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   Chapter 20 No.20

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 19878

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The religious excitement had spread over all the congregation. Every bench held some shouting or praying enthusiast. Some of the women began to move about on the outside, pleading with the bystanders to go forward for prayer. One of them spoke to Westerfelt, but he simply shook his head. Just then he noticed Mrs. Dawson sitting on the end of a bench next to the centre aisle. She had turned half round and was staring at him fixedly. When she caught his eye, she got up and came towards him. Other women were talking to men near him, and no one noticed her approach.

In the depths of her bonnet her withered face had never appeared so hard and unrelenting. She laid her hand on his arm and looked up into his eyes.

"Are you a seeker, John Westerfelt?" she asked, with a sneer.

"No, I am not." He tried to draw his arm away, but her bony fingers clutched and held it.

"They say the's a chance fer all to wipe out sins," she went on, "but I have my doubts 'bout you. You know whar you'll land. You kin mighty nigh feel the hot now, I reckon."

He caught her wrist and tore his arm from her grasp.

"Leave me alone!" he cried; then he dropped her wrist and added: "For Heaven sake don't-don't devil me to death; you make me forget you are a woman and not a beast-a snake! My God, let me alone!"

His angry tone had drawn the attention of a few of the bystanders. A tall, lank countryman, standing near Westerfelt, turned on him.

"Be ashamed o' yorese'f, young man," he said; "ef you don't want to be prayed fer you don't have to, but don't cut up any o' yore shines with these Christian women who are tryin' to do good."

"You don't know what you are talking about," replied Westerfelt, and he turned away quickly, and went across the cleared space to his horse and buggy. Jake, who was lying on the ground with some other negroes, ran forward and unfastened his horse, and gave him the reins.

"Want me to go back wid yer, Marse John?" he asked.

"No," answered Westerfelt, and he drove rapidly homeward. Reaching the stable, he put up his horse, and went to the room over the office. He sat down, took up an old newspaper, and tried to read it, but there seemed to be something in the paling light on the bare fields outside and the stillness of the empty building that oppressed him. He rose and looked out of the window. Not a soul was in sight. The store and the bar, with their closed shutters, looked as if they had not been opened for a century. A brindled cow stood in the middle of the street, jangling a discordant bell, and lowing dolefully. He rose, went down-stairs, walked aimlessly about in the stable, and then went up the street towards Bradley's. He wondered if Harriet had returned, but as he passed the hotel he had not the courage to look in.

Every door of the Bradley house was closed. He tried all the windows, but they were held down by sticks placed over the sashes on the inside. Even the chickens and ducks in the back yard seemed to have fallen under the spell of the unwonted silence. The scare-crow in the cornfield beyond the staked-and-ridered rail fence looked like the corpse of a human being flattened against the yellow sky.

He went out at the gate and turned up the Hawkbill road till he was high enough to see the village street above the trees. Later he noticed the vehicles beginning to come back from the camp-ground, and he returned home by a short path through the fields. He reached the Bradleys' just as Luke was helping his wife out of the spring-wagon at the gate.

"We didn't fetch Mis' Dawson back," explained Mrs. Bradley. "She met some old acquaintances-the Hambrights-an' they made 'er go home with 'em. Lawsy me, haven't I got a lots to tell you, though! You had as well prepare fer a big surprise. You couldn't guess what tuk place out thar atter you left ef you made a thousand dabs at it. Luke, go put up the hoss. I want to talk to John, an' I don't want you to bother us tell I'm through, nuther. You kin find plenty to do out at the barn fer a few minutes."

Westerfelt followed her into the sitting-room and helped her kindle the fire in the big chimney.

"Well, what has happened?" he asked, when the red flames were rolling up from the heap of split pine under the logs.

"It's about Mis' Dawson," announced Mrs. Bradley, as she sank into a big chair and began to unpin her shawl. "She's got religion!"

"You don't mean it!"

"Yes, an' I'm what give it to her-me, an' nobody else. I'm a purty thing to be talkin' that way, but it's the livin' truth. I caused it. When I seed her git up an' go acrost to you and drive you clean off, I got so mad I could a-choked her. I wus sittin' by Brother Tim Mitchell. You don't know 'im, I reckon, but he's the biggest bull-dog preacher 'at ever give out a hymn. He's a ugly customer, not more'n thirty, but he's consecrated, an' had ruther rake a sinner over the coals of repentance 'an eat fried chicken, an' he's a Methodist preacher, too. He's nearly six foot an' a half high an' as slim as a splinter; he lets his hair run long an' curls it some. He's as dark as a Spaniard, an' his face shines like he eats too much grease an' sweats it out through the pores uv his skin.

"Well, he seed me a-lookin' at Mis' Dawson, when she went to devil you, an' he bent over to me an' sez he: 'Sister Bradley, what ails that woman anyhow?'

"'What ails her?' sez I. 'What'd you ax that fer, Brother Tim?'

"'She don't do nat'ral,' sez he. 'I've been talkin' to 'er about 'er speritual welfare ever sence I set down heer, an' she won't say one word. She ain't a bit like the gineral run o' old women; an' what's more, she hain't doin' one bit o' exhortin' that I kin see. I don't know whether she's in the vineyard or not.'

"Then, John Westerfelt, I jest come out an' tol' 'im about 'er. Of course I never give no names; but I made 'im see what ailed her, an' I never seed a man look so interested. 'Sister Bradley,' sez he, rubbin' his hands, when I got through, 'I'm going to wade in an' get hold o' that woman's soul.'

"'Well,' sez I, 'you may have to wade purty fur an' dive consider'ble, fer she's about the toughest snag you ever struck.'

"'I'm a-goin' to have 'er soul,' sez he, an' he laughed. 'I'd ruther make that sort of a struggle for the Lord 'an to put out a burnin' house, ur keep a pizen snake frum bitin' a baby. You watch my smoke. Is she a-comin' back heer?'

"'I kin bring 'er back,' sez I, 'fer right this minute I'd ruther see that woman a shoutin' convert 'n to have a meal sack full o' gold dollars.'

"'Well,' sez he, sorter jokin' like, 'you fetch 'er heer an' set 'er down whar she wus a minute ago, an' I'll put a plaster on 'er back that'll make 'er think she's shoutin' whether she is or not.'

"Well, I went to whar she was outside an' tol' 'er Brother Mitchell wanted to see 'er. 'I jest ain't a-goin' a step,' sez she, 'so I ain't,' an' she looked sorter suspicious.

"'Well, I don't railly see how yo're goin' to help yorese'f, Mis' Dawson,' sez I. 'Goodness knows yo're showin' mighty little int'rust in the meetin' anyways. Looks like you wouldn't insult one of the most saintly men we got by turnin' yore back on 'im. Mebby he wants to ax about startin' a meetin' over yore way. You'd better go.'

"That settled it; I took 'er back an' set 'er down by him, an' he begun to git in his work. I never knowed a man called to preach could be so mealy-mouthed. He begun-you see I was next to him an' could ketch ev'ry word, although thar was jest a regular hullabaloo o' shoutin' an' singin' goin' on all about-he begun by goin' over his own family trouble, an' I wanted to laugh out, fer the Lord knows, while Brother Tim's folks has had some few ordinary reverses, an' did lose a few head o' stock in the war, an' one o' the gals married a no-'count Yankee carpenter an' never would write back home, an' Brother Mitchell's ma an' pa died uv ripe old age-but, as I say, nobody ever thought they wus particular unfortunate. Howsomever, she thought they wus from his tale an' his sad, mournful way o' talkin'. Job an' all he went through, b'iles an' all, wasn't a circumstance, an' it was all the Lord's doin's, Brother Tim said, to show him the true light. I seed she was listenin' an' that he had hold uv 'er some, but I kinder thought she wusn't as easy prey as he 'lowed, fer he broke down once in awhile an' had a sort o' sickly, quivery look about the mouth. All at once he turned to me as mad as a hornet. Sez he: 'It's that dern bonnet,'-no, he didn't say that exactly. I heer Luke say them things so much 'at his words slip in when I'm in a hurry-'it's that bonnet o' her'n, Sister Bradley,' sez he. 'I'll never git 'er in a wearin' way as long as that poke keeps bobbin' up an' down twixt me 'n her eyes. Cayn't you manage to git it off?'

"Well, you kin imagine that wus a difficult thing to do, but I reckon the Lord o' Hosts must 'a' been with us, fer all at once a idee come to me an' I jest leaned over to her. 'Sister Dawson,' sez I, 'I beg yore pardon, but the skirt o' yore bonnet is ripped, le'me see it a minute,' an', la me! Brother Mitchell's eyes fairly danced in his head. I heerd him laugh out sudden an' then he kivered his mouth 'ith his long, bony hand an' coughed as I snatched the bonnet frum 'er head an' begun to tear a seam open. She made a grab over his spindlin' legs fer it, but I paid no attention to 'er, pretendin' to be fixin' it. Then the fun begun. I seed 'im lay hold of 'er wrists an' look 'er spank, dab in the eyes, an' 'en he begun to rant. Purty soon I seed her back limberin' up an' I knowed, as the sayin' is, that she was our meat. All at once, still a-hold o' 'er hands, he turned to me, an' sez he: 'Go ax Brother Quagmire to sing "How firm a foundation" three times, with the second an' last verse left out, an' tell 'im to foller that up with "Jesus, Lover." Git 'im to walk up an' down thi

s aisle-this un, remember. Tell 'im I've got a case heer wuth more 'n a whole bench full o' them scrubs 'at'll backslide as soon as meetin' 's over; tell 'im to whoop 'em up. Sister Bradley, you are addin' more feathers to yore wings right now 'an you ever sprouted in one day o' the Lord's labor. But, for all you do, hold on to that blasted devil's contraption.' He meant the bonnet.

"I slid out 'twixt the benches on one side, an' went round to the stand an' spoke to Brother Quagmire, who wus leadin'; he's the big, white-headed man they say looks like Moody an' has the scalps o' more sinners in 'is belt than any man on the war-path. When I tol' 'im what wus up, he giggled an' said, 'God bless 'im, Mitch is a wheel-hoss!' an' with that he busted out singin' 'How firm a foundation, ye saints o' the Lord,' an' he waved his hands up an' down like a buzzard's wings, an' went up our aisle, a-clappin' an' singin' to beat the Dutch. I never seed the like before. I wusn't cryin' fer the same reason 'at the rest of 'em wus, but the tears wus jest a-streamin' down my face like a leaky well-bucket, fer I believed the thing wus goin' to work, an' I wus thinkin' how glad you'd be. She looked up an' seed my face an' busted out cryin'. Then Brother Mitchell ketched 'er up in his arms an' yelled: 'You little, ol', triflin' thing, I'm a-gwine to put you in the arms o' yore Redeemer,' an' then I jest couldn't help cryin'. Luke seed me give way an' sneeked off to water the hosses. John, she was the happiest creetur God ever made. She laid 'er old bare head in my lap an' cried like a baby. I never railly loved 'er before, but I did then. Somehow she seemed to be my own mother come back to life ag'in. But she didn't shout an' take on like the rest. She jest cried an' cried an' had the youngest look on 'er face I ever seed on a ol' person. Once she said, sez she, 'I'm goin' back to put a grave-rock over Jasper's remains,' an' then I remembered folks said she wus too stingy to do that when Dawson died. She looked like she wanted to talk about you, but I didn't feel called on to fetch up the subject. After awhile she went out to the wagon whar her carpet-bag wus, an' got up in one o' the cheers an' begun to stitch on some'n. I wus puzzled right sharp, fer it wus a Sunday, an' it looked like a funny thing fer a body to do, but atter awhile she come to me with some'n wrapped up in a paper-I'll show it to you in a minute-an' give it to me. It was a pair uv her best knit wool socks. You know some old women think it's a mark o' great respect to give a pair o' socks to anybody that they've knit the'rselves.

"'I want you to take the socks,' sez she, 'an' give 'em to the right person,' sez she, awful bashful like. You know, John, I don't believe all the religion this side o' the burnin' lake kin make some folks beg a body's pardon, not ef they wanted to wuss than anything on earth. She is one o' that sort. I 'lowed right off 'at the socks wus fer you an' started to tell 'er how glad you'd be to git 'em when, all at once, I noticed a letter M worked in red wool on 'em. It was a letter M as plain as anything could be, a big letter M, 'an' that throwed me. Then I thought about Brother Mitchell's name beginnin' with a M, an' so I said, sez I, 'So you want me to give 'em to Brother Mitchell, do you?' An' 'en she flared up. 'Who said a word about Brother Mitchell?' she axed. I seed she wusn't pleased by my mistake, an' so I tried my level best to think o' somebody else with a M to his name, but I couldn't to save my neck, so at last I give it up. 'Yo're entirely too mysterious fer me, Mis' Dawson,' sez I. 'I can't, fer the life o' me, think uv one soul you know whose name begins with a M.' 'M,' sez she, 'who said that was a letter M? Yo're jest a-puttin' on. You know that ain't no M.'

"'That's what it is,' sez I. 'I haven't waited till I'm old enough to have gran'children to l'arn my a b c's.'

"She snatched the socks frum me, an' I 'lowed she wus goin' to throw 'em away, but she turned 'em upside down an' helt 'em before my eyes. 'Do you call that a M?' sez she, an' shore 'nough it was as plain a W as I ever laid eyes on.

"'Oh!' sez I, 'now I see. Do you want me to give 'em to John

Westerfelt?'

"But she wouldn't say narry a word. I seed how the land lay, fer I knowed she'd ruther die, religion ur no religion, 'an come right out in so many words an' say she wus sorry. You know I believe as I'm a-settin' heer 'at thar'll be folks meetin' on the golden sands of eternity, by the River of Life, 'at'll pass one another with the'r noses in the air; but I'll take that back. I reckon thar won't be no noses, nur no air, as fer that matter; folks that's read up on sech matters says everything will be different. The Lord knows I hope it will be. I want a change. But I am gettin' away frum Mis' Dawson. Then I up an' told 'er p'int-blank I wus goin' to give the socks to you with the compliments of the day, an' ef she objected she'd better put in 'er complaint in time, but she jest walked back an' set down in front o' the stand. John, she's that sorry fer all she's said and done 'at she can't talk about it. These heer socks is all the proof you need. I don't think she wants to meet you face to face nuther. She's goin' home in the mornin' in Sam Hambright's wagon. Lord! Peter Slogan an' his wife never 'll know what to make uv 'er. I'd give a purty to be thar when she comes, fer they won't know she's converted, an' she'd be strung up by the toes ruther 'n tell 'em right out."

Mrs. Bradley stood up, and then quickly sat down again. "I thought I'd get them socks out'n the dinner-basket, but I heer Luke a-comin'. He's like a fish out o' water. He seed me a-takin' on with Mis' Dawson, an' he thinks I've got a fresh dose o' religion. I didn't let 'im know no better, an' he wus grum all the way home. He can't put up with a Christian of the excitable sort. Hush, don't say a word; watch me devil him, but ef you don't keep a straight face I'll bust out laughin'. Lordy, I feel good somehow-I reckon it's beca'se yo're shet o' that old woman's persecutions."

Just then Bradley entered and laid his hat on the bed. Westerfelt now noticed the unsettled expression of his face and smiled as he thought of the innocent cause of it.

"Well," said Bradley, "are you through with John? It's high time we wus havin' some'n t' eat."

"Yes," said his wife, with a doleful expression of countenance, "I reckon I'm through with him. Set down in that cheer, Luke. I've been talkin' to John about his speritual welfare, an' it's yore time now. We've got to turn over a new leaf, Luke-me 'n' you has; we've jest gone fur enough in iniquity-that is, you have; I've meant well enough all along."

"I say!" Luke sat down uneasily and glanced at Westerfelt, who sat staring at him with an assumed look of seriousness which threatened to go to pieces at any instant.

"Yes, Luke," went on his wife, "you've been my mill-rock long enough, an' now I'm goin' to take a new an' a firmer stand in my treatment uv you. We used to hold family prayer an' ax the blessin', an' now our house has got to be called the dancin'-door to perdition; we've got to quit all that. I'm a-goin' to smash that jug o' bug-juice o' yo'r'n in the closet, an' not another speck o' the vile truck shall come in my house." (She caught Westerfelt's eye, drew down the side of her face which was next to him, and winked slyly.)

"Oh, you are!" Bradley was a picture of absolute misery. He crossed his legs and then put his feet side by side, only to cross and recross his legs again.

"I've had a great awakenin' to-day, Luke," she went on, "an' now I see nothin' ahead o' me but one solid blaze o' glory. John heer is convicted, an' is goin' to do the right thing, but I reckon he won't have as much to undo as you who are older in wrong livin'. That cow you traded fer with Fred Wade has to go back early in the mornin'. You knowed the one you swapped wus mighty nigh dry, an' 'at his'n come home every night with 'er bag so loaded she could hardly take a step without trippin' up-the fust thing in the mornin', mind you! I want you to git the Book right now, too, an' read some, an' let's begin family worship. Thar it is on the sewin'-machine; I'll bet you ain't looked in it in a month o' Sundays."

Westerfelt was laboriously keeping a straight face, but it was waxing red as blood and his eyes were protruding from their sockets and twinkling with a merriment that was a delight to Mrs. Bradley, who kept glancing at him as she talked.

"What in the dev-what do you mean, Marthy?" Bradley stammered. "The cow kin go back, ef you say so, but blame-but I'll draw a line at home prayin'. I ain't fittin', that's all; I ain't fittin'."

"I know that as well as you do"-Mrs. Bradley wiped a smile from her face and winked at Westerfelt-"but this blessed Sabbath is a good time to begin. Git the Book, Luke!"

"I'll not do it, Marthy; you may shout an' carry on as much as you like, with yore sudden religious spurts, but I believe in regularity, one way ur the other."

"Git that Book, Luke Bradley; git it, I say," and then Westerfelt's laughter burst from him, and he laughed so heartily that an inkling of the truth seemed forced on Bradley, who had witnessed his wife's practical joking before.

"I believe, on my soul, it's a sell," he said, in a tone of vast relief. "Lord, I 'lowed you'd gone plumb crazy."

And then he was sure it was a joke, for Mrs. Bradley had her head between her fat knees, and was laughing as he had never heard her laugh before.

"I paid you back, you ol' goose," she said, when she could master her merriment. "You had no business thinkin' I'd lost my senses, jest because I cried when 'at ol' woman got so happy. I was glad on John's account, but you don't know a bit more now than you did. You couldn't see a wart on yore nose ef you wus cross-eyed."

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