“I guess before we’re through with her she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.”
“Oh, well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners–and think of his future.
“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician. “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”
The women did not speak, did not unbend. He went to the sink and began washing his hands. He turned to wipe them on the roller towel–whirled it for a cleaner place.
“Dirty towelsl Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?”
He kicked his foot against some dirty pans under the sink.
“There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm,” said Mrs. Hale stiffly.
“To be sure. And yet”–with a little bow to her–‘I know there are some Dickson County farm-houses that do not have such roller towels.” He gave it a pull to expose its full length again.
“Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.
“Ah, loyal to your sex, I see,” he laughed. He stopped and gave her a keen look, “But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too.”
Martha Hale shook her head.
“I’ve seen little enough of her of late years. I’ve not been in this house–it’s more than a year.”
“And why was that? You didn’t like her?”
“I liked her well enough,” she replied with spirit. “Farmers’ wives have their hands full, Mr. Henderson. And then–” She looked around the kitchen.
“Yes?” he encouraged.
“It never seemed a very cheerful place,” said she, more to herself than to him.
“No,” he agreed; “I don’t think anyone would call it cheerful. I shouldn’t say she had the home-making instinct.”
“Well, I don’t know as Wright had, either,” she muttered.
“You mean they didn’t get on very well?” he was quick to ask.
“No; I don’t mean anything,” she answered, with decision. As she turned a lit- tle away from him, she added: “But I don’t think a place would be any the cheerfuller for John Wright’s bein’ in it.”
“I’d like to talk to you about that a little later, Mrs. Hale,” he said. “I’m anxious to get the lay of things upstairs now.”
He moved toward the stair door, followed by the two men.
“I suppose anything Mrs. Peters does’ll be all right?” the sheriff inquired. “She was to take in some clothes for her, you know–and a few little things. We left in such a hurry yesterday.”
The county attorney looked at the two women they were leaving alone there among the kitchen things.
“Yes–Mrs. Peters,” he said, his glance resting on the woman who was not Mrs. Peters, the big farmer woman who stood behind the sheriff’s wife. “Of course Mrs. Peters is one of us,” he said, in a manner of entrusting responsibility. “And keep your eye out, Mrs. Peters, for anything that might be of use. No telling; you women might come upon a clue to the motive–and that’s the thing we need.”
Mr. Hale rubbed his face after the fashion of a showman getting ready for a pleasantry.
“But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” he said; and, having delivered himself of this, he followed the others through the stair door.
The women stood motionless and silent, listening to the footsteps, first upon the stairs, then in the room above them.
Then, as if releasing herself from something strange. Mrs. Hale began to arrange the dirty pans under the sink, which the county attorney’s disdainful push of the foot had deranged.
“I’d hate to have men comin’ into my kitchen,” she said testily–“snoopin’ round and criticizin’.”
“Of course it’s no more than their duty,” said the sheriff’s wife, in her manner of timid acquiescence.
“Duty’s all right,” replied Mrs. Hale bluffly; “but I guess that deputy sheriff that come out to make the fire might have got a little of this on.” She gave the roller towel a pull. ‘Wish I’d thought of that sooner! Seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up, when she had to come away in such a hurry.”
She looked around the kitchen. Certainly it was not “slicked up.” Her eye was held by a bucket of sugar on a low shelf. The cover was off the wooden bucket, and beside it was a paper bag–half full.
Mrs. HaIe moved toward it.
“She was putting this in there,” she said to herself–slowly.
She thought of the flour in her kitchen at home–half sifted, half not sifted. She had been interrupted, and had left things half done. What had interrupted Minnie Foster? Why had that work been left half done? She made a move as if to finish it,–unfinished things always bothered her,–and then she glanced around and saw that Mrs. Peters was watching her–and she didn’t want Mrs. Peters to get that feeling she had got of work begun and then–for some reason–not finished.
“It’s a shame about her fruit,” she said, and walked toward the cupboard that the county attorney had opened, and got on the chair, murmuring: “I wonder if it’s all gone.”
It was a sorry enough looking sight, but “Here’s one that’s all right,” she said at last. She held it toward the light. “This is cherries, too.” She looked again. “I declare I believe that’s the only one.”
With a sigh, she got down from the chair, went to the sink, and wiped off the bottle.
“She’Il feel awful bad, after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer.
She set the bottle on the table, and, with another sigh, started to sit down in the rocker. But she did not sit down. Something kept her from sitting down in that chair. She straightened–stepped back, and, half turned away, stood looking at it, seeing the woman who had sat there “pleatin’ at her apron.”
The thin voice of the sheriff’s wife broke in upon her: “I must be getting those things from the front-room closet.” She opened the door into the other room, started in, stepped back. “You coming with me, Mrs. Hale?” she asked nervously. “You–you could help me get them.”
They were soon back–the stark coldness of that shut-up room was not a thing to linger in.
“My!” said Mrs. Peters, dropping the things on the table and hurrying to the stove.
Mrs. Hale stood examining the clothes the woman who was being detained in town had said she wanted.
“Wright was close!” she exclaimed, holding up a shabby black skirt that bore the marks of much making over. “I think maybe that’s why she kept so much to herself. I s’pose she felt she couldn’t do her part; and then, you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively–when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls, singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was twenty years ago.”