At the Old Rail Fence
ARCHIE P. McKISHNIE
IT was the evening of a late June day. A long splash of gray cloud, hanging near the horizon, was edged with gold and lined with fiery crimson. Bye and bye the cloud opened its meshes so that the tardy glories of sunset dropped through and kissed the wide fields of standing grain like a promise. When the lights sped back and out, the breezes that had bounded all day across the fields settled to silence with a long sigh like a benediction.
Dayman, leaning against the old rail fence, watched it all. To him it was but the end of another day; a little resting time between days that he had grown to look forward to with pleasure. After he had eaten his supper and attended to the chores about the barns, somehow he always found himself here by the old rail fence, leaning against it and in the twilight enjoying the respite that comes to man after labor. If his nature respond-d to the beauty, the poetry, of the scene, he was unconscious of it. Or he may have become inured to it as man will become to things he does not realize the value of till he loses them. But Dayman was of that rugged mould of man who looks upon sentiment as a weakness and stifles its birth in his soul almost before its breath has stirred it. Strong and rugged, with a will that planned and executed in spite .of resisting obstacles, God-fearing and honest, owner of four hundred acres of choice land, deacon in the Methodist Church, county councillor and school trustee, and a widower with a girl child eight years of age—such was Dayman in reality.
“Straight and honest as ever man was, a lover of office, opinionated and narrow, self-willed and conceited, reserved and
cold, a man loved by few and respected by many, four years a widower, with one child, a girl named Moll, eight years old and as wild as a stray kitten, and a housekeeper named Sarah Anderson, a widow also with a daughter.”
This is how his average neighbor would describe the man. Perhaps he might go further and say that it was confidently expected that Dayman and the widder would make a match of it.
Dayman leaned upon the fence and watched the streak of light fade from the skies. His pipe had gone out; his thoughts had gone out, too; out away to when Fannie had been with him and Moll was astride this very fence, between them. Five years ago that was. Unconsciously he told himself much of the world’s beauty had died with Fannie. He would have considered such a thought a weakness had it not been a dream of the aftertime. Even a strong, practical, unsentimental man is not responsible for the dreams his fancy weaves.
When he returned to the house, the oil lamp was burning brightly on the dining table. The weekly paper lay beside it. A tall, dark-featured woman was placing the supper dishes on the cupboard shelves. On a chair near the table sat a stockily-built, furtive-eyed girl about nine years of age. She leafed the picture book on her knees, her eyes on Dayman’s face the while. When he glanced toward her she dropped her eyes to the page again and formed the words there with her lips.
Dayman seated himself, and, picking up the paper, read the council proceedings, the annual school report and the announcement of the annual tea meeting of
the Zion M. E. Church, the proceeds of which were to go toward erecting a Sunday school room. He read the reports with satisfaction. The council proceedings stated what Mr. Dayman had said, the school report what he had advised, the church announcement what he had done. He believed that people respected his opinions. He knew the church appreciated his donation of $100. He felt that he held an enviable position in the community, and with characteristic frankness told himself that it was no more than he deserved.
He laid the paper on the table and took up another.
“Let me get your glasses,” spoke the woman, reaching toward the mantel.
He watched her, speculatively, his habit with people and things, particularly with people. He believed Mrs. Anderson to be a model woman ; accordingly that settled it. She was. It might be said of Dayman also that he believed New York city to De the greatest city In the world, although he had never seen it.
He had been considering asking Mrs. Anderson to marry him. She was thrifty, tidy and a good housekeeper. During the three years she had managed his household affairs, he had learned this. He had been kept too busy with the farm work to make an analysis of the woman even if he had wished it, and he was quite satisfied to let matters rest as they were. She performed her duties creditably. He paid her for doing it. Now that he wanted companionship, he felt he should marry again. Besides, there was Moll, little Moll, who needed a mother’s guidance if ever a child did. Somehow, to think of the child was to think of the mother also. Dayman knew that no woman could ever take his dead wife’s place in his heart, but of course he would not dwHl upon such thoughts. “Love!” he thought. “I do not need love. I need companionship.”
“May and I are going over to Mrs. Wilson’s to spend the evening,” said the woman, as she put Mr. Dayman’s glasses before him.
He looked up, with a smile.
“I will wait up for you,” he said. “I have something to say to you.”
“Then I will not go,” she said eagerly, her black eyes reading his face.
“Yes, go, by all means. I will speak with you when you return.”
He passed into the library when mother and child had gone to their room. The long window was open, and he stepped outside on the verandah. He walked down it, to its farthest end, his slippered feet falling noiselessly. Through the open window of the far bed-room voices came to him, but he paid no attention until he heard his own name mentioned. “Why do you call him Old Dayman?” “You are such an old-fashioned child, May,” came Mrs. Anderson’s voice chidingly. “Of course I’ll marry him.”
Then the voices sank to a murmur. Next came the girl’s voice.
“And you’ll send that Moll away, won’t you, mother. I just hate her, I do.” “She won’t bother you any more after to-night, dear,” the mother reassured her.
“If Old Dayman knew you whipped her and sent her to bed without her supper—”
The man on the verandah clinched his hands and waited for the answer. He heard the woman laugh.
“It isn’t the first time, you dear oldfashioned child, is it? No fear of her telling him. Once when she threatened to do it, I told her that if her father knew how bad she had been, he would leave her and never see her again. That settled her. She begged me not to tell him, but—”
The voice died away.
Dayman sat there until he saw mother and daughter leave the house; then faiteringly he arose and groped his way inside like a drunken man. The moon had come up above the distant wood and its mellow light swept the wide fields that were his. Down at the foot of the garden his gaze wandered, down to where an old rail fence stood silhouetted against the moon’s glory.
He entered the house and groped his way upstairs. It was the first time he had ascended those stairs in weeks. Down the hall he felt his way, until his fingers found the latch on a little door. He opened it softly; and through the dark came to him a long sigh of a restless, weary child.
“God ! God !” he groaned, and stepped back as though struck.
He descended the stairs slowly and took the lamp off the table. Then he went back to that little room.
He set the lamp down upon the bare little table, and stood looking down at the wee face upon the pillow. It was a dirty, tear-stained face, and the fullness of cheek belonging to a child of eight was not there. The long lashes were tangled together, and one grimy little hand was clenched tight against the coverlet. The golden red hair was massed across the forehead. He bent lower. There were burdock burrs in it.
He looked about the room. In places the plaster had fallen away. The walls were mouldy and smelt of damp. The boards of the floor were damp. A pair of old, frayed shoes lay on the floor, their toes touching each other. He picked one up. God! he thought, “How blind I must have been !” He picked up a little, torn stocking, pressing its foot between his hot hands. It was wet and chill. He held it to the light, and, pitiful heaven, there he saw the long stitches baby fingers had made ; red yarn woven in and out among the black, to hold the shabby, clammy thing together. He threw it from him, and leaned against the wall. He brushed his arm across his face; he stooped, and picked the stocking up again, pressing it to his bosom with a dry sob.
“Daddy, oh, daddy!”
He sprang erect at the cry, his throat muscles tense, his face gray with the stress of years of pity, given him in a moment’s time.
“Moll, oh, Moll!” he cried, and gathered the little girl to his breast.
He carried her from the room, down the stairs and outside. Down the long, dewy lawn he carried her, his whiskered face against hers, her fingers stroking his hair.
At the old rail fence he paused, and, wrapping his coat about the girl’s shoulders, he placed her upon the topmost rail.
“Oh, Daddy!” she cried, and looked with her dead mother’s eyes into his,
“Take me here in the evenings always, will you, Daddy?”
“Always, Moll, always,” he answered, chokingly.
And the moonlight, kissing their faces, showed a heart-hunger satisfied.
For more than an hour the man thought and saw; thought of all his blindness had made him miss, saw what his awakening was to give him. When he turned toward the house, Moll slept, cuddling against him, her weak hands still clasped about his neck, as though to hold what she had found. So nature is ever wakeful and watchful of its master, the soul.
He carried her to his own room and placed her in his bed. He had to loosen her clasp with his hands. Oddly, they seemed so strong to hold, his so weak to untwine.
Then he passed out, and into the library. From a pigeon hole in his desk he took a crumpled letter, and, unfolding it, perused it half aloud.
“Dear Brother Ben,—In spite of all you say, I still want to come to you. Oh, believe me brother, I know I would be satisfied to live your life with you. And you want me—you want me more than you know. I am growing older every day, Ben; imagine me, a gray-haired old spinster if you will, and I am that, I know. But, brother, I have a heart full of love for the lad who used to romp with me in the old, dead days. You are all I have in the world now, you and baby Moll, whom I have never seen, but love just the same. Let me come to you both, Ben; something tells me that you need me, something tells me little Moll needs me. We could all be so happy together.
He laid the letter aside, his face working. Then he picked up the one he had laboriously penned in reply, and tore open the envelope.
As he read it, his cheek reddened at its heartlessness.
“Dear Sister,—Your letter to hand. I thank you for its kindly sentiment; it is
like you to want to do something gener-
ous. But as I have told you, I do not think you could be satisfied among us rough farming people ; you, a wealthy, educated woman, accustomed to the ease of city life. No, I cannot consent to it. It is best to let matters rest as they are. I have an excellent housekeeper, who also looks after my child as though she were her own—”
Dayman broke off ; gripping the letter in his strong fingers, he tore it into a thousand pieces, and threw them from him. Then he picked up his pen and wrote :
Dear Ann,—Come as soon as you can. I have needed you—yes, more than I knew. Little Moll needs you, you cannot guess how much until you come. We will have—”
He straightened up, his face crimson. He felt ashamed to express his feelings. With a smile he finished the sentence:
—“One another. Come to our home and our hearts, sister.
As he sealed the letter and put a stamp upon it, he heard Mrs. Anderson’s voice in the hall.
“Why, the dining-room is in darkness!” she was saying.
Dayman took the lamp from his desk, carried it out to the other room. Then he leaned against the table, waiting.
“I came back as soon as possible,” said the woman, as she entered. “You said there was something—”
“I wished to say to you. Yes. Please sit down.”
Dayman’s voice was even. There was nothing about the man to betray his feelings. In some respects he was strong— very strong.
He observed, without seeming to, the look of understanding that passed between the black-eyed woman and the old, Jap-eyed child.
“I wish you to remain, May,” he said, as, at a nod from her mother, the girl turned to leave the room.
She flung herself sullenly into a chair, at his command.
“Mrs. Anderson,” said Dayman, tak-
ing up the paper and folding it carefully, “as you are aware, I am a man not given to long speech.”
She nodded, and leaned toward him slightly.
“Therefore,” he resumed, “I will be brief in what I have to say. Tell me,” he said, forcing a smile, “has not your position in my home grown irksome of late?”
She hesitated before, woman-like, putting her own construction on his words.
“Yes,” she answered at length. “It has.”
Relentless, he watched the hope grow in her eyes.
“I am glad to know it,” he said, “because the arrangement has also become irksome to me. I want more than a housekeeper, I want a companion. Someone,” he cried, his voice low with feeling, “to look after my little girl, who has lost her mother and needs a woman’s love.”
She arose from her chair, and came over beside him then. He looked upon the woman, all his soul sick with disgust, not altogether for the part she was playing, but for the one he was playing also.
“Dear little Moll !” sighed the woman. “Surely it would not be hard to find one who would love such a sweet child.”
“I don’t know,” said Dayman, wearily. “I only know for an assurance there is one—and she will share my home, and look after my daughter. This woman is my sister. You are at liberty to leave whenever you wish, Mrs. Anderson.”
At the low words, casually spoken, the mask seemed to drop from the woman’s face. She turned slowly and faced him, gripping the back of a chair with her long, strong fingers. Unconsciously, Dayman’s gaze wandered from her narrowed eyes to those of the child in the corner. They were the same. Narrow, cat-like, baleful.
“That is all,” he said, seating himself and taking a cheque-book from his pocket. “I believe I was to give a month’s notice. If you will go to-morrow, I will pay you six month’s wages in advance.”
“Take it, Ma. You know how we hate the old hypocrite,” cried the child.
Dayman looked up with a frown. The woman simply laughed.
“Give me the cheque and we will go to-morrow,” she said.
Dayman hurriedly filled in the cheque, he had said enough ; he did not want to say more. He had learned so much in such a brief time, he felt he could not stand a much greater strain. He handed the cheque to the woman without a word. She snatched it eagerly.
“Now,” she cried, turning upon him, “I will tell you just what you are. I will tell you—”
He held up his hand.
“Another word and I shall stop payment of that cheque,” he said, calmly.
“At six in the morning I shall havt the man here at the door with a conveyance to the station. If you are ready to go at that time, he will drive you over.”
He watched her sweep from the room ; then turned away, the child’s parting shot in his ears :
“Blind old miser!”
He closed and locked the doors, turned the lights out, and went back to his bed-room. He sank beside the bed and drew little Moll’s hands over against his cheek.
And so he stayed, watching through the window the moon-rays kissing an old rail fence until a great peace rested in his soul.