From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)
A long row of little cheap houses stretched on each side of the narrow, dusty street. There was not a tree in the whole length of it except in front of David May's house. A slim young maple, carefully boxed in around the trunk, stood close to his gate.
These poor little houses were all alike; they had been built expressly for the operatives in the Saunders Cotton Mills. There was a little square of ground fenced in before each cottage. Some were miniature vegetable gardens. Araminta May, David's wife, had hers all planted with flowers. They were coarse and gaudy, rather than delicate; her taste ran that way. The flower garden was divided into little fantastic beds edged with cobble-stones, and the narrow footpath leading through the midst of it to the door had on each side a fence of bent willow boughs.
Some morning-glory vines were climbing up on strings towards the two front windows; Araminta's great ambition was to have them thickly screened.
“Folks can't look in an' see us eat then,” she said.
They could now. Passers-by might look directly in on the little table set between the windows for tea. The six-o'clock whistle had blown, and the men and girls were coming home from the shops. They straggled along, the men in their calico shirt-sleeves, the girls in their soiled dresses, turning into this yard and that with an air of content.
Araminta had worked in the shop, too, before she was married. Afterwards, David would not let her. “His wife might do his washing and ironing and cooking,” he said, “but she should not work for other people as long as he had his two hands.”
Every cent that he could spare went to “rig Minty up,” as he put it. He could not bear to see her in a poor gown; she dressed as punctiliously as if she had been a fine lady “against Davy comes home.”
She had not a fine taste, and admired the cheaply gorgeous. To-night she had on a flimsy blue muslin with a good many flowers, and a deal of wide cotton lace. She was a handsome young woman. She had a long face, with full red lips and an exquisite florid complexion. She flushed pink easily from forehead to throat, but the pink was as fine as a rose's. She had flaxen hair, which she parted and combed straight back.
Araminta's father had been a country minister on a pitiful salary. Her mother had died first, and then her father in his little parish, when she was but a child. Since then she had shifted as best she could. She had lived around in various families, partly dependent, partly working her way, until she was eighteen. Then she came to Saundersville to work in the mills, and there she met David May, and was married to him.
Araminta had not wholly escaped the suspicions liable to attach themselves to a handsome unprotected girl in a humble position. People had said she was a pretty wild kind of a girl, with a meaning look, before she was married.
She had watched for David anxiously to-night. She had a little extra tea — a pie and some hot biscuits.
“I'm awful glad you've come,” she said, when the stout, curly-headed young fellow loomed up in the doorway. “The biscuits are all gettin' cold. What made you so late; it ain't pay-night?”
“No,” said David, “it's turnin'-off night.”
“Now, David May, what do you mean?”
“Just what I say. It's turnin'-off night. I've got turned off.”
He dropped down on a chair with that and rested his elbows on his knees and held his head in his two hands — the attitude most indicative of a person's sympathy with his own tired soul.
“Now, Davy, honest an' true, ain't you jokin'?”
“No, I ain't jokin'. Wish to the Lord I was, for your sake!”
“But what have you got turned off fur, Davy? I declare, I'm all upset. They ain't out of work, are they?”
“No; there's work enough. It's some of that Lem Wheelock's doin's. If any feller but him had been foreman, I'd ha' kept my place. He's always had a spite again' me, and I'll be hanged if I know why.”
“What did they say was the reason they turned you off?”
“Didn't give me no reason. The boss jest called me into his office, an' told me they wouldn't need my services no more, an' paid me what was owin' me, an' that was jest ten dollars. I tried to talk, but he kep' on writin' in a book an' didn't seem to hear me, an' I quit when I found out I might jest as well be talkin' to a stone wall. I dunno what Wheelock's been tellin' him, and I don't care. Ef he wants me to go, I'll go. I ain't goin' to whine, and tease him fur work. I've got a little feelin', ef I ain't one of the upper crust!”
“That's so, Davy. I'd see him Down East first.”
“The worst of it is, Minty, I dunno how we're going to live, or where I'll get work. It's mighty dull times now. It's a mean kind of a box I've got you into.”
“Now, don't you go to talkin' like that, David May! I don't want to hear it. Git up an' wash you now, and eat your supper; the biscuits are all gettin' cold.”
The poor fellow got up, threw his arms around his wife's waist, and leaned his head on his wife's shoulder. She was as tall as he.
“Oh, Minty, I didn't know but you'd be fur goin' back on me, an' blamin' me, 'cause I'd hed such bad luck. Some women do.”
“I ain't some women then; but I will be, if you go to suspectin' me of such a thing again, an' if you don't hurry and wash, an' eat them biscuits before they git cold —”
“Well, mebbe we can weather it. I guess I can find some work pretty soon, an' you'll have enough to eat and wear. I guess we shall git along.”
“I'd laugh if we couldn't.”
A little later people passing by could look in and see the two at supper just as usual, David's calico shirt-sleeves at one end of the little white-covered table plying vigorously, and Minty's blue-draped arms at the other.
After tea they were standing out in the yard, when Minty caught a glimpse of Lemuel Wheelock, the foreman, coming. She was standing close to her husband, clinging to his arm, when he got up in front of the house; just when he had his eyes fixed full on her she even leaned her head against David's shoulder. She knew why she did, though her husband did not; she knew also why this foreman had turned him off, and this was her method of stabbing him for it.
It was effectual, too. Lemuel Wheelock, who was a handsome young man, with a thin black beard, who threw his shoulders well back when he walked, turned pale, gave a stiff nod, and went by quickly.
“Confound him!” growled David. Minty said nothing for a minute — then she went on with the talk which he had interrupted.
They formed a plan for the future which they set at once to carrying out.
Three days later, early in the morning, before any of the neighbors were up, Minty and David started forth on a hundred-mile tramp.
Coming through her little dewy garden, Minty stopped and picked an enormous bouquet of zinnias and marigolds and balsams. Then she swiftly pulled up the finest of the others by their roots.
“There,” she said, “the new folks sha'n't have my flowers! They sha'n't!”
“Why, Minty!” cried David, aghast.
“I don't care. I'd pull up that maple-tree if I could, and you'd carry it.”
“I'd look kinder queer startin' out on a hundred-mile tramp with a maple-tree over my shoulder,” said David with a chuckle.
Minty could not help laughing. Besides her basket of flowers she carried a basket with some eatables in it. In the pocket of her blue dress were her chief treasures — her little stock of cheap jewelry, and her two keepsakes which she had for remembrances of her father and mother. These last were a Greek Testament and a tiny pincushion made of a bit of her mother's wedding-dress. Of course she could not read a word of the Greek Testament, but she kept it lovingly. She called it “father's book.”
David carried the few clothes which they could not do without in a carpet-bag. He had about ten dollars in money. He had tried to persuade Minty to use it to defray her expenses by rail, while he made the journey on foot, alone, but she would not hear to it. White River, the town where they hoped to find work, was a hundred miles distant; if not successful there, they would go fifty miles farther to Waterbury, and they must save their little stock of money for food. She laughed at the idea of the journey's hurting her; it would be fun, she said.
They got out of the village into the woody road before any one was astir. Saundersville was a tiny rural manufacturing town, skirted very closely by forests. It was a cool morning, though it was midsummer; they went along the dark, dewy road gayly enough. They were not half as sad as they had thought they would be. Now they were fairly on the mountain of their affliction, they found out there were flowers on it.
They were young and strong, and walking was a pleasure. It was enough sight better than being cooped up in the shop, David said, looking ahead between the green, dewy boughs. And Minty said she was glad not to be in the house washing dishes such a splendid morning.
She even began to sing as they went along, a Sunday-school tune. The Saundersville folk sang that kind of music principally. Mr. Saunders kept a little church and Sunday-school running vigorously in his domain. David would not sing, but he listened to his wife sympathizingly. She had a strong soprano voice, and was not afraid to let it out.
They walked about twenty miles that day. They ate their dinner and supper from their basket by the roadside, and slept that night in an isolated barn, on a pile of fresh hay.
The next morning they were a little tired and stiff, but they were too young and healthy to mind it much, and they rose and went on.
That day they stopped in a village on their way and spent, cautiously, a portion of their ten dollars for food — bread and crackers. They could pick plenty of blackberries to eat with them along the road.
So they kept on. When they reached White River David could find no work there; the shops were full. There was nothing to do but go farther, to Waterbury. So far their courage had not failed them, but when they reached Waterbury and found no work there, they did not dare to look each other in the face.
They sat down disconsolately to rest on a stone wall on the edge of a pasture, a little out of the village. It was getting late in the afternoon.
“We've got to find some place or other to stay to-night,” said David, moodily.
Minty said nothing. She sat staring straight ahead. There were dark hollows under her eyes.
They rose wearily after a little while, and kept on. They hoped to find a barn somewhere which would shelter them for the night. But they walked some miles farther along the country road without finding any kind of a building by the way.
At last, about sunset, they reached a cleared space and a house on the east side of the road. No one lived in it; there was no mistaking that. Its desolateness looked out of its windows as plainly as faces. Where the glass in the front windows was not broken out, it reflected the sunset in blotches of red and gold.
It was a large square building; it had never been painted, and the walls as well as the roof were shingled. The shingles were scaling off now, and a great many of them had a green film of moss on them. The front door stood open with a dreary show of hospitality.
Minty looked in wistfully, when she and David stood on the old door-stone.
“S'pose we had some folks in there waitin' for us, an' supper was ready,” said she.
“Be pretty nice, wouldn't it, darlin'?”
“S'pose there were curtains to the windows, an' there was a bed made up white and clean — but there ain't no use talkin' this way. It kinder come over me, that's all.”
Minty went in then, laughing. She and David explored the old house, going through all the dingy, echoing rooms. There was not much in them but old rubbish. There was a great barn, which had once sheltered many head of cattle, adjoining the house. Minty and David found a few old rusty tools in there, a heap of hay on one of the dusty scaffolds, and the very phantom of an old sulky. There it stood, tottering on its two half-spokeless wheels, which had borne it over so many of the steep New England hill-roads in its day. Its seat was gone; its covering hung in ribbons; it looked as if it would crumble to dust in a moment, if drawn out of its stall, like an old skeleton if lifted out of its coffin.
“My, what an awful lookin' old carriage,” said Minty, peering at it.
“Guess I'd better hitch up, an' we'll go to ride,” said David, and they both laughed merrily at the poor joke.
Back of the house had stretched the vegetable garden and apple orchards. A great sweet apple-tree stood close to the kitchen door; some of its branches brushed the roof. The tree had deteriorated like the house; some of its limbs were dead, and its apples were not the fair, large things that they had been. They were small and knotty. Still they were eatable, and they were just ripe now. The short grass back of the house was covered with them. The forlorn young couple gathered up some, and carried them into one of the front rooms. They sat down on a heap of hay, which David had brought in from the barn, and supped off sweet apples and crackers.
Before Minty began to eat she pulled her father's book and her mother's pincushion out of her pocket and laid them down beside her. She looked at David and laughed, and flushed pink as she did so.
“What on earth are you doin' that fur, Minty?”
She flushed pinker. “Oh, dear, I don't know; I jest took a notion — I felt kinder lonesome. I declare, Davy, I wish to gracious that I had some folks or you had. They'd be mighty handy jest now.”
“That's so,” said David slowly. He stopped eating, and his face took on a pitiful expression. “Oh, Minty, I did an awful mean thing marryin' you; an' you a minister's daughter, and so good-lookin'. You'd never been where you are if it hadn't been for me.”
“David May, you jest quit.”
“I wasn't half good enough for you —”
Minty faced him passionately; she was very white. “Now, David May, you were good enough for me, once fur all, don't you forget. You were good enough fur me! You were good enough, I'm tellin' you the truth, you were! Don't you dare to say you wa'n't again!”
“Why, Minty, don't look at me so, darlin', cause I won't if you feel like that; but I can't help thinkin' —”
“Don't you think it! I'll leave you if you think it!”
“Well, I won't think it. Why, Minty!” She fairly frightened him; he did not know what to think of her. But she began to eat, and was talking of something else with her old manner in a minute, and he thought no more about it.
There never was the least danger of David May's knowing anything which other people did not want him to know. There was nothing of the detective element in him. The motives underlying people's actions were to him as the geological strata beneath the surface of the earth. He simply went along through life looking at the snow or the flowers which happened to be in sight, and thinking nothing about the fire or the gold underneath them.
That night they used their heap of hay for a bed; they slept soundly on it, too. The next morning they ate more sweet apples and crackers; then David started for Bassets, a little town three miles distant, in search of work. A man in Waterbury had told him that there was a tub factory in Bassets, and he thought of it now as a forlorn hope.
Minty did not go with him. He came back about noon, bringing some eggs and a pound or so of salt pork, bought with his scanty remaining store of money, but his full, young face looked leaden.
No work in Bassets.
Minty tried to cheer him. She kindled a fire in the wide old fireplace in the kitchen; she scoured an old frying-pan which she had found in the attic, and fried pork and eggs for dinner.
But David could not eat much. His simple heart had taken to desparing more entirely from its very simplicity. He had very little imagination, and consequently little hope, to which he could resort. He sat with his head in his hands the rest of the day. Minty scolded and vexed, but she could not rouse him.
Discouragement had developed an obstinacy in him of which he had never before seemed capable.
The next morning he was sick — chilly and feverish — and could not get up. His pitiful, helpless look at Minty was hard to be seen.
“Oh, Minty, I'm sick; I can't get up. What will you do?”
“I'll do well enough; just you lay still and not worry. You'll be better by noon.”
But he was not. Minty brewed for him a tea of green peppermint leaves which she found near the house; covered him up warm to induce perspiration, and did everything that she could, yet without much effect.
As the day passed he grew no better. He did not seem violently or alarmingly ill, but the fever did not leave him, and he steadily lost strength and flesh. Their pitiable destitution pressed them harder and harder. They would have been reduced to a choice between beggary and starvation if Minty had not found a way out of the difficulty. She took it, right or wrong. She felt at the time very few scruples about the matter; she did later, but she would have done the same thing again, probably, under the same circumstances.
Two or three broad meadows away from the old house there were several cows pastured. They belonged to some farmer. Minty went there every night before the cows went home, and milked them one and another. She used an old earthen jar of a graceful shape, which she had found, for a milking-pail. She strode home with it like a guilty thing, across the fields. She brushed through the sweet fern, knee deep, with the tall jar half-poised on her right hip, carrying her strong, beautiful figure like an Eastern woman.
Minty kept thinking every day that the next day she must call on some one for assistance, have a doctor. But when the next day came David would think that he felt a little better, perhaps, and she would put it off. She had a fierce dislike of asking for charity. She thought it would be equivalent to knocking at an almshouse door, as it probably would have been. She kept all signs of the habitation of the old home resolutely from the few passers-by.
She never looked out of a window without due caution. Her greatest terror was that she should be caught stealing the milk. She used so much art in milking from one cow and another, that she hardly thought the diminution in quantity would betray her, for a while anyway. But she started at every sound on her way to and from the pasture.
She did not tell David how she got the milk. She laughed when he asked her, and said it was all right, it was a secret; when he got well he should know. He was easily enough put off; he did not trouble himself much over that or anything else before long. He grew weaker and weaker. Finally one day he lay most of the time muttering in a half-delirium. He would not move himself much unless Minty left him for a moment. Then he would call after her, “Minty, Minty, Minty,” every second until she came back.
Returning from her milking expedition, she could hear him before she reached the house. His greatest fear seemed to be that she would leave him.
“You won't go off and leave me, will you, Minty?” he would say.
“Leave you? Oh, Davy, I guess I won't.”
He asked her that question over and over. Her assurances only satisfied him for the moment. The delirious fear kept springing up again in his weak brain.
The next morning Minty watched the pale light coming in at the windows with a new resolution. “Somethin' has got to be done to-day,” she whispered to herself. “Somethin' shall be done.”
After the sun was up she tried to talk with David, and he seemed to rouse. She sat down on the floor beside him, and took his head in her lap, bending down and leaning her cheek against it.
“Davy, dear, I've got somethin' to tell you, an' I want you to listen jest a minute —”
“Oh, Minty, don't you leave me! Don't you go an' leave me!”
“No; I won't — I ain't goin' to, Davy. Leastways not fur more'n two or three minutes. See here, Davy, darlin', I've got to go and git a doctor to come and see you. I've got to go jest up here to Bassets, you know, and I needn't have to be gone —”
“Oh, Minty! Don't leave me; don't, don't, don't!”
“Oh, jest for two or three minutes; won't you let me, dear? I want to get the doctor, so he can give you some medicine to get you well. Don't you know, Davy?”
“Oh, Minty, don't leave me! Oh, Minty, darlin', don't leave me; don't, don't, don't!”
She reasoned with him, and coaxed him for a long time, but it was of no use. All she could get in return was that one despairing cry, “Don't leave me!”
Finally she gave it up, and sat looking straight ahead, her beautiful face held rigid with thought. “There's somethin' got to be done,” she muttered.
After a little she rose. He clutched at her dress and set up his pitiful cry again.
“There, there, dear, I ain't goin'. I ain't goin' to Bassets. I'm jest goin' to step out of the room a second. I'll leave the door open.”
She ran out of the house to the barn; his cry followed her. There stood the old sulky which she and David had laughed at on the night of their arrival. She took hold of the shafts and pulled it out through the wide doors into the green yard. It was light, and she did it easily enough. She was very strong.
“I can do it,” she said, with a nod of her head.
She dragged the sulky along into the road and stopped close to the front door.
Then she ran in, laughing. “Come, Davy, darlin', you're goin' to ride! The carriage is ready.”
“Oh, Minty, don't leave me.”
“Course I ain't goin' to leave you. I'm goin' with you. Don't you worry a bit, darlin'. Jest let me get your clothes on, an' you'll have a beautiful ride.”
She got the poor fellow into his clothes, talking merrily to him all the time. Then she helped him out of the house and into the sulky. She had fixed up a bed of hay in it, and she covered him with her shawl.
He was so exhausted, and near fainting, that at first he hardly noticed anything. When she placed herself between the shafts, and began dragging him slowly out of the yard, however, he set up, from behind, a pitiful, sobbing cry:
“Oh, Minty, you ain't a draggin' me! Let me git out. I won't have it! Oh, Minty, I ain't come to this! Minty, stop — you must stop. Don't you hear me?”
She turned around and looked at him. “David May, you jest keep still. You don't weigh no more'n a feather; it ain't nothin'. I'm only goin' to take you up to Bassets to see the doctor.”
“Look here, Davy — if you don't lay back an' keep still, I'll — leave you.”
He did lie back at that and said no more. Indeed, he was too weak to prolong the struggle. The momentary strength which the sight of Minty in the shafts had given him died away. Minty pressed along. Her pretty face was a deep pink all over; the perspiration rolled down her cheeks; her fair hair clung to her temples. It was a warm day. The flowering bushes which bordered the road were swarming with bees, and the air was full of those rasping and humming sounds which seem to be the very voices of the heat.
It was three miles to Bassets. There was not one house all the way, and the road was not much travelled. Minty did not meet any one.
After a little David seemed asleep, or in a stupor. He lay very still, at any rate, and never spoke. Every little while Minty looked around at him to see if he was safe. When she did so her face was wonderful with the love and strong patience shining through it. Those days of watching over this honest, distressed soul, whose love for her was so unquestioning, had caused all the good elements in her nature to work out a change in it. This was Minty's true flower time. Everything worthy in her was awake and astir and glowing. She, dragging her sick husband over the rough country road, like a beast of burden, was as perfect a woman as she ever would be in this world. She seemed to rise triumphant by this noble abasement from any lower level where she might have been.
She hastened along as fast as she was able. She was not conscious of any great fatigue, though occasionally she stopped to rest a moment.
She reached Bassets about noon. She drew the sulky into the yard of a large white house, the first which she came to, and knocked on the door.
“Can you — tell me — where — the doctor lives?” she asked the man who opened it.
She was leaning against the house, panting; her face was almost purple.
The man stood staring. He was old and large, with a sunburnt face and white hair.
“What in creation,” said he at last, “does this mean? Who air ye, anyway? What ails him?” pointing at David lying back with deathly face, in the sulky.
Minty told him their pitiful little story in a few panting words. Then she asked again where the doctor lived. She felt almost as if her strength were failing her, now that the struggle was so far over.
“You don't mean to say,” said the man, “that you dragged that sulky all the way here? It's a good three miles.”
“Yes; it wa'n't much.”
“Good Lord! Mother, come here!”
His wife and daughter, who had been peeping, came then to the door with wondering faces.
“Just look here, mother! This young woman's come all the way from the old Shaw house down below here. Dragged her sick husband in that 'ere sulky to see the doctor, she says.”
“Won't you please tell me where the doctor lives?” asked poor Minty.
“What's your name?” questioned the old woman.
“They've come over a hundred mile, lookin' arter work, she says,” the man went on, “an' he got sick, and they've been livin' down there, in the old Shaw house; an' she wanted to get the doctor, and he wouldn't let her leave him, so she's dragged him all the way here in the sulky.”
“Does the doctor live fur from here?” asked Minty, piteously.
“He's asleep, ain't he?” said the woman.
“I guess so — I want to git to the doctor's.”
“An' you dragged him all the way yourself?”
All of a sudden the woman stepped forward towards Minty, and away, as it were, from her New England suspicion and curiosity.
“You poor thing,” said she, with the tears streaming down her sallow cheeks, and her wide, thin mouth working, “I never heerd anythin' like it in my life!”
“You come right in, an' we'll get him in, an' then Cyrus shall go fur the doctor. Mary, you go an' git the bed in the spare room ready.”
The daughter went in, wiping her eyes. She was thin and sallow, like her mother, and wore a black calico gown. Her own husband was dead, and she had come here to live with her father and mother. While she was making up the bed in the best bedroom, her tears dropped down on the white sheets.
“I would ha' done as much for him if I'd had any need to whilst he was alive,” she sobbed to herself.
In a little while poor David May was lying comfortable in that clean, cool bed. Minty was resting; and they had sent for the doctor. He was a skilful man for a country town, and he did his best for David for his wife's sake.
The story of the journey in the sulky spread fast through Bassets. Whatever there was of sweet romance, whatever there was of sweet human pity in those simple, somewhat contracted country folks, was awakened. Poor, pretty, faulty Minty dragging the sulky with her sick husband in it, three miles to Bassets in the heat and dust, was to figure henceforth as the heroine of one of the unwritten folk-lore songs which are handed down from mother to daughter.
Everybody was kind to the poor young couple. When David began to mend, and there was more opportunity for them, there was no end to the kindly services which were proffered.
One day, when they had been there about five weeks, and David was decidedly convalescent, Mrs. Marsh, the woman who had taken them in, was standing at her door, talking to a neighbor, who had just brought over some custard for the sick man.
“Yes,” said she, “he's got through the worst on't now, ef he's careful.”
“You are goin' to keep 'em a while longer?”
“Keep 'em? I guess I am! I'm goin' to keep 'm till he gits real strong. She's the gratefulest thing you ever see, an' dretful afraid of makin' trouble. She keeps sayin' she guesses he's 'most well enough for 'em to be startin'. But I tell her, no; you're goin' to stay jest where you are till he's able to git out.”
“I heard Sampson was goin' to let him have work in the tub factory soon's he gets well.”
“Yes; he came over 'bout it. If they wa'n't tickled. They're goin' to live up-stairs in Mis' Eaton's house. They've got some things they left in the place they used to live in, an' they're goin' to send for 'em. He keeps frettin' 'cause she ain't got any more clothes here. He seems to think a sight on her; wants her to have everythin' and be dressed up. They seem jest as happy as the day is long, now. Hark, there she is, singin'.”
Minty's voice rang out from the best bedroom, clear and sweet, in a joyful psalm tune. The women stood, listening.
“I declare,” said the neighbor, finally, “she's got a pretty voice, ain't she? All I kin think of is a bluebird singin', when he first comes back in the spring.”