The Old Brown House by Unknown

[Illustration]

It was very old, low-roofed, and weather-beaten, standing quite a little stretch from the road, and you might have supposed it deserted but for the thin column of smoke that wound slowly above the roof, so desolate did it look.

But it was inhabited, and could you have pushed aside the creaking door, you might have seen an old woman, wrinkled and gray, sitting by the silent hearth, stirring the dull fire, or looking absently from the window.

It was Aunt Ruth Jones, as the neighbors called her, of whom little was known, except that she was a queer old woman—a sort of hermit, living all alone in the neglected old house. It had come into her possession, with a small farm adjoining, by the death of her parents some thirty years before.

At first the neighbors were curious to see the new occupant; they found a tall, spare woman, then about thirty-four years of age, little given to gossip, shy, and cold. Some affirmed that she was proud, and others said that her life had been one of disappointment. But none had succeeded in drawing out her story, and gradually the old brown house and its occupant were left to themselves.

Years had wrought changes; the walls were now darkened with smoke, the windows dingy, the floor sunken in; there was nothing cheery in the ill-kept room, or in the face of Aunt Ruth. Some natures become shriveled and cramped when left to themselves, and hers was such an one; I am afraid it was also narrowed and hardened by being shut off from humanity, with none to share her joys or grief, or to care indeed, if she had any.

As the days came and went, they brought nothing to her but a little round of chores, a bit of patchwork, or straw braiding, and occasionally a walk to the village store to buy the few articles she required.

The gay dresses and pert stare of the village girls, the glimpses of happy homes caught through the windows, and the noisy stir of life, only made more striking the contrast of her own lonely lot. Gladly would she hasten back to her own silent fireside, where the cats, at least, were glad of her presence. Old Brindle knew her step, and tossed her head impatiently for nubbins of corn, or the pail of slop with which she was wont to be treated. The hens cackled merrily, and scarcely stirred from their tracks, as her dress brushed their shining feathers.

The care of these creatures was a kind of company, and on frosty mornings Aunt Ruth might be seen watching them eating so greedily, while her own breakfast was yet untasted, and her feet and fingers benumbed with cold.

Though none shared her heart or home, yet there was sometimes one bright presence within those dim walls, a childish, questioning voice, and sweet laughter.

It was Bessie Lane. One June day, on her way to school, a sudden dash of rain had driven the child there for shelter. And ever since, the happy little girl, with flaxen hair and clear eyes, would go to the forsaken old house to chat with Aunt Ruth. As that springing step was heard, and the latch lifted, there would come a gleam of brightness to the faded eyes, and a smile to the thin mouth.

[Illustration: <i>"A sudden dash of rain had
driven the child there for shelter."</i>]

The child found ready entrance to the lonely heart; children will, you know, they are so "queer," as wise old heads sometimes affirm.

"What in the world makes you visit that old hermit?" said Eliza Ray, her schoolmate, one morning. "Bridget, our hired girl, says she is sure such a looking old hag must be a witch."

"Witch or not, I like her;" and Bessie Lane tossed up her hat, and pranced off after a fox squirrel just down the road.

So Bessie kept up her visits, and the two would sit and talk together by the hour, Aunt Ruth showing her long-treasured trinkets, relics of years gone by, and detailing their history, till Bessie's eyes would dilate with wonder.

On this wintry morning, in which we have introduced her to you, sitting by the dull fire, and looking from the dingy window, the time of Bessie's absence had been longer than usual. The sky was leaden, and the wind whistled down the chimney and shook the casements.

Suddenly Aunt Ruth starts and peers through the window. There is a bright little hood and blue cloak approaching; she sees that, but not the carefully wrapped parcel Bessie is carrying, for she hurries to brighten the fire and brush the hearth.

"Good morning, Aunt Ruth. It has been ever so long since I have been here, hasn't it?"

"Yes, a long time for a lonesome old body like me; but this is no place for the young and happy, I know."

"Oh, yes it is, dear Aunt Ruthie. You must not say so. I like to come real well. But Uncle Jake has been so sick; he sent for pa and ma, and I went with them. It is such a long way off, I thought we never would get there. And Oh, Aunt Ruth, I have not told you yet"—and the chubby face sobered.

"What is it, child?" picking up bits of litterings from the floor. Somehow she always did so when Bessie was around, the hands involuntarily moved in little touches of order and neatness. The room was good enough for her: for the child it seemed dismal and must be brightened a little. But Aunt Ruth was unconscious that she was being called to a better life, or that a love for light and beauty was awakening in her weary heart.

"Well, I will tell you; we are going to move away. I declare, I think it's too bad to leave all the girls just as I began to like them, and you, too, Aunt Ruth. I don't want to go one bit;" tears rolling down her face.

"Going away, my little girl going off?" said Aunt Ruth seriously.

"Yes; and mamma said we couldn't move Chip, it would be such a bother, so I have given poor birdie away to Allie Smith;" tears flowing afresh. "I let Amy Wells have my kitten, but I haven't found a place for my poor little rose. See," said Bessie, going to the table and removing the wrapper from her parcel, "isn't it a beauty? You will keep it to remember me by, and take care of it always, won't you, Aunt Ruth?"

The little blossoms were out in full, and seemed to smile a benediction upon the old woman.

"Yes, yes, child, I will keep your rose; no harm shall come to it." The little plant seemed to carry her thoughts away, for she began talking absently to herself, then recalling her musings she said:—"So you are going away; and you'll forget all about poor Aunt Ruth with so many new friends. Well, well, it's natural."

[Illustration: "Yes, child, I will keep your
rose."]

"No, no, indeed I shall not," said Bessie, giving her a hearty hug, "and sometime I will come to see you." They talked a long time, but at last, with a good-by kiss to Aunt Ruth, and to the pet rose, she was gone like a flitting sunbeam.

Then the shadows seemed to come back to the inmate of the old house; but as her glance fell upon the little flower, she began clearing a place for it to stand in the warmest corner, musing to herself the while:—

"Just such roses I used to carry in my hand to the old stone church in Amsden when no bigger than Bessie. It seems like yesterday, but ah! it is a long time. Maybe if I could do like that again, it would not be so dark and lonesome like. I think I'll put the rose here by the south window, then if the child ever does come, she will see it from the gate."

[Illustration: "It never looked quite so dirty
before."]

Bringing a little pine stand, she carefully placed the plant upon it. In doing so, she chanced to glance at the window. "Bless me! it never looked quite so dirty before;" and Aunt Ruth moved with new life, as she cleansed, rinsed, and polished the glass. But this being done, the old muslin curtain seemed dingier than common, shading the clear glass; so it was taken down, and another finer one unpacked from a drawer and put in its place.

The next morning, as she ate her lonely breakfast, she placed her chair to face the window and the rose. The sun was shining, and as the rays streamed across the room to the opposite wall, she marked the cobwebs. That day the cobwebs were swept down, the other window washed, and the floor cleaned. The old house had not been so neat and cheery for many years.

Near the close of the week she went to the village, this time putting on a dark delaine, instead of the snuff calico with a yellow flower. Somehow the gay dresses and curious glances did not disturb her as much as usual. A pleasant recognition was passed with a neighbor whom she had not spoken to for a year.

A strange feeling had come over her,—a feeling that she was one of the great human family after all, and the icy mountain of reserve began to thaw just a little. Her purchases made, she concluded to take another road home. This route lay past a church. It was lighted, though early, and a few real worshipers had met to pray before the regular service.

They were singing now, and Aunt Ruth paused, as a clear, triumphant voice bore up the strain,—

"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair."

Spell-bound, she listened to its close, never stirring from her tracks till a group of people passed near, then slowly walking on, you might have heard her talking again to herself:—

"O Ruth Jones, where are you? I used to sing that, too, in the same old church where I carried the roses, only it was years after. I used to pray, too. I wonder if God would hear me now."

That night, and many nights after, she could not sleep; the words of song kept ringing in her ears, bringing up the old scenes and associations, till the great deep of her soul was broken up.

In her darkness she felt gropingly, feebly, for the old paths, and the good Spirit was all the time leading her back to the light. I can not retrace for you all the way that she came. I only know that gradually, surely, the night wore away, and the Sun of peace shone upon her soul. She went to the church, where the song had that night staid her footsteps, and listened to the words of life.

Her life became a blessing; for her nature was broadened, deepened and purified. The sick and needy learned to be glad at her coming, and little children ran to meet her.

And did Bessie Lane ever come again?

Yes, when June smiled upon the earth, the childish figure once more paused at the gate, but the blue eyes gazed bewildered around. "This isn't the place. Aunt Ruth must have moved away." Well might she think so; the house was neatly painted, the yard fence repaired, and up and down the path all sorts of flowers were blooming. Just then Bessie descried a neatly dressed old lady tying up some vines.

[Illustration: "Aunt Ruth must have moved
away."]
[Illustration: "Bessie sprang into the woman's
arms."]

"Can you tell me where Aunt Ruth Jones has gone that used to"—Bessie stopped, and with one bound sprang into the woman's arms, for it was Aunt Ruth herself.

"It is so beautiful here! how did it all happen?" cried the delighted child.

Aunt Ruth smiled brightly, and, taking Bessie by the hand, passed into the neat, cheerful room, and up to the south window, where the carefully tended rose was putting forth beauty and fragrance.

Bessie fairly danced with delight at sight of the rose, but Aunt Ruth seated the child gently by her side, and told how it had happened; how the little flower had at first whispered to her heart of the long ago; of the holy song that would not let her sleep; and, lastly, of God's good Spirit that had so tenderly led her straying steps to the sun-gilt path of peace.