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   Chapter 7 No.7

Ole Mammy's Torment By Annie F. Johnston Characters: 13955

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Now that berry picking was at an end, John Jay slipped back into his old lazy ways. Errands were run with lagging feet; work was done in the easiest way possible, and everything was left undone that he could by any means avoid. Mammy scolded when she came home at night and found both water-pail and wood-box empty, but he went serenely on with his supper. No matter what happened, nothing ever interfered with his appetite.

"Those chillun are gettin' as bad as little young turkeys 'bout strayin' away from home," mumbled Aunt Susan one morning, as she watched them slip through the fence soon after Sheba had left the house. "An' they ain't anything wussah than young turkeys for runnin' off. 'Peahs like that kind of poultry is nevah satisfied with where they is, but always want to be where they isn't. It's the same with those chillun."

Although Aunt Susan did not know it, there was one place where John Jay and his flock of two were always content to stay; that was on the steps at the side door of the church. Nearly every afternoon found them sitting there in a solemn row, waiting for the shadows to grow long across the grass, for it was then that George oftenest came to play on the organ. He always smiled on the three grave little figures, waiting so patiently for the music of his vesper hymns.

It touched the lonely man to have John Jay follow him about, with that same wistful look in his eyes that a faithful dog has for its master. Sometimes he sat down on the steps beside the children and talked to them awhile, just to see the boy's face light up with pleasure.

It was a mystery to Sheba, how a dignified minister could care for the companionship of such a harum-scarum little creature as her grandson. She did know the tie that bound them, but their natures were as near akin as the acorn and the oak. In John Jay the man saw his own childhood with all its unanswered questions and dumb, groping ambitions; while the boy, looking up to his "Rev'und Gawge" as the highest standard of all manliness, felt faint stirrings within, of the possibility of such growth for himself.

Early one morning George sent a message to Sheba, asking that John Jay might be allowed to spend the day with him and help watch the toll-gate, while Mars' Nat was in town. That morning still stands out in the boy's memory, as one of the happiest he ever spent.

Along in the middle of the afternoon, when travel on the turnpike had almost ceased on account of the heat, George went into his room and lay down. John Jay sat on the floor of the porch, holding the old hound's head in his lap, and lazily smoothing its long soft ears. He felt very important when a wagon rattled up and the toll was dropped into his fingers. He wished that everybody he knew would ride by and find him sitting there in charge; but no one else came for more than an hour. It had seemed as long as ten hours, with nothing to do but slap at the flies and talk to the sleepy hound. John Jay grinned when he saw the arrival, for it was a man whom he knew.

"Good evenin', Mistah Boden," he called, eagerly. The man stopped his horses.

"Hello!" he said. "You're in charge, are you? Where's the rest of the folks?"

"Mars' Nat, he's gone to town to-day," answered John Jay, proudly. "I'm keepin' toll-gate this evenin', Mistah Boden."

"So!" exclaimed the man, with a cunning gleam in his little eyes. "That's the lay of the land, is it?"

Instead of taking out his pocket-book, he threw one foot over his knee, and began to ask questions in a friendly manner that flattered John Jay.

"Let's see. Your name's Hickman, hain't it?"

"Yessa, John Jay Hickman," answered the boy.

"Yes," drawled the man, gnawing at a plug of tobacco which he took from his pocket. "I know all about you. Your mammy used to cook for my wife, and your gran'mammy washed at our house one summer. How is the old woman, anyhow?"

"She's well, thank you, Mistah Boden," was the pleased answer.

"And then there's that brother of her's-Billy! old Uncle Billy! How's he getting on?"

"Oh, he's mighty complainin', Mistah Boden; he's got such a misery in his back all the time that he say he jus' aint got ambition 'nuff to get out'n his own way."

"Is that so?" was the reply, in a tone of flattering interest. The man beckoned him with his whip to step closer.

"Look here, boy," he said, in a confidential tone, "it's a mighty lucky thing for me that Nat Chadwick left you here instead of a stranger. Every penny of change I started with this morning dropped out through a hole in my pocket somewhere. I didn't find it out until I got within sight of the place; then, thinks I to myself, 'oh, it won't make any difference. Nat and I are old friends; he'll pass me.' I guess you can do the same, can't you, being as you're in his place, and I'm an old friend of your family? You needn't say anything about it, and I'll do as much for you some day."

John Jay looked puzzled. Before he could reply George walked out on the porch and stood beside him. He bowed to the man politely. "I'll take the toll, if you please, Mr. Boden. Put up the bar, John."

The man hesitated a moment, then tossed him the change, and gave the horses a cut with his whip that sent them dashing down the road.

"If he wasn't jus' tryin' to sneak his way through 'thout payin'!" exclaimed John Jay, indignantly. George made no comment, but John Jay seemed unable to quit talking about the occurrence. Half an hour later he broke out again: "He thought 'cause I was jus' a little boy he could cheat me, an' nobody would evah know the difference. I nevah in all my life befo' heard tell of anything so mean!"

"Haven't you?" asked George, with such peculiar emphasis and such a queer little smile that John Jay felt guilty, although he could not have told why.

"No, I nevah did," he insisted.

George leaned against the door-casing, and looked thoughtfully across the fields. "There are more turnpikes in life than one, my boy," he said kindly, "and every one has its toll-gate. There is the road to learning. I gave up everything to get through that gate, even my health. One cannot be anything or do anything worth while without paying some sort of toll. It may be time or strength or hard work or patience, and sometimes we have to give them all."

"'Peahs like I've nevah struck any such roads in my travellin'," answered John Jay, carelessly, who often understood George's little parables far better than he cared to acknowledge.

"But I know one road that you are on now, where you try to slip out of paying what you owe every day."

John Jay hung his head, and rubbed his bare feet together in embarrassed silence. If the Reverend George said it was so, it must be so, although he did not know just what he was hinting at.

"Mr. Boden knows very well," continued George, "that the money that is paid here goes to keep the road in good condition for him to travel over. He is very glad to h

ave such a good pike provided for him, but he wants it for nothing. I know a poor old woman who keeps the road smooth for somebody. She works early and late, in hot weather and cold, to earn food and shelter and clothes for somebody; and that somebody eats her bread, and wears out the clothes, and sleeps under her roof, and never pays any toll. He owes her thanks and willing service,-all the help he can give her poor, tired old body, but she never gets even the thanks. He takes all her drudgery as a matter of course."

John Jay's head dropped lower and lower, as he screwed his toes around in the dust of the path, mortified and embarrassed. All the whippings of his life had never stung him so deeply as George's quiet words. He was used to being scolded for his laziness. He never paid any attention to that; but to have his "Rev'und Gawge" regard him as dishonest as Mr. Boden hurt him more than words could express.

Another wagon came rattling up in a cloud of dust. Without waiting to see the newcomer, he dodged around the corner of the house and ran down to the barn. A pair of puppies came frisking out ready for a romp, and an old Maltese cat, stretched out in the sun, stood up and arched its back at his approach. He took no notice of them, but crawling up into the hay, threw himself down in a dark corner with his face hidden in his arms.

Mars' Nat came home after awhile. John Jay could hear Ned putting the horse into the stall, and throwing the corn into the feed-box. Then everything was still for a long time. The sun stole through the cracks of the barn in wide shining streaks, with little motes of dust dancing up and down in the golden light, but John Jay did not see them. A shadow darkened the doorway. He did not see that, for his face was still hidden. There was a step on the barn floor, and a rustling in the hay beside him; then George's hand rested lightly on his head, and his voice said, soothingly, "There, there! I wouldn't cry about it."

"Oh, I nevah thought about things that way befo'!" sobbed John Jay. "I'll nevah sneak out of the work again. I'll tote the wood and watah 'thout waitin' to be asked, an' I'll nevah lick out my tongue at her behine her back as long as I live!"

George bit his lips to keep from laughing, although he was touched by the little penitent's distress.

"Do you know why I said such hard things to you?" he asked. "It was to open your eyes. I want to make a man of you, John Jay. Let me tell you some things about your grandmother that you have never heard. Her whole life has been a struggle, and such a very sad one."

John Jay rubbed his shirt sleeve across his eyes and gave a final snuffle. Some people never have the awakening that came to him that afternoon. Some people go along all their days with no other thought in life than to burrow through their own mole-hills. There in the hay, with the shining dust of the sunbeams falling athwart the old barn floor, the boy lay and listened. Thoughts that he had no words for, ambitions that he could not express, yet that filled him with vague longing, seemed to vibrate along the earnest voice, and tremble from the fulness of George's heart into his. Even after George stopped talking and began to whistle softly in the pause that followed, John Jay lay quite still with his face hidden in his arms.

Ned came in presently, rustling around through the hay after eggs, and singing at the top of his voice. The sound seemed to bring John Jay back to his common every-day self. He sat up, grinning as if he had never heard of such things as tears; but those he had shed must have made his eyesight clearer. As he slid down from the hay and walked along beside George, he noticed for the first time how slow and faltering the steps beside his had grown. As they climbed up the hill to the church, it seemed to him that the beloved face looked unusually thin and haggard in the strong light of the sunset.

George did not play long this evening. He knew that the quiet little listener on the steps bent as readily to the changing moods of his melody as the clover does to the fitful breezes; so he changed abruptly from the minor chords that his fingers instinctively reached for, to an old hymn that smoothed away the pathetic pucker of the boy's forehead. Then he pulled out the stops and began a loud burst of martial music, so glad and triumphant, that, listening, one felt all great things possible of achievement. John Jay stood up, swinging his cap on the end of a stick which he carried, with all the curves and rythmic motions of a drum major.

After George came out and locked the door, he stood for a moment looking out fondly across the peaceful fields, still fair with the fading glow of the summer sun. John Jay looked too, feeling at the same time the touch of a caressing hand laid lightly on his bare head, but he could not see the lips above him that moved in a silent benediction.

When Mammy came home that night, there was wood in the box and water in the pail. The loose boards lying around the yard had been piled up neatly, and the paths were freshly swept. All that evening John Jay's eyes followed her with curious glances whichever way she turned, as if he found her changed. The change was in John Jay.

Next day, when she came home, she found the same state of affairs. It was early in the afternoon, and the children were out playing. She hung up her sun-bonnet, and dropped wearily down into a chair. Then, remembering a pile of clothes that must be mended before dark, she got up and began to hunt for her thimble and thread.

"That tawmentin' boy must have lost 'em," she exclaimed, after a vain search through her work-basket. The clothes were lying on the bed where she had put them. As she gathered them in her arms the thimble rolled out, and a spool of thread with a needle sticking in it fell to the floor.

George came out and locked the door

She shook out Ivy's little blue dress, and began turning it around to find the seam that was ripped. It was drawn together with queer straggling stitches that only the most awkward of fingers could have made. The white buttons on Bud's shirt-waist had been sewed on with black thread, and a spot of blood told where somebody's thumb had felt the sharp thrust of a needle. John Jay's trousers lay at the bottom of the pile, with a little round, puckered patch of calico on each knee.

The tears came into Mammy's eyes as she saw the boy's poor attempt to help. "I'se afeerd he's goin' to die," she muttered in alarm. "I sut'n'ly is. Poah little fellow: he's mighty tryin' to a body's patience sometimes, an' he's made a mess of this mendin', for suah, but I reckon he means all right. He's not so onthinkin' an' onthankful aftah all." She laid the spool and thimble on the window-sill, and folded her hands to rest awhile. There was a tremulous smile on her careworn old face. For one day, at least, John Jay had paid his toll.

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