Part 1 out of 6
HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS WIFE
by Edward P. Roe
I Left Alone
II A Very Interested Friend
III Mrs. Mumpson Negotiates and Yields
IV Domestic Bliss
V Mrs. Mumpson Takes up Her Burdens
VI A Marriage?
VII From Home to the Street
VIII Holcroft's View of Matrimony
IX Mrs. Mumpson Accepts Her Mission
X A Night of Terror
XIII Not Wife, But Waif
XIV A Pitched Battle
XV "What is to Become of Me?"
XVI Mrs. Mumpson's Vicissitudes
XVII A Momentous Decision
XVIII Holcroft Gives His Hand
XIX A Business Marriage
XX Uncle Jonathan's Impression of the Bride
XXI At Home
XXII Getting Acquainted
XXIII Between the Past and Future
XXIV Given Her Own Way
XXV A Charivari
XXVI "You don't Know"
XXVII Farm and Farmer Bewitched
XXVIII Another Waif
XXIX Husband and Wife in Trouble
XXX Holcroft's Best Hope
XXXII Jane Plays Mouse to the Lion
XXXIII "Shrink From YOU?"
Chapter I. Left Alone
The dreary March evening is rapidly passing from murky gloom to obscurity.
Gusts of icy rain and sleet are sweeping full against a man who, though
driving, bows his head so low that he cannot see his horses. The patient
beasts, however, plod along the miry road, unerringly taking their course to
the distant stable door. The highway sometimes passes through a grove on the
edge of a forest, and the trees creak and groan as they writhe in the heavy
blasts. In occasional groups of pines there is sighing and moaning almost
human in suggestiveness of trouble. Never had Nature been in a more dismal
mood, never had she been more prodigal of every element of discomfort, and
never had the hero of my story been more cast down in heart and hope than on
this chaotic day which, even to his dull fancy, appeared closing in harmony
with his feelings and fortune. He is going home, yet the thought brings no
assurance of welcome and comfort. As he cowers upon the seat of his market
wagon, he is to the reader what he is in the fading light--a mere dim outline
of a man. His progress is so slow that there will be plenty of time to relate
some facts about him which will make the scenes and events to follow more
James Holcroft is a middle-aged man and the owner of a small, hilly farm. He
had inherited his rugged acres from his father, had always lived upon them,
and the feeling had grown strong with the lapse of time that he could live
nowhere else. Yet he knew that he was, in the vernacular of the region,
"going down-hill." The small savings of years were slowly melting away, and
the depressing feature of this truth was that he did not see how he could help
himself. He was not a sanguine man, but rather one endowed with a hard,
practical sense which made it clear that the down-hill process had only to
continue sufficiently long to leave him landless and penniless. It was all so
distinct on this dismal evening that he groaned aloud.
"If it comes to that, I don't know what I'll do--crawl away on a night like
this and give up, like enough."
Perhaps he was right. When a man with a nature like his "gives up," the end
has come. The low, sturdy oaks that grew so abundantly along the road were
types of his character--they could break, but not bend. He had little
suppleness, little power to adapt himself to varied conditions of life. An
event had occurred a year since, which for months, he could only contemplate
with dull wonder and dismay. In his youth he had married the daughter of a
small farmer. Like himself, she had always been accustomed to toil and frugal
living. From childhood she had been impressed with the thought that parting
with a dollar was a serious matter, and to save a dollar one of the good deeds
rewarded in this life and the life to come. She and her husband were in
complete harmony on this vital point. Yet not a miserly trait entered into
their humble thrift. It was a necessity entailed by their meager resources;
it was inspired by the wish for an honest independence in their old age.
There was to be no old age for her. She took a heavy cold, and almost before
her husband was aware of her danger, she had left his side. He was more than
grief-stricken, he was appalled. No children had blessed their union, and
they had become more and more to each other in their simple home life. To
many it would have seemed a narrow and even a sordid life. It could not have
been the latter, for all their hard work, their petty economies and plans to
increase the hoard in the savings bank were robbed of sordidness by an honest,
quiet affection for each other, by mutual sympathy and a common purpose. It
undoubtedly was a meager life, which grew narrower with time and habit. There
had never been much romance to begin with, but something that often wears
better--mutual respect and affection. From the first, James Holcroft had
entertained the sensible hope that she was just the girl to help him make a
living from his hillside farm, and he had not hoped for or even thought of
very much else except the harmony and good comradeship which bless people who
are suited to each other. He had been disappointed in no respect; they had
toiled and gathered like ants; they were confidential partners in the homely
business and details of the farm; nothing was wasted, not even time. The
little farmhouse abounded in comfort, and was a model of neatness and order.
If it and its surroundings were devoid of grace and ornament, they were not
missed, for neither of its occupants had ever been accustomed to such things.
The years which passed so uneventfully only cemented the union and increased
the sense of mutual dependence. They would have been regarded as exceedingly
matter-of-fact and undemonstrative, but they were kind to each other and
understood each other. Feeling that they were slowly yet surely getting
ahead, they looked forward to an old age of rest and a sufficiency for their
simple needs. Then, before he could realize the truth, he was left alone at
her wintry grave; neighbors dispersed after the brief service, and he plodded
back to his desolate home. There was no relative to step in and partially
make good his loss. Some of the nearest residents sent a few cooked
provisions until he could get help, but these attentions soon ceased. It was
believed that he was abundantly able to take care of himself, and he was left
to do so. He was not exactly unpopular, but had been much too reticent and
had lived too secluded a life to find uninvited sympathy now. He was the last
man, however, to ask for sympathy or help; and this was not due to
misanthropy, but simply to temperament and habits of life. He and his wife
had been sufficient for each other, and the outside world was excluded chiefly
because they had not time or taste for social interchanges. As a result, he
suffered serious disadvantages; he was misunderstood and virtually left to
meet his calamity alone.
But, indeed he could scarcely have met it in any other way. Even to his wife,
he had never formed the habit of speaking freely of his thoughts and feelings.
There had been no need, so complete was the understanding between them. A
hint, a sentence, reveled to each other their simple and limited processes of
thought. To talk about her now to strangers was impossible. He had no
language by which to express the heavy, paralyzing pain in his heart.
For a time he performed necessary duties in a dazed, mechanical way. The
horses and live stock were fed regularly, the cows milked; but the milk stood
in the dairy room until it spoiled. Then he would sit down at his desolate
hearth and gaze for hours into the fire, until it sunk down and died out.
Perhaps no class in the world suffers from such a terrible sense of loneliness
as simple-natured country people, to whom a very few have been all the company
At last Holcroft partially shook off his stupor, and began the experiment of
keeping house and maintaining his dairy with hired help. For a long year he
had struggled on through all kinds of domestic vicissitude, conscious all the
time that things were going from bad to worse. His house was isolated, the
region sparsely settled, and good help difficult to be obtained under favoring
auspices. The few respectable women in the neighborhood who occasionally
"lent a hand" in other homes than their own would not compromise themselves,
as they expressed it, by "keepin' house for a widower." Servants obtained
from the neighboring town either could not endure the loneliness, or else were
so wasteful and ignorant that the farmer, in sheer desperation, discharged
them. The silent, grief-stricken, rugged-featured man was no company for
anyone. The year was but a record of changes, waste, and small pilferings.
Although he knew he could not afford it, he tried the device of obtaining two
women instead of one, so that they might have society in each other; but
either they would not stay or else he found that he had two thieves to deal
with instead of one--brazen, incompetent creatures who knew more about whisky
than milk, and who made his home a terror to him.
Some asked good-naturedly, "Why don't you marry again?" Not only was the very
thought repugnant, but he knew well that he was not the man to thrive on any
such errand to the neighboring farmhouses. Though apparently he had little
sentiment in his nature, yet the memory of his wife was like his religion. He
felt that he could not put an ordinary woman into his wife's place, and say to
her the words he had spoken before. Such a marriage would be to him a
grotesque farce, at which his soul revolted.
At last he was driven to the necessity of applying for help to an Irish family
that had recently moved into the neighborhood. The promise was forbidding,
indeed, as he entered the squalid abode in which were huddled men, women, and
children. A sister of the mistress of the shanty was voluble in her
assurances of unlimited capability.
"Faix I kin do all the wourk, in doors and out, so I takes the notion," she
There certainly was no lack of bone and muscle in the big, red-faced,
middle-aged woman who was so ready to preside at his hearth and glean from his
diminished dairy a modicum of profit; but as he trudged home along the wintry
road, he experienced strong feelings of disgust at the thought of such a
creature sitting by the kitchen fire in the place once occupied by his wife.
During all these domestic vicissitudes he had occupied the parlor, a stiff,
formal, frigid apartment, which had been rarely used in his married life. He
had no inclination for the society of his help; in fact, there had been none
with whom he could associate. The better class of those who went out to
service could find places much more to their taste than the lonely farmhouse.
The kitchen had been the one cozy, cheerful room of the house, and, driven
from it, the farmer was an exile in his own home. In the parlor he could at
least brood over the happy past, and that was about all the solace he had
Bridget came and took possession of her domain with a sangfroid which appalled
Holcroft from the first. To his directions and suggestions, she curtly
informed him that she knew her business and "didn't want no mon around,
orderin' and interferin'."
In fact, she did appear, as she had said, capable of any amount of work, and
usually was in a mood to perform it; but soon her male relatives began to drop
in to smoke a pipe with her in the evening. A little later on, the supper
table was left standing for those who were always ready to "take a bite."--The
farmer had never heard of the camel who first got his head into the tent, but
it gradually dawned upon him that he was half supporting the whole Irish tribe
down at the shanty. Every evening, while he shivered in his best room, he was
compelled to hear the coarse jests and laughter in the adjacent apartment.
One night his bitter thoughts found expression: "I might as well open a free
house for the keeping of man and beast."
He had endured this state of affairs for some time simply because the woman
did the essential work in her offhand, slapdash style, and left him unmolested
to his brooding as long as he did not interfere with her ideas of domestic
economy. But his impatience and the sense of being wronged were producing a
feeling akin to desperation. Every week there was less and less to sell from
the dairy; chickens and eggs disappeared, and the appetites of those who
dropped in to "kape Bridgy from bein' a bit lonely" grew more voracious.
Thus matters had drifted on until this March day when he had taken two calves
to market. He had said to the kitchen potentate that he would take supper
with a friend in town and therefore would not be back before nine in the
evening. This friend was the official keeper of the poorhouse and had been a
crony of Holcroft's in early life. He had taken to politics instead of
farming, and now had attained to what he and his acquaintances spoke of as a
"snug berth." Holcroft had maintained with this man a friendship based partly
on business relations, and the well-to-do purveyor for paupers always gave his
old playmate an honest welcome to his private supper table, which differed
somewhat from that spread for the town's pensioners.
On this occasion the gathering storm had decided Holcroft to return without
availing himself of his friend's hospitality, and he is at last entering the
lane leading from the highway to his doorway. Even as he approaches his
dwelling he hears the sound of revelry and readily guesses what is taking
Quiet, patient men, when goaded beyond a certain point, are capable of
terrible ebullitions of anger, and Holcroft was no exception. It seemed to
him that night that the God he had worshiped all his life was in league with
man against him. The blood rushed to his face, his chilled form became rigid
with a sudden passionate protest against his misfortunes and wrongs.
Springing from the wagon, he left his team standing at the barn door and
rushed to the kitchen window. There before him sat the whole tribe from the
shanty, feasting at his expense. The table was loaded with coarse profusion.
Roast fowls alternated with fried ham and eggs, a great pitcher of milk was
flanked by one of foaming cider, while the post of honor was occupied by the
one contribution of his self-invited guests--a villainous-looking jug.
They had just sat down to the repast when the weazen-faced patriarch of the
tribe remarked, by way of grace, it may be supposed, "Be jabers, but isn't
ould Holcroft givin' us a foine spread the noight! Here's bad luck to the
glowerin' ould skinflint!" and he poured out a bumper from the jug.
The farmer waited to see and hear no more. Hastening to a parlor window, he
raised it quietly and clambered in; then taking his rusty shotgun, which he
kept loaded for the benefit of the vermin that prowled about his hen-roost, he
burst in upon the startled group.
"Be off!" he shouted. "If you value your lives, get out of that door, and
never show your faces on my place again. I'll not be eaten out of house and
home by a lot of jackals!"
His weapon, his dark, gleaming eyes, and desperate aspect taught the men that
he was not to be trifled with a moment, and they slunk away.
Bridget began to whine, "Yez wouldn't turn a woman out in the noight and
"You are not a woman!" thundered Holcroft, "you are a jackal, too! Get your
traps and begone! I warn the whole lot of you to beware! I give you this
chance to get off the premises, and then I shall watch for you all, old and
There was something terrible and flame-like in his anger, dismaying the
cormorants, and they hastened away with such alacrity that Bridget went down
the lane screaming, "Sthop, I tell yees, and be afther waitin' for me!"
Holcroft hurled the jug after them with words that sounded like an
imprecation. He next turned to the viands on the table with an expression of
loathing, gathered them up, and carried them to the hog pen. He seemed
possessed by a feverish impatience to banish every vestige of those whom he
had driven forth, and to restore the apartment as nearly as possible to the
aspect it had worn in former happy years. At last, he sat down where his wife
had been accustomed to sit, unbuttoned his waistcoat and flannel shirt, and
from against his naked breast took an old, worn daguerreotype. He looked a
moment at the plain, good face reflected there, them, bowing his head upon it,
strong, convulsive sobs shook his frame, though not a tear moistened his eyes.
How long the paroxysm would have lasted it were hard to say, had not the
impatient whinnying of his horses, still exposed to the storm, caught his
attention. The lifelong habit of caring for the dumb animals in his charge
asserted itself. He went out mechanically, unharnessed and stabled them as
carefully as ever before in his life, then returned and wearily prepared
himself a pot of coffee, which, with a crust of bread, was all the supper he
appeared to crave.
Chapter II. A Very Interested Friend
For the next few days, Holcroft lived alone. The weather remained inclement
and there was no occasion for him to go farther away than the barn and
outbuildings. He felt that a crisis in his life was approaching, that he
would probably be compelled to sell his property for what it would bring, and
begin life again under different auspices.
"I must either sell or marry," he groaned, "and one's about as hard and bad as
the other. Who'll buy the place and stock at half what they're worth, and
where could I find a woman that would look at an old fellow like me, even if I
could bring myself to look at her?"
The poor man did indeed feel that he was shut up to dreadful alternatives.
With his ignorance of the world, and dislike for contact with strangers,
selling out and going away was virtually starting out on an unknown sea
without rudder or compass. It was worse than that--it was the tearing up of a
life that had rooted itself in the soil whereon he had been content from
childhood to middle age. He would suffer more in going, and in the memory of
what he had parted with, than in any of the vicissitudes which might overtake
him. He had not much range of imagination or feeling, but within his
limitations his emotions were strong and his convictions unwavering. Still,
he thought it might be possible to live in some vague, unknown place, doing
some kind of work for people with whom he need not have very much to do.
"I've always been my own master, and done things in my own way," he muttered,
"but I suppose I could farm it to suit some old, quiet people, if I could only
find 'em. One thing is certain, anyhow--I couldn't stay here in Oakville, and
see another man living in these rooms, and plowing my fields, and driving his
cows to my old pasture lots. That would finish me like a galloping
Every day he shrunk with a strange dread from the wrench of parting with the
familiar place and with all that he associated with his wife. This was really
the ordeal which shook his soul, and not the fear that he would be unable to
earn his bread elsewhere. The unstable multitude, who are forever fancying
that they would be better off somewhere else or at something else, can have no
comprehension of this deep-rooted love of locality and the binding power of
long association. They regard such men as Holcroft as little better than
plodding oxen. The highest tribute which some people can pay to a man,
however, is to show that they do not and cannot understand him. But the
farmer was quite indifferent whether he was understood or not. He gave no
thought to what people said or might say. What were people to him? He only
had a hunted, pathetic sense of being hedged in and driven to bay. Even to
his neighbors, there was more of the humorous than the tragic in his plight.
It was supposed that he had a goodly sum in the bank, and gossips said that he
and his wife thought more of increasing this hoard than of each other, and
that old Holcroft's mourning was chiefly for a business partner. His domestic
tribulations evoked mirth rather than sympathy; and as the news spread from
farmhouse to cottage of his summary bundling of Bridget and her satellites out
of doors, there were both hilarity and satisfaction.
While there was little commiseration for the farmer, there was decided
disapprobation of the dishonest Irish tribe, and all were glad that the gang
had received a lesson which might restrain them from preying upon others.
Holcroft was partly to blame for his present isolation. Remote rural
populations are given to strong prejudices, especially against those who are
thought to be well-off from an oversaving spirit; and who, worse still, are
unsocial. Almost anything will be forgiven sooner than "thinking one's self
better than the other folks;" and that is the usual interpretation of shy,
reticent people. But there had been a decided tinge of selfishness in the
Holcrofts' habit of seclusion; for it became a habit rather than a principle.
While they cherished no active dislike to their neighbors, or sense of
superiority, these were not wholly astray in believing that they had little
place in the thoughts or interests of the occupants of the hill farm.
Indifference begat indifference, and now the lonely, helpless man had neither
the power nor the disposition to bridge the chasm which separated him from
those who might have given him kindly and intelligent aid. He was making a
pathetic effort to keep his home and to prevent his heart from being torn
bleeding away from all it loved. His neighbors thought that he was merely
exerting himself to keep the dollars which it had been the supreme motive of
his life to accumulate.
Giving no thought to the opinions of others, Holcroft only knew that he was in
sore straits--that all which made his existence a blessing was at stake.
At times, during these lonely and stormy March days, he would dismiss his
anxious speculations in regard to his future course. He was so morbid,
especially at night, that he felt that his wife could revisit the quiet house.
He cherished the hope that she could see him and hear what he said, and he
spoke in her viewless presence with a freedom and fullness that was unlike his
old reticence and habit of repression. He wondered that he had not said more
endearing words and given her stronger assurance of how much she was to him.
Late at night, he would start out of a long reverie, take a candle, and, going
through the house, would touch what she had touched, and look long and fixedly
at things associated with her. Her gowns still hung in the closet, just as
she had left them; he would take them out and recall the well-remembered
scenes and occasions when they were worn. At such times, she almost seemed
beside him, and he had a consciousness of companionship which soothed his
perturbed spirit. He felt that she appreciated such loving remembrance,
although unable to express her approval. He did not know it, but his nature
was being softened, deepened, and enriched by these deep and unwonted
experiences; the hard materiality of his life was passing away, rendering him
capable of something better than he had ever known.
In the morning all the old, prosaic problems of his life would return, with
their hard, practical insistence, and he knew that he must decide upon
something very soon. His lonely vigils and days of quiet had brought him to
the conclusion that he could not hunt up a wife as a matter of business. He
would rather face the "ever angry bears" than breathe the subject of matrimony
to any woman that he could ever imagine himself marrying. He was therefore
steadily drifting toward the necessity of selling everything and going away.
This event, however, was like a coral reef to a sailor, with no land in view
beyond it. The only thing which seemed certain was the general breaking up of
all that had hitherto made his life.
The offer of help came from an unexpected source. One morning Holcroft
received a call from a neighbor who had never before shown any interest in his
affairs. On this occasion, however, Mr. Weeks began to display so much
solicitude that the farmer was not only surprised, but also a little
distrustful. Nothing in his previous knowledge of the man had prepared the
way for such very kindly intervention.
After some general references to the past, Mr. Weeks continued, "I've been
saying to our folks that it was too bad to let you worry on alone without more
neighborly help. You ought either to get married or have some thoroughly
respectable and well-known middle-aged woman keep house for you. That would
stop all talk, and there's been a heap of it, I can tell you. Of course, I
and my folks don't believe anything's been wrong."
"Believing that something was wrong is about all the attention my neighbors
have given me, as far as I can see," Holcroft remarked bitterly.
"Well, you see, Holcroft, you've kept yourself so inside your shell that
people don't know what to believe. Now, the thing to do is to change all
that. I know how hard it is for a man, placed as you be, to get decent help.
My wife was a-wondering about it the other day, and I shut her up mighty
sudden by saying, 'You're a good manager, and know all the country side, yet
how often you're a-complaining that you can't get a girl that's worth her salt
to help in haying and other busy times when we have to board a lot of men.'
Well, I won't beat around the bush any more. I've come to act the part of a
good neighbor. There's no use of you're trying to get along with such
haphazard help as you can pick up here and in town. You want a respectable
woman for housekeeper, and then have a cheap, common sort of a girl to work
under her. Now, I know of just such a woman, and it's not unlikely she'd be
persuaded to take entire charge of your house and dairy. My wife's cousin,
Mrs. Mumpson--" At the mention of this name Holcroft gave a slight start,
feeling something like a cold chill run down his back.
Mr. Weeks was a little disconcerted but resumed, "I believe she called on your
"Yes," the farmer replied laconically. "I was away and did not see her."
"Well, now," pursued Mr. Weeks, "she's a good soul. She has her little
peculiarities; so have you and me, a lot of 'em; but she's thoroughly
respectable, and there isn't a man or woman in the town that would think of
saying a word against her. She has only one child, a nice, quiet little girl
who'd be company for her mother and make everything look right, you know."
"I don't see what there's been to look wrong," growled the farmer.
"Nothing to me and my folks, of course, or I wouldn't suggest the idea of a
relation of my wife coming to live with you. But you see people will talk
unless you stop their mouths so they'll feel like fools in doing it. I know
yours has been a mighty awkward case, and here's a plain way out of it. You
can set yourself right and have everything looked after as it ought to be, in
twenty-four hours. We've talked to Cynthy--that's Mrs. Mumpson--and she takes
a sight of interest. She'd do well by you and straighten things out, and you
might do a plaguey sight worse than give her the right to take care of your
indoor affairs for life."
"I don't expect to marry again," said Holcroft curtly.
"Oh, well! Many a man and woman has said that and believed it, too, at the
time. I'm not saying that my wife's cousin is inclined that way herself.
Like enough, she isn't at all, but then, the right kind of persuading does
change women's minds sometimes, eh? Mrs. Mumpson is kinder alone in the
world, like yourself, and if she was sure of a good home and a kind husband
there's no telling what good luck might happen to you. But there'll be plenty
of time for considering all that on both sides. You can't live like a
"I was thinking of selling out and leaving these parts," Holcroft interrupted.
"Now look here, neighbor, you know as well as I do that in these times you
couldn't give away the place. What's the use of such foolishness? The thing
to do is to keep the farm and get a good living out of it. You've got down in
the dumps and can't see what's sensible and to your own advantage."
Holcroft was thinking deeply, and he turned his eyes wistfully to the upland
slopes of his farm. Mr. Weeks had talked plausibly, and if all had been as he
represented, the plan would not have been a bad one. But the widower did not
yearn for the widow. He did not know much about her, but had very unfavorable
impressions. Mrs. Holcroft had not been given to speaking ill of anyone, but
she had always shaken her head with a peculiar significance when Mrs.
Mumpson's name was mentioned.
The widow had felt it her duty to call and counsel against the sin of
seclusion and being too much absorbed in the affairs of this world.
"You should take an interest in everyone," this self-appointed evangelist had
declared, and in one sense she lived up to her creed. She permitted no scrap
of information about people to escape her, and was not only versed in all the
gossip of Oakville, but also of several other localities in which she visited.
But Holcroft had little else to deter him from employing her services beyond
an unfavorable impression. She could not be so bad as Bridget Malony, and he
was almost willing to employ her again for the privilege of remaining on his
paternal acres. As to marrying the widow--a slight shudder passed through his
frame at the thought.
Slowly he began, as if almost thinking aloud, "I suppose you are right, Lemuel
Weeks, in what you say about selling the place. The Lord knows I don't want
to leave it. I was born and brought up here, and that counts with some
people. If your wife's cousin is willing to come and help me make a living,
for such wages as I can pay, the arrangement might be made. But I want to
look on it as a business arrangement. I have quiet ways of my own, and things
belonging to the past to think about, and I've got a right to think about 'em.
I aint one of the marrying kind, and I don't want people to be a-considering
such notions when I don't. I'd be kind and all that to her and her little
girl, but I should want to be left to myself as far as I could be."
"Oh, certainly," said Mr. Weeks, mentally chuckling over the slight prospect
of such immunity, "but you must remember that Mrs. Mumpson isn't like common
"That's where the trouble will come in," ejaculated the perplexed farmer, "but
there's been trouble enough with the other sort."
"I should say so," Mr. Weeks remarked emphatically. "It would be a pity if you
couldn't get along with such a respectable, conscientious woman as Mrs.
Mumpson, who comes from one of the best families in the country."
Holcroft removed his hat and passed his hand over his brow wearily as he said,
"Oh, I could get along with anyone who would do the work in a way that would
give me a chance to make a little, and then leave me to myself."
"Well, well," said Mr. Weeks, laughing, "you needn't think that because I've
hinted at a good match for you I'm making one for my wife's cousin. You may
see the day when you'll be more hot for it than she is. All I'm, trying to do
is to help you keep your place, and live like a man ought and stop people's
"If I could only fill my own and live in peace, it's all I ask. When I get to
plowing and planting again I'll begin to take some comfort."
These words were quoted against Holcroft, far and near. "Filling his own mouth
and making a little money are all he cares for," was the general verdict. And
thus people are misunderstood. The farmer had never turned anyone hungry from
his door, and he would have gone to the poorhouse rather than have acted the
part of the man who misrepresented him. He had only meant to express the hope
that he might be able to fill his mouth--earn his bread, and get it from his
native soil. "Plowing and planting"--working where he had toiled since a
child---would be a solace in itself, and not a grudged means to a sordid end.
Mr. Weeks was a thrifty man also, and in nothing was he more economical than
in charitable views of his neighbors' motives and conduct. He drove homeward
with the complacent feeling that he had done a shrewd, good thing for himself
and "his folks" at least. His wife's cousin was not exactly embraced in the
latter category, although he had been so active in her behalf. The fact was,
he would be at much greater pains could he attach her to Holcroft or anyone
else and so prevent further periodical visits.
He regarded her and her child as barnacles with such appalling adhesive powers
that even his ingenuity at "crowding out" had been baffled. In justice to
him, it must be admitted that Mrs. Mumpson was a type of the poor relation
that would tax the long suffering of charity itself. Her husband had left her
scarcely his blessing, and if he had fled to ills he knew not of, he believed
that he was escaping from some of which he had a painfully distinct
consciousness. His widow was one of the people who regard the "world as their
oyster," and her scheme of life was to get as much as possible for nothing.
Arrayed in mourning weeds, she had begun a system of periodical descents upon
his relatives and her own. She might have made such visitations endurable and
even welcome, but she was not shrewd enough to be sensible. She appeared to
have developed only the capacity to talk, to pry, and to worry people. She
was unable to rest or to permit others to rest, yet her aversion to any useful
form of activity was her chief characteristic. Wherever she went she took the
ground that she was "company," and with a shawl hanging over her sharp,
angular shoulders, she would seize upon the most comfortable rocking chair in
the house, and mouse for bits of news about everyone of whom she had ever
heard. She was quite as ready to tell all she knew also, and for the sake of
her budget of gossip and small scandal, her female relatives tolerated her
after a fashion for a time; but she had been around so often, and her scheme
of obtaining subsistence for herself and child had become so offensively
apparent, that she had about exhausted the patience of all the kith and kin on
whom she had the remotest claim. Her presence was all the more unwelcome by
reason of the faculty for irritating the men of the various households which
she invaded. Even the most phlegmatic or the best-natured lost their
self-control, and as their wives declared, "felt like flying all to pieces" at
her incessant rocking, gossiping, questioning, and, what was worse still,
lecturing. Not the least endurable thing about Mrs. Mumpson was her peculiar
phase of piety. She saw the delinquencies and duties of others with such
painful distinctness that she felt compelled to speak of them; and her zeal
was sure to be instant out of season.
When Mr. Weeks had started on his ominous mission to Holcroft his wife
remarked to her daughter confidentially, "I declare, sis, if we don't get rid
of Cynthy soon, I believe Lemuel will fly off the handle."
To avoid any such dire catastrophe, it was hoped and almost prayed in the
Weeks household that the lonely occupant of the hill farm would take the widow
for good and all.
Chapter III. Mrs. Mumpson Negotiates and Yields
Mr. Weeks, on his return home, dropped all diplomacy in dealing with the
question at issue. "Cynthy," he said in his own vernacular, "the end has come,
so far as me and my folks are concerned--I never expect to visit you, and
while I'm master of the house, no more visits will be received. But I haint
taken any such stand onconsiderately," he concluded. "I've given up the whole
forenoon to secure you a better chance of living than visiting around. If you
go to Holcroft's you'll have to do some work, and so will your girl. But
he'll hire someone to help you, and so you won't have to hurt yourself. Your
trump card will be to hook him and marry him before he finds you out. To do
this, you'll have to see to the house and dairy, and bestir yourself for a
time at least. He's pretty desperate off for lack of women folks to look
after indoor matters, but he'll sell out and clear out before he'll keep a
woman, much less marry her, if she does nothing but talk. Now remember,
you've got a chance which you won't get again, for Holcroft not only owns his
farm, but has a snug sum in the bank. So you had better get your things
together, and go right over while he's in the mood."
When Mrs. Mumpson reached the blank wall of the inevitable, she yielded, and
not before. She saw that the Weeks mine was worked out completely, and she
knew that this exhaustion was about equally true of all similar mines, which
had been bored until they would yield no further returns.
But Mr. Weeks soon found that he could not carry out his summary measures.
The widow was bent on negotiations and binding agreements. In a stiff,
cramped hand, she wrote to Holcroft in regard to the amount of "salary" he
would be willing to pay, intimating that one burdened with such
responsibilities as she was expected to assume "ort to be compensiated
Weeks groaned as he dispatched his son on horseback with this first epistle,
and Holcroft groaned as he read it, not on account of its marvelous spelling
and construction, but by reason of the vista of perplexities and trouble it
opened to his boding mind. But he named on half a sheet of paper as large a
sum as he felt it possible to pay and leave any chance for himself, then
affixed his signature and sent it back by the messenger.
The widow Mumpson wished to talk over this first point between the high
contracting powers indefinitely, but Mr. Weeks remarked cynically, "It's
double what I thought he'd offer, and you're lucky to have it in black and
white. Now that everything's settled, Timothy will hitch up and take you and
Jane up there at once.
But Mrs. Mumpson now began to insist upon writing another letter in regard to
her domestic status and that of her child. They could not think of being
looked upon as servants. She also wished to be assured that a girl would be
hired to help her, that she should have all the church privileges to which she
had been accustomed and the right to visit and entertain her friends, which
meant every farmer's wife and all the maiden sisters in Oakville. "And then,"
she continued, "there are always little perquisites which a housekeeper has a
right to look for--" Mr. Weeks irritably put a period to this phase of
diplomacy by saying, "Well, well, Cynthy, the stage will be along in a couple
of hours. We'll put you and your things aboard, and you can go on with what
you call your negotiations at Cousin Abiram's. I can tell you one thing
though--if you write any such letter to Holcroft, you'll never hear from him
Compelled to give up all these preliminaries, but inwardly resolving to gain
each point by a nagging persistence of which she was a mistress, she finally
declared that she "must have writings about one thing which couldn't be left
to any man's changeful mind. He must agree to give me the monthly salary he
names for at least a year."
Weeks thought a moment, and then, with a shrewd twinkle in his eyes, admitted,
"It would be a good thing to have Holcroft's name to such an agreement. Yes,
you might try that on, but you're taking a risk. If you were not so
penny-wise and pound-foolish, you'd go at once and manage to get him to take
you for 'better or worse.'"
"You--misjudge me, Cousin Lemuel," replied the widow, bridling and rocking
violently. If there's any such taking to be done, he must get me to take
"Well, well, write your letter about a year's engagement. That'll settle you
for a twelvemonth, at least."
Mrs. Mumpson again began the slow, laborious construction of a letter in which
she dwelt upon the uncertainties of life, her "duty to her offspring," and the
evils of "vicissitude." "A stable home is woman's chief desire," she
concluded, "and you will surely agree to pay me the salary you have said for a
When Holcroft read this second epistle he so far yielded to his first impulse
that he half tore the sheet, then paused irresolutely. After a few moments he
went to the door and looked out upon his acres. "It'll soon be plowing and
planting time," he thought. "I guess I can stand her---at least I can try it
for three months. I'd like to turn a few more furrows on the old place," and
his face softened and grew wistful as he looked at the bare, frost-bound
fields. Suddenly it darkened and grew stern as he muttered, "But I'll put my
hand to no more paper with that Weeks tribe."
He strode to the stable, saying to Timothy Weeks, as he passed, "I'll answer
this letter in person."
Away cantered Timothy, and soon caused a flutter of expectancy in the Weeks
household, by announcing that "Old Holcroft looked black as a thundercloud and
was comin' himself."
"I tell you what 'tis, Cynthy, it's the turn of a hair with you now," growled
Weeks. "Unless you agree to whatever Holcroft says, you haven't the ghost of a
The widow felt that a crisis had indeed come. Cousin Abiram's was the next
place in the order of visitation, but her last experience there left her in
painful doubt as to a future reception. Therefore she tied on a new cap,
smoothed her apron, and rocked with unwonted rapidity. "It'll be according to
the ordering of Providence--"
"Oh, pshaw!" interrupted Cousin Lemuel, "it'll be according to whether you've
got any sense or not."
Mrs. Weeks had been in a pitiable state of mind all day. She saw that her
husband had reached the limit of his endurance--that he had virtually already
"flown off the handle." But to have her own kin actually bundled out of the
house--what would people say?
Acceptance of Holcroft's terms, whatever they might be, was the only way out
of the awkward predicament, and so she began in a wheedling tone, "Now, Cousin
Cynthy, as Lemuel says, you've got a first-rate chance. Holcroft's had an
awful time with women, and he'll be glad enough to do well by anyone who does
fairly well by him. Everybody says he's well off, and once you're fairly
there and get things in your own hands, there's no telling what may happen.
He'll get a girl to help you, and Jane's big enough now to do a good deal.
Why, you'll be the same as keeping house like the rest of us."
Further discussion was cut short by the arrival of the victim. He stood
awkwardly in the door of the Weeks sitting room for a moment, seemingly at a
loss how to state his case.
Mr. And Mrs. Weeks now resolved to appear neutral and allow the farmer to make
his terms. Then, like other superior powers in the background, they proposed
to exert a pressure on their relative and do a little coercing. But the
widow's course promised at first to relieve them of all further effort. She
suddenly seemed to become aware of Holcroft's presence, sprang up, and gave
him her hand very cordially.
"I'm glad to see you, sir," she began. "It's very considerate of you to come
for me. I can get ready in short order, and as for Jane, she's never a bit of
trouble. Sit down, sir, and make yourself to home while I get our things
together and put on my bonnet;" and she was about to hasten from the room.
She, too, had been compelled to see that Holcroft's farmhouse was the only
certain refuge left, and while she had rocked and waited the thought had come
into her scheming mind, "I've stipulated to stay a year, and if he says
nothing against it, it's a bargain which I can manage to keep him to in spite
of himself, even if I don't marry him."
But the straightforward farmer was not to be caught in such a trap. He had
come himself to say certain words and he would say them. He quietly,
therefore, stood in the door and said, "Wait a moment, Mrs. Mumpson. It's
best to have a plain understanding in all matters of business. When I've
done, you may conclude not to go with me, for I want to say to you what I said
this morning to your cousin, Lemuel Weeks. I'm glad he and his wife are now
present, as witnesses. I'm a plain man, and all I want is to make a livin'
off the farm I've been brought up on. I'll get a girl to help you with the
work. Between you, I'll expect it to be done in a way that the dairy will
yield a fair profit. We'll try and see how we get on for three months and not
a year. I'll not bind myself longer than three months. Of course, if you
manage well, I'll be glad to have this plain business arrangement go on as
long as possible, but it's all a matter of business. If I can't make my farm
pay, I'm going to sell or rent and leave these parts."
"Oh, certainly, certainly, Mr. Holcroft! You take a very senserble view of
affairs. I hope you will find that I will do all that I agree to and a great
deal more. I'm a little afraid of the night air and the inclement season, and
so will hasten to get myself and my child ready," and she passed quickly out.
Weeks put his hand to his mouth to conceal a grin as he thought, "She hasn't
agreed to do anything that I know on. Still, she's right; she'll do a sight
more than he expects, but it won't be just what he expects."
Mrs. Weeks followed her relative to expedite matters, and it must be confessed
that the gathering of Mrs. Mumpson's belongings was no heavy task. A small
hair trunk, that had come down from the remote past, held her own and her
child's wardrobe and represented all their worldly possessions.
Mr. Weeks, much pleased at the turn of affairs, became very affable, but
confined his remarks chiefly to the weather, while Holcroft, who had an uneasy
sense of being overreached in some undetected way, was abstracted and laconic.
He was soon on the road home, however, with Mrs. Mumpson and Jane. Cousin
Lemuel's last whispered charge was, "Now, for mercy's sake, do keep your
tongue still and your hands busy."
Whatever possibilities there may be for the Ethiopian or the leopard, there
was no hope that Mrs. Mumpson would materially change any of her
characteristics. The chief reason was that she had no desire to change. A
more self-complacent person did not exist in Oakville. Good traits in other
people did not interest her. They were insipid, they lacked a certain
pungency which a dash of evil imparts; and in the course of her minute
investigations she had discerned or surmised so much that was reprehensible
that she had come to regard herself as singularly free from sins of omission
and commission. "What have I ever done?" she would ask in her self-communings.
The question implied so much truth of a certain kind that all her relatives
were in gall and bitterness as they remembered the weary months during which
she had rocked idly at their firesides. With her, talking was as much of a
necessity as breathing; but during the ride to the hillside farm she, in a
sense, held her breath, for a keen March wind was blowing.
She was so quiet that Holcroft grew hopeful, not realizing that the checked
flow of words must have freer course later on. A cloudy twilight was
deepening fast when they reached the dwelling. Holcroft's market wagon served
for the general purposes of conveyance, and he drove as near as possible to
the kitchen door. Descending from the front seat, which he had occupied
alone, he turned and offered his hand to assist the widow to alight, but she
nervously poised herself on the edge of the vehicle and seemed to be afraid to
venture. The wind fluttered her scanty draperies, causing her to appear like
a bird of prey about to swoop down upon the unprotected man. "I'm afraid to
jump so far--" she began.
"There's the step, Mrs. Mumpson."
"But I can't see it. Would you mind lifting me down?"
He impatiently took her by the arms, which seemed in his grasp like the rounds
of a chair, and put her on the ground.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, in gushing tones, "there's nothing to equal the strong
arms of a man."
He hastily lifted out her daughter, and said, "You had getter hurry in to the
fire. I'll be back in a few minutes," and he led his horses down to the barn,
blanketed and tied them. When he returned, he saw two dusky figures standing
by the front door which led to the little hall separating the kitchen from the
"Bless me!" he exclaimed. "You haven't been standing here all this time?"
"It's merely due to a little oversight. The door is locked, you see, and--"
"But the kitchen door is not locked."
"Well, it didn't seem quite natural for us to enter the dwelling, on the
occasion of our first arrival, by the kitchen entrance, and--"
Holcroft, with a grim look, strode through the kitchen and unlocked the door.
"Ah!" exclaimed the widow. "I feel as if I was coming home. Enter, Jane, my
dear. I'm sure the place will soon cease to be strange to you, for the home
feeling is rapidly acquired when--"
"Just wait a minute, please," said Holcroft, "and I'll light the lamp and a
candle." This he did with the deftness of a man accustomed to help himself,
then led the way to the upper room which was to be her sleeping apartment.
Placing the candle on the bureau, he forestalled Mrs. Mumpson by saying, "I'll
freshen up the fire in the kitchen and lay out the ham, eggs, coffee, and
other materials for supper. Then I must go out and unharness and do my night
work. Make yourselves to home. You'll soon be able to find everything," and
he hastened away.
It would not be their fault if they were not soon able to find everything.
Mrs. Mumpson's first act was to take the candle and survey the room in every
nook and corner. She sighed when she found the closet and bureau drawers
empty. Then she examined the quantity and texture of the bedding of the
"couch on which she was to repose," as she would express herself. Jane
followed her around on tiptoe, doing just what her mother did, but was silent.
At last they shivered in the fireless apartment, threw off their scanty wraps,
and went down to the kitchen. Mrs. Mumpson instinctively looked around for a
rocking chair, and as none was visible she hastened to the parlor, and,
holding the candle aloft, surveyed this apartment. Jane followed in her wake
as before, but at last ventured to suggest, "Mother, Mr. Holcroft'll be in
soon and want his supper."
"I suppose he'll want a great many things," replied Mrs. Mumpson with dignity,
"but he can't expect a lady of my connections to fly around like a common
servant. It is but natural, in coming to a new abode, that I should wish to
know something of that abode. There should have been a hired girl here ready
to receive and get supper for us. Since there is not one to receive us, bring
that rocking chair, my dear, and I will direct you how to proceed."
The child did as she was told, and her mother was soon rocking on the snuggest
side of the kitchen stove, interspersing her rather bewildering orders with
various reflections and surmises.
Sketching the child Jane is a sad task, and pity would lead us to soften every
touch if this could be done in truthfulness. She was but twelve years of age,
yet there was scarcely a trace of childhood left in her colorless face.
Stealthy and catlike in all her movements, she gave the impression that she
could not do the commonest thing except in a sly, cowering manner. Her small
greenish-gray eyes appeared to be growing nearer together with the lease of
time, and their indirect, furtive glances suggested that they had hardly, if
ever, seen looks of frank affection bent upon her. She had early learned, on
the round of visits with her mother, that so far from being welcome she was
scarcely tolerated, and she reminded one of a stray cat that comes to a
dwelling and seeks to maintain existence there in a lurking, deprecatory
manner. Her kindred recognized this feline trait, for they were accustomed to
remark, "She's always snoopin' around."
She could scarcely do otherwise, poor child! There had seemed no place for
her at any of the firesides. She haunted halls and passage-ways, sat in dusky
corners, and kept her meager little form out of sight as much as possible.
She was the last one helped at table when she was permitted to come at all,
and so had early learned to watch, like a cat, and when people's backs were
turned, to snatch something, carry it off, and devour it in secret. Detected
in these little pilferings, to which she was almost driven, she was regarded
as even a greater nuisance than her mother.
The latter was much too preoccupied to give her child attention. Ensconced in
a rocking chair in the best room, and always in full tide of talk if there was
anyone present, she rarely seemed to think where Jane was or what she was
doing. The rounds of visitation gave the child no chance to go to school, so
her developing mind had little other pabulum than what her mother supplied so
freely. She was acquiring the same consuming curiosity, with the redeeming
feature that she did not talk. Listening in unsuspected places, she heard
much that was said about her mother and herself, and the pathetic part of this
experience was that she had never known enough of kindness to be wounded. She
was only made to feel more fully how precarious was her foothold in her
transient abiding place, and therefore was rendered more furtive, sly, and
distant in order to secure toleration by keeping out of everyone's way. In
her prowlings, however, she managed to learn and understand all that was going
on even better than her mother, who, becoming aware of this fact, was
acquiring the habit of putting her through a whispered cross-questioning when
they retired for the night. It would be hard to imagine a child beginning
life under more unfavorable auspices and still harder to predict the outcome.
In the course of her close watchfulness she had observed how many of the
domestic labors had been performed, and she would have helped more in the
various households if she had been given a chance; but the housewives had not
regarded her as sufficiently honest to be trusted in the pantries, and also
found that, if there was a semblance of return for such hospitality as they
extended, Mrs. Mumpson would remain indefinitely. Moreover, the homely,
silent child made the women nervous, just as her mother irritated the men, and
they did not want her around. Thus she had come to be but the specter of a
child, knowing little of the good in the world and as much of the evil as she
She now displayed, however, more sense than her mother. The habit of close
scrutiny had made it clear that Holcroft would not long endure genteel airs
and inefficiency, and that something must be done to keep this shelter. She
did her best to get supper, with the aid given from the rocking chair, and at
last broke out sharply, "You must get up and help me. He'll turn us out of
doors if we don't have supper ready when he comes in."
Spurred by fear of such a dire possibility, Mrs. Mumpson was bustling around
when Holcroft entered. "We'll soon be ready," she gushed, "we'll soon place
our evening repast upon the table."
"Very well," was the brief reply, as he passed up the stairs with the small
hair trunk on his shoulder.
Chapter IV. Domestic Bliss
Holcroft had been given a foretaste of the phase of torment which he was
destined to endure in his domestic relations, and was planning to secure a
refuge into which he could not be pursued. He had made himself a little more
presentable for supper, instinctively aware that nothing would escape the
lynx-eyed widow, and was taking some measurements from the floor to a
stovepipe hole leading into the chimney flue, when he became aware that
someone was in the doorway. Turning, he saw Jane with her small catlike eyes
fixed intently upon him. Instantly he had the feeling that he was being
watched and would be watched.
"Supper's ready," said the girl, disappearing.
Mrs. Mumpson smiled upon him--if certain contortions of her thin, sharp face
could be termed a smile--from that side of the table at which his wife had sat
so many years, and he saw that the low rocking chair, which he had preserved
jealously from his former "help," had been brought from the parlor and
established in the old familiar place. Mrs. Mumpson folded her hands and
assumed a look of deep solemnity; Jane, as instructed, also lowered her head,
and they waited for him to say "grace." He was in far too bitter a mood for
any such pious farce, and stolidly began to help them to the ham and eggs,
which viands had been as nearly spoiled as was possible in their preparation.
The widow raised her head with a profound sigh which set Holcroft's teeth on
edge, but he proceeded silently with his supper. The biscuits were heavy
enough to burden the lightest conscience; and the coffee, simply grounds
swimming around in lukewarm water. He took a sip, then put down his cup and
said, quietly, "Guess I'll take a glass of milk tonight. Mrs. Mumpson, if you
don't know how to make coffee, I can soon show you."
"Why! Isn't it right? How strange! Perhaps it would be well for you to show
me just exactly how you like it, for it will afford me much pleasure to make
it to your taste. Men's tastes differ so! I've heard that no two men's
tastes were alike; and, after all, everything is a matter of taste. Now
Cousin Abiram doesn't believe in coffee at all. He thinks it is unwholesome.
Have YOU ever thought that it might be unwholesome?"
"I'm used to it, and would like it good when I have it at all."
"Why, of course, of course! You must have it exactly to your taste. Jane, my
dear, we must put our minds on coffee and learn precisely how Mr. Holcroft
likes it, and when the hired girl comes we must carefully superintend her when
she makes it. By the way, I suppose you will employ my assistant tomorrow,
"I can't get a girl short of town," was the reply, "and there is so much cream
in the dairy that ought to be churned at once that I'll wait till next Monday
and take down the butter."
Mrs. Mumpson put on a grave, injured air, and said, "Well," so disapprovingly
that it was virtually saying that it was not well at all. Then, suddenly
remembering that this was not good policy, she was soon all smiles and chatter
again. "How cozy this is!" she cried, "and how soon one acquires the home
feeling! Why, anyone looking in at the window would think that we were an old
established family, and yet this is but our first meal together. But it won't
be the last, Mr. Holcroft. I cannot make it known to you how your loneliness,
which Cousin Lemuel has so feelingly described to me, has affected my
feelings. Cousin Nancy said but this very day that you have had desperate
times with all kinds of dreadful creatures. But all that's past. Jane and me
will give a look of stability and respecterbility to every comer."
"Well, really, Mrs. Mumpson, I don't know who's to come."
"Oh, you'll see!" she replied, wrinkling her thin, blue lips into what was
meant for a smile, and nodding her head at him encouragingly. "You won't be so
isolated no more. Now that I'm here, with my offspring, your neighbors will
feel that they can show you their sympathy. The most respecterble people in
town will call, and your life will grow brighter and brighter; clouds will
roll away, and--"
"I hope the neighbors will not be so ill-mannered as to come without being
invited," remarked Mr. Holcroft grimly. "It's too late in the day for them to
"My being here with Jane will make all the difference in the world," resumed
Mrs. Mumpson, with as saccharine an expression as she could assume. "They will
come out of pure kindness and friendly interest, with the wish to encourage--"
"Mrs. Mumpson," said Holcroft, half desperately, "if anyone comes it'll be out
of pure curiosity, and I don't want such company. Selling enough butter,
eggs, and produce to pay expenses will encourage me more than all the people
of Oakville, if they should come in a body. What's the use of talking in this
way? I've done without the neighbors so far, and I'm sure they've been very
careful to do without me. I shall have nothing to do with them except in the
way of business, and as I said to you down at Lemuel Weeks's, business must be
the first consideration with us all," and he rose from the table.
"Oh, certainly, certainly!" the widow hastened to say, "but then business is
like a cloud, and the meetings and greetings of friends is a sort of silver
lining, you know. What would the world be without friends--the society of
those who take an abiding interest? Believe me, Mr. Holcroft," she continued,
bringing her long, skinny finger impressively down on the table, "you have
lived alone so long that you are unable to see the crying needs of your own
constitution. As a Christian man, you require human sympathy and--"
Poor Holcroft knew little of centrifugal force; but at that moment he was a
living embodiment of it, feeling that if he did not escape he would fly into a
thousand atoms. Saying nervously, "I've a few chores to do," he seized his
hat, and hastening out, wandered disconsolately around the barn. "I'm never
going to be able to stand her," he groaned. "I know now why my poor wife shook
her head whenever this woman was mentioned. The clack of her tongue would
drive any man living crazy, and the gimlet eyes of that girl Jane would bore
holes through a saint's patience. Well, well! I'll put a stove up in my
room, then plowing and planting time will soon be here, and I guess I can
stand it at mealtimes for three months, for unless she stops her foolishness
she shan't stay any longer."
Jane had not spoken during the meal, but kept her eyes on Holcroft, except
when he looked toward her, and then she instantly averted her gaze. When she
was alone with her mother, she said abruptly, "We aint a-goin' to stay here
"Why not?" was the sharp, responsive query.
"'Cause the same look's comin' into his face that was in Cousin Lemuel's and
Cousin Abiram's and all the rest of 'em. 'Fi's you I'd keep still now.
'Pears to me they all want you to keep still and you won't."
"Jane," said Mrs. Mumpson in severe tones, "you're an ignorant child. Don't
presume to instruct ME! Besides, this case is entirely different. Mr.
Holcroft must be made to understand from the start that I'm not a common
woman--that I'm his equal, and in most respects his superior. If he aint made
to feel this, it'll never enter his head--but law! There's things which you
can't and oughtn't to understand."
"But I do," said the girl shortly, "and he won't marry you, nor keep you, if
you talk him to death."
"Jane!" gasped Mrs. Mumpson, as she sank into the chair and rocked violently.
The night air was keen and soon drove Holcroft into the house. As he passed
the kitchen window, he saw that Mrs. Mumpson was in his wife's rocking chair
and that Jane was clearing up the table.
He kindled a fire on the parlor hearth, hoping, but scarcely expecting, that
he would be left alone.
Nor was he very long, for the widow soon opened the door and entered, carrying
the chair. "Oh, you are here," she said sweetly. "I heard the fire crackling,
and I do so love open wood fires. They're company in themselves, and they
make those who bask in the flickering blaze inclined to be sociable. To think
of how many long, lonely evenings you have sat here when you had persons in
your employ with whom you could have no affinity whatever! I don't see how
you stood it. Under such circumstances life must cloud up into a dreary
burden." It never occurred to Mrs. Mumpson that her figures of speech were
often mixed. She merely felt that the sentimental phase of conversation must
be very flowery. But during the first evening she had resolved on prudence.
"Mr. Holcroft shall have time," she thought, "for the hope to steal into his
heart that his housekeeper may become something more to him than
housekeeper--that there is a nearer and loftier relation."
Meanwhile she was consumed with curiosity to know something about the
"persons" previously employed and his experiences with them. With a
momentary, and, as she felt, a proper pause before descending to ordinary
topics, she resumed, "My dear Mr. Holcroft, no doubt it will be a relief to
your overfraught mind to pour into a symperthetic ear the story of your
troubles with those--er--those peculiar females that--er--that--"
"Mrs. Mumpson, it would be a much greater relief to my mind to forget all
about 'em," he replied briefly.
"INDEED!" exclaimed the widow. "Was they as bad as that? Who'd 'a' thought
it! Well, well, well; what people there is in the world! And you couldn't
abide 'em, then?"
"No, I couldn't."
"Well now; what hussies they must have been! And to think you were here all
alone, with no better company! It makes my heart bleed. They DO say that
Bridget Malony is equal to anything, and I've no doubt but that she took
things and did things."
"Well, she's taken herself off, and that's enough." Then he groaned inwardly,
"Good Lord! I could stand her and all her tribe bettern'n this one."
"Yes, Mr. Holcroft," pursued Mrs. Mumpson, sinking her voice to a loud,
confidential whisper, "and I don't believe you've any idea how much she took
with her. I fear you've been robbed in all these vicissitudes. Men never
know what's in a house. They need caretakers; respecterble women, that would
sooner cut out their tongues than purloin. How happy is the change which has
been affected! How could you abide in the house with such a person as that
"Well, well, Mrs. Mumpson! She abode with herself. I at least had this room
in peace and quietness."
"Of course, of course! A person so utterly unrespecterble would not think of
entering THIS apartment; but then you had to meet her, you know. You could
not act as if she was not, when she was, and there being so much of her, too.
She was a monstrous-looking person. It's dreadful to think that such persons
belong to our sex. I don't wonder you feel as you do about it all. I can
understand you perfectly. All your senserbleness was offended. You felt that
your very home had become sacrilegious. Well, now, I suppose she said awful
things to you?"
Holcroft could not endure this style of inquisition and comment another second
longer. He rose and said, "Mrs. Mumpson, if you want to know just what she
said and did, you must go and ask her. I'm very tired. I'll go out and see
that the stock's all right, and then go to bed."
"Oh, certainly, certainly!" ejaculated the widow. "Repose is nature's sweet
rester, says the poet. I can see how recalling those dreadful scenes with
those peculiar females--" But he was gone.
In passing out, he caught sight of Jane whisking back into the kitchen. "She's
been listening," he thought. "Well, I'll go to town tomorrow afternoon, get a
stove for my room upstairs, and stuff the keyhole."
He went to the barn and looked with envy at the placid cows and quiet horses.
At last, having lingered as long as he could, he returned to the kitchen.
Jane had washed and put away the supper dishes after a fashion, and was now
sitting on the edge of a chair in the farthest corner of the room.
"Take this candle and go to your mother," he said curtly. Then he fastened
the doors and put out the lamp. Standing for an instant at the parlor
entrance, he added, "Please rake up the fire and put out the light before you
come up. Good night."
"Oh, certainly, certainly! We'll look after everything just as if it was our
own. The sense of strangeness will soon pass--" But his steps were halfway up
Mother and daughter listened until they heard him overhead, then, taking the
candle, they began a most minute examination of everything in the room.
Poor Holcroft listened also; too worried, anxious, and nervous to sleep until
they came up and all sounds ceased in the adjoining apartment.
Chapter V. Mrs. Mumpson Takes Up Her Burdens
The next morning Holcroft awoke early. The rising sun flooded his plain
little room with mellow light. It was impossible to give way to dejection in
that radiance, and hope, he scarcely knew why, sprung up in his heart. He was
soon dressed, and having kindled the kitchen fire, went out on the porch.
There had been a change in the wind during the night, and now it blew softly
from the south. The air was sweet with the indefinable fragrance of spring.
The ethereal notes of bluebirds were heard on every side. Migratory robins
were feeding in the orchard, whistling and calling their noisy congratulations
on arriving at old haunts. The frost was already oozing from the ground, but
the farmer welcomed the mud, knowing that it indicated a long advance toward
plowing and planting time.
He bared his head to the sweet, warm air and took long, deep breaths. "If this
weather holds," he muttered, "I can soon put in some early potatoes on that
warm hillside yonder. Yes, I can stand even her for the sake of being on the
old place in mornings like this. The weather'll be getting better every day
and I can be out of doors more. I'll have a stove in my room tonight; I would
last night if the old air-tight hadn't given out completely. I'll take it to
town this afternoon and sell it for old iron. Then I'll get a bran'-new one
and put it up in my room. They can't follow me there and they can't follow me
outdoors, and so perhaps I can live in peace and work most of the time."
Thus he was muttering to himself, as lonely people so often do, when he felt
that someone was near. Turning suddenly, he saw Jane half-hidden by the
kitchen door. Finding herself observed, the girl came forward and said in her
brief monotonous way:
"Mother'll be down soon. If you'll show me how you want the coffee and
things, I guess I can learn."
"I guess you'll have to, Jane. There'll be more chance of your teaching your
mother than of her teaching you, I fear. But we'll see, we'll see; it's
strange people can't see what's sensible and best for 'em when they see so
The child made no reply, but watched him intently as he measured out and then
ground half a cup of coffee.
"The firs thing to do," he began kindly, "is to fill the kettle with water
fresh drawn from the well. Never make coffee or tea with water that's been
boiled two or three times. Now, I'll give the kettle a good rinsing, so as to
make sure you start with it clean."
Having accomplished this, he filled the vessel at the well and placed it on
the fire, remarking as he did so, "Your mother can cook a little, can't she?"
"I s'pose so," Jane replied. "When father was livin' mother said she kept a
girl. Since then, we've visited round. But she'll learn, and if she can't, I
"What on earth--but there's no use of talking. When the water boils--bubbles
up and down, you know--call me. I suppose you and your mother can get the
rest of the breakfast? Oh, good morning, Mrs. Mumpson! I was just showing
Jane about the coffee. You two can go on and do all the rest, but don't touch
the coffee till the kettle boils, and then I'll come in and show you my way,
and, if you please, I don't wish it any other way."
"Oh, certainly, certainly!" began Mrs. Mumpson, but Holcroft waited to hear no
"She's a woman," he muttered, "and I'll say nothing rude or ugly to her, but I
shan't listen to her talk half a minute when I can help myself; and if she
won't do any thing but talk--well, we'll see, we'll see! A few hours in the
dairy will show whether she can use anything besides her tongue."
As soon as they were alone Jane turned sharply on her mother and said, "Now
you've got to do something to help. At Cousin Lemuel's and other places they
wouldn't let us help. Anyhow, they wouldn't let me. He 'spects us both to
work, and pays you for it. I tell you agin, he won't let us stay here unless
we do. I won't go visitin' round any more, feelin' like a stray cat in every
house I go to. You've got to work, and talk less."
"Why, Jane! How YOU talk!"
"I talk sense. Come, help me get breakfast."
"Do you think that's a proper way for a child to address a parent?"
"No matter what I think. Come and help. You'll soon know what he thinks if
we keep breakfast waitin'."
"Well, I'll do such menial work until he gets a girl, and then he shall learn
that he can't expect one with such respecterble connections--"
"Hope I may never see any of 'em agin," interrupted Jane shortly, and then she
relapsed into silence while her mother rambled on in her characteristic way,
making singularly inapt efforts to assist in the task before them.
As Holcroft rose from milking a cow he found Jane beside him. A ghost could
not have come more silently, and again her stealthy ways gave him an
unpleasant sensation. "Kettle is boilin'," she said, and was gone.
He shook his head and muttered, "Queer tribe, these Mumpsons! I've only to
get an odd fish of a girl to help, and I'll have something like a menagerie in
the house." He carried his pails of foaming milk to the dairy, and then
entered the kitchen.
"I've only a minute," he began hastily, seeking to forestall the widow. "Yes,
the kettle's boiling all right. First scald out the coffeepot--put
three-quarters of a cup of ground coffee into the pot, break an egg into it,
so; pour on the egg and coffee half a cup of cold water and stir it all up
well, this way. Next pour in about a pint of boiling water from the kettle,
set the pot on the stove and let it--the coffee, I mean--cook twenty minutes,
remember, not less than twenty minutes. I'll be back to breakfast by that
time. Now you know just how I want my coffee, don't you?" looking at Jane.
Jane nodded, but Mrs. Mumpson began, "Oh certainly, certainly! Boil an egg
twenty minutes, add half a cup of cold water, and--"
"I know," interrupted Jane, "I can always do as you did."
Holcroft again escaped to the barn, and eventually returned with a deep sigh.
"I'll have to face a good deal of her music this morning," he thought, "but I
shall have at least a good cup of coffee to brace me."
Mrs. Mumpson did not abandon the suggestion that grace should be said,--she
never abandoned anything,--but the farmer, in accordance with his purpose to
be civil, yet pay no attention to her obtrusive ways, gave no heed to her
hint. He thought Jane looked apprehensive, and soon learned the reason. His
coffee was at least hot, but seemed exceedingly weak.
"I hope now that it's just right," said Mrs. Mumpson complacently, "and
feeling sure that it was made just to suit you, I filled the coffeepot full
from the kettle. We can drink what we desire for breakfast and then the rest
can be set aside until dinner time and warmed over. Then you'll have it just
to suit you for the next meal, and we, at the same time, will be practicing
econermy. It shall now be my great aim to help you econermize. Any coarse,
menial hands can work, but the great thing to be considered is a caretaker;
one who, by thoughtfulness and the employment of her mind, will make the labor
of others affective."
During this speech, Holcroft could only stare at the woman. The rapid motion
of her thin jaw seemed to fascinate him, and he was in perplexity over not
merely her rapid utterance, but also the queries. Had she maliciously spoiled
the coffee? Or didn't she know any better? "I can't make her out," he
thought, "but she shall learn that I have a will of my own," and he quietly
rose, took the coffeepot, and poured its contents out of doors; then went
through the whole process of making his favorite beverage again, saying
coldly, "Jane, you had better watch close this time. I don't wish anyone to
touch the coffeepot but you."
Even Mrs. Mumpson was a little abashed by his manner, but when he resumed his
breakfast she speedily recovered her complacency and volubility. "I've always
heard," she said, with her little cackling laugh, "that men would be
extravergant, especially in some things. There are some things they're
fidgety about and will have just so. Well, well, who has a better right than
a well-to-do, fore-handed man? Woman is to complement the man, and it should
be her aim to study the great--the great--shall we say reason, for her being?
Which is adaptation," and she uttered the word with feeling, assured that
Holcroft could not fail of being impressed by it. The poor man was bolting
such food as had been prepared in his haste to get away.
"Yes," continued the widow, "adaptation is woman's mission and--"
"Really, Mrs. Mumpson, your and Jane's mission this morning will be to get as
much butter as possible out of the cream and milk on hand. I'll set the old
dog on the wheel, and start the churn within half an hour," and he rose with
the thought, "I'd rather finish my breakfast on milk and coffee by and by than
stand this." And he said, "Please let the coffee be until I come in to show
you about taking out and working the butter."
The scenes in the dairy need not be dwelt upon. He saw that Jane might be
taught, and that she would probably try to do all that her strength permitted.
It was perfectly clear that Mrs. Mumpson was not only ignorant of the duties
which he had employed her to perform, but that she was also too preoccupied
with her talk and notions of gentility ever to learn. He was already
satisfied that in inducing him to engage her, Lemuel Weeks had played him a
trick, but there seemed no other resource than to fulfill his agreement. With
Mrs. Mumpson in the house, there might be less difficulty in securing and
keeping a hired girl who, with Jane, might do the essential work. But the
future looked so unpromising that even the strong coffee could not sustain his
spirits. The hopefulness of the early morning departed, leaving nothing but
Mrs. Mumpson was bent upon accompanying him to town and engaging the girl
herself. "There would be great propriety in my doing so," she argued at
dinner, "and propriety is something that adorns all the human race. There
would be no danger of my getting any of the peculiar females such as you have
been afflicted with. As I am to superintend her labors, she will look up to
me with respect and humility if she learns from the first to recognize in me a
superior on whom she will be dependent for her daily bread. No shiftless
hussy would impose upon ME. I would bring home--how sweet the word sounds!--a
model of industry and patient endurance. She would be deferential, she would
know her place, too. Everything would go like clockwork in our home. I'll
put on my things at once and--"
"Excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. It would not be right to leave Jane here alone.
Moreover, I'd rather engage my own help."
"But my dear Mr. Holcroft, you don't realize--men never do realize--that you
will have a long, lonely ride with a female of unknown--unknown antercedents.
It will be scarcely respecterble, and respecterbility should be man and
woman's chief aim. Jane is not a timid child, and in an emergency like this,
even if she was, she would gladly sacrifice herself to sustain the proprieties
of life. Now that your life has begun under new and better auspices, I feel
that I ought to plead with you not to cloud your brightening prospects by a
thoughtless unregard of what society looks upon as proper. The eyes of the
community will now be upon us--"
"You must excuse me, Mrs. Mumpson. All I ask of the community is to keep
their eyes on their own business, while I attend to mine in my own way. The
probabilities are that the girl will come out on the stage Monday," and he
rose from the dinner table and hastily made his preparations for departure.
He was soon driving rapidly away, having a sort of nervous apprehension lest
Jane, or the widow, should suddenly appear on the seat beside him. A basket
of eggs and some inferior butter, with the burnt-out stove, were in his wagon
and his bank book was in his pocket. It was with sinking heart that he
thought of making further inroads on his small accumulations.
Before he was out of sight Mrs. Mumpson betook herself to the rocking chair
and began to expatiate on the blindness and obduracy of men in general and of
Mr. Holcroft in particular. "They are all much alike," she complained, "and
are strangely neglectful of the proprieties of life. My dear, deceased
husband, your father, was becoming gradually senserble of my value in guiding
him in this respect, and indeed, I may add in all respects, when, in the very
prime of his expanding manhood, he was laid low. Of course, my happiness was
buried then and my heart can never throb again, but I have a mission in the
world--I feel it--and here is a desolate home bereft of female influence and
consolation and hitherto painfully devoid of respecterbility.
"I once called on the late Mrs. Holcroft, and--I must say it--I went away
depressed by a sense of her lack of ability to develop in her husband those
qualities which would make him an ornament to society. She was a silent
woman, she lacked mind and ideas. She had seen little of the world and knew
not what was swaying people. Therefore, her husband, having nothing else to
think of, became absorbed in the accumulation of dollars. Not that I object
to dollars--they have their proper place,--but minds should be fixed on all
things. We should take a deep personal interest in our fellow beings, and
thus we grow broad. As I was saying, Mr. Holcroft was not developed by his
late spouse. He needs awakening, arousing, stimulating, drawing out, and such
I feel to be my mission. I must be patient; I cannot expect the habits of
years to pass away under a different kind of female influence, at once."
Jane had been stolidly washing and putting away dishes during this partial
address to herself and partial soliloquy, but now remarked, "You and me will
pass away in a week if you go on as you've begun. I can see it comin'. Then,
where'll we go to?"
"Your words, Jane, only show that you are an ignorant, short-sighted child.
Do you suppose that a woman of my years and experience would make no better
provision for the future than a man's changeful mind--a warped and undeveloped
mind, at that? No; I have an agreement with Mr. Holcroft. I shall be a
member of his household for three months at least, and long before that he
will begin to see everything in a new light. It will gradually dawn upon him
that he has been defrauded of proper female influence and society. Now, he is
crude, he thinks only of work and accumulating; but when the work is done by a
menial female's hands and his mind is more at rest, there will begin to steal
in upon him the cravings of his mind. He will see that material things are
not all in all."
"P'raps he will. I don't half know that you're talkin' about. 'Fi's you, I'd
learn to work and do things as he wants 'em. That's what I'm going to do.
Shall I go now and make up his bed and tidy his room?"
"I think I will accompany you, Jane, and see that your task is properly
"Of course you want to see everythin' in the room, just as I do."
"As housekeeper, I should see everything that is under my care. That is the
right way to look at the matter."
"Well, come and look then."
"You are becoming strangely disrespectful, Jane."
"Can't help it," replied the girl, "I'm gettin' mad. We've been elbowed
around long's I can remember, at least I've been, and now we're in a place
where we've a right to be, and you do nothin' but talk, talk, talk, when he
hates talk. Now you'll go up in his room and you'll see everythin' in it, so
you could tell it all off tomorrow. Why, can't you see he hates talk and
wants somethin' done?"
"Jane," said Mrs. Mumpson, in her most severe and dignified manner, "you are
not only disrespectful to your parent, but you're a time server. What Mr.
Holcroft wants is a very secondary matter; what is BEST for him is the chief
consideration. But I have touched on things far above your comprehension.
Come, you can make up the bed, and I shall inspect as becomes my station."
Chapter VI. A Marriage!
In a quiet side street of the market town in which Mr. Holcroft was accustomed
to dispose of his farm produce was a three-story tenement house. A family
occupied each floor, those dwelling in the first two stories being plain,
respectable people of the mechanic class. The rooms in the third story were,
of course, the cheapest, but even from the street might be seen evidences that
more money had been spent upon them than could have been saved in rent. Lace
curtains were looped aside from the windows, through which were caught
glimpses of flowers that must have come from a greenhouse. We have only to
enter these apartments to find that the suggestion of refined taste is amply
fulfilled. While nothing is costly, there is a touch of grace, a hint of
beauty in everything permitting simple adornment. The mistress of these rooms
is not satisfied with neatness and order merely; it is her instinct to add
something to please the eye--a need essential to her, yet too often
conspicuously absent in rented quarters of a similar character.
It is remarkable to what a degree people's abodes are a reflex of themselves.
Mrs. Alida Ostrom had been brought to these rooms a happy bride but a few
months since. They were then bare and not very clean. Her husband had seemed
bent on indulging her so far as his limited means permitted. He had declared
that his income was so modest that he could afford nothing better than these
cheap rooms in an obscure street, but she had been abundantly content, for she
had known even the extremity of poverty.
Alida Ostrom had passed beyond the period of girlhood, with its superficial
desires and ambitions. When her husband first met her, she was a woman of
thirty, and had been chastened by deep sorrows and some bitter experiences.
Years before, she and her mother had come to this town from a New England city
in the hope of bettering their circumstances. They had no weapons other than
their needles with which to fight life's battle, but they were industrious and
frugal--characteristic traits which won the confidence of the shopkeepers for
whom they worked. All went as well, perhaps, as they could expect, for two or
three years, their secluded lives passing uneventfully and, to a certain
extent, happily. They had time to read some good books obtained at a public
library; they enjoyed an occasional holiday in the country; and they went to
church twice every Sunday when it was not stormy. The mother usually dozed in
the obscure seat near the door which they occupied, for she was getting old,
and the toil of the long week wearied her.--Alida, on the contrary, was
closely attentive. Her mind seemed to crave all the sustenance it could get
from every source, and her reverential manner indicated that the hopes
inspired by her faith were dear and cherished. Although they lived such quiet
lives and kept themselves apart from their neighbors, there was no mystery
about them which awakened surmises. "They've seen better days," was the common
remark when they were spoken of; and this was true. While they had no desire
to be social with the people among whom they lived, they did not awaken
prejudices by the assertion of superiority. Indeed, it was seen that the two
women had all they could do to earn their livelihood, and they were left to do
this in peace.
When Alida Armstrong--for that was her maiden name--carried her own and her
mother's work to and from the shops, she often encountered admiring glances.
She was not exactly pretty, but she had the good, refined face which is often
more attractive than the merely pretty one, and she possessed a trim, rounded
figure which she knew how to clothe with taste from the simplest and most
inexpensive materials. Nor did she seek to dress above her station. When
passing along the street, any discerning person would recognize that she was a
working girl; only the superficial would look upon her as a common-place girl.
There was something in her modest air and graceful, elastic carriage which
suggested the thought to many observers, "She has seen better days."
The memory of these days, which had promised immunity from wearing toil,
anxiety, and poverty, was a barrier between the two women and their present
world. Death had bereft them of husband, father, and such property as he had
left had been lost in a bad investment. Learning that they were almost
penniless, they had patiently set about earning honest bread. This they had
succeeded in doing as long as the mother kept her usual health. But the
infirmities of age were creeping upon her. One winter she took a heavy cold
and was very ill. She rallied only temporarily in the milder days of spring.
In the summer's heat her strength failed, and she died.
During her mother's long illness Alida was devotion itself. The strain upon
her was severe indeed, for she not only had to earn food for both, but there
were also doctor's bills, medicines, and delicacies to pay for. The poor girl
grew thin from work by day, watching by night, and from fear and anxiety at
all times. Their scanty savings were exhausted; articles were sold from their
rooms; the few precious heirlooms of silver and china were disposed of; Alida
even denied herself the food she needed rather than ask for help or permit her
mother to want for anything which ministered to their vain hopes of renewed
What she should have done she scarcely knew, had not an unexpected friend
interested himself in her behalf. In one of the men's clothing stores was a
cutter from whom she obtained work. Soon after he appeared in this shop he
began to manifest signs of interest in her He was about her own age, he had a
good trade, and she often wondered why he appeared so reticent and moody, as
compared with others in similar positions. But he always spoke kindly to her,
and when her mother's illness first developed, he showed all the leniency
permitted to him in regard to her work. His apparent sympathy, and the need
of explaining why she was not able to finish her tasks as promptly as usual,
led her gradually to reveal to him the sad struggle in which she was engaged.
He promised to intercede in her behalf with their mutual employers, and asked
if he might come to see her mother.
Recognizing how dependent she was upon this man's good will, and seeing
nothing in his conduct but kindness and sympathy, she consented. His course
and his words confirmed all her good impressions and awakened on her side
corresponding sympathy united with a lively gratitude. He told her that he
also was a stranger in the town, that he had but few acquaintances and no
friends, that he had lost relatives and was in no need to go about like other
young men. His manner was marked apparently by nothing more than interest and
a wish to help her, and was untinged by gallantry; so they gradually became
good friends. When he called Sunday afternoons the mother looked at him
wistfully, in the hope that her daughter would not be left without a
protector. At last the poor woman died, and Alida was in sore distress, for
she had no means with which to bury her. Ostrom came and said in the kindest
"You must let me lend you what you need and you can pay me back with interest,
if you wish. You won't be under any obligation, for I have money lying idle
in the bank. When you have only yourself to support it will not take you long
to earn the sum."
There seemed nothing else for her to do and so it was arranged. With
tear-blinded eyes she made her simple mourning, and within a week after her
mother's death was at work again, eager to repay her debt. He urged her not
to hasten--to take all the rest she could while the hot weather lasted, and
few evenings passed that he did not come to take her out for a walk through
the quieter streets.
By this time he had won her confidence completely, and her heart overflowed
with gratitude. Of course she was not so unsophisticated as not to know
whither all this attention was tending, but it was a great relief to her mind
that his courtship was so quiet and undemonstrative. Her heart was sore and
grief-stricken, and she was not conscious of any other feeling toward him than
the deepest gratitude and wish to make such return as was within her power.
He was apparently very frank in regard to his past life, and nothing was said
which excited her suspicions. Indeed, she felt that it would be disloyalty to
think of questioning or surmising evil of one who had proved himself so true a
friend in her sore need. She was therefore somewhat prepared for the words he
spoke one warm September day, as they sat together in a little shaded park.
"Alida," he said, a little nervously, "we are both strangers and alone in this
world, but surely we are no longer strangers to each other. Let us go quietly
to some minister and be married. That is the best way for you to pay your
debt and keep me always in debt to you."
She was silent a moment, then faltered, "I'd rather pay all my debt first."
"What debts can there be between husband and wife? Come now, let us look at
the matter sensibly. I don't want to frighten you. Things will go on much
the same. We can take quiet rooms, I will bring work to you instead of your
having to go after it. It's nobody's business but our own. We've not a
circle of relations to consult or invite. We can go to some parsonage, the
minister's family will be the witnesses; then I'll leave you at your room as
usual, and no one will be any the wiser till I've found a place where we can
go to housekeeping. That won't be long, I can tell you."
He placed the matter in such a simple, natural light that she did not know how
"Perhaps I do not love you as much as you ought to be loved, and deserve to be
in view of all your kindness," she tried to explain. "I feel I ought to be
very truthful and not deceive you in the least, as I know you would not
deceive me." So strong a shiver passed through his frame that she exclaimed,
"You are taking cold or you don't feel well."
"Oh, it's nothing!" he said hastily, "only the night air, and then a fellow
always feels a little nervous, I suppose, when he's asking for something on
which his happiness depends. I'm satisfied with such feeling and good will as
you have for me, and will be only too glad to get you just as you are. Come,
before it is too late in the evening."
"Is your heart bent on this, after what I have said, Wilson?"
"Yes, yes, indeed!" clasping her hand and drawing her to her feet.
"It would seem very ungrateful in me to refuse, after all you have done for me
and mother, if you think it's right and best. Will you go to the minister
whose church I attended, and who came to see mother?"
"Certainly, anyone you like," and he put her hand on his arm and led her away.
The clergyman listened sympathetically to her brief history of Ostrom's
kindness, then performed a simple ceremony which his wife and daughters
witnessed. As they were about to depart he said, "I will send you a
"Don't trouble yourself to do that," said the groom. "I'll call for it some
Never had she seen Ostrom in such gay spirits as on their return; and,
woman-like, she was happy chiefly because she had made him happy. She also
felt a glad sense of security. Her mother's dying wish had been fulfilled;
she had now a protector, and would soon have a home instead of a boarding
place among strangers.
Her husband speedily found the rooms to which the reader has been introduced.
The street on which they were located was no thoroughfare. Its farther end
was closed by a fence and beyond were fields. With the exception of those who
dwelt upon it or had business with the residents, few people came thither. To
this locality, Ostrom brought his bride, and selected rooms whose windows were
above those of the surrounding houses. So far from regretting this isolation
and remoteness from the central life of the town, Alida's feelings sanctioned
his choice. The sense of possessing security and a refuge was increased, and
it was as natural for her to set about making the rooms homelike as it was to
breathe. Her husband appeared to have exhausted his tendencies toward close
economy in the choice of apartments, and she was given more money than she
desired with which to furnish and decorate. He said, "fix everything up to
suit your mind, and I'll be satisfied."
This she did with such skill, taste, and good management that she returned a
large portion of the sum he had given her, whereupon he laughingly remarked
that she had already saved more than she owed him. He seemed disinclined to
accompany her in the selection of their simple outfit, but professed himself
so pleased with her choice of everything that she was gratified and happy in
the thought of relieving him from trouble.
Thus their married life began under what appeared to her the most promising
and congenial circumstances. She soon insisted on having work again, and her
busy fingers did much to increase his income.
Alida was not an exacting woman, and recognized from the beginning that her
husband would naturally have peculiar ways of his own. Unlike Mrs. Mumpson,
she never expatiated on "adaptation," but Ostrom soon learned, with much
inward relief, that his wife would accept unquestioningly what appeared to be
his habits and preferences. He went early to his place of work, taking the
nice little lunch which she prepared, and returned in the dusk of the evening
when he always found a warm dinner in readiness. After this, he was ready
enough to walk with her, but, as before, chose the least frequented streets.
Places of amusement and resort seemed distasteful. On Sundays he enjoyed a
ramble in the country as long as the season permitted, and then showed a great
disinclination to leave the fireside. For a time he went with her in the
evening to church, but gradually persuaded her to remain at home and read or
talk to him.
His wife felt that she had little cause to complain of his quiet ways and
methodical habits. He had exhibited them before marriage and they were
conducive to her absolute sense of proprietorship in him--an assurance so dear
to a woman's heart. The pleasures of his home and her society appeared to be
all that he craved. At times she had wondered a little at a certain air of
apprehensiveness in his manner when steps were heard upon the stairs, but as
the quiet days and weeks passed, such manifestations of nervousness ceased.
Occasionally, he would start violently and mutter strange words in his sleep,
but noting disturbed the growing sense of security and satisfaction in Alida's
heart. The charm of a regular, quiet life grows upon one who has a nature
fitted for it, and this was true to an unusual degree of Alida Ostrom. Her
content was also increased by the fact that her husband was able each month to
deposit a goodly portion of their united earnings in a savings bank.
Every day, every week, was so like the preceding ones that it seemed as if
their happy life might go on forever. She was gladly conscious that there was
more than gratitude and good will in her heart. She now cherished a deep
affection for her husband and felt that he had become essential to her life.
"Oh, how happy mother would be if she knew how safe and protected I am!" she
murmured one March evening, as she was preparing her husband's dinner.
"Leaving me alone in the world was far worse to her than dying."
At that very moment a gaunt-looking woman, with a child in her arms, stood in
the twilight on the opposite side of the street, looking up at the windows.
Chapter VII. From Home to the Street
As the shadows of the gloomy March evening deepened, Alida lighted the lamp,
and was then a little surprised to hear a knock at the door. No presentiment
of trouble crossed her mind; she merely thought that one of her neighbors on
the lower floors had stepped up to borrow something.
"Come in!" she cried, as she adjusted the shade of the lamp.
A tall, thin, pale woman entered, carrying a child that was partly hidden by a
thin shawl, their only outer protection against the chill winds which had been
blustering all day. Alida looked at the stranger inquiringly and kindly,
expecting an appeal for charity. The woman sank into a chair as if exhausted,
and fixed her dark hollow eyes on Mrs. Ostrom. She appeared consumed by a
Alida wondered at the strange chill of apprehension with which she encountered
this gaze. It was so intent, so searching, yet so utterly devoid of a trace
of good will. She began gently, "Can I do anything for you?"
For a moment or two longer there was no response other than the same cold,
questioning scrutiny, as if, instead of a sweet-faced woman, something
monstrously unnatural was present. At last, in slow, icy utterance, came the
words, "So you are--HER!"
"Is this woman insane?" thought Alida. "Why else does she look at me so? Oh,
that Wilson would come! I'm sorry for you, my good woman," she began kindly.
"You are laboring under some mistake. My husband--"
"YOUR husband!" exclaimed the stranger, with an indescribable accent of scorn
"Yes," replied Alida with quiet dignity. "MY husband will be home soon and he
will protect me. You have no right to enter my rooms and act as you do. If
you are sick and in trouble, I and my husband--"
"Please tell me, miss, how he became YOUR husband?"
"By lawful marriage, by my pastor."
"We'll soon see how LAWFUL it was," replied the woman, with a bitter laugh.
"I'd like you to tell me how often a man can be married lawfully."
"What do you mean?" cried Alida, with a sudden flash in her blue eyes. Then,
as if reproaching herself, she added kindly, "Pardon me. I see you are not
well. You do not realize what you are saying or where you are. Take a seat
nearer the fire, and when Mr. Ostrom comes from his work he'll take you to
All the while she was speaking the woman regarded her with a hard, stony gaze;
then replied, coldly and decisively, "You are wrong, miss"--how that title
grated on Alida's ears!--"I am neither insane nor drunk. I do know what I am
saying and where I am. You are playing a bold game or else you have been
deceived, and very easily deceived, too. They say some women are so eager to
be married that they ask no questions, but jump at the first chance. Whether
deceived or deceiving, it doesn't matter now. But you and he shall learn that
there is a law in the land which will protect an honest woman in her sacred
rights. You needn't look so shocked and bewildered. You are not a young,
giddy girl if I may judge from your face. What else could you expect when you
took up with a stranger you knew nothing about? Do you know that likeness?"
and she drew from her bosom a daguerreotype.
Alida waved it away as she said indignantly, "I won't believe ill of my
"No, miss," interrupted the woman sternly, "you are right for once. You won't
indeed believe ill of YOUR husband, but you'll have to believe ill of MINE.
There's no use of your putting on such airs any longer. No matter how rash
and silly you may have been, if you have a spark of honesty you'll be open to
proof. If you and he try to brazen it out, the law will open both your eyes.
Look at that likeness, look at these letters; and I have other proof and
witnesses which can't be disputed. The name of the man you are living with is
not Wilson Ostrom. His name is Henry Ferguson. I am Mrs. Ferguson, and I
have my marriage certificate, and--What! Are you going to faint? Well, I can
wait till you recover and till HE comes," and she coolly sat down again.
Alida had glanced at the proofs which the woman had thrust into her hands,
then staggered back to a lounge that stood near. She might have fainted, but
at that awful moment she heard a familiar step on the stairs. She was facing
the door; the terrible stranger sat at one side, with her back toward it.
When Ostrom entered he first saw Alida looking pale and ill. He hastened
toward her exclaiming, "Why, Lida, dear, what is the matter? You are sick!"
Instinctively she sprang to his arms, crying, "Oh, thank God! You've come.
Take away this awful woman!"
"Yes, Henry Ferguson; it's very proper you should take me away from a place
As the man who had called himself Wilson Ostrom heard that voice he trembled
like an aspen; his clasp of Alida relaxed, his arms dropped to his side, and,
as he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands, he groaned,
"Found out, you mean," was the woman's reply.
Step by step, with horror-stricken eyes, Alida retreated from the man to whose
protection and embrace she had flown. "Then it's true?" she said in a hoarse
He was speechless.
"You are willfully blind now, miss, if you don't see it's true," was the
stranger's biting comment.
Paying no heed to her, Alida's eyes rested on the man whom she had believed to
be her husband. She took an irresolute step toward him. "Speak, Wilson!" she
cried. "I gave you my whole faith and no one shall destroy it but yourself.
Speak, explain! Show me that there's some horrible mistake."
"Lida," said the man, lifting his bloodless face, "if you knew all the
"She shall know them!" half shrieked the woman, as if at last stung to fury.
"I see that you both hope to get through this affair with a little high
tragedy, then escape and come together again in some other hiding place. As
for this creature, she can go where she pleases, after hearing the truth; but
you, Henry Ferguson, have got to do your duty by me and your child or go to
prison. Let me tell you, miss, that this man was also married to me by a
minister. I have my certificate and can produce witnesses. There's one
little point you'll do well to consider," she continued, in bitter sarcasm,
"he married me first. I suppose you are not so young and innocent as not to
know where this fact places YOU. He courted and won me as other girls are
courted and married. He promised me all that he ever promised you. Then,
when I lost my rosy cheeks--when I became sick and feeble from
child-bearing--he deserted and left me almost penniless. You needn't think
you will have to take my word for this. I have proof enough. And now, Henry
Ferguson, I've a few words for you, and then you must take your choice. You
can't escape. I and my brother have tracked you here. You can't leave these
rooms without going to prison. You'd be taken at the very door. But I give
you one more chance. If you will promise before God to do your duty by me and
your child, I'll forgive as far as a wronged woman can forgive. Neither I nor
my brother will take proceedings against you. What this woman will do I don't
know. If she prosecutes you, and you are true to me, I'll stand by you, but I
won't stand another false step or a false word from you."
Ferguson had again sunk into his chair, buried his face in his hands, and sat
trembling and speechless. Never for an instant had Alida taken her eyes from
him; and now, with a long, wailing cry, she exclaimed, "Thank God, thank God!
This was now her best consolation. She rushed into her bedchamber, and a
moment later came out, wearing her hat and cloak. Ferguson started up and was
about to speak, but she silenced him by a gesture, and her tones were sad and
stern as she said, "Mr. Ferguson, from your manner more truly than from this
woman, I learn the truth. You took advantage of my misfortunes, my sorrow and
friendlessness, to deceive me. You know how false are your wife's words about
my eagerness to be deceived and married. But you have nothing to fear from
me. I shall not prosecute you as she suggests, and I charge you before God to
do your duty by your wife and child and never to speak to me again." Turning,
she hastened toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Ferguson exclaimed, seeking to intercept her.
She waved him off. "I don't know," she replied. "I've no right to be here,"
and she fled down the stairway and out into the darkness.
The child had not wakened. It was well that it had not looked upon such a
scene, even in utter ignorance of its meaning.
Chapter VIII. Holcroft's View of Matrimony
Holcroft was indeed very lonely as he drove through the bare March fields and
leafless woods on his way to town. The sky had clouded again, like his
prospects, and he had the dreary sense of desolation which overwhelms a quiet,
domestic man who feels that his home and all to which he clings are slipping
from him. His lot was hard enough at best, and he had a bitter sense of being
imposed upon and wronged by Lemuel Weeks. It was now evident enough that the
widow and her daughter had been an intolerable burden to his neighbor, who had
taken advantage of his need and induced him to assume the burden through false
representation. To a man of Holcroft's simple, straightforward nature, any
phase of trickery was intensely repugnant, and the fact that he had been
overreached in a matter relating to his dearest hopes galled him to the quick.
He possessed the strong common sense of his class; his wife had been like him
in this respect, and her influence had intensified the trait. Queer people
with abnormal manners excited his intense aversion. The most charitable view
that he could take of Mrs. Mumpson was that her mind--such as she had--was
unbalanced, that it was an impossibility for her to see any subject or duty in
a sensible light or its right proportions.
Her course, so prejudicial to her own interests, and her incessant and stilted
talk, were proof to his mind of a certain degree of insanity, and he had heard
that people in this condition often united to their unnatural ways a wonderful
degree of cunning. Her child was almost as uncanny as herself and gave him a
shivering sense of discomfort whenever he caught her small, greenish eyes
fixed upon him.
"Yet, she'll be the only one who'll earn her salt. I don't see how I'm going
to stand 'em--I don't, indeed, but suppose I'll have to for three months, or
else sell out and clear out."
By the time he reached town a cold rain had set in. He went at once to the
intelligence office, but could obtain no girl for Mrs. Mumpson to
"superintend," nor any certain promise of one. He did not much care, for he
felt that the new plan was not going to work. Having bartered all his eggs
for groceries, he sold the old stove and bought a new one, then drew from the
bank a little ready money. Since his butter was so inferior, he took it to
his friend Tom Watterly, the keeper of the poorhouse.
Prosperous Tom slapped his old friend on the back and said, "You look awfully
glum and chopfallen, Jim. Come now, don't look at the world as if it was made
of tar, pitch, and turpentine. I know your luck's been hard, but you make it
a sight harder by being so set in all your ways. You think there's no place
to live on God's earth but that old up-and-down-hill farm of yours that I
wouldn't take as a gift. Why, man alive, there's a dozen things you can turn
your hand to; but if you will stay there, do as other men do. Pick out a
smart, handy woman that can make butter yaller as gold, that'll bring gold,
and not such limpsy-slimsy, ghostly-looking stuff as you've brought me. Bein'
it's you, I'll take it and give as much for it as I'd pay for better, but you
can't run your old ranch in this fashion."
"I know it, Tom," replied Holcroft ruefully. "I'm all at sea; but, as you say,
I'm set in my ways, and I'd rather live on bread and milk and keep my farm
than make money anywhere else. I guess I'll have to give it all up, though,
and pull out, but it's like rooting up one of the old oaks in the meadow lot.
The fact is, Tom, I've been fooled into one of the worst scrapes I've got into
"I see how it is," said Tom heartily and complacently, "you want a practical,
foresighted man to talk straight at you for an hour or two and clear up the
fog you're in. You study and brood over little things out there alone until
they seem mountains which you can't get over nohow, when, if you'd take one
good jump out, they'd be behind you. Now, you've got to stay and take a bite
with me, and then we'll light our pipes and untangle this snarl. No backing
out! I can do you more good than all the preachin' you ever heard. Hey,
there, Bill!" shouting to one of the paupers who was detailed for such work,
"take this team to the barn and feed 'em. Come in, come in, old feller!
You'll find that Tom Watterly allus has a snack and a good word for an old
Holcroft was easily persuaded, for he felt the need of cheer, and he looked up
to Tom as a very sagacious, practical man. So he said, "Perhaps you can see
farther into a millstone than I can, and if you can show me a way out of my
difficulties you'll be a friend sure enough."
"Why, of course I can. Your difficulties are all here and here," touching his
bullet head and the region of his heart. "There aint no great difficulties in
fact, but, after you've brooded out there a week or two alone, you think
you're caught as fast as if you were in a bear trap. Here, Angy," addressing
his wife, "I've coaxed Holcroft to take supper with us. You can hurry it up a
little, can't you?"
Mrs. Watterly gave their guest a cold, limp hand and a rather frigid welcome.
But this did not disconcert him. "It's only her way," he had always thought.
"She looks after her husband's interests as mine did for me, and she don't
talk him to death."
This thought, in the main, summed up Mrs. Watterly's best traits.
She was a commonplace, narrow, selfish woman, whose character is not worth
sketching. Tom stood a little in fear of her, and was usually careful not to
impose extra tasks, but since she helped him to save and get ahead, he
regarded her as a model wife.
Holcroft shared in his opinion and sighed deeply as he sat down to supper.
"Ah, Tom!" he said, "you're a lucky man. You've got a wife that keeps
everything indoors up to the mark, and gives you a chance to attend to your
own proper business. That's the way it was with mine. I never knew what a
lopsided, helpless creature a man was until I was left alone. You and I were
lucky in getting the women we did, but when my partner left me, she took all
the luck with her. That aint the worst. She took what's more than luck and
money and everything. I seemed to lose with her my grit and interest in most
things. It'll seem foolishness to you, but I can't take comfort in anything
much except working that old farm that I've worked and played on ever since I
can remember anything. You're not one of those fools, Tom, that have to learn
from their own experience. Take a bit from mine, and be good to your wife
while you can. I'd give all I'm worth--I know that aint much--if I could say
some things to my wife and do some things for her that I didn't do."
Holcroft spoke in the simplicity of a full and remorseful heart, but he
unconsciously propitiated Mrs. Watterly in no small degree. Indeed, she felt
that he had quite repaid her for his entertainment, and the usually taciturn
woman seconded his remarks with much emphasis.
"Well now, Angy," said Tom, "if you averaged up husbands in these parts I
guess you'd find you were faring rather better than most women folks. I let
you take the bit in your teeth and go your own jog mostly. Now, own up, don't
"That wasn't my meaning, exactly, Tom," resumed Holcroft. "You and I could
well afford to let our wives take their own jog, for they always jogged steady
and faithful and didn't need any urging and guiding. But even a dumb critter
likes a good word now and then and a little patting on the back. It doesn't
cost us anything and does them a sight of good. But we kind of let the
chances slip by and forget about it until like enough it's too late."
"Well," replied Tom, with a deprecatory look at his wife, "Angy don't take to
pettin' very much. She thinks it's a kind of foolishness for such middle-aged
people as we're getting to be."