The Crazy Man


THE falls for which our town is named are not particularly famous, but locally we are very proud of them. The water sweeps smoothly over the rocky ledge and drops a hundred feet into a deep pool; flowing on, after its foam-bubbled eddies subside, through a little natural park of trees and ferns, which has for fifty years been known as Spooners’ Woods.

Above the falls the river is quite wide, pleasantly bordered by grassy meadows, fringed by trees. Because ours is a purely farming community, the falls have never been harnessed to a factory. The water is unpolluted. There are fish above and below the falls — perch, bass, and even trout.

I was fishing, above the falls, when I saw Jed Simms. The water was amber, beginning to clear after rain. It was high and it ran swiftly, gathering force above its drop, as if eager to take the leap. The sound of the falls was a steady, pleasant pounding, like the roll of drums.

It was the beginning of autumn; the goldenrod and the wild asters, the reddening sumachs, were the first heralds of winter. There was a backwash where the river had eaten out the bank, and it was there I hoped to catch my perch, or perhaps one of the big bass said to haunt that hole. I was using live minnows, on a lip hook. I had a jar sunk in the pool, weighted, covered with a wire cap. There were free minnows in that, with tufts of red wool, to act as a lure.

But evening was coming on, and I had fished for three hours without a bob of my float to show that perch or bass were even interested. I had been patient, youthful though I was, for I was a good angler. But I had about come to the conclusion that it was too soon after the rain. I was just about to haul out my jar of minnows, to pack up my rod, when I saw the man they said, later, was crazy.


He was in a boat, a punt with flat bottom and square bows and stern. He owned it, used it for fishing. He had given me my rod, and we were friends, though there was more than half a century between us.

Usually he poled the punt in the shallows, or moored it close to shore. Now he sat on the centre thwart, the craft gripped by the current, his hands motionless. The lowering sun threw mellow light upon his face. It was serene, it seemed eminently sane — as I remembered it; it was so content that I ignored his danger.

He was then perhaps a hundred yards above the falls, the hundred-foot drop to the pool, where rocks thrust up in angled fault formation.

With every yard, punt and current gathered speed. In a few seconds he would not be able to scull clear, even if he had oars and rowlocks. It would take a long rope and a skillful flinger to reach him.

But I did not see that for the moment. He waved his hand to me, and smiled, much as he had done when I had been on the platform one time when he took the train for the county seat — the gesture of a happy traveler.

Then I realized his peril. I stood up and called to him — wildly, after the first shout or two. I saw that he knew what was going to happen, that he accepted it.

The meadows were lonely. I could see nobody. I could think of no way to aid him. There were no boats nearer than a mile. Now he was within twenty yards of the plunge; the punt was turning sidewise to the current. He was doomed!

I was n’t in my teens, then. Panic seized me. It was not merely fear of his fate — I was in the clutch of a terror that was personal. It was akin to the inner horror that seemed to chill the blood on certain dark nights when I passed the corner of the cemetery lot, where a murdered man was buried. I felt the dread of something supernatural, the presence of something that was too strong for my childish spirit to sustain. I think the serenity, the purpose, in the face of the man riding to his death inspired this fright.

Then I heard someone calling cows. I saw the sleek beasts answer, and I ran, panting and stumbling and gasping, to find the farmer. Behind me I heard the drum roll of the falls. I knew that it had happened, that I could do nothing, that no one could do anything . . . and still I ran, in mad dismay. . . .


‘If,’ said my aunt, ‘he did it on purpose, he must have been crazy.’

My father did not dispute her. She had kept house for him since my mother died. She was good, rather than kind; hers was a stern and narrow creed.

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said my grandfather quietly. ‘Jed Simms was getting on, he had no near kin, he owed nobody — and he had cancer.’

‘If he did a thing like that, in his right mind,’ my aunt countered, ‘it was a sin. He died in sin.’

This time nobody said anything. My grandfather never argued. My aunt looked at him angrily — antagonistic, glaring. He gazed at her with something of the same quality that had been in the mien of the man in the punt, of Jed Simms on his last journey. She sniffed. I never saw anyone who could prevail against that look of Grandfather’s.

Seth Minturn described it once.

‘When he looks at you thet way,’ said Seth, ‘you know he knows the answers.’