Jerome Irving had been courting Anne Stockard for fifteen years. He had begun when she was twenty and he was twenty-five, and now that Jerome was forty, and Anne, in a village where everybody knew everybody else's age, had to own to being thirty-five, the courtship did not seem any nearer a climax than it had at the beginning. But that was not Jerome's fault, poor fellow!
At the end of the first year he had asked Anne to marry him, and Anne had refused. Jerome was disappointed, but he kept his head and went on courting Anne just the same; that is he went over to Esek Stockard's house every Saturday night and spent the evening, he walked home with Anne from prayer meeting and singing school and parties when she would let him, and asked her to go to all the concerts and socials and quilting frolics that came off. Anne never would go, of course, but Jerome faithfully gave her the chance. Old Esek rather favoured Jerome's suit, for Anne was the plainest of his many daughters, and no other fellow seemed at all anxious to run Jerome off the track; but she took her own way with true Stockard firmness, and matters were allowed to drift on at the will of time or chance.
Three years later Jerome tried his luck again, with precisely the same result, and after that he had asked Anne regularly once a year to marry him, and just as regularly Anne said no a little more brusquely and a little more decidedly every year. Now, in the mellowness of a fifteen-year-old courtship, Jerome did not mind it at all. He knew that everything comes to the man who has patience to wait.
Time, of course, had not stood still with Anne and Jerome, or with the history of Deep Meadows. At the Stockard homestead the changes had been many and marked. Every year or two there had been a wedding in the big brick farmhouse, and one of old Esek's girls had been the bride each time. Julia and Grace and Celia and Betty and Theodosia and Clementina Stockard were all married and gone. But Anne had never had another lover. There had to be an old maid in every big family she said, and she was not going to marry Jerome Irving just for the sake of having Mrs. on her tombstone.
Old Esek and his wife had been put away in the Deep Meadows burying-ground. The broad, fertile Stockard acres passed into Anne's possession. She was a good business-woman, and the farm continued to be the best in the district. She kept two hired men and a servant girl, and the sixteen-year-old of her oldest sister lived with her. There were few visitors at the Stockard place now, but Jerome "dropped in" every Saturday night with clockwork regularity and talked to Anne about her stock and advised her regarding the rotation of her crops and the setting out of her orchards. And at ten o'clock he would take his hat and cane and tell Anne to be good to herself, and go home.
Anne had long since given up trying to discourage him; she even accepted attentions from him now that she had used to refuse. He always walked home with her from evening meetings and was her partner in the games at quilting parties. It was great fun for the young folks. "Old Jerome and Anne" were a standing joke in Deep Meadows. But the older people had ceased to expect anything to come of it.
Anne laughed at Jerome as she had always done, and would not have owned for the world that she could have missed him. Jerome was useful, she admitted, and a comfortable friend; and she would have liked him well enough if he would only omit that ridiculous yearly ceremony of proposal.
It was Jerome's fortieth birthday when Anne refused him again. He realized this as he went down the road in the moonlight, and doubt and dismay began to creep into his heart. Anne and he were both getting old--there was no disputing that fact. It was high time that he brought her to terms if he was ever going to. Jerome was an easy-going mortal and always took things placidly, but he did not mean to have all those fifteen years of patient courting go for nothing He had thought Anne would get tired of saying no, sooner or later, and say yes, if for no other reason than to have a change; but getting tired did not seem to run in the Stockard blood. She had said no that night just as coolly and decidedly and unsentimentally as she said it fifteen years before. Jerome had the sensation of going around in a circle and never getting any further on. He made up his mind that something must be done, and just as he got to the brook that divides Deep Meadows West from Deep Meadows Central an idea struck him; it was a good idea and amused him. He laughed aloud and slapped his thigh, much to the amusement of two boys who were sitting unnoticed on the railing of the bridge.
"There's old Jerome going home from seeing Anne Stockard," said one. "Wonder what on earth he's laughing at. Seems to me if I couldn't get a wife without hoeing a fifteen-year row, I'd give up trying."
But, then, the speaker was a Hamilton, and the Hamiltons never had any perseverance.
Jerome, although a well-to-do man, owning a good farm, had, so to speak, no home of his own. The old Irving homestead belonged to his older brother, who had a wife and family. Jerome lived with them and was so used to it he didn't mind.
At forty a lover must not waste time. Jerome thought out the details that night, and next day he opened the campaign. But it was not until the evening after that that Anne Stockard heard the news. It was her niece, Octavia, who told her. The latter had been having a chat up the lane with Sam Mitchell, and came in with a broad smile on her round, rosy face and a twinkle in her eyes.
"I guess you've lost your beau this time, Aunt Anne. It looks as if he meant to take you at your word at last."
"What on earth do you mean?" asked Anne, a little sharply. She was in the pantry counting eggs, and Octavia's interruption made her lose her count. "Now I can't remember whether it was six or seven dozen I said last. I shall have to count them all over again. I wish, Octavia, that you could think of something besides beaus all the time."
"Well, but listen," persisted Octavia wickedly. "Jerome Irving was at the social at the Cherry Valley parsonage last night, and he had Harriet Warren there--took her there, and drove her home again."
"I don't believe it," cried Anne, before she thought. She dropped an egg into the basket so abruptly that the shell broke.
"Oh, it's true enough. Sam Mitchell told me; he was there and saw him. Sam says he looked quite beaming, and was dressed to kill, and followed Harriet around like her shadow. I guess you won't have any more bother with him, Aunt Anne."
In the process of picking the broken egg out of the whole ones Anne had recovered her equanimity. She gave a careful little laugh.
"Well, it's to be hoped so. Goodness knows it's time he tried somebody else. Go and change your dress for milking, Octavia, and don't spend quite so much time gossiping up the lane with Sam Mitchell. He always was a fetch-and-carry. Young girls oughtn't to be so pert."
When the subdued Octavia had gone, Anne tossed the broken eggshell out of the pantry window viciously enough.
"There's no fool like an old fool. Jerome Irving always was an idiot. The idea of his going after Harriet Warren! He's old enough to be her father. And a Warren, too! I've seen the time an Irving wouldn't be seen on the same side of the road with a Warren. Well, anyhow, I don't care, and he needn't suppose I will. It will be a relief not to have him hanging around any longer."
It might have been a relief, but Anne felt strangely lonely as she walked home alone from prayer meeting the next night. Jerome had not been there. The Warrens were Methodists and Anne rightly guessed that he had gone to the Methodist prayer meeting at Cherry Valley.
"Dancing attendance on Harriet," she said to herself scornfully.
When she got home she looked at her face in the glass more critically than she had done for years. Anne Stockard at her best had never been pretty. When young she had been called "gawky." She was very tall and her figure was lank and angular. She had a long, pale face and dusky hair. Her eyes had been good--a glimmering hazel, large and long-lashed. They were pretty yet, but the crow's feet about them were plainly visible. There were brackets around her mouth too, and her cheeks were hollow. Anne suddenly realized, as she had never realized before, that she had grown old--that her youth was left far behind. She was an old maid, and Harriet Warren was young, and pretty. Anne's long, thin lips suddenly quivered.
"I declare, I'm a worse fool than Jerome," she said angrily.
When Saturday night came Jerome did not. The corner of the big, old-fashioned porch where he usually sat looked bare and lonely. Anne was short with Octavia and boxed the cat's ears and raged at herself. What did she care if Jerome Irving never came again? She could have married him years ago if she had wanted to--everybody knew that!
At sunset she saw a buggy drive past her gate. Even at that distance she recognized Harriet Warren's handsome, high-coloured profile. It was Jerome's new buggy and Jerome was driving. The wheel spokes flashed in the sunlight as they crept up the hill. Perhaps they dazzled Anne's eyes a little; at least, for that or some other reason she dabbed her hand viciously over them as she turned sharply about and went upstairs. Octavia was practising her music lesson in the parlour below and singing in a sweet shrill voice. The hired men were laughing and talking in the yard. Anne slammed down her window and banged her door and then lay down on her bed; she said her head ached.
The Deep Meadows people were amused and made joking remarks to Anne, which she had to take amiably because she had no excuse for resenting them. In reality they stung her pride unendurably. When Jerome had gone she realized that she had no other intimate friend and that she was a very lonely woman whom nobody cared about. One night--it was three weeks afterward--she met Jerome and Harriet squarely. She was walking to church with Octavia, and they were driving in the opposite direction. Jerome had his new buggy and crimson lap robe. His horse's coat shone like satin and had rosettes of crimson on his bridle. Jerome was dressed extremely well and looked quite young, with his round, ruddy, clean-shaven face and clear blue eyes.
Harriet was sitting primly and consciously by his side; she was a very handsome girl with bold eyes and was somewhat overdressed. She wore a big flowery hat and a white lace veil and looked at Anne with a supercilious smile.
Anne felt dowdy and old; she was very pale. Jerome lifted his hat and bowed pleasantly as they drove past. Suddenly Harriet laughed out. Anne did not look back, but her face crimsoned darkly. Was that girl laughing at her? She trembled with anger and a sharp, hurt feeling. When she got home that night she sat a long while by her window.
Jerome was gone--and he let Harriet Warren laugh at her and he would never come back to her. Well, it did not matter, but she had been a fool. Only it had never occurred to her that Jerome could act so.
"If I'd thought he would I mightn't have been so sharp with him," was as far as she would let herself go even in thought.
When four weeks had elapsed Jerome came over one Saturday night. He was fluttered and anxious, but hid it in a masterly manner.
Anne was taken by surprise. She had not thought he would ever come again, and was off her guard. He had come around the porch corner abruptly as she stood there in the dusk, and she started very perceptibly.
"Good evening, Anne," he said, easily and unblushingly.
Anne choked up. She was very angry, or thought she was. Jerome appeared not to notice her lack of welcome. He sat coolly down in his old place. His heart was beating like a hammer, but Anne did not know that.
"I suppose," she said cuttingly, "that you're on your way down to the bridge. It's almost a pity for you to waste time stopping here at all, any more than you have of late. No doubt Harriet'll be expecting you."
A gleam of satisfaction flashed over Jerome's face. He looked shrewdly at Anne, who was not looking at him, but was staring uncompromisingly out over the poppy beds. A jealous woman always gives herself away. If Anne had been indifferent she would not have given him that slap in the face.
"I dunno's she will," he replied coolly. "I didn't say for sure whether I'd be down tonight or not. It's so long since I had a chat with you I thought I'd drop in for a spell. But of course if I'm not wanted I can go where I will be."
Anne could not get back her self-control. Her nerves were "all strung up," as she would have said. She had a feeling that she was right on the brink of a "scene," but she could not help herself.
"I guess it doesn't matter much what I want," she said stonily. "At any rate, it hasn't seemed that way lately. You don't care, of course. Oh, no! Harriet Warren is all you care about. Well, I wish you joy of her."
Jerome looked puzzled, or pretended to. In reality he was hugging himself with delight.
"I don't just understand you, Anne," he said hesitatingly "You appear to be vexed about something."
"I? Oh, no, I'm not, Mr. Irving. Of course old friends don't count now. Well, I've no doubt new ones will wear just as well."
"If it's about my going to see Harriet," said Jerome easily "I don't see as how it can matter much to you. Goodness knows, you took enough pains to show me you didn't want me. I don't blame you. A woman has a right to please herself, and a man ought to have sense to take his answer and go. I hadn't, and that's where I made my mistake. I don't mean to pester you any more, but we can be real good friends, can't we? I'm sure I'm as much your friend as ever I was."
Now, I hold that this speech of Jerome's, delivered in a cool, matter-of-fact tone, as of a man stating a case with dispassionate fairness, was a masterpiece. It was the last cleverly executed movement of the campaign. If it failed to effect a capitulation, he was a defeated man. But it did not fail.
Anne had got to that point where an excited woman must go mad or cry. Anne cried. She sat flatly down on a chair and burst into tears.
Jerome's hat went one way and his cane another. Jerome himself sprang across the intervening space and dropped into the chair beside Anne. He caught her hand in his and threw his arm boldly around her waist.
"Goodness gracious, Anne! Do you care after all? Tell me that!"
"I don't suppose it matters to you if I do," sobbed Anne. "It hasn't seemed to matter, anyhow."
"Anne, look here! Didn't I come after you for fifteen years? It's you I always have wanted and want yet, if I can get you. I don't care a rap for Harriet Warren or anyone but you. Now that's the truth right out, Anne."
No doubt it was, and Anne was convinced of it. But she had to have her cry out--on Jerome's shoulder--and it soothed her nerves wonderfully. Later on Octavia, slipping noiselessly up the steps in the dusk, saw a sight that transfixed her with astonishment. When she recovered herself she turned and fled wildly around the house, running bump into Sam Mitchell, who was coming across the yard from a twilight conference with the hired men.
"Goodness, Tavy, what's the matter? Y' look 'sif y'd seen a ghost."
Octavia leaned up against the wall in spasms of mirth.
"Oh, Sam," she gasped, "old Jerome Irving and Aunt Anne are sitting round there in the dark on the front porch and he had his arms around her, kissing her! And they never saw nor heard me, no more'n if they were deaf and blind!"
Sam gave a tremendous whistle and then went off into a shout of laughter whose echoes reached even to the gloom of the front porch and the ears of the lovers. But they did not know he was laughing at them and would not have cared if they had. They were too happy for that.
There was a wedding that fall and Anne Stockard was the bride. When she was safely his, Jerome confessed all and was graciously forgiven.
"But it was kind of mean to Harriet," said Anne rebukingly, "to go with her and get her talked about and then drop her as you did. Don't you think so yourself, Jerome?"
Her husband's eyes twinkled.
"Well, hardly that. You see, Harriet's engaged to that Johnson fellow out west. 'Tain't generally known, but I knew it and that's why I picked on her. I thought it probable that she'd be willing enough to flirt with me for a little diversion, even if I was old. Harriet's that sort of a girl. And I made up my mind that if that didn't fetch it nothing would and I'd give up for good and all. But it did, didn't it, Anne?"
"I should say so. It was horrid of you, Jerome--but I daresay it's just as well you did or I'd likely never have found out that I couldn't get along without you. I did feel dreadful. Poor Octavia could tell you I was as cross as X. How did you come to think of it, Jerome?"
"A fellow had to do something," said Jerome oracularly, "and I'd have done most anything to get you, Anne, that's a fact. And there it was--courting fifteen years and nothing to show for it. I dunno, though, how I did come to think of it. Guess it was a sort of inspiration. Anyhow, I've got you and that's what I set out to do in the beginning."