Ladies-in-Waiting/Huldah the Prophetess
HULDAH THE PROPHETESS
HULDAH THE PROPHETESS
“And they went unto Huldah the
Prophetess and communed with her”
Huldah Rumford leaned from her bedroom window as she finished plaiting her hair.
The crowing of the white Brahma rooster had interrupted her toilet and she craned her neck impatiently until she discovered that he had come from the hen-yard in the rear and established himself on the doorsteps, from which dominating position he was announcing his message.
“That means company coming, and I hope it’s true,” she said to herself, as she looked absent-mindedly in the old-fashioned looking glass, with its picture of Washington crossing the Delaware.
Her thoughts were evidently wandering, for she took her petticoat from a hook in the closet and pulling it over her head found, when she searched for the buttons in the waistband, that she had it on wrong-side out.
“I don’t care!” she exclaimed, giving the unoffending garment an angry twitch, “but it does seem as if I was possessed! I can’t keep my mind on my clothes long enough to get them on straight! I turned my petticoat yesterday, in spite of knowing it brings bad luck, but to-day I just won’t take the chance.”
The pink calico morning dress went on without adventure. Then she carefully emptied the water from the wash-bowl into the jar, wiped it neatly and hung the towel to dry; straightened the photograph of her deceased father in its black-walnut frame; shook the feather bed and tightened a sagging cord under the cornhusk mattress; took the candlestick from the light-stand by her bedside and tripped down the attic stairs two at a time.
Huldah was seventeen, which is a good thing; she was bewitchingly pretty, which is a better thing; and she was in love, which is probably the best thing of all, making due allowance, of course, for the occasions in which it is the worst possible thing that can happen to anybody.
Mrs. Rumford was in the kitchen frying doughnuts for breakfast. She was a comfortable figure as she stood over the brimming “spider” with her three-pronged fork poised in the air. She turned the yellow rings in the hissing fat until they were nut-brown, then dropped them for a moment into a bowl of powdered sugar, from which they issued the most delicious conspirators against the human stomach that can be found in the catalogue of New England cookery.
The table was neatly laid near the screen door that opened from the kitchen into the apple-orchard. A pan of buttermilk biscuits was sitting on the back of the stove, and half a custard pie, left from the previous night’s supper, held the position of honor in front of Mrs. Rumford’s seat. If the pie had been cereal, the doughnuts omelette, and the saleratus biscuits leavened bread, the plot and the course of this tale might have been different; but that is neither here nor there.
“Did you hear the Brahma rooster crowing on the doorstep, mother?” asked Huldah.
“No; but I ain’t surprised, for I can’t seem to keep my dish-cloth in my hand this morning; if I’ve dropped it once I’ve dropped it a dozen times: there’s company coming, sure.”
“That rooster was crowin’ on the fence last time I seen him, and he’s up there ag’in now,” said little Jimmy Rumford, with the most offensive skepticism.
“What if he is?” asked his sister sharply. “That means fair weather, and don’t interfere with the sign of company coming; it makes it all the more certain.”
“I bet he ain’t crowin’ about Pitt Packard,” retorted Jimmy, with a large joy illuminating his sunburnt face. “Pitt ain’t comin’ home from Moderation this week; he’s gone to work on the covered bridge up there.”
Huldah’s face fell.
“I’d ought to have known better than to turn my white skirt yesterday,” she sighed. “I never knew it to fail bringing bad luck. I vow I’ll never do it again.”
“That’s one o’ the signs I have n’t got so much confidence in,” said Mrs. Rumford, skimming the cream from a pan of milk into the churn and putting the skimmed milk on the table. “It don’t come true with me more ’n three times out o’ five, but there’s others that never fails. You jest hold on, Huldy; the dish-cloth and the rooster knows as much ’bout what’s goin’ to happen as your white petticoat does.”
“Jest about as much,” interpolated Jimmy, with his utterance somewhat choked by hot doughnut.
Huldah sat down at the table and made a pretense of eating something, but her heart was heavy within her.
“What are you churning for on Friday, mother?” she asked.
“Why, I told you I am looking for strangers. It ain’t Pitt Packard only that I expect. Yesterday mornin’ I swept a black mark on the floor; in the afternoon I found two o’ the settin’-room chairs standin’ back to back, and my right hand kep’ itchin’ all day, so ’t I knew I was goin’ to shake hands with somebody.”
“You told me ’t was the left hand,” said Jimmy.
“I never told you no such thing, Jimmy Rumford. Eat your breakfast, and don’t contradict your mother, or I’ll send you to bed quick ’s you finish eatin’. Don’t you tell me what I said nor what I did n’t say, for I won’t have it. Do you hear me?”
“You did!” responded Jimmy obstinately, preparing to dodge under the table in case of sudden necessity. “You said your left hand itched, and it meant money comin’, and you hoped Rube Hobson was goin’ to pay you for the turkey he bought a year ago last Thanksgivin’-time, so there!”
“So I did,” said the widow reflectively. “Come to think of it, so I did; it must ’a’ been a Wednesday my right hand kep’ itchin’ so.”
“And comp’ny didn’t come a Wednesday neither,” persevered Jimmy.
“Jimmy Rumford, if you don’t behave yourself and speak when you’re spoken to, and not before, you’ll git a trouncin’ that you’ll remember consid’able of a spell afterwards.”
“I’m ready for it!” replied the youngster, darting into the shed and peeping back into the kitchen with a malignant smile. “I dreamt o’ Baldwin apples last night.
‘Dream fruit out o’ season,
That’s anger without reason.’
I knew when I got up you’d get mad with me the first thing this morning, and I’m all prepared—when you ketch me!”
Both women gave a sigh of relief when the boy’s flying figure disappeared around the corner of the barn. He was morally certain to be in mischief wherever he was, but if he was out of sight there was one point gained at least.
“Why do you care so dreadfully whether Pitt comes or not?” asked Mrs. Rumford, now that quiet was restored, “If he don’t come to-day, then he’ll come a Sunday; and if he don’t come this Sunday, then he’ll come the next one, so what’s the odds? You and him did n’t have a fallin’ out last time he was home, did you?”
“Yes, if you must know it, we did.”
“Have n’t you got any common sense, Huldy? Sakes alive! I thought when I married Daniel Rumford, if I could stand his temper it was nobody’s business but my own. I did n’t foresee that he had so much he could keep plenty for his own use, and then have a lot left to hand down to his children, so ’t I should have to live in the house with it to the day of my death! Seems to me if I was a girl and lived in a village where men-folks is as scarce as they be here, I’d be turrible careful to keep holt of a beau after I’d got him. What in the name o’ goodness did you quarrel about?”
Huldah got up from the table and carried her plate and cup to the sink. She looked out of the window to conceal her embarrassment, and busied herself with preparations for the dish-washing, so that she could talk with greater freedom.
“We’ve had words before this, plenty of times, but they did n’t amount to anything. Pitt’s good, and he’s handsome, and he’s smart; but he’s awful dictatorial and fault-finding, and I just ain’t goin’ to eat too much humble-pie before I’m married, for fear I won’t have anything else to eat afterwards, and it ain’t very fattening for a steady diet. And if there ever was a hateful old woman in the world it’s his stepmother. I’ve heard of her saying mean things about our family every once in a while, but I would n’t tell you for fear you’d flare up and say Pitt could n’t come to see me. She’s tried to set him against me ever since we began to keep company together. She’s never quite managed to do it, but she’s succeeded well enough to keep me in continual trouble.”
“What’s she got to say?” inquired Mrs. Rumford hotly. “She never had a silk dress in the world, till Eben Packard married her, and everybody knows her father was a horse-doctor and mine was a reg’lar one!”
“She did n’t say anything about fathers, but she did tell Almira Berry that no member of the church in good standing could believe in signs as you did and have hope of salvation. She said I was a chip of the old block, and had been raised like a heathen. It seems when I was over there on Sunday I refused to stand up and have my height measured against the wall, and I told ’em if you measured heights on Sunday you’d like as not die before the year was out. I did n’t know then she had such a prejudice against signs, but since that time I’ve dragged ’em in every chance I got, just to spite her.”
“More fool you!” said her mother, beginning to move the dasher of the churn up and down with a steady motion. “You might have waited until she was your mother-in-law before you began to spite her. The first thing you know you won’t get any mother-in-law.”
“That’s the only thing that would console me for losing Pitt!” exclaimed Huldah. “If I can’t marry him I don’t have to live with her, that’s one comfort! The last thing she did was to tell Aunt Hitty Tarbox she’d as lief have Pitt bring one of the original Salem witches into the house as one of the Daniel Rumford tribe.”
“The land sakes!” ejaculated the widow, giving a desperate and impassioned plunge to the churn-dasher. “Now I know why I dreamt of snakes and muddy water the night before she come here to the Ladies’ Aid Club. Well, she’s seventy, and she can’t live forever; she can’t take Eben Packard’s money into the next world with her, either, and I guess if she could ’t would melt as soon as it got there.”
Huldah persevered with her confession, dropping an occasional tear in the dishwater.
“Last time Pitt came here he said he should have three or four days’ vacation the 12th of August, and he thought we’d better get married then, if ’t was agreeable to me. I was kind of shy, and the almanac was hanging alongside of the table, so I took it up and looked to see what day of the week the 12th fell on. ‘Oh, Pitt,’ I said, ‘we can’t be married on Friday; it’s dreadful unlucky.’ He began to scold then, and said I did n’t care anything about him if I would n’t marry him when it was most convenient; and I said I would if ’t was any day but Friday; and he said that was all moonshine, and nobody but foolish old women believed in such nonsense; and I said there was n’t a girl in town that would marry him on a Friday; and he said there was; and I asked him to come right out and tell who he meant; and he said he did n’t mean anybody in particular; and I said he did; and he said, well, Jennie Perkins would, on Friday or Sunday or wash-day or any other day; and I said if I was a man I vow I would n’t take a girl that was so anxious as all that; and he said he’d rather take one that was a little too anxious than one that was n’t anxious enough; and so we had it, back and forth, till I got so mad I could n’t see the almanac. Then, just to show him I had more good reasons than one, I said, ‘Besides, if we should be married on a Friday we’d have to go away on a Saturday, and ten to one ’t would rain on our wedding-trip.’
“‘Why would it rain Saturday more than any other day?’ said he; and then I mistrusted I was getting into fresh trouble, but I was too mad to back out, and said I, ‘They say it rains more Saturdays in the year than any other day’; and he got red in the face and said, ‘Where’d you get that silly notion?’ Then I said it was n’t any silly notion, it was Gospel truth, and anybody that took notice of anything knew it was so; and he said he never heard of it in his life; and I said there was considerable many things that he’d never heard of that he’d be all the better for knowing; and he said he was like Josh Billings, he’d rather know a few things well than know so many things that wa’n’t so.”
“You might have told him how we compared notes about rainy days at the Aid Club,” said her mother. “You remember Hannah Sophia Palmer hadn’t noticed it, but the minute you mentioned it she remembered how, when she was a child, she was always worryin’ for fear she could n’t wear her new hat a Sunday, and it must have been because it was threatening weather a Saturday, and she was afraid it would keep up for Sunday. And the widow Buzzell said she always picked up her apples for pie-baking on Friday, it was so apt to be dull or wet on a Saturday.”
“I told him all of that,” continued Huldah, “and how old Mrs. Bascom said they had a literary society over to Edgewood that used to meet twice a month on Saturday afternoons, and it rained or snowed so often they had to change their meetings to a Wednesday.
“Then the first thing I knew Pitt stood up so straight he looked more than ten feet tall, and says he, ‘If you don’t marry me a Friday, Huldah Rumford, you don’t marry me at all. You’re nothing but a mass of superstition, and if you’re so scared for fear it will rain on your wedding-bonnet a Saturday, you can stay home under cover the rest of your life, for all I care. I’ll wash the top buggy, put the umbrella under the seat, and take Jennie Perkins; she won’t be afraid of a wetting so long as she gets it in good company.’
“‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘she won’t, especially if the company’s a man, for she’ll be so dumfounded at getting one of ’em to sit beside her she won’t notice if it rains pitchforks, and so far as I’m concerned she’s welcome to my leavings.’ Then he went out and slammed the kitchen door after him, but not so quick that I did n’t get a good slam on the sitting-room door first.”
“He’ll come back,” churned Mrs. Rumford philosophically. “Jennie Perkins has got a pug nose, and a good-sized mole on one side of it. A mole on the nose is a sure sign of bad luck in love-affairs, particularly if it’s well to one side. He’ll come back.”
But, as a matter of fact, the days went by, the maple-trees turned red, and Pitt Packard did not come back to the Rumford farm. His comings and his goings were all known to Huldah. She knew that he took Jennie Perkins to the Sunday-School picnic, and escorted her home from evening meetings. She knew that old Mrs. Packard had given her a garnet pin, a glass handkerchief-box, and a wreath of hair flowers made from the intertwined tresses of the Packards and the Doolittles. If these symptoms could by any possibility be misinterpreted, there were various other details of an alarmingly corroborative character, culminating in the marriage of Pitt to Jennie on a certain Friday evening at eight o’clock. He not only married her on a Friday, but he drove her to Portland on a Saturday morning; and the Fates, who are never above taking a little extra trouble when they are dealing out misery, decreed that it should be one of the freshest, brightest, most golden mornings of the early autumn.
Pitt thought Portland preferable to Biddeford or Saco as a place to pass the brief honeymoon, if for no other reason than because the road thither lay past the Rumford house. But the Rumfords’ blinds were tightly closed on the eventful Saturday, and an unnecessarily large placard hung ostentatiously on the front gate, announcing to passers-by that the family had gone to Old Orchard Beach, and would be home at sundown. This was a bitter blow to the bridegroom, for he had put down the back of the buggy with the intention of kissing the bride within full view of the Rumford windows. When he found it was of no use, he abandoned the idea, as the operation never afforded him any especial pleasure. He asked Mrs. Pitt if she preferred to go to the beach for her trip, but she decidedly favored the gayeties of a metropolis.
The excitement of passing the Rumford house having faded, Jennie’s nose became so oppressive to Pitt that he finally changed places with her, explaining that he generally drove on the left side. He was more tranquil then, for her left profile was more pleasing, though for the life of him he could not help remembering Huldah’s sweet outlines, the dimple in her chin, her kissable mouth, her delicate ear. Why, oh, why, had she inherited her father’s temper and her mother’s gift of prophecy, to say nothing of her grandfather’s obstinacy and her grandmother’s nimble tongue! All at once it dawned upon him that he might have jilted Huldah without marrying Jennie. It would, it is true, have been only a half revenge; but his appetite for revenge was so dulled by satisfaction he thought he could have been perfectly comfortable with half the quantity, even if Huldah were not quite so uncomfortable as he wished her to be. He dismissed these base and disloyal sentiments, however, as bravely as he could, and kissed Jennie twice, in a little stretch of wood road that fell in opportunely with his mood of silent penitence.
About two o’clock clouds began to gather in the sky, and there was a muttering of thunder. Pitt endured all the signs of a shower with such fortitude as he could command, and did not put up the buggy-top or unstrap the boot until the rain came down in good earnest.
“Who’d have suspicioned this kind of weather?” he growled as he got the last strap into place and shook the water from his new straw hat.
“I was afraid of it, but I did n’t like to speak out,” said Jennie primly; “they say it gen’ally does rain Saturdays.”
Meanwhile Huldah lay in the spare room at the back of the house and sobbed quietly. Mrs. Rumford and the skeptical Jimmy had gone to Old Orchard, and Huldah had slipped out of the front door, tacked the obtrusive placard on the gate-post, and closed all the blinds in honor of the buried hopes that lay like a dead weight at the bottom of her heart.
She was a silly little thing, a vain little thing, and a spitfire to boot, but that did not prevent her suffering an appreciable amount, all that her nature would allow; and if it was not as much as a larger nature would have suffered, neither had she much philosophy or strength to bear it. The burden is fitted to the back as often as the back to the burden.
She frequently declared to herself afterwards that she should have had “a fit of sickness” if it had not been for the thunderstorm that came up on that never-to-be-forgotten Saturday afternoon. She had waked that morning with a dull pain in her heart—a dull pain that had grown keener when she looked from her attic window and saw the sun shining clear in the sky. Not a cloud sullied the surface of that fair blue canopy on this day of the faithless Pitt’s wedding-journey. A sweet wind blew the tail feathers of the golden cock on the squire’s barn till he stared the west directly in the eye. What a day to drive to Portland! She would have worn tan-colored low shoes and brown openwork stockings (what ugly feet Jennie Perkins had!), a buff challie dress with little brown autumn leaves on it, a belt and sash of brown watered ribbon (Jennie had a waist like a flour-barrel!), and a sailor hat with a bunch of yellow roses on one side—or would two brown quills, standing up coquettishly, have been more attractive? Then she would have taken a brown cloth shoulder-cape, trimmed with rows upon rows of cream-colored lace, and a brown parasol with an acorn of polished wood on the handle. Oh, what was the use of living when she could wear none of this bridal apparel, but must put on her old pink calico and go down to meet Jimmy’s brotherly sneers? Was there ever such a cruelly sunshiny morning? A spot of flickering light danced and quivered on her blue wallpaper until she could bear it no longer, and pinned a towel over it. She sat down by the open window and leaned dejectedly on the sill, the prettiest picture of spiteful, unnecessary misery that the eye of mortal man ever rested upon, with her bright hair tumbling over her unbleached nightgown, and her little bare feet curled about the chair-rounds like those of a disconsolate child. Nobody could have approved of, or even sympathized with, so trivial a creature, but plenty of people would have been so sorry for her that they would have taken sensible, conscientious, unattractive Jennie Perkins out of Pitt Packard’s buggy and substituted the heedless little Huldah, just for the pleasure of seeing her smile and blush. There was, however, no guardian imp to look after her ruined fortunes, and she went downstairs as usual to help about the breakfast, wondering to herself if there were any tragedies in life too terrible to be coexistent with three meals a day and the dishes washed after each one of them.
An infant hope stirred in her heart when she saw a red sparkle here and there on the sooty bottom of the tea-kettle, and it grew a little when her mother remarked that the dishwater boiled away so fast and the cows lay down so much that she believed it would rain the next day. When, that same afternoon, the welcome shower came with scarce ten minutes’ warning, Huldah could hardly believe her eyes and ears. She jumped from her couch of anguish and remorse like an excited kitten, darted out of the house unmindful of the lightning, drove the Jersey calf under cover, chased the chickens into the coop, bolstered up the tomatoes so that the wind and rain would not blow the fruit from the heavily laden plants, opened the blinds and closed the windows.
“It comes from the east,” she cried, dancing up and down in a glow of childish glee—“it comes from the east, and it’s blowing in on Jennie’s side of the buggy!” She did not know that Pitt had changed places with his bride, and that his broad shoulder was shielding her from the “angry airt.”
Then she flew into the kitchen and pinned up her blown hair in front of the cracked looking-glass, thinking with sympathetic tenderness how pretty she looked, with her crown of chestnut tendrils tightened by the dampness, her round young cheeks crimsoned by the wind, and her still tearful eyes brightened by unchristian joy. She remembered with naughty satisfaction how rain invariably straightened Jennie Perkins’s frizzes, and was glad, glad that it did. Her angry passions were so beautifying that the radiant vision in the glass almost dazzled her. It made her very sorry for Pitt too. She hated to think that his ill-temper and stubborn pride and obstinacy had lost him such a lovely creature as herself, and had forced him to waste his charms on so unappreciative and plain a person as Jennie Perkins. She remembered that Pitt had asked her to marry him coming home from the fair in a rainstorm. If he meant anything he said on that occasion, he must be suffering pangs of regret to-day. Oh, how good, how sweet, how kind of it to rain and support her in what she had prophesied of Saturday weather!
All at once a healing thought popped into her head. “I shall not live many years,” she reflected—“not after losing Pitt, and having his mother crow over me, and that hateful Jennie Perkins, having the family hair wreath hanging over her sofa, and my wedding ring on her hand; but so long as I live I will keep account of rainy Saturdays, and find a way to send the record to Pitt every New Year’s Day just to prove that I was right. Then I shall die young, and perhaps he will plant something on my grave, and water it with his tears; and perhaps he will put up a marble gravestone over me, unbeknownst to Jennie, and have an appropriate verse of Scripture carved on it, something like:
SHE OPENETH HER MOUTH WITH WISDOM;
AND IN HER TONGUE IS THE LAW OF KINDNESS
I can see it as plain as if it was written. I hope they will make it come out even on the edges, and that he will think to have a white marble dove perched on the top, unless it costs too much.”
The years went on. Huldah surprised everybody by going away from home to get an education. She would have preferred marriage at that stage of her development, but to her mind there was no one worth marrying in Pleasant River save Pitt Packard, and, failing him, study would fill up the time as well as anything else.
The education forced a good many helpful ideas into pretty Huldah’s somewhat empty pate, though it by no means cured her of all her superstitions. She continued to keep a record of Saturday weather, and it proved as interesting and harmless a hobby as the collecting of china or postage-stamps.
In course of time Pitt Packard moved to Goshen, Indiana, where he made a comfortable fortune by the invention of an estimable pump, after which he was known by his full name of W. Pitt Fessenden Packard. In course of time the impish and incredulous Jimmy Rumford became James, and espoused the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. His social advancement was no surprise to Huldah and her mother, for, from the moment he had left home, they had never dreamed of him save in conjunction with horned cattle, which is well known to signify unexampled prosperity.
In course of time, too, old Mrs. Rumford was gathered to her fathers after a long illness, in which Huldah nursed her dutifully and well. Her death was not entirely unexpected, for Hannah Sophia Palmer observed spots like iron rust on her fingers, a dog howled every night under Almira Berry’s window, and Huldah broke the kitchen looking-glass. No invalid could hope for recovery under these sinister circumstances, and Mrs. Rumford would have been the last woman in the world to fly in the face of such unmistakable signs of death. It is even rumored that when she heard the crash of glass in the kitchen she murmured piously, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” and expired within the hour.
Nineteen summers and winters had passed since Pitt Packard drove “her that was Jennie Perkins” to Portland on her wedding-trip. He had been a good and loyal husband; she had been a good and faithful wife; and never once in the nineteen years had they so much as touched the hem of the garment of happiness.
Huldah the Prophetess lived on in the old house alone. Time would have gone slowly and drearily enough had it not been for her ruling passion. If the first part of the week were fair, she was hopeful that there was greater chance of rain or snow by Saturday; if it were rainy, she hoped there would be a long storm. She kept an elaborate table showing the weather on every day of the year. Fair Saturdays were printed in red ink, foul Saturdays in jet-black. The last days of December were generally spent in preparing a succinct statement from these daily entries. Then in the month of January a neat document, presenting facts and figures, but no word of personal comment or communication, was addressed at first to Mr. W. P. Packard, and of late years to W. Pitt Fessenden Packard, and sent to Goshen, Indiana.
Mr. Packard was a good and loyal husband, as I have said, but there was certainly no disloyalty in the annual perusal of statistical weather tables. That these tables, though made out by one of the weaker sex, were accurate and authentic, he had reason to believe, because he kept a rigid account of the weather himself, and compared Huldah’s yearly record with his own. The weather in Pleasant River did not, it is true, agree absolutely with the weather in Goshen, but the similarity between Maine and Indiana Saturdays was remarkable. The first five years of Pitt’s married life Huldah had the advantage, and the perusal of her tables afforded Pitt little satisfaction, since it proved that her superstitions had some apparent basis of reason. The next five years his turn came, and the fair Saturdays predominated. He was not any happier, however, on the whole, because, although he had the pleasure of being right himself, he lost the pleasure of believing Huldah right. So time went on until Mrs. Pitt died, and was buried under the handsomest granite monument that could be purchased by the sale of pumps. Not only were the funeral arrangements carried out with the liveliest consideration for the departed, but Mr. Packard abstained from all gay society and conducted himself with the greatest propriety. Nevertheless, when his partner and only confidential friend extolled Jennie’s virtues as wife, housekeeper, companion, and church member, he remarked absently: “She was all that, Jim, but somehow I never liked her.”
For two years after his bereavement Huldah omitted sending her weather statistics to Mr. Packard, thinking, with some truth, that it might seem too marked an attention from an attractive Maine spinster to a “likely” Indiana widower.
Matters were in this state when Mr. Packard alighted at the Edgewood station one bright day in August. He declined the offer of a drive, and soon found himself on the well-remembered road to Pleasant River. He had not trodden that dusty thoroughfare for many a year, and every tree and shrub and rock had a message for him, though he was a plain, matter-of-fact maker of pumps. There was no old home to revisit, for his stepmother had died long ago, and Jennie had conscientiously removed the family wreath from the glass case and woven some of the departed lady’s hair into the funereal garland. He walked with the brisk step of a man who knew what he wanted, but there was a kind of breathless suspense in his manner which showed that he was uncertain of getting it. He passed the Whippoorwill Mill, the bubbling spring, the old moss-covered watering-trough, and then cut across the widow Buzzell’s field straight to the Rumford farm. He kept rehearsing the subject-matter of a certain speech he intended to make. He knew it by heart, having repeated it once a day for several months, but nobody realized better than he that he would forget every word of it the moment he saw Huldah—at least, if the Huldah of to-day were anything like the Huldah of the olden time.
The house came in sight. It used to be painted white; it was drab now, and there was a bay-window in the sitting-room. There was a new pump in the old place, and, happy omen, he discovered it was one of his own manufacture. He made his way by sheer force of habit past the kitchen windows to the side door. That was where they had quarreled mostly. He had a kind of sentiment about that side door. He paused a moment to hide his traveling-bag under the grapevine that shaded the porch, and as he raised his hand to grasp the knocker the blood rushed to his face and his heart leaped into his throat. Huldah stood near the window winding the old clock. In her right hand was a “Farmer’s Almanac.” How well he knew the yellow cover! and how like to the Huldah of seventeen was the Huldah of thirty-six! It was incredible that the pangs of disappointed love could make so little inroad on a woman’s charms. Rosy cheeks, plump figure, clear eyes, with a little more snap in them than was necessary for connubial comfort, but not a whit too much for beauty; brown hair curling round her ears and temples—what an ornament to a certain house he knew in Goshen, Indiana!
She closed the wooden door of the clock, and, turning, took a generous bite from the side of a mellow August sweeting that lay on the table. At this rather inauspicious moment her eye caught Pitt’s. The sight of her old lover drove all prudence and reserve from her mind, and she came to the door with such an intoxicating smile and such welcoming hands that he would have kissed her then and there, even if he had not come to Pleasant River for that especial purpose. Of course he forgot the speech, but his gestures were convincing, and he mumbled a sufficient number of extracts from it to convince Huldah that he was in a proper frame of mind—this phrase meaning to a woman the one in which she can do anything she likes with a man.
They were too old, doubtless, to cry and laugh in each other’s arms, and ask forgiveness for past follies, and regret the wasted years, and be thankful for present hope and life and love; but that is what they did, old as they were.
“I would n’t have any business to ask you to marry such a dictatorial fool as I used to be, Huldah,” said Pitt; “but I’ve got over considerable of my foolishness, and do say you will. Say, too, you won’t make me wait any longer, but marry me Sunday or Monday. This is Thursday, and I must be back in Goshen next week at this time. Will you, Huldah?”
Huldah blushed, but shook her head. She looked lovely when she blushed, and she hadn’t lost the trick of it even at thirty-six.
“I know it’s soon; but never mind getting ready. If you won’t say Monday, make it Tuesday—do.”
She shook her head again.
“Wednesday, then. Do say Wednesday, Huldy dear.”
The same smile of gentle negation.
He dropped her hand disconsolately.
“Then I’ll have to come back at Christmas-time, I s’pose. It’s just my busy season now, or I would stay right here on this doorstep till you was ready, for it seems to me as if I’d been waiting for you ever since I was born, and could n’t get you too soon.”
“Do you really want me to marry you so much, Pitt?”
“Never wanted anything so bad in my life.”
“Did n’t you wonder I was n’t more surprised to see you to-day?”
“Nothing surprises me in women-folks.”
“Well, it was because I’ve dreamed of a funeral three nights running. Do you know what that’s a sign of?”
Pitt never winked an eyelash; he had learned his lesson. With a sigh of relief that his respected stepmother was out of hearing, he responded easily, “I s’pose it’s a sign somebody’s dead or going to die.”
“No, it is n’t: dreams go by contraries. It’s a sign there’s going to be a wedding.”
“I’m glad to know that much, but I wish while you was about it you’d have dreamt a little more, and found out when the wedding was going to be.”
“I did; and if you were n’t the stupidest man alive you could guess.”
“I know I’m slow-witted,” said Pitt meekly, for he was in a mood to endure anything, “but I’ve asked you to have me on every day there is except the one I’m afraid to name.”
“You know I’ve had plenty of offers.”
“Unless all the men-folks are blind, you must have had a thousand, Huldah.”
Huldah was distinctly pleased. As a matter of fact she had had only five; but five offers in the State of Maine implies a superhuman power of attraction not to be measured by the casual reader.
“Are you sorry you called me a mass of superstition?”
“I wish I’d been horsewhipped where I stood.”
“Very well, then. The first time you would n’t marry me at all unless you could have me Friday, and of course I would n’t take you Friday under those circumstances. Now you say you’re glad and willing to marry me any day in the week, and so I’ll choose Friday of my own accord. I’ll marry you to-morrow, Pitt: and”—here she darted a roguishly sibylline glance at the clouds—“I have a water-proof; have you an umbrella for Saturday?”
Pitt took her at her word, you may be sure, and married her the next day, but I wish you could have seen it rain on Saturday! There never was such a storm in Pleasant River. The road to the Edgewood station was a raging flood; but though the bride and groom were drenched to the skin they did n’t take cold—they were too happy. Love within is a beautiful counter-irritant.
Huldah did n’t mind waiting a little matter of nineteen years, so long as her maiden flag sank in a sea of triumph at the end; and it is but simple justice to an erring but attractive woman to remark that she never said “I told you so!” to her husband.