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The Dividing 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 friendly transit.

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 then.”

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 unprofitable surmise.

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' Carroll.”

Bradfield chuckled nervously as he leaned forward towards her, his elbows resting upon the ledge of the dividing-fence between them as he spoke.

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 improvements, too.”

“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 fence.

“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 county.”

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 Bradfield.

“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 theirselves.”

“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 'em that-a-way.”

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 there.”

“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 bees.”

“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 was?”

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 know it.”

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 out.”

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 ordinary routine.

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 the situation:

“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 Stuart

 
 
 

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