THE QUILT THAT JACK BUILT
“Johnny make a quilt!” repeated Rob Marshall, with a shout of laughter. “I’d as soon expect to see a wild buffalo knitting mittens!”
“But you’re not to speak of it outside the family, Rob,” his mother hastened to say, “and you must not tease the little fellow. You older children have ways of earning pocket-money,—Rhoda with her painting, and you with your bent iron work, but Johnny hasn’t had a cent of income all fall. You know when your father explained what a hard winter this would be, and said we must economize in every way possible, Johnny offered to give up the little amount I allowed him every week for chores. He has been doing his work ever since without pay. Now, he is wild to buy Todd Walters’ rifle. He can get it for only three dollars, and I want him to have it if possible. He has cheerfully gone without so many things this fall. He followed me around the house all morning, begging me to think of some way in which he could earn the money, until, in desperation, I suggested that he piece a quilt for me at a cent a block. To my great surprise, he consented eagerly. He usually scorns anything that looks like girls’ work.”
“And mother will have to do without the new bonnet that she had counted on getting with the turkey money that always comes in just before Christmas, in order to pay for it,” said Rhoda to her brother. “I think it’s a shame. She needs it too badly to give it up for that child’s whim.”
“No, daughter,” answered Mrs. Marshall, gently. “In a country neighbourhood like this it matters little whether I wear my clothes one year or seven: and it is not a mere whim with Johnny. He wants that rifle more than he ever wanted anything in his life before. I think the quilt money would be a good investment. The work will teach him patience and neatness, and above all keep him quiet in the evenings. Since your father has been so worried over his business, he needs all the relaxation possible at home, he enjoys reading aloud in the evenings, and Johnny’s fidgeting annoys him. A ten-year-old boy is all wriggle and racket without something to occupy him.”
She did not say it aloud, but, as she cut out the gay patchwork, she thought, with a warm glow of heart, of another reason for the investment. The quilt would be such a precious reminder of Johnny’s boyhood some day, when he had put away childish things. Every stitch would be dear to her, because of the little stubby fingers that worked so patiently to set them, despite the needle pricks and knotted thread.
That evening, with every curtain drawn tight, so that no prying outsider might see and tell, and ready to run at the first sign of an approaching visitor, Johnny sat down on the hearth-rug, tailor fashion, to begin the quilt. A slateful of calculations had shown him that, by making five blocks every evening and fifteen every Saturday, he could finish by Christmas. Todd would wait until then for his money. Three hundred and fifty blocks would give him enough for the rifle, and half a dollar besides for ammunition.
“Well, Johnny,” said Mr. Marshall, teasingly, “I suppose your mother signed a contract for this. ‘There’s many a slip,’ you know. What would you do if the turkeys died before Christmas, and she couldn’t pay you?”
“Huh! No danger of mother’s not keeping her word!” answered Johnny, with a confident wag of his head. “She said she’d pay me, not only the day, but the very hour they were done. Didn’t you, mother?”
“Yes, son,” was the smiling answer, as she put the first block into his hands, and the quilt was begun. Not only the quilt, but a series of quiet evenings long to be remembered by the Marshall family. The picture of Johnny bending over his patchwork, his serious little face puckered into an anxious frown, as he tugged at the thread with awkward fingers, is one of the ways they love best to think of him. They still laugh heartily over the time when he rolled under the sofa, work-basket and all, to escape the eyes of a gossipy neighbour, who had knocked unexpectedly at the side door, and who stayed so long that he fell asleep and snored loudly.
The following Saturday morning, Mrs. Marshall, going out to the barn for a hatchet, heard voices on the other side of the partition. Peeping through a crack, she saw a sight that confounded her.
Every boy in the neighbourhood seemed to be there, and every one was making patchwork. One boy was dangling his feet over the manger, several were perched on a ladder, and one was sitting cross-legged on a huge pumpkin. Johnny was going around as Grand Inquisitor from one to another. If a seam was puckered, he gave the unlucky seamstress what they called a “hickey,”—a tremendous thump on the head with his thumb and middle finger. If the stitches were big and uneven, he gave two hickeys and a pinch, and one boy got half a dozen, because Johnny said his dirty hands made the thread gray. Mrs. Marshall gathered that it was some sort of secret society, and that they had signed an oath in their own blood not to tell.
“Johnny is at the bottom of it,” she thought, laughing as she went back to the house. “He has set the other boys to sewing in order to forestall them. Now they cannot tease him, should they hear of his private quilt-piecing.”
“Every one was making patchwork”ToList
Another week went by of peaceful, uninterrupted evenings, and every night at bedtime Johnny counted out his tale of finished blocks with a sigh of relief. On the second Saturday evening he disappeared immediately after supper. It was nearly an hour later when he came tumbling excitedly into the house.
“Look, mother! Look, everybody!” he exclaimed. “It’s all done! Here are the three hundred and fifty blocks all in one pile. Now, I’m ready for my money, mother.”
“Why, Johnny!” gasped Mrs. Marshall, in astonishment. “It isn’t possible you have done them all in two short weeks!”
“Here they are,” answered Johnny, smiling broadly. “Todd got in a hurry for his money, and I was so everlasting tired of the old patchwork that I had to think of some plan; so I farmed out two hundred of the blocks at a quarter of a cent apiece. I got up a sort of secret society, and we sewed after school and on Saturdays in the barn. The boys are waiting around the corner for their money now. There’s ten of ’em, and I owe each one a nickel. So give me part of the money in small change, please, mother. Todd’s there, too, ’cause I told him that you said you’d pay the very hour they were done.”
He dropped the bundle in her lap and hopped up and down, holding one foot in his hand. “Now the rifle’s mine,” he sang. “I can look the whole world in the face, for I owe not any man.” He was quoting from the memory exercises at school. His eager face clouded a little at his mother’s ominous silence. He shifted uneasily from one foot to another, wondering why she did not speak. At last she said, slowly:
“But I had expected to pay you out of the turkey money, and I can’t get that before Christmas. I hadn’t an idea you could finish before then. And, oh, Johnny!” she added, sadly, “I thought it would be all your own work. What do I care for a quilt made by Tom, Dick, and Harry? I consented to spend so much money on it, because I thought it would give you employment for six or seven weeks at least, and that we would all set such store by a quilt that you had made with your own little fingers,—every stitch of it!”
Johnny wriggled uncomfortably. It had been purely a business arrangement with him. He could not understand his mother’s sentiment. There was another disagreeable pause. Mrs. Marshall gazed into the fire with such a disappointed look in her eyes that Johnny felt the tears coming into his own. Then his father and Rob and Rhoda, seeing the humour of the situation, began to laugh.
“Oh, what a joke!” gasped Rhoda finally, holding her sides.
“Who on? I’d like to know,” demanded Johnny, savagely, and threw himself full length on the rug.
“I don’t know what to do!” he sobbed, his face buried in his arms, and his feet waving wildly back and forth above his prostrate body. “I don’t know what to do-oo! The boys are out there waiting for me around the corner, expecting me to bring the money right away. I told them sure I’d bring it—that you promised—the very hour! I didn’t know it made any difference to you who finished ’em, just so they was done.”
“It was a misunderstanding, Johnny,” said his mother, rising slowly, “but I’ll keep my promise, of course.” She went up-stairs, and in a few minutes came back with a five-dollar gold piece that she had taken out of a little box of keepsakes. They all knew its history.
“Yes, he gave it to me on my tenth birthday, just a little while before he died. It was the last thing he ever gave me, and I have kept it for thirty years as one of my most precious possessions.” She was rubbing the little coin until it shone like new, with the bit of chamois skin in which it had been folded. “But dear as it is to me, it is not so dear as the keeping of my word. Here, Johnny, take it down to the corner, and ask Mr. Dolkins to change it for you.”
Mr. Marshall listened with a pained contraction of the brows. “Couldn’t you wait until the latter part of next week, Abby?” he asked. “I think I could get the money for you by that time, and I hate to have you part with the little keepsake you have treasured so long.”
Mrs. Marshall shook her head. “No, Robert,” she answered, “for that would make Johnny break his word, too. You know he promised the boys,—and we couldn’t afford that, could we, son? We must keep our word at any cost.” She slipped the money into his hand, kissed him, and bade him hurry home again; and Johnny, rushing back to his impatient creditors, felt that it was something very solemn indeed which had just taken place.
“‘Dear as it is to me, it is not so dear as the keeping of my word'”ToList
Johnny’s little room at the head of the stairs was heated by the hall stove, so that the door stood open all day long. When the new quilt was folded across the foot of his bed, it was the first thing that caught the eye of every one passing up the stairs.
Rob made up a verse about it, which he sang so often to tease Johnny that the first note was enough to make the child bristle up for a fight:
“You needn’t make fun of it,” said Rhoda one day. “It has held me to my word more than once. Yesterday, for instance. I would have broken my promise to poor little Miss Sara Grimes, to help her entertain her old ladies, and would have accepted Harry Dilling’s invitation, which came later, to go sleighing. But that quilt would not let me. It showed me mother as she stood there with her precious little gold piece, saying. ‘We must keep our word at any cost!‘ After that I couldn’t disappoint poor old Miss Sara.”
“I know,” answered Rob, softly, looking up from his algebra. “It’s served me the same way. It lies there like the exponent of a higher power,—the exponent of mother’s standards and ideals that she expects us to raise ourselves up to.”
Mr. Marshall made a similar confession one day, and it seemed that Johnny alone was the only member of the family who had no sentiment in regard to the quilt, except, perhaps, a feeling of gratitude. It had brought him the rifle. He snuggled down under it on cold winter nights, tumbled out from under it on cold winter mornings, and went his happy-go-lucky way, regardless of what it might have said to him if he had had ears to hear. Then, when, worn and faded by many washings, it outgrew its usefulness as he outgrew his boyhood, one spring morning his mother packed it carefully away in folds of old linen and lavender.
It was toward the middle of John Marshall’s freshman year at college. The boy “all wriggle and racket” was a strong, athletic young fellow now, still with the same propensities of his restless boyhood. His overflowing animal spirits made him a jolly companion, and he found himself popular from the start. There was no need now for petty economies in the Marshall homestead. Business had been prosperous since that one hard winter when Johnny made patchwork to pay for his gun, and he found himself now with as liberal an allowance as any one in his class.
“I’m in for having a royal good time,” he wrote to Rhoda, who was home-keeper now, for it had been two years since her mother’s death, and Rhoda had done her best to fill the vacant place to them all. “And you needn’t preach to me, Sis,” he wrote. “I’m all right, and I’m not going to get into the trouble which you cheerfully predict. I shall not get into any scrapes that I can’t skin out of; but a fellow would be a fool who didn’t squeeze as much fun as possible out of his college life.”
As he was finishing this letter, three students, who were foremost in all the fun going, came tumbling unceremoniously into his room. “Say, you there, Marshall,” cried the first one, “hustle up and get ready for a lark to-night. You know that Sophomore Wilson, the long-faced fellow the boys call Squills? He’s rooming in the old Baptist parsonage away out on the edge of town. It’s vacant now, and they’re glad to let him have a room free for the sake of somebody to guard the premises. We’ve found that he will be out to-night, sitting up with a sick frat., so we’ve planned to borrow the parsonage in his absence to give a swell dinner. Tingley and Jones will visit several hen-roosts in our behalf, and we’ll roast the fowls in the parsonage stove. If you’ll just set up the champagne, Jacky, my boy, we’ll be ‘Yours for ever, little darling,’ and we’ll gamble on the green of the defunct parson’s study table ’till morning doth appear.'”
“What if Squills should come back unexpectedly?” asked Johnny.
“Oh, that’s all arranged. We’ll toss him up in a blanket until he hasn’t breath enough left to squeal on us. Suppose you bring along a blanket, if you have one to spare,” suggested the wild senior, whose notice always flattered the susceptible freshman. “In case Squills does turn up before schedule time, it would be a good thing to have one handy.”
“All right, I’ll be ready. When do you start?”
“At ten o’clock,” was the answer. “We’ll come by for you,” and the three conspirators tramped down the long corridor, shoulder to shoulder, to the whistled tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
John sat down at his table, frowning over his lessons for the next day. For nearly an hour he tried to work, first at his Latin and then on the theme that he was expected to hand in directly after chapel. But his thoughts were on the coming lark.
“Oh, bother!” he exclaimed at last, tossing the books into a disorderly heap and tearing his theme in two. “What difference will it make fifty years from now, if I’m not prepared to-morrow? I guess I’ll get that blanket while I think about it.”
At the beginning of the cold weather, he had written home for some extra blankets, and Rhoda had sent a box immediately. It had been standing in the closet several days, waiting for him to find time to unpack it. A sofa pillow made of his class colours came tumbling out as he removed the lid, and, wondering what other extras his sister might have put in the box, he turned it upside down on the bed to investigate. Two fine soft blankets came first, then an eiderdown comfort, and then—something wrapped in a square of time-yellowed linen, and smelling faintly of lavender.
“What under the canopy!” he muttered, beginning to unfold it. “Well, I’ll be—jiggered!” he exclaimed, as the familiar squares of faded patchwork met his eye. “It’s that old quilt I made for mother!” He had forgotten its existence, but now, as he spread it out full length, smiling at the well-known object, it seemed only yesterday that he had been at work upon it. Rob’s old teasing rhyme came back to him:
“The familiar squares of faded patchwork met his eye”ToList
“It was funny,” he thought, “the way I farmed out those two hundred blocks to the other boys. Why, here’s a piece of one of those little striped waists I used to wear, and there’s a piece of Rob’s checked shirt and Rhoda’s apron. I wouldn’t have imagined that I could have recognized them after all these years, but they look as natural as life. And this,”—his finger was resting on a square of dotted blue calico,—”mother wore this. My! the times I’ve hung on to that dress, following her around the house, bothering her to stop and cover a ball, or make me a marble bag, or untangle my fishing-lines. And she always stopped so patiently.”
He was back in the sunny old kitchen, with its spicy smell of gingerbread and pies, hot from the Saturday baking. Outside, the snow clung to the trees, but the wintry sun shining through the shelf of yellow chrysanthemums by the window, made dancing summer shadows on the clean white floor. He was looking at the quilt through blurred eyes now. How many, many nights she had spread it over him and tucked him snugly in, and softly kissed his eyelids down, before she carried away the lamp. It came over him all in a swift rush, with a sudden cold sense of desolation, that she could never do that again! never any more! The light had been taken away, never to be brought back.
Big fellow as he was, he dropped on his knees by the bed, and buried his face in the old quilt, with a long, quivering sob. He had been occupied with so many things in the new experiences of his college life that he had not missed her for the last few months: but the sight of the old quilt brought her so plainly before him that the longing to have her back was almost intolerable.
Several blocks away, a crowd of students crossing the campus in the moonlight started a rollicking chorus. It floated blithely up to him on the wintry night air.
“The fellows will be here in a minute,” he thought. “What would she say if she knew? I promised her that I would never, never touch a drop of liquor or a deck of cards, and here I am, getting ready for a night of drinking and gambling and carousing. But I’ve gone too far to back out now. How they’d hoot and laugh if they knew!”
He got up, and began to fold the quilt, preparatory to putting it back in the box. The old scenes still kept crowding upon him. He saw himself lying on the hearth-rug, the night the boys were waiting for him around the corner, and he was crying out, “But you promised me! You promised me!” and there was his mother with the bit of a gold piece in her hand,—the precious little keepsake that she had treasured for thirty years, saying, in answer to her husband’s remonstrance: “No, Robert, that would make Johnny break his promise, too, and we couldn’t afford that, could we, son? We must keep our word at any cost!”
It stood out fair and fine now, the memory of her unswerving truthfulness, her fidelity to duty. If the commonplace deeds of those early days had seemed of little moment to his childish eyes in passing, he saw them at their full value now. He recognized the high purpose with which she had pieced her little days together, now that he could look at the whole beautiful pattern of her finished life. How sacredly she had always kept her word to him, the slightest promise always inviolate! Ah, the little gold coin was the very least of all her sacrifices.
He was about to say, “No, they shall not all be in vain,” when he heard the fellows on the walk outside. A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead, as he considered the consequences should he refuse to go with them. Strong as he was, he had a fear of ridicule. To be laughed at, to be ostracized by the set he admired, was more than he could endure. Like many another brave fellow, fearless in every respect but one, he was an arrant coward before that one overpowering fear of being laughed at.
He gathered the quilt in his arms, debating whether he should hide it hastily in the closet, or come out boldly before them all with its whole homely little story. The fellows were tramping down the hall now. Oh, what should he do? Go or not? It meant to break with them for all time if he refused now.
There was an instant more of indecision, as the footsteps halted at the threshold, but, when the door burst open, he had squared his shoulders to meet whatever might come, and was whispering between his set teeth: “At any cost, mother! I’ll keep my promise at any cost!“
Categories: English Literature