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The Middle Hall by Ruth McEnery Stuart

A Sequel To “the Dividing-Fence”

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 both families.

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 medicinal uses.

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 never do.

“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 hair”!

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 to-night?

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 interest.'

“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 case.

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 not.

“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 end, Amen.”

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 things purty.

“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 sp'ere.”

“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 their errand.

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 Bradfield's house.

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 precisely this:

“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 doorway.

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 thousand.”

“Yas, he was,” said Mrs. Carroll.

 
 
 

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