John Duffy


SHE could see her husband from the window of their bedroom as she changed from her work dress into a thin cotton. Her husband was a bent figure of a man, dwarfed by the distance between the house and the narrow brook skirting their farm. She knew that he was propping up the banks of the brook with stones, a chore that he had on his mind all summer. His blue shirt was a mere spot in the green of the meadow between them. He would be down there until milking time. So she would pass him on the way over to Kate’s.

She was going to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding over in Kate’s kitchen, drinking tea, and having the first gossip with her sister that she had given herself time for in weeks.

’Kate says I’m not to can all day on my wedding day,’ she had announced at breakfast to the girls. They had risen to clear the table. They looked their consternation.

‘Pa, it’s Mother’s wedding day and we never bought her a single thing!’

His answer had given her a satisfaction that her daughters did not guess.

‘Well, I don’t know that she would be any happier.’

‘It’s your wedding day too, Pa!’ Sally, the younger daughter, had given her father a poke on his thick shoulders.

Myra was glad that she had spoken out her mind. ‘If your father wants to have tea with Kate and me he can come, and he knows it.’

He would n’t come — not with his mind set on his work. He had worked all day when Sally had graduated. He probably would n’t take time for his own funeral. A bent solid figure of a man she would find him, passing in her afternoon dress, her blue spotted gown that she had worn to Sally’s commencement two years ago.

Heavens, how the girls had worked this last week with the canning! She smiled sometimes, as now, at her fear that college degrees would take them away from her or make them dislike the common work of the house. Their father had said, ‘Well, I’d wait and see. I guess you are doing the right thing by them.’ That was what she was wanting to do always — the right thing. Certainly she was n’t going to let them put in every summer on the farm. If Ruth had the notion that the United States could n’t give her all she wanted to know, and study in England was absolutely necessary — well, it might be a kink in her mind, but it was a worth-while kink. And the girl ought to be using vacation time for making money to take her across. As for Sally, that child had wanted to go to Europe ever since she was learning geography in the district school. How she had saved all the post cards one of the boarders, old Doctor Hays, had given her! There was no use in letting her dream about it all her life. She would set her to planning definitely.

Her eyes snapped as she fastened up her hair. Sally’s birthday was in November. She would send her a tendollar gold piece and a letter with one line in it: ‘This will start you to Europe.’ It was Sally’s kink that she must never indulge herself. In Sally’s mind were endless dutiful summers on the farm.

Her eye swept the farm land to be seen from the window—the cornfields with the blue of the hills beyond them, the pasture, the meadow on the other side of the brook, the rich depth of the woods on the road to her sister’s. There might be a worse place to spend one’s time, but if you were hankering for the uttermost parts of the earth you might as well go there. And why should n’t girls have the chances of boys? Had n’t she managed to send Charles away when he was n’t getting what he was wanting? She and his father had worked themselves to death for three summers. But the Ford they went about in was from Charles, and he had paid off the last cent of the mortgage they had put on the place to send the girls away. Was n’t it better to have him love the place than hate it? What was the use of being afraid to do the thing right on top of you to be done?

She went down the stairs that led into the kitchen — steep, crazy stairs, the work of Grandfather Duffy, who had built the older portion of the house more than a hundred years ago. The door at the bottom was open. She saw Sally and Ruth filling jars with tomatoes. Great kettles were boiling on the stove. The slippery red skins of the tomatoes were moist piles on the table and in two pans. Some of the skins were smearing the floor.

‘Well, if you girls want to slide around on tomato skins — ’ she said to them.

The girls looked at their mother instead of at the unsightly floor.

‘Hasn’t Mother done her hair prettily, the way I showed her?’ asked Sally.

And Ruth said, ‘It’s good you have put on your blue dress. Aunt Kate telephoned there was a surprise over there for you.’

‘It’s a Mr. Quails that’s the surprise, Mother,’ said Sally. ‘ He dropped down on her, bag and baggage, though she has her house full of boarders and she can only put him in the tent. She says this Mr. Quails — Ed Quails, as she calls him — is one of your old beaus.’ Ruth laughed. ‘Mother, what is he like?’

She said crisply, ‘I’ve not laid eyes on him for twenty-six years. How do I know what he is like!'

Sally was lifting a kettle from the stove. ‘ Do you suppose he ’ll come over to call on the whole lot of us?'

‘Sally, if you smash those jars with that foolish way of pouring in the tomatoes, I’ll make you pay for every last one of them. You girls had better be thinking of your own beaus.’ With that she went out of doors. She heard Sally say, ‘I don’t think Mother likes Ed Quails!’

There were goldenglow in the dooryard and zinnias and calendulas; and cosmos, lavender and white, were in bloom. She took her way past the barn, where the hired man was mending a harness. The lofts were bursting with the hay. It had been the best summer in years. The road went steeply down a few paces, then up a gentle slope. For a little time her husband was hidden from her. Then again his bent figure. She stopped before him.

‘Why did n’t you plan to go to Kate’s with me? What call have you got to work even on your wedding day, and no bit of fun with Kate and me and the rest! She says Ed Quails has descended on her. Why are n’t you coming along with me?'

Her husband stood up, mopping his red face. His shirt had streaks of perspiration, for it had been warm in the September sun. He had a mop of dark hair, and that too was wet where it hung over his forehead. He was a strong-looking man. Had it not been for his somewhat bent shoulders, he Would have looked younger than his wife. His eyes were very black and had a gleam in them when he talked.

‘I mean to have this job off my hands.’

‘You are as stubborn as the day I married you,’ she said, not unkindly, and went on her way. She could go up the road through the woods or take the scrambling path that would carry her steeply to the front of Kate’s house. She chose the path to save time.

As she emerged from the light growth of birch she saw Kate’s porch. The women boarders were in one corner, rocking and talking. And a man — she recognized him as an all-summer boarder — was training a pair of glasses on the branch of a stunted oak. She was used to boarders who looked at birds through opera glasses, and had a tolerance for them. She reflected that Kate had done well with her boarders.

Kate’s husband, George, had been a waiter in a hotel — head waiter until his health broke down. They had come up here ten years ago when George was only just out of the sanitarium. Neither Kate nor her husband was a farmer. All they cultivated was a vegetable patch. It was the boarders who were profitable. George had an understanding of what would please people. It was his suggestion that they — himself or Kate — should turn down the beds at night. ‘It makes them feel they are getting something for their money.’ He made things look very neat about the house and around the dooryard. And he set up a weather vane on the end of the porch that supplied conversation for each new boarder — though conversation had not been explicitly his intention. ‘What do you suppose that curious weather vane is intended to be?’ asked each person on his arrival. Sometimes an old boarder of genial disposition would begin acquaintance with the remark, ‘So you’ve come to see Mr. Drake’s weather vane!’ It was painted bright orange, green, and blue. It trembled against thegreenof the trees like a gorgeous bird. George used his spare time in the winter carving animals and painting them. He had learned to do this in the sanitarium. His ducks and his elephants were wonders. Kate and George had put electricity through their ten-room house this last spring.

Well, her sister could turn down beds if she was so minded. Her own boarders had gotten along with kerosene lamps and had turned down their sheets with their own hands — or, as she grimly remarked to her husband, they could nap on the outside. She was grateful that there was no more need for boarders.

As she approached the kitchen she saw George down in the vegetable patch. He had a neat slimness, a neatness of dress, that made him seem only casually connected with the rows of beans. And she watched him show a summer boarder to the far end of his patch much as he had shown the patrons of a city hotel to their tables. Now he came toward her with his really pleasant smile, saying: —

‘Congratulations, Myra, on your wedding anniversary!’

Her thought was, ‘I don’t think he ever sweats his shirts, no matter what he is doing.’ ‘Thanks, George,’ she said affably.

Sudden laughter from the kitchen windows made her turn her head.

‘They are waiting for you. Kate is serving tea in your honor.’

It was like George to be elegant in his words. He amused her, though she had respect for him. She left him, passing a dozen white napkins bleaching on the grass. Then she went in to Kate’s back door, brushing aside a bunch of goldenglow that, leaning forward under its weight, tickled her warm face.


Kate’s kitchen was a large room with a table in the window, where she and her husband and the guests that never paid — relays of cousins from town who were in need of a change of air — sat down to their meals after the paying guests in the dining room had been served. When Myra entered, besides the waitress — a distant cousin of George, a pleasant-looking girl with black hair and pearl earrings — there was Thomas Egan, come for his two weeks’ vacation from his motorman’s job. And there was Mary Hale, a cousin of Kate’s, with her baby on her lap; she was taking a vacation from her husband and three other children. And there was Edward Quails, and there was Kate herself.

Kate, a thin little woman much worn down by pleasing the boarders and intensity of disposition, crossed the room quickly to greet her sister. She had a sensitive mouth and her brown eyes were forever glistening with their ecstatic vision of life.

‘Now, Myra, I thought surely your own husband would come with you to eat the cake! Poor John!’ She kissed her sister and patted her shoulders. ‘And here is Ed Quails, who says he has n’t laid eyes on you for twenty-five years.’

At that there rose a man who had a bald spot on the top of his head, and clothes that had an air about them, and a mean twist to his mouth, and light blue eyes with a shrewdness it was plain to see had earned him all the clothes he wanted.

Twenty-six years ago Myra Duffy, who was then Myra Daniels, had jilted Edward Quails after having been engaged to him for six days. As she explained it to her husband, John, a year after they were married: ‘For six days I felt a good and kind and brave woman, but not a happy one. And if Ed Quails was n’t making me happy after six days of being my lover, what could I look forward to! A girl wants to be happy above everything else. Yet to break word with him has been a sin on my conscience. And I shall bear the sin to my dying day.’

John Duffy had answered, ‘I see no sin on your soul — nothing but a foolish notion in your mind.’

Yet she continued to have it on her mind that she had treated Edward Quails not squarely. The idea was buried for the most part. Then she would sigh, ‘It was not kind to Edward Quails to say yes and then say no. But if it’s a sin I will bear my pains, for it would have been worse to have lived with him.'

And now up rose Edward Quails before her with a bald spot on the top of his head and a mean twist to the corner of his mouth.

‘It’s you, Myra Daniels,’ he said.

‘It’s Myra Duffy for twenty-five years to this day.’ She crossed her arms over her full breast.

‘Is it that bent-shouldered man in the blue shirt and no collar down by the brook? I passed him coming up here this morning. His back was wet as a seal. He was sweating away. Is it Duffy in the blue shirt?’

‘It’s Duffy with black hair and not a bald spot on him. My husband, John Duffy.’ Her eyes snapped fire. She had to defend herself against his meanness and the remembrance of her sin.

Kate broke in: ‘I’m giving you tea that one of the boarders gave me. He says it’s a dollar and a half a pound, Myra, You two sit down in your chairs.’

‘How that child grows!’ said Myra, observing Mary Hale’s baby, who was reaching over for the sugar bowl. He had in his other hand one of George’s bright blue elephants. She sat down opposite Edward Quails, for there was no other way about it.

George came in. He whispered to his wife. He disappeared into the pantry. He came back with a bunch of flowers arranged in a glass vase. The vase had been a Christmas gift from Sally Duffy. George placed it in the centre of the table. ‘It’s in honor of the bride,’ he said, and bowed across to Myra, who was lifting her tea to her lips and crumbling a bit of cake.

Thomas Egan made her a bow also.

Ed Quails and Myra faced each other with the anniversary flowers between them. There was no winking the matter: these two were enemies. The other people in the kitchen divined it after the first round of tea. Mary Hale took her baby out in the dooryard and stayed there with him. Rose, the waitress and distant relative, busied herself on the back porch, ironing napkins. Thomas drew into a shadowy corner of the room and lighted his pipe. George stood near the window, whittling a pigeon from a bit of wood. Kate shrank back in her chair, her bright soft eyes gazing at them in alarm.

‘You’ve got three grown boys,’ he said.

‘You are trying to anger me. I’ve got Sally and Ruth and a boy, Charles. How many of your own have you brought up?’

‘We’ve got a girl. No boys.’

‘And your wife has had a happy life and a quiet one.’ She stated it as a matter of fact, for she was sorry that he had no son.

So she had seen that he had missed something. ‘My wife will have silver enough for her anniversary presents,’ he said. ‘I shall buy her the heaviest there is, and the pattern she wants — a tray and a tea set.’

‘We’ve put Sally and Ruth through college. They care a great deal about study. But they helped themselves too.’ She was looking at the line about his mouth. She had noticed it years ago. Whenever he had said a mean thing this line had worked.

He leaned forward across the table. ‘Does he still drink?’

‘Who?’ she asked sharply, stiffening.

‘John Duffy. He was fined for drinking and put off the job for drinking when we worked together before you laid eyes on him — when your mother kept a store.’

Kate cried softly, ‘Why call up old times when it’s all different now?’ That was like Kate, wanting everybody to be happy.

‘I’m asking is it different now.’

Myra was looking at him intently, at his lips with the corners turned in. She was thinking, ‘He kissed me with that mean mouth of his. He had a week before I was John Duffy’s.’

‘Maybe you are ashamed?’ Edward Quails was saying to her.

‘Do you mean of my husband, John Duffy?’

‘A drinking man,’ he went on, ‘leads his wife a hard life of it. I’ve seen him when he had too much.’ He laughed.

She was looking straight at him. To her intent gaze he seemed to diminish, so that there was nothing left but some scant sandy hair and a lot of clothes and light blue eyes that did n’t like her. It dawned upon her why he did n’t like her. She was a fine-looking woman. She had been so used to being a hardworking woman that she had n’t suspected she was good to look at to those eyes that disliked her because she had jilted him all those years ago, and had lived without him and had thrived — yes, had thrived!

And his jibe took her back to her mother’s shop, and she was waiting on this man, giving him coffee and buns. And he was telling her that she had straight eyebrows, the straightest he had ever seen on a girl. Just as he said that, a man passed the window and looked for a second that way. Edward Quails had said, ‘That’s John Duffy, and I’ll bet he has more on board than he knows how to manage.’ That had been her introduction to John. Edward Quails was now saying to John’s wife, ‘I’ve seen him when he had too much.’

Her mother’s shop — there had been tables along the wall and a counter and a case for candy and cigarettes, and a shelf with newspapers for sale, on which customers dropped their pennies. This shop disappeared. She was looking over the head of Edward Quails, out of the window, where the chimneys of the Duffy homestead could be seen above the trees.

‘Well,’ she said crisply, ‘so have I.’ She caught the scared look of her sister Kate, to whom it always seemed so much better not to mention painful things.

She clasped both her hands on the table in front of her. ‘You are right, Ed,’ she said with a deliberate quietness, ‘I’ve seen him when he had too much!’

He gave her a look that was almost kind. ‘It need n’t to have been,’ he said.

‘What?’ she demanded.

‘I warned you, did n’t I? I came to you like a man, but Duffy’s eyes had a snap to them — or whatever it is that takes a girl — and so your judgment was n’t good. You will admit to bad judgment, Myra.’

He was talking familiarly with her because for a week of evenings he had been her lover, sitting with her in her mother’s parlor. He had n’t seen her for twenty-six years, for he went to New York to work in his uncle’s store the week after she jilted him, which was a year before her wedding to John. Now he owned the store and could buy a silver tray for his wife, and he thought he owned her too, Myra Duffy.

‘ What do you know of my judgment ? ’ she said.

‘I saw him in his blue shirt down there by the brook.’

‘And did you see nothing else?’

‘No, except the stones he was setting up, with a great deal of sweating.’

‘Did you see the farm?’

‘I was looking at John Duffy’s wet shirt. And I said, “There’s a flask in his pocket.” Myra, I said that to myself. “ There will be a flask he will raise to his lips if I wait to see.”'

‘But you did n’t wait?’

‘No, I came on here.’

‘My girl Sally was nine months old when John and I came up to this farm that belonged to his mother and his two brothers.’

‘Poor woman,’ said Edward Quails.

‘And there was another baby coming; that was Charles. And John Duffy’s mother thought that a girl who lived in a town and sold coffee and buns was n’t good enough to marry her son whether he was drunk or sober. But I baked her a pie one morning and the meringue on it was nearly two inches. I made that pie the morning I found John Duffy and his brothers, Dan and Jim, lying on the other side of the fence at the end of the orchard, and each man breathing out whiskey on the air until it made me sick to shake their shoulders. On the way back to the house I said to myself, “I’ll begin with the easiest thing first,” and it was a pie to scare that old woman into a civil tongue. Her mouth opened when she saw that pie and then it shut. And it shut down forever on her bitter words to me. She set store by her baking, poor thing.’

‘My wife has n’t made a pie in ten years — not since she stopped doing her own work,’ said Edward Quails.

‘Old Mrs. Duffy knitted you sacks for Sally and Charles before she died,’ put in Kate, mist clouding her gentle eyes. ‘Two blue sacks and a pink one, Myra. Don’t you remember how cunning Charles looked in his when I came up to see you ? ’

‘She did her best, Myra said justly.

‘You were saying they were lying drunk, — down by the orchard, — John Duffy and his brothers.’

‘Yes, they all drank, and there was no choosing between them for the sight they were in their sleep or their waking up. I thought the farm would make John Duffy stop drinking, but it was poor judgment. Once in two weeks in town he drank himself to be a log, and it was once in two weeks on the farm. His brothers were as bad. Yet the farm was a fine one with sober men at work on it. Even a town girl could see that. So I said to myself, “It’s I, then, that shall run this place. It’s I that shall work and set the men to work, drunk or not.” I had two children and there would be more coming along, I knew.'

‘You have three.’

‘There were four, but one died the day he was born.’

‘Two sons,’ said Edward Quails, who had only one daughter to bless himself with.

Myra said, ‘It was a fine boy I lost, though it’s not to be remembered with all my blessings.’

‘A great pity,’ said this man who disliked her for being still a fine-looking woman. ‘And you were telling how he drank half the time. Poor thing, it was a hell’s life you led with him.’

‘He never did a mean thing to me, drunk or sober. But it was a hard sight to see a log for a husband. And it was no good for the children either. Charlie would run to me crying out, “Father has a bottle of it, Mother; I saw’ him.”

‘All I could say was, “You steal the bottle when he is n’t looking, and you bring it to me. Every time you bring me a bottle I’ll make you flapjacks for your supper.”

‘Charlie said the first, time, “Will he beat me?”

‘I shook him by the shoulders till he whimpered. I said, “I’m shaking you for saying things against your father. Did he ever lay a hand on you?”

‘Charlie said, “No, Mother,” for he was n’t a stupid boy. He knew what I was meaning him to understand. “Then it’s a game, like, we’re playing with him,” he said, and I can see him grinning at me. “I’ll bring you the bottles, Mother.” And he did. And Sally did and Ruth. She found them too, hidden in places you would never think to look. The children were as bright and sharp at their game as if they got a hundred dollars a bottle instead of flapjacks with syrup. And John Duffy never said a word to me in complaint. He did n’t dare. He knew right from wrong, and he knew I knew it.

‘One day Sally came running to me, crying, “Mother. Uncle Dan has been killed on the state road by a horse the doctor was driving. And he’s all wet with the whiskey that’s broken on him. The doctor says he was walking as if he did n’t know where he was going.”’

‘Oh!’ cried Kate. ‘Why remember that day?’

Myra went on steadily, looking at Edward Quails, ‘I thanked the Lord that there was one less for John Duffy to drink with. Dan Duffy was half a man at best. And indeed John Duffy never touched a drop for three months, nor his brother either. You should have seen those two men, working themselves nearly to death. And I made the children flapjacks every Saturday night. And I told John we could wait to sell the timber land. There would be money enough in two years if I took some city folk to board and he worked hard. But at the end of three months there were two bottles found down by the brook. Charlie saw his father stealing down there as if he were afraid to be seen. Charlie was frightened, too scared to play the game. “Suppose my father gets run over in the road!”

’And there was John Duffy lying a soaked thing in the shed, and Jim Duffy dead asleep in the barn, that very night. I said to the children, “You bring the bottles to me like you always did. And don’t you get scared; it’s the game.” So it began all over again.

‘And at two o’clock one night there was a wild man the children heard screaming and thumping the floor. And my John was too stupid with the stuff to help me manage his brother. And his mother was down sick with pleurisy. I sent Charlie up the road to get help. John’s mother, hearing the screams, died with her eyes starting out of her head, poor soul. And my Sally was sitting by her bed.

‘Well, when his mother was buried and Jim Duffy was safe put away, I took time to think. I told what I thought to John. I said, “There’s an end come.”

’He said quietly, “What end?”

' I said, “You know what I mean.”

‘And he said, “You would be ashamed to go back to your mother in town, with two children to bring up, and no husband.”

’And I said, “It’s more shame to stay on herewith you. So I go if I or my children find a bottle again. It’s not right for children to be playing this game too long, and I’m too good a woman to play it.” Charles was ten years old then.’

Kate spoke eagerly, ‘Myra, the dear man never touched it again. He has made a fine farm of it, the best around.’

Myra turned to her sister. ‘He was asking if John Duffy still drank, and I’ve been telling him no, he does n’t.’ She folded her arms and looked at Edward Quails.

He scraped his throat. ‘Mr. Duffy did n’t look up when I passed. Will you give him my regards?’

Myra laughed richly. ‘And why should he look up at you? But when I passed he looked up with his two eyes on me. He has never gotten so used to seeing me that he does n’t know who I am, Edward Quails. And what good would your regards do him when you have gone clean out of his mind?’ She rose for the pleasure of looking down on this man who had been sin on her conscience for years and years. And she meant to make him so small that she could step on him and not know it.

But he had a good amount of conceit in him. ‘Well, you’ve got a hunch for farming, Mrs. Duffy. But I would rather be six feet under than pass more than three days on a farm, away from what I’m used to. And my wife, she feels the same — a breath of sea air for a while, but no country for her. It gives her the creeps at night— the stillness all around and the snakes everywhere you might step. So we pack up for a whiff of the sea. And it’s a good hotel I go to. And my wife, she’s as well dressed as any lady on the piazza. She’s got a slim figure, which is what I like. Clothes suit her.’ He said this looking straight at Myra Duffy’s fine large arms crossed over her breast.

Myra was being delighted. She felt free of him. ‘It’s best,’ she said, ‘to be suited. Your wife suits you, Mr. Quails. I knew that by the look of you when I stepped into this room. It’s a fine thing in life to know that one has been suited. And your daughter, maybe, looks like you?’ asked Myra comfortably.

‘No, she’s the image of her mother, and a fine girl. Sons can be a great trouble, but as I say to my wife, “A good daughter you can put your hands on when you are looking for her.” We’ve been greatly blessed,’ said Edward Quails.

‘Indeed and you have,’ said Kate generously, for had n’t the quarrel turned out beautifully — Ed Quails and Myra talking like friends now?

Myra said, ‘There will be no supper for your boarders if I don’t take myself off.’ She looked behind her for good-bye to George, but he had gone from the kitchen, and she saw that Thomas Egan had stepped outside of the house. He was at this very moment lifting up Mary Hale’s baby from the dirt he was crawling into, and the hired girl was picking blueberries.

Edward Quails said no more to her, but got on his feet. He addressed Kate. ‘It’s only overnight I can be staying. So the tent will do for me.’

‘It’s comfortable for a single night,’ said Kate, pressing her sister’s arm affectionately as she followed her to the door.

Myra stepped out into the path that went down between goldenglow and white cosmos.

There was a shed opposite the kitchen door. This was where George Drake kept his tools and paints and brushes and such animals as he could work at during the summer. In the window of the shed was a bright green pigeon, the fresh paint glistening on him.

‘He will be bringing that pigeon tonight to John Duffy for a wedding present. It will be like George to do that.’

She took the long way through the woods, for there was the mean face of Edward Quails to forget before she got home. It was a pretty walk: the short gloom of the road beneath the trees that were still heavy as in summer, and then the bright cornfields of the Duffy farm. She passed down the open road with the house and the barn in sight of her up the hill. And she saw a man going from the house to the barn. It was her husband. She went by the brook. The banks were mended. There was only a small heap of stones to be cleared away.

‘Would any wife tell of her husband what I did! But I told the truth about him. He’s as big as all the truth put together. And Ed Quails knows it. “Mr. Duffy,” he said.’