Story type: Literature
“Mainly it is long and weariful, and has a home o’ toil at one end and a dull little town at the other. “
WHEN Markham came in from shoveling his last wagon-load of corn into the crib, he found that his wife had put the children to bed, and was kneading a batch of dough with the dogged action of a tired and sullen woman.
He slipped his soggy boots off his feet and, having laid a piece of wood on top of the stove, put his heels on it comfortably. His chair squeaked as he leaned back on its hind legs, but he paid no attention; he was used to it, exactly as he was used to his wife’s lameness and ceaseless toil.
“That closes up my corn,” he said after a silence. “I guess I’ll go to town tomorrow to git my horses shod. “
“I guess I’ll git ready and go along,” said his wife in a sorry attempt to be firm and confident of tone.
“What do you want to go to town fer?” he grumbled. “What does anybody want to go to town fer?” she burst out, facing him. “I ain’t been out o’ this house fer six months, while you go an’ go!”
“Oh, it ain’t six months. You went down that day I got the mower. “
“When was that? The tenth of July, and you know it. “
“Well, mebbe ’twas. I didn’t think it was so long ago. I ain’t no objection to your goin’, only I’m goin’ to take a load of wheat. “
“Well, jest leave off a sack, an’ that’ll balance me an’ the baby,” she said spiritedly.
“All right,” he replied good-naturedly, seeing she was roused. ” Only that wheat ought to be put up tonight if you’re goin’. You won’t have any time to hold sacks for me in the morning with them young ones to get off to school. “
“Well, let’s go do it then,” she said, sullenly resolute.
“I hate to go out agin; but I s’pose we’d better. “
He yawned dismally and began pulling his boots on again, stamping his swollen feet into them with grunts of pain. She put on his coat and one of the boy’s caps, and they went out to the granary. The night was cold and clear.
“Don’t look so much like snow as it did last night,” said Sam. “It may turn warm. “
Laying out the sacks in the light of the lantern, they sorted out those which were whole, and Sam climbed into the bin with a tin pail in his hand, and the work began.
He was a sturdy fellow, and he worked desperately fast; the shining tin pail dived deep into the cold wheat and dragged heavily on the woman’s tired hands as it came to the mouth of the sack, and she trembled with fatigue, but held on and dragged the sacks away when filled, and brought others, till at last Sam climbed out, puffing and wheezing, to tie them up.
“I guess I’ll load ’em in the morning,” he said. “You needn’t wait fer me. I’ll tie ’em up alone. “
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she replied, feeling a little touched by his unexpectedly easy acquiescence to her request. When they went back to the house the moon had risen.
It had scarcely set when they were wakened by the crowing roosters. The man rolled stiffly out of bed and began rattling at the stove in the dark, cold kitchen.
His wife arose lamer and stiffer than usual and began twisting her thin hair into a knot.
Sam did not stop to wash, but went out to the barn. The woman, however, hastily soused her face into the hard limestone water at the sink and put the kettle on. Then she called the children. She knew it was early, and they would need several callings. She pushed breakfast forward, running over in her mind the things she must have: two spools of thread, six yards of cotton flannel, a can of coffee, and mittens for Kitty. These she must have–there were oceans of things she needed.
The children soon came scudding down out of the darkness of the upstairs to dress tumultuously at the kitchen stove. They humped and shivered, holding up their bare feet from the cold floor, like chickens in new fallen snow. They were irritable, and snarled and snapped and struck like cats and dogs. Mrs. Markham stood it for a while with mere commands to “hush up,” but at last her patience gave out, and she charged down on the struggling mob and cuffed them right and left.
They ate their breakfast by lamplight, and when Sam went back to his work around the barnyard it was scarcely dawn. The children, left alone with their mother, began to tease her to let them go to town also.
“No, sir–nobody goes but baby. Your father’s goin’ to take a load of wheat. “
She was weak with the worry of it all when she had sent the older children away to school, and the kitchen work was finished. She went into the cold bedroom off the little sitting room and put on her best dress. It had never been a good fit, and now she was getting so thin it hung in wrinkled folds everywhere about the shoulders and waist. She lay down on the bed a moment to ease that dull pam in her back. She had a moment’s distaste for going out at all. The thought of sleep was more alluring. Then the thought of the long, long day, and the sickening sameness of her life, swept over her again, and she rose. and prepared the baby for the journey.
It was but little after sunrise when Sam drove out into the road and started for Belleplain. His wife sat perched upon the wheat sacks behind him, holding the baby in her lap, a cotton quilt under her, and a cotton horse blanket over her knees.
Sam was disposed to be very good-natured, and he talked back at her occasionally, though she could only understand him when he turned his face toward her. The baby stared out at the passing fence posts and wiggled his hands out of his mittens at every opportunity. He was merry, at least.
It grew warmer as they went on, and a strong south wind arose. The dust settled upon the woman’s shawl and hat. Her hair loosened and blew unkemptly about her face. The road which led across the high, level prairie was quite smooth and dry, but still it jolted her, and the pam in her back increased. She had nothing to lean against, and the weight of the child grew greater, till she was forced to place him on the sacks beside her, though she could not loose her hold for a moment.
The town drew in sight–a cluster of small frame houses and stores on the dry prairie beside a railway station. There were no trees yet which could be called shade trees. The pitilessly severe light of the sun flooded everything. A few teams were hitched about, and in the lee of the stores a few men could be seen seated comfortably, their broad hat rims flopping up and down, their faces brown as leather.
Markham put his wife out at one of the grocery stores and drove off down toward the elevators to sell his wheat.
The grocer greeted Mrs. Markham in. a perfunctorily kind manner and offered her a chair, which she took gratefully. She sat for a quarter of an hour almost without moving, leaning against the back of the high chair. At last the child began to get restless and troublesome, and she spent half an hour helping him amuse himself around the nail kegs.
At length she rose and went out on the walk, carrying the baby. She went into the dry-goods store and took a seat on one of the little revolving stools. A woman was buying some woolen goods for a dress. It was worth twenty-seven cents a yard, the clerk said, but he would knock off two cents if she took ten yards. It looked warm, and Mrs. Markham wished she could afford it for Mary.
A pretty young girl came in, and laughed and chatted with the clerk, and bought a pair of gloves. She was the daughter of the grocer. Her happiness made the wife and mother sad. When Sam came back she asked him for some money.
“Want you want to do with it?” he asked.
“I want to spend it,” she said.
She was not to be trifled with, so he gave her a dollar.
“I need a dollar more. “
uot;Well, I’ve got to go take up that note at the bank. “
“Well, the children’s got to have some new underclo’es,” she said.
He handed her a two-dollar bill and then went out to pay his note.
She bought her cotton flannel and mittens and thread, and then sat leaning against the counter. It was noon, and she was hungry. She went out to the wagon, got the lunch she had brought, and took it into the grocery to eat it–where she could get a drink of water.
The grocer gave the baby a stick of candy and handed the mother an apple.
“It’ll kind o’ go down with your doughnuts,” he said. After eating her lunch she got up and went out. She felt ashamed to sit there any longer. She entered another dry-goods store, but when the clerk came toward her saying, “Anything today, Mrs. –?” she answered, “No, I guess not,” and turned away with foolish face.
She walked up and down the street, desolately homeless. She did not know what to do with herself. She knew no one except the grocer. She grew bitter as she saw a couple of ladies pass, holding their demitrains in the latest city fashion. Another woman went by pushing a baby carriage, in which sat a child just about as big as her own. It was bouncing itself up and down on the long slender springs and laughing and shouting. Its clean round face glowed from its pretty fringed hood. She looked down at the dusty clothes and grimy face of her own little one and walked on savagely.
She went into the drugstore where the soda fountain was, but it made her thirsty to sit there, and she went out on the street again. She heard Sam laugh and saw him in a group of men over by the blacksmith shop. He was having a good time and had forgotten her.
Her back ached so intolerably that she concluded to go in and rest once more in the grocer’s chair. The baby was growing cross and fretful. She bought five cents’ worth of candy to take home to the children and gave baby a little piece to keep him quiet. She wished Sam would come. It must be getting late. The grocer said it was not much after one. Time seemed terribly long. She felt that she ought to do something while she was in town. She ran over her purchases–yes, that was all she had planned to buy. She fell to figuring on the things she needed. It was terrible. It ran away up into twenty or thirty dollars at the least. Sam, as well as she, needed underwear for the cold winter, but they would have to wear the old ones, even if they were thin and ragged. She would not need a dress, she thought bitterly, because she never went anywhere. She rose, and went out on the street once more, and wandered up and down, looking at everything in the hope of enjoying something.
A man from Boon Creek backed a load of apples up to the sidewalk, and as he stood waiting for the grocer he noticed Mrs. Markham and the baby, and gave the baby an apple. This was a pleasure. He had such a hearty way about him. He on his part saw an ordinary farmer’s wife with dusty dress, unkempt hair, and tired face. He did not know exactly whey she appealed to him, but he tried to cheer her up.
The grocer was familiar with these bedraggled and weary wives. He was accustomed to see them sit for hours in his big wooden chair and nurse tired and fretful children. Their forlorn, aimless, pathetic wandering up and down the street was a daily occurrence, and had never possessed any special meaning to him.
In a cottage around the corner from the grocery store two men and a woman were finishing a dainty luncheon. The woman was dressed in cool, white garments, and she seemed to make the day one of perfect comfort.
The home of the Honorable Mr. Hall was by no means the costliest in the town, but his wife made it the most attractive. He was one of the leading lawyers of the county and a man of culture and progressive views. He was entertaining a friend who had lectured the night before in the Congregational church.
They were by no means in serious discussion. The talk was rather frivolous. Hall had the ability to caricature men with a few gestures and attitudes, and was giving to his Eastern friend some descriptions of the old-fashioned Western lawyers he had met in his practice. He was very amusing, and his guest laughed heartily for a time.
But suddenly Hall became aware that Otis was not listening. Then he perceived that he was peering out of the window at someone, and that on his face a look of bitter sadness was falling.
Hall stopped. “What do you see, Otis?”
Otis replied, “I see a forlorn, weary woman. “
Mrs. Hall rose and went to the window. Mrs. Markham was walking by the house, her baby in her arms. Savage anger and weeping were in her eyes and on her lips, and there was hopeless tragedy in her shambling walk and weak back.
In the silence Otis went on: “I saw the poor, dejected creature twice this morning. I couldn’t forget her. “
“Who is she?” asked Mrs. Hall very softly.
“Her name is Markham; she’s Sam Markham’s wife,” said Hall.
The young wife led the way into the sitting room, and the men took seats and lit their cigars. Hall was meditating a diversion when Otis resumed suddenly:
“That woman came to town today to get a change, to have a little play spell, and she’s wandering around like a starved and weary cat. I wonder if there is a woman in this town with sympathy enough and courage enough to go out and help that woman? The saloonkeepers, the politicians, and the grocers make it pleasant for the man–so pleasant that he forgets his wife. But the wife is left without a word. “
Mrs. Hall’s work dropped, and on her pretty face was a look of pain. The man’s harsh words had wounded her–and wakened her. She took up her hat and hurried out on the walk. The men looked at each other, and then the husband said:
“It’s going to be a little sultry for the men around these diggings. Suppose we go out for a walk. “
Delia felt a hand on her arm as she stood at the corner. “You look tired, Mrs. Markham; won’t you come in a little while? I’m Mrs. Hall. “
Mrs. Markham turned with a scowl on her face and a biting word on her tongue, but something in the sweet, round little face of the other woman silenced her, and her brow smoothed out.
“Thank you kindly, but it’s most time to go home. I’m looking fer Mr. Markham now. “
“Oh, come in a little while; the baby is cross and tried out; please do. “
Mrs. Markham yielded to the friendly voice, and together the two women reached the gate just as two men hurriedly turned the other corner.
“Let me relieve you,” said Mrs. Hall.
The mother hesitated: “He’s so dusty. “
“Oh, that won’t matter. Oh, what a big fellow he is! I haven’t any of my own,” said Mrs. Hall, and a look passed like an electric spark between the two women, and Delia was her willing guest from that moment.
They went into the little sitting room, so dainty and lovely to the farmer’s wife, and as she sank into an easy-chair she was faint and drowsy with the pleasure of it. She submitted to being brushed. She gave the baby into the hands of the Swedish girl, who washed its face and hands and sang it to sleep, while its mother sipped some tea. Through it all she lay back in her easychair, not speaking a word, while the ache passed out of her back, and her hot, swollen head ceased to throb.
But she saw everything–the piano, the pictures, the curtains, the wallpaper, the little tea stand. They were almost as grateful to her as the food and fragrant tea. Such housekeeping as this she had never seen. Her mother had worn her kitchen floor thin as brown paper in keeping a speckless house, and she had been in houses that were larger and costlier, but something of the charm of her hostess was in the arrangement of vases, chairs, or pictures. It was tasteful.
Mrs. Hall did not ask about her aff
airs. She talked to her about the sturdy little baby and about the things upon which Delia’s eyes dwelt. If she seemed interested in a vase she was told what it was and where it was made. She was shown all the pictures and books. Mrs. Hall seemed to read her visitor’s mind. She kept as far from the farm and her guest’s affairs as possible, and at last she opened the piano and sang to her–not slow-moving hymns, but catchy love songs full of sentiment, and then played some simple melodies, knowing that Mrs. Markham’s eyes were studying her hands, her rings, and the flash of her fingers on the keys–seeing more than she heard–and through it all Mrs. Hall conveyed the impression that she, too, was having a good time.
The rattle of the wagon outside roused them both. Sam was at the gate for her. Mrs. Markham rose hastily. “Oh, it’s almost sundown!” she gasped in astonishment as she looked out of the window.
“Oh, that won’t kill anybody,” replied her hostess. “Don’t hurry. Carrie, take the baby out to the wagon for Mrs. Markham while I help her with her things. “
“Oh, I’ve had such a good time,” Mrs. Markham said as they went down the little walk.
“So have I,” replied Mrs. Hall. She took the baby a moment as her guest climbed in. “Oh, you big, fat fellow!” she cried as she gave him a squeeze. “You must bring your wife in oftener, Mr. Markham,” she said as she handed the baby up.
Sam was staring with amazement
“Thank you, I will,” he finally managed to say.
“Good night,” said Mrs. Markham.
“Good night, dear,” called Mrs. Hall, and the wagon began to rattle off.
The tenderness and sympathy in her voice brought the tears to Delia’s eyes not hot nor bitter tears, but tears that cooled her eyes and cleared her mind.
The wind had gone down, and the red sunlight fell mistily over the world of corn and stubble. The crickets were strn chirping, and the feeding cattle were drifting toward the farmyards. The day had been made beautiful by human sympathy.