The time of year was April; the place was a small
farming town in New Hampshire, remote from any railroad. One by one the
lights had been blown out in the scattered houses near Miss Tempy Dent's;
but as her neighbors took a last look out-of-doors, their eyes turned with
instinctive curiosity toward the old house, where a lamp burned steadily.
They gave a little sigh. "Poor Miss Tempy!" said more than one bereft acquaintance;
for the good woman lay dead in her north chamber, and the light was a watcher's
light. The funeral was set for the next day, at one o'clock.
The watchers were two of the oldest friends,
Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann Binson. They were sitting in the kitchen, because
it seemed less awesome than the unused best room, and they beguiled the
long hours by steady conversation. One would think that neither topics
nor opinions would hold out, at that rate, all through the long spring
night; but there was a certain degree of excitement just then, and the
two women had risen to an unusual level of expressiveness and confidence.
Each had already told the other more than one fact that she had determined
to keep secret; they were again and again tempted into statements that
either would have found impossible by daylight. Mrs. Crowe was knitting
a blue yarn stocking for her husband; the foot was already so long that
it seemed as if she must have forgotten to narrow it at the proper time.
Mrs. Crowe knew exactly what she was about, however; she was of a much
cooler disposition than Sister Binson, who made futile attempts at some
sewing, only to drop her work into her lap whenever the talk was most engaging.
Their faces were interesting, -- of the dry,
shrewd, quick-witted New England type, with thin hair twisted neatly back
out of the way. Mrs. Crowe could look vague and benignant, and Miss Binson
was, to quote her neighbors, a little too sharp-set; but the world knew
that she had need to be, with the load she must carry of supporting an
inefficient widowed sister and six unpromising and unwilling nieces and
The eldest boy was at last placed with a good
man to learn the mason's trade. Sarah Ann Binson, for all her sharp, anxious
aspect, never defended herself, when her sister whined and fretted. She
was told every week of her life that the poor children never would have
had to lift a finger if their father had lived, and yet she had kept her
steadfast way with the little farm, and patiently taught the young people
many useful things, for which, as everybody said, they would live to thank
her. However pleasureless her life appeared to outward view, it was brimful
of pleasure to herself.
Mrs. Crowe, on the contrary, was well to do,
her husband being a rich farmer and an easy-going man. She was a stingy
woman, but for all that she looked kindly; and when she gave away anything,
or lifted a finger to help anybody, it was thought a great piece of beneficence,
and a compliment, indeed, which the recipient accepted with twice as much
gratitude as double the gift that came from a poorer and more generous
acquaintance. Everybody liked to be on good terms with Mrs. Crowe. Socially
she stood much higher than Sarah Ann Binson. They were both old schoolmates
and friends of Temperance Dent, who had asked them, one day, not long before
she died, if they would not come together and look after the house, and
manage everything, when she was gone. She may have had some hope that they
might become closer friends in this period of intimate partnership, and
that the richer woman might better understand the burdens of the poorer.
They had not kept the house the night before; they were too weary with
the care of their old friend, whom they had not left until all was over.
There was a brook which ran down the hillside
very near the house, and the sound of it was much louder than usual. When
there was silence in the kitchen, the busy stream had a strange insistence
in its wild voice, as if it tried to make the watchers understand something
that related to the past.
"I declare, I can't begin to sorrow for Tempy
yet. I am so glad to have her at rest," whispered Mrs. Crowe. "It is strange
to set here without her, but I can't make it clear that she has gone. I
feel as if she had got easy and dropped off to sleep, and I'm more scared
about waking her up than knowing any other feeling."
"Yes," said Sarah Ann, "it's just like that,
ain't it? But I tell you we are goin' to miss her worse than we expect.
She's helped me through with many a trial, has Temperance. I ain't the
only one who says the same, neither."
These words were spoken as if there were a
third person listening; somebody beside Mrs. Crowe. The watchers could
not rid their minds of the feeling that they were being watched themselves.
The spring wind whistled in the window crack, now and then, and buffeted
the little house in a gusty way that had a sort of companionable effect.
Yet, on the whole, it was a very still night, and the watchers spoke in
"She was the freest-handed woman that ever
I knew," said Mrs. Crowe, decidedly. "According to her means, she gave
away more than anybody. I used to tell her 't wa'n't right. I used really
to be afraid that she went without too much, for we have a duty to ourselves."
Sister Binson looked up in a half-amused, unconscious
way, and then recollected herself.
Mrs. Crowe met her look with a serious face.
"It ain't so easy for me to give as it is for some," she said simply, but
with an effort which was made possible only by the occasion. "I should
like to say, while Tempy is laying here yet in her own house, that she
has been a constant lesson to me. Folks are too kind, and shame me with
thanks for what I do. I ain't such a generous woman as poor Tempy was,
for all she had nothin' to do with, as one may say."
Sarah Binson was much moved at this confession,
and was even pained and touched by the unexpected humility. "You have a
good many calls on you" -- she began, and then left her kind little compliment
"Yes, yes, but I've got means enough. My disposition's
more of a cross to me as I grow older, and I made
up my mind this morning that Tempy's example should be my pattern henceforth."
She began to knit faster than ever.
"'T ain't no use to get morbid: that's what
Tempy used to say herself," said Sarah Ann, after a minute's silence. "Ain't
it strange to say 'used to say'?" and her own voice choked a little. "She
never did like to hear folks git goin' about themselves."
"'T was only because they're apt to do it so
as other folks will say 't wasn't so, an' praise 'em up," humbly replied
Mrs. Crowe, "and that ain't my object. There wa'n't a child but what Tempy
set herself to work to see what she could do to please it. One time my
brother's folks had been stopping here in the summer, from Massachusetts.
The children was all little, and they broke up a sight of toys, and left
'em when they were going away. Tempy come right up after they rode by,
to see if she couldn't help me set the house to rights, and she caught
me just as I was going to fling some of the clutter into the stove. I was
kind of tired out, starting 'em off in season. 'Oh, give me them!' says
she, real pleading; and she wropped 'em up and took 'em home with her when
she went, and she mended 'em up and stuck 'em together, and made some young
one or other happy with every blessed one. You'd thought I'd done her the
biggest favor. 'No thanks to me. I should ha' burnt 'em, Tempy,' says I."
"Some of 'em came to our house, I know," said
Miss Binson. "She'd take a lot o' trouble to please a child, 'stead o'
shoving of it out o' the way, like the rest of us when we're drove."
"I can tell you the biggest thing she ever
give, and I don't know 's there's anybody left but me to tell it. I don't
want it forgot," Sarah Binson went on, looking up at the clock to see how
the night was going. "It was that pretty-looking Trevor girl, who taught
the Corners school, and married so well afterwards, out in New York State.
You remember her, I dare say?"
"Certain," said Mrs. Crowe, with an air of
"She was a splendid scholar, folks said, and
give the school a great start; but she'd overdone herself getting her education,
and working to pay for it, and she all broke down one spring, and Tempy
made her come and stop with her a while, -- you remember that? Well, she
had an uncle, her mother's brother, out in Chicago, who was well off and
friendly, and used to write to Lizzie Trevor, and I dare say make her some
presents; but he was a lively, driving man, and didn't take time to stop
and think about his folks. He hadn't seen her since she was a little girl.
Poor Lizzie was so pale and weakly that she just got through the term o'
school. She looked as if she was just going straight off in a decline.
Tempy, she cosseted her up a while, and then, next thing folks knew, she
was tellin' round how Miss Trevor had gone to see her uncle, and meant
to visit Niagary Falls on the way, and stop over night. Now I happened
to know, in ways I won't dwell on to explain, that the poor girl was in
debt for her schoolin' when she come here, and her last quarter's pay had
just squared it off at last, and left her without a cent ahead, hardly;
but it had fretted her thinking of it, so she paid it all; they might have
dunned her that she owed it to. An' I taxed Tempy about the girl's goin'
off on such a journey till she owned up, rather 'n have Lizzie blamed,
that she'd given her sixty dollars, same 's if she was rolling in riches,
and sent her off to have a good rest and vacation."
"Sixty dollars!" exclaimed Mrs. Crowe. "Tempy
only had ninety dollars a year that came in to her; rest of her livin'
she got by helpin' about, with what she raised off this little piece o'
ground, sand one side an' clay the other. An' how often I've heard her
tell, years ago, that she'd rather see Niagary than any other sight in
The women looked at each other in silence;
the magnitude of the generous sacrifice was almost too great for their
"She was just poor enough to do that!" declared
Mrs. Crowe at last, in an abandonment of feeling. "Say what you may, I
feel humbled to the dust," and her companion ventured to say nothing. She
never had given away sixty dollars at once, but it was simply because she
never had it to give. It came to her very lips to say in explanation, "Tempy
was so situated;" but she checked herself in time, for she would not break
in upon her own loyal guarding of her dependent household.
"Folks say a great deal of generosity, and
this one's being public-sperited, and that one free-handed about giving,"
said Mrs. Crowe, who was a little nervous in the silence. "I suppose we
can't tell the sorrow it would be to some folks not to give, same 's 't
would be to me not to save. I seem kind of made for that, as if 't was
what I'd got to do. I should feel sights better about it if I could make
it evident what I was savin' for. If I had a child, now, Sarah Ann," and
her voice was a little husky, -- "if I had a child, I should think I was heapin' of it up because he was the one trained by the Lord to scatter it again for good. But here's Crowe and me, we
can't do anything with money, and both of us like to keep things same 's
they've always been. Now Priscilla Dance was talking away like a
mill-clapper, week before last. She'd think I would go right off
and get one o' them new-fashioned gilt-and-white papers for the best room, and some new furniture, an' a marble-top table. And I looked at her, all
struck up. 'Why,' says I, 'Priscilla, that nice old velvet paper ain't
hurt a mite. I shouldn't feel 't was my best room without it. Dan'el says
't is the first thing he can remember rubbin' his little baby fingers on
to it, and how splendid he thought them red roses was.' I maintain," continued
Mrs. Crowe stoutly, "that folks wastes sights o' good money doin' just
such foolish things. Tearin' out the insides o' meetin'-houses,
and fixin' the pews different; 't was good enough as 't was with mendin'; then times come, an' they want to put it all back same 's 't was before."
This touched upon an exciting subject to active
members of that parish. Miss Binson and Mrs. Crowe belonged to opposite
parties, and had at one time come as near hard feelings as they could,
and yet escape them. Each hastened to speak of other things and to show
her untouched friendliness.
"I do agree with you," said Sister Binson,
"that few of us know what use to make of money, beyond every-day necessities.
You've seen more o' the world than I have, and know what's expected. When
it comes to taste and judgment about such things, I ought to defer to others;"
and with this modest avowal the critical moment passed when there might
have been an improper discussion.
In the silence that followed, the fact of their
presence in a house of death grew more clear than before. There was something
disturbing in the noise of a mouse gnawing at the dry boards of a closet
wall near by. Both the watchers looked up anxiously at the clock; it was
almost the middle of the night, and the whole world seemed to have left
them alone with their solemn duty. Only the brook was awake.
"Perhaps we might give a look up-stairs now,"
whispered Mrs. Crowe, as if she hoped to hear some reason against their
going just then to the chamber of death; but Sister Binson rose, with a
serious and yet satisfied countenance, and lifted the small lamp from the
table. She was much more used to watching than Mrs. Crowe, and much less
affected by it. They opened the door into a small entry with a steep stairway;
they climbed the creaking stairs, and entered the cold upper room on tiptoe.
Mrs. Crowe's heart began to beat very fast as the lamp was put on a high
bureau, and made long, fixed shadows about the walls. She went hesitatingly
toward the solemn shape under its white drapery, and felt a sense of remonstrance
as Sarah Ann gently, but in a business-like way, turned back the thin sheet.
"Seems to me she looks pleasanter and pleasanter,"
whispered Sarah Ann Binson impulsively, as they gazed at the white face
with its wonderful smile. "To-morrow 't will all have faded out. I do believe
they kind of wake up a day or two after they die, and it's then they go."
She replaced the light covering, and they both turned quickly away; there
was a chill in this upper room.
"'T is a great thing for anybody to have got
through, ain't it?" said Mrs. Crowe softly, as she began to go down the
stairs on tiptoe. The warm air from the kitchen beneath met them with a
sense of welcome and shelter.
"I don' know why it is, but I feel as near
again to Tempy down here as I do up there," replied Sister Binson. "I feel
as if the air was full of her, kind of. I can sense things, now and then,
that she seems to say. Now I never was one to take up with no nonsense
of sperits and such, but I declare I felt as if she told me just now to
put some more wood into the stove."
Mrs. Crowe preserved a gloomy silence. She
had suspected before this that her companion was of a weaker and more credulous
disposition than herself. "'T is a great thing to have got through," she
repeated, ignoring definitely all that had last been said. "I suppose you
know as well as I that Tempy was one that always feared death. Well, it's
all put behind her now; she knows what 't is." Mrs. Crowe gave a little
sigh, and Sister Binson's quick sympathies were stirred toward this other
old friend, who also dreaded the great change.
"I'd never like to forgit almost those last
words Tempy spoke plain to me," she said gently, like the comforter she
truly was. "She looked up at me once or twice, that last afternoon after
I come to set by her, and let Mis' Owen go home; and I says, 'Can I do
anything to ease you, Tempy?' and the tears come into my eyes so I couldn't
see what kind of a nod she give me. 'No, Sarah Ann, you can't, dear,' says
she; and then she got her breath again, and says she, looking at me real
meanin', 'I'm only a-gettin' sleepier and sleepier; that's all there is,'
says she, and smiled up at me kind of wishful, and shut her eyes. I knew
well enough all she meant. She'd been lookin' out for a chance to tell
me, and I don' know 's she ever said much afterwards."
Mrs. Crowe was not knitting; she had been listening
too eagerly. "Yes, 't will be a comfort to think of that sometimes," she
said, in acknowledgment.
"I know that old Dr. Prince said once, in evenin'
meetin', that he'd watched by many a dyin' bed, as we well knew, and enough
o' his sick folks had been scared o' dyin' their whole lives through; but
when they come to the last, he'd never seen one but was willin', and most
were glad, to go. ''T is as natural as bein' born or livin' on,' he said.
I don't know what had moved him to speak that night. You know he wa'n't
in the habit of it, and 't was the monthly concert of prayer for foreign
missions anyways," said Sarah Ann; "but 't was a great stay to the mind
to listen to his words of experience."
"There never was a better man," responded Mrs.
Crowe, in a really cheerful tone. She had recovered from her feeling of
nervous dread, the kitchen was so comfortable with lamplight and firelight;
and just then the old clock began to tell the hour of twelve with leisurely
Sister Binson laid aside her work, and rose
quickly and went to the cupboard. "We'd better take a little to eat," she
explained. "The night will go fast after this. I want to know if you went
and made some o' your nice cupcake, while you was home to-day?" she asked,
in a pleased tone; and Mrs. Crowe acknowledged such a gratifying piece
of thoughtfulness for this humble friend who denied herself all luxuries.
Sarah Ann brewed a generous cup of tea, and the watchers drew their chairs
up to the table presently, and quelled their hunger with good country appetites.
Sister Binson put a spoon into a small, old-fashioned glass
of preserved quince, and passed it to her friend.
She was most familiar with the house, and played the part of hostess. "Spread
some o' this on your bread and butter," she said to Mrs. Crowe. "Tempy
wanted me to use some three or four times, but I never felt to. I know
she'd like to have us comfortable now, and would urge us to make a good
supper, poor dear."
"What excellent preserves she did make!" mourned
Mrs. Crowe. "None of us has got her light hand at doin' things tasty. She
made the most o' everything, too. Now, she only had that one old quince-tree
down in the far corner of the piece, but she'd go out in the spring and
tend to it, and look at it so pleasant and kind of expect the old thorny
thing into bloomin'."
"She was just the same with folks," said Sarah
Ann. "And she'd never git more'n a little apernful o' quinces, but she'd
have every mite o' goodness out o' those, and set the glasses up onto her
best-room closet shelf, so pleased. 'T wa'n't but a week ago to-morrow
mornin' I fetched her a little taste o' jelly in a teaspoon; and she says
'Thank ye,' and took it, an' the minute she tasted it she looked up at
me as worried as could be. 'Oh, I don't want to eat that,' says she. 'I
always keep that in case o' sickness.' 'You're goin' to have the good o'
one tumbler yourself,' says I. 'I'd just like to know who's sick now, if
you ain't!' An' she couldn't help laughin', I spoke up so smart. Oh, dear
me, how I shall miss talkin' over things with her! She always sensed things,
and got just the p'int you meant."
"She didn't begin to age until two or three
years ago, did she?" asked Mrs. Crowe. "I never saw anybody keep her looks
as Tempy did. She looked young long after I begun to feel like an old woman.
The doctor used to say 't was her young heart, and I don't know but what
he was right. How she did do for other folks! There was one spell she wasn't
at home a day to a fortnight. She got most of her livin' so, and that made
her own potatoes and things last her through. None o' the young folks could
get married without her, and all the old ones was disappointed if she wa'n't
round when they was down with sickness and had to go. An' cleanin', or
tailorin' for boys, or rug-hookin', -- there was nothin' but what she could do as handy as most. 'I do love
to work,' -- ain't you heard her say that twenty times a week?"
Sarah Ann Binson nodded, and began to clear
away the empty plates. "We may want a taste o' somethin' more towards mornin',"
she said. "There's plenty in the closet here; and in case some comes from
a distance to the funeral, we'll have a little table spread after we get
back to the house."
"Yes, I was busy all the mornin'. I've cooked
up a sight o' things to bring over," said Mrs. Crowe. "I felt 't was the
last I could do for her."
They drew their chairs near the stove again,
and took up their work. Sister Binson's rocking-chair creaked as she rocked;
the brook sounded louder than ever. It was more lonely when nobody spoke,
and presently Mrs. Crowe returned to her thoughts of growing old.
"Yes, Tempy aged all of a sudden. I remember
I asked her if she felt as well as common, one day, and she laughed at
me good. There, when Dan'el begun to look old, I couldn't help feeling
as if somethin' ailed him, and like as not 't was somethin' he was goin'
to git right over, and I dosed him for it stiddy, half of one summer."
"How many things we shall be wanting to ask
Tempy!" exclaimed Sarah Ann Binson, after a long pause. "I can't make up
my mind to doin' without her. I wish folks could come back just once, and
tell us how 't is where they've gone. Seems then we could do without 'em
The brook hurried on, the wind blew about the
house now and then; the house itself was a silent place, and the supper,
the warm fire, and an absence of any new topics for conversation made the
watchers drowsy. Sister Binson closed her eyes first, to rest them for
a minute; and Mrs. Crowe glanced at her compassionately, with a new sympathy
for the hard-worked little woman. She made up her mind to let Sarah Ann
have a good rest, while she kept watch alone; but in a few minutes her
own knitting was dropped, and she, too, fell asleep. Overhead, the pale
shape of Tempy Dent, the outworn body of that generous, loving-hearted,
simple soul, slept on also in its white raiment. Perhaps Tempy herself
stood near, and saw her own life and its surroundings with new understanding.
Perhaps she herself was the only watcher.
Later, by some hours, Sarah Ann Binson woke
with a start. There was a pale light of dawn outside the small windows.
Inside the kitchen, the lamp burned dim. Mrs. Crowe awoke, too.
"I think Tempy 'd be the first to say 't was
just as well we both had some rest," she said, not without a guilty feeling.
Her companion went to the outer door, and opened
it wide. The fresh air was none too cold, and the brook's voice was not
nearly so loud as it had been in the midnight darkness. She could see the
shapes of the hills, and the great shadows that lay across the lower country.
The east was fast growing bright.
"'T will be a beautiful day for the funeral,"
she said, and turned again, with a sigh, to follow Mrs. Crowe up the stairs.
The world seemed more and more empty without the kind face and helpful
hands of Tempy Dent.