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The Hesperian

by Willa Cather

From The Hesperian, 22 (April 15, 1893):  4-7.

The Elopement of Allen Poole


"Seein' yo' folks ain't willin', sweetheart, I tell yo' there hain't no other way."

"No, I reckon there hain't." She sighed and looked with a troubled expression at the thin spiral of blue smoke that curled up from a house hidden behind the pine trees.

"Besides, I done got the license now, an' told the preacher we was comin'. Yo' ain't goin' back on me now, Nell?"

"No, no, Allen, of course I hain't, only—" her mouth quivered a little and she still looked away from him. The man stood uneasily, his hands hanging helplessly at his side, and watched her. As he saw the color leave her cheeks and her eyes fill, up he began to fear lest he might lose her altogether, and he saw that something must be done. Rousing himself he went up to her, and taking her hand drew himself up to the full height of his six feet.

"See here, Nell, I hain't goin' to make yo' leave yo' folks, I hain't got no right to. Yo' kin come with me, or bide with 'em, jist as yo' choose, only fo' Gawd's sake tell me now, so if yo' won't have me I kin leave yo'."

The girl drew close to him with that appealing gesture of a woman who wants help or strength from some one, and laid her face on his arm.

"I want yo,' Allen, yo' know that. I hain't feelin' bad to go, only I do hate to wear that dress mighty bad. Yo' know Pap bought it fo' me to wear to the Bethel camp-meetin'. He got real silk ribbon fo' it, too, jist after he sold the sheep, yo' know. It seems real mean to run away in it."

Don't wear it then, I kin get yo' plenty o' dresses, wear what yo' got on, yo' surely purty enough fo' me that way."

"No, I must wear it, cause I ain't got nothin' else good enough to marry yo' in. But don't lets talk about it no mo' dear. What time yo' goin' to come to-night?"

"Bout ten o'clock I reckon. I better not come too early, yo' folks might hear me. I lay I won't go fer away to-day, them revenue fellers is lookin' fo' me purty sharp."

"I knowed they would be, I knowed it all along. I wish yo' wouldn't still no mo'. I jist am scared to death now all the time fo' fear they'll ketch yo'. Why don't yo' quit stillin' now, Allen?"

"Law me, honey! there hain't no harm in it. I jist makes a little fo' the campmeetin's."

"I don't keer 'bout the harm, its yo' I'm feerd fo'.

"Don't yo' worry 'bout me. I kin give 'em the slip. I'll be here to-night at ten o'clock if all the revenue officers in the country are afer me. I'll come down here by the big chistnut an' whistle. What shall I whistle, anyhow, so yo' kin know its me?"

"'Nelly Bly,' course" she whispered, blushing.

"An' yo'll come to me, sho?"

Her only answer was to draw his big, blonde head down to her and hold it against her cheek.

"I must go now, Allen, mammy will be lookin' fo' me soon." And she slipped from his arms and ran swiftly up the steep path toward the house.

Allen watched her disappear among the pines, and then threw himself down beside a laurel bush and clasping his hands under his head began to whistle softly. It takes a man of the South to do nothing perfectly, and Allen was as skilled in that art as were any of the F.F.V's. who wore broadcloth. It was the kind of a summer morning to encourage idleness. Behind him were the sleepy pine woods, the slatey ground beneath them strewn red with slippery needles. Around him the laurels were just blushing into bloom. Here and there rose tall chestnut trees with the red sumach growing under them. Down in the valley lay fields of wheat and corn, and among them the creek wound between its willow-grown banks. Across it was the old, black, creaking foot-bridge which had neither props nor piles, but was swung from the arms of a great sycamore tree. The reapers were at work in the wheat fields; the mowers swinging their cradles and the binders following close behind. Along the fences companies of bare-footed children were picking berries. On the bridge a lank youth sat patiently fishing in the stream where no fish had been caught for years. Allen watched them all until a passing cloud made the valley dark, then his eyes wandered to where the Blue Ridge lay against the sky, faint and hazy as the mountains of Beulah land.

Allen still whistled lazily as he lay there. He was noted for his whistling. He was naturally musical, but on Limber Ridge the mouth organ and jewsharp are considered the only thoroughly respectable instruments, and he preferred whistling to either. He could whistle anything from "Champagne Charley" to the opera airs he heard the city folks playing in the summer at the Springs. There was a marvelous sweet and mellow quality about that chirp of his, like the softened fire of the famous apple brandy he made from his little still in the mountains. The mountain folk always said they could tell Allen Poole's whiskey or his whistle wherever they found them. Beyond his music and his brandy and his good heart there was not much to Allen. He was never known to do any work except to pour apples into his still and drink freely of the honied fire which came out of the worm. As he said himself, between his still and the women and the revenue officers he had scarcely time to eat. The officers of the law hated him because they knew him to be an incorrigible "moonshiner," yet never could prove anything against him. The women all loved him because he was so big and blue-eyed and so thoroughly a man, He was happy enough and good natured enough; still it was no wonder that old Sargent did not want his daughter to marry the young man, for making whiskey on one's own hook and one's own authority is not a particularly safe or honorable business. But the girl was willing and Allen was very much so, and they had taken matters into their own hands and meant to elope that night. Allen was not thinking very seriously about it. He never took anything very seriously. He was just thinking that the dim blueness of the mountains over there was like her eyes when they had tears in them, and wondering why it was that when he was near her he always felt such an irresistable impulse to pick her up and carry her. When he began to get hungry he arose and yawned and began to stroll lazily down the mountain side, his heavy boot heels cutting through the green moss and craunching the soft slate rock underneath, whistling "My Bonnie Lies Over the Oean" as he went.


It was about nine o'clock that evening when Allen crossed the old foot bridge and started down the creek lane toward the mountain. He kept carefully in the shadow of the trees, for he had good cause to fear that night. There was a little frown on his face, for when he got home at noon he found his shanty in confusion; the revenue officer had been there and had knocked the still to pieces and chopped through the copper worm with an ax. Even the winning of his sweetheart could not quite make up for the loss of his still.

The creek lane, hedged on either side by tall maples, ran by a little grave yard. It was one of those little family burying grounds so common in the south, with its white headstones, tall, dark cedars, and masses of rosemary, myrtle and rue. Allen, like all the rest of the Mountain men, was superstitious, and ordinarily he would have hurried past, not anxious to be near a grave yard after night. But now he went up and leaned on the stone fence, and looked over at the headstones which marked the sunken graves. Somehow he felt more pity for them than fear of them that night. That night of all nights he was so rich in hope and love, lord of so much life, that he wished he could give a little of it to those poor, cold, stiff fellows shut up down there in their narrow boxes with prosy scripture text on their coffin plates, give a little of the warm blood that tingled through his own veins, just enough, perhaps, to make them dream of love. He sighed as he went on, leaving them to their sleep and their understanding.

He turned aside into a road that ran between the fields. The red harvest moon was just rising; on one side of the road the tall, green corn stood whispering and rustling in the moonrise, sighing fretfully now and then when the hot south breeze swept over it. On the other side lay the long fields of wheat where the poppies drooped among the stubble and the sheaves gave out that odor of indescribable richness and ripeness which newly cut grain always has. From the wavering line of locust trees the song of the whip-poor-will throbbed through the summer night. Above it all were the dark pine-clad mountains, in the repose and strength of their immortality.

The man's heart went out to the heart of the night, and he broke out into such a passion of music as made the singer in the locusts sick with melody. As he went on, whistling, he suddenly heard the beat of a horse's feet upon the road, and silenced his chirping.

"Like as not itsthem government chaps," he muttered.

A cart came around the bend in the road, Allen saw two men in it and turned aside into the corn field, but he was too late, they had already seen him. One of them raised his pistol and shouted, "Halt!"

But Allen knew too well who they were, and did not stop. The officer called again, and then fired. Allen stopped a moment, clutched the air above his head, cried "My Gawd!" and then ran wildly on. The officer was not a bad fellow, only young and a little hot headed, and that agonized cry took all the nerve out of him, and he drove back toward town to get the ringing sound out of his ears.

Allen ran on, plunging and floundering through the corn like some wounded animal, tearing up stalk after stalk as he clutched it in his pain. When he reached the foot of the mountain he started up, dragging himself on by the laurel and sumach bushes. When his legs failed him he used his hands and knees, wrenching the vines and saplings to pieces and tearing the flesh on hands as he pulled himself up. At last he reached the chestnut tree and sank with a groan upon the ground. But he rose again muttering to himself: "She'd be skeered to death if she seen me layin' down."

He braced himself against the tree, all blood and dirt as he was, his wedding clothes torn and soiled, and drawing his white lips up in the old way he whistled for his love:

"Nelly Bly shuts her eye When she goes to sleep, But in the morning when she wakes Then they begin to peep. High Nelly! Ho Nelly! listen unto me, I'll sing for you, I'll play for you a charming melody."

He had not long to wait. She came softly through the black pines, holding her white dress up carefully from the dewy grass, with the moonlight all about her in a halo, like a little Madonna of the hills. She slipped up to him and leaned her cheek upon his breast.

"Allen, my own boy! Why yo' all wet, Oh its blood! its blood! have they hurt yo' honey, have they hurt yo'?"

He sank to the ground, saying gently, "I'm afeerd they've done fo' me this time, sweetheart. Itsthem damned revenue men."

"Let me call Pap, Allen, he'll go fo' the doctor, let me go, Allen, please."

"No, yo' shant leave me. It ain't fo' many minutes, a doctor won't do no good. Stay with me Nell, stay with me, I'm afeerd to be alone."

She sat down and drew his head on her knee and leaned her face down to his.

"Take keer, darlin', yo' goin' to git yo' dress all bloody, yo' nice new frock what yo' goin' to wear to the Bethel picnic."

"Oh Allen! there ain't no Bethel picnic no more, not nothin' but yo'. Oh my boy! my boy!" and she rocked herself over him as a mother does over a little baby that is in pain.

"Its mighty hard to loose yo', Nell, but maybe its best. Maybe if I'd lived an' married yo' I might a' got old an' cross an' used to yo' some day, an' might a' swore at you an' beat yo' like the mountain folks round here does, an' I'd sooner die now, while I love yo' better'n anything else in Gawd's world. Yo' like me, too, don't yo' dear?"

"Oh Allen! more'n I ever knowed, more'n I ever knowed."

"Don't take on so, honey. Yo' will stay with me to-night? Yo' won't leave me even after I'm dead? Yo' know we was to be married an' I was to have yo' to-night. Yo' won't go way an' leave me the first night an' the last, will yo' Nell?"

The girl calmed herself for his sake and answered him steadily: "No, Allen. I will set an' hold yo' till mornin' comes. I won't leave yo'."

"Thank yo'. Never mind, dear, the best thing in livin' is to love hard, and the best thing in dyin' is to die game; an' I've done my best at both. Never mind."

He drew a long sigh, and the rest was silence.