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- Elder Conklin and Other Stories - 5/33 -
and were drinking greedily.
After they had had a deep draught or two, Bancroft urged his horse into the stream and began to drive them up the bank. They went easily enough now, and ahead of them rode the Elder, his long whitey-brown holland coat fluttering behind him. In half an hour Bancroft had got the herd into the corral. The Elder counted the three hundred and sixty-two beasts with painstaking carefulness as they filed by.
The prairie-track to Eureka led along the creek, and in places ran close to it without any intervening fence. In an hour under that hot October sun the cattle had again become thirsty, and it needed all Bancroft's energy and courage to keep them from dashing into the water. Once or twice indeed it was a toss-up whether or not they would rush over him. He was nearly exhausted when some four hours after the start they came in sight of the little town. Here he let the herd into the creek. Glad of the rest, he sat on his panting horse and wiped the perspiration from his face. After the cattle had drunk their fill, he moved them quietly along the road, while the water dripped from their mouths and bodies. At the scales the Elder met the would-be purchaser, who as soon as he caught sight of the stock burst into a laugh.
"Say, Conklin," he cried out, "I guess you've given them cattle enough to drink, but I don't buy water for meat. No, sir; you bet, I don't."
"I didn't allow you would," replied the Elder gravely; "but the track was long and hot; so they drank in the crik."
"Wall," resumed the dealer, half disarmed by this confession, which served the Elder's purpose better than any denial could have done, "I guess you'll take off fifty pound a head for that water."
"I guess not," was the answer. "Twenty pound of water's reckoned to be about as much as a kyow kin drink."
The trading began and continued to Bancroft's annoyance for more than half an hour. At last it was settled that thirty pounds' weight should be allowed on each beast for the water it had drunk. When this conclusion had been arrived at, it took but a few minutes to weigh the animals and pay the price agreed upon.
The Elder now declared himself ready to go "to hum" and get somethin' to eat. In sullen silence Bancroft remounted, and side by side they rode slowly towards the farm. The schoolmaster's feelings may easily be imagined. He had been disgusted by the cunning and hypocrisy of the trick, and the complacent expression of the Elder's countenance irritated him intensely. As he passed place after place where the cattle had given him most trouble in the morning, anger took possession of him, and at length forced itself to speech.
"See here, Elder Conklin!" he began abruptly, "I suppose you call yourself a Christian. You look down on me because I'm not a Member. Yet, first of all, you salt cattle for days till they're half mad with thirst, then after torturing them by driving them for hours along this road side by side with water, you act lies with the man you've sold them to, and end up by cheating him. You know as well as I do that each of those steers had drunk sixty-five pounds' weight of water at least; so you got" (he couldn't use the word "stole" even in his anger, while the Elder was looking at him) "more than a dollar a head too much. That's the kind of Christianity you practise. I don't like such Christians, and I'll leave your house as soon as I can. I am ashamed that I didn't tell the dealer you were deceiving him. I feel as if I had been a party to the cheat."
While the young man was speaking the Elder looked at him intently. At certain parts of the accusation Conklin's face became rigid, but he said nothing. A few minutes later, having skirted the orchard, they dismounted at the stable-door.
After he had unsaddled his horse and thrown it some Indian corn, Bancroft hastened to the house; he wanted to be alone. On the stoop he met Loo and said to her hastily:
"I can't talk now, Loo; I'm tired out and half crazy. I must go to my room and rest. After supper I'll tell you everything. Please don't keep me now."
Supper that evening was a silent meal. The Elder did not speak once; the two young people were absorbed in their own reflections, and Mrs. Conklin's efforts to make talk were effectual only when she turned to Jake. Mrs. Conklin, indeed, was seldom successful in anything she attempted. She was a woman of fifty, or thereabouts, and her face still showed traces of former good looks, but the light had long left her round, dark eyes, and the colour her cheeks, and with years her figure had grown painfully thin. She was one of the numerous class who delight in taking strangers into their confidence. Unappreciated, as a rule, by those who know them, they seek sympathy from polite indifference or curiosity. Before he had been a day in the house Bancroft had heard from Mrs. Conklin all about her early life. Her father had been a large farmer in Amherst County, Massachusetts; her childhood had been comfortable and happy: "We always kept one hired man right through the winter, and in summer often had eight and ten; and, though you mightn't think it now, I was the belle of all the parties." Dave (her husband) had come to work for her father, and she had taken a likin' to him, though he was such a "hard case." She told of Dave's gradual conversion and of the Revivalist Minister, who was an Abolitionist as well, and had proclaimed the duty of emigrating to Kansas to prevent it from becoming a slave state. Dave, it appeared, had taken up the idea zealously, and had persuaded her to go with him. Her story became pathetic in spite of her self-pity as she related the hardships of that settlement in the wilds, and described her loneliness, her shivering terror when her husband was away hauling logs for their first home, and news came that the slave-traders from Missouri had made another raid upon the scattered Abolitionist farmers. The woman had evidently been unfit for such rude transplanting. She dwelt upon the fact that her husband had never understood her feelings. If he had, she wouldn't have minded so much. Marriage was not what girls thought; she had not been happy since she left her father's house, and so forth. The lament was based on an unworthy and futile egoism, but her whining timidity appeared to Bancroft inexplicable. He did not see that just as a shrub pales and dies away under the branches of a great tree, so a weak nature is apt to be further enfeebled by association with a strong and self-contained character. In those early days of loneliness and danger the Elder's steadfastness and reticence had prevented him from affording to his wife the sympathy which might have enabled her to overcome her fears. "He never talked anythin' over with me," was the burden of her complaint. Solitude had killed every power in her save vanity, and the form her vanity took was peculiarly irritating to her husband, and in a lesser degree to her daughter, for neither the Elder nor Loo would have founded self-esteem on adventitious advantages of upbringing. Accordingly, Mrs. Conklin was never more than an uncomfortable shadow in her own house, and this evening her repeated attempts to bring about a semblance of conversation only made the silence and preoccupation of the others painfully evident.
As soon as the supper things were cleared away, Loo signalled to Bancroft to accompany her to the stoop, where she asked him what had happened.
"I insulted the Elder," he said, "and I told him I should leave his house as soon as I could."
"You don't mean that!" she exclaimed. "You must take that back, George. I'll speak to pappa; he'll mind me."
"No," he replied firmly; "speaking won't do any good. I've made up my mind. It's impossible for me to stay here."
"Then you don't care for me. But that's not so. Say it's not so, George. Say you'll stay--and I'll come down this evening after the old folks have gone to bed, and sit with you. There!"
Of course the man yielded to a certain extent, the pleading face upturned to his was too seductive to be denied, but he would not promise more than that he would tell her what had taken place, and consult with her.
Shortly after nine o'clock, as usual, Mr. and Mrs. Conklin retired. Half an hour later Bancroft and Loo were seated together in the corner of the back stoop. They sat like lovers, his arm about her waist, while he told his story. She expressed relief; she had feared it would be much worse; he had only to say he didn't mean anythin', and she'd persuade her father to forget and forgive. But the schoolmaster would not consent to that. He had meant and did mean every word, and could take back nothing. And when she appealed to his affection, he could only repeat that he'd think it over. "You know I like you, Loo, but I can't do impossibilities. It's unfortunate, perhaps, but it's done and can't be undone." And then, annoyed at being pressed further, he thought they had better go in: it was very cold; she'd catch a chill if she stayed longer, and there was no sense in that. The girl, seeing that her pleading was of no avail, grew angry; his love was good enough to talk about, but it could not be worth much if he denied her so little a thing; it didn't matter, though, she'd get along somehow, she guessed-- here they were startled by the sound of a door opening. Loo glided quickly round the corner of the stoop, and entered the house. Bancroft following her heard the back door shut, and some one go down the steps. He could not help looking to see who was on foot at such an untimely hour, and to his surprise perceived the Elder in a night-shirt, walking with bare feet towards the stables through the long grass already stiff with frost. Before the white figure had disappeared Bancroft assured himself that Loo had gone up to bed the front way. Curiosity conquering his first impulse, which had been to follow her example, he went after the Elder, without, however, intending to play the spy. When he had passed through the stables and got to the top of the slope overlooking the creek, he caught sight of the Elder twenty yards away at the water's edge. In mute surprise he watched the old man tie his night-shirt up under his armpits, wade into the ice-cold water, kneel down, and begin what was evidently meant to be a prayer. His first words were conventional, but gradually his earnestness and excitement overcame his sense of the becoming, and he talked of what lay near his heart in disjointed phrases.
"That young man to-day jes' jumped on me! He told me I'd plagued them cattle half to death, and I'd acted lies and cheated Ramsdell out of three hundred dollars. 'Twas all true. I s'pose I did plague the cattle, though I've often been as thirsty as they were--after eatin' salt pork and workin' all day in the sun. I didn't think of hurtin' them when I salted the floor. But I did act to deceive Ramsdell, and I reckon I made nigh on three hundred dollars out of the deal. 'Twas wrong. But, O God!"--and unconsciously the old man's voice rose--"You know all my life. You know everythin'. You know I never lied or cheated any one fer myself. I've worked hard and honest fer more'n forty years, and always been poor. I never troubled about it, and I don't now, but fer Loo.
"She's so pretty and young. Jes' like a flower wants sunshine, she wants pleasure, and when she don't git it, she feels bad. She's so young and soft. Now she wants a pile of money and a pianner, and I couldn't git it fer her no other way. I had to cheat.
"O Lord, ef I could kneel down hyar and say I repented with godly
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