ELDER BROWN'S BACKSLIDE
By Harry Stillwell Edwards (1855- )
Best American Humorous Short Stories
[From Harper's Magazine, August, 1885; copyright, 1885, by Harper &
Bros.; republished in the volume, Two Runaways, and Other Stories
(1889), by Harry Stillwell Edwards (The Century Co.).]
Elder Brown told his wife good-by at the farmhouse door as
mechanically as though his proposed trip to Macon, ten miles away, was
an everyday affair, while, as a matter of fact, many years had elapsed
since unaccompanied he set foot in the city. He did not kiss her. Many
very good men never kiss their wives. But small blame attaches to the
elder for his omission on this occasion, since his wife had long ago
discouraged all amorous demonstrations on the part of her liege lord,
and at this particular moment was filling the parting moments with a
rattling list of directions concerning thread, buttons, hooks,
needles, and all the many etceteras of an industrious housewife's
basket. The elder was laboriously assorting these postscript
commissions in his memory, well knowing that to return with any one of
them neglected would cause trouble in the family circle.
Elder Brown mounted his patient steed that stood sleepily motionless
in the warm sunlight, with his great pointed ears displayed to the
right and left, as though their owner had grown tired of the life
burden their weight inflicted upon him, and was, old soldier fashion,
ready to forego the once rigid alertness of early training for the
pleasures of frequent rest on arms.
"And, elder, don't you forgit them caliker scraps, or you'll be
wantin' kiver soon an' no kiver will be a-comin'."
Elder Brown did not turn his head, but merely let the whip hand, which
had been checked in its backward motion, fall as he answered
mechanically. The beast he bestrode responded with a rapid whisking of
its tail and a great show of effort, as it ambled off down the sandy
road, the rider's long legs seeming now and then to touch the ground.
But as the zigzag panels of the rail fence crept behind him, and he
felt the freedom of the morning beginning to act upon his well-trained
blood, the mechanical manner of the old man's mind gave place to a
mild exuberance. A weight seemed to be lifting from it ounce by ounce
as the fence panels, the weedy corners, the persimmon sprouts and
sassafras bushes crept away behind him, so that by the time a mile lay
between him and the life partner of his joys and sorrows he was in a
reasonably contented frame of mind, and still improving.
It was a queer figure that crept along the road that cheery May
morning. It was tall and gaunt, and had been for thirty years or more.
The long head, bald on top, covered behind with iron-gray hair, and in
front with a short tangled growth that curled and kinked in every
direction, was surmounted by an old-fashioned stove-pipe hat, worn and
stained, but eminently impressive. An old-fashioned Henry Clay cloth
coat, stained and threadbare, divided itself impartially over the
donkey's back and dangled on his sides. This was all that remained of
the elder's wedding suit of forty years ago. Only constant care, and
use of late years limited to extra occasions, had preserved it so
long. The trousers had soon parted company with their friends. The
substitutes were red jeans, which, while they did not well match his
court costume, were better able to withstand the old man's abuse, for
if, in addition to his frequent religious excursions astride his
beast, there ever was a man who was fond of sitting down with his feet
higher than his head, it was this selfsame Elder Brown.
The morning expanded, and the old man expanded with it; for while a
vigorous leader in his church, the elder at home was, it must be
admitted, an uncomplaining slave. To the intense astonishment of the
beast he rode, there came new vigor into the whacks which fell upon
his flanks; and the beast allowed astonishment to surprise him into
real life and decided motion. Somewhere in the elder's expanding soul
a tune had begun to ring. Possibly he took up the far, faint tune that
came from the straggling gang of negroes away off in the field, as
they slowly chopped amid the threadlike rows of cotton plants which
lined the level ground, for the melody he hummed softly and then sang
strongly, in the quavering, catchy tones of a good old country
churchman, was "I'm glad salvation's free."
It was during the singing of this hymn that Elder Brown's regular
motion-inspiring strokes were for the first time varied. He began to
hold his hickory up at certain pauses in the melody, and beat the
changes upon the sides of his astonished steed. The chorus under this
I'm glad salvation's free,
I'm glad salvation's free,
I'm glad salvation's free for all,
I'm glad salvation's free.
Wherever there is an italic, the hickory descended. It fell about as
regularly and after the fashion of the stick beating upon the bass
drum during a funeral march. But the beast, although convinced that
something serious was impending, did not consider a funeral march
appropriate for the occasion. He protested, at first, with vigorous
whiskings of his tail and a rapid shifting of his ears. Finding these
demonstrations unavailing, and convinced that some urgent cause for
hurry had suddenly invaded the elder's serenity, as it had his own, he
began to cover the ground with frantic leaps that would have surprised
his owner could he have realized what was going on. But Elder Brown's
eyes were half closed, and he was singing at the top of his voice.
Lost in a trance of divine exaltation, for he felt the effects of the
invigorating motion, bent only on making the air ring with the lines
which he dimly imagined were drawing upon him the eyes of the whole
female congregation, he was supremely unconscious that his beast was
And thus the excursion proceeded, until suddenly a shote, surprised in
his calm search for roots in a fence corner, darted into the road, and
stood for an instant gazing upon the newcomers with that idiotic stare
which only a pig can imitate. The sudden appearance of this
unlooked-for apparition acted strongly upon the donkey. With one
supreme effort he collected himself into a motionless mass of matter,
bracing his front legs wide apart; that is to say, he stopped short.
There he stood, returning the pig's idiotic stare with an interest
which must have led to the presumption that never before in all his
varied life had he seen such a singular little creature. End over end
went the man of prayer, finally bringing up full length in the sand,
striking just as he should have shouted "free" for the fourth time in
his glorious chorus.
Fully convinced that his alarm had been well founded, the shote sped
out from under the gigantic missile hurled at him by the donkey, and
scampered down the road, turning first one ear and then the other to
detect any sounds of pursuit. The donkey, also convinced that the
object before which he had halted was supernatural, started back
violently upon seeing it apparently turn to a man. But seeing that it
had turned to nothing but a man, he wandered up into the deserted
fence corner, and began to nibble refreshment from a scrub oak.
For a moment the elder gazed up into the sky, half impressed with the
idea that the camp-meeting platform had given way. But the truth
forced its way to the front in his disordered understanding at last,
and with painful dignity he staggered into an upright position, and
regained his beaver. He was shocked again. Never before in all the
long years it had served him had he seen it in such shape. The truth
is, Elder Brown had never before tried to stand on his head in it. As
calmly as possible he began to straighten it out, caring but little
for the dust upon his garments. The beaver was his special crown of
dignity. To lose it was to be reduced to a level with the common
woolhat herd. He did his best, pulling, pressing, and pushing, but the
hat did not look natural when he had finished. It seemed to have been
laid off into counties, sections, and town lots. Like a well-cut
jewel, it had a face for him, view it from whatever point he chose, a
quality which so impressed him that a lump gathered in his throat, and
his eyes winked vigorously.
Elder Brown was not, however, a man for tears. He was a man of action.
The sudden vision which met his wandering gaze, the donkey calmly
chewing scrub buds, with the green juice already oozing from the
corners of his frothy mouth, acted upon him like magic. He was, after
all, only human, and when he got hands upon a piece of brush he
thrashed the poor beast until it seemed as though even its already
half-tanned hide would be eternally ruined. Thoroughly exhausted at
last, he wearily straddled his saddle, and with his chin upon his
breast resumed the early morning tenor of his way.
Elder Brown leaned over the little pine picket which divided the
bookkeepers' department of a Macon warehouse from the room in general,
and surveyed the well-dressed back of a gentleman who was busily
figuring at a desk within. The apartment was carpetless, and the dust
of a decade lay deep on the old books, shelves, and the familiar
advertisements of guano and fertilizers which decorated the room. An
old stove, rusty with the nicotine contributed by farmers during the
previous season while waiting by its glowing sides for their cotton to
be sold, stood straight up in a bed of sand, and festoons of cobwebs
clung to the upper sashes of the murky windows. The lower sash of one
window had been raised, and in the yard without, nearly an acre in
extent, lay a few bales of cotton, with jagged holes in their ends,
just as the sampler had left them. Elder Brown had time to notice all
these familiar points, for the figure at the desk kept serenely at its
task, and deigned no reply.
"Good-mornin', sir," said Elder Brown again, in his most dignified
tones. "Is Mr. Thomas in?"
"Good-morning, sir," said the figure. "I'll wait on you in a minute."
The minute passed, and four more joined it. Then the desk man turned.
"Well, sir, what can I do for you?"
The elder was not in the best of humor when he arrived, and his state
of mind had not improved. He waited full a minute as he surveyed the
man of business.
"I thought I mout be able to make some arrangements with you to git
some money, but I reckon I was mistaken." The warehouse man came
"This is Mr. Brown, I believe. I did not recognize you at once. You
are not in often to see us."
"No; my wife usually 'tends to the town bizness, while I run the
church and farm. Got a fall from my donkey this morning," he said,
noticing a quizzical, interrogating look upon the face before him,
"and fell squar' on the hat." He made a pretense of smoothing it. The
man of business had already lost interest.
"How much money will you want, Mr. Brown?"
"Well, about seven hundred dollars," said the elder, replacing his
hat, and turning a furtive look upon the warehouse man. The other was
tapping with his pencil upon the little shelf lying across the rail.
"I can get you five hundred."
"But I oughter have seven."
"Can't arrange for that amount. Wait till later in the season, and
come again. Money is very tight now. How much cotton will you raise?"
"Well, I count on a hundr'd bales. An' you can't git the sev'n hundr'd
"Like to oblige you, but can't right now; will fix it for you later
"Well," said the elder, slowly, "fix up the papers for five, an' I'll
make it go as far as possible."
The papers were drawn. A note was made out for $552.50, for the
interest was at one and a half per cent. for seven months, and a
mortgage on ten mules belonging to the elder was drawn and signed. The
elder then promised to send his cotton to the warehouse to be sold in
the fall, and with a curt "Anything else?" and a "Thankee, that's
all," the two parted.
Elder Brown now made an effort to recall the supplemental commissions
shouted to him upon his departure, intending to execute them first,
and then take his written list item by item. His mental resolves had
just reached this point when a new thought made itself known.
Passersby were puzzled to see the old man suddenly snatch his
headpiece off and peer with an intent and awestruck air into its
irregular caverns. Some of them were shocked when he suddenly and
"Hannah-Maria-Jemimy! goldarn an' blue blazes!"
He had suddenly remembered having placed his memoranda in that hat,
and as he studied its empty depths his mind pictured the important
scrap fluttering along the sandy scene of his early-morning tumble. It
was this that caused him to graze an oath with less margin that he had
allowed himself in twenty years. What would the old lady say?
Alas! Elder Brown knew too well. What she would not say was what
puzzled him. But as he stood bareheaded in the sunlight a sense of
utter desolation came and dwelt with him. His eye rested upon sleeping
Balaam anchored to a post in the street, and so as he recalled the
treachery that lay at the base of all his affliction, gloom was added
to the desolation.
To turn back and search for the lost paper would have been worse than
useless. Only one course was open to him, and at it went the leader of
his people. He called at the grocery; he invaded the recesses of the
dry-goods establishments; he ransacked the hardware stores; and
wherever he went he made life a burden for the clerks, overhauling
show-cases and pulling down whole shelves of stock. Occasionally an
item of his memoranda would come to light, and thrusting his hand into
his capacious pocket, where lay the proceeds of his check, he would
pay for it upon the spot, and insist upon having it rolled up. To the
suggestion of the slave whom he had in charge for the time being that
the articles be laid aside until he had finished, he would not listen.
"Now you look here, sonny," he said, in the dry-goods store, "I'm
conducting this revival, an' I don't need no help in my line. Just you
tie them stockin's up an' lemme have 'em. Then I know I've got
'em." As each purchase was promptly paid for, and change had to be
secured, the clerk earned his salary for that day at least.
So it was when, near the heat of the day, the good man arrived at the
drugstore, the last and only unvisited division of trade, he made his
appearance equipped with half a hundred packages, which nestled in his
arms and bulged out about the sections of his clothing that boasted of
pockets. As he deposited his deck-load upon the counter, great drops
of perspiration rolled down his face and over his waterlogged collar
to the floor.
There was something exquisitely refreshing in the great glasses of
foaming soda that a spruce young man was drawing from a marble
fountain, above which half a dozen polar bears in an ambitious print
were disporting themselves. There came a break in the run of
customers, and the spruce young man, having swept the foam from the
marble, dexterously lifted a glass from the revolving rack which had
rinsed it with a fierce little stream of water, and asked
mechanically, as he caught the intense look of the perspiring elder,
"What syrup, sir?"
Now it had not occurred to the elder to drink soda, but the
suggestion, coming as it did in his exhausted state, was overpowering.
He drew near awkwardly, put on his glasses, and examined the list of
syrups with great care. The young man, being for the moment at
leisure, surveyed critically the gaunt figure, the faded bandanna, the
antique clawhammer coat, and the battered stove-pipe hat, with a
gradually relaxing countenance. He even called the prescription
clerk's attention by a cough and a quick jerk of the thumb. The
prescription clerk smiled freely, and continued his assaults upon a
piece of blue mass.
"I reckon," said the elder, resting his hands upon his knees and
bending down to the list, "you may gimme sassprilla an' a little
strawberry. Sassprilla's good for the blood this time er year, an'
strawberry's good any time."
The spruce young man let the syrup stream into the glass as he smiled
affably. Thinking, perhaps, to draw out the odd character, he ventured
upon a jest himself, repeating a pun invented by the man who made the
first soda fountain. With a sweep of his arm he cleared away the swarm
of insects as he remarked, "People who like a fly in theirs are easily
It was from sheer good-nature only that Elder Brown replied, with his
usual broad, social smile, "Well, a fly now an' then don't hurt
Now if there is anybody in the world who prides himself on knowing a
thing or two, it is the spruce young man who presides over a soda
fountain. This particular young gentleman did not even deem a reply
necessary. He vanished an instant, and when he returned a close
observer might have seen that the mixture in the glass he bore had
slightly changed color and increased in quantity. But the elder saw
only the whizzing stream of water dart into its center, and the rosy
foam rise and tremble on the glass's rim. The next instant he was
holding his breath and sipping the cooling drink.
As Elder Brown paid his small score he was at peace with the world. I
firmly believe that when he had finished his trading, and the little
blue-stringed packages had been stored away, could the poor donkey
have made his appearance at the door, and gazed with his meek,
fawnlike eyes into his master's, he would have obtained full and free
Elder Brown paused at the door as he was about to leave. A
rosy-cheeked school-girl was just lifting a creamy mixture to her lips
before the fountain. It was a pretty picture, and he turned back,
resolved to indulge in one more glass of the delightful beverage
before beginning his long ride homeward.
"Fix it up again, sonny," he said, renewing his broad, confiding
smile, as the spruce young man poised a glass inquiringly. The living
automaton went through the same motions as before, and again Elder
Brown quaffed the fatal mixture.
What a singular power is habit! Up to this time Elder Brown had been
entirely innocent of transgression, but with the old alcoholic fire in
his veins, twenty years dropped from his shoulders, and a feeling came
over him familiar to every man who has been "in his cups." As a matter
of fact, the elder would have been a confirmed drunkard twenty years
before had his wife been less strong-minded. She took the reins into
her own hands when she found that his business and strong drink did
not mix well, worked him into the church, sustained his resolutions by
making it difficult and dangerous for him to get to his toddy. She
became the business head of the family, and he the spiritual. Only at
rare intervals did he ever "backslide" during the twenty years of the
new era, and Mrs. Brown herself used to say that the "sugar in his'n
turned to gall before the backslide ended." People who knew her never
But Elder Brown's sin during the remainder of the day contained an
element of responsibility. As he moved majestically down toward where
Balaam slept in the sunlight, he felt no fatigue. There was a glow
upon his cheek-bones, and a faint tinge upon his prominent nose. He
nodded familiarly to people as he met them, and saw not the look of
amusement which succeeded astonishment upon the various faces. When he
reached the neighborhood of Balaam it suddenly occurred to him that he
might have forgotten some one of his numerous commissions, and he
paused to think. Then a brilliant idea rose in his mind. He would
forestall blame and disarm anger with kindness—he would purchase
Hannah a bonnet.
What woman's heart ever failed to soften at sight of a new bonnet?
As I have stated, the elder was a man of action. He entered a store
near at hand.
"Good-morning," said an affable gentleman with a Hebrew countenance,
"Good-mornin', good-mornin'," said the elder, piling his bundles on
the counter. "I hope you are well?" Elder Brown extended his hand
"Quite well, I thank you. What—"
"And the little wife?" said Elder Brown, affectionately retaining the
"Quite well, sir."
"And the little ones—quite well, I hope, too?"
"Yes, sir; all well, thank you. Something I can do for you?"
The affable merchant was trying to recall his customer's name.
"Not now, not now, thankee. If you please to let my bundles stay
untell I come back—"
"Can't I show you something? Hat, coat—"
"Not now. Be back bimeby."
Was it chance or fate that brought Elder Brown in front of a bar? The
glasses shone bright upon the shelves as the swinging door flapped
back to let out a coatless clerk, who passed him with a rush, chewing
upon a farewell mouthful of brown bread and bologna. Elder Brown
beheld for an instant the familiar scene within. The screws of his
resolution had been loosened. At sight of the glistening bar the whole
moral structure of twenty years came tumbling down. Mechanically he
entered the saloon, and laid a silver quarter upon the bar as he said:
"A little whiskey an' sugar." The arms of the bartender worked like a
faker's in a side show as he set out the glass with its little quota
of "short sweetening" and a cut-glass decanter, and sent a
half-tumbler of water spinning along from the upper end of the bar
with a dime in change.
"Whiskey is higher'n used to be," said Elder Brown; but the bartender
was taking another order, and did not hear him. Elder Brown stirred
away the sugar, and let a steady stream of red liquid flow into the
glass. He swallowed the drink as unconcernedly as though his morning
tod had never been suspended, and pocketed the change. "But it ain't
any better than it was," he concluded, as he passed out. He did not
even seem to realize that he had done anything extraordinary.
There was a millinery store up the street, and thither with uncertain
step he wended his way, feeling a little more elate, and altogether
sociable. A pretty, black-eyed girl, struggling to keep down her
mirth, came forward and faced him behind the counter. Elder Brown
lifted his faded hat with the politeness, if not the grace, of a
Castilian, and made a sweeping bow. Again he was in his element. But
he did not speak. A shower of odds and ends, small packages, thread,
needles, and buttons, released from their prison, rattled down about
The girl laughed. She could not help it. And the elder, leaning his
hand on the counter, laughed, too, until several other girls came
half-way to the front. Then they, hiding behind counters and suspended
cloaks, laughed and snickered until they reconvulsed the elder's
vis-à-vis, who had been making desperate efforts to resume her demure
"Let me help you, sir," she said, coming from behind the counter, upon
seeing Elder Brown beginning to adjust his spectacles for a search. He
waved her back majestically. "No, my dear, no; can't allow it. You
mout sile them purty fingers. No, ma'am. No gen'l'man'll 'low er lady
to do such a thing." The elder was gently forcing the girl back to her
place. "Leave it to me. I've picked up bigger things 'n them. Picked
myself up this mornin'. Balaam—you don't know Balaam; he's my
donkey—he tumbled me over his head in the sand this mornin'." And
Elder Brown had to resume an upright position until his paroxysm of
laughter had passed. "You see this old hat?" extending it, half full
of packages; "I fell clear inter it; jes' as clean inter it as them
things thar fell out'n it." He laughed again, and so did the girls.
"But, my dear, I whaled half the hide off'n him for it."
"Oh, sir! how could you? Indeed, sir. I think you did wrong. The poor
brute did not know what he was doing, I dare say, and probably he has
been a faithful friend." The girl cast her mischievous eyes towards
her companions, who snickered again. The old man was not conscious of
the sarcasm. He only saw reproach. His face straightened, and he
regarded the girl soberly.
"Mebbe you're right, my dear; mebbe I oughtn't."
"I am sure of it," said the girl. "But now don't you want to buy a
bonnet or a cloak to carry home to your wife?"
"Well, you're whistlin' now, birdie; that's my intention; set 'em all
out." Again the elder's face shone with delight. "An' I don't want no
one-hoss bonnet neither."
"Of course not. Now here is one; pink silk, with delicate pale blue
feathers. Just the thing for the season. We have nothing more elegant
in stock." Elder Brown held it out, upside down, at arm's-length.
"Well, now, that's suthin' like. Will it soot a sorter redheaded
A perfectly sober man would have said the girl's corsets must have
undergone a terrible strain, but the elder did not notice her dumb
convulsion. She answered, heroically:
"Perfectly, sir. It is an exquisite match."
"I think you're whistlin' again. Nancy's head's red, red as a
woodpeck's. Sorrel's only half-way to the color of her top-knot, an'
it do seem like red oughter to soot red. Nancy's red an' the hat's
red; like goes with like, an' birds of a feather flock together." The
old man laughed until his cheeks were wet.
The girl, beginning to feel a little uneasy, and seeing a customer
entering, rapidly fixed up the bonnet, took fifteen dollars out of a
twenty-dollar bill, and calmly asked the elder if he wanted anything
else. He thrust his change somewhere into his clothes, and beat a
retreat. It had occurred to him that he was nearly drunk.
Elder Brown's step began to lose its buoyancy. He found himself
utterly unable to walk straight. There was an uncertain straddle in
his gait that carried him from one side of the walk to the other, and
caused people whom he met to cheerfully yield him plenty of room.
Balaam saw him coming. Poor Balaam. He had made an early start that
day, and for hours he stood in the sun awaiting relief. When he opened
his sleepy eyes and raised his expressive ears to a position of
attention, the old familiar coat and battered hat of the elder were
before him. He lifted up his honest voice and cried aloud for joy.
The effect was electrical for one instant. Elder Brown surveyed the
beast with horror, but again in his understanding there rang out the
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, -er-unc, -unc, -unc."
He stooped instinctively for a missile with which to smite his
accuser, but brought up suddenly with a jerk and a handful of sand.
Straightening himself up with a majestic dignity, he extended his
right hand impressively.
"You're a goldarn liar, Balaam, and, blast your old buttons, you kin
walk home by yourself, for I'm danged if you sh'll ride me er step."
Surely Coriolanus never turned his back upon Rome with a grander
dignity than sat upon the old man's form as he faced about and left
the brute to survey with anxious eyes the new departure of his master.
He saw the elder zigzag along the street, and beheld him about to turn
a friendly corner. Once more he lifted up his mighty voice:
"Drunk, drunk, drunk, drer-unc, drer-unc, -erunc, -unc, -unc."
Once more the elder turned with lifted hand and shouted back:
"You're a liar, Balaam, goldarn you! You're er iffamous liar." Then he
passed from view.
Mrs. Brown stood upon the steps anxiously awaiting the return of her
liege lord. She knew he had with him a large sum of money, or should
have, and she knew also that he was a man without business methods.
She had long since repented of the decision which sent him to town.
When the old battered hat and flour-covered coat loomed up in the
gloaming and confronted her, she stared with terror. The next instant
she had seized him.
"For the Lord sakes, Elder Brown, what ails you? As I live, if the man
ain't drunk! Elder Brown! Elder Brown! for the life of me can't I make
you hear? You crazy old hypocrite! you desavin' old sinner! you
black-hearted wretch! where have you ben?"
The elder made an effort to wave her off.
"Woman," he said, with grand dignity, "you forgit yus-sef; shu know
ware I've ben 'swell's I do. Ben to town, wife, an' see yer wat I've
brought—the fines' hat, ole woman, I could git. Look't the color.
Like goes 'ith like; it's red an' you're red, an' it's a dead match.
What yer mean? Hey! hole on! ole woman!—you! Hannah!—you." She
literally shook him into silence.
"You miserable wretch! you low-down drunken sot! what do you mean by
coming home and insulting your wife?" Hannah ceased shaking him from
"Where is it, I say? where is it?"
By this time she was turning his pockets wrong side out. From one she
got pills, from another change, from another packages.
"The Lord be praised, and this is better luck than I hoped! Oh, elder!
elder! elder! what did you do it for? Why, man, where is Balaam?"
Thought of the beast choked off the threatened hysterics.
"Balaam? Balaam?" said the elder, groggily. "He's in town. The
infernal ole fool 'sulted me, an' I lef' him to walk home."
His wife surveyed him. Really at that moment she did think his mind
was gone; but the leer upon the old man's face enraged her beyond
"You did, did you? Well, now, I reckon you'll laugh for some cause,
you will. Back you go, sir—straight back; an' don't you come home
'thout that donkey, or you'll rue it, sure as my name is Hannah Brown.
A black boy darted round the corner, from behind which, with several
others, he had beheld the brief but stirring scene.
"Put a saddle on er mule. The elder's gwine back to town. And don't
you be long about it neither."
"Yessum." Aleck's ivories gleamed in the darkness as he disappeared.
Elder Brown was soberer at that moment than he had been for hours.
"Hannah, you don't mean it?"
"Yes, sir, I do. Back you go to town as sure as my name is Hannah
The elder was silent. He had never known his wife to relent on any
occasion after she had affirmed her intention, supplemented with "as
sure as my name is Hannah Brown." It was her way of swearing. No
affidavit would have had half the claim upon her as that simple
So back to town went Elder Brown, not in the order of the early morn,
but silently, moodily, despairingly, surrounded by mental and actual
The old man had turned a last appealing glance upon the angry woman,
as he mounted with Aleck's assistance, and sat in the light that
streamed from out the kitchen window. She met the glance without a
"She means it, as sure as my name is Elder Brown," he said, thickly.
Then he rode on.
To say that Elder Brown suffered on this long journey back to Macon
would only mildly outline his experience. His early morning's fall had
begun to make itself felt. He was sore and uncomfortable. Besides, his
stomach was empty, and called for two meals it had missed for the
first time in years.
When, sore and weary, the elder entered the city, the electric lights
shone above it like jewels in a crown. The city slept; that is, the
better portion of it did. Here and there, however, the lower lights
flashed out into the night. Moodily the elder pursued his journey, and
as he rode, far off in the night there rose and quivered a plaintive
cry. Elder Brown smiled wearily: it was Balaam's appeal, and he
recognized it. The animal he rode also recognized it, and replied,
until the silence of the city was destroyed. The odd clamor and
confusion drew from a saloon near by a group of noisy youngsters, who
had been making a night of it. They surrounded Elder Brown as he began
to transfer himself to the hungry beast to whose motion he was more
accustomed, and in the "hail fellow well met" style of the day began
to bandy jests upon his appearance. Now Elder Brown was not in a
jesting humor. Positively he was in the worst humor possible. The
result was that before many minutes passed the old man was swinging
several of the crowd by their collars, and breaking the peace of the
city. A policeman approached, and but for the good-humored party, upon
whom the elder's pluck had made a favorable impression, would have run
the old man into the barracks. The crowd, however, drew him laughingly
into the saloon and to the bar. The reaction was too much for his
half-rallied senses. He yielded again. The reviving liquor passed his
lips. Gloom vanished. He became one of the boys.
The company into which Elder Brown had fallen was what is known as
"first-class." To such nothing is so captivating as an adventure out
of the common run of accidents. The gaunt countryman, with his
battered hat and claw-hammer coat, was a prize of an extraordinary
nature. They drew him into a rear room, whose gilded frames and
polished tables betrayed the character and purpose of the place, and
plied him with wine until ten thousand lights danced about him. The
fun increased. One youngster made a political speech from the top of
the table; another impersonated Hamlet; and finally Elder Brown was
lifted into a chair, and sang a camp-meeting song. This was rendered
by him with startling effect. He stood upright, with his hat jauntily
knocked to one side, and his coat tails ornamented with a couple of
show-bills, kindly pinned on by his admirers. In his left hand he
waved the stub of a cigar, and on his back was an admirable
representation of Balaam's head, executed by some artist with billiard
As the elder sang his favorite hymn, "I'm glad salvation's free," his
stentorian voice awoke the echoes. Most of the company rolled upon the
floor in convulsions of laughter.
The exhibition came to a close by the chair overturning. Again Elder
Brown fell into his beloved hat. He arose and shouted: "Whoa, Balaam!"
Again he seized the nearest weapon, and sought satisfaction. The young
gentleman with political sentiments was knocked under the table, and
Hamlet only escaped injury by beating the infuriated elder into the
What next? Well, I hardly know. How the elder found Balaam is a
mystery yet: not that Balaam was hard to find, but that the old man
was in no condition to find anything. Still he did, and climbing
laboriously into the saddle, he held on stupidly while the hungry
beast struck out for home.
Hannah Brown did not sleep that night. Sleep would not come. Hour
after hour passed, and her wrath refused to be quelled. She tried
every conceivable method, but time hung heavily. It was not quite peep
of day, however, when she laid her well-worn family Bible aside. It
had been her mother's, and amid all the anxieties and tribulations
incident to the life of a woman who had free negroes and a miserable
husband to manage, it had been her mainstay and comfort. She had
frequently read it in anger, page after page, without knowing what was
contained in the lines. But eventually the words became intelligible
and took meaning. She wrested consolation from it by mere force of
And so on this occasion when she closed the book the fierce anger was
She was not a hard woman naturally. Fate had brought her conditions
which covered up the woman heart within her, but though it lay deep,
it was there still. As she sat with folded hands her eyes fell
The pink bonnet with the blue plume!
It may appear strange to those who do not understand such natures, but
to me her next action was perfectly natural. She burst into a
convulsive laugh; then, seizing the queer object, bent her face upon
it and sobbed hysterically. When the storm was over, very tenderly she
laid the gift aside, and bare-headed passed out into the night.
For a half-hour she stood at the end of the lane, and then hungry
Balaam and his master hove in sight. Reaching out her hand, she
checked the beast.
"William," said she, very gently, "where is the mule?"
The elder had been asleep. He woke and gazed upon her blankly.
"What mule, Hannah?"
"The mule you rode to town."
For one full minute the elder studied her face. Then it burst from his
"Well, bless me! if I didn't bring Balaam and forgit the mule!"
The woman laughed till her eyes ran water.
"William," said she, "you're drunk."
"Hannah," said he, meekly, "I know it. The truth is, Hannah, I—"
"Never mind, now, William," she said, gently. "You are tired and
hungry. Come into the house, husband."
Leading Balaam, she disappeared down the lane; and when, a few minutes
later, Hannah Brown and her husband entered through the light that
streamed out of the open door her arms were around him, and her face
upturned to his.