From the Relief Society Magazine, 1961-62 –
Because of the Word
By Hazel M. Thomson
The brightness of the oaks and maples tried vainly to cheer Ruth Ann Barker as she completed her farm chores. Her eyes looked often toward Boston, a day’s journey to the east, where living had become very gracious in the early eighteen hundreds. It vexed her that her father insisted on remaining in the Naumkeg Valley which was practically the same as living on the frontier.
There were no Indians, that was true, but the land itself had proved almost as hostile. The back-breaking work had taken its toll. Many times Ruth Ann had blamed it for her mother’s early death.
“I know nothing but farming,” her father always answered to her pleas. “I could not earn a living in Boston.”
“We could get along. Uncle John would help us.”
“I would not like to depend on John or anyone for help. I will help myself.”
“I could work. I’m a good cook. Someone would let me help them as a domestic.” But Ruth Ann knew his answers even before he spoke.
“When your mother and I came here from England, Ruth Ann, it was to get land of our own. My people had always lived on land owned by the Crown. Even if we had ever been able to, we could not buy it. Now, for the first time, I can till my own ground.”
Ruth Ann had seen him so many times sift the dirt through his fingers as if it were more precious than gold, then lift it to his nose and take a long breath.
“The city squeezes me in, Ruth. One day there, and I’m ready to come back where there is plenty of room and good fresh air.”
Air! That there was. Even when filled with odors of the barnyard, there was plenty of air.
“The land, Ruth Ann,” her father would say, “it’s in my blood to work the land. When you’re born to the land, there’s no trying to get away from it. It’ll be there in you, too, once you get over this foolishness about the city.”
Ruth must have heard this at least half a hundred times. Now, as he repeated it, her resentment grew.
“Give the pigs some extra corn these days,” he said, the problem solved for him, getting back to the business at hand. “They’re near ready for market. Want all the weight I can get on them.”
Ruth Ann stripped the corn form the stalks angrily, feeling the sting on her hands where the sharp leaves cut the skin. She gathered an armful and tossed it toward the trough in the corner of the pen, letting it sink into the mire, not caring.
By that evening, Ruth Ann had made up her mind. Cousin Claire Mayhew had invited her to Boston for the beginning of the social season, and she was going. Her father had urged her to accept when the invitation came. Ruth Ann knew he felt that she came back from a visit to Boston a little more contented, at least for a time. She did want to go, yet she hesitated leaving her father alone.
It was Victor Hall’s visit that had finally caused her to make up her mind. He had asked Ruth Ann, for the second time, to marry him. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Vic. She did, very much. Maybe she even loved him; yet his rough, broken fingernails, the callouses on his hands, and the prospect of facing life on land that he was just now clearing, was more than she could stand.
Preparing for bed, Ruth Ann kept reminding herself how nice it would be to go to a dance again with a partner in formal dress. Clothes meant so little to Vic. Buckskin or homespun, it didn’t matter. Either was plenty good enough just so it wore well. Anyway, Vic would rather read than dance. He was like her father about his land and books. Ruth wondered which they enjoyed most.
Land means more to Vic than smooth hands, or clean clothes, or – yes, thought Ruth Ann, more than I do. Well, I am going to Boston. I’m not ready to start living in a cabin in the wilderness where the work is never done. It’s never done here on our farm, where the land is all cleared and cultivated. I don’t know what it would be like on his, with the land still covered with underbrush and trees, but I’m not too anxious to find out.
The next few days were busy ones for Ruth. She cleaned the little house thoroughly and did much extra baking so the cupboard would be well-stocked, at least for the first part of her visit. Food didn’t worry her father. A bowl of bread and milk suited him fine, day after day, for his evening meal.
Then there were her clothes to get ready. She knew they did not compare with Claire’s, but her own dark beauty reflected back from the mirror was reassuring to her.
She had a bad moment the day before she left. She had fed the chickens and was returning to the house when she noticed her father coming across the field at full speed on a horse. As she watched, she realized the horse was out of control. She put her hand to her throat, stifling a scream as she watched him trying to pull the horse to a stop. He had been trying to break that colt all summer, and it had thrown him once. It jumped the creek at a gallop and temporarily broke its stride. Relieved, she watched him brought to a halt before the corral bars.
“Father!” she cried. “What a scare you gave me! Are you all right?”
“Of course, Daughter,” he answered, sliding slowly from the horse’s back and patting the heaving sides.
“Why don’t you trade that wild thing off before you do get hurt? Maybe Vic could tame him.”
“Vic would be only too glad of the chance. No, this is a real horse. Nobody is getting this horse away from me. He hardly bucks when I get on anymore. A big hawk flew up and scared him. That’s all that was the matter this time.”
She went back to the house, a vague sense of uneasiness hanging over her, yet she well knew the futility of arguing with her father.
Ruth planned on leaving without seeing Vic again. When she answered the door that evening to find him there, looking tall and handsome and bronzed form his life in the outdoors, she almost weakened. There was a certain strength about Vic, and she found herself telling him of her concern for her father and the colt.
“Can’t you do something, Vic? I almost hate to go, worrying about him riding that animal.”
“I’ve already tried, Ruth Ann. I even offered to break the colt for him but he seems to think I am trying to get the horse for myself, and just want to train it to my liking. I will keep an eye on him every day for you.”
“That’s kind of you, Vic,” answered Ruth Ann. She felt uneasy, not wanting him to mention marriage tonight on the eve of her departure. Vic seemed to sense her mood, and spoke of other things until he arose to leave.
“How long will you be gone, Ruth?” he asked.
“A few weeks. I don’t know exactly.”
“I want to get some more land cleared and get some fall plowing done. I will not be writing, but I’ll be waiting when you get back. Have a good time, Ruth.”
He made no move o touch her. She watched as he placed his tall hat on his blond hair, bleached lighter by the sun, and stepped off the porch. he swung lightly to his saddle and was off at a gallop toward the one room he had built where his land touched her father’s on the west.
Boston was full of interesting people and things to do. Claire’s gaiety was contagious, and the two spent wonderful days together.
Ruth Ann found Claire’s kind of life appealing. The two girls would sleep late and breakfast together. They had lunch wherever the hour or the mood caught them. Dinner in the evening was always a beautiful affair, with candlelight gleaming on china and silver. Ruth mentally compared it with supper in the kitchen at home and falling into bed, completely exhausted form the day’s labor.
“You must come with me to the dressmaker’s today, Ruth,” announced Claire one morning. “The opening ball is next week, and just see these bolts of material Papa just brought form the ship that came in from England.”
“Really, Claire, I can’t have you giving me new clothes.”
“But I insist. Besides, Papa says I must see that you have a new dress for the ball. I told him how difficult it is to get a new dress where you live, and he says I must urge you to take as many of mine home with you as you will.”
Ruth Ann looked at the blue material that Claire had chosen. That would have been her first choice, but, of course, it was Claire’s privilege to take the color she wanted.
“The red, I guess,” said Ruth Ann.
“Good choice,” said Claire, taking the bolt of material from the stack. “You’ll be devastating in red, with your fair skin and dark hair. Now let’s be off to Mrs. Palfrey’s and discuss styles and patterns.”
Mrs. Palfrey ran a little dressmaking establishment in the center of the city. Ruth Ann was awed by the many beautiful dresses already in progress.
“I hope I can get them finished in time,” Mrs. Palfrey said to Claire, “but it seems as if everyone in town wants a dress for this same occasion.”
“I do hope she gets them done in time,” said Claire on the way home. “Quinton will be back in town and I must look my best.”
When they returned for fittings Ruth Ann felt a little timid about wearing the red dress. Somehow it didn’t seem like her – the image that she saw in the large oval-shaped mirror at Mrs. Palfrey’s shop. She noticed Claire looking at her closely, but was unable to read the other’s thoughts. Not until the day before the ball, when the dresses arrived, did she find out what was in Claire’s mind.
“It is the red dress I should have,” said Claire, looking at Ruth Ann, as she tried the dress on. “Oh, Ruth, it means so much to me to look just right for this ball. If I don’t make an impression on Quinton soon I’m afraid I’m never going to.”
“Both dresses are really yours,” said Ruth Ann. “You shall wear the one you choose.”
“No, they are not,” answered Claire. “Papa gave the one to you, just as he gave one to me. But I like yours the best. Would you mind awfully trading with me?”
“Of course not,” said Ruth Ann, inward happy at getting the one she would have chosen in the first place. After all, she told herself, if she could help Claire in any way with this romance that meant so much to her, she was more than willing to do so.
Ruth Ann was right in her choice of colors. When the night of the ball arrived she knew she had never looked better. The dress suited her exactly.
The large ballroom in the south wing of Claire’s home was shining from the lights of the crystal chandeliers and filled with people by the time Claire brought Quinton to introduce him to Ruth. One look at Claire’s face, and Ruth Ann knew at once who he was. His hair and eyes were as ark as her own, and he was easily the most handsome man she had ever seen. Almost unconsciously, she glanced at his well-manicured hand as he took her own. She flushed a deep red as he continued to hold her hand.
“So this is the country cousin.”
“This is Ruth Ann, Quinton. She knows very few of the guests. Since I shall be busy much of the evening, you must take care of her.”
“She will not have one lonely moment,” asserted Quinton, taking Ruth’s arm possessively. “Where shall we begin, at the punch bowl or on the dance floor?”
“I’ll leave her in your hands, Quinton. I must get back to my guests.” Claire smiled a brief smile and was gone.
Ruth Ann loved to dance, and she found herself being led through the waltzes and quadrilles by an expert. She changed partners many times during the evening, but found herself looking forward to another and another dance with Quinton.
Ruth Ann noticed the earnest conversation between Quinton and Claire as they danced together. She thought they looked more like two people with a weighty problem to settle than a couple in love.
It was near midnight when Quinton returned to her side and suggested to Ruth Ann that they have a drink. “I’ll get some punch,” he said, “and we can walk out on the terrace.”
“I’m really not tired. I could dance and dance tonight,” answered Ruth Ann.
His eyes caught hers and held them. She forced herself to look away. He guided her to the punch bowl and then toward the open French doors. Ruth Ann could feel Claire’s eyes upon them.
“Come,” he said. “There’s something magic about a harvest moon. Oh, I like any old moon, even right down to the last little sliver, but this one tonight is filling the world, just as my life has suddenly been filled.”
“Mr. Palmer, you forget that we are friends of a few minutes, or at the most of an hour or two,” said Ruth Ann, moving away from him and sipping the drink.
“Hours, minutes, or years,” he answered, moving closer, “what do they matter? I needed only one glance to know what you are going to mean to me. You felt it, too. I saw it in your eyes. I’m not a stranger you met just tonight, am I? Am I?” He turned her face to meet his. “I think we’ve known each other always. We just need a little time to remember. Will you go with me, Ruth Ann, to the next ball on Friday night?”
“But Claire …”
“Claire and I have been good friends for a long time. How good, I never really knew until she brought me you, tonight. She will probably welcome the chance to go dancing with someone else, just as I will. Say you will go, Ruth Ann.”
“I couldn’t. After all, I am her guest. I can’t walk off with her …”
“Her what? We’re friends and that’s all. There is nothing serious between us. I have already told her that I was going to ask you.”
Ruth Ann turned to see Claire standing in the light of the doorway. “It was warm inside,” Ruth Ann said apologetically, as she moved past Claire.
“Yes,” said Claire, looking at her closely. “The guests are leaving. I thought you would want to bid them good night.”
“You did me a real favor tonight, Claire, introducing me to this lovely lady. I’ve asked her to go with me Friday night to the Milverton ball.”
“I will not be here,” Ruth Ann spoke quickly. “You see, I must leave for home tomorrow.”
She took Claire’s arm and they walked together to the guests who were putting on wraps as they prepared to leave. There was no chance for Quinton to say more until he bent low over Ruth Ann’s hand.
“I don’t know where home is,” he said softly, “but I’ll find it.”
“I’m sorry, Claire,” Ruth Ann said after the last of the guests had gone and they climbed the long stairway.
“It’s all right, Ruth Ann. I’ve loved him for so long, and yet, somehow, I have never quite trusted him. Even though I may regret it, I still love him.”
(To Be Continued)