A Modern Dragon

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XVII No. 24 (June 14, 1884)

It was a hot Sunday in June. The bell was ringing for the morning service in the Dover orthodox church, and the people were flocking up the hill on which the sacred edifice stood. The farmers' wives and daughters wore their thinnest dresses, and were armed with stout fans and sun-umbrellas; the men looked wretched and steaming in their Sunday coats. The sun beat fiercely down on Dover village, on its white houses and clover fields. The bees and insects were droning so loud people could hear them inside the church. In there it was cooler, though still warm enough: everybody was fanning.

The bell tolled, and the people kept coming up the aisles. David Ayres, in his place in the second row of the singing seats, watched them soberly. He was a tall, stoutly built young man; his face was brown and heavy-featured, but handsome. He had a fine bass voice.

A titter and whisper spread through the row of female singers before him. “Look at Almira King!” The flower-wreathed bonnets shook with mirth.

“What are the girls laughing at?” thought David Ayres.

A girl was tripping up the aisle below, dressed in a pink silk gown, bewilderingly draped and pleated. She wore a little white crape bonnet with a knot of crushed roses on her head. The young man thought she looked beautiful, and saw nothing laughable about it. All he wondered at was how the Kings could afford such a fine dress, and how the girl happened to come to church anyway. He had never seen her there before.

The girl entered a pew well toward the front, and settled down, like a bird, with a pretty flutter. All David could see of her between the people were her shapely pink shoulders and knot of yellow hair below the little bonnet. When the choir sang the first hymn, however, all the congregation rose and turned about to face the singing seats, and he took a good look at her as he rolled out his sonorous bass notes. She had a charming round childish face, simple and sweet. She was looking down at her pretty gown with an innocent simper. She pulled the drapery in the back a little; then she glanced over her shoulder to see if it was right; then she smoothed the front of the over-skirt tenderly. “She's mighty tickled with her new dress,” reflected David Ayres, sagely; but he felt none of the sharp-eyed female singers' contempt at the girl's silly vanity.

All at once Almira looked up and met the young man's eyes fixed full upon her. Her eyelids dropped, and she crimsoned to the lace round her white throat. He could see, even at that distance, that she was confused and disturbed. “I won't look at her again, if it makes her act that way,” resolved he; and forthwith fixed his eyes on his book as he sung.

After the service was over he went down to the vestry to Sunday-school. He had a class. The session occupied about an hour. Coming out, he fell in with his cousin Ida Babcock.

“Ida,” said he, abruptly, “I wish you'd tell me why folks were laughing when Almira King came in this morning. I didn't see anything to laugh at. Did you?”

“Why, David Ayres, that dress was perfectly ridiculous for a girl to wear to meeting. Don't you know it was? I don't wonder folks laughed.”

“I do,” quoth David, stoutly. “I think the dress was all right. She looked like a doll in it, anyway. I guess you girls were jealous.”

Ida colored up. She was a plain girl herself. “I guess we weren't jealous,” returned she, with spirit. “You men will overlook anything for a pretty face, and that's all there is about it. Every blessed thing that girl came to meeting for this morning was to show her dress.”

“I don't see,” said her cousin, with slow emphasis, “what does make you girls forever pick on each other. I should think, when you saw one of your own kind look as pretty and sweet as Almira King did this morning, you'd feel proud of her in one way, and say the nicest things about her that you could.”

“Well, the dress was all out of place, and I don't think that's very bad to say,” said Ida, trying to keep her temper. “But it's no use arguing with you about it, David: men don't look at such things like women.”

“I don't think they do,” replied David.

When Ida got home she told her mother that she didn't know whether David was luny or meant to be aggravating.

“I suppose I made Ida mad,” reflected David, as he sped along the dusty road in his open buggy, keeping a tight rein on his smart horse; “but I don't care. If there's anything I hate, it's one girl picking on another. Ida ought to be broken of it.”

The Ayres farm was situated about a mile and a half out of Dover village. About half a mile out David passed the King place. The house was poor — a low red cottage — but there were some fertile fields about it. The King farm was small, but, as far as it went, productive.

David, as he whirled by, caught a glimpse of a woman coming round the corner of the house from the garden with a pan in her hand full of beans. She was an odd figure, short and stout, with a masculine width of shoulders. Her calico dress cleared her thick ankles, her black hair was cut short, and she wore a man's straw hat.

“Pity such a pretty girl as Almira King has got such a mother!” David thought, after his swift glance at her.

When he got home he found dinner all ready. Everything was on time in the Ayres household. David's mother sat by the sitting-room window, fanning herself and reading her Bible, while she waited for her son. She was a fair, stout woman, in an old-fashioned muslin gown. The ground was white, with a brown vine straggling thickly over it. She looked up pleasantly as David entered, after putting up his horse: he was his own hostler. There were soft curves in her face, which were deceptive. Mrs. Ayres was not just such a woman as her looks denoted. Strangers generally found themselves taken aback by her after a little. She was a very devout woman, but she had not been to church to-day: she had been afraid to undertake the ride in the hot sun. Her health was not very good.

They had dinner directly in the large room, running the width of the house, which served as dining-room and kitchen in the winter, and dining-room alone in the summer; there was an unfinished back room, into which the cooking-stove was then moved. The Ayres farm-house was extremely substantial and comfortable, but the old-time notions of David's ancestors were still prevalent in it.

The hired girl sat down to the table with David and his mother. She was about forty, as plump as Mrs. Ayres, though not as fair. There was a cast in her eyes. She had lived in the Ayres family ever since David was born. She had the reputation of being none too strong-minded, but that had never been any objection to her in Mrs. Ayres's opinion. If anything, she enjoyed the prestige which her own superior intellect gave her, cheap triumph though it was; and Susan Means had always been faithful, reliable help.

There was cold meat for dinner. Mrs. Ayres was conscientious about any unnecessary cooking on the Sabbath.

“Who was at church, David?” asked his mother, watching him carve.

“Oh, the folks who usually go; except — well, that King girl was there. I never saw her in church before.”

“You don't say so! I wonder how her mother happened to let her, she's such a strong spiritualist. Well, the girl can't amount to much, with that kind of bringing up, poor thing.”

“She looked real pretty, mother; and she was dressed pretty too.”

“What did she have on?”

“Something pink — silk, I guess.”

“Pink silk! I never —”

Mrs. Ayers went on with the subject, finding it interesting; but David soon contrived to change it. For some reason he did not feel as hot to take up the cudgels for Almira with his mother as he had with his cousin Ida.

After dinner he went upstairs. Instead of entering his own room, he stole stealthily into the large front chamber over the parlor. It was not occupied. The best bedstead and feather-bed were in there, and the best bureau. The windows were open, and a cool green light came in through the blinds. He sat down by one of them, and fell into a young man's day-dream, with him as shy and innocent as a girl's. “I suppose,” said he to himself, “if I ever — get married, we could have this chamber fitted up, and — some new furniture in it. Almira King did look pretty to-day.”

He had seen her dozens of times before, and admired her, but not as he had to-day. It seemed a pity that such a foolish thing as a pink silk dress should swerve such a mighty thing as a human heart. But feathers might fly along to paradise, if the wind happened to be that way, and point out its direction to things more important.

As for the girl herself, it was perfectly true that she had been to church merely to show herself in her new dress. The dress had to be worn and shown, else what was the good of having it at all, and the church was the only available place in which to display it at present.

When Almira returned that morning her mother was out in the garden picking vegetables for dinner. She followed her there. “Mother,” she called, “I've got home!”

The woman looked up and saw the rosy creature standing there with the most intense and unselfish pleasure. “Well,” said she, smiling till she looked foolish, she was so pleased, “what did the folks say to you, Almiry?”

“They didn't say anything, mother; but — they stared, I can tell you.”

“I'll warrant they did! Now, deary, you'd better not stand there so close to the beans, or you'll get somethin' on your dress. You'd better go in an' change it, an' git rested, while I git dinner.”

“David Ayres sits up in the singing seats, and — you'd ought to have seen him look at me, mother, once.”

“I'll warrant he did!”

The mother stared fondly after the girl as she went off across the green field. “I wish David Ayres would take a shine to Almiry,” said she. “He's a good, stiddy young man, an' there ain't anybody but him an' his mother an' Caleb, now Mr. Ayres is gone, an' there's a good deal of money there. Almiry would be well purvided for. P'r'aps he will.”

When Almira came into the house she went straight to her own room. It was a bedroom opening out of the parlor. Both rooms had been fitted up for her with a daintiness strange to the rest of the house. Her sleeping-room had a pretty set in it, and a lace curtain at the window; the parlor a real Brussels carpet and stuffed chairs. Mrs. King had worked hard for it, but she was amply paid by the feeling that her “Almiry had as pretty a room to set in as any girl in Dover.”

The glass on Almira's bureau would not tip far enough for her to see her whole figure, so she stood on a chair before it, and turned round and round admiring herself. She was radiant with the simplest and most unconcealed vanity. “I do look so beautiful!” she said, quite out loud. The memory of David Ayres's admiring gaze underlaid her delight in herself, and strengthened it. Presently she changed the beloved dress reluctantly for a blue muslin which was trimmed with lace, and pretty too. She had a good many dainty appointments. Everything about her, to the embroidery on her under-clothing, was nice, through her homely mother's care. She lay down on the lounge in her parlor then, with a paper of sugar-plums and a child's paper. She dearly loved little pretty, simple tales and sugar-plums. She heard her mother in the kitchen moving about, getting dinner, but she never thought of such a thing as helping her. Still, she was not selfish. She had only been brought up in unconsciousness of her own obligations, and she had not keenness of wit to see them for herself.

Once in a while she stopped reading, and thought about David Ayres. She wondered, should she go to evening meeting, whether he would ever wait on her home. Pretty as Almira was, no Dover young man had ever paid her the slightest attention, beyond admiring looks. They were kept aloof by the peculiarities of her mother. “I've a great mind to go to meeting to-night,” reflected Almira. “I can't wear my pink silk in the evening, but I've a good mind to go.”

Two weeks from that day there was a disturbance on her account in the Ayres household.

It was a little cooler that Sunday, and Mrs. Ayres had been to church — to morning and afternoon service too — and she had spent the nooning at her married son's, Caleb, who lived in the village. David had driven home. He had some things to see to, and Susan got his dinner for him.

When the mother and son rode home together finally, after the second service was through, he knew by certain infallible signs in her face that something was wrong, and he felt guiltily what it was. She said nothing about it till they reached home; then, when he had put his horse up, and she had changed her best black silk, the reckoning came.

He started off for a stroll across the pasture; but she had kept her eyes on him, and called him back, thrusting her head out of the sitting-room window. “Come here, David,” said she; “I want to speak to you.”

He tried to have the talk standing outside the window, but she made him come in. So he stood leaning against the sitting-room door, fingering the latch impatiently, while she sat facing him in her big rocking-chair by the window.

“David,” she began, “I heard something about you over to Caleb's to-day, and I want to know if it's true. I heard you were going with that King girl; that you've been waiting on her home from meeting, and taking her to ride, and that that's where you were so late last Sunday night, when I thought you were over to Caleb's. I want to know if it's true.”

The stout young fellow had been brought up with a dread of his fair-faced, firm-handed mother; he looked boyish and blushing. Then his manhood asserted itself, as it should now, if ever. “Yes, mother,” he replied, his sober eyes fixed on her; “it's true.”

“You don't say you mean to marry that King girl, David Ayres?”

“I think I shall, mother — if she'll have me.”

“There ain't any doubt of that, I guess. David, if you marry that girl, with her Spiritualist mother, you'll kill me.”

“Oh, mother, don't!”

“I mean what I say, David. You'll kill me. You'll have to choose between your mother and that girl.”

The hard jaws seemed to show through Mrs. Ayres's soft cheeks. A blue tinge appeared round her mouth and nostrils. There was an ever-present dread in the Ayers family. Healthy as Mrs. Ayres looked, she had an organic heart trouble, and doctors had said a good deal about the danger of overexcitement.

David looked at her changing face in alarm. “Don't let's talk about it any more now, mother,” said he, soothingly. “Don't you worry over it.”

But she was not to be put off. She realized the ghastly vantage-ground on which she stood, and she was the kind of woman to make the most of it.

“David, you won't marry that girl?”

“I'll tell you whether I will or not in a week, mother, and that's the best I can do.” He looked astonishingly like his mother as he said it. His face had the same determination, almost obstinacy, of hers.

She eyed him sharply, and gave in. “Well,” said she.

All that week she hardly seemed like the same woman to him. She petted and caressed him as she had never done before. She descended to womanish wiles to accomplish her ends for the first time in her life. But, if she had known it, all this had no effect whatever on her son. He had too much shrewd sense not to see through it, and feel almost an angry contempt for his mother in consequence. Her health and the fear of injuring her was the only thing which moved him.

The next Sunday he told her, with inward shame and bitterness, that he would give up the girl. He felt as if he was giving up his manhood at the same time. He had tried arguing with his mother a little, but found it useless. The girl's mother was her ground of objection, and she stood firmly on it, no matter how plainly her unreasonableness was shown to her.

“I'd rather you'd die than marry into such a family, David,” she had said once.

So David kept aloof from pretty Almira, and the girl began to fret. She did not conceal her grief from her mother — she was too dependent on her, and she was not that kind of a girl. When she came home from meeting alone she cried on her mother's shoulder, and many a time the two watched hand in hand by the parlor window for the lover who did not come.

Almira had really reason to feel aggrieved. David's courtship, though so short, had been precipitate, after the artless country fashion. Enough had been done to raise her expectations, though there was nothing binding.

As the weeks went by, and she received no attention from David beyond an occasional evasive nod as he drove past, her spirits drooped more and more. She had never had any trouble, and she was bewildered. This was her first lover, and she had not known any better than to begin loving him vehemently.

She tried to attract him back in all the pretty silent little ways she could think of; she could not take any bold step, she was too modest. She would sit on the door-step, in a pretty dress, with her hair carefully done up, when she thought he might pass by.

She went to church in her pink silk, and glanced timidly and wistfully up at him when the choir was singing; but David would sing sternly on and never look at her.

Then she would go home feeling that there was no use in having a pink silk dress or a pretty face. This poor little rose of a girl, of a Sunday night, after her lover had slighted her still once more, might as well have been a burdock weed or a ragged-robin for all the satisfaction she took in being a rose.

She altered in her looks; her simple smiling face grew thin and pitiful. Her mother studied it like a chapter in which her own future sorrows were written out.

Mrs. King worked in the field and garden like a man, and many a time she tramped home through the hot sun just to get one look at Almira, then back again. She was an energetic woman. For years before the death of her husband, who had been an invalid a long time, she had managed the little farm herself, and successfully too. She had petted and taken care of her husband, who had been a gentle, slow-motioned man, as she petted and took care of Almira now. He was some ten years younger than she. She had assumed the management of affairs from the first, after he married her, a stout hired girl in a neighboring farm-house. He had really been incapable himself of carrying on this little farm, which his father had left him.

Every little luxury which she could procure for Almira she always had from her earliest childhood. Now that this trouble had come upon her, she did more; she relinquished for the time a habit of depositing small sums from her earnings in the savings-bank, at fixed intervals, for future emergencies. She planned many a surprise for Almira in the way of new gowns and trinkets. The girl was young and trifling enough to brighten momentarily at the sight of them, and that was ample payment for her mother. But as soon as she had worn them, and found that David did not notice her any more on their account, the brightness died away. Mrs. King spent money recklessly in those days, such hard-earned money too. “What's the use of my layin' up money,” she asked herself, “an' Almiry lookin' like that?”

Finally the mother grew almost desperate. She suffered far more than her daughter; she watched for David's coming with a stronger anxiety. She began to form wild plans for bettering matters. She even thought of arresting the young man on his way past the house some day and freeing her mind to him. She thought of going to see his mother. But, coarse and unwomanly as she was in appearance, there was a good deal of womanly modesty in her; she shrank from those measures, though sometimes, watching David ride by, she felt as if she could kill him.

One day she spied Susan Means, the Ayres' hired woman, walking past, and she called her in. She was just up from the potato field herself; Almira had gone to the village on an errand.

“Susan,” she called, standing in the door, “come in here a minute; I want to see you.”

The woman looked wonderingly at a point a foot or more to the left of her with her crooked eyes; then she came up the walk.

“Come in,” said Mrs. King. “I want to ask you somethin'. I want to ask you,” she went on, outwardly defiant, when the two stood together in the kitchen, “ef you know what Mis' Ayres's David has been treating my Almiry so fur.”

“I don't know what you mean, as I knows on,” replied the other, smiling strangely at the cupboard door. She was a good-humored soul, but the twist in her eyes gave her an appearance of uncanniness and mystery. Mrs. King, direct and fierce, fired up in unreasonable wrath.

“I guess you know,” said she; “everybody knows. I'll warrant you've heerd it talked about enough. I want to know what David Ayres has been foolin' round Almiry King fur, an' gittin' her all upset, an' then leavin' her — that's what I want to know.”

It was perfectly true that Susan had known what Mrs. King meant, but she had been scared, and her little wits had taught her to evade the question. She probably knew much more about the state of affairs than either David or his mother thought. She often imbibed more than her mental capacity was considered equal to. It takes a wise person to gauge another's mind and find the true bottom. She kept on smiling strangely at the cupboard door.

“I've heerd a little,” said she, “ef you want to know.”

“I do want to know. I'll let 'em know they can't go foolin' 'round my girl.”

“You'll be mad.”

“No, I won't be mad. Out with it.”

“I don' know as it's anythin' Mis' Ayres has got agin Almiry, but she's kinder sot agin you.”

“What's she sot agin me fur?”

“Wa'al, I guess it's mainly on account of your wearin' your dresses half-way up to your knees, and them cowhide shoes, and that hat, and hevin' your hair cut so short. But I guess it's mainly 'cause you air a Spiritualist.”

“I don't believe a word of it.”

“Accordin' to what I've heerd, it's so.”

Mrs. King did not know when the woman went. She stood leaning against the wall, dazed, till Almira came in. “Is it me?” she had muttered once; “an' I willin' to die for her! Oh Lord!”

Almira stared at her when she entered the kitchen.

“What's the matter, mother?”

“Nothin', deary.”

Next Sunday there was a greater sensation in the orthodox church than there had been over Almira in her pink silk. The girl was not there — she was hardly well enough that day — but her mother walked up the aisle when the bell first began to toll. People stared, doubtful if they knew her. She had on a decent long black dress and a neat bonnet. Her short hair had given way to a braided knot. She sat in the pew and listened solemnly to the sermon, regardless of the attention she excited. All she took pains to notice was that David Ayres and his mother were there. She made sure of that, and that they were looking at her.

When she got home, Almira was lying on the lounge in her room. She had been crying; her eyes were red with tears. Her mother sat down, and looked at her with wonderful love and hope. “Don't cry, deary,” said she. “I shouldn't wonder a bit if he came to-night. That's been all the trouble, the girl said, an' now I've fixed that all right. I let my dress down, an' got the switch, an' I've been to meetin'. He'll be along to-night.”

But he was not. Through the next week Mrs. King, toiling in her field, of a necessity still in the short dress and heavy shoes, had a demeanor like a hunted criminal. She kept a constant lookout on the road; if she caught a glimpse of David Ayres coming, she hid. He should never see her again in the costume which had weaned him from Almira. If she had been able she would have hired a man for this work now; but she had spent too much money in other ways of late. She thought surely the young man would come on the next Sabbath. But he did not. Then she ventured on a decisive step, goaded on by Almira's pitiful face. There really was occasion for alarm on the girl's account. She inherited a weak, spiritless constitution from her father, and a slight cause might exhaust what little stamina she possessed. She might drift into nervous invalidism, if she did not die.

Mrs. King tied on her new switch with infinite difficulty, arrayed herself in her long skirts, and walked a mile and a half to see David Ayres's mother. The interview between the two women was at once pitiful and comical. Mrs. Ayres, her whole soul set against the marriage of her son with this woman's daughter, was immovably hard. She sat like a stone, and listened to the other's rough eloquence. “I've done the best I could,” said Mrs. King, humbling herself unshrinkingly. “I know I 'ain't looked an' dressed jest like other folks; but now I'm a-doin' different. I've got a switch, an' done up my hair like other women, an' I've let down my dress. I've been to meetin' too, an' I'm goin' right along. I 'ain't ever been much of a Spiritualist. I got led into it a leetle after Samuel died, an' I've took some papers. But I ain't goin' to any more.”

It was all of no use. Mrs. Ayres hardly gave any response at all; she was almost wordless. All her anxiety was lest David should come in while Almira's mother was there; but he did not. Finally the poor woman went home. She had gotten no satisfaction at all. She had humbled herself, at the last she had stormed, all to no purpose. Now she was hopeless. She had a rude physical sturdiness about her that had seemed to extend to her inmost nature. But it hardly had. If it had, it was by reason of her unselfish affections. At heart she had always been almost as simple and yielding as Almira herself. She was a thoroughly feminine creature in her masculine attire, with her rough voice. As the days went on, and she saw her daughter fretting, and felt helpless to aid her, her own strength failed slowly, though she did not know it. There had probably been some weak fibre in her, which could not stand a hard strain, in spite of her appearance of strength. She had never been ill in her life; she felt new sensations now without realizing what they meant. She was worrying herself to death without knowing it. She worked harder and harder. She had never toiled in her life as she did in the late summer and early autumn of that year, with Almira's sad young face taking all the sweetness out of the labor.

At last she came in one afternoon and fainted on the threshold. Almira, almost beside herself, called in a neighbor and sent for the doctor. It was a sudden violent attack, induced finally, perhaps, by an error in diet, or a cold, but superinduced by her wearing anxiety. She never got off the bed in her poor little bedroom again. Her room opened out of the kitchen, and was not much like Almira's.

After she came out of her first swoon she was conscious till she died — the next day. She knew how it was going to end with her from the first, though she made the doctor tell her the next afternoon. Then, with a sudden resolution, she asked him to go for David Ayres. “Thar's been trouble betwixt him and my girl,” said she, “that has got to be set right afore I go.”

So David came, and stood with Almira beside her bed. She was suffering a good deal of pain, but she had nerve enough to disregard it.

“I've been betwixt you an' Almiry,” said she, “an' thar didn't seem to be no way of settin' it right but this, though I tried. I've heerd how you felt about it, an' I dare say it was nateral. I don't lay up nothin'. All is, ef you don't marry Almiry now, an' take care of her, an' make her happy, may the Lord never forgive you for triflin' with her!”

“Oh,” cried David, “I will never think of anybody but Almira all my life. I'll marry her to-morrow.”

“Then it's all right,” said Mrs. King, and ended the word with a groan.

The young man stood there, his face white through the tan. He was beside himself with pity and shame; but he could not say a word. He almost hated his narrow-minded mother.

“I'd like to see you take hold on Almiry's hand,” said Mrs. King, gasping again. “I want to see you look happy and smilin' agin, deary, the way you used to.”

David caught hold of Almira's hand with a great sob. But she threw his away, and flung herself down on her knees by her mother's bed.

“Oh, mother! mother! mother!” she sobbed. “I love you best! I do love you best! I always will! I never will love him as much as I did you. I promise you.”