A WINTER COURTSHIP
by Sarah Orne Jewett
The passenger and mail transportation between the
towns of North Kilby and Sanscrit Pond was carried
on by Mr. Jefferson Briley, whose two-seated covered
wagon was usually much too large for the demands of
business. Both the Sanscrit Pond and North Kilby
people were stayers-at-home, and Mr. Briley often
made his seven-mile journey in entire solitude, except
for the limp leather mailbag, which he held firmly
to the floor of the carriage with his heavily shod
left foot. The mailbag had almost a personality to
him, born of long association. Mr. Briley was a meek
and timid-looking body, but he held a warlike soul,
and encouraged his fancies by reading awful tales of
bloodshed and lawlessness in the Far West. Mindful
of stage robberies and train thieves, and of express
messengers who died at their posts, he was prepared
for anything; and although he had trusted to his own
strength and bravery these many years, he carried a
heavy pistol under his front-seat cushion for better
defense. This awful weapon was familiar to all his
regular passengers, and was usually shown to strangers
by the time two of the seven miles of Mr. Briley's
route had been passed. The pistol was not loaded.
Nobody (at least not Mr. Briley himself) doubted that
the mere sight of such a weapon would turn the boldest
Protected by such a man and such a piece of armament,
one gray Friday morning in the edge of winter, Mrs.
Fanny Tobin was traveling from Sanscrit Pond to North
Kilby. She was an elderly and feeble-looking woman,
but with a shrewd twinkle in her eyes, and she felt
very anxious about her numerous pieces of baggage
and her own personal safety. She was enveloped in
many shawls and smaller wrappings, but they were
not securely fastened, and kept getting undone and
flying loose, so that the bitter December cold seemed
to be picking a lock now and then and creeping in
to steal away the little warmth she had. Mr. Briley
was cold, too, and could only cheer himself by
remembering the valor of those pony-express drivers
of the prerailroad days, who had to cross the Rocky
Mountains on the great California route. He spoke
at length of their perils to the suffering passenger,
but she felt none the warmer, and at last gave a
groan of weariness.
"How fur did you say 't was now?"
"I do' know's I said, Mis' Tobin," answered the
driver, with a frosty laugh. "You see them big
pines, and the side of a barn just this way with
them yellow circus bills? That's my three-mile
"Be we got four more to make? Oh, my laws!" mourned
Mrs. Tobin. "Urge the beast, can't ye, Jeff'son?
I ain't used to bein' out in such bleak weather.
Seems if I couldn't git my breath. I'm all pinched
up and wigglin' with shivers now. 'T ain't no use
lettin' the hoss go step-a-ty-step, this fashion."
"Landy me!" exclaimed the affronted driver. "I don't
see why folks expects me to race with the cars.
Everybody that gits in wants me to run the hoss to
death on the road. I make a good average o' time,
and that's all I can do. Ef you was to go
back an' forth every day but Sabbath fur eighteen
years, you'd want to ease it all you could,
and let those thrash the spokes out o' their wheels
that wanted to. North Kilby, Mondays, Wednesdays,
and Fridays; Sanscrit Pond, Tuesdays, Thu'sdays,
an' Saturdays. Me an' the beast's done it eighteen
years together, and the creatur' warn't, so to say,
young when we begun it, nor I neither. I re'lly
didn't know's she'd hold out till this time. There,
git up, will ye, old mar'!" as the beast of burden
stopped short in the road.
There was a story that Jefferson gave this faithful
creature a rest three times a mile, and took four
hours for the journey by himself and longer whenever
he had a passenger. But in pleasant weather the road
was delightful, and full of people who drove their
own conveyances and liked to stop and talk. There
were not many farms, and the third growth of white
pines made a pleasant shade, though Jefferson liked
to say that when he began to carry the mail his way
lay through an open country of stumps and sparse
underbrush, where the white pines nowadays completely
arched the road.
They had passed the barn with circus posters, and
felt colder than ever when they caught sight of the
weather-beaten acrobats in their tights.
"My gorry!" exclaimed Widow Tobin, "them pore creatur's
looks as cheerless as little birch-trees in snowtime.
I hope they dresses 'em warmer this time o' year. Now,
there! look at that one jumpin' through the little
hoop, will ye?"
"He couldn't git himself through there with two pair
o' pants on," answered Mr. Briley. "I expect they must
have to keep limber as eels. I used to think, when I
was a boy, that 'twas the only thing I could ever be
reconciled to do for a livin'. I set out to run away
an' follow a rovin' showman once, but mother needed
me to home. There warn't nobody but me an' the little
"You ain't the only one that's be'n disapp'inted o'
their heart's desire," said Mrs. Tobin sadly. "'Twarn't
so that I could be spared from home to learn the
"'Twould a come handy later on, I declare," answered
the sympathetic driver, "bein's you went an' had such
a passel o' gals to clothe an' feed. There, them that's
livin' is all well off now, but it must ha' been some
inconvenient for ye when they was small."
"Yes, Mr. Briley, but then I've had my mercies, too,"
said the widow somewhat grudgingly. "I take it master
hard now, though, havin' to give up my own home and
live round from place to place, if they be my own
child'en. There was Ad'line and Susan Ellen fussin'
an' bickerin' yesterday about who'd got to have me
next; and, Lord be thanked, they both wanted me right
off, but I hated to hear 'em talkin' of it over. I'd
rather live to home, and do for myself."
"I've got consider'ble used to boardin'," said Jefferson,
"sence marm died, but it made me ache 'long at the
fust on't, I tell ye. Bein' on the road's I be, I
couldn't do no ways at keepin' house. I should want
to keep right there and see to things."
"Course you would," replied Mrs. Tobin, with a sudden
inspiration of opportunity which sent a welcome glow
all over her. "Course you would, Jefferson." She leaned
toward the front seat. "That is to say, on-less you
had jest the right one to do it for ye."
And Jefferson felt a strange glow also, and a sense
of unexpected interest and enjoyment.
"See here, Sister Tobin," he exclaimed with enthusiasm.
"Why can't ye take the trouble to shift seats, and
come front here 'long o' me? We could put one buff'lo
top o' the other--they're both wearin' thin--and set
close, and I do' know but we sh'd be more protected
ag'inst the weather."
"Well, I couldn't be no colder if I was friz to death,"
answered the widow, with an amiable simper. "Don't
ye let me delay you, nor put you out, Mr. Briley. I
don't know's I'd set forth to-day if I'd known 'twas
so cold; but I had all my bundles done up, and I ain't
one that puts my hand to the plough an' looks back,
'cordin' to Scriptur'."
"You wouldn't wanted me to ride all them seven miles
alone?" asked the gallant Briley sentimentally, as he
lifted her down and helped her up again to the front
seat. She was a few years older than he, but they had
been schoolmates, and Mrs. Tobin's youthful freshness
was suddenly revived to his mind's eye. She had a
little farm; there was nobody left at home now but
herself, and so she had broken up housekeeping for
the winter. Jefferson himself had savings of no mean
They tucked themselves in, and felt better for the
change, but there was a sudden awkwardness between
them; they had not had time to prepare for an unexpected
"They say Elder Bickers, over to East Sanscrit, 's
been and got married again to a gal that's four year
younger than his daughter," proclaimed Mrs. Tobin
presently. "Seems to me 'twas fool's business."
"I view it so," said the stage driver. "There's goin'
to be a mild open winter for that fam'ly."
"What a joker you be for a man that's had so much
responsibility!" smiled Mrs. Tobin, after they had
done laughing. "Ain't you never 'fraid, carryin'
mail matter and such valuable stuff, that you'll be
set on an' robbed, 'specially by night?"
Jefferson braced his feet against the dasher under
the worn buffalo skin. "It is kind o' scary, or
would be for some folks, but I'd like to see anybody
get the better o' me. I go armed, and I don't care
who knows it. Some o' them drover men that comes
from Canady looks as if they didn't care what they
did, but I look 'em right in the eye every time."
"Men folks is brave by natur'," said the widow
admiringly. "You know how Tobin would let his fist
right out at anybody that undertook to sass him.
Town-meetin' days, if he got disappointed about the
way things went, he'd lay 'em out in win'rows; and
ef he hadn't been a church member he'd been a real
fightin' character. I was always 'fraid to have him
roused, for all he was so willin' and meechin' to
home, and set round clever as anybody. My Susan
Ellen used to boss him same's the kitten, when she
was four year old."
"I've got a kind of a sideways cant to my nose, that
Tobin give me when we was to school. I don't know's
you ever noticed it," said Mr. Briley. "We was scufflin',
as lads will. I never bore him no kind of a grudge.
I pitied ye, when he was taken away. I re'lly did,
now, Fanny. I liked Tobin first-rate, and I liked you.
I used to say you was the han'somest girl to school."
"Lemme see your nose. 'Tis all straight, for what I
know," said the widow gently, and with a trace of
coyness she gave a hasty glance. "I don't know but
what 'tis warped a little, but nothin' to speak of.
You've got real nice features, like your marm's folks."
It was becoming a sentimental occasion, and Jefferson
Briley felt that he was in for something more than
he had bargained. He hurried the faltering sorrel
horse, and began to talk of the weather. It certainly
did look like snow, and he was tired of bumping over
the frozen road.
"I shouldn't wonder if I hired a hand here another
year, and went off out West myself to see the country."
"Why, how you talk!" answered the widow.
"Yes'm," pursued Jefferson. "'Tis tamer here than I
like, and I was tellin' 'em yesterday I've got to
know this road most too well. I'd like to go out an'
ride in the mountains with some o' them great clipper
coaches, where the driver don't know one minute but
he'll be shot dead the next. They carry an awful
sight o' gold down from the mines, I expect."
"I should be scairt to death," said Mrs. Tobin. "What
creatur's men-folks be to like such things! Well, I
"Yes," explained the mild little man. "There's sights
of desp-radoes makes a han'some livin' out o' robbin'
'em clean to the bone. Your money or your life!" and
he flourished his stub of a whip over the sorrel mare.
"Landy me! you make me run all of a cold creep. Do
tell somethin' heartenin', this cold day. I shall
dream bad dreams all night."
"They put on black crepe over their heads," said the
driver mysteriously. "Nobody knows who most on 'em
be, and like as not some o' them fellers come o'
good families. They've got so they stop the cars,
and go right through 'em bold as brass. I could make
your hair stand on end, Mis' Tobin,--I could so!"
"I hope none on 'em'll git round our way, I'm sure,"
said Fanny Tobin. "I don't want to see none on 'em
in their crepe bunnits comin' after me."
"I ain't goin' to let nobody touch a hair o' your
head," Mr. Briley moved a little nearer and tucked
in the buffaloes again.
"I feel considerable warm to what I did," observed
the widow by way of reward.
"There, I used to have my fears," Mr. Briley resumed,
with an inward feeling that he never would get to
North Kilby depot a single man. "But you see I had
nobody but myself to think of. I've got cousins, as
you know, but nothin' nearer, and what I've laid up
would soon be parted out; and--well, I suppose some
folks would think o' me if anything was to happen."
Mrs. Tobin was holding her cloud over her face--the
wind was sharp on that bit of open road--but she
gave an encouraging sound, between a groan and a
"'Twouldn't be like nothin' to me not to see you
drivin' by," she said, after a minute. "I shouldn't
know the days o' the week. I says to Susan Ellen
last week I was sure 'twas Friday, and she said no,
'twas Thursday; but next minute you druv by and
headin' toward North Kilby, so we found I was right."
"I've got to be a featur' of the landscape," said
Mr. Briley plaintively. "This kind o' weather the
old mare and me, we wish we was done with it, and
could settle down kind o' comfortable. I've been
lookin' this good while, as I drove the road, and
I've picked me out a piece o' land two or three
times. But I can't abide the thought o' buildin'--'twould
plague me to death; and both Sister Peak to North
Kilby and Mis' Deacon Ash to the Pond, they vie
with one another to do well by me, fear I'll like
the other stoppin'-place best."
"I shouldn't covet livin' long o' neither
one o' them women," responded the passenger with
some spirit. "I see some o' Mis' Peak's cookin'
to a farmers' supper once, when I was visitin'
Susan Ellen's folks, an' I says 'Deliver me from
sech pale-complected baked beans as them!' and she
give a kind of a quack. She was settin' jest at
my left hand, and couldn't help hearin' of me.
I wouldn't have spoken if I had known, but she
needn't have let on they was hers. 'I guess them
beans taste just as well as other folks',' says
she, and she wouldn't never speak to me afterward."
"Do' know's I blame her," ventured Mr. Briley.
"Women folks is dreadful pudjicky about their
cookin'. I've always heard you was one o' the
best o' cooks, Mis' Tobin. I know them doughnuts
an' things you've give me in times past, when I
was drivin' by. Wish I had some on 'em now. I
never let on, but Mis' Ash's cookin's the best
by a long chalk. Mis' Peak's handy about some
things, and looks after mendin' of me up."
"It doos seem as if a man o' your years and your
quiet make ought to hev a home you could call
your own," suggested the passenger. "I kind of
hate to think o' your boardin' here and there,
and one old woman mendin', and the other settin'
ye down to meals that like's not don't agree
"Lor', now, Mis' Tobin, le's not fuss round no
longer," said Mr. Briley impatiently. "You know
you covet me same's I do you."
"I don't nuther. Don't you go an' say fo'lish
things you can't stand to."
"I've been tryin' to git a chance to put in a
word with you ever sence--Well, I expected you'd
want to get your feelin's kind o' calloused after
"There's nobody can fill his place," said the
"I do' know but I can fight for ye town-meetin'
days, on a pinch," urged Jefferson boldly.
"I never see the beat o' you men fur conceit,"
and Mrs. Tobin laughed. "I ain't goin' to bother
with ye, gone half the time as you be, an' carryin'
on with your Mis' Peaks and Mis' Ashes. I dare
say you've promised yourself to both on 'em twenty
"I hope to gracious if I ever breathed a word to
none on 'em!" protested the lover. "'Tain't for
lack o' opportunities set afore me, nuther." Then
Mr. Briley craftily kept silence, as if he had made
a fair proposal, and expected a definite reply.
The lady of his choice was, as she might have
expressed it, much beat about. As she truly thought,
she was getting along in years, and must put up
with Jefferson all the rest of the time. It was
not likely she would ever have the chance of
choosing again, though she was one who liked
variety. Jefferson wasn't much to look at, but
he was pleasant and kind of boyish and young-feeling.
"I do' know's I should do better," she said
unconsciously and half aloud. "Well, yes, Jefferson,
seein' it's you. But we're both on us kind of
old to change our situation." Fanny Tobin gave
a gentle sigh.
"Hooray!" said Jefferson. "I was scairt you meant
to keep me sufferin' here a half an hour. I declare,
I'm more pleased than I calc'lated on. You tell
Susan Ellen the news, won't ye? She'll be surprised
to hear you've jest come on a visit. How you must
ha' tugged to get them bundles ready, an' all for
nothin'; but now I'll lend a hand 'bout everythin'.
An' I expected till lately to die a single man!"
"'Twould re'lly have been a shame; 'tain't natur',"
said Mrs. Tobin, with confidence. "I don't see how
you held out so long with bein' solitary."
"I'll hire a hand to drive for me, and we'll have
a good comfortable winter, me an' you an' the old
sorrel. I've been promisin' of her a rest this good
"Better keep her a-steppin'," urged thrifty Mrs.
Fanny. "She'll stiffen up master, an' disapp'int
ye, come spring."
"You'll have me, now, won't ye, sartin?" pleaded
Jefferson, to make sure. "You ain't one o' them
that plays with a man's feelin's. Say right out
you'll have me."
"I s'pose I shall have to," said Mrs. Tobin somewhat
mournfully. "I feel for Mis' Peak an' Mis' Ash,
pore creatur's. I expect they'll be hardshipped.
They've always been hard-worked, an' may have kind
o' looked forward to a little ease. But one on 'em
would be left lamentin', anyhow," and she gave a
girlish laugh. An air of victory animated the
frame of Mrs. Tobin. She felt but twenty-five
years of age. In that moment she made plans for
cutting her Briley's hair, and making him look
smartened-up and ambitious. Then she wished that
she knew for certain how much money he had in the
bank; not that it would make any difference now.
"He needn't bluster none before me," she thought
gayly. "He's harmless as a fly."
"There's the big ellum past, an' we're only a
third of a mile from the depot," said Mr. Briley.
"Feel warmer, do ye?"
"Who'd have thought we'd done such a piece of
engineerin', when we started out?" inquired the
dear one of Mr. Briley's heart, as he tenderly
helped her to alight at Susan Ellen's door.
"Both on us, jest the least grain," answered the
lover. "Gimme a good smack, now, you clever creatur'";
and so they parted. Mr. Bailey had been taken on
the road in spite of his pistol.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~