FICTION

THE END OF THE WORLD

It wasn’t earthquake or famine that blasted Mr. Runnybeck’s happy world. It was just those blamed antiques

DAVID BERNSTEIN September 1 1946
FICTION

THE END OF THE WORLD

It wasn’t earthquake or famine that blasted Mr. Runnybeck’s happy world. It was just those blamed antiques

DAVID BERNSTEIN September 1 1946

THE END OF THE WORLD

It wasn’t earthquake or famine that blasted Mr. Runnybeck’s happy world. It was just those blamed antiques

DAVID BERNSTEIN

I BEGAN to visit Mr. Runnybeck the summer after his wife died. His daughter Clara and her husband had moved away to the city, and now he was living all by himself in the large farmhouse down the road. It was a brick house that had once been painted a golden yellow, and behind it the meadows sloped all the way down to the tanglewood along the river. There was one Guernsey cow, who lived a moody life among the meadows, for Mr. Runnybeck no longer did his milking at regular hours.

At a right angle to the house were the barns, and across the road was the orchard. When the apples ripened he would hire boys from the village to pick them, and he would store them in his cellar. The aroma of fermenting apples swept through the bouse all year round, blending with the dry perfume of dust and old books by Mr. Horatio Alger. It was a wonderful aroma, in my opinion.

I used to visit Mr. Runnybeck almost every afternoon. And it was on one of these afternoons that he started to read the Bible to me. He was sitting in a rocker on the kitchen porch. He had a pipe in his mouth, and when he sucked in there was a sound as of bacon strips frying noisily.

“Sonny,” he said, “you just run across the road to the orchard and get us two apples co eat.”

When I brought, them back he pulled out his pocketknife and carefully peeled bis apple. Then he cut off a large slice and fitted it into his mouth. “Sonny,” he said, “I been reading the Bible.”

I took a bite out of my apple and listened.

“It is very plain to me,” he went on, “that the world is going to come to an end.”

“But it’ll probably take a million years,” I said. “No, I mean soon. I been reading it in the Bible.” He whittled off another slice of apple, and we watched a car come down the road. We could see it all the way from the top of the hill, travelling slowly, with the dry road dusting up behind it. It was Manley Tinker’s car, and he waved to us as he passed.

Mr. Runnybeck chumbled the core of his apple economically, and then threw the remnants into the yard.

“Good crop of apples this year,” he said. “Apples and tobacco mix fine. How about running over and getting us a couple more?”

I hurried, because I didn’t want to miss the rumbling. Mr. Runnybeck’s stomach always produced wonderful, spiralling rumbles, like afternoon thunder on the other side of the mountains, when he ate apples.

But when I came back Mr. Runnybeck was not in his rocker. He was rumbling in the kitchen, and I looked in to hear better. He had a large Bible in his hand. He said loudly: “Chapter 24 of Saint

Matthew.”

He read it to me like a clergyman, racing through a sentence and then dropping his voice on the last word. He read all the verses on famine and pestilences and earthquakes, and on abounding iniquity, with the love of many waxing cold.

Mr. Ernest Haillie, the mailman, drove down the road, and Mr. Runnybeck interrupted his reading to come out on the porch and wave a greeting. Mr. Haillie stopped at the mailbox, and we both went over to talk to him. He had two pieces of mail for Mr. Runnybeck: one was a copy of the Berkshire Courier, and the other was a letter. “It’s from my daughter,” said Mr. Runnybeck. “She resides more’n 500 miles from here. I’ll read it after a while.”

“A fine day,” said Mr. Haillie.

“Yes,” Mr. Runnybeck said. “I been reading the Bible to this young fellow.”

“Well,” said the mailman, a little defensively, “I’m a Presbyterian myself.”

Mr. Runnybeck didn’t answer, so Mr. Haillie shifted gears and waved and drove on down the road.

“Now we’ll see what Saint Mark says,” Mr. Runnybeck muttered.

Continued on page 26

The End of the World

Continuad from page 22

We went back to the kitchen porch, and he began to read from Chapter 13. He read how the brother shall betray the brother, and the father the son, and the children shall rise up against their parents. And he saw the abomination of desolation, peering at me sternly as he quoted: “Let him that readeth understand.”

His thumb, all the while, had been holding Chapter 21 of Saint Luke in reserve. “Heaven and earth,” he roared with great relish, “shall pass away. It’s all written down. The end of the world.”

“But it doesn’t say when, Mr. Runnybeck.”

He rocked a while, thinking. Then he took out his false teeth and went over to rinse them neatly under the pump in the yard.

“Sonny,” be said, “I claim it will be soon. It’s been a long time coming.” “The whole world?” I asked doubtfully.

“The whole danged world.”

“I think I better be going back,” I said. “We are going into the village to get an ice-cream soda at half past four. I don’t want to miss that.”

“That’s right, my boy,” he said. “You don’t have much time.”

When I visited Mr. Runnybeck three days later, he was waiting for me. The Bible was in his lap. “I’m just passing through, Mr. Runnybeck,” I said. “I can’t stay.”

“Where you headed?”

“I thought I would look at your Guernsey cow.”

“By gum, I forgot to milk her today. Get us the stool.”

We went down to the meadow together. The Guernsey cow was standing there, her udder full almost to bursting. I put the stool down, and Mr. Runnybeck fitted the pail between his knees and began to milk her.

“She’s a nice cow,” I said. “You ought to milk her more often.”

“Yes. I should. But I been so busy reading the Bible I forget all about her. Maybe I’ll sell her. She’s been a good cow to me, but I don’t need her now. I’m retired.”

We finished the milking in silence and started back. As we came near the house Mr. Runnybeck turned around and shaded bis eyes against the sunlight. He looked outover the meadow, and the Guernsey cow standing quietly against the lone elm tree, and the tanglewood far down the field near the river, and the far hills light blue in the sunlight.

“It’s a good farm,” he muttered. “I sure hate to lose it.”

“Are you losing your farm, Mr. Runnybeck?” I asked.

“Sonny, the world is coming to an end. Everybody will lose their farm.” As he put the milk away to cool I went across the road for some apples.

“If you look in the Revelation ot Saint John the Divine,” Mr. Runnybeck said when he had finished his apple.

“Where does it say it, Mr. Runnybeck?” I asked.

He was beginning to rumble already. It was wonderful how fast that apple worked on his stomach.

“Well,” he said, “you got to figure it out. There’s men been spending whole lifetimes figuring it out. I ain’t claiming I know the exact day, but you can find it all right in this Revelation here.” He tapped the Book with his shiny knuckles. His stomach was still rumbling. “Yes, siree. It’s coming soon. I can tell.”

He looked up the road, where a car was slowly moving down the hill.

“That’s purty early for Ernest Haillie to be coming with the mail,” he said.

“Sure is,” I agreed.

“Maybe he’s got a special delivery letter for somebody.”

We watched the car as it came nearer.

“That ain’t Haillie’s car,” Mr. Runnybeck muttered. “Don’t look like anybody’s car that I know.” Someone was waving at us, but the sunlight was shining on the windshield and we couldn’t see who it was. “Seems like it’s got an out-of-province license,” Mr. Runnybeck told me. “City folks, I expect. Maybe they’re visitors for your folks.”

But the car turned into Mr. Runnybeck’s yard. There was a man and a woman in it. The woman stepped out first. She was a big woman in her thirties. She wore glasses, and brownish lipstick, and her clothes were creased from riding all day.

She kissed Mr. Runnybeck on the cheek, and said, “Well, here we are, Pa. It’s good to be home.”

He stood there on the kitchen porch in front of his rocker, rubbing his pipe against the side of his trousers. He looked at the woman, and then at the man, who had gone to the trunk in back of the car and was taking out some suitcases.

“Well,” he said to his daughter. “Pa,” she said politely, “you’re looking fine.”

“Well, I declare,” he said.

“Pa,” she said, “we’ve come, just like I wrote you.”

“Well,” he said, “it’s Clara.”

“I wrote you we were coming.”

“By gum,” he said, “I been meaning to read that letter ever since it come. But I been so busy reading the ...” “Do you mean to tell me that you got a letter from me and you didn’t even bother to read it?”

“But I been busy. I been reading the . .

“Pa,” she said in a high voice, “it’s a good thing we came here.”

“Clara,” said Mr. Runnybeck cautiously, “how long you going to stay?” “I explained it all in the letter,” she answered angrily. “John gave up his job. We saved $800, and we drove all the way to stay with you. We thought you would be getting lonesome. And besides, I am going to change this place over. You’re not farming it any more. We’ll make it into an antique shop. There are lots of things right here we can sell...”

She waved her arm to take in the house and the barn and all their furnishings, the meadow and the cow and the river and perhaps even the sky, and then she saw me.

“Who is this?” she asked. I stood there without saying a word.

“He’s a boy belongs to summer people up the road.”

“Oh, he is,” said Clara cordially. “Well, you come here any time you want. Tell your mother we’ll have lots of antiques to sell.”

“Don’t you tell her anything of the sort,” said Mr. Runnybeck with some asperity. “Sonny, you run over to the orchard and get us a couple of apples.” I hurried across the road, trying to listen at the same time.

“Apples,” Clara was saying. “You shouldn’t eat apples. You know what they do to your stomach. You make noises when you eat apples.”

I came back with the apples, and Clara grabbed them out of my hand, including the one I had brought for myself. Mr. Runnybeck sat down in the rocker and didn’t say a word. Clara’s husband brought the suitcases onto the porch and looked at Clara for directions. “Leave them there for

now,” she said. “You go in and wash up.”

“What are you aiming to do with this place?” Mr. Runnybeck asked her.

“We’ll save^the upstairs to live in,” she said. “Downstairs we’ll have all the antiques, and in the barn. Some things we can put on the lawn, if they can stand the weather. We’ll put up signs at the crossroads and direct them here for antiques. Maybe we’ll place an advertisement somewhere,” she said vaguely. “I haven’t decided yet.”

Mr. Runnybeck rocked back and forth heavily in his chair, chewing at his pipe. “I sure would like an apple,” he said.

“Pa,” said Clara, “I won’t have you making stomach noises while I’m around. No more apples.”

She was very excited, moving quickly for such a large person. She kept glancing everywhere, at the old pump, at the barns, at the table and chairs through the kitchen door, at the lace curtains covered with dust, and the cobwebs in the front parlor. Then she noticed the rocker Mr. Runnybeck was sitting on.

“Pa!” she shouted anxiously.

He sat up. “Now about these apples,” he began.

“Pa! You’re sitting on that rocker!” “Why can’t I eat just one more now . . .”

“I can sell that rocker for $85. That’s a genuine antique.”

Mr. Runnybeck leaned forward and examined the rocker between his legs. “Well, Clara,” he said, “I been rocking on this rocker for a long time, and I never knew it was worth $85.”

“Pa,” she said, “you get up off that rocker right away.”

He stood up slowly. “What am I going to sit on?” he asked.

Clara ran into the kitchen and came out with a plain straight-backed chair. “You sit on this,” she said.

Mr. Runnybeck took the chair from her. “I know this chair,” he said. “I never did like it. I like a rocker. I like to lean back when I read.”

“You sit on it,” said Clara. “Try it out.”

Mr. Runnybeck sat down. He tried to lean back, but it was not a chair for leaning back. Beside him on the floor was the Bible. He picked it up.

“Sonny,” he said, “it says here in Chapter 24—”

Clara was still studying the place, but she turned curiously.

“What is that book?” she asked. “This here book?” said Mr. Runnybeck. “This here is the Holy Bible.” Clara took it out of his hands. She studied the covers carefully and then she opened it to the first few pages. “Why,” she said, “why, this Bible is more than 100 years old. Why, it’s a genuine antique. Why, it must be worth a lot of money.”

“Clara,” said Mr. Runnybeck. “I been reading that Bible. That’s my Bible.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” Clara said. “We’ll just put this one away.” She took it inside the house with her.

Mr. Runnybeck sat in the straightbacked chair for a while. He lit his pipe and sucked on it noisily. He looked far off to where the road dipped beyond the hill, and then he looked off to the left. The pasture was there, green and glistening in the afternoon sun, and the Guernsey cow was standing stolid as a statue, throwing a long yearning shadow toward us.

“Sonny,” Mr. Runnybeck said suddenly, “you remember what I told you about the end of the world?”

I nodded.

“By gum,” he said, “I claim it’s

come.”