Among green New England hills stood an ancient house, many-gabled, mossy-roofed, and quaintly built, but picturesque and pleasant to the eye; for a brook ran babbling through the orchard that encompassed it about, a garden-plat stretched upward to the whispering birches on the slope, and patriarchal elms stood sentinel upon the lawn, as they had stood almost a century ago, when the Revolution rolled that way and found them young.
One summer morning, when the air was full of country sounds, of mowers in the meadow, black-birds by the brook, and the low of kine upon the hill-side, the old house wore its cheeriest aspect, and a certain humble history began.
And a head, brown-locked, blue-eyed, soft-featured, looked in at the open door in answer to the call.
“Just bring me the third volume of ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ there’s a dear. It’s hardly worth while to rouse such a restless ghost as I, when I’m once fairly laid.”
As she spoke, Di pulled up her black braids, thumped the pillow of the couch where she was lying, and with eager eyes went down the last page of her book.
“Yes, Laura,” replied the girl, coming back with the third volume for the literary cormorant, who took it with a nod, still too content upon the “Confessions of a Fair Saint” to remember the failings of a certain plain sinner.
“Don’t forget the Italian cream for dinner. I depend upon it; for it’s the only thing fit for me this hot weather.”
And Laura, the cool blonde, disposed the folds of her white gown more gracefully about her, and touched up the eyebrow of the Minerva she was drawing.
“Let me have plenty of clean collars in my bag, for I must go at once; and some of you bring me a glass of cider in about an hour; — I shall be in the lower garden.”
The old man went away into his imaginary paradise, and Nan into that domestic purgatory on a summer day, — the kitchen. There were vines about the windows, sunshine on the floor, and order everywhere; but it was haunted by a cooking-stove, that family altar whence such varied incense rises to appease the appetite of household gods, before which such dire incantations are pronounced to ease the wrath and woe of the priestess of the fire, and about which often linger saddest memories of wasted temper, time, and toil.
Nan was tired, having risen with the birds, — hurried, having many cares those happy little housewives never know, — and disappointed in a hope that hourly “dwindled, peaked, and pined.” She was too young to make the anxious lines upon her forehead seem at home there, too patient to be burdened with the labor others should have shared, too light of heart to be pent up when earth and sky were keeping a blithe holiday. But she was one of that meek sisterhood who, thinking humbly of themselves, believe they are honored by being spent in the service of less conscientious souls, whose careless thanks seem quite reward enough.
To and fro she went, silent and diligent, giving the grace of willingness to every humble or distasteful task the day had brought her; but some malignant sprite seemed to have taken possession of her kingdom, for rebellion broke out everywhere. The kettles would boil over most obstreperously, — the mutton refused to cook with the meek alacrity to be expected from the nature of a sheep, — the stove, with unnecessary warmth of temper, would glow like a fiery furnace, — the irons would scorch, — the linens would dry, — and spirits would fail, though patience never.
Nan tugged on, growing hotter and wearier, more hurried and more hopeless, till at last the crisis came; for in one fell moment she tore her gown, burnt her hand, and smutched the collar she was preparing to finish in the most unexceptionable style. Then, if she had been a nervous woman, she would have scolded; being a gentle girl, she only “lifted up her voice and wept.”
“Behold, she watereth her linen with salt tears, and bewaileth herself because of much tribulation. But, lo! Help cometh from afar: a strong man bringeth lettuce wherewith to stay her, plucketh berries to comfort her withal, and clasheth cymbals that she may dance for joy.”
The voice came from the porch, and, with her hope fulfilled, Nan looked up to greet John Lord, the house-friend, who stood there with a basket on his arm; and as she saw his honest eyes, kind lips, and helpful hands, the girl thought this plain young man the comeliest, most welcome sight she had beheld that day.
“How good of you, to come through all this heat, and not to laugh at my despair!” she said, looking up like a grateful child, as she led him in.
“I only obeyed orders, Nan; for a certain dear old lady had a motherly presentiment that you had got into a domestic whirlpool, and sent me as a sort of life-preserver. So I took the basket of consolation, and came to fold my feet upon the carpet of contentment in the tent of friendship.”
As he spoke, John gave his own gift in his mother’s name, and bestowed himself in the wide window-seat, where morning-glories nodded at him, and the old butternut sent pleasant shadows dancing to and fro.
His advent, like that of Orpheus in hades, seemed to soothe all unpropitious powers with a sudden spell. The Fire began to slacken, the kettles began to lull, the meat began to cook, the irons began to cool, the clothes began to behave, the spirits began to rise, and the collar was finished off with most triumphant success. John watched the change, and, though a lord of creation, abased himself to take compassion on the weaker vessel, and was seized with a great desire to lighten the homely tasks that tried her strength of body and soul. He took a comprehensive glance about the room; then, extracting a dish from the closet, proceeded to imbrue his hands in the strawberries’ blood.
“Oh, John, you needn’t do that; I shall have time when I’ve turned the meat, made the pudding and done these things. See, I’m getting on finely now: — you’re a judge of such matters; isn’t that nice?”
As she spoke, Nan offered the polished absurdity for inspection with innocent pride.
“Oh that I were a collar, to sit upon that hand!” sighed John, — adding, argumentatively,
“As to the berry question, I might answer it with a gem from Dr. Watts, relative to ‘Satan’ and idle hands,’ but will merely say, that, as a matter of public safety, you’d better leave me alone; for such is the destructiveness of my nature, that I shall certainly eat something hurtful, break something valuable, or sit upon something crushable, unless you let me concentrate my energies by knocking on these young fellows’ hats, and preparing them for their doom.”
Looking at the matter in a charitable light, Nan consented, and went cheerfully on with her work, wondering how she could have thought ironing an infliction, and been so ungrateful for the blessings of her lot.
“Where’s Sally?” asked John, looking vainly for the functionary who usually pervaded that region like a domestic police-woman, a terror to cats, dogs, and men.
“She has gone to her cousin’s funeral, and won’t be back till Monday. There seems to be a great fatality among her relations; for one dies, or comes to grief in some way, about once a month. But I don’t blame poor Sally for wanting to get away from this place now and then. I think I could find it in my heart to murder an imaginary friend or two, if I had to stay here long.”
And Nan laughed so blithely, it was a pleasure to hear her.
“Where’s Di?” asked John, seized with a most unmasculine curiosity all at once.
“She is in Germany with ‘Wilhelm Meister’; but, though ‘lost to sight, to memory clear’; for I was just thinking, as I did her things, how clever she is to like all kinds of books that I don’t understand at all, and to write things that make me cry with pride and delight. Yes, she’s a talented dear, though she hardly knows a needle from a crowbar, and will make herself one great blot some of these days, when the ‘divine afflatus’ descends upon her, I’m afraid.”
And Nan rubbed away with sisterly zeal at Di’s forlorn hose and inky pocket-handkerchiefs.
“Where is Laura?” proceeded the inquisitor.
“Well, I might say that she was in Italy; for she is copying some fine thing of Raphael’s or Michael Angelo’s, or some great creatures or other; and she looks so picturesque in her pretty gown, sitting before her easel, that it’s really a sight to behold, and I’ve peeped two or three times to see how she gets on.”
And Nan bestirred herself to prepare the dish Wherewith her picturesque sister desired to prolong her artistic existence.
“Where is your father?” John asked again, checking off each answer with a nod and a little frown.
“He is down in the garden, deep in some plan about melons, the beginning of which seems to consist in stamping the first proposition in Euclid all over the bed, and then poking a few seeds into the middle of each. Why, bless the dear man! I forgot it was time for the cider. Wouldn’t you like to take it to him, John? He’d love to consult you; and the lane is so cool, it does one’s heart good to look at it.”
John glanced from the steamy kitchen to the shadowy path, and answered with a sudden assumption of immense industry, —
“I couldn’t possibly go, Nan, — I’ve so much on my hands. You’ll have to do it yourself. ‘Mr. Robert of Lincoln’ has something for your private ear; and the lane is so cool, it will do one’s heart good to see you in it. Give my regards to your father, and, in the words of ‘Little Mabel’s’ mother, with slight variation, —
‘Tell the dear old body
This day I cannot run,
For the pots are boiling over
And the mutton isn’t done.’”
“I will; but please, John, go in to the girls and be comfortable; for I don’t like to leave you here,” said Nan.
“You insinuate that I should pick at the pudding or invade the cream, do you? Ungrateful girl, leave me!” And, with melodramatic sternness, John extinguished her in his broad-brimmed hat, and offered the glass like a poisoned goblet.
Nan took it, and went smiling away. But the lane might have been the Desert of Sahara, for all she knew of it; and she would have passed her father as unconcernedly as if he had been an apple-tree, had he not called out, —
“Stand and deliver, little woman!”
She obeyed the venerable highwayman, and followed him to and fro, listening to his plans and directions with a mute attention that quite won his heart.
“That hop-pole is really an ornament now, Nan; this sage-bed needs weeding, — that’s good work for you girls; and, now I think of it, you’d better water the lettuce in the cool of the evening, after I’m gone.”
To all of which remarks Nan gave her assent; the hop-pole took the likeness of a tall figure she had seen in the porch, the sage-bed, curiously enough, suggested a strawberry ditto, the lettuce vividly reminded her of certain vegetable productions a basket had brought, and the bobolink only sung in his cheeriest voice, “Go home, go home! he is there!”
She found John — he having made a free-mason of himself, by assuming her little apron — meditating over the partially spread table, lost in amaze at its desolate appearance; one half its proper paraphernalia having been forgotten, and the other half put on awry. Nan laughed till the tears ran over her cheeks, and John was gratified at the efficacy of his treatment; for her face had brought a whole harvest of sunshine from the garden, and all her cares seemed to have been lost in the windings of the lane.
“Nan, are you in hysterics?” cried Di, appearing, book in hand. “John, you absurd man, what are you doing?”
“I’m helpin’ the maid of all work, please marm.” And John dropped a curtsy with his limited apron.
Di looked ruffled, for the merry words were a covert reproach; and with her usual energy of manner and freedom of speech she tossed “Wilhelm” out of the window, exclaiming, irefully. —