I do not know with which of the two estimates--Mr. Taylor's or the Virginian's--you agreed. Did you think that Miss Mary Stark Wood of Bennington, Vermont, was forty years of age? That would have been an error. At the time she wrote the letter to Mrs. Balaam, of which letter certain portions have been quoted in these pages, she was in her twenty-first year; or, to be more precise, she had been twenty some eight months previous.
Now, it is not usual for young ladies of twenty to contemplate a journey of nearly two thousand miles to a country where Indians and wild animals live unchained, unless they are to make such journey in company with a protector, or are going to a protector's arms at the other end. Nor is school teaching on Bear Creek a usual ambition for such young ladies.
But Miss Mary Stark Wood was not a usual young lady for two reasons.
First, there was her descent. Had she so wished, she could have belonged to any number of those patriotic societies of which our American ears have grown accustomed to hear so much. She could have been enrolled in the Boston Tea Party, the Ethan Allen Ticonderogas, the Green Mountain Daughters, the Saratoga Sacred Circle, and the Confederated Colonial Chatelaines. She traced direct descent from the historic lady whose name she bore, that Molly Stark who was not a widow after the battle where her lord, her Captain John, battled so bravely as to send his name thrilling down through the blood of generations of schoolboys. This ancestress was her chief claim to be a member of those shining societies which I have enumerated. But she had been willing to join none of them, although invitations to do so were by no means lacking. I cannot tell you her reason. Still, I can tell you this. When these societies were much spoken of in her presence, her very sprightly countenance became more sprightly, and she added her words of praise or respect to the general chorus. But when she received an invitation to join one of these bodies, her countenance, as she read the missive, would assume an expression which was known to her friends as " slicking her nose in the air." I do not think that Molly's reason for refusing to join could have been a truly good one. I should add that her most precious possession--a treasure which accompanied her even if she went away for only one night's absence--was an heirloom, a little miniature portrait of the old Molly Stark, painted when that far-off dame must have been scarce more than twenty. And when each summer the young Molly went to Dunbarton, New Hampshire, to pay her established family visit to the last survivors of her connection who bore the name of Stark, no word that she heard in the Dunbarton houses pleased her so much as when a certain great-aunt would take her by the hand, and, after looking with fond intentness at her, pronounce: "My dear, you're getting more like the General's wife every year you live."
"I suppose you mean my nose," Molly would then reply.
"Nonsense, child. You have the family length of nose, and I've never heard that it has disgraced us."
"But I don't think I'm tall enough for it."
"There now, run to your room, and dress for tea. The Starks have always been punctual."
And after this annual conversation, Molly would run to her room, and there in its privacy, even at the risk of falling below the punctuality of the Starks, she would consult two objects for quite a minute before she began to dress. These objects, as you have already correctly guessed, were the miniature of the General's wife and the looking glass.
So much for Miss Molly Stark Wood's descent.
The second reason why she was not a usual girl was her character. This character was the result of pride and family pluck battling with family hardship.
Just one year before she was to be presented to the world--not the great metropolitan world, but a world that would have made her welcome and done her homage at its little dances and little dinners in Troy and Rutland and Burlington--fortune had turned her back upon the Woods. Their possessions had never been great ones; but they had sufficed. From generation to generation the family had gone to school like gentlefolk, dressed like gentlefolk, used the speech and ways of gentlefolk, and as gentlefolk lived and died. And now the mills failed.
Instead of thinking about her first evening dress, Molly found pupils to whom she could give music lessons. She found handkerchiefs that she could embroider with initials. And she found fruit that she could make into preserves. That machine called the typewriter was then in existence, but the day of women typewriters had as yet scarcely begun to dawn, else I think Molly would have preferred this occupation to the handkerchiefs and the preserves.
There were people in Bennington who "wondered how Miss Wood could go about from house to house teaching the piano, and she a lady." There always have been such people, I suppose, because the world must always have a rubbish heap. But we need not dwell upon them further than to mention one other remark of theirs regarding Molly. They all with one voice declared that Sam Bannett was good enough for anybody who did fancy embroidery at five cents a letter.
"I dare say he had a great-grandmother quite as good as hers," remarked Mrs. Flynt, the wife of the Baptist minister.
"That's entirely possible," returned the Episcopal rector of Hoosic, "only we don't happen to know who she was." The rector was a friend of Molly's. After this little observation, Mrs. Flynt said no more, but continued her purchases in the store where she and the rector had happened to find themselves together. Later she stated to a friend that she had always thought the Episcopal Church a snobbish one, and now she knew it.
So public opinion went on being indignant over Molly's conduct. She could stoop to work for money, and yet she pretended to hold herself above the most rising young man in Hoosic Falls, and all just because there was a difference in their grandmothers!
Was this the reason at the bottom of it? The very bottom? I cannot be certain, because I have never been a girl myself. Perhaps she thought that work is not a stooping, and that marriage may be. Perhaps-- But all I really know is that Molly Wood continued cheerfully to embroider the handkerchiefs, make the preserves, teach the pupils--and firmly to reject Sam Bannett.
Thus it went on until she was twenty. There certain members of her family began to tell her how rich Sam was going to be--was, indeed, already. It was at this time that she wrote Mrs. Balaam her doubts and her desires as to migrating to Bear Creek. It was at this time also that her face grew a little paler, and her friends thought that she was overworked, and Mrs. Flynt feared she was losing her looks. It was at this time, too, that she grew very intimate with that great-aunt over at Dunbarton, and from her received much comfort and strengthening.
"Never!" said the old lady, "especially if you can't love him."
"I do like him," said Molly; "and he is very kind."
"Never!" said the old lady again. "When I die, you'll have something--and that will not be long now."
Molly flung her arms around her aunt, and stopped her words with a kiss. And then one winter afternoon, two years later, came the last straw.
The front door of the old house had shut. Out of it had stepped the persistent suitor. Mrs. Flynt watched him drive away in his smart sleigh.
"That girl is a fool!" she said furiously; and she came away from her bedroom window where she had posted herself for observation.
Inside the old house a door had also shut. This was the door of Molly's own room. And there she sat, in floods of tears. For she could not bear to hurt a man who loved her with all the power of love that was in him.
It was about twilight when her door opened, and an elderly lady came softly in.
"My dear," she ventured, "and you were not able--"
"Oh, mother!" cried the girl, "have you come to say that too?"
The next day Miss Wood had become very hard. In three weeks she had accepted the position on Bear Creek. In two months she started, heart-heavy, but with a spirit craving the unknown.