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A Slender Romance by Ruth McEnery Stuart

 

DEACON HATFIELD was forty-five years old and a bachelor. And he was a good bachelor. Now, a good bachelor is an object to sigh over so long as there is a worthy unmarried maid available.

At least, such is the feeling in Simpkinsville. And so the best Simpkinsville folk, who unanimously regarded the deacon as one good husband gone wrong, sighed as they passed from contemplation of his wasted domestic qualities to the solitary life of a certain Miss Euphemia Twiggs, commonly known as “Miss Phemie,” who, during her nearly forty years of residence among them, had proved by many signs her entire fitness for the position of wife to the deacon. The deacon was mild and gentle of mien. Miss Phemie was a woman of decision. She would have given him just the accent he seemed to require for his full perfection.

And then she needed—if such things are ever needs—a home-setting and personal endorsement. It is one thing to be endorsed by a community, and quite another to have the individual endorsement and protection of a special and particular man. The woman thus equipped presents her credentials every time she gives her name. For Mrs. John Smith and all that relates to her, see John Smith, Esquire. Now John Smith's name may not have great value among men; but his wife, simply because she may appropriate it, has a certain social prestige not quite attainable by the unmarried woman, even though she be far her superior.

At least, so it is in Simpkinsville. So are social values in some of the world's secluded spots still reckoned upside down.

For many years the good people of the good little village had regarded Miss Phemie and the deacon as definitely in need of each other. It would never have been granted for a moment that either could need any one else. The deacon had seen the young women of the community grow up, blossom into beauty, and marry, one by one, and he had stood aside and let them depart.

Miss Euphemia had likewise seen men come and go. It is true, however, that she had been several times “kep' company with” in years past, and once, at least, unequivocally addressed by a worthy man, now the father of one of Simpkinsville's leading families. This of course gave her a certain reserve of dignity, to be drawn upon on occasion, that was in itself a distinction.

Nevertheless, she remained “Euphemia O. Twiggs” on both church-books and tax-roll; for, be it understood, Miss Twiggs was no pauper.

Her income of four or five hundred dollars a year, varying with the crops, gave her a financial independence that went far to dignify her position. And yet, so playfully is the single life regarded in some localities, and so delicate was Miss Euphemia's poise between the independent single woman she consciously was and the possible heroine of an always imminent romance, that the village folk never lost an opportunity of tipping the balance for their own amusement. Thus when, at one of the church sociables, she was prevailed upon to sing Tennyson's “Song of the Brook,” a favorite number in the village repertoire, on her rendering of the words,


“For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever,”

there was a suppressed titter among the young and giddy set in the back of the assembly, and one or two of the more adventurous craned their necks to look at the deacon, who was observed to clear his throat. But this may have been accidental. Certainly Miss Euphemia was wholly unaware of any personal application of her song to herself.

But another thing was equally sure: the deacon and she were distinctly aware of each other. Indeed, it would have been tacitly conceded by every one that for either to marry a third person would have been an act approaching discourtesy to the one remaining.

Still, be it said to their credit, both had been frequently known separately to declare their unchangeable intentions of remaining forever single. But this was always under pressure of the village bantering; and what is the value of such protestation from man or woman pressed to the wall?

There had possibly been moments of annoyance in the lives of each of these good people when the marriage of either to a third person would have been a definite relief to the other. As one of Miss Euphemia's friends had said to her on one occasion:

“Th' ain't no fun in havin' your whole livelong life overshaddered by a man with no earthly intentions.”

To which way of stating the case Miss Euphemia had replied with some spirit:

“Which ef he had any intentions, he'd be welcome to keep 'em to hisself.”

But, again, what woman could have been expected to say less under the circumstances?

There had been other old bachelors and maidens in and about Simpkinsville. Indeed, several were there now, but to all excepting these two were attached their individual romances, long ago finished in tragedy, or still pending.

There was actually, as she herself asserted, “nothing” between Miss Euphemia and the deacon, not even a professed personal friendship. The point was that there ought to be. He had never paid her a visit in his life. He had simply for twenty-five years, more or less, sat in the pew behind her at church, found the hymns as they were given out, and then, leaning forward, changed hymn-books with her.

That was all.

This was only the part of good manners, according to the Simpkinsville code polite, and he would have done the same for any other woman sitting unattended in the pew before him.

For her to decline his book would have been embarrassing at first, and, as the years passed, it would have been serious to do so. Indeed, it would easily have been construed into refusing a man before he had offered himself. And not entirely without cause, either, as an ulterior motive would have been immediately apparent, and there was absolutely nothing back of the small courtesy but himself—himself, eligible, not asking for her.

So Miss Euphemia continued to sing from the deacon's book, and the years went on. A little thin spot was beginning to show on the back of the deacon's head, and a tiny hollow, corresponding with the one at the base of her throat, was coming in between the cords at the back of Miss Euphemia's neck. It was as if Time, in passing down the aisle, had laid his palm lightly upon the man's pate, and then, in a spirit of mischievous spite, had jabbed the back of the woman's sensitive neck with his peaked thumb.

Some of Time's revenges are so shabby that we find it hard to forgive them in one so old—one who ought, centuries ago, to have learned to be kindly at least.

The deacon saw the old man's finger-mark upon the slender neck before him, but Miss Euphemia, seated in front of him, did not see the threatening baldness of his head. Still, of course, she knew it was there. Everybody in Simpkinsville knew just how bald, or nearly bald, or how far from it, everybody else was. They even knew who secretly pulled out gray hairs, and how old some people were who would never be bald or gray, because it didn't run in their families to be so, and their luxuriant locks were held at a corresponding discount or premium according to the point of observation.

There was no reason up to this point in their lives to believe that either Miss Euphemia or the deacon was especially interested in the fact that the other was growing old, or, indeed, that they were particularly interested in each other at all. If they had been let alone, it seems quite probable that they would have continued to the end of their lives to sing from each other's books in their adjoining pews, and this one point of neighborly contact in their separate lives might never have been made a pivotal one, as it was destined to become through the playful intermeddling of interested friends.

It was the minister who began it. At a little supper spread for the officers of the church at the house of one of the elders, he was the most frivolous guest present. The popular after-dinner “curse-word story” of the cloth would never have been tolerated in Simpkinsville, even with its naughty periods reduced to whispers. And so the dominie's mischievous spirit found vent in missiles of inordinate teasing. After spending his lighter fire in several directions, he said, finally, with an assumption of great seriousness, addressing his opposite neighbor, the schoolmaster of the village, and turning his back upon the deacon as he spoke:

“I've been tryin' to make a mathematical calculation, Brother Clark, and I think I'll have to get you to come in with your arithmetic and help me out. I'd like to estimate exactly how many times in twenty-three years Deacon Hatfield and Miss Euphemia Twiggs have changed hymn-books.”

Of course there was boisterous laughter at this proposition; but the Rev. Mr. Bowen, who spoke as one with authority, quickly restored silence with a wave of his hand.

“No, I'm not a-jokin',” he continued; “I've been a-puzzlin' over this calculation for some time. Twenty-three years of 52 Sundays makes 1196. But, you see, there's—

“Wait; le' me get out my pencil an' paper again. I thought I had them figgurs all worked out in my mind, but they're a little too many for me.

“Here it is. Now, I'll call 'em out as I put 'em down: Once every Sunday for 23 years would be 1196 times; but, you see, there's three hymns sung every Sunday mornin', an' two every Sunday evenin', an' three at prayer-meetin'. That makes eight book-swappin's for every week for singin'; an' countin' in the useless handin' back o' the book at every mornin' service—what I'd designate as a empty swap— why, that makes nine a week. Now, nine times 1196 comes to 10,764, which, added to special meetin's that's been held throughout the year, an' such little extries as the singin' of doxologies—exceptin', of co'se, the long metre, which they do manage to worry through without changin' books; an' I confess to you now that I have sometimes given out doxologies of other metres just to see 'em swap books, they do do it so purty—” He paused here in deliberate invitation of the laughter that followed. “I say, allowin' for all such extries, an' what time there may be over and above twenty-three years, which there is, more or less, with sech odds an' ends as an occasional leap-year Sunday thrown in, if my arithmetic is anyway right—why, they're consid'ble past the 12,000 notch, easy.

“Now, the next question is—an' maybe this is mo' a question in algebra than it is of arithmetic, 'cause there's a unknown quantity somewhere in it—the next question is, how many of such open attentions as this—which we all know to be entirely unnecessary, as both parties can read both words and numbers at sight—how many of such attentions, I say, does it take to be equivalent to an open an' above-boa'd proposal of marriage?

“It seems to me that it wouldn't be any more than fair to require that after ten or twelve thousand times there ought to be an understandin' either to have 'em mean somethin' or quit— one!

“Now, what do you say? I put it to vote, an' if there is a tie, why, I say, give Brother Hatfield the castin' vote. Otherwise, let him maintain the same discreet silence he's been maintainin' these twenty-three years an' over.”

He paused here as if to take breath, whereupon the entire party, convulsed with laughter throughout, burst into most uproarious applause; all excepting the deacon, whose usually pale face resembled nothing so much as a fibrous and gnarled little beet lifted from the soaked earth after a shower, as he sat grinning helplessly in the midst of his tormentors. For of course all were with the minister in anything he might dare in behalf of their long-desired match.

Seeing his advantage, he was soon pursuing it again:

“But, my brethren, before the votin' commences,” he interrupted, securing silence now by assuming for the moment his ministerial voice— “before the votin' begins, I say, I'd like to call attention to one or two other points in this case. I have ascertained by exact measurement with a spirit-level—which I felt free to do, bein' your spiritual adviser—I have ascertained that the top edge of the back of Miss Euphemia's pew is worn down a little over an inch in exac'ly the spot where those twelve thousand passin's of hymn-books have taken place. Now, takin' that figur'tively and as a basis of mathematical calculations at once, it seems to me that we could safely say that in time this romance, if left to its own co'se, would finally wear away all barriers 'twixt the two pews. In time, I say, but how much time? That's the mathematical question.

“Even grantin' that Miss Euphemia an' Brother Hatfield have found the secret of perpetual youth, ain't there somethin' due to their friends? I, for one, would like to witness the happy end of this love-affair, but its present progress is too slow for my mortal life. Twenty-three years to the square inch is pretty slow for a high-backed pew.

“Now, another thing. Of co'se we're not goin' to be too personal in this matter, but I'll wager right now that if we were to examine the underside of Brother Hatfield's right coat-sleeve, we'd find it wo'e pretty thin, if not darned.

“Don't put down your knife, deacon. We ain't a-goin' to requi'e you to show it. We ain't a-goin' to exceed the bounds of politeness.

“But I say, my brethren, I don't doubt the darn is there. An' furthermo'e—now this part I'm a-comin' to now is a fact. You see, Miss Euphemia is sort o' cousin to my wife's sister-in-law, so this is all in the family. An' furthermo'e, I say, my wife tells me that as an actual fact she heard Miss Euphemia wonderin' the other day how come the right shoulder of her black silk dress to wear out the way it does. She had darned it twice, an' she declared she never had wo'e the dress nowhere but to church mo' 'n three or four times in thirteen year.

“Ain't it funny to think she hasn't never thought o' the friction o' them hymn-books a-passin' over that shoulder? An' neither did wife till I called her attention to it. But she promised never to tell it. She said she wouldn't dare suggest it to her, an' so I thought, Brother Hatfield, that while I was on the subject I'd ask you, in her behalf, would you mind—as long as she has to pay for her own silk dresses— would you mind liftin' them hymn-books a leetle higher whilst you're a-passin' that shoulder-seam? Wife tells me a seam-darn is a mighty bothersome one to put in, on account of its havin' to be spliced in the middle.

“As to the wear an' tear of the top o' that pew-rail, why, I propose to refer that over to the committee on church buildin' an' repairs.”

The table was by this time in such an uproar that nothing less than a response from the hitherto silent deacon could have gained a hearing.

The little man had fortunately recovered himself somewhat, and was ready to come to his own rescue with the laughing reminder that he was himself chairman of the committee on repairs, and a promise that he would call a meeting on the subject whenever it should become serious.

The deacon's voice was slender at best, but its thin, good-natured response commanded attention now; and, indeed, it went so far to restore his threatened dignity that, after a little random bantering, the subject was dropped.

But this was only the beginning. Before the next sundown everybody in Simpkinsville, excepting, of course, Miss Euphemia, had laughed over the minister's temerity, and declared it the “best joke they had ever heard in their lives”; while more than one had remarked that “ef Simpkinsville knowed what side their bread was buttered on they wouldn't let Miss Phemie get a-holt of it.”

This also was the deacon's chief concern. Indeed, he declared to himself that it was the only thing he cared for in the whole affair. As for himself, he wouldn't let sech foolishness pester him into doin' any different to the way he'd been doin' all his livelong life—the way he'd been raised to do.

As he took his seat behind Miss Euphemia on the following Sunday, however, it is safe to say that he felt a tremor of embarrassment on his own account; for at his entrance there was a very definite stir throughout the congregation, not to mention the bobbing together in pairs of sundry feathered bonnets near him. Yet, even as he realized the delicacy of the situation, he could not help running his eye along the line defining the top rail of Miss Euphemia's pew, and the marked depression he saw there seemed to run in a quiver up and down his spinal column for the space of some minutes; and when, finally, in desperation, he raised his eyes a little higher, it was only to see upon Miss Euphemia's shoulder the evenly laid stitches of a careful darn.

Somehow, the silken threads seemed to raise themselves above the shiny fabric, so that he saw them clearly, even without his reading-glasses.

He knew there was no truth in the minister's remark about the wearing of his own sleeve, and he had thought him jesting throughout, and perhaps he was. Still, here was the darn. The discovery startled him so that his mind wandered during the entire opening prayer; and when, presently, a hymn was given out he became so confused that after he had presented his book—blushing, he felt, like a school-boy—he was horrified to discover that he had found the wrong place, and the trying ordeal had to be repeated. He seemed to hear the minister saying “one extry,” and jotting down 12,002 in the account he was reckoning against him, as he changed books a second time for one hymn.

His state of mind was bad enough, but when he raised his eyes from his book only to see a purplish-red color slowly spreading all the way around the back of Miss Euphemia's neck—well, he could only turn purple, too.

Evidently she had heard the talk.

But here be it said that in describing this moment ten years afterwards, Miss Euphemia declared that she “hadn't heard a breath of it,” and that she “didn't know, to save her life, why she had changed color that-a-way, which she knew she done, because for a second or so, when deacon passed her that book, seem like she felt every eye in Simpkinsville on her.”

“This seems a remarkable statement, and yet the writer of this slender romance of her life believes it to be true, for Miss Euphemia would have died rather than verge a hair's-breadth from the exact verities in word or deed. Indeed, it seems to the writer that her subsequent conduct goes far to confirm her statement. Be this as it may, the deacon naturally took her blushes as proof of her knowledge of the affair. She not only knew it, but was sensitive on the subject. “It plagued her.”

The stress of the situation was more than he could stand; and, although somewhat reassured when her wavering alto notes came in timidly with the third line of the hymn, he failed to command his own voice, and there was a clear, high tenor missing in the church during the entire singing.

He sat very still, in seeming attention to the service, until another hymn was imminent. But before it was announced the unusual stillness of his mare, tied to a tree outside the window, disturbed him so that he was impelled to go to her relief; and it was only after a prolonged and tedious manipulation of the reins that he was able to return to the church, where, instead of disturbing the congregation in the midst of the sermon, he slipped noiselessly, though by no means unobserved, into a seat near the door.

This was a definite and somewhat ignominious retreat, and so it was regarded by the delighted congregation, now on tiptoe of expectation for next developments.

If Miss Euphemia had not before heard of the minister's joke concerning her and her neighbor, she heard it now, from all sides. Indeed, before she had reached the church door to-day, one of her good friends had expressed surprise at “two sensible people like her and deacon takin' a little fun so seriously.” Another even went so far as to compare the respective blushes of the two as viewed from the rear; while a third declared that she thought she'd die in her pew for the want of a laugh at the God-forsaken look in the deacon's face when he got up an' went out o' church to worry his horse.

When Miss Euphemia finally made them understand that she “didn't know what in kingdom come they were talkin' about,” more than one of the good people of the church turned away, declaring they would never put faith in human creature again, and that it was a “pity some folks couldn't see the backs o' their own necks befo' they openly perjured themselves—an' in the house of God at that.”

“Yes, an' looks like a thunder-storm a-fixin' to gether this minute,” added a voice outside the door. “I'd 'a' thought she'd 'a' been afeerd o' bein' struck dead by lightnin'.”

And still another, as the crowd passed down the steps:

“The Lord has gone more out of his way than that to make examples o' people thet set him at defiance that-a-way.”

While she lingered in the aisle within, listening to the story as it came to her little by little from many lips, the color came and went in Miss Euphemia's thin face; and when she finally turned away she said, simply, though her head was high as she spoke:

“I'm sorry he troubled hisself. He needn't to've, I'm sure.”

It is probable that she made no effort to be non-committal in this speech; still, taking the words afterwards, her friends found them unsatisfactory.

There was that in the mien of both Miss Euphemia and the deacon during the week following this most interesting episode that forbade any reference to the subject in their presence even by such of their worthy and intimate friends as declared themselves “jest a-burstin' to plague their lives out of 'em,” and “nearly dead to know what they'll do next.”

A week is a long time in Simpkinsville, where time is reckoned chiefly either by great old clocks, whose long, ponderous pendulums seem to be lagging with the village movement, or by the slow insinuations of light and shadow following the easy comings and goings of the never-hurrying sun.

In inverse ratio to her sauntering movement is the Simpkinsville eagerness over a village event. Indeed, she is wont on occasion even to indulge in playful denunciation of her own slow pace, so far outstripped by her impatient spirit. And so, wherever two or three were congregated during this longest of long weeks, there might have been heard such remarks as the following, caught up at random during a half-hour spent in the village store:

“Well, old Simpkinsville's had a laugh, anyhow, an' it's in the deacon's power to wake her up with a weddin', ef he knows how to take a hint.”

“Yas, maybe so, though there's no tellin'. Miss Phemie might take it into her head to be contrary. She's had her own way so long.”

“Well, yas, maybe so; but I look for him to settle it. It all depends on the way he conducts hisself next Sunday. Seem like bad luck would have it thet it couldn't 'a' been settled at prayer-meetin'. We 'ain't had sech a full prayer-meetin' for many a year.”

“Wife says her b'lief is thet Brother Bowen insisted on Miss Phemie goin' out there to set up with that sick child o' his, which ain't no mo' 'n teethin', jest for an excuse to get her out o' the way till folks would have time to get over this joke o' his. You see, he done the whole thing, an' he was about ez much plagued ez the next one when he see how things was Sunday.”

“My opinion is thet there's some liberties thet oughtn't to be took with folks in their private affairs—not even by a minister o' the gospel.”

“Yas; an' 't ain't everybody thet looks well in a joke, nohow. I never did see deacon at sech a disadvantage in my life, nor Miss Phemie neither.”

“Reckon they'll be a big turnout Sunday, an' then, like ez not, Brother Bowen 'll git deacon out o' the way. Take my word for it, Brother Bowen is skeert.”

“Trouble is he didn't realize how hungry Simpkinsville was for an excitement. Pore old Simpkinsville has been asleep so long thet when she does wake up she's so well rested she's ready for anything.”

There was, indeed, an unusual attendance at church on the following Sunday morning, even such as were not piously inclined coming in confessedly “to see it out.” While there were many who prophesied that the deacon would find the hymns and pass them over the pew to his neighbor as usual, there was not one who would not secretly have felt defrauded of a sensation if such should be his course.

There was a stir all over the church when at last the deacon was seen tying his mare outside the window. Just at this moment it was that Miss Euphemia walked calmly up the aisle, “lookin' jest ez cool an' unconcerned ez ef all Simpkinsville hadn't turned out to look at her.” Such was the disgusted comment of one of her disapproving friends at the end of the service. Going first to her accustomed seat, she deliberately picked up her hymn-book and foot-stool, and, crossing to the opposite side of the church, deposited them in a vacant pew. Then she sat down. The seat she selected was immediately in front of an unoccupied one, and directly back of those assigned to the inmates of the poorhouse. In taking it she had voluntarily isolated herself from any possible neighborly courtesy. Indeed, at the announcement of the first hymn, it was she who hastened to reverse the old order by quickly finding their places for both the old people who sat in the pew before her.

The deacon, who came in a few moments later than she, did not know that she had arrived until her alto voice came to him clear and strong from across the church. At its first note he reddened to the roots of his thin hair, and his high tenor, bravely enough begun, was suddenly silent, nor was it heard again during the rest of the service.

Those who kept guard over his every movement—and there were many who did so—declared that he “never even so much ez cast his eyes acrost the church du'in' the whole mornin'.” Indeed, the general verdict was that under circumstances so trying, “mighty few men would 'a' stood their ground an' acted ez well ez what deacon did.”

As to Miss Euphemia, there was a difference of opinion. Many were pleased to agree that she had “showed sense,” and that while, in the situation, “some would 'a' acted skittish an' made theirselves an' him both laughin'-stalks, she never made no to-do about it, but jest quietly put a' end to foolishness.” Others there were who took the other side, and dropped their opinions pretty freely, as a few of the following remarks, quoted verbatim, will testify:

“I don't say she didn't act ca'm, but in my opinion a little fluster is sometimes mo' becomin' to a woman 'n what this everlastin' ca'mness is.”

“Why, th' ain't nothin' thet 'll draw a man to a woman mo' 'n for her to fly off the handle sometimes, an' to need takin' in hand.”

“Well, of co'se them thet don't need don't get.”

“An' besides, 'tain't every woman that wants to be took in hand.”

The truth is, Miss Euphemia's easy solution of the question that was setting all Simpkinsville agog was a distinct disappointment to more than half the village. Of course it was supposed that her action would end all talk, and things would immediately settle down into a condition even somewhat more prosaic than the old one, inasmuch as at least one hopeful situation was eliminated from it.

The dominie was, indeed, distinctly unhappy over the affair, which he insisted on considering a “breaking up of pleasant Christian relations,” for which he held himself personally responsible; and he often declared to Miss Euphemia that he “would never draw a happy breath till she went back to her old seat.” But this, of course, she would not do. Miss Euphemia was a woman of her own mind. She had gently, without passion or impatience, taken her stand, and in her new position she seemed, as she professed to be, “jest ez well contented an' happy ez ever.”

Several weeks passed, and, excepting for the fact that the good deacon's tenor had never been heard in the church since the day of his discomfiture, things seemed to be getting back into somewhat the old condition. Some day he would sing, and then everything would be nearly the same as before. Such was the undefined hope of the more sensitive souls among the people.

What Miss Euphemia or he felt in their inmost hearts no one professed to know, though from his silence it seemed that at least he cared a little. Possibly, if she had not cared at all, she would not have changed her seat. Or possibly, if she had cared—Who can read another, and be sure?

Sympathy was still divided, but general interest in the affair was visibly waning, when one Sunday morning the deacon, who happened to be a trifle late, walked up the aisle as usual, but, instead of taking his seat, he simply found his book, and, crossing over, seated himself quietly in the vacant pew back of Miss Euphemia. At the announcement of the first hymn he found it in his own book, and then, leaning forward, courteously presented it to her as of old.

When she turned back to receive it, delivering her own in return according to the old form, she smiled frankly in the face of the entire congregation, giving him thus her most gracious and perfect welcome.

The deacon's slender tenor sounded almost full and fine to the pleased ears of all present as it rose in modest triumph while he sang the sacred words from Miss Euphemia's book. So delighted, indeed, was every one that some of the more impulsive among them could not refrain from expressing their pleasure to the two as they walked separately down the aisle. Of course all Simpkinsville soon rang with the news, and its voice was for once unanimous in prophesying a romantic dénouement.

And who shall say that it was wrong? To whom is it given to define the border-lands of romance, forbidding all to enter save those who come in by the great thronged gate where the orange-flower grows?

Twenty years have passed since the incidents just related, and the deacon, now become an elder in the church, still sits in the pew behind Miss Euphemia, and changes books with her for the singing of the hymns; and occasionally, when the weather is very bad, he even escorts her to her door. Further than this he has never gone.

They are both old now. It is said, though it may not be so, that the deacon has recently bought a lot adjoining hers in the old cemetery. It would be pleasant to believe this to be true, and that he is pleased to wish to rest at last beside her, awaiting the resurrection. And if it be the divine pleasure, perhaps he even hopes to sit behind her in the Great Congregation, and to find her hymns for her.

 
 
 

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