EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

At Sudleigh Fair by Alice Brown

Tale of New England Life

Delilah Joyce was sitting on her front doorstone with a fine disregard of the fact that her little clock had struck eight of the morning, while her bed was still unmade. The Tiverton folk who disapproved of her shiftlessness in letting the golden hours, run thus to waste, did grudgingly commend her for airing well. Her bed might not even be spread up till sundown, but the sheets were always hanging from her little side window, in fine weather, flapping dazzlingly in the sun; and sometimes her feather-bed lay, the whole day long, on the green slope outside, called by Dilly her “spring,” only because the snow melted first there on the freedom days of the year. The new editor of the Sudleigh “Star,” seeing her slight, wiry figure struggling with the bed like a very little ant under a caterpillar all too large, was once on the point of drawing up his horse at her gate. He was a chivalrous fellow, and he wanted to help; but Brad Freeman, hulking by with his gun at the moment, stopped him.

“That's only Dilly wrastlin' with, her bed,” he called back, in the act of stepping over the wall into the meadow. “'Twon't do no good to take holt once, unless you're round here every mornin' 'bout the same time. Dilly'll git the better on't. She al'ays does.” So the editor laughed, put down another Tiverton custom in his mental notebook, and drove on.

Dilly was a very little woman, with abnormally long and sinewy arms. Her small, rather delicate face had a healthy coat of tan, and her iron-gray hair was braided with scrupulous care. She resembled her own house to a striking degree; she was fastidiously neat, but not in the least orderly. The Tiverton housekeepers could not appreciate this attitude in reference to the conventional world. It was all very well to keep the kitchen floor scrubbed, but they did believe, also, in seeing the table properly set, and in finishing the washing by eight o'clock on Monday morning. Now Dilly seldom felt inclined to set any table at all. She was far more likely to take her bread and milk under a tree; and as for washing, Thursday was as good a day as any, she was wont to declare. Moreover, the tradition of hanging garments on the line according to a severely classified system, did not in the least appeal to her.

“I guess a petticoat'll dry jest as quick if it's hung 'side of a nightgown,” she told her critics, drily. “An' when you come to hangin' stockin's by the pair, better separate 'em, I say! Like man an' wife! Give 'em a vacation, once in a while, an' love'll live the longer!”

Dilly was thinking, this morning, of all the possibilities of the lovely, shining day. So many delights lay open to her! She could take her luncheon in her pocket, and go threading through the woods behind her house. She could walk over to Pine Hollow, to see how the cones were coming on, and perchance scrape together a basket of pine needles, to add to her winter's kindling; or she might, if the world and the desires thereof assailed her, visit Sudleigh Fair. Better still, she need account to nobody if she chose to sit there on the doorstone, and let the hours go unregretted by. Presently, her happy musing was broken by a ripple from the outer world. A girl came briskly round the corner where the stone-wall lay hidden under a wilderness of cinnamon rosebushes and blackberry vines,—Rosa Tolman, dressed in white pique, with a great leghorn hat over her curls. The girl came hurrying up the path, with a rustle of starched petticoats, and still Dilly kept her trance-like posture.

“I know who 'tis!” she announced, presently, in a declamatory voice. “It's Rosy Tolman, an' she's dressed in white, with red roses, all complete, an' she's goin' to Sudleigh Cattle-Show.”

Rosa lost a shade of pink from her cheeks. Her round blue eyes widened, in an unmistakable terror quite piteous to see.

“O Dilly!” she quavered, “how do you know such things? Why, you 'ain't looked at me!”

Dilly opened her eyes, and chuckled in keen enjoyment.

“Bless ye!” she said, “I can't help imposin' on ye, no more 'n a cat could help ketchin' a mouse, if't made a nest down her throat. Why, I see ye comin' round the corner! But when folks thinks you're a witch, it ain't in human natur' not to fool 'em. I am a witch, ain't I, dear? Now, ain't I?”

Rosa's color had faltered back, but she still stood visibly in awe of her old neighbor.

“Well,” she owned, “Elvin Drew says you can see in the dark, but I don't know's he means anything by it.”

Again Dilly broke into laughter, rocking back and forth, in happy abandonment.

“I can!” she cried, gleefully. “You tell him I can! An' when I can't, folks are so neighborly they strike a light for me to see by. You tell him! Well, now, what is it? You've come to ask suthin'. Out with it!”

“Father told me to come over, and see if you can't tell something about our cows. They're all drying up, and he don't see any reason why.”

Dilly nodded her head sagely.

“You'd better ha' come sooner,” she announced. “You tell him he must drive 'em to pastur' himself, an' go arter 'em, too.”

“Why?”

“An' you tell him to give Davie a Saturday, here an' there, to go fishin' in, an' not let him do so many chores. Now, you hear! Your father must drive the cows, an' he must give Davie time to play a little, or there'll be dark days comin', an' he won't be prepared for 'em.”

“My!” exclaimed Rosa, blankly. “My! Ain't it queer! It kind o' scares me. But, Dilly,”—she turned about, so that only one flushed cheek remained visible,—“Dilly, 'ain't you got something to say to me? We're going to be married next Tuesday, Elvin and me. It's all right, ain't it?”

Dilly bent forward, and peered masterfully into her face. She took the girl's plump pink handy and drew her forward. Rosa, as if compelled by some unseen force, turned about, and allowed her frightened gaze to lie ensnared by the witch's great black eyes. Dilly began, in a deep intense voice, with the rhythm of the Methodist exhorter, though on a lower key,—

“Two years, that boy's been arter you. Two years, you trampled on him as if he'd been the dust under your feet. He was poor an' strugglin'. He was left with his mother to take care on, an' a mortgage to work off. An' then his house burnt down, an' he got his insurance money; an' that minute, you turned right round an' says, 'I'll have you.' An' now, you say, 'Is it all right?' Is it right, Rosy Tolman? You tell me!”

Rosa was sobbing hysterically.

“Oh, I wish you wouldn't scare me so!” she exclaimed, yet not for a moment attempting to withdraw her hand, or turn aside her terrified gaze. “I wish I never'd said one word!”

Dilly broke the spell as lightly as she had woven it. A smile passed over her face, like a charm, dispelling all its prophetic fervor.

“There! there!” she said, dropping the girl's hand. “I thought I'd scare ye! What's the use o' bein' a witch, if ye can't upset folks? Now don't cry, an' git your cheeks all blotched up afore Elvin calls to fetch ye, with that hired horse, an' take ye to the Cattle-Show! But don't ye forgit what I say! You remember we ain't goin' to wait for the Day o' Judgment, none on us. It comes every hour. If Gabriel was tootin', should you turn fust to Elvin Drew, an' go up or down with him, wherever he was 'lected? That's what you've got to think on; not your new hat nor your white pique. (Didn't iron it under the overskirt, did ye? How'd I know? Law! how's a witch know anything?) Now, you 'ain't opened your bundle, dear, have ye? Raisin-cake in it, ain't there?”

Rosa bent suddenly forward, and placed the package in Dilly's lap. In spite of the bright daylight all about her, she was frightened; if a cloud had swept over, she must have screamed.

“I don't know how you found it out,” she whispered, “but 'tis raisin-cake. Mother sent it. She knew I was going to ask you about the cows. She said I was to tell you, too, there's some sickness over to Sudleigh, and she thought you could go over there nussing, if you wanted to.”

“I 'ain't got time,” said Dilly, placidly. “I give up nussin', two year ago. I 'ain't got any time at all! Well, here they come, don't they? One for me, an' one for you!”

A light wagon, driven rapidly round the corner, drew up at the gate. Elvin Drew jumped down, and helped out his companion, a short, rather thickset girl, with smooth, dark hair, honest eyes, and a sensitive mouth. She came quickly up the path, after an embarrassed word of thanks to the young man.

“He took me in,” she began, almost apologetically to Rosa, who surveyed her with some haughtiness. “I was comin' up here to see Dilly, an' he offered me a ride.”

Rosa's color and spirits had returned, at the sight of her tangible ally at the gate.

“Well, I guess I must be going,” she said, airily. “Elvin won't want to wait. Good-by, Dilly! I'll tell father. Good-by, Molly Drew!”

But Dilly followed her down to the road, where Elvin stood waiting with the reins in his hands. He was a very blond young man, with curly hair, and eyes honest in contour and clear of glance. Perhaps his coloring impressed one with the fact that he should have looked very young; but his face shrunk now behind a subtile veil of keen anxiety, of irritated emotion, which were evidently quite foreign to him. Even a stranger, looking at him, could hardly help suspecting an alien trouble grafted upon a healthy stem. He gave Dilly a pleasant little nod, in the act of turning eagerly to help Rosa into the wagon. But when he would have followed her, Dilly laid a light but imperative hand on his arm.

“Don't you want your fortune told?” she asked, meaningly. “Here's the witch all ready. Ain't it well for me I wa'n't born a hunderd year ago? Shouldn't I ha' sizzled well? An' now, all there is to burn me is God A'mighty's sunshine!”

Elvin laughed lightly.

“I guess I don't need any fortune,” he said. “Mine looks pretty fair now. I don't feel as if anybody'd better meddle with it.” But he had not withdrawn his arm, and his gaze still dwelt on hers.

“You know suthin' you don't mean to tell,” said Dilly, speaking so rapidly that although Rosa bent forward to listen, she caught only a word, here and there. “You think you won't have to tell, but you will. God A'mighty'll make you. You'll be a stranger among your own folks, an' a wanderer on the earth; till you tell. There! go along! Go an' see the punkins an' crazy-quilts!”

She withdrew her hand, and turned away. Elvin, his face suddenly blanched, looked after her, fascinated, while she went quickly up the garden walk. An impatient word from Rosa recalled him to himself, and he got heavily into the wagon and drove on again.

When Dilly reached the steps where her new guest had seated herself, her manner had quite changed. It breathed an open frankness, a sweet and homely warmth which were very engaging. Molly spoke first.

“How pleased he is with her!” she said, dreamily.

“Yes,” answered Dilly, “but to-day ain't tomorrer. They're both light-complected. It's jest like patchwork. Put light an' dark together, I say, or you won't git no figger. Here, le's have a mite o' cake! Mis' Tolman's a proper good cook, if her childern have all turned out ducks, an' took to the water. Every one on 'em's took back as much as three generations for their noses an' tempers. Strange they had to go so fur!”

She broke the rich brown loaf in the middle, and divided a piece with Molly. Such were the habits calculated to irritate the conventionalities of Tiverton against her. Who ever heard of breaking cake when one could go into the house for a knife! They ate in silence, and the delights of the summer day grew upon Molly as they never did save when she felt the nearness of this queer little woman. Turn which side of her personality she might toward you, Dilly could always bend you to her own train of thought.

“I come down to talk things over,” said Molly, at last, brushing the crumbs of cake from her lap. “I've got a chance in the shoe-shop.”

“Do tell! Well, ain't that complete? Don't you say one word, now! I know how 'tis. You think how you'll have to give up the birds' singin', an' your goin' into the woods arter groundpine, an' stay cooped up in a boardin'-house to Sudleigh. I know how 'tis! But don't you fret. You come right here an' stay Sundays, an' we'll eat up the woods an' drink up the sky! There! It's better for ye, dear. Some folks are made to live in a holler tree, like me; some ain't. You'll be better on't among folks.”

Molly's eyes filled with tears.

“You've been real good to me,” she said, simply.

“I wish I'd begun it afore,” responded Dilly, with a quick upward lift of her head, and her brightest smile. “You see I didn't know ye very well, for all you'd lived with old Mis' Drew so many year. I 'ain't had much to do with folks. I knew ye hadn't got nobody except her, but I knew, too, ye were contented there as a cricket. But when she died, an' the house burnt down, I begun to wonder what was goin' to become on ye.”

Molly sat looking over at the pine woods, her lips compressed, her cheeks slowly reddening. Finally she burst passionately forth,—

“Dilly, I'd like to know why I couldn't have got some rooms an' kep' house for Elvin? His mother's my own aunt!”

“She wa'n't his mother, ye know. She was His stepmother, for all they set so much by one Another. Folks would ha' talked, an' I guess Rosy wouldn't ha' stood that, even afore they were engaged. Rosy may not like corn-fodder herself, any more 'n t'other dog did, but she ain't goin' to see other noses put into't without snappin' at 'em.”

“Well, it's all over,” said Molly, drearily. “It 'ain't been hard for me stayin' round as I've done, an' sewin' for my board; but it's seemed pretty tough to think of Elvin livin' in that little shanty of Caleb's an' doin' for himself. I never could see why he didn't board somewheres decent.”

“Wants to save his six hunderd dollars, to go out West an' start in the furniture business,” said Dilly, succinctly. “Come, Molly, what say to walkin' over to Sudleigh Cattle-Show?”

Molly threw aside her listless mood like a garment.

“Will you?” she cried. “Oh, I'd like to! You know I'm sewin' for Mis' Eli Pike; an' they asked me to go, but I knew she'd fill up the seat so I should crowd 'em out of house an' home. Will you, Dilly?”

“You wait till I git suthin' or other to put over my head,” said Dilly, rising with cheerful decision. “Here, you gi' me that cake! I'll tie it up in a nice clean piece o' table-cloth, an' then we'll take along a few eggs, so 't we can trade 'em off for bread an' cheese. You jest pull in my sheets, an' shet the winder, while I do it. Like as not there'll be a shower this arternoon.”

When the little gate closed behind them, Molly felt eagerly excited, as, if she were setting forth for a year's happy wandering. Dilly knew the ways of the road as well as the wood. She was, as usual, in light marching order, a handkerchief tied over her smooth braids; another, slung on a stick over her shoulder, contained their luncheon and the eggs for barter. All her movements were buoyant and free, like those of a healthy animal let loose in pleasant pastures. She walked so lightly that the eggs in the handkerchief were scarcely stirred.

“See that little swampy patch!” she said, stopping when they had rounded the curve in the road. “A week or two ago, that was all alive with redbud flowers. I dunno the right name on 'em, an' I don't care. Redbirds, I call 'em. I went over there, one day, an' walked along between the hummocks, spush! spush! You won't find a nicer feelin' than that, wherever ye go. Take off your shoes an' stockin's, an' wade into a swamp! Warm, coarse grass atop! Then warm, black mud, an' arter that, a layer all nice an' cold that goes down to Chiny, fur's I know! That was the day I meant to git some thoroughwort over there, to dry, but I looked at the redbird flowers so long I didn't have time, an' I never've been sence.”

Molly laughed out, with a pretty, free ripple in her voice.

“You're always sayin' that, Dilly! You never have time for anything but doin' nothin'!”

A bright little sparkle came into Dilly's eyes, and she laughed, too.

“Why, that's what made me give' up nussin' two year ago,” she said, happily. “I wa'n't havin' no time at all. I couldn't live my proper life. I al'ays knew I should come to that, so I'd raked an' scraped, an' put into the bank, till I thought I'd got enough to buy me a mite o' flour while I lived, an' a pine coffin arter I died; an' then I jest set up my Ebenezer I'd be as free's a bird. Freer, I guess I be, for they have to scratch pretty hard, come cold weather, an' I bake me a 'tater, an' then go clippin' out over the crust, lookin' at the bare twigs. Oh, it's complete! If I could live this way, I guess a thousand years'd be a mighty small dose for me. Look at that goldenrod, over there by the stump! That's the kind that's got the most smell.”

Molly broke one of the curving plumes.

“I don't see as it smells at all,” she said, still sniffing delicately.

“Le'me take it! Why, yes, it does, too! Everything smells some. Oftentimes it's so faint it's more like a feelin' than a smell. But there! you ain't a witch, as I be!”

“I wish you wouldn't say that!” put in Molly, courageously. “You make people think you are.”

“Law, then, let 'em!” said Dilly, with a kindly indulgence. “It don't do them no hurt, an' it gives me more fun'n the county newspaper. They'd ruther I'd say I was a witch'n tell 'em I've got four eyes an' eight ears where they 'ain't but two. I tell ye, there's a good deal missed when ye stay to home makin' pies, an' a good deal ye can learn if ye live out-door. Why, there's Tolman's cows! He dunno why they dry up; but I do. He, sends that little Davie with 'em, that don't have no proper playtime; an' Davie gallops 'em all the way to pastur', so't he can have a minute to fish in the brook. An' then he gallops 'em home ag'in, because he's stole a piece out o' the arternoon. I ketched him down there by the brook, one day, workin' away with a bent pin, an' the next mornin' I laid a fish-hook on the rock, an' hid in the woods to see what he'd say. My! I 'guess Jonah wa'n't more tickled when he set foot on dry land. Here comes the wagons! There's the Poorhouse team fust, an' Sally Flint settin' up straighter 'n a ramrod. An' there's Heman an' Roxy! She don't look a day older'n twenty-five. Proper nice folks, all on 'em, but they make me kind o' homesick jest because they be folks. They do look so sort o' common in their bunnits an' veils, an' I keep thinkin' o' little four-legged creatur's, all fur!” The Tiverton folk saluted them, always cordially, yet each after his kind. They liked Dilly as a product all their own, but one to be partaken of sparingly, like some wild, intoxicating root.

They loved her better at home, too, than at Sudleigh Fair. It was like a betrayal of their fireside secrets, to see her there in her accustomed garb; so slight a concession to propriety would have lain in her putting on a bonnet and shawl!

As they neared Sudleigh town, the road grew populous with carriages and farm-wagons, “step and step,” not all from Tiverton way, but gathered in from the roads converging here. Men were walking up and down the market street, crying their whips, their toy balloons, and a multitude of cheaper gimcracks.

“Forty miles from home! forty miles from home!” called one, more imaginative than the rest. “And no place to lay my head! That's why I'm selling these little whips here to-day, a stranger in a strange land. Buy one! buy one! and the poor pilgrim'll have a supper and a bed! Keep your money in your pocket, and he's a wanderer on the face of the earth!”

Dilly, the fearless in her chosen wilds, took a fold of Molly's dress, and held it tight.

“You s'pose that's so?” she whispered. “Oh, dear! I 'ain't got a mite o' money, on'y these six eggs. Oh, why didn't he stay to home, if he's so possessed to sleep under cover? What does anybody leave their home for, if they've got one?”

But Molly put up her head, and walked sturdily on.

“Don't you worry,” she counselled, in an undertone. “It don't mean any more 'n it does when folks say they're sellin' at a sacrifice. I guess they expect to make enough, take it all together.”

Dilly walked on, quite bewildered. She had lost her fine, joyous carriage; her shoulders were bent, and her feet shuffled, in a discouraged fashion, over the unlovely bricks. Molly kept the lead, with unconscious superiority.

“Le's go into the store now,” she said, “an' swap off the eggs. You'll be joggled in this crowd, an' break 'em all to smash. Here, you le' me have your handkerchief! I'll see to it all.” She kept the handkerchief in her hand, after their slight “tradin'“ had been accomplished; and Dilly, too dispirited to offer a word, walked meekly about after her.

The Fair was held, according to ancient custom, in the town-hall, of which the upper story had long been given over to Sudleigh Academy. Behind the hall lay an enormous field, roped in now, and provided with pens and stalls, where a great assemblage of live-stock lowed, and grunted, and patiently chewed the cud.

“Le's go in there fust,” whispered Dilly. “I sha'n't feel so strange there as I do with folks. I guess if the four-footed creatur's can stan' it, I can. Pretty darlin'!” she added, stopping before a heifer who had ceased eating and was looking about her with a mild and dignified gaze. Dilly eagerly sought out a stick, and began to scratch the delicate head. “Pretty creatur'! Smell o' her breath, Molly! See her nose, all wet, like pastur' grass afore day! Now, if I didn't want to live by myself, I'd like to curl me up in a stall, 'side o' her.”

“'Mandy, you an' Kelup come here!” called Aunt Melissa Adams. She loomed very prosperous, over the way, in her new poplin and her lace-trimmed cape. “Jest look at these roosters! They've got spurs on their legs as long's my darnin'-needle. What under the sun makes 'em grow so! An' ain't they the nippin'est little creatur's you ever see?”

“They're fightin'-cocks,” answered Caleb, tolerantly.

“Fightin'-cocks? You don't mean to tell me they're trained up for that?”

“Yes, I do!”

“Well, I never heard o' such a thing in a Christian land! never! Whose be they? I'll give him a piece o' my mind, if I live another minute!”

“You better let other folks alone,” said Caleb, stolidly.

“'Mandy,” returned Aunt Melissa, in a portentous undertone, “be you goin' to stan' by an' see your own aunt spoke to as if she was the dirt under your feet?”

Amanda had once in her life asserted herself at a crucial moment, and she had never seen cause to regret it. Now she “spoke out” again. She made her slender neck very straight and stiff, and her lips set themselves firmly over the words,—

“I guess Caleb won't do you no hurt, Aunt Melissa. He don't want you should make yourself a laughin'-stock, nor I don't either. There's Uncle Hiram, over lookin' at the pigs. I guess he don't see you. Caleb, le's we move on!”

Aunt Melissa stood looking after them, a mass of quivering wrath.

“Well, I must say!” she retorted to the empty air. “If I live, I must say!”

Dilly took her placid companion by the arm, and hurried her on. Human jangling wore sadly upon her; under such maddening onslaught she was not incapable of developing “nerves.” They stopped before a stall where another heifer stood, chewing her cud, and looking away into remembered pastures.

“Oh, see!” said Molly, “'Price $500'! Do you b'lieve it?”

“Well, well!” came Mrs. Eli Pike's ruminant voice from the crowd. “I'm glad I don't own that creatur'! I shouldn't sleep nights if I had five hunderd dollars in cow.”

“Tain't five hunderd dollars,” said Hiram Cole, elbowing his way to the front. “'Tain't p'inted right, that's all. P'int off two ciphers—”

“Five dollars!” snickered a Crane boy, diving through the crowd, and proceeding to stand on his head in a cleared space beyond. “That's wuth less'n Miss Lucindy's hoss!”

Hiram Cole considered again, one lean hand stroking his cheek.

“Five—fifty—” he announced. “Well, I guess 'tis five hunderd, arter all! Anybody must want to invest, though, to put all their income into perishable cow-flesh!”

“You look real tired,” whispered Molly. “Le's come inside, an' perhaps we can set down.”

The old hall seemed to have donned strange carnival clothes, for a mystic Saturnalia. It was literally swaddled in bedquilts,— tumbler-quilts, rising-suns, Jacob's-ladders, log-cabins, and the more modern and altogether terrible crazy-quilt. There were square yards of tidies, on wall and table, and furlongs of home-knit lace. Dilly looked at this product of the patient art of woman with a dispirited gaze.

“Seems a kind of a waste of time, don't it?” she said, dreamily, “when things are blowin' outside? I wisht I could see suthin' made once to look as handsome as green buds an' branches. Law, dear, now jest turn your eyes away from them walls, an' see the tables full of apples! an' them piles o' carrots, an' cabbages an' squashes over there! Well, 'tain't so bad if you can look at things the sun's ever shone on, no matter if they be under cover.” She wandered up and down the tables, caressing the rounded outlines of the fruit with her loving gaze. The apples, rich and fragrant, were a glory and a joy. There were great pound sweetings, full of the pride of mere bigness; long purple gilly-flowers, craftily hiding their mealy joys under a sad-colored skin; and the Hubbardston, a portly creature quite unspoiled by the prosperity of growth, and holding its lovely scent and flavor like an individual charm. There was the Bald'in, stand-by old and good as bread; and there were all the rest. We know them, we who have courted Pomona in her fair New England orchards.

Near the fancy-work table sat Mrs. Blair, of the Old Ladies' Home, on a stool she had wrenched from an unwilling boy, who declared it belonged up in the Academy, whence he had brought it “to stan' on" while he drove a nail. And though he besought her to rise and let him return it, since he alone must be responsible, the old lady continued sitting in silence. At length she spoke,—

“Here I be, an' here I'm goin' to set till the premiums is tacked on. Them pinballs my neighbor, Mis' Dyer, made with her own hands, an' she's bent double o' rheumatiz. An' I said I'd bring 'em for her, an' I'd set by an' see things done fair an' square.”

“There, Mrs. Blair, don't you worry,” said Mrs. Mitchell, a director of the Home, putting a hand on the martial and belligerent shoulder, “Don't you mind if she doesn't get a premium. I'll buy the pinballs, and that will do almost as well.”

“My! if there ain't goin' to be trouble between Mary Lamson an' Sereno's Hattie, I'll miss my guess!” said a matron, with an appreciative wag of her purple-bonneted head. “They've either on 'em canned up more preserves 'n Tiverton an' Sudleigh put together, an' Mary's got I dunno what all among 'em!—squash, an' dandelion, an' punkin with lemon in't. That's steppin' acrost the bounds, I say! If she gits a premium for puttin' up gardin-sass, I'll warrant there'll be a to-do. An' Hattie'll make it!”

“I guess there won't be no set-to about such small potaters,” said Mrs. Pike, with dignity. Her broad back had been unrecognized by the herald, careless in her haste. “Hattie's ready an' willin' to divide the premium, if't comes to her, an' I guess Mary'd be, put her in the same place.”

“My soul an' body!” exclaimed another, trudging up and waving a large palmleaf fan. “Well, there, Rosanna Pike! Is that you? Excuse me all, if I don't stop to speak round the circle, I'm so put to't with Passon True's carryin's on. You know he's been as mad as hops over Sudleigh Cattle-Show, reg'lar as the year come round, because there's a raffle for a quilt, or suthin'. An' now he's come an' set up a sort of a stall over t'other side the room, an' folks thinks he's tryin' to git up a revival. I dunno when I've seen John so stirred. He says we hadn't ought to be made a laughin'-stock to Sudleigh, Passon or no Passon. An' old Square Lamb says—”

But the fickle crowd waited to hear no more. With one impulse, it surged over to the other side of the hall, where Parson True, standing behind a table brought down from the Academy, was saying solemnly,—

“Let us engage in prayer!”

The whispering ceased; the titters of embarrassment were stilled, and mothers tightened their grasp on little hands, to emphasize the change of scene from light to graver hue. Some of the men looked lowering; one or two strode out of doors. They loved Parson True, but the Cattle-Show was all their own, and they resented even a ministerial innovation. The parson was a slender, wiry man, with keen blue eyes, a serious mouth, and an overtopping forehead, from which the hair was always brushed straight back. He called upon the Lord, with passionate fervor, to “bless this people in all their outgoings and comings-in, and to keep their feet from paths where His blessing could not attend them.”

“Is that the raffle, mother?” whispered the smallest Crane boy; and his mother promptly administered a shake, for the correction of misplaced curiosity.

Then Parson True opened his eyes on his somewhat shamefaced flock and their neighbor townsmen, and began to preach. It was good to be there, he told them, only as it was good to be anywhere else, in the spirit of God. Judgment might overtake them there, as it might at home, in house or field. Were they prepared? He bent forward over the table, his slim form trembling with the intensity of gathering passion. He appealed to each one personally with that vibratory quality of address peculiar to him, wherein it seemed that not only his lips but his very soul challenged the souls before him. One after another joined the outer circle, and faces bent forward over the shoulders in front, with that strange, arrested expression inevitably born when, on the flood of sunny weather, we are reminded how deep the darkness is within the grave.

“Let every man say to himself, 'Thou, God, seest me!'“ reiterated the parson. “Thou seest into the dark corners of my heart. What dost Thou see, O God? What dost Thou see?”

Elvin and Rosa had drawn near with the others. She smiled a little, and the hard bloom on her cheeks had not wavered. No one looked at them, for every eye dwelt on the preacher; and though Elvin's face changed from the healthy certainty of life and hope to a green pallor of self-recognition, no one noticed. Consequently, the general surprise culminated in a shock when he cried out, in a loud voice, “God be merciful! God be merciful! I ain't fit to be with decent folks! I'd ought to be in jail!” and pushed his way through the crowd until he stood before the parson, facing him with bowed head, as if he found in the little minister the vicegerent of God. He had kept Rosa's hand in a convulsive grasp, and he drew her with him into the eye of the world. She shrank back, whimpering feebly; but no one took note of her. The parson knew exactly what, to do when the soul travailed and cried aloud. He stretched forth his hands, and put them on the young man's shoulders.

“Come, poor sinner, come!” he urged, in a voice of wonderful melting quality. “Come! Here is the throne of grace! Bring your burden, and cast it down.”

The words roused Elvin, or possibly the restraining touch. He started back.

“I can't!” he cried out, stridently. “I can't yet! I can't! I can't!”

Still leading Rosa, who was crying now in good earnest, he turned, and pushed his way out of the crowd. But once outside that warm human circuit, Rosa broke loose from him. She tried to speak for his ear alone, but her voice strove petulantly through her sobs:

“Elvin Drew, I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself! You've made me ridiculous before the whole town, and I never'll speak to you again as long as I live. If I hadn't stayed with you every minute, I should think you'd been drinking, and I believe to my soul you have!” She buried her face in her handkerchief, and stumbled over to a table where Laura Pettis was standing, open-eyed with amazement, and the two clasped each other, while Rosa cried on. Elvin only looked about him, in a bewildered fashion, when the warm hand was wrenched away; then, realizing that he was quite alone, his head bent under a deeper dejection. He seemed unable to move from the spot, and stood there quite stupidly, until murmurs of “What's the matter of him?” came from the waiting crowd, and Parson True himself advanced, with hands again outstretched. But Dilly Joyce forestalled the parson. She, too came forward, in her quick way, and took Elvin firmly by the arm.

“Here, dear,” she said, caressingly, “you come along out-doors with us!”

Elvin turned, still hanging his head, and the three (for little Molly had come up on the other side, trying to stand very tall to show her championship) walked out of the hall together. Dilly had ever a quick eye for green, growing things, and she remembered a little corner of the enclosure, where one lone elm-tree stood above a bank. Thither she led him, with an assured step; and when they had reached the shadow, she drew him forward, and said, still tenderly,—

“There, dear, you set right down here an' think it over. We'll stay with ye. We'll never forsake ye, will we, Molly?”

Molly, who did not know what it was all about, had no need to know. “Never!” she said, stanchly.

The three sat down there; and first the slow minutes, and then the hours, went by. It had not been long before some one found out where they were, and curious groups began to wander past, always in silence, but eying them intently. Elvin sat with his head bent, looking fixedly at a root of plantain; but Molly confronted the alien faces with a haughty challenging stare, while her cheeks painted themselves ever a deeper red. Dilly leaned happily back against the elm trunk, and dwelt upon the fleece-hung sky; and her black eyes grew still calmer and more content. She looked as if she had learned what things are lovely and of good repute. When the town-clock struck noon, she brought forth their little luncheon, and pressed it upon the others, with a nice hospitality. Elvin shook his head, but Molly ate a trifle, for pride's sake.

“You go an' git him a mite o' water,” whispered Dilly, when they had finished. “I would, but I dunno the ways o' this place. It'll taste good to him.”

Molly nodded, and hurried away; presently she came back, bearing a tin cup, and Elvin drank, though he did not thank her.

In the early afternoon, Ebenezer Tolman came striding down between the pens in ostentatious indignation. He was a tall, red-faced man, with a large, loose mouth, and blond-gray whiskers, always parted and blowing in the wind. He wore, with manifest pride, the reputation of being a dangerous animal when roused. He had bought a toy whip, at little Davie's earnest solicitation, and, lashing it suggestively against his boot, he began speaking long before he reached the little group. The lagging crowd of listeners paused, breathless, to lose no word.

“Look here, you! don't ye darken my doors ag'in, an' don't ye dast to open your head to one o' my folks! We're done with ye! Do you hear? We're done with ye! Rosy'll ride home with me to-night, an' she'll ride with you no more!”

Elvin said nothing, though his brow contracted suddenly at Rosa's name. Ebenezer was about to speak again; but the little parson came striding swiftly up, his long coat flying behind him, and Tolman, who was a church-member, in good and regular standing, moved on. But the parson was routed, in his turn. Dilly rose, and, as some one afterwards said, “clipped it right up to him.”

“Don't you come now, dear,” she advised him, in that persuasive voice of hers. “No, don't you come now. He ain't ready. You go away, an' let him set an' think it out.” And the parson, why he knew not, turned about, and went humbly back to his preaching in the hall.

The afternoon wore on, and it began to seem as if Elvin would never break from his trance, and never speak. Finally, after watching him a moment with her keen eyes, Dilly touched him lightly on the arm.

“The Tolmans have drove home,” she said, quietly. “All on 'em. What if you should git your horse, an' take Molly an' me along?”

Elvin came to his feet with a lurch. He straightened himself.

“I've got to talk to the parson,” said he.

“So I thought,” answered Dilly, with composure, “but 'tain't no place here. You ask him to ride, an' let Miss Dorcas drive home alone. We four'll stop at my house, an' then you can talk it over.”

Elvin obeyed, like a child tired of his own way. When they packed themselves into the wagon,—where Dilly insisted on sitting behind, to make room,—the Tiverton and Sudleigh people stood about in groups, to watch them. Hiram Cole came forward, just as Elvin took up the reins.

“Elvin,” said he, in a cautious whisper, with his accustomed gesture of scraping his cheek, “I've got suthin' to say to ye. Don't ye put no money into Dan Forbes's hands. I've had a letter from brother 'Lisha, out in Illinois, an' he says that business Dan wrote to you about—well, there never was none! There ain't a stick o' furniture made there! An' Dan's been cuttin' a dash lately with money he got som'er's or other, an' he's gambled, an' I dunno what all, an' been took up. An' now he's in jail. So don't you send him nothin'. I thought I'd speak.”

Elvin looked at him a moment, with a strange little smile dawning about his mouth.

“That's all right,” he said, quickly, and drove away.

To Molly, the road home was like a dark passage full of formless fears. She did not even know what had befallen the dear being she loved best; but something dire and tragic had stricken him, and therefore her. The parson was acutely moved for the anguish he had not probed. Only Dilly remained cheerful. When they reached her gate, it was she who took the halter from Elvin's hand, and tied the horse. Then she walked up the path, and flung open her front door.

“Come right into the settin'-room,” she said. “I'll git ye some water right out o' the well. My throat's all choked up o' dust.”

The cheerful clang of the bucket against the stones, the rumble of the windlass, and then Dilly came in with a brimming bright tin dipper. She offered it first to the parson, and though she refilled it scrupulously for each pair of lips, it seemed a holy loving-cup. They sat there in the darkening room, and Dilly “stepped round” and began to get supper. Molly nervously joined her, and addressed her, once or twice, in a whisper. But Dilly spoke out clearly in, answer, as if rebuking her.

“Le's have a real good time,” she said, when she had drawn the table forward and set forth her bread, and apples, and tea. “Passon, draw up! You drink tea, don't ye? I don't, myself. I never could bear to spile good water. But I keep it on hand for them that likes it. Elvin, here! You take this good big apple. It's man's size more 'n woman's, I guess.”

Elvin pushed back his chair.

“I ain't goin' to put a mouthful of victuals to my lips till I make up my mind whether I can speak or not,” he said, loudly.

“All right,” answered Dilly, placidly. “Bless ye! the teapot'll be goin' all night, if ye say so.”

Only Dilly and the parson made a meal; and when it was over, Parson True rose, as if his part of the strange drama must at last begin, and fell on his knees.

“Let us pray!”

Molly, too, knelt, and Elvin threw his arms upon the table, and laid his head upon them. But Dilly stood erect. From time to time, she glanced curiously from the parson to the lovely darkened world outside her little square of window, and smiled slightly, tenderly, as if out there she saw the visible God. The parson prayed for “this sick soul, our brother,” over and over, in many phrases, and with true and passionate desire. And when the prayer was done, he put his hand on the young man's shoulder, and said, with a yearning persuasiveness,—

“Tell it now, my brother! Jesus is here.”

Elvin raised his head, with a sudden fierce gesture toward Dilly.

“She knows,” he said. “She can see the past. She'll tell you what I've done.”

“I 'ain't got nothin' to tell, dear,” answered Dilly, peacefully. “Everything you've done's between you an' God A'mighty. I 'ain't got nothin' to tell!”

Then she went out, and, deftly unharnessing the horse, put him in her little shed, and gave him a feed of oats. The hens had gone to bed without their supper.

“No matter, biddies,” she said, conversationally, as she passed their roost. “I'll make it up to you in the mornin'!”

When she entered the house again, Elvin still sat there, staring stolidly into the dusk. The parson was praying, and Molly, by the window, was holding the sill tightly clasped by both hands, as if threatening herself into calm. When the parson rose, he turned to Elvin, less like the pastor than the familiar friend. One forgot his gray hairs in the loving simplicity of his tone.

“My son,” he said, tenderly, “tell it all! God is merciful.”

But again Dilly put in her voice.

“Don't you push him, Passon! Let him speak or not, jest as he's a mind to. Let God A'mighty do it His way! Don't you do it!”

Darkness settled in the room, and the heavenly hunter's-moon rose and dispelled it.

“O God! can I?” broke forth the young man. “O God! if I tell, I'll go through with it. I will, so help me!”

The moving patterns of the vine at the window began to etch themselves waveringly on the floor. Dilly bent, and traced the outline of a leaf with her finger.

“I'll tell!” cried Elvin, in a voice exultant over the prospect of freedom. “I'll tell it all. I wanted money. The girl I meant to have was goin' with somebody else, an' I'd got to scrape together some money, quick. I burnt down my house an' barn. I got the insurance money. I sent some of it out West, to put into that furniture business, an' Dan Forbes has made way with it. I only kept enough to take Rosa an' me out there. I'll give up that, an' go to jail; an' if the Lord spares my life, when I come out I'll pay it back, principal an' int'rest.”

Molly gave one little moan, and buried her face in her hands. The parson and Dilly rose, by one impulse, and went forward to Elvin, who sat upright, trembling from excitement past. Dilly reached him first. She put both her hands on his forehead, and smoothed back his hair.

“Dear heart,” she said, in a voice thrilled through by music,—“dear heart! I was abroad that night, watchin' the stars, an' I see it all. I see ye do it. You done it real clever, an' I come nigh hollerin' out to ye, I was so pleased, when I see you was determined to save the livestock. An' that barn-cat, dear, that old black Tom that's ketched my chickens so long!—you 'most broke your neck to save him. But I never should ha' told, dear, never! 'specially sence you got out the creatur's.”

“And 'in Christ shall all be made alive!'“ said the parson, wiping his eyes, and then beginning to pat Elvin's hand with both his own. “Now, what shall we do? What shall we do? Why not come home with me, and stay over night? My dear wife will be glad to see you. And the morning will bring counsel.”

Elvin had regained a fine freedom of carriage, and a decision of tone long lost to him. He was dignified by the exaltation of the moment.

“I've got it all fixed,” he said, like a man. “I thought it all out under that elm-tree, today. You drive me over to Sheriff Holmes's, an' he'll tell me what's right to do,—whether I'm to go to the insurance people, or whether I'm to be clapped into jail. He'll know. It's out o' my hands. I'll go an' harness now.”

Parson True drew Molly forward from her corner, and held her hand, while he took Elvin's, and motioned Dilly to complete the circle.

“Jesus Christ be with us!” he said, solemnly. “God, our Father, help us to love one another more and more tenderly because of our sins!”

While Elvin was harnessing, a dark figure came swiftly through the moonlight.

“Elvin,” whispered Molly, sharply. “O Elvin, I can't bear it! You take what money you've got, an' go as fur as you can. Then you work, an' I'll work, an' we'll pay 'em back. What good will it do, for you to go to jail? Oh, what good will it do!”

“Poor little Molly!” said he. “You do care about me, don't you? I sha'n't forget that, wherever I am.”

Molly came forward, and threw her arms about him passionately.

“Go! go!” she whispered, fiercely. “Go now! I'll drive you some'er's an' bring the horse back. Don't wait! I don't want a hat.”

Elvin smoothed her hair.

“No,” said he, gravely, “you'll see it different, come mornin'. The things of this world ain't everything. Even freedom ain't everything. There's somethin' better. Good-by, Molly. I don't know how long a sentence they give; but when they let me out, I shall come an' tell you what I think of you for standin' by. Parson True!”

The parson came out, and Dilly followed. When the two men were seated in the wagon, she bent forward, and laid her hand on Elvin's, as it held the reins.

“Don't you be afraid,” she said, lovingly. “If they shet ye up, you remember there ain't nothin' to be afraid of but wrong-doin', an' that's only a kind of a sickness we al'ays git well of. An' God A'mighty's watchin' over us all the time. An' if you've sp'iled your chance in this life, don't you mind. There's time enough. Plenty o' time, you says to yourself, plenty!”

She drew back, and they drove on. Molly, in heart-sick sobbing, threw herself forward into the little woman's arms, and Dilly held her with an unwearied cherishing.

“There, there, dear!” she said, tenderly. “Ain't it joyful to think he's got his soul out o' prison, where he shet it up? He's all free now. It's jest as if he was born into a new world, to begin all over.”

“But, Dilly, I love him so! An' I can't do anything! not a thing! O Dilly, yes! yes! Oh, it's little enough, but I could! I could save my shoe-shop money, an' help him pay his debt, when he's out o' jail.”

“Yes,” said Dilly, joyously. “An' there's more'n that you can do. You can keep him in your mind, all day long, an' all night long, an' your sperit'll go right through the stone walls, if they put him there, an' cheer him up.

“He won't know how, but so it'll be, dear, so it'll be. Folks don't know why they're uplifted sometimes, when there ain't no cause; but I say it's other folks's love. Now you come in, dear, an' we'll make the bed—it's all aired complete—an' then we'll go to sleep, an' see if we can't dream us a nice, pleasant dream,—all about green gardins, an' the folks we love walking in the midst of 'em!”

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index