by Theodore Dreiser
SHE is identified in my mind, and always will be somehow, with the
country in which I first saw her, a land, as it were, of milk and
honey. When I think of her and the dreary, commonplace, brown
farm-house, in a doorway of which I first saw her framed, and later of
the wee, but cleanly, cabin in which I saw her lying at rest, I think
of smooth green hills that rise in noble billows, of valleys so wide
and deep that they could hold a thousand cottage farms, of trees that
were globe-like from being left unharried by the winds, of cattle red
and black and white and black, great herds dotting the hills, and of
barns so huge that they looked more like great hangars for
flying-machines than storehouses for hay and grain. Yes, everywhere was
plenty, rich fields of wheat and corn and rye and oats, with here and
there specializing farmers who grew only tomatoes or corn or peas or
ran dairies, men who somehow seemed to grow richer than the others.
And then I think of "Fred" Hauchawout, her father, a man who
evidently so styled himself, for the name was painted in big black
letters over the huge door of his great red barn. This Hauchawout was a
rude, crude, bear-like soul, stocky, high-booted, sandy-haired,
gray-eyed and red-skinned, as well as inhospitable. He was clad always,
on Sunday and every other day, so I heard, in worn brown overalls and
jumper. In short, he was one of those dreadful, tramping, laboring
grubs who gather and gather and gather, sparing no least grain for
pleasure by the way; and having so done, dying and leaving it all to
children who have been alienated in youth and care no least whit
whether their forebear is alive or dead, nor for anything save the
goods which belike he has been able to amass. But in this latter sense
Hauchawout was no huge success, either. He was too limited in his ideas
to do more than hide or reinvest in land or cattle or bank his moderate
earnings at a low rate of interest. He was quoted locally as living up
to his assertion that "no enimel gets fet py me," and he was known far
and wide for having the thinnest and boniest and hardestworked horses
and cows in the neighborhood, from which he extracted the last ounce of
labor and the last gill of milk.
He was the father of three sons and two daughters, so I was told,
all of whom must have hated him; those I knew did, anyhow. For one of
the sons, when first I wandered into the region, had already gone to
the far West, after pausing to throw a pitchfork at his father and
telling him to go to hell, or so the story went. Another, whom I knew
quite well, being a neighbor of a relative of mine, had married after
being "turned out," as he said, by "the old man" because he wouldn't
work hard enough. And yet he was a good enough worker to take over and
pay for a farm of forty acres of fertile land in seven years, also
eventually to acquire an automobile, a contraption which his father
denounced as "a loafer's buggy."
The third son, Samuel, had also left his father because of a
quarrel over his very human desire to marry and make his own way, a
change which his father did not seem to sympathize with. Latterly,
because he was greedy like his father and hoped to obtain an undue
share of the estate at his death, or so his relatives said, he had made
friends with his father, and thereafter exchanged such greetings and
visits as two such peculiar souls might enjoy. They were always
fighting, the second son told me (the one who had acquired forty acres
and an automobile), being friendly one month or so and the next not,
moods and differing interests dictating their volatile and varying
approaches and understandings.
In addition, there were two daughters, Effie, a woman of
twenty-nine or thirty, who at the age of twenty-one had run away to a
near-by great city and found work in a laundry never to return, since
her father would not let her have a beau; and finally Ida, the subject
of this sketch, whom I first saw when she was twenty-eight and already
looked much of the care and disappointment with which apparently her
life had been freighted. For, besides being hard on "enimels,"
Hauchawout was hard on human beings and seemed to look upon them as
mere machines like himself. It was said that he was up at dawn or
earlier, with the first crow of his roosters, and the last to go to bed
at night. Henry Hauchawout, the son I knew best, once confessed to me
that his father would "swear like hell" if all his children were not up
within five minutes after he was. His wife, a worn and abused woman,
had died at forty-three, and he had never married, but not from
loyalty. Did he not have Ida? He had no religion, of course, none other
than the need of minding your own business and getting as much money as
possible to bury away somewhere. And yet his children seemed not so
hard; rather sentimental and human, reactions, no doubt, from the
grinding atmosphere from which they had managed finally to extricate
But it is of Ida that I wish to speak — Ida, whom I first saw when
my previously mentioned relative suggested that I go with him to find
out if Hauchawout had any hay to sell. "You'll meet a character well
worth the skill of any portrayer of fact," he added. It was Ida who
came to the door in answer to a loud "Hallo!" however, and I saw a
woman prematurely old or overworked, drab and yet robust, a huge
creature with small and rather nervous eyes, red, sunburned face and
hands, a small nose, and faded red hair done into a careless knot at
the back of her head. At the request of my "in-law" to know where her
father was, she pointed to the barn. "He just went out to feed the
pigs," she added. We swung through a narrow gate and followed a well
fenced road to the barn, where, just outside a great pen containing
perhaps thirty pigs, stood Hauchawout, a pail in each hand, his brown
overalls stuck in his boots, gazing reflectively at his grunting
"Nice pigs, eh, Mr. Hauchawout?" commented my relative.
"Yes," he answered, with a marked accent, at the same time turning
a quizzical and none too kindly eye upon us. "It's about time they go
now. What they eat from now on makes me no money."
I glanced amusedly at my relative, but he was gazing politely at
"Any hay for sale, Mr. Hauchawout?"
"How much you t'ink you pay?" he asked cannily.
"Oh, whatever the market price is. Seventeen dollars, I hear."
"Not py me. What I got I keep at dat price. Hay vill pe vorth
yussed five tollars more if dis vedder keeps up." He surveyed the dry
green-blue landscape, untouched by rain for these several weeks past.
My relative smiled.
"Very well. You're quite right, if you think it's going to stay
dry. You wouldn't take eighteen a ton, I suppose?"
"No; nor twenty. I t'ink hay goes to twenty-two pefore July.
Anyhow, vot I got I can use next vinter if I can't sell him."
I stared at this crude, vigorous, self-protective soul. His house
and barn seemed to confirm all I had heard. The house was small,
yellow, porchless, inhospitable, the walks at the front and side worn
and flowerless, the grass, such as it was, nearly treeless. A thin dog
and some chickens were in the shade of one fair-sized tree that graced
a corner. Several horses were browsing in the barn lot, for it was
Sunday, and the sectarian atmosphere of this region rather enforced a
strict observance of the day. They were as thin as even moderate health
would permit. But Hauchawout, standing vigorous and ruddy before his
large newly painted barn, showed where his heart was. There was no flaw
in that structure. It was a fine big barn and held all the other things
he so much treasured.
But it was about his daughter that my relative chose to speak as we
"There's a woman whose life has been ruined by that old razorback,"
he reflected after volunteering various other details. "She's no
beauty, and her chances were never very good, but he would never let
any one come near her, and now it's too late, I suppose. I often wonder
why she hasn't run away, like her sister, also how she passes her time
there with him. Just working all the time, I suppose. I doubt if he
ever buys a newspaper. There was a story going the rounds here a few
years ago about her and a farm-hand who worked for Hauchawout.
Hauchawout caught him tapping at her shutter at two in the morning and
beat him up with a hoe-handle. Whether there was anything between them
or not no one knows. Anyway, she's been here ever since, and I doubt if
anybody ever courts her now."
I neither saw nor heard of this family for a period of five years,
during which time I worked in other places. Then one summer-time,
returning for a vacation, I learned that "the old man" had died, and
the property had been divided by law, no will having been left. The
lorn Ida, after a service of thirty-two or-three years in her father's
behalf, cooking, sweeping, washing, ironing, feeding the chickens and
pigs, and helping her father to reap and pitch hay, had secured an
equal fifth with the others, no more, a total of fifteen acres of land
and two thousand dollars in cash. The land had already been leased on
shares to her prosperous brother, the one with the automobile, and the
cash placed out at interest. To eke out an existence, which was still
apparently not much improved, Ida had gone to work, first as a
laundress in a South Bixley (the county seat) laundry, at a later date
as a canner of tomatoes in the summer canning season, and then as
housekeeper in a well-to-do canner's family. She was reported by my
host's wife as still husbandless, even loverless, though there was a
rumor to the effect that now that she had property and money in the
bank, she was being "set up to" by Arlo Wilkens, a garrulous
ne'er-do-well barber of Shrivertown, a drunken, roystering, but now
rather exploded and passé, person of fifty; and one Henry Widdle,
another ne'er-do-well of a somewhat more savory character, since he was
one who was credited with having neither the strength nor courage to be
drunken or roystering. He was the son of a local farmer who himself
owned no land and worked that of others. With no education of any
description, this son had wandered off some years before, trying here
and there to sell trees for a nursery and failing utterly, as he
himself told me; and then going to work in a furniture factory in
Chicago, which was too hard for him; and later wandering as far West as
Colorado, where necessity compelled him to become a railroad hand for a
time. ("I served my time on the Denver Rio Grande," he used to say.)
But finding this too hard also, he had quit, and returned to the
comparative ease of his former life here, which had no doubt brightened
by contrast. Once here again, he found life none too easy, but at the
time I knew him he was making a living by driving for a local
contractor, that being "the easiest thing he could find," as a son of
the relative aforementioned most uncharitably remarked.
While working in this region again for a summer under some trees
that crowned a hill and close by a highroad which crossed one slope of
it, I was often made aware of this swain by the squeak of the wheels of
his wagon as he hauled his loads of stone or sand or lumber in one
direction or another. And later I came to know him, he being well
known, as are most country people the one to the other in a region such
as this, to the two sons of my host. Occasionally, as they worked in a
field of potatoes alongside the hill on which I worked, I could see
them hailing this man as he passed, he for some reason appealing to
them as one who offered a source of idle amusement or entertainment.
Several times I ambled over and joined them, the possibility of
country-side news enticing me. He proved an aimless, unpivoted, and
chartless soul, drifting nowhere in particular and with no least
conception of either the order or the thoroughgoing intellectual
processes of life, and yet not wholly uninteresting to me. Why? I often
wondered. In so far as I could see, he picked only vaguely at or
fumbled unintelligently with such phases and aspects of life as he
encountered. He spoke persistently and yet indefinitely of the things
he had seen in his travels, — the mountains of the West, the plains of
Texas, where he had tried to sell trees, the worth of this region in
which he lived, — and yet he could only report fragmentarily of all he
had seen. The mountains of Colorado were "purty high," the scenery
"purty fine in some places." In Texas it had been hot and dry, "not so
many trees in most places; but I couldn't sell any." The people he had
met everywhere were little more than moving objects or figures in a
dream. His mind seemed to blur almost everything he saw. If he
registered any definite vital impression of any kind, in the past or
the present, I could not come to know. And yet he was a suitor, as he
once admitted to us via our jesting, for the hand of the much-buffeted
Ida; and, as I learned later in the same year, he did finally succeed
in marrying her, thus worsting the aged and no doubt much more skillful
And still later in the same year, since I had manifested an
interest in him and Ida, it was reported to me that they were building
a small house or shack on her acres, and with her money, and would be
in it before spring. They were working together, so the letter ran,
with the carpenters, he hauling lumber and sand and brick and she
working with hammer and nails. Still later I learned that they were
comfortably housed, had a cow, some pigs and chickens, a horse and
various implements, all furnished by her capital, and that they were
both working in the fields.
The thing that interested me was the fact that at last, after so
many years, having secured a man, even of so shambling a character, the
fair Ida was prone to make a god of him.
"Gee!" one of the sons commented to me upon my return the following
summer, "Widdle has a cinch now. He don't need to do any more hard
work. She gets up in the morning and feeds the chickens and pigs and
milks the cow and gets his breakfast while he lies in bed. He works in
the field plowing sometimes, but she plows, too."
"Yes, and I've seen her pitch hay into the barn from the wagon,
just as she did for her father," added the second youth.
"Ah, but the difference! the difference!" mine host, the father,
was at pains to point out rather jocosely. "Then it was against her
will and without the enabling power of love, while now — "
"Love's not gonna make hay any lighter," sagely observed one of the
"What treachery to romance!" I chided.
"No, nor make plowin' any easier, nuther. Aw! haw!" This from a
farm-hand, a fixture about the place. "An' I've seen her doin' that,
I did my best to stand up for romance, come what might.
Be that as it may, Widdle was about these days in a cheerful and
even facetious frame of mind. When I knew him as a teamster he had
seemed to wear a heavy and sad look, as though the mystery of life, or
perhaps better the struggle for existence, pressed on him as much as it
does on any of us. But now that his fortune had improved, he was a
trifle more spruce, not so much in clothes, which were the usual farmer
wear, but in manner. On certain days, especially in the afternoon, when
his home chores were not too onerous or his wife was taking care of
them for him, he came visiting my woodland table on its hill. A great
and beautiful panorama spread before us. He inquired one day, rather
nibblish in manner, as to the matter and manner of writing. Could a man
make a living at that now, say? Did you have to write much or little in
order to get along? Did I write for these here now magazines?
Rather ruefully I admitted that when I could I did. The way of ye
humble scribe, I tried to make plain, was at times thorny. Still, I had
no great reason to complain.
We then drifted to the business of farming, and here, I confess, I
felt myself to be on much firmer ground. How was he getting along? Had
he made much out of his first season's crop? How was his second
progressing? Did he find fifteen acres difficult to manage? Was his
To the last question he replied that she was, doing very well
indeed, but as for the second from the last:
"Not so very. Course, now," he went on musingly, "we ain't got the
best implements yet, an' my wife's health ain't as good this summer as
'twas last; but we're gettin' along all right. I got mebbe as much as a
hundred barrels o' potatas comin' along, an' mebbe three hundred
bushels o' corn. Fer myself, I'm more interested in this here chicken
business, if I could once git it a-goin' right. Course we ain't got all
the up-to-date things we need, but I'm calc'latin' that next year, if
everything goes right, I'll add a new pen an' a coupla runways to the
coop I got up there, an' try my hand at more chickens."
Never his wife's, I noticed, when it came to this end of the
farming institution. And as an aside I could not help thinking of those
breakfasts in bed and of his wife pitching hay and plowing, as well as
milking the cow and feeding the chickens while he slept.
The lorn Ida and her great love! And then one day, expressing
curiosity as to this menage, I was taken there to visit. The place
looked comfortable enough — a small, unpainted, two-room affair, with
a lean-to at the back for a kitchen, a porch added only the preceding
spring, so that milord might have a view of the thymy valley below,
with its green fields and distant hills, while he smoked and meditated.
It was very clean, as I noticed even from a distance, the doorway and
the paths and all. And all about it, at points equidistant from the
kitchen, were built a barn, a corn-crib, a smokehouse and a
chicken-coop, to say nothing of a new well-top, all unpainted as yet,
but all framed by the delicious green of the lawn. And Widdle, once he
came forward, commented rather shyly on his treasures, walking about
with me the while and pointing them out.
"What with all the other things I gotta do, I ain't got round to
paintin' yet; but I low as how this comin' fall or spring mebbe I'll be
able to do sumpin' on it, if my wife's health keeps up. These chickens
are a sight o' bother at times, an' we're takin' on another cow next
week, an' some pigs."
I thought of those glum days when he was still hauling sand and
stone in his squeaky wagon.
And then came Ida, big, bony, silent, diffident, red-tanned by sun
and weather, to whom this narrow fifteen-acre world was no doubt a
paradise. Love had at last come to her. It being a Sunday afternoon,
the only appropriate time to make a call in the farming world, when
presumably the chores of the week were out of the way, still she was
astir among her pots and pans, though she came forward and made us
welcome in her shy way. Wouldn't we sit down? Wouldn't we have a glass
of milk? The worthy Widdle, resuming his seat on the porch, went on
smoking and dreaming and surveying his possessions. If ever a man
looked at ease, he did, and his wife seemed to take great satisfaction
in his comfort. She smiled as we talked to him or answered in
monosyllables when we addressed her, having been so long repressed by
her father, as I assumed, that she could not talk.
But my relative had called my attention to one thing which I was to
note, and that was that despite the fact she was within three months of
an accouchement, we would find her working as usual, which was true.
She was obviously as near her day as that, and yet during our visit she
went to look after the pigs and chickens, the while milord smoked on
and talked. His one theme was his farm, his proposed addition to his
chicken-coop, a proposed enlargement of his pig-pen, the fact that his
farm would be better if he could afford to take over the five acres to
the east, and so on. Several times he referred to his tour of the West
and the fact that he had "served his time" on the Denver Rio Grande.
After that I could not help thinking of him from time to time, for
he illustrated to me again so clearly the casual and accidental
character of so many things in nature, the fact that fortune, strength,
ease, beauty, fame, any power of the mind or body, come in the main to
the individual as gifts and are so often not even added to or developed
by any effort of his. Here was this vague, casual weakling drawn back
to this region by a kind of sixth sense which regulated his well-being,
and after he had failed in all other things, only to find this
repressed and yet now free victim, his wife, seeking, by the aid of her
small means, some satisfaction in the world of love through him. But
did he really care for her? I sometimes asked myself. Could he? Had he
the capacity, the power of appreciation and understanding which any
worth-while love requires? I wondered.
The events of the following September seemed to answer the question in
a rather definite way, and yet I am not so sure that they did, either.
Life is so casual; love, or the matter of affinity, such an indefinite
thing with so many! I was sleeping in a large room which faced the
front of the house — a room which commanded the slope of a hill and a
distant and splendid valley beyond. Outside was a number of evergreens
and horse-chestnuts that rustled and whispered in the slightest breeze.
At two or three of the clock of one of those fine moonlit nights I
heard a knocking below and a voice calling:
"Oh, Mis' K — — ! Oh, Mis' K — — !"
Fearing that my hostess might not hear, I went to one of the open
windows; but as I did so, the door below opened, and I heard her voice
and then Widdle's, though I could not make him out in the pale light.
He seemed, for once, somewhat concerned, and asked if she would not
come over and see his wife.
"She's been taken powerful' bad all of a sudden, Mis' K — — ," I
heard him say. "She ain't been feelin' well for the last few days; been
complainin', sorta, an' she's very bad now, an' I don't know what to
do. It'd be a big favor if you'd come. Mis' Agrew 'phoned fer a doctor
fer me, but she don't seem to be able to get none yet."
So the time had come! I wondered how the spinsterish Ida would make
out. She was rather old now for motherhood, and so large and ungainly.
How would she fare? How serve a nursing child? Not many minutes after I
heard Mrs. K — — , accompanied by one of her sons, leaving in the
machine, the humanitarian and social aspects of the situation seeming
to arouse in her the greatest solicitude. Then I heard nothing more
until the following noon, when she returned. By that time Mrs. Widdle
was very ill indeed. She had worked in the fields up to three days
before, and on the day before her illness had attempted to do a week's
washing. No help of any kind had been called in, no doctor consulted.
Widdle had gone on dreaming as usual, possibly doing his share of the
work, but no more, and no doubt accepting cheerfully the sacrifices and
the ministrations of his wife until this latest hour.
It was evident to all that the conditions underlying possible
motherhood for Mrs. Widdle were most unsatisfactory. During all the
nine months of gestation she had given herself no least attention. A
doctor called in at this late hour by my relative wagged his head most
dolefully. Perhaps she would come through all right, but there was
undue pressure on the kidneys. He suggested a nurse, but this Mrs.
Widdle, ill as she was, would not hear of. The end came swiftly on the
following night, and with great agony. She was in nowise fitted to
endure the strain, and an attempt to remove the child, accompanied by
uric poisoning, did for her completely. Ether was given, and she
remained unconscious until she died.
I saw her once afterward, and only once, when I joined the family in
"viewing the body." Widdle was in no great standing with either his
relatives or his neighbors, being of that poor, drifting, dreaming
caliber which offers no least foundation on which a friendship or even
a community of interests may be reared. He was usually silent or slow
of speech, with just a few ideas relative to his present state upon
which to meditate or discuss. Consequently, few neighbors and no
relatives, barring her two brothers, were interested to call, and the
latter in only the most perfunctory way. Such as did come or had
offered assistance had arranged that the parlor, a most sacred place,
should be devoted to the last ceremonies and the reception of visitors;
and here the body, in a coffin the like of which for color and
decoration I had never seen before, lay in state. It was of lavender
plush, lined with pink silk, and to be carried by handles of gilt. And
this parlor was no doubt a realm of beauty as these two had seen it,
and hence arrested my attention. It was furnished with a center-table,
now pushed to one side, some stiff and homely chairs with red plush
seats, and a parlor wood-stove decorated with nickel and with red
isinglass windows in front. On the walls, which were papered a bright
pink, were two yarn mottos handsomely framed in walnut, a picture of
Widdle and his wife boxed in walnut and glass and surrounded by a wax
wreath, and, for sharp contrast, a brightly colored calendar exhibited
a blonde movie queen rampant. Gracing the centertable was a Bible, and
a yellow plush album in which was not a single picture, for I looked.
It must have been the yellow plush that had fascinated them, that
ancient and honorable symbol of luxury.
But the coffin! I have no desire to intrude levity in connection
with death, and, anyhow, it is said to presage misfortune. Also, I
recognize too well the formless and untutored impulse toward beauty
which struggles all too feebly in the most of us, animals and men. Out
of such have risen Karnak and the Acropolis and the "Ode on a Grecian
Urn." But at that time, and for all I know the custom may endure to
this hour, there were being introduced, to the poorest sections of the
big cities at least, and from this experience I judged to the backwoods
also, a type of coffin calculated to engage the attention of any lover
of color, astonishing confections in yellow, blue, green, silver, and
lavender plush, usually lined with contrasting shades of silk and
equipped with handles of equally arresting hues — silver, gilt, black,
or gray. Trust the profiteer Barnums of the undertaking world to
prepare something that would interest the afflicted simple in their
hour of bereavement. Beauty, as each interprets it for himself, must
certainly be the anodyne that resolves all our pains. At any rate, this
coffin was of lavender and lined with pink silk and ornamented with
bright gilt handles; and considering the general solidity and
angularity of the frame it held, it could not but seem incongruous.
Astonishing, in fact, yet obviously selected for its beauty and as a
special comfort to the bereaved living, the Honorable Henry Widdle.
Indeed, unless I am greatly mistaken, Widdle was for the first time in
his life indulging a long repressed impulse toward luxury, which in its
turn was disguising itself to him as deep grief.
But the figure in the coffin, embedded in such voluptuous
materiality at so late a date, she who had followed the plow and
pitched hay, struck me as remarkable. Her hair was thick and coarse,
but smoothly plaited and laid — red hair. The large, bony head, with
the wide mouth and small nose, looked tired indeed. But one strong arm
held snugly the minute infant that had never known life pressed close
to her breast and big yearning face.
I turned away, arrested and humiliated by the terrifying cosmic
urge that had brought all this about. That face showed lines which
stilled all humor. Sleep! I thought, sleep! It is best.
But the little house she had left, that little shell in which she
had thought to intrench herself against misery and loneliness. Not a
corner or a window or a shelf or a pan but had been scrubbed and shined
and dusted repeatedly. The kitchen revealed a collection of utensils
almost irritatingly clean; the dining-living-room the same. And outside
were all the things as she had left them, all in clean and orderly
array. And on the front porch, viewing the scenery and greeting the few
straggling visitors, was Widdle himself. For the occasion he had donned
his best clothes, and looked for all the world as though he were
holding a reception or conducting a function of some kind, the
importance of which had been solemnly impressed upon his mind.
What interested me most, after seeing this other, was his attitude,
the way in which he now faced death and this material as well as
spiritual loss, his attitude toward the future, now that this brief
solution of most of his material difficulties had been removed. Any one
who postulates the mechanical or chemical origin of life, and
behaviorism as the path of its development, would have been interested
in this case. As I viewed Widdle then, he was but a weak reflection of
all the customs or emotional or mental mechanics of his day and realm.
It was customary on such occasions to wear black, and he wore black, as
much as he could find. He had heard or seen that funerals were
occasions of state, so this coffin, with none of the other evidences of
grandeur, was introduced into this meager home. He had noted that
people grieved, so he drew a long face and wore as sad a mien as he
But when I asked about his future, after due comments on the pathos
of his great loss, he showed a strong, if repressed, interest in the
fact that all this which had been his wife's was now his, assuming that
no undue wind arose to disturb him. For some reason, due to no
conscious effort on my part, he assumed that I was friendly to him and
wished him well, and in consequence, not five minutes after I had come
out of the house, he wished to know if I had seen the barn. I replied
that I had not and expressed interest, and he took me to see it,
solemnly and slowly, cortège style. Once there, his spirit seemed to
unlimber, and he talked of the future that was now his. The one horse
he had there was good enough, but now that he was alone and might need
to hire occasional help, he was thinking of buying another. His wife
had helped him a good bit, and he wasn't sure whether he could get
along now without a man. Next came the pigs, which we examined with
care. His wife had thought that four were enough for this fall, but
next year, if his crops turned out right, he might try six or eight.
There was money in the dairy business, too, if only a man had three or
four cows; but there was a lot of trouble connected with feeding,
milking, calving, and the like, and he wasn't sure that he understood
this as well as his wife had. Did I know anything about the law
governing a wife's property or her husband's just claim to it?
"You know," he said, leaning against one of the posts of the
pig-pen, "my wife's relations ain't any too friendly to me, fer some
reason. I never could make it out, an' I was thinkin' mebbe they'd feel
they have a claim on this, though when we bought, she wouldn't have it
any other way but joint. 'Squire,' she says to Squire Driggs over to
Shrivertown, when she was havin' the property transferred to the two of
us when we got married, 'I want this property fixed so that in case
anything happens to either of us the other one gets it, money an' all.'
That's what she said, an' that's what both of us signed over there to
Shrivertown. I got the papers in the house here now. That's clear
enough, ain't it? I'd like to bring the papers up to you some time an'
let you look at 'em. There ain't no way they could interfere with that,
is there, do you think?"
I thought not, and said so. It seemed to ease him some. Then he led
me to the chicken-coop and the milk-house. We stood at a fence and
looked over that five-acre field adjoining which some day he hoped to
own. After a few more comments as to the merits of the departed, I
left, and saw him but once after, some two weeks later, when, the
funeral being over and the first fresh misery of his grief having
passed, he came up to my table on the hilltop one sunny afternoon to
spend a social moment or two, as I thought, but really to discuss the
latter phases of his position as master and widower.
The afternoon was so fine! A sea of crystal light bathed the hills and
valleys, and where I worked, the ground was mottled with light sifting
through the leaves. Birds sang, and two woodchucks, bitten by
curiosity, reconnoitered my realm. Then the brush crackled, and forward
came Widdle out of nowhere and sidling slightly as he came.
"Nice view you have up here."
"Yes, I enjoy it very much. Have that stump over there. How've you
"Oh, pretty fair, thank you. I was thinkin' you might like to look
over them papers I spoke about. I have 'em here now." And he fished in
I turned over the one paper he extracted, which was a memorandum to
the effect that Ida Widdle, née Hauchawout, sole owner of such-and-such
property, desired and hereby agreed that in the event of her death and
the absence of any children, her husband, Henry Widdle, was to succeed
her as sole owner and administrator. And this was witnessed by Notary
Driggs of Shrivertown.
"There's no question in my mind as to the validity of that," I
solemnly assured him. "It seems to me that a lawyer could make it very
difficult for any one to disturb you in your place. Still, I'm not a
lawyer. Why not see one? Or ask Justice Driggs?"
"Well," he said, turning his head slowly and as slowly taking the
paper, "I don't like to go to any lawyer unless I have to. I'm afraid
of 'em. They could make a lot o' trouble for an inexperienced feller
like me. I don't calc'late to do nothin' unless I have to, but I
thought you might know."
I stopped my work and meditated on his fate and how well chance had
dealt with him in one way and another. After a time, during which it
seemed to me that he might be thinking of the misused Ida, he searched
in his pockets and finally extracted another paper, which I thought
might be another agreement of some kind. He held this in his hands for
a minute or more, then unfolding the paper very carefully he said:
"You bein' a writer, I thought I'd bring up a little thing I've
fixed up here about my wife an' ask you what you thought of it. It's
some poetry I've been thinkin' I'd put in 'The Banner' over here to
I could scarcely suppress my astonishment, let alone my curiosity,
as to the nature of this composition which was to be published, at his
request presumably, by "The Banner."
"How do you mean, publish?" I inquired respectfully, and holding
out my hand. "Suppose you let me see it."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather read it to you. It's in my writin'
an' kind o' mixed up, but I can read it to you."
"By all means. But tell me something about it first. You say it's a
poem about your wife. Did you compose it yourself?"
"Yes, sir. Only yesterday an' last night. Well, mebbe three days,
countin' the time I been thinkin' on it."
"And it's going to be published in 'The Banner?' Do you submit it,
or just how is that?"
"Oh, they always print death-rhymes," he went on in his slow
explanatory way. "They charge ten cents a line. Everybody does it when
anybody they're fond of dies — husband or wife, or like o' that."
"Oh, I see," I hazarded, a great light dawning. "It's a custom, and
you feel in a way that you ought to do it."
"Yes, sir, that's it. If it don't cost too much, I thought I'd just
put this in."
I prepared to give the matter attentive ear.
"Read it," I said, and he smoothed out the paper, the slanting
afternoon light falling over him and it, and began:
"'Dearest wife who now are dead,
I miss you as in the days before we were wed.
Gone is your kind touch, your loving care.
I look around, but can't find you anywhere.
The kind deeds that you scattered far and wide
Tell me that you are no longer by my side.
I look around now and seek you in vain;
My tears they fall like rain.
The house is silent without your dear tread,
Everywhere that you were you are now missed instead.
I am lonely now but our Father above
Now has you in His care and love.
If gone from me, you are happy there at rest,
And death that tortures me for you is best.
Dear husband, weep not for your departed wife,
For from heaven, looking down, I see you as in life.
I see your woe and grief and misery,
And would be there with you if I could in glee,
So kind you were, dear husband, and so good.
The Father of All above knows what you've withstood;
He knows how hard you've tried, what efforts you have made,
To help and serve in love. Don't be afraid.
Face the world with courage, husband dear,
And never have any fear.
For if in life you may now be misunderstood,
Our Father who is in heaven knows that you were kind and good.
Your efforts were very many, your rewards were few.
The world should know how kind you were and true.
The tongues of men may slander, husband dear,
But do not let that trouble your ear.
I, your wife in heaven, know how we
While we were together on earth did love and agree,
And in heaven too, when it pleases God to call us,
We will love and be happy together as we did on earth always.'"
He paused and looked up, and I confess that by now my mouth had
unconsciously opened a little. The simplicity! The naïf unconsciousness
of possible ridicule, of anachronism, of false interpretation on the
part of those who could not know! Could a mind be so obtuse to even the
most elementary phases of fact as to believe that this was not
ridiculous? I stared while he gazed, waiting for some favorable
"Tell me," I managed to say at last, "did you write all that
"Well, you know the papers publish them death-rhymes right along,
every week. I see 'em in 'The Banner,' an' I just took some of the
lines from them, but most of 'em are mine."
"You have quite a few lines there," I volunteered, trying to evade
the necessity for comment. "At ten cents a line you are going to have a
big bill to pay."
"That's so," he agreed, scratching his head rather ruefully. "I
hadn't thought o' that. Let's see," and he began to count them.
Looking at him as he counted up the cost of his poetic flight,
which totaled three dollars and forty cents, as he finally announced,
and thinking of his wife, the dreary round of her days, the heavy labor
up to the very hour of her death, the carefully exacted agreement as to
the ultimate disposition of her property in case of her death, I could
not help thinking of the pathos and the futility of so much that we
call life and effort, the absolute nonsense that living becomes in so
many instances. Above me as I speculated was that great blazing ball we
call the "sun" spinning about in space and with its attendant planets.
And upon the surface of this thing, "the earth," we, with our millions
of little things we call "homes" and "possessions." And about and above
and beneath us, mysteries, mysteries, mysteries. Not even within miles
of a guess as to what we are or what the sun is or the "reason" for our
being here for anything. And yet passion and lust and beauty and greed
and yearning, this endless pother and bitterness and delight in order
to retain this elusive and inexplicable something, "life," "us,"
"ours," in space. Birds cawing, trees blowing and whispering, fields
teeming with mysterious and yet needed things, and then, on every hand,
this wealth of tragedy. Life living on life, men and animals plotting
and scheming as though there were only so much to be had and all of
that in the possession of others.
And yet, despite the mystery and the suffering and the bitterness,
here was this golden day, an enormous treasure in itself, and these
lovely trees, those mountains blue, this wondrous, soothing panorama.
Beauty, beauty, beauty, appealing and consoling to the heart — life's
anodyne. And here, in the very heart of it, Ida Hauchawout, and her
father, with his "no enimel gets fet py me," and his son who threw a
pitchfork at him, and this poor clown before me with his death-rhymes
and his fear of losing the little that had been left to him. His love.
His loss. His gain. His desire to place himself right before the
"world." This was what he was rhyming about. This was what he was
Was he guilty of any wrong before the world? Not a bit that I could
see. Was he entitled to what he had come by? As much so as any of us
are entitled to anything. But here he was, worrying, worrying,
worrying, and trying to decide in the face of his loss or gain whether
his verse, this tribute or self-justification, was worth three dollars
and forty cents to him as a display in a miserable, meagerly circulated
and quickly forgotten country newspaper.
Mesdames and Messieurs, are we all mad? Or am I? Or is life? Is the
whole thing, what it appears to be to so many, an aimless, insane,
accidental jumble and gibberish? We articulate or put together out of
old mysteries new mysteries, machines, methods, theories. But to what
end? What about all the Hauchawouts, past, present, and to come, sons,
daughters, and relatives, and all the fighting and the cruelty and the
parading and the nonsense?
The crude and defeated Ida. And this fumbling, seeking, and rather
to be pitied dub with his rhymes. Myself, writing and wondering about
A letter written several years later by my relative's wife adds this
for my enlightenment:
"He has taken to religion now and interprets the Bible in his own
fumbling way, coming to me occasionally for help. He plows his fields
and meditates, expecting God any minute to come in the form of a dragon
or giant and finish him and all men. He has figured out that the world
will come to an end in this wise: God will appear as a dragon or a
gigantic man, and wherever he places his foot, there life will cease to
exist. That will be the end of the world. Yet he has no notion that the
world is any larger than the United States at most. I said to him once,
'But it would take Him a long time to step over all the world and crush
out all life.' 'Yes, that's so,' he replied; 'but I guess His feet are
bigger than ours — maybe as big as a barn,' — those great barns! —
'an' mebbe He can walk faster than we can.' He has lost himself
completely in the Bible now and reads and meditates all the time,
applying everything he reads to his own few acres. He still lives alone
and does his own cooking. His chief dish is cornmeal mush, which he
boils and pours into saucers or flat plates to the thickness he wants,
because he doesn't know how to pour it into a deep dish and slice it."