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Wit and Humor of America, The Vol 08

THE LIFE ELIXIR OF MARTHY

BY ELIZABETH HYER NEFF

"An-ndrew! An-ndrew!"

"Yes, Marthy."

"Andrew, what be you doin' out there? You've ben sayin' 'Yes, Marthy,' for the last ten minutes."

The patient, middle-aged face of Andrew appeared in the doorway, its high, white forehead in sharp contrast with the deeply tanned features below it.

"I've jest ben takin' your buryin' clothes off the line an' foldin' 'em up. It is such a good day to air 'em for fall—and, then,—I jest hate to tell you!—the moths has got into the skirt of your shroud. I sunned it good, but the holes is there yet."

"Moths!" screamed the thin voice, sharpened by much calling to people in distant rooms. "Then they've got all over the house, I presume to say, if they've got into that. Why don't you keep it in the cedar chist?"

"Because it's full of your laid-by clothes now, and I keep my black suit that you had me git for the funeral in there, too. There ain't room. You told me allus to keep your buryin' clothes in a box in the spare room closet, so's they'd be handy to git if they was wanted in the night. You told me that four or five years ago, Marthy."

"So I did. And I presume to say that my good three-ply carpet that mother gave me when we was married is jest reddled with moths—if they're in that closet. If it wasn't for keepin' that spare room ready for the cousins in Maine when they come to the buryin', I'd have you take up that carpet and beat it good and store it in the garret. My, oh, my, what worries a body has when they can't git around to do for themselves! Now it's moths, right on top of Mr. Oldshaw's death after he'd got my discourse all prepared on the text I picked out for him. He had as good as preached it to me, and it was a powerful one, a warnin' to the ungodly not to be took unawares. I advised him to p'int it that way. Then, Jim Woodworth's Mary is leavin' the choir to marry and go west, and I jest won't have Palmyra Stockly sing 'Cool Siloam' over me. I can settle that right now, for I couldn't abide the way she acted about that church fair—and she sings through her nose anyway. An-ndrew!"

"Yes, Marthy."

"You oughtn't to go walkin' off when a body is talkin' to you. You allus do that."

"I c'n hear you, Marthy. I'm jest in the kitchen. I thought the dinner had b'iled dry."

"Are you gittin' a b'iled dinner? It smells wonderful good. What you got in it?"

"Corned beef and cabbage and onions and potatoes and turnips. I've het up a squash pie and put out some of the cider apple sauce that will spile if it isn't et pretty soon. I'll put the tea a-drawin' soon's the kittle b'iles."

Andrew's voice came into the sick room in a mechanical recitative, as if accustomed to recount every particular of the day's doings.

"Well, I guess you can bring me some of it. You bring me a piece of the corned beef and consid'able of the cabbage and potaters and an onion or two. And if that cider apple sauce is likely to spile, I might eat a little of it; bring me a cooky to eat with it. And a piece of the squash pie. What else did you say you had?"

"That's all."

"Don't forgit to put on consid'able of bread. It's a good while till supper, and I don't dast to eat between meals."

Andrew brought the tray to the bedside and propped up the invalid before he ate his own dinner. He had finished it and cleared up the table before the high voice called again: "An-ndrew!"

"Yes, Marthy."

"Is there any more of the corned beef? You brought me such a little mite of a piece."

"Yes, there's plenty more, but I knew you'd object if I brought it first. Like it, did you?"

"Yes, it was tol'able. Them vegetables was a little rich, but maybe they won't hurt me. You might bring me another cooky when you come.—Now, you set down a minute while you're waitin' for my dishes. I've ben worryin' 'bout them moths every minute since you told me, and somethin' has got to be done."

"I know it. I hated to tell you, but I thought you ought to know. I guess I c'n clean 'em out the next rainy spell when I have to stay in."

"No, you can't wait for that. And you can't do it anyway. There's things a man can do, and then again there's things he can't. You're uncommon handy, Andrew, but you're a man."

Andrew's deprecatory gesture implied that he couldn't help it.

"I've thought of that ever so much in the years that I've ben layin' here, and I've worried about what you're goin' to do when I ain't here to plan and direct for you. Those moths are jest an instance. Now, what you goin' to do when you have to think for yourself?"

"I do' know, but you ain't goin' to git up a new worry 'bout that, I hope?"

"No, it is not a new worry. It's an old one, but it's such a delicate subject, even between man and wife, that I've hesitated to speak of it. Andrew, I don't want you to stay single but jest six months—jest six months to the very day after I'm laid away. I've spoken to Hannah Brewster to come in and do for you twice a week, same as she does now, and to mend your socks and underclothes for six months, and then I want you to—git married."

"Why, Marthy!"

"You needn't gasp like you was struck. I presume to say you'd do it anyway without thinkin' it over well beforehand. I've allus planned and thought things over for you till I don't know whether you'd be capable of attendin' to that or not. And I'd go off a sight easier if I knew 'twas all settled satisfactory. I'd like to know who's goin' to keep my house and wear my clothes and sun my bed quilts, and I could have her come and learn my ways beforehand."

"Good gracious, Marthy! There's a limit to plannin'—and directin'—even for as smart a woman as you be. You're not goin' to know whether she'll—consent or not, not while—while you're here, yet. And you're gittin' no worse; it does seem like you're gittin' better all the time. Last time Aunt Lyddy was here she said you was lookin' better'n she ever see you before. I told her you'd picked up in your appetite consid'able. You'll git up yet and be my second wife yourself."

"Yes, Aunt Lyddy allus thinks great things 'bout me; she never would believe how low I've ben, but I guess I know how I be. No, you can't head me off that way, with the moths in my best things and one of my grandmother's silver spoons missin'. If there's one thing a forethoughtful woman ought to plan beforehand, it's to pick out the woman who's to have her house and her things and her husband."

Andrew wriggled uncomfortably. "I shouldn't wonder if the dish water was a-b'ilin', Marthy."

"No, it isn't. You haven't got fire enough. And we'd better settle this matter while we're at it."

"Settle it! Why, Marthy, you talk 's if you wanted me to go 'n' git married on the spot and bring my second wife home to you before—while you're still here. I'm no Mormon. Like's not you've got her selected; you're such a wonderful hand to settle things."

"I can't say 's I've got her selected—not the exact one—but I've ben runnin' over several in my mind. We'd better have several to pick from, and then if some refused you, we'd still have a chance."

"But how would you git any of 'em to consent?" asked Andrew with a show of interest.

"How else but ask 'em? They would understand how I feel about you. The hull town knows how I've laid here expectin' every day to be to-morrow, and if I want that thing settled before I go, I don't see how it could make talk."

"Now, who had you sorted out to pick from?" and Andrew leaned back comfortably in his chair. His wife punched up her pillow to lift her head higher.

"Well, there's the widows first. I've sorted them over and over till I've got 'em down to four that ain't wasteful cooks nor got too many relations. There's Widow Jackson—"

"She's weakly," promptly decided Andrew.

"And Mary Josephine Wilson—"

"She don't go to our church. What about the old maids?"

"I don't take much stock in old maids. The likeliest person I know, and I wouldn't call her an old maid, either, is Abilonia Supe. Her mother was counted the best breadmaker in North Sudbury, and Abby was the neatest darner in her class at sewing school."

"But, why, Marthy, isn't Abby promised to Willy Parks?"

"No; I asked Mis' Parks about that yisterday. She said Willy had been waitin' on Abby for four or five years, but they'd had a misunderstandin' this summer, and it was broke off for good."

"He ought to be horsewhipped!" said Andrew warmly. "Abilonia Supe is the finest girl in North Sudbury."

"Ye-es," admitted Marthy reluctantly. "You're sure she wouldn't be too young for you, are you?"

"Too young? For me? I don't want to marry my grandmother, I guess. And I'm not Methusalem myself," and he shook the stoop out of his back and spread the thin hair across his bald spot. His wife looked at him in wondering surprise.

"Abby has had rather a hard time since her mother died," she said weakly.

"Indeed she has, and she deserves to have it easy now. She needs somebody to take care of her if that scamp—and she isn't bad lookin', either—Abby isn't. I tell you, Marthy, there isn't your beat in the hull town for managin' forethoughtedness. Sick or well, you've allus ben a captain at managin'. Now, come to think it over, this isn't a bad idee. But, how'll we git her consent? Maybe I'd better step over and—well—ruther lead up to the subject. I might—"

"That dish water's a-b'ilin', Andrew. It's a-b'ilin' hard. I c'n hear it."

Andrew started briskly for the kitchen, and the dishes clattered merrily. An hour later he framed himself in the doorway in his Sunday clothes.

"I have to go down to the store this afternoon to git that baggin' for the hops, and I can jest as well 's not go round by Supes' and—sort of—talk that over with Abby—and tell her your wishes. I never deny you nothin', Marthy; you know that. If it'll be any comfort to you, I'll jest brace up and do it, no matter how hard it is."

"Well—say, Andrew, wait a minute. Maybe you'd better wait till we talk it over a little more. I might consult with Abby, myself, on the subject—An-ndrew! An-ndrew! That man is gittin' a good deal deafer'n he'll own to."

It was quite supper time when Andrew returned; it was too late to cook anything, so he brought Marthy some of the Sunday baked beans and brown bread, with the cider apple sauce.

"Well, you must 'a' had a time of it with her," suggested his wife as he placed the tray. "I hope you didn't do more'n make a suppositious case and find out what her sentiments was."

"That was what I set out to do, but she was so surprised an' asked so many questions that I jest had to up and tell her what I was drivin' at. I told her that it was your last wish, and that you'd set your heart on it till you felt like you couldn't die easy unless you knew who was goin' to have your house and your beddin' and—me, and after I'd reasoned with her quite a spell and she'd ruther got used to the idee, she saw how 'twas. I thought you'd like to have it settled, because you allus do, and, as you say, there's no tellin' what day'll be to-morrow. Then, that Willy Parks is likely to come back and spile the hull plan."

"Settle it all? Why, what did she say to it?"

"I guess you may call it settled. I asked her if she'd consider herself engaged to me—"

"What? What's that? Engaged to you?"

"Yes; isn't that what you wanted?"

"What did she say to that?"

"She said yes, she guessed that she would, though she would like to think it over a little."

"I didn't presume to think you'd go and get it all settled without talkin' it over with me, and I calc'lated to—to do the arrangin' myself. What did she say when she consented to it, Andrew?"

Andrew squirmed on the edge of his chair. "I guess my tea is coolin' out there. I'd better go and eat, now."

"A minute more won't make no difference. What did she say?"

"She said—why, she said—a whole lot of things. She said she never expected to marry; that she wanted to give her life to makin' folks happy and doin' for them, folks that had a sorrow—but the Lord hadn't given her any sorrowful folks to do for. It's my opinion that she thought consid'able of that fickle Willy Parks. Then I reasoned with her some, and she come to see that maybe this was the app'inted work for her to do—considerin' you'd set your heart on it so. She said she didn't know but I needed lookin' after and doin' for as much as any one she knew, and it would be a pleasure to—now, Marthy, let me go and have my tea."

"What else did she say?"

"Well, she said I certainly had—that I had—a hard trial this trip, and I'd served my time so faithfully it would be a comfort and a pleasure to—now, Marthy, I know my tea's cold."

It took him so long to have his tea and wash the dishes and bring in the squashes for fear of frost that Marthy had no further opportunity to consider the new position of her husband as an engaged man that night. She resumed the subject early the next morning.

"Andrew, I want you should go and bring Abilonia over here as soon as you git the work done up. There's so much I want to arrange with her, and you never know what day'll be to-morrow. And them moths ought to be seen to right off—

"What be you goin' up stairs for? You needn't put on your Sunday clothes jest for that. She'll have to see you in your old clothes many a year after you're—ah—when she comes to live here."

"Yes, but that's not now. I'm only engaged to her; I'm only sort of courtin' now, as you might say."

He came back in a little while, bringing a gentle, brown-eyed young woman, who laid away her things and took an apron from her bag with the air of one accustomed to do for others.

"Did you want to see me particularly, Mis' Dobson? I hope you're not feelin' worse?"

"I do' know's I slep' much las' night, and I have an awful funny feelin' round my heart this mornin'. I'm preparin' for the worst. You know 'Two men shall be grindin' at the mill and'—"

"Oh, now, you aren't so bad as all that. You look as smart as a spring robin—you do look wonderful well, Mis' Dobson. Now, what can I do for you?"

"There's a lot of things to look after, Abilonia, now that you—that you—that—"

"Yes, I know there are, and I'll just delight to take hold and do them. I told Mr. Dobson that I wanted to begin to do for you both right away. I'm real glad you thought—of it, Mis' Dobson, for I've nobody else, now, to care for, and I should love to take care of poor Mr. Dobson and try to make him happy—just real happy—the best of anybody in the world. He looked so pleased when I told him so."

"Did he? He did!"

"Yes, his face just lighted up when I told him that we all knew how faithful he'd been to his trust through such a long, hard siege, how kind and patient, and that it would be a privilege to try to make it up to him a little."

"Oh—ah—well, what did he say to that?"

"He just said the hand of the Lord had fallen rather heavy on him, but he'd tried to bear the burden the best he could, and if he held out to the end the Lord would reward him. And he said it was the Lord's mercy to give him such a good, clever wife to take care of—since she was sickly. Now, would you like me to bake you some cookies this morning, or do the mending?"

"I don't know. Did Andrew say that? Well, he has been faithful. You're goin' to git an awful good man, Abilonia. Say, don't you tell him, or it'll scare him, but I'm goin' to do a terrible resky thing. I'm goin' to set up here in the bed a little spell. Go you up to the top bureau drawer in the spare room and git my black shawl. I know I might fall over dead, but I'm goin' to take the resk."

"Why, Mis' Dobson, it isn't safe!"

"Safe or not, I'm goin' to do it. I'm goin' to set up a spell. I never stop for consequences to myself when I set out to do a thing."

The perilous feat was accomplished without tragedy. After she had had a nap, propped up in the bed, Mrs. Dobson's soul rose to greater heights of daring, when Abilonia remarked that Mrs. Dobson's plum-colored silk was the very thing for a lining to her own silk quilt, and as it would not be worn again she might as well take it over and make it up. She was adding that she would like to have a crayon portrait made of Mr. Dobson to hang beside that of his wife which adorned the parlor in ante-mortem state, when Marthy interrupted: "Abilonia, go you and git me a dress. There ought to be a brown poplin hangin' in the little room closet, unless somebody moved it last spring in housecleanin' time. You bring that down. I want to git my feet onto the floor."

When Andrew came home to get dinner he stopped in the kitchen door, dumb with amazement. Marthy sat by the table in the big wooden chair peeling apples, while Abilonia rolled out the pie crust and told about the church quilting bee.

The next Sunday Andrew did not change his best suit, as usual, after church, and his wife remarked the fact as she sat in a blanketed chair by the living room fire in the evening, with her "Christian Register" in her hand.

"Well, you know—I've ben thinkin'—Abby's settin' over there by herself, and it must be lonesome for the girl. And—if I'm—sort of—engaged to her—don't you see, Marthy? I don't want to leave you—but it's my duty to keep company with her. I want to carry out your wishes exact—every one. You can't ask a thing too hard for me to do."

"Yes, I know that, Andrew. If ever a man done his duty, it's you. And you've had little reward for it, too. I'm tryin' to git you a second wife that'll have her health and—and—yes, I presume to say that Abilonia'll ruther look for you to set a while, now that she is bespoke to you."

"Yes, that's what I guess I ought to do," and he rose briskly.

"Say, Andrew! Don't be in such a hurry. Come back a minute. You gear up ole Jule to the buggy and git down a comforter for me. I c'n walk some, to-day, and if you help me I c'n git into the buggy. I feel like the air would do me good.—Yes, I presume to say it'll be the death of me, but you never knew me to stop for that, did you? Git my circular cloak and the white cloud for my head. Yes, I'm goin', Andrew. When I git my mind made up, you know what it means."

There was a light in Abilonia's parlor when they drove up, and a man's figure showed through the glass panel of the door as he opened it.

"Willy Parks!" cried Mrs. Dobson in a queer voice.

"Yes, walk right in, Mr. Dobson. That isn't Mrs. Dobson with you—is it possible!—after so many years. Let me help you steady her. Well, this is a surprise! Just walk into the parlor and sit down. Abby's down cellar putting away the milk, but she'll be up in a minute."

"It's consid'able of a surprise to see you here, Willy; it's consid'able of a disapp'intment—to Mis' Dobson. She had set her mind on—on—" ventured Andrew mildly.

"Yes, so I heard—and I thought I'd come home. Abby tells me that she is engaged to you—that she has given her solemn promise."

"That's what she has," said Andrew firmly. "That's what she has, and Mis' Dobson has set her mind on it—and I never refuse her nothin'. I don't want nothin' to reproach myself for. You went off and left that girl—the finest girl in town—and near about broke her heart. You ought to be ashamed to show yourself now."

"I am, Mr. Dobson," said the young man gravely, "and I deserve to lose her. But when I heard that she was engaged to you—as it were—it brought me to my senses, and, since you are my rival, I am going to ask you to be magnanimous. She is so good and true that I believe she will forgive me and take me back if you will release her—you and Mrs. Dobson. You wouldn't hold her while Mrs. Dobson looks so smart as she does to-night—"

"No, Andrew, we won't hold her. It wouldn't be right. She's young—and—and real good lookin', and it would be a pity to spile a good match for her. We oughtn't to hold her—here she is. We will release you from your engagement to—to us, Abilonia—and may you be happy! I'm feelin' a sight better lately; that last bitters you got for me is a wonderful medicine, Andrew. I presume to say I'll be round on my feet yet, before long, and be able to take as good care of you as you have took of me all these years. It's a powerful medicine, that root bitters. We better be goin', Andrew. They've got things to talk about. Good night, Abilonia. Good night, Willy."



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