Gentian

Mary E. Wilkins

From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)

It had been raining hard all night; when the morning dawned clear everything looked vivid and unnatural. The wet leaves on the trees and hedges seemed to emit a real green light of their own; the tree trunks were black and dank, and the spots of moss on them stood out distinctly.

A tall old woman was coming quickly up the street. She had on a stiffly starched calico gown, which sprang and rattled as she walked. She kept smoothing it anxiously. “Gittin' every mite of the stiff'nin' out,” she muttered to herself.

She stopped at a long cottage house, whose unpainted walls, with white window-facings, and wide sweep of shingled roof, looked dark and startling through being sodden with rain.

There was a low stone wall by way of fence, with a gap in it for a gate.

She had just passed through this gap when the house door opened, and a woman put out her head.

“Is that you, Hannah?” said she.

“Yes, it's me.” She laid a hard emphasis on the last word; then she sighed heavily.

“Hadn't you better hold your dress up comin' through that wet grass, Hannah? You'll git it all bedraggled.”

“I know it. I'm a-gittin' every mite of the stiff'nin' out on't. I worked half the forenoon ironin' on't yesterday, too. Well, I thought I'd got to git over here an' fetch a few of these fried cakes. I thought mebbe Alferd would relish 'em fur his breakfast; an' he'd got to hev 'em while they was hot; they ain't good fur nothin' cold; an' I didn't hev a soul to send — never do. How is Alferd this mornin', Lucy?”

“'Bout the same, I guess.”

“'Ain't had the doctor yit?”

“No.” She had a little, patient, pleasant smile on her face, looking up at her questioner.

The women were sisters. Hannah was Hannah Orton, unmarried. Lucy was Mrs. Tollet. Alfred was her sick husband.

Hannah's long, sallow face was deeply wrinkled. Her wide mouth twisted emphatically as she talked.

“Well, I know one thing; ef he was my husband he'd hev a doctor.”

Mrs. Tollet's voice was old, but there was a childish tone in it, a sweet, uncertain pipe.

“No; you couldn't make him, Hannah; you couldn't, no more'n me. Alferd was allers jest so. He 'ain't never thought nothin' of doctors, nor doctors' stuff.”

“Well, I'd make him take somethin'. In my opinion he needs somethin' bitter.” She screwed her mouth as if the bitter morsel were on her own tongue.

“Lor'! he wouldn't take it, you know, Hannah.”

“He'd hev to. Gentian would be good fur him.”

“He wouldn't tech it.”

“I'd make him, ef I put it in his tea unbeknownst to him.”

“Oh, I wouldn't dare to.”

“Land! I guess I'd dare to. Ef folks don't know enough to take what's good fur 'em, they'd orter be made to by hook or crook. I don't believe in deceivin' generally, but I don't believe the Lord would hev let folks hed the faculty fur deceivin' in 'em ef it wa'n't to be used fur good sometimes. It's my opinion Alferd won't last long ef he don't hev somethin' pretty soon to strengthen of him up an' give him a start. Well, it ain't no use talkin'. I've got to git home an' put this dress in the wash-tub agin, I s'pose. I never see such a sight — jest look at that! You'd better give Alferd those cakes afore they git cold.”

“I shouldn't wonder ef he relished 'em. You was real good to think of it, Hannah.”

“Well, I'm a-goin'. Every mite of the stiff'nin's out. Sometimes it seems as ef thar wa'n't no end to the work. I didn't know how to git out this mornin', anyway.”

When Mrs. Tollet entered the house she found her husband in a wooden rocking-chair with a calico cushion, by the kitchen window. He was a short, large-framed old man, but he was very thin. There were great hollows in his yellow cheeks.

“What you got thar, Lucy?”

“Some griddle-cakes Hannah brought.”

“Griddle-cakes!”

“They're real nice-lookin' ones. Don't you think you'd relish one or two, Alferd?”

“Ef you an' Hannah want griddle-cakes, you kin hev griddle-cakes.”

“Then you don't want to hev one, with some maple merlasses on it? They've kept hot; she hed 'em kivered up.”

“Take 'em away!”

She set them meekly on the pantry shelf; then she came back and stood before her husband, gentle deprecation in her soft old face and in the whole poise of her little slender body.

“What will you hev fur breakfast, Alferd?”

“I don' know. Well, you might as well fry a little slice of bacon, an' git a cup of tea.”

“Ain't you 'most afeard of — bacon, Alferd?”

“No, I ain't. Ef anybody's sick, they kin tell what they want themselves 'bout as well's anybody kin tell 'em. They don't hev any hankerin' arter anythin' unless it's good for 'em. When they need anythin', natur gives 'em a longin' arter it. I wish you'd hurry up an' cook that bacon, Lucy. I'm awful faint at my stomach.”

She cooked the bacon and made the tea with no more words. Indeed, it was seldom that she used as many as she had now. Alfred Tollet, ever since she had married him, had been the sole autocrat of all her little Russias; her very thoughts had followed after him, like sheep.

After breakfast she went about putting her house in order for the day. When that was done, and she was ready to sit down with her sewing, she found that her husband had fallen asleep in his chair. She stood over him a minute, looking at his pale old face with the sincerest love and reverence. Then she sat down by the window and sewed, but not long. She got her bonnet and shawl stealthily, and stole out of the house. She sped quickly down the village street. She was light-footed for an old woman. She slackened her pace when she reached the village store, and crept hesitatingly into the great lumbering, rank-smelling room, with its dark, newly-sprinkled floor. She bought a bar of soap; then she stood irresolute.

“Anything else this mornin', Mis' Tollet?” The proprietor himself, a narrow-shouldered, irritable man, was waiting on her. His tone was impatient. Mrs. Tollet was too absorbed to notice it. She stood hesitating.

Is there anything else you want?”

“Well — I don' know; but — p'rhaps I'd better — hev — ten cents' wuth of gentian.” Her very lips were white; she had an expression of frightened, guilty resolution. If she had asked for strychnine, with a view to her own bodily destruction, she would not have had a different look.

The man mistook it, and his conscience smote him. He thought his manner had frightened her, but she had never noticed it.

“Goin' to give your husband some bitters?” he asked, affably, as he handed her the package.

She started and blushed. “No — I — thought some would be good fur — me.”

“Well, gentian is a first-rate bitter. Good-morning, Mis' Tollet.”

“Good-morning, Mr. Gill.”

She was trembling all over when she reached her house door. There is a subtle, easily raised wind which blows spirits about like leaves, and she had come into it with her little paper of gentian. She had hidden the parcel in her pocket before she entered the kitchen. Her husband was awake. He turned his wondering, half-resentful eyes towards her without moving his head.

“Where hev you been, Lucy?”

“I — jest went down to the store a minit, Alferd, while you was asleep.”

“What fer?”

“A bar of soap.”

Alfred Tollet had always been a very healthy man until this spring. Some people thought that his illness was alarming now, more from its unwontedness and consequent effect on his mind, than from anything serious in its nature. However that may have been, he had complained of great depression and languor all the spring, and had not attempted to do any work.

It was the beginning of May now.

“Ef Alferd kin only git up May hill,” Mrs. Tollet's sister had said to her, “he'll git along all right through the summer. It's a dretful tryin' time.”

So up May hill, under the white apple and plum boughs, over the dandelions and the young grass, Alfred Tollet climbed, pushed and led faithfully by his loving old wife. At last he stood triumphantly on the summit of that fair hill, with its sweet, wearisome ascent. When the first of June came, people said, “Alfred Tollet's a good deal better.”

He began to plant a little and bestir himself.

“Alferd's out workin' in the garden,” Mrs. Tollet told her sister one afternoon. She had strolled over to her house with her knitting after dinner.

“You don't say so! Well, I thought when I see him Sunday that he was lookin' better. He's got through May, an' I guess he'll pull through. I did feel kinder worried 'bout him one spell — Why, Lucy, what's the matter?”

“Nothin'. Why?”

“You looked at me dretful kind of queer an' distressed, I thought.”

“I guess you must hev imagined it, Hannah. Thar ain't nothin' the matter.” She tried to look unconcernedly at her sister, but her lips were trembling.

“Well, I don't know 'bout it. You look kinder queer now. I guess you walked too fast comin' over here. You allers did race.”

“Mebbe I did.”

“For the land sake, jest see that dust you tracked in! I've got to git the dust-pan an' brush now, an' sweep it up.”

“I'll do it.”

“No; set still. I'd rather see to it myself.”

As the summer went on Alfred Tollet continued to improve. He was as hearty as ever by September. But his wife seemed to lose as he gained. She grew thin, and her small face had a solemn, anxious look. She went out very little. She did not go to church at all, and she had been a devout church-goer. Occasionally she went over to her sister's, that was all. Hannah watched her shrewdly. She was a woman who arrived at conclusions slowly; but she never turned aside from the road to them.

“Look-a here, Lucy,” she said one day, “I know what's the matter with you; thar's somethin' on your mind; an' I think you'd better out with it.”

The words seemed propelled like bullets by her vehemence. Lucy shrank down and away from them, her pitiful eyes turned up towards her sister.

“Oh, Hannah, you scare me; I don't know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. Do you s'pose I'm blind? You're worrying yourself to death, an' I want to know the reason why. Is it anything 'bout Alferd?”

“Yes — don't, Hannah.”

“Well, I'll go over an' give him a piece of my mind! I'll see —”

“Oh, Hannah, don't! It ain't him. It's me — it's me.”

“What on airth hev you done?”

Mrs. Tollet began to sob.

“For the land sake, stop cryin' an' tell me.”

“Oh, I — give him — gentian.”

“Lucy Ann Tollet, air you crazy? What ef you did give him gentian? I don't see nothin' to take on so about.”

“I — deceived him, an' it's been 'most killin' me to think on't ever since.”

“What do you mean?”

“I put it in his tea, the way you said.”

“An' he never knew it?”

“He kinder complained 'bout its tastin' bitter, an' I told him 'twas his mouth. He asked me ef it didn't taste bitter to me, an' I said, ‘No.’ I don't know nothin' what's goin' to become of me. Then I had to be so keerful 'bout putting too much on't in his tea, that I was afraid he wouldn't get enough. So I put little sprinklin's on't in the bread an' pies an' everythin' I cooked. An' when he'd say nothin' tasted right nowadays, an' somehow everything was kinder bitterish, I'd tell him it must be his mouth.”

“Look here, Lucy, you didn't eat everythin' with gentian in it yourself?”

“'Course I did.”

“Fur the land sake!”

“I s'pose the stuff must hev done him good; he's picked right up ever since he begun takin' it. But I can't git over my deceivin' of him so. I've 'bout made up my mind to tell him.”

“Well, all I've got to say is you're a big fool if you do. I declare, Lucy Ann Tollet, I never saw sech a woman! The idee of your worryin' over such a thing as that, when it's done Alferd good, too! P'rhaps you'd ruther he'd died?”

“Sometimes I think I hed 'most ruther.”

“Well!”

In the course of a few days Mrs. Tollet did tell her husband. He received her disclosure in precisely the way she had known that he would. Her nerves received just the shock which they were braced to meet.

They had come home from meeting on a Sunday night. Mrs. Tollet stood before him; she had not even taken off her shawl and little black bonnet.

“Alferd,” said she, “I've got somethin' to tell you; it's been on my mind a long time. I meant it all fur the best; but I've been doin' somethin' wrong. I've been deceivin' of you. I give you gentian last spring when you was so poorly. I put little sprinklin's on't into everything you ate. An' I didn't tell the truth when I said 'twas your mouth, an' it didn't taste bitter to me.”

The old man half closed his eyes, and looked at her intently; his mouth widened out rigidly. “You put a little gentian into everything I ate unbeknownst to me, did you?” said he. “H'm!”

“Oh, Alferd, don't look at me so! I meant it all fur the best. I was afeard you wouldn't git well without you hed it, Alferd. I was dretful worried about you; you didn't know nothin' about it, but I was. I laid awake nights a-worryin' an' prayin'. I know I did wrong; it wa'n't right to deceive you, but it was all along of my worryin' an' my thinkin' so much of you, Alferd. I was afeard you'd die an' leave me all alone; an' — it 'most killed me to think on't.”

Mr. Tollet pulled off his boots, then pattered heavily about the house, locking the doors and making preparations for retiring. He would not speak another word to his wife about the matter, though she kept on with her piteous little protestations.

Next morning, while she was getting breakfast, he went down to the store. The meal, a nice one — she had taken unusual pains with it — was on the table when he returned; but he never glanced at it. His hands were full of bundles, which he opened with painstaking deliberation. His wife watched apprehensively. There was a new teapot, a pound of tea, and some bread and cheese, also a salt mackerel.

Mrs. Tollet's eyes shone round and big; her lips were white. Her husband put a pinch of tea in the new teapot, and filled it with boiling water from the kettle.

“What air you a-doin' on, Alferd?” she asked, feebly.

“I'm jest a-goin' to make sure I hev some tea, an' somethin' to eat without any gentian in it.”

“Oh, Alferd, I made these corn-cakes on purpose, an' they air real light. They 'ain't got no gentian on 'em, Alferd.”

He sliced his bread and cheese clumsily, and sat down to eat them in stubborn silence.

Mrs. Tollet, motionless at her end of the table, stared at him with an appalled look. She never thought of eating anything herself.

After breakfast, when her husband started out to work, he pointed at the mackerel. “Don't you tech that,” said he.

“But, Alferd —”

“I ain't got nothin' more to say. Don't you tech it.”

Never a morning had passed before but Lucy Tollet had set her house in order; to-day she remained there at the kitchen-table till noon, and did not put away the breakfast dishes.

Alfred came home, kindled up the fire, cooked and ate his salt mackerel imperturbably; and she did not move or speak till he was about to go away again. Then she said, in a voice which seemed to shrink of itself, “Alferd!”

He did not turn his head.

“Alferd, you must answer me; I'm in airnest. Don't you want me to do nothin' fur you any more? Don't you never want me to cook anything fur you agin?”

“No; I'm afeard of gittin' things that's bitter.”

“I won't never put any gentian in anything agin, Alferd. Won't you let me git supper?”

“No, I won't. I don't want to talk no more about it. In futur I'm a-goin' to cook my vittles myself, an' that's all thar is about it.”

“Alferd, if you don't want me to do nothin' fur you, mebbe — you'll think I ain't airnin' my own vittles; mebbe — you'd rather I go over to Hannah's —”

She sobbed aloud when she said that. He looked startled, and eyed her sharply for a minute. The other performer in the little melodrama which this thwarted, arbitrary old man had arranged was adopting a rôle that he had not anticipated, but he was still going to abide by his own.

“Mebbe 'twould be jest as well,” said he. Then he went out of the door.

Hannah Orton was in her kitchen sewing when her sister entered.

“Fur the land sake, Lucy, what is the matter?”

“I've left him — I've left Alferd! Oh! oh!”

Lucy Tollet gasped for breath; she sank into a chair, and leaned her head against the wall. Hannah got some water.

“Don't, Lucy — there, there! Drink this, poor lamb!”

She did not quite faint. She could speak in a few minutes. “He bought him a new tea-pot this mornin', Hannah, an' some bread an' cheese and salt mackerel. He's goin' to do his own cookin'; he don't want me to do nothin' more fur him; he's afeard I'll put gentian in it. I've left him! I've come to stay with you!”

“You told him, then?”

“I hed to; I couldn't go on so no longer. He wouldn't let me tech that mackerel, an' it orter hev been soaked. It was salt enough to kill him.”

“Serve him right ef it did.”

“Hannah Orton, I ain't a-goin' to hev a thing said agin Alferd.”

“Well, ef you want to stan' up fur Alferd Tollet, you kin. You allers would stan' up fur him agin your own folks. Ef you want to keep on carin' fur sech a miserable, set, unfeelin' —”

“Don't you say another word, Hannah — not another one; I won't hear it.”

“I ain't a-goin' to say nothin'; thar ain't any need of your bein' so fierce. Now don't cry so, Lucy. We shell git along real nice here together. You'll get used to it arter a little while, an' you'll see you air a good deal better off without him; you've been nothin' but jest a slave ever since you was married. Don't you s'pose I've seen it? I've pitied you so, I didn't know what to do. I've seen the time when I'd like to ha' shook Alferd.”

“Don't, Hannah.”

“I ain't a-goin' to say nothin' more. You jest stop cryin', an' try an' be calm, or you'll be sick. Hev you hed any dinner?”

“I don't want none.”

“You've got to eat somethin', Lucy Ann Tollet. Thar ain't no sense in your givin' up so. I've got a nice little piece of lamb, an' some pease an' string-beans, left over, an' I'm a-goin' to get 'em. You've got to eat 'em, an' then you'll feel better. Look-a here, I want to know ef Alferd drove you out of the house 'cause you give him gentian? I ain't got it through my head yet.”

“I asked him ef he'd ruther hev me go, an he said mebbe 'twould be jest as well. I thought I shouldn't hev no right to stay ef I couldn't git his meals for him.”

“Right to stay! Lucy Ann Tollet, ef it wa'n't fur the grace of the Lord, I believe you'd be a simpleton. I don't understand no sech goodness; I allers thought it would run into foolishness some time, an' I believe it has with you. Well, don't worry no more about it; set up an' eat your dinner. Jest smooth out that mat under your feet a little; you've got it all scrolled up.”

No bitter herb could have added anything to the bitterness of that first dinner which poor Lucy Tollet ate after she had left her own home. Time and custom lessened, but not much, the bitterness of the subsequent ones. Hannah had sewed for her living all her narrow, single life; Lucy shared her work now. They had to live frugally; still they had enough. Hannah owned the little house in which she lived.

Lucy Tollet lived with her through the fall and winter. Her leaving her husband started a great whirlpool of excitement in this little village. Hannah's custom doubled: people came ostensibly for work, but really for information. They quizzed her about her sister, but Hannah could be taciturn. She did their work and divulged nothing, except occasionally when she was surprised. Then she would let fall a few little hints, which were not at Lucy's expense.

They never saw Mrs. Tollet; she always ran when she heard any one coming. She never went out to church nor on the street. She grew to have a morbid dread of meeting her husband or seeing him. She would never sit at the window, lest he might go past. Hannah could not understand this; neither could Lucy herself.

Hannah thought she was suffering less, and was becoming weaned from her affection, because she did so. But in reality she was suffering more, and her faithful love for her imperious old husband was strengthening.


All the autumn and winter she stayed and worked quietly; in the spring she grew restless, though not perceptibly. She had never bewailed herself much after the first; she dreaded her sister's attacks on Alfred. Silence as to her own grief was her best way of defending him.

Towards spring she often let her work fall in her lap, and thought. Then she would glance timidly at Hannah, as if she could know what her thoughts were; but Hannah was no mind-reader. Hannah, when she set out for meeting one evening in May, had no conception whatever of the plan which was all matured in her sister's mind.

Lucy watched her out of sight; then she got herself ready quickly. She smoothed her hair, put on her bonnet and shawl, and started up the road towards her old home.

There was no moon, but it was clear and starry. The blooming trees stood beside the road like sweet, white, spring angels; there was a whippoorwill calling somewhere over across the fields. Lucy Tollet saw neither stars nor blooming trees; she did not hear the whippoorwill. That hard, whimsical old man in the little weather-beaten house ahead towered up like a grand giant between the white trees and this one living old woman; his voice in her ears drowned out all the sweet notes of the spring birds.

When she came in sight of the house there was a light in the kitchen window. She crept up to it softly and looked in. Alfred was standing there with his hat on. He was looking straight at the window, and he saw her the minute her little pale face came up above the sill.

He opened the door quickly and came out. “Lucy, is that you?”

“Oh, Alferd, let me come home! I'll never deceive you agin!”

“You jest go straight back to Hannah's this minute.”

She caught hold of his coat. “Oh, Alferd, don't — don't drive me away agin! It'll kill me this time; it will! it will!”

“You go right back.”

She sank right down at his feet then, and clung to them. “Alferd, I won't go; I won't! I won't! You sha'n't drive me away agin. Oh, Alferd, don't drive me away from home! I've lived here with you for fifty year a'most. Let me come home an' cook fur you, an' do fur you agin. Oh, Alferd, Alferd!”

“See here, Lucy — git up; stop takin' on so. I want to tell you somethin'. You jest go right back to Hannah's, an' don't you worry. You set down an' wait a minute. Thar!”

Lucy looked at him. “What do you mean, Alferd?”

“Never you mind; you jist go right along.”

Lucy Tollet sped back along the road to Hannah's, hardly knowing what she was about. It is doubtful if she realized anything but a blind obedience to her husband's will, and a hope of something roused by a new tone in his voice. She sat down on the door-step and waited, she did not know for what. In a few minutes she heard the creak of heavy boots, and her husband came in sight. He walked straight up to her.

“I've come to ask you to come home, Lucy. I'm a-feelin' kinder poorly this spring, an' — I want you ter stew me up a little gentian. That you give me afore did me a sight of good.”

“Oh, Alferd!”

“That's what I'd got laid out to do when I see you at the winder, Lucy, an' I was a-goin' to do it.”