A Farmer's Wife
A Farmer's Wife.
By Lizzie M. Holmes.
It was the noon hour and the hands from the hayfield were trooping up to the big, substantial frame house that stood out bare and ugly in the middle of an open yard where only a few easily grown flowers redeemed it from absolute dreariness. In the kitchen of the house, a slender, faded woman dished up the hot, heavy viands hurriedly, running occasionally into the dining room with the salt, the spoons or an extra dish, anxious lest everything required should not be in its place in time.
Two children, of five and three respectively, played outside near the door, and between duties the mother would run to see if they were all right. She looked tired and in the pathetic droop of the small lips and in the dullness of the blue eyes one could read a long story of weariness and soul hunger. Her hair was pulled straight back from her forehead and wound in a tight little knot behind. Her faded calico dress was collarless and her big gingham apron soiled with the work of the day. Evidently her looks were seldom considered, and beauty in any form seemed a neglected quantity all about the place. The house was severely furnished. There was a "front room" with a conventional parlor set ranged against the walls and covered over with dark calico; a set of coarse lace curtains hung over the windows straight down from the top, and a square table with a scarlet cover and a crimson photograph album laid exactly in the middle, stood in the center of the room; there was an old-fashioned cottage organ in the corner closed as though it were never used. But there were some bags of grain stacked up in another corner and various tools and implements lay in the windows while a pile of old newspapers were heaped on a chair. Evidently the room was used as a receptacle for odds and ends that were in the way elsewhere, rather than for social or domestic purposes.
The dining room was bare but for the paper blinds at the windows. The kitchen was a large room containing only the usual kitchen furniture, with a broad expanse of white floor which had to be scrubbed each day; there was a row of hooks for the men's hats on one side of the door and a big roller towel on the other. 1 he men washed in a big trough pear the pump and came inside to scrub their red faces dry. Then they trailed into the dining room and ranged themselves round the table.
To-day there was a new man. The others were all farmers' sons raised in the neighborhood who greeted their hostess familiarly as "Mis' Spalding" or "Maggie" and passed on carelessly. The new man paused at the kitchen door and looked deprecatingly at the woman and would have lifted his hat had one been on his head. The husband, who had come in with the rest of them without any greeting whatever, happened to see him and said grudgingly, "Oh, yes, Maggie, this is a new man I hired to-day. Name is John— John Harvey."
Mrs. Spalding nodded without pausing in her work and the man bowed low. Rufus Spalding paused on his way to the dining room and said:
"Maggie, them calves got out again today and run away down the road and I had to have a man stop and go after them. I do wish you would watch them a little."
"I have so much to do, Rufe. I don't see how I can look after them. Why don't you fix the fence?"
"Oh, well, of course, if you can't "and
he sauntered on to his seat.
•Margaret had everything on the table and now took up the big pail from its bench to get fresh water for the glasses. The new man came up and gently took it from her, saying,
"Let me do that. It's too heavy for you."
Margaret looked up in surprise. Not ope of the hired men had ever offered to get a pail of water for her, and her husband apparently never thought of such a thing. Her eyes met the kindly, bright brown eyes of the "new man" and she felt a strange thrill. Her nerveless hands unclasped the handle, and he took the pail to the well and quickly filled it. At the table he thanked her as he took his coffee from her hand, and said "please" when he asked her to pass the bread. Such courtesies were unheard of in that community and the men glanced shyly at each other and winked. But John Harvey seemed oblivious to the fact that his conduct was unusual.
After dinner the other men went out and threw themselves on the grass in the shade of the house. But the new man, seeing the woodbox empty, went out to the woodpile and filled it; and as there was no wood cut fine enough for kindling, he split some and brought it in.
Meanwhile Rufus Spalding had taken his little girl up in his arms for a few moments, scolded his boy for some little thing he had done, then wended his way to the barn. He had not thought to give Margaret a single kindly word. He was not cross or moody— simply careless. He was a large, fine looking fellow, so strong and hearty he had never felt a weakness or a pain in his life and could not understand such things in any one else; and he had the appearance of being eminently satisfied with himself and his surroundings. It never entered his mind that his wife might be tired and discouraged and need a little loving attention. In that neighborhood everyone was supposed to be able to hold up his end and it was considered rather a disgrace if one could not come up to expectations in the way of work. Margaret was supposed to be an able-bodied woman and in no need of sympathy or help, so no one ever thought of offering it.
So no one knew how her tasks weighed her down and with what weak, unwilling limbs she dragged herself about. All the soul and heart of her were starving too! It was something so new to meet a warm, cordial glance, to be courteously addressed, to have her need for help recognized; the man's voice and his pleasant smile haunted her. There was a little time after the work was done in the afternoon before supper must be prepared, when nothing absolutely had to be done. Instead of hunting up something to mend, as a thriftier woman might have done, Margaret took her two children out into the orchard and sat down in the shade of the trees with her hands idly folded in her lap. The little boy was so unaccustomed to see his mother without work in her hands he came and softly patted lior head and said:
"Is 'oo sick, mamma? Shall Walter do snmtin for mamma?"
"No, dear; only tired. T want to rest quietlv a little while." she said, kissing him. He still lingered doubtful, but presently went to his play. And Margaret sat dreaming with the golden sunshine lying on field and meadow, and a soft breeze stirring her hair lightly on her brow.
Seven years before Margaret Walters had been a bright, pretty girl just home from
school, and as full of romantic ideas, rosy dreams and bright hopes for the future as any girl of nineteen ever was. Her parents owned a small farm and had hard work to keep abreast of the needs of a family of three children, Margaret and two boys, younger than herself. They had tried to give her everything she could wish for and had scrimped and saved to send her away to school. She was their pride, their delight, and no sacrifice had been too great that was for her. When she graduated and came home so pretty, graceful and clever, they could not make enough of her; and young Mr. Rufus Spalding "a-wooing came" and met with great success. Mr. Walters approved of the great strapping, good-looking fellow, for his family was highly respected and no one had ever said a word against the young man himself. Then he owned a hundred and sixty acres of good hay land, and plenty of stock to go with it; he was a very good match for Maggie, the father thought, and gave him a hearty welcome.
And Margaret, hardly awake from her girlish dreams, thought "the prince had come" and fell in love; so she did not hesitate at changing her cosy home nest for a new one all her own. Only her mother, who knew something of the toil and loneliness of a farmer's wife and felt that Margaret with her brightness and cleverness and her dearly bought accomplishments would in a measure be wasted, ventured to bid her pause before she decided irrevocably. But Maggie could see nothing to fear and joyfully kept her promise.
And Margaret had a fine wedding as weddings go in the country; all the neighbors for miles around were invited and much feasting and wishing of joy took place; and at the close of the day, Rufus took his bride home in his buggy and set her down in the home that had been his father's, and expected her to go to work. There were no holidays, no pleasant little trip to tide over the sudden change from free girlhood to wifehood. The ceremony said, the romance was over, and the workaday duties of everday life had to be taken up. Rufus was at first passionately loving and told her daily how happy he was. But he loved his farm and his work, he expected to "make it pay," and to do this he had to give it almost undivided attention. Maggie was supposed to be equal to her share of the work, or she was not fit to be a farmer's wife. She was expected to cook for seven or eight work hands, keep a house of seven rooms clean, take care of the milk and cream and make butter, raise chickens, and, after the garden was plowed in the spring and most of the seeds in, to attend to it: if she had any flowers or shrubbery she must attend to them herself.
Before Margaret married she used to play and sing very nicely, and people loved to hear her; she had brought her organ from home with all her music; but after the first few weeks they were never brought out. for Rufus did not care for music and considered it a waste of time. They all worked so hard that at night after the chores were done, they were glad to go to bed and rest; so that in a little while the few short precious moments at twilight when Rufus would come and sit beside her with an arm around her waist and watch the stars come out, were left out and existence came to be a weary round of hard, uncongenial duties. Margaret never had any money of her own. Rufus would buy her a nice dress or a handsome cloak or hat and bring it to her without regard to its suitableness; he paid all the bills himself and could not see what a woman wanted with money. And so the magazines, the bits of fancy work that women enjoy, the new songs, etc., were gradually dropped and Margaret knew nothing but work. And in the minds of the neighboring farmers' wives she was but an indifferent worker. She had little taste for that kind of work; she could not succeed with flowers nor with vegetables and do her other work, so after awhile she gave up trying. Her chickens did not do well, and she never could make butter look fine and firm as it should. And so she came in for a good share of criticism from her husband and the neighbors. She was fast becoming an embittered, hopeless, unhappy woman.
And there was no need of Rufus Spalding's living as he did. He was worth thousands of dollars and constantly making more. But in some rural districts the methods adopted by the pioneers never seem to get lived down. In the beginning it was necessary for the farmers to do all their own work, to save and to deprive themselves. And the habit seems to grow on them instead of being dropped when it could be. A sort of agricultural public opinion kept men and women slaving and saving and going without things to their graves, because it was considered thrifty to do so. And while Rufus Spalding was not a bad man, he was simply following in the way of his ancestors and neighbors, and thought himself a pretty good sort of a man and a very successful one, too. If any one had told him he was killing his wife, he would probably have knocked him down.
But now into Margaret's life had come a new element. The new hired man never made himself obtrusive, but he seemed to know intuitively when a little help would be welcome. He carried in wood and water, lifted the heavy buckets of milk when they were to be strained; swept off the steps in wet weather, and once went after Margaret when she was at the other end of the orchard, with a shawl and an umbrella. Rufus would never have thought of it. Sometimes they talked—talked of books, and plays, and pictures each had seen in the past. This new companionship and kindness was like a draught of pure water to a thirsty soul in a great desert. She grew prettier, and paid more attention to her dress; she waved her hair about her face and wore clean calico dresses with lace in the neck and sleeves. She ceased to answer Rufus when he scolded her about something she had left undone or had not done right, and a pleased, contented little smile lurked constantly around her lips. Rufus vaguely no
ticed the difference, but thought it due to some womanish whim, and he "didn't pretend to understand all a woman's notions and moods." He had seen the man waiting on his wife, but only laughed at the man's softness; "he'd get over that when he had to pitch in and work for himself," he said.
But one evening Margaret had sat down in the front porch for a few moments before going to bed. The children were asleep, the work was all done and the men had gone to their homes or their bedrooms; she did not know where her husband was. Presently John Harvey came around the house and saw her sitting there.
"How beautiful the stars are tonight! The sky is full of them," he said, as he leaned with one arm outstretched against the house.
"Yes, how peaceful and happy they seem! Do you know that constellation?" And she pointed out "Cleopatra's Chair," and then she asked him about others, and it turned out that he was quite familiar with the starry heavens and told her a great deal that she did not know. He sat down near her presently and they talked on, forgetting the passage of time and all things else. They found a thousand things to say, a thousand congenial topics that Rufus would have considered "nonsense;" he liked to talk of horses and cattle and crops and prices, and if one did not understand those things they hadn't "good sense."
Suddenly a half clad figure came around the house.
"Is that you, Maggie?" a voice said crossly.
"What in h are you doing out here till
this time of night? I've been asleep and woke up and found you weren't in and I came out to look for you. What on earth can you two find to gab about till all hours of the night? You come in and go to bed."
"We were only talking and I forgot it was late. I'll come in now."
"Well, you'd better," and they went into the house without speaking to Harvey. Rufus did not say anything more to his wife about the matter either and after that seemed to be unusually silent and moody. He did not scold; he even offered to help Maggie once or twice when she had to lift something heavy. But he looked at her thoughtfully now and then as though pondering on something too deep for him. She no longer came to him to coax for a loving word or a caress as she had in the past; she treated him kindly, but said little to him.
One day Rufus came home in the middle of the afternoon on an errand, and did not find his wife and children in the house. He began to look for her excitedly. Her hat was gone and one of her good dresses. Where could she be without telling him where she was going? If she had run into one of the neighbors' houses she would not have worn a nice dress and her best hat.
It happened that morning that John Harvey had told him he was going away, that he had been on his way cast anyway, and felt that he would have to be going; so Rufus had paid him up and he had disappeared. A fearful thought came to the husband as the dreary emptiness of the house smote his heart. But nonsense! His Maggie, his kind, good Maggie could never do such a thing. She had perhaps taken the children and gone to her mother's with some neighbor. She would come back all right; he would not harbor such a thought.
The hours wore on and she did not return; the men came in to supper and no supper was ready. Rufus tried to laugh it off, saying his wife had deserted him and some one would have to help him get supper. One of the boys who was "handy about cooking" helped him and they got a sort of a meal on the table and sat down to eat it, trying to be cheerful and unconcerned. After supper Rufus went to the barn, and looked around at the horses. He heard two of the men talking in the main body of the barn, and catching his own name he did not try to resist listening.
"I'll bet she's left him for good," one of them said, "'n I wouldn't blame her if she has."
"Ner I nuther; he's stingy and hard as iron, and she used to be such a bright, pretty girl and liked singin' and parties and nice dresses and fun, an' now she never sees anything but hard work from one day's end to another. An' it ain't as though Rufe wasn't able to hire help and let her have things she likes; he could get her anything she wants. 'Stead o' pettin' her as sech tender little mites like her wants, he's cross and scolds, and never thinks o' givin' her a moment's pleasure."
"Yer right. I hate to see a man act a brute to a woman just because he owns her. I just knew she'd die or run away sooner or later."
Rufus crept out of the barn feeling cold and stiff. He did not know what ailed him, he could scarcely move. His heart felt like lead, and his head felt light. Had he been a brute to Maggie? Was it his fault that she had faded and grown sad and silent and seemed to care for nothing? He had thought he was a very good sort of a husband, and had never failed to buy Maggie something when he went to town. He knew she did not like farm work; but then he had thought she ought to like it, and the sooner she was broken in the better. Now he remembered that she had been slender and graceful and seemed better fitted for music and singing and laughter than to the hard duties of the farm. And now, had she grown so tired of it, and did she hate him so much that she had run away with a tramp harvest hand?
With trembling hands he hastened to hitch up one of the horses to a buggy and jumping
in he whipped up in a way that surprised his favorite nag very much indeed. He was hurrying to her father's house to see if she wis there. All the way he kept picturing to himself the "no" he would hear when he should ask if Maggie was there; then the torturing hours that would ensue when he knew not which way to turn. But he would trace them and kill the man and bring her back if he had to do so by main force. He hail been to. blame, he knew it now, and he would forgive her. She should live as she liked and he would hire the rough work of the farm house done. Oh, if he could only find her, safe and pure! He wondered vaguely what she would do with the children, but did not dwell long on the thought—it was Maggie he was troubled about. A great wave of tenderness surged up in his heart as he remembered how patiently she had tried to do her part, a part unsuited to her and too much for her slender strength. How he would love and care for her if she came back to him!
At last he reached the home of her parents; the lights were out and all was dark and silent. He sprang out and rapped loudly on the door. After a wait that seemed like eternity he heard someone coming; Mrs. Walters' opened the door with a candle in her hand and a shawl thrown over her night dress.
"Is Maggie here?" he asked, and his heart almost ceased to beat as he waited for the answer.
"Why, yes. She left a note in the pantry, she said. Father hasn't been well and I've had to be up nights with him so much I was pretty near wore out, so I sent word out to see if she couldn't stay up with him one night. But father's so much better we all went to bed. But come in! So you didn't find her note? Well, ye better come in and stay alt night now. Maggie's sleeping in the front upper chamber."
Rufus felt so weak he tottered to a chair and sat down. He could not speak for a moment so great was the relief. Then he went upstairs and found Maggie sitting up in bed waiting for him. The children were asleep in a little bed grandma had prepared for these visits. Rufus walked up to her and took her in his arms. "My Maggie," he said as he kissed her again and again.
"He did not read my note theni I must see that he never does," thought Maggie, yielding to the sweet new delight of being loved and petted by her husband.
"I will never let her know what I thought,' Rufus said to himself. "From to-night we begin a new life."
- Holmes, Lizzie M. “A Farmer’s Wife.” The International Wood-Worker 15, no. 9 (September 1905): 265–268.