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
Her quarry answered patiently, yet with a certain dogged resistance
“I dunno's there's anything to tell.”
“How'd it go off?”
“'Bout as usual.”
“Did you speak?”
“Lead in prayer?”
“Wa'n't you asked?”
“Well, my soul! Was Roxy Cole there?”
“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'
“They've got up the idee of an Old Folks' Concert.”
“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,
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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,
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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,
“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
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
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!”