The Whirligig Of Life
by O. Henry
JUSTICE-OF-THE-PEACE Benaja Widdup sat in the door of his office smoking his elder-stem pipe. Halfway to the zenith the Cumberland range rose blue-gray in the afternoon haze. A speckled hen swaggered down the main street of the “settlement,” cackling foolishly.
Up the road came a s ound of creaking axles, and then a slow cloud of dust, and then a bull-cart bearing Ransie Bilbro and his wife. The cart stopped at the Justice’s door, and the two climbed down. Ransie was a narrow six feet of sallow brown skin and yellow hair. The imperturbability of the mountains hung upon him like a suit of armour. The woman was calicoed, angled, snuff-brushed, and weary with unknown desires. Through it all gleamed a faint protest of cheated youth unconscious of its loss.
The Justice of the Peace slipped his feet into his shoes, for the sake of dignity, and moved to let them enter.
“We-all,” said the woman, in a voice like the wind blowing through pine boughs, “wants a divo’ce.” She looked at Ransie to see if he noted any flaw or ambiguity or evasion or partiality or self-partisanship in her statement of their business.
“A divo’ce,” repeated Ransie, with a solemn Dod. “We-all can’t git along together nohow. It’s lonesome enough fur to live in the mount’ins when a man and a woman keers fur one another. But when she’s a-spittin' like a wildcat or a-sullenin' like a hoot-owl in the cabin, a man ain’t got no call to live with her."
“When he’s a no-‘count varmint,” said the woman, “without any especial warmth, a-traipsin’ along of scalawags and moonshiners and a-layin' on his back pizen ‘ith co’n whiskey, and a-pesterin’ folks with a pack o' hungry, triflin' houn’s to feed!"
“When she keeps a-throwin' skillet lids,” came Ransie’s antiphony, “and slings b’ilin' water on the best coon-dog in the Cumberlands, and sets herself agin' cookin' a man’s victuals, and keeps him awake o' nights accusin' him of a sight of doin’s!"
“When he’s al’ays a-fightin' the revenues, and gits a hard name in the mount’ins fur a mean man, who’s gwine to be able fur to sleep o' nights?"
The Justice of the Peace stirred deliberately to his duties. He placed his one chair and a wooden stool for his petitioners. He opened his book of statutes on the table and scanned the index. Presently he wiped his spectacles and shifted his inkstand.
“The law and the statutes,” said he, “air silent on the subjeck of divo’ce as fur as the jurisdiction of this co’t air concerned. But, accordin' to equity and the Constitution and the golden rule, it’s a bad barg’in that can’t run both ways. If a justice of the peace can marry a couple, it’s plain that he is bound to be able to divo’ce ‘em. This here office will issue a decree of divo’ce and abide by the decision of the Supreme Co’t to hold it good."
Ransie Bilbro drew a small tobacco-bag from his trousers pocket. Out of this he shook upon the table a five-dollar note. “Sold a b’arskin and two foxes fur that,” he remarked. “It’s all the money we got."
“The regular price of a divo’ce in this co’t,” said the Justice, “air five dollars.” He stuffed the bill into the pocket of his homespun vest with a deceptive air of indifference. With much bodily toil and mental travail he wrote the decree upon half a sheet of foolscap, and then copied it upon the other. Ransie Bilbro and his wife listened to his reading of the document that was to give them freedom:
“Know all men by these presents that Ransie Bilbro and his wife, Ariela Bilbro, this day personally appeared before me and promises that hereinafter they will neither love, honour, nor obey each other, neither for better nor worse, being of sound mind and body, and accept summons for divorce according to the peace and dignity of the State. Herein fail not, so help you God. Benaja Widdup, justice of the peace in and for the county of Piedmont, State of Tennessee."
The Justice was about to hand one of the documents to Ransie. The voice of Ariela delayed the transfer. Both men looked at her. Their dull masculinity was confronted by something sudden and unexpected in the woman.
“Judge, don’t you give him that air paper yit. ‘Tain’t all settled, nohow. I got to have my rights first. I got to have my ali-money. ‘Tain’t no kind of a way to do fur a man to divo’ce his wife ‘thout her havin’ a cent fur to do with. I’m a-layin’ off to be a-goin’ up to brother Ed’s up on Hogback Mount’in. I’m bound fur to hev a pa’r of shoes and some snuff and things besides. Ef Rance kin affo’d a divo’ce, let him pay me ali-money."
Ransie Bilbro was stricken to dumb perplexity. There had been no previous hint of alimony. Women were always bringing up startling and unlooked-for issues.
Justice Benaja Widdup felt that the point demanded judicial decision. The authorities were also silent on the subject of alimony. But the woman’s feet were bare. The trail to Hogback Mountain was steep and flinty.
“Ariela Bilbro,” he asked, in official tones, “how much did you ‘low would be good and sufficient ali-money in the case befo’ the co’t."
“I ‘lowed,” she answered, “fur the shoes and all, to say five dollars. That ain’t much fur ali-money, but I reckon that’ll git me to up brother Ed’s."
“The amount,” said the Justice, “air not onreasonable. Ransie Bilbro, you air ordered by the co’t to pay the plaintiff the sum of five dollars befo’ the decree of divo’ce air issued."
“I hain’t no mo’ money,” breathed Ransie, heavily. “I done paid you all I had."
“Otherwise,” said the Justice, looking severely over his spectacles, “you air in contempt of co’t."
“I reckon if you gimme till to-morrow,” pleaded the husband, “I mout be able to rake or scrape it up somewhars. I never looked for to be a-payin' no alimoney."
“The case air adjourned,” said Benaja Widdup, “till to-morrow, when you-all will present yo’selves and obey the order of the co’t. Followin' of which the decrees of divo’ce will be delivered.” He sat down in the door and began to loosen a shoestring.
“We mout as well go down to Uncle Ziah’s,” decided Ransie, “and spend the night.” He climbed into the cart on one side, and Ariela climbed in on the other. Obeying the flap of his rope, the little red bull slowly came around on a tack, and the cart crawled away in the nimbus arising from its wheels.
Justice-of-the-peace Benaja Widdup smoked his elderstem pipe. Late in the afternoon he got his weekly paper, and read it until the twilight dimmed its lines. Then he lit the tallow candle on his table, and read until the moon rose, marking the time for supper. He lived in the double log cabin on the slope near the girdled poplar. Going home to supper he crossed a little branch darkened by a laurel thicket. The dark figure of a man stepped from the laurels and pointed a rifle at his breast. His hat was pulled down low, and something covered most of his face.
“I want yo' money,” said the figure, “‘thout any talk. I’m gettin’ nervous, and my finger’s a-wabblin' on this here trigger."
“I’ve only got f-f-five dollars,” said the Justice, producing it from his vest pocket.
“Roll it up,” came the order, “and stick it in the end of this here gun-bar’l."
The bill was crisp and new. Even fingers that were clumsy and trembling found little difficulty in making a spill of it and inserting it (this with less ease) into the muzzle of the rifle.
“Now I reckon you kin be goin' along,” said the robber.
The Justice lingered not on his way.
The next day came the little red bull, drawing the cart to the office door. Justice Benaja Widdup had his shoes on, for he was expecting the visit. In his presence Ransie Bilbro handed to his wife a five-dollar bill. The official’s eye sharply viewed it. It seemed to curl up as though it had been rolled and inserted into the end of a gun-barrel. But the Justice refrained from comment. It is true that other bills might be inclined to curl. He handed each one a decree of divorce. Each stood awkwardly silent, slowly folding the guarantee of freedom. The woman cast a shy glance full of constraint at Ransie.
“I reckon you’ll be goin' back up to the cabin,” she said, along ‘ith the bull-cart. There’s bread in the tin box settin’ on the shelf. I put the bacon in the b’ilin'-pot to keep the hounds from gittin' it. Don’t forget to wind the clock to-night."
“You air a-goin' to your brother Ed’s?” asked Ransie, with fine unconcern.
“I was ‘lowin’ to get along up thar afore night. I ain’t sayin' as they’ll pester theyselves any to make me welcome, but I hain’t nowhar else fur to go. It’s a right smart ways, and I reckon I better be goin'. I’ll be a-sayin' good-bye, Ranse - that is, if you keer fur to say so."
“I don’t know as anybody’s a hound dog,” said Ransie, in a martyr’s voice, “fur to not want to say good-bye – ‘less you air so anxious to git away that you don’t want me to say it."
Ariela was silent. She folded the five-dollar bill and her decree carefully, and placed them in the bosom of her dress. Benaja Widdup watched the money disappear with mournful eyes behind his spectacles.
And then with his next words he achieved rank (as his thoughts ran) with either the great crowd of the world’s sympathizers or the little crowd of its great financiers.
“Be kind o’ lonesome in the old cabin to-night, Ranse,” he said.
Ransie Bilbro stared out at the Cumberlands, clear blue now in the sunlight. He did not look at Ariela.
“I ‘low it might be lonesome,” he said; “but when folks gits mad and wants a divo’ce, you can’t make folks stay."
“There’s others wanted a divo’ce,” said Ariela, speaking to the wooden stool. “Besides, nobody don’t want nobody to stay."
“Nobody never said they didn’t."
“Nobody never said they did. I reckon I better start on now to brother Ed’s."
“Nobody can’t wind that old clock."
“Want me to go back along ‘ith you in the cart and wind it fur you, Ranse?"
The mountaineer’s countenance was proof against emotion. But he reached out a big hand and enclosed Ariela’s thin brown one. Her soul peeped out once through her impassive face, hallowing it.
“Them hounds shan’t pester you no more,” said Ransie. “I reckon I been mean and low down. You wind that clock, Ariela."
“My heart hit’s in that cabin, Ranse,” she whispered, “along ‘ith you. I ai’nt a-goin’ to git mad no more. Le’s be startin’, Ranse, so’s we kin git home by sundown.” Justice-of-the-peace Benaja Widdup interposed as they started for the door, forgetting his presence.
“In the name of the State of Tennessee,” he said, “I forbid you-all to be a-defyin’ of its laws and statutes. This co’t is mo' than willin' and full of joy to see the clouds of discord and misunderstandin' rollin' away from two lovin' hearts, but it air the duty of the co’t to p’eserve the morals and integrity of the State. The co’t reminds you that you air no longer man and wife, but air divo’ced by regular decree, and as such air not entitled to the benefits and ‘purtenances of the mattermonal estate."
Ariela caught Ransie’s arm. Did those words mean that she must lose him now when they had just learned the lesson of life?
“But the co’t air prepared,” went on the Justice, “fur to remove the disabilities set up by the decree of divo’ce. The co’t air on hand to perform the solemn ceremony of marri’ge, thus fixin’ things up and enablin' the parties in the case to resume the honour’ble and elevatin' state of mattermony which they desires. The fee fur performin' said ceremony will be, in this case, to wit, five dollars."
Aricla caught the gleam of promise in his words. Swiftly her hand went to her bosom. Freely as an alighting dove the bill fluttered to the Justice’s table. Her sallow cheek coloured as she stood hand in hand with Ransie and listened to the reuniting words.
Ransie helped her into the cart, and climbed in beside her. The little red bull turned once more, and they set out, hand-clasped, for the mountains.
Justice-of-the-peace Benaja Widdup sat in his door and took off his shoes. Once again he fingered the bill tucked down in his vest pocket. Once again he smoked his elder-stem pipe. Once again the speck-led hen swaggered down the main street of the “settlement,” cackling foolishly.
治安法官贝内加·威德普坐在办公室门口，抽着接骨木杆烟斗。坎伯兰之巅高耸入云，在午后的雾霭中，山腰呈现出蓝绿色。一只花斑母鸡沿着“殖民地”的大街大摇大摆地走着，傻头傻脑地咯咯咯叫个不停。 路的另一头传来车轴的吱吱声，接着是缓缓的一蓬土尘，然后是辆牛车，车上坐着兰西·比尔布罗和他的女人。牛车在治安官的门边停住，两人爬下车。兰西是个六英尺高的瘦个子，土褐色的皮肤和黄头发。山区的严峻像副盔甲披挂在他身上。女人穿着白棉布衣服，身子佝偻，牙上有残留的烟草粉末，说不清的渴望使她疲惫不堪。这一切无不忽闪着对青春遭欺骗，并在无意识中失落的抗议。 为了尊严，治安法官的双脚滑进鞋子，挪开身让他俩进门。 “我们俩，”女人说，声音像吹过松枝的风，“想离婚。”她瞅着兰西，看他是否要说她所陈述的两人情况有缺陷、含糊、隐瞒、偏心、或者自我偏袒。 “离婚，”兰西重复道，一本正经地点点头。“我们俩口子一点也合不来。生活在山区，即使一个男人和一个女人和和好好，那也冷清得够呛。何况在小木屋里她不是像野猫那么凶就是像号枭一样赌气，一个男人干嘛要跟她一起过。” “他是个没用的家伙，”女人毫不动情地说，“只晓得同一帮无赖和违法酒贩东游西荡，一灌玉米酒就挺尸，丢下一群烦人的饿狗闹食！” “她老是摔锅盖，”兰西对数起来，“把滚烫的开水泼在坎伯兰地区最好的猎浣熊狗身上，宁肯坐着也不给男人煮吃的，男人做什么都挨骂，夜夜吵得人睡不着觉！” “他总抗税，在山里挣了个痞子才有的恶名，晚上谁还能睡觉？” 治安法官不慌不忙地开始履行公务。他把一张椅子和一条木凳给了两位离婚申请人，打开桌上的《法规汇编》，浏览索引。不一会儿，他擦擦眼镜，挪了挪墨水瓶。 “法律和法规，”他说，“就本庭的司法权而论，没提出离婚的问题。但是，根据衡平法，宪法和为人准则，来而不往不是生意经。如果治安官能为两口子证婚，很清楚，那他也将能让他们离婚。本庭可以颁布离婚令，并由最高法院核准它的效力。” 兰西·比尔布罗从裤兜里掏出一只小烟草袋，还从兜里抖出一张五美元的钞票放到桌上。“一张熊皮和两张狐皮卖的钱，”他声明说，“这就是我们全部的钱。” “本庭办理离婚的固定价格，”治安法官说，“是五美元。”他摆出满不在乎的神气，把钞票塞进土布马甲上的口袋。在体力和脑力上经历了好大的痛苦，他才在半页纸上写完离婚令，然后又抄到另外半页上。兰西·比尔布罗和他的女人听着他宣读将给他们自由的文件：
治安法官正要把一张离婚证递给兰西，阿里娜的声音推迟了递交。两个男人盯着她。他们的愚钝男性遇到了这个女人身上突如其来、始料不及的什么事。 “法官，你先别给他那张纸。无论如何，事情还没完全了结。首先，我得要求我的权利。我得有赡养费。男人离掉老婆，不给她分文生活费，这可不成一回事。我打算去雀格巴克山里，到埃德兄弟家去住。我要双鞋子，一些鼻烟和其它东西。兰西既然能付离婚的费用，就让他给我赡养费。” 兰西·比尔布罗惊得目瞪口呆。以前根本就没提过赡养费。女人总是生出些叫人吃惊，想也想不到的话题来。 治安法官贝内加·威德普觉得这个问题需要法庭的决定。《法规汇编》上也没有说到赡养费这个问题。但是，这女人光着两只脚。去霍格巴克山的小路陡峭，布满燧石。 “阿里娜·比尔布罗，”他打着官腔问，“在本案中，你认为多少赡养费才够数合理？当着本官讲。” “我认为，”她答道，“买鞋等等，就说五美元吧。这笔赡养费不算多，但我掐算这笔钱可以维持我到埃德兄弟家了。” “这个数目，”治安官说，“不能说不合理。兰西·比尔布罗，本庭命令你付给原告五美元，之后再发离婚证。” “我再也没钱了，”兰西沉重地喘息。“所有的钱我都给了你。” “如果拒付，”治安法官从眼镜上方威严地盯着兰西，“你就是藐视法庭。” “我想你让我等到明天，”丈夫请求说，“我兴许能东拼西凑起这笔钱。我从没想过要给什么赡养费。” “本案休庭，”贝内加·威德普说，“明天继续。你们俩明天到庭听候宣判。宣判之后，发给离婚证。”他在门口坐下，开始解鞋带。 “我们还是可以去齐亚叔叔家，”兰西拿定主意，“度过这一夜。”他从一侧爬上牛车，阿里娜从另一侧爬上去。他一抖缰绳，小红牛踩着缰绳的指引转过弯，牛车在车轮带起的尘土中爬走了。 治安法官贝内加·威德普抽起他的接骨木杆烟斗。傍晚，他收到周报，一直读到暮色使字迹模糊不清的时候。于是他点起桌子上的蜡烛，继续读到月亮升起——这是他晚饭时刻的记号。他住在山坡上的一间双层原木的小屋里，靠近剥皮杨树。回家吃晚饭时，他穿过一条小岔道，月桂树丛把小岔道捂得暗森森的。一个黑魃魃的人影从月桂树中跨出来，用步枪对着他的胸膛。那人的帽子拉得低低的，什么东西盖住了大半张脸。 “我要你的钱，”黑影说，“少费话。我神经紧张，我的手指在板机上颤动。” “我只有五——五——美元。”治安法官说着，从马甲袋里掏出钱。 “卷起来，”对方发出命令，“把它塞进枪口。” 票子又挺又新。尽管手指不灵活，在发抖，但要把它卷成筒塞进枪口并不难，但也不太容易。 “嗯，我想你该走开了，”强盗说。 治安法官一溜烟跑掉了。
第二天，小红牛拖着牛车来到办公室门口。治安法官贝内加·威德普因为知道有人要来，所以穿着鞋子。当着他的面，兰西·比尔布罗把一张五美元的票子递给他的女人。治安法官目光锐利地盯着票子。它看起来卷过，仿佛曾给卷起来塞进过枪口。但治安法官忍着没吭气。别的票子也可能给弄卷，这是真的。他给每人一份离婚证。两人尴尬地站着，说不出话，慢慢地折起那自由的保证书。女人十分拘束，向兰西投去怯生生的一瞥。 “我想你要随牛车回木屋。”她说，“架子上的铁皮盒子里有面包。我把咸肉搁在锅里，以防狗吃。今晚别忘了给钟上发条。” “你去你兄弟埃德家？”兰西问，一副十足的漫不经心的样子。 “我打算天黑前赶到那儿。我没说他们会忙着欢迎我，但除此以外，我没地方去。路很长，我想我最好上路。就是说，我要说再见了，兰西——要是你也愿意说。” “如果有谁连再见都不肯说，那简直成了畜生，”兰西用一个殉难者的声音说，“除非你急着上路，不想让我说。” 阿里娜没搭腔。她小心地折好五美元的票子和离婚证，然后放进怀里。贝内加·威德普从眼镜后用悲伤的两眼望着钞票消失。 他随之说出的话（正如他奔涌的思潮），要么使他同世上一大群富有同情心的人们并列在一起，要么使他同寥寥无几的金融大亨们分个座次。 “今晚的小屋将相当冷清，兰西，”他说。 兰西·比尔布罗望着坎伯兰群山，在阳光下，群山一片蔚蓝。 “我知道小屋会冷清，”他说，“但人家发疯要离婚，你不能留住人家呀。” “是别人要离婚，”阿里娜对着木凳说。“还有，没人要人家留下。” “没人说过不让人留下。” “从没有人说过让人留下。我想我最好就上路，上埃德兄弟家去。” “没人给那只旧钟上发条。” “要我跟你坐牛车去替你给钟上发条吗，兰西？” 山里人的脸上没有流露出情感。但他伸出一只大手，攥住阿里娜褐色的小手。她的灵魂在木然的脸上一闪，这张脸变得神圣起来。 “那些狗将不再给你添麻烦了，”兰西说。“我想我过去是没出息，不长进。阿里娜，你给钟上发条吧。” “我的心老是在那间木屋里，兰西，”她悄声说，“跟你在一起。我不会再发脾气了。我们走吧，兰西，太阳落山前，我们就能到家。” 当他俩向门口走去时，治安法官贝内加·威德普行使权力进行干预。这两口子竟忘记了他还在场。 “凭田纳西州的名义，”他说，“我不许你们俩公然蔑视本州的法律和法令。看见不和与误会的浓云从两颗相爱的心上飘走，这不仅是本庭的愿望，而且是本庭的极大愉快。但是，维护本州的道德和廉正是本庭的责任。本庭提醒你们，离婚已经正式判决，你们不再是夫妻，在此情况下，你们不再享有婚姻状况下的一切权益。” 阿里娜抓住兰西的胳膊。他们刚刚从生活中接受了教训，难道这些话是说她此刻还须失去他吗？ “不过，”治安法官继续说，“本庭准备着撤销离婚判决造成的障碍。本庭随时承办结婚的庄重仪式，准备着一切，以便使本案的双方能恢复那光荣高尚的婚姻状况，如愿以偿。说起仪式的承办费，将是，就本案而论，是五美元。” 阿里娜抓住他话中的希望。她的手飞快地伸进怀里。那张钞票就像一只从天而降的鸽子，自由地拍打着翅膀，落在治安法官的案头上。当她同兰西手拉手站着，听着重新结合的诺言时，她灰黄色的脸上泛起了血色。 兰西先扶她上了车，然后才爬上去坐在她身边。小红牛又一次转过弯，他们手握手，开始向群山进发。 治安法官贝内加·威德普在门口坐下，脱掉鞋子。他又一次伸手抚摸着塞在马甲口袋里的钞票，又一次抽起那只接骨木杆的烟斗。那只花斑母鸡又一次沿着“殖民地”的大街大摇大摆地走着，傻头傻脑地咯咯咯叫个不停。comments powered by Disqus