The Deacon's Whistle

The Deacon's Whistle  (1907) 
by Harriet Prescott Spofford

From Harper's Magazine, Jul 1907

"A w'istle," said the other, "is one thin' ter you, Square, an' mebbe another ter me, Fer me—ter fust—it meant freedom, jes' freedom. ... No, I ain't ever paid tew dear fer my w'istle,—though w'en I see Sally Moss a-risin' the hill jes' now, light as a bubble, I felt as ef p'r'aps I hed. ... But I guess 'tain't jes' the same 'ith you, Deacon," said the man, scratching Bitters's back with the end of his staff. "Your w'istle was ter hev your own way tew. Ter hev it ef the sky fell. Yes, sir, w'ile you be a-settin' up yer rights as a father, an' all the rest, ye've ben a-murderin' a man, body an' soul, an' that man yer own son!"

The Deacon's Whistle


" I S'POSE you heered Steve Manners is back agin, Marthy," said the caller, a little, dark woman, bristling with life and spirit, and alive to the tips of her hair. Steve Manners had once said of her that she would have been hung for a witch two hundred years ago.

"Yes," said Marthy, a long, lean woman, looking in her gray gingham like the shadow of some one else. " 'A bird o' the air shell carry the voice an' that which hath wings shell tell the matter,' and ev'ry dog in town knows it, soon's he's come."

"Lemme see. It's mos' twenty year, ain't it, sence Steve fust come tellin' abeout w'at he called life? I was jes' startin' out tailorin' an' nussin?"

"There didn't seem ter be a mite o' harm in the feller, though, as I rekerick," said Marthy, smoothing down her soft gray hair with both hands.

"Wal, he jes' bewitched folks 'ith his talkin' an' his smilin' an' his singin'. He knowed all the songs 't ever was sung, an' his voice was like a bee in a flower—"

"An' them thet he didn't set all by the ears fer gilt saloons an' dice-throwin' an' hoss-racin' hankered fer the wild Injin life an' the buffalo-hunts an' bear-fights he telled on."

"I guess he'd seen 'em all, Marthy. He was allus breakin' off work and a-trompin' up an' down. No, there warn't a mite o' harm ter him,—he was jes' a sorter travellin' minstrel show."

"Some of 'em what went off ter the city that fall never come back," said Marthy, her voice always as melancholy as the sighing of an autumn wind.

"He's reel interestin'. How many year is it sence Reuel follered him? Three? I thought it might be about three. An' no word fum him sence. Wat do ye s'pose he's a-doin' of?"

"Eatin' husks. 'St! There's his father a-settin' on the porch."

You don't think he heered? I guess I'll be goin'. I see Eunice ter meetin'," Sally added in a lower tone. "She's aged consider'ble. She's lookin' dretfle peakid. She's a-goin' down inter a sickness or I don't know signs. Pretty creeter. Allus put me in mind of a flower,—one o' them flowers ye tech 'ith a pin an' they shet up."

"I guess happiness would bring her good looks back," said Marthy.

"Mebbe. But land! they're sech a shif'less lot, them Dows. The wimmin never gits their work done till nex' day, an' the men never gits it done at all. I can see Jerry Dow now, a-plantin' terbaccer an' yams an' pineapples in his garding 'stid o' corn an' cabbages. His thoughts is mostly oft' in the islands o' the sea. The monkey he got died arter a w'ile, but there's a parrot there, swears in Spanish enough ter make yer blood run cold. But Eunice hes ter take keer on it. Lor! he don't take keer o' nothin'!"

"He was jes' sech another as Steve Manners."

"With the vim left out, an' th' interest in his feller creeturs. Yes, ef it hedn't ben fer his limp he'd 'a' gone trompin' along 'ith Steve. 'Twould 'a' jes' suited him."

"How you talk!"

"Gospel truth. Wal, I for one wouldn't blame him. I've thought, many's the time," peering round to make sure no one heard, "that I'd like ter go the same road myself. You du git so pesky tired o' the same thin' day in an' day out. I never blamed Reuel a speck; excep' for leavin' Eunice."

"Leavin' Eunice!" cried the indignant Marthy, all her length of scant, clean gingham agitated. "And there's his father!"

"I guess his father's stood it. He's made o' flint, that man."

"Oh, you don't know him—you don't know him!"

"Marthy, you wouldn't recognize Old Harry if you was ter meet him! You'd find excuses for him. You allus did,—fer the boy thet was licked, an' fer the man thet did the lickin'. Fer Reuel, an' fer Reuel's father. You know Elder Perry dealt with Deacon Asher fer his hard feelin's w'en he tore the leaf 'ith the boy's name on't out'n the big Bible, an' out'n the hymn-book in the pew, an' said 'twarn't ter be spoke in his hearin'."

"Cert'in. An' he sent the Elder a bar'l o' cider and a two-year-old heifer, a little w'ile arterwards. Yes, he sez ter Elder: 'You can come between me an' my Heavenly Father. That's w'at yer for. But you can't come between me an' my son. Ef I had a son. But I ain't.' An' he ris up straight as George Washington. You'd never 'a' thought his heart was mos' broke. I mind the night now,—the buckwheat-field was all w'ite, an' low down there was a w'ite mist on the medders, an' there was a great moon,—an' the hull world seemed a-swimmin' in that w'iteness, and I felt as ef Reuel was drownded in it,—and I'd carried him in my heart sence his mother put him in my arms. And I see the Deacon bound ter everlastin' torment,—an' dear knows I'd 'a' saved him ef walkin' barefoot over corn-stubble 'd 'a' done it. But there! I can't talk about it," and the trembling voice trembled into silence.

"Wal, you ain't no call ter talk. You ain't never done so much talkin' as the mouse the owl was arter. And I guess I'll say good day, anyway. I'm goin' up ter Mis' Dow's. I'm afeard somebody's sick up there. I'll lay most anythin' it's Eunice,"—tying her bonnet-strings with a jerk.

"Yes, I see the wash warn't out."

"Lor! that ain't no sign there." And Marthy, looking after her gossip, saw not one but a dozen little figures crossing the brook and going up the hill, for her eyes were only two big tears. And then she turned and went about the buttered toast and picked fish for the Deacon. "Oh, I wonder w'at Reuel's got fer supper," she sighed, as she cut the custard pie.

Deacon Asher sat in the porch, the cat stretched along his knee. He had been reading the Weekly Poulterer; but it did not interest him; nothing interested him. His hand had fallen; and as he gazed abroad over the fields through his big horn-bowed spectacles all things looked dark and dim and vague. His other hand lay upon the cat; not in a caress—merely as it were by accident. But the cat understood.

Within, Marthy's thin voice monotonously piped an old hymn—"As on some lonely building top the sparrow makes her moan"; but it piped to the spirit ditties of no tune, for consciously he did not know it. He heard above the burden a sweet young voice that sang at twilight to a baby crooning after it an indistinguishable sweetness. He heard a child's glad cry saluting the early sun; he heard a boy's clear clarion call as he drove the cattle over the hill on a misty morning, all the green world, the white air, washed with dew. And then the voice was a man's, low and tender, when he himself was burning up with a pneumonia. And he heard it again, low and contained, but full of wrath, the night Reuel walked with Eunice Dow and he came between them with a thrust. The girl was looking pindling last Sabbath. Three years make some alterations. Three years? Mighty! Three eternities!

Another music began to mingle with the Deacon's thoughts, clear as bird-singing, a singular reedy whistle that seemed to give both parts in one; a very different thing from Marthy's melancholy strain within,—a hymn tune, indeed, but a gay and lilting one full of runs and flourishes: "Come, my beloved, haste away." And then an alert and slender man, brown as a berry and wrinkled as a frozen apple, was coming up the field, carrying a long staff and followed by a yellow mongrel cur that, sitting down, threw back his head and began to howl, as if singing in sympathy rather with Marthy's tune than with his master's.

"That's my dog Bitters," said the man. "I named him Bitters fer the bark an' w'ine there is in him. Queer thin'," he went on, as he seated himself on the lower step of the porch, "but I can't w'istle no higher'n I can sing. Useter think ef my voice gin eout, I'd hev the w'istle lef'. But I guess they'll go tergether. Ain't much fun in livin' on arter ye've los' yer w'istle,—excep' w'en ye've paid tew dear fer it. P'r'aps," he said, g'lancing up into the Deacon's face with a cheerful smile, "you've sometimes paid tew dear fer yourn."

The Deacon looked down as he might have looked on a little gnome or troll that had stepped from the brown furrow to his plough, as if he only half believed he were there, and so inferior a thing could be of no consequence. And he made no reply.

"A w'istle," said the other, "is one thin' ter you, Square, an' mebbe another ter me, Fer me—ter fust—it meant freedom, jes' freedom. No school, no work, no shackles; an' I took ter the road. I done a job w'en I wanted ter, an' I dropped it where it was, w'en I wanted ter. There was times, cert'in, w'en I thought I'd like it diffrunt. I'd settle down, I said; I'd hev a home, and a wife an' children there. Then I'd come back up here an' look at Sally Moss. My lord! I was in chains! I was on fire! I lit out agin. I laid all night in the open pastur' unner the stars, like a part o' the old 'arth. I grabbed the truss an' swung in unner the trucks an' hed my long railroad rides, and enjoyed the resk as much as a hoss does goin' inter battle. I lived my life. And I found it good. No, I ain't ever paid tew dear fer my w'istle,—though w'en I see Sally Moss a-risin' the hill jes' now, light as a bubble, I felt as ef p'r'aps I hed. P'r'aps I ain't come ter payin' yet,—though I've hed chilblains an' rheumatiz an' gone hungry. Anyways, I've hed my way. But I guess 'tain't jes' the same 'ith you, Deacon," said the man, scratching Bitters's back with the end of his staff. "Your w'istle was ter hev your own way tew. Ter hev it ef the sky fell. Yes, sir, w'ile you be a-settin' up yer rights as a father, an' all the rest, ye've ben a-murderin' a man, body an' soul, an' that man yer own son!"

Deacon Asher put down the cat, who had for some time been the size of two cats as she watched Bitters; and he rose without looking at this thing again, and went into the house, and shut the door behind him.

Perhaps it was the moonlight pouring into the Deacon's room that hindered his slumber that night. Usually sleeping the sleep of the just and the weary as soon as his stout muscles relaxed their tension, now his pillow seemed full of thorns. He thought Marthy never would go to bed; the whippoorwills over in the cranberry-swamp were like imps of darkness; and then the ticking of the friendly old clock in the kitchen, when all the house lay in dead silence, was like the accusing voice of a judge. His mind was in as much disquiet as his body. It was not merely that he had been insulted by a ribald tramp who whistled hymn tunes as if for dancing in a barn; but, like a poisonous breath clouding a clear draught, doubts of the sturdy virtue that had been his pride rose within him, and tremors, whether of shame or fear, filled him with unrest. When by and by he dreamed, perhaps it was the beating of his angry heart that made the low thud, thud in his ears, like the rocking of the small wooden cradle that he remembered a light foot swinging in time to a sound half song, half just a happy murmur, all presently resolving itself now into the chorus of bird-singing at the dawn.

The day was breaking through the dusk of dawn with a dewy flush that made it seem as if earth and air with all their winds and sweetness were just new-born. The Deacon would have time to mow a good bit of the near field, which he had reserved to himself, before milking and the chores. He flung his scythe across his shoulder and strode on. He had some dim wonder if heaven itself were anything fairer than this hour; but a thought as dim behind it told him there could be no heaven without love,—and who in all the universe held any love for him! Possibly—it was a new thought to the Deacon, and a staggering one—he did not deserve to be loved. He knew very well that there had been no love in his heart for God or man in the blackness of these three long desert years. It had been bad enough when his wife was taken—the tender brooding dove; but he had submitted after a time,—he had his boy. And then the Deacon stifled a convulsive sigh and shifted his scythe and went on. He paused at last, somewhat dismayed to see that the wind and rain of a midnight shower had lodged the grass, and then his thoughts were arrested by the sight of a little figure running in his direction and waving her arms wildly.

It was Sally Moss. "Oh, Deacon, Deacon Asher!" she was crying. "Come here, come over here an' help her. It's the Dows' little Jersey 't Eunice bought, an' the dogs were worryin' her calf, an' she got the calf behind her, an' now they're pullin' her down. Elder's dog an' your Bose an' Steve Manners's Bitters. She's got atween them an' her calf an' so they're a-tacklin' her!"

The Deacon was a man of might in thew and sinew; he caught hold of the handles of his scythe more firmly and ran along with her as she turned, till they came upon the scene of struggle; and he gave Bose a kick that threw him out yelping, and with both hands and a will laid the flat of his blade across Bitters's back, and sent the Elder's dog after Bose, and let the harassed cow go free.

"I was a-settin' up 'ith Eunice Dow,—she's fearful sick," said Sally, catching her breath and her eyes sparkling. "She's down 'ith a real bad spell o' fever,—I knowed she was fittin' fer it Sabbath, an' I fixed thin's so's I could be on hand. I do'no' ef she'll git over it or unner it, but she will ef cold water can du it!" But the Deacon had snapped his fingers for Bose, and was stalking off to his mowing. The whole world had turned on him with fury lately.

"Wal," she said, "I guess I'll make ye hark afore I git thru 'ith ye!"

Sally might not have been so positive if she had not known that where Bitters was Steve Manners was not likely to be far away, and if she had not, in fact, seen him plodding up the hill with his staff—the Dows' house being one of his stages. Sometimes, where it is a question of keeping one's balance, a thread that would not bear the weight of a spider, if one can but touch it, gives support.

"Come, Bitters," called his master. "We've got consider'ble of a stunt terday,"—and then his gay whistle stopped short, and he saw what had happened. "Bitters!" he cried, sharply, dropping his staff, and bounding up the slope and throwing himself on the wet grass beside the dog. "What is it?" he cried. "What's the matter? Oh, Bitters, you're all I got! Don't say you're a-goin' back on me now! How come ye so? What in sin should I du 'thout you, Bitters!" The stump of a yellow tail stirred feebly. "Why, Bitters boy!" Steve cried, his voice breaking.

"Steve," said Sally, her own voice quavering, while she twisted her fingers till they hurt, "I'm sorry I throwed you down that time."

"Oh, that's no matter," Steve answered, frankly. "Jes' tell me how in time did this happen? Here, you see w'at's the matter! I can't. Why, sir, Bitters is ben the same ter me as wife an' child and all that, and ef Bitters is ter die—" He laid his head on the dog's neck. "Don't ye leave me, Bitters," he whispered, chokingly. "I—I couldn't stand that." The dog raised his head a trifle and lapped his master's face, and Steve's voice broke down in a loud sob.

"Here," said Sally. "He's a-comin' reoun'. Deacon jes' sorter stunned him. That's all. He was a-pullin' down Euny's cow all right. You wanter git even 'ith the Deacon? Then vou leave Bitters here ter me, an' you go down an' find Reuel. Eunice said she'd die afore she'd merry him, 'ith the Deacon so sot; an' you tell him she's a-dyin'. P'r'aps that 'll fetch him."

"An' leave Bitters?" cried Steve, rising. "Not if I know it. Bitters and I've seen trouble tergether, but we've allus sheered it and allus will—won't we, ol' dog?"

Bitters struggled to his feet, shook himself, and gave a short and sharp reply.

"Wait, till I git him a bite o' suthin'!" said Sally, running up to the house that sat on its lonely hill, gray and dreary in the full morning light. But when she would have returned, Steve and Bitters were gone, whether Steve carried the dog or he followed; only a cheerful strain in the distance seemed to say that all was right.

Mrs. Dow was in the kitchen. "I ain't got any merlasses fer the coffee, Sally," she said. "An' the ceow's ben so put about she won't give down no milk ter-day. I do'no' w'at we'll du."

"We'll play we like it jes' 's 'tis," said Sally. "Jerry with Eunice? Quiet there," listening a moment. "Then I guess I'll dry my feet, though I do'no's you'd ketch cold in summer dew. Remember w'en we washed our faces in June dew fer the freckles? W'at fools gels be!"

Up-stairs, Jerry was bending over the sick girl. "Don't ye know me, Euny?" he was whimpering. "Euny, don't ye know me? Can't ye speak ter me?"

"Pa—dear," she said, after a moment's silence, as if called back from a great distance.

"Ye ain't goin' fer ter die an' leave us, Euny, be ye? I do'no' w'at ma 'n' me 'd du. You jes' make up yer mind ye won't. Makin' up yer mind's a gre't thin'."

It was apparently too great a thing for the girl to do. Awake now, she was murmuring again excitedly, tossing her head from side to side, and presently calling out with strange incoherent cries. Sally, coming in, swiftly and silently, seized the father by the shoulder, and, in spite of his limp, whirled him out of the room. "You ain't got sense enough ter scare an owl!" she exclaimed outside the door. "Jes' 's we'd got her quiet! Now you go fer the doctor, double-quick, an' then see ter thet cow! Lord! ef I'd merried you, Jerry Dow, I'd made a man o' ye!"

"Wal, ye didn't!" said the turning worm.

Sally went back, and let the bright breeze into the room, and bathed the girl's face with cold water, and found another pillow, and smoothed the sheets.

"Yes, Reuel," sighed the sick girl, "it's a lovely night. I can smell the sweetbrier fum the swamp clear here. Oh, ma, I can't bear the smell o' that sweetbrier! Throw it in the fire, won't ye? W'at we got sech a hot fire for ter-day? Why, Reuel!" and her voice mounted higher and her words came more quickly, "you know there's nobody in all the worl'— Oh, yes, I du, I du! But I can't leave 'em. I can't leave poor ol' pa. They couldn't git along er tall. You mustn't ask me. They don't hev any sort of a good time—oh, yes, I du, 'ith you a-comin', an' you a-carin' fer me—oh, I don't want anythin' better. Wunst you put a w'ite rose in my hair. You said my hair was like corn silk— Oh, Reuel, Reuel, where be ye? Where you gone? I can't see, I can't hear, the world's all black. Oh, Deacon Asher! Oh, he's off—it's my fault——folks ses—oh, folks ses he's gone ter the bad! He couldn't—no, he couldn't! But if he did, I sent him, and Deacon Asher sent him! Oh, I shouldn't think you would—you was all the world to me, Reuel, Reuel—" And as the broken sentences became more and more rapid and indistinct, Sally began to think of cutting off the corn-silk hair.

The fever was higher the next day, and the delirium wilder, an unceasing low mutter, only one word in it, her lover's name, being now and again distinguishable. But by nightfall the strength was gone, and the sufferer lay in stupor or in deep sleep—it was not easy for the good country doctor to say which.

The nightfall had purpled into a dewy dusk, with the stars hanging out of it large as lamps, and the air full of wandering scents from the spice-bush, the balm, and the white roses, when the latch of the kitchen door lifted and a young man stepped in quickly,

"How's Eunice?" he whispered, hoarsely. "Is she alive? Tell me! Is she alive? It's me, Mr. Dow. Steve told me—good God, sir, she ain't—"

"I don't know," said Jerry, without stirring, where he against the bricks sat with his head against the bricks of the big oven. "Mebbe she is, mebbe she isn't. They keep me eout. Wen ye hear the cheers scrape back overhead, you'll know cert'in. I'm a-listenin'. Wen it ain't no use ter keep still, folks don't keep still any more. She's all the gal I got," and the voice went babbling on wearily.

But the young man had already bounded up the stairs, noiseless as a cat, and was at the door of the room overhead, was in the room, was on his knees by the bed where the slender form lay shrunken and pitiful among the pillows.

Sally sat at the bed's head, erect, sparkling with nervous force, watching for the enemy she fought in the dark; but Mrs. Dow, worn out with grief and terror and fatigue, had dropped her head upon the quilt at the foot of the other side and slept profoundly. Perhaps an hour passed, while he still knelt there. Then Sally leaned forward and touched him with the tip of her finger. The girl had begun to stir. She touched him again before he lifted his haggard face. And with that she pointed at the window, and the blossoming branch looking in there. He stared at her wonderingly a moment, and then, through some unknown intuition, her meaning flashed upon him. He moved silently to the window and tore off spray after spray of the roses, and stripped them of their thorns, and shook them dry of dew, and brought them back and laid them in the hollow of the sick girl's arm, and in a few minutes their pungent perfume filled the small bare room.

Presently the rich sweet breath penetrated the girl's consciousness, and, as if she were aware of their atmosphere, she opened her eyes and saw Reuel, and a heavenly smile kindled her face to its old beauty, before she lapsed back into the semi-stupor.

"Now," said Sally, "we gotter fight! You go down-stairs, Reuel, quick metre. Wake up, Mis' Dow! It's time ter hyper. Rub her feet, w'ile I git the brandy. Three o'clock to-night 'll tell the story!"

Lyra and the great constellations wheeled slowly overhead, while Reuel walked up and down, up and down the path between the hollyhocks all night. At every turn in his walk he looked up with a sinking heart and a dull horror at the window's faint glimmer. And suddenly he fell on his knees; he didn't dare pray, he only murmured over and over: "She's sech a young thing! She never done wrong in her born days. She loves to live. Oh, Christ! She loves to live!"

The morning star hung like a great jewel melting into the gold-gray of the sky. But Reuel saw nothing of it; he saw a little dark figure flying down the path like a witch on a broomstick. "It's all right!" Sally was exclaiming, as soon as she was near enough to be heard just under her breath. "No!" putting a hand like a grip of steel on Reuel's arm. "Not on yer life! Ye can't see her yit. I wouldn't let you fer a farm."

Reuel stood a moment, bewildered, half stunned. And then his face quivered, the tears gushed out. "Oh!" he cried. "Oh, I want my father!"

Deacon Asher was standing on his porch, drinking in the deliciousness of the morning without knowing it. "It's a great haying-day," he said. "Great." But there was no satisfaction in the thought or in the tone. He looked across the wide fields, billowing with. shadows of sailing clouds, and up at the bare and lonely little house on the hill where his enemy was in trouble. And then he saw some one dashing down the hill, across the brook, and up the long slope leading to his door. A pang, half like a tender reminiscence, half like a fresh and angry sting, struck through him like a shudder. And the next moment, the Deacon had sprung down the steps, and was plunging with leaps and bounds to throw his mighty arms about the boy who flung himself upon his breast.

"Oh, she's goin' ter live, father! She's goin' ter live!" cried Reuel.

"My son! My son!" the Deacon answered, clasping him close and closer.

Marthy was at the window, the flashing of the sun on the milk-pans reflected in the tears on her face like a glory. "This won't never du," she said, flicking off the tears with her fingers as she went to the door. "I'll be havin' 'em both down on my han's. Reuel, that you?" she said, lowering the key at once. "Wal, come right in. The coffee's spilin."

"Father," said Reuel, standing with his head bowed, "I done wrong."

"We'll both on us do right, boy," said the Deacon. And they went in together.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may also 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.