Very early in the last century, while Napoleon still reigned over Europe and the people went journeys in post-chaises through England, John Appleyard, the only son of a thriving Sussex farmer, met, while walking across one of his father’s fields, a troup of gypsies camping under a hedge. Among them was a dark young woman, very lovely, with straight, heavy brows and a yard of thick blue-black hair, which she was drying in the wind at the moment, having washed it in the brook. John looked at her hard, walked by, turned, looked again, and stood staring so long that a surly gypsy father slipped a fowling-piece into his elbow and approached him menacingly.
“My daughter, young sir,” he said shortly, “may sleep in a wagon and not eat off chayny plates as the like o’ you do, but I’ll have none eying her like that, be who he may, for she’s a good girl, she is, and the best man that walks is none too good to be her husband!”
“Am I good enough?” says John Appleyard, quietly.
And as a matter of fact he married her in the parish church in three weeks’ time, and his mother cried herself sick.
It was no use trying to live at the farm, after that, for the neighbours smiled and pointed, and the old farmer was scandalised at his new relatives, and though he had nothing against his handsome daughter-in-law personally, felt himself a marked man and counted the spoons every night. So John, who had never loved farming, compounded for half the outlying land, which he sold very shrewdly, left his only sister the farm, shook hands all ’round and sailed with Lilda, his wife, for the United States of America.
On the voyage he made friends with the captain, who took a great liking to him (and had no dislike, the passengers said, for Mistress Lilda), and put him in the way of business with a thriving grain-merchant of Boston, Massachusetts, whom, after twenty prosperous years, he bought out, and founded the house of Appleyard. He had fondly hoped that this house should outlast the century, but his only son was no merchant, and all for the sea and its constant change and chance, and John was too sensible to blame the lad’s roving soul to any one but Nature. So with a sigh and a thrill of how his old father must have felt, he bought a fine trading-packet for young John and established his daughter’s husband (she was a steady, prudent girl) as his partner and heir.
John II did wonderfully well and found himself at fifty the owner of the most flourishing packet line in the States, with his only son prize-man at Harvard University and a daughter who nearly whitened his hair by her mad plan for acting in public on the stage. The son went early into buying and selling on ‘Change, and was a weighty bank president by the time his daughter had finished her schooling.
This was a trifle more elaborate and thorough-going than most girls of twenty could boast at that time, and for three reasons. First, because she had a brilliant mind and great powers of concentration; next, because John III was not a little vain, in a quiet way, of all his Greek and Latin and historical research; and had plenty of leisure for imparting them; last, because his son—and only other child—had been a disappointment to him in that line, not only failing to repeat his father’s brilliant college record, but proving actually slow at his books and decidedly averse to study, though a steady, competent accountant and investor.
So Lilda, named for her great-grandmother by John III’s lady (who, being of Knickerbocker descent, laid great stress on family names), added to the somewhat doubtful accomplishments of a fashionable finishing school a great part of what her own daughter, years later, learned at the then popular woman’s college. Nor was other and more practical lore neglected, for her maternal grandmother, a notable hausfrau of the old school, taught her, in two long summers at her great country estate on the Hudson River, all the household arts and duties that girls of her own age were beginning to despise. So that when, after a brilliant début in New York and a winter season there in which her wit and beauty, to say nothing of her horsemanship and exquisite dancing had made her the belle of that critical metropolis (not too large, then, for one reigning toast), she married one of the country’s most prominent young lawyers, already suggested for high posts abroad, it was felt that America would honour both herself and whatever Court should receive these two young fortunates from her hands.
There is a picture of her in the Court dress in which she made her bow to Queen Victoria, standing at the foot of a Roman stairway of yellowish marble, near a fountain, her baby boy clinging to her hand. Under the blue-black of her heavy hair, her cheeks are tinted like wall-ripened peaches; her strong, curved figure is just the Flora and Juno of the ancient city’s statuary.
There is still whispered, in a few old New York houses that have kept their white marble and black walnut, the audacious story of Lilda Appleyard’s falling-in-love. It was at the Philadelphia Centennial of ’76, whither her father had taken her for a long visit, for its educational influences. He used to say that women had little chance of acquiring practical information of the large and comprehensive order, and that no one would ever know without a trial what of all that sort their brains could or could not take in. The progress of the world, he said, was no greater than the progress of its homes, “and that,” he used to wind up, “is no more nor less than the progress of their women.”
So Miss Lilda studied the progress of all three at the Centennial, and took sage notes in a little red morocco book, and the proud banker read them in private for years afterward to his friends. But she was not engaged in this interesting occupation by night as well as day, you may rest assured. Many a ball and high tea did Philadelphia’s ladies offer their visiting friends, and there was not one of any consequence that failed to beg the honour of Miss Lilda Appleyard’s company. And her luggage was by no means limited to the little red morocco book!
A party from New York had come in a special train to Philadelphia for three days at the Centennial, and the occasion was seized by the wife of an army officer to give a large ball in her great house in Germantown. All visiting Knickerbockers who might expect to be asked anywhere were asked to attend this ball, and Lilda’s maid assured the hotel chambermaid that she never had known her young lady so hard to suit. And finally, after three different trials, to pick out that strange black mousseline-de-soie! She looked like pictures of foreigners, to tell you the truth, her young lady did! Of course, her grandmamma’s pearls would make anything dressy, and there’s no denying the black made her arms and neck look like ivory—but to snatch up that flame-coloured scarf her grandpapa had brought from India, and knot it over her shoulder at the last minute! It was downright outlandish. Mrs. Appleyard would never have liked it.
She had a high, staglike carriage of the head, and as she was rather tall, she looked over most of her girl companions. Halfway through the dance she raised this dark head a little higher and stared.
“Who is that man?” she asked abruptly.
“Elliot Lestrange,” the girls told her, “but he doesn’t care for women. He’s very proud.”
“I should like to meet him,” she said simply.
They tittered and teased her, but after all, she was a belle, and Mr. Lestrange was sent for. The young dancing man who undertook the message told freely how Lestrange had said,
“Oh, hang it all, I’m not dancing to-night!”
“But she’s Miss Appleyard, of Boston and New York—she’s a beauty!”
“Then she must have plenty of beaux, Clarke, without me!”
So young Mr. Clarke took his little revenge (for after all, he had used his dance with the dark beauty for this stupid errand and resented it), and in presenting the chilly hero, said maliciously,
“Here is Mr. Lestrange, Miss Appleyard—but he says you must have plenty of beaux without him!”
“That is just it,” returned the calm Lilda, looking straight at the grey eyes that faced her under the thick honey-coloured hair (Lestrange, though of Huguenot descent, was curiously blonde). “I have not enough beaux—without Mr. Lestrange! Will you have the next waltz, Mr. Lestrange—Mr. Clarke’s, I believe it is?”
“Thank you, yes, and this schottische, too, if I may,” says Lestrange. The young people standing about said that they never took their eyes off each other from the moment she spoke to him, and that they swung into the dance like automatons, leaving her lawful squire, a young Philadelphian, irate and ridiculous.
“These may be New York manners,” he said sourly, “but they would never do in a civilized city!”
His opinion was a matter of indifference to the couple.
They are supposed to have talked very little, but danced frequently together. As the young ladies were putting on their capes and cloaks, just before the dawn, one among them shrieked suddenly across the room.
“Why, Lilda! where is your flame-coloured scarf! You’ve lost it!”
“I gave it away,” she said briefly.
“Good heavens!” said another. “He’ll be proposing before you know it!”
“He proposed at twelve,” Miss Appleyard said placidly, “and I accepted him. Will you be maid-of-honour, Evelyn?”
No one had ever told her of John I and his gypsy.
They had a wonderful wedding-tour among the Italian lakes and came back after a three months’ honeymoon to the solid “brown stone front” of the period, which, furnished from cellar to attic, had been John’s wedding gift to his daughter.
“Well!” some gossip had cried, “it’s big enough, in all conscience! But I suppose Mr. Appleyard was thinking of the size of Elliot’s family.” (He was one of eight children and had nine uncles and aunts.)
“None of us has ever had but two,” said Lilda calmly, “and the Appleyards don’t change, papa says.”
And as a matter of fact little Elliot Lestrange never had but one contestant for nursery rights—his fair-haired, gentle sister.
“I wonder which of the children will be the ‘wild one’?” Lilda asked her husband one night, as they sat opposite each other in the great, high-ceilinged dining-room. They were, for a marvel, alone, and unlike the ordinary quiet jog-trot couple who welcome any casual stranger to break the monotony of five years of table tête-à-tête, they delighted in this happy chance that recalled their honeymoon meals together. They were so much sought after, and Lestrange’s position required so much and such varied entertaining, that they could not remember when, before, the attentive coloured butler had had but two glasses to fill.
Lestrange looked admiringly at his handsome wife. Never had he ceased to bless the day he married her. He was a proud man, conventional and ambitious to a degree, and at moments during his short betrothal period he had felt threatening chills of doubt when away from his enchantress as to the wisdom of such a feverishly short acquaintance, such a sudden, almost dramatic alliance. Never for a moment would he have been satisfied with the standing of an ordinary lawyer; the career he had set before himself needed a larger background than any one city, even his country’s metropolis, could offer, and in his future the position and qualities of his wife would count enormously. Money, breeding and beauty he had always told himself he must marry, but to win brains and a loving heart into the bargain was more than even he could have expected, and he admitted the justice of his friends’ half-earnest jealousy.
To-night he raised his glass gallantly and drank to her bright dark eyes, noting with pleasure that she had remembered to have her new gown of the filmy black material he fancied so much!
“Why should either of them be ‘wild,’ dearest?” he asked.
“Papa told me once, when I was a child, that every Appleyard that he had ever heard of had two children, a son and a daughter,” she said thoughtfully, “and one of them was always staid and steady and—oh, well, looked up to in the community, you know, and the other always flighty and … unusual, to put it mildly. And certainly, as far back as I can remember, it has been so.
“There was Aunt Adelaide. Grandpapa found her one day acting in a play in the town hall in the little village where they went for the summer—right on the stage with all those travelling actors. She actually wanted to go with them!”
“Absurd!” said her husband, selecting and peeling for her a specially fine peach.
“But grandpapa himself,” she went on thoughtfully, “threatened to go as a common sailor before the mast, rather than be tied down to business—papa showed me a letter he wrote once; he said it was sickening to him to think of putting up the shutters every night and heaping up money in a strong-box.”
“How about your great-grandfather?” he asked idly. “I don’t know about him,” she said, “except that I am named for my great-grandmother. They were the first Appleyards to come to this country, you know.”
“I know,” he said politely. He himself traced his ancestry to a cousin of Henry of Navarre, and was furiously proud of it, though wild horses could not have dragged from him an allusion to it.
They dipped into the heavy crystal finger bowls in silence. Then, as a sudden curious idea struck him,
“But how do you account, on that theory, for your own generation?” he asked. “Certainly no one could call Johnny wild?”
“Poor old Johnny!” she said, laughing, “no, indeed! The wildest step he ever took was to put type-writing machines in the bank!”
“Then, is it you?” he demanded, and smiled gravely, for her dignified young matronhood was his pride.
“It may come out in me later,” she threatened, “for Appleyards don’t change, you know.”
But old Mr. Appleyard, who perhaps knew more instances of the tradition than he imparted to his daughter, died peacefully at seventy-two, the accepted Appleyard age for that process, convinced that he, at last, had produced two steady children: he was a little worried about his grandson, young Elliot, who displayed a freakish talent for composing and performing music for the violin, and an unfortunate preference for the society of professional musicians, of which his mother seemed almost culpably tolerant, not to say proud. The arts were rising, socially, in that generation, and Elliot was actually excused from an examination in ethics for the purpose of attending a concert by the Boston Symphony Society.
By this time, of course, they had returned from their European period. It had been a brilliant ten years, and Mrs. Lestrange had met most royalties and all travelling Americans of any consequence—all with the same gracious dignity, the same delicate balance of charm and reserve that delighted foreigner and compatriot alike. Her portrait was painted by a great German, her bust was modelled by a great Frenchman, the words of a little lullaby she had composed for her baby girl was set to music and made famous through Europe by a great Italian. Queen Victoria complimented her on her devoted personal care of her children, and sent her an autographed carte de visite, as they were still called then, framed in brilliants. The silver trowel with which she laid the foundation stone of her school for instructing the peasant-girls of her adopted country in the simple household arts is still a bone of contention between her two proud children. A duke stood godfather to her little Wilhelmina and Royalty herself embroidered at least one frill of the baby’s christening robe.
When the children were twelve and fourteen, however, the family returned; papered, painted and decorated the house anew from top to bottom, and settled down to the task that had brought them back—the bringing up of their boy and girl in an American tradition. If Mrs. Lestrange ever missed the polish and variety of European social life, if she found the “Anglo-mania” (just then so fashionable in New York) a little shallow and unconvincing, she never showed it. Handsome and serene, a trifle more matronly than women of her age appear to-day, perhaps, but none the less admired for it, she moved through her duties of household, nursery, ballroom and salon, omitting nothing, excelling in all.
No charity bazaar, no educational exhibition, no welcoming of distinguished foreigners, no celebration of the arts, was complete without Mrs. Elliot Lestrange. For her son’s sake she patronized music extensively, for her daughter’s, she sat through endless balls and garden parties. By the time they were both married, her dark hair was powdered with silver.
“What a beautiful old lady mamma is going to make,” Wilhelmina said to her brother, who had made a flying visit across the Atlantic and left the old Italian villa where he made music all day among the birds and orange-trees, to see his sister’s baby son.
“You think so?” he answered quickly, with his darting, foreign air. “I am myself far from certain.”
“Why, Elly, what do you mean?” she cried, looking up a moment from the lace-trimmed bassinet. “What a thing to say!”
He laughed indulgently.
“Oh, you know everything I say always shocked you, Sister Mina,” he said. “What a joy it must have been to you and father when I left these Puritan shores for good!”
“No, no,” she began, but he tapped her lips.
“Yes, yes!” he contradicted. “Even to marry an opera singer, you were glad to see me go! But about mamma: I suppose you mean that she will sit in a Mechlin cap and knit, with a blue Angora cat on the rug beside her, and hear this little lady in the bassinet here say her lessons?”
Something very like this had been in Wilhelmina’s mind and she admitted it.
“Well,” young Elliot said, reflectively, “all I can say is, I don’t think so. There’s something about mamma that you can’t be sure of.”
“Why, Elly, what do you mean?”
“I can’t explain it exactly,” he said, “but she’s very deep—mamma. Father doesn’t understand her, you know.”
“Now, Elliot, that is rank nonsense!” his sister contradicted. “You remind me of that nurse Dr. Stanchon sent up when mamma had that fit of not sleeping last year. She and mamma got on famously, from the first; she stayed out of doors all night with her till mamma got to sleeping again. She was used to it—the nurse, I mean—and didn’t mind, she said, she’d been doing it in the Adirondacks.
“I remember asking her why she thought mamma should have insomnia—for there was nothing whatever on her mind, and they say that’s the cause, you know. She gave me the strangest look.
“‘Are you sure your mother has nothing on her mind?’ she asked me, ‘your mother’s very deep, you know!’
“‘What nonsense, Miss Jessop!’ I told her. ‘Mamma’s as open as the day!'”
“Sensible woman, your Miss Jessop,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t know. She was very decided, certainly, and easy in her ways. More so than I quite like in a trained nurse. I will say for her, though, that the out-of-doors idea was hers. Though father was quite alarmed about it.”
“That’s what I say. Father doesn’t understand her.”
“Oh, Elly, how can you? Every one says there never were two people so suited to each other. There’s not one wish of father’s she doesn’t carry out, and never has been.”
“I don’t say not,” he agreed, “but that merely shows what a good, clever wife she is. That doesn’t say he understands her. He certainly never understood me, I know; Uncle John didn’t either.”
“But you were always—always—queer, you know, Elly,” she explained deprecatingly.
“Was I?” he questioned lightly. “Mamma understood me, all the same. So perhaps she’s ‘queer,’ too.”
“Nonsense,” Wilhelmina said briefly. “Mamma is like anybody else, only a great deal cleverer.”
“Maybe, maybe,” he repeated thoughtfully. “But she always gives me the impression of having something up her sleeve. She said a strange thing to me after my little girls—the twins, you know—were born. She was holding them out in the orange grove, and saying such sweet things to Maddelina, and then she turned to me suddenly and said,
“‘Have I been a good mother to you, Elliot?’
“‘Why, madre, you’ve been perfect,’ I said.
“‘Is there anything more you think I could ever do for you?’ she asked.
“‘Honestly, dear, I don’t think there is,’ I said.
“‘That’s all I wanted to know,’ she said, and sailed the next day…. What’s the matter? How strange you look!”
“It’s only that she said just that to me, last week,” Wilhelmina told him, “and left the next day for New York. But I supposed it was to get back to father. She depends so on him.”
“Do you really think so?” he asked curiously.
But every one agreed with Wilhelmina—perhaps because Wilhelmina very seldom said anything that any one was likely to disagree with—and so every one was much surprised at the comparatively short time that Mrs. Lestrange spent in retirement after her husband’s sudden death. He had not the Appleyard habit of living to be seventy-two, it appeared, and succumbed to pneumonia, following fatigue and exposure.
His wife’s hair turned quickly to an iron-grey, soon after, but she moved steadily on among the many educational and philanthropic schemes with which she had begun to fill her time after her daughter’s marriage. Organized charity was developing rapidly, just then, and Mrs. Lestrange’s clear common sense, executive ability and knowledge of European institutions of the sort made her, with her wealth and leisure, a leader on New York boards and councils.
It was noted that the year after her widowhood found her less frequently in the public meetings, less willing to organise new centres of work, more determined to avoid presidencies and chairmanships. For this she gave as an excuse the frequent trips abroad, which seemed to have no special purpose and displeased Wilhelmina, who frequently offered her a home in Boston.
“I cannot understand why she refuses,” said Wilhelmina, on the occasion of Elliot’s last flying trip to America. “The children would love their granny to be with us, and she could have her own sitting-room. Can’t you persuade her, Elly?”
“I’m afraid not,” he answered absently. “You know she’s winding up all those boards and trade-schools and hospitals and things?”
“And a good thing, too,” said his sister. “Mamma’s done enough for the community. She ought to settle down. And you see she’s going to.”
“So that’s the way it looks to you, Mina?” he asked, looking searchingly into her pale blue eyes, and shrugging his shoulders slightly.
“Gracious, Elliot, if you know so much more about mamma than I do, why don’t you ask her to live with you and Maddelina?” she suggested sharply.
“It wouldn’t do any good—she’d never think of it,” he answered simply.
“Well, of course, she and Maddelina…”
“Exactly,” he agreed with his teasing foreign smile.
“And I’ll tell you another thing,” she went on; “all these sudden trips about the country and to Europe—what is the sense? Mamma will be fifty in a few days, and anything might happen——”
“Oh, nonsense, Mina,” he laughed at her. “Mamma is stronger than either of us, and you know it.”
“Of course she’s never been ill,” his sister admitted. “But all this travel makes her nervous, just the same. She’s not like herself. Why, yesterday, we drove out through the suburbs—she seems to want to be out doors all the time, you know—and under a big tree there was a camp of those horrid gypsies. The horses were unhitched, and the dirtiest children playing all about, and they were cooking over a fire. Nothing would do but we must stop the horses—the new bays, you know, and they hate anything queer—and mamma actually made quite a visit among them! They were English gypsies, from Sussex, they said. One of the women ladled out some mess or other from the great pot and mamma actually ate it. And it was odd, too, but they wouldn’t take any money.
“‘Not from you, lady, not from you!’ they said. The woman put her hands behind her back.”
“That was odd,” said Elliot.
“Yes. And as we drove off she looked after them and said the strangest things. ‘Could any one be happier, do you think?’ she said, and afterward: ‘Life seems so unwrinkled, somehow, when one sees it lived that way!'”
“And what did you say to that?” asked her brother.
“Why, of course, there was nothing to say. I only said that I couldn’t conceive how any educated woman could be happy without a bath-tub.”
“Of course you did,” he murmured.
“That’s what mamma said,” she sighed.
“Why, she looked at me so queerly and said, ‘Of course you would say that, Mina!'”
“Do you know what I’ve come over for?” he asked abruptly.
“On business, I suppose,” she answered idly.
“Yes. Uncle John sent for me, to ask if I had any idea of mamma’s intentions. And then there were papers to sign.”
“Papers?” she looked alarmed.
“Yes. I think you might as well know. But we’re not to discuss it with her, understand. She’s disposing of all her property.”
“It’s divided into thirds. One-third to me, one-third to you, and the other third cut up into servants’ legacies, one or two charities and enough for herself to give her a hundred pounds a year.”
“It’s in English securities. It looks as if she meant to live in England. Uncle John asked if he might tell us, and she said only on condition that we didn’t discuss it. She meant to travel for some years, she said, and she had arranged to have us notified immediately in case of any accident or difficulty. She expected to write occasionally, too, she said. You know how mamma is—she simply hypnotised the old gentleman.”
“Why, Elly! you don’t think her mind…”
“Bosh! Her mind’s better than ours will ever be! Uncle John went to Dr. Stanchon about it and he said that mamma was in perfect health, good for twenty-five years more——”
“She always says ‘twenty-two,'” Wilhelmina interrupted.
“—And that she was not to be bothered or crossed in any way. He said that at her age women often took odd fancies, and that with a woman so capable and determined as mamma, the best thing was to give her her way. ‘Mind you, now, Appleyard,’ he said, ‘your sister consulted me long before you did, and whatever she does I justify in every way!'”
“Well, of course, with mamma, there’s nothing else to do,” sighed Wilhelmina, “but—five hundred dollars a year! Why, it’s impossible! She can’t travel on that!”
“No, but she can’t starve, either,” said Elliot, philosophically, “and everybody was always telling her she could have earned her own living in a dozen ways—perhaps she’s going to do that.”
“Oh, Elly!” cried poor Wilhelmina. He turned to go, then picked up a small blue-print from the top of a pile on a camera.
“What’s all this?”
“Oh, that’s one of the photographs the children are always taking nowadays. That one—why, that’s one of mamma and the gypsies, that I told you about! See, there’s the gypsy woman handing her out the soup. They get very clear prints, now, don’t they?”
“But what an extraordinary likeness!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t it remarkable!”
“Oh, you mean mamma and the gypsy,” she said indifferently. “Yes, the children both noticed it at once. The other gypsies did, too, I’m sure, from the way they pointed and stared. Well, she always was that dark type, you know. Would you like to keep it?”
“Thanks, if you don’t mind,” he said, and put it carefully in his pocketbook. “It’s better of mamma than any of the professional ones.”
Nobody who attended the great dinner-party given for Mrs. Elliot Lestrange on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday will forget it readily. It was as much a public as a private function, and around the great hotel dining-room used for the occasion stood many different tables for many different classes of people. Between the party of girls trained years ago in her trade-school and the long table of boards of directors of different movements in which she had long been prominent, sat the entire cast of one of the theatrical successes of the season, the play being openly founded on one of the dramatic incidents of her life as a diplomat’s wife, a generation ago, in Europe. The old composer of her famous cradle-song shared with the publisher of her “Letters from an Attaché’s Wife,” and the prima-donna she had discovered and educated, a merry little Italian table where her musician son made the proud fourth. A party of old pupils from the convent school where she had spent a year surprised the room with the valedictory verses she had written for the class, and at her bridesmaid’s table only one was lacking—the saucy maid-of-honour, Evelyn, of thirty years ago!
A goodly fraction of what was just about to be known as the famous “Four Hundred” of New York society chattered and stared at the poets and novelists from Boston; and, for the sake of future memories, Wilhelmina’s children and the olive twins from Florence gazed curiously from under their governesses’ wings at the lights and roses and jewels and tinted glass that made the great room a scented fairyland to their round eyes.
At every table was a vacant chair, and to each of these she moved in turn for the space of one of the courses of the elaborate dinners of the end of the nineteenth century, a majestic figure in black velvet, frosted to the waist with her grandmother’s wonderful point-lace, her shoulders, firm and creamy still, twinkling with her father’s wedding diamonds, her neck soft under her husband’s birthday pearls.
It was said of her on that night that she was the one person in the big room who could have been perfectly at ease at every table there, and the pride of the children as she took her nuts and coffee among them was delightful to witness.
“You have, indeed, lived every moment of a rich life, Signora,” said the composer to her, in Italian, as he sat again after their graceful bows on the rendering of his now almost classic lullaby by the great singer. “Is it not so?”
“It may be, Maestro, but there is, after all things, and for all people, a rest at last,” she answered gravely.
Her son, who was dressing them one of his inimitable salads, looked up sharply at this, though the others only smiled.
“And you start on your travels, it appears, after this triumph?” the Maestro inquired.
“To-morrow,” she said.
“And may we know…”
“I go alone,” she answered, smiling.
About each of her ecstatic granddaughters’ necks she gravely clasped her pearl or diamond chains, as they stood at the foot of the stairs in her brownstone house long after midnight; in each grandson’s hot, astonished palm lay a glittering ring or bracelet, “For your wife, some day!”
“How strangely mamma is acting,” Wilhelmina complained to her brother. “I suppose she is excited by all this?”
“She appears perfectly calm to me,” he answered. “I have always told you, Mina, that you have a tendency to call any one excited who does anything that you don’t expect.”
Their mother sat in silence in her room while her maid, a faithful mulattress of many years’ service, undressed her.
“Is that little tin box where I can get it?” she asked at last, when all was done.
“Are the house-keys here?”
“Then I shall not want you any more. You have always been all that I could wish, Ella, and I shall miss you. Take this, to remember me by,” and the woman stared at the watch and chain in her hand.
“But—but—when you come back, Mrs. Lestrange, shan’t I—shan’t I——”
“If ever I come back, yes. But Miss Wilhelmina will make a good home for you. Good-night.”
Amazed, the woman closed the door, and the house lay in darkness, but for one lighted room—the room of its mistress.
Mrs. Lestrange went to a wardrobe, dragged out a small tin trunk, no larger than a leather case, opened it with a key from a private drawer, and turned out the contents.
These were two sets of plain, warm underclothing, some stout boots, a heavy skirt and jacket of coarse dark blue stuff, a mackintosh, a cheap wooden brush and rubber comb. A sensible wallet for her hand and a canvas bag on a belt under the clothes which she put on quickly, held some notes and gold. She fingered the coarse, plain handkerchiefs, the brown Windsor soap, the stout cotton umbrella, lovingly. Over her thick iron-grey hair, twisted firmly into a plain knot behind the ears, she pinned a small round hat with a twist of cheap ribbon around it, slipped her hands into a pair of new cotton gloves, took a seat by her window overlooking the Central Park, and sat silently for an hour. Her eyes were fixed on the shadowy bulk of the trees in the park; her hands were still on her lap: she waited.
Soon the air grew vaguely grey, then white, then a pearly pink. The trees came out clear, the city sparrows and robins chirped. The milk carts rumbled loud, and here and there, even in that wealthy quarter, a few early workers crossed the park paths. It was day. She rose, tied a thick green veil over her hat and face, lifted the tin box by its handle and opened her door softly. In that house it was still midnight. She went quietly down the corridor, through a service hall, down some narrow stairs, through the warm kitchen, clean for the new labour of the day, then took out a key from her wallet, turned it gently and stepped into the area-way. This had an iron gate and a second key opened it: once through and the last gate locked, she put her hand through the bars and slipped both keys under the metal frame laid out ready for the milk bottles. No one was in sight. Alone in the street, she gave one comprehensive, quick glance at the great sleeping house, and drew a long, deep breath that seemed to stretch the very depths of her lungs—one would have almost thought she had not really breathed for a long time.
Then she turned her back, and grasping the box and umbrella strongly, a plain, sturdy, middle-class figure of a travelling working-woman, she walked to a car-line, lifted her box beside her, and sitting between a negress with three children and a plumber’s bag with a kit of tools, made her way to the downtown wharves.
Here all was activity: the day was well along for these labourers, and she had to push her way to reach the officer who would let her board the steamer.
“Second class,” she said briefly, producing her ticket.
He ran down a list quickly. “Number sixty-three,” he said, “Mrs. Stranger.”
“Yes,” she answered, and still carrying her box, went in the direction he indicated.
It was not a large steamer and not very swift, and for ten days the sturdy figure lay inert on her chair, silent and absorbed. She had no book, no friend, no knitting. Silently she sat and stared at the purple horizon-line, silently she ate, silently she bestowed the modest gratuities that brought her what little assistance she needed. Her only social act was the nursing of the two sisters who shared her cabin, and this was done so quietly and competently that they were certain she was a professional nurse on her vacation.
One of the sisters, a head clerk in a great department store, offered her a newspaper on the third day out.
“It’s old,” she said, “but you may like to look it over. That’s Mrs. Elliot Lestrange in the picture. That was a grand banquet she had. I’ll bet she was proud, with all that fuss made of her! Isn’t she a lovely lady?”
“It is handsome lace,” Mrs. Stranger agreed.
“My, it’s a fortune! I’ve waited on her. She’s fine—so aristocratic, but no airs. I’d never have been here, but for her, maybe. She and the other League ladies got us our vacations, they say, at our place, and she started the lending fund so those that need it can get the third week, by borrowing. That gives us the trip both ways, you see. She must have a grand life—Sister says there’s no house she couldn’t go into here or the other side, and every hour of the day is planned out for her by a secretary she keeps. Sister says she wonders when she ever has a moment to herself.”
“Perhaps she will have—some day,” said the other woman quickly. “I agree with your sister, that she needs it.”
“Sister says you look like her,” the clerk went on, with a laugh. “The hair and eyes, she says. Of course, I see what she means, but, gracious—if you could have seen her the day she came in last winter! A sable wrap to her knees, and her hair all waved, and besides, her figure was different—much taller.”
“All dark women with thick grey hair resemble each other, more or less, I think,” said Mrs. Stranger.
When she walked down the landing plank to the Tilbury dock, Mrs. Stranger stood for a moment, scanning the little crowd that waited on the water’s edge. She appeared to expect some one, for her tin box lay at her feet, and she stood negligently by it, her head raised rather haughtily for a woman of her general appearance. Suddenly she smiled oddly, drew again that deep-lunged breath of relief, stooped and picked up the box, and carried it unassisted to the great train-shed.
From London she travelled south and west, and beyond purchasing at Salisbury a warm red-hooded cape bought nothing and transacted no business except for a brief cablegram to New York despatched from London, signed with initials only, and a telegram to a small town in the south of England. On arriving at this town, she waited fully an hour at the little station, but if the time were wasted, she did not seem to feel the waste annoying, for she sat comfortably on a bench, her box and umbrella at her stout-shod feet, her eyes placidly on the distance. A stray dog attached himself to her and laid his black head on her umbrella; she made no motion to drive him away.
About noon a red-faced teamster drove into the square before the station, looked about inquiringly, caught her eye and dismounted.
“Name o’ Stranger?” he asked gruffly; she nodded.
“Have you the wagon?” she asked.
“Horse ain’t none too fond o’ they engines,” he responded. “He’s waiting by the Crown and Stirrup—will you step across?”
By the little sleepy inn stood a roomy, covered cart drawn by a solid middle-aged bay, with heavy brass tips on his high collar. The vehicle had evidently been freshly painted, for the red and black twinkled in the sunlight and the harness looked strong and new. As Mrs. Stranger lifted the back curtain and threw a quick, keen glance around the interior she smiled briefly. Rows of tins, coppers and kettles hung there; bales of cotton prints, notions and such lay on narrow, fenced-in shelves on the sides; a sort of bunk filled one-half, covered with a neat patch-work quilt, and thick waterproof curtains’ were rolled in readiness all around.
“There’s oats in the box and a nose-bag,” said the carter, “but there’s good cropping all about. Will that be your pup, Missis?”
“If no one else claims him,” she said brusquely, and examined the horse carefully, foot by foot. All seeming to suit her, she took a small canvas bag from her wallet and handed it to him.
“Count it, please,” she said and the carter with much biting and inspection of each gold piece, signed a receipt and handed her, formally, a new stout whip.
“You’ll wet the bargain, I hope,” the interested landlord suggested, and Mrs. Stranger having ordered a quart of his best ale, and gravely taken a glass, the carter finished the rest with due ceremony.
She mounted the seat deftly, nodded all ’round, and drove off at a steady jog through the village, the dog under the cart.
“That’s no new hand,” said the landlord. “It’s well you provided a good animal, carter!”
“First letter showed me I’d best do so,” said the carter briefly. “A tidy bit of savings she had, for a woman.”
“She’ll earn as much more, I’ll lay. There’s money on the road, as much as ever there was, for them as knows the business and don’t drink,” said the landlord. “She’ll be one of that gypsy sort, by her looks.”
Mrs. Stranger drove steadily along through the countryside. The road lay clear before her, the emerald grass and the white may of the hedges smelled sweet from a week’s rain, the clap-clap of the big bay’s feet and the birds’ twitter were the only sounds. She was between two villages, and only a straggling farm or two at either side broke the distant view; a grey church tower caught the sun far away. The driver’s eyes never left the road, as became a good driver, but they seemed to be turned inward, too, and to see more—or less—than that empty road offered to the ordinary sight. One would have said that something other than the present unrolled before those absorbed brown eyes under the straight, dark brows, but whether it was the past or the future was not shown. Either was full enough, probably, in the case of Mrs. Stranger.
Shortly after noon she began to study the roadside more carefully and soon, pausing by a particularly lush, green spot, she dismounted, led the horse off from the road and quickly traced the green area back to a tiny bubbling spring. Unharnessing the horse deftly, she fastened him to a pointed iron picket she took from the cart and drove firmly into the ground, lifted out a little portable tin oven which she propped between two rocks, kindled a fire from some dried fagots tied below the axle-tree, and taking a slice of fresh beef from a stone crock on the seat, cut it slowly into small pieces with an onion and a yellow turnip from the crock. She filled a small iron pot at the spring, dropped in the meat and vegetables, set a potato to bake in the ashes and measured out a little coffee from a cannister. While the stew simmered, she watered and fed the horse, threw a bone to the dog, and then spread her red cloak on the ground, sat on it, and resumed her inward contemplation. When the savoury fumes smelled rich enough, she threw a pinch of pepper and salt into the pot from another small cannister, poured boiling water from her kettle over the coffee, cut a slice from a fresh cottage loaf, ladled her stew out on a new tin plate, and ate and drank with a sort of eager deliberation, inhaling at intervals the aroma of the coffee and the cooking food. When a generous plateful had vanished, she gave the anxious dog the rest, cut herself a block of orange-coloured dairy cheese and ate it with a handful of small biscuits from a square tin. Then, leaning against the great rock from under which the spring gushed, she took from her ample pocket a small worn volume, opened it at random, filled and emptied her lungs with a third great breath, like only two others in her life, and began to read.
The book’s title page read, “Compensation, and Other Essays, by R. W. Emerson,” and on the fly leaf was written in a firm, masculine hand, “L. L. from her father, Boston, 1870.”
The horse grazed quietly, the dog rested a grateful head on her skirt, the spring trickled on, and the woman read—if that can be called reading where the eyes wander inward after every sentence.
After a little of this she was disturbed by a thick-set, middle-aged farmer rattling by in a springless cart. At sight of her he stopped, stared, but not too curiously, got out and addressed her:
“Peddler’s goods, I see,” he said.
“Had you any thoughts o’ going up Endover way?” he inquired, “it’s out o’ way, somewhat, but my wife was wishing only yesterday for some cooking ware, and but that you need to make village by dark——”
“I do not need to, unless I choose,” she assured him; “my time is my own.”
“Ay, is it?” he said. “There’s few trades can say that, these days,—is that why you gypsies take to this one, maybe?”
“Maybe,” she said, smiling gravely.
“You’re new to these parts, I think,” he went on, “though there’ll be plenty o’ your kind before summer’s gone—few as thrifty to look at, though. I’ll lay your cloth’s not rotten.”
“That’s true,” she said, rising and beginning to wash her simple cooking pots. “Which turn for Endover, farmer?”
“First to the left after Appleyard’s woods,” he began, and at her start and cry of “Appleyard?” he explained, “Why, yes, it’s hard to change old names. Appleyards ran out when I was a boy, but the name sticks. Hundred years ago, an old farmer Appleyard owned most o’ what you’ll see from here. My granny knowed one of ’em well; a well-to-do woman she was, and her husband got all the land, or near it, account o’ the brother’s running away to foreign parts.”
Her brown eyes held him and he warmed to his tale.
“You’ve heard all this, maybe?” he hazarded.
She shook her head.
“I knew there was such a family, once, somewhere about these parts,” she said, “but I did not know just where——”
“Why, it was just here,” he went on slowly, looking around, “here and no other spot, whatever, Mrs. Peddler. Here’s what granny called ‘Gypsy’s Spring,’ ‘account of their always searching the best water, you see—like yourself. Gypsy Spring in Appleyard Lower Field, she’d tell us, and there was where he met the gypsy and the land changed hands and the name ran out.”
“Who met the gypsy?” she asked, her eyes large and mellow on him.
“Who? Why, young John Appleyard, Mrs. Peddler, and married her, and off with them both! They’re all for roaming, you see—you know. ‘But she’ll be back, sooner or later,’ my granny used to say: ‘Come spring, back she’ll be, if not him; for there’s two things certain and they won’t change, my time or yours,’ she said. ‘An Appleyard must own a good horse, and a gypsy woman must come back.’ But, you see, for once my granny was in the wrong of it, for ’twas a full hundred years ago, what I’m telling ye, and they never came.”
A slow, satisfied smile crept over the peddler woman’s firm lips. Her eyes rested on the great, browsing bay; her strong sea-browned hand caressed the watchful dog’s head; the odour of the may in the hedge filled her nostrils. Life spread before her.
“No, farmer, your granny was right,” she said gravely, “gypsy women always come back.”