SOME PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF STORMS
Leslie Gordon Barnard
THUNDER had been in the air all day. After a week of unbearable heat, it looked as if the drought was about to break. Big thunderheads kept moving up, but nothing tame of them. A wind was blowing high
up, and sometimes it came in hot, twisty breaths to the ground, but that was all. It was the kind of day that gets under your skin a bit, and by the time we got round to assembling at the school house people’s nerves were jumpy, as if everybody knew there was more due to happen than just an election speech by Doc Simmonds, who was running against Jim Fairley in the by-election.
A flat, pale sort of light fell on the side of the little schoolhouse. Some of our womenfolk were inside already. They weren’t talking much. One or two had already gone back home, saying they didn't want to leave the children in case of storm. And a scattering of the oldsters among the men were in, choosing good seats near the front where they could hear. Some of us thought maybe they’d be glad later to exchange those for back stats. But we didn’t talk much about that. It was like the storm, a bit vague and remotelike—yet. A knot of us stood about outside, waiting, smoking, talking only a little. You’re safe enough when people talk loud and argue—that’s mostly wind—but when they just stand about with grim mouths and sullen sort of eyes, it’s different. Ned Barbour stood up against the wall, his big arms folded, and nobody could draw much out of him. He’d got his plans laid. And the group nearest him
were the toughest eggs of our little backwoods community.
“He’s pretty near due now,” somebody said, and we all kept looking down the road.
Jepthah Smith said maybe some woman had stopped the doc because her kid had stomach-ache. He was a big, square-jawed man over middle age. He’d been in the lumber woods most of his life. He believed in his voice and his fists. Jepthah sneered:
“Women’s vote! It’s never been the same since they got it.”
"He won’t get our women,” Ned told them, and there was a low rumble of laughter. It seemed part of the thing, like the rumble of thunder before the storm.
“He won’t get any of them,” said somebody. “When he’s through here tonight, Fairley will be the only candidate left in the field.”
I thought of Jim Fairley. He was one of your big oldtimers with an eye for the popular vote, a thirst that he was always wanting you to help be sociable to, and a wink of the other eye in any profitable cause. He and Ned Barbour were pretty thick. They talked the same language. Fairley had once quelled a riot with his fists in a meeting. Our crowd knew that kind of talk and appreciated it.
We stood silent for a time. There was lightning now and then, still far off, and then that distant thunder. Something was going to break soon.
"I hope the storm won’t hold him up,” said Ned.
“I wish it would,” I told them grimly. “I don’t like it. Why don’t you pick on someone your size?”
Nobody had told me what they meant to do, but I was just as sure of it as if they’d come out in plain words. They’d stage a fight, and in the mix-up the little doctor would get beaten up. They’d intimidate him into resigning. They’d rough-house him out of the election.
“Shut up,” Ned warned me, “or we’ll give you a dose of it.” And he signallecLone of the boys to keep an eye on me. They were afraid I’d try and tip the doc off in time.
IT WAS growing dusk now, before its time, and darkening every minute. Ordinarily it’d be clear daylight yet. The sky seemed to press down on your head. The men looked queer and different, and their voices sounded funny. And we all looked down the road again.
I’ve said we were a backwoods community, but that’s hardly true. We re only twenty miles from the County Town. There’s a fairish bit of white water near us, and years ago Ned Barbour's grandfather set up two industries and brought along workers from heaven knows where. He seemed to like them big and tough, and he got them. And
out of that our community grew. We were brought up on rough, hard things, and we took it in with our milk that the best argument you could give a man was with your naked fists. There was a lot of good in our fellows, too. At times they could be mean and at times they could be generous, though a few of us felt the old breed was running out.
I thought of this now, looking at Ned Barbour. He had the physique of his father and grandfather, but there was a fine streak in them which he never got. The girls fell for him because he was dark and handsome in his way and had a rough way of making love, and certain of the crowd at the mill cottoned to him because he spent freely and talked big. I d never liked him and I liked him less now, though it was the sight of the quiet men around him, the ones who said nothing but just stood and waited, taking no part as yet, that made me almost pray the little doctor’s runabout would go dead on him long before he got here.
Ned Barbour was getting uneasy. He kept looking at the sky and at the dusky road.
Well, he said. “Why don’t the women’s choice show up and face the music? I told him ...”
At that moment a figure appeared coming quickly afoot up the road, and Ned Barbour's words sort of fell away from him. When I saw Millie Davis coming toward the schoolhouse, my heart missed a beat. I guess Ned’s did, too. I know now he wasn't figuring on her being here. She’d gone up to the third concession to nurse a sick aunt, and he thought she was out of the way.
Barbour went forward and spoke to her as if he meant to try and head her off, and I heard her say, “Ned, what— what’s going to happen?” and I think all the men there felt her eyes on them, and shuffled a little. She was the kind of girl who made them uneasy. She’d known, of course, the doc was to speak, and maybe she'd guessed something, but it's my opinion she just suddenly felt things were looking wrong and ugly. And when Barbour put her off, and she went on slowly inside, I could see how the womenfolk turned and watched her, their faces hard and their eyes cold.
I’ve nothing to say against our own womenfolk hereabouts, but Millie was different and I liked her for it. Just how she got to be among us doesn’t signify, but she was for all the world like a garden flower in a weedy hillside. She never gave herself airs or anything, but she couldn’t help being herself. And it wasn’t easy for her with our women. They’d been brought up in a hard, grinding school. Romance didn’t count much with them; it just made them mad or sneering. And Millie was like romance walking past the doors of their square mill-built houses.
Just the way she walked did it. I’ve seen her go down the street, and all the voices on the verandahs get hushed, and the rocking chairs stop moving, and everybody keep on looking. The street must have seemed all eyes to Millie those times; the eyes of another sort of world looking on hers that they didn’t understand, and were angry because it existed for her. When she got the schoolteacher’s job after old Susan Smith died—Susan had hung on until the kids sat in awe of her age, just staring at her and learning nothing much—everybody was ready to revolt until it got whispered about, “Ned Barbour’s sweqt on her. It's his doing.” So they let it pass, because Ned held all the purse-strings hereabouts. Ned always got his way, and I fancy it never occurred to him or to any of the rest of us that he'd not get his way with her.
IT WAS when the epidemic of measles broke out in the school that Millie and Doc Simmonds got acquainted. Fktween them, the doc and Millie brought all the kids but one through. And it was hard going. She set up hospital in that schooihouse and did the nursing. I think that should have won everybody over, but somebody got the thing started the other way round. It got about that the kid who died hadn’t needed to. So people got to remembering that one death, and forgot all the kids blooming with health again with none of those complications that they say
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can come after measles if you’re not careful. My own idea is that Ned Barbour started it against the doctor. Even then, Ned must have seen how it was with them.
I’ve only this to say, that standing there tonight as Millie went into the schoolhouse,
I saw her hesitate, and got a sight of the unfriendly eyes on her, and knew howeven though the storm was already hushing everybody a bit—there was a new silence when she went in. And I remembered like a flash the time I’d eavesdropped on her and the doc. I’d gone fishing up the river, and fallen asleep for the bass weren’t biting, and when I woke up I heard their voices.
“Millie,” the doc was saying, “I want to take you away from all this. I’ve got a house down there that’s crying out for a woman’s hand. And I’ve got a heart crying out for you. I’m not offering you much— just a little country practitioner, not oversize any way you look at me—except in the size of my love. That’s a flood. That’s a tide, Millie. I think I’ll drown unless . .
There was nothing in the way he said it to make you feel embarrassed like most occasions of the sort. Doc has a queer, thrilling sort of voice when he’s moved, and I sat there shivering for fear she’d turn him down. But I think, after that word “unless” she must have kissed him right off. They passed me presently, going away, and I saw his arm about her as they wandered along the bank just beyond the bushes that screened me. It made me feel good all day.
If I’d known in time what was going forward I’d have got hold of Millie and warned her. It wouldn’t have been much good telling the doc. He was obstinate in his way, and I don’t think he’d have quite believed. He seemed to me to have too high an opinion of human nature. That’s funny in a doctor, you’d think. Now', I saw' Ned Barbour’s face as he looked at the lighted doorway she’d gone through, and if ever mean hatred w'as in a man’s face, it w'as in his. And when he looked down the road again, you could almost see that hatred travelling to meet the doctor. I’d have tried even then to do something, but they were watching me too close, and as for going in and telling Millie—if I could, I doubt if I’d have had the heart to do it. The two of us against so many were helpless. But I kept seeing the doctor’s face as he passed by with his arm in hers that day.
I kept thinking of that face, and seeing it getting bruised and pulpy under the knuckles of Ned Barbour and his crowd. It got me so excited I began to shout out that they were yellow cow'ards, but Jepthah clapped a big hand none too gently over my mouth, and just then the first big drops began to fall.
Ned Barbour muttered :
“This storm—it’s going to keep the fellow away. He’ll use it as an excuse. He’ll probably be setting at home with the blinds drawn and his hands over his ears.”
You could tell by looking they were getting it heavy over that way already. A gust of hot wind sw’ooped down on us, and raised the dust at our feet, and the thunder was louder and closer than it had been.
“He’ll not come!” said Ned again.
His voice sounded queer, as if there was something more than hate mixed in it. There followed a silence just as if all of us, and all the world, too, were waiting for something to happen. I’ve heard of the calm before the storm, but this wras different. I can’t explain it, but it seemed to me as if the hand of God had withdrawn for a moment what he was sending us. Every sound roundabout was so distinct it prickled the nerves—a man shifting his feet on the schoolhouse gravel or tapping a pipe against the shingles, or the crying of a child some woman had brought with her, or the far-off barking of a dog. A loose bit of tin whanged on the schoolhouse roof, and an overhanging branch of the big tree that stands just behind the building began a little tapping, like a
ghostly finger up there in the darkness. We knew it must be wind, though it was so still down by us it was suffocating. The clouds seemed so low they must be brushing the ridgepole. You couldn’t see them but you could feel them. There wasn’t just then a flash of lightning, near or far, nor the faintest rumble of thunder.
Silent and a bit awed, we waited.
THEN, suddenly, the sky seemed to be split right down the middle with a sword of light and a ball of fire dropped out of it. You couldn’t tell how near it was or how far away. Every object in miles was lit up like day. Our eyes were blinded and our flesh seemed seared. Then the light was swallowed up in darkness and the crackling thunder hurt our ears.
Only the open door of the schoolhouse held any light, and Ned Barbour led the rush for it. We jostled each other making that doorway, bundling in and slamming the door behind as if hell itself could be shut out by wooden door and walls. Somebody ran to close the windows, too, not a second too soon. Without doubt the roof would have gone. Thunder or wind, you could hardly tell which was which. I’ve seen storms in my day, but none quite like this. The sky seemed to tear apart again to let down a deluge. The lightning was like tongues of fire. The schoolhouse building rocked. Our women-folk aren’t easily frightened, they’ve grown up with hard things to face, but you could see they were ready to get into a panic, and what with the baby and two other children crying, it kind of got you. Some of us shouted to Ned Barbour to go up and pacify them, but we almost had to push him to it. His voice was a bit strained when he got up there shouting for order, telling everybody to sit down, it was all right. Almost as he spoke it got better; the first awful tumult was over. Ned looked happier about it himself.
“The worst harm it’s done is to spoil this meeting,” he said. And then it seemed he couldn’t keep venom out of his voice. “1 guess it’s a break for Doc Simmonds,” he told us. “Better for him if he don’t show his face in these parts till after voting day. When we asked him to come, he had to promise. And now there’ll be no time before election. He’ll crawl out of it now, and blame it on a storm. It ought to take more than a bit of thunder and lightning to keep a man away from a meeting like this. I came here to listen to him, not to make a speech, but there’s some things need saying, and I’m not afraid to say them right out in the open.”
He glanced quickly at the windows, which were lit up again with a blue glare. Then thunder came. Right behind him on the platform was a window, high up, and through it we could see the huge schoolhouse elm. It stood right out against the bluewhite sky. I got a glimpse of Millie, sort of rigid in her seat. Her face was set and tense, but whether over what Ned was saying or because she was worrying about her man in the storm, I couldn’t say. I felt she ought to know he’d take shelter.
Ned Barbour waited a moment until there was a lull again, and his words came to us. I knew then his voice wasn’t right.
“Doc Simmonds,” he said, and looked right at Millie. “Doc Simmonds—” But he got no farther. A blinding flash filled the schoolhouse, the lights went out, a sizzling terror came upon us, and I knew by the crack like a rifle shot that something near was hit. Then a woman shrilled an awful cry. She stood up, pointing, pointing through the darkness that swallowed us to the high window behind the platform. Against that oblong, the giant elm swayed queerly, drunkenly, then fell with a rush toward us. We heard the booming sound of it as it hit and slid down the steep pitch of the roof. One branch like an arm crashed through two of the small panes. Glass fell
on the platform and the wind howled through the opening.
1 hen, as suddenly as they had gone off, the lights came on again. And now we were gazing not at the broken window but somewhere else. I hardly knew whether to laugh I or not. Cowering under the speaker’s table,
I clinging to its wooden legs so that the pitcher of water on the top shook and the glasses clinked, was Ned Barbour. He had forgotten everything but his utter terror. In his eyes was the fear of hell itself. It’s a terrible thing to look upon a physical giant, a man known for driving force and brute courage, stricken like that. It was laughable, but it was more than that.
Every eye on him, he crawled out from under and slowly drew himself up, facing his people. The storm, variable and mad as ever, had done with us now, rolling off toward the hills.
Ned Barbour wore a sickly sort of grin.
“I guess,” he said, “you got me plenty that time. I guess I looked kind of funny, eh? The fact is, folks, since the war I’ve never been able to stand thunder. It’s—it’s the old shell-shock.”
To our surprise Millie Davis sprang to her feet, crying out:
“He’s lying! He’s lying! He never reached France. He told me so himself.”
' I ’HEY STOOD facing each other, those two, and the rest of us were hushed. Far in the background the thunder muttered.
“So you’re tryin’ to queer me?” said Ned in an awful voice. “All right. Call me a liar. Call me anything you like. But if a storm like this don’t matter, if a storm like this : isn't something to be afraid of, why isn’t he here?”
Millie flushed up at that. She’d been j white as paper before.
“He’s got ten miles to drive,” she said. “And the storm’s been coming from that way. He’d have it with him all along. He’d have been here if he could.”
An old man broke in :
Nobody but a fool would drive through a storm like this.”
Ned Barbour’s courage was coming back. Bluster was his weapon and he felt better j now, you could see.
j “I want to tell you,” he shouted, “that if j this little doctor of yours had come he’d remember tonight. We’d have sent him home with something more than a flea in his ear. Listen, you people, do we want a twoby-twice, city-bred, no-good practitioner elected to represent us? He’s probably sitting right now in somebody’s parlor making pretty speeches to some woman j who’ll give a smug vote for him when the time comes. If he gets in—I say, if he gets ¡in—it s that kind’ll elect him. Not people like us who’ve learned what it is to use our hands to fight for everything we get.” Jepthah led in a sort of cheer, and I looked round on the crowd. You’d hardly believe, would you, that people could swallow that? I’ll say it for Ned Barbour he made a good, blustering come-back, driving home all the old arguments, working on all the old hatreds of the girl and the doctor, until folks had pretty much forgotten that a few moments ago he’d crawled, a frightened liar, from under that table. It took my breath to see the way old passions live.
“Well,” he shouted, “are you people going to vote for this little sawed-off doctor who failed to come and face us tonight ? ” “No!” they shouted. “No!”
I wanted to cry out “Yes,” but my tongue stuck fast, and instead I turned my eyes to Millie Davis and met hers. And we knew we were alone. I caught myself looking at my hands and feeling how helpless they would be in a mob like this. I didn’t matter. The crowd hardly noticed me. I was one of themselves. But she—she was the outsider they had learned to hate because they couldn't understand her.
Jepthah, leaping to the platform beside Ned, led a shout of “Fairley ! Fairley ! Good old Jim Fairley ! Down with little Simmonds, the baby-killer.”
Millie Davis sprang up again, eyes flashing.
“You cowards. You liars!” she shrilled. “To call him that behind his back.”
I began to move over toward the girl. 1 he thing had got. so I was afraid for her. A crowd like ours might turn on her, and then God help her. She'd need His help more if the fingers of these women got at her than the doctor would against the bare knuckles of our men. They were hard-working women with lots of good qualities, but they were ignorant and they could be cruel. I’d seen two of them fight in a back area before today, and I’d rather see a dozen bareknuckled affairs. The eyes that looked on Millie, as she passed down the street, from stark verandahs on ugly, standard-built houses, were bad enough, but they kept their distance. Now they were too close to her. One word from Ned or Jepthah and the mischief would begin. But at that moment— for her challenge had hushed them—we heard a car outside. The sound of it ran through us all with a quiver. We heard the door of the car slam, then the schoolhouse door was flung open, and the sweet night air after the storm came in with a rush that made us know how stifling the heat was that we had endured.
By this time I was beside Millie, and we turned together. Every eye was instantly on the door. The little doctor stood there. He was drenched, and his sodden clothes dripped water on the floor. I heard Millie give a cry. Doc Simmonds looked as if he had fallen among thieves, and for just a flash I wondered if some of Ned’s henchmen had set upon him prematurely. A little twist of pain came to his lips, but mostly he was smiling at us, and when, in a tense silence, he moved forward jerkily toward the platform, he had an unnatural limp or impediment in his walk. Once I thought he staggered.
rT'HEN HE was on the platform holding A out a friendly hand to Ned Barbour, but Ned, with some muttered oath, had sunk back in the chair. The little doctor looked at his own outstretched hand as if a bit dazed, then he withdrew it and faced the audience, and we knew that on one side his clothes were ripjjed almost into shreds and the sleeve of his jacket as good as gone. He was breathless, and kept wiping his face with a w’et handkerchief as if he couldn’t stop doing it. You could tell right off he was a bit dazed. And then he spoke.
“I’m sorry to be late,” he said. “I like to be on time for things. You’ll have to blame the storm. You see”—he touched the ragged sleeve of his coat—“the car and I had a misadventure in the storm. Lightning, you know. It struck the car. Must have got a bit of it myself. Luckily the bus was still navigable, but I had to drive a bit slowly after that.” He smiled apologetically at us “The wind had some of the trees down and wires and things, and I—well, I guess my nerves w'ere a bit groggy. I’m sorry to keep you waiting. The fact is I’m really a bit of a coward about storms.” He turned with the same apologetic smile to the chairman. “Some people are that way, you know',” he said.
Ned Barbour’s face went a sickly color, but the doctor didn’t see that. I saw the doc grab the table for support. There was a second chair on the platform, and he managed to get to it and sit down.
“If you don’t mind,” he said. “It’s quite —temporary. I’ll be all right in a minute, and will—speak to you.”
I suppose people are the same the world over. We’re a queer lot; variable, and often cruel and all, and harder than most, as I’ve said. But when you touch us deep, you’ve got us. They stood up then. They stood up —the same people, men and women, who’d shouted for Jim Fairley a short time before —and they took the little doctor's name on their lips and shouted it, and I’m told you could hear the cheering over at the filling station half a mile away. I wasn’t so concerned with the cheering, though I know it thrilled me and I wras shouting, too. What mattered to me most was to see Millie Davis up there beside the doctor’s chair, and all our women-folk keeping on cheering just the same.