A Consent (1908)

Will farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot muster the nerve to court the local school teacher, Miss Minnie?

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For my friends at Monterey, Kentucky

Ptolemy Proudfoot was nothing if not a farmer. His work was farming, his study and passion were farming, his pleasures and his social life occurred in the intervals between farm jobs and in the jobs themselves. He was not an ambitious farmer — he did not propose to own a large acreage or to become rich — but merely a good and a gifted one. By the time he was 25, he had managed, in spite of the hard times of the 1890s, to make a down payment on the little farm that he husbanded and improved all his life. It was a farm of 98 acres, and Tol never longed even for the two more that would have made it a hundred.

Of pleasures and social life, he had a plenty. The Proudfoots were a large, exuberant clan of large people, though by my time Tol was the last one of them in the Port William neighborhood, and Tol was childless. The Proudfoots were not, if they could help it, solitary workers. They swapped work among themselves and with their neighbors, and their workdays involved a mighty dinner at noontime, much talk and laughter, and much incidental sport.

As an after-dinner amusement and aid to digestion, the Proudfoot big boys and young men would often outline a square or a circle on the ground, and get into it and wrestle. Everybody wrestled with everybody, for the object was to see who would be the last one in the ring. The manpower involved might better have been rated as horsepower, and great feats of strength were accomplished. Now and again great physical damage was accomplished, as when, for example, one Proudfoot would endeavor to throw another Proudfoot out of the ring through the trunk of a large tree. Sometimes, after failing to make headway through a tree trunk or barn door, a Proudfoot would lie very still on the ground for several minutes before he could get up. Sometimes, one Proudfoot or another would be unable to go back to work in the afternoon. These contests would be accompanied by much grunting, and by more laughter, as the Proudfoots were hard to anger. For a Proudfoot boy to become big enough and brave enough finally to set foot in that ring was a rite of passage. For a Proudfoot to stand alone in that ring — as Tol did finally, and then often did — was to know a kind of triumph and a kind of glory. Tol was big even for a Proudfoot, and the others could seldom take him off his feet. He tumbled them out, ass over elbows, one by one, in a manner more workmanly than violent, laughing all the time.

Tol was overabundant in both size and strength. And perhaps because animate creatures tended to get out of his way, he paid not much attention to himself. He damaged his clothes just by being in them, as though surprising them by an assortment of stresses and strains for which they had not been adequately prepared. The people around Port William respected Tol as a farmer; they loved to tell and retell and hear and hear again the tales of his great strength; they were amused by the looks of him, by his good humor, and by his outsized fumblings and foibles. But never, for a long time, would any of them have suspected that his great bulk might embody tender feelings.

But Tol did embody tender feelings, and very powerful tender feelings they were. For Tol, through many years, had maintained somewhere about the center of himself a most noble and humble and never-mentioned admiration for Miss Minnie Quinch. Miss Minnie was as small and quick as Tol was big and lumbering. Like him, she was a Port Williamite. She had taught for many years at Goforth School, grades one through eight, which served the neighborhood of Katy’s Branch and Cotman Ridge in which Tol’s farm lay. When she was hardly more than a girl, Miss Minnie had gone away to a teacher’s college and prepared herself to teach by learning many cunning methods that she never afterward used. For Miss Minnie loved children and she loved books, and she taught merely by introducing the one to the other. When she had trouble with one of the rougher big boys, she went straight to that boy’s father and required that measures be taken. And measures usually were taken, so surprisingly direct and demanding was that lady’s gaze.

For as many years as Miss Minnie had taught at Goforth School, Tol had admired her from a distance, and without ever looking directly at her when she might have been about to look directly at him. He thought she was the finest, prettiest, nicest little woman he had ever seen. He praised her to himself by saying, “She’s just a pocket-size pretty little thing.” But he was sure that she would never want to be around a big, rough, unschooled fellow like himself.

Miss Minnie did, from time to time, look directly at Tol, but not ever when he might have been about to look directly at her. More than once she thought rather wistfully that so large and strong a man as Tol ought to be some woman’s knight and protector. She was, in fact, somewhat concerned about him, for he was 36, well past the age when men usually got married. That she herself was 34 and unmarried was something she also thought from time to time, but always in a different thought. She kept her concern about Tol limited very strictly to concern, for she was conscious of being a small person unable even to hope to arrest the gaze of so splendid a man.

For years, because of mutual avoidance of each other’s direct gaze, their paths did not cross. Although they met and passed, they did not do so in a way that required more than a polite nod, which they both accomplished with a seriousness amounting almost to solemnity. And then one morning in Port William, Tol came out of Beater Chatham’s store directly face-to-face with Miss Minnie who was coming in, and who smiled at him before she could think and said, “Well, good morning, Mr. Proudfoot!”

Tol’s mouth opened, but nothing came out of it. Nothing at all. This was unusual, for Tol, when he felt like it, was a talkative man. He kept walking because he was already walking, but for several yards he got along without any assistance from his faculties. Sight and sense did not return to him until he had walked with some force into the tailgate of his wagon.

All the rest of that day he went about his work in a somewhat visionary state, saying to himself, and to the surprise of his horses and his dog, “Good morning, mam!” and “How do you do, Miss Minnie?” Once he even brought himself to say, bowing slightly and removing his hat, “And a good morning to you, little lady.”

And soon, as if they had at last come into each other’s orbit, they met face-to-face again. It was a fine fall afternoon, and Tol happened to be driving down past Goforth School, slowing his team, of course, so as not to disturb the ­concentration of the scholars inside. Miss Minnie was standing by the pump in front of the schoolhouse, her figure making a neat blue silhouette against the dingy weatherboarding.

Again she smiled at him. She said, “How do you do, Mr. Proudfoot?”

And Tol startled at the sound of her voice as if he had not seen her there at all. He could not remember one of the pleasantries he had invented to say to her. He looked intently into the sky ahead of him and said quickly as if he had received a threat, “Why, howdy!”

The conversation thus established was a poor thing, Tol knew, so far as his own participation in it went, but it was something to go on. It gave him hope. And now I want to tell you how this courtship, conducted for so long in secret in Tol’s mind alone, became public. This is the story of Miss Minnie’s first consent, the beginning of their story together, which is one of the dear possessions of the history of Port William.

That fall, Miss Minnie and her students had worked hard in preparation for the annual Harvest Festival at the school. The Harvest Festival was Miss Minnie’s occasion; she had thought it up herself. It might have been a Halloween party, except that Halloween in that vicinity got enough out of hand as it was without some public function to bring all the boys together in one place. And so she had thought of the Harvest Festival, which always took place two weeks before Halloween. It was a popular social event, consisting of much visiting, a display of the students’ work, recitations by the students, an auction of pies and cakes to raise money for books and supplies, and abundant refreshments provided by the mothers of the students.

Ptolemy Proudfoot had never been to the Harvest Festival. He had no children, he told himself, and so did not belong there. But in fact he had always longed to go, had always been afraid to intrude himself without excuse into Miss Minnie’s world, and had always, as a result, spent an unhappy night at home. But this year, now that he and Miss Minnie were in a manner of becoming friends, he determined that he would go.

Tol had got along as bachelors must. He had even become a fair cook. From the outside, his house was one of the prettiest and best kept in the neighborhood. It was a small house with steep, gingerbreaded gables, and it stood under two white oaks in the bend of the road, just where the road branched off to go down into the Katy’s Branch valley where Goforth and its school were. Tol kept the house painted and the yard neat, and he liked to turn in off the road and say to himself, “Well, now, I wonder who lives in such a nice place!” But what he had thought up to do to the inside of the house was not a great deal above what he had thought up to do to the inside of his barn. Like the barn, the house was clean and orderly, but when he went into it, it did not seem to be expecting him, as it did after Miss Minnie came there to live.

On the day of the festival, Tol cut and shucked corn all day, but he thought all day of the festival, too, and he quit early. He did his chores, fixed his supper and ate it, and then, just as he had planned in great detail to do, he began to get ready. He brought his Sunday clothes to the kitchen and laid them out on a chair. He hunted up his Sunday shoes and polished them. He set a large washtub on the floor in front of the stove, dipped hot water into it from the water well at the end of the stove, cooled the hot water with water from the water bucket on the shelf by the door, put soap and washrag and towel on the floor beside the tub. And then he undressed and sat in the tub with his feet outside it on the floor, and scrubbed himself thoroughly from top to toe. He dried himself and put on his pants. Gazing into the mirror over the little wash table by the back door, he shaved so carefully that he cut himself in several places. He put on his shirt, and after several tries buttoned the collar. He put on his tie, tying a knot in it that would have broken the neck of a lesser man and that left even him so nearly strangled that he supposed he must look extremely handsome. He wet his hair and combed it so that when it dried it stuck up stiffly in the air as Proudfoot hair was inclined to do. He put on his suspenders, his gleaming shoes, and his Sunday hat. And then he sat in a chair and sweated and rubbed his hands together until it was time to hitch old Ike to the buggy and drive down to the school.

Before he got to the schoolhouse, he could hear voices, an uninterrupted babble like the sound of Katy’s Branch in the spring, and then he could see a glow. When he got to the bottom of the hill and saw, among the trunks of the big walnuts and water maples and sycamores that stood there, the schoolhouse windows gleaming and the school yard strung with paper lanterns, lighting the bare-worn ground and throwing the shadows of the trees out in all directions like the spokes of a wheel, he said, “Whoa, Ike.” The light around the old schoolhouse and within it seemed to him a radiance that emanated from the person of Miss Minnie herself. And Tol’s big heart quaked within him. He had to sit there in the road behind his stopped horse and think a good while before he could decide not to go on by, pretending to have an errand elsewhere.

Now that he had stopped, it became quiet where he was; he could hear the crickets singing, and he was aware of Willow Hole on Katy’s Branch, a little beyond the school, carrying on its accustomed business in the dark. As he sat and thought — thought hard about nothing that he could fix in a thought — Tol slid his fingers up beneath his hat from time to time and scratched, and then jerked the hat down firmly onto his head again, and each time he did this he rotated the front of his hat a little further toward his right ear. Presently the sound of another buggy coming down the hill behind him recalled him to himself; he clucked to Ike and drove on, and found a hitching place among the other buggies and the wagons and the saddled horses at the edge of the school yard.

There was a perimeter of voices out on the very edge of the light, where the boys had started a game of tag, unwilling to come nearer the schoolhouse than they had to. Near the building the men were gathered in groups, smoking or chewing, talking, as they always talked, of crops, livestock, weather, work, prices, hunting, and fishing, in that year and the years before.

Tol, usually a sociable man, had nothing to say. He did not dare to say anything. He went past the men, merely nodding in response to their greetings, and since he did not want to talk and so could not stop, and was headed in that direction, he went on into the schoolhouse, and immediately he realized his mistake. For there were only women and girls in there, and not one man, not a single one. Beyond the boys’ voices out on the edge of the dark and the men’s voices in the school yard was this bright, warm nucleus of women’s voices, and of women themselves and of women’s eyes turned to see who had burst through the door with so much force.

Those women would always remember the way Tol looked when he came in that night. After all his waiting and anxiety, his clothes were damp and wrinkled, his shirttail was out, there was horse manure on one of his shoes. His hat sat athwart his head as though left there by somebody else. When, recognizing the multiflorous female presence he was in, he snatched his hat off, his hair stuck up and out and every which way. He came in wide-eyed, purposeful, and alarmed. He looked as if only his suspenders were holding him back — as if, had it not been for that restraint upon his shoulders, he might have charged straight across the room and out through the back wall.

He had made, he thought, a serious mistake, and he was embarrassed. He was embarrassed, too, to show that he knew he had made a mistake. He did not want to stay, and he could not go. Struck dumb, his head as empty of anything sayable as a clapperless bell, he stood in one place and then another, smiling and blushing, an anxious, unhappy look in his eyes.

Finally, a voice began to speak in his mind. It was his own voice. It said, “I would give 40 dollars to get out of here. I would give 45 dollars to get out of here.” It consoled him somewhat to rate his misery at so high a price. But he could see nobody to whom he could pay the 40 dollars, or the 45 either. The women had gone back to talking, and the girls to ­whispering.

But Tol’s difficulty and his discomfort had not altogether failed of a compassionate witness. His unexpected presence had not failed to cause a small flutter in the bosom of Miss Minnie and a small change in the color of her face. As soon as she decently could, Miss Minnie excused herself from the circle of women with whom she had been talking. She took the bell from her desk and went to the door and rang it.

Presently the men and boys began to come inside. Tol, though he did not become inconspicuous, began at least to feel inconspicuous, and as his pain decreased, he was able to take intelligent notice of his whereabouts. He saw how prettily the room was done up with streamers and many candles and pictures drawn by the students and bouquets of autumn leaves. And at the head of the room on a large table were the cakes and pies that were to be auctioned off at the end of the evening. In the very center of the table, on a tall stand, was a cake that Tol knew, even before he heard, was the work of Miss Minnie. It was an angel food cake with an icing as white and light and swirly as a summer cloud. It was as white as a bride. The sight of it fairly took his breath — it was the most delicate and wondrous thing that he had ever seen. It looked so beautiful and vulnerable there all alone among the others that he wanted to defend it with his life. It was lucky, he thought, that nobody said anything bad about it — and he just wished somebody would. He took a position in a corner in the front of the room as near the cake as he dared to be, and watched over it defensively, angry at the thought of the possibility that somebody might say something bad about it.

“Children, please take your seats!” Miss Minnie said.

The students all dutifully sat down at their desks, leaving the grown-ups to sit or stand around the walls. There was some confusion and much shuffling of feet as everybody found a place. And then a silence, variously expectant and nervous, fell upon the room. Miss Minnie stepped to the side of her desk. She stood, her posture very correct, regarding her students and her guests in silence a moment, and then she welcomed them one and all to the annual Harvest Festival of Goforth School. She told the grown-ups how pleased she was to see them there so cherishingly gathered around their children. She gave them her heartfelt thanks for their support. She asked Brother Overhold if he would pronounce the invocation. Brother Overhold called down the blessings of Heaven upon each and every one there assembled, and upon every family there represented; upon Goforth School and Miss Minnie, its beloved teacher; upon the neighborhood of Katy’s Branch and Cotman Ridge; upon the town of Port William and all the countryside around it; upon the county, the state, the nation, the world, and the great universe, at the very center of which they were met together that night at Goforth School.

And then Miss Minnie introduced the pupils of the first grade, who were to read a story in unison. The first grade pupils thereupon sat up straight, giving their brains the full support of their erect ­spinal columns, held their primers upright in front of them, and intoned loudly together:

“Once—there—were—three—bears. The—big—bear—was—the—poppa—bear. The—middle—bear—was—the—momma bear. The—little—bear—was—the—baby bear” — and so on to the discovery of Goldilocks and the conclusion, which produced much applause.

And then, one by one, the older children came forward to stand at the side of the desk, as Miss Minnie had stood, to recite poems or Bible verses or bits of famous oratory. A small boy, Billy Braymer, recited from Sir Walter Scott:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said:

“This is my own, my native land”?

— and on for 13 more lines, and said “Whew!” and sat down to enthusiastic applause. Thelma Settle of the sixth grade, one of the stars of the school, made her way through “Thanatopsis” without fault to the very end. The audience listened to “A Psalm of Life,” the First, the Twenty-third, and the Hundredth Psalms, “The Fool’s Prayer,” “To a Waterfowl,” “To Daffodils,” “Concord Hymn,” “The Choir Invisible,” “Wolsey’s Farewell to His Greatness,” Hamlet’s soliloquy, “The Epitaph” from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and other pieces. Hibernia Hopple of the eighth grade declared with a steadily deepening blush and in furious haste that she loved to the depth and breadth and height her soul could reach. Walter Crow said in a squeaky voice and with bold gestures that he was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. Buster Niblett implored that he be given liberty or death.

And then Miss Minnie called the name of Burley Coulter, and a large boy stood up in the back of the room and, blushing, made his way to the desk as he would have walked, perhaps, to the gallows. He turned and faced the audience. He shut his eyes tightly, opened them only to find the audience still present, and swallowed. Miss Minnie watched him with her fingers laced at her throat and her eyes moist. He was such a good-looking boy, and — she had no doubt — was smart. Against overpowering evidence she had imagined a triumph for him. She had chosen a poem for him that was masculine, robust, locally applicable, seasonally appropriate, high spirited, and amusing. If he recited it well, she would be so pleased! She had the poem in front of her, just in case.

He stood in silence, as if studying to be as little present as possible, and then announced in an almost inaudible voice, “‘When the Frost Is on the Punkin’ by James Whitcomb Riley.”

He hung his hands at his sides, and then clasped them behind him, and then clasped them in front of him, and then put them into his pockets. He swallowed a dry-mouthed swallow that in the silence was clearly audible, and began:

“When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,

And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkeycock,

And the clackin’ of the — of the, uh — the clackin’ of the —”

“Guineys!” Miss Minnie whispered.

“Aw, yeah, guineys,” he said:

“And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,

And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence

— uh, let’s see —”

“O, it’s then’s …”

“O, it’s then’s the time’s a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,

With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

When he — uh —”

“As he leaves …”

As he leaves the house, bare-headed, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”

He looked at his feet, he scratched his head, his lips moved soundlessly.

“They’s something …”

“Aw, yeah.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere

When the heat of summer’s over — uh — kindo’ lonesome-like, but still — uh —

Well, let’s see. Uh —

Then your apples — Then your apples all —”

Miss Minnie was reading desperately, trying to piece the poem together as he dismembered it, but he had left her behind and now he was stalled. She looked up to see an expression on his face that she knew too well. The blush was gone; he was grinning; the light of inspiration was in his eyes.

“Well, drot it, folks,” he said, “I forgot her. But I’ll tell you one I heard.”

Miss Minnie rose, smiling, and said in a tone of utter gratification, “Thank you, Burley! Now you may be seated.”

She then called upon Kate Helen Branch, who came to the front and sang “In the Gloaming” in a voice that was not strong but was clear and true.

That brought the recitations to an appropriate conclusion. There was prolonged applause, after which Miss Minnie again arose. “Mr. Willis Bagby,” she said, “will now ­conduct our auction of pies and cakes.”

Mr. Bagby took his place behind the table of pies and cakes.

“Folks,” he said, “this here is for the good of the school, and to help out this little teacher here that’s doing such a good job a-teaching our children. For what would tomorrow be without the young people of today? And what would our young people be without a fine teacher to teach them to figger and read and write, and to make them do all the fine things we seen them do here on this fine occasion this evening? So now, folks, open up your hearts and let out your pocketbooks. What am I bid for this fine cherry pie?” And he tilted the pie toward the crowd so that all could see the lovely crisscrossing of the top crust.

Tol had stood and watched and listened in a state of anxiety that prevented him from benefiting at all from the program. He had never seen in his life, he thought, such a woman as Miss Minnie — she was so smart and pretty, and so knowing in how to stand and speak. And when she stopped that Burley Coulter and set him down, Tol felt his heart swerve like a flying swift. She was as quick on her feet, he thought, as a good hind-catcher. And yet the more he looked upon her, the higher above him she shone, and the farther he felt beneath her notice.

Now there was old Willis Bagby auctioning off the pies and cakes, which were bringing more or less than 50 cents, depending on what they looked like and who had made them. And Tol was sweating and quaking like a man afraid. For what if her cake brought less than 50 cents? What if — and he felt his heart swerve again — nobody bid on it? He would bid on it himself — but how could he dare to? People would think he was trying to show off. Maybe she would think he was trying to show off.

Tol backed into his corner as far as he could, trying to be small, wishing he had not come. But now Willis Bagby put his hands under the beautiful white cake and lifted it gleaming on its stand.

Now look a-here, folks,” he said. “For last, we got this fine cake made by this mighty nice lady, our schoolteacher. What am I bid for it?”

“One dollar,” said Gilead Hopple, who with his wife, Ag, was standing not far in front of Tol Proudfoot. Gil Hopple was the local magistrate, who now proposed for himself the political gallantry of offering the highest bid for the teacher’s cake. After his bid, he uttered a small cough.

“Dollar bid! I’ve got a dollar bid,” said Willis Bagby. “Now, anywhere a half?”

Nobody said anything. Nobody said anything for a time that got longer and longer, while Gil Hopple stood there with his ears sticking out and his white bald head sticking up through its official fringe of red hair.

And Tol Proudfoot was astonished to hear himself say right out and in a voice far too loud, “Two dollars!” Gil Hopple coughed his small cough again and said, his voice slightly higher in pitch than before, “Two and a quarter.”

It seemed to Tol that Gil Hopple had defiled that priceless cake with his quarter bid. Gil Hopple happened to be Tol’s neighbor, and they had always got along and been friends. But at that moment Tol hated Gil Hopple with a clear, joyful hatred. He said, “Three dollars!”

Gil Hopple did not wish to turn all the way around, but he looked first to the right and then to the left. His ears stuck out farther, and the top of his head had turned pink. It had been a dry year. He looked as if the room smelled of an insufficient respect for hard cash. “Three and a quarter,” he said in a tone of great weariness. Willis Bagby was looking uncomfortable himself now. Things obviously were getting out of hand, but it was not up to him to stop it.

Tol said, “Four!”

At that point a revelation came to Miss Minnie. It seemed to her beyond a doubt that Tol Proudfoot, that large, strong man whom she had thought ought to be some woman’s knight and protector, was bidding to be her knight and protector. It made her dizzy. She managed to keep her composure: She did not blush much, the tears hardly showed in her eyes, by great effort she did not breathe much too fast. But her heart was staggering within her like a drunk person, and she was saying over and over to herself, “Oh, you magnificent man!”

“Four and a quarter,” said Gil Hopple.

Five!” said Tol Proudfoot.

“Five and a quarter,” said Gil Hopple.

Ten!” shouted Tol Proudfoot. And at that moment another voice — Ag Hopple’s — was raised above the murmuring of the crowd: “Good lord, Gil! I’ll make you a cake!”

Willis Bagby, gratefully seeing his duty, said, “Sold! To Tol Proudfoot yonder in the corner.”

Tol could no more move than if he had been turned by his audacity into a statue. He stood in his corner with sweat running down his face, unable to lift his hand to wipe it off, frightened to think how he had showed off right there in front of everybody for her to see.

And then he saw that Miss Minnie was coming to where he was, and his knees shook. She was coming through the crowd, looking straight at him, and smiling. She reached out with her little hand and put it into one of his great ones, which rose of its own accord to receive it. “Mr. Proudfoot,” she said, “that was more than kind.”

Tol was standing there full in public view, in the midst of a story that Port William would never forget, and as far as he now knew not a soul was present but Miss Minnie and himself.

“Yes, mam — uh, mam — uh, miss — uh, little lady,” he said. “Excuse me, mam, but I believe it was worth every cent of it, if you don’t mind. And I ain’t trying to act smart or anything, and if I do, excuse me, but might I see you home?”

“Oh, Mr. Proudfoot!” Miss Minnie said. “Certainly you may!”

 

Wendell Berry is the author of more than 50 books — essays, poetry, short stories, and novels. Among his honors and awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, T.S. Eliot Award, National Humanities Medal, Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and many others. Most of his novels and short stories are set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William, including his short story collections That Distant Land and A Place in Time. Wendell Berry lives and works on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky.

Wendell Berry, “A Consent (1908)” From That Distant Land: The Collected Stories. Copyright © 2004 By Wendell Berry. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com

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