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As Holcroft drove through the town, Mrs. Wiggins, who, as matters were explained to her, had expressed her views chiefly by affirmative nods, now began to use her tongue with much fluency.
"Hi 'ave a friend 'herhabouts," she said, "an' she's been a-keepin' some of my things. Hi'll be 'olden to ye, master, hif ye'll jes stop a bit hat the door whiles hi gets 'em. Hif ye'll hadvance me a dollar or so on me wages hit'll be a long time hafore I trouble ye hagain."
The farmer had received too broad a hint not to know that Mrs. Wiggins was intent on renewing her acquaintance with her worst enemy. He briefly replied, therefore, "It's too late to stop now. I'll be coming down soon again and will get your things."
In vain Mrs. Wiggins expostulated, for he drove steadily on. With a sort of grim humor, he thought of the meeting of the two "widdy women," as Tom had characterized them, and of Mrs. Mumpson's dismay at finding in the "cheap girl" a dame of sixty, weighing not far from two hundred. "If it wasn't such awfully serious business for me," he thought, "it would be better'n going to a theater to see the two go on. If I haven't got three 'peculiar females' on my hands now, I'd like to hear of the man that has."
When Mrs. Wiggins found that she could not gain her point, she subsided into utter silence. It soon became evident in the cloudy light of the moon that she was going to sleep, for she so nodded and swayed about that the farmer feared she would tumble out of the wagon. She occupied a seat just back of his and filled it, too. The idea of stepping over, sitting beside her, and holding her in, was inexpressibly repugnant to him. So he began talking to her, and finally shouting at her, to keep her awake.
His efforts were useless. He glanced with rueful dismay over his shoulder as he thought, "If she falls out, I don't see how on earth I'll ever get her back again."
Fortunately the seat slipped back a little, and she soon slid down into a sort of mountainous heap on the bottom of the wagon, as unmindful of the rain as if it were a lullaby. Now that his mind was at rest about her falling out, and knowing that he had a heavy load, Holcroft let the horses take their own time along the miry highway.
Left to her own devices by Holcroft's absence, Mrs. Mumpson had passed what she regarded as a very eventful afternoon and evening. Not that anything unusual had happened, unless everything she said and did may be looked upon as unusual; but Mrs. Mumpson justly felt that the critical periods of life are those upon which definite courses of action are decided upon. In the secret recess of her heart--supposing her to possess such an organ--she had partially admitted to herself, even before she had entered Holcroft's door, that she might be persuaded into marrying him; but the inspection of his room, much deliberate thought, and prolonged soliloquy, had convinced her that she ought to "enter into nuptial relations," as her thought formulated itself. It was a trait of Mrs. Mumpson's active mind, that when it once entered upon a line of thought, it was hurried along from conclusion to conclusion with wonderful rapidity.
While Jane made up Mr. Holcroft's bed, her mother began to inspect, and soon suffered keenly from every painful discovery. The farmer's meager wardrobe and other belongings were soon rummaged over, but one large closet and several bureau drawers were locked. "These are the receptercles of the deceased Mrs. Holcroft's affects," she said with compressed lips. "They are moldering useless away. Moth and rust will enter, while I, the caretaker, am debarred. I should not be debarred. All the things in that closet should be shaken out, aired, and carefully put back. Who knows how useful they may be in the future! Waste is wicked. Indeed, there are few things more wicked than waste. Now I think of it, I have some keys in my trunk."
"He won't like it," interposed Jane.
"In the responserble persition I have assumed," replied Mrs. Mumpson with dignity, "I must consider not what he wants, but what is best for him and what may be best for others."
Jane had too much curiosity herself to make further objection, and the keys were brought. It was astonishing what a number of keys Mrs. Mumpson possessed, and she was not long in finding those which would open the ordinary locks thought by Holcroft to be ample protection.
"I was right," said Mrs. Mumpson complacently. "A musty odor exudes from these closed receptercles,. Men have no comprehension of the need of such caretakers as I am."
Everything that had ever belonged to poor Mrs. Holcroft was pulled out, taken to the window, and examined, Jane following, as usual, in the wake of her mother and putting everything to the same tests which her parent applied. Mrs. Holcroft had been a careful woman, and the extent and substantial character of her wardrobe proved that her husband had not been close in his allowances to her. Mrs. Mumpson's watery blue eyes grew positively animated as she felt of and held up to the light one thing after another. "Mrs. Holcroft was evidently unnaturally large," she reflected aloud, "but then these things could be made over, and much material be left to repair them, from time to time. The dresses are of somber colors, becoming to a lady somewhat advanced in years and of subdued taste."
By the time that the bed and all the chairs in the room were littered with wearing apparel, Mrs. Mumpson said, "Jane, I desire you to bring the rocking chair. So many thoughts are crowding upon me that I must sit down and think."
Jane did as requested, but remarked, "The sun is gettin' low, and all these things'll have to be put back just as they was or he'll be awful mad."
"Yes, Jane," replied Mrs. Mumpson abstractedly and rocking gently, "you can put them back. Your mind is not burdened like mine, and you haven't offspring and the future to provide for," and, for a wonder, she relapsed into silence. Possibly she possessed barely enough of womanhood to feel that her present train of thought had better be kept to herself. She gradually rocked faster and faster, thus indicating that she was rapidly approaching a conclusion.
Meanwhile, Jane was endeavoring to put things back as they were before and found it no easy task. As the light declined she was overcome by a sort of panic, and, huddling the things into the drawers as fast as possible, she locked them up. Then, seizing her mother's hand and pulling the abstracted woman to her feet, she cried, "If he comes and finds us here and no supper ready, he'll turn us right out into the rain!"
Even Mrs. Mumpson felt that she was perhaps reaching conclusions too fast and that some diplomacy might be necessary to consummate her plans. Her views, however, appeared to her so reasonable that she scarcely thought of failure, having the happy faculty of realizing everything in advance, whether it ever took place or not.
As she slowly descended the stairs with the rocking chair, she thought, "Nothing could be more suiterble. We are both about the same age; I am most respecterbly connected--in fact, I regard myself as somewhat his superior in this respect; he is painfully undeveloped and irreligious and thus is in sore need of female influence; he is lonely and down-hearted, and in woman's voice there is a spell to banish care; worst of all, things are going to waste. I must delib'rately face the great duty with which Providence has brought me face to face. At first, he may be a little blind to this great oppertunity of his life--that I must expect, remembering the influence he was under so many years--but I will be patient and, by the proper use of language, place everything eventually before him in a way that will cause him to yield in glad submission to my views of the duties, the privileges, and the responserbilities of life."
So active was Mrs. Mumpson's mind that this train of thought was complete by the time she had ensconced herself in the rocking chair by the fireless kitchen stove. Once more Jane seized her hand and dragged her up. "You must help," said the child. "I 'spect him every minnit and I'm scart half to death to think what he'll do, 'specially if he finds out we've been rummagin'."
"Jane," said Mrs. Mumpson severely, "that is not a proper way of expressing yourself. I am housekeeper here, and I've been inspecting."
"Shall I tell him you've been inspectin'?" asked the girl keenly.
"Children of your age should speak when they are spoken to," replied her mother, still more severely. "You cannot comprehend my motives and duties, and I should have to punish you if you passed any remarks upon my actions."
"Well," said Jane apprehensively, "I only hope we'll soon have a chance to fix up them drawers, for if he should open 'em we'd have to tramp again, and we will anyway if you don't help me get supper."
"You are mistaken, Jane," responded Mrs. Mumpson with dignity. "We shall not leave this roof for three months, and that will give me ample time to open his eyes to his true interests. I will condescend to these menial tasks until he brings a girl who will yield the deference due to my years and station in life."
Between them, after filling the room with smoke, they kindled the kitchen fire. Jane insisted on making the coffee and then helped her mother to prepare the rest of the supper, doing, in fact, the greater part of the work. Then they sat down to wait, and they waited so long that Mrs. Mumpson began to express her disapproval by rocking violently. At last, she said severely, "Jane, we will partake of supper alone."
"I'd ruther wait till he comes."
"It's not proper that we should wait. He is not showing me due respect. Come, do as I command."
Mrs. Mumpson indulged in lofty and aggrieved remarks throughout the meal and then returned to her rocker. At last, her indignant sense of wrong reached such a point that she commanded Jane to clear the table and put away the things.
"I won't," said the child.
"What! Will you compel me to chastise you?"
"Well, then, I'll tell him it was all your doin's."
"I shall tell him so myself. I shall remonstrate with him. The idea of his coming home alone at this time of night with an unknown female!"
"One would think you was his aunt, to hear you talk," remarked the girl sullenly.
"I am a respecterble woman and most respecterbly connected. My character and antercedents render me irrerproachful.--This could not be said of a hussy, and a hussy he'll probably bring--some flighty, immerture female that will tax even my patience to train."
Another hour passed, and the frown on Mrs. Mumpson's brow grew positively awful. "To think," she muttered, "that a man whom I have deemed it my duty to marry should stay out so and under such peculiar circumstances. He must have a lesson which he can never forget." Then aloud, to Jane, "Kindle a fire on the parlor hearth and let this fire go out. He must find us in the most respecterble room in the house--a room befitting my station."
"I declare, mother, you aint got no sense at all!" exclaimed the child, exasperated beyond measure.
"I'll teach you to use such unrerspectful language!" cried Mrs. Mumpson, darting from her chair like a hawk and pouncing upon the unhappy child.
With ears tingling from a cuffing she could not soon forget, Jane lighted the parlor fire and sat down sniffling in the farthest corner.
"There shall be only one mistress in this house," said Mrs. Mumpson, who had now reached the loftiest plane of virtuous indignation, "and its master shall learn that his practices reflect upon even me as well as himself."
At last the sound of horses' feet were heard on the wet, oozy ground without. The irate widow did not rise, but merely indicated her knowledge of Holcroft's arrival by rocking more rapidly.
"Hello, there, Jane!" he shouted, "bring a light to the kitchen."
"Jane, remain!" said Mrs. Mumpson, with an awful look.
Holcroft stumbled through the dark kitchen to the parlor door and looked with surprise at the group before him,--Mrs. Mumpson apparently oblivious and rocking as if the chair was possessed, and the child crying in a corner.
"Jane, didn't you hear me call for a light?" he asked a little sharply.
Mrs. Mumpson rose with great dignity and began, "Mr. Holcroft, I wish to remonstrate--"
"Oh, bother! I've brought a woman to help you, and we're both wet through from this driving rain."
"You've brought a strange female at this time of--"
Holcroft's patience gave say, but he only said quietly, "You had better have a light in the kitchen within two minutes. I warn you both. I also wish some hot coffee."
Mrs. Mumpson had no comprehension of a man who could be so quiet when he was angry, and she believed that she might impress him with a due sense of the enormity of his offense. "Mr. Holcroft, I scarcely feel that I can meet a girl who has no more sense of decorum than to--" But Jane, striking a match, revealed the fact that she was speaking to empty air.
Mrs. Wiggins was at last so far aroused that she was helped from the wagon and came shivering and dripping toward the kitchen. She stood a moment in the doorway and filled it, blinking confusedly at the light. There was an absence of celerity in all Mrs. Wiggins' movements, and she was therefore slow in the matter of waking up. Her aspect and proportions almost took away Mrs. Mumpson's breath. Here certainly was much to superintend, much more than had been anticipated. Mrs. Wiggins was undoubtedly a "peculiar female," as had been expected, but she was so elderly and monstrous that Mrs. Mumpson felt some embarrassment in her purpose to overwhelm Holcroft with a sense of the impropriety of his conduct.
Mrs. Wiggins took uncertain steps toward the rocking chair, and almost crushed it as she sat down. "Ye gives a body a cold velcome," she remarked, rubbing her eyes.
Mrs. Mumpson had got out of her way as a minnow would shun a leviathan. "May I ask your name?" she gasped.
"Viggins, Mrs. Viggins."
"Oh, indeed! You are a married woman?"
"No, hi'm a vidder. What's more, hi'm cold, and drippin', an' 'ungry. Hi might 'a' better stayed at the poor-us than come to a place like this."
"What!" almost screamed Mrs. Mumpson, "are you a pauper?"
"Hi tell ye hi'm a vidder, an' good as you be, for hall he said," was the sullen reply.
"To think that a respecterbly connected woman like me--" But for once Mrs. Mumpson found language inadequate. Since Mrs. Wiggins occupied the rocking chair, she hardly knew what to do and plaintively declared, "I feel as if my whole nervous system was giving way."
"No 'arm 'll be done hif hit does," remarked Mrs. Wiggins, who was not in an amiable mood.
"This from the female I'm to superintend!" gasped the bewildered woman.
Her equanimity was still further disturbed by the entrance of the farmer, who looked at the stove with a heavy frown.
"Why in the name of common sense isn't there a fire?" he asked, "and supper on the table? Couldn't you hear that it was raining and know we'd want some supper after a long, cold ride?"
"Mr. Holcroft," began the widow, in some trepidation, "I don't approve--such irregular habits--"
"Madam," interrupted Holcroft sternly, "did I agree to do what you approved of? Your course is so peculiar that I scarcely believe you are in your right mind. You had better go to your room and try to recover your senses. If I can't have things in this house to suit me, I'll have no one in it. Here, Jane, you can help."
Mrs. Mumpson put her handkerchief to her eyes and departed. She felt that this display of emotion would touch Holcroft's feelings when he came to think the scene all over.
Having kindled the fire, he said to Jane, "You and Mrs. Wiggins get some coffee and supper in short order, and have it ready when I come in," and he hastened out to care for his horses. If the old woman was slow, she knew just how to make every motion effective, and a good supper was soon ready.
"Why didn't you keep up a fire, Jane?" Holcroft asked.
"She wouldn't let me. She said how you must be taught a lesson," replied the girl, feeling that she must choose between two potentates, and deciding quickly in favor of the farmer. She had been losing faith in her mother's wisdom a long time, and this night's experience had banished the last shred of it.
Some rather bitter words rose to Holcroft's lips, but he restrained them. He felt that he ought not to disparage the mother to the child. As Mrs. Wiggins grew warm, and imbibed the generous coffee, her demeanor thawed perceptibly and she graciously vouchsafed the remark, "Ven you're hout late hag'in hi'll look hafter ye."
Mrs. Mumpson had not been so far off as not to hear Jane's explanation, as the poor child found to her cost when she went up to bed.
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