Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
The Most Wonderful Woman
And a Great Man who proves himself truly great
It was Old Home Week in the little village, and this was to be the biggest day. From a distant city was to come the town's one really Great Man, to speak in the huge tent erected on the Common for just that purpose. From end to end the village was aflame with bunting and astir with excitement, so that even I, merely a weary sojourner in the place, felt the thrill and tingled pleasantly.
When the Honorable Jonas Whitermore entered the tent at two o'clock that afternoon I had a good view of him, for my seat was next the broad aisle. Behind him on the arm of an usher came a small, frightened- looking little woman in a plain brown suit and a plainer brown bonnet set askew above thin gray hair. The materials of both suit and bonnet were manifestly good, but all distinction of line and cut was hopelessly lost in the wearing. Who she was I did not know; but I soon learned, for one of the two young women in front of me said a low something to which the other gave back a swift retort, woefully audible: "His wife? That little dowdy thing in brown? Oh, what a pity! Such an ordinary woman!"
My cheeks grew hot in sympathy with the painful red that swept to the roots of the thin gray hair under the tip-tilted bonnet. Then I glanced at the man.
Had he heard? I was not quite sure. His chin, I fancied, was a trifle higher. I could not see his eyes, but I did see his right hand; and it was clenched so tightly that the knuckles were white with the strain. I thought I knew then. He had heard. The next minute he had passed on up the aisle and the usher was seating the more-frightened-than-ever little wife in the roped-off section reserved for important guests.
It was then that I became aware that the man on my right was saying something.
"I beg your pardon, but-did you speak--to me?" I asked, turning to him hesitatingly.
The old man met my eyes with an abashed smile.
"I guess I'm the party what had ought to be askin' pardon, stranger," he apologized. "I talk to myself so much I kinder furgit sometimes, and do it when folks is round. I was only sayin' that I wondered why 'twas the good Lord give folks tongues and forgot to give 'em brains to run 'em with. But maybe you didn't hear what she said," he hazarded, with a jerk of his thumb toward the young woman in front.
"About Mrs. Whitermore? Yes, I heard."
His face darkened.
"Then you know. And she heard, too! 'Ordinary woman,' indeed! Humph! To think that Betty Tillington should ever live to hear herself called an 'ordinary woman'! You see, I knew her when she was Betty Tillington."
"Did you?" I smiled encouragingly. I was getting interested, and I hoped he would keep on talking. On the platform the guest of honor was holding a miniature reception. He was the picture of polite attention and punctilious responsiveness; but I thought I detected a quick glance now and then toward the roped-off section where sat his wife and I wondered again--had he heard that thoughtless comment?
From somewhere had come the rumor that the man who was to introduce the Honorable Jonas Whitermore had been delayed by a washout "down the road," but was now speeding toward us by automobile. For my part, I fear I wished the absentee a punctured tire so that I might hear more of the heart-history of the faded little woman with the bonnet askew.
"Yes, I knew her," nodded my neighbor, "and she didn't look much then like she does now. She was as pretty as a picture and there wa'n't a chap within sight of her what wa'n't head over heels in love with her. But there wa'n't never a chance for but two of us and we knew it: Joe Whitermore and a chap named Fred Farrell. So, after a time, we just sort of stood off and watched the race--as pretty a race as ever you see. Farrell had the money and the good looks, while Whitermore was poor as a church mouse, and he was homely, too. But Whitermore must have had somethin'--maybe somethin' we didn't see, for she took him.
"Well, they married and settled down happy as two twitterin' birds, but poor as Job's turkey. For a year or so she was as pretty and gay as ever she was and into every good time goin'; then the babies came, one after another, some of 'em livin' and some dyin' soon after they came.
"Of course, things was different then. What with the babies and the housework, Betty couldn't get out much, and we didn't see much of her. When we did see her, though, she'd smile and toss her head in the old way and say how happy she was and didn't we think her babies was the prettiest things ever, and all that. And we did, of course, and told her so.
"But we couldn't help seein' that she was gettin' thin and white and that no matter how she tossed her head, there wa'n't any curls there to bob like they used to, 'cause her hair was pulled straight back and twisted up into a little hard knot just like as if she had done it up when some one was callin' her to come quick."
"Yes, I can imagine it," I nodded.
"Well, that's the way things went at the first, while he was gettin' his start, and I guess they was happy then. You see, they was pullin' even them days and runnin' neck and neck. Even when Fred Farrell, her old beau, married a girl she knew and built a fine house all piazzas and bow-winders right in sight of their shabby little rented cottage, I don't think she minded it; even if Mis' Farrell didn't have anythin' to do from mornin' till night only set in a white dress on her piazza, and rock, and give parties, Betty didn't seem to mind. She had her Joe.
"But by and by she didn't have her Joe. Other folks had him and his business had him. I mean, he'd got up where the big folks in town begun to take notice of him; and when he wa'n't tendin' to business, he was hobnobbin' with them, so's to bring more business. And--of course she, with her babies and housework, didn't have no time for that.
"Well, next they moved away. When they went they took my oldest girl, Mary, to help Betty; and so we still kept track of 'em. Mary said it was worse than ever in the new place. It was quite a big city and just livin' cost a lot. Mr. Whitermore, of course, had to look decent, out among folks as he was, so he had to be 'tended to first. Then what was left of money and time went to the children. It wa'n't long, too, before the big folks there begun to take notice, and Mr. Whitermore would come home all excited and tell about what was said to him and what fine things he was bein' asked to do. He said 'twas goin' to mean everythin' to his career.
"Then come the folks to call, ladies in fine carriages with dressed-up men to hold the door open and all that; but always, after they'd gone, Mary'd find Betty cryin' somewhere, or else tryin' to fix a bit of old lace or ribbon on to some old dress. Mary said Betty's clo's were awful, then. You see, there wa'n't never any money left for her things. But all this didn't last long, for very soon the fine ladies stopped comin' and Betty just settled down to the children and didn't try to fix her clo's any more.
"But by and by, of course, the money begun to come in--lots of it--and that meant more changes, naturally. They moved into a bigger house, and got two more hired girls and a man, besides Mary. Mr. Whitermore said he didn't want his wife to work so hard now, and that, besides, his position demanded it. He was always talkin' about his position those days, tryin' to get his wife to go callin' and go to parties and take her place as his wife, as he put it.
"And Mary said Betty did try, and try hard. Of course she had nice clo's now, lots of 'em; but somehow they never seemed to look just right. And when she did go to parties, she never knew what to talk about, she told Mary. She didn't know a thing about the books and pictures and the plays and quantities of other things that everybody else seemed to know about; and so she just had to sit still and say nothin'.
"Mary said she could see it plagued her and she wa'n't surprised when, after a time, Betty begun to have headaches and be sick party nights, and beg Mr. Whitermore to go alone--and then cry because he did go alone. You see, she'd got it into her head then that her husband was ashamed of her."
"And was--he?" demanded I.
"I don't know. Mary said she couldn't tell exactly. He seemed worried, sometimes, and quite put out at the way his wife acted about goin' to places. Then, other times, he didn't seem to notice or care if he did have to go alone. It wa'n't that he was unkind to her. It was just that he was so busy lookin' after himself that he forgot all about her. But Betty took it all as bein' ashamed of her, no matter what he did; and for a while she just seemed to pine away under it. They'd moved to Washington by that time and, of course, with him in the President's Cabinet, it was pretty hard for her.
"Then, all of a sudden, she took a new turn and begun to study and to try to learn things--everything: how to talk and dress and act, besides stuff that was just book-learnin'. She's been doin' that for quite a spell and Mary says she thinks she'd do pretty well now, in lots of ways, if only she had half a chance--somethin' to encourage her, you know. But her husband don't seem to take no notice, now, just as if he's got tired expectin' anythin' of her and that's made her so scared and discouraged she's too nervous to act as if she did know anythin'. An' there 't is.
"Well, maybe she is just an ordinary woman," sighed the old man, a little sternly, "if bein' 'ordinary' means she's like lots of others. For I suspect, stranger, that, if the truth was told, lots of other big men have got wives just like her--women what have been workin' so tarnal hard to help their husbands get ahead that they hain't had time to see where they themselves was goin'. And by and by they wake up to the fact that they hain't got nowhere. They've just stayed still, 'way behind.
"Mary says she don't believe Betty would mind even that, if her husband only seemed to care--to--to understand, you know, how it had been with her and how--Crickey! I guess they've come," broke off the old man suddenly, craning his neck for a better view of the door.
From outside had sounded the honk of an automobile horn and the wild cheering of men and boys. A few minutes later the long-delayed programme began.
It was the usual thing. Before the Speaker of the Day came other speakers, and each of them, no matter what his subject, failed not to refer to "our illustrious fellow townsman" in terms of highest eulogy. One told of his humble birth, his poverty-driven boyhood, his strenuous youth. Another drew a vivid picture of his rise to fame. A third dilated upon the extraordinary qualities of brain and body which had made such achievement possible and which would one day land him in the White House itself.
Meanwhile, close to the speaker's stand sat the Honorable Jonas Whitermore himself, for the most part grim and motionless, though I thought I detected once or twice a repetition of the half-troubled, half-questioning glances directed toward his wife that I had seen before. Perhaps it was because I was watching him so closely that I saw the sudden change come to his face. The lips lost their perfunctory smile and settled into determined lines. The eyes, under their shaggy brows, glowed with sudden fire. The entire pose and air of the man became curiously alert, as if with the eager impatience of one who has determined upon a certain course of action and is anxious only to be up and doing. Very soon after that he was introduced, and, amid deafening cheers, rose to his feet. Then, very quietly, he began to speak.
We had heard he was an orator. Doubtless many of us were familiar with his famous nickname "Silver-tongued Joe." We had expected great things of him--a brilliant discourse on the tariff, perhaps, or on our foreign relations, or yet on the Hague Tribunal. But we got none of these. We got first a few quiet words of thanks and appreciation for the welcome extended him; then we got the picture of an everyday home just like ours, with all its petty cares and joys so vividly drawn that we thought we were seeing it, not hearing about it. He told us it was a little home of forty years ago, and we began to realize, some way, that he was speaking of himself.
"I may, you know, here," he said, "for I am among my own people. I am at home."
Even then I didn't see what he was coming to. Like the rest I sat slightly confused, wondering what it all meant. Then, suddenly, into his voice there crept a tense something that made me sit more erect in my seat.
"My indomitable will-power? My superb courage? My stupendous strength of character? My undaunted persistence and marvelous capacity for hard work?" he was saying. "Do you think it's to that I owe what I am? Never! Come back with me to that little home of forty years ago and I'll show you to what and to whom I do owe it. First and foremost I owe it to a woman--no ordinary woman, I want you to understand--but to the most wonderful woman in the world."
I knew then. So did my neighbor, the old man at my side. He jogged my elbow frantically and whispered:--
"He's goin' to--he's goin' to! He's goin' to show her he does care and understand! He did hear that girl. Crickey! But ain't he the cute one to pay her back like that, for what she said?"
The little wife down front did not know--yet, however. I realized that, the minute I looked at her and saw her drawn face and her frightened, staring eyes fixed on her husband up there on the platform--her husband, who was going to tell all these people about some wonderful woman whom even she had never heard of before, but who had been the making of him, it seemed.
"My will-power?" the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was saying then. "Not mine, but the will-power of a woman who did not know the meaning of the word 'fail.' Not my superb courage, but the courage of one who, day in and day out, could work for a victory whose crown was to go, not to herself, but to another. Not my stupendous strength of character, but that of a beautiful young girl who could see youth and beauty and opportunity nod farewell, and yet smile as she saw them go. Not my undaunted persistence, but the persistence of one to whom the goal is always just ahead, but never reached. And last, not my marvelous capacity for hard work, but that of the wife and mother who bends her back each morning to a multitude of tasks and cares that she knows night will only interrupt--not finish."
My eyes were still on the little brown-clad woman down in front, so I saw the change come to her face as her husband talked. I saw the terror give way to puzzled questioning, and that, in turn, become surprise, incredulity, then overwhelming joy as the full meaning came to her that she herself was that most wonderful woman in the world who had been the making of him. I looked then for just a touch of the old frightened, self-consciousness at finding herself thus so conspicuous; but it did not come. The little woman plainly had forgotten us. She was no longer Mrs. Jonas Whitermore among a crowd of strangers listening to a great man's Old-Home-Day speech. She was just a loving, heart-hungry, tired, all-but-discouraged wife hearing for the first time from the lips of her husband that he knew and cared and understood.
"Through storm and sunshine, she was always there at her post, aiding, encouraging, that I might be helped," the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was saying. "Week in and week out she fought poverty, sickness, and disappointments, and all without a murmur, lest her complaints distract me for one precious moment from my work. Even the nights brought her no rest, for while I slept, she stole from cot to cradle and from cradle to crib, covering outflung little legs and arms, cooling parched little throats with water, quieting fretful whimpers and hushing threatening outcries with a low 'Hush, darling, mother's here. Don't cry! You'll wake father--and father must have his sleep.' And father had it--that sleep, just as he had the best of everything else in the house: food, clothing, care, attention--everything.
"What mattered it if her hands did grow rough and toil-worn? Mine were left white and smooth--for my work. What mattered it if her back and her head and her feet did ache? Mine were left strong and painless--for my work. What mattered her wakefulness if I slept? What mattered her weariness if I was rested? What mattered her disappointments if my aims were accomplished? Nothing!"
The Honorable Jonas Whitermore paused for breath, and I caught mine and held it. It seemed, for a minute, as if everybody all over the house was doing the same thing, too, so absolutely still was it, after that one word--"nothing." They were beginning to understand--a little. I could tell that. They were beginning to see this big thing that was taking place right before their eyes. I glanced at the little woman down in front. The tender glow on her face had grown and deepened and broadened until her whole little brown-clad self seemed transfigured. My own eyes dimmed as I looked. Then, suddenly I became aware that the Honorable Jonas Whitermore was speaking again.
"And not for one year only, nor two, nor ten, has this quintessence of devotion been mine," he was saying, "but for twice ten and then a score more--for forty years. For forty years! Did you ever stop to think how long forty years could be--forty years of striving and straining, of pinching and economizing, of serving and sacrificing? Forty years of just loving somebody else better than yourself, and doing this every day, and every hour of the day for the whole of those long forty years? It isn't easy to love somebody else always better than yourself, you know! It means the giving up of lots of things that you want. You might do it for a day, for a month, for a year even--but for forty years! Yet she has done it--that most wonderful woman. Do you wonder that I say it is to her, and to her alone, under God, that I owe all that I am, all that I hope to be?"
Once more he paused. Then, in a voice that shook a little at the first, but that rang out clear and strong and powerful at the end, he said:
"Ladies, gentlemen, I understand this will close your programme. It will give me great pleasure, therefore, if at the adjournment of this meeting you will allow me to present you to the most wonderful woman in the world--my wife."
I wish I could tell you what happened then. The words--oh, yes, I could tell you in words what happened. For that matter, the reporters at the little stand down in front told it in words, and the press of the whole country blazoned it forth on the front page the next morning. But really to know what happened, you should have heard it and seen it, and felt the tremendous power of it deep in your soul, as we did who did see it.
There was a moment's breathless hush, then to the canvas roof there rose a mighty cheer and a thunderous clapping of hands as by common impulse the entire audience leaped to its feet.
For one moment only did I catch a glimpse of Mrs. Jonas Whitermore, blushing, laughing, and wiping teary eyes in which the wondrous glow still lingered; then the eager crowd swept down the aisle toward her.
"Crickey!" breathed the red-faced old man at my side. "Well, stranger, even if it does seem sometimes as if the good Lord give some folks tongues and forgot to give 'em brains to run 'em with, I guess maybe He kinder makes up for it, once in a while, by givin' other folks the brains to use their tongues so powerful well!"
I nodded dumbly. I could not speak just then--but the young woman in front of me could. Very distinctly as I passed her I heard her say:
"Well, now, ain't that the limit, Sue? And her such an ordinary woman, too!"