Toby

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Pot Of Gold (D. Lothrop Company; Boston: 1892)

Aunt Malvina was sitting at the window watching for a horse-car which she wanted to take. Uncle Jack was near the register in a comfortable easy chair, his feet on an embroidered foot-rest, and Letitia, just as close to him as she could get her little rocking-chair, was sewing her square of patchwork “over and over.” Letitia had to sew a square of patchwork “over and over” every day.

Aunt Malvina, who was not uncle Jack's wife, as one might suspect, but his elder sister, was a very small, frisky little lady, with a thin, rosy face, and a little bobbing bunch of gray curls on each side of it. She talked very fast, and she talked all the time, so she accomplished a vast deal of talking in the course of a day, and the people she happened to be with did a vast deal of listening.

She was talking now, and uncle Jack was listening, with his head leaning comfortably against a pretty tidy all over daisies in Kensington work, and so was Letitia, taking cautious little stitches in her patchwork.

“Mrs. Welcome,” aunt Malvina had just remarked, “has got a little colored boy as black as Toby to wait on table.”

Letitia opened her sober, light gray eyes very wide, and stared reflectively at aunt Malvina.

“It was dark as Pokonoket when we came out of church last night,” said aunt Malvina after a time, in the course of conversation.

Letitia stared reflectively at her again.

“There's my car coming around the corner!” cried aunt Malvina, and ran friskily out of the room. Just outside the door she turned and thrust her face, with the little gray curls dancing around it, in again for a last word. “O, Jack!” cried she, “I hear that Edward Simonds' eldest son is as crazy as a loon!”

“Is?”

“Yes; isn't it dreadful? Good-by!” Aunt Malvina frisked airily downstairs, and out on the street, barely in time to secure her car.

When Letitia heard the front door close after her, she quilted her needle carefully into her square, then she folded the patchwork up neatly, rose, and laid it together with her thimble, scissors, and cotton, in her little rocking-chair. Then she went and stood still before uncle Jack, with her arms folded. It was a way she had when she wanted information. People rather smiled to see Letitia sometimes, but uncle Jack had always encouraged her in it; he said it was quaint. Letitia's face was very sober, and very innocent, and very round, and her hair was very long and light, and hung in two smooth braids, with a neat blue bow on the end of each, down her back.

Uncle Jack gazed inquiringly at her through his half-closed eyes. “What is it, Letitia?”

“Aunt Malvina said ‘as black as Toby,’” said Letitia with a look half of inquiry, half of anxious abstraction. What Letitia could find out herself she never asked other people.

“Yes; I know she did,” replied uncle Jack.

“Then she said, ‘Dark as Pokonoket.’”

“Yes; she said that too.”

“And then she said, ‘Crazy as a loon.’”

“Yes; she did.”

“Uncle Jack, what is Toby, and what is Pokonoket, and what is a loon?”

“Toby,” said uncle Jack slowly and impressively, “lives in Pokonoket, and keeps a loon.”

“Oh!” said Letitia, in a tone which implied that she was both relieved and amazed at her own stupidity.

“Yes; perhaps you would like to hear something more particular about Toby — how he got married, for instance?”

“I should, very much indeed,” replied Letitia gravely and promptly.

“Well, you had better sit down; it will take a few minutes to tell it.”

Letitia carefully took her patchwork, her thimble, her spool of cotton, and her scissors out of her little rocking-chair and laid them on the table; then she sat down, and crossed her hands in her lap.

“Now, if you are ready,” said uncle Jack, laughing a little to himself as he looked down at her. Then he related as follows: “Toby is a little black fellow, not much taller than you are, and he lives in Pokonoket, and keeps a loon. Toby's hair is very short and kinky, and his mouth is wide, and always curves up a little at the corners, as if he were laughing; his eyes are astonishingly bright; but all the people's eyes are bright in Pokonoket.

“Pokonoket is a very dark country. It always was dark. The most ancient historians make no mention of its ever being light in Pokonoket.

“The cause of the darkness has never been exactly understood. Philosophers and men of science have worked very hard over it, but all the conclusion they have been able to arrive at is, it must be due to fog, or smoke, or atmospheric phenomena. The most celebrated of them are in favor of atmospheric phenomena, and they are probably correct.

“The houses are always furnished with lamps, of course, and everybody carries a lantern. No one dreams of stirring out in Pokonoket without a lantern. The men go to their work with lanterns, the ladies take theirs when they go out shopping, and all the children have their little lanterns to carry to school.

“On account of the darkness, there are some very curious customs in Pokonoket. One is, all the inhabitants are required by law to wear squeaky shoes. Whenever anybody's shoes don't squeak according to the prescribed standard he is fined, and sometimes even imprisoned, if he persists in his offense. A great many sad accidents are prevented by this custom. People hear each other's shoes squeaking in the darkness at quite a distance, and don't run into each other. Pokonoket shoemakers make a specialty of squeaky shoes, and the squeakier they are, the higher prices they bring; they can even put in new squeaks when the old ones are worn out. It is a very common thing to see a Pokonoket man with his little boy's shoes under his arm, carrying them to a shoemaker to get them re-squeaked.

“Another funny custom is the wearing of phosphorescent buttons. Everybody, men, women and children, are required to wear phosphorescent buttons on their outside garments. They are quite large — about the size of an old-fashioned cent — and there are, generally, two rows of them down the front of a garment. It is rather a frightful sight to see a person with phosphorescent buttons on his coat advancing toward one in the dark, till you are accustomed to it; he looks as if he had two rows of enormous eyes.

“Then, when the weather is stormy, everybody has to carry an umbrella with his name on it in phosphorescent letters. In this way, nobody's eyes are put out, and no umbrellas are lost. Otherwise, umbrellas would get so hopelessly mixed up in a dark country like Pokonoket that it would require a special sitting of Parliament to sort them out again.

“It may seem rather odd that they should, but the inhabitants of Pokonoket are, as a general thing, very much attached to their country, and could not be hired to leave it for any other. It is a very peaceful place. There are no jails, and no criminals are executed in its bounds. If occasionally a person commits a crime that would merit such extreme punishment, he puts out his lantern, and rips off his phosphorescent buttons, and nobody can find him to punish.

“But commonly, folks in Pokonoket do not commit great crimes, and are a very peaceful, industrious and happy people.

“They have never had any wars amongst themselves, and their country has never been invaded by a foreign foe; all that they ever have had to seriously threaten their peace and safety was the Ogress.

“A terrible ogress once lived in Pokonoket, and devoured everybody she could catch. Nobody knew when his life was safe, and the worst of it was, they did not know where she lived, or they would have gone in a body and disposed of her. She had a habitation somewhere in the darkness, but nobody knew where — it might be right in their midst. There are a great many inconveniences about a dark country.

“Well, Toby who kept the loon, lived in a little hut on one of the principal streets. He was a widower, and lived with his six grandchildren who were all quite small and went to school. They were his daughter's children. She had died a few years before of a disease quite common in Pokonoket, and almost always fatal. It had a long name which the doctors had given it, which really meant, ‘wanting light.’

“Toby was rather feeble and rheumatic, and it was about all he could do to knit stockings for his grandchildren, and make soup for their dinner. Almost all day, except when he was stirring the soup, which he made in a great kettle set into a brick oven, he was sitting on a little stool in his doorway, knitting, and the loon sat on a perch at his right hand. The loon who was a very large bird, was crazy, and thought he was a bobolink. Link, link, bobolink! he sang all day long, instead of crying in the way a loon usually does. His voice was not anywhere near the right pitch for a bobolink's song, but that made no difference. Link, link, bobolink! he kept on singing from morning till night.

“Toby did not mind knitting, but he did not like to make the soup. It had never seemed to him to be a man's work, and besides, it hurt his old, rheumatic back to bend over the soup-kettle. That was what put it into his head to get married again. He thought if he could find a pleasant, tidy woman, who would stir the soup while he sat in the door beside the loon, and knit the stockings, he could live much more comfortably than he did.

“Now Toby thought he knew of just the one he wanted. She was a widow who lived a few squares from him. She was as sweet-tempered as a dove, and nobody could find a speck of dirt in her house if he was to search all day with a lantern.

“Toby thought about it for a long time. He did not wish to take any rash step, but his back got lamer and stiffer, and when one day the soup burned on to the kettle, and he dropped some stitches in his stocking running to lift it off, he made up his mind.

“The very next morning after his six grandchildren had gone to school, he put on his coat with phosphorescent buttons, lit his lantern, and started out. Link, link, bobolink! cried the crazy loon as he went out the door.

“‘Yes; I am going to bring home a pleasant and neat mistress for you, and maybe you will recover your reason,’ said Toby.

Link, link, bobolink! cried the crazy loon.

“Toby limped away through the darkness. The wind was blowing hard that morning, and as he turned the corner, puff! came a gust and blew out his lantern.

“He felt in every pocket, but he had not a match in one of them. He hesitated whether to go back for one or not. Finally, he thought he knew the way pretty well and would risk it. His back was worse than ever that morning, and he did not want to take any unnecessary steps. So he fumbled along until he came to the street where the widow's home was; there were five more just like hers, and they stood in a row together.

“Much to Toby's dismay, there was not a light in either.

“‘Well,’ he reflected, ‘she is prudent, and is saving her oil, I dare say, and I can inquire.’

“So he felt his way along to the first house in the row — he could just see them looming up in the darkness. He poked his head inside the door. ‘Mrs. Clover-leaf!’ cried he, ‘are you in there? My lantern has gone out, and I cannot tell which is your house.’

“There came a little grunt in reply.

“‘Mrs. Clover-leaf!’ cried Toby again.

“‘I am here; what do you want?’ answered a voice in the darkness.

“It was so sharp that Toby felt for a moment as if his ears were being sawed off, and he clapped his hands on them involuntarily. ‘Bless me! I had forgotten that Mrs. Clover-leaf had such a voice,’ thought he.

“‘What do you want?’ said the voice again.

“It did not sound quite so sharp this time. He had become a little used to it, and, after all, a sharp voice would not prevent her being neat and pleasant and stirring the soup carefully.

“So he said, as sweetly and coaxingly as he was able, ‘I have come to see if you would like to marry me, Mrs. Clover-leaf.’

“‘I don't know,’ said the sharp voice, ‘I had not thought of changing my condition.’

“‘All you would have to do,’ said Toby pleadingly, ‘would be to stir the soup for my grandchildren's dinner, while I knit the stockings.’

“There came a sound like the smacking of lips out of the darkness within the house. ‘Oh! you have grandchildren; I forgot,’ said the voice; ‘how many?’

“‘Six,’ replied Toby.

“‘I shall be pleased to marry you,’ cried the voice; and Toby heard the squeaking of shoes, as if the widow were coming.

“‘When shall we be married?’ said the sharp voice right in Toby's ear.

“He jumped so that he could not answer for a minute. ‘Well,’ said he finally — ‘I don't want to hurry you, Mrs. Clover-leaf, but the soup is to be made for dinner, and if I don't finish the pair of stockings I am on to-day, my eldest grandchild will have to go barefoot. A pair of stockings only lasts one a week.’ And Toby sighed so pitifully that it ought to have touched any widow's heart.

“The widow laughed. Toby felt rather hurt that she should. He did not know of any joke. It was a curious kind of a laugh, too; as bad in its way as her voice. But what she said the next minute set matters right.

“‘Let us go and get married, then,’ said she, ‘and I will go right home and make the soup, and you can finish the stocking.’

“Toby was delighted. ‘Thank you, my dear Mrs. Clover-leaf!’ he cried, and offered her his arm gallantly, and they set off together to the minister's.

“The widow took such enormous strides that Toby had to run to keep up with her. She was much taller than he, and her bonnet was very large, and almost hid her face. Toby could hardly have seen her, if he had had his lantern; still he could not help wishing that one of them had one, but the widow said her oil was out, so there was no help for it.

“Once or twice when she turned her head toward him, Toby thought her eyes looked about twice as large and bright as phosphorescent buttons, and he felt a little startled, but he told himself that it was only his imagination, of course.

“When they reached the minister's, there was no light in his house, either, and it occurred to Toby that it was Fast Day. Once a week, Pokonoket ministers sit in total darkness all day, and eat nothing.

“When Toby called, the minister poked his head out of the study window, and asked what he wanted.

“Toby told him, and he and the widow stood in front of the study window, and were married in the dark, and Toby gave a phosphorescent button for the fee.

“The widow took longer steps than ever on the way home, and Toby ran till he was all out of breath; she fairly lifted him off his feet sometimes, and carried him along on her arm.

Link, link, bobolink! sang the crazy loon when Toby and his bride entered the house.

“‘Now let's have a light,’ cried Toby's wife, and her voice was sharper than ever. It frightened the crazy loon so that he left the link off the end of his song, and merely said bobo —

“‘Yes,’ answered Toby, bustling about cheerfully after the matches, ‘and then you will make the soup.’

“‘I will make the soup,’ laughed his wife.

“Toby felt frightened, he hardly knew why, but he found the matches, and lit the lamp. Then he turned to look at his new wife, and saw — the Ogress! He had married the Ogress! Horrors!

“Toby sank down on his knees and shook with fear, his little kinky curls bristling up all over his head.

“‘Pshaw!’ said the Ogress contemptuously. ‘You needn't shake! Do you suppose I would eat such a little tough, bony fellow as you for supper? No! When do your grandchildren come home from school?’

“‘Oh,’ groaned Toby, ‘take me, dear Mrs. Ogress, and spare my grandchildren!’

“‘I should smile,’ said the Ogress. That was all the reply she made. She talked popular slang along with her other bad habits.

“Toby wept, and groaned, and pleaded, but he could not get another word out of her. She filled the great soup-kettle with water, set it over the fire (Toby shuddered to see her), then she sat down to wait for the grandchildren to come home from school. She was uncommonly homely, even for an ogress, and she wore a brown calico dress that was very unbecoming.

“Poor Toby gazed at her in fear and disgust. He looked out of the door, expecting every moment to see his grandchildren coming, one behind the other, swinging their little lanterns. School children always walked one behind the other in Pokonoket. It was against the law to walk two abreast.

“Finally, when the Ogress was leaning over the soup-kettle, putting her fingers in, to see if it was hot enough, Toby slipped out of the door, and ran straight to the minister's.

“He stood outside the study window and groaned.

“‘What is the trouble?’ asked the minister, poking his head out.

“‘Oh,’ cried Toby, ‘you married me to the — Ogress!’

“‘You don't say so!’ cried the minister.

“‘Yes, I do! What shall I do? She is waiting for my grandchildren, and the soup-kettle is on!’

“‘Wait a minute,’ said the minister. ‘In a matter of life and death, it is permitted to light a lamp on a Fast Day. This is a matter of life and death; so I will light a lamp and look in my Encyclopædia of Useful Knowledge.’

“So the minister lit his lamp, and took his Encyclopædia of Useful Knowledge from the study shelf.

“He turned over the leaves till he came to Ogre; then he found Ogress, and read all there was under that head.

“‘H'm!’ he said; ‘h'm, h'm! An Ogress is an inconceivably hideous creature, yet, like all females, she is inordinately vain, and is extremely susceptible to any insinuations against her personal appearance! H'm!’ said the minister; ‘h'm, h'm! I know what I will do.’

“Now it was one of the laws in Pokonoket that nobody should have a looking-glass but the minister. Once a year the ladies of his congregation were allowed to look at themselves in it; that was all. I do not know the reason for this law, but it existed.

“The minister took his looking-glass under his arm, and came out of his house. ‘Now, Toby,’ said he, ‘take me home with you.’

“‘But I am afraid she will eat you, sir,’ said Toby doubtfully. ‘You are not as thin as I am.’

“‘I am not in the least afraid,’ replied the minister cheerfully.

“So Toby took heart a little, and hastened home with the minister.

Link, link, bobolink! cried the crazy loon as they went in the door.

“The minister walked straight up to the Ogress, who was standing beside the soup-kettle, and held the looking-glass before her.

“When she saw her face in all its hideous ugliness, the shock was so great, for she had always thought herself very handsome, that she gave one shriek and fell down quite dead.”


Letitia gave a sigh of relief, and uncle Jack yawned. “Well, Letitia, that's all,” said he, “only Toby married the real widow, Mrs. Clover-leaf, the next day, and she made the soup to perfection, and he had nothing to do all the rest of his life, but to sit in the doorway beside the crazy loon, and knit stockings for his grandchildren.”

“Thank you, uncle Jack,” said Letitia gravely. Then she got her square of patchwork off the table and sat down and finished sewing it over and over.