Eliza Sam

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The Winning Lady and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1909)

My neighbors are mostly women. There used to be men enough years ago, when I was a boy and a young man, but they have all died out or moved away. Now you can go up and down the street, and it's nothing but women except in a few houses. And some of the men that's left are travelling week in and week out, and might as well not live here. And some are so old and feeble, like old man Ames and Abraham Jones, that they don't count for much. Sometimes when I think of it, it seems to me just like an Indian village that I've read about, when the men are all off hunting, and fishing, and fighting. I s'pose I'd have to do most of the defending hearth and home if the enemy came, if there was an enemy, although I suppose I could count some on Eliza Sam.

Her real name ain't Eliza Sam; it is Eliza Hunt. She's called Eliza Sam to distinguish her from other Eliza Hunts. There are three in this village, and they have to have their fathers' and husbands' names tacked on to theirs to tell 'em apart. Eliza Sam wasn't never married and her father's name was Sam. He died about five years ago. He kept the sawmill. Beside Eliza Sam, there is Eliza John and Eliza Caleb. Eliza John is married to a man by the name of John, and Eliza Caleb ain't married, never was, and is never like to be, but they have tacked Caleb onto her name to tell her from the others. Nearly half this village is made up of Hunts. I am a Hunt, but I ain't related to the Elizas near enough to say so.

I don't believe anybody could trace out the relationship betwixt Eliza Sam and me. I know her father used to try to. He had a picture of a genealogical tree hanging up in his parlor; hangs there now, though he's dropped into his grave. If ever a tree grew in a graveyard it's a genealogical one. He used to be fond of trying to point out to me whereabouts I came in, but he couldn't make out much. “It's here, or here, or here, Henry,” he used to say, pointing to one little twig after another, but he never knew which I was. He lost the trail at the divide of the branches somewhere, back where an Emmons come into the Hunt family. It never seemed much account to me, and I miss my guess if it did to Eliza Sam, but it pleased the old man, and we used to stand there and let him talk. I trimmed a long birch stick for him to use for a pointer when he talked about his tree. I never see that tree now but it seems as if he must be standing in front of it, only there's something the matter with my own eyes.

However, I don't go in there very much, now the old man is gone. Eliza Sam lives there alone and folks might talk, if we ain't as young as we might be. I guess there ain't any age limit to tongues. I want to be careful, for I have always thought a good deal of Eliza Sam. She's too big and up-and-comin' lookin' to suit some, but I don't mind her being outspoken and wanting to have her own way. Women folks always want to have their own way, and I don't know as they are any the worse for owning right up to it, the way Eliza Sam does, than to sort of mince around and get at it sideways. I believe in broadsides and open assaults, and no sneaking under cover of bushes, whether it is a man, or a woman, or a nation. I don't like the Injun way of doing things. Whenever Eliza Sam has wanted anything she has always taken a bee-line for it, chin up, and petticoats flying in the wind. And mostly she's got it, but not always. There's things that can't be got in this world, whether you work by hook or crook.

There's pricks for kickers and pricks for sidlers, and Eliza Sam has met hers as well as the rest of us. But she ain't cried out nor made any fuss about it; she ain't lost a pound of flesh nor an atom of the handsome red color in her cheeks. Eliza Sam is a heavy woman. She must weigh a hundred and seventy odd, though she ain't exactly stout. She has a large frame, and she has enough bone and muscle to take the wind out of a good many men in the village — and she has done it, too. I know one man who used to get up and sidle out of the grocery store of an evening whenever Eliza Sam's name came up. He's moved away now, out West, and all his folks. He's married out there I've heard, and they're talkin' of runnin' him for Congress. Well, he'll get there, if sticking to it whether or no, without considering if folks want him or not, has anything to do with it. It never made any difference to him what other folks wanted as long as he did, and generally he got his way; but once he didn't, because he reckoned without Eliza Sam.

It was after her father died, and she was known to own the place clear, and have a nice sum in bank beside some Old Colony railroad shares. He had never married, and had his mother and two old-maid sisters on his hands, and it struck him he would do well to get Eliza Sam. So he begun courting her. Eliza Sam didn't want him, and acted dreadful offish from the very first of it, but that didn't make any difference to him. It wasn't what she wanted, but what he wanted. He'd made up his mind to marry her, and wasn't going to be stopped by any such little thing as her not wanting to marry him.

He lay in wait for her everywhere she went. She couldn't step into the post-office nor the store but there he was running alongside her, looking up in her face with that everlasting smirk of his, which seemed dreadful mild and gentle, but covered grit as sharp as needles. He was a good deal smaller than Eliza Sam, and he wore his hair rather long, and his coat-tails lengthier than common, and they had a way of catching the wind and waving when everything else was still, and his hair always waved on account of a queer little teeter in his walk. Eliza Sam, when he used to appear beside her, would scarcely look at him, nor treat him decent, and any man with a mite of self-respect would have taken the hint, but he wouldn't. He kept on going to see her regular, though she got so she wouldn't go to the door to let him in. But that didn't make any difference; he just walked in anyhow. Once Eliza Sam came down-stairs an hour after she'd seen him coming in her gate, and there he was setting in her parlor smirking up at her. Finally she kept her door locked, and then he set on the doorstep. It got so Eliza Sam couldn't go out the front door without stepping careful and looking, to be sure she wouldn't stumble over that man.

Well, finally she got to the end of her patience one Sunday night in November; an awful cold night, threatening snow — it did snow before morning. He used to wait every Sunday evening after meeting to go home with her. It didn't make any difference that she didn't speak to him, he went just the same. That Sunday night she got desperate. I haven't mentioned something that may sound queer about Eliza Sam; she is the sexton of the church. I never knew of any village that had a woman sexton before, but when Eliza Sam's father died, there didn't seem to be any man handy to take his place, so they put Eliza in as sexton. She'd been doing about all the work about the church before, she was plenty strong enough, and there wasn't any reason why she shouldn't have the place as well as a man. So Eliza was sweeping, and making the fires, and ringing the bell, and she gave perfect satisfaction except for being a little ahead of time, and gettin' folks to meeting a quarter of an hour too early now and then, and putting a linen towel over the top of the pulpit to save the velvet, and a tidy on the back of the parson's sofa, and a braided mat in front of the communion-table. Folks didn't think those things looked quite appropriate, but Eliza Sam was firm. She said the velvet on the pulpit and the sofa was getting all worn out, and there was a thin place in the carpet, and she had her way. The minister's wife tried to get the tidy and the towel off at the conference of churches, but she couldn't fetch it.

Well, that November night — it was the week before Thanksgiving — he lay in wait for Eliza Sam just as usual, hanging around the door while she shut up the church and saw to the fires; then she came out, and there he was alongside. Then she faced him.

“See here,” said she, “What be you here for?”

“Why, I'm going home with you, Eliza,” says he, smirking up at her.

“What be you a-going home with me for?” says she.

“Why, to protect you, Eliza,” says he.

“Protect your grandmother!” says she. “Now, sir, I want you to understand once for all I don't want you to go home with me. I have no need of your protection nor your society.”

He didn't say anything, but he just smirked up at her, and he went right along.

“Did you hear me?” says Eliza Sam.

He just smirked up at her again and tucked his hand through her arm. Then she got desperate. She didn't say another word, but she just turned about, and she begun walking down the old road to Clifford; they had passed it a little ways back. The wind was in their faces, and it was bitter cold; hadn't moderated enough to snow. Well, she walked on and on, with him hold of her arm. Didn't try to shake him off or nothing, but just went on. Finally he speaks, kind of timid. “Do you know this ain't the way home, Eliza Sam?” says he.

She didn't make no reply. She just went on. She was dressed real warm, and she never felt the cold much anyway. He was always a real shivery son of man, and he hadn't got on his winter overcoat.

Presently he spoke again. “Guess you took the wrong turn without meaning to, Eliza Sam,” says he. She didn't make any reply, but she walked along with him kind of trailing at her arm.

Finally she begun to think she'd have to carry him if she walked much farther — she'd gone about three miles — and she turned round and walked toward home. He tried to talk then, and be real chipper and agreeable, but she kept her mouth shut tight. She was thinking how she could shake him off. When she got back to the main road, she stopped a minute, then headed for the graveyard on the right, and in she went, dragging him with her. He acted kind of scared then. She said she guessed he begun to think maybe she'd gone clean out of her head.

“Guess you don't know where we're going, Eliza Sam,” says he; but she didn't say anything, just went right on, stumbling over the graves. It was quite a dark night. Well, she couldn't shake him off that way, though she sat down on an old flat tombstone in the Greenaway lot as much as fifteen minutes, with the wind right in their faces, with him side of her. He tried putting his arm around her waist, but she sat up so straight and stiff that he settled back, and hemmed, and acted as if he hadn't meant to. He kept asking her if she wasn't afraid of catching cold, but she said never one word.

Presently she rose up and straight back to the church she went. She took the key out of her pocket and unlocked the door, and went in with him at her heels, he asking real gentle and timid if she'd left anything, and if she was afraid the fires wasn't fixed right. She never spoke, but in she went, and kind of thrust him off her arm when she went through the door. The church was as dark as a pocket. She just slipped past him, and before he knew it she was outside, and had locked him in. Then she went off home and left him. She could hear him calling after her kind of feeble, but she let him call.

Well, Eliza Sam left him there till about two o'clock in the morning. Then she begun to get uneasy. The wind was rising all the time, and the snow coming thick. She begun to think maybe his mother and sisters were sitting up watching for him, and that she was punishing them more than him. So she got up and dressed herself, and came through the snow to my window. I lived right across the street, alone except for dogs. I had five beside a number of puppies at the time.

One of the dogs begun to bark, then the others joined in and woke me up, and I raised my window and looked out, and there was Eliza Sam standing under the window with the storm driving past her. I didn't know her at first.

“Who is it?” said I.

“It's me — Eliza Sam,” says she.

Then I knew her right away. “What's the matter?” says I.

Then she told me what she'd done, speaking kind of quick and trembly, for Eliza Sam is a woman after all, and though she has spunk enough to do things another woman wouldn't, she can't get over being scared at them afterward.

“I'm dreadful afraid his mother and Maria and Jane are sitting up worrying about him,” says she, “and I hate to ask you, but I wish you would go and let him out. I started to go myself, then I didn't know but he would insist on seeing me home after all, in spite of me, and I guess it would be better for you to go.”

“You just lay that key on the window-sill under this one, Eliza,” says I, “and go home and go to bed; I'll see him home.” I was so mad I could scarcely speak.

Well, I let him out. He looked kind of white and scared, though he'd been warm and comfortable enough, and he went home, trudging through the snow in his thin overcoat. I didn't waste many words on him, but it didn't take me long to tell him what I thought of him. However, he didn't seem to sense it. He sort o' stared at me, and muttered something that I didn't hear, and went off, and he never troubled Eliza Sam again. But the story got around the village, and he didn't have much peace till he moved away. He sold out his store — he kept the jewelry store — and put up his house at auction. His mother had died in the mean time, and one of his sisters got married, and he went away with Maria.

Folks laughed and thought it was real cute in Eliza Sam, and upheld her in what she did, but I guess it made the men sort of afraid of her. At any rate, nobody else offered to pay her any attention, though it was a fine place for any man. He would have been well fixed in that nice house, and Eliza was a good housekeeper and a splendid cook, besides being as good a woman as ever lived. But even a man who means well, and ain't any idea of not doing what's right, don't just like the notion of being held in with such a tight rein in case he should feel like kicking over the traces. But there wasn't a man in the village who didn't have respect for Eliza Sam, and straighten himself to look as well as he could when he saw her coming.

And as for other women, they all like Eliza Sam, and I know one woman who, unless I miss my guess, would go down on her knees and about worship her any minute, and that's Roger Little's wife. She was Ada Dean before Little married her, and she was the prettiest girl in the village, and had her pick of all the likely young men, and chose the one that wasn't likely, as usual. She would have Roger Little, though all her folks were set against it, and it fairly killed her mother. She died not long after Ada was married, and the poor child never got over it. She had begun to see her mistake by that time, and her pretty light ways were changed for old sober ones. I met her on the street and hardly knew her, and other folks spoke of doing the same. Roger Little wasn't a man to make any girl happy, least of all a little meek, sensitive one like Ada Dean. He came of the best old family in the village, the old Squire Roger's, and he had had a college education and plenty of money to start with, and good looks, but he's wasted everything. His money was soon gone, and his good looks going, and his education had been of small account to him, and his father, old Captain Richard Little, as fine an old man as ever lived, had about given him up and decided to leave his money away from him to foreign missions. He talked with me about it one night going home from meeting; we came out about the same time, and he was feeling sort of down-hearted, and I suppose inclined to free his mind to somebody, though it wasn't his way generally. Captain Richard was a rather gruff, keep-his-troubles-to-himself sort of a man, but the time comes to everybody when they have to speak to some other human being or give up beat. I sort of wondered at Captain Richard speaking to me, for I was a good deal younger than he was, though way ahead of his son Roger. However, I had the name of keeping things to myself pretty well, and I wasn't married, and didn't have any women-folks to talk to, and I suppose he thought I was safe, and I never did tell a soul as long as the old man lived, though it couldn't have done any harm as I know of if I had, as things turned out.

Captain Richard told me that night with a hoarse growl in his throat, the way a man's voice is when he's full of grief and ain't giving way to it, that he'd about decided to make his will and leave his money away from Roger. “He's my only son, Henry,” says he, “and it seems a pretty hard thing to do, but it's money that has come by good honest labor, for I didn't inherit much with the depreciation of real estate in this town, and I have it in trust from the Lord, and I can't let it be squandered by a drunkard and a spendthrift. I know if anything happens to my son that his wife will be taken care of, for her father has enough, and is going to settle it on her. My money left to my son's wife away from him would only make trouble betwixt them, and I'm going to leave it to foreign missions, and I may ask you to come over and be a witness some day, Henry,” says he, “and I'm telling you all this so there won't be any question of will-breaking and sanity afterward. It don't seem as if my son would ever think of breaking his father's will,” says he, “but when a man gets started down-hill, snags in the way only make him go faster. I'm going to give Roger one more chance,” says he; “it's about six weeks since he's been doing anything, and next week he's called on that arson case at Southbridge (Roger Little is a lawyer), and if he's sober and in his right mind and able to be there, I'll wait a while longer about that will; otherwise I sha'n't. I've just been over there, Henry,” the old man wound up, “and he was away; had been away all night, the Lord knows where, and that poor little wife of his a-crying —”

Well, Captain Richard didn't say any more; he gave a great grunt, as if he'd been facing something he hated; then he went off, and I heard his tramp, tramp down the street — the Captain was a heavy man, and his energy seemed to add a third to his weight when he walked.

I wondered whether Roger Little would come to time for that arson trial; it was only three days off, and I knew from what I'd heard that he'd been doing pretty bad. It seemed to me it was doubtful, and it was, and he would never have done it if it hadn't been for Eliza Sam. The trial was set for Wednesday, and Tuesday Roger Little was laying fast asleep on account of the liquor he'd been drinking, and he had another great bottle of port wine ready to drink on the stand beside the bed when he woke up. It was a queer thing, but Roger Little wouldn't get drunk on a thing but nice wine. He hated whiskey and rum like all possessed, and said he'd go to the devil like a gentleman anyhow. Drinking such costly stuff made his money go faster. Often he wouldn't touch a thing except champagne. Well, there he lay, about four o'clock in the afternoon, when Eliza Sam came in. She was going by when she heard Roger's wife crying, the bedroom window being open.

Eliza Sam went right in, went through the sitting-room to the bedroom, and stood there in the door.

“What's the matter?” says she.

Roger's wife she came forward with her hand up, looking back sort of scared at her husband; he was apt to wake up cross, if he did get drunk on such high-priced wines.

“He's asleep,” says she, in a whisper, and catching her breath with a sob.

“I don't care if I do wake him; I ain't afraid of him,” says Eliza Sam.

She and Ada went out in the sitting-room, and Ada, though she could scarcely speak for crying, told her how the trial was coming off the next day, and Roger wouldn't be able to go, sure, and worse than all, she had just had word that the old Captain was coming down to see how his son was getting on.

“It's poor Roger's last chance,” says Roger's wife. “Father Little told him so, and he'll be here any minute, and — he'll see Roger, and it'll be no use my saying Roger is sick to-morrow; he'll — know.”

“You wasn't going to lie, were you?” says Eliza Sam.

“I'd do most anything to help Roger,” says his wife.

“That wouldn't help him a mite in the long run,” says Eliza Sam.

She sat eying Ada a minute, then her eyes begun to twinkle in a way they have when she's got a new idea. She laughed, and Roger's poor wife stared at her.

“I'll see what I can do,” says Eliza Sam. With that, up she gets and marches into the bedroom, and catches up that port wine bottle and flings it out of the window into a clump of lilacs.

“There,” says she, real loud; but Roger he never stirs.

Roger's wife she just sort of gasps and looks at Eliza Sam, so scared she don't know what to do.

“I don't know what he'll say,” says she; “he'll wake up pretty soon and reach out for it, and it's the last bottle but one, and I just fetched it up-stairs.”

“The last bottle but one?” says Eliza Sam.

“Yes,” says Roger's wife.

“Where is that last one?” says Eliza Sam.

“Down cellar,” says Roger's wife, kind of feeble. “Shall I fetch it up?” says she.

“Fetch up your grandmother!” says Eliza Sam, and down cellar she goes, and crash goes that last bottle of port wine into the coal-bin. And then she comes up into the sitting-room all of a twinkle, and she told Roger's wife what she meant to do. They knew about when old Captain Richard would be along, near five o'clock. That would give him time to get home to tea. The old Captain was very regular in his habits. He had tea summer and winter at six o'clock, and he wouldn't let anything make him a minute late.

Well, what happened finally was when old Captain Richard Little came riding into the yard — he always rode horseback, except when he was on his way to and from meeting — somebody that looked just like his Roger — had on his coat and his hat, and was just about his size, and sat in saddle in a way he had, but wasn't Roger, but Eliza Sam in his clothes — rode out of the yard like a spirit, on Roger's black horse right under his nose. The Captain came in jest the second after Eliza went out.

“Hello, hello, Roger!” yells the Captain. But Roger he didn't seem to hear. Then the Captain he went a-riding after, and she flew. The old Captain he tried to catch up till they'd both most got to Southbridge; then he happened to remember that he'd be late to tea if he went any farther, and he turned round and rode back. He just stopped long enough at Roger's to holler to Ada that he guessed Roger would be able to get to the trial next day if he rode as fast as he was doing now. You see, he thoroughly believed Roger was headed for Southbridge on business about the trial. Then he fetched a big laugh and rode on, leaving Roger's wife most fainting. She stayed on in the yard till Eliza Sam came back. She didn't dare to go in the house for fear Roger would wake up and be cross because the wine was gone, let alone his clothes. But he didn't wake up till Eliza was there and standing over him. She didn't wait to change his clothes when poor Ada told her he was stirring and calling out for more wine, and Roger, when he saw that good, handsome woman standing over him in the clothes he'd disgraced, must have thought something had happened. Anyway, half-drunk as he was, he lay still and listened to what she said. She didn't spare him, not a mite. She told him just what he was. Well, the upshot of it was, Roger Little he turned over a new leaf. He went to the trial next day, and he won his case. Then that same night he went to the old Captain, and he made a clean breast of what had happened the day before and what Eliza Sam had done.

“It's the first and last time that a woman is going to run away for me from my own father,” says he.

Roger Little has done as well as anybody could expect ever since. He don't drink any to speak of, and he tends to business as well as a man of his turn ever could. He's made quite a name for himself. Sometimes he's fishing when he ought to be studying, but he always fetches up in the court-room. Mebbe if he wasn't himself he might be a Choate or a Webster, but as it is he does pretty well, and we're proud of him, and it's all due to Eliza Sam.

Years ago when Eliza Sam and I were boy and girl — we weren't over sixteen — I used to think she was the prettiest girl anywhere about. Once I sent her a valentine, spent every cent of the money I'd saved to go to the circus, but I never got much satisfaction out of it. She never let on she'd had a valentine, much less thanked me for it. I didn't put my name to it, I was too bashful, and mebbe she never knew where it came from, but I supposed she would.

I used to go home with Eliza Sam before I went home with any other girl, but I was always too afraid of her to kiss her good-bye when we got to her father's gate. All my life, off and on, I have been seeing Eliza Sam home from meeting and sewing-meetings and things, and planning between whiles how I would kiss her at the gate, but I never dared. I had an idea that Eliza Sam of all women would be angry or laugh at me. I didn't know which, but I was sure it would be one of the two.

But at last one night in June we had said good-night, and all of a sudden I picked up courage. I said good-night over again; then I caught hold of her arms, as big as mine in her purple silk sleeve, and I kissed her.

“Good-night, Eliza,” says I. Then I waited, I didn't know for what. But all she did was to say, “Good-night, Henry,” and walked into the house — and Eliza Sam and I are going to get married before long, though we haven't told the neighbors.