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The Grovelling of Jinny Trimble by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

 

MRS. TRIMBLE paused half-way down the cotton row and looked over towards the house, where Joe sat on the rickety porch. He was playing a hymn tune. His blond head was laid lovingly against the neck of his fiddle, his eyes were closed, and a beatific smile hovered about his handsome mouth. He accompanied the droning notes with a steady pat of his foot on the floor, and an occasional mellow burst of song.

“Joe Trimble shore can make the fiddle talk!” exclaimed his wife, admiringly. “Git up from there, Lodelia!” she added, with sudden sharpness, to a tow-headed little girl in the adjacent row, who had slipped the half-filled cotton-sack from her neck and was squatted upon it. “Git up from there this minit! An' don't you, ner Little Joe, dassen to stop tell them las' rows is picked—ner Randy nuther! It's nigh about sundown, an' yo' pappy'll be plumb outdone waitin' for his supper.”

Thus admonished, the children went sullenly to work, the four-year-old Randy snuffling audibly, and she herself with an involuntary sigh of weariness stooped again over the stunted stalks.

The straggling cotton-patch was all but clean—a few down-hanging bolls only showing here and there along the outer rows. The year's crop —flocculent, snow-white—was heaped in a couple of big rail-pens behind the smoke-house, protected by a few planks from the heavy night dews and the rare October rains.

When Mrs. Trimble, with the last bulging sackful on her shoulder, hurried past the porch, Mr. Trimble looked up. “Hi, oh, Jinny!” he cried, affectionately. “I knowed in reason you'd git done ter-day. I'll haul ter the gin fust thing termorrer. By jing! th' ain't no sech crap this year up ner down Jim-Ned. Fo' bales ef it's a poun'!” And with an air of triumph he struck anew into “Amazing grace.”

Mrs. Trimble fetched in wood, made a fire in the open fireplace, and set about getting supper, while Lodelia milked the cow, with Little Joe to hold off the calf.

“Triflin',” his neighbors along Jim-Ned Creek were used without scruple to call Joe Trimble. The air of dilapidation about his small farm more than justified the epithet. The rail fences were rotting visibly; the lop-sided shed, which served at once as barn and stable, threatened to succumb to the breath of the first genuine norther; the cow-pen gate was propped upon a broken hoe-handle; the one-roomed cabin itself, with its ill-built chimney and sagging roof, was, as Mrs. Newt Pinson said over her snuff-bottle to Granny Carnes: “A plumb sight. An' Jinny Trimble is fair druv to keep Joe hissef fum drappin' ter pieces. Cert'n'y ef she wa'n't so po'-sperrited she wouldn't stand it— ner him.”

But Jinny had stood both with apparent equanimity for a matter of ten years or thereabouts. She might, indeed, be said to share in the general demoralization going on around her. Time was when the pretty, saucy, jimp coquette, Jinny Leggett had, in Jim-Ned vernacular, “kicked” every marriageable young man in the county for—the sake of Joe Trimble's blue eyes and wheedling ways, be it understood. Now the wifely drudge—thin, sallow-faced, hollow-eyed—had hardly spunk enough left to borrow a pair of quilting-frames. As to the cooking, washing, and ironing, the wood-chopping and water-drawing, tending the ash-hopper and the cattle, grinding the coffee and the axe—all this was as much a matter of course as taking care of the successive babies and making soft soap. So, for aught known to the contrary, was the rougher farm-work, which yearly fell more and more to her hand, while her lazy, good-looking lord rode about the country swapping stories and drinks across his neighbors' gates, or sat on his own porch playing the fiddle.

“It's ez much,” said Mrs. Pinson, in a mighty pucker about Jinny, “ef Joe Trimble hez picked for poun's out'n them fo' bales he's braggin' 'bout. It's scan'lous! But Jinny hez lost her backbone!”

Mrs. Trimble at that moment was putting the supper on the table, and as the aromatic smell of coffee and bacon greeted her husband's nostrils, he hastened to hang up his fiddle and fall to.

“Jinny, honey,” he said, leaning back in his chair when he had finished, “I wisht you'd go out ter the lot an' shake down some feed for them steers.”

On a crisp November morning ten days later Mr. Trimble took a boisterously affectionate leave of his family and started with his cotton, ginned and baled, for the nearest market-town, something like a hundred miles distant.

“Don't werry concernin' the childern's Chris'mus, Jinny,” he called, gayly, over his shoulder, as he tucked his fiddle into the feed-trough and picked up the long whip; “I'm goin' ter fetch back truck fum Waco ez'll make yo' eyes bug out'n yo' head—loaf-sugar an' bear-grease an' pep'mint, an' sech. I ain't fergittin' yo' silk dress nuther, honey, ner yo' side-combs.”

The children raced after him down the hard road. Mrs. Trimble with reddened eyes watched the brand-new unpaid-for wagon until it disappeared in a mesquite thicket beyond the field. It was drawn by two fine yoke of oxen—great, wide-horned brutes that she had herself raised from calves; the four trim, compact bales were piled upon it; a skillet and coffee-pot swung beneath the hinder axle. Mr. Trimble walked beside the team cracking his whip. Spot, the lean old hound, trotted at his master's heels.

“Th' ain't a laklier man ner a better fiddler on Jim-Ned,” murmured the little woman; “ner a studdier church-member—ef he do sometime take a leetle drap too much!”

Anticipation ran high in the Trimble household as the days drifted by and the time drew near for the return of its lawful head. Marvellous stories of past Christmases kept little Joe and Randy awake o' nights, up betimes o' mornings, they perched the livelong day on the fence, their bare red feet tucked under them, their eyes fixed eagerly on the turn of the road, impatient for the first glimpse of Morg's and Mike's well-known, wide-spread, shining horns. Lodelia ran back and forth frantically, her small soul fairly rent in twain betwixt continual false alarms without-doors and maternal reprimand within. Mrs. Trimble's own excitement was overlaid by a flustered presence of indifference.

A sort of incredulous consternation succeeded this expectant rapture when Christmas came and went without any sign of the absent husband and father. The lank, empty stockings depended unnoticed from the chimney, while the frightened children huddled in the falling dusk about their mother's knees. “Somp'n must ha' happened to Joe! Oh, I know somp'n turrible has happened!” she moaned, visions of Joe's blond curls all dabbled in blood swimming before her eyes.

But, a little later, Mr. Pinson dropped in to allay his neighbor's probable fears. He said, squirming awkwardly in his chair, and with his eyes on the floor, that he had seen Joe a few days before in Waco, whither he had hauled his own cotton. Ye-es, Joe were well. Joe had sold his cotton. Joe talked like he mought stay awhile down ther. “An', an', don't you be oneasy, Mis' Trimble, Joe's all right. In fac', Joe was fiddlin' like a cherry-bin at the wagin-yard the night afore I lef'.”

“It's scan'lous!” cried Mrs. Pinson, when Newt reported at home how Mrs. Trimble “took” the news. “She orter up an' part fum sech a out-beaten, triflin' houn'—stidder thankin' the Lord that he ain't on the road som'er's, dead! Jinny shore is a po'-sperrited creeter!”

Vague rumors of Joe's gay cuttings-up in the far-away town floated out to Jim-Ned during the next few months. If they reached his wife's ears she made no sign. She sat on Sundays, more forlorn-looking and hollow-eyed than ever, in her accustomed place in Ebenezer Church, and passed the time of day meekly with the neighbors on coming out. But she shrank from their well-meant attempts at consolation. And divining with innate courtesy that she wished to be alone, even Mrs. Pinson presently forbore to intrude upon her. The front door of the Trimble cabin was rarely opened, save when its mistress appeared there for a moment, shading her eyes with her hand and gazing wistfully down the road. Randy and little Joe had long abandoned their lookout on the fence. A pitiful air of desolation brooded over the place, the farm and its belongings running, if possible, still further down at the heel.

Suddenly one morning—it was when the short, sharp winter had fairly broken, the first spring rains had softened the ground, and the pink of peach blossoms was making splashes of color everywhere—Mrs. Trimble appeared in her field walking behind a plough and driving Joe's old sorrel horse, Baldy. She seemed at first to be rather dragged by the plough-handles than to guide them. But she held on with grim determination; and by the time the garden-patch was turned under, the passers-by admitted that the rows were run ding straight, for a woman.

“Yes,” she said, slowly, with her eyes turned away from the questioner's face and a faint flush on her cheek, “me en' the childern has concluded to make the crop 'gins' the time Joe comes back.”

Upon this, offers of help poured in upon her. Jim-Ned to a man—and woman—stood by her until her crop was planted. Thereafter, early and late, through the showery spring and the long hot summer, her slight, spare form could be seen, hoe in hand, moving up and down corn or cotton row, accompanied by Lodelia and the two little boys—all patiently and manfully heaping or levelling the brown soil, digging, ditching, fighting grass and tie-vine. There were such tinkerings, too, between times, at fences and gates and pens that towards the end of September it is doubtful whether Joe, had he presented himself, would have recognized his own freehold. The corn was gathered and cribbed, and the fodder stacked; the cotton-patch, green and healthy under a favoring sky, was dotted with blooms, amid which the bolls were bursting, white and thick as pop-corn.

And Joe all this time? Fiddling in the Waco wagon-yards at night by the freighters' campfires—fiddling, and swapping stories, and taking blithely, in season and out of season, that leetle drap too much which, away from home in particular, was one of his besetting sins; selling his cotton for a sum far beyond his expectation; laying in groceries and dry-goods enough to run a sto', by jing! bragging and swaggering about the streets one day, and waking out of a drunken sleep the next, to find his wagon rifled of its contents and his money gone. An epic, indeed, might be written concerning Mr. Trimble's three-quarters of a year “in town.” One goodly steer after another passed from his possession into the hands of the unscrupulous sharpers who were fattening upon him; and then the brand-new, unpaid-for wagon, with its bows and sheets; even the old gun, belt, and cartridge-box—everything except the beloved fiddle, with which he continued to make merry, and old Spot, who followed his disreputable master from one drinking-shop and gambling-hell to another, regarding him with eyes which had in them something of the wistfulness that dwelt in Jinny's own.

But all things sooner or later come to an end, and at last, one day, this lazy, rollicking, good-humored prodigal bethought himself of Mis' Trimble and the childern.

The Ebenezer School had just been dismissed. Mr. Tolliver, the old teacher, was standing on the door-step in the sunset glow, brooding with habitual depression over the scant desire for learning exhibited by the freckled, sunburned, whooping urchins of both sexes at that moment scurrying gayly homeward. “Truly,” he sighed, “the fruit of knowledge does not tempt the youth of James-Edward”—for the old pedagogue's classic tongue repudiated the commonly accepted name of the district in which he labored. He turned to fasten the door. But a tumultuous and prolonged burst of laughter drew his attention to the high-road which ran across a shine-oak prairie in front, and curved around the corner of the school-house. A noisy rabble of men and boys, some mounted, some on foot, surged forward in pell-mell disorder. A nearer approach disclosed the cause of their mirth.

“Bless my soul!” said Mr. Tolliver, from his post of observation on the school-house steps. “I believe that is Joseph Trimble!”

It was in truth that home-returning hero. An axle and a single pair of cart-wheels, dragged by a small, gaunt, slab-sided ox, served as a support for a barrel lying upon its side, and braced by a couple of stanchions. Astride of the barrel, clad in mud-bespattered rags, and hatless, sat Joe himself—enthroned as it were—fiddle in hand. It was not a hymn tune whose notes rang out on the still afternoon. A tipsy smile illuminated the player's red face as the bow frisked and capered over the strings, and his bare heels against the sides of the barrel kept time to the profane strains of “Granny, will yo' dog bite?” A tin cup swung from the spigot in the bung, and an unmistakable smell of whiskey pervaded the air around.

“Bless my soul!” ejaculated Mr. Tolliver again, as the cavalcade swept by, “this is a survival of the ancient Bacchic festival!”

“How 'bout Mis' Trimble, Joe?” demanded Mr. Pinson, during one of their frequent convivial halts, and he winked slyly at the crowd as he took a pull at the tin cup.

“Mis' Trimble? Jinny?” shouted Joe, looking down with a fatuous smile. “Don't you fret yo' gizzard 'bout Jinny Trimble! Jinny's goin' ter be so ding glad ter see me thet she'll fair grubble at my feet!”

And the train, augmented at every cross-road by some laughter-loving crony, moved noisily on.

At the moment they emerged from the mesquite thicket, and came in sight of Joe's reconstructed estate, Mrs. Trimble was at the woodpile cutting wood for the supper fire; Randy was picking up chips in his blue cotton apron; Lodelia and Little Joe were tending the ash-hopper. The sound of horses' feet, mingled with the hilarious uproar, borne on the mild wind, came floating across the level fields. She lifted her head, pushing back her sun-bonnet, and stared with out-starting eyes. Her arm dropped nerveless at her side; her lips quivered; her knees shook beneath her. She moved mechanically towards the front gate, followed by her three children.

The procession had halted in the road there. A sudden shamed silence fell upon the crowd—hurried on thus far partly by a spirit of fun, partly by sincere rejoicing in the return of their jovial gossip—at sight of the patient and courageous though poor-spirited little woman coming across the field, her head drooped upon her breast, the heavy axe grasped unconsciously in her hand.

“Hello, Jinny!” called Mr. Trimble, with jaunty assurance, from his perch on the whiskey barrel. “Here I am onct mo'! Safe an' soun'. Pervided with a bar'l o' ginooine rye! Onloose the latch-string, honey, an' look out fer a rip-roarin' celerbation of these here joyful percedences—”

His maudlin laugh was suddenly checked; his jaws dropped; he gazed at 0a wife with dilating eyes. She stood in the open gateway confronting him; her dark eyes, fixed full upon his, were blazing; her lips were firmly set; a scarlet spot burned in either sunken cheek; she looked dangerously like the imperious, high-spirited Jinny Leggett, of whom Joe in his courting days had been mortally afraid.

“Joe Trimble,” she said, with terrifying calmness, “shet yo' mouth and git off'n that whiskey barrel!”

Mr. Trimble meekly obeyed, scrambling down with what grace he could muster, and casting sheepish glances at his followers, huddled breathless and abashed on the farther side of the road.

“Stand out'n the way with yo' onchristian, hell-temptin' fiddle,” Mrs. Trimble added, stepping forward.

Joe slunk to one side like a whipped hound; old Spot, after an uncertain, appealing glance around, crept after him.

She lifted the axe.

It was not for naught that the down-trodden wife had chopped wood— aye, and split rails into the bargain, during all these years. The muscles stood out like thongs on the skinny little arm; the wrist was as firm and hard as iron. The axe, poised an instant in the air, caught on its keen edge a gleam of sunlight, then it descended with a sidewise telling blow on the head of the barrel; it rose and fell again, and the seasoned wood splintered and crashed inward; a small deluge of amber-colored liquor gushed over the axle, and ran in a foamy, ambrosial rivulet across the road.

The lean ox turned his head to gaze with mild, surprised eyes at the wrack behind him, then whisked his tail, and resumed his abstracted ruminations.

An involuntary murmur of applause ran through the spectators; every man and boy of them took off his hat. Regret over the waste of so much ginooine rye was lost for the moment in admiration of Mis' Trimble's spunk.

Mrs. Trimble, did not acknowledge their presence by so much as a look. “Lodelia,” she ordered, “kiss yo' poppy, an' onhitch that pore creeter from them wheels, an' give it some feed. Come erlong, Joe, an' min' you fasten the gate a'ter you.”

Mr. Trimble, completely sobered, mute, and dumfounded, lifted Randy in his arms, and walked after his wife towards the cabin, with little Joe and Spot tagging at his heels.

“Ding my hide, this beats me!” exclaimed Newt Pinson. And clapping spurs to his horse, he galloped down the road, the demoralized squad clattering and padding behind him. “This beats me!” he cried again, turning in his saddle to look back.

Mrs. Trimble was nowhere visible.

Joe was at the wood-pile chopping wood.

The next day, and for many a long day thereafter, Mr. Trimble, with a cotton-sack hung about his neck, dragged on his knees through the cotton-patch, reaping, as Mrs. Pinson sarcastically observed, where he had not sowed. His was now the hand that shook down feed for Baldy and the solitary steer. He it was who turned the windlass at the deep well and packed in the wood; he tended the ash-hopper and set the clothes-lines; he even went so far as to get up of mornings and make the fire.

He seemed, moreover, pitiably anxious lest he should by accident leave some of these unaccustomed tasks undone. Jim-Ned looked on, shaking its head, not knowing what to make of this extraordinary transformation, and momentarily expecting, if the truth were told, a fall from grace.

Joe's old exuberance of spirit, too, had given place to a kind of timid humility; his merry eyes were downcast and dull; his contagious laugh was hushed; his fiddle hung unused on the cabin wall, gathering cobwebs on its crooked neck.

Mrs. Trimble, though outwardly calm, was inwardly exultant. “It's good fer so' eyes,” she said to herself, watching Joe pass the porch with the cotton slung over his shoulder, and remembering all her own pains and mortifications. The men made way for her with marked deference when she took her place in the Amen corner of Ebenezer Church, with Mr. Trimble, dashed and browbeaten, at her elbow. The women gazed at her in hushed wonder. “Yes, it's good fer so' eyes!” she repeated again and again in the first transport of her freedom.

But, as time passed, a vague feeling of discomfort crept into her secret soul. Something was missing. What was it? Was it the old-time, half-contemptuous, wholly cordial regard of her neighbors, who now held respectfully aloof, eyeing her askance as if afraid of her ? Was it the strange silence around her own fireside at night, where Joe sat with his head hanging and his eyes fixed vacantly on the flames, and the children cowered in the corner, dumbly questioning, first his dull face and then her own?

One night Mr. Trimble, coming in with an armful of firewood, found his wife sitting alone by the hearth. The children were abed. She had her apron to her eyes and was crying silently.

“Gawd-a-mighty, Jinny!” he cried, throwing down the wood and running to her in alarm, “what hev I done? Ain't the wood chopped ter suit ye? Ain't the wash-kittle filled? I b'leeve in my soul I've fergot them clo's-lines. I'll go an' prop 'em this minit!”

“'T-t'ain't the lines,” whimpered Jinny.

“Ain't the ash-hopper sot? Ain't—”

“Oh-h, Joe!” sobbed his wife, “I don't keer nothin' 'bout the ash-hopper! I want to hear you laugh onct mo'! I want to see you cavort roun' Jim-Ned like you used to! I'm plumb tired o' havin' them fool men look at me like I wuz wearin' the britches! I'm sick o' hearin' Mis' Pinson an' Granny Carnes talk like you didn't have spunk enough to spank Randy! I wisht ter the Lord I hadn't of made no crop! I'm so lonesome! Oh, Joe!

And she jumped up and hid her face on his breast.

“Lord, Jinny!” he exclaimed, blushing red with delight, and as bashful as ever he was in his courting days. “Lord, honey, them women folks ain't wuth shucks, nohow. I don't keer nothin' 'bout Mis' Pinson an' Granny Carnes! But ef Newt Pinson er any of that gang hez dast ter look cross-eyed at you, I'll tek the hair off'n the'r hide afore mornin'.” And his eyes grew suddenly sombre.

“Oh no, no!” she cried, clinging to him. “Not that-a-way! Not that-a-way!”

The result of their long conference was that Joe, the next morning, leaving the few scattering unpicked bolls in the field to Lodelia and Little Joe, mounted Baldy, and rode the length and breadth of Jim-Ned, inviting his neighbors to a play-party at his house the following night. And the neighbors came, bubbling over with good-humor and curiosity.

And so it was that in the presence of the Ebenezer congregation Jinny Trimble “grubbled” at her husband's feet! She took the fiddle from the wall with her own hands and gave it to him. She consulted him audibly, and in a tone of deep humility, concerning the disputed steps of “Peeping at Susan”; she fetched him his pipe, and hovered over him, radiant, while he lighted it; she ran out when the fire in the big fireplace burned low, and came in, ostentatiously carrying a heavy back-log, her head lifted defiantly and her dark eyes dancing.

Joe's blue eyes shone back at her. He fiddled like one inspired; his gay laugh rang out above the shuffling feet of the young men and women winding the mazes of “Weev'ly Wheat.”

Never had Mr. Trimble been so hilarious or so masterful.

Never was Mrs. Trimble so abject.

“Verily,” observed old Mr. Tolliver to Mr. Pinson, “the Prodigal of James-Edward hath the fatted calf, and a ring upon his finger!”

“Jinny hev drapped back,” said Mrs. Pinson to Granny Carnes out in the brush-arbor, where they were overseeing the supper. “Her spunk hev died a natch'l death. She cert'n'y hev grubbled!”

All the same, the next day, when Mr. Trimble hinted that he shore orter haul them five bales of cotton o' his'n to Waco, Jinny put her foot down.

 
 
 

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