The Higgler, by A.E. Coppard
Alfred Edgar Coppard was an early-modern English writer who preserved much of the romanticism of the late nineteenth century even well into the twenties and thirties. The Higgler follows a travelling merchant as he woos two women, and weds the wrong one.
Opening a copy of Coppard’s Collected Tales, The Higgler is the first to greet you. This is unfortunate, for it fairly spoils the taste for any of the following stories. Once The Higgler is in your blood, everything else seem but a paltry excuse for a bedtime-story. The “what-ifs” and “whys” stay in the mind until resolved — but nothing can dissolve the worst travesty of any life: to marry the wrong woman.
Harvey is a fairly honest, hardworking sort who cares for his widowed mother and is trying to make something of himself by higgling (buying and selling from local farmers) so he can marry Sophy, his sweet-heart. Higgling brings him to Mrs. Elizabeth Sadgrove, an austere but friendly farm widow whose daughter, Mary, has “red hair, a complexion like the inside of a nut, blue eyes, and the hands of a lady”, and very quickly has all of Harvey’s heart.
Harvey continues to woo Sophy while making inroads (or rather, being brought in) to the Sadgrove good. A marriage with Sophy is planned, and Mary (who seldom talks to Harvey) remains a mere worshipful fascination. Knowing that “I love Sophy best. It’s true enough I love Mary, too, but I love Sophy better. I know it; Sophy’s the girl I must wed,” Harvey tries eventually to put out of his mind any possibilities of wedding Mary. However, when Mrs. Sadgrove invites Harvey to take Sunday lunch with her and Mary, she reveals — in Mary’s absence — that “I want to see my daughter married” before her death.
To worship someone from a theoretical “afar” is simple; to have a marriage proposed by the mother of the worshipped is far from so. Throughout the following weeks, he wrestles with the proposal. Mrs. Sadgrove had told him of Mary’s considerable inheritance, and Harvey — as a very peasant — was far from impervious to financial enticements. However, his suspicions of Mrs. Sadgroves motives, of a “too-good-to-be-true” offer, as well as those of Mary’s innocence of any knowledge of the proposal, grew upon him, until he finally married Sophy and severed ties with the Sadgroves.
The following months were not easy, and eventually he became disillusioned with his quarrelsome bride and financially-burndensome marriage. Needing money to support his wife and failing business, he put off calling on the Sadgroves as long as possible. Finally, he gives in, and, knowing that Mrs. Sadgrove, besides being wealthy, “had no call to be unfriendly to him”, he called on the Sadgrove farm.
Mary, for the first time ever, answered the door. Speaking to him for the first time in months, she informs him that “Mother’s dead.” He helps her to lay out the body (as the doctor is long in coming), and when she is sufficiently calm, begins to talk with her.
Suddenly the higgler turned to her and ventured: "Did you know as she once asked me to marry you?" he blurted.
Her eyes turned from him, but he guessed — he could feel that she had known.
“I've often wondered why,” he murmured, “why she wanted that.”
“She didn't,” said the girl.
That gave pause to the man; he felt stupid at once, and roved his fingers in a silly way along the roughened nap of his hat.
“Well, she asked me to,” he bluntly protested.
“She knew,” Mary's voice was no louder than a sigh, “that you were courting another girl, the one you married.”
“But, but,” stuttered the honest higgler, “if she knew that why did she want for me to marry you?”
“She didn't,” said Mary again; and again, in the pause, he did silly things to his hat. How shy this girl was, how lovely in her modesty and grief!
“I can't make tops or bottoms of it,” he said, "but she asked me, as sure as God's my maker.”
“I know. It was me, I wanted it.”
In that moment, his suspicions of Mrs. Sadgrove going behind Mary’s back to ensnare him flashed through his mind. His misbegotten marriage to Sophy, his ill lot financially — if only he had taken the one good thing offered him.
“Oh, if you'd only tipped me a word, or given me a sort of look,” he sighed, “Oh, Mary!”