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An Arkansas Prophet by Ruth McEnery Stuart

A New-Year's Story

IF you would find the warmest spot in a little village on a cold day, watch the old codgers and see where they congregate. That's what the stray cats do, or perhaps the codgers follow the cats. However that may be, both can be depended upon to find the open door where comfort is. They will probably lead you to the rear end of the village store, the tobacco-stained drawing-room, where an old stove dispenses hospitality in an atmosphere like unto which, for genial disposition, there is none so unfailing.

From November to May the old stove in the back of Chris Rowton's store was, to its devotees at least, the most popular hostess in Simpkinsville. And, be it understood, her circle was composed of people of good repute. Even the cats sleeping at her feet, if personally tramps, were well connected, being lineal descendants of known cats belonging to families in regular standing. Many, indeed, were natives of the shop, and had come into this kingdom of comfort in a certain feline lying-in hospital behind the rows of barrels that flanked the stove on either side.

It was the last day of December. The wind was raw and cold, and of a fitful mind, blowing in contrary gusts, and throwing into the faces of people going in all directions various samples from the winter storehouse of the sky, now a threat, a promise, or a dare as to how the new year should come in.

“Blest if Doc' ain't got snow on his coat! Rainin' when I come in,” said one of two old men who drew their seats back a little while the speaker pushed a chair forward with his boot.

“Reckon I got both froze and wet drops on me twix' this an' Meredith's,” drawled the newcomer, depositing his saddle-bags beside his chair, wiping the drops from his sleeves over the stove, and spreading his thin palms for its grateful return of warm steam.

“Sleetin' out our way,” remarked his neighbor, between pipe puffs. And then he added:

“How's Meredith's wife coming on, doctor? Reckon she's purty bad off, ain't she?”

The doctor was filling his pipe now and he did not answer immediately; but presently he said, as he deliberately reached forward and, seizing the tongs, lifted a live coal to his pipe:

“Meredith's wife don't rightfully belong in a doctor's care. She ain't to say sick; she's heartbroke, that's what she is; but of co'se that ain't a thing I can tell her—or him, either.”

“This has been a mighty slow and tiresome year in Simpkinsville,” he added in a moment, “an' I'm glad to see it drawin' to a close. It come in with snow an' sleet an' troubles, an' seems like it's goin' out the same way—jest like the years have done three year past.”

“Jest look at that cat—what a dusty color she's got between spots! Th' ain't a cat in Simpkinsville, hardly, thet don't show a trace o' Jim Meredith's Maltee—an' I jest nachelly despise it, 'cause that's one of the presents he brought out there—that Maltee is.”

“Maltee is a good enough color for a cat ef it's kep' true,” remarked old Pete Taylor—“plenty good enough ef it's kep' true; but it's like gray paint—it'll mark up most anything it's mixed with, and cloud it.”

“I reckon Jim Meredith's Maltee ain't the only thing thet's cast a shade over Simpkinsville,” said old Mr. McMonigle, who sat opposite.

“That's so,” grunted the circle.

“That's so, shore ez you're born,” echoed Pete. “Simpkinsville has turned out some toler'ble fair days since little May Meredith dropped out of it, but the sun ain't never shone on it quite the same—to my notion.”

“Wonder where she is?” said McMonigle. “My opinion is she's dead, an' thet her mother knows it. I wouldn't be surprised ef the devil that enticed her away has killed her. Once-t a feller like that gits a girl into a crowded city and gits tired of her, there's a dozen ways of gittin' shet of her.”

“Yas, a hundred of 'em. It's done every day, I don't doubt.”

“See that stove how she spits smoke. East wind 'll make her spit any day—seems to gag her.”

“Yas,” McMonigle chuckled softly, as he leaned forward and began poking the fire, “she hates a east wind, but she likes me—don't you, old girl? See her grow red in the face while I chuck her under the chin.”

“Look out you don't chuck out a coal of fire on kitty with your foolin',” said old man Taylor. “She does blush in the face, don't she? An' see her wink under her isinglass spectacles when she's flirted with.”

“That stove is a well-behaved old lady,” interrupted the doctor; “reg'larly gits religion, an' shouts whenever the wind's from the right quarter—an' I won't have her spoke of with disrespect.

“If she could tell all she's heard, settin' there summer and winter, I reckon it 'd make a book—an' a interestin' one, too. There's been cats and mice born in her all summer, an' birds hatched; an' Rowton tells me he's got a dominicker hen thet's reg'larly watched for her fires to go out last two seasons, so she can lay in her. An' didn't you never hear about Phil Toland hidin' a whiskey bottle in her one day last summer and smashin' a whole settin' o' eggs? The hen, she squawked out at him, an' all but skeered him to death. He thought he had a 'tackt o' the tremens, shore—an' of a adult variety.”

“Pity it hadn't a-skeert him into temperance,” remarked the man opposite.

“Did sober him up for purty nigh two weeks. Rowton he saw it all, an' he give the fellers the wink, an' when Pete hollered, he ast him what was the matter, an' of co'se Pete he pointed to the hen that was kitin' through the sto'e that minute, squawkin' for dear life, an' all bedaubled over with egg, an' sez he: 'What sort o' dash blanketed hens hev you got round here, settin' in stoves?' And Rowton he looks round and winks at the boys. 'Hen,' says he—'what hen? Any o' you fellers saw a hen anywhere round here?'

“Of co'se every feller swo'e he hadn't saw no hen, an' Rowton he went up to Pete and he says, says he: 'Pete,' says he, 'you better go home an' lay down. You ain't well.'

“Well, sir, Pete wasn't seen on the streets for up'ards o' three weeks after that.

“Yas, that stove has seen sights and heard secrets, too, I don't doubt.

“They say old nigger Prophet used to set down an' talk to her same ez ef she was a person, some nights, when he'd have her all to hisself. Rowton ast him one day what made him do it, and he 'lowed thet he could converse with anything that had the breath o'life in it. There is no accountin' for what notions a nigger 'll take.

“No, an' there's no tellin' how much or how little they know, neither. Old Proph', half blind and foolish, limpin' round in the woods, getherin' queer roots, and talkin' to hisself, didn't seem to have no intelligence, rightly speakin', an' yet he has called out prophecies that have come true—even befo' he prophesied about May Meredith goin' wrong.

“Here comes Brother Squires, chawin' tobacco like a sinner. I do love a preacher that'll chaw tobacco.

“Hello, Brother Squires!” he called out now to a tall, clerical old man who approached the group. “Hello! what you doin' in a sto'e like is, I like to know? Th' ain't no Bibles, nor trac's for sale here, an' your folks don't eat molasses and bacon, same ez us sinners, do you?”

“Well, my friends,” the parson smiled broadly as he advanced, “since you good people don't supply us with locusts and wild honey, we are reduced to the necessity of eatin' plain bread an' meat—but you see I live up to the Baptist standard as far as I can. I wear the leathern girdle about my loins.”

He laid his hand upon the long leather whip which, for safe-keeping, he had tied loosely around his waist.

“Room for one more?” he added, as, declining the only vacant chair, he seated himself upon a soap-box, extended his long legs, and raised his boots upon the ledge of the stove.

“I declare, Brother Squires, the patches on them boots are better'n a contribution-box,” said McMonigle, laughing, as he thrust his hand down into his pocket. “Reckon it'll take a half-dollar to cover this one.” He playfully balanced a bright coin over the topmost patch on the pastor's toe.

“Stop your laughin', now, parson. Don't shake it off! Come up, boys! Who'll cover the next patch? Ef my 'rithmetic is right, there's jest about a patch apiece for us to cover—not includin' the half-soles. I know parson wouldn't have money set above his soul.”

“No, certainly not, an' if anybody 'd place it there, of co'se I'd remove it immediately,” the parson answered, with ready wit. And then he added, more seriously:

“I have passed my hat around to collect my salary once in a while, but I never expected to hand around my old shoes—and really, my friends, I don't know as I can allow it.”

Still he did not draw them in, and the three old men grew so hilarious over the fun of covering the patches with the ever-slipping coins that a crowd was soon collected, the result being the pocketing of the entire handful of money by Rowton, with the generous assurance that it should be good for the best pair of boots in his store, to be fitted at the pastor's convenience.

It was after this mirth had all subsided and the codgers had settled down into their accustomed quiet that the parson remarked, with some show of hesitation:

“My brothers, when I was coming towards you a while ago I heard two names. They are names that I hear now and then among my people—names of two persons whom I have never met—persons who passed out of your community some time before I was stationed among you. One of them, I know, has a sad history. The details of the story I have never heard, but it is in the air. Scarcely a village in all our dear world but has, no matter how blue its skies, a little cloud above its horizon—a cloud which to its people seems always to reflect the pitiful face of one of its fair daughters. I don't know the story of May Meredith—or is it May Day Meredith?”

“She was born May Day, and christened that-a-way,” answered McMonigle. “But she was jest ez often called Daisy or May—any name thet 'd fit a spring day or a flower would fit her.”

“Well, I don't know her story,” the parson resumed, “but I do know her fate. And perhaps that is enough to know. The other name you called was 'Old Proph',' or 'Prophet.' Tell me about him. Who was he? How was he connected with May Day Meredith?”

He paused and looked from one face to another for the answer, which was slow in coming.

“Go on an' tell it, Dan'l,” said the doctor, finally, with an inclination of the head towards McMonigle.

Old man McMonigle shook the tobacco from his pipe, and refilled it slowly, without a word. Then he as deliberately lit it, puffed its fires to the glowing point, and took it from his lips as he began:

“Well, parson, ef I hadn't o' seen you standin' in the front o' the sto'e clean to the minute you come back here, I'd think you'd heerd more than names.

“Of co'se we couldn't put it quite ez eloquent ez you did, but we had jest every one of us 'lowed that sence the day May Meredith dropped out o' Simpkinsville the sky ain't never shone the same.

“But for a story? Well, I don't see thet there's much story to it, and to them thet didn't know her I reckon it's common enough.

“But ez to the old nigger, Proph', being mixed up in it, I can't eggsac'ly say that's so, though I don't never think about the old nigger without seemin' to see little May Day's long yaller curls, an' ef I think about her, I seem to see the old man, somehow. Don't they come to you all that-a-way?”

He paused, took a few puffs from his pipe, and looked from one face to another.

“Yas,” said the doctor, “jest exactly that-a-way, Dan'l. Go on, ol' man. You're a-tellin' it straight.”

“Well, that's what I'm aimin' to do.” He laid his pipe down on the stove's fender as he resumed his recital.

“Old Proph'—which his name wasn't Prophet, of co'se, which ain't to say a name nohow, but his name was Jeremy, an' he used to go by name o' Jerry; then somebody called him Jeremy the Prophet, an' from that it got down to Prophet, and then Proph'—and so it stayed.

“Well, ez I started to say, Proph' he was jest one o' Meredith's ol' slave niggers—a sort o' queer, half-luney, no-'count darky—never done nothin' sence freedom but what he had a mind to, jest livin' on Meredith right along.

“He wasn't to say crazy, but—well, he'd stand and talk to anything —a dog, a cat, a tree, a toad-frog— anything. Many a time I've seen him limpin' up the road, an' he'd turn round sudden an' seemed to be talkin' to somethin' thet was follerin' him, an' when he'd git tired he'd start on an' maybe every minute look back over his shoulder an' laugh. They was only one thing Proph' was, to say, good for. Proph' was a capital A-1 hunter—shorest shot in the State, in my opinion, and when he'd take a notion he could go out where nobody wouldn't sight a bird or a squir'l all day long, an' he'd fill his game-bag.

“Well, sir, the children round town, they was all afeerd of 'im, and the niggers—th' ain't a nigger in the county thet don't b'lieve to this day thet Proph' would cunjer 'em ef he'd git mad.

“An' time he takin' to fortune-tellin', the school child'en thet 'd be feerd to go up to him by theirselves, they'd go in a crowd, an' he'd call out fortunes to 'em, an' they'd give him biscuits out o' their lunch-cans.

“From that time he come to tellin' anybody's fortune, an' so the young men, they got him to come to the old-year party one year, jest for the fun of it, an' time the clock was most on the twelve strike, Proph' he stood up an' called out e-vents of the comin' year. An', sir, for a crack-brained fool nigger, he'd call out the smartest things you ever hear. Every year for five year, Proph' called out comin' e-vents at the old-year party; an' matches thet nobody suspicioned, why, he'd call 'em out, an' shore enough, 'fore the year was out, the weddin's would come off. An' babies! He'd predic' babies a year ahead—not always callin' out full names, but jest insinuatin', so thet anybody thet wasn't deef in both ears would understand.

“But to come back to the story of May Meredith—he ain't in it, noways in partic'lar. It's only thet sence she could walk an' hold the ol man's hand he doted on her, an' she was jest ez wropped up in him. Many's the time when she was a toddler he's rode into town, mule-back, with her settin' up in front of 'im. An' then when she got bigger it was jest as ef she was the queen to him—that's all. He saved her from drowndin' once-t, jumped in the branch after her an couldn't swim a stroke, an' mos' drownded hisself—an' time she had the dip'theria, he never shet his eyes ez long ez she was sick enough to be set up with— set on the flo' by her bed all night.

“That's all the way Proph' is mixed up in her story. An' now, sence they're both gone, ef you 'magine you see one, you seem to see the other.

“But May Day's story? Well, I hardly like to disturb it. Don't rightly know how to tell it, nohow.

“I don't doubt folks has told you she went wrong, but that's a mighty hard way to tell it to them thet knew her.

“We can't none of us deny, I reckon, thet she went wrong. A red-cheeked peach thet don't know nothin' but the dew and the sun, and to grow sweet and purty—it goes wrong when it's wrenched off the stem and et by a hog. That's one way o' goin' wrong.

“Little Daisy Meredith didn't have no mo' idee o' harm than that mockin'-bird o' Rowton's in its cage there, thet sings week-day songs all Sunday nights.

“She wasn't but jest barely turned seventeen year—ez sweet a little girl ez ever taught a Baptist Sunday-school class—when he come down from St. Louis—though some says he come from Chicago, an' some says Canada—lookin' after some land mortgages. An', givin' the devil his due, he was the handsomest man thet ever trod Simpkinsville streets—that is, of co'se, for a outsider. Seen May Day first time on her way to church, an' looked after her—then squared back di-rect, an' follered her. Walked into church delib'rate, an' behaved like a gentleman religiously inclined, ef ever a well-dressed, city person behaved that way.

“Well, sir, from that day on, he froze to her, and, strange to say, every mother of a marriageable daughter in town was jealous exceptin' one, an' that one was May's own mother. An' she not only wasn't jealous —which she couldn't 'a' been, of co'se—but she wasn't pleased.

“She seemed to feel a dread of him from the start, and she treated him mighty shabby, but of co'se the little girl, she made it up to him in politeness, good ez she could, an' he didn't take no notice of it. Kep' on showin' the old lady every attention, an', when he'd be in town, most any evenin' you'd go past the Meredith gate you could see his horse hitched there—everything open and above boa'd, so it seemed.

“Well, sir, he happened to be here the time o' the old-year party, three year ago. You've been here a year and over, 'ain't you, parson?”

“Yes, I was stationed here at fall conference a year ago this November, you recollect.”

“Yas, so you was. Well, all this is about two year befo' you come.

“Well, sir, when it was known thet May Day's city beau was goin' to be here for the party, everybody looked to see some fun, 'cause they knowed how free ol' Proph' made with comin' e-vents, an' they wondered ef he'd have gall enough to call out May Day's name with the city feller's. Well, ez luck would have it, the party was at my house that year, an' I tell you, sir, folks thet hadn't set up to see the old year out for ten year come that night, jest for fear they'd miss somethin'. But of co'se we saw through it. We knowed what fetched 'em.

“Well, sir, that was the purtiest party I ever see in my life. Our Simpkinsville pattern for young girls is a toler'ble neat one, ef I do say it ez shouldn't, bein' kin to forty-'leven of 'em. We 'ain't got no, to say, ugly girls in town—never had many, though some has plained down some when they got settled in years; but the girls there that night was en perfec' a bunch of girls ez you ever see—jest ez purty a show o' beauty ez any rose arbor could turn out on a spring day.

“Have you ever went to gether roses, parson, each one seemin' to be the purtiest tell you'd got a handful, an' you'd be startin' to come away, when 'way up on top o' the vine you'd see one thet was enough pinker an' sweeter 'n the rest to make you climb for it, an' when you'd git it, you'd stick it in the top of yore bo'quet a little higher 'n the others?

“I see you know what I mean. Well, that was the way May Day looked that night. She was that top bud.

“I had three nieces, and wife she had sev'al cousins, there—all purty enough to draw hummin'-birds; but I say little Daisy Meredith, she jest topped 'em all for beauty and sweetness an' modesty that night.

“An' the stranger—well, I don't hardly know jest what to liken him to, less'n it is to one of them princes thet stalk around the stage an' give orders when they have play-actin' in a show-tent.

“They wasn't no flies on his shape, nor his rig, nor his manners neither. Talked to the old ladies—ricollect my wife she had a finger wropped up, an' he ast her about it and advised her to look after it an' give her a recipe for bone-felon. She thought they wasn't nobody like him. An' he jest simply danced the wall-flowers dizzy, give the fiddlers money, an'—well, he done everything thet a person o' the royal family of city gentry might be expected to do. An' everybody wondered what mo' Mis' Meredith wanted for her daughter. Tell the truth, some mistrusted, an' 'lowed thet she jest took on indifferent, the way she done, to hide how tickled she was over it.

“Well, ez I say, the party passed off lovely, an' after a while it come near twelve o'clock, an' the folks commenced to look round for ol' Proph' to come in an' call out e-vents same as he always done.

“So d'rectly the boys they stepped out an' fetched him in—drawin' him 'long by the sleeve, an' he holdin' back like ez ef he dreaded to come in.

“I tell you, parson, I'll never forgit the way that old nigger looked, longest day I live. Seemed like he couldn't sca'cely walk, an' he stumbled, an' when he taken his station front o' the mantel-shelf, look like he never would open his mouth to begin.

“An' when at last he started to talk, stid o' runnin' on an' laughin' an' pleggin' everybody like he always done, he lifted up his face an' raised up his hands, same ez you'd do ef you was startin' to lead in public prayer. An' then he commenced:

“Says he—an' when he started he spoke so low down in his th'oat you couldn't sca'cely hear him—says he:

“ 'Every year, my friends, I stands befo' you an' look throo de open gate into the new year. An',' says he, 'seem like I see a long percession o' people pass befo' me—some two-by-two, some one-by-one; some horseback, some muleback, some afoot; some cryin', some laughin'; some stumblin' ez they'd walk, an' gittin' up agin, some fallin' to rise no mo'; some faces I know, some strangers.'

“An' right here, parson, he left off for a minute, an' then when he commenced again, he dropped his voice clair down into his th'oat, an' he squinted his eyes an' seemed to be tryin' to see somethin' way off like, an' he says, says he:

“ 'But to-night,' says he, 'I don't know whar the trouble is,' says he, 'but, look hard ez I can, I don't seem to see clair, 'cause the sky is darkened,' says he, 'an' while I see people comin' an' goin', an' I see the doctor's buggy on the road, an' hear the church bell, an' the organ, I can't make out nothin' clair, 'cause the sky is overshaddered by a big dark cloud. An' now,' says he, 'seem like the cloud is takin' the shape of a great big bird. Now I see him spread his wings an' fly into Simpkinsville, an' while he hangs over it befo' the sun seem to me I can see everybody stop an' gaze up an' hold their breath to see where he'll light—everybody hopin' to see him light in their tree. An' now —oh! now I see him comin' down, down, down—an' now he's done lit,' says he. I ricollect that expression o' his—'he's done lit,' says he, 'in the limb of a tall maginolia-tree a little piece out o' town.'

“Well, sir, when he come to the bird lightin' in a maginolia tree, a little piece out o' town, I tell you, parson, you could 'a' heerd a pin drop. You see, maginolias is purty sca'ce in Simpkinsville. Plenty o' them growin' round the edge o' the woods, but 'ceptin' them thet Sonny Simkins set out in his yard years ago, I don't know of any nearer than Meredith's place. An' right at his gate, ef you ever taken notice, there's a maginolia-tree purty nigh ez tall ez a post oak.

“An' so when the ol' nigger got to where the fine bird lit in the maginolia-tree, all them thet had the best manners, they set still, but sech ez didn't keer—an' I was one of that las' sort—why, we jest glanced at the city feller di-rec' to see how he was takin' it.

“But, sir, it didn't ruffle one of his feathers, not a one.

“An' then the nigger he went on: Says he, squintin' his eyes ag'in, an' seemin' to strain his sight, says he:

“ 'Now he's lit,' says he—I wish I could give it to you in his language, but I never could talk nigger talk—'now he's lit,' says he, 'an' I got a good chance to study him,' says he. 'I see he ain't the same bird he looked to be, befo' he lit.

“ 'His wing feathers is mighty fine, an' they rise in mighty biggoty plumes, but they can't hide his claws,' says he, 'an' when I look close-ter,' says he, 'I see he's got owl eyes an' a sharp beak, but seem like nobody can't see 'em. They all so dazzled with his wing-feathers they can't see his claws.

“ 'An' now whiles I'm a-lookin' I see him rise up an' fly three times round the tree, an' now I see him swoop down right befo' the people's eyes, an' befo' they know it he's riz up in the air ag'in, an' spread his wings, an' the sky seems so darkened thet I can't see nothin' clair only a long stream o' yaller hair floatin' behind him.

“ 'Now I see everybody's heads drop, an' I hear 'em cryin'; but,' says he, 'they ain't cryin' about the thief bird, but they cryin' about the yaller hair—the yaller hair—the yaller hair.' “

McMonigle choked a little in his recital, and then he added: “Ain't that about yore riccollection o' how he expressed it?”

“Yas,” said old man Taylor, “ he said it three times—I riccollect that ez long ez I live; an' the third time he said 'the yaller hair' he let his arms drop down at his side, an' he sort o' staggered back'ards, an' turned round to Johnnie Burk an' says he: 'Help me out, please, sir, I feels dizzy.' Do you riccollect how he said that, Dan'l?

“But you're tellin' the story. Don't lemme interrupt you.”

“No interruption, Pete. You go on an' tell it the way you call it up. I see my pipe has done gone out while I've been talkin'. Tell the truth, I'm most sorry thet you all started me on this story to-night. It gives me a spell o' the blues—talkin' it over.

“Pass me them tongs back here, doctor, an' lemme git another coal for my pipe. An' while I've got 'em I'll shake up this fire a little. This stove's ez dull-eyed and pouty ez any other woman ef she's neglected.

“Hungry, too, ain't you, old lady? Don't like wet wood, neither. Sets her teeth on edge. Jest listen at her quar'l while I lay it in her mouth.

“Go on, now, Pete, an' tell the parson the rest o' the story. 'Tain't no more'n right thet a shepherd should know all the ins and outs of his flock ef he's goin' to take care o' their needs.”

“You better finish it, Dan'l,” said Taylor. “You've brought it all back a heap better 'n I could 'a' done it.”

“Tell the truth, boys, I've got it down to where I hate to go on,” replied McMonigle, with feeling. “I've talked about the child now till I can seem to see her little slim figur' comin' down the plank-walk the way I've seen her a thousand times, when all the fellers settin' out in front o' the sto'es would slip in an' get their coats on, an' come back —I've done it myself, an' me a grandfather.

“Go on, Pete, an' finish it up. I've got the taste o' tobacco smoke now, an' my pipe is like the stove. Ef I neglect her she pouts.

“I left off where ol' Proph' finished prophesyin' at the old-year party at my house three year ago. I forgot to tell you, parson, that Mis' Meredith, she never come to the party—an' Meredith hisself he only come and stayed a few minutes, an' went home 'count o' the ol' lady bein' by herself—so they wasn't neither one there when the nigger spoke. An' ef they've ever been told what he said I don't know— though we've got a half dozen smarties in town thet would 'a' busted long ago ef they hadn't 'a' told it I don't doubt.

“Go on, now, Pete, an' finish. After Proph' had got done talkin' of co'se hand-shakin' commenced, an' everybody was supposed to shake hands with everybody else. I reckon parson there knows about that—but you might tell it anyhow.”

“Of co'se, parson he knows about the hand-shakin',” Taylor took up the story now, “because you was here last year, parson. You know thet it's the custom in Simpkinsville, at the old-year party, for everybody to shake hands at twelve o'clock at the comin' in of the new year. It's been our custom time out o' mind. Folks thet 'll have some fallin' out, an' maybe not be speakin', 'll come forward an' shake hands an' make up —start the new year with a clean slate.

“Why, ef 'twasn't for that, I don' know what we'd do. Some of our folks is so techy an' high strung—an' so many of 'em kin, which makes it that much worse—thet ef 'twasn't for the new-year hand-shakin', why, in a few years we'd be ez bad ez a deef and dumb asylum.

“But to tell the story. I declare, Dan'l, I ain't no hand to tell a thing so ez to bring it befo' yo' eyes like you can. I'm feerd you'll have to carry it on.”

And so old man McMonigle, after affectionately drawing a few puffs from his pipe, laid it on the fender before him, and reluctantly took up the tale.

“Well,” he began, “I reckon thet rightly speakin' this is about the end of the first chapter.

“The hand-shakin' passed off friendly enough, everybody j'inin' in, though there was women thet 'lowed thet they had the cold shivers when they shuck the city feller's hand, half expectin' to tackle a bird-claw. An' I know thet wife an' me—although, understand, parson, we none o' us suspicioned no harm—we was glad when the party broke up an' everybody was gone—the nigger's words seemed to ring in our ears so.

“Well, sir, the second chapter o' the story I reckon it could be told in half a dozen words, though I s'pose it holds misery enough to make a book.

“I never would read a book thet didn't end right; in fact, I don't think the law ought to allow sech to be printed. We get enough wrong endin's in life, an' the only good book-makin' is, in my opinion, to ketch up all sech stories an' work 'em over.

“Ef I could set down an' tell May Day Meredith's story to some book-writer thet'd take it up where I leave off, an' bring her back to us—she could even be raised from the dead in a book ef need be —my Lord! how I'd love to read it, an' try to b'lieve it was true! I'd like him to work the ol' nigger in at the end, too, ef he didn't think hisself above it. A ol', harmless, half-crazy nigger, thet's been movin' round amongst us all for years, is ez much missed ez anybody else when he drops out, nobody knows how. I miss Proph' jest the same ez I miss that ol' struck-by-lightnin' sycamo'-tree thet Jedge Towns has had cut out of the co't-house yard. My mother had my gran'pa's picture framed out o' sycamo' balls, gethered out of that tree forty year ago.

“But you see I'm makin' every excuse to keep from goin on with the story, an' ef it's got to be told, well—

“Whether somebody told the Meredith's about the nigger's prophecy, an' they got excited over it, an' forbid the city feller the house, I don't know, but he never was seen goin' there after that night, though he stayed in town right along for two weeks, at the end of which time he disappeared from the face o' the earth—an' she along with him.

“An' that's all the story, parson. That's three year ago lackin' two weeks, an' nobody 'ain't seen or heard o' May Day Meredith from that day to this.

“Of co'se girls have run away with men, an' it turned out all right —but they wasn't married men. Nobody s'picioned he was married tell it was all over an' Harry Conway he heard it in St. Louis, an' it's been found to be true. An' there's a man living in Texarkana thet testified thet he was called in to witness what he b'lieved to be a genuine weddin', where the preacher claimed to come from Little Rock, an' he married May Day to that man, standin' in the blue cashmere dress she run away in. She was married by the 'Piscopal prayer-book, too, which is the only thing I felt real hard against May Day for consentin' to— she being well raised, a hard-shell Baptist.

“But o' co'se the man thet could git a girl to run away with him could easy get her to change her religion.”

“Hold up there, Dan'l!” interrupted old man Taylor. “Hold on, there! Not always! It's a good many years sence my ol' woman run away to marry me, but she was a Methodist, an' Methodist she's turned me, though I've been dipped, thank God!”

“Well, of co'se, there's exceptions. An' I didn't compare you to the man I'm a-talkin' about, nohow. Besides, Methodist an' 'Piscopal are two different things,” returned McMonigle.

“But, tellin' my story—or at least sence I've done told the story, I'll tell parson all I know about the old nigger, Proph', which is mighty little.

“It was jest three days after May Meredith run away thet I was ridin' through the woods twixt here an' Clay Bank, an' who did I run against but old Proph'—walkin' along in the brush talkin' to hisself ez usual.

“Well, sir, I stopped my horse, an' called him up an' talked to him, an' tried to draw him out—ast him how come he to prophesy the way he done, an' how he knowed what was comin', but, sir, I couldn't get no satisfaction out of him—not a bit. He 'lowed thet he only spoke ez it was given him to speak, an' the only thing he seemed interested in was the stranger's name, an' he ast me to say it for him over and over—he repeatin' it after me. An' then he ast me to write it for him, an' he put the paper I wrote it on in his hat. He didn't know B from a bull's foot, but I s'pose he thought maybe if he put it in his hat it might strike in.”

“Like ez not he 'lowed he could git somebody to read it out to him,” suggested the doctor.

“Like ez not. Well, sir, after I had give him the paper he commenced to talk about huntin'—had a bunch o' birds in his hands then, an' give 'em to me, 'lowin' all the time he hadn't had much luck lately, 'count o' his pistol bein' sort o' out o' order. 'Lowed thet he took sech a notion to hunt with his pistol thet 'twasn't no fun shootin' at long range, but somehow he couldn't depend on his pistol shootin' straight.

“Took it out o' his pocket while he was standin' there, an' commenced showin' it to me. An', sir, would you believe it, while we was talkin' he give a quick turn, fired all on a sudden up into a tree, an' befo' I could git my breath, down dropped a squir'l right at his feet. Never see sech shootin' in my life. An' he wasn't no mo' excited over it than nothin'. Jest picked up the squir'l ez unconcerned ez you please, an', sez he, 'Yas, she done it that time— but she don't always do it. Can't depend on her.'

“Then, somehow, he brought it round to ask me ef I wouldn't loand him my revolver—jest to try it an' see if he wouldn't have better luck. 'Lowed that he'd fetch it back quick ez he got done with it.

“Well, sir, o' co'se I loaned it to the ol' nigger—an' took his pistol—then an' there. I give it to him loaded, all six barrels, an', sir, would you believe it, no livin' soul has ever laid eyes on ol' Prophet from that day to this.

“I'm mighty feered he's wandered way off som'ers an' shot hisself accidental'—an' never was found. Them revolvers is mighty resky weepons ef a person ain't got experience with 'em.

“So that's all the story, parson. Three days after May Day went he disappeared, an' of co'se he a-livin' along at Meredith's all these years, an' being so 'tached to May Day, and prophesying about her like he done, you can see how one name brings up another. So when I think about her I seem to see him.”

“Didn't Harry Conway say he see the ol' man in St. Louis once-t, an' thet he let on he didn't know him—wouldn't answer when he called him Proph'?” said old man Conway.

“One o' Harry's cock-an'-bull stories,” answered McMonigle. “He might o' saw some ol' nigger o' Proph's build, but how would he git to St. Louis? Anybody's common-sense would tell him better 'n that. No, he's dead—no doubt about it.”

“I suppose no one has ever looked for the old man?” the parson asked.

“Oh yas, he's been searched for. We've got up two parties an' rode out clair into the swamp lands twice-t—but there wasn't no sign of him.

“But May Day—nobody has ever went after her, of co'se. She left purty well escorted, an' ef her own folks never follered her, 'twasn't nobody else's business. Her mother 'ain't never mentioned her name sence she left—to nobody.”

“Yas,” interrupted the doctor, “an' some has accused her o' hard-heartedness; but when I see a woman's head turn from black to white in three months' time, like hers done, I don't say her heart's hard, I say it's broke.

“They keep a-sendin' for me to come to see her, but I can't do her no good. She's failed tur'ble last six months.

“Ef somethin' could jest come upon her sudden, to rouse her up—ef the house would burn down, an' she have to go out 'mongst other folks— or ef they was some way to git folks there, whether she wanted 'em or not—

“Tell the truth, I've been a-thinkin' about somethin'. It's been on my mind all day. I don't know ez it would do, but I been a-thinkin' ef I could get Meredith's consent for the Simpkinsville folks to come out in a body—

“Ef he'd allow it, an' the folks would be willin' to go out there to-night for the old-year party—take their fiddle an' cakes an' things along, an' surprise her—she'd be obliged to be polite to 'em; she couldn't refuse to meet all her ol' friends for the midnight hand-shakin', an' it might be the savin' of her. Three years has passed. There's no reason why one trouble should bring another. We've all had our share o' trials this year, an' I reckon every one o' us here has paid for a tombstone in three years, an' I believe ef we'd all meet together an' go in a body out there—

“Ef you say so, I'll ride out an' talk it over with Meredith. What's your opinion, parson?”

“My folks will join you heartily, I'm sure,” replied the parson, warmly. “They did expect to have the crowd over at Bradfield's to-night, but I know they'll be ready to give in to the Meredith's.”

And this is how it came about that the Meredith's house, closed for three years, opened its doors again.

If innocent curiosity and love of fun had carried many to the new-year hand-shaking three years before, a more serious interest, not unmixed with curiosity, swelled the party to-night.

It was a mile out of town. The night was stormy, the roads were heavy, and most of the wagons without cover; but the festive spirit is impervious to weather the world over, and there were umbrellas in Simpkinsville, and overcoats and “tarpaulins.”

Everybody went. Even certain good people who had not previously been able to master their personal animosities sufficiently to resolve to present themselves for the midnight hand-shaking, and had decided to nurse their grievances for another year, now promptly agreed to bury their little hatchets and join the party.

To storm a citadel of sorrow, whether the issue should prove a victory for besiegers or besieged, was no slight lure to a people whose excitements were few, and whose interests were limited to the personal happenings of their small community.

It is a crime in the provincial code-social to excuse one's self from a guest. To deny a full and cordial reception to all the town would be to ostracise one's self forever, not only from its society, but from all its sympathies.

The weak-hearted hostess rallied all her failing energies for the emergency. And there was no lack of friendliness in her pale old face as she greeted her most unwelcome guests with extended timorous hands.

If her thin cheeks flushed faintly as her neighbors' happy daughters passed before her in game or dance, her solicitous observers, not suspecting the pain at her heart, whispered: “Mis' Meredith is chirpin' up a'ready. She looks a heap better 'n when we come in.” So little did they understand.

If mirth and numbers be a test, the old-year party at the Merediths' was assuredly a success.

Human emotions swing as pendulums from tears to laughter. Those of the guests to-night who had declared that they knew they would burst out crying as soon as they entered that house where the ones who laughed the loudest.

“Spinning the plate,” “dumb-crambo,” “pillow,” “how, when and where,” such were the innocent games that composed the simple diversions of the evening, varied by music by the village string-band and occasional songs from the girls, all to end with a “Virginia break-down” just before twelve o'clock, when the handshaking should begin.

It seemed a very merry party, and yet, in speaking of it afterwards, there were many who declared that it was the saddest evening they had ever spent in their lives, some even affirming that they had been “obliged to set up an' giggle the live-long time to keep from cryin' every time they looked at Mis' Meredith.”

Whether this were true, or only seemed to be true in the light of subsequent events, it would be hard to say. Certain it was, however, that the note that rose above the storm and floated out into the night was one of joyous merrymaking. Such was the note that greeted a certain slowly moving wagon, whose heavily clogged wheels turned into the Merediths' gate near midnight. The belated guest was evidently one entirely familiar with the premises, for notwithstanding the darkness of the night, the ponderous wheels turned accurately into the curve beyond the magnolia-tree, moved slowly but surely along the drive up to the door, and stopped without hesitation exactly opposite the “landing at the front stoop,” wellnigh invisible in the darkness.

After the ending of the final dance, during the very last moments of the closing year, there was always at the old-year party an interval of silence.

The old men held their watches in their hands, and the young people spoke in whispers.

It was this last waiting interval that in years past the old man Prophet had filled with portent, even though, until his last prophecy, his words had been lightly spoken.

As the crowd sat waiting to-night, watching the slow hands of the old clock, listening to the never-hurrying tick-tack of the long pendulum against the wall, it is probable that memory, quickened by circumstances and environment, supplied to every mind present a picture of the old man, as he had often stood before them.

A careful turn of the front-door latch, so slight a click as to be scarcely discernible, came at this moment as the clank of a sledge-hammer, turning all heads with a common impulse towards the slowly opening door, into which limped a tall, muffled figure. To the startled eyes of the company it seemed to reach quite to the ceiling. Those sitting near the door started back in terror at the apparition, and all were on their feet in a moment.

But having entered, the figure halted just within the door, and before there was time for action, or question even, a bundle of old wraps had fallen and the old man Prophet, bearing in his arms a golden-haired cherub of about two years, stood in the presence of the company.

The revulsion of feeling, indescribable by words, was quickly told in fast-flowing tears. Looking upon the old negro, and the child, everyone present read a new chapter in the home tragedy, and wept in its presence.

Coming from the dark night into the light, the old man could not for a moment discern the faces he knew, and when the little one, shrinking from the glare, hid her face in his hair, it was as if time had turned back, so perfect a restoration was the picture of a familiar one of the old days. No word had yet been spoken, and the ticking of the great clock, and the crackling of the fire mingled with sobs, were the only sounds that broke the stillness when the old man, having gotten his bearings, walked directly up to Mrs. Meredith and laid the child in her arms. Then, losing no time, but pointing to the clock that was slowly nearing the hour, he said, in a voice tremulous with emotion: “De time is most here. Is you all ready to shek hands? Ef you is— everybody —turn round and come wid me.”

As he spoke he turned back to the still open door, and before those who followed had taken in his full meaning, he had drawn into the room a slim, shrinking figure, and little May Day Meredith, pale, frightened and weather-beaten, stood before them.

If it was her own father who was first to grasp her hand, and if he carried her in his arms to her mother, it was that the rest deferred to his first claim, and that their hearty and affectionate greetings came later in their proper order. As the striking of the great clock mingled with the sound of joy and of weeping—the congratulations and words of praise fervently uttered—it made a scene ever to be held dear in the annals of Simpkinsville. It was a scene beyond words of description—a family meeting which even lifetime friends recognized as too sacred for their eyes, and hurried weeping away.

It was when the memorable, sad, joyous party was over, and all the guests were departing, that Prophet, following old man McMonigle out, called him aside for a moment. Then putting into his hands a small object, he said, in a tremulous voice:

“Much obleeged for de loand o' de pistol, Marse Dan'l. Hold her keerful, caze she's loaded des de way you loaded her—all 'cept one barrel. I ain't nuver fired her but once-t.”

 
 
 

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