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Heman's Ma by Alice Brown

Tale of New England Life

It was half-past nine of a radiant winter's night, and the Widder Poll's tooth still ached, though she was chewing cloves, and had applied a cracker poultice to her cheek. She was walking back and forth through the great low-studded kitchen, where uncouth shadows lurked and brooded, still showing themselves ready to leap aloft with any slightest motion of the flames that lived behind the old black fire-dogs. At every trip across the room, she stopped to look from the window into the silver paradise without, and at every glance she groaned, as if groaning were a duty. The kitchen was unlighted save by the fire and one guttering candle; but even through such inadequate illumination the Widder Poll was a figure calculated to stir rich merriment in a satirical mind. Her contour was rather square than oblong, and she was very heavy. In fact, she had begun to announce that her ankles wouldn't bear her much longer, and she should “see the day when she'd have to set by, from mornin' to night, like old Anrutty Green that had the dropsy so many years afore she was laid away.” Her face, also, was cut upon the broadest pattern in common use, and her small, dull eyes and closely shut mouth gave token of that firmness which, save in ourselves, we call obstinacy. To-night, however, her features were devoid of even their wonted dignity, compressed, as they had been, by the bandage encircling her face. She looked like a caricature of her unprepossessing self. On one of her uneasy journeys to the window, she caught the sound of sleigh-bells; and staying only to assure herself of their familiar ring, she hastily closed the shutter, and, going back to the fireplace, sank into a chair there, and huddled over the blaze. The sleigh drove slowly into the yard, and after the necessary delay of unharnessing, a man pushed open the side door, and entered the kitchen. He, too, was short and square of build, though he had no superfluous flesh. His ankles would doubtless continue to bear him for many a year to come. His face was but slightly accented; he had very thin eyebrows, light hair, and only a shaggy fringe of whisker beneath the chin. This was Heman Blaisdell, the Widder Poll's brother-in-law, for whom she had persistently kept house ever since the death of his wife, four years ago. He came in without speaking, and after shaking himself out of his great-coat, sat silently down in his armchair by the fire. The Widder Poll held both hands to her face, and groaned again. At length, curiosity overcame her, and, quite against her judgment, she spoke. She was always resolving that she would never again take the initiative; but every time her resolution went down before the certainty that if she did not talk, there would be no conversation at all,—for Heman had a staying power that was positively amazing.

“Well?” she began, interrogatively.

Heman only stirred slightly in his chair.

Well! ain't you goin' to tell me what went on at the meetin'?”

Her quarry answered patiently, yet with a certain dogged resistance of her,—

“I dunno's there's anything to tell.”

“How'd it go off?”

“'Bout as usual.”

“Did you speak?”

“No.”

“Lead in prayer?”

“No.”

“Wa'n't you asked?”

“No.”

“Well, my soul! Was Roxy Cole there?”

“Yes.”

“Did you fetch her home?”

“No, I didn't!” Some mild exasperation animated his tone at last. The Widder detected it, and occupied herself with her tooth.

“My soul an' body! I wonder if it's goin' to grumble all night long!” she exclaimed, bending lower over the blaze. “I've tried everything but a roasted raisin, an' I b'lieve I shall come to that.”

Heman rose, and opened the clock on the mantel; he drew forth the key from under the pendulum, and slowly wound up the time-worn machinery. In another instant, he would be on his way to bed; the Widder knew she must waste no time in hurt silence, if she meant to find out anything. She began hastily,—

“Did they say anything about the, church fair?”

“They ain't goin' to have it.”

“Not have it! Well, how be they goin' to git the shinglin' paid for?”

“They've got up the idee of an Old Folks' Concert.”

“Singin'?”

“Singin' an' playin'.”

“Who's goin' to play?”

“Brad Freeman an' Jont Marshall agreed to play fust an' second fiddle.” Heman paused a moment, and straightened himself with an air of conscious pride; then he added,—

“They've asked me to play the bass-viol.”

The Widder had no special objections to this arrangement, but it did strike her as an innovation; and when she had no other reason for disapproval, she still believed in it on general principles. So altogether effective a weapon should never rust from infrequent use!

“Well!” she announced. “I never heard of such carryin's-on,—never!”

Heman was lighting a small kerosene lamp. The little circle of light seemed even brilliant in the dusky room; it affected him with a relief so sudden and manifest as to rouse also a temporary irritation at having endured the previous gloom even for a moment.

“'Ain't you got no oil in the house?” he exclaimed, testily. “I wish you'd light up, evenin's, an' not set here by one taller candle!”

He had ventured on this remonstrance before, the only one he permitted himself against his housekeeper's ways, and at the instant of making it, he realized its futility.

“The gre't lamp's all full,” said the Widder, warming her apron and pressing it to her poulticed face. “You can light it, if you've got the heart to. That was poor Mary's lamp, an' hard as I've tried, I never could bring myself to put a match to that wick. How many evenin's I've seen her set by it, rockin' back'ards an' for'ards,—an' her needle goin' in an' out! She was a worker, if ever there was one, poor creatur'! At it all the time, jes' like a silk-worm.”

Heman was perfectly familiar with this explanation; from long repetition, he had it quite by heart. Possibly that was why he did not wait for its conclusion, but tramped stolidly away to his bedroom, where he had begun to kick off his shoes by the time his sister-in-law reached a period.

The Widder had a fresh poultice waiting by the fire. She applied it to her cheek, did up her face in an old flannel petticoat, and then, having covered the fire, toiled up to bed. It was a wearisome journey, for she carried a heavy soapstone which showed a tendency to conflict with the candle, and she found it necessary to hold together most of her garments; these she had “loosened a mite by the fire,” according to custom on cold nights, after Heman had left her the field.

Next day, Heman went away into the woods chopping, and carried his dinner of doughnuts and cheese, with a chunk of bean-porridge frozen into a ball, to be thawed out by his noontime fire. He returned much earlier than usual, and the Widder was at the window awaiting him. The swelling in her cheek had somewhat subsided; and the bandage, no longer distended by a poultice beneath, seemed, in comparison, a species of holiday device. She was very impatient. She watched Heman, as he went first to the barn; and even opened the back door a crack to listen for the rattling of chains, the signal of feeding or watering.

“What's he want to do that now for?” she muttered, closing the door again, as the cold struck her cheek. “He'll have to feed 'em ag'in, come night!”

But at last he came, and, according to his silent wont, crossed the kitchen to the sink, to wash his hands. He was an unobservant man, and it did not occur to him that the Widder had on her Tycoon rep, the gown she kept “for nice.” Indeed, he was so unused to looking at her that he might well have forgotten her outward appearance. He was only sure of her size; he knew she cut off a good deal of light. One sign, however, he did recognize; she was very cheerful, with a hollow good-nature which had its meaning.

“I got your shavin'-water all ready,” she began. “Don't you burn ye when ye turn it out.”

It had once been said of the Widder Poll that if she could hold her tongue, the devil himself couldn't get ahead of her. But fortune had not gifted her with such endurance, and she always spoke too often and too soon.

“Brad Freeman's been up here,” she continued, eying Heman, as she drew out the supper-table and put up the leaves. “I dunno's I ever knew anybody so took up as he is with that concert, an' goin' to the vestry to sing to-night, an' all. He said he'd call here an' ride 'long o' you, an' I told him there'd be plenty o' room, for you'd take the pung.”

If Heman felt any surprise at her knowledge of his purpose, he did not betray it. He poured out his shaving-water, and looked about him for an old newspaper.

“I ain't goin' in the pung,” he answered, without glancing at her. “The shoe's most off'n one o' the runners now.”

The Widder Poll set a pie on the table with an emphasis unconsciously embodying her sense that now, indeed, had come the time for remedies.

“I dunno what you can take,” she remarked, with that same foreboding liveliness. “Three on a seat, an' your bass-viol, too!”

Heman was lathering his cheeks before the mirror, where a sinuous Venus and a too-corpulent Cupid disported themselves in a green landscape above the glass. “There ain't goin' to be three,” he said, patiently. “T'others are goin' by themselves.”

The Widder took up her stand at a well-chosen angle, and looked at him in silence. He paid no attention to her, and it was she who, of necessity, broke into speech.

Well! I've got no more to say. Do you mean to tell me you'd go off playin' on fiddles an' bass-viols, an' leave me, your own wife's sister, settin' here the whole evenin' long, all swelled up with the toothache?”

Heman often felt that he had reached a state of mind where nothing could surprise him, but this point of view was really unexpected. He decided, however, with some scorn, that the present misunderstanding might arise from a confusion of terms in the feminine mind.

“This ain't the concert,” he replied, much as if she had proposed going to the polls. “It's the rehearsal. That means where you play the tunes over. The concert ain't comin' off for a month.”

And now the Widder Poll spoke with the air of one injured almost beyond reparation.

“I'd like to know what difference that makes! If a man's goin' where he can't take his womenfolks, I say he'd better stay to home! an' if there's things goin' on there't you don't want me to git hold of, I tell you, Heman Blaisdell, you'd better by half stop shavin' you now, an' take yourself off to bed at seven o'clock! Traipsin' round playin' the fiddle at your age! Ain't I fond o' music?”

“No, you ain't!” burst forth Heman, roused to brief revolt where his beloved instrument was concerned. “You don't know Old Hunderd from Yankee Doodle!”

The Widder walked round the table and confronted him as he was turning away from the glass, shaving-mug in hand.

“You answer me one question! I know who's goin' to be there, an' set in the chorus an' sing alto. Brad Freeman told me, as innercent as a lamb. Heman Blaisdell, you answer me? Be you goin' to bring anybody here to this house, an' set her in poor Mary's place? If you be, I ought to be the fust one to know it.”

Heman looked at the shaving-mug for a moment, as if he contemplated dashing it to the floor. Then he tightened his grasp on it, like one putting the devil behind him.

“No, I ain't,” he said, doggedly, adding under his breath, “not unless I'm drove to 't.”

“I dunno who could ha' done more,” said the Widder, so patently with the air of continuing for an indefinite period that Heman reached up for his hat. “Where you goin'? Mercy sakes alive! don't you mean to eat no supper, now I've got it all ready?”

But Heman pushed his way past her and escaped, muttering something about “feedin' the critters.” Perhaps the “critters” under his care were fed oftener than those on farms where the ingle-nook was at least as cosey as the barn.

These slight skirmishes always left Heman with an uneasy sense that somehow he also must be to blame, though he never got beyond wondering what could have been done to avert the squall. When he went back into the kitchen, however,—the “critters” fed, and his own nerves soothed by pitchforking the haymow with the vigor of one who assaults a citadel,—he was much relieved at finding the atmosphere as clear as usual; and as the early twilight drew on, he became almost happy at thought of; the vivid pleasure before him. Never, since his wife died, had he played his bass-viol in public; but he had long been in the habit of “slying off” upstairs to it, as to a tryst with lover or friend whom the world denied. The Widder Poll, though she heard it wailing and droning thence, never seriously objected to it; the practice was undoubtedly “shaller,” but it kept him in the house.

They ate supper in silence; and then, while she washed the dishes, Heman changed his clothes, and went to the barn to harness. He stood for a moment, irresolute, when the horse was ready, and then backed him into the old blue pung. A queer little smile lurked at the corners of his mouth.

“I guess the shoe'll go once more,” he muttered. “No, I ain't goin' to marry ag'in! I said I ain't, an' I ain't. But I guess I can give a neighbor a lift, if I want to!”

Brad Freeman was waiting near the tack door when Heman led the horse out of the barn. He was lank and lean, and his thick red hair strayed low over the forehead. His army overcoat was rent here and there beyond the salvation which lay in his wife's patient mending, and his old fur cap showed the skin in moth-eaten patches; yet Heman thought, with a wondering protest, how young he looked, how free from care.

“Hullo, Heman!” called Brad.

“How are ye?” responded Heman, with a cordiality Brad never failed to elicit from his brother man.

Heman left the horse standing, and opened the back door.

He stopped short. An awful vision confronted him,—the Widder Poll, clad not only in the Tycoon rep, but her best palm-leaf shawl, her fitch tippet, and pumpkin hood; her face was still bandaged, and her head-gear had been enwound by a green barege veil. She stepped forward with an alertness quite unusual in one so accustomed to remembering her weight of mortal flesh.

“Here!” she called, “you kind o' help me climb in. I ain't so spry as I was once. You better give me a real boost. But, land! I mustn't talk. I wouldn't git a mite of air into that tooth for a dollar bill.”

Heman stepped into the house for his bass-viol, and brought it out with an extremity of tender care; he placed it, enveloped in its green baize covering, in the bottom of the pung. Some ludicrous association between the baize and the green barege veil struck Brad so forcibly that he gave vent to a chuckle, sliding cleverly into a cough. He tried to meet Heman's eye, but Heman only motioned him to get in, and took his own place without a word. Brad wondered if he could be ill; his face had grown yellowish in its pallor, and he seemed to breathe heavily.

Midway in their drive to the vestry, they passed a woman walking briskly along in the snowy track. She was carrying her singing-books under one arm, and holding her head high with that proud lift which had seemed, more than anything else, to keep alive her girlhood's charm.

“There's Roxy,” said Brad. “Here, Heman, you let me jump out, an' you give her a lift.” But Heman looked straight before him, and drove on.

By the time they entered Tiverton Street, the vestry was full of chattering groups. Heman was the last to arrive. He made a long job of covering the horse, inside the shed, resolved that nothing should tempt him to face the general mirth at the Widder's entrance. For he could not deceive himself as to the world's amused estimate of her guardianship and his submission. He had even withdrawn from the School Board, where he had once been proud to figure, because, entering the schoolroom one day at recess, he had seen, on a confiscated slate at the teacher's desk, a rough caricature representing “Heman and his Ma.” The Ma was at least half the size of the slate, while Heman was microscopic; but, alas! his inflamed consciousness found in both a resemblance which would mightily have surprised the artist. He felt that if he ever saw another testimony of art to his unworthiness, he might commit murder.

When he did muster courage to push open the vestry door, the Widder Poll sat alone by the stove, still unwinding her voluminous wrappings, and the singers had very pointedly withdrawn by themselves. Brad and Jont had begun to tune their fiddles, and the first prelusive snapping of strings at once awakened Heman's nerves to a pleasant tingling; he was excited at the nearness of the coming joy. He drew a full breath when it struck home to him, with the warm certainty of a happy truth, that if he did not look at her, even the Widder Poll could hardly spoil his evening. Everybody greeted him with unusual kindliness, though some could not refrain from coupling their word with a meaning glance at the colossal figure near the stove. One even whispered,—

“She treed ye, didn't she, Heman?”

He did not trust himself to answer, but drew the covering from his own treasure, and began his part of the delicious snapping and screwing.

“Where's Roxy?” called Jont Marshall “Can't do without her alto. Anybody seen her?”

Roxy was really very late, and Heman could not help wondering whether she had delayed in starting because she had expected a friendly invitation to ride, “All right,” he reflected, bitterly. “She must get used to it.”

The door opened, and Roxy came in. She had been walking fast, and her color was high. Heman stole one glance at her, under cover of the saluting voices. She was forty years old, yet her hair had not one silver thread, and at that instant of happy animation, she looked strikingly like her elder sister, to whom Heman used to give lozenges when they were boy and girl together, and who died in India. Then Roxy took her place, and Heman bent over his bass-viol. The rehearsal began. Heman forgot all about his keeper sitting by the stove, as the old, familiar tunes swelled up in the little room, and one antique phrase after another awoke nerve-cells all unaccustomed nowadays to thrilling. He could remember just when he first learned The Mellow Horn, and how his uncle, the sailor, had used to sing it. “Fly like a youthful hart or roe!” Were there spices still left on the hills of life? Ah, but only for youth to smell and gather! Boldly, with a happy bravado, the choir sang,—

  “The British yoke, the Gallic chain,
  Were placed upon our necks in vain!”

And then came the pious climax of Coronation, America, and the Doxology. Above the tumult of voices following the end of rehearsal, some one announced the decision to meet on Wednesday night; and Heman, his bass-viol again in its case, awoke, and saw the Widder putting on her green veil. Rosa Tolman nudged her intimate friend, Laura Pettis, behind Heman's back, and whispered,—

“I wonder if she's had a good time! There 'ain't been a soul for her to speak to, the whole evenin' long!”

The other girl laughed, with a delicious sense of fun in the situation, and Heman recoiled; the sound was like a blow in the face.

“Say, Heman,” said Brad, speaking in his ear. “I guess I'll walk home, so't you can take in Roxy.”

But Heman had bent his head, and was moving along with the rest, like a man under a burden.

“No,” said he, drearily. “I can't. You come along.”

His tone was quite conclusive; and Brad, albeit wondering, said no more. The three packed themselves into the pung, and drove away. Heman was conscious of some dull relief in remembering that he need not pass Roxy again on the road, for he heard her voice ring out clearly from a group near the church. He wondered if anybody would go home with her, and whether she minded the dark “spell o' woods” by the river. No matter! It was of no use. She must get used to her own company.

The Widder was almost torpid from her long sojourn by the stove; but the tingling air roused her at last, and she spoke, though mumblingly, remembering her tooth,—

“Proper nice tunes, wa'n't they? Was most on 'em new?”

But Brad could not hear, and left it for Heman to answer; and Heman gave his head a little restive shake, and said, “No.” At his own gate, he stopped.

“I guess I won't car' you down home,” he said to Brad.

It was only a stone's-throw, Brad hesitated.

“No, I, didn't mean for ye to,” answered he, “but I'll stop an' help unharness.”

“No,” said Heman, gently. “You better not. I'd ruther do it.” Even a friendly voice had become unbearable in his ears.

So, Brad, stepped down, lifted out his fiddle-case, and said good-night. Heman drove into the yard, and stopped before the kitchen door. He took the reins in one hand, and held out the other to the Widder.

“You be a mite careful o' your feet,” he said. “That bass-viol slipped a little for'ard when we come down Lamson's Hill.”

She rose ponderously. She seemed to sway and hesitate; then she set one foot cautiously forward in the pung. There was a rending, crash. The Widder Poll had stepped into the bass-viol. She gave a little scream; and plunged forward.

“My foot's ketched!” she cried. “Can't you help me out?”

Heman dropped the reins; he put his hands on her arms, and pulled her forward. He never knew whether she reached the ground on her feet or her knees. Then he pushed past her, where she floundered, and lifted out his darling. He carried it into the kitchen, and lighted the candle, with trembling hands. He drew back the cover. The bass-viol had its mortal wound; he could have laid both fists into the hole. He groaned.

“My God Almighty!” he said aloud.

The Widder Poll had stumbled into the room. She threw back her green veil, and her face shone ivory white under its shadow; her small eyes were starting. She looked like a culprit whom direst vengeance had overtaken at last. At the sound of her step, Heman lifted his hurt treasure, carried it tenderly into his bedroom, and shut the door upon it. He turned about, and walked past her out of the house. The Widder Poll followed him, wringing her mittened hands.

“O Heman!” she cried, “don't you look like that! Oh, you'll do yourself some mischief, I know you will!”

But Heman had climbed into the pung, and given Old Gameleg a vicious cut. Swinging out of the yard they went; and the Widder Poll ran after until, just outside the gate, she reflected that she never could overtake him and that her ankles were weak; then she returned to the house, groaning.

Heman was conscious of one thought only: if any man had come home with Roxy, he should kill him with his own hands. He drove on, almost to the vestry, and found no trace of her. He turned about, and, retracing his way, stopped at her mother's gate, left Old Gameleg, and strode into the yard. There was no light in the kitchen, and only a glimmer in the chamber above. Heman went up to the kitchen door and knocked. The chamber window opened.

“Who is it?” asked Mrs. Cole. “Why, that you, Heman? Anybody sick?”

“Where's Roxy?” returned Heman, as if he demanded her at the point of the bayonet.

“Why, she's been abed as much as ten minutes. The Tuckers brought her home.”

“You tell her to come here! I want to see her.”

“What! down there? Law, Heman! you come in the mornin'. She'll ketch her death o' cold gittin' up an' dressin', now she's got all warmed through.”

“What's he want, mother?” came Roxy's clear voice from within the room. “That's Heman Blaisdell's voice.”

“Roxy, you come down here!” called Heman, masterfully.

There was a pause, during which Mrs. Cole was apparently pulled away from the window. Then Roxy, her head enveloped in a shawl, appeared in her mother's place.

“Well!” she said, impatiently. “What is it?”

Heman's voice found a pleading level.

“Roxy, will you marry me?”

“Why, Heman, you 're perfectly ridiculous! At this time o' night, too!”

“You answer me!” cried Heman, desperately. “I want you! Won't you have me, Roxy? Say?”

“Roxy!” came her mother's muffled voice from the bed. “You'll git your death o' cold. What's he want? Can't you give him an answer an' let him go?”

“Won't you, Roxy?” called Heman. “Oh, won't you?”

Roxy began to laugh hysterically. “Yes,” she said, and shut the window.

When Heman had put up the horse, he walked into the kitchen, and straight up to the Widder Poll, who stood awaiting him, clinging to the table by one fat hand.

“Now, look here!” he said, good-naturedly, speaking to her with a direct address he had not been able to use for many a month, “You listen to me. I don't want any hard feelin', but to-morrer mornin' you've got to pick up your things an' go. You can have the house down to the Holler, or you can go out nussin', but you come here by your own invitation, an' you've got to leave by mine. I'm goin' to be married as soon as I can git a license.” Then he walked to the bedroom, and shut himself in with his ruined bass-viol and the darkness.

And the Widder Poll did not speak.

      * * * * *

There are very few cosey evenings when Heman and Roxy do not smile at each other across the glowing circle of their hearth, and ask, the one or the other, with a perplexity never to be allayed,—

“Do you s'pose she tumbled, or did she put her foot through it a-purpose?”

But Heman is sure to conclude the discussion with a glowing tribute to Brad Freeman, his genius and his kindliness.

“I never shall forgit that o' Brad,” he announces. “There wa'n't another man in the State o' New Hampshire could ha' mended it as he did. Why, you never'd know there was a brack in it!”

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index