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In Aunt Mely's Cabin by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

TWELVE o'clock and a starless night, the sky bending so close to earth that one might fancy the very steam of the world's passions condensed in the black clouds that rolled heavily across it: no sound save the ceaseless, soft plashing of the Mississippi waves. Suddenly a light wind rose: a piercing shaft of moonlight struck through the clouds, falling on the black letters over a beer-shop, and idealizing to purple and fine linen some fluttering rags that hung from a dingy tenement-house. The wind grew stronger; the clouds were blown into wild shapes; the shaft of moonlight melted out into a broad sheet of silver.

A steep bluff overhung the river; sloping away from it were the long, curving streets of a Southern city. A flight of stone steps led from its highest point to a flat level, where new workshops, ruins of burnt houses, and long cotton-sheds were crowded together. It was a damp, dirty place. People called it “Hell's Half-Acre,” and in the day it justified its name. But the moon denies her gift of beauty to naught, and to-night this most melancholy half-acre seemed to have a better right to be. One noticed then twenty-four slim white pillars, Corinthian in design, that fire had left standing from some stately public building. The moonbeams broke into a thousand different shapes in the little inlets where the river had pushed its way in. The shapeless ruins were imposing in the half-light, and heavy-scented flowers grew above them, mingling their odors with the sweet, fresh smell of new timber at the planing-mill. And the river—by daylight a vulgar, muddy stream—now flowed in wide, mysterious grandeur, with distant gleams of silver on its slow waves.

Across the river, on the line of another State, was a little town, so white and simple and still that it might have been the home of moths and shadows. But as the moon's light grew clearer a keen eye might have seen a man's form standing at the water's edge, and a keen ear might have heard the sound of a body falling into water. The river was narrow at this point, and a man could easily swim across it, as this one was doing. His body undulated under the waves like a snake's. His head, barely visible above the water, was small, and the wet hair clung closely about it like a cap. When he had landed he stood for a moment shivering with cold and casting quick, nervous glances around him, as if he had been pursued. Then he walked irresolutely toward a cotton-shed, and throwing himself on the ground, partly sheltered by a bale of cotton, he fell asleep.

The sun rose gloomily, and in its light the place that had been almost poetic the night before showed all its squalid ugliness. The street near the river, once a fine and fashionable promenade, now seemed built of the very skeletons of houses, so busily had decay been at work, and so little had been done to stop its advance. The very flowers had lost their purity, and hung heavy with little particles of cotton that had blown upon them from the wagons continually passing, and blackened in the coal-dust. It had caught in the delicate lily-cups; it weighed down the roses; and in the broad foliage of the arbor-vitae it had woven itself in and out until each piece was like a fan. With the sun awoke noisy life. The cotton-drays raced along Front Row, their black drivers standing in them, hatless, shoeless, and ragged, urging on their mules with discordant cries. The bleating of goats was heard from the darkey settlement on the side of the cliff as queer old aunties and uncles hobbled out to milk them. Down on the flat the whir of machinery began; grimy men flung oaths or rough jests at each other; flatboats appeared on the river; and the air grew dense with smoke from the mills.

Through all the man sleeping under the cotton-shed did not stir, a deep exhaustion seemed to hold him hand and foot. The sun found him out and dried his jeans clothing, warmed his bare feet, and even tried to pierce through his cold body to the dark, soggy earth on which it rested. It beamed on his close hair until it blew from his face, light in color and curling at the ends. The face was one common enough in a malarious country—a yellow, lean, sharp face; besides this, it was a young, weak, passionate face. The sunbeams were kind and did not wake' him. The eyelids pressed close upon the eyes, and the lashes lay motionless on the thin cheeks.

After a time a negro passed near the cotton-shed—one of the kind called “roustabouts” in that part of the country—people who live in a happy-go-lucky sort of way, dependent from day to day on stray jobs or stray thefts, never losing flesh or vivacity, never appearing otherwise than supremely content with life and their lot. This one had his work for the day. A bag was hung over his shoulder, and he was picking up the loose cotton that had fallen from burst bales preparatory to cleansing it for the gin. He saw the sleeping man, and became instinct with the natural hostility that the negro seems to have for the poor white.

“Git up from dar, you lazy tramp!” he shouted, and, seeing that the man did not stir, he picked up a bit of coal and threw it with such precision as to hit the sleeper on his sunburnt neck.

He started up and stared around him with a gleam of ferocity in his eyes.

The negro laughed loudly. “What gyardin did you come outen?” he said. “You's enough to skeer de crows, you is.”

The man took no notice of his gibes, but staggering, to his feet walked slowly across the flat and up the stone steps. Now and then he put his hand to his head in a confused way. “I must git across the city,” he muttered: “there's good hiding in some o' the slums 'round the bayou.”

He turned up Promenade Street, walking with slow, dragging steps. “Seems to me I'm powerful weak,” he muttered. “Has it been longer'n a day sence I tuk my food?”

“Chickee! chick! chick! chick!”

He stopped at the sweet sound of a child's voice, and looking over a broken gate saw a little blue-eyed girl feeding chickens by the wood-pile in the yard.

“Sissy, can you give me a glass of buttermilk?”

“Mamma! mamma!” called the child, “here's a man wants some buttermilk.”

“He will have to wait for it,” answered a voice from the house: “the churn won't be ready for half an hour.”

“Come in,” said the little maid, running to the gate and holding it open. “You can wait a while, can't you? Here's a seat on the wood-pile.”

He followed her like one in a dream.

She stood up before him, a straight, sweet shape, and began to talk. “You don't look very nice,” said she, her eyes wandering over his torn, soiled garments, with bits of coal and dirt falling away from the side that had lain next to the earth; “but I s'pose you were a soldier.”

“No, little girl; I never wuz a soldier.”

“I'm s'prised to hear that. My papa was a colonel, and nearly all the men that come here and—and—ask for things, you know, b'longed to some big general's army—Lee's or Forrest's or Hood's. I can't remember all the names.”

He said nothing, and little Miss Delicacy feared she had hurt his feelings. “Do you like sugar-cakes?” she said, soothingly.

He nodded his head.

“The trouble is”—she drew nearer and lowered her voice confidentially—“there are so many boys about, and they are dreadful fellows for sugar-cakes. They hardly ever leave any till next day. But I'll see about it.”

She disappeared behind the honeysuckle that hung over the porch, but she did not come back. The sound of tempestuous sobbing came from within, and it was plain she had either been disappointed of the sugar-cakes or, as was more likely, forbidden a social chat with a tramp.

The man took no heed of her absence. He lifted his eyes and looked across the river to Hopefield, the little town so white and still. But to him it seemed to run with blood and ring with sound. His teeth clinched together; his eyes glowed in his set face like eyes in discolored marble. Close by the river-bank was his home, a log-house, weather-boarded, that he had built himself. He could see the zigzag line of the fence and the hollyhocks growing by the window. He had planted them there two years ago, when he married little Betty Hill and brought her home. What those years had been to him he and God knew. He was poor, but Betty had made him love his daily work. He was ignorant, but Betty had been his teacher. He was rough, but Betty was fine. That for which men have


                        “Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes,”

had come to him pressed down and running over. And now—

Wrenching his mind from that horrible “now,” he threw back his thoughts to the early days of his love and hers: “She allays belonged ter me. I learnt her ter swim an' ter fish an' ter row. We gethered hick'ry-nuts in th' same basket, an' I marked every sweet-gum tree she wanted, so 't not a boy in Hopefield dared ter tech one of 'em. I cut her name in my arm; and once I took a stran' of her long black hair and sewed it over my heart s deep that the blood run every time I drawed the needle out. Little Betty! Little Betty! Wuz ther' ever a time I didn't love her? I toted her in my arms when she wuz a teenchy baby, an' I watched her year by year growin' purtier, an' straighter 'n a saplin' in the woods. She never growed very tall; on'y as high as my heart, she said. She had sech a purty way of sayin' things!—nimble with her tongue as she wuz with her feet in a reel.” His lips parted with something like a smile.

“Here is the buttermilk,” said the child's voice, “and the sugar-cakes too; but I had to cry for them.”

He started to his feet, and, taking the bowl, drank the milk thirstily, a faint color coming under his brown skin. But he never took his eyes from the Hopefield shore; and as he drained the last drop he saw three men walking rapidly down toward the river. His heart gave a wild leap: the bowl dropped from his hands. “They're on my track,” he said, hoarsely.

No use now to hurry across the city to hide in the slums: it was too late for that plan. In his pressing need a sudden thought came to him of an old black woman who lived near. She had belonged to a minister's family in Hopefield. He had known her all his life; she had made a pet of him, and would befriend him now.

He walked quickly out of the yard toward the hovel that Aunt Mely called home. It was a chance whether he ever reached it, for he stopped at the steepest height of the bluff, and for one mad moment thought how easy it would be to crush out fear, remorse, agony, life, in one short, sharp point of time. But he drew back and walked on with long, quick steps.

Aunt Mely's house was poised on the side of the bluff like a rocking-stone. Back of it was a struggling garden, protected from the goats by a queer sort of fence made of all the refuse stuff Aunt Mely could find—broad planks and narrow planks, old fence-rails, sticks of wood and brush-heaps. Of the house itself you could not say that one part was worse than another. It seemed to hang together by attenuated threads. Samson in his days of bibs and long-gowns could have brought it about his ears with a vigorous infantine kick. The chimney was remarkable. It had been daubed with mud and stuck with clay, and on the outside Aunt Mely had nailed a shining sheet of tin.

The old woman was bustling about in-doors when a shadow came between her and the sun. She looked up and saw a man's form in the door- way: “Lor' bless my soul, Phil Vickers! is dat you? What's de matter wid you?”

“I'm in great trouble, Aunt Mely. I want you to help me—hide me.”

“Hide you? Why, what hev you been a-doin'?”

He pushed his way beside her into the room.

She followed him and shut the door. “What have you done, boy?” she repeated.

“I've killed Tom Jack, if you must know.”

“Killed Tom Jack! Phil Vickers, you God-forsaken creetur'! what did you do dat for?”

His eyes sparkled; he forgot his terror; his voice rose to a shrill key and shook in speaking: “Aunt Mely, tell me this: have I been a good husband to Betty Hill?”

“Yes, you have, Phil: come what may, I'll always b'ar witness to dat.”

“I've loved her, Aunt Mely, and you know it. She lay on my heart day an' night. I thought she wuz a true wife to me.”

“So she wuz, Phil—so she wuz. Many an' many's de time she said ter me, 'My Phil's de sweetest, kindest boy dat ever lived.' “

He broke into a howl of anguish: “Now you hear what that counts up ten I got home Monday night from a day's huntin': I had a deer on my shoulder. It wuz the day befo' Moddy-Gras, you know; we wuz comin' across next day to see the sights. I had been whistlin' loud, but I stopped when I got in hollerin' reach o' the house, and slipped to the winder to see what Little Betty wuz doin'. An' thar, sho' as thar's a livin' God, standin' by my wife, his arm round her waist, wuz a man! Things swum befo' my eyes for a minnit; then the pine-knots blazed up an' I saw Tom Jack's face. I watched 'em. They were talkin' an' laughin' quite frien'ly , Tom struttin' about like a dancin'-jack. Then he comes up to her again, pulls at her dress an' kisses her on the bare neck, she a-laughin' an' a-strugglin' with him, as she'd done with me a thousan' times. I lifted my rifle, thankin' God there wuz a load in it, an' shot. I'd as lief ha' hit 'em both; but on'y Tom Jack dropped, and Little Betty stood screamin' over him an' wringin' her han's. I flung down my rifle an' run to the woods. I wuz thar all that night an' yesterday, walkin', walkin', walkin', till another night come; an' I swum the river befo' sun-up this mornin'.”

“God forgive you, Phil! God forgive you fo' yer sin!”

“Sin, is it?—sin to shoot a man who wants to reap a crop I've fenced in? Don't talk to me about sin, old Mely Mitchell!”

“Thar! thar! poor boy! Don't look at me so wild! What kin I do for you, honey?”

“Whatever you do must be done soon,” he said, sullenly. “I saw some men leave Hopefield as I started here: they must be nearly across.”

“I ain't got a place on de yearth to hide you, Phil, 'thouten you kin git in de chimley: they'll never think o' lookin' dar. You kin keep in all day, and steal off when night comes. I think you'd better take ter de woods ag'in.”

“I won't do that—not unless I want ter go blind crazy.”

“See 'f you kin crawl in de chimley. Dar ain't been no fire in it for a month o' Sundays. It smokes so bad I can't cook nothin'. You kin stan' up, an' I'll put a cheer in de fireplace, and pile it up wid my ole clo'es, ter hide yer legs.”

“Look out, Aunt Mely, an' see 'f they're comin'.”

She opened .the door cautiously: “I see three men at de landin', Phil, but dey ain't a-comin' dis way. Dey's struck across Front Row.”

“They're off my track. They'll look for me in the very slums I meant to hide in.”

“For all dat, dis ain't a safe place fo' you, Phil.”

“Do you want to turn me out of your house?”

“God forbid, you po' boy! Stay and git what comfort you kin. Stretch yerself out on dat bed afar and try ter rest. I'll watch out fo' you.”

He threw himself down and tried to sleep, but in vain. His blood began to burn and race in his veins; pain struck at him with a thousand whips. He held his hands over his mouth to keep himself from screaming aloud.

Toward noon he heard, as from some far-off place, Aunt Mely's voice: “Phil, honey, dey're comin' back.”

He sprung up and thrust his head recklessly out of the door.

“Git back, Phil!” said the old woman, sharply. “I kin tell you all afar is to tell. Dey's stoppin' now at a house on Promenade Street. Dey's drawin' water at de well by de wood-pile, an' a little gal is talkin' to dem.”

“She gave me some buttermilk this mornin': she saw the way I come. I'm a lost man!”

“No, you ain't. You jes git right in de chimley, an' I'll deal wid 'em if dey come r'arin' roun' dis house.”

By the time he was well in the hiding-place the men had turned toward the negro quarter. Aunt Mely sat down and went to work quietly on a patchwork quilt, ready to receive them with proper surprise and dignity. But when they came the work fell from her hands, her skin turned ashen-gray, she shook in every limb; for Tom Jack was the first man to burst into the room—Tom Jack, strong in virile life, angry-eyed, a long knife stuck in his belt.

Aunt Mely was a shrewd old soul; she recovered herself quickly, and said nothing. “Phil sartinly shot somebody,” she thought, “an' I'll jes hol' my tongue till I see how things is gwine ter turn out.”

“Where is Phil Vickers?” said Tom, in a voice husky with passion.

“Phil Vickers? Why, I ain't seed de boy sence I went over to his house 'bout a week back to git a settin' of eggs Miss Betty 'd been savin' up for me.”

“Now, come, Aunt Mely,” said one of the party, good-humoredly, “you needn't lie. Little Sally Polk saw him come right in yer do'. We left a p'liceman huntin' him in the city, an' wuz on our way back to Hopefield when the child told us whar he were.”

“O my soul! What's poor Phil done dat you're all a-huntin' him like a pack o' houn's?”

“Phil's had a little shootin' affair,” said the good-natured man.

“Who'd he shoot?”

“Who'd he shoot?” cried Tom Jack. “The sweetest, brightest creetur' the Lord ever made—my sister, Nancy Jack.”

In the dreadful silence that followed a convulsive, gasping sound was heard. The next moment Phil Vickers sprung out, his hair and clothes covered with mould, like a spectre from the grave. “Is this true, boys? Did I kill Nancy Jack?” he said, in a harsh, hollow voice.

Jack sprung at him, his knife flashing in the air. But he was caught and held back by one of the men with him: “Softly, Tom, softly! Let Phil have fair play.”

“Fair play for a man who shot down my sister in cold blood?”

“As God sees me, Tom, I thought it wuz you kissin' Little Betty.”

“That's an argyment, Tom,” said the third man, who had a long, sad face, and who lingered over his words as if he were patting them— “that's an argyment as'll go down with the jury. It wuz night; you an' Nancy are alike in the face; you've got no whiskers, you know, Tom. How wuz Phil to know that it wuz Nancy a-showin' herself off to Little Betty, dressed up in your clo'es for a Moddy-Gras frolic?”

As he heard a curious change came over Phil. His knees began to shake pitiably, his body to collapse. He held out his hand as if trying to steady himself, and, grasping only air, fell slowly to the floor, saying, in a stifled voice, “Let Tom kill me: I ain't fit to live.”

“The hangman will do it for me,” said Tom, with a snarl.

“Is de po' gal dead?” said Aunt Mely.

“No, she ain't dead—she ain't deed yit, “ rejoined the sad-faced man. “We couldn't git a doctor yisterday, de town wuz in such a swivel. But Dr. Taylor he come over las' night, an' is thar now. He ain't foun' de bullet. He says Nancy's in a cosmotose state.”

Now, while this talk was going on some one else was crossing the river from Hopefield—a sturdy little woman with black hair and eyes. She was seated in the exact centre of a knife-bottomed boat that cut through the water fast as a bird flies. With her single oar flashing into the water on either side she made quick time across the Mississippi; and now she came flying into Aunt Mely's cabin, a little vehement whirlwind of a creature, with a voice as high and sweet as a birdnote.

“Oh! thank goodness! you are all here!” she cried, brokenly. Then she caught Tom Jack's hand: “Oh, Tom, she is saved! The doctor has found the bullet. He says she is all right now—will need nothing but good nursing; an' that, you know, she'll have. I won't leave her night nor day till she's on her feet;” and Little Betty burst into tears, in which, perhaps, all wanted to join.

“How'd you come here, chile?” said Aunt Mely.

“I wuz so anxious about Nancy that I couldn't think of anything else till the doctor had spoke. Then my mind mistrusted me about Tom. I asked where he wuz, an' they told me he had taken his bowie-knife an' gone over to the city. I wuz afeard he had got on Phil's track. I jumped in the canoe and rushed over just blindly. But the first man I met on the Flat said he'd seen some Hopefield men go into Aunt Mely's cabin. So I came right here. Thank God for it! thank God for it!”

“It's a good thing for Phil that Nancy 'll git well,” remarked the sad man, slowly tearing off a strip of tobacco from a ragged roll; “the law can't do nothin' to him now, 'thouten it shets him up a while for 'sault an' battery.”

“His account with me ain't settled yet,” said Tom Jack, ominously. “Look to yourself, Phil Vickers! Blood's got to pay for blood!”

“Oh, Tom! Tom!” cried Little Betty, the tears streaming down her face, “forgive us. We didn't mean to do you any harm. Phil would ha' died a thousand deaths befo' he'd ha' harmed a hair of Nancy's head. Tom, no wife nor child nor sister will ever pray for you and bless you as I will if you'll just shake hands friendly and say, 'Phil, I pardon you.' Nancy would do it; I know she would. Oh, what can I say to you? I'll go on my knees to you, Tom.”

She fell on her knees and lifted her warm, wet, beautiful eyes to Tom's face.

“Get up, child,” he said, hoarsely. “I'll let him go, an' when Nancy's on her legs ag'in I'll shake hands.”

He turned abruptly and left the house.

Phil's head fell on his breast: “You'd better have let him kill me, Little Betty. I ain't fit to be the husband of such as you.”

But Little Betty drew the tired head to her tender heart and looked defiantly round upon the others, as if throwing all the splendor of her faithful love between Phil and any look of contempt or blame.

 
 
 

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