Joe Varner’s Belling

The wind rattled the windows and made creepy, unpleasant noises in the
trees outside. At long intervals it ventured down the chimney with sudden
spurts and playfully blew the smoke out into the room, causing momentary
discomfort to the eyes of all three of us. Then as quickly it would
retire, giving a triumphant whistle as though it enjoyed the joke hugely.
The soot would come tumbling down and envelop the flames in a cloud of
black dust. A crackle, a splutter, and the logs blazed up as cheerily as
ever.

I stretched my feet toward the fire and buried myself deeper in my great
arm-chair. Flash, the setter, curled at my side, poking his nose between
his fore-paws, fixed his earnest eyes on a tiny tongue of flame that
was eating its way along a gnarled bit of hickory. Facing us, rocking
slowly to and fro on two legs of his frail wooden chair, was Theophilus
Winter, the lawyer and our companion on many a day’s hunt. This was
to Theophilus the acme of comfort, for he had a good cigar for an
inspiration and the best of audiences, an intelligent dog and a tired man.

“Yes, as I was saying before that last gust interrupted us, I am not
a superstitious man, but as long as no harm can come of it I prefer
to plant my garden in the right sign. While I am not in the least
superstitious I must confess some timidity on this one point–that is,
as to passing the small log house that stands just at the foot of the
ridge on the road to Kishikoquillas on the night of the twenty-ninth
of December, or indeed almost any time after sunset. Not that I am
afraid–far from it–but strange tales have been abroad for the last
thirty years regarding the doings there after nightfall. They say
that the sound of fiddles can be heard, the clanging of cow-bells and
occasionally the dull report of a gun. This, the young folks declare, is
the ghosts belling Joe Varner.

“Perhaps you have seen the house of which I have spoken. It stands in
a little clearing, about fifty feet from the roadside. The great stone
chimney is now almost completely demolished. The plaster daubing has
fallen from the chinks between the logs, revealing to the passer-by the
barren interior. The glass has been removed from the shattered windows to
let the light into some more respectable dwelling. The weeds and briars
grow rank over all. The place presented a far different picture thirty
years ago. Then all was scrupulously clean. Not a stone on the chimney
top was out of place, not an iota of daubing had fallen away, nor was the
smallest spot left unwhitewashed. Everywhere was the evidence of industry
and thrift.

“For twenty years Joe Varner had lived his lonely life there, with no
other companion than a mongrel dog. He was a strange man, tall and gaunt
in appearance, taciturn and surly in manner, doing his bad deeds in
public and his good ones in private, for his pride would not allow him to
parade the latter before his neighbors. Yet with it all he was at heart
a kindly old fellow who had simply been spoiled by his way of living.
And why he had chosen this way was a puzzle to all our people. He was
not a native of our county, but had simply appeared one day, bought this
secluded plot, built his house and settled here. Twice, leaving no one
behind him, he went away, remained a week and then as quietly returned to
resume his lonely life. On each occasion his return was marked by a fit
of melancholy which attracted the attention but repelled the curiosity
of his nearest neighbors. That he had visited his old home in a distant
county was all they could ever learn.

“Just thirty years ago this coming December, Varner left for the third
time. A week passed, and he did not return. Two weeks went by, and he
was still absent. Strange rumors were abroad as to the cause of this
unaccountable delay. When the third week had reached its end he came
home, bringing with him a wizened little woman, with a hard face and of a
most slovenly appearance. This person he introduced laconically, but with
a very evident touch of pride, as his wife.

“Just who the woman was or where from no one knew and none dared ask, but
the news of her arrival spread quickly. Here was an opportunity not to
be lost–to bell old Joe and his mysterious bride. Never before had the
valley made such preparations for a serenade. Full fifty men and boys met
at my father’s barn on the night following the old man’s home-coming, and
armed with old guns, fiddles, sleigh bells and horns we set out for the
scene of our operations. It was a good two mile walk to the house on the
ridge, and we reached it just as the full moon was climbing over the tree
tops and peeping into the clearing. There was no sign of life anywhere
save a few dim rays of light that shone through a crevice in the shutters.




“Silently we stationed ourselves about the cabin. At each corner we
placed a horse-fiddle, an unmusical instrument made by drawing the edge
of a board, coated with resin, over the corner of a large box. The signal
was given, and forthwith arose the greatest din that had ever been heard
in our county. The banging of the muskets, the bells, the horns, with
the melancholy wail of the horse-fiddles rising above them all, made
an indescribable tumult. But the result was not as we had expected.
We believed that Joe and his wife would come to the door, bow their
acknowledgments and invite us in to a feast of cake and cider, as is the
custom. Instead the light died suddenly. No sound was heard within.

“We kept to our work bravely. A half hour passed. Cries of ‘Bring out the
bride’ arose above the din, giving evidence that lusty lungs were coming
to the aid of wearied limbs. ‘Bring her out. Fetch out Mrs. Varner, Joe!’
we called again and again.

“It was of no avail. An hour passed and not a sign of life had come
from the interior of the cabin. The noise began to weaken in volume,
the owners of the guns grew chary of wasting their powder, and at last,
much to our chagrin, we were compelled to retire to the woods for a
consultation.

“A thin stream of smoke pouring from the mouth of the chimney suggested
a plan resorted to only on the most desperate occasions–that of smoking
out the newly wedded pair. It was the work of but a few minutes to obtain
a board suitable for the purpose and for one of the young men to climb
to the roof with it. He made his way noiselessly to the peak, laid his
burden across the top of the chimney, then crouched low to await the
outcome. The smoke ceased to escape. Another half hour passed and still
no sign from the house. Anxious looks appeared on the faces of the
serenaders. The man on the roof removed the cover and a dense volume of
smoke arose, showing that the fire had done well the work we required.
From beneath the doorway, too, a few thin wreaths were circling vaguely
out.

“A chill of dread passed over us. It seemed that something out of the
ordinary must have happened within. At first we were inclined to the
belief that the fact that the smoke had not driven out the occupants of
the house proved that it was empty. But we remembered the light that we
had seen burning on our approach. It augured evil.

“Four stalwart fellows, holding between them a large log, attacked the
door. One blow–it cracked. No sound inside. Another blow and the heavy
oak fell back on its hinges. The smoke, released from its prison, poured
out in dense clouds, driving the excited bellers from the doorway. One
man dashed through it and across the single apartment, which passed as
living-room and kitchen, and in another instant the window was up, the
shutters open and the wind was whistling through, driving before it the
heavy veil that had hidden the interior from our view. The moonlight
streamed in.

“There, sitting in a great wooden rocking-chair, his feet resting
almost in the fire, his head fallen low upon his breast, his stern,
hard features calmly set as if in sleep, sat he whom we had come to
bell–dead. On the spotless table by his side stood a candlestick from
which the candle had burned away, only a bit of charred taper remaining
to tell us that in all likelihood Joe had died before we reached his home
and that the last spark of the unattended light had fluttered out, just
as we began the hideous turmoil outside. Clutched in the old man’s right
hand was the explanation of his lonely life as well as of the grewsome
ending of the great belling.”

Theophilus Winter ceased his narration. He drew out his pocketbook and
after fumbling a moment in its recesses, took from it a bit of paper.
It was yellow with age and soiled, and the writing on it had almost
faded out, but I could read: “Deer Joe–you and me was never ment for
one another. i knowed that 40 years ago and thats wi i run way with si
tompson, you was good to take me back them too other times i left, this
last time i thought i was gettin to old an you was so fergivin i had
better spend my las days with you. i cant stand the quiet country livin
an am gone back to harrisburg. they aint no one with me. fergive me. i
gess youll be better off without your old wife–sarah.”

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