A Wandering Samaritan

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Cosmopolitan Vol. II No. 1 (September, 1886)

A low stone wall bordered the lane on either side. There were clumps of tansy and yarrow with straggling bushes of meadow-sweet and hardback clustering closely around the loosely piled rocks. Plenty of poison ivy vines clambered over them too. The lane was narrow and grassy; even the deep wheel-ruts through the center were overgrown with grass. And everything was dusty; there had been a little drought lately; the leaves were powdered thick with dust.

It was a hot day in August, and about four o'clock in the afternoon. Midway of the lane stood an old twisted apple tree. Underneath it was a little circle of shade. An old man sat beneath the tree, with his back against the shaggy, mossy trunk. He was so motionless that a passer through the lane, happening accidentally to glance his way, would have taken in the fact of the proximity of a second animated being with a strange shock.

He looked as much a part of inanimate nature as the stones in the wall. The sudden conviction of the possibility of motion in him was enough to send a startled thrill through one. If his eyes had been closed in sleep, it might have been different; but they were wide open, staring peacefully straight ahead at the flowering bushes opposite. They were of a light blue color, large and clear, and did not look filmy with age, though the man must have been over eighty.

His white hair, as fine and thick as wool, stood out on either side of his placid face. He wore no beard. His mouth was wide and curved slightly, not so much into a smile as into an expression of pleasant serenity. His rusty, black clothes were loose and baggy; an old valise lay on the grass near him, and a stout stick that had evidently been cut for a cane.

He staid there motionless for a half hour or so. No one came through the lane to disturb him. The bees and the butterflies whirred by unceasingly, and the dusty sunbeams, which penetrated the apple-boughs here and there, slanted a little more. Then he arose, took his valise on his arm, and moved slowly up the lane, leaning on his stout stick.

A few rods farther on, the lane inclined slightly to the right, and then a small story-and-a-half white house, which marked its terminus, appeared. The lane merged imperceptibly into the grassy door yard. There was a green curved trellis, which looked like a hood, over the door, and a prairie rose tree clung to it, but the roses were all gone by.

The sun had moved so far toward the west that a cool shadow lay over the front of the house and the yard. There were two windows on each side of the front door. The blinds of one of them were flung wide open, and a light-haired head of a woman and an arm and hand moving with the regular motion of sewing were visible.

The woman rose quietly and came to the door, when she looked out and saw the old man.

“Is that you, Doctor Ware?” said she.

She was a slim, round-shouldered woman. Her light hair was strained back tightly from a full, blue-veined forehead. There was a sweet expression about her thin, nervous mouth.

“Yes, it's me; I'm on my summer travels ag'in. How's all your folks, Miss Hatton?”

“Well, Mary Anne ain't very smart. I've been wishin' for some time that you'd come along. She's been takin' some doctor's stuff, but it ain't seemed to do her much good, and I thought mebby some of your yerbs would give her a start. Come right in. 'Lijah's out in the field to work, but he'll be real glad to see you. He's said several times lately that it seemed 's if 'twas 'bout time for you to be comin'.”

The old man followed her into the cool, sparsely-furnished sitting-room, and seated himself in the large cane-seated rocker that she placed for him.

“Mary Anne!” she called then, standing in the door, “come, come down stairs; there's somebody here wants to see you!”

Mary Anne, a slender girl, who looked like her mother, except that she was younger and sweeter, came down presently. She walked weakly, there was a bright flush on her soft cheeks, and her blue eyes had an eager, inquiring look in them.

“Who is it?” she asked tremulously. “Oh, Doctor Ware!”

All the eagerness faded from her eyes.

“Well, Mary Anne, how air ye?”

“Pretty well, thank you.”

“That's what she allers says,” remarked her mother. “She ain't well a bit!”

The girl did not contradict her; she dropped listlessly into a chair.

After a little while, her mother beckoned Dr. Ware furtively out of the room, and they had a whispered conference out in the kitchen. Mary Anne crept wearily up stairs and laid down on her bed again. Her mother heard her.

“There she goes to lay down again,” said she; “she don't seem to hev no ambition nor interest in anythin'. Her father an' me hev tried an' tried, but we can't rouse her a bit. Here's the water for the yerbs, if you've got 'em ready.”

Soon a peculiar, pungent steam from the simmering juices of certain medicinal plants floated through the house. The old man brooded over the bubbling kettle like a benevolent witch.

“There ain't anythin' like this to give anybody an appetite, an' strengthen' of 'em up,” he said complacently, as he poured finally the greenish-black decoction into a bowl.

Many such bowls did poor, ailing Mary Anne empty through the following days. She patiently took everything that they gave her.

The itinerant vender of herbs, who might have been ranked as a physician after an innocent, primitive fashion, having a gentle craft in the use of healing plants, staid on. He always stopped awhile with the Hattons while on his summer pilgrimages among these adjoining rural villages.

A good many people welcomed him gladly to their homes, for that matter. They liked to dose their families with his herb teas once a year. Then there was a religious sympathy between them too. Most of them hereabouts were devout Methodists, and he was an ardent member of that denomination.

But Mary Anne, in spite of her long draughts of these bitterish, pungent, aromatic teas, grew no better. Doctor Ware kept up a scrutiny of her that was shrewd from its very simplicity and singleness.

“There ain't much use in givin' medicine to Mary Anne,” he told her mother one day; “thar's troubles that nary a yerb that grows on this airth's goin' to cure. Mebbe thar's some in the green fields King David sung about.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mary Anne's got somethin' or other on her mind.”

Mrs. Hatton's delicate face flushed a burning red.

“You're mistaken about that, Doctor Ware,” she said; “I know you are. Mary Anne can't hev nothin' on her mind; she ain't never hed a thing to fret her. Her father an' me hev allers looked out for her, as ef she'd been a cosset-lamb. She ain't never hed to work hard, an' we've bought her everything we could afford.”

That afternoon the old man went into one of the neighboring houses. A large, handsome woman, who was a great talker, lived there.

“How do you think Mary Anne is getting along?” said she.

“Well, she's rather slim.”

“It'll take more than your herbs to cure her, Doctor Ware,” said the woman, with a laugh that was not ill-natured, though unpleasantly knowing. “Medicines for the body don't help the mind, I s'pose you know. You needn't say anythin' about it; her mother'd never forgive me; but the long an' short of the whole business is, Mary Anne Hatton's lost her beau. That's everythin' that ails her. She's goin' into a decline over it.”

“Who was her beau?”

“That young Adams feller who lives 'bout a mile below here; you know him. He went with her real stidy last winter and don't come nigh her now.”

The old man asked her a few more questions and then took leave. He walked straight down the road to the Adams farm. Just as he approached it, a young man came out of the yard, leading a horse.

“How do you do, Doctor Ware,” he said heartily, stopping and shaking hands.

He was a pretty, rather boyish-looking young fellow.

“Well, I'm pretty well, thanky, Henry.”

“Coming into the house, ain't you?”

“No, thanky; guess I can't stop. I'll stan' here an' talk a minute. I'm a stoppin' up to 'Lijah Hatton's, mebbe you know.”

The other started.

“No, I didn't.”

“Yes, I've been thar some days. Mary Anne's pretty miser'ble.”

“You don't mean it! I ain't heard of it. She ain't very sick, is she?”

“Well, I don't like to see anybody lookin' the way she does.”

“What's the matter?”

“It's pretty hard tellin'.”

“Say — of course she ain't — I know she ain't. But you don't s'pose she's — you don't s'pose it's possible she's worryin' over anything, do you?”

“It acts more like that than anythin' else, ef I was to say what I really thought.”

The young fellow's fair face was all burning with blushes. He looked at the old man, then away again.

“Look here,” he stammered, “you ain't heard anything said, have you? You don't suppose it is anything to do with — me?”

“Well, I've heard a leetle. Look a' here, Henry, mebbe you think it ain't any of my business, an' it ain't reely; but I'm a-goin' to tell you just what I think. You ain't been showin' out yourself to be the kind of young man I thought you was.”

“Then — you think — that is it?”

“Well, Henry, I've 'bout come to that conclusion.”

The young man groaned out, “Oh dear!” and hid his face for a minute against his horse's neck.

“Look here,” said he, raising his head presently. “I ain't meant to do anything mean. Hang it! I ain't that kind of a fellow, you know. But — I'm young, and I'd been going with Mary Anne pretty steady, and I didn't have much to get married on, and I reckon I got kind of scared, you know. Then mother she talked some; she hadn't a thing against her, but she thought I might wait and do a little better. So I thought maybe I'd better haul off a little while, and see how we both stood it.”

“I never heard a word till this minute about her being sick,” he continued. “I've been awful busy and I've been away. If I had heard, I guess — I don't see why mother didn't tell me. She must have known. Well, that's all there is to it. I ain't been any too happy myself lately. Look here, I'll be up there to-night. Poor little thing! I guess if I had known —”

“Well, don't you go to feelin' too bad. I dassay you didn't mean no harm, an' if you act like a man about it now, 't'll be all right.”

That night the old man watched eagerly. He kept sauntering out to the head of the lane and looking, but Henry never came in sight.

Presently the candle-light behind Mary Anne's little curtain went out, and he gave up the watch with gathering indignation.

“He's a mean feller after all,” he muttered, plodding heavily through the dewy grass back to the house.

Early the next morning, he set out for the Adams place. As he approached the house, he peered about the yard sharply, but he could see nothing of the delinquent young man. He knocked on the side door, and presently a woman opened it.

She was tall and large, and her blue eyes stared out of her heavy face with a sort of reflective uncertainty, though her mouth was smiling.

“Good evenin', Miss Adams.”

“Good mornin',” said she stiffly.

“I guess you don't know who I am, Miss Adams.”

“I can't say as I do, jest.”

“My name is Ware.”

“Oh, yes, I couldn't think for a minute who you was. It's quite a spell since you've been round. Fine weather we're havin', ain't we? Come in, won't you?”

She had a large earthen bowl under her arm, and she was beating eggs in it with a heavy iron spoon as she talked. She beat energetically, and the spoon made a din against the sides of the bowl.

“No, thanky, Miss Adams, I guess I can't stop. I'm a stayin' up to Hatton's, an' I'm goin' to help him a leetle this forenoon whilst the sun's high 'bout spreadin' his hay. Whar's Henry?”

“Henry? Oh, he ain't here.”

“Gone far?”

“No, not very far. Well, he's been thinkin' of goin' over to his uncle's in Dover for some time.”

“Over to his uncle's, hey? Goin' to stay long?”

“Well, I dunno jest how long.”

“Shouldn't think he could leave very well in hayin' time.”

“Well, he didn't know how to.”

Mrs. Adams screwed up her mouth moodily between her answers, and beat the eggs fiercely.

The old man hesitated.

“Didn't Henry say nothin' 'bout comin' up to our house last evenin'?” he asked finally.

The woman's eyes flashed suddenly under their drooping lids. The iron spoon jumped in her nervous hand.

“Well, I dunno as he did.”

“I saw him yesterday afternoon, an' he said he was.”

“Did he?”

Doctor Ware stepped up closer to her. His old voice quivered.

“Look a-here, Miss Adams, I'm a-goin' to speak to you 'bout it. You're his mother, an' you'd orter hev some influence over him an' coax him to do what's right, ef he ain't inclined to himself. Mebbe you know somethin' 'bout it. You know your son's been up to see the Hatton girl consider'ble.”

“I don't know nothin' about it.”

“Well, she got real kind of interested in him, as near as I can make out, an' he ain't been there lately, an' she's worried a good deal. She's real poorly, accordin' to my way of thinkin'.”

“I don't want to hear nothin' about it.”

“Miss Adams, you don't mean to say you don't want Henry to do what's right?”

“I don't want to talk about it at all!”

“You don't want to see that poor child frettin' herself to death before your face and eyes an' not do anythin' to stop it, when it's your own son's fault?”

“I don't want to say another word about it, an' I ain't goin' to! Henry's got to manage his own affairs.”

Suddenly the old man started.

“Hark a minute! What's that?” said he.

Mrs. Adams clattered her spoon furiously.

“What's what?” she asked.

“I thought I heard somebody holler.”

“Guess 'twas Mr. Jackson over there with his oxen. He hollers like all possessed at 'em sometimes.

“I've got somethin' in the oven, an' I guess I shall hev to go in.”

“Miss Adams!”

But she had fairly shut the door in his face.

That morning, out in the hay field, he asked Mr. Hatton, after a long spell of work and reflection:

“I s'pose you know Miss Adams, down below here, Henry Adams' mother, don't ye?”

“Known her ever since I knew anythin'.”

“Good kind of a woman, ain't she?”

“Guess she's good enough; awful set when she gits her mind made up.”

“Henry don't look as if he was.”

Mary Anne's father turned around and faced the old man fiercely. His dark, leathery face with heavy seams about the mouth and eyes worked. He was a slow, taciturn man, and he had never before mentioned this subject to his visitor.

“I wish the Lord,” he said, “I had my hands on that feller sometimes. That's what ails Mary Anne. Come jest long enough to git her to thinkin' consider'ble of him an' then — She ain't tough like some girls, an' she takes everythin' to heart dreadful. An' there's some things mother an' me can't do for her. We've allers tried to do everythin'. Seems as there ain't no need of it, an' there ain't. Henry Adams ain't the only feller in the world. But that don't make no difference to her. There ain't no use scoldin' her. She's failin' every day.”

“You ain't never said anythin' to him?”

“Said anythin'? Guess I shouldn't say much, unless I said it with my fists!”

Mary Anne's poor father bore down upon the sweet, dying clover and grasses with his angry foot, and raked again sternly.

That evening Doctor Ware went down to the Adams house again. As he drew near, he heard a voice singing to a melodeon accompaniment. When he knocked the music ceased a minute, and Mrs. Adams put her head out of the sitting-room window.

“Has Henry got home?” asked he.

“No, he ain't. Won't you come in, Doctor Ware?”

“No, thanky; I jest thought I'd luk round an' see ef he was to home.”

The music began again directly. Mrs. Adams had a sweet voice. She had sung in the choir when she was a girl, and had an enduring love for music, which age and prosaicness could not affect. Her melodeon was her dear household god. Her voice rang out sweet and shrill in a psalm tune after Doctor Ware, as he plodded up the road.

The next day he went to Dover, a town about six miles distant. Part of the way he rode, begging lifts from passing teams; part of the way he walked.

In Dover, he found Henry's uncle's house easily enough, but not Henry. He was not there; had not been there at all.

It was late in the afternoon when the old man reached home. He was stiff and tired, but he did not eat or rest. He went straight to the Adams' again. He knocked. No one came to the door, but he heard, like an echo to the knock, the cry that he had heard the other day. The echo was a double and triple one too; it came again and again; it resolved itself into words. He heard distinctly:

“Help! help! Let me out! Let — me — o-ut!”

“What's the matter? Who is it?” he shouted back.

“It's me — Henry. Mother's got me locked down here!”

The poor young fellow, who was hardly more than a boy, was evidently terribly shaken. The words ended in a groan.

“I'll let you out, Henry. Whar air you?”

The old man knelt down on the ground and put his ear close to a tiny grated cellar window. The voice seemed to come from that direction, though from a long distance; it was almost smothered.

“I'm down here — in the cellar — in a little room we store things in. Get the key off the kitchen shelf. Oh!”

“Thar, thar, Henry, I'm a comin'.”

The house door was not locked. Doctor Ware hastened into the kitchen. There was a bunch of keys on the corner of the high, drab-painted shelf. He caught them up and opened doors till he found the cellar stairs. Henry sang out again when he heard his steps on them:

“Here I am, here! Over to the left!”

The store-room, which had served as a dungeon, was a small apartment staunchly petitioned off in a corner of the cellar. The stone cellar walls formed two of its sides; stout posts and planks the others. The door was thick and firmly hung.

“The little, nasty key!” Henry cried, when he heard his deliverer working at the lock.

“What on airth does all this mean?” asked the old man, when the door was open and the young fellow came out.

The prisoner's face was white, and his blue eyes looked out of it wild and scared. He sank down on the cellar stairs and rested a minute, he trembled so.

“Mother — she locked me in here night before last.”

“What fur?”

“I told her I was goin' over to see Mary Anne. She kinder tried to git me off the notion, and didn't act as ef she cared much. But when I stuck to it I was goin', she got real upset. I didn't think she minded so much either. She wanted me to come down here an' bring her up some pork before I started, and she asked me pleasant enough. She must have come down after me like a cat; I didn't hear her. I was just getting the pork out of the barrel, when I heard the door bang to and the key turn. I'd left it in the lock. I hollered, but she wouldn't say a word. I kept screaming about all night and next day, but she wouldn't let me out, and I couldn't raise anybody else. I'd 'bout given it up when I heard you knock just now. See anything of mother when you come in?”

“No; I guess she's gone out somewhere. Ain't you hungry?”

“No; she left enough for me to eat. There were mince pies stored away there, and a lot of fruit cake. She knew I wouldn't starve. If I'd had a hatchet or something, I could have broken the door down, but I didn't have so much as a jack-knife. Oh!”

“Don't go to feelin' bad, Henry. Le's go up stairs.”

“I can't help it. Seems as if I should go crazy — to think of mother doing such a thing!”

But he arose and went up the stairs inanely, with Doctor Ware following. They had been standing talking in the kitchen a moment, when they heard steps.

“That's mother,” whispered Henry, and pulled his companion into the sitting-room. They stood there listening. They heard the door open and the sound of the steps across the kitchen floor. The cellar stairs creaked.

There was a cry from below, and the steps returned rapidly. Mrs. Adams walked into the sitting-room directly, as if she knew they were there.

“Henry!” she gasped.

Then she leaned back against the wall and looked at him.

Through all his life, Henry Adams had never seen fear in his mother's face. He saw it now.

“Mother,” he said sternly, “I should like to have you tell me what you mean by such actions.”

“I was jest comin' to let you out,” she murmured feebly.

“What did you mean by doin' such a thing? Are you crazy?”

“No, I ain't, Henry. Don't be mad. I'll tell you all about it.”

She looked at him with abashed, pleading eyes. His boyish face seemed strange to her. Mrs. Adams was a keen, shrewd woman; but one of the simplest of the facts in her daily life, which stood out before her glaringly, she had not noted: her son was no longer her property, but his own. She looked up at him, trembling. He was small, but taller than she.

“Oh, Henry, I was jest a-comin' down to let you out, Henry, I was! I'd been over to the neighborhood meetin', an' they got to talkin' 'bout her, 'bout Mary Anne, you know. I come right home to let you out. I didn't mean no harm no how. Only you're all I've got, and her folks ain't very forehanded, an' she's been petted, an' she ain't very strong. I thought mebbe you could do better.”

“But I've been thinkin' of it over this afternoon,” she continued, “an' I thought I wouldn't say anythin' more 'bout it. You could do jest as you was a mind to, an' I'd make the best of it. I was comin' right home to let you out. Henry, you ain't goin' to be set against me for it?”

“No, it's all right, mother; we won't say anything more about it.”

“I'll give you a bottle of my blackberry wine to carry over to her when you go to-night. It'll do her good.”

That night when it was dusk, after tea, Mary Anne and her mother were in the sitting-room by the window. Suddenly Mary Anne gave a little gasping cry:

“Oh, mother, here's Henry!”

Pretty soon the full moon rose. Doctor Ware came down from his chamber and found Mrs. Hatton by the window, leaning out cautiously, her face toward the front door. She drew her head in when he entered.

“Mary Anne's got company,” she whispered, her lips trembling into smiles. “Henry Adams.”

“I know it. I think she seems consider'ble better. Well, I guess I'll say good-bye, Miss Hatton.”

“You ain't goin'?”

“Well, yes; I orter be movin'. I've staid here 'bout long enough. I'm a-goin' to Mr. Thomas' to-night an' on to Somerset to-morrer. I see Thomas this arternoon. I thought 'twould be cooler goin' to-night. You kin tell your husband good-bye. I see him goin' down to the village.”

“Yes, I'll tell him. Well, good-bye, Doctor Ware, if you feel as if you must go. I hope you'll feel free to come ag'in any time.”

Before he had left the room, she was peeping from the window again, and straining to listen to the low murmur of voices on the doorstep. Her face was alive with the tenderest and sweetest curiosity.

The old herb-man, coming around the house from a side door, glanced at the young couple seated together under the green trellis. They must have seen him as he turned off down the lane, but they never spoke a word. The old man plodded on through the crisp dew-white grass, between the wet bushes, which were bushes of silver in the moonlight.

“When the sick folks get well, the doctor goes,” he said to himself.