[No work of recent years has been fuller of sprightly humor than “On Both Sides,” an amusing contrast of English and American manners which at once established the reputation of the author of our present selection. From a later novel, “Behind the Blue Ridge,” we select the following story told by one ex-Confederate soldier to another. It has the advantage of coming out whole, — which is seldom the case with selections from novels.]
“AFTER I got the mill I made money, John. Befo’ that it was slow work. I prospered steady, but I never was one to blow ’bout my business. I kep’ a still tongue, and done well, and salted down what I made, and done better and better. And I was getting’ ready to fix to build anew house, — sorter settlin’ down in my tracks, and takin’ things easy, and fixin’ to enjoy myself, when, all of a sudden, the ole woman took a notion, — the blamedest notion! — and spiled everything. ’Twas to pull up stakes and 168 move out to Californy! You see, she had two brothers out there, and they kep’ on writin’ to her and put it in her head. I thought she’d gone plum crazy when she fust talked ’bout it. It did ’pear like it. ‘Break up here,’ I sez to her, ‘whur I’ve got a home, and a good business, and go balloonin’ out yonder, the other side of nowhere?’ But Californy was the greatest place that ever was. Everybody made big fortunes there befo’ they could turn ’round. The grapes there wuz as big as peaches, and the peaches wuz as big as potatoes, and the potatoes bigger’n pumkins, and the pumkins as big as all out-doors. the very chickens hadn’t no feathers toick off, and was already cooked when you was hungry. You couldn’t be poor out there if you got burnt out twicet a week and lost all you had. Every boy got to be governor of the State, and every girl married a rich man. Californy was heaven. Everything was better there than nowhere else. You’ve heered that kind er talk, John?”
John Shore nodded, and said, “And I’ve been fool enough to believe some of it, too.”
“Well, my wife was full of it. At fust I argyed the thing with her, like a jack; and, of course, the more I argyed the more she sot her mind on goin’. She said it would be the makin’ of me and the children, and she wanted to see them dear brothers of hern. And then I got man, and I ain’t swore sence Appomattox like I did. I was ashamed uv myself good afterwards, talkin’ that way to a woman. And she was that much more sot, and bent, and determinated. And then I sulked like a bear with a sore head for a while. And that done no good; she got sotter every day. You’ve been a married man, John. You know how it is. I couldn’t bend and I couldn’t break her, and I wouldn’t beat her. I was willin’ to do this, and I was willin’ to do that, — anything, ’most, to 169 satisfy her; but she wouldn’t be satisfied no way I fixed it, without we broke up and moved to Californy. I begged and prayed of her, even, and her a good woman, too, — says her prayers every night, and reads her Bible on Sundays, and never took off her clothes, but nursed me faithful night and day, when I had the small-pox, and there ain’t never been a better mother made, — but she never budged. She said she had the children to consider. You remember how it used to was, John, maybe.”
“No, I don’t, Jim. I hadn’t never no disagreements with my wife,” said John Shore, his voice softening as he spoke.
“Hum, hum! She died young. I reklect ’bout that; she died mighty young,” said Mr. Wilkins, reflectively. “Well, John, I seed how ’twould be. I’ve rode a government mule befo’ now. So I knowed it waren’t no manner nor sort of use, whatsomedever, to try to turn her head ’round, and I’d already tried her with blinkers and ’thout blinkers, tight girth and loose girth, barebacked and saddled, coaxed and driv and spurred, and it wouldn’t work, seein’ she’d got the bit between her teeth, and wouldn’t go my way ef she died fur it. And I know’d, too, — well, you’ve been married, John! hum! — I know’d I’d be throwed ’gin the wall and hurt bad ef I didn’t stop tryin’. So I set and studied and studied over that thing till at last I sez to myself, ‘You nateral-born pulin’ igit! Don’t yer see! This here thing calls for tactics.’ So I studied more’n ever. And then I goes to Blake, — one-eyed Blake, Fifth Virginia Cavalry, little nubbin of a man with a red head. You must shorely disremember him? Limped a little; waren’t nothin’ uv a soldier, — wouldn’t skeer a rabbit, — but a square, correct fellow. Yer don’t say, now, that you’ve forgot Blake, — the man that give us a cup of hot coffee the mornin’ we started to fall back from Ashby’s Gap?”
“Oh, yes! I know now who you’re takin’ ’bout. It 170 was mighty cur’ous. that fellow had coffee right straight through the war, from first to last! And him only a private. How he got it the Lord only knows. And it warn’t chicory nor nothin’. It was coffee. That there cup of coffee was ’bout the best thing ever I put in my mouth befo’ or sence. We’d been on the jump, you remember, fur ten days, and I hadn’t had no sleep, skasely, for three nights, and it was ’bout all I could do to keep from fallin’ off my horse. And when I seed that coffee-pot I thought I seed the New Jerusalem. And Blake he poured me out a big tincupful, and I couldn’t stop to drink it, but I warn’t goin’ to lose nor leave it, not ef I knowed it. So I called to Blake to charge the cup to Uncle Sam, and rode off. And my horse would stumble a bit, and it was as hot as fire, and between ’em I got scalded right smart, and spilt some, which was worse, but what I got was just heaven! Oh, yes, I remember Blake!”
“I thought you couldn’t er forgot him. Well, as I was a-tellin’ you, I went to him and give him the wink, and we soon fixed it up between us fust-rate. He was to have the house, and the mill, and the farm, fur a year free, and was to make out to ev’rybody like he’d bought it. See? Me a-keepin’ of it all the time, of co’se. See? And then I sez to the old woman, I sez, ‘I don’t want to leave my home, and my friends, and all I’ve worked so hard fur ever since the war, and go traipsin’ off yonder so fur from Virginny, but I see you can’t be, and ain’t a-goin’ to be, happy here no more: so I give in, and you kin pack up, and we’ll strike camp next week and go to Californy.
“She hand’ never ’lowed fur me to give in, John, and she looked mighty solemn-like when she heered me say that, — sorter like she did the day we got married. And then she hugged and kissed me good, and I told her I’d sold off everything, and was doin’ that thing teetotally 171 and intirely to pleasure her, and I didn’t care a red cent fur the resks as long as she was pleased. And she hugged and kissed me ag’in, and said I was the bes’ husband any woman ever had on the face of the yearth; and I felt about as low as they’re made, — as mean as a skunk. I couldn’t skasely keep from tellin’ her the truth. But I know’d I was actin’ right, leastways meanin’ right, so I never said nothin’, and it was settled that er way. Have a chaw, John? This is the ‘Farmer’s Friend.’ I like it better’n any of ’em. Well, sir, she went ’round the house mighty quiet, packin’ and sortin’, and didn’t talk none hardly. She felt bad, and I seed it, but I never said nothin’. And I went ’round lookin’ like ‘’twas all I could do not to bust out cryin’. Tactics, John; all tactics! And when she’d kissed, and cried, and tole good-by all around to the folks, and we’d got on the train, I sez to her, ‘Look here. I want to tell you one thing: this here is your excursion, Mrs. Wilkins. It ain’t my excursion. Ef you ain’t satisfied in Californy, don’t you never say nothin’ to me ’bout comin’ back, — that’s all, — ’cause I ain’t never comin’ back.’ She promised she wouldn’t, and I seed ten she was skeered bad; but I never said nothin’. Tactics, John. See?” Mr. Wilkins clapped his friend’s knee, and, throwing back his head, laughed loud and long, his merry eyes almost disappearing from view. He was obliged to get out a red cotton handkerchief and vent to a couple of trombone-like snorts before he could resume his story, so great was his own enjoyment of it, and then he wiped his wet eyes and cheeks.
“I can’t help it, John; I’m jes’ obleegd to laugh whenever I think uv that thing. It jes’ spurts out. I’ve done it in church befo’ now, — sniggered right out, and caught Hail Columbia fur it afterwards from the ole woman, and laughed wuss’n ever, tell I wuz as weak as a new-born 172 babe, and she said I wuz gittin’ ready fur the ’sylum at Stanton. But as I started to tell you. We travelled, and travelled, and travelled, tell I thought we’d passed all creation. And the country kep’ on gittin’ flatter and flatter. There waren’t a mounting to be seen for hundreds uv miles, ef you’ll believe me, and an uglier, and a browner, and a more burnt-up country I never seed, and it jest did ’pear to me like we wuz gittin’ to the mouth of the bad place. Howsomever, we did git to that heaven of a Californy at last, and met up with her brothers, and I bought a little place from the only smart man that had ever been out there, I reckon, fur he was leavin’ it fust chance he got, and we started in.
“Well! sech a country as that was! You wouldn’t believe it! It was so dry, John, fur months and months that everything turned to powder, and then it turned lose and dronded ev’yting and ev’ybody out, and I don’t know which was wust. You couldn’t raise a leaf uv tobacco to save your life! And I never eat a beat-biscuit nor had a mint-julip while I wux there! It was the most God-forsaken place, — the jumpin’-off place, and no mistake. And there waren’t no spring-house, nor no ice-house, nor no smoke-house, and nobody to help with the work. And the climate waren’t anything to call a climate, and the ole woman got mighty sick uv it in a month, but she was ’shamed to say so. I pertended I ikedit, and we went on. In ’bout three months she couldn’t hold in no longer, and she began sayin’ she didn’t like this thing and that thing. And I didn’t take no notice, no more’n ef I was deef. And when the rainy season come she got droopy and miserable as a wet chicken, and I pertended still I liked it. And she said she never seed nothin’ uv her brothers, cause they lived a good piece off, and wuz always too busy to come to see nobody, and she werrited 173 powerful, and talked ’bout livin’ and dyin’ ’mong strangers all the time. And I said, ‘Oh, this is Californy! We ain’t goin’ to die; nobody don’t die out here; we are goin’ to live here for the next fifty years. I’m ‘’bout as well contented as I ever ’spect to be,’ and she was so furious she wouldn’t speak to me fur a week. Tactics, John. See? And we went on fur a while, and the harvest was so poor we didn’t make nothin’, skasely. But I lived po’, and was cheerful all the time, and sez to her, ‘’Pears to me we ain’t comin’ out the big end of te horn fur Californy, the land of plenty, but we’re here now, and we’ve got to stay.’ ‘Why don’t’ you urrigate, Jim?’ says she to me, mad-like, and I tole her I hadn’t got the money to fool away on ‘’bout fifty miles er ditches. I’d heered rain had been plenty in Virginny, but nothin’ couldn’t be helped. And, John, what did that woman do? She got as sweet as molasses-candy that minnit, and says, ‘Ef you sin’t content here, Jim, I’ll go back to Virginny. I won’t stay nowhars whur my dear husband ain’t contented.’ She did. Women are ’bout the smartest things the Lord ever made, John. But I seed things was workin’, and I knowed I had the reins, and was set on drivin’ her into a corner; so I sez, ‘Thank yer kindly, mother, but I’m all right. I don’t want to go back. I’m suited out here. I come to pleasure you, but I’m goin’ to stay to pleasure myself. The crop ain’t been good, but in ten years or so maybe I’ll be able to urrigate, and we’ll do better.’ That beat her. She got as red as fire, and wouldn’t eat a mite that day. Well, we went on that way for a while ag’in, and then all to onst she broke plum, teetotally down, and caved in, and give up, and went to bed, and stayed there, and cried herself into fits, ’most. And when I sez to her, ‘What in the name of goodness has got into you? What’s the matter with you, anyways, mother?’ What do you think she sez 174 to me, after werritin’ and devillin’ me constant, and never lettin’ me rest tell I give my consent to goin’ out there? She sez, ‘what did you ever bring me and my children out here to starve and die fur? I’ll die ef you keep me here.’ She did! And she meantit, too! Well, didn’t argy that time, ’n I didn’t make no fuss. I seed she was plum beat out, sho’ ’nough, and had surrendered, and I didn’t want to push things. I jes’ said, ‘You warn’t satisfied in your Virginny home, and you aint’ satisfied in your Californy heaven, it ’pears. But I’m still willin’ to pleasure you, and do all I can fur to make you happy: so stop cryin’, and I’ll borrer the money and take you back home a’in’. And she set up in bed straight, and sez, ‘Oh, Jim, Jim, take me home! take me home!’ sez she, ‘and I’ll break rock on the pike fer a livin’. I’ll do anything! I’ll thank and bless yer as long as I’ve got breath in my body! I ahte Californy wuss’n pison!’ I hadn’t to borrer no money, and I knowed Blake’s time was ’most out, and when it came ‘’round we lef’. You oughter seed the old woman! She could have danced a jig for joy, settled woman that she is. She didn’t care no more than nothin’ ’bout partin’ with them dear brothers of her. She wuz crazy-happy, ef ever a creature wuz.”
“You must have been mighty happy, both of you, comin’ back together,’ said John Shore, who had listened with the greatest interest.
“Well, that’s as you may call it, John,” replied Mr. Wilkins, dubiously. “I ’lowed it would be. But, ef you believe me, the old woman set up as stiff as a ramrod all the way back, and wouldn’t have nothin’ more to do with me tha ef I’d treated her the wust in the world all through. She did! And she’s been that way ever sence; you’ve noticed her to-day. I darsn’t run her. Not fur my life! But when I look at her, I ——” Mr. Wilkins here reared 175 afresh, and was obliged to have recourse again to his handkerchief, his friend joining heartily in his outburst, and the pair rocking themselves backward and forward in an ecstasy of amusement for some moments. “Excuse me, John, but I’d bust ef I didn’t. Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! I made a big trouble and business ‘’bout tradin’ with Blake to git back my house ag’in (I let on, now, the mill’s his’n), and I tell you she was glad to git back to it! She’ll never want to do more movin’. She’ll think twicet befo’ she has any differments with me. She snaps at me like a turtle jes’ now. But, Lor! I don’t kyer. I’ve got the bit in her mouth, and I aint’ goin’ to do no sawin’ while it’s sore. And it’s turned out all right. And she’s got all she wants. But, John shore, I sez now what I’ve always said, and there ain’t no man that knows anything ’bout ’em that can say it ain’t true, ‘Women’s like war. Sometimes they’re a scourge, and then ag’in they’re a blessing’; but with both uv’ em you’ve jes’ got to have tactics.’ ”