Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Widder Johnsing
By Ruth McEnery Stuart (1856–1917)
From ‘A Golden Wedding and Other Tales’

  “Monkey, monkey, bottle o’ beer,
How many monkeys have we here?
          One, two, three—
          Out goes she!”

“’TAIN’ no use ter try ter hol’ ’er. She des gwine f’om fits ter convulsions, and f’om convulsions back inter fits!”  1
  Sister Temperance Tias raised her hands and spoke low. She had just come out of the room of sorrow.  2
  Jake Johnson was dead, and Lize Ann Johnson again a widow.  3
  The “other room” in the little cabin was crowded with visitors,—the old, the young, the pious, the thoughtless, the frivolous,—all teeming with curiosity, and bursting into expressions of sympathy, each anxious to look upon the ever-interesting face of death, every one eager to “he’p hol’ Sis’ Lize Ann.”  4
  But Temperance held sway on this as on all similar occasions on the plantation, and no one would dare to cross the threshold from “the other room” until she should make the formal announcement, “De corpse is perpared ter receive ’is frien’s;” and even then there would be the tedium of precedence to undergo.  5
  It was tiresome, but it paid in the end; for long before midnight, every visitor should have had his turn to pass in and take a look. Then would begin an informal, unrestricted circulation between the two rooms, when the so-disposed might “choose pardners,” and sit out on the little porch, or in the yard on benches brought in from the church, and distributed about for that purpose.  6
  Here they would pleasantly gather about in groups with social informality, and freely discuss such newly discovered virtues of the deceased as a fresh retrospect revealed, or employ themselves with their own more pressing romances, as they saw fit.  7
  There were many present, inside and at the doors, who eagerly anticipated this later hour, and were even now casting about for “pardners”; but Sister Temperance was not one of these. Now was the hour of her triumph. It was she alone—excepting the few, selected by herself, who were at this moment making a last toilet for the departed—who had looked upon the face of the dead.  8
  She was even ahead of the doctors; who, as the patient had died between visits, did not yet know the news.  9
  As she was supreme authority upon the case in all its bearings, whenever she appeared at the door between the two rooms the crowd pressed eagerly forward. They were so anxious for the very latest bulletin.  10
  “F’om convulsions inter fits! Umh!” repeated the foremost sister, echoing Temperance’s words.  11
  “Yas, an’ back ag’in!” reiterated the oracle. “She des come thoo a fit, an’ de way she gwine orn now, I s’picion de nex’ gwine be a reverind convulsion! She taken it hard, I tell yer!” And Sister Temperance quietly, cruelly closed the door, and withdrew into the scene of action.  12
  “Sis’ Lize Ann ought ter be helt,” ventured a robust sister near the door.  13
  “Or tied, one,” added another.  14
  “I knowed she keered mo’ fur Brer Jake ’n she let orn,” suggested a third. “Lize Ann don’t mean no harm by her orf-handed ways. She des kep’ ’er love all ter ’erse’f.”  15
  So ran the gossip of “the other room,” when Temperance reappeared at the door.  16
  “Sis’ Calline Taylor, yo’ services is requi’ed.” She spoke with a suppressed tone of marked distinctness and a dignity that was inimitable, whereupon a portly dame at the farthest corner of the room began to elbow her way through the crowd, who regarded her with new respect as she entered the chamber of death; a shrill scream from the new-made widow adding its glamour to her honors, as with a loud groan she closed the door behind her.  17
  A stillness now fell upon the assembly, disturbed only by an occasional moan, until Sister Phyllis, a leader in things spiritual, broke the silence.  18
  “Sis’ Calline Taylor is a proud han’ ter hol’ down fits, but I hope she’ll speak a word in season fur sperityal comfort.”  19
  “Sis’ Tempunce callin’ out Scripture ev’y time she see ’er ease up,” said old Black Sal. “Lize Ann in good han’s, po’ soul! Look like she is got good ’casion ter grieve. Seem like she’s born ter widderhood.”  20
  “Po’ Jake! Yer reck’n she gwine bury ’im ’longside o’ Alick an’ Steve?”—her former husbands.  21
  “In co’se. ’Tain’ no use dividin’ up grief an’ sowin’ a pusson’s sorrer broadcas’, ’caze—”  22
  The opening door commanded silence again.  23
  “Brer Jake’s face changin’ mightily!” said Temperance, as she stood again before them. “De way hit’s a-settlin’, I b’lieve he done foun’ peace ter his soul.”  24
  “Is ’is eyes shet?”  25
  “De lef’ eye open des a leetle teenchy tinechy bit.”  26
  “Look fur a chile ter die nex’—a boy chile. Yer say de lef’ eye open, ain’t yer?”  27
  “Yas—de one todes de chimbly. He layin’ catti-cornders o’ de baid, wid ’is foots ter de top.”  28
  “Catti-cornders! Umh!”  29
  “Yas, an’ wid ’is haid down todes de foot.”  30
  “Eh, Lord! Haids er foots is all one ter po’ Jake now.”  31
  “Is yer gwine plat ’is fingers, Sis’ Tempunce?”  32
  “His fingers done platted, an’ de way I done twissen ’em in an’ out, over an’ under, dee gwine stay tell Gab’iel call fur ’is han’!”  33
  “Umh!”  34
  “Eh, Lord! An’ is yer done comb ’is haid, Sis’ Tempunce?”  35
  “I des done wropp’n an’ twissen it good, an’ I ’low ter let it out fur de fun’al to-morrer. I knowed Jake ’d be mo’ satisfider ef he knowed it ’d be in its fus’ granjer at the fun’al—an’ Sis’ Lize Ann too. She say she ’ain’t nuver is had no secon’-class buryin’s, an’ she ain’ gwine have none. Time Alick died she lay in a trance two days, an’ de brass ban’ at de fun’al nuver fazed ’er! An’ y’ all ricollec’ how she taken ter de woods an’ had ter be ketched time Steve was kilt, an’ now she des a-stavin’ it orf brave as she kin on convulsions an’ fits! Look like when a pusson taken sorrer so hard, Gord would sho’ly spare de scourgin’ rod.”  36
  “Yas, but yer know what de preacher say—‘Gord sen’ a tempes’ o’ win’ ter de shorn lamb.’”  37
  “Yas indeedy,” said another, a religious celebrity, “an’ we daresn’t jedge de Jedge!”  38
  “Maybe sometimes Gord sen’ a tempes’ o’ win’ ter de shorn lamb ter meck it run an’ hide in de Shepherd’s fol’. Pray Gord dis searchin’ win’ o’ jedgmint gwine blow po’ Sis’ Lize Ann inter de green pastures o’ de kingdom!”  39
  “Amen!” came solemnly from several directions.  40
  An incisive shriek from within, which startled the speakers into another awe-stricken silence, summoned Temperance back in haste to her post.  41
  Crowds were gathering without the doors now, and the twinkle of lanterns approaching over the fields and through the wood promised a popular attendance at the wake, which after much tedious waiting was at last formally opened. Temperance herself swung wide the dividing door, and hesitating a moment as she stood before them, that the announcement should gain in effect by a prelude of silence, she said with marked solemnity:—  42
  “De corpse is now perpared ter receive ’is frien’s! Ef,” she continued, after another pause,—“ef so be any pusson present is nigh kin ter de lately deceasted daid corpse, let ’em please ter step in fust at de haid o’ de line.”  43
  A half-minute of inquiring silence ensued; and that the first to break it by stepping forward was a former discarded wife of the deceased caused no comment. She led by the hand a small boy, whom all knew to be the dead man’s son: and it was with distinct deference that the crowd parted to let them pass in. Just as they were entering, a stir was heard at the outer door.  44
  “Heah comes de corpse’s mammy and daddy,” one said, in an audible whisper.  45
  It was true. The old parents, who lived some miles distant, had just arrived. The throng had fallen well back now, clearing a free passage across the room. With a loud groan and extended arms, Temperance glided down the opening to meet the aged couple, who sobbed aloud as they tremulously followed her into the presence of the dead.  46
  The former wife and awe-stricken child had already entered; and that they all, with the new-made widow, who rocked to and fro at the head of the corpse, wept together, confessed sharers in a common sorrow, was quite in the natural order of things.  47
  The procession of guests now began to pass through, making a circuit of the table on which the body lay; and as they moved out the door, some one raised a hymn. A group in the yard caught it up, and soon the woods echoed with the weird rhythmic melody. All night long the singing continued, carried along by new recruits as the first voices grew weary and dropped out. If there was some giggling and love-making among the young people, it was discreetly kept in the shadowy corners, and wounded no one’s feelings.  48
  The widow took no rest during the night. When exhausted from violent emotion, she fell into a rhythmic moan, accompanied by corresponding swaying to and fro of her body,—a movement at once unyielding and restful.  49
  The church folk were watching her with a keen interest, and indeed so were the worldlings; for this was Lize Ann’s third widowhood within the short space of five years, and each of the other funerals had been practically but an inaugural service to a most remarkable career. As girl first, and twice as widow, she had been a conspicuous, and if truth must be told, rather a notorious figure in colored circles. Three times she had voluntarily married into quiet life, and welcomed with her chosen partner the seclusion of wedded domesticity; but during the intervals she had played promiscuous havoc with the matrimonial felicity of her neighbors, to such an extent that it was a confessed relief when she had finally walked up the aisle with Jake Johnson, as by taking one woman’s husband she had brought peace of mind to a score of anxious wives.  50
  It is true that Jake had been lawfully wedded to the first woman, but the ceremony had occurred in another parish some years before, and was practically obsolete; and so the church—taking its cue from nature, which does not set eyes in the back of one’s head—made no indiscreet retrospective investigations, but in the professed guise of a peace-maker pronounced its benediction upon the new pair.  51
  The deserted wife had soon likewise repaired her loss; whether with benefit of clergy or not, it is not ours to say, but when she returned to mourn at the funeral it was not as one who had refused to be comforted. She felt a certain secret triumph in bringing her boy to gaze for the last time upon the face of his father. It was more than the childless woman, who sat, acknowledged chief mourner, at the head of the corpse, could do.  52
  There was a look of half-savage defiance upon her face as she lifted the little fellow up, and said in an audible voice:—  53
  “Take one las’ look at yo’ daddy, Jakey. Dat’s yo’ own Gord-blessed father, an’ you ain’t nuver gwine see ’im no mo’, tell yer meet ’im in de Kingdom come, whar dey ain’t no marryin’, neither givin’ in marriage;” and she added, in an undertone, with a significant sniffle, “nur borryin’, nuther.”  54
  She knew that she whom it could offend would not hear this last remark, as her ears were filled with her own wails; but the words were not lost upon the crowd.  55
  The little child, frightened and excited, began to cry aloud.  56
  “Let him cry,” said one. “D’ain’t nobody got a better right.”  57
  “He feel his loss, po’ chile!”  58
  “Blood’s thicker’n water ev’y time.”  59
  “Yas, blood will tell. Look like de po’ chile’s heart was rendered in two quick ’s he looked at his pa.”  60
  Such sympathetic remarks as these, showing the direction of the ultimate sentiment of the people, reached the mother’s ears, and encouraged her to raise her head a fraction higher than before, as, pacifying the weeping child, she passed out and went home.  61
  The funeral took place on the afternoon following; and to the surprise of all, the mourning widow behaved with wonderful self-control during all the harrowing ceremony.  62
  Only when the last clod fell upon the grave did she throw up her hands, and with a shriek fall over in a faint, and have to be “toted” back to the wagon in which she had come.  63
  If some were curious to see what direction her grief would take, they had some time to wait. She had never before taken long to declare herself, and on each former occasion the declaration had been one of war—a worldly, rioting, rollicking war upon the men.  64
  During both her previous widowhoods she had danced longer and higher, laughed oftener and louder, dressed more gaudily and effectively, than all the women on three contiguous plantations put together; and when, in these well-remembered days, she had passed down the road on Sunday evenings, and chosen to peep over her shoulders with dreamy half-closed eyes at some special man whom it pleased her mood to ensnare, he had no more been able to help following her than he had been able to help lying to his wife or sweetheart about it afterward.  65
  The sympathy expressed for her at Jake’s funeral had been sincere. No negro ever resists any noisy demonstration of grief, and each of her moans and screams had found responsive echo in more than one sympathetic heart.  66
  But now the funeral was over, Jake was dead and gone, and the state of affairs so exact a restoration to a recent well-remembered condition that it was not strange that the sisters wondered with some concern what she would do.  67
  They had felt touched when she had fainted away at the funeral; and yet there were those, and among them his good wife, who had not failed to observe that she had fallen squarely into Pete Richards’s arms.  68
  Now, every one knew that she had once led Pete a dance, and that for a time it seemed a question whether he or Jake Johnson should be the coming man.  69
  Of course this opportune fainting might have been accidental; and it may be that Pete’s mother was supercensorious when, on her return from the funeral, she had said as she lit her pipe:—  70
  “Dat gal Lize Ann is a she-devil.”  71
  But her more discreet daughter-in-law, excepting that she thrashed the children all round, gave no sign that she was troubled.  72
  For the first few months of her recovered widowhood Lize Ann was conspicuous only by her absence from congregations of all sorts, as well as by her mournful and persistent refusal to speak with any one on the subject of her grief, or indeed to speak at all.  73
  There was neither pleasure nor profit in sitting down and looking at a person who never opened her lips; and so, after oft-repeated but ineffectual visits of condolence, the sisters finally stopped visiting her cabin.  74
  They saw that she had philosophically taken up the burden of practical life again, in the shape of a family washing, which she carried from the village to her cabin poised on her head; but the old abandon had departed from her gait, and those who chanced to meet her in the road said that her only passing recognition was a groan.  75
  Alone in her isolated cabin, the woman so recently celebrated for her social proclivities ranged her wash-tubs against the wall; alone she soaked, washed, rinsed, starched, and ironed; and when the week’s routine of labor was over, alone she sat within her cabin door to rest.  76
  For a long time old Nancy Price or Hester Ann Jennings,—the two superannuated old crones on the plantation,—moved by curiosity and an irresistible impulse to “talk erligion” to so fitting a subject, had continued occasionally to drop in to see the silent woman; but they always came away shaking their heads, and declining to stake their reputations on any formulated prophecy as to just how, when, where, or in what direction Lize Ann would come out of her grief. That she was deliberately poising herself for a spring they felt sure; and yet their only prognostications were always prudently ambiguous.  77
  When, however, the widow had consistently for five long months maintained her position as a broken-hearted recluse not to be approached or consoled, the people began to regard her with a degree of genuine respect; and when one Sunday morning the gathering congregation discovered her sitting in church, a solitary figure in black, on the very last of the Amen pews in the corner, they were moved to sympathy.  78
  She had even avoided a sensational entrance by coming early. Her conduct seemed really genuine; and yet it must be confessed that even in view of the doleful figure she made, there were several women present who were a little less comfortable beside their lovers and husbands after they saw her.  79
  If the wives had but known it, however, they need have had no fear. Jake’s deserted wife and child had always weighed painfully upon Lize Ann’s consciousness. Even after his death they had come in, diverting and intercepting sympathy that she felt should have been hers. When she married again she would have an unincumbered, free man, all her own.  80
  As she was first at service to-day, she was last to depart; and so pointedly did she wait for the others to go, that not a sister in church had the temerity to approach her with a welcoming hand, or to join her as she walked home. And this was but the beginning. From this time forward the little mourning figure was at every meeting; and when the minister begged such as desired salvation to remain to be prayed for, she knelt and stayed. When, however, the elders or sisters sought her out, and kneeling beside her, questioned her as to the state of her soul, she only groaned and kept silence.  81
  The brethren were really troubled. They had never encountered sorrow or conviction of sin quite so obstinate, so intangible, so speechless, as this. The minister, Brother Langford, had remembered her sorrowing spirit in an impersonal way, and had colored his sermons with tender appeals to such as mourned and were heavy-laden with grief.  82
  But the truth was, the Reverend Mr. Langford, a tall, handsome bachelor of thirty years or thereabouts, was regarded as the best catch in the parish; and had he been half so magnetic in his personality or half so persuasive of speech, all the dusky maids in the country would have been setting their feathered caps for him.  83
  When he conducted the meetings, there were always so many boisterous births into the Kingdom all around him,—when the regenerate called aloud, as they danced, swayed, or swooned, for “Brother Langford,”—that he had not found time to seek out the silent mourners, and so had not yet found himself face to face with the widow. Finally, however, one Sunday night, just as he passed before her, Lize Ann heaved one of her very best moans.  84
  He was on his knees at her side in a moment. Bending his head very low, he asked, in a voice soft and tender, laying his hand the while gently upon her shoulder, “’Ain’t you foun’ peace yit, Sis’ Johnsing?”  85
  She groaned again.  86
  “What is yo’ mos’ chiefes’ sorrer, Sister Johnsing? Is yo’ heart mo’ grieveder f’om partin’ wid yo’ dear belovin’ pardner, or is yo’ soul weighted down wid a sense o’ inhuman guilt? Speak out an’ tell me, my sister, how yo’ trouble seem ter shape itse’f.”  87
  But the widow, though she turned up to him her dry beseeching eyes, only groaned again.  88
  “Can’t you speak ter yo’ preacher, Sis’ Johnsing? He crave in ’is heart ter he’p you.”  89
  Again she looked into his face, and now, with quivering lip, began to speak: “I can’t talk heah, Brer Langford; I ain’t fittin’; my heart’s clean broke. I ain’t nothin’ but des a miser’ble outcas’. Seem lak even Gord ’isse’f done cas’ me orf. I des comes an’ goes lak a hongry suck-aig dorg wha’ nobody don’t claim, a-skulkin’ roun’ heah in a back seat all by my lone se’f, tryin’ ter pick up a little crumb wha’ fall f’om de table. But seem lak de feas’ is too good fur me. I goes back ter my little dark cabin mo’ harder-hearted an’ mo’ sinfuler ’n I was befo’. Des de ve’y glimsh o’ dat empty cabin seem lak hit turn my heart ter stone.”  90
  She dropped her eyes, and as she bent forward, a tear fell upon the young man’s hand.  91
  His voice was even tenderer than before when he spoke again. “It is a hard lot, my po’ sister, but I am positive sho’ dat de sisters an’ brers o’ de chu’ch would come ter you an’ try ter comfort yo’ soul ef you would give ’em courage fur ter do so.”  92
  “You don’t know me, Brer Langford, er you wouldn’t name sech a word ter me. I’s a sinner, an’ a sinner what love sin. Look lak de wus a sin is, de mo’ hit tas’es lak sugar in my mouf. I can’t trus’ myse’f ter set down an’ talk wid dese heah brers an’ sisters wha’ I knows is one half sperityal an’ fo’ quarters playin’ ketcher wid de devil. I can’t trus’ myse’f wid ’em tell Gord set my soul free f’om sin. I’d soon be howlin’ happy on de Devil’s side des lak I was befo’, facin’ two-forty on de shell road ter perditiom.”  93
  “I see, my po’ sister—I see whar yo’ trouble lay.”  94
  “Yas, an’ dat’s huccome I tooken tol’ yer, ’caze I knowed you is got de sperityal eye to see it. You knows I’s right when I say ter you dat I ain’t gwine set down in my cabin an’ hol’ speech wid nobody less’n ’tis a thoo-an’-thoo sperityal pusson, lak a preacher o’ de gorspil, tell my soul is safe. An’ dey ain’t no minister o’ de sperit wha’ got time ter come an’ set down an’ talk wid a po’ ongordly widder pusson lak me. I don’t spect ’em ter do it. De shepherds can’t teck de time to run an’ haid orf a ole frazzled-out black sheep lak I is, what ’d be a disgrace ter de fol’, any way. Dey ’bleege ter spen’ dey time a-coaxin’ in de purty sleek yo’ng friskin’ lambs, an’ I don’t blame ’em.”  95
  “Don’t talk dat-a-way, Sis’ Johnsing—don’t talk dat-a-way. Sence you done specified yo’ desire, I’ll call an’ see you, an’ talk an’ pray wid you in yo’ cabin whensomever you say de word. I knows yo’ home is kivered by a cloud o’ darkness an’ sorrer. When shill I come to you?”  96
  “De mos’ lonesomes’ time, Brer Langford, an’ de time what harden my heart de mos’, is in de dark berwilderin’ night-times when I fus’ goes home. Seem lak ef I c’d des have some reel Gordly man ter come in wid me, an’ maybe call out some little passenger o’ Scripture to comfort me, tell I c’d des ter say git usen ter de lonesomeness, I c’d maybe feel mo’ cancelized ter de Divine will. But, co’se, I don’t expec’ no yo’ng man lak you is ter teck de trouble ter turn out’n yo’ path fur sech as me.”  97
  “I will do it, Sis’ Johnsing, an’ hit will be a act o’ pleasurable Christianity. When de meet’n’ is over, ef you will wait, er ef you will walk slow, I will overtaken you on de road quick as I shets up de church-house; an’ I pray Gord to give me de seasonable word fur yo’ comfort. Amen, an’ Gord bless yer!”  98
  Lize Ann had nearly reached her cabin when the reverend brother, stepping forward, gallantly placed his hand beneath her elbow, and aided her to mount the one low step which led to her door.  99
  As they entered the room, he produced and struck a match; while she presented a candle, which he lit and placed upon the table. Neither had yet spoken. If he had his word ready, the season for its utterance seemed not to have arrived.  100
  “’Scuse my manners, Brer Langford,” she said finally, “but my heart is so full, seem lak I can’t fine speech. Take a rock’n’-cheer an’ set down tell I stirs de fire ter meck you welcome in my po’ little shanty.”  101
  The split pine which she threw upon the coals brought an immediate illumination; and as the young man looked about the apartment he could hardly believe his eyes, so thorough was its transformation since he had seen it on the day of the funeral.  102
  The hearth, newly reddened, fairly glowed with warm color, and the gleaming white-pine floor seemed fresh from the carpenter’s plane. Dainty white-muslin curtains hung before the little square windows, and from the shelves a dazzling row of tins reflected the blazing fire a dozen times from their polished surfaces.  103
  The widow leaned forward before him, stirring the fire; and when his eyes fell upon her, his astonishment confirmed his speechlessness. She had removed her black bonnet, and the heavy shawl which had enveloped her figure had fallen behind her into her chair. What he saw was a round, trig, neatly clad, youngish woman, whose face, illumined by the flickering fire, was positively charming in its piquant assertion of grief. Across her shapely bosom lay, neatly folded, a snowy kerchief, less white only than her pearly teeth, as smiling through her sadness, she exclaimed as she turned to her guest:—  104
  “Lor’ bless my soul, ef I ’ain’t raked out a sweet ’tater out’n dese coals! I ’feared you’ll be clair disgusted at sech onmannerly doin’s, Brer Langford; but when dey ain’t no company heah, I des kivers up my ’taters wid ashes an’ piles on de live coals, an’ let ’em cook. I don’t reck’n you’d even ter say look at a roas’ ’tater, would you, Brer Langford?”  105
  The person addressed was rubbing his hands together and chuckling. “Ef yer tecks my jedgmint, Sis’ Johnsing, on de pretater question, roas’in’ is de onies way to cook ’em.”  106
  His hostess had already risen, and before he could remonstrate she had drawn up a little table, lifted the potato from its bed, and laid it on a plate before him.  107
  “Ef yer will set down an’ eat a roas’ ’tater in my miser’ble little cabin, Brer Langford, I ’clar’ fo’ gracious hit ’ll raise my sperits mightily. Gord knows I wushes I had some’h’n good to offer you, a-comin’ in out’n de col’; but ef you’ll please, sir, have de mannerliness ter hol’ de candle, I’ll empty my ole cupboard clean inside outen but I’ll fin’ you some’h’n ’nother to spressify yo’ welcome.”  108
  Langford rose, and as he held the light to the open safe, his eyes fairly glared. He was hungry, and the snowy shelves were covered with open vessels of tempting food, all more or less broken, but savory as to odor, and most inviting.  109
  “I ’clare, Sis’ Johnsing—I ’clare!” were the only words that the man of eloquent speech found to express his appreciation and joy; and his entertainer continued:—  110
  “Dis heah cupboard mecks me ’shame’, Brer Langford. Dey ain’t a thing fittin’ fur sech as you in it. Heah’s a pan o’ col’ ’tater pone an’ some cabbage an’ side meat, an’ dis heah’s a few ords an’ eens o’ fried chicken an’ a little passel o’ spare-ribs, piled in wid co’n-brade scraps. Hit don’t look much, but hit’s all clean. Heah, you gimme de candle, an’ you retch ’em all down, please, sir; an’ I ain’t shore, but ef I don’t disremember, dey’s de bes’ half a loaf o’ reeson-cake ’way back in de fur corner. Dat’s hit. Now, dat’s some’h’n like. An’ now pass down de butter; an’ ef yer wants a tumbler o’ sweet milk wid yo’ ’tater, you’ll haf ter hop an’ go fetch it. Lis’n ter me, fur Gord sake, talkin’ ter Brer Langford same as I’d talk ter a reg’lar plantation nigger!”  111
  Langford hesitated. “Less’n you desires de sweet milk, Sis’ Johnsing—”  112
  “I does truly lak a swaller o’ sweet milk wid my ’tater, Brer Langford, but seem lak ’fo’ I’d git it fur myse’f I’d do widout it. Won’t you, please, sir, teck de candle an’ fetch it fur me? Go right thoo my room. Hit’s in a bottle, a-settin’ outside de right-han’ winder des as you go in.”  113
  Langford could not help glancing about the widow’s chamber as he passed through. If the other room was cozy and clean, this one was charming. The white bed, dazzling in its snowy fluted frills, reminded him of its owner, as she sat in all her starched freshness to-night. The polished pine floor here was nearly covered with neatly fringed patches of carpet, suggestive of housewifely taste as well as luxurious comfort.  114
  He had returned with the bottle, and was seating himself, when the disconsolate widow actually burst into a peal of laughter.  115
  “Lord save my soul!” she exclaimed, “ef he ’ain’t gone an’ fetched a bottle o’ beer! You is a caution, Brer Langford! I wouldn’t ’a’ had you know I had dat beer in my house fur nothin’. When I was feelin’ so po’ly in my fus’ grief, seem lak I craved sperityal comfort, an’ I went an’ bought a whole lot o’ lager-beer. I ’lowed maybe I c’d drink my sorrer down, but ’twarn’t no use. I c’d drink beer all night, an’ hit wouldn’t nuver bring nobody to set in dat rockin’-cheer by my side an’ teck comfort wid me. Doos you think fur a perfesser ter teck a little beer ur wine when he feels a nachel faintiness is a fatal sin, Brer Langford?”  116
  “Why, no, Sis’ Johnsing. Succumstances alter cases, an’ hit’s de succumstances o’ drinkin’ what mecks de altercations; an’ de way I looks at it, a Christian man is de onies pusson who oughter dare to trus’ ’isse’f wid de wine cup, ’caze a sinner don’ know when ter stop.”  117
  “Dat soun’ mighty reason’ble, Brer Langford. An’ sence you fetched de beer, now you ’bleege ter drink it. But please, sir, go, lak a good man, an’ bring my milk, on de tother side in de winder.”  118
  The milk was brought, and the Rev. Mr. Langford was soon smacking his lips over the best supper it had been his ministerial good fortune to enjoy for many a day.  119
  As the widow raked a second potato from the fire, she remarked, in a tone of inimitable pathos:—  120
  “Seem lak I can’t git usen ter cookin’ fur one. I cooks fur two ev’y day; an’ somehow I fines a little spec o’ comfort in lookin’ at de odd po’tion, even ef I has ter eat it myse’f. De secon’ ’tater on de hyearth seem lak hit stan’s fur company. Seein’ as you relishes de beer, Brer Langford, I’s proud you made de mistake an’ fetched it. Gord knows somebody better drink it! I got a whole passel o’ bottles in my trunk, an’ I don’t know what ter do wid ’em. A man what wuck an’ talk an’ preach hard as you does, he need a little some’h’n’ ’nother ter keep his cour’ge up.”  121
  It was an hour past midnight when finally the widow let her guest out the back door; and as she directed him how to reach home by a short cut through her field, she said, while she held his hand in parting:—  122
  “Gord will bless you fur dis night, Brer Langford, fur you is truly sakerficed yo’se’f fur a po’ sinner; an’ I b’lieve dey’s mo’ true ’ligion in comfortin’ a po’ lonely widderless ’oman lak I is, what ’ain’t got nobody to stan’ by ’er, dan in all de sermons a-goin’: an’ now I gwine turn my face back todes my lonely fireside wid a better hope an’ a firmer trus’, ’caze I knows de love o’ Gord done sont you ter me. My po’ little brade an’ meat warn’t highfalutin’ nur fine, but you is shared it wid me lak a Christian, an’ I gi’n it ter you wid a free heart.”  123
  Langford returned the pressure of her hand, and even shook it heartily during his parting speech:—  124
  “Good-night, my dear sister, an’ Gord bless you! I feels mo’ courageous an’ strenk’n’d myse’f sence I have shared yo’ lonely fireside; an’ please Gord, I will make it my juty as well as my pleasure to he’p you in a similar manner whensomever you desires my presence. I rejoices to see that you is tryin’ wid a brave heart to rise f’om yo’ sorrer. Keep good cheer, my sister, an’ remember dat the Gord o’ Aberham an’ Isaac an’ Jacob—de patriots o’ de Lord—is also de friend ter de fatherless an’ widders, an’ to them that are desolate an’ oppressed.”  125
  With this beautiful admonition, and a last distinct pressure of the hand, the Rev. Mr. Langford disappeared in the darkness, carefully fastening the top button of his coat as he went, as if to cover securely the upper layer of raisin-cake which still lay, for want of lower space, just beneath it within.  126
  He never felt better in his life.  127
  The widow watched his retreating shadow until she dimly saw one dark leg rise over the rail as he scaled the garden fence; then coming in, she hooked the door, and throwing herself on the floor, rolled over and over, laughing until she cried, verily.  128
  “Stan’ back, gals, stan’ back!” she exclaimed, rising. “Stan’ back, I say! A widder done haided yer off wid a cook-pot!” With eyes fairly dancing, she resumed her seat before the fire. She was too much elated for sleep yet. “I ’clare ’fo’ gracious, I is a devil!” she chuckled. “Po’ Alick—an’ po’ Steve—an’ po’ Jake!” she continued, pausing after each name with something that their spiritual presences might have interpreted as a sigh if they were affectionately hovering near her. “But,” she added, her own thoughts supplying the connection, “Brer Langford gwine be de stylishes’ one o’ de lot.” And then she really sighed. “I mus’ go buy some mo’ beer. Better git two bottles. He mought ax fur mo’, bein’ as I got a trunkful.” And here alone in her cabin she roared aloud. “I does wonder huccome I come ter be sech a devil, anyhow? I ’lowed I was safe ter risk de beer. Better git a dozen bottles, I reck’n; give ’im plenty rope, po’ boy! Well, Langford honey, good-night fur to-night! But perpare, yo’ng man, perpare!” And chuckling as she went, she passed into her own room and went to bed.  129
  The young minister was as good as his promise, and during the next two months he never failed to stop after every evening meeting to look after the spiritual condition of the “widder Johnsing”; while she, with the consummate skill of a practiced hand, saw to it that without apparent forethought her little cupboard should always supply a material entertainment, full, savory, and varied. If on occasion she lamented a dearth of cold dishes, it was that she might insist on sharing her breakfast with her guest; when producing from her magic safe a ready-dressed spring chicken or squirrel, she would broil it upon the coals in his presence, and the young man would depart thoroughly saturated with the odor of her delightful hospitality.  130
  Langford had heard things about this woman in days gone by, but now he was pleased to realize that they had all been malicious inventions prompted by jealousy. Had he commanded the adjectives, he would have described her as the most generous, hospitable, spontaneous, sympathetic, vivacious, and witty, as well as the most artless, of women. As it was, he thought of her a good deal between visits; and whether the thought moved backward or forward, whether it took shape as a memory or an anticipation, he somehow unconsciously smacked his lips and swallowed. And yet, when one of the elders questioned him as to the spiritual state of the still silent mourner, he knit his brow, and answered with a sigh:—  131
  “It is hard ter say, my brothers—it is hard ter say. De ole lady do nourish an’ cherish ’er grief mightily; but yit, ef we hol’ off an’ don’t crowd ’er, I trus’ she’ll come thoo on de Lord’s side yit.”  132
  If there had been the ghost of a twinkle in his interlocutor’s eye, it died out, abashed at itself at this pious and carefully framed reply. The widow was indeed fully ten years Langford’s senior,—a discrepancy as much exaggerated by outward circumstances as it was minimized in their fireside relations.  133
  So matters drifted on for a month longer. The dozen bottles of beer had been followed by a second, and these again by a half-dozen. This last reduced purchase of course had its meaning. Langford was reaching the end of his tether. At last there were but two bottles left. It was Sunday night again.  134
  The little cupboard had been furnished with unusual elaboration, and the savory odors which emanated from its shelves would have filled the room but for the all-pervading essence of bergamot with which the widow had recklessly deluged her hair. Indeed, her entire toilet betrayed exceptional care to-night.  135
  She had not gone to church, and as it was near the hour for dismissal, she was a trifle nervous; feeling confident that the minister would stop in, ostensibly to inquire the cause of her absence. She had tried this before, and he had not disappointed her.  136
  Finally she detected his familiar announcement, a clearing of his throat, as he approached the door.  137
  “Lif’ up de latch an’ walk in, Brer Wolf,” she laughingly called to him; and as he entered she added, “Look lak you come in answer to my thoughts, Brer Langford.”  138
  “Is dat so, Sis’ Johnsing?” he replied, chuckling with delight. “I knowed some’h’n’ ’nother drawed me clean over f’om de chu’ch in de po’in’-down rain.”  139
  “Is it a-rainin’? I ’clare, I see yer brung yo’ umberel; but sett’n heah by de fire, I nuver studies ’bout de elemints. I been studyin’ ’bout some’h’n’ mo’n rain or shine, I tell yer.”  140
  “Is yer, Sis’ Johnsing? What you been studyin’ ’bout?”  141
  “What I been studyin’ ’bout? Nemmine what I been studyin’ ’bout! I studyin’ ’bout Brer Langford now. De po’ man look so tired an’ frazzled out, ’is eyes looks des lak dorg-wood blorsoms. You is des nachelly preached down, Brer Langford, an’ you needs a morsel o’ some’h’n’ ’nother ter stiddy yo’ constitution.” She rose forthwith, and set about arranging the young man’s supper.  142
  “But you ’ain’t tol’ me yit huccome you ’ain’t come ter chu’ch ter-night, Sis’ Johnsing?”  143
  “Nemmine ’bout dat now. I ain’t studyin’ ’bout gwine ter chu’ch now. I des studyin’ ’bout how ter induce de size o’ yo’ eyes down ter dey nachel porportiom. Heah, teck de shovel, an’ rake out a han’ful o’ coals, please, sir, an’ I’ll set dis pan o’ rolls ter bake. Dat’s hit. Now kiver de led good wid live coals an’ ashes. Dat’s a man! Now time you wrastle wid de j’ints o’ dis roas’ guinea-hen, an’ teck de corkscrew an’ perscribe fur dis beer bottle, and go fetch de fresh butter out’n de winder, de rolls ’ll be a-singin’ ‘Now is de accepted time!’”  144
  It was no wonder the young man thought her charming.  145
  Needless to say, the feast, seasoned by a steady flow of humor, was perfect. But all things earthly have an end; and so, by-and-by, it was all over. A pattering rain without served to enhance the genial in-door charm, but it was time to go.  146
  “Well, Sis’ Johnsing, hit’s a-gittin’ on time fur me ter be a-movin’,” said the poor fellow at length—for he hated to leave.  147
  “Yas, I knows it is, Brer Langford,” the hostess answered with a tinge of sadness, “an’ dat ain’t de wust of it.”  148
  “How does you mean, Sis’ Johnsing?”  149
  “’Ain’t I tol’ yer, Brer Langford, ter-night dat my thoughts was wid you? Don’t look at me so quizzical, please, sir, ’caze I got a heavy sorrer in my heart.”  150
  “A sorrer ’bout me, Sis’ Johnsing? How so?”  151
  “Brer Langford—I—I been thinkin’ ’bout you all day, an’—an’—ter come right down ter de p’int, I—I—” She bit her lip and hesitated. “I ’feerd I done put off what I ought ter said ter you tell look lak hit ’ll ’mos’ bre’k my heart to say it.”  152
  “Speak out, fur Gord sake, Sis’ Johnsing, an’ ease yo’ min’! What is yo’ trouble?”  153
  She seemed almost crying. “You—you—you mustn’t come heah no mo’, Brer Langford.”  154
  “Who—me? Wh-wh-what is I done, Sis’ Johnsing?”  155
  “My Gord! how kin I say it? You ’ain’t done nothin’, my dear frien’. You has been Gord’s blessin’ ter me; but—but—I ’clare ’fo’ Gord, how kin I say de word? But—don’t you see yo’se’f how de succumstances stan’? You is a yo’ng man li’ble to fall in love wid any lakly yo’ng gal any day, an’ ter git married—an’ of co’se dat’s right: but don’t you see dat ef a po’ lonesome ’oman lak me put too much ’pendence orn a yo’ng man lak you is, de time gwine come when he gwine git tired a-walkin’ all de way f’om chu’ch in de po’in’-down rain des fur charity ter comfort a lonely sinner pusson lak I is; an’—an’ settin’ heah by myse’f ter-night, I done made up my min’ dat I gwine ’scuse you f’om dis task while I kin stand it. Of co’se I don’t say but hit ’ll be hard. You is tooken me by de han’ an’ he’ped me thoo a dark cloud; but you an’ me mus’ say far’well ter-night, an’ you—you mustn’t come back no mo’.”  156
  Her face was buried in her hands now, and so she could not see her guest’s storm-swept visage as he essayed to answer her.  157
  “You—you—you—you—talkin’ ’bout you c’n stan’ it, Sis’ Johnsing, an’—an’—seem lak you ’s forgitt’n’ all bout me.” His voice was trembling. “I—I knows I ain’t nothin’ but a no’count yo’ng striplin’, so ter speak, an’ you is a mannerly lady o’ speunce: but hit do seem lak ’fo’ you’d send me away, des lak ter say a yaller dorg, you’d—you’d ax me could I stan’ it; an’—an’, tell de trufe, I can’t stan’ it, an’ I ain’t gwine stan’ it, ’less’n you des nachelly, p’int-blank, out an’ out, shets de do’ in my face.”  158
  “Brer Langford—”  159
  “Don’t you say Brer Langford ter me no mo’, ef you please, ma’am; an’—an’ I ain’t gwine call you Sis’ Johnsing no mo’, nuther. You is des, so fur as you consents, hencefo’th an’ fo’ever mo’, in season an’ out’n season—des my Lize Ann. You knows yo’se’f dat we is come ter be each one-’n’ner’s heart’s delight.” He drew his chair nearer, and leaning forward, seized her hand, as he continued: “Leastwise, dat’s de way my heart language hitse’f. I done tooken you fur my sweetness ’fo’ ter-night, Lize Ann, my honey.”  160
  But why follow them any further? Before he left her, the widow had consented, with becoming reluctance, that he should come to her on the following Sunday with the marriage license in his pocket; on one condition, and upon this condition she insisted with unyielding pertinacity. It was that Langford should feel entirely free to change his mind, and to love or to marry any other woman within the week ensuing.  161
  Lize Ann arrived late at service on the following Sunday evening. Her name had just been announced as a happy convert who rejoiced in new-found grace; and when she stepped demurely up the aisle, arrayed in a plain white dress, her face beaming with what seemed a spiritual peace, the congregation were deeply touched, and, eager to welcome her into the fold, began to press forward to extend the right hand of fellowship to one who had come in through so much tribulation. It was a happy time all round; and no one was more jubilant than the young pastor, who seemed indeed to rejoice more over this recovered lamb than over the ninety-and-nine within the fold who had not gone astray.  162
  The young girl converts of recent date, never slow to respond to any invitation which led to the chancel, were specially demonstrative in their affectionate welcome; some even going so far as to embrace the new “sister,” while others were moved to shout and sing as they made the tour of the aisles.  163
  When, however, as soon as congratulations were over, it was formally announced that this identical convert, Mrs. Eliza Ann Johnsing, was then and there to be joined in the holy estate of matrimony to the Reverend Julius Cæsar Langford, the shock was so great that these same blessed damosels looked blankly one upon the other in mute dismay for the space of some minutes; and when presently, as a blushing bride, Lize Ann again turned to them for congratulations, it is a shame to have to write it, but they actually did turn their backs and refuse to speak to her.  164
  The emotions of the company were certainly very much mixed; and the two old crones, Nancy Price and Hester Ann Jennings, sitting side by side in a front pew, were seen to nudge each other, as, their old sides shaking with laughter, they exclaimed:—  165
  “What I tol’ yer, Sis’ Hest’ Ann?”  166
  “What I tol’ yer, Sis’ Nancy?”  167
  “Dat’s des what we tol’ one-’n’ner Lize Ann gwine do!”  168
  Though no guests were bidden to share it, the wedding supper in the little cabin that night was no mean affair; and when Langford, with a chuckling, half-embarrassed, new-proprietary air, drew the cork from the beer bottle beside his plate, Lize Ann said:—  169
  “Hit do do me good ter see how you relishes dat beer.”  170
  But she did not mention that it was the last bottle, and maybe it was just as well.  171

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