The Old Gray Homestead

Produced by Mary Meehan and PG Distributed Proofreaders

THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD

BY FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES

1919

To the farmers, and their mothers, wives, and daughters, who have been
my nearest neighbors and my best friends for the last fifteen years, and
who have taught me to love the country and the people in it, this quiet
story of a farm is affectionately and gratefully dedicated.

THE OLD GRAY HOMESTEAD

CHAPTER I

“For Heaven’s sake, Sally, don’t say, ‘Isn’t it hot?’ or, ‘Did you ever
know such weather for April?’ or, ‘Doesn’t it seem as if the mud was just
as bad as it used to be before we had the State Road?’ again. It is
hot. I never did see such weather. The mud is worse if anything. I’ve
said all this several times, and if you can’t think of anything more
interesting to talk about, I wish you’d keep still.”

Sally Gray pushed back the lock of crinkly brown hair that was always
getting in her eyes, puckered her lips a little, and glanced at her
brother Austin without replying, but with a slight ripple of concern
disturbing her usual calm. She was plain and plump and placid, as sweet
and wholesome as clover, and as nerveless as a cow, and she secretly
envied her brother’s lean, dark handsomeness; but she was conscious of a
little pang of regret that the young, eager face beside her was already
becoming furrowed with lines of discontent and bitterness, and that the
expression of the fine mouth was rapidly growing more and more hard and
sullen. Austin had been all the way from Hamstead to White Water that
day, stopping on his way back at Wallacetown, to bring Sally, who taught
school there, home for over Sunday; his little old horse, never either
strong or swift, was tired and hot and muddy, and hung its unkempt head
dejectedly, apparently having lost all willingness to drag the
dilapidated top-buggy and its two occupants another step. Austin’s
manner, Sally reflected, was not much more cheerful than that of his
horse; while his clothes were certainly as dirty, as shabby, and as
out-of-date as the rest of his equipage.

“It’s a shame,” she thought, “that Austin takes everything so hard. The
rest of us don’t mind half so much. If he could only have a little bit of
encouragement and help—something that would make him really happy! If he
could earn some money—or find out that, after all, money isn’t
everything—or fall in love with some nice girl—” She checked herself,
blushing and sighing. The blush was occasioned by her own quiet happiness
in that direction; but the sigh was because Austin, though he was well
known to have been “rather wild,” never paid any “nice girl” the
slightest attention, and jeered cynically at the mere suggestion that he
should do so.

“How lovely the valley is!” she said aloud at last; “I don’t believe
there’s a prettier stretch of road in the whole world than this between
Wallacetown and Hamstead, especially in the spring, when the river is so
high, and everything is looking so fresh and green.”

“Fortunate it is pretty; probably it’s the only thing we’ll have to look
at as long as we live—and certainly it’s about all we’ve seen so far! If
there’d been only you and I, Sally, we could have gone off to school, and
maybe to college, too, but with eight of us to feed and clothe, it’s no
wonder that father is dead sunk in debt! Certainly I shan’t travel much,”
he added, laughing bitterly, “when he thinks we can’t have even one hired
man in the future—and certainly you won’t either, if you’re fool enough
to marry Fred, and go straight from the frying-pan of one
poverty-stricken home to the fire of another!”

“Oh, Austin, it’s wrong of you to talk so! I’m going to be ever so
happy!”

“Wrong! How else do you expect me to talk?—if I talk at all! Doesn’t it
mean anything to you that the farm’s mortgaged to the very last cent, and
that it doesn’t begin to produce what it ought to because we can’t beg,
borrow, or steal the money that ought to be put into it? Can you just
shut your eyes to the fact that the house—the finest in the county when
Grandfather Gray built it—is falling to pieces for want of necessary
repairs? And look at our barns and sheds—or don’t look at them if you
can help it! Doesn’t it gall you to dress as you do, because you have to
turn over most of what you can earn teaching to the family—of course,
you never can earn much, because you haven’t had a good enough education
yourself to get a first-class position—so that the younger girls can go
to school at all, instead of going out as hired help? Can’t you feel the
injustice of being poor, and dirty, and ignorant, when thousands of other
people are just rotten with money?”

“I’ve heard of such people, but I’ve never met any of them around here,”
returned his sister quietly. “We’re no worse off than lots of people,
better off than some. I think we’ve got a good deal to be thankful for,
living where we can see green things growing, and being well, and having
a mother like ours. I wish you could come to feel that way. Perhaps you
will some day.”

“Why don’t you marry Fred’s cousin, instead of Fred?” asked her brother,
changing the subject abruptly. “You could get him just as easy as not—I
could see that when he was here last summer. Then you could go to Boston
to live, get something out of life yourself, and help your family, too.”

“No one in the family but you would want help from me—at that price,”
returned Sally, still speaking quietly, but betraying by the slight
unevenness of her voice that her quiet spirit was at last disturbed more
than she cared to show. “Why, Austin, you know how I lo—care for Fred,
and that I gave him my word more than two years ago! Besides, I heard you
say yourself, before you knew he fancied me, that Hugh Elliott drank—and
did all sorts of other dreadful things—he wouldn’t be considered
respectable in Hamstead.”

Austin laughed again. “All right. I won’t bring up the subject again. Ten
years from now you may be sorry you wouldn’t put up with an occasional
spree, and sacrifice a silly little love-affair, for the sake of
everything else you’d get. But suit yourself. Cook and wash and iron and
scrub, lose your color and your figure and your disposition, and bring
half-a-dozen children into the world with no better heritage than that,
if it’s your idea of bliss—and it seems to be!”

“I didn’t mean to be cross, Sally,” he said, after they had driven along
in heavy silence for some minutes. “I’ve been trying to do a little
business for father in White Water to-day, and met with my usual run of
luck—none at all. Here comes one of the livery-stable teams ploughing
towards us through the mud. Who’s in it, do you suppose? Doesn’t look
familiar, some way.”

As the livery-stable in Hamstead boasted only four turn-outs, it was not
strange that Austin recognized one of them at sight, and as strangers
were few and far between, they were objects of considerable interest.

Sally leaned forward.

“No, she doesn’t. She’s all in black—and my! isn’t she pretty? She seems
to be stopping and looking around—why don’t you ask her if you could be
of any help?”

Austin nodded, and pulled in his reins. “I wonder if I could—” he began,
but stopped abruptly, realizing that the lady in the buggy coming towards
them had also stopped, and spoken the very same words. Inevitably they
all smiled, and the stranger began again.

“I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Mr. Howard Gray’s house,”
she said. “I was told at the hotel to drive along this road as far as a
large white house—the first one I came to—and then turn to the right.
But I don’t see any road.”

“There isn’t any, at this time of year,” said Sally, laughing,—”nothing
but mud. You have to wallow through that field, and go up a hill, and
down a hill, and along a little farther, and then you come to the house.
Just follow us—we’re going there. I’m Howard Gray’s eldest daughter
Sally, and this is my brother Austin.”

“Oh! then perhaps you can tell me—before I intrude—if it would be any
use—whether you think that possibly—whether under any circumstances
—well, if your mother would be good enough to let me come and live
at her house a little while?”

By this time Sally and Austin had both realized two things: first, that
the person with whom they were talking belonged to quite a different
world from their own—the fact was written large in her clothing, in her
manner, in the very tones of her voice; and, second, that in spite of her
pale face and widow’s veil, she was even younger than they were, a girl
hardly out of her teens.

“I’m not very well,” she went on rapidly, before they could answer, “and
my doctor told me to go away to some quiet place in the country until I
could get—get rested a little. I spent a summer here with my mother when
I was a little girl, and I remembered how lovely it was, and so I came
back. But the hotel has run down so that I don’t think I can possibly
stay there; and yet I can’t bear to go away from this beautiful, peaceful
river-valley—it’s just what I’ve been longing to find. I happened to
overhear some one talking about Mrs. Gray, and saying that she might
consider taking me in. So I hired this buggy and started out to find her
and ask. Oh, don’t you think she would?”

Sally and Austin exchanged glances. “Mother never has taken any boarders,
she’s always been too busy,” began the former; then, seeing the swift
look of disappointment on the sad little face, “but she might. It
wouldn’t do any harm to ask, anyway. We’ll drive ahead, and show you how
to get there.”

The Gray family had been one of local prominence ever since Colonial
days, and James Gray, who built the dignified, spacious homestead now
occupied by his grandson’s family, had been a man of some education and
wealth. His son Thomas inherited the house, but only a fourth of the
fortune, as he had three sisters. Thomas had but one child, Howard, whose
prospects for prosperity seemed excellent; but he grew up a dreamy,
irresolute, studious chap, a striking contrast to the sturdy yeoman type
from which he had sprung—one of those freaks of heredity that are hard
to explain. He went to Dartmouth College, travelled a little, showed a
disposition to read—and even to write—verses. As a teacher he probably
would have been successful; but his father was determined that he should
become a farmer, and Howard had neither the energy nor the disposition to
oppose him; he proved a complete failure. He married young, and, it was
generally considered, beneath him; for Mary Austin, with a heart of gold
and a disposition like sunshine, had little wealth or breeding and less
education to commend her; and she was herself too easy-going and
contented to prove the prod that Howard sadly needed in his wife.
Children came thick and fast; the eldest, James, had now gone South; the
second daughter, Ruth, was already married to a struggling storekeeper
living in White Water; Sally taught school; but the others were all still
at home, and all, except Austin, too young to be self-supporting—Thomas,
Molly, Katherine, and Edith. They had all caught their father’s facility
for correct speech, rare in northern New England; most of them his love
of books, his formless and unfulfilled ambitions; more than one the
shiftlessness and incompetence that come partly from natural bent and
partly from hopelessness; while Sally and Thomas alone possessed the
sunny disposition and the ability to see the bright side of everything
and the good in everybody which was their mother’s legacy to them.

The old house, set well back from the main road and near the river, with
elms and maples and clumps of lilac bushes about it, was almost bare of
the cheerful white paint that had once adorned it, and the green blinds
were faded and broken; the barns never had been painted, and were
huddled close to the house, hiding its fine Colonial lines, black,
ungainly, and half fallen to pieces; all kinds of farm implements, rusty
from age and neglect, were scattered about, and two dogs and several
cats lay on the kitchen porch amidst the general litter of milk-pails,
half-broken chairs, and rush mats. There was no one in sight as the two
muddy buggies pulled up at the little-used front door. Howard Gray and
Thomas were milking, both somewhat out-of-sorts because of the
non-appearance of Austin, for there were too many cows for them to
manage alone—a long row of dirty, lean animals of uncertain age and
breed. Molly was helping her mother to “get supper,” and the red
tablecloth and heavy white china, never removed from the kitchen table
except to be washed, were beginning to be heaped with pickles,
doughnuts, pie, and cake, and there were potatoes and pork frying on the
stove. Katherine was studying, and Edith had gone to hastily “spread up”
the beds that had not been made that morning.

On the whole, however, the inside of the house was more tidy than the
outside, and the girl in black was aware of the homely comfort and good
cheer of the living-room into which she was ushered (since there was no
time to open up the cold “parlor”) more than she was of its shabbiness.

“Come right in an’ set down,” said Mrs. Gray cheerfully, leading the
way; “awful tryin’ weather we’re havin’, ain’t it? An’ the mud—my, it’s
somethin’ fierce! The men-folks track it in so, there’s no keepin’ it
swept up, an’ there’s so many of us here! But there’s nothin’ like a
large family for keepin’ things hummin’ just the same, now, is there?”
Mrs. Gray had had scant time to prepare her mind either for her
unexpected visitor or the object of her visit; but her mother-wit was
ready, for all that; one glance at the slight, black-robed little
figure, and the thin white face, with its tired, dark-ringed eyes, was
enough for her. Here was need of help; and therefore help of some sort
she must certainly give. “Now, then,” she went on quickly, “you look
just plum tuckered out; set down an’ rest a spell, an’ tell me what I
can do for you.”

“My name is Sylvia Cary—Mrs. Mortimer Cary, I mean.” She shivered,

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