IT did seem strange that Sally Patterson, who, according to her own self-estimation, was the least adapted of any woman in the village, should have been the one chosen by a theoretically selective providence to deal with a psychological problem.
It was conceded that little Content Adams was a psychological problem. She was the orphan child of very distant relatives of the rector. When her parents died she had been cared for by a widowed aunt on her mother’s side, and this aunt had also borne the reputation of being a creature apart. When the aunt died, in a small village in the indefinite “Out West,” the presiding clergyman had notified Edward Patterson of little Content’s lonely and helpless estate. The aunt had subsisted upon an annuity which had died with her. The child had inherited nothing except personal property. The aunt’s house had been bequeathed to the church over which the clergyman presided, and after her aunt’s death he took her to his own home until she could be sent to her relatives, and he and his wife were exceedingly punctilious about every jot and tittle of the aunt’s personal belongings. They even purchased two extra trunks for them, which they charged to the rector.
Little Content, traveling in the care of a lady who had known her aunt and happened to be coming East, had six large trunks, besides a hat-box and two suit-cases and a nailed-up wooden box containing odds and ends. Content made quite a sensation when she arrived and her baggage was piled on the station platform.
Poor Sally Patterson unpacked little Content’s trunks. She had sent the little girl to school within a few days after her arrival. Lily Jennings and Amelia Wheeler called for her, and aided her down the street between them, arms interlocked. Content, although Sally had done her best with a pretty ready-made dress and a new hat, was undeniably a peculiar-looking child. In the first place, she had an expression so old that it was fairly uncanny.
“That child has downward curves beside her mouth already, and lines between her eyes, and what she will look like a few years hence is beyond me,” Sally told her husband after she had seen the little girl go out of sight between Lily’s curls and ruffles and ribbons and Amelia’s smooth skirts.
“She doesn’t look like a happy child,” agreed the rector. “Poor little thing! Her aunt Eudora must have been a queer woman to train a child.”
“She is certainly trained,” said Sally, ruefully; “too much so. Content acts as if she were afraid to move or speak or even breathe unless somebody signals permission. I pity her.”
She was in the storeroom, in the midst of Content’s baggage. The rector sat on an old chair, smoking. He had a conviction that it behooved him as a man to stand by his wife during what might prove an ordeal. He had known Content’s deceased aunt years before. He had also known the clergyman who had taken charge of her personal property and sent it on with Content.
Be prepared for finding almost anything. Sally,” he observed. “Mr. Zenock Shanksbury, as I remember him, was so conscientious that it amounted to mania. I am sure he has sent simply unspeakable things rather than incur the reproach of that conscience of his with regard to defrauding Content of one jot or tittle of that personal property.”
Sally shook out a long, black silk dress, with jet dangling here and there. “Now here is this dress,” said she. “I suppose I really must keep this, but when that child is grown up the silk will probably be cracked and entirely worthless.”
“You had better take the two trunks and pack them with such things, and take your chances.”
“Oh, I suppose so. I suppose I must take chances with everything except furs and wools, which will collect moths. Oh, goodness!” Sally held up an old-fashioned fitch fur tippet. Little vague winged things came from it like dust. “Moths!” said she, tragically. “Moths now. It is full of them. Ed-ward, you need not tell me that clergyman’s wife was conscientious. No conscientious woman would have sent an old fur tippet all eaten with moths into another woman’s house. She could not.”
Sally took flying leaps across the storeroom. She flung open the window and tossed out the mangy tippet. “This is simply awful!” she declared, as she returned. “Edward, don’t you think we are justified in having Thomas take all these things out in the back yard and making a bonfire of the whole lot?”
“No, my dear.”
“But, Edward, nobody can tell what will come next. If Content’s aunt had died of a contagious disease, nothing could induce me to touch another thing.”
Well, dear, you know that she died from the shock of a carriage accident, because she had a weak heart.”
“I know it, and of course there is nothing contagious about that.” Sally took up an ancient bandbox and opened it. She displayed its contents: a very frivolous bonnet dating back in style a half-century, gay with roses and lace and green strings, and another with a heavy crape veil dependent.
“You certainly do not advise me to keep these?” asked Sally, despondently.
Edward Patterson looked puzzled. “Use your own judgment,” he said, finally.
Sally summarily marched across the room and flung the gay bonnet and the mournful one out of the window. Then she took out a bundle of very old underwear which had turned a saffron yellow with age. “People are always coming to me for old linen in case of burns,” she said, succinctly. “After these are washed I can supply an auto da fe.”
Poor Sally worked all that day and several days afterward. The rector deserted her, and she relied upon her own good sense in the disposition of little Content’s legacy. When all was over she told her husband.
“Well, Edward,” said she, “there is exactly one trunk half full of things which the child may live to use, but it is highly improbable. We have had six bonfires, and I have given away three suits of old clothes to Thomas’s father. The clothes were very large.”
“Must have belonged to Eudora’s first husband. He was a stout man,” said Edward.
And I have given two small suits of men’s clothes to the Aid Society for the next out-West barrel.”
“Eudora’s second husband’s.”
“And I gave the washerwoman enough old baking-dishes to last her lifetime, and some cracked dishes. Most of the dishes were broken, but a few were only cracked; and I have given Silas Thomas’s wife ten old wool dresses and a shawl and three old cloaks. All the other things which did not go into the bonfires went to the Aid Society. They will go back out West.” Sally laughed, a girlish peal, and her husband joined. But suddenly her smooth forehead contracted. “Edward,” said she.
“I am terribly puzzled about one thing.” The two were sitting in the study. Content had gone to bed. Nobody could hear easily, but Sally Patterson lowered her voice, and her honest, clear blue eyes had a frightened expression.
“What is it, dear?”
“You will think me very silly and cowardly, and I think I have never been cowardly, but this is really very strange. Come with me. I am such a goose, I don’t dare go alone to that storeroom.”
The rector rose. Sally switched on the lights as they went up-stairs to the storeroom.
“Tread very softly,” she whispered. “Content is probably asleep.”