Story type: Literature
The fire crackled cheerfully on the broad hearth of an old-fashioned fireplace in an old-fashioned public house in an old fashioned village, down in that part of the Old Dominion called the “Eastern Shore.” A cat and three kittens basked in the warmth, and a decrepit yellow dog, lying full in the reflection of the blaze, wrinkled his black nose approvingly, as he turned his hind feet where his fore feet had been. Over the chimney hung several fine hams and pieces of dried beef. Apples were festooned along the ceiling, and other signs of plenty and good cheer were scattered profusely about. There were plants, too, on the window ledges, horse-shoe geraniums, and dew-plants, and a monthly rose, just budding, to say nothing of pots of violets that perfumed the whole place whenever they took it into their purple heads to bloom. The floor was carefully swept, the chairs had not a speck of dust upon leg or round, the long settle near the fireplace shone as if it had been just varnished, and the eight-day clock in the corner had had its white face newly washed, and seemed determined to tick the louder for it.
Two arm-chairs were drawn up at cozy distance from the hearth and each other; a candle, a newspaper, a pair of spectacles, a dish of red cheeked apples, and a pitcher of cider, filled a little table between them. In one of these chairs sat a comfortable-looking woman about forty-five, with cheeks as red as the apples, and eyes as dark and bright as they had ever been, resting her elbow on the table and her head upon her hand, and looking thoughtfully into the fire.
This was Widow Townsend, “relict” of Mr. Levi Townsend, who had been mouldering into dust in the neighboring churchyard for seven years and more. She was thinking of her dead husband, possibly because all her work being done, and the servant gone to bed, the sight of his empty chair at the other side of the table, and the silence of the room, made her a little lonely.
“Seven years,” so the widow’s reverie ran; “it seems as if it were more than fifty, and Christmas nigh here again, and yet I don’t look so very old neither. Perhaps it’s not having any children to bother my life out, as other people have. They may say what they like–children are more plague than profit, that’s my opinion. Look at my sister Jerusha, with her six boys. She’s worn to a shadow, and I am sure they have done it, though she never will own it.”
The widow took an apple from the dish and began to peel it.
“How fond Mr. Townsend used to be of these apples! He’ll never eat any more of them, poor fellow, for I don’t suppose they have apples where he has gone to. Heigho! I remember very well how I used to throw apple-peel over my head when I was a girl to see who I was going to marry.”
Mrs. Townsend stopped short and blushed, for in those days she did not know Mr. T., and was always looking eagerly to see if the peel had formed a capital S. Her meditations took a new turn.
“How handsome Sam Payson was, and how much I use to care about him! I wonder what has become of him! Jerusha says he went away from our village just after I did, and no one has ever heard of him since. What a silly thing that quarrel was! If it had not been for that–“
Here came a long pause, during which the widow looked very steadfastly at the empty arm-chair of Levi Townsend, deceased. Her fingers played carelessly with the apple-peel: she drew it safely towards her, and looked around the room.
“Upon my word, it is very ridiculous, and I don’t know what the neighbors would say if they saw me.”
Still the plump fingers drew the red peel nearer.
“But then they can’t see me, that’s a comfort; and the cat and old Bose never will know what it means. Of course I don’t believe anything about it.”
The peel hung gracefully from her hand.
“But still, I should like to try; it would seem like old times, and–“
Over her head it went, and curled up quietly on the floor at a little distance. Old Bose, who always slept with one eye open, saw it fall, and marched deliberately up to smell it.
“Bose–Bose–don’t touch!” cried his mistress, and bending over it with beating heart, she turned as red as fire. There was as handsome a capital S as any one could wish to see.
A great knock came suddenly at the door. Bose growled, and the widow screamed and snatched up the apple-peel.
“It’s Mr. T.–it’s his spirit come back again, because I tried that silly trick,” she thought fearfully to herself.
Another knock–louder than the first, and a man’s voice exclaimed:
“Who is it?” asked the widow, somewhat relieved to find that the departed Levi was still safe in his grave on the hillside.
“A stranger,” said the voice.
“What do you want?”
“To get a lodging here for the night.”
The widow deliberated.
“Can’t you go on? There’s a house half a mile farther, if you keep to the right-hand side of the road, and turn to the left after you get by–“
“It’s raining cats and dogs, and I’m very delicate,” said the stranger, coughing. “I’m wet to the skin: don’t you think you can accommodate me?–I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”
“Raining, is it? I didn’t know that,” and the kind-hearted little woman unbarred the door very quickly. “Come in, whoever you may be; I only asked you to go on because I am a lone woman, with only one servant in the house.”
The stranger entered, shaking himself like a Newfoundland dog upon the step, and scattering a little shower of drops over his hostess and her nicely swept floor.
“Ah, that looks comfortable after a man has been out for hours in a storm,” he said, as he caught sight of the fire; and striding along toward the hearth, followed by Bose, who sniffed suspiciously at his heels, he stationed himself in the arm-chair–Mr. Townsend’s arm-chair! which had been kept “sacred to his memory” for seven years. The widow was horrified, but her guest looked so weary and worn-out that she could not ask him to move, but busied herself in stirring up the blaze that he might the sooner dry his dripping clothes.
A new thought struck her: Mr. T. had worn a comfortable dressing-gown during his illness, which still hung in the closet at her right. She could not let this poor man catch his death, by sitting in that wet coat. If he was in Mr. Townsend’s chair, why should he not be in Mr. Townsend’s wrapper? She went nimbly to the closet, took it down, fished out a pair of slippers from a boot-rack below, and brought them to him.
“I think you had better take off your coat and boots–you will have the rheumatic fever, or something like it, if you don’t. Here are some things for you to wear while they are drying. And you must be hungry, too; I will go into the pantry and get you something to eat.”
She bustled away, “on hospitable thoughts intent,” and the stranger made the exchange with a quizzical smile playing around his lips. He was a tall, well-formed man, with a bold but handsome face, sun-burned and heavily bearded, and looking anything but “delicate,” though his blue eyes glanced out from under a forehead as white as snow. He looked around the kitchen with a mischievous air, and stretched out his feet decorated with the defunct Boniface’s slippers.
“Upon my word, this is stepping into the old man’s shoes with a vengeance! And what a hearty, good-humored looking woman she is! Kind as a kitten,” and he leaned forward and stroked the cat and her brood, and then patted old Bose upon the head. The widow, bringing in sundry good things, looked pleased at his attention to her dumb friends.
“It’s a wonder Bose does not growl; he generally does if strangers touch him. Dear me, how stupid!”
The last remark was neither addressed to the stranger nor to the dog but to herself She had forgotten that the little stand was not empty, and there was no room on it for the things she held.
“Oh, I’ll manage it,” said her guest, gathering up paper, candle, apples, and spectacles (it was not without a little pang that she saw them in his hand, for they had been her husband’s, and were placed each night, like the arm-chair, beside her) and depositing them on the settle.
“Give me the table-cloth, ma’am, I can spread it as well as any woman; I’ve learned that along with scores of other things, in my wanderings. Now let me relieve you of those dishes; they are far too heavy for those hands”–the widow blushed; “and now please, sit down with me, or I cannot eat a morsel.”
“I had supper long ago, but really I think I can take something more,” said Mrs. Townsend, drawing her chair nearer to the table.
“Of course you can, my dear lady; in this cold fall weather people ought to eat twice as much as they do in warm. Let me give you a piece of this ham, your own curing, I dare say.”
“Yes: my poor husband was very fond of it. He used to say that no one understood curing ham and drying beef better than I.”
“He was a most sensible man, I am sure. I drink your health, ma’am, in this cider.”
He took a long draught, and set down his glass.
“It is like nectar.”
The widow was feeding Bose and the cat (who thought they were entitled to a share of every meal eaten in the house), and did not quite hear what he said.
“Fine dog, ma’am, and a very pretty cat.”
“They were my husband’s favorites,” and a sigh followed the answer.
“Ah, your husband must have been a very happy man.”
The blue eyes looked at her so long, that she grew flurried.
“Is there anything more I can get for you, sir?” she asked, at last.
“Nothing, thank you; I have finished.”
She rose to clear the things away. He assisted her, and somehow their hands had a queer knack of touching as they carried the dishes to the pantry shelves. Coming back to the kitchen, she put the apples and cider in their old places, and brought out a clean pipe and a box of tobacco from an arched recess near the chimney.
“My husband always said he could not sleep after eating supper late unless he smoked,” she said. “Perhaps you would like to try it.”
“Not if it is to drive you away,” he answered, for she had her candle in her hand.
“Oh, no; I do not object to smoke at all.” She put the candle down; some faint suggestion about “propriety” troubled her, but she glanced at the old clock, and felt reassured. It was only half-past nine.
The stranger pushed the stand back after the pipe was lit, and drew her easy-chair a little nearer the fire, and his own.
“Come, sit down,” he said, pleadingly; “it’s not late, and when a man has been knocking about in California and all sorts of places, for a score of years, he is glad enough to get into a berth like this, and to have a pretty woman to speak to once again.”
“California! Have you been in California?” she exclaimed, dropping into the chair at once. Unconsciously, she had long cherished the idea that Sam Payson, the lover of her youth, with whom she had so foolishly quarreled, had pitched his tent, after many wanderings, in that far-off land. Her heart warmed to one who, with something of Sam’s looks and ways about him, had also been sojourning in that country, and who very possibly had met him–perhaps had known him intimately! At that thought her heart beat quick, and she looked very graciously at the bearded stranger, who, wrapped in Mr. Townsend’s dressing-gown, wearing Mr. Townsend’s slippers, and sitting in Mr. Townsend’s chair, beside Mr. Townsend’s wife, smoked Mr. Townsend’s pipe with such an air of feeling most thoroughly and comfortably at home!
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been in California for the last six years. And before that I went quite round the world in a whaling ship!”
The stranger sent a puff of smoke curling gracefully over his head.
“It’s very strange, my dear lady, how often you see one thing as you go wandering about the world after that fashion.”
“And what is that?”
“Men, without house or home above their heads, roving here and there, and turning up in all sorts of odd places; caring very little for life as a general thing, and making fortunes just to fling them away again, and all for one reason. You don’t ask me what that is? No doubt you know already very well.”
“I think not, sir.”
“Because a woman has jilted them!”
Here was a long pause, and Mr. Townsend’s pipe emitted short puffs with surprising rapidity. A guilty conscience needs no accuser, and the widow’s cheek was dyed with blushes as she thought of the absent Sam.
“I wonder how women manage when they get served in the same way,” said the stranger musingly; “you never meet them roaming up and down in that style.”
“No,” said Mrs. Townsend, with some spirit, “if a woman is in trouble she must stay at home and bear it, the best way she can. And there’s more women bearing such things than we know of, I dare say.”
“Like enough. We never know whose hand gets pinched in a trap unless they scream. And women are too shy or too sensible–which you choose–for that.”
“Did you ever, in all your wanderings, meet any one by the name of Samuel Payson?” asked the widow, unconcernedly.
The stranger looked toward her; she was rummaging the table-drawer for her knitting work, and did not notice him. When it was found, and the needles in motion, he answered her.
“Payson–Sam Payson? Why, he was my most intimate friend! Do you know him?”
“A little–that is, I used to, when I was a girl. Where did you meet him?”
“He went with me on the whaling voyage I told you of, and afterward to California. We had a tent together, and some other fellows with us, and we worked the same claim for more than six months.”
“I suppose he was quite well?”
“Strong as an ox.”
“And–and happy?” pursued the widow, bending closer over her knitting.
“Hum–the less said about that the better, perhaps. But he seemed to enjoy life after a fashion of his own. And he got rich out there, or rather, I will say, well off.”
Mrs. Townsend did not pay much attention to that part of the story. Evidently she had not finished asking questions, but she was puzzled about her next one. At last she brought it out beautifully:
“Was his wife with him in California?”
The stranger looked at her with twinkling eyes.
“His wife, ma’am! Why, bless you, he has not got any wife.”
“Oh, I thought–I mean I heard”–here the little widow remembered the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, and stopped short before she told such a tremendous fib.
“Whatever you heard of his marrying was all nonsense, I can assure you. I knew him well, and he had no thoughts of the kind about him. Some of the boys used to tease him about it, but he soon made them stop.”
“He just told them frankly that the only woman he ever loved had jilted him years before, and married another man. After that no one ever mentioned the subject to him, except me.”
Mrs. Townsend laid her knitting aside, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.
“He was another specimen of the class of men I was speaking of. I have seen him face death a score of times as quietly as I face the fire. ‘It matters very little what takes me off,’ he used to say; ‘I’ve nothing to live for, and there’s no one that will shed a tear for me when I am gone.’ It’s a sad thought for a man to have, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Townsend sighed as she said she thought it was.
“But did he ever tell you the name of the woman who jilted him?”
“I know her first name.”
“What was it?”
The plump little widow almost started out of her chair, the name was spoken so exactly as Sam would have said it.
“Did you know her, too?” he asked, looking keenly at her.
“Where is she now? Still happy with her husband, I suppose, and never giving a thought to the poor fellow she drove out into the world?”
“No,” said Mrs. Townsend, shading her face with her hand, and speaking unsteadily; “no, her husband is dead.”
“Ah! but still she never thinks of Sam.”
There was a dead silence.
“How can I tell?”
“Are you still friends?”
“Then you ought to know, and you do. Tell me.”
“I’m sure I don’t know why I should. But if I do, you must promise me, on your honor, never to tell him, if you ever meet him again.”
“Madam, what you say to me never shall be repeated to any mortal man, upon my honor.”
“Well, then, she does remember him.”
“As kindly, I think, as he could wish.”
“I am glad to hear it, for his sake. You and I are the friends of both parties: we can rejoice with each other.”
He drew his chair much nearer hers, and took her hand. One moment the widow resisted, but it was a magnetic touch, the rosy palm lay quietly in his, and the dark beard bent so low that it nearly touched her shoulder. It did not matter much. Was he not Samuel’s dear friend? If he was not the rose, had he not dwelt very near it, for a long, long time?
“It was a foolish quarrel that parted them,” said the stranger, softly.
“Did he tell you about it?”
“Yes, on board the whaler.”
“Did he blame her much?”
“Not so much as himself. He said that his jealousy and ill-temper drove her to break off the match; but he thought sometimes if he had only gone back and spoken kindly to her, she would have married him after all.”
“I am sure she would,” said the widow piteously. “She has owned it to me more than a thousand times.”
“She was not happy, then, with another.”
“Mr.–that is to say, her husband–was very good and kind,” said the little woman, thinking of the lonely grave out on the hillside rather penitently, “and they lived very pleasantly together. There never was a harsh word between them.”
“Still–might she not have been happier with Sam? Be honest, now, and say just what you think.”
“Bravo! that is what I wanted to come at. And now I have a secret to tell you, and you must break it to her.”
Mrs. Townsend looked rather scared.
“What is it?”
“I want you to go and see her, wherever she may be, and say to her, ‘Maria,’–what makes you start so?”
“Nothing; only you speak so like some one I used to know, once in a while.”
“Do I? Well, take the rest of the message. Tell her that Sam loved her through the whole; that, when he heard she was free, he began to work hard at making a fortune. He has got it; and he is coming to share it with her, if she will let him. Will you tell her this?”
The widow did not answer. She had freed her hand from his, and covered her face with it. By and by she looked up again–he was waiting patiently.
“I will tell her.”
He rose from his seat, and walked up and down the room. Then he came back, and leaning on the mantel-piece, stroked the yellow hide of Bose with his slipper.
“Make her quite understand that he wants her for his wife. She may live where she likes and how she likes, only it must be with him.”
“I will tell her.”
“Say he has grown old, but not cold; that he loves her now perhaps better than he did twenty years ago; that he has been faithful to her all through his life, and that he will be faithful till he dies.”
The Californian broke off suddenly. The widow answered still, “I will tell her.”
“And what do you think she will say?” he asked, in an altered tone.
“What can she say but Come!”
The stranger caught her out of her chair as if she had been a child, and kissed her.
“Don’t–oh, don’t!” she cried out. “I am Sam’s Maria!”
“Well–I am Maria’s Sam!”
Off went the dark wig and the black whiskers–there smiled the dear face she had not forgotten! I leave you to imagine the tableau; even the cat got up to look, and Bose sat on his stump of a tail, and wondered if he was on his heels or his head.
The widow gave one little scream, and then she–
But, stop! Quiet people like you and me, dear reader, who have got over all these follies, and can do nothing but turn up our noses at them, have no business here. I will only add that two hearts were very happy, that Bose concluded after a while that all was right, and so lay down to sleep again, and that one week afterward, on Christmas Eve, there was a wedding at the house that made the neighbors stare. The widow had married her First Love!