The Smart set: a
magazine of cleverness
Volume 20 September 1906
George Jean Nathan,
Henry Louis Mencken
By Grace MacGowan Cooke
T WOULDN'T 'a' keered
so I much ef you had 'a' told me. The very idy of you weddin' a gal out
o' that thar Melungeon tribe, an' fetchin' her home hyer without namin'
a word to me! Hit'll kill me!
I feel a-sinkin'! I'm took
thest like gran'mammy was when yer Uncle Dan'l fell over the bluff!
Hold me up a leetle, Elviry. Shook, hand down that turkey-tail fan. You
Ga'nt, git the hot water ready fer my feet. Take that gal out'n
hyer—don't ye see I'm a-g-wine to have a spell?"
Such was the
home-coming of Pheenie Gaither, Gordon Hightower's bride from over
beyond the Far Cove. The big fellow stood, half-smiling, half-abashed,
attempting to explain to his vixenish little mother that, while he and
Pheenie had kept company ever since he went into the Far Cove
neighborhood six months back to haul saw- logs, they did not mean to
wed so soon, but that her people were moving to Texas. Pheenie herself
looked quietly on at the antics of her mother-in-law. She was of
outlandish blood—the Melungeons claim to be of Portuguese descent, a
claim which seems warranted by the beautiful dark eyes, graceful
movements, slim, finely-formed hands and feet among them, and which, in
a measure, sets them apart from the other mountaineers. The clear, firm
pallor of her little oval face changed not at all for the old woman's
shrill accusations; she was used to unkindness, was Pheenie Gaither;
she felt herself scarce good enough for Gordon Hightower, and she
regarded his mother's elaborate agonies with an odd sort of
sympathy and agreement in their conclusions.
"Git out o' hyer,
Gord. You an" her go in t'other room; yo' mammy has about so much
carryin'-on to do, an' she'll be none the better for sight o' the gal,"
counseled old Shook Hightower querulously.
"Mammy's got a spell,"
explained Gordon, as he and Pheenie went into the kitchen.
"Mammy's got a spell,"
repeated Semphoria to some of the younger fry who were being noisy in
the back yard.
"Mammy's got a spell—a
spell—a spell!" ran the word down the Hightower line, sending the
half-grown twins fishing, setting little Idally and Eula Jane to
playing at similar seizures out behind the small log barn ; speedily
clearing and darkening the house. The very chickens seemed to walk on
tiptoe about the cabin and address one another in undertones concerning
the little old woman and her "spells." Within, the bridegroom sat
whispering to his bride. There was no crying need to comfort her. If
she could but have him, and be suffered in her husband's house, she was
at present amply content.
Gordon was the
sturdiest shoot on the Hightower tree. He had inherited the farm and
everything upon it from the maternal grandfather, whose pet and
favorite he had always been. This had always given the boy a unique
position among them. Old Shook was something less than a cipher in the
household; the little termagant he had married ruled him and her
children so easily, so completely, that, when other avenues of activity
were wanting, she fell back upon " spells " as an outlet for energy.
The new wife was a mute,
earth-born creature. Beautiful as a rare blossom, and almost as little
given to pleading her own cause, she knew only to cling where she
loved, to bow her head to the storm of opposition, of misliking— even
of abuse and outrage if such should come. There was nothing but
sweetness in her nature, which was as sound and true as a cup of clean
water, or an ear of corn—she was as direct a work of God's hand as are
these. In the months that followed she struggled hard, but mutely, to
please, to placate, to win. Failing, she held herself only at fault,
and endured in silence the slights, injustice, the petty persecution
which her mother-in-law's mandate might thrust upon her. Loyal, loving,
willing as a beast of burden, and yet always ready, at the smallest
word of approval or kindness, to break into smiles and sunshine, the
child's meek gentleness should have won any unprejudiced housemates.
But no qualities could have availed one who had been married to Gord
without the say so of Mammy Hightower.
Gordon was deeply in
love with his pretty girl bride. But he was abroad in the fields from
dawn till dark ; during the brief hours he was with her he seemed to
see nothing greatly amiss, and to scarce comprehend the very little
that she ever tried to voice to him of her growing unhappiness with his
people. At best they were but timid hints, which she haltingly put
forward; she soon ceased them altogether.
But upon a lowering
day in February, when all the men were felling trees to clear land they
took Gord out from under a big oak which had fallen askew—after
desperate chopping and dragging at the great limbs—"dead," as the
mountaineer phrases it. And when they carried him to the house on a
hastily improvised stretcher of boughs, when after an hour or more of
insensibility he recovered a sort of consciousness, he was plainly not
It was a terrible time
for Pheenie. Mammy Hightower promptly had what might be termed a series
of confluent spells, so that she was more the invalid of the house than
Gord, -who lay unconscious in the great four-post bed with its gay
patchwork cover. Though the mother-in-law shrieked again and again,
"That thar Melungeon gal is at the bottom of this all! She's got to go.
I want the house cl'ared of her befo' I step my foot in to take keer о'
mу son"—though these cries rang through the little cabin, Pheenie
crouched at her husband's side, holding his limp hand, knowing
instinctively what was to be done for him, and doing it before anybody
could forestall her— till Salvania Hightower got up from her own bed
and drove the young wife away.
" Me that brung him into
this-hyer world o' trouble—to think I'm not the best and the onliest
one to know what's good fer my son! Ef hit was soap makin', er plowin',
er hoein 'a patch o' tobacker, that thar outlandish critter might
sarve. But I tend on Gord— they hain't nobody a-gwine to do hit but his
She made her word
good. Autocrat of her own little mountain kingdom, she thrust the child
out of the sick-room, and had her hovering about the shut door, to be
driven away with words which might have been like whips. But these were
no scourge to Pheenie's mild spirit; she had been lifted upon her
anguish, as upon a cross, high above anything that those about could do
to her. The thing which really counted was to come.
The country doctor
pronounced the case beyond him, opined that there would have to be
surgery of some sort, and gave as the only hope the new hospital at
Gary ville, whither, he said, Gord might safely be moved. Pheenie,
crouching at the window, listening with all her soul, heard this
dictum,and heard, too, that Mammy Hightower, noisily rebellious at
first, was finally brought to understand that this was the one chance
for Gord's life, and to agree to the journey.
" Me an' Shook an'
Semphory an' Ga'rvt'll take him down to the cyars in the big wagon,"
she told the doctor, as she followed him out to the gate. " We'll lay
feather-beds in the bottom; an' Shook had better drive keerful, er I'll
take the lines myse'f. We-all air a-gwine to pack our pore boy to the
hos-pittle at Garyville, "she proclaimed, facing about on the family,
which had come stringing after, "an you chil'en kin run things hyer as
best ye may; fer I'm bound to stay thar tell my son is -well—er dead.
Oh, my Lord—to think o' the trouble I have! "
A timid touch on her
arm interfered with the hysterical outburst which was to have capped
this lament. Turning, she saw Gord's wife, her bronze-gold hair
loosened about her small pale face, her great dark eyes full of
" Ye sure air gwine to let me
go 'long o' my man down to the hos-pittle— you couldn't no-ways be so
hard as to keep me from Gord now," whispered the stricken creature.
"You don't rightly sense how Gord feels, mammy. He sets store by me.
He'll never fergive ye, ef he gits well."
Was it sight of a
grief so much greater than her own, so much deeper than any her
voluble, shallow, egotistic nature could nourish? Was it that
concluding phrase, which claimed too large a share of Gord's affection?
Who can say ? The old woman turned upon the girl with:
"What on airth would
we tote a disgrace like you to Garyville fer? Tell me to my face that
my own son wouldn't never fergive what I done fer his good! Ef he lives
he'll be mighty proud to be shet o' you. Ef he dies —anyhow, he'll die
"Thar — thar — thar,
Salvania," coaxed old Shook, "let the gal alone. We-all have got the
wagon about ready. Put what ye need in yo' poke an' come along. Ga'nt's
done gone to the neighbors to git he'p fer liftin' Gord," for he could
not bear the set white misery of poor Pheenie's face, though she shrank
back and said no more. But when they had gone down the mountain-side in
the big wagon, carrying on soft-piled featherbeds all that Pheenie
cared for in this world, she sat crouched on the doorstep for hours.
Those who were left behind paid no attention to her; they had all been
set tasks by the mother of the family, and were—according to their
various tempers—eagerly about them, or formulating plans to evade them.
Elvira, who was to keep the house, came into the kitchen in the middle
of the afternoon and found Pheenie sitting at the table, eating. She
had put corn-bread and bacon in a little bundle, and clad herself in
her decent best—the dress, the hat, the good shoes, which Gord had
bought for her.
"Whar ye gwine?"
demanded Elvira; the preparations for a journey were too obvious to be
"To the settlement," returned
Pheenie in a low, monotonous tone, staring straight before her. In all
her life she had been to the village of Hepzibah twice, and upon one of
those occasions she had ridden for a short distance upon a train.
Elvira was divided in her
mind. Perhaps mammy would be glad to be shet of the Melungeon. But
remembrance of many hard tasks patiently done appealed for the
intruder, and she asked finally:
"Ye ain't a-gwine to
quit Gord tell ye know whether he'll live or die, air ye?"
Pheenie shook her
head. This girl who would talk affected her as a buzzing fly torments a
sick man preoccupied with his pain.
"Talley Strunk," she said,
naming a brakeman on the mountain ore road, the most notorious fellow
in the neighborhood, one whose contact was pitch to any decent woman;
"Talley Strunk, he used to think a heap of me. I'm a-gwine with him, ef
I can find him."
Elvira's judgment had
traveled down the mountain-side in the pocket of Mammy Hightower's
linsey frock; and so, instead of herself questioning Pheenie further on
this surprising matter, she caught up a half-grown brother, tossed him
upon the one nag left about the place, and sent him flying after,
urging him to overtake mammy and tell her that Cord's no 'count wife
was running away with Talley Strunk. As a final afterthought, she ran
shouting with the requisite money to follow on by train to Gary ville,
if necessary. When Elvira came back to the kitchen she found it empty.
And the evening of the following day Pheenie appeared in Hepzibah
asking at the station and of the loafers standing about for Talley
Strunk—an innocent girl, a beautiful creature, inquiring upon the
streets for Talley Strunk!
He was soon found, and
answered promptly to her request :
"Will I take ye? Well, I
guess yes. Come on in the waitin'-room here. What's the matter? Air ye
quittin' Hightower? Did he do ye mean?"
" No," she said in the
same preoccupied tone she had used in speaking to Elvira; " Gord got
hurt. They took him down to the hos-pittle at Gary ville a-y este'day.
Mammy wouldn't let me go. She never did love me—I reckon I wasn't what
they'd laid out fer Gord to wed—I wasn't good enough. But they've tuck
him down there, an' won't let me go!"
She broke off suddenly. Why
should she talk to Talley Strunk—more than enough to persuade him to
take her ?
" Well, you're good
enough for me ! ' ' he said with rough kindness, ''an' too good for
Gordon Hightower, the best day he ever seed."
Pheenie's lips had
parted to defend her husband; but the door of the caboose just ahead
caught her eye; they closed, without a word uttered. She ran toward the
car and climbed in.
"Ye'll be all right in
here, Pheenie, if ye don't mind a tol'able rough crowd," said Strunk,
lingering on the step. "Some boys will pack a bottle; an' ef they git
to drinkin' "
He paused and regarded
her with pitying curiosity. She had not heard a word.
And so Pheenie went to
her husband —in the caboose of a freight train, at Strunk's behest, as
his friend and protégée, with three or four rough men,
who leered and spat tobacco juice, and who, when the bottle had made
the rounds a time or two—being always scrupulously offered to her—began
to indulge in dubious converse. The child sat apart, her little face
like a white flower in the dusk of the soiled, tobacco- and whisky-tain
ted air, safely cut off by her grief from sense of them and their talk.
She had to go to Gord. If she could have walked and got there in time,
she would have done it. But a body couldn't walk—not all those miles—in
one night ; there was Talley, he was the only possible means ; Pheenie
had taken it with no thought of the cost, just as she would have taken
a worse, had it been the only one offered.
Yet swiftly as she had
managed to go, considering her moneyless condition, rumor of her
misdeeds had run ahead.
The Hightowers got the
injured man to the hospital in good condition; and the operation
necessary to raise the indented bone which caused his comatose state,
and threatened paralysis or death, was promptly and successfully
performed. Salvania Hightower, terror-stricken before all the
paraphernalia of modern surgery, longing for an opportunity to impress
the physicians at the hospital with her own importance, yet found
herself in too great a minority to commit any overt indiscretion.
The advent of young Blev with
Elvira's news the afternoon of the day upon which the operation was
made, filled her well-nigh to bursting with information at which old
Shook merely groaned, Gaunt grunted, and Semphoria sniffed that she
didn't see how it made any difference. The grave, quiet doctors, the
white-capped nurses with tall, stiff collars, none of these would care
that the Melungeon girl had justified her mother-in-law's evil opinion
of her ; it was not till she was permitted to go into Gord's room and
see him, conscious for the first time since his injury, that she found
a satisfactory audience for the tale. He lay amid his pillows, weak and
dreamy, but perfectly himself, examining the walls of the room with
curious eyes,and listening to the nurse who gently told him where he
was and why he had been brought there. At sight of his mother, Cord's
" Whar's Pheenie?" he
whispered, and looked longingly over that mother's shoulder.
It was too much. The
nurse, seeing Salvania quiet, sitting beside the patient and speaking
low, turned and left the room on some errand. And the instant the door
closed behind her the old woman began eagerly :
" Mammy's own pore
boy, that thar low-down trash warn't never fit fer ye. Cayn't no good
come out o' that Melungeon tribe. Don't ye grieve, Gord. The triflin'
huzzy's done quit ye—afore she knowed whether ye'd live er die from yer
hurt. She's run off with Talley Strunk. Elviry sent Blev down to tell
me, an' I thort the sooner ye "
Miss Duffy's hand
descended upon Mammy Hightower's shoulder. It closed there like a vise.
" Hush," whispered the nurse in the mountain woman's ear. "Don't you
see you're killing him?"
"Well, I brung him
into this world," Gordon's mother was beginning shrilly, as Miss
Duffy's uncomfortable grasp raised her to her feet.
"Yes, and you'll put
him out of it if you come here and tell him things like that. We are
going to do everything possible for your son; we hope to save him; but
you must be quiet here, and not interfere with the physicians or
nurses. If you are not quiet —if you again disturb my patient—"
Salvania's eyes opened wide to hear this authoritative woman shift the
possessive from Cord's mother to herself, and call her son "my patient"
—" you will be put out of the hospital and forbidden to see the boy
again until he is—well," with a glance at the ghastly face on the
pillows, "until he is in a different condition."
And Miss Duffy fairly pushed
the old woman from the room, sending for Dr. Ashemore.the house
physician, who came in and did what was possible, earnestly endeavoring
to assure the patient that his mother was mistaken, promising to send
for the missing wife —declaring that she would be with him soon.
Hightowers sat on a bench in the corridor. Gord's fever mounted as the
night grew. By fits he was delirious, and then he raved wildly, calling
for Pheenie, crying to her, begging her to come, weeping at remembrance
that someone had said she had left him—had gone away with another man.
To the huddled group on the bench outside the sounds of these cries,
these prayers and tears came fitfully, and the old woman was appalled
by her own handiwork, amazed at such evidence of the boy's love for the
Melungeon girl, realizing with deep chagrin that she had attributed her
own opinion of Pheenie to her son, remembering with sinking heart what
the poor child had said about Gord's not forgiving her if he got well.
About midnight, and
just after nurses and physicians had struggled through a terrible
paroxysm with the delirious man, whose strength waned as his fever
waxed, and who seemed now almost worse when he was sane and conscious
of his desolation than when he was delirious—about midnight there came
creeping to the door of the hospital a weary, footsore slip of a girl,
the night dew damp upon her loosened, bronze- gold hair, which hung
unheeded in a crinkling mass about the slender shoulders. The delicate
features were pinched from anxiety and exhaustion; the little oval face
was pale and set, so that the wide, woeful, dark eyes under their
golden lashes and tragically slanted golden brows were all that lived
in it. She looked a poor little lost naiad, gasping in the harsh grasp
of an alien world ; and when the night porter questioned her she made
"I am Pheenie
Gaither—Gordon Hightower's wife. I come down to stay at you-all's
hos-pittle with Gord, please, suh—to he'p nuss him, ef ye'll let me.
I'd 'a' been here sooner, but I had a—a sorter trouble about—about—
They put me off'n the train— beca'sc— They put me off. An' I had to
walk nigh onto ten mile; an' I'm awful skcered that you've done
already—done already—" Her eyes fixed themselves on the porter's face;
she could get no further.
In the hospital Gordon
Hightower was supposed to be dying; and Pheenie was taken directly to
Dr. Ashemore, who looked pityingly upon the appealing little figure. He
saw that she was ready to swoon with exhaustion, distress of mind and
lack of food—what remained of a lunch of bacon and corn- bread had been
forgotten in the caboose when Pheenie left it hastily—and at once
ordered a cup of coffee and some simple food brought. As she ate, in
obedience to his command, he studied her, finding in her what he would
have called a natural nurse, a silent, forbearing creature, with the
endless patience of the earth itself; one to help and to heal where
such as old Salvania Hightower had wounded. The man in there was crying
out for her with every breath; and each cry lessened his strength and
his chances of recovery.
"It's a risk," he
said; "but we're almost past talking about risks. He's not equal to
many more of those paroxysms."
A few moments later old
Salvania, yet sitting on her bench in the upstairs corridor, tasted the
humiliation of seeing Pheenie led past by the great doctor himself, and
into that room from which she had been banished. As the door opened to
admit them, she hoisted herself silently to her feet, and craning her
head forward saw Gordon lying among his pillows, his blond face burning
with fever against the white bandage, his eyes closed, his lips moving,
moving, moving, in a low, continuous muttering. She saw them take "that
gal" in and, ere the door swung noiselessly to again, saw them place
Pheenie close beside Gord's pillows, where her two little hands caught
and held his big wandering one.
When Gordon Hightower
suddenly opened sane eyes, and fixed them upon Pheenie's, Ashemore
confessed a qualm of doubt. But the girl justified his belief in her.
She smiled in her husband's face as innocently as she might have smiled
at her mother's knee; and poor Gord's tormented soul recognized.
" He wants a drink o'
water, lady," she said sweetly to Miss Duffy; and when they had held
the glass to his lips and he had drunk—never taking his eyes from
Pheenie's face—she put her head down beside his on the pillow, and in a
voice that was like the plaintive noise of running water, told him all
" They'lowed I ortn't
to come alongó' ye,honey,"she said mildly. " I reckon they
'lowed I would be foolish and skeered. But I knowed I wouldn't; an'
anyhow, Gord, I couldn't a-bear to have 'em fix yo' head an' me not
here. When maw an' pappy and the others had done went down the
mounting, with you in the wagon, I thest put on my things an' walked
down. I didn't had no money, an' I didn't know nobody to git any frum,
and I couldn't walk hyer quick enough, so I ast Talley Strunk would he
let me ride on his train. He 'lowed he would, and so I come."
Beneath the spell of
that soft voice, with those small hands holding his, the big man had
listened in absolute quiescence, nor did he stir as she made an end:
"He was sho' mighty
good, Talley was; he fotch me willin'. But some o' them y other fellers
what was in the caboose had a bottle, an' they got to drenken'. When we
stopped at Noonan's Crossing, ten mile above hyer, an' Talley went out
when the engine whistled—I—they—I thort I better walk the rest o' the
way, so I clumb down. Hit was ten mile. That's what made me so late,
honey. But 'tain't no differ now, sense I'm hyer, an' yo' all right,
an'—" sweeping the faces in the room with a glance as unembarrassed as
a babe's—"ever'body's so kind an' good; hit don't make no differ now—do
"Hit don't make no
differ," whispered the big voice that had raved and shouted and cried
upon Pheenie and cursed Talley Strunk for hours; and it was as soft and
calmed, as almost reflective as Pheenie's own.
"Going like a clock!"
announced Ashemore with deep satisfaction, after noting the patient's
pulse; "and his fever has dropped three degrees."
As the hours before
dawn wore away, with but one nurse on duty in the room, and things
settled into their wonted groove in the hospital, Salvania Hightower
from that bench in the corridor had glimpses, when a nurse or attendant
entered or emerged from the room she watched, of Pheenie sitting on her
little stool by Gord's bed, sometimes drowsing, her head with its mass
of bronze-gold hair resting on his pillows; sometimes awake, bending
broodingly above him, seeming to shed visible peace and comfort upon
him. In one of these glimpses she saw the nurse and young Dr. Furguson
lift Pheenie, who was sound asleep, and lay her kindly beside her
husband. She saw Miss Duffy herself unlace the dusty shoes, and heard
her give the order to an assistant:
"Get a hot-water
bottle for this child's little feet—they're like stone."
The last view she had,
an hour or more later, was of Gord, awake and much refreshed, taking
some nourishment from Pheenie's hand. She looked a moment, and then
turned to the others with :
Ga'nt! That thar train's in right now, an' I'm a- gwine home. You-all
kin do as ye please; I ain't wanted here, and I'll not stay."
Without a word they
followed her down to the door and saw her depart. She had ruled the
roost too long for any to offer a protest against her decision now.
Salvania stepped out
into the gray of a new day, which revealed to her a group of
long-limbed mountaineers, kindred and friends who had come down from
Little Turkey Track on the early train to see how Gord fared. She
pushed her way through these with a sort of flinching movement.
"Don't ax me!" she
returned, to their curious questions. " I reckon that gal kin tell ye
the hull business. As fer me, I ain't nothin', an' I don't know
With a strangled sob
she hurried toward the gate. Through the door, which she had failed to
close, the old man, Gaunt and Semphoria were visible, indifferent to
her fate, absorbed in the joyful news that they were to be allowed to
see Gord. Pheenie, who brought this word, looked them over with anxious
"Whar's mammy?" she
inquired suddenly, and her gaze following that of the Hightowers, she
saw the little old woman creeping away with bent head, the mute pathos
of defeat writ large upon her wiry form.
Instantly Pheenie was
out and after her, first touching her timidly upon the arm and begging
her to return, then, when she saw she was not repulsed, and still was
unsuccessful, laying hold of her and crying out :
"W'y, he's yourn,
befo' he was mine, mammy. I don't blame ye for thinkin' I warn't half
good enough fer Gord—I don't hold no grudge fer nothin'. Jest try to
put up with me, mammy, like I am, an' come on an' see Gord, 'ca'se he's
right peart this mornin', an' he'll be mighty proud to see you."
Poor old Salvania hung
"Don't you study about
me sayin' he'd never forgive ye for not lettin' me come along of
you-all an' him," urged Pheenie with swift intuition. "Come on back!
I'd 'most as soon lose him myse'f, as to part him from his maw what
loves him so."