Jedediah was not a name that savoured of romance. His last name was Crane, which is little better. And it would be no use to call this story "Mattie Adams's Romance" because Mattie Adams is not a romantic name either. But names have really nothing to do with romance. The most exciting and tragic affair I ever knew was between a man named Silas Putdammer and a woman named Kezia Cullen—which has nothing to do with the present story.
Jedediah, to all outward seeming, did not appear to be any more romantic than his name. He looked distinctly commonplace as he rode comfortably along the winding country road that was dreaming in the haze and sunshine of a midsummer afternoon. He was perched on the seat of a bright red pedlar's wagon, above and behind a dusty, ambling, red pony of that peculiar gait and appearance pertaining to the ponies of country pedlars—a certain placid, unhasting leanness, as of a nag that has encountered troubles of his own and has lived them down by sheer patience and staying power. From the bright red wagon proceeded a certain metallic rumbling and clinking as it bowled along, and two or three nests of tin pans on its flat rope-encircled top flashed back the light so dazzlingly that Jedediah seemed the beaming sun of a little planetary system all his own. A new broom sticking up aggressively at each of the four corners gave the wagon a resemblance to a triumphal chariot.
Jedediah himself had not been in the tin-peddling business long enough to acquire the apologetic, out-at-elbows appearance which distinguishes a tin pedlar from other kinds of pedlars. In fact, this was his maiden venture in this line; hence he still looked plump and self-respecting. He had a round red face under his plug hat, twinkling blue eyes, and a little pursed-up mouth, the shape of which was partly due to nature and partly to much whistling. Jedediah's pudgy body was clothed in a suit of large, light checks, and he wore a bright pink necktie and an amethyst pin. Will I still be believed when I assert that, in spite of all this, Jedediah was full of, and bubbling over with, romance?
Romance cares not for appearances and apparently delights in contradictions. The homely shambling man you pass unnoticed on the street may have, tucked away in his past, a story more exciting and thrilling than anything you have ever read in fiction. So it was, in a measure, with Jedediah; poor, unknown to fame, afflicted with a double chin and bald spot, reduced to driving a tin-wagon for a living, he yet had his romance and he was still romantic.
As Jedediah rode through Amberley he looked about him with interest. He knew it well, although it was fifteen years since he had seen it. He had been born and brought up in Amberley; he had left it at the age of twenty-five to make his fortune. But Amberley was Amberley still. Jedediah found it hard to believe that it or himself was fifteen years older.
"There's the Stanton place," he said. "Charlie has painted the house yellow—it used to be white; and Bob Hollman has cut the trees down behind the blacksmith forge. Bob never had any poetry in his soul—no romance, as you might say. He was what you might call a plodder—you might call him that. Get up, my nag, get up. There's the old Harkness place—seems to be spruced up considerable. Folks used to say if ye wanted to see how the world looked the morning after the flood just go into George Harkness's barn-yard on a rainy day. The pond and the old hills ain't changed any. Get up, my nag, get up. There's the Adams homestead. Do I really behold it again?"
Jedediah thought the moment deliciously romantic. He revelled in it and, to match his exhilarated mood, he touched the pony with his whip and went clinking and glittering down the hill under the poplars at a dashing rate. He had not intended to offer his wares in Amberley that day. He meant to break the ice in Occidental, the village beyond. But he could not pass the Adams place. When he came to the open gate he turned in under the willows and drove down the wide, shady lane, girt on both sides with a trim white paling smothered in lavish sweetbriar bushes that were gay with bloom. Jedediah's heart was beating furiously under his checks.
"What a fool you are, Jed Crane," he told himself. "You used to be a young fool, and now you're an old one. Sad, that! Get up, my nag, get up. It's a poor lookout for a man of your years, Jed. Don't get excited. It ain't the least likely that Mattie Adams is here yet. She's married and gone years ago, no doubt. It's probable there's no Adamses here at all now. But it's romantic, yes, it's romantic. It's splendid. Get up, my nag, get up."
The Adams place itself was not unromantic. The house was a large, old-fashioned white one, with green shutters and a front porch with Grecian columns. These were thought very elegant in Amberley. Mrs. Carmody said they gave a house such a classical air. In this instance the classical effect was somewhat smothered in honeysuckle, which rioted over the whole porch and hung in pale yellow, fragrant festoons over the rows of potted scarlet geraniums that flanked the green steps. Beyond the house a low-boughed orchard covered the slope between it and the main road, and behind it there was a revel of colour betokening a flower garden.
Jedediah climbed down from his lofty seat and walked dubiously to a side door that looked more friendly, despite its prim screen, than the classical front porch. As he drew near he saw a woman sitting behind the screen—a woman who rose as he approached and opened the door. Jedediah's heart had been beating a wild tattoo as he crossed the yard. It now stopped altogether—at least he declared in later years it did.
The woman was Mattie Adams—Mattie Adams fifteen years older than when he had seen her last, plumper, rosier, somewhat broader-faced, but still unmistakably Mattie Adams. Jedediah felt that the situation was delicious.
"Mattie," he said, holding out his hand.
"Why, Jed, how are you?" said Mattie, as if they had parted the week before. It had always taken a great deal to disturb Mattie. Whatever happened she was calm. Even an old lover, and the only one she had ever possessed at that, dropping, so to speak, from the skies, after fifteen years' disappearance, did not ruffle her placidity.
"I didn't suppose you'd know me, Mattie," said Jedediah, still holding her hand foolishly.
"I knew you the minute I set eyes on you," returned Mattie. "You're some fatter and older—like myself—but you're Jed still. Where have you been all these years?"
"Pretty near everywhere, Mattie—pretty near everywhere. And ye see what it's come to—here I be driving a tin-wagon for Boone Brothers. Business is business—don't you want to buy some new tinware?"
To himself, Jed thought it was romantic, asking a woman whom he had loved all his life to buy tins on the occasion of their first meeting after fifteen years' separation.
"I don't know but I do want a quart measure," said Mattie, in her sweet, unchanged voice, "but all in good time. You must stay and have tea with me, Jed. I'm all alone now—Mother and Father have gone. Unhitch your horse and put him in the third stall in the stable."
"I ought to be getting on, I s'pose," he said wistfully. "I hain't done much today—"
"You must stay to tea," interrupted Mattie. "Why, Jed, there's ever so much to tell and ask. And we can't stand here in the yard and talk. Look at Selena. There she is, watching us from the kitchen window. She'll watch as long as we stand here."
Jed swung himself around. Over the little valley below the Adams homestead was a steep, treeless hill, and on its crest was perched a bare farmhouse with windows stuck lavishly all over it. At one of them a long, pale face was visible.
"Has Selena been pasted up at that window ever since the last time we stood here and talked, Mattie?" asked Jed, half resentfully, half amusedly. It was characteristic of Mattie to laugh first at the question, and then blush over the memory it revived.
"Most of the time, I guess," she said shortly. "But come—come in. I never could talk under Selena's eyes, even if they were four hundred yards away."
Jed went in and stayed to tea. The old Adams pantry had not failed, nor apparently the Adams skill in cooking. After tea Jed hung around till sunset and drove away with a warm invitation from Mattie to call every time his rounds took him through Amberley. As he went, Selena's face appeared at the window of the house over the valley.
When he had gone Mattie went around to the classical porch and sat herself down under the honeysuckle festoons that dangled above her smooth braids of fawn-coloured hair. She knew Selena would be down posthaste presently, agog with curiosity to find out who the pedlar was whom Mattie had delighted to honour with an invitation to tea. Mattie preferred to meet Selena out of doors. It was easier to thrust and parry there. Meanwhile, she wanted to think over things.
Fifteen years before Jedediah Crane had been Mattie Adams's beau. Jedediah was romantic even then, but, as he was a slim young fellow at the time, with an abundance of fair, curly hair and innocent blue eyes, his romance was rather an attraction than not. At least the then young and pretty Mattie had found it so.
The Adamses looked with no favour on the match. They were a thrifty, well-to-do folk. As for the Cranes—well, they were lazy and shiftless, for the most part. It would be a mésalliance for an Adams to marry a Crane. Still, it would doubtless have happened—for Mattie, though a meek-looking damsel, had a mind of her own—had it not been for Selena Ford, Mattie's older sister.
Selena, people said, had married James Ford for no other reason than that his house commanded a view of nearly every dooryard in Amberley. This may or may not have been sheer malice. Certainly nothing that went on in the Adams yard escaped Selena.
She watched Mattie and Jed in the moonlight one night. She saw Jed kiss Mattie. It was the first time he had ever done so—and the last, poor fellow. For Selena swooped down on her parents the next day. Such a storm did she brew up that Mattie was forbidden to speak to Jed again. Selena herself gave Jed a piece of her mind. Jed usually was not afflicted with undue sensitiveness. But he had some slumbering pride at the basis of his character and it was very stubborn when roused. Selena roused it. Jed vowed he would never creep and crawl at the feet of the Adamses, and he went west forthwith, determined, as aforesaid, to make his fortune and hurl Selena's scorn back in her face.
And now he had come home, driving a tin-wagon. Mattie smiled to think of it. She bore Jed no ill will for his failure. She felt sorry for him and inclined to think that fate had used him hardly—fate and Selena together. Mattie had never had another beau. People thought she was engaged to Jed Crane until her time for beaus went by. Mattie did not mind; she had never liked anybody so well as Jed. To be sure, she had not thought of him for years. It was strange he should come back like this—"romantic," as he said himself.
Mattie's reverie was interrupted by Selena. Angular, pale-eyed Mrs. Ford was as unlike the plump, rosy Mattie as a sister could be. Perhaps her chronic curiosity, which would not let her rest, was accountable for her excessive leanness.
"Who was that pedlar that was here this afternoon, Mattie?" she demanded as soon as she arrived.
Mattie smiled. "Jed Crane," she said. "He's home from the West and driving a tin-wagon for the Boones."
Selena gave a little gasp. She sat down on the lowest step and untied her bonnet strings.
"Mattie Adams! And you kept him hanging about the whole afternoon."
"Why not?" said Mattie wickedly. She liked to alarm Selena. "Jed and I were always beaus, you know."
"Mattie Adams! You don't mean to say you're going to make a fool of yourself over Jed Crane again? A woman of your age!"
"Don't get excited, Selena," implored Mattie. In the old days Selena could cow her, but that time was past. "I never saw the like of you for getting stirred up over nothing."
"I'm not excited. I'm perfectly calm. But I might well be excited over your folly, Mattie Adams. The idea of your taking up again with old Jed Crane!"
"He's fifteen years younger than Jim," said Mattie, giving thrust for thrust.
When Selena had come over Mattie had not the slightest idea of resuming her former relationship with the romantic Jedediah. She had merely shown him kindness for old friendship's sake. But so well did the unconscious Selena work in Jed's behalf that when she flounced off home in a pet Mattie was resolved that she would take Jed back if he wanted to come. She wasn't going to put up with Selena's everlasting interference. She would show her that she was independent.
When a week had passed Jed came again. He sold Mattie a stew-pan and he would not go in to tea this time, but they stood and talked in the yard for the best part of an hour, while Selena glared at them from her kitchen window. Their conversation was most innocent and harmless, being mainly gossip about what had come and gone during Jed's exile. But Mattie knew that Selena thought that she and Jed were making love to each other in this shameless, public fashion. When Jed went, Mattie, more for Selena's benefit than his, broke off some sprays of honeysuckle and pinned them on his coat. The fragrance went with Jedediah as he drove through Amberley, and pleasant thoughts were born of it.
"It's romantic," he told the pony. "Blessed if it ain't romantic! Not that Mattie cares anything about me now. I know she don't. But it's just her kind way. She wants to cheer me up and let me know I've a friend still. Get up, my nag, get up. I ain't one to persoom on her kindness neither; I know my place. But still, say what you will, it's romantic—this sitooation. This is it. Here I be, loving the ground she walks on, as I've always done, and I can't let on that I do because I'm a poor ne'er-do-well as ain't fit to look at her, an independent woman with property. And she's a-showing kindness to me for old times' sake, and piercing my heart all the time, not knowing. Why, it's romance with a vengeance, that's what it is. Get up, my nag, get up."
Thereafter Jed called at the Adams place every week. Generally he stayed to tea. Mattie always bought something of him to colour an excuse. Her kitchen fairly glittered with new tinware. She gave Selena the overflow by way of heaping coals of fire.
After every visit Jedediah held stern counsel with himself and decided that he must not call to see Mattie again—at least, not for a long time; then he must not stay to tea. He would struggle with himself all the way down the poplar hill—not without a comforting sense of the romance of the struggle—but it always ended the same way. He turned in under the willows and clinked musically into Mattie's yard. At least, the rattle of the tin-wagon sounded musically to Mattie.
Meanwhile, Selena watched from her window and raged.
Amberley people shrugged their shoulders when gossip noised the matter abroad. But, being good-humoured in the main, they forebore to do more than say that Mattie Adams was free to make a goose of herself if it pleased her, and that Jed Crane wasn't such a fool as he looked. The Adams farm was one of the best in Amberley, and it had not grown any poorer under Mattie's management.
"If Jed walks in there and hangs up his hat he'll have done well for himself after all."
This was Selena's view of it also, barring the good nature. She was furious at the whole affair, and she did her best to make Mattie's life a burden to her with slurs and thrusts. But they all misjudged Jed. He had no intention of "walking in and hanging up his hat"—or trying to. Romantic as he was, it never occurred to him that Mattie might be as romantic as himself. She did not care for him, and anyhow he, Jed, had a little too much pride to ask her, a rich woman, to marry him, a poor man who had lost all caste he ever possessed by taking up tin-peddling. Jed was determined not to "persoom." And, oh, how deliciously romantic it all was! He hugged himself with sorrowful delight over it.
As the summer waned and the long yellow leaves began to fall thickly from the willows in the Adams lane Jed began to talk of going out west again. Tin-peddling was not possible in winter, and he didn't think he would try it another summer. Mattie listened with dismay in her heart. All summer she had made much of Jed, by way of tormenting Selena. But now she realized what he really meant to her. The old love had wakened to life in her heart; she could not let Jed go out of her life again, leaving her to the old loneliness. If Jed went away everything would be flat, stale, and unprofitable.
She knew him to be at heart the kindest, most gentle of human beings, and the mere fact of his having been unsuccessful, even what some of his old neighbours might call stupid, did not change her feelings toward him in the least. He was Jed—that was sufficient for her, and she had business capability enough for both, when it came to that.
Mattie began to drop hints. But Jed would not take them. True, once or twice he thought that perhaps Mattie did care a little for him yet. But it would not do for him to take advantage of that.
"No, I just couldn't do that," he told the pony. "I worship the ground that woman treads on, but it ain't for the likes of me to tell her so, not now. Get up, my nag, get up. This has been a mighty pleasant summer with that visit to look forward to every week. But it's about over now and you must tramp, Jed."
Jed sighed. He remembered that it was more romantic than ever, but all at once this failed to comfort him. Romance up to a certain point was food; beyond that it palled, so to speak. Jed's romance failed him just when he needed it most.
Mattie, meanwhile, was forced to the dismal conclusion that her hints were thrown away. Jed was plainly determined not to speak. Mattie felt half angry with him. She did not choose to make a martyr of herself to romance, and surely the man didn't expect her to ask him to marry her.
"I'm sure and certain he's as fond of me as ever he was," she mused. "I suppose he's got some ridiculous notion about being too poor to aspire to me. Jed always had more pride than a Crane could carry. Well, I've done all I can—all I'm going to do. If Jed's determined to go, he must go, I s'pose."
Mattie would not let herself cry, although she felt like it. She went out and picked apples instead.
Mattie might have remained so and Jedediah's romance might never have reached a better ending, if it had not been for Selena, who came over just then to help Mattie pick the golden russets. Fate had evidently destined her as Jed's best helper. All summer she had been fairly goading Mattie into love with Jedediah and now she was moved to add the last spur.
"Jed Crane's going away, I hear," she said maliciously. "Seems to me you're bound to be jilted again, Mattie."
Mattie had no answer ready. Selena went on undauntedly.
"You've made a nice fool of yourself all summer, I vow. Throwing yourself at Jed's head—and he doesn't want you, even with all your property."
"He does want me," said Mattie calmly. Her lips were very firm and her cheeks scarlet. "He is not going away. We are to be married about Christmas, and Jed will take charge of the farm for me."
"Matilda Adams!" said Selena. It was all she was capable of saying.
The rest of the golden russets were picked in a dead silence, Mattie working with an unusually high colour in her cheeks, while Selena's thin lips were pressed so closely together as to be little else than a hair line.
After Selena had gone home, sulking, Mattie picked on with a very determined face. The die was cast; she could not bear Selena's slurs and she would not. And she had not told a lie either. Her words were true; she would make them true. All the Adams determination—and that was not a little—was roused in her.
"If Jed jilts me, he'll do it to my face, clean and clever," she said viciously.
When Jed came again he was very solemn. He thought it would be his last visit, but Mattie felt differently. She had dressed herself with unusual care and crimped her hair. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes bright. Jed thought she looked younger and prettier than ever. The thought that this was the last time he would see her for many a long day to come grew more and more unbearable, yet he firmly determined he would let no presuming word pass his lips. Mattie had been so kind to him. It was only honourable of him in return not to let her throw herself away on a poor failure like himself.
"I suppose this is your last round with the wagon," she said. She had taken him out into the garden to say it. The garden was out of view from the Ford place. Propose she must, but she drew the line at proposing under Selena's eyes.
Jed nodded dully. "Yes, and then I must toddle off and look for something else to do. You see, I haven't much of a gift so to speak for business, Mattie, and it takes me so long to get worked into an understanding of a business or trade that I'm generally asked to quit before you might say I've really commenced. It's been a mighty happy summer for me, though I can't say I've done much in the selling line except to you, Mattie. What with your kindness and these little visits you've been good enough to let me make every week, I feel I may say it's been the happiest summer of my life, and I'm never going to forget it, but as I said, it's time for me to be moving on elsewhere and finding something else to do."
"There is something for you to do right here—if you will do it," said Mattie faintly. For a moment she felt as if she could not go on; Jed and the garden and the scarf of late asters whirled around her dizzily. She held by the sweet-pea trellis to steady herself.
"I—I said a terrible thing to Selena the other day. I—I don't know what I'll do about it if—if—you don't help me out, Jed."
"I'll do anything I can," said Jed, with hearty sympathy. "You know that, Mattie. What is the trouble?"
His kindly voice and the good will and affection beaming in his honest blue eyes gave Mattie renewed courage to go on with her self-imposed and most embarrassing task, although before she ended her voice shook and dwindled away to such a low whisper that Jed had to bend his head close to hers to hear what she was saying.
"I—I said—she goaded me into saying it, Jed—slighting and slurring—jeering at me because you were going away. I just got mad, Jed—and I told her you weren't going—that you and I—that we were to be—married."
"Mattie, did you mean that?" he cried. "If you did, I'm the happiest man alive. I didn't dare persoom—I didn't s'pose you thought anything of me. But if you do—and if you want me—here's all there is of me, heart and soul and body, forever and ever, as I've been all my life."
Thinking over this speech afterwards Jed was dissatisfied with it. He thought he might have made it much more eloquent and romantic than it was. But it served the purpose very well. It was convincing—it came straight from his honest, stupid heart, and Mattie knew it. She held out her hands and Jed gathered her into his arms.
It was certainly a most fortunate circumstance that the garden was well out of the range of Selena's vision, or the sight of her sister and the remaining member of the despised Crane family repeating their foolish performance, which many years previous had resulted in Jed's long banishment, might have caused her to commit almost any unheard-of act of spite as an outlet for her jealous anger. But only the few remaining garden flowers were witness to the lovers' indiscretion, and they kept their own counsel after the manner of flowers, so Selena's feelings were mercifully spared this further outrage.
That evening Jed drove slowly away through the twilight, mounted for the last time on the tin-wagon. He was so happy that he bore no grudge against even Selena Ford. As the pony climbed the poplar hill Jed drew a long breath and freed his mind to the surrounding landscape and to his faithful and slow-plodding steed that had been one of the main factors in this love affair, having patiently carried him to and from the abode of his lady-love throughout the summer just passed. Jedediah was as brimful of happiness as mortal man could be, and his rosy thoughts flowed forth in a kind of triumphant chant which would have driven Selena stark distracted had she been within hearing distance. What he said too was but a poor expression of what he thought, but to the trees and fields and pony he chanted,
"Well, this is romance. What else would you call it now? Me, poor, scared to speak—and Mattie ups and does it for me, bless her. Yes, I've been longing for romance all my life, and I've got it at last. None of your commonplace courtships for me, I always said. Them was my very words. And I guess this has been a little uncommon—I guess it has. Anyhow, I'm uncommon happy. I never felt so romantic before. Get up, my nag, get up."