Their eyes met–something flashed to life, passed between them; then, as if with an effort, they seemed to pull away from each other. A moment Mrs. Hale sat there, her hands folded over that sewing which was so unlike all the rest of the sewing. Then she had pulled a knot and drawn the threads.
“Oh, what are you doing, Mrs. Hale?” asked the sheriff’s wife, startled.
“Just pulling out a stitch or two that’s not sewed very good,” said Mrs. Hale mildly.
“I don’t think we ought to touch things,” Mrs. Peters said, a little helplessly.
“I’ll just finish up this end,” answered Mrs. Hale, still in that mild, matter-of-fact fashion.
She threaded a needle and started to replace bad sewing with good. For a little while she sewed in silence. Then, in that thin, timid voice, she heard:
“Yes, Mrs. Peters?”
‘What do you suppose she was so–nervous about?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. Hale, as if dismissing a thing not important enough to spend much time on. “I don’t know as she was–nervous. I sew awful queer sometimes when I’m just tired.”
She cut a thread, and out of the corner of her eye looked up at Mrs. Peters. The small, lean face of the sheriff’s wife seemed to have tightened up. Her eyes had that look of peering into something. But next moment she moved, and said in her thin, indecisive way:
‘Well, I must get those clothes wrapped. They may be through sooner than we think. I wonder where I could find a piece of paper–and string.”
“In that cupboard, maybe,” suggested to Mrs. Hale, after a glance around.
One piece of the crazy sewing remained unripped. Mrs. Peter’s back turned, Martha Hale now scrutinized that piece, compared it with the dainty, accurate sewing of the other blocks. The difference was startling. Holding this block made her feel queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the woman who had perhaps turned to it to try and quiet herself were communicating themselves to her.
Mrs. Peters’ voice roused her.
“Here’s a bird-cage,” she said. “Did she have a bird, Mrs. Hale?”
‘Why, I don’t know whether she did or not.” She turned to look at the cage Mrs. Peters was holding up. “I’ve not been here in so long.” She sighed. “There was a man round last year selling canaries cheap–but I don’t know as she took one. Maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself.”
Mrs. Peters looked around the kitchen.
“Seems kind of funny to think of a bird here.” She half laughed–an attempt to put up a barrier. “But she must have had one–or why would she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it.”
“I suppose maybe the cat got it,” suggested Mrs. Hale, resuming her sewing.
“No; she didn’t have a cat. She’s got that feeling some people have about cats–being afraid of them. When they brought her to our house yesterday, my cat got in the room, and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.”
“My sister Bessie was like that,” laughed Mrs. Hale.
The sheriff’s wife did not reply. The silence made Mrs. Hale turn round. Mrs. Peters was examining the bird-cage.
“Look at this door,” she said slowly. “It’s broke. One hinge has been pulled apart.”
Mrs. Hale came nearer.
“Looks as if someone must have been–rough with it.”
Again their eyes met–startled, questioning, apprehensive. For a moment neither spoke nor stirred. Then Mrs. Hale, turning away, said brusquely:
“If they’re going to find any evidence, I wish they’d be about it. I don’t like this place.”
“But I’m awful glad you came with me, Mrs. Hale.” Mrs. Peters put the bird-cage on the table and sat down. “It would be lonesome for me–sitting here alone.”
“Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?” agreed Mrs. Hale, a certain determined naturalness in her voice. She had picked up the sewing, but now it dropped in her lap, and she murmured in a different voice: “But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I wish–I had.”
“But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale. Your house–and your children.”
“I could’ve come,” retorted Mrs. Hale shortly. “I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful–and that’s why I ought to have come. I”–she looked around–“I’ve never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a lonesome place, and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now–” She did not put it into words.
“Well, you mustn’t reproach yourself,” counseled Mrs. Peters. “Somehow, we just don’t see how it is with other folks till–something comes up.”
“Not having children makes less work,” mused Mrs. Hale, after a silence, “but it makes a quiet house–and Wright out to work all day–and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?”
“Not to know him. I’ve seen him in town. They say he was a good man.”
“Yes–good,” conceded John Wright’s neighbor grimly. “He didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him–.” She stopped, shivered a little. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.” Her eye fell upon the cage on the table before her, and she added, almost bitterly: “I should think she would’ve wanted a bird!”
Suddenly she leaned forward, looking intently at the cage. “But what do you s’pose went wrong with it?”
“I don’t know,” returned Mrs. Peters; “unless it got sick and died.”
But after she said it she reached over and swung the broken door. Both women watched it as if somehow held by it.
“You didn’t know–her?” Mrs. Hale asked, a gentler note in her voice.
“Not till they brought her yesterday,” said the sheriff’s wife.
“She–come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and–fluttery. How–she–did–change.”
That held her for a long time. Finally, as if struck with a happy thought and relieved to get back to everyday things, she exclaimed:
“Tell you what, Mrs. Peters, why don’t you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind.”
“Why, I think that’s a real nice idea, Mrs. Hale,” agreed the sheriff’s wife, as if she too were glad to come into the atmosphere of a simple kindness. “There couldn’t possibly be any objection to that, could there? Now, just what will I take? I wonder if her patches are in here–and her things?”
They turned to the sewing basket.