Cap'n Phin Look's Private Heaven

Cap'n Phin Look's Private Heaven  (1904) 
by Holman F. Day

Extracted from "Leslie's" magazine, v.69 1904, pp. 211-218. Accompanying illustrations may be omitted.


By Holman F. Day

I HATE one of these hard-as-iron Christmases! Suppose you drive stage, same as I have to, and see how you like 'em yourself.

No snow. Jack Frost said, "Presto! Freezo!" right on a night when the mud was all cut and criss-crossed by wheel gullies, and there the road was wrinkled like a ram's horn and just as hard.

I had dished two wheels of my Concord coach, first and last, that week, and I struck out for the down trip to the depot that morning feeling as sour as mothered vinegar. Day before Christmas, too! Whang, bang, jounce and yee-haw! Horses' feet striking fire. Bank of snow clouds piled low over south. Sky gray as a new slate. Raw, screechy, scratchy wind that clawed right down a chap's spine. Dead leaves and grit swirling in the ditches' side of the road.

Santa Claus drive out that night?

Well, I reckoned he wouldn't if he felt as I did then. He would knock a hoof off every reindeer before he could go a mile. It was one of those days when I sat humped on the box and slatted my whip through the air and wondered why I had pelted up and down those fifteen miles of stage road twenty years, trying to earn a living.

And to clinch troubles, out to the road as I drove along me Brackett Sykes with that usual face of his. Harder than the road and ridged almost as bad. No kind of a Christmassy face has that man got.

The young ones trailed along slow behind him, the three little girls. Yes, trailed along slow behind. I have driven past Brackett Sykes' farmhouse a good many times, and I never yet saw one of his young ones hopping along 'side of him and holt of his hand. No, they trail behind, solemn and wishful.

"Get back there to the house," yelled Brackett whirling on them. Then he came and put his toe on the forward hub and spoke low so the insides couldn't hear.

"I got a letter from Almiry last night, Cap'n Phin. She wrote to say she's comin' here to-day."

"Why, that's good," said I. "Glad to hear that 'Miry's comin' home!"—and I couldn't help looking over to those poor, little, God-forsaken, frowsled gaffers of girls huddled on the doorsteps.

"She ain't comin' home," he barked. "Not by a blame sight she ain't. She's jest wrote to say she's comin'—wrote the last minute, so's I couldn't head her off with a letter. Now, when she gets off that train to-night, Cap'n Phin, I want you should jest tell her for me it won't be any use for her to take the stage up here. I won't let her in."

Yes, sir, hard face that man has! And the way he spoke chilled me worse than the wind. And the little girls cuddling there on the steps!

"You can settle such things as that with your wife yourself," said I. "I'm a stage driver, not a divorce lawyer. I shall never say the nay to 'Miry Sykes if ever she wants to ride on my stage."

"Then you'll be cartin' paupers into the place," he snarled. "She ain't got a cent to her name, and she wrote and told me so. Them saints have stripped her."

"See here, Brack," said I. "I've got the United States mails and four passengers and a road ahead of me like a horse-radish grater. No time now to argue this matter. But do you pretend to tell me that if I bring your wife, 'Miry Sykes, to this door to-night, when her children are waitin' for Santa Claus, you'll have the heart to bar her out?"

"Jest as sartin as I'd shet out a looservee," he gritted. Little children snuggled on the doorsteps and not a one with a clean face or her dress buttoned straight! And when things are bad enough for an old bach like me to notice them, they have got to be pretty bad.

"Brack," I said, "take your toe off the wheel. You're hard enough to break the riggin' if I should run over you." And he swore after me.

Mnh-hah! and so Almira Sykes was coming home!

People in other parts of the county call us folks up our way "the Byron Valley Bears." Nickname, that's all. We are bout as decent as the rest of folks, but the hills are around us and the big woods are near, and we attend to our own business pretty close.

If any one had said that a couple of revivalists could have come into Byron Valey and set the Bears by the ears, as those two did—well, no one ever would have said so, that's all.

But they did tip us upside down, those traveling apostles. "World Crusade on Apostolic Principles," was what they called it.

You might think that none of those hard-headed folks up our way would "leave all and follow," to any great extent. But you go to those meetings a week and hear them sing those songs that make you shiver inside as though your heart was a tunked funny-bone—hear them pray so soft, and then stretch out their hands while some woman was singing some such thing as this:—

"Won't you come a little while and talk with Jesus?
He is standing yonder waiting with a smile.
Won't you come away to-day and walk with Jesus?"
Won't you come and work for him a little while!"

Me?—They'd have got me some of those times if I hadn't hung onto the rail of the settee tough and tight and winked back my tears and chewed tobacco hard on the sly. Uncle Paul came, for instance, took a hammer and chisel and went off clinking texts into roadside stones, to make 'em preach sermons. Two or three gave "their all to the Lord," and two or three more would have done so if the heirs hadn't got the judge of probate to appoint guardians. And two or three of the women folks, old maids, went off to the head temple—"Shiloh," so they call it—to be made into saints and go to the uttermost parts of the earth, though why all the lost souls should always be at the uttermost parts of the earth from us I don't know.

The only married woman that the saints lugged away to Shiloh—the only one that gave in and "left all"—was Almira Sykes. I took her down on the stage that morning she went. She, with that look as though tears were squeezing out all over her! The young ones bawling and Brackett on the doorstep, hard as a graven image. She and he had thrashed out all the talk end of it. I guess underneath, though, her idea was that when she and the saints got to praying for Brackett down at the temple he'd have to curl up and come in, too. Benson Taylor told me that at the seventy-two hours fast at the temple Almira Sykes stayed on her knees for nigh the whole stretch and prayed her way right into hell to get her husband's soul—that was the way he said it.

Well, the Lord has called some of the greatest to his service and they have sacrificed the things of earth to serve him—and the world has been better for it, I suppose. But when I met Almira Sykes on the depot platform that afternoon I had to tell her I reckoned the Lord could spare her a while for more pressing things than heathen.

"I'm an old bach," said I, "and I ain't tryin' to tell you your duty to your children, but if the Lord ain't told you of those three little draggle-tail gaffers at home, then you got the wrong connection and 'twas the old He 'Un at the other end of the line."

"Cap'n Look," said she—always a mournful looking woman, 'Mira was, too mournful for my notion of the Lord's elect—"I want to go home to them. I couldn't bear to think of them waking up to-morrow morning—Christmas morning—and me not there to watch them take down their stockings from the mantel-piece."

"You'll be lucky," I said, "if there's a a stockin' amongst them whole enough to hold presents." I suppose I'm hateful sometimes, but you can't drive stage over iron-clad hubbles and keep everlastingly sweet.

"I want to fill their stockings," said she, "for Brackett ain't ever been very thoughtful about such things and he don't humor the children." She had a lot of bundles on her arm. "I only had two dollars and forty cents left," she said, "and it didn't go so far's I'd like to have it. I ain't got a copper left for the stage fare, Cap'n, but I guess Brackett will look after it, won't he?"

She kind of quavered out that. She reckoned I knew pretty well how things stood up home and she was hankering for a word of comfort. Well, I had a fair notion of what Brack Sykes would say if I dumped his wife at his door and started to collect a dollar-fifty fare. And that information wouldn't have been encouraging talk for Christmas eve. It wasn't my business to let on.

"Almiry," said I, "what's this to be—a round trip or single fare." She knew what I meant. She turned her eyes away.

"I don't know just what your understandin' is with the saints," I went on, "and that ain't any of my business. But runnin' this stage is. If you are a mother goin' home to stay with the little ones that are sufferin' for you, then hop aboard and we'll see about the money part later. If you're a saint apostolizin' the world and jest simply callin' in on your fam'ly, thenlet the other saints provide transportation."

I knew it sounded rather harsh and she choked up. But I tell you it was time for her to begin to do as much thinking about those children as I had been doing.

"Cap'n Look," said she, "I haven't talked with the Lord about it yet much as I—"

"You stand right here, then, and talk it over while I load my trunks and mail bags. You tell Him about three little girls fed on bannock and molasses, sufferin' for a mother's care and a mother's cookin', and if you don't get the message like this: 'Miry Sykes, go home to your duty and I'll make shift to 'tend to the heathen,' then I reckon you've got a hymn-book for heart and you can't do any good by goin' up home with those tin carts and candy canes. 'Twon't be worth while haulin' you."

No, I'm not always rough like that, but I know when some folks need a hard jounce,

"Cap'n Phin," she said softly and sobby when I was stripping the blankets off the nags a bit later, "if you'll take me it won't be a round trip. "

And I understood her and crowded her in with the others. Full stage load that night. It made my heart swell as I dropped 'em here and there! The night was down dark and the doors of the old houses flew open like mouths busting out into laughs.

You ought to have seen old Trans Dunsham and Aunt Joanne grab in their two boys who've done so well down to town, There were "Lord bless ye, bub," and "Hullo, dad," and "How've ye be'n?" and "Oh, mother, it's good to be home!" and then bang! went the door shut and the path of glory down the yard was blotted out, up which those boys had run as though they were running plumb into heaven.

And at Phil Hanson's the same!

And then Jote Emmonses' girls, bound further along with me, began to sing a Christmas song inside and I sitting up there in the dark on that tossing seat found myself joining in, too, and I—by swanny, I hated to get to Jote's and leave them there. When I lugged their trunks into the house the open fire was dancing jigs behind the andirons and the supper table was waiting—hot biscuits and plumb preserves. And I made believe be a thief and hooked a doughnut and piece of citron cake, and Jote's wife chased me with the poker and we had a regular, old-fashioned Christmas laugh.

Darker than ever outside, after that, I tell you. Clang-bang o' wheel tires on the cast iron ruts, and the sky without a star and the wind slooshing through the bare branches—br-r-r! Only 'Mira left board—'Mira shivering in the horse blankets I'd made her throw over herself. Wasn't half clothed, the woman wasn't, She'd gone away in July and I guess Brack wouldn't send down her winter wear. Set as old Mount Pisgy, he is!

Well, then I had time to pity her a little. My Christmas passengers had been too jolly company to let me do much thinking up to then. Somehow a sort of bubble, or something, came up in my throat. Down the road in those houses behind us, all the twinkling lights and the tinkling knives and forks and the smilings and the loving looks. Up the road ahead of us, clutter and bannock bread—blamed poor cook Brack Sykes is!—wishful little children and the grum looks of a father soured and sick of living! And that poor critter inside hugging up those presents for her children and trembling and scared and yet believing after all that the door would be opened to her!

Me? I never meddled in family matters in my life to then. Kept bach hall since mother died because there was only one woman in the world that ever suited me—and she and I couldn't seem to agree, and so——

Whew! How the black sky seemed to sag over me and how the wind smashed through the dry trees!

No, never meddled in family affairs, but at the rise of the hill in Byron Valley I pulled up and said to Almira:—

"I'm goin' to take you past your house and over to mine a minute whilst I leave the mails and unhitch off. Then I'll walk back with you to seeing—Brack and—and sort of break the ice, you understand."

Yes, she understood. She didn't ask any questions. Trembled so at her own gate, though, that I had to let her hang on awhile to steady her. I stood and looked at the house. Brack Sykes ain't what I call a good housekeeper. Every curtain was yawed, and past the one that was yawed the worst I could see a smoky lamp and the children sitting in front of the rusty stove.

Great reader, Brack is! He reads such things as "Rise of the Dutch Republic" and "Life of Napoleon," and he never lets the children talk out loud evenings. I could see 'em sitting and whispering together. If a little tyke ain't got the license to holler and lark a bit the night before Christmas what's the good of bein' a young one once in your life time?

But there wasn't anything to be gained standing out there swallowing wind, and I took 'Mira by the arm and boosted her along. I was lugging the presents. I don't believe Santa Claus ever walks up to houses feeling just as I did then. I reckon his disposition must be more cheerful than that or else he wouldn't be in the business. But I never was afraid of Brackett Sykes, not so you would notice.

You knock and walk right in up Byron Valley way. Too much ceremony ain't popular.

Brackett looked up over his specs and blinked and then he stiffened as though some one had run a cold crow bar down the back of his neck.

"Brack," said I, trying to be hearty, "I've come to wish you a merry Christmas and bring a few things to the children, includin' their mother."

I guess I ain't got tact enough to handle family matters anyway. I stepped one side without any further ado and pushed Almira plumb into the middle of the room. The children got away from that stove with a chorus good to hear, but Sykes fetched one spring in his stocking feet and lit with a soft thump like a panther, right between the young ones and their mother.

"Back to that stove!" he bellowed, and they scuttled like rabbits.

"You know what I told you this morning," he said to me, spitting the words and clacking his fists. "You know what I told you," he said to her, "when you abandoned me and your children to go runnin' off with a passul of home breakers. No, the Lord don't enter into this," he barked, catching a gasp of something from her. "The Lord didn't tell you to leave your home that way. You were as guilty as though you had run off with an eloper. You abandoned me, your husband, and there's the thing no man forgives, no matter what's the excuse you come round whinin' afterwards. I gave you fair warnin', and a lot of it. You went. Now you stay."

And before I knew just where to grab in, he had her by the shoulders and ran her out-doors. Back he came, his face as white as a sheet, and he picked up a chair and waved it over my head.

"I'll brain you," said he, "if you say a word. Git!"

Really, I guess he would have done it, feeling as he did then. I know when it's better to postpone argument. That was one of the times. I went out. I dropped one bundle. He kicked it out after me.

"Almiry," I said, after we had stood a minute at the gate, "any jackass can kick with his hind legs and the other end of him can bray at the same time. Don't mind."

But she slumped together like a wet rag, squatted down by the fence and hicupped.

"Let me die right here, Cap'n Phin. 'Tain't any use livin'."

Yes,—guess she would have staid there and froze up. You know what some women are in times like that, especially when they've been softened up by trying to be a saint.

Well, just for a minute—just for a minute, you understand, I found a few cogs started in my own gearing. I had been planning an argument, and so forth, with a two-legged man. But a four-legged chair? No, sir.

I stood and looked around the sky for stars. Thought I might get an inspiration from one. But not a star—that is, not an astronomer's star. Yet there was a star in sight that had always seemed a sort of heavenly star to me when I'd look at it nights—a star in a heaven that I'd tried to get into several times in my life, I'm free to confess.

"'Miry," said I, "there's a light over to Tryphosy Snell's across the field. She's the one to know what to do when such poor old no 'counts as you and I bust our tugs. Come along." And I boosted her some more.

Now if you had ever lived in Byron Valley you wouldn't need a word from me about Tryphosy Snell, no, sir. One of "the girl that stays" kind, she has been. Understand? I asked her to marry me 'way back when she and I were just turning the stretch out of the green lane of youth. But she allowed then that I was too reckless. Then when I got back from the war her mother was dead and she wouldn't leave her father because he'd had a shock—paralysis, you know. She was hands and feet to him for years.

Then a sister and her young ones were thrown onto her hands to support, and I knew better than to ask her those days. She's too independent for that. But when she was alone again, and was called "Old Maid" Snell, I reminded her that I had been doing a pretty steady job in waiting. Somehow, though, she couldn't seem to get squared round and get out of other business and 'tend to home-making in company with me. And didn't seem to think I'd be the right sort of partner in her general business of being imposed on. They'd piled all the church sociables onto her and all the lawn parties and soliciting for church suppers and pew-cushion repairing and the dev—I should say, the angel o' mercy knows what! Somehow there was always some kind of a job ahead of her to take her mind off marrying me.

But as I have said, that light in her window never stopped seeming to me like a star in heaven—and I tell you it seemed so that night when I was tugging poor 'Miry Sykes toward it. And I reckon that warm sitting-room and that sweet woman seemed a little better than earth to that shivery critter that I brought out of the dark and the cold.

When we came in Tryphosy was sitting listening to her music-box that the Sunday-school gave her. She loves music. And she left it running away on "There's a Land that is Fairer than Day," whilst she soothed Almira and patted her head and got her a cup of hot tea and fussed around her in all those sorts of ways that women folks understand about.

And when I had got done explaining I said:—

"Tryphosy, I tried to bust open a way into Brack Sykes' heart with a club, I reckon, like the old fool I always am, always blunderin' round. I guess you know how to use the golden key that opens the heart to love and forgiveness. I've told 'Miry so, and we put all in your hands."

She sat a while and thought, and I looked around and snuggled down in the big chair, and whispered to the music-box that, no matter what it said, there was no fairer land than this one right here.

"Come," said Tryphosy at last. She put another cylinder into the music-box, tucked it under her shawl, and away we started. The music-box end of the affair struck me, but when Tryphosy Snell does anything I ain't foolish enough to ask questions.

The curtain at Brackett's was still yawed. He was sitting looking straight at nothing and the children were looking at him.

"Wait," said Tryphosy, and we two stood outside the window whilst she went in.

I don't reckon any one in Byron Valley ever said a mean, sneering word to "O1d Maid" Snell. I knew that Brackett Sykes wasn't the man to start it, hard as his face was when he looked at her. More than one batch of her cookies had come home to him in the aprons of his young ones the last six months. If he hadn't stood up and pointed out a chair to her and used good manners, I'd have gone in and choked him till he did. But I could see that he was polite—I'll say that much for him.

She began to talk then. We couldn't hear the words, Almira and I couldn't. I never asked what they were. It would spoil 'em if I should try to tell 'em. But I knew too well the sweetness, the honesty, the earnestness, the angel goodness of that woman not to know that Brack Sykes was getting the gospel of human kindness right from the fountain head.

Yes, Almira and I stood outside there, like lost souls looking into the promised land.

And at last, while she talked, I saw Tryphosy slip her hand under her shawl and then there was one thing that the floor wife and I could hear. It was the music-box playing "Home, Sweet Home." Now wasn't that an idea for you? Yes, I cried myself when Almira broke down and leaned against me. Ashamed of myself, but I couldn't help it. And I wasn't thinking of the troubles of the Sykes family at all. I was thinking of what a blame-nation, dismal, lonesome, old bach's place I'd got to go back to that Christmas Eve. Yes, blubbering over my own selfish thoughts, just as though that "Home, Sweet Home" tune was any of my business. I saw Tryphosy go along and pat that tousled head of Sykes and smooth her hand along on his shoulder. Her lips were still going. She called the children to come around. And at last, when Brack grabbed her hand and put his head on the table, she beckoned with her finger, for she knew I was looking for the signal.

We went in on tip-toe, 'Mira and I. And the children came into her arms, and I knew by the way she clutched 'em that the saints of Shiloh couldn't depend on one woman I knew about if they wanted an errand done to the uttermost parts of the earth.

I was going to blunder up and shake hands with Brackett and slap his back—and probably start a row again, but Tryphosy pushed me out ahead of her and shut the door behind us. You don't catch her spoiling a thing when it's good enough already.

I felt the snowflakes kissing my cheeks outdoors. I looked up and the sky was turning its feather tick inside out. Where the light streamed from Sykes' window the flakes were dancing like mad, the same as happy little children.

"Tryphosy," said I, "I had been reckonin' that Santy wouldn't come out with his hitch to-night but the—the sleighin' is goin' to be good after all."

"He's gettin' to this house early," said she.

Almira and Brackett were leaning their heads on the old table side by side, their arms over each other's neck. But now she got up and took the ragged stockings the little ones brought to her, and when we went out of the gate she was beginning to darn them over a wooden goose-egg. It had been just as I told her. Not a stocking in the house whole enough to hold presents.

The snow was all dusted over Tryphosy's hair above her forehead when we came to her door—snow sprinkled on like powder, and all so sparkly. And the wind had flushed her cheeks and her eyes were bright with happy tears.

"Such things as that back there sort o' softens up the feelin's, don't they. Tryphosy?" said I.

"Yes, Phineas," said she, "and I want to tell you that you have a tender heart that doesn't need much softening. It's what I like to see in a man—what you have done this day."

"Another home that was all broken up, glued together again," said I. "Nobody could do it but you."

"We did it together, Phineas," said she. "It's good to share blessings like that."

"Seems Christmassy and—and heart-warmin' to see homes—real homes, where there are two to love and cherish each other, don't it?" I hinted.

"Yes," said she, very softly and smilingly.

"Tryphosy," said I then, holding her right by the arm, "ain't it about now that you can find time to talk over our matters with me—after all these years of waitin' I've stood one side for every one and everything. I ain't much, I know. But I've loved you so long that I've got so that I'm pretty decent as a man, so those as know me says. I reckon that both of our hearts are pretty tender to-night—about ripe for the pickin', as you might say. It doesn't seem good and—and Christmassy to live alone as we are doin'. I ain't goin' to tell you again how much I love you, for you know it. Now haven't you got as much pity for me, a poor, lonesome, old bach, as you have for your neighbors?"

"Phineas," said she, and oh, how her eyes sparkled! "won't you come in out of the snow and listen to the music box and have a sup o' tea with me? And be sure to knock the snow balls off your boot heels for they melt and traipse a carpet up dretfully."

She patted my cheek—yes, sir, she did it! Patted my rough old cheek,

"If you're going to be underfoot for me to take care of the rest of my days," she said, "you've got to learn to be neat in the house." And she run in laughing.

Whilst I was knocking off the snow I slipped my hand into my pants' pocket, took out my fig o' chewing tobacco and slung it as far as I could pelt it—and I threw all my old bach notions along with it.

"Such things don't belong in Phin Look's own private heaven," I said to myself,—"not where Tryphosy is." And then, spangled with white snowflakes, I went blinking into glory.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1935, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 87 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.