'other. Her an' Mrs. Mary Ann Chick was same year's
child'n, and Peggy knows I know it, an' two or three times when we've be'n
in the buryin'-ground where Mary Ann lays an' has her dates right on her
headstone, I couldn't bring Peggy to take no sort o' notice. I will say
she makes, at times, a convenience of being up-sighted. But there, I feel
for her, everybody does; it keeps her stubbin' an' trippin' against everything
-- beakin' an' gazin' up the way she has to."
"Yes, yes," said the doctor,
whose eyes were twinkling. "I'll come and look after her, with your town
doctor, this summer - some time in the last of July or first of August."
"You'll find occupation,"
said Betsey, not without an air of patronage. "Most of us to the Byfleet
farm has got our ails, now I tell ye. You ain't got no bitters that'll
take a dozen years right off an ol' lady's shoulders?"
The busy man smiled pleasantly,
and shook his head as he went away. "Dunster," said Betsey to herself,
soberly committing the new name to her sound memory. "Yes, I mustn't forgit
to speak of him to the doctor, as he directed. I do' know now as Peggy
would vally herself quite so much accordin' to, if she had her eyes fixed
same as other folks. I expect there wouldn't been a smarter woman in town,
though, if she'd had proper chance. Now I've done what I set to do for
her, I do believe, an' 'twa'n't glasses, neither. I'll git her a pritty
little shawl with that money I laid aside. Peggy Bond ain't got a pritty
shawl. I always wanted to have a real good time, an' now I'm havin' it."
Two or three days later, two
pathetic figures might have been seen crossing the slopes of the poor-farm
field, toward the low shores of Byfleet pond. It was early in the morning,
and the stubble of the lately mown grass was wet with rain and hindering
to old feet. Peggy Bond was more blundering and liable to stray in the
wrong direction than usual; it was one of the days when she could hardly
see at all. Aunt Lavina Dow was unusually clumsy of movement, and stiff
in the joints; she had not been so far from the house for three years.
The morning breeze filled the gathers of her wide gingham skirt and aggravated
the size of her unwieldy figure. She supported herself with a stick, and
trusted beside to the fragile support of Peggy's arm. They were talking
together in whispers.
"Oh, my sakes!" exclaimed
Peggy, moving her small head from side to side. "Hear you wheeze, Mis'
Dow! This may be the death o' you; there, do go slow! You set here on the
side hill, an' le' me go try if I can see."
"It needs more eyesight than
you've got," said Mrs. Dow, panting between the words. "Oh! to think how
spry I was in my young days, an' here I be now, the full of a door, an'
all my complaints so aggravated by my size. 'Tis hard! 'tis hard! but I'm
a doin' of all this for pore Betsey's sake. I know they've all laughed,
but I look to see her ris' to the top o' the pond this day, 'tis just nine
days since she departed; an' say what they may, I know she hove herself
in. It run in her family; Betsey had an aunt that done just so, an' she
ain't be'n like herself, a broodin' an' hivin' away alone, an' nothin'
to say to you an' me that was always sich good company all together. Somethin'
sprung her mind, now I tell ye, Mis' Bond."
"I feel to hope we shan't
find her, I must say," faltered Peggy. It was plain that Mrs. Dow was the
captain of this doleful expedition. "I guess she ain't never thought o'
drowndin' of herself, Mis' Dow; she's gone off a visitin' way over to the
other side o' South Byfleet, some thinks she's gone to the Centennial even
"She hadn't no proper means,
I tell ye," wheezed Mrs. Dow, indignantly; "an' if you prefer that others
should find her floatin' to the top this day, instid of us that's her best
friends, you can step back to the house."
They walked on in aggrieved
silence. Peggy Bond trembled with excitement, but her companion's firm
grasp never wavered, and so they came to the narrow, gravelly margin and
stood still. Peggy tried in vain to see the glittering water and the pond-lilies
that starred it; she knew that they must be there; once, years ago, she
had caught fleeting glimpses of them, and she never forgot what she had
once seen. The clear, blue sky overhead, the dark pine-woods beyond the
pond, were all clearly pictured in her mind. "Can't you see nothin'?" she
faltered; "I believe I'm wuss 'n up-sighted this day. I'm going to be blind."
"No," said Lavina Dow solemnly;
"no, there ain't nothin' whatever, Peggy. I hope to mercy she ain't --
"Why, whoever'd expected to
find you 'way out here!" exclaimed a brisk and cheerful voice. There stood
Betsey Lane herself, close behind them, having just emerged from a thicket
of alders that grew close by. She was following the short way homeward
from the railroad.
"Why, what's the matter, Mis'
Dow? You ain't overdoin', be ye? an' Peggy's all of a flutter. What in
the name o' natur' ails ye?"
"There ain't nothin' the matter,
as I knows on," responded the leader of this fruitless expedition. "We
only thought we'd take a
stroll this pleasant mornin'," she added, with
sublime self-possession. "Where've you be'n, Betsey Lane?"
"To Pheladelphy, ma'am," said
Betsey, looking quite young and gay, and wearing a townish and unfamiliar
air that upheld her words. "All ought to go that can; why, you feel 's
if you'd be'n all round the world. I guess I've got enough to think of
and tell ye for the rest o' my days. I've always wanted to go somewheres.
I wish you'd be'n there, I do so. I've talked with folks from Chiny an'
the back o' Pennsylvany, and I see folks way from Australy that 'peared
as well as anybody; an' I see how they made spool cotton; an' sights o'
other things, an' I spoke with a doctor that lives down to the beach in
the summer, an' he offered to come up 'long in the first of August, an'
see what he can do for Peggy's eyesight. There was di'monds there as big
as pigeon's eggs; an' I met with Mis' Abby Fletcher from South Byfleet
depot -- an' there was hogs there that weighed risin' thirteen hunderd
"I want to know," said Mrs.
Lavina Dow and Peggy Bond, together.
"Well, 'twas a great exper'ence
for a person," added Lavina, turning ponderously, in spite of herself,
to give a last wistful look at the smiling waters of the pond.
"I don't know how soon I be
goin' to settle down," proclaimed the rustic sister of Sindbad." What's
for the good o' one's for the good of all. You just wait till we're setting
together up in the old shed chamber! You know, my dear Miss Katy Strafford
give me a han'some present o' money that day she come to see me; and I'd
be'n a dreamin' by night an' day o' seein' that Centennial,
and when I come to think on 't I felt sure somebody ought to go from this
neighborhood, if 'twas only for the good o' the rest; and I thought I'd
better be the one. I wa'n't goin' to ask the selec'men neither. I've come
back with one-thirty-five in money, and I see everything there, an' I fetched
ye all a little somethin'; but I'm full o' dust now, an' pretty nigh beat
out. I never see a place more friendly than Pheladelphy; but 'tain't natural
to a Byfleet person to be always walkin' on a level. There, now, Peggy,
you take my bundle handkercher and the basket, and let Mis' Dow sag on
to me. I'll git her along twice as easy."
With this the small elderly
company set forth triumphant toward the Poor-house, across the wide green