The Price She Paid

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXI No. 10 (March 10, 1888)

Cows were pastured in a good many of the green meadows around Wendall. In the latter part of the afternoon, when the sun was low, and the damp coolness steamed up from the ground, they would crowd around the meadow bars, lowing to be let out, and driven home, and milked. One could hear them far off across the green, dewy levels; once in a while a little bell tinkled faintly, seeming to tell of peace.

Sophia Trent, hearing them, thought of no such meaning, however. She simply went down the lane to drive the cows home. Their voices at the meadow bars, two or three pastures' widths away, were only indications that they were impatient to be driven.

“They're getting in a hurry, poor things,” said Sophia. There was almost a loving interest in her tone. She was a tall, strongly built girl, and she walked along so nimbly that she might almost have been said to stride. There was nothing masculine in her appearance, however. Her figure was softly rounded over its muscles, and her face was as fair as a lily. No matter how much she worked out in the sun, there was never a tinge of tan on Sophia's full, soft-tinted cheeks. Her hair, of a pale yellow color, crinkled back from her forehead. As far as tints went, and graceful curves and roundness, Sophia was pretty, but in no other way. She carried a knotty stick, to drive the cows with, in her hand; now and then she struck the flowering bushes on the edge of the lane with it as she walked along, and shook off some loose blossoms, and maybe a late bee or two. She wore an old straw hat and a light calico dress; but the hat sat jauntily on her yellow braids, and the calico fitted her trimly. She went up the lane, with its green wheel ruts, a little way; then she let down some bars, and crossed a pasture full of sweet-fern and low blueberry bushes, with now and then a pine-tree; then she crossed a pasture where grass and low shrubs thinly veiled flat rock ledges. At the bars, at the further end of this pasture, her cows were waiting. There were three of them — two spotted Jerseys and a little cream-colored Durham. The Durham had a bell round her neck, which jingled when she crowded closer to the bars as she saw her mistress coming. Sophia, after she had let the cows out, went up caressingly to this one, and stroked her smooth forehead and patted her side; she even leaned her pink cheek against her. Then she walked along, keeping beside the Durham, which went leisurely. She eyed her fondly, and now and then patted her; but she did not talk to her. Sophia did not know how to say pretty things to children or animals.

When she reached the end of the lane she gave a sudden start; for a young man emerged, silently and unexpectedly, from a clump of wild rose and meadow-sweet, and stood before her.

“How do you do, Sophia?” said he, in an uncertain voice.

“Pretty well, thank you,” said she, looking at him with a peculiar expression, in which there was pity, aversion, and something else less definable.

“I saw you coming down the lane, and I thought I'd wait and walk along with you,” he continued.

Sophia said absolutely nothing, and he walked along by her side. He was no taller than she, and fair complexioned also, though his close curling hair had more of a reddish tinge than hers. He wore no beard, and his thin skin was freckled. Still he had fine features, and every one about called him good-looking.

He and Sophia, the Jerseys, and the Durham with her tinkling bell, paced along in silence, except that occasionally, a cow lowed. Sophia never spoke a word. The young man kept giving her deprecating glances. His blond face grew redder and redder; the perspiration stood on his forehead in great drops.

Finally he stopped short, and turning around, faced her.

“See here, Sophia,” said he, “if you don't want me to walk with you, say so, and I'll go back. I ain't going to walk with any girl if I ain't wanted!”

“Why I 'ain't told you you wasn't wanted,” said Sophia.

“I know you 'ain't told me so, but you acted so. Actions speak as loud as words any time.”

“Well, I ain't going to pretend,” said Sophia. “I didn't want you. That is, I'd just as soon you'd walk along with me any time; but I don't want everybody asking me if I haven't got a beau, and when I'm going to get married. It pesters me.”

“Well, you sha'n't be pestered any more on my account; you jest walk right along, an' I'll fall behind.”

“Now don't go to actin' like that,” said Sophia, evidently relenting a little; “there ain't any sense in it, now you're here. You knew what I meant. Going to meetin' to-night?”

“Yes; are you?”

“I don't know. I've got the cows to milk an' the clothes to sprinkle, besides the supper dishes. I don't believe I shall get through in season.”

They stood before a green, open yard at the right of the house where she lived.

There was a pump and a watering-trough in it, and the cows crowded eagerly toward them.

“Good-by, Rufus,” said Sophia; “I've got to water the cows.”

“Good-by. Say, Sophia, let me pump the water for you.”

“No; I don't want you to,” answered Sophia, decisively, going up to the pump. The young man left, walking briskly up the road.

Sophia began pumping water into the trough, while the cows drank thirstily. Suddenly the side door of the large white house opened, and a woman stood in it. She was tall and stout, with a large pale face, and had a cane in her right hand.

“Sophi,” said she, “who was that come up the road with you?”

“Rufus Hoyt,” replied Sophia, still pumping.

“I thought so. Where'd you come across him?”

“Down at the lane.”

The woman laughed significantly. The girl colored and looked annoyed, but she said nothing, and ushered the cows into the barn.

Sophia milked; then they had supper, which Mrs. Benton had prepared. She was partly disabled by rheumatism, but did many things about the house. There were only the two women to sit down to the tea-table spread in the large kitchen. Mrs. Benton was a widow with no children, and Sophia was her one servant, who resided with her. She employed men for the harder farm-work, but they were laborers hired by the day, with homes of their own thereabouts.

“If you want to go to meeting to-night, you can, Sophi,” said Mrs. Benton, when they rose from the tea-table. “I'll sprinkle the clothes and put up the dishes.”

“Thank you,” said Sophia; “but I guess I won't go, anyway.”

Mrs. Benton smiled in the way which Sophia hated so. “Now I would go, if I was you, Sophi,” said she. “Rufus'll be there.”

“That's just the reason why I ain't going,” said Sophia, unmistakably out of temper.

“Why, Sophi, what do you mean?”

“I mean I won't have a fellow hanging around me when I don't want him.”

“Why, Sophi Trent, you don't mean you wouldn't have Rufus Hoyt — a girl like you? Why, he owns his house clear, and he gets real good pay, and he 'ain't got anybody but himself.”

“I don't care anything about his house, or his pay, or himself,” declared Sophia, clearing off the table.

“Well, if you act this way, you'll never get married in the world.”

“I don't want to.”

“You do beat me, Sophi. I never saw such a girl.”

Mrs. Benton seemed anxious, always, to get Sophia married off. It was odd that she should be so; for she must have known that such a marriage was directly opposed to her own interest. Never again could she hope to get a girl like her. Sophia was the daughter of a small farmer in Fair Mountain. Her family had all died, and she had come to live with Mrs. Benton five years before. She had brought with her, of all her home belongings, only this Durham cow, which her father had raised from a calf, and which had always been a great pet. Everything else had been sold to cover the mortgage on the farm.

Sophia was wonderful help. “There ain't any need of a regular hired man,” she had told Mrs. Benton shortly after she had come. “I'd enough sight rather do the extra work than have one fussing round. I can milk, and drive cows to pasture, and take care of the horse, as well as any one.”

So the hired man went, much to his discomfiture. He had gotten into the habit of sitting in the kitchen a good deal, and following Sophia with admiring eyes as she went about her work.

Sophia showed herself fully equal to the extra work after he had gone. She earned reputation for smartness and capability through the town. She was a notable housewife. Her strength and deftness showed in her every motion as she went about the kitchen to-night.

Mrs. Benton was very anxious for her to go to meeting. She kept alluding to it from time to time, and urging her to go. But Sophia was firm. She washed up the dishes, and sprinkled the clothes, and would not let her mistress help.

Still, the bells were barely beginning to ring when the work was done, and Mrs. Benton had a lingering hope that she might yet decide to go, especially as she went directly upstairs to her room, as if to get ready.

But Sophia had no thought of going. She sat down at her open window, leaned her elbows on the sill, and stared out into the soft dusk musingly. The church bell kept ringing. “I s'pose he will be there, looking out for me,” said she to herself, in a whisper. “But I don't care; I ain't going a step.”

“She ain't going,” said Mrs. Benton, down-stairs, when the bell had stopped ringing. “I never saw such a girl.”

Sophia was not troubled at all by any attention of Rufus Hoyt's for the next few weeks. Her confession to him on their last meeting, and her staying away from church, seemed to have effectually repulsed him.

One night, about four weeks later, she went for the cows as usual. To her consternation she found the Jerseys grazing about in the lane.

“How in the world did they get out here?” said she.

The Durham was nowhere to be seen. She hurried on anxiously to the pasture, but she was not there. The bar was down, so it was evident enough how the cows got out.

“Nanny! Nanny!” called Sophia, with a peculiar sweet shrill emphasis on the last syllable. The Durham had been used to come to that call. But she did not now. Sophia was pale. She wandered about the pastures, tramping knee-deep through the sweet-fern and blueberry bushes, calling. Finally she went back to the lane, and drove home the other cows.

“My cow's lost,” she told Mrs. Benton. “I've got to go and hunt her up.”

Mrs. Benton stood in the middle of the kitchen, dazed, when Sophia, after putting the Jerseys in the barn, put her head in at the door and told her.

“Sophi Trent! How did she get out?”

“I don't know. Some children must have been through there and let the bars down.”

“Sophi, you're as pale as death.”

But Sophia was gone, fairly leaping out of the yard. She walked six miles that night, inquiring at every house, and stopping every one whom she met. Then she came home, an did her household tasks as usual.

She said very little to Mrs. Benton's sympathizing questions and remarks. Day after day passed, and still there was no trace of the missing cow. Poor Sophia tramped miles. There had been one possibility suggested to her, which made her terribly uneasy. The day the cow had disappeared, a man from Leone, a town about twenty miles distant, had passed through Wendall with a heard of cattle designed to stock a ranch in Texas.

He had taken the cars with them at South Wendall, the town just below. It was barely possible that Sophia's pretty Durham might have fallen in with them, and been carried off to Texas.

One night, after Nanny had been gone about three weeks, Sophia was coming out of the lane with the other cows, when Rufus Hoyt appeared again. He had been waiting for her.

“Heard anything from your cow yet?” asked he, after he had said, “How d'ye do, Sophia?”

Sophia looked at him, as she had never looked before, pitifully and wistfully. “No,” said she, sadly, “I 'ain't.”

“I'm real sorry. I've been inquiring and looking some too: I've done all I could.”

“Thank you,” said Sophia, gratefully.

“I'm awful afraid she got in with that herd of cattle going to Texas.”

“I sha'n't ever see her again, then; I've 'bout given it up anyway.”

“I don't know; it seems to me there might be some way,” said Rufus, thoughtfully.

Sophia looked at him intently, her mouth working, her blue eyes full of tears. Suddenly she caught hold of his arm, and held it tight.

“Rufus Hoyt — oh, if you will — get my — cow back for me, I will marry you — I will, honest!

The young man gave a start. “I don't remember that I ever asked you to marry me, Sophia Trent,” said he.

“Oh!” cried Sophia, sharply. Then she tried to stammer out something, but she could not. She broke down completely, and threw her blue checked gingham apron over her face and sobbed.

Rufus softened. “There, there, Sophia, don't take on so. Come, I know you wouldn't have said that if you hadn't thought I wanted to marry you. Why, going on the way I have showed that I did, and I do; you're perfectly right about it. All the trouble was, you haven't given me much encouragement, you know; and when you proposed to set me up in the market against a cow, as it were, I felt awful hurt. 'Most any fellow would, Sophia.”

“I know it. I'm sorry, Rufus; I didn't mean it the way you say. I can't help feeling awfully about the cow; she's everything I've got left of all I used to have, you know, and I spoke before I thought. I hadn't any business to take things for granted so; but I 'ain't got anybody to help me, and I've done all I could myself. Oh dear!”

“Look here, Sophia: if you say so, I'll take you at your word. I'll make a bargain with you; I'll find your cow if I possibly can; and when I bring her back to you safe and sound, you'll marry me, will you?”

“Well,” said Sophia, slowly. Then she sprang ahead a little, before he could stop her. “The cows are out of sight,” she called back over her shoulder. She ran along so swiftly that Rufus had to hurry to overtake her. The cows were all safe in the yard, and waiting at the watering-trough when she got there. Rufus went in and pumped for them; she could not refuse to let him to-night.

Mrs. Benton stood in the door and watched him delightedly. “Too bad about Sophi's cow, ain't it?” she called out.

“Oh, she'll be found again, never fear,” answered Rufus, turning a rosy, smiling face toward her.

Sophia wondered what he would do to find the cow. For the next few days she wondered and waited. Rufus never came near her. One night a chum of his, and fellow-workman at the chair shop, brought her a note from him. “Don't want any answer,” said he, turning on his heel.

Sophia stood on the door-step and read the note. It was just light enough for her to see the words. It was short:

“Dear Friend Sophia” (he wrote), — “When you read this I shall be off to Texas. I've been making inquiries, and it is the only hope of getting the cow back. I sha'n't be gone any longer than I can help.
  “Your true friend,     Rufus Hoyt.”

“Oh dear!” said Sophia, with a scared look.

Weeks went by, and she did not hear another word from Rufus. All she heard was the talk and speculation about his departure. Where had he gone, and for what? how long was he going to stay? It made a great stir in Wendall. Sophia's mind was set at rest about one thing — he was not going to lose his place in the chair shop. Ben Tower, his friend, had taken it to keep for him; his brother, who had been out of work, filled his own place temporarily. When Rufus returned he would give it up.

Mrs. Benton picked up this piece of information and told Sophia. “It's real good of Ben Tower,” remarked Mrs. Benton; “but it seems mighty queer for Rufus to go off all of a sudden and stay so long. I guess he's got a girl somewhere. I'm awful afraid you've lost him, Sophi.”

One day Sophia, coming home with the cows, had a revelation. It was late in the season now, and there were golden-rod and asters in the pastures instead of meadow-sweet and wild roses. Sophia looked down at them as she brushed through with the cows. “The summer's 'bout gone,” said she.

When she reached the entrance of the lane, where Rufus had been used to meet her, she stopped short. It was as if she was looking at her own self in surprise. “Why,” said she, staring past the golden-rod into that inner region where spirit alone can live, “I care more for that fellow, after all, than I ever did for the cow.”

Then she went home, fairly trembling at being with herself. “Oh, I'm awful, I'm awful,” she told herself when she was alone in her room. “I'm a woman, and I 'ain't acted like one. I've let him go 'way off to Texas after a cow. Oh dear!”

Sophia's pink cheeks began to hollow a little, her double chin grew peaked. Mrs. Benton began to notice it. “You look real pindlin', it seems to me, Sophi,” she said. “What ails you?”


“You act to me jest as if you had something on your mind. Sophi, you can't be fretting over that cow of yourn now?”

“No, I ain't,” Sophia said, sharply.

“Well, I didn't think you was such a fool. P'haps it ain't nothing but a cold, or you're a little bilious. I've noticed you 'ain't eat quite so much as common lately.”

Sophia settled down into that kind of deep, slow unhappiness that was natural with her temperament. Three months had passed, and not a word. She would have written to Rufus, begging him to come home, cow or no cow, but she did not know how to direct a letter. One day she met Ben Tower, and it occurred to her that he might know. They were on the street just above Mrs. Benton's; he was going home from the shop.

She stopped him, trembling. “Ben,” she said, “I want to ask you something.”

He looked at her with a frown.

“What is it?”

“I — wanted to ask you if you knew where Rufus Hoyt was; I wanted to send a letter to him.”

“Well, I don't know,” Ben burst out, nervously — “I don't know any more'n you do. I 'ain't heard a word since he went away. He may have been killed, for all I know, chasing your old cow.”


“You think I talk pretty rough; but I don't care; you deserve it. You 'ain't acted as if you had the heart of a woman. You've done a mean thing, Sophia Trent! You've sent off the best fellow anywhere around — a fellow that's a sight too good for you — on a chase like this. He's mortgaged his place, and left his work, and risked his life, for all I know, just to —”

“Mortgaged his place!” broke in Sophia with a gasp.

“Of course he did; where did you suppose he got his money to go with? It takes a pile to go to those out-of-the-way places, I can tell you. You needn't say anything about it. I'd no business to have told of it myself.”

“I — won't,” said Sophia, brokenly. “I didn't know, Ben. I've acted mean, but I want to say this much: if it was all to do over, I wouldn't do so again.”

Ben looked astonished. “I hope you wouldn't,” said he. After they separated, he turned about and looked after Sophia's dejected figure. “She acts as if she felt bad,” thought he; “and I hope she does, setting a fellow like Rufus off against a cow! Makes me sick of the whole set of girls!”

Three more months passed. It was midwinter. Sophia did up her household tasks; then she sat down with Mrs. Benton and sewed or knitted. She went to no merrymaking; she attended evening meeting and the Sunday services; that was all. Mrs. Benton teased her to go out more. “It ain't natural for a young person to live so,” she told her. But Sophia was immovable. “She acts the queerest lately,” her mistress told people.

When Rufus had been away a little over six months, Ben Tower came to the kitchen door one evening. Sophia answered his knock. It was snowing, and his shoulders were white.

“I had a letter to-night,” said he, abruptly. “He's coming home — on his way; he'll be here by to-morrow night, I reckon. He wanted me to tell you.”

A bright color flushed Sophia's face; her eyes sparkled. “He ain't mad at me, then?” said she, as if to herself.

Ben had something else to say. He said it with an odd manner. “I guess — maybe there won't be much good news about the cow.”

“Oh!” cried Sophia; “I had forgotten the cow!”

Ben stared at her. “Well,” said he, “he wanted me to tell you. That's all, I guess.”

“Thank you for coming, Ben.”

“What did Ben Tower want?” asked Mrs. Benton when she went in.

“He came to tell me Rufus Hoyt was coming home.”


“To-morrow night.”

“What did he come to tell you for? Sophi, are you engaged to that fellow, after all?”

“I don't know.”

“Well, I should think you might know that, if you know anything. You 'ain't more'n half acted as if you did lately. I don't know what it all means, but if you don't want to tell me, you needn't. I ain't going to tease you to.”

“Oh, it's all right,” said Sophia, with a flushed face.

“Well, it don't make any odds to me, one way or the other.”

“I'll tell you just as soon as I can.”

“Just as you please.”

Mrs. Benton hardly spoke the rest of the evening; she went off to bed early. Just after she had gone, Sophia heard the whistle of the evening train. “This time to-morrow night,” she thought, with a beating heart.

In a little while she heard some one tramping through the snow to the door. Then there came a loud knock.

“Who is it, I wonder?” muttered Sophia, going to the door. She opened it. Rufus Hoyt stood there.

“How do you do, Sophia?” said he.

His voice sent a shiver over Sophia; it did not sound as she had expected. “I'm pretty well,” she replied, trembling. “How do you do?”

“Oh, I'm all right. Guess I'll step in a minute.”

“Oh, Rufus, I never thought to ask you. I didn't think you was coming till to-morrow night.”

“Got along a day sooner than I expected,” he said, coming in and stamping off the snow.

“Take off your coat and sit down.”

“No, thank you,” said he, stiffly. “I can't stop long.”

Sophia looked at him piteously. Suddenly she stepped close to him, and took hold of his arm. “Rufus,” said she, “I want to tell you — I'm sorry I did such a thing as to set you hunting after that cow.”

Rufus averted his head, and seemed to look carelessly at the kitchen mantel. “Oh, never mind the cow. You didn't do anything out of the way. I'm the one to be sorry I didn't have any better luck. Ben told you, didn't he? So, you know, if I couldn't keep to my part of the bargain, you won't have to keep to yours.”

“Oh, Rufus, I don't care anything about the cow!”

“Why, I thought you did.”

“I don't care about anything but you. There, now you know it.”


“It's the truth.”

“Then you're going to marry me, Sophia, if I haven't found the cow?”

“Yes, if you want me after I've acted so mean.”

“Did you think I was gone a long while?” asked Rufus, after a little.

“Awful long. Were you in Texas all the time?”

“No; I went to Colorado. I've had a terrible chase, Sophia. I believe I followed that cow through fifty cattle ranches. That Leone man was a scamp. He sold the Durham as soon as he got to Texas. Sophia, are you really sure you want me, as long as I haven't brought back your cow?”

“Yes, I am sure — honest, Rufus.”

“Well — you'll have the cow too. She'll be along in a few weeks on a cattle train.”

“Rufus, did you find her, after all?”

“Yes, I did, the day before I started for home.”

Sophia looked at him. “Rufus, you let me think you hadn't found her, so's to see if I did care more for you.”

“Well, I own I did. To tell the truth, Sophia, while I was hunting round there, I kept getting madder and madder. It seemed to me that I was an awful fool, and you hadn't any ordinary feeling. I 'bout made up my mind, if I found the cow, to bring her to you and tell you you needn't keep to the bargain. Then I hit on this plan. Oh, Sophia dear, don't cry!”

“I — can't help it. Oh, Rufus! here you've been away off there all this time, and you had to mortgage your house to go! It's dreadful! I'll do everything I can to make up — everything! I'll work my fingers to the bone. Rufus, if you say so, we'll have the cow sold, or — we'll kill her, and eat her!”