"In the Old Days," The Independent, 12 Nov. 1908

Dublin Core

Title

"In the Old Days," The Independent, 12 Nov. 1908

Subject

marriage

Description

“In the Old Days” 

I am going to tell you a true love story of the days when I was young, in order to show you a curious difference between that time and this. It seems to me that love and marriage counted for more in the life of Americans in those days than they do now. 

In the early part of last century nothing concerned a young man or woman so much as that mysterious, sudden heat in the blood which drew them together. Why should one blue-eyed, freckled girl, after an hour's talk, matter more to John than all the other women on the earth? He did not know. But he knew that she did, and he thrust all the other business of life aside until he had made her his own. Questions of income, of position, or of fitness were not allowed to interfere in the matter then as they do now. The whole success or ruin of a man's life often depended on the outcome of this mysterious fit of fever in his blood. The novels of that day will show you how incurable that fever was held to be and how it absorbed the whole life of its victim. Then, in the opinion of the public, the history of men and women ended, as they did in those novels, with the wedding day.

But now the graduates of Bryn Mawr or of Harvard thrust aside the consideration of love and marriage until a dozen more important questions in their lives have been settled. The success of Jenny's picture in the spring exhibition, the kind of assignments which Jim is given by the city editor, the hospital into which Bob shall make his way as intern—these things weigh much in the game of life, while the sudden thrill of rapture in the souls of Jenny and Bob when they meet is promptly smothered out. 

Neither of them has a marrying income and they know it. Enough. The matter is postponed indefinitely. No hearts are broken. 

The marrying age is set backward from the teens to the thirties. No doubt love nowadays, when it is allowed to live, is as strong and lasting as in the old time. But surely it is more sane and more cautious than in the days of our grandfathers, more anxious to wear clothes of a fashionable cut and to be secure in the foundation of a good bank account. 

This little true story of the doings of a pair of lovers long ago will perhaps show you the difference between then and now.

* * * * * * *

As you remember, at the close of the Revolutionary War, two of the Orleans princes came to this country on an exploring tour. They crossed the Alleghanies, with an escort of hunters and servants on pack mules, stopping at the houses of the squatters in the wilderness and bearing themselves like hearty good fellows out for a lark, the elder dubbing himself Philippe Egalité.[1] But the poor farmers regarded them with breathless awe. Princes were unknown factors in the brand-new republic. To this day the descendants of the squatters boast of the feasts set by their grandfathers for these royal guests.

Now, it chanced that the cavalcade once stopt over night at the house of a farmer in the mountains. The only child in the family was a little girl of twelve. The princes noticed her pretty face and played with her. When they were going away she followed them and stood shyly leaning against the gate.

Philippe Egalité gaily doffed his cap. “Ah! stay there, my child, and wait until I come back to make thee a princess!” he called, and rode down the hill, laughing.

The story was told all over the hills and made little Lotty famous. But apparently she had good sense as well as good looks, and did not let her dream of a crown blind her to more practical chances. In a few years she married a miller named Hogue and settled down to the cooking, washing and scrubbing which made up a woman's life in the mountains. But it chanced that her daughter Pauline was one of those women who come into the world with a strange charm—the Lauras, the Beatrices, the Mary Stuarts[2]—who have maddened the minds of men. As the child grew to womanhood she was fully aware of the difference between her and other women, and of her powers over the honest farmers in the neighborhood. The promise of the prince to her mother had been the only bit of romance known to her childhood. Philippe Egalité was dead. But no doubt there were hundreds of kings yonder beyond the sea, who any day might come over hunting a bride. She early set herself apart for this royal lover who some day would come riding up out of the woods. She had a few offers of marriage, but men, for the most part, were shy of this idle, exquisite creature who could not make soft soap[3] nor dip candles. 

Rob Wickley, the blacksmith's son, told the child one day that he would marry her some time. 

“You!” Pauline shrieked. “Do you think I will marry a man with a mole on his chin and a club foot? You—cripple!” 

“I!” Bob said. “Cripple?” 

He went home and looked in the glass, gaping stupidly. He never had seen the mole on his chin before nor noticed that he walked differently from other boys. He stared in the mirror at the ugly face covered with soot. “But I will marry her some day!” he said, doggedly, as he stumped back to the forge.

In that day, in the working class, a boy's labor belonged to his father until he was eighteen, in order to recoup him for the money spent on the boy in his childhood. Bob began now to work far into the night to pay this debt to his father in advance. He was years in doing it. On the day he had cleared off the last dollar he washed away every sooty trace of the forge for the last time, put on a new jeans suit, and going to the miller's in broad daylight, asked for Pauline. In all of these years he never had gone to the house.

But a young man from Pittsburgh with “capital,” who had opened what he called an omnivarious[4] store in the mountains, had gone often to the miller's, and had just asked Pauline to marry him. She was glowing now with the triumph of her refusal, and the nameless prince who tarried so long on his way was more real to her than ever. 

But Rob, now that the grime of the forge was gone, suddenly came out a big and handsome man, and there was a certain power in his dark blue eyes that frightened her. 

“You are going away?” she faltered. 

“I am going down into the world to find my fortune,” he said. (He had said the words over to himself every day for years.) “And I am coming back to ask you to marry me.” 

 “My plans are different from yours, then,” Pauline giggled. 

The women of the village always said that the girl's character was as weak and sour as buttermilk. But Rob knew nothing of that.

He stood dumb and pale, looking at her. He knew it would be years before he would see her again. The cold sweat stood over his face, but still he had no words. He took up her hand and held it to his lips, then laid it down as if it had been a sacred thing, and, turning, went down the hill, not once looking back.

* * * * * * *

Rob went to a village on the Ohio, in Virginia, the terminus of the great national road, where all the freight sent between the South and the North was exchanged and reshipped on boats or wagons. He learned this business thoroly. Then he begged for commissions. When he got one he himself drove the dray[5] loaded with the cotton bales from the boat to the wagons, and then went with the wagons across the mountains. In a year or two he had a small warehouse of his own.

At night he studied with the old parson Latin and Greek, geography— everything, in short, that the old man could teach. “I must be a gentleman,” he told himself, incessantly, “She never must be ashamed of her husband.”

With the first money he could save he bought a hill tract overlooking the town. “She is used to the hights,” he thought. He planted there an orchard and garden, and with his own hands dug deep cellars for the house. 

From time to time, too, he sent Pauline gifts. They cost so much and the money was so hard to get that they seemed quite royal to the boy. One was an album,[6] purple and gold on the cover—the poems inside encircled with painted wreaths. Rob wrote a song to Pauline on the front page. It took him months to compose it, but it seemed to him quite as fine as any of Moore's[7] or Scott's[8] songs when it was done.

He sent her, too, a work-box[9] with ivory fittings, and a vase of wax flowers, and a gold locket and chain. “Some day she will put my picture in that,” he muttered, his face turning scarlet at the thought.

The last gift was a hymn book. Both he and Pauline were Baptists. “When I give her a Bible”—he thought—“it will be a big, gilt-clasped one, on our wedding day, with a Family Record in it, and on the Marriage page just two lines”— The man's eyes filled with tears and he did not finish the sentence.

He stole a week from work and took the book up to her. Pauline dimpled and blushed over it. Secretly she thought his gifts very splendid. “But, you know,” she cooed, “I must give them all back to you when the prince comes.”

“All right,” said Rob, “Princes don't scare me.” He said little, being a dumb fellow by nature, but his eyes did not meet her face. She had always been a kind of miracle—the whitest, purest, of living things—to him. Presently he took up her little, blue-veined hand and held it in his big, scarred palm for a minute. He said nothing, but he trembled and the blood went out of his face. Pauline giggled.

“But a gentleman's hand should be white, too,” she chirped. Rob drew his yellow fist away, and after that tried to keep it out of her sight. Indeed, the poor cripple used to feel that he should keep himself altogether out of her sight, he was made of such coarse, common stuff.

It was about this time that Pauline's uncle was elected to Congress, and he and his wife took the girl to Washington for two years. They drest her gorgeously, according to their ideas. She met politicians, diplomats, barons, and now and then, perhaps, a stray prince. They danced, chatted, flirted with her. But they did not ask her to marry them. Rob heard of her far-off triumphs. The man grew lean, grave and silent. “She never will stoop to me,” he told himself. “But her house shall be ready for her just the same.” So he built it with pillars in front, like a Greek temple, a fashion much admired then.[10] When it was finished, the last carpet laid and mirror hung, he locked it up and took the stage coach for the East. It was whispered that he had gone to Washington and would soon bring his bride to her fine home.

Two months later Wickley came back, alone. He gave no explanation and nobody dared ask for one. He closed his house, placed his business in the hands of an agent, and took the boat for New Orleans. For two years he was not seen. Then reports drifted back of his success. Success was a matter of course for Rob. He was a shrewd speculator and had won in a few large ventures. He was young, handsome and magnetic, and he had made a host of friends. The names of the two foremost belles in New Orleans of that day were in turn coupled with his. But, in fact, Wickley was a cold and rather harsh critic where women were concerned. At the end of the two years he came home. He was received as a conquering hero. The town rose at him. Energy and marked success were rare things in those days. Councils gave him a banquet; there were supper parties every night. One old friend asked him plainly when he would bring home his bride from the South and open his mansion. Rob made a joking reply, but never looked up at the dusty, pillared house.

One day on the street he met Pomeroy, the postmaster from his old home in the mountains, who poured out the news.

“And the—the Hogues?” Rob said, when Pomeroy stopt for breath. 

“Hogue! Didn't you know? Mill burned down a year ago; house, too—all gone. No insurance. Cleaned Hogue out to the last dollar. That girl of his, Pauline—”

“Pauline—yes!” Rob stood still in the street, his face drawn and pinched.

“She was hurt in the fire. Leg broken—she goes lame now. Face scorched. I'll say for the girl she's not so worthless as she used to be. She works hard for the old man. Started a store and getting herself out of debt in it, hand over hand.” 

Wickley left Pomeroy with a stammered excuse and in a few minutes was on his way to the mountains.

It was near nightfall on the third day when he reached the little store in the village. She was tying up a package for a child and did not see him. She dragged one leg after her as she walked, and her face was drawn and scarred. But she was still the whitest, cleanest thing on earth to Rob.

“Like the angels of God!” he sobbed, choking when he tried to speak. When she saw him the poor face grew ashen, but she came limping out at once, controlled and smiling.

“Robert! I never thought I would see you again! So kind in you to come back to the old place. Help me to shut up the shop and go down with me to supper. You must be hungry.”

Rob said loudly that he was famished and would she give him an old-time supper, and—. He did not know what he said as he ran about closing the miserable little shop and looking at her. He thought that she stood in the light purposely, wanting him to see how much she limped and how horribly she was scarred. They walked down the hill together. It seemed to Rob that with all the horror of her crippled body and branded face there was some intangible thing about her which never had been there before. It had nothing to do with the angels of God —it was foolish, womanish, dear—it made him want to pick her up and carry her out and hide her from the sight of men. He went to the house, ate supper and talked to her father. At last he could bear it no longer.

“Pauline,” he said, “let us go out and watch the moon come up behind the peak.”

When they were outside he caught her hand, wrenching it fiercely.

“This has to end. I have waited all my life. And you—all these years looking for a prince who never was born!”

She drew her hand away and stood apart from him. “Don’t tell me that I have been an idiot, Rob. I know it.” She laughed. “I know now what you are. And—I know what I am.”

“You are what you always have been to me,” he cried. “The one woman on God’s earth.”

“Why, look at me!” She turned her scarred face up to the light.

“What is that? When you were a tottering baby you were the only thing alive that I cared for. You will be that as long as you have breath in your body. There's no use of any more talk,” he said, trying to speak in his ordinary, cheerful voice. “I have come for you. I am going to take you home with me. If you do not love me now I will make you do it some day. But—Pauline !”—he held out his arms with a hoarse cry—“I’ve waited for you all my life. Have you nothing to give me? Can't you understand?” 

“Yes, I understand.” She came up to him and took both his hands in a friendly grasp. “Don’t let us talk of love. I can never leave father. Don't you see? God has given me this thing to do—God. I must stay here and do it.” 

Rob laughed. “Your father? That is nothing. Why, your house has been waiting for you for years. There's room in it for a dozen fathers. I'll take care of him—” 

Pauline looked up with a sudden twinkle of fun in her eyes. The miller was known thruout the county as the most cantankerous man in it. 

“No, Rob,” she said; “he would not take help from you.”

Rob wrenched the thin little hands in his. “What does he matter? It is you— have you no word for me after all these years of waiting? If you had ever said once that you loved me—”

There was a heavy step behind them and the miller came down the path. “Pauline! I thought this was coming!” he said. “This is the end of your great marriage? The prince is Rob Wickley! This fellow! Why, nobody knows anything of him since he hid away in New Orleans. A river gambler, I reckon. And he's goin' to take me home with him on charity? Not if I know it. I'm poor, God knows. But I’ll not beg my bread from old blacksmith Wickley's son!” He talked long. Rob could not squabble with him and was silent; he never could remember what the old man said.

But the night remained with him all of his life. In it he knew he had been thrown into the gutter and fought with beasts. Always before that night his love had seemed to him one of the divine, mysterious things in the world, like the song of birds, or the beckoning of stars, or the thought of God himself. But now the old man had dragged it into the slime—he loathed the thought of it. 

As he went down the mountain, leaving them behind, he told himself that he never would return. The woman herself suddenly became abhorrent to him. He had given her his life. What had she ever given in return? She was petty, mean, cruel. He never would see her again. 

Out of the window of the miserable house a woman was leaning watching him go. “Good-bye, Rob! Rob, good-bye!” she cried, and wrung her hands.

For five days Rob went about his business, telling himself incessantly that this chapter of his life was ended. On the sixth he went back to the mountains. The shop was closed, the dust lay thick on the steps. The neighbors told him that the miller had sold his stock and with his daughter had gone away at night, nobody knew where.

It was easy for any man to lose himself in this country then, when there were no railways, no telegraphs, no daily papers. For two years Wickley searched the great wilderness from New England to the Gulf of Mexico to no purpose. The miller had lost himself effectually. 

Then he went back to his work in New Orleans. His disappointment had not embittered him. He was for years the most popular Congressman sent to Washington from the Gulf States. Men trusted him, all children loved him. There were, too, good and fair women whose hearts beat faster at the sound of his voice, but they did not count for as much to him as did his favorite dogs.

He was once sent as our Minister to France. When his term of office expired he remained on the Continent for several years.

One day, in Paris, he met, in a café in the Bois,[11] Jem Stewart, a neighbor in his old home in the mountains. They dined together. Now, the story of Rob and Pauline had always been known to Stewart. During the meal he watched his host furtively. Presently turning his head carefully, that he might not see Rob's face, he said: “Did you hear that the miller and his daughter had been found?”

Rob sprang to his feet. 

“Yes,” Stewart hurried on, not looking at him. “Or, I should say, Pauline. Her father is gone. He had taken her to the Far West and died there. She made her way back, and, I heard, was living in Pittsburgh. She has grown old and she has lost her voice. Why Rob—Mr. Wickley—you surely don't care? She never was fit for you, and now—she's an old, battered wreck—”

“Silence! If there is enough of her body left to hold her soul I will claim it and thank God.” He checked himself and took leave of his guest courteously. Stewart looked for him at his lodgings the next day, but they were closed and he was gone.

Rob found her in a miserable hut in an alley in Pittsburgh. She was earning her living by dyeing old clothes for the work people about her. The purple stain of the dye was on her face and hands. Her hair was gray. She spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“No, no,” she cried, when he stood beside her, dumb, panting. “It can't be you. I'm an old cripple. I'm worn out. I'm going to die soon—” 

He held out his arms. “Oh, God, give her to me!” he said. “I’ve waited so long!” 

When I was a child I once saw Robert Wickley and his wife. He then was counted one of the great political leaders of the State. Their love story was whispered about thru the mountains. His long tenderness and care had returned much of the beauty of her youth to the woman, tho she was undoubtedly old and crippled. She was always richly drest, in pearl and dove colors; her voice was an appealing whisper, and a great peace and tenderness looked out of her eyes, which still held the singular charm of her youth. Her husband always adored her and believed that her virtues were more than human.

But every woman who came near them felt that it was he who had climbed into the high places of life, and with difficulty dragged his wife with him.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.

[1] Philippe Egalité (1747-1793), also known as Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, was an active supporter of constitutional monarchy during the French Revolution and later guillotined for his political beliefs. The American tour referenced here is more likely regarding Philippe Egalité’s sons, who were exiled from France and spent the latter half of the 1790s traveling in the United States, the oldest of them, who would rule France from 1830-1848, being Louis Philippe I (1773-1850).

[2] These names reference the famous muses of literary figures whose legacies are marked by their great devotion to these women. Laura is featured in the poetry of Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch (1304-1374), and Beatrice served as inspiration for Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321). Mary Stuart references the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1567), who was the object of the problematic devotion of French poet, Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1540-1563), who was executed for twice forcing his way into Mary’s bed chamber.

[3] Soap was considered a luxury item and would have been produced in the home until the mid-1850s, likely using a combination of animal fat and lye.

[4] Meaning of all varieties, kinds, or types.

[5] A truck or cart intended to haul heavy loads.

[6] Gift or keepsake book filled with such mementos as signatures, meaningful Bible verses, poems, quotations, etc. that would have served as a sort of nineteenth-century scrapbook.

[7]Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish poet and songwriter.

[8] Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Scottish novelist and poet.

[9] A box or stand, usually wooden, used for sewing paraphernalia and popular in the 19th century.

[10] Greek Revival, architectural movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries marked by a resurgence of the aesthetics of ancient Greece.

[11] Likely a reference to the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park in Paris containing various attractions, dedicated in 1852.

Creator

Jency Wilson

Date

Updated December 5, 2020

Contributor

Alicia Mischa Renfroe

Collection

Citation

Jency Wilson, “"In the Old Days," The Independent, 12 Nov. 1908,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed April 13, 2021, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/218.

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