Like Sir Roger’s neighbours peering over the hedge, I had daily observed, over my stone wall, a very old gentleman in his shirt sleeves, who pleasantly gave me the rôle of Spectator. A New-Englander of the elder type, with the heavy bent head of the thinker; but, particularly, with the piercing yet so kindly humorous blue eye that loses none of its colour with age, but seems to grow more vivid and vital with the same years that steal from the hair its hue of life and from the walnut cheek its glowing red.
Such an eye, to a lawyer like myself, accustomed to look for a human document in every human face, seemed the very epitome of eighty years: a carefree boyhood among contemporaries—in house furnishings, in barn and pigsty, orchard and gardens; a youth that sees already a new generation in most of these companions of his earthly pilgrimage; a middle age, forced out of the romantic sense of companionship on the road, into the persistent and finally triumphant view of using environment for ends of its own; and then old age, free to return and lavish forgotten endearments upon the “old things!” This or the other “landmark,” dear, and familiar from life’s beginnings. These periods, all slipping unnoticed into their successors, yet each possessing a distinct and tangible outline and colour, had all had their turn at my neighbour’s blue eyes. And the look that comes only at the end, when the life has been prodigal of response and of an unswerving fidelity in the storing up of values—that was the look that I valued as a thing of price.
It was a day of late summer that brought me more directly face to face with its beauty and gravity. The old gentleman appeared, in his shirt sleeves, but with plenty of ceremony in his quiet demeanour, at the door of my little “portable” law office, at the edge of the orchard.
“I am told, sir,” he began, “that you are an attorney at law.”
I bowed, and offered him a chair but he continued standing.
“I have come,” he said, “to request your services in drawing up my last will and testament—that is,” he serenely emended, “in case your vacation time is subject to such interruption.”
While I was formulating my assent he continued:
“You have no doubt, since coming into this rather communicative neighbourhood, been informed that my son owns the homestead.”
The kind, keen old eyes took on a look of what George Eliot names “an enormous patience with the way of the world.”
“Everything belongs to John and Mary. But there are one or two little old things that they don’t care about. They’re up in the lean-to. The old mirror that, as a lad, I used to see my face in over my mother’s shoulder, it’s still holding for me the picture of my mother smiling up at me. And the old ladder-back chair that she used to sit in and cuddle me; and switch, me, too—and maybe that took the most love of all. That’s all. John and Mary don’t want them. They’re only old things, like myself. It’s natural, perfectly natural. At their age I most probably felt just so.”
He paused and looked through the lattice, where the reddened vine-leaves were beginning to fall.
“The young leaf-buds pushing off the old leaves. It’s nature.”
Before sunset—for the old man was strangely impatient—I had his “will” signed, witnessed, and sealed. The old mirror and chair were to go to a wee, odd little old lady, called in the neighbourhood “Miss Tabby” Titcomb because of her forty-odd cats, except for which she lived alone.
“Little Ellen,” he called her, as he fondly spoke of their school days together. “Mother would have been well content if we’d hit it off together, Ellen and I. But a boy is as apt as not, when urged one way, to fly off in another; and I was at the skittish age.
“I’ve never said this before to any man, sir, but I’d have been a better husband to Ellen. Mary was a faithful wife, and better than I deserved. But she was not just aware, like Ellen, of where to bear on hard and where to go a little easy. That’s what a man needs in a woman, sir. Ellen always knew just when and where.”
The next morning, which was Saturday, I was riding down Bare Hill Road—as it chanced, right past Miss Tabby’s—when my horse shied; and that tiny old lady, with an enormous gray cat beside her, rose up from behind the lilac bushes. Bigger people than “little Ellen” have been frightened by Prince’s antics, but she quietly put her hand on his restive neck as if he were only a little larger kitten, and then spoke to me in a soft little purr of a voice:
“I’ve heard—and you’ll excuse me—that you’re a lawyer, Mr. Alden; and I’ve a small matter I don’t wish to entrust to any one here, being private. It’s a letter for Mr. Thomas Sewall, to be delivered upon my demise, which I feel is about to take place.” She spoke with a little note of relief, as if from some long strain.
I took the small envelope.
“It’s just the cats,” she was moved to confide further; “the little ones and the smart ones will all find friends. But the two old ones! Mr. Sewall has a notion for the old things. And”—here she hesitated long, while I breathlessly assured her of my best care for the letter—“there’s—somewhat in the note besides the cats,” she brought out bravely. “You’ll make sure it doesn’t fall into John and Mary’s hands?”
This was Saturday morning. Sunday, as I listened absent-mindedly to the slow toll of the meeting-house bell, my houskeeper remarked, on bringing in my coffee:
“Did you notice, sir? It was eighty-six. There’s an old man and an old woman, both just the same age, in the village, died in the night.”
The old chair, upon which—when they were young together—the little Tom had been spanked and comforted; and the mirror, still treasuring the picture of the round, saucy phiz over his mother’s shoulder, were offered at auction and bid in for a trifle by me. I would have paid gold sovereigns for them, but not into the hands of John and Mary! The cats, likewise, sit by the hearth, on which was burned to ashes the letter “not entirely” about their disposal.
And the “Old Things” that cherished these earthly companions? The minister—himself a rare “old thing”—preached a funeral sermon for the two so strangely united by death; and his thin voice, like the tone of an old, cracked violin, still haunts me:
“Their youth is renewed like the eagle’s…. And they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”