When Town and Country Meet.
Elsie Singmaster in Atlantic Monthly
MOST of the men in Millerstown left their work and started home for dinner when they were hungry, and many of them scolded if dinner were not ready. Adam Troxell did neither, but worked steadily away in field or garden till he was summoned. Often his longing eyes gazed back over the fields to the door of the farmhouse kitchen, although he knew that the sound of his mother’s horn could reach him in any part of the farm.
To-day, from his hoeing in the south field, he turned his head more often than usual, sure that the hour for dinner had passed, but not daring to investigate. Finally, he made up his mind that if the shadow of the next post had reached a certain stone by the time that he returned from the other side of the field he would wait no longer.
Before he was half-way across, however, he heard the sound of the horn, and dropping his seed-bag where he stood, he started toward the fence. When he was already astride of it he hesitated.
“She won’t know if I leave it once here,” he said half aloud, and jumped down on the other side. There he hesitated. “But she might ask me.” Climbing back, he made for the spot where he had left the bag, carried it with him to the fence, and, concealing it carefully beneath, climbed over once more, and made his way across the meadow, around the barn, and to the house. Outside the kitchen door, he paused to plunge his face and hands into a basin of water which stood ready for him on the pump floor, then slipped out of his heavy, mud-coated shoes.
“Adam,” called a mellifluous voice from within.
“Take off your shoes.’
Adam smoothed his hair before the
little mirror fastened to the side of the house beside the door. It gave back a reflection of his slendor, stooping shoulders, narrow face, and pale eyes.
Having finished, he went into the kitchen, carefully opening and closing the screen door. The kitchen was kept almost dark so that flies might not be tempted to linger therein, although it was not yet the season for flies. Adam’s eyes dimmed by the sudden change from the light without, did not at first distinguish the figure of his mother, as she stood before the stove; then the sound of her voice helped him in his sense of direction. Mrs. Troxell was not so small that she was hard to discover. The outline of her figure, though vague, was enormous, and straight from shoulder to skirt hem.
“Just sit down once,” she said.
Adam took his place at one end of a table which stood with its side against the wall. It was covered with a red cloth, and there two plates turned upside down, with a knife and fork crossed on each one. When his mother had heaped his plate high, she filled her own, and sat down, sighing heavily.
“What is the matter?” asked her son. “Have you got it somewheres?”
She did not answer at once, and he went on eating, not because he was not anxious to hear her reply, but because he was accustomed to have her take her time.
“Adam, I have been for some time thinking of something,” she began presently. “It is that I must have help. It is so much all the time to do, and I cannot always do the things so quickly like sometimes. Till I get the cows milked in the morning, I am tired, I must get me somebody.”
“You better get you a girl,” answered Adam uneasily.
“But the girls, they cost so much. It won’t anybody work in Millers-
town for less than a dollar and a quarter.”
“It is so,” he acknowledged.
“And they eat so much. They eat more than they work.”
“Well, I could do the milking. Then you would not have it so hard.”
“But you would then have to hire a man, and it would come out the same. It is another way I am thinking from.”
“What is that?”
Mrs. Troxell rose heavily, and went to the cellar for the pie. She did not answer until she was in her place opposite him.
“You might get married.”
A wave of color flooded Adam’s face.
“You are plenty old enough,” she went on. ‘You are now fifteen years older than your pop and I when we were married. Then it wouldn’t be no wages to pay, and it would be some one what would take interest. These hired girls, they don’t care. And we could then keep more chickens, and put the eggs in the store, and she could help sometimes in the field, and in the garden. I am getting so stiff, I cannot work any more in the garden—”
He might as well have tried to dam the smoothly flowing little Lehigh with a shingle. A listener might have wondered at his seeking, the tone was so round, so smooth, like the soft bubble of the stream, intensified a hundred times.
“— like I used to. And it is plenty girls, but not so many what are good for something. I have been thinking from the girls, Adam. Not Mary Kuhns, she is too much of a schussle (careless person), and not Elmina Fatzinger, while she is always too much for spending money, and not Mantana Kemerer. But Linnie Kurtz, Adam. She is a good worker, and she is not so proud. I think it would be good to get Linnie.
“But, Mom, when shall this marrying be?”
“Ay, soon. It must be somebody here for the harvest, and she must be by that time used to the things.
Linnie cannot have so many eggs to bake with as at home. I will learn her to be saving.”
Mrs. Troxell gathered herself together as if to rise.
“If you get done early with the planting, you can go to-night to see Linnie, Adam.”
Adam rose, and went out into the sunshine, his pale eyes blinking. He sat down on the doorstep and put on his heavy shoes, then he went slowly back to his work. He could not believe that his mother was growing old, she who, in spite of her vast size, had accomplished such herculean labors. He shared her distress at the idea of paying wages. Most of the girls were not willing to do as their mistresses wanted them to do; they liked to gad about, to go to the county seat on the trolley, to have beaux, and they ate more than they were worth. He had thought vaguely of getting married before, but he had put the thought aside, because he did not suppose his mother would approve.
But Linnie Kurtz ! The flush came back to his cheek. He did not want Linnie Kurtz, she was too smart. There was always a laugh in her eyes when they met his.
No, there was some one else whom he would marry. As he thought of her, a little seed of romance, tiny and neglected in the bottom of his heart, put forth a pale green tendril. He would marry the girl whom he liked.
He finished his hoeing, then went back to the house and dressed quickly. His mother gave him his supper, then started to the barn to milk. She said nothing more about his marrying; she was accustomed to have him follow her suggestions.
It was seven o’clock, and the spring twilight had begun to fall. Adam walked swiftly into the village. When he reached the main street, the trolley car from the county seat had just come in, and he watched them change the fender, then climbed aboard.
He left himself strangely excited, although he had scarcely thought of the girl for weeks. Her name was Florence Kramer ; he had met her through
his cousin, who worked with her in the silk mill, where she earned seven dollars a week. He knew that his mother would refuse to believe that, but it was true. And she was pretty and smart, and probably had money in the bank. Certainly she could not, even if she wished, spend seven dollars a week!
He had seen her only a few times, but he did not have any fear that she would refuse him. What girl would not be glad for such a home as he could offer her? Only he and his mother knew the amount of their deposits in the Millerstown bank and a bank in the county seat, kept thus divided so that prying Millerstown might not know how much they had.
His mother received his story that night with a long silence. He did not see, in the darkness of the porch, that twice she tried vainly to speak.
“C—Can she work?” she asked, at last.
“She is a fearful worker,” answered Adam proudly. “She earns seven dollars a week.”
“Have you asked her, already?”
“Yes, but she is not sure if she will.”
Mrs. Troxell’s head sunk upon her breast. She made strange noises in her throat. For the first time in his life, Adam had acted without her counsel. Was this the effect the strange girl was to have upon him? Then her cold hands seized the arms of her chair.
“You bring her out here before you get married,” she said, stammering a little. “I must talk to her before you get married to her. Tell her to come Sundays.”
“Yes, Mom,” answered Adam. “I was going Saturdays in, but I will write to her to come out.”
The letter bore evidence of careful, even painful, composition. The girl, receiving it, laughed, then flushed scarlet.
“Dear, Miss,” it began. “I guess you are dissapointed while I do not come in. My Mom says you shall come to-morrow evening out for supper.”
She sat a long time after she had finished reading it, with it crushed in
her hand. She had never paid any attention to this “Dutchman” until he had startled her by proposing that she marry him. The half-spoken refusal had been smothered by the consciousness of an ugly pain in her side at the end of her day’s work, and of the fact that her last week’s wages was all she had in the world. Marriage would mean peace and comfort for her body, at least, even though Adam Troxell was as far from the man she would have chosen as any one could be. She would go out and see where he lived, and then she might accept.
Mrs. Troxell, sitting behind the vines on the porch on the Sunday afternoon, watched the girl disapprovingly as she came with Adam up the long lane which led in from the road. There were drooping feathers in her hat, and she wore gloves. She looked about her eagerly, and her face sparkled at sight of the farmhouse with its broad porch. It would be pleasant there on summer evenings. The girls from the mill could come out to see her, and she could go often to town. She felt already the importance which being well married would bestow.
She could not help a sudden start when Adam’s mother rose to meet her. There was something protentous in a first view of Mrs. Troxell. Her size took away one’s breath.
“How do you do?” she said slowly, and her voice made the girl shiver, it was so unlike any other voice she had ever heard. “It is a nice day.”
“You have a nice place here,” Florence answered nervously.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Troxell.
“But I should think it would be awful lonely.”
Mrs. Troxell smoothed down her white apron.
“It is too much to do in the country to get lonely,” she said. “It is all the time something to do.”
The girl’s face brightened.
“What do you do? Everything looks so quiet. I shouldn’t think there would be anything to do.”
For a moment Mrs. Troxell did not answer. Then she apologized for not
having asked the girl to take off her hat.
“Adam shall take it in the house,” she said.
When he had gone, she turned her head again toward Florence.
“What do you mean by something to do?” she asked.
“Why, there ain’t no theatre here, and no people, and no place to go.”
“We have no time to go places,” said Mrs. Troxell, her great voice trembling. “There is too much work.” Her little eyes watched the girl. “We have gardening and soap-boiling and white-washing and butchering and milking and harvesting and cleaning, an« i—
“Oh!” Florence’s eyes widensi and she gasped a little.
“—and baking and canning and—”
At sound of Adam’s footstep, Mrs. Troxell stopped abruptly. She lifted herself heavily from the chair.
“You can take her round to look at the things, Adam,” she said. “T will make supper.”
“All right,” said Adam in his high voice, leading the way down in the steps. His mother’s tone seemed to breathe satisfaction. “We will go first to the barn, and then you can go along to fetch the cows.”
“But ain’t you going to stay with me when I come out here?” Florence demanded. It was not that she wanted him, but that she was afraid of his mother.
“Yes, when the cows are milked. I milk Sundays. Mom has it so bad in her back.”
“But don’t you have a girl or a hired man?”
“Ach, no, it is too expensive to hire. But we would have to hire if I did not get married.”
“Oh, are you going to get married ?” she said sharply.
Adam smiled at her. He could never quite understand her metropolitan wit.
“Come now this way and see the barn.’
The girl followed him slowly, lifting high her trailing skirts. She made no response as he pointed out the various improvements he had made.
“But Mom, she thought of all these things,” he explained proudly. “Now, I am going for the cows. Will you go along ?”
“No, I’ll go back to the house.” She could not imagine a more terrifying experience than close contact with cows. She hurried back across the yard, and turned the knob of the front door. It would not open. She tried it again, and shook it, her face scarlet. Had the woman locked her out? She stood hesitating for an instant, then she heard a heavy footstep. There was a great sliding of bolts and keys, and Mrs. Troxell, a gingham apron over her white one, stood before her.
“I guess I didn’t hear you first off,” she said. “We use always the back door.”
The girl stepped inside.
“He said I should find you.”
“That was right. You come along in the kitchen.”
Florence looked about her curiously. The hall was narrow and dark, and the doors leading into the rooms on either side were closed. There was an odor of recently applied whitewash. Mrs. Troxell opened a door which led into a room as dark as the hall. There were faint outlines of a table with a chenille cover, and chairs set in a neat row against the wall. Suddenly she paused. Florence, in the dark, walked against her, and stepped quickly back. It seemed hardly human, the vast mass which she had touched.
“I thought I heard one,” Mrs. Troxell said mysteriously, making her way to the other side of the room. She lifted the curtain, where, buzzing against the window, there was a fly. She killed it with a stroke of her hand.
“It must a’ sneaked in when we came in,” she said. “Or else it is from last year.”
Then she opened the door into a brighter room, furnished with a rag carpet, a row of chairs set against the wall, and a table set for supper.
“You can sit here,” she said. “We always eat out in the kitchen except when it is company here.”
“Do you eat in the kitchen in summer when it is so hot?”
“Of course. Shall I have flies in
my house?” The expression of satisfaction had not left Mrs. Troxell’s face.
The girl sat down, and watched, fascinated, Mrs. Troxell’s careful exit. In a few moments the faint delicious odor of cooking stole in upon her. After a long time, she heard Adam’s voice and a splashing of water at the pump. Presently he came into the kitchen and sat down beside her, whereupon she shivered and turned involuntarily away.
“Well, did you get lonely?” he asked cheerfully. “When you do yourself the milking you won’t get lonely.”
Florence did not answer. She was watching Mrs. Troxell’s struggles with the door, her driving away of invisible flies, then her hurried entrance which left her almost breathless. This time there was a large tray in her hands.
In a few moments they sat down at the table. The meal was delicious ; Florence was sure that she had never tasted anything so good. Nevertheless, she could eat but little. Mrs. Troxell’s long grace, and her son’s silent feeding, and Mrs.Troxell herself, frightened her. She wished herself back at the boarding-house table, with its poor coffee, and worse bread, and the good company.
Mrs. Troxell urged her to eat.
“You can’t work when you don’t eat,” she said cheerfully, and her melodious voice seemed to fill the room. “In the country you must eat a lot so you can do country work.”
Florence shook her head. She wondered whether this choke in her throat signified homesickness. And for what ? What was it that made this place so terrible? Was it the silence? Was it the vast old woman?”
“What time does the next car go?” she asked, when Adam finally laid down his knife.
“Must you go already back?” asked Adam, in dismay. “I thought you should stay and go long in the church.”
“Yes, you can just so well stay,” seconded his mother.
“No, I must—I have a sick aunt. I promised to stay with her.” The ex-
cuse was the sudden reckless invention of the moment.
“But I can’t go long so early. I take always the collection in the church.”
“Oh, but I can go alone.” Her eyes brightened. “You need not even go to the car with me.”
“Ach, yes, that he will do,” insisted his mother. “Of course he will go with you to the car.”
“Of course I will,” said Adam. His eyes sought his mother’s, and met her gaze, alert, anxious, perhaps a little pitying. He interpreted it to mean that she was as eager that the bargain should be struck at once as he.
They had scarcely left the house before he spoke.
“Well, how would you like to live here ?”
“I don’t like the country. It is too lonely.”
“But you wouldn’t be lonely. Mom is always here, and it is not lonely when you have work to do.”
“But I don’t like to work.”
“You don’t like to work!” He stopped in the lane and stared at her. “But you get seven dollars a week, working.”
“But I only work for the money. I don’t like to work.”
“But you will have here a good home. It is no one in the family but I and Mom, and it is a good farm, and we have money in the bank.”
She turned on him suddenly.
“Will you let me have some of the money? Will you let me hire a girl ?” “A girl,” he repeated heavily. “A girl yet, with you and Mom to do the work. What would a girl do?” Florence broke suddenly into an hysterical laugh, then she started to run.
“Don’t you see the car is coming?” she cried.
When Adam got back to the house, his mother was sitting on the porch. “She wouldn’t marry me !” he said. “She wouldn’t marry you!” Mrs. Troxell’s voice was non-committal.
“She wanted me to take money from the bank, and hire a girl. Take the money from the bank !”
“What!” Now Mrs. Troxell did not need to assume surprise.
“Yes.” Then his voice softened. “I guess we might V made it easy for her. We might V hired a girl to help. We—” he sat heavily down on the step. “I wanted her.” After a long time he said again, “I wanted her.”
Mrs. Troxell watched his bent head. Fear came into her eyes at this son who wanted anything she had not suggested. Then her eyes narrowed cunningly.
“The Lord does not let us have always what we want, Adam. It is some
good reason why you shall not have her.”
“I guess so,” he answered piously, and with that, romance died. “But now we will have to hire, Mom.”
“No, not yet awhile,” his mother answered. “I feel good to-night. I will get a while along alone.”
She sat on the porch for a long time after he had gone to bed. Occasionally she smiled and once she muttered softly :
“I settled it. I scared her. To take—” Mrs. Troxell gasped heavily —“to take the money from the bank to hire a girl !”