THE MARRYING OF SUSAN CLEGG
Susan Clegg and Mrs. Lathrop were next-door neighbors and bosom friends. Their personalities were extremely congenial, and the theoretical relation which the younger woman bore to the elder was a further bond between them. Owing to the death of her mother some twenty years before, Susan had fallen into the position of a helpless and timid young girl whose only key to the problems of life in general had been the advice of her older and wiser neighbor. As a matter of fact Mrs. Lathrop was barely twelve years the senior, but she had married and as a consequence felt and was felt to be immeasurably the more ancient of the two.
Susan had never married, for her father—a bedridden paralytic—had occupied her time day and night for years. He was a great care and as she did her duty by him with a thoroughness which was praiseworthy in the extreme she naturally had very little leisure for society. Mrs. Lathrop had more, because her family consisted of but one son, and she was not given to that species of housekeeping which sweeps under the beds too often. It therefore came about that the one and only recreation which the friends could enjoy together to any great extent was visiting over the fence. Visiting over the fence is an occupation in which any woman may indulge without fear of unkind criticism. If she takes occasion to run in next door, she is of course leaving the house which she ought to be keeping, but she can lean on the fence all day without feeling derelict as to a single duty. Then, too, there is something about the situation which produces a species of agreeable subconsciousness that one is at once at home and abroad. It followed that Susan and Mrs. Lathrop each wore a path from her kitchen door to the trysting-spot, and that all summer long they met there early and late.
Mrs. Lathrop did the listening while she chewed clover. Just beyond her woodpile red clover grew luxuriantly, and when she started for the place of meeting it was her invariable custom to stop and pull a number of blossoms so that she might eat the tender petals while devoting her attention to the business in hand.
It must be confessed that the business in hand was nearly always Miss Clegg’s business, but since Mrs. Lathrop, in her position of experienced adviser, was deeply interested in Susan’s exposition of her own affairs, that trifling circumstance appeared of little moment.
One of the main topics of conversation was Mr. Clegg. As Mr. Clegg had not quitted his bed for over a score of years, it might seem that his novelty as a subject of discussion would have been long since exhausted. But not so. His daughter was the most devoted of daughters, and his name was ever rife on her lips. What he required done for him and what he required done to him were the main ends of her existence, and the demands of his comfort, daily or annual, resulted in numerous phrases of a startling but thoroughly intelligible order. Of such a sort was her usual Saturday morning greeting to Mrs. Lathrop, “I ‘m sorry to cut you off so quick, but this ‘s father’s day to be beat up and got into new pillow-slips,” or her regular early-June remark, “Well, I thank Heaven ‘t father ‘s had his hair picked over ‘n’ ‘t he’s got his new tick forthis year!”
Mrs. Lathrop was always interested, always sympathetic, and rarely ever startled; yet one July evening when Susan said suddenly, “I ‘ve finished my dress for father’s funeral,” she did betray a slight shock.
“You ought to see it,” the younger woman continued, not noticing the other’s start,—”it’s jus’ ‘s nice. I put it away in camphor balls, ‘n’ Lord knows I don’t look forward to the gettin’ it out to wear, f’r the whole carriage load ‘ll sneeze their heads off whenever I move in that dress.”
“Did you put newspaper—” Mrs. Lathrop began, mastering her earlier emotions.
“In the sleeves? Yes, I did, ‘n’ I bought a pair o’ black gloves ‘n’ two handkerchiefs ‘n’ slipped ’em into the pockets. Everythin’ is all fixed, ‘n’ there ‘ll be nothin’ to do when father dies but to shake it out ‘n’ lay it on the bed in his room. I say ‘in his room,’ ’cause o’ course that day he ‘ll be havin’ the guest-room. I was thinkin’ of it all this afternoon when I sat there by him hemmin’ the braid on the skirt, ‘n’ I could n’t but think ‘t if I sit ‘n’ wait very much longer I sh’ll suddenly find myself pretty far advanced in years afore I know it. This world’s made f’r the young ‘s well’s the old, ‘n’ you c’n believe me or not jus’ ‘s you please, Mrs. Lathrop, but I ‘ve always meant to get married ‘s soon ‘s father was off my hands. I was countin’ up to-day, though, ‘n’ if he lives to be a hunderd, I ‘ll be nigh onto seventy ‘n’ no man ain’t goin’ to marry me at seventy. Not ‘nless he was eighty, ‘n’ Lord knows I ain’t intendin’ to bury father jus’ to begin on some one else, ‘n’ that’s all it ‘d be.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
“I set there thinkin’ f’r a good hour, ‘n’ when I was puttin’ away the dress, I kep’ on thinkin’, ‘n’ the end was ‘t now that dress ‘s done I ain’t got nothin’ in especial to sew on ‘n’ so I may jus’ ‘s well begin on my weddin’ things. There’s no time like the present, ‘n’ ‘f I married this summer he ‘d have to pay f’r half of next winter’s coal. ‘N’ so my mind’s made up, ‘n’ you c’n talk yourself blind, ‘f you feel so inclined, Mrs. Lathrop, but you can’t change hide or hair o’ my way o’ thinkin’. I ‘ve made up my mind to get married, ‘n’ I ‘m goin’ to set right about it. Where there’s a will there ‘s a way, ‘n’ I ain’t goin’ to leave a stone unturned. I went down town with the kerosene-can jus’ afore tea, ‘n’ I bought me a new false front, ‘n’ I met Mrs. Brown’s son, ‘n’ I told him ‘t I wanted him to come up to-morrow ‘n’ take a look at father.”
“Was you thinkin’ o’ marryin’ Mrs. Br——” Mrs. Lathrop gasped, taking her clover from her lips.
“Marryin’ Mrs. Brown’s son! Well, ‘f your mind don’t run queer ways! Whatever sh’d put such an idea into your head? I hope you ‘ll excuse my sayin’ so, Mrs. Lathrop, but I don’t believe anybody but you would ever ‘a’ asked such a question, when you know ‘s well ‘s everybody else does ‘t he’s runnin’ his legs off after Amelia Fitch. Any man who wants a little chit o’ eighteen wouldn’t suit my taste much, ‘n’ anyhow I never thought of him; I only asked him to come in in a friendly way ‘n’ tell me how long he thinks ‘t father may live. I don’t see my way to makin’ any sort o’ plans with father so dreffle indefinite, ‘n’ a man who was fool enough to marry me, tied up like I am now, would n’t have s’fficient brains to be worth lookin’ over. Mrs. Brown’s son ‘s learnin’ docterin’, ‘n’ he’s been at it long enough so ‘s to be able to see through anythin’ ‘s simple ‘s father, I sh’d think. ‘T any rate, ‘f he don’t know nothin’ yet, Heaven help Amelia Fitch ‘n’ me, f’r he’ll take us both in.”
“Who was you thinkin’ o’—” Mrs. Lathrop asked, resuming her former occupation.
“The minister,” replied Miss Clegg. “I did n’t stop to consider very much, but it struck me ‘s polite to begin with him. I c’d marry him without waitin’ for father, too, ’cause a minister could n’t in reason find fault over another man’s bein’ always to home. O’ course he would n’t be still like father is, but I ain’t never been one to look gift-horses in the mouth, ‘n’ I d’n’ know ‘s I ‘d ought to expect another man jus’ like father in one life. Mother often said father’s advantages was great, for you always knew where he was, ‘n’ ‘f you drew down the shade you c’d tell him it was rainin’ ‘n’ he could n’t never contradick.”
Mrs. Lathrop nodded acquiescently but made no comment.
Miss Clegg withdrew somewhat from her confidentially inclined attitude.
“I won’t be out in the mornin’,” she said. “I sh’ll want to dust father ‘n’ turn him out o’ the window afore Mrs. Brown’s son comes. After he’s gone I’ll wave my dish-towel, ‘n’ then you come out ‘n’ I ‘ll tell you what he says.”
They separated for the night, and Susan went to sleep with her own version of love’s young dream.
Mrs. Brown’s son arrived quite promptly the next morning. He drove up in Mr. Brown’s buggy, and Amelia Fitch held the horse while he went inside to inspect Mr. Clegg. The visit did not consume more than ten minutes, and then he hurried out to the gate and was off.
The buggy was hardly out of sight up the road when Miss Clegg emerged from her kitchen door, her face bearing an imprint of deep and thorough disgust.
“Well, Mrs. Lathrop, I don’t think much o’ that young man,” she announced in a tone of unmitigated disapproval; “‘peared to me like he was in a hurry to get done with father ‘s quick ‘s he could just so ‘s to be back beside Amelia Fitch. I ‘d venture a guess that ‘f you was to ask him this minute he ‘s forgot every word I said to him already. I asked him to set some sort of a figger on father, ‘n’ he would n’t so much ‘s set down himself. Stood on one leg ‘n’ backed towards the door every other word, ‘n’ me, father’s only child, standin’ there at his mercy. Said ‘t last ‘s he might die to-morrow ‘n’ might live twenty years. I tell you my patience pretty near went at that. I don’t call such a answer no answer a tall. I ‘ve often thought both them things myself, ‘n’ me no doctor. Particularly about the twenty years. Father’s lived seventy-five years—I must say ‘t to my order o’ thinkin’ he’s pretty well set a-goin’, ‘n’ that the life he leads ain’t drainin’ his vitality near ‘s much ‘s it’s drainin’ mine.”
Miss Clegg stopped and shook her head impatiently.
“I d’n’ know when I ‘ve felt as put out ‘s this. ‘N’ me with so much faith in doctors too. It’s a pretty sad thing, Mrs. Lathrop, when all the comfort you c’n get out of a man is the thinkin’ ‘t perhaps God in his mercy has made him a fool. I had a good mind to tell that very thing to Mrs. Brown’s son, but I thought maybe he’d learn better later. Anyway I ‘m goin’ right ahead with my marriage. It’ll have to be the minister now, ‘n’ I can’t see what I ‘ve ever done ‘t I sh’d have two men around the house ‘t once like they ‘ll be, but that’s all in the hands o’ Fate, ‘n’ so I jus’ took the first step ‘n’ told Billy when he brought the milk to tell his father ‘t if he ‘d come up here to-night I ‘d give him a quarter for the Mission fund. I know the quarter ‘ll bring him, ‘n’ I can’t help kind o’ hopin’ ‘t to-morrow ‘ll find the whole thing settled ‘n’ off my mind.”
The next morning Mrs. Lathrop laid in an unusually large supply of fodder and was very early at the fence. Her son—a placid little innocent of nine-and-twenty years—was still in bed and asleep. Susan was up and washing her breakfast dishes, but the instant that she spied her friend she abruptly abandoned her task and hastened to the rendezvous.
“Are you goin’ t’—” Mrs. Lathrop called eagerly.
“No, I ain’t,” was the incisive reply.
Then they both adjusted their elbows comfortably on the top rail of the fence, and Miss Clegg began, her voice a trifle higher pitched than usual.
“Mrs. Lathrop, it’s a awful thing for a Christian woman to feel forced to say, ‘n’ Lord knows I would n’t say it to no one but you, but it’s true ‘n’ beyond a question so, ‘n’ therefore I may ‘s well be frank ‘n’ open ‘n’ remark ‘t our minister ain’t no good a tall.—’N I d’n’ know but I’ll tell any one ‘s asks me the same thing, f’r it certainly ain’t nothin’ f’r me to weep over, ‘n’ the blood be on his head from now on.”
Miss Clegg paused briefly, and her eyes became particularly wide open. Mrs. Lathrop was all attention.
“Mrs. Lathrop, you ain’t lived next to me ‘n’ known me in ‘n’ out ‘n’ hind ‘n’ front all these years not to know ‘t I ‘m pretty sharp. I ain’t been cheated mor’ ‘n twice ‘n my life, ‘n’ one o’ them times was n’t my fault, for it was printed on the band ‘t it would wash. Such bein’ the case, ‘n’ takin’ the minister into consideration, I do consider ‘t no man would ‘a’ supposed ‘t he could get the better o’ me. It’s a sad thing to have to own to, ‘n’ if I was anybody else in kingdom come I ‘d never own to it till I got there; but my way is to live open ‘n’ aboveboard, ‘n’ so to my shame be ‘t told ‘t the minister—with all ‘t he’s got eight children ‘n’ I ain’t even married—is certainly as sharp as me. Last night when I see him comin’ up the walk I never ‘d ‘a’ believed ‘s he c’d get away again so easy, but it just goes to show what a world o’ deceit this is, ‘n’ seein’ ‘s I have father to clean from his windows aroun’ to-day, I ‘ll ask you to excuse me ‘f I don’t draw the subjeck out none, but jus’ remark flat ‘n’ plain ‘t there ain’t no chance o’ my ever marryin’ the minister. You may consider that a pretty strong statement, Mrs. Lathrop, ‘n’ I don’t say myself but ‘t with any other man there might be a hereafter, but it was me ‘n’ not anybody else as see his face last night, ‘n’ seein’ his face ‘n’ bein’ a woman o’ more brains ‘n falls to the lot of yourself ‘n’ the majority, I may just as well say once for all that, ‘s far ‘s the minister’s concerned, I sh’ll never be married to him.”
“What did he—” began Mrs. Lathrop.
“All ‘t was necessary ‘n’ more too. He did n’t give me hardly time to state ‘t I was single afore he come out strong ‘t we ‘d both better stay so. I spoke right out to his face then, ‘n’ told him ‘t my shingles was new last year ‘n’ it was a open question whether his ‘d ever be, but he piped up f’r all the world like some o’ the talkin’ was his to do, ‘n’ said ‘t he had a cistern ‘n’ I ‘d only got a sunk hogshead under the spout. I did n’t see no way to denyin’ that, but I went right on ‘n’ asked him ‘f he could in his conscience deny ‘t them eight children stood in vital need of a good mother, ‘n’ he spoke up ‘s quick ‘s scat ‘n’ said ‘t no child stood in absolute vital need of a mother after it was born. ‘N’ then he branched out ‘n’ give me to understand ‘t he had a wife till them eight children all got themselves launched ‘n’ ‘t it was n’t his fault her dyin’ o’ Rachel Rebecca. When he said ‘dyin’,’ I broke in ‘n’ said ‘t it was Bible-true ‘s there was ‘s good fish in the sea ‘s ever was caught out of it, ‘n’ he was impolite enough to interrupt ‘n’ tell me to my face ‘Yes, but when a man had been caught once he was n’t easy caught again.’ I will own ‘t I was more ‘n put out ‘t that, for o’ course when I said fish I meant his wife ‘n’ me, but when he pretended to think ‘t I meant him I begin to doubt ‘s it was worth while to tackle him further. One man can lead a horse to water, but a thousand can’t get him to stick his nose in ‘f he don’t want to, ‘n’ I thank my stars ‘t I ain’t got nothin’ ‘n me as craves to marry a man ‘s appears dead-set ag’in’ the idea. I asked him ‘f he did n’t think ‘s comin’ into property was always a agreeable feelin’, ‘n’ he said, ‘Yes, but not when with riches come a secret thorn in the flesh,’ ‘n’ at that I clean give up, ‘n’ I hope it was n’t to my discredit, for no one on the face of the earth could ‘a’ felt ‘t there ‘d be any good in keepin’ on. But it was no use, ‘n’ you know ‘s well as I do ‘t I never was give to wastin’ my breath, so I out ‘n’ told him ‘t I was n’t giv’ to wastin’ my time either, ‘n’ then I stood up ‘n’ he did too. ‘N’ then I got even with him, ‘n’ I c’n assure you ‘t I enjoyed it, f’r I out ‘n’ told him ‘t I ‘d changed my mind about the quarter. So he had all that long walk for nothin’, ‘n’ I can’t in conscience deny ‘t I was more ‘n rejoiced, for Lord knows I did n’t consider ‘t he’d acted very obligin’.”
Mrs. Lathrop ceased to chew and looked deeply sympathetic.
There was a brief silence, and then she asked, “Was you thinkin’ o’ tryin’ any—”
Miss Clegg stared at her in amazement.
“Mrs. Lathrop! Do you think I’d give up now, ‘n’ let the minister see ‘t my marryin’ depended on his say-so? Well, I guess not! I’m more dead-set ‘n’ ever, ‘n’ I vow ‘n’ declare ‘t I’ll never draw breath till after I’ve stood up right in the face o’ the minister ‘n’ the whole congregation ‘n’ had ‘n’ held some man, no matter who nor when nor where. Marryin’ was goin’ to have been a pleasure, now it’s a business. I’m goin’ to get a horse ‘n’ buggy this afternoon ‘n’ drive out to Farmer Sperrit’s. I’ve thought it all over, ‘n’ I c’n tell father ‘t I’ll be choppin’ wood; then ‘f he says afterwards ‘t he called ‘n’ called, I c’n say ‘t I was makin’ so much noise ‘t I did n’t hear him.”
“You’ll have to hire—” suggested Mrs. Lathrop.
“I know, but it won’t cost but fifty cents, ‘n’ I saved a quarter on the minister, you know. I’d like to ask you to drive out with me, Mrs. Lathrop, but if Mr. Sperrit’s got it in him to talk like the minister did, I’m free to confess ‘t, I’d rather be alone to listen. ‘N’ really, Mrs. Lathrop, I must go in now. I’ve got bread a-risin’ ‘n’ dishes to do, ‘n’, as I told you before, this is father’s day to be all but scraped ‘n’ varnished.”
Mrs. Lathrop withdrew her support from the fence, and Miss Clegg did likewise. Each returned up her own path to her own domicile, and it was long after that day’s tea-time before the cord of friendship got knotted up again.
“Did you go to the farm?” Mrs. Lathrop asked. “I was to the Sewin’ So—”
“Yes, I went,” said Miss Clegg, her air decidedly weary; “oh, yes, I went. I had a nice ride too, ‘n’ I do believe I saw the whole farm, from the pigs to the punkins.”
There was a pause, and Mrs. Lathrop filled it to the brim with expectancy until she could wait no longer.
“Are you—” she finally asked.
“No,” said her friend, sharply, “I ain’t. He wasn’t a bit spry to hop at the chance, ‘n’ Lord knows there wa’n’t no great urgin’ on my part. I asked him why he ain’t never married, ‘n’ he laughed like it was a funny subjeck, ‘n’ said ‘s long ‘s he never did it ‘t that was the least o’ histroubles. I didn’t call that a very encouragin’ beginnin’, but my mind was made up not to let it be my fault ‘f the horse was a dead waste o’ fifty cents, ‘n’ so I said to him ‘t if he’d marry any woman with a little money he could easy buy the little Jones farm right next him, ‘n’ then ‘t ‘d be ‘s clear ‘s day that it ‘d be his own fault if he didn’t soon stretch right from the brook to the road. He laughed some more ‘t that, ‘n’ said ‘t I didn’t seem to be aware ‘t he owned a mortgage on the Jones farm ‘n’ got all ‘t it raised now ‘n’ would get the whole thing in less ‘n two years.”
Mrs. Lathrop stopped chewing.
“They was sayin’ in the Sewin’ Society ‘s he’s goin’ to marry Eliza Gr—” she said mildly.
Miss Clegg almost screamed.
“Eliza Gringer, as keeps house for him?”
Her friend nodded.
Miss Clegg drew in a sudden breath.
“Well! ‘f I’d knowed that, I’d never ‘a’ paid fifty cents for that horse ‘n’ buggy! Eliza Gringer! why, she’s older ‘n’ I am,—she was to ‘Cat’ when I was only to ‘M.’ ‘N’ he’s goin’ to marry her! Oh, well, I d’n’ know ‘s it makes any difference to me. In my opinion a man as ‘d be fool enough to be willin’ to marry a woman ‘s ain’t got nothin’ but herself to give him, ‘s likelier to be happier bein’ her fool ‘n he ever would be bein’ mine.”
There was a pause.
“Your father’s just the—” Mrs. Lathrop said at last.
“Same? Oh yes, he’s just the same. Seems ‘t I can’t remember when he wasn’t just the same.”
Then there was another pause.
“I ain’t discouraged,” Susan announced suddenly, almost aggressively,—”I ain’t discouraged ‘n’ I won’t give up. I’m goin’ to see Mr. Weskin, the lawyer, to-morrow. They say—’n’ I never see nothin’ to lead me to doubt ’em—’t he’s stingy ‘n’ mean for all he’s forever makin’ so merry at other folks’ expense; but I believe ‘t there’s good in everythin’ ‘f you’re willin’ to hunt for it ‘n’ Lord knows ‘t if this game keeps up much longer I ‘ll get so used to huntin’ ‘t huntin’ the good in Lawyer Weskin ‘ll jus’ be child’s play to me.”
“I was thinkin’—” began Mrs. Lathrop.
“It ain’t no use if you are,” said her neighbor; “the mosquitoes is gettin’ too thick. We ‘d better in.”
And so they parted for the night.
The following evening was hot and breathless, the approach of Fourth of July appearing to hang heavily over all. Susan brought a palm-leaf fan with her to the fence and fanned vigorously.
“It ain’t goin’ to be the lawyer, either,” she informed the expectant Mrs. Lathrop, “‘n’ I hav’ n’t no tears to shed over that. I went there the first thing after dinner, ‘n’ he give me a solid chair ‘n’ whirled aroun’ in one ‘t twisted, ‘n’ I did n’t fancy such manners under such circumstances a tall. I’d say suthin’ real serious ‘n’ he’d brace himself ag’in his desk ‘n’ take a spin ‘s if I did n’t count for sixpence. I could n’t seem to bring him around to the seriousness of the thing nohow. ‘N’ I come right out square ‘n’ open in the very beginnin’ too, for Lord knows I ‘m dead sick o’ beatin’ around the bush o’ men’s natural shyness. He whirled himself clean around two times ‘n’ then said ‘s long ‘s I was so frank with him ‘t it ‘d be nothin’ but a joy for him to be equally frank with me ‘n’ jus’ say ‘s he’d rather not. I told him he ‘d ought to remember ‘s he ‘d have a lot o’ business when father died ‘f he kept my good will, but he was lookin’ over ‘n’ under himself to see how near to unscrewed he was ‘n’ if it was safe to keep on turnin’ the same way any longer, ‘n’ upon my honor, Mrs. Lathrop, I was nigh to mad afore he got ready to remark ‘s father ‘d left him a legacy on condition ‘t he did n’t charge nothin’ for probatin’.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
“So I come away, ‘n’ I declare my patience is nigh to gin out. This gettin’ married is harder ‘n’ house-paintin’ in fly-time. I d’n’ know when I ‘ve felt so tired. Here’s three nights ‘t I ‘ve had to make my ideas all over new to suit a different husband each night. It made my very bones ache to think o’ pilin’ them eight children ‘n’ the minister on top o’ father, ‘n’ then the next night it was a good jump out to that farm, f’r I never was one to know any species o’ fellow-feelin’ with pigs ‘n’ milkin’. ‘N’ last night!—well, you know I never liked Mr. Weskin anyhow. But I d’n’ know who I can get now. There’s Mrs. Healy’s husband, o’ course; but when a woman looks happier in her coffin ‘n she ever looked out of it it’s more’n a hint to them’s stays behind to fight shy o’ her husband. They say he used to throw dishes at her, ‘n’ I never could stand that—I’m too careful o’ my china to risk any such goin’s on.”
Mrs. Lathrop started to speak, but got no further.
“There’s a new clerk in the drug-store,—I see him through the window when I was comin’ home to-day. He looked to be a nice kind o’ man, but I can’t help feelin’ ‘t it ‘d be kind o’ awkward to go up to him ‘n’ have to begin by askin’ him what my name ‘d be ‘f I married him. Maybe there’s them ‘s could do such a thing, but I ‘ve never had nothin’ about me ‘s ‘d lead me to throw myself at the head o’ any man, ‘n’ it’s too late in the day f’r me to start in now.”
Mrs. Lathrop again attempted to get in a word and was again unsuccessful.
“I don’t believe ‘t there’s another free man in the town. I’ve thought ‘n’ thought ‘n’ I can’t think o’ one.” She stopped and sighed.
“There’s Jathrop!” said Mrs. Lathrop, with sudden and complete success. Jathrop was her son, so baptized through a fearful slip of the tongue at a critical moment. He was meant to have been John.
Miss Clegg gave such a start that she dropped her fan over the fence.
“Well, Heaven forgive me!” she cried,—”‘n’ me ‘t never thought of him once, ‘n’ him so handy right on the other side of the fence! Did I ever!”
“He ain’t thir—” said Mrs. Lathrop, picking up the fan.
“I don’t care. What’s twelve years or so when it’s the woman ‘s ‘as got the property? Well, Mrs. Lathrop, I certainly am obliged to you for mentionin’ him, for I don’t believe he ever would ‘a’ occurred to me in kingdom come. ‘N’ here I’ve been worryin’ my head off ever since supper-time ‘n’ all for suthin’ ‘s close ‘s Jathrop Lathrop. But I had good cause to worry, ‘n’ now ‘t it’s over I don’t mind mentionin’ the reason ‘n’ tellin’ you frank ‘n’ plain ‘t I’d begun on my things. I cut out a pink nightgown last night, a real fussy one, ‘n’ I felt sick all over ‘t the thought ‘t perhaps I’d wasted all that cloth. There wasn’t nothin’ foolish about cuttin’ out the nightgown, for I’d made up my mind ‘t if it looked too awful fancy on ‘t I’d just put it away for the oldest girl when she gets married, but o’ course ‘f I can’t get a husband stands to reason there’ll be no oldest girl, ‘n’ all that ten cent gingham ‘t Shores is sellin’ off’t five ‘d be a dead waste o’ good stuff.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
“Do you suppose there’ll be any trouble with Jathrop? Do you suppose it’ll matter any to him which side o’ the fence he lives on?”
Mrs. Lathrop shook her head slowly.
“I sh’d think he ought to be only too pleased to marry me ‘f I want him to, all the days ‘t I tended him when he was a baby! My, but hewas a cute little fellow! Everybody was lookin’ for him to grow up a real credit to you then. Well, ‘s far ‘s that goes, it’s a ill wind ‘t blows no good, ‘n’ no one c’n deny ‘t he’s been easy for you to manage, ‘n’ what’s sauce f’r the goose is sauce f’r the gander, so I sh’ll look to be equally lucky.”
Mrs. Lathrop looked proud and pleased.
“Why can’t you ask him to-night ‘n’ let me know the first thing in the mornin’? That’ll save me havin’ to come ‘way aroun’ by the gate, you know.”
Mrs. Lathrop assented to the obvious good sense of this proposition with one emphatic nod of her head.
“‘N’ I’ll come out jus’ ‘s quick ‘s I can in the mornin’ ‘n’ hear what he said; I’ll come ‘s soon ‘s ever I can get father ‘n’ the dishes washed up. I hope to Heaven father’ll sleep more this night ‘n he did last. He was awful restless last night. He kept callin’ f’r things till finally I had to take a pillow and go down on the dinin’-room lounge to keep from bein’ woke up any more.”
“Do you think he’s—”
“No, I don’t think he’s worse; not ‘nless wakin’ up ‘n’ askin’ f’r things jus’ to be aggravatin’ is worse. If it is, then he is too. But, lor, there ain’t no manner o’ use in talkin’ o’ father! A watched pot never boils! Jathrop’s more to the point right now.”
Upon this hint Mrs. Lathrop de-fenced herself, so to speak, and the friendly chat ended for that time.
The morning after, Miss Clegg was slow to appear at the summons of her neighbor. When she did approach the spot where the other stood waiting, her whole face and figure bore a weary and fretful air.
“Father jus’ about kept me up this whole blessed night,” she began as soon as she was within easy hearing. “I d’n’ know what I want to get married f’r, when I’m bound to be man-free in twenty-five years ‘f I c’n jus’ make out to live that long.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed and listened.
“If there was anythin’ in the house ‘t father didn’t ask f’r ‘n’ ‘t I didn’t get him last night, it must ‘a’ been the cook-stove in the kitchen. I come nigh to losin’ a toe in the rat-trap the third time I was down cellar, ‘n’ I clum that ladder to the garret so many times ‘t I do believe I dusted all overhead with my hair afore mornin’. My ears is full o’ cobwebs too, ‘n’ you know ‘s well ‘s I do ‘t I never was one to fancy cobwebs about me. They say ‘t every cloud has a silver linin’, but I can’t see no silver linin’ to a night like last night. When the rooster crowed f’r the first time this mornin’, I had it in my heart to march right out there ‘n’ hack off his head. If it ‘d ‘a’ been Saturday, I’d ‘a’ done ‘t too, ‘n’ relished him good at Sunday dinner!”
Miss Clegg paused and compressed her lips firmly for a few seconds; then she gave herself a little shake and descended to the main question of the day.
“Well, what did Jathrop say?”
Mrs. Lathrop looked very uncomfortable indeed, and in lieu of an answer swallowed her clover.
“You asked him, didn’t you?”
“Well, what ‘d he say?”
“He ain’t very—”
“My soul ‘n’ body! What reason did he give?”
“He’s afraid your father’s livin’ on a annu—”
“Well, he ain’t.” Susan’s tone was more than a little displeased. “Whatever else father may ‘a’ done, he never played no annuity tricks. He ‘s livin’ on his own property, ‘n’ I’ll take it very kindly o’ you, Mrs. Lathrop, to make that piece o’ news clear to your son. My father’s got bank-stock, ‘n’ he owns them two cottages across the bridge, ‘n’ the blacksmith-shop belongs to him too. There! I declare I never thought o’ the blacksmith,—his wife died last winter.”
“Jathrop asked me what I th—”
“Well, what ‘d you tell him?”
“I said ‘t if your father was some older—”
Miss Clegg’s eyebrows moved understandingly.
“How long is it since you’ve seen father?” she asked without waiting for the other to end her sentence.
“Not since your mother died, I guess; I was—”
“I wish you c’d come over ‘n’ take a look at him now ‘n’ tell me your opinion. Why can’t you?”
Mrs. Lathrop reflected.
“I don’t see why I can’t. I’ll go in ‘n’ take off—”
“All right, ‘n’ when you’ve got it off, come right over ‘n’ you’ll find me in the kitchen waitin’ for you.”
Mrs. Lathrop returned to her own house to shed her apron and wash her hands, and then sallied over to view Mr. Clegg. The two friends mounted the stair together, and entered the old man’s room.
It was a scrupulously clean and bright and orderly room, and the invalid in the big white bed bore evidence to the care and attention so dutifully lavished on him. He was a very wizened little old man, and his features had been crossed and recrossed by the finger of Time until their original characteristics were nearly obliterated. The expression upon his face resembled nothing so much as a sketch which has been done over so many times that its first design is altogether lost, and if there was any answer to the riddle, it was not the mental perception of Mrs. Lathrop that was about to seize upon it.
Instead, that kindly visitor stood lost in a species of helpless contemplation, until at last a motion of Susan’s, directed towards the ordering of an unsightly fold in the wide smoothness of the counterpane, led to her bending herself to do a similar kindness upon her side of the bed. The action resulted in a slight change in her expression which Susan’s watchfulness at once perceived.
“Was it a needle?” she asked quickly. “Sometimes I stick ’em in while I’m sewin’. You see, his havin’ been paralyzed so many years has got me where I’m awful careless about leavin’ needles in his bed.”
“No,” said Mrs. Lathrop; “it wasn’t a—”
“Come on downstairs again,” said the hostess; “we c’n talk there.”
They went down into the kitchen, and there Mrs. Lathrop seated herself and coughed solemnly.
“What is it, anyhow?” the younger woman demanded.
Mrs. Lathrop coughed again.
“Susan, did I feel a feather—”
“Yes,” said Susan, in great surprise; “he likes one.”
“I sh’d think it was too hot this—”
“He don’t never complain o’ the heat, ‘n’ he hates the chill o’ rainy days.”
Mrs. Lathrop coughed again.
Miss Clegg’s interest bordered on impatience.
“Now, Susan, I ain’t sayin’ as it’s noways true, but I have heard as there’s them ‘s can’t die on—”
“On feathers?” cried the daughter.
“Yes; they say they hold the life right in ‘n’—”
Miss Clegg’s eyes opened widely.
“But I couldn’t take it away from him, anyhow,” she said, with a species of determined resignation in her voice. “I’d have to wait ’till he wanted it took.”
Mrs. Lathrop was silent. Then she rose to go. Susan rose too. They went out the kitchen door together, and down the steps. There they paused to part.
“Do you believe ‘t it ‘d be any use me thinkin’ o’ Jathrop any more?” the maiden asked the matron.
“I believe I’d try the blacksmith if I was you; he looks mighty nice Sundays.”
Miss Clegg sighed heavily and turned to re-enter the house.
Mrs. Lathrop went “round by the gate” and became again an inmate of her own kitchen. There the thought occurred to her that it was an excellent morning to clean the high-shelf over the sink. For years past whenever she had had occasion to put anything up there, showers of dust and rolls of lint had come tumbling down upon her head. Under such circumstances it was but natural that a determination to some day clean the shelf should have slowly but surely been developed. Accordingly she climbed up on the edge of the sink and undertook the initiatory proceedings. The lowest stratum of dirt was found to rest upon a newspaper containing an account of one day of Guiteau’s trial. Upon the discovery of the paper Mrs. Lathrop suddenly abandoned her original plan, got down from the sink, ensconced herself in her kitchen rocker, and plunged into bliss forthwith.
An hour passed pleasantly and placidly by. Bees buzzed outside the window, the kettle sizzled sweetly on the stove, the newspaper rustled less and less, Mrs. Lathrop’s head sank sideways, and the calm of perfect peace reigned in her immediate vicinity.
This state of things endured not long.
Its gentle Paradise was suddenly broken in upon and rent apart by a succession of the most piercing shrieks that ever originated in the throat of a human being. Mrs. Lathrop came to herself with a violent start, sprang to her feet, ran to the door, and then stood still, completely dazed and at first unable to discern from which direction the ear-splitting screams proceeded. Then, in a second, her senses returned to her, and she ran as fast as she could to the fence. As she approached the boundary, she saw Susan standing in one of her upstairs windows and yelling at the top of her voice. Mrs. Lathrop paused for no conventionalities of civilization. She hoisted herself over the fence in a fashion worthy a man or a monkey, ran across the Clegg yard, entered the kitchen door, stumbled breathlessly up the dark back stairs, and gasped, grabbing Susan hard by the elbow,—
“What is it, for pity’s—”
Susan was all colors and shaking as if with the ague.
“You never told me ‘s it ‘d work so quick,” she cried out.
“Lord have mercy, Susan, you don’t mean—”
“Yes, I do.”
“He ain’t never—”
“Yes, he is.”
Mrs. Lathrop stood stricken.
Susan wiped her eyes with her apron and choked.
After a while the older woman spoke feebly.
“What did hap—”
Miss Clegg cut the question off in its prime.
“I don’t know as I c’n ever tell you; it’s too awful even to think of.”
“I know, ‘n’ I’m goin’ to. But I tell you once for all, Mrs. Lathrop, ‘t this’ll be a lesson to me forever after ‘s to takin’ the say-so o’ other folks unto myself. ‘N’ I didn’t really consider ‘t I was doin’ so this time, f’r if I had, Lord knows I’d ‘a’ landed three beds atop o’ him afore I’d ‘a’ ever—” She stopped and shook convulsively.
“Go on,” said Mrs. Lathrop, her curiosity getting the better of her sympathy, and her impatience ranking both.
Susan ceased sobbing, and essayed explanation.
“You see, after you was gone, he said ‘t he was pretty hot these last nights, ‘n’ ‘t that was maybe what kept him so awfully awake. I asked him if—if—maybe the feather-bed ‘n’—well, Mrs. Lathrop, to put the whole in a nut-shell, we settled to move him, ‘n’ I moved him. I know I didn’t hurt him one bit, for I’m ‘s handy with—at least, I was‘s handy with him ‘s I am with a broom. ‘N’ I laid him on the lounge, ‘n’ dumped that bed out into the back hall. I thought I ‘d sun it ‘n’ put it away this afternoon, f’r you know ‘s I’m never no hand to leave nothin’ lyin’ aroun’. Well, I come back ‘n’ got out some fresh sheets, ‘n’ jus’ ‘s I was—”
The speaker halted, and there was a dramatic pause.
“Where is—” Mrs. Lathrop asked at last.
“Back in the feathers. My heaven alive! When I see what I’d done, I was that upset ‘t I just run ‘s quick ‘s ever I could, ‘n’ got the bed, ‘n’ dumped it right atop of him!”
There was another dramatic silence, finally broken by Mrs. Lathrop’s saying slowly and gravely,—
“Susan, ‘f I was you I wouldn’t never say—”
“I ain’t goin’ to. I made up my mind to never tell a livin’ soul the very first thing. To think o’ me doin’ it! To think o’ all these years ‘t I’ve tended father night ‘n’ day, ‘n’ then to accidentally go ‘n’ do a thing like that! I declare, it fairly makes me sick all over!”
“Well, Susan, you know what a good daughter you’ve—”
“I know, ‘n’ I ‘ve been thinkin’ of it. But somehow nothin’ don’t seem to comfort me none. Perhaps you’d better make me some tea, ‘n’ while I’m drinkin’ it, Jathrop c’n go down town ‘n’—”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Lathrop, “‘n’ I’ll go right ‘n’—”
“That’s right,” said the bereaved, “‘n’ hurry.”
It was a week later—a calm and lovely evening—and the two friends stood by the fence. The orphan girl was talking, while Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
“It don’t seem like only a week!—seems more like a month or even a year. Well, they say sometimes, folks live a long ways ahead in a very short time, ‘n’ I must say ‘t, as far ‘s my observation ‘s extended, comin’ into property always leads to experience, so I couldn’t in reason complain ‘t not bein’ no exception. This ‘s been the liveliest week o’ my life, ‘n’ I’m free to confess ‘t I haven’t cried anywhere near ‘s much ‘s I looked to. My feelin’s have been pretty agreeable, take it all in all, ‘n’ I’d be a born fool ‘f I didn’t take solid comfort sleepin’ nights, ‘n’ I never was a fool—never was ‘n’ never will be. The havin’ somebody to sleep in the house ‘s been hard, ‘n’ Mrs. Macy’s fallin’ through the cellar-flap giv’ me a bad turn, but she’s doin’ nicely, ‘n’ the minister makes up f’r anythin’. I do wish ‘t you’d seen him that afternoon, Mrs. Lathrop; he did look so most awful sheepish, ‘n’ his clean collar give him dead away afore he ever opened his mouth. He set out by sayin’ ‘t the consolations of religion was mine f’r the askin’, but I didn’t take the hint, ‘n’ so he had to jus’ come out flat ‘n’ say ‘t he’d been thinkin’ it over ‘n’ he’d changed his mind. I held my head good ‘n’ high ‘t that, I c’n assure you, ‘n’ it was a pretty sorry look he give me when I said ‘t I’d been thinkin’ it over too, ‘n’ I’d changed my mind too. He could ‘a’ talked to me till doomsday about his bein’ a consolation, I’d know it was nothin’ ‘t changed him but me comin’ into them government bonds. No man alive could help wantin’ me after them bonds was found, ‘n’ I had the great pleasure o’ learnin’ that fact out o’ Lawyer Weskin himself. All his species o’ fun-makin’ ‘t nobody but hisself ever sees any fun in, jus’ died right out when we unlocked father’s old desk ‘n’ come on that bundle o’ papers. He give one look ‘n’ then all his gay spinniness oozed right out o’ him, ‘n’ he told me ‘s serious ‘s a judge ‘t a woman ‘s rich ‘s I be needed a good lawyer to look out f’r her ‘n’ her property right straight along. Well, I was ‘s quick to reply ‘s he was to speak. ‘N’ I was to the point too. I jus’ up ‘n’ said, Yes, I thought so myself, ‘n’ jus’ ‘s soon ‘s I got things to rights I was goin’ to the city ‘n’ get me one.”
Miss Clegg paused to frown reminiscently; Mrs. Lathrop’s eyes never quitted the other’s face.
“There was Mr. Sperrit too. Come with a big basket o’ fresh vegetables ‘t he said he thought ‘d maybe tempt my appetite. I d’n’ know ‘s I ever enjoyed rappin’ no one over the knuckles more ‘n I did him. I jus’ stopped to take in plenty o’ breath ‘n’ then I let myself out, ‘n’ I says to him flat ‘n’ plain, I says, ‘Thank you kindly, but I guess no woman in these parts ‘s better able to tempt her own appetite ‘n’ I be now, ‘n’ you’ll be doin’ me the only kindness ‘t it’s in you to do me now if you’ll jus’ take your garden stuff ‘n’ give it to some one ‘s is poor ‘n’ needin’.’ He looked so crestfallen ‘t I made up my mind ‘t it was then or never to settle my whole score with him, so I up ‘n’ looked him right in the eye ‘n’ I says to him, I says, ‘Mr. Sperrit, you didn’t seem to jus’ realize what it meant to me that day ‘t I took that horse ‘n’ buggy ‘n’ drove ‘way out to your farm to see you; you didn’t seem to think what it meant to me to take that trip: but I c’n tell you ‘t it costs suthin’ for a woman to do a thing like that; it cost me a good deal—it cost me fifty cents.’ He went away then, ‘n’ he can marry Eliza Gringer if he likes, ‘n’ I’ll wish ’em both joy ‘n’ consider myself the luckiest o’ the three.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
“‘N’ then there’s Jathrop!” continued the speaker, suddenly transfixing her friend with a piercing glance,—”there’s even Jathrop! under my feet night ‘n’ day. I declare to you ‘t upon my honor I ain’t turned around four times out o’ five this week without almost fallin’ over Jathrop wantin’ me to give him a chance to explain his feelin’s, I don’t wish to hurt your feelin’s, Mrs. Lathrop, ‘n’ it’s natural ‘t, seein’ you can’t help yourself, you look upon him ‘s better ‘n’ nothin’, but still I will remark ‘t Jathrop’s the last straw on top o’ my hump, ‘n’ this mornin’ when I throwed out the dish-water ‘n’ hit him by accident jus’ comin’ in, my patience clean gin out. I didn’t feel no manner o’ sympathy over his soapy wetness, ‘n’ I spoke my mind right then ‘n’ there. ‘Jathrop Lathrop,’ I says to him, all forgettin’ how big he’d got ‘n’ only rememberin’ what a bother he’s always been, ‘Jathrop Lathrop, you let that soakin’ be a lesson to you ‘n’ march right straight home this instant, ‘n’ ‘f you want to think of me, think ‘t if I hear any more about your feelin’s the feelin’ you’ll have best cause to talk about ‘ll be the feelin’ o’ gettin’ spanked.'”
Mrs. Lathrop sighed slightly.
Miss Clegg echoed the sigh.
“There never was a truer sayin’ ‘n’ the one ‘t things goes by contraries,” she continued presently. “Here I’ve been figgerin’ on bein’ so happy married, ‘n’ instid o’ that I find myself missin’ father every few minutes. There was lots o’ good about father, particular when he was asleep. I’d got so used to his stayin’ where I put him ‘t I don’t know ‘s I c’d ever get used to a man ‘s could get about. ‘F I wanted to talk, father was always there to listen, ‘n’ ‘f he wanted to talk I c’d always go downstairs. He didn’t never have but one button to keep sewed on ‘n’ no stockings to darn a tall. ‘N’ all the time there was all them nice gover’ment bonds savin’ up for me in his desk! No, I sha’n’t consider no more as to gettin’ married. While it looked discouragin’ I hung on ‘n’ never give up hope, but I sh’d be showin’ very little o’ my natural share o’ brains ‘f I didn’t know ‘s plain ‘s the moon above ‘t ‘f I get to be eighty ‘n’ the fancy takes me I c’n easy get a husband any day with those bonds. While I couldn’t seem to lay hands on no man I was wild to have one—now ‘t I know I c’n have any man ‘t I fancy, I don’t want no man a tall. It’ll always be a pleasure to look back on my love-makin’, ‘n’ I wouldn’t be no woman ‘f down in the bottom of my heart I wasn’t some pleased over havin’ ‘s good ‘s had four offers inside o’ the same week. But I might o’ married, Mrs. Lathrop, ‘n’ Heaven might o’ seen fit to give me such a son ‘s he give you, ‘n’ ‘f I hadn’t no other reason for remainin’ single that alone ‘d be s’fficient. After all, the Lord said ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ but He left a woman free to use her common sense ‘n’ I sh’ll use mine right now. I’ve folded up the pink nightgown, ‘n’ I’m thinkin’ very seriously o’ givin’ it to Amelia Fitch, ‘n’ I’ll speak out frank ‘n’ open ‘n’ tell her ‘n’ everybody else ‘t I don’t envy no woman—not now ‘n’ not never.”
Mrs. Lathrop chewed her clover.
Categories: English Literature