The Marrying Time
IN Green Valley time is not money, and there are no ‘Do It Now’ mottoes on the desks of the local capitalists. Land is money, and blooded stock is money, and kinship is sometimes money; but time is everybody’s property in abundance and can hardly be reckoned as a business asset. Spring comes, and comes again, and three times a day in the interval the state of the weather and the reading of the thermometer are set down in the fat little red book which lies on the stand under the clock in old Mrs. Flagg’s sitting-room. The faded ink entries record the drizzling days and the blooming ones of half a century, and formed the basis of flourishing weather prognostications before the government put forth rival claims at Washington.
So all Green Valley knows that the years do go on, but there are always felt to be many more to come; and if potatoes have the blight some fall, or wheat the smut, or if the Democrats smuggle in a president, these things are borne lightly as being but temporary ills.
Occasionally, however, there is a real convulsion of nature which sets a date from which the other smooth gray years are measured. The year the postoffice burned was one, and the summer Miss Abbie Barnes and Alary Sellers and Ella Flagg and a couple of the other Green Valley girls went abroad was another. In January it was noised about that they were going with a party, and it took Green Valley several weeks to be sure it approved. Ella Flagg and Mary Sellers could afford the trip, everyone knew, but Abbie Barnes had not been left well fixed, and there was more or less, head-shaking, until it was discovered that a distant cousin was sending her.
After that was settled, everybody strolled around to see the route — redinked with pins stuck in to show the principal cities; and the Reading Circles stopped reading George Barr McCutcheon and his brother worthies, and started a fat tome called Modern European History. The circulating library sent away for illustrated art-books The Louvre and Early Italian Art; and everybody who owned a friend or a relative who had crossed wrote him to send on his Baedekers.
Altogether it was a very busy time, and when the question of wardrobe, which had to be condensed into one suitcase and one small bag each, came up, Green Valley buzzed with interest and ideas. As small a matter as soap would seem to be, proved not small at all, for there was the whole question of the quality of the water-supply in different European cities to be considered. At the last moment, word came from the conductor to put in heavy knit sweaters to wear under coats, and that meant turning out the tinned beef.
It was fortunate that the planning began so long beforehand, because the last few weeks were full of tea-parties and sewing bees; and Isa Rann, who had led the Presbyterian choir for years, gave a musical evening at which everybody talked of the music the girls would hear in dear old Germany, until Nathan Flagg blew his nose loudly and turned the conversation to the coöperative creamery.
The last evening old Mrs. Flagg moved restlessly about her daughter’s room up in the old brick house.
‘Ain’t you through yet?’ she asked irritably. ‘Goodness knows I should think you could get that little mess packed up!’
Her daughter looked up, biting her pencil.
‘I was just making a diagram so I’d know where everything was if I was sick and had to ask folks to get things. I’m just about done now.’
Mrs. Flagg pulled absently at the gold watch-chain which lay heavily about her neck and connected with the big old-fashioned watch at her belt.
‘Ellar,’ she said, ‘has Nathan been over to say good-bye to Mary Sellers?’
‘I don’t know, mother. Why?’
‘You know why,’ her mother answered shortly.
Her daughter followed the gaunt old figure into the hall.
‘Mother, it’s been a long time you ’ve felt that way, but I don’t believe Nathan’s got any notion of marrying Mary, or she him. You’ve got to remember we’re all getting past the marry ing-time.’
Her mother stepped cautiously down the first step of the steep flight, one thin hand holding the polished rail tightly.
‘There ain’t any marrying-time,’ she threw back over her shoulder.
She stopped in the doorway of the sitting-room — like all the rooms of the house, high-ceilinged and square and large. Then she shoved up her heavy spectacles and, unobstructed, centred her piercing black eyes on the middleaged back of her son, who sat reading the evening paper, his feet comfortably crossed on the little sofa in front of him. She said no word, but after a moment or so her son shifted uneasily.
‘Want anything, mother?’
‘No,’ she asserted; but she did not stir.
Nathan turned the page noisily, and bent his head lower. One long shutter creaked in the little breeze, and they could hear Ella stepping, stepping, moving from bag to dresser, and from dresser to bag. Presently Nathan folded his paper deliberately and slowly took down his legs. He faced about to his mother, yawning a little.
‘Yes,’ she said in a significant tone.
‘Guess I’ll go down and see if the mail’s in,’ he offered, with calculated carelessness.
Old Mrs. Flagg looked at her son with faintly veiled disgust.
‘I want you should go say good-bye to Mary Sellers.’
‘ I said good-bye to her at the Reading Circle last night, but I can do it again if you say so. If it’ll make you feel any better.’
Standing on the front steps, she watched his stooped figure down the walk. A big July moon shone through the fringe of maple trees, and lit the place — the cube-like brick house which Dr. Flagg had built so long before in exact conformity with his boyish ideal of architectural beauty; and the yard, — square like a city block, — dotted with dabs of dark foliage, a honeysuckle here, a Judas tree there, and a little mound of myrtle somewhere else. Mrs. Flagg breathed in the soft air.
‘It’d be a pretty night to take a little walk,— Nathan and Mary, — but Nathan’d never think of it.’
She credited her son with too little susceptibility. He walked slowly down the street. Heavy farm horses, partially unharnessed, trotted home untended through the shadows, and an occasional late wagon squeaked protestingly over the crosswalks. All the way house-doors stood open and pleasant supper smells mingled with the cool fragrance of late roses and flowering currants. With an odd recurring rhythm Mary Sellers drifted into the pattern of Nathan’s thoughts and made a little rosy spot in his musings.
Mary Sellers was younger than the other girls, having reached only her forty-first birthday, and she would always be young and soft and influenced. She was of a frail prettiness, too, with gently graying hair, and a little-girl habit of blushing. Her grandfather had been old Judge Sellers over Colton way, whose large tract of fertile prairie-land adjoined the Flaggs’ at one end.
‘What more would a man want?’ Mrs. Flagg was wont to ask herself; and sometimes she gave a little gesture of castigation involving the palm of her right hand, as she thought of her son.
In an odd little corner of his brain Nathan kept the consciousness that some time he would probably ask Mary to marry him; and he knew too that, if his mother had been less emphatic in her expression of opinion, he might have done it long ago. Years before, when the other boys were walking home with girls after church, his mother had jealously guarded him, insisting that he was too young for such nonsense; and he had acquired then an obstinate contradictoriness which expressed itself in silent opposition to any of her plans for his welfare. To-night, however, he forgot his mother and remembered only that a huge gray ocean would presently cut Mary off from Green Valley. Ella too — but Ella did not worry him. For the first time he wondered if there was plenty of time for everything; and he thought of a little round bald spot which it taxed his ingenuity to cover. ‘Guess I’ll ask Mary to walk down the Lane,’ he said to himself with a little thumping of the heart; for there were no two ways about it when a couple strolled down the Lane. The Lane was a seductive willow alley, full of soft breezes and gentle shadows which walked one straight into matrimony, in Green Valley.
Nathan rang Mary’s bell with a fierce burst of courage which brought her mother quickly to the door.
’Why, no, she is n’t here. She’s gone down to Abbie Barnes’s. You can catch her coming back, I guess.’
Nathan plunged down the steps and turned homeward, with a great feeling of relief; then he brought himself to, and swung round toward Abbie Barnes’s.
There were two ways, — down the street and over, or over and down, — and Nathan chose the one he honestly thought Mary would take, feeling that the issue lay with fate. He did not meet her, and Abbie Barnes’s house lay dark and silent. Then he went home to bed.
The old Grand Trunk station was a very gay place next morning, with all Green Valley down to see the girls off. Every few minutes Art Fisher’s hack reeled up with another passenger and more bags, and there was a line of buggies and sprawling little automobiles picketed in the outlying trees. The girls — beveiled beyond recognition — formed the centres of three or four groups which exchanged greetings hilariously.
‘Say, Abbie, take a look at the Leaning Tower for me.’ — ‘And oh, yes, remember me to the Pope. I have n’t had time to answer his last letter.’ ‘And oh, Mary, don’t forget to kiss the Blarney Stone.’
A line of small boys and girls perched on the baggage truck, started up, ‘My Country, ’t is of Thee,’ and the whole crowd joined in fervently. At this one or two of the travelers showed symptoms of breaking down. Europe and its environs seemed very far away from the sweet land of liberty. A thin line of smoke to the west saved the day. Everybody kissed everybody else, and the crowd swarmed to the last car.
‘Good-bye! Good-bye! Write to us everywhere you stop.’ — ‘Have you got your gum for the boat?
The engine grunted and chugged; the wheels revolved faster; there was a wild waving of handkerchiefs; they were off.
Two weeks later, Green Valley only a few hours after the rest of the world, because the morning papers were late — heard that there was war over there in that dim region where their girls were. Little knots of women in kitchen aprons gathered all down the streets, and all the men who were not out harvesting met by chance at the post-office. They did not talk of the international situation, or of the responsibility of Germany, nor did they even glance at the editorials. The question was, how to get the girls home. At last, the town banker said importantly that he would cable; they must have landed only a day or two. Where he was going to cable, or what, Green Valley did not know, — or the banker, — but it seemed a promising step. Three or four days later somebody got a message. The party was returning.
Nathan Flagg felt a warm glow of relief and satisfaction. There had been time for everything after all, then. The girls were coming back and all would go comfortably as it had before — the Reading Circle and the Euchre Club and the pleasant daily round. Some day —when the skies smiled and his mother stopped badgering him — he would take Mary down the Lane; but there was no hurry and he was glad he had not met her the night before she went away. He was comfortable and Mary was comfortable, and it wasn’t as if they did n’t both have good homes of their own.
‘The King of France and — how many men was it? — marched up the hill and then marched down again,’ Miss Abbie sallied, as she stood on the platform of the car and waited for the porter to pull down all the bags and suitcases which had had so short a period of usefulness. The waiting group laughed back at her, and absorbed her gleefully as she climbed down to earth. The others followed, a bit grimy from traveling, their hats generally askew, and their noses red from exposure on deck; but all exceedingly glad to be safe at home, where one could sleep without fear of being chased by gray monsters of the deep.
Last of all came Mary Sellers, wearing a great corsage bouquet of violets and lilies of the valley, almost as big as she was, pinned on her sedate gray traveling coat. Her eyes were very bright and her cheeks like a little girl’s who has been caught stealing her mother’s jam. Isa Rann declared afterwards that right then she felt it in her bones.
After the travelers got to their several homes, and had told of the fearful time they had had engaging passage back, and how they had had to sleep half the time in chairs on deck, and how lucky they were to get those, many very wealthy people having to go steerage, little by little it oozed out. There had been a Denver lawyer in the party
— not very old, ‘about our age’ — who turned out to be a distant connection of Mary’s sister-in-law’s aunt. That made them feel acquainted with him at once. He was taken with Mary right away, — they were all agreed on that, — but he had been most kind to all of them. He was the sort of man who could be depended on to do things,
— to stir people up when they were dull, — and he had looked after them all beautifully. But Mary — well, nothing was too good for her. He had bought candy enough to make them all sick, and flowers for her every day as long as he could get them; and they had walked the deck in the moonlight until Ella Flagg had thought she ought to interfere. Mary had not said a word, but it must be as good as settled, and he had a great deal of money, it was clear.
For a week letters arrived from New York for Mary every morning,— everyone knew, — and flowers, sent from the nearest big town, came on the afternoon train. Besides that, special deliveries came slipping along at all sorts of times, and even a telegram or two, until Alary’s mother was scandalized at the waste. Green Valley renewed its romantic youth — this wooing was unlike anything outside of the novels, but it made them reminiscent just the same.
At last the man from Denver came himself, and everybody agreed that he had a way with him. Mrs. Sellers was reported to have given her consent.
‘He sort of takes me off my feet and I say yes to everything that he and Mary want,’ she said. ‘He is bound to be married in a month, and I expect that settles it. Anyway, he certainly could n’t think more of Mary.’
Driving in from his farm one day, when the gold and rose tints of sundown were becoming the lavenders and grays of evening, Nathan Flagg met Mary and the stranger just turning into the Lane.
‘Good evening, Nathan,’ Mary said; and her voice reminded him of a little bird he had just passed down the road, trilling his high clear song defiantly into the heart of the sunset.
Nathan asked himself how he would be feeling if it were he instead of the stranger who was taking Mary down the Lane. He wondered if fate had tricked him, or preserved him; and he was sure that he would never know, although there would be many quiet evenings like this when he might ponder the question peacefully. There were other nice girls in Green Valley if he were set on marrying: Abbie Barnes,— one could never be blue with Abbie, — or Isa Rann even. Then he remembered the round bald spot which was beginning to show, and the sleepiness which came on him after supper.
‘I guess I’ve got past the marryingtime,’ he said aloud, smiling a little meditatively, ‘or maybe I never got to it.’