A Practical Reformation

A Practical Reformation  (1896) 
by James Barnes

Extracted from Scribner's magazine, vol. 20, 1896, pp. 708-717. Accompanying illustrations by Peter Newell may be added later.

A PRACTICAL
REFORMATION

BY JAMES BARNES

Any one of the "Three Misses Kershaw" might have, at some time in the past, laid claims to good looks, and although when they had first arrived at Mendham Miss Eudora's hair was gray, yet it was well remembered that she had been considered quite pretty. The pastor of the First Church (who had buried his wife only a twelvemonth before) had paid her marked attention.

Unfortunately for the matrimonial prospects of the trio no one could ever have married one of them who was not acceptable in every way to the others. Now, as it is impossible for a man to make love to three women who live under the same roof without getting himself into trouble, no one had ever actually dared to propose.

Miss Emmerett, the eldest, was entirely without guile, and depended largely upon ejaculatory prayer; her mercy was seldom tempered with the sternness of justice, and it was her aim to do good as long as she lived. The condition of people's souls was her one absorbing topic, and incredulity had no part in her moral or mental composition. A clever hypocrite could have lived with her unmolested, but an ordinarily honest mortal could not have withstood her oft-expressed spiritual anxiety without a loss of nervous vitality.

Miss Eudosia, the second sister, who had been counted an invalid in the days of her extreme youth, still claimed some privileges derived therefrom, and her energy as to the matter of souls was not so apparent as was her sister's. In fact, Miss Eudosia hated trouble. If roused, however, it had been proven that she possessed a battery of sarcasm sufficient to melt the tenderest earthly sentiments. She believed, moreover, that she had more common-sense than most people, which was the truth.

As for Miss Eudora, the youngest, she accepted the advices of her sisters so readily that it might have been said she was perpetually in a state of unconditional surrender. Miss Eudora still possessed dimples, and any one of the three would tell you that gray hair ran in their family.

It was a sunny day in the middle of July and "The Misses Kershaw" had driven to the village for their mail. It was never very large, consisting usually of one or two letters from the corresponding agents of some missionary society, and a few copies of papers whose only difference was in their titles, and whose contents might have been exchanged without altering their policy. Of course, there was the village journal, the Gleaner, which contained all the news of the outside world in which they could possibly feel the slightest interest.

The thermometer at the village drug-store on this day had recorded ninety-four degrees. The grass on either side of the road was gray with the dust of a rainless fortnight. Even the cobwebs that stretched from stalk to stalk in the cornfields were heavy with the thick, white powder.

The Misses Kershaw were driving along in a decrepit basket phaeton; there was an odor of alpaca in the air about them. The two elder were seated together, and Miss Eudora was propped in a little seat against the dash-board with her back to the yellowish-white nag. All three of the Misses Kershaw wore green veils, and Miss Eudora's had been pulled up so that it formed a straight line across the tip of her nose and just hid her ears. She was opening the village paper.

The old horse had fallen into a walk. As he had become hardened to the slapping of the reins on his back, he plodded along thoughtfully, his head and tail swinging from side to side. Miss Emmerett jerked the reins, and as she did so a strange sound issued from behind her thick green veil.

"Don't do that, Emmerett," said Miss Eudosia, "it makes me nervous."

"I was only trying to cluck to him, my dear," answered Miss Emmerett. "That was the way John used to make him go."

"You do it beautifully," said Miss Eudosia, cuttingly, "but I prefer the dust."

Miss Eudora smiled, and the dimples showed quite plainly.

At this moment they came to a slight decline, and the phaeton, running up on the horse's heels, pushed him into a stiff-legged trot. He slowly forged ahead out of the dry, stifling cloud that enveloped him.

"I don't think the harness is on right," said Miss Emmerett, as the shafts suddenly tossed up almost as high as the horse's ears. "Mary said she didn't know much about harnessing a horse."

"I think she has done very well," said Miss Eudosia; "I helped her put it on." There was no sarcasm this time.

"We'll never get a man like John again," sighed Miss Eudora, spreading the copy of the Gleaner out on her knees.

"He was always very repentant," said Miss Eudosia, "I think——"

But what she was going to say can never be recorded, for she was interrupted by a little shriek from the figure on the low settee.

"Oh, oh, robbers!" Miss Eudora glanced up at her sisters, her mouth wore a frightened look.

Miss Emmerett clucked successfully to the horse, this time without opposition, and half glanced over her shoulder.

"Where?" inquired Eudosia, incredulously.

"In the village—last night. Dr. Hodgman's house was entered."

"I don't suppose they got much there," said Miss Eudosia.

"Oh, dear, and Mr. Berry's also. What shall we do?"

"We must get a man," said Miss Emmerett, firmly.

Now the Misses Kershaw were quite wealthy.

The old horse had turned through a gateway to the left of the road. A very pretty house with a Grecian front was at the end of the short driveway. Vines climbed up the pillars and honeysuckle swayed about the window frames. Half-concealed by a clump of evergreens at the back was a diminutive stable. The former occupant of the place, being of a romantic turn of mind, had named the domicile "Abbey Lodge." As there was no abbey and no lodge this must be put down to romanticism entirely. And not content with thus naming his dwelling, the former owner had inserted a slab of marble bearing the name of his choice into one of the huge stone gate-posts.

Since the advent of the Misses Kershaw some inconsiderate and facetious individual had inscribed a large "T" at the beginning, so that it now read "Tabbey Lodge."

The Misses Kershaw had either not seen fit to notice this, or it had escaped their attention, for there it stood.

The driveway up to the house was made of crushed blue-stone. As it had been little used, the phaeton crunched its way noisily up to the front porch, thus signalling its own approach.

The figure of a tall woman came out of a doorway. She was wiping her hands upon a checked apron, and as Miss Emmerett pulled up at the step she called:

"Hold his head, Mary, while we all get out."

It was a very remarkable thing. The Misses Kershaw had not even felt enough sentiment to name the yellowish-white steed. He had always been "the horse" to them and nothing more.

Miss Eudora had disappeared within the house, but soon emerged carrying in her hand some lumps of sugar. She walked about the phaeton to where Mary was holding the horse's head away from her—with the bridle grasped firmly in both hands. Miss Eudora held one of the lumps of sugar in her outstretched palm. The horse caught one of her fingers with his thick flopping lips, and Eudora, with a nervous scream, dropped the lump on the ground.

"Oh, you beast!" she said. "He would have bitten me."

Foiled in his attempt to get at the tempting morsel the horse stepped forward.

"Hold him!" cried Miss Eudora.

Mary twitched the bridle so fiercely that the horse began to back and toss his head. At last, however, he stopped and suffered himself to be led up to the stable. The harness was removed in somewhat unusual sections and he was tied to the stall with a bow knot.

For the last four days the poor beast's life had been a puzzle to him. He had missed his early morning meal altogether and had been watered at most irregular intervals; his coat also showed the need of a curry-comb, and he had cast a shoe without it having been observed.

"Oh, Emmerett," cried Miss Eudora, when she came into the house, "we must get a man. You should have seen the way that horse behaved!"

At this moment Mary, who had succeeded in disentangling the horse from his surroundings unaided, appeared at the threshold. Mary was strong and muscular. She was young and had fine eyes and large features.

"If it please you, mum, looking at the group and addressing no one in particular, "might I get away to-night? My sister's child is ill and the poor girl is most worked out wid watchin'."

"Why, certainly," said Miss Emmerett, breathing a half-audible prayer for the infant's immediate recovery.

After supper had been finished and the gleaming table-cloth removed, the three sisters sat out on the porch in the twilight. The crickets were chirping and a tree-frog raised his "clack, clack," from a neighboring elm. In the direction of the river a silvery vail of mist was rising against the hills; a few fireflies glinted over the uncut lawn."

"The grass is growing very long," said Miss Eudora.

""We must have a man," said Miss Emmerett, as if at last she had decided. "We'll advertise to-morrow."

"Oh, dear me," said Eudora, stopping her employment of stroking the black cat underneath the chin and raising both her hands, "Mary is away and we forgot about the robbers."

"It's growing very dark," said Miss Emmerett.

"And damp too, don't you think?" said Miss Eudora. "Let's go into the house."

They arose and carried in the cushions.

"Don't you think we had better bring the chairs in?" said the eldest sister.

"The lawn-mower also?" suggested Miss Eudosia.

Whether she meant it or not the sisters were about to comply, when the youngest gazed down the walk.

"Oh, oh!" she said, "there's a man standing by the gate."

Sure enough. There he was, quite plain to be seen in the dim light, but as the three watched him he struck a match on the stone post, lit his pipe, and walked on down the road.

"Let's be sure we lock up carefully," Eudosia said, slamming the door. There was no light in the hall, but the eldest Miss Kershaw appeared with a candle and they made the rounds; tested the lock of every window and paused before the hat-rack.

"Let's take the big chair and put it there at the bottom of the stairs," the eldest suggested, "as a sort of blockade."

"A brilliant idea. I shall wait here for you," said the second, seating herself on the top stair.

It was a very quaint old chair, that had belonged to the Kershaws for a number of years and had a history.

Their only brother, who had soon spent his share of the family inheritance—long before he died—had purchased this chair in England. It was of heavy oak, carved with archaic-looking figures, and bore the date, 1690, in the rough scroll work at the top. The seat was low, and the arms were heavy and of a peculiar shape. It had not been purchased for its beauty, but for another reason that had appealed entirely to a peculiar vein in Mr. Robert Kershaw's nature.

As they lifted it across the hall and placed it at the bottom of the stairs with a thump, Miss Emmerett spoke up.

"I wonder if it's securely caught," she said.

"Oh, it's been so for years," said Miss Eudosia from the top of the stairs. "It's perfectly safe."

"Will you ever forget the fun we had," laughed Miss Eudora, as if at some recollection. "Poor Robert delighted in it, didn't he. I think I will keep a light in my room," she added.

"Yes," remarked Miss Eudosia, leaning over the banisters, "you sleep so much better with it, you know."

At half-past one o'clock that night Miss Eudora had not gone to sleep at all. She had made up her mind that there was no use trying to with the candle burning there upon the table.

Emmerett, after many prayers, had blown out hers some time ago, and Eudosia had dispensed with one altogether.

"I know I'm brave enough to do it," said Miss Eudora, half-rising, and then she paused, her heart beating almost audibly. Surely, yes surely, there was some one moving down below!

"Oh, why did we let Mary leave? She can scream so loudly," said Eudora, remembering the time that the domestic had thought she had seen the ghost of the former owner of the house. "Mercy! What shall we do? What shall we do?"

To reach her sisters' rooms it was necessary for her to go out into the hall.

There, there it was again! Footsteps stealing across the dining-room. She even detected the jingle of the glass candelabrum on the sideboard.

Eudora was too frightened to raise her voice. She paused for a minute and then, picking up the light, opened her door. The rays threw the shadow of the banisters across the opposite wall. If Miss Kershaw had been terrified before, she was now absolutely paralyzed with horror, for she had plainly perceived a man's face looking through the railings. As soon as she had seen it, however, it had disappeared. Under the influence of fear and excitement women have done many unexpected and wondrous things, so history has recorded. Miss Eudora stepped boldly out to the hall and held the light high above her head.

"Who are you?" she asked, quite calmly. Getting no response she leaned out and distinctly saw a man standing within a few feet of her. He began to move silently down the stairs, and as he did so the back of his knees struck the seat of the great oak chair and he sat down suddenly and hard.

Then the most surprising thing occurred. Instantly there was a snap, a sharp click, and two curved iron rods sprang from the arms of the chair. At the same time two other rods, bent in semicircular form, flew out from the back. The first came across the man's legs and the last firmly enclosed his shoulders.

"Well, I'll be damned," said the man, aloud.

Whether it was this remark, or the noise of the clicking, that broke down Eudora's calmness, cannot be told, but she dropped the candle with a shrill scream and ran for Eudosia's room. She plunged into her sister's arms at the door.

"Oh," she sobbed, "there's a man—a man in the house!"

They listened. Nothing could be heard and it was pitch dark.

Although there was certainly no object in whispering, under the circumstances, Eudosia whispered:

"Are you sure, my dear? Hush! Listen!"

At this minute the eldest came from her room also. "I heard something moving, too," she said. "Perhaps he has been frightened off. Let's shout."

Then, before the others could agree, she leaned out and said, tremulously:

"Is anyone down there?"

There was no reply.

"He's gone away," she said.

"He can't get away," broke in Miss Eudora. "Oh, dear! he's caught in brother Robert's chair."

"Hush! "said the second sister, "I hear someone, surely!"

"What's got hold of me? came a deep voice from below.

This time the sisters screamed and ran into the bedroom.

"Open the window and call for help."

"I can't. It's nailed down," said Eudosia.

"Then strike a match or I shall faint," said Eudora, reaching along the dressing-case.

In her excitement her fingers caught the edge of the match-box, and its contents were thrown on the floor. "Oh, darn it!" whispered the youngest Miss came a Kershaw, in her excitement. "I have upset the matches."

At this moment Miss Eudosia found one on the carpet.

With a trembling hand she lit the candle.

"Ladies, oh, ladies," came a masculine voice, "I'm not going to harm you."

"He says he won't harm us," whispered Miss Eudora.

"That's very kind of him," replied Miss Eudosia, cuttingly.

And now Miss Emmerett plucked up courage. She walked to the door.

"Man," she said, "get out the way you came."

There was no answer to this, but a smothered exclamation. "I can't get out," said the voice. "Come down and turn me loose."

"We must go for someone," one of the sisters said.

"We'll have to pass right by him," said Miss Eudora. "Hush! He's talking."

"Now, ladies," came from the darkness, pleadingly. "Jes' listen. You've got me for fair, and if you let me go I'll never do so any more."

This touched a chord in Miss Emmerett's heart.

"He said he wouldn't harm us," she faltered, picking up the light. The man had caught the words.

"No, I won't harm you," he replied; "upon my word of honor. I ain't a bad man. I am jes' unfortunate."

"Yes, I suppose so," said Miss Eudosia, half to herself.

But Emmerett had gone out into the hall. She looked down the stairs.

"He's not a bad-looking man," she said, speaking as if she were about purchasing something.

"Thank you, mum, I have got a good heart, but I have been drove to this."

By this time the two others had joined their sister.

"He can't get away," said the youngest.

Now, to their surprise, Miss Emmerett walked down the stairs until she had approached quite close to the captive in the chair.

He was a lean, hungry-looking man, whose clothes had once been quite respectable. As he observed the figure coming toward him, the prisoner smiled.

"Well, do you know," he said, "I think this is real funny."

"Did you come to rob us?" inquired Miss Emmerett, sternly.

The man paused.

"Now let me think," he said. "Yes, I guess I did, but I won't do it no more. I want to lead an honest life and they won't let me."

"Do you really wish to lead an honest life?" inquired Miss Emmerett, drawing her dressing-gown about her, conscious for the first time that she had on but one slipper.

"I do," said the man, "but I don't get no show."

"Where do you come from?" put in Miss Eudosia, who had hurried on her clothes and had come down the stairs.

"I come from jail three weeks ago," said the man, "and I 'spect I'll go back. There's no place else for a man who has once been there. Nobody will do anything to help 'im."

"Emmerett," said her sister, "go up stairs and put on some clothes. I will talk to him."

She took the candle.

"Why do you steal?" she asked.

"'Cause I'm hungry," said the man, sullenly.

"How did you get in?"

"Through the front door. It wasn't locked," replied the burglar. "What are you going to do with me?"

It was almost gray in the morning.

"We don't know," said Eudosia.

"Don't give me up," pleaded the man. "I have tried to get work everywheres. I will do anything if you won't give me up. No, it wasn't me who robbed them other houses, and I never drink."

Just then there came an unexpected interruption. There was a loud pounding and thumping; a tremendous noise, coming from the direction of the little stable.

"Oh, dear, what has happened now?" ejaculated the youngest sister, starting up. "What is that! what is it?"

"It sounds like a horse got down in his stall," said the man, who was listening.

"Do you know anything about horses?" inquired Miss Eudosia.

"Well, I should smile," said the man; "I was brought up in a stable. Honest, ladies, I haven't always been at this thing and if——"

"Let's let him go," said Miss Emmerett, suddenly returning.

"I haven't took a thing in this house," said the man, "except some bread and butter."

"We'd have given you something to eat," remarked Miss Eudora, kindly.

"Will you promise to reform?" asked Miss Emmerett.

"I'll promise to do my best," returned the man.

The eldest Miss Kershaw at this stepped boldly past him. She reached the back to the chair and pulled down a bolt like an old-fashioned drop-latch. The string that held it was broken. Instantly the springs were released and the iron catches flew back to their concealment. The man stood up and stretched himself.

"Well, I'll swon!" he said. "I never see nothing like it. Where did you get it?"

Perhaps Miss Emmerett would have related the history of the chair had it not been that the pounding was once more renewed in the stable.

"That horse may hurt himself," said the man. "If you will come along with me I will show you how to get him up."

It was a strange sight, the Misses Kershaw accompanying the late burglar to the stable. It was quite light enough to go without a lantern now.

The sisters could not help admiring the way in which the gaunt man twisted his fingers in the horse's tail, and, tugging and straining, assisted the old gray to his feet. He slapped him on the flanks, and the horse whinnied as if glad to see a masculine form again.

"There's a knack in doing that," said the burglar.

When the grocer drove up the next morning he heard the clatter of the mowing-machine. There was a figure striding down the lawn, the grass spurting over his feet.

The grocer stopped his horse.

"Are you the new hired man?" inquired he.

"Yep."

"Well, I bet you don't stay here very long."

"They will have hard work to get rid of me," said the man at the mowing-machine, starting off with a rush, "I think they're real Christians."

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.