From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
There was no room for any flower-garden in front of the house, it stood so close to the road. The little cottage, unpainted, save for white strips around the windows, had an air of pushing forward timidly. The small, white, sharp-steepled meeting-house stood just opposite. There was a joke prevalent in the town about Silas Vinton's house having once started to go to meeting when the bell rang. The three uneven stone steps before the front door led quite down to the narrow sidewalk, which was scarcely more than a foot-path among grasses and weeds. The little strip of green under the two windows, on each side of the front door, was closed in neatly and trimly by a low fence of two whitewashed rails. Silas Vinton had tried to start some plants in their tiny enclosures, but it was no use. The drip from the eaves directly into the roots kept the earth washed away from them. So there was nothing but the little pebbly strip, where the rain-drops fell, through the close green grass.
Silas had enough land at the rear of his house to make up for the want of it at the front. There were two good acres stretching back to the river-bank. One acre was the flower and vegetable garden, and the other was an apple orchard. There were cherry-trees, but they were scattered about at intervals through the garden. This morning the trees were all in blossom, and some early flowers in the garden, and Silas was out there working. He had taken his coat off, and his blue calico shirt-sleeves showed.
He was a young man under thirty, and he looked still younger. It was not so much because he was short and slender and fair-haired; the effect of childishness he gave came from some inward quality which shaped the outward to itself.
People used to say, “Silas Vinton is a dreadful womanish sort of fellar.” But it was not womanishness nor boyishness, but that childhood which has no sex, which appeared in his round, delicate face. When he was a baby he must have had that same look of wonder and inquiry and innocent speculation that he had now.
He was at work near where the garden left off and the orchard began. The flowering apple-trees were full of bees, and there was a cherry-tree near him which swarmed with them. One could hear their murmuring, and through that, between the ranks of rosy trees, the spring rush of the river. The air was very sweet. Silas was setting out some potted plants which he had brought from the house. His windows were rigged with shelves for them from sill to ceiling. His house in winter was like a hothouse.
All this time Silas kept talking to himself, or rather murmuring. It was the way the bees did, and he too might have been making honey, after a spiritual fashion. “Lilacs and snowballs and almond; apple-blows and cherry-blows and daffodils.”
He talked to himself about the plants he was setting out: where this one had better be put, and that one, and how deep to dig the holes for them. But every now an then he cast his eyes about, and repeated, “Lilacs and snowballs and almond: apple-blows and cherry-blows and daffodils.” It was like a refrain to his practical musings. These new flowers were in sight around him as he worked, and he kept counting them over as he might have counted jewels.
He was so busy talking and working that he did not hear a girl's footstep on the garden path.
The first he heard was a timid, high-pitched voice, saying, “Silas.”
He started, and looked around. “Why, Althea Rose,” said he, “you thar? How still you came! I didn't hear you.”
“Mother wants to know,” the girl said, bashfully, “if you've got any parsnips you could let her have.”
“Certain I have; a good parcel; and your mother's quite welcome to 'em. They're right over here.”
Silas led the way, and the girl followed him. She had a basket in her hand. She was an odd-looking girl. Her face was sweet and fair; her features were small and delicate, and had that quality which one calls waxen in lilies; but everything about her which did not depend directly on nature was peculiar. Her thick light hair was cut squarely across her neck, and shelved out around her ears. She had had a little stiff white sun-bonnet on her head, but she had taken it off as she came along, and held it dangling by the strings. Her dark calico dress was so prim in its cut that it almost acquired an individuality from it. She was only sixteen, but the skirt touched the ground, and hid her little, coarsely shod feet. The waist was long and straight, and kept back all her pretty curves.
She stood watching Silas as he got the parsnips. When he had filled her basket, and rose and turned to speak to her, the delicate color flashed up deeper in her cheeks, and her eyes changed like blue flowers when the wind strikes them.
“There,” said he, “I've filled the basket full; and tell your mother she can have some more any time she wants 'em.”
“Thank you,” said Althea. She did not offer to pay him. Silas never would take any pay; he took pride in supplying the neighbors gratuitously with vegetables, and seemed hurt if any remuneration were offered.
Althea reached out her hand for the basket, but Silas kept it. “I'm goin' up to the house,” said he, “and I'll carry it as far's the gate; it's kinder heavy.”
Passing along by the clumps and little beds of early flowers, a thought struck him. “See here, Althea,” said he, “don't you want a bunch of flowers?”
She gave him such a bashful smile that it ran into a silly giggle. “I — don't know.”
“I'll pick you a bunch in a minute. I won't keep you waitin', for I suppose your mother wants to cook them parsnips for dinner. I'm goin' to have some for mine; got 'em all dug in the house.”
Then he cut lavishly sprays of dioletra, or lady's ear-drop, snowballs, daffodils, flowering almond, and the other spring flowers. He stopped a moment hesitatingly at a lilac bush. “See here,” said he, “I don't know as you like lilacs.”
“Yes, I like 'em.”
“Well, here's a bunch, then. I didn't know but what you mightn't like them; some folks don't. I reckon it's 'most too strong a drink of spring, if I can put it that way, to some. I can stan' it.”
When he handed her the enormous nosegay he had cut for her, he looked at her uncovered head. “Ain't you afraid of gettin' burnt, without your bonnet?” asked he.
She gave her sun-bonnet a spiteful little fling. “I hate it!” cried she, with sudden nerve. “Mother makes me wear it, but I pull it off the minute I get out of sight. I want a hat like the other girls. So!”
“I thought the bonnet was real pretty,” said Silas, sympathizingly. “I'd wear it, if I was you. You're so light-skinned you'll burn real easy. You're something the color of them apple-blows over there now; it would be a pity if you got brown.”
“I don't care if I do! Thank you for the flowers,” she added, a little more softly, as she went out of the gate.
Silas stared after her. “She changes round so quick,” said he, “as if she was in a gust of wind. First her head a-droppin' down, an' then she goes to dancin'. She's got the prettiest face I ever saw. She's prettier than mother was. I declare I might count her with them flowers I was countin' over when she came. She might come in after the daffodils.”
When he went into the house and busied himself about cooking his dinner, he did say the string of flowers over several times, and named Althea after the daffodils. The fancy seemed to please him.
He lived alone now; he had always had his mother with him up to the last two years. Now she was dead. His father had died years before, when Silas was a young boy. He had been a hard-working, penurious man, and had amassed in his lifetime what the townsfolk considered quite a property. He owned his house and land clear, and had, besides, a little sum in the bank.
In his lifetime, Silas and his mother, who was a meek, sickly woman, had been pitifully pinched. After his death, when the restrictive cause had ceased, they found it difficult to rid themselves of the habit of being so. Many a time, Mrs. Vinton would look scared when some extra expenditure came in question, and say, “Oh, Silas, what would your father say?” The old man's iron, grinding will still lived on in his house after he was dead.
Still they made some innovations. Silas took the larger part of the garden for flowers, and cramped the vegetables into a smaller space. Before, Silas and his mother had not been allowed room for one little flower-bed.
After his mother's death Silas went further. He would not sell his vegetables, but gave them away to any one of the neighbors who wanted them. He took the greatest delight in it. The sale of vegetables had always been quite an item to them, but he never thought of missing the money. He was naturally generous, and giving was what singing would have been to him had he been musical.
In apple and cherry time, too, the children swarmed about his place. They were very fond of Silas, and visited him a great deal at all seasons. He seldom had any other visitors.
Silas had never seemed like other young men, whether it was owing to his having been with his mother so much or his own natural disposition. He never had any associates of his own age, of either sex; nobody ever dreamed of his getting married. People called him a little simple. They were simple country folk themselves. He was probably no simpler than they, only his simplicity took such a different direction that they recognized it as such.
Silas had always loved flowers. As he grew older, and especially after his mother's death, when all direct human interest was gone, the love of them turned his whole self. He was natural enough to grasp after some absorbing interest, and his gentle taste seemed to point that way the easiest; and he might have turned a worse way, though it might have been a nobler one, than into beds of lilies and thickets of roses. He was so fond of his dainty pursuit that it was only very dimly that he felt the need of anything else. He ruminated so heartily and long over his flowers that it might have been with him as with Marvel's fawn, “Lilies without, roses within.” His very thoughts might have been tinctured; he thought principally of his flowers, and his brain was full of true images of roses and lilies and apple-blossoms.
But now he began to think of Althea. After she came for the parsnips she slid continually into his mind along with the flowers. He hoped every day her mother would send her again on some errand, but she did not. Silas, without knowing that he did so, watched and waited every day for her. Finally, after a week or so, it occurred to him that Althea's mother might like more parsnips.
So he carried her a great basketful. After he had gone — he would not come into the house, but lingered a moment in the yard looking wishfully at Althea, who stood in the door behind her mother — Mrs. Rose eyed her daughter knowingly and sharply.
“Silas Vinton didn't come to bring me parsnips,” said she.
Althea looked up at her, frightened. She still stood a few paces behind her mother; it was her way. If they were out on the street together Althea followed after her always. When her mother attempted to face her, Althea always stirred softly round behind her.
“He came to see you,” said her mother, turning round again. Althea turned too, and looked more scared than before, and made some unintelligible dissent.
“Yes, he did,” said her mother; “don't you contradict me, Althea!”
It was easy enough, after seeing Mrs. Rose, to understand how the daughter got her peculiarities. The mother had moulded the daughter after her own model as exactly as she could, and more exactly than she was herself aware. Mrs. Rose in her youth must have looked very like Althea. She wore her light, partly gray hair cut squarely around her ears, just like Althea's; her dress had the same prim, uncompromising cut.
She was arbitrary, and full of a self-confidence that was absolute power, and so was Althea. But the girl had not yet shown her disposition; her mother, by her older, stronger will, and force of habit, as yet kept her down. She only rebelled furtively. The stern rule she had always been under gave her a shy, almost cowed, demeanor; once in a while the spirit in her gave a flash, as it were, and that was all.
The two were alone; they had no relatives. They had a small pension to live on, and owned a small house besides. Mrs. Rose's husband had died in the army. They never called on the neighbors, and the neighbors never called on them. “Queer folks,” they called them.
Mrs. Rose's opinion seemed fortified when Silas came the next Sunday night, and made a call.
He went to evening meeting first, and then walked down the shadowy road towards the Rose house. The Roses were not meeting-folks, and he could not walk home with Althea, and so break the ice. However, Silas was not bashful. It is doubtful if he realized he was going courting at all. He had a great bunch of flowers in his hand, and he was merely going to carry them to Althea; he did not look much beyond that. His horizon, blue and sunny though it was, came close around him always.
So he sat in Mrs. Rose's sitting-room that evening, and eyed Althea sweetly and kindly, but was not perturbed, though he said very little.
“He's comin' after you, Althea,” said her mother, after he had gone.
Althea, slinking behind her mother, burst into tears.
“What are you crying for?” asked her mother, sharply.
“I — don't want him to.”
“Get your candle and go to bed.”
Silas came regularly every Sunday evening after that, but he met with an obstacle in his wooing which might have nonplussed some lovers — the mother always stayed in the room when he called. There she would sit, straight and fiercely watchful, her bushy short hair curving around her ears. However, Silas was not annoyed. The need of a formal declaration never suggested itself to him; he supposed Althea knew, and there was no need of saying much about it anyway. It would have puzzled any one to have told Althea's opinion when Silas's attentions became persistent; she was shy and docile, but never expressive. Still it was all right with Silas, as long as she did not repulse him. He had had so much to do with flowers that he derived his notions of girls from them. He did not look for much return but sweetness and silence.
At last Mrs. Rose grew impatient. Spring had come round again, and Silas had visited Althea a whole year, and still nothing decisive had been said. She could not see why. It was singular that with her keen character she should have been so stupid, but she was. She did not dream that her own watchfulness and intense interest might delay matters.
One night she spoke out bluntly when he was taking leave. “Look here, Silas Vinton, I think if you an' Althea are goin' to git married, you might as well be about it!”
“I'm ready when Althea is,” said Silas. He gave one glance over at her behind her mother, then he did not dare to look again. He was outwardly calm, but the shock of Mrs. Rose's sudden remark was over his very soul. He felt as if he were still in paradise, but as if some angel had given him a rude shake.
“Oh, she's ready enough,” said Mrs. Rose. “She don't need to have anything more'n a new dress, an' we can make that in a week.”
“A week?” repeated Silas, half in rapture, half in stupidity. “Well, I'm all ready when Althea is. I'm all ready.” He kept saying it over as he backed down the steps.
“I'll git the stuff for the dress to-morrow, then,” called Mrs. Rose after him, standing in the door.
“I'm all ready when Althea is,” Silas's voice answered out of the darkness.
As for Althea, when the door closed after him she began to cry. Her mother turned round and saw her.
“What air you cryin' for!” she demanded.
“Oh, mother, I don't want to get married in a week. I won't! So!”
“Althea Rose,” said her mother, “if you don't quit cryin', an' light your candle, an' go to bed an' behave yourself, I'll shake you!”
And Althea lit her candle and went. The old whip-crack was too much for her. But when she was in her room alone, she clinched her fists, and shook her stubborn head at herself in her little looking-glass.
“I won't,” muttered she. “So!”
The next morning the trees were all in blossom, and Silas was out in his garden working. He was all over his excitement of last night. His mind was running in the larger circle into which Mrs. Rose's proposal, like a stone in a pond, had thrown it, just as calmly as it had in a smaller. He felt as if he had always been going to be married in a week.
“It's jest such a mornin' as 'twas last year,” said he, “when I counted her in after the daffodils.”
“Why, Althea, you've come ag'in!”
She was flushed and trembling, but her eyes were keen. “I want to tell you something, Silas.”
“Why, Althea, what is it?”
“You won't tell mother? Promise you won't tell; promise — promise.”
“Course I won't, if you don't want me to. Althea, what is it?”
“She'd kill me. You won't tell?”
“No, never, long's I live!”
She gave a scared glance around her. “Mother's making me marry you,” said she, bluntly, “an' I don't want to.”
“It's the truth.”
Silas stood staring at her pitifully. “You was so afraid of her you didn't dare say anything, weren't you?” said he.
“Yes, I was.”
“You poor little thing!” Great tears ran down Silas's cheeks.
“Then I needn't marry you, need I?”
“Course you needn't.”
“Well, how can we fix it? You know we've got to tell mother something.”
“I guess I don't know just what you mean.”
“Mother'll make an awful fuss; she's set on my having you; she thinks you've got property. An' if she knew I was the one that broke it off she'd kill me. You've got to make her think you're the one.”
“But I ain't.”
“That don't make any difference; you've got to make her think so.”
“But what shall I say the reason was?”
“Say you've thought it over, and you don't want to support a wife. She'll believe that. They all know your father was awful tight.”
The bewilderment in Silas's face almost obscured its awful sadness.
“You won't let her blame me, anyhow, will you, Silas?”
“No; she sha'n't blame you. I'll tell lies before she shall blame you.”
“You are awful good, Silas. Say, you don't mind much, do you?”
“No. Don't think nothing' about me; I sha'n't mind; I've got my flowers. Althea —”
“I don't know as you'll want to; I jest happened to think of it, that's all. You know folks, when they are goin' to get married, the way we was, kiss each other. You ain't ever kissed me. I never thought much about wantin' you to till now, when you are goin'. Would you mind it to kiss me once? I don't suppose you will want to —”
“Yes, I will,” said Althea; and she put up her sweet face and kissed him.
He choked back a sob. “You'd better go now,” said he, “or your mother'll be wonderin' where you are.”
She looked frightened. “You be sure not to let her blame me,” she said as she turned to go.
“Yes, I'll be sure. Don't you worry, Althea.”
She disappeared among the filmy green bushes, and he sat down on a stone under the cherry-tree, and held his head in his hands.
When he got up he looked older. Sorrow at one jerk had taken him farther out of his long childhood than the years had. He was a step nearer the rest of the world; he would not be so odd, by that much, again. He went up through the garden to the house; he looked about him wonderingly as he went. “Thar's been an awful change,” said he, to himself. “I guess I don't see straight. The flowers an' things look queer, as if I hadn't seen 'em before. It's worse than mother's dyin'. Thar ain't so much God in this. I don't know how to go to work to stan' it. Poor little thing! she sha'n't have no more trouble about it, nohow.”
Very close to the Rose house stood another, tiny and modest and white-curtained; but it had an eye and an ear ever alert in it. The woman who lived there was sickly, with too active a mind for her own narrow life, so she fastened it on her neighbors.
This last evening, when Silas went to the Roses she knew it, as usual. When, by and by, she heard loud talk, she raised her window softly and listened. The front door of the Rose house was evidently open, and the talkers were standing in the hall.
She could hear only one voice to distinguish the words; that was Mrs. Rose's. When she was excited she always spoke very loud. “You're worse than your father was,” the listener heard her say, “an' he was tighter than the bark of a tree; but he wa'n't quite so mean but what he could get married. Althea's well rid of such a poor stick as you. Don't s'pose she'd hed 'nough to eat if you'd married her, nor a dress to her back.”
The loud talk kept on, and the woman listened greedily. When it had ceased, and Silas had crept down the path, and the door had closed behind him with a great house-shaking slam, she felt more healthily alive than she had for many a day.
Soon all the town knew how Silas Vinton had jilted Althea Rose — because he was too tight to support her. His courtship had made a deal of laughing comment; now he was mercilessly badgered.
He shut himself up with his flowers and bore it as well as he could. Once a neighbor to whom he had given vegetables many a time, offered him pay. That almost broke his heart. Then others no longer asked for them, and he understood why.
He never met Althea at all. For the next two years, except for one or two glimpses of her from his window, he would hardly have known she lived in the same town.
In the winter of the second year, a man who came to his house on an errand asked him if he knew his old girl was going to be married.
Silas turned white. “What do you mean?” asked he.
“Althea Rose is goin' to get married, if the fellar don't back out 'cause he don't want to support her. What do you think of that?”
“I'm glad, if she likes him,” said Silas.
“Well, mebbe when he comes to count up the cost he'll think better on't.”
Silas made no reply to the taunt. He stood behind his window-shelves of plants, and watched the man go down the sidewalk. “I don't wonder he talks so,” said he. “But there wa'n't no other way to save her. I had to have some reason. The worst of it is, it ain't true.”
Silas's potted plants were very beautiful that year, they were covered with blossoms. Every one stopped to look at his windows.
Silas sat behind them that day after he heard the news, and watched the street. He was hoping Althea would go by; he wanted to see her.
She did come in sight towards night — a slender, girlish figure, in some prim, eccentric winter garb, as noticeable as her summer one.
Silas ran to the door. “Althea!”
“What?” said she, standing at the gate.
He went down the steps and stood beside her.
“See here, Althea. I heard this morning you was going to get married. Is it so?”
Althea looked down. “Yes.”
“I jest want to know — it's safe for you to tell me, Althea; I'd die sooner than anybody should know. I jest want to know if it's all right this time; if you want him, or it's your mother making you, the way it was before. 'Cause, if it is, don't you marry him. Don't you be afraid of your mother; I'll stan' by you.”
“I — guess it's all right, Silas.”
“Then your mother ain't making you? Don't you be afraid to tell.”
“No, she ain't. She couldn't, really. I'd manage somehow, the way I did before, if I didn't want him.”
“I'm glad it's all right, Althea.”
She giggled softly. She was fingering a gold locket which she wore outside of her shawl. “See what a pretty locket he give me,” said she; “he's real generous.”
“She didn't mean to hurt me when she said that, I know,” said Silas, when she had gone on and he was back in the house. And he was right, she did not; that time she was only a cat's-paw for a scratch of fate.
She was married a couple of weeks later. On the afternoon of the wedding-day one of the neighbor's children came in to see Silas. She was a pretty little thing, and he was very fond of her. She used to tease her mother to let her go over to Silas's.
When she entered Silas's little front room to-day the first thing she did was to stare at the plants in the window. Every blossom was gone.
“Why, Silas,” she piped up, “where's all your flowers?”
“They've gone to a weddin', deary,” said Silas.