The Most Wonderful Woman by Eleanor H.
And a Great Man who proves himself truly great
It was Old Home Week in the little village, and this was to be the
biggest day. From a distant city was to come the town's one really
Great Man, to speak in the huge tent erected on the Common for just
that purpose. From end to end the village was aflame with bunting and
astir with excitement, so that even I, merely a weary sojourner in the
place, felt the thrill and tingled pleasantly.
When the Honorable Jonas Whitermore entered the tent at two o'clock
that afternoon I had a good view of him, for my seat was next the broad
aisle. Behind him on the arm of an usher came a small, frightened-looking little woman in a plain brown suit and a plainer brown bonnet
set askew above thin gray hair. The materials of both suit and bonnet
were manifestly good, but all distinction of line and cut was
hopelessly lost in the wearing. Who she was I did not know; but I soon
learned, for one of the two young women in front of me said a low
something to which the other gave back a swift retort, woefully
audible: “His wife? That little dowdy thing in brown? Oh, what a
pity! Such an ordinary woman!”
My cheeks grew hot in sympathy with the painful red that swept to
the roots of the thin gray hair under the tip-tilted bonnet. Then I
glanced at the man.
Had he heard? I was not quite sure. His chin, I fancied, was a
trifle higher. I could not see his eyes, but I did see his right hand;
and it was clenched so tightly that the knuckles were white with the
strain. I thought I knew then. He had heard. The next minute he had
passed on up the aisle and the usher was seating the
more-frightened-than-ever little wife in the roped-off section reserved
for important guests.
It was then that I became aware that the man on my right was saying
“I beg your pardon, but-did you speak—to me?” I asked, turning to
The old man met my eyes with an abashed smile.
“I guess I'm the party what had ought to be askin' pardon,
stranger,” he apologized. “I talk to myself so much I kinder furgit
sometimes, and do it when folks is round. I was only sayin' that I
wondered why 'twas the good Lord give folks tongues and forgot to give
'em brains to run 'em with. But maybe you didn't hear what she said,”
he hazarded, with a jerk of his thumb toward the young woman in front.
“About Mrs. Whitermore? Yes, I heard.”
His face darkened.
“Then you know. And she heard, too! 'Ordinary woman,' indeed! Humph!
To think that Betty Tillington should ever live to hear herself called
an 'ordinary woman'! You see, I knew her when she was Betty
“Did you?” I smiled encouragingly. I was getting interested, and I
hoped he would keep on talking. On the platform the guest of honor was
holding a miniature reception. He was the picture of polite attention
and punctilious responsiveness; but I thought I detected a quick glance
now and then toward the roped-off section where sat his wife and I
wondered again—had he heard that thoughtless comment?
From somewhere had come the rumor that the man who was to introduce
the Honorable Jonas Whitermore had been delayed by a washout “down the
road,” but was now speeding toward us by automobile. For my part, I
fear I wished the absentee a punctured tire so that I might hear more
of the heart-history of the faded little woman with the bonnet askew.
“Yes, I knew her,” nodded my neighbor, “and she didn't look much
then like she does now. She was as pretty as a picture and there wa'n't
a chap within sight of her what wa'n't head over heels in love with
her. But there wa'n't never a chance for but two of us and we knew it:
Joe Whitermore and a chap named Fred Farrell. So, after a time, we just
sort of stood off and watched the race—as pretty a race as ever you
see. Farrell had the money and the good looks, while Whitermore was
poor as a church mouse, and he was homely, too. But Whitermore must
have had somethin'—maybe somethin' we didn't see, for she took him.
“Well, they married and settled down happy as two twitterin' birds,
but poor as Job's turkey. For a year or so she was as pretty and gay as
ever she was and into every good time goin'; then the babies came, one
after another, some of 'em livin' and some dyin' soon after they came.
“Of course, things was different then. What with the babies and the
housework, Betty couldn't get out much, and we didn't see much of her.
When we did see her, though, she'd smile and toss her head in the old
way and say how happy she was and didn't we think her babies was the
prettiest things ever, and all that. And we did, of course, and told
“But we couldn't help seein' that she was gettin' thin and white and
that no matter how she tossed her head, there wa'n't any curls there to
bob like they used to, 'cause her hair was pulled straight back and
twisted up into a little hard knot just like as if she had done it up
when some one was callin' her to come quick.”
“Yes, I can imagine it,” I nodded.
“Well, that's the way things went at the first, while he was gettin'
his start, and I guess they was happy then. You see, they was pullin'
even them days and runnin' neck and neck. Even when Fred Farrell, her
old beau, married a girl she knew and built a fine house all piazzas
and bow-winders right in sight of their shabby little rented cottage, I
don't think she minded it; even if Mis' Farrell didn't have anythin' to
do from mornin' till night only set in a white dress on her piazza, and
rock, and give parties, Betty didn't seem to mind. She had her Joe.
“But by and by she didn't have her Joe. Other folks had him and his
business had him. I mean, he'd got up where the big folks in town begun
to take notice of him; and when he wa'n't tendin' to business, he was
hobnobbin' with them, so's to bring more business. And—of
course she, with her babies and housework, didn't have no time for
“Well, next they moved away. When they went they took my oldest
girl, Mary, to help Betty; and so we still kept track of 'em. Mary said
it was worse than ever in the new place. It was quite a big city and
just livin' cost a lot. Mr. Whitermore, of course, had to look decent,
out among folks as he was, so he had to be 'tended to first. Then what
was left of money and time went to the children. It wa'n't long, too,
before the big folks there begun to take notice, and Mr.
Whitermore would come home all excited and tell about what was said to
him and what fine things he was bein' asked to do. He said 'twas goin'
to mean everythin' to his career.
“Then come the folks to call, ladies in fine carriages with
dressed-up men to hold the door open and all that; but always, after
they'd gone, Mary'd find Betty cryin' somewhere, or else tryin' to fix
a bit of old lace or ribbon on to some old dress. Mary said Betty's
clo's were awful, then. You see, there wa'n't never any money left for
her things. But all this didn't last long, for very soon the fine
ladies stopped comin' and Betty just settled down to the children and
didn't try to fix her clo's any more.
“But by and by, of course, the money begun to come in—lots of
it—and that meant more changes, naturally. They moved into a bigger
house, and got two more hired girls and a man, besides Mary. Mr.
Whitermore said he didn't want his wife to work so hard now, and that,
besides, his position demanded it. He was always talkin' about his
position those days, tryin' to get his wife to go callin' and go to
parties and take her place as his wife, as he put it.
“And Mary said Betty did try, and try hard. Of course she had nice
clo's now, lots of 'em; but somehow they never seemed to look just
right. And when she did go to parties, she never knew what to talk
about, she told Mary. She didn't know a thing about the books and
pictures and the plays and quantities of other things that everybody
else seemed to know about; and so she just had to sit still and say
“Mary said she could see it plagued her and she wa'n't surprised
when, after a time, Betty begun to have headaches and be sick party
nights, and beg Mr. Whitermore to go alone—and then cry because he did
go alone. You see, she'd got it into her head then that her husband was
ashamed of her.”
“And was—he?” demanded I.
“I don't know. Mary said she couldn't tell exactly. He seemed
worried, sometimes, and quite put out at the way his wife acted about
goin' to places. Then, other times, he didn't seem to notice or care if
he did have to go alone. It wa'n't that he was unkind to her. It was
just that he was so busy lookin' after himself that he forgot all about
her. But Betty took it all as bein' ashamed of her, no matter what he
did; and for a while she just seemed to pine away under it. They'd
moved to Washington by that time and, of course, with him in the
President's Cabinet, it was pretty hard for her.
“Then, all of a sudden, she took a new turn and begun to study and
to try to learn things—everything: how to talk and dress and act,
besides stuff that was just book-learnin'. She's been doin' that for
quite a spell and Mary says she thinks she'd do pretty well now, in
lots of ways, if only she had half a chance—somethin' to encourage
her, you know. But her husband don't seem to take no notice, now, just
as if he's got tired expectin' anythin' of her and that's made her so
scared and discouraged she's too nervous to act as if she did
know anythin'. An' there 't is.
“Well, maybe she is just an ordinary woman,” sighed the old man, a
little sternly, “if bein' 'ordinary' means she's like lots of others.
For I suspect, stranger, that, if the truth was told, lots of other big
men have got wives just like her—women what have been workin' so
tarnal hard to help their husbands get ahead that they hain't had time
to see where they themselves was goin'. And by and by they wake up to
the fact that they hain't got nowhere. They've just stayed still, 'way
“Mary says she don't believe Betty would mind even that, if her
husband only seemed to care—to—to understand, you know, how it had
been with her and how—Crickey! I guess they've come,” broke off the
old man suddenly, craning his neck for a better view of the door.
From outside had sounded the honk of an automobile horn and the wild
cheering of men and boys. A few minutes later the long-delayed
It was the usual thing. Before the Speaker of the Day came other
speakers, and each of them, no matter what his subject, failed not to
refer to “our illustrious fellow townsman” in terms of highest eulogy.
One told of his humble birth, his poverty-driven boyhood, his strenuous
youth. Another drew a vivid picture of his rise to fame. A third
dilated upon the extraordinary qualities of brain and body which had
made such achievement possible and which would one day land him in the
White House itself.
Meanwhile, close to the speaker's stand sat the Honorable Jonas
Whitermore himself, for the most part grim and motionless, though I
thought I detected once or twice a repetition of the half-troubled,
half-questioning glances directed toward his wife that I had seen
before. Perhaps it was because I was watching him so closely that I saw
the sudden change come to his face. The lips lost their perfunctory
smile and settled into determined lines. The eyes, under their shaggy
brows, glowed with sudden fire. The entire pose and air of the man
became curiously alert, as if with the eager impatience of one who has
determined upon a certain course of action and is anxious only to be up
and doing. Very soon after that he was introduced, and, amid deafening
cheers, rose to his feet. Then, very quietly, he began to speak.
We had heard he was an orator. Doubtless many of us were familiar
with his famous nickname “Silver-tongued Joe.” We had expected great
things of him—a brilliant discourse on the tariff, perhaps, or on our
foreign relations, or yet on the Hague Tribunal. But we got none of
these. We got first a few quiet words of thanks and appreciation for
the welcome extended him; then we got the picture of an everyday home
just like ours, with all its petty cares and joys so vividly drawn that
we thought we were seeing it, not hearing about it. He told us it was a
little home of forty years ago, and we began to realize, some way, that
he was speaking of himself.
“I may, you know, here,” he said, “for I am among my own people. I
am at home.”
Even then I didn't see what he was coming to. Like the rest I sat
slightly confused, wondering what it all meant. Then, suddenly, into
his voice there crept a tense something that made me sit more erect in
“My indomitable will-power? My superb courage? My
stupendous strength of character? My undaunted persistence and
marvelous capacity for hard work?” he was saying. “Do you think it's to
that I owe what I am? Never! Come back with me to that little home of
forty years ago and I'll show you to what and to whom I do owe it.
First and foremost I owe it to a woman—no ordinary woman, I want you
to understand—but to the most wonderful woman in the world.”
I knew then. So did my neighbor, the old man at my side. He jogged
my elbow frantically and whispered:—
“He's goin' to—he's goin' to! He's goin' to show her he does
care and understand! He did hear that girl. Crickey! But ain't
he the cute one to pay her back like that, for what she said?”
The little wife down front did not know—yet, however. I realized
that, the minute I looked at her and saw her drawn face and her
frightened, staring eyes fixed on her husband up there on the
platform—her husband, who was going to tell all these people about
some wonderful woman whom even she had never heard of before, but who
had been the making of him, it seemed.
“My will-power?” the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was saying
then. “Not mine, but the will-power of a woman who did not know the
meaning of the word 'fail.' Not my superb courage, but the courage of
one who, day in and day out, could work for a victory whose crown was
to go, not to herself, but to another. Not my stupendous strength of
character, but that of a beautiful young girl who could see youth and
beauty and opportunity nod farewell, and yet smile as she saw them go.
Not my undaunted persistence, but the persistence of one to whom the
goal is always just ahead, but never reached. And last, not my
marvelous capacity for hard work, but that of the wife and mother who
bends her back each morning to a multitude of tasks and cares that she
knows night will only interrupt—not finish.”
My eyes were still on the little brown-clad woman down in front, so
I saw the change come to her face as her husband talked. I saw the
terror give way to puzzled questioning, and that, in turn, become
surprise, incredulity, then overwhelming joy as the full meaning came
to her that she herself was that most wonderful woman in the world who
had been the making of him. I looked then for just a touch of the old
frightened, self-consciousness at finding herself thus so conspicuous;
but it did not come. The little woman plainly had forgotten us. She was
no longer Mrs. Jonas Whitermore among a crowd of strangers listening to
a great man's Old-Home-Day speech. She was just a loving, heart-hungry,
tired, all-but-discouraged wife hearing for the first time from the
lips of her husband that he knew and cared and understood.
“Through storm and sunshine, she was always there at her post,
aiding, encouraging, that I might be helped,” the Honorable Jonas
Whitermore was saying. “Week in and week out she fought poverty,
sickness, and disappointments, and all without a murmur, lest her
complaints distract me for one precious moment from my work. Even the
nights brought her no rest, for while I slept, she stole from cot to
cradle and from cradle to crib, covering outflung little legs and arms,
cooling parched little throats with water, quieting fretful whimpers
and hushing threatening outcries with a low 'Hush, darling, mother's
here. Don't cry! You'll wake father—and father must have his sleep.'
And father had it—that sleep, just as he had the best of everything
else in the house: food, clothing, care, attention—everything.
“What mattered it if her hands did grow rough and toil-worn? Mine
were left white and smooth—for my work. What mattered it if her back
and her head and her feet did ache? Mine were left strong and
painless—for my work. What mattered her wakefulness if I slept? What
mattered her weariness if I was rested? What mattered her
disappointments if my aims were accomplished? Nothing!”
The Honorable Jonas Whitermore paused for breath, and I caught mine
and held it. It seemed, for a minute, as if everybody all over the
house was doing the same thing, too, so absolutely still was it, after
that one word—“nothing.” They were beginning to understand—a little.
I could tell that. They were beginning to see this big thing that was
taking place right before their eyes. I glanced at the little woman
down in front. The tender glow on her face had grown and deepened and
broadened until her whole little brown-clad self seemed transfigured.
My own eyes dimmed as I looked. Then, suddenly I became aware that the
Honorable Jonas Whitermore was speaking again.
“And not for one year only, nor two, nor ten, has this quintessence
of devotion been mine,” he was saying, “but for twice ten and then a
score more—for forty years. For forty years! Did you ever stop to
think how long forty years could be—forty years of striving and
straining, of pinching and economizing, of serving and sacrificing?
Forty years of just loving somebody else better than yourself, and
doing this every day, and every hour of the day for the whole of those
long forty years? It isn't easy to love somebody else always
better than yourself, you know! It means the giving up of lots of
things that you want. You might do it for a day, for a month,
for a year even—but for forty years! Yet she has done it—that most
wonderful woman. Do you wonder that I say it is to her, and to her
alone, under God, that I owe all that I am, all that I hope to be?”
Once more he paused. Then, in a voice that shook a little at the
first, but that rang out clear and strong and powerful at the end, he
“Ladies, gentlemen, I understand this will close your programme. It
will give me great pleasure, therefore, if at the adjournment of this
meeting you will allow me to present you to the most wonderful woman in
the world—my wife.”
I wish I could tell you what happened then. The words—oh, yes, I
could tell you in words what happened. For that matter, the reporters
at the little stand down in front told it in words, and the press of
the whole country blazoned it forth on the front page the next morning.
But really to know what happened, you should have heard it and seen it,
and felt the tremendous power of it deep in your soul, as we did who
did see it.
There was a moment's breathless hush, then to the canvas roof there
rose a mighty cheer and a thunderous clapping of hands as by common
impulse the entire audience leaped to its feet.
For one moment only did I catch a glimpse of Mrs. Jonas Whitermore,
blushing, laughing, and wiping teary eyes in which the wondrous glow
still lingered; then the eager crowd swept down the aisle toward her.
“Crickey!” breathed the red-faced old man at my side. “Well,
stranger, even if it does seem sometimes as if the good Lord give some
folks tongues and forgot to give 'em brains to run 'em with, I guess
maybe He kinder makes up for it, once in a while, by givin' other folks
the brains to use their tongues so powerful well!”
I nodded dumbly. I could not speak just then—but the young woman in
front of me could. Very distinctly as I passed her I heard her say:
“Well, now, ain't that the limit, Sue? And her such an ordinary