O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/A River Combine—Professional

A RIVER COMBINE—PROFESSIONAL

By RAYMOND S. SPEARS

From Argosy All-Story

I DON’T know ’f I eveh told you about Stepping May or not. She came down the river awhile back in a clinker-built skiff. She was so blamed pretty it was a wonder they ever let her come down the banks onto old Mississip’ at all; but theh she was, big as life—about five foot seven tall, and her lips straight and resentful, but her eyes twinkling. You see, a lady lots of times keeps her jaw set square when she’d rather be smiling two foot wide. Lots of men can’t let a lady grin without thinkin’ she’s soft on ’em.

The first test I seen of Stepping May was along about Hickman, Kentucky, one of those mean, miserable days when the autumn northers begin to whisper an’ growl down out o’ the ice cap mountains. Hadn’t begun to rain yet, but hit was mean. I was into my green cabin boat which I bought off a feller who built it up the Alleghany in N’York State to trip down to N’Orleans, but found the Ohio so big he neveh had the grit to see old Mississip’ at all. Theh I was, jes’ plumb comfy, an’ this blamed gal come along—pretty as a picture, an’ jes’ about as accommodating.

She hearn my fiddle talking along, so she pulled up an’ hailed. I stepped outside, not thinkin’ what I was doing, an’ course, the minute that wind hit my warm fiddle strings, snp! An’ I had two broken.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said, the way a girl does when she knows what she’s talking about. “I didn’t mean to do that!” She was cold, her cheeks red, an’ her hands reddish. You know how a man feels when he knows he ought to ask a lady something, but expects she’ll sure miscue ’im. I had a good cabin, warm, two chairs—comfortable! I didn’t know what to say, so she said hit herself. If only ladies’d speak first their feelings, hit’d be lots nicer, wouldn’t it, for men? Lots an’ lots of times a man passes up something he’d like to do, probably he’d oughta do, jes’ account of him bein’ ’fraid a y'd be insulted, or like that.

“Mr. Man,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “I’m ’most froze to death! Won't yo’ let me stand by yo’ fire an’ warm?”

Why, say, I just told that gal she could have my whole blamed shanty boat if hit ’d ’commodate her any. She laughed, and come aboard, dropping a bowline on my bumper cleat, trailing the skiff alongside.

I give her my fiddling chair, but she took t’other one. We sat theh while she warmed her red hands an’ I strung up my bow. When I ’gun to play, she turned her head to listen—sharp! Naturally, I ain’t much of a talker, far as the ladies is concerned, but they don’t embarrass me none when I’m playing, which helps me forget how pretty they is, or something, I don’t know what.

She listened so blamed int’rested I was wondering, for the music was “Caving Bends.” Yo’ know that piece, which started ’way back yonder, which all the riveh fiddlers has played just natural, till now everybody knows hit? Played right, yo’ can hear the water suckling an’ sawing along the bend, an’ then the lumping-lumping down as the ground falls in, a tree swings out and falls a splashing, and all good music, which you can dance by.

“Oh, what’s that?” she asked.

I knowed right away she wasn’t a riveh gal, but like me, from up the banks, though more recent. So I told her “Caving Bends.” Then I told her about some more river music: “Cyclone,” “Crossing Ripples,” “Steamboat,” “Spring Birds,” “Cold Winds,” “Sandbar Whispers”—theh’s a lot of those funny musics that jes’ imitate the way the old Mississip’ sounds one time an’ anotheh, which anybody could play it he’s good at slidin’ notes an’ picking an’ knows the riveh.

“Riveh music!” she whispered. “Why—why, I didn’t know they had music like that! You know—I dance!”

While I played “Crossing Ripples,” she danced, too. Lawse, that gal was steppin’! I jes’ looked at her. She was professional, I could see that—but more than professional, too, somehow. She had to ’dapt her stepping to the music, finding which was best, if shuffling and sliding or tap-tap or lifting and floating. Seemed like I played twict as good as I’d eveh played in my life before.

My cabin was six foot four high, an’ there was about eight by ten foot square she could dance in; hit wan’t any too much, but she used all the floor an’ most of the roof, so to speak. She’d dance a round or two, an’ then she’d sit an’ ask me questions. That was about the busiest afternoon I remember, and ’fore I knowed hit, night had come, closing down on the riveh like a door, taking me right by surprise!

“Oh, it’s dark!” she cried, waking up

I jumped out, give a look around, an’ then pulled for the west bank. Lucky hit was the foot of a long bend, an’ I anchored in the eddy at the head of the bar—I don’t know which bar, either. Somewhere below Putney Bend, anyhow, an’ she stood nervous and doubtful as she looked out into that black night.

“We better cook supper,” I told her. “You've a tarpaulin so’s you can sleep into your skiff?”

“Oh, yes!” she said. “I sleep into it.”

I lighted a big round burner lamp I had, and we stretched her tarpaulin over the hoops, for it seemed like rain was right theh. Then we cooked supper on my oil stove, she being mighty good at hot bread, while I ain’t no slouch cooking meat. Course, I’m one of those people that always has a plenty to eat on board, even if I am a fiddler. I made good money. I’d come down the rivers just so I wouldn’t be pestifered by neighbours and anybody, practising my music all day an’ all night, too, ’f I wanted to. We had a regular meal, which she ate of hearty, as I did, both being right hungry after an the work that afternoon—work we loved, but work, at that.

Afteh supper we cleared the table, washed the dishes—a man sure goes low down, leaving dishes to wash, if he’s in a shanty boat. Women can do things like that, but if a man does it, soon he ain’t shaving, he don’t take his cold bath, an’ fustest he knows he’s shiftless, no ’count, ragged, dirty, miserable.

I wondered who this girl was, course. She was brave—Lordy, but it took nerve for her to come down that coiling old running lake if she didn’t have to! But she wasn’t the kind of a girl anybody asks questions of, free and easy. When she danced she found her skirt too tight, and slipped it off so casual and easy that in trying to run the music right I didn’t really notice she was in knickerbockers till afterward. Course, professional people are thataway. In no time we knowed we’d be teaming it.

We both were tired after supper. I stirred up the soft coal I’d found in a tow barge wreck on a sandbar, opening up the front gates in the fireplace stove I had for a heater. She sat into a low rocking chair, and I kittering across from her in an old armchair I'd picked up in a drift pile. I’d relined my shanty cabin with building paper, but some curling wisps of cold circled around from the north wind so the fire felt mighty comfortable.

“How come hit you’re a shanty boater?” she asked, quick as that.

Course, nobody asks questions like that down the rivers if you ain’t off the bank, or one of them writin’ fellers or a sneakin’ detective. I couldn’t answer first off. A man don’t tell even a pretty girl some things, and I mout say, specially a pretty girl. I knewed, though, I’d tell her when I'd laid tongue to words quiet enough to use.

“Why,” I answered, careless like, after a minute, “I jes’ come down. I jes’ took my fiddle an’ come down——

“No, you didn’t!” She shook her head. “It wa’n’t thataway. You know theory. You’ve taken lessons—real lessons, on the violin. Nobody who hadn’t done that could play river music the way you do. Besides, you talk river talk like you learned it in school.”

’Tain’t no use trying to fool some women. I never met one I could fool. That’s be’n my experience. Perhaps some’rs there’s women I could hoodwink, but they ain’t on old Mississip’!

“Course, I’m from up the bank,” I admitted. “I just tripped away down same’s anybody.”

“Same as anybody!” she nodded. “That’s so—I came because I couldn’t stand bein’ a dancing girl in a hick town! And you?”

“Why—why——” You know how a man don’t talk of some things when he has to, an’ can’t get out of it. “I couldn’t stand being a fiddler in a hick town, when—when——

I couldn’t say it. Some things hurt too much to say it.

“I know!” she said. “Somebody thought more of good business than of good music?”

“Jes’ so!” I told her. “You know some girls, they don’t want a fellow, a sweetheart, a husband that don’t know nothing but music, sort of no ’count in the chamber of commerce and on Main Street.”

“Yes, suh!” she nodded. “I’d no right to ask you. I wanted to know, I had to know. I could tell you was white, honest—the way a good man is when he thinks he’s lost out. Musicians, artists, writers—big ones, but undiscovered—always feel they’re mean an’ trifling beside of good money makers. You’re thataway!”

I hadn’t never looked at hit before the way she put it. I jes’ knowed I had a powerful big ache down around my heart, where I’d felt like a humming bird looking into a big rose in those old days. Yes, suh. Now I saw that girl lookin’ into the fire, her eyes full. She had a mighty powerful mouth and jaw, but she hadn’t no way of controlling her eyes. They’d twinkle, and they’d fill up, the way they had, feeling sorry for me. I reckon just that one look I had at her face before that fire in the red light—I was obliged to save kerosene, an’ she’d turned the light down, knowing it, even if I did have lots to eat on board. You see—well, course a man picks up eats down the rivers—a shoat here, a yearling there; maybe some chicks and so on, besides game, if he’s anyways slick and don’t givvadamn.

“Prenaux!” she said to me, the first I realized she knew my name. “I was sick of dancing in a hick town. You know those smart city kids, and those big-footed country goofs. They never saw me dance. All they saw was—was legs. So I came down the river! Prob’ly I was a fool, only I wasn’t. No, indeed—— The first thing, in less’n ten days I heard your music——

That’s the way we found it down old Mississip’. Lots came down who don’t neveh find what they aches for. Men trip down an’ down, an’ floats, rollin’ along the bottom into the gulf at last. Women is thataway, too—young ones an’ old ones. But I knowed a preacher once who'd lost his hold, an’ a business man who’d mixed in scandal, an’ others what tried to lose themselves down the riveh—an’ firstest they knowed the gates of happiness spread wide open for them.

Probably we understood each otheh that night as well as eveh we would. There wan’t much talkin’ an’ explainin’. We jes’ had hit in ouh hearts. She stepped back, swung the chair clear, an’ stepped four five measures without any music but the voices of the riveh dark—which she heard, an’ I heard. She opened the bow door, bowed a pretty curtsy to me, an’ shut the wind out the cabin. I caught up a lantern to hand to her, but she had one of her own under the skiff tarpaulin hood. Lawse, but that were a cozy eddy that night!

Well, suh, next day we had breakfast togetheh. She read some music I had, all kinds that I’d picked up for my fiddling. Course, when I came on the riveh, if music wasn’t classic I sort of despised hit. But I’d been growing careless. I’d took to admiring the music river fiddlers played, some of it awful to listen to, but always, two three measures, perhaps one piece would be right out of the river’s heart. I’d learn that piece. I’d maybe have to smooth it up, for my ear, account of somebody not knowing how to run the times together, or maybe breaking the refrains or splitting up the melodies the way mountain fiddlers do. Well, anyhow, every pager fixes his music oveh, according to his notions, the way I did.

An’ when we’d settled our breakfasts, resting around, I brought out the old fiddle to tighten up and tune the strings, an she stepped, exercising to take out the kinks the cold an’ sleeping on the bottom of her skiff’d hooked into her knees an’ joints. An’ her dancin’ scales was purtier ’n some steppin’ of lots of heel-an’-toe folks.

May Gardner was sure wonderful, even in those days, and patient. If some step bothered her, she’d work at it, steady, minutes, hours till she had it to the lift and fall of a ripple, while I played the music she wanted, steady, oveh an’ oveh again. I hadn’t practised so much as I'd played. I used to let some hard places go. She made me go at those measures till my fingers and my bow’d walk through them, same as her dancing went through the swing, turn and change, the balance and the mark, the beat and the sway—— Lawse,man! Hit wa’n’t no work for me, but she’d toil along till she dropped into a chair, plumb wore out.

“Lucien!” she exclaimed, “you’re so good to me. You don’t know what it means—this chance to practise thisaway!”

You’d think one day was like anotheh, down the reaches and bends. We had to drop down pretty well, account of winter coming on. I remember when the fresh meat was gone, and we was down to sowbelly and com, for I’d neglected providing. We hadn’t any money. I was looking along for a flock of shoats on a bar, or maybe a steer caved down at a riveh bank; you know what I mean. I’d be’n on the riveh so long, staying my appetite thataway, never careless or being caught, that prob’ly I didn’t rightly think about hit, the way I should of. I told her I’d have to lift a pig.

“Lucien Prenaux!” she turned on me, hard and set. “You sha’n’t!”

We had hit out. She’d rather starve ’n steal, she said, and I hadn’t. She had her way. Course, one way it wa’n’t none of her business how I found my grub. We weren’t nothin’ to each other, ’ceptin’ we was professional partners. But in a way, we were eatin’ together, floatin’ down together, an’ you mout say, tol’ably close together—if we hadn’t be’n, her an’ my boat tied together, we’d be’n miles apart, cut away by the current. So we jawed two three days, me not graftin’ any meat, an’ she arguin’ there must be some honest way.

Yes, suh! Theh we was broke. I hadn’t a cent. She hadn’t any money. She went uptown in Mendova, an’ come back smilin’. I was dog-gone hungry, an’ she’d lost weight, practisin’ on an empty stomach. She let her lips smile, when her eyes twinkled to me.

“We get five dollars for a turn into Palura’s!” she told me.

Course it was her steppin’, about four fifty for that, an’ fifty cents for me. I’d never had the nerve to play for the public thataway, but she made me. We done a turn that night on Palura’s stage. He was a flat-face feller, who’d killed three four men, an’ his place was a show for everybody from N’Orleans to St. Louis.

I felt mighty swell when I sat in the corner} an’ she came walkin’ down in those white satin knickerbockers she’d put on special. I was jes’ in my old pants, for I hadn’t any other, an’ a weollen shirt. I played for her to come a walking. Lawse! She’d jes’ had them old knickers practising. Now she was like a white rose grown up around a pink rose, for she was white an’ pink dressed—and step? Seemed just like she’d practised till now she was right.

Yes, suh! She was like a chimney swift flying, like a tall tree leaning before a strong wind, like the running waves on the flowing riveh—she just danced as natural as anything pretty you all eveh saw in motion, and not one step that wasn’t beautiful. She danced fourteen minutes—that’s how long it takes to play “Crossing Ripples” the way I do it, an’ she faded out on it the way the riveh runs down a crossing into the fog, or night in a fast, bright sunset.

Yes, suh! Those people, up the bankers an’ steamboaters, didn’t make a sound or motion till long afteh I’d took down my fiddle an’ was tightening up the E string. Seemed like the best we had to do wa’n’t nothing to them. I felt like it wa’n’t no use. I wanted to take May in my arms an’ tell her we didn’t cyar a whoopin’ damn what they thought—them—slam!

Yes, suh! Those quality folks, who was spreein’ down to Palura’s, come down on the floor with both feet, an’ split their gloves or stung their palms. I’d be’n afeared maybe Palura’d welch on that five dollars an’ we’d be hongry. Instead of that, when we was back in, he come an’ handed May a twenty-dollar note, an’ me the same. Forty dollars! I looked at hit. Seemed like it was a mistake—me twenty dollars! Just for fiddlin’ that riveh piece.

Then Palura shoves us out on the stage again. I stood there flustered an’ ready to cut an’ run. May put her arm around my shoulders.

“Dear old boy! Dear old boy!” she exclaimed. “Let’s have that ‘Flying Swans’ piece!”

’Tain’t much of a piece. Watching the black geese, an’ whooping cranes, an’ brent an’ Canadian geese flying by away up in the blue sky, their wings flashing in the sunshine, I’d—well, kind of set their motion to music. She always liked that piece. Course, no man can really set birds a-flyin’ to music. Not Chopin, or Beethoven, or Wagner—not anybody. But I’d made kind of a pitiful little stagger at it, which she loved, account of how much she thought of me. You know the way women is—anything somebody they like does is sorta int’restin’ to them.

So I played what she said. I couldn’t think of nothin’ else. So she danced, which took their attention off what I was playing—and watching her, you know, she carried my music right along! I almost forgot I was playing. Yes, suh—she flew down the stage like great white swans fly down the line travelling out of the north, white, strong, shimmering. Lawse! Lawee! Seemed just like those quality folks sporting in Palura’s inspired her to dance. An’ I felt an ache in my heart, yes, suh!

You know how a man feels about a beautiful woman. He wants her to know how much he admires her. He wants to put at her feet all that he’s got, all that he eveh can be in God’s world. He’d put down his bleeding heart, with all its aches, for her to walk on; an’ the pain of hit ’d be the greatest joy that he’d eveh known! All that kind of stuff—you know what I mean. An’ he knows he cain’t he’p her none. He cain’t make her no better than he can he’p an oriole to sing, or an American lotus blossom to be lovely. All he can do is jes’ wish he mout he’p some. An’ then his heart aches, for all he’d like to do—an’ afteh all, it’s somebody else that can he’p her. Theh those folks was—an’ she danced like she’d neveh danced before, for them.

An’ afteh hit was all oveh, those quality men came a walking up, a bowing in their dress suits, an’ the women who’d split their gloves came up, and account of there bein’ such a crowd around May they come to me, to talk, and tell me how nice it all was, May’s dancing. And I stood there in those old clothes of mine, feelin’ like the shanty-boater I was. Yes, suh. I don’t s’pose theh’s any more miserable feelin’ in this world ’an I had, seein’ those men around May, an’ how she laughed, her cheeks colouring up. Lawse! Lawse! How mighty triflin’ a man is, if he ain’t much ’count out in the world!

They was one feller there, he come from the op’ry house, an awful swell, dressed right up to the handle. He took May off, by herself, an’ she called me in, too. I wondered about that, but seems he wanted her to come up an’ dance on his stage, too. Palura he cussed and squabbled around about it, argying. ’Fore we knowed it we had quite a job, May an’ me did, teaming it.

We walked down Ferry Street to our boats, which we’d left with Jim Horseshoe, at the landing. She come on board my boat, to warm, for the night was fresh, walking down. She danced; in the cold it chilled her; I hated to think of her going out into that chilly rag shack over her skiff.

“Yo’ll catch cold!” I told her. “All het up, thisaway!”

She looked at me, first into one eye, then into the otheh, with both her eyes. By an’ by she laughed a low, funny little chuckle.

“You dear boy!” she said, jes’ like that. “Just to please you—I'll take your bed to-night!”

So I went out into her skiff, mighty glad she’d have that comfy cabin to sleep in. In the morning she put her arms around my neck, when I came in, looking at me, smiling, sorry.

“Am I mean, making you sleep out there in the cold?”

That night we played, regular in the theatre. May caught the crowd. They throwed bouquets at her, an’ we was called the “River Number,” just like that. Her dancing to my music was “wonderful entertainment,” they said in the newspapers. In a month we’d saved about six hundred dollars.

I wasn’t happy any more. If I’d come off down the rivers, account of my being just a fiddler, and the girl I thought so much of back there shook me for a fellow making twenty dollars a week—she hadn’t any voice, she couldn’t dance, an’ wa’n’t nothing but pretty—now I was ready to go back up the bank. The way folks crowded around May, coming back, to see her—and to ask me about her, men an’ women!

Oh, I knowed I loved her! One woman come to me, a swell-looking woman, wearing jewels an’ clothes all shimmering and perfume. She told me my music was perfectly wonderful—taffy like that. I knowed what she was driving at. It wa’n’t no time than she was asking about May.

“Your wife’s a wonderful dancer!” she told me. “How your music does inspire her! It is the most inspiring music I ever heard!”

“My wife?” I looked at her. “Why, lady, that girl wouldn’t marry me. I’m jes’ a fiddlin’ shanty-boater. She’s a stepper.”

“Not married!” this woman exclaimed. “But—but—oh—yes! I’ve heard on the river—— I suppose she wouldn’t—— How honourable of you to put it that way!”

She sniffed—at May! Course, I hadn’t thought anything before. We were jes’ two professional people. There wasn’t any real violinist May could find, no real musician, so she’d put up with me. Lots of geniuses is thataway, putting up and getting along with what they have, not complaining or anything.

“Who’s that woman you were talking to?” May asked me afterward.

“Why, I don’t know—one of those uptown women——

“Oh—was it?”

I knowed right away that May knew I’d blundered, saying something. I hadn’t thought anything. Imagine me thinking anything about May! She was awful quiet, along. There was a tall, handsome man come to her, with flowers, saying it, as they tell around. I sure despised that up-the-banker. He wa’n’t fitting for May. The bestest man in the world wasn’t fit for her. He come to me once. He wanted to know if May wasn’t my wife? I told him, the same as I would anybody, how it was. We were only professional people.

Those were mighty lonesome days for me. Seemed just like May an’ me was being tore apart, stretching the aching strings of my heart. Course, I jes’ knowed hit didn’t matter to her. She was thinkin’ about her dancing. She was busy having new clothes made and was studying the new life that was opening up to her.

“Lucien!” she told me one day, down on the boat. “Just think—the world wants us!”

“Us!” I laughed, but it hurt. “Hit’s you!”

She gave me one of those quick, birdlike looks as though I was plumb ridiculous. I knowed I was, too, or she wouldn't be making fun of me, as if I was much more’n jes’ somebody to mark time for her. She could dance to “Patting Juba,” making it sound like the “River Voices” when old Joe Parmer plays hit.

I had some jobs fiddling at private houses; ten, twenty, fifty dollars they’d pay me. They paid May five hundred dollars one night to dance at a business men’s dinner, on the table. She came down to the boat crying mad. I don’t know what happened. She scolded me, rearing right down on me.

“Don’t you know what I want?” she told me. “Don’t you see what they think? Oh, you poor idiot—have I got to say it?”

“Say what?” I asked; an’ then she reared at me. She'd been awful patient with me, one time and another. I couldn’t always he’p showin’ her what I thought, even if it was insulting for me to love her. I just couldn’t bring myse’f to ask her to marry me, account of when you do that to a girl she’s always sorry for you, an’ she promises to be your sister an’ don’t know you the next time you meet her.

If I asked her to marry me, course, she’d cut loose, prob’ly go uptown, an’ all that’d be left for me would be to trip off down the river, with just her picture on my heart, a picture burned in deep, beautiful, but a scar as big as a Texas brand. I didn’t feel like I could ever stand a hurt like that—the hurt of losing her, never seein’ May again, not her dancing, nor her eyes brimming with laughter and sympathy—and her lips that smiled free for me, until she begun to dance, and we needn’t to wonder if we’d have enough for breakfast the next morning to eat.

That woman I was telling about come down to the ferry in her automobile one day. May’d gone uptown, so she asked Jim Horseshoe to come up the bayou to bring me down. I come down, course, so she took me with her account of May not being there, she said, my music being good, if there wasn’t anybody to dance but her.

She was an awful high-toned woman, an’ you know she wanted to dance herself, trying the riveh music. So I played for her. Course, if you dance riveh music, you got to know the riveh—know the rocking of the boat in the eddies an’ the swing of the current. But this Alice Haven was quite a stepper at that. She said my music just carried her right along. She danced bold, though, not the way May did. Course, she was a good flinger an’ had a little kick to her that was graceful—but she didn’t have to be professional. She was rich. And when she was tired, she come and laid her head on my shoulder for a breathing spell. That kind of thing neveh made any man feel bad, course. But the way May acted when this Alice Haven brought me back in her car like a cabin boat!

“She’s trying to break up our combination!” May said, talking more spiteful than I ever did get to hear her talk before.

I was s’prised. I’d been worrying my heart out, fearin’ May’d see how no ’count I was to her, an’ be shut of me like I was an old hat. When she talked thataway, letting on she feared we’d break up, my heart jes’ grew so big it hurt, like it would burst. May didn’t want to lose me! She was so mad at the thought, she lashed me with her tongue, stinging, biting, slighting, scolding words. But, shucks! Theh’s no joy so sweet as the raw wounds a woman gives a man, account of her being jealous.

My law! May Gardner slashed and cut me! Don’t yo’ be’lieve she didn’t scorch an’ bruise me, an’ I was down on my knees at her feet beggin’ her mercy an’ pity, but my soul rang to sweeter music in the scorn an’ fire of her anger than eveh hit had echoed before. May Gardner jealous of me! May Gardner tearin’ to pieces the good looks an’ reputation of that up-the-bank Alice Haven—account of me!

“That woman dancin’ to my music!” May scorched me, her face twisting an’ her eyes squinting mad. “You fiddlin’ for her to dance! That woman!”

I expect some men is so sure an’ pop’lar that it don’t mean nothin’ to them when a woman’s jealous on their account. Prob’ly up-the-bankers, swell folks, neveh know what hit is to find out a lady likes them so much she hates anybody else that’s friendly.

I come down on the riveh account of a woman’s laugh at my playing music, the best I could do, for her—when she’d been listening to jingling dollars in another man’s pocket. Funny, ain’t it, how things work out? I’ve been making more money in a day ’n that feller she jilted me for has eveh made in a week.

I was at May’s feet. I kissed those pretty silk stockings, between the straps of her slippers. I cried, tears coming down my cheeks—but not on account of being sorry, no, indeed! I. was happy! I was so blamed happy I dassen’t to show her my face, for fear I would betray the joy I was enduring.

An’ I took her hands in mine. I kissed them, grateful as a dog for the friendly pat of his mistress. I’d neveh in God’s world deserve any happiness that dancing girl had given me; the rewards of heaven couldn’t have tempted me away from what it dawned on me was coming to be mine—account of her being jealous of that up-the-bank woman!

Course, d’rectly I was standing up. I was standing in the cabin of my shanty-boat, on the floor where Steppin’ May’d been practising. An’ she was right theh, with my arms around her, an’ her face turned up to me.

“May,” I said, “yo’ don’t mean—yo’ don’t want me to ask yo’ to marry yo’, do you?”

“Don’t I?” she asked, awful sarcastic. “What do I want, then?”

I couldn’t believe it, even then, an’ her in my arms, all limp—to have for my own, to kiss those lips, to claim those eyes! Lawse! Lawse! Fiddling Luce come to this down old Mississip’!

Hit wan’t jes’ professional people. Hit warn’t jes’ me fiddlin’ for her practice steppin’, come the time when she’d have somebody that’d be able to play.

Hit were me loving that lovely woman, with her arms around my neck, and my lips worshipping temple lips, looking into the gem-light windows of her soul. Yes, suh! How come hit that woman let on she loved me? How could she—that woman, like a statue alive?

I married her. We cut loose from Mendova, trippin’ down. When night come, I couldn’t believe hit were so, that she wouldn’t, an’ I wouldn’t either, go out into that skiff alongside, to sleep under the tarpaulin—but this was our cabin, our room, and she’d sit on my lap. Sho! Sho!

Yes, suh! Lots drap down old Mississip’, an’ the farther down they go, the more miserable they are. They’d better quit, ’fore they roll out at the Passes. But some—some that hear the music, some that see the flash and spread of the colours, some that listen to the birds and feel the soothing in the sting of the north wind, an’ smell the fragrance of the blossoms in the dank of the swamp brakes—they’d sure better keep on trippin’ down; yes, indeedy! I tell yo’, if a man can keep step to the song old Mississipp’ sings, he better not break with it. He’ll march into the halls of plumb comfort, if he marks the time, yes, suh. That’s my experience. ’Tain’t everybody’s, but hit’s mine. An’ May, she says it’s her experience, too. We've been far together, New York an’ the Coast—— Sho! No matter if we’s busy—ev’ry wunst in a while we stop off on old Mississip’, buy a shanty-boat an’ trip down. That’s what we’re doing now. But we don’t neveh stop to Mendova any more. May won’t let me.

“I ain’t going to have that woman—any other woman—steppin’ to your music!”

Just like that, and then we both laugh.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1950, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 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.