She sewed on the missing buttons, turned the sleeve, and mended the rip in the lining, and darned a tear in the edge of the facing, all the time humming the same hymn that the Methodist preacher had sung the day that he tarried with them. Then she held up the renovated garment and saw no other need of repairs.
"Ah, the pockets," said she, to herself; "it is strange if there are no rips or no holes in them," and she thrust her hand first into one, then into the other, finding no mending to be done; then she remembered the little side-pocket on the left, inside, the one meant to carry his handkerchief in. Thrusting her hand into it, she drew out the gay, nine-pence, rod-and-yellow cotton, and with it came a small, folded note, directed in a neat, feminine hand.
Without a second thought, she opened It. It was signed "S. C," and bore no date. Was it jealousy that swept over her, like an overwhelming tide, then? What was it that made her eyes gleam and glow, and her breath like a suffocating, choking blast from a furnace? What made her heart stand still, and her red lips part as though she would fain cry for help but that the power of speech had deserted her?
From that note she learned that her husband was no more the faithful husband that he had been; that a guilty love existed between himself and the little widow, Salome Chester; that they met frequently, and delighted in each other's society; that their stolen interviews were unknown to any living person, and that they did not intend any obstacle should stand between them.
This was a severe blow for the poor wife. She rose, staggering, and, like a dazed creature, groped blindly for the ladder that stood in the corner. Wearily she climbed up its few rounds, and crawled into the low, dark loft overhead. Then she felt secure. She lay down and clasped her hands, and called upon God to have mercy on her in her hour of midnight darkness. In her agony she thought of suicide; she thought of the rosy baby asleep in his rude cradle below; she clenched her little brown hands until the print of the nails indented the flesh—and, oh, how she did despise the craven creature who had stolen away the love of her young husband! She thought of the pleasant home that had been theirs before this dazzling enchantress had come between her and the choice of her girlhood. She cried out aloud the dear names of father and mother, but only two heaped up graves in the village burying-ground remained to tell of them — they were gone beyond the agonized cry of distress that came from the breaking heart of their beloved daughter. Then she remembered that other wives had borne the same sorrow, and had grown nobler and truer, and had been lilted up to beautiful heights through this fiery trial, this sore discipline. Hew her arms out read led in sympathy toward all wives ruthlessly robbed of their one treasure!
I think there is no sorrow that can come to a wife so bitter, so poignant as this. My tenderest sympathy reaches out most lovingly to these who bear this cross. I believe that hundreds of agonizing wives commit suicide under similar circumstances, and the friends, through the ever ready press, herald the calamity as "aberration of mind."
Mary grew passive, but under the apparent calm of her strange white face wild schemes warred with each other. "She has robbed me of the love of my husband," she said, with shut teeth and gleaming eyes. One hour she would resolve to go to Salome and appeal to her with all a woman's trust and faith, ask her to go away where he would never look upon her fair, fascinating face again; then she would wish, with the fierceness of a lioness robbed of her one whelp, that she could take her false life; then again she would lie down with her tear-wet face on the hard, rough, puncheon floor, or with her pallid cheek pressed roughly upon the stony ground, and weep as though the hard floor or cold earth was the tender, restful bosom of the sainted mother gone. How often the little baby would peep up playfully, but with a mystified expression, into her dewy eyes, and say: "Oo cry ! oo cry! No-no!" and then try to gather up the scant corner of his little bib apron to wipe away the tears. How he would kiss and kiss his mother, and try to make her laugh. This was the one sole comfort left to the stricken wife.
Hew beautiful and hew precious is the love of a sinless little child! How it comforts and blesses a mother bowed down with a burden of sorrow!
But the end was nigh — nearer than she dreamed. One morning when she woke, the pillow beside her was undented by the touch of a sleeper. Her husband had gone to see a neighbor the day before, and had not expected to arrive at home before midnight. When she opened the door in the morning, a slip of paper was fastened to the latchstring. In a few words he told her the story of his shame and of her desertion; said he had made a mistake when he married her; that since then he had met the only one he ever loved. He said that pursuit was useless, and when a sufficient length of time had expired, he would marry Salome Chester; and he advised Mary to marry another whenever she was convinced that a new affection had taken possession of her heart.
Mary wept and wailed as she read this; but what was it when compared with the postscript in the hurried scrawl. His love for another she could tolerate, and, if it was conducive to his future happiness, could forgive; but the heartlessness of that postscript—which was, that his baby-boy, Levi, should be given to Mr. Simpkins, and should be the adopted son of that worthy man.
Perhaps it was well for Mary that this postscript was a part of the letter, because it counteracted the effects of her desertion and of the alienation of her husband's affection.
What unmitigated-cruelty! Hew base the heart of the misguided man who could tear this last solace from the closest twining tendrils of a devoted mother-love!
"Let any demon dare to snatch my darling from me!" said the mother, flying to the bedside, and hugging to her bosom the sleeping child.
She neither fainted nor fell; nor did she wail out in bitterness, as she had before. That cruel postscript acted like a bracing tonic. The husband was henceforth dead; all love for him had fallen to the ground; like an idol made of crumbling clay was the idol she had worshipped, but would worship no more forever. One thought and one burning desire took possession of her heart, and that was to stand face to face before the guilty pair, and denounce them with a scathing denunciation.
Neighbors and friends gathered around Mary, and not one kept back the meed of sympathy that filled their hearts to the utmost. Men clenched their brawny hands into flsts that suggested knot-mauls, and they gesticulated freely with them. Kind women buried their crying faces in their linen aprons and wept aloud, while they clung to the lone wife and proffered aid, and condolence, and friendship. Mr. Simpkins said, "Let us pray," and the noisy group knelt beside the four rude chairs, and the handy little benches, and the bedside, and the "chist," while the good man prayed as fervently as though he were in the centre of a glorious love-feast. Strong men shouted amen vociferously when Brother Simpkins besought that the direct vengeance of the Almighty might follow tlje guilty pair who had laid waste and desecrated this once pleasant home. He prayed that no hour of peace should ever come a-nigh them, and that the ghost of the deserted wile and babe might haunt the pillow of the unfeeling father even all the way down to the grave. Mr. Slmpklns was as indignant over the last will and testament of Henry Pottingill as was the injured wife and mother. He said he would watch over them like an elder brother, and that they could always depend on his strong arm for protection.
And now comes in a strange part of the story. We wish this feature wore not in it, but we want to tell it as it really is. Women do get queer ideas Into their heads, sometimes, and Mary had one, and it was the overwhelming desire to stand face to face with Henry Pettingill and Salome Chester. She told her secret to no one — she would not have dared to betray these wild fancies of hers. They might have deemed her demented and have dealt with her accordingly.
It was the opinion of all that the young widow had probably returned to the home of her former wedded life and would pretend that she was married in the West, or, probably she was. Mary decided on her strange plan, which was to rent her farm, leave her child in good hands and start off on foot and alone to the State of New York, see them, and then return the same way she went.
This was a perilous undertaking fifty years ago. Now, a ten-year-old girl can go a journey of three or four hundred miles with safety, but in these early days it was full of privation and danger, and the way was hedged in by perils.
A woman, too! But Mary had calculated all this in the wakeful hours of the long, lonely nights, in which no slumberous touch pressed on her eyelids — in vigilant nights had she planned with all the shrewdness and strategy of a keen, clearheaded, cool general. The way seemed so open, the long stretch of miles, and miles, were nothing; her sharp perceptions took in and measured all things: trials she know she must encounter; dangers she must face; privations she must endure; jeers and rebuffs, and mayhap violence, would meet her where she expected and hoped for the very reverse.
But she felt as though her will could overcome any obstacle, that nothing would be too great for her to bear, if the precious recompense could only be hers. If she could only stand before that man who had so cruelly wronged her, and who would, in heaping up the full measure of his iniquities, have added the last bitterness, that of wrenching from her arms and from her lacerated heart her darling, her only solace, her sweetest treasure! If she could be permitted to look into his eyes and the eyes of his partner in guilt, and talk to them out of the fullness and the bitterness of her soul, she could then, though broken-down, and footsore, and weary, most cheerfully retrace her steps homeward to such peace and happiness as this world would give her.
Her decision was taken, and the day fixed upon, and her arrangements nearly completed. Her farm was leased; her baby.left, as though for a little visit, with the Simpkins family, and her attire was ready to be donned
It was no travelling suit of linen, or poplin, or of serge with the comfortable and pretty accompaniments of now-a-days, but instead it was a man's clumsily-made coat, and trousers, and vest, of common gray jeans, and a slouch white-wool hat and hickory cane. She sighed as she put it on, one early morning, and fitted the hat on over her short, brown hair. The little mirror gave back the face and form of a fair young man of about twenty-eight or thirty years of age, one who looked unsophisticated and unused to the ways of the busy world. But there must have been a determined expression in that steel-gray eye. I thought so, at least, as I gazed into it that long-ago summer day as I sat before Mary Pettingill beside the old stone wall in the orchard.
That long journey, nearly all the way on foot, was a wearisome, tedious, tiresome work, although she averaged ten miles a day. People, generally, were kind to her. Sometimes a man would overtake her, riding along in a wagon, and would hail out: "Jump in 'n' ride, comrade;" and often, in a jolly, clover way, some generous-hearted fellow slap her on the shoulder after the hail-fellow-well-met style, but she never so far forgot her purpose as to let any trepidation betray her secret.
One time, as she sat in a bar-room, she overheard two men talking about "that youngster" as being "kind o' softly-like."
When she arrived at her destination in New York, she met with the on« disappointment that she feared might be hers.
Salome had lived there once, it was there her husband, Chester, had died, but after she left for the West, they had known no more about her. All inquiry and search were unavailing, All her great efforts were fruitless, and she had nothing to do but to return as she had come.
This was almost more than she could bear. How earnestly she had longed for this one object; how fervently she had hoped to enjoy this revenge; how she would have esteemed this most satisfactory result, but what more could she do now?
So, with a heavy, heavy heart she retraced her steps homeward, and on her return she averaged twelve miles a day. The longing desire to see her baby quickened her steps, and the old sadness lost its sting and the old sorrow its bitterness in the sweet thought of folding to her bosom her treasure. All the lost love for a recreant husband came back to her tripled and quadrupled into a love for her boy, the babe who would grow up to a beautiful and noble manhood, and on whoso strong arm she would lean —h er comfort, and blessing, and protector.
So she slipped back again into the old groove. Times in the now settlement were marked by progress; a church was built, a school-house, neighbors lived nearer to each other; after while they came to have, through the exertions of good Brother Simpkins, regular preaching, and soon a respectable membership, and finally an organized church.
Mary heard the "old, old story," it sank into her heart, and she felt that of all women she most needed the Friend who is above all others, whose love is more than the love of husband, or father, or son. Her boy grew, and was full of the sweetest promise. He was kind, obedient, upright and consistent in all his conduct. He regarded his mother as but little lower than the angels.
The beautiful years went on. They were marked by no sorrows or disasters, and marred by no signs of displeasure. The little log-cabin gave way, and for many years stood back, draped by interlacing grape-vines, while a more comfortable and pretentious dwelling stood in front, surrounded by a neat fence. Johnny Appleseed gave the lad free permission to go to his nearest nursery, In the edge of a bloomy bit of prairie a few miles distant, and select all the young trees he wanted. Johnny generally took a man's note when he was not able to pay down, but he took no note from the lad or his mother. Perhaps the reason was, once when the chill November winds were blowing pitilessly, Johnny came to Mary Pettingill's clad very scantily, and, without a word, she had brought forth the wedding-coat of her amply dead husband, and made him put it on and wear it and keep it. This may have been the reason. But before the shortest days of the following February came round, Johnny had met with a fellow traveller in greater need than himself, and had most cheerfully re-given away the coat. That was the way he always did.
The beautiful years went on. The boy Levi grew up into a handsome youth. None of the evil ways of the world touched him, or, if they did, they sullied not the beauty and integrity of his excellent character.
One day, when Levi was about twenty years of age, a gossipy old man, a neighbor, who had always known the Pettingills, told the boy the whole story of his father's shame, not omitting any of the painful particulars —t old him even of his father desiring Brother Simpkins to take him, the baby, from the arms of his mother, and adopt him as his own son.
The young man was indignant beyond utterance, and hastened to his mother with the intelligence.
When she told him gently that this was true, he made no reply for a moment, the muscles in his (ace worked, his lips were white and compressed, and when he spoke, the few words he said were: "Mother, I wish I could do something that would be returning good for evil — do him a great kindness that he would never cease to feel, and never forget all through the rest of his life — do it to that man who is my father." He leaned his head on his hand, and the dripping tears fell through his fingers.
She caught her breath. She had never thought of this man who had so darkened her young married life — never thought of him in such a kindly way as had her son.
"I do forgive him, child," she said; "but, oh! I never could treat him kindly; the very thought of his touch repulses me, the thought of his voice chills instead of thrilling me with pleasure. Yet I am glad that you can feel charitably toward him, even though he did desert you, and seek by his latest word to tear you from me."
And there they sat, the mother and the son, in the flickering light of the wood-fire, and talked freely on this hitherto silent subject. He asked many questions, and she answered promptly and truly. Their intercourse was very pleasant, indeed it was more like the sweet friendship existing between a sister and brother, than like the tie that is between a mother and her son.
Circumstances all seemed to combing together to bring about the half-reconciliation that the young man proposed when he first heard of the fate of his father. It seemed that he was to be submitted to the test. An old man from the State of New York came to visit a family who lived near the Pettingills. He had known people of the same name years before in his own neighborhood; the man had lost one arm, and had been otherwise unfortunate; his wife was queer, and kind of crazy, and none of their children were sound in mind or body.
Not a word was said, but the mother and son exchanged quick glances that meant as much as though they were clothed in speech.
After that, in a careless, chatty way, one time when they were alone with the elderly visitor, they inquired more particularly about the Pettingills in the State of New York. The age of the man and woman seemed to be about the same as of these in whom they were so peculiarly interested.
In the following autumn, Levi started off one day in a little, light, one-horso wagon. When he parted with his mother, he said: "Now, mother, are you perfectly willing that I should do this to gratify my curiosity? I feel as if I would like to look upon my father's face."
"Very willing," was her reply. "But come back to ime soon, my child, and let us both keep this matter entirely between ourselves."
A little box of provision was in under the seat, and the back part of the wagon was covered with hay, under which was feed for the horse.
50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST
A series of articles that appeared
in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine
© 2011 Peggy Mershon Contact at email@example.com
No. 2 … The Old Pettingill Farm … Page2 Back to Page 1