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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Desired Woman By Will N. Harben Characters: 20488

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06

At the gate in front of his farmhouse in the mountains Tom Drake received a letter from the rural mail-carrier, who was passing in a one-horse buggy.

"That's all this morning, Tom," the carrier said, cheerfully. "You've got good corn and cotton in the bottom below here."

"Purty good, I reckon, if the drouth don't kill 'em," the farmer answered. The carrier drove on, and Tom slowly opened his letter and turned toward the house. He was a typical Georgia mountaineer, strong, tall, broad-shouldered, middle-aged. He wore no beard, had mild brown eyes, heavy chestnut hair upon which rested a shapeless wool hat full of holes. His arms and legs were long, his gait slouching and deliberate. He was in his shirt-sleeves; his patched jean trousers were too large at the waist, and were supported by a single home-knitted suspender. He was chewing tobacco, and as he went along he moved his stained lips in the audible pronunciation of the words he was reading.

His wife, Lucy, a slender woman, in a drab print dress with no sort of adornment to it or to her scant, tightly knotted hair, stood on the porch impatiently waiting for him. Behind her, leaning in the doorway, was her brother, John Webb, a red-haired, red-faced bachelor, fifty years of age, who also had his eyes on the approaching reader.

"Another dun, I reckon," Mrs. Drake said, tentatively, when her husband had paused at the bottom step and glanced up from the sheet in his hand.

"Not this time." Tom slowly spat on the ground, and looked first at his wife and then at his brother-in-law with a broadening smile. "You two are as good at guessin' as the general run, but if I gave you a hundred trials-yes, three hundred-and all day to do it in, you wouldn't then come in a mile o' what's in this letter."

"I don't intend to try," Mrs. Drake said, eagerly, "anyways not with all that ironin' to do that's piled up like a haystack on the dinin'-room table, to say nothin' of the beds and bed-clothes to be sunned. You can keep your big secret as far as I'm concerned."

"It's another Confederate Veteran excursion to some town whar whisky is sold," said the bachelor, with a dry cackle. "That's my guess. You fellows that was licked don't git no pensions from Uncle Sam, but you manage to have enough fun once a year to make up for it."

Tom Drake swept the near-by mountain slope with his slow glance of amusement, folded the sheet tantalizingly, and spat again.

"I don't know, Luce," he said to his wife, as he wiped his lips on his shirt-sleeve, "that it is a good time to tell you on top o' your complaint of over-work, but Dick Mostyn, your Atlanta boarder, writes that he's a little bit run down an' wants to come an' stay a solid month. Money seems to be no object to him, an' he says if he kin just git the room he had before an' a chance at your home cooking three times a day he will be in clover."

"Well, well, well!" Lucy cried, in a tone of delight, "so he wants to come ag'in, an' all this time I've been thinkin' he'd never think of us any more. There wasn't a thing for him to do that summer but lie around in the shade, except now an' then when he was off fishin' or huntin'."

"Well, I hope you will let 'im come," John Webb drawled out, in his slow fashion. "I can set an' study a town dude like him by the hour an' never git tired. I never kin somehow git at what sech fellers think about or do when they are at home. He makes money, but how? His hands are as soft an' white as a woman's. His socks are as thin an' flimsy as spider-webs. He had six pairs o' pants, if he had one, an' a pair o' galluses to each pair. I axed him one day when they was all spread out on his bed what on earth he had so many galluses for, an' Mostyn said-I give you my word I'm not jokin'-he said"-Webb laughed out impulsively-"he said it was to keep from botherin' to button 'em on ever' time he changed! He said"-the bachelor continued to laugh-"that he could just throw the galluses over his shoulders when he was in a hurry an' be done with the job. Do you know, folks, if I was as lazy as that I'd be afraid the Lord would cut me off in my prime. Why, a feller on a farm has to do more than that ever' time he pulls a blade o' fodder or plants a seed o' corn."

"Well, of course, I want 'im to come." Mrs. Drake had not heard a word of her brother's rambling comment, and there was a decidedly expectant intonation in her voice. "Nobody's usin' the company-room, an' the presidin' elder won't be here till fall. Mr. Mostyn never was a bit of trouble and seemed to love everything I set before him. But I reckon we needn't feel so flattered. He's coming here so he'll be near Mr. Saunders when he runs up to his place on Sundays."

John Webb, for such a slow individual, had suddenly taken on a new impetus. He left his sister and her husband and passed through the passage bisecting the lower part of the plain two-story house and went out at the rear door. In the back yard he found his nephew, George Drake, a boy of fifteen years, seated on the grass repairing a ragged, mud-stained fish-net.

"Who told you you could be out o' school, young feller?" John demanded, dryly. "I'll bet my life you are playin' hookey. You think because your sister's the teacher you can run wild like a mountain shote. My Lord, look at your clothes! I'll swear it would be hard to tell whether you've got on anything or not-that is, anything except mud an' slime. Have you been tryin' to pull that seine through the creek by yourself?"

The boy, who had a fine head and profile and was stoutly built and generally good-looking, was too busy with his strings and knots to look up. "Some fool left it in the creek, and it's laid there for the last month," he mumbled. "I had to go in after it, and it was all tangled up and clogged with mud. Dolly knew I wasn't going to school to-day."

"She knew it when you didn't turn up at roll-call, I bound you," Webb drawled. "Say, do you know a young gal like her ain't strong enough to lick scholars as sound as they ought to be licked, and thar is some talk about appointin' some able-bodied man that lives close about to step in an' sort o' clean up two or three times a week. I don't know but what I'd like the job. A feller that goes as nigh naked as you do would be a blame good thing to practise on."

"Huh!" the boy sniffed, as he tossed back his shaggy brown hair. "You talk mighty big. I'd like to see you try to whip me-I shore would."

"Well, I may give you the chance if Dolly calls on me to help 'er out,"

Webb laughed. "Say, I started to tell you a secret, but I won't."

"I already know what it is," George said, with a mischievous grin.

"You say you do?" Webb was caught in the wily fellow's snare.

"Yes, you are going to get married." The boy now burst into a roar of laughter and threw himself back on the grass. "You and Sue Tidwell are going to get spliced. The whole valley's talking about it, and hoping that it will be public like an election barbecue. You with your red head and freckled face and her with her stub nose and-"

"That will do-that will do!" Webb's frown seemed to deepen the flush which, fold upon fold, came into his face. "Jokin' is all right, but it ain't fair to bring in a lady's name."

"Oh no, of course not." The boy continued to laugh through the net which he had drawn over him. "The shoe is on the other foot now."

"Well, I'm not goin' to tell you the news," Webb declared, with a touch of propitiation in his voice; and, not a little discomfited, he turned away, employing a quicker step than usually characterized his movement.

"The young scamp!" he said. "He's gittin' entirely too forward-entirely, for a boy as young as he is, and me his uncle."

Crossing a strip of meadow land, then picking his way between the rows of a patch of corn, and skirting a cotton-field, he came out into a red-clay road. Along this he walked till he reached a little meeting-house snugly ensconced among big trees at the foot of the mountain. The white frame building, oblong in shape, had four windows with green outer blinds on each of its two sides, and a door at the end nearer the road. As Webb traversed the open space, where, on Sundays, horses were hitched to the trees and saplings, a drone as of countless bees fell on his ears. To a native this needed no explanation. During five of the week-days the building was used as a schoolhouse. The sound was made by the students studying aloud, and John's niece, Dolly Drake, had sole charge of them.

Reaching the door and holding his hat in his hand, Webb cautiously peered within, beholding row after row of boys and girls whose backs were turned to him. At a blackboard on the platform, a bit of chalk in her fingers, Dolly, a girl eighteen years of age, stood explaining an example in arithmetic to several burly boys taller than herself. Webb glanced up at the sun.

"They haven't had recess yet," he reckoned. "I swear I'm sorry for them boys. I'd rather take a dozen lickin's than to stay in on a day like this an' try to git lessons in my head. I don't blame George a bit, so I don't. I can't recall a thing in the Saviour's teachin's about havin' to study figures an' geography, nohow. Looks to me like the older the world gits the further it gits from common sense."

Patiently Webb held his ground till Dolly had dismissed the class; then, turning to a table on which stood a cumbersome brass bell, she said: "I'm going to let you have recess, but you've got to go out quietly."

She had not ceased speaking, and had scarcely touched the handle of the bell, when there was a deafening clatter of books and slates on the crude benches. Feet shod and feet bare pounded the floor. Merry yells rent the air. On the platform itself two of the arithmetic delinquents were boxing playfully, fiercely punching, thrusting, and dodging. At a window three boys were bodily ejecting a fourth, the legs and feet of whom, like a human letter V, were seen disappearing over the sill.

Smilingly Webb stood aside and let the clamoring drove hurtle past to the playground outside, and when the way was clear he entered the church and stalked up the single aisle toward his niece. Dolly had t

urned back to the blackboard, and was sponging off the chalk figures. She was quite pretty; her eyes were large, with fathomless hazel depths. Her brow, under a mass of uncontrollable reddish-brown hair, was high and indicative of decided intellectual power. She was of medium height, very shapely, and daintily graceful. She had a good nose and a sweet, sympathetic mouth. Her hands were slender and tapering, though suggestive of strength. She wore a simple white shirtwaist and a black skirt than which nothing could have been more becoming. Hearing her uncle's step, she turned and greeted his smile with a dubious one of her own.

"Why don't you go out and play with the balance an' limber yourself up?" he asked.

"Play? I say play!" she sighed. "You men don't know any more about what a woman teacher has to contend with than a day-old kitten. My head is in a constant whirl. Sometimes I forget my own name."

"What's wrong now?" Webb smiled eagerly.

"Oh, it's everything-everything!" she sighed. "Not a thing has happened right to-day. George flatly refused to come to school-even defied me before some other boys down the road. Then my own sister-"

"What's wrong with Ann? I remember now that I didn't see her in that drove just now, and she certainly ain't at home, because I'm just from thar."

"No, she isn't at home," Dolly frowned, and, for an obvious reason, raised her voice to a high pitch, "but I'll tell you where she is, and as her own blood uncle you can share my humiliation." Therewith Dolly grimly pointed at a closet door close by. "Open it," she said. "The truth is, I told her she would have to stay there twenty minutes, and I've been bothered all through the last recitation for fear she wouldn't get enough air. All at once she got still, though she kept up a terrible racket at first."

With a grin Webb mounted the platform and opened the door of the closet. He opened it quite widely, that Dolly might look into the receptacle from where she stood. And there against the wall, seated on the floor, was Dolly's sister Ann, a slim-legged, rather pretty girl about fourteen years of age, her eyes sullenly cast down. Around her were some dismantled, ill-smelling lamps, a step-ladder, an old stove, and a bench holding a stack of hymn-books.

"She ain't quite dead," John said, dryly. "She's still breathin' below the neck, an' she's got some red in the face."

"She ought to be red from head to foot," Dolly said, for the culprit's ears. "Ann, come here!"

There was no movement on the part of the prisoner save a desultory picking of the fingers at a fold of her gingham skirt.

"Didn't you hear what Dolly-what your teacher said?" Webb asked, in an effort at severity which was far from his mood.

"Of course she heard," Dolly said, sharply. "She thinks it will mend matters for her to pout awhile. Come here, Ann."

"I want to stay here," Ann muttered; "I like it. Shut the door, Uncle

John. It is cool and nice in here."

"She wants to stay." Webb's eyes danced as he conveyed the message. "She says she likes it, an' I reckon she does. Scripture says them whose deeds is evil likes darkness better'n light. You certainly made a mistake when you clapped 'er in here-that is, if you meant to punish 'er. Ann's a reg'lar bat, if not a' owl."

"Pull her out!" Dolly cried. "I've got to talk to her, and recess is almost over."

"Come out, young lady," Webb laid hold of the girl's wrist and drew the reluctant creature to her feet, half pushing, half leading her to her sister.

"I'm glad you happened in, Uncle John," Dolly said. "I want you to take a look at that face. How she got the money I don't know, but she bought a dozen sticks of licorice at the store as she passed this morning and brought them to school in her pocket. She's been gorging herself with it all day. You can see it all over her face, under her chin, behind her neck, and even in her ears. Look here at her new geography." Dolly, in high disgust, exhibited several brown smudges on an otherwise clean page.

Webb took the book with all the gravity of a most righteous, if highly amused judge. "Looks like ham gravy, don't it?" he said. "An' as I understand it, the book has to be handed on to somebody else when she gits through with it. What a pity!"

"I know you are ashamed of her, Uncle John, for I am," Dolly continued.

"You see, she's my own sister."

"And my own sister's child," Webb deplored. "Of course, she ain't quite as close to me as she is to you, but she's nigh enough to make me feel plumb ashamed. I've always tuck pride in both you gals; but lawsy me, if Ann is goin' to gaum 'erself from head to foot like a pig learnin' to root, why, I reckon I'll jest hang my head in shame."

"I've lost all patience," the teacher said. "Go home, Ann, and let mother look at you. Don't come back to-day. I don't want to see you again. I've lost heart completely. I want to be proud of you and George, but I'm afraid I never can be. She can't write, Uncle John; she can't spell the simplest words in three syllables; and as for using correct grammar and pronunciation-" But Ann was stalking off without looking back.

Dolly sat down at the table and drew a sheet of paper toward her. "She's got me all upset," she sighed. "Mr. DeWitt, the new teacher, has been sending about a test example in arithmetic to see who can work it. He says he can do it, and one or two other men, but that he never has seen a woman teacher yet who could get the answer. I was within an inch of the solution when I caught sight of that girl's face, and it went from me in a flash. Uncle John, if fifteen men own in common three hundred and eighty-four bushels of wheat, and three men want to buy sixty-seven and three-fourths of-"

"Oh, Lord-thar you go!" Webb groaned. "Let me tell you some'n', Dolly. The fool feller that concocted that thing to idle time away with never hoed a row of corn or planted a potato. Do you know what that's meant for? It is for no other reason under the shinin' sun than to make the average parent think teachers know more'n the rest o' humanity. In the first place, the fifteen common men must be common shore enough if they couldn't own all told more than that amount o' wheat in this day and time when even a one-horse farmer can raise-"

"You don't understand," Dolly broke in, with an indulgent smile.

"And I don't want to, either," John declared. "It is hard enough work to sow and reap and thresh wheat in hot weather like this without sweatin' over fifteen able-bodied men that are jowerin' about a pile no bigger'n that."

Dolly glanced at the round rosewood clock on the plastered wall and reached for the bell-handle. "My time's up," she said. "I wish I could stop my ears with cotton. They always come in like a drove of iron-shod mules on a wooden bridge."

"Your pa's got a piece o' news this mornin'." Webb knew his words would stay the hand now resting on the bell.

"What is it?" Dolly inquired.

"He got a letter from Mr. Mostyn; he's comin' up to board at the house for a month."

The pretty hand dropped from the bell-handle. Dolly was staring at the speaker in surprise. She said nothing, though he was sure a flush was creeping into her cheeks.

"I sorter thought that 'ud stagger you," Webb said with a significant grin.

"Me? I don't see why." Dolly was fighting for perfect composure under trying circumstances, considering her uncle's mischievous stare.

"Well, I do, if you don't, Miss Dolly," he tittered. "You wasn't a bit older 'n Ann is when he was here last, but you was daffy about 'im the same as your ma an' all the rest o' the women. In fact, you was wuss than the balance."

"Me? I'm ashamed of you, Uncle John; I'm ashamed to hear you accuse me of-of-why, I never heard of such a thing."

"No matter, I wasn't plumb blind," Webb went on. "You kept puttin' fresh flowers in his room an' you eyed his plate like he was a pet cat to see if he was bein' fed right. La me, I'm no fool! I know a little about females, an' I never saw a mountain woman yet that wouldn't go stark crazy over a town man or a' unmarried preacher. I reckon it must be the clothes the fellers wear or the prissy stuff they chat about."

Dolly put her hand out toward the bell, but dropped it to the table.

"When is he coming?" she asked, her eyes holding a tense, eager stare.

"Thursday," was the answer, accompanied by a widening grin. "I wouldn't give the children a holiday on the strength of it if I was you. Part o' these mountain folks is men an' moonshiners, an' they don't think any more about a feller that owns a bank in Atlanta 'an they do of a mossback clod-hopper with the right sort o' heart in 'im. Say, Mostyn ain't nothin' but human, an' if what some say is so he ain't the highest grade o' that. Over at Hilton's warehouse in Ridgeville t'other day I heard some cotton-buyers talkin' about men that had riz fast an' the underhanded tricks sech chaps use to hoodwink simple folks, an' they said Dick Mostyn capped the stack. Accordin' to them, he-"

"I don't believe a word of it!" Dolly stood up and angrily grasped the bell-handle. "It's not true. It's a meddlesome lie. They are jealous. People are always like that-it makes them furious to see another person prosper. They are mean, low back-biters."

"Oh, I don't say that Mostyn will actually be arrested before he gits up here," John said, dryly. "From all reports he generally has the law on his side, an'-"

But Dolly, still angry, was ringing the bell. She had turned her back to Webb; and, unable to make himself heard, he made his way down the aisle to the door.

"She's a regular spitfire when she gits 'er back up," he mused. "Now I know she likes 'im. It's been three years since she laid eyes on 'im, but she's as daffy now as she was then. It must 'a' been the feller's gallant way. I remember he used to say she was the purtiest an' brightest little trick he ever seed. Maybe he said somethin' o' the sort to her, young as she was. I remember I used to think Sis was a fool to let 'im walk about with Dolly so much, pickin' flowers an' the like. Well, if he thought she was purty an' smart then he'll be astonished now-he shore will."

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