The Neutral Fuse

NELLIE L. McCLUNG December 1 1924

The Neutral Fuse

NELLIE L. McCLUNG December 1 1924

The Neutral Fuse

BUSINESS & INVESTMENTS

NELLIE L.McCLUNG

IN THE East Golding neighborhood where she lived she was called the "Bride" until her first baby came and then it hardly seemed a fitting title, but she was so dainty and be-friled and sweet, with her London clothes and her foolish little hats that were never made for the windy prairie, that the neighbors felt the need of some word that would be adequate.

She won her way into the hearts of the people because there was nothing that she could not do. What she could not do when she came she immediately set about to learn. Alter taking one lesson from Mrs. Hiram Smith in making bread, she astonished the neighborhood by taking the prize at the fair, even though her teacher was among the competi tom. No one was more delighted than Mrs. Smith. To have any one else win from her would have been a downfall, but to have her own pupil-that was distinction.

The young women of the neighborhood were just a little inclined to resent her at first. No English bride had any right to be as gqod looking as she was. A slight figure, a head of syrupy yellow hair that just "wentright" all the time, and always looked as if it had just been done, blue eyes with black lashes, and dimples, and a voice that was so

sweet and soft that no one minded the accent, and the tiniest feet. No ng1ish girl had any right to feet like hers. But in spite of these handicaps she won her way.

SHE got the children on her side first, for of course they did not understand that she was a stranger and from another country and therefore to be held in suspicion until she proved herself worthy of a place in the East Golding society. They only knew that she showed them the most wonderful games and puzzles; she knew songs and tricks

ai~ie~ dULL pUddttd, with handkerchiefs and had come to the school on a dull, cloudy afternoon soon after she had arrived in the neighborhood, because she said she was lonely, and wanted to play with the children "if the teacher did not mind." After that she came every Friday afternoon and soon there was a general attendance of the older people who just happened to drop in. Having been a school mistress in England (though she hardly looked old enough to be out of school herself)she gave the children physical culture exercises which were of the contagious

t.ure e~er~~es wuien were oi i~ne cwii.~tgiuu~ kind and soon the whole neighborhood were touching their toes and swaying from side to side as they counted, -"one-two-three-four." All but Mrs. Ewing! Mrs. Ewing was not going to ouch her toes and act silly even if every one else was doing it. What would she touch her toes for any way? It was seme time since Mrs. Ewing had even seen her toes and that may have had something to do with her reluc tance, but Mrs. Ewing did not admit that. She took the ground strongly that good, decent toes did not need to be tenehed, also she darkly muttered that a new broom sweeps dean and that there was such a thing as being too sweet to be wholesome and too good to be true. Mrs. Ewing had come from London herself many,years ago and confided out of her deep knowledge of that great city to her friend Mrs. Winters that there were plenty of these dashing kind of play-actin' girls over there just waiting a chance to marry a decent man and get to Can adar! and though they could fool the Canadians that had~ never seen their like, they were very far from foolin' Marthar Ewing! Mrs. Winters, her friend, gave to this statement hearty and immediate assent, and added that she would like to see the person who could fool Marthar Ewing, for f there was such a person on land or sea one thing was certain sure that such person had never been seen or as much as heard of by Sarah Winters! Then the two ladies had a cup of tea and just a little mite of fruit cake to go with it-"the white kind that never lays heavy on your stomach"-and spent a very happy and neigh borly time. All unconscious that she had been weighed by Mrs. Ewing, her countrywoman, and found wanting, the Bride went joyously on her way. She liked every one and

expected that they would like her. There was no one so popular at the parties, but she made a different use of her popularity from anyone else. When Ted Smith, who considered himself quite the best dancer in East Golding. came to claim a dance with her she reminded him that he had not yet danced with his hostess or her guest, and the

gay Mr. Smith thereby received a lesson in good breeding which he sorely needed. Many a girl who got only dances with brothers-in-law, uncles, and other girls, waspleas antly surprised to find her card full, not knowing that the Bride gave her dances conditionally. People who had stayed away from the dances because they had had such dull times at them before her coming now began to attend and it was on these that the Bride bestowed her attention. S HE had an intuitive knowledge of loneliness or embar rassment or awkwardness, and a magical way of dis pelling it. Even good oki John Baker, who had the firemark on his face so badly disfiguring it that he shrank from meeting anyone, was beguiled by her to come to a party that she had at her own house and had such a good time that he did not miss a dance all that winter and in the spring got up his courage to write a proposal to the elder Miss Spink. Some said the Bride put him up to it, but that was never known for sure, but the proposal was accepted and two people who had thought they were past hope were made very happy. Not only at the dances did she shine. She played the organ for the church services, and taught a class of admiring girls in Sunday School and her eager face, so full of interest and sympathy, was many a young minister's inspiration and help when he tried to p;each to the East Golding congregation'and found some of them sound asleep and others looking dreamily out of the windows, their thoughts busy with the growing crops or the price of hogs-or anything except the wanderings of the children of Israel. Her attention never appeared to wander and her kindly greeting was

sure. There was also a good dinner for the minister and the use of her tiny little parlor, where a gaily-flowered couch could be made into a bed at a minute's notice. The capitulation of Mrs. Martha Ewing happened thus: It was in threshing time. The mill was coming to Mrs. Ewing's and at the last minute the girl that was going to come from town to help to cook for the men fell sick-"the way they always do," said Mrs. Ewing. Mrs. Ewing was in deep distress. She said she could have done it all herself only her feet got so sore now since she "had fallen into flesh." The party telephone just hummed with Mrs. Ewing's complaints. There was scarlet fever in the neighborhood just then and several were in quarantine. The Bride rose to the diffi culty. In a pink and white house dress with pink stockings and white canvas shoes she arrived two hours before dinner time and gathered the dis ordered household together in her capable little hands, and had the dinner on the table when the avalanche of men swept in from the field. The owner of the outfit was John Baker whose heart was tender to the woman who had shown immediately released his best

him kindness. John immediately released his best English boy to help her in the house, and the three days that the threshing lasted passed very pleasantly. Mrs. Ewing was able to sit at the kitchen table in billowy importance and have all the things brought to her that she needed to bake with, resting her feet on the stool made of tomato cans. So in this way, wa~ her supremacy maintained.

Speaking to her friend Mrs. Winters of the incident. she said, `~ could tell she was a good girl when I saw

her save all the small potatoes and peel them to fry at night for the men-lots of `ussies would have pitched them out, but not she. Oh, I say when you get a good English girl there is nothing like her on earth-that is what poor Ewing so often said to me." For fifteen years she has lived in East Golding. No one calls her the Bride now. The London clothes and the flirty little hats have all disappeared, and their successors too. The last seven years have been lean and hard ones, and hard times have come to the

good people of East Golding, which is in the drought area of Alberta. The women who knew her as the Bride have never called her Mrs. Benton. She is "Sadie" to them, and it is to her that they are always able to tell all their troubles. She never fails to see some way of comforting them. She has always time for other people's troubles, for she does not seem to have any of her own. "I sure wish I had your nerve, Sadie," the Regent of the Daughters of the Empire said to her one day; "the way you can stay alone with just the children and work all the time without getting cranky beats me-and you not brought up to it the way we were. How do you do it? I guess you have better stuff in you than the rest of us." "Oh! I do get cranky, too," she said, "but I try not to show it. It would break Joe's heart if I were cross with him and it would be a shame to do that, for he is the best fellow in the world-and I am sure I never could be cranky with my good neighbors, and it would be a crime to work it off on the two boys. So there you are-what can a poor woman do?" That night, after the work was done she sat at the west window looking at the flaming sky, wondering about life with all its cares, and disappointments. It was the time of day that she allowed herself the luxury of thinking her own thoughts. In the little red book which she kept in the drawer of her sewing machine she wrote-

"Why am I chained to pots and pans, Dishes to wash and meals to get? Heavy white dishes and drab farm hands Reeking of stables and heavy with sweat; Dust in clouds that go past my door

1~II1AYBE I'm not so blase as an editor is supposed to iVi be, but this story of Mrs. McClung's made a lump come in my throat, even as I read it a second time. I think it is at least equal in poignant appeal to "Men and Money," which up to the present has been con sidered Mrs. McClung's finest short story.-J. V. M.

And winds that fret and fret and fret! Winds that scream past the house at night Whispering things that it has no right Even to think of much less say.

I hate the wind with its evil spite And it hates me with a hate as deep And hisses and jeers when I try to sleep.”

“There now,” she said, “I feel better—it is a good way to work off a fit of the blues and it does not hurt any one!”

After a fiercely windy night, she added the following lines—

When the wind seizes the window frames Raving and cursing and calling them names Cruel as only the wind can be—

It isn’t the windows it’s shaking—

It’s me!

“I don’tthink I would mind it so much,” she wrote, “if we had lost our crop by a prairie fire or a spark from an engine or any way that was caused by the carelessness of human beings; but when God sends destruction it is terrifying. I thought we were good friends with God. I thought He liked to see us working and getting ahead. I wish I could ask some, one about this. I am trying to keep on believing, for it is a wicked thing to sow the seeds of unbelief, and I will not say a word to any one.”

The hail had done its work so completely that there was no feed for the cattle that year, and as they had quite a large herd of pure-bred

The last seven years have left their mark on her and not much of her girlish beauty remains, except her wonderful blue eyes. The golden hair is broken now and dulled with grey, and the joints of her little hands are coarsened with hard work, and the backs of them have many brown spots. Outside work has darkened her face but the fair, white skin appears again in her two fine boys, now aged fourteen and twelve.

IN SPITE of all their hard times and disappointments, she has never admitted defeat. “No one is beaten until they acknowledge it,” she often tells her husband, “and we are a long way from admitting it yet.”

Often she repeats the words of her creed: “I believe that the bad years are behind us. I believe the rain will come, and prosperity as much of it as we need will come to us. If we had never had a set-back we might have grown purse proud and haughty. Let us be thankful we are well and strong.”

The biggest disappointment was missing the trip to England which they had planned. They were going to go to England for a year, put the boys in school and motor through Kent, where she was born, but the year set for the trip was the first of the dry years, and as each year was worse than the last, the trip faded farther and farther away!

There was one year of the seven when the prospects were of the best until the middle of July, and then in twenty minutes all the year’s work and hopes lay in ruins, for hailstones, jagged and cruel, and big as hen’s eggs, had battered every growing thing into the ground and even broke down the young trees which they had planted.

The Bentons were the hardest hit in the whole neighborhood, for all their crop was gone, their farm lying straight in the path of the storm.

But it was Sadie Benton who thought of a use for the hailstones and with the help of the two boys picked up a pail full of them and used them for freezing a can of ice cream and called in the neighbors. And after they had gone away some of them said it was well to see her so cheerful. Wasn’t it well for people who “could take things so light,” but they did not see, of course, what she wrote in her little red book that night after they were all gone.

Holsteins it became necessary to buy from their more fortunate neighbors to provide for these. This expense made a serious drain on their savings and as the next year was one of the driest, the prospects grew darker and darker. However, there was enough short straw to feed the cattle and that was something. Many a night after the children had gone to bed Joe and his wife had done much figuring as they sat at the kitchen table.

“I wish now I had not told the boys so much about the old country,” she said one night, “then it would not have been such a disappointment.”

“Never mind that, Girl,” her husband said soothingly. “We would all have been dead if it had not been for your stories. I hope we will get enough to let you go anyway, for you can bring back the story of what you saw, and the whole neighborhood will have it second hand, and I don’t know but to hear you tell it is just about as good as to go—and far cheaper!”

CHE came over and put her arms around his neck. ^ “Joe, do you think I would go without you? Do you think I could leave you here alone—to cook and everything? Why, Joe, your poor, lonely face would haunt me some night when I was dining at the Piccadilly and in the midst of all the festivity I would be found with my eyes set and staring into one of the crystal chandeliers, and all the people would rush to me, crying, ‘Oh! what is it? What is she looking at?’ They could see nothing, of course, but I would be staring at you—gaunt, unshaven, starved, and wild, and then I would go mad and have to be sent home in a straight jacket!”

Joe laughed, and patted her head. “Well, Sade, so long as your imagination holds out, I believe we will pull through, but if you ever get dull and grey like the other women I will just curl up and die. Now remember you have to hold out, no matter what happens, for every one in this neighborhood depends on you.”

“I will try, Joe—I will try, but, oh dear, why doesn’t God send rain? If I had as much rain as God—for He has the oceans, the rivers and the seas and the lakes

and all the machinery to haul it up into the clouds and sprinkle it down on us—I could not keep from sending it even if no one was asking, for I would see the flowers fading and hear the cattle bawling and I would push ali the buttons at once and call off even the recording angel from his books. It would be ‘all hands to the pumps’ if I were God!”

She stopped suddenly and shuddered.

‘‘Maybe I shouldn’t talk like that, Joe—does it sound wicked to you? You know sometimes at night when I lie awake listening to the wind, I get frightened and think the wind has it in for me someway. It—it threatens me, Joe!”

“Now, old dear,” said Joe, “that is all imagination. You are just beginning to get nervous, and you have simply got to get away for a little while to get back your nerve. I get goofy sometimes, too, but I have you to chirp me up and you, poor girl, have no one. I am no more good to cheer you than the man in the moon.”

“Oh, yes, you are,” she said. “I never feel frightened when you are at home; it comes when I am alone in the house and the wind is blowing. I know there is no truth in it, but I do hear things, Joe, that are horrible.” “Poor little Sade!” he answered tenderly, “I wish I could take you away from the wind and the dust, and this land of heart-break.”

At once she became the comforter again.

“It will all come right, Joe. I know it will. Every country has its bad years and ours will pass and all our dreams will come true yet. I believe in God. Remember how Job was tried and he sinned not, and it was all made up to him, so it will be to us and all this long dreary time we have not been utterly cast down. We have each other and our two fine boys and we can go to our resting beds at night, as Robert Louis said, ‘weary and undishonored’—that is something.”

A few days after this conversation, hot and terrible days when the grain seemed to stand motionless and parched, Joe got an offer to go to the town ten miles away to help in a bankrupt sale which was being held. He was glad of a chance to earn a little money which would at least get some groceries. He got a Galician, who had worked for him before, to go on with the summer-fallowing.

“You will be all right, Sade,” he said when he told her he had the offer. “Get the Daughters to come over whenyour flowers are in bloom. I don’t know what you will give them to eat but I never saw you stuck yet, and you can give them such a good time they won’t know whether you have fed them or not.”

She laughed a little wearily. “I will do it, Joe,” she said. “If the wind will just leave my flowers until they bloom. I think maybe the wind will be man enough to see that I have not asked for favors, carrying all the water myself. Don’t you think I deserve to have a few flowers?”

“You deserve the finest and loveliest flowers in the world, Sade, and I believe the wind is ready to admit it.”

Joe left on Monday morning, not without soffie misgivings, for he could see that she was not feeling just like herself, but she assured him that it would be foolish to lose a chance of earning some money when they were in such need of it.

The day he left there was some promise of rain for thick dark clouds came up in the West, darkening the afternoon sun and giving some comfort in the grateful shade which fell on the burning country.

Sheltered from the west wind, at the front of the house, were the flowers, on which she had bestowed the care usually attributed to an efficient guardian angel, and they had answered to her affection, for they were now

glossy and healthy, and their buds were beginning to show the color. Dark red climbing nasturtiums were next the wall, with everything in readiness for their upward journey. In front of them were the dwarf nasturtiums in mixed colors, bordered with mignonette and sweet alyssum, whose dainty, white flowerets would set off the brilliant coloring of their bolder brothers.

She had imagined the effect, and thrilled over it, every time she thought of it, and now that the blossoms were actually showing, her pleasure was so poignant it hurt. Her heart beat too quickly and chokingly. There was always the chance of a horrible wind that would swagger into her little garden, tramp over it with hobnailed boots, tear it to pieces, and go thundering on, like Marie Corelli’s motorists who kill children in English villages.

“I’ll enjoy them while I can,” she murmured apprehensively as she brought her potatoes in a pan for peeling, and her little canvas stool. There she sat, and worshipped at her little altar of beauty, praying with frenzied earnestness that the God of the falling sparrow might be their God and hers, and stay the ruthless hand of the wind. Another day would see them out, and then she would call her friends, and have the party, but it seemed to her beauty loving and fearful heart that she must have the flowers first. She was so near them now she could think of nothing else.

All afternoon the world seemed to stand still. The air was heavy and close like the smother of furs in summer. The clouds cavernous and full of navy blue shadows, stood over the baking earth, full of rain, yet withholding it, taunting the parching grain with the nearness of relief, torturing as the trickle of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert.

“Oh God, I do not understand; let not my heart break trying to!” prayed Sadie Benton in an agony as she wandered from window to window.

SHE sat up till midnight watching the sky, which had begun to seethe and roll. Strange patches of light from the departed sun glowed on the mountainous clouds and revealed their strange and restless movements.

Falling asleep as soon as she went to bed, she dreamed of rain—rain that ran down the window panes making a pleasant, throaty gurgle as it ran in foaming streams into the cracks of the dry ground; rain falling on parching fields and lifting up the drooping heads of stunted crops that were ready to die; rain so gentle and tender that the cattle held their faces up to receive its soft caress; rain that washed her precious flowers with fingers gentler even than her own.

Then something harsh and terrible wakened her. It was the wind shaking the windows in its great, knotted, battling fists; the wind fierce, and without mercy! She put her hands over her ears.

In the morning she wrote again in her little book below her last entry:

“I might have known—I might have known That the wind would wait till my flowers had grown ;

Then it came roaring down the trail And beat my flowers with its threshing flail And there they lie—and my heart is stone I know it isn’t the flowers alone That the wind has murdered in roaring glee It isn’t the flowers that are lying dead With blackened body and bleeding head It’s me!”

npHE Daughters of the Empire had a hurried meeting, ^ an emergency had arisen. They must send Sadie Benton to the Convention in the city. The Regent had called them together and reported that when she went over to see Mrs. Benton the morning after the storm, she found her serene and calm, but queer. Mrs. Pollard, not being much of a psychiatrist, could not explain very well but was certain that Mrs. Benton was queer.

“It wa.s the flowers that just finished her off,” said Mrs. Pollard. “The roof blowing off the machine house didn’t seem to bother her—but she had buried the flowers, mind you, not a trace of any of them. She said it seemed to be the decent thing to do and she'was writing when I went in, in her little book. Now we didn’t intend to send a delegate on account of the expense, but we just will. Sade has to go. It will cheer her up and she sure needs it. Mind you, she brought me in for breakfast and was as cheerful as ever to the boys and got them off for school, but she’s queer. She said: ‘I don’t suppose the flowers mind being dead. It’s really rather nice to be dead!’ Now that’s queer talk from Sade ... so we’ve just got to persuade her to go, and we have quite enough money to send her and give her ten dollars to spend.”

The women were agreed, and set off in a body to persuade Sadie to be their delegate. Rules of procedure did not harass the Daughters; they got things done by “unanimous consent.”

Two weeks later the train brought Sadie Benton to the station in the big city eighty miles from East Golding. Some of the old sparkle was in her eyes as she came

through the iron gate, where the blue coated policeman with white helmet directed the traffic which passed between the two banked walls of humanity. All the fatigue of her long day, and of the long years, seemed to have fallen from her and she was only conscious of a great elation.

The four great double doors on each side of the station were opened outward and through them swept the summer breeze refreshingly. Unaccustomed smells were in her nostrils as she sat on one of the cool oak seats to watch the stream of people who passed! Oranges, Cherry-cheer, gum, mingled with stale tobacco-smoke and old bread and mouldy cheese of forgotten lunches. Disinfectants, mothballs and last week’s clothes blended into the heavy perfume of a painted lady’s powder who stood close by furtively watching the door, painfully standing on her spike heels which someway made the swollen ankles look more swollen. Sadie watched her, fascinated by the crimson redness of her lips, vivid as a wound that will not heal, and even then was conscious of the thrill of delight which color always brought to her.

A GROUP of women had come to see a friend goodbye, in colored sport suits, so boldly colored and gay that Sadie wanted to stroke them in gratitude for the gleam they made on the grim gray floor. When a child in a rose romper tried to slide across the tiled floor Sadie’s hands went out to catch him. He seemed like a gorgeous butterfly. Magazines with colored covers hung by their corners around the news booth and bottles of brightly colored drinks in glass cases seemed to beckon to her. Over in a corner, above the open box where a woman with the arms of a purple sweater tied around her neck listened to the wires, there stood a thin, white china glass globe which every few seconds was filled with golden light, which held a moment and then faded. When it gleamed she noticed the word “Telegraph” in bold bla^k letters; she watched the bright light come and go—come and go, bright—then dark, until it seemed that she would have to go and beg them not to put the light out at all.

Suddenly she realized that she had been sitting there a long time, for the lights were burning in the inverted alabaster bowls overhead, and although the room was as bright as ever and the stream of people still surged between the wide doors, she could tell that night had fallen. She wondered vaguely if she had been asleep but she was not alarmed or greatly concerned, for a new and delightful sense of detachment was upon her. It seemed so strange to have nothing to do. The women had told her they wanted her to just loaf for the three days before the convention began and get well rested so she would be able to enjoy every minute of it and bring home a good story of everything that happened. They had said that now that there was so much to discourage them they felt they must get something to cheer them up from the outside, and that is why they were sending her, for she would bring back the best story. They did not once hint that she needed the trip, but Sadie knew what was in their hearts and she loved them for not saying it and determined to do her best for them. She knew they would like to hear what the women were wearing and what she had to eat and just what the other women looked like in addition to the regular work of the convention.

An impulse to go to the lunch counter and get a cup of coffee came to her—but her great weariness inclined her to find a bed, and besides she wanted to get so many things that even the ten cents which the coffee would cost was a consideration. She would be quite all right until morning and then she would get a good breakfast.

She arose with some difficulty, for her limbs were stiff with her unaccustomed inactivity, and made her way to the big doors of the station and there when she looked into the street her heart bounded with joy, for the rain, blessed rain, was falling in tiny parallel lines between her and the street lights, and the pavement was shining-wet. An automobile which rolled away from the station trailed behind it a crimson ribbon until it turned west on Eighth Avenue.

JUST across the street a friendly window, bright with red geraniums and white star of Bethlehem, beckoned her and she felt that here she would find rest and a welcome for the night. It was soon arranged and the obliging clerk carried the straw valise upstairs to a room in the front of the house.

“This is the only room we have,” he said, “and I am afraid you may find it pretty noisy—there are a lot of trains and cars go by in the night.”

“Oh, I will like that,” she said eagerly, “then I will not be able to hear the wind.”

He looked at her closely.

“I guess they won’t bother you,” he said kindly, “you sure do look tired.”

A gleaming brass bed by the open window offered rest for her weariness and without undressing she lay down with a great sigh of relief. She was so tired that it seemed to her that she had spread herself all over the bed.

After hours of deep sleep—or so it seemed—she noticed that the bed did not stand still as a bed should but moved

with the motion of a train, and vibrated with the grinding of wheels on iron rails, but it was quite pleasant and she was not alarmed, for she knew such a big and handsome bed would know its business and know where it should go. City ways were surely wonderful and she was determined to see all she could!

The bed certainly knew where to take her, for it brought her into the most wonderful garden she had seen since she left England and it was a very friendly garden, for the flowers she looked at came right into her hands. Crimson roses were everywhere and they were coaxing her to take them. It did not seem polite to refuse them. And then she noticed the beads hanging on little trees in glittering strings. She remembered that it was beads she wanted for the two little Bates girls whose mother had died. Lily must have a blue string to match her eyes— and she was sure that Nellie would like the red ones. While she was making her selection she noticed that a girl with short, bushy hair was standing beside her and it seemed that she was asking her something but it was hard to understand. It was something about paying and just for a minute it frightened her. Then she remembered that she had plenty of money. A delicious sense of great wealth came to her. It was a new and delightful feeling.

“I have the gold of the sunset—the silver of even—up my sleeve,” she said, and smiled when she noticed the rhyme she had made, and seeing the girl’s look of surprise, patted her hand reassuringly.

Then she noticed for the first time that she had not her valise and for a moment wondered where it was. Then she remembered, but the delightful feeling of abundance shut out every other feeling. She knew she would never lack anything again. Her heart was so full of joy that she could not keep from singing:

“My father is rich in houses and lands—

He holdeth the wealth of the world in his Hands;

Of rubies and diamonds—of silver and gold His coffers are full—He has riches untold.”

Her voice had a mellowness it never had before and rolled away from her in billows of sound, not one voice only but a full choir of heavenly singers. Even after the words were sung she could hear the melody weaving around her, folding her in crimson waves of sweetness. She shut her eyes with the rapture of it. When she opened them she found people staring at her curiously and she tried to smile at them. She had an impulse to sing again and start the wonderful melody, but her lips were cracked and stiff.

Then came a Voice—like the wind which wakened her when she was dreaming of rain—a Voice harsh and terrible like the Wind—-

“Madam, I arrest you! You are shop lifting!”

The words went crashing through her brain, each one exploding like a dum-dum bullet. And yet she saw everything around her with the vividness of a flash of lightning.

On the counter before her there were strings of beads displayed on high holding rods, in great variety of colors. A girl in a brown dress and with bobbed hair stood behind them, her mouth wide open. Three women stood in the aisle clutching each other as if in fear. Beside her stood the young man whose hand was still laid on her arm.

“Where am I?” she asked.

The young man looked at her closely. He knew that question. They all ask it.

“You are in the fifteen-cent store,” he told her, “and you must come with me.”

“Whii have I done?” she asked him.

“Look in your bag,” he said, quietly.

Then she saw that her bag was full of the crimson roses which she had seen, but they were not real roses but only paper ones. In her hands were the two strings of beads.

“You must come with me to the Police Station,” he said.

Again the words crashed through her like a jagged streak of lightning, leaving the very darkness of the pit into which her soul sank without even a cry.

THE next day in the Police Court there were three cases of shop lifting. Hers was heard first.

Not having slept or eaten, her eyes were blood shot and wild, her hat was crooked and her clothes badly wrinkled. “How do you plead?” asked the Judge.

The question had to be explained.

“Guilty,” she faltered.

“Now there are far too many cases of this kind coming before me,” said the Judge, “and I am going to give each of them the limit. We will see if we cannot put a stop to this petty thieving. You admit that you are guilty. Three months. Next case!”

(Now by all rules of short-story writing, this is the place to end the story and this is the logical ending. In many cities this would have been the ending, but it so happened in the city of which I am writing that the ending was on this wise—)

“How do you plead?” asked the Judge.

The question had to be explained.

“Guilty,” she faltered.

The Judge wrinkled her forehead. She was a little woman with a neat little grey silk hat and a rose-colored

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The Neutral Fuse

silk dress. Her eyes had grown a little weary and sad from looking on human misery in the manifold forms in which it came before her but she had never grown accustomed to it, and now her tender heart was stabbed by the hopelessness in Sadie Benton’s face.

“Detective Smithers,” she said, “will you tell me what you know of this case?” Detective Smithers was only too glad to tell.

“I was called on the ’phone,” he said, “to the fifteen-cent store, your honor, yesterday morning. They told me this woman had come in as soon as the store opened and wandered about aimlessly. When she came to the artificial flowers she took some in her hands. One of the girls asked her if she wished to buy and she did not seem to understand. The girl asked her if she had any money and she gave some outlandish answer about gold and silver and houses and lands. Then she began to put them in her bag—not like a thief, your honor, the girls said, but just as if she were picking flowers. Then she took two strings of beads. I was sent for and can say the same, for I watched her. She was like a woman picking flowers in her own garden, leisurely and because she loved them. She’s no common shoplifter, Your Honor—”

“Thank you, Detective Smithers,” said the Judge, “I think you are right.”

“I am going to suspend sentence, Mrs. Benton,” said the Judge kindly, “but I want you to stay three days with a friend of mine, Dr. Crossley.”

“But I only want to die!” said Sadie Benton. “I have been arrested for shop lifting. I can’t go on living.”

“You’ll not feel that way about it when you have had three days with Mrs. Crossley. She is a doctor who understands mental processes. She’ll show you what happened.”

Sadie sat huddled in her chair. The Crown Prosecutor touched her shoulder.

“Don’t feel too badly over this, ma’am,” he said. “You mustn’t take it too deep. We all feel sure you are honest. Just something slipped in your brain. Brains are queer things—they can go out of order just like stomachs, or livers, or gasoline engines.”

Sadie’s eyes grew wider with astonishment. “I never knew people in police courts were kind like this—kind, to—” She could not frame the word.

Mrs. Crossley came in then, a big woman with a deep voice.

“Where’s my patient?” she asked.

She and the Judge had a hurried consultation in the next room, then she led Sadie to her car and drove to her home in the suburbs oí the city.

SOME way it was easy to talk to Mrs.

Crossley, and in her big, white bed, so downy and soft with a stone crock full of lilacs on the floor beside it, it was easy to sleep.

While Sadie slept Mrs. Crossley studied her case. The straw valise revealed many secrets. There were the lists from different neighbors, samples to match and things to buy, and then her little red book with its entries.

When Sadie awoke after ten hours’ sleep Mrs. Crossley had considerable knowledge of her case. Indeed she knew more of Sadie Benton than any of the East Golding people, with whom she had lived for fifteen years.

When she awakened a maid came in and dressed her hair, and put a blue silk gown on her with brightly colored birds embroidered on it, and brought her a dainty breakfast on a tray. Sadie had not tasted food for forty-eight hours and in spite of her .troubles she ate it all. Then her hostess came in to talk to her.

“When does your husband expect you home,” she asked.

“On Saturday,” Sadie replied. “He will come to meet me, but how can I go home? Everyone will know.”

“No one knows, dear,” said her hostess. “The Judge gives out no information from her court. Her court is a sort of mental hospital, not a place of punishment. We try to find out what is wrong with our people and how it happened—and how to prevent it happening again. Now I want you to tell me all about yourself, you know, those albums which ask the guests to write in their favorite flower, quotation, and how they take their coffee. Just talk about yourself.”

“There’s nothing to tell,” said Sadie. “I have a good man and two fine boys, and a lot of nice neighbors. I have brought disgrace on them. Who will believe me when I say I have no memory of being in that store?”

“I will,” said Mrs. Crossley. “I know it is true.”

“Did anyone else ever do it?” Sadie asked eagerly.

“Yes, and people have done other things that were much worse. You haven’t hurt anyone, no one has lost even five cents.” “But to be arrested!” said Sadie in horror.

“Now listen,” said Mrs. Crossley. “It was a good thing you were arrested. It gives us a chance to tell you what is wrong. You came into the city for a week. You did a week’s work the day before you left, didn’t you? Tel! me al! you did.”

“I made a shirt for Frank, baked bread, boiled a ham, made pies, and churned. I had to leave things for the men, you know!”

“Yes. What time were you up the morning you left?”

“Well, I couldn’t sleep, anyway. I was excited about coming and so I got up at four and scrubbed the floor and washed a few tea towels and things.”

“Yes—then you drove ten miles and rode eighty on the train. Did you eat anything on the train?”

“I wasn’t hungry,” said Sadie, “and besides I needed the money I had for other things.”

“You haven’t eaten anything then since you left home until just now?”

“No, but—”

“Yes, I see. Now tell me, how do you put in your time when you are at home? When do you get up in the morning?”

“At five in the summer. You see, there’s the cows—but I like it. It’s lovely in the morning. Sometimes the dawn is all rose, and amber, and the dew on the grass sparkles like diamonds . . . Work is beautiful”—she finished lamely.

“Up late too, sometimes!”

“Oh, yes, when someone comes in—we like to see our neighbors.”

“You board the teacher, do you?” “Sometimes.”

“And you have men working for you in harvest and seeding. Then you do some things for the neighbors. When that woman was sick—I forget her name—”

“Do you mean Mrs. Porter? or Mrs. Snider ; ' j “Yes,” said Mrs. Crossley, “both. Just what did you do for them?” “Only what any neighbor would!” “But for how long?” “Mrs. Porter was in bed a month and Mrs. Snider is sick yet. I sent her some things the day I left—” “¿And you had a good bit of trouble about a girl once?” Sadie’s face was full of fear. “I cannot talk about that,” she said, “it’s a secret.” “It troubled you quite a bit,” said Mrs. Crossley kindly, “and you worried over it. Was it you who had to tell her mother at last?” “No one else would, and I knew how I would feel, but—” “It was hard on you!” said Mrs. Crossley. “Oh, but think of the poor mother!” said Sadie. “Then that couple who couldn’t agree —you were in that, too. You tried to get them to make up!” “They did make it up,” said Sadie proudly. “They only needed someone to talk to them. But how did you know? I never told anyone—”

“I didn’t know,” said Mrs. Crossley, “but I read faces, and I have lived in country neighborhoods. You are worn out bearing other people’s burdens, setting aside your own comfort, stifling your own desires, belittling your own disappointments, you seem to have borne every kind. If your man drank you would have borne that too—I knew you were a burden bearer when I saw in your bag all the commissions you had taken for other people.

“You have been giving out all your life, laying up treasures in Heaven sure enough, but running close to mental bankruptcy here. You have issued big cheques on your mental bank when you had a very small reserve, and had many an overdraft - that was always honored before, and you managed to meet it, some way,_ but this time when you put still heavier burdens on yourself, just for a few minutes the bank stopped payment and left you in the lurch. It had to come—it was bound to come!”

“Now, I’ll illustrate it another way,” continued Mrs. Crossley. She went to the switch and turned on the three lights in the room.

“You see,” said she, “they are all burning evenly. One light is as strong as another—but watch. Just outside in the hall is the switchboard. I am going to do something there. The lights will not go out, but they will be changed ”

SHE went into the hall for a second.

Then one light grew very bright—the other two quite dim.

“What did you do?” Sadie asked interested.

“I took off a little thing called the neutral fuse. Now one is very bright and two are dull.”

“Can you bring them right?” asked Sadie.

“Just as easily—by putting back the equalizer.

“Just for a little while the equalizer in your brain went off. Imagination, love of pretty things, your desire to give pleasure, all of which are strong in you at any time, burned very bright—like this light; caution and discretion, and the desire to pay your way, burned dim. During that time you saw lovely colors in flowers and beads, you wanted them to make people happy with, you forgot that you must pay for them; that faculty was burning dimly. The bright light had its way with you. If the dim light made any protest you didn’t hear it. This little lapse is a danger signal. It will not come back again, unless you let yourself get as tired and exhausted as you were. It’s no disgrace to have a brain go out of order; you would not feel disgraced if your liver went on strike—or your stomach refused to function. It is quite aristocratic to have a heart that misses a beat, so why should anyone feel so disgraced to have a brain that falters in its work? Indeed it is a wonder than women on the farm do not all develop mental trouble, they work so hard, and have had, in the last few years, particularly, so many disappointments.” “Then I am not a thief?” cried Sadie Benton, sitting very straight in her chair.

“No, you are not. You worked at such high tensions, bearing everyone’s troubles, trying to do the work of two or three people, you blew out your neutral fuse and had to be run into the Service Station to get fixed up.

“Now you know the danger and you will be more careful. You are not going to the Convention, you are going to stay here with me until the end of the week and then you will go home feeling better. I will give you a certificate to show that you were not able to attend the Convention.”

The two women’s eyes met in a long understanding gaze. From Sadie Benton’s face the clouds of trouble rolled back and were gone. “You are something like God,” she said softly, “in the way you understand.”

And so it happened that Sadie Benton, who had helped many in their day of trouble, was not left desolate when her own black hour came upon her.