FADING FOOTPRINTS. OR THE LOWLY LIVES
OF LONG AGO
A series of articles that appeared
in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine
No. 4 … The Courting of Aunt Betsey
How did I come for to marry Nathan, did you say?" said Aunt Betsey. "Oh, it was brought about in the ways of — providence, I suppose. Nothing romantic or made-up about it. I was spinning flax at Seth Runnels's mother’s, over on the old Hayden farm, as you call it, and her Cousin Nathan come out from the old Virginia to see the new country. He made it his stopping-place at Mis Runnels's. Seth was away that spring, and Nathan come very handy to do chores, cut back-logs and do heavy jobs that me and Mis Runnels couldn't do ourselves, unless there wa'n't no man about, then we could do it, and it was nip and tuck between us to see who'd lift the heavy end of the log when we built fires.
"I took a likin' to Nathan as soon as I laid eyes on him. He come after night, footsore and tuckered out with his long walk. He carried his plunder in a white muslin knapsack slung on to his back with two shoulder-straps, and he walked with a cane that he cut and seasoned in the Kanawa Valley, long before he started. I often meditate on how he was dressed when he came. It was a trim suit, I tell you. His breeches were home-made linsey, his headgear was a coon-skin dressed with the hair on, the coon's head to come just above his forehead, and the tail to hang down behind. At first sight, a-body would think the coon had sprung up on his head and squatted there, it did look so natural and so life-like.
"But an old-time Virginia hunting-shirt goes ahead of any of the fashions of the present day. I tell you they do look trim and dressy. They are made a good deal like any other shirt in the body, only they have fringe on the flaps and round the little cape that hangs just off the shoulders. The fringe is always a different color from the shirt. Nathan's hunting-shirt was made of red chain and green filling, and the fringe was bright yellow. It was a jaunty little garment, and the flaps and the cape fluttered in the wind right cheerfully when he walked fast, and that was always, for Nathan never was dilatory, he had not a lazy bone in the whole constitution of him.
"The first I noticed of him in particular was that he could sit an hour at a time and watch me spin. He said he couldn't see for the life of him how the thread made itself so round and so smooth and free of lumps; it seemed to him to just flow right out of my fingers. It was his delight to see that the horn, which was a-nigh the flyers, had plenty of water in it. I always moistened my flax thread out of a horn; water was cheap, and when I first learned to spin I was taught to use a horn instead of wetting the thread with my mouth.
"One day as he sat watching me wind the flax on to the distaff, he said: 'Seems to me your distaff is kind of one-sided, and that I could find you a better one out in the woods.' Then he livened up suddenly, and said: 'Betsey, s'posin' we take a walk next Sunday in the forty-acre woods and search for a real good, shapely distaff?"
"I said I didn't know but it would be a wise plan, answerin' indifferent-like, as I smoothed down the flax and tucked in the straying fluffs that hung like broken spiders' webs. I was afraid, you see, for fear he'd notice that I was dreadfully delighted. Why, I felt my heart beat lots faster over the idea of a friendly walk of a quiet Sunday, with this handsome young Virginian to help me over brush-fences and logs, and under tangles of hawthorn and wild briervines!
"This was on a Thursday. The time seemed very long till Sunday. The days were long, and the nights were longer. The old distaff seemed almost worthless; one side bulged out, and made the flax hang over so that I had to tip the arm of the wheel back a good ways to make it do at all.
"Well, Sunday morning came. I got up earlier than common, and helped Mis Runnels over with the meal, and the milking, and done up the dishes and the chores. Nathan hung a piece of bark on the outside of the window over a pane, and darkened it so he could see to shave himself. He took pains that morning. He was full of mischief, for when I threw out the dishwater, as I passed him, with his face white with foam, he looked up and made a grimace that was very funny.
"Mis Runnels was a Methodist — pretty strict she was — and for fear she'd object to our strolling on Sunday, Nathan brought it about in his peculiar way, by saying: 'Betsey, yon is a fine old tree, with the lower limbs sprawling out over the ground like a Banyan; looks invitin'; looks as if children played under it; seems as if it ought to be nigh to a schoolhouse; let's go look at it,' and he put on his coon cap and started, and I flung on my pasteboard bonnet and followed.
"We sat under the tree awhile, and we wandered and wandered, I couldn't tell you where. We gathered bread-roots and ate them; peeled elm-bark and ate it; gathered service-berries, and wild flowers, and more than a dozen distaffs. Nathan said he'd got enough to last me all my life; and he did, if I'd only kept them; but I divided them round among the girls who had to find their own.
"You see a good distaff is generally the top of the middle branch out of a young dogwood-tree, about as thick, or a little thicker, than your thumb, one centre sprout and four or five round it. The tops of the twigs are bent down so as to bow out, and then tied fast to the one in the centre. The stem of the distaff is stuck into the hole in the arm of the wheel.
"I couldn't help contrasting Nathan with the other young men. He was so trim built, and his eyes were so bright, and his laugh so merry.
"We got home in time for a late dinner that day. Mis Runnels looked inquirin'-like, but said nothing. In the evening we — me and Nathan — kept company for the first time. We sat out on the wash-bench on the stoop. The night was warm, and it was as comfortable on the stoop as it was inside the house. He asked me that night if I was keeping company with any other young man. He had a girl down in old Virginia, he said, but she didn't begin to compare with the girl who had her store-house half-full of distaffs. I told him 'praise to the face was open disgrace;' and he pulled my curls and said I understood what he meant; and I knew he wouldn't tell an untruth.
"The next night old man Pettigrew preached at Abe Foster's, over two miles away, and we went to meeting together. Coming home, we loitered and looked at the stars, and came back rather tired, and sat and rested awhile on the wash-bench. Nathan said he was glad of one thing, and asked me to guess what that was. I said he was glad that he wasn't Steve Loomis with his pack of dogs, the idle, diddling fellow. No, that wasn't it. Well, he was glad that he was the best looking young man in the neighborhood. He said: 'Now, Betsey, do you believe that? Are you in earnest? Look in my eyes.'
"I looked; better for me that I hadn't. The moon shone full down into his face from a crack in the roof, where a clap-board was off; the coony cap was pushed back, and his white forehead looked so pretty, with his bright, earnest eyes gazing full into mine, that I turned away as quick as wink. I'll never forget how beautiful Nathan's face was! Positively, I believe I loved him then. Girls are not very wise, you know, at that age; they are very susceptible! ready to fall in love with a fellow who can fiddle, or dance, or sing, or one who has bright eyes or dashing ways. An elderly lady told me once that her husband's store of songs so sweetly sung was what captivated her in her teens. 'It was Hosea's sweet singing that made me love him first,' she remarked.
"' Guess again,' he said, and he held my hand so that I couldn't draw it away.
"I was timid about guessing, and finally he whispered low and said: 'Oh, I'm glad I am with you, Betsey —- you, instead of that girl 'way down in old Virginia, Lydia Jane Gray!’
"I didn't know just what to say; my heart fluttered so that I could hardly catch a good breath. I was glad, too, but I put on a make-believe way, and said: 'Oh, that's the way men always talk — maybe you're glad. I have my doubts of who you dreamt about that night that Mis Runnels heard you make a fuss in your sleep.'
"'Betsey,' said he, serious like, 'I'll tell you what I dreamt that night, indeed and double I will. I thought you and I were crossing the foot-log over the creek at the carding-machine, with a big bundle of rolls tied up in a linen sheet. Just as we got to the middle of the log you slipped and fell off, and sunk to the bottom like a bullet. I dropped the rolls and jumped in after you; and it seemed to be night then; but I got hold of your frock and gathered you up, and reached the bank clear out of breath, when what was my disappointment to find that, instead of you, I had got hold of the bundle of rolls, and saved them, and not you. That was what made me cry out like a young painter, and was why Mis Runnels woke me. I'll never forget how sorry I felt when I came to see that instead of you, my dear friend, I had saved the dripping bundle tied up in a sheet."
"We went to bees together, and to singing-school, and we gathered plums, and when the weather was very warm, Nathan sat in on the stoop and helped me to scald and seed the plums, ready for drying. He was as handy as any women working with plums and berries.
"One day we were going over to one of the neighbor's to a raising, and Nathan said, 'Betsey, s'posin' you wear your red and white gingham dress, and the little yellow scarf your uncle sent you.' I was willing, but I made answer kind of carelessly, and asked why. He colored up as red as the red chain in his hunting shirt, and said, ' Oh, ‘cause I think you look the nicest in that; makes you look so fair and white.'
"I replied very carelessly, 'much you care how I look, indeed.' You see I began to think it was time for him to manifest his feelin's some way or other. I was kind of dubious, his gettin' letters every now and then from the old Virginia must mean something. I thought maybe Lydia Jane Gray was taking on at his absence, and so I added, 'Mr. Nathan, I s'pose your girl in the old Virginia wears a pink and white gingham, and it 'minds you of her when I wear mine — sort of consoles you for her loss. Yes, sir, I'll wear it, anything to please you when you are so lonely, and so far away from your sweetheart.' And I stepped lively to the chest and took out my ruffled gingham, and opened my little elm bark box and flung out the yellow scarf, and began winding my hair over and over my fingers so as to have a curl put back of each ear.
'"Betsey Donaldson,' said he, looking up from the shoes he was greasing in the sunshine by the end door, ' I have told you time and again, as plain as I could hint, that ever since I came out here I have enjoyed myself as I never did before,' and he grew redder and redder.
"I felt the very mischief in my eyes, but I looked out of the window, away to the bare trees in the clearing, still winding the curls over my fingers, and continued: 'This is a more healthy climate than 'tis among the mountains; the air is better, and the water, and our victuals are different. "Change of pasture is good for calves," as the saying is.' I peeped round and met his gaze directed fairly and squarely toward me. He looked undecided, puzzled, angry, looked down at his greasy hands, at the shoes, caught a long breath and went on with the job, muttering something that sounded like ' hang the girl!'
I wore the dress and the scarf, and I observed that the bright eyes of Nathan rested upon me, and followed me, and seemed to be full of thoughts. What they were I half-guessed. In the evening a crowd of boys and girls went our way home, clear up to the bars, and Joe Gingery and Tom Banning went even farther, and stopped at our spring for a drink. There was no chance for any private talk, even if Nathan did desire it. I hurried on into the house and went to bed before the boys came up from the spring. I thought if Nathan Livingston wanted to say his mind, he could do it without any of my conniving.
"He came on to the stoop, stood there a minute, coughed, coughed again; stepped inside of the door and softly said: 'Betsey, Betsey!' I listened my very sharpest and I will confess that I rather liked it when I heard him catch a long, quivering breath, and say, in an angry whisper, 'Hang the girl!'
"He must have sat out on the stoop a long while, for after I had dozed, I woke and heard him climbing the ladder to go to his bed up in the loft.
"Then, after he was in bed, I heard him turn and tumble round uneasily, and get up and sit on the box a good spell.
"I thought I'd try his mettle the next day. Mis Runnels went over to Wheeler's to borrow a number five hundred reed for the web of blankets. I was left alone. Nathan was cleaning his gun out by the shed. This was my chance, and I thought it was time and opportunity.
"I took down the ink horn, got half a sheet of paper, sharpened the quill pen, and seated myself by the window to write a letter to my sister in New York. When the gun was cleaned and wiped dry, Nathan came in, and, stepping up on a chair, laid it in the hooks above the fire-place, up on the joists. Then he turned and looked at me. For good manners I laid down the pen, and, glancing at the gun, said: 'That's one good job done." He made no answer, only a twinkle of his eyes. Then I took up the pen, examined the nib and said, sharpening it a little with the knife: 'I wish my task was over; I am writing a letter to my sister Martha Ellen, down in York State. She has always wanted me to come and live with her, make her house my home, and I'm writing to say that I'll come.'
"' Betsey! go away from here! never come back any more!' said Nathan, aimlessly, grabbing at the neck of his hunting-shirt, and twisting it as he would wring the neck of a meddlesome chicken that had been trying his patience in the corn-field.
"Of course, said I, in an easy tone of voice, a little trembly — put in for effect, you see. 'Of course, why should I ever come back here? any girl could do chores for Mis Runnels; it's all one to her; nobody would miss me, I'm certain;' and here I looked down and twirled the feather end of the quill pen, and let a quiver just touch my lips visibly.
"What was that? Nothing, only when Nathan rose his heel caught in the lower rung of the chair, and nearly tipped it over, and then I heard a little sob, or something that sounded like a sob, held in check. He took two or three hasty strides and his hand touched my bowed head and softly slid down over my eyes, and then the sob burst out into a cry of real distress.
"How touching is the cry from the heart of any man! Women may cry, and do cry daily, and it is well enough, but a man — poor Nathan! I put up both my hands against his, and cried too. We both cried. He was sorry, grieved, and filled with a sudden fear of loss; and I wept from sympathy; poor Nathan!
"Pretty soon he hushed the wail, dropped down on his knees beside me, and looking into ray face, which he held tightly framed, he said: 'Betsey, I'll die if you ever, ever leave me! So you want to go? Is your sister more to you, lone woman as you are, than I am? Answer me; which one do you love best?'
"I looked down; the chain in his dressy, new hunting-shirt was a dingy, faded red, beside the red that burned in my face!
"' Answer me,' he said, and his voice was full of misery; 'Which? the sister who left you in your infancy to fight your way alone among strangers, earning a living as best you might, or myself, young and free and brave, and loving you more than I love anything in this world. Come, come, Betsey! I can't stand this strain and live! Which? Martha Ellen or Nathan?'
"I reached out both my hands and laid them in his, and looking fairly into the honest face beside me, I said the one word that the young Virginian so longed to hear — ' Nathan! Nathan!'"
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