By Agnes Sligh Turnbull
John and Jennie Musgrave had eager plans when they married and took over the old farm. But their great faith dwindled as the first years passed. John worked later and later in the evenings. Jennie took more and more of the heavy tasks upon her own shoulders and had no time for the home and children. They were no further on, and life had degenerated into a straining, hopeless struggle.
One hot afternoon, Jennie was loading baskets of tomatoes to take to town when the children came running to tell her there was a dressed-up lady at the kitchen door. Wearily she followed the children back and saw a woman in a gray tweed coat that seemed somehow to be a part of her brownish hair. She was not young, but she was beautiful! An aura of eager youth clung to her, a clean and exquisite freshness. The stranger in turn saw a young woman, haggard and weary. Her eyes looked hard and haunted. Her calico dress was shapeless and begrimed from her work.
Stranger (smiling): “How do you do? We ran our car into the shade of your lane to have our lunch and rest for a while. And I walked on up to buy a few apples, if you have them.”
Jennie (grudgingly): “Won’t you go in and sit down? I’ll go and pick the apples.”
Stranger: “May I go with you? I’d love to help pick them.”
Jennie: “Why, I s’pose so. If you can get out there through the dirt.” (She led the way along the unkempt path toward the orchard. She had never been so acutely conscious of the disorder about her. She reached the orchard and began to drag a long ladder from the fence to the apple tree.)
Stranger (crying out): “Oh, but you can’t do that! It’s too heavy. Please let me pick a few from the ground.”
Jennie: “Heavy? This ladder? I wish I didn’t ever lift anything heavier than this. After hoistin’ bushel baskets of tomatoes onto a wagon, this feels light to me.”
Stranger: “But do you think you should? Do you think it’s right…? Why, that’s a man’s work!”
Jennie (furiously): “Right! Who are you to be askin’ me whether I’m right or not? A person like you don’t know what work is!”
Stranger (soothingly): “I’m sorry I annoyed you by saying that. If you were to tell me all about it–because I’m only a stranger–perhaps it would help. Why can’t we sit down here and rest a minute?”
Jennie:“Rest? Me sit down to rest, an’ the wagon loaded to go to town? It’ll hurry me now to get back before dark.”
Stranger: “Just take the time you would have spent picking the apples. I wish I could help you. Won’t you tell me why you have to work so hard?”
Jennie (half sullenly): “There ain’t much to tell, only that we ain’t gettin’ ahead. Henry Davis is talkin’ about foreclosin’ on us if we don’t soon pay some principal. The time of the mortgage is out this year, an’ mebbe he won’t renew it. And it ain’t that I haven’t done my part. I’m barely thirty, an’ I might be fifty, I’m so weatherbeaten. That’s the way I’ve worked.”
Stranger: “And you think that has helped your husband?”
Jennie (sharply): “Helped him? Why wouldn’t it help him?”
Stranger: “Men are such queer things, husbands especially. For instance, they want us to be economical, and yet they love to see us in pretty clothes. They need our work, and yet they want us to keep our youth and beauty. And sometimes they don’t know themselves which they really want most. So we have to choose. That’s what makes it so hard.
Just after we were married, my husband decided to have his own business, so he started a very tiny one. I helped my husband in the store, but we would both be tired and discouraged after a hard day at the office and we didn’t seem to be having any great success. The house got run down and dinner was always a hasty affair, and soon we both started complaining and bickering with each other.
Finally, we decided that maybe I should stay at home and let him take care of his work at the office as best he could. And then I worked in my house to make it a clean, shining, happy place. My husband would come home dead-tired and discouraged, ready to give up the whole thing. But after he had eaten and sat in our bright little living room, and I had told him all the funny things I could invent about my day, I could see him change. By bedtime, he had his courage back, and by morning, he was all ready to go out and fight again. And at last he won.”
(Jennie did not speak. She only regarded her guest with a half-resentful understanding.)
Stranger: “There was a queen once, who reigned in troubled days. And every time the country was on the brink of war and the people ready to fly into a panic, she would put on her showiest dress and take her court with her, and go hunting. And when the people would see her riding by, they were sure all was well with the government. So she tided over many a danger.
And I’ve tried to be like her. Whenever a big crisis comes in my husband’s business, or when he’s discouraged, I put on my prettiest dress and get the best dinner I know how, or give a party! And somehow it seems to work. That’s the woman’s part, you know….to play the queen…”
(A faint “honk honk” came from the lane. The stranger started to her feet.)
“That’s my husband. I must go. Please don’t bother about the apples. I’ll just take a few from under the tree.” (Taking some coins from her purse) “And give these to the children.”
Jennie’s thoughts were too confused for speech, but, as she watched the stranger’s erect figure hurrying toward the lane, she remembered her words with the pain of anger.
Jennie: “Easy enough for her to set talkin’ about queens! She never felt the work at her throat like a wolf. Talk about choosin! I haven’t got no choice, I just got to keep on goin’, like I always have….
She stopped suddenly and picked up a fairy-like hanky of white linen that the stranger had dropped. Its faint, delicious fragrance made her think wistfully of strange, sweet things. Of gardens in the early summer dusk; of wide, fair rooms with the moonlight shining in them; of pretty women in beautiful dresses dancing, and men admiring them.
She, Jennie, had nothing of that. Everything about their lives, her’s and John’s was coarseness, soiled somehow by the dragging, endless labor of the days. Suppose….suppose…suppose she were to try doing what the stranger had said, suppose she spent her time on the house and let the outside work go….
Jennie (with sudden resolution): “Mebbe I’m crazy, but I’m going to do it” Jennie brushed her hair, changed her shoes, and put on her one good dress. Then with something of the burning zeal of a fanatic, she attacked the confusion in the kitchen. By half-past four the room was clean.
Now for supper! She decided upon fried ham and browned potatoes and apple sauce with hot biscuits and pie. With a spirit of daring recklessness, she spread the one white table cloth on the table.
The first pan of the flaky brown mounds had been withdrawn from the oven when Henry Davis’ car came up the lane. Cold fear struck Jennie. He could be coming for only one thing. As she stood shaken, wondering how she would live through what the next hour would bring, she heard the words again, “There was a queen once…”
Jennie (cordially): “Well, howd’ you do, Mr. Davis? Come right in. I’m real glad to see you. Been quite a while since you was over.”
Henry (embarrassed): “Why no, now, I won’t go in. I just stopped to see John on a little matter of business. I’ll just….”
Jennie: “You’ll come right in. John will be in from milkin’ in a few minutes an’ you can talk while you eat, both of you. I’ve supper just ready.”
Henry: “Why, now I reckoned I’d just speak to John, an’ then be gettin on.”
Jennie: “They’ll see you at home when you get there. You never tasted my hot biscuits with butter an’ quince honey or you wouldn’t take so much coaxin!” (Henry Davis came in and sat down in the big, clean kitchen. His eyes took in every homely detail of the orderly room.) “And how are things goin’ with you, Mr. Davis?”
Henry: “Oh, so so. How are they with you?”
Jennie: “Why, just fine, Mr. Davis! It’s been hard sleddin’, but I sort of think the worst is over. We’ll be ’round to pay that mortgage so fast come another year that you’ll be surprised.”
Henry: “Well, now, that’s fine. I always wanted to see John make a success of the old place, but a man has to sort of watch his investments… Well, now, I’m glad things are pickin’ up a little.”
Jennie felt as though a tight band at her throat had relaxed. At the kitchen door John stopped, staring blankly at the scene before him…at Jennie’s moving about the bright table, chatting happily with Henry Davis! At Henry himself, his sharp features softened by an air of great satisfaction. At the sixth plate on the white cloth–Henry was staying for supper! But the silent depths of John’s nature served him well. He made no comment.
He merely shook hands with Henry Davis and then washed his face at the sink. Jennie arranged the savory dishes, and they sat down to supper. Henry seemed to grow more and more genial and expansive as he ate. So did John. By the time the pie was set before them, they were laughing over a joke Henry had heard at Grange meeting. As they rose from the table, Henry brought the conversation awkwardly around to his errand.
Jennie (quickly): “I told him, John, that the worst’s over now, and we’re gettin’ on fine! I told him we’d be swampin’ him pretty soon with payments. Ain’t that right, John?”John’s mind was not analytical. He had been host at a delicious supper with his ancient adversary, whose sharp face was marvelously softened. Jennie’s eyes were shining with a new and amazing confidence. It was a natural moment for unreasoning optimism.
John: “Why, that’s right, Mr. Davis. I believe we can start clearin’ this off now pretty soon. If you could just see your way clear to renew the mortgage.”
It was done. The papers were back in Davis’ pocket. They had bid him a cordial good-bye from the door. Jennie cleared off the table and began to wash the dishes. John was fumbling through the papers on a hanging shelf. He finally sat down with an old tablet and pencil.
John: “I believe I’ll do a little figurin’ since I’ve got time tonight. It just struck me if I used my head a little more, I’ll get on faster.”
Jennie: “Well, now you might.” (She polished two big apples and placed them on a saucer beside him.)
John (pleased): “Now that’s what I like. Say, you look sort of pretty tonight.”
Jennie (smiling): “Go along with you.” But a wave of color swept up in her sallow cheeks. John had looked more grateful over her setting those two apples beside him now than he had the day last fall when she had lifted all the potatoes herself! Maybe even John had been needing something else more than he had needed the hard, back-breaking work she had been giving him!
Jennie walked to the doorway and stood looking off through the darkness. A thin, haunting breath of sweetness rose from the the bosom of her dress where she had tucked the scrap of white linen. She wished that she could somehow tell the beautiful stranger that her words had been true…that she, Jennie, was going to fulfill her woman’s part. She had read the real needs of John’s soul from his eyes that evening. Yes, wives had to choose for their husbands sometimes.
At that very moment, speeding along the sleek macadam highway, a woman in a gray coat with a soft gray hat and a rose quill leaned suddenly close to her husband.
Wife: “I’m all right. Only, only I can’t get that poor woman at the farm out of my mind. It, it was so hopeless.”
Husband (smiling tenderly): “Well, I’m sorry too, but you mustn’t worry. Good gracious, darling, you’re not weeping over it, I hope!”
Wife: “No, truly, just two little tears. I know it’s silly, but I did so want to help her and I know that what I said sounded insane. She wouldn’t know what I was talking about. She just looked up with that blank, tired face. And it all seemed so impossible. No…I’m not going to cry. Of course, I’m not…but…lend me your handkerchief, will you dear? I’ve lost mine somehow….”