The Quare Women: Ii. Taking the Night
WHEN Aunt Ailsie returned from her visit, to The Forks on Saturday, she gave Uncle Lot a full account of the strange women in the ‘cloth-houses’ on the hill — their names, ages, looks, and unmarried condition, and the activities they carried on.
‘But the prettiest, sight I seed, paw, was Fulty and t’ other wild boys that runs with him a-setting there so peaceable and civil, a-hcmming handkerchers. And the amazingest was Fulty and Darcy a-playing together in the same set and nary a shoot shot.'
Uncle Lot turned these things over in his mind as he sat on the porch after supper, gazing up into the virgin forest of the mountain in front. After a while he quoted: —
‘“The lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than butter; yea, the furrin woman is a norrow pit, and they that are abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein.”
‘I give you the benefit of Solomon’s counsel, Ailsie, afore you went in to see them women; but you tuck your perverse way, and now you have seed for yourself. What made Fulty and his crowd of boys set there so mild and tame, with needles instid of weepons in their hands? What caused Darcy and Full to forgit their hatred and play together like sucking lambs? Why, nothing naetural or righteous by no means — naught but a devil’s device, a bewitchment. them furrin women has laid upon ’em. I can relate to you right now what them women is, bevand a doubt. A body knows in reason that five goodlookers like them is bound to have husbands somewhere or ’nother; and my ingrained opinion is that the last of ’em is runaway wives that has tired of their men and their duty, and come off up here to lay their spells on t’ other men. Which is as good as proved by what you have told.’
Aunt Ailsie gasped. ‘O paw,’ she said, ‘if you was to talk to ’em you’d know they wa’n’t that kind!'
‘If I was to talk to ’em,’ declared Uncle Lot, judicially, ‘I’d examinate and cross-question ’em tell I got at the pine-blank facts of the case. I’m a fa’r lawyer myself, having sot on so many grand juries, and I would n’t leave ary stone ontumed tell I proved upon ’em what they air!’
After this, Aunt Ailsie dared not inform him that she had asked two of the women to take the night with her Monday night.
The following day — Sunday — Uncle Lot started off at daylight for a distant ‘funeral occasion,’and she improved the time by giving her house a searching cleaning. She also swept the yard all around, under the big apple trees, until not a speck or a blade of anything was left upon it.
Then she walked up the branch half a mile to her son Lincoln’s, and said to his wife, —
‘Fetch the young-uns and comedown to-morrow early, Rutheny, and help me bake and get ready for company. I axed two of them women on the hill — Virginny and Amy — to take the night with me, and now I’m afeared I won’t have things fixed right. And don’t name nothing to Lot about their coming.’
Ruthena and her four youngest came early in the morning (her other four were helping their fat her hoe corn), and all day a deal of cooking went on. As it all had to be done over a big open fireplace, there was some back-breaking work. When Uncle Lot came down from the field to dinner, traces of the preparations were hastily removed; but after he left, things proceeded again rapidly.
When it. came to setting the table, Aunt Ailsie looked disapprovingly at her yellow-and-red checked oilcloth. ‘Them women had fair white linen on theirn,’ she said.
‘Maw, them fine linen buryingshcets you wove thirty tear gone, and kept laid away so careful ever sence — if I was you, I’d take’n use one of them. I will iron hit out good, and hit will look all right, and not be sp’ilt for buryings. And if I was you, I’d put t’other on the women’s bed — I beared Cynthy’s Charlotty say they follered laying between sheets instid of quilts and kivers, like we do.’
‘ Yes, and they had fine linen handkerchers on their table, too, alongside everybody’s plate,’ in a discouraged voice; ‘but, I hain’t got no sech. Minervy, you run out and pick a pretty flower-pot right, off—they had posies in the middle of their table, and I aim to make ’em feel at home if I can.’
Half an hour before sundown, the two guests, Amy and Virginia, arrived. Before sitting down on the porch, they must first get acquainted with Ruthena and her four little ones, and admire the pretty looks of the latter.
‘And they hain’t all I got,’volunteered Ruthena; ‘I’m twenty-five year old, and got eight young-uns.’
‘And these here women is twentyeight, and hain’t got even a man!’ said Aunt Ailsie, in a distressed voice.
‘Eight is quite a large family, is n’t it?’ remarked Amy.
Ruthena opened her eyes. ‘ Why, no,’ she said; ‘a body expects to have anyhow twelve, don’t they?’
‘Not where we came from,’ replied the guests.
Their attention was next drawn by the big loom that filled one end of the porch, and the two spinning-wheels, a large one for wool, a small one for flax, that stood near it. This led to questions about. Aunt Ailsie’s weaving, and to the display of shelves and ‘chists’ full of handsome blankets and lovely ‘kivers’ (coverlets). Although all her children had been freely dowered with both when they married, Aunt Ailsie still had many left.
‘ I have follered weaving all my life,’ she said; ‘hit is my delight, all the way along: shearing the sheep, washing the wool, cyarding and spinning and dyeing hit, and then weaving the patterns — hit is all pretty work. But best, of all is the dyeing — seeing the colors come out so bright and fair.’
The coverlet patterns were beautiful, but not more so than their names — ‘Dogwood Blossom and Trailing Vine,’ ‘Star of the East,’ ‘Queen Anne’s Favor-rite,’ ‘Snail-Trail and Cat-Track,’ ‘Pine-Bloom,’ ‘Flower of Edinboro.’ A perfect one in old-rose and cream was pulled out and laid across the buryingsheet on the visitors’ bed. ‘That is my prettiest. I weaved hit when Lot and me were courting, for my marriage-bed. You shall lay under hit to-night.’
From the large room where the ‘ kivers’ were kept, and which seemed spacious in spite of its three fat beds, its home-made bureau, chest, and shelves, several splint-bottomed chairs, and a large fireplace, the guests were taken into ‘t’other house,’ the remaining large room, which held a dining-table, a cupboard, a bed, and an immense fireplace where the cooking was done. On the hearth were pots and spiders, and from the rafters hung festoons of red peppers and shucky beans, and hanks of bright-colored wool.
Then they made a round in the yard, beneath the apple trees, to look at the strong old log-house from every side.
‘This here oldest house,’ said Aunt Ailsie, designating the kitchen-room, ‘was raised by loot’s paw eighty year gone. Lot, being the youngest boy, stayed at home with the old folks, and when him and me was married, he raised t’other house and put the porch in. front and back. We have lived here forty-six year.'
There was not a window in either ‘house’ — only doors back and front.
The interest of the visitors in the spinning and weaving, and even in the old house itself. Aunt Ailsie could understand, but not the delight they expressed in the scenery roundabout — the rocky branch, the cliffs and steep mountain-slopes in front, the precipitous cornfields reaching halfway up the ridges in the rear.
‘ I have looked upon creeks and mountainsides too long to enjoy ’em proper,’she sighed. ‘Though maybe, if I was to get away from ’em, I’d feel lonesome-like, like Fulty did down at Frankfort . Hit was mighty hard on him down there.’
The two women shuddered at the thought of the free, wild boy chafing for a year within penitentiary walls.
‘And hit done him more harm than good, too; he’s been more wild-like ever sencc. But, women, whilst I ricollect hit, I feel to tell you afore my man Lot gets in, not to pay no notice to nothing he says or does. He follers Solomon’s counsel about strange women, and hit’s untelling what he may do or say when he sees you here.’
‘Hit is that,’ agreed Ruthena; ‘paw’s a mighty resolute man.’
‘And he hain’t heared the news yet about your taking the night with us,’ added Aunt Ailsie, anxiously.
Shortly after this, Uncle Lot, hoe in hand, and all unsuspecting, stepped gravely up on the porch, and stopped in blank amazement.
‘Here’s two of the furrin women, paw, drapped in to see us — Virginny and Amy’s their names.’
The two arose and put out friendly hands, which Uncle Lot inspected and touched gingerly. Then, hanging his hoe in a crack in the chinking, he passed on through ‘t’other house,’ to wash.
Returning, he seated himself on the porch at a safe distance, and after a dignified silence, began, with a cold gleam in his eye: —
‘Women, I hear you come up from the level country.’
‘Yes, from the Blue Grass.’
“Quite a ways from home you traveled?’
‘Yes, one day by train and a little over two by wagon.’
‘Aim to stay quite a spell?’
‘Through July and August, we hope.’
‘Like the looks of this country, hey?’
‘We think it beautiful.’
‘Hit kindly does a body good to break away from home-ties now and then, and forget about ’em a while?’
‘I allow you left your folks well?’
‘And they make out some way to do without you while you’re gone?’
‘Oh, yes, very well indeed.’
‘Hit’s a lonesome time for a manperson to be left with the cooking and the young-uns on his hands. Mostly I don’t favor women-folks traipsing over the world no great.'
‘Not if they have husbands and children to leave behind. Though,’ added Virginia, ‘even a busy wife and mother is better for a little change now and then, and ought to have it.’
Uncle Lot cast a sidelong, triumphant glance at Aunt Ailsie, and returned to the attack.
‘Quare notions is abroad nowadays,’ he remarked, ‘and women-folks is a-taking more freedom than allus sets well on ’em. Rutheny here, she never even stops to ax Link may she ride in to town — she jest ketches her a nag and lights out. Eh law, and even my old woman is allus a-pining to see new sights, and werried of where she belongs at.’
‘Maybe she’s stayed at home too long — everybody needs a change of scene occasionally. We should love to take Aunt Ailsie down for a visit to us in the Blue Grass when we go back.’
‘Women, I’d give my life to go!’ fervently exclaimed Aunt Ailsie.
Uncle Lot started up, his features working. ‘ Never whilst I draw breath! ’ he declared; ‘I don’t aim to see my woman toled off from the duties she tuck upon her when she tied up with me, and ramping around over creation with a passel of — of — of strange women. Men in t he Blue Grass may put up with hit, — may have to, — but I won’t. Whilst I live, I’m the head of my house and my wife, and home she ’ll stay! And other women I could name would be a sight better off in their homes, too, with their rightful men!’
Aunt Ailsie hastened to pour oil on the troubled waters. ‘ You know well, paw, that I hain’t never in life gone again’ no wish of yourn, nor crossed you ary time in forty-six year. And I would die before I would go again’ your idees. All I said was I would like to go with the women; but the rael thought was fur from me. And hit’s about time now for you to go feed the property, so’s we can eat and get cleaned up afore dark. I allow,’ she ventured bravely, ‘these gals will maybe take the night with us.’
Uncle Lot glared fiercely upon the visitors, started to speak, struggled for a moment between the claims of indignation and of hospitality, and finally stalked off majestically to the stables, whence he did not return until summoned by a loud blast of the gourdhorn.
Link and the four remaining children had already arrived, and the supper, a most elaborate one, — fried chicken, fried eggs, string beans, potatoes, cucumbers, biscuits, corn bread, three kinds of pie, and six varieties of preserves, — covered every inch of the table save where the plates were set. Though there was plenty of room, Aunt Ailsie and Ruthena refused to sit down, or to permit any of the ‘ young-uns ’ to do so, the two men and the guests being ‘waited upon’ first, while the eight children stood about, in absolute stillness, with eyes glued to the faces of the strange women. Even the ‘least one,’ not yet a year old, was still. During the meal, Uncle Lot maintained a stony silence; but Link was pleasant, and there was plenty of talk among the women-folk.
Aunt Ailsie snatched a bite at the second table, and then, their help in dishwashing being refused by Ruthena, the visitors accompanied Aunt Ailsie to the bars, to see the cows milked. Dusk was falling, frogs were singing, mist rolled along the narrow strip of bottom.
Returning, all gathered on the porch, while the soft darkness came on, and a bright crescent moon rose slowly over the mountain in front, lighting up its mist-filled hollows. Amy was reminded of a famous scene in Scotland, and spoke of it.
‘Scotland?’ repeated Aunt Ailsie; ‘I’ve heared my maw’s granny say hit were the land she come from. She said hit was far away, yan side the old salt sea, and she was four weeks sailing acrost.’
‘And now there are steamships that cross in eight days — mine did.’
‘Tell about when you crossed, and what you seed, and all about them far and absent countries,’ urged Aunt Ailsie; and the eight ‘young-uns,’ who sat around in the same breathless silence, could almost be heard pricking up their ears.
Amy told of her trip, while all save Uncle Lot hung upon her words. Once he asked, dryly, ‘And who looked atter you on the way?’
‘ One of my college chums went with me; we looked after each other.’
He grunted unbelief. ‘Hit hain’t in reason that any woman in her right mind would start off on sech a v’yage without a man,’ he said.
Amy proceeded with her narrative. When London was mentioned, Aunt Ailsie said, ‘I have heared of Londontown in song-ballats all my days. Do you mind, paw, in “ Jackaro,” the gal’s paw being a rich marchant in Londontown? And there’s a sight more where hit comes in.’
‘Some things are best forgotten, Ailsie,’ admonished Uncle Lot.
‘These old ballads you used to sing were made in England and Scotland, hundreds of years ago, and brought across the sea by your ancestors,’ said Amy. ‘I wish that Uncle Lot could feel willing for you to sing some of them for us.’
‘None of those devil’s ditties don’t never rise under my roof no more,’ declared Uncle Lot, inflexibly.
‘We have heard Fult sing a few,’ said Virginia; ‘he has a very good voice.’
‘Yes, and a good heart, too, women,’ asserted Aunt Ailsie. ‘I holp to raise him, even more than his maw, and though he hain’t nothing but a grand, I loved him as good as ary child I ever had. And I alius hoped he would n’t take up with them Fallon ways. Of course, blood is blood, and nobody could n’t be Fighting Fult’s son and not have some of his daddy in him. But until Fighting Fult was kilt, Fulty never so much as raised his hand in no meanness, or tuck any part in the war betwixt Kents and Fallons.’
‘How long had there been trouble between the two families?’
‘Nigh thirty year now. Hit started way back yander, over a brindle steer, and kept on till all the Fallons and Kents, except Uncle Ephraim, was pretty well mixed up in hit, and all the in-laws on both sides, which tuck in a big part of the county; and a lot was kilt and a sight, more wounded. Fighting Fult, he was the meanest man in all these parts, and never went out without three pistols in his bell and a Winchester on his arm; and Red Rafe Kent was nigh about the same; and both was sure shots. And every court-time, or ’lection, or gethering of any kind, hit was the same old story — one crowd riding into town, and t’ other facing hit, and a pitched battle, and war and bloodshed. And Rafe, he was sheriff a big part of the time, and Fult jailer, and siege would be laid to the jail, and hit would be burnt down, and all manner of lawlessness, and no jury never dairst bring in no verdict, and times was terrible. And when the womenfolks would see the nags dash into town and hear the shooting start, they would snatch their young-uns and crawl under the house, and the men that follered peace would take to the hills. And things never got no better till Fighting Fult was kilt, off by Rafe, and Rafe was kilt off by Fulty. Then there was a spell of peace, while Fulty was down in Frankfort that year, and then another year fightin’ in Cuby. But sence he come back, and Darcy has started up the war again, there hain’t naught but trouble and sorrow for nobody.’
‘Tell hit straight, Ailsie,’said Uncle Lot, sternly: ‘Darcy Kent never started up the war again no more than Fult, and not as much. Fulty, he come back from Frankfort and Cuby and gethered him a crowd of boys and started in pine-blank like his paw had follered doing — drinking liquor and riding the creeks and shooting up the town and breaking up gelherings. And first court that come on, the grand jury indicted him for hit.’
‘Yes, and you sot on that jury and holp to,’ interrupted Aunt Ailsie, reproachfully.
‘I holp to, and will every time he needs hit,’ declared Uncle Lot, firmly. ‘And Darcy, he was filling out his paw’s term as sheriff, and hit was his business to sarve the warrant on Fult. And when he done so, Fult refused to give hisself up, and drawed his weepon, and before you could blink, both had shot, each other, though not fatal. I don’t say Darcy never had hate in his heart for Fult — naeturely he would, atter Fult had kilt his paw. But I do say he never started up the war again.'
‘You alius was hard on Fulty, and minded to fault him,’ complained Aunt Ailsie, in gentle bitterness. ‘Seems like a body ought, to show mercy on their own offsprings.’
Uncle Lot exploded. ‘Don’t let me never hear no more sech talk! I am a jest man, and a law-loving; and anybody that does lawlessness and devilment, be they my offsprings or other men’s, is a-going to meet their punishment from me. “My kin, right or wrong,” has allus been the cry of this country, and hit’s ruination. As for me, kin or no kin, blood or no blood, let the wrong-doer be punished, I say, and will say till I die!’
‘ If every man in our state had that strong sense of justice,’ observed Amy, ‘the reproach would soon be lifted from us.’
‘It reminds one of the spirit of the old Roman judge, who sentenced his two wicked sons to death,’said Virginia. ‘ I must toll you how I admire it in you, and how sincerely I agree with you.'
Uncle Lot seemed to be overcome with astonishment at their speeches. ‘Women,’ he said after a moment, ‘you are the first people, women or men either, less’n hit is old Uncle Ephraim Kent, that ever upholt me in my principles, or tuck the measure of my charac-ter. The folks in these parts can’t noways see the justice in nothing their own is consarned in. Ailsie here has helt hit again’ me every time I holp to indict Fult, or spoke a word again’ his wrong-doing. And as for Cynthy, his maw, she won’t hardly speak to me; and, though she is my offspring, is the bitter-heartedest and keen-tonguedest women hit ever was my lot to meet up with. But, for her agging him on, hit is my belief Fulty never would have rid up and shot Rafe that day he was eighteen, and the war hit would long sence have been forgot. Yes, the women-folks has holp not a little to foment the trouble and keep hit a-going. And when I see women that is able to take a right and a jest view, hit purely surprises me so I hain’t able to express hit. But this much I can say, and feel to say, that I am downright beholden to you, and have maybe judged you a leetle hairsh and on kind, being prejudyced in my mind again’ strange women by Solomon’s counsel.'
‘I told you them was right women, paw, from the start,’ said Aunt Ailsie, triumphantly, ‘and you would n’t noways take my word for hit. But hit’s a-getting along time for all hands to lay down; and whenever you gals feel to, say so.'
They expressed their readiness, and Aunt Ailsie brought a stick of lightwood from t he kitchen fire, and, followed by the guests, Ruthena, and the eight ‘young-uns,’ went into the big bedroom. One end of the stick was fastened in a chink in the wall, and Aunt Ailsie, Ruthena, and the eight settled themselves expectantly on beds and chairs. After waiting some time for them to pass out, Amy and Virginia began in desperation to get ready for the night. Sitting on the edge of the burying-sheet, they first took down their hair and brushed and plaited it.
‘Now what do you do that for?’ inquired Aunt Ailsie; ‘I never heared of folks combing their hair of a night.’
‘It, feels better to sleep with smooth hair.’
Then began the embarrassing experience of undressing before the fascinated gaze of ten persons. First, the gingham dresses came off, then nightgowns were slipped over heads and bodies, while further disrobing proceeded. The pieces of underwear, as they were handed forth, one by one, were eagerly examined by Aunt Ailsie and Ruthena.
‘Never seed so much pretty needlework in all my days,’ declared both. ‘ But them stiff-boned waists, what air they?’
‘Corsets,’ replied the women.
The corsets were passed around, with many exclamations of interest and surprise. ‘’Pears like hit would be mighty trying to walk around all trussedup that way,’commented Aunt Ailsie.
But Ruthena was other-minded. ‘Maw, I aim to have some myself, right, off,’ she said.
‘Now, women, them shifts you have got pulled over your heads now — what is the reason for them? I see you tuck oh’ the ones you had been a-wearing.'
‘They are nightgowns.’
‘I sleep in the same I wear of a day.’
‘We like to go to bed in something fresh — it is better for health.’
‘Never heared tell of that before; but I gorrontec hit would. Do you alius strip off everything you wear of a day?’
‘Pears like you ’re a sight of trouble to yourself.’
‘ I aim t o make me a nightgown, maw, but I won’t know how to make no pretty one, like them,’ sighed Ruthena.
‘Oh, yes, you will; we’ll show you how, and help you,’ said Amy.
The two, being at last undressed, knelt by the bedside to say their prayers. Aunt Ailsie tipped excitedly out of the door and clutched Uncle Lot’s arm.
‘You allowed them was wrong women, and runaway wives,’ she whispered, ‘ Come watch at ’em down on their knees a-praying, as pretty as angels.’
She drew him to the door, and he looked on, evidently much impressed. Once or twice he shook his head.
Then Aunt Ailsie and Ruthena took off their shoes and heavy, home-knitted stockings, and went to bed in the rest of their clothing, while the three least ones, being barefooted, turned in, just, as they were, with their mother, and the five older ones reluctantly departed to kitchen and loft. Uncle Lot then sauntered in, and, shedding brogans, socks, and trousers, took his place beside Aunt Ailsie, all conversing casually meanwhile. Evidently the process of ‘laying down’ was not regarded as one requiring privacy, or to be accompanied by any self-consciousness or false modesty.
In the morning, before sunrise, the guests were awakened by a blast of the gourd-horn, calling the men in from the stables; and jumping into their clothes, they washed their faces on the back porch, smoothed their hair, and hurried in to breakfast.
The table was again loaded with fried chicken, fried eggs, string beans, potatoes, cucumbers, biscuits, cornbread, three kinds of pie, and six varieties of preserves. Uncle Lot himself was almost pleasant. Aunt Ailsie took advantage of the thaw to say, when the meal was nearly over, —
‘Uncle Ephraim Kent is a-getting laming, paw. Amy here is a-teaching him, and he is going through the primer fast, anti allows to read his grandsir’s old Bible afore the summer’s over.’
Uncle Lot nodded approval. ‘That’s good work for the old man,’ he said.
‘Paw,’ continued Aunt Ailsie, ‘the women allow I might larn to read myself; that I hain’t too old or senseless — that is, if you was agreeable.’
Uncle Lot considered deeply before replying. ‘Hit has allus been my opinion,’he said, ‘that women-folks hain’t got no use for laming. Hit strains their minds, and takes ’em off of their duty. Paul, he says, “the man is the head of the woman ”; and though I hain’t got no great of laming, I have alius believed I was all the head-piece needed in the family.’
‘ Yes, that is true — the man should be the head of the family,’ agreed Virginia. ‘ But in another place, you know, Paul says, “there is neither bond nor free, male nor female, in Christ Jesus”; and it does seem that everyone, whether male or female, ought to have the comfort of reading the Bible.’
‘Well, there’s something in that — I hain’t never thought on hit in jest that light. I ’ll study on hit careful, women, and try to do jestice on all sides, and spend my opinion on you when I reach hit.’
‘ We are sure you ’ll do what is right. And one more thing we want to ask you before we go — won’t you come in to our Fourth-of-July picnic on the hill Wednesday? We ’ve sent, word throughout the county for everybody to come to a basket picnic that day, and we hope to have a pleasant time. But people tell us we are doing a dangerous thing, and running a risk; and it will be most desirable to have the presence of a law-loving man like yourself.’
‘Hit is dangerous,’ pronounced Uncle Lot. ‘There hain’t no known way to keep liquor out of seek a crowd; and there never is a gethering without drinking and shooting. And if the two sides was to meet there, hit’s untelling where the trouble would end.’
’We think that we ’re making things safe,’ said Amy. ‘But still, it would be best to have a man of your opinions and influence present.’
‘Well, I ’ll study on hit.’
‘Women,’ said Aunt Ailsie, ‘what is a “ Fourth-of-July ” ? ’
‘It’s the day our nation was founded, a hundred and twenty-four years ago.’
‘The time we fit out the British, hain’t it?’ inquired Uncle Lot.
As Amy and Virginia started down the rocky, winding branch, — for they had to leave early to help with the work on the hill, — Uncle Lot turned to Aunt Ailsie and said, weightily, ‘Them women may be quare and furrin and fotched-on, but, in my opinion, they hain’t runaway wives. And, in my jedgment, if Solomon was here, he would allow they hain’t strange women, neither.’
(A further chronicle of the ’Quare Women’ will appear in July.)