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A COMEDY OF WAR.
YRUS BENSON'S engagement to Patience Hatheway was a source of wonder to all Mantit. Patience was not bad-looking, speaking negatively, after the Mantit fashion, and a man would not have minded the cast in her left eye had her temper not been equally crooked. But when that was fairly roused, she was a Tartar, and everybody and everything animate fled before her as before an impending cyclone.
But neither crooked eye nor crooked temper had stood in the way of her being sought in wedlock even before her engagement to Cyrus. The one other suitor who had stormed, though he had failed to carry, her maiden fortress, was a well-to-do farmer living at Plympton in the remote neighborhood of Mantit. His wife had recently died, and as he was looking about for a successor to care for his seven children and an equal number of cows, a waggish acquaintance had recommended Patience.
Up to the moment of recommendation he had never heard her name. Nevertheless, he at once resolved to go and offer himself, believing, with the fatuity of many a man similarly intentioned, that he had only to hold out his hand and the apple-in this instance a crab would drop into it.
He accordingly drove over, and arriving, hitched his horse to the iron staple in the woodhouse, and knocked at the kitchen door. No response was made. He knocked a second time. The third time he applied the full force of his fist, and a voice-a voice that made him start in his boots-responded:
«Come in, can't ye, and not stand there beatin' the door in.»
The invitation was not encouraging; but our farmer, not of those who, having put their hand to the plow, turn back,-at least not at the first rebuff,-lifted the latch and entered. Patience was standing by the stove with a long-handled skillet in her hand, preparatory to putting on the potatoes for dinner. Her face wore the aspect of a storm-cloud out of which the lightning might leap at any moment.
«Good morning,» said the visitor in his
most conciliatory manner, and he could be very conciliatory.
«Yah!» said Patience.
To this, lacking a proper response, he was silent. And Patience again opened her mouth: « Well, can't ye speak, man? What d' ye want?»
During his drive over he had somewhat carefully formulated a proper speech in which to make his proposal; but it had fled, and, although he now made a rapid and desperate. search in the caverns of his memory, he could not so much as catch a glimpse even of the tail of it.
«Yah!» said Patience again, raising the skillet threateningly.
«I rode over from Plympton to ask ye to marry me, and-» he blurted out, saying exactly the thing he did not intend; but his proposal was never completed.
The skillet flew from the uplifted hand, and the farmer, who had kept his hold upon the door-latch, was outside in an instant, and, hastily unhitching his horse, skipped into the wagon with a celerity that would have surprised those familiar with his rheumatic habit, and lashing his horse into a run, did not draw rein till he was fairly outside the lane and on the highway.
«That skillet must 'a' split the door panel,» he remarked to the sympathizing wag who had named Patience, and to whom he imparted the result of his offer. «Patience d' ye say her name was? It'd ought to be Fury. I never see such an eye»--her left eye proba bly, which in her rages retreated fairly out of sight behind the bridge of her nose.
This marked rejection of the farmer's suit led her neighbors to infer that Patience did not intend to marry, and for some time gossip ceased to concern itself with that probability, and took the direction of her savings, which were thought to be considerable, her hair, which must be dyed, as it «never could 'a' kep' its color so at her age,» and her kitchen door, which, with her customary contrariness, she had had painted a sky-blue instead of the conventional chocolate-brown.
But it broke out afresh on the discovery that Cyrus Benson spent every Friday evening
regularly at Patience's. Had it been Sunday evening no doubt would have been felt even at the first as to his intentions, but the choice of Friday threw speculations off the track. It is true that every other evening of the week had been long devoted to its special purpose; for Cyrus was the most methodical of men.
Tuesday evening he spent at the store, where he bought one cigar, lighted it before taking his departure, smoked it leisurely along the road and through the fields across lots, depositing the stump in a hollow oak by the last pair of bars. A favorite arithmetical problem with the store humorists was the number of stumps therein deposited in a given time, and whether, allowing to Cyrus the traditional years of man, he would be able to fill it in his lifetime-a problem. complicated by the probable decay of the earlier strata. Monday and Thursday evenings were spent in a neighboring shoe shop playing checkers with the shoemaker. They played until nine o'clock, stopping on the stroke of the hour whatever the crisis of the game. Wednesday evening he walked to Tarkiln to visit a distant cousin. Saturday evening he passed in the laborious reading of his weekly paper, and Sunday evening he slept.
But nobody ever could tell where he might turn up on Friday night. Whatever erratic tendency he had in his nature seemed to break out on that evening of the week.
«He might be here and he might be there; there was no calculatin' on Cyrus of a Friday night. He was such a queer chap, but clever -clever as the day,» the adjective being used in its old New England sense.
But these erratic Friday evening wanderings came to an end in Patience's comfortable sitting-room, and everybody was astonished, and knew not what to think.
« Cyrus Benson! Well, I am beat! Why, he's meek as Moses!»
<< Well, he 'd have to be to live with Patience.»
<< Live with Patience! You don't mean to say he's thinkin' o' marryin' her!»
What he 's thinkin' of I don't know, but it's my opinion she 's made up her mind to marry him.»
« Well, if she 's made up her mind, the whole United States can't stop her."
So by degrees doubt was merged into certainty, and Cyrus, entering the store one Tuesday evening, was met with such a storm of facetious congratulation that he was dazed, and would have left without his weekly cigar
had not the storekeeper pressed it upon him and lighted it himself.
«No,» he said, as Cyrus tended the customary payment; «darn it all, man! we'll have a treat all round in honor of the event.» He brought out a bunch of cigars and opened half a dozen bottles of root beer. «Here's to the health and happiness of the future Mrs. Cyrus Benson,» said he to Cyrus. Then, «Good Lord!» But this was an aside.
<< I feel pretty much as I do when I see our old cat pounce on a robin. I'd resky it if I could,» he remarked after Cyrus had left. «He'll be reg'larly chawed up.»
No one ventured to mention the matter to Patience until Mrs. Acorn, bolder than the other matrons, did so, and found her remarkably complacent.
"It come out before I thought, and I expected nothin' short o' havin' my eyes scratched out. But she was as smilin' as a baskit o' chips-real tickled. But Lor'! » – reflectively, -«she 's nothin' but a woman, and a woman's a woman after all's said and done »-which was a nail hit on the head. Few women lack womanly sensitiveness, and the feeling, on the part of Patience, that he viewed her wholly in a commercial light had doubtless added vigor to the arm with which she had hurled the skillet at the venturesome farmer.
« Well, I don't know what Cyrus can be thinkin' of. He's got more courage than folks ever give him credit for. "T ain't many men folks 'd care to tackle Patience. And what would his poor mother say? Poor creatur'! We don't know what we 're fetchin' child'en into the world for.»
It was more than a nine days' wonder. But speculation concerning this marriage, and other things of lesser importance, was cut short by the breaking out of the Civil War, and what followed in Mantit was an epitome of the whole North.
There was an evening telegram; a night ride on the part of the captain of the Light Infantry Company to summon his men scattered through the adjacent towns, many of them mere lads who, when they donned their uniforms, did so with the expectation of being summoned to no more serious duty than a semi-annual training or yearly muster. But each sprang to the call, and additional recruits came forward, among the latter being Cyrus Benson.
In the chill and gray April morning they assembled on the green by the store. The storekeeper had raised a flag, scant of stars and shabby, but it served. Young girls were
there, flushed with excitement and patriotism, yet not quite believing it all. War was as yet too unfamiliar a thing. Older women choked back the tears till there was time to weep-if there ever would be. They had sat up all the night making, mending, and washing, preparing a comfortable kit. Time enough to sleep when their soldier was on the march -if they could sleep.
But Patience was not there. She had had a stormy interview with Cyrus when he called on his way to the rendezvous to tell her he had enlisted. His appearance was not heroic. His toilet had been of the rapidest and slightest, and, ordinarily as «neat as a pin,» he was decidedly frowzy. His uniform would be furnished him in Boston, together with one of Governor Andrew's now historic overcoats. But had he been in the freshest and gayest military trim, that would have had no mollifying effect on Patience.
«You ain't a-goin' one step,» said she, after he had announced his intention; and she stepped up, and bolted the door behind him. But Cyrus was too quick for her, and had opened a window and was out before she knew it.
Finding commands of no avail, she opened the door and stooped to entreaty; but to this Cyrus was equally impervious. He did not not argue; that was not his way. With all his cleverness » he had an obstinate streak in him the obstinacy of the good-natured man; he was «set.»>
Patience entreated, going back now and again to her first fierce declaration, «You sha'n't go one step, Cyrus. Them good-fornothin' niggers are at the bottom of it,» said she, and I wish they was in Tophet.»> She was never an abolitionist.
"I don't care what 's at the bottom of it. The country 's a-callin', and I'm goin',» said Cyrus.
«Yah!» responded Patience. «Country acallin'! It's just because you want to get quit o' work, you and the whole lazy kit of 'em.»
To this Cyrus made no reply. And his silence was all the more exasperating that Patience felt behind it the impregnable wall of a resolution that she could neither storm nor coax into capitulation.
"I should like to part pleasantly,» he said at last, «seein' it 's likely I may never come back.»
But Patience was past feeling the pathos of his speech.
"I warrant you'll come back fast enough,» said she, «after plantin' and hayin' 's over.
And you promised. What's the good o' your promises? But, there! It's just like a man, makin' a woman trust him and then clearin' out and leavin' her.»>
«But I shall come back if I'm alive, I tell ye. I ain't any notion o' breakin' my promise. But 't ain't a time to be marryin' and givin' in marriage. The country's acallin'. »
«Country! Yah! Such talk 's sickenin'! And I don't believe a word of it. And if you do go you need n't come back here again. I'm well quit of ye.» Then she went in, and banged the sky-blue door.
Cyrus stood for a moment irresolute. He heard confused noises in the kitchen, -chairs slammed about, a table pushed across the floor, the fall of crockery, and a cat sprang out of the window he had opened, with eyes glaring and tail bristling. It was no use to linger; Patience's tempests of passion were long in stilling; he had but to go. As he did so he drew the cuff of his sleeve across his eyes. For, bad-tempered woman though she was, «crabbed » as everybody called her, she was the only woman Cyrus could in any sense call his own; for his mother was dead, and he had no sister.
Other women might be kind to him. Good Mrs. Acorn pressed upon him a package of tea, and the doctor's wife had ready two pairs of woolen socks to add to his kit. But he would have given all other kindnesses for one kind word from Patience.
After that Patience's temper became still more uncertain. When the Mantit branch of the Sanitary Commission was started, the committee for her district called upon her for contributions of «old linen, worn dress skirts, spare blankets, dried apples, jell.» «Anything,» said Mrs. Acorn; «you can use up anything for beddin' and such purposes, and I know you've got a store laid by in your garret. Your mother was a master hand for savin' everything. And you 're goin' t' have plenty o' apples, I see. The Sanitary 's goin' to send 'em down where our own folks be; it 'll be such a comfort to the boys. And dried apples go to the right spot, Isaac writes. They 'd had a few the last time o' writin',just about a gill apiece, -and they stewed 'em themselves in their little tin cups, and they were lickin' good, Isaac wrote. That's his favorite word for what he likes. There's nothin' like our own folks' victuals; and mebbe Cyrus 'll get some o' yours, Patience, and->>
« Cyrus Benson 's nothin' to me, says she,»-so reported Mrs. Acorn at the weekly
meeting of the Sanitary,-«Cyrus Benson's nothing to me,)-a-slattin' down a pan o' milk she'd fetched out to skim, and sloppin' it all round over the table and floor, and if I had n't 'a' drew back 't would 'a' gone all over me too, and I'm surprised you should think o' askin' me to contribute, says she. If they want to fight, let 'em; but I've no call to help bind up their wounds and keep 'em at it. And I 've somethin' else to do besides dryin' apples for a parcel o' lazy men to eat. Let 'em go home and go to work, the whole kit of 'em, North and South, I say. Wastin' the substance of folks for what?I should like to ask.
Well, you know Patience and her manners when her dander 's up, which is consider'ble often. (Yah! says she, in that irritatin' way o' hers. My father was a peaceable man that minded his own business and fit nobody; and I ain't much concerned about the future o' my pusterity, says she. And you can tell the folk that sent ye- I'm a committee,' says I, interruptin' her, and represent the great Sanitary Commission. (Well, you can tell 'em from me, says she, they won't get nothin' out o' me-not a red cent, nor the wormiest apple on the place, nor the raggedest sheet. And as for Cyrus Benson, says she, a-slattin' that pan o' milk again, I don't know what right you have to speak to me about that obstinate fool. He's nothin' to me. And at that I had to speak again. (And, says I, you know best, Patience, whether Cyrus is anything to you or not, but you've no call to speak that way of him. He may n't be so bright as some, but he's a kind, clever creatur' as ever breathed, and he 's showed his patriotism as few have, enlistin' again after his three months was out, and for the war, too.)
«But Lor'! you'd 'a' thought I'd said somethin' dretful. (Bright!) says she, and that left eye o' hers slid right back o' the bridge of her nose, just as it does when she's in one o' her tantrums. (Clever! says she, and over went that pan o' milk slap on to the floor, what was left on 't, and I got up and come away as quick as I could. And I declare, I don't know what to make o' her. She ain't a real Copperhead, for she don't seem to have no sympathy with either side.
« Well, that 's better than if she took up for the Southerners, as some o' our folks do. They say Dr. Hall, over to Titicut, he 's been a Copperhead from the beginnin', - he said the other day, right out to Sprague's Shingle Mill, that he hoped the South would lick. And at that they after him and chased him into the woods, and he ain't been seen since. They say he's hidin' in Turkey Swamp. But I doubt about that. Turkey Swamp 's one o' Mis' Hall's back chambers, I guess. They 've threatened to tar and feather him when they do get him.
« Well, 't was queer the way Patience ketched me up about Cyrus. If she wa'n't the woman she is, and he wa'n't the man he is, and they were both young folks, I could account for it.>>
And Mrs. Acorn, wagging her head slowly from side to side, fell into a brief reverie concerning the time when she and << father>> were young, before Isaac, who, like Cyrus, had enlisted for the war, was born, and when to hear father called « clever and kind,» would have angered her almost as bad as the same terms, applied to Cyrus, did Patience. Then the talk of the circle took a more intimate turn as the women cut and basted and knit; how a great battle was talked of; Isaac had written about it, and so had the other boys. And the voices grew more and more subdued, with lapses into silence, and more than one tear was surreptitiously swept away as though it were an officious fly.
And then Mrs. Acorn aroused herself with a cheerful remark about the blackberry wine she had been making for the Sanitary, and which she had corked so tightly in a glass demijohn before it had fairly worked that it went off in the dead of the night like a cannon, and jarred the bed. And when she went down cellar the next day to see how her wine was getting on, she found nothing but bits of glass and a damp spot on the cellar bottom. «And how father did laugh! T would do Isaac more good than pints o' wine to hear about mother's demijohn bu'stin',' said father.» Nothing pleased father and Isaac more than to get the laugh on her.
But Isaac never heard of it; for the great battle came. Was it Gaines's Mills, or Fredericksburg, or Gettysburg? What matters it? The --th Massachusetts was in it, and Isaac fell, shot in the forehead; and Charlie Smith was hurt by a shell in the breast, and would lose one arm, or perhaps both, even if he got up; and Melvin Pratt and Cyrus Benson were missing. So telegraphed their captainnot the one who took the midnight ride;
he had won his bays, and slept in a soldier's grave.
Isaac's body would be sent home, he wrote later on; as for Melvin and Cyrus, they had been buried in nameless graves.
And the Sanitary work went on as before, for there's other mothers' sons if mine 's gone,» said good Mrs. Acorn. And Patience had her tempers, and seemed to grow harder; at least, so thought Mrs. Acorn at times, and then, again, she did n't know.
She could never account satisfactorily for Patience «ketching » her up so about Cyrus if she did n't care for him, and if she did, it must be «dretful hard» to have nobody to speak to. To talk with «father» about Isaac was a sight of comfort to her; what she should do without father to speak to she did n't know. So one day she just stepped in, and found Patience cleaning out the woodhouse. That was an infallible sign that she was out of sorts, and her reply to Mrs. Acorn's greeting was as short as pie-crust; but Mrs. Acorn, observing her closely, saw that she was unusually pale and thin.
«She never did have any fat to boast of, but now she 's nothin' but a rail. I did n't mention Cyrus; I thought 't wa'n't wise; and I did n't stay long. But I'm sure she 's feelin' it. Sorrer softens most folks, but it don't her, poor creatur'! She ain't one of the meltin' kind. After her mother died she was just like a snappin'-turtle for months; and she 's just so now.»
It was a smiling, joyous June morning, and Patience, as her opposite neighbor in the lane observed, was «airin'» all her feather-beds. For Patience was superlatively neat; «Possessed,» as the doctor's wife, who was fond of epigrams, had once remarked-«possessed with a neat devil.»
She was spreading the beds on chairs in the front yard, where sun and wind had equal play. She beat and punched the beds, and shook her stiff-corded sunbonnet, shutting out at the same time the landscape and the approaching figure in it. It was a halting figure, and had been for some time making the distance up the lane, and across the stretch of close, even turf that lay between it and the front yard-a figure of a man in ragged blue, one arm gone, one leg gone below the knee, a hideous purple scar across one cheek and temple, and a faded green shade over one eye. As Patience at last looked up, her eyes fell upon him where he stood outside the gate. The nimble wind shook his empty sleeve and trousers' leg.
He was the first to speak. «Don't ye know me?» he asked. «Don't ye know Cyrus? » But she neither stirred nor spoke.
<< I thought ye 'd be glad to see me," he said querulously. There was a moment or two of further waiting, and then she came slowly forward, and, still without speaking, opened the gate for him, and taking him by the empty sleeve, led him into the house. The opposite neighbor, with her eye glued to the opening between the shade and the window casing, was paralyzed at the sight.
She quickly recovered, however, and ran out across to Mrs. Acorn's. «Good gracious! it 's Cyrus Benson as sure as you 're alivewhat there is left of him. And to see Patience leadin' of him in, just for all the world like Mary and her little lamb!» The neighbor was an elderly widow of a sentimental turn of mind.
The news spread like wild-fire, and Patience was inundated with callers. Nothing short of unquenchable curiosity would have made them dare such an invasion, and she received them with an equanimity, a subdued quietness of manner, that surprised them. But no one was permitted to see her guest. She had put him right to bed, Patience said. He was dreadfully weak and worn, and slept the greater part of the time. When he was able to sit up they could see him. At the end of the week he was seen sitting in the south porch in the sun, and after that callers came in almost every day.
But he had little to say in answer to their eager and numberless questions. For the most part he was listless, and sat with his head bent down.
«Poor creatur'! He's lost what little mind he ever did have.»
«The men folks say they don't think 't is Cyrus.»
«Men folks! What won't men folks say when they get together? Talk o' women gossipin'!»
«They say Cyrus's eyes were black, and this man's eye is blue.>>
"Well, don't eyes change, I should like to know? Babies' eyes gen'rally change, and kittens' always. He's suffered enough to turn his eyes any color, I should think. Just as if it can be anybody but Cyrus!»
«Patience seems to think 't is,» said Mrs. Acorn; and if anybody 'd ought t' know whether it 's Cyrus or not, it's her. The most of us 'u'd know our own.»>
«That's so,» said the sentimental widow; «it's difficult to deceive the eye of affection.>> However, she had her own doubts on one or two occasions when, drawn thither by