English Literature

The Portion of Labor by Mary E. Wilkins

The Portion of Labor by Mary E. Wilkins.jpg

Chapter I

On the west side of Ellen’s father’s house was a file of Norway spruce-trees, standing with a sharp pointing of dark boughs towards the north, which gave them an air of expectancy of progress.

Every morning Ellen, whose bedroom faced that way, looked out with a firm belief that she would see them on the other side of the stone wall, advanced several paces towards their native land. She had no doubt of their ability to do so; their roots, projecting in fibrous sprawls from their trunks, were their feet, and she pictured them advancing with wide trailings, and rustlings as of green draperies, and a loudening of that dreamy cry of theirs which was to her imagination a cry of homesickness reminiscent of their old life in the White north. When Ellen had first heard the name Norway spruce, ‘way back in her childhood—so far back, though she was only seven and a half now, that it seemed to her like a memory from another life—she had asked her mother to show her Norway on the map, and her strange convictions concerning the trees had seized her. When her mother said that they had come from that northernmost land of Europe, Ellen, to whose childhood all truth was naked and literal, immediately conceived to herself those veritable trees advancing over the frozen seas around the pole, and down through the vast regions which were painted blue on her map, straight to her father’s west yard. There they stood and sang the songs of their own country, with a melancholy sweetness of absence and longing, and were forever thinking to return. Ellen felt always a thrill of happy surprise when she saw them still there of a morning, for she felt that she would miss them sorely when they were gone. She said nothing of all this to her mother; it was one of the secrets of the soul which created her individuality and made her a spiritual birth. She was also silent about her belief concerning the cherry-trees in the east yard. There were three of them, giants of their kind, which filled the east yard every spring as with mountains of white bloom, breathing wide gusts of honey sweetness, and humming with bees. Ellen believed that these trees had once stood in the Garden of Eden, but she never expected to find them missing from the east yard of a morning, for she remembered the angel with the flaming sword, and she knew how one branch of the easternmost tree happened to be blasted as if by fire. And she thought that these trees were happy, and never sighed to the wind as the dark evergreens did, because they had still the same blossoms and the same fruit that they had in Eden, and so did not fairly know that they were not there still. Sometimes Ellen, sitting underneath them on a low rib of rock on a May morning, used to fancy with success that she and the trees were together in that first garden which she had read about in the Bible.

Sometimes, after one of these successful imaginings, when Ellen’s mother called her into the house she would stare at her little daughter uneasily, and give her a spoonful of a bitter spring medicine which she had brewed herself. When Ellen’s father, Andrew Brewster, came home from the shop, she would speak to him aside as he was washing his hands at the kitchen sink, and tell him that it seemed to her that Ellen looked kind of “pindlin’.” Then Andrew, before he sat down at the dinner-table, would take Ellen’s face in his two moist hands, look at her with anxiety thinly veiled by facetiousness, rub his rough, dark cheek against her soft, white one until he had reddened it, then laugh, and tell her she looked like a bo’sn. Ellen never quite knew what her father meant by bo’sn, but she understood that it signified something very rosy and hearty indeed.

Ellen’s father always picked out for her the choicest and tenderest bits of the humble dishes, and his keen eyes were more watchful of her plate than of his own. Always after Ellen’s mother had said to her father that she thought Ellen looked pindling he was late about coming home from the shop, and would turn in at the gate laden with paper parcels. Then Ellen would find an orange or some other delicacy beside her plate at supper. Ellen’s aunt Eva, her mother’s younger sister, who lived with them, would look askance at the tidbit with open sarcasm. “You jest spoil that young one, Fanny,” she would say to her sister.

“You can do jest as you are a mind to with your own young ones when you get them, but you can let mine alone. It’s none of your business what her father and me give her to eat; you don’t buy it,” Ellen’s mother would retort. There was the utmost frankness of speech between the two sisters. Neither could have been in the slightest doubt as to what the other thought of her, for it was openly proclaimed to her a dozen times a day, and the conclusion was never complimentary. Ellen learned very early to form her own opinions of character from her own intuition, otherwise she would have held her aunt and mother in somewhat slighting estimation, and she loved them both dearly. They were headstrong, violent-tempered women, but she had an instinct for the staple qualities below that surface turbulence, which was lashed higher by every gust of opposition. These two loud, contending voices, which filled the house before and after shop-hours—for Eva worked in the shop with her brother-in-law—with a duet of discords instead of harmonies, meant no more to Ellen than the wrangle of the robins in the cherry-trees. She supposed that two sisters always conversed in that way. She never knew why her father, after a fiery but ineffectual attempt to quell the feminine tumult, would send her across the east yard to her grandmother Brewster’s, and seat himself on the east door-step in summer, or go down to the store in the winter. She would sit at the window in her grandmother’s sitting-room, eating peacefully the slice of pound-cake or cooky with which she was always regaled, and listen to the scolding voices across the yard as she might have listened to any outside disturbance. She was never sucked into the whirlpool of wrath which seemed to gyrate perpetually in her home, and wondered at her grandmother Brewster’s impatient exclamations concerning the poor child, and her poor boy, and that it was a shame and a disgrace, when now and then a louder explosion of wrath struck her ears.

Ellen’s grandmother—Mrs. Zelotes Brewster, as she was called, though her husband Zelotes had been dead for many years—was an aristocrat by virtue of inborn prejudices and convictions, in despite of circumstances. The neighbors said that Mrs. Zelotes Brewster had always been high-feeling, and had held up her head with the best. It would have been nearer the truth to say that she held up her head above the best. No one seeing the erect old woman, in her draperies of the finest black goods to be bought in the city, could estimate in what heights of thin upper air of spiritual consequence her head was elevated. She had always a clear sight of the head-tops of any throng in which she found herself, and queens or duchesses would have been no exception. She would never have failed to find some stool of superior possessions or traits upon which to raise herself, and look down upon crown and coronet. When she read in the papers about the marriage of a New York belle to an English duke, she reflected that the duke could be by no means as fine a figure of a man as Zelotes had been, and as her son Andrew was, although both her husband and son had got all their education in the town schools, and had worked in shoe-shops all their lives. She could have looked at a palace or a castle, and have remained true to the splendors of her little one-story-and-a-half house with a best parlor and sitting-room, and a shed kitchen for use in hot weather.

She would not for one instant have been swerved from utmost admiration and faith in her set of white-and-gold wedding china by the contemplation of Copeland and Royal Sèvres. She would have pitted her hair-cloth furniture of the ugliest period of household art against all the Chippendales and First Empire pieces in existence.

As Mrs. Zelotes had never seen any household possessions to equal her own, let alone to surpass them, she was of the same mind with regard to her husband and his family, herself and her family, her son and little granddaughter. She never saw any gowns and shawls which compared with hers in fineness and richness; she never tasted a morsel of cookery which was not as sawdust when she reflected upon her own; and all that humiliated her in the least, or caused her to feel in the least dissatisfied, was her son’s wife and her family and antecedents.

Mrs. Zelotes Brewster had considered that her son Andrew was marrying immeasurably beneath him when he married Fanny Loud, of Loudville. Loudville was a humble, an almost disreputably humble, suburb of the little provincial city. The Louds from whom the locality took its name were never held in much repute, being considered of a stratum decidedly below the ordinary social one of the city. When Andrew told his mother that he was to marry a Loud, she declared that she would not go to his wedding, nor receive the girl at her house, and she kept her word. When one day Andrew brought his sweetheart to his home to call, trusting to her pretty face and graceful though rather sharp manner to win his mother’s heart, he found her intrenched in the kitchen, and absolutely indifferent to the charms of his Fanny in her stylish, albeit somewhat tawdry, finery, though she had peeped to good purpose from her parlor window, which commanded the road, before she fled kitchenward.

Mrs. Zelotes was beating eggs with as firm an impetus as if she were heaving up earth-works to strengthen her own pride when her son thrust his timid face into the kitchen. “Mother, Fanny’s in the parlor,” he said, beseechingly.

“Let her set there, then, if she wants to,” said his mother, and that was all she would say.

Very soon Fanny went home on her lover’s arm, freeing her mind with no uncertain voice on the way, though she was on the public road, and within hearing of sharp ears in open windows. Fanny had a pride as fierce as Mrs. Zelotes Brewster’s, though it was not so well sustained, and she would then and there have refused to marry Andrew had she not loved him with all her passionate and ill-regulated heart. But she never forgave her mother-in-law for the slight she had put upon her that day, and the slights which she put upon her later. She would have refused to live next door to Mrs. Zelotes had not Andrew owned the land and been in a measure forced to build there. Every time she had flaunted out of her new house-door in her wedding finery she had an uncomfortable feeling of defiance under a fire of hostile eyes in the next house. She kept her own windows upon that side as clear and bright as diamonds, and her curtains in the stiffest, snowy slants, lest her terrible mother-in-law should have occasion to impeach her housekeeping, she being a notable housewife. The habits of the Louds of Loudville were considered shiftless in the extreme, and poor Fanny had heard an insinuation of Mrs. Zelotes to that effect.

The elder Mrs. Brewster’s knowledge of her son’s house and his wife was limited to the view from her west windows, but there was half-truce when little Ellen was born. Mrs. Brewster, who considered that no woman could be obtained with such a fine knowledge of nursing as she possessed, and who had, moreover, a regard for her poor boy’s pocket-book, appeared for the first time in his doorway, and opened her heart to her son’s child, if not to his wife, whom she began to tolerate.

However, the two women had almost a hand-to-hand encounter over little Ellen’s cradle, the elder Mrs. Brewster judging that it was for her good to be rocked to sleep, the younger not. Little Ellen herself, however, turned the balance that time in favor of her grandmother, since she cried every time the gentle, swaying motion was hushed, and absolutely refused to go to sleep, and her mother from the first held every course which seemed to contribute to her pleasure and comfort as a sacred duty. At last it came to pass that the two women met only upon that small neutral ground of love, and upon all other territory were sworn foes. Especially was Mrs. Zelotes wroth when Eva Loud, after the death of her father, one of the most worthless and shiftless of the Louds of Loudville, came to live with her married sister. She spoke openly to Fanny concerning her opinion of another woman’s coming to live on poor Andrew, and paid no heed to the assertions that Eva would work and pay her way.

Mrs. Zelotes, although she acknowledged it no social degradation for a man to work in a shoe-factory, regarded a woman who worked therein as having hopelessly forfeited her caste. Eva Loud had worked in a shop ever since she was fourteen, and had tagged the grimy and leathery procession of Louds, who worked in shoe-factories when they worked at all, in a short skirt with her hair in a strong black pigtail. There was a kind of bold grace and showy beauty about this Eva Loud which added to Mrs. Zelotes’s scorn and dislike.

“She walks off to work in the shop as proud as if she was going to a party,” she said, and she fairly trembled with anger when she saw the girl set out with her son in the morning. She would have considered it much more according to the eternal fitness of things had her son Andrew been attending a queen whom he would have dropped at her palace on the way. She writhed inwardly whenever little Ellen spoke of her aunt Eva, and would have forbidden her to do so had she dared.

“To think of that child associating with a shop-girl!” she said to Mrs. Pointdexter. Mrs. Pointdexter was her particular friend, whom she regarded with loving tolerance of superiority, though she had been the daughter of a former clergyman of the town, and had wedded another, and might presumably have been accounted herself of a somewhat higher estate. The gentle and dependent clergyman’s widow, when she came back to her native city after the death of her husband, found herself all at once in a pleasant little valley of humiliation at the feet of her old friend, and was contented to abide there. “Perhaps your son’s sister-in-law will marry and go away,” she said, consolingly, to Mrs. Zelotes, who indeed lived in that hope. But Eva remained at her sister’s, and, though she had admirers in plenty, did not marry, and the dissension grew.

It was an odd thing that, however the sisters quarrelled, the minute Andrew tried to take sides with his wife and assail Eva in his turn, Fanny turned and defended her. “I am not going to desert all the sister I have got in the world,” she said. “If you want me to leave, say so, and I will go, but I shall never turn Eva out of doors. I would rather go with her and work in the shop.” Then the next moment the wrangle would recommence, and the harsh trebles of wrath would swell high. Andrew could not appreciate this savageness of race loyalty in the face of anger and dissension, and his brain reeled with the apparent inconsistency of the thing.

“Sometimes I think they are both crazy,” he used to tell his mother, who sympathized with him after a covertly triumphant fashion. She never said, “I told you so,” but the thought was evident on her face, and her son saw it there.

However, he said not a word against his wife, except by implication. Though she and her sister were making his home unbearable, he still loved her, and, even if he did not, he had something of his mother’s pride.

However, at last, when Ellen was almost eight years old, matters came suddenly to a climax one evening in November. The two sisters were having a fiercer dispute than usual. Eva was taking her sister to task for cutting over a dress of hers for Ellen, Fanny claiming that she had given her permission to do so, and Eva denying it. The child sat listening in her little chair with a look of dawning intelligence of wrath and wicked temper in her face, because she was herself in a manner the cause of the dissension. Suddenly Andrew Brewster, with a fiery outburst of inconsequent masculine wrath with the whole situation, essayed to cut the Gordian knot. He grabbed the little dress of bright woollen stuff, which lay partly made upon the table, and crammed it into the stove, and a reek of burning wool filled the room. Then both women turned upon him with a combination of anger to which his wrath was wildfire.

Andrew caught up little Ellen, who was beginning to look scared, wrapped the first thing he could seize around her, and fairly fled across the yard to his mother’s. Then he sat down and wept like a boy, and his pride left him at last. “Oh, mother,” he sobbed, “if it were not for the child, I would go away, for my home is a hell!”

Mrs. Zelotes stood clasping little Ellen, who clung to her, trembling. “Well, come over here with me,” she said, “you and Ellen.”

“Live here in the next house!” said Andrew. “Do you suppose Fanny would have the child living under her very eyes in the next house? No, there is no way out of the misery—no way; but if it was not for the child, I would go!”

Andrew burst out in such wild sobs that his mother released Ellen and ran to him; and the child, trembling and crying with a curious softness, as of fear at being heard, ran out of the house and back to her home. “Oh, mother,” she cried, breaking in upon the dialogue of anger which was still going on there with her little tremulous flute—“oh, mother, father is crying!”

“I don’t care,” answered her mother, fiercely, her temper causing her to lose sight of the child’s agitation. “I don’t care. If it wasn’t for you, I would leave him. I wouldn’t live as I am doing. I would leave everybody. I am tired of this awful life. Oh, if it wasn’t for you, Ellen, I would leave everybody and start fresh!”

“You can leave me whenever you want to,” said Eva, her handsome face burning red with wrath, and she went out of the room, which was suffocating with the fumes of the burning wool, tossing her black head, all banged and coiled in the latest fashion.

Of late years Fanny had sunk her personal vanity further and further in that for her child. She brushed her own hair back hard from her temples, and candidly revealed all her unyouthful lines, and dwelt fondly upon the arrangement of little Ellen’s locks, which were of a fine, pale yellow, as clear as the color of amber.

She never recut her skirts or her sleeves, but she studied anxiously all the slightest changes in children’s fashions. After her sister had left the room with a loud bang of the door, she sat for a moment gazing straight ahead, her face working, then she burst into such a passion of hysterical wailing as the child had never heard. Ellen, watching her mother with eyes so frightened and full of horror that there was no room for childish love and pity in them, grew very pale. She had left the door by which she had entered open; she gazed one moment at her mother, then she turned and slipped out of the room, and, opening the outer door softly, though her mother would not have heard nor noticed, went out of the house.

Then she ran as fast as she could down the frozen road, a little, dark figure, passing as rapidly as the shadow of a cloud between the earth and the full moon.

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Categories: English Literature

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