Uncle Ethan had a theory that a man’s character could be told by the way he sat in a wagon seat.
“A mean man sets right plumb in the middle o’ the seat, as much as to say, ‘Walk, gol darn yeh, who cares!’ But a man that sets in the corner o’ the seat, much as to say, ‘Jump in—cheaper t’ ride ‘n to walk,’ you can jest tie to.”
This short story of a midwestern farmer, his wife, and his barn is from Hamlin Garland’s collection Well-Travelled Roads, which features plenty more stories about midwestern farm life and the people who lived it. The collection, and others by Garland, is available at Project Gutenberg, where this copy is from.
Uncle Ripley was prejudiced in favor of the stranger, therefore, before he came opposite the potato patch, where the old man was “bugging his vines.” The stranger drove a jaded-looking pair of calico ponies, hitched to a clattering democrat wagon, and he sat on the extreme end of the seat, with the lines in his right hand, while his left rested on his thigh, with his little finger gracefully crooked and his elbows akimbo. He wore a blue shirt, with gay-colored armlets just above the elbows, and his vest hung unbuttoned down his lank ribs. It was plain he was well pleased with himself.
As he pulled up and threw one leg over the end of the seat, Uncle Ethan observed that the left spring was much more worn than the other, which proved that it was not accidental, but that it was the driver’s habit to sit on that end of the seat.
“Good afternoon,” said the stranger, pleasantly.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
“Bugs purty plenty?”
“Plenty enough, I gol! I don’t see where they all come fum.”
“Early Rose?” inquired the man, as if referring to the bugs.
“No; Peachblows an’ Carter Reds. My Early Rose is over near the house. The old woman wants ‘em near. See the darned things!” he pursued, rapping savagely on the edge of the pan to rattle the bugs back.
“How do yeh kill ‘em—scald ‘em?”
“Mostly. Sometimes I—
“Good piece of oats,” yawned the stranger, listlessly.
“So ‘tis. Didn’t notice.”
Uncle Ethan was wondering who the man was. He had some pots of black paint in the wagon, and two or three square boxes.
“What do yeh think o’ Cleveland’s chances for a second term?” continued the man, as if they had been talking politics all the while.
Uncle Ripley scratched his head. “Waal—I dunno—bein’ a Republican—I think—”
“That’s so—it’s a purty scaly outlook. I don’t believe in second terms myself,” the man hastened to say.
“Is that your new barn acrosst there?” he asked, pointing with his whip.
“Yes, sir, it is,” replied the old man, proudly. After years of planning and hard work he had managed to erect a little wooden barn, costing possibly three hundred dollars. It was plain to be seen he took a childish pride in the fact of its newness.
The stranger mused. “A lovely place for a sign,” he said, as his eyes wandered across its shining yellow broadside.
Uncle Ethan stared, unmindful of the bugs crawling over the edge of his pan. His interest in the pots of paint deepened.
“Couldn’t think o’ lettin’ me paint a sign on that barn?” the stranger continued, putting his locked hands around one knee, and gazing away across the pig-pen at the building.
“What kind of a sign? Gol darn your skins!” Uncle Ethan pounded the pan with his paddle and scraped two or three crawling abominations off his leathery wrist.
It was a beautiful day, and the man in the wagon seemed unusually loath to attend to business. The tired ponies slept in the shade of the lombardies. The plain was draped in a warm mist, and shadowed by vast, vaguely defined masses of clouds—a lazy June day.
“Dodd’s Family Bitters,” said the man, waking out of his abstraction with a start, and resuming his working manner. “The best bitter in the market.” He alluded to it in the singular. “Like to look at it? No trouble to show goods, as the fellah says,” he went on hastily, seeing Uncle Ethan’s hesitation.
He produced a large bottle of triangular shape, like a bottle for pickled onions. It had a red seal on top, and a strenuous caution in red letters on the neck, “None genuine unless ‘Dodd’s Family Bitters’ is blown in the bottom.”
“Here’s what it cures,” pursued the agent, pointing at the side, where, in an inverted pyramid, the names of several hundred diseases were arranged, running from “gout” to “pulmonary complaints,” etc.
“I gol! she cuts a wide swath, don’t she?” exclaimed Uncle Ethan, profoundly impressed with the list.
“They ain’t no better bitter in the world,” said the agent, with a conclusive inflection.
“What’s its speshy-ality? Most of ‘em have some speshy-ality.”
“Well—summer complaints—an’—an’—spring an’ fall troubles—tones ye up, sort of.”
Uncle Ethan’s forgotten pan was empty of his gathered bugs. He was deeply interested in this man. There was something he liked about him.
“What does it sell fur?” he asked, after a pause.
“Same price as them cheap medicines—dollar a bottle—big bottles, too. Want one?”
“Wal, mother ain’t to home, an’ I don’t know as she’d like this kind. We ain’t been sick f’r years. Still, they’s no tellin’,” he added, seeing the answer to his objection in the agent’s eyes. “Times is purty close too, with us, y’ see; we’ve jest built that stable—”
“Say I’ll tell yeh what I’ll do,” said the stranger, waking up and speaking in a warmly generous tone. “I’ll give you ten bottles of the bitter if you’ll let me paint a sign on that barn. It won’t hurt the barn a bit, and if you want ‘o you can paint it out a year from date. Come, what d’ye say?”
“I guess I hadn’t better.”
The agent thought that Uncle Ethan was after more pay, but in reality he was thinking of what his little old wife would say.
“It simply puts a family bitter in your home that may save you fifty dollars this comin’ fall. You can’t tell.”
Just what the man said after that Uncle Ethan didn’t follow. His voice had a confidential purring sound as he stretched across the wagon-seat and talked on, eyes half shut. He straightened up at last, and concluded in the tone of one who has carried his point:
“So! If you didn’t want to use the whole twenty-five bottles y’rself, why! sell it to your neighbors. You can get twenty dollars out of it easy, and still have five bottles of the best family bitter that ever went into a bottle.”
It was the thought of this opportunity to get a buffalo-skin coat that consoled Uncle Ethan as he saw the hideous black letters appearing under the agent’s lazy brush.
It was the hot side of the barn, and painting was no light work. The agent was forced to mop his forehead with his sleeve.
“Say, hain’t got a cooky or anything, and a cup o’ milk, handy?” he said at the end of the first enormous word, which ran the whole length of the barn.
Uncle Ethan got him the milk and cooky, which he ate with an exaggeratedly dainty action of his fingers, seated meanwhile on the staging which Uncle Ripley had helped him to build. This lunch infused new energy into him, and in a short time “Dodd’s Family Bitters, Best in the Market,” disfigured the sweet-smelling pine boards.
Ethan was eating his self-obtained supper of bread and milk when his wife came home.
“Who’s been a-paintin’ on that barn?” she demanded, her bead-like eyes flashing, her withered little face set in an ominous frown. “Ethan Ripley, what you been doin’?”
“Nawthin’,” he replied feebly.
“Who painted that sign on there?”
“A man come along an’ he wanted to paint that on there, and I let ‘im; and it’s my barn anyway. I guess I can do what I’m a min’ to with it,” he ended, defiantly; but his eyes wavered.
Mrs. Ripley ignored the defiance. “What under the sun p’sessed you to do such a thing as that, Ethan Ripley? I declare I don’t see! You git fooler an’ fooler ev’ry day you live, I do believe.”
Uncle Ethan attempted a defence.
“Wal, he paid me twenty-five dollars f’r it, anyway.”
“Did ‘e?” She was visibly affected by this news.
“Wal, anyhow, it amounts to that; he give me twenty-five bottles—”
Mrs. Ripley sank back in her chair. “Wal, I swan to Bungay! Ethan Ripley—wal, you beat all I ever see!” she added, in despair of expression. “I thought you had some sense left; but you hain’t, not one blessed scimpton. Where is the stuff?”
“Down cellar, an’ you needn’t take on no airs, ol’ woman. I’ve known you to buy things you didn’t need time an’ time an’ agin—tins an’ things, an’ I guess you wish you had back that ten dollars you paid for that illustrated Bible.”
“Go ‘long an’ bring that stuff up here. I never see such a man in my life. It’s a wonder he didn’t do it f’r two bottles.” She glared out at the sign, which faced directly upon the kitchen window.
Uncle Ethan tugged the two cases up and set them down on the floor of the kitchen. Mrs. Ripley opened a bottle and smelled of it like a cautious cat.
“Ugh! Merciful sakes, what stuff! It ain’t fit f’r a hog to take. What’d you think you was goin’ to do with it?” she asked in poignant disgust.
“I expected to take it—if I was sick. Whaddy ye s’pose?” He defiantly stood his ground, towering above her like a leaning tower.
“The hull cartload of it?”
“No. I’m goin’ to sell part of it an’ git me an overcoat—”
“Sell it!” she shouted. “Nobuddy’ll buy that sick’nin’ stuff but an old numskull like you. Take that slop out o’ the house this minute! Take it right down to the sink-hole an’ smash every bottle on the stones.”
Uncle Ethan and the cases of medicine disappeared, and the old woman addressed her concluding remarks to little Tewksbury, her grandson, who stood timidly on one leg in the doorway, like an intruding pullet.
“Everything around this place ‘ud go to rack an’ ruin if I didn’t keep a watch on that soft-pated old dummy. I thought that lightnin’-rod man had give him a lesson he’d remember; but no, he must go an’ make a reg’lar—”
She subsided in a tumult of banging pans, which helped her out in the matter of expression and reduced her to a grim sort of quiet. Uncle Ethan went about the house like a convict on shipboard. Once she caught him looking out of the window.
“I should think you’d feel proud o’ that.”
Uncle Ethan had never been sick a day in his life. He was bent and bruised with never-ending toil, but he had nothing especial the matter with him.
He did not smash the medicine, as Mrs. Ripley commanded, because he had determined to sell it. The next Sunday morning, after his chores were done, he put on his best coat of faded diagonal, and was brushing his hair into a ridge across the centre of his high, narrow head, when Mrs. Ripley came in from feeding the calves.
“Where you goin’ now?”
“None o’ your business,” he replied. “It’s darn funny if I can’t stir without you wantin’ to know all about it. Where’s Tukey?”
“Feedin’ the chickens. You ain’t goin’ to take him off this mornin’ now! I don’t care where you go.”
“Who’s a-goin’ to take him off? I ain’t said nothin’ about takin’ him off.”
“Wal, take y’rself off, an’ if y’ ain’t here f’r dinner, I ain’t goin’ to get no supper.”
Ripley took a water-pail and put four bottles of “the bitter” into it, and trudged away up the road with it in a pleasant glow of hope. All nature seemed to declare the day a time of rest, and invited men to disassociate ideas of toil from the rustling green wheat, shining grass, and tossing blooms. Something of the sweetness and buoyancy of all nature permeated the old man’s work-calloused body, and he whistled little snatches of the dance tunes he played on his fiddle.
But he found neighbor Johnson to be supplied with another variety of bitter, which was all he needed for the present. He qualified his refusal to buy with a cordial invitation to go out and see his shoats, in which he took infinite pride. But Uncle Ripley said: “I guess I’ll haf t’ be goin’; I want ‘o git up to Jennings’ before dinner.”
He couldn’t help feeling a little depressed when he found Jennings away. The next house along the pleasant lane was inhabited by a “newcomer.” He was sitting on the horse-trough, holding a horse’s halter, while his hired man dashed cold water upon the galled spot on the animal’s shoulder.
After some preliminary talk Ripley presented his medicine.
“Hell, no! What do I want of such stuff? When they’s anything the matter with me, I take a lunkin’ ol’ swig of popple-bark and bourbon! That fixes me.”
Uncle Ethan moved off up the lane. He hardly felt like whistling now. At the next house he set his pail down in the weeds beside the fence, and went in without it. Doudney came to the door in his bare feet, buttoning his suspenders over a clean boiled shirt. He was dressing to go out.
“Hello, Ripley. I was just goin’ down your way. Jest wait a minute, an’ I’ll be out.”
When he came out, fully dressed, Uncle Ethan grappled him.
“Say, what d’ you think o’ paytent med—”
“Some of ‘em are boss. But y’ want ‘o know what y’re gittin’.”
“What d’ ye think o’ Dodd’s—”
“Best in the market.”
Uncle Ethan straightened up and his face lighted. Doudney went on:
“Yes, sir; best bitter that ever went into a bottle. I know, I’ve tried it. I don’t go much on patent medicines, but when I get a good—”
“Don’t want ‘o buy a bottle?”
Doudney turned and faced him.
“Buy! No. I’ve got nineteen bottles I want ‘o sell.” Ripley glanced up at Doudney’s new granary and there read “Dodd’s Family Bitters.” He was stricken dumb. Doudney saw it all, and roared.
“Wal, that’s a good one! We two tryin’ to sell each other bitters. Ho—ho—ho—har, whoop! wal, this is rich! How many bottles did you git?”
“None o’ your business,” said Uncle Ethan, as he turned and made off, while Doudney screamed with merriment.
On his way home Uncle Ethan grew ashamed of his burden. Doudney had canvassed the whole neighborhood, and he practically gave up the struggle. Everybody he met seemed determined to find out what he had been doing, and at last he began lying about it.
“Hello, Uncle Ripley, what y’ got there in that pail?”
“Goose eggs f’r settin’.”
He disposed of one bottle to old Gus Peterson. Gus never paid his debts, and he would only promise fifty cents “on tick” for the bottle, and yet so desperate was Ripley that this questionable sale cheered him up not a little.
As he came down the road, tired, dusty, and hungry, he climbed over the fence in order to avoid seeing that sign on the barn, and slunk into the house without looking back.
He couldn’t have felt meaner about it if he had allowed a Democratic poster to be pasted there.
The evening passed in grim silence, and in sleep he saw that sign wriggling across the side of the barn like boa-constrictors hung on rails. He tried to paint them out, but every time he tried it the man seemed to come back with a sheriff, and savagely warned him to let it stay till the year was up. In some mysterious way the agent seemed to know every time he brought out the paint-pot, and he was no longer the pleasant-voiced individual who drove the calico ponies.
As he stepped out into the yard next morning that abominable, sickening, scrawling advertisement was the first thing that claimed his glance—it blotted out the beauty of the morning.
Mrs. Ripley came to the window, buttoning her dress at the throat, a wisp of her hair sticking assertively from the little knob at the back of her head.
“Lovely, ain’t it! An’ I’ve got to see it all day long. I can’t look out the winder but that thing’s right in my face.” It seemed to make her savage. She hadn’t been in such a temper since her visit to New York. “I hope you feel satisfied with it.”
Ripley walked off to the barn. His pride in its clean sweet newness was gone. He slyly tried the paint to see if it couldn’t be scraped off, but it was dried in thoroughly. Whereas before he had taken delight in having his neighbors turn and look at the building, now he kept out of sight whenever he saw a team coming. He hoed corn away in the back of the field, when he should have been bugging potatoes by the roadside.
Mrs. Ripley was in a frightful mood about it, but she held herself in check for several days. At last she burst forth:
“Ethan Ripley, I can’t stand that thing any longer, and I ain’t goin’ to, that’s all! You’ve got to go and paint that thing out, or I will. I’m just about crazy with it.”
“But, mother, I promised—”
“I don’t care what you promised, it’s got to be painted out. I’ve got the nightmare now, seein’ it. I’m goin’ to send f’r a pail o’ red paint, and I’m goin’ to paint that out if it takes the last breath I’ve got to do it.”
“I’ll tend to it, mother, if you won’t hurry me—”
“I can’t stand it another day. It makes me boil every time I look out the winder.”
Uncle Ethan hitched up his team and drove gloomily off to town, where he tried to find the agent. He lived in some other part of the county, however, and so the old man gave up and bought a pot of red paint, not daring to go back to his desperate wife without it.
“Goin’ to paint y’r new barn?” inquired the merchant, with friendly interest.
Uncle Ethan turned with guilty sharpness; but the merchant’s face was grave and kindly.
“Yes, I thought I’d tech it up a little—don’t cost much.”
“It pays—always,” the merchant said emphatically.
“Will it—stick jest as well put on evenings?” inquired Uncle Ethan, hesitatingly.
“Yes—won’t make any difference. Why? Ain’t goin’ to have—”
“Wal,—I kind o’ thought I’d do it odd times night an’ mornin’—kind o’ odd times—”
He seemed oddly confused about it, and the merchant looked after him anxiously as he drove away.
After supper that night he went out to the barn, and Mrs. Ripley heard him sawing and hammering. Then the noise ceased, and he came in and sat down in his usual place.
“What y’ ben makin’?” she inquired. Tewksbury had gone to bed. She sat darning a stocking.
“I jest thought I’d git the stagin’ ready f’r paintin’,” he said, evasively.
“Wal! I’ll be glad when it’s covered up.” When she got ready for bed, he was still seated in his chair, and after she had dozed off two or three times she began to wonder why he didn’t come. When the clock struck ten, and she realized that he had not stirred, she began to get impatient. “Come, are y’ goin’ to sit there all night?” There was no reply. She rose up in bed and looked about the room. The broad moon flooded it with light, so that she could see he was not asleep in his chair, as she had supposed. There was something ominous in his disappearance.
“Ethan! Ethan Ripley, where are yeh!” There was no reply to her sharp call. She rose and distractedly looked about among the furniture, as if he might somehow be a cat and be hiding in a corner somewhere. Then she went upstairs where the boy slept, her hard little heels making a curious tunking noise on the bare boards. The moon fell across the sleeping boy like a robe of silver. He was alone.
She began to be alarmed. Her eyes widened in fear. All sorts of vague horrors sprang unbidden into her brain. She still had the mist of sleep in her brain.
She hurried down the stairs and out into the fragrant night. The katydids were singing in infinite peace under the solemn splendor of the moon. The cattle sniffed and sighed, jangling their bells now and then, and the chickens in the coop stirred uneasily as if overheated. The old woman stood there in her bare feet and long nightgown, horror-stricken. The ghastly story of a man who had hung himself in his barn because his wife deserted him came into her mind, and stayed there with frightful persistency. Her throat filled chokingly.
She felt a wild rush of loneliness. She had a sudden realization of how dear that gaunt old figure was, with its grizzled face and ready smile. Her breath came quick and quicker, and she was at the point of bursting into a wild cry to Tewksbury, when she heard a strange noise. It came from the barn, a creaking noise. She looked that way, and saw in the shadowed side a deeper shadow moving to and fro. A revulsion to astonishment and anger took place in her.
“Land o’ Bungay! If he ain’t paintin’ that barn, like a perfect old idiot, in the night.”
Uncle Ethan, working desperately, did not hear her feet pattering down the path, and was startled by her shrill voice.
“Well, Ethan Ripley, whaddy y’ think you’re doin’ now?”
He made two or three slapping passes with the brush, and then snapped out, “I’m a-paintin’ this barn—whaddy ye s’pose? If ye had eyes y’ wouldn’t ask.”
“Well, you come right straight to bed. What d’you mean by actin’ so?”
“You go back into the house an’ let me be. I know what I’m a-doin’. You’ve pestered me about this sign jest about enough.” He dabbed his brush to and fro as he spoke. His gaunt figure towered above her in shadow. His slapping brush had a vicious sound.
Neither spoke for some time. At length she said more gently, “Ain’t you comin’ in?”
“No—not till I get a-ready. You go ‘long an’ tend to y’r own business. Don’t stan’ there an’ ketch cold.”
She moved off slowly toward the house. His shout subdued her. Working alone out there had rendered him savage; he was not to be pushed any further. She knew by the tone of his voice that he must now be respected. She slipped on her shoes and a shawl, and came back where he was working, and took a seat on a saw-horse.
“I’m goin’ to set right here till you come in, Ethan Ripley,” she said, in a firm voice, but gentler than usual.
“Wal, you’ll set a good while,” was his ungracious reply, but each felt a furtive tenderness for the other. He worked on in silence. The boards creaked heavily as he walked to and fro, and the slapping sound of the paint-brush sounded loud in the sweet harmony of the night. The majestic moon swung slowly round the corner of the barn, and fell upon the old man’s grizzled head and bent shoulders. The horses inside could be heard stamping the mosquitoes away, and chewing their hay in pleasant chorus.
The little figure seated on the saw-horse drew the shawl closer about her thin shoulders. Her eyes were in shadow, and her hands were wrapped in her shawl. At last she spoke in a curious tone.
“Wal, I don’t know as you was so very much to blame. I didn’t want that Bible myself—I held out I did, but I didn’t.”
Ethan worked on until the full meaning of this unprecedented surrender penetrated his head, and then he threw down his brush.
“Wal, I guess I’ll let ‘er go at that. I’ve covered up the most of it, anyhow. Guess we better go in.”