Alex Randall's Conversion
MRS. RANDALL was piecing a quilt. She had various triangular bits of calico, in assorted colors, strung on threads, and distributed in piles on her lap. She had put on her best dress in honor of the minister’s visit, which was just ended. It was a purple, seeded silk, adorned with lapels that hung in wrinkles across her flat chest, and she had spread a gingham apron carefully over her knees, to protect their iridescent splendor.
She was a russet-haired woman, thin, with that blonde thinness which inclines to transparent redness at the tip of the nose and chin, and the hand that hovered over the quilt patches, in careful selection of colors for a “ star and chain ” pattern, was of a glistening red, and coarsely knotted at the knuckles, in somewhat striking contrast to her delicate face.
Her husband sat at a table in one corner of the spotless kitchen, eating a belated lunch. He was a tall man, and stooped so that his sunburned beard almost touched the plate.
“ Mr. Turnbull was here,” said Mrs. Randall, with an air of introducing a subject rather than of giving information.
The man held a knife-load of smearcase in front of his mouth, and grunted. It was not an interrogative grunt, but his wife went on.
“ He said he could ’a’ put off coining if he ’d known you had to go to mill.”
Mr. Randall swallowed the smearcase. His bushy eyebrows met across his face, and he scowled so that the hairs stood out horizontally.
“ Did you tell him I could ’a’ put off going to mill till I knowed he was coming ? ”
His thick, obscure voice seemed to tangle itself in the hay-colored mustache that hid his mouth. His tone was tantalizingly free from anger.
“ I wish you would n’t, Elick,” said his wife reproachfully ; “ not before the children, anyway.”
The children, a girl of seven and a boy of four, sat on the doorstep in a sort of dazed inertia, occasioned by the shock of the household’s sudden and somewhat perplexing return to its week-day atmosphere just as they had adjusted themselves to the low Sabbatic temperature engendered by the minister’s presence.
The girl had two tightly braided wisps of hair in varying hues of corn silk, curving together at the ends like the mandibles of a beetle. She turned when her father spoke, and looked from him to her mother with a round, blue-eyed stare from under her bulging forehead. The boy’s stolid head was thrown back a little, so that his fat neck showed two sunburned wrinkles below his red curls. His gingham apron parted at the topmost button, disclosing a soft, pathetic little back, and his small trousers were hitched up under his arms, the two bone buttons which supported them staring into the room reproachfully, as if conscious of the ignominy of belonging to masculine garb under the feminine eclipse of an apron.
Mrs. Randall bent a troubled gaze upon her offspring, as if expecting to see them wilt visibly under their father’s irreverence.
“ Mary Frances,” she said anxiously, “run away and show little brother the colts.”
The girl got. up and took her brother’s hand.
“ Come on, Wattie,” she said in a small, superior way, very much as if she had added : “ These grown people have weaknesses which it is better for us to pretend not to know. They are going to talk about them.”
Mrs. Randall waited until the two little figures idled across the dooryard before she spoke.
“ I don’t think you ought to act the way you do, Elick, just because you don’t like Mr. Turnbull; it ain’t right.”
The man dropped his chin doggedly, and fed himself without lifting his elbows from the table.
“ I can’t always manage to be at home when folks come a-visiting,” he said, in his gruff, tangled voice.
“ You was at church on Sabbath when Mr. Turnbull gave out the pastoral visitations : he knew that as well as I did. I could n’t say a word to-day. I just had to set here and take it.”
“ No, you did n’t, Matilda : you did n’t have to stay any more than I did.”
“ Elick! ”
The woman’s voice had a sharp reproof in it. He had touched the Calvinistic quick. She might not reverence the man, but the minister was sacred.
“ Well, I can’t help it,” persisted her husband obstinately. “ You can take what you please off him. I don’t want him to say anything to me.”
“ Oh, he did n’t say anything, Elick. What was there to say ? ”
“ He does n’t gener’ly keep still because he has nothing to say.”
The man gave a muffled, explosive laugh, and pushed back his chair. Mrs. Randall’s eyelids reddened. She laid down her work and got up.
“ I guess I ’ll take off this dress before I clear up the things,” she said, in a voice of temporary defeat.
Her husband picked up the empty water-pail as he left the kitchen, and filled it at the well. When he brought it back there was no one visible.
“ Need any wood, Tildy ? ” he called toward the bedroom where she was dressing.
“ No, I guess not.” The voice was indistinct, but she might have had her skirt over her head. Alex made a half-conciliatory pause. He preferred to know that she was not crying.
“ How you been feelin’ to-day ? ”
She was not crying. The man gave his trousers a hitch of relief, and went back to his work.
There had been a scandal in Alex Randall’s early married life. The scattered country community had stood aghast before the certainty of his guilt, and there had been a little lull in the gossip while they waited to see what his wife would do.
Matilda Hazlitt had been counted a spirited girl before her marriage, and there were few of her neighbors who hesitated to assert that she would take her baby and go back to her father’s house. It had been a nine days’ wonder when she had elected to believe in her husband. The injured girl had been an adopted member of the elder Randall’s household, half servant, half daughter, and it was whispered that her love for Alex was older than his marriage. Just how much of the neighborhood talk had reached Matilda’s ears no one knew. The girl had gone away, and the community had accepted Alex Randall for his wife’s sake, but not unqualifiedly.
Mrs. Randall had never been very strong, and of late she had become something of an invalid, as invalidism goes in the country, where women are constantly ailing without any visible neglect of duty. It had “ broke her spirit,” the women said. Some of the younger of them blamed her, but in the main it was esteemed a wifely and Christian course that she should make this pretense of confidence in her husband’s innocence for the sake of her child. No one wondered that it wore upon her health.
Alex had been grateful, every one acknowledged, and it was this fact of his dogged consideration for Matilda’s comfort that served more than anything else to reinstate him somewhat in the good opinion of his neighbors. There had been a good deal of covert sympathy for Mrs. Randall at first, but as years went by it had died out for lack of opportunity to display itself. True, the minister had made an effort once to express to her his approval of her course, but it was not likely that any one else would undertake it, nor that he would repeat the attempt. She had looked at him curiously, and when she spoke the iciness of her tone made his own somewhat frigid utterances seem blushingly warm and familiar by contrast.
“ It would be strange,” she said, “ if a wife should need encouragement to stand by her husband when he is in trouble.”
Alex had hated the minister ever since, and had made this an excuse for growing neglect of religious duties.
“ It is no wonder he dreads to go to preachin’, with that awful sin on his conscience,” the women whispered to one another. They always whispered when they spoke of sin, as if it. were sleeping somewhere near, and were liable to be aroused. Matilda divined their thoughts, and fretted under Alex’s neglect of public service. She wished him to carry his head high, with the dignity of innocence. It appalled him at times to see how perfectly she apprehended her own part as the wife of a man wrongfully accused. He was not dull, but he had a stupid masculine candor of soul that stood aghast before her unswerving hypocrisy. She had never asked him to deny his guilt ; she had simply set herself to establish his innocence.
Small wonder that she was tried and hampered by his failure to act like other people,” as she would have said if she had ever put her worry into words. It had been one of many disappointments to her that he should go to mill that day, instead of putting on his best coat and sitting in sullen discomfort through the pastor’s “ catechising.” She had felt such pride in Ills presence at church on Sabbath ; and then had come the announcement, “ Thursday afternoon, God willing, I shall visit the family of Mr. Alexander Randall.” How austerely respectable it had sounded ! And the people had glanced toward the pew and seen Alex sitting there, with Wattie on his knee. And after all he had gone to mill, and left her to be pitied as the wife of a man who was afraid to face the preacher in his own house !
Matilda slipped the rustling splendor of her purple silk over her head, and went back to the limpness of her weekday calico with a sigh.
When Alex came in for the milk-pail, she was standing by the stove, turning the long strips of salt pork that curled and sizzled in the skillet. Her shoulders seemed to droop a trifle more in her working-dress, but her face was flushed from the heat of the cooking.
“ There was n’t any call to get a warm supper for me, Tildy. I ain’t hungry to speak of.”
“ Well, I guess anyway I ’d better make some milk gravy for the children ; I did n’t have up a fire at noon, see’n’ you was away. It ain’t much trouble.”
Her voice was resolutely cheerful, and Alex knew that the discussion was ended. But after the supper things were cleared away, she said to Mary Frances, " Can’t you go and let your pa see how nice you can say your psa’m ? ”
And the child had gone outside where Alex was sitting, and had stood with her hands behind her, her sharp little shoulders moving in unison with her sing-song as she repeated the verses.
Who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
Nor stands in sinners’ way,
Nor sitteth in the scorner’s chair:
But plaeetli his delight
Upon God’s law, and meditates
On his law day and night.’ ”
The child caught her breath with a long sigh, and hurried on to the end.
Such as ungodly are ;
Nor in th’ assembly of the just
Shall wicked men appear.
Unto the Lord is known;
Whereas the way of wicked men
Shall quite be overthrown.’ ”
Then she stood still, waiting for her father’s praise.
He caught her thin little arm and drew her toward him, where she could not look into his face.
“ You say it very nice, Mary Frances, — very nice indeed.”
And Mary Frances smiled, a prim little satisfied smile, and nestled her slim body against him contentedly.
Ten years drifted away, and there was a new minister in the congregation at Blue Mound. The Reverend Andrew Turnbull had died, and his successor had come from a Western divinity school, with elocutionary honors thick upon him. Under his genial warmth the congregation had thawed into a staid enthusiasm. To take their orthodoxy with this generous coating of zeal and kindliness and graceful rhetoric, and know that the bitterness that proclaimed it genuine was still there, unimpaired and effective, was a luxury that these devout natures were not slow to appreciate. A few practical sermons delivered with the ardor and enthusiasm of a really earnest youth stamped the new-comer as a “rare pulpiter,” and a fresh, bubbling geniality, as sincere as it was effusive, opened a new world to their creed-encompassed souls. Not one of them thought of resenting his youthful patronage. He was the ambassador of God to them, and while they would have been shocked beyond measure at his appearance in the pulpit in a gray coat, they perceived no incongruity between the brightness of his smile and the gloom of his theology.
This man came into Alex Randall’s house with no odor of sanctity about him, and with no knowledge of an unhappy past. Matilda had grown older and stooped more, and her knot of sandy hair was less luxuriant than it had once been, but there were no peevish, fretful lines on her face. It began to grow young again now that she saw Alex becoming “such friends with the minister.” Mary Frances was a tall, round-shouldered girl, teaching the summer school, and Wattie was a sturdy boy in roundabouts, galloping over the farm, clinging horizontally to half-broken colts, and suffering from a perpetual peeling of the skin from his sunburned nose. Matilda was proud of her children. She hoped it was not an ungodly pride. She knelt very often on the braided rug, and buried her worn face in the side of her towering feather bed, while she prayed earnestly that they might honor their father and their mother, that their days might be long in the land which the Lord their God had given them. If she laid a stress upon the word “father,” was it to be wondered at? And the children did honor their father so far as she knew. If he would only join the church, and share with her the responsibility of their precious souls! It had been hard for her, when Wattie was baptized, to stand there alone and feel the pitying looks of the congregation behind her. Her pulse quickened now at every announcement of communion, and she listened with renewed hopefulness when Mr. Anderson leaned forward in the pulpit and gave the solemn invitation to those who had sat under the kindly influence of the gospel for many years untouched to shake off their soul-destroying lethargy, and come forward and enroll themselves on the Lord’s side.
It was the Friday after one of these appeals that Alex came into the kitchen and said awkwardly, —
“I guess I ’ll change my clothes, Matildy, and go over t’ the church this afternoon and meet the session.”
She felt the burden of years lifted from her shoulders. She said simply, —
“I’m real glad of it, Elick. You’ll find two shirts in the middle drawer. I think the under one’s the best.”
Matilda went back to her work, and thought how the stain would be wiped away. “ They ’ll have to give in that he’s a good man now,” she said to herself. She fought with the smile that would curve her lips. The minister would announce it on Sabbath. “ By letter from sister congregations,” and then the names ; and then, “ On profession of faith, Alexander Randall.” She tried to stifle her pride. It must be pride, she said, — it must be something evil that could make her so very, very happy.
It was late when Alex came home, and he did the chores after supper. Mary Frances and Wattie had gone to singing-school, and Matilda was alone in the kitchen when her husband came in. He sat down on the doorstep, with his back to her and his head down, and stuck the blade of his jackknife into the pine step between his feet. There was a long silence, and when he spoke his voice had a husky embarrassment.
“ There’s something I suppose I’d ought to have talked to you about all this time, Matildy, but somehow I could n’t seem to do it. I had a talk with Mr. Anderson, and he brought it up before the session, and they did n’t seem to think anything more need to be said about it. It’s all dead and gone now, and of course you know I ‘ve been sorry time and time and again. I don’t suppose I ought to say it, but it was n’t altogether my fault. She never did act right, but then, of course ” —
“ Elick ! ”
The man heard his name in a quick gasp behind him. He turned and looked up. Matilda was standing over him, with a white, distorted face.
“ Do you mean — to tell me — that it was true ? ”
She got the words out with an effort. Her chin worked convulsively. She looked an old, old woman.
“ True ? ”
The man lifted a dazed, questioning face to hers. He groped his way back through twenty years. This woman had believed in him all the time ! He saw her take two or three steps backward and fall into a chair. They sat there until the room grew dark. The wind began to blow through the house, and Alex got up and put out the cat and shut the door. Then he went to his wife’s side.
“ Don’t you think you’d better go to bed, Matildy ? ”
She shook her head.
“ I suppose there’s such a thing as repentance,” he went on, with a rasp in his voice, “ and a blotting out of sins, isn’t there, Matildy ? ”
She put out her hand and pushed him away. He went into the bedroom and shut the door.
She could hear him pulling off his boots on the bootjack. Then he walked about a little in his stocking feet, and presently the bed-cord squeaked, and she knew he was in bed. Later, she could hear his heavy breathing. She sat there in the dark until she heard Wattie whistling ; then she got up and lit a candle, and opened the door softly. The boy came loping up the path.
“Mary France’s got a beau!” he broke out, with a little snort of ridicule.
His mother laid her hand on his arm.
“Wattie,” she said, “I want you to go out to the barn and harness up old Doll and the colt. I want you to go with me and Mary Frances over to grandfather Hazlitt’s.”
The boy’s mouth and eyes grew round,
“ To-night ? ”
“ Yes, right away. I don’t want you to ask any questions, Wattie. Mother never yet told you to do anything wrong. Just go out and get the team, and be as quiet as you can.”
The boy “ hunched ” his shoulders, and started with long, soft strides toward the barn. His mother heard him begin to whistle again and then stop abruptly. She stood on the step until she heard voices at the gate, and Mary Frances came up the walk between the marigolds and zinnias and stood in the square of light from the door. She met her mother with a pink, bashful face.
“I want you to go upstairs, Mary Frances, and get your other cloak and my blanket shawl. Wattie ’s gone to fetch the horses. You and him and me’s goin’ over to grandfather Hazlitt’s.”
“ To grandfather Hazlitt’s this time o night! Is anybody sick ? ”
“ No, there’s nobody side. I don’t want you should ask any questions, Mary Frances. Just get on your things, and do as mother says; and don’t make any more noise than you can help.”
The young girl went into the house, and came out presently with her mother’s shawl and bonnet. They could hear the wagon driving around to the gate.
Matilda went into the kitchen and blew out the candle. Then she closed the door quietly, and went down the walk with her daughter.
Matilda Randall was not at communion on the next Sabbath. She was “ down sick at her father’s,” the women said, and they thought it hard that she should be absent when Alex joined the church.
“I don’t doubt it’s been quite a cross to her, the way he’s held out, " one of them remarked, “ and it seems a pity she could n’t have been there to partake with him the first time.”
But the weary woman, lying so still in her old room in her father’s house, had a heavier cross.
Her mother tiptoed into the room, the morning after her arrival, and stood beside her until she opened her eyes.
“ Elick is outside, Matildy. Shall I tell him to come in ? ”
She shook her head, and closed her eyes again wearily.
The old woman went out, and confronted her gray-haired husband helplessly.
“ It beats me, Josiah, what he could ’a’ said or done that she’s took to heart so, after what she’s put up with all these years.”
Mr. Anderson preached the funeral sermon very touchingly, when it was all over. The tears came into his young eyes, and there were treacherous breaks in his rhetoric as he talked.
“ This sister in Israel, whose lovely and self-sacrificing life has just ended so peacefully, lived to see the dearest wish of her heart gratified, — the conversion of the husband of her youth to the faith of her fathers. We are told that some have died of grief, but if this frail heart ceased to beat from any excess of emotion, it must have been, my friends, from the fullness of joy, — the joy ‘that cometh in the morning.’ ”
But Alex Randall knew better.
Margaret Collier Graham.