In Butterfly Time

Mary E. Wilkins

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

“Seems to me the butterflies is dretful thick this season, Becca.”

“Yes, they do seem to be consider'ble thick, mother.”

“I never see 'em so thick. Thar's hull swarms on 'em: lots of them common yaller ones, an' leetle rusty red ones; an' thar's some of them big spotted ones, ain't thar? Near's I kin see through my specs, thar's one now a-settin' on that head of clover.”

“Yes, there is one, mother.”

“Thar's lots of grasshoppers too. The grasshoppers air a-risin' up around my feet, an' the butterflies air flyin' up in my face out of the flowers. Law, hev we got to the bars a'ready? I hadn't no idee on't. Be keerful about lettin' on 'em down, Becca.”

The younger of the two old women let down the bars which separated the blooming field which they had been traversing from the road, and they passed through.

“S'pose you'd better put 'em up agin, Becca, though thar ain't any need on't, as I see. Thar ain't nothin' in the field to git out but the butterflies an' the grasshoppers, an' they'll git out if they want to, whether or no. Let me take holt.”

“There ain't any need of it, mother.”

“Yes, I will, too, Becca Wheat. I'm jest as strong in my arms as ever I was. You ain't no call to think I ain't.”

“I don't think so, mother; I know you're real strong.”

“I allers was pretty strong to lift — stronger'n you.”

The bars up, the two women kept on down the road. It was bordered by stone walls and flowering bushes. Ahead, just as far as they could see, was one white house. They were going there to a women's prayer-meeting.

The older of the two kept a little ahead of the younger, trotting weakly through the short, dusty grass. Her small, old head in a black straw bonnet bobbed in time to every step; her sharp, yellow little face peeped out of the bonnet, alert and half aggressive. She wore a short black shawl tightly drawn over her narrow, wiry back, and held her hands folded primly in front over the two ends.

The other woman, her daughter, pacing dreamily behind, was taller and slenderer. Her face was pale and full, but slightly wrinkled, with a sweet, wide mouth. The pleasant expression about it was so decided that it was almost a smile. Her dress was slightly younger, a hat instead of a bonnet, and no shawl over her black calico afternoon dress.

As they drew nearer to the house the old woman peered anxiously ahead through her spectacles.

“See any one thar, Becca?”

“I should think two women jest went in. I couldn't tell who they was.”

“You'd orter wear your spectacles, Becca; your eyesight ain't so good as mine was at your age. She's got her front room open for the meetin'. I kin see the curtains flappin'.”

Quite a strong soft wind was blowing. As they went up the front walk between the phlox bushes with their purplish-pink heads, the green curtains with a flowery border swung out of the windows of Mrs. Thomas's best room, the one on the right of the front door.

The door stood open, and a mildly curious face or two showed through the windows.

“Thar's old Mis' Wheat an' Becca,” said some one in a whisper to Mrs. Thomas, and she came to the door.

There was a solemn composure on her large, comfortable face. “Good-afternoon, Mis' Wheat,” said she; “good-afternoon, Becca. Walk in.”

They walked in with staid demeanor, and took their seats. The chairs were set close to the walls around the room. There were nine or ten women there with good, grave faces. One old woman sat close to the mantel-shelf, and Mrs. Wheat took a vacant chair beside her.

“How d'ye do, Mis' Dill?” whispered she, reaching out her little skinny hand.

The other shook it stiffly. She was as small as Mrs. Wheat, but her little face was round, and her chin had a square decision in its cut, instead of a sharp one. She had a clean, nicely folded white handkerchief in her lap, and she wiped her spectacles carefully with it and looked through them at Mrs. Wheat before replying.

“I'm enjoyin' pretty good health jest now, thankee, Mis' Wheat,” whispered she.

Mrs. Wheat's eyes snapped. “You do seem to be lookin' pretty middlin' for one of your age,” said she.

Mrs. Dill gave a stony look at her.

The meeting began then. The good women read in the Bible and prayed, one after another, the others silent on their knees beside her. Their husbands and sons in the hay-fields, the children in the district school, the too light-minded though innocent village girls, the minister wrestling with his dull sermon faithfully in his shabby study, the whole world, were remembered in their homely petitions. The south wind sang in at the windows; a pine-tree around the corner of the house soughed; the locusts cried shrilly over in the blossoming fields; and their timid prayers went up.

Old Mrs. Wheat, in her corner, on her knees, listened with an outward show of reverence, but she was inwardly torn with jealousy. She was the last one called upon to take part; even old Mrs. Dill was preferred before her. But she had her revenge; when she did get her chance to speak, long and weary was the time she kept her devout sisters on their aching knees.

She had been storing up a good deal to say while the others were praying, and now she said it. For church and town and commonwealth, for missions at home and abroad, her shrill cry went up. Lastly she prayed, with emphatic quavers, for old Mrs. Dill. “O Lord,” pleaded she, “remember, we pray thee, this aged handmaiden at my side. May she long enjoy what blessin's are left to her in her age an' decrepitood. Sanctify her trials unto her, an' enable her to look away from the feebleness an' want of strength which is now her lot on this airth, to that better country where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary air at rest.”

When the prayer was ended, Mrs. Dill rose softly from her knees and sat down. Her face was absolutely immovable as she met Mrs. Wheat's glance when the meeting dispersed.

The two old ladies were left alone in the best room for a little while. Mrs. Thomas, who was Mrs. Dill's daughter, wanted to see Becca about something, so she called her out into the sitting-room.

“You an' Mis' Wheat can visit a little while, while Becca an' I are out here,” said she.

Mrs. Dill looked at her daughter when she said this, as if inclined to decline the proposal. Then an expression of stubborn fortitude came over her face, and she settled herself solidly in her chair.

The two looked primly at each other when they were left alone.

“How is Mis' Thomas?” said Mrs. Wheat; “and how is Adoniram?”

“They air both well, thank ye.”

“I s'pose Adoniram is to work?”


“I thought I ketched a glimpse of him in the field over thar when I come in. Adoniram grows old, don't he?”

“I don't know.”

“I sot lookin' at him in meetin' last Sabbath, an' thinkin' how dretfully he was altered. I hope he'll be spared to you as long as you live, Mis' Dill. It's consider'ble better on your account that he hain't never got married, ain't it?”

Mrs. Dill reddened, and stiffened her chin a little. “Thar's a good many folks don't git married, Mis' Wheat, men, an' women too, sometimes.”

“Becca could 'a got married dozens of times, if she'd wanted to, Mis' Dill.”

“I s'pose so.”

“See here, Mis' Dill, s'pose we come to the p'int. You're allers kinder flingin' at me, an' I know well enough what it means. You've allers blamed me 'cause you thought I come betwixt my Becca an' your Adoniram, an' I didn't as I knows on.”

“Oh no; course you didn't.”

“I s'pose you don't believe it, Mis' Dill?”

“No; I ain't forgot how Adoniram come home from your house, jest about this time o' year, a matter o' forty year ago.”

“I don't know what you mean.”

Mrs. Dill sat up straight in her chair, and talked with slow emphasis. Her eyes never winked.

“Jest about this time in the afternoon, an' this time o' year, 'bout forty year ago, Adoniram come home from your house. They'd got the hay in the day before, so he had a leetle restin' spell, an' he went right over thar. I knowed where he'd gone well enough, though he made up an arrant after a rake to Deacon White's. I knowed he'd stop to Becca's before he got home. She'd been off visitin', an' he hadn't seen her for a week. She'd jest got home that mornin'. Well, Adoniram went, an' he come home. I was a-goin' through the front entry when he come in through the settin'-room. He was jest as pale as death. I asked him what the matter was, an' he wouldn't say nothin'. The door stood open in here, an' he come in an' dropped into a cheer by the table, an' put his head down on it. I coaxed an' coaxed, an' finally I got it out of him. He'd been over to Becca's, an' you'd treated him so he couldn't ever go agin. He said you didn't like him, an' that was the end on't. Becca couldn't go agin her mother's wishes, an' he wasn't ever goin' to ask her to. Adoniram had jest joined the church that spring, an' he'd jest as soon cut his hand off as to lead Becca to disobey her parents. He's allers had a strong feelin' that marriages made that way wa'n't blessed. I've heerd him say so a good many times. So —”

“I'd like to know what I ever did to mistreat Adoniram, Mis' Dill.”

“He never told me the hull perticklars. Thar was somethin' 'bout a butterfly.”

“Lor, I remember. 'Twa'n't nothin' — nothin' at all. Young folks air so silly! I remember jest as well as ef 'twas yisterday. Adoniram an' Becca was out in the yard in front of the house. Becca had it all laid out in flower-beds jest as it is now, an' thar was swarms of butterflies round 'em. They was out thar in the yard, an' I was in the settin'-room winder. They was kinder foolin', an' all of a sudden Adoniram he begun chasin' a butterfly. It was one of them great blue-spotted ones. He caught it mighty spry, an' was a-givin' it to Becca, when I said somethin' out o' the winder. I don't know jest what it 'twas. I thought 'twas dretful silly for him to waste his time ketchin' butterflies, an' Becca had some sewin' I wanted her to do. I s'pose 'twas somethin' 'bout that.”

“You didn't think Adoniram was good enough for Becca; that was the hull on't.”

“That wa'n't it, Mis' Dill. I don't see how you come to think such a thing.”

“You'd jest set your heart on havin' her git that rich Arms feller; you know you had. But she didn't; she didn't git anybody.”

Mrs. Dill's thin voice quavered and shook, and her little bony form trembled all over, but the spirit within her manifested itself bravely through shakes and quavers.

“You air misjudgin' of me, Mis' Dill, an' you ain't showin' a Christian spirit. You'll be sorry for it when you come to think it over. You'll see 'twas all jest the way I said 'twas, 'an I didn't mean nothin'. Let alone anything else, it's awful cruel to ketch butterflies; you know that, Mis' Dill.”

“You've done a crueler thing than ketchin' butterflies, Martha Wheat.”

“Well, Mis' Dill, we'd better not talk 'bout this any longer. 'Tain't jest becomin' after the meetin' we've jest had to git to disputin'. Thar's Becca.”

Going home along the green-bordered road and across the flowery field, Rebecca Wheat noticed that something seemed to have disturbed her mother. The nervous old woman fretted and fidgeted. In the middle of the field she stopped short, and almost danced up and down with feeble, childish wrath.

“Why, what is the matter, mother?”

“Them pesky butterflies!” ejaculated her mother, waving her trembling hands. “I'd like to poison their honey for 'em.”

“Let me go on ahead, mother; then they won't bother you so much. I kin kinder brush them away.”

“Well, you may, ef you're a mind ter. Say, Becca — speakin' of butterflies brings it to mind. You never thought I was ter blame 'bout separatin' you an' Adoniram Dill, did you?”

The old daughter looked pleasantly into her old mother's face. “I didn't blame anybody, mother. I didn't think you used to like Adoniram very well; but it's all over now.”

“You didn't take it to heart much, did you, Becca?”

“Not enough to hurt me any, I guess. Do you mind the butterflies so much with me ahead?”

“No, I guess I don't. I've kinder been thinkin' on't over lately, an' ef I was kinder sharp 'bout that butterfly business, an' hindered you an' Adoniram's makin' a match on't, I ain't above sayin' I might hev been a leetle more keerful. Adoniram's turned out pretty well. Mis' Higgins told me yisterday that he'd jest bought that ten-acre lot of Deacon White's. I guess he must hev been layin' up money. Well, Becca, I dessay you air better off than you would be ef you'd been married. It's pretty resky.”

Rebecca, plodding before her mother, looked ahead at the familiar landscape, with that expression of strong, pleasant patience which the years seemed to have brought out in relief on her face, like the chasing on silver. It made her more attractive than she had been in her youth, for she had never been pretty.

She and her mother reached the comfortable house, with three great elms in front of it, where they lived, two hours before sunset.

About an hour later Adoniram Dill also went home from his labor across the fields. He was a tall, muscular old man, with a strong-featured, beardless face. He was so straight and agile that he looked, the width of a field away, like a young man. When he came nearer, one saw his iron-grey hair, the deep seams, and the old brown tint of his face, with a start of surprise.

Supper was not quite ready, so after he had washed his face and hands at the kitchen sink he went into the sitting-room, and sat down in a calico-covered rocking-chair with a newspaper. His mother looked in presently, and saw him there.

She stood in the entry-door and beckoned him solemnly. “Come into the parlor a minute,” she whispered; “I've got somethin' I want to tell you, an' the children will be racin' in here.”

Adoniram rose and followed her in obediently.

She shut the parlor door and looked round at him. “Adoniram, what do you think? Mis' Wheat was over to the meetin' this arternoon, and she an' me hed a little talk arter the others was gone, an' she brought up that old affair of you an' Becca agin.”

“There ain't any use bringin' it up, mother.”

“She says she didn't mean a thing when she talked to you so about that butterfly business. She jest thought you hadn't orter be wastin' your time doin' sech cruel things as ketchin' butterflies, an' she wanted Becca to come in an' do some sewin'. That's what she said. I let her know I didn't believe a word on't. I told her right to her face that she thought you wa'n't good enough for Becca, an' she wanted her to hev that rich Arms feller.”

“Seems to me I'd have let it all gone, mother.”

“I war'n't goin' to let it all go, Adoniram. I'm slow-spoken, an' I don't often speak, but once in a while I've got to. She's the most aggervatin' — I don't know what you would hev done with her ef you hed merried Becca. You'd hed to hev her arter Mr. Wheat died. She ain't never liked me. She tried to be dretful nice to me to-day, 'cause she'd got an axe to grind; but she'd got so much spite in her she couldn't help it showin' out a leetle. Why, she kerried it into the prayer-meetin', she did, Adoniram. She prayed for me, 'cause I was so old an' broken down, an' she's three year older'n me. I think it's awful to show out that way in a prayer-meetin'.”

“P'rhaps she didn't mean anything.”

“Yes, she did. I knew jest what she meant by the hull on't, Adoniram Dill. She's got kinder sick livin' thar alone with Becca, without any man to split up kindlin'-wood an' bring in water, an' she's tryin' to git you back agin. She jest the same as said she hedn't no objections to it. I guess she thinks you've been doin' pretty well, too. She thinks it would be a mighty nice thing now to hev you step in thar with your money an' wait on 'em. I see through her.”

“P'rhaps it ain't so, mother.”

“Yes, 'tis. Adoniram Dill, you don't mean to say you'd hev any idee of marryin' Becca Wheat, arter you've been treated as you hev?”

“You ain't heard me say any such thing, mother.”

“I thought you looked kinder queer. You wouldn't, would you, Adoniram?”

“Not if it didn't seem for — the best. I don't — know.”

All of a sudden Adoniram Dill sat down beside the little parlor table and leaned his head on it as he had forty years ago.

“What's the matter?” his mother asked, with a scared start, looking at him with awed eyes. It was almost like a coming back of the dead, this rising of her son's youth from its snowy and grassy grave in her sight. “Oh, Adoniram, you poor boy, you ain't felt jest the same way about her all these years? It's awful. I hadn't any idee on't.”

“Never mind, mother. Jane's callin' us to supper; you go right along, an' I'll come in a minute.”

“Thar ain't any need of your havin' any more frettin' about it, anyhow, Adoniram. Her mother's willin', an' I ain't a doubt but Becca is. I've seen her look kinder down-hearted sometimes; for all she's so good an' uncomplainin', I guess she's been worried as well as some other folks. You jest slick up arter supper, an' go right over an' ask her. Thar ain't no reason at all why you shouldn't. You ain't nuther of you so very old, not more'n sixty. An' I don' know as Mis' Wheat 'll be so very bad to git along with. I dessay she's meant all right.”

Adoniram said nothing. He rose with an effort, and went out to supper with his mother, who kept gazing at him with loving, questioning eyes.

“Ain't you goin'?” she whispered when they were in the sitting-room again.

“I guess not to-night, mother.”

“Well, mebbe 'tis jest as well to wait till to-morrer. I don't want Mis' Wheat to think you was in too much of a rush.”

After his mother had gone to bed, and out-of-doors the summer night was complete with all its stars, he sat down alone on the front door-step, and thought. He felt like a wanderer returned to some beautiful, dear country, the true home of his heart, which he had thought to never see again. To-night the golden gates of youth swung open with sweet music for Adoniram Dill, with his gray locks and his hard, seamed face, and he entered in, never knowing he was any different.

The steadiness with which he had kept to his ideas of duty for the last forty years gave his happiness, now that the long strain was over, an almost unearthly, holy character. It was truly the reward of virtue. The faithful old man who had taken what he considered to be the right course for himself and the woman he loved, without question or appeal to that mandate of obedience which he read so literally, was capable at sixty of being as freely happy as a child.

The sordid motives which had possibly actuated Becca's mother to withdraw her opposition at last did not fret him at all. He was far above it. That hard, shrill voice which had rung out of that sitting-room window for him for the last forty years was still. The voice had truly said cruel things, more cruel than its owner would own to now. The poor, honest young man had gone away that day with the full and settled understanding that his sweetheart's mother was bitterly opposed to him, and that must be the end of it all. He never dreamed of such a thing as urging her to marry him without her mother's consent.

So he had never been since in that front yard, full of roses and pinks and butterflies.

He and Rebecca had met in the village society like kindly acquaintances for all these years.

Adoniram, looking across the little country church Sunday after Sunday as the years went on, might have seen the woman growing old who should have grown old by his side, with bitter regret, and Rebecca, with patient sadness, have marked his entrance among all the congregation; but no one had known.

The day after the meeting Adoniram had to drive over to the store on business. On his way back he passed a house where an aged sister of Mrs. Wheat's lived, and saw, with a start, the latter's thin face at a window. “I wonder if Becca's home?” said he. Then he drove on quicker, with a gathering resolution.

About four o'clock he was going across lots through the field towards the Wheats'. He had on his Sunday coat. When about half-way across he saw a woman's figure approaching. Soon he saw it was Rebecca. He stood in the narrow footpath, between the tall clover and daisies and herd's-grass which came up to his knees, and waited.

She greeted him, when she reached him, in her usual good, placid way. “How do you do, Mr. Dill?”

“I was comin' to see you, Becca.”

She looked at him, and the calm lines in her face changed a little. “I'll go back. I was going after mother, that was all; but she won't be in any hurry.”

“No, there ain't any need of your goin' back. I can say what I wanted to jest as well here, an' then you can keep right on after your mother. Becca, supposin' 'twas forty year ago, an' you an' me was here, an' your mother was willin', what would you say ef I asked you to marry me?”

Great tears stood in her eyes. “Oh, Adoniram, it wouldn't be fair.”

“Don't you think your mother would be willin'?”

“I don't think she's so set agin it as she was, but 'twouldn't be fair. I'm sixty year old, Adoniram.”

“So'm I, Becca.”

She shook her head. “No, Adoniram, it ain't any use. It might have been different once. Now, after all this time, when I'm old an' broken down, an' the fault of all the trouble on my side of the house, I ain't goin' to be so mean as to let you marry me. It ain't fair.”

Adoniram gave one step forward, and caught his old sweetheart in his arms. “I've been waitin' for you forty year, Becca, an' there ain't nothin' more comin' betwixt us. Don't you say anything more about its not bein' fair.”

“You know mother'll hev to live with us.”

“I'll try an' make her jest as happy as I can.”

The clover and the grasses rustled in the wind, and the butterflies came flying around the old man and his old sweetheart standing there. It would have made no difference to them if they had been waiting in their little chrysalis coffins a hundred years or so, they were butterflies now. There were yellow ones and little rusty red ones, and now and then a gorgeous large one with blue spots on his black wings. Seeing one of these made Adoniram remember something swiftly.

“Want me to ketch a butterfly for you, Becca?”

“I've got one now you caught forty year ago.”