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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Maria Louise Pool (1841–1898)

The Last Straw

From “Tenting at Stony Beach”

RANDY RANKIN always sits straight. She never lolls. As she sat there, in the most uncomfortable chair in the tent, she was a great contrast to us, who came to the shore with intent to do nothing but lounge, and who appeared to be accomplishing our intentions. I am sure there are some people who are never comfortable save when they are uncomfortable. As I reclined on our couch and looked at Mrs. Rankin, I could but wonder if Mr. Rankin also always wanted to sit straight; if he did not, I thought I had a clue as to why he should now live by himself in that old schoolhouse, while she should dwell in the Two-mile. This woman is considerably above the average native on these shores. It was interesting to have her spend part of a day with us, but I could not put from me the feeling that she might be somewhat overwhelming as a constant companion. I noticed one peculiarity about her speech: she would frequently speak correctly for several consecutive sentences, and then would lapse with apparent hopelessness into a tangle of subjects and predicates. I decided that she knew how to use the simple laws of grammar, but that the custom and example of years were generally more powerful than any other consideration.

At our request she had taken off her “things,” which were a black-fringed silk shawl and a sunbonnet. A pair of large drab cotton gloves had also been removed, and were pulled into each other in the form of a ball and placed in the sunbonnet. Her dress was black alpaca, which was so shiny as to look new; of course it was not wrinkled, for alpaca cannot wrinkle. Although the cloth looked so new, I felt that this appearance was deceptive, for I was sure that not within thirty years at the very least could any dressmaker have been persuaded to cut a “bodice” like that. Perhaps I may as well state here that later I was informed by Mrs. Marlow that the dress was new, had never been worn before, and was cut and made by Mrs. Rankin herself. It was of that fashion once known as “the fan waist.” Those who have seen this style will know what I mean, and to those who have not I can give no description which would be sufficiently graphic. It was cut down in the neck, so that a slight hint of the collar-bone could be seen, and round this neck was “fulled on” a strip of that Hamburg edging which is brought round in packs by Jew pedlers. She wore a white apron with three tucks at the bottom, and finished off with more edging.

Now, if you think Randy Rankin, in spite of her face and dress, was one for whom you could feel anything like pity or condescension, you are entirely mistaken. There was a grimness, a decision, and a strength about her, a shrewdness and sense, that made it impossible not to have a sort of respect for her. If she chose to dress as she did when she was young, you could only be amused; the conviction that she would not care if you went into convulsions of laughter at her made the convulsions impossible.

She was in the habit of relating some of the infelicities of her married life with the matter-of-fact calmness with which any of the fishermen here might tell of a poor haul at certain seasons. A poor haul was unfortunate, but it was a subject which could be fully discussed without any delicacy.

I have said that my walking across the floor of the tent with slippers whose heels clacked at every step excited in our caller reminiscences of her married life.

“It ain’t no secret why Mr. Rankin and me can’t live together,” she said as she slowly drank her lemonade. “I never did believe in mysteries, and when folks want to know the trouble I’m always willin’ to tell ’em. Mr. Rankin was so easy goin’ ’t I guess he could ’a’ put up with me, or anybody, till the jedgment-day, but my nerves can’t bear everything. There were two things that decided me.” Mrs. Rankin here spoke with extraordinary decision. “One was them down-to-the-heel slippers. I d’know where he fished ’em up from; under the eaves somewhere, I expect. ’T any rate, he come into the kitchen one morning with them on. He wa’n’t very well that day, ’n’ he stayed in the house, and kep’ walkin’ up and down, clack, clack, clack, clack, across that oilcloth, until I felt that I should fly. I c’n bear some things well enough, but some things I can’t; and Mr. Rankin, one way ’n’ ’nother, had got to be awful tryin’. My teeth were on edge most of the time. I said to him, ‘Hadn’t you better put on them list slippers o’ yourn?’ I went and got ’em, and put ’em down in front of him. He didn’t say he wouldn’t put ’em on; that wa’n’t his way; but all the same, he didn’t do it, but kept on them things, and kept walkin’ and clackin’ all that day. He wa’n’t well for a week, and the whole of that mortal time he wore them slippers, with heels that had busted off the uppers jest far enough to let ’em down good with every step. I s’pose you know there’s always a last straw. I concluded that I had about reached that straw, and I told Mr. Rankin so. He kughed, and said he guessed not; he guessed things would go on with us about as usual. Will you believe it, all the rest of the time I lived with him, about six months, he would never wear any other slippers but them! I had given the matter the most earnest thought of which I was capable. I was fearful unhappy, and growin’ more so every day. The man’s whole nature rasped on mine so that I was sometimes afraid of myself when I saw him coming. And yet he was an upright, honest man. I have nothing to say against his character. He must have had his trials with me. Luckily for him, he had a thick skin.”

Mrs. Rankin paused, and seemed to be looking into the past. After a moment she resumed:

“But, lor, ’tain’t no use whining. Jonas Rankin’s jest what he is, ’n’ I’m jest what I be. I had made a firm resolution that them slippers, even if he wore ’em’s long’s I lived, shouldn’t be the last straw. But I told him fair and square that the very next thing would be. I’d got to the end of my rope. He laughed. I guess that laugh of his has made me as mad’s I ever wanter be. I used to pray over things. My health wa’n’t first-rate, and I’ve noticed prayer seems to do more good when you’re kind of sound bodily. No, don’t give me no more lemonade. Wall, what do you think that man did next?”

Randy waited for us to guess, but, naturally, we did not fully know the capabilities of Mr. Jonas Rankin, and so could make no guess at all.

“The Tree of Death was the next thing,” she said, with such an intensity of utterance that we stopped the laugh that rose to our lips, and waited with what patience we might.

“Yes,” she went on. “It belonged to his first wife, she that was a Lincoln, and he said they used to have it in their parlor. This he told me when we were first married. He gave it to his son, who lives under the first cliff on the shore, you know. One day Mr. Rankin come in with a large flat parcel under his arm. He took off the wrappings, and said he guessed we’d have that in the sitting-room now. Then he hung up the thing in a place where you’d see it, and nothing else, if you were anywhere in the room. I begged him not to have it there. There was nothing in the world I hated so much. Did you ever see one?”

No, we never had seen one.

“It’s a tall, black, dead-looking tree, with a horrible picture of the devil tramping about the roots with a watering-pot, from which great streams of water are running. The devil has cloven feet, horns, and a tail with a prong to it. He is grinning because the tree is so flourishing. For fruit there are great black balls, and in each ball is printed the name of some sin, such as Lying, Theft, Lust, Covetousness, and other sins which I need not mention. This picture was in a frame of wood painted a light blue, with gilt sprigs on it. What do you think? That man was bound to have the picture hung there. He said the sight of it was wholesome for frivolous souls. I told him that if we had ever been frivolous, it had all been taken out of us long ago. He said he guessed it had better hang there. And I knew it was settled. I found out afterward that John’s little girl—John is Mr. Rankin’s son—had had fits just from looking at the Tree of Death. I could believe that well enough, for the child was a nervous, fanciful thing. She was frightened almost out of her senses. She couldn’t keep away from the picture, either, and used to steal into the room where it was and stand and look at it. Finally her mother found it out. Lily threw herself into her mother’s arms one day, and said that the devil was watering the sins in her heart, and soon they would be as big as those black balls. Then she had a kind of convulsion. That picture came down double quick. The doctor said that child would be crazy if she were left to have such notions.

“Do you think I was goin’ ter hev that blarsted thing there for me ter stare at? No; that was the last straw. I told Mr. Rankin it was the last straw. I wa’n’t a-goin’ ter keep house for him no more. He tried ter argue the point. I told him he might save his breath. The house happened ter be mine. I told him he might take his traps and go.

“He had jest about enough int’rest money to git his victuals and clothes, if he lived by himself. ‘Jest keep yer int’rest,’ says I. ‘You jest row your own boat, and I’ll row mine.’ I guess there wa’n’t no love lost atween us. He took his things, or ruther his fust wife’s things, ’n’ went an’ bought an old schoolhouse that the town ain’t had no use for this dozen years. He paid fifty dollars for it. He’s lived there ever sence; be seven years next spring. I do some washin’ and some slop-work, and pick some huckleberries. I git ’long. I ain’t got no Tree of Death in my house, nor nobody that wears slippers that click on the oilcloth. I do Mr. Rankin’s washing and mending, but I don’t charge him nothin’ for it. I send the clothes back by the baker every fortnit, and the grocery man brings ’em. I don’t see Mr. Rankin from year’s end to year’s end, and I don’t want to. His son and I are on good terms. John is a good fellow. I like him; and naturally there’s great sympathy between his family and me on the subject of that picture. John’s wife has been so far as to say that she didn’t blame no woman for not livin’ with no man who wanted to put the Tree of Death under her nose all the time. Of course I’m lonesome once in a while. I often think, if my son had lived, ’twould have been different.”

Mrs. Rankin became silent. Her deep-set eyes seemed to look more sunken than ever. She roused herself.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “I git ’long.”