Part 4 out of 4
the rock set there to wound them. She began to feel blindly that God
was not alone the keeper of eternal Sabbaths, but the germinant heat at
the heart of the world. If she were a young girl, like Phoebe, there
would be shame. Even a thought of him would be a stretching forth her
hand to touch him, saying, "Look at me! I am here!" but for her it was
quite different. It would be like a dream, some grandmother dreamed in
the sun, of rosy youth and the things that never came to pass. No one
would be harmed, and the sleeper would have garnered one hour's joy
before she took up her march again on the lonesomest road of all,--so
lonesome, although it leads us, home! Thus she thought, half sleeping,
until the night-dews clung in drops upon her hair; then she went in to
bed, still wrapped about with the drapery of her dreams.
Next morning, when Dorcas carried in her father's breakfast, she walked
with a springing step, and spoke in a voice so full and fresh it made
her newly glad.
"It's a nice day, father! There'll be lots of folks out to meeting."
"That's a good girl!" This was his commendation, from hour to hour; it
made up the litany of his gratitude for what she had been to him. "But
I dunno's I feel quite up to preachin' to-day, Dorcas!"
"That'll be all right, father. We'll get somebody."
"You bring me out my sermon-box after breakfast, an' I'll pick out
one," said he, happily. "Deacon Tolman can read it."
But, alas! Deacon Tolman had been dead this many a year!
A little later, the parson sat up in bed, shuffling his manuscript
about with nervous hands, and Dorcas, in the kitchen, stood washing her
breakfast dishes. That eager interest in living still possessed her.
She began humming, in a timid monotone. Her voice had the clearness of
truth, with little sweetness; and she was too conscious of its
inadequacy to use it in public, save under the compelling force of
conscience. Hitherto, she had only sung in Sunday-school, moved, as in
everything, by the pathetic desire of "doing her part;" but this
morning seemed to her one for lifting the voice, though not in Sunday
phrasing. After a little thought, she began thinly and sweetly,--
"Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,
I heard a maid sing in the valley below:
'O don't deceive me! O never leave me
How could you use a poor maiden so?'"
A gruff voice from the, doorway broke harshly in upon a measure.
"Yes! yes! Well! well! Tunin' up a larrady, ain't ye?"
Dorcas knew who it was, without turning round,--a dark, squat woman,
broad all over; broad in the hips, the waist, the face, and stamped
with the race-mark of high cheekbones. Her thick, straight black hair
was cut "tin-basin style;" she wore men's boots, and her petticoats
were nearly up to her knees.
"Good morning, Nancy!" called Dorcas, blithely, wringing out her
dishcloth. "Come right in, and sit down."
Nance Pete (in other words, Nancy the wife of Pete, whose surname was
unknown) clumped into the room, and took a chair by the hearth. She
drew forth a short black pipe, looked into it discontentedly, and then
sat putting her thumb in and out of the bowl.
"You 'ain't got a mite o' terbacker about ye? Hey what?" she asked.
Dorcas had many a time been shocked at the same demand. This morning,
something humorous about it struck her, and she laughed.
"You know I haven't, Nancy Pete! Did you mend that hole in your skirt,
as I told you?"
Nance laboriously drew a back breadth of her coarse plaid skirt round
to the front, and displayed it, without a word. A three-cornered tear
of the kind known as a barn-door had been treated by tying a white
string well outside it, and gathering up the cloth, like a bag.
Dorcas's sense of fitness forbade her to see anything humorous in so
original a device. She stood before the woman in all the moral
excellence of a censor fastidiously clad.
"O Nancy Pete!" she exclaimed. "How could you?"
Nance put her cold pipe in her mouth, and began sucking at the
"You 'ain't got a bite of anything t' eat, have ye?" she asked,
Dorcas went to the pantry, and brought forth pie, doughnuts and cheese,
and a dish of cold beans. The coffee-pot was waiting on the stove. One
would have said the visitor had been expected. Nance rose and tramped
over to the table. But Dorcas stood firmly in the way.
"No, Nancy, no! You wait a minute! Are you going to meeting to-day?"
"I 'ain't had a meal o' victuals for a week!" remarked Nance,
addressing no one in particular.
"Nancy, are you going to meeting?"
"Whose seat be I goin' to set in?" inquired Nance, rebelliously, yet
with a certain air of capitulation.
"You can sit in mine. Haven't you sat there for the last five years?
Now, Nancy, don't hinder me!"
"Plague take it, then! I'll go!"
At this expected climax, Dorcas stood aside, and allowed her visitor to
serve herself with beans. When Nance's first hunger had been satisfied,
she began a rambling monologue, of an accustomed sort to which Dorcas
"I went down to peek into the Poorhouse winders, this mornin'. There
they all sut, like rats in a trap. 'Got ye, 'ain't they?' says I. Old
Sal Flint she looked up, an' if there'd been a butcher-knife handy, I
guess she'd ha' throwed it. 'It's that Injun!' says she to Mis' Giles.
'Don't you take no notice!' 'I dunno's I'm an Injun,' says I, 'I dunno
how much Injun I be. I can't look so fur back as that. I dunno's
there's any more Injun in me than there is devil in you!' I says. An'
then the overseer he come out, an' driv' me off. 'You won't git me in
there,' says I to him, 'not so long's I've got my teeth to chaw
sassafras, an' my claws to dig me a holler in the ground!' But when I
come along, he passed me on the road, an' old Sal Flint sut up by him
on the seat, like a bump on a log. I guess he was carryin' her over to
that Pope-o'-Rome meetin' they've got over to Sudleigh."
Dorcas turned about, in anxious interest.
"Oh, I wonder if he was! How _can_ folks give up their own meeting for
Nance pushed her chair back from the table.
"Want to see all kinds, I s'pose," she said, slyly. "Guess I'll try it
myself, another Sunday!"
"Anybody to home?" came a very high and wheezy voice from the doorway.
Dorcas knew that also, and so did Nance Pete.
"It's that old haddock't lives up on the mountain," said the latter,
composedly, searching in her pocket, and then pulling out a stray bit
of tobacco and pressing it tenderly into her pipe.
An old man, dressed in a suit of very antique butternut clothes, stood
at the sill, holding forward a bunch of pennyroyal. He was weazened and
dry; his cheeks were parchment color, and he bore the look of an active
yet extreme old age. He was totally deaf. Dorcas advanced toward him,
taking a bright five-cent piece from her pocket. She held it out to
him, and he, in turn, extended the pennyroyal; but before taking it,
she went through a solemn pantomime. She made a feint of accepting the
herb, and then pointed to him and to the road.
"Yes, yes!" said the old man, irritably. "Bless ye! of course I'm goin'
to meetin'. I'll set by myself, though! Yes, I will! Las' Sunday, I set
with Jont Marshall, an' every time I sung a note, he dug into me with
his elbow, till I thought I should ha' fell out the pew-door. My voice
is jest as good as ever 'twas, an' sixty-five year ago come spring, I
begun to set in the seats."
The coin and pennyroyal changed ownership, and he tottered away,
chattering to himself in his senile fashion.
"Look here, you!" he shouted back, his hand on the gate. "Heerd
anything o' that new doctor round here? Well, he's been a-pokin' into
my ears, an' I guess he'd ha' cured me, if anybody could. You know I
don't hear so well's I used to. He went a-peekin' an' a-pryin' round my
ears, as if he'd found a hornet's nest. I dunno what he see there; I
know he shook his head. I guess we shouldn't ha' got no such a man to
settle down here if he wa'n't so asthmy he couldn't git along where he
was. That's the reason he come, they say. He's a bright one!"
Dorcas left her sweeping, and ran out after him. For the moment, she
forgot his hopeless durance in fleshly walls.
"Did he look at 'em?" she cried. "Did he? Tell me what he said!"
"Why, of course I don't hear no better yit!" answered old Simeon,
testily, turning to stump away, "but that ain't no sign I sha'n't! He's
a beauty! I set up now, when he goes by, so's I can hear him when he
rides back. I put a quilt down in the fore-yard, an' when the ground
trimbles a mite, I git up to see if it's his hoss. Once I laid there
till 'leven. He's a beauty, he is!"
He went quavering down the road, and Dorcas ran back to the house,
elated afresh. An unregarded old man could give him the poor treasure
of his affection, quite unasked. Why should not she?
Nance was just taking her unceremonious leave. Her pockets bulged with
doughnuts, and she had wrapped half a pie in the Sudleigh "Star,"
surreptitiously filched from the woodbox.
"Well, I guess I'll be gittin' along towards meetin'," she said, in a
tone of unconcern, calculated to allay suspicion. "I'm in hopes to git
a mite o' terbacker out o' Hiram Cole, if he's settin' lookin' at his
pigs, where he is 'most every Sunday. I'll have a smoke afore I go in."
"Don't you be late!"
"I'm a-goin' in late, or not at all!" answered Nance, contradictorily.
"My bunnit ain't trimmed on the congregation side, an' I want to give
'em a chance to see it all round. I'm a-goin' up the aisle complete!"
Dorcas finished her work, and, having tidied her father's room, sat
down by his bedside for the simple rites that made their Sabbath holy.
With the first clanging stroke of the old bell, not half a mile away,
they fell into silence, waiting reverently through the necessary pause
for allowing the congregation to become seated. Then they went through
the service together, from hymn and prayer to the sermon. The parson
had his manuscript ready, and he began reading it, in the pulpit-voice
of his prime. At that moment, some of his old vigor came back to him,
and he uttered the conventional phrases of his church with conscious
power; though so little a man, he had always a sonorous delivery. After
a page or two, his hands began to tremble, and his voice sank.
"You read a spell, Dorcas," he whispered, in pathetic apology. "I'll
rest me a minute." So Dorcas read, and he listened. Presently he fell
asleep, and she still went on, speaking the words mechanically, and
busy with her own tumultuous thoughts. Amazement possessed her that the
world could be so full of joy to which she had long been deaf. She
could hear the oriole singing in the elm; his song was almost
articulate. The trees waved a little, in a friendly fashion, through
the open windows; friendly in the unspoken kinship of green things to
our thought, yet remote in their own seclusion. One tall, delicate
locust, gowned in summer's finest gear, stirred idly at the top, as if
through an inward motion, untroubled by the wind. Dorcas's mind sought
out the doctor, listening to the sermon in her bare little church, and
she felt quite content. She had entered the first court of love, where
a spiritual possession is enough, and asks no alms of bodily nearness.
When she came to the end of the sermon, her hands fell in her lap, and
she gave herself up without reserve to the idle delight of satisfied
dreaming. The silence pressed upon her father, and he opened his eyes
wide with the startled look of one who comprehends at once the
requirements of time and place. Then, in all solemnity, he put forth
his hands; and Dorcas, bending her head, received the benediction for
the congregation he would never meet again. She roused herself to bring
in his beef-tea, and at the moment of carrying away the tray, a step
sounded on the walk. She knew who it was, and smiled happily. The
lighter foot keeping pace beside it, she did not hear.
"Dorcas," said her father, "git your bunnit. It's time for
The expected knock came at the door. She went forward, tying on her
bonnet, and her cheeks were pink. The doctor stood on the doorstone,
and Phoebe was with him. He smiled at Dorcas, and put out his hand.
This, according to Tiverton customs, was a warm demonstration at so
meaningless a moment; it seemed a part of his happy friendliness. It
was Phoebe who spoke.
"I'll stay outside while the doctor goes in. I can sit down here on the
step. Your father needn't know I am here any more than usual. I told
the doctor not to talk, coming up the walk."
The doctor smiled at her. Phoebe looked like a rose in her Sunday
white, and the elder woman felt a sudden joy in her, untouched by envy
of her youth and bloom. Phoebe only seemed a part of the beautiful new
laws to which the world was freshly tuned, Dorcas coveted nothing; she
envied nobody. She herself possessed all, in usurping her one rich
"All right," she said. "The doctor can step in now, and see father.
I'll hurry back, as soon as Sunday-school is over." She walked away,
glancing happily at the flowers on either side of the garden-path. She
wanted to touch all their leaves, because, last night, he had praised
Returning, when her hour was over, she walked very fast; her heart was
waking into hunger, and she feared he might be gone. But he was there,
sitting on the steps beside Phoebe, and when the gate swung open, they
did not hear. Phoebe's eyes were dropped, and she was poking her
parasol into the moss-encrusted path; the doctor was looking into her
face, and speaking quite eagerly. He heard Dorcas first, and sprang up.
His eyes were so bright and forceful in the momentary gleam of meeting
hers, that she looked aside, and tried to rule her quickening breath.
"Miss Dorcas," said he, "I'm telling this young lady she mustn't forget
to eat her dinner at school. I find she quite ignores it, if she has
sums to do, or blots to erase. Why, it's shocking."
"Of course she must eat her dinner!" said Dorcas, tenderly. "Why, yes,
of course! Phoebe, do as he tells you. He knows."
Phoebe blushed vividly.
"Does he?" she answered, laughing. "Well, I'll see. Good-by, Miss
Dorcas. I'll come in for Friday night meeting, if I don't before.
"I'll walk along with you," said the doctor. "If you'll let me," he
Phoebe turned away with a little toss of her head, and he turned, too,
breaking a sprig of southernwood. Dorcas was glad to treasure the last
sight of him putting to his lips the fragrant herb she had bruised for
his sake. It seemed to carry over into daylight the joy of the richer
night; it was like seeing the silken thread on which her pearls were
strung. She called to them impetuously,--
"Pick all the flowers you want to, both of you!" Then she went in, but
she said aloud to herself, "They're all for you--" and she whispered
"Dorcas," said her father, "the doctor's been here quite a spell. He
says there was a real full meetin.' Even Nancy Pete, Dorcas! I feel as
if my ministration had been abundantly blessed."
Then, in that strangest summer in Dorcas's life, time seemed to stand
still. The happiest of all experiences had befallen her; not a
succession of joys, but a permanent delight in one unchanging mood. The
evening of his coming had been the first day; and the evening and the
morning had ever since been the same in glory. He came often, sometimes
with Phoebe, sometimes alone; and, being one of the men on whom women
especially lean, Dorcas soon found herself telling him all the poor
trials of her colorless life. Nothing was too small for his notice. He
liked her homely talk of the garden and the church, and once gave up an
hour to spading a plot where she wanted a new round bed. Dorcas had
meant to put lilies there, but she remembered he loved
ladies'-delights; so she gathered them all together from the nooks and
corners of the garden, and set them there, a sweet, old-fashioned
company. "That's for thoughts!" She took to wearing flowers now, not
for the delight of him who loved them, but merely as a part of her
secret litany of worship. She slept deeply at night, and woke with calm
content, to speak one name in the way that forms a prayer. He was her
one possession; all else might be taken away from her, but the feeling
inhabiting her heart must live, like the heart itself.
By the time September had yellowed all the fields, there came a week
when Phoebe's aunt, down at the Hollow, was known to be very ill; so
Phoebe no longer came to care for the parson through the Sunday-school
hour. But the doctor appeared, instead.
"I'm Phoebe," he said, laughing, when Dorcas met him at the door. "She
can't come; so I told her I'd take her place."
These were the little familiar deeds which gilded his name among the
people. Dorcas had been growing used to them. But on the' next Sunday
morning, when she was hurrying about her kitchen, making early
preparations for the cold mid-day meal, a daring thought assailed her.
Phoebe might come to-day, and if the doctor also dropped in, she would
ask them both to dinner. There was no reason for inviting him alone;
besides, it was happier to sit by, leaving him to some one else. Then
the two would talk, and she, with no responsibility, could listen and
look, and hug her secret joy.
"I ain't a-goin' to meetin' to-day!" came Nance Pete's voice from the
door. She stood there, smoking prosperously, and took out her pipe,
with a jaunty motion, at the words. "I stopped at Kelup Rivers', on the
way over, an' they gi'n me a good breakfast, an' last week, that young
doctor gi'n me a whole paper o' fine-cut. I ain't a-goin' to meetin'!
I'm goin' to se' down under the old elm, an' have a real good smoke."
"O Nancy!" Dorcas had no dreams so happy that such an avalanche could
not sweep them aside. "Now, do! Why, you don't want me to think you go
to church just because I save you some breakfast!"
Nance turned away, and put up her chin to watch a wreath of smoke.
"I dunno why I don't," said she. "The world's nothin' but buy an' sell.
You know it, an' I know it!' 'Tain't no use coverin' on't up. You heerd
the news? That old fool of a Sim Barker's dead. The doctor, sut up all
night with him, an' I guess now he's layin' on him out. I wouldn't ha'
done it! I'd ha' wropped him up in his old coat, an' glad to git rid on
him! Well, he won't cheat ye out o' no more five-cent pieces, to
squander in terbacker. You might save 'em up for me, now he's done
for!" Nance went stalking away to the gate, flaunting a visible air of
fine, free enjoyment, the product of tobacco and a bright morning.
Dorcas watched her, annoyed, and yet quite helpless; she was outwitted,
and she knew it. Perhaps she sorrowed less deeply over the loss to her
pensioner's immortal soul, thus taking holiday from spiritual
discipline, than the serious problem involved in subtracting one from
the congregation. Would a Sunday-school picnic constitute a bribe worth
mentioning? Perhaps not, so far as Nance was concerned; but her own
class might like it, and on that young blood she depended, to vivify
A bit of pink came flashing along the country road. It was Phoebe,
walking very fast.
"Dear heart!" said Dorcas, aloud to herself, as the girl came hurriedly
up the path. She was no longer a pretty girl, a nice girl, as the
commendation went. Her face had gained an exalted lift; she was
beautiful. She took Miss Dorcas by the arms, and laughed the laugh that
knows itself in the right, and so will not be shy.
"Miss Dorcas," she said, "I've got to tell you right out, or I can't do
it at all. What should you say if I told you I was married?--to the
Dorcas looked at her as if she did not hear.
"It's begun to get round," went on Phoebe, "and I wanted to give you
the word myself. You see, auntie was sick, and when he was there so
much, she grew to depend on him, and one day, when we'd been engaged a
week, she said, why shouldn't we be married, and he come right to the
house to live? He's only boarding, you know. And nothing to do but it
must be done right off, and so I--I said 'yes! And we were married,
Thursday. Auntie's better, and O Miss Dorcas! I think we're going to
have a real good time together." She threw her arms about Dorcas, and
put down her shining brown head upon them.
Dorcas tried to answer. When she did speak, her voice sounded thin and
faint, and she wondered confusedly if Phoebe could hear.
"I didn't know--" she said. "I didn't know--"
"Why, no, of course not!" returned Phoebe, brightly. "Nobody did. You'd
have been the first, but I didn't want the engagement talked about till
auntie was better. Oh, I believe that's his horse's step! I'll run out,
and ride home with him. You come, too, Miss Dorcas, and just say a
Dorcas loosened the girl's arms about her, and, bending to the bright
head, kissed it twice. Phoebe, grown careless in her joy, ran down the
walk to stop the approaching wagon; and when she looked round, Dorcas
had shut the door and gone in. She waited a moment for her to reappear,
and then, remembering the doctor had had no breakfast, she stepped into
the wagon, and they drove happily away.
Dorcas went to her bedroom, touching the walls, on the way, with her
groping hands. She sat down on the floor there, and rested her head
against a chair. Once only did she rouse herself, and that was to go
into the kitchen and set away the great bowl of _blanc-mange_ she had
been making for dinner. She had not strained it all, and the sea-weed
was drying on the sieve. Then she went back into the bedroom, and
pulled down the green slat curtains with a shaking hand. Twice her
father called her to bring his sermons, but she only answered, "Yes,
father!" in dull acquiescence, and did not move. She was benumbed,
sunken in a gulf of shame, too faint and cold to save herself by
struggling. Her poor innocent little fictions made themselves into
lurid writings on her brain. She had called him hers while another
woman held his vows, and she was degraded. Her soul was wrecked as
truly as if the whole world knew it, and could cry to her "Shame!" and
"Shame!" The church-bells clanged out their judgment of her. A new
thought awakened her to a new despair. She was not fit to teach in
Sunday-school any more. Her girls, her innocent, sweet girls! There was
contagion in her very breath. They must be saved from it; else when
they were old women like her, some sudden vice of tainted blood might
rise up in them, no one would know why, and breed disease and shame.
She started to her feet. Her knees trembling under her, she ran out of
the house, and hid herself behind the great lilac-bush by the gate.
Deacon Caleb Rivers came jogging past, late for church, but driving
none the less moderately. His placid-faced wife sat beside him; and
Dorcas, stepping out to stop them, wondered, with a wild pang of
perplexity over the things of this world, if 'Mandy Rivers had ever
known the feeling of death in the soul. Caleb pulled up.
"I can't come to Sunday-school, to-day," called Dorcas, stridently.
"You tell them to give Phoebe my class. And ask her if she'll keep it.
I sha'n't teach any more."
"Ain't your father so well?" asked Mrs. Rivers, sympathetically,
bending forward and smoothing her mitts. Dorcas caught at the reason.
"I sha'n't leave him any more," she said. "You tell 'em so. You fix
Caleb drove on, and she went back into the house, shrinking under the
brightness of the air which seemed to quiver so before her eyes. She
went into her father's room, where he was awake and wondering.
"Seems to me I heard the bells," he said, in his gentle fashion. "Or
have we had the 'hymns, an' got to the sermon?"
Dorcas fell on her knees by the bedside.
"Father," she began, with difficulty, her cheek laid on the bedclothes
beside his hand, "there was a sermon about women that are lost. What
"Why, yes," answered the parson, rousing to an active joy in his work.
"'Neither do I condemn thee!' That was it. You git it, Dorcas! We must
remember such poor creatur's; though, Lord be praised! there ain't many
round here. We must remember an' pray for 'em."
But Dorcas did not rise.
"Is there any hope for them, father?" she asked, her voice muffled.
"Can they be saved?"
"Why, don't you remember the poor creatur' that come here an' asked
that very question because she heard I said the Lord was pitiful? Her
baby was born out in the medder, an' died the next day; an' she got up
out of her sickbed at the Poorhouse, an' come totterin' up here, to ask
if there was any use in her sayin', 'Lord, be merciful to me, a
sinner!' An' your mother took her in, an' laid her down on this very
bed, an' she died here. An' your mother hil' her in her arms when she
died. You ask her if she didn't!" The effort of continuous talking
wearied him, and presently he dozed off. Once he woke, and Dorcas was
still on her knees, her head abased. "Dorcas!" he said, and she
answered, "Yes, father!" without raising it; and he slept again. The
bell struck, for the end of service. The parson was awake. He stretched
out his hand, and it trembled a moment and then fell on his daughter's
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ--" the parson said, and went
clearly on to the solemn close.
"Father," said Dorcas. "Father!" She seemed to be crying to One afar.
"Say the other verse, too. What He told the woman."
His hand still on her head, the parson repeated, with a wistful
tenderness stretching back over the past,--
"'Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.'"
NANCY BOYD'S LAST SERMON
It was the lonesome time of the year: not November, that accomplishment
of a gracious death, but the moment before the conscious spring, when
watercourses have not yet stirred in awakening, and buds are only
dreamed of by trees still asleep but for the sweet trouble within their
wood; when the air finds as yet no response to the thrill beginning to
creep where roots lie blind in the dark; when life is at the one dull,
flat instant before culmination and movement. I had gone down
post-haste to my well-beloved Tiverton, in response to the news sent me
by a dear countrywoman, that Nancy Boyd, whom I had not seen since my
long absence in Europe, was dying of "galloping consumption." Nancy
wanted to bid me good-by. Hiram Cole met me, lean-jawed, dust-colored,
wrinkled as of old, with the overalls necessitated by his "sleddin'" at
least four inches too short. Not the Pyramids themselves were such
potent evidence that time may stand still, withal, as this lank,
stooping figure, line for line exactly what it had been five years
before. Hiram helped me into the pung, took his place beside me, and
threw a conversational "huddup" to the rakish-looking sorrel colt. We
dashed sluing away down the country road, and then I turned to look at
my old friend. He was steadfastly gazing at the landscape ahead, the
while he passed one wiry hand over his face, to smooth out its
broadening smile. He was glad to see me, but his private code of
decorum forbade the betrayal of any such "shaller" emotion.
"Well, Hiram," I began, "Tiverton looks exactly the same, doesn't it?
And poor Nancy, how is she?"
"Nancy's pretty low," said Hiram, drawing his mitten over the hand that
had been used to iron out his smile, and giving critical attention to
the colt's off hind-leg. "She hil' her own all winter, but now, come
spring, she's breakin' up mighty fast. They don't cal'late she'll live
more'n a day or two."
"Her poor husband! How will he get along without her!"
Hiram turned upon me with vehemence.
"Why, don't you know?" said he. "'Ain't nobody told ye? She 'ain't got
"What? Is the Cap'n dead?"
"Dead? Bless ye, he's divorced from Nancy, an' married another woman,
two year ago come this May!"
I was amazed, and Hiram looked at me with the undisguised triumph of
one who has news to sell, be it good or bad.
"But Nancy has written me!" I said. "She told me the neighborhood
gossip; why didn't she tell me that?"
"Pride, I s'pose, pride," said Hiram. "You can't be sure how misery'll
strike folks. It's like a September gale; the best o' barns'll blow
down, an' some rickety shanty'll stan' the strain. But there! Nancy's
had more to bear from the way she took her troubles than from the
troubles themselves. Ye see, 'twas this way. Cap'n Jim had his own
reasons for wantin' to git rid of her, an' I guess there was a time
when he treated her pretty bad. I guess he as good's turned her out o'
house an' home, an' when he sued for divorce for desertion, she never
said a word; an' he got it, an' up an' married, as soon as the law'd
allow, Nancy never opened her head, all through it. She jest settled
down, with a bed an' a chair or two, in that little house she owned
down by Wilier Brook, an' took in tailorin' an' mendin'. One spell, she
bound shoes. The whole town was with her till she begun carryin' on
like a crazed creatur', as she did arterwards."
My heart sank. Poor Nancy! if she had really incurred the public scorn,
it must have been through dire extremity.
"Ye see," Hiram continued, "folks were sort o' tried with her from the
beginnin'. You know what a good outfit she had from her mother's
side,--bureaus, an' beddin', an' everything complete? Well, she left it
all right there in the house, for Jim to use, an' when he brought his
new woman home, there the things set jest the same, an' he never said a
word. I don't deny he ought to done different, but then, if Nancy
wouldn't look out for her own interests, you can't blame him so much,
now can ye? But the capsheaf come about a year ago, when Nancy had a
smart little sum o' money left her,--nigh onto a hunderd dollars. Jim
he'd got into debt, an' his oxen died, an' one thing an' another, he
was all wore out, an' had rheumatic fever; an' if you'll b'lieve it,
Nancy she went over an' done the work, an' let his wife nuss him. She
wouldn't step foot into the bedroom, they said; she never see Jim once,
but there she was, slavin' over the wash-tub and ironin'-board,--an' as
for that money, I guess it went for doctor's stuff an' what all, for
Jim bought a new yoke of oxen in the spring."
"But the man! the other wife! how could they?"
"Oh, Jim's wife's a pretty tough-hided creatur', an' as for him, I
al'ays thought the way Nancy behaved took him kind o' by surprise, an'
he had to give her her head, an' let her act her pleasure. But it made
a sight o' town talk. Some say Nancy ain't quite bright to carry on so,
an' the women-folks seem to think she's a good deal to blame, one way
or another. Anyhow, she's had a hard row to hoe. Here we be, an'
there's Hannah at the foreroom winder. You won't think o' goin' over to
Nancy's till arter supper, will ye?"
When I sat alone beside Nancy's bed, that night, I had several sides of
her sad story in mind, but none of them lessened the dreariness of the
tragedy. Before my brief acquaintance with her, Nancy was widely known
as a travelling-preacher, one who had "the power." She must have been a
strangely attractive creature, in those early days, alert, intense,
gifted with such a magnetic reaching into another life that it might
well set her aside from the commoner phases of a common day, and
crowned, as with flame, by an unceasing aspiration for the highest. At
thirty, she married a dashing sailor, marked by the sea, even to the
rings in his ears; and when I knew them, they were solidly comfortable
and happy, in a way very reassuring to one who could understand Nancy's
temperament; for she was one of those who, at every step, are flung
aside from the world's sharp corners, bruised and bleeding.
As to the storm and shipwreck of her life, I learned no particulars
essentially new. Evidently her husband had suddenly run amuck, either
from the monotony of his inland days, or from the strange passion he
had conceived for a woman who was Nancy's opposite.
That night, I sat in the poor, bare little room, beside the billowing
feather-bed where Nancy lay propped upon pillows, and gazing with
bright, glad eyes into my face, one thin little hand clutching mine
with the grasp of a soul who holds desperately to life. And yet Nancy
was not clinging to life itself; she only seemed to be, because she
clung to love.
"I'm proper glad to see ye," she kept saying, "proper glad."
We were quite alone. The fire burned cheerily in the kitchen stove, and
a cheap little clock over the mantel ticked unmercifully fast; it
seemed in haste for Nancy to be gone. The curtains were drawn, lest the
thrifty window-plants should be frostbitten, and several tumblers of
jelly on the oilcloth-covered table bore witness that the neighbors had
put aside their moral scruples and their social delicacy, and were
giving of their best, albeit to one whose ways were not their ways. But
Nancy herself was the centre and light of the room,--so frail, so
clean, with her plain nightcap and coarse white nightgown, and the
small checked shawl folded primly over her shoulders. Thin as she was,
she looked scarcely older than when I had seen her, five years ago; yet
since then she had walked through a blacker valley than the one before
"Now don't you git all nerved up when I cough," she said, lying back
exhausted after a paroxysm. "I've got used to it; it don't trouble me
no more'n a mosquiter. I want to have a real good night now, talkin'
over old times."
"You must try to sleep," I said. "The doctor will blame me, if I let
"No, he won't," said Nancy, shrewdly. "He knows I 'ain't got much time
afore me, an' I guess he wouldn't deny me the good on't. That's why I
sent for ye, dear; I 'ain't had anybody I could speak out to in five
year, an' I wanted to speak out, afore I died. Do you remember how you
used to come over an' eat cold b'iled dish for supper, that last summer
you was down here?"
"Oh, don't I, Nancy! there never was anything like it. Such cold
"B'iled in the pot-liquor!" she whispered, a knowing gleam in her blue
eyes. "That's the way; on'y everybody don't know. An' do you remember
the year we had greens way into the fall, an' I wouldn't tell you what
they was? Well, I will, now; there was chickweed, an' pusley, an'
mustard, an' Aaron's-rod, an' I dunno what all."
"Not Aaron's-rod, Nancy! it never would have been so good!"
"It's truth an' fact! I b'iled Aaron's-rod, an' you eat it. That was
the year Mis' Blaisdell was mad because you had so many meals over to
my house, an' said it was the last time she'd take summer boarders an'
have the neighbors feed 'em."
"They were good old days, Nancy!"
"I guess they were! yes, indeed, I guess so! Now, dear, I s'pose you've
heard what I've been through, sence you went away?"
I put the thin hand to my cheek.
"Yes," I said, "I have heard."
"Well, now, I want to tell you the way it 'pears to me. You'll hear the
neighbors' side, an' arter I'm gone, they'll tell you I was
under-witted or bold. They've been proper good to me sence I've been
sick, but law! what do they know about it, goin' to bed at nine
o'clock, an' gittin' up to feed the chickens an' ride to meetin' with
their husbands? No more'n the dead! An' so I want to tell ye my story,
myself. Now, don't you mind my coughing dear! It don't hurt, to speak
of, an' I feel better arter it.
"Well, I dunno where to begin. The long an' short of it was, dear,
James he got kind o' uneasy on land, an' then he was tried with me, an'
then he told me, one night, when he spoke out, that he didn't care
about me as he used to, an' he never should, an' we couldn't live no
longer under the same roof. He was goin' off the next day to sea, or to
the devil, he said, so he needn't go crazy seein' Mary Ann Worthen's
face lookin' at him all the time. It ain't any use tryin' to tell how I
felt. Some troubles ain't no more 'n a dull pain, an' some are like
cuts an' gashes. You can feel your heart drop, drop, like water off the
eaves. Mine dropped for a good while arter that. Well, you see I'd been
through the fust stages of it. I'd been eat up by jealousy, an' I'd
slaved like a dog to git him back; but now it had got beyond such
folderol. He was in terrible trouble, an' I'd got to git him out. An' I
guess 'twas then that I begun to feel as if I was his mother, instid of
his wife. 'Jim,' says I, (somehow I have to Say 'James,' now we're
separated!) 'don't you fret. I'll go off an' leave ye, an' you can get
clear o' me accordin' to law, if you want to. I'm sure you can. I
sha'n't care.' He turned an' looked at me, as if I was crazed or he was
himself, 'You won't care?' he says. 'No,' says I, 'I sha'n't care.' I
said it real easy, for 'twas true. Somehow, I'd got beyond carin'. My
heart dropped blood, but I couldn't bear to have him in trouble. 'They
al'ays told me I was cut out for an old maid," I says, 'an' I guess I
be. Housekeepin' 's a chore, anyway. You let all the stuff set right
here jest as we've had it, an' ask Cap'n Fuller to come an' bring his
chist; an' I'll settle down in the Willer Brook house an' make
button-holes. It's real pretty work.' You see, the reason I was so high
for it was 't I knew if he went to sea, he'd git in with a swearin',
drinkin' set, as he did afore, an' in them days such carryin's-on were
dretful to me. If I'd known he'd marry, I dunno what course I should
ha' took; for nothin' could ha' made that seem right to me, arter all
had come and gone. But I jest thought how James was a dretful handy man
about the house, an' I knew he set by Cap'n Fuller. The Cap'n 'ain't no
real home, you know, an' I thought they'd admire to bach it together."
"Did you ever wonder whether you had done right? Did you ever think it
would have been better for him to keep his promises to you? For him to
A shade of trouble crossed her face.
"I guess I did!" she owned. "At fust, I was so anxious to git out o'
his way, I never thought of anything else; but when I got settled down
here, an' had all my time for spec'latin' on things, I was a good deal
put to 't whether I'd done the best anybody could. But I didn't reason
much, in them days; I jest felt. All was, I couldn't bear to have James
tied to me when he'd got so's to hate me. Well, then he married--"
"Was she a good woman?"
"Good enough, yes; a leetle mite coarse-grained, but well-meanin' all
through. Well, now, you know the neighbors blamed me for lettin' her
have my things. Why, bless you, I didn't need 'em! An' Jim had used 'em
so many years, he'd ha' missed 'em if they'd been took away. Then he
never was forehanded, an' how could he ha' furnished a house all over
ag'in, I'd like to know? The neighbors never understood. The amount of
it was, they never was put in jest such a place, any of 'em."
"O Nancy, Nancy!" I said, "you cared for just one thing, and it was
gone. You didn't care for the tables and chairs that were left behind!"
Two tears came, and dimmed her bright blue eyes. Her firm, delicate
"Yes," she said, "you see how 'twas. I knew you would. Well, arter he
was married, there was a spell when 'twas pretty tough. Sometimes I
couldn't hardly help goin' over there by night an' peekin' into the
winder, an' seein' how they got along. I went jest twice. The fust time
was late in the fall, an' she was preservin' pears by lamplight. I
looked into the kitchin winder jest as she was bendin' over the stove,
tryin' the syrup, an' he was holdin' the light for her to see. I dunno
what she said, but 'twas suthin' that made 'em both laugh out, an' then
they turned an' looked at one another, proper pleased. I dunno why, but
it took right hold o' me, an' I started runnin' an' I never stopped
till I got in, here an' onto my own bed. I thought 'twould ha' been
massiful if death had took me that night, but I'm glad it didn't, dear,
I'm glad it didn't! I shouldn't ha' seen ye, if it had, an' there's a
good many things I shouldn't ha' had time to study out. You jest put a
mite o' cayenne pepper in that cup, an' turn some hot water on it. It
kind o' warms me up."
After a moment's rest, she began again.
"The next time I peeked was the last, for that night they'd had some
words, an' they both set up straight as a mack'rel, an' wouldn't speak
to one another. That hurt me most of anything. I never've got over the
feelin' that I was James's mother, an' that night I felt sort o'
bruised all through, as if some stranger'd been hurtin' him. So I never
went spyin' on 'em no more. I felt as if I couldn't stan' it. But when
I went to help her with the work, that time he was sick, I guess the
neighbors thought I hadn't any sense of how a right-feelin' woman ought
to act. I guess they thought I was sort o' coarse an' low, an' didn't
realize what I'd, been through. Dear, don't you never believe it. The
feelin' that's between husband an' wife's like a live creatur', an'
when he told me that night that he didn't prize me no more, he wounded
it; an' when he married the other woman, he killed it dead. If he'd ha'
come back to me then, an' swore he was the same man I married, I could
ha' died for him, jest as I would this minute, but he never should ha'
touched me. But suthin' had riz up in the place o' the feelin' I had
fust, so't I never could ha' helped doin' for him, any more'n if he'd
been my own child."
"'In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage!'"
"I guess that's it," said Nancy. "On'y you have to live through a good
deal afore you understand it. Well, now, dear, I'm nearin' the end.
There's one thing that's come to me while I've been livin' through
this, that I 'ain't never heard anybody mention; an' I want you to
remember it, so's you can tell folks that are in great trouble, the way
I've been. I've been thinkin' on't out that there's jest so much of
everything in the world,--so much gold, so much silver, so many
di'monds. You can't make no more nor no less. All you can do is to pass
'em about from hand to hand, so't sometimes here'll be somebody that's
rich, an' then it'll slip away from him, an' he'll be poor. Now,
accordin' to my lights, it's jes' so with love. There's jest so much,
an' when it's took away from you, an' passed over to somebody else,
it's alive, it's there, same as ever it was. So 't you ain't goin' to
say it's all holler an' empty, this world. You're goin' to say, 'Well,
it's som'er's, if 'tain't with me!'"
Nancy had straightened herself, without the support of her pillows. Her
eyes were bright. A faint flush had come upon her cheeks. A doctor
would have told me that my devoted friendship had not saved me from
being a wretched nurse.
"My home was broke up," she went on, "but there's a nice, pretty house
there jest the same. There's a contented couple livin' in it, an' what
if the wife ain't me? It ain't no matter. P'r'aps it's a lot better
that somebody else should have it, somebody that couldn't git along
alone; an' not me, that can see the rights o' things. Jest so much
love, dear--don't you forgit that--no matter where 'tis! An' James
could take his love away from me, but the Lord A'mighty himself can't
take mine from him. An' so 'tis, the world over. You can al'ays love
folks, an' do for 'em, even if your doin' 's only breakin' your heart
an' givin' 'em up. An' do you s'pose there's any sp'ere o' life where
I sha'n't be allowed to do somethin' for James? I guess not, dear, I
guess not, even if it's only keepin' away from him."
Nancy lived three days, in a state of delighted content with us and our
poor ministrations; and only once did we approach the subject of that
solemn night. As the end drew near, I became more and more anxious to
know if she had a wish unfulfilled, and at length I ventured to ask her
softly, when we were alone,--
"Would you like to see him?"
Her bright eyes looked at me, in a startled way.
"No, dear, no," she said, evidently surprised that I could ask it.
"Bless you, no!"
STROLLERS IN TIVERTON
In Tiverton, when reminiscences are in order, we go back to one very
rich year; then the circus and strolling players came to town, and the
usual camp-meeting was followed by an epidemic of scarlet fever, which
might have stood forth as the judgment of heaven, save that the newly
converted were stricken first and undoubtedly fared hardest. Hiram Cole
said it was because they'd "got all their nerve-juice used up,
hollerin' hallelujah." But that I know not. This theory of nerve-juice,
was a favorite one with Hiram: he contended that it had a powerful hand
in determining the results of presidential elections; and, indeed, in
swaying the balance of power among the nations of the earth.
Even in the early spring, there had been several cases of fever at
Sudleigh; and so, when the circus made application for a license to
take possession of the town, according to olden custom, the public
authorities very wisely refused. Tiverton, however, was wroth at this
arbitrary restriction. For more years than I can say, she had driven
over to Sudleigh "to see the caravan;" and now, through some
crack-brained theory of contagion, the caravan was to be barred out. We
never really believed that the town-fathers had taken their highhanded
measure on account of scarlet fever. We saw in it some occult political
significance, and referred ominously to the butter we carried there on
Saturdays, and to the possibility that, if they cast us off, a
separation might affect them far more seriously than it would us. But
to our loud-voiced delight, the caravan, finding that it was to be
within hailing distance, and unwilling to pass on without further
tribute, extended the sceptre to Tiverton herself; and Brad Freeman
joyfully discussed the project of making a circus ground of his old
race-course, which, he declared, he had purposed planting with tobacco.
We never knew whether to believe this or not, though we had many times
previously gone over Brad's calculation, by which he figured that he
could sell at least three tons of fine-cut from one summer's produce.
To that specious logic, we always listened with unwilling admiration;
but when we could shake off the glamour inseparable from a problem made
to come out right, we were accustomed to turn to one another, demanding
with cold scepticism, "Where'd he git his seed?"
In spite of the loss of this potential crop, however, Brad was
magnanimously willing to let his field; and Tiverton held her head
high, in the prospect of having a circus of her own. We intimated that
it would undoubtedly be fair weather, owing to our superior moral
desert as compared with that of Sudleigh, which was annually afflicted
with what had long been known as "circus-weather." For Sudleigh had
sinned, and Nature was thenceforth deputed to pay her back, in good old
Hebrew style. One circus-day--before the war, as I believe--Sudleigh
fenced up the spring in a corner of her grounds, and with a foolish
thrift sold ice-water to the crowd, at a penny a glass. Tiverton was
furious, and so, apparently, were the just heavens; for every
circus-day thereafter it rained, in a fashion calculated to urge any
forehanded Noah into immediate action. We of Tiverton never allowed our
neighbor to forget her criminal lapse. When, on circus-afternoon, we
met one of the rival township, dripping as ourselves, we said, with all
the cheerfulness of conscious innocence,--
"Water enough for everybody, to-day! Guess ye won't have to peddle none
"Seems to be comin' down pretty fast! You better build a platfoam over
that spring! Go hard with ye if't overflowed!"
Strange to say, Sudleigh seemed to regard these time-licensed remarks
with little favor; she even intimated that they smacked of the past,
and were wearisome in her nostrils. But not for that did we halt in
their distribution. Moreover, we flaunted our domestic loyalty by
partaking of no Sudleigh fluid within the grounds. We carried tea,
coffee, lemonade, milk, an ambitious variety of drinks, in order that
even our children might be spared the public disgrace of tasting
Sudleigh water; and it was a part of our excellent fooling to invite
every Sudleighian to drink with us. Even the virtues, however, spare
their votaries no pang; and in every family, this unbending fealty
resulted in the individual members' betaking themselves to the pump or
well, immediately on getting home, even before attempting to unharness.
About five o'clock, on circus-afternoon, there would be a general
rumbling of buckets and creaking of sweeps, while a chorus rose to
heaven, "My! I was 'most choked!"
But our _fete_-day dawned bright and speckless. We rose before three
o'clock, every man, woman and child of us, to see the procession come
into town. It would leave the railway at Sudleigh, and we had a faint
hope of its forming in regulation style, and sweeping into Tiverton, a
blaze of glittering chariots surmounted by queens of beauty, of lazy
beasts of the desert sulking in their cages, and dainty-stepping
horses, ridden by bold amazons. For a time, the expectation kept us
bright and hopeful, although most of us had only taken a "cold bite"
before starting; but as the eastern saffron pencilled one line of light
and the bird chorus swelled in piercing glory, we grew cross and all
unbefitting the smiling morn. Only Dilly Joyce looked sunshiny as ever,
for she had no domestic cares to beckon her; she and Nance Pete, who
was in luck that day, having a full pipe. Dilly had nestled into a
rock, curved in the form of a chair, and lay watching the eastern sky,
a faint smile of pleasure parting her lips when the saffron hardened
"Nice, dear, ain't it?" she said, as I paused a moment near her, "I
al'ays liked the side o' the road. But it's kind o' disturbin' to have
so much talk. I dunno's you can help it, though, where there's so many
people. Most o' the time, I'm better on't to home, but I did want to
see an elephant near to!"
The sky broadened into light, and the birds jeered at us, poor,
draggled folk who lived in boxes and were embarrassed by the morn. The
men grew nervous, for milking-time was near, and in imagination I have
no doubt they heard the lowing of reproachful kine.
"Well, 'tain't no use," said Eli Pike, rising from the stone-wall, and
stretching himself, with decision. "I've got to 'tend to them cows,
whether or no!" And he strolled away on the country-road, without a
look behind. Most of the other men, as in honor bound, followed him;
and the women, with loud-voiced protest against an obvious necessity,
trailed after them, to strain the milk. Only we who formed the gypsy
element were left behind.
"I call it a real shame!" announced Mrs. Pike, gathering her summer
shawl about her shoulders, and stepping away with an offended dignity
such as no delinquent elephant could have faced. "I warrant ye, they
wouldn't ha' treated Sudleigh so. They wouldn't ha' dared!"
"I dunno's Sudleigh's any more looked up to'n we be," said Caleb
Rivers, who had been so tardy in bestirring himself that he formed a
part of the women's corps. "I guess, if the truth was known, Tiverton
covers more land'n Sudleigh does, on'y Sudleigh's all humped up
together into a quart bowl. I guess there's countries that 'ain't heard
o' Sudleigh, an' wouldn't stan' much in fear if they had!"
And so Tiverton dispersed, unamiably, and with its public pride hurt to
the quick. I tried to take pattern by Dilly Joyce, and steal from
nature a little of the wonderful filial enjoyment which came to her
unsought. When Dilly watched the sky, I did, also; when she brightened
at sound of a bird hitherto silent, I tried to set down his notes in my
memory; and when she closed her eyes, and shut out the world, to think
it over, I did the same. But the result was different. Probably Dilly
opened hers again upon the lovely earth, but I drifted off into
dreamland, and only awoke, two hours after, to find the scenes
marvellously changed. It was bright, steady morning, the morning come
to stay. Tiverton had performed its dairy rites, and returned again,
enlivened by a cup of tea; and oh, incredible joy! there was a grunting
and panting, a swaying of mighty flanks. The circus was approaching,
from Sudleigh way. Instantly I was alert and on my feet, for it would
have been impossible to miss the contagion of the general joy. I knew
how we felt, not as individuals, but as Tivertonians alone. We were
tolerant potentates, waiting, in gracious majesty, to receive a
deputation from the farther East. It grieves me much to stop here and
confess, with a necessary honesty, that this was but a sorry circus,
gauged by the conventional standards; else, I suppose, it had never
come to Tiverton at all. The circus-folk had evidently dressed for
travelling, not for us. The chariots, some of them still hooded in
canvas, were very small and tarnished. There were but three elephants,
two camels, and a most meagre display of those alluring cages made to
afford even the careless eye a sudden, quickening glimpse of restless,
tawny form, or slothful hulk within. Yet why depreciate the raw
material whereof Fancy has power divine to build her altogether perfect
heights? Here was the plain, homely setting of our plainer lives, and
right into the midst of it had come the East. The elephants affected us
most; we probably thought little about the immemorial mystery, the
vague, occult tradition wrapped in that mouse-colored hide; but even to
our dense Western imagination such quickening suggestion was vividly
apparent. We knew our world; usually it seemed to us the only one, even
when we looked at the stars. But at least one other had been created,
and before us appeared its visible sign,--my lord the elephant! There
he was, swaying along, conscious philosopher, conscious might, yet
holding his omniscience in the background, and keeping a wary eye out
for the peanuts with which we simple country souls had not provided
ourselves. There was one curious thing about it all. We had seen the
circus at Sudleigh, as I have said, yet the fact of entertaining it
within our borders made it seem exactly as if we had never laid eyes
upon it before. This was our caravan, and God Almighty had created the
elephant for us. Dilly Joyce slipped her hand quickly in mine and
pressed it hard. She was quite pale. Yet it was she who acted upon the
first practical thought. She recovered herself before my lord went by,
took a ginger cookie from her pocket, and put it into Davie Tolman's
"Here," she said, pushing him forward, "you go an' offer it to him.
He'll take it. See'f he don't!"
Davie accepted the mission with joy, and persisted in it until he found
himself close beside that swaying bulk, and saw the long trunk curved
enticingly toward him. Then he uttered one explosive howl, and fell
back on the very toes of us who were pressing forward to partake, by
right of sympathy, in the little drama.
"Lordy Massy, keep still!" cried out Nance Pete; and she snatched him
up bodily, and held him out to the elephant. I believe my own pang at
that moment to have been general. I forgot that elephants are not
carnivorous, and shuddered back, under the expectation of seeing Davie
devoured, hide and hair. But Nance had the address to stiffen the
little arm, and my lord took the cookie, still clutched in the
despairing hand, and passed on. Then Davie wiped his eyes, after
peeping stealthily about to see whether any one was disposed to jeer at
him, and took such courage that he posed, ever after, as the hero of
The procession had nearly passed us when we saw a sight calculated to
animate us anew with a justifiable pride. Sudleigh itself, its young
men and maidens, old men and children, was following the circus into
our town. It would not have a circus of its own, forsooth, but it would
share in ours! We, as by one consent, assumed an air of dignified
self-importance. We were the hosts of the day; we bowed graciously to
such of our guests as we knew, and, with a mild tolerance, looked over
the heads of those who were unfamiliar. Yet nothing checked our happy
companionship with the caravan; still we followed by the side of the
procession, through tangles of blackberry vine, and over ditch and
stubble. Some of the boys mounted the walls, and ran wildly, dislodging
stones as they went, and earning no reproof from the fathers who, on
any other day, would have been alive to a future mowing and the
clashing of scythe and rock. There was, moreover, an impression abroad
that our progress could by no means be considered devoid of danger.
"S'pose that fellar should rise up, an' wrench off them bars!"
suggested Heman Blaisdell, pointing out one cage where a great
creature, gaudy in stripes, paced back and forth, throwing us an
occasional look of scorn and great despite. "I wouldn't give much for
my chances! Nor for anybody else's!"
"My soul an' body!" ejaculated a woman. "I hope they don't forgit to
lock them cages up! Folks git awful careless when they do a thing every
day! I forgot to shet up the hins last week, an' that was the night the
skunk got in."
"I'm glad Brad brought his gun," said another, in the tone of one who
would have crossed herself had there been a saint to help. And
thereafter we kept so thickly about Brad, walking with his long free
stride, that his progress became impeded, and he almost fell over us.
Suddenly, from the front, a man's voice rose in an imperative cry,--
"Turn round! turn round!"
Quite evidently the mandate was addressed to us, and we turned in a
mass, fleeing back into Sudleigh's very arms. For a moment, it was like
Sparta and Persia striving in the Pass; then Sudleigh turned also, such
as were on foot, and fled with us. We pressed up the bank, as soon as
we could collect our errant wits; some of us, with a sense of coming
calamity, mounted the very wall, and there we had a moment to look
about us. The caravan was keeping steadily on, like fate and taxes, and
facing it stood a carryall attached to a frightened horse. On the front
seat, erect in her accustomed majesty, sat Aunt Melissa Adams; and
Uncle Hiram, ever a humble charioteer, was by her side. They, too, had
driven out to see the circus, but alas! it had not struck them that
they might meet it midway, with no volition of drawing up at the side
of the road and allowing it to pass. The old horse, hardened to the
vicissitudes of many farming seasons, had necessarily no acquaintance
with the wild beasts of the Orient; no past experience, tucked away in
his wise old head, could explain them in the very least. He plunged and
reared; he snorted with fear, and Aunt Melissa began to emit shrieks of
such volume and quality that the mangy lion, composing himself to sleep
in his cage, rose, and sent forth a cry that Tiverton will long
remember. We did not stop to explain our forebodings, but we were sure
that, in some mysterious way, Aunt Melissa was doomed, and that she had
brought her misfortune on herself. A second Daniel, she had no special
integrity to stand her in need. And still the circus advanced, and the
horse snorted and backed. He was a gaunt old beast, but in his terror,
one moment of beauty dignified him beyond belief. His head was high,
his eyes were starting.
"Turn round!" cried the men, but Uncle Hiram was paralyzed, and the
reins lay supine in his hands, while he screamed a wheezy "Whoa!" Then
Brad Freeman, as usual in cases outside precedent, became the good
angel of Tiverton. He forced his gun on the person nearest at hand--who
proved to be Nance Pete--and dashed forward. Seizing the frightened
horse by the head, he cramped the wheel scientifically, and turned him
round. Then he gave him a smack on the flank, and the carryall went
reeling and swaying back into Tiverton, the _avant-courrier_ of the
circus. You should have heard Aunt Melissa's account of that ride, an
epic moment which she treasured, in awe, to the day of her death.
According to her, it asked no odds from the wild huntsman, or the
Gabriel hounds. Well, we cowards came down from the wall, assuring each
other, with voices still shaking a little, that we knew it was nothing,
after all, and that nobody but Aunt Melissa would make such a fuss. How
she did holler! we said, with conscious pride in our own
self-possession when brought into unexpectedly close relations with
wild beasts; and we trudged happily along through the dust stirred by
alien trampling, back to Tiverton Street, and down into Brad Freeman's
field. It would hardly be possible to describe our joy in watching the
operation of tent-raising, nor our pride in Brad Freeman, when he
assumed the character of host, and not only made the circus-folk free
of the ground they had hired, but hurried here and there, helping with
such address and muscular vigor that we felt defrauded in never having
known how accomplished he really was. The strollers recognized his
type, in no time; they were joking with him and clapping him on the
back before the first tent had been unrolled. Now, none of us had ever
seen a circus performer, save in the ring; and I think we were
disappointed, for a moment, at finding we had in our midst no spangled
angels in rosy tights, no athletes standing on their heads by choice,
and quite preferring the landscape upside down, but a set of shabbily
dressed, rather jaded men and women, who were, for all the world, just
like ourselves, save that they walked more gracefully, and spoke in
softer voice. But when the report went round that the cook was getting
breakfast ready--out of doors, too!--we were more than compensated for
the loss of such tinsel joys. Chattering and eager, we ran over to the
dining-tent, and there, close beside it, found the little kitchen, its
ovens smoking hot, and a man outside, aproned and capped, cutting up
chops and steaks, with careless deftness, and laying them in the great
iron pans, preparatory to broiling.
"By all 't's good an' bad!" swore Tom McNeil, a universal and sweeping
oath he much affected, "they've got a whole sheep an' a side o' beef!
Well, it's high livin', an' no mistake!"
We who considered a few pies a baking, watched this wholesale cookery
in bewildered fascination. A savory smell arose to heaven. I never was
so hungry in my life, and I believe all Tiverton would own to the same
craving. Perhaps some wild instinct sprang up in us with the scent of
meat in out-door air, but at any rate, we became much exhilarated, and
our attention was only turned from the beguiling chops by Mrs. Wilson's
saying, in a low tone, to her husband,--
"Lothrop, if there ain't Lucindy, an' that Molly McNeil with her!
What's Lucindy got? My sake alive! you might ha' known she'd do suthin'
to make anybody wish they'd stayed to home. If you can git near her,
you keep a tight holt on her, or she'll be jumpin' through a hoop!"
I turned, with the rest. Yes, there was Miss Lucindy, tripping happily
across the level field. Molly McNeil hastened beside her, and between
them they carried a large clothes-basket, overflowing with flaming
orange-red; a basket heaped with sunset, not the dawn! They were very
near me when I guessed what it was; so near that I could see the happy
smile on Lucindy's parted lips, and note how high the rose flush had
risen in her delicate cheek, with happiness and haste.
"Stortions!" broke out a voice near me, in virile scorn,--Nance
Pete's,--"stortions! Jes' like her! Better picked 'em a mess o' pease!"
It was, indeed, a basket of red nasturtiums, and the sun had touched
them into a glory like his own. For one brief moment, we were ashamed
of Lucindy's "shallerness" and irrelevancy; but the circus people
interpreted her better. They rose from box and hamper where they had
been listlessly awaiting their tardy breakfast, and crowded forward to
meet her. They knew, through the comradeship of all Bohemia, exactly
what she meant.
"My!" said Miss Lucindy, smiling full at them as they came,--her old,
set smile had been touched, within a year, by something glad and
free,--"set 'em down now, Molly. My! are you the folks? Well, I thought
you'd seem different, somehow, but anyway, we brought you over a few
blooms. We thought you couldn't have much time, movin' round so, to
work in your gardins, especially the things you have to sow every year.
Yes, dear, yes! Take a good handful. Here's a little mignonette I put
in the bottom, so't everybody could have a sprig. Yes, there's enough
for the men, too. Why, yes, help yourself! Law, dear, why don't you
take off your veil? Hot as this is!" for the bearded lady, closely
masked in black _barege_, had come forward and hungrily stretched out a
great hand for her share.
We never knew how it all happened, but during this clamor of happy
voices, the chops were cooked and the coffee boiled; the circus people
turned about, and trooped into the tent where the tables were set, and
they took Miss Lucindy with them. Yes, they did! Molly McNeil stayed
contentedly outside; for though she had brought her share of the
treasure, quite evidently she considered herself a friendly helper, not
a partner in the scheme. But Miss Lucindy was the queen of the
carnival. We heard one girl say to another, as our eccentric townswoman
swept past us, in the eager crowd, "Oh, the dear old thing!" We saw a
sad-eyed girl bend forward, lift a string of Miss Lucindy's apron
(which, we felt, should have been left behind in the kitchen) and give
it a hearty kiss. Later, when, by little groups, we peeped into the
dining-tent, we saw Miss Lucindy sitting there at the table, between
two women who evidently thought her the very nicest person that had
ever crossed their wandering track. There she was, an untouched roll
and chop on her plate, a cup of coffee by her side. She was not
talking. She only smiled happily at those who talked to her, and her
eyes shone very bright. We were ashamed; I confess it. For was not
Sudleigh, also, there to see?
"Oh, my soul!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilson, in fretful undertone. "I wish the
old Judge was here!"
Her husband turned and looked at her, and she quailed; not with fear of
him, but at the vision of the outraged truth.
"Well, no," she added, weakly, "I dunno's I wish anything so bad as
that, but I do declare I think there ought to be somebody to keep a
tight grip on Lucindy!"
Who shall deem himself worthy to write the chronicle of that glorious
day? There were so many incidents not set down in the logical drama; so
many side-shows of circumstance! We watched all the mysterious
preparations for the afternoon performance, so far as we were allowed,
with the keenness of the wise, who recognize a special wonder and will
not let it pass unproved. We surrounded Miss Lucindy, when she came
away from her breakfast party, and begged for an exact account of all
her entertainers had said; but she could tell us nothing. She only
reiterated, with eyes sparkling anew, that they were "proper nice
folks, proper nice! and she must go home and get Ellen. If she'd known
they were just like other folks she'd have brought Ellen this morning;
but she'd been afraid there'd be talk that little girls better not
At noon, we sat about in the shade of the trees along the wall, and ate
delicious cold food from the butter-boxes and baskets our men-folks had
brought over during the forenoon lull; and we assiduously offered
Sudleigh a drink, whenever it passed the counter where barrels of free
spring-water had been set. And then, at the first possible moment, we
paid our fee, and went inside the tent to see the animals. That scrubby
menagerie had not gained in dignity from its transference to canvas
walls. The enclosure was very hot and stuffy; there was a smell of dust
and straw. The lion stretched himself, from time to time, and gave an
angry roar for savage, long-lost joys. One bear, surely new to the
business, kept walking up and down, up and down, moaning, in an abandon
of homesickness. Brad Freeman stood before the cage when I was there.
"Say, Brad," said the Crane boy, slipping his arm into the hunter's, in
a good-fellowship sure to be reciprocated. "Davie Tolman said you's
goin' to fetch over your fox, an' sell him to the circus. Be you?"
"My Lord!" answered Brad, very violently for him, the ever-tolerant.
"No! I'm goin' to let him go. _Look at that!_" And while the Crane boy,
unconcerned, yet puzzled, gave his full attention to the bear, Brad
There was a wolf, I remember, darting about his cage, slinking,
furtive, ever on a futile prowl. He especially engaged the interest of
Tom McNeil, who said admiringly, as I, too, looked through the bars,
"Ain't he a prompt little cuss?" I felt that with Tom it was the
fascination of opposites; he never could understand superlative energy.
Just as we were trooping into the larger tent (there were no three
rings, I beg to say, maliciously calculated to distract the attention!
One, of a goodly size, was quite enough for us!) a little voice piped
up, "The snake's got loose!" How we surged and panted, and fought one
another for our sacred lives! In vain were we urged to stand still; we
strove the more. And when a bit of rope perversely and maliciously
coiled itself round Rosa Tolman's ankle, she gave a shriek so loud and
despairing that it undid us anew. If Sheriff Holmes had not come
forward and sworn at us, I believe we should have trampled one another
out of existence; but he seemed so palpably the embodiment of
authority, and his oath the oath undoubtedly selected by legislature
for that very occasion, that we paused, and on the passionate
asseveration of a circus man that the snake was safely in his cage,
consented to be calm. But Aunt Melissa Adams, unstrung by her earlier
experience, would trust no doubtful circumstance. She plodded back into
the animal-tent, assured herself, with her own eyes, of the snake's
presence at his own hearthstone, and came back satisfied, just as the
clown entered the ring. The performance needs no bush. We had palmleaf
fans offered us, pop-corn, and pink lemonade. We sweltered under the
blazing canvas, laughed at the clown's musty fooling, which deserved
rather the reverence due old age, and wondered between whiles if there
would be a shower, and if tent-poles were ever struck. Then it was all
over, and we trailed out, in great bodily discomfort and spiritual joy,
to witness, quite unlooked for, the most vivid drama of the day. Young
Dana Marden was there, he and his wife who lived down in Tiverton
Hollow. Dana was a nephew of Josh, of hapless memory, and "folks said"
that, like Josh, he had "all the Marden setness, once git him riled."
But Mary Worthen had not been in the least afraid of that when she
married him. Before their engagement, some one had casually mentioned
Dana's having inherited "setness" for his patrimony.
"I know it," she said, "and if I had anything to do with him, I'd break
him of it, or I'd break his neck!"
Tiverton had been very considerate in never repeating that speech to
Dana; and his wife, in all their five years of married life, had not
fulfilled her threat. As we were making ready to leave the grounds,
that day, and those who had horses were "tacklin up," we became aware
that Dana, a handsome, solid, fresh-colored fellow, sat in his wagon
with pretty Mary beside him, and that they evidently had no intention
of moving on. Of course we approached, to find out what the trouble
"We can send word to have Tom Bunker milk the cows," said Dana, with
distinct emphasis, "an' we can stay for the evenin' performance. Or we
can go now. Only, you've got to say which!"
"I don't want to say," returned Mary, placidly, "because I don't know
which you'd rather have. You just tell me _so_ much!"
A frown contracted his brow; he looked a middle-aged man. When he
spoke, his voice grated.
"You tell which, or we'll set here all night, an' I don't speak another
word to you till you do!"
But Mary said nothing.
"My soul!" whispered Mrs. Rivers to me. "She's got herself into it now,
jest as they say Lyddy Ann Marden done, with Josh. She'll have to back
Several more of those aimless on-lookers, ever ready for the making of
crowds, surged forward. The wagon was blocking the way. We realised
with shame that Sudleigh, too, was here, to say nothing of sister towns
less irritating to our pride. It was Uncle Eli Pike who stepped into
"Here, Dana!" he called, and, as we were glad to remember, all the
aliens in the crowd could hear, "I guess that hoss o' yourn's gittin' a
mite balky. I'll lead him a step, if you say so." And without a word of
assent from Dana, he guided the horse out of the grounds, and started
him on the road. We watched the divided couple, on their common way.
Dana was driving, it is true; but we knew, with a heavy certainty, that
he was not speaking to his wife. He was a Marden, and nothing would
make him speak.
This slight but very significant episode sent us home in a soberer mind
than any of us had anticipated, after the gaudy triumphs of the day. We
could not quell our curiosity over the upshot of it all, and that
night, after the chores were done, we sat in the darkness,
interspersing our comments on the spangled butterflies of horse and
hoop with an awed question, now and then, while the minute-hand sped,
"S'pose they've spoke yit?"
Alas! the prevailing voice was still against it; and when we went to
market, and met there the people from the Hollow (who were somewhat
more bucolic than we), they passed about the open secret. Dana did not
speak to his wife. Again we knew he never would. The summer waned; the
cows were turned into the shack, and the most "forehanded" among us
began to cut boughs for banking up the house, and set afoot other
preparations for winter's cold. Still Dana had not spoken. But the
effect on Mary was inexplicable to us all. We knew she loved him
deeply, and that the habits of their relationship were very tender; we
expected her to sink and fail under the burden of this sudden exile of
the heart, just as Lyddy Ann had done, so many years ago. But Mary held
her head high, and kept her color. She even "went abroad" more than
usual; ostentatiously so, we thought, for she would come over to
Tiverton to pass the afternoon, after the good, old-fashioned style,
with women whom she knew but slightly. And, most incredible of all,
though Dana would not speak to her, she spoke to him! Once, in driving
past, I heard her clear voice (it seemed now a dauntless voice!)
"Dana, dinner's ready!" Dana dropped the board he was carrying, and
went in, a fierce yet dogged look upon his face, as if it needed hourly
schooling to mirror his hard heart. Then the agent of the Sudleigh
"Star," who was canvassing for a new domestic paper, had also his story
to tell. He went to the Mardens', and Mary, who admitted him, put down
her name, and then called blithely into the kitchen,--
"Dana, I'm all out o' change. Will you hand me a dollar 'n' a quarter?"
Dana, flushed red and overwhelmed by a pitiable embarrassment, came to
the door and gave the money; and Mary, with that proud unconsciousness
which made us wonder anew every time we saw it in her, thanked him, and
dismissed the visitor, as if nothing were wrong. The couple went as
usual to church and sociable. Certain lines deepened in Dana's face,
but Mary grew every day more light-heartedly cheerful. Yet the
one-sided silence lived, with the terrible tenacity of evil.
So the days went on until midwinter snows began to blow, and then we
learned, with a thrill of pride, that the International Dramatic
Company proposed coming to our own little hall, for a two weeks'
engagement. Some said Sudleigh Opera House was too large for it, and
too expensive; but we, the wiser heads, were grandly aware that, with
unusual acumen, the drama had at last recognized the true emporium of
taste. We resolved that this discriminating company should not repent
its choice. A week before the great first night, magnificent posters in
red and blue set before us, in very choice English, the dramatic
performances, "Shakespearean and otherwise," destined to take place
among us. The leading parts were to be assumed by Mr. and Mrs. Van
Rensellaer Wilde, "two of the foremost artists in the stellar world,
supported by an adequate company."
The announcement ended with the insinuating alliteration, "Popular
prices prevail." The very first night, we were at the door, an excited
crowd, absolutely before it was open; but early as we went, the
hospitable pianist held the field before us; the hall resounded with
his jocund banging at the very moment when the pioneer among us set
foot within. I have never seen anywhere, either on benefit or farewell
night, a cordiality to be compared with that which presided over our
own theatre in Tiverton Hall. Mr. Van Rensellaer Wilde himself stood
within the doorway, to greet us as we came; a personable man, with the
smooth, individual face of his profession, a moist and beery eye, a
catholic smile, tolerant enough to include the just and the unjust, a
rusty, old-fashioned stock, and the very ancientest brown Prince Albert
coat still in reputable existence,--a strange historical epitome of
brushings and spongings, of camphor exile and patient patching. Quite
evidently he was not among the prosperous, even in his stellar world.
But not for that would he repine. This present planet was an admirable
plot of ground, and here he stood, cheerfully ready to induct us, the
Puritan-born, into the fictitious joys thereof. And popular prices
prevailed; the floor of the hall itself confirmed it. It was divided,
by chalk-lines, into three sections. Enter the first division, and a
legend at your feet indicated the ten-cent territory. Advance a little,
and "twenty-five cents" met the eye; and presently, approaching the
platform, you were in the seats of the scornful, thirty-five cents
each. The latter, by common consent, were eschewed by the very first
comers, not alone for reasons of thrift, but because we thought they
ought to be left for old folks, "a leetle mite hard o' hearin'," or the
unfortunates who were "not so fur-sighted" as we. So we seated
ourselves in delight already begun, for was not Mr. Gad Greenfield
performing one of the "orchestral pieces" which the programme had led
us to expect? The piano was an antique, accustomed to serve as victim
at Sudleigh's dancing-school and sociables. I have never heard its
condition described, on its return to Sudleigh; I only know that, from
some eccentric partiality, Gad Greenfield's music was all _fortissimo_.
Sally Flint, brought thither by the much-enduring overseer, for the
sake of domestic peace, seemed to be the only one who did not regard
Gad's performance with unquestioning awe. She was heard to say aloud,
in a penetrating voice,--
"My soul an' body! what a racket!"
Whereupon she deliberately pulled some wool from the tassel of her
chinchilla cloud, and stuffed a little wad into each ear. We were sorry
for the overseer, thus put to shame by his untutored charge, and
delicately looked away, after making sure Sally had "r'ared as high" as
she proposed doing. She was the overseer's cross; no one could help him
And now the curtain went up,--though not on the play, let me tell you!
On slighter joys, a fillip to the taste. A juggler, "all complete" in
black small-clothes and white kid gloves, stood there ready to burn up
our handkerchiefs, change our watches into rabbits, and make omelets in
our best go-to-meeting hats. I cannot remember all the wonderful things
he did (everything, I believe, judging from the roseate glow left in my
mind, everything that juggler ever achieved short of the Hindoo marvel
of cutting up maidens and splicing them together again, or planting the
magic tree); I only know we were too crafty to help him, and though he
again and again implored a volunteer from the audience to come and play
the willing victim, we clung to our settees the more, so that Gad of
the piano was obliged to fill the gap. And when the curtain came down,
and went up again on a drawing-room, with a red plush chair in it, and
a lady dressed in a long-tailed white satin gown, where were we? In
Tiverton? Nay, in the great world of fashion and of crime. I remember
very little now about the order of the plays; very little of their
names and drift. I only know we were swept triumphantly through the
widest range ever imagined since the "pastoral-comical, historical-
pastoral," of old Polonius. And in all, fat, middle-aged Wilde was the
dashing hero, the deep-dyed villain; and his wife, middle-aged as he,
and far, oh, far more corpulent! played the lovely heroine, the
blooming victim, the queen of hearts. And she was truly beautiful to
us, that blowsy dame, through the beguiling witchery of her art. The
smarting tears came into our eyes when, in "Caste," she staggered back,
despairing, lost in grief, unable to arm her soldier for the march.
Melodrama was her joy, and as we watched her lumbering about the stage
in a white muslin dress, with the artificial springiness of a youth
that would never return, we could have risen as one man, to snatch her
from the toils of villany. She was a cool piece, that swiftly
descending star! She had a way of deliberately stepping outside the
scenes and letting down her thin black hair, before the tragic moment;
then would she bound back again, and tear every passion to tatters, in
good old-fashioned style. In "The Octoroon" especially she tore our
hearts with it, so that it almost began to seem as if political issues
were imminent. For between the acts, men bent forward to their
neighbors, and put their heads together, recalling abolition times; and
one poor, harmless old farmer from Sudleigh way was glared at in a
fashion to which he had once been painfully accustomed, while murmurs
of "Copperhead! Yes, Copperhead all through the war!" must have
penetrated where he sat. But he was securely locked up in his fortress
of deaf old age, and met the hostile glances benignly, quite
unconscious of their meaning. In one particular, we felt, for a time,
that we had been deceived. The Shakespearean drama had not been touched
on as we had been led to expect; but at last, in the middle of the
second week, we were rejoiced by the announcement that "Othello" would
that night be appropriately set forth. The Moor of Venice! He would
never have recognized himself--his great creator would never have
guessed his identity--as presented by Mr. Van Rensellaer Wilde. I give
you my word for that! From beginning to end of the performance,
Tiverton groped about, in a haze of perplexity, rendered ever the more
dense by the fact that none of the actors knew their parts. I am
inclined to think they had enriched their announcement by this allusion
to the Shakespearean drama in a moment of wild ambition, as we gladly
commit ourselves to issues far-off and vague; and then, with a
chivalrous determination to vindicate their written word; they had
embarked on a troublous sea for which they had "neither mast nor sail,
nor chart nor rudder." So they went bobbing about in a tub, and we,
with a like paucity of equipment, essayed to follow them.
Othello himself was a veiled mystery in our eyes.
"Ain't he colored?" whispered Mrs. Wilson to me; and while I hesitated,
seeking to frame an answer both terse and true, she continued, although
he was at that moment impressing the Senate with his great apology, "Is
I assured her on that point, and she settled down to a troubled study
of the part, only to run hopelessly aground when Desdemona, in her
stiff white satin gown, announced her intention of cleaving to the
robust blackamoor, in spite of fate and father. That seemed a
praiseworthy action, "taken by and large," but we could not altogether
applaud it. "Abolition," as we were, the deed wounded some race
prejudice in us, and Mrs. Hiram Cole voiced the general sentiment when
she remarked audibly,--
"One color's as good as another, come Judgment Day, but let 'em marry
among themselves, _I_ say!"
The poverty of the scenery had something to do with our dulness in
following the dramatic thread, for how should we know that our own
little stage, disguised by a slender tree-growth, was the island of
Cyprus, and that Desdemona, tripping through a doorway, in the same
satin gown, had just arrived from a long and perilous voyage? "The
riches of the ship" had "come on shore," but for all we knew, it had
been in the next room, taking a nap, all the while. In the crucial
scene between Cassio and Iago, we got the impression that one was as
drunk as the other, and that Cassio acted the better man of the two,
chiefly because of his grandiloquent apostrophe relative to the
thieving of brains. We approved of that, and looked meaningly round at
old Cap'n Fuller, who was at that time taking more hard cider than we
considered good for him. But when the final catastrophe came, we,
having missed the logical sequence, were totally unprepared. Mr. Wilde,
with a blackamoor fury irresistibly funny to one who has seen a city
coal-man cursing another for not moving on, smothered his shrieking
spouse in a pillow brought over for that purpose from the Blaisdells',
where most of the actors were boarding. We were not inclined to endure
this quietly. The more phlegmatic among us moved uneasily in our seats,
and one or two men, excitable beyond the ordinary, sprang up, with an
oath. Mrs. Wilson dragged her husband down again.
"For massy sake, do set still!" she urged. "He 'ain't killed her. Don't
you see them toes a-twitchin'?"
No, Mrs. Wilde was not dead, as her weary appearance in the afterpiece
attested; but she had been cruelly abused, and the murmurs, here and
there, as we left the hall, went far to show that Othello had done well
in voluntarily paying the debt of nature, and that Emilia thought none
too ill of him.
"Ought to ha' been strong up, by good rights," growled Tiverton. "you
can't find a jury't would acquit _him_!"
Night after night, we conscientiously sat out the aforesaid afterpiece,
innocently supposed to be our due because it had formed a part of the
initial performance. However long our weary strollers might delay it,
in the empty hope of our going home content, there we waited until the
curtain went up. It was a dreary piece of business, varied by
horse-play considered "kind o' rough" by even the more boisterous among
us. Sometimes it was given, minstrel-wise, in the time-honored panoply
of burnt cork; again, poor weary souls! they lacked even the spirit to
blacken themselves, and clinging to the same dialogue, played boldly in
Caucasian fairness, with the pathetically futile disguise of a Teuton
accent. And last of all, Mr. Wilde would appear before the curtain, and
"in behalf of Mrs. Wilde, self and company" thank us movingly for our
kind attention, and announce the next night's bill.
The last half hour was my chosen time for leaning back against the
wall, and allowing thought and glance to dwell lovingly on Tiverton
faces. O worn and rugged features of the elder generation to whose
kinship we are born! What solution, even of Time, the all-potent, shall
wash your meaning from the heart? An absolute lack of
self-consciousness had quite transformed the gaze they bent upon the
stage. A veil had been swept aside, and the true soul shone forth; that
soul which ever dwells apart, either from the dignity of its estate or,
being wrought of fibre more delicate than air, because it fears recoil
and hurt. There were Roxy and her husband, he too well content with
life as it is, to be greatly moved by its counterfeit; she sparkling
back some artless reply to the challenge of feeble romance and wingless
wit. There was Uncle Eli, a little dazed by these strange doings, the
hand on his knee shaking, from time to time, under the stimulus of
unshared thought. There was Miss Lucindy, with Ellen and all the
McNeils, a care-free, happy phalanx, smiling joyously at everything set
before them, with that spontaneous rapture so good to see. One night,
Nance Pete appeared, and established herself, with great importance, in
the first row of the ten-cent seats; but she fell asleep, and snored
with embarrassing volume and precision. She never came again, and
announced indifferently, to all who cared to hear, that when she
"wanted to see a passel o' monkeys, she'd go to the circus, an' done
with it." There, too, one night when Comedy burlesqued her own rapt
self, was Dana Marden; but he came alone. Mary had a cold, we heard,
and "thought she'd better stay in." Dana sat through the foolish play,
unmoved. His brow loomed heavy, like Tragedy's own mask, and it grew
ever blacker while the scene went on. Hiram Cole whispered me,--
"He'll kill himself afore he's done with it. He's gone in for the whole
hog, but he 'ain't growed to it, as Old Josh had. The Marden blood run
emptin's afore it got to him."
The last night came of all our blissful interlude, and on that night,
by some stroke of fate, the bill was "Oliver Twist." Of that
performance let naught be spoken, save in reverence. For, by divine
leading it might seem, and not their own good wit, those poor players
had been briefly touched by the one true fire. Shakespeare had beckoned
them, and they had passed him by; Comedy and Tragedy had been their
innocent sport. How funny their tragedy had been, how sad their comedy,
Momus only might tell. But to-night some gleaming wave from a greater
sea had lifted them, and borne them on. Still they played, jarringly,
for that was their untutored wont. Their speech roared, loud defiance
to grammar's idle saws, their costumes were absurd remnants of an
antique past; but a certain, rude, and homely dignity had transfigured
them, and enveloped, too, this poor drama which, after all, goes very
deep, down to the springs of life and love. There was a dirty and
wicked abomination of a Fagin. Wilde himself played Sykes, and we of
Tiverton, who know little about the formless monster dwelling under the
garnished pavement of every great city, and rising, once in a century
or so, to send red riot and ruin through the streets,--even we could
read the story of his word and glance. Unconsciously to ourselves, we
guessed at Whitechapel and the East End "tough," and shuddered under
the knowledge of evil. Mrs. Wilde, her heavy face many a shade sincerer
than when she walked in dirty white satin, was Nancy; and in her death,
culminated the grand moment of Tiverton's looking the drama in the
face, and seeing it for what it is,--the living sister of life itself.
Sykes really killed her alarmingly well. Round the stage he dragged
her, bruised and speechless, with such cruel realism that we women
crouched and shivered; and when she staggered to her knees, and told
her pitiful lie for the brute she loved, the general shudder of worship
and horror thrilled us into a mighty reverence for the tie stronger
than death and hell, binding the woman to the man, and lifting Love
triumphant on his cross of pain. With Nancy's final sigh, another swept
through the hall, like breath among the trees, and, drawn by what
thread I know not, I looked about me, and all unwittingly was present
at another great last act. Dana Marden and his wife were in front of
me, not three seats away. Mary was very pale, and sat quite motionless,
looking down into her lap; but Dana bent forward, gripping the seat in
front of him with white and straining hands. His face, drawn and
knotted, was a mirror of such anguish as few of us imagine; we only
learn its power when it steals upon us in the dark, and our souls
wrestle with it for awful mastery. He seemed to be suffering an
extremity of physical pain. After that, I gave little heed to the
stage. I was only conscious that the curtain had gone down, and that
Mr. Wilde was thanking us for our kind attention, and expressing a
flattering hope that another year would find him again in our midst. We
did not want the farce, that night, even as our rightful due. We got
up, and filed out in silence. I was just behind Dana and Mary; so near
that I could have touched him when, half-way, down the hall, he put out
a clumsy hand and drew her shawl closer about her shoulders. Then he
set his face straight forward again, but not before I had noticed how
the lips were twitching still, in that dumb protest against the fetters
of his birth. Again he turned to her, as suddenly as if a blow had
forced his face about. I heard his voice, abrupt, explosive, full of
the harshness so near at hand to wait on agony,--
"You got your rubbers on?"
Mary started a little, and a tremor like that of cold, went over her;
but she kept her head firmly erect.
"Yes, Dana," she said, clearly, just as she had spoken to him all those
months, "I've got 'em on."
Before eleven o'clock, the next morning, the news had spread all over
joyful Tiverton. Dana had spoken at last! But Mary! Within a week, she
took to her bed, quite overmastered by a lingering fever. She "came out
all right," as we say among ourselves, though after Dana had suffered
such agonies of tenderness over her as few save mothers can know, or
those who have injured their beloved. But she has never since been
quite so dauntless, quite so full of the joy of life. As Hiram Cole
again remarked, it is a serious thing to draw too heavily on the