Chapter XII. A "'Fabulation"
 

It had been Mara's belief, indeed almost her hope, that if truth compelled Clancy to admit that he had spoken the obnoxious words he would become to her as a "heathen man and a publican." No matter how much she might suffer, she had felt that such proof of utter lack of sympathy with her and all the motives which should control him, would simplify her course and render it much easier, for she had thought that her whole nature would rise in arms against him. It would end all compunction, quench hope and even deal a fatal blow to love itself. She would not only see it her duty to banish him from her thoughts, but had scarcely thought it possible that he could continue to dwell in them.

The result had not justified her expectations, and she was baffled, exasperated and torn by conflicting feelings. Although he had admitted the words and confirmed them to her very face, he had not allowed himself to be put in a position which enabled her to turn coldly and contemptuously away. Brief as had been the interview, he had made it impossible for her to doubt two things; first, that the Northern girl was nothing to him and that he had not spoken the words to win her favor, for he had come back to herself with the same love in his eyes and the same readiness to give it expression despite her coldness and even harshness. No matter how bitterly she condemned herself, this truth thrilled and warmed her very soul. In the second place, however mistaken he might be, he had compelled her to believe him to be sincere, so loyal, indeed, to his own sense of right that not even for her sake would he yield. She could not doubt this as the eagerness of the lover passed into the grave dignity and firmness of a self-respecting man. Moreover, another truth had been thrust upon her consciousness--that she was more woman than partisan. As he had stood before her, revealing his love and constancy and at the same time asserting his right to think and act in accordance with his own convictions, he had appeared noble, handsome, manly; her heart acknowledged him master, and however vigilantly she might conceal the fact, she could not deny it to herself.

Nevertheless, his course had simplified her action; it had decided her that all was over between them. The case was hopeless now; for neither could yield without becoming untrue to themselves, and there could be no happy union in such radical diversity. The less often they met the better, as he only made her course the harder to maintain and the separation more painful than it had been before.

She might hide her unhappiness, but she could not banish the resulting despondency and flagging strength. Her aunt had half forced an explanation of the reason why she was alone with Clancy, and, in hasty self-defence, she admitted a resolve to know with certainty whether he had spoken the words charged against him. When Mrs. Hunter learned that he had acknowledged the truth of the story, she spoke of him with redoubled bitterness, making it hard indeed for Mara to listen, for her heart took his side almost passionately. Unintentionally Mrs. Hunter proved herself the young man's best ally, yet Mara outwardly was compelled to acquiesce, for she herself had proved the enormity which was to end everything. Consistency, however, was torn to tatters one day, and she said in sudden passion, "Aunty, never mention Mr. Clancy's name again. I demand this as my right."

When Mara spoke in this manner Mrs. Hunter yielded. Indeed she was not a little perplexed over the girl who had been so passive and subservient. She was not a profound reasoner upon any subject, nor could she understand how one step, even though Mara had been driven to it by hard necessity, led to many others. The girl had begun to assert her individual life, and her nature, once awakened, was proving a strong one. Deepening and widening experience perplexed and troubled her unguided mind, and prepared the way for doubtful experiments.

As before, Aun' Sheba was quick to discover that all was not well with Mara, but believed that she, like herself, was working beyond her strength. The old woman had a bad cold and was feeling "rudder po'ly" one evening when her minister came to pay a pastoral visit.

On so momentous an occasion as this, her son-in-law Kern Watson and his wife and children were summoned; a few neighbors also dropped in as they often did, for Aun' Sheba was better in their estimation than any newspaper in town. Since the necessity for much baking had been removed, she had hired out her stove in order to make more room and to enjoy the genial fire of the hearth. So far from being embarrassed because her head was tied up in red flannel, she had the complacent consciousness that she was the social centre of the group, an object of sympathy and the respected patron of all present.

The Reverend Mr. Birdsall, the minister, treated Aun' Sheba with much consideration; he justly regarded her as one of the "pillars of the church," knowing well from long experience that she abounded in liberality if not in long prayers and contentions. He was a plain, sincere, positive man who preached what he believed to be the truth. If he was sometimes beyond it, beneath it or away from it altogether, he was as serenely unconscious of the fact as were his hearers. There was no agnosticism in his congregation, for he laid down the law and the gospel in a way that discouraged theological speculation. Nevertheless, among his followers there were controversial spirits who never doubted that they were right, however much they might question his ecclesiastical methods and views. To many, freedom meant the right to have their say, and, as is often true, those having the least weighty matter on their minds were the most ready to volunteer opinions and advice. Aun' Sheba was a doer, not a talker, in her church relations. If she occasionally dozed a little in her pew during the sermon, she was always wide awake when the plate was passed around; and if a "brother" or a "sister" were sick she found time for a visit, nor did she go empty-handed. If it were a case of back-sliding she had a homely way of talking sense to the delinquent that savored a little of worldly wisdom. There were not a few who shared in her doubt whether she was "'ligious" or not, but the Reverend Mr. Birdsall was not of these. He would only have been too glad to have discovered more religion like hers.

"Mis' Buggone," he said, sympathetically, after Aun' Sheba had given her symptoms with much detail, "in you is a case whar de spirit is willin' but de flesh is weak. You'se been a-goin' beyon' you strengt."

"Yes, Elder, dat is de gist ob de whole business," affirmed Kern Watson. "Moder's tromped de streets wid her big basket till she is dun beat out. She's undertook mo'n her share an' is s'portin' too many people."

"Kern, you means well," said Aun' Sheba with dignity, "but you mus' not 'fleet on young Missy. She am de las' one in de worl' to let a body s'port her while she fol' her han's. She's po'ly too, jes' kase she's a workin' harde'n me."

Uncle Sheba hitched uneasily in his chair, feeling that the conversation rather reflected on him, and he was conscious that old Tobe, keeper of the "rasteran," was glaring at him. "I reckin," he said, "dat de min'ster might offer a word ob prar an' comfort fore he go."

"What pressin' business," asked his wife, severely, "hab you got, Unc., dat you in sech a hurry fer de min'ster ter go? We ain't into de shank ob de ebenin' yet, an' dar's no 'casion to talk 'bout folks goin'."

"I dun said nothin' 'bout folks goin'," complained Uncle Sheba in an aggrieved tone, "I was ony a suggestin' wot 'ud be 'propriate ter de 'casion fore dey go."

"Mr. Buggone is right, and prar is always 'propriate," said Mr. Birdsall in order to preserve the serenity of the occasion. "Before this little company breaks up we will sing a hymn and hab a word ob prar. But we mus' use de right means in dis worl' an' conform ter de inexorable law ob de universe. Here's de law and dar's de gospel, and dey both have dar place. If a brick blow off a chimley it alus falls ter de groun'. Dat's one kin' ob law. Water runs down hill, dat's much de same kin' ob law. If a man hangs roun' a saloon an' wastes his time an' money, he's boun' to git seedy an' ragged an' a bad name, an' his fam'ly gets po' an' mis'ble; dat's another kin' ob law--no 'scapin' it. He's jest as sure ter run down hill as de water. Den if we git a cut or a burn or a bruise we hab pain; dat's anuder kin' ob law, an' we all know it's true. But dar's a heap ob good people, Mis' Buggone, who think dey can run dis po' machine ob a body in a way dat would wear out wrought-iron, and den pray de good Lawd ter keep it strong and iled and right up to the top-notch ob po'r. Now dat's against both law and gospel, for eben He who took de big contrac' ter save the worl' said ter his disciples, 'come ye yourselves apart and rest a while.' I reckon dat's de law and de gospel for you, Mis' Buggone, about dis time." Nods of approval were general, and Kern Watson gave the sense of the meeting in his hearty way.

"'Deed it am, Elder," he said. 'You'se hit de nail squar on de head. Own up, now, moder, dat you'se neber been preached at mo' convincin'. Hi! wot a book dat Bible am! It's got a word in season fer ebry 'casion."

"Well," said Aun' Sheba, meditatively, "I wants ter be open ter de truf, an' I does own up, Kern, dat de Elder puts it monstis peart an' bery conwincin'. But," she continued argumentatively, laying the forefinger of her left hand on the broad palm of her right, "dars gen'ly two sides to a question. Dat's whar folks git trip up so of'n--dey sees ony one side. I've 'served dat it's po'ful easy fer folks ter tell oder folks wat ter do and wat not ter do. No 'fence, Elder. You been doin' you duty, but you'se been layin' down rudder 'stended princ'ples. I know you'se got ter preach broad an' ter lay down de truf fer de hull winyard, but I wants ter know wat ter do wid my own little patch ob ground. Now here's me and dar's my young Missy 'pendin' on me."

"Dat's whar I jes' doesn't 'gree wid Aun' Sheba," put in her husband as she paused a moment for breath. He felt that public opinion was veering over to his side and might be employed to enforce his views. "It is all bery well fer one ter do all dey can 'sistently fer oders, but--"

"Mr. Buggone," remarked Aun' Sheba sternly.

Uncle Sheba subsided, and she went on, "Dere's my young Missy dat's pendin' on me, but she ain't pendin' in de sense ob hangin' on me," and she paused and looked impressively at Unc. "She's usin' her two little han's jest as hard as she know how, an' a heap too hard. Wat's mo' she's usin' dem to good puppus. I jes' declar' to you, Elder an' frens, dat since she took hole, de business am rollm' up an' it gettin' too big fer both ob us. Dat's whar de shoe pinches. I ain't loss notin'. I'se made a heap mo' by doin' fer young Missy. In dis 'fabulation, I doesn't want no 'flections on her, kase dey wouldn't be fair. Now, Kern, you'se right smart. You'se had my 'proval eber sence you took a shine ter Sissy. Ud you belebe it, Elder and frens, dat son-in-law ob mine offered ter s'port me an' me do nuffin but jes' help Sissy and look arter de chil'n. But dat ain't my way. I likes ter put my own money in my own pocket an' I likes ter take it out agin, an' it jes' warm my heart like a hick'y fiah ter help dat honey lam' ob mine dat I nussed. So you see, Elder, dat gen'l preachin' am like meal. Folks has got ter take it an' make out ob it a little hoe-cake fer dere selves. It's de same ole meal, but we's got ter hab it in a shape dat 'plies ter our own inards, sperital and bodily."

Again there were nods of assent and sounds of approval which old Tobe put into words. "Aun' Sheba," he said, "you puts you'se 'pinions monst'us peart, too. I'se an ole man an' has had my shar ob 'sperence, an' I'se alus 'served dat de hitch come in at de 'plyin' part. Dere's a sight ob preachin' dat soun' as true an' straight as dat de sun an' rain make de cotton grow, but when you git down to de berry indewidooel cotton plant dere's ofen de debil to pay in one shape or oder. Dere's a wum at de root or a wum in de leaves, or dey's too much rain or too much sun, or de sile's like a beef bone dat's been biled fer soup mo' dan's reasonable. Now Aun' Sheba's de indewidooel cotton-plant we's a-'siderin', an' I doan see how she's gwine to res' a while any mo'n I kin. Ef I shet up my rasteran de business gwine ter drap off ter some oder rasteran."

"But, bruder Tobe, isn't it better, even as you put it," protested the minister, "dat Mis Buggone's business should drop off an' yours too, dan dat you should drop off youselves? Howsumever, I see de force ob what you both say, and we mus' try ter hit upon a golden mean. I reckon dar's a way by which you can both keep your business and yet keep youselves from goin' beyon' your 'bility. You are both useful citizens and supporters ob de gospel, and I'm concerned fer your welfare, bodily as well as sperital."

"Aun' Sheba," said her daughter, "you'se my moder an' I ought ter be de fust one ter help ease you up. I just dun declar dat you'se got ter take Vilet ter help you up. I kin spar her, an' I will spar her. She's strong an' gwine on twelve, an' de babies is gitten so dat dey ain't aroun' under my feet all de time. Vilet's spry an' kin run here an' dar an' fill de orders. She'd ease you up right smart."

"Now, Sissy," said her husband, who always called her by the old household name, "dat's bery sens'ble and childlike in you to put yousef out fer you'se muder. I'd been tinkin' 'bout Vilet, but I didn't like de suggestin ob her leabin' you to do so much, ob de work. But go ahead, Sissy; go ahead, Vilet, an' you'll fin' me easy goin' at meal times."

"Come here, Vilet," said the minister.

The girl had been sitting on the floor at Aun' Sheba's feet, listening quietly and intelligently to all that had been said. She was tall for her age, and had the quiet steadfastness of gaze that was characteristic of her father. He was exceedingly fond and proud of her, for, with very little schooling, she had learned to read and write. Even as a child she had much of his patience and unselfishness, thus making herself very useful at home. She looked unshrinkingly at the minister, but trembled slightly, for she felt all eyes were upon her.

"Vilet," began Mr. Birdsall, "you are said to be a good chile, an' I like the sens'ble, quiet way in which you stan' up an' look me in de face. I reckon dar ain't much foolishness in you. Your fader and moder hab shown de right spirit, de self-denying spirit dat de Lawd will bless. Can you say the fifth commandment, chile?" Vilet repeated it promptly.

"Dat's right. Now your fader an' moder are honahing dar moder, an' you are goin' to hab a chance ter honah dem an' your granma, too. You will hab temptations in de streets ter be pert an' idle, ter stop an' talk to dis one and ter answer back to dat one in a way you shouldn't. But if you go along quiet an' steady, an' do what you're tole, an' be car'ful 'bout de money an' de messages an' de orders an' so forth, you will reflect honah on us all an' 'specially on all your folks. You understan', Vilet?"

"Yes, sir."

The minister put his hand on her head, and said solemnly, "You have my blessin', Vilet."

She ducked a little courtesy, and again squatted at the feet of Aun' Sheba, who, much affected, was wiping her eyes with her apron, while Sissy's emotion was audible.

"Now, frens," resumed Mr. Birdsall, "this 'mergency of Mis Buggone's health has been met in de right human and Scriptural spirit. Frens and fam'ly hab gathered 'roun' de 'flicted one, an' hab paid dar respect ter her usefulness an' value, an' hab shown her becomin' sympathy. Her own fam'ly, as is also becomin', hab been first ter ease her up accordin', first, to the law of primigeneshureship. I know dat dis is a long word, but long words of'en mean a heap, an' dat's why dey are so long. Dat good little girl, Vilet, is de oldes' granchile, an' she fulfils a great law in helpin' her granma. Den it's accordin' to the gospel, for a loving an' self-denyin' spirit has been shown. Mr. Watson has obeyed de great law of matrimony. He has married into dis fam'ly, an' he pulls with it an' for it instead ob against it as we see too of'en. De Lawd's blessin' will rest on dis fam'ly."

"I feels greatly comforted," said Aun' Sheba. "Dis has been a bressed season an' a out-pourin'. I mos' feels 'ligious dis ebenin'. De chilen an' dis deah chile" (patting Vi'let's head) "warm me up betteh'n flannel an' de fiah. Elder, you'se a good shep'd ob de flock. You'se a lookin' arter body an' soul. You'se got de eddication to talk big words to us, an', now we'se free, we hab a right to big words, no mattah how much dey mean. It's po'ful comfortin' ter know we'se doin' 'cordin' to de law an' de gospel."

"'Pears ter me," said old Tobe, "dat Uncle Sheba might hab a little law an' gospel 'plied ter him. He am one ob de fam'ly. I'se a heap ol'er dan he be, an' I'se up wid de sun an' I ony wish I could set when de sun sets. 'Pears like he orter tote some ob de tings ez well ez his slip ob a grandaughter," and old Tobe's wool seemed fairly to bristle with indignation and antipathy.

"I've no doubt," began Mr. Birdsall, "but Mr. Buggone'll emulate--"

"Elder," interrupted Aunt Sheba, with portentous solemnity, "dere's bobscure 'flictions in dis worl' dat can't be 'splained, an' de 'flictions ofen begin wen we say 'for bettah or wusser.' You'se say youself in de pulpit dat de gret an' bressed sinner, Paul, had a thorn in de flesh an' he couldn't git rid ob it nohow, dat he jes' bar wid it an' go 'bout his business. Ole Tobe am old, but he wasn't bawn tired. Dere's men dat's po'ful weak in de jints ob de body, yit dat doesn't hender dem from gittin' 'round, but wen de weak feelin' gits inter de jints ob de min' den dey's shuah to be kinder limpsy-slimpsy an' dey ain't no help fer it. Ez I sez afore, de 'fliction am bobscure. You see de feet an' you see de han's, an' you tink dat dey kin go an' do like oder han's an' feet, but dey doesn't an' dey can't. Dere ain't no backbone runnin' up troo de min' an' wen dere ain't no backbone in de min' de pusson jest flop down yere an' flop down dar whareber dere's a com'fo'ble place to flop. Dere's 'flictions dat we kin pray agin an' pray out'n ob, an' dere's oders we jes got ter bar, an' we gits so kinder used to'm at las dat we'd be mo' mis'ble ef dey wuz tooken away. We'se got to take de bittah wid de sweet, but, tank de Lawd! de sweet 'domernate in dis yere fam'ly. Now let's hab some praise an' prar. Vilet, honey, sing de hymn you'se moder lern you."

And in a somewhat shrill, yet penetrating, musical voice, the girl sang:

  "I'se a-journeyin', I'se a-journeyin',
     An' de way am bery long;
   De road ain't known, de way ain't shown,
     Yit I journeys wid a song.

CHORUS

  "De journey, de journey, howeber rough de road,
   It's a-leadin', it's a-leadin', to a hebinly abode.

  "I'se a-travelin', I'se a-travelin',
     From de cradle to de grave,
   De road am rough and sho' anuff,
     De heart, hit mus' be brave.

  "I'se a-wondrin', I'se a-wondrin',
     Wen de journey will be true;
   But I goes along wid sigh an' song
     An' a cheery word fer you."

Kern Watson and his wife were gifted with those rich, mellow, African voices made so familiar in plantation songs and hymns. In the case of "Sissy" there was a pathetic, contralto, minor quality in her tones, and the first time young Watson heard her sing a spell was thrown round his fancy which led to all the rest. The same might be said of her, for when her husband, then a stranger, poured forth, in one of their evening meetings, the great rich volume of his voice, she ceased to sing that she might listen with avidity. It was not long after that before Kern mustered courage to ask "Miss Buggone, mout I hab de pleasure ob 'companyin' you home?" Not many months elapsed before he accompanied her home to stay, with Aun' Sheba's full consent.

Other hymns followed in which Uncle Sheba took part with much unction, for he wished to impress all present that in spite of the "bobscure affliction" he "injied 'ligion" as much as any of them. Mr. Birdsall offered a characteristic prayer, and then Aun' Sheba nodded to Sissy, who brought out a large supply of cakes and apples. Some gossip among the women and political discussion among the men occurred while these were being disposed of, and then the little company broke up, leaving Aun' Sheba much improved in health and spirits.