THE SLEEPER WAKES -- HARLEM RENAISSANCE STORIES BY WOMEN
The funeral was over. The wife and the mistress sat facing each other in the old fashioned parlor of their common home, waiting for the will to be read. A September drizzle had set in and lent to the somber air of the house an added gloom. Stray bits of faded leaves and flowers from the many lovely floral wreathes were here and there upon the green plush carpet that covered the rectangular surface of the quiet room. Nashville had not seen such a long procession of carriages as had curled through her narrow streets at this noon hour in many a year. Dr. Ryan had been very popular. These two strangely linked women had just returned from the cemetery where all that remained of the tie that bound them, the late Paul Ryan, had been laid to rest. "What would happen now that his portly, beaming, and genial personality had left them poles apart together?
As Martha Ryan, hidden in the thick crepe of her black veil sat in church, her mind was darting here and there, picking at the tangled threads of her life. "What would she do now? Always he had made decisions for her, now he lay there so still and cold in front of the altar as the preacher's voice threw sweet flattering words across his upturned face. Yes, always he had decided. Even when she had tried once to put her foot down on his bringing this young woman Rose Delaney to live right in the house with them, twenty-five years ago ... twenty-five long years! Had called her his new nurse, her lips curled in derision. For her, this baby-eyed woman, he had decided against her, his own wife. But the whole town knew the truth ... you can't throw dust in people's eyes ... nurse ... nurse forsooth! And what could she do about it? Nothing, she was old and the girl was young!
Out of one corner of her eye she could see Rose's head bowed beside her. She was weeping, and well she might, for now, her protector was gone and she herself was boss. At last, boss in her own house, and out she'd go! Her friends had taunted her long enough, she'd show them how she'd handle the situation. Martha tightened her lips in determination. Tears, tears, let her cry, cry her eyes out. He'd stood between them and taken her part! Protected her against his own wife. Men were queer. Yet he had been good to her. She'd had nothing, nothing of which to complain but this, this one thing. Strange how numb and far-away like she had felt at the funeral, not like it was her own dead she was burying, but maybe the feeling would come later and then.... So now, here she was back home at last, waiting, waiting to hear his last commands!
The clock on the mantle struck two. Martha shivered. Lawyer Green had promised to follow them from the funeral. He should be here now. Said he just had to stop by his office and get the will. The will! What did it say? Would it leave her anything? Yes, she guessed it would. Something anyhow, so's she could go away somewhere! Martha sighed, free, free from her at last!
Rose Delaney sitting across from Mrs. Ryan, her black hat a little awry, had noted the sigh and seen the shiver. She was keenly aware of her deep agitation. Something called to her from this woman's silence ... she had always administered to her, served her ... she needed her even now. Interestingly, she arose, casting a solicitous glance toward the brooding woman as she announced timidly that she was going to make a cup of hot tea. "You're chilly," she added, "it was awfully damp under foot at the cemetery."
A faint sound came from Mrs. Ryan's throat, whether of approval or not Rose couldn't make out, but she passed on out to the little kitchen where the soft tinkle of china was soon heard.
To make a cup of tea was an easy pleasure for Rose. She liked to serve, but somehow, today her hands seemed strangely awkward and she stumbled as she moved about the little kitchen. She was saying "Goodbye, Goodbye," to every little pot and pan that hung so shiny on the wall. She had loved to make them shine, for the woman with sad, sad questioning eyes liked them so. She had done her best. The day was over and now she must go -- go away from this refuge that she had learned to love, this home, hers no longer.
As she placed the little silver tray before the tense woman with the steaming odor of the fragrant tea stealing upward she thought she detected a faint softening of her face, a small relaxation of the set jaw. She wasn't sure.
Sitting there with her hat still slantwise on her bowed head, Rose looked like a lonely traveler who sits in the station without a time table waiting for the next train with no fixed destination -- just going!
A ring at the front door. Rose jumped, "It must be Lawyer Green," she murmured. She started for the door, then stopped suddenly and looked toward Mrs. Ryan; she was conscious of the new situation, its tenseness -- was she expected to go -- There was no movement, no sign from the still woman bent over her tea. Rose walked toward the door. As she moved away, Mrs. Ryan gradually raised her head and fixed her gaze upon Rose's retreating form. She had not been unmindful of Rose's hesitation about the door -- aha! She had realized at once the change that had come about -- she wasn't sure of herself anymore, not that she had been forward before, in fact, she had always deferred to her, served her well, had been kind and considerate, nursing her, but as her eyes followed the form moving bent and slow, another thought -- another thought awoke like a thunder-clap in her mind! A new thought, so strangely new that she felt stunned ... this woman who moved so slowly before her was not a young woman -- she was old! old!!! Rose too was old. The years had passed and even Rose had lost her youth.
Mrs. Ryan was sitting in a kind of daze when Rose led Lawyer Green into the room. She paid no heed to his apologetic words, just sat gazing into space. Her mind had rushed back over the years to that day so long ago when Rose had first come into her home -- a lovely young brown-eyed girl. Breaking away from her thoughts she fastened her eyes upon Rose as upon a stranger. This woman was new to her, new in her oldness. There was something sweet and comforting in the thought.
The tall solemn faced lawyer dropped awkwardly into a chair. He had a difficult duty to perform.
"I ask you two ladies to hear the will at once because --- because ... " He cleared his throat in embarrassment, then finished, "I thought it best for you both to have an understanding."
Placing his horn-rimmed glasses firmly on his nose, he looked at both women apprehensively and began reading: "I, Paul Ryan, being of sound mind --." He read on and on. There were several small bequests to former patients and to the hospital, and then -- "The house and all my remaining property I bequeath and devise to my wife Martha Ryan, and my adopted daughter, Rose Delaney, equally share and share alike --"
The eyes of the two women met, hung together for a moment, and then Rose's glance fell.
The lawyer finished and again cleared his throat. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry," Rose whispered faintly. "I'll go away of course, Mrs. Ryan."
"Either of you can sell your share of the house to the other," the lawyer added. "You'd be willing to sell wouldn't you, Miss Delaney?"
"Oh certainly, yes -- anything Mrs. Ryan suggests will be all right with me: I'll cause no trouble at all. Now if you will excuse me I'll get a few things together and be leaving." She looked bewilderedly about her and stumbled from the room.
Lawyer Green looked at the set face of the widowed woman, arose and tried to offer some further advice. "Everything will be all right, I'm sure, Mrs. Ryan. Just consult me when you've come to a decision. The will is a little peculiar, but-ah-ah-the situation is a bit unusual."
She continued to hold the door ajar, her eyes following the lawyer's retreating form as it grew dimmer and dimmer and then vanished far down the street.
How quiet it was, both outside and in. Not a sound. Death-like in the street. She closed the door -- still, how still inside. Her footfall was hushed in the red velvet carpet. Her world had come to an end -- All things had come to an end.
Descending the stairs slowly came a bowed figure. She seemed to be feeling her way blindly, one hand slipping along the balustrade, the other holding a brown valise.
Martha stood near the door -- waiting. She wondered why she waited. She didn't know.... Was it to say "Good-bye?" Did you stop to say "Good-bye" when you were asking, even demanding that some one should leave your house?
Rose knew that she was waiting for her to go -- had waited for twenty-five years, waited for this moment for nearly a lifetime!
Nearer and nearer crept the drooping form -- she came alongside, set down the valise and slowly lifted her swimming eyes to Martha's face. Haltingly, how haltingly, she formed the words -- her throat tightening like cords about them, they seemed squeezed from it.
"Well, well, I'll ... be ... go i n g.... " Martha's lips pressed more firmly together, her eyes following Rose's every move as she bent down to pickup the valise. A kind of stupor seemed to hold her speechless, she just watched and watched. Why didn't she say, "It's time you were going!" But no, she just stood still and watched wordless. Motionless.
How still the house was. Still and empty. It would be more still and empty ... there would be no one to do little things for her ... nurse her ... comfort her ... decide for her ... no one to lean upon ... With a start she awoke to the moment Rose was going, her hand was turning the knob.... Martha watched with growing panic.... Rose paused a moment on the threshold, she looked back! and then Mrs. Ryan flung open her arms and cried brokenly, "Rose!"
UNKNOWN SOURCE, THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, HARMON FOUNDATION FILES, c. 1926-1930