by Will E.
From Harper's Magazine
There were few who knewand, frankly, there were few who seemed to
care to knowwhat Old Dalton meant when he mumbled, in his aspirate
and toothless quest for expression of the thoughts that doddered
through his misty old brain, Thay wur-rld luks diff'rent nowall
diff'rent now, yagh! Sometimes he would go on, after a pause, in a
kind of laborious elucidation: Na, na! Ma there, now, she's gone.
Iegh, eghI went to school 'long of her; an' et didn't matter so
much, mun, about th' rest going, 's long as she wer' here. But
nowshe's gone, ey. Agh-m! Ey, now she's gone-like, an' th' ain't
nobody to help me keepkeep a-hold o' things. I'm a hundred years old,
mun. Agh-m! You wouldn'tyou wouldn't know what I was meanin', now,
when I tell you this here world has growed all yellow-like, this month
back. Ey, that's it, munall queer-like. Egh, it's time I was movin'
Part of this monologuea very small partwas Old Dalton's own,
repeated over and over, and so kept in mind ever since the more
initiative years a decade ago when he first began to think about his
age. Another part of the utterancemore particularly that about
movin' onconsisted of scraps of remarks that had been addressed to
him, which he had hoarded up as an ape lays away odds and ends, and
which he repeated, parrotlike, when the sun and his pipe warmed Old
Dalton into speech. But that idea that the earth was growing
yellowthat was a recent uncanny turn of his fancy, his own entirely.
He was pretty well past having any very definite inclination, but
there seemed no special reason why the old man should wish to move
on. He appeared comfortable enough, pulling away at his blackened old
pipe on the bench by the door. No man above fifty, and few below that
age, enjoyed better health than he had; and many of fifty there are who
look nearer death than Old Dalton did.
Crack me a stick 'r two o' wood, grampa, his married
great-granddaughter, with whom he lived, would sometimes say; and up
and at it the old man would getswinging his ax handily and hitting
his notch cleanly at every clip.
Assuredly, his body was a wonderful old machinea grandfather's
clock with every wheel, bearing, and spring in perfect order and
alignment. Work had made it so, and work kept it so, for every day
after his smoke Old Dalton would fuss about at his chores (which,
partly to please him, were designedly left for him to do)the changing
of the bull's tether-picket, watering the old horse, splitting the
evening's wood, keeping the fence about the house in repair, and
driving the cows o' nights into the milking-pen.
To every man in this world is assigned his duty. To every man is
given just the mental and physical equipment he needs for that duty.
Some men obtusely face away from their appointed work; some are carried
afield by exigency; some are drawn by avarice or ambition into alien
paths; but a minor proportion of happy ones follow out their destiny.
There do not occur many exceptions to the rule that the men who find
their work and do it, all other conditions being equal, not only live
to old age, but to an extreme, a desirable, a comfortable, and a
natural old age.
Old Dalton had been built and outfitted to be a simple, colloquial
home-maker, family-raiser, and husbandman. His annals were never
intended to be anything more than plain and short. His was the function
of the treeto grow healthily and vigorously; to propagate; to give
during his life, as the tree gives of its fruit and shade, such
pleasant dole and hospitable emanation as he naturally might; and in
the fullness of time to return again to the sod.
He had found and done thoroughly this appointed work of his. He was
doing it still, or at least that part of it which, at the age of one
hundred years, fittingly remained for him to do. He was tapering off,
building the crown of his good stack. When Death, the great Nimrod,
should come to Old Dalton, he would not find him ready caught in the
trap of decrepitude. He would find him with his boots on, up and
aboutor, if in bed, not there except as in the regular rest intervals
of his diurnal round.
And the fact that he, a polyp in the great atoll of life, had found
his exact place and due work was the reason that, at one hundred years,
life was yet an orange upon the palate of Old Dalton.
Nanny Craigwho later became Mother Daltonhad, in remote eighteen
hundred and twenty, been a squalling, crabbed baby, and had apparently
started life determined to be crotchety. If she had adhered to this
schedule she would have been buried before she was sixty and would have
been glad to go. But Old Daltonthen young Dave Daltonmarried her
out of hand at seventeen, and so remade and conserved her in the
equable, serene, and work-filled atmosphere of the home he founded that
Nanny far outdid all her family age records, recent or ancestral, and
lived to ninety-three. She was seven years younger than Dave, and now
three months dead.
Dave had missed her sorely. People had said the Message would not be
long coming to him after she went. Perhaps if he had been in the usual
case of those who have passed the seventh decadeweary and halt and
without employment or the ability or wish for ithe would have brooded
and worried himself into the grave very soon after the passing of his
old mate and one living contemporary. But he was a born, inured, and
inveterate worker, and as long as there were chores for him to do he
felt ample excuse for continuing to exist. Old Dalton still had the
obsession, too, that while and where he lived he was boss and
manager; and one solid, sustaining thought that helped to keep him
living was that if he died the Dalton farm (it was the original old
homestead that these young descendants of his occupied) would be
without its essential head and squire.
So sturdy, so busy, and so well had he been always that all the
deaths he had seen in his journey down a hundred years of mortality had
failed to bring home to him the grave and puissant image of death as a
Ey, I'm always out wur-rkin' when they send fur me, I guess, was
the joke he had made at eighty and repeated so often since that now he
said it quite naively and seriously, as a fact and a credible
But, although it took time to show its effect, Nanny's going hit him
a little harder than any of the other deaths he had witnessed. She had
traveled with him so long and so doughtily that he had never been able
to form any anticipative picture of himself without her. Indeed, even
now it felt as if she had merely gone off visitin', and would be back
in time to knit him a pair of mitts before the cold weather came.
It was the odd idea about the world growing
yellow-lookin'sometimes he said red-lookin' and at other times
seemed not quite certain which description conveyed the vague hue of
his fancythat appeared to be pulling him to pieces, undermining him,
more than any other influence. Most people, however, were accustomed to
consider the hallucination an effect of Mother Dalton's removal and a
presage of Old Dalton's own passing.
This odd yellowness (or redness), as of grass over which chaff from
the threshing-mill has blown, lay across the old pasture on this
afternoon of his second century, as Old Dalton went to water the
superannuated black horse that whinnied at his approach.
Ey, Charley, he said, reflectively, as he took the old beast by
the forelock to lead it up to the pumpey, Charley-boy; then, as the
horse, diminishing the space between its forefoot and his heel with a
strange ease, almost trod on himey, boysteady there, now. Es yur
spavin not throublin' ye th' day, then? Ye walk that free. S-steady,
But Grace, the granddaughter, glancing across the pasture as she
came to the kitchen door to empty potato peelings, put it differently.
See how hard it be's gettin' for grampa to get along, Jim, she
said to her husband, who sat mending a binder-canvas at the granary
door. I never noticed it before, but that old lame Charley horse can
keep right up to him now.
Jim Nixon stuck his jack-knife into the step beside him, pushed a
rivet through canvas and fastening-strap, and remarked, casually: He
ought to lay off nowtoo old to be chorin' around. Young Bill could do
all the work he's doin', after he comes home from school, evenings.
He's not bin the same sence gramma died, Gracie Nixon observed,
turning indoors again. It ain't likely we'll have him with us long
The old man, coming into the house a little haltingly that evening,
stopped sharply as his granddaughter, with a discomposingly intent
look, asked, Tired to-night, grampa?
Ey? His mouth worked, and his eyes, the pupils standing
aggressively and stonily in the center of the whites, abetted the
protest of the indomitable old pioneer. Tired nothin'. You young ones
wants t'l maind yur own business, an' that'lleghkape yous busy.
Where's me pipe, d'ye hear, ey? An' the 'bacca? Yagh, that's it. The
old man's fingers crooked eagerly around the musty bowl. He lit,
sucked, and puffed noisily, lowering himself on a bench and feeling for
the window-sill with his elbow. In my taime, he continued, presently,
in an aggrieved tone, young ones was whopped fur talkin' up t'l thur
elders like that. Lave me be, now, an' go 'n' milk thame cows I just
fetched. Poor beasts, their bags es that fulley, that full. They're
blattin' to be eased.
With indulgent haste, the young couple, smiling sheepishly at each
other like big children rebuked, picked up their strainer-pails and
went away to the corral. The old man, his pipe-bowl glowing and
blackening in time to his pulling at it, smoked on alone in the dusk.
In the nibbling, iterative way of the old, he started a kind of
reflection; but it was as if a harmattan had blown along the usual
courses of his thought, drying up his little brooklet of recollection
and withering the old aquatic star-flowers that grew along its banks.
His mind, in its meandering among old images, groped, paused, fell
pensive. His head sank lower between his shoulders, and the shoulders
eased back against the wall behind his bench. When Jim Nixon and his
wife, chasing each other merrily back and forth across the dewy path
like the frolicsome young married couple they were, reached the
door-yard, they found the old man fallen mopy in a way uncommon for
him, and quite given over to a thoughtless, expressionless torpor and
You'll be tired-like, grampa, eh? Jim Nixon said, as he came over
to the veteran and put a strong hand under Old Dalton's armpit. Come
on, then. I'll help you off to your bed.
But the old man flamed up again, spiritedly, although perhaps this
time his protest was a little more forced. Ye'll not, then, boy, he
mumbled. Ye'll just lave me be, then. I'megh, eghhe eased
gruntingly into a standing positionI'm going to bed annyway,
though. He moved off, his coattail bobbing oddly about his hips and
his back bowed. The two heard him stump slowly up the stairs.
Jim Nixon drew the boot-jack toward him and set the heel of his boot
thoughtfully into the notch. They go quick, Gracie, he observed,
when they get as old as him. They go all at onct, like. Hand me thon
cleaver, an' I'll be makin' a little kindlin' for th' mornin'.
The alcove where the old man's bed stood was only separated by a
thin partition from the room where the young couple slept; and the
sounds of their frolic, as they chased, slapped, and cast pillows at
each other, came to him companionably enough as he drew the blankets up
about his big, shrunken chest and turned the broad of his back to the
comfortable hay-stuffed bed-tick.
But all the merry noise and sociable proximity of the young people
staved not off the great joust with loneliness this mighty knight of
years had before he slepta loneliness more than that of empty house
and echoing stair; more than that, even, of Crusoe's manless island;
utterly beyond even that of an alien planet; of spaces not even coldly
sown with God-aloof starsthe excellent, the superlative loneliness of
one soul for another. It is a strange, misty, Columbus-voyage upon
which that hardy soul goes who dares to be the last of his generation.
There was in that bed a space between him and the walla space kept
habitually yet for the Nanny who never came to fill it, who never again
would come to fill it. (There would have been no great demonstration on
the old man's part even if she had miraculously come. Merely a grunt of
satisfaction; perhaps a brief, Ey, maback? and then a contented
lapsing into slumber.) His want of her was scarcely emotional; at least
it did not show itself to him that way. It took more the form of a kind
of aching wish to see things as they was again. But that ache, that
uneasiness, had upon Old Dalton all the effect of strong emotionfor
it rode him relentlessly through all these days of his December, its
weight and presence putting upon the tired old heart an added task. The
ordinary strain of life he might have endured for another decade, with
his perfect old physique and natural habits of life. But this extra
pressurehe was not equipped for that!
They go quick, at that age, his granddaughter's man had said. But,
although even he himself did not know it, Old Dalton had been going
for weeksever since the first confident feeling that ma would come
back again had given place to the ache of her coming long delayed.
To-night it was cold in bed for August. Old Dalton wished they
would fetch him another quilt.
But it should not have been cold that August evening. Beyond the
wooden bed a small, rectangular window with sash removed showed a
square of warm sky and a few stars twinkling dully in the autumnal
haze. An occasional impatient tinkle of the cow-bell down in the corral
indicated midges, only present on bland days and nights when there is
in the air no hint of frost to stiffen the thin swift mite-wings.
High summer, and he was cold! Bedlam in the next room, and he was
lonely! His sensations were getting out of hand, beyond the remedial
influences and friendly fraternal sounds of this world he had so long
tenanted. By a score of years he had exceeded his due claim upon
earth's good offices to man. He was a trespasser and an alien in this
strange presenthe with his ancient interests, fogy ways of speech and
thought, obsolete images and ideals, and mind that could only regard
without attempt at comprehension the little and great innovations of
the new age.
We c'u'd make shift well enough with the things we had whin I was a
lad, Old Dalton had often said to those who talked to him of the fine
things men were inventingthe time-savers, space-savers, work-savers;
we c'u'd make shift well enough. We got along as well as they do now,
too, we did; and, sir, we done better work, too. All men thinks of,
these days, is gettin' through quick. Yagh, that's it, that's
itgettin' through quick-like, an' leavin' things half done.
So is a man born and implanted in his own generation. And if by
strength he invades the next generation beyond, he does not go far
before he finds he is a stranger utterly. In the current talk of men
there are new smartnesses of speech built upon the old maternal tongue.
There are new vogues of dress, new schools of thought, new modes even
of play. Perhaps, again, new vices that the older simpler life kept
dormant give the faces of this fresh generation a look and a difference
strange and sinister.
A hundred years old! There are to be found, notably in steadily
moving rural communities, not a few who endure to ninety hardily
enough; but rare and singular are the cases where a man is to be found,
except as dust in a coffin, a century after his birth. Old Dalton had
inherited from his mother the qualities that are the basis of
longevitya nature simple and serene, a physique perfect in all
involuntary functions and with the impulse of sane and regular usages
to guide voluntary ones, an appetite and zest for work. She had married
at eighteen and had lived to see her son reach his eightieth year,
herself missing the century mark by only a few months.
But Old Dalton had breasted the tape, the first of his race to do
it. And if it had not been for this wave of loneliness; this parching,
astringent wind of sorrow that seemed to dry up the oil of his joints,
evaporate the simple liquor of his thought, put out the vital sparkle
in his eye; and now, latest act of dispossession, to milk his old veins
of their warmthif it had not been for this influence and prescience,
Old Dalton might have run hardily quite a good little way into his
But somewhere, afar and apart, the finger was about to descend upon
the chronometer that timed his race. The dust atoms that a hundred
years ago had been exalted to make a man now clamored for their humble
rehabilitation. Man shall never, in this mortal body we use, exemplify
Old Dave Dalton turned in his bed. Something beyond the chilliness
was wrong with him, and he did not know what it was. There is no
condition so vexatious as an unexplainable lack of ease; and Old Dalton
twisted, gathered up his knees, straightened them again, tensed,
relaxed, shifted the bedclothes, and busily but vainly cast about for
the source of his disquiet.
Ah!the thought slipped into his mind like a late guest.
Et's thame sticks I forgot, ey, the old man muttered as he
forthwith and arduously rose into a sitting position and pushed the
blankets off him. Ey, ey, that's itthe sticks for the mornin'!
The chopping of the wood for the morning fire, in order that the
sower, haymaker, or harvester, as the seasonal case might be, should
have as little delay as possible in getting to his field or meadow;
this had been a regular chore of Old Dalton's, a function never omitted
before in all the scope of his methodical and assiduous days.
Ey, but I never thought now that I'd ever lave that job not done,
he muttered as he shuffled slowly and sheepishly down the stairs. Ey,
ey ... ma!
There she was, at the foot of the stairs! Old Dalton saw her, as
plainly as if it had been daylight. Gray apron with its horseshoe
pattern almost obliterated by many washings, waist bulging halely,
shoulders bowed forward, old wool hood tied over her head. There she
was, with her visage, that in all their years together had not changed
for him, squeezed and parched into the wrinkles of her thirty-four
thousand days. (The only difference Old Dalton could see, as he
stopped, his elbows bent a little, and regarded her in his quelling
masculine way, resided in the eyes. Instead of being held downcast in
the old attitude of deference, they now looked across at him, straight
Immobile age and Old Dalton's habit kept him from any visible
expression of the welcome that lay warm (though tempered by an odd
feeling of strangeness due to that look she carried in her eyes) in his
Ey, maback? he murmured, as he looked her up and down a moment,
to get used to the sight of her, and then edged on in a vague,
indifferent way toward the outside door and the chip-pile.
Mother Dalton followed, without comment or change of expression, but
a tear seemed to flit and zigzag its way down the dried courses of her
thousand wrinkles. She stood in the doorway, facing the moon as it rose
above the roof of the granary. If she was a little translucent for so
solid-shaped an old presence, Old Dalton did not notice it, as he
picked up his ax and went handily to his wood-chopping.
She maintained her position on the step quietly, her hands folded
across her waistband, her feet bluish and bare upon the pine sill. But,
though she did not interrupt by word or movement, Old Dalton (who had
used to be no more conscious of her than of the wind or the daylight)
felt to-night as embarrassed by her proximity as though she were a
stranger and a hostile presence. He was sweating and irritable when he
finished his sticks; and, as he stood his ax against the end of a log,
twisted his head around sharply, with the intent of asking the old
woman why she was gappin' there, place o' goin' and gettin' thon bed
But the old pioneer himself fell agape as he encountered the look on
her face. There is a vast respect in the country for that many-phased
quality called second sight; and, if Old Dalton had ever seen signs
of the possession of it on a human face, he saw them on his old woman's
now. It struck him, too, for the first time definitely, as he groped
about in the fog of his old mind for the reason she looked so queer, so
like a stranger to him, that Mother Dalton had brought some odd quality
back from this visit she had been making.
There grew upon Old Dalton something of fear. He stood fumbling and
tetering, his hands wandering nervously up and down the edge of his
Mother Dalton stood upon that step, facing the half-moon that looked
down from above the grove. Her glance was not directed toward him, but
up and away. In the pupils of her eyes was a shine which seemed a
refraction of the silver-gray beams of the moon. There was about her
gaze a something heavy, mournful, and boding which old Dave could not
understand, but which made him think of the expression she had lifted
in the old homesteading days toward the hail-cloud that swept from
eastward to beat down their little, hard-sown crop.
They 's trouble a-comin'. The voice was hersat least it came
from her directionyet it seemed to Old Dalton that the words came not
from her, but through her. Ey, Davie ... there 's trouble
a-comin' ... trouble a-comin'. Ess time you was movin' ... movin'
Old Dave Dalton had never, in the long, long course of his years,
had a sensation like that which took him, as the queer voice melted
away, blending imperceptibly with the homely rustlings and lowings of
the farm night. The ache he had carried in his heart for those last
weeks seemed suddenly to bulge and burst, like a bubble. The old moon,
the hills and trees and trail of his long travel; the night, the world,
and the odd old figure over against him, were bundled up with a sudden
vast infolding in a blanket of black, a corner of which seemed thrust
against his mouth, gagging him and cutting off his breath. He was
lifted, lifted as in a great windlifted by shoulders, crown, and
knees, and whirled aroundaround ... then set again on his feet very
softly, with the blackness gone and the clear country night above him
He should have been giddy after that cataclysm, but he stood upright
and steady. He should have been tired and shaken, but he was fresh and
calm. He should have been heavy and stiff and held to the earth by the
ball and chain of a hundred years; yet he seemed scarcely more solid,
scarcely less light, than an embodied wind. He should have been (for
the atmosphere of the home in which you have dwelt for a century is not
so easily dissipated) a doddering old corporeality, yet he felt he was
now all thought and glorious essence of life. He should have seen on
the step that old wife who had stood so uncannily by while he sweat
over his wood-splitting; yet the presence that moved toward him from
the pine sill, though wholly familiar and intimate and full of kind
emanations, had neither wrinkles nor grayness nor any of the attributes
and qualities of mortality. He should have bespoken that kindred
presence in halting colloquialities, yet the greeting he gave flowed
from him in the form of a thought untranslated into any sluggish medium
of language. He should have been filled with a vague curiosity about
that trouble she had just presaged, yet now he knew wholly....
Let us thank God that our sojourn ended within the bourne of His
peace! was the thought exchanged as these two dutiful ones, cleared
and lightened for swift voyaging, turned their faces toward the Gates
of the Day.
On the earth they had left midnight was wearing toward morningthe
morning of August the First, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen!