A Daughter of Martha
By Ivy Williams Stone
“Pears. Eels. Turnips. Elderberries. Radishes.” Gloria read and reread the cipher far into the night. That had been Peter’s promise to her — a cipher message, when a letter awaited her which had been addressed to the postmistress. She rose early and performed the household tasks with a rapidity that made Aunt Catherine gape in astonishment. Then giving Nancy full instructions for the simple dinner, Gloria went for the mail herself, taking “Prance,” who was now old and docile.
“I brought you a dozen of my choicest eggs, Mrs. Bottling,” Gloria handed over the gift preparatory to making her request. “Have we any mail?”
“There’s two bills for Mr. Whittman,” Mrs. Bottling made no secret of her examination of all mail as far as possible, “two farm magazines and I got a letter for you.” When her hand was securely in the egg basket, Mrs. Bottling produced a bulging letter from her pocket. “Came addressed to me. Peter has confidence in me. I like that boy. He saved my cat once, from being killed by a train. I gave him some ginger cookies that had got hard. After that, we was always friends.”
Gloria was absorbed in her letter. Page after page she scanned rapidly, knowing there would be many later readings. A thin slip of bluish green paper fell out. “Pay to the order of Mrs. Jonas Whittman — fifty dollars.” Why it was money from Peter. He must have a job!
“I live with the Conrads. I work days. I go to school nights. I clean the court-house. Judge says custodian is a nicer word than janitor. I weigh a hundred fifty now. I had a ride in an auto. It went fifteen miles an hour. I’m going to be a doctor. The town is dead from the bottom of the boom falling out. Judge has a little house where we can all live. He got it for taxes. The girls must have schooling. It is free. You must come. Bring Father if he will come, but you must come anyway. The school is only two blocks from the little house. We will all work. School starts October first. I am six feet tall.”
Gloria flushed scarlet, turned pale, and flushed again. While seemingly busy dusting the counter, Mrs. Bottling had kept a careful eye upon Gloria’s facial expression.
“No bad news I hope? Peter well?”
“Peter is wonderfully well and busy and happy. We are all proud of him.” If Mrs. Bottling suspected that Jonas did not know the whereabouts of Peter, she would not rest until, in a circuitous manner, she had conveyed the news to him.
Little Claire could not be left to the fitful care of a father unskilled in the care of a delicate wound. Her injured eyeball withered in the socket; the eye lids puckered, drawing her face into a slight twist. And because Bruce never looked at her when he could avoid it, the child developed a piteous, love-hungry expression.
“I think Bruce had better leave Claire with me this winter,” suggested Gloria. “She would be dreadfully lonesome over in his house.”
“I see no objection to Bruce staying with us,” added Jonas. “The boy’s room is vacant — it seems Peter is not coming back. And Bruce has always treated me with more kindness than did my own sons.”
“If Bruce stays with us, he should promise to drive the girls to school every day — no matter what the weather is. These girls simply have to have education.”
“You have an obsession on that subject of schooling.” Jonas could not accustom himself to such a positive statement from a woman. “If Bruce stays, he must do so and so. You say so. I say Bruce may come here under any conditions I may wish to impose. We are using his land with ours –”
“But we must educate our children at the time they are receptive!” It was a good, new word, and Gloria had spent time learning it. “New fields are opening up for women — the generation demands it — the state offers it — our children must have it. Somewhere back east, I read where they put a man in prison because he refused to send his children to school.”
Aunt Catherine threw up her hands in astonishment.
“And whose children were they?” she demanded. “Who has the right to say what shall happen to a child except his rightful father?”
“Jonas,” Gloria’s voice trembled at first, but gradually gained steadiness, “these children must go to school. After you are gone, what will land mean to girls? Are they to grow up in ignorance, marry uneducated men, bear children to whom the doors of education are forever locked? I beg you, I implore you, my husband, give to the girls now, while they are young. Leave them nothing when you die, but give them education now.”
“One tongue is enough for a woman,” countered Jonas. “The great poet Milton said that. It doesn’t hurt a girl to work.”
“A girl can be a good worker who can read and cipher too.”
“We’ll stay here, gladly, Father Whittman. It would be sorter cold and lonely in the house over yonder — besides I never was much of a cook,” Bruce answered, when Jonas invited him to come.
Claire slept with Aunt Catherine, much against Gloria’s wishes, but it was Bruce’s choice. Gloria and her three girls occupied the same old room. Jonas allowed no one to disturb his rest, so Bruce took his former room, where the walls still held the Indian pictures he had made for Peter when he had first come into the Whitman home.
When Bruce moved in Gloria confronted Jonas in the library. “If I am to wash Bruce’s clothes and cook his meals and care for Claire, he is to make return to me by driving our three daughters to school every day.”
Jonas was writing a poem, over which he had labored for hours. It seemed so garish and harsh to be constantly interrupted by the petty irritations of his family. He really had no objections to the girls going to school, but Gloria was getting too independent. People of her complexion were apt to be that way, if they ever got the upper hand.
“The ballot seems to have turned your head,” he answered absently.
“That is my decision,” calmly replied Gloria.
“If Bruce wishes to haul the girls, well and good; but there shall be no must about it.” Jonas returned to his dictionary. What word rhymed with self?
Life gave no prospect of opportunity for the girls. At the best the village school was held for only five months, and tugging at the heart of Gloria was Peter’s urge to come to the town, and the craving of her own soul. The books she had wanted to read, the music she had wanted to play, the pictures she had wanted to paint, the songs she had wanted to sing, all these things should not be denied to her children. She had brought them into the world — she was responsible for their welfare. If Jonas would not, she, Gloria, would have to do it, alone.
Throughout one entire night she prayed for guidance. Jonas had such a fine mind and he, too, in years gone by, must have had similar urges, else why the piano, the library, the conservatory, the phonograph? But already he was suggesting that Nancy should learn to milk. He was her husband. “For richer — for poorer — for better for worse –” But his life was decided. He had had his chance. These children were in the formative period — plastic. The next ten years would mold their entire span of life. Jonas had achieved his one great ambition — two sections of land and a gravel pit. What right had they, as parents, to deny ambitions to children, even if they did run in other lines? All she wanted for them was a roof over their heads, and a school, and food.
By morning her decision was made. She journeyed to the store with the old buggy and amazed Mrs. Bottling with the size of her grocery order. She took no wheat or butter to trade; but when the rice and raisins, the currants and baking, the spices and dried fruits were stored in the buggy, Gloria laid down the bluish-gray paper in payment, as though fifty dollar money orders were a daily occurrence. That night she stoned the raisins, cleaned the currants; all the next day she baked and cooked and cleaned until even Aunt Catherine felt urged to protest.
“You’re killing yourself, Gloria,” she admonished. “Just because Bruce is moving in, no need to make such a celebration of it. But at that, I admit I’ll enjoy that fruit cake.”
Gloria did not ask Bruce ever to cut wood; she was still young and strong, and her axe rang with new determination as it fell upon the logs. Nancy helped with the carrying of the water, and the huge washing which had accumulated. All the dishes of the house were thoroughly washed; all beds were changed; Gloria scrubbed the floors and the halls. She served a heavy supper of pork and fruit cake; she managed to keep all the family up later than usual; her last act before retiring was to heap the wood box and see that the reservoir and all available buckets were full of water.
Jonas slept peacefully, confident that Gloria had taken her rebuke and there would be no further friction. Bruce hadn’t had such a meal since his wedding night. Little Claire snuggled into the embrace of old Aunt Catherine, grateful for any morsel of human affection that fell her way.
But Gloria did not sleep. She wakened Nancy and together they quietly packed the few personal belongings of Gloria and the three girls. They had no change of shoes; they had no best coats. Even their all made a pitfully small pile. Then Gloria tiptoed into the parlor and in the half light of breaking day she gathered her gourds and added them to her pile. She did not take the phonograph, nor any book; she took none of the food she had prepared. But the gourds had come to her, for herself, from far away Africa. She would never leave them.
“How the seeds rattle, Mother,” whispered Nancy.
“They are getting old and withered,” replied Gloria. “When I no longer need them, there will be three for each of you children.”
She sliced the bacon for breakfast; laid the kitchen fire, set the table for four — Jonas — Bruce — Aunt Catherine — Claire. Against Jonas’ plate she propped a little note.
“I have gone to Peter. He and I will keep the girls in school. I will come back whenever you will promise to have them driven to our school. I will have a place for you whenever you want to come to me.”
A rain had washed over the road; an early frost had frozen the ruts, until the twins whimpered because their shoes were thin and their feet hurt. But Gloria paid no heed. She hurried them along, through the chill early morning air, to the station. As the route paralleled the river, she noticed a huge rock out in the river bed, that had been smoothly rounded from centuries of erosion. Gloria did not know the word erosion; but she did know that the rock was worn from the contact of endless waters. Life was a river, and she was a rock. She was being worn smooth from contact with trials and conflicts.
The agent obligingly flagged a freight train and sent a message to Peter. The children were having their first train ride, over the same track that had carried Gloria to the Golden Spike Jubilee. But this was no longer a carefree Gloria. She was a determined, resolute woman who had burned her bridges; a woman who had taken her children away from her husband. “For richer — for poorer — for better, for worse.” The car wheels seemed to beat a rhythm to the refrain. She peered out of the murky caboose window as the train sped through Jonas’ meadow; she fancied she saw a thin curl of smoke from the chimney. Would Catherine remember that Jonas liked his bacon crisp, but not burned? Would she serve the cakes gradually, or would they have one big feast? Would Bruce do the milking?
The town and work and Peter lay ahead of her. How the town had grown. She had not been there for seven years. The street cars had no horses this time, but a pole that carried an elevated wire. More miracles from that man Edison. Noise and confusion — and here was Peter, all smiles and store clothes, his curly brown hair no longer refractory, but smoothly combed. How like her brothers he was! Tall, lean, built for endurance — a boy who would get that thing which he desired, a boy who would never give up. Beside Peter stood another man, self assured, smiling, and Gloria had difficulty in recognizing the lad who had come to the house at night, hungry and footsore, the lad who had left bearing the scars of Lott Gascom’s dogs.
“It’s all arranged,” explained Peter making little movements with his hands in tune with his speech. “Judge Conrad owns a little house which he bought for delinquent taxes. Yes,” added Peter, “I know the meaning of that word, Mother, and lots more as big as that too. Pretty soon Nancy can come into a spelling bee with me. Well, we’re to live in this little house, and I’ll work and you can find something to do too, and we’ll keep these girls in school. This is Francis Conrad, girls.”
“We can’t take the house for nothing, Peter. Never accept something for nothing.”
“Nothing indeed!” scoffed Francis. “I like that. Who steeped sage tea for my bites, to keep infection out? Who sat by me and listened to my ravings? Who took her last money to send for my father? The use of that little house won’t even be interest on the debt I owe you.”
It proved to be a little house indeed. A room in which to live and cook and eat. A room in which she and the girls could sleep — a porch where Peter slept, and as he laughingly explained, “drank fresh air for Aunt Catherine.” There was one of those little switches, however, that flooded the room with light. No lamps, no wicks, no smoke. And soon Peter bought his mother a fancy flatiron. She did not heat it on the stove, like the old sads. It wasn’t a fluting iron, but you screwed a plug in the light socket, and the iron heated. More marvels every day!
Gloria worked at anything she could get to do. She took in washings, and ironed far into the night. But there was no water to pull bucket by bucket from a forty-foot well. She soon learned that a certain class of women preferred to buy their pastries and bread, so she baked cakes, pies and biscuits which the children delivered. She went to pick berries; she worked long hours in the canneries. The fingers that had once knitted a sock a day, now snipped beans untiringly, or filled the huge tomato buckets with precision and swiftness.
The schools were free! Blessed freedom of statehood. All children were equal in the public schools, even the books were provided. All children had to do was study. They learned to read, to paint, to cipher, to spell, they even had a little dancing. Imagine, spending money to teach how to dance! They taught music — down town there was a free library. Peter brought books home for the girls. It cost nothing. The door was open to rich and poor alike.
Five toothbrushes hung on little nails over the water tap.
Judge Conrad explained all about delinquent taxes to Peter and Gloria. It seemed there had been a boom and Eastern investors had become disgusted and returned, refusing to send good money after bad. If you watched your chance, you could pick up a bargain for almost nothing. If you could hold it, the town would eventually right itself and you would have valuable property.
Francis Conrad took them, turn by turn, for a ride in his marvelous automobile. It was like a one seated, open buggy, except there were no shafts for horses. Just a handle which he turned when he came to corners. It wouldn’t climb a hill, but what was that to strong, healthy people who could push? When it was Nancy’s turn, the rides were always longer.
Gloria had the pleasure of casting a ballot for Judge Conrad. Of course in his great majority, it really didn’t matter, but she had the thrill of standing in the little booth — alone — on a parity with the greatest and the richest. Her poverty or another’s wealth made no difference.
Nancy took two years to even up her unbalanced home education. She knew as much as high school students in history and mathematics, but was woefully lacking in music and art. Now she was ready for High School, where the books were not free. But Mrs. Conrad had some sample copies, or rather Francis had some sample copies, or rather Francis said they were samples. They looked almost new to Gloria, but Francis loved to do things for them all, especially Nancy.
Peter was no longer custodian of the court house. He sat in court and took down everything that was said. He wrote in queer figures, that went above the line and under the line and on the line. Afterwards, he wrote it all out so people could read it. The twins looked so much alike, their teacher could not tell them apart.
Rodney came to see them sometimes. He felt terribly sorry that Gloria had left the old home. He feared his father might get sick. How would he fare with only Aunt Catherine to cook and wash? Victoria worried over her mother, too. But her concern was short lived, for she came rushing in to Gloria one day, all breathless and disturbed.
“Mother is coming!” she gasped. “Coming tonight. To me! What shall I do?”
“She is your mother,” admonished Gloria.
“But,” expostulated Victoria, “I can’t comb her hair all day. I can’t listen to her sing ‘God Save the Queen.’ I can’t get enough cream to satisfy her!”
“What do you expect to do when you are old, Victoria, and perhaps Rodney is dead, like your father, and you have no home, and you can’t adjust yourself to live on the charity of others — just what will you do?”
“Why, I’ll go and live with my boy Horace, of course. I’ll never be old to him.”
“Will he comb your hair and buy you all the sensational novels he can find, and let you sing yourself hoarse and satisfy your cravings for certain foods?” As she talked Gloria ironed wide flounced skirts which were to go to a debutante, and for which she would receive one dollar.
Victoria hung her head in dismay. “You have said enough, Aunt Gloria. I will meet the train. At first, I thought you might be willing to take her.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” chattered Aunt Catherine, as they rode home on the street car, “so long as the food which Gloria had cooked up lasted. I sort of enjoyed the quiet. I could sing all I wanted to. And that Claire is a well behaved child. She speaks when she is spoken to, like a child should. Be still, Horace, and let your grandmother talk!”
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving Gloria packed a generous box of prepared foods for Jonas. She never told him what sacrifices she had to make to buy them. She sent them prepaid, and every box contained some little girlish gift for Claire. Twice a year, Gloria wrote to Jonas, asking him to join them in the city, to leave the ranch. She received no acknowledgment that the boxes had arrived, no letter ever came in answer to hers.
Gloria bought a small lot, facing a corner. Judge Conrad demurred, suggesting something about improvement taxes eating it up, but Gloria had vision.
“These new cars, like Francis’, don’t travel on air. Gasoline has to be put into them. You can’t put enough in them to run forever. Already there are places where you can go to buy ice. Some day there will be a need for places where you can go to buy gasoline. A place near the street, so the automobiles don’t have to stop too long.”
For this venture she had to adopt new economies. She cut the family butter to one pound a week and had Nancy walk home from school. She took one more ironing.
There was a new law now that made people send their children to school. There was one new theatre too, where there were only pictures of people. They moved about and did things, and what they were supposed to say was shown on a screen. Something like a magic lantern, only much faster.
When Nancy had finished high school and the twins were ready to enter, and Gloria and Peter had hopes of a bigger and better house, a telegram came from Bruce. Gloria had always sent her address, although Jonas had ignored it. The telegram, like Bruce, wasted no words:
“Father Whitman sick. Guess you’d better come.”
Gloria took the night train, telling Peter she would send for him if his father were really very ill. The station was unchanged, not even a coat of paint had been added since she left. Bruce drove up just as the train pulled out and Gloria was deciding she would have to walk. The same old one-seated buggy, with Prance just a little older. Bruce looked unchanged, as though he might, like Rip Van Winkle, have been asleep the five years.
“He’s pretty sick,” he spoke without emotion. “He went out to the levee to turn the water one night, and fell in. Caught a cold I guess.”
Claire met them at the back door. Her eye was more sunken, her cheek more twisted, her shoulders were slightly stooped, and her drab, ill-fitting dress removed any youthful beauty which might have been hers. She smiled in a frightened manner at Gloria whose motherly embrace brought a quick flush of pleasure to the prematurely old face.
Bruce had been right — Jonas was sick. His labored breathing, rapid pulse, general lassitude all indicated a grave condition. He had never been too robust. Gloria remembered the years she had shielded him from the heavier tasks, and was instantly glad. The room was uninviting and cold; the linen had lost its original color. An untasted meal which still stood by the bed looked unappetising. The windows were all tightly closed. She managed to rouse him so that he recognized her and a smile of welcome passed over his face.
Once more a bed was hastily erected in the parlor. There stood the Franklin stove, the big piano as if it were only yesterday that Gloria had left. The curtains were still draped back and held in place with the identical blue bows which she had fashioned. The top shelf of the whatnot was still vacant, where her gourds had stood. There were no needles for the phonograph. The wax flowers had melted and run down into a rainbow hued mass.
“I will need linen,” announced Gloria. “Have you any that is clean?”
“Claire,” called Bruce, harshly, “get some sheets.”
Gloria stood back in amazement. She dimly remembered the Kafir women who had worked in her mother’s home. She had heard stories of the abuse meted to slaves in the south; but she had never before heard a father speak so cruelly to a child. Now she knew why Claire seemed afraid to speak; why she looked so grateful for the slightest recognition; it was because Bruce treated her as a menial slave. Mentally Gloria decided that Claire did the milking as a matter of course, that she provided her own fuel, carried all the water.
When Jonas had been transferred to the better bed and given a hot drink, he seemed better. His eyes followed Gloria as she moved about the room. She removed the lamp from the hanging center, placed it, shaded, on the piano, and prepared to watch over her sick husband all night.
“Claire,” she smiled affably at the girl who stood near, uncertain what to do, “I shall watch him all night. The library used to have a book called The Prince and the Pauper. Is it still there? I should like to see it again.”
“I don’t know,” stammered Claire. “Father keeps that room locked. He keeps the key. He says he won’t have me wasting my time reading. He says a girl with only one eye has no business to read.”
The next day Gloria purchased groceries in what seemed lavish quantities. She sent for delicacies to tempt the appetite of Jonas, provided sick room necessities, anticipated his every need, had a doctor come from the city. But his desire to live was gone. There seemed no urge to keep up the battle — slowly but perceptibly he weakened. All the doctor and Gloria could do was to make the passing gentle.
“What do you do to live?” he asked Gloria. “I felt sure you would come back. I wanted you here with me.”
“Baking bread for hired men taught me how to cook,” smiled Gloria. “I bake and sell bread. Fluting your shirts taught me how to be a good ironer — I wash and iron. Peter works — the girls work a little. For the first year I never tasted butter.”
“Are the girls in school?” Gloria had to lean far over the sick man to catch his whispers.
“They all have your quick, wonderful brain, Jonas. They all do nicely in school.”
“I wish you could understand, Crown of Glory –” Not for years had he called her by that endearing term. “– why I had to have land. My parents worked from childhood in those terrible cotton factories in England. They put me there too, when I was seven. I never saw a cow or a pasture or a grain field during all my childhood. Only cotton. Bales of cotton from the States; cotton lint; cotton thread; cotton cloth. My mother fell dead at her loom. In England the poor could not own land. I had to have land — it was my life.”
Never before had Jonas bared his innermost thoughts to his wife. In his grave taciturnity he had expected her to understand. Education, comfort, luxury were as nothing if they impeded the possession of soil. Hopes that crops would be successful, that markets would be propitious, had ever spurred him on. Land to have for his own; land for all his posterity had been his one obsessing ambition. From his viewpoint the end justified the means.
Sitting by his bedside, the years of toil and privation seemed to roll away; he was again the younger Jonas, with eyes of vision. His hand moved weakly toward Gloria’s curls, less shiny now, with a tinge of gray creeping in by the temples.
“Crown of Glory,” he whispered again, “you have never lost your courage. I am glad you put the girls in school. But there will be land for them all; you will not be poor. Send for Bruce. I must have him see to it.”
Bruce stood docilely by the bedside of the weakening old man.
“In my desk — in the library — that paper — the will which I made. Bring it — I want to change it. You know I didn’t want to do it!”
Bruce returned shortly. “I locked the library father, to keep Claire from reading. She was always in there, over-working what sight she’s got. I put the key in my pocket, and I guess it wore this hole. I guess the key’s plowed under by now. Anyhow, it’s gone.” He displayed a ragged pocket as proof of his assertion.
Jonas Whitman rose up in bed and issued his last order.
“I charge you Bruce, to proceed according to law and to divide all that I leave, share and share alike, between my children. You shall have a share, for you have stayed by me.”
“Yes, sir.” There was no change in the meek tone. As Bruce had accepted orders all his life, so he accepted this last injunction. No flicker of emotion passed over his expressionless face. But he realized that there would be no one to call him to account if he did not discharge the order.
“Crown of Glory,” whispered Jonas Whitman for the last time, “I’m glad you found me on the stream. Land, Gloria, is the only possession that does not perish!”
* * *
Gloria, with Rodney, Peter and Bruce assembled in the parlor which was no longer a sickroom. Bruce had found the key to the library. The legal envelope was opened. It contained two papers — one a will, one a verse of poetry.
By virtue of being the eldest son, Rodney read the terse, short will. Dated five years previously shortly after Gloria’s departure, it was properly drawn, witnessed and attested. Everything of which Jonas died possessed, the two sections of land, the house, the implements, the stock, the gravel point, was left to Bruce Knight, who was made executor. As required by law the sum of one dollar was willed to each of the children. By virtue of her voluntary departure, Gloria had automatically forfeited her rights.
A hush like that of death fell over the cold, fireless room.
Rodney laid down the will, picked up the sheet of poetry. His voice, composed at first, became husky ere he finished.