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A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Gospel

Title:     The Gospel
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

For the first few days of her stay there, she thought little enough of the strangeness of the situation. To think of it, to marvel at the neat stillness, the quiet precision of all the domestic arrangements, would have been to let her mind dwell on just what she had to avoid. She was sick to her very soul of all that the words "domestic arrangements" implied; sick with an actual spiritual nausea. It was honestly no exaggeration to say that she would gladly have died rather than take the trouble to arrange the details of living.

So every morning she woke when her dreams ended and lay staring idly, through the cross-bars of the primitive window-netting, at the swaying, sinking, tree-tops, and the floating white above them, so white between the blue and green; and then her breakfast came, fresh and chill and shining, with a flaming nasturtium on the snowy linen; and then a dreamy time, when thought ranged among stray lines of poetry and memories of childhood; and then some one rubbed and kneaded and ironed out her tired muscles and she slept again. Sometimes foaming milk came in a beaded brown pitcher that smelt of dairies; sometimes luscious, quartered fruits, smothered in clotting cream, tempted a palate nearly dulled beyond recall; sometimes rich, salted broth steamed in a dim, blue bowl till she regretted to see the bottom of it.

And just at that time she was lifted into a long, basket chair and, propped in lavendered pillows, looked dreamily into the hills and pastures rolling out in front of her. Cows wandered here and there, birds swooped lazily through the June blue, the faintest scent of grapevines hung on the wind. But no human figures blotted the landscape; only the faint, musical clash of distant scythes (a sound as natural as the cawing and lowing and interminable twittering of the busy animal world all around) spoke of men.

Then one day (it might have been a week's time) she caught herself listening for sounds of household labour. Where was the breaking, the slamming, the whistling, the quarrelling, the brushing and the rattling that these thin partitions ought to filter through? Simply, it was not. A little faint, suspicious worry came to her: the house was a tomb, then? Did it have to be? Was she as bad as that?

And when her tray came next, some kind of savoury stew, by now, with fresh picked strawberries on a sea-green grape leaf, she looked directly at the woman who brought it to the bed.

"How still this house is!" she said, and flushed with weakness, for it was her first real sentence, and it occurred to her that only little sighs of fatigue or groans of relief and halting exclamations of, "That feels good," or "No more, thanks," had passed her lips.

The woman smiled. She wore a straight gown of some cool stripe of white and grey and her eyes were grey.

"We live in a quiet place," she said, and lifted the pillows higher.

But it seemed that after that--perhaps it was because she listened--she began to hear faint sounds. The clear falling of poured out water, and the tinkling of dish on dish, now and then, and later, the soft murmur of exchanging women's voices.

Another day she spoke of the freshness of her morning egg, and that afternoon she leaned nearer the casement to catch the cluck of a motherly hen with her brood, and smiled at the scurry of wing and feet as grain was scattered somewhere.

It must have been at that time that the doctor came up to see her, a big brown man, whose beard hid his smile when he chose, but nothing could cover the keen, reading beam of the eye.

"I see you are doing well," he said.

"It is wonderful," she answered him, "but I am sure it is not the world."

"The world is very large," he said, and went away.

"And I never asked about--about anybody," she murmured, her eyes filling, "but I am sure they are all right, or he would have said!"

She was ashamed, afterward, to remember for how long she had thought the woman who attended on her a servant. And yet she did think her so until the morning when it suddenly occurred to her that it was not possible any ordinary servant should be so deft and self-contained at once: servants were not so calm--that was it, so calm. Even the best of them were hurried and anxious, and if they were old and valued, they got on one's nerves the more: one had to consider them. Of course, this was a trained nurse. She had decided suddenly that she felt equal to rising for her bath, and congratulated herself on discerning the nurse in time, for now she could ask for help, if she needed it.

"If you will show me the bathroom," she said, "and will be there to help me over the edge of the tub, in case I feel weak----"

"I will be there," said the woman, "but I must get it ready: the tub is not high."

And when she stepped into the next room she realised, with a little smile, how far she was from white porcelain and tiled walls. On the scrubbed deal floor there stood a white deal tub, clean as new milk, round and copper bound. Towels and soaps and sponges were there in plenty, and great metal ewers full of hot and cold water, and nothing else but one chair in all the scrubbed cleanliness. The woman poured the water over her as she crouched in the fragrant wooden pool and dried her gently and quickly in towels pressed away in lavender, with the deft, sure movements of one well practised in her business; but when she lay, just happily tired from the new exertion, among the fragrant sheets, a tiny shadow seemed about to haunt her sleep. She placed the little discomfort with difficulty, but at length expressed it.

"That tub is very heavy, now," she said drowsily. "Is there a man to lift it?"

For the first time the woman smiled. Till then she had been hands and feet merely, tireless and tactful, but impersonal: now she smiled, and her face was very sweet.

"I shall empty it," she said. "I am quite strong. Go to sleep, now."

Very soon again the doctor came, and at her quiet request gave her news of husband, children and home; all well, it seemed, and smoothly ordered. Days of absolute stillness had broken the habit of insistent speech, and many things that once would have said themselves before she thought, now halted behind her lips and seemed not worth the muscular effort. But one thing she did mention.

"Ought not the nurses here to have more help?" she asked. "Mine lifts out my bath-water every day. Are there not servants enough? I could pay for it..."

"There are no servants here at all," he said, "and there is nobody you could pay more than you are already paying."

"Then they are all nurses?"

"There are no trained nurses here, if you mean that," he said.

"Then who--what is the woman who takes care of me?" she asked, vaguely displeased.

"She is one of the daughters of the house," he said. "She is no more a nurse than her mother is a cook or her sister a laundress. They do what is to be done, that is all. Each has done and can do the others' tasks."

She felt in some way corrected, yet it was hard to say in what she had offended. But Dr. Stanchon was an odd man in many ways. "All the same," she persisted, "I think I had better have a nurse, now. I shall feel more comfortable. Ask Miss Jessop if she could come out to me. I believe I could get along with her, now. I'm afraid I was childish, before."

But he only shook his head. "The time for Miss Jessop has passed, dear friend," he said quietly. "No nurse ever comes here."

"Then this is a private house," she began again, "their own home. And I do not even know their names!"

"It is private because it is their own home--just that," he said. "That is what a home is. It is a simple fact, but one that seems not to have been included in your education."

"Why, Dr. Stanchon, what can you mean?" she cried. "My mother's hospitality----"

"I mean that I do not consider an art museum a home, no matter how highly the chef is paid," he said shortly.

"But there is the place on the Hudson----"

"That is a country club, nothing more," he interrupted. "Your mother dismissed a butler once, because, though he offered eight liqueurs to a guest, the guest asked for a ninth and the butler had neglected to order it. I have attended her there for a really painful attack of sciatica when none of her visitors knew that anything ailed her, though she had been away from them for forty-eight hours."

"But that is mother's house, not mine," she protested, "and I do not pretend to keep up----"

"You do not pretend to, because you could not do it," he interrupted again. "Your father is a multi-millionaire and your husband is not. But it is your constant ideal, nevertheless, and your failures to realise it, even in the degree to which you have tried, have sapped your vitality to a point which even you can understand now, I should suppose."

She looked doubtingly at him.

"Do you really mean, Dr. Stanchon," she began, "that this dreadful attack----"

"'Attack'!" he muttered brusquely, "'attack'! One would imagine I had pulled you through pneumonia or peritonitis! If, after constant sapping and mining and starving-out the garrison, it gives way and falls defeated, you choose to call the day of surrender a yielding to an attack, then you have had an attack."

And again he left her abruptly, a prey to creeping, ugly doubts. For she had been very sorry for herself and the fatality that had stranded her on the dreary coast where so many of her friends had met mysterious wreckage.

"Has the doctor sent patients here before?" she asked her attendant the next morning, when she sat, fresh and fragrant in her invalid ruffles, at the window, watching the poultry yard, which somehow she had not noticed before, and the cow browsing beside the brook where the white ducks paddled, gossiping.

"Oh, yes, often," said the busy sister (she was Hester; the other was Ann). "We are never without some one. So many people are ill in the city. Now I am going to clean your room, and perhaps you will feel like stepping out on the balcony?"

Surprised, for she had not seen any such addition to the simple frame house, she stepped through a window cut down somewhat clumsily, but efficiently enough, and hinged to swing outward, onto a shallow, roofed loggia with vines grown from boxes on the sides and two long, low chairs faced to the view of the hills. In one of these sat a woman, slender and motionless, whose glistening white wrapper seemed to melt in the strong sun into the white of the painted wooden balustrade that protected the balcony. Flushed with an invalid's quick irritation and resentful of any other occupant, for her raw nerves were not yet healed, she was about to turn back hastily into the room when a second glance assured her that it was only one of her own white wrappers draped along the chair. The face and hands that her vexed irritation must have supplied amazed her, in retrospect, with their distinctness of outline, and she trembled at her weak nerves.

From inside the room came the swishing of water and the sound of scrubbing; soon the strong clean flavour of soapy boards floated out, and the flick of the drops into the pail; from where she sat she could see out of the corner of her eye the fluff of snowy suds that foamed over the shining bucket as Hester rubbed the milky cake of soap with the bristles. Her strong strokes had a definite rhythm and set the time for the stern old hymn-tune she crooned. The listener on the balcony obeyed her growing interest and turned her chair to face into the room. The kilted Hester, on her knees, her brow bound with a glistening towel, threw her body forward with the regularity of a rower, her strong, muscled arms shot out in a measured curve; on her little island of dry boards she sang amid her clean, damp sea, high-priestess of a lustral service as old as the oldest temple of man, and the odour of her incense, the keen, sweet freshness of her cleansing soap, rose to the heaven of her hymn.

"You sing as if you liked it," said the watcher.

"And so I do," said Hester. "Things must be clean, and I like to make them so."

"Why, you are doing just what we did in the gymnasium the year I went there," cried the invalid, with the first real interest she had felt in anything outside herself. "We kneeled on the floor and swept our arms out just like that!"

"If there were many of you, it must soon have been clean," said Hester, moving the rug she knelt on deftly. "Oh, we were not cleaning it," said the invalid smiling. "It was only the same motion."

"Indeed? Then why were you doing it?" Hester asked, turning her flushed face in surprise toward the ruffled whiteness in the window.

She stared at the worker, but even as she stared she frowned uncomfortably.

"Why, for--for exercise--for strength," she said slowly, and coloured under Hester's smile....

Later in the day she moved out again upon the balcony, regretful for the first time that no one of her own world could be there to talk with her. Hester, wiping bed, chair and mirror with the white cloth that never seemed to soil, whipping the braided rag rugs below her on the green with strong, firm strokes that recalled the scheduled blows she had practised at a swinging leather ball, vexed her, somehow, and she was conscious of a whimsical wish that her delusion of the white wrapper stretched along the reclining chair had proved a reality. The soft grey shadows of early evening covered the little balcony, the chairs were plunged in it, and it was with a cry of apology that she stepped into a grey gown, so soft and thin that she had taken it for a deeper shadow, merely, and had actually started to seat herself in the long chair where the slender woman lay. Her own body appeared so robust beside this delicate creature's that pity smothered the surprise at her quiet presence there, and the swift feeling that she herself was by no means the frailest of the doctor's patients added to her composure as she begged pardon for her clumsiness.

"I thought I was the only patient here," she explained. "Miss Hester and Miss Ann have a wonderful way of getting quiet and privacy in their little house, haven't they?"

"Is it so little?" the stranger asked. She felt embarrassed, suddenly, and tactless, for she had taken it for granted that they were both of the class to which the modest cottage must seem small.

"I only meant," she added hastily, for it seemed that at any cost this gentle, pale creature must not be hurt, "I only meant that to take in strangers, in this way, and to keep the family life entirely separate requires, usually, much more space."

"But do they keep it separate--the family life!"

("Evidently," she thought, "they have not been able to give her a private room, like mine, or perhaps she eats with them.")

"I think that is how they do it," the stranger went on, "by not having any separate life, really. It is all one life, with them."

"All one life..." the other repeated, vaguely, recalling, for some reason, the doctor's words, "but, of course, in a larger establishment that would not be possible. With servants..."

"I suppose that is why they have no servants," said the stranger.

There was a soft assurance in the tone, soft, but undoubtedly there. And yet what assurance should a woman have who did not find this house small? She discovered that she was still a little irritable, for she spoke brusquely.

"People do not employ servants, I imagine, for the very simple reason that they cannot afford to."

"Not always," said the other quietly. "I have known Ann and Hester many years, and there has never been a time when they could not have afforded at the least one servant."

"Tastes differ, I suppose," she answered shortly. "I should have supposed that every woman would take the first opportunity of relieving herself from the strain of household drudgery, which any ignorant person can accomplish."

"Have you found so many of them to accomplish it for you?"

She flushed angrily.

"Dr. Stanchon has been talking about me!" she cried with hot memories of her interminable domestic woes.

"Indeed not," said the grey lady. "I knew nothing.... I only asked if ignorant persons really accomplished their drudgery to any one's satisfaction nowadays? They used not to when--when I employed them...."

So she had been wrecked beyond repair, this shadowy, large-eyed thing! She spoke as of a day long over. The other woman felt ashamed of her suspicion.

"No, indeed," she answered wearily, "that was an exaggeration, naturally. But they might, if they would take pains. They are paid enough for it, heaven knows."

"Ann and Hester are not paid," said the voice from the dim chair. "Perhaps that is why they take pains."

The woman nodded fretfully.

"That is all very well," she said, "and sounds very poetic, but it would be rather impractical for us all to do, on that account."

"Impractical? Impractical? "

A hint of gentle laughter from the long chair. "But it seems to me that Ann and Hester are the least impractical of people--are they not? They are surely less harassed than you were?"

("I must have been very sleepy: I don't remember telling her all about it," thought the woman, "but she seems to know.")

"Yes," she said aloud, "I was harassed. Nearly to death, it seems. I am hardly myself yet. I suppose you have been through it all?"

"I have been through a great deal, yes."

The shadows deepened and a thin, new moon sank lower and lower. The grey figure grew less and less distinct to her, and before she knew it, she slept. When she woke, she was alone on the balcony, and the sunlight lay in blue-white pools upon the floor. For the first time in her life she had slept alone under the stars, with no one to settle her into her dreams or to attend on her when she woke from them, and suspicion and displeasure darkened for a moment the freshest awakening she could remember. Had they really forgotten her? No one seemed to be coming, and after a quarter of an hour's impatient waiting she left the long, couch-like chair, opened the door of her room and went with quick determined steps down the narrow hall, down the stairs, straight to the sounds of women's voices in the distance. They led her through a shining kitchen, where a patient, old clock presided, through a cool, dim buttery into a primitive laundry, or washing shed, with deal tubs and big copper cauldrons and a swept stone floor. But no odour of the keen cleanliness she had learned to connect with Hester's soap ruled the wash-house this morning: a breeze from Araby the blest blew through the piles of dewy crimson strawberries that heaped themselves in yellow bowls, in silver-tinted pans, in leaf-lined wicker baskets, and brought all the gardens of June into the bare, stone room. Hester's quick fingers twisted the delicate hulls from the scarlet, scented globes, and near her, measuring mounds of glittering sugar, stood a broader, squarer woman with greying hair, who smiled gravely at her, facing her.

"Here she is, now," said this woman, whom she guessed to be Ann, and Hester, turning to her, added, as one who finishes a sentence, merely,

"And I was just getting ready a dish of strawberries for you. Mother has stepped out for your egg: the brown hen has just laid. The rolls are in the oven and mother has the chocolate ready. I thought you would be early this morning, you were sleeping so soundly."

"Early? early?" she repeated, taken aback by their easy greeting of her. "Why, what do you mean?" And just then the clock struck seven, deliberately.

"Why--why, I thought--then you did not forget--" she began, uncertainly.

"There is nothing like the open air for sleeping, when one is ready for it," said Hester. "Did you not notice the cover I threw over you? You must have gone off before it grew dark, quite."

"Oh, no, because I was with--" then she stopped abruptly. For it dawned on her that the other woman must have been a dream, since she perceived that she was unwilling to ask about her, so faintly did that conversation recall itself to her, so uncertain her memory proved as to how that other came and went, or when.

"It was a dream, of course," she thought, and said, a shade resentful still,

"I never slept--that way--before."

"It seems to suit you," said Ann briskly, "for you have never left your room till now."

Then it dawned on her suddenly.

"Why, I am well!" she said.

"Very nearly, I think," Hester answered her. "Will you have your breakfast under the tree, while sister picks the berries?"

To this she agreed gladly and found herself, still wondering at the new strength that filled her, under a pear-tree, in a pleasant patch of shadow, eating with relish from Hester's morning tray. Ann knelt not far from her in the sun, not too hot at this hour for a hardy worker, and soon her low humming rose like a bee's note from under her broad hat.

"The wash is all ready for you, sister, on the landing," she called. "Tell mother her new towels bleached to a marvel: they are on the currant-bushes now. I'll wet them down and iron them off while the syrup is cooking, I think--I know she's anxious to handle them."

"Are you always busy, Miss Ann?" her guest inquired, for Ann's fingers never stopped even while she looked toward the house-door.

"Always in the morning, of course," she answered, directly. "Every one must be, if things are to get done."

"But in the afternoon you are ironing, and Miss Hester tells me you do a great deal in the garden. When do you rest?"

"In my bed," said Ann briefly.

She was less sweetly grave than her sister, and it was easy to see that her tongue was sharper. She would not have been so soothing to an invalid, but the woman under the pear-tree had her nerves better in hand by now, and felt, somehow, upon her mettle to prove to this broad, curt Ann that there were tasks in the world beyond her sturdy rule-of-thumb.

"But surely every one needs time to think--to consider," she began gently. "Don't you find it so?"

"To plan out the day, do you mean?" said Ann, moving to a new patch. "I generally do that at night before I go to sleep."

"No, no," she explained, "not the day's work--that must be done, of course--but the whole Scheme, life, and one's relation to it..."

"I don't feel any call to study that out," said Ann. "I haven't the headpiece for it."

"No, but some people have, and so----"

"Have you?" said Ann.

She bit her lip.

"It is surely every woman's duty to cultivate herself as far as she can," she began. "Nobody denies that nowadays."

Ann was silent.

"Don't you agree with me?" the woman persisted. "You surely know what I mean?"

"Oh, yes, I know what you mean, well enough," Ann said at last. "I know you have to cultivate strawberries, if you want to get more of 'em--and bigger. The question is, what do you get out of it?"

A flood of explanations pressed to her lips, but just as they brimmed over, some quick surmise of Ann's shrewd replies choked them back. After all, what had she got out of it? What that she could show? She rose slowly and walked back to her room, where the bath, fresh, uncreased clothes, and Hester's deft ministry waited ready for her. Later, she lay again in the balcony chair, not so soothed by her little pile of books as she had looked to be. Beautiful, pellucid thought, deep-flowing philosophies, knife-edged epigrams and measured verse lay to her hand, but they seemed unreal, somehow, and their music echoed like meaningless words shouted, for the echo merely, in empty halls. She drowsed discontentedly and woke from a dream of the grey lady to see her stretched in the companion chair, herself asleep, it seemed, for it was only after a long doubtful stare from the other that she opened her great dark eyes.

"And I almost thought I had dreamed of meeting you before! Wasn't it absurd? I am only now realising how ill I have been--things were all so confused... I find that I can't even reply to Miss Ann as I ought to be able to, when she scorns the effects of culture!"

"Does Ann scorn culture?" the grey lady asked in mild surprise. "I never knew that."

"She scorns the leisure that goes to produce it, anyway."

"Did you give her a concrete instance of any special culture?"

She moved uneasily in her chair.

"Oh--concrete, concrete!" she repeated deprecatingly. "Must I be as concrete with you as with her? Surely culture, and all that it implies, need not be forced to defend itself with concrete examples?"

"I'm afraid that I agree with Ann," said the soft voice in the shadow. "I'm afraid that so far as I am concerned, culture needs just that defence."

She tried to smile the superior smile she had mustered for Ann, kneeling in her checked sunbonnet, but this was difficult, with a woman so obviously of her own class and kind. Still the woman was clearly unreasonable, and she was able, at least, to speak forcibly as she replied,

"Aren't you rather severe on the enormous majority of us, in that case? We can't all be great philosophers or productive artists, you know, and yet between us and Ann's preserved strawberries and Hester's scrubbing there's a wide gulf--you must admit that!"

The stranger rose lightly from her chair and walked, with a swaying motion like a long-stemmed wild flower, toward the home-made window-door. At the sill she paused and fixed her great eyes on the stronger woman--stronger, plainly, for the frail white hand on the china knob supported her while she stood, and she seemed to cling to the woodwork and press against it as she sank into the shadow of the eaves.

"A wide gulf, indeed," she said slowly, in her soft, breathless voice, with an intonation almost like a foreigner's, her listener decided suddenly, "a gulf so wide that unless you can cross it with some bridge of honest accomplishment, it will swallow you all very soon--you women of culture!"

She slipped across the sill and presently Hester's clear, firm voice was heard in the narrow hall,

"Yes, yes, I'm coming!" and the balcony was drowned in the dusk, and the woman on it yielded consciously to the great desire for sleep that possessed her. But before she drifted off, not afraid, this time, of night under the sky, it occurred to her dimly that Hester's other patient must come through her own room whenever she used the little loggia.

"What is she--an anarchist? a socialist?" she thought. "I must surely ask Hester about her. 'You women of culture,' indeed! What does she call herself, I wonder?"

That next morning as she waited idly for bath and breakfast, the stranger possessed her thoughts more and more. Only in such an absolutely unconventional place, she told herself, could a completely unknown woman appear (in her own apartments, really) and discuss with her so nonchalantly such strange questions. In many ways this delicate creature's words seemed to echo Dr. Stanchon's, and this seemed all the more natural, now, since she was so obviously still his patient. Hester had said that he sent many there--this one was perhaps too frail ever to leave them, and felt so much at home that no one thought to speak of her.

A healthy hunger checked these musings, and more amused than irritated at such unusual desertion, she bathed and dressed unaided and went down to the kitchen.

"They will soon see by the way I keep my temper, now," she thought, "and my strength, that I am quite able to go back. I really must see how the children are getting on."

Following the ways of her last journey through the house she found the kitchen, where an oven-door ajar and a half-dozen small, fragrant loaves in the opening showed her that though empty, the room was deserted only for a housewife's rapid moment. She sat down therefore beneath the patient old clock, and waited. Soon she heard a quick, bustling step, unlike Hester's lithe quietness or the heavier stride of Ann, and knew that the little old lady who entered, fresh and tidy as a clean withered apple, was their mother. She had a pan of new-picked peas in one arm and a saucer of milk balanced in the other hand, plainly the breakfast for the sleek black cat that bounded in beside her. This she set carefully on a flagstone corner before she noticed her visitor, it seemed, and yet she did not appear startled at company, and showed all of the younger women's untroubled ease as she explained that a message from Dr. Stanchon had called them both away suddenly, very early.

"It was perhaps some other patient in the house?" the guest suggested curiously, with a vivid memory of the grey lady's frail white hand and breathless voice.

"Perhaps," said the old woman equably, and tied a checked apron over the white one, the better to attack the peas.

From the shining pan she tossed the fairy green globes into the rich yellow bowl of earthenware at her side, with the quick ease of those veined, old hands that outwork the young ones, and her guest watched her in silence for a few minutes, hypnotised, almost, by the steady pit-pat of the little green balls against the bowl.

"And when do you expect them back?" she asked finally.

"I don't know," said the old lady, "but they'll be back as soon as the work is over, you may depend--they don't lag, my girls, neither of 'em."

"I am sure of that," she assented quickly. "They are the hardest workers I ever saw: I wonder that they never rest, and tell them so."

"Time enough for resting when all's done," said the old lady briskly. "That was my mother's word before me and I've handed it down to Ann and Hester."

"But then, at that rate, none of us would ever rest, would we?" she protested humourously.

"This side o' green grave?" the old lady shot out. "Maybe so. But podding peas is a kind of rest--after picking 'em!"

"And have you really picked all these--and in the sun, too?" she said, surprised. "I trust not for me--I could get along perfectly..."

The old lady jumped briskly after her loaves, tapped the bottoms knowingly, then stood each one on its inverted pan in a fragrant row on the dresser.

"Peas or beans or corn--it makes no odds, my dear," she cried cheerfully. "It's all to be done, one way or another, you see."

An inspiration came to the idler by the window, and before she had quite caught at the humour of it, she spoke.

"Why should you get my breakfast--for I am sure you are going to?" she said. "Why shouldn't I--if you think I could--for I don't like to sit here and have you do it all!"

"Why not, indeed?" the old woman replied, with a shrewd smile at her. "Hester judged you might offer, and left the tray ready set."

"Hester judged?" she repeated wonderingly. "Why, how could she, possibly? How could she know I would come down, even?"

"She judged so," the mother nodded imperturbably. "The kettle's on the boil, now, and I've two of the rusks you relished yesterday on the pantry shelf. Just dip 'em in that bowl of milk in the window and slip 'em in the oven--it makes a tasty crust. She keeps some chocolate grated in a little blue dish in the corner and the butter's in a crock in the well. The brown hen will show you her own egg, I'll warrant that."

Amused, she followed all these directions, and poured herself a cup of steaming chocolate, the first meal of her own preparing since childish banquets filched from an indulgent cook. And then, the breakfast over, she would have left the kitchen, empty just then, for the mistress of it had pottered out on one of her endless little errands, had not a sudden thought sent a flush to her forehead, so that she turned abruptly at the threshold and walking swiftly to the water spigot, sent a stream into a tiny brass-bound tub she took from the deep window seats, frothed it with Hester's herb-scented soap, and rinsed and dipped and dried each dish and cup of her own using before the old woman returned.

"It is surprising how--how satisfactory it makes one feel, really," she began hastily at the housewife's friendly returning nod, "to deal with this sort of work. One seems to have accomplished something that--that had to be done... I don't know whether you see what I mean, exactly...."

"Bless you, my dear, and why shouldn't I see?" cried the other, scrubbing the coats of a lapful of brown jacketed potatoes at the spigot. "Every woman knows that feeling, surely?"

"I never did," she said, simply. "I thought it was greasy, thankless work, and felt very sorry for those who did it."

"Did they look sad?" asked the old worker.

In a flash of memory they passed before her, those white-aproned, bare-elbowed girls she had watched idly in many countries and at many seasons; from the nurse that bathed and combed her own children, singing, to the laundry-maids whose laughter and ringing talk had waked her from more than one uneasy afternoon sleep.

"Why, no, I can't say that they did," she answered slowly, "but to do it steadily, I should think..."

"It's the steady work that puts the taste into the holiday, my mother used to say," said the old woman shortly. "Where's the change, else?"

"But of course there are many different forms of work," she began, slowly, as though she were once for all making the matter clear to herself, and not at all explaining obvious distinctions to an uneducated old woman, "and brain workers need rest and change as much, yes, more, than mere labourers."

"So they tell me," said Hester's mother respectfully, "though of course I know next to nothing of it myself. Ann says it's that makes it so dangerous for women folks to worry at their brains too much, for she's taken notice, she says, that mostly they're sickly or cranky that works too much that way. Hard to get on with, she says they are, the best of 'em."

"Indeed!" she cried indignantly, "and I suppose to be 'easy to get on with' is the main business of women, then!"

"Why, Lord above us, child!" answered the old woman briskly, dropping her white potatoes into a brown dish of fresh-drawn water, "if the women are not to be easy got on with, who's to be looked to for it, then; the children--or the men?"

She gathered up the brown peelings and bagged them carefully with the pea pods.

"For the blacksmith's pig," she said. "We don't keep one and he gives us a ham every year.... Not that it's not a different matter with you, of course," she added politely. "There's some, of course, that's needed by the world, for books and music and the like o' that--I don't need Hester to tell me so. There's never an evening in winter, when all's swept and the lamp trimmed and a bowl of apples out, and Ann and I sit with our bit of sewing, that I don't thank God for the books Hester reads out to us. One was written by a woman writer that the doctor sent us here for a long, long time--poor dear, but she was feeble!

"She worked with the girls at everything they did, that she could, by doctor's orders, and it put a little peace into her, she told me. You've a look in the eyes like her--there were thousands read her books."

The guest rose abruptly.

"I never wrote a book--or did anything," she said briefly, and turned to the door.

"You don't tell me!" the old mother stammered. "Why, I made sure by your look--what made ye so mortal tired, then, deary?"

"I must find that out," she said, slowly, her hand on the knob. "I--must--find--that--out!"

And on the balcony she paced and thought for an hour, but there was no calmness in her forehead till the afternoon, when alone with Hester's mother, for the daughters did not return all that day, she worked with pressed lips at their tasks, picking Ann's evening salad, sprinkling cool drops over Hester's fresh-dried linen, brought in by armfuls from the currant-bushes, spreading the supper-table, pressing out the ivory-moulded cottage cheese and ringing its dish with grape-leaves gathered from the well-house.

So intent was she at these tasks, that she heard no footsteps along the grass, and only as she put the fifth chair at the white-spread table (for the old mother had been mysteriously firm in her certainty that they should need it) did she turn to look into the keen brown eyes of the wise physician who had left her weeks ago in the bed above them. He gave her a long, piercing look. Then,

"I thought so," he said quietly. "We will go back to-morrow, you and I--I need your bedroom."

Through the open door she caught a quick glimpse of Ann and Hester half supporting, half carrying up the stairs a woman heavily veiled in black crepe; Hester did not join them till late in the meal, and went through the room with a glass of milk afterward. No one spoke further of her presence among them; no one thanked her for her services; all was assumed and she blessed them for it.

The doctor passed the evening with his new patient, and when she mounted the stairs for her last night she found her simple luggage in the room next hers: there was no question of helping her to bed, and she undressed thoughtfully alone. The house was very still.

Her window was a deep dormer, and as she leaned out of it, for a breath of the stars, she saw Dr. Stanchon stretched in her chair on the balcony, his face white and tired in the moonlight. In the chair near her, so near that she could touch it, lay the frail creature in the grey dress, black now at night.

"It is his old patient!" she thought contentedly, remembering with vexation that she had absolutely forgotten to ask the house-mother about her and why she had not appeared; and she began to speak, when the other raised her hand warningly, and she saw that Dr. Stanchon slept.

Why she began to whisper she did not know, but she remembered afterward that their conversation, below breath as it was, was the longest they had yet had, though she could recall only the veriest scraps of it. For instance:

"But Mary and Martha?" she had urged, "surely there is a deep meaning in that, too? It was Martha who was reproved...."

"One would imagine that every woman to-day judged herself a Mary--and that is a dangerous judgment to form, one's self," the other whispered.

"But to deliberately assume these tasks--simple because they clear my life and keep me balanced--when I have no need to do them, seems to me an affectation, absurd!"

"How can a thing be absurd if it brings you ease?"

"But I don't need to do them, really, for myself."

"For some one else, then?"

It was then that another veil dropped from before her.

"Then is that why, do you think, people devote themselves to those low, common things--great saints and those that give up their own lives?"

"I think so, yes."

"It is a real relief to them?"

"Why not? ..."

She fell asleep on the broad window-seat, her head on her arms, and when she woke and groped for her bed in the dark, the balcony was empty.

There was no bustle of departure: a grave hand-shaking from the daughters, a kiss on the mother's withered, rosy cheek.

"Come back again, do," said the old woman and the doctor commented upon this as they sat in the train.

"That is a great compliment," he said. "I never knew her to say that except to a long-time patient of mine that stayed a long time (more's the pity!) with them. 'Come back,' said Mother to her. 'Come soon, deary, for the house will miss your grey dress so soft on the floor.' They would have cured her if anybody could."

"Then you don't consider her cured?" she said with a shock of disappointment. "I am so sorry. But it is surely a wonderful place--one can't talk about it, but I see you know."

"Oh, yes, I know," he said briefly. "I saw you would pull through in great shape there. This patient I spoke of used to tell me that the duty of her life, here and through Eternity, ought by rights to be the preaching of the gospel she learned there. Well--maybe it is, for all we know. If I could have cured her, she would have been a great--a really great novelist, I think."

"If you could have--" she gasped, seizing his arm, "you mean----"

"I mean that I couldn't," he answered simply. "She died there. I dreamed of her last night."

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: Gospel