The Colonel's Accretion

ON one shore of the Missouri River lived Colonel Kingston, a Missourian and a Secessionist, — in his day. On the opposite shore, on a yellow friable farm of the same alluvial fertility, lived Betsy Tucker, who was of Abolitionist extraction. The Colonel was a bachelor and Betsy a maiden lady.

You have no doubt noticed, dear reader, — especially if you be a lady, — that some of the best men are those who for mysterious reasons never marry. They are men of the finest chivalry and of so reliable a character, that those among them whose lot is cast in the city are chosen as officers in various lodges and as directors in companies ; they are admired by all men’s wives ; they are invited out to dinner ; the children can do as they like with them. In the presence of ladies they converse with evident quiet pleasure on their own familiar topics, but they like mostly to listen in tireless comfort. They are modestly en rapport, and the fragile fair have a surety that they could easily disconcert them at any moment. There is a tinge of temerity about them, and a bashfulness of their boyhood that needs everything but physical protection.

And withal they are solid men of affairs, versed in the world of business, and have such entertaining information that husbands do not bother to impart. They are occasional callers, and they are chivalrous even to first cousins. They have about them that element of decent susceptibility that should have made them early husbands. But this modesty is the very trait which, with a little assistance from circumstances, has carried them over to a point in life where they have become settled contentedly into “ ways,” and are hopeless and lovable lovers-atlarge, and such amusing, chicken-hearted acquaintances. The fact is, they never met the right one at the right time.

To be a bachelor is, to my mind, a subtle accusation. For this reason I have protected the Colonel’s character at once. As for Betsy, it is only necessary to explain that she was from New England. It was shortly after she came to live on the few shore acres that had been bequeathed to her, when she and the Colonel realized that despite the river between them they were nearest neighbors. Such is the interdependence of humanity that I presume if a king were to live next door to a beggar they would soon become neighbors. What with borrowings of butter and sugar and the breaking of pigs into a flower garden, the king would soon have occasion to lean over the back fence and do business either as friend or enemy, — probably as an enemy. Friendship with only a fence between often leads to bad results ; but a nextdoor neighbor across a wide stream is a peculiarly fortunate circumstance. You are next-door neighbors, and there is the consciousness that you do not have to be, — and immediately your soul is lured across the waters. Going up and down every week in the pilot house of the General Meade, the entire lower river was to me a sort of long-drawn-out neighborhood, and I naturally took an interest in the fortunes of Betsy Tucker from the time of her arrival. The Colonel and Betsy finally —

But I must stop gossiping and tell the story in a proper way. It was shortly after Betsy came to take up an independent and self-reliant life on her shore acres that the Colonel went across the river to look for timber he needed. That night when he returned he sat on a sawbuck in deep meditation. He was still looking down into the brown eyes of a little woman who stood scarcely as high as his shoulder. Betsy was beginning to dawn on him, and he was trying to “ make her out.” One moment he was haunted with an experience of gentle refinement and clever insight, again with a disposition that was entirely girlish in its confident responsiveness, and withal a surprising coolness of judgment and an aptitude for masculine ways of looking at things. Her inexperience of practical farming caused him to be deeply concerned in her affairs. He sat on the sawbuck until he saw the light go out in Betsy’s cottage, and again avowed to himself as he arose that she was a “ mighty fine sort of a woman.”

One evening, as the Colonel was about to shove from shore and head his boat for Betsy’s cottonwood tree that loomed like a streak of whitewash in the dusk, he suddenly awoke to the fact that he needed an excuse. Regularly of late he found that he had business to attend to on the other side of the river, — business that made him honestly surprised at himself for having neglected so long. Incidentally he would pass by Betsy’s house and tarry to give her information in regard to her place, or to advise her how to “ run ” the family to whom she had rented the field on shares. But for a man who is so industrious business does not last forever, — and, without knowing it, Colonel Kingston had been playing double with himself for some time past. He had only been honest with himself on those occasions when he went over entirely on Betsy’s business and suggested something that he thought might be of importance to her. As it flashed across Colonel Kingston’s mind that he needed an “excuse,” — something that would deceive Betsy, — he dropped his oars and drifted, — at sea in more ways than one. For the first time he was on the threshold of conscious deceit. Of late his reasons for going across the river had been growing scarcer and of less variety. But as they had always been as he represented them — matters of business — his visits at Betsy’s place had been without self-consciousness, and he had deceived no one but himself. Now as he had no practical business across the river this evening it was plainly a problem of deceiving Betsy Tucker. He drifted slowly down the stream thinking deeply. Finally, a new and happy idea occurred to him, — he would row across and say that he “ just came over to call.” It was an inspiration, an intellectual achievement. Moreover, it was so familiar and so easy to do. He was a man who came over to call, — a man who, when he occasionally did such a thing, plainly and frankly said so. He had become a little distrustful of the excuses he had been finding of late ; they had barely served to deceive the simple mind of Colonel Kingston. To say that he came over to call would lend credence to his former statements that he came on business. His new idea had solved a double problem; it not only took him over the river that evening, but it made the truth turn partner to a lover’s lies. The dusk seemed to be several shades lighter as he put to the oars, and he half regretted that such an excuse could not be used very often.

“ Good-evening, Miss Betsy. Seeing I got everything pretty well done and some time to spare, I thought I would row over and make a call.”

“ Good - evening, Colonel Kingston. Would you mind having a chair on the porch ? I have been sitting out here where I could smell the tobacco flowers.”

The conversation was mostly on Betsy’s side. However, she was not of the kind that think it a duty to keep up a constant chatter by way of entertainment. If she was individual in her conversation, so also was she individual in her silence. And when she rocked gently for several minutes at a time the Colonel was entirely at his ease in spite of the quiet.

It was in the course of this evening, and during such a spell of quiet, that the General Meade took a hand in the affairs of the Colonel. On the weekly trip up we always passed the tall white cottonwood in the early evening. I remember it well, standing close to the shore. I also remember this evening, for when the Meade had passed, and the waves were slopping against the crumbling bank, the glaring trunk of the cottonwood leaned out into the dusk and fell into the river, followed by a heavy plunge of dirt from the shore.

In sudden surprise Betsy rose from her rocker.

“ Don’t be frightened ; it’s just a cavein,” said the Colonel.

When he had reassured her, and spoken of the incident as a common occurrence, they took a walk along the bank to observe the prostrate tree and the loss of land. Then they went back to the porch again, and the Colonel explained at length how the current sometimes undermines the soluble soil and leaves the bank hanging, so that it lets go of its own weight, or is dislodged by the waves of a steamboat. And he added, “ It’s a good thing the boat broke it off before it was ready to let go of itself. It might have hung till some time when you were walking along the shore.”

“ Well, I was just thinking,” replied Betsy, “ that it is fortunate you came as early as you did. If you had been a little later that tree might have struck you.”

The Colonel stayed longer than he had intended that evening. As he started to row homeward he suddenly stopped the boat, and called back in a voice that was strangely authoritative to Betsy, “ You keep away from that shore, Miss Betsy; don’t you come within ten feet of it from now on.”

He had taken careful observation of the water’s edge along Betsy’s frontage, and he suspected that by one of those slight alterations in the current the river had started to “ work ” on Betsy’s place. Like most Missouri shore the face of the yellow clay bank was straight up and down, as it had broken off in former years, — as clean as the work of a gravedigger. Such, in fact, the Missouri is; and many a man’s hopes it has buried in the Gulf.

The next day the Colonel did not worry over an excuse. In the evening he unhesitatingly and cheerfully pulled off toward Betsy Tucker’s, to inquire whether there had been another cave-in. He went the next evening and the next. In the course of time the falling away of slices of Betsy’s land had been sufficient to entirely shift the load that had been weighing on the Colonel’s mind from day to day.

The land fell away with a regularity that justified daily visits. Every evening the Colonel called and made inquiry with a spirit that was exceeding cheerful. And he and Betsy would sit on the porch overlooking the mellow moonlit waters, and talk of old reminiscence or sit in silence, sedately. And the Missouri checked off the Colonel’s visits as regularly as the punching of a meal ticket. Thus we see that at the very time when the Colonel was in desperate straits for a pretext, Nature began playing into his hand.

The Colonel’s quiet evening spells were interrupted with such remarks as, “ Colonel, the gooseberry bush went into the river to-day,” or, “ Colonel, the peach tree is gone.”

Here we will let pass many weeks of hope, happiness, and rosy good fortune for the Colonel. Under the circumstances it will not be necessary to remind the reader that like all things they must some time come to an end.

Finally, the river had encroached until the steps of the porch were overhanging the water. The Colonel spent several days hewing rollers out of the trunk of the cottonwood, which he managed to save from the current, and in a short time he had the house on a movable foundation. He moved it back — just a little.

And now it was more necessary than ever that he should come over regularly. The Colonel sat on the porch with Betsy in comfort of mind and body, and every evening before he went home he winched the house back just enough to keep it from falling into the river. These were blissful hours in the Colonel’s life. Sometimes he recovered manly strength and confidence to such a point that he felt almost able to bring to a climax the desperate deed that had vaguely occurred to him.

During all this time it had never occurred to the Colonel’s mind to offer to Betsy any words of sympathy for the loss of her land ; he did not even waken to the fact that it was in any way a misfortune.

A misfortune is not a certain particular kind of happening. It is all a matter of bearing on other conditions, so that what is a casualty from one standpoint may be a godsend from another. It was hardly selfishness or lack of feeling on the Colonel’s part. Seeing that the falling away of the land was necessary to his visits, the Colonel would not have begrudged the slices of real estate even though they had come from his own good farm. He was oblivious to matters of loss and gain ; he was perfectly content. He would have foolishly remained a procrastinating old bachelor, spending his evenings in Betsy’s company, and he would willingly have winched that house clear around the earth had such a thing been possible.

But, as I wisely remarked, all bliss must come to an end. To the Colonel’s sudden enlightenment it happened before the orchard was gone.

Betsy did not exactly say it, and he could not really prove to himself that she felt or thought as he suspected. And the more he worried, the more he wished that he had reasoning powers strong enough to infallibly formulate, and deduct, and get at what might be the true state of affairs in her mind. But the human mind is subject to no such rules. And the more the Colonel tried to solve that of a woman, the more he saw that it was a kaleidoscopic and sensitive affair that shifted with every viewpoint in a way that no mere thought can prophesy or encompass.

One evening Betsy made certain circuitous remarks. She said, “ Colonel, does n’t this river remain about the same width all the time ? ”

“ Well, yes ; just about — generally.”

“ Even when one of the banks is caving in ? ”

“ Well — yes. Of course. If the other bank stayed the same as it was, the Missouri would spread out into a marsh and would n’t be a river at all.”

In other words, for every foot that was subtracted from Betsy’s place there was necessarily an addition to the Colonel’s estate, either then and there, or in the final outcome. The Colonel, being now brought back suddenly to things of this earth, began to think seriously about this matter. Strangely, he thought, it had never been a matter of concern to him. He recalled all those quiet evening hours, and he asked himself whether Betsy had sat there all that time and thought that he considered it a profitable piece of good fortune to him, and whether she supposed that was why he had been so cheerful ? Most likely. No doubt.

But still it was necessary for him to go over every evening whatever Betsy thought. He noticed that there was a bar forming on his own water front, and it was gradually exposing itself in the shape of new land. He wished fervently that he could sink that land, alter the flow of the river, and put all those caveins back where they belonged. Thereafter, whenever a cave-in came as they sat together, it gave him an inward start; he acted very oblivious, or quickly obtruded some trivial topic, hoping to draw Betsy’s mind from the other one, and keep her from mentioning it to him. And when she remarked, “ That was some more of the potato patch,” he could see that section of land go bodily across the waters and fit itself neatly into his farm. He felt guilty.

Those quiet spells now became of different texture to the Colonel. He did not have the spirit to make so many observations on trivial topics, and he was conscious that he did not act so much at ease as he had done heretofore. Now there were quiet spells of longer duration, during which he would sit and brood and speculate on the only matter between them which he felt sure must be the subject of Betsy’s cogitations. Betsy was, in truth, thinking of her own affairs very seriously, and at times she showed a mood of deep concern.

The Colonel followed her thoughts in imagination, and tried to arrive at her opinion of him ; he put himself in her place, and he immediately felt a resentment toward Colonel Kingston, sole beneficiary of this rank injustice of affairs. He knew that women are not good gamblers, and in the matter of mere worldly fortune he was winning from her. All this time he had sat there and offered not a word of sympathy ; he had actually been cheerful and self-satisfied. He now put himself in her place, and saw that she must have formed a very low opinion of him ; that if something were not done in time she would grow to hate him. Possibly she would order him off her porch at once were it not that she was the victim of his ability to roll the house back. But that night he did not winch it back any farther than usual, just enough to keep it from falling in for another day.

He decided that he would speak to her upon the subject that was troubling him. What would he say, — that he was sorry ? Pshaw! Sorry that he was taking all her land? Maybe she would think it arrant hypocrisy. Anyway she might think that; so it was not a satisfactory thing to venture. He would put his hand in his pocket and pay her for it, but he knew she would not take it. He was sure she would be very courteous toward whatever he said or did, and therefore he could not possibly know what she thought of him.

In all reason it should have become a plain fact to the Colonel that he was in love. But it never becomes evident to a practical man that he is exactly in love. He awakes to the fact that he has come across a rare creature of good sense and charming virtues; he has discovered something that was entirely superfluous before, but which by a strange process has created its own demand, and which behooves him as a selfish creature to fasten upon before the chance is gone.

If he has any rational periods at all, they take shape in a speculation upon marriage in general, which is open to doubt except in his special case.

Had some one come along and offered to cart Betsy away at this juncture it is a certainty that he would have got on his knees in a hurry. This is what brings a man to the test, and is responsible for most of the flirtations in the world. The Colonel imagined her opinions of him to a point where he saw her slipping away ; not into the arms of another man, but still out of the range of any possible affection for him. It was high time to do something. He saw that the only alternative and solution of the affair would be to “ propose.”

He fully decided that he would do so at once — could he only be assured that she would say yes. But he felt there was more than half a chance that she would not say it, and in that event it would be the end of his sitting on the porch. He imagined this state of affairs, and shrank from the calamity. From which it can be seen that the Colonel had got himself into an awful pickle. If he could only know that she did not care for him he would content himself to sit on the porch as long as the place lasted, so he told himself. But as asking her was such a risk he decided that possibly it would be better to wait until the house was backed up against the fence of old man Burns, and Betsy would then decide what she intended to do. If it came to the point of her going away, then would be the time, — a chance of gain with no risk of loss.

In the meantime he worried during the day and sat spellbound in the evening on the lady’s porch. In spite of his logical conclusions, he spent much of the time trying to figure a way out of his dilemma without waiting for the porch to fall into the river. Suppose he asked her — if she misunderstood and was hopelessly lost to his love, he might present practical arguments. If she said “ No,” he would remind her that a time was coming when she would be standing in Burns’s field, landless and homeless. What was the use of waiting ? Betsy had sense. And if she doubted and mistook his love for mere pity, he would sign over to her an equal amount of his own land, and declare it was hers by rights. On the other hand, if it was hers by right, then it belonged to her whether she said yes or no. He would stand committed, and then being independent again she would not have to marry him. Somehow the Colonel could bring no plan to a satisfactory outcome. And giving up his practical theories he immediately became aware, from what he knew of Betsy’s fineness of feeling, that she certainly would say “ No ” to any such inducement. He knew that a man would have to marry her for love, and for nothing else. And so he worried and badgered himself into a state where he resolved to wait until the time when she would be backed into the fence.

Sometimes he thought it strange that Betsy did not offer anything as to her intentions for the near future. In fact, she did not seem to be at all worried as the time drew near ; the more disconcerted and self-conscious the Colonel became, the more she settled into contented repose and quiet self-sufficiency. At times she rocked and hummed to herself as though she were quite happy.

It was early in the fall when the river had completed its work. Betsy’s house had been backed up to the fence. When the steps were hanging over the water old man Burns consented to have it occupy space on his land, but only for a time. The Colonel made a breach in the fence, and shifted the building for the last time.

That evening, when the Colonel got out of his skiff, Betsy arose from her chair and stood looking at him in surprise. The Colonel was clad in a new pepper-andsalt suit; his boots were highly polished, and he wore a silk hat that lent awesome height to his six feet of stature.

She went down to the shore to meet him, and as she took his big wide hand she looked straight up at him in undisguised wonder. She carefully bestowed his hat in the parlor, and then came out to where he had seated himself as usual in the armchair on the porch. It was a clear moonlit evening, with a green sky above the yellow waters. They talked on and on. The Colonel thought that Miss Betsy had never chatted so entertainingly. Once when she responded appreciatively to his observations he stole a glance at himself in his imposing attire, and he felt almost raised to a respectable opinion of himself. The moon rose higher and higher, and the time passed swiftly. There were pauses in the conversation, silences that he felt to be pointing directly at him, times when it was plain that if he had any important statement to make, now was the time to make it. Each time the Colonel looked into Betsy’s eyes and quailed.

The moon passed the zenith, and threw the shadow of the porch toward the river. The Colonel was becoming much disappointed in himself.

Finally he tried to lay the blame on his new clothes, but his common sense would not have it that way. When the silences were longer than usual, and becoming more and more embarrassing because it was so ominously late, he slowly arose and said, “ Well, if you ’ll get my hat, Miss Betsy, I guess I ’ll be going.” As she brought it, the Colonel looked down upon her small delicate form, and never did he feel so “ cheap ” in his life.

Betsy stood with the hat in her hand — hesitating. She said, “Colonel, there was something I wanted to tell you.” He immediately sat down.

“ Colonel, I have made arrangements to sell the house to Mr. Burns.”

“ Sell the house — the house — How much did he offer you for it ? ”

“ He said he would give me a hundred dollars — which is about all it is worth.”

“ I ’ll give you two hundred.” The Colonel was on the point of blurting out higher bids, — five hundred, — a thousand. But no, not a thousand. That would be enough for her to buy another farm. With this flash of discreet policy he halted and repeated, “ Two hundred.”

“ Why, what would you do with the house — over here across the river ? ”

“ Well — I’d — I’d — take it to pieces and use the lumber for something or other, — and especially the porch. I think I could get that across the river as it is. I always did like this here porch pretty well.”

Betsy stood with her eyes cast down.

“ Well, Colonel, of course you can have it — if you — of course ”—

She came to a stop with a tremor in her words. She was standing in the light that came through the window from the parlor lamp. The Colonel was waiting in the shadow. A tear was glistening in the corner of her eye, — a tear that grew big and rolled suddenly down her cheek. The Colonel was nonplussed, dumfounded, and entirely at sea.

“ Don’t cry, Betsy; why, I would n’t cry, Betsy.” He spoke with a tenderness that was more than sympathy. Whereat Betsy immediately “ cried.” She sat down in the rocker, holding her apron to her face, and became quiet.

The Colonel stooped over her and said softly, “ Don’t cry, Betsy.”

She had suppressed herself bravely, but now she sobbed audibly.

Right there the Colonel threw his worthless self to the winds, —new clothes and all. He picked her up bodily and sat down with her in his lap, her face hidden on his breast. He rocked back and forth, patting her gently, and trying to console her with such remarks as instinct gives a man when he quiets his first child.

“ Hush, now; be quiet, Betsy; don’t cry. There, now, I want to tell you something.” His head was bowed and his cheek pressed against her hair.

“ Betsy, I love you. Now don’t cry, Betsy. Do you hear me, Betsy ? ”

A muffled and hardly audible “ Yes ” came from the folds of his coat.

“ Betsy, I ain’t much good some ways, and I never did have any sense with women. But, Betsy, do you think that if I took good care of you, and treated you like my own little girl, that you could come over and live on my place ? Do you believe that I love you, Betsy ? ”

The Colonel felt three distinct nods against his heart. And that was all he wanted to know.

Betsy’s porch still faces the Missouri, — on the front of the Colonel’s house. The lumber was used to build a new house for the “ niggers,” and the shingles went for kindling wood the following winter.

Charles D. Stewart.