Story type: Literature
A tale of toil that’s never done I tell;
Of life where love’s a fleeting wing
Above the woman’s hopeless hell
Of ceaseless, year-round journeying.
SIM BURNS’S WIFE.
Lucretia Burns had never been handsome, even in her days of early girlhood, and now she was middle-aged, distorted with work and child-bearing, and looking faded and worn as one of the boulders that lay beside the pasture fence near where she sat milking a large white cow.
She had no shawl or hat and no shoes, for it was still muddy in the little yard, where the cattle stood patiently fighting the flies and mosquitoes swarming into their skins, already wet with blood. The evening was oppressive with its heat, and a ring of just-seen thunder-heads gave premonitions of an approaching storm.
She rose from the cow’s side at last, and, taking her pails of foaming milk, staggered toward the gate. The two pails hung from her lean arms, her bare feet slipped on the filthy ground, her greasy and faded calico dress showed her tired, swollen ankles, and the mosquitoes swarmed mercilessly on her neck and bedded themselves in her colorless hair.
The children were quarreling at the well, and the sound of blows could be heard. Calves were querulously calling for their milk, and little turkeys, lost in a tangle of grass, were piping plaintively.
The sun just setting struck through a long, low rift like a boy peeping beneath the eaves of a huge roof. Its light brought out Lucretia’s face as she leaned her sallow forehead on the top bar of the gate and looked toward the west.
It was a pitifully worn, almost tragic face–long, thin, sallow, hollow-eyed. The mouth had long since lost the power to shape itself into a kiss, and had a droop at the corners which seemed to announce a breaking-down at any moment into a despairing wail. The collarless neck and sharp shoulders showed painfully.
She felt vaguely that the night was beautiful. The setting sun, the noise of frogs, the nocturnal insects beginning to pipe–all in some way called her girlhood back to her, though there was little in her girlhood to give her pleasure. Her large gray eyes grew round, deep and wistful as she saw the illimitable craggy clouds grow crimson, roll slowly up, and fire at the top. A childish scream recalled her.
“Oh, my soul!” she half groaned, half swore, as she lifted her milk and hurried to the well. Arriving there, she cuffed the children right and left with, all her remaining strength, saying in justification:
“My soul! can’t you–you young ‘uns give me a minute’s peace? Land knows, I’m almost gone up; washin’, an’ milkin’ six cows, and tendin’ you, and cookin’ f’r him, ought ‘o be enough f’r one day! Sadie, you let him drink now ‘r I’ll slap your head off, you hateful thing! Why can’t you behave, when you know I’m jest about dead?” She was weeping now, with nervous weakness. “Where’s y’r pa?” she asked after a moment, wiping her eyes with her apron.
One of the group, the one cuffed last, sniffed out, in rage and grief:
“He’s in the cornfield; where’d ye s’pose he was?”
“Good land! why don’t the man work all night? Sile, you put that dipper in that milk agin, an’ I’ll whack you till your head’ll swim! Sadie, le’ go Pet, an’ go ‘n get them turkeys out of the grass ‘fore it gits dark! Bob, you go tell y’r dad if he wants the rest o’ them cows milked he’s got ‘o do it himself. I jest can’t, and what’s more, I won’t,” she ended, rebelliously.
Having strained the milk and fed the children, she took some skimmed milk from the cans and started to feed the calves bawling strenuously behind the barn. The eager and unruly brutes pushed and struggled to get into the pails all at once, and in consequence spilt nearly all of the milk on the ground. This was the last trial; the woman fell down on the damp grass and moaned and sobbed like a crazed thing. The children came to seek her and stood around like little partridges, looking at her in scared silence, till at last the little one began to wail. Then the mother rose wearily to her feet, and walked slowly back toward the house.
She heard Burns threshing his team at the well, with the sound of oaths. He was tired, hungry and ill-tempered, but she was too desperate to care. His poor, overworked team did not move quickly enough for him, and his extra long turn in the corn had made him dangerous. His eyes gleamed wrathfully from his dust-laid face.
“Supper ready?” he growled.
“Yes, two hours ago.”
“Well, I can’t help it!” he said, understanding her reproach. “That devilish corn is gettin’ too tall to plow again, and I’ve got ‘o go through it to-morrow or not at all. Cows milked?”
“Part of ’em.”
“How many left?”
“Hell! Which three?”
“Spot, and Brin, and Cherry.”
“Of course, left the three worst ones. I’ll be damned if I milk a cow to-night. I don’t see why you play out jest the nights I need ye most.” Here he kicked a child out of the way. “Git out o’ that! Hain’t you got no sense? I’ll learn ye”—-
“Stop that, Sim Burns,” cried the woman, snatching up the child. “You’re a reg’lar ol’ hyeny,–that’s what you are,” she added defiantly, roused at last from her lethargy.
“You’re a–beauty, that’s what you are,” he said, pitilessly. “Keep your brats out f’um under my feet.” And he strode off to a barn after his team, leaving her with a fierce hate in her heart. She heard him yelling at his team in their stalls: “Git around there, damn yeh.”
The children had had their supper; so she took them to bed. She was unusually tender to them, for she wanted to make up in some way for her previous harshness. The ferocity of her husband had shown up her own petulant temper hideously, and she sat and sobbed in the darkness a long time beside the cradle where little Pet slept.
She heard Burns come growling in and tramp about, but she did not rise. The supper was on the table; he could wait on himself. There was an awful feeling at her heart as she sat there and the house grew quiet. She thought of suicide in a vague way; of somehow taking her children in her arms and sinking into a lake somewhere, where she would never more be troubled, where she could sleep forever, without toil or hunger.
Then she thought of the little turkeys wandering in the grass, of the children sleeping at last, of the quiet, wonderful stars. Then she thought of the cows left unmilked, and listened to them stirring uneasily in the yard. She rose, at last, and stole forth. She could not rid herself of the thought that they would suffer. She knew what the dull ache in the full breasts of a mother was, and she could not let them stand at the bars all night moaning for relief.
The mosquitoes had gone, but the frogs and katydids still sang, while over in the west Venus shone. She was a long time milking the cows; her hands were so tired she had often to stop and rest them, while the tears fell unheeded into the pail. She saw and felt little of the external as she sat there. She thought in vague retrospect of how sweet it seemed the first time Sim came to see her; of the many rides to town with him when he was an accepted lover; of the few things he had given her–a coral breastpin and a ring.
She felt no shame at her present miserable appearance; she was past personal pride. She hardly felt as if the tall, strong girl, attractive with health and hope, could be the same soul as the woman who now sat in utter despair listening to the heavy breathing of the happy cows, grateful for the relief from their burden of milk.
She contrasted her lot with that of two or three women that she knew (not a very high standard), who kept hired help, and who had fine houses of four or five rooms. Even the neighbors were better off than she, for they didn’t have such quarrels. But she wasn’t to blame–Sim didn’t—- Then her mind changed to a dull resentment against “things.” Everything seemed against her.
She rose at last and carried her second load of milk to the well, strained it, washed out the pails, and, after bathing her tired feet in a tub that stood there, she put on a pair of horrible shoes, without stockings, and crept stealthily into the house. Sim did not hear her as she slipped up the stairs to the little low, unfinished chamber beside her oldest children. She could not bear to sleep near him that night,–she wanted a chance to sob herself to quiet.
As for Sim, he was a little disturbed, but would as soon have cut off his head as acknowledge himself in the wrong. As he went to bed, and found her still away, he yelled up the stairway:
“Say, o’ woman, ain’t ye comin’ to bed?” Upon receiving no answer he rolled his aching body into the creaking bed. “Do as y’ damn please about it. If y’ want to sulk y’ can.” And in such wise the family grew quiet in sleep, while the moist, warm air pulsed with the ceaseless chime of the crickets.
When Sim Burns woke the next morning he felt a sharper twinge of remorse. It was not a broad or well-defined feeling–just a sense that ho had been unduly irritable, not that on the whole he was not in the right. Little Pet lay with the warm June sunshine filling his baby eyes, curiously content in striking at flies that buzzed around his little mouth.
The man thrust his dirty, naked feet into his huge boots, and, without washing his face or combing his hair, went out to the barn to do his chores.
He was a type of the average prairie farmer, and his whole surrounding was typical of the time. He had a quarter-section of fine level land, bought with incredible toil, but his house was a little box-like structure, costing, perhaps, five hundred dollars. It had three rooms and the ever-present summer kitchen attached to the back. It was unpainted and had no touch of beauty–a mere box.
His stable was built of slabs and banked and covered with straw. It looked like a den, was low and long, and had but one door in the end. The cow-yard held ten or fifteen cattle of various kinds, while a few calves were bawling from a pen near by. Behind the barn, on the west and north, was a fringe of willows forming a “wind-break.” A few broken and discouraged fruit trees standing here and there among the weeds formed the garden. In short, he was spoken of by his neighbors as “a hard-working cuss, and tol’ably well fixed.”
No grace had come or ever could come into his life. Back of him were generations of men like himself, whose main business had been to work hard, live miserably, and beget children to take their places when they died.
His courtship had been delayed so long on account of poverty that it brought little of humanizing emotion into his life. He never mentioned his love-life now, or if he did, it was only to sneer obscenely at it. He had long since ceased to kiss his wife or even speak kindly to her. There was no longer any sanctity to life or love. He chewed tobacco and toiled on from year to year without any very clearly defined idea of the future. His life was mainly regulated from without.
He was tall, dark and strong, in a flat-chested, slouching sort of way, and had grown neglectful of even decency in his dress. He wore the American farmer’s customary outfit of rough brown pants, hickory shirt and greasy wool hat. It differed from his neighbors’ mainly in being a little dirtier and more ragged. His grimy hands were broad and strong as the clutch of a bear, and he was a “terrible feller to turn off work,” as Councill said. “I ‘druther have Sim Burns work for me one day than some men three. He’s a linger.” He worked with unusual speed this morning, and ended by milking all the cows himself as a sort of savage penance for his misdeeds the previous evening, muttering in self-defense:
“Seems ‘s if ever’ cussid thing piles on to me at once. That corn, the road-tax, and hayin’ comin’ on, and now she gits her back up”—-
When he went back to the well he sloshed himself thoroughly in the horse-trough and went to the house. He found breakfast ready, but his wife was not in sight. The older children were clamoring around the uninviting breakfast table, spread with cheap ware and with boiled potatoes and fried salt pork as the principal dishes.
“Where’s y’r ma?” he asked, with a threatening note in his voice, as he sat down by the table.
“She’s in the bedroom.”
He rose and pushed open the door. The mother sat with the babe in her lap, looking out of the window down across the superb field of timothy, moving like a lake of purple water. She did not look around. She only grew rigid. Her thin neck throbbed with the pulsing of blood to her head.
“What’s got into you now?” he said, brutally. “Don’t be a fool. Come out and eat breakfast with me, an’ take care o’ y’r young ones.”
She neither moved nor made a sound. With an oath he turned on his heel and went out to the table. Eating his breakfast in his usual wolfish fashion, he went out into the hot sun with his team and riding-plow, not a little disturbed by this new phase of his wife’s “cantankerousness.” He plowed steadily and sullenly all the forenoon, in the terrific heat and dust. The air was full of tempestuous threats, still and sultry, one of those days when work is a punishment. When he came in at noon he found things the same–dinner on the table, but his wife out in the garden with the youngest child.
“I c’n stand it as long as she can,” he said to himself, in the hearing of the children, as he pushed back from the table and went back to work.
When he had finished the field of corn it was after sundown, and he came up to the house, hot, dusty, his shirt wringing wet with sweat, and his neck aching with the work of looking down all day at the corn-rows. His mood was still stern. The multitudinous lift, and stir, and sheen of the wide, green field had been lost upon him.
“I wonder if she’s milked them cows,” he muttered to himself. He gave a sigh of relief to find she had. But she had done so not for his sake, but for the sake of the poor, patient dumb brutes.
When he went to the bedroom after supper, he found that the cradle and his wife’s few little boxes and parcels–poor, pathetic properties!–had been removed to the garret, which they called a chamber, and he knew he was to sleep alone again.
“She’ll git over it, I guess.” He was very tired, but he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to sleep. The air was oppressive. His shirt, wet in places, and stiff with dust in other places, oppressed him more than usual; so he rose and removed it, getting a clean one out of a drawer. This was an unusual thing for him, for he usually slept in the same shirt which he wore in his day’s work; but it was Saturday night, and he felt justified in the extravagance.
In the meanwhile poor Lucretia was brooding over her life in a most dangerous fashion. All she had done and suffered for Simeon Burns came back to her till she wondered how she had endured it all. All day long in the midst of the glorious summer landscape she brooded.
“I hate him,” she thought, with a fierce blazing up through the murk of her musing. “I hate t’ live. But they ain’t no hope. I’m tied down. I can’t leave the children, and I ain’t got no money. I couldn’t make a living out in the world. I ain’t never seen anything an’ don’t know anything.”
She was too simple and too unknowing to speculate on the loss of her beauty, which would have brought her competency once–if sold in the right market. As she lay in her little attic bed, she was still sullenly thinking, wearily thinking of her life. She thought of a poor old horse which Sim had bought once, years before, and put to the plough when it was too old and weak to work. She could see her again as in a vision, that poor old mare, with sad head drooping, toiling, toiling, till at last she could no longer move, and lying down under the harness in the furrow, groaned under the whip–and died.
Then she wondered if her own numbness and despair meant death, and she held her breath to think harder upon it. She concluded at last, grimly, that she didn’t care–only for the children.
The air was frightfully close in the little attic, and she heard the low mutter of the rising storm in the west. She forgot her troubles a little, listening to the far-off gigantic footsteps of the tempest.
Boom, boom, boom, it broke nearer and nearer, as if a vast cordon of cannon was being drawn around the horizon. Yet she was conscious only of pleasure. She had no fear. At last came the sweep of cool, fragrant storm-wind, a short and sudden dash of rain, and then, in the cool, sweet hush which followed, the worn and weary woman fell into a deep sleep.
When she woke the younger children were playing about on the floor in their night-clothes, and little Pet was sitting in a square of sunshine, intent on one of his shoes. He was too young to know how poor and squalid his surroundings were–the patch of sunshine flung on the floor glorified it all. He–little animal–was happy.
The poor of the Western prairies lie almost as unhealthily close together as do the poor of the city tenements. In the small hut of the peasant there is as little chance to escape close and tainting contact as in the coops and dens of the North End of proud Boston. In the midst of oceans of land, floods of sunshine and gulfs of verdure, the farmer lives in two or three small rooms. Poverty’s eternal cordon is ever round the poor.
“Ma, why didn’t you sleep with Pap last night?” asked Bob, the seven-year-old, when he saw she was awake at last. She flushed a dull red.
“You hush, will yeh? Because–I–it was too warm–and there was a storm comin’. You never mind askin’ such questions. Is he gone out?”
“Yup. I heerd him callin’ the pigs. It’s Sunday, ain’t it, ma?”
The fact seemed to startle her.
“Why, yes, so it is! Wal! Now, Sadie, you jump up an’ dress quick ‘s y’can, an’ Bob an’ Sile, you run down an’ bring s’m’ water,” she commanded, in nervous haste, beginning to dress. In the middle of the room there was scarce space to stand beneath the rafters.
When Sim came in for his breakfast he found it on the table, but his wife was absent.
“Where’s y’r ma?” he asked, with a little less of the growl in his voice.
“She’s upstairs with Pet.”
The man ate his breakfast in dead silence, till at last Bob ventured to say:
“What makes ma ac’ so?”
“Shut up!” was the brutal reply. The children began to take sides with the mother–all but the oldest girl, who was ten years old. To her the father turned now for certain things to be done, treating her in his rough fashion as a housekeeper, and the girl felt flattered and docile accordingly.
They wore pitiably clad; like many farm-children, indeed, they could hardly be said to be clad at all. Sadie had on but two garments, a sort of undershirt of cotton and a faded calico dress, out of which her bare, yellow little legs protruded, lamentably dirty and covered with scratches.
The boys also had two garments, a hickory shirt and a pair of pants like their father’s, made out of brown-denims by the mother’s never-resting hands–hands that in sleep still sewed, and skimmed, and baked, and churned. The boys had gone to bed without washing their feet, which now looked like toads, calloused, brown, and chapped.
Part of this the mother saw with her dull eyes as she came down, after seeing the departure of Sim up the road with the cows. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and the woman might have sung like a bird if men had been as kind to her as Nature. But she looked dully out upon the seas of ripe grasses, tangled and flashing with dew, out of which the bobolinks and larks sprang. The glorious winds brought her no melody, no perfume, no respite from toil and care.
She thought of the children she saw in the town,–children of the merchant and banker, clean as little dolls, the boys in knickerbocker suits, the girls in dainty white dresses,–and a vengeful bitterness sprang up in her heart. She soon put the dishes away, but felt too tired and listless to do more.
“Taw-bay-wies! Pet want ta-aw-bay-wies!” cried the little one, tugging at her dress.
Listlessly, mechanically she took him in her arms, and went out into the garden, which was fragrant and sweet with dew and sun. After picking some berries for him, she sat down on the grass under the row of cottonwoods, and sank into a kind of lethargy. A kingbird chattered and shrieked overhead, the grasshoppers buzzed in the grasses, strange insects with ventriloquistic voices sang all about her–she could not tell where.
“Ma, can’t I put on my clean dress?” insisted Sadie.
“I don’t care,” said the brooding woman, darkly. “Leave me alone.”
Oh, if she could only lie here forever, escaping all pain and weariness! The wind sang in her ears; the great clouds, beautiful as heavenly ships, floated far above in the vast, dazzling deeps of blue sky; the birds rustled and chirped around her; leaping insects buzzed and clattered in the grass and in the vines and bushes. The goodness and glory of God was in the very air, the bitterness and oppression of man in every line of her face.
But her quiet was broken by Sadie, who came leaping like a fawn down through the grass.
“O ma, Aunt Maria and Uncle William are coming. They’ve jest turned in.”
“I don’t care if they be!” she answered in the same dully-irritated way. “What’re they comin’ here to-day for, I wan’ to know.” She stayed there immovably, till Mrs. Councill came down to see her, piloted by two or three of the children. Mrs. Councill, a jolly, large-framed woman, smiled brightly, and greeted her in a loud, jovial voice. She made the mistake of taking the whole matter lightly; her tone amounted to ridicule.
“Sim says you’ve been having a tantrum, Creeshy. Don’t know what for, he says.”
“He don’t,” said the wife, with a sullen flash in her eyes.” He don’t know why! Well, then, you just tell him what I say. I’ve lived in hell long enough. I’m done. I’ve slaved here day in and day out f’r twelve years without pay–not even a decent word. I’ve worked like no nigger ever worked ‘r could work and live. I’ve given him all I had, ‘r ever expect to have. I’m wore out. My strength is gone, my patience is gone. I’m done with it–that’s a part of what’s the matter.”
“My sakes, Lucreeshy! You mustn’t talk that way.”
“But I will,” said the woman, as she supported herself on one palm and raised the other. “I’ve got to talk that way.” She was ripe for an explosion like this. She seized upon it with eagerness. “They ain’t no use o’ livin’ this way, anyway. I’d take poison if it wa’n’t f’r the young ones.”
“Oh, I mean it.”
“Land sakes alive, I b’lieve you’re goin’ crazy!”
“I shouldn’t wonder if I was. I’ve had enough t’ drive an Indian crazy. Now you jest go off an’ leave me ‘lone. I ain’t no mind to visit–they ain’t no way out of it, an’ I’m tired o’ tryin’ to find a way. Go off an’ let me be.”
Her tone was so bitterly hopeless that the great, jolly face of Mrs. Councill stiffened into a look of horror such as she had not known for years. The children, in two separate groups, could be heard rioting. Bees were humming around the clover in the grass, and the kingbird chattered ceaselessly from the Lombardy poplar tip. Both women felt all this peace and beauty of the morning dimly, and it disturbed Mrs. Councill because the other was so impassive under it all. At last, after a long and thoughtful pause, Mrs. Councill asked a question whose answer she knew would decide it all–asked it very kindly and softly:
“Creeshy, are you comin’ in?”
“No,” was the short and sullenly decisive answer. Mrs. Councill knew that was the end, and so rose, with a sigh, and went away.
“Wal, good-by,” she said, simply.
Looking back, she saw Lucretia lying at length, with closed eyes and hollow cheeks. She seemed to be sleeping, half-buried in the grass. She did not look up nor reply to her sister-in-law, whose life was one of toil and trouble, also, but not so hard and helpless as Lucretia’s. By contrast with most of her neighbors, she seemed comfortable.
“Sim Burns, what you ben doin’ to that woman?” she burst out, as she waddled up to where the two men were sitting under a cottonwood tree, talking and whittling after the manner of farmers.
“Nawthin’ ‘s fur ‘s I know,” answered Burns, not quite honestly, and looking uneasy.
“You needn’t try t’ git out of it like that, Sim Burns,” replied his sister. “That woman never got into that fit f’r nawthin‘.”
“Wall, if you know more about it than I do, whadgy ask me fur?” he replied, angrily.
“Tut, tut!” put in Councill, “hold y’r horses! Don’t git on y’r ear, children! Keep cool, and don’t spile y’r shirts. Most likely you’re all t’ blame. Keep cool an’ swear less.”
“Wai, I’ll bet Sim’s more to blame than she is. Why, they ain’t a harder-workin’ woman in the hull State of Ioway than she is”—-
“Except Marm Councill.”
“Except nobody. Look at her, jest skin and bones.”
Councill chuckled in his vast way. “That’s so, mother; measured in that way, she leads over you. You git fat on it.”
She smiled a little, her indignation oozing away. She never “could stay mad,” her children were accustomed to tell her. Burns refused to talk any more about the matter, and the visitors gave it up, and got out their team and started for home, Mrs. Councill firing this parting shot:
“The best thing you can do to-day is t’ let her alone. Mebbe the children ‘ll bring her round ag’in. If she does come round, you see ‘t you treat her a little more ‘s y’ did when you was a-courtin’ her.”
“This way,” roared Councill, putting his arm around his wife’s waist. She boxed his ears, while he guffawed and clucked at his team.
Burns took a measure of salt and went out into the pasture to salt the cows. On the sunlit slope of the field, where the cattle came running and bawling to meet him, he threw down the salt in handfuls, and then lay down to watch them as they eagerly licked it up, even gnawing a bare spot in the sod in their eagerness to get it all.
Burns was not a drinking man; he was hard-working, frugal; in fact, he had no extravagances except his tobacco. His clothes he wore until they all but dropped from him; and he worked in rain and mud, as well as dust and sun. It was this suffering and toiling all to no purpose that made him sour and irritable. He didn’t see why he should have so little after so much hard work.
He was puzzled to account for it all. His mind–the average mind–was weary with trying to solve an insoluble problem. His neighbors, who had got along a little better than himself, were free with advice and suggestion as to the cause of his persistent poverty.
Old man Bacon, the hardest-working man in the county, laid it to Burns’s lack of management. Jim Butler, who owned a dozen farms (which he had taken on mortgages), and who had got rich by buying land at government price and holding for a rise, laid all such cases as Burns’s to “lack of enterprise, foresight.”
But the larger number, feeling themselves in the same boat with Burns, said:
“I d’ know. Seems as if things get worse an’ worse. Corn an’ wheat gittin’ cheaper ‘n’ cheaper. Machinery eatin’ up profits–got to have machinery to harvest the cheap grain, an’ then the machinery eats up profits. Taxes goin’ up. Devil to pay all round; I d’ know what in thunder is the matter.”
The Democrats said protection was killing the farmers; the Republicans said no. The Grangers growled about the middlemen; the Greenbackers said there wasn’t circulating medium enough, and, in the midst of it all, hard-working, discouraged farmers, like Simeon Burns, worked on, unable to find out what really was the matter.
And there, on this beautiful Sabbath morning, Sim sat and thought and thought, till he rose with an oath and gave it up.
It was hot and brilliant again the next morning as Douglass Radbourn drove up the road with Lily Graham, the teacher of the school in the little white school-house. It was blazing hot, even though not yet nine o’clock, and the young farmers plowing beside the fence looked longingly and somewhat bitterly at Radbourn seated in a fine top-buggy beside a beautiful creature in lace and cambric.
Very beautiful the town-bred “school-ma’am” looked to those grimy, sweaty fellows, superb fellows, too, physically, with bare red arms and leather-colored faces. She was as if builded of the pink and white clouds soaring far up there in the morning sky. So cool, and sweet, and dainty.
As she came in sight, their dusty and sweaty shirts grew biting as the poisoned shirt of the Norse myth, their bare feet in the brown dirt grew distressingly flat and hoof-like, and their huge, dirty, brown, chapped and swollen hands grew so repulsive that the mere remote possibility of some time in the far future standing a chance of having an introduction to her caused them to wipe their palms on their trousers’ legs stealthily.
Lycurgus Banks swore when he saw Radbourn. “That cuss thinks he’s ol’ hell this morning. He don’t earn his living. But he’s just the kind of cuss to get holt of all the purty girls.”
Others gazed with simple, sad wistfulness upon the slender figure, pale, sweet face, and dark eyes of the young girl, feeling that to have talk with such a fairy-like creature was a happiness too great to ever be their lot. And when she had passed they went back to work with a sigh and feeling of loss.
As for Lily, she felt a pang of pity for these people. She looked at this peculiar form of poverty and hardship much as the fragile, tender girl of the city looks upon the men laying a gas-main in the streets. She felt, sympathetically, the heat and grime, and, though but the faintest idea of what it meant to wear such clothing came to her, she shuddered. Her eyes had been opened to these things by Radbourn, a class-mate at the Seminary.
The young fellow knew that Lily was in love with him, and he made distinct effort to keep the talk upon impersonal subjects. He liked her very much, probably because she listened so well.
“Poor fellows,” sighed Lily, almost unconsciously. “I hate to see them working there in the dirt and hot sun. It seems a hopeless sort of life, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, but this is the most beautiful part of the year,” said Radbourn. “Think of them in the mud, in the sleet; think of them husking corn in the snow, a bitter wind blowing; think of them a month later in the harvest; think of them imprisoned here in winter!”
“Yes, it’s dreadful! But I never felt it so keenly before. You have opened my eyes to it. Of course, I’ve been on a farm, but not to live there.”
“Writers and orators have lied so long about ‘the idyllic’ in farm life, and said so much about the ‘independent American farmer,’ that he himself has remained blind to the fact that he’s one of the hardest-working and poorest-paid men in America. See the houses they live in–hovels.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Lily; a look of deeper pain swept over her face. “And the fate of the poor women; oh, the fate of the women!”
“Yes, it’s a matter of statistics,” went on Radbourn, pitilessly, “that the wives of the American farmers fill our insane asylums. See what a life they lead, most of them; no music, no books. Seventeen hours a day in a couple of small rooms–dens. Now, there is Sim Burns! What a travesty of a home! Yet there are a dozen just as bad in sight. He works like a fiend–so does his wife–and what is their reward? Simply a hole to hibernate in and to sleep and eat in in summer. A dreary present and a well-nigh hopeless future. No, they have a future, if they knew it, and we must tell them.”
“I know Mrs. Burns,” Lily said, after a pause; “she sends several children to my school. Poor, pathetic little things, half-clad and wistful-eyed. They make my heart ache; they are so hungry for love, and so quick to learn.”
As they passed the Burns farm, they looked for the wife, but she was not to be seen. The children had evidently gone up to the little white school-house at the head of the lane. Radbourn let the reins fall slack as he talked on. He did not look at the girl; his eyebrows were drawn into a look of gloomy pain.
“It ain’t so much the grime that I abhor, nor the labor that crooks their backs and makes their hands bludgeons. It’s the horrible waste of life involved in it all. I don’t believe God intended a man to be bent to plow-handles like that, but that ain’t the worst of it. The worst of it is, these people live lives approaching automata. They become machines to serve others more lucky or more unscrupulous than themselves. What is the world of art, of music, of literature, to these poor devils–to Sim Burns and his wife there, for example? Or even to the best of these farmers?”
The girl looked away over the shimmering lake of yellow-green corn. A choking came into her throat. Her gloved hand trembled.
“What is such a life worth? It’s all very comfortable for us to say, ‘They don’t feel it.’ How do we know what they feel? What do we know of their capacity for enjoyment of art and music? They never have leisure or opportunity. The master is very glad to be taught by preacher, and lawyer, and novelist, that his slaves are contented and never feel any longings for a higher life. These people live lives but little higher than their cattle–are forced to live so. Their hopes and aspirations are crushed out, their souls are twisted and deformed just as toil twists and deforms their bodies. They are on the same level as the city laborer. The very religion they hear is a soporific. They are taught to be content here that they may be happy hereafter. Suppose there isn’t any hereafter?”
“Oh, don’t say that, please!” Lily cried.
“But I don’t know that there is,” he went on remorselessly, “and I do know that these people are being robbed of something more than money, of all that makes life worth living. The promise of milk and honey in Canaan is all very well, but I prefer to have mine here; then I’m sure of it.”
“What can we do?” murmured the girl.
“Do? Rouse these people for one thing; preach discontent, a noble discontent.”
“It will only make them unhappy.”
“No, it won’t; not if you show them the way out. If it does, it’s better to be unhappy striving for higher things, like a man, than to be content in a wallow like swine.”
“But what is the way out?”
This was sufficient to set Radbourn upon his hobby-horse. He outlined his plan of action–the abolition of all indirect taxes; the State control of all privileges the private ownership of which interfered with the equal rights of all. He would utterly destroy speculative holdings of the earth. He would have land everywhere brought to its best use, by appropriating all ground rents to the use of the State, etc., etc., to which the girl listened with eager interest, but with only partial comprehension.
As they neared the little school-house, a swarm of midgets in pink dresses, pink sun-bonnets, and brown legs, came rushing to meet their teacher, with that peculiar devotion the children in the country develop for a refined teacher.
Radbourn helped Lily out into the midst of the eager little scholars, who swarmed upon her like bees on a lump of sugar, till even Radbourn’s gravity gave way, and he smiled into her lifted eyes–an unusual smile, that strangely enough stopped the smile on her own lips, filling her face with a wistful shadow, and her breath came hard for a moment, and she trembled.
She loved that cold, stern face, oh, so much! and to have him smile was a pleasure that made her heart leap till she suffered a smothering pain. She turned to him to say:
“I am very thankful, Mr. Radbourn, for another pleasant ride,” adding in a lower tone: “It was a very great pleasure; you always give me so much. I feel stronger and more hopeful.”
“I’m glad you feel so. I was afraid I was prosy with my land-doctrine.”
“Oh, no! Indeed no! You have given me a new hope; I am exalted with the thought; I shall try to think it all out and apply it.”
And so they parted, the children looking on and slyly whispering among themselves. Radbourn looked back after awhile, but the bare little hive had absorbed its little group, and was standing bleak as a tombstone and hot as a furnace on the naked plain in the blazing sun.
“America’s pitiful boast!” said the young radical, looking back at it. “Only a miserable hint of what it might be.”
All that forenoon, as Lily faced her little group of barefooted children, she was thinking of Radbourn, of his almost fierce sympathy for these poor, supine farmers, hopeless and in some cases content in their narrow lives. The children almost worshiped the beautiful girl who came to them as a revelation of exquisite neatness and taste,–whose very voice and intonation awed them.
They noted, unconsciously, of course, every detail. Snowy linen, touches of soft color, graceful lines of bust and side–the slender fingers that could almost speak, so beautifully flexile were they. Lily herself sometimes, when she shook the calloused, knotted, stiffened hands of the women, shuddered with sympathetic pain, to think that the crowning wonder and beauty of God’s world should be so maimed and distorted from its true purpose.
Even in the children before her she could see the inherited results of fruitless labor–and, more pitiful yet, in the bent shoulders of the older ones she could see the beginnings of deformity that would soon be permanent. And as these things came to her, she clasped the poor wondering things to her side with a convulsive wish to make life a little brighter for them.
“How is your mother to-day?” she asked of Sadie Burns, as she was eating her luncheon on the drab-colored table near the open window.
“Purty well,” said Sadie, in a hesitating way.
Lily was looking out, and listening to the gophers whistling as they raced to and fro. She could see Bob Burns lying at length on the grass in the pasture over the fence, his heels waving in the air, his hands holding a string which formed a snare. It was like fishing to young Izaak Walton.
It was very still and hot, and the cheep and trill of the gophers and the chatter of the kingbirds alone broke the silence. A cloud of butterflies were fluttering about a pool near; a couple of big flies buzzed and mumbled on the pane.
“What ails your mother?” Lily asked, recovering herself and looking at Sadie, who was distinctly ill at ease.
“Oh, I dunno,” Sadie replied, putting one bare foot across the other.
Lily insisted. “She ‘n’ pa’s had an awful row”—-
“Sadie!” said the teacher warningly, “what language!”
“I mean they quarreled, an’ she don’t speak to him any more.”
“Why, how dreadful!”
“An’ pa he’s awful cross; and she won’t eat when he does, an’ I haf to wait on table.”
“I believe I’ll go down and see her this noon,” said Lily to herself, as she divined a little of the state of affairs in the Burns family.
Sim was mending the pasture fence as Lily came down the road toward him. He had delayed going to dinner to finish his task and was just about ready to go when Lily spoke to him.
“Good morning, Mr. Burns. I am just going down to see Mrs. Burns. It must be time to go to dinner–aren’t you ready to go? I want to talk with you.”
Ordinarily he would have been delighted with the idea of walking down the road with the school-ma’am, but there was something in her look which seemed to tell him that she knew all about his trouble, and, besides, he was not in good humor.
“Yes, in a minnit–soon’s I fix up this hole. Them shoats, I b’lieve, would go through a key-hole, if they could once get their snoots in.”
He expanded on this idea as he nailed away, anxious to gain time. He foresaw trouble for himself. He couldn’t be rude to this sweet and fragile girl. If a man had dared to attack him on his domestic shortcomings, he could have fought. The girl stood waiting for him, her large, steady eyes full of thought, gazing down at him from the shadow of her broad-brimmed hat.
“The world is so full of misery anyway, that we ought to do the best we can to make it less,” she said at last, in a musing tone, as if her thoughts had unconsciously taken on speech. She had always appealed to him strongly, and never more so than in this softly-uttered abstraction–that it was an abstraction added to its power with him.
He could find no words for reply, but picked up his hammer and nail-box, and slouched along the road by her side, listening without a word to her talk.
“Christ was patient, and bore with his enemies. Surely we ought to bear with our–friends,” she went on, adapting her steps to his. He took off his torn straw hat and wiped his face on his sleeve, being much embarrassed and ashamed. Not knowing how to meet such argument, he kept silent.
“How is Mrs. Burns?” said Lily at length, determined to make him speak. The delicate meaning in the emphasis laid on is did not escape him.
“Oh, she’s all right–I mean she’s done her work jest the same as ever. I don’t see her much”—-
“I didn’t know–I was afraid she was sick. Sadie said she was acting strangely.”
“No, she’s well enough–but”—-
“But what is the trouble? Won’t you let me help you, won’t you?” she pleaded.
“Can’t anybody help us. We’ve got ‘o fight it out, I s’pose,” he replied, a gloomy note of resentment creeping into his voice. “She’s ben in a devil of a temper f’r a week.”
“Haven’t you been in the same kind of a temper too?” demanded Lily, firmly, but kindly. “I think most troubles of this kind come from bad temper on both sides. Don’t you? Have you done your share at being kind and patient?”
They had reached the gate now, and she laid her hand on his arm to stop him. He looked down at the slender gloved hand on his arm, feeling as if a giant had grasped him; then he raised his eyes to her face, flushing a purplish red as he remembered his grossness. It seemed monstrous in the presence of this girl-advocate. Her face was like silver; her eyes seemed pools of tears.
“I don’t s’pose I have,” he said at last, pushing by her. He could not have faced her glance another moment. His whole air conveyed the impression of destructive admission. Lily did not comprehend the extent of her advantage or she would have pursued it further. As it was she felt a little hurt as she entered the house. The table was set, but Mrs. Burns was nowhere to be seen. Calling her softly, the young girl passed through the shabby little living-room to the oven-like bedroom which opened off it, but no one was about. She stood for a moment shuddering at the wretchedness of the room.
Going back to the kitchen, she found Sim about beginning on his dinner. Little Pet was with him; the rest of the children were at the school-house.
“Where is she?”
“I d’ know. Out in the garden, I expect. She don’t eat with me now. I never see her. She don’t come near me. I ain’t seen her since Saturday.”
Lily was shocked inexpressibly and began to see more clearly the magnitude of the task she had set herself to do. But it must be done; she felt that a tragedy was not far off. It must be averted.
“Mr. Burns, what have you done? What have you done?” she asked in terror and horror.
“Don’t lay it all to me! She hain’t done nawthin’ but complain f’r ten years. I couldn’t do nothin’ to suit her. She was always naggin’ me.”
“I don’t think Lucretia Burns would nag anybody. I don’t say you’re all to blame, but I’m afraid you haven’t acknowledged you were any to blame. I’m afraid you’ve not been patient with her. I’m going out to bring her in. If she comes, will you say you were part to blame? You needn’t beg her pardon–just say you’ll try to be better. Will you do it? Think how much she has done for you! Will you?”
He remained silent, and looked discouragingly rude. His sweaty, dirty shirt was open at the neck, his arms were bare, his scraggly teeth were yellow with tobacco, and his uncombed hair lay tumbled about on his high, narrow head. His clumsy, unsteady hands played with the dishes on the table. His pride was struggling with his sense of justice; he knew he ought to consent, and yet it was so hard to acknowledge himself to blame. The girl went on in a voice piercingly sweet, trembling with pity and pleading.
“What word can I carry to her from you? I’m going to go and see her. If I could take a word from you, I know she would come back to the table. Shall I tell her you feel to blame?”
The answer was a long time coming; at last the man nodded an assent, the sweat pouring from his purple face. She had set him thinking; her victory was sure.
Lily almost ran out into the garden and to the strawberry patch, where she found Lucretia in her familiar, colorless, shapeless dress, picking berries in the hot sun, the mosquitoes biting her neck and hands.
“Poor, pathetic, dumb sufferer!” the girl thought as she ran up to her.
She dropped her dish as she heard Lily coming, and gazed up into the tender, pitying face. Not a word was spoken, but something she saw there made her eyes fill with tears, and her throat swell. It was pure sympathy. She put her arms around the girl’s neck and sobbed for the first time since Friday night. Then they sat down on the grass under the hedge, and she told her story, interspersed with Lily’s horrified comments.
When it was all told, the girl still sat listening. She heard Radbourn’s calm, slow voice again. It helped her not to hate Burns; it helped her to pity and understand him:
“You must remember that such toil brutalizes a man; it makes him callous, selfish, unfeeling, necessarily. A fine nature must either adapt itself to its hard surroundings or die. Men who toil terribly in filthy garments day after day and year after year cannot easily keep gentle; the frost and grime, the heat and cold will soon or late enter into their souls. The case is not all in favor of the suffering wives, and against the brutal husbands. If the farmer’s wife is dulled and crazed by her routine, the farmer himself is degraded and brutalized.”
As well as she could Lily explained all this to the woman, who lay with her face buried in the girl’s lap. Lily’s arms were about her thin shoulders in an agony of pity.
“It’s hard, Lucretia, I know–more than you can bear–but you mustn’t forget what Sim endures too. He goes out in the storms and in the heat and dust. His boots are hard, and see how his hands are all bruised and broken by his work! He was tired and hungry when he said that–he didn’t really mean it.”
The wife remained silent.
“Mr. Radbourn says work, as things go now, does degrade a man in spite of himself. He says men get coarse and violent in spite of themselves, just as women do when everything goes wrong in the house–when the flies are thick, and the fire won’t burn, and the irons stick to the clothes. You see, you both suffer. Don’t lay up this fit of temper against Sim–will you?”
The wife lifted her head and looked away. Her face was full of hopeless weariness.
“It ain’t this once. It ain’t that ‘t all. It’s having no let-up. Just doin’ the same thing right over ‘n’ over–no hope of anything better.”
“If you had a hope of another world”—-
“Don’t talk that. I don’t want that kind o’ comfert. I want a decent chance here. I want ‘o rest an’ be happy now.” Lily’s big eyes were streaming with tears. What should she say to the desperate woman? “What’s the use? We might jest as well die–all of us.”
The woman’s livid face appalled the girl. She was gaunt, heavy-eyed, nerveless. Her faded dress settled down over her limbs, showing the swollen knees and thin calves; her hands, with distorted joints, protruded painfully from her sleeves. And all about was the ever-recurring wealth and cheer of nature that knows no fear or favor–the bees and flies buzzing in the sun, the jay and kingbird in the poplars, the smell of strawberries, the motion of lush grass, the shimmer of corn-blades tossed gayly as banners in a conquering army.
Like a flash of keener light, a sentence shot across the girl’s mind: “Nature knows no title-deed. The bounty of her mighty hands falls as the sunlight falls, copious, impartial; her seas carry all ships; her air is for all lips, her lands for all feet.”
“Poverty and suffering such as yours will not last.” There was something in the girl’s voice that roused the woman. She turned her dull eyes upon the youthful face.
Lily took her hand in both hers as if by a caress she could impart her own faith.
“Look up, dear. When nature is so good and generous, man must come to be better, surely. Come, go in the house again. Sim is there; he expects you; he told me to tell you he was sorry.” Lucretia’s face twitched a little at that, but her head was bent. “Come; you can’t live this way. There isn’t any other place to go to.”
No; that was the bitterest truth. Where on this wide earth, with its forth-shooting fruits and grains, its fragrant lands and shining seas, could this dwarfed, bent, broken, middle-aged woman go? Nobody wanted her, nobody cared for her. But the wind kissed her drawn lips as readily as those of the girl, and the blooms of clover nodded to her as if to a queen.
Lily had said all she could. Her heart ached with unspeakable pity and a sort of terror.
“Don’t give up, Lucretia. This may be the worst hour of your life. Live and bear with it all for Christ’s sake–for your children’s sake. Sim told me to tell you he was to blame. If you will only see that you are both to blame and yet neither to blame, then you can rise above it. Try, dear!”
Something that was in the girl imparted itself to the wife, electrically. She pulled herself together, rose silently, and started toward the house. Her face was rigid, but no longer sullen. Lily followed her slowly, wonderingly.
As she neared the kitchen door, she saw Sim still sitting at the table; his face was unusually grave and soft. She saw him start and shove back his chair–saw Lucretia go to the stove and lift the tea-pot, and heard her say, as she took her seat beside the baby:
“Want some more tea?”
She had become a wife and mother again, but in what spirit the puzzled girl could not say.