In Dark New England Days
Sarah Orne Jewett, 1890
(This story first appeared in Century 40, 1890 issue; opening above.)
The last of the neighbors was going home; officious Mrs. Peter Downs had lingered late and sought for additional housework with which to prolong her stay. She had talked incessantly, and buzzed like a busy bee as she helped to put away the best crockery after the funeral supper, while the sisters Betsey and Hannah Knowles grew every moment more forbidding and unwilling to speak. They lighted a solitary small oil lamp at last, as if for Sunday evening idleness, and put it on the side table in the kitchen.
“We ain’t intending to make a late evening of it,” announced Betsey, the elder, standing before Mrs. Downs in an expectant, final way, making an irresistible opportunity for saying good-night. “I’m sure we’re more than obleeged to ye, — ain’t we, Hannah? — but I don’t feel ‘s if we ought to keep ye longer. We ain’t going to do no more to-night, but set down a spell and kind of collect ourselves, and then make for bed.”
Martha [Susan] Downs offered one more plea. “I’d stop all night with ye an’ welcome; ’tis gettin’ late — an’ dark,” she added plaintively; but the sisters shook their heads quickly, while Hannah said that they might as well get used to staying alone, since they would have to do it first or last. In spite of herself Mrs. Downs was obliged to put on her funeral best bonnet and shawl and start on her homeward way.
“Close-mouthed old maids!” she grumbled as the door shut behind her all too soon and denied her the light of the lamp along the footpath. Suddenly there was a bright ray from the window, as if some one had pushed back the curtain and stood with the lamp close to the sash. “That’s Hannah,” said the retreating guest. “She’d told me somethin’ about things, I know, if it hadn’t ‘a’ been for Betsey. Catch me workin’ myself to pieces again for ’em.” But, however grudgingly this was said, Mrs. Downs’s conscience told her that the industry of the past two days had been somewhat selfish on her part; she had hoped that in the excitement of this unexpected funeral season she might for once be taken into the sisters’ confidence. More than this, she knew that they were certain of her motive, and had deliberately refused the expected satisfaction. “‘Tain’t as if I was one o’ them curious busy-bodies anyway,” she said to herself pityingly; “they might ‘a’ neighbored with somebody for once, I do believe.” Everybody would have a question ready for her the next day, for it was known that she had been slaving herself devotedly since the news had come of old Captain Knowles’s sudden death in his bed from a stroke, the last of three which had in the course of a year or two changed him from a strong old man to a feeble, chair-bound cripple.
Mrs. Downs stepped bravely along the dark country road; she could see a light in her own kitchen window half a mile away, and did not stop to notice either the penetrating dampness or the shadowy woods at her right. It was a cloudy night, but there was a dim light over the open fields. She had a disposition of mind towards the exciting circumstances of death and burial, and was in request at such times among her neighbors; in this she was like a city person who prefers tragedy to comedy, but not having the semblance within her reach, she made the most of looking on at real griefs and departures.
Some one was walking towards her in the road; suddenly she heard footsteps. The figure stopped, then came forward again.
“Oh, ’tis you, ain’t it?” with a tone of disappointment. “I cal’lated you’d stop all night, ‘t had got to be so late, an’ I was just going over to the Knowles gals’; well, to kind o’ ask how they be, an'” — Mr. Peter Downs was evidently counting on his visit.