From A Humble Romance and Other Stories (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1887)
The long, low, red-painted cottage was raised above the level of the street, on an embankment separated into two terraces. Steep stone steps led up the terraces. They were covered with green, slimy moss, and little ferns and weeds sprang out of every crack. A walk of flat slate stones led from them to the front door, which was painted green, sagged on its hinges, and had a brass knocker.
The whole yard and the double banks were covered with a tall waving crop of red-top and herds-grass and red and white clover. It was in the height of haying-time.
A grassy wheel-track led round the side of the house to a barn dashed with streaks of red paint.
Off to the left stretched some waving pasture-land, and a garden-patch marked by bean-poles and glancing corn-blades, with a long row of beehives showing in the midst of it.
A rusty open buggy and a lop-eared white horse stood in the drive opposite the side door of the house.
An elderly woman with a green cotton umbrella over her head sat placidly waiting in the buggy. She had on a flattish black straw bonnet with purple strings, and wore a dull-green silk shawl sprinkled with little bright palm leaves over her broad shoulders.
She had a large, smiling face, crinkly gray hair, and quite a thick white beard cropped close on her double chin.
The side door stood open, and a young woman kept coming out, bringing pails and round wooden boxes, which she stowed away in the back of the buggy and under the seat. She was a little round-shouldered, her face with its thick, dull-colored complexion was like her mother's, just as pleasant and smiling, only with a suggestion of shrewd sense about it which the older woman's did not have.
When the pails and boxes were all in the buggy, she locked the door, got in herself, and drove carefully out of the yard.
The road along which they proceeded lay between waving grain fields. The air was full of the rattle of mowing-machines this morning; nearly every field had its broad furrows where they had passed.
The old white horse jogged slowly along; the two women sat behind him in silence, the older one gazing about her with placid interest, the younger one apparently absorbed in her own thoughts. She was calculating how much her butter and eggs and berries would bring in Bolton, the large market town towards which they were travelling.
Every week, Inez Morse and her mother drove there to sell the produce of their little farm. Her father had died three years before; ever since, the daughter had carried on the farm, hiring very little help. There was a six-hundred-dollar mortgage on it, which she was trying to pay up. It was slow work, though they saved every penny they could, and denied themselves even the fruit of their own land.
Inez had a mild joke about the honey which her bees made. She and her mother scarcely tasted it; it all went to the Bolton markets.
“I tell you what 'tis, mother,” Inez used to say, “the day the mortgage is paid off we'll have warm biscuit and honey for supper.”
Whenever her mother looked wistfully at the delicacies which they could not keep for their own enjoyment, Inez would tell her to never mind — by and by they would eat their own honey. The remark grew into a sort of house-hold proverb for them.
The mother felt their privations much more keenly than the daughter. She was one of those women for whom these simple animal pleasures form a great part of life. She had not much resource in her mind. The payment of the mortgage did not afford her the keen delight in anticipation that it did Inez; she was hardly capable of it, though she would be pleased enough when the time came. Now she thought more about eating the honey. However, she had never grumbled at any of her daughter's management. In her opinion, Inez always did about right.
When they reached Bolton, Inez drove about the village from house to house, selling her wares at the doors, while her mother sat in the buggy and held the horse. She had a good many regular customers: her goods were always excellent, and gave satisfaction, though she had the name of being a trifle exacting in her bargains, and asking as much as she possibly could.
To-day one of her customers in making change did not give her enough by a cent. Inez, when she discovered it, drove back a quarter of a mile to have the error rectified.
The woman looked amused and a trifle contemptuous when she asked her for the missing penny. Inez saw it. “You think it is queer that I came back for one cent,” said she, with slow dignity, “but cents are my dollars.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” assented the woman, hastily, changing her expression.
Inez, driving through Bolton streets, looked at the girls of her own age, in their pretty street suits, in grave feminine admiration. She herself had never had anything but the very barest necessaries in the way of clothes. Lately a vain desire had crept into her heart for a bright ribbon bow to wear at the throat, as some of those girls did. She never dreamed of gratifying the desire, but it remained. She thought of it so much that, before she knew, she mentioned it to her mother on their way home.
“Mother,” said she, “a red ribbon bow with long ends like those girls wore would be pretty for me, wouldn't it?”
Her mother stared at her in amazement. It did not sound like Inez. “Real pretty, child,” said she. “I'd hev one ef I was you; you're young, an' you want sech things. I hed 'em when I was a girl.”
“Oh, no, mother,” cried Inez, hastily. “Of course I never thought of such a thing really. I only spoke of it. We've got to wait till the mortgage is paid to eat our honey, you know.”
That evening, after the mother and daughter had eaten their supper, and were sitting in the kitchen in the twilight, there came a knock at the door.
Inez answered it. Willy Linfield stood there.
“How do you do, Willy?” said she.
“Pretty well, thanky, Inez.”
Then there was a pause. Inez stood looking gravely at the young man. She wondered what he wanted, and why he did not tell his errand.
“Nice evening?” said he, finally.
Then there was another pause. The young fellow stood on one foot, then on the other, and got red in the face.
Inez could not imagine why he did not tell her what he wanted. At last she grew desperate.
“Did your mother want to buy some eggs, Willy?” she asked.
“No-o,” he faltered, looking rather taken aback. “I don't — she does — leastways she didn't say anything about it.”
“Was it butter, then?”
“No — I guess not. I rather think she's got plenty.”
Inez stared at him in growing amazement — what did he want?
He was a fair-complexioned young man, and he looked as if the blood were fairly bursting through his face.
“Good-night, Inez,” said he, finally.
“Good-night, Willy,” she responded. Then he walked off.
Inez went into the kitchen, entirely mystified. She told her mother about it. “What do you suppose he wanted?” asked she.
Mrs. Morse was an obtuse woman, but Inez's father had come courting her in by-gone days. She caught the clew to the mystery quicker than her daughter.
“Why, I guess he come to see you, Inez, most likely.”
“Come to see me! Why, what for?”
“Why, 'cause he wanted to. Why does any feller go to see a girl?”
It was Inez's turn to color then. “I never thought of such a thing as that,” said she. “I don't believe it, mother.”
“He did, sure's preachin'.”
“I never thought of asking him to come in. I guess you are mistaken, mother. Nobody ever came to see me so.”
Inez kept thinking about it uneasily. It was a new uneasiness for her.
The next day she met Willy Linfield in the village store. She stepped up to him at once.
“Willy,” said she, “I didn't ask you to come in last night, and I thought, p'rhaps, afterwards, I'd ought to. I never thought of your wanting to come in. I supposed you'd come on an errand.”
The young fellow had looked stiff and offended when she first approached him, but it was impossible to doubt her honest apology.
“Well, I kinder thought of making a little call on you, Inez,” he owned, coloring.
“I'm very sorry, then; but no young man ever came to see me before, and I never thought of such a thing.”
She looked into his face pleasantly. He gained courage. “Say, Inez,” said he, “the bell-ringers are going to perform in the hall to-morrow night. Wouldn't you like to go with me?”
“Yes, I'd like to. Thank you, Willy.”
Inez was not easily perturbed, but she went home now in a flutter. Such a thing as this had never happened to her before. Young men had never shown much partiality for her. Now she was exceedingly pleased. She had never realized that she cared, because she had not had the experiences of other girls; but now her girlish instincts awoke. She really had a good deal of her mother's simplicity about her, though it was redeemed by native shrewdness.
Now she began to revolve in her mind again the project of the red ribbon. She did want it so much, but she felt as if it was such a dreadful extravagance. At last she decided to get it. She actually looked pale and scared when she stood buying it at the counter in the little millinery shop.
She went home with it, feeling a guilty delight, and showed it to her mother, and told her of Willy Linfield's invitation. She had not before. This was on the afternoon of the concert day.
“My!” said her mother, elated, “you've got a beau, Inez, as sure as preachin', an' the red ribbon's beautiful.”
Inez could not, however, rid herself of the guilty feeling. She gave her mother a piece of honeycomb for her supper. “It ain't fair for me to be buying ribbon out of the mortgage money, and mother have nothing,” said she to herself. “So she must have the honey, and that makes two things out.”
But when Inez, with the crisp red bow at her throat, followed her escort awkwardly through the lighted hall, and sat by his side listening to the crystal notes of the bell-ringers, the worry about the ribbon and the weight of the mortgage seemed to slip for a moment from her young, bowed shoulders. She thought of them, only to look at some other girls with ribbons, and to be glad that she had one too. She was making a grasp, for a few minutes, at the girlhood she had never had.
The concert was Wednesday. Saturday she and her mother drove again to Bolton to sell their butter and eggs. When they got home, Inez opened the parlor, which was never used, and swept and dusted it. It was a grand apartment to her and her mother. It had never been opened since her father's funeral. When she first unclosed the door to-day she seemed to see the long coffin in the middle of the floor, where it had rested then.
She shuddered a little. “Folks that have had troubles do see coffins afterwards, even when they're happy, I suppose,” muttered she to herself.
Then she went to work. There was a large mahogany bureau in one corner of the room; some flag-bottomed chairs stood stiffly around; there was an old-fashioned card-table, with Mrs. Hemans' poems and the best lamp in a bead lamp-mat on it, between the two front windows. A narrow gilt-framed looking-glass hung over it.
Mrs. Morse heard Inez at work, and came in. “What air you doin' on, Inez?” she asked in wonder.
“I just thought I'd slick up here a little. Willy Linfield said — he might — drop in awhile Sunday night.” Inez did not look at her mother. Somehow she felt more ashamed before her than she would have before a smarter woman.
“My sakes, Inez, you don't say so! You have got a beau as sure as preachin'. Your father kept right on reg'lar, after we once set up of a Sunday night. You'll have to put a new wick in that lamp, Inez.”
“I'll see to it, mother,” replied Inez, shortly. She was delighted herself, but she felt angry with her mother for showing so much elation; it seemed to cheapen her happiness.
Sunday, Inez went with her mother to church in the morning and afternoon. She went to Sabbath-school after the morning service too. She was in a class of girls of her own age. She had never felt, someway, as if she was in the least one of their kind. She never had the things they had, or did anything which they were accustomed to do. To-day she looked at them with a feeling of kinship. She was a girl too. Three or four of them had lovers. Inez eyed them, and thought how she had one too, and he was coming to-night as well as theirs.
She had work to do Sundays as well as week-days. There were cows to milk and hens to feed. But she changed her dress after supper, and put on the new red-ribbon bow. She picked a little nosegay of cinnamon roses out in the front yard (there were a few of these little dwarf roses half buried in the tall grass there), and arranged them in an old wine-glass on the parlor mantel. When she heard Willy's feet on the slate walk and his knock on the front door, her heart beat as it never had before.
“There's your beau, Inez!” cried her mother; “he's come!”
Inez was terribly afraid Willy would hear what her mother said; the windows were all open. She went trembling to the door, and asked him into the garnished parlor.
Mrs. Morse stayed out in the kitchen. The twilight deepened. She could hear the soft hum of voices in the parlor. “Inez is in there courtin',” said she. “Her father an' me used to court, but it's all over. There's something queer about everything.”
Willy Linfield came many a Sunday night after that. It was said all around that Willy Linfield was “going” with Inez Morse. Folks wondered why he fancied her. He was a pretty, rather dandified young fellow, and Inez was so plain in her ways. She looked ten years older than he, though she was about the same age.
One Monday afternoon, she told her mother that Willy, the night before, had asked her to marry him. The two women sat at the kitchen windows, resting. They had been washing, and were just through. The kitchen floor was freshly scoured; everything looked damp and clean.
“You don't say so, Inez!” cried her mother, admiringly. “What did you tell him? Of course you'll have him; he's a real nice fellar; an' I don't believe you'll ever get anybody else.”
“I told him I'd have him if he'd wait three years for me to pay off the mortgage,” replied Inez, quietly.
“Did he say he would?”
“It's a long time for a feller to wait,” said her mother, shaking her head dubiously. “I'm afeard you'll lose him, Inez.”
“Then I'll lose him,” said Inez. “I'm going to pay off that mortgage before I marry any man. Mother, look here,” she went on, with a passion which was totally foreign to her, and showed how deeply she felt about the matter. “You know a little how I feel about that mortgage. It ain't like any common mortgage. You know how father felt about it.”
“Yes, I know, Inez,” said her mother, with a sob.
“Many's the time,” Inez went on, “that father has talked about it to me over in the field there. He'd been trying all his life to get this place clear; he'd worked like a dog; we all worked and went without. But to save his life he couldn't pay it up within six hundred dollars. When the doctor told him he couldn't live many months longer, he fretted and fretted over it to me. I guess he always talked more about his troubles to me, mother, than he did to you.”
“I guess he did, Inez.”
“Finally I told him one day — it was when he was able to be about, just before he gave up; I was out in the garden picking peas, and he was there with his cane. ‘Inez,’ says he, ‘I've got to die an' leave that mortgage unpaid, an' I've been workin' ever since I was a young man to do it.’ ‘Father,’ says I, ‘don't you worry. I'll pay up that mortgage.’ ‘You can't Inez,’ says he. ‘Yes, I will,’ says I; ‘I promise you, father.’ It seemed to cheer him up. He didn't fret so much about it to me afterwards, but he kept asking me if I thought I really could. I always said, ‘Yes.’
“Now, mother, if I marry Willy now, nobody knows what's going to be to hinder my keeping my promise to father. Willy ain't got anything laid up, and he ain't very strong. Besides, he's got his mother and sister to do for. Hattie's just beginning to help herself a little, but she can't do much for her mother yet. Mrs. Linfield ain't able to work, and Willy's got to look out for her. Then I've got you. And there might be more still to do for in the course of two or three years; nobody knows. If I marry Willy now, I shall never pay off that mortgage, that I promised poor father I would, and I ain't going to do it. It'll take just three years to pay it every cent; and then I'll marry him, if he's willing to wait. If the mortgage was just for me I wouldn't care, though I don't think it would be very wise, anyway. But it's for father.”
Mrs. Morse was crying. “I know you're jest right about the mortgage, Inez,” she sobbed; “but you'll lose your beau as sure as preachin'.”
Nevertheless, it seemed for a long time as if she would not. Willy kept faithful. He was a good sort of young fellow, and very fond of Inez, though he hardly entered into her feelings about the mortgage. There was at times a perfect agony of pity in her heart over her father. It made no difference to her that all his earthly troubles were over for him now. When she thought over how he had toiled and worried and denied himself for the sake of owning their little farm clear, and then had to die without seeing it accomplished, it seemed as if she could not bear it. The pitiful spectacle of her poor, dull father working all his life for such a small aim in such small ways, in vain, haunted her.
During the next three years she strained every nerve. She denied herself even more than she had formerly. Sometimes she used to think her clothes were hardly fit for her to appear in beside Willy, he always looked so nice. But she thought he knew why she dressed so poorly, and would not mind. “It brings the time when we can eat our honey nearer,” she said.
Willy was faithful for a long time; but, the last six months of the third year, he began to drop off a little. Once in a while he would miss a Sunday night. Inez fretted over it a little, but she did not really think of doubting him, he had been constant to her so long. Besides, there was only one more payment to be made on the mortgage, and she was so jubilant over this that she was hopeful about everything else.
Still, it was not with an altogether light heart that she went to the lawyer's office one afternoon and made the last payment. She was not so happy as she had anticipated. Willy had not been near her for three weeks now. She had not seen him even in church.
Still, she went straight to his house from the lawyer's office; that had been the old laughing bargain between them. She was to go and tell him the good news; then he was to go home with her, and help eat the festive supper of warm biscuits and honey.
She walked right in at the side door, and entered the sitting-room. She was familiar with the place. In the sitting-room sat Willy's mother and sister. They both started when they saw her.
“Oh, mother, here she is!” cried Hattie, without speaking to Inez.
Inez's heart sank, but she tried to speak naturally.
“Where's Willy?” asked she. “He's home from the shop, ain't he? I've made the last payment on the mortgage, and I've come to tell him.”
The mother and daughter made no reply, but gazed at each other in silent distress.
“Oh, Inez!” cried Hattie, at length, as if she had nothing else to say. “Come into the parlor a minute with me, Inez,” she added, after a little.
Inez followed her trembling.
Hattie shut the door, and threw her arms around Inez. “Oh, Inez!” she cried again, and began weeping; “I don't know how to tell you. Willy has treated you awful mean. We've all talked to him, but it didn't do any good. Oh, Inez, I can't tell you! He's — gone over to West Dorset this afternoon — to get married! Oh, Inez?”
“Who is he going to marry?”
“Her name's Tower — Minnie Tower. Oh, Inez, we're so awful sorry! He hasn't known her long. We never dreamed of such a thing.”
“Never mind,” said Inez, quietly. “Don't take on so, Hattie. Perhaps it's all for the best.”
“Why, don't you care, Inez?”
There was a pitiful calm on Inez's dull face. “There's no use fretting over what can't be helped,” said she. “I don't think Willy has acted bad. I made him wait a long time.”
“That was the trouble, Inez.”
“I couldn't help it. I should do it over again.”
Inez took it so calmly that the other girl brightened. She had felt frightened and distressed over this, but she had not a very deep nature.
“Inez,” said she, hesitatingly, when she made a motion to go; “they've got a room fixed up-stairs, you know; would you like to see it? It looks real pretty.”
Inez shuddered. This fine stab served to pierce the deepest, though she knew the girl meant all right.
“No, thank you, Hattie, I won't stop.”
Inez was thankful when she got out in the air. She felt a little faint. She had to walk a mile before she reached home. Once she stopped and rested, sitting on a stone beside the road. She looked wearily around at the familiar landscape.
“The mortgage is paid,” said she, “but I'll never eat my honey.”
Her mother was watching at the kitchen window for her when she entered the yard.
“Is it paid, Inez?” asked she, eagerly, when the door opened.
“Every cent, mother,” replied the daughter, kissing her — something she seldom did; she was not given to caresses.
“Where's your beau?” was the next question. “I thought you was going to bring him home.”
“He ain't coming, mother. He's gone over to West Dorset to get married.”
“Inez Morse, you don't mean to say so! You don't mean you've really lost your beau? Wa'al, I told you you would.”
Mrs. Morse sat down and began to cry.
Inez had taken her things off, and now she was getting out the moulding-board and some flour.
“What air you doin' on, Inez?”
“I'm making the warm biscuit for supper, mother, to eat with the honey.”
“You ain't goin' to make warm biscuit when you've lost your beau?”
“I don't see why that need to cheat us out of our supper we've talked about all these years.”
“I do declar', I don't believe you mind it a bit,” said the poor, simple mother, her sorrow for her daughter lighting up a little.
“I don't care so much but what I've got enough comfort left to live on, mother.”
“Wa'al, I'm glad you kin look at it so, Inez; but you air a queer girl.”
The biscuit were as light as puffs. Inez's face was as cheerful as usual when she and her mother sat down at the little table, with the biscuit and golden honey-comb in a clear glass dish between them. The mother looked placidly happy. She was delighted that Inez could “take it so.”
But when she saw her help herself to the biscuit and honey, she said again; “You air a queer girl, Inez. I know the mortgage is paid, an' I only wish your poor father knew, an' here we sit eatin' the warm biscuit and honey. But I should think losin' your beau would take all the sweetness out of the honey.”
The pleasant patience in Inez's face was more pathetic than tears. “I guess there's a good many folks find it the same way with their honey in this world,” said she. “To-morrow, if it's pleasant, we'll drive to Bolton, and get you a new dress, mother.”