Afraid of the Dark

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Afraid of the Dark

By Honoré Willsie

SOME day, Mary Jane would make a noble looking woman. At twelve she ran somewhat to arms, legs and eyes. Mary Jane was tall for her dozen years, tall and slender and strong. She had a fine head, set on promising shoulders. Her cropped brown hair was thick and wavy. Her gray eyes were liquidly clear.

During the day, Mary Jane led a sane and comparatively tranquil existence. Her nights were a horror that bordered on frenzy. Her father and mother considered that a person of twelve, a healthy, well-developed person, was competent to battle the Fear alone. So they treated the matter facetiously, and Mary Jane cultivated a deadly shame of her weakness that helped her up the Thing-haunted stairway, and along the dark dank hall, at bedtime. Nevertheless, the nightly hunt for the match-safe was an ordeal so fraught with demoniacal menace that, nightly, Mary June flushed out of the darkness a face like a little marble Fear. To put the cat down cellar at bed-time was to add a year, a decade, of mortal anguish to one's life.

MARY JANE'S Brother Jim, at seventeen, was possessed of inventive genius. It was the display of this genius that changed Mr. and Mrs. Webster's attitude of facetiousness to one of apprehension. It was a rainy night in November. That day, old John Williams who lived just down the road, had died. Mary Jane was finishing the supper dishes while Brother Jim filled the wood-box.

"Mary Jane." said Brother Jim, "I dare you to run through the dark and bring back one of the flowers in John Williams' crape."

Mary June set down a tea-cup and turned a whitening face to Brother Jim. She looked like a puppy at whom a whip has been shaken.

"Oh, Jim!" quavered Mary June, "Don't dare me!"

The code by which Brother Jim had educated Mary Jane was simple. The person who took a dare was a coward, a quitter, an earthworm and a sneak. Therefore, Mary Jane had protested, "Don't dare me, Jim!"

But Brother Jim nodded coolly. "Sure, it's a dare!"

Mary Jane stared at her big brother, her very lips blue with fright. "I hate you, Jim Webster!" she said, and then she darted out the back door.

A LONG-LEGGED shadow, she pelted through the ink of the night, sobbing a little in utter anguish of spirit; snatched a faded geranium leaf from the twisting, sodden crape; returned on tissue-paper legs that scarcely could hold up her leaden body, and quietly dropped in a faint beside the wood-box.

What Father and Mother Webster said to Brother Jim has no particular bearing on this story. What Father Webster said to Mary June is a different matter.

After Brother Jim had withdrawn haughtily to bed and Mrs. Webster was putting Baby Rose to sleep, Father Webster tucked Mary Jane's long, shaking little body into his lap, not seeming to mind that the thin legs dangled awkwardly.

"Now, Mary Jane," said Father Webster, "as man to man, what are we going to do about thus thing? Everything at the quarry has gone to smash, and Jim and I have got to work up in Indianapolis to get money enough to move you and Mother and Baby up there. I've got to have Jim's help just now. I thought I could leave you as mother's right-hand man. but you won't be any more good to her than Baby Rose. You're such a 'fraidy-cat!"

Mary Jane stopped trembling ever so little. "Why, Father Webster!" she cried indignantly.

"Well, you won't!" went on Father Webster. "Here, the nearest neighbor is half a mile away, now that John Williams is gone. I'll get Charlie Reeves to come over and milk and do the chores. But if mother or the baby is taken sick at night, what will become of them?"

Mary Jane disentangled her legs and sat erect. She spoke with grandmotherly dignity. "Leave them to me, father. I'm—I'm not going to be afraid ever again. I'm just nervous."

"Very well!" said Father Webster. "I'll trust them to you. You must see that the chicken coop is closed every night and the cow all safe. You must lock the house, and see that the fires are banked in. When I leave on Saturday, I'll turn the keys over to you."

Mary Jane's trembling ceased and the color came back to her face.

ON Saturday. Mr. Webster and Brother Jim left for Indianapolis. On Monday, Mrs. Webster fell down the cellar steps and sprained her ankle. Mary Jane shouldered her burdens like a man. To be sure, she shut the chickens in the coop long before sundown and harried young Charlie until he finished milking an hour In-fore time. But she locked the house carefully and took good care of her mother and Baby Rose.

One morning, Charlie failed to appear, and Mary Jane, with much travail, milked the perturbed Jersey. When the doctor arrived, he bore the news that the Reeves family was quarantined with diphtheria, and that an epidemic of the disease threatened the little village. Not long after the doctor left, Baby Rose developed a hoarse cold that grew worse during the day. Under her mother's direction, Mary Jane dosed the tot with boneset tea, and swathed her with mustard plasters, much to that two-year-old's disgust.

THAT evening, while Mary Jane was washing the supper dishes, her mother gave a sudden scream from the sitting-room. Above her screams rose the gasping of Baby Rose. White-faced. Mary Jane dashed to the rescue. The baby lay in her mother's arms, gasping.

"Get the ipecac! Get the kettle of boiling water! It's croup!" panted Mrs. Webster.

That was a strange half hour, a mad, confused half hour. At its end, Baby Rose was breathing easier, though still spasmodically, still with a hoarse roar that filled the house. She lay with one hand grasping Mary Jane's, the other, her mother's.

"Mary Jane," said Mrs. Webster, "you will have to go after the doctor!"

Mary Jane cowered as she knelt by the couch. "Mother." she whispered, "it's an awful night,—dark and cold, and I'd have to pass old Williams' house and the cemetery. I'll sit up all night with baby. Don't make me go out in the dark, mother!"

Mrs. Webster, sat rigid, her face white, her eyes terrible. "Mary Jane. God must be punishing me for some sin I don't know of, in giving me a coward for a daughter. Put your things on and go!"

But Mary Jane's nerves had not yet recovered from Brother Jim's dare. It would take tragic necessity to drive Mary Jane out into the night. The thought of the lonely, goblin-haunted road to the village set her grovelling. "I can't, mother! I can't!" she whimpered.

FOR a moment Mrs. Webster sat in helpless silence. At this moment Baby Rose opened her eyes and strangled a little as she tried to cough. Mary Jane lifted the writhing figure, and the baby looked into her sister's fare and tried to smile. Child as she was, Mary Jane knew that however long she lived she was not to forget that look in little Rose's eyes—such a look of helplessness and appealing trust. In after years that look was to goad Mary Jane, in moments of weakness, like an accusing conscience. "I think she has diphtheria!" panted Mrs. Webster.

Mary Jane whitened. She rose instantly and slipped into her coat and cap. Then she wrapped the baby in a blanket, slipping hot-water bottles snugly about her. She was in frantic haste of a sudden, was Mary Jane.

"What are you doing?" Mrs. Webster's voice was sharp with anxiety. Mary Jane laid the baby in her carriage. "Mother," she said. "if Baby Rose has to wait until I get into town and find the doctor and bring him back, she'll choke to death. We can't waste a minute. Don't be afraid. I'll take care of her."

Mrs. Webster made a motion as if to rise, then sank back, half fainting. "Yes! Yes! Mary Jane, you are right. Hurry! Take the fur robe. Tell the doctor——"

But the front door hall slammed on Mary Jane and her charge.

The Webster house was a mile from the village. The only house on the way was the deserted Williams place. It was a night of scudding clouds over-head and heavy snow under-foot. Mary Jane walked firmly out of the gate to the road, pushing the carriage carefully. The baby's stertorous breathing deadened the creaking of the wheels in the snow. Mary Jane began by telling herself that if the fear panic should make her faint. Baby Rose would die in the cold. She would not faint! No! Not if all the Things that made the darkness foul were to grab her skirts and harry her heels!

As her eyes accommodated themselves to the intermittent starlight, she could see the snake fence bounding the road before her. Uncouth, huddled forms crouched in every fence corner, leered at her, reached for her with rattling fingers as she panted by. Baby Rose's breathing was so loud that were the Things to come up the road behind her, she could not hear in time!

IN front of the Williams house was a drift through which the carriage plowed slowly, oh so slowly! Mary Jane began to talk.

"I'm here, baby! Mary Jane's here, and not a b-b-bit afraid of the Things that live at Williams'. No, I'm not! Oh, little Rose, don't breathe so hard! I can't hear Them if They come! If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take! I'm here, baby. Mary Jane loves you. She isn't a bit afraid. She'll take care of you. Oh, don't breathe so hard—it hurts me to hear you!"

The wind howled maliciously around the bleak old house. There was a coffin-shaped shadow at the pump. A gibbetted Thing flapped from the clothes-line. But somehow the drift was passed, and Mary Jane broke into a run. The sweat ran down her face, and she wiped it off with one mittened hand. The road beyond the Williams place wound through a stretch of wood. The darkness here was so deep that Mary Jane had difficulty in guiding the carriage. She pushed violently into something, and screamed with the startle of it, then sobbed when she realized that it was only a tree. When she emerged into the starlight, Baby Rose had a choking spell and Mary Jane stopped to ease the little thing by lifting her. The baby was in a stupor and made no response to Mary Jane's endearments.

"She's dying!" said Mary Jane aloud. Then she lifted her mittened fists to the stars. "Oh God!" she called. "If you let Baby Rose die, I'll never pray to you again for anything! Do you hear?"

She felt a strange, wrathful strength after her blasphemy, and started on at a run. A long stretch of pasture land, and then came the cemetery. Mary Jane closed her eyes, but opened them at once as she could not steer the carriage. Ghastly shapes whispered and gibbered among the graves. Goblin forms slipped through the shrubbery.

"Mary Jane's here, baby," sobbed Mary Jane. "She-she-she's not afraid! God, there isn't any such Person as You! If there was, you wouldn't let a baby like little Rose suffer so. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!"

Then words failed her. Thought failed her. Mary Jane had reached the acme of terror now. She was Fear, itself, without thought or reason. She embodied all the fear instincts of the race, touching terror with a thousand sensations, sensing it without knowing it. Again she closed her eyes and ran, screaming as she did. At once she careened into a drift and the carriage toppled over. Mary Jane stood still.

"I've killed her,” she said aloud, slowly. "My afraidness has made me kill my little sister!"

SHE righted the carriage and lifted the little, unprotesting form that still was wrapped in its blankets and still, as Mary Jane turned it over, breathed with labored sobs. In the sudden relief, Mary Jane forgot everything save that Baby Rose still was alive. Exhausted, trembling, crying, she started on. Beyond the graveyard the road turned abruptly, and afar Mary Jane saw the lights of the village. Somehow she pushed the carriage through the drifts of the hollow, somehow she reached the village street and the doctor's house.

When the doctor opened the door. Mary Jane shoved the carriage in without ceremony. "Baby Rose!” she panted.

The doctor lifted the baby, put his ear to her chest and shook his head. "I'm afraid it's too late," he muttered, "but we'll put up a fight."

In the moments that followed, while the doctor inserted the silver tube, Mary Jane sat rigidly on her hands, her long legs twined in the chair rungs, waiting. Within the safe haven of the doctor's house, the full meaning of Baby Rose's peril swept into her brain and heart. If Baby Rose died! Never to hear the piping voice, never to feel the clinging hands! It was too terrible! Such a thing could not be. Nothing in the world mattered save that Baby Rose was dying. How lonely for such a little thing to die! Did nothing matter to God, anyhow? For the first time Mary Jane was facing Real Fear.

For the first time life's universal tragedy was turning her soul to lead. The first of life's bitter realities was tearing its way to her sensitive spirit. Mary Jane sat silent, the noble head a little defiant, the sturdy shoulders a little drooping, a little patient, as if her woman heart foresaw the many, many years of learning ahead.

SUDDENLY Baby Rose's sobbing breaths stopped—caught—stopped, then began again, slowly but deeply, more easily. The doctor turned to Mary Jane.

"She'll do! You got her here just in time. It's not nine o'clock. Are you afraid to slip home and put your poor mother out of her agony? Tell her the baby will be all right, and in the morning I'll have the two of you up here and give you anti-toxin."

Mary Jane tiptoed over to the couch where little Rose lay in the sleep of exhaustion, and looked at the little broken thing she had salvaged from death. And Mary Jane's eyes were the eyes of all the madonnas. Then she ran out into the night once more. Out into the country road; alone, under the stars! And listen!—Mary Jane was not afraid! Life had taken her by the throat and had thrust her face about into life's great primal fear. She had touched the great, actual tragedy and all unreal fears were seared away.

MARY JANE trotted along the road looking up into the stars. The scudding clouds were gone. The stars were very near and clear in the winter sky. Snow-covered fields, violet sky, merged in a silver radiance too soft, too ethereal, for the mind fully to grasp. Mary Jane paused with a little inarticulate cry of exaltation, that felt without understanding. Suddenly she had found the Universe. Suddenly the sense of oneness with the sky and the earth, which is the human's unspeakable birthright, swept through the child spirit. Stars and windswept sky, trees, and tender, enfolding shadows—she was a part of them.

Once more Mary Jane lifted mittened hands to the sky. But this time her hands were not clenched. "God!” she cried, "all this is You—You—You!"

Then, swift as a little bird, night-winging south, she ran toward home and her tortured mother.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 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.