Humming to herself and swinging her basket, Rosalie marched up the lane, rutted here and there. Though the porch was inviting she did not go to the front door. As she turned the corner towards the back, she was met with a strong and unpleasant smell of skunk, and she saw before her a little brown woman, very old, with a multitude of tiny wrinkles in her face. She was neatly dressed in black and her fine kind eyes twinkled at the sight of Rosalie. She had a hoe in her hand, and on the ground before her lay a dead skunk, whose black and white were so extreme that it looked like the charcoal drawing of a skunk. Had a realistic artist been present he might have got a suggestion for a picture, “Women looking at dead skunk”, or perhaps had he been a sentimentalist, he might have named the picture, “Youth, Age and Death.”
“Did you do it?” asked Rosalie.
“I hit him behind the ear with the hoe. You gotta be kinda quick,” answered the little old lady.
Rosalie laughed, and her laugh was as clear and musical as the ring of a silver bell. Rosalie never forgot that phrase, and often in after life used it in talking to laughing friends, “You gotta be kinda quick, as the little old lady said when she killed the skunk with a hoe.” Once she used it when she and a timid girl crept into an air-raid shelter and the girl giggled and all her fear was suddenly gone.
“He’s been botherin’ me for weeks,” explained the little old lady. “He’ll kill the chickens and then add insult to injury by sneaking up here and sleeping under the back-door step, and what a strong stink he did make. But I stood still behind the door and watched for the bugger, and I hit him with the hoe behind the ear. You gotta be kinda quick.”
Rosalie knew instinctively that this was not the old lady’s natural way of speaking, but that she had assumed the role of back-woods woman because she was not quite sure what her auditor was like.
“We’ll have to bury him,” said Rosalie.
“Not yet, not tonight,” said the old lady, and she took her hoe and dragged her skunk down to the edge of the wood pile. “Let him cool off tonight and he won’t smell so bad in the morning. We’ll bury him then.”
“They’re quite pretty when you see them close to, aren’t they?”
“Yes, pretty enough, but smelly and awful sneak thieves. Now come in, my dear, the night will be nippy, and I’ve got a good fire and a full wood box, and supper’s just ready.”
“I’m hungry,” said Rosalie, “although I did have a big dinner?
Rosalie followed the little old lady into the kitchen, sat down and set her basket under the table that was laid for two. The lamp was not yet lit, but the fire from the cook-stove gleamed through the open draft and glinted on polished pots and pans hung along the door-side wall. The floor was scrubbed white, the dishes were neatly laid on a red and white cloth, and a tall old clock ticked on a shelf where candles stood. A pole with a pulley hoist was raised above the stove and hung straight with clean dish cloths, the green wood box by the stove was piled high with dry split beech and maple, there was a pump and a gleaming white sink, doors that were closed led, as Rosalie found out later, into a cold pantry and front hall.
“Well,” said Rosalie, stretching her feet out toward the fire, “this is cosy.”
“Ain’t it,” said the little old lady.
“You’ve got a pump, you don’t have to carry water.”
“Yes, I’ve got a pump, and a covered in well, and a cesspool and a toilet in front. I made up my mind some years ago that I was through with sitting on cold outdoor seats. It gives you an awful sudden chill to sit down on a frosty seat, so I put in a toilet. There isn’t another indoor toilet for twenty miles either way. I haven’t got a bathtub yet, but there’s always plenty of hot water—I’ve got a big copper boiler—and you can have all the baths you like in a wash-tub by the kitchen fire.”
“The table’s laid for two,” said Rosalie.
“One place for you and one for me,” said the little old lady. “I’ve been expectin’ you. I saw you coming through a narrow woods lane miles and miles away from here. I even saw the basket in your hand. Then I lost you for awhile for you seemed to be whizzing along so fast. I’ve been expecting you, but I didn’t think you’d arrive and catch me killing that skunk. What’ll I call you?”
“At first I thought I would be Mary Moon, but then Johnny Allen helped me to decide on Stella Star. Of course those aren’t my real names, My real name is Rosalie. You’ll be careful not to tell the neighbors won’t you? You see, I’ve run away.”
“And quite rightly, too,” said the little old lady. “Every woman should run away once in awhile. Mary Moon’s no good, that’s the name for a fat silly sentimental woman. Stella Star’s better, though it’s rather hard and brittle. I’m glad your name’s Rosalie, I’ll call you that, it just suits you.”
“All right,” said Rosalie, “I’ll be glad if you call me Rosalie, but not when any of the neighbors are around.”
“The neighbors never come here, only the travelling grocery, and meat and fish men, and men that get my hay and cut my wood and plant my garden. I’ve got a thoroughbred Jersey cow.”
“I can milk a cow,” said Rosalie, “though we never had one at home. I learned when I stayed inland for a summer month with my uncle.”
“And tend chickens and pigs?”
“Sure,” replied Rosalie, “and split fish in a pinch, and what I don’t know I can soon learn.”
“There’s no fish to split here anymore. The folks along this shore are pretty well run out and lazy, and since Captain Ed’s shop burnt down and he went out of business, they don’t catch any fish to speak of, just a few hundred quintals. I don’t know how they live.”
“I don’t like fish very much,” said Rosalie.
“I’m right glad you can milk and tend hens and pigs,” said the little old lady. “I was a little afraid you might be a town girl, full of hot air and lipstick. That’s the reason I spoke a little rough at first. I had to get a good look at you to see what you were like inside, and the sun was in my eyes. Now wash up at the sink, there’s your clean towel out, and we’ll have supper.”
Rosalie did as she was bid and sat down at the table. For supper there was fried chicken and baked beans—yellow eyes—and crisp golden Johnny cake, and apple-sauce and cake and strong tea that had been well steeped.
“You’re a good cook,” said Rosalie when she had eaten her fill. “I don’t believe I ever had such a good meal in all my life.”
“It’s a little extra tonight because I expected you. I’m pretty rich you know and I can have pretty much what I want. That’s the thing, for a woman to do, make the men pay for her comforts, and store some money away.”
“I’ve got forty-nine dollars sewed in my shirt,” said Rosalie, “and a little in my purse, and a man gave me ten dollars today.”
“Did he kiss you much?”
“He didn’t kiss me at all, he never even touched me.”
“That’s unusual,” said the little old lady. “Perhaps he was sick. When I was young they all wanted to kiss me and tickle me. I was a pretty girl like you once.”
“You’re still pretty,” said Rosalie. “You’ve got kind eyes, and you’re neat as a pin. I like handsome old people.”
“Wrinkles and false teeth,” said the little old lady. “Men don’t bother me anymore. I’ve had three of them and they’re all in the graveyard now, at least two are and one’s at the bottom of the sea. They were all different and had to be handled differently, but every one of them left me some money. You see, I can speak well if I choose, sometimes I drop into country talk for fun.”
“The man I rode on the truck with,” began Rosalie.
“Ah,” said the little old lady, “that’s why you were whizzing along and I lost you.”
“The man I rode with told me about his family and how he caught a Scotch wife and about racing horses. He was a very nice man. I didn’t listen to all he said but I learned quite a lot.”
“You were lucky,” said the old lady. “Usually they pretend they’re single or that their wives don’t understand them. You might have struck a tough guy.”
“I’m not afraid of anybody,” said Rosalie. “I’m strong, they can’t do more than kill me and there’s worse things than getting killed.”
“Yes, said the old lady, “the death of the spirit is the worst. Have some spunk and learn, that’s what gets a woman on. Are you anxious to learn?”
“I must learn, my heart is hungry to learn,” said Rosalie.
“Good,” said the old lady. “Can you play gin rummy and cribbage?”
“I can play Oklahoma, that’s another kind of rummy, and once or twice I’ve played gin. I don’t know cribbage.” The little old lady clapped her hands, “Quick then, let’s get the dishes washed and we’ll play gin rummy and you can teach me Oklahoma. I’m so glad you’re not a stupid girl, I’ve had such dull people visit me at odd times. We can play gin rummy for a nickel a game, and keep our winnings in a cup and in the long run we’ll come, out even.”
“Rosalie laughed again her silver laugh, “All right,” said she.
“And we’ll go to bed early, there’s two bedrooms in front, and an air-tight stove in the hall between, full of chunks. I don’t keep any parlour, I don’t believe in parlours; they can lay me out in my bedroom. A cheery kitchen with a fire crackling, is the best country room. You can have a bedroom all to yourself, and with hot-water bottles each, we’ll be as snug as two bugs in rugs. We’ll get to bed early; we’ll only play three games tonight for you must be tired after that long early trek through the woods.”
“I can sleep tonight,” said Rosalie.
“And say,” said the little old lady anxiously, “I’m almost afraid to ask the question, but will you stay awhile?”
“Sure,” said Rosalie, “and we’ll bury the skunk in the morning.” The table was soon cleared, the dishes washed and put away, and the stove stuffed full of wood. Before supper the old lady had lit a shaded Alladin lamp, that threw a warm spot of light on the checkered tablecloth. Rosalie and the old lady then sat down to play gin rummy. At first, Rosalie had rather forgotten about the game, but the old lady spread the first two hands out on the table, so that both could see. Rosalie learned quickly, they began in earnest, the old lady played with enthusiasm, drawing from pack or kitty without a second of indecision. The room was warm and cosy, the chairs cushioned and comfortable, the fire cracked merrily. Gin rummy is not a difficult game but there are tricks in it, and the old lady was more expert and experienced than Rosalie. “I used to play every evening with my second husband, dead long since,” explained the old lady, “and cribbage with Mat at sea.” In fact by going out for ten or less and not waiting for a gin the old lady won three straight games from Rosalie, and blitzed her in the second. Rosalie paid over her fifteen cents and the old lady glowed with pleasure.
“You like to gamble?” asked Rosalie.
“I love it,” said the old lady. “I used to bet on horses when I was with Mat in foreign ports. It’s a good thing I never got to Monte Carlo.
Rosalie laughed; the old lady had a dry humour.
“And yet,” she said, “I’m always sorry when other people lose and dissipate their goods. Perhaps you’ll win tomorrow night.”
“Perhaps,” said Rosalie, “Perhaps I’ll get better and better. Anyway fifteen cents is a cheap rate for supper, bed and breakfast.”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said the old lady, “we’ll put our winnings in two cups and buy each other Christmas presents.” “Christmas?” said Rosalie.
“Certainly,” said the old lady. “Didn’t you know that you had come to spend Christmas?”
“It’s only late September now, and I’ll have to be on my way long before Christmas,” said Rosalie with a twinge of alarm. “You wouldn’t hold me a prisoner would you?”
“Oh my dear, you’ll be as free air. You can take your basket and walk out any day. But I do hope you’ll stay. I’ve waited for you so long and it will be such a treat to have someone smart in the house to play gin with in the evenings or sometimes Oklahoma or checkers.”
“But you don’t know anything about me,” said Rosalie. “I might be a thief or a gold-digger or just a woman tramp.”
“I know nothing about you, and yet in one good look everything about you,” said the old lady.
“You don’t ask questions,” said Rosalie.
“I seldom ask questions,” said the old lady. “Half the trouble in the world comes from asking questions. I learned that long ago. When the men come to cut my wood or get my hay, I only ask them, ‘Can you make hay? Can you cut wood?’ That’s all I want to know. I don’t want to hear that they have cross women, or that their eldest daughter is in the lunatic asylum, or that the baby has measles.
If Mrs-so-and-so wants to have a two-headed baby, that’s her business, I’ve got my own things to think about. Half the trouble in the world comes from prying into other people’s business and telling other people what to do. Let everyone mind his own business, and mind it properly.”
Rosalie laughed, “I believe you’re right, certainly people talked me into a bad position. Then you don’t want to know anything about me?”
“Of course I do,” said the old lady. “I’m curious, too, but I’ve learned to conquer curiosity. You’ll tell me whatever you want to tell me when the time comes, without questions, when you learn to trust me. I do hope you’ll stay for Christmas, Rosalie. I have such lovely plans for things for us to do. I haven’t any axe to grind except to be happy. Do you like to read?”
“Oh yes,” said Rosalie. “I like to read out loud.”
“And I like to listen. We’ve got plenty of books in the attic.
My first husband, the sea captain, he was a great reader, and my third too, but most of his were holy books. I’ve got plenty of money, Rosalie. I cashed in on every one of my husbands. I could pay you something for helping me with the work. I could pay you anyway, five dollars a week.”
Rosalie laughed, “We’ll see.”
“I keep my real money in a trust company in the town, but I always have plenty of cash in the house.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being robbed?”
“See that,” said the little old lady, pointing to a polished shotgun that hung above the stove. “I can handle firearms, and you saw how quick I was to hit that skunk behind the ear. I can protect myself. I followed the sea for ten years with Mat, my first husband, the sea captain and once I stood in the companion-way with loaded pistols, hidden but all ready, while he went on deck and handled a mutinous crew.”
“And how do you manage for provisions?” asked the practical Rosalie.
“The travelling grocery man and the travelling fish and meat men get here once a week, when the snow isn’t too deep, and this time of year I stock up with staples. I never let them in the house; I do business on the doorstep.”
“You have your own butter and eggs,” said Rosalie.
“Yes, and half a barrel of salt beef and salt pork, a bucket of shad and a bucket of herring, hay in the loft, short feed in the bins, turnips, potatoes, vegetables and apples in the cellar, plenty of jellies, jams and preserves in the pantry, cake flour, and two barrels of ordinary bread flour,”
“You’re all set for a siege,” laughed Rosalie. “All you need to add to the shotgun is a little heavy artillery.”
The old lady laughed too, “Do stay with me Rosalie, you’re such good company and nobody has made me laugh for years back. Now you must be off to bed, for you’re getting dark rings under your pretty eyes.”
Rosalie was glad to go to bed. Her room was warm, and though it was only late September, the old lady had slipped a hot-water bottle between her sheets. That was a luxury Rosalie had never enjoyed. First she laid it in the curve of her back, where there was a tiny ache from the jouncing of the truck, then against her thighs and at last she kicked it down and rested both feet against it. What a pleasant glow! How much better than a man! She was glad indeed to be alone in a wide bed, with no one to fuss and fumble with her. What a day she had had and how much kindness she had found: no adventures, it was true, like Miranda’s or Don Quixote’s, but still adventures in a simple way.
Like most decent people, she had in her a strong strand of religion, that bound her to some power of goodness, and she felt that she must say a little prayer before she slept, and thank the loving God for all the good fortune she had found on her first day of wandering. So she began with that bit of literature more gracious and beautiful in its simplicity than any other,
Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name!
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in Heaven!
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those,
Who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the power and the Kingdom and the glory, Forever and
She did not rattle off this prayer in any perfunctory fashion, but said it thoughtfully and slowly and sincerely, with the proper emphasis upon each word. “I’m only a poor weak little thing, dear God in your sight, only about as big as a mosquito or a flea, but perhaps Mary, your mother, will understand. I had to run away and perhaps my Saint told me to, please forgive me and guide me on my way.” Then she dropped into dreamless sleep, the hot-water bottle glowing at her feet.