The Portrait by Harriet E. Prescott

THEY were a family that had long outlived their grandeur,—the Fotheringtons. And though the last generation had been kept alive with traditions of it, the present one knew those traditions only as vague dreams that might or might not be true, and which, either way, had nothing at all to do with their absolute want of bread and butter, other than as having fostered past pride they had hindered honest labor. Of all those great colonial possessions, nothing remained to them but the rambling old house and its well-worn hereditaments; and though various parts even of the old mansion itself had been sold and moved away, still much more room remained than was needed by the mother and her five children,—the mother, whose woful condition had brought her to an utter contempt of the ancestral Fotheringtons, the children, who yet preserved a certain happiness in the midst of their poverty in remembering that at their great-grandfather's wedding a hundred guests were entertained for a week in the house after princely fashion. Not that the Fotheringtons of to-day did not present a decent appearance;—gowns were turned, and ribbons were pressed, and laces were darned till there was nothing left of them; nobody knew exactly how poor they were, which perhaps made it all the harder. The eldest daughters had been quite comfortably educated before everything was gone; the elder son had pushed his own way through college with but small debt, and was now studying his profession at home, finding much reason for unhappiness, and vexed out of patience by little Sarah's troublesome tongue and fingers, and young Tommy's musical fancy, which occasioned him opportunity of exercising his lungs and his shrill little voice all day long and sometimes half the night. It was hard work for poor Frederick Fotherington to try and bury himself in the dismal profundities of his law-books, and the quirks and catches of their citations, when little Sarah had been planted at one end of the great, lumbering cradle in which the first Fotherington might have been rocked,—planted there to be entertained by Tommy, who, inserting himself at the other end, with a hand on either side, loudly rocked the great ark quite across the room from one end to the other, piping meanwhile, like a boatswain's whistle, an interminable ballad of the Fair Rosamond that his sister Margaret had taught him, without ever dreaming of the evil use to which it would be put, and piping the more noisily the more he guessed at Frederick's annoyance. Of the two remaining children, Margaret taught school all day, being a visiting governess in two families; Helen stayed at home and did the house-work and the sewing, for the mother had been an invalid ever since her husband's death and the birth of little Sarah, something over two years ago.

This family had yet a trifle remaining of their mother's small dowry, invested, as it had been by their father, in certain bridge-stock, which paid dividends of exactly one per cent. This gave the two children molasses on their bread; the elders ate their bread without it. They had a cow, that fed in the paddock,—a cow lineally descended from a famous Puritan cow of the Fotherington breed,—and from her milk once a fortnight Helen contrived to scrape together butter enough for her mother's morning slice of toast. They completed the inventory of their wealth by mention of an old horse, which every day Frederick harnessed into an antique chaise, in order that he might take his mother for an airing.

Meantime, Helen, left with the two children alone in the house, would scrub, and scour, and cook, and sew, and sing songs, and tell stories,—stories of the good cheer of other days that once this barren house afforded, half of which she believed, and many of which she made up. Thus gradually left so much to herself and her fancies, while the others either detested their origin or laughed at it, Miss Helen had persuaded herself into a conviction that it was all a very fine thing, and was sure that they had by no means come to the end of such a tether, and that some day or other something was to turn up on it. There were the customary legends of every rich family for her to choose from; she might take that of the day when, after General Fotherington's funeral, the guests, returning from the grave, found the old gentleman there before them, storming up and down in a great pother opposite the portrait of his wife, long dead and gone, trying to shake the panel on which it was painted from its setting in the carved wood of the wall, so that half the world believed that the worthy, having failed to find his departed spouse in the spirit-land, had indignantly returned to loosen her ghost from the painting in which some cunning artist had imprisoned it, and the other half declared that certain deeds and records had been concealed between the panel and the chimney-bricks, which the General wished to dislodge; but, as no one knew of any deed or record missing, the matter had slipped by. Or, if Miss Helen's conjecture wearied on that, she might take the rumor concerning a Revolutionary Fotherington, who, being a noted Tory, had seen fit both to eat his cake and have it, and had accordingly buried a great pot of golden Spanish pieces in the garden, and marked the spot with the young slip of a St. Michael's pear-tree. There stood the old St. Michael's at this day, a dead trunk, having long since ceased to bear either fruit or blossom or leaf; and many a time had Helen persuaded Margaret and Frederick to take hoe and shovel and go with her to dig round the roots of the old St. Michael's. Once, after the first digging, the ancient tree surprised them by bursting into a cloud of blossoms, and bearing a crop of golden, juicy pears; but that was the last sign of life it ever gave, and all the gold they ever found. There, too, had been the wide, dark-eaved garrets full of moth-devoured relics of splendor; who knew what might be lying hidden in those vast hair-covered chests? They were there no longer now; for once, in an access of angry irreverence, Margaret had had them all dragged down, and had sold their contents to the rag-man, and had made by her speculation cloaks for themselves and a shawl for Frederick,—in the days when gentlemen condescended to lend to their stiff costume the graceful dignity of a dropping fold or two. But what treasures of parchment might not have been quilted into any one of those old brocaded petticoats? and who knew the unrevealed wealth of that trunk of yellowed papers, that had brought only the sum of ten dollars in the rag-man's scales? More than once Helen had started at the rap at the door, half expecting an announcement that such and such a document had been found among that heap of trumpery, thought to have been worthless as yellow autumn leaves, which would install them as the possessors of such and such domain,—raps which usually brought nothing but a shoe-bill, or a demand for the price of the previous winter's coal. All these idle day-dreams Helen wisely kept to herself and Tommy; for there was not another member of the family whom they would not have aggravated out of endurance.

It was one day drawing on towards twilight in the latter part of November,—an afternoon of the mild, sweet weather that always comes at that season, and always seems an accident. Frederick had driven his mother out for her airing, and whether they had been beguiled by the soft air into going too far, or had met with some accident or delay, they had not yet returned. Margaret would have worried, had she herself yet come in from her classes; as for Helen, who would have looked with a sanguine eye at her own shroud, she was sure no harm could happen while Frederick had the reins. So she busied herself in giving things as cheerful an aspect as possible when everybody should have reached home.

But, in the first place, there were no coals. Helen had caught a pain in her side picking up the very last with her fingers. Nevertheless, she had put a bright face upon it, and, after threatening to set fire to the house and run away by the light of it, had decided that it would be better still to set fire to it and remain and be warmed by it, while Margaret declared they would never know what luck was again till they had made soap from the ashes. All that, however, had put nothing into the coal-bin.

Yesterday, Helen had received five dollars for transferring a piece of embroidery for a wealthy acquaintance. She had hesitated about accepting it; it would be the first Fotherington that ever took wages,—Margaret's pay was salary; but conscience put down pride, and she gave thanks, and shut her purse,—and perhaps it broke the spell. In such a household one would have thought there would of course be no question what to do with it. On the contrary, it was a grave question. Should Tommy have a hat and Sarah a hood? should the mother have a shawl? should it buy a quarter of a ton of coal? And there was the lyceum! Now, in the town where they lived, not to attend the lyceum was not to be in society; last winter they had managed to effect one season-ticket, and the girls had gone alternately, in a neighbor's company; this winter Frederick was at home, and two tickets were desirable.

“Let us buy three tickets to the lyceum now,” said Margaret.

“Same money would buy three turkeys,” answered Helen, “and we're close on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

“Yes, Nelly,” cried Tommy, who was thoroughly tired of bread and molasses, “buy the turkeys.”

“Be quiet, child,” said the mother; “you can't go to the lyceum, you know; so don't be selfish.”

“Well, which would be best,” meditated Margaret, who had a way of spending other people's money as well as her own,—“turkeys or tickets?”

“The turkeys will feast the whole family, the tickets only us three,” said Helen.

“And then our bonnets are so shabby,” said Margaret.

“Buy the turkeys, mother,” pleaded Tommy, piteously.

“Hush now, Tommy! You've no voice in the debate,” declared Margaret. “You're not a member of the Lyceum Society.”

“But I'm a member of the Turkey Society,” urged Tommy, as a finishing argument.

The result of the conference was, that, as Frederick's shoes were fast approaching the character of sandals with leathern thongs, they were surreptitiously subtracted from his bedside at night, and their place filled by a pair of stout boots, which would carry him well into the winter. That was yesterday. Meanwhile, to-day, no coals; no kindlings, if there had been; last year's bill due, and dunned for; winter upon their heels; the night growing chilly. Helen wrapped a cloak round little Sarah, and gave her her precious black rosary to play with, and bade Tommy take excellent care of her, and for reward he need recite only half his usual spelling-lesson when she came back. Then she ran up the hill behind the house,—she had reached that pass that she did not care whether the neighbors saw or not,—and fell to gathering sticks. Once the spot had been a wood-lot, now long since dispeopled of its dryads; a young sapling or two had sprung up in place of the old growth, and boughs and twigs were blown there in the storms. Helen came down with her arms full, and trailing a couple of great branches behind her. These, at the back door, she broke up, reserving larger pieces for the parlor blaze, and the small bits for a good kitchen fire; and, that done, decided to catch a couple of her choice chickens, and decapitate them, although she shut her eyes and cut her own thumb in the course of the procedure; these chickens, which were her special property, had been reserved by her for some occasion, and when would there be a better than Frederick and her mother returning from so late and unconscionable a jaunt, and doubtless shivering with the cold? This accomplished, and the savory stew simmering over the stove, Helen washed her hands, that had nearly lost their patrician shape and whiteness, took off her apron, and withdrew to the parlor. There she found that Master Tommy had, some time since, left little Sarah to her own devices, and she had forthwith broken the string, and scattered the beads of the rosary in every direction upon the floor, while he stood breathing upon a distant window-pane, and drawing pictures with his finger-tip on the groundwork thus effected, humming the while one of his favorite tunes to himself.

“Now, Tommy,” said Helen, “I'll hear your lesson.”

“No, you won't,” sang Tommy to his tune.

“Why not?”

“'Cause I can't say it.”

“Then we'll learn it together. F-a-t-h, what does that spell?”

“Don't know,” said Tommy, his finger in his mouth.

“See now if you can't remember,” urged Helen, giving him each letter phonetically.

“Don't want to know,” said Tommy.

Here, little Sarah, who had heard the lesson many times, informed him what the desired syllable ought to be, and inferred the rest herself. Whereupon Helen proceeded to the next word. But there Tommy proved obdurate, not only didn't know, and didn't want to know, but refused to hear, and presented such a fearful example to his younger sister, that his elder one had no resource but to transfer the cloak from Sarah to Tommy, and to shut him up in the dark closet. That done, she laid the sticks together in the grate, that was never made for sticks, and blew up a nice blaze, that warmed and lighted all the damp and dark old room; and, taking little Sarah in her arms, rocked and sung her away to sleep.

It was a dismal room, and had been long deserted,—possibly owing to its former dreariness, and possibly to the report of its haunted space and shadow; for over the chimney-piece was the panel with the pale, proud face of old General Fotherington's dead wife painted on it, which every midnight he was once believed to return and visit. But when other parts of the house had fallen into hopeless disrepair, Helen had taken Tommy's little hatchet, and had felled the lofty lilac-hedge that obscured all the southern windows of the room, had cleaned the old paint, made good use of a bucket of white-wash, reset the broken glass herself, and then moved chattels and personals into the vacancy, and given it a more homelike appearance than it had worn for half a century. If the truth were known, Helen's chief fancy for the room, shaky and insecure as both floor and ceiling seemed, was that dim panel-portrait blistering there above the fire or peeling off with mouldy flakes in past days,—for she had still many a longing for the old family-pictures that once her shiftless father, when put to his trumps, had sold to adorn the halls of some upstart with forefathers.

“Tommy,” said she softly, when little Sarah slept, “can you tell me what w-a-t-e-r spells?”

“No,” said the stolid Tommy.

“Is it dark in there, Tommy?” asked she, half relenting, and yet half wishing to excite his fears enough to conquer his obduracy.

“I don't know,” answered Tommy, quite willing to converse, “I've got my eyes shut.”

“Very well,” said Helen, and went on with her low lullaby, which Tommy stoutly, but ineffectually, attempted to join. The wind was beginning to rise and clatter at the casements, and sing its own tune round the gable-corner; the dark had quite fallen, and the room was gloomy and vivid by turns with the fitful flashes of the firelight.

“Nelly,” said Tommy, wheedlingly, and shaking the lock of the closet, “I wish you'd give me some. I'm real sirsty.”

“Some what?” asked Helen, very willing to compromise.

“Some w-a-t-e-r. I'm so sirsty.”

“Pronounce it, Tommy, and you shall come out and have some.”

“I don't know how to,” was the atrocious answer.

“And some chicken-broth as well as some water, if you'll only tell me what those five letters spell.”

But there was nothing but silence in reply from Tommy, and Helen resumed her song.

“It's real damp in here,” said Tommy pretty soon, beginning to cough furiously. “I'm getting a stiff neck.”

“You have one already,” said Helen; and, laying little Sarah down, she went to put on her apron, to attend to her stew, to bring in the cloth and the tray of dishes, and to spread the supper-table in the warm room,—set out near the fire, the worn white linen, the sparse silver, the rare and gay old china, of which they used every day what would have decked out a modern drawing-room, all clean and glittering as if viands were various and plentiful as color and sparkle. That all done, again Cinderella sat down before the fire.

“'Elen!” said Tommy then in a muffled tone, having given the door another premonitory shake, and as if his darkness induced metaphysics, “how many yesterdays have there been and how many to-morrows are there going to be?”

“I'll tell you, Tommy, when you tell me what those letters spell.” And again in response there was silence on the part of the closet, broken by occasional kicks that shook the door, and even caused the old panel to stir in its worm-eaten setting of oaken wainscot. As Helen looked up after the silence that followed Tommy's demonstration, while the panel yet slightly stirred, it seemed to her that a shiver ran over the lady painted there; she remembered the ghost-stories, it made a shiver run over her herself. She rose and went to look out of the window and see if there were no sign of the chaise,—it was hardly time for Margaret yet. Then she returned, and her fascinated eyes caught again the eyes of the old Colonial Governor's lady, that lady who was her mother many generations removed. It was a pale face painted there, as if the painter had seen it only by moonlight,—dark eyes in which the lustre lay with an effect of restless, searching radiance, and the delicate aquiline nose and thin and haughty lip spoke of a woman capable of acting a secret in her day, and keeping it long after, Helen thought. Whenever she caught the eye of that portrait,—and so curiously well was it painted, that she never looked at it without catching the eye,—the lady shadowed there seemed to return a glance of defiance, and her lip wore a curve of triumph. She kept one hand clasped over her crimson vest embroidered with its golden tangles and purfles; perhaps in the other her secret hung hidden out of sight. Now, in the dancing firelight, the ruby that lay on the dame's forehead seemed to flicker like a live jewel in Helen's eyes; as the flame rose, her breast heaved too, a color rested on the pale cheek; as it fell, Helen fancied that she sighed; with all the quick lightning and darkening of the crackling fire the glance of the eyes shifted to and fro, the shadows round the mouth wavered; now they lowered, and now they smiled, and now the parted lips seemed just about to speak.

In the sitting room

Helen started to her feet in a tremble: no wonder Tommy hated to stay in the closet; she sprung to let him out. And just then the old horse stopped at the gate, with the sound of Frederick's voice. Helen forgot Tommy, flung open the door to Frederick, and ran out to the gate as he appeared coming in with his mother in his arms, and laid her on the sofa. Helen only stayed to lead the old horse into the barn, and directly afterward was blowing up the blaze in the parlor, and calling the delinquents to account. They had driven into Orton Wood, Frederick said, and there the chaise broke down; and it being in an open space, he had kindled a great fire to keep his mother warm, while he tied the springs up as he might, which it took a weary while to do, and he had brought home a chaiseful of fagots that nobody owned, and was cherishing visions of future predatory excursions in the same direction. Immediately as he said it, wheeling his mother's sofa up to the hearth and rubbing his hands before it, a little occurrence took place that rendered his invaluable chaiseful of fagots of a moment ago the mere chips of this one, for it had changed the earth under all their feet. Margaret was just coming in at the door; Master Tommy, hearing the incoming and voices and confusion, and desiring to make a part of it, called out from his den, “'Elen! let me out, let me out, I say. W-a-wa, t-e-r, water. You know the Docker said I needed plenty of fresh air. 'Elen! let me out,—the Docker said I was a pecoolar child and needed pecoolar treatment!” And before any one could reach him, the belligerent boy gave the old door such an astonishing series of kicks and thrusts, that the lock broke from its mouldering frame; the worn floor shook and creaked; a bit of the plastering dropped from above; the door and Tommy fell out together; and the old portrait of the pale proud lady started, and trembled, and pitched downward, caught and split from end to end upon the handle of the great steel poker. And suddenly, with a wild exclamation of inextinguishable certainty and exultation, Helen held up her apron to catch what came rattling and ringing and racing and jingling, as they tumbled down together into it, and danced a measure over the floor with the naughty nuns of the broken rosary-beads that they surprised in their mad escape from the bondage of a hundred years. The pale and languid mother started up, resting eagerly on her elbow; Margaret fell upon the floor, catching up the guineas and doubloons as if she were crazy, and kissing them in a transport; Tommy began to discover what his pockets were made for, straightway. Meanwhile Frederick sprung upon a chair and went to pulling out the thready remnants of the decaying bags in which the gold had been enclosed; Helen still held her apron up, thanking fortune it was so large; and little Sarah, waking, began to creep down and toddle along to hold her apron too, crowing and capering at the strange scene, the glitter, and the joy. At last there were no more,—there was only the memorandum on a bit of parchment, telling the story of the sealing of the bags by the old Tory ancestor in troublous times, and their destined concealment behind his wife's portrait.

“Here are more thousands of dollars than you have fingers and toes, little Cinderella!” cried Frederick. “You can afford to wear glass slippers for the rest of your life! It is all your godmother's doings, and she was a fine old English gentlewoman, who acted wisely and for the benefit of posterity. Never say I disbelieved in my ancestors!”

“O yes,” said Helen, “all very fine now. For my part, I was sure of it long ago!”

“I sha'n't dare to close an eye to-night for fear of burglars!” cried Margaret. “That I sha'n't!”

“Now mother, mother dear,” exclaimed Helen, coming and taking her mother's thin hand and plunging it deep down among the sliding coins that were tearing down her strong apron with their weight, “'tis almost as much as I can carry! Tommy may go to school now, and you can have the Doctor and get well, and what can't we, what sha'n't we have! Margaret needn't teach any more,—we can have the house made over, we can keep a girl,—and gold at 240!—O, I think I shall lose my wits!” And down it would all have gone upon the floor but for Frederick.

“Don't, Nelly,” said he, “we shall want them,—the guineas I mean, of course not the wits. What use have they been to us all these years, except to make gowns out of cobwebs and dinners out of dew? Now let us count our wealth, and then—”

“No,” said Nelly, “my stew will be good for nothing if we wait, and mother is famished. We're comfortable, we know; if we're rich, we can find it out after supper. I wish I hadn't killed my cropple-crowns. Now Tommy, Tommy Fotherington, you never need spell water again as long as you live, for it was that blessed word that put Tommy in the closet, that kicked the door, that shook the house, that loosened the panel, that poured out the guineas, that made the starving Fotheringtons a richer and happier family than ever sat round the old Tory Governor's table!”