In the clean, large kitchen of a Virginia farm-house sat an old woman alone, knitting. She had been pretty once; fifty years ago that wrinkled yellow skin had been called “creamy,” and the scant gray hair drawn back under the plain cap had been a shower of brown curls. And she had coquetted with Judge Holt and turned away from him at the last to marry plain Nathan Bennett, living with him in rare contentment for two-score years, and then coming to spend the remnant of her days with her daughter Ann. Now Ann, too, was gone, and only the children were left; Ben and Nancy, and her own adopted child, Lura Ann.
She smoothed down her neat gray cashmere gown, which had been her “second best” dress since Ann’s death, and leaned back more comfortably against the cushioned surface of the splint rocking-chair.
It’s May when the Apples blossom and an old woman considers how few apple blossom times she has left, while her grandchildren seem unaware of the many they have to look forward to.
This story appears in a collection of Florence Hull Winterburn’s stories called Southern Hearts, hosted at Project Gutenberg.
“They’re good children,” she said to herself, “excepting Nancy. And she’s not so bad as might be.” She cast a satisfied glance at the meadows and fields stretching as far as her eyes could reach, and then looked lovingly at the dwarf apple-trees whose branches pressed against the window-shutters. Some of the pink blossoms lay on the ledge. It was May. The flies were buzzing, the sparrows twittering, as they stole cotton from the body of a doll lying in the yard and flew up to the roof with it.
A little girl came around the house and picked up the doll, shook it, looked up at the eaves where the mother sparrow sat, muttered something in an angry tone, and entered the house, singing. She sang: “The apples were ripe and beginning to fall, beginning to fall!”
“Ah, yes,” said her grandmother, “you’ll see the apples fall a many times, but I shall scarcely see ‘em more’n once more—once or twice more, at most. Well, well, I’ll be contented to die if only I can live to see my boy and Lura Ann—” then she stopped, meeting the child’s bright eyes.
“Lura Ann is going to marry Sackford Moss,” said the child.
An angry flush came over the old woman’s thin face; she jerked her knitting, and one of her needles fell to the floor.
“Now you’re mad, granny, and it’s wicked to be mad, so I shan’t hand you your knitting-needle,” sang the little girl, in a silvery voice.
“Then you’ll have no stockings to wear when the biting frost comes; but you don’t care—you don’t care. ‘Tis a generation that thinks not of the future, but works its will in the present,” moaned the old woman, folding her hands together hard.
“I’ll hand you your needle if you’ll tell Lura Ann to make waffles for supper,” said the sharp child; but her grandmother looked upon her with disfavor and did not reply. After a moment the little girl came quietly forward and laid the needle on her lap, but the old woman did not resume her knitting. She sat with her hands folded, and looked at intervals out of the window, but with a much-wrinkled brow.
A door opened, and Lura Ann came in with a wide straw hat on. She was tall, slim, and fair, with deep gray eyes, heavy-lidded and long-lashed, and a little red mouth whose short upper lip just raised itself enough to give a glimpse of small, pearly teeth. She looked shy and sweet.
“I am going to town, grandaunt,” she said, timidly. “Shall I bring you some more yarn?”
The old woman straightened herself and looked sternly at the maiden. “Be you a-going to marry Sackford Moss?” she asked shrilly.
The pretty lips closed together, and no answer came from them.
“She’s going to buy her wedding-gown now,” cried the child, getting up quickly from her stool. “Say, Lura Ann, can I go with you?”
“You stay right hyar, Nancy, and take care of granny,” said Lura Ann, with some severity. Then she went out, murmuring to herself: “They all think the same thing.”
She walked steadily out through the front gate and along the road to town. It was two miles distant, and the air was close and dusty. Her little black shoes were soon specked, and the hem of her dress gathered soil by dipping against them. The blue merino scarf over her shoulders made her too warm, but she did not dare take it off, because it covered a large patch under her arm.
A handsome road-wagon, drawn by a pair of bay horses, dashed up suddenly beside her. The driver leaned forward and touched his hat with an air of devotion.
“Just in time, Lura Ann,” he cried, gaily. “Come, get in, and I’ll drive you to town and wherever else you want to go.”
“No, I thank you,” said Lura Ann.
But he got down and urged her cordially. The high, shaded seat looked delightful. The fine horses tossed their heads and pawed impatiently. The long road stretched out, hot and dusty. Walking she would get to town looking like a fright, and it would take much longer. The last consideration had a weight known to nobody but herself. She let Sackford help her up into the seat and draw the linen duster over her knees. Covertly he examined her dress.
“Going to shop?” he asked; adding carelessly: “Burns has got in quite a lot of new goods. My sisters were in last week and bought a carriage load. But they are nothing to what is in the city. I am going to the city soon. Emily has been teasing me to buy her a lace dress. How pretty you would look in a lace dress, Lura Ann, with a little lace bonnet on your soft brown hair, trimmed with rosebuds just the color of your lips!”
Lura Ann’s cheeks grew pinker than the bunch of apple blossoms at her throat. “Your sisters and I air different people,” she said, in her plaintive, soft voice.
Sackford feasted his eyes in the blush. The veins in his short, thick neck began to swell, and he shifted the reins to his right hand and laid the left across the back of the seat. But Lura Ann sat up very straight.
“Lean back and be comfortable,” he urged.
“Take away your arm then, please,” faltered Lura Ann. And just then Ben Falconer, coming across a field in his coarse working clothes, saw her drooping with the blush upon her cheek and Sackford’s arm about her waist. He stood still, and looked after the handsome team with a frown and a sigh. Lura Ann had not seen him, but Sackford had, and secretly blessed the hour. Yet he did not dare kiss Lura Ann, as he had intended.
“Where shall I take you first?” he asked, as they entered the town.
“To Mr. Wright’s, if you please.”
“Of course—he holds some little money belonging to her, I’ve heard,” thought Sackford.
“Don’t wait for me,” she said, but he waited, and she was gone a long time. When she came out she was pale, as if she had been worried. Yet she looked resolute, and spoke in a tone that had lost all its timidity.
“Take me to the old red brick house at the end of the street,” she said, eagerly, “and oh be quick!”
“Why, what’s the attraction in that old rookery—a new milliner?” jested Sackford. He could not conceive the idea of a woman’s being interested in anything but clothes.
Lura Ann’s slim hand closed tightly under her shawl about the old purse that had come out empty and was now full to bursting with currency. Five hundred dollars! She was of age to-day, and had drawn it in her own name, every cent. Milliner! Yes, her hat was shabby, but no matter about that.
Sackford was smiling to himself at her excitement as he helped her out on to the stone step before the old red brick house. She rang the bell, and there was no response. Her courage seemed to be oozing away as she waited.
“Better come back,” called Sackford. But she shook her head and applied herself to the bell again. After a moment a shuffling step approached and the door opened a few inches, allowing a man’s head to be seen. He was old and grim-looking. Lura Ann said something low and timidly, and after a look of keen scrutiny he let her in.
Sackford felt an indescribable reluctance to have her go in.
After about five minutes she appeared at the door with a paper in her hand, and beckoned him. He sprang out quickly, tied his horses, and stepped into the hall beside her.
“Oh, please see if that is all right,” she entreated, putting a legal paper in his hand. “You are a lawyer, and he—this gentleman, said to let you see it.”
Sackford glanced from it to her, saw her total unconsciousness of anything out of the way, frowned, bit his lip, and examined the document with care.
“It is all right,” he then said. “It is a full release. Is this what you want?”
“Yes, oh, yes, thank you! and I am much obliged to you, sir,” she added, sweetly, to the grim old man who stood looking on from the background.
He bowed sardonically. “The obligation is on my side, young lady,” he said.
“By Jove! It is on somebody else’s side,” thought Sackford, as he put Lura Ann back into the vehicle; adding, aloud, “I don’t like this.”
“Ah, but you don’t know,” said Lura Ann, pleadingly. Her long lashes grew moist. “It is the wish of grandaunt’s heart to have the farm free from this mortgage. I always felt as if the debt had been made because of me. She took me when father died—I was a tiny child of three—and oh, they have always been so good to me!”
Sackford’s frown did not soften. It was surprising how surly his shrewd, coarse face became. “But whose is the farm?” he asked. “That release was made out to Ben Falconer.”
“Yes, but it is just the same. Grandaunt made over her share of the farm to him, and he cares for all of us. He is the best man in the world—my cousin Ben.”
“The world—what do you know of the world?” said Sackford. “But, see here, Lura Ann, do you understand? You have given away all your little fortune and left yourself penniless.”
“Yes,” said Lura Ann, simply. There was something in her face that checked further speech upon his part. She was a foolish, improvident child, and rather too confiding toward this cousin Ben of hers, but she was very pretty—wonderfully pretty—and, after all, he had money enough. If five hundred dollars had rid her of her sense of obligation, the price was cheap. A sigh came here, for Sackford Moss did not love to part with money. But feeling that he had better put this subject out of his mind, he smoothed his face and tried to regain his former jovial, easy bearing. Lura Ann heard his talk as if it sounded from a far-off country. But suddenly there was a question; it brought her with a start to a sense of her surroundings. His face was bent down close to hers; his breath—she shuddered and turned her head. Then the answer came, clear and final. What could he do after that but whip up the horses and hasten on?
At the farm gate he let her down and drove away without a backward glance. A spray of withered apple blossoms fell from her dress into the dust, and his wheel passed over it.
But she walked up the path with a step like the toss of thistledown and a heart as light.
The old woman was again looking from the window. She nodded kindly, but her brow was careworn. “Nancy laid the fire,” she said. “It’s five o’clock. I think it’s going to rain. Ben has worked too hard lately. He’s in his room with a headache.”
“I’ll get tea in a minute,” said Lura Ann. “But first, grandaunt, look hyar!” She laid off her hat and scarf, and came and knelt on the stool at the old woman’s feet. “See,” and she opened the paper. “It is a release from the mortgage! It is my gift to you, grandaunt, bought with the money uncle left me. The farm is free!”
The old woman’s hands trembled as she laid them on the beautiful young head. “The Lord bless you, child!” she murmured. But in a moment came the after-thought. “Lura Ann, it has taken everything!” she exclaimed. “You haven’t a dollar left to buy your wedding-gown!”
The stair door opened, and Ben came down from his room, carrying a little hand-mirror in a carved wooden frame. He was a fine specimen of young manhood, tall, straight, and strong. His dark brown eyes showed intelligence and depth of feeling. Over his features—naturally good—was now cast the reflection of that victory which makes a man “greater than he that taketh a city.” He advanced with an air of cheerfulness.
“Lura Ann, I did not forget that this is your birthday. I carved this frame for you myself, and I wish you—”
“Ben!” cried his grandmother. “Lura Ann has bought off the mortgage!”
“And I’m going to light the fire with it,” cried Lura Ann a little tremulously, and springing up.
But Ben came and took it from her quickly. He did not comprehend the legal phrases as Sackford had done, but he gathered the sense. His fine eyes began to brighten and glow as they rested on his cousin’s face, now averted and blushing.
“Lura Ann, let me see your wedding-gown,” exclaimed Nancy, coming in; and Lura Ann grew rose red, but she made a violent effort to free herself from this wretched mistake.
“I haven’t got any—I’m not going to have any!” she cried hysterically, turning to strike a match to the fire. “What do I want of a wedding-gown when I’m not going to be married?”
“But Sackford Moss said—” began Nancy, with staring eyes.
“Bother Sackford Moss!” said Lura Ann, pettishly, trembling with nervousness under Ben’s grave eyes.
“He said he was going to take you away from us!” finished the persistent child.
“Well, he isn’t!” said Lura Ann emphatically. Then she would have liked to flee to her room, but Ben was still standing before her.
“Nancy,” he said, in singularly happy tones, “go, get in the young chickens, quick. Don’t you see how fast the rain is coming?” And Nancy, who always obeyed her brother, went.
Then Ben, conscious of the whole evening before him, let Lura Ann get supper and clear it away, before supplementing by a single word the tender, hopeful look in his eyes.
But an hour later, when the shower had passed, they stood together on the stoop, which was covered with fallen apple blossoms. The clouds were gone and the sky was clear blue, except for a trail of gold in the west. The fields lay green and wet. They looked at sky and fields, and at last into each other’s eyes, and there their gaze rested.
“How sweet the air is after the rain,” said the old woman.
“It is the apple blossoms,” said Ben, from the stoop; and gathering up a handful he let them fall in a shower over Lura Ann’s head.