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Nancy Boyd's Last Sermon by Alice Brown

Tale of New England Life

It was the lonesome time of the year: not November, that accomplishment of a gracious death, but the moment before the conscious spring, when watercourses have not yet stirred in awakening, and buds are only dreamed of by trees still asleep but for the sweet trouble within their wood; when the air finds as yet no response to the thrill beginning to creep where roots lie blind in the dark; when life is at the one dull, flat instant before culmination and movement. I had gone down post-haste to my well-beloved Tiverton, in response to the news sent me by a dear countrywoman, that Nancy Boyd, whom I had not seen since my long absence in Europe, was dying of “galloping consumption.” Nancy wanted to bid me good-by. Hiram Cole met me, lean-jawed, dust-colored, wrinkled as of old, with the overalls necessitated by his “sleddin'“ at least four inches too short. Not the Pyramids themselves were such potent evidence that time may stand still, withal, as this lank, stooping figure, line for line exactly what it had been five years before. Hiram helped me into the pung, took his place beside me, and threw a conversational “huddup” to the rakish-looking sorrel colt. We dashed sluing away down the country road, and then I turned to look at my old friend. He was steadfastly gazing at the landscape ahead, the while he passed one wiry hand over his face, to smooth out its broadening smile. He was glad to see me, but his private code of decorum forbade the betrayal of any such “shaller” emotion.

“Well, Hiram,” I began, “Tiverton looks exactly the same, doesn't it? And poor Nancy, how is she?”

“Nancy's pretty low,” said Hiram, drawing his mitten over the hand that had been used to iron out his smile, and giving critical attention to the colt's off hind-leg. “She hil' her own all winter, but now, come spring, she's breakin' up mighty fast. They don't cal'late she'll live more'n a day or two.”

“Her poor husband! How will he get along without her!”

Hiram turned upon me with vehemence.

“Why, don't you know?” said he. “'Ain't nobody told ye? She 'ain't got no husband.”

“What? Is the Cap'n dead?”

“Dead? Bless ye, he's divorced from Nancy, an' married another woman, two year ago come this May!”

I was amazed, and Hiram looked at me with the undisguised triumph of one who has news to sell, be it good or bad.

“But Nancy has written me!” I said. “She told me the neighborhood gossip; why didn't she tell me that?”

“Pride, I s'pose, pride,” said Hiram. “You can't be sure how misery'll strike folks. It's like a September gale; the best o' barns'll blow down, an' some rickety shanty'll stan' the strain. But there! Nancy's had more to bear from the way she took her troubles than from the troubles themselves. Ye see, 'twas this way. Cap'n Jim had his own reasons for wantin' to git rid of her, an' I guess there was a time when he treated her pretty bad. I guess he as good's turned her out o' house an' home, an' when he sued for divorce for desertion, she never said a word; an' he got it, an' up an' married, as soon as the law'd allow, Nancy never opened her head, all through it. She jest settled down, with a bed an' a chair or two, in that little house she owned down by Wilier Brook, an' took in tailorin' an' mendin'. One spell, she bound shoes. The whole town was with her till she begun carryin' on like a crazed creatur', as she did arterwards.”

My heart sank. Poor Nancy! if she had really incurred the public scorn, it must have been through dire extremity.

“Ye see,” Hiram continued, “folks were sort o' tried with her from the beginnin'. You know what a good outfit she had from her mother's side,—bureaus, an' beddin', an' everything complete? Well, she left it all right there in the house, for Jim to use, an' when he brought his new woman home, there the things set jest the same, an' he never said a word. I don't deny he ought to done different, but then, if Nancy wouldn't look out for her own interests, you can't blame him so much, now can ye? But the capsheaf come about a year ago, when Nancy had a smart little sum o' money left her,—nigh onto a hunderd dollars. Jim he'd got into debt, an' his oxen died, an' one thing an' another, he was all wore out, an' had rheumatic fever; an' if you'll b'lieve it, Nancy she went over an' done the work, an' let his wife nuss him. She wouldn't step foot into the bedroom, they said; she never see Jim once, but there she was, slavin' over the wash-tub and ironin'-board,—an' as for that money, I guess it went for doctor's stuff an' what all, for Jim bought a new yoke of oxen in the spring.”

“But the man! the other wife! how could they?”

“Oh, Jim's wife's a pretty tough-hided creatur', an' as for him, I al'ays thought the way Nancy behaved took him kind o' by surprise, an' he had to give her her head, an' let her act her pleasure. But it made a sight o' town talk. Some say Nancy ain't quite bright to carry on so, an' the women-folks seem to think she's a good deal to blame, one way or another. Anyhow, she's had a hard row to hoe. Here we be, an' there's Hannah at the foreroom winder. You won't think o' goin' over to Nancy's till arter supper, will ye?”

When I sat alone beside Nancy's bed, that night, I had several sides of her sad story in mind, but none of them lessened the dreariness of the tragedy. Before my brief acquaintance with her, Nancy was widely known as a travelling-preacher, one who had “the power.” She must have been a strangely attractive creature, in those early days, alert, intense, gifted with such a magnetic reaching into another life that it might well set her aside from the commoner phases of a common day, and crowned, as with flame, by an unceasing aspiration for the highest. At thirty, she married a dashing sailor, marked by the sea, even to the rings in his ears; and when I knew them, they were solidly comfortable and happy, in a way very reassuring to one who could understand Nancy's temperament; for she was one of those who, at every step, are flung aside from the world's sharp corners, bruised and bleeding.

As to the storm and shipwreck of her life, I learned no particulars essentially new. Evidently her husband had suddenly run amuck, either from the monotony of his inland days, or from the strange passion he had conceived for a woman who was Nancy's opposite.

That night, I sat in the poor, bare little room, beside the billowing feather-bed where Nancy lay propped upon pillows, and gazing with bright, glad eyes into my face, one thin little hand clutching mine with the grasp of a soul who holds desperately to life. And yet Nancy was not clinging to life itself; she only seemed to be, because she clung to love.

“I'm proper glad to see ye,” she kept saying, “proper glad.”

We were quite alone. The fire burned cheerily in the kitchen stove, and a cheap little clock over the mantel ticked unmercifully fast; it seemed in haste for Nancy to be gone. The curtains were drawn, lest the thrifty window-plants should be frostbitten, and several tumblers of jelly on the oilcloth-covered table bore witness that the neighbors had put aside their moral scruples and their social delicacy, and were giving of their best, albeit to one whose ways were not their ways. But Nancy herself was the centre and light of the room,—so frail, so clean, with her plain nightcap and coarse white nightgown, and the small checked shawl folded primly over her shoulders. Thin as she was, she looked scarcely older than when I had seen her, five years ago; yet since then she had walked through a blacker valley than the one before her.

“Now don't you git all nerved up when I cough,” she said, lying back exhausted after a paroxysm. “I've got used to it; it don't trouble me no more'n a mosquiter. I want to have a real good night now, talkin' over old times.”

“You must try to sleep,” I said. “The doctor will blame me, if I let you talk.”

“No, he won't,” said Nancy, shrewdly. “He knows I 'ain't got much time afore me, an' I guess he wouldn't deny me the good on't. That's why I sent for ye, dear; I 'ain't had anybody I could speak out to in five year, an' I wanted to speak out, afore I died. Do you remember how you used to come over an' eat cold b'iled dish for supper, that last summer you was down here?”

“Oh, don't I, Nancy! there never was anything like it. Such cold potatoes—”

“B'iled in the pot-liquor!” she whispered, a knowing gleam in her blue eyes. “That's the way; on'y everybody don't know. An' do you remember the year we had greens way into the fall, an' I wouldn't tell you what they was? Well, I will, now; there was chickweed, an' pusley, an' mustard, an' Aaron's-rod, an' I dunno what all.”

“Not Aaron's-rod, Nancy! it never would have been so good!”

“It's truth an' fact! I b'iled Aaron's-rod, an' you eat it. That was the year Mis' Blaisdell was mad because you had so many meals over to my house, an' said it was the last time she'd take summer boarders an' have the neighbors feed 'em.”

“They were good old days, Nancy!”

“I guess they were! yes, indeed, I guess so! Now, dear, I s'pose you've heard what I've been through, sence you went away?”

I put the thin hand to my cheek.

“Yes,” I said, “I have heard.”

“Well, now, I want to tell you the way it 'pears to me. You'll hear the neighbors' side, an' arter I'm gone, they'll tell you I was under-witted or bold. They've been proper good to me sence I've been sick, but law! what do they know about it, goin' to bed at nine o'clock, an' gittin' up to feed the chickens an' ride to meetin' with their husbands? No more'n the dead! An' so I want to tell ye my story, myself. Now, don't you mind my coughing dear! It don't hurt, to speak of, an' I feel better arter it.

“Well, I dunno where to begin. The long an' short of it was, dear, James he got kind o' uneasy on land, an' then he was tried with me, an' then he told me, one night, when he spoke out, that he didn't care about me as he used to, an' he never should, an' we couldn't live no longer under the same roof. He was goin' off the next day to sea, or to the devil, he said, so he needn't go crazy seein' Mary Ann Worthen's face lookin' at him all the time. It ain't any use tryin' to tell how I felt. Some troubles ain't no more 'n a dull pain, an' some are like cuts an' gashes. You can feel your heart drop, drop, like water off the eaves. Mine dropped for a good while arter that. Well, you see I'd been through the fust stages of it. I'd been eat up by jealousy, an' I'd slaved like a dog to git him back; but now it had got beyond such folderol. He was in terrible trouble, an' I'd got to git him out. An' I guess 'twas then that I begun to feel as if I was his mother, instid of his wife. 'Jim,' says I, (somehow I have to Say 'James,' now we're separated!) 'don't you fret. I'll go off an' leave ye, an' you can get clear o' me accordin' to law, if you want to. I'm sure you can. I sha'n't care.' He turned an' looked at me, as if I was crazed or he was himself, 'You won't care?' he says. 'No,' says I, 'I sha'n't care.' I said it real easy, for 'twas true. Somehow, I'd got beyond carin'. My heart dropped blood, but I couldn't bear to have him in trouble. 'They al'ays told me I was cut out for an old maid,” I says, 'an' I guess I be. Housekeepin' 's a chore, anyway. You let all the stuff set right here jest as we've had it, an' ask Cap'n Fuller to come an' bring his chist; an' I'll settle down in the Willer Brook house an' make button-holes. It's real pretty work.' You see, the reason I was so high for it was 't I knew if he went to sea, he'd git in with a swearin', drinkin' set, as he did afore, an' in them days such carryin's-on were dretful to me. If I'd known he'd marry, I dunno what course I should ha' took; for nothin' could ha' made that seem right to me, arter all had come and gone. But I jest thought how James was a dretful handy man about the house, an' I knew he set by Cap'n Fuller. The Cap'n 'ain't no real home, you know, an' I thought they'd admire to bach it together.”

“Did you ever wonder whether you had done right? Did you ever think it would have been better for him to keep his promises to you? For him to be unhappy?”

A shade of trouble crossed her face.

“I guess I did!” she owned. “At fust, I was so anxious to git out o' his way, I never thought of anything else; but when I got settled down here, an' had all my time for spec'latin' on things, I was a good deal put to 't whether I'd done the best anybody could. But I didn't reason much, in them days; I jest felt. All was, I couldn't bear to have James tied to me when he'd got so's to hate me. Well, then he married—”

“Was she a good woman?”

“Good enough, yes; a leetle mite coarse-grained, but well-meanin' all through. Well, now, you know the neighbors blamed me for lettin' her have my things. Why, bless you, I didn't need 'em! An' Jim had used 'em so many years, he'd ha' missed 'em if they'd been took away. Then he never was forehanded, an' how could he ha' furnished a house all over ag'in, I'd like to know? The neighbors never understood. The amount of it was, they never was put in jest such a place, any of 'em.”

“O Nancy, Nancy!” I said, “you cared for just one thing, and it was gone. You didn't care for the tables and chairs that were left behind!”

Two tears came, and dimmed her bright blue eyes. Her firm, delicate mouth quivered.

“Yes,” she said, “you see how 'twas. I knew you would. Well, arter he was married, there was a spell when 'twas pretty tough. Sometimes I couldn't hardly help goin' over there by night an' peekin' into the winder, an' seein' how they got along. I went jest twice. The fust time was late in the fall, an' she was preservin' pears by lamplight. I looked into the kitchin winder jest as she was bendin' over the stove, tryin' the syrup, an' he was holdin' the light for her to see. I dunno what she said, but 'twas suthin' that made 'em both laugh out, an' then they turned an' looked at one another, proper pleased. I dunno why, but it took right hold o' me, an' I started runnin' an' I never stopped till I got in, here an' onto my own bed. I thought 'twould ha' been massiful if death had took me that night, but I'm glad it didn't, dear, I'm glad it didn't! I shouldn't ha' seen ye, if it had, an' there's a good many things I shouldn't ha' had time to study out. You jest put a mite o' cayenne pepper in that cup, an' turn some hot water on it. It kind o' warms me up.”

After a moment's rest, she began again.

“The next time I peeked was the last, for that night they'd had some words, an' they both set up straight as a mack'rel, an' wouldn't speak to one another. That hurt me most of anything. I never've got over the feelin' that I was James's mother, an' that night I felt sort o' bruised all through, as if some stranger'd been hurtin' him. So I never went spyin' on 'em no more. I felt as if I couldn't stan' it. But when I went to help her with the work, that time he was sick, I guess the neighbors thought I hadn't any sense of how a right-feelin' woman ought to act. I guess they thought I was sort o' coarse an' low, an' didn't realize what I'd, been through. Dear, don't you never believe it. The feelin' that's between husband an' wife's like a live creatur', an' when he told me that night that he didn't prize me no more, he wounded it; an' when he married the other woman, he killed it dead. If he'd ha' come back to me then, an' swore he was the same man I married, I could ha' died for him, jest as I would this minute, but he never should ha' touched me. But suthin' had riz up in the place o' the feelin' I had fust, so't I never could ha' helped doin' for him, any more'n if he'd been my own child.”

“'In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage!'“

“I guess that's it,” said Nancy. “On'y you have to live through a good deal afore you understand it. Well, now, dear, I'm nearin' the end. There's one thing that's come to me while I've been livin' through this, that I 'ain't never heard anybody mention; an' I want you to remember it, so's you can tell folks that are in great trouble, the way I've been. I've been thinkin' on't out that there's jest so much of everything in the world,—so much gold, so much silver, so many di'monds. You can't make no more nor no less. All you can do is to pass 'em about from hand to hand, so't sometimes here'll be somebody that's rich, an' then it'll slip away from him, an' he'll be poor. Now, accordin' to my lights, it's jes' so with love. There's jest so much, an' when it's took away from you, an' passed over to somebody else, it's alive, it's there, same as ever it was. So 't you ain't goin' to say it's all holler an' empty, this world. You're goin' to say, 'Well, it's som'er's, if 'tain't with me!'“

Nancy had straightened herself, without the support of her pillows. Her eyes were bright. A faint flush had come upon her cheeks. A doctor would have told me that my devoted friendship had not saved me from being a wretched nurse.

“My home was broke up,” she went on, “but there's a nice, pretty house there jest the same. There's a contented couple livin' in it, an' what if the wife ain't me? It ain't no matter. P'r'aps it's a lot better that somebody else should have it, somebody that couldn't git along alone; an' not me, that can see the rights o' things. Jest so much love, dear—don't you forgit that—no matter where 'tis! An' James could take his love away from me, but the Lord A'mighty himself can't take mine from him. An' so 'tis, the world over. You can al'ays love folks, an' do for 'em, even if your doin' 's only breakin' your heart an' givin' 'em up. An' do you s'pose there's any sp'ere o' life where I sha'n't be allowed to do somethin' for James? I guess not, dear, I guess not, even if it's only keepin' away from him.”

Nancy lived three days, in a state of delighted content with us and our poor ministrations; and only once did we approach the subject of that solemn night. As the end drew near, I became more and more anxious to know if she had a wish unfulfilled, and at length I ventured to ask her softly, when we were alone,—

“Would you like to see him?”

Her bright eyes looked at me, in a startled way.

“No, dear, no,” she said, evidently surprised that I could ask it. “Bless you, no!”


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