Across the Creek
ROMULUS walked down Goose Alley pondering deeply. A well-filled longseated wagon had just rolled past him, and some familiar faces had flown by.
“ Been a missiona’yin’, I s’pose,” he meditated; “look ter me like de chil’ren at de Ins’tute ’s been a missiona’yin’.”
He sauntered on in the early evening light, his mental comments running smoothly.
“ Well, co’se it’s all right ter go missiona’yin’ ef yer selec’s de right pussons ter missiona’y on. I ain’t sayin’ ’t ain’t puffeckly right fer ’em ter do it, an’ co’se I’se glad ter see dey is doin’ it, an’ de only question I’d ax ’em anyway, is where dey been. Caze ef dey been down ter Brudder Jerden’s on de crick, I kin tell ’em now Brudder Jerden doan’ need ’em. But ef dey’s been dowm ter ole Mose ’n’ A’bella Stroud, w’y, dat’s ’tirely dif’rent, caze Mose ’n’ A’bella does need ’em. I kin think o’ some’n’ else -where needs ’em, too, an’ ’t ain’ Brudder Jerden ner Mose ner A’bella nudder. No, suh, it’s old Uncle ’Nezer Smiff over yonder crossen de crick.”
Romulus strolled on until his eye fell suddenly on a well-known, lively, tumbling group just before him in the road.
“ Well, now, ef I ain’t happen ter be lookin’ I s’pose I’d ’a’ walked right over yer! ” he declared warmly. “ An’ ef I’d ’a’ walked right over yer, where yer reckon yer’d be now? Huh? I say ef I’d ’a’ walked right over yer, where yer reckon yer’d be now? ”
The group below did not appear eager to contemplate the possibilities, and Romulus stopped and took one sweeping and comprehensive look around him.
“ Well, ’t would n’ ’a’ been ’nough of yer lef’ ter r’ally speak of’t all,” he continued. “ But sence yer is jes’ manage ter ’scape ez yer has, I say sence yer is jes’ manage ter ’scape, w’y, I’se got sump’n’ ter tell yer, an’ ef yer wants ter hyeah it yer kin jes’ foller me twell I gits raidy ter speak ’bout it.”
They fell in just behind him in a straggling but amiable procession, apparently ready to follow across the continent, if it were necessary, and Romulus strode on in silence. Past the small but tidy dooryards of Goose Alley they made their way until a familiar porch appeared in view, and then Romulus stopped, turning around once more.
“Come awn,” he urged. “I’se gwine wait twell I gits dere befo’ I begins tellin’ it.”
But finally they were there, and Romulus had seated himself comfortably on the porch, the others grouped around him and looking at him with a respect emphasized a bit by the pervading air of mystery.
“Well, now,” he began finally, “ co’se you chil’ren where’s hyeah now is a po’tion o’ de class I’se been a teachin’ fer ser many evenin’s, ain’t yer ? ” They admitted that they probably were a portion of that particularly mentioned class.
“ Ya’as,” agreed Romulus, “ I reckon yer all has been members o’ de class. An’ ef yer’s been yere reg’lar an’ paid ’tention way yer ought, w’y, I ’spec yer ’mount o’ learning is much mo’ ’n ’t was w’en yer fus’ come, ain’t it?” They hardly seemed ready to speak positively on that supposition, but various mild grunts testified to a general feeling in the affirmative.
“ Well, co’se’t is, an’ ef’t ain’t, w’y, ’t oughter be. ’T oughter be much mo’, an’ co’se ’t is, ez I say, ef yer’s paid ’tention way yer ought. Well, now de nex’ question is — doan’t yer p’raps reckon we’s been payin’ almos’ ter much ’tention ter learnin’, ter de neglec’ o’ some udder matters where p’raps we’d oughter be thinkin’ ’bout, too. Co’se yer doan’t want ter be all learnin’! ”
They looked aware, at least, of this threatening danger.
“ No, co’se yer doan’t want ter be all learnin’, caze ef yer’s all learnin’, w’y, look ter me like it’s trouble ahaid fer yer den sho’ — same’s ef yer ain’ no learnin’. W’y, I’se ’quainted wid a gen’leman once, an’ he ain’ nuthin’ but learnin’. Did n’ know nuthin’ else nohow! Jes’ completely ign’rant on eve’y single thing ’cep’ learnin’! Well, co’se ’t would ’a’ been all right fer ’im ef ’tain’ come no call fer ’im ter use nuthin’ ’cep’ ’is learnin’, but trouble wuz it come a call fer ’im one day on a matter where wa’n’t ’sociated wid learnin’ in de ve’y leas’. Ya’as, an’ dat’s de trufe I’se tellin’ yer, too. He’s a settin’ by de winder one day wid ’is books ’n’ papers — w’en some’n’ come along down de road a holl’in’ fire. But natchelly de gen’leman wuz mo’ intrusted in ’is books ’n’ papers ’n he wuz in de fire, so he jes’ kep’ on a studyin’ twell he hyeah ’em holl’in’ fire ag’in, an’ nex’ he knew dey’s a holl’in’ at ’im dat it’s de ve’y house he’s a settin’ in where’s afire. Well, natchelly de gen’leman did n’ know w’at ter do den nudder, caze ez I tole yer, he did n’ know nuthin’ ‘cep’ learnin’, so co’se all he’s thinkin’ ’bout wuz ’is books ’n’ papers. So ’stid o’ jumpin’ up an’ hoppin’ right outen de winder same ez anybuddy wid good all ’roun’sense would ’a’ done, w’y, he jes’ set dere a holl’in’, ‘Oh, my books ’n’ papers! Oh, my books ’n’ papers! ’ twell natchelly de fire kep’ on a spreadin’ an’ nex’ thing he knows, w’y, co’se he’s afire hisself, an’ still he kep’ on settin’ dere a holl’in, ‘Oh, my books ’n’ papers! Oh, my books ’n’ papers! ’ Well, co’se it’s only one thing lef’ fer ’em ter do, an’ dey did’n r’ally like ter do it nudder, but ter save ’im — dey’s jes’ ’blige ter shoot ’im.”
There was an effective pause while the full strength of the story’s moral sank thoroughly in.
“ Well, now, co’se I doan’ mean by dat,” continued Romulus reasonably, “ dat ef yer puts yer mine ’ntirely on learnin’ yer’s mos’ sho’ ter git shot; no, I ain’t r’ally mean dat; w’at I mean is, ’t ain’ sense ter put yer mine ’tirely on learnin’ ez is prove by de gen’leman where got shot. But ’t is sense ter give a li’l’ mo’ all roun’ ’tention ter mos’ eve’ything in gen’al, an’ ez de gen’leman over ’t de Ins’tute said, ter edjercate ‘de haid, de heart, an’ de han’! ’ Now, we’s alraidy tukken up de haid an’ mos’ finish it, nex’ we’s gwine tek up de heart I ”
“ W’at’s we gwine do wid de heart? ” came a modest query.
“ Did yer speak, Theopholus ? Did yer ax w’at’s we gwine do wid de heart ? Well, jes’ look eroun’ yer an’ see de way udder folks ack w’en dey starts in ter train de heart. Fus’ dey begins ter ack r’al kine an’ p’lite w’en dey passes each udder on de road, an’ nex’ dey go ’long an’ do up dey wuk ’thout continyul fussin’ ’n’ quar’lin’ ’bout it, an’ nex’ dey goes ter church puffeckly regerlar even ef it doan’ seem ter do ’em de leas’ good, an’ nex’, w’y, p’raps dey’ll start off a missiona’yin’ on de po’ an’ de sick. Well, yer kin see fer yerselfs it’s mo’ sense ter give a li’l’ mo’ all ’roun’ ’tention ter mos’ eve’ything like dat ’n’t is ter jes’ put eve’y minute continyully on yer haid. So, ez I said, we’s gwine tek up de heart, an’ we’s gwine start right in now by gwine missiona’yin’! ”
This definite announcement caused an unmistakable wave of interest mixed with curiosity to sweep over the small surrounding company, and Romulus proceeded even more definitely.
“ Dat’s jes’ ez true ez any word I’se ever spoke,” he continued warmly; “ we’s gwine start right in by gwine missiona’yin’ now! Ter-night! An’ we’s gwine begin our fus’ missiona’y visit wid old Uncle ’Nezer Smiff. You know who I’se talkin’ ’bout, doan’t yer—ole Uncle ’Nezer Smiff crossen de crick ?” “ Where yer mean — crossen de crick ? Ole Uncle ’Nezer Smiff crossen de crick ? ”
“ Dat’s w’at I say, an’ dat’s jes’ w’at I mean. Ole Uncle ’Nezer Smiff crossen de crick. Now, listen at me, kin yer start right now, soon’s I kin git a hymn-book an’ an axe, an’ any udder piece o’ property where’s customa’y fer missiona’yin’ ? Caze co’se fus’ we mus’ sing ’im a song an’ den we mus’ chop ’im some wood, an’ de reason is I’se right over by Uncle ’Nezer’s house dis mawnin’ an’ I seen he’s gittin’ kine o’ behine on ’is wuk, an’ dat’s w’y I come ter ’cide on Uncle ’Nezer, anyway,”
“ I ain’ gwine chop no wood fer no Uncle nobuddy,” came a sulky growl from the very heart of the surrounding group.
Just a silver thread from a slow, lazy moon was visible away off on the horizon, and the light was faint. But Romulus’s ears were well trained.
“ Wuz dat you speakin’, Benj’mun? ” he inquired, “ an’ did yer say yer ain’ gwine chop no wood fer no Uncle nobuddy ? Well, look ter me like yer spoke wid mo’ sense dat time ’n yer mos’ gen’ly does, Benj’mun, caze trufe is I ain’t de ve’y leas’ idea o’ tekkin’ yer anyway, counten yer bein’ bofe undersize ’n’ mean-favored, ez well ez ’pearin’ worse ’n usual w’en yer starts in ter speak. Furdermo’, I could n’ tek mo ’n two free of yer under no sucumstances ’t all, so p’raps yer better begin ’n’ ax whedder yer kin go, stid o’ settin’ up dere an’ sayin’ yer ain’t.”
There followed a quick succession of meek petitions.
“ Well, now dat’s ’nough fer axin’, too! Now, ef yer ’ll set up so I kin see yer, I’se gwine mek de s’lection an’ tell yer jes’ who kin go.”
There was not a breath to be heard. Romulus eyed the distant silver thread on the horizon critically, and then eyed the waiting group.
“ Yer may go, Theopholus,” he announced ; “ yer may go, Browser, yer may go, Keenie. An’ dat’s all, caze I’se gwine ca’y yer over ’n de boat. I could p’raps tek one mo’ ef’t wa’n’t fer de axe ’n’ de hymn-book, but co’se we doan’t want no drownin’s or capsizin’s, so dat’s all — scusin’ de axe ’n’ de hymn-book.”
But there came the voice of woe unutterable.
“ Please cyan’t yer tek me ? Oh, p-lease cyan’t yer tek me p-place o’ de axe ’n’ de hymn-book ? ”
“ Well, now doan’t set up dere cryin’ ’bout it,” came the amiable objection, “ caze cryin’ doan’t gen’ly do no good, an’ ’side fum dat, look ter me like yer’s talkin’ foolishness, too. How is yer gwine tek de place o’ de axe, Tibe’ius Mo’se, jes’ answer me dat. Or furdermo’, how is yer gwine tek de place o’ de hymnbook!”
Tiberius looked feebly conscious of his shortcomings, and Romulus concluded with the plain facts of the case. “ Yer could n’ do it, Tibe’ius, not ef yer wuz ter practice all night fer it, but I’ll tell yer jes’ w’at yer kin do, sence yer seem ter feel ser bad ’bout it, yer kin go ef yer ’ll promise right now yer won’t move once fum time yer start twell yer git back, an’ ef yer won’t tek up de leas’ bit o’ room in de boat.”
Tiberius complied eagerly with the conditions, and Romulus turned to leave them. “ De ones whose names I’se called kin jes’ set yere twell I come back.”
When he returned, several minutes later, there was no comment made on the fact that he carried two axes as well as a hymn-book, so he commented briefly on the fact himself. “ I ’cided ef we ’s gwine ter r’ally git much done we ’s ’blige ter ca’y two axes, anyway. Co’se I kin see we’s mos’ likely ter sink de boat ’s well ez drown ’n’ capsize, wid de load we’s tekkin’, but’t ain’ no time ter start no argament ’bout it nudder.”
The four chosen ones evidently had no idea of starting an argument, but briskly clambering down the steps behind Romulus, who carried an axe over each shoulder, Theopholus followed next in line, with the hymn-book, and the procession moved impressively down the alley toward the Institute gates — while the less favored members of the company disappeared silently into the darkness.
Through the gates they wound, on to the broad, hard road and across the grounds, winding with the winding road past brightly lighted buildings and on to a long, smooth stretch of grass that rolled down to the waters of the creek. In the distance the Hampton Roads flashed with lights, and, as Romulus stepped down to the wharf, he stopped for a moment, looking down at the dimly flowing waters of the creek and then out at the larger flashing of the Roads.
“ Cert’nly is a pretty night,” he murmured, “ now we ain’ gwine have no playin’ w’ile we’s gittin’ in de boat!”
Judging from the serious, almost funereal aspect of his surrounding attendants, this word of warning seemed a bit misplaced, but they took it without comment or complaint.
“ Se’ down, Theopholus, doan’t yer move, Tibe’ius; now, is yer all raidy?”
Out into the little, dimly-flashing stream they moved, and Romulus, without further conversation, bent silently over his oars, while four small dark faces gazed as silently from the flickering, shadowy water to the sky above.
But the voice of authority sounded once more as the boat washed up lightly on the other side — and then again they were traveling silently on under the night sky, ragged bushes and trees on either side of them, the axes over Romulus’s shoulders sending out occasional little glancing gleams of light — still traveling on.
Finally the leader turned impressively, clearing his throat and pointing mysteriously to a dully gleaming light in the distance.
“ Yer see dat light ? ” he queried, “ caze dat’s jes’ de ve’y spot where Uncle ’Nezer lives, an’ we’s a gwine dere right now. Jes’ foller me.”
And they stood before the leaning cabin, and breathed a gentle, general sigh of relief. Then, suddenly, the dully gleaming light which had beckoned them on went out.
“ Sho’! Well, doan’ make no diffunce — we kin do de missiona’yin’ jes’ zackly de same. Jes’ foller me! ”
Around the cabin he led them, pointing effectively once more at something which loomed boldly up in the moonlight. “ Yer see dat woodpile ? ” he demanded. He deposited his axes on the ground. “ Co’se it’s easy ’nough ter see it. Well, Tibe’ius, you kin climb up dere an’ han’ down, an’ Keenie ’n’ Theopholus you kin start right off a choppin’, an’ Browser you kin se’ down on de steps jes’ long ’nough ter pick out a hymn ter sing ’im ’fo’ we go — an’ ef any of yer needs ’sistance or ’ncouragement, w’y, jes’ call on me.”
Tiberius, on the woodpile, was handing down, Theopholus and Keenie were chopping recklessly, Browser was picking out the hymn with the aid of a match, and Romulus was keeping up a generally encouraging oversight, when there came a shrill, terrified squawk from the woodpile.
“Good Lawd, man!” expostulated Romulus, startled out of all dignity, while Browser jumped excitedly from his seat, dropping his match, “ w’at you reckon you doin’, anyway, wid sech a noise ez dat! W’y, yer like ter mos’ scyare a man ter deaf, ain’t yer! ”
A terrified white hen was bounding lamely down from the woodpile, and the missionaries were looking on with faces of expressionless wonder.
“ Well, now I guess it’s trouble ahaid fer yer sho’! ” declared Romulus hotly; “ wid yer smashin’ ’n’ banging eroun’ up dere yer’s lame de chick’n! ”
The chicken squawked again faintly in feeble agreement, and hopped down from the woodpile and up to the back steps, where she stopped, and with her feathers sticking out in shocked dismay regarded the missionaries with looks of sad reproof.
“ Well, look ter me like yer’s cripple ’er, anyway,” maintained Romulus, “ but ’t ain’ gwine do no good ter stan’ dere lookin’! Jes’ go right ’long wid yer choppin’ an’ I’ll see ef p’raps I kin ’ply some remedy to ’er.”
Just then there was a faint fumbling at the back door, and as it swung open slowly, old Uncle Ebenezer Smith himself moved out on to the step, and then stopped, regarding the moonlit scene. At his feet, below, the chicken still gazed sorrowfully ahead.
Romulus looked up with a graceful smile and a fluent explanation, and the old man, still looking around inquiringly, finally regarded the two choppers at the woodpile, who, now thoroughly in the spirit of their part, were swinging their axes wildly.
“ Come over ter ’sist me wid my wuk?” the old man inquired, with meek anxiety in his eyes. “ Well, cert’nly wuz good of yer, cert’nly wuz ve’y good, but — but laws, boy, yer’s — choppin’ up my bes’ rockin’ cheer! ”
The axes came down with final, faltering thuds, while Uncle Ebenezer stepped down into the yard and ruefully regarded the ruins of his chair.
“ Ya’as — co’se I understan’ yer wuz ’tendin’ it all fer de bes’,” he admitted dismally to the conciliatory Romulus, “ but I pitch dat cheer up on de woodpile dis ve’y day fer mendin’.”
There was a rustle from the steps, and a white hen skipped down into the yard
— lamely, haltingly.
“ Befo’ de Lawd! ” breathed Uncle Ebenezer, “ w’at’s de matter wad ’Gusta ? Is yer cripple ’er?” He bent over the wilted-looking bird, and, lifting her up and placing her securely on the step again, moved back and regarded her silently. The others, grouped silently around the woodpile, regarded her, too, and Augusta, with the same sad look of reproof in her eye, looked back at her audience without flinching.
“ I’se name ’er fer Miss ’Gusta Mer’l — Miss ’Gusta Mer’l fum de No’th,” finally began Uncle Ebenezer in gentle tones of reminiscence, “ an’ it’s allays been my pu’pose ter train ’er up into a puffeckly ’sponsible an’ hon’rable fam’ly chick’n.”
Augusta, blinking sadly on the step, looked her part to perfection.
“ Dat’s jes’ de way I allays has train ’er,” went on Uncle Ebenezer, “an’ now look at ’er! ”
Augusta bore it without a flicker.
“ Well, all’t is,” he continued, “ look ter me like yer’s mos’ completely ruin ’er, eider fer a providin’ chick’n or fer a fam’ly ’sociate.”
Augusta looked sadly but forgivingly at the speaker.
“ An’ all counten yer roostin’ on de woodpile, ’Gusta! ” he went on in sorrowful, direct address. “ Yer know I allays tole yer it wuz a unstiddy place ter res’, an’ yer’d ’a’ gain in de en’ ef yer’d tukken my ’vice an’ come inside way I axed yer. But ’t was allays sump’n awful venturesome ’bout yer, too, ’Gusta, awful venturesome ’n’ exper’mental; an’ not only dat, but cert’nly is true yer’s allays be’n jes’ ali’i’ ’clined ter be strong ’n’ unyieldin’ in yer dispersition. Well, yer kin see it ain’t brought yer nuthin’ but trouble. Jes’ look at yer now! ’T ain’ no brightness lef’ in yer, ner sociability nudder, an’ nuver will be ag’in long’s yer live! ”
Augusta apparently could bear it no longer, and with a sudden shrill squawk of woe unutterable, she hopped distractedly from the step.
“ Hole awn now, ’Gusta,” came the soothing advice, “ hole awn now — Say, look ter me — ” his tones came fraught with conscious helplessness and absolute resignation — “ look ter me like de steps is afire now! ”
Romulus, dimly recalling a hymn-book and a lighted match, dashed wildly forward to a blazing pile of shavings which was merrily kindling the thin, rickety steps, and his followers dashed in confusion after him. Uncle Ebenezer merely stood back resignedly watching, and apparently entirely ready for whatever might come next. Augusta, huddling dejectedly at his feet, watched too, in the same spirit of hopeless resignation.
Finally, when the last danger had been averted and the missionaries were looking back at Uncle Ebenezer and then down at the blackened steps, he spoke again in words which he considered to be both just and reasonable.
“ Co’se I s’pose yer come ter len’ me yer ’sistance,” — he stopped and hastily surveyed the scene around him, and then he looked deprecatingly at Romulus; “ but w’at has yer done ? Yer’s chop up my bes’ rocker, yer’s cripple my fam’ly chick’n, an’ yer’s set my house afire. Pshaw, man, dat ain’t no kindness ter nobuddy!”
Romulus himself was a bit lost for a response, but his attempt was at least brave.
“ We — we could sing yer a hymn jes’ ’fo’ leavin’,” he suggested haltingly but politely.
“ I doan’ guess I cyare ’bout no hymn,” returned Uncle Ebenezer, politely too. “ I’s mos’ ’fraid it mought some ’ow turn inter trouble.”
As they wound around the corner of the moonlit, leaning cabin, their last farewells still echoing faintly but bravely in the stillness, Uncle Ebenezer and Augusta waited side by side,—then turned their heads warily, cautiously, and watched them till they were out of sight.
Down on the shore Romulus was sunk deep in meditation. Finally he turned his head slowly, looked down at four dim dark faces below him, and then as slowdy stepped into the boat.
“ Well, it’s prove ter yer one thing,” he began, glancing from the dark faces out to the sweeping, flashing waters of the Roads, “ an’ dat is de ’mount of it is, it teks learnin’ ter do de ve’y leas’ thing an’ do it ’thout messin’ ’n’ splotchin’ over it. Jes’ looker w’at yer done ter-night! W’y it meks me feel ’shame ter even think of it! Well, I hope dat’s prove ter yer dat it teks mo’ learnin’ ter do missiona’yin’ an’ do it right ’n anybody settin’ in dis yere boat ’s got yit. An’ dat ain’t all, nudder. Look ter me like it teks ser much learnin’ dat ’t ain’t many where’s fit ter ’tempt it, anyway.”
He pushed off with a long, light sweep of the arm, and the boat moved out into the shadowy, flowing waters of the creek.