O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/Margaret Blake

Garden City, New York, United States: Doubleday, Page & Co., pages 25–44

MARGARET BLAKE

By CHESTER T. CROWELL

From Century

I WAS fourteen years of age when Howard and Margaret Blake became our nearest neighbours. They built a house about a quarter of a mile from ours. Up to that time the nearest house had been two miles away. It seemed to me that the country was actually becoming crowded. Howard was about twenty-two years old, and Margaret, his wife, was about eighteen. It interested me to learn that they were going to try to make a living on six hundred and forty acres of ground or, as we then called such a tract in Texas, a section. My own parents had settled there in the days of no fences and had bought ten sections, probably for about twenty-five cents or less an acre. Even that much land was a farm; ranches would contain not fewer than twenty thousand acres.

Ours had always been a farming community. It was settled largely by Southern people and was as different from ranch country as though we had been people of a different race and nationality. The ranch country was uncouth, saloons flourished in the towns, and there were very few women. Our community had never permitted a saloon; we had a puritanical rigidity in our social customs that could scarcely have been excelled by any New England community. Our tiny little town of not more than eight hundred population had five or six pine church houses with the paint peeling off their clapboard steeples, blistered by a merciless summer sun on the outside and scorched by sulphur and brimstone sermons on the inside. In that time and place people took their religion with a thrill of terror. A man who said he loved God meant that his vertebræ rattled from panic fear when he contemplated the fate of the sinner.

Howard Blake was a hard-working man, as every pioneer had to be, but he knew how to work and he liked it. Maggie—in a rural community Margaret would inevitably become Maggie—was usually with him. She helped him build the house, the barns, sheds, fences, chairs; she even helped him skin a calf when it had been killed. Meat had no commercial value then, but hides could be sold. As they worked they talked. It was evident they were very much in love with each other. In all my life I have never knows another woman who so easily and naturally entered into the thoughts as well as the work of a man. I was always delighted to be with them. Sometimes when it rained, or on Sunday afternoons, they would lie down together on a pallet of wolf hides on the front porch, and Howard would laugh almost continuously for two or three hours, a pleasant sort of chuckle.

It was not until years later that I realized Howard was laughing because he was so happy he couldn’t keep from laughing. She was his wife, his mistress, his sweetheart, his business partner, and the person he liked best to talk with. Such complete happiness must come to two people only rarely. I never heard them quarrel, and it is my honest opinion that they never did, for both were overflowing with generosity of spirit, and each was more than equal to any of the demands our primitive life made upon their energy.

Maggie was about five feet eight inches tall and rather slender, but with a large frame and large, but shapely, hands and feet. The first time I saw her I thought she was beautiful. Most persons would. Her eyes were a sort of hazel blue, and they not only smiled, but seemed to say in a hearty booming voice: “Welcome! You and I are going to be great friends.” Meeting her was more like a reunion than getting acquainted. Within five minutes you had known her all her life. She brightened a cloudless spring morning for me with such a smile the first time I saw her, and then produced a piece of gingerbread about the size of a brick, and an enormous cup of buttermilk. They don’t make such cups any more, and very little of such gingerbread. I was hers for life. Much as I loved gingerbread, however, I still think it was the spell of Maggie that got me. I remember watching her bare arms.

Howard and Maggie were very comfortably settled in their home before the year was out. They had made a good crop, they had a garden and some flowers, and they were gradually making the interior of the house pretty after the fashion of the day, which wouldn’t be much admired now, but I thought it was wonderful. Maggie seemed to be blooming like the flowers. Her face was rounder and had more colour; her arms were rounder, and she must have gained thirty pounds in weight. People said she “was the picture of health,” and the neighbours expressed delight that our climate agreed with her so thoroughly, because it didn’t agree with every one; the dryness was especially damaging to pretty complexions. Women whose faces were burned by the dry wind and who lost weight until their collar-bones became painfully prominent used to talk a great deal about Maggie’s good fortune.

I was out with my dog one morning chasing rabbits on a hillside in the pasture when I saw old Doctor Wren drive up to the Blake place. I ran back home and told my mother. She put on her bonnet and went over there at once. The next day I was introduced to Howard Blake, Junior, who lay blinking at the sunlight with eyes so exactly like his mother’s that it seemed he was already doing his best to smile a welcome as she did.

About five days later Howard and Maggie and I went hunting together, and Howard killed a deer. To me her going was nothing remarkable, but I can recall that it was the one subject of conversation at our table when women neighbours visited my mother. What interested them just as much was the fact that Maggie’s pregnancy had never been apparent; she was evidently one of those rare women who enjoy the very zenith of good health in that condition.

I was very fond of the baby; the idea that boys do not like babies is a mistake growing out of the fact that dislike attracts more attention. They used to ask me sometimes to stay with the baby, and I never counted it a service. I remember how the little fellow used to crow like a young rooster when his mother returned, and his tiny little legs and hands would all be going at once, not feebly, but so rapidly and vigorously I doubt if one could have counted the motions of a single hand or foot. When she picked him up he would give a great sigh of happiness and then become very still, but his eyes would follow her face every moment until he fell asleep. When they sat looking at each other so, the picture was one of indescribable beauty. No wonder so many artists have been moved to paint mother and child. But it cannot really be done, because there is mystery about that beauty. It isn’t entirely for the eye. No; the very air is vibrant with it. The windows of the soul are opened to light and fragrance never sensed before. I have known husbands who were so dazed by the wonder of such a scene that they were suddenly embittered by a feeling of their own pitiful unimportance. Having given all he had to give an adored wife, the husband would realize at such a moment that she had passed into a new world beyond even male imagination, much less experience, and it would hurt cruelly. But Howard Blake was not such a one. He couldn’t share it; no man could: but he worshipped at the shrine, and in a little while she came back to be his sweetheart and partner. A great many women forget to come back, but Maggie always came back quickly.

The following year, just after the crops were laid by, Howard Blake died. Typhoid fever, I think it was. He was ill only about two weeks. Death had always seemed very remote to me up to that time; some ghostly tale based on hearsay. Grief, in which was mixed considerable terror and enormous concern about his welfare in the next world, made me ill. Maggie stood the shock much more bravely. For a month there was a frightened look in her eyes, but she went resolutely about the work of the farm, and it was very soon evident that the property was going to be just as well cared for as ever. Farm hands could be hired for from eight to ten dollars a month, and they worked from dawn until dark, which was usually more than twelve hours. She never had any trouble getting “hands.” They liked to work for her. It came to be understood that she could have the pick of them. They said she treated them well. I think they fell under her spell just as I did. She had a way of inspiring a man to tell her all about himself and his life. It was largely through these farm hands that she later knew what was going on in the town and community, after her contact with other people had ended. She knew how to give orders simply and sensibly, and her orders were always intelligent. She knew the business. I have often marvelled at her fortitude during this period, because I know her grief was terrible. The vital spark, the will to live, and her physical strength gave recuperative powers I have never seen equalled. I do not think she had the slightest tendency toward brooding or introspection; in fact, her mind gave her little concern. Her intelligence was a great store of common sense. Abstract ideas bounced off her good-natured ignorance like so many rubber balls tossed at a brick wall. I doubt if she had ever read a single book.

I was then at an age when religion attacks a young man with considerable virulence and quite frequently entangles him in what he will later realize was a most amusing Chinese puzzle. I used to try to talk to her about religion sometimes, but I finally gave up. At first I was hurt because I thought she was not willing to share her ideas with me on account of my youth, but I finally discovered, to my astonishment, that she hadn’t any ideas on that subject and not many on any other. In the normal course of events that should have cooled our friendship very appreciably, but it didn’t. I don’t remember that I liked her one bit less.

Some six months after Howard Blake’s death, Sam Hodge, a young farmer who lived about four miles away, began calling regularly on Maggie. Sam was about twenty-eight years old, and I think it must be in some measure descriptive of the man to say that is just about all I remember about him. Other young men called on Maggie sometimes. One day my father asked me not to go there very often as I might be considered a suitor and he knew I had no such thought. That shocked me somewhat, but I worshipped my father and stood in awe of his wisdom. That was a day when boys were whipped unmercifully because of the injunction, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” My father was one of the few who spared the rod, and he won in return a loving obedience to his merest wish. I took it for granted that such a good man was in direct communication with God and knew everything.

I was very much preoccupied about that time with my religion. It was desperately serious for me, and I was puzzled because no one else seemed to understand that fact. Here was my immortal soul trembling, skidding, struggling, and crying out for light in about the most orthodox community one could imagine, and I couldn’t get help. Then something happened that made me an atheist. I was running true to form for my age. It is my observation that a religious upheaval followed by a period of atheism in late adolescence are unfailing indications of good health and normal mental development. My atheism was superinduced by a tragedy in the lives of two very dear schoolmates. They were older than I by several years, but we had played together and been friends. The girl, Bessie, was engaged to the boy, Tom. They were to have been married in June, and they went out together three or four nights a week. They were models of good behaviour and extremely religious. Tom didn’t even use tobacco. For some reason that always counted on the credit side of a man's devotion to religion in our community. I heard my mother tell my father what happened. She said:

"They let their foot slip."

He smiled, rather amused, I thought. Then he said:

"Well, they can get married right away."

"Bessie won't," my mother said.

"What!" Father exclaimed.

And then Mother told the story. Bessie felt that she was not fit to marry any one. Tom, it seemed, was so shocked and puzzled that all he did was say he was "willing to marry her just the same." If he said it like that, it must have sounded like condescending to accept an inferior. As a matter of fact, I later learned that Tom didn’t know whether Bessie was right or not. His instinct and common sense told him it didn't matter, but there was such a furor about it all that the mean little streak in him came out, and he began to wonder whether he was risking himself. He wanted to take good care of Tom. Bessie was merely living up to what she had been taught all her life, and now when her parents turned against their own teachings and tried to hurry the wedding, she considered them as vile as herself. In the midst of the scandal—and there need never have been one—Bessie ran away and entered an ordinary public house. She committed suicide there about two weeks later. My point of view had been just about the same as Bessie's. But right then and there my point of view underwent a violent change. I was an atheist and I wanted every one to know it. I wanted to fight about it.

I told Maggie about Tom and Bessie. She expressed no opinion. I think she was the only person who ever heard the story without expressing an opinion. She laughed. It was an interesting story, and she enjoyed hearing it. Her laugh was an expression of appreciation for the entertainment I had provided in telling it.


Everyone supposed about this time that Maggie and Sam Hodge would be married. They had been “keeping company” for about five months, but he suddenly ceased to visit her. Everyone who knew either of them asked the reason, but none was given. Hodge was sullen. Maggie said she didn’t know.

One day the news spread through the community that Maggie had a new baby. Old Doctor Wren said she made no secret about Sam Hodge being the father and asked him to file the birth certificate at the county seat: “Sam Hodge, Junior, son of Sam Hodge and Margaret Blake.” That is what he did. Later my father told me that it was taken before the grand jury, but as there seemed to be no complaint from any one, they didn’t know what to do about it, and so did nothing.

The child was born on a Monday. The following Sunday Maggie went to church as usual. She never failed to go to church. I was there with my parents. Everyone gasped except my father. I think he was amused. The preacher glowered at her, but made no reference to her presence. After church everyone scampered away instead of gathering in little groups as usual to talk. They were afraid Maggie might join one of the groups. She was very sociable. No one spoke to her, and very few looked at her. Those who did were hostile and tried to stare her out of countenance, but it couldn’t be done. She returned their gaze as steadily as a calf and very much as a calf might. Her eyes were always smiling; so she was the picture of good health, good humour, and boundless friendliness. There was nothing brazen or combative about her attitude.

On the way home from church I heard the word, “illegitimate” for the first time. It aroused my curiosity. I wanted to see what an illegitimate child would look like. A boy brought up, as I had been, on a remote farm works out his own jumbled ideas on social laws. No odium attached to an illegitimate child in my mind at the time. Since only married people had children, it seemed to me quite a remarkable feat Maggie had performed to produce a child without being married. So I slipped over there that afternoon to see it. Maggie welcomed me just as usual. I found no change of any kind in her. The baby cried when it waked, and she picked it up as though she were going to toss it into the air like a ball. She raised it above her head, then brought it to her breast and fed it.

“You’ve got a good appetite, Sam Hodge,” she said. I winced when the name was pronounced, but I soon got over it. She always called the baby Sam Hodge. I examined this new and scandalous arrival with great care. There seemed to be nothing illegitimate about him. In spite of the fact that I had liked Howard Blake and didn’t care about Sam Hodge one way or the other, this baby was beyond question adorable.

The following day I was sent to town to buy some supplies at the store. While I was there Maggie came in on a similar errand. The clerk started, then stiffened and stared. Maggie was smiling at him with her eyes and ordering “a side of bacon.” The clerk was rummaging through such few ideas as had ever lodged in his head to determine whether he could sell a side of bacon to the mother of an illegitimate child. I don’t think he decided that he could, but he was unable to think of any reason why he couldn’t, so he reluctantly performed the task. By the time she had got down her list to coffee and soap, however, the shock was over, and the clerk was agreeable.

I have often wondered since then how much of just that sort of thing Maggie had to confront. She could scarcely avoid ten human contacts a month even though living far from the town and on her own farm. All of them must have been about the same as that with the grocer’s clerk, and perhaps some of them were much worse. Whatever they were, Maggie never mentioned them, and I honestly believe, after years of mature deliberation, that they made no impression upon her whatever. I think she was glad to have another boy whether it was legitimate or not. Nature seemed to exact no penalty from her for the fulfilment of this desire, and if society wanted to, she was willing to let them enjoy it. There was another phase of her character at work for her defence also. Women simply did not exist for her. She neither liked nor disliked them. They were blanks. Naturally they were the most aggressive in registering the outraged community’s feelings. I do not believe she was ever able to grasp the idea of a man disapproving of her, or ever believed that one really did. I learned in later years that she had been very much petted by an adoring father. Her two elder brothers had been very good to her. She married young, and her relations with her husband had been perfect. I doubt if she had ever of her own experience found any serious obstacle to pleasant relations with any man she ever met. I know of several in that community who cheated on weights and measures and had to be bargained with very carefully, and I know that they did not try to cheat her.

The very dissimilar behaviour of Bessie and Maggie under the test taught me something that I remembered to my profit in many a trying situation. The issue of life and death was within themselves. Up to that time I had thought the community killed Bessie and that with the same circumstances the community was able to kill any human it chose to slay. I learned that so far from killing Maggie, it couldn’t even bruise her. It is to be regretted that Maggie’s victory cannot be attributed to a great intellectual achievement. That would be far more dramatic. But I suppose many victories have been gained by simply not thinking at all.

Maggie never asked Sam Hodge to help her; she needed no help. But Sam always felt that he ought to have undertaken the expense of the child. At first he feared it would be demanded of him. In his own mind he was preparing to resist. Then when no demand of any kind was made, remorse overtook him. He became more sullen than ever. I don’t know why Sam didn’t marry Maggie. Perhaps he won her too easily, and it frightened him. He probably expected the use of some pressure at first and was instinctively resisting in his own mind. Afterward, I feel sure, he regretted that he didn’t marry her, not on moral grounds, but because he had let slip an opportunity to assure himself a happy life.

If Maggie had been silent and ashamed, it would have ruined her and protected him, but everyone knew she called the child Sam Hodge and that Sam had run away like a frightened dog. I have thought since, too, that if Sam had done very much for her, it would have been a serious injury to her. As it was, one had to admire her pluck and independence.

When a fence was blown down or broken Maggie would not report it to her neighbour. She would go out and fix it herself. That act of consideration for their feelings cut deep. It is all very well to turn your back on someone, but if you discover that he is assisting you in a kindly and unobtrusive manner, your gesture is robbed of much of its meaning. The sting may be there for the other person, but certainly you can get no pleasure out of it.

The community was mystified by Maggie's knowledge of its sick list. No one talked to her any more, but she always knew who was sick. I suppose the farm hands told her. I still visited her sometimes, but I didn't tell her. It seemed humiliating to be helping people who hated her, and I wanted her to fight. In her sick visits she was considerate just as she was in other contacts. She would not go with things to eat that had to be presented. She would go quietly in and wash some clothes or scrub a floor. She could perform such tasks with astonishing rapidity. Those were real helps to sick housewives. Maggie was not winning her way back into the community's social life, but she was winning toleration. She continued to go to church, and I remember that her strong voice rose clear and good-natured above most of the others. She liked to sing, and it would be like her to sing a little more loudly than most other women. After a few months the scandal ceased to be news, and most persons forgot about it. One day when I visited Maggie I learned that several other young men also did. They were secretive about it, just as I was; but there was no change in her, so her company was as pleasant as ever. The pleasure of a visit haunted one, and I found it not easy to remain away a long time. There was a glow and thrill about those visits and something vitalizing and stimulating about coming in contact with so much health. Anywhere else gingerbread was just gingerbread, but at Maggie's house it seemed to burst out of the oven for sheer joy of living.

And then Godfrey Wickwire began to call on Maggie. He had a hardware store in the town. He used to ride out on his horse late in the afternoon. He called about twice a week, one visit usually being on Sunday afternoon. People took an interest at once and secretly hoped that Maggie would soon be Mrs. Wickwire and eventually have a father for her two boys. They didn’t say anything so pleasant and charitable, but they wished her good fortune in spite of themselves. Wickwire was about thirty years old; there was nothing remarkable about him, either bad or good. He was singularly devoted to hardware and knew his business. After five months of devoted attention in the form of regular visits Wickwire ceased to be seen in the neighbourhood. He was very much in love with Maggie. Wickwire had some depth of character; I don’t think Hodge was capable of love, but Wickwire was. I think he wanted desperately to marry Maggie, but the sight of that baby whom she always called by the full name, Sam Hodge, probably was too much for him. At any rate, he struggled with himself for months and finally did not marry her. Nearly everyone was sorry. By this time Maggie had a lot of sympathy even if none of it was ever exhibited in her presence.

Then came another baby boy, and she again looked blandly at Doctor Wren and gave the name of the father, Godfrey Wickwire. This time feeling in the community was terrible. Probably a number of persons had said something charitable about Maggie in the preceding three months, and now she had made fools of them. Sentiment was much more intense than the first time. There was a little talk of having a committee call and ask her to leave. There can be no doubt about what would have happened if she had been a tenant farmer. But that was a day when private property was still sacred. To ask a person to get off his or her own land seemed very close to treason. If she had uttered so much as one cry for help, she would have been lost. The mob spirit was aroused, and they would have been on her like a pack of wolves. But she owed nobody anything. Everyone with whom she did business made a profit from the business. Even the men who bought the products of her farm merely assembled shipments and sold in larger markets. There was no one who could say he would withhold anything from her and thereby force her to leave. The women were hot for action, but the men could not see a place of beginning. Without expressing the thought, they were also aware of the fact that she never pursued men nor flaunted herself. That would weigh heavily with men. I don’t know whether it would with the women or not. Perhaps it would make them even more angry, since so few women have such power. She did not drink nor did she ever utter vileness. She was quick to laugh at a crude joke if it had any humour, but she told none. In a situation like this I have noticed that men like to move by indirection; they dislike facing the issue squarely, which is exactly what the women want them to do. They were looking for some indirect method, and there was none. Nothing would have saved her if she had owed any money at that time. They would have stripped her bare.

Very little was said about Wickwire, and I never heard of anything being said to him. The men in both instances were regarded as only remotely connected with the affair. A few persons had said Hodge ought to have married Maggie, but no one seemed to think Wickwire ought. In a very short time Wickwire went hunting; but it was his usual time to go hunting, so nothing was thought of it. Shortly after his return, however, he went on another long hunting trip. And I may as well finish with Wickwire here. For the remainder of his life he avoided women, though I think he could have married easily. He spent nearly all of his time hunting or fishing. In his younger days he always had one or more companions on these trips, but thereafter he seldom had a companion. They were as willing as ever to go, but he didn’t want them. He neglected his business, and it ceased to grow with the community. Years later it was in the same one-story building, the only one-story building in the block; all the others grew to three stories except the bank on the corner, which was four.

The arrival of Godfrey Wickwire, Junior, seemed to affect Hodge even more than the arrival of his own child. Shortly thereafter he sold his equity in his farm. He reported that he had purchased a much larger and better place in another county. On the day of his departure he brought a span of mules and a good wagon loaded with sacks of oats to Maggie’s farm and presented them to her very timidly. He was ashamed to face her. She accepted them quite cordially, just as a girl might say thank you for a box of candy. She seemed to have no particular feeling about the matter, either that he had made amends or made himself ridiculous. I suspect that if he had cared to stay, she would have renewed the acquaintance just as if nothing had ever happened. I recall asking her if he saw his son. She said he did not. He didn’t ask to see his son, and it did not occur to her to present him. Seeing the boy would probably have made Sam suffer. As for Maggie, it did not occur to her that Sam had any interest in the boy. She was proprietor of the children. I think she gave them their father’s names partly from lack of inventiveness and partly from shameless frankness. It is indicative of her nature that there was no difficulty about asking her the details of Sam’s visit. She told exactly what happened—and without comment. I have often thought that I never knew another person whose testimony equalled hers for accuracy. She never injected an opinion, bias, or prejudice. If the testimony was against herself, it came just as easily as any other part of the narrative. She had one characteristic inaccuracy in giving an account of anything, and that was to leave the women out entirely. She didn’t seem to see them. No matter what they did, it made no impression on her mind. If you would lead the witness, however, she would check back to that point and tell you exactly what took place even though it were a recital of a woman’s effort to break her spirit and kill her with shame. She would tell the story without feeling. It made no impression on her. She lived in a world of men, where she never had the slightest misgiving about her security.

I saw Maggie only twice in the year following the birth of Godfrey Wickwire, Junior. My responsibilities on the farm were growing heavier, and my interests were widening considerably as I grew into manhood. I was also spending much more time with books and seeking such opportunities as I could find for intellectual companionship. Moreover, I didn’t approve of Maggie; but in spite of myself I still liked her in exactly the same way, and that fact caused some turmoil of spirit, which created the first rift in my feeling of closeness to her. I went away for three months to a little five-teacher college. Before I left I slipped over to say good-bye to her. She was the same cheery person. She was greatly interested in my search for learning, but said nothing about my long absence.

On my return, the first news I heard was that Maggie Blake had another baby. Another boy, and his name was Carl Stanton. There was one thing about Maggie’s illegitimate children: they had fathers. What their fathers lacked in legality they certainly made up for in definiteness. None ever denied her right to use his name for the child. Stanton was a lawyer, about thirty-five years of age. There was not much business for a lawyer, but he owned a farm and seemed to be comfortable financially. I think Stanton decided he would be more clever than the preceding fathers. He married very shortly after the child was born, but he didn’t marry Maggie. I learned afterward that he and the young lady to whom he became engaged about that time had a long talk on the subject of Maggie, and that she forgave him. Unfortunately, however, she was not content with forgiving him once; she continued to forgive him from time to time. Her generosity in this regard became irksome. Stanton was not happy in his home life. Then he adopted another course, which was probably carefully premeditated and approved as subtle strategy: he became a sort of pillar of respectability; he liked to talk to Bible classes or any other assemblage that would listen. And he began wearing a frock coat on formal occasions. He overdid the pose painfully and made himself ridiculous. All the while he was stupid enough to think he was handling his case much better than Hodge or Wickwire had handled theirs. To cap the climax, he ran for office, some petty county office that was usually the reward for personal popularity. As my father expressed it afterward, he didn’t get enough votes to wad a shotgun. For the remainder of his life he could be counted on to join any new movement that came along. If a crowd bolted the county Democratic convention, he bolted with them. If someone started a new benevolent or fraternal society, he was the first to join. If there was a Jinks for Governor Club or Bryan for President Club proposed, he immediately gave his whole-hearted support. I do not think I have ever known a more pathetic figure in the life of a community.

In spite of my anger and some disgust, my sympathy went out to Maggie in her new affliction; I waited to see how hard it would go with her this time. Imagine my astonishment, if you can, when I learned that the whole community was laughing. Maggie was at last beyond the pale even of scandal. Her performances had ceased to be an outrage and were now regarded as a habit. Nowhere did I hear any bitterness; no one suggested a committee. When she appeared in public, people smiled involuntarily and somewhat shyly, as though to say, “I’m trying not to hurt your feelings, but, really, you are so droll.” And Maggie joined in their amusement with as much heartiness and as much readiness as she would have joined them in a foot race. She always relished a joke on herself just a little more than a joke on someone else.

I think Maggie had achieved just about what she felt she was honestly entitled to in being regarded as funny. She had always seemed amusing to herself. Whenever any one expressed admiration for her arm or leg, as I did several times in the old days when she and Howard and I were together, she would toss it out with a clumsy gesture and laugh, as much as to say: “Glad you like it, pal. All I’ve ever noticed is that it’s big.” I do not recall that she had any vanity. I suppose that was because she had never failed to please, and therefore had not felt it necessary to appraise, assemble, and mobilize her charms.

I went to see Maggie again, and she welcomed me as usual with gingerbread and buttermilk. To her I never grew up. I recall how clean and pretty the house was. The children were well behaved. She still called each boy by his father’s full name, and they quite naturally called each other in the same way. She asked a great many questions about the little college, and said she wanted all the boys to go there if I recommended it.

I told her I had seen Hodge working on a farm near the college. He was employed as a labourer, probably at about ten dollars a month. I asked him what became of the money he got for his farm. He merely grunted. He had become more silent and sullen than ever. I think he indulged in a drunken orgy to exhaust the pent-up anguish of self-accusation and spent all his money.

In after years, whenever I came across the statement in print, “The woman always pays,” I couldn’t help thinking of Maggie and laughing. That doesn’t prove that the statement isn’t true, but it certainly was not in her case. Maggie had other love affairs in the years that followed, but no more children. I twitted her about it one day, and she expressed sincere regret that she didn’t have any more.

“The only trouble it ever caused me,” she said, “was that I couldn’t get enough to eat. I used to eat four or five times a day.” Any other trouble it had caused her was by that time totally forgotten.

I used to try to find out if she realized what had happened to the fathers of her three illegitimate boys, but she didn’t. Hodge’s failure was accounted for by the unexplained loss of his money. Wickwire was “too fond of hunting to pay enough attention to his business.” The change in Stanton which made him ridiculous she attributed to “fool notions” of his wife. Any one of them could have come to her for help and would have got it.

As we talked that day about Hodge and the little college I kept thinking of the ordeal that awaited those pretty, innocent, babbling children when they should face a public-school playground. I had heard my mother say so often, “What will become of those poor children?” that the thought became very painful to me as I sat among them and heard the music of their baby talk and frequent laughter. I wanted to beg Maggie to send them away; but it would have done no good, so I said nothing. I remembered a little boy whose life was made miserable in school because his father had been sent to the county jail for six months. But Maggie’s luck descended to the boys also. Howard Blake, being the eldest, was first to go to school and he, of course, had no bar sinister. He was popular. As the others came on, he had prepared the way for them. They were his devoted admirers and followed him like shadows. I learned that jail was a perfectly understandable disgrace, but illegitimacy was not. Some of the children had been told not to play with the Blake boys, but no reason was given, and the order seemed unjust. The Blake boys had two tremendous assets that parental objection to their society could not overcome. They were good baseball players, and Maggie had the only apple orchard in that part of the state. The Blake boys were a power on any baseball team, and to avoid them was to lock oneself out of that irresistible apple orchard. I suppose it would have been very different if one of the children had been a girl. Schoolboys are barbarians, but girls are cannibals. That phase of the problem rarely occurred to me, however, because it was scarcely possible to imagine Maggie Blake being the mother of a girl. Her children would inevitably be boys. Even the names of the boys caused no comment. Howard Blake came first; when Sam Hodge appeared, the boys took it for granted his name was Sam Hodge Blake. They always called him Sam Hodge, and I think many of them were under the impression it was one word. Godfrey Wickwire was an impossible name, and he became “Bunny” even before schooldays. Carl Stanton was called by his full name, but the words were run together as Sam Hodge had always been. The boys inherited Maggie’s indifference to education. None went to the little college I had recommended.

During the Blake boys’ schooldays other children were tortured because they had red hair or big freckles or queer clothes or because of some unfavourable publicity touching their parents; but the Blake boys never were. I happen to know that several children were spanked for being friendly with them, but the punishment failed of its purpose. The lure of baseball, apples, gingerbread, and good company was too strong. The boys who were whipped suppressed the news and failed to mend their ways.

Maggie still liked to go to the dances and fairs or any other public entertainment where she did not feel that she was intruding. She would frequently be accompanied home by from six to ten young men. As her sons grew to young manhood, they seemed to take the same delight in her company. None of the boys moved away. Farms were growing smaller by the time they were ready to marry, so she gave each a piece of land to settle on. Every one of her boys married in that community. I cannot properly say that they amounted to a great deal, but as that community judged success, they had a very fair measure of it.

They knew their fathers, but didn’t pay much attention to them. I don’t think the information interested them a great deal more than it interested Maggie herself. They had a full share of her indifference to social conventions. I choose the word indifference with care, because it was not contempt.

The town began to grow very rapidly when Howard Blake, Junior, was about twenty-one years old. Maggie would talk enthusiastically on that subject, and several times told me that it was about the best community in the world and certainly deserved to grow.

The many new families coming both to farm and town offered to establish neighbourly relations with Maggie, and she always extended the delightful hospitality of her home. Some weeks or months later the newcomers would hear Maggie’s life story. They didn’t believe it. Having been taught all their lives what sort of women did such things, they could see for themselves that Maggie was not that sort. Bluff and hearty she was, to be sure, but not immoral. Well, they were right, in a way. Maggie wasn’t immoral; she was unmoral.

The time came when there were more new settlers than old residents. Whenever I was asked about the story, I said I didn’t know, until one day I heard my father reply to the same question, “She was a good neighbour for more than twenty years.” That struck me as much better, so I adopted it. I suppose many others side-stepped in the same way. At any rate, the story of Maggie simply fell down. There were more people who didn’t believe it than did.

One of the strangest phases of the controversy about Maggie (it was waged for some three years between the newcomers who liked her and the older residents who felt she should be ostracized) was that none of the newcomers ever asked her directly to explain her children’s names, and none of the older residents was clever enough to prove his or her story by Maggie’s own testimony. She would not have denied it. Neither would any of the boys; but they were not asked, even after her death.

I have never known of another case in which Bacon’s comment on death was so strikingly proved true. It was he who said, “Death closeth the door to envy and is a passport to good fame.”

There was a little creek which ran through our pasture and Maggie’s. Usually it was about ten feet wide, but sometimes it disappeared. After a heavy rain it became a torrent fifty yards wide and tore down fences. There was a cloudburst in the hills upstream the year Carl Stanton was married. He was then twenty years of age. As the country became more thickly settled, people had encroached on the bed of this innocent-looking stream. After the cloudburst it became half a mile wide in some places. Houses, barns, wagons, and fences were tumbling along its boiling waters, together with pigs, goats, sheep, horses, and cows. This strange and fearful procession was moving through Maggie’s pasture at an astonishing speed when she saw a little boy about six years old clinging to the top of what remained of his home. Maggie waded into the water at once. Those who saw her said she was swept away before she had reached a depth of four feet. She and the child were both drowned. Their bodies were washed ashore together at a bend in the creek in our pasture.

Having accepted their mother’s ostracism all their lives, the boys prepared for a funeral at which they would be the only mourners. But the procession to the cemetery was more than a mile long. It was now absolutely safe for the first time to make public confession of that love for Maggie which all felt and which had tortured them through all the years when they bowed to their duty to hate her. There was something inexpressibly pathetic in the fact that Maggie had done the community such a signal service by her death. At last a burden was lifted from their hearts. They could henceforth claim her memory as they had never been able to claim her. It was now perfectly clear that she had caused them much more anguish than they had ever caused her.

For a long time I had wanted to find out exactly how the boys estimated their mother, aside from the fact that they loved her devotedly. It was some months after the funeral that I had an opportunity to talk with Howard Blake for a whole afternoon.

“Mother was elemental, like the weather or the moon,” he said. “I never judged her at all. Whatever she did was inevitable, without plan or design. You couldn’t quarrel with her ideas, because she was not conscious of having a philosophy of life. Yet she had as definite a philosophy as the world has ever known. Her utter lack of self-consciousness was her strength. All her life she gave and never asked anything. We boys loved her for the same reason and in very much the same way that you did. She won our love as honestly as any stranger might. She never claimed it as a mother’s due. She took it by the very simple method of giving us her love so abundantly.”

I have since known many famous women, good, bad, powerful, wise, or brilliant, but she remains the most remarkable personality I have ever encountered. I doubt if she had either education or imagination enough to enjoy a dime novel. I am not certain that she knew long division. But this I do know of her: she was incapable of envy, malice, or revenge. Her sublime faith in men was never diminished. I do not believe she was ever worried, even for a minute. The only unfulfilled wish I ever heard her express was for more babies. Such a person would quite naturally be able to perform miracles, and Maggie certainly performed one. She practised something akin to polyandry in a strictly orthodox, puritanical, farming community for more than a decade, named three illegitimate sons after their fathers, wrecked all three of the fathers, flourished as probably no green bay tree ever dreamed of flourishing, and finally in her mature years chased those who wanted to tell the truth about her to evasion, silence, or actual falsehood.