The Circulating Library

Annie Hamilton Donnell

From Harper's Monthly Vol. CXVII No. 701 (October, 1908)


Drawn by Elizabeth Shippen Green


Miss Mary took up her pen again and added a postscript — there were always postscripts.

“A new family appears to be moving into the Maxey house. Groan with me, Caroline. I did hope that old house would be allowed to remain in blessed, blue-blooded emptiness.”

Nothing but blue blood had ever flowed in Old Colony Street. Miss Mary's uneasiness was not without foundation, since the goods and chattels that the vans were unloading across the street did not look as if they had blue blood in their veins. Even Polonia noticed.

“The dinner table's pine — I guess I know pine! And all them chairs is the commonest kind I ever —”

“Polonia! — Polonia!” chided Miss Mary. Gentle charity enwrapped her like a soft garment. Only in her soul was there bitterness.

“My grief!” Polonia rarely remained chided. “They're unloadin' of a trundle-bed now — two trundle-beds! And if that there they're h'istin' down now ain't a crib, then my mother didn't name me Polony Ann!”

It was a crib — there were two trundle-beds. Miss Mary moved hastily away from the window, afraid of seeing more. She found herself half unconsciously endeavoring to compute the probable number of children two trundle-beds and a crib would hold. Old Colony Street had long been a childless street.

In her diary the entry that evening had to do with the Maxey house. What Miss Mary did not write to her bedridden friend, Caroline Good, she set down in tiny, exquisite chirography in the diary. The two of them — book and friend — were society to Miss Mary. There was only Polonia besides, and Polonia had limitations.

“The Maxeys,” wrote the little golden point, “were nice, proper people to live opposite. Now why, why must they sell their house and run off to Egypt? Egypt! As if Old Colony Street were not good enough! And to sell to pine furniture — Polonia says it's pine, and Polonia knows. I can hear my old mahogany shudder as I write!

“Here I've always dreamed of a memorial library across there, some day, with a Witherspoon room in it — I am sure I could have managed a room. ‘Presented by Mary Witherspoon in memory’ — do they present rooms?

“Departed dream! Here appears a family with two trundle-beds and one pine crib. Exit memorial library — enter, who?” The delicate pen-point shuddered, then wrote on: “It was entertaining to see Polonia hang out a handkerchief at a time to-day, to prolong her opportunities to spy upon the new neighbors. I must tell Caroline Good, but I must not tell her that any one awaited reports impatiently. Thus:

“Enter Polonia, news-laden.

Polonia. ‘Another one, Miss Mary, — six in all up ter date. Six o' them, or my mother named me Belindy! In assorted sizes —’

Anyone (with refreshing innocence). ‘But my handkerchiefs are all of a size, Polonia, and you really ought not to complain at six —’

Polonia (undeterred and unsmiling). ‘The littlest one's a baby, of course, to go with a baby carriage an' high chair.’

Anyone. ‘And crib.’

Polonia. ‘Crib! Cradle, you mean, Miss Mary.’

“‘I thought you saw a crib.’

“‘I did’ (grimly), ‘and a cradle. Pine. What I want to know is if there's anything below a cradle!’

“The dialogue might go on and on. Polonia is an inquisitive woman, but I must guard against Caroline's finding out that any one else is, too! Is it a sin to be inquisitive? Never! — for Polonia is not a sinner.

Polonia's census proved incorrect. There were seven of them at the final count — seven children on Old Colony Street! The family name was Story. Miss Mary, upon hearing the name, laughed to herself. There were compensations in the name, to her delicately humorous mind. She would mention them to Caroline.

Polonia made further discoveries and reported them.

“My grief! there's all kinds. There's a tall one an' a short one, an' two twins, an' dear knows who!”

“I thought I saw one on crutches, Polonia.”

“Oh, I thinks likely you did; there's all kinds. Most probable before I get through with 'em I'll discover one on wheels. I sha'n't be any surprised.” Polonia's tone was crisp. She was clearly unreconciled to the social decadence of Old Colony Street.

Miss Mary caught up her pen in an odd little spurt of excitement.

“Caroline, will you listen! It is a library, after all! Across the street, of course, I mean, — I haven't got to wait for my memorial library. This one is full of Storys! Polonia is keeping me informed, but even Polonia doesn't know them all yet. But so far there is a long Story and a short Story and a Story in two parts (twins). I am beginning to get interested in spite of myself. Polonia grumbles, but Polonia is interested.

“It is a circulating library. You should see the two-part Story circulate! One of these days I shall patronize that library and ‘take out’ the two-part Story. I know beforehand that it's a prosaic, rather hackneyed little Story in both chapters, but I think I shall like it — anyway, Polonia will. She likes little moon-faces and checked pinafores in her stories. Polonia herself, you know, Caroline, though nothing would hire me to say it, is a little hackneyed and prosaic. What I do say is, Polonia's a dear. She grumbles, but she makes delicious salads — scolds outright, but babies me behind my back — fumes and fusses, but comes in nights to tuck me up, — will go as straight to heaven as Elijah in his chariot of fire. Bless Polonia!”


Drawn by Elizabeth Shippen Green


The invalidism of Miss Mary was of a gentle, comfortable type, in strong contradistinction to the bedridden state of Caroline Good. Miss Mary, Polonia aiding and abetting, enjoyed her poor health in a cheerful, quite resigned manner. But it conspicuously lacked variety; in this respect the circulating library across the way was destined to be a success. Between the diary and Caroline Good this fact was made manifest.

“I thought I was settling into the drowse of old age,” Miss Mary wrote in the diary. “Nothing moved me. If my shoulder shawl did not slip off, or Polonia didn't forget to three-lump my tea, I was serenely content. The last thing in the world I thought of doing was to patronize a circulating library! But to-day I took out the funny Story, and my sides ache with laughing. Polonia's too — I called Polonia in. The name of the funny Story is Bangs. It is a little, rollicking, frolicking Story; I must tell it to Caroline. Polonia went over and got it for me, and came back across the muddy street with it under her arm.

“‘Here, take it — I guess it 'll keep you awake!’ she said, Polonialy. And I haven't had a wink of nap to-day! It was nearly sunset when I finished and sent the funny Story back. Some day I shall take out the pathetic Story, but not yet — I can't yet. Polonia has had it out; she doesn't know I know, but I do. I heard something out in the Polonia zone like the tap-tap of little crutches. I shut my ears — shame on me for it. Crutches wakes up all the old pity for poor Caroline.

“To-day I have been in a mood for short stories. I shall send Polonia over for the short Story to-morrow. I wonder if I shall tell Caroline, if I really do sit here rocking it in my arms? Polonia'd better not come in! I shall not tell Polonia. What would she say! — but Polonia does not know I came near once to rocking little things in my arms like other women. It was before Polonia's time. When you've once come near to things — some things —”

She did not tell Caroline — Caroline had never come near. But Polonia found her out.

“My grief!” Polonia breathed, and hurried noiselessly away again. For, though Miss Mary did not know, Polonia herself had once come very near — before Miss Mary's time.

“Dear Caroline,” read the next letter, “have I told you there are seven Storys to select from? In the library opposite, of course, — seven in all. One ought to be satisfied! If one does not enjoy a long Story, he has only to choose the short one. Or the sober instead of the humorous one — and there is always the Story in two parts to choose! I believe to my soul I shall like them all, which seems strange, considering their being of so varied a character. And all by one author — I have seen the author. You would never suspect her — never, Caroline. Such a dumpy, frumpy little author with her hair in curling-kids!

“You would like the short Story, Caroline. Dear, yes! it would interest you from little tip to toes — I should say from little beginning to end. It's the kind of a short Story mothers like, but plain folks like you and me and Polonia can appreciate it, too.” But she did not add, “and can rock with it in our laps and dote over it foolishly.” The memory was sacred to Miss Mary. To Polonia, too, who went about her ministrations to the gentle invalid with a certain unconscious and new respect. Polonia did not recognize it as kinship with Miss Mary in that they both had come so near; yet it was kinship.

When summer came and all the windows were open the tap-tap of little crutches often intruded upon Miss Mary's ear. She came to wait for it and to count the taps as they passed. Such slow little ones! It was getting very near the time for Miss Mary to “take out” the pathetic Story. One day she sent Polonia over after it.

“I took the pathetic Story out to-day,” she wrote that night with her little golden point. “I have had it out all day; I am reading it very slowly. To-night, when Polonia came to carry it back, I said, ‘No; let me keep it out the full limit — I am entitled to my two weeks. Of course with the librarian's consent.’ The librarian consented, and here I sit reading the little Story by lamplight. It is in a new ‘binding’ now — a little skimpy white cloth binding, that Polonia came and ‘bound’ it in for me. Then she laid it on my couch — I wasn't looking, and I do not suspect Polonia of anything sentimental — but I mean to kiss him myself by and by.

“Such a little, little pathetic Story! The crutches that make me think of Caroline are leaning up against the couch. I don't think I like pathetic stories; they make me cry. This minute I am crying. For pity's sake, Mary Witherspoon, stop before Polonia comes in with your bedtime tea! Polonia never cries.

“I shall keep this last Story out two weeks. I want to study it at my leisure. There's no denying that I like short stories and funny stories and two-part stories best — I like to laugh; everybody does, even Caroline. That poor dear woman lies in her bed and laughs at the shadows on her wall and the way the passers' feet look in the little slice of window where her curtain doesn't quite reach down. She says it's surprising how funny people's feet are. Caroline will go to heaven laughing, I believe.”

The little pathetic Story lay on Miss Mary's couch and slept, or stumped cheerfully about her rooms — he was always cheerful, continually reminding her of Caroline Good. Perhaps it was this resemblance that stimulated Miss Mary's interest and kindled it into love. The patient child appealed to her, conquered her. At the end of one week she surrendered.

“I love him, Caroline,” she wrote. “I didn't mean to, but I do. I ought to have taken out one of the other Storys — I ought to have let Polonia take him back the first day. Now here I am loving his little thin face — his cheerful little ridiculous whistle — his crooked little legs — his crutches! And I a drowsy old maid! Caroline, what do you suppose Polonia is thinking of me? For Polonia knows, — she's probably laughing in her sleeve. Out there in her kitchen, knitting her interminable stockings — ‘Ha! ha! Will you look at Miss Mary love him — will you look! An' her makin' out there isn't a drop of sentiment in her. Ha! ha! I've found her out!

“Actually, Caroline, I can hear her laugh — I've got up now and shut the door!

“He is so little, Caroline! You can't think how little! Especially in his scanty little nightgown — why do women love little children better in little nightgowns? To-night I kissed his hands, but don't tell Polonia. I had to kiss some of him, and I was afraid of waking him up if I did it anywhere else. He wakes so easily. He did to-night all at once. ‘Hullo!’ he said, out of the pillows. “Oh, it's nobody but only you — I thought it was Her.’

“‘Her, Martin?’ I guess I haven't told you his name is Martin.

“‘Yes — my mother.’

“Caroline, then how did I feel! He was homesick.

“‘Oh, Martin, do you want to go home to her?’ I cried out. And his little face then! He laughed.

“‘That one at home's only my Step; didn't you know? This sleep-one's my reg'lar own — I only see her nights, just nights. Then she comes. I wish you hadn't wokened me up looking at me so hard 's that, 'cause she was just a-going to take 'em away. You scared her off.’

“‘Take what away, Martin?’ Perhaps you don't think I was interested, Caroline.

“‘Them — my crutches. She always takes 'em away. Then she stands me up an' smiles down — she's the greatest smiler! “Now walk — walk — walk!” she says, an' I walk.’

“Caroline, if you could have seen! His little hatchet face shone — do you know how a little hatchet face looks shining? He went back to sleep, shining, and I knew he walked with Her in his little dreams. If I could only take his crutches away, Caroline!”

The longing grew as the second week passed. When she did not tell Caroline she wrote it in the diary:

“There ought to be a way — there ought to be doctors. He is so little yet, and little crooked legs ought to straighten. Somebody must find a way!

“If he did not laugh so much! Crutches and laughing break your heart. Just as lying in bed and laughing — he and Caroline will go to heaven together, laughing. They are just alike. Saint Peter will see them coming — oh, if I were Saint Peter I should cry! Poor big crooked Caroline, poor little crooked Martin — oh, things are so crooked in the world! The saints lie on their backs or hobble on crutches, and the sinners walk straight. I'm the only exception.

“Polonia has a theory that we all get our deserts — well, never mind me, but what has she got to say about the little pathetic Story and Caroline Good? The theory is all wrong. I wish Polonia could see Caroline — and that makes me think of Martin. I said she was probably laughing in her sleeve, but I was wrong. She was crying in it. She must have been there quite a while watching us — me down beside the couch kissing Martin's limp little hands and the sleeves of his little shirt, and Martin there asleep. I looked up all at once and — well, Polonia wasn't laughing. She went right away, and I heard her bump into the kitchen table as if she couldn't see well. Polonia! — and I thought she hadn't a drop of sentimental blood in her veins. I ought to tell Caroline.

“I saw another thing to-day that shows she has two drops. Martin was hiding his crutches and playing he had ‘walk-legs’ — that is one of his plays. Polonia was knitting stockings. (And — well, somebody else was the one that was watching them!)

“‘You hide 'em, P'lonia, — oh, I know, I know! You be Her! Same as if I was asleep, you know, — I never played it awake before! Now smile down an' say, “Now walk — walk — walk!” An' I'll —’ but he fell in a little heap. And I saw Polonia's face when she picked him up.

“I have written to three doctors. I have heard from the last one to-day. They all say, ‘Perhaps.’ The middle one said it more hopefully than the other two. They all say he must go away to a hospital to have it done. It may take a long time — but not so long as it would take to live crooked. I shall have Polonia ask the Step — I can't. It will break my heart if she says no — I am certain the Reg'lar Own would say yes.

“After he is asleep to-night Polonia can go. I shall turn my back to the couch, so I shall not see him walk — walk — walking in his little dream, with Her. Not to-night, while Polonia is gone to ask!

“She has come back. She stood in the door and nodded her head. So I know the Step is willing. To-morrow I shall send him with Polonia. It is better to do things to-morrow than to wait. I have turned my chair around, and he is smiling in his little sleep. I know She has taken 'em away.”

To Miss Mary the next days were long ones. The woman who came to take Polonia's place until her return was not Polonia. There could not be two Polonias. Miss Mary waited with the best patience at her command, but she was not Caroline Good — there was only one Caroline, also.

Miss Mary did not “take out” any other Storys from the circulating library across the street. The long Story, the funny Story, the short Story, were all to be had for the asking, but her only desire was for a little pathetic Story that had been withdrawn from circulation for repairs. She could not forget that one for a moment, and she sorely missed Polonia.

“I knew I loved Martin,” she wrote to Caroline Good, “but I didn't know I did Polonia. The Temporary Woman knits, too, but not stockings — I couldn't bear stockings. I am glad she doesn't do other things Polonia does. The Temporary Woman sings, but Polonia doesn't know a note. The Temporary Woman creaks when she walks — Polonia crackles.


T. W. ‘Be you cold?’

“(Polonia always gets my Shetland shawl — never asks.)

Miss Mary (stiffly). ‘I am all right.’

T. W. ‘B'ain't you hungry for somethin' to eat?’

“(Polonia brings it in on a tray.)

M. M. ‘Not for anything to eat, thank you.’

“I am starving, but how can a Temporary Woman know?

“Caroline, it's hard to settle into the drowse of old age alone — ah, you dear, you poor dear! You are the one who ought to have Polonia! What I am ‘settling into’ is the sloughs of selfishness! I am thankful the Temporary Woman has gone out and can't see me blushing with shame.

“When I think of you — Caroline, when I think of you I think of heaven. You and little Martin — you are just alike. I wonder if — it — has been done to little Martin yet. Polonia will not tell me just when, but she is coming back afterwards, and she hasn't come yet. I will tell you as soon as she comes, Caroline.”

There was a postscript the next day:

“Polonia's here. She came in suddenly with my bedtime tea. She stopped to get my shawl before she would say a word. Then she said:

“‘It's over. He was laughin' when I came away.’

“They have done it, Caroline. Polonia says they call it a very satisfactory operation so far. The rest is waiting — just waiting. For us, I mean, — for poor little Martin lying on his back and laughing. You know, Caroline.

“The Temporary Woman came in to say good-by, and I wanted to kiss her, I was so glad she was going away! Or else it was Polonia — I wonder how it would seem to kiss Polonia? She has gone right back to knitting stockings — I have made her leave the door open so I can hear her needles clicking. If little Martin were only on the couch, — only two things are necessary to make some people happy.

“Caroline, when you are laughing at the feet that go by in your little slice of window, if you ever see any little, little ones with crutches you will stop. You will cry then — cry for me too, Caroline. But when you see them go by walk — walk — walking — oh, I believe they will, Caroline Good, I believe they will! Polonia believes it, too, for she's knitting as if she believed.


“(She's coming in.)

“‘You believe, Polonia? Tell me you do!’

“(She's standing there nodding her head — God bless Polonia!)”

The letter to Caroline Good dropped to the floor. Miss Mary held out her hands.

“When ‘two or three are gathered together’ — we're two or three, Polonia!” she cried.

The short, thick figure of the serving-woman with crackling of starched skirts crossed swiftly to the woman with outstretched hands. The hands compelled her — drew her down. Then Miss Mary knew how it seemed to kiss Polonia.