The Sentimentality of William Tavener
by Willa Cather
It takes a strong woman to make any sort of success of living in the West, and Hester undoubtedly was that. When people spoke of William Tavener as the most prosperous farmer in McPherson County, they usually added that his wife was a “good manager.” She was an executive woman, quick of tongue and something of an imperatrix. The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted.
It would have been quite impossible for one man, within the limited sphere of human action, to follow all Hester’s advice, but in the end William usually acted upon some of her suggestions. When she incessantly denounced the “shiftlessness” of letting a new threshing machine stand unprotected in the open, he eventually built a shed for it. When she sniffed contemptuously at his notion of fencing a hog corral with sod walls, he made a spiritless beginning on the structure—merely to “show his temper,” as she put it—but in the end he went off quietly to town and bought enough barbed wire to complete the fence. When the first heavy rains came on, and the pigs rooted down the sod wall and made little paths all over it to facilitate their ascent, he heard his wife relate with relish the story of the little pig that built a mud house, to the minister at the dinner table, and William’s gravity never relaxed for an instant. Silence, indeed, was William’s refuge and his strength.
William set his boys a wholesome example to respect their mother. People who knew him very well suspected that he even admired her. He was a hard man towards his neighbors, and even towards his sons; grasping, determined and ambitious.
There was an occasional blue day about the house when William went over the store bills, but he never objected to items relating to his wife’s gowns or bonnets. So it came about that many of the foolish, unnecessary little things that Hester bought for boys, she had charged to her personal account.
One spring night Hester sat in a rocking chair by the sitting room window, darning socks. She rocked violently and sent her long needle vigorously back and forth over her gourd, and it took only a very casual glance to see that she was wrought up over something. William sat on the other side of the table reading his farm paper. If he had noticed his wife’s agitation, his calm, clean-shaven face betrayed no sign of concern. He must have noticed the sarcastic turn of her remarks at the supper table, and he must have noticed the moody silence of the older boys as they ate. When supper was but half over little Billy, the youngest, had suddenly pushed back his plate and slipped away from the table, manfully trying to swallow a sob. But William Tavener never heeded ominous forecasts in the domestic horizon, and he never looked for a storm until it broke.
After supper the boys had gone to the pond under the willows in the big cattle corral, to get rid of the dust of plowing. Hester could hear an occasional splash and a laugh ringing clear through the stillness of the night, as she sat by the open window. She sat silent for almost an hour reviewing in her mind many plans of attack. But she was too vigorous a woman to be much of a strategist, and she usually came to her point with directness. At last she cut her thread and suddenly put her darning down, saying emphatically:
“William, I don’t think it would hurt you to let the boys go to that circus in town to-morrow.”
William continued to read his farm paper, but it was not Hester’s custom to wait for an answer. She usually divined his arguments and assailed them one by one before he uttered them.
“You’ve been short of hands all summer, and you’ve worked the boys hard, and a man ought use his own flesh and blood as well as he does his hired hands. We’re plenty able to afford it, and it’s little enough our boys ever spend. I don’t see how you can expect ’em to be steady and hard workin’, unless you encourage ’em a little. I never could see much harm in circuses, and our boys have never been to one. Oh, I know Jim Howley’s boys get drunk an’ carry on when they go, but our boys ain’t that sort, an’ you know it, William. The animals are real instructive, an’ our boys don’t get to see much out here on the prairie. It was different where we were raised, but the boys have got no advantages here, an’ if you don’t take care, they’ll grow up to be greenhorns.”
Hester paused a moment, and William folded up his paper, but vouchsafed no remark. His sisters in Virginia had often said that only a quiet man like William could ever have lived with Hester Perkins. Secretly, William was rather proud of his wife’s “gift of speech,” and of the fact that she could talk in prayer meeting as fluently as a man. He confined his own efforts in that line to a brief prayer at Covenant meetings.
Hester shook out another sock and went on.
“Nobody was ever hurt by goin’ to a circus. Why, law me! I remember I went to one myself once, when I was little. I had most forgot about it. It was over at Pewtown, an’ I remember how I had set my heart on going. I don’t think I’d ever forgiven my father if he hadn’t taken me, though that red clay road was in a frightful way after the rain. I mind they had an elephant and six poll parrots, an’ a Rocky Mountain lion, an’ a cage of monkeys, an’ two camels. My! but they were a sight to me then!”
Hester dropped the black sock and shook her head and smiled at the recollection. She was not expecting anything from William yet, and she was fairly startled when he said gravely, in much the same tone in which he announced the hymns in prayer meeting:
“No, there was only one camel. The other was a dromedary.”
She peered around the lamp and looked at him keenly.
“Why, William, how come you to know?”
William folded his paper and answered with some hesitation, “I was there, too.”
Hester’s interest flashed up.—“Well, I never, William! To think of my finding it out after all these years! Why, you couldn’t have been much bigger’n our Billy then. It seems queer I never saw you when you was little, to remember about you. But then you Back Creek folks never have anything to do with us Gap people. But how come you to go? Your father was stricter with you than you are with your boys.”
“I reckon I shouldn’t ’a gone,” he said slowly, “but boys will do foolish things. I had done a good deal of fox hunting the winter before, and father let me keep the bounty money. I hired Tom Smith’s Tap to weed the corn for me, an’ I slipped off unbeknownst to father an’ went to the show.”
Hester spoke up warmly: “Nonsense, William! It didn’t do you no harm, I guess. You was always worked hard enough. It must have been a big sight for a little fellow. That clown must have just tickled you to death.”
William crossed his knees and leaned back in his chair.
“I reckon I could tell all that fool’s jokes now. Sometimes I can’t help thinkin’ about ’em in meetin’ when the sermon’s long. I mind I had on a pair of new boots that hurt me like the mischief, but I forgot all about ’em when that fellow rode the donkey. I recall I had to take them boots off as soon as I got out of sight o’ town, and walked home in the mud barefoot.”
“O poor little fellow!” Hester ejaculated, drawing her chair nearer and leaning her elbows on the table. “What cruel shoes they did use to make for children. I remember I went up to Back Creek to see the circus wagons go by. They came down from Romney, you know. The circus men stopped at the creek to water the animals, an’ the elephant got stubborn an’ broke a big limb off the yellow willow tree that grew there by the toll house porch, an’ the Scribners were ’fraid as death he’d pull the house down. But this much I saw him do; he waded in the creek an’ filled his trunk with water, and squirted it in at the window and nearly ruined Ellen Scribner’s pink lawn dress that she had just ironed an’ laid out on the bed ready to wear to the circus.”
“I reckon that must have been a trial to Ellen,” chuckled William, “for she was mighty prim in them days.”
Hester drew her chair still nearer William’s. Since the children had begun growing up, her conversation with her husband had been almost wholly confined to questions of economy and expense. Their relationship had become purely a business one, like that between landlord and tenant. In her desire to indulge her boys she had unconsciously assumed a defensive and almost hostile attitude towards her husband. No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly than did Hester with her husband in behalf of her sons. The strategic contest had gone on so long that it had almost crowded out the memory of a closer relationship. This exchange of confidences to-night, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance. They talked on and on; of old neighbors, of old familiar faces in the valley where they had grown up, of long forgotten incidents of their youth—weddings, picnics, sleighing parties and baptizings. For years they had talked of nothing else but butter and eggs and the prices of things, and now they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.
When the clock struck ten, William rose and went over to his walnut secretary and unlocked it. From his red leather wallet he took out a ten dollar bill and laid it on the table beside Hester.
“Tell the boys not to stay late, an’ not to drive the horses hard,” he said quietly, and went off to bed.
Hester blew out the lamp and sat still in the dark a long time. She left the bill lying on the table where William had placed it. She had a painful sense of having missed something, or lost something; she felt that somehow the years had cheated her.
The little locust trees that grew by the fence were white with blossoms. Their heavy odor floated in to her on the night wind and recalled a night long ago, when the first whip-poor-Will of the Spring was heard, and the rough, buxom girls of Hawkins Gap had held her laughing and struggling under the locust trees, and searched in her bosom for a lock of her sweetheart’s hair, which is supposed to be on every girl’s breast when the first whip-poor-Will sings. Two of those same girls had been her bridesmaids. Hester had been a very happy bride. She rose and went softly into the room where William lay. He was sleeping heavily, but occasionally moved his hand before his face to ward off the flies. Hester went into the parlor and took the piece of mosquito net from the basket of wax apples and pears that her sister had made before she died. One of the boys had brought it all the way from Virginia, packed in a tin pail, since Hester would not risk shipping so precious an ornament by freight. She went back to the bed room and spread the net over William’s head.
Then she sat down by the bed and listened to his deep, regular breathing until she heard the boys returning. She went out to meet them and warn them not to waken their father.
“I’ll be up early to get your breakfast, boys. Your father says you can go to the show.” As she handed the money to the eldest, she felt a sudden throb of allegiance to her husband and said sharply, “And you be careful of that, an’ don’t waste it. Your father works hard for his money.”
The boys looked at each other in astonishment and felt that they had lost a powerful ally.
Library, May 12, 1900