<^ LINGERED a moment with my hand on the "§% latch, leaning upon the gate, and looking over ^ at the straggling flower-beds and the little grass-grown walks which led to the old house beyond. A poor, tumbled-down house it was, to be sure, yet how much a part of Miss Letty's very self it seemed, growing grey just as she grew grey, in little patches where the rain had stained and the paint had crumbled off. In the old garden, the cedars and boxwood had grown gnarled and woody, and cape-jessamines burst their young spring buds high on the ancient stock almost out of reach. Crepe-myrtles and altheas met in a tangled archway that led from the gate to the house, where honey-suckle and ivy clustered close around the eaves.
There began a lively tapping on one of the window-panes within as I loitered, and looking up, I saw Miss Letty shaking a slim thimbled finger at me.
" Come in, child, do,^' she said, when I opened the door behind her, and poked my head in, " you'll catch your death out there on the damp ground, without your rubbers, too, I'll be bound."
" Why, Miss Letty, it is almost spring-time/' I said, with the door-knob still in my hand, '' and already the young grass is beginning to peep up here and there, and I am sure there are pink tips swelling on the tea-roses. Please come and see/^
" Are you coming in, Eleanor ? " asked Miss Letty, in a tone of voice which w^ould have commanded obedience even if she had not called me Eleanor, instead of Nell, which latter is all that I ever hoped for from my friends.
" What is it, Miss Letty, please?" I said, closing the door with a bang, wondering at the dear old lady\s unwonted excitement.
" What do you suppose?'' she asked with a smile, as she folded her work, giving a little tap on top of it, and putting away her needle and thimble.
" Not the—piano—" I began fearfully.
But Miss Letty broke me off eagerly. ^* Yes, it is tho' Nell, just,'' she said, as she looked up at me over her steel-rimmed glasses, shaking her temple curls at me gayly.
'' O Miss Letty ! Where is it ? " I cried, joyfully peering about as if I expected to see a piano hiding in every corner, or peeping out from under every chair.
" What a little goose you are, Nell," said Miss Letty in her pleased little way. " It isn't bought yet you know, I only wanted you to recount the money with me to be sure there is enough, and then we shall see at once about getting the piano."
" O you sweet Miss Letty," I cried, catching her in my arms and whirling her about with me till our heads were dizzy.
^^ Suppose some one had seen us, Nell, you silly child," Miss Letty remonstrated when she had got her breath. " How old are you anyway, nine ? ^'
" Twice nine, Miss Letty, and ^ going on,' '' I said. ^^But it makes me feel young again to think of having the piano at last."
^^ At last, and you only eighteen/^ said Miss Letty a little wistfully. ^^ Heigho! But never mind, I am to have it at last, as you say. Now I am going to get my strong box, and I want you to count the savings over for me."
One by one we spread out the bills, and piled up the coins till the little, round, marble-topped table was full of Miss Letty^s small hoard, and I looked at it all reverently, each piece becoming sacred to me when I thought of the years of privation and toil it had cost her.
"Do you know what that is, Nell?" said Miss Letty, unfolding a silver dollar from its little wrapper of white paper. " That was for making your first short frock. You don't remember it—a white lawn with a pink leaf, and you looked for all the world when you had it on as if a shower of peach-blow petals had fallen on you. I can see you now. And this yellow gold piece was for making your mother's wedding dress, think of it. A white silk it was, that stood alone when it was finished. And this was for making Mr. Pitman's last pepper-and-salt. Poor old man ! They buried him in it. He asked them to, the day before he died, because, as he said, it ^ sot to him' better than anything he ever had on his back."
" What do you 'spose that little bit was for ?'' asked Miss Letty by and by, as she emptied a few small coins, all quarters and dimes and nickles out on the table, drawing them up together. '^ That was for making Mary Ann Perry's wedding dress. Tlie bargain was that I should only help, and get four dollars and six bits for my work. But you know how things are sometimes. If Mary Ann herself stuck needle in that lilac delaine of hers I never found it out, and after all, three ten was all I ever got for making it. Mary Ann was always close, even when she was a girl; just for the world like her old father before her. You've heard tell how d'reckly after the surrender folks had to go to work and hire negroes, allowing them a fourth of the crop as wages. Well, old man Runnells, Mary Ann's father that was, he honeyfugled many a poor ignorant negro into believing that a fourth warn't enough, and caused them to leave good homes to go and work for a fifth with him. So you see Mary Ann come honestly by her shrewdness, and I reckon we ought to bear this in mind, and excuse it in her more than we are prone to do."
Five hundred dollars was all the box contained, and every piece of it teeming with memories for dear Miss Letty—memories into which she had pricked with her busy needle the patient pattern of her life— memories that brought the tears into her old eyes now and then as she told of them, and into mine too as I listened.
*^ Tell me all about the piano," I said to her once as I sat beside her watching her busy needle come and go, '^ tell me from the very beginning."
'^ Well, I don^t know the very beginning myself/' she had answered. ^^ I can't remember when I did not want a piano. But father wasn't rich you know, ever, and so I had to wait. He promised when I began taking music lessons that I might have one f my teacher thought I had any talent, and I remember as if it were yesterday, how pleased he was at the end of the session, when I played ^ Home, Sweet Home,' with variations, and never lost a note. I got the silver music-medal too that night, don't you remember, I showed it to you once, with ^ perseverance' engraved across the face ? Father was very proud of me, and the people all applauded, and Rob Taylor threw me a bouquet. It was all sweet-shrub and wild honeysuckle and yellow jessamine that he had plucked in the woods as he came along, but my! I can smel them yet."
When Miss Letty stooped down to bite off her thread, it was a tear that she wiped from her eye ?
^^ What ever became of him. Miss Letty?" asked, poor, little, romantic soul that I was, forgetting my politeness, " what became of the boy that threw the flowers."
^^What diiference does that make, child, I wonder," she said a little sharply for Miss Letty, I fancied. " Do you want me to tell you about the piano ? "
" Oh, yes. Miss Letty, please," and she went on.
" As I was saying when you interrupted me, father was very proud of me, and got Mr. Rogers to write to his commission merchant in New Orleans to see about a piano for me. But the war was coming on then, and we waited, and pretty soon it was come and
gone, and with it the money to bay the piano. Poor £itherl There was so many of us then to provide for, tho' I'm the only one of the family left now, dean- me I Dick never came back from the war, and mother died soon after, and the girls followed one by one. Somehow, there waru't any of 'em strong, and pretty soon father died. The little plantation had to go then to pay debts, poor lather, and tiiere was left ('Illy the little ht»mc-place. 1 went to teaching music liit'U at the coUegt-—the old college, child, tliat stood behind the church by the laboratory well—but it warn't long before that burned. I rememl>er how I cried the night of the fire, but it was all because of the piano, the poor, battered, tuneless old thing that I had practiced on. Well, after the college wa-gone, there was no school of any kind in Mt. Lebanon for a long time, and there was nothing for me but sewing. I don't mean to complain, for I've always had plenty to do, and I made up my mind at the start that I would lay by a little every year till I had saved • ii'Uirh to buy a piano. It seems a long time to you < Lil.i. doesn't it? But God has been very good to me." Poor Misf! l^tty I
There was not many pianos left in the whole town then ; the doctor's daughter had one, and Mrs. Rod-gers another, and there were one or two more among the old families, and at these we all loved to see Miss Letty sit, with a glad light in her dim old eyes, and her nimble lingers cha-^ing each other over the keys. Indeed, had not most of us learned our first dancing steps to Miss Letty's playing? And surely there was music enough yet in her " Virginia Reel" and ** Sol-
dier's Joy " to set us all a-tingle to the tune of it, and we grew up looking forward, as for a great joy that was to come into our narrow lives, to an endless round of reels and cotillions, when Miss Letty should have a piano of her very own.
We younger ones could not remember when Miss Letty had not made our " Sunday dresses " for us. But this, however, I think most of us accepted as a special favor vouchsafed to us just as we did the sugarplums and tea-cake that we sometimes found in the pocket of a new lindsey frock at its first outing, comfortably stored away here by Miss Letty to help us over the tedium of Sunday^s sermon. I can distinctly recall more than one occasion when I sat in my pew-corner discretely munching my pocket's treasure-trove, to the tune of " Am I a Soldier of the Cross.'' I was fired by the martial strains to buy a piano myself and present it to Miss Letty, when I grew up.
Somehow, it seemed to me as I looked back upon it, that there had once been a time when all the hopes of the village had been centered around Miss Letty's piano. We had all heard our mothers say over and often that they would have Miss Letty in for a day's sewing, since it would give them a lift, and help along with the piano. Some of us had heard our fathers say that they would order an extra soft bit of stuif from the little factory that sent its brown smoke curling up above the tree-tops beyond the tan-yard, and have Miss Letty make a suit. *^ It will wear better than ready-made clothes do," they would say, " and besides, it will count toward the piano."
But gradually as our keen interest must have
waned, we all knew that the little spark of hope still glowed fresh and warm in Miss Letty's breast, and we respected it, even the yonnger ones, though we passed beyond the days of wide-eyed wonderment Avhen the rumble of a heavy wagon would send us running to the window to see if the piano were coming at last. And I think none of us quite forgave old Peter Smith for scoffing at Miss Letty's little hope. To be sure old Peter scoffed with impunity at everything in heaven and on earth, but when it came to Miss Letty, and in such a public way, that was more than the village people could submit to. It came about in this way, for we all heard of it; one day as the little German shoemaker sat in the midst of his busy pegging, singing in his bright, cheery voice, so that all the town might hear, " Dere's a better time a-coming, Hallelujah !" old Peter had taken his pipe from his mouth, and, perhaps impressed with the enormity of his daring, had for once in his life spit quite clear of the store-gallery, to say to the crowd of loungers that hung about, ^^ Yes, there's a better time a-comin', but, plague-on-it, it's like Miss Letty's piano, it never gits here."
I w^as thinking of just this while Miss Letty went to put the tin box away, and that I should like to be the first to tell old Peter when the piano came.
Consumed with this devout desire, I got no further in my retrospect when I heard the little front gate creak on its hinges, and Miss Letty returned a moment later, bringing Mary Ann Perry in with her.
Everybody in the village called her Mary Ann^ and we younger ones were no exceptions, elsewhere
than before her face, whose thin, sharp features underneath her flapping sunbonnet were the butt of a perennial jest among us.
^^ Don't you think your fire is mighty brisk for this time o' year, Letitia/' said Mary Ann, taking a half-way seat on the edge of her chair, and fanning herself with her sunbonnet.
'^ I don^t know as I had thought of it, Mary Ann. Does the room seem close to you ?'^ asked Miss Letty, rising to lift a window.
^'Oh, it warn't that I meant," interposed MaryAnn. ^^ I guess I can stand as much heat as anybody, seein' I've been used to good fires all my life. I was only thinking times is mighty hard for so much wood to be wasted.^'
"¦ Well, maybe you're right, Mary Ann,'' answered Miss Letty, taking her seat, and folding her hands on her lap placidly. ^' Hard times has been the cry ever since I can remember, but I don't know as they seem to get any harder now. However, father always told me I didn't have a saving bone in me. As he said— poor father—I burnt off my caudle double at one end what I saved at the other."
'^ Well, of course you are free to do as you please, Letitia," said Mary Ann. "You are just one to yourself, and when you are gone, you'll leave none behind to suffer. But as for times bein' no harder, whatever are you thinkin' of? What's to hinder them f'om bein' hard, with cotton at five cents, and meat a-gettin' higher? Maybe you just ain't had it brought home to you, but there's no tellin' how soon it may come. As for me, now, I can't he'p f'om
feelin' sorry for them as do suffer, even if I'm spared myself, which I thank God I have been, so far. There's Rob Taylor, f'rinstance. S'pose you've heard tell o' his trouble."
I saw MissLetty's eyelids quiver behind her spectacles, as she snatched the little hearth-broom from the brass rack in the corner, and began to sweep the immaculate bricks desperately in search of an imaginary ash. But Mary Ann went on.
*'Yes, there's Rob and his folks goin' to be turned out into the big road come the fourteenth, they say. Reckon it'll go hard on 'em all, him an' his wife both gittin' along in years, an' with their big house-full of girls, too. Somehow, tho', I can't seem to he'p f'om feelin' it's a kinder judgment sent on Rob. I ain't never got over the way he done you, Letty, goin' off that-away without a word, and you never hearin' nothin'tel news come that he was married to Lou Abercrombie over there to Arcady. 'Twarn't right o' Rob, and I, for one, always said so."
^' I think most of you have been too hard on Rob, maybe, Mary Ann," said Miss Letty, gently. '' His word was not given to me ever, and he had a right to marry whom he pleased." The words came a little tremulously towards the end, but she finished them quite bravely.
" Well, that's as you're a mind to look at it," Mary Ann replied. " Rob was as good as bound to you, word or no word, an' kept away more than one man as might have made you a good husband. You can't he'p f om knowin' that now, Letty, for all you say. An' that's why I sayit seem like a judgment sent on
Rob. Not that I think youVe missed anything by not marryin' him, for he never was no great shakes, nohow, an^ it just shows how low down he's got when he's goin' to be sold out to satisfy a claim for five hundred dollars.''
''J^'ive hundred dollars?" Miss Letty fairly gasped. ^^ Five hundred dollars, did you say, Mary Ann ?"
'^ Yes, that's all, an' it do seem a pitiful sum now, don't it, when you think of the fortune he got by Lou Aberorombie. That proves this is a punishment for him ever marryin' of her."
'^ Five hundred dollars ! Just five hundred!" Miss Letty said over and over again, her voice sounding scarce above a whisper. ^^ It seems like providence!"
'^ Who did you say held this mortgage, Mary Ann—this mortgage against Rob Taylor ?" she asked by and by, with a firmness that startled me, it was so sudden.
^^ The mortgage—who holds it, 'd you say, Le-titia?" said Mary Ann hesitatingly. ^^Oh, Perry, you know, he holds it. Rob, he got money f'om us two year ago when his wife was so low an' the chillun was down sick."
^^ Five hundred dollars—" Miss Letty began again. '^ Wait a moment, Mary Ann, please," she went on quite firmly, ^^ and do you come with me, Nellie, child, just—"
I think I had never seen my dear Miss Letty look quite so determined, tho' her hands were working nervously together.
"Oh, you must not do it, Miss Letty, dear, indeed and indeed you must not!" I said, divining her purpose, and ])uttino: my arms about her when the door had closed l)ehind us.
She turned my head haek, looking into my face for a moment without speaking, while her poor wrinkled old lips trembled, and the tears trickled down her cheeks.
"Suppose you were me, and Uob was Ali)cit Marcy, what then, child?" she asked softly.
And I? Then for answer, I only drew her closer up to me and kissed tlie poor, tnMnblin«r, patient old lips.
She made me carry the little tin box in, and she and Mary Ann stood by the table silent, uncomprehending while I counted (tver again Mi-- Letty's lifelong savings.
"There it is, Mary Ann,'" she -aid, when 1 was done. "Just five hundred dollars, you see. That is what you said Rob owed you, wasn't it ? Take it, Mary Ann, take it, j)lease, and—go."
"But the piano, IvCtty ?" asked Mary Ann, almost gently.
"That will wait, and you won't, I'm afraid, Mary Ann," Miss Letty said.
Mary Ann looked up hastily, but she was not quite equal to the passing thought of generosity. Rob Taylor's farm was a poor one at best, and five hundred dollars was a goodly price for it.
" Do you come home with me, child," she said when she had gathered up all the money from the table, putting it into the crown of her bonnet, " do
you come with me, and take a receipt for this. I want everything to be straight.''
When I came back by and by with the receipt, I found Miss Letty sitting before the fire looking into the crumbling coals, a little faded gleam of youth in her dim blue eyes, and a sandal-wood box in her hands.
'^ These were Rob's presents to me," she said quite sweetly, showing within the uncertain, daguerreotyped face of a handsome, black-eyed boy with a slack mouth, a crumbled bouquet of what had once been jessamine and azalea and sweet shrub, and on top of all a little old-fashioned valentine, faded and yellow with age. ^* From your valentine," was scrawled in an unsteady, boyish hand across one corner.
" He knew I would understand," said Miss Letty, simply. ^^And now, Nell, I think I shall write just the same, you know, ^ from your valentine,' and send it with this receipt to Rob. It can make no difference to Lou Abercrombie, and Rob will not know— perhaps."
Poor Miss Letty, putting all the love of a lifetime into one little " perhaps."