21 Sep A Nest-Egg
A Nest-Egg by James Whitcomb Riley
But a few miles from the city here, and on the sloping banks of the stream noted more for its plenitude of “chubs” and “shiners” than the gamier two- and four-pound bass for which, in season, so many credulous anglers flock and lie in wait, stands a country residence, so convenient to the stream, and so inviting in its pleasant exterior and comfortable surroundings—barn, dairy, and spring-house—that the weary, sunburnt, and disheartened fisherman, out from the dusty town for a day of recreation, is often wont to seek its hospitality. The house in style of architecture is something of a departure from the typical farmhouse, being designed and fashioned with no regard to symmetry or proportion, but rather, as is suggested, built to conform to the matter-of-fact and most sensible ideas of its owner, who, if it pleased him, would have small windows where large ones ought to be, and vice versa, whether they balanced properly to the eye or not. And chimneys—he would have as many as he wanted, and no two alike, in either height or size. And if he wanted the front of the house turned from all possible view, as though abashed at any chance of public scrutiny, why, that was his affair and not the public’s; and, with like perverseness, if he chose to thrust his kitchen under the public’s very nose, what should the generally fagged-out, half-famished representative of that dignified public do but reel in his dead minnow, shoulder his fishing-rod, clamber over the back fence of the old farmhouse and inquire within, or jog back to the city, inwardly anathematizing that very particular locality or the whole rural district in general. That is just the way that farmhouse looked to the writer of this sketch one week ago—so individual it seemed—so liberal, and yet so independent. It wasn’t even weather-boarded, but, instead, was covered smoothly with some cement, as though the plasterers had come while the folks were visiting, and so, unable to get at the interior, had just plastered the outside.
I am more than glad that I was hungry enough, and weary enough, and wise enough to take the house at its first suggestion; for, putting away my fishing-tackle for the morning, at least, I went up the sloping bank, crossed the dusty road, and confidently clambered over the fence.
Not even a growling dog to intimate that I was trespassing. All was open—gracious-looking—pastoral. The sward beneath my feet was velvet-like in elasticity, and the scarce visible path I followed through it led promptly to the open kitchen door. From within I heard a woman singing some old ballad in an undertone, while at the threshold a trim, white-spurred rooster stood poised on one foot, curving his glossy neck and cocking his wattled head as though to catch the meaning of the words. I paused. It was a scene I felt restrained from breaking in upon, nor would I, but for the sound of a strong male voice coming around the corner of the house:
Turning, I saw a rough-looking but kindly featured man of sixty-five, the evident owner of the place.
I returned his salutation with some confusion and much deference. “I must really beg your pardon for this intrusion,” I began, “but I have been tiring myself out fishing, and your home here looked so pleasant—and I felt so thirsty—and——”
“Want a drink, I reckon,” said the old man, turning abruptly toward the kitchen door, then pausing as suddenly, with a backward motion of his thumb—“jest foller the path here down to the little brick—that’s the spring—and you’ll find ’at you’ve come to the right place fer drinkin’-worter! Hold on a minute tel I git you a tumbler—there’re nothin’ down there but a tin.”
“Then don’t trouble yourself any further,” I said, heartily, “for I’d rather drink from a tin cup than a goblet of pure gold.”
“And so’d I,” said the old man, reflectively, turning mechanically, and following me down the path. “‘Druther drink out of a tin—er jest a fruit-can with the top knocked off—er—er—er a gourd,” he added in a zestful, reminiscent tone of voice, that so heightened my impatient thirst that I reached the spring-house fairly in a run.
“Well-sir!” exclaimed my host, in evident delight, as I stood dipping my nose in the second cupful of the cool, revivifying liquid, and peering in a congratulatory kind of way at the blurred and rubicund reflection of my features in the bottom of the cup, “well-sir, blame-don! ef it don’t do a feller good to see you enjoyin’ of it that-a-way! But don’t you drink too much o’ the worter!—’cause there’re some sweet milk over there in one o’ them crocks, maybe; and ef you’ll jest, kindo’ keerful-like, lift off the led of that third one, say, over there to yer left, and dip you out a tinful er two o’ that, w’y, it’ll do you good to drink it, and it’ll do me good to see you at it——But hold up!—hold up!” he called, abruptly, as, nowise loath, I bent above the vessel designated. “Hold yer hosses fer a second! Here’s Marthy; let her git it fer ye.”
If I was at first surprised and confused, meeting the master of the house, I was wholly startled and chagrined in my present position before its mistress. But as I arose, and stammered, in my confusion, some incoherent apology, I was again reassured and put at greater ease by the comprehensive and forgiving smile the woman gave me, as I yielded her my place, and, with lifted hat, awaited her further kindness.
“I came just in time, sir,” she said, half laughingly, as with strong, bare arms she reached across the gurgling trough and replaced the lid that I had partially removed.—“I came just in time, I see, to prevent father from having you dip into the ’morning’s-milk,’ which, of course, has scarcely a veil of cream over the face of it as yet. But men, as you are doubtless willing to admit,” she went on jocularly, “don’t know about these things. You must pardon father, as much for his well-meaning ignorance of such matters, as for this cup of cream, which I am sure you will better relish.”
She arose, still smiling, with her eyes turned frankly on my own. And I must be excused when I confess that as I bowed my thanks, taking the proffered cup and lifting it to my lips, I stared with an uncommon interest and pleasure at the donor’s face.
She was a woman of certainly not less than forty years of age. But the figure, and the rounded grace and fulness of it, together with the features and the eyes, completed as fine a specimen of physical and mental health as ever it has been my fortune to meet; there was something so full of purpose and resolve—something so wholesome, too, about the character—something so womanly—I might almost say manly, and would, but for the petty prejudice maybe occasioned by the trivial fact of a locket having dropped from her bosom as she knelt; and that trinket still dangles in my memory even as it then dangled and dropped back to its concealment in her breast as she arose. But her face, by no means handsome in the common meaning, was marked with a breadth and strength of outline and expression that approached the heroic—a face that once seen is forever fixed in memory—a personage once met one must know more of. And so it was, that an hour later, as I strolled with the old man about his farm, looking, to all intents, with the profoundest interest at his Devonshires, Shorthorns, Jerseys, and the like, I lured from him something of an outline of his daughter’s history.
“There’re no better girl ‘n Marthy!” he said, mechanically answering some ingenious allusion to her worth. “And yit,” he went on reflectively, stooping from his seat in the barn door and with his open jack-knife picking up a little chip with the point of the blade—“and yit—you wouldn’t believe it—but Marthy was the oldest o’ three daughters, and hed—I may say—hed more advantages o’ marryin’—and yit, as I was jest goin’ to say, she’s the very one ’at didn’t marry. Hed every advantage—Marthy did. W’y, we even hed her educated—her mother was a-livin’ then—and we was well enough fixed to afford the educatin’ of her, mother allus contended—and we was—besides, it was Marthy’s notion, too, and you know how women is thataway when they git their head set. So we sent Marthy down to Indianop’lus, and got her books and putt her in school there, and paid fer her keepin’ and ever’thing; and she jest—well, you may say, lived there stiddy fer better’n four year. O’ course she’d git back ever’ once-an-a-while, but her visits was allus, some-way-another, onsatisfactory-like, ’cause, you see, Marthy was allus my favorite, and I’d allus laughed and told her ’at the other girls could git married if they wanted, but she was goin’ to be the ‘nest-egg’ of our family, and ’slong as I lived I wanted her at home with me. And she’d laugh and contend ’a’t she’d as lif be an old maid as not, and never expected to marry, ner didn’t want to. But she had me sceart onc’t, though! Come out from the city one time, durin’ the army, with a peart-lookin’ young feller in blue clothes and gilt straps on his shoulders. Young lieutenant he was—name o’ Morris. Was layin’ in camp there in the city somers. I disremember which camp it was now adzackly—but anyway, it ’peared like he had plenty o’ time to go and come, fer from that time on he kep’ on a-comin’—ever’ time Marthy ’ud come home, he’d come, too; and I got to noticin’ ’a’t Marthy come home a good ’eal more’n she used to afore Morris first brought her. And blame ef the thing didn’t git to worryin’ me! And onc’t I spoke to mother about it, and told her ef I thought the feller wanted to marry Marthy I’d jest stop his comin’ right then and there. But mother she sorto’ smiled and said somepin’ ’bout men a-never seein’ through nothin’; and when I ast her what she meant, w’y, she ups and tells me ’a’t Morris didn’t keer nothin’ fer Marthy, ner Marthy fer Morris, and then went on to tell me that Morris was kindo’ aidgin’ up to’rds Annie—she was next to Marthy, you know, in pint of years and experience, but ever’body allus said ’a’t Annie was the purtiest one o’ the whole three of ’em. And so when mother told me ’a’t the signs pinted to’rds Annie, w’y, of course, I hedn’t no particular objections to that, ’cause Morris was of good fambly enough it turned out, and, in fact, was as stirrin’ a young feller as ever I’d want fer a son-in-law, and so I hed nothin’ more to say—ner they wasn’t no occasion to say nothin’, ’cause right along about then I begin to notice ’a’t Marthy quit comin’ home so much, and Morris kep’ a-comin’ more. Tel finally, one time he was out here all by hisself, ’long about dusk, come out here where I was feedin’, and ast me, all at onc’t, and in a straightfor’ard way, ef he couldn’t marry Annie; and, some-way-another, blame ef it didn’t make me as happy as him when I told him yes! You see that thing proved, pine-blank, ’a’t he wasn’t a-fishin’ round fer Marthy. Well-sir, as luck would hev it, Marthy got home about a half-hour later, and I’ll give you my word I was never so glad to see the girl in my life! It was foolish in me, I reckon, but when I see her drivin’ up the lane—it was purt’ nigh dark then, but I could see her through the open winder from where I was settin’ at the supper-table, and so I jest quietly excused myself, p’lite-like, as a feller will, you know, when they’s comp’ny round, and I slipped off and met her jest as she was about to git out to open the barn gate. ’Hold up, Marthy,’ says I; ’set right where you air; I’ll open the gate fer you, and I’ll do anything else fer you in the world ’a’t you want me to!’
“‘W’y, what’s pleased you so?’ she says, laughin’, as she druv through slow-like and a-ticklin’ my nose with the cracker of the buggy-whip.—’What’s pleased you?’
“‘Guess,’ says I, jerkin’ the gate to, and turnin’ to lift her out.
“‘The new peanner’s come?’ says she, eager-like.
“‘Yer new peanner’s come,’ says I; ’but that’s not it.’
“‘Strawberries fer supper?’ says she.
“‘Strawberries fer supper,’ says I; ’but that ain’t it.’
“Jest then Morris’s hoss whinnied in the barn, and she glanced up quick and smilin’ and says, ’Somebody come to see somebody?’
“‘You’re a-gittin’ warm,’ says I.
“‘Somebody come to see me?’ she says, anxious-like.“‘No,’ says I, ’a’nd I’m glad of it—fer this one ’a’t’s come wants to git married, and o’ course I wouldn’t harber in my house no young feller ’a’t was a-layin’ round fer a chance to steal away the “Nest-egg,’” says I, laughin’.
“Marthy had riz up in the buggy by this time, but as I helt up my hands to her, she sorto’ drawed back a minute, and says, all serious-like and kindo’ whisperin’:
“‘Is it Annie?’
“I nodded. ’Yes,’ says I, ’a’nd what’s more, I’ve give my consent, and mother’s give hern—the thing’s all settled. Come, jump out and run in and be happy with the rest of us!’ and I helt out my hands ag’in, but she didn’t ’pear to take no heed. She was kindo’ pale, too, I thought, and swallered a time er two like as ef she couldn’t speak plain.
“‘Who is the man?’ she ast.
“‘Who—who’s the man?’ I says, a-gittin’ kindo’ out o’ patience with the girl.—’W’y, you know who it is, o’ course.—It’s Morris,’ says I. ’Come, jump down! Don’t you see I’m waitin’ fer ye?’
“‘Then take me,’ she says; and blame-don! ef the girl didn’t keel right over in my arms as limber as a rag! Clean fainted away! Honest! Jest the excitement, I reckon, o’ breakin’ it to her so suddent-like—’cause she liked Annie, I’ve sometimes thought, better’n even she did her own mother. Didn’t go half so hard with her when her other sister married. Yes-sir!” said the old man, by way of sweeping conclusion, as he rose to his feet—“Marthy’s the on’y one of ’em ’a’t never married—both the others is gone—Morris went all through the army and got back safe and sound—’s livin’ in Idyho, and doin’ fust-rate. Sends me a letter ever’ now and then. Got three little chunks o’ grandchildren out there, and I’ never laid eyes on one of ’em. You see, I’m a-gittin’ to be quite a middle-aged man—in fact, a very middle-aged man, you might say. Sence mother died, which has be’n—lem-me-see—mother’s be’n dead somers in the neighborhood o’ ten year.—Sence mother died I’ve be’n a-gittin’ more and more o’ Marthy’s notion—that is,—you couldn’t ever hire me to marry nobody! and them has allus be’n and still is the ’Nest-egg’s’ views! Listen! That’s her a-callin’ fer us now. You must sorto’ overlook the freedom, but I told Marthy you’d promised to take dinner with us to-day, and it ’ud never do to disappint her now. Come on.” And, ah! it would have made the soul of you either rapturously glad or madly envious to see how meekly I consented.
I am always thinking that I never tasted coffee till that day; I am always thinking of the crisp and steaming rolls, ored over with the molten gold that hinted of the clover-fields, and the bees that had not yet permitted the honey of the bloom and the white blood of the stalk to be divorced; I am always thinking that the young and tender pullet we happy three discussed was a near and dear relative of the gay patrician rooster that I first caught peering so inquisitively in at the kitchen door; and I am always—always thinking of “The Nest-egg.”