We’ll take a break from the serials this week with some short fiction from our cultural past. First up: Which will win out? Edna’s understandable need for the barest bit of security in life, or her ability to cope with – or even respect – her husband with his generous nature but improvident habits?
From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1938 –
by Mary Ek Knowles
Edna Arnold sat at the big kitchen table, and counted the bills again. “Ten … twenty … thirty … forty … fifty-five … sixty-five … seventy-five … ninety-five … one hundred!” No matter how many times she counted the bills the answer was always the same. She wrinkled her pretty forehead and her blue eyes were troubled. It seemed to her that there should be more money. But there wasn’t! And that one hundred dollars represented the Arnolds’ total worldly wealth. With it they must buy feed for the chickens until they started to lay, pay for any emergencies that might arise, and if eggs didn’t bring as good a price as Edna anticipated, pay the taxes on the farm in the fall.
It had always been that way, she reflected, as she replaced the bills in an empty chocolate box and tied it with a red ribbon – always on the verge of being poor.
With a sigh she took the box, and went upstairs to make the bed in their big front bedroom, her slim figure, gay in a pink print dress.
In the first part of March, Tom, who had worked for ten years in a stuffy insurance office, had been taken very ill. “Too much inside work,” the doctor had told them. “Either you get a job doing outside work, or – ” Neither Tom nor Edna liked the “or” nor the look on the doctor’s face when he said it, so at Edna’s suggestion they had invested their small savings in the old Penfield place in Crystal Valley (purchased at a low price because the farm was four miles off the main highway, and the house was rapidly falling apart), bought 800 baby chicks and with all their worldly possessions, consisting of a truckload of furniture and a red steamer trunk given to them by their Uncle Rufus, they had moved into the old Penfield farmhouse the last of March.
At the time, the red trunk had caused some comment. Both Tom and Edna had expected more. Wasn’t Uncle Rufus worth millions and hadn’t Tom always been his favorite nephew? But it seemed Uncle Rufus had other ideas. The morning of the day they had moved he had driven up in his twelve-cylinder automobile, presented them with the trunk and muttered something about, “nobody staked me when I needed it and I’ve turned out all right,” got in his car and drove away.
The exploring of the trunk, once they had overcome their disappointment, still remained the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary and uncertain world.
Tom had dived into the trunk with his long arms and brought out a tent-like pair of red and white checkered golf pants. “Why, it’s some old woolen clothes of Uncle Rufus. And what taste he has! Just look at this, Ed,” he had cried in an affected voice. “Just the thing I’ve always wanted!” Then much to Edna’s amusement he had slipped into the voluminous pants with his long thin legs, cinched the fullness in at the top with a leather belt and strutted about the room. “What the well-dressed farmer is wearing this season.”
They had agreed hilariously and unanimously that the clothes were suited only for a mad masquerade ball.
The trunk was resting now, under the stairway, fast gathering dust.
A wave of tenderness swept over Edna as with slender hands she smoothed Tom’s side of the bed. It was so characteristically like Tom, the curve of his long body still lifelike beneath the sheet, the pillow bunched up into a ball and at the side of his bed his black oxfords pushed off, one on top of the other, with the laces still tied.
With a little laugh she removed a black stocking, hanging like a long nightcap on a staid preacher, from the bedpost.
Tom was such a kid. And she was so hopelessly in love with him. She frowned. If only she could change his ideas about spending money.
Tom and his philanthropic gestures! In the city he had been an easy mark for every down-and-outer in town.
Now that they were in the country it was the same thing. She could not make Tom see that they were on the shaky edge of poverty, that there were no more pay checks coming in. Tom spent money as if he were a millionaire.
She punched a pillow with unnecessary vigor. First there had been the incubator. Tom had come walking up the tree-bordered lane one April morning holding the incubator in his arms. “I’ve bought an incubator, Eddy.” And as Edna started to protest, “Oh, it’s a good buy, less than a fourth of what we’d have to pay for a new one.” Then he had lowered his voice sympathetically. “Gosh, Eddy, I bought it from a fellow who’s got T.B. He has to get to Arizona or he’ll die. Even then, Honey, I doubt if he’ll live. Gosh, he’s so young.” Incidentally, the first time they had used the incubator they had almost burned the chicken coop down.
Then the Miracle Liniment for man or beast. Twenty-four bottles Tom had bought. “I was walking down the road from town, Eddy, when I saw this old man ahead of me. He kind of shuffled along and every few steps he’d go to the side of the road, sit down on a boulder and just sort of crumple up. He had a box he was carrying, too. I thought perhaps I could help him carry it, so I hurried over. ‘Can I help you carry this?’ I asked. ‘If you would, son,” he said in a weary voice. Gosh, Edna, something just came over me as I saw him sitting there looking up at me with faded eyes. Edna, old men oughtn’t to look like that. They should have children or grandchildren or someone to look after them. I bought all he had, Edna, and he couldn’t even thank me. He just started to cry and walked slowly up the road.”
Then the pig! Edna still insisted that the man who sold the pig to Tom was an ex-convict. There had been something in the way his eyes had evaded her straight gaze, something about the gray pallor of his skin. “Well,” Tom had said, “what if he is. He’s still a human being, still has to live, doesn’t he? Gosh, you can’t kick a fellow when he’s down.” Of course the pig hadn’t been such a bad buy. A month later she had given birth to a litter of six and Edna would be able to sell them at a good price in the fall.
The bed made, Edna straightened the bright braided rugs, rearranged the things on top of the vanity dresser and hung their nightclothes in the closet. She must speak to Tom, make him understand how little money they had.
As she started to leave the bedroom, she looked out the front window down the lane. Looked and gave a little moan of impatience as a tall man came walking up the lane leading a cream-colored cow at the end of a rope. So that’s where the extra money had gone! She slammed the bedroom door and went quickly downstairs, her round little jaw set in a firm line.
“Tom! what have you done?”
Tom Arnold took of his new straw hat, ran his fingers through his dark wavy hair and looked at Edna. “I’ve bought a cow, Eddy. Didn’t you say this morning at breakfast that if we had a cow we wouldn’t have to buy milk from Charley Hyslop and we could sell butter, cream and cottage cheese?”
“Oh, Tom,” Edna denied, “you know I didn’t. I said that someday – ” She broke off, angry tears starting to her eyes. “Where did you buy her, and how much did she cost?”
“Bought her from Jess Barker, up the road.” Tom patted the cow and she looked at him with soft brown eyes. “Only fifty dollars!”
“Oh, Tom, you didn’t pay fifty dollars for that bag of bones.”
“Isn’t a bag of bones, Eddy. It’s a thoroughbred Jersey. Just had a calf and she’s come in fresh, too. All thoroughbred Jerseys are thin, Jess Barker said so.”
“Tom,”she protested tearfully, thinking of the few remaining bills in the candy box. “I didn’t object so much to the other things. Buying them was just a matter of five or ten dollars at a time, but fifty dollars! You don’t seem to realize, Tom, that we have just one hundred dollars to our name.” A feeling of panic swept over her. “That’s all we have. With that we must – ”
“But Edna, with the cow we can sell dairy products. Just let the crowd in town know we’re selling. Why, the cow will pay for herself.”
Edna sighed wearily. “All right, Tom, put the cow in the old carriage shed. That’s about the only building that isn’t falling apart.” She turned and walked toward the chicken coops when Tom’s voice called her back.
She walked back to him. “What do you want?” Her voice was frigidly polite.
“Got a little kiss for Tommy?”
She turned her head away. Tom took hold of her arms. “Look at me, Eddy. Don’t be cross. Gosh, if you’d seen Jess Barker. I’ve never seen a man so hard up. Didn’t get a cent from his crops last year. And he’s got about a dozen kids. They’re no more’n babies.” Edna’s face softened. “Probably never had enough to eat, Honey, just all eyes and little thin bodies showing beneath dirty ragged clothes. Gosh, Edna,” he shook his head and the pallor beneath his new tan tugged at Edna’s heart. “It isn’t right for babies to live like that.”
Bitterness flowed from Edna in a swift stream. Her arms went around Tom’s neck. If he should die; if even working in the open air could not make him well! A life without Tom – unthinkable! The arms about her were so thin.
It was exactly two hours and seven minutes by the kitchen clock from the time Tom took the shiny tinware pail out to the cowshed until he brought it back.
“Seems there’s quite a knack to this milking business,” he explained self-consciously as Edna looked critically at the scant measure in the pail. “Looks easy until you try it. There was more,” he added. “Molly kicked the pail over twice!”
Edna scrutinized the milk beneath the kitchen light and wrinkled her nose. “Tom, this milk doesn’t smell right. It smells rancid and it looks curdled, too.” She frowned. “You don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with the cow, do you?” she had already calculated how much they would make selling dairy products.
‘Oh, no,” Tom assured her. “Nothin’ wrong with the cow. It’s just me, the way I milk.”
But by the end of the week even Tom could see there was something wrong with Molly.
“There’s something wrong with a cow that won’t eat,” Edna told Tom. They were standing in the cowshed looking worriedly at Molly. “She just stands. Won’t go out to pasture. Won’t eat her bran, and bran to a cow, so I understand, is the same as apple pie to a human. Her milk is rancid, her body so thin. Why, look at her, Tom, a good gust of wind would blow her over! What do you suppose is wrong?”
Tom frowned. “I don’t know, Edna, but something certainly is wrong.” He looked out the door at that moment and saw old Charley Hyslop coming slowly up the lane. “Here comes Charley, perhaps he can tell what’s wrong.”
Charley Hyslop lived on the next farm east of the Arnolds’. He was so far their only acquaintance in Crystal Valley.
“Bought the critter from Jess Barker, didn’t you?” Charley asked the moment he came through the door. He was a short, bent little man with a seamed face. Slightly lame in one leg he carried a hickory walking stick.
“Why, yes,” Tom admitted. “I did. But how did you know?’
“How did I know? Only place in Crystal Valley where you could get a beast that looks like that.”
“What’s the matter with her, Charley?” asked Edna.
“Starved to death.” He pointed at the cow with a short gnarled finger. “Look at them back bones, them legs, that neck. Jess Barker don’t have enough food for his kids, let alone his beasts. Wouldn’t have had a cow in the first place if it hadn’t been give to him. Better for the poor thing if it’d never been born.”
“But Charley, what can we do about it? We just can’t lose the cow!”
Charley shook his head. “Nothin’, I’m afraid,” he said in a sympathetic voice. “She looks pretty well gone. Although,” he said with an attempt at brightness, seeing Edna’s worried look, “I once had a sick cow and she didn’t die. Might be,” he turned and hobbled out the door, “my remedy would help your Molly. I’ll go get it.”
News travels fast in a small community and the news that Jess Barker had at last sold his cow spread like wild fire. Every adult in the little town held himself responsible. Mrs. Gatherup who drove over one afternoon in the hay wagon expressed the sentiments of them all. “If we’d been more neighborly it wouldn’t have happened.” She was a large motherly sort of a woman clad in a freshly laundered cotton print dress and a white hat trimmed with red poppies. “We could have warned you. Us that’s lived in Crystal Valley all our lives and knows animals wouldn’t give Jess Barker’s cow a first look, let alone a second one. But you, fresh from the city and all – really, we just feel awful about it. And – ” she hesitated as if loathe to place another burden on Edna’s slight shoulders, “you can’t even get your money back. Last Wednesday Jess Barker bundled his whole tribe up and they all hi-tailed off to his wife’s folks in California.”
All the next week people drove up the shady tree-bordered lane. As Tom told Edna with a touch of boyishness in his voice, “Gosh, Edna, everyone is good to us. Every person in Crystal Valley’s been to call.”
Like Charley Hyslop, each person brought his own home remedy for the cure of the cow. All of which Edna copied in a neat hand, thanked the donor for, put on the third shelf of the kitchen cupboard and never used. “People are very kind,” she told Tom, “but if I used their remedies I’d kill the cow for sure.”
Andy Doubleday, the veterinarian, drove over the last of the week. He examined the cow and left some medicine. “Only one chance in a hundred of saving her,” he told Edna.
Edna paled. “Is it that bad? You mean the cow might die?”
Andy nodded. “She was under-nourished in the first place and having a calf just about finished her. Of course,” he added kindly, “if you could save her she’d be a wonderful cow. She’s a thoroughbred Jersey and she’d give good milk.”
For the next week the care of the cow became of prime importance to the Arnolds. Three times a day they cooked, bottled, and poured the medicine mixture down Molly’s throat. Three times a day they held a handful of bran beneath her nose and prayed hopefully that she would at least sniff at it. Still with all their efforts the cow continued to grow thin, until her body was a frame of sharp bones draped with hide.
All this time Edna was conscious of a feeling of resentment, smoldering like a treacherous fire within her heart. It was all so unnecessary! Tom shouldn’t have bought the cow. They would have been spared the time, the trouble and the worry. And the candy box would contain five more crisp ten dollar bills. Forgotten incidents, long buried, lived again and added fuel to the growing flame. The time Tom brought a hobo home for dinner and he walked off with Tom’s best suit of clothes; that night just before Christmas when Tom gave their last cent to a widow to buy presents for her brood of five; the time Tom had his car wrecked by a drunken driver. Edna had gone with him to the man’s house to demand some restitution and had stayed to hear Tom drop charges because the man was poor and there was no carpet on the floor, and she had seen Tom hand his wife five dollars to buy coal with. She could not make Tom see her point of view!
She began of a sudden to see things about her in their painful crudeness. The old house draughty as a huge barn, with its smoky range, its stuffy pantry, its low, back-breaking sink, all crying for paint and repairs; the broken-down farm buildings, not one fit to stand bitter weather; the tall weeds growing in the front yard; the rickety fence with the creaky old gate. She could see no release from it all.
“I shall grow to be like Mrs. Hartwell down the road; careless, with my hair in wisps about my face; old looking from farm drudgery; stupid with nothing to talk about but crops, chickens, eggs, horses, cows, butter and cottage cheese!”
At night in bed she planned means of escape, totally unaware of Tom’s thin arms clasping her or his lips pressed against her hair as he slept. She would get her old job back. She would go live with Aunt Ellen. She would run away, anywhere so long as she escaped.
Edna had just given Molly her evening dose of medicine and Tom was proffering the usual handful of bran when a slight form darkened the doorway. It was Charley Hyslop.
He walked around the cow and shook his head. “I’ll haul her carcass away for you in my old wagon,” he offered kindly.
Edna put her hand on the cow’s thin back. “You mean she’s dying?”
“Afraid so. Probably won’t last the night out. Too bad, too, you young folks have worked awful hard to save her.”
After Charley had gone Edna and Tom stood looking sadly at Molly. It had been such a nerve-racking discouraging week.
Tom sighed and patted Molly’s head. “Funny,” he said huskily, “how a person gets attached to an animal – Molly, now, the way she’d ‘moo’ when I came in the morning.”
Edna said nothing. She could think only that they were about to lose their fifty dollars. Despair descended on her like a dark cloud. She would leave in the morning. Tom would have to work out his destiny alone!
“Out in the country,” Tom went on, “you have a genuine feeling for your animals same as you would for a person. Even at that, I don’t suppose animals are much different from humans. A sick cow’s just like a sick child.”
Still Edna made no answer. For the first time in her life she was hating Tom completely, fiercely.
“Say, Edna,” Tom said of a sudden. “I never looked at it quite that way before. I mean about a sick cow being like a sick child. If a child’s sick, what do you do? Why, you give it medicine as the doctor orders and you keep it warm – warm, Edna.”
“So what?” asked Edna, smothering a feeling of tenderness at Tom’s eagerness.
“We haven’t kept Molly warm. If a child is sick, they give it medicine as the doctor orders, put it to bed, cover it with woolen blankets. Wool, Eddy! Haven’t we something that’s woolen?”
The red steamer trunk containing Uncle Rufus’ woolen things came to Edna’s mind.
“There’s just Uncle Rufus’ old woolens in the red trunk,” she told Tom listlessly. What did it matter? She would be gone in the morning.
“Of course!” Tom ran out the door and returned a few minutes later dragging the trunk after him and puffing hard from exertion.
Together – Tom very eager as if clutching at a last straw, Edna half-heartedly, helping only because she could not, even in her anger, splash the ice water of objection in Tom’s flushed face – they planned a campaign against death in the little shed.
First the cow must be kept warm. Obviously one couldn’t put a cow to bed no matter how much he wished her recovery, so Molly was dressed. Yes, dressed in Uncle Rufus’ old woolen clothes! The red trunk was robbed of its contents one by one. The red and white golf pants were fit over the hind legs and up over the hind quarters, a green and purple plaid jacket covered the middle portion (the articles were joined together with a large darning needle threaded with stout twine), the front legs and quarters were in an orange and black striped sweater, and last but not least a bright blue polka dot golf jacket was cut and arranged over the neck and head, leaving only Molly’s ears and two startled brown eyes peeking out. The final result was bizarre to say the least and was destined to be the subject of conversation in every home in Crystal Valley and become at last a legend in the little town.
Next, a fire was built close to the cow so that she might have direct benefit of the warmth, and the medicine was kept at the right temperature, not too hot, not too cold.
All night long the Arnolds fed, warmed and watched the cow. It was a difficult and tedious job. It was discouraging to Edna, yet, in spite of herself, she had caught Tom’s enthusiasm. It was so discouraging that Tom under stress of emotion made a confession.
“Eddy,” he confessed, standing close to her and looking down at his feet. “I never should have bought the cow. I knew it at the time, too. Really, I did. Something seemed to tell me the cow wasn’t any good.” He raised his head and Edna saw how tired he was, his pale face lined with weariness, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. “But there were those kids, Edna, so hungry, all eyes, looking pleadingly at me. I can’t blame you for not understanding what I mean. Sometimes, Edna, I don’t understand myself the way I feel when I see someone hurt or cold or hungry. It’s just as if I couldn’t bear to walk on and do nothing about it.”
He turned his head away. “Why you stick to me, Edna, I don’t know. I’ve always been a drawback to you. I realize that now. I wouldn’t blame you if you’d leave me.”
Suddenly he was on his knees before her. “Give me one more chance, Eddy, and I promise I’ll never do such a thing again. Next time I’ll – I’ll look the other way and pass by.”
Edna brought her face close to his. “You mean it, Tom? You promise me that?” she drank deeply of triumph’s sweet draught. “You promise, Tom?”
At three o’clock in the morning the cow mooed faintly and ate hungrily a whole handful of bran.
A month later Edna stood at the bedroom window looking down at the cow grazing in the field. She looked strong and lively enough now. To think that Uncle Rufus’ odd gift had saved her!
Edna was happy to-day. The chickens were starting to lay and there was every indication that she would get a good price for eggs. The cow was well and giving rich creamy milk. She’d been offered a good price for the pigs. She walked over to the front window. “Someday,” she planned, “we’ll make that field into an orchard. We’ll plant peach trees, apple trees, cherry trees. We’ll plant the west field, now overrun with weeds, with golden life-giving wheat. We’ll repair the farm buildings, paint the house, plant a lawn.”
Suddenly she stopped and clutched the pink net curtain in her hand. Face pressed against the window-pane she watched a man walk up the lane leading a sway-backed tired-looking old work horse at the end of a rope.
It was Tom and he had bought a horse! Edna’s body stiffened with antagonism. She would leave him, now, today! He had broken his promise to her.
With angry eyes she watched as Tom led the horse to the pump and filled a bucket with clear cold water. The horse drank thirstily and Edna noticed for the first time that his body was flecked with white foam; that raw welts glowed cruelly across his back as if a bestial hand had wielded a whip on a body too old, too broken to go on. The horse raised its head and with dripping nose nuzzled Tom’s arm. In that movement Edna saw the thankfulness, the contentment of all things abused who have at last found peace and rest.
In that instant her body relaxed and she dropped on her knees to the floor by the window. “Tom, Tom,” she sobbed quietly against the net curtains, “what a fool I’ve been. I thought I could change you. You, to whom kindness is as the very bone and fiber of your being – inseparable. You’ll never change. And I – I, Edna, take thee, Thomas, for what thou art.”
She dried her eyes and went quietly downstairs.