The Widow's Friend
‘JUST her luck,’said the neighbors, when the day of the Widow Marr’s auction sale dawned bleak and gray. The Widow Marr, in all her forty years among us, had never had any luck. She was poor and mildly insane, and recently she had quarreled with her sons and their somewhat termagant wives. All that remained was to sell her belongings and, on the proceeds, enter an Old Folks’ Home — if the proceeds were enough to finance that long-drawn-out homesickness.
The morning brought rain that was almost snow, but toward noon the skies cleared and volunteers carried the widow’s goods into the pale March sunshine. Chairs and tables, pictures and rugs, dishes and pans, stoves and clocks — everything that had framed the meagre life of the Widow Marr since she came thither as a bride from her ancestral home on the mountain. The widow and her goods had grown old together, old and patched and rickety. Would anyone want them? No one wanted the widow; what market would there be for her nondescript and undistinguished chattels?
It seems, however, that the world, even in backwaters like ours, has an insatiable lust for goods. Things, any thing, can be sold — at a price. If a thing won’t sell by itself, lump it off with a heap of other undesirables and someone will want something in the heap badly enough to bid for it. What the purchasers do with all the wrecks they buy at country auctions passes comprehension, unless they use them to repair similar wrecks at home.
In spite of the weather there was a goodly crowd gathered in the widow’s yard when the auctioneer arrived. He was an elderly man from whom the steam of life had escaped in many vaporings of this sort; he had all the patter of his trade, but there was no longer that hypnotic enthusiasm in his voice that compels bidding. The sale began badly and limped along indifferently, until the Man with the Brown Beard took hold of the case.
He was a stranger to me and to most of us. Someone said he lived on the mountain, and was one of the Van Armand boys. Another thought he was a Van Loon. The names meant nothing to me; yet I seemed to have known him always. He was tall and spare, and wore a threadbare overcoat; his brown beard framed a face that was disconcertingly Biblical in the beauty of its calm and gentle strength. The Jesus of picture and sculpture — no less!
The Widow Marr was by no means friendless among us, but until this man arrived she had had no active aid at the court of salesmanship. He it was who marshaled us hither and thither, bade us carry this or that, steered the auctioneer from one heap of battered treasure to another, privately called attention to hidden utilities as he circulated through the crowd and stirred timid souls to bid. Subtly but unmistakably the atmosphere of the Widow Marr’s dooryard changed from gloom to hope, became charged with the electricity of competition. Even the auctioneer took fire; his ‘Fair Warning,’ which had been all warning, was now a challenge; the clerk at his elbow made frenzied jottings, so fast did the sales come.
It was the widow’s friend, too, who led the way to the outbuildings when the household goods had been sold. There we found, in profusion and confusion, the tools and implements with which Tom Marr had massaged the face of Mother Earth with painstaking skill. On the way thither our guide reminded us of Tom’s virtues, his industry and his ingeniousness. Tom, indeed, had his own ways of rigging tools; Tom might have been an inventor if he had been practicalminded instead of being interested only in growing things. Visions of patents danced in our heads; under the magic of that suggestion we bought Tom Marr’s relics avidly.
While the auctioneer and the clerk were compiling their accounts the Man with the Brown Beard took the Widow Marr into his wagon and set off toward the mountain. ‘Just a visit,’ the neighbors said, ‘to settle her mind a little before she goes to the Home. His folks and her’n are connected some way by blood. Or maybe just friends. Anyway it’s a good place for her.’
I was unloading my purchases when they drove past. The widow, small and shrunken on the seat, was straining her eyes toward the mountain. He stood beside her, his tall body swaying to the rhythm of hoof and wheel, the wind tossing his beard, and the sunset full in his face.
That was three years ago, and the Widow Marr is still on the mountain with the Van Loons or Van Dorens or Van Somebodies. The Man with the Brown Beard is no doubt there also, ploughing and reaping and folding sheep in season. But although in these three years I have traveled and thought and written almost without ceasing, I have never been able to shake off the impression that I saw Christ Jesus saving the Widow Marr that afternoon. I do not want to shake it off; otherwise I should hunt out his farm and ask his advice on sheep. That is too big a risk at present. But if life ever becomes utterly unbearable, then as a last resort I shall go up the mountain, find the Man with the Brown Beard, and tell him my troubles. Mind you, I know not this man, — I have never seen him since that day and may never see him again, — yet if he were to come to my door and say ‘Follow me’ I would go as surely and as confidently as the fishermen left their nets by Galilee to follow Jesus.