The Quare Women. V: The Widow-Man
ON Thursday afternoon of the week following the quare women’s Fourth of July picnic, a hollow-eyed, disheveled-looking man drew up before Uncle Lot Pridemore’s gate, fell rather than dismounted from his mule, dropped his bridle over a paling, and stumbled into the yard and up on the porch.
Aunt Ailsie appeared from the rear of the house. ‘Jeems Craddock!’ she exclaimed; ‘I had plumb give you out! But what ails you, Jeems? Here, set down, quick!’
She pushed a chair under him, and he slumped down in it on his backbone, long legs stretching across the porch, arms hanging lifelessly at his sides, chin dropped forward on his bosom.
Aunt Ailsie ran for a gourd of water. Jeems gulped it feebly.
‘You look sick to death,’ she said, anxiously. ‘Maybe you better have something stronger.’
She returned this time with a cup half full of a liquid that looked like water, but was much more eagerly drunk by Jeems.
‘Eh law, — that’s what I need; good corn-liquor, to holp me up a little.’
’Hit’s good, too,’ replied Aunt Ailsie: ‘hit’s some Fulty fotched me t’ other day; he allus keeps me in hit.’
She waited for the corn-liquor to get in its work — until Jeems’s chin was lifted from his breast, his hollow cheeks were flushed, his eyes had lost their dull stare.
‘Now tell about hit, Jeems,’ she said, sympathetically.
He began in a weak voice which gained strength as he proceeded. ‘Ever sence Mallie tuck ’n died in Aprile, hit’s been the same old story — every night me up ’n down all night with the babe, a-fixing hit’s suck-bottle or a-walking hit for colic, and then getting up before day, maybe without ary wink of sleep, to cook breakfast, with likely the babe a-yelling all through, and t’other eight young-uns all asquirming underfoot so bad hit makes me dizzy-headed. Then a-trying to get ’em all fed up, and them a-fighting and a-snatching all the time like wildcats, and not able to eat none myself for worriment and dyspepsy. Then a-starting the little gals on the dishes, and the oldest chaps on the firewood, whilst I go out to feed the property and milk the cow-brutes, and them cow-brutes so sot again’ having a man-person come a-nigh ’em they do more devilment than all the young-uns. Then maybe, when I get back in, the babe has fell off the bed and nigh cracked hit’s head, and the young-uns is piled on the floor in a gineral fight, if they hain’t sot the house afire playing with lightwood. And then I got to get ’em all onraveled again, and the fire put out, and the babe peaceified with a sugar-teat, and then sweep the main gorm of dirt out of the house, and spread the beds, whilst the chaps goes out again to dig ’taters and pick the beans for dinner. Which then I have to put ’em in the pot, — I give you my word, Aunt Ailsie, I hain’t had time to string ary bean this summer, — and mix up a pone of bread and fix hit on the hairth where hit won’t cook too hard. And all this before the day’s work is raly begun. And then hit’s gether up every one of the nine, babe, suck-bottle, and all, — because I would n’t dairst leave ary one behind, — and climb the hill to tend the crap; though there hain’t but four of the young-uns, Miles and Joe and Minty and Phebe, is nigh big enough to hold a hoe. T’ other four has to take turns minding the babe, and not let hit fall off the hill or play with rattlesnakes. Then we work all morning, and when the sun-ball gets high, all hands comes down again to dinner, and then pull back up again and work till sundown, with the babe a-laying on a quilt between the rows, to take what naps of sleep hit gets, and t’others so drug-out and ill and feisty, they keep a-drapping their hoes and running off to hunt ground-hogs and ’possums, or quiling up somewheres and going to sleep too — and which I wisht they ’d all sleep all the time, for then I’d see a little grain of peace. And then all down again to cook supper and feed the young-uns and t’ other creeturs, — mules and hogs and chickens, — and milk them devilish cowbrutes again, and then get all hands off to bed, and me dead for a nap of sleep myself, but maybe not nary two hours hand-running all night long, what with the babe’s manœuvres, and my dyspepsy — for no kind of food won’t set on my stummick no more. And next day the whole thing all over again, if not wusser, with maybe washing or churning throwed in, — and all the time the same old story: jest a hip-anda-hurrah, and a rare-and-a-pitch, and a hoove-and-a-set, from one day’s eend to t’other, till hit’s the God’s truth, Aunt Ailsie, I don’t actually know whether I’m a-living in a turrible nightmare, or dead and gone to hell for my sins — and don’t care, neither!’
Aunt Ailsie laid a compassionate hand on his arm. ‘Pore Jeems, pore creetur,’ she said; ‘things is wusser with you than I suspicioned, though I allowed they ’d be bad enough when I heared Mallie was gone, and you with so many of a size, and nary one big enough to help. I ’ve thought of you time and again, and wished I lived a-nigh you, so’s I could do things for you. You allus was sech a good, diligent, working boy, the right son of your maw, that was my best friend when I was a young gal. Yes, I shore have pitied you in my heart; and that’s the reason I sont you the word about these here fotched-on women; I allowed, in the bunch of ’em, you could find one to your notion, and pick you out a good wife. But that’s neither here nor yander now; you air a sick man, Jeems, and not in no fix even to talk about courting; and what I aim to do is to put you to bed this minute.’
‘I would have started soon as the word come,’ groaned Jeems; ‘but first I had to lay the corn by, and then Jasper, one of the three-year-old twins, tuck a spell of the croup, and then Clevy, the five-year-old, chopped his big toe off, and Jemimy, the two-year one, was a-licking the milk out of the top aidge of the churn and went in head-foremost, and was black in the face and appeariently gone when we pult her out. And then seemed like I could n’t no way on earth persuade nobody to come there and stay with them young-uns whilst I got away a couple of days — not nary neighbor would n’t no way consent to hit; and I had to go clean yan side the mountain atter a widow-woman, Cindy Swope, with six of her own, that tuck pity-sake on me and come over, with the six, ayesterday. And me so bad off by then I could n’t hardly set my nag to get here.’
‘Pore Jeems — don’t worry no more; you ’re here now, and in plenty of time, too; none of the quare women hain’t stepped off yet. You get along there into t’ other house, and shuck off, and lay down in the fur bed you laid in when you was here two year’ gone, — pore creetur, you look like a grandpaw now to the man you was then, — and I’ll fetch you in a leetle hot snack that I ’ll gorrontee to set on your stummick, and then you ’ll take that nap of sleep you been dying for sence Aprile.’
When Uncle Lot came in from work an hour later, snores were rising loudly and rhythmically from ‘t’ other house.’ Aunt Ailsie simply said that Jeems Craddock, having a little business on Troublesome, had come to take the night; and, seeing he was sick, she had put him to bed at once—an explanation which satisfied Uncle Lot’s stern but hospitable soul.
At supper Uncle Lot announced: ‘Atter studying on hit a week careful, Ailsie, like I told you coming from the picnic I aimed to do, I have made up my mind to lend a cow to them women on the hill for the time they ’re here. We air commanded to remember the stranger that is within our gates, and hit appears like I feel to do that much for ’em, even if they have got a sight of wrong idees — sech as holding Sunday School for young-uns, when hit hain’t once even spoke of in Scripter, and giving an overweight of larning to womenfolks, and the like. And on that last line, too, I have been a studying, like I promised the women; and hit ’s true we air commanded to sarch the Scripters, and likewise that Paul says there hain’t neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. Which, having clear Bible for, I am willing that you should larn jest enough from them women for you to be able to read Scripter, and no more, believing in my soul that laming in gineral is too much for a woman’s mind.’
‘O paw, do you raly mean you aim to let me get larning, same as Uncle Ephraim?’ asked Aunt Ailsie, breathlessly.
‘As fur as I told you,’qualified Uncle Lot.
‘Oh, praise the Lord!’ exclaimed Aunt Ailsie. ‘O paw, I feel like I can’t wait to take my first lesson! When can I start in ? ’
‘I allow you can go in maybe a-Saturday,’ permitted Uncle Lot.
‘And I ’ll drive the cow in then to the women, too. Which one do you want to lend ’em, paw, Old Pied, or the Pieded Heifer? Both has calves ready to wean, and both is milking fine — the heifer a leetle grain the best.’
‘Let ’em have her, then; I don’t do nothing half-way. And there’s five of them, and not but two of us.’
But Aunt Ailsie did not have to take the cow in herself. Next morning, which was Friday, Fult dashed up the branch.
‘I’m on my way down Troublesome a piece,’ he called, ‘and allowed I ’d ride up, say howdye, and see how you was.'
Aunt Ailsie ran down to the fence. ‘ S-sh, — don’t talk so loud, — there’s a sick man a-laying in there asleep,’ she said. ‘I’m proud you come, for your grandpaw has tuck a notion to lend them quare women a cow, and you can drive her back with you. And, another thing, Fulty, he has studied on hit and made up his mind to let me get larning, — enough to read Scripter, anyway, — and which I’m a-coming in to-morrow to take my first lesson!’
‘I’m glad for you, granny,’ said Fult, heartily; ‘and I’d take the cow right back, now, but I’m on my way to see what has happened to the singer the women sont out for, that ought to have got in last night. But the rains have been so bad I allow traveling is pore, and Uncle Adam’s wagon is maybe stalled in a quick down Troublesome, and I told the women I’d ride down a piece and see. But I ’ll come for the cow later — soon as dinner’s over, maybe.’
Returning to the house, Aunt Ailsie tiptoed into the room where Jeems slept, and came out with a large armful of his clothes over her arm. These she threw on a chair in the kitchen-house, then held up the coat and trousers with a deep sigh.
‘Hain’t hit a pyuore pity, now, for a man-person to start out a-courting in sech gear?’ she exclaimed. ‘Pore creetur, the babe has puked up hit’s milk all over him from head to foot, and the dust has got kotched in the spots, till nobody would n’t be able to tell the color of his coat and breeches. And them fine linsey, too, that Mallie weaved herself out of black sheep’s wool for him.’
She went to work with hot water and soft soap, repeatedly sousing the coat and trousers and socks, and rubbing them with her hands (washboards were an unknown luxury). Then, having cleansed and rinsed them, she hung them out in the July sun to dry, and turned her attention to the hat, which was the usual broad-brimmed black felt of the mountain man.
‘Eh law, hain’t hit a picter of misery!’ she said, holding it out: ‘the brim all a-flopping, like hit’s ambition was plumb gone.’
She scrubbed and cleaned it, and then took a flat-iron and pressed the brim carefully while it was still damp, until it took on quite a jaunty stiffness.
Then came the shoes. The deeplycaked mud was scraped and washed off, and a mixture of lard and soot generously applied.
By ten o’clock the suit was sufficiently dry to be pressed, and a truly artistic job was made of it.
Then Aunt Ailsie went in and waked Jeems. ‘You’ve put in seventeen hours good sleep,’ she said, ‘and I allow your stummick needs a leetle comfort next. You got plenty of time to get ready for dinner. I fotched you in a pan of warm water and soap and a towel and wash-rag, allowing you might feel to take a good wash-off. Then you can put on this here clean shirt of Lot’s, — I could n’t get yourn off’n you to wash hit, — and these here breeches I washed and pressed for you, and clean socks and shoes, and then come in the kitchen-house and take you a shave with Lot’s strop and razor, and then I ’ll crap your hair, — hit looks like hit hain’t seed scissors sence Mallie died, — and then you ’ll begin to feel more like yourself.’
An hour later, Jeems, washed, dressed, shaved, shingled, and combed, was indeed a transformed man — the hollow look gone from eyes and cheeks, twenty years from his age.
‘If you could meet up with yourself, Jeems, you would n’t never know hit was the same man rid up here a-yesterday,’ said Aunt Ailsie, proud of her handiwork. ‘ You look now about what you air — thirty-two come September; I ricollect your birth, you and Link being nigh of an age. You look fit ten now to start out a-courting to-morrow. Not,’ she added hastily, seeing an awakening gleam in Jeems’s eye, ‘not to court young gals, of course, but to court them of an age with you. Of course, you ’ll never be what you once was, in those fur-off young days when me ’n your maw used to take pride in your looks.’
‘Hit seems to me like two or three weeks sence yesterday,’ remarked Jeems, who appeared to be in a kind of daze. ‘I don’t feel like the same man.'
‘You hain’t,’ pronounced Aunt Ailsie. ‘You was in a pure franzy for sleep. And now you got hit, hit has wropt up your narves, and swaged down your feelings, and knit up your faculties, till you ’re in some fix to look around you and get things kindly straightened out in your mind, and take counsel about what you come for — the job of getting you a wife.
‘Now I knowed in reason you ’d be a-seeing troubles, though I never tuck the full measure of ’em, or drempt how nigh crazed and drove you was. But when these here furrin women come in, and I seed how smart and pretty they was, and all the way from twenty-three to twenty-eight year’ old, and nary a man to their name, seemed like hit went through me like a knife, I felt so bad for sech sweet creeturs to be old maids. And then I thought right off of you, and how scandlous bad you needed a wife, and your young-uns a maw, and how proud you’d be doing yourself to get one of these fine, fotched-on women; and I jest put two and two together, Jeems, and sont you word immediate, afore any more widow-men could get in ahead of you; for you know they ’s allus several round about all on the look, and I knowed when they seed these women they’d be atter ’em hotfoot. And when you did n’t come sooner, I begun to get right scared for your chances. But I hope you hain’t too late yet.
‘Now, Jeems, hit’s plain enough you can’t live no longer a widder — you ’ll sartain be dead if you do. And the pint is, what kind of a woman do you need? That’s what you want to study on, and study keerful. You hain’t had no show sence Mallie died, to get out and look around none, or do much thinking either, I allow. But hit don’t take much studying to know you need, first and foremost, a woman that can tame down and civilize young-uns.’
‘That’s hit,’ Jeems agreed, fervently.
‘All them furrin’ women knows how to handle young-uns to the queen’s taste,’ continued Aunt Ailsie. ‘You’d never believe how civil all them feisty, briggaty boys and gals at The Forks has got to be.'
‘Hit ’s a sight how a woman-person can swage ’em dow n,’ said Jeems, wonderingly. ‘Now, Cindy Swope had n’t been in the house a’ hour afore she had my nine and her six all a-working peaceable and biddable.’
‘And the next thing you want, Jeems, with your dyspepsy, and all that mess of young-uns, is somebody can cook.’
‘Eh law, that’s what I want, too! I’m plumb beat out with my own cooking; that air supper Cindy cooked when she come in was the first meal of vittles had sot on my stummick for three month’.’
’I don’t rightly know,’ continued Aunt Ailsie, ‘which one of them quare women is the best cook, but, from the table they set, I allow they all air. Now there’s one that’s sort of extry fine on vittles, and larns the gals how to make all manner of new-fangled things, and hain’t but twenty-three, and got mighty pretty crow’s-wing hair, and blue eyes. But ricollect, she hain’t for you, Jeems, and would n’t so much as look at a old widow-man with nine young-uns. And, anyhow, Darcy Kent’s a-talking to her. So don’t you waste no thoughts there.
‘And the next thing you got a bound to have is a woman can sew and weave and spin, same as Mallie, and keep coats and blankets for you and your young-uns. Now one of them headwomen— Amy is her name—is the sewingest woman ever I seed, besides the ladyest; why, she’s even got Fulty and his wild crowd of boys a-hemming handkerchers and towels up yander every day, and she has already axed me to Iarn her how to weave and spin. She ’d be the woman for you, Jeems, if you could get her — either her, or t’ other head one, Virginny, which is the up-and-comingest female ever I laid an eye on, and don’t baulk at nothing on earth. And then, of course, the nurse-woman, she’d be mighty handy when the young-uns all takes down sick with the choking disease, or the breastcomplaint, or sech; or likewise that one that teaches the least ones, and keeps about fifty of ’em happy and biddable all the time. You could n’t make no mistake, whichever of them you tuck.’
Jeems meditated a moment, then said, with a deep groan: ‘One thing you left out, Aunt Ailsie, and seems like hit’s the one I set the most store by of all. I want me a woman knows how to milk good, and handle cow-brutes. Hit appears like I could have stood up under all the rest, but for them devils of cow-brutes on my hands, that gets mad whenever I come a-nigh ’em, just because I am a man-person, and upsets the bucket, and holds up their milk, and kicks me in the shins, and does their almightiest to aggravate and destroy me, till my gorge rises up at the very thoughts of ’em. Yes, Aunt Ailsie, I want me a woman can milk, if she can’t do nothing else. Now, Cindy, hit was a sight —’
‘Sartain you do, Jeems,’ interrupted Aunt Ailsie, ‘but there hain’t no needcessity in the world to bother about that. Any woman anywheres can milk, — hit’s woman’s nature to, — and I allow every single one of them fotched-on women is the finest milkers ever was; they so smart any way you take ’em.
‘But listen, Jeems,’ — and there was a sudden, inspired gleam in her eye; ‘if that’s what you set the most store by, me ’n Lot is a-lending a cow to them women this very day, — the Pieded Heifer, — and Fulty is a-coming to drive her in atter dinner. And I never allowed to let you go in where them women was till you had got you another night of sleep. But sarcumstances changes plans, and I don’t know but what hit might be better for you to go in with Fulty this evening, unbeknownst to the women, and kindly take a gineral view, and spy out the land, so to speak, and see for yourself who is the ablest milker; and then come back and sleep on hit to-night; and then to-morrow you and me will go in and take the day, — I was a-going in anyhow to start on my A B C’s, — and I ’ll fix a way so’s you ’ll get a chanct to court the one you pick out — I allus was the most contrivingest woman you ever seed. And if all goes well, as hit sartainly will, you ’ll ride home a-Sunday with your wife behind you, and likewise all your troubles.’
Jeems agreed that the plan was a good one; indeed, he began to wake up and be quite keen on the scent; so much so that Aunt Ailsie felt impelled to drop a few more words of wisdom.
‘Of course, I know a man’s nature, and in partic’lar a widow-man’s, is to run atter the youngest and foolishest female that crosses his trail, with nary thought for his orphant offsprings, or his own welfare. But take the counsel of one that has lived long and seed much and thinks a sight of you, Jeems, and pick you out a good, old, settled woman, nigh of an age with you, that’s got more, or anyway as much, on the inside of her headpiece as the outside, and will be a right step-maw and helpmeet. Twenty-eight is terrible old, I know, most women being nigh-grandmaws by then; but I give you my hand, Jeems, them two head women, Amy and Virginny, is the deceivingest in their looks ever you seed, and don’t ary one of ’em look hardly twenty; hit’s a pure myxtery how old women like them can keep sech a fair, tender skin, and rosy jaws, and shiny hair, and white teeth.
‘And another thing for you to bear in mind constant, Jeems, is that no young gal, with a-plenty of chances ahead of her, would n’t take a second look at a old widow-man with nine orphant young-uns. No, a woman would have to be pretty far along on the cull-list before she’d even think of tying up with a man in your condition. Facts is facts, Jeems, and ought to be looked full in the eye.’
Uncle Lot stepped in just then, and the subject was of necessity dropped. Jeems ate a ravenous dinner, and with every bite courage and manhood seemed to grow within him.
Not long after dinner, Fult appeared, as he had promised. Aunt Ailsie went to the pasture-bars with him to get the Pieded Heifer. Seeing an unwonted light in his handsome eyes, she inquired, ‘What’s come to you, Fulty — what’s happened ? ’
‘Oh, nothing,’ replied Fult, carelessly. ‘ I found that air singer this morning, down Troublesome, setting in Uncle Adam’s wagon, stalled in a quick, and brung her up behind me to the women.’
‘Is she an old maid, too?’
‘No,’ answered Fult, indignantly.
‘How old is she?’
‘I never axed her; but she looks about sixteen.’
‘Is she a pretty looker?’
‘Prettiest you ever seed,’ declared Fult, with feeling.
‘Prettier than Lethie?’
Fult flushed. ‘She’s different,’ he said. ‘And sing! I never in life heared the like!’
‘I ’ll be bound she can’t outsing me when I were young,’ said Aunt Ailsie, jealously.
‘Maybe not,’ replied Fult; ‘I never heared you then. I told her about you, and she wants to hear you.’
When Full and Jeems were mounted, and ready to start with the heifer, Aunt Ailsie gazed with pride upon her handiwork. Jeems made quite a presentable appearance. True, a collar and tie would have improved the effect; but such vanities were only for dashing young blades like Fult, not for old, settled, married — or widow — men.
After they had started, Aunt Ailsie called Jeems back for a last word.
‘Mind now,’ she said, ‘not to get your thoughts tangled up with no young gals you may see there. One’s jest come in this morning from the level land. Ricollect, they hain’t for sech as you. Keep your mind fixed stiddy on what you ’re a-going atter, and don’t get witched off by no young face with naught behind hit.’
When they arrived at the tents, the heifer was received with warm appreciation by two of the women, whom Jeems judged to be the heads, though they were astonishingly fair and rosy and young and neatly dressed, to have reached the ancient age of twenty-eight. From a safe distance in the background, Jeems inspected each, narrowly and appraisingly. When the heifer had been anchored to a tree, one of the women returned to a group of old people she appeared to be teaching near by, and the other settled down to letter-writing under a more distant tree. Fult had already hurried uphill, and Jeems slowly followed, gazing with solemn, owlish eyes upon all the strange things and people he saw.
The lowest tents were deserted, but in the larger, gayly decorated one farther up, two or three dozen mothers, with babies, were gathered, and the nurse was making a talk on the care of infants, using one in her demonstration. She was giving it a warm bath when Jeems peered into the tent. He was at once transfixed.
‘That air woman knows how to handle a young-un,’ he said to himself, after watching the proceedings for some time, ‘and is a good looker, too.’
No mother present could have been more appreciative of the deft ways of the nurse than was Jeems, out of the fullness of his own experience.
After this was over, he went on to the top of the spur, where the young folks of different ages were gathered, in several large groups and circles, playing games. In the largest circle, where the young men and maidens were playing ‘Old Bald Eagle,’ a game that was a combination of quadrille and Virginia reel, with a song accompaniment, Fult was leading, and his partner was a young and extremely pretty stranger, at the sight of whom Jeems stopped stone-still and gazed with all his eyes. Aunt Ailsie’s warning came to him with a pang after a while: ‘Ricollect, sech as that hain’t for you.’ He sighed deeply, and felt a dull anger with Fult’s youth and beauty.
Still another very young and pretty one — the one with the ‘crow’s-wing hair and blue eyes’ — sat on a bench not far away; but Darcy Kent was at her side.
After a long while, the play-games stopped, and the merry crowd trooped down the hill and home — all save Fult and a few of his cronies, who stopped at the big tent, where Fult was soon picking a banjo and singing ballads for the stranger. Jeems leaned against a tree-trunk outside, and waited for the fateful hour of milking to arrive.
Finally, an anxious call came from below for Fult, and all in the tent went down, Jeems following at a little distance. Fult joined the group of women behind the cooking tent. When Jeems arrived, he saw that they were gathered anxiously about the heifer. One of them, Virginia, was saying to Fult, —
‘But how are we going to get her milked?’
Fult shook his head. ‘I allowed, and granny allowed, all you women could milk — all the women-folks in this country can.’
‘Milk? Why, I never did such a thing in my life! Down in the Blue Grass the women don’t milk; the men do all the heavy work like that.’
Jeems stopped in his tracks. His jaw dropped.
‘I thought maybe you could milk her for us to-night, and until we could hire somebody for the job,’ continued Virginia, a little impatiently.
Fult flushed. ‘Sorry I can’t oblige you,’ he said; ‘I never in life undertook to milk a cow. Up in this country hit’s allus a woman’s job.’
‘Do you mean to say you let your mother and sisters do rough work like milking all the time?’
Fult laughed. ‘Maw would n’t let me get in ten foot of her cow,’ he said. ‘Cows won’t stand for hit in this country. They are used to women-folks and their ways, and don’t want a man to come a-nigh ’em.’
‘Hit’s a fact,’ groaned Jeems inwardly, from the depths of experience.
‘You women know there hain’t nothing I would n’t do to pleasure you,’ continued Fult, gallantly. ‘If I knowed how to milk, I’d try hit, man’s job or not. But a body can’t learn all in a minute.’
‘They can’t, neither,’ protested Jeems, under his breath.
‘Can’t a single one of you brought-on women milk a cow?’ inquired Fult, looking, astonished, around the circle.
One after another, Amy, the nurse, the kindergartner, the cooking teacher, the singing gal, admitted her ignorance. None had ever in her life tried to milk.
Jeems’s jaw was now permanently dropped. He stared with incredulity.
‘And even if some of them could milk,’said Virginia, with a note of decision in her soft voice, ’I should n’t feel that I could permit them to do it. It ’s setting too bad an example. The thought of the women of this country doing all the milking shocks me inexpressibly, and one of the principal things I hope to teach them is that milking is not a woman’s job, but should be done always by the men.'
Jeems’s countenance registered complete horror.
At this instant, Isabel, the new arrival, spoke up. ‘The cow will have to be milked to-night by somebody,’she said; ‘and though I never milked in my life, and do not approve of women milking, still I’d be glad to try this time, if you say so, Cousin Amy, and Miss Virginia. Of course, I live on a stock-farm, — papa has always raised horses and cattle, thoroughbreds, — and I’ve seen cows milked by the negro men thousands of times, and it does seem that I ought to be able to do it myself. If you ’ll give me a bucket, I ’ll be glad to try.'
Virginia shook her head. ‘I don’t consider it wise,’ she said; ‘it’s setting too bad a precedent.’
‘I believe I’d let her do it just this once, as it’s an emergency,’ suggested Amy, in her quiet way.
‘Well, maybe, for just this once,’Virginia grudgingly consented.
A shining bucket was produced, and Isabel stepped toward the heifer. Jeems’s face was once more transformed, irradiated.
‘Now you hold her,’ said Isabel to Fult. ‘Not that I’m a bit afraid. I can ride any horse I ever saw; but I’m not so used to cows.'
She approached carefully, spoke to the heifer, rubbed down her flank, and at last gently grasped a teat. This she squeezed periodically and persistently for a long while. Not a drop of milk appeared.
‘Why, there’s something the matter with this cow,’she said at last. ‘I believe she’s a dry one.'
‘No, granny said she was giving three straight gallons a day right along,’said Fult; ‘and to not fail to milk her a single time.’
Isabel tried another teat, then conscientiously made the rounds of all.
‘Maybe she’s just too excited to have any milk to-day,’said Virginia. ‘I Ve heard t hat cows are extremely nervous creatures.’
‘Yes, that must be it,’said Isabel. She rose, reluctant to give up, but forced to admit that she could do nothing.
Jeems’s expression was now one of utter bewilderment. But he was ready to accept the explanation offered — a cow-brute was equal to anything.
A small boy of eleven or twelve, who had been standing near all the time, digging his toes into the earth, spoke up laconically.
‘Anybody with eyes could see she’s got milk.’
‘Well, how can you tell, Billy?’ asked Virginia.
‘Because I know cows. I’ve holp maw milk a many of a time, and Lethie, too. I don’t care if hit hain’t a man’s job, I’ve holp ’em when they was sick or busy. Here, you fotched-on women don’t know nothing; gimme that air bucket, and a apern and sunbonnet, and I ’ll show you. Of course, she would n’t lemme come a-nigh her in breeches.’
The nurse lent her large apron, Amy her white sunbonnet, and Billy, retiring to the cooking-tent to put them on, soon emerged, hit the cow a sharp lick on the hip, bawled ‘Saw!’ half a dozen times, squatted down, put out small dirty hands. In an instant two large jets of milk were foaming into the pail.
‘I knowed hit,’ commented Billy, scornfully; ‘ I got my opinion of a passel of women that hain’t able to milk a cow betwixt ’em!’
The women looked on in solemn relief.
And Jeems? He swept the six strange women with a slow glance, in which indignation, disgust and anguish struggled for supremacy; then, turning on his heel, strode rapidly down the hill.
‘Not nary one of ’em able to milk a cow!' he exclaimed to himself over and over, as he descended.
And later, as he rode down Troublesome, ‘Not nary single one! Not even,’ with a groan, ‘that air youngest and prettiest!’
It was supper-time when he arrived, and Uncle Lot being present, there was no chance for Aunt Ailsie to ask the reason of his profound melancholy, which, however, was so noticeable that, when she started to milk after supper, she called to him to go with her.
‘What in creation’s the matter with you, Jeems?’ she demanded. ‘You look like you had seed a hant!’
‘I’ve seed worse ’n a hant, Aunt Ailsie,’ he said, with awful solemnity: ‘I’ve seed six able-bodied women, not nary one of which is able to milk a cow-brute!’
Aunt Ailsie dropped her bucket. ‘Jeems!’ she said, ‘you know hit hain’t the truth!’
‘Hit’s the truth, too,’ he replied, sternly. ‘When milking-time come, not nary one of ’em would even try but one, — that air newest and youngest, — and she could n’t squeeze out a drap! And then a leetle chap that was hanging around, he sot down and milked out a bucketful easy as scat!’
Aunt Ailsie picked the bucket up, and stood by the bars, speechless.
‘I never once thought but what every woman on that hill was a able milker,’ she said at last. ‘But Iook-ahere, Jeems, all hope hain’t yet gone; they would any or all larn to milk if needcessity come — say if any of ’em was to marry a widow-man!’
Jeems shook his head most emphatically. ‘They would n’t, neither,’ he said. ‘Them women all allowed hit was a man’s job, not a woman’s, to milk a cow-brute; and one of them head women said she was aiming to teach all the women-folks in this here country not to milk nary ’nother time theirselves, but to make the men-folks do hit allus.’
Jeems’s voice broke on the utterance of this frightful heresy, and Aunt Ailsie herself was entirely beyond speech.
After a long while she recovered herself, and laid down the bars. ‘Well, hit jest wa’ n’t to be, Jeems,’ she said; ‘hit jest wa’ n’t predestined for you to get you a fotched-on woman. I don’t know but what, if I was you, I ’d court that air widow-woman, Cindy Swope. Her six and your nine, with maybe seven or eight more to foller, will be kindly a stumbling-block; but if she can quell both young-uns and cowbrutes, like you say, numbers won’t make no p’ticlar difference — you’ll still have peace in your home. I reckon hit’s the best all round, Jeems; though I feel mighty onreconciled, atter all the big plans I laid for you. You hain’t the first man to look furder and fare worse.’
She threw half a dozen nubbins to Old Pied, sat down on the small threelegged stool, and began to milk, vigorously but pensively.
Jeems gazed down upon her, with healing and comfort stealing over every torn and jangled nerve.
‘Man’s job, indeed!’ he said to himself, scornfully; ‘Cindy hain’t got no sech crazy notions!’