A BKI.ATED SPRINCi TiMH.
^jTT was a bitterly cold morniiijj^, and the blue-coated •>% policeman who had been walking slowly up and ^^ down the block for half an hour without ceasing, beat his hands together and snuggled his bearded face down into his upturned collar. He looked up and down the avenue anxiously now and then, as if hoping to see some one, but at last paused before a little whitewashed cabin. He waited still irresolute, scanning closely the long broad street, but apparently in vain, for in another moment he had stepped up to the cabin door and opened it without knocking.
'' Happy New Year to you, Uncle Isham," he said cheerily, putting his head in, and smiling pleasantly at the old negro who sat before the fire with a big well-filled platter on the table beside him and a tin cup of steaming coffee in his hand.
• " 'Fo' Gawd, Marse Billy, honey, ef you ain't skeered the goose llesh out on me," said the old man, struggling to his feet, and spilling the coffee, which ran in a little trickling stream down his ragged trousers. " Fust time I seed you dis year sar, an' here day too," he went on, laughing at his
own pleasantry. " Bnt come in out'n de col', chile, an' set down 'fo de fire and ^varm youse'f. An' de same to you, sar, alius an' whatsomever."
" Thanky, Uncle Ishani, thanky," and the officer drew a chair up to the glowing fire that crackled and flared on the wide hearth.
" How's the rheumatiz," he asked, stretching his hands out to the warmth, and looking up to the old man over his shoulder.
'^ Poly, Marse Billy," answered the old man, " poly, thank Gawd. How's youse'f, sar.
" First rate, thanks, old man, but it's cold as charity out there.
'' Hello'. What's all this? " said the officer, breaking off and stooping down to examine a pair of turkey wings and a big outspread tail which lay stretched and drying amid the ashes on the hearth.
" Dem dar, sar," asked the old man shyly, " dem dar's turkey fans, Marse Billy."
" Fans, eh ? " said the officer rising to his feet, and facing about sharply, with his back to the fire, "and what's that in that dish over there? T for turkey bones? Why, man, you must have been having a spread. Why didn't you give me an invite for old times' sake? Haven't been getting married now^, have you, old man, without me to give the bride away?"
" Sho now, Marse Billy," said Isham with a burst of laughter, " who you reckon gwin't marry a no count old fellow lack me?"
" Who? Why that's just what I want to know. Aunt Em'lv. on the other side the fence maybe, ain't it?" asked'Billy. 7
^'You go off now, Marse Billy, chile," said the old man, laughing with infinite delight, and shuffling from one foot to the other nervously. " Slie wouldn't have sech as me nohow."
'' Don't know about that so mueh," the officer went on pleasantly, •' l)ut—where did you say you got your turkey ?"
The old man shuffled to the Hre-place in an embarrassed kind of way, and ])ut on a stick of wood. " It was gin to me, sar."
'^ It was eh? Well, tliat's lueky. And who gin it to you?" the officer turned back his coat tails, ran his hands down deep into his pockets, and gi-iinicd facetiously.
" A lady, sar." •
'^ A lady, Uncle Ishaiu ? Why, this grows interesting. Wish I could Hiul a lady kind enough to ' gin ' me a turkey now and then for a change. A lady? Well, what does that mean? Thiidv you could make enough for two of your size, old man ? How's business anyhow ? "
" Purtv fair, sar, }>urty fair. Ain't got no cause to complain."
'' That's good," said Billy, in an absent-minded, temporizing kind of way. "Cold weather brought you plenty of wood-sawing, 1 reckon. By the by, you weren't in day before yesterday ; at work then ? "
"Yessar, I's out to Col. Gilmers, sar, choppin' stove wood," the old man answered.
''On Jordan Street?"
" Next door to Sam Wilson's? "
"Yessar, Marse Billy," said the old man, hanging his head a little shamefacedly, it seemed; ^^ how come you ax me dat, sar?"
The officer's eyes dropped too as the old man spoke. He opened his watch, and shut it again with a sharp snap. He buttoned up his long coat, and pulled on his wool gloves with a brisk, business-like air. '^ Well, you'll have to come along with me, I reckon, old man," he said at last, looking fiercely down at his boots and shutting his lips firmly.
"What you say, Marse Billy?" the old man asked.
" I reck(>n you'll have to come along with me— to court, you know," the officer answered slowly, looking pitifully at the old man, and rubbing his gloved hands nervously together.
" You see how it is, old man," he said; " Sam Wilson had a turkey taken from his coop night before last, a big, fine gobbler, with bronze markings—" he stoo])ed down and picked up one of the wings from the hearth, examining it critically—'' and—I think we had better go now, old man, it is nearlv nine o'clock."
The old man sank down into his chair covering his face with his hands. He uttered no word, but gave a low sob, like a helpless child.
The young man looked down at him sadly. He was not much to look at to be sure, this poor, broken old man, with whom the passing years had not dealt gently. There was only a fringe of wool now encircling his head like a disjointed nimbus, in the midst of which his bald pate shone like burnished bronze.
Age and rheumatism, and bending over the saw-buck, perhaps, had crooked forever the bowed back, and stiffened t}ie trembling limbs, and the poor old eyes from which the tears trickled slowly now, beneath the knotted fingers, were always red and w^atery from many years of whitewashing.
Sure he was not mu(;h to look upon even at his best, but the young man who stood beside him gazed down at him fondly, ])assing his palm hurriedly before his eyes now and then. He could not remember when Isham had not been to him a dear, loved, familiar sight, this poor old wood-cutter, whom all Shreve-port knew and loved. He remembered with a vividness that smote him in the face, blinding him almost to his duty, more than one dreary night, when he, a ragged barefoot lad, hungry and cold, and worse than homeless, had found shelter and warmth in the old man's cabin, and food at his humble board. Was it so very long since he had sat in that very chimney corner listening to the marvelous adventures of ^^Brer Rabbit'' and the old man's far distant youth ?
Oh, Lord, this wouldn't do ! He fancied he heard the clock on the stroke while he lingered with his duty clear before him. He choked back the tears that filled his big-bearded throat, and stooping over, rested his hand on the old man's head.
'' Maybe it'll all come right. Uncle Isham," he said gently, '' but I think I shall have to go now."
The old man stood u}) dazed and helpless. The officer put his stick in his trembling hand, and reached his ragged old hat from its peg above the fire-place.
He banked the ashes over the glowing coals, and led the old man out, locking the door behind him.
'• You just come on behind me, Uncle Isham," he said with kindly delicacy, and with bowed head he walked down the street slowly, in spite of his haste, that the poor shuffling old feet following him might not suffer.
The little court-room over the market-house was crowded with culprits, poor pleasure-loving creatures who had come to reap the harvest of their holiday wild oats.
The docket was almost completed when they got there, and Billy gave the old man a seat in the corner by the stove. He sat with bowed head, silent and listless, even when his own name was called.
"¦ Stand up, Uncle Isham/^ said Billy, touching him on the shoulder.
'^ Why, is it you, old man ?" asked the mayor, looking kindly over his glasses.
The abject head only bowed lower, but the old man did not speak. He stood leaning on his stick, nervous and pitiful.
The mayor asked the old man no questions. Instead he and Billy held a long consultation together, speaking in husky whispers which the old man seemed not to hear. At the end of it Billy ran his hand down into his pocket, and began to unstrap a thin leather wallet which he pulled out.
But the mayor was clinking together a couple of coins which he held in his hand, and he leaned over his desk to the old man and said, '' I reckon two dollars will compensate Mr. Wilson for the loss of his
gobbler, and another two to the city will make it even, if Billy will let me go halves with him for that amount and—and—I think you may go now, old man, for I am sure I will never see you here again."
The old man lifted his head as if to speak, but his trembling lips were silent, and he did not move.
*' Come, Uncle Isham," said Billy, taking him by the arm.
'^ Beg pardon, your honor/' said a thin-faced, one-eyed constable, rising from his seat by the door, and taking a paper from his inner pocket, " I've a warrant sworn out before Justice Hanks for the arrest of this old negro on the charge of larceny ; 1 shall have to relieve von of him, friend Billy."
'^ Confound that fellow WHson," said Billy between his teeth, when he and the mayor w^ere left alone. ''Why couldn't he be satisfied with the worth of his turkey. If I had known all this I shouldn't have—"
^* Wilson is a new man to the town, Billy, and you must remember, he doesn't know old Isham as w^e do," interru])ted the mayor.
'^ Have you anything to offer in defense," asked young Hanks quite kindly when the old man's case \vas presented. The old iellow shook his head.
^' Shall I appoint counsel?"
'* 'Tain't wuth while, sar," the old man answered. *' Jess lemme know what you want when the gent'man gits thew."
Mr. Wilson was on hand in person to offer testimony, which he did very clearly. The evidence was dead against the old man. On the last day of the old year he liad been engaged in chopping wood for CoL
Gilmer, Mr. Wilson's next-door neighbor. More than once dnring the day he had been seen in Mr. Wilson\s own back yard, talking with his cook.
" HoAV about your cook, Mr. Wilson," said Hanks interrupting him, " do you knoAV her?''
^^ O, yes, she's been with me all the year. She's straight. Old Emily, you know."
" O, Aunt Em'ly,'' said Hanks, reassured.
The old man moved a step nearer the young judge, lifting for a moment his downcast eyes. His hat fell from his trembling lingers, he stooped to pick it up, and the evidence proceeded.
From time to time during the year the old man had been a visitor to Mr. Wilson's kitchen, and also from time to time small quantities of wood had been missing from the wood-pile. However, this was merely in passing: no charge was to be preferred for the wood-stealing. That w^as only a suspicion. But upon New Year's day, having rather more serious doubts concerning the turkey, Mr. Wilson had stopped at the old man's cabin on his way down town, ostensibly to make arrangements for a job of whitewashing, and had then seen drying on the hearth the wings and tail of what had once been his own bronze gobbler.
'^I am sorry, old man," said Hanks when the case was dismissed, ^' but three months w^as as little as I ccJuld give you."
They led him away after a while to the jail behind the court-house, and the old man sat down desolately on a bench against the wall, in the common cell with his fellow-prisoners.
They were a kindly crew enough, these jolly jailbirds whom he found himself among when at last the door was closed upon them, and they soon came to let him alone as he wished them to do. All day long he would sit in his corner unheeding them, and at night when they were asleep he would lie awake, thinking, thinking.
Sometimes Billy came to see him, bringing a plug of tobacco to keep him company, or a little fine-cut for the old man's pipe. But these little kindnesses seemed to make little impression upon him; he only sat just the same when Billy was gone, thinking, thinking.
There was a long stretch of years back of this, the old man's evil hour, which might have unburdened themselves for him, but somehow, now he thought but dimly of them, even the days of his far distant youth, whose tender memories rise to the top like rich cream when the milk of life has soured. He had loved to linger upon them, those far away days when life was young, but now the old man's retrospect extended no further back than the throbbing time of last year's spring.
Yes, it must have begun in the spring-time, that belated budding of love's hope in the old man's bosom, which had commenced in his delight and ended in his undoing—the early spring-time, when the peach blossoms were gay against the wall of Mrs. Citron's shop, and even poor dirty Mugginsville was beautiful with the glory of returning life. Yes, it began in the spring, and the old man remembered that the May-pop vine which grew and sprawled
against the dividing fence 'twixt his own small yard and Em'ly's was then only a young thing whose delicate tendrils he had to lift out of the way of his whitewash brush. That May-pop vine was like himself, the old man had told EmMy once, with its roots on his side the fence, and its ^' hankerings" on hers. And these same '^ hankerings " of his, alns^ what had they cost him, poor old man !
He had felt their first thrill, perhaps, when he sat on his little front gallery that early spring morning and watched Em'ly moving into the cabin so close to his own that they seemed a tiny pair of twins, set down to play in the midst of the dust and dirt of the straggling street. Somehow it had touched a tender chord in the old man's heart to see a comely woman briskening about with a broom in that comfortable, definite way which only women know. It reminded him of what he had once hoped for of the wife of his dead and gone youth. But she had been long ago dead and gone then, too, the wife of his youth, and when death came to claim her for his own, all that he found was a scant shroud-ful of skin and bones. Em'ly now as he had gazed upon her, proved a fine, fat, comely woman whose voluminous turbaned head crowned a fiice ample as a harvest moon's, with her overflowing sides running quite over the belt line and resting upon the spreading hips below, with that generous prodigality which a bounteous nature likes sometimes to show.
As the old man looked back upon it now his chance of ever convincing Em'ly that one little cabin would be big enough for the two of them, must have
beeu a hopeless one from the start, handicapped as he was by age and infirmity, and yet, how tenaciously had he clung to it! And was this to be the end ?
Often and often thro' the long night watches he fancied he heard the turn of Emily's key in the door and her step on the unsteady cabin floor as he had heard them many a time during his year's worship of her. Sometimes too he heard tlie dreary dribble of water, and remembered the two leaking faucets in the rickety tub cistern which split in twain the dividing fence, and stretched a wooden gutter, like a thin brown shaky arm to each of the two conjoined cabins. How tenderly his thoughts had dwelt once upon this existent bond of union between his own home and Em'ly's, but what did it profit him now that when the long hot summer days piled the dust high on the housetops, and no rain fell in all the dirty little city^ what did it profit liim that he had gone thirsty so that the faucet on the other side of the fence might not be empty? And then those long first fall days when the early nipping cold had kindled into brighter flame the smouldering fire on his wide heartli and sent a thin wisp of smoke curling from Em'ly^s round-mouthed chimney—he remembered these too. He remembered something else too that smote him thro' the long days and nights of thinking ; for in all Em'ly's little grass-grown yard never a stick of wood was to be seen, tho' the smoke from her chimney waned not, and her commodious basket which went with her empty in the mornings returned always laden at even-tide after her day's cooking. Poor old man, poor old man !
Was he dreaming, or did he hear Em'ly calling to
liim as she had called to him that New Year's eve? ^^ Isham, Ishain ! " He turned his head over on his cot to shut out the ghost of a sound which haunted him. He had been glad enough to hear it once, however, and to see lier too, that night, standing by the little fence with the street liglit shining on her face and a big brown bundle in her arms.
" Want to ax you to do me a favor," she had said, and by and by she had handed up to him not a parcel, but a big, fat, fluttering turkey.
^* Miss Lou gin it to me," she had said, ^^ Miss Lou Wilson, whar I cook at, an' bein' I's gwine to have comp'ny tomorrer I lowed I'd ax you to kill him and clen liim fur me, an' arter he's cooked an' served I'll pass you over de bones an' j'ints fur to 'commodate youse'f wid."
He kept hearing her voice saying the words over and over again. Surely none heard but himself, as he lay there alone in the dark? Over and over again, over and over again; but dusky wings fanned the old man's cheeks, and by and by he slept.
" Isham, old man ! " He was not dreaming this time to be sure, and he opened his eyes to see the pale daylight creeping thro' the little grated window, and Billy, big and kindly, leaning over him.
'^ It's all right now, old man," he said. '' Your time is up, and I have come to ask your forgiveness for my part in that performance three months ago. I ought to have known better then, but she—I understand now."
The old man scarcely heard, but the sheriff's key grated in the lock once more—and this was freedom!
The strong light in the corridor blinded him, but he thought some one was coming toward him. The old man stood aside to let her pass, but she came quite up to him, took his hand in hers, and called him by name. It was Em'ly.
" I done come fur you, Isham, honey," she said.
The three months of repentance had softened her voice, and her woman's heart too, let us suppose, for there was a wedding in the neat little cabin on her side of the fence that night. Justice Hanks performed the ceremony, and Billy gave the bride away, and carved the big turkey which he had himself provided for the bountiful board.
"¦ You must take better care of the old man, now that you have got him on your side of the fence, Aunt Em'ly," said young Hanks, when he told her good-night.
She looked reproachfully at him as she took the old man's crooked bony hand in her round plump one. '' Don't you, honey, don't you," she said with tears in her eyes, "don't you pesticate de oP man now—my ol' man whose shoe-latches you an' me is not wuthy to on loose."
" Amen," said Billy from the doorway, and the two were left alone in the dawning of another spring.