A Humble Romance
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
She was stooping over the great kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Under fostering circumstances, her slenderness of build might have resulted in delicacy or daintiness; now the harmony between strength and task had been repeatedly broken, and the result was ugliness. Her finger joints and wrist bones were knotty and out of proportion, her elbows, which her rolled-up sleeves displayed, were pointed and knobby, her shoulders bent, her feet spread beyond their natural bounds — from head to foot she was a little discordant note. She had a pale, peaked face, her scanty fair hair was strained tightly back and twisted into a tiny knot, and her expression was at once passive and eager.
There came a ringing knock at the kitchen door, and a face of another description, large, strong-featured, and assured, peered out of the pantry, which was over against the sink.
“Who is it, Sally?”
“I don’ know, Mis’ King.”
“Well, go to the door, can’t you, an’ not stan’ thar gapin’. I can’t; my hands are in the butter.”
Sally shook the dish water off her red, sodden fingers and shuffled to the door.
A tall man with a scraggy sandy mustache stood there. He had some scales in his hand.
“Good mornin’, marm,” he said. “Hev you got any rags?”
“I’ll see,” said the girl. Then she went over to the pantry, and whispered to her mistress that it was the tin-peddler.
“Botheration!” cried Mrs. King, impatiently. “Why couldn’t he hev come another day? Here I am right in the midst of butter, an’ I’ve got lots of rags, an’ I’ve got to hev some new milk-pails right away.”
All of this reached the ears of the tin-peddler, but he merely stood waiting, the corners of his large mouth curving up good-naturedly, and scrutinized with pleasant blue eyes the belongings of the kitchen, and especially the slight, slouching figure at the sink, to which Sally had returned.
“I s’pose,” said Mrs. King, approaching the peddler at length, with decision thinly veiled by doubt, “that I shall hev to trade with you, though I don’t know how to stop this mornin’ for I’m right in the midst of butter-making. I wish you’d ‘a’ happened along some other day.”
“Wa’al,” replied the peddler, laughing, “an’ so I would, marm, ef I’d only known. But I don’t see jest how I could hev, unless you’d ‘a’ pasted it up on the fences or had it put in the newspaper, or mebbe in the almanac.”
He lounged smilingly against the door-casing, jingling his scales, and waiting for the woman to make up her mind.
She smiled unwillingly, with knitted brows.
“Well,” said she, “of course you ain’t to blame. I guess I’ll go an’ pick up my rags, up in the garret. There’s quite a lot of ’em, an’ it’ll take some time. I don’t know as you’ll want to wait.”
“Lor’, I don’t keer,” answered the peddler. “I’d jest as soon rest a leetle as not. It’s a powerful hot mornin’ for this time o’ year, an’ I’ve got all day afore me.”
He came in and seated himself, with a loose-jointed sprawl, on a chair near the door.
After Mrs. King had gone out, he sat a few minutes eyeing the girl at the sink intently. She kept steadily on with her work, though there was a little embarrassment and uncertainty in her face.
“Would it be too much trouble ef I should ask you to give me a tumbler of water, miss?”
She filled one of her hot, newly-washed glasses with water from a pail standing on a shelf at one end of the sink, and brought it over to him. “It’s cold,” she said. “I drawed it myself jest a few minutes ago, or I’d get some right out of the well for you.”
“This is all right, an’ thanky kindly, miss; it’s proper good water.”
He drained the glass, and carried it back to her at the sink, where she had returned. She did not seem to dare absent herself from her dish-washing task an instant.
He set the empty glass down beside the pail; then he caught hold of the girl by her slender shoulders and faced her round toward him. She turned pale and gave a smothered scream.
“Thar! thar! don’t you go to being afeard of me,” said the peddler. “I wouldn’t hurt you for the whole world. I jest want to take a squar’ look at you. You’re the worst-off-lookin’ little cretur I ever set my eyes on.”
She looked up at him pitifully, still only half reassured. There were inflamed circles around her dilated blue eyes.
“You’ve been cryin’, ain’t you?”
The girl nodded meekly. “Please let me go,” she said.
“Yes, I’ll let you go; but I’m a-goin’ to ask you a few questions first, an’ I want you to answer ’em, for I’ll be hanged ef I ever see — Ain’t she good to you?” — indicating Mrs. King with a wave of his hand toward the door through which she had departed.
“Yes, she’s good enough, I guess.”
“Don’t ever scold you, hey?”
“I don’t know; I guess so, sometimes.”
“Did this mornin’, didn’t she?”
“A little. I was kinder behind with the work.”
“Keeps you workin’ pretty stiddy, don’t she?”
“Yes; thar’s consider’ble to do this time o’ year.”
“Cookin’ for hired men, I s’pose, and butter an’ milk?”
“How long hev you been livin’ here?”
“She took me when I was little.”
“Do you do anything besides work? — go round like other gals? — hev any good times?”
“Sometimes.” She said it doubtfully, as if casting about in her mind for reminiscences to prove the truth of it.
“Git good wages?”
“A dollar a week sence I was eighteen. I worked for my board an’ clo’es afore.”
“Got any folks?”
“I guess I’ve got some brothers an’ sisters somewhar. I don’ know jest whar. Two of ’em went West, an’ one is merried somewhar in York State. We was scattered when father died. Thar was ten of us, an’ we was awful poor. Mis’ King took me. I was the youngest; ’bout four, they said I was. I ain’t ever known any folks but Mis’ King.”
The peddler walked up and down the kitchen floor twice; Sally kept on with her dishes; then he came back to her.
“Look a-here,” he said; “leave your dish washin’ alone a minute. I want you to give me a good look in the face, an’ tell me what you think of me.”
She looked up shyly in his florid, freckled face, with its high cheek bones and scraggy sandy mustache; then she plunged her hands into the dish tub again.
“I don’ know,” she said, bashfully.
“Well, mebbe you do know, only you can’t put it into words. Now jest take a look out the window at my tin-cart thar. That’s all my own, a private consarn. I ain’t runnin’ for no company. I owns the cart an’ horse, an’ disposes of the rags, an’ sells the tin, all on my own hook. An’ I’m a-doin’ pretty well at it; I’m a-layin’ up a leetle money. I ain’t got no family. Now this was what I was a-comin’ at: s’pose you should jest leave the dishes, an’ the scoldin’ woman, an’ the butter, an’ everything, an’ go a-ridin’ off with me on my tin cart. I wouldn’t know you, an’ she wouldn’t know you, an’ you wouldn’t know yourself, in a week. You wouldn’t hev a bit of work to do, but jest set up thar like a queen, a-ridin’ and seein’ the country. For that’s the way we’d live, you know. I wouldn’t hev you keepin’ house an’ slavin’. We’d stop along the road for vittles, and bring up at taverns nights. What d’ye say to it?”
She stopped her dish washing now, and stood staring at him, her lips slightly parted and her cheeks flushed.
“I know I ain’t much in the way of looks,” the peddler went on, “an’ I’m older than you — I’m near forty — an’ I’ve been merried afore. I don’t s’pose you kin take a likin’ to me right off, but you might arter a while. An’ I’d take keer of you, you poor leetle thing. An’ I don’t b’lieve you know anything about how nice it is to be taken keer of, an’ hev the hard, rough things kep’ off by somebody that likes yer.”
Still she said nothing, but stood staring at him.
“You ain’t got no beau, hev you?” asked the peddler, as a sudden thought struck him.
“No.” She shook her head, and her cheeks flushed redder.
“Well, what do you say to goin’ with me? You’ll hev to hurry up an’ make up your mind, or the old lady’ll be back.”
The girl was almost foolishly ignorant of the world, but her instincts were as brave and innocent as an angel’s. Tainted with the shiftless weariness and phlegm of her parents, in one direction she was vigorous enough.
Whether it was by the grace of God or an inheritance from some far-off Puritan ancestor, the fire in whose veins had not burned low, she could see, if she saw nothing else, the distinction between right and wrong with awful plainness. Nobody had ever called her anything but a good girl. It was said with a disparagement, maybe, but it was always “a good girl.”
She looked up at the man before her, her cheeks burning painfully hot, her eyes at once drooping and searching. “I — don’t know jest — how you mean,” she stammered. “I wouldn’t go with the king, if — it wasn’t to — go honest —”
The peddler’s face flushed as red as hers. “Now look a-here, little un,” he said. “You jest listen, an’ it’s God’s own truth; ef I hadn’t ‘a’ meant all right I wouldn’t ‘a’ come to you, but to some other gal, han’sumer, an’ pearter, an’ — but, O Lord! I ain’t that kind, anyway. What I want is to merry you honest, an’ take keer of you, an’ git that look off your face. I know it’s awful sudden, an’ it’s askin’ a good deal of a gal to trust so much in a fellow she never set eyes on afore. Ef you can’t do it, I’ll never blame you; but ef you kin, well, I don’t b’lieve you’ll ever be sorry. Most folks would think I was a fool, too, an’ mebbe I am, but I wanted to take keer on you the minute I set eyes on you; an’ afore I know it the wantin’ to take keer on you will be growin’ into lovin’ you. Now you hurry and make up your mind, or she will be back.”
Sally had little imagination and a loving nature. In her heart, as in all girls’ hearts, the shy, secret longing for a lover had strengthened with her growth, but she had never dreamed definitely of one. Now she surveyed the homely, scrawny, good-natured visage before her, and it filled well enough the longing nature had placed in her helpless heart. His appearance dispelled no previous illusion, for previous illusion there had been none. No one had ever spoken to her in this way. Rough and precipitate though it was, it was skillful wooing; for it made its sincerity felt, and a girl more sophisticated than this one could not have listened to it wholly untouched.
The erratic nature of the whole proceeding did not dismay her. She had no conscience for conventionalities; she was too simple; hers provided only for pure right and wrong. Strange to say, the possible injury she would do her mistress by leaving her in this way did not occur to her till afterward. Now she looked at her lover, and began to believe in him, and as soon as she began to believe in him — poor, unattractive, ignorant little thing that she was! — she began to love just like other girls. All over her crimson face flashed the signs of yielding. The peddler saw and understood them.
“You will — won’t you, little un?” he cried. Then, as her eyes drooped more before his, and her mouth quivered between a sob and a smile, he took a step forward and stretched out his arms toward her. Then he stepped back, and his arms fell.
“No,” he cried, “I won’t; I’d like to give you a hug, but I won’t; I won’t so much as touch that little lean hand of yours till you’re my wife. You shall see I mean honest. But come along now, little un, or she will be back. I declar’ ef I don’t more’n half believe she’s fell in a fit, or she’d ha’ been back afore now. Come now, dear, be spry!”
“Now?” said Sally, in turn.
“Now! Why, of course now! What’s the use of waitin’? Mebbe you want to make some weddin’ cake, but I reckon we’d better buy some over in Derby, for it might put the old lady out”; and the peddler chuckled. “Why, I’m jest a-goin’ to stow you away in that ‘ere tin cart of mine — there’s plenty of room, for I’ve been on the road a-sellin’ nigh a week. An’ then I’m a-goin’ to drive out of this yard, arter I’ve traded with your missis, as innocent as the very innocentest lamb you ever see, an’ I’m a-goin’ to drive along a piece till it’s safe; an’ then you’re a-goin’ to git out an’ set up on the seat alongside of me, an’ we’re goin’ to keep on till we git to Derby, an’ then we’ll git merried, jest as soon as we kin find a minister as wants to airn a ten-dollar bill.”
“But,” gasped Sally, “she’ll ask whar I am.”
“I’ll fix that. You lay there in the cart an’ hear what I say. Lor’! I’d jest as soon tell her to her face, myself, what we was goin’ to do, an’ set you right up on the seat aside of me, afore her eyes; but she’d talk hard, most likely, an’ you look scared enough now, an’ you’d cry, an’ your eyes would git redder; an’ she might sass you so you’d be ready to back out, too. Women kin say hard things to other women, an’ they ain’t likely to understan’ any woman but themselves trustin’ a man overmuch. I reckon this is the best way.” He went toward the door, and motioned her to come.
“But I want my bonnet.”
“Never mind the bunnit; I’ll buy you one in Derby.”
“But I don’t want to ride into Derby bareheaded,” said Sally, almost crying.
“Well, I don’t know as you do, little un, that’s a fact; but hurry an’ git the bunnit, or she will be here. I thought I heard her a minute ago.”
“Thar’s a leetle money I’ve saved, too.”
“Well, git that; we don’t want to make the old lady vallyble presents, an’ you kin buy yourself sugarplums with it. But be spry.”
She gave him one more scared glance, and hastened out of the room, her limp calico accommodating itself to every ungraceful hitch of her thin limbs and sharp hips.
“I’ll git her a gown with puckers in the back,” mused the peddler, gazing after her. Then he hastened out to his tin cart, and arranged a vacant space in the body of it. He had a greatcoat, which he spread over the floor.
“Thar, little un, let me put you right in,” he whispered, when Sally emerged, her bonnet on, a figured green delaine shawl over her shoulders, and her little hoard in an old stocking dangling from her hand.
She turned round and faced him once more, her eyes like a child’s peering into a dark room. “You mean honest?”
“Before God, I do, little un. Now git in quick, for she is comin’!”
He had to lift her in, for her poor little limbs were too weak to support her. They were not a moment too soon, for Mrs. King stood in the kitchen door a second later.
“Here! you ain’t goin’, air you?” she called out.
“No, marm; I jest stepped out to look arter my hoss; he was a trifle uneasy with the flies, an’ thar was a yaller wasp buzzin’ round.” And the peddler stepped up to the door with an open and artless visage.
“Well, I didn’t know but you’d git tired waitin’. You spoke so about not bein’ in a hurry that I stopped to pick my white rags out from the colored ones. I knew they’d bring more ef I did. I’d been meanin’ to hev ’em all sorted out afore a peddler come along. I thought I’d hev Sally pick ’em over last week, but she was sick — Why, whar is Sally?”
“Sally — the girl that was washin’ dishes when you come — she went to the door.”
“Oh, the gal! I b’lieve I saw her go out the door a minute afore I went out to see to my hoss.”
“Well, I’ll call her, for she’ll never git the dishes done, I guess, an’ then we’ll see about the rags.”
Mrs. King strode toward the door, but the peddler stopped her.
“Now, marm, ef you please,” said he, “I’d a leetle rayther you’d attend to business first, and call Sally afterward, ef it’s jest the same to you, for I am gittin’ in a leetle of a hurry and don’t feel as ef I could afford to wait much longer.”
“Well,” said Mrs. King, reluctantly, “I don’t suppose I orter ask you to, but I do hev such discouragin’ times with help. I declare it don’t seem to me as ef Sally ever would git them dishes done.”
“Wa’al, it don’t seem to me, from what I’ve seen, that she ever will, either,” said the peddler, as he gathered up Mrs. King’s rag bags and started for the car.
“Anybody wouldn’t need to watch her for more’n two minutes to see how slow she was,” assented Mrs. King, following. “She’s a girl I took when she was a baby to bring up, an’ I’ve wished more’n fifty times I hadn’t. She’s a good girl enough, but she’s awful slow — no snap to her. How much is them milk pans?”
Mrs. King was reputedly a sharp woman at a bargain. To trade with her was ordinarily a long job for any peddler, but today it was shortened through skillful management. The tinman came down with astonishing alacrity from his first price, at the merest suggestion from his customer, and, in a much shorter time than usual, she bustled into the house, her arms full of pans, and the radiant and triumphant conviction of a good bargain in her face.
The peddler whirled rapidly into his seat and snatched up the lines; but even then he heard Mrs. King calling the girl as he rattled around the corner.
A quarter of a mile from Mrs. King’s there was a house; a little beyond, the road ran through a considerable stretch of woods. This was a very thinly settled neighborhood. The peddler drove rapidly until he reached the woods; then he stopped, got down, and peered into the cart.
Sally’s white face and round eyes peered piteously back at him.
“How’re you gittin’ along, little un?”
“Oh, let me git out an’ go back!”
“Lor’, no, little un, you don’t want to go back now! Bless your heart, she’s all primed for an awful sassin’. I tell you what ’tis, you sha’n’t ride cooped up in thar any longer; you shall git out, an’ set up here with me. We’ll keep our ears pricked up, an’ ef we hear anybody comin’, I’ll stow you in the box under the seat afore you kin say Jack Robinson, an’ thar ain’t any houses for three mile.”
He helped the poor shivering little thing out, and lifted her up to the high seat. When he had seated himself beside her and gathered up the lines, he looked down at her curiously. Her bonnet the severe taste of Mrs. King had regulated. It was a brown straw, trimmed with brown ribbon. He eyed it disapprovingly. “I’ll git you a white bunnit, sich as brides wear, in Derby,” said he.
She blushed a little at that, and glanced up at him, a little grateful light over her face.
“You poor little thing!” said the peddler, and put out his hand toward her, then drew it back again.
Derby was a town with the prestige of a city. It was the center of trade for a large circle of little country towns; its main street was crowded on a fair day, when the roads were good, with any quantity of nondescript and antediluvian-looking vehicles, and the owners thereof presented a wide variety of quaintness in person and attire.
So this eloping pair, the tall, bony, shambling man, and the thin, cowed-looking girl, her scant skirts slipping too far below her waist line in the back, and following the movements of her awkward heels, excited no particular attention.
After the tin cart had been put up in the hotel stable and the two had been legally pronounced man and wife, or, specifically, Mr. and Mrs. Jake Russell, they proceeded on foot down the principal street, in which all the shops were congregated, in search of some amendments to the bride’s attire.
If it was comparatively unnoticed, Sally was fully alive to the unsuitableness of her costume. She turned around, and followed with wistful eyes the prettily dressed girls they met. There was a great regret in her heart over her best gown, a brown delaine, with a flounce on the bottom, and a shiny back. She had so confidently believed in its grandeur so long, that now, seen by her mental vision, it hardly paled before these splendors of pleating and draping. It compared advantageously, in her mind, with a brown velvet suit whose wearer looked with amusement in her eyes at Sally’s forlorn figure. If she only had on her brown delaine, she felt that she could walk more confidently through this strangeness. But, nervously snatching her bonnet and her money, she had, in fact, heard Mrs. King’s tread on the attic stairs, and had not dared to stop longer to secure it.
She knew they were out on a search for a new dress for her now, but she felt a sorrowful conviction that nothing could be found which could fully make up for the loss of her own beloved best gown. And then Sally was not very quick with her needle; she thought with dismay of the making up; the possibility of being aided by a dressmaker, or a ready-made costume, never entered her simple mind.
Jake shambled loosely down the street, and she followed meekly after him, a pace or two behind.
At length the peddler stopped before a large establishment, in whose windows some ready-made ladies’ garments were displayed. “Here we air,” said he, triumphantly.
Sally stepped weakly after him up the broad steps.
One particular dress in the window had excited the peddler’s warm admiration. It was a trifle florid in design, with dashes of red here and there.
Sally eyed it a little doubtfully, when the clerk at Jake’s request, had taken it down to show them. Untutored as her taste was, she turned as naturally to quiet plumage as a wood pigeon. The red slashes rather alarmed her. However, she said nothing against her husband’s decision to purchase the dress. She turned pale at the price; it was nearly the whole of her precious store. But she took up her stocking purse determinedly when Jake began examining his pocketbook.
“I pays for this,” said she to the clerk, lifting up her little face to him with scared resolve.
“Why, no, you don’t, little un!” cried Jake, catching hold of her arm. “I’m a-goin’ to pay for it, o’ course. It’s a pity ef I can’t buy my own wife a dress.”
Sally flushed all over her lean throat, but she resolutely held out the money.
“No,” she said again, shaking her head obstinately, “I pays for it.”
The peddler let her have her way then, though he bit his scraggy mustache with amaze and vexation as he watched her pay the bill and stare with a sort of frightened wistfulness after her beloved money as it disappeared in the clerk’s grasp.
When they emerged from the store, the new dress under his arm, he burst out, “What on airth made you do that, little un?”
“Other folks does that way. When they gits merried they buys their own clo’es, ef they kin.”
“But it took pretty nearly all you’d got, didn’t it?”
“That ain’t no matter.”
The peddler stared at her, half in consternation, half in admiration.
“Well,” said he, “I guess you’ve got a little will o’ your own, arter all, little un, an’ I’m glad on’t. A woman’d orter hev a little will to back her sweetness; it’s all too soft an’ slushy otherways. But I’ll git even with you about the dress.”
Which he proceeded to do by ushering his startled bride into the next dry-goods establishment, and purchasing a dress pattern of robin’s-egg blue silk, and a delicate white bonnet. Sally, however, insisted on buying a plain sun hat with the remainder of her own money. She was keenly alive to the absurdity and peril of that airy white structure on the top of a tin cart.
The pair remained in Derby about a week; then they started forth on their travels, the blue silk, which a Derby dressmaker had made up after the prevailing mode, and the white bonnet, stowed away in a little new trunk in the body of the cart.
The peddler, having only himself to consult as to his motions, struck a new route now. Sally wished to keep away from her late mistress’s vicinity. She had always a nervous dread of meeting her in some unlikely fashion.
She wrote a curious little ill-spelled note to her, at the first town where they stopped after leaving Derby. Whether or not Mrs. King was consoled and mollified by it she never knew.
Their way still lay through a thinly settled country. The tin peddler found readier customers in those farmers’ wives who were far from stores. It was late spring. Often they rode for a mile or two through the lovely fresh woods, without coming to a single house.
The girl had never heard of Arcadia, but, all unexpressed to herself, she was riding through it under gold-green bough, to the sweet, broken jangling of tinware.
When they stopped to trade at the farmhouses, how proudly she sat, a new erectness in her slender back, and held her husband’s horse tightly while he talked with the woman of the house, with now and then a careful glance toward her to see if she were safe. They always contrived to bring up, on a Sabbath day, at some town where there was a place of worship. Then the blue silk and the white bonnet were taken reverently from their hiding place, and Sally, full of happy consciousness, went to church with her husband in all her bridal bravery.
These two simple pilgrims, with all the beauty and grace in either of them turned only toward each other, and seen rightly only in each other’s untutored, uncritical eyes, had journeyed together blissfully for about three months, when one afternoon Jake came out of a little country tavern, where they had proposed stopping for the night, with a pale face. Sally had been waiting on the cart outside until he should see if they could be accommodated. He jumped up beside her and took the lines.
“We’ll go on to Ware,” he said, in a dry voice; “it’s only three mile further. They’re full here.”
Jake drove rapidly along, an awful look on his homely face, giving it the beauty of tragedy.
Sally kept looking up at him with pathetic wonder, but he never looked at her or spoke till they reached the last stretch of woods before Ware village. Then, just before they left the leafy cover, he slackened his speed a little, and threw his arm around her.
“See here, little un,” he said, brokenly. “You’ve — got — consider’ble backbone, ‘ain’t you? Ef anything awful should happen, it wouldn’t — kill you — you’d bear up?”
“Ef you told me to.”
He caught at her words eagerly. “I would tell you to, little un — I do tell you to,” he cried. “Ef anything awful ever should — happen — you’ll remember that I told you to bear up.”
“Yes, I’ll bear up.” Then she clung to him, trembling. “Oh, what is it, Jake ?”
“Never mind now, little un,” he answered; “p’rhaps nothin’ awful’s goin’ to happen; I didn’t say thar was. Chirk up an’ give us a kiss, an’ look at that ‘ere sky thar, all pink an’ yaller.”
He tried to be cheerful, and comfort her with joking endearments then, but the awful lines in his face stayed rigid and unchanged under the smiles.
Sally, however, had not much discernment, and little of the sensitiveness of temperament which takes impressions of coming evil. She soon recovered her spirits, and was unusually merry, for her, the whole evening, making, out of the excess of her innocence and happiness, several little jokes, which made Jake laugh loyally, and set his stricken face harder the next minute.
In the course of the evening he took out his pocketbook and displayed his money, and counted it jokingly. Then he spoke, in a careless, casual manner, of a certain sum he had deposited in a country bank, and how, if he were taken sick and needed it, Sally could draw it out as well as he. Then he spoke of the value of his stock in trade and horse and cart. When they went to bed that night he had told his wife, without her suspecting he was telling her, all about his affairs.
She fell asleep as easily as a child. Jake lay rigid and motionless till he had listened an hour to her regular breathing. Then he rose softly, lighted a candle, which he shaded from her face, and sat down at a little table with a pen and paper. He wrote painfully, with cramped muscles, his head bent on one side, following every movement of his pen, yet with a confident steadiness which seemed to show that all the subject matter had been learned by heart beforehand. Then he folded the paper carefully around a little book which he took from his pocket, and approached the bed, keeping his face turned away from his sleeping wife. He laid the little package on his vacant pillow, still keeping his face aside.
Then he got into his clothes quickly, his head turned persistently from the bed, and opened the door softly, and went out, never once looking back.
When Sally awoke the next morning she found her husband gone, and the little package on the pillow. She opened it, more curious than frightened. There was a note folded around a bank book. Sally spelled out the note laboriously, with whitening lips and dilating eyes. It was a singular composition, its deep feeling pricking through its illiterate stiffness.
Dear Wife, — I’ve got to go and leve you. It’s the only way. Ef I kin ever come back, I will. I told you bout my bizness last night. You’d better drive the cart to Derby to that Mister Arms I told you bout, an’ he’ll help you sell it an’ the hoss. Tell him your husband had to go away, an’ left them orders. I’ve left you my bank book, so you can git the money out of the bank the way I told you, an’ my watch an’ pocketbook is under the pillow. I left you all the money, ‘cept what little I couldn’t git long without. You’d better git boarded somewhar in Derby. You’ll hev enough money to keep you awhile, an’ I’ll send you some more when thet’s gone, ef I hev to work my fingers to the bone. Don’t ye go to worryin’ an’ workin’ hard. An’ bear up. Don’t forgit thet you promised me to bear up. When you gits to feelin’ awful bad, an’ you will, jest say it over to yourself — “He told me to bear up, an’ I said as I would bear up.” Scuse poor writin’ an’ a bad pen. Yours till death, Jake Russell.
When Sally had read the letter quite through, she sat still a few minutes on the edge of the bed, her lean, round-shouldered figure showing painfully through her clinging nightdress, her eyes staring straight before her.
Then she rose, dressed herself, put the bank book, with the letter folded around it, and her husband’s pocketbook, in her bosom, and went downstairs quietly. Just before she went out her room door she paused with her hand on the latch, and muttered to herself, “He told me to bear up, an’ I said as I would bear up.”
She sought the landlord to pay her bill, and found that it was already paid, and that her recreant husband had smoothed over matters in one direction for her by telling the landlord that he was called away on urgent business, and that his wife was to take the tin cart next morning, and meet him at a certain point.
So she drove away on her tin cart in solitary state without exciting any of the wondering comments which would have been agony to her.
When she gathered up the lines and went rattling down the country road, if ever there was a zealous disciple of a new religion, she was one. Her prophet was her raw-boned peddler husband, and her creed and whole confession of faith his parting words to her.
She did not take the road to Derby; she had made up her mind about that as she sat on the edge of the bed after reading the letter. She drove straight along the originally prescribed route, stopping at the farmhouses, taking rags and selling tin, just as she had seen her husband do. There were much astonishment and many curious questions among her customers. A woman running a tin cart was an unprecedented spectacle, but she explained matters, with meek dignity, to all who questioned her. Her husband had gone away, and she was to attend to his customers until he should return. She could not always quite allay the suspicion that there must needs be something wrong, but she managed the trading satisfactorily, and gave good bargains, and so went on her way unmolested. But not a farmyard did she enter or leave without the words sounding in her beating little heart, like a strong, encouraging chant, “He told me to bear up, an’ I said as I would bear up.”
When her stock ran low, she drove to Derby to replenish it. Here she had opposition from the dealers, but her almost abnormal persistence overcame it.
She showed Jake’s letter to Mr. Arms, the tin dealer with whom she traded, and he urged her to take up with the advice in it, promising her a good bargain; but she was resolute.
Soon she found that she was doing as well as her husband had done, if not better. Her customers, after they had grown used to the novelty of a tin woman, instead of a tin man, liked her. In addition to the regular stock, she carried various little notions needed frequently by house-wives, such as pins, needles, thread, etc.
She oftener staid at a farmhouse overnight than a tavern, and frequently stopped over at one a few days in severe weather.
After her trip to Derby she always carried a little pistol, probably more to guard Jake’s watch and property than herself.
Whatever money she did not absolutely require for current expenses went to swell Jake’s little hoard in the Derby bank. During the three years she kept up her lonely travelling little remittances came directed to her from time to time, in the care of Mr. Arms. When one came, Sally cried pitifully, and put it into the bank with the rest.
She never gave up expecting her husband. She never woke up one morning without the hope in her heart that he would come that day. Every golden dawn showed a fair possibility to her, and so did every red sunset. She scanned every distant, approaching figure in the sweet country roads with the half conviction in her heart that it was he, and when nearness dispelled the illusion, her heart bounded bravely back from its momentary sinking, and she looked ahead for another traveler.
Still he did not come for three years from the spring he went away. Except through the money remittances, which gave no clue but the New York postmark on the envelope, she had not heard from him.
One June afternoon she, a poor lonely pilgrim, now without her beloved swain, driving through her old Arcadian solitudes, whose enchanted meaning was lost to her, heard a voice from behind calling to her, above the jangling of tin, “Sally! Sally! Sally!”
She turned, and there he was, running after her. She turned her head quickly, and, stopping the horse, sat perfectly still, her breath almost gone with suspense. She did not dare look again for fear she had not seen aright.
The hurrying steps came nearer and nearer; she looked when they came abreast the cart. It was he. It always seemed to her that she would have died if it had not been, that time.
He was up on the seat before she could breathe again, and his arms around her.
“Jake, I did — bear up — I did.”
“I know you did, little un. Mr. Arms told me all about it. Oh, you dear little un, you poor little un, a-drivin’ round on this cart all alone!”
Jake laid his cheek against Sally’s and sobbed.
“Don’t cry, Jake. I’ve airned money, I hev, an’ it’s in the bank for you.”
“Oh, you blessed little un! Sally, they said hard things ’bout me to you in Derby, didn’t they?”
She started violently at that. There was one thing which had been said to her in Derby, and the memory of it had been a repressed terror ever since.
“Yes; they said as how you’d run off with — another woman.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t believe it.”
“I did, Sally.”
“Well, you’ve come back.”
“Afore I merried you I’d been merried before. By all that’s good an’ great, little un, I thought my wife was dead. Her folks said she was. When I come home from peddlin’ one time, she was gone, an’ they said she was off on a visit. I found out in a few weeks she’d run off with another fellow. I went off peddlin’ ag’in without carin’ much what become of me. ‘Bout a year arterward I saw her death in a paper, an’ I wrote to her folks, an’ they said ’twas true. They were a bad lot, the whole of ’em. I got took in. But she had a mighty pretty face, an’ a tongue like honey, an’ I s’pose I was green. Three year ago, when I went into that ‘ere tavern in Grover, thar she was in the kitchin a-cookin’. The fellow she ran off with had left her, an’ she’d been tryin’ to hunt me up. She was awful poor, an’ had come across this place an’ took it. She was allers a good cook, an’ she suited the customers fust rate. I guess they liked to see her pretty face ’round too, confound her!
“Well, little un, she knew me right off, an’ hung on to me, an’ cried, an’ begged me to forgive her; and when she spied you a-settin’ thar on the cart, she tore. I hed to hold her to keep her from goin’ out an’ tellin’ you the whole story. I thought you’d die ef she did. I didn’t know then how you could bear up, little un. Ef you ‘ain’t got backbone!”
“Jake, I did bear up.”
“I know you did, you blessed little cretur. Well, she said ef I didn’t leave you, an’ go with her, she’d expose me. As soon as she found she’d got the weapons in her own hands, an’ could hev me up for bigamy, she didn’t cry so much, an’ wa’n’t quite so humble.
“Well, little un, then I run off an’ left you. I couldn’t stay with you ef you wa’n’t my wife, an’ ’twas all the way to stop her tongue. I met her that night, an’ we went to New York. I got lodgin’s for her; then I went to work in a box factory, an’ supported her. I never went nigh her from one week’s end to the other; I couldn’t do it without hevin’ murder in my heart; but I kep’ her in money. Every scrap I could save I sent to you, but I used to lay awake nights, worryin’ for fear you’d want things. Well, it’s all over. She died a month ago, an’ I saw her buried.”
“I knowed she was dead when you begun to tell about her, because you’d come.”
“Yes, she’s dead this time, an’ I’m glad. Don’t you look scared, little un. I hope the Lord’ll forgive me, but I’m glad. She was a bad un, you know, Sally.”
“Was she sorry?”
“I don’t know, little un.”
Sally’s head was resting peacefully on Jake’s shoulder; golden flecks of light sifted down on them through the rustling maple and locust boughs; the horse, with bent head, was cropping the tender young grass at the side of the road.
“Now we’ll start up the horse an’ go to Derby an’ git merried over ag’in, Sally.”
She raised her head suddenly, and looked up at him with eager eyes.
“Well, little un?”
“Oh, Jake, my blue silk dress an’ the white bonnet is in the trunk in the cart jest the same, an’ I can git ’em out, an’ put ’em on under the trees thar, an’ wear ’em to be married in!”