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HOME > Classical Novels > Further Chronicles of Avonlea > XII. IN HER SELFLESS MOOD
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 The raw wind of an early May evening was in and out the curtains of the room where Naomi Holland lay dying. The air was moist and chill, but the sick woman would not have the window closed.  
"I can't get my breath if you shut everything up so tight," she said. "Whatever comes, I ain't going to be to death, Car'line Holland."
Outside of the window grew a cherry tree, powdered with moist buds with the promise of blossoms she would not live to see. Between its she saw a crystal cup of sky over hills that were growing dim and purple. The outside air was full of sweet, springtime sounds that drifted in fitfully. There were voices and whistles in the barnyard, and now and then faint laughter. A bird alighted for a moment on a cherry , and twittered restlessly. Naomi knew that white mists were in the silent hollows, that the at the gate wore a blossom red, and that violet stars were shining bluely on the brooklands.
The room was a small, plain one. The floor was bare, save for a couple of braided rugs, the plaster discolored, the walls and glaring. There had never been much beauty in Naomi Holland's environment, and, now that she was dying, there was even less.
At the open window a boy of about ten years was leaning out over the sill and whistling. He was tall for his age, and beautiful—the hair a rich auburn with a curl in it, skin very white and warm-tinted, eyes small and of a greenish blue, with pupils and long . He had a weak chin, and a full, mouth.
The bed was in the corner farthest from the window; on it the sick woman, in spite of the pain that was her portion continually, was lying as quiet and motionless as she had done ever since she had lain down upon it for the last time. Naomi Holland never complained; when the agony was at its worst, she shut her teeth more firmly over her bloodless lip, and her great black eyes glared at the blank wall before in a way that gave her attendants what they called "the creeps," but no word or moan escaped her.
Between the paroxysms she kept up her keen interest in the life that went on about her. Nothing escaped her sharp, alert eyes and ears. This evening she lay spent on the pillows; she had had a bad spell in the afternoon and it had left her very weak. In the dim light her extremely long face looked corpse-like already. Her black hair lay in a heavy braid over the pillow and down the counterpane. It was all that was left of her beauty, and she took a fierce joy in it. Those long, glistening, tresses must be combed and braided every day, no matter what came.
A girl of fourteen was curled up on a chair at the head of the bed, with her head resting on the pillow. The boy at the window was her half-brother; but, between Christopher Holland and Eunice Carr, not the slightest resemblance existed.
Presently the sibilant silence was broken by a low, half-strangled . The sick woman, who had been watching a white evening star through the cherry boughs, turned impatiently at the sound.
"I wish you'd get over that, Eunice," she said sharply. "I don't want any one crying over me until I'm dead; and then you'll have plenty else to do, most likely. If it wasn't for Christopher I wouldn't be anyways to die. When one has had such a life as I've had, there isn't much in death to be afraid of. Only, a body would like to go right off, and not die by inches, like this. 'Tain't fair!"
She snapped out the last sentence as if addressing some unseen, tyrannical presence; her voice, at least, had not weakened, but was as clear and as ever. The boy at the window stopped whistling, and the girl silently wiped her eyes on her faded gingham .
Naomi drew her own hair over her lips, and kissed it.
"You'll never have hair like that, Eunice," she said. "It does seem most too pretty to bury, doesn't it? Mind you see that it is nice when I'm laid out. Comb it right up on my head and braid it there."
A sound, such as might be from a suffering animal, came from the girl, but at the same moment the door opened and a woman entered.
"Chris," she said sharply, "you get right off for the cows, you lazy little scamp! You knew right well you had to go for them, and here you've been idling, and me looking high and low for you. Make haste now; it's ridiculous late."
The boy pulled in his head and at his aunt, but he dared not disobey, and went out slowly with a sulky mutter.
His aunt a movement, that might have developed into a sound box on his ears, with a rather frightened glance at the bed. Naomi Holland was spent and dying, but her temper was still a thing to hold in , and her sister-in-law did not choose to rouse it by slapping Christopher. To her and her co-nurse the of rage, which the sick woman sometimes had, seemed to partake of the nature of devil possession. The last one, only three days before, had been provoked by Christopher's complaint of some real or fancied ill-treatment from his aunt, and the latter had no mind to bring on another. She went over to the bed, and straightened the clothes.
"Sarah and I are going out to milk, Naomi, Eunice will stay with you. She can run for us if you feel another spell coming on."
Naomi Holland looked up at her sister-in-law with something like .
"I ain't going to have any more spells, Car'line Anne. I'm going to die to-night. But you needn't hurry milking for that, at all. I'll take my time."
She liked to see the alarm that came over the other woman's face. It was richly worth while to scare Caroline Holland like that.
"Are you feeling worse, Naomi?" asked the latter shakily. "If you are I'll send for Charles to go for the doctor."
"No, you won't. What good can the doctor do me? I don't want either his or Charles' permission to die. You can go and milk at your ease. I won't die till you're done—I won't deprive you of the pleasure of seeing me."
Mrs. Holland shut her lips and went out of the room with a martyr-like expression. In some ways Naomi Holland was not an patient, but she took her satisfaction out in the biting, malicious speeches she never failed to make. Even on her death-bed her to her sister-in-law had to find .
Outside, at the steps, Sarah Spencer was waiting, with the milk pails over her arm. Sarah Spencer had no fixed place, but was always to be found where there was illness. Her experience, and an utter lack of nerves, made her a good nurse. She was a tall, woman with iron gray hair and a lined face. Beside her, the trim little Caroline Anne, with her light step and round, apple-red face, looked almost girlish.
The two women walked to the barnyard, discussing Naomi in undertones as they went. The house they had left behind grew very still.
In Naomi Holland's room the shadows were . Eunice timidly over her mother.
"Ma, do you want the light lit?"
"No, I'm watching that star just below the big cherry bough. I'll see it set behind the hill. I've seen it there, off and on, for twelve years, and now I'm taking a good-by look at it. I want you to keep still, too. I've got a few things to think over, and I don't want to be disturbed."
The girl lifted herself about noiselessly and locked her hands over the bed-post. Then she laid her face down on them, biting at them silently until the marks of her teeth showed white against their red roughness.
Naomi Holland did not notice her. She was looking at the great, pearl-like sparkle in the faint-hued sky. When it finally disappeared from her vision she struck her long, thin hands together twice, and a terrible expression came over her face for a moment. But, when she , her voice was quite calm.
"You can light the candle now, Eunice. Put it up on the shelf here, where it won't shine in my eyes. And then sit down on the foot of the bed where I can see you. I've got something to say to you."
Eunice obeyed her noiselessly. As the light shot up, it revealed the child plainly. She was thin and ill-formed—one shoulder being slightly higher than the other. She was dark, like her mother, but her features were irregular, and her hair fell in straggling, dim locks about her face. Her eyes were a dark brown, and over one was the red scar of a birth mark.
Naomi Holland looked at her with the contempt she had never made any of . The girl was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh, but she had never loved her; all the mother love in her had been on her son.
When Eunice had placed the candle on the shelf and down the ugly blue paper blinds, shutting out the strips of violet sky where a score of points were now visible, she sat down on the foot of the bed, facing her mother.
"The door is shut, is it, Eunice?"
Eunice nodded.
"Because I don't want Car'line or any one else and harking to what I've got to say. She's out milking now, and I must make the most of the chance. Eunice, I'm going to die, and..."
"There now, no taking on! You knew it had to come sometime soon. I haven't the strength to talk much, so I want you just to be quiet and listen. I ain't feeling any pain now, so I can think and talk pretty clear. Are you listening, Eunice?"
"Yes, ma."
"Mind you are. It's about Christopher. It hasn't been out of my mind since I laid down here. I've fought for a year to live, on his account, and it ain't any use. I must just die and leave him, and I don't know what he'll do. It's dreadful to think of."
She paused, and struck her shrunken hand sharply against the table.
"If he was bigger and could look out for himself it wouldn't be so bad. But he is only a little fellow, and Car'line hates him. You'll both have to live with her until you're grown up. She'll put on him and abuse him. He's like his father in some ways; he's got a temper and he is stubborn. He'll never get on with Car'line. Now, Eunice, I'm going to get you to promise to take my place with Christopher when I'm dead, as far as you can. You've got to; it's your duty. But I want you to promise."
"I will, ma," whispered the girl solemnly.
"You haven't much force—you never had. If you was smart, you could do a lot for him. But you'll have to do your best. I want you to promise me faithfully that you'll stand by him and protect him—that you won't let people impose on him; that you'll never desert him as long as he needs you, no matter what comes. Eunice, promise me this!"
In her excitement the sick woman raised herself up in the bed, and clutched the girl's thin arm. Her eyes were blazing and two spots glowed in her thin cheeks.
Eunice's face was white and tense. She clasped her hands as one in prayer.
"Mother, I promise it!"
Naomi relaxed her grip on the girl's arm and sank back on the pillow. A death-like look came over her face as the excitement faded.
"My mind is easier now. But if I could only have lived another year or two! And I hate Car'line—hate her! Eunice, don't you ever let her abuse my boy! If she did, or if you neglected him, I'd come back from my grave to you! As for the property, things will be pretty straight. I've seen to that. There'll be no squabbling and doing Christopher out of his rights. He's to have the farm as soon as he's old enough to work it, and he's to provide for you. And, Eunice, remember what you've promised!"
Outside, in the thickly gathering dusk, Caroline Holland and Sarah Spencer were at the dairy, straining the milk into creamers, for which Christopher was pumping water. The house was far from the road, up to which a long red lane led; across the field was the old Holland homestead where Caroline lived; her unmarried sister-in-law, Electa Holland, kept house for her while she waited on Naomi.
It was her night to go home and sleep, but Naomi's words haunted her, although she believed they were born of pure "."
"You'd better go in and look at her, Sarah," she said, as she out the pails. "If you think I'd better stay here to-night, I will. If the woman was like anybody else a body would know what to do; but, if she thought she could scare us by saying she was going to die, she'd say it."
When Sarah went in, the sick room was very quiet. In her opinion, Naomi was no worse than usual, and she told Caroline so; but the latter felt uneasy and concluded to stay.
Naomi was as cool and as customary. She made them bring Christopher in to say good-night and had him lifted up on the bed to kiss her. Then she held him back and looked at him admiringly—at the bright curls and cheeks and round, firm limbs. The boy was uncomfortable under her gaze and squirmed hastily down. Her eyes followed him greedily, as he went out. When the door closed behind him, she . Sarah Spencer was startled. She had never heard Naomi Holland since she had come to wait on her.
"Are you feeling any worse, Naomi? Is the pain coming back?"
"No. Go and tell Car'line to give Christopher some of that grape jelly on his bread before he goes to bed. She'll find it in the cupboard under the stairs."
Presently the house grew very still. Caroline had dropped asleep on the lounge, across the hall. Sarah Spencer nodded over her knitting by the table in the sick room. She had told Eunice to go to bed, but the child refused. She still sat up on the foot of the bed, watching her mother's face intently. Naomi appeared to sleep. The candle burned long, and the wick was crowned by a little cap of red that seemed to watch Eunice like some impish goblin. The wavering light cast shadows of Sarah Spencer's head on the wall. The thin curtains at the window wavered to and fro, as if shaken by ghostly hands.
At midnight Naomi Holland opened her eyes. The child she had never loved was the only one to go with her to the of the Unseen.
It was the faintest whisper. The soul, passing over the threshold of another life, strained back to its only earthly tie. A quiver passed over the long, pallid face.
A horrible scream rang through the silent house. Sarah Spencer sprang out of her in , and gazed blankly at the child. Caroline came hurrying in with eyes. On the bed Naomi Holland lay dead.
In the room where she had died Naomi Holland lay in her . It was dim and hushed; but, in the rest of the house, the preparations for the funeral were being hurried on. Through it all Eunice moved, calm and silent. Since her one wild of screaming by her mother's death-bed she had shed no tear, given no sign of grief. Perhaps, as her mother had said, she had no time. There was Christopher to be looked after. The boy's grief was stormy and uncontrolled. He had cried until he was exhausted. It was Eunice who him, him to eat, kept him constantly by her. At night she took him to her own room and watched over him while he slept.
When the funeral was over the household furniture was packed away or sold. The house was locked up and the farm rented. There was nowhere for the children to go, save to their uncle's. Caroline Holland did not want them, but, having to take them, she grimly made up her mind to do what she considered her duty by them. She had five children of her own and between them and Christopher a had existed from the time he could walk.
She had never liked Naomi. Few people did. Benjamin Holland had not married until late in life, and his wife had declared war on his family at sight. She was a stranger in Avonlea,—a widow, with a three year-old child. She made few friends, as some people always asserted that she was not in her right mind.
Within a year of her second marriage Christopher was born, and from the hour of his birth his mother had worshiped him blindly. He was her only . For him she and pinched and saved. Benjamin Holland had not been "fore-handed" when she married him; but, when he died, six years after his marriage, he was a well-to-do man.
Naomi made no pretense of mourning for him. It was an open secret that they had quarreled like the proverbial cat and dog. Charles Holland and his wife had naturally sided with Benjamin, and Naomi fought her battles single-handed. After her husband's death, she managed to farm alone, and made it pay. When the mysterious which was to end her life first seized on her she fought against it with all the strength and stubbornness of her strong and stubborn nature. Her will won for her an added year of life, and then she had to yield. She tasted all the bitterness of death the day on which she lay down on her bed, and saw her enemy come in to rule her house.
But Caroline Holland was not a bad or unkind woman. True, she did not love Naomi or her children; but the woman was dying and must be looked after for the sake of common humanity. Caroline thought she had done well by her sister-in-law.
When the red clay was heaped over Naomi's grave in the Avonlea burying ground, Caroline took Eunice and Christopher home with her. Christopher did not want to go; it was Eunice who reconciled him. He clung to her with an exacting affection born of loneliness and grief.
In the days that followed Caroline Holland was obliged to confess to herself that there would have been no doing anything with Christopher had it not been for Eunice. The boy was sullen and , but his sister had an unfailing influence over him.
In Charles Holland's household no one was allowed to eat the bread of idleness. His own children were all girls, and Christopher came in handy as a chore boy. He was made to work—perhaps too hard. But Eunice helped him, and did half his work for him when nobody knew. When he quarreled with his cousins, she took his part; whenever possible she took on herself the blame and punishment of his misdeeds.
Electa Holland was Charles' unmarried sister. She had kept house for Benjamin until he married; then Naomi had bundled her out. Electa had never forgiven her for it. Her passed on to Naomi's children. In a hundred petty ways she revenged herself on them. For herself, Eunice bore it patiently; but it was a different matter when it touched Christopher.
Once Electa boxed Christopher's ears. Eunice, who was knitting by the table, stood up. A resemblance to her mother, never before visible, came out in her face like a brand. She lifted her hand and slapped Electa's cheek twice, leaving a dull red mark where she struck.
"If you ever strike my brother again," she said, slowly and , "I will slap your face every time you do. You have no right to touch him."
"My patience, what a fury!" said Electa. "Naomi Holland'll never be dead as long as you're alive!"
She told Charles of the affair and Eunice was punished. But Electa never with Christopher again.
All the elements in the Holland household could not prevent the children from growing up. It was a consummation which the harrassed Caroline wished. When Christopher Holland was seventeen he was a man grown—a big, fellow. His childish beauty had coarsened, but he was thought handsome by many.
He took charge of his mother's farm then, and the brother and sister began their new life together in the long-unoccupied house. There were few regrets on either side when they left Charles Holland's roof. In her secret heart Eunice felt an unspeakable relief.
Christopher had been "hard to manage," as his uncle said, in the last year. He was getting into the habit of keeping late hours and doubtful company. This always provoked an explosion of from Charles Holland, and the conflicts between him and his nephew were frequent and bitter.
For four years after their return home Eunice had a hard and anxious life. Christopher was idle and dissipated. Most people regarded him as a worthless fellow, and his uncle washed his hands of him utterly. Only Eunice never failed him; she never reproached or railed; she worked like a slave to keep things together. Eventually her patience prevailed. Christopher, to a great extent, reformed and worked harder. He was never unkind to Eunice, even in his rages. It was not in him to appreciate or return her devotion; but his tolerant acceptance of it was her solace.
When Eunice was twenty-eight, Edward Bell wanted to marry her. He was a plain, with four children; but, as Caroline did not fail to remind her, Eunice herself was not for every market, and the former did her best to make the match. She might have succeeded had it not been for Christopher. When he, in spite of Caroline's skillful management, got an inkling of what was going on, he flew into a true Holland rage. If Eunice married and left him—he would sell the farm and go to the Devil by way of the Klondike. He could not, and would not, do without her. No arrangement suggested by Caroline availed to him, and, in the end, Eunice refused to marry Edward Bell. She could not leave Christopher, she said simply, and in this she stood rock-firm. Caroline could not her an inch.
"You're a fool, Eunice," she said, when she was obliged to give up in despair. "It's not likely you'll ever ............
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