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A short story by Alice Brown

The Auction

Title:     The Auction
Author: Alice Brown [More Titles by Brown]

Miss Letitia Lamson sat by the open fire, at a point where she could easily reach the tongs for the adjusting of any vagabond stick, and Cap'n Oliver Drown, in the opposite angle, held dominion over the poker. No one else would Miss Letitia have admitted to partnership in the managing of her fire; but Cap'n Oliver wielded an undisputed privilege. The poker suited him because he had a way, in the heat of friendly dissension, of smashing a stick much before it was ready to drop apart of its own charring; and that Miss Letitia never resented. She herself was gentle and persuasive with a fire; but the cap'n's more impetuous method seemed to belong to him, and she understood, without much thinking about it, that when he blustered a little, even over a hard-working blaze, it was because he must. He was a tempestuously organized creature, of a martial front and a baby heart, most fortunate in his breadth of shoulder, his height, and the readiness of the choleric blood to come into his cheeks, the eagerness of his husky voice to bluster.

These outward tokens of an untrammeled spirit helped him to hold his own among his kind, though his oldest friend, Miss Letty, prized him for different reasons. In her soul she had always regarded him as "real cunning," and had even, when she passed to bring up the dish of apples from the cellar, or a mug of cider, longed to touch the queer lock that would straggle down from his sparsely covered poll in absurd travesty of a baby's tended curl.

Probably no one, and certainly not the captain himself, knew exactly how Miss Letty regarded him. Miss Letty had been forty-seven years old the last November that ever was, as she had just told him, in talking over her forthcoming departure from the house where she had lived all the forty-seven years; and he knew, she added, just how she felt about the place and all that was in it. The cap'n nodded gravely, thinking, if it paid to say so, that he knew how the town looked upon her. She was good as gold, the neighbors said, and at that moment she especially looked it, in a still, serious way. She was a wholesome woman, with nothing showy to commend her and little to remark except the extreme earnestness of her upward glance. From her unconscious humility she seemed to be always gazing up at people, even when their eyes were on a level with hers. It might have indicated a habit of mind.

It was only to-night that the rumor of her going had reached Cap'n Oliver, and he had come in to talk it over. Miss Letty's heart quieted as she saw him take her father's capacious armchair and settle on the applique cushion, so sacred to him that whenever the cat stole a nap out of it, stray hairs had to be brushed scrupulously off, lest Cap'n Oliver should appear for an evening's gossip.

Miss Letty's house was at the end of a narrow way, bordered by cinnamon-roses and stragglers from old gardens; and some of the neighbors said it would make them as nervous as a witch to be so far from the road. But it did not make Miss Letty nervous. For some reason, perhaps because of long usage, it helped her feel secure.

"Well," she was saying mildly to Cap'n Oliver, "I'm gettin' along in years. What's the use of denyin' it? That's what Ellery said in his letter. 'You're 'most fifty, Aunt Letty,' says he. 'Time to quit livin' alone an' come out here an' let us take care o' you.'"

Cap'n Oliver scowled at the fire as if he found the freshly burning sticks too strong to be smashed, and resented it.

"Well," said he, "I'm fifty-four. Let 'em come to me."

"Now, be you really?" asked Miss Letty, in a pretty surprise, though she knew all the calendar of his life from the day she went to school for the first time and heard him, in the second reader, profusely interpreting a martial declaration to the Romans. "Well, who'd have thought it!"

"I don't know," said Cap'n Oliver, staring into the fire, "as I'm any less of a man because I'm fifty-four years old. S'pose anybody should come to me an' say: 'Now you're fifty-four, cap'n. You better shut up shop an' go an' live in Washington Territory.'"

"It ain't Washington Territory," said Miss Letty, setting him right with a becoming air of humility. "It's Chicago they live to, Ellery an' Mary."

"Be that as it may," said the cap'n, "I've eat off my own plates an' drinked out o' my own cups a good many year, an' if anybody should try to give me a home, I'll bet ye, Letty, I'd be as mad as a hornet. I wisht you'd be mad, too. I'd think more of ye if ye was."

"You've been blest in a good housekeeper," said Miss Letty, in a gentle recall. "It ain't many men left alone as you be that's got anybody strong an' willin' like Sarah Ann Douglas to heft the burden an' lug it right along."

"It ain't Sarah Ann Douglas," said the cap'n. "Sarah Ann's a good girl, worth her weight in gold, an' growin' more valuable every day, but it ain't she that's kep' a roof over my head. I've kep' it myself because I would have it. So there ye be."

"Well, I dunno how 'tis," said Miss Letty. She was staring placidly into the fire. "But I don't seem to have so much spirit as you have, Oliver. Seems to me, if Ellery an' Mary are goin' to feel worried havin' me livin' on here alone, mebbe I'd better sell off an' go back with 'em. That's the way I look at it."

"You never had any way of your own," said the cap'n.

Miss Letty put out a firm, plump hand and presented him with the poker.

"That stick's 'most fell apart," she said pacifically. "Mebbe you better give it a kind of a knock."

The cap'n did it absently and was soothed by the process. Then Miss Letty laid the shortened pieces together in a workmanlike way, and they blazed afresh.

"What you goin' to do with your things?" asked the cap'n, pointing a broad and expressive thumb about the place.

"Sell 'em off. That's what Ellery wrote. He says I could have an auction mebbe a week 'fore Thanksgivin',--that's about now,--an' then when he an' Mary come we could all go over to cousin Liza's to stay, an' start for Chicago from there. Seems if 'twas all complete."

The cap'n was staring at her.

"You ain't goin' to sell off your things without ay or no?" he inquired. "Don't ye prize 'em--the table you've eat off of an' chairs you've set in sence you were little?"

Miss Letty winced, and then recovered herself.

"Yes," she said, "I do prize 'em. But it seems if they'd got to go."

"Why don't ye take 'em with ye?"

"I couldn't do that, Oliver. Ellery has got his home furnished all complete--oak chamber sets an' I dunno what all. There wouldn't be no room for my old sticks."

The cap'n meditated.

"Letty," said he at length, "if there was anybody you ever set by after your own father an' mother, 'twas my wife Mary."

"Yes," said Letty, with one of her warmly earnest looks. "Mary an' I was always a good deal to one another."

"Well, do you know what she said to me once? 'Twas in her last sickness. She was tracin' back over old times, that year you an' I was together so much, goin' to singin'-school an' all. You had a good voice, Letty--voice like a bird. You recollect that year, don't ye?"

"Yes," said Letty. Her voice trembled a little. "I recollect."

"That was the spring Mary kinder broke down an' went into a decline, an' you journeyed off to Dill River, an' made that long visit. An' when you come back, Mary an' I was engaged. Well, I'm gettin' ahead of my story. What Mary said was, 'Oliver,' says she, 'you don't know half how good Letty is. Nobody knows but me. It's her own fault,' says she. 'She gives up too much, an' it makes the rest of us selfish.'"

"Did she say that?" asked Letty. She was awakened to a vivid recognition of something beyond the outer significance of the words. Then she seemed to lay her momentary emotion aside, as if it were something she could cover out of sight. She laughed a little. "Well," she said, "I guess I don't give up much nowadays. I ain't got so very much to give."

Cap'n Oliver rose and carefully arranged the fire as if there would be no one to do it after he was gone. Miss Letty loved that little custom. It seemed a kind of special service, and often, after he had done it and taken his leave, she went to bed earlier than she had intended because, when his fire had burned out, she could not bear to rearrange it.

"Well," said he, "you bear it in mind, what Mary said. Sometimes you give up too much. You've gi'n up all your life, an' now you're goin' to give up to Ellery an' Mary. You think twice, Letty, that's all I say. Think twice."

He shook hands with her gravely, according to their habit, and she heard his steps along the frozen lane. Then she opened the door softly a crack--this was old custom, too--that she might hear them farther. This time she was sure she actually knew when he turned into the road. She went back to the room and stood for a moment, her hand resting on the table, looking at the orderly fire and then at the chair which seemed to belong more to him than to her father. The cat got up from the lounge where, as she knew perfectly well, she had to content herself when Cap'n Oliver came, stretched, and walked over to the chair as if to assert her ownership. She was gathering her muscles for the easy leap when Miss Letty pounced upon her, gently yet with an involuntary decision.

"Don't you get up there, puss," she said jealously. "Do you think you've got to have a share in everything that's goin'?"

Then she laughed at herself in a gentle shame, lifted puss into the seat of desire, and stroked her ruffled dignity, and still laughing, in that indulgent way, sat down to see the fire out before she went to bed.

The next day Miss Letty set about cleaning her house, the actual first step toward leaving it; and suddenly, as she worked, at a moment she could never identify, it came over her that things which had been hers by such long usage that they were as unconsidered as her hand that wrought upon them, were to be hers no more. Then, as she dusted and rubbed, she stopped from time to time, to regard the rooms and their furnishings musingly and wonder if she should remember every smallest touch of their homely charm. She hoped she should at least remember.

All the week she did not see Cap'n Oliver. He was over at the Pinelands, she understood, making his married sister a little visit, as he always did in the fall of the year. If she thought it a little hard that he should be away the last week her home was to wear its accustomed face, she did not say so, even to herself. It seemed to her a poor habit to wish for what was obviously not to be, and all by herself she set upon the day for the sale of her goods and sent for the auctioneer to come.

An auction was a great event throughout the countryside. It ordinarily happened in the spring, as if people had taken all winter to get used to parting with their possessions; and then wagons of every sort came from whatever region the county paper had reached, and families brought their lunches in butter-boxes and went about scrutinizing the household gear that was to come under the hammer, glad at last to know what the house walls had really held; or they visited with their neighbors in little groups. But this was a day of fall sunshine and drifting leaves. Miss Letty, standing at an upper window looking out on her pear tree, the leaves leathery brown, felt a twitching of the lips. She gazed farther over her domain, and it seemed to her that it had never been so pleasant before, so mellowed and softened by the last light of the year. She knew there were neighbors in the yard below, and could not bring herself to glance at them. A line of horses stood there, and, she was sure, all the way up the lane, and she remembered that was the way they had stood when her mother was buried.

Then some one laughed out, in a way she knew, and she looked down and saw Cap'n Oliver. He was staring up at her window, as he answered a neighbor's greeting, and he gave a little oblique nod at her, and stumped along up the path. At once she recalled herself to the day, and went downstairs to meet him. It seemed very simple and plain now he had come.

The neighbors standing in the entry stood aside to let her pass, but she could scarcely notice them. It began to seem as if she must reach Cap'n Oliver, and then all would be well. The cap'n was in vigorous condition. His face looked ruddier, and he was shaking her hand and saying, as if she had endowed him with her state of mind:--

"Soon be over, Letty, soon be over. Don't you give it a thought."

"No," said Miss Letty, choking, "I won't. I won't give it a thought."

But at that moment Hiram Jackson, who knew everything and was fervidly anxious to be the earliest herald, came stammering out his eagerness to tell.

"Say, Miss Letty. Say! you can't have no auction. You won't have no auctioneer. Old Blaisdell's wife's sister's dead, down to East Branch, an' he's gone."

Miss Letty, breathless, looked at the cap'n. "Well, there!" she said. It was in her mind that now she might not need to have the auction at all; and again she wondered, since she must have it, how she could ever make up her mind to it again.

"Oh, dear!" she breathed. "I'm sorry."

The cap'n was frowning at her, only because he was so deep in thought. He threw up his head a little, then, bluffly, as if he had reached a clearer decision he meant to follow out.

"Not a word, Letty," said he. "Now don't you speak a word. I'm goin' to auction 'em off myself."

She stared at him, her lips apart, in protest.

"Why, Oliver," she said, "you ain't an auctioneer."

"Well, I shall be after this bout. Now you come straight into the sittin'-room an' set down in the corner underneath the ostrich egg, where I can see you good an' plain. An' if I come to anything you want to bid in, you hold up your finger, an' I'll knock it down to you. You understand, don't ye, Letty?"

It was hard to realize that she did, she looked so like a frightened little animal, turning her head this way and that, as if she longed for leaves to cover her.

"You understand, Letty, don't ye?" the cap'n was asking with great gentleness; and because she saw at last some sign of distress in his face also, she quieted, in a dutiful fashion, and nodded at him.

"Yes," she said, "I'll be where you can see me. But I sha'n't bid nothin' in. I don't prize 'em 'specially more'n I prize everything together. If I can give up an' go out West, I guess I can get along without my furniture. Shouldn't you think so?"

She went hurrying away across the hall and into the sitting-room, and Cap'n Oliver, his head bent a little, stroked his chin and watched her. Then he followed, making his way through the friendly crowd in hall and sitting-room, and mounted the dry-goods box prepared for the auctioneer. He looked about him and smiled a little, partly because people were gazing at him sympathetically, and partly over his own embarrassing plight. For he was a shy man. Nobody knew it but himself, and he was afraid that after to-day everybody would know.

"Well, neighbors," said he, "I feel as if I was runnin' for President or hog-reeve or somethin', or goin' to speak in meetin'. But I ain't. I'm goin' to auction off Letty Lamson's things, an' I ain't been to an auction myself sence I was seventeen an' set on the fence an' chewed gum an' played 'twas tobacker while old Dan'el Cummings's farm was auctioned off down to the last stick o' timber. Well, I don't know 's I could say how 'twas done, nor how it's commonly done now, but I can take a try at it. Now, here's some books Miss Letty's brought down out o' the attic. I don't know what they be, but they look to me as if they might ha' come out of her gran'ther's lib'ry--old Parson Lamson, ye know."

"Yes," said Miss Letty, from the low rocking-chair a neighbor had insisted on giving up to her, "they did. Many's the time I've watched him porin' over 'em winter nights with two candles."

"There, you see! they're Parson Lamson's books. Many a good word he got out of 'em for his sermons, I'll bet ye a dollar. Why, ye recollect how much Parson Lamson done for this town, how he got up sewin'-circles in war-time an' set everybody to scrapin' lint, an' climbed out of his bed after he couldn't hardly stand with rheumatism to say good-by to the boys when they enlisted, an' how he wrote to 'em an' prayed for 'em--why, them books are wuth their weight in gold. How much am I offered for Parson Lamson's books? A dollar-seventy--Why, bless you, Tim Fry, there ain't a book there but's wuth a dollar-seventy taken by itself! Why, I'll start it myself at thirteen--"

"Oh, don't you do it, Cap'n, don't you do it!" called Miss Letty piercingly. "I don't want 'em to bid on gran'ther's books. I want them books myself, if I have to work my fingers to the bone."

The cap'n took out his beautiful colored handkerchief with Joseph and his brethren on it, and wiped his face.

"Gone!" said he, "to Miss Letty Lamson. Now, ladies an' gentlemen, here's a little chair. I know that chair, an' so do you. It's the chair little Letty Lamson used to set in when she wa'n't more'n three year old, an' her mother used to keep her out under the sweet-bough tree in that little rocker whilst she was washin' or churnin'! What?"

He paused, for Miss Letty had waved a frantic hand. The tears were running down her cheeks. The others had before them the picture of little Letty Lamson swaying and singing to herself, but she saw the brown apple-stems over her head and smelled the bitter-sweetness of the blooms. She saw her mother's plump bare arms as they went up and down with the churn-dasher or in and out of the suds, and felt again the pang of love that used to tell her that mother was the most beautiful creature in the world.

"Why," said she, regardless of her listeners, "I wouldn't part with that chair for a hundred dollars. How ever come you to think I'd part with my little chair?"

The cap'n was looking at her in a frank perplexity.

"The chair," said he, "remains the property of our friend and neighbor, Miss Letty Lamson. Now, ladies an' gentlemen, here's a fire-set--tongs, shovel, an' andirons. That fire-set has been in this very settin'-room as long as I can remember. Summer-times the andirons have been trimmed up with sparrergrass an' the like o' that, an' winter-times they've been shined up complete an' the fire snappin' behind 'em. What am I offered--"

Miss Letty was standing.

"Oh," she cried, "I never meant to put that fire-set in. Why, don't you remember--"

She was facing the cap'n, and the appeal of her voice and look ran straight to him over the heads of the others, like a message. It bade him recall how he and she had sat together and talked of sad things and happy ones, night after night, for many years. The talks had been mostly cheerful, for the cap'n would have it so, and whenever she felt poorly she had taken pains to put on a lively front, because she reasoned that menfolks hated squally weather. Now, with the passing of the andirons and all they stood for, it looked to her as if a door had shut on that pleasant seclusion where they two had communed together, and there would be no more laughter in the world. "Oliver!" she said, and stopped, because the coming words had choked her.

The cap'n was looking at her over his glasses with extreme benevolence.

"Letty," said he, "I guess you better go upstairs an' sort out some o' the bed-linen an' coverlets. I understood they wa'n't quite ready, an' we shall get to 'em before long. If I come to anything down here I think you set by particularly an' that you can pack up as well as not, I'll bid it in for ye."

The neighbors were nodding in a kindly confirmation, and Miss Letty also understood it to be for the best. She made her way through the friendly aisle cleared for her, and Cap'n Oliver waited until he heard her on the stairs above. He drew a heavy breath.

"Now," said he, "I guess we can poke along. It ain't to be wondered at anybody should want to bid in their own things, but it's kind of distressin' to an auctioneer that wants to earn his money. Now here's this high-boy. I'll rattle it off before Miss Letty gets time to have a change of heart an' come down again. What am I offered for old Parson Lamson's high-boy, bonnet-top an' old brasses all complete?"

Timothy Fry, a bright-eyed youth in the background, started it at fifteen dollars. Timothy had hitherto, in his twenty years, shown no sign of enthusiasm more sophisticated than that of shooting birds in their season and roaming the woods in a happy vagabondage while the law was on. When he made his bid there was a great turning of heads. Some looked at him, but others fixed the cap'n with a challenging glance, because he and the cap'n were great cronies, and it had been jocosely said they were thick as thieves, and if one lied t'other would swear to it. But Timothy, in his Sunday suit, with a blue tie and an elaborate scarf-pin, looked the picture of innocence, and it was concluded that, although no one had suspected it, he was thinking of setting up housekeeping for himself. The cap'n's face had an earnest absorption. He was evidently occupied only in being auctioneer.

"Pshaw!" he said, with a conversational ruthlessness. "Fifteen dollars! Why, I'd give that myself an' set it up out there at the cross-roads for autos to bid on while they run. Its wuth--well, I wouldn't say what 'twas wuth. Maybe you'd laugh, an' I ain't goin' to be laughed at, if I be an auctioneer."

"Twenty-five," piped up Deacon Eli King, won by the lure of city rivalry.

"Twenty-six," Timothy offered quietly.

"Twenty-eight," trembled Hannah Bond, who lived alone and braided mats for the city trade. She had always wanted a high-boy, but the sound of her own voice made it seem as if bidding might be almost too steep a price to pay for one.

"Twenty-nine," said Timothy.

After that there was very little competition. Nobody wanted a high-boy except for commercial possibilities, and about the time the bidding reached thirty-five dollars a foreshadowing timidity began to overspread the assembly. An autumn wind came up and set the bare woodbine sprays to beating on the window, to the tune of nearing snow. Summer buyers seemed far away. When one considered the drifted leaves and the cold sky, it looked as if full purses and credulous minds were a midsummer dream, never to come again. So the high-boy, in this moment of commercial panic, was knocked down to Timothy Fry. Five or six chairs followed, and these also became his.

Then the crowd pressed into the west sitting-room, where there was richer treasure. Here, too, Timothy's unmoved voice beat steadily on, raising every bid, and here, too, he came out victor. In the next room also he swept the field, and now at last the crowd murmurously compared certainties, one woman darkly prophesying he never'd pay for them, because he hadn't a cent--not a cent--laid up, and a man returning that nobody need worry. 'Twas only a joke of Tim's; but Miss Letty'd be the one to suffer. Timothy's eyes and ears were closed to comment. His commercial onslaught continued, and when, in the early dusk, horses were unhitched and there was time for comment at the gate, it was clearly understood that, save for what Miss Letty had bid in at the start, Timothy Fry was the possessor of every stick of furniture, every cup and bowl even, and all the ornaments and articles of common usage in the house. Timothy himself had gone. The men had looked about for him, to rally him on his approaching nuptials, the women for the ruthless cross-questioning his madness had invited; but he had slipped away softly, like the wood-creatures he hunted. Even Cap'n Oliver, who might be supposed to know his inner mind, had betaken himself to the porch, and stood there, hat in hand, wiping his heated brow.

"Don't ask me," he returned to queries and conclusions in the mass. "I'm nothin' in the world but an auctioneer. Now I've learned the road, I dunno but I shall go right along auctionin' off everything I come acrost. You better be gettin' along home. Mebbe I'll sell your teams right off under your noses, if the fit comes over me."

"Timothy ain't goin' to be married, is he?" inquired aunt Belinda Soule, who sent items to the "County Star."

"S'pose so, sometime," concurred the cap'n jovially. "It's the end o' mortals here below. Dunno but I shall be married myself, if it comes to that."

"When's he goin' to take his furniture away?" continued aunt Belinda, with the persistence of her kind.

"Don't know. Mebbe he ain't goin' to take it. Mebbe he's goin' to marry Letty. 'Pears to me I heard a kind of a rumor she was goin' to marry 'fore long."

Aunt Belinda shook her head at him.

"Don't talk so about a nice respectable woman," said she. "An' she goin' to move away from us an' live nobody knows where. It's a shame."

The cap'n burst into a laugh that aunt Belinda privately thought coarse, and turned back into the house, while she joined a group of matrons and went away home, discoursing volubly.

Cap'n Oliver stopped for a minute at the window in the empty parlor, watching their departing bulk, and then went into the hall, where the tread of many invading feet had left the moist autumn soil, with bits of grass and now and then a yellowed leaf.

"Letty!" he called roundly.

There was a light step above, and then Miss Letty's voice, a very little voice suited to the dusk and stillness, came down the stairs.

"Be they gone?" she faltered.

"Yes," said the cap'n, "they're gone, every confounded one of 'em."

"Did they take the things with 'em?" inquired Miss Letty. "I didn't dast to look. I knew I couldn't help feelin' it if I see 'em all loaded up with things I knew."

"You come down here, Letty," said the cap'n. "I want to say a word to you."

She did come, wondering, her face sodden with tears, and a miserable little ball of a wet handkerchief in her grasp. The cap'n met her at the foot of the stairs and, without warning, took her by the shoulders and shook her slightly, why, he did not know, except perhaps as a warning to put a prettier face on the matter. Then he drew her into his arms with a conclusiveness it would have been difficult to resist, and kissed her soft wet cheeks. He kissed them a good many times, and ended by touching her trembling mouth.

"There," said the cap'n, "I don't know 's I ever kissed you before, Letty, but I expect to a good many times again, off 'n' on."

"Oh, yes, you did once," said Miss Letty, with unexpected frankness and simplicity. "'Twas the eighteenth of November, thirty years ago this very fall."

The cap'n looked at her and broke into a wondering laugh.

"Letty," said he, "you're the beateree, an' I'm a nat'ral-born fool. You're goin' to marry me right off as soon as I can get the license."

"An' live over to your house an' not go to Chicago?" inquired Miss Letty beatifically.

"Course you won't go to Chicago, unless we go together some spring or fall an' make 'em a visit an' show 'em we've got suthin' to live for as well as they have."

"Then I needn't have sold my furniture," said she, with a happy turn of logic.

"Sold your furniture? You ain't sold it. I had Tim Fry bid it all in for me, an' I was goin' to have it crated up an' tell Ellery, when he come, he'd got to let me pay it on to Chicago, whether or no. An' then when I stood up there like a rooster on a fence, auctionin' of it off, it all come over me 'twa'n't the furniture an' the house I should miss. 'Twas you. I made up my mind then an' there I'd keep ye if I had to hopple ye by the ankle like Tolman's jumpin' steer."

Miss Letty withdrew from him and took a timid step to the west-room door, where, though the dusk was gathering, she could find the familiar shapes of her beloved possessions.

"I don't see how in the world I ever made up my mind I could," she said, a happy tremor in her voice.

It sounded to Cap'n Oliver strangely like a voice out of his past, unquelled by fears and abnegations. It was the voice that used to greet him when, in his splendid blue suit and shining satin tie, he had called for Letty Lamson, some thirty years ago, to take her in his sleigh to singing-school.

"Could what?" he inquired hilariously, out of his dream where the present made the fire on the hearth and the past lent him figures to sit by it.

"Why, get along without my old things."

"I s'pose you never so much as thought you couldn't get along without me," suggested the cap'n, in a kindly rallying.

"Yes," said Miss Letty soberly, "I did think that. I knew I couldn't."

[The end]
Alice Brown's short story: Auction