Miss Mahala and Johnny

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Miss Mahala and Johnny

BY HARRIET PRESCOTT SPOFFORD

P698, Harper's Magazine 1913--Miss Mahala and Johnny.jpg

I DO not defend Miss Mahala. I hope it is understood that I do not defend her.

But all the same, I never had any sympathy with the Jeannie Deans sort of people who would risk their sisters' lives rather than their own little paltering souls.

Miss Mahala had great sorrows in her life; she had also had great and troublous joys. But now her interests were reduced to such as she found in a general oversight of the settlement. She did not regard herself as Elder Perry's coadjutor, but she filled much the same office, as the elder was wont to remark to his wife. When he first came to the scattered parish she instructed him in the varying idiosyncrasies there; and ever since she had been not only his curate, but his conscience. He learned to know his people and love them every one, but Miss Mahala knew their fathers and their grandfathers, had seen most of them the day they were born, and could tell to a nicety what strains of inheritance they carried and what might be expected of them. She had been down in Salt Water when the elder married his wife there, and she knew of certain things in Mrs. Perry's ancestry that probably Mrs. Perry did not know herself; and when the Perry children came into the world one after another, Miss Mahala had vivid apprehensions, only quieted by the thought of Mrs. Perry's angelic personality. And yet she knew that a many-colored ray may fall through a crystal and leave it white and limpid as spring water. However, life with the elder might have nullified all the colored ray, she fancied. Yet she watched Una and St. John and Luke and Steve and the twins and at last little Peace with an anxiety that would have disturbed their father and mother had they known of it.

Miss Mahala's worst fears began to be confirmed when one day she found St. John Perry red-handed, or rather green-handed, in her herb-garden, the plot of ground where grew her dill and savory and sweet basil and lavender and thyme and their congeners, many of which she had brought in from wood and field, and nurtured, and which she gathered and sold, or from which she incanted simples to be administered to those in need of them.

What was Johnny Perry doing in her garden? The answer was here. Both of his hands were full of her precious mint—that mint which was to have been distilled into extract and oil, but which lads liked to chew, and the possession of which was a kind of wealth. And her pennyroyal, moreover, to be smoked in old corn-cobs behind the barn! You may be sure the surprised Johnny was dealt with, and stripped of his spoils that they might be thrown into Miss Mahala's small still. But presently she softened. Poor little lad! she thought; he was no worse than other boys. What boy wouldn't take a sprig of pennyroyal if he came across it! She called after him and gave him back the treasure; and proud and happy he went off, feeling, after all, an honest boy, and ready to trade with boys less fortunate. "Jes' thin's that grow in the fields, free to all," said Johnny to himself.

The incident remained in Miss Mahala's inner consciousness, but without much emphasis. It was restored to life, however, when one August afternoon, a year later, she saw St. John Perry under the August pippin-tree, his pockets bulging and his hat full of the delicious yellow spheres.

"Johnny! Again!" she cried.

"I ain't never took any before. I thought you'd jest as lieves I hed one o' yer apples," whimpered Johnny.

"So I would if you ast," she replied. "How many you took?"

Johnny showed his hat. "That all?"

Johnny nodded. "Turn your pockets out." Johnny squirmed; but Miss Mahala's hand was a compelling one. Pockets and the bulge of his jacket brought to light a dozen pippins. "You come into the house with me!" Johnny squirmed again; but Miss Mahala's eye was as compelling as her hand.

"I didn't know you was a thief, Johnny," said Miss Mahala, sadly.

"I ain't," said Johnny.

"And an impenitent thief at that. Do you know what became of the impenitent thief?"

"I don't care! He wouldn't let me have any!"

"Who? The impenitent thief?"

"I mean daddy wouldn't. He wouldn't let me have one of the sweetings."

"They ain't ripe. They'll be better eatin' come a week after to-morrow."

"He won't give me any then. They're for sick folks, he says."

"Your father's a presiding elder, and it ain't fit and proper for you to call him 'he' that way."

"You mean I should call him 'she,' Miss Mahaly?" asked Johnny, lifting his great, innocent-looking blue eyes, and quite willing to change the question.

"I'm afraid you're a bad boy, St. John."

"P'r'aps I be," said St. John, indifferently.

"St. John Perry, do you want to break your father's heart?"

Johnny looked up incredulously. "Does it hurt?" he asked.

"Hurt? It kills!"

Miss Mahala was not sure that Johnny's lip quivered. "I s'pose you know," she said, "you, a parson's son, that it's wrong to steal?"

"Do'no's I do," Johnny replied. " 'Ith so much talk about what's right and what ain't a feller gits mixed up."

"St. John, it's bad enough to steal. Don't add a lie to it. That's wuss."

"Wuss to lie?" asked St. John.

"It upsets the balance o' thin's. The Lord might forgive ye fer hankerin' an' helpin' yerself, but a lie's jes' contradictin' Him to His face."

"That so?" said Johnny, a trifle startled, but with an impartial air.

"There ain't no circumstances can excuse a lie," said Miss Mahala.

"You don't say so," said Johnny.

"I'm afraid you're a bad boy, St. John Perry!" she repeated.

"Mebbe," said St. John.

"I didn't tell yer father when I found ye in my yarb-garden—"

"Them greens!"

"Them greens is property, an' you was takin' 'em. But now—you're his flesh an' blood—he may know how to deal 'ith you. I don't."

" 'Twon't matter. Daddy never licks us."

"He'd orter."

"Ef he did, I'd run away!"

"Sho!"

"I'd jest as lieves, Miss Mahaly," said Johnny, twirling his empty hat, "you didn't tell on me to ma."

"I won't," said Miss Mahala. "I won't give her such a sorrer—the sweet soul!" She took her big Bible from the shelf; her own little Bible for daily use was in her bedroom. She turned the leaves over for a text she wanted. Every here and there was a dollar bill laid between the leaves. Johnny's eyes sparkled as he caught sight of them. Suddenly she shut the book. She did not know exactly the text to fit the crime. The boy would not care for the thunders and lightnings of Sinai, the noise of the trumpet, or the smoke of the mountains. "You can take the apples, St. John," she said.

But St. John left the apples and went his way up the hill to young Jerry. Miss Mahala gazed after him with misery as he disappeared. The sweet shadows of the green wood, the dancing flickers of sunshine, and the soaring blue above, all seemed a mockery when she thought of the child of her friend with a heart-breaking taint in his blood. There was no sun on the tossing boughs for her, no balm in the breeze. In a dreary mood, waiting for no luncheon, she tied on her bonnet and sought the elder. She met him at the half-way rock; his wife had sent him with some junket for an ailing person, junket being an inexpensive delicacy when you owned your cow—and the elder loved it for the sake of John Milton. There had been a little dispute in the elder's mind as to the naming of his first son, but finally St. John had got the better of John Milton.

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The elder was resting now on the moss-grown boulder, looking up as if his gaze could penetrate distances of sky. She hesitated; but there was no use beating about the bush. Reverie or prayer, she must disturb it, her gloom darkening the bright summer day.

"Elder," she said, abruptly, "I think you gotter deal 'ith your St. John."

"Deal with—eh—who—what—with my St. John?" said the elder, lowering his gaze to Miss Mahala's shawl—Miss Mahala would have held it an immodesty to go out without her shawl, even in the tropics.

"With your Johnny," she said, firmly.

"What's the matter with Johnny?" he asked, gaily "Why, he's good as gold."

"Gold had orter be tried."

"Why, Miss Mahala, what are you talking about?"

"I hate ter tell ye, Elder. I hate it like p'ison. But you gotter look out fer Johnny. I feel es bad es ef he was my own," she stammered. "But fust you promise not to say a word to Mis' Perry—I can't hev her feelin's teched."

"Promise? All right. No matter about my feelings, I see."

" 'Taint no laughin' matter, Elder. Johnny—he—he's—I've found him twicet takin' thin's 'twan't hisn." Miss Mahala's voice was trembling, and everything was going black before her eyes.

"Oh, I guess not, Miss Mahala," the elder said.

"There ain't any guess to it, sir. Fac's is fac's. Johnny is light-fingered." And then Miss Mahala sank on the grass and closed her eyes. It had been no easy matter for her to tell the elder standing at the gates of heaven that his son was a thief.

The elder tore off a big sassafras leaf and hurried with water from the spring. He understood the ordeal it had been to her, although, of course, it was quite nonsensical. "There," he said, when the color had returned to her face, "now I'll see you home. And don't give Master St. John another thought. I'll attend to him. I've stolen green apples myself in my time."

"You have, Elder? That's a comfort. P'r'aps Johnny'll come out all right, then. But you must keep your weather-eye open for him, Elder. Home 'ith me? Ef Mahaly Brooks can't walk home alone she'd better die here! You go along. You've got work afore ye."

But that evening, as the elder sat among his children and saw St. John, with little Peace in his arms and the other children about him like flies about a fallen plum while he told them a Bible story with many embellishments, the elder listened a moment. "That is hardly true, my son," he said.

"But don't you wish it was, pa?" asked Johnny.

"Wish anything in the Bible different?" exclaimed his father.

"Why not? Yes. I'd like to play Sundays. I'd like to take anything I wanted, no matter whose it was before."

"My son! St. John! Would you steal?"

" 'Twouldn't be stealin' if 'twarn't fer the Commandments," said the perspicacious Johnny.

And the elder, more concerned with a fear of infidelity in Johnny than of anything else, forgot about the danger of dishonesty in his prayer and his endeavor to make the Lord seem a living person to his little hearers. There was a matter of disciplining a member for loose thinking and light talking that troubled the elder just then, and he forgot about Johnny, so to say. Only his heart always gave a tender throb when he saw Johnny go whistling down the road, his hands in his pockets and his often crownless hat on the back of his bright curls, the picture of blue-eyed innocence; the joy of Luke and Steve and the twins, who tagged after him through heat and dust, the almoner to little Peace of black raspberries and sweet-flag root, the comfort of Una with bits of spruce-gum, translucent and sweet as drops of honey. Miss Mahala herself had once said that if ever there was a lovable rascal it was Johnny Perry.

But seasons fled in sun and shade, and Johnny was a big boy past fourteen. His voice had not changed; he could still sing "The spacious firmament on high" like a flute, like a young angel. But he was much pleased with a faint down upon his upper lip; it gave him a dream of the time when he should go out West and take up six hundred and forty acres of land to be had for the asking. He was quite too big to be whipped; Miss Mahala, keeping an eye upon him, felt this a pity. There were times when Johnny was playing some rogue's trick that her fingers tingled; as when he drew lurid flames with ocher and vermilion on the side of the shed that made little Pearl Asher afraid to go to bed.

But it was quite a way across the woods, and Johnny was not often in evidence at Miss Mahala's. She was surprised one morning, when, coming home from a walk with Pharaoh in search of catnip, she saw her door open, and St. John Perry standing there with her Bible in his hands. "What are you doing here, St. John?" she said, severely.

"Your Bible's full o' money," he replied, if not with much relevancy.

"What of that?"

"I heered daddy tellin' ma, when he thought I was out o' the way, that you wanted to give it to him in your will, and he wouldn't let you. And a dollar bill between every leaf! And I thought I'd jes' look out fer ma."

"I ain't dead yet," said Miss Mahala.

"What difference 'd that make?" asked Johnny.

"Considerable—to me," said Miss Mahala, taking the book. "I was hopin', Johnny, that you'd outgrowed yer badness. That you'd left off stealin .

"I warn't stealin'," said Johnny. "I was jes' a-takin' what you give pa an' he wouldn't take—takin' it fer ma."

"St. John Perry, I reely think you must be wantin'!"

"I be. I'm wantin' money fer ma."

"Then go to work and earn it! Johnny, don't you know it's wicked to steal?"

"Yes'm."

"Why?"

" 'Cause 'tis."

"Waal, p'r'aps that's so," said Miss Mahala, with an unformulated thought of the immutability of right and wrong. "Johnny, who made you?" she asked.

"My sponsors in baptism," Johnny answered.

"Oh, what a wicked boy you be!"

"You've said so afore."

"Ef you'd ever hed a change o' heart them sponsors might 'a' b'en the makin' on ye, in one sense. As it is, waal, I take a good deal o' blame to myself fer not follerin' ye up closer."

"I should think you'd done yer duty," said Johnny, nonchalantly.

She sat down on the door-step and motioned him to a seat beside her. She was biting a sprig of pennyroyal; she offered one to him; he accepted it indifferently. Pharaoh came and purred round them; Johnny bent and smoothed the cat's head. Perhaps it seemed a profane touch to Miss Mahala; she took the cat and shut him in an inner room. Then she came back and resumed her seat.

"Oh, what a pretty day it is!" she sighed presently.

As that was self-evident, it perhaps required no answer. It received none.

"There's nothin' like the sky," said Miss Mahala, after another moment. "Nothin' so handsome. Cheerful, tew. What ef God had set out to make it green; wouldn't that 'a' b'en a dreary world! And ef He'd made the sky red—I do'no' what 'd 'a' happened. But blue—it's jes' the color o' heaven."

"I do'no' nothin' about heaven," said Johnny.

"Puffeckly true. You don't. I useter hear it said, 'A minister's son and a deacon's daughter gener'ly do es they hedn't orter.' "

Johnny apparently didn't think it was up to him to prove the fallacy of the distich. Miss Mahala went on biting her pennyroyal leaf. "I often think," she said, after a short interval, "how many idees the Lord must 'a' hed in His mind when He thought out an' made all the flowers." This did not seem to affect Johnny.

"You're fond o' flowers, ain't ye, Johnny?"

"Some," said Johnny.

"I heered say you'd like ter be a gardinger w'en ye growed up."

Johnnv showed a spark of interest.

"Wouldn't I!" said he.

"You can't be a gardinger, o' course, or hev any flowers, either, ef you was in state's prison."

"Look here, Miss Mahaly, you can't frighten me with your state's prisons!"

"Why would I want to frighten you? Ef the love o' the Lord that giv' ye this beautifle world ter live in, that giv' ye your father an' mother an' little Peace, won't keep ye straight, state's prison won't either. But ef I don't tell on ye now, I'm compoundin' of a felony and liable to state's prison myself, and I'm pesky fond o' flowers, and 'd miss my yarb-garding dredfly."

"Tha' so!" said Johnny.

"Talkin' o' flowers, there's a little one in a tumbler in there that I picked off'n Sonny's grave, ye know—the little boy that died. I was goin' ter take it up ter yer mother, she bein' too lame to come down jes' yit, but you may as well, w'en you go."

Johnny turned his head, and the color mounted his face.

"I don't persume you mind how yer father took on when that dear child died?"

Johnny remembered; at least he nodded.

"I s'pose he'd ruther the child died than lived ter go to state's prison. I s'pose he'd ruther you died yerself, much as he sets by ye, than know you was in state's prison wearin' stripes," she said, reflectively.

"I ain't goin' to no state's prison!" he cried, suddenly.

"You? How do you know? One step leads to another in wrong-doing. You never know where you'll land. I don't know where I'll fetch up myself. It's dredf'll dismal and gloomy shet up in prison, and hard work, reel hard work, an' bread an' water to eat, an' wearin' stripes roundabout instead of up an' down—it—it's awf'll!" and Miss Mahala shuddered, perhaps at the picture of the stripes. "St. John Perry won't sound well on the prison-roll; St. John won't."

"I ain't afraid," said St. John Perry.

"You'd better be, unless you turn a short corner. How do you s'pose you come by the name?"

"The beloved disciple," said Johnny, shortly.

"And your father wanted you to be beloved so, too. But of course— Waal, Mahaly ain't much of a name—kind of a breath—but ef I was named St. John I'd try an' live up to it. 'Twould 'a' b'en fust rate ef by an' by the Lord couldn't 'a' told which St. John He loved the most. You mind the night little Peace was born, and your mother sent fer you and told you she was yourn an' you'd gotter look out fer her all her life? A person that's doin' time behind four walls can't look out fer any one. How bad Peace would feel, the dear, pretty creetur, all disgraced by her brother, an' she lovin' ye an' b'lievin' in ye so. Yes, yer mother give her to ye; you was allers yer mother's favoright. When the little boy died she turned to you. 'I've got Johnny,' she said. 'Ef Johnny is spared to me, I won't repine,' she said. You was her first-born. She's a reel tender heart. I s'pose she'd jes' break down an' fade away—"

And then Johnny fell to crying and hiding his face in his sleeve. "Miss Mahaly," he blubbered, "I won't ever take anythin' ag'in that don't belong to me. I won't ever tell a lie. I'll be good—oh, I'll be good!" And Miss Mahala took him in her arms and cried too.

There was a long silence. A thrush thought it too long and broke it with a bubble of pure music.

"Miss Mahaly," said Johnny, "I feel as if I'd j'ined the church."

"You hev, St. John," she said. "The reel church. But you don't know it yet."

There were some other things they spoke of as they sat there in the long summer morning. It came out that Johnny felt it to be a miracle when the first blades of the harvest put their green tips above ground; that he would like to work such miracles himself; that farming appealed to him. And it was a fortunate coincidence that Miss Mahala had an outlying farm that had run to waste, and Miss Mahala wanted some one to take an interest in it, and Johnny was bubbling with interest. They spoke of other things, among them of the robbery of David's money-drawer at the Corners.

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"It warn't me," said Johnny. "You b'lieve me? 'Twarn't me."

"I believe you," said Miss Mahala. By and by he went, carrying, besides the little flower, an accumulation of dimes that Miss Mahala had been keeping in the sugar-bowl, and which she insisted on pouring into his pocket in spite of his manful protest. He came back, after starting to go, and kissed Miss Mahala's brown and withered cheek.

It was a week or so afterward that the elder came slowly through the wood, walking as if he carried a load on his shoulders, and unlatched Miss Mahala's gate. She ran to meet him.

"It's too pleasant for indoors," she said. "We'll visit here," and they sat down on the door-step together.

"One place is as pleasant as another," the elder sighed.

"You're lookin' tired, Elder," she said. "Kind o' peaked. You jes' wait till I git you some o' my wild cherry—"

"No, no, I don't want it, thank you. I—"

"But you must have suthin', Elder. An egg beat up 'ith a sip of old cider?"

"No, Miss Mahala, no." And then there was silence. Miss Mahala waited; and at last the Elder roused himself.

"I've come to you in some trouble of mind," he said. "I may say in great distress. I have been preparing a discourse on the substance of things hoped for, and have been so occupied—for it is a most pleasant subject of consideration—that I have perhaps neglected my duty and have suffered the children to go too much unwatched during Mrs. Perry's lameness. Not long since I found them in possession of various pieces of silver. Pieces of silver have wrought great mischief in this world. On inquiry I found my St. John had given them. I was startled. We are not in the habit of having money." The elder was looking straight before him, speaking in a low and husky voice. "A conversation I once had with you suddenly recurred to me—oh, like a stab—and as it happened," he continued, "I met Deacon Asher, who mentioned to me the robbery of David's till at the Corners. A great loss to poor David. Miss Mahala," turning on her sharply, "where do you suppose St. John got those pieces of silver?"

"I give 'em to him," said Miss Mahala. "Anythin' else troublin' ye?"

"Yes, Miss Mahala, that, indeed, is a relief; yet when you told me one day, as I was resting on the half-way stone, that my Johnny was—I—can't say the word—" He stopped as if expecting her to supply it.

"Ef you can't say it I can't think it, Elder," she said.

"It came back to me this morning," he resumed; "all you said, as I waked. It came like a thunder-stroke. I—I felt crushed to earth. If my boy is—is a thief—" The elder choked at the word. "Why, it is impossible! His mother's son can't go wrong! His mother has the whitest soul this side of heaven."

"That's true, Elder."

"But if—if he is, I had better not have lived. My work is a failure. But that is no matter, in comparison. My son, my poor young son—I would rather it had been I myself than that child. When you told me Johnny was—was light-fingered—" The elder whispered the word.

"I! I told you that!"

"Certainly. You told me, you remember, that you found him stealing your herbs and your apples, but at the time I was so greatly caught up in the spirit over the way out of a great trouble in the parish that it seemed to me then too small to notice, if you will excuse me, Miss Mahala. I thought I knew my St. John, and the impossibility of his going very wrong; and when you said I must look out for him, for he was light-fingered, I half thought that instead of his being light-fingered you were a little light-headed, and I went my way and forgot about it; God forgive me—"

"Es ef there ever was a boy of any sperit that didn't steal green apples when he lived where they growed, sence the days of Adam and Eve!" exclaimed Miss Mahala. "But as for your Johnny, ef it's him you mean, why, he's as honest es you be, and is goin' ter live an upright life." She was trembling like a leaf.

"Then what did you mean—"

"Elder, I don't know what you're a-talkin' of!"

"I am speaking of what you said to me out there that day by the half-way stone, and as I remembered it this morning, having seen the dimes, and having heard of the robbery of David's till—"

"Elder, I don't know what ter make of you. Ain't you b'en dreamin'? Air—air you disturbed in your mind?"

"Miss Mahala, I'm broken-hearted."

"It does beat all! You must 'a' b'en dreamin' a regular nightmare."

She turned and looked him in the face. She felt as if the heavens were falling. A little bird whistling in the cedar seemed an evil spirit addressing her.

"Elder," said Miss Mahala, solemnly, "look a-here! I ain't ever see you at the half-way stun, nor hed any conversation 'ith ye about St. John, nor ever told ye anythin' about yarbs or apples, or ter look out fer Johnny, or that he was light-fingered. There! And I ain't ever fainted away in my life. I sh'd thought you would 'a' said I was light-headed!"

Miss Mahala was white under all her tan; but the Elder, in a maze, was not looking at her now.

"You've b'en dreamin'," she continued. "Some dreams is like live thin's. Or the Evil One's b'en a-whisperin' in your ear. You're tew busy, you're what they call overworked an' het up. You're jes' needin' me ter fix up some o' my spring bitters fer ye—"

"Miss Mahala! Are you in earnest?"

"Cert'in I be."

"I can't credit it. I can't admit it. It is perfectly real in my recollection—"

"That's the way with them strong kind o' dreams."

"But I'm not a dreaming man."

"An' so all the more when ye do dream it seems reel. I dessay you'll say I hed on a green shawl—"

"You did."

"Waal, I ain't got any green shawl! Dreams is queer thin's."

"Miss Mahala, if this is all true, it would be a mountain off my mind and soul.

"True! I don't s'pose you're a-doubtin' of my word? Anybody in this perish 'll tell ye Mahaly Brooks never telled a lie afore!"

Miss Mahala's voice was raised a little, for as she spoke she was wondering how much logwood it would take to dye a green garment black, the heightened tone an unconscious veil to her thought. But it was convincing.

The elder stood up and reached his arms to heaven. "I thank God! I thank God!" he said. And then he turned to Miss Mahala with some of the blue fire of that heaven in his eye and an ineffable sweetness in his smile. If she quailed the least in the world, he did not perceive it. "You have made me another man," he said, taking his seat again on the door-step. "And now, if you don't mind, I think an egg whipped up in old cider would be very refreshing to that other man."

"I'll hev one, tew," she said, as she went in. "I don't need the cider," she added to herself. "I s'pose it's wrong. But I'm on the downward course, anyway.

"Why, Elder," she said, when she returned with the concoction, "ain't Johnny telled ye? Waal, he ain't hardly hed time. He's goin' to the Aggerculteral College in a year or so. I'm sendin' him—you an' Mis' Perry agreein'. I've got the means. An' then he's ter hev this ol' farm o' mine thet's run to waste this twenty year."

The elder walked home on air.

Miss Mahala went into her room and shut the door. She knelt down beside her bed. But she could pray no prayer. She was bitter at heart, but she was not sorry. The Lord must forgive her. Some day He would!


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


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 80 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.