Authors: Grace Livingston Hill
The night was hot and dark, for the moon rose late. The perfume of the petunia bed hung heavy in the air, and the katydids and crickets kept up a continual symphony in the orchard close to the house. Its music floated in at the open window, and called to the girl alluringly, as she sat in the darkened upper room patiently rocking Emmeline's baby to sleep in the little wooden cradle.
She had washed the supper dishes. The tea towels hung smoothly on the little line in the woodshed, the milk pans stood in a shining row ready for the early milking, and the kitchen, swept and garnished and dark, had settled into its nightly repose. The day had been long and full of hard work, but now as soon as the baby slept Phoebe would be free for a while before bedtime.
Unconsciously her foot tapped faster on the rocker in her impatience to be out, and the baby stirred and opened his round eyes at her, murmuring sleepily:
" Pee-bee, up-e-knee! Pee-bee, up-e-knee! " Which being interpreted was a demand to be taken up on Phoebe's knee. But Phoebe, knowing from experience that she would be tied for the evening if she acceded to this request, toned her rocking into a sleepy motion, and the long lashes suddenly dropped again upon the fat little cheeks. At last the baby was asleep.
With careful touch Phoebe slowed the rocking until the motion was scarcely perceptible, waiting a minute in hushed attention to hear the soft regular breathing after the cradle had stopped. Then she rose noiselessly from her chair, and poised on tiptoe over the cradle to listen once more and be sure, before she stole softly from the room.
As she reached the door the baby heaved a long, deep sigh, doubtless of satisfaction with its toys in dreamland, and Phoebe paused, her heart standing still for an instant lest, after all, that naughty baby would waken and demand to be taken up. How many times had she just reached the door, on other hot summer nights, and been greeted by a loud cry which served to bring Emmeline to the foot of the stairs, with: " I declare, Phoebe Deane! I should think if you would half try you could keep that poor child from crying all night!" and Phoebe would be in for an hour or two of singing, and rocking and amusing the fretful baby.
But the baby slept on, and Phoebe stepped cautiously over the creaking boards in the floor, and down the stairs lightly, scarcely daring yet to breathe. Like a fairy she slipped past the sitting-room door, scarcely daring to glance in lest she would be seen, yet carrying with her the perfect mental picture of the room and its occupants as she glided out into the night.
Albert, her half-brother, was in the sitting-room. She could see his outline through the window: Albert, with his long, thin, kindly-careless face bent over the village paper he had brought home just before supper. Emmeline sat over by the table close to the candle, with her sharp features intent upon the hole in Johnny's stocking. She had been threading her needle as Phrebe passed the door, and the fretful lines between her eyes were intensified by the effort to get the thread into the eye of the needle.
Hiram Green was in the sitting-room also. He was the neighbor whose farm adjoined Albert Deane's on the side next the village. He was sitting opposite the hall door, his lank form in a splint-bottomed chair tilted back against the wall. His slouch hat was drawn down over his eyes and his hands were in his pockets. He often sat so with Albert in the evening. Sometimes Emmeline called Phoebe in and gave her some darning or mending, and then Phoebe had to listen to Hiram Green's dull talk, to escape which she had fallen into the habit of slipping out into the orchard after her work was done. But it was not always that she could elude the vigilance of Emmeline, who seemed to be determined that Phoebe should not have a moment to herself, day or night.
Phoebe wore a thin white frock—that was one of Emmeline's grievances, those thin white frocks that Phoebe would insist on wearing afternoons, so uneconomical and foolish; besides, they would wear out some time. Emmeline felt that Phoebe should keep her mother's frocks till she married, and so save Albert having to spend so much on her setting out. Emmeline had a very poor opinion of Phoebe's dead mother; her frocks had been too fine and too daintily trimmed to belong to a sensible woman, Emmeline thought.
Phosbe flashed across the path of light that fell from the door and into the orchard like some winged creature. She loved the night with its sounds and its scents and its darkness—darkness like velvet, with depths for hiding and a glimpse of the vaulted sky set with far-away stars. Soon the summer would be gone, the branches would be bare against the stark whiteness of the snow, and all her solitude and dreaming would be over until the spring again. She cherished every moment of the summer as if it were worth rich gold. She loved to sit on the fence that separated the orchard from the meadow, and wonder what the rusty-throated crickets were saying as they chirped or moaned. She liked to listen to the argument about Katy, and wonder over and over again what it was that Katy-did and why she did it, and whether she really did it at all as the little green creatures in the branches declared, for all the world the way people were picked to pieces at the sewing bees. That was just the way they used to talk about that young Mrs. Spaf- ford. Nobody was safe from gossip—for they said Mrs. Spafford belonged to the old Schuyler family. When she came a bride to the town, how cruel tongues were, and how babbling and irresponsible, like the katydids!
The girl seated herself in her usual place, leaning against the high crotch of the two upright rails which supported that section of fence. It was cool and delicious here, with the orchard for screening and the wide pasture meadow for scenery. The sky was powdered with stars, the fragrant breath of the pasture fanned her cheek, the tree-toads joined in the nightly concert, with a deep frog-bass keeping time. A stray night-owl with a piccolo note, the far-away bleat of a sheep, and the deep sweet moo-oo of a cow thrilled along her sensitive soul as some great orchestra might have done. Then, suddenly, there came a discordant crackle of the apple branches and Hiram Green stepped heavily out from the shadows and stood beside her.
Phoebe had never liked Hiram Green since the day she had seen him shove his wife out of his way and say to her roughly, " Aw, shut up, can't you ? Women are forever talking about what they don't understand!" She had watched the faint color nicker into the white-cheeked wife's face and then nicker out whitely again as she tried to laugh his roughness off before Phoebe, but the girl had never forgotten it. She had been but a little girl, then, very shy and quiet, almost a stranger in the town, for her mother had just died and she had come to live with the half-brother who had been married so long that he was almost a stranger to her. Hiram Green had not noticed the young girl then, and had treated his wife as if no one were present. But Phoebe had remembered. She had grown to know and love the sad wife, to watch her gentle, patient ways with her boisterous boys, and her blowsy little girl who looked like Hiram and had none of her mother's delicacy; and her heart used to fill with indignation over the rude ways of the coarse man with his wife.
Hiram Green's wife had been dead a year. Phoebe had been with her for a week before she died, and watched the stolid husband with never a shadow of anxiety in his eyes while he told the neighbors that " Annie would be all right in a few days. It was her own fault, anyway, that she got down sick. She would drive over to see her mother when she wasn't able." He neglected to state that she had been making preserves and jelly for his special benefit, and had prepared dinner for twelve men who were harvesting for a week. He did not state that she only went to see her mother once in six months, and it was her only holiday.
Phoebe had listened, and inwardly fumed over the blindness and hardness of his nature. When Annie died he blamed her as he had always done, and hinted that he guessed now she was sorry she hadn't listened to him and been content at home. As if any kind of heaven wouldn't be better than Hiram Green's house to his poor disappointed wife.
But Phoebe had stood beside the dying woman as her life nickered out and heard her say: " I ain't sorry to go, Phoebe, for I'm tired. I'm that tired that I'd rather rest through eternity than do anything else. I don't think Hiram will miss me much, and the children ain't like me. They never took after me, only the baby that died. They didn't care when I went away to mother's. I don't think anybody in the world will miss me, unless it's mother, and she has the other girls, and never saw me much anyway now. Maybe the baby that died will want me."
And so the weary eyes had closed, and Phoebe had been glad to fold the thin, work-worn hands across her breast and feel that she was at rest. The only expression of regret that Hiram gave was, " It's going to be mighty unhandy, her dying just now. Harvesting ain't over yet, and the meadow lot ought to be cut before it rains or the hull thing! be lost." Then Phoebe felt a fierce delight in the fact that everything had to stop for Annie. Whether Hiram would or no, for very decency's sake, the work must stop and the forms of respect must be gone through with even though his heart was not in it. The rain came, too, to do Annie honor, and before the meadow lot was cut.
The funeral over, the farm work had gone on with doubled vigor, and Phoebe overheard Hiram tell Albert that " burying Annie had been mighty expensive 'count o' that thunder-storm coming so soon, it spoiled the whole south meadow; and it was just like Annie to upset everything. If she had only been a little more careful and not gone off to her mother's on pleasure, she might have kept up a little longer till harvest was over."
Phoebe had been coming into the sitting-room with her sewing when Hiram said that—it was a fall evening, not six weeks after Annie had been laid to rest—and she looked indignantly at her brother to see if he would not give Hiram a rebuke; but he only leaned back against the wall and said, " Such things were to be expected in the natural course of life," he supposed. Phoebe turned her chair so that she would not have to look at Hiram. She despised him. She wished she knew how to show him what a despicable creature he was, but as she was only a young girl she could do nothing but turn her back. Perhaps Phoebe never realized how effective that method might be. At least she never knew that all that evening Hiram Green watched the back of her shining head, its waves of bright hair bound about with a ribbon, and conforming to the beautiful shape of her head with exquisite grace. He studied the shapely shoulders and graceful movements of the indignant girl as she patiently mended Johnny's stockings, let down the hem of Alma's linsey-woolsey, and set a patch on the seat of Bertie's trousers, with her slender capable fingers. He remembered that Annie had been " pretty " when he married her, and it gratified him to feel that he had given her this tribute in his thoughts. He felt himself to be a truly sorrowful widower. At the same time he could see the good points in the girl Phoebe, even though she sat with her indignant shoulders toward him. In fact, the very sauciness of those shoulders, as the winter went by, attracted him more and more. Annie had never dared be saucy nor indifferent. Annie had loved him from the first and had unfortunately let him know it too soon and too often. It was a new experience to have some one indifferent to him. He rather liked it, knowing as he did that he had always had his own way when he got ready for it.
As the winter went by Hiram had more and more spent his evenings with the Deanes and Phoebe had more and more spent her evenings with Johnny, or the cradle, or in her own room—anything as an excuse to get away from the constant unwelcome companionship. Then Emmeline had objected to the extravagance of an extra candle; and moreover, Phoebe's room was cold. It was not that there was not plenty of wood stored in the Deane wood-house, or that there was need for rigid economy, but Emmeline was "thrifty," and could see no sense in a girl wasting a candle when one light would do for all, so the days went by for Phoebe full of hard work, and constant companionship, and the evenings also with no leisure, and no seclusion. Phoebe had longed and longed for the spring to come, when she might get out into the night alone, and take long deep breaths that were all her own, for it seemed as if even her breathing were ordered and supervised.
But through it all, strange to say, it had never once entered Phoebe's head that Hiram was turning his thoughts toward her, and so, when he came and stood there beside her in the darkness he startled her merely because he was something she disliked, and she shrank from him as one would shrink from a snake in the grass.
Then Hiram came closer to her and her heart gave one warning thud of alarm as she shrank away from him.
" Phoebe," he said, boldly, putting out his hand to where he supposed her hands would be in the darkness—though he did not find hers, " ain't is about time you and I was comin' to an understandin' ? "