Read CHAPTER IX of The Gentle Art of Cooking Wives , free online book, by Elizabeth Strong Worthington, on ReadCentral.com.

It is a well-known fact that many a poor wretch has gone up to the very gate of Paradise, only to bound back again, as if either he himself or that bar to bliss were made of India rubber. Nothing could be more tantalizing or discouraging to the spirit, unless, indeed, it were the experience of many a despairing and hoping convalescent who is bandied about by the hand of fate with a shuttlecock movement betwixt sickness and health.

Many of us feel good for an hour at a time, several hours occasionally, but to be good overnight to waken in the morning with one’s resolutions and aspirations as crisp and fresh as they were the evening before is proof positive of regeneration.

Once in a while it occurs to the rebellious that things might have been made a trifle easier. For instance, if only one had to walk miles to meet the tempter, or if only he had the decency and dignity to demand that we meet him half way, instead of coming all the way himself and invading the privacy of our very homes. If only he would wear his horns and tail all the time, that we might know him on sight and realize what we are about when we go under, instead of slinking in clothed as an angel of light. Not that the Andersonvilles, as Nannie called the mother and son Anderson, looked like angels of light. On the contrary, they were as ugly as the evil one, but they were without horns or tails, and so not easily recognizable as that particular and very reprehensible person. And Nannie was lured by them to let loose her spirit of mischief.

We have mentioned neighbors once or twice before. Now, the biblical definition of neighbor covers a wide field, and all experience will bear me out in an assertion, that apart from numbers the word stands for all sizes, shapes, and varieties of human being. Nowadays most of us whisper the term crazy, realizing that we ourselves are liable to be caught up and incarcerated under that head. Nevertheless within ourselves we know that some of those about us and we could point them out if we were asked are trying to pass off cracked brains for sound ones.

Before Steve and Nannie had been domiciled more than a fortnight in their new abode, where they had fancied that their living was to be of the best, a fly appeared in the ointment, a fly which directly proved to be out of its mind in other words, they discovered that they had crazy neighbors. Let no one understand me to signify by this the kind of crazy person who seizes you by the hair and brandishes his fist in your face, declaring that your hour has come. That is one variety, to be sure, an unpleasant variety, too; but there are others. If it came to a matter of weeding out all those whose brains were slightly out of gear, most of us could appear in court with a batch of crazy neighbors, thereby depriving a city of some of its principal men and society of some of its chief ornaments.

No one would like to do this, but when the crack in a neighbor’s brains widens so as to seriously upset his notions of other people’s rights, then he is bound to become not dangerous necessarily, but certainly troublesome, and some step must be taken in self-defense.

As Steve learned too late, he stood upon contested ground. The former owner being now in the insane asylum, and having, before she became unbalanced, deeded the property to her husband (who had subsequently sold it to Steve), she was temporarily out of the way, but it seemed that by some oversight she had left outside a mother and a brother, whom she should have taken in with her.

These relatives, as far as Steve was able to learn, never claimed that the transfer of property to the husband was invalid because the owner was at that time insane. Their claim was that she had not gone insane at all, and that she had, in a manner, been forced into deeding her property away, and consequently the transaction was null and void and she still owned it. A written document to this effect was posted on one of the largest trees near the house soon after the newly wedded pair moved out there, but Steve found upon investigation that this was but one of many threads forming a cobweb of prodigious size within the brains of these peculiar folk whose relative had outrun them to the asylum. Consequently he was disposed to dismiss the whole matter from his mind. Not so the crazy neighbors, for they continued to post the contested place with notices, and Nannie became habituated to plucking several of these legal billets-doux from the trees every morning before breakfast.

All this was great sport for Nannie, but the trouble soon took a more serious turn. The outcome of this latter was an anonymous notification to Steve that if he failed to take down an obstruction which he had put across one of the roads on his place to prevent its being used as a public thoroughfare, he would be mobbed by a crowd of men and boys.

“This is a most extraordinary condition of affairs,” said Steve one day in talking the matter over with Randolph Chance, “to be racing around with dogs and cutlasses when you’re supposed to be cooling your brow under your vine and fig-tree.”

As if to add insult to injury, the Andersons, mother and son, made a passageway of the place they claimed (in the name of their daughter and sister) and persisted in using this, in spite of remonstrance and even warning.

Now, for some time past Nannie had, by means best known to women, been contriving to fire Steve’s usually placid temper, and the morning after her visit to Constance’s an opportunity presented itself for the fanning of the flames she had kindled. On opening her door just after breakfast she saw mother Anderson and her son William land at the little private pier Steve had built, and then walk with a bold and rugged step up toward the house en route to the station, some half mile to the rear.

Now was Nannie’s chance!

Such fun to see Steve fight!

“Steve!” she screamed, running into the house, “here are those dreadful people again! They frighten me to death! I shall never dare to stay here alone if you don’t make an end of their coming!” Frightened! Ah, Nannie! with that bright color and those dancing eyes!

Steve ran out, his mind aflame at last as he thought of poor little Nannie’s terrors and the offensive note he had received.

“See here, Anderson,” he began, “you have been asked to keep away from this place. It has

But just here William, who had no regard for social amenities, cut his remarks short by a resounding slap in the face.

Steve had never fought in his life. He was rather ashamed of this (had never confessed it), and the time seemed ripe now to break his peace record. Drawing back, to give himself a greater spring, he landed a heavy blow somewhere in mid-air. Said locality surviving the attack, he withdrew to prepare a fresh onslaught.

Meanwhile he began to notice that he was being smartly thumped by the enemy, and he aimed a supreme effort in that direction.

His blow was not the “immortal passado” mentioned by Mercutio, but rather the “punto reverso,” for it landed him in the dust, while the enemy remained on high.

Just at this juncture mother Anderson put in her oar, literally as well as figuratively, for happening to have that instrument of navigation in her hand, she proceeded to belabor the prostrate Steve.

“Stop that!” screamed Nannie. “Oh, you bad, fiendish woman! Sick her, Brownie!”

And away went Brownie and attached himself firmly to Madam Anderson’s train, and beginning a swift rotary movement, so bewildered the old lady that she lost both oar and enemy, and looked more like a pirouette dancer than a decorous upholder of the cause of individual freedom and public highways.

By this time Steve had regained his perpendicular, and tingling with mortification, started in and really did some inspired work. Taking the foe by the collar, he shook him as a cat would shake a rat.

“You little puppy! Get out of here!” he roared in a most unnatural voice.

Then with the oar (which mother Anderson had abandoned when she took to dancing) in one hand and the dangling enemy in the other, he proceeded down the slope, out upon the little pier, and after sousing the refractory William in the lake, dropped him into his boat.

“Now you follow him, and be off both of you!” he said sternly to madam, who stood upon the pier, squawking like an old hen on the eve of decapitation.

She lost no time in obeying him, albeit she continued to work nature’s bellows with great vigor as Steve threw in the oar he held and gave the boat an energetic thrust.

“Steve, you’re a trump!” cried Nannie.

Steve looked at her aghast.

Was this the timid little creature he had been protecting? Evidently he was as much at sea on the feminine question as before marriage.

He walked slowly up to the house and managed to recover his breath before he was called for the next scene in this rural drama. Truth to tell he was disgusted, not because of the disgrace of a quarrel, but alas for mankind in even his gentlest aspect! because he had failed to get a crack at the enemy.

That evening near dinner-time the plot was thickened by the arrival of the sheriff, who bore a warrant for the entire Loveland family dog included.

“If it hedn’t been a new jestice she cudn’t hev got it out,” he said apologetically. “She’s arrested everybody in sight agin and agin, includin’ her own fam’ly. You hev yer meal now an’ then come ‘roun’ over ter the jestice’s office.”

Accordingly, after dinner Steve and Nannie walked over to the village, and after diligent search found the justice, who informed them that he “did hev a place fer ther trial, but they tuk it from him fer a show an’ he was a-huntin’ fer another.”

This other being finally discovered, the criminals Steve, Nannie and Brownie were brought in, and William Anderson, being duly sworn, was perched up in an aged arm-chair and encouraged to unfold his tale of woe to a crowded house, for the room was full, and even the doors and windows were blocked by the heads of on-lookers.

“It was about eight o’clock in the morning,” William began in a high, cracked voice possibly his neck was still dislocated. “My mother and myself were on our way to meet some friends whom we expected on the next train. Landing at the pier, we proceeded up toward the cottage now fraudulently occupied by these people.” (Here he pointed impressively at the wicked ones, whereupon Brownie, who resented this, barked fiercely and was promptly smothered by the Court.) “Rounding a corner we encountered this man” (another indication with that powerful index finger), “who immediately fell upon me with great fe-roc-i-ty. First he struck me mightily here then he gave me a terrific blow here then one of unparalleled strength here.”

By this time Steve was bridling up and looking like a conquering hero. He really had hit the man! It was the first time he or any one else had known it.

“He then struck me” William continued, but the Court interrupted him.

“Here, here. You’ve already had enough to kill ten men.”

“That’s what I was about to say, your honor, and I will not harrow your honor’s feelings by telling more of his awful assault. Seeing that I was suffering in this manner, my mother approached with an oar, when she her” (indicating Nannie by pointing fixedly and by a stony glare) “rushed upon her fiercely and caused her dog also to charge upon her, which he did so savagely as to decompose her raiment. In some way the oar flew out of her hand, and she was most disrespectfully whirled around and around, so that she is yet dizzy-headed.”

Here madam put her hand to her brow in confirmation.

“I was then taken by the scruff of the neck down to the pier, and whether I fell in the lake or not I cannot say, but I was wet!”

Here the on-lookers shouted with laughter.

“My mother was then disrespectfully helped in and we were sent adrift.”

He ended in a high-toned, pitiful whine suggestive of a dog’s song on a moonlight night, but this plaint was drowned in the roars of laughter raised by the audience.

Madam Anderson confirmed and embellished this tale, but Steve’s and Nannie’s narrative, giving the circumstances of the case, their purchase of the place, the annoyances to which these people had subjected them, the warning that had been sounded to keep them at arm’s length, and the continued disregard of all this, sufficed, in the opinion of the Court, to acquit them and fix the burden of the expenses entailed by the suit upon the Anderson shoulders.

One would have supposed that this episode would have satisfied Nannie for awhile, but she was tireless, and must needs start out to sit hens soon after the Andersons were laid low. Now, of all unreasoning, stupid, obstinate, contrary beasts, a sitting hen is well qualified to carry off the first prize. Nannie had been told that when a hen began to puff up her feathers until she was swollen to about three times her natural size, and make a noise that sounded as if she had tried to say something and the word caught on a hook in her throat, she was ready to sit. Having three feathered animals in this condition, and having coaxed Steve into buying some Plymouth Rock eggs at the trivial sum of three dollars a sitting, Nannie proceeded to capture the hens and put them upon nests of her own placing, wholly ignorant of the fact that if there is one thing above all others in which a hen must have her say, it was in the choice of residence during this vexatious period. From the moment that Nannie put the hens upon the eggs she led a life of unexampled activity. No sooner would she turn her back than the various madams would rise, and with distended feathers and gurgling clucks dismount from the nests and begin to stalk around the yard, in defiance of directions to the contrary. The number of times that Steve was pushed under one side of the house in pursuit of the escaped lunatic, I had almost said, and told to remain there while Nannie ran around and crawled under the other side to head her off, would pass belief. As a matter of course she was never caught by this double-barreled attack, but always stalked out from some unexpected crevice and promenaded the yard as if she owned the premises. The next move on Steve’s and Nannie’s part would be to drive her nestward. The result of this was always to land her in some place precisely opposite; for the moment she was headed properly she would tilt her wings and break into a fat, wheezy little run in the direction just contrary to the one indicated by common sense and lawful authority.

One day, after an hour of this sport, Nannie lost patience, and picking up stones, pelted the feathered truant until she fled out of sight in the wrong direction.

“Let her eggs cool!” she exclaimed with a burst of passionate tears. “I don’t care if they get as cold as an iceberg! I wish they’d freeze her stiff the next time she sits on them!”

Steve began a mild protest, but Nannie turned to walk into the house, when she caught sight of Madam Hen N off her nest and stalking around with the same offensive strut as that of N.

This was too much for her own nervous system, and she rushed upon the offending hen, and kept up this pace with such vigor that at the end of ten minutes she had run her down, taken her literally in hand, borne her squawking into the barn, jammed her down on the nest, and roofed it with boards, which she nailed on with rocks. This done, she returned to the house in a state of savage quiet (if I may be allowed a contradictory term), feeling herself fiercely secure of at least one sitting.

She was not, however, for madam spared no effort till she burst her bonds, brought the rocks down upon the heads of herself and her prospective family, and they all died the death together.

“There’s some satisfaction in that,” said Nannie. “The stupid, nasty, mean old thing went with the eggs!”

The third sitting materialized, and a lovelier brood of chicks was never seen. Steve was surprised and even touched as he stood watching Nannie in her delight. There was something really womanly in the way in which the girl coddled the pretty creatures, holding them close to her face and calling them all the sweet, tender little names in which a woman’s heart goes out to the infantile and the helpless.

Looking and thinking, several things came into Steve’s mind, and one evening he essayed to bring about a better understanding betwixt his erratic little wife and himself. But alas! though possessed of an unusually tender heart and of unusually fine intuitions, yet occasionally Steve was a man, pure and simple, and this was one of the occasions. Just as Nannie was sitting down to dinner he said:

“Nannie, I’ve been wondering what is it that makes you act so?”

“I don’t act!” stormed Nannie, who was ablaze in a minute. “It’s you who act! You treat me as if I were a two-year-old child!” Then, in a gust of changed emotion, she took a step nearer to him and cried out:

“I don’t want to be bad, but” she turned now toward the door, and as she went out looked backward over her shoulder and added impishly “I am, and I’m ’fraid I’m going to be.”

And off she went off to the barn, and the next moment there was a lonely, yearning child-wife sobbing her heart out on Sarah Maria’s neck.

Evidently there was a bond between these two, for Nannie was neither hooked nor kicked, and when Sarah Maria behaved peacefully at both ends it was manifest that her heart was touched.