In Simpkinsville, Character Tales
by Ruth McEnery Stuart
THE UNLIVED LIFE
OF LITTLE MARY
THE MIDDLE HALL
AN ARKANSAS PROPHET
A New-Year's Story
AN ARKANSAS PROPHET
IF you would find the warmest spot in a little village on a cold
day, watch the old codgers and see where they congregate. That's what
the stray cats do, or perhaps the codgers follow the cats. However that
may be, both can be depended upon to find the open door where comfort
is. They will probably lead you to the rear end of the village store,
the tobacco-stained drawing-room, where an old stove dispenses
hospitality in an atmosphere like unto which, for genial disposition,
there is none so unfailing.
From November to May the old stove in the back of Chris Rowton's
store was, to its devotees at least, the most popular hostess in
Simpkinsville. And, be it understood, her circle was composed of people
of good repute. Even the cats sleeping at her feet, if personally
tramps, were well connected, being lineal descendants of known cats
belonging to families in regular standing. Many, indeed, were natives
of the shop, and had come into this kingdom of comfort in a certain
feline lying-in hospital behind the rows of barrels that flanked the
stove on either side.
It was the last day of December. The wind was raw and cold, and of a
fitful mind, blowing in contrary gusts, and throwing into the faces of
people going in all directions various samples from the winter
storehouse of the sky, now a threat, a promise, or a dare as to how the
new year should come in.
“Blest if Doc' ain't got snow on his coat! Rainin' when I come in,”
said one of two old men who drew their seats back a little while the
speaker pushed a chair forward with his boot.
“Reckon I got both froze and wet drops on me twix' this an'
Meredith's,” drawled the newcomer, depositing his saddle-bags beside
his chair, wiping the drops from his sleeves over the stove, and
spreading his thin palms for its grateful return of warm steam.
“Sleetin' out our way,” remarked his neighbor, between pipe puffs.
And then he added:
“How's Meredith's wife coming on, doctor? Reckon she's purty bad
off, ain't she?”
The doctor was filling his pipe now and he did not answer
immediately; but presently he said, as he deliberately reached forward
and, seizing the tongs, lifted a live coal to his pipe:
“Meredith's wife don't rightfully belong in a doctor's care. She
ain't to say sick; she's heartbroke, that's what she is; but of co'se
that ain't a thing I can tell her—or him, either.”
“This has been a mighty slow and tiresome year in Simpkinsville,” he
added in a moment, “an' I'm glad to see it drawin' to a close. It come
in with snow an' sleet an' troubles, an' seems like it's goin' out the
same way—jest like the years have done three year past.”
“Jest look at that cat—what a dusty color she's got between spots!
Th' ain't a cat in Simpkinsville, hardly, thet don't show a trace o'
Jim Meredith's Maltee—an' I jest nachelly despise it, 'cause that's
one of the presents he brought out there—that Maltee is.”
“Maltee is a good enough color for a cat ef it's kep' true,”
remarked old Pete Taylor—“plenty good enough ef it's kep' true; but
it's like gray paint—it'll mark up most anything it's mixed with, and
“I reckon Jim Meredith's Maltee ain't the only thing thet's cast a
shade over Simpkinsville,” said old Mr. McMonigle, who sat opposite.
“That's so,” grunted the circle.
“That's so, shore ez you're born,” echoed Pete. “Simpkinsville has
turned out some toler'ble fair days since little May Meredith dropped
out of it, but the sun ain't never shone on it quite the same—to my
“Wonder where she is?” said McMonigle. “My opinion is she's dead,
an' thet her mother knows it. I wouldn't be surprised ef the devil that
enticed her away has killed her. Once-t a feller like that gits a girl
into a crowded city and gits tired of her, there's a dozen ways of
gittin' shet of her.”
“Yas, a hundred of 'em. It's done every day, I don't doubt.”
“See that stove how she spits smoke. East wind 'll make her spit any
day—seems to gag her.”
“Yas,” McMonigle chuckled softly, as he leaned forward and began
poking the fire, “she hates a east wind, but she likes me—don't you,
old girl? See her grow red in the face while I chuck her under the
“Look out you don't chuck out a coal of fire on kitty with your
foolin',” said old man Taylor. “She does blush in the face, don't she?
An' see her wink under her isinglass spectacles when she's flirted
“That stove is a well-behaved old lady,” interrupted the doctor;
“reg'larly gits religion, an' shouts whenever the wind's from the right
quarter—an' I won't have her spoke of with disrespect.
“If she could tell all she's heard, settin' there summer and winter,
I reckon it 'd make a book—an' a interestin' one, too. There's been
cats and mice born in her all summer, an' birds hatched; an' Rowton
tells me he's got a dominicker hen thet's reg'larly watched for her
fires to go out last two seasons, so she can lay in her. An' didn't you
never hear about Phil Toland hidin' a whiskey bottle in her one day
last summer and smashin' a whole settin' o' eggs? The hen, she squawked
out at him, an' all but skeered him to death. He thought he had a
'tackt o' the tremens, shore—an' of a adult variety.”
“Pity it hadn't a-skeert him into temperance,” remarked the man
“Did sober him up for purty nigh two weeks. Rowton he saw it all,
an' he give the fellers the wink, an' when Pete hollered, he ast him
what was the matter, an' of co'se Pete he pointed to the hen that was
kitin' through the sto'e that minute, squawkin' for dear life, an' all
bedaubled over with egg, an' sez he: 'What sort o' dash blanketed hens
hev you got round here, settin' in stoves?' And Rowton he looks round
and winks at the boys. 'Hen,' says he—'what hen? Any o' you fellers
saw a hen anywhere round here?'
“Of co'se every feller swo'e he hadn't saw no hen, an' Rowton he
went up to Pete and he says, says he: 'Pete,' says he, 'you better go
home an' lay down. You ain't well.'
“Well, sir, Pete wasn't seen on the streets for up'ards o' three
weeks after that.
“Yas, that stove has seen sights and heard secrets, too, I don't
“They say old nigger Prophet used to set down an' talk to her same
ez ef she was a person, some nights, when he'd have her all to hisself.
Rowton ast him one day what made him do it, and he 'lowed thet he could
converse with anything that had the breath o'life in it. There is no
accountin' for what notions a nigger 'll take.
“No, an' there's no tellin' how much or how little they know,
neither. Old Proph', half blind and foolish, limpin' round in the
woods, getherin' queer roots, and talkin' to hisself, didn't seem to
have no intelligence, rightly speakin', an' yet he has called out
prophecies that have come true—even befo' he prophesied about May
Meredith goin' wrong.
“Here comes Brother Squires, chawin' tobacco like a sinner. I do
love a preacher that'll chaw tobacco.
“Hello, Brother Squires!” he called out now to a tall, clerical old
man who approached the group. “Hello! what you doin' in a sto'e like
is, I like to know? Th' ain't no Bibles, nor trac's for sale here, an'
your folks don't eat molasses and bacon, same ez us sinners, do you?”
“Well, my friends,” the parson smiled broadly as he advanced, “since
you good people don't supply us with locusts and wild honey, we are
reduced to the necessity of eatin' plain bread an' meat—but you see I
live up to the Baptist standard as far as I can. I wear the leathern
girdle about my loins.”
He laid his hand upon the long leather whip which, for safe-keeping,
he had tied loosely around his waist.
“Room for one more?” he added, as, declining the only vacant chair,
he seated himself upon a soap-box, extended his long legs, and raised
his boots upon the ledge of the stove.
“I declare, Brother Squires, the patches on them boots are better'n
a contribution-box,” said McMonigle, laughing, as he thrust his hand
down into his pocket. “Reckon it'll take a half-dollar to cover this
one.” He playfully balanced a bright coin over the topmost patch on the
“Stop your laughin', now, parson. Don't shake it off! Come up, boys!
Who'll cover the next patch? Ef my 'rithmetic is right, there's jest
about a patch apiece for us to cover—not includin' the half-soles. I
know parson wouldn't have money set above his soul.”
“No, certainly not, an' if anybody 'd place it there, of co'se I'd
remove it immediately,” the parson answered, with ready wit. And then
he added, more seriously:
“I have passed my hat around to collect my salary once in a while,
but I never expected to hand around my old shoes—and really, my
friends, I don't know as I can allow it.”
Still he did not draw them in, and the three old men grew so
hilarious over the fun of covering the patches with the ever-slipping
coins that a crowd was soon collected, the result being the pocketing
of the entire handful of money by Rowton, with the generous assurance
that it should be good for the best pair of boots in his store, to be
fitted at the pastor's convenience.
It was after this mirth had all subsided and the codgers had settled
down into their accustomed quiet that the parson remarked, with some
show of hesitation:
“My brothers, when I was coming towards you a while ago I heard two
names. They are names that I hear now and then among my people—names
of two persons whom I have never met—persons who passed out of your
community some time before I was stationed among you. One of them, I
know, has a sad history. The details of the story I have never heard,
but it is in the air. Scarcely a village in all our dear world but has,
no matter how blue its skies, a little cloud above its horizon—a
cloud which to its people seems always to reflect the pitiful face of
one of its fair daughters. I don't know the story of May Meredith—or
is it May Day Meredith?”
“She was born May Day, and christened that-a-way,” answered
McMonigle. “But she was jest ez often called Daisy or May—any name
thet 'd fit a spring day or a flower would fit her.”
“Well, I don't know her story,” the parson resumed, “but I do know
her fate. And perhaps that is enough to know. The other name you called
was 'Old Proph',' or 'Prophet.' Tell me about him. Who was he? How was
he connected with May Day Meredith?”
He paused and looked from one face to another for the answer, which
was slow in coming.
“Go on an' tell it, Dan'l,” said the doctor, finally, with an
inclination of the head towards McMonigle.
Old man McMonigle shook the tobacco from his pipe, and refilled it
slowly, without a word. Then he as deliberately lit it, puffed its
fires to the glowing point, and took it from his lips as he began:
“Well, parson, ef I hadn't o' seen you standin' in the front o' the
sto'e clean to the minute you come back here, I'd think you'd heerd
more than names.
“Of co'se we couldn't put it quite ez eloquent ez you did, but we
had jest every one of us 'lowed that sence the day May Meredith dropped
out o' Simpkinsville the sky ain't never shone the same.
“But for a story? Well, I don't see thet there's much story to it,
and to them thet didn't know her I reckon it's common enough.
“But ez to the old nigger, Proph', being mixed up in it, I can't
eggsac'ly say that's so, though I don't never think about the old
nigger without seemin' to see little May Day's long yaller curls, an'
ef I think about her, I seem to see the old man, somehow. Don't they
come to you all that-a-way?”
He paused, took a few puffs from his pipe, and looked from one face
“Yas,” said the doctor, “jest exactly that-a-way, Dan'l. Go on, ol'
man. You're a-tellin' it straight.”
“Well, that's what I'm aimin' to do.” He laid his pipe down on the
stove's fender as he resumed his recital.
“Old Proph'—which his name wasn't Prophet, of co'se, which ain't
to say a name nohow, but his name was Jeremy, an' he used to go by name
o' Jerry; then somebody called him Jeremy the Prophet, an' from that it
got down to Prophet, and then Proph'—and so it stayed.
“Well, ez I started to say, Proph' he was jest one o' Meredith's ol'
slave niggers—a sort o' queer, half-luney, no-'count darky—never
done nothin' sence freedom but what he had a mind to, jest livin' on
Meredith right along.
“He wasn't to say crazy, but—well, he'd stand and talk to anything
—a dog, a cat, a tree, a toad-frog— anything. Many a time I've
seen him limpin' up the road, an' he'd turn round sudden an' seemed to
be talkin' to somethin' thet was follerin' him, an' when he'd git tired
he'd start on an' maybe every minute look back over his shoulder an'
laugh. They was only one thing Proph' was, to say, good for. Proph' was
a capital A-1 hunter—shorest shot in the State, in my opinion, and
when he'd take a notion he could go out where nobody wouldn't sight a
bird or a squir'l all day long, an' he'd fill his game-bag.
“Well, sir, the children round town, they was all afeerd of 'im, and
the niggers—th' ain't a nigger in the county thet don't b'lieve to
this day thet Proph' would cunjer 'em ef he'd git mad.
“An' time he takin' to fortune-tellin', the school child'en thet 'd
be feerd to go up to him by theirselves, they'd go in a crowd, an' he'd
call out fortunes to 'em, an' they'd give him biscuits out o' their
“From that time he come to tellin' anybody's fortune, an' so the
young men, they got him to come to the old-year party one year, jest
for the fun of it, an' time the clock was most on the twelve strike,
Proph' he stood up an' called out e-vents of the comin' year. An', sir,
for a crack-brained fool nigger, he'd call out the smartest things you
ever hear. Every year for five year, Proph' called out comin' e-vents
at the old-year party; an' matches thet nobody suspicioned, why, he'd
call 'em out, an' shore enough, 'fore the year was out, the weddin's
would come off. An' babies! He'd predic' babies a year ahead—not
always callin' out full names, but jest insinuatin', so thet anybody
thet wasn't deef in both ears would understand.
“But to come back to the story of May Meredith—he ain't in it,
noways in partic'lar. It's only thet sence she could walk an' hold the
ol man's hand he doted on her, an' she was jest ez wropped up in him.
Many's the time when she was a toddler he's rode into town, mule-back,
with her settin' up in front of 'im. An' then when she got bigger it
was jest as ef she was the queen to him—that's all. He saved her from
drowndin' once-t, jumped in the branch after her an couldn't swim a
stroke, an' mos' drownded hisself—an' time she had the dip'theria, he
never shet his eyes ez long ez she was sick enough to be set up with—
set on the flo' by her bed all night.
“That's all the way Proph' is mixed up in her story. An' now, sence
they're both gone, ef you 'magine you see one, you seem to see the
“But May Day's story? Well, I hardly like to disturb it.
Don't rightly know how to tell it, nohow.
“I don't doubt folks has told you she went wrong, but that's a
mighty hard way to tell it to them thet knew her.
“We can't none of us deny, I reckon, thet she went wrong. A
red-cheeked peach thet don't know nothin' but the dew and the sun, and
to grow sweet and purty—it goes wrong when it's wrenched off the stem
and et by a hog. That's one way o' goin' wrong.
“Little Daisy Meredith didn't have no mo' idee o' harm than that
mockin'-bird o' Rowton's in its cage there, thet sings week-day songs
all Sunday nights.
“She wasn't but jest barely turned seventeen year—ez sweet a
little girl ez ever taught a Baptist Sunday-school class—when he
come down from St. Louis—though some says he come from Chicago, an'
some says Canada—lookin' after some land mortgages. An', givin' the
devil his due, he was the handsomest man thet ever trod Simpkinsville
streets—that is, of co'se, for a outsider. Seen May Day first time on
her way to church, an' looked after her—then squared back di-rect,
an' follered her. Walked into church delib'rate, an' behaved like a
gentleman religiously inclined, ef ever a well-dressed, city person
behaved that way.
“Well, sir, from that day on, he froze to her, and, strange to say,
every mother of a marriageable daughter in town was jealous exceptin'
one, an' that one was May's own mother. An' she not only wasn't jealous
—which she couldn't 'a' been, of co'se—but she wasn't pleased.
“She seemed to feel a dread of him from the start, and she treated
him mighty shabby, but of co'se the little girl, she made it up to him
in politeness, good ez she could, an' he didn't take no notice of it.
Kep' on showin' the old lady every attention, an', when he'd be in
town, most any evenin' you'd go past the Meredith gate you could see
his horse hitched there—everything open and above boa'd, so it
“Well, sir, he happened to be here the time o' the old-year party,
three year ago. You've been here a year and over, 'ain't you, parson?”
“Yes, I was stationed here at fall conference a year ago this
November, you recollect.”
“Yas, so you was. Well, all this is about two year befo' you come.
“Well, sir, when it was known thet May Day's city beau was goin' to
be here for the party, everybody looked to see some fun, 'cause they
knowed how free ol' Proph' made with comin' e-vents, an' they wondered
ef he'd have gall enough to call out May Day's name with the city
feller's. Well, ez luck would have it, the party was at my house that
year, an' I tell you, sir, folks thet hadn't set up to see the old year
out for ten year come that night, jest for fear they'd miss somethin'.
But of co'se we saw through it. We knowed what fetched 'em.
“Well, sir, that was the purtiest party I ever see in my life. Our
Simpkinsville pattern for young girls is a toler'ble neat one, ef I do
say it ez shouldn't, bein' kin to forty-'leven of 'em. We 'ain't got
no, to say, ugly girls in town—never had many, though some has
plained down some when they got settled in years; but the girls there
that night was en perfec' a bunch of girls ez you ever see—jest ez
purty a show o' beauty ez any rose arbor could turn out on a spring
“Have you ever went to gether roses, parson, each one seemin' to be
the purtiest tell you'd got a handful, an' you'd be startin' to come
away, when 'way up on top o' the vine you'd see one thet was enough
pinker an' sweeter 'n the rest to make you climb for it, an' when you'd
git it, you'd stick it in the top of yore bo'quet a little higher 'n
“I see you know what I mean. Well, that was the way May Day looked
that night. She was that top bud.
“I had three nieces, and wife she had sev'al cousins, there—all
purty enough to draw hummin'-birds; but I say little Daisy Meredith,
she jest topped 'em all for beauty and sweetness an' modesty that
“An' the stranger—well, I don't hardly know jest what to liken him
to, less'n it is to one of them princes thet stalk around the stage an'
give orders when they have play-actin' in a show-tent.
“They wasn't no flies on his shape, nor his rig, nor his manners
neither. Talked to the old ladies—ricollect my wife she had a finger
wropped up, an' he ast her about it and advised her to look after it
an' give her a recipe for bone-felon. She thought they wasn't nobody
like him. An' he jest simply danced the wall-flowers dizzy, give the
fiddlers money, an'—well, he done everything thet a person o' the
royal family of city gentry might be expected to do. An' everybody
wondered what mo' Mis' Meredith wanted for her daughter. Tell the
truth, some mistrusted, an' 'lowed thet she jest took on indifferent,
the way she done, to hide how tickled she was over it.
“Well, ez I say, the party passed off lovely, an' after a while it
come near twelve o'clock, an' the folks commenced to look round for ol'
Proph' to come in an' call out e-vents same as he always done.
“So d'rectly the boys they stepped out an' fetched him in—drawin'
him 'long by the sleeve, an' he holdin' back like ez ef he dreaded to
“I tell you, parson, I'll never forgit the way that old nigger
looked, longest day I live. Seemed like he couldn't sca'cely walk, an'
he stumbled, an' when he taken his station front o' the mantel-shelf,
look like he never would open his mouth to begin.
“An' when at last he started to talk, stid o' runnin' on an'
laughin' an' pleggin' everybody like he always done, he lifted up his
face an' raised up his hands, same ez you'd do ef you was startin' to
lead in public prayer. An' then he commenced:
“Says he—an' when he started he spoke so low down in his th'oat
you couldn't sca'cely hear him—says he:
“ 'Every year, my friends, I stands befo' you an' look throo de open
gate into the new year. An',' says he, 'seem like I see a long
percession o' people pass befo' me—some two-by-two, some one-by-one;
some horseback, some muleback, some afoot; some cryin', some laughin';
some stumblin' ez they'd walk, an' gittin' up agin, some fallin' to
rise no mo'; some faces I know, some strangers.'
“An' right here, parson, he left off for a minute, an' then when he
commenced again, he dropped his voice clair down into his th'oat, an'
he squinted his eyes an' seemed to be tryin' to see somethin' way off
like, an' he says, says he:
“ 'But to-night,' says he, 'I don't know whar the trouble is,' says
he, 'but, look hard ez I can, I don't seem to see clair, 'cause the sky
is darkened,' says he, 'an' while I see people comin' an' goin', an' I
see the doctor's buggy on the road, an' hear the church bell, an' the
organ, I can't make out nothin' clair, 'cause the sky is overshaddered
by a big dark cloud. An' now,' says he, 'seem like the cloud is takin'
the shape of a great big bird. Now I see him spread his wings an' fly
into Simpkinsville, an' while he hangs over it befo' the sun seem to me
I can see everybody stop an' gaze up an' hold their breath to see where
he'll light—everybody hopin' to see him light in their tree. An' now
—oh! now I see him comin' down, down, down—an' now he's done lit,'
says he. I ricollect that expression o' his—'he's done lit,' says he,
'in the limb of a tall maginolia-tree a little piece out o' town.'
“Well, sir, when he come to the bird lightin' in a maginolia tree, a
little piece out o' town, I tell you, parson, you could 'a' heerd a pin
drop. You see, maginolias is purty sca'ce in Simpkinsville. Plenty o'
them growin' round the edge o' the woods, but 'ceptin' them thet Sonny
Simkins set out in his yard years ago, I don't know of any nearer than
Meredith's place. An' right at his gate, ef you ever taken notice,
there's a maginolia-tree purty nigh ez tall ez a post oak.
“An' so when the ol' nigger got to where the fine bird lit in the
maginolia-tree, all them thet had the best manners, they set still, but
sech ez didn't keer—an' I was one of that las' sort—why, we jest
glanced at the city feller di-rec' to see how he was takin' it.
“But, sir, it didn't ruffle one of his feathers, not a one.
“An' then the nigger he went on: Says he, squintin' his eyes ag'in,
an' seemin' to strain his sight, says he:
“ 'Now he's lit,' says he—I wish I could give it to you in his
language, but I never could talk nigger talk—'now he's lit,' says he,
'an' I got a good chance to study him,' says he. 'I see he ain't the
same bird he looked to be, befo' he lit.
“ 'His wing feathers is mighty fine, an' they rise in mighty biggoty
plumes, but they can't hide his claws,' says he, 'an' when I look
close-ter,' says he, 'I see he's got owl eyes an' a sharp beak, but
seem like nobody can't see 'em. They all so dazzled with his
wing-feathers they can't see his claws.
“ 'An' now whiles I'm a-lookin' I see him rise up an' fly three
times round the tree, an' now I see him swoop down right befo' the
people's eyes, an' befo' they know it he's riz up in the air ag'in, an'
spread his wings, an' the sky seems so darkened thet I can't see
nothin' clair only a long stream o' yaller hair floatin' behind him.
“ 'Now I see everybody's heads drop, an' I hear 'em cryin'; but,'
says he, 'they ain't cryin' about the thief bird, but they cryin' about
the yaller hair—the yaller hair—the yaller hair.' “
McMonigle choked a little in his recital, and then he added: “Ain't
that about yore riccollection o' how he expressed it?”
“Yas,” said old man Taylor, “ he said it three times—I riccollect
that ez long ez I live; an' the third time he said 'the yaller hair' he
let his arms drop down at his side, an' he sort o' staggered back'ards,
an' turned round to Johnnie Burk an' says he: 'Help me out, please,
sir, I feels dizzy.' Do you riccollect how he said that, Dan'l?
“But you're tellin' the story. Don't lemme interrupt you.”
“No interruption, Pete. You go on an' tell it the way you call it
up. I see my pipe has done gone out while I've been talkin'. Tell the
truth, I'm most sorry thet you all started me on this story to-night.
It gives me a spell o' the blues—talkin' it over.
“Pass me them tongs back here, doctor, an' lemme git another coal
for my pipe. An' while I've got 'em I'll shake up this fire a little.
This stove's ez dull-eyed and pouty ez any other woman ef she's
“Hungry, too, ain't you, old lady? Don't like wet wood, neither.
Sets her teeth on edge. Jest listen at her quar'l while I lay it in her
“Go on, now, Pete, an' tell the parson the rest o' the story.
'Tain't no more'n right thet a shepherd should know all the ins and
outs of his flock ef he's goin' to take care o' their needs.”
“You better finish it, Dan'l,” said Taylor. “You've brought it all
back a heap better 'n I could 'a' done it.”
“Tell the truth, boys, I've got it down to where I hate to go on,”
replied McMonigle, with feeling. “I've talked about the child now till
I can seem to see her little slim figur' comin' down the plank-walk the
way I've seen her a thousand times, when all the fellers settin' out in
front o' the sto'es would slip in an' get their coats on, an' come back
—I've done it myself, an' me a grandfather.
“Go on, Pete, an' finish it up. I've got the taste o' tobacco smoke
now, an' my pipe is like the stove. Ef I neglect her she pouts.
“I left off where ol' Proph' finished prophesyin' at the old-year
party at my house three year ago. I forgot to tell you, parson, that
Mis' Meredith, she never come to the party—an' Meredith hisself he
only come and stayed a few minutes, an' went home 'count o' the ol'
lady bein' by herself—so they wasn't neither one there when the
nigger spoke. An' ef they've ever been told what he said I don't know—
though we've got a half dozen smarties in town thet would 'a' busted
long ago ef they hadn't 'a' told it I don't doubt.
“Go on, now, Pete, an' finish. After Proph' had got done talkin' of
co'se hand-shakin' commenced, an' everybody was supposed to shake hands
with everybody else. I reckon parson there knows about that—but you
might tell it anyhow.”
“Of co'se, parson he knows about the hand-shakin',” Taylor took up
the story now, “because you was here last year, parson. You know thet
it's the custom in Simpkinsville, at the old-year party, for everybody
to shake hands at twelve o'clock at the comin' in of the new year. It's
been our custom time out o' mind. Folks thet 'll have some fallin' out,
an' maybe not be speakin', 'll come forward an' shake hands an' make up
—start the new year with a clean slate.
“Why, ef 'twasn't for that, I don' know what we'd do. Some of our
folks is so techy an' high strung—an' so many of 'em kin, which makes
it that much worse—thet ef 'twasn't for the new-year hand-shakin',
why, in a few years we'd be ez bad ez a deef and dumb asylum.
“But to tell the story. I declare, Dan'l, I ain't no hand to tell a
thing so ez to bring it befo' yo' eyes like you can. I'm feerd you'll
have to carry it on.”
And so old man McMonigle, after affectionately drawing a few puffs
from his pipe, laid it on the fender before him, and reluctantly took
up the tale.
“Well,” he began, “I reckon thet rightly speakin' this is about the
end of the first chapter.
“The hand-shakin' passed off friendly enough, everybody j'inin' in,
though there was women thet 'lowed thet they had the cold shivers when
they shuck the city feller's hand, half expectin' to tackle a
bird-claw. An' I know thet wife an' me—although, understand, parson,
we none o' us suspicioned no harm—we was glad when the party broke up
an' everybody was gone—the nigger's words seemed to ring in our ears
“Well, sir, the second chapter o' the story I reckon it could be
told in half a dozen words, though I s'pose it holds misery enough to
make a book.
“I never would read a book thet didn't end right; in fact, I don't
think the law ought to allow sech to be printed. We get enough wrong
endin's in life, an' the only good book-makin' is, in my opinion, to
ketch up all sech stories an' work 'em over.
“Ef I could set down an' tell May Day Meredith's story to some
book-writer thet'd take it up where I leave off, an' bring her back to
us—she could even be raised from the dead in a book ef need be
—my Lord! how I'd love to read it, an' try to b'lieve it was true! I'd
like him to work the ol' nigger in at the end, too, ef he didn't think
hisself above it. A ol', harmless, half-crazy nigger, thet's been
movin' round amongst us all for years, is ez much missed ez anybody
else when he drops out, nobody knows how. I miss Proph' jest the same
ez I miss that ol' struck-by-lightnin' sycamo'-tree thet Jedge Towns
has had cut out of the co't-house yard. My mother had my gran'pa's
picture framed out o' sycamo' balls, gethered out of that tree forty
“But you see I'm makin' every excuse to keep from goin on with the
story, an' ef it's got to be told, well—
“Whether somebody told the Meredith's about the nigger's prophecy,
an' they got excited over it, an' forbid the city feller the house, I
don't know, but he never was seen goin' there after that night, though
he stayed in town right along for two weeks, at the end of which time
he disappeared from the face o' the earth—an' she along with him.
“An' that's all the story, parson. That's three year ago lackin' two
weeks, an' nobody 'ain't seen or heard o' May Day Meredith from that
day to this.
“Of co'se girls have run away with men, an' it turned out all right
—but they wasn't married men. Nobody s'picioned he was married tell it
was all over an' Harry Conway he heard it in St. Louis, an' it's been
found to be true. An' there's a man living in Texarkana thet testified
thet he was called in to witness what he b'lieved to be a genuine
weddin', where the preacher claimed to come from Little Rock, an' he
married May Day to that man, standin' in the blue cashmere dress she
run away in. She was married by the 'Piscopal prayer-book, too, which
is the only thing I felt real hard against May Day for consentin' to—
she being well raised, a hard-shell Baptist.
“But o' co'se the man thet could git a girl to run away with him
could easy get her to change her religion.”
“Hold up there, Dan'l!” interrupted old man Taylor. “Hold on, there!
Not always! It's a good many years sence my ol' woman run away to marry
me, but she was a Methodist, an' Methodist she's turned me, though I've
been dipped, thank God!”
“Well, of co'se, there's exceptions. An' I didn't compare you to the
man I'm a-talkin' about, nohow. Besides, Methodist an' 'Piscopal are
two different things,” returned McMonigle.
“But, tellin' my story—or at least sence I've done told the story,
I'll tell parson all I know about the old nigger, Proph', which is
“It was jest three days after May Meredith run away thet I was
ridin' through the woods twixt here an' Clay Bank, an' who did I run
against but old Proph'—walkin' along in the brush talkin' to hisself
“Well, sir, I stopped my horse, an' called him up an' talked to him,
an' tried to draw him out—ast him how come he to prophesy the way he
done, an' how he knowed what was comin', but, sir, I couldn't get no
satisfaction out of him—not a bit. He 'lowed thet he only spoke ez it
was given him to speak, an' the only thing he seemed interested in was
the stranger's name, an' he ast me to say it for him over and over—he
repeatin' it after me. An' then he ast me to write it for him, an' he
put the paper I wrote it on in his hat. He didn't know B from a bull's
foot, but I s'pose he thought maybe if he put it in his hat it might
“Like ez not he 'lowed he could git somebody to read it out to him,”
suggested the doctor.
“Like ez not. Well, sir, after I had give him the paper he commenced
to talk about huntin'—had a bunch o' birds in his hands then, an'
give 'em to me, 'lowin' all the time he hadn't had much luck lately,
'count o' his pistol bein' sort o' out o' order. 'Lowed thet he took
sech a notion to hunt with his pistol thet 'twasn't no fun shootin' at
long range, but somehow he couldn't depend on his pistol shootin'
“Took it out o' his pocket while he was standin' there, an'
commenced showin' it to me. An', sir, would you believe it, while we
was talkin' he give a quick turn, fired all on a sudden up into a tree,
an' befo' I could git my breath, down dropped a squir'l right at his
feet. Never see sech shootin' in my life. An' he wasn't no mo' excited
over it than nothin'. Jest picked up the squir'l ez unconcerned ez you
please, an', sez he, 'Yas, she done it that time— but she don't
always do it. Can't depend on her.'
“Then, somehow, he brought it round to ask me ef I wouldn't loand
him my revolver—jest to try it an' see if he wouldn't have better
luck. 'Lowed that he'd fetch it back quick ez he got done with it.
“Well, sir, o' co'se I loaned it to the ol' nigger—an' took his
pistol—then an' there. I give it to him loaded, all six barrels, an',
sir, would you believe it, no livin' soul has ever laid eyes on ol'
Prophet from that day to this.
“I'm mighty feered he's wandered way off som'ers an' shot hisself
accidental'—an' never was found. Them revolvers is mighty resky
weepons ef a person ain't got experience with 'em.
“So that's all the story, parson. Three days after May Day went he
disappeared, an' of co'se he a-livin' along at Meredith's all these
years, an' being so 'tached to May Day, and prophesying about her like
he done, you can see how one name brings up another. So when I think
about her I seem to see him.”
“Didn't Harry Conway say he see the ol' man in St. Louis once-t, an'
thet he let on he didn't know him—wouldn't answer when he called him
Proph'?” said old man Conway.
“One o' Harry's cock-an'-bull stories,” answered McMonigle. “He
might o' saw some ol' nigger o' Proph's build, but how would he git to
St. Louis? Anybody's common-sense would tell him better 'n that. No,
he's dead—no doubt about it.”
“I suppose no one has ever looked for the old man?” the parson
“Oh yas, he's been searched for. We've got up two parties an' rode
out clair into the swamp lands twice-t—but there wasn't no sign of
“But May Day—nobody has ever went after her, of co'se. She left
purty well escorted, an' ef her own folks never follered her, 'twasn't
nobody else's business. Her mother 'ain't never mentioned her name
sence she left—to nobody.”
“Yas,” interrupted the doctor, “an' some has accused her o'
hard-heartedness; but when I see a woman's head turn from black to
white in three months' time, like hers done, I don't say her heart's
hard, I say it's broke.
“They keep a-sendin' for me to come to see her, but I can't do her
no good. She's failed tur'ble last six months.
“Ef somethin' could jest come upon her sudden, to rouse her up—ef
the house would burn down, an' she have to go out 'mongst other folks—
or ef they was some way to git folks there, whether she wanted 'em or
“Tell the truth, I've been a-thinkin' about somethin'. It's been on
my mind all day. I don't know ez it would do, but I been a-thinkin' ef
I could get Meredith's consent for the Simpkinsville folks to come out
in a body—
“Ef he'd allow it, an' the folks would be willin' to go out there
to-night for the old-year party—take their fiddle an' cakes an'
things along, an' surprise her—she'd be obliged to be polite to 'em;
she couldn't refuse to meet all her ol' friends for the midnight
hand-shakin', an' it might be the savin' of her. Three years has
passed. There's no reason why one trouble should bring another. We've
all had our share o' trials this year, an' I reckon every one o' us
here has paid for a tombstone in three years, an' I believe ef we'd all
meet together an' go in a body out there—
“Ef you say so, I'll ride out an' talk it over with Meredith. What's
your opinion, parson?”
“My folks will join you heartily, I'm sure,” replied the parson,
warmly. “They did expect to have the crowd over at Bradfield's
to-night, but I know they'll be ready to give in to the Meredith's.”
And this is how it came about that the Meredith's house, closed for
three years, opened its doors again.
If innocent curiosity and love of fun had carried many to the
new-year hand-shaking three years before, a more serious interest, not
unmixed with curiosity, swelled the party to-night.
It was a mile out of town. The night was stormy, the roads were
heavy, and most of the wagons without cover; but the festive spirit is
impervious to weather the world over, and there were umbrellas in
Simpkinsville, and overcoats and “tarpaulins.”
Everybody went. Even certain good people who had not previously been
able to master their personal animosities sufficiently to resolve to
present themselves for the midnight hand-shaking, and had decided to
nurse their grievances for another year, now promptly agreed to bury
their little hatchets and join the party.
To storm a citadel of sorrow, whether the issue should prove a
victory for besiegers or besieged, was no slight lure to a people whose
excitements were few, and whose interests were limited to the personal
happenings of their small community.
It is a crime in the provincial code-social to excuse one's self
from a guest. To deny a full and cordial reception to all the town
would be to ostracise one's self forever, not only from its society,
but from all its sympathies.
The weak-hearted hostess rallied all her failing energies for the
emergency. And there was no lack of friendliness in her pale old face
as she greeted her most unwelcome guests with extended timorous hands.
If her thin cheeks flushed faintly as her neighbors' happy daughters
passed before her in game or dance, her solicitous observers, not
suspecting the pain at her heart, whispered: “Mis' Meredith is chirpin'
up a'ready. She looks a heap better 'n when we come in.” So little did
If mirth and numbers be a test, the old-year party at the Merediths'
was assuredly a success.
Human emotions swing as pendulums from tears to laughter. Those of
the guests to-night who had declared that they knew they would burst
out crying as soon as they entered that house where the ones who
laughed the loudest.
“Spinning the plate,” “dumb-crambo,” “pillow,” “how, when and
where,” such were the innocent games that composed the simple
diversions of the evening, varied by music by the village string-band
and occasional songs from the girls, all to end with a “Virginia
break-down” just before twelve o'clock, when the handshaking should
It seemed a very merry party, and yet, in speaking of it afterwards,
there were many who declared that it was the saddest evening they had
ever spent in their lives, some even affirming that they had been
“obliged to set up an' giggle the live-long time to keep from cryin'
every time they looked at Mis' Meredith.”
Whether this were true, or only seemed to be true in the light of
subsequent events, it would be hard to say. Certain it was, however,
that the note that rose above the storm and floated out into the night
was one of joyous merrymaking. Such was the note that greeted a certain
slowly moving wagon, whose heavily clogged wheels turned into the
Merediths' gate near midnight. The belated guest was evidently one
entirely familiar with the premises, for notwithstanding the darkness
of the night, the ponderous wheels turned accurately into the curve
beyond the magnolia-tree, moved slowly but surely along the drive up to
the door, and stopped without hesitation exactly opposite the “landing
at the front stoop,” wellnigh invisible in the darkness.
After the ending of the final dance, during the very last moments of
the closing year, there was always at the old-year party an interval of
The old men held their watches in their hands, and the young people
spoke in whispers.
It was this last waiting interval that in years past the old man
Prophet had filled with portent, even though, until his last prophecy,
his words had been lightly spoken.
As the crowd sat waiting to-night, watching the slow hands of the
old clock, listening to the never-hurrying tick-tack of the long
pendulum against the wall, it is probable that memory, quickened by
circumstances and environment, supplied to every mind present a picture
of the old man, as he had often stood before them.
A careful turn of the front-door latch, so slight a click as to be
scarcely discernible, came at this moment as the clank of a
sledge-hammer, turning all heads with a common impulse towards the
slowly opening door, into which limped a tall, muffled figure. To the
startled eyes of the company it seemed to reach quite to the ceiling.
Those sitting near the door started back in terror at the apparition,
and all were on their feet in a moment.
But having entered, the figure halted just within the door, and
before there was time for action, or question even, a bundle of old
wraps had fallen and the old man Prophet, bearing in his arms a
golden-haired cherub of about two years, stood in the presence of the
The revulsion of feeling, indescribable by words, was quickly told
in fast-flowing tears. Looking upon the old negro, and the child,
everyone present read a new chapter in the home tragedy, and wept in
Coming from the dark night into the light, the old man could not for
a moment discern the faces he knew, and when the little one, shrinking
from the glare, hid her face in his hair, it was as if time had turned
back, so perfect a restoration was the picture of a familiar one of the
old days. No word had yet been spoken, and the ticking of the great
clock, and the crackling of the fire mingled with sobs, were the only
sounds that broke the stillness when the old man, having gotten his
bearings, walked directly up to Mrs. Meredith and laid the child in her
arms. Then, losing no time, but pointing to the clock that was slowly
nearing the hour, he said, in a voice tremulous with emotion: “De time
is most here. Is you all ready to shek hands? Ef you is— everybody
—turn round and come wid me.”
As he spoke he turned back to the still open door, and before those
who followed had taken in his full meaning, he had drawn into the room
a slim, shrinking figure, and little May Day Meredith, pale, frightened
and weather-beaten, stood before them.
If it was her own father who was first to grasp her hand, and if he
carried her in his arms to her mother, it was that the rest deferred to
his first claim, and that their hearty and affectionate greetings came
later in their proper order. As the striking of the great clock mingled
with the sound of joy and of weeping—the congratulations and words of
praise fervently uttered—it made a scene ever to be held dear in the
annals of Simpkinsville. It was a scene beyond words of description—a
family meeting which even lifetime friends recognized as too sacred for
their eyes, and hurried weeping away.
It was when the memorable, sad, joyous party was over, and all the
guests were departing, that Prophet, following old man McMonigle out,
called him aside for a moment. Then putting into his hands a small
object, he said, in a tremulous voice:
“Much obleeged for de loand o' de pistol, Marse Dan'l. Hold her
keerful, caze she's loaded des de way you loaded her—all 'cept one
barrel. I ain't nuver fired her but once-t.”
A Romance of the Simpkinsville Cemetery
ELIJAH TOMKINS stood looking down upon his wife's grave. It was
early morning, and he thought himself alone in the cemetery.
The low rays of a rising sun, piercing the intervening foliage, lay
in white spots of light upon the new mound, revealing an incipient crop
of rival grasses there. A heavy dew, visible everywhere in
all-pervading moisture, hung in glistening gems upon the blades of
bright green cocoa spears that had shot up between the drier clods, and
it lay in little pools within the compact hearts of the fat purslane
clumps that were settling in the lower places. But Elijah saw none of
He had been standing here some minutes, his head low upon his bosom,
when a slight sound startled him. It was a faint crackle, as of a light
footstep upon the gravel walk.
He turned suddenly and looked behind him. He saw nothing, but the
start had roused him from his reverie, and he hastily proceeded to
raise his walking-cane, which he had held behind him, and to thrust it
with care several inches deep into the top of the grave. Then
withdrawing it, he dropped into the hole it had made a rose-bud, which
he took from his pocket, drew a bit of earth over it, and hastened
Elijah had done precisely this thing every morning since his wife's
death, three weeks ago.
There were exactly twenty-one rose-buds buried in this identical
fashion, one for each day since the filling of the new grave, and most
of them had been deposited there before the rising of the morning sun.
Elijah was a man to whom any display of sentiment was childish; or,
what to one of his temper was perhaps even worse, it was “womanish.” To
“fool with flowers” in a sentimental way was, according to his
thinking, as unbecoming a man as to “spout poetry” or to “play the
He had passed safely through all the vicissitudes of courtship,
marriage, and even a late paternity—that crucial test of mental poise
—without succumbing to any of the traditional follies incident to
these particular epochs. He had borne his honors simply, as became a
man, without parade or apparent emotion. But with his widowerhood had
come an obligation involving tremendous embarrassment.
Elijah had loved his wife, and when on her death-bed she had asked
him to come every day and lay a rose-bud upon her grave he had not been
able to say her nay. No one had heard the request. None knew of the
On the day following the funeral he had risen early, saddled his
horse, and ridden to the graveyard, carrying the rose-bud openly in his
hand. He had slept heavily that night—the sleep of exhaustion that
comes as a boon at such times—and when he had waked next morning,
confronted suddenly by a sense of his loss and of his promise, he had
set out upon his initial journey without a touch of self-consciousness.
It was only when he unexpectedly came upon a neighbor in the road that
he instantly knew that he was doing a sentimental thing. At the
surprise the flower turned downward, falling out of sight behind the
pommel of his saddle as if by its own volition. And when Elijah had
passed his neighbor with a silent greeting, his horse's head turned, as
if he too were denying the sentimental journey, into a foot-path
leading entirely away from the cemetery.
When he had gotten quite beyond the curve of the road, it was a
simple thing to turn across a bit of wood and enter the graveyard by
another gate, but as he did so Elijah knew himself for a hopeless
coward. The crackling pine-needles under his horse's feet sounded as
thunder to his sensitive ears. Every bur seemed to turn upon him its
hundred eyes, in which he saw all Simpkinsville gazing at him, a
mourning widower carrying flowers. The twitterings of the wood were the
whisperings of the village gossips, and some of the younger trees even
giggled as he passed.
To say that the widower's grief commands scant sympathy in
Simpkinsville is putting the case leniently.
Indeed, it is no uncommon thing in this otherwise kindly village for
the friends who sit up with the body of a deceased wife to indulge in
whispered speculations as to her probable successor, and any undue
exhibition of emotion on the part of the bereaved husband is counted as
presaging early consolation.
This may seem harsh, perhaps, and yet it is said that the hypothesis
is amply sustained by the history of widowerhood and its repairs in
It is possible that such exhibition of feeling is sometimes a simple
revolt against the lonely life as insupportable.
It may have been so, indeed, in the most notable case in the annals
of Simpkinsville, when a certain inconsolable widower of effusive habit
proceeded, on the demise of his wife, whose name was Lily, to adopt a
lily as his trade-mark stencilled upon his cotton-bales, to bestow the
name promiscuously upon all the eligibles born upon his plantation,
from a pickaninny of chocolate hue to a bay colt, and to have all
flowers excepting the lilies extracted from his garden. Indeed, he even
went so far as to change the name of his place from “Phoenix Farm” to
“Lilyvale,” and when at the end of a year of full florescence the odor
of the white flower pervaded every nook and cranny of his home he
suddenly succumbed to the blushing wiles of a certain “Miss Rose—” of
the country-side, and there was a changing of names and a planting of
roses with some confusion.
There were jests galore about the rose's thorns scratching up the
lily bulbs in this particular garden of the winged god, and the slight
residuum of sympathy possible towards the mourning widower passed
forever out of the popular heart with the legend of the lily and the
Everybody in Simpkinsville and its environments had known and
laughed at this romance of a year. Elijah simply cleared his throat and
been disgusted over it, but it will be easily seen that such a
precedent might somewhat heighten the sensitiveness of so timid a man
to the perils of the situation as he entered upon his daily pilgrimage.
He had not meant to bury the rose that first morning. The interment
was an after-thought; but it was so simple a thing to do that he had
easily seized upon it as a direct way out of his difficulty.
A man of poetic feeling might have found pleasure in the reflection
that in thus personally bestowing the flower he made it more
exclusively hers who lay beneath it than if the knowledge of it were
shared by others. But Elijah did not go so far. His satisfaction was
rather that of him who thinks he has found a way to eat his pie and
have it too.
As we have seen, he had been burying his daily bud for three weeks
when this recital begins, and he believed himself still unobserved. He
had always been an early riser, and the cemetery was so near the road
to his own fields that he found the early détour quite a safe thing.
One meeting him on the road would not question his errand.
The fright he had felt at the suspicion of footsteps in the
graveyard this morning remained with him as he turned homeward. Once
before he had been startled in this way, and each time the false alarm
had been a warning. It had frightened him.
“Strange how women takes notions, anyhow!” he muttered, as, the
sense of panic still upon him, he turned to go. This was his first
confessed revolt. “Never knowed Jinny to be so awful set on rose-buds,
nohow, when she was here. Not thet I'd begrudge her all the roses in
creation ef she wanted 'em. But for a middle-aged couple like us to be
made laughin'-stalks of jest for a few buds thet I'm doubtful ef she
ever receives, it does seem—”
He had just reached this point in his soliloquy when an unmistakable
creaking sound startled him, and he turned suddenly to see the
vanishing edge of a woman's skirt as it disappeared behind the hedge of
Confederate jasmine that enclosed the family burial lot of a certain
John Christian, a year ago deceased.
He had heard, long before his own bereavement, that Christian's
widow spent a great part of her time at her husband's grave, but he had
heard it at a time when such things held no special interest for him,
and it had passed out of his mind. But now the discovery of her actual
presence here filled him with panic. It was not likely that she had
seen him this morning. The Christian lot was near the other gate, by
which she had evidently entered, and her back had been in his
direction. But she would be coming again.
Elijah was so fearful of discovery that he dared not risk another
step, and so he sat down upon a stump in the shade of a weeping-willow
The widow Christian was short, and the jasmine hedge was tall. The
opening in the green enclosure, indicated by an arch of green, was upon
its opposite side, so Elijah had not seen her enter it, but presently
the shaking of the upper branches of the vines showed that the training
hand was within the square. Once or twice a slender finger appeared
above the hedge as it drew a wiry tendril into place, and there was an
occasional clipping of shears as the wayward vine received further
discipline from the pruning-blade within.
Long after there was any sign of her presence Elijah sat waiting for
the widow to go, but still she stayed. It seemed an age, and he grew
very tired, and under the pressure of imprisonment and fatigue he
presently began to amuse himself with idle thoughts—thoughts about
the hedge first, then about the man who lay within its enclosure, and
then, by natural sequence, about his widow.
“Pore Christian!” he began. “He was hedged in purty close-t with her
religion long ez he lived—an' I see she's a-follerin' it up! A
reg'lar Presbyterian cut that hedge has got—a body 'd know it to look
at it. A shoutin' Methodist, now, might 'a' let it th'ow out sprouts
right an' left, an' give God the glory.”
From this, his first idle thought, it will be seen that Elijah was a
man of some imagination. May it not, indeed, have been this very
imagination, with a latent sense of humor, that put so keen an edge
upon his anguish in a ridiculous situation?
His shrugging shoulders gave silent expression to a repressed
chuckle, as he followed his rambling thoughts still further in this
“Umh! Well, I reckon she knows what she's about in keepin' a close-t
watch over his grave. She's afeerd some o' them few wild-oats she never
give him a chance to sow might sprout up an' give him away. Umh!”
His growing pleasure in this momentary mental emancipation seemed to
shorten the period of his waiting.
“Well, ef wild-oats is ez long-lived ez what wheat is, she can't no
mo'n ward off the growth du'ing her lifetime—that is, ef what parson
sez is true, thet a grain o' wheat has laid in a ol' tombstone
'longside one o' these dumby mummies a thousand years, an' then
sprouted quick ez it was took out. Hard to smaller, that story is, for
a farmer, thet's had to do with mildewed seeds, but I reckon ef
preachers don't know the ins an' outs of mummies, nobody don't. But the
way I look at it, any chemicals thet's strong enough to keep a mummy in
countenance that long would exercise a savin' influ'nce on anything
layin' round him, maybe. Pity they couldn't be applied to a man in
life, so ez to—Jack Robinson! What in thunder—She's a-comin'
It is a long way from the buried secrets of Egypt to the
Simpkinsville cemetery, and to be transported the entire distance in a
twinkling by the apparition of a dreaded woman bearing down upon one is
what might be called a jolting experience. This is exactly what
happened to Elijah at this trying moment.
The widow Christian had stepped briskly out of the enclosure, and
was facing the tree under which he sat.
There be “weeping-willows” that truly weep, while some, with all the
outward semblance of sorrow, do seem only to whine and whimper, so
sparse and attenuated are their dripping fringes—fringes capable even
of flippancy if the wind be of a flirtatious mind.
Of this latter sort was the one beneath which Elijah had taken
refuge this morning. The meagre ambush that had seemed quite adequate
in the lesser exigency was as nothing now as through its flimsy screen
he saw disaster surely approaching. But his moment of supreme panic was
Before she had reached his hiding-place the widow turned hastily
aside. She was bent upon a definite destination, and Elijah had
scarcely had time to rally from his first fright before he discovered
that she was going to his wife's grave. He could not see her when she
had reached it, but he saw distinctly her lengthened shadow on the
sward behind her. When at last she stopped there, he even saw this same
witness make a deliberate tour of the grave. He saw it bend and rise
and fall, and then, when it was gone, he watched for the widow to
appear at the farther side, and he saw her at last go out the graveyard
gate. In a moment more he heard the roll of wheels, and, standing up,
he even descried the top of her buggy as she drove away. And then,
taking off his hat and mopping his forehead, he came out of hiding.
This visit to his wife's grave gave Elijah a most uncomfortable
sensation, and he hurried there to see how things were. He had, he
knew, carefully covered his morning bud, but still he was uneasy.
When he returned to the grave he found the grass upon it dry. There
seemed to be otherwise no change in its appearance, and he was turning
away, somewhat reassured, when a fresh clod caught his eye. It seemed
to have been overturned. He stooped down, his heart thumping like a
sledge-hammer, while he made a careful examination.
The clod lay exactly over the spot where he had, an hour ago,
deposited his rose-bud, and its damp side was upward. A bent hair-pin
lay beside it, and there was damp earth upon its points. Lifting the
lump, he found its nether side still warm from the sun. Beneath it,
clearly discernible without further removal, was the pink edge of a
Elijah was not ordinarily a nervous man, but when he rose from the
grave he was trembling so that he felt it safe to repair to his seat
beneath the willow until he should recover himself.
The next moments were possibly as wretched as any that had hitherto
come into his life. As he sat with his face buried in his hands, he
felt the same sort of exquisite torture that he had occasionally
experienced in a dream, when for a brief moment he had believed himself
walking the streets naked, in a glare of light, and had waked up with a
start to a blessed consciousness of a friendly darkness and his
night-shirt. There was no awakening possible now. A second trip to the
grave only prolonged the horrors of the nightmare. He took off his hat
again and mopped and mopped his face and head and neck. Then, in sheer
desperation, he began walking slowly up and down the gravelled paths,
his hands nervously clasped behind him, and before he realized it he
found himself at the opening in the Christian hedge, and he walked in.
There was a pretty rustic seat just within the enclosure, and he sat
down upon it. Even his state of mind, and the fresh impression of the
obtrusive widow rudely etched with the muddy point of a hair-pin upon
the sensitive plate of his consciousness, could not prevent his feeling
the sweetness and beauty of this spot. The grave in its centre was
already, in the early spring, a bed of blooming flowers. Tender sprays
of smilax climbed about the marble slab at its head, while from the urn
at the foot of the mound depended rich garlands of moneywort and
tradescantia, and the air was fragrant with the perfumed leaf of
pungent herb and flowering shrub.
Along the lower borders of the mound, just above a battlement of
inverted bottles that outlined its extreme limits, there were signs of
the recent passage of the trowel, and here closer scrutiny revealed a
single line of wilting plants, evidently just set out.
Elijah looked about him for some moments, and then, man that he was,
he began to cry. Perhaps it was essential to his manhood that his
emotion should be interpreted as anger. At any rate, the turmoil within
him found expression in words that, as nearly as they could be
distinguished among sobs, were such as these:
“The idee of John Christian, thet never did a decent thing in his
life, layin' comf'tably down in sech a place ez this—an' bein' waited
on—an' bloomed over! An' here I, thet have tried to ac' upright all
my life, am obligated to be a laughin'-stalk to his fool widder an'
anybody she's a mind to tell! They've been times in my life when I'd
give every doggone cent I've made du'in' my durn blame life ef I'd 'a'
been raised to swear—I'll be jim-blasted ef I wouldn't! No widder of
sech a low-down, beer-drinkin' cuss ez John Christian need to think she
can set out to pester me—a-nosin' round my private business
with her confounded investigatin' hair-pin! They ain't nothin' thet a
woman with a hairpin ain't capable of doin'—nothin'!”
He sobbed for some time without further words; but presently, while
he wiped his eyes, he said, in quite another voice:
“Ef—ef Jinny had jest 'a' had the fo'thought to say bushes
instid o' buds, why—why, they'd 'a' been planted long ago—
an' forgot—an' she'd be havin' her own roses fresh every day;
instid o' which—” And now he sobbed again. “Instid o' which John
Christian's widder has got the satisfaction of holdin' me up on a
hair-pin p'int for all Simpkinsville to laugh at—same ez ef I was
some sort o' guyaskutus!”
As he raised his face, dashing his tears away with his great bare
hands, his eyes fell upon the inscription upon the stone before him.
The Bible verse quoted there seemed an assumption of superior sanctity,
and he resented it as a personal taunt.
“Yas,” he retorted, “I see you're takin' to quotin' Scripture, John
Christian, but you needn't to quote it at me! You're set out first
class, you are, Bible tex' at yo' Lead an' flowervase at yo' feet, but
you ain't the first low-down cuss thet's been Bible-texted out of all
Was it the answering silence of the grave in response to this volley
that rebuked him? Perhaps so, for certainly there was sudden contrition
expressed in his next words, spoken in apologetic voice:
“God forgive me for strikin' a man when he's down; but he does seem
so set up—flowered all over—an' nothin' to do—an' a lovin' wife—
Just as Elijah said these last words there was a stir at his side,
and he turned to see the widow Christian standing before him, plants
and trowel in hand. She started on first perceiving him, but his
tearful, dejected state was an appeal to her womanly sympathies. She
took her seat beside him on the settee.
“Yas,” she said, mournfully, “everybody knows she was a lovin' wife,
Mr. Tomkins, an' I ain't surprised to see you all broke up this way. I
been through it all, en' I know what it is.” She sighed heavily. “They
ain't a grain o' the bitterness but I've tasted—not a one—an'
quinine an' bitter alloways is sugar to it. But I'm mighty glad, Mr.
Tomkins, to see thet you feel neighborly enough to come into my lot to
give way. You'll be all the better for it. It's what I do myself. When
I git nervous in the house, an' seem to look for him to come in,
an' feel sort o' like ez ef he might be down-town an' maybe things
goin' wrong, why, I jest come here, an' I see it's all right, an' I cry
it out an' go home.
“I hate to see you come twice-t in one day, though, Mr. Tomkins,”
she added, after some hesitation. “Too much sorrer starts the
heart a-cankerin'! Somehow I had a notion thet you'd been here an' gone
over a hour ago. I come an' set out this row o' pansies round the edge
of his grave befo' sunup—an' I was jest seven short. So I went an'
fetched these to finish the line.”
To attempt to describe Elijah's sensations during these first
moments would be folly. He simply had none. It was a season of general
In speaking of it afterwards, he said: “While she set there
a-talkin', seem like she'd move away off into the distance tell she
wasn't no bigger 'n a chiney doll, an' every word she'd say would sound
clair an' fine same ez ef a doll-baby was to commence to talk by
machinery. An' when she'd be away off an' dwindlin' down to a speck,
I'd be gittin' bigger an' bigger tell I'd seem like a sort o' swole-up
pin-cushion with needles a-stickin' in me all over. Then she'd start
forward an' commence to git bigger, an' I'd swivel an' swivel, tell
time she come up to me, with a voice like thunder, I'd be so puny seem
like I was li'ble to go out any minute.”
But in this view of the situation we have the advantage of the
The visible picture at the time was of Tomkins politely facing his
entertainer, with possibly too much solicitude as to the wiping of his
face, but still with what she was pleased to accept as polite
attention. She could have suspected nothing abnormal in it, for her
next words were:
“But I ain't a-goin' to bother you now, Mr. Tomkins; you jest take
yo' time to ease up, an' I'll plant these plants. They go in right here
at his feet.”
Even as she spoke she fell upon her knees and set about her task.
But there was no intermission in her talk.
“You don't know what a comfort this grave is to me, Mr. Tomkins,”
she said, with a sigh, as, taking a pin from her back hair, she began
carefully drawing out the damp roots of the plant she held. “Ef a body
studies over it rightly, there's a heap o' communion with the dead
th'ough grave-tendin'! Now these pansies here—f 'instance—Pansies,
you know—why, they're flowers of remembrance, an' a person can plant
any kind they see fit, accordin' to their hearts' desires. There's the
yallers and deep reds—an' mixed. Some o' the mixed ones is marked so
ez to make reg'lar fool faces. These here are all dead black.” She
sighed again. “I did think I'd put in a purple or two this season, but
I 'ain't had the heart to—not yet. He hated black,” she added in a
moment, “but of co'se in this my heart has to have some
consideration, an' I've done a good many things to pacify him—
“These bottles, f'instance—” She sat back upon her heels, while
her eye made the circuit of the bottle border. “These bottles, now,”
she repeated, with manifest hesitation—“I 'ain't never mentioned them
to nobody before, Mr. Tomkins, an' I don't know why I'm a-doin' it to
you, 'less 'n it's seein' you in the same state o' mind thet I've been
th'ough. You'll find, ez you go on, Mr. Tomkins, thet unless a heart
gets expressed one way or another, its mighty ap' to palpitate
inwardly. Have you ever had yo' heart to palpitate inward, Mr.
She had turned, and was looking straight into her guest's face. He
had had time to begin to recover his bearings by this time. The me
and the not me were gradually assuming proper relations in his
returning consciousness. To be exact, he had just begun definitely to
realize where he sat, and that John Christian's widow was talking to
him when she put her question.
His first conscious act had been to stop mopping his face and to put
his handkerchief away. It was while he was in the act of this bestowal
that there came a realization of her expectant face and the necessity
“Well, reely—Mis' Christian—” he began.
“Of co'se,” she interrupted, “you may've had it an' not known it.
You tell it by feelin' the need of somethin' an' not knowin' jest what
it is. It might be fresh air or aromatic sperits of ammonia, an' then
again it might be somebody to talk to. With some it's religion. Of
co'se, with me—with me it's been this grave.
“These bottles, now—ef they was one thing on earth thet could 'a'
been called a bone of contention in our lives, Mr. Tomkins, it was them
identical bottles. I don't reckon I'm a-tellin' you any secret when I
say that. Everybody was obligated to know pore John's one fault,
because it was that sort of a fault—outspoke an' confessed. That's
where John was unlucky. They's lots o' folks thet passes for better 'n
what he passed thet has inward faults thet he'd 'a' spewed out o' his
mouth. Sech ez that I class ez whited sepulchures—nothin' else. But
his one outward fault—why, someway it nagged me constant, an' I know
I never showed proper patience with it.
“But now”—she sighed sadly—“but now I've took every endurin'
bottle I could lay hands on thet he ever emptied, an' I've brought 'em
to him here. An' I've laid my pansy line 'longside of 'em. But I can't
say yet thet they ain't a thorn in the flesh to me sometimes—them
“An' I've even done more than that, Mr. Tomkins; I've planted mint
here—jest ez a token of forgiveness—nothin' else. An', tell the
truth, I'm even gittin' so's I like the smell of it. Maybe I'll git
entirely reconciled to the bottles—in time. I've had mighty little
patience with spearmint all these years, which I now reelize was very
foolish, 'cause a green herb ain't no ways responsible for the company
it's made to keep, an' I don't know ez they's anything thet could take
the mint's place in a julep an' do less harm 'n what the mint does. I
don't know but it's maybe a savin' grace to it; an' then it's a Bible
herb, you know—mint an' anise an' cumin.”
She had turned away now, and was resuming her work of transplanting.
Her last words were spoken as if in half-forgetfulness of her guest.
Still, this was possibly only in the seeming, for she said, in a
moment, “This is every bit a work of love, Mr. Tomkins.” She dropped a
pansy into place as she spoke, measuring its distance from the inverted
bottle with the length of her hair-pin. “He always said he didn't want
no foolishness made over his grave—but I think sech modesty ez that
should have its reward.”
She had presently completed her planting, and after she had scraped
the trowel with her hairpin, cleansed the pin's point in turn against
the blade, and then wiped them upon a folded leaf, she mechanically
restored the little implement to her hair and rose from her knees.
“I'm reel glad I had to come back to finish that transplantin', ez
it's turned out, Mr. Tomkins.” She looked straight at him, with
absolute ingenuousness, as she spoke. “I'm glad, 'cause I feel thet
I've been able to offer you a little consolation. I was tempted
to let them plants lay over tell to-morrer, but I thought I'd feel mo'
contented all day ef every beer-bottle had its pansy. Ef they was
anything over, I'd ruther it would be a pansy, to make shore of lovin'
She had turned again to the grave now.
“I don't often count my plants when I fetch 'em over, an' I mos'
gen'ally have a few to spare, an' I set 'em round on graves thet don't
have much care. I try to keep the potter's field a-bloomin' a little
with my left-overs.”
She had taken her seat at Tomkins's side again and laid the trowel
in her lap. Her bonnet-strings needed retying, and there was a
suspicion of dust to be brushed from her knees.
“I did carry a handful of left-over flowers around to plant on pore
Crazy Charlie's grave one day, but when I got there I found thet the
Lord had took care o' the pore idiot's memory better'n I could 'a'
done. It was all broke out thick ez measles with dandelions, an' sez I
to myself, ef they ever was a flighty flower on the green earth, it's a
dandelion. So I come away an' planted my odds an' ends promiscuous.
I've often wondered ef dandelions wasn't reckoned ez idiots among
It was no doubt an awful thing for Elijah to do, certainly it was
most inconsistent with his position as taken seriously from any point
of view, but at this juncture he suddenly surrendered himself to
After a first startled glance his entertainer smiled.
“Well, I declare!” She spoke kindly. “I've done a good mornin's
work, Mr. Tomkins, ef it's only to give you a good, hearty laugh.
You'll be all the better for it.”
It is one thing to laugh, and quite another not to be able to stop
laughing. Tomkins was for some minutes precisely in this condition. He
was so overcome, indeed, that he finally turned his back, and, burying
his face in his handkerchief, shook until the bench rattled.
Fortunately his hostess was a woman of genial humor, and, as she has
amply shown, by no means a person of sensitiveness.
“You'll likely cry a little again when the laugh's over—I always
do—but it's jest that much better for you,” she said, cheerily, as
she rose to go. “And now, good-bye!”
As she moved away, Tomkins suddenly realized something that sobered
him. She must not go until there should be some understanding
about his buried rose-buds. If possible, he must have her promise of
There was a sudden pain in his heart and a sense of shame as the
tender subject presented itself anew to his mental vision. His sorrow
was fresh and sacred. The woman with whom he must temporize had invaded
its holy domain, and he felt, even as he hastened to pursue her, that
he despised her.
She was a lithe little woman, of quick step, and by the time Elijah
had disposed of his troublesome emotions sufficiently to present
himself he saw that she was nearing the gate, and he called her,
“Oh, Mis' Christian!”
She immediately turned and started back.
“Nemmind; don't come back; I jest want to talk to you a little bit.”
He overtook her now, and together they proceeded to the gate.
“Mis' Christian, I've jest been a-thinkin',” he began—“that is,
I've been a-wonderin'—I wonder ef you're the kind o' person—I know
you're a mighty nice lady, Mis' Christian, an' a tender-hearted one,
which you've showed me to-day, unmistakable—but I was jest
a-wonderin' ef you was the kind o' person”—they had reached the gate
now, and Elijah leaned against the post, hesitating in awkward
embarrassment—“ef you was the sort o' person thet, ef you was to know
a little thing about another person thet they was a-tryin' to keep hid
—for reasons of their own—would you jest keep it to yo'self, please,
ma'am, an' not say nothin' about it? I'd like to think you was
that kind o' person, Mis' Christian—I would indeed.”
A great, pleased light came into the widow's eyes. They saw the dawn
of a new era in this interesting case, and this was its reflection. She
mechanically loosened her bonnet strings as she came nearer to Elijah.
“Mr. Tomkins,” she began, seriously, and with evident relish, “I'm
mighty glad you've spoke. Of co'se yo' silence wasn't a thing for me to
break. A person's silence is his own—to break or to keep—an' you've
broke yores an' let me in—an' I come ez a friend. But befo' I go a
step further, Mr. Tomkins”—she came nearer now and lowered her voice
—“befo' I go a step further, I want to tell you roses don't grow by
plantin' buds. They have to be set out in cuttin's. You could come here
an' plant rose-buds all yo' mortal life, an' you wouldn't never have so
much ez a sprout, much less 'n a rose-bush—not ef you planted tell
Elijah blushed scarlet. “An' do you think, Mis' Christian,
“I don't think nothin' about it. I know it. But ez for
talkin'! Why, horses an' mules couldn't drag a word out o' me about
yo' plantin' them buds. I been wantin' to tell you for three weeks thet
you wouldn't have no crop, but, ez I said befo', it wasn't for me to
break yore silence. I wanted to tell you partly on her account,
too, 'cause ef she's conscious of it, I know it must pleg her. She was
so sensible always, I know how she'd feel.”
Elijah moved uneasily, shifting his weight from one foot to the
“Mis' Christian,” he began, “we're here in the presence o' the dead,
ez you might say, an' I'm a-goin' to talk to you outspoke. My feelin's
ain't things I like to talk about—an' I'm a slow-spoken man anyway.
Either my luck or yores is the lot of purty nigh every married couple
in God's world. Mighty few is allotted to die together. They's bound to
be a goer an' a stayer, an' ef the goers can stand their
part an' keep silence, it's always seemed to me the stayers might do ez
much—jest hold still—that's all. I thought I was man enough to do
it—an' I am ef—” He wanted to say “ef I could be let alone,”
but he dared not. He left the sentence broken. “But ef they's one thing
on the round world thet I can't stand, it's bein' made a fool of
—or laughed at. An' that's why I planted them buds.”
The widow looked at him askance, as if half suspicious of his
sanity. But he went on:
“She ast me, Mis' Christian—one o' the last words she spoke
— an' I promised her—to put a rose-bud on her grave every day
—an' I've done it. But I knowed thet ef I was ketched a-doin'
sech a softy thing, they wouldn't be no peace in Simpkinsville for me—
so I've jest buried it. An' continue to do so I must.
“Now I've done out with the whole thing. It seemed like a little
thing to ask. Buds is plentiful, an' the cemetery is close-t enough,
an' I'd do a'most anything to please her. An' yet—Well, it's jest one
o' them little things sech ez a woman 'll ask a man to do in a
minute, an' he'll never git done doin'. Th' ain't
nothin' I wouldn't do for her, an' do gladly, thet I could
keep to myself. Ef she'd 'a' ast me to eat a whole rose-bush every
day, I'd eat it gladly, thorns an' all. They'd be a-plenty o' ways of
eatin' it in secret, an' I wouldn't mind a inward thorn. But this here
trip I'm obligated to take—tell the truth, it plegs me. An' now, I
don't doubt thet to a woman with sech a bloomin' grave ez you keep I
must seem like a mighty begrudgin' sort of a man, Mis' Christian.”
“Not at all, Mr. Tomkins—not at all. You're jest precizely, for
all the world, similar-dispositioned to John Christian. Ef I had 'a'
died first, although he'd 'a' been all broke up over it, I know I
wouldn't have no mo' flowers on my grave than sech weeds ez the good
Lord sends to beggars' graves—not a one. Pore John! He often said,
jest a-jokin', of co'se, thet he'd promise thet I should wear weeds, no
matter which went first. He was death on jokin' that-a-way. Little did
he think I'd wear both kinds, though, pore John, which no doubt I will.
They won't be nobody but God to flower me over when I'm gone. I've
often thought I'd like to get in under 'em—when my time comes—and
enjoy my own flowers awhile. His grave is a-plenty wide. But of co'se
they wouldn't be no way of gettin' me in without upsettin' things, an'
I reckon it's jest ez well. Ef I knew the flowers was there I'd have
'em on my mind all the time, an' every dry spell I'd be fidgety to get
out an' water 'em. In tendin' his grave, Mr. Tomkins, I take the same
pleasure I would 'a' took ef I was in it an' he fixin' it
up. Doin' ez you'd be done by is sometimes mo' satisfyin' than bein'
did by. 'Cause them thet do by you don't always come up to the
“But don't think I blame you, Mr. Tomkins. Where they's one person
foreordained to carry rose-buds around, there's been a hundred
foreordained to laugh at him.
“But it looks to me like ez if we ought to be able to devise some
way to have you relieved. Of co'se you've got to keep on—ez long ez
rose-buds hold out. An' of co'se they's a long summer ahead, an' buds
'll be plentiful, but the last two winters have been so mild thet
they's a big freeze prophesied next year. An' ef buds give out, ez
they're more'n likely to, why, it won't be yo' fault. An' ef she sees
into yo' heart she'll see thet it warms so to desher the day the roses
freeze thet she wouldn't be indooced to have you start it another
season. An' don't you fret. Jest go along plantin' yore buds, an'
nobody livin' but you an' me an' this gatepost 'll ever know it.
“An' any time you feel the need of givin' way, jest come over to his
square an' make yo'self at home, whether I'm there or not. We all have
our trials, Mr. Tomkins, an' when yore buds seem mo' than you can bear,
why jest remember thet I've got my beer-bottles. Good-bye!”
She held out her hand. Tomkins took it heartily, without a word, and
then, turning away, he proceeded to unfasten her horse, and to turn him
while she jumped into her buggy.
As he handed her the reins, lifting his hat as he did so, he was
startled by the sound of approaching wheels.
Involuntarily at the sound he dodged into the open gate and hurried
back through the cemetery to his horse, tied at the other gate. And
even in his hurry and fright, as he strode rapidly through the winding
paths, this comforting thought took shape and soothed his troubled
“ 'Stonishin' what a sensible woman Christian's wife is, after all!”
She was to him quite as truly the dead man's wife as if her lamented
husband were still living. Her friendly interest and sympathy had been
that of a kindly sister woman to an unhappy brother man. That was all.
And he was grateful to her. Indeed, as he rode homeward, taking a
winding détour that should bring him to his own gate from a direction
opposite the cemetery, as the hour was late, he was conscious of a
The tension of awful secrecy had been eased by the simple sharing of
it with another—another who, notwithstanding her own different
This was Elijah's mood to-day; but when next morning came he found
himself definitely annoyed at the thought of the interested woman in
the cemetery. She would know when he came in and went out. Maybe she
would be watching while he buried the bud. He would feel like such a
fool if he suspected this. He hoped that, having once been kind and
neighborly, she would henceforth mind her own business and let him
Fortunately for his state of mind, there was no reason to fear that
she was anywhere near on this first day, and he performed his mission
without any sort of disturbance—excepting, indeed, the distinct
irritation he felt when he perceived the bent hair-pin still lying
where she had dropped it the day before.
The color mounted to his face when he saw this, and if the widow had
appeared before him at this moment it would have been hard for him.
She did not come, however. Indeed, though he regularly came and went
—and always looked for her—he did not see her for several weeks; and
when at last, nearly a month later, he did meet her coming in with a
watering-pot in her hand, she only smiled in a simple and friendly way,
as she said to him, quite as if he might have been any other
man:"Good-mornin', Mr. Tomkins. Mighty dry spell o' weather,” and
This was well done; and Elijah was pleased, though he was destined
to experience a somewhat uncomfortable moment, as he instantly realized
that he had met and spoken to a lady bearing a heavy vessel of water
and had not offered to carry it for her.
Indeed, he was suddenly so ashamed of himself that he turned to
proffer the tardy courtesy; but she had gone so far—and his voice did
not come at the critical moment—and—well, the opportunity passed.
When it was over, he felt rather glad that his courteous impulse had
failed to carry. Better let her think him a trifle remiss, or even
impolite, than for him to “begin 'totin' ' water to John Christian's
“Ef I was to be ketched doin' sech a thing ez that,” he even
reflected further, “I'd be worse off 'n ever.”
The summer was a long and lonely one to Elijah. His home, left to
the care of a single old servant, was wellnigh comfortless.
Adam's first necessity, preserved through the very conditions of its
transmission, has become the one unimpaired heritage of his latest son.
It is still, even as at first, not good for man to be alone. A primary
need of his life is yet the sustaining companionship of some good
woman, be she wife or mother or sister or friend. And it is well for
him if she be better than he; happy for him if she spice the sweetness
of her relation with differences of thought and opinion. Only let him
feel that she understands him, and cares.
Elijah, in spite of all her expressions of kindness to him, and her
since becoming reticence, had never quite forgiven the widow Christian
for discovering his secret. The rusting hair-pin, always definitely
located in his consciousness, even when the summer's full growth had
covered it over, was still an irritation to him.
And yet, when the season of shortening days was at hand, when
September was waning and October's promise was so very barren, he one
day idly wondered if he should never meet, if for but a moment's
recognition—“jest for a passin' o' the time o' day”—the one woman
on earth who knew and respected his secret; the one who, so far
as her slight knowledge went, understood him.
He saw her again, very soon after this, but there was no greeting.
He had taken a fancy to come in by “her gate,” and he found she had
just preceded him. For the length of such a distance as one would
designate as “a block” in New York—it would be “a square” in New
Orleans—he walked a short distance behind her. And the morning sun
shone full upon her all the way, defining her trig figure, penetrating
the coil of her hair. She did not look around, though she must have
heard his step.
The widow Christian was, as already seen, a Presbyterian, and as she
walked before Elijah down the gravelled path, every hair of her head
seemed a fitting expression of her faith. Each strand lay as if obeying
a divine injunction dating from the foundations of the world. But it
was clean and wholesome, and of a true blue-black.
It was frankly Calvinistic, eminently sure, by every declaration of
its polished braid, of its calling and election.
And yet—its conscientious wearer was canonizing a drunkard,
reincarnating the tares of his wasted life as flowers, and feasting her
famished soul upon their fragrance and beauty, willingly self-deceived
—apologizing, as the good always do to the bad. Base indeed must be a
life too poor to yield a posthumous flowering of balm for the anointing
of loving hearts. The inconsistency of the lonely little Presbyterian
woman's daily devotions at a shrine so meagre and yet so rich in color
and symbols was full of pathos. She reminded one of a little Romanist
at her prie-dieu burning her candle for a departed soul—
without the consolations of purgatory.
Elijah did not try to overtake her this morning, nor, be it quickly
said to his credit, did he think these thoughts about her. They are the
writer's—and idle enough.
But Elijah was touched with sympathy for her as she walked alone
before him—he knew not why.
There was a suspicion of chill in the air as he sniffed its breath
this morning. The faint, indescribable atmospheric relief that comes
when a Southern September yawns for a minute is hard to describe. It is
only as if summer were tired, perhaps. Still, a yawn always presages a
new era—a renascence beyond its culmination.
To Elijah it meant that the season of the blooming rose was on the
wane. He lingered quite a while at his poor shrine to-day, waiting, for
no reason at all. But when he was presently startled by a rustling
skirt, and, looking up, saw the widow depart, he turned away with a
definite sense of disappointment.
She certainly had known he was there, and might have had the grace
to look over and nod, or to remark that it was a cool morning, or a
warm one. Either would have been true enough.
“The fact is,” he reflected, as a fretful ten-year-old boy might
have done—“the fact is, she don't keer no mo' for me 'n what she does
for the next one. She was jest kind to me because she is kind,
that's all—an' I was jest big enough of a fool to think she felt reel
If there was reason for such misgiving to-day, the morrow brought
the lonely man a goodly grain of reassurance. It was indeed a full day.
Unconsciously piqued by his last experience, he determined that it
should not be repeated, and so he had risen betimes and gone earlier
than usual to the cemetery; and he was turning away, feeling remote
enough from all human sympathy, when he saw his neighbor enter the
gate, and by first intention start in his direction. His first feeling
was a qualm of apprehension lest she had set out on a visit of
investigation, and would turn back when she should see him.
But no; she had seen him. There was pleased recognition of his
presence in her face as she approached him. This was, by-the-way, the
first time that he saw that she was pretty—or thought of it, indeed.
“I thought I'd find you here early this mornin', Mr. Tomkins, an' so
I hurried up to ketch you.” Such was her frank and friendly greeting.
“Mr. Tomkins,” she repeated, when she had reached him, “I jest wanted
to tell you thet Jim Peters is goin' to be fetched down from Sandy Crik
an' buried here to-morrer. The Peters lot is right down there back o'
yours, an' the men are comin' by sunup in the mornin' to dig his grave;
an' I thought maybe, like ez not, you'd like to know it. I know you'd
likely ruther not meet 'em here. Ef you don't feel like gittin' up
about three o'clock—it's high moon then—why, you could easy slip
around after sundown. They don't never be anybody here late of evenin's
nohow. I often come in an' sprinkle his pansies after the sun's off of
'em, an' I never have met nobody here 'long about dark.”
She stood facing the grave on the side opposite Elijah as she spoke.
There was a note of simple friendliness in her voice, and it touched
“I declare, Mis' Christian,” he said, with emotion, “I do think
you're the best-hearted an' kindest lady I've ever knew in all my life.
I do indeed.” And then, as his eyes fell upon the grave between them,
he hastened to add, “Present company excepted, of co'se.”
“Of co'se,” she repeated in generous assent. “An' I respect you all
the mo' for that polite attention to her, Mr. Tomkins. They ain't many
men that would 'a' done it.” And then she added: “I see thet you 'ain't
never come over to his square sence that one time. You ought to walk in
some time when I ain't there to bother you, even ef you don't need to
borry the hedge, jest to see how purty it is. Them pansies have turned
out lovely. But the funniest thing happened. Right in the row with the
black-faced ones—jest about where you set that mornin'—would you
believe it thet one o' them pansies bloomed out pink? Ever' one planted
from dead-black seeds, mind you. An' do you know, maybe I ought to 've
picked it out quick ez it showed color, but I didn't. I couldn't do
it, Mr. Tomkins. Seemed to me that pansy stood out there jest to
remind me o' the day thet I was enabled to cheer you up a little, an'
whenever I'd look into its sassy little pink face with its quizzical
eyebrows I'd seem to see you a-settin' there shakin' with laughter. An'
it's done me good, too. When the good Lord sends a little thing like
that out o' His ground, where He works so much magic for the comfort of
our hearts, I believe in jest takin' it ez He sends it. An' that pansy
plant has kep' a pink face there for me all summer; an' when I'd look
at it I'd often remember to wish a little wish for you, Mr. Tomkins.
I've often wanted to ask how yore two babies was comin' on, but I
didn't like to. But ef I'd knew you well enough when she died, I
wouldn't no mo' have advised you to let yore sister take them children
out o' yore house than nothin'. Ef they's ever a time a man needs his
child'en it is when their mother is took away. Goin' to see 'em once-t
a week the way you do ain't livin'. If I was you, an'
them my babies, well—Howsoever, excuse me for meddlin'. Maybe
ef I'd ever had any child'en o' my own they wouldn't seem like gold an'
diamonds to me the way they do. But here I keep on a-talkin'. It's a
little fresh this mornin', an' I reckon we'll have the early frost.
Sech buds ez you find now must be most too pretty to bury. Fall roses
always seem like they put on their purtiest so ez to make you hate to
see 'em go. Good-bye.”
Instead of answering, Elijah stepped quickly around the grave and
“Don't hurry away, Mis' Christian,” he said, as he stepped beside
her. “I 'ain't got no nice seat to offer you, like you have, but I want
to talk to you a little. It's been on my mind some time to tell you
thet you mustn't think I 'ain't got no mo' pride than to let this grave
o' mine all run to weeds forever. I'm jest a-waitin' a little—tell it
settles solid—an' I'm goin' to have it fixed up decent an' expensive.
I thought about havin' a reg'lar long slab laid down over it, an' all
cemented round the edges. But I won't do it now tell all the buds give
out. I've got so used to layin' the bud under the sod thet I wouldn't
feel ez ef she had it ef it was on top a lot o' marble an' stuff. She
was a mighty good wife, Mis' Christian—most of her time porely, ez
you know. They's many a little thing I wisht I'd 'a' done for her, ez I
look back. I'd 'a' had a marble stone there long ago—'ceptin' for the
“Well—I don't know but you're wise, Mr. Tomkins. Sometimes I
thought of cementin' his in, an' jest lettin' it rest so. But I
haven't never been able to make up my mind what I'd do with the bottles
—whether I'd leave 'em inside or take 'em out. Sometimes,” she sighed,
and hesitated—“some times I have reel strange misgivin's about
them bottles. Supposin', f' instance, thet at the resurrection he was
to be shamed out of all countenance findin' 'em here—with the
brewer's name blowed in each one—an' all the white ribboned angels
a-flyin' round. Of co'se we can't tell how things is goin' to be
—an' they're bound to be some way. I don't know but I'll
change it all yet—some day. But ef I was to cement him in I'd
feel mighty empty-handed—an' lost. But reely, Mr. Tomkins, instid o'
you apologizin' to me, I want to tell you thet I've often felt
reproached seein' you slip in an' out so reg'lar an' so quiet. You're
doin' a thing she ast you to do—an' doin' it modest and
sincere. An' me—I'm doin' a thing he never would 'a' liked in
creation, an' makin' a show of it—though how it would look was
cert'nly the last thing on earth in my mind. Somehow pore John never
stood ez high ez I'd liked him to among the livin' an' I have been
ambitious to have him stand well among the dead. But you're the only
human I've ever spoke to about it, an' the good Lord knows you're the
last man I'd 'a' ever thought I could 'a' spoke to—seven months ago.
We never know what we'll do—tell it's done.”
They were at the opening of the hedge now, and she walked in,
“Ef you want to see yoreself ez others see you, or at least ez I saw
you, Mr. Tomkins, look at this pink pansy.”
She chuckled merrily as she turned the saucy face of the flower so
that he could see it. Tomkins laughed too as he looked at it.
“Nobody knows how much company them pink faces have been to me all
summer. Croppin' out there in the black row they're like jokes at a
funeral. We've all told 'em—or listened to 'em—an' they's no place
on earth thet a joke gets its own more'n at a funeral, to my thinkin'.
Yas, ez I said, Mr. Tomkins—Set down a minute, won't you? I won't
charge you any more.”
Her playful mood was like wine to poor Elijah after a long thirst.
She moved to the end of the bench to make room for him, and he sat
“Yas, ez I said,” she began, in quite a changed tone, and yet with a
spring in her voice—” ez I said, Mr. Tomkins, I'd have them babies
home— ef they was mine—sister or no sister. Why, the way
you're a-living now, you ain't no mo'n a uncle to 'em. An' the way I
look at it—of co'se you ain't never goin' to think of marryin' again;
you are like me in that—an' so, the way you start out with them
child'n o' yores is likely to continue. Ef you was jest holdin' off
tell sech a time ez you could turn out among the girls to pick out a
step-mother for 'em for her rosy cheeks, it would be different. Yore
sister would do jest ez well ez anybody else to ripen 'em for her. But
it seems to me thet a man o' yore standin' an' yore stren'th o' mind
would 'a' took some nice pious old lady like Mis' Gibbs, f' instance,
thet has done quilted all her life away nearly, an' won't accept no
home thet she can't earn. Seems to me sech a lady ez that would 'a'
kep' yo' family circle intac'—an' earned a good home at the same
time. An' Mis' Gibbs, why, she thinks the world an' all of you. She
grannied yore mother when you was born—maybe you remember—'t least
so she says. She says you was the reddest baby she ever see in her
life, but I sort o' doubt that—with yore brown hair.”
She glanced at Elijah's head as she spoke.
“Well!” she laughed; “don't know ez I doubt it, either, look at you
He had, indeed, blushed scarlet, and now he blushed again because
she had noticed it.
“I do declare!” she laughed again. “I reckon you must be like a girl
I went to school with She always said she felt humiliated every time
she reelized she'd ever been a baby. But I glory in it. The only grudge
I've got against it is thet I can't remember how folks fed me
an' dressed me an' toted me around—waited on me. I 'ain't got a
single ricollection of sech ez thet in all my life—not a one. I've
done the fetchin' and carryin' for others ever sence I can remember,
an' done it willin' enough, too. Still, I'm glad to know thet I have
had my innin's. But you think over what I've said about ole Mis' Gibbs
now—but don't never let on thet I mentioned it. Some child'en is
afeerd of her on account of her wig—but they'd soon git used to it.
It does shift some sence she's fell away so, but I don't doubt thet at
the head o' yore bountiful table she'd very soon grow up to it again. I
know what one broke-up home is, Mr. Tomkins, an' I hate to see another.
Mine can't help but stay broke—'less'n I'd start adoptin', which
would be a hard thing to do—in Simpkinsville. There couldn't never
possibly be a orphan without relations here, where everybody is kin—
an' a orphan with about twenty-'leven lookers-on is the last thing on
earth for anybody to adopt.”
This was the last meeting Elijah had with the widow Christian during
this season. He stayed a few minutes to-day, her willing listener and
When he finally made his awkward adieus his mind was filled with a
new hope in her suggestion of reconstructing his broken circle—
bringing his children home. Perhaps, after all, all of life had
not gone out of living.
He wished a little, as he pondered over her plan, that old Mrs.
Gibbs's wig were a closer fit, and that she were, perhaps, a trifle
less reminiscent. But these were externalities. She would really care
for him—and his babes. There would be a light in the front room when
he should go home at night.
As he looked back over the last seven months, Elijah felt as if he
had always been a widower—and wretched. It must be wretched to be a
widower, else why the common race for escape?
Perhaps widowhood is as miserable, but its pangs are different,
being matters of a woman's soul. With her it is rarely a question of
home-breaking or bodily discomfort. She is herself a maker and
disburser of comfort. Where she is is home. And so her sorrow is—
The more Elijah pondered over the question of reorganizing his home,
the more the desire to do so grew strong within him.
Still—so irreconcilable are sometimes the factors in a difficult
situation—the more he thought of old Mrs. Gibbs seated with wig askew
behind his coffee-urn, the less the picture invited his consent.
But the new concept had taken shape—a reorganized family table—a
little chair on one side—a high chair on the other. If old Mrs.
Gibbs's wig bobbed up constantly behind the coffee-urn, there was at
least an interrogation point above it. And in the interrogation there
Elijah was very thoughtful these days—very circumspect—very
Many times he went to the cemetery, paid his tribute, and came away
without even looking towards the Christian lot.
Perhaps he was thinking of old Mrs. Gibbs.
However this may be, a few days after this last interview, when he
had, as usual, deposited his floral tribute, he leaned over the grave,
and reaching forward, felt carefully about the roots of a certain clump
of grass, as if searching for something, and presently he picked up an
old, very rusty hair-pin.
He laid it in the palm of his other hand a moment and looked at it.
Then, taking his handkerchief, he wiped it tenderly, as if it were a
“I don't know what on earth I been a-thinkin' about to let it all go
to rust that-a-way,” he said, aloud.
And then he carefully put it in his pocket.
writer wishes to say that this is positively all that ever happened
between the widow Christian and Elijah Tomkins, bereaved, in the
Simpkinsville cemetery, and the report that went abroad at the time of
their marriage, some months later, to the effect that they had begun
their courting in the graveyard, is utterly without foundation in fact.
And she trusts the impartial reader to agree that never were two
mateless mourners more circumspect, never two with time and abundant
opportunity who were more loyal to their respective dead, than they.
THE UNLIVED LIFE OF LITTLE MARY ELLEN
THE UNLIVED LIFE OF LITTLE MARY ELLEN
WHEN Simpkinsville sits in shirt-sleeves along her store fronts in
summer, she does not wish to be considered en déshabillé.
Indeed, excepting in extreme cases, she would—after requiring that
you translate it into plain American, perhaps—deny the soft
Simpkinsville knows about coats, and she knows about ladies, and she
knows that coats and ladies are to be taken together.
But there are hot hours during August when nothing should be
required to be taken with anything—unless, indeed, it be ice—with
everything excepting more ice.
During the long afternoons in fly-time no woman who has any
discretion—or, as the Simpkinsville men would say, any “management”—
would leave her comfortable home to go “hangin' roun' sto'e counters to
be waited on.” And if they will—as they sometimes do—why, let them
take the consequences.
Still, there are those who, from the simple prestige which youth and
beauty give, are regarded in the Simpkinsville popular mind-masculine
as belonging to a royal family before whom all things must give way—
For these, and because any one of them may turn her horse's head
into the main road and drive up to any of the stores any hot afternoon,
there are coat-pegs within easy reach upon the inside door-frames—
pegs usually covered with the linen dusters and seersucker cutaways of
the younger men without.
Very few of the older ones disturb themselves about these trivial
matters. Even the doctors, of whom there are two in town, both “leading
physicians,” are wont to receive their most important “office patients"
in this comfortable fashion as, palmetto fans in hand, they rise from
their comfortable chairs, tilted back against the weather-boarded
fronts of their respective drugstores, and step forward to the buggies
of such ladies as drive up for quinine and capsules, or to present
their ailing babies for open-air glances at their throats or gums,
without so much as displacing their linen lap-robes.
When any of the village belles drive or walk past, such of the
commercial drummers as may be sitting trigly coated, as they sometimes
do, among the shirt-sleeves, have a way of feeling of their ties and
bringing the front legs of their chairs to the floor, while they sit
forward in supposed parlor attitudes, and easily doff their hats with a
grace that the Simpkinsville boys fiercely denounce while they vainly
strive to imitate it.
A country boy's hat will not take on that repose which marks the
cast of the metropolitan hatter, let him try to command it as he may.
It was peculiarly hot and sultry to-day in Simpkinsville, and
business was abnormally dull—even the apothecary business—this
being the annual mid-season's lull between spring fevers and green
Old Dr. Alexander, after nodding for an hour over his fan beneath
his tarnished gilt sign of the pestle and mortar, had strolled
diagonally across the street to join his friend and confrère
, Dr. Jenkins, in a friendly chat.
The doctors were not much given to this sort of sociability, but
sometimes when times were unbearably dull and healthy, and neither was
called to any one else, they would visit one another and talk to keep
“Well, I should say so!” The visitor dropped into the vacant chair
beside his host as he spoke. “I should say so. Ain't it hot enough
for you? Ef it ain't, I'd advise you to renounce yo' religion an'
prepare for a climate thet'll suit you.”
This pleasantry was in reply to the common summer-day greeting. “Hot
enough for you to-day, doc'?”
“Yas,” continued the guest, as he zigzagged the back legs of his
chair forward by quick jerks until he had gained the desired leaning
angle—“Yas, it's too hot to live, an' not hot enough to die. I reckon
that's why we have so many chronics a-hangin' on.”
“Well, don't let's quarrel with sech as the Lord provides, doctor,”
replied his host, with a chuckle. “Ef it wasn't for the chronics, I
reckon you an' I'd have to give up practisin' an' go to makin' soap.
Ain't that about the size of it?”
“Yas, chronics an'—an' babies. Ef they didn't come so
punctual, summer an' winter, I wouldn't be able to feed mine thet 're
a'ready here. But talkin' about the chronics, do you know, doctor, thet
sometimes when I don't have much else to think about, why, I think
about them. It's a strange providence to me thet keeps people a-hangin'
on year in an' year out, neither sick nor well. I don't doubt the
Almighty's goodness, of co'se; but we've got Scripture for callin' Him
the Great Physician, an' why, when He could ef He would, He don't—”
“I wouldn't dare to ask myself sech questions as that, doctor, ef I
was you. I wouldn't, I know. Besides”—and now he laughed—
“besides, I jest give you a reason for lettin' 'em remain as they are—
to feed us poor devils of doctors. An' besides that, I've often seen
cases where it seemed to me they were allowed to live to sanctify them
thet had to live with 'em. Of co'se in this I'm not speakin' of
great sufferers. An' no doubt they all get pretty tired an' wo'e out
with themselves sometimes. I do with myself, even, an' I'm well. Jest
listen at them boys a-whistlin' 'After the Ball' to Brother Binney's
horse's trot! They haven't got no mo' reverence for a minister o' the
gospel than nothin'. I s'pose as long as they ricollect his preachin'
against dancin' they'll make him ride into town to that sort o' music.
They've made it up among 'em to do it. Jest listen—all the way up the
street that same tune. An' Brother Binney trottin' in smilin' to it.”
While they were talking the Rev. Mr. Binney rode past, and
following, a short distance behind him, came a shabby buggy, in which a
shabby woman sat alone. She held her reins a trifle high as she-drove,
and it was this somewhat awkward position which revealed the fact, even
as she approached in the distance, that she carried what seemed an
infant lying upon her lap.
“There comes the saddest sight in Simpkinsville, doctor. I notice
them boys stop their whistlin' jest as soon as her buggy turned into
the road. I'm glad there's some things they respect,” said Dr.
“Yas, and I see the fellers at Rowton's sto'e are goin' in for their
coats. She's drawin' rein there now.”
“Yas, but she ain't more'n leavin' an order, I reckon. She's comin'
The shabby buggy was bearing down upon them now, indeed, and when
Dr. Jenkins saw it he too rose and put on his coat. As its occupant
drew rein he stepped out to her side, while his companion, having
raised his hat, looked the other way.
“Get out an' come in, Mis' Bradley.” Dr. Jenkins had taken her hand
as he spoke.
“No, thanky, doctor. 'Taint worth while. I jest want to consult you
about little Mary Ellen. She ain't doin' well, some ways.”
At this she drew back the green barége veil that was spread over the
bundle upon her lap, exposing, as she did so, the blond head and chubby
face of a great wax doll, with eyes closed as if in sleep.
The doctor laid the veil back in its place quickly.
“I wouldn't expose her face to the evenin' sun, Mis' Bradley,” he
said, gently. “I'll call out an' see her to-morrow; an' ef I was you I
think I'd keep her indoors for a day or so.” Then as he glanced into
the woman's haggard and eager face, he added: “She's gettin' along as
well as might be expected, Mis' Bradley. But I'll be out to-morrow, an'
fetch you somethin' thet 'll put a little color in yo' face.”
“Oh, don't mind me, doctor,” she answered, with a sigh of relief, as
she tucked the veil carefully under the little head. “Don't mind me. I
ain't sick. Ef I could jest see her pick up a little, why, I'd
feel all right. When you come to-morrer, better fetch somethin' she
can take, doctor. Well, good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mis' Bradley.”
It was some moments before either of the doctors spoke after Dr.
Jenkins had returned to his place. And then it was he who said:
“Talkin' about the ways o' Providence, doctor, what do you call
“That's one o' the mysteries thet it's hard to unravel, doctor. Ef
anything would make me doubt the mercy of God Almighty, it would be
some sech thing as that. And yet—I don't know. Ef there ever was a
sermon preached without words, there's one preached along the open
streets of Simpkinsville by that pore little half-demented woman when
she drives into town nursin' that wax doll. An' it's preached where
it's much needed, too—to our young people. There ain't many preachers
that can reach 'em, but—Did you take notice jest now how, as soon as
she turned into the road, all that whistlin' stopped? They even
neglected to worry Brother Binney. An' she's the only woman in town
thet 'll make old Rowton put on a coat. He'll wait on yo' wife or mine
in his shirt-sleeves, an' it's all right. But there's somethin' in that
broken-hearted woman nursin' a wax doll thet even a fellow like Rowton
'll feel. Didn't you ever think thet maybe you ought to write her case
“Yas; an' I've done it—as far as it goes. I've called it 'A
Psychological Impossibility.' An' then I've jest told her story. A heap
of impossible things have turned out to be facts—facts that had to be
argued backward from. You can do over argiments, but you can't undo
facts. Yas, I've got her case all stated as straight as I can state it,
an' some day it 'll be read. But not while she's livin'. Sir? No, not
even with names changed an' everything. It wouldn't do. It couldn't
help bein' traced back to her. No; some day, when we've all passed
away, likely, it'll all come out in a medical journal, signed by me.
An' I've been thinkin' thet I'd like to have you go over that paper
with me some time, doctor, so thet you could testify to it. An' I
thought we'd get Brother Binney to put his name down as the minister
thet had been engaged to perform the marriage, an' knew all the ins and
outs of it. And then it 'll hardly be believed.”
Even as they spoke they heard the whistling start up again along the
street, and, looking up, they saw the Rev. Mr. Binney approaching.
“We've jest been talkin' about you, Brother Binney—even before the
boys started you to dancin'.” Dr. Jenkins rose and brought out a third
“No,” answered the dominie, as with a good-natured smile he
dismounted. “No, they can't make me dance, an' I don't know as it's a
thing my mare 'll have to answer for. She seems to take naturally to
the sinful step, an' so, quick as they start a-whistlin', I try to ride
as upright an' godly as I can, to sort o' equalize things. How were you
two discussin' me, I'd like to know?”
He put the question playfully as he took his seat.
“Well, we were havin' a pretty serious talk, brother,”said Dr.
Jenkins—“a pretty serious talk, doc and me. We were talkin' about
pore Miss Mary Ellen. We were sayin' thet we reckoned ef there were any
three men in town thet were specially qualified to testify about her
case, we must be the three—you an' him an' me. I've got it all
written out, an' I thought some day I'd get you both to read it over
an' put your names to it, with any additions you might feel disposed to
make. After we've all passed away, there ought to be some authorized
account. You know about as much as we do, I reckon, Brother Binney.”
“Yes, I s'pose I do—in a way. I stood an' watched her face durin'
that hour an' a quarter they stood in church waitin' for Clarence
Bradley to come. Mary Ellen never was to say what you'd call a purty
girl, but she always did have a face that would hold you ef you ever
looked at it. An' when she stood in church that day, with all her
bridesmaids strung around the chancel, her countenance would 'a' done
for any heavenly picture. An' as the time passed, an' he didn't show up
—Well, I don't want to compare sinfully, but there's a picture I saw
once of Mary at the Cross—Reckon I ought to take that back, lest it
might be sinful; but there ain't any wrong in my telling you here thet
as I stood out o' sight, waitin' that day in church, behind the pyramid
o' flowers the bridesmaids had banked up for her, with my book open in
my hand at the marriage service, while we waited for him to come, as
she stood before the pulpit in her little white frock and wreath, I
could see her face. An' there came a time, after it commenced to get
late, when I fell on my knees.”
The good man stopped speaking for a minute to steady his voice.
“You see,” he resumed, presently, “we'd all heard things. I knew
he'd seemed completely taken up with this strange girl; an' when
at last he came for me to marry him and Mary Ellen, I never was so
rejoiced in my life. Thinks I, I've been over-suspicious. Of co'se I
knew he an' Mary Ellen had been sweethearts all their lives. I tell
you, friends, I've officiated at funerals in my life—buried little
children an' mothers of families—an' I've had my heart in my throat
so thet I could hardly do my duty; but I tell you I never in all my
life had as sad an experience as I did at little Mary Ellen Williams's
weddin'—the terrible, terrible weddin' thet never came off.”
“An' I've had patients,” said Dr. Jenkins, coming into the pause—
“I've had patients, Brother Binney, thet I've lost—lost 'em because
the time had come for 'em to die—patients thet I've grieved to see go
more as if I was a woman than a man, let alone a doctor; but I never in
all my life come so near clair givin' way an' breakin' down as I
did at that weddin' when you stepped out an' called me out o' the
congregation to tell me she had fainted. God help us, it was terrible!
I'll never forget that little white face as it lay so limpy and still
against the lilies tied to the chancel rail, not ef I live a thousand
years. Of co'se we'd all had our fears, same as you. We knew Clarence's
failin', an' we saw how the yaller-haired girl had turned his head;
but, of co'se, when it come to goin' into the church, why, we thought
it was all right. But even after the thing had happened—even knowin'
as much as I did—I never to say fully took in the situation till the
time come for her to get better. For two weeks she lay 'twixt life an'
death, an' the one hope I had was for her to recognize me. She hadn't
recognized anybody since she was brought out o' the church. But when at
last she looked at me one day, an' says she, 'Doctor—what you reckon
kep' him—so late?' I tell you I can't tell you how I felt.”
“What did you say, doctor?”
It was the minister who ventured the question.
“What can a man say when he 'ain't got nothin' to say? I jest said,
'Better not talk any to-day, honey.' An' I turned away an' made
pertence o' mixin' powders— an' mixed 'em, for that matter—
give her sech as would put her into a little sleep. An' then I set by
her till she drowsed away. But when she come out o' that sleep an' I
see how things was—when she called herself Mis' Bradley an' kep'
askin' for him, an' I see she didn't know no better, an' likely never
would—God help me! but even while I prescribed physic for her to
live, in my heart I prayed to see her die. She thought she had been
married, an' from that day to this she 'ain't never doubted it. Of
co'se she often wonders why he don't come home; an' sence that doll
“Didn't it ever strike you as a strange providence about that doll—
thet would allow sech a thing, for instance, doctor?”
Dr. Jenkins did not answer at once.
“Well,” he said, presently, “yas—yas an' no. Ef a person looks at
it close-t enough, it 'ain't so hard to see mercy in God's
judgments. I happened to be at her bedside the day that doll come in—
Christmas Eve four years ago. She was mighty weak an' porely. She
gen'ally gets down in bed 'long about the holidays, sort o' reelizin'
the passin' o' time, seein' he don't come. She had been so worried and
puny thet the old nigger 'Pollo come for me to see her. An', well,
while I set there tryin' to think up somethin' to help hor, 'Pollo, he
fetched in the express package.”
“I've always blamed her brother, Brother Binney,” Dr. Alexander
interposed, “for allowin' that package to go to her.”
“Allowin'! Why, he never allowed it. You might jest as well
say you blame him for namin' his one little daughter after her aunt
Mary Ellen. That's how the mistake was made. No, for my part I never
thought so much of Ned Williams in my life as I did when he said to me
the day that baby girl was born, 'Ef it's a girl, doctor, we're a-goin'
to name it after sis' Mary Ellen. Maybe it'll be a comfort to her.' An'
they did. How many brothers, do you reckon, would name a child after a
sister thet had lost her mind over a man thet had jilted her at the
church door, an' called herself by his name ever sence? Not many, I
reckon. No, don't blame Ned—for anything. He hoped she'd love the
little thing, an' maybe it would help her. An' she did notice it
consider'ble for a while, but it didn't seem to have the power to bring
her mind straight. In fact, the way she'd set an' look at it for hours,
an' then go home an' set down an' seem to be thinkin', makes me
sometimes suspicion thet that was what started her a-prayin' God to
send her a child. She's said to me more than once-t about that time—
she'd say, 'You see, doctor, when he's away so much—ef it was God's
will—a child would be a heap o' company to me while he's away.' This,
mind you, when he hadn't shown up at the weddin'; when we all knew he
ran away an' married the yaller-hair that same night. Of co'se it did
seem a strange providence to be sent to a God-fearin' woman as she
always was; it did seem strange thet she should be allowed to make
herself redic'lous carryin' that wax doll around the streets; an' yet,
when you come to think—”
“Well, I say what I did befo',” said Dr. Alexander. “Her brother
should 'a' seen to it thet no sech express package intended for
his child should 'a' been sent to the aunt—not in her state o' mind.”
“How could he see to it when he didn't send it—didn't know it was
comin'? Of co'se we Simpkinsville folks, we all know thet she's called
Mary Ellen, an' thet Ned's child has been nicknamed Nellie. But his
wife's kin, livin' on the other side o' the continent, they couldn't be
expected to know that, an' when they sent her that doll, why, they
nachelly addressed it to her full name; an' it was sent up to Miss Mary
Ellen's. Even then the harm needn't to 've been done exceptin' for her
bein' sick abed, an' me, her doctor, hopin' to enliven her up a little
with an unexpected present, makes the nigger 'Pollo set it down by her
bedside, and opens it befo' her eyes, right there. Maybe I'm to blame
for that— but I ain't. We can't do mo' than try for the
best. I thought likely as not Ned had ordered her some little Christmas
things—as he had, in another box.”
The old doctor stopped, and, taking out his handkerchief, wiped his
“Of co'se, as soon as I see what it was, I knew somebody had sent it
to little Mary Ellen, but—
“You say, Brother Binney, thet the look in her face at the weddin'
made you fall on yo' knees. I wish you could 'a' seen the look thet
come into her eyes when I lifted that doll-baby out of that box.
Heavenly Father! That look is one o' the things thet 'll come back to
me sometimes when I wake up too early in the mornin's, an' I can't get
back to sleep for it. But at the time I didn't fully realize it,
somehow. She jest reached an' took the doll out o' my hands, an'
turnin' over, with her face to the wall, held it tight in her arms
without sayin' a word. Then she lay still for so long that-a-way thet
by-an'-bye I commenced to get uneasy less'n she'd fainted. So I leaned
over an' felt of her pulse, an' I see she was layin' there cryin' over
it without a sound—an' I come away. I don't know how came I to be so
thick-headed, but even then I jest supposed thet seein' the doll
nachelly took her mind back to the time she was a child, an' that in
itself was mighty sad an' pitiful to me, knowin' her story, and I
confess to you I was glad there wasn't anybody I had to speak to on my
way out. I tell you I was about cryin' myself—jest over the
pitifulness of even that. But next day when I went back of co'se I see
how it was. She never had doubted for a minute thet that doll was the
baby she'd been prayin' for—not a minute. An' she don't, not to
this day—straight as her mind is on some things. That's why I
call it a psychological impossibility, she bein' so rational an' so
crazy at the same time. Sent for me only last week, an' when I got
there I found her settin' down with it a-layin' in her lap, an'
she lookin' the very picture of despair. 'Doctor,' says she, 'I'm sure
they's mo' wrong with Mary Ellen than you let on to me. She don't
grow, doctor.' An' with that she started a-sobbin' en' a-rockin'
back an' fo'th over it. 'An' even the few words she could say, doctor,
she seems to forget 'em,' says she. 'She 'ain't called my name for a
week.' It's a fact; the little talkin'-machine inside it has got out o'
fix some way, an' it don't say 'mamma' and 'papa' any mo'.”
“Have you ever thought about slippin' it away from her, doctor, an'
seein' if maybe she wouldn't forget it? If she was my patient I'd try
“Yas, but you wouldn't keep it up. I did try it once-t. Told old
Milly thet ef she fretted too much not to give her the doll, but to
send for me. An' she did—in about six hours. An' I—well, when I see
her face I jest give it back to her. An' I'll never be the one to take
it from her again. It comes nearer givin' her happiness than anything
else could—an' what could be mo' innocent? She's even mo' contented
since her mother died an' there ain't anybody to prevent her carryin'
it on the street. I know it plegged Ned at first to see her do it, but
he's never said a word. He's one in a thousand. He cares mo' for his
sister's happiness than for how she looks to other folks. Most brothers
don't. There ain't a mornin' but he drives in there to see ef she wants
anything, an', of co'se, keepin' up the old place jest for her to live
in it costs him consider'ble. He says she wouldn't allow it, but she
thinks Clarence pays for everything, an' of co'se he was fully able.”
“I don't think it's a good way for her to live, doctor, in that big
old place with jest them two old niggers. I never have thought so. Ef
she was my patient—”
“Well, pardner, that's been talked over between Ned an' his wife,
an' they've even consulted me. An' I b'lieve she ought to be let alone.
Those two old servants take about as good care of her as anybody could.
Milly nursed her when she was a baby, an' she loves the ground she
walks on, an' she humors her in everything. Why, I've gone out there
an' found that old nigger walkin' that doll up an' down the po'ch,
singing to it for all she was worth; an' when I'd drive up, the po' ol'
thing would cry so she couldn't go in the house for ten minutes or mo'.
No, it ain't for us to take away sech toys as the Lord sends to comfort
an' amuse his little ones; an' the weak-minded, why, they always seem
that-a-way to me. An' sometimes, when I come from out of some of our
homes where everything is regular and straight accordin' to our way o'
lookin' at things, an' I see how miserable an' unhappy everything is
, an' I go out to the old Williams place, where the birds are singin' in
the trees an' po' Miss Mary Ellen is happy sewin' her little
doll-clo'es, an' the old niggers ain't got a care on earth but to look
after her—Well, I dun'no'. Ef you'd dare say the love o' God wasn't
there, I wouldn't. Of co'se she has her unhappy moments, an' I
can see she's failin'as time passes; but even so, ain't this for
the best? They'd be somethin' awful about it, to me, ef she kep'
a-growin' stronger through it all. One of the sweetest providences o'
sorrow is thet we poor mortals fail under it. There ain't a flower thet
blooms but some seed has perished for it.”
It was at a meeting of the woman's prayer-meeting, about a week
after the conversation just related, that Mrs. Blanks, the good sister
who led the meeting, rose to her feet, and, after a silence that
betokened some embarrassment in the subject she essayed, said:
“My dear sisters, I've had a subjec' on my mind for a long time, a
subjec' thet I've hesitated to mention, but the mo' I put it away the
mo' it seems to come back to me. I've hesitated because she's got
kinfolks in this prayer-meetin', but I don't believe thet there's
anybody kin to Miss Mary Ellen thet feels any nearer to her than what
the rest of us do.”
“Amen!” “Amen!” and “Amen!” came in timid women's voices from
different parts of the room.
“I know how you all feel befo' you answer me, my dear sisters,” she
continued, presently. “And now I propose to you thet we, first here as
a body of worshippers, an' then separately as Christian women at home
in our closets, make her case a subjec' of special prayer. Let us ask
the good Lord to relieve her—jest so— unconditionally; to
take this cloud off her life an' this sorrow off our streets, an' I
believe He'll do it.”
There were many quiet tears shed in the little prayer-meeting that
morning as, with faltering voice, one woman after another spoke her
word of exhortation or petition in behalf of the long-suffering sister.
That this revival of the theme by the wives and mothers of the
community should have resulted in renewed attentions to the poor
distraught woman was but natural. It is sound orthodoxy to try to help
God to answer our prayers. And so the faithful women of the churches—
there were a few of every denomination in town in the union
prayer-meeting—began to go to her, fully resolved to say some
definite word to win her, if possible, from her hallucination, to break
the spell that held her; but they would almost invariably come away
full of contrition over such false and comforting words as they had
been constrained to speak “over a soulless and senseless doll.”
Indeed, a certain Mrs. Lynde, one of the most ardent of these good
women, but a sensitive soul withal, was moved, after one of her visits,
to confess in open meeting both her sin and her chagrin in the
following humiliating fashion:
“I declare I never felt so 'umbled in my life ez I did after I come
away from there, a week ago come Sunday. Here I goes, full of clear
reasonin' an' Scripture texts, to try to bring her to herself, an' I
'ain't no mo'n set down sca'cely, when I looks into her face, as she
sets there an' po's out her sorrers over that ridic'lous little doll,
befo' I'm consolin' her with false hopes, like a perfec' Ananias an'
Sapphira. Ef any woman could set down an' see her look at that old
doll's face when she says, 'Honey, do you reckon I'll ever raise her,
when she keeps so puny?'—I say ef any woman with a human heart in her
bosom could hear her say that, an' not tell her, 'Cert'n'y she'd raise
her,' an' that 'punier children than that had growed up to be healthy
men an' women'—well, maybe they might be better Christians than I am,
but I don't never expec' to be sanctified up to that point. I know I'm
an awful sinner, deservin' of eternal punishment for deceit which is
the same as a lie, but I not only told her I thought she could raise
her, but I felt her pulse, an' said it wasn't quite what a reel hearty
child's ought to be. Of co'se I said that jest to save myself from
p'int-blank lyin'. An' then, when I see how it troubled her to think it
wasn't jest right, why, God forgive me, but I felt it over
again, an' counted it by my watch, an' then I up an' told her it was
all right, an' thet ef it had a-been any different to the way it
was under the circumstances, I'd be awful fearful, which, come to think
of it, that last is true ez God's word, for ef I'd a-felt a pulse in
that doll's wrist—which, tell the truth, I was so excited while she
watched me I half expected to feel it pulsate—I'd 'a' shot out o'
that door a ravin' lunatic. I come near enough a-doin' it when she
patted its chest an' it said 'mamma' an' 'papa' in reply. I don't know,
but I think thet the man thet put words into a doll's breast, to be
hugged out by a poor, bereft, weak-minded woman, has a terrible sin to
answer for. Seems to me it's a-breakin' the second commandment, which
forbids the makin' of anything in the likeness of anything in the
heavens above or the earth beneath, which a baby is if it's anything,
bein' the breath o' God fresh-breathed into human clay. I don't know.
but I think that commandment is aimed jest as direct at talkin' dolls
ez it is at heathen idols, which, when you come to think of it, ain't
p'intedly made after the image of anything in creation thet
we've seen samples of, after all. Them thet I've seen the pictures of
ain't no mo'n sech outlandish deformities thet anybody could conceive
of ef he imagined a strange-figgured person standin' befo' a cracked
merror so ez to have his various an' sundry parts duplicated,
promiscuous. No, I put down the maker of that special an' partic'lar
doll ez a greater idolitor than them thet, for the want o' knowin'
better, stick a few extry members on a clay statute an' pray to it
in faith. Ef it hadn't a-called her 'mamma' first time she
over-squeezed it, I don't believe for a minute thet that doll
would ever 'a' got the holt upon Mary Ellen thet it has—I don't
“Still”—it was Mrs. Blanks who spoke up in reply, wiping her eyes
as she began—“still, Sister Lynde, you know she frets over it jest ez
much sence it's lost its speech.”
“Of co'se,” said another sister; “an' why shouldn't she? Ef yo'
little Katie had a-started talkin' an' then stopped of a suddent,
wouldn't you 'a' been worried, I like to know?”
“Yas, I reckon I would,” replied Mrs. Blanks; “but it's hard to put
her in the place of a mother with a reel child—even in a person's
There had been in Simpkinsville an occasional doll whose eyes would
open and shut as she was put to bed or taken up, and the crying doll
was not a thing unknown.
That the one which should play so conspicuous a part in her history
should have developed the gift of speech, invested it with a weird and
It was, indeed, most uncanny and sorrowful to hear its poor piping
response to the distraught woman's caresses as she pressed it to her
To the little doll-loving girls of Simpkinsville it had always been
an object of semi-superstitious reverence—a thing half doll, half
human, almost alive.
When her little niece Nellie, a tall girl of eight years now, would
come over in the mornings and beg Aunt Mary Ellen to let her hold the
baby, she never quite knew, as she walked it up and down the yard,
under the mulberry-trees, with the green veil laid lovingly over its
closed lids, whether to look for a lapse from its human quality into
ordinary dollhood, or to expect a sudden development on the life side.
She would, no doubt, long ago have lost this last hope, in the lack
of progression in its mechanical speech, but for the repeated
confidences of her aunt Mary Ellen.
“Why, honey, she often laughs out loud an' turns over in bed, an'
sometimes she wakes me up cryin' so pitiful.” So the good aunt, who had
never told a lie in all her pious life, often assured her—assured her
with a look in her face that was absolutely invincible in its
expression of perfect faith in the thing she said.
There had been several serious conferences between her father and
mother in the beginning, before the child had been allowed to go to see
Aunt Mary Ellen's dolly—to see and hold it, and inevitably to love it
with all her child heart; but even before the situation had developed
its full sadness, or they had realized how its contingencies would
familiarize every one with the strange, sad story, the arguments were
in the child's favor. To begin with, the doll was really hers, though
it was thought best, in the circumstances, that she should never know
it. Indeed, at first her father had declared that she should have one
just like it; but when it was found that its price was nearly equal to
the value of a bale of cotton, the good man was moved to declare that
“the outlandish thing, with its heathenish imitations, had wrought
sorrer enough in the family a'ready without trying to duplicate it.”
Still, there couldn't be any harm in letting her see the beautiful
toy. And so, as she held it in her arms, the child came vaguely to
realize that a great mystery of anxious love hovered about this
strange, weird doll, a mystery that, to her young perception, as she
read it in the serious home faces, was as full of tragic possibilities
as that which concerned the real baby sister that lay and slept and
waked and grew in the home cradle—the real, warm, heavy baby that she
was sometimes allowed to hold “just for a minute” while the nurse-mammy
followed close beside her.
If the toy-baby gave her the greater pleasure, may it not have been
because she dimly perceived in it a meeting-point between the real and
the imaginary? Here was a threshold of the great wonder-world that
primitive peoples and children love so well. They are the great
mystics, after all. And are they not, perhaps, wise mystics who sit and
wonder and worship, satisfied not to understand?
Summer waned and went out, and September came in—September, hot
and murky and short of breath, as one ill of heart-failure. Even the
prayer-meeting women who had taken up Miss Mary Ellen's case in strong
faith, determined not to let it go, were growing faint of heart under
the combined pressure of disappointed hope and the summer's weight. The
poor object of their prayers, instead of seeming in any wise improved,
grew rather more wan and weary as time wore on. Indeed, she sometimes
appeared definitely worse, and would often draw rein in the public road
to lift the doll from her lap and discuss her anxieties concerning it
with any passing acquaintance, or even on occasion to exult in a
This was a thing she had never done before the women began to pray,
and it took a generous dispensation of faith to enable them to continue
steadfast in the face of such discouragement. But, as is sometimes the
case, greater faith came from the greater need, and the prayer-meeting
grew. In the face of its new and painful phases, as the tragedy took on
a fresh sadness, even a few churchly women who had stood aloof at the
beginning waived their sectarian differences and came into the meeting.
And there were strange confessions sometimes at these gatherings, where
it was no uncommon thing for a good sister to relate how, on a certain
occasion, she had either “burst out cryin' to keep from laughin',” or
“laughed like a heathen jest to keep from cryin'.”
The situation was now grown so sad and painful that the doctors
called a consultation of neighboring physicians, even bringing for the
purpose a “specialist” all the way from the Little Rock Asylum, hoping
little, but determined to spare no effort for the bettering of things.
After this last effort and its discouraging result, all hope of
recovery seemed gone, and so the good women, when they prayed,
despairing of human agency, asked simply for a miracle, reading aloud,
for the support of their faith, the stories of marvellous healing as
related in the gospels.
It was on a sultry morning, after a night of rain, near the end of
September. Old Dr. Jenkins stood behind the showcase in his drug-store
dealing out quinine pills and earache drops to the poor country folk
and negroes, who, with sallow faces or heads bound up, declared
themselves “chillin' ” or “painful” while they waited. Patient as cows,
they stood in line while the dispensing hand of healing passed over to
their tremulous, eager palms the promised “help” for their assorted
It was a humble crowd of sufferers, deferring equally, as they
waited, to the dignitary who served them and to his environment of
mysterious potencies, whose unreadable Latin labels glared at them in
every direction as if in challenge to their faith and respect. To the
thoughtful observer it seemed an epitome of suffering humanity—
patient humanity waiting to be healed by some great and mysterious
It may have been their general attitude of unconscious deference
that moved the crowd to fall quickly back at the entrance of the first
assertive visitor of the morning, or perhaps old 'Pollo, the negro, as
he came rushing into the shop, would have been accorded right of way in
a more pretentious gathering. There was certainly that in his
appearance which demanded attention.
He had galloped up to the front door, his horse in a lather from the
long, hot ride from the Williams homestead, four miles away, and,
throwing his reins across the pommel of his saddle, had burst into the
drug-store with an excited appeal:
“Doctor Jinkins, come quick! For Gord's sake! Miss Mary Ellen
need you, Marse Doctor—she need you— right off!“
He did not wait for a response. He had delivered his summons, and,
turning without another word, he remounted his horse and rode away.
It was not needed that the doctor should offer any apologies to his
patients for following him. He did not, indeed, seem to remember that
they were there as he seized his coat, and, without even waiting to put
it on, quickly unhitched his horse tied at the front door, and followed
the negro down the road.
It was a matter of but a few moments to overtake him, and when the
two were riding abreast the doctor saw that the old man was crying.
“De dorg, he must 'a' done it, Marse Doctor,” he began, between
sobs. “He must 'a' got in las' night. It was so hot we lef' all de do's
open, same lak we been doin'—But it warn't we-alls fault,
doctor. But de dorg, he must 'a' snatch de doll out'n de cradle an' run
out in de yard wid it, an' it lay a-soakin' in de rain all night. When
Miss Mary Ellen fust woked up dis mornin', she called out to Milly to
fetch de baby in to her. Milly she often tecks it out'n de cradle early
in de mornin' 'fo' missy wakes up, an' make pertend lak she feeds it in
de kitchen. An' dis mornin', when she call for it, Milly, she 'spon'
back, 'I 'ain't got her, missy!' jes dat-a-way. An' wid dat, 'fo' you
could bat yo' eye, missy was hop out'n dat bed an' stan' in de middle
o' de kitchen in her night-gownd, white in de face as my
whitewash-bresh. An' when she had look at Milly an' den at me, she
sclaim out, 'Whar my child?' I tell you, Marse Doctor, when I
see dat look an' heah dat inquiry, I trimbled so dat dat kitchen flo'
shuck tell de kittle-leds on de stove rattled. An' Milly, she see how
scarified missy look, an' she commence to tu'n roun' an' seek for
words, when we heah pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, on de po'ch; an', good Gord,
Marse Doctor! heah come Rover, draggin' dat po' miser'ble little
doll-baby in his mouf, drippin' wid mud an' sopped wid rain-water.
Quick as I looked at it I see dat bofe eyes was done soaked out an' de
paint gone, an' all its yaller hair it had done eve'y bit soaked off.
Sir? Oh, I don't know, sir, how she gwine teck it. Dey ain't no sayin'
as to dat. She hadn't come to when I come away. She had jes
drapped down in a dead faint in the mids' o' de kitchen, an' I holp
Milly lif' her on to de bed, an' I come for you. Co'se I had to stop
an' ketch de horse; an' de roads, dey was so awful muddy an'—”
It was a long ride over the heavy roads, and as the good doctor
trotted along, with the old darky steadily talking beside him, he
presently ceased to hear.
Having once realized the situation, his professional mind busied
itself in speculations as to the probable result of so critical an
incident to his patient. Accident, chance, or mayhap a kind providence,
had done for her the thing he had long wished to try but had not dared.
The mental shock, with the irreparable loss of the doll, would probably
have a definite effect for good or ill—if, indeed, she would consent
even now to give it up. Of course there was no telling.
This question was almost immediately answered, however, for when,
presently, the old negro led the way into the lane leading to the
Williams gate, preceding the doctor so as to open the gate for him, he
leaned suddenly over his horse's neck and peered eagerly forward. Then
drawing rein for a moment, he called back:
“Marse Doctor, look hard, please, sir, an' see what dat my ol' 'oman
Milly is doin' out at de front gate.”
The doctor's eyes were little better than his companion's. Still, he
was able in a moment to reply:
“Why, old man, she is tying a piece of white muslin upon the
gate-post. Something has happened.”
“White is for babies, ain't it, Marse Doctor?”
“Den it mus' be she's give it up for dead.”
The old man began sobbing again.
“Yes; thank God!” said the doctor. And he wiped his eyes.
The bit of fluttering white that hung upon the gate at the end of
the lane had soon told its absurd and pitiful little tale of woe to the
few passers-by on the road—its playful announcement of half the
story, the comedy side, pathetically suggesting the tragedy that was
Before many hours all Simpkinsville knew what had happened, and the
little community had succumbed to an attack of hysteria.
Simpkinsville was not usually of a particularly nervous or
hysterical temper, but a wholesome sense of the ludicrous, colliding
with her maternal love for her afflicted child, could not do less than
find relief in simultaneous laughter and tears.
And still, be it said to their credit, when the good women
separated, after meeting in the various houses to talk it over, it was
the mark of tears that remained upon their faces.
But when it was presently known that their nerve poise was to be
critically tested by a “funeral” announced for the next day, there was
less emotion exhibited, perhaps, and there were more quiet
consultations among the serious-minded.
When Miss Mary Ellen, prostrate and wan with the burden of her
long-borne sorrow, had from her pillow quietly given instructions for
the burial, the old doctor, who solicitously watched beside her, in the
double capacity of friend and physician, had not been able to say her
And when on the next day he had finally invited a conference on the
subject with her brother, the minister, his fellow-doctor, and several
personal friends of the family, there were heavy lines about his eyes,
and he confessed that before daring his advice on so sensitive a point
he had “walked the flo' the live-long night.”
And then he had strongly, unequivocally, advised the funeral.
“We've thought it best to humor her all the way through,” he began,
“an' now, when the end is clairly in sight, why, there ain't any
consistency in changin' the treatment. Maybe when it's buried she'll
forget it, an' in time come to herself. Of co'se it 'll be a tryin'
ordeel, but there's enough of us sensible relations an' friends thet
'll go through it, if need be.” He had walked up and down the room as
he spoke, his hands clasped behind him, and now he stopped before the
minister. “Of co'se, Brother Binney”—he spoke with painful hesitation
—“of co'se she'll look for you to come an' to put up a prayer, an'
maybe read a po'tion o' Scripture. An' I've thought that over.
Seems to me the whole thing is sad enough for religious services—ef
anything is. I've seen reel funerals thet wasn't half so mo'nful, ef
I'm any judge of earthly sorrers. There wouldn't be any occasion to
bring in the doll in the services, I don't think. But there ain't any
earthly grief, in my opinion, but's got a Scripture tex' to match it,
ef it's properly selected.”
A painful stillness followed this appeal. And then, after closing
his eyes for a moment as if in prayer, the good minister said:
“Of course, my dear friends, you can see thet this thing
can't be conducted as a funeral. But, as our good brother has
jest remarked, for all the vicissitudes of life—and death—for our
safety in joy and our comfort in sorrow, we are given precious words of
sweet and blessed consolation.”
The saddest funeral gathering in all the annals of Simpkinsville—
so it is still always called by those who wept at the obsequies—was
that of Miss Mary Ellen's doll, led by the good brother on the
The prayer-meeting women were there, of course, fortified in their
faith by the supreme demand laid upon it, and even equipped with fresh
self-control for this crucial test of their poise and worthiness. Their
love was deep and sincere, and yet so sensitive were they to the
dangers of this most precarious situation that when presently the
minister entered, book in hand, a terrible apprehension seized them.
It was as a great wave of indescribable fright, so awful that for a
moment their hearts seemed to stop beating, so irresistible in its
force that unless it should be quickly stayed it must presently break
in some emotion.
No doubt the good brother felt it too, for instead of opening his
book, as had been his intention, he laid it down upon the table before
him—the small centre-table upon which lay what seemed a tiny mound
heaped with flowers—and, placing both hands upon the bowed head of
the little woman who sat beside it, closed his eyes, and raised his
“Dear Lord, Thou knowest,” he said, slowly. Then finding no other
words, perhaps, and willing to be still, he waited a moment in silence.
When he spoke again the wave had broken. The air seemed to sway with
the indescribable vibrations that tell of silent weeping, and every
face was buried in a handkerchief.
“Thou knowest, O Lord,” he resumed, presently, raising his voice a
little as if in an access of courage—“Thou knowest how dear to our
hearts is Thy handmaiden, this beloved sister who sits in sorrow among
us to-day. Thou knowest how we love her. Thou knowest that her
afflictions are ours. And oh, dear Father, if it be possible, grant
that when we have reverently put this poor little symbol of our common
sorrow out of sight forever, Thy peace may descend and fill her heart
and ours with Thy everlasting benediction.”
The words, which had come slowly, though without apparent effort,
might have been inspired. Surely they sounded to the women who waited
as if uttered by a voice from Heaven, and to their spiritually attuned
ears it was a voice comforting, composing, quieting.
After this followed a reading of Scripture—a selection taken for
its wide application to all God's sorrowing people—and the singing of
the beautiful hymn,
“God shall charge His angel legions
Watch and ward o'er thee to keep.”
This was sung, without a break, from the beginning clear through to
the end, with its sweet promise to the grief-stricken of “life beyond
the grave.” Then came the benediction—the benediction of the churches
since the days of the apostles, used of all Christians the world over,
but ever beautiful and new—“The peace of God, which passeth all
understanding, keep your hearts and minds,” etc.
All the company had risen for this—all excepting Miss Mary Ellen,
who during the entire ceremony had not changed her position—and when
it was finished, when the moment of silent prayers was over and one by
one the women rose from their knees, there came an awkward interval
pending the next step in this most difficult and exceptional service.
The little woman in whose behalf it had been conducted, for whom all
the prayers had been said, made no sign by which her further will
should be made known. It had been expected that she would herself go to
the burial, and against this contingency a little grave had been
prepared in the family burial-ground, which, happily, was situated upon
her own ground, in a grove of trees a short distance from the house.
After waiting for some moments, and seeing that she still did not
move, the reverend brother finally approached her and laid his palm as
before upon her head. Then, quickly reaching around, he drew her hand
from beneath her cheek, felt her pulse, and now, turning, he motioned
to the doctor to come.
The old man, Dr. Jenkins, lifted her limp arm tenderly and felt her
wrist, listened with his ear against her bosom, waited, and listened
again—and again. And then, laying back the hand tenderly, he took his
handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
“Dear friends,” he said, huskily, “your prayers have been answered.
Sister Mary Ellen has found peace.”
A SIMPKINSVILLE EPISODE
THE widow Carroll and widower Bradfield were next neighbors. Indeed,
they were the nearest next neighbors in Simpkinsville, their houses,
contrary to the village fashion, standing scarce thirty feet apart.
The cordial friendly relations long existing between the two
families were still indicated by the well-worn “stoop” set in the
dividing-fence between the two gardens, its three steps on either side
a perpetual invitation to social intercourse. Here, in the old days,
the two wives were wont to meet for neighborly converse, each generally
sitting on her own side, while the “landing” at the stoop's summit
answered for table, set conviently between them. Here it had been a
common thing to see two thimbles standing off duty beside spools of
thread and bits of sewing—little sleeves or patch-work squares—
while their mistresses bent over flower beds or pots; for many an
industrious intention was thwarted by the witchery of growing things on
both sides the fence. Indeed, every one of the fine flowering geraniums
that bloomed on either porch had at one time or another passed over
this stoop as a cutting, or been taxed in some of its members for the
Here, too, had passed cake receipts and pantalet patterns, bits of
yeast-cake and preserving-kettles. Here were exchanged comments upon
last Sunday's sermons, and lengthy opinions upon such questions as
frequently disturb the maternal mind; as, for instance, whether it were
wiser for parents to put their children through the contagious diseases
of childhood as opportunity offered, or to shun them, hoping for
life-long immunity. In such arguments as this Mrs. Carroll had usually
the advantage of a positive opinion. On this identical question, for
example, she had frankly declared her sentiments in this wise:
“Well, they's some ketchin' diseases thet I'd send my child'en after
in a minute, ef they was handy; an' then, agin, they's others thet I
wouldn't dare to, though, ef they was to come, I'd be glad when
they was over. Any disease thet's got any principle to it I ain't
afeerd to tackle, sech ez measles, which they've been measles, behavin'
'cordin' to rule, comin' an' goin' ef they was kep' het an' sweated
correct, ever sence the first measle. But scarlet-fever, now,
f'instance, that's another thing. My b'lief is thet God sends some
diseases, an' the devil, he sends others.”
Mrs. Bradfield had agreed that perhaps it was a mother's duty
to carry her children through as many ailments as possible while she
was here to see to it, and yet—for her part—well, she “didn't
know.” She had known even measles to—“But, of co'se, they was
black measles, or else they wasn't properly drawed out o' the
circulation,” she had finally allowed. “And, of co'se, ez you say, Mis'
Carroll, maybe they wasn't measles. You can't, to say, rightly
prove a measle thet ain't broke out. Tell the truth, I'd be fearful to
sen' for any disease less'n it had a'ready come an' gone 'thout
killin' nobody, which would seem to prove that it wasn't of a fatal
nature. An' then, of co'se, it'd be too late to get it. But ez
to ascribin' diseases either up or down, Mis' Carroll,”
she had concluded, “I wouldn't dare do it, less'n I might be
unconsciously honorin' the Evil One or dishonorin' God.”
“An', of co'se,” Mrs. Carroll had smilingly replied—“of co'se I
don't want to give Satan no mo'n his due, neither. But they do say,
'God sends the babies their teeth, and lets the devil set 'em in'—an'
that's why the pore little things have sech trouble cuttin' 'em. Seem
like the wrastle with Satan begins pretty early. 'Cordin' to that, the
Old Boy was, ez you might say, the first dentist, an' all the endurin'
dentists sence 'ain't been able to cast him out o' the profession.”
“No, an' never will, I reckon, till he is required to hand in his
pattern for jaw-teeth roots, an' to go by it. But, bein'
Satan, an' of co'se unprincipled, I reckon he wouldn't keep to it, even
Of course in this, as in all next-neighbor friendships, there had
been points of contact that could easily have induced friction, but
they were never openly confessed, and are certainly now unworthy of
more than such casual notice as an unfolding retrospect may reveal.
It was nearly two years now since the two thimbles had rested on the
stoop landing. In the interval sorrow had entered both gates. The crêpe
band upon Bradfield's Sunday hat was gradually loosening of its own
accord, until now every passing breeze seemed to threaten his good
wife's memory. But the figure was playing him false, so far as any open
manifestation of forgetfulness went.
His neighbor had never worn crêpe, but her mourning was still in
evidence in all its pristine moderation on every important occasion.
Simpkinsville conventions were lax as regards this tribute paid her
dead, and gauged the loyalty of their surviving relations by other than
color standards. A good black alpaca dress in hand needed not even to
surrender its bands of velvet, not to mention its lustre, to serve as
widow's weeds, a first evidence of its wearer's “beginning to take
notice” being perhaps not so much the “Valenceens ruche” which was
expected to appear at her neck in due season as that which it ushered
in. The new order meant reappearance at church sociables after
lamp-light, taking part at fairs and the like, and a final emergence in
full feather of forgetfulness at the spring barbecue or camp-meeting.
The widow Carroll, always a woman of her own mind, had begun
with the Valenciennes ruche, nor had she ever forsaken her post as
server of meats at church functions. But during the two years of her
mourning she had not changed. There had been no second stage. She had
not meant, from the beginning, that there should be. If she should ever
marry again, the “good ez new ” blue ribbon bow, ripped off her black
dress for the funeral, would naïvely reappear in its old place, pinned
in the centre with the now discarded coral pin. But this is
Of course Dame Gossip had married her off-hand to her neighbor
before his wife was decently buried. And of course a woman of Mary
Carroll's strength of mind had ignored all such predictions, and had
done all the things a less self-reliant woman would not have dared. She
had “done for Susan's children jest exactly ez ef they'd been her own
sister's, from the start.” This tribute even the busy tongues of the
village had finally been constrained to accord her.
The situation, like the ruche, though startling at first, had
remained as unaltered. The stoop was still, in a different way, as
conducive to friendly intercourse as of yore. Though the maternal
neighbor had never crossed it, excepting twice, in cases of sickness,
she had not hesitated to utilize it as a dispensing-station for sundry
neighborly ministrations, as when on raw mornings “
in-the-spring-o'-the-year,” after similarly fortifying her own brood,
she had armed herself with quinine capsules and a gourd dipper of
water, and administered the bitter refreshment to the entire Bradfield
lot, even on one occasion including the pater. Nor had
she stopped at this; for, after the passage of the friendly swallow,
she was heard to observe, in all seriousness, “Mr. Bradfield, I see
they's a fillin' done come out o' one o' yore back teeth, an' I'd
advise you to look after it.” And then, her errand fully accomplished,
she had turned back to her own house. It was not her habit to linger
about the stoop for idle parley. Needless to say, Bradfield rode out to
consult the dentist that day.
The situation thus briefly sketched seemed, indeed, to have reached
a state of entire safety, as far as any possible romance was concerned.
But how often are apparent safety-lines found to be charged with strong
and dangerous currents! Strange to say, it was just when gossip had
declared against its early predictions, and was beginning to cast about
among its maturer marriageable maidens for the needed “mother for Susan
Bradfield's child'en,” that Bradfield himself had first reflected with
perfected certitude: “The hole in my heart is there yet—jest ez big
an' ez holler ez the day pore Susan was buried—an' the only livin'
woman thet can ever fill it to overflowin' is Mis' Carroll. She
knowed Susan an' Susan's ways—an' Susan's child'en. An' she knows
me.” So the reflection proceeded. “Yas, an' she knows me— maybe she
knows me too well. Ef they's any trouble, it 'll be that.”
The years of intimate friendship had not passed, indeed, without
Bradfield's realizing that certain qualities in himself had fallen
under the ban of Mrs. Carroll's disapproval. True, he and she had been
as different persons then, and yet, after all, they were the same. The
widow Carroll, albeit she was thirty-seven years old, and “the mother
o' five,” was a pretty woman. She was one of those pretty women who,
though never threatened with great beauty, being made on too chubby a
pattern, seem to possess in healthy fulness all the womanly charms
incident to every passing stage in life. She was a flower always in
process of bloom—a woman of dimples, but whose dimples went to grace
a smile or dissipate a frown rather than to count as dimples, mere
physical incidents. Her crisp hair, a coppery auburn in hue, commonly
called red, was full of fine lights and color—such hair as is at once
the glory and the despair of the village poet, who recklessly uses up
shimmer and glimmer in a first couplet, only to be
confronted with gleam and sheen, that, with fair promise
of affiliation, stubbornly refuse to lend themselves to his poetic
scheme. There is the red hair that smiles, and the red hair that scolds
and is capable of profanity. One kind reflects light and warmth, the
other burns. Mary Carroll's was of the smiling sort.
Although Bradfield had felt the radiant glory of the widow's head as
he often viewed it in the morning sun from his side of the fence, and
had more than once compared it to her shining copper kettle inverted on
the shed, to the disadvantage of the gleaming metal, he had summarily
denounced such thoughts not only as unbecoming his crêpe, but as being
of a nature “to nachelly disgust sech a sensible mother o' child'en ez
Mis' Carroll, ef she'd even s'picioned sech a thing.”
Just how or when Bradfield had finally declared his mind not even
the writer of these annals professes to know. But there is evidence
that the arguments which elicited the following somewhat lengthy
response from the widow were not his first words on the subject.
Bradfield was standing on his side the fence down in the rear garden:
Mrs. Carroll on her side.
“Yas,” she spoke with hesitation—“yas, I know it's jest ez you say,
Mr. Bradfield. The best pickets in this dividin'-fence 'd be a-plenty
to patch up the outside fences of both our yards with; an' one o' the
two front gates could be took out an' put in where the back gate
on my side is rotted out; an' ez you say, one kitchen an' one cook 'd
do where it takes two now, an'—an' of co'se our houses do set so
close-t together thet we could easy, ez you say, jest roof over
the space between 'em an' make it into a good wide hall, an'—an' of
co'se our child'en do, ez you say, ez good ez live together ez it is,
an'—but—” She knit her brow and hesitated.
“And is a heap purtier word 'n what but is, Mis'
Bradfield chuckled nervously as he leaned forward towards her, his
elbows resting upon the ledge of the dividing-fence between them as he
The widow laughed. “Yas, I know it is, but—” She colored. “I
declare, I didn't lay out to say but so soon again, but—Well,
I do declare!”
And now both laughed.
“Did it ever strike you, Mis' Carroll,” Bradfield resumed, presently
—“did it ever strike you ez funny thet whoever planted them trees down
yo' front walk an' down mine should o' been so opposite an'
similar minded ez to set a row o' silver-poplars down the lef' side o'
my walk an' down the right side o' yoze, so's ef we was ever
minded to cut out the middle rows o' arbor-vitæs and cedars (which are
too much alike an' too different to agree side by side anyway), we
could have a broad av'nue o' silver-poplars clean down f'om the house
to the front gate? See?” He pointed first to the space between the two
houses, and then to the fence. “Of co'se, the new po'ch, now, it 'd
projec' out in the middle-centre o' the av'nue, too. An' I was thinkin'
it 'd be purty, maybe, to have a high cornish 'round it, like that 'n
on the new school-house, on'y higher an' mo' notched, ef you say so.
An' the drive up the av'nue, it could be laid either in shell or brick,
jest ez you say—or maybe gravel. Why, it looks to me ez ef, ef we
was to th'ow the two houses into one that-a-way, we'd have what I'd
call a res-i-dence—that's what we would. An' the money we'd
save in a year, j'inin' the two households, 'd pay for the
“Yas, I reckon 'twould, Mr. Bradfield, ef 'twas handled economical.
I reckon 'twould—but—Ain't that a yaller tomater down there in yo'
tomater-patch? I didn't know you planted yallers.”
“No, I haven't. That there's a squash flower, I vow, with two bees
in it this minute. Them simlins 're nachel gadders. The root o' that 'n
is clair 'crost the walk. They don't no mo' hesitate to go where they
ain't invited an' to lay their young ones in the laps of anything thet
'll hold 'em than—”
“Than some folks do, I reckon.”
Bradfield's eyes searched her face suspiciously. “Ma-am?” The word
was long drawn out.
“No insinuation intended, Mr. Bradfield, of co'se. I was only
thinkin' o' the way Sally Ann Brooks sends her young ones roun' town to
spen' the day to get shet of 'em, 'stid of—”
“Oh, I see! Reckon I'll plant bush-squash myself after this. I don't
want nothin' meanderin' roun' my garden thet makes sech a pore figger
o' speech ez a simlin do. Th' ain't nothin' too low down an' common for
'em to mix with ef they git a half a chance, f'om a punkin even down to
a dipper-gourd. An' I wouldn't trust 'em too near a wash-rag vine an'
leave off watchin' 'em, they're that p'omiscuyus-minded.”
“I s'pose, Mr. Bradfield, the bush-squash does live, ez Elder
Billins says, a mo' virtuous life, stayin' home an' jest having a
lapful o' reg'lar young bush-squashes, every one saucer-shaped an'
scalloped 'roun' the edges, same ez all respectable Christian families
should do. An' talkin' o' squashes, I'd say thet maybe Elder Billins
was right when he remarked thet bush-squashes was mo' feminine
-minded 'n what runners was.”
“Well,” Bradfield chuckled, “I'll promise you, ef you'll say the
word, to take down this useless fence, they sha'n't be a runnin'-squash
allowed inside our garden.”
“Th' ain't no hurry about that, I reckon, Mr. Bradfield,” she
answered, playfully. “An' I mus' be goin' up to the house now. I jest
stepped down to see ef my yallers was colorin'. I'm goin' to start
preservin' to-morrer. Better send yore Tom over an' let me look at his
throat again to-day. You see, he can't gargle, an' it's jest ez well to
ward off so'e throat for sech child'en. Good-mornin', Mr. Bradfield.”
Instead of answering, Bradfield followed beside her on his side the
“An' I come down here, Mis' Carroll,” he resumed, directly—
“I come down, seein' you here, and hopin' maybe to dis-cuss
things a little. This dividin'-fence, now; it's made out o' good-heart
lumber, every picket an' post, an' our outside pickets 're worm-et
tur'ble—both yoze an' mine. Ef we could jest to say th'ow these two
garden patches into one—I've got a good sparrer-grass bed on my side,
ez you see, an' you're jest a-projec'in 'to start another one,
which you needn't do; an' yore butter-bean arbor is ez stiddy ez the
day it was put up, an' mine is about ez ramshackled ez they get; an'
both the sparrer-grass bed an' the arbor 're big enough for the
two families—or for one, I mean—twice-t ez big ez either, which
ours would pre-cize-ly be. Since it's took possession of my mind, Mis'
Carroll, it's astonishin' how the surpluses on one side o' the fence do
seem to match the lacks on the other. An' the fence itself, for
it to be so well worth takin' down, why, it looks to me like flyin'
in the face o' Prov-i-dence to hold out against so many hints to
do a special thing.”
“Well, maybe it is, Mr. Bradfield, but I haven't been given the
clair sight to see it that-a-way—yet. The way I look at it,
that fence is strong enough to do good service where it is for
some time to come. You see, it'd take a mighty wide oil-cloth to cover
that middle hall you're a-projec'in' to let in 'twixt the two
houses—an' a front hall 'thout oil-cloth I wouldn't have—
noway. But maybe I'm worldly minded.”
“Cert'n'y not. Oil-cloth pays for itself over an' over ag'in ef it's
kep' rubbed up an' varnished occasional. We might get some o' the
drummers to fetch us some samples, jest to look over.”
The widow laughed. “Yas, I can see either you or me lookin' over any
house-furnishin' samples, now! Why, Simpkinsville wouldn't hold the
talk. I do declare ef there ain't Elder Billins a-comin' this way
'crost my yard now, ez I live! How did he manage to tie up 'thout me
seein' 'im, I wonder? Did you see 'im stop?”
“Yas, I did—an' befo' I saw 'im I felt 'im. I knowed somebody
was comin' to pester my sight, an' I wondered who it was befo' he come
into the road. I don't know how it is, but they's somethin' in the way
a ol' bachelor carries 'isself thet tantalizes me, 'special when I see
'im try to wait on a woman thet can't see 'im ez redic'lous ez I
see 'im. A ol', dried-up, singular number, masculine gender
don't know no mo' what 'll tickle a woman's fancy 'n one o' them
sca'crows in my pea-patch out yonder. An' yet they 'ain't got the
settled mind thet a sca'crow has—to stay peaceable in that station of
life unto which it has pleased God to call 'em.”
The widow laughed merrily. “You better hursh, Mr. Bradfield. Elder
Billins may be slow some ways, but his ears don't set out the way they
do for nothin'. What's that he's a-fetchin'?”
“Don't know ez I know exac'ly. I see he is loaded up.”
“I wonder for goodness' sakes, what he's a-fetchin'?
“Howdy, Elder!” she called out cheerily now. “Come right along! I
won't go to meet you, 'cause I know you an' Mr. Bradfield 'll want to
shake hands over the fence.” She cast a mischievous glance at Bradfield
as she advanced a single step towards Billins.
“Excuse my hands, please, Elder. Tyin' up them soggy tomater bushes
has greened 'em so th' ain't fit to offer you—but howdy!
Ef he ain't gone an' done it, spite of me! Made me another
perfec'ly lovely hangin'-basket!” Her eyes beamed as a child's over a
new toy as Billins set a tall rustic structure down before her.
“Jest look, Mr. Bradfield,” she continued, raising it for
inspection. “I do declare, Elder, how you manage to twis' these
roots in an' out I don't know. 'Tain't made on the same plan ez the
chair, either. That chair you set in, Mr. Bradfield, the other day when
you come up on my po'ch to fetch the onion sets, Elder Billins made me
that; an' for a chair to ease a tired back, or jest to set in an' study
braidin' patterns, it's the most accommodatin' chair a person ever did
set in. Mr. Bradfield said 'isself, Elder, thet he never had
set in a chair thet yielded to his needs like it did.”
“But I was figgerin' on a man's idee of a easy-settin' chair,”
Bradfield retorted. “I'd o' thought you'd 'a' made a lady a cushioned
chair, Billins, with side-rockers to it, an' maybe a movable foot-rest,
or even a tune-playin' seat in it.”
“So I would ef she'd a-said the word, but when a lady says rustics,
it's rustics to me, ef I have to dig up all the crooked roots in the
The discussion of the rustic basket had so engaged their attention
that the men seemed to have forgotten a formal greeting, but now, when
the widow presented her own hand a second time to Billins, thanking him
for his gift, by the faintest movement of the wrist and an inclination
of the head towards the fence, she virtually passed him over to
“Howdy, Eben! Hope I see you well.” Billins heartily extended his
hand quite over the fence.
Bradfield had never heard of the fashionable lofty salutation in
mid-air, but it was with precisely this inane shoulder-high denial of
cordiality that he changed the friendly impulse of the proffered hand
from a hearty downward shake to a quick lateral movement quite even
with the top of the pickets.
“I'm toler'ble peart, thanky, Elder,” he drawled. “How's yoreself?
You seem to be renewin' yo' youth like the eagle.”
“Well, Eben, ef you count yo'self a eagle, I ain't perpared to
dispute that,” was the Elder's humorous reply. And then he added, more
seriously, “How's the lambs, Eben?”
“The kids? Oh, they're purty toler'ble frisky, thanky. Reckon to
sech ez you they'd seem mo' like roa'in' lions 'n lambs. They do say
thet folks thet roam single all their lives forgits they ever was kids
“Well, Eben, sence you mention it, I reckon sech of us ez are
strivin' to stand with the sheep at the jedgment 'd ruther take
their chances startin' ez a lamb. Ef a person starts out
ez a kid, seem to me the best he can hope to do 'd
be to grow into a goat, which is classed ez purty pore cattle
both here an' hereafter. Yore dear child'en 're lambs,
Eben—lambs o' the Lord's fold, an' I hate to hear you mis-designate
Elder Billins spoke with the religious voice—the same that was
wont to say on frequent occasion, “Brother Bradfield, won't you lead in
prayer?” Bradfield had often led in prayer by its mild invitation, and
he recognized it as a force commanding respect. For a moment, under its
benign influence, he was somewhat mollified, and was opening his lips
for such conciliatory speech as he could command, when Billins
remarked, with an insinuating smile:
“I s'pose you an' Mis' Carroll 've been swappin' confidences
about garden-truck this heavenly mornin'. You seem to have the first
flower on yo' side, Eben. I see some sort o' blossom down behind you
“Yas; th' ain't much interestin' in the gardens yet. That one
flower with a couple o' bees a-buzzin' round it is about the only, to
say, interestin' thing in sight—that is to say, for beauty.”
Billins chuckled. “Well, I declare, Eben Bradfield, seem to me you
described more'n you set out to describe that time. Ef my eyes don't
deceive me, I see a-nother flower with two more bees a-buzzin'
round it.” He glanced at the widow, and then at Bradfield.
“Don't know ez I see that, Elder—eggsac'ly—that is, ez to the
“You don't, don't you? Spell Bradfield, an' then spell Billins. Oho!
You see it now, don't you? Ef we ain't two B's, what 'd you say we
Bradfield cleared his throat. “Seem to me, Elder, I'd be purty hard
pushed for com-pli-ments 'fore I'd compare a lady to a squash flower.”
“Well, Eben, that ain't exac'ly my fault, the way I look at it. I
supplied the com-pli-ment, an' you supplied the flower. I jest took the
best you had, which, it seems to me, is the brightest thing on the face
o' the lan'scape—exceptin', of co'se—” He lifted his hat and bowed
to the widow.
Bradfield colored up to the roots of his hair as he said, smiling
defiantly:"Them wasn't stingin'-bees around that simlin flower, Elder.
They was jest these innercent white-faced buzzers. Look out thet you
don't spile yo' figger o' speech by strikin' too hard. That's the
second stroke o' el-o-quence thet's been struck off from that one
flower to-day, an' I've had to dodge both times, seem like. Reckon I'll
dodge now, shore enough, an' bid you both good-mornin'. Elder didn't
come to pay me a visit, noways, an' I think I know when three's a
crowd.” And Bradfield, as fretful as a spoiled boy, turned across his
own garden and left them.
“Well, I must say, I'm dis-gust-ed!” he said, audibly, as soon as he
dared.”More 'n dis-gust-ed! It's enough to make a person sick to
his stummick! The idee of a ol' white-haired exhorter like Elder
Billins whisperin' that he'd wove her name into a rustic basket with a
motter throwed in! Seem like she'd o' laughed right out in his face.
Lordy, but it's that sickenin'! I do thank the Lord I'm a
perfessin' Christian or I'd swear—dog-gone ef I wouldn't!”
When he had reached his own porch, Bradfield drew a chair to its
remote end and sat down. “The idee!” he exclaimed as he balanced his
body back against the wall, extending his feet over the banisters. “The
idee o' him havin' mo' cheek 'n what I've got! Here I 'ain't dared to
more 'n broach things in a business way, an', shore's I'm alive, that
ol' bone 's a-courtin' 'er outspoken.”
And now, in a fashion entirely at variance with his late
expressions, Bradfield's secret thoughts took shape. “Wonder ef any
other woman ever did have sech a head, anyhow? The way them curls snug
up to her neck—Lordy, but it all but takes my breath away. An' as for
tac'—an' cleverness—well, they never was sech another woman, I
know. Ef she 's'picioned what a blame ejiot I am about her, she
wouldn't have no mo' respec' for me 'n nothin'. But I know how to
tackle 'er, that I do! She's a reg'lar business thorough-goer, she is,
an' the man thet gets her, he's got to prove the common-sense o' the
thing—that's what he's got to do. The idee o' hangin'-baskets an'
motters to a person o' her sense—an' she the mother o' five! Don't
b'lieve I ever seen 'er yet— at home—'thout a bunch o' keys
hangin' to 'er belt, or a thimble on; an' ez to aprons—To me a apron
is a thing thet sets off a purty woman, an' jest nachelly dis-figgers a
ugly one—not to mention her dis-figgerin' it.”
He chuckled, drew down his feet, and began walking up and down his
porch. “The idee o' me ca'culatin' to a cent what we could save
by j'inin' interests, an', come down to the truth, I'd spend the last
cent I've got to get 'er. But she mustn't know it. Oh no, she mustn't
Pausing here at the end of the porch, he cast his eyes down towards
the rear lot, taking in in his survey a view of both gardens. “Wonder
where those child'en o' mine have went to?” he continued, mentally.
“Over in her barn, I'll venture, the last one of 'em, playin' with
hers, 'ceptin' her Joe, an' I'll lay he's with my Tom, sailin' shingle
boats down in my goose-pond.
“ 'Tis funny, come to think of it, for me to have a goose-pond an'
for her to have the geese. We ain't to say duplicated on nothin', 'less
'n 'tis child'en, an' we're so pre-cize-ly matched in them thet—well,
it's comical, that's what it is. Reckon, after we was married awhile,
they 'd come so nachel thet, takin' 'em hit an' miss, we wouldn't know
no diff'rence hardly. One thing shore, the day she gives her
solemn consent to mother mine, I'll start a-fatherin' hers jest ez
conscientious ez I know how.”
He resumed his promenade, his irregular step keeping pace with his
musings. “I never have gone over to set of a evening yet. I would 'a'
went sev'al nights, but I'm 'feerd she might th'ow out hints about
motherless child'en lef' to their devious ways, or some other
Scriptu'al insinuation. S'pose I'd haf to say at home where I
was goin'. Ef I didn't, hers would tell mine first thing
nex' mornin'. I would 'a' went in to set awhile Sunday night when we
walked home f'om church, ef she'd 'a'—well, maybe it would o' seemed
too pointed to ask me. It's true I did have my little Mamie asleep
'crost my shoulder, but I could 'a' laid her on the parlor sofy till
I'd got ready to go home. Strange how that baby o' mine has took sech a
notion to go to church—an' drops off to sleep du'in' the first prayer
every time. Ef it was anywhere else I mightn't humor her. Somehow, a
baby sleepin' on a person's shoulder is a hind'rance to a person—in
some things. But of co'se any signs of early piety should be
encouraged, though I doubt how much o' the gospel she gets—at three—
'pecial when she's sno'ein'. There goes ol' Billins now—at last—
pore ol' ejiot thet he is! Ef he didn't disgust me so I'd laugh right
If the widow bore about with her any consciousness of the strictly
business-like romance that was throwing its tendrils over the
dividing-fence between her home and her neighbor's—a romance as
devoid of visible leaf or blossom as the vermicelli-like love-vine that
spread its yellow tangle over certain vine-clad sections of it—she
gave no sign of such consciousness by the slightest deviation from her
Nothing was forgotten in her well-ordered household, though a close
observer might have suspected a sort of fierce thoroughness in all she
did. It was only after the children were all snugly put to bed that
night that she took one from the row of daguerreotypes which stood open
upon her high parlor mantel, and, bringing it to her bedroom lamp,
scanned it closely.
“Funny to think how a man can change so,” she said, audibly, as if
addressing the picture, which she turned from side to side, viewing it
at one angle and another. “When Eben Bradfield an' Susan had this
picture took they wasn't a more generous-handed husband in the State 'n
what he was. Susan paid five dollars to have her hair braided
that-a-way while she was down in New 'Leans, a hundred and fifty plat'.
An' Eben was tickled to have her pay it, too. She had this limpy flat
hair thet all runs to len'th an' ain't fittin' for nothin' else but
to braid. An' that black polonay she's got on, it was fo' dollars a
yard; 'n' he bought her that gold tasselled watch-chain that trip too,
an' them fingered mits. An' they sat in whole plush curtained off
sections at the theatre, too, an' boa'ded at the St. Charles Hotel at
fo' dollars a day apiece. So they bragged when they come home. I never
did see such a waste o' money, an' I didn't hesitate to say so,
neither. It used to do me good them days to give her an' Eben a
'casional rap over the knuckles for their extravagance. Pore Susan was
beginnin' to look mighty peaked an' consumpted, even in this picture.
Death was on 'er then, I reckon.”
Hesitating here, she wiped the face of the picture and studied it in
silence, but her thoughts fairly flew, as she thus mentally reviewed
“But to think of Eben Bradfield spendin' money like water the way he
done for Susan, an' I knowin' it— a' he knowin' I know it—an'
then layin' off to stint me the way he does!
“I don't doubt he spoke the word to save paper an' ink. Eben
is a handsome man, even here, with his hen-pecked face an' chin
whiskers on, an' I used to think he was a good one, an' I won't
say he ain't; but he is shorely changed—sadly changed. Du'in' the
month thet he's showed signs o' keepin' comp'ny with me—which he has
acchilly asked me to marry him—he 'ain't said the first word
sech ez you'd expect of a co'tin' widower, exceptin' one. The
day he remarked thet he felt ez young ez he ever did, thinks I to
myself, 'Now you're comin' to!' An' I fully expected the nex'
word to be accordin' to that beginnin'. But 'stid o' that, what does he
say but 'Yore Rosie's outgrowed dresses 'd come in handy for my Emma,
don't you reckon? She's jest about a hem or a couple o' tucks taller 'n
what Emma is.' I do declare, Eben Bradfield, lookin' at you here in
this picture standin' behind Susan's chair, an' rememberin' how you
squandered money on her, I feel that disgusted! Ef it was
anybody thet I had less respec' for, I wouldn't care.
“Well, th' ain't no use losin' sleep over a man's meanness, an' it's
ten o'clock now,” she continued audibly, as she closed the picture with
a snap and began taking down her hair, and as she deftly manipulated
the shimmering braids, her thoughts turned inward upon herself. “Looks
like ez ef a woman oughtn't to be lonesome with a houseful o'
child'en sech ez I've got,” so the introspection began, “an' I
wasn't lonesome tell Eben Bradfield set me to thinkin'. Ef lonely
people could only keep clair o' thinkin', they'd do very well. But I
do think a man with a whole lot o' growin' child'en on his hands is
a pitiful sight. 'Twasn't never intended. I reckon it's a funny thing
for me to say, even to myself, but ef I had all the child'en under one
roof they'd be less care to me 'n what they are now— not thet I'd
marry that close-fisted Eben Bradfield—to save his life! But th'
ain't a night thet I put mine to bed but I wonder how his are gettin'
on—maybe po' little Mamie an' Sudie gettin' their nigh'-gownds hind
part befo' or mixed—Mamie treadin' on hers, an' Sudie's up to her
knees—an' like ez not hangin' open at the neck. Susan always did work
her button-holes too big for her buttons. Some women 're
constitutionally that-a-way by nature. Of co'se I couldn't never fall
in love again. It 'd be childish. But ef Eben Bradfield was half
like he used to be, an' ef he cared a quarter ez much for me ez
Elder Billins does, I'd let him take down that dividin'-fence in
a minute, an' do my best for Susan's child'en.
“The first thing I'd do 'd be to shorten their dress waists.
Pore little Sudie! I've seen her set down sudden an' set clair over
the belt, an' not be able to rise. An' she left 'em so many,
an' 'lowed for so much growth! They never will wear out.
Sometimes I think that's one reason her child'en don't grow faster 'n
they do. Jest one sight o' them big clo'es is enough to discourage a
child out of its growth.
“It's funny—the spite Eben seems to have against Elder Billins.
Maybe he reelizes thet Elder is mo' gifted in speech 'n what he is. Ef
I ever should make up my mind to marry Elder Billins it 'd be a
edjucation to my child'en, jest a-livin' with 'im an' hearin' 'im
strike off figgers o' speech off-hand. Ef he jest wouldn't slit his
boots over his bunions! It's a little thing, but—
“An' then, somehow, I don't know ez I care for a prayer-meetin'
voice for all purposes. But, of co'se, hearin' it all the time might
encourage my child'en to lead religious lives. I reckon the truth is it
'd be mo' to my child'en's interests to think about marryin' Elder
Billins, an' mo' for pore Susan's child'en's good ef I was to take
Eben; an' yet—”
And then she added aloud, with a yawn, as she turned out the lamp.
“Well, it's good I don't haf to decide to-night.”
THE MIDDLE HALL
A Sequel To “the Dividing-Fence”
THE MIDDLE HALL
THE dividing-fence was all in bloom. Ladybank roses overlapped
honeysuckle vines over long sections of its rough-hewn pickets, while
woodbine and clematis locked arms for the passage of the amorous
love-vine, that lay its yellow rings in tangled masses here and there
according to its own sweet will.
The atmosphere was teeming with the odors of romance, musical with
its small noises. Pollen-dusted bees and yellow-bellied moths—those
most irresponsible fathers of hybrid blooms and remote floral kinships
—flitted about in the sunshine, passed and repassed in mid-air by
their rival match-makers, the iridescent humming-birds. And there were
nests—real birds'-nests—in the vines that clambered on both
verandas, the widow Carroll's and that of her neighbor, the widower
Bradfield. And from one porch to the other flitted bee and bird and
moth, stopping for a sip or a brief wing-rest on the vine-clad fence,
while the flowers on either side responded to their amenities in
answering hues and friendly conformity.
It was late in the summer afternoon, and the evening twitterings
were setting in in a lively chorus, which, to the casual listener, was
quite drowned by the voices of children who played “tag” or “prisoners'
base” down in the front yards, passing at will from one to the other by
certain loose pickets hidden among the vines, known to the small-fry of
Bradfield sat alone upon his porch in the shadows of the foliage,
but though he was listening he heard none of these noises of nature.
The truth was, Bradfield was listening, albeit with no eavesdropping
intention, to a scarcely perceptible hum of voices in the corner of his
neighbor's porch. The widow had “company,” and the voice that came to
Bradfield, alternating with hers, was one he knew.
Elder Billins was now a regular visitor at the widow's home, always
presenting himself with a flourish, with the avowed intention of paying
a formal visit—a thing Bradfield had not yet found courage to do. He
had felt sometimes that if he could just get out of sight of her house
to “get a start,” he might “make a break for her gate,” and go in.
Indeed, he did once try this, and found such momentum in the experiment
that he had really passed his own gate, and would have entered hers,
had not the whole drove of children swooped down upon him with the
inquiry, “Where you goin'? Where you goin', pop?” to which he had
quickly replied: “Oh, no place! Where was I goin', shore
enough?” And so he had turned back, only to meet Billins riding up to
the widow's gate with a great bouquet of flowers in his hand.
Bradfield wouldn't have been caught offering her a leaf or flower
for anything in the world, unless, indeed, it were such a matter as a
bunch of alder flowers, a sprig of mint, or a bunch of mullein, for
No one knew what Mrs. Carroll's attitude towards Billins was, but
everybody laughed at him, and of course there were those who blamed her
for accepting his attentions, unless, indeed, she intended to marry him
—a thing that such as knew her best were morally certain she would
“Mary Carroll jest can't help likin' to have men a-hangin' 'round
'er, no more'n any other woman o' her colored hair can help it,” was
the verdict, compounded equally of apology and censure, by such of her
friends as were managing to worry along through life fairly well
without such accessories. But, of course, they had “other colored
If Mrs. Carroll's main pleasure in Billins's devotion was in its
putting Bradfield's prosaic courtship to shame, she never told it.
On the evening with which this chapter opens we have seen that the
situation was typical of the real condition of things—Bradfield alone
on his porch, cogitating, moody; Billins talking with the widow on
hers, full of words and bombast; the children of both houses playing,
within range of her vision, from one yard to the other.
Up to this time Bradfield had had the satisfaction of knowing that
although Billins was a regular visitor, he had experienced rather “hard
luck” in having scarcely a word alone with his hostess.
The truth was that Billins, who was their Sunday-school
superintendent, was a great favorite with the children, and when on his
presenting himself the little Carrolls and Bradfields would come and,
drawing up chairs, seat themselves with modest company manners before
him, he could not do less than treat them cordially; and, indeed, more
than once the entire lot had monopolized his visit wholly, dutifully
volunteering to recite to him their “golden texts,” catechism, or
selected hymns for the following Sunday's lesson. And for different
reasons neither family was ever privately reproved by its respective
parent for this artless intrusion.
The widow rather dreaded the unequivocal proposal of marriage which
she knew was imminent, as it would end the affair; and she felt that
Bradfield needed that it should continue, “under his very eyes,” for
the present at least.
Bradfield, on his part, was simply glad, on general principles, to
thwart Billins's designs, and, indeed, he was guilty of a little
indirect manoeuvring to this end, as when, on several occasions, he
took pains to charge his children to “always ac' nice an' polite to
Elder; to ricollec' thet he was their Sund'y-school sup'intendent,
which was the same ez a shepherd, an' of co'se he took a heap o'
int'rest in all the lambs of 'is flock.”
The little Bradfields were gentle of nature, and took readily to
hints of politeness; and when they brought their catechisms to Billins
for recitation, while little Sudie shared his entire visit, sitting
upon his knee, there was no one to chide them for excess of cordiality.
As Bradfield sat listening to the low murmur of voices, with an
occasional merry note of laughter from the widow, or a rise in eloquent
fervor from Billins, he was most uncomfortable, and was several times
tempted to call the children in “out o' the fallin' dew.” But it was
difficult to do this, for two reasons. First, because he feared that if
he should do so the whole crowd would come over to his side, leaving
Billins master of the situation, and if he waited a little while Mrs.
Carroll would surely call them. And, besides, it would seem almost like
an imputation against her watchfulness, for it was she who always
decided such matters, and why should he assume that she had forgotten
But it was growing late, and she did not call them, and Billins's
voice was sinking ominously lower. It was well that Bradfield could not
hear what he was saying.
To do Eben Bradfield full justice, had this been possible he would
have changed his seat—or he thought he would. All honest men think
they would flee from such temptation, but there are thousands of
estimable men, and women too, who wouldn't do it; for of all negative
crimes the simple acceptance of an accidental, unsought advantage is
perhaps the most insidious. But Bradfield could not hear a word. He got
the form of the conversation, though, and its punctuation reached him
in short outbursts of laughter from the widow. But this had not come
for some time now. Indeed, Billins's long periods were proclaiming the
affair in hand no laughing matter.
Perhaps the last hour of the interview is worth recording here.
“Why,” he was saying, when it was quite dark, and Bradfield had for
a half-hour thought it time for him to be gone—“why, Mis' Carroll,
this thing come to me ez a rev'lation from Heaven—that's what it did.
It come to me ez a rev'lation on a most solemn occasion, too. In fact,
to show you how solemn it was, which nobody reelized more'n what
you did, why, it was the day o' yore funeral, Mis' Carroll.”
“My funeral, Elder!” She laughed here a little nervously; and
Bradfield, suddenly angered, moved his chair to the other end of the
porch. “My funeral, Elder! Why, I ain't dead yet, I hope!“
“Nor will be for many happy years to come, let us pray, you dear
heart! I mean the funeral you give, Mis' Carroll—not
mentionin' no names.”
“Oh!” she gasped.
“Yas; an' you didn't give him no mean one neither; and ef you don't
mind me sayin' it, why, I'll tell you what Jim Creese says. Says he,
talkin' about that funeral, 'There's a woman,' says he, 'thet
when she pays respects, why, she pays 'em,' says he—jest so.
'Diff'rent fam'lies under affliction had negotiated with me for that
sample coffin,' says he, 'but when it come to the price, why, they'd
always seem to think maybe 'twasn't right for Christians, believin' in
the resurrection o' the dead, to imprison theirs in a metallic—like
ez ef when called to appear they couldn't rise an' drop off the coffin
same ez a overcoat no longer needed—an' so,' says he, 'they'd fall
back on white pine an' satin ribbons, black, white, or mixed, accordin'
to age and conditions. But Mis' Carroll, when it come to the worst,
why, she jest simply ordered the sample off-hand,' says he, 'never
pricin' it nor nothin'.'
“An' now he's done bought a new sample, with side an' top merrors in
it, an' he says he's a-waitin' to see the next one dyin' in
Simpkinsville thet 'll be thought enough of to lay in it. Have you saw
the new sample down in the show-window, Mis' Carroll?”
“No, Elder, I haven't. Tell the truth, I always go round the other
way ruther than pass there.”
“Well, you'd ought to see it. Th' 'ain't been nothin' like it in
these parts before. It cert'n'y is gorgeous, though I can't say ez it
attracts me much. I don't see no good in seemin' to be buryin' three,
which these merrors reflec.' and four with the cover on;
though of co'se the fo'th one is only for the benefit o' the occupant.
Of co'se some survivers might take comfort in multiplyin' their griefs
that-a-way; an' for a departed bachelor or a maiden lady it might
relieve the monotony a little, an' make 'em seem more like fam'ly
persons, an', after a lonely life, they might care to have sech
reflections cast, though I wouldn't.
“But that ain't neither here nor there. What I was a-startin' to say
was thet it was the day o' this solemn occasion, when we was in the
church, an' John Carroll was layin' his last lay in the sample before
the pul-pit, when you an' yores had follered him, two by two, up the
middle aisle, thet the rev'lation come to me. A voice said in my ear,
jest ez plain ez I'm a-sayin' it to you now, 'David Billins,' says it,
'bide yore time in patience, but there's yore family.'
“You know, Mis' Carroll,” he continued, after a pause, which she did
not break, “the tie betwixt John Carroll an' me was mighty close-t. We
wasn't no ord'nary friends; an', tell the truth, ef you hadn't
a-ordered that sample, why, it was my intention to do it, jest out of
respects to the best friend I ever had, which was John hisself, ez you
well know. John done everything for me thet a friend could well do in
life—an' in death too, ef you give yore consents.”
Mrs. Carroll fanned nervously, and found it necessary to move her
chair, her quick motion having caught one of its rockers under the
banisters. But Billins went on without interruption.
“An' the fact is I've did John sev'al friendly favors,
an' whether you suspicioned it or not, one of 'em was keepin'
out o' yore way jest ez soon ez I'd saw what his sentiments was to'ards
you—long years ago.
“Yes, ez school-girl, maid, wife, an' widder, you've always
been the first lady o' the republic to David Billins. But John Carroll
was my friend, an' sech was, and is, my idees o' friendship.
“When I had give you up to him it was like ez ef I had surrendered
the last thing on earth; but I give it freely, never expectin' to get
it back; an' now its jest ez ef John had sat up in his grave an' said
to me: 'Here's your loand, Dave Billins. Take it back— with
“Of co'se they'se some folks thet 'd contend thet under sech
circumstances I couldn't take no interest in John's child'en;
but to my mind—ef you'll excuse me makin' a mighty triflin' figgur o'
speech—to my mind this is a case where the cheerful takin' of
interest on a loand is a proof of friendship.
“An' no jokin', Mis' Carroll, they're about ez handsome a lot o'
step-child'en ez any man ever aspired to; an' I don't begrudge it to
'em, neither, not even sech o' their features ez they taken after John.
Of co'se yore child'en couldn't be no ways but purty, don't keer
who fathered 'em; an' John wasn't a bad-lookin' man, neither, though I
have thought thet ef looks had a-been all, I might o' stood my chances
with John—of co'se I mean befo' I'd fell away like I have. Sence I've
started a-thinnin' out, flesh an' hair, of co'se I don't claim
much ez to looks; but I depend mo' upon yore ricollection o' what I
have been in my day an' generation to show what conditions I could
return to, in part at least, ef home an' happiness an' wife an'
child'en should suddenly descend from heaven upon me. Why, I'm jest ez
shore thet I'd fatten up under it, an' be measur'bly like I used
to be, ez I am thet—Well, I'm that shore of it thet, though I don't
to say favor divo'ces, I'd give you free leave to divo'ce me out of
hand ef I don't. An' them fainty spells thet come over me sometimes,
they ain't nothin' but heart weakness, the doctor says. But of co'se he
don't know why it's weak—nor how it could be strengthened by the
suppo't of yore love.”
Mrs. Carroll felt no disposition to smile as she glanced up into the
speakers thin, serious face. There was a new depth to his voice as he
had thus confessed his life's secret—a depth that all his fervent
confessions in public prayer had never revealed. It was still the
prayer-meeting voice— but more.
Somehow, up to this time, while priding herself somewhat upon
Billins's romantic attachment, she had never been able to take him
quite seriously. It is hard to take a confirmed old bachelor seriously,
his whole life seeming to give the lie to any fixed matrimonial
intention. It is only when one knows the story, the personal why
of the individual case, that she is able to admit her old-bachelor
lover into the category of earnest suitors.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether or not one of these presumably
self-elected celibates ever does make his tardy way with the desired
woman without prefacing his suit with a touching explanation of “how it
happened.” That these explanations are usually lies does not alter the
But Billins was not lying, and Mrs. Carroll knew it as she looked at
him. He was a thin, homely old man, absurd, perhaps, in his present
role of aspirant to step-fatherhood, certainly so in his confident
promise to return to youthful good looks, but for the first time in her
life Mrs. Carroll saw him without a trace of the ridiculous. Indeed, so
was her heart suddenly suffused with sympathy for the lonely man as he
sat, a pathetic embodiment of self-abnegation before her, that, in the
old-time confusion of tender sentiments, she felt for the moment that
love had come into her life again—and she was startled.
Her next thoughts, by a strange and subtle connection, were of Eben
Bradfield's children, and their motherless state—their ill-fitting
clothes, their croupy tendencies.
What this had to do with anything David Billins or any other man
chose to say to her, when she had many times wrathfully declared that
she wouldn't marry that skinflint Eben Bradfield to save his life, she
did not stop to ask herself. She simply realized a traitorous relation
to the legacy of responsibility left at her door by her old-time
neighbor and friend.
If she should marry another, Bradfield would no doubt
forthwith start out and find him a bride: “an' like ez not she'd be
some young chit of a girl thet wouldn't know no more about sewin' an'
doin' for five child'en 'n nothin'.”
These thoughts rushed through her mind with the rapidity of an
electric current as she sat alone with Billins, listening to his story.
And just here it was that the sound of a croupy cough came to her
from the front yard. Little Mary Bradfield was taking cold. It was time
for the children to come in, and she did not hesitate a moment. What
she said, however, was:
“You, Mamie Bradfield! Oh, Mamie!” And, when the little girl
appeared before her, “Honey, I hear you a-coughin', an' it's time you
was all goin' in now.” She did not say “coming in”; she said,
distinctly, “going.” “An' tell yore pa I say he better give you
a spoonful o' that cough surrup I made you— right away.”
This speech, sending the entire crowd over to Bradfield's, was the
first tangible encouragement Billins had received at her hands; and
when Bradfield got her message, delivered in chorus by the crowd, he
realized for the first time that Billins, as his rival, was to be taken
in all seriousness. As to himself, he felt formally refused.
So elated was Billins over the little turn which it seemed to give
his prospects that he took courage to draw his chair—it was the
rustic one he had made for her—a little nearer the widow.
“Elder,” she began, thoughtfully, before he had spoken again, “did
John ever know about you wantin' to keep comp'ny with me?”
“John Carroll? No, ma'am, he didn't. Why, ef he'd 've knew it, I
reckon you'd 've died a ol' maid, so far ez we two was concerned. We'd
'a' sat off an' twirled our thumbs, time out o' mind, neither one
willin' to take advantage o' the other. No, ma'am, nobody atop o' this
round world knew it but the good Lord an' the 'umble person thet's
a-tellin' you now— not another soul, less 'n 'tis my guardeen
angel. I did expec' thet that secret would 'a' been buried with me—in
my coffin—an', tell the truth, Mis' Carroll, I've put down in my will
thet I was to have a pink satin-lined one—not for myself, but because
that secret was to lay in it.
“An' I'm a-talkin' right along—not stoppin' to see what you're
a-fixin' to say. But ef you feel shore thet you couldn't never
bring yourself to it—an' me so thin an' peaked, I wouldn't blame you
much—but ef sech is the case, thet you couldn't consider it
no ways, why, don't speak the word to-night. Let this be the one
night in my life—even ef you're bound by conscience to write me a
letter in the mornin'. I want to set here by yore side an' jest co't
you for all I'm worth—for this once-t—an' ashamed of it am I
“I've took partic'lar pains, Mis' Carroll, ever sense the day I set
out—which was the day follerin' yore full year o' widderhood—I've
took partic'lar pains not to conceal nothin' from the Simpkinsville
folks, an' they can't none of 'em point a finger at David Billins an'
say he used to be a-spoonin' 'round with this girl an' that one—for
spoons have I never traded in, not even in my sto'e. But I dare 'em
not to say thet I have co'ted you direc', straightforward
an' outspoken, leavin' nothin' undone thet might, could, would, or
should 'a' been done to prove myself yore devoted lover, world without
He paused here, and Mrs. Carroll felt almost as if she were in
church, so familiar was his reverent voice in the oft-repeated form
with which he closed his frequent prayers. She was really awed into
silence. But Billins had soon resumed, his voice falling still lower.
“An' ef it all ends to-night, I reckon, by the help o' the good
Lord, I can go back to my little house an' start fresh in the old
track; but nothin' can't take this away, thet I've been
permitted to set by yore side an' declare my heart. An' it 'll go down
in Simpkinsville word-o'-mouth hist'ry thet David Billins loved an'
co'ted Mary Carroll. It 'll be passed down in the spoken records
that-a-way, even ef you don't 'low to have it recorded in the
co't-house—which, with the blessin' o' the Lord an' the cot's seal, I
trust it may be.”
This sort of love-making was new to Mary Carroll. Never had man
spoken to her after this manner before, and she was silenced in the
presence of what seemed a more romantic and a loftier sentiment than
she had known.
In the light of this new interpretation, all of Billins's
conspicuous attentions took to themselves a fresh dignity. She, as well
as the rest of Simpkinsville, had smiled when his mare appeared in the
road, a bouquet of color illumined by the late sun, as he rode in with
his floral offerings. She had smiled at his gallant speeches, laughed
in her sleeve at the new expression of his figure as he met her with a
courtly bow; but from this time forward, whatever the ultimate result
of to-night's interview, she would be on his side. She would never be
inclined to laugh again.
Indeed, the romantic avowal was very sweet to her woman's ears; but
whether she was moved by the force of his passion, his fervor in its
declaration, or was really falling seriously in love with the man, she
did not for the moment know; but even while listening to the sound of
his voice, she turned her eyes towards Bradfield's cottage and sighed.
And then she said in all seriousness, and with a humility of manner
that was an added charm:
“Elder, I'm very much afraid you've been deceived in me—all my
life. You know, I never was, to say, very religious—an' I'm a mighty
pore hand to go to communion, which you cert'n'y must know, ef you've
taken notice. They's a heap o' better an' more religious women in
Simpkinsville 'n what I am—an' for a man versed in Scripture verses
an' gifted in prayer like you are—”
Billins raised his voice to speak, but she interrupted him.
“Don't say a word, Elder. I know myself, an' I know I'm awfully set
on worldly vanities. Th' ain't a inch o' my house thet don't show it,
too—not even to a pantry-shelf. The money I spend on colored paper
for them shelves would buy a lot o' trac's for the conversion o'
sinners, I know, an' the time I take notchin' it out in patterns I
could be out distributin' 'em, too—an' yet I can't even say to you
now that I'm resolved to do it. I ain't the trac'-distributin' sort.
Even the religious habits I've been raised to don't seem to be very
strong in me. Ef I'm purty tired of nights, 'stid of readin' a whole
chapter o' Scripture, I don't hesitate to take a single verse. I did
try to stick to readin' the full chapter, but I found myself a-readin'
the hundred and seventeenth psalm purty near every night, till it was
acchilly scand'lous, an' I got so ashamed of it thet I thought it 'd be
mo' honest to take a verse or two outright somewheres else. So now
that's what I most gen'rally do; an', tell the truth, some nights I
don't disturb the Bible at all, but just say over to myself some verse
I know, though I do try to say one thet 'll be a reproof to me for sech
ungodliness. An' many a cold night have I said my prayers in bed. Don't
say a word. I knew you'd be surprised, but I tell you some o' the
church-goin' people you'd least suspect are the most wicked—an' I'm
one of 'em. An' ez to worldly-mindedness an' vanity, why, I'm
jest full of it. I do jest love a purty house.”
“Of co'se you do, Mis' Carroll. An' why shouldn't you, I'd like to
know? I like a purty house myself, though, to look at my little one
room, nobody 'd think so. But I've had a sen-ti-ment about that little
house o' mine—ever sence I put it up. Tell the truth, it ain't
founded on nothin' but sen-ti-ment.
“You ricollec', I built that house befo' you was married. I wanted a
place to sleep nights—outside o' the sto'e-house—an' so I built
that right in the sto'e-house yard where it stands now; but I was
determined then thet it mustn't be homelike or nice, for there was only
one person in the world thet could ever make David Billins a home, an'
that was Mary Sommers, which you then was. So I jest built that one
room—good an' wide an' high—an' says I to myself, 'Ef the day ever
comes when she gives her consents, why, then it 'll be for her to say
where she wants rooms added on—always retainin' the one entrance-room
for a middle hall.' That's why I finished off that front cornish so
nice, an' put in that oak-grained door, with the little diamond
winder-panes all round it.
“My house ain't no house, Mis' Carroll. It ain't a blessed thing but
a front door an' hall to yore res-i-dence—whenever you're ready to
take possession an' order the improvements. That's all it is, or ever
has been. An' ez to yore bein' worldly-minded an' likin' purty things,
why, that's a part of every wifely woman's life—to have an' keep
“An' when the Maker has set her sech a example ez He has set you,
which you can't deny in the face of a merror, why—excuse me for
chucklin' this-a-way, but all sech a woman ez you would have to do
would be to try to live up to the beauty the Lord has laid on herself,
an' to keep her surroundin's worthy o' that mark, which it 'd take a
long purse an' a extravagant hand to do too, and keep half even.”
Billins inclined his head in his characteristic old-school fashion
as he closed this speech.
“I declare, Elder, you mustn't talk that-a-way.” There was a note of
real embarrassment in her protest.
“Yas, I must talk that-a-way, too, or else be dumb. Why, Mis'
Carroll, you'd be jest ez out o' place in a bare, ugly house ez—well,
ez I'd be, by my lonesome, awkward self, in a purty one—there!
“But remember they's jest ez beautiful a house a-waitin' for you out
at my place ez you care to call for—an' plenty o' money for you to
draw on whenever you care to let me set a rockin'-chair in the hall for
you to rock in while you plan out the improvements.
“An' the trees are all set out so ez not to interfere with any
reasonable plans you might have—an' they ain't one of 'em too good to
chop down ef they're in yore way either. I set 'em that-a-way
intentional. An' I thought maybe you'd like yore room on the south
side, so I've set all the flowerin' trees that side—maginolias an'
crape-myrtles an' camellias. An' that ol' catalpa-tree thet was there
a'ready, I was a-fixin' to chop it out, an' seemed like it got wind of
it an' started a-turnin' out special crops o' speckled-throated flowers
to beg for its life. So I left it there; but you might like it took
out. It's a toler'ble coa'se tree—for yore side o' the house.
“Oh, how happy I am settin' here tellin' you all about it! Of co'se
they was all set out befo' you was married; but I've always lived in
that one room in the middle of a 'maginary house where you've came an'
went through doors thet was never cut.
“Maybe some would say it wasn't right—an' you married to another—
but I can't see the wrong of it, save my life, an' it has saved me many
a lonely hour—that an', of co'se, the consolations o' faith.
“An' ez to yore claimin' not to be religious, why, I reckon I've
done enough prayin' an' Bible-readin' for both of us. It nachilly takes
mo' watchfulness an' prayer to keep a man straight than it does a
woman, special when the Lord created her ez near perfec' ez He
dared—without clair breakin' His rule for mortals on this mundane
“I do declare you mustn't talk that-a-way, Elder. It
ain't right. I'm so far off from half perfect, even, thet I feel
like a hypocrite jest a-listenin' at you. Here come them child'en o'
mine 'crost the stile now, an' I'm ready to bet thet Mary Bradfield is
sick, an' they've sent for me.
“Yes, I knew it soon ez I see you child'en comin' 'crost the stile"
—she was now addressing the group, who by this time had announced
Mamie Bradfield was sick, but Eben had not sent for his neighbor.
His message was simply that he had given the prescribed dose of croup
syrup; the child continued hoarse; should he give another?
“And, mamma,” the little Carroll girl added, “I think maybe you
better come over, 'cause little Mamie is a-breathin' awful whistly.”
Mrs. Carroll thought so too, and so did Billins, who forthwith rose,
awkwardly wondering if he could do anything to help.
“Cert'n'y, Elder; you better come right along with me,” she
answered, quickly; and then she added—prudentially, “You know, she
might get worse, an' you could go for the doctor.”
And so, the children leading the way, they hurried across to
As she mounted the stile, standing thus in the very centre of his
proposed hall to unite the two houses, the widow could not help
instituting a comparison between this and Billins's actual hall
awaiting her commands, a mile away.
To her mind this one was simply a practical economic scheme; the
other expressed the devotion of a life. And yet her own life and its
interests were rooted here. She sighed as she stepped lightly off the
stoop on the Bradfield side.
But there was no time now for selfish thought. The “whistly
breathing” of the little sufferer had by this time become a hoarse
bark, and at the sound of it Mrs. Carroll quickened her steps; then,
turning hurriedly, she sent Billins in haste for the doctor. But, shame
to tell, when his slim figure disappeared among the trees, the thought
that took shape in her mind, as she followed the children in, was
“I'd like to know what good it did Susan Bradfield to die, anyhow.
She'd ought to 've stayed right here an' looked after her child'en—
that's what she'd ought to 've done!”
But when she had entered, her voice was very womanly and tender as
she held out her arms and said:
“Lemme hold 'er, Eben.”
She had called Bradfield by his first name only at rare intervals
during his life—in times of affliction—and her doing so now was a
first danger-signal to the father's slow ears. It alarmed him more than
had the metallic cough or the ever-turning head of the restless child
struggling for breath in his arms.
But the warning note had come in a voice of sympathy, and his heart
went out of him afresh to both child and woman as he laid the little
one in her arms. And his being was flooded with a great wave of pain in
the presence of the imminent loss of both. Then came the boon of loving
service—tending the one, obeying the other.
Mrs. Carroll, gentle, alert, maternal, was entire mistress of the
situation, while poor Bradfield, not having the sick-nurse faculty—a
rare endowment, indeed, to his sex—blundered like an awkward boy as
he mutely did her bidding, his only words being disconnected terms of
endearment spoken to the sick child.
The first half-hour spent thus was one of those pocket editions of
eternity that mortals are sometimes bidden to read at a sitting, and it
would be hard to say whether to man, woman, or child it seemed longest
—to which it was fraught with keenest pain.
There was at least nothing complex in the child's simple physical
battle for breath.
By what mental or emotional process the neighbor-woman came into
vital concern in the matter does not at present appear, nor, indeed,
looking in upon her as she calmly took charge of things, changing chaos
to order by a few masterful strokes, would one suspect that the heart
guiding the executive hand was in the first tremors of a conviction
involving heavy issues and painful complexities. And, too, her
mother-heart was deeply touched for the frail little one whose
mother-needing life hung so lightly in the balance before her. But
dominating all was the woman of faculty—the woman who knew equally
well how to get the sleepy children noiselessly to bed without exciting
a suspicion of danger, and to secure the needed services of the
half-asleep old darky nodding in the doorway by the exactly reverse
policy of scaring her into wakefulness—a bit of tact exemplified in a
nutshell in the following sentence spoken in the old negro's ear while
Bradfield's back was turned:
“Aunt Randy, step around quietly an' get them child'en off to bed,
where they belong, an' don't let 'em know how bad off Mamie is. Then,
ef you'll get some water het right quick, an' some mustard mixed
'g'inst the doctor's orders, maybe we can bring her through—ef she
don't choke to death 'fo' the doctor gets here. An' drive that black
cat away, for gracious' sakes, 'fo' she meaows in the doorway.
We don't want any death-signs to-night!”
Nothing was forgotten in the pressure of the moment—not even the
setting of a lantern in the front door, so that the doctor should see
his way clearly up the walk.
This thoughtful provision was not destined to serve its purpose
to-night, however. The little patient passed the crisis of her disease,
and fell into a feverish sleep in Mrs. Carroll's lap without
professional treatment. And the lantern burned all night in the
When the necessity for the doctor was passed, and the prospect of
his visit reduced to a minimum by the coming of the “wee short hours,”
Mrs. Carroll forbore to remove the light, which was as a third
personality, sharing the watch with her and Bradfield, its bright eye
exercising over the two a sort of friendly chaperonage—a word
entirely foreign to her vocabulary.
Bradfield, poor in speech even when presenting a definite plea, was
wellnigh dumb to-night. He sat at a distance from her, and when the
danger was passed he drew his chair quite to the opposite side of the
room, whence from time to time he timidly ventured such expressions of
commonplace solicitude as the following:"I'm 'fear'd you'll be
completely wo'e out settin' up all night this-a-way, Mis' Carroll.”
Mrs. Carroll was not worn out physically, but her patience was
wellnigh threadbare, and her state of mind towards Billins such as to
fill her soul with criminations of self. She had known, as soon
as she had come into the presence of the silent man in his extremity,
that Billins's case was utterly hopeless. The revulsion of feeling was
as absolute as it was sudden, and she resented it in herself as
fiercely as she had hitherto resented Bradfield's parsimony, as indeed
she resented it yet.
This was why the first hour of her watch with him was one of
torture. She felt the restfulness of his quiet presence, and she
resented even that.
Billins had courted her in prodigal fashion, sparing nothing, even
to his own dignity. His words were buzzing in her ears yet, but they
were as a swarm of bees that worried and wearied her. The perfume of
romance with which they had fallen from his fluent lips was supplanted
in the brief retrospect by the all-pervading odors of shaving-soap and
orris root. So other personal touches that had eluded her at the moment
presented themselves in the after-view. The fascination had been a
thing of an hour, and the hour was past.
She would have to write him a letter in the morning, and she would
almost rather die than do it; for, treat it as she might, she could not
doubt the sincerity of his declaration.
It was nearly day when finally she slipped the sleeping child gently
into her cradle and rose to go. Bradfield had risen with her, and stood
on the other side of the cradle.
She afterwards said, in recalling this moment, that she was as much
surprised and frightened as he professed to have been at the sound of
her own voice, as she said, looking up into his face:
“Eben, set down there a minute; I want to talk to you.” Indeed, she
roundly denied afterwards that she had spoken these words, to which
Bradfield laughingly agreed that she had not, “but the Lord had spoken
'em through her.” And perhaps he was right, for when he had seated
himself on his side of the cradle she said, slowly: “Eben, the Lord
knows what I'm goin' to say to you, for I don't. But there's one thing
shore. You can't live along this way any longer. I won't allow it. I've
got to have these child'en where I can do for 'em right.
“But I ain't quite ez mean-sperited ez you think I am, either. There
ain't a man livin' atop o' this earth thet I'd allow to marry me for an
economy—not even you. Ef I'm married, I've got to be married ez an
extravagance worth bein' afforded, an' that's all there is to it.
“Don't say a word, now. I've been burstin' for a year, an' when it's
all out I'll feel better. An' I'll tell you what I've got to say: Ef
you'll promise me to have that dividin'-fence chopped up for firewood,
or made into a bonfire nex' Democrat you help 'lect for Congress, I'll
say to take it down; but I don't want picket or post of it ever set up
on my premises, long ez I live. An' ef you ca'culate to set a middle
hall in here, throwin' the two houses into one, which 'll be the
handiest thing to do, why, I don't want any money saved on it—
I'd ruther see it wasted; an' that's all I've got to say. An' you can
think it over, an' set me against the expense, an' balance the
accounts, an' let me know.
“An' nex' time she stirs give 'er fo' drops out o' this bottle, an'
I reckon she better have her little shoes an' stockin's on in the
mornin' till the day warms up.”
She had risen and was moving towards the door, but Bradfield caught
her, and had thrown his long arms clear around her shoulders before she
could resist. Thus, with eyes swimming in tears, he confronted her.
“My God! Mary Carroll!” This was all he could say, but he held her
tight until he should recover his voice. And just then it was that the
lantern keeping guard at the door tumbled over and went suddenly out.
There are times when the chaperon does well to close her eyes.
The rolling over of the lantern of its own accord was an improbable
phenomenon, and when Bradfield and Mrs. Carroll started to investigate
it, they walked discreetly, arm's-length apart, to meet the doctor's
dog ambling across the porch.
The doctor was “just passing,” and, seeing the light, dropped in to
ascertain its cause—and, he might have added, to tell the news. He
had been out all night—was just getting home.
“A sad night of it, Bradfield—a sad night, Mis' Carroll,” he said,
looking hard at her as he stood in the door. “I never closed a better
man's eyes in my life 'n I've jest now closed. Elder Billins has gone
to join the congregation on the other side. Come to my office early in
the evenin', an' seemed to be tryin' to talk an' couldn't—had one o'
them heart-failin' spells—so I give him some drops, an' he come to a
little, an' I drove him home, an' set there with 'im a hour or so,
talkin' along, an' he listenin' but not sayin' a word, an' treckly he
went off again same way—not a rack o' pain, smilin' in the face—an'
I brought 'im through again, an' he bettered up, so he started to talk,
but his words, straight enough some ways, was all wrong others. Didn't
seem to know rightly where he was; 'lowed he was in yore front hall,
Mis' Carroll, an' he stuck to it. An' so, seein' he was bad off, I
drove out an' fetched in a couple o' the neighbors to set with him.
But, time we got there, he had reached the gates an' was enterin' in.”
Mrs. Carroll's face was rigid and white as she listened. Neither she
nor Bradfield spoke for some time; but finally he said, slowly:
“He was in her hall to-night, doctor, settin' an' talkin'—
an' like ez not, he thought he was there yet. He went for you for my
little Mamie. She's had the worst attackt o' croup she's ever had; but
Mis' Carroll has nursed her through it. But I reckon this night 'll be
one we'll both remember all our days.” He looked at her as he spoke.
And then he added, with real feeling: “Pore Billins! I can't rightly
seem to realize it. Ez good a man ez ever walked the earth.”
“Yes,” replied the doctor. “I've known the ins an' outs o' Billins's
life for twenty year, off an' on, an' I tell you he was one in a
“Yas, he was,” said Mrs. Carroll.
MISS JEMIMA'S VALENTINE
MISS JEMIMA'S VALENTINE
TWO crimson spots appeared upon Miss Jemima's pale face when she
heard the gate-latch click. She knew that her brother was bringing in
the mail, and, as he entered the room, she bent lower over her work,
her crochet-needle flew faster, and she coughed a slight, nervous
cough. But she did not look up.
She saw without looking that her brother held a pile of valentines
in his hand, and she knew that when presently he should have finished
distributing them to his eager sons and daughters, her nephews and
nieces, he would come and bring one to her—or else? he would not do
this last. It was this uncertainty that deepened the crimson spots upon
If there was one for her he would presently come, and, leaning over
her shoulder, he would say, as he dropped upon her lap the largest,
handsomest of them all, “ This looks mighty suspicious, Sis' 'Mimie,”
or, “We'll have to find out about this,” or maybe, as he presented it,
he would covertly shield her by addressing himself to the younger crowd
after this fashion:
“Ef I was a lot o' boys an' girls, an' couldn't git a bigger
valentine from all my sweethearts an' beaux than my ol' auntie can set
still at home an' git, why, I'd quit tryin'—that's what I would.”
There was always a tenderness in the brother's manner when he handed
his sister her valentine. He had brought her one each year for seven
years now, and after the first time, when he had seen the look of pain
and confusion that had followed his playful teasing, he had never more
than relieved the moment by a passing jest.
The regular coming of “Aunt Jemima's valentine” was a mystery in the
It had been thirteen years since she had quarrelled with Eli Taylor,
her lover, and they had parted in anger, never to meet again. Since
then she had stayed at home and quietly grown old.
Fourteen years ago she had been in the flush of this her only
romance, and St. Valentine's Day had brought a great, thick envelope,
in which lay, fragrant with perfume, a gorgeous valentine. Upon this
was painted, after an old Dresden-china pattern, a beautiful lady with
slender waist and corkscrew curls, standing beside a tall cavalier, who
doffed his hat to her as he presented the envelope that bore her name,
so finely and beautifully written that only very young eyes could read
By carefully opening this tiny envelope one might read the printed
rhyme within—the rhyme so tender and loving that it needed only the
inscription of a name on the flap above it to make it all-sufficient in
personal application to even the most fastidious.
This gorgeous valentine was so artfully constructed that, by drawing
its pictured front forward, it could be made to stand alone, when there
appeared a fountain in the background and a brilliant peacock with
argus-eyed tail, a great rose on a tiny bush, and a crescent moon. The
older children had been very small when this resplendent confection had
come into their home. Some of them were not born, but they had all
grown up in the knowledge of it.
There had been times in the tender memories of all of them when
“Aunt 'Mimie” had taken them into her room, locked the door, and,
because they had been very good, let them take a peep at her beautiful
valentine, which she kept carefully hidden away in her locked bureau
They had even on occasions been allowed to wash their hands and hold
it—just a minute.
It had always been a thing to wonder over, and once—but this was
the year it came, when her sky seemed as rosy as the ribbon she wore
about her waist—Miss Jemima had stood it up on the whatnot in the
parlor when the church sociable met at her brother's house, and
everybody in town had seen it, while for her it made the whole room
But the quarrel had soon followed—Eli had gone away in anger—and
that had been the end.
Disputes over trifles are the hardest to mend, each party finding it
hard to forgive the other for being angry for so slight a cause.
And so the years had passed.
For six long years the beautiful valentine had lain carefully put
away. For five years Jemima had looked at it with tearless eyes and a
hardened heart. And then came the memorable first anniversary when the
children of the household began to celebrate the day, and tiny,
comic-pictured pages began flitting in from their school sweethearts.
The realization of the new era was a shock to Miss Jemima. In the
youthful merriment of those budding romances she seemed to see a sort
of reflection of her own long-ago joy, and in the faint glow of it she
felt impelled to go to her own room and to lock the door and look at
the old valentine.
With a new, strange tremor about her heart and an unsteady hand she
took it out, and when in the light of awakened emotion she saw once
more its time-stained face and caught its musty odor, she seemed to
realize again the very body of her lost love, and for the first time in
all the years the fountains of her sorrow were broken up, and she
sobbed her tired heart out over the old valentine.
Is there a dead-hearted woman in all God's beautiful world, I
wonder, who would not weep again, if she could, over life's yellowing
symbols—symbols of love gone by, of passion cooled—who would not
feel almost as if in the recovery of her tears she had found joy again?
If Miss Jemima had not found joy, she had at least found her heart
once more—and sorrow. Her life had been for so long a dreary,
treeless plain that, in the dark depth of the valley of sorrowing, she
realized, as sometimes only from sorrow's deeps poor mortals may know
it, the possible height of bliss.
For the first time since the separation, she clasped the valentine
to her bosom and called her lover's name over and over again, sobbing
it, without hope, as one in the death-agony. But such emotion is not of
death. Is it not, rather, a rebirth—a rebirth of feeling? So it was
with Miss Jemima, and the heart-stillness that had been her safety
during all these years would not return to her again. There would never
more be a time when her precious possession would not have a sweet and
vital meaning to her—when it would not be a tangible embodiment of
the holiest thing her life had known.
From this time forward, stirred by the budding romances about her,
Miss Jemima would repair for refuge and a meagre comfort to that which,
while in its discolored and fading face it denied none of life's
younger romance, still gave her back her own.
The woman of forty may never realize her years in the presence of
her contemporaries. Forty women of forty might easily feel young enough
to scoff at the bald head, and deserve to be eaten by bears—but
thirty-nine with a budding-maid-for-fortieth scoffer? Never!
Miss Jemima, in her suddenly realized young-love setting, had
become, to her own consciousness, old and of a date gone by. “Aunt
Jemima” was naturally regarded by her blooming nephews and nieces, as
well as by their intimates, who wore their incipient mustaches still
within their conscious top lips, or dimples dancing in their ruddy
cheeks, quite in the same category as Mrs. Gibbs who was sixty, or any
of their aunts and grandmothers who sat serenely in daguerreotype along
the parlor mantel.
But there is apt to come a time in the life of the live single woman
of forty—if she be alive enough—when, in the face of even negative
and affectionate disparagement, she is moved to declare herself.
Perhaps there may be some who would say that this declaration savors
of earth. Even so, the earth is the Lord's. It is one thing to be a
flower pasted in a book and quite another to be the bud a maiden wears
—one thing to be To-day, and another to be Yesterday.
One thing, indeed, it was to own a yellow, time-stained valentine,
and quite a different one to be of the dimpled throng who crowded the
Simpkinsville post-office on Valentine's Day.
“I reckon them young ones would think it was perfec'ly re-dic'lous
ef I was to git a valentine at my time o' life,” Miss Jemima said,
aloud, to her looking-glass one morning. It was the day before St.
Valentine's, of the year following that which held her day of tears.
“But I'll show 'em,” she added, with some resolution, as she
turned to her bureau drawer.
And she did show them. On the next day a great envelope addressed to
Miss Jemima Martha Sprague came in with the package of lesser favors,
and Miss Jemima suddenly found herself the absorbing centre of a new
interest—an interest that, after having revolved about her a while,
flew off in suspicion towards every superannuated bachelor or widower
within a radius of thirty miles of Simpkinsville.
It had been a great moment for Miss Jemima when the valentine came
in, and a trying one when, with genuine old-time blushes, she had been
constrained to refuse to open it for the crowd.
How she felt an hour later when, in the secrecy of her own chamber,
she took from its new envelope her own old self-sent valentine, only He
who has tender knowledge of maidenly reserves and sorrows will ever
There was something in her face when she reappeared in the family
circle that forbade a cruel pursuit of the theme, and so, after a
little playful bantering, the subject was dropped.
But the incident had lifted her from one condition into quite
another in the family regard, and Miss Jemima found herself
unconsciously living up to younger standards.
But this was seven years ago, and the mysterious valentine had
become a yearly fact.
There had never been any explanations. When pressed to the wall Miss
Jemima had, indeed, been constrained to confess that “cert'n'y—why of
co'se every valentine she had ever got had been sent her by a man.”
(How sweet and sad this truth!)
“And are all the new ones as pretty as your lovely old one, Aunt
To this last query she had carefully replied:
“I 'ain't never got none thet ain't every bit an' grain ez perty ez
that one—not a one.”
“An' why don't you show 'em to us, then?”
Such obduracy was indeed hard to comprehend.
If, as the years passed, her brother began to suspect, he made no
sign of it, save in an added tenderness. And, of course, he could not
On the anniversary upon which this little record of her life has
opened, the situation was somewhat exceptional.
The valentine had hitherto always been mailed in Simpkinsville—her
own town. This post-mark had been noted and commented upon, and yet it
had seemed impossible to have it otherwise. But this year, in spite of
many complications and difficulties, she had resolved that the envelope
should tell a new story.
The farthest point from which, within her possible acquaintance, it
would naturally hail was the railroad town of—let us call it Hope.
The extreme difficulty in the case lay in the fact that the
post-office here was kept by her old lover, Eli Taylor.
Here for ten years he had lived his reticent bachelor days, selling
ploughs and garden seed and cotton prints and patent medicines, and
keeping post-office in a small corner of his store.
Everybody knows how a spot gazed at intently for a long time changes
color—from green to red and then to white.
As Miss Jemima pondered upon the thought of sending herself a
valentine through her old lover's hands, the color of the scheme began
to change from impossible green to rosy red.
The point of objection became, in the mysterious evolution, its
Instead of dreading, she began ardently to desire this thing.
By the only possible plan through which she could manage secretly to
have the valentine mailed in Hope—a plan over which she had lost
sleep, and in which she had been finally aided by an illiterate colored
servant—it must reach her on the day before Valentine's. This day had
come and gone, and her treasure had not returned to her. Had the negro
failed to mail it? Had it remained all night in the post-office—in
possession of her lover? Would she ever see it again?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Would her brother ever, ever, EVER get through his trifling
with the children and finish distributing their valentines?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was not very long to wait—a minute, perhaps half a minute—and
yet it seemed an age before the distribution was over, and she felt
rather than saw her brother moving in her direction.
“Bigger an' purtier one 'n ever for Aunt 'Mimie this time—looks to
me like,” he said, as at last he laid the great envelope upon her
“Don't reckon it's anything extry—in partic'lar,” she answered,
not at all knowing what she said, as she continued her work, leaving
the valentine where he had dropped it; not touching it, indeed, until
she presently wound up her yarn in answer to the supper-bell. Then she
took it, with her work-basket, into her own room, and, dropping it into
her upper bureau drawer, turned the key.
The moment when she broke the seal each year—late at night, alone
in her locked chamber—had always been a sad one to Miss Jemima, and
to-night it was even sadder than ever. She had never before known how
she cared for this old love-token.
As she sat to-night looking at the outside of the envelope, turning
it over and over in her thin hands, great hot tears fell upon it and
ran down upon her fingers; but she did not heed them. It was, indeed, a
meagre little embodiment of the romance of a life; but, such as it was,
she would not part with it. She would never send it out from her again
—never, never, never.
It was even dearer now than ever before, after this recent passage
through her lover's hands. She raised it lovingly and laid it against
her cheek. Could he have handled it and passed it on without a thought
of her? Impossible. And since he had thought of her, what must have
been the nature of his thoughts? Was he jealous—jealous because
somebody was sending his old sweetheart a valentine?
This year's envelope, selected with great pains and trouble from a
sample catalogue and ordered from a distant city, was a fine affair,
profusely decorated with love symbols.
For a long time Miss Jemima sat enjoying a strange sense of nearness
to her lover, before she felt inclined to confront the far-away romance
typified by the yellowed sheet within. And yet she wanted to see even
this again—to realize it.
And so, with thoughts both eager and fearful, she finally inserted a
hair-pin carefully in the envelope, ripping it open delicately on two
sides, so that the valentine might come out without injury to its
frail, perforated edges. Then, carefully holding its sides apart, she
One of God's best traits is that He doesn't tell all He knows—and
How Miss Jemima felt or acted—whether she screamed or fainted—no
one will ever know, when, instead of the familiar pictured thing, there
fell into her lap a beautiful brand-new valentine.
It was certainly a long time before she recovered herself enough to
take the strange thing into her hands, and when she did so it was with
fingers that trembled so violently that a bit of paper that came within
it fluttered and fell beyond her reach. There it lay for fully several
minutes before she had strength to move from her seat to recover it.
There was writing on the flattering fragment, but what it was, and
why Miss Jemima wept over it and read it again and again, are other
trifling things that perhaps God does well not to tell.
The details of other people's romances are not always interesting to
However, for a better understanding of this particular case it may
be well to know that the servant who took charge of the old lover's
room in Hope, and who had an investigating way with her, produced seven
or eight torn scraps of paper collected at this period from his
scrap-basket, on which were written bits of broken sentences like the
following: ”—sending you this new valentine just as hearty as I sent
the old one fourteen years—”
“You sha'n't never want for a fresh one again every year long as I
live, unless you take—”
“—if you want the old one back again, unless you take me along
It is generally conceded that one of the lowest things that even a
very depraved and unprincipled person ever does is to intercept and
read other people's letters. To print them or otherwise make them
public is a thing really too contemptible to contemplate in ordinary
circumstances. But this case, if intelligently considered, seems
somewhat exceptional, for, be it borne in mind, all these writings,
without exception, and a few others too sacred to produce even here,
are the things that Eli Taylor, postmaster, did not send to his
old sweetheart, Jemima Martha Sprague.
Miss Jemima always burned her scraps, and so, even had it seemed
well to condescend to seek similar negative testimony concerning her
laboriously written reply, it would have been quite impossible to find
any. Certain it is, however, that she posted a note on the following
day, and that a good many interesting things happened in quick
succession after this.
There was a little, quiet, middle-aged wedding in the church on
Easter Sunday. It was the old lover's idea to have it then, as he said
their happiness was a resurrection from the dead, and it was befitting
to celebrate it at the blessed Easter season.
Miss Jemima showed her new valentine to the family before the
wedding came off, but, in spite of all their coaxing and begging, she
observed a rigid reticence in regard to all those that had come between
that and the old one. And so, seeing the last one actually in evidence,
and rejoicing in her happiness, they only smiled and whispered that
they supposed he and she had been “quar'lin' it out on them valentines,
year by year, and on'y now got to the place where they could make up.”
The old man, Eli, in spite of his indomitable pride, had come out of
his long silence with all due modesty, blaming himself for many things.
“I ain't fitten for you, Jemimy, honey, no mo'n I was fo'teen year
ago,” he said, while his arm timidly sought her shoulder the night
before the wedding, “but ef you keered enough about me to warm over the
one little valentine I sent you nigh on to fifteen year ago, and to
make out to live on it, I reckon I can keep you supplied with jest ez
good diet ez that—fresh every day an' hour. But befo' I take you into
church I want to call yo' attention to the fac' thet I'm a criminal
befo' the law, li'ble to the state's-prison for openin' yo' mail—an'
ef you say so, why, I'll haf to go.”
“Well, Eli,” Miss Jemima answered, quite seriously, “ef you're
li'ble to state's-prison for what you done, I don't know but I'm worthy
to go to a hotter place—for the deceit I've practised. Ef actions
speak louder than words, I've cert'n'y been guilty of an annual lie
which I've in a manner swo'e to every day I've lived up to it. Still, I
observed all the honesty I could. Nights the old valentine would be
out, I never could sleep good, an' they was times when I was tempted to
put blank sheets in the envelope, an' ef I had 'a' done it I don't know
whether the truth would 'a' prevailed under the children's quizzin' or
not. Children are mighty gifted in puttin' leadin' questions. We are
weak creatures, Eli, an' prone to sin. Yas, takin' it all 'round, I
reckon I'm a worse criminal 'n you—an' ef I got my dues, I'd be—”
“Well,” said Eli, “I reckon, ef the truth was told, the place where
we jest nachelly both b'long is the insane asylum—for the ejiots
we've acted. When I reflect thet I might 'a' been ez happy ez I am now
fo'teen year ago, an' think about all the time we've lost—Of co'se,
honey, I know I had no earthly right to open yo' valentine, an' yet—”
“Where'd we be now, ef you hadn't 've opened it, Eli?”
“—or ef you hadn't 've sent it to me, honey, directed to
yo' dear self, with a J for Jemimy different from anybody else's J's on
“Why, Eli! You don't mean—”
“Yas, I do, too. I knowed that flag-topped J of yores, jest ez soon
“But, Eli, I feel awful!”
“You needn't, dearie. I don't.”
And he kissed her—square on the lips.
“An' I don't now, neither.”
And he did it again.
A SLENDER ROMANCE
A SLENDER ROMANCE
DEACON HATFIELD was forty-five years old and a bachelor. And he was
a good bachelor. Now, a good bachelor is an object to sigh over so long
as there is a worthy unmarried maid available.
At least, such is the feeling in Simpkinsville. And so the best
Simpkinsville folk, who unanimously regarded the deacon as one good
husband gone wrong, sighed as they passed from contemplation of his
wasted domestic qualities to the solitary life of a certain Miss
Euphemia Twiggs, commonly known as “Miss Phemie,” who, during her
nearly forty years of residence among them, had proved by many signs
her entire fitness for the position of wife to the deacon. The deacon
was mild and gentle of mien. Miss Phemie was a woman of decision. She
would have given him just the accent he seemed to require for his full
And then she needed—if such things are ever needs—a home-setting
and personal endorsement. It is one thing to be endorsed by a
community, and quite another to have the individual endorsement and
protection of a special and particular man. The woman thus equipped
presents her credentials every time she gives her name. For Mrs. John
Smith and all that relates to her, see John Smith, Esquire. Now John
Smith's name may not have great value among men; but his wife, simply
because she may appropriate it, has a certain social prestige not quite
attainable by the unmarried woman, even though she be far her superior.
At least, so it is in Simpkinsville. So are social values in some of
the world's secluded spots still reckoned upside down.
For many years the good people of the good little village had
regarded Miss Phemie and the deacon as definitely in need of each
other. It would never have been granted for a moment that either could
need any one else. The deacon had seen the young women of the community
grow up, blossom into beauty, and marry, one by one, and he had stood
aside and let them depart.
Miss Euphemia had likewise seen men come and go. It is true,
however, that she had been several times “kep' company with” in years
past, and once, at least, unequivocally addressed by a worthy man, now
the father of one of Simpkinsville's leading families. This of course
gave her a certain reserve of dignity, to be drawn upon on occasion,
that was in itself a distinction.
Nevertheless, she remained “Euphemia O. Twiggs” on both church-books
and tax-roll; for, be it understood, Miss Twiggs was no pauper.
Her income of four or five hundred dollars a year, varying with the
crops, gave her a financial independence that went far to dignify her
position. And yet, so playfully is the single life regarded in some
localities, and so delicate was Miss Euphemia's poise between the
independent single woman she consciously was and the possible heroine
of an always imminent romance, that the village folk never lost an
opportunity of tipping the balance for their own amusement. Thus when,
at one of the church sociables, she was prevailed upon to sing
Tennyson's “Song of the Brook,” a favorite number in the village
repertoire, on her rendering of the words,
“For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever,”
there was a suppressed titter among the young and giddy set in the
back of the assembly, and one or two of the more adventurous craned
their necks to look at the deacon, who was observed to clear his
throat. But this may have been accidental. Certainly Miss Euphemia was
wholly unaware of any personal application of her song to herself.
But another thing was equally sure: the deacon and she were
distinctly aware of each other. Indeed, it would have been tacitly
conceded by every one that for either to marry a third person would
have been an act approaching discourtesy to the one remaining.
Still, be it said to their credit, both had been frequently known
separately to declare their unchangeable intentions of remaining
forever single. But this was always under pressure of the village
bantering; and what is the value of such protestation from man or woman
pressed to the wall?
There had possibly been moments of annoyance in the lives of each of
these good people when the marriage of either to a third person would
have been a definite relief to the other. As one of Miss Euphemia's
friends had said to her on one occasion:
“Th' ain't no fun in havin' your whole livelong life overshaddered
by a man with no earthly intentions.”
To which way of stating the case Miss Euphemia had replied with some
“Which ef he had any intentions, he'd be welcome to keep 'em to
But, again, what woman could have been expected to say less under
There had been other old bachelors and maidens in and about
Simpkinsville. Indeed, several were there now, but to all excepting
these two were attached their individual romances, long ago finished in
tragedy, or still pending.
There was actually, as she herself asserted, “nothing” between Miss
Euphemia and the deacon, not even a professed personal friendship. The
point was that there ought to be. He had never paid her a visit
in his life. He had simply for twenty-five years, more or less, sat in
the pew behind her at church, found the hymns as they were given out,
and then, leaning forward, changed hymn-books with her.
That was all.
This was only the part of good manners, according to the
Simpkinsville code polite, and he would have done the same for any
other woman sitting unattended in the pew before him.
For her to decline his book would have been embarrassing at first,
and, as the years passed, it would have been serious to do so. Indeed,
it would easily have been construed into refusing a man before he had
offered himself. And not entirely without cause, either, as an ulterior
motive would have been immediately apparent, and there was absolutely
nothing back of the small courtesy but himself—himself, eligible, not
asking for her.
So Miss Euphemia continued to sing from the deacon's book, and the
years went on. A little thin spot was beginning to show on the back of
the deacon's head, and a tiny hollow, corresponding with the one at the
base of her throat, was coming in between the cords at the back of Miss
Euphemia's neck. It was as if Time, in passing down the aisle, had laid
his palm lightly upon the man's pate, and then, in a spirit of
mischievous spite, had jabbed the back of the woman's sensitive neck
with his peaked thumb.
Some of Time's revenges are so shabby that we find it hard to
forgive them in one so old—one who ought, centuries ago, to have
learned to be kindly at least.
The deacon saw the old man's finger-mark upon the slender neck
before him, but Miss Euphemia, seated in front of him, did not see the
threatening baldness of his head. Still, of course, she knew it was
there. Everybody in Simpkinsville knew just how bald, or nearly bald,
or how far from it, everybody else was. They even knew who secretly
pulled out gray hairs, and how old some people were who would never be
bald or gray, because it didn't run in their families to be so, and
their luxuriant locks were held at a corresponding discount or premium
according to the point of observation.
There was no reason up to this point in their lives to believe that
either Miss Euphemia or the deacon was especially interested in the
fact that the other was growing old, or, indeed, that they were
particularly interested in each other at all. If they had been let
alone, it seems quite probable that they would have continued to the
end of their lives to sing from each other's books in their adjoining
pews, and this one point of neighborly contact in their separate lives
might never have been made a pivotal one, as it was destined to become
through the playful intermeddling of interested friends.
It was the minister who began it. At a little supper spread for the
officers of the church at the house of one of the elders, he was the
most frivolous guest present. The popular after-dinner “curse-word
story” of the cloth would never have been tolerated in Simpkinsville,
even with its naughty periods reduced to whispers. And so the dominie's
mischievous spirit found vent in missiles of inordinate teasing. After
spending his lighter fire in several directions, he said, finally, with
an assumption of great seriousness, addressing his opposite neighbor,
the schoolmaster of the village, and turning his back upon the deacon
as he spoke:
“I've been tryin' to make a mathematical calculation, Brother Clark,
and I think I'll have to get you to come in with your arithmetic and
help me out. I'd like to estimate exactly how many times in
twenty-three years Deacon Hatfield and Miss Euphemia Twiggs have
Of course there was boisterous laughter at this proposition; but the
Rev. Mr. Bowen, who spoke as one with authority, quickly restored
silence with a wave of his hand.
“No, I'm not a-jokin',” he continued; “I've been a-puzzlin' over
this calculation for some time. Twenty-three years of 52 Sundays makes
1196. But, you see, there's—
“Wait; le' me get out my pencil an' paper again. I thought I had
them figgurs all worked out in my mind, but they're a little too many
“Here it is. Now, I'll call 'em out as I put 'em down: Once every
Sunday for 23 years would be 1196 times; but, you see, there's three
hymns sung every Sunday mornin', an' two every Sunday evenin', an'
three at prayer-meetin'. That makes eight book-swappin's for every week
for singin'; an' countin' in the useless handin' back o' the
book at every mornin' service—what I'd designate as a empty swap—
why, that makes nine a week. Now, nine times 1196 comes to 10,764,
which, added to special meetin's that's been held throughout the year,
an' such little extries as the singin' of doxologies—exceptin', of
co'se, the long metre, which they do manage to worry through without
changin' books; an' I confess to you now that I have sometimes given
out doxologies of other metres just to see 'em swap books, they do
do it so purty—” He paused here in deliberate invitation of the
laughter that followed. “I say, allowin' for all such extries, an' what
time there may be over and above twenty-three years, which there is,
more or less, with sech odds an' ends as an occasional leap-year Sunday
thrown in, if my arithmetic is anyway right—why, they're consid'ble
past the 12,000 notch, easy.
“Now, the next question is—an' maybe this is mo' a question in
algebra than it is of arithmetic, 'cause there's a unknown quantity
somewhere in it—the next question is, how many of such open
attentions as this—which we all know to be entirely unnecessary, as
both parties can read both words and numbers at sight—how many of
such attentions, I say, does it take to be equivalent to an open an'
above-boa'd proposal of marriage?
“It seems to me that it wouldn't be any more than fair to require
that after ten or twelve thousand times there ought to be an
understandin' either to have 'em mean somethin' or quit—
“Now, what do you say? I put it to vote, an' if there is a tie, why,
I say, give Brother Hatfield the castin' vote. Otherwise, let him
maintain the same discreet silence he's been maintainin' these
twenty-three years an' over.”
He paused here as if to take breath, whereupon the entire party,
convulsed with laughter throughout, burst into most uproarious
applause; all excepting the deacon, whose usually pale face resembled
nothing so much as a fibrous and gnarled little beet lifted from the
soaked earth after a shower, as he sat grinning helplessly in the midst
of his tormentors. For of course all were with the minister in anything
he might dare in behalf of their long-desired match.
Seeing his advantage, he was soon pursuing it again:
“But, my brethren, before the votin' commences,” he interrupted,
securing silence now by assuming for the moment his ministerial voice—
“before the votin' begins, I say, I'd like to call attention to one or
two other points in this case. I have ascertained by exact measurement
with a spirit-level—which I felt free to do, bein' your spiritual
adviser—I have ascertained that the top edge of the back of Miss
Euphemia's pew is worn down a little over an inch in exac'ly the spot
where those twelve thousand passin's of hymn-books have taken place.
Now, takin' that figur'tively and as a basis of mathematical
calculations at once, it seems to me that we could safely say that in
time this romance, if left to its own co'se, would finally wear away
all barriers 'twixt the two pews. In time, I say, but how
much time? That's the mathematical question.
“Even grantin' that Miss Euphemia an' Brother Hatfield have found
the secret of perpetual youth, ain't there somethin' due to their
friends? I, for one, would like to witness the happy end of this
love-affair, but its present progress is too slow for my mortal life.
Twenty-three years to the square inch is pretty slow for a high-backed
“Now, another thing. Of co'se we're not goin' to be too personal in
this matter, but I'll wager right now that if we were to examine the
underside of Brother Hatfield's right coat-sleeve, we'd find it wo'e
pretty thin, if not darned.
“Don't put down your knife, deacon. We ain't a-goin' to requi'e you
to show it. We ain't a-goin' to exceed the bounds of politeness.
“But I say, my brethren, I don't doubt the darn is there. An'
furthermo'e—now this part I'm a-comin' to now is a fact. You
see, Miss Euphemia is sort o' cousin to my wife's sister-in-law, so
this is all in the family. An' furthermo'e, I say, my wife tells me
that as an actual fact she heard Miss Euphemia wonderin' the other day
how come the right shoulder of her black silk dress to wear out the way
it does. She had darned it twice, an' she declared she never had wo'e
the dress nowhere but to church mo' 'n three or four times in thirteen
“Ain't it funny to think she hasn't never thought o' the friction o'
them hymn-books a-passin' over that shoulder? An' neither did wife till
I called her attention to it. But she promised never to tell it. She
said she wouldn't dare suggest it to her, an' so I thought, Brother
Hatfield, that while I was on the subject I'd ask you, in her behalf,
would you mind—as long as she has to pay for her own silk dresses—
would you mind liftin' them hymn-books a leetle higher whilst you're
a-passin' that shoulder-seam? Wife tells me a seam-darn is a mighty
bothersome one to put in, on account of its havin' to be spliced in the
“As to the wear an' tear of the top o' that pew-rail, why, I propose
to refer that over to the committee on church buildin' an' repairs.”
The table was by this time in such an uproar that nothing less than
a response from the hitherto silent deacon could have gained a hearing.
The little man had fortunately recovered himself somewhat, and was
ready to come to his own rescue with the laughing reminder that he was
himself chairman of the committee on repairs, and a promise that he
would call a meeting on the subject whenever it should become serious.
The deacon's voice was slender at best, but its thin, good-natured
response commanded attention now; and, indeed, it went so far to
restore his threatened dignity that, after a little random bantering,
the subject was dropped.
But this was only the beginning. Before the next sundown everybody
in Simpkinsville, excepting, of course, Miss Euphemia, had laughed over
the minister's temerity, and declared it the “best joke they had ever
heard in their lives”; while more than one had remarked that “ef
Simpkinsville knowed what side their bread was buttered on they
wouldn't let Miss Phemie get a-holt of it.”
This also was the deacon's chief concern. Indeed, he declared to
himself that it was the only thing he cared for in the whole affair. As
for himself, he wouldn't let sech foolishness pester him into doin' any
different to the way he'd been doin' all his livelong life—the way
he'd been raised to do.
As he took his seat behind Miss Euphemia on the following Sunday,
however, it is safe to say that he felt a tremor of embarrassment on
his own account; for at his entrance there was a very definite stir
throughout the congregation, not to mention the bobbing together in
pairs of sundry feathered bonnets near him. Yet, even as he realized
the delicacy of the situation, he could not help running his eye along
the line defining the top rail of Miss Euphemia's pew, and the marked
depression he saw there seemed to run in a quiver up and down his
spinal column for the space of some minutes; and when, finally, in
desperation, he raised his eyes a little higher, it was only to see
upon Miss Euphemia's shoulder the evenly laid stitches of a careful
Somehow, the silken threads seemed to raise themselves above the
shiny fabric, so that he saw them clearly, even without his
He knew there was no truth in the minister's remark about the
wearing of his own sleeve, and he had thought him jesting throughout,
and perhaps he was. Still, here was the darn. The discovery startled
him so that his mind wandered during the entire opening prayer; and
when, presently, a hymn was given out he became so confused that after
he had presented his book—blushing, he felt, like a school-boy—he
was horrified to discover that he had found the wrong place, and the
trying ordeal had to be repeated. He seemed to hear the minister saying
“one extry,” and jotting down 12,002 in the account he was reckoning
against him, as he changed books a second time for one hymn.
His state of mind was bad enough, but when he raised his eyes from
his book only to see a purplish-red color slowly spreading all the way
around the back of Miss Euphemia's neck—well, he could only turn
Evidently she had heard the talk.
But here be it said that in describing this moment ten years
afterwards, Miss Euphemia declared that she “hadn't heard a breath of
it,” and that she “didn't know, to save her life, why she had changed
color that-a-way, which she knew she done, because for a second or so,
when deacon passed her that book, seem like she felt every eye in
Simpkinsville on her.”
“This seems a remarkable statement, and yet the writer of this
slender romance of her life believes it to be true, for Miss Euphemia
would have died rather than verge a hair's-breadth from the exact
verities in word or deed. Indeed, it seems to the writer that her
subsequent conduct goes far to confirm her statement. Be this as it
may, the deacon naturally took her blushes as proof of her knowledge of
the affair. She not only knew it, but was sensitive on the subject. “It
The stress of the situation was more than he could stand; and,
although somewhat reassured when her wavering alto notes came in
timidly with the third line of the hymn, he failed to command his own
voice, and there was a clear, high tenor missing in the church during
the entire singing.
He sat very still, in seeming attention to the service, until
another hymn was imminent. But before it was announced the unusual
stillness of his mare, tied to a tree outside the window, disturbed him
so that he was impelled to go to her relief; and it was only after a
prolonged and tedious manipulation of the reins that he was able to
return to the church, where, instead of disturbing the congregation in
the midst of the sermon, he slipped noiselessly, though by no means
unobserved, into a seat near the door.
This was a definite and somewhat ignominious retreat, and so it was
regarded by the delighted congregation, now on tiptoe of expectation
for next developments.
If Miss Euphemia had not before heard of the minister's joke
concerning her and her neighbor, she heard it now, from all sides.
Indeed, before she had reached the church door to-day, one of her good
friends had expressed surprise at “two sensible people like her and
deacon takin' a little fun so seriously.” Another even went so far as
to compare the respective blushes of the two as viewed from the rear;
while a third declared that she thought she'd die in her pew for the
want of a laugh at the God-forsaken look in the deacon's face when he
got up an' went out o' church to worry his horse.
When Miss Euphemia finally made them understand that she “didn't
know what in kingdom come they were talkin' about,” more than one of
the good people of the church turned away, declaring they would never
put faith in human creature again, and that it was a “pity some folks
couldn't see the backs o' their own necks befo' they openly perjured
themselves—an' in the house of God at that.”
“Yes, an' looks like a thunder-storm a-fixin' to gether this
minute,” added a voice outside the door. “I'd 'a' thought she'd 'a'
been afeerd o' bein' struck dead by lightnin'.”
And still another, as the crowd passed down the steps:
“The Lord has gone more out of his way than that to make examples o'
people thet set him at defiance that-a-way.”
While she lingered in the aisle within, listening to the story as it
came to her little by little from many lips, the color came and went in
Miss Euphemia's thin face; and when she finally turned away she said,
simply, though her head was high as she spoke:
“I'm sorry he troubled hisself. He needn't to've, I'm sure.”
It is probable that she made no effort to be non-committal in this
speech; still, taking the words afterwards, her friends found them
There was that in the mien of both Miss Euphemia and the deacon
during the week following this most interesting episode that forbade
any reference to the subject in their presence even by such of their
worthy and intimate friends as declared themselves “jest a-burstin' to
plague their lives out of 'em,” and “nearly dead to know what they'll
A week is a long time in Simpkinsville, where time is reckoned
chiefly either by great old clocks, whose long, ponderous pendulums
seem to be lagging with the village movement, or by the slow
insinuations of light and shadow following the easy comings and goings
of the never-hurrying sun.
In inverse ratio to her sauntering movement is the Simpkinsville
eagerness over a village event. Indeed, she is wont on occasion even to
indulge in playful denunciation of her own slow pace, so far
outstripped by her impatient spirit. And so, wherever two or three were
congregated during this longest of long weeks, there might have been
heard such remarks as the following, caught up at random during a
half-hour spent in the village store:
“Well, old Simpkinsville's had a laugh, anyhow, an' it's in the
deacon's power to wake her up with a weddin', ef he knows how to take a
“Yas, maybe so, though there's no tellin'. Miss Phemie might take it
into her head to be contrary. She's had her own way so long.”
“Well, yas, maybe so; but I look for him to settle it. It all
depends on the way he conducts hisself next Sunday. Seem like bad luck
would have it thet it couldn't 'a' been settled at prayer-meetin'. We
'ain't had sech a full prayer-meetin' for many a year.”
“Wife says her b'lief is thet Brother Bowen insisted on Miss Phemie
goin' out there to set up with that sick child o' his, which ain't no
mo' 'n teethin', jest for an excuse to get her out o' the way till
folks would have time to get over this joke o' his. You see, he done
the whole thing, an' he was about ez much plagued ez the next one when
he see how things was Sunday.”
“My opinion is thet there's some liberties thet oughtn't to be took
with folks in their private affairs—not even by a minister o' the
“Yas; an' 't ain't everybody thet looks well in a joke, nohow. I
never did see deacon at sech a disadvantage in my life, nor Miss Phemie
“Reckon they'll be a big turnout Sunday, an' then, like ez not,
Brother Bowen 'll git deacon out o' the way. Take my word for it,
Brother Bowen is skeert.”
“Trouble is he didn't realize how hungry Simpkinsville was for an
excitement. Pore old Simpkinsville has been asleep so long thet when
she does wake up she's so well rested she's ready for anything.”
There was, indeed, an unusual attendance at church on the following
Sunday morning, even such as were not piously inclined coming in
confessedly “to see it out.” While there were many who prophesied that
the deacon would find the hymns and pass them over the pew to his
neighbor as usual, there was not one who would not secretly have felt
defrauded of a sensation if such should be his course.
There was a stir all over the church when at last the deacon was
seen tying his mare outside the window. Just at this moment it was that
Miss Euphemia walked calmly up the aisle, “lookin' jest ez cool an'
unconcerned ez ef all Simpkinsville hadn't turned out to look at her.”
Such was the disgusted comment of one of her disapproving friends at
the end of the service. Going first to her accustomed seat, she
deliberately picked up her hymn-book and foot-stool, and, crossing to
the opposite side of the church, deposited them in a vacant pew. Then
she sat down. The seat she selected was immediately in front of an
unoccupied one, and directly back of those assigned to the inmates of
the poorhouse. In taking it she had voluntarily isolated herself from
any possible neighborly courtesy. Indeed, at the announcement of the
first hymn, it was she who hastened to reverse the old order by quickly
finding their places for both the old people who sat in the pew before
The deacon, who came in a few moments later than she, did not know
that she had arrived until her alto voice came to him clear and strong
from across the church. At its first note he reddened to the roots of
his thin hair, and his high tenor, bravely enough begun, was suddenly
silent, nor was it heard again during the rest of the service.
Those who kept guard over his every movement—and there were many
who did so—declared that he “never even so much ez cast his eyes
acrost the church du'in' the whole mornin'.” Indeed, the general
verdict was that under circumstances so trying, “mighty few men would
'a' stood their ground an' acted ez well ez what deacon did.”
As to Miss Euphemia, there was a difference of opinion. Many were
pleased to agree that she had “showed sense,” and that while, in the
situation, “some would 'a' acted skittish an' made theirselves an' him
both laughin'-stalks, she never made no to-do about it, but jest
quietly put a' end to foolishness.” Others there were who took the
other side, and dropped their opinions pretty freely, as a few of the
following remarks, quoted verbatim, will testify:
“I don't say she didn't act ca'm, but in my opinion a little fluster
is sometimes mo' becomin' to a woman 'n what this everlastin' ca'mness
“Why, th' ain't nothin' thet 'll draw a man to a woman mo' 'n for
her to fly off the handle sometimes, an' to need takin' in hand.”
“Well, of co'se them thet don't need don't get.”
“An' besides, 'tain't every woman that wants to be took in
The truth is, Miss Euphemia's easy solution of the question that was
setting all Simpkinsville agog was a distinct disappointment to more
than half the village. Of course it was supposed that her action would
end all talk, and things would immediately settle down into a condition
even somewhat more prosaic than the old one, inasmuch as at least one
hopeful situation was eliminated from it.
The dominie was, indeed, distinctly unhappy over the affair, which
he insisted on considering a “breaking up of pleasant Christian
relations,” for which he held himself personally responsible; and he
often declared to Miss Euphemia that he “would never draw a happy
breath till she went back to her old seat.” But this, of course, she
would not do. Miss Euphemia was a woman of her own mind. She had
gently, without passion or impatience, taken her stand, and in her new
position she seemed, as she professed to be, “jest ez well contented
an' happy ez ever.”
Several weeks passed, and, excepting for the fact that the good
deacon's tenor had never been heard in the church since the day of his
discomfiture, things seemed to be getting back into somewhat the old
condition. Some day he would sing, and then everything would be nearly
the same as before. Such was the undefined hope of the more sensitive
souls among the people.
What Miss Euphemia or he felt in their inmost hearts no one
professed to know, though from his silence it seemed that at least he
cared a little. Possibly, if she had not cared at all, she would not
have changed her seat. Or possibly, if she had cared—Who can read
another, and be sure?
Sympathy was still divided, but general interest in the affair was
visibly waning, when one Sunday morning the deacon, who happened to be
a trifle late, walked up the aisle as usual, but, instead of taking his
seat, he simply found his book, and, crossing over, seated himself
quietly in the vacant pew back of Miss Euphemia. At the announcement of
the first hymn he found it in his own book, and then, leaning forward,
courteously presented it to her as of old.
When she turned back to receive it, delivering her own in return
according to the old form, she smiled frankly in the face of the entire
congregation, giving him thus her most gracious and perfect welcome.
The deacon's slender tenor sounded almost full and fine to the
pleased ears of all present as it rose in modest triumph while he sang
the sacred words from Miss Euphemia's book. So delighted, indeed, was
every one that some of the more impulsive among them could not refrain
from expressing their pleasure to the two as they walked separately
down the aisle. Of course all Simpkinsville soon rang with the news,
and its voice was for once unanimous in prophesying a romantic
And who shall say that it was wrong? To whom is it given to define
the border-lands of romance, forbidding all to enter save those who
come in by the great thronged gate where the orange-flower grows?
Twenty years have passed since the incidents just related, and the
deacon, now become an elder in the church, still sits in the pew behind
Miss Euphemia, and changes books with her for the singing of the hymns;
and occasionally, when the weather is very bad, he even escorts her to
her door. Further than this he has never gone.
They are both old now. It is said, though it may not be so, that the
deacon has recently bought a lot adjoining hers in the old cemetery. It
would be pleasant to believe this to be true, and that he is pleased to
wish to rest at last beside her, awaiting the resurrection. And if it
be the divine pleasure, perhaps he even hopes to sit behind her in the
Great Congregation, and to find her hymns for her.