From the Vaults: Nephi Anderson’s "The Straw"

“The Straw”
By Nephi Anderson
Improvement Era 1922
She saw him first as she was letting down the bars of the corral for the cows to go to the evening milking. Letting down bars, instead of opening gates, was typical of the Adler farm, for it was one of those old places where primitive ways and means still persisted. The poles which made up the bars were not light, and Mary Adler had to pay strict attention to her task, especially as she had to keep an eye on one of the cows which was prone to make a dash back to the greener meadow at the last moment.
The sun had just dipped down behind the western hills, and the long shadows had been obliterated in the coming darkness, as Earl Heron came walking along the wide and weedy road, swinging his straw hat in his hand. He did not see Mary, as he appeared to be looking at the vine-covered front porch instead of in the direction of the barn-yard; and so Mary, though seeking him, went on getting the cows secure for the night. Outwardly she appeared her normal self, but she could not wholly control the intensified beating of her heart. The Adler farm lay at the end of that village side street, so Earl Heron’s destination was obvious.
Hidden for a moment by the granary, Mary instinctively looked at her soiled work apron and rough shoes. Then with a little don’t-care brush of hand to hair, she stepped along the path to the house for the milk pails. Earl saw her then, stopped for an instant, then hurried through the front gate, around the house where he met her by the back steps.
“Mary, Mary-here you are,” he said, as he extended both his hands in greeting.
She gave him but one, however, smiling unafraid up into his face.
And that face was good to look at, even though apparently few young men either in city or country had found it out. The beauties of a clean, sweet, honest heart shone unobstructedly from the face. To one whose gaze was not hindered too much by the outward attire and polish, the soul of Mary Adler opened as a rare and wondrous treasure house; and at that moment of greeting, Earl Heron, gifted with a keener insight, caught a glimpse of it, shining as it were, through the blue eyes of the girl.
“Why did you not tell me you were coming?” she asked.
“I got home only an hour ago. I came just as soon as I found out you were here. I could have telephoned, but-“
“Never mind. I’m glad to see you-but to catch me like this? Shall we go in?’
“Are you through with your work? I see you are still chore-boy.”
“Yes and no. I have two cows to milk, and then-well, the usual evening work at a farm house. I can’t very well get out of it this evening because father is away and mother is not well-but you’re welcome anyway, Earl, and you can-“
“Help you,” he broke in laughingly. “I believe I’ve entirely forgotten how to milk. The last time I tried was at a farm in Alabama where we were being entertained. The cow kicked the milk bucket over the fence.”
“And you?”
“O, I survived.”
“Well, come in and visit with mother while I milk the cows, feed the pigs, and throw some hay to the horses.”
“See here-I’ll say how-do-you-do to your mother, but I came here to see you. If you’re going to be out in the yard all evening, I’m going to be with you.”
“I’ll not be long,” she explained. “By the time you have answered two of the dozen questions mother will have to ask you about your missionary experiences, I’ll be with you.”
However, Earl was disposing of the mother’s fourth question when Mary arrived. That she was a little delayed was no doubt owing to the fact that she had changed her dress, and otherwise tidied up a bit. Earl paused in his story to look at her as she entered. Yes, she was good to look at in her well-fitting, modest dress. She seated herself and listened to the missionary experiences.
She had time now to observe him closer. As usual with returned missionaries, Earl had grown in many ways. He was more manly, he spoke with greater ease and assurance. His face shone with fervor as he told of his faith-promoting experience in the field. And as Mary sat and looked and listened, she wondered whether or not she had made a mistake when she had refused to become betrothed to him some three years ago, before he went on his mission. He was certainly a fine looking young man now, and perhaps she had been a little too hard on him because of some of his bad habits. Anyway, here he was, calling on her. His mission had no doubt straightened out the little kinks in his character, given him a testimony of the truth of the gospel, and, in short, made a man of him. Was her long-sought-for ideal to be attained? Was her heart’s yearnings to be satisfied? Were her prayers now to be answered?
The mother considerately ceased her questions and retired early, leaving them to go out to the ivy-covered front porch, where they sat without words for a little time, watching the stars grow brighter in the blue sky.
“It’s good to be home,” he said.
It’s three months since you came home from your mission. Where have you been all the time?”
“Up in Montana. There was nothing doing here when I got back, so I had to go elsewhere to get work. You know, I tried to find you in the city, at the time; but I must have had the wrong address, and as I did not have much time between trains, I had to give up. How long are you going to stay at home?”
“Well, I hardly know. I’m rather undecided what to do. I’ve taught school for three years in the city, and they are holding out a rather flattering offer to get me back for next year. Mother needs me here, but then again, the money I can earn comes in very handy. I’m going to stay at home as long as I can, anyway, at least until I get a good coat of tan and freckles and my hands get to be as rough as my good old father’s.”
“Oh, well, a little tan and a few freckles are now easily covered up,” he commented lightly. “It would not do for you to appear on the streets of the city without such covering. What would the fellows say and do?”
Mary hardly knew just how to reply to this. His words were lightly spoken, but he might mean them as a test. If so, he should have his answer.
“I don’t care what the fellows say or do, as to that. I’m not going to paint my face like an Indian for anybody. I never have, and if I continue in my right mind, I never shall.”
“Good for you, Mary, but-“
“You know, I’m an old fogy-have been for a long time. I would make a mighty poor imitation of the butterfly type of girl. I’m odd. I guess I’m different. I’m not a favorite with the boys. I make a fine decorative wall flower at the dances. The boys that I knew both here and in the city are more attracted to the scantily clad, giggling girl than to such as I who try to be sensible.”
“Why, Mary!”
“Let me finish my indictment,” she continued with a short laugh. “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve taken one of those modern surveys, and every girl of my kind in thought and feeling and action will tell you the same as I am telling you. Mark Twain’s jest, ‘Be good, and you’ll be lonesome’ is now true in fact. I’ve seen returned missionaries even, so chase after butterflies that one must conclude they have lost all the sober sense of values which their missionary training is supposed to have given them.”
“But, Mary-“
“Ah, present company is always excepted, you know. You’re not that kind of a man; but there’s Tom Jones of this very town. What did he do when he got home? Why, quiet, sweet-souled Jennie, who had been waiting for him two years, was left-completely forgotten, when that little Molly Brown fluttered her short skirts before him. Naked shoulders, penciled eyebrows, and an energetic use of the lip-stick proved too much for him. They were married last week.”
Earl Haren was quieted. Whether Mary Alder had surprised him into silence by her unwonted loquaciousness, or whether something in his own consciousness prevented speech, shall not be said. He looked queerly up to the star beyond the tree top.
“I’m through,” said Mary.
He found it difficult to begin talking.
“I beg your pardon for breaking out like this,” she said in a somewhat more humble tone. “Tell me about your mission, What do you think of the South and its people? I’ve always been interested in missionary work, and hope, some day, to go on a mission myself, especially as I’m not the marrying kind.”
“Not the marrying kind? What do you mean. Surely, you believe in marriage?”
“Oh, yes, I believe in it all right; but I can’t find any male member of the community who is of the same heart and mind as I.”
“Don’t be so sure of that, Mary. You know, I’ve always thought of you as the best girl ever.” He reached out to take her hand, but she arose quickly as if she did not see the action, and stood by the pillar of the porch. Uncertainty still filled her mind. She did not understand herself, and while in that condition she must not allow the love-making which Earl seemed eager to begin. After a time, she sat down again, and the talk went on normally.
When he arose to go, she went with him down the path to the gate. He behaved himself very well at the parting, just shaking her hand calmly and goodnaturedly, even though he held it a little longer than ordinarily. Then he passed on down the street, and she went back to the house. She paused on the porch, and from behind the ivy screen she looked after him. The street was dark and so his form soon became indistinct until he reached the electric light which sputtered at the intersection of another street. She saw him stop there, take a cigarette from an inside pocket, strike a match, light the cigarette and place it between his lips as he walked away again into the dark.
Mary sank down trembling on the porch seat. What had she seen! Just a young man lighting and smoking a cigarette-a common enough sight. But this time it came as a great shock, for she knew that this simple act pictured justly the character of the man who did it. Straws show which way the wind blows, and some winds become storms which terminate in death and destruction, and this was a straw. To a young man of the world, Mary knew the smoking of a cigarette did not mean so much in the way of index to character, but to a Latter-day Saint, especially to a returned missionary, the simple act told volumes and revealed much.
The wind from the canyon blew cold. Mary went in and to her room. Quietly and soberly she prepared for bed. If she could have cried, it would have been such a relief. For a moment she had cherished the beautiful hope, but now she felt as if the sanctity of her heart had been defiled, by the presence even for so short a time, by one whom she now knew to be unworthy. She realized now that her treatment of Earl Haren three years before had been justified; but all these facts, all this cold, naked truth did not altogether ease the pain in her heart.
She said her prayers, with added length, then lay on her bed wide-eyed far into the night before peace and sleep came to her.
But Earl Heron slept soundly, not knowing that he had forever lost the greatest prize which had ever been placed within his grasp.

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