THE GENTLE HAND
By Timothy S. Arthur
When and where, it matters not now to relate—but once upon a time, as I was passing through a thinly peopled district of country, night came down upon me almost unawares. Being on foot, I could not hope to gain the village toward which my steps were directed until a late hour; and I therefore preferred seeking shelter and a night’s lodging at the first humble dwelling that presented itself.
Dusky twilight was giving place to deeper shadows, when I found myself in the vicinity of a dwelling, from the small uncurtained windows of which the light shone with a pleasant promise of good cheer and comfort. The house stood within an inclosure, and a short distance from the road along which I was moving with wearied feet.
Turning aside, and passing through the ill-hung gate, I approached the dwelling. Slowly the gate swung on its wooden hinges, and the rattle of its latch, in closing, did not disturb the air until I had nearly reached the porch in front of the house, in which a slender girl, who had noticed my entrance, stood awaiting my arrival.
A deep, quick bark answered, almost like an echo, the sound of the shutting gate, and, sudden as an apparition, the form of an immense dog loomed in the doorway. At the instant when he was about to spring, a light hand was laid upon his shaggy neck, and a low word spoken.
“Go in, Tiger,” said the girl, not in a voice of authority, yet in her gentle tones was the consciousness that she would be obeyed; and, as she spoke, she lightly bore upon the animal with her hand, and he turned away and disappeared within the dwelling.
“Who’s that?” A rough voice asked the question; and now a heavy looking man took the dog’s place in the door.
“How far is it to G——?” I asked, not deeming it best to say, in the beginning, that I sought a resting-place for the night.
“To G——!” growled the man, but not so harshly as at first. “It’s good six miles from here.”
“A long distance; and I’m a stranger, and on foot,” said I. “If you can make room for me until morning, I will be very thankful.”
I saw the girl’s hand move quickly up his arm, until it rested on his shoulder, and now she leaned to him still closer.
“Come in. We’ll try what can be done for you.” There was a change in the man’s voice that made me wonder. I entered a large room, in which blazed a brisk fire. Before the fire sat two stout lads, who turned upon me their heavy eyes, with no very welcome greeting. A middle-aged woman was standing at a table, and two children were amusing themselves with a kitten on the floor.
“A stranger, mother,” said the man who had given me so rude a greeting at the door; “and he wants us to let him stay all night.”
The woman looked at me doubtingly for a few moments, and then replied coldly, “We don’t keep a public house.”
“I’m aware of that, ma’am,” said I; “but night has overtaken me, and it’s a long way yet to G——.”
“Too far for a tired man to go on foot,” said the master of the house, kindly, “so it’s no use talking about it, mother; we must give him a bed.”
So unobtrusively that I scarce noticed the movement, the girl had drawn to her mother’s side. What she said to her I did not hear, for the brief words were uttered in a low voice; but I noticed, as she spoke, one small; fair hand rested on the woman’s hand.
Was there magic in that touch? The woman’s repulsive aspect changed into one of kindly welcome, and she said: “Yes, it’s a long way to G——. I guess we can find a place for him.”
Many times more during that evening, did I observe the magic power of that hand and voice—the one gentle yet potent as the other. On the next morning, breakfast being over, I was preparing to take my departure when my host informed me that if I would wait for half an hour he would give me a ride in his wagon to G——, as business required him to go there. I was very well pleased to accept of the invitation.
In due time the farmer’s wagon was driven into the road before the house, and I was invited to get in. I noticed the horse as a rough-looking Canadian pony, with a certain air of stubborn endurance. As the farmer took his seat by my side, the family came to the door to see us off.
“Dick!” said the farmer in a peremptory voice, giving the rein a quick jerk as he spoke. But Dick moved not a step. “Dick! you vagabond! get up.” And the farmer’s whip cracked sharply by the pony’s ear.
It availed not, however, this second appeal. Dick stood firmly disobedient. Next the whip was brought down upon him with an impatient hand; but the pony only reared up a little. Fast and sharp the strokes were next dealt to the number of half a dozen. The man might as well have beaten the wagon, for all his end was gained.
A stout lad now came out into the road, and, catching Dick by the bridle, jerked him forward, using, at the same time, the customary language on such occasions, but Dick met this new ally with increased stubbornness, planting his fore feet more firmly and at a sharper angle with the ground.
The impatient boy now struck the pony on the side of the head with his clenched hand, and jerked cruelly at its bridle. It availed nothing, however; Dick was not to be wrought upon by any such arguments.
“Don’t do so, John!” I turned my head as the maiden’s sweet voice reached my ear. She was passing through the gate into the road, and, in the next moment, had taken hold of the lad and drawn him away from the animal. No strength was exerted in this; she took hold of his arm, and he obeyed her wish as readily as if he had no thought beyond her gratification.
And now that soft hand was laid gently on the pony’s neck, and a single low word spoken. How instantly were the tense muscles relaxed—how quickly the stubborn air vanished.
“Poor Dick!” said the maiden, as she stroked his neck lightly; or softly patted it with a childlike hand. “Now, go along, you provoking fellow!” she added, in a half-chiding, yet affectionate voice, as she drew up the bridle.
The pony turned toward her, and rubbed his head against her arm for an instant or two; then, pricking up his ears, he started off at a light, cheerful trot, and went on his way as freely as if no silly crotchet had ever entered his stubborn brain.
“What a wonderful power that hand possesses!” said I, speaking to my companion, as we rode away.
He looked at me for a moment, as if my remark had occasioned surprise. Then a light came into his countenance, and he said briefly, “She’s good! Everybody and everything loves her.”
Was that, indeed, the secret of her power? Was the quality of her soul perceived in the impression of her hand, even by brute beasts? The father’s explanation was doubtless the true one. Yet have I ever since wondered, and still do wonder, at the potency which lay in that maiden’s magic touch. I have seen something of the same power, showing itself in the loving and the good, but never to the extent as instanced in her, whom, for want of a better name, I must still call “Gentle Hand.”
DEFINITIONS:—Vicinity – neighborhood. Unobtrusively – not noticeably, modestly. Repulsive – repelling, forbidding. Potent – powerful, effective. Host – one from whom another receives food, lodging, or entertainment. Peremptory – commanding, decisive. Availed – was of use, had effect. Ally – a confederate, one who unites with another in some purpose. Tense – strained to stiffness, rigid. Relaxed – loosened. Chiding – scolding, rebuking. Crotchet – a perverse fancy, a whim. Instanced – mentioned as an example.