“Here’s some red,” said Mrs. Hale, bringing out a roll of cloth. Underneath that was a box. “Here, maybe her scissors are in here–and her things.” She held it up. “What a pretty box! I’ll warrant that was something she had a long time ago–when she was a girl.”
She held it in her hand a moment; then, with a little sigh, opened it.
Instantly her hand went to her nose.
Mrs. Peters drew nearer–then turned away.
“There’s something wrapped up in this piece of silk,” faltered Mrs. Hale.
“This isn’t her scissors,” said Mrs. Peters, in a shrinking voice.
Her hand not steady, Mrs. Hale raised the piece of silk. “Oh, Mrs. Peters!” she cried. “It’s–“
Mrs. Peters bent closer.
“It’s the bird,” she whispered.
“But, Mrs. Peters!” cried Mrs. Hale. “Look at it! Its neck–look at its neck! It’s all–other side to.”
She held the box away from her.
The sheriff’s wife again bent closer.
“Somebody wrung its neck,” said she, in a voice that was slow and deep.
And then again the eyes of the two women met–this time clung together in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror. Mrs. Peters looked from the dead bird to the broken door of the cage. Again their eyes met. And just then there was a sound at the outside door. Mrs. Hale slipped the box under the quilt pieces in the basket, and sank into the chair before it. Mrs. Peters stood holding to the table. The county attorney and the sheriff came in from outside.
“Well, ladies,” said the county attorney, as one turning from serious things to little pleasantries, “have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?”
“We think,” began the sheriff’s wife in a flurried voice, “that she was going to–knot it.”
He was too preoccupied to notice the change that came in her voice on that last.
“Well, that’s very interesting, I’m sure,” he said tolerantly. He caught sight of the bird-cage.
“Has the bird flown?”
“We think the cat got it,” said Mrs. Hale in a voice curiously even.
He was walking up and down, as if thinking something out.
“Is there a cat?” he asked absently.
Mrs. Hale shot a look up at the sheriff’s wife.
“Well, not now,” said Mrs. Peters. “They’re superstitious, you know; they Ieave.”
She sank into her chair.
The county attorney did not heed her. “No sign at all of anyone having come in from the outside,” he said to Peters, in the manner of continuing an interrupted conversation. “Their own rope. Now let’s go upstairs again and go over it, picee by piece. It would have to have been someone who knew just the–“
The stair door closed behind them and their voices were lost.
The two women sat motionless, not looking at each other, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they spoke now it was as if they were afraid of what they were saying, but as if they could not help saying it.
“She liked the bird,” said Martha Hale, low and slowly. “She was going to bury it in that pretty box.”
When I was a girl,” said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, “my kitten–there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes–before I could get there–” She covered her face an instant. “If they hadn’t held me back I would have”–she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly–“hurt him.”
Then they sat without speaking or moving.
“I wonder how it would seem,” Mrs. Hale at last began, as if feeling her way over strange ground–“never to have had any children around?” Her eyes made a slow sweep of the kitchen, as if seeing what that kitchen had meant through all the years “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird,” she said after that–“a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too.” Her voice tightened.
Mrs. Peters moved uneasily.
“Of course we don’t know who killed the bird.”
“I knew John Wright,” was Mrs. Hale’s answer.
“It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs. Hale,” said the sheriff’s wife. “Killing a man while he slept–slipping a thing round his neck that choked the life out of him.”
Mrs. Hale’s hand went out to the bird cage.
“We don’t know who killed him,” whispered Mrs. Peters wildly. “We don’t know.”
Mrs. Hale had not moved. “If there had been years and years of–nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful–still–after the bird was still.”
It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.
“I know what stillness is,” she said, in a queer, monotonous voice. “When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died–after he was two years old–and me with no other then–“
Mrs. Hale stirred.
“How soon do you suppose they’ll be through looking for the evidence?”
“I know what stillness is,” repeated Mrs. Peters, in just that same way. Then she too pulled back. “The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale,” she said in her tight little way.
“I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster,” was the answer, “when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang.”
The picture of that girl, the fact that she had lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.
“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”
“We mustn’t take on,” said Mrs. Peters, with a frightened look toward the stairs.
“I might ‘a’ known she needed help! I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren’t–why do you and I understand? Why do we know–what we know this minute?”
She dashed her hand across her eyes. Then, seeing the jar of fruit on the table she reached for it and choked out:
“If I was you I wouldn’t tell her her fruit was gone! Tell her it ain’t. Tell her it’s all right–all of it. Here–take this in to prove it to her! She–she may never know whether it was broke or not.”