Story type: Literature
A funeral is a depressing affair under the best circumstances, but a funeral in a lonely farm-house in March, the roads full of slush, the ragged gray clouds leaping the sullen hills like eagles, is tragic.
The teams arrived splashed with mud, the women blue with cold under their scanty cotton-quilt lap robes, their hats set awry by the wind. They scurried into the house, to sit and shiver in the best room, where all the chairs that could contrive to stand erect, and all of any sort that could be borrowed, were crammed in together to seat the women folks.
The men drove out to the barn, and having blanketed their teams with lap robes, picked their way through the slush of the yard over to the lee side of the haystack, where the pale sun occasionally shone.
They spoke of “diseased” Williams, as if Diseased were his Christian name. They whittled shingles or stalks of straw as they talked.
Sooner or later, after each new arrival, they branched off upon politics, and the McKinley Bill was handled gingerly. If any one, in his zeal, raised his voice above a certain pitch, some one said “Hish!” and the newcomer’s voice sank again to that abnormal quiet which falls now and again on these loud-voiced folk of the wind and open spaces.
The boys hung around the kitchen and smoke-house, playing sly jokes upon each other in order to provoke that explosion of laughter so thoroughly enjoyed by those who can laugh noiselessly.
A snort of this sort brought Deacon Williams out to reprimand them, “Boys, boys, you should have more respect for the dead.”
The preacher came. The choir raised a wailing chant for the dead, but the group by the haystack did not move.
Occasionally they came back, after talking about seeding and the price of hogs, to the discussion of the dead man’s affairs.
“I s’pose his property will go to Emmy and Serry, half and half.”
“I expec’ so. He always said so, an’ John wa’n’t a man to whiffle about every day.”
“Well, Emmy won’t make no fuss, but if Ike don’t git more’n his half, I’ll eat the greaser.”
“Deacon Williams, I expect.”
“Well, the Deacon’s a slick one,” some one observed, as if that were an excellent quality in an executor.
“They ain’t no love lost between Bill Gray and Harkey, I don’t expect.”
“No, I don’t think they is.”
“Ike don’t seem to please people. It’s queer, too. He tries awful hard.”
The voice of the preacher within, raised to a wild shout, interrupted them.
“The Elder’s gettin’ warmed up,” said one of the story-tellers, pausing in his talk. “And so I told Bill if he wanted the cord-wood–“
The sun shone warmer, and the chickens caw-cawed feebly. The colts whinnied, and a couple of dogs rolled and tumbled in wild frolic, while the voice of the preacher sounded dolefully or in humming monotone.
Meanwhile, in the house, in the best room and in the best seats near the coffin, the women, in their black, worn dresses, with wrinkled, sallow faces and gnarled hands, sat shivering. Theirs was to be the luxury of the ceremony.
The carpet was damp and muddy, the house was chill, and the damp wind filled them all with ague; but they had so much to see and talk about, that time passed rapidly. Each one entering was studied critically to see whether dress and deportment were proper to the occasion or not, and if one of the girls smiled a little as she entered, some one was sure to whisper:–
“Heartless thing, how can she?”
There were a few young men, only enough to help out on the singing, and they remained mainly in the kitchen where they were seen occasionally in anxious consultation with Deacon Williams.
The girls looked serious, but a little sly, as if they could smile if the boys looked their way or if one of the old women should cough her store teeth out.
Upstairs the family were seated in solemn silence, the two nieces, Emma and Sarah, and Emma’s husband, Harkey, and Sarah’s children–deceased Williams had no wife. These people sat in stony immobility, except when Harkey looked at his watch, and said:–
“Seem slow gitten here.”
Occasionally women came up the stairway and flung themselves upon the necks of the mourning nieces, who submitted to it without apparent disgust or astonishment, and sank back into the same icy calm after their visitors had “straightened their things,” and retired to the reserved seats below.
Deacon Williams, small, quick, with sunny blue-gray eyes belying the gloomy curve of his mouth, was everywhere; arranging for bearers, selecting hymns, conferring with the family, keeping abstracted old women off the seats reserved for the mourners, and maintaining an anxious lookout for the minister.
The Deacon was a distant relative of the dead man, and it was generally admitted that he “would have a time of it” in administering upon the estate.
At last the word was whispered about that the Elder was coming. Word was sent to the smoke-house and to the haystack to call the stragglers in. They came slowly, and finding the rooms all filled considered themselves absolved from a disagreeable duty, and went back to the sunny side of the haystack, where they smoked their pipes in ruminative enjoyment.
The Elder, upon entering, took his place beside the coffin, the foot of which he used for a pulpit on which to lay his Bible and his hymn-book. A noise of whispering, rustling, scraping of feet arose as some old men crowded in among the women, and then the room became silent.
The Elder took his seat and glanced round upon them all with solemn unrecognizing severity, while the mourners came down the creaking pine stairway in proper order of procedure.
Everybody noticed the luxury of new dresses on the nieces and the new suits on the children. Everybody knew the feeling which led to these extravagances. Death, after all, was a majestic visitor, and money was not to stand in the way of a decent showing. Some of the girls smiled slyly at Isaac’s gloves, which were too small and would go only halfway on, a fact he tried to conceal by keeping his hands folded. Each boy was provided with a large new stiff cotton handkerchief, which occupied immense space in outside pockets, crumpled as they were into a rustling ball with cruel salient angles like a Chinese puzzle.
The Elder had attended two funerals that week, and like a jaded actor came lamely to his work. His prayer was not entirely satisfactory to the older people, they had expected a “little more power.”
He was a thin-faced man, with weak brown eyes and a mouth like a gopher, that is, with very prominent upper teeth. His black coat was worn and shiny, and hung limply, as if at some other period he had been fatter, or as if it had belonged to some other man.
The choir with instinctive skill had selected a wailing hymn, only slightly higher in development than the chant of the Indians, sweet, plaintive at times, barbaric in its moving cadences. They sang it well, in meditative march, looking out of the windows during its interminable length.
Then the Elder read some passages of the Scripture in his “funeral voice,” which was entirely different from his “marriage voice” and his “Sunday voice.” It had deep cadences in it and chanting inflections, not unlike the negro preachers or the keeners at Irish wakes.
Then he gave out the hymn, which all joined in singing, rising to their feet with much trouble. After they had settled down again he took out a large carefully ironed handkerchief and laid it on the coffin as who should say, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
The absurdity of all this did not appear to his listeners, though they well knew he cared very little about the dead man, who was a very retiring person.
The Elder on his part understood that his audience was before him for the pleasure of weeping, for the delight of seeing agonized faces and hearing wild grief-laden wailing. They were there to feel the delicious creeping thrill of horror and fear, roused by the presence of the corpse and the near shadow of the hovering angel of death.
The Elder led off by some purely perfunctory remarks about the deceased, about his kindness, and his honesty. This caused the nieces to wipe away a sparse tear or two, and he was encouraged as if by slight applause. He developed as usual the idea that in the midst of life we are in death, that no man can tell when his time will come. He told two or three grewsome stories of sudden death. His voice now rose in a wild chant now sank to a hoarse whisper.
The blowing of noses, low sobbings, and fervent amens from the old men thickened encouragingly, and he entered upon more impassioned flights. His voice, naturally sonorous, deepened in powerful song till the men seated comfortably on their haunches out by the haystack could plainly hear his words. “Oh, my brethren, what will you do in that last day?”
Sarah’s boys, without in the least understanding what it all meant, began to weep also and to use their handkerchiefs, so smooth and shining they were useless as so much legal-cap writing paper.
Their misery would have been enhanced had they known that out in the wagon-shed under cover of the Elder’s voice the other boys were having a game of mummelly peg in the warm, dry ground. Their fresh young souls laughed at death as the early robins out in the hedge near by defied the winds of March.
Having harrowed the poor sensation-loving souls as thoroughly as could be desired, the Elder began the process of “letting them down easy.” He remembered that the Lord was merciful; that the deceased could approach him with confidence; that there was a life beyond the tomb, a life of eternal rest (the allurement of all hard-working humanity).
Slowly the snuffling and sobbing ceased, the handkerchiefs took longer and longer intervals of rest, and when in conclusion the preacher said, “Let us pray,” the old men looked at each other with fervent satisfaction. “It’s been a blessed time–a blessed time!”
The pretty girl who sang the soprano looked very interesting with her wet eyelashes, the tears stopped halfway in their course down her rounded cheek. The closing hymn promised endless peace and rest, but was voiced in the same tragic and hopeless music with which the service opened.
Deacon Williams came out to say, “All parties desiring to view the remains, will now have an opportunity.” He had the hospitable tone of a host inviting his guests in to dinner.
Viewing the remains was considered a religious duty, and the men from outside, and even the boys from behind the smoke-house, felt constrained to come in and pass in shuddering horror before the still face whose breath did not dim the glass above it. Most of them hurried by the box with only a swift side glance down at the strange thing within.
Then the bearers lifted the coffin and slipped it into the platform-spring wagon, which was backed up to the door. The other teams loaded up, and the procession moved off, down the perilously muddy road toward the village burying-ground.
In this way was John Williams, a hard-working, honorable Welshman, buried. His death furnished forth a sombre, dramatic entertainment such as he himself had ceremoniously attended many times. The funeral trotters whom he had seen at every funeral in the valley were now in at his death, and would be at each other’s death, until the black and yellow earth claimed them all.
A ceremony almost as interesting to the gossips as the burial was the reading of the will, to which only the family were invited. After the return of Emma, her husband, and Sarah from the cemetery, Deacon Williams read the dead man’s bequests, seated in the best room, which was still littered with chairs and damp with mud.
The will was simple and not a surprise to any one. It gave equal division of all the property to the nieces.
“Well, now, when’ll we have the settlement?” asked the Deacon.
“Just’s you say, Deacon,” said Emma, meekly.
“Suit yourself,” said Harkey; “only it ‘ad better come soon. Sooner the better–seedin’s coming on.”
“Well, to-morrow is Friday, why not Saturday?”
“All right, Saturday.” All agreed.
As Harkey drove off down the road he said to his wife: “The sooner we have it, the fewer things ‘ll git carried off. The Deacon don’t favor me none, and Bill Gray is sweet on Serry, and he’ll bear watchin’.”
The Deacon on his part took his chin in his fist and looked after Harkey. “Seemed a little bit anxious, ‘cordin’ to my notion,” he said, with a smile.
Saturday was deliciously warm and springlike, the hens woke in the early dawn with a jocund note in their throats, and the young cattle frisked about the barn-yard, moved to action by the electrical influences of the south wind.
“Clear as a bell overhead,” Deacon Williams said.
But Jack Dunlap, Sarah’s hand, said, “Nobody travels that way.”
Long before dawn the noise of the melting water could be heard running with musical tinkle under the ice. The ponds crashed and boomed in long reverberating explosions, as the sinking water heaved it up and let it fall with crackling roar; flights of ducks flashed over, cackling breathlessly as they scurried straight into the north.
Deacon and Sarah arrived early and took possession, for Sarah was to have the eighty which included the house. They were busy getting things ready for the partition. The Deacon, assisted by Jack, the hired man, was busy hauling the machinery out of the shed into the open air, while Sarah and a couple of neighbors’ girls, with skirts tucked up and towels on their heads, were scouring up pots and pans and dusting furniture in the kitchen.
The girls, strong and handsome in their unsapped animal vigor, enjoyed the innocent display of their bare arms and petticoats.
People from Sand Lake passing by wondered what was going on. Gideon Turner had the courage to pull up and call out, for the satisfaction of his wife:–
“What’s going on here this fine morning?”
“Oh, we’re goin’ to settle up the estate!” said Sarah. “Why! how de do, Mrs. Turner?”
“W’y, it’s you, is it, Serry?”
“Yes; it’s me,–what they is left of me. I been here sence six o’clock. I’m getting things ready for the division. Deacon Williams is the ex-ecutor, you know.”
“Aha! Less see, you divide equally, I hear.”
“Near’s we can get at it. Uncle left me the house eighty, and the valley eighty to Emmy. Deacon’s goin’ to parcel out the belongin’s.”
Turner looked sly. “How’d Harkey feel?”
Sarah smiled. “I don’t know and care less. He’ll make trouble if he can, but I don’t see how he can. He agreed to have the Deacon do the dividin’, and he’ll have to stand by it so far as I can see.”
Mrs. Turner looked dubious. “Well, you know Ike Harkey. He looks as though sugar wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but I tell you I’d hate to have dealin’s with him.”
Turner broke in: “Well, we must be movin’. I s’pose you’ll move right in?”
“Yes. Just as soon’s as this thing’s settled.”
“Well, good-by. Come up.”
“You come down.”
Sarah was a heavy, good-natured woman, a widow with “a raft of children.” Probably for that reason her uncle had left her the house, which was large and comfortable. As she stood looking down the road, one of the girls came out to the gate. She was a plump, strong creature, a neighbor’s girl who had volunteered to help.
“Yes. I guess–no, it’s going the other way. Ain’t it a nice day?”
That was as far as she could carry the utterance of her feeling, but all the morning she had felt the wonderful power of the air. The sun had risen incredibly warm. The wind was in the south, and the crackling, booming roar of ice in the ponds and along the river was like winter letting go its iron grip upon the land. Even the old cows shook their horns, and made comical attempts to frisk with the yearlings. Sarah knew it was foolish, but she felt like a girl that morning–and Bill was coming up the road.
In the midst of the joy of the spring day stood the house, desolate and empty, out of which its owner had been carried to a bed in the cold, clinging clay of the little burying-ground.
The girls and Sarah worked swiftly, brushing, cleaning, setting aside, giving little thought to even the beauty of the morning, which entered their blood unconsciously.
“Well, how goes it?” asked a quick, jovial voice.
The girls gave screams of affected fright.
“Why, Deacon! You nearly scared the life out of us.”
Deacon Williams was always gallant.
“I didn’t know I was given to scaring the ladies,” he said. “Well, who’s here?”
“Nobody but us so far.”
“Hain’t seen nothing o’ Harkey?”
“Not a thing. He sent word he’d be on hand, though.”
“M–, well, we’ve got the machinery invoiced. Guess I’ll look around and kind o’ get the household things in my mind’s eye,” said the Deacon, taking on the air of a public functionary.
“All right. We’ll have everything ready here in a few minutes.”
They returned to work, dusting and scrubbing. The girls with their banter put death into the background as an obscure and infrequent incident of old age.
Sarah again studied the road down the Coolly.
“Well there! I see a team coming up the Coolly now; wonder if it’s Emmy.”
“Looks more like Bill Gray’s team,” said one of the girls, looking slyly at Sarah, who grew very red.
“Oh, you’re too sharp, ain’t you?”
It was perfectly ridiculous (to the young people) to see these middle-aged lovers courting like sixteen-year-olds, and they had no mercy on either Bill or Sarah.
Bill drove up in leisurely way, his horses steaming, his wagon-wheels loaded with mud. Mrs. Gray was with him, her jolly face shining like the morning sun.
“Hello, folkses, are you all here?”
“Good morning, Mrs. Gray,” said the Deacon, approaching to help her out. “Hello, Bill, nice morning.”
Bill looked at Sarah for a moment. “Bully good,” he said, leaving his mother to scramble down the wagon-wheel alone–at least so far as he was concerned, but the Deacon stood below courageously.
Mrs. Gray cried out in her loud good humor: “Look out, Deacon, don’t git too near me–if I should fall on you there wouldn’t be a grease spot left. There! I’m all right now,” she said, having reached ground without accident. She shook her dress and looked briskly around. “Wal, what you done, anyway? Emmy’s folks come yet?”
“No, but I guess that’s them comin’ now. I hope Ike won’t come, though.”
Mrs. Gray stared at the Deacon. “Why not?”
“Well, he’s just sure to make a fuss,” said Jack, “he’s so afraid he won’t get his share.”
Bill chewed on a straw and looked at Sarah abstractedly.
“Well, what’s t’ be done?” inquired Mrs. Gray, after a pause.
“Can’t do much till Emmy gets here,” said Sarah.
“Oh, I guess we can. Bill, you put out y’r team, we won’t get away ‘fore dinner.”
The men drove off to the barn, leaving the women to pick their way on chips and strips of board laid in the mud, to the safety of the chip-pile, and thence to the kitchen, which was desolately littered with utensils.
Deacon assumed command with the same alertness, and with the same sunny gleam in his eye, with which he directed the funeral a few days before.
“Now, Bill, put out your team and help Jack and me pen them hogs. Women folks ‘ll git things ready here.”
Emma came at last, driven by Harkey’s brother and his hired man. They were both brawny fellows, rude and irritable, and the Deacon lifted his eyebrows and whistled when he saw them drive in with a lumber wagon.
The women swarmed out to greet Emma, who was a thin, irritable, feeble woman.
“Better late than never. Where’s Ike?” inquired Mrs. Gray.
“Well, he–couldn’t git away very well–he’s got t’ clean up some seed-oats,” she answered nervously. After the men drove off, however, she added: “He thought he hadn’t ought to come; he didn’t want to cause no aidgewise feelin’s, so he thought he hadn’t better come–he’d just leave it to you, Deacon.”
The Deacon said, “All right, all right! We’ll fix it up!” but he didn’t feel so sure of it after that, though he set to work bravely.
The sun, growing warmer, fell with pleasant gleam around the kitchen door and around the chip-pile where the hens were burrowing. The men worked in their shirt-sleeves.
“Well, now, we’ll share the furniture an’ stuff next,” said the Deacon, looking around upon his little interested semicircle of spectators. “Now, put Emmy’s things over there and Serry’s things over here. I’ll call ’em off, and, if they’s no objection, you girls can pass ’em over.”
He cleared his throat and began in the voice of one in authority:–
“Thirteen pans, six to Emmy, seven to Serry;” then hastened to add: “I’ll balance that by giving the biggest of the two kittles to Emmy. Rollin’ pin and cake board to Serry, two flat-irons to Emmy, small tub to Emmy, large one to Serry, balanced by the tin water pail. Dozen clo’se-pins; half an’ half, six o’ one, half-dozen t’other,” he said with a smile at his own joke, while the others actively placed the articles in separate piles.
“Stove to Serry, because she has the house, bureau to Emmy.”
At this point Mrs. Gray said, “I guess that ain’t quite even, Deacon; the bureau ain’t worth much.”
“Oh, no, no, that’s all right! Let her have it,” Emma protested nervously.
“Give her an extry tick, anyway,” said Sarah, not to be outdone in magnanimity.
“Settle that between ye,” said the Deacon.
He warmed to his work now, and towels, pans, crockery, brooms, mirrors, pillows, and bedticks were rapidly set aside in two groups on the soft soil. The poverty of the home could best be seen in the display of its pitiful furniture.
The two nieces looked on impassively, standing side by side. The men came to move the bureau and other heavy things and looked on, while the lighter things were being handed over by Mrs. Gray and the girls.
At noon they sat down in the empty kitchen and ate a cold snack–at least, the women took seats, the men stood around and lunched on hunks of boiled beef and slices of bread. There was an air of constraint upon the male portion of the party not shared by Mrs. Gray and the girls.
“Well, that settles things in the house,” beamed the Deacon as he came out with the women trailing behind him; “an’ now in about two jerks of a dead lamb’s tail, we’ll git at the things out in the barn.”
“Wal, we don’t know much about machines and things, but I guess we’d better go out and keep you men from fightin’,” said Mrs. Gray, shaking with fun; “Ike didn’t come because he didn’t want to make any trouble, but I guess he might just as well ‘a’ come as send two such critters as Jim ‘n’ Hank.”
The women laughed at her frankness, and in very good humor they all went out to the barn-yard.
“Now, these things can’t be laid out fast as I call ’em off, but we’ll do the best we can.”
“Let’s try the stawk first,” said Jim.
The women stood around with shawls pinned over their heads while the division of the stock went forward. The young men came often within chaffing distance of the girls.
There were nine shotes nearly of a size, and the Deacon said, “I’ll give Serry the odd shote.”
“Why so?” asked Jim Harkey, a sullen-faced man of thirty.
“Because a shote is hard to carry off and I can balance–“
“Well, I guess you can balance f’r Em ’bout as well as f’r Serry.”
The Deacon was willing to yield a point. “Any objection, Bill? If not, why–“
“Nope, let her go,” said Bill.
“What ‘ave you got to say ’bout it?” asked Jim, insolently.
Bill turned his slow bulk. “I guess I’ve a good ‘eal to say–haven’t I, Serry?”
Sarah reddened, but stood beside him bravely. “I guess you have, Bill, about as much as I have.” There was a moment of dramatic tension and the girls tingled with sympathy.
“Let ‘er go,” said Bill, splitting a straw with his knife. He had not proposed to Sarah before and he felt an unusual exaltation to think it came so easy after all.
When they reached the cattle, Jim objected to striking a balance with a “farrer cow,” and threw the Deacon’s nice calculation all out of joint.
“Let it go, Jim,” pleaded Emma.
“I won’t do it,” Ike said–“I mean I know he don’t want no farrer cow, he’s got two now.”
The Deacon was a little nettled. “I guess that’s going to stand,” he said sharply.
Jim swore a little but gave in, and came back with an access of ill humor on a division of the horses.
“But I’ve give you the four heavy horses to balance the four others and the two-year-old,” said the Deacon.
“I’ll be damned if I stand that,” said Jim.
“I guess you’ll have to,” said the Deacon.
Emma pleaded, “Let it go, Jim, don’t make a fuss.”
Jim raged on, “I’ll be cawn-demmed if I’ll stand it. I don’t–Ike don’t want them spavined old crows; they’re all ring-boned and got the heaves.” His long repressed ill-nature broke out.
“Toh, toh!” said the Deacon, “Don’t kick over the traces now. We’ll fix it up some way.”
Emma tried to stop Jim, but he shook her off and continued to walk back and forth behind the horses munching on quietly, unconscious of any dispute about their value.
Bill sat on the oat box in his hulking way, his heels thumping a tune, his small gray eyes watching the angry man.
“Don’t make a darn fool of yourself,” he said placidly.
Jim turned, glad of the chance for a row, “You better keep out of this.”
Bill continued to thump, the palms of his big hands resting on the edge of the box. “I’m in it,” he said conclusively.
“Well, you git out of it! I ain’t goin’ to be bulldozed–that ain’t what I come here for.”
“No, I see it ain’t,” said Bill. “If you’re after a row you can have it right here. You won’t find a better place.”
“There, there,” urged the Deacon. “What’s the use? Keep cool and don’t tear your shirts.”
Mrs. Gray went up to Jim and took him by the arm. “You need a good spankin’ to make you good-natured,” she said. “I think the Deacon has done first rate, and you ought ‘o–“
“Let go o’ me,” he snarled, raising his hand as if to strike her.
Bill’s big boot lunged out, catching Harkey in the ribs, and if the Deacon had not sprung to his assistance Jim would have been trampled to pieces by the scared horse under whose feet he found himself. He was wild with dizzy, breathless rage.
“Who hit me?” he demanded.
Bill’s shapeless hulk straightened up and stood beside him as if his pink flesh had suddenly turned to oak. Out of his fat cheeks his gray eyes glared.
“I did. Want another?”
The Deacon and Jack came between and prevented the encounter which would have immediately followed. Bill went on:–
“They cain’t no man lay a hand on my mother and live long after it.” He was thoroughly awake now. There was no slouch to his action at that moment, and Jim was secretly pleased to have the encounter go by.
“You come here for a fuss and you can have it, both of you,” Bill went on in unusual eloquence. “Deacon’s tried to do the square thing, Emmy’s tried to do the square thing, and Serry’s kep’ quiet, but you’ve been sour and ugly the whole time, and now it’s goin’ to stop.”
“This ain’t the last of this thing,” said Jim.
“You never’ll have a better time,” said Bill.
Mrs. Gray and the Deacon turned in now to quiet Bill, and the settlement went on. Jim kept close watch on the proceedings, and muttered his dissent to his friends, but was careful not to provoke Bill further.
In dividing the harnesses they came upon a cow-bell hanging on a nail. The Deacon jingled it as he passed. “Goes with the bell-cow,” he said, and nothing further was said of it. Jim apparently did not consider it worth quarrelling about.
At last the work was done, a terribly hard day’s work. The machines and utensils were piled in separate places, the cattle separated, and the grain measured. As they were about to leave, the Deacon said finally:–
“If there’s any complaint to make, let’s have it right now. I want this settlement to be a settlement. Is everybody satisfied?”
“I am,” said Emmy. “Ain’t you, Serry?”
“Why, of course,” said Sarah, who was a little slower of speech. “I think the Deacon has done first rate. I ain’t a word of fault to find, have you, Bill?”
“Nope, not an ioty,” said Bill, readily.
Jim did not agree in so many words, but, as he said nothing, the Deacon ended:–
“Well, that settles it. It ain’t goin’ to rain, so you can leave these things right here till Monday. I guess I’ll be gettin’ out for home. Good evening, everybody.”
Emma drove away down the road with Jim, but Sarah remained to straighten up the house. Harkey’s hired hand went home with Dade Walker who considered that walk the pleasant finish to a very interesting day’s work. She sympathized for the time with the Harkey faction.
Sunday forenoon, when Bill and Sarah drove up to the farm to put things in order in the house, they found Ike Harkey walking around with that queer side glance he had, studying the piles of furniture, and mentally weighing the pigs.
He greeted them smoothly: “Yes, yes, I’m purrfickly satisfied, purrfickly! Not a word to say–better’n I expected,” he added.
Bill was not quite keen enough to perceive the insult which lay in that final clause, and Sarah dared not inform him for fear of trouble.
As Harkey drove away, however, Bill had a dim feeling of dissatisfaction with him.
“He’s too gol-dang polite, that feller is; I don’t like such butter-mouth chaps–they’d steal the cents off’n a dead nigger’s eyes.”
The second Sunday after the partition of goods the entire Coolly turned out to church in spite of the muddy road. The men, after driving up to the door of the little white church and helping the women to alight, drove out to the sheds along the fence and gathered in knots beside their wagons in the warm spring sun. It was very pleasant there, and the men leaned with relaxed muscles upon the wagon-wheels, or sat on the fence with jack-knives in hand. The horses, weary with six days seeding, slept with closed eyes and drooping lips. Generally the talk was upon spring work, each man bragging of the number of acres he had sown during the week, but this morning the talk was all about the division which had come between the nieces of “deceased Williams.” They discussed it slowly as one might eat a choice pudding in order to extract the flavor from each spoonful.
“What is it all about, anyhow?” asked Jim Cranby. “I ain’t heard nothing about it.” He had stood in open-mouthed perplexity trying to catch a clew. Coming late, he found it baffling.
“That shows where he lives; a man might as well live in a well as up in Molasses Gap,” said one of the younger men, pointing up to the Coolly. “Why, Ike Harkey is kicking about the six shotes the Deacon put off on him.”
“No, it wasn’t the shotes, it was a farrer cow,” put in Clint Stone.
“Well, I heard it was a shote.”
“So did I,” said another.
“Well, Bill Gray told Jinks Ike had stole a cow-bell that belonged to the black farrer cow,” said another late comer.
“Stole a cow-bell,” and they all drew closer together. This was really worth while!
“Yes, sir; Jinks told me he heard Bill say so yesterday. That’s the way I heard it.”
“Well, I’ll be cussed, if that ain’t small business for Ike Harkey!”
“How did it happen?” asked Cranby, with sharpened appetite.
“Well, I didn’t hear no p’rtic’lars, but it seems the bell was hangin’ on a peg in the barn, and when they got home from church it was gone, hide an’ hair. Bill is dead sure Ike took it.”
“Say, there’ll be fun over that yet, won’t they,” said one of the fellows, with a grin.
“Well, Ike better keep out of Bill’s way, that’s all.”
“Well–I ain’t takin’ sides. Some young’un may have took it.”
“Well, let’s go in, boys; I see the Elder’s come. By gum, there’s Harkey!” They all looked toward Harkey, who had just driven up to the door.
Harkey came into church holding his smooth, serious face a little one side, in his usual way, quiet and dignified, as if he were living up to his Sunday suit of clothes. He seemed to be unconscious of the attitude in which he stood toward most of his neighbors.
Bill and Sarah were not present, and that gave additional color to the story of trouble between the sisters.
After the sermon Deacon Harkey led the Sunday School, and the critics of his action were impressed more than usual with his smooth and quiet utterance. Emma seemed more than ordinarily worn and dispirited.
It was perfectly natural that Mrs. Gray should be the last person to know of the division which had slowly set in between the two sisters and their factions. Charitable and guileless herself, it was difficult for her to conceive of slander and envy.
Nevertheless, a division had come about, slowly, but decisively. The entire Coolly was involved in the discussion before Mrs. Gray gave it any serious attention, but one day, when Sarah came in upon her and poured out a mingled flood of sorrow and invective, the good soul was aghast.
“Well, well, I swan! There, there! I wouldn’t make so much fuss over it!” she said, stripping her hands out of the biscuit dough in order to go over and pat Sarah on the shoulder. “After all that to-do gettin’ settled, seems ‘s if you ought ‘o stay settled. Good land! It ain’t anything to have a fuss over, anyway!”
“But it is our cow-bell. It belonged on the black farrer cow, that Jim turned his nose up at, and he sneaked around and got it just to spite us.”
“Oh, I guess not,” she replied incredulously.
“Well, he did; and Emmy put him up to it, and I know she did,” said Sarah in a lamentable voice.
“Sary Ann,” said Mrs. Gray, as sharply as any one ever heard her speak, “that’s a pretty way to talk about your sister, ain’t it?”
“Well, Mrs. Jim Harkey said–“
“You never mind what Mrs. Jim Harkey said; she’s a snoop and everybody knows it.”
“But she wouldn’t tell that, if it weren’t so.”
“Well, I tell you, I wouldn’t pay no attention to what she said, and I wouldn’t make such a fuss over an old cow-bell, anyway.”
“But the cow-bell is only the starting point; she ain’t been near the house since, and she says all kinds of mean, nasty things about us.”
“All comes through Mrs. Jim, I suppose,” said Mrs. Gray, with some sarcasm.
“No, it don’t. She told Dade Walker that I got all the biggest flat-irons, when she knows I offered her the bureau. I did everything I could to make her feel satisfied.”
“I know you did, and now you must just keep cool till I see Emmy myself.”
When Mrs. Gray started out on her mission of pacification, she found it to be entirely out of her control. The Coolly was actively partisan. One party stood by the Harkeys, and another took Sarah’s part, while the tertium quid said it was “all darn foolishness.”
Mrs. Gray was appalled at the state of affairs, but struggled to maintain a neutral position. In May, when Bill and Sarah were married, things had reached such a stage that Emma was not invited to the wedding supper. Nothing could have cut deeper than this neglect, and thereafter adherents of the third remove declined to speak when passing; some even refused to nod. The Harkey faction also condemned the early marriage of Bill and Sarah as unseemly.
Soon after, Emma came again to see Mrs. Gray, salty with tears, and crushed with the slight Sarah had put upon her. She was a plain pale woman, anyway, and weeping made her pitiable. She explained the situation with her head on Mrs. Gray’s lap:–
“She never has been to see me since that day, and–but I hoped she’d come and see me, but she never sent me any invitation to her wedding.” She choked with sobs at the memory of it.
Mrs. Gray realized the enormity of the offence, and she could only put her arms around Emma’s back and say, “There, there, I wouldn’t take on so about it.” As a matter of fact, she had striven to have Bill send an invitation to his brother-in-law, but Bill was inflexible on that point. With the sound of the stolen cow-bell ringing in his ears, he could not bring himself to ask Ike Harkey into his house.
After Emma grew a little calmer, Mrs. Gray tried again to bridge the chasm. “Now, I just believe if you would go to Sarah–“
“I can’t do that! She’d slam the door in my face. Jim’s wife says Sarah said I shouldn’t pick a single currant out of the garden this year!”
“I don’t go much on what Jim’s wife says,” put in Mrs. Gray, guardedly. She had begun to feel that Jim’s wife was the main disturbing element.
The sisters really suffered from their separation. They had been so used to running in at all times of the day that each missed the other wofully. It had been their habit whenever they needed each other to help cook, or cut a dress, to hang a cloth out of the chamber window, a sign which was sure to bring help post-haste; but now nothing would induce either of them to make the first concession.
Two or three times when Emma, feeling especially lonely, was on the point of hanging out the signal, she was prevented by the thought of some cruel message Mrs. Jim had brought. Jim lived on Ike’s farm in a small house that had been Emma’s first home, and Mrs. Jim was almost as much in her house as in her own. She had no children, and was a mischief-maker, not so much from ill will as from a love of dramatic situations; it was her life, this dramatic play of loves and hates among her friends and neighbors.
Emma feared her husband, too; he was so self-contained, and so inexorably moral, at least in appearance. He sweetly said he bore no ill will toward the Grays, but he must insist that his wife should not visit them until they apologized. He took the matter very serenely, however.
The sound of the cow-bell was a constant daily irritation to Bill; he was slow to wrath, but the bell seemed to rasp on his tenderest nerve; it had a curiously exultant sound heard in the early morning–it seemed to voice Harkey’s triumph. Bill’s friends were astonished at the change in him. He grew dark and thunderous with wrath whenever Harkey’s name was mentioned.
One day Ike’s cattle broke out of the pasture into Bill’s young oats, and though Ike hurried after them, it seemed to Bill he might have got them out a little quicker than he did. He said nothing then, however, but when a few days later they broke in again, he went over there in very bad humor.
“I want this thing stopped,” he said.
Ike was mending the fence. He smiled in his sweet way, and said smoothly, “I’m sorry, but when they once git a taste of grain it’s pretty hard to keep ’em–“
“Well, there ought to be a new fence here,” said Bill. “That fence is as rotten as a pumpkin.”
“I s’pose they had; yes, sir, that’s so,” Harkey assented quickly. “I’m ready to build my half, you know,” he said, “any time–any time you are.”
“Well, I’ll build mine to-morrow,” said Bill. “I can’t have your cattle pasturing on my oats.”
“All right, all right. I’ll have mine done as quick as yourn.”
“Well, see’t you do; I don’t want my grain all tramped into the ground and I ain’t a-goin’ to have it.”
Harkey hastily gathered up his tools, saying, “Yes, yes, all right.”
“You might send home that cow-bell of mine while you’re about it,” Bill called after him, but Harkey did not reply or turn around.
The line fence ran up the bluff toward the summit of the ridge to the east. On each side it was set with smooth green slopes of pasture and pleasant squares of wheat, until it reached the woods and ran under the oaks and walnuts and birches to the cliffs of lichen-spotted stone which topped the summit.
Bill walked the full length of the fence to see how much of the old material could be used. He recognized the bell on one of Harkey’s cattle, and he grew wrathful at the sight of another cow peacefully gnawing the fresh, green grass, with the bell, which belonged to the black cow, on her neck.
It was mid-spring. Everywhere was the vivid green of the Wisconsin landscape; the slopes were like carefully tended lawns, without stumps or stones; the groves rose up the hills, pink and gray and green in softly rounded billows of cherry bloom and tender oak and elm foliage. Here and there under the forest tender plants and flowers had sprung up, slender and succulent like all productions of a rich and shadowed soil.
Early the next morning Bill and his two hands began to work in the meadow, working toward the ridge; Harkey and his brother and their hands began at the ridge and worked down toward the meadow; each party could hear the axes of the other ringing in the still, beautiful spring air.
Bill’s hired hand, on his way to the spring about the middle of the forenoon, met Jim Harkey, who said wickedly in answer to a jocular greeting:–
“Don’t give me none of your lip now; we’ll break your necks for two cents.”
The hand came to Bill with the story. “Bill, they’re on the fight.”
“Oh, I guess not.”
“Well, they be. We better not run up against them to-day if we don’t want trouble.”
“Well, I ain’t goin’ to dodge ’em,” said Bill; “I ain’t in that business; if they want fight, we’ll accommodate ’em with the best we’ve got in the shop.”
At noon, Harkey’s gang went to dinner a little earlier, and, as they came down the path quite near, Jim said with a sneer:–
“You managed to git the easiest half of the fence, didn’t yeh?”
“We took the half that belongs to us,” said Bill. “We don’t take what don’t belong to us.”
“Cow-bells, for instance,” put in Bill’s hired hand, with a provoking intonation.
Jim stopped and his face twisted with rage; Ike paused a little farther on down the path. Jim came closer.
“Say, I know what you’re driving at and you’re a liar, and for a leather cent I’d lick you like hell!”
“You can’t do it. You don’t weigh enough.”
“Oh, shut up, Jack,” called Bill. “Go about y’r business,” he said to Jim, “or I’ll take a hand.”
Jim’s face flamed into a wild wrath. His lips lifted at the corners like a wolf’s as he leaped the fence with a wild spring and lunged against Bill’s breast. The larger man went down, but his great arms closed about his assailant’s neck with a bear-like grip. Jim could neither rise nor strike; with a fury no animal could equal he pressed his hands upon Bill’s throat and thrust his elbow into his mouth in the attempt to strangle him. He meant murder.
Jack faced the other men, who came running up. Ike seized a stake, and was about to leap over, when Jack raised an axe in the air.
“Stand off!” he yelled, and his voice rang through the woods; he noticed how harsh and wild it sounded in the silence. He heard a grunting sound, and gave one glance at the two men writhing amid the ferns silent as grappling bull-dogs.
Bill had fallen in the brake and seemed wedged in. At last there came into his heart a terrible shiver, a blind desperation that uncoiled all the strength in his great bulk. Then he seemed to bound from the ground, as he twisted the other man under him, and shook himself free.
He dragged one great maul of a fist free and drove it at the face beneath him. Jim saw it coming and turned his head. The blow fell on his neck and his carnivorous grin smoothed out as if sleep had suddenly fallen upon him. He drew a long, shuddering breath, his muscles quivered, and his clenched hands fell open.
Bill rose upon his knees and looked at him. A deep awe fell upon him. In the pause he heard the robins rioting from the trees in the lower valley, and the woodpecker cried resoundingly.
“You’ve killed him!” cried Ike, as he climbed hastily over the fence.
Bill did not reply. The men faced each other in solemn silence, all wish for murder going out of their hearts. The sobbing cry of the mourning dove, which they had been hearing all day, suddenly assumed new meaning.
“Ah, woe, woe is me!” it cried.
“Bring water!” shouted Ike, kneeling beside his brother.
Bill knelt there with him, while the rest dashed water upon Jim’s face.
At last he began to breathe like a fretful, waking child, and looking up into the scared faces above him, motioned the water away from him. The angry look came back into his face, but it was mixed with perplexity.
He touched his hand to his face and brought it down covered with blood. “How much am I hurt?” he said fiercely.
“Oh, nothing much,” Ike hastened to say; “it’s just a scratch.”
Jim struggled to his elbow and looked around him. It all seemed to come back to him. “Did he do it fair?” he demanded of his companions.
“Oh, yes; it was fair enough,” said Ike.
Jim looked at Jack. “That thing didn’t hit me with his axe, did he?”
Jack grinned. “No, but I was just a-goin’ to when Bill belted you one,” was the frank and convincing reply.
Jim got up slowly and faced Bill. “Well, that settles it; it’s all right! You’re a better man than I am. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
He climbed back over the fence and led the way down to dinner without looking back.
“What give ye that lick on the side o’ the head, Jim?” his wife asked, when he sat down at the dinner-table.
“Never you mind,” he replied surlily, but he added, “Ike’s axe come off, and give me a side-winder.”
Bill carefully removed all marks of his struggle and walked into dinner shamefacedly, all muscle gone out of his bulk of fat. His sudden return to primeval savagery grew monstrous in the cheerful kitchen, with its noise of hearty children, sizzling meat, and the clatter of dishes.
The stove was not drawing well and Sarah did not notice anything out of the way with Bill.
“I never see such a hateful thing in all my life,” she said, referring to the stove. “That rhubarb duff won’t be fit for a hog to eat; the undercrust ain’t baked the least bit yet, and I have had it in there since fifteen minutes after ‘leven.”
Bill said generously, “Oh, well, never mind, Serry; we’ll worry it down some way.”
All through July and August Mrs. Jim Harkey seemed to renew her endeavors to keep the sisters apart; she still carried spiteful tales to and fro, amplifying them with an irresistible histronic tendency. It had become a matter of self-exoneration with her then. She could not stop now without seeming to admit she had been mischief-making in the past. If the sisters should come together, her lies would instantly appear.
Emma grew morose, irritable, and melancholy; she was suffering for her sister’s wholesome presence, and yet, being under the dominion of the mischief-maker, dared not send word or even mention the name of her sister in the presence of the Harkeys.
Mrs. Jim came up to the house to stay as Emma got too ill to work, and took charge of the house. The children hated her fiercely, and there were noisy battles in the kitchen constantly wearing upon the nerves of the sick woman who lay in the restricted gloom of the sitting room bed-chamber, within hearing of every squall.
There were moments of peace only when Ike was in the house. Smooth as he was, Jim’s wife was afraid of him. There was something compelling in his low-toned voice; his presence subdued but did not remove strife.
His silencing of the tumult hardly arose out of any consideration for his wife, but rather from his inability to enjoy his paper while the clamor of war was going on about him.
He was not a tender man, and yet he prided himself on being a very calm and even-tempered man. He kept out of Bill’s way, and considered himself entirely justified in his position regarding the cow-bell. It is doubtful if he would have accepted an apology.
Emma suffered acutely from Mrs. Harkey’s visits. Something mean and wearying went out from her presence, and her sharp, bold face was a constant irritation. Sometimes when she thought herself alone, Emma crawled to the window which looked up the Coolly, toward Sarah’s home, and sat there silently longing to send out a cry for help. But at the sound of Jane Harkey’s step she fled back into bed like a frightened child.
She became more and more childish and more flighty in her thoughts as her time of trial drew near, and she became more subject to her jailer. She grew morbidly silent, and her large eyes were restless and full of pleading.
One day she heard Mrs. Smith talking out in the kitchen.
“How is Emmy to-day, Mrs. Jim?”
“Well, not extry. She ain’t likely to come out as well as usual this time, I don’t think,” was the brutally incautious reply; “she’s pretty well run down, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she had some trouble.”
“I suppose Sarah will be down to help you,” said Mrs. Smith.
“Well, I guess not–not after what she’s told.”
“What has she told?” asked Mrs. Smith, in her sweet and friendly voice.
“Why, she said she wouldn’t set foot in this house if we all died.”
“I never heard her say that, and I don’t believe she ever did say it,” said Mrs. Smith, firmly.
Emma’s heart glowed with a swift rush of affection toward her sister and Mrs. Smith; she wanted to cry out her faith in Sarah, but she dared not.
Mrs. Harkey slammed the oven door viciously. “Well, you can believe it or not, just as you like; I heard her say it.”
“Well, I didn’t, so I can’t believe it.”
When Mrs. Smith came in, Emma was ready to weep, so sweet and cheery was her visitor’s face.
She found no chance to talk with her, however, for Mrs. Harkey kept near them during her visit. Once, while Mrs. Jim ran out to look at the pies, Mrs. Smith whispered: “Don’t you believe what they say about Sarah. She’s just as kind as can be–I know she is. She’s looking down this way every day, and I know she’d come down instanter if you’d send for her. I’m going up that way, and–“
She found no further chance to say anything, but from that moment Emma began to think of letting Sarah know how much she needed her. She planned to hang out the cloth as she used to. She exaggerated its importance in the way of an invalid, until it attained the significance of an act of treason. She felt like a criminal even in thinking about it.
Several times in the night she dreamed she had put the cloth out and that Jim and his wife had seen it and torn it down. She awoke two or three times to find herself sitting up in bed staring out of the window, through which the moon shone and the multitudinous sounds of the mid-summer insects came sonorously.
Once her husband said, “What’s the matter? It seems to me you’d rest better if you’d lay down and keep quiet.” His voice was low enough, but it had a peculiar inflection, which made her sink back into bed by his side, shivering with fear and weeping silently.
The next day Jim and her husband both went off to town, and Jim’s wife, after about ten o’clock, said:–
“Now, Emmy, I’m going down to Smith’s to get a dress pattern, and I want you to keep quiet right here in bed. I’ll be right back; I’ll set some water here, and I guess you won’t want anything else until I get back. I’ll run right down and right back.”
After hearing the door close, Emma lay for a few minutes listening, waiting until she felt sure Mrs. Harkey was well out of the yard, then she crept out of bed and crawled to the window. Mrs. Jim was far down the road; she could see her blue dress and her pink sunbonnet.
The sick woman seized the sheet and pulled it from the bed; the clothes came with it, but she did not mind that. She pulled herself painfully up the stairway and across the rough floor of the chamber to the window which looked toward her sister’s house, and with a wild exultation flung the sheet far out and dropped on her knees beside the open window.
She moaned and cried wildly as she waved the sheet. The note of a scared child was in her voice.
“Oh, Serry, come quick! Oh, I need you, Serry! I didn’t mean to be mean; I want to see you so! Oh, dear, oh, dear! Oh, Serry, come quick!”
Then space and the world slipped away, and she knew nothing of time again until she heard the anxious voice of Sarah below.
“Emmy, where are you, Emmy?”
“Here I be, Serry.”
With swift, heavy tread Sarah hurried up the stairs, and the dear old face shone upon her again; those kind gray eyes full of anxiety and of love.
Emma looked up like a child entreating to be lifted. Her look so pitifully eager went to the younger sister’s maternal heart.
“You poor, dear soul! Why didn’t you send for me before?”
“Oh, Serry, don’t leave me again, will you?”
When Mrs. Harkey returned she found Sarah sitting by Emma’s side in the bed-chamber. Sarah looked at her with all the grimness her jolly fat face could express.
“You ain’t needed here,” she said coldly. “If you want to do anything, find a man and send him for the Doctor–quick. If she dies you’ll be her murderer.”
Mrs. Harkey was subdued by the bitterness of accusation in Sarah’s face as well as by Emma’s condition. She hurried down the Coolly and sent a boy wildly galloping toward the town. Then she went home and sat down by her own hearthstone feeling deeply injured.
When the Doctor came he found a poor little boy baby crying in Sarah’s arms. It was Emma’s seventh child, but the ever sufficing mother-love looked from her eyes undimmed, limitless as the air.
“Will it live, Doctor? It’s so little,” she said, with a sigh.
“Oh, yes, I suppose so!” said the Doctor, as if its living were not entirely a blessing to itself or others. “Yes, I’ve seen lots of lusty children begin life like that. But,” he said to Sarah at the door, “she needs better care than the babe!”
“She’ll git it,” said Sarah, with deep solemnity, “if I have to move over here–and live.”