HOW I come not to have a last name is a question that has always had more or less aggervation mixed up with it. I might of had one jest as well as not if Old Hank Walters hadn’t been so all-fired, infernal bull-headed about things in gineral, and his wife Elmira a blame sight worse, and both of em ready to row at a minute’s notice and stick to it forevermore.
Hank, he was considerable of a lusher. One Saturday night, when he come home from the village in his usual fix, he stumbled over a basket that was setting on his front steps. Then he got up and drawed back his foot unsteady to kick it plumb into kingdom come. Jest then he hearn Elmira opening the door behind him, and he turned his head sudden. But the kick was already started into the air, and when he turns he can’t stop it. And so Hank gets twisted and falls down and steps on himself. That basket lets out a yowl.
“It’s kittens,” says Hank, still setting down and staring at that there basket. All of which, you understand, I am a-telling you from hearsay, as the lawyers always asts you in court.
Elmira, she sings out:
“Kittens, nothing! It’s a baby!”
And she opens the basket and looks in and it was me.
“Hennerey Walters,” she says—picking me up, and shaking me at him like I was a crime, “Hennerey Walters, where did you get this here baby?” She always calls him Hennerey when she is getting ready to give him fits.
Hank, he scratches his head, for he’s kind o’ confuddled, and thinks mebby he really has brought this basket with him. He tries to think of all the places he has been that night. But he can’t think of any place but Bill Nolan’s saloon. So he says:
“Elmira, honest, I ain’t had but one drink all day.” And then he kind o’ rouses up a little bit, and gets surprised and says:
“That a BABY you got there, Elmira?” And then he says, dignified: “So fur as that’s consarned, Elmira, where did YOU get that there baby?”
She looks at him, and she sees he don’t really know where I come from. Old Hank mostly was truthful when lickered up, fur that matter, and she knowed it, fur he couldn’t think up no lies excepting a gineral denial when intoxicated up to the gills.
Elmira looks into the basket. They was one of them long rubber tubes stringing out of a bottle that was in it, and I had been sucking that bottle when interrupted. And they wasn’t nothing else in that basket but a big thick shawl which had been wrapped all around me, and Elmira often wore it to meeting afterward. She goes inside and she looks at the bottle and me by the light, and Old Hank, he comes stumbling in afterward and sets down in a chair and waits to get Hail Columbia for coming home in that shape, so’s he can row back agin, like they done every Saturday night.
Blowed in the glass of the bottle was the name: “Daniel, Dunne and Company.” Anybody but them two old ignoramuses could of told right off that that didn’t have nothing to do with me, but was jest the company that made them kind of bottles. But she reads it out loud three or four times, and then she says:
“His name is Daniel Dunne,” she says.
“And Company,” says Hank, feeling right quarrelsome.
“COMPANY hain’t no name,” says she.
“WHY hain’t it, I’d like to know?” says Hank. “I knowed a man oncet whose name was Farmer, and if a farmer’s a name why ain’t a company a name too?”
“His name is Daniel Dunne,” says Elmira, quietlike, but not dodging a row, neither.
“AND COMPANY,” says Hank, getting onto his feet, like he always done when he seen trouble coming. When Old Hank was full of licker he knowed jest the ways to aggervate her the worst.
She might of banged him one the same as usual, and got her own eye blacked also, the same as usual; but jest then I lets out another big yowl, and she give me some milk.
I guess the only reason they ever kep’ me at first was so they could quarrel about my name. They’d lived together a good many years and quarrelled about everything else under the sun, and was running out of subjects. A new subject kind o’ briskened things up fur a while.
But finally they went too far with it one time. I was about two years old then and he was still calling me Company and her calling me Dunne. This time he hits her a lick that lays her out and likes to kill her, and it gets him scared. But she gets around agin after a while, and they both see it has went too fur that time, and so they makes up.
“Elmira, I give in,” says Hank. “His name is Dunne.”
“No,” says she, tender-like, “you was right, Hank. His name is Company.” So they pretty near got into another row over that. But they finally made it up between em I didn’t have no last name, and they’d jest call me Danny. Which they both done faithful ever after, as agreed.
Old Hank, he was a blacksmith, and he used to lamm me considerable, him and his wife not having any kids of their own to lick. He lammed me when he was drunk, and he whaled me when he was sober. I never helt it up agin him much, neither, not fur a good many years, because he got me used to it young, and I hadn’t never knowed nothing else. Hank’s wife, Elmira, she used to lick him jest about as often as he licked her, and boss him jest as much. So he fell back on me. A man has jest naturally got to have something to cuss around and boss, so’s to keep himself from finding out he don’t amount to nothing. Leastways, most men is like that. And Hank, he didn’t amount to much; and he kind o’ knowed it, way down deep in his inmost gizzards, and it were a comfort to him to have me around.
But they was one thing he never sot no store by, and I got along now to where I hold that up agin him more’n all the lickings he ever done. That was book learning. He never had none himself, and he was sot agin it, and he never made me get none, and if I’d ever asted him for any he’d of whaled me fur that. Hank’s wife, Elmira, had married beneath her, and everybody in our town had come to see it, and used to sympathize with her about it when Hank wasn’t around. She’d tell em, yes, it was so. Back in Elmira, New York, from which her father and mother come to our part of Illinoise in the early days, her father had kep’ a hotel, and they was stylish kind o’ folks. When she was born her mother was homesick fur all that style and fur York State ways, and so she named her Elmira.
But when she married Hank, he had considerable land. His father had left it to him, but it was all swamp land, and so Hank’s father, he hunted more’n he farmed, and Hank and his brothers done the same when he was a boy. But Hank, he learnt a little blacksmithing when he was growing up, cause he liked to tinker around and to show how stout he was. Then, when he married Elmira Appleton, he had to go to work practising that perfession reg’lar, because he never learnt nothing about farming. He’d sell fifteen or twenty acres, every now and then, and they’d be high times till he’d spent it up, and mebby Elmira would get some new clothes.
But when I was found on the door step, the land was all gone, and Hank was practising reg’lar, when not busy cussing out the fellers that had bought the land. Fur some smart fellers had come along, and bought up all that swamp land and dreened it, and now it was worth seventy or eighty dollars an acre. Hank, he figgered some one had cheated him. Which the Walterses could of dreened theirn too, only they’d ruther hunt ducks and have fish frys than to dig ditches. All of which I hearn Elmira talking over with the neighbours more’n once when I was growing up, and they all says: “How sad it is you have came to this, Elmira!” And then she’d kind o’ spunk up and say, thanks to glory, she’d kep’ her pride.
Well, they was worse places to live in than that there little town, even if they wasn’t no railroad within eight miles, and only three hundred soles in the hull copperation. Which Hank’s shop and our house set in the edge of the woods jest outside the copperation line, so’s the city marshal didn’t have no authority to arrest him after he crossed it.
They was one thing in that house I always admired when I was a kid. And that was a big cistern. Most people has their cisterns outside their house, and they is a tin pipe takes all the rain water off the roof and scoots it into them. Ourn worked the same, but our cistern was right in under our kitchen floor, and they was a trap door with leather hinges opened into it right by the kitchen stove. But that wasn’t why I was so proud of it. It was because that cistern was jest plumb full of fish—bullheads and red horse and sunfish and other kinds.
Hank’s father had built that cistern. And one time he brung home some live fish in a bucket and dumped em in there. And they growed. And they multiplied in there and refurnished the earth. So that cistern had got to be a fambly custom, which was kep’ up in that fambly for a habit. It was a great comfort to Hank, fur all them Walterses was great fish eaters, though it never went to brains. We fed em now and then, and throwed back in the little ones till they was growed, and kep’ the dead ones picked out soon’s we smelled anything wrong, and it never hurt the water none; and when I was a kid I wouldn’t of took anything fur living in a house like that.
Oncet, when I was a kid about six years old, Hank come home from the bar-room. He got to chasing Elmira’s cat cause he says it was making faces at him. The cistern door was open, and Hank fell in. Elmira was over to town, and I was scared. She had always told me not to fool around there none when I was a little kid, fur if I fell in there I’d be a corpse quicker’n scatt.
So when Hank fell in, and I hearn him splash, being only a little feller, and awful scared because Elmira had always made it so strong, I hadn’t no sort of unbelief but what Hank was a corpse already. So I slams the trap door shut over that there cistern without looking in, fur I hearn Hank flopping around down in there. I hadn’t never hearn a corpse flop before, and didn’t know but what it might be somehow injurious to me, and I wasn’t going to take no chances.
So I went out and played in the front yard, and waited fur Elmira. But I couldn’t seem to get my mind settled on playing I was a horse, nor nothing. I kep’ thinking mebby Hank’s corpse is going to come flopping out of that cistern and whale me some unusual way. I hadn’t never been licked by a corpse, and didn’t rightly know jest what one is, anyhow, being young and comparitive innocent. So I sneaks back in and sets all the flatirons in the house on top of the cistern lid. I hearn some flopping and splashing and spluttering, like Hank’s corpse is trying to jump up and is falling back into the water, and I hearn Hank’s voice, and got scareder yet. And when Elmira come along down the road, she seen me by the gate a-crying, and she asts me why.
“Hank is a corpse,” says I, blubbering.
“A corpse!” says Elmira, dropping her coffee which she was carrying home from the gineral store and post-office. “Danny, what do you mean?”
I seen I was to blame somehow, and I wisht then I hadn’t said nothing about Hank being a corpse. And I made up my mind I wouldn’t say nothing more. So when she grabs holt of me and asts me agin what did I mean I blubbered harder, jest the way a kid will, and says nothing else. I wisht I hadn’t set them flatirons on that door, fur it come to me all at oncet that even if Hank HAS turned into a corpse I ain’t got any right to keep him in that cistern.
Jest then Old Mis’ Rogers, which is one of our neighbours, comes by, while Elmira is shaking me and yelling out what did I mean and how did it happen and had I saw it and where was Hank’s corpse?
And Mis’ Rogers she says, “What’s Danny been doing now, Elmira?” me being always up to something.
Elmira she turned around and seen her, and she gives a whoop and then hollers out: “Hank is dead!” and throws her apern over her head and sets right down in the path and boo-hoos like a baby. And I bellers louder.
Mis’ Rogers, she never waited to ast nothing more. She seen she had a piece of news, and she’s bound to be the first to spread it, like they is always a lot of women wants to be in them country towns. She run right acrost the road to where the Alexanderses lived. Mis’ Alexander, she seen her coming and unhooked the screen door, and Mis’ Rogers she hollers out before she reached the porch:
“Hank Walters is dead.”
And then she went footing it up the street. They was a black plume on her bunnet which nodded the same as on a hearse, and she was into and out of seven front yards in five minutes.
Mis’ Alexander, she runs acrost the street to where we was, and she kneels down and puts her arm around Elmira, which was still rocking back and forth in the path, and she says:
“How do you know he’s dead, Elmira? I seen him not more’n an hour ago.”
“Danny seen it all,” says Elmira.
Mis’ Alexander turned to me, and wants to know what happened and how it happened and where it happened. But I don’t want to say nothing about that cistern. So I busts out bellering fresher’n ever, and I says:
“He was drunk, and he come home drunk, and he done it then, and that’s how he done it,” I says.
“And you seen him?” she says. I nodded.
“Where is he?” says she and Elmira, both to oncet.
But I was scared to say nothing about that there cistern, so I jest bawled some more.
“Was it in the blacksmith shop?” says Mis’ Alexander. I nodded my head agin and let it go at that.
“Is he in there now?” asts Mis’ Alexander. I nodded agin. I hadn’t meant to give out no untrue stories. But a kid will always tell a lie, not meaning to tell one, if you sort of invite him with questions like that, and get him scared the way you’re acting. Besides, I says to myself, “so long as Hank has turned into a corpse and that makes him dead, what’s the difference whether he’s in the blacksmith shop or not?” Fur I hadn’t had any plain idea, being such a little kid, that a corpse meant to be dead, and wasn’t sure what being dead was like, neither, except they had funerals over you then. I knowed being a corpse must be some sort of a big disadvantage from the way Elmira always says keep away from that cistern door or I’ll be one. But if they was going to be a funeral in our house, I’d feel kind o’ important, too. They didn’t have em every day in our town, and we hadn’t never had one of our own.
So Mis’ Alexander, she led Elmira into the house, both a-crying, and Mis’ Alexander trying to comfort her, and me a tagging along behind holding onto Elmira’s skirts and sniffling into them. And in a few minutes all them women Mis’ Rogers has told come filing into that room, one at a time, looking sad. Only Old Mis’ Primrose, she was awful late getting there because she stopped to put on her bunnet she always wore to funerals with the black Paris lace on it her cousin Arminty White had sent her from Chicago.
When they found out Hank had come home with licker in him and done it himself, they was all excited, and they all crowds around and asts me how, except two as is holding onto Elmira’s hands which sets moaning in a chair. And they all asts me questions as to what I seen him do, which if they hadn’t I wouldn’t have told em the lies I did. But they egged me on to it.
Says one woman: “Danny, you seen him do it in the blacksmith shop?”
“But how did he get in?” sings out another woman. “The door was locked on the outside with a padlock jest now when I come by. He couldn’t of killed himself in there and locked the door on the outside.”
I didn’t see how he could of done that myself, so I begun to bawl agin and said nothing at all.
“He must of crawled through that little side window,” says another one. “It was open when I come by, if the door WAS locked. Did you see him crawl through the little side window, Danny?”
I nodded. They wasn’t nothing else fur me to do.
“But YOU hain’t tall enough to look through that there window,” says another one to me. “How could you see into that shop, Danny?”
I didn’t know, so I didn’t say nothing at all; I jest sniffled.
“They is a store box right in under that window,” says another one. “Danny must have clumb onto that store box and looked in after he seen Hank come down the road and crawl through the window. Did you scramble onto the store box and look in, Danny?”
I jest nodded agin.
“And what was it you seen him do? How did he kill himself?” they all asts to oncet.
I didn’t know. So I jest bellers and boo-hoos some more. Things was getting past anything I could see the way out of.
“He might of hung himself to one of the iron rings in the jists above the forge,” says another woman. “He clumb onto the forge to tie the rope to one of them rings, and he tied the other end around his neck, and then he stepped off’n the forge. Was that how he done it, Danny?”
I nodded. And then I bellered louder than ever. I knowed Hank was down in that there cistern, a corpse and a mighty wet corpse, all this time; but they kind o’ got me to thinking mebby he was hanging out in the shop by the forge, too. And I guessed I’d better stick to the shop story, not wanting to say nothing about that cistern no sooner’n I could help it.
Pretty soon one woman says, kind o’ shivery:
“I don’t want to have the job of opening the door of that blacksmith shop the first one!”
And they all kind o’ shivered then, and looked at Elmira. They says to let some of the men open it. And Mis’ Alexander, she says she’ll run home and tell her husband right off.
And all the time Elmira is moaning in that chair. One woman says Elmira orter have a cup o’ tea, which she’ll lay off her bunnet and go to the kitchen and make it fur her. But Elmira says no, she can’t a-bear to think of tea, with poor Hennerey a-hanging out there in the shop. But she was kind o’ enjoying all that fuss being made over her, too. And all the other women says:
“Poor thing!” But all the same they was mad she said she didn’t want any tea, for they all wanted some and didn’t feel free without she took it too. Which she said she would after they’d coaxed a while and made her see her duty.
So they all goes out to the kitchen, bringing along some of the best room chairs, Elmira coming too, and me tagging along behind. And the first thing they noticed was them flatirons on top of the cistern door. Mis’ Primrose, she says that looks funny. But another woman speaks up and says Danny must of been playing with them while Elmira was over town. She says, “Was you playing they was horses, Danny?”
I was feeling considerable like a liar by this time, but I says I was playing horses with them, fur I couldn’t see no use in hurrying things up. I was bound to get a lamming purty soon anyhow. When I was a kid I could always bet on that. So they picks up the flatirons, and as they picks em up they come a splashing noise in the cistern. I thinks to myself, Hank’s corpse’ll be out of there in a minute. One woman, she says:
“Goodness gracious sakes alive! What’s that, Elmira?”
Elmira says that cistern is mighty full of fish, and they is some great big ones in there, and it must be some of them a-flopping around. Which if they hadn’t of been all worked up and talking all to oncet and all thinking of Hank’s body hanging out there in the blacksmith shop they might of suspicioned something. For that flopping kep’ up steady, and a lot of splashing too. I mebby orter mentioned sooner it had been a dry summer and they was only three or four feet of water in our cistern, and Hank wasn’t in scarcely up to his big hairy chest. So when Elmira says the cistern is full of fish, that woman opens the trap door and looks in. Hank thinks it’s Elmira come to get him out. He allows he’ll keep quiet in there and make believe he is drowned and give her a good scare and make her sorry fur him. But when the cistern door is opened, he hears a lot of clacking tongues all of a sudden like they was a hen convention on. He allows she has told some of the neighbours, and he’ll scare them too. So Hank, he laid low. And the woman as looks in sees nothing, for it’s as dark down there as the insides of the whale what swallered Noah. But she leaves the door open and goes on a-making tea, and they ain’t skeercly a sound from that cistern, only little, ripply noises like it might have been fish.
Pretty soon a woman says:
“It has drawed, Elmira; won’t you have a cup?” Elmira she kicked some more, but she took hern. And each woman took hern. And one woman, a-sipping of hern, she says:
“The departed had his good pints, Elmira.”
Which was the best thing had been said of Hank in that town fur years and years.
Old Mis’ Primrose, she always prided herself on being honest, no matter what come, and she ups and says:
“I don’t believe in no hippercritics at a time like this, no more’n no other time. The departed wasn’t no good, and the hull town knowed it; and Elmira orter feel like it’s good riddance of bad rubbish and them is my sentiments and the sentiments of rightfulness.”
All the other women sings out:
“W’y, MIS’ PRIMROSE! I never!” And they seemed awful shocked. But down in underneath more of em agreed than let on. Elmira she wiped her eyes and she said:
“Hennerey and me has had our troubles. They ain’t any use in denying that, Mis’ Primrose. It has often been give and take between us and betwixt us. And the hull town knows he has lifted his hand agin me more’n oncet. But I always stood up to Hennerey, and I fit him back, free and fair and open. I give him as good as he sent on this here earth, and I ain’t the one to carry no annermosities beyond the grave. I forgive Hank all the orneriness he done me, and they was a lot of it, as is becoming unto a church member, which he never was.”
And all the women but Mis’ Primrose, they says:
“Elmira Appleton, you HAVE got a Christian sperrit!” Which done her a heap of good, and she cried considerable harder, leaking out tears as fast as she poured tea in. Each one on em tries to find out something good to say about Hank, only they wasn’t much they could say. And Hank in that there cistern a-listening to every word of it.
Mis’ Rogers, she says:
“Afore he took to drinking like a fish, Hank Walters was as likely looking a young feller as I ever see.”
Mis’ White, she says:
“Well, Hank he never was a stingy man, nohow. Often and often White has told me about seeing Hank, after he’d sold a piece of land, treating the hull town down in Nolan’s bar-room jest as come-easy, go-easy as if it wasn’t money he orter paid his honest debts with.”
They set there that-a-way telling of what good pints they could think of fur ten minutes, and Hank a-hearing it and getting madder and madder all the time. The gineral opinion was that Hank wasn’t no good and was better done fur, and no matter what they said them feelings kep’ sticking out through the words.
By and by Tom Alexander come busting into the house, and his wife, Mis’ Alexander, was with him.
“What’s the matter with all you folks,” he says. “They ain’t nobody hanging in that there blacksmith shop. I broke the door down and went in, and it was empty.”
Then they was a pretty howdy-do, and they all sings out:
“Where’s the corpse?”
And some thinks mebby some one has cut it down and took it away, and all gabbles to oncet. But for a minute no one thinks mebby little Danny has been egged on to tell lies. Little Danny ain’t saying a word. But Elmira she grabs me and shakes me and she says:
“You little liar, you, what do you mean by that tale you told?”
I thinks that lamming is about due now. But whilst all eyes is turned on me and Elmira, they comes a voice from that cistern. It is Hank’s voice, and he sings out:
“Tom Alexander, is that you?”
Some of the women scream, for some thinks it is Hank’s ghost. But one woman says what would a ghost be doing in a cistern?
Tom Alexander, he laughs and he says:
“What in blazes you want to jump in there fur, Hank?”
“You dern ijut!” says Hank, “you quit mocking me and get a ladder, and when I get out’n here I’ll learn you to ast what did I want to jump in here fur!”
“You never seen the day you could do it,” says Tom Alexander, meaning the day he could lick him. “And if you feel that way about it you can stay there fur all of me. I guess a little water won’t hurt you none.” And he left the house.
“Elmira,” sings out Hank, mad and bossy, “you go get me a ladder!”
But Elmira, her temper riz up too, all of a sudden.
“Don’t you dare order me around like I was the dirt under your feet, Hennerey Walters,” she says.
At that Hank fairly roared, he was so mad. He says:
“Elmira, when I get out’n here I’ll give you what you won’t fergit in a hurry. I hearn you a-forgiving me and a-weeping over me, and I won’t be forgive nor weeped over by no one! You go and get that ladder.”
But Elmira only answers:
“You wasn’t sober when you fell into there, Hennerey Walters. And now you can jest stay in there till you get a better temper on you!” And all the women says: “That’s right, Elmira; spunk up to him!”
They was considerable splashing around in the water fur a couple of minutes. And then, all of a sudden, a live fish come a-whirling out of that hole, which he had ketched it with his hands. It was a big bullhead, and its whiskers around its mouth was stiffened into spikes, and it lands kerplump into Mis’ Rogers’s lap, a-wiggling, and it kind o’ horns her on the hands, and she is that surprised she faints. Mis’ Primrose, she gets up and pushes that fish back into the cistern with her foot from the floor where it had fell, and she says right decided:
“Elmira Walters, that was Elmira Appleton, if you let Hank out’n that cistern before he has signed the pledge and promised to jine the church you’re a bigger fool ‘n I take you to be. A woman has got to make a stand!” With that she marches out’n our house.
Then all the women sings out:
“Send fur Brother Cartwright! Send fur Brother Cartwright!”
And they sent me scooting acrost town to get him quick. Which he was the preacher of the Baptist church and lived next to it. And I hadn’t got no lamming yet!
Categories: English Literature