From the Vaults: Josephine Spencer’s "The House-Warming at Eardley’s"

Here’s some Mormon local color fiction for you…
“The House-Warming At Eardley’s”
By Josephine Spencer
Improvement Era
October 1907
Martha Stone looked after Letitia’s lithe, young figure with sudden inspiration.
“Dan’l, I wouldn’t wonder if she could ketch Purdy!”
“Who, Letty? I hope she’s got better sense’n to take up with that hulk!”
“His hulk o’ money’d come handy clearin’ up her family’s finances.”
“Martha !” Daniel rose and shook a warning finger at his wife.
“Don’t you go workin’ any sense of a duty like that into your match-makin’ for that child. She’s got a right to her own happiness and-”
“And that’s why she ought to know Sam Purdy’s got money enough to lift all her own and her family’s burdens. If that ain’t happiness enough she can go on school-teachin’ for life; or marry Marvin Pond and help keep the town store.”
“Either of them’s a heap better than helpin’ Purdy raise punkins. That’s what his wife ‘ll do in the end; and it ‘ll be Ellen Eardley that ‘ll do it. I’ll guarantee her punkin-fields against Letty’s pink cheeks and star-eyes any time.”
“You better not!” quoth Martha; “Sam’s had ten years chance at Ellen, and ain’t snapped her up yet.”
“It’s because of the sport you match-makin’, meddlin’ friends and mothers and daughters have made him, anglin’!” snapped Daniel; and for once his word was the last.
Letitia could not but feel resentful against the family financial crash which had nipped short her budding college career, and made her a pedagogic exile in Mayville; but nineteen is an effervescent age; and there were things that atoned.
Marvin Pond, for instance, she considered a dispensation. Could anything else have cut short his college career to bring him-keen-witted, stalwart-limbed, Roman-featured, brown-eyed-to sojourn here during her own exile? Of course, Dad Pond had ailed for years; but strange that the stroke that laid him at last temporarily helpless, and his beloved store at the mercy of strangers, should have happened to bring Marvin home this autumn, instead of some other! Both of them stranded, as it were, on ash-heaps of affinitive ambition-what wonder that the secret, though silent, sense of such a tie should electrically thrill their hearts.


Subtly it worked; but subtly, too, in Letty’s worked the poison of Martha’s match-making philter-dropped into her cup of joy in doses measured larger each day to meet Marvin’s gaining chances. For Martha had sly ways, and kept Sam’s name and wealth to the front. The weekly home-letters, too, added bitter drops to the potion-news of crowding creditors, hungry for the home-roof which sheltered ageing heads; and while the county looked on amazed at her seeming saucy indifference to the suit of their one moneyed magnate, Letty’s heart hung heavy with its sense of duty, of pressing obligations to a final sacrifice of pride, hope, love on the altar of filial devotion!
Letitia’s siege commenced with Sam Purdy’s return from the County Fair, where he had been superintending the display of his prize pumpkins. One other, besides his money-making ambition, formed a superlative aim in Sam’s life. It was to produce for exhibition, annually, at the Fair, a greater pumpkin than the last. To stand, covertly, and listen while the crowd gaped audibly at the huge products of his toil, and to read in the county Clarion, each year, that “Sam Purdy’s pumpkins once more beat the record,” was a pride that nagged him to strenuous study and endeavor through intervening months.
“I warrant I can raise punkins yet, ten times as big as my head!” he boasted once to Marvin Pond, and Marvin had responded:
“I, too, and with ten times as big brains;” a piece of rustic repartee that had branded Sam with the nickname, ‘Punkin-Head Purdy,’ in local circles for long years; and had left Sam with a whispering grudge for Marvin up to any possible date.
Sam met Letitia at a party held in the Mayville Concert Hall; and his introduction was followed by two calls at the Stone’s cottage where Letitia boarded, within the week. After, as Daniel expressed it, “it was easy pickin’ for Letty.” From that time, Sam’s buggy stood at the Stone’s gate four evenings out of the week’s seven; and during their long rides through country lanes, Sam, nagged into unwonted effort by Letty’s piquant indifference and enchanting prettiness, fished strenuously for his prize.
Almost a “raise” was that glittering fly-the hint of his house-soon to be built in the state capital-Letty’s home city; and dangerously near a “bite” that other hard-breathed hint of his wanting “to put idle money to good use-maybe to help a drowning brother from a pond of debt.”
How was she to know that Martha had put her sacred secrets into Sam’s palm to be used as a bait for his prize? How gauge the effect of such strain upon a heart tense with calls of home love and high duty? Only Marvin came between quick response to the fancied imperative call.
Sam Purdy, to whom the rumor had quickly come of Marvin’s start in the race for Letitia, scoffed at his rival’s pains.
“Pond is only a pacer,” he declared, borrowing his figure from terms newly picked up at the Fair bicycle races. “Pond is only a pacer-he won’t any more than set the gait. Now that he’s led off, I’ll sail out onto the track, and make the spurt and win.”
The picture photographed on local minds by this metaphor-of Sam’s two hundred and thirty pounds careering dizzily on wheels around the saucer of love, became a rich topic for local swains whose personal suits had been often hampered, if not spoiled, by Sam’s inopportune spurts into their race.
Sam, however, met their thrusts with responsive zest, the general interest displayed in his new contest lending additional vim to his efforts.
It was with the spice of this vaunted competition warming his blood that he dropped into Pond’s store one afternoon, and in the intervals of his shopping with Marvin, hinted that he was on his way to call upon Letitia.
“I stopped at Eardley’s on my way over,” he said. They’ve got the walls to their new addition up, and they’re goin’ to give a housewarming before they put up the partitions. Mrs. Eardley says it’ll come off in about two weeks.”
“You going?” asked Marvin, gulping at the bait.
“Yes; all the crowd’s goin’ to be invited, you, and Ed and Ort,-the whole bunch of boys and girls. I’m on my way now, over to Stone’s, to engage my partner.”
Marvin’s face fell. There was but one eligible partner at Stone’s-and Marvin, left alone with the store, could not hope to see her before night.
He knew that Purdy knew this, and that he knew he knew.
Eardley’s farm was renowned for a hospitality that made it a Mecca for the social spirits of the entire county. The thought of Letitia being rendered to a degree exclusive by the escort of another than himself in the blissful hours assured in that enchanted spot, would be, to Marvin, like putting dregs of vinegar in syrup. To be outdone, too, by “Punkin-head Purdy”-at this juncture, would be conducive to calling down upon his own head the suspicion of being big with only pulp and seed. He went into the rear room to measure a quart of molasses into Sam’s stone jug-and thought. When he returned, his air had regained its shade of even friendliness.
“I guess,” he said, placing the jug with the rest of the stuff to be stored in the rear of Sam’s buggy; “I guess I’ll get you to take a note I’ve got here from Dad over to Miss Blakeley. The kids have been staying away from school, and Dad means to have her punish them when they show up. I was going over myself tonight, to take it, but if you’d just as lief-”
“Just as lief as laugh!” interrupted Sam, lightly.
He waited complacently, while Marvin took time to rummage in the desk in the back room for the letter, and finally drove off with it, secretly glad to have this excuse for intruding on Letitia in school hours. She had been obliged to explain to sundry admirers given to afternoon calls, that her time after school till supper must be devoted to reducing her pupils’ exercises to rule; and Dad Pond’s letter requiring early attention, furnished him cover for his own pet purpose. It was, indeed, only Martha’s message of something urgent awaiting, that brought Letitia to the parlor.
“I had this note to deliver,” Sam hastened to explain, “and I was given to understand it was a leetle urgent.”
Letitia took the letter to the window to read, and Sam sat staring at the carpet, trying to fathom the courage or caprice that could so daringly ignore him.
A choky little sound from Letitia made him look round. Her face was turned partially away, but the ear and edge of her cheek that showed, seemed to Sam to look red. Letitia had found inclosed with ‘Dad’ Pond’s letter, a short note which read as follows:
Dear Miss Blakeley-I am inclosing this with the hope that you will read it before Sam Purdy invites you to Eardley’s party. If you have not promised to be his or any one else’s partner, may I hope that you will be mine? Sam is playing this sort of hand, and I have to follow suit, trump, or be trumped. Hoping it may not be the latter in this case, I am, in considerable haste,
Letitia turned with quivering lips, and Sam, misinterpreting, essayed comfort. “Don’t you be afraid about hurtin’ them Pond boys; they are the worst urchins in your school. Dad Pond makes a job of thrashin’ ‘em once a day with the rest of his chores.”
Letitia was silent, and Sam plunged into the absorbing subject. “There’s goin’ to be a housewarming at Eardley’s some time soon, Miss Blakeley, and I’ve come to invite you for my partner.”
For a moment, Letty’s chance at a future sacrificial altar hung heavy in the scales; then the thought of making Marvin a victim-to grace his rival’s triumph-proved too much for loyalty-and love.
“I am-going-with someone else,” she stammered.
* * * * * * *
Mayville had but the one store, and Letitia’s visits there had been infrequent. At the first of them, however, her attention had been forced to a row of shelves carrying many bolts of flannel of a stringent tint combining the oppressive shades of the orange and sunflower. Her wonder as to whence the demand might come to adequately meet this inordinate and aching supply, was satisfied by Martha Stone, to whom it was expressed.
“Them bolts of yellow flannin’? Land! The first cold spell ‘ll sweep ‘em off to a thread! It’s the only kind we ever see here and we got to keep warm, color or no color! Dad Pond gits a big rebate on that yellow from the factories, and as long as he takes our produce in trade, we got to take it off his hands or go cold. We’d be walkin’ icicles if we went without flannin’s winters here in Mayville. I was glad to see in your bureau you brought some with you. Jest you watch and see-there won’t be a yellow ravlin’ left on Pond’s shelves, come the first cold storm.”
Her prediction proved true, and Letitia’s association thereafter with the Mayville population, however quiet its outward show, was haunted with lurid pictures connected with the quickly vanished bolts of flannel.
That one of them might figure as a partial cause among those which decided her destiny, how could she dream? All that she guessed was that the coming housewarming at Eardley’s would in some way bring the dreaded ordeal of deciding.
The time rolled swiftly round, bringing the fateful night. From the Eardley home bright lights were flashing beacons of welcome to teams full of “company” coming from miles around-the crowning one a huge lantern made from Sam Purdy’s last prize punkin-a gift bestowed upon Ellen Eardley in reprisal for Letty’s present favor to a rival as yet unknown.
By eight o’clock nearly all the guests had arrived, and a little later Marvin led Letitia into the dancing hall with pronounced eclat. Was not Purdy, the checkmated, in line across the room, glaring? Down the long double room they walked, the crowded seats asmile. Sam Purdy snubbed! Many a heart bubbled joy at this supreme reprisal for past slights.
To Sam, the unique ordeal was overwhelming. Snatching from the hall-rack a woolen comforter, he went outside, and sitting on one of the many wagon-tongues lined about the yard, pondered his problem.
Presently he hailed a half-grown Eardley boy on the porch. “Sonny, go inside and tell Marvin Pond I want him;” and when that messenger re-appeared alone, issued another bulletin.
“If he won’t come for that, tell him I say it’s because he is a cheatin’ rascal, and is afraid to come out and take what he knows he’ll git.”
The dart proved fruitful. Marvin appeared; and on his heels-Jed Eardley-who knew Sam’s uncertain disposition, weight of body, and strength of fist.
“I heard something about a boquet you’ve got picked for me,” smiled Marvin, “and hurried right out with my arms open to carry it back.”
“I don’t want no chaff nor no listeners,” said Sam pointedly.
“Come now, Sam,” interrupted Jed, “I know all Marv’s jokes-same as he knows mine-and what there is in this that ain’t worth laughing at, ain’t worth shucks.”
“Worth shucks?” shouted Purdy. “It’s worse than Esau and Jacob! He tweaked my girl out o’ my thumb and finger-stole her-kidnapped-”
Marvin, choking with laughter, interrupted.
“If there’s any Bible to it Sam-its a case of Jacob getting left instead of Esau. You gave me a chance to spring the trap on you that you had set for me-and having brains instead of punkin-seeds to think with, I touched it off!”
Sam’s hot breath made a white line of steam on the cold air. He rose to his feet, choking.
“It’s like this, Sam,” said Jed pacifically, “You can’t blame a man for dodgin’ a boomerang when its aimed at his own head; and if you’re the man I hope you are-you won’t let any such grudge spoil our party.”
Sam softened. “I ain’t no right to do that”-he said.
The shrill, possessive voice of Jed’s sister, Ellen, came from the front porch. “Sam Purdy! Are you goin’ to dance that quadrille you engaged me for? It need’s one more couple, an’ they’re savin’ the set for us!”
Jed jumped at the welcome interruption. “Come on, Sam,” he said, “let’s go and enjoy the party.”
The housewarming ended for the most of the guests at two o’clock, but a half a dozen couples belonging to Jed Eardley’s “crowd” had been invited to stay all night and spend the next day at the farm. These were stowed away in such fashion as the unfinished rooms afforded-the girls in a row of feather-beds on the floor of the “best room,” and the “boys” on blankets laid over the hay in the loft of the barn. Sam Purdy’s fitful devotion to Ellen Eardley, in the interstices of his attentions to more attractive girls, brought him into the select circle, but the prospect of sleeping in the same hay with Marvin Pond-with his own mood still in an unsettled state-to say nothing of his half dread of Marvin’s easily provoked banter, had no allurement. He drew Jed aside, and stated the case as one bearing upon a question, chiefly, of social etiquette.
“I’ve promised myself I shan’t be the cause of trouble here to-night,” he said. “But I couldn’t answer for myself if Pond started any tom-foolery. If you’ve got a corner where I could bunk by myself, maybe by tomorrow I’d be able to see the affair in a different light.”
“I don’t know but you’re right, said Jed-”and I know just where I can fix you for the night.”
He led the way to a narrow stair in a rear entry hall of the unfinished part of the house. It mounted to what would in time be the sleeping rooms of the Eardly boys, and where a small portion of the floor was already laid. A cot had been set up here for Jed-during the temporary inconvenience of building-the bed filling nearly all of the strip of floor. To shelter it from view of the room below, a piece of rag-carpet had been laid covering a wide space that gaped between the open joists. The family and guests were all sleeping in the other part of the house, and Sam had this side entirely to himself.
Spite of his hurt pride, the latter slept soundly, dreamlessly, and late. The sound of voices, footfalls and clinking dishes awakened him in the morning.
The apartment used last night for dancing, today was converted into a dining room to accommodate the guests, whose number precluded the use of the usual family eating-room.
Sam’s glance naturally dropped through the beams. A long table was laid in the middle of the room, reaching almost from end to end.
As a delicate piece of flattery Ellen was flaunting her gift from Sam as a centerpiece for the table, the giant pumpkin shell, being surrounded by smaller ones in star-shaped design, as at the late Fair. Ellen with her girl friends helping her, was carrying from the adjoining kitchen the necessary appointments for the table; and the savory odor of fried ham, rising through the beams told Sam that the food was already being brought in for breakfast.
He rose hastily, donning nether garments and hose; and then reaching for his coat, and forgetful of Jed’s careful instructions of the previous night, sprang with a bound on to the strip of rag carpet placed for shelter across the yawning hole. It gave, with his great weight, and in an instant, he shot through, his fall saved only by one hand with which he clutched at the nearest beam.
There was a scream from the three girls below, while Sam, with heroic effort, tried to swing himself back through the joists. Then, as the screams below merged into hysterical laughter, he let go his hold, frantically swinging clear of the table in his fall. At its foot he crouched, then, recovering, dashed for the kitchen door. A relay of Ellen’s guests, hurrying to the scene of tumult, met him, midway, among them-Letitia.
Sam stooped to gain the shelter of the table; but barred by its props, rose, and with an enraged and sheepish cry, sprang to the front door, thence to the barn, his way marked by brilliant flashes of “Dad Pond’s rebate yellow” through window and door.
Twenty minutes later, Jed Eardley issued from the barn, whose open door emitted a pandemonium of laughter, and entered the breakfast room where the girls were already gathered at the board. He handed a note to Letitia, and someting in Jed’s manner made the rest silent.
Letitia opened the paper and read:
“I am writing this to give you your last chance. You have fooled with me long enough, and now it has got to stop or go on without me in the field. It’s just this: I can’t stay in this locality after what has happened to me today-the boys are too much for me. I’m going to the capital, today, to pick out my home; and if you want to ride over to the village and marry me, I’ll take you with me. If not, I’ve got the mortgage on your father’s place, and I guess I’ll make up my mind to choose it for my home. I’m writing to the point, for there’s no time to mince matters, and I wanted to give you a fair show. Send word out by Jed.
Letitia rose from her seat. She was very pale, but her voice was clear and quite steady.
“Mr. Eardley,” she said, “you may tell Mr. Purdy that my answer now and forever is-No.”
Oh, the joy of that care-free day! The long sleigh-ride to the ice-pond where the young people skated the hours away, now in couples, now with the young beaux cutting fancy figures for sparkling eyes-all except Marvin who stayed close, close to Letitia, with a secret but subtle sense of proprietorship that thrilled the last taint of that dread sense of sacrifice from her heart!
Then the ride back to Eardley’s at twilight, the cheery sight of the long table loaded with steaming viands, fairly ravishing to hungry eyes! No rows of pumpkins starred now the bounteous board! only above, in the dim rafters, the great Jack-o-lantern-its huge smile a saucy reminder of the morning’s sensation, hung like an effigy of the vanquished Sam.
There was an even greater joy in it all for Letty, because of the ending strain of indecision between duty and love, for something seemed to whisper, now it was all over, that with love for her guide, all could but turn out well. Her faith was answered that night, for on her dresser, when she came into her little room, lay a letter from home, this time bearing the brand of Teddy’s eight-year-old hand-writing. It read:
DEAR LETTY:-They let me rite this to you bocos I had the tooth pulled today that was loos when you left home. Unkle Tom’s kum from Goldfield and is bot Pa’s big lot by the lake. It’s goin’ to be a summer hotel, and Pa’s morgige is all paid. That’s all excep you don’t haf to be a teacher no more. TEDDY.

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