English Literature

Samantha on the Woman Question by Marietta Holley

Samantha on the Woman Question by Marietta Holley.jpg



Lorinda Cagwin invited Josiah and me to a reunion of the Allen family at her home nigh Washington, D.C., the birthplace of the first Allen we knowed anything about, and Josiah said:

“Bein’ one of the best lookin’ and influential Allens on earth now, it would be expected on him to attend to it.”

And I fell in with the idee, partly to be done as I would be done by if it wuz the relation on my side, and partly because by goin’ I could hit two birds with one stun, as the poet sez. Indeed, I could hit four on ’em.

My own cousin, Diantha Trimble, lived in a city nigh Lorinda’s and I had promised to visit her if I wuz ever nigh her, and help bear her burdens for a spell, of which burden more anon and bom-by.

Diantha wuz one bird, the Reunion another, and the third bird I had in my mind’s eye wuz the big outdoor meeting of the suffragists that wuz to be held in the city where Diantha lived, only a little ways from Lorinda’s.

And the fourth bird and the biggest one I wuz aimin’ to hit from this tower of ourn wuz Washington, D.C. I wanted to visit the Capitol of our country, the center of our great civilization that stands like the sun in the solar system, sendin’ out beams of power and wisdom and law and order, and justice and injustice, and money and oratory, and talk and talk, and wind and everything, to the uttermost points of our vast possessions, and from them clear to the ends of the earth. I wanted to see it, I wanted to like a dog. So we laid out to go.

Lorinda lived on the old Allen place, and I always sot store by her, and her girl, Polly, wuz, as Thomas J. said, a peach. She had spent one of her college vacations with us, and a sweeter, prettier, brighter girl I don’t want to see. Her name is Pauline, but everybody calls her Polly.

The Cagwins are rich, and Polly had every advantage money could give, and old Mom Nater gin her a lot of advantages money couldn’t buy, beauty and intellect, a big generous heart and charm. And you know the Cagwins couldn’t bought that at no price. Charm in a girl is like the perfume in a rose, and can’t be bought or sold. And you can’t handle or describe either on ’em exactly. But what a influence they have; how they lay holt of your heart and fancy.

Royal Gray, the young man who wuz payin’ attention to her, stopped once for a day or two in Jonesville with Polly and her Ma on their way to the Cagwins’ camp in the Adirondacks. And we all liked him so well that we agreed in givin’ him this extraordinary praise, we said he wuz worthy of Polly, we knowed of course that wuz the highest enconium possible for us to give.

Good lookin’, smart as a whip, and deep, you could see that by lookin’ into his eyes, half laughin’ and half serious eyes and kinder sad lookin’ too under the fun, as eyes must be in this world of ourn if they look back fur, or ahead much of any. A queer world this is, and kinder sad and mysterious, behind all the good and glory on’t.

He wuz jest out of Harvard school and as full of life and sperits as a colt let loose in a clover field. He went out in the hay field, he and Polly, and rode home on top of a load of hay jest as nateral and easy and bare-headed as if he wuz workin’ for wages, and he the only son of a millionaire–we all took to him.

Well, when the news got out that I wuz goin’ to visit Washington, D.C., all the neighbors wanted to send errents by me. Betsy Bobbet Slimpsey wanted a dozen Patent Office books for scrap books for her poetry.

Uncle Nate Gowdey wanted me to go to the Agricultural Buro and git him a paper of lettuce seed. And Solomon Sypher wanted me to git him a new kind of string beans and some cowcumber seeds.

Uncle Jarvis Bentley, who wuz goin’ to paint his house, wanted me to ask the President what kind of paint he used on the White House. He thought it ort to be a extra kind to stand the sharp glare that wuz beatin’ down on it constant, and to ask him if he didn’t think the paint would last longer and the glare be mollified some if they used pure white and clear ile in it, and left off whitewash and karseen.

Ardelia Rumsey, who is goin’ to be married, wanted me, if I see any new kinds of bedquilt patterns at the White House or the Senator’s housen, to git patterns for ’em. She said she wuz sick of sun flowers and blazin’ stars. She thought mebby they’d have sunthin’ new, spread eagle style. She said her feller wuz goin’ to be connected with the Govermunt and she thought it would be appropriate.

And I asked her how. And she said he wuz goin’ to git a patent on a new kind of jack knife.

I told her that if she wanted a govermunt quilt and wanted it appropriate she ort to have a crazy quilt.

And she said she had jest finished a crazy quilt with seven thousand pieces of silk in it, and each piece trimmed with seven hundred stitches of feather stitchin’–she’d counted ’em. And then I remembered seein’ it. There wuz a petition fer wimmen’s rights and I remember Ardelia couldn’t sign it for lack of time. She wanted to, but she hadn’t got the quilt more than half done. It took the biggest heft of two years to do it. And so less important things had to be put aside.

And Ardelia’s mother wanted to sign it, but she couldn’t owin’ to a bed-spread she wuz makin’. She wuz quiltin’ in Noah’s Ark and all the animals on a Turkey red quilt. I remember she wuz quiltin’ the camel that day and couldn’t be disturbed, so we didn’t git the names. It took the old lady three years, and when it wuz done it wuz a sight to behold, though I wouldn’t want to sleep under so many animals. But folks went from fur and near to see it, and I enjoyed lookin’ at it that day.

Zebulin Coon wanted me to carry a new hen coop of hisen to git patented. And I thought to myself I wonder if they will ask me to carry a cow.

And sure enough Elnathan Purdy wanted me to dicker for a calf from Mount Vernon, swop one of his yearlin’s for it.

But the errents Serepta Pester sent wuz fur more hefty and momentous than all the rest put together, calves, hen coop, cow and all.

And when she told ’em over to me, and I meditated on her reasons for sendin’ ’em and her need of havin’ ’em done, I felt that I would do the errents for her if a breath wuz left in my body. She come for a all day’s visit; and though she is a vegetable widow and humbly, I wuz middlin’ glad to see her. But thinkses I as I carried her things into my bedroom, “She’ll want to send some errent by me”; and I wondered what it would be.

And so it didn’t surprise me when she asked me if I would lobby a little for her in Washington. I spozed it wuz some new kind of tattin’ or fancy work. I told her I shouldn’t have much time but would try to git her some if I could.

And she said she wanted me to lobby myself. And then I thought mebby it wuz a new kind of dance and told her, “I wuz too old to lobby, I hadn’t lobbied a step since I wuz married.”

And then she explained she wanted me to canvas some of the Senators.

And I hung back and asked her in a cautious tone, “How many she wanted canvassed, and how much canvas it would take?”

I had a good many things to buy for my tower, and though I wanted to obleege Serepta, I didn’t feel like runnin’ into any great expense for canvas.

And then she broke off from that subject, and said she wanted her rights and wanted the Whiskey Ring broke up.

And she talked a sight about her children, and how bad she felt to be parted from ’em, and how she used to worship her husband and how her hull life wuz ruined and the Whiskey Ring had done it, that and wimmen’s helpless condition under the law and she cried and wep’ and I did. And right while I wuz cryin’ onto that gingham apron, she made me promise to carry them two errents of hern to the President and git ’em done for her if I possibly could.

She wanted the Whiskey Ring destroyed and her rights, and she wanted ’em both inside of two weeks.

I told her I didn’t believe she could git ’em done inside that length of time, but I would tell the President about it, and I thought more’n likely as not he would want to do right by her. “And,” sez I, “if he sets out to, he can haul them babies of yourn out of that Ring pretty sudden.”

And then to git her mind offen her sufferin’s, I asked how her sister Azuba wuz gittin’ along? I hadn’t heard from her for years. She married Phileman Clapsaddle, and Serepty spoke out as bitter as a bitter walnut, and sez she:

“She’s in the poor-house.”

“Why, Serepta Pester!” sez I, “what do you mean?”

“I mean what I say, my sister, Azuba Clapsaddle, is in the poor-house.”

“Why, where is their property gone?” sez I. “They wuz well off. Azuba had five thousand dollars of her own when she married him.”

“I know it,” sez she, “and I can tell you, Josiah Alien’s wife, where their property has gone, it has gone down Phileman Clapsaddle’s throat. Look down that man’s throat and you will see 150 acres of land, a good house and barn, twenty sheep and forty head of cattle.”

“Why-ee!” sez I.

“Yes, and you’ll see four mules, a span of horses, two buggies, a double sleigh, and three buffalo robes. He’s drinked ’em all up, and two horse rakes, a cultivator, and a thrashin’ machine.”

“Why-ee!” sez I agin. “And where are the children?”

“The boys have inherited their father’s habits and drink as bad as he duz and the oldest girl has gone to the bad.”

“Oh dear! oh dear me!” sez I, and we both sot silent for a spell. And then thinkin’ I must say sunthin’ and wantin’ to strike a safe subject and a good lookin’ one, I sez:

“Where is your Aunt Cassandra’s girl? That pretty girl I see to your house once?”

“That girl is in the lunatick asylum.”

“Serepta Pester,” sez I, “be you tellin’ the truth?”

“Yes, I be, the livin’ truth. She went to New York to buy millinery goods for her mother’s store. It wuz quite cool when she left home and she hadn’t took off her winter clothes, and it come on brilin’ hot in the city, and in goin’ about from store to store the heat and hard work overcome her and she fell down in a sort of faintin’ fit and wuz called drunk and dragged off to a police court by a man who wuz a animal in human shape. And he misused her in such a way that she never got over the horror of what befell her when she come to to find herself at the mercy of a brute in a man’s shape. She went into a melancholy madness and wuz sent to the asylum.”

I sithed a long and mournful sithe and sot silent agin for quite a spell. But thinkin’ I must be sociable I sez: “Your aunt Cassandra is well, I spoze?”

“She is moulderin’ in jail,” sez she.

“In jail? Cassandra in jail!”

“Yes, in jail.” And Serepta’s tone wuz now like worm-wood and gall.

“You know she owns a big property in tenement houses and other buildings where she lives. Of course her taxes wuz awful high, and she didn’t expect to have any voice in tellin’ how that money, a part of her own property that she earned herself in a store, should be used. But she had been taxed high for new sidewalks in front of some of her buildin’s. And then another man come into power in that ward, and he naterally wanted to make some money out of her, so he ordered her to build new sidewalks. And she wouldn’t tear up a good sidewalk to please him or anybody else, so she wuz put to jail for refusin’ to comply with the law.”

Thinkses I, I don’t believe the law would have been so hard on her if she hadn’t been so humbly. The Pesters are a humbly lot. But I didn’t think it out loud, and didn’t ophold the law for feelin’ so. I sez in pityin’ tones, for I wuz truly sorry for Cassandra Keeler:

“How did it end?”

“It hain’t ended,” sez she, “it only took place a month ago and she has got her grit up and won’t pay; and no knowin’ how it will end; she lays there amoulderin’.”

I don’t believe Cassanda wuz mouldy, but that is Serepta’s way of talkin’, very flowery.

“Well,” sez I, “do you think the weather is goin’ to moderate?”

I truly felt that I dassent speak to her about any human bein’ under the sun, not knowin’ what turn she would give to the talk, bein’ so embittered. But I felt that the weather wuz safe, and cotton stockin’s, and hens, and factory cloth, and I kep’ her down on them for more’n two hours.

But good land! I can’t blame her for bein’ embittered agin men and the laws they’ve made, for it seems as if I never see a human creeter so afflicted as Serepta Pester has been all her life.

Why, her sufferin’s date back before she wuz born, and that’s goin’ pretty fur back. Her father and mother had some difficulty and he wuz took down with billerous colick, voylent four weeks before Serepta wuz born. And some think it wuz the hardness between ’em and some think it wuz the gripin’ of the colick when he made his will, anyway he willed Serepta away, boy or girl whichever it wuz, to his brother up on the Canada line.

So when Serepta wuz born (and born a girl ontirely onbeknown to her) she wuz took right away from her mother and gin to this brother. Her mother couldn’t help herself, he had the law on his side. But it killed her. She drooped away and died before the baby wuz a year old. She wuz a affectionate, tenderhearted woman and her husband wuz overbearin’ and stern always.

But it wuz this last move of hisen that killed her, for it is pretty tough on a mother to have her baby, a part of her own life, took right out of her own arms and gin to a stranger. For this uncle of hern wuz a entire stranger to Serepta, and almost like a stranger to her father, for he hadn’t seen him since he wuz a boy, but knew he hadn’t any children and spozed that he wuz rich and respectable. But the truth wuz he had been runnin’ down every way, had lost his property and his character, wuz dissipated and mean. But the will wuz made and the law stood. Men are ashamed now to think that the law wuz ever in voge, but it wuz, and is now in some of the states, and the poor young mother couldn’t help herself. It has always been the boast of our American law that it takes care of wimmen. It took care of her. It held her in its strong protectin’ grasp so tight that the only way she could slip out of it wuz to drop into the grave, which she did in a few months. Then it leggo.

But it kep’ holt of Serepta, it bound her tight to her uncle while he run through with what property she had, while he sunk lower and lower until at last he needed the very necessaries of life and then he bound her out to work to a woman who kep’ a drinkin’ den and the lowest hant of vice.

Twice Serepta run away, bein’ virtuous but humbly, but them strong protectin’ arms of the law that had held her mother so tight reached out and dragged her back agin. Upheld by them her uncle could compel her to give her service wherever he wanted her to work, and he wuz owin’ this woman and she wanted Serepta’s work, so she had to submit.

But the third time she made a effort so voyalent that she got away. A good woman, who bein’ nothin’ but a woman couldn’t do anything towards onclinchin’ them powerful arms that wuz protectin’ her, helped her to slip through ’em. And Serepta come to Jonesville to live with a sister of that good woman; changed her name so’s it wouldn’t be so easy to find her; grew up to be a nice industrious girl. And when the woman she wuz took by died she left Serepta quite a handsome property.

And finally she married Lank Burpee, and did considerable well it wuz spozed. Her property, put with what little he had, made ’em a comfortable home and they had two pretty children, a boy and a girl. But when the little girl wuz a baby he took to drinkin’, neglected his bizness, got mixed up with a whiskey ring, whipped Serepta–not so very hard. He went accordin’ to law, and the law of the United States don’t approve of a man’s whippin’ his wife enough to endanger her life, it sez it don’t. He made every move of hisen lawful and felt that Serepta hadn’t ort to complain and feel hurt. But a good whippin’ will make anybody feel hurt, law or no law. And then he parted with her and got her property and her two little children. Why, it seemed as if everything under the sun and moon, that could happen to a woman, had happened to Serepta, painful things and gauldin’.

Jest before Lank parted with her, she fell on a broken sidewalk: some think he tripped her up, but it never wuz proved. But anyway Serepta fell and broke her hip hone; and her husband sued the corporation and got ten thousand dollars for it. Of course the law give the money to him and she never got a cent of it. But she wouldn’t have made any fuss over that, knowin’ that the law of the United States wuz such. But what made it so awful mortifyin’ to her wuz, that while she wuz layin’ there achin’ in splints, he took that very money and used it to court up another woman with. Gin her presents, jewelry, bunnets, head-dresses, artificial flowers out of Serepta’s own hip money.

And I don’t know as anything could be much more gauldin’ to a woman than that–while she lay there groanin’ in splints, to have her husband take the money for her own broken bones and dress up another woman like a doll with it.

But the law gin it to him, and he wuz only availin’ himself of the glorious liberty of our free Republic, and doin’ as he wuz a mind to. And it wuz spozed that that very hip money wuz what made the match. For before she wuz fairly out of splints he got a divorce from her and married agin. And by the help of Serepta’s hip money and the Whiskey Ring he got her two little children away from her.


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