Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book VIII

The Dark Autumn

I

Mrs. Bywaters’s youngest son walked into Mrs. Blake’s yard one morning with a letter. She was sitting in her parlour by an open window, sewing. He took off his cap and went to speak to her through the window:

“Good day, Mrs. Blake. I brought a letter for you. Mother said it must have been slipped into the letter-box late last night, for she didn’t find it till she was stamping the mail for the stage this morning. She thought it might be important, so she sent me down with it.”

“Thank you, Jonathan. That was real thoughtful of your mother.”

After Jonathan went away, Mrs. Blake sat contemplating the envelope he had brought. It was addressed in her mother’s neat handwriting. She had heard nothing from the Mill Farm since her return from Winchester by stage three days ago — except from Bluebell. That spineless darky girl (doubtless sent by Lizzie) had come across the meadow after dark and guilelessly asked Mrs. Blake if she had seen nothin’ of Nancy lately. Nobody at home had seen her, an’ they was a-gittin’ right worried. Taylor he thought they ought to drag the mill dam, but Trudy said maybe she was a-stayin’ over to Miz Blake’s, or was some’ers Miz Blake knowed about.

No, Mrs. Blake knew nothing of Nancy’s whereabouts, and Bluebell had better run along home, as Mrs. Blake was going to a prayer meeting at the church.

“Yes’m. I’s a-goin’. We cain’t find out nothin’ at home, ‘cause Miss Sapphy ain’t once spoke Nancy’s name since we foun’ her bed empty one mawnin’. An’ Till ain’t spoke her name, nuther. When Maw axed her where was Nancy, she jist tole her to mind her business. But we ‘speck Till had some talk wid de Missus, ‘cause right from the fust day Till’s been doin’ Master’s room an’ Mr. Martin’s. Seem like Till don’t miss her gal much. Las’ night when Taylor axed her mus’ he drag de mill dam, she tole him he could do what he pleased, an’ not to come pesterin’ her.”

Mrs. Blake resolutely put on her bonnet and pointed to the kitchen door. When Bluebell went out, she shut it behind her and drew the bolt. This was the only word she had had from the mill people.

The letter Jonathan had brought was doubtless something final, since it bore a stamp and came through the post office. People on Back Creek did not send letters to their neighbours through the post. A note to be sent up or down the road was not even put into an envelope. It was folded, turned down at one corner, and carried to the addressee by one of the boys or girls about the place. Government stamps were considered an extravagance. At last Mrs. Blake opened the letter and read:

Mistress Blake is kindly requested to make no further visits at the Mill House.

Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert

Well, that was best, Mrs. Blake agreed, as she folded up the paper. Her mother would meet this situation with dignity, as she had met other misfortunes. She would not set the slave-catchers on to track Nancy. She would not question anyone. She knew, of course, that the girl could never have got away without help, and this letter told that she understood who had contrived her escape. The Colbert darkies must know that Mrs. Blake’s house had been closed for two days, and that Mary and Betty stayed with Mrs. Bywaters while their mother was away. She was sorriest for the hurt this would be to her mother’s pride. Nancy’s disappearance would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Every time Mrs. Colbert drove out she would meet inquiring faces. The whisperings and surmises among her own servants would be a trial to her. Mrs. Blake knew how her mother hated to be overreached or outwitted, and she was sorry to have brought another humiliation to one who had already lost so much: her activity on horse and foot, her fine figure and rosy complexion.

The property loss Mrs. Colbert would bear lightly. Tansy Dave was certainly a property loss, and she had never complained or tried to punish him. But if he had actually run away and stayed in Baltimore, his mistress would likely enough have had him seized and brought back.

A girl like Nancy, refined and very pretty, skilful with her needle and in chamber work, would easily fetch a thousand dollars, maybe more. But Mrs. Blake did her mother the justice to believe that this money out was not the thing that cut to the quick. She unfolded the letter again, and as she looked at it, tears rose slowly to her eyes.

“It’s hard for a body to know what to do, sometimes,” she murmured to herself. “I hate to mortify her. Maybe I ought to a-thought about how much she suffers, and her poor feet, like Nancy said to me that night in the dark cabin by that roaring river. Maybe I ought to have thought and waited.”

All through the month of August Mrs. Blake was busy sewing for her girls, to get them ready for school. She saw no one from the Mill House except her father, who walked home with her from church every Sunday. Nancy’s name was never mentioned between them.

One Sunday morning fat Lizzie caught Mrs. Blake outside the church door and came at her. “Howdy, Miz Blake. Now maybe you knows when Nancy is comin’ home? I axed Miss Sapphy only yiste’day, an’ she says to me she s’posed Nancy’d come back from Ches’nut Hill when she was sent fur. Now Tap come up wid a nigger from Ches’nut Hill in Winchester, an’ he tells Tap dey ain’t never seen sight a’ Nancy down dar. It begins to look like Taylor’s right, an’ she drownded herse’f in de dam. He says dat’s all a pack a’ lies ‘bout dem risin’ to de top in fo’ days. She might easy a-ketched on a big root an’ be down dar still.”

By this time a dozen eager listeners had gathered round, and Mrs. Blake gave Lizzie a dark look. “Here comes your master. You had better ask him.”

Lizzie turned and saw the miller coming up the path. With a “God a’mighty!” she hurried into the church and up the narrow stairs to the gallery as fast as a woman of her figure could go.

After the first October frosts, when everyone went into the woods to gather chestnuts and hickory nuts, Mrs. Blake and her two little girls happened to come upon a nutting party from the Mill House. Till was among them. She met Mrs. Blake with such warmth as she seldom betrayed and called her by her given name.

“It’s surely nice to lay eyes on you agin, Miss Rachel. It does me good to see you lookin’ fine and hearty.”

Mrs. Blake asked after her mother’s health.

“I’m right worried about her, Miss Rachel. Doctor Clavenger comes out from Winchester every week to see her. Sometimes he draws the water off, an’ then she’s easier. She don’t git up for breakfast no more. She stays in bed all day till I dresses her an’ takes her into the parlour for tea.”

Their talk was suddenly interrupted by shouts and scrambling. Tap, the nimblest of the mill boys, had climbed a tall chestnut tree and was thrashing the branches with a pole. The little darkies shouted as the nuts showered down, and all the women fell on their knees and began scratching among the dried leaves and stuffing the nuts into their bags and baskets. Till and Mrs. Blake picked side by side, and once when they were bending over close together, Till asked in a low, cautious murmur: “You ain’t heard nothin’, Miss Rachel?”

“Not yet. When I do hear, I’ll let you know. I saw her into good hands, Till. I don’t doubt she’s in Canada by this time, amongst English people.”

“Thank you, mam, Miss Rachel. I can’t say no more. I don’t want them niggers to see me cryin’. If she’s up there with the English folks, she’ll have some chance.”

II

No one on Back Creek could remember a finer autumn; frosts before sunrise, summer heat at noon, chill nights. All morning the mountain lay in a soft blue haze, and in the afternoon broad fans of heavy golden sunlight warmed its back and flanks. The colour on the hillsides, in the low meadows, and along the streams had never been more brilliant. Little rain fell in October, and the trees held their leaves. The great maples in Mrs. Blake’s yard were like blazing torches; scarlet leaves fluttered softly down to the green turf, leaving the boughs above still densely covered.

With November the weather changed. Heavy rains set in. There was scarcely a clear day. The earth was soon soaked, the meadows became boggy, and all the streams rose. Back Creek overflowed its low banks and rushed yellow and foaming into the mill road. The schoolroom under the Baptist Church, set deep in the hillside, became very damp. Suddenly David Fairhead’s school was closed; nearly half his pupils were in bed with ulcerated throats or diphtheria.

It was a rare winter when there was not an outbreak of diphtheria in Hayfield or Back Creek or Timber Ridge. This year it came before winter began. Doctor Brush rode with his saddle-bags all day long from house to house, never bothering to wash his hands when he came or went. His treatment was to scour throats with a mixture of sulphur and molasses, and to forbid his patients both food and water. If he found “white spots,” he declared the case diphtheria, and the patient was starved until the spots were gone. Few children survived his treatment.

Late one evening in the week after the school had been closed, Mr. Whitford was driving his covered spring-wagon along the big road, carrying two coffins up to Timber Ridge. As he passed Mrs. Blake’s house he saw that her front door stood wide open, and a flickering light came from the parlour windows. This was a signal to passers-by that help of some sort was needed within. As he slowed his team, Mrs. Blake herself ran out into the road to hail him.

“We’re in trouble here, Mr. Whitford. Both my girls are sick, and I want you to carry word to the post office. Yes sir, they’ve been ailing with colds since yesterday, but tonight, just after supper, they were taken very bad. Maybe Mrs. Bywaters can come down to help me. And maybe she can send one of her boys along with you to hunt for the doctor. He’s likely somewhere on the ridge. I daren’t leave the house, and not a soul has come along the road till you.”

“I’ll get somebody here in no time, Mrs. Blake. Don’t you worry, mam.” Mr. Whitford whipped up his horses.

At the post office there was a brief consultation between Mrs. Bywaters and David Fairhead. Most people, though not all, believed that diphtheria was “catching.” Clearly the postmistress, who had to be on duty and see people every day, should not go where there was a contagious disease. Fairhead said he would go: Whitford could carry him back to Mrs. Blake’s, then drive up to Timber Ridge, deliver his coffins, and trail Doctor Brush until he found him.

When Fairhead reached Mrs. Blake’s house, he found her in an upstairs bedroom, holding the wash-basin for Betty, who was nauseated. After she laid the child back on her pillow, she rose and said: “Oh, I’m glad it’s you, David.” She fronted him with a strange, dark look which frightened him. He was very fond of these children. He stood still and tried to think. Mrs. Blake had got the girls into their nightgowns, braided their hair, and put them into two cots in the room they shared together. Fairhead told her he felt sure they ought not to be in the same room.

“There’s the spare room, across the hall, David. The bed’s made up. You can carry Mary over and put her in it.”

Toward morning Mr. Whitford brought word that Doctor Brush would stop at Mrs. Blake’s about sun-up, if she would have a good breakfast and plenty of coffee ready for him. The doctor came, looked down the girls’ throats, found his “white spots,” and seated himself in the dining-room to enjoy his breakfast. Immediately David Fairhead started for the mill.

The miller was standing before his little looking-glass, in the act of shaving, when Fairhead called to him through the open window.

“Mr. Colbert, I’ve come from Mrs. Blake’s house. Both her little girls are sick with bad throats. Doctor Brush is over there now. I thought you might like to talk to him before he leaves.”

The miller put down his razor, caught up his coat, and set off with David across the meadow. When he came home an hour later, he went directly to his wife’s room and sat down beside her.

“Sapphira, I was called over to Rachel’s. The trouble has reached her house. Both the girls are down with it.”

She rose on her pillows and gave him a searching look. “You mean it’s diphtheria?”

“That’s what Brush says.”

“Brush! Why, the man’s a complete ignoramus! It may be measles, for all he knows. Have you sent to town for my doctor?”

“No. I’ve only just got back from Rachel’s. I thought I’d better consult you. It’s come so sudden I’ve hardly had time to realize it.”

“But why haven’t you sent for Clavenger?” She reached under her pillow for the bell and rang it vigorously. Old Washington answered.

“Washington, send somebody down to the mill for Tap. This minute, as fast as you can get him here. Now, Henry, you must start Tap off for Winchester on your own horse. Who has Rachel got over there to help her?”

“David Fairhead left Mrs. Bywaters’s in the middle of the night and went down. He is going to stay with them. He’s a better nurse than any of the women around here.”

His wife scarcely heard him. “There comes Tap. Call him in here. I want to talk to him, and you see to saddling Victor.”

Tap came to the chamber door, which the Master had left ajar, and called softly through the crack: “You wants to see me, Miss Sapphy?”

“Yes, I do. Come in.”

The boy came in, holding a rag of a hat in his two hands. The darky men never went about the place without some sort of hat on their heads.

“Now, Tap, listen to me,” she began sternly. Tap stood rigid; he opened his eyes, prepared for a scolding. “I’m sending you to town to get Doctor Clavenger. My two granddaughters are very sick.”

The black boy stared at her, his shoulders went slack. “Not Miz Blake’s li’l gals, mam?” he asked wistfully.

“Yes, Mary and Betty have diphtheria, and you must go and get Doctor Clavenger here as quick as you can. You can ride faster than Mr. Henry or Sampson, because you are lighter. I can’t write to Doctor Clavenger, my hand is too bad” (she held it up), “so you must explain to the doctor that children are dying around here every day, and I will never forgive him if he don’t get out to us before night. You understand this is serious, Tap?”

Tap squeezed his crumpled hat tighter to his chest. “You kin depen’ on me, Miss Sapphy. I’ll git de doctah, I’ll fetch ’im back. You kin depen’ on me.” His naturally lively voice had sunk to something deep and shadowy. He slipped out of the room, and only a few minutes later his mistress saw him flash down the driveway on Victor, the fast trotter.

Word of why Tap was going to town had got through the house, and Till came unbidden to Mrs. Colbert. She stood at the foot of the bed in her usual correct attitude, her hands under her white apron.

“Kin I do anything, Miss Sapphy?”

“Yes, Till, you can. I want you to go over to Mrs. Blake’s and see how things are. Mr. Henry has been over, but men don’t notice very close. And you take one of the boys along, to carry a bundle of clean sheets and pillowcases. Rachel can’t have many ahead, because she’s always giving them away. While you’re there, look around sharp for what’s needed. Don’t ask Rachel, but just see for yourself. And if you’re not afraid, slip in and peep at the children, and tell me how they look.”

“It ain’t likely I’d be afraid, Missy. Who must I tell to wait in, if you rings your bell?”

Mrs. Colbert gave a dry, sad little laugh: “Well, there isn’t anybody BUT you, now, Till. You might ask Washington and Trudy to sit outside in the hall.”

III

Tap came back from Winchester, but he came alone. Doctor Clavenger had been called to Berryville to do a critical operation which the local doctor dared not undertake. Mrs. Clavenger, his wife, sent a letter to Mrs. Colbert, promising that as soon as her husband got home he would mount a fresh horse and start for Back Creek. She thought, indeed she felt sure, that he would be there by midday tomorrow. To the miller and Fairhead, who were awaiting him at Mrs. Blake’s, tomorrow seemed a long way off.

It was heart-breaking to see the children suffer, and to hear them beg for water. Their grandfather could not bear it. He went home, and digging down into the sawdust of the icehouse under his mill, he found some lumps of last year’s ice. It was going soft, maybe a little wormy, but he brought it over and let the girls hold bits of it in their mouths. He was not afraid of Doctor Brush, and he had authority as the head of his family. The ice helped them through the long afternoon.

Fairhead insisted on sitting up with the patients that night. Mrs. Blake would relieve him at four o’clock in the morning. The two had an early supper together in the kitchen. As Mrs. Blake went up the back stairs, she called down: “I’ve made a chicken broth for you, David, and left it there on the table to cool. Put some hickory sticks in the stove to hold the fire, and you can warm it up any time in the night you feel the need of it.”

Fairhead went out into the yard to get the cool air into his lungs. Sick-rooms were kept tightly closed in those days. The blue evening was dying into dusk, and silvery stars were coming out faintly over the pines on the hill. Fairhead was deeply discouraged. He believed Doctor Clavenger would know just what to do; but tomorrow might be too late.

Clavenger was everything that poor old Brush was not: intelligent, devoted to his profession — and a gentleman. He had come to practise in Frederick County by accident. While he was on the staff of a hospital in Baltimore, he fell in love with a Winchester girl who was visiting in the city. After he found that she would never consent to live anywhere but in her native town, he gave up the promise of a fine city practice and settled in Winchester. A foolish thing to do, but Clavenger was like that.

While Fairhead was walking up and down the yard, he kept an eye on the windows of Mrs. Blake’s upstairs bedroom. As soon as the candlelight shone there, it would be time for him to go to his patients. He circled the house, picked up some sticks from the wood-pile, and was about to go into the kitchen when he saw through the window something which startled him. A white figure emerged from the stairway and drifted across the indoor duskiness of the room. It was Mary, barefoot, in her nightgown, as if she were walking in her sleep. She reached the table, sank down on a wooden chair, and lifted the bowl of broth in her two hands. (She must have smelled the hot soup up in her bedroom; the stair door had been left open.) She drank slowly, resting her elbows on the table. Streaks of firelight from the stove flickered over her and over the whitewashed walls and ceiling. Fairhead knew he ought to go in and take the soup from her. But he was unable to move or to make a sound. There was something solemn in what he saw through the window, like a Communion service.

After the girl had vanished up the stairway, he still stood outside, looking into the empty room, wondering at himself. He remembered how sometimes in dreams a trivial thing took on a mysterious significance one could not explain. He might have thought he had been dreaming now, except that, when at last he went inside, he found his soup bowl empty.

Fairhead climbed the stairs slowly and went to Betty’s room. After he had washed out her throat with a clumsy thing called a swab, he got the last morsel of ice (wrapped in sacking on the window sill) and put it in her mouth. She looked up at him gratefully and tried to smile. He whispered that he would soon come back to her, took the candle, and crossed the hall to Mary’s room. He did not know what he might find there. He listened at the crack of the door; dead silence. Shading the light with his hand, he went in softly and approached the bed. Mary was lying on her side, fast asleep. Last night she had not slept at all, but tossed and begged for water. Her mother, who had sat up with her, said she was delirious and had to be held down in bed. Fairhead leaned over her; yes, the evil smell was on her breath, but anyhow he was not going to waken her to wash her throat. He went back to Betty, who liked to have him turn her pillow and sit near her.

Mary slept all night. When Mrs. Blake came in at four in the morning and held her candle before the girl’s face, she knew that she was better.

Doctor Clavenger rode up to the hitch-block about noon. He had dismounted and tied his horse before Fairhead could cross the yard to greet him. The doctor looked as fresh as if he had not been without sleep for more than thirty hours. He said the ride out had rested him, adding: “It’s beautiful country.” There was even a flush of colour in his swarthy cheeks, and as he shook hands he gave David a warm, friendly look from his hazel eyes, which in some lights were frankly green.

“I am glad to find you here, David. You will be a great help to me, as you were when Doctor Sellers had pleurisy. Now, in the first place, can you get word to the mill and ask Mr. Colbert to send over a fresh horse for me? I am hoping he can take my mare to his stable and rest her overnight. I will ride her back to town tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir. Till is in the kitchen. She will carry the message.”

“Good.” He took the young man’s arm and walked slowly toward the house. At the front door he stopped, turned round, and stood looking back at the blue slopes of the North Mountain. “How much better the line of the mountain is from here than from Mrs. Colbert’s yard!” He traced the long backbone of the ridge in the air with his finger. After taking a deep breath, he went inside.

When he greeted Mrs. Blake in the hallway, he asked very courteously for a pitcher of fresh water and two glasses; his ride, he said, had made him thirsty. David dropped the saddle-bags he was carrying and ran out to the springhouse for cold water. Doctor Clavenger thanked him and drank with evident gratification. Then he delicately waved Mrs. Blake to the stairway and followed her, carrying the pitcher and the two glasses, which she supposed were to be used for medicines. But the first thing he did was to lift Mary on his arm and hold a glass one-third full to her lips. She swallowed it eagerly and easily. He laid her down, crossed the hall, and did the same for Betty. When she choked and gurgled, he said soothingly: “That’s very good. Some of it went down; enough for this time.”

Mrs. Blake and Fairhead both stood by while he examined his patients, but he asked few questions of them. He was deliberate and at ease. He looked at the children, even at their throats, very much as he had looked at the mountain — sympathetically, almost admiringly, David thought. If Mrs. Blake spoke up to give him information about the course of their illness, he raised his hand in gentle rebuke. He talked to the children, however, while he was working over them, talked soothingly, as if he had come to make things pleasant for them. Even when they saw the swabs coming, they felt no dread. His swabs were very different from Dr. Brush’s, and he did not use sulphur and molasses. He stayed with them nearly two hours, and as he left he blew a kiss to each with: “Be good girls for me, until I come tomorrow.”

When he went downstairs, he gave Mrs. Blake and Fairhead clear and positive instructions, saying in conclusion:

“Leave the windows open as I put them, Mrs. Blake. This is a fine day at last, — let the air and sunlight into their rooms. They will not take cold, but if you are afraid of that, put more blankets over them. And tell your father he must try to find more bits of ice in that cave of his, for the little girls.”

Fairhead went with the doctor to the hitch-post, where the miller’s horse stood in readiness. “Doctor Clavenger, could you spare me a moment? There’s something I think I ought to tell you.”

The doctor sat down on the lower step of the hitch-block, leaned back against the second step, and relaxed into a position of ease, as if he meant to spend the afternoon there looking at the mountain. When David began to tell him what he had seen in the kitchen last night, he listened attentively, with his peculiar expression of thinking directly behind his eyes. He did not once interrupt, but when David ended with: “and I can’t believe she is any the worse for it,” the doctor gave him a quizzical smile.

“We’d best keep this a secret between ourselves, here on Back Creek. The child was hungry. Your warm broth satisfied that craving, and she went to sleep. Her system began to take up what it needed. That’s very simple. What surprises me is that you were struck dumb outside the window and did not go blundering in and take the child’s chance away from her.” The doctor stepped up on the block (he was a short man) and swung his leg over the saddle.

Late the next afternoon Mrs. Colbert was sitting by the parlour fire, her chair turned so that she could look out of the north windows. Since midsummer she had, without comment, changed her habit of life. Now she did not leave her bed until tea-time. She was watching the meadow path, anxiously awaiting her husband’s return. He had been over at Rachel’s since morning, and Doctor Clavenger, she knew, had come out soon after midday. She could not understand why some word of how he found the children had not been sent her.

At last she saw the miller coming across the meadow. She shook her head and sighed. His slow gait, the slackness of his shoulders, told her that he brought no good news. As he came through the yard he did not look up or glance toward the windows. She heard him open and close the front door, but he did not come in to her at once. When he came he did not speak, but stood by her chair, stooping down to warm his hands at the fire.

“Poor Rachel,” he brought out at last, “little Betty has gone.”

“Oh, Henry! Couldn’t Clavenger do anything?”

“I reckon not. It was so sudden. It happened while he was there. I was in Mary’s room, and all at once he came to the door and lifted his finger, looking at me sharp. I went back with him, and in a minute she was gone; just slipped away without a struggle, like she was dropping asleep. At first we couldn’t believe it.”

“And Mary?”

“She is better. Clavenger says she will get well. We must be thankful. But Betty was my little dear.”

Mrs. Colbert reached out and caught his hand. “I know, Henry. I know. But these things are beyond us. One shall be left and the other taken. It’s beyond us.” She was silent for a moment. Suddenly she gripped his cold fingers and broke out with something of her old masterfulness: “And, Henry, Mary will get SO MUCH MORE out of life!”

“More for herself, maybe,” the miller sighed. “But I doubt if she will be as much comfort to others. The gentle spirit has left us.”

“Sit down, dear. Get my old hassock yonder and sit low, close to the fire. Your hands are like ice. This is a time when we must both think.” She reached under the tea-table for the red flask and poured the rum into her empty teacup. He drank it obediently. She knew he was too tired to talk, so they sat in silence. When Washington came in for the tray, she put her finger to her lips and pointed to the hot-water jug. He understood that meant fresh tea for the Master. In a few moments he brought it, and left without making a sound. Supper was ready, but he saw this was no time to speak of it.

All this while the Mistress was thinking, turning things over in her mind. She had not seen Rachel since Nancy’s disappearance, months ago. She was wondering how far she could count upon herself. At last, when she had quite made up her mind, she put her hand on her husband’s drooping shoulder.

“Henry, it will be hard for Rachel and Mary over in that house now. Everything will remind them. Why not ask them to come here and spend the winter with us? I would like to have them, on my own account. I’m not as able as I was last year. Rachel is very proud, but I expect if you told her I have failed, and we ought to have someone here, she would come. Mary would be nice company for me. I miss the child when I don’t see her. And if anything was to happen to me, the place wouldn’t run down and be so lonesome like for you. Till is a good housekeeper, but the other darkies wouldn’t mind her one week if there wasn’t a woman of the family to stand behind her. You’d soon have bedlam here. Rachel and Till together would keep things up as they ought to be.”

Colbert felt a chill run through him. Sapphira had never before spoken to him of the possibility that something might happen to her this winter. Though now she mentioned this very casually, it struck terror to his heart. He seemed in a moment to feel sharply so many things he had grown used to and taken for granted: her long illness, with all its discomforts, and the intrepid courage with which she had faced the inevitable. He reached out for her two hands and buried his face in her palms. She felt his tears wet on her skin. For a long while he crouched thus, leaning against her chair, his head on her knee.

He had never understood his wife very well, but he had always been proud of her. When she was young, she was fearless and independent, she held her head high and made this Mill House a place where town folks liked to come. After she was old and ill, she never lowered her flag; not even now, when she knew the end was not far off. He had seen strong men quail and whimper at the approach of death. He, himself, dreaded it. But as he leaned against her chair with his face hidden, he knew how it would be with her; she would make her death easy for everyone, because she would meet it with that composure which he had sometimes called heartlessness, but which now seemed to him strength. As long as she was conscious, she would be mistress of the situation and of herself.

After this long silence, in which he seemed to know that she followed his thoughts, he lifted his head, still holding fast to her hands, and spoke falteringly. “Yes, dear wife, do let us have Rachel here. You are a kind woman to think of it. You are good to a great many folks, Sapphy.”

“Not so good as Rachel, with her basket!” She turned it off lightly, tweaking his ear.

“There are different ways of being good to folks,” the miller held out stubbornly, as if this idea had just come to him and he was not to be teased into letting go of it. “Sometimes keeping people in their place is being good to them.”

“Perhaps. We would all do better if we had our lives to live over again.” She was silent for a moment, then added thoughtfully: “Take it all in all, though, we have had many happy years here, and we both love the place. Neither of us would be easy anywhere else.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30