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The Romance of a Plain Man
 



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The Romance of a Plain Man


  Produced by Suzanne Shell, Mary Meehan and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  THE ROMANCE OF A PLAIN MAN

  BY ELLEN GLASGOW

  AUTHOR OF "THE DELIVERANCE," "THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE," ETC.

  New YorkTHE MACMILLAN COMPANY1909

  _All rights reserved_

  Copyright, 1909,By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.

  Set up and electrotyped. Published May, 1909. ReprintedMay, July, August, September, twice, October, 1909.

  Norwood PressJ. S. Cushing Co.--Berwick & Smith Co.Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.

  CONTENTS

  I. IN WHICH I APPEAR WITH FEW PRETENSIONS

  II. THE ENCHANTED GARDEN

  III. A PAIR OF RED SHOES

  IV. IN WHICH I PLAY IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN

  V. IN WHICH I START IN LIFE

  VI. CONCERNING CARROTS

  VII. IN WHICH I MOUNT THE FIRST RUNG OF THE LADDER

  VIII. IN WHICH MY EDUCATION BEGINS

  IX. I LEARN A LITTLE LATIN AND A GREAT DEAL OF LIFE

  X. IN WHICH I GROW UP

  XI. IN WHICH I ENTER SOCIETY AND GET A FALL

  XII. I WALK INTO THE COUNTRY AND MEET WITH AN ADVENTURE

  XIII. IN WHICH I RUN AGAINST TRADITIONS

  XIV. IN WHICH I TEST MY STRENGTH

  XV. A MEETING IN THE ENCHANTED GARDEN

  XVI. IN WHICH SALLY SPEAKS HER MIND

  XVII. IN WHICH MY FORTUNES RISE

  XVIII. THE PRINCIPLES OF MISS MATOACA

  XIX. SHOWS THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

  XX. IN WHICH SOCIETY RECEIVES US

  XXI. I AM THE WONDER OF THE HOUR

  XXII. THE MAN AND THE CLASS

  XXIII. IN WHICH I WALK ON THIN ICE

  XXIV. IN WHICH I GO DOWN

  XXV. WE FACE THE FACTS AND EACH OTHER

  XXVI. THE RED FLAG AT THE GATE

  XXVII. WE CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND US

  XXVIII. IN WHICH SALLY STOOPS

  XXIX. IN WHICH WE RECEIVE VISITORS

  XXX. IN WHICH SALLY PLANS

  XXXI. THE DEEPEST SHADOW

  XXXII. I COME TO THE SURFACE

  XXXIII. THE GROWING DISTANCE

  XXXIV. THE BLOW THAT CLEARS

  XXXV. THE ULTIMATE CHOICE

  THE ROMANCE OF A PLAIN MAN

  CHAPTER I

  IN WHICH I APPEAR WITH FEW PRETENSIONS

  As the storm broke and a shower of hail rattled like a handful ofpebbles against our little window, I choked back a sob and edged mysmall green-painted stool a trifle nearer the hearth. On the oppositeside of the wire fender, my father kicked off his wet boots, stretchedhis feet, in grey yarn stockings, out on the rag carpet in front of thefire, and reached for his pipe which he had laid, still smoking, on thefloor under his chair.

  "It's as true as the Bible, Benjy," he said, "that on the day you wereborn yo' brother President traded off my huntin' breeches for a yallerpup."

  My knuckles went to my eyes, while the smart of my mother's slap fadedfrom the cheek I had turned to the fire.

  "What's become o' th' p-p-up-p?" I demanded, as I stared up at him withmy mouth held half open in readiness to break out again.

  "Dead," responded my father solemnly, and I wept aloud.

  It was an October evening in my childhood, and so vivid has my latermemory of it become that I can still see the sheets of water that rolledfrom the lead pipe on our roof, and can still hear the splash! splash!with which they fell into the gutter below. For three days the cloudshad hung in a grey curtain over the city, and at dawn a high wind,blowing up from the river, had driven the dead leaves from thechurchyard like flocks of startled swallows into our little street.Since morning I had watched them across my mother's "prize" red geraniumupon our window-sill--now whipped into deep swirls and eddies over thesunken brick pavement, now rising in sighing swarms against the closeddoors of the houses, now soaring aloft until they flew almost as high asthe living swallows in the belfry of old Saint John's. Then as the duskfell, and the street lamps glimmered like blurred stars through therain, I drew back into our little sitting-room, which glowed bright asan ember against the fierce weather outside.

  Half an hour earlier my father had come up from the marble yard, wherehe spent his days cutting lambs and doves and elaborate ivy wreaths instone, and the smell from his great rubber coat, which hung dryingbefore the kitchen stove, floated with the aroma of coffee through thehalf-open door. When I closed an eye and peeped through the crack, Icould see my mother's tall shadow, shifting, not flitting, on thewhitewashed wall of the kitchen, as she passed back and forth from thestove to the wooden cradle in which my little sister Jessy lay asleep,with the head of her rag doll in her mouth.

  Outside the splash! splash! of the rain still sounded on the brickpavement, and as I glanced through the window, I saw an old blind negrobeggar groping under the street lamp at the corner. The muffled beat ofhis stick in the drenched leaves passed our doorstep, and I heard itgrow gradually fainter as he turned in the direction of the negro hovelsthat bordered our end of the town. Across the street, and on either sideof us, there were rows of small boxlike frame houses built with narrowdoorways, which opened from the sidewalk into funny little kitchens,where women, in soiled calico dresses, appeared to iron all day long. Itwas the poorer quarter of what is known in Richmond as "Church Hill," aportion of the city which had been left behind in the earlierfashionable progress westward. Between us and modern Richmond there wereseveral high hills, up which the poor dripping horses panted on summerdays, a railroad station, and a broad slum-like bottom vaguely describedas the "Old Market." Our prosperity, with our traditions, had crumbledaround us, yet there were still left the ancient church, with its shadygraveyard, and an imposing mansion or two inherited from the forgottensplendour of former days. The other Richmond--that "up-town" I heardsometimes mentioned--I had never seen, for my early horizon was boundedby the green hill, by the crawling salmon-coloured James River at itsfoot, and by the quaint white belfry of the parish of old St. John's.Beneath that belfry I had made miniature graves on summer afternoons,and as I sat now opposite to my father, with the bright fire between us,the memory of those crumbling vaults made me hug myself in the warmth,while I edged nearer the great black kettle singing before the flames.

  "Pa," I asked presently, with an effort to resume the conversation alongcheerful lines, "was it a he or a she pup?"

  My father turned his bright blue eyes from the fire, while his handwandered, with an habitual gesture, to his coarse straw-coloured hairwhich stood, like mine, straight up from the forehead.

  "Wall, I'll be blessed if I can recollect, Benjy," he replied, and addedafter a moment, in which I knew that his slow wits were working over afresh attempt at distraction, "but speaking of dawgs, it wouldn'tsurprise me if yo' ma was to let you have a b'iled egg for yo' supper."

  Again the storm was averted. He was so handsome, so soft, so eager tomake everybody happy, that although he did not deceive even my infantmind for a minute, I felt obliged by sheer force of sympathy to stepinto the amiable snare he laid.

  "Hard or soft?" I demanded.

  "Now that's a matter of ch'ice, ain't it?" he rejoined, wrinkling hisforehead as if awed by the gravity of the decision; "but bein' a plainman with a taste for solids, I'd say 'hard' every time."

  "Hard, ma," I repeated gravely through the crack of the door to theshifting shape on the kitchen wall. Then, while he stooped over in thefirelight to prod fresh tobacco into his pipe, I began again myinsatiable quest for knowledge which ha
d brought me punishment at thehand of my mother an hour before.

  "Pa, who named me?"

  "Yo' ma."

  "Did ma name you, too?"

  He shook his head, doubtfully, not negatively. Above his short growth ofbeard his cheeks had warmed to a clear pink, and his foolish blue eyeswere as soft as the eyes of a baby.

  "Wall, I can't say she did that--exactly."

  "Then who did name you?"

  "I don't recollect. My ma, I reckon."

  "Did ma name me Ben Starr, or just Ben?"

  "Just Ben. You were born Starr."

  "Was she born Starr, too?"

  "Good Lord, no, she was born Savage."

  "Then why warn't I born Savage?"

  "Because she married me an' I was born Starr."

  I gave it up with a sigh. "Who had the most to do with my comin' here,God or ma?" I asked after a minute.

  My father hesitated as if afraid of committing himself to an hereticalutterance. "I ain't so sure," he replied at last, and added immediatelyin a louder tone, "Yo' ma, I s'pose."

  "Then why don't I say my prayers to ma instead of to God?"

  "I wouldn't begin to worry over that at my age, if I were you," repliedmy father, with angelic patience, "seein' as it's near supper time an'the kettle's a-bilin'."

  "But I want to know, pa, why it was that I came to be named just Ben?"

  "To be named just Ben?" he repeated slowly, as if the fact had beenbrought for the first time to his attention. "Wall, I reckon 'twasbecause we'd had considerable trouble over the namin' of the first,which was yo' brother President. That bein' the turn of the man of thefamily, I calculated that as a plain American citizen, I couldn't dobetter than show I hadn't any ill feelin' agin the Government. I don'trecollect just what the name of the gentleman at the head of the Nationwas, seein' 'twas goin' on sixteen years ago, but I'd made up my mind tocall the infant in the cradle arter him, if he'd ever answered myletter--which he never did. It was then yo' ma an' I had words becauseshe didn't want a child of hers named arter such a bad-mannered,stuck-up, ornary sort, President or no President. She raised a terriblesquall, but I held out against her," he went on, dropping his voice,"an' I stood up for it that as long as 'twas the office an' not the manI was complimentin', I'd name him arter the office, which I did on thespot. When 'twas over an' done the notion got into my head an' kind oftickled me, an' when you came at last, arter the four others in between,that died befo' they took breath, I was a'ready to name you 'Governor'if yo' ma had been agreeable. But 'twas her turn, so she called youarter her Uncle Benjamin--"

  "What's become o' Uncle Benjamin?" I interrupted.

  "Dead," responded my father, and for the third time I wept.

  "I declar' that child's been goin' on like that for the last hour,"remarked my mother, appearing upon the threshold. "Thar, thar, Benjyboy, stop cryin' an' I'll let you go to old Mr. Cudlip's burialto-morrow."

  "May I go, too, ma?" enquired President, who had come in with a lightedlamp in his hand. He was a big, heavy, overgrown boy, and his head wasalready on a level with his father's.

  "Not if I know it," responded my mother tartly, for her temper wasrising and she looked tired and anxious. "I'll take Benjy along becausehe can crowd in an' nobody'll mind."

  She moved a step nearer while her shadow loomed to gigantic proportionson the whitewashed wall. Her thin brown hair, partially streaked withgrey, was brushed closely over her scalp, and this gave her profile anangularity that became positively grotesque in the shape behind her.Across her forehead there were three deep frowning wrinkles, which didnot disappear even when she smiled, and her sad, flint-coloured eyesheld a perplexed and anxious look, as if she were trying always toremember something which was very important and which she had halfforgotten. I had never seen her, except when she went to funerals,dressed otherwise than in a faded grey calico with a faded grey shawlcrossed tightly over her bosom and drawn to the back of her waist, whereit was secured by a safety pin of an enormous size. Beside her my fatherlooked so young and so amiable that I had a confused impression that hehad shrunk to my own age and importance. Then my mother retreated intothe kitchen and he resumed immediately his natural proportions. Afterthirty years, when I think now of that ugly little room, with itspainted pine furniture, with its coloured glass vases, filled with driedcat-tails, upon the mantelpiece, with its crude red and yellow print ofa miniature David attacking a colossal Goliath, with its narrowwindow-panes, where beyond the "prize" red geranium the wind drove thefallen leaves over the brick pavement, with its staring whitewashedwalls, and its hideous rag carpet--when I think of these vulgar detailsit is to find that they are softened in my memory by a sense of peace,of shelter, and of warm firelight shadows.

  My mother had just laid the supper table, over which I had watched hersmooth the clean red and white cloth with her twisted fingers; Presidentwas proudly holding aloft a savoury dish of broiled herrings, and myfather had pinned on my bib and drawn back the green-painted chair inwhich I sat for my meals--when a hurried knock at the door arrested eachone of us in his separate attitude as if he had been instantly petrifiedby the sound.

  There was a second's pause, and then before my father could reach it,the door opened and shut violently, and a woman, in a dripping cloak,holding a little girl by the hand, came from the storm outside, and ranstraight to the fire, where she stood shaking the child's wet clothesbefore the flames. As the light fell over them, I saw that the woman wasyoung and delicate and richly dressed, with a quantity of pale brownhair which the rain and wind had beaten flat against her smallfrightened face. At the time she was doubtless an unusually prettycreature to a grown-up pair of eyes, but my gaze, burning withcuriosity, passed quickly over her to rest upon the little girl, whopossessed for me the attraction of my own age and size. She wore redshoes, I saw at my first glance, and a white cloak, which I took to beof fur, though it was probably made of some soft, fuzzy cloth I hadnever seen. There was a white cap on her head, held by an elastic bandunder her square little chin, and about her shoulders her hair lay in aprofuse, drenched mass of brown, which reminded me in the firelight ofthe colour of wet November leaves. She was soaked through, and yet asshe stood there, with her teeth chattering in the warmth, I was struckby the courage, almost the defiance, with which she returned my gaze.Baby that she was, I felt that she would scorn to cry while my glancewas upon her, though there were fresh tear marks on her flushed cheeks,and around her solemn grey eyes that were made more luminous by herbroad, heavily arched black eyebrows, which gave her an intense andquestioning look. The memory of this look, which was strange in so younga child, remained with me after the colour of her hair and everycharming feature in her face were forgotten. Years afterwards I think Icould have recognised her in a crowded street by the mingling of lightwith darkness, of intense black with clear grey, in her sparklingglance.

  "I followed the wrong turn," said the pale little woman, breathing hardwith a pitiable, frightened sound, while my mother took her drippingcloak from her shoulders, "and I could not keep on because of the rainwhich came up so heavily. If I could only reach the foot of the hill Imight find a carriage to take me up-town."

  My father had sprung forward as she entered, and was vigorously stirringthe fire, which blazed and crackled merrily in the open grate. Sheaccepted thankfully my mother's efforts to relieve her of her wet wraps,but the little girl drew back haughtily when she was approached, andrefused obstinately to slip out of her cloak, from which the water ranin streams to the floor.

  "I don't like it here, mamma, it is a common place," she said, in aclear childish voice, and though I hardly grasped the meaning of herwords, her tone brought to me for the first time a feeling of shame formy humble surroundings.

  "Hush, Sally," replied her mother, "you must dry yourself. These peopleare very kind."

  "But I thought we were going to grandmama's?"

  "Grandmama lives up-town, and we are going as soon as the storm hasblown over. There, be a good girl and let the l
ittle boy take your wetcap."

  "I don't want him to take my cap. He is a common boy."

  In spite of the fact that she seemed to me to be the most disagreeablelittle girl I had ever met, the word she had used was lodged unalterablyin my memory. In that puzzled instant, I think, began my struggle torise out of the class in which I belonged by birth; and I remember thatI repeated the word "common" in a whisper to myself, while I resolvedthat I would learn its meaning in order that I might cease to be theunknown thing that it implied.

  My mother, who had gone into the kitchen with the dripping cloak in herarms, returned a moment later with a cup of steaming coffee in one handand a mug of hot milk in the other.

  "It's a mercy if you haven't caught your death with an inner chill," sheobserved in a brisk, kindly tone. "'Twas the way old Mr. Cudlip, whosefuneral I'm going to to-morrow, came to his end, and he was as hale,red-faced a body as you ever laid eyes on."

  The woman received the cup gratefully, and I could see her poor thinhands tremble as she raised it to her lips.

  "Drink the warm milk, dear," she said pleadingly to the disagreeablelittle girl, who shook her head and drew back with a stiff childishgesture.

  "I'm not hungry, thank you," she replied to my mother in her sweet,clear treble. To all further entreaties she returned the same answer,standing there a haughty, though drenched and battered infant, in hersoiled white cloak and her red shoes, holding her mop of a muff tightlyin both hands.

  "I'm not hungry, thank you," she repeated, adding presently in a mannerof chill politeness, "give it to the boy."

  But the boy was not hungry either, and when my mother, finally takingher at her word, turned, in exasperation, and offered the mug to me, Ideclined it, also, and stood nervously shifting from one foot to theother, while my hands caught and twisted the fringe of the table-clothat my back. The big grey eyes of the little girl looked straight intomine, but there was no hint in them that she was aware of my existence.Though her teeth were chattering, and she knew I heard them, she did notrelax for an instant from her scornful attitude.

  "We were just about to take a mouthful of supper, mum, an' we'd be proudif you an' the little gal would jine us," remarked my father, with aneager hospitality.

  "I thank you," replied the woman in her pretty, grateful manner, "butthe coffee has restored my strength, and if you will direct me to thehill, I shall be quite able to go on again."

  A step passed close to the door on the pavement outside, and I saw herstart and clutch the child to her bosom with trembling hands. As shestood there in her shaking terror, I remembered a white kitten I hadonce seen chased by boys into the area of a deserted house.

  "If--if anyone should come to enquire after me, will you be so good asto say nothing of my having been here?" she asked.

  "To be sure I will, with all the pleasure in life," responded my father,who, it was evident even to me, had become a victim to her distressedloveliness.

  Emboldened by the effusive politeness of my parent, I went up to thelittle girl and shyly offered her a blossom from my mother's geraniumupon the window-sill. A scrap of a hand, as cold as ice when it touchedmine, closed over the stem of the flower, and without looking at me, shestood, very erect, with the scarlet geranium grasped stiffly between herfingers.

  "I'll take you to the bottom of the hill myself," protested my father,"but I wish you could persuade yourself to try a bite of food befo' youset out in the rain."

  "It is important that I should lose no time," answered the woman,drawing her breath quickly through her small white teeth, "but I fearthat I am taking you away from your supper?"

  "Not at all, you will not deprive me in the least," stammered my father,blushing up to his ears, while his straight flaxen hair appearedliterally to rise with embarrassment. "I--I--the fact is I'm not aneater, mum."

  For an instant, remembering the story of Ananias I had heard inSunday-school, I looked round in terror, half expecting to hear thedreadful feet of the young men on the pavement. But he passed scathlessfor the hour at least, and our visitor had turned to receive herhalf-dried cloak from my mother's hands, when her face changed suddenlyto a more deadly pallor, and seizing the little girl by the shoulder,she fled, like a small frightened animal, across the threshold into thekitchen.

  My father's hand had barely reached the knob of the street door, when itopened and a man in a rubber coat entered, and stopped short in thecentre of the room, where he stood blinking rapidly in the lamplight. Iheard the rain drip with a soft pattering sound from his coat to thefloor, and when he wheeled about, after an instant in which his glancesearched the room, I saw that his face was flushed and his eyes swimmingand bloodshot. There was in his look, as I remember it now, something ofthe inflamed yet bridled cruelty of a bird of prey.

  "Have you noticed a lady with a little girl go by?" he enquired.

  At his question my father fell back a step or two until he stoodsquarely planted before the door into the kitchen. Though he was a bigman, he was not so big as the other, who towered above the driedcat-tails in a china vase on the mantelpiece.

  "Are you sure they did not pass here?" asked the stranger, and as heturned his head the dried pollen was loosened from the cat-tails anddrifted in an ashen dust to the hearth.

  "No, I'll stake my word on that. They ain't passed here yet," replied myfather.

  With an angry gesture the other shook his rubber coat over our brightlittle carpet, and passed out again, slamming the door violently behindhim. Running to the window, I lifted the green shade, and watched hisbig black figure splashing recklessly through the heavy puddles underthe faint yellowish glimmer of the street lamp at the comer. The lightflickered feebly on his rubber coat and appeared to go out in thestreams of water that fell from his shoulders.

  When I looked round I saw that the woman had come back into the room,still grasping the little girl by the hand.

  "No, no, I must go at once. It is necessary that I should go at once,"she repeated breathlessly, looking up in a dazed way into my mother'sface.

  "If you must you must, an' what ain't my business ain't," replied mymother a trifle sharply, while she wrapped a grey woollen comforter ofher own closely over the head and shoulders of the little girl, "but ifyou'd take my advice, which you won't, you'd turn this minute an' walkstraight back home to yo' husband."

  But the woman only shook her head with its drenched mass of soft brownhair.

  "We must go, Sally, mustn't we?" she said to the child.

  "Yes, we must go, mamma," answered the little girl, still grasping thestem of the red geranium between her fingers.

  "That bein' the case, I'll get into my coat with all the pleasure inlife an' see you safe," remarked my father, with a manner that impressedme as little short of the magnificent.

  "But I hate to take you away from home on such a terrible night."

  "Oh, don't mention the weather," responded my gallant parent, while hestruggled into his rubber shoes; and he added quite handsomely, after aflourish which appeared to set the elements at defiance, "arter all,weather is only weather, mum."

  As nobody, not even my mother, was found to challenge the truth of thisstatement, the child was warmly wrapped up in an old blanket shawl, andmy father lifted her in his arms, while the three set out under a bigcotton umbrella for the brow of the hill. President and I peered afterthem from the window, screening our eyes with our hollowed palms, andflattening our noses against the icy panes; but in spite of our effortswe could only discern dimly the shape of the umbrella rising like aminiature black mountain out of the white blur of the fog. The longempty street with the wind-drifts of dead leaves, the pale glimmer ofthe solitary light at the far corner, the steady splash! splash! of therain as it fell on the brick pavement, the bitter draught that blew inover the shivering geranium upon the sill--all these brought a lump tomy throat, and I turned back quickly into our cheerful little room,where my untasted supper awaited me.

 
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