Fence by Ruth McEnery Stuart
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
by Ruth McEnery