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A WINK, AND WHAT CAME OF IT.
A JOLLY soul was old Joe Barney, who used to drive the regular stage from L-to Joppa Village, away up back among the hills in New Hampshire. Popular belief admits that all the stage-driving fraternity are jolly men, in the abstract; but Joe was not only professionally, but personally and individually, a good fellow. Right side up you always found him, and ready as the next man to crack a joke, smoke a pipe, or cultivate an “alf-and-'alf.' When he laughed, he did the neighborhood more good than a peddler's cart full of tonics ; and as shaking his sides was tantamount to getting a respectable part of two hundred and thirty odd pounds into violent motion, you see at a glance that it was no ordinary operation. He could have smoked a Heidelberg student blind, and as to stowing away anti-freezing mixtures, Joe himself used to affirm that,
on that 'ar one pint he'd like to see the feller as could drive a stronger team, that's all.'
If Joe Barney was looked up to as a man of parts, when he stood among the circle of his admirers, in the low-studded, begrimed old office of the public-house at L or in the half-dozen country stores, which did the usual comprehensive traffic along the route, he became a 'king of men,' a Wallenstein or a Napoleon, when once mounted upon the throne of his coachbox. Perfectly capable of occupying quite all of the available space upon the cushioned seat, he held his four-in-hand with an air of triumph over the big, strong horses, that pawed the ground, impatient, yet dared not stir, even in the slackened rein, without his bidding; over the confiding passengers, who carried on their countenances a sum of gratitude and praise for the protection of such a skilful knight, to be paid in addition to the regular fare; and triumph, above all, over the common crowd of humanity, who are always found clustering about the mail-stage, to envy the good fortune of those that travel about and see the world. When fairly started on the road, none drove faster yet more carefully; so fearlessly yet with better-timed mercy toward the breathing machines that worked for him ; in a word, none with more professional skill.
Every occupation has its little incidents to redeem it from monotony. Even in hammering stone, you sometimes get a bit in your eye or in your neighbor's. So our hero did not set down the years he had passed in the service of the public as altogether a blank period of existence. He had sense enough to stand up for the honor of his business, and contentment enough to maintain that there was nothin' like going over the road for all the comforts and all the enjoyments of life. Mr. Barney was never known to sigh for a fortune and a life of ease; or to lie awake nights, picturing out the luxuries of an office under the General Government, with plenty of pay and nothing to do.
But Mr. Barney sighed, and Mr. B., moreover, lay awake for nights together. There was evidently something on his mind. Something had gone wrong, or had n't gone at all, or else was all ready to turn out in a way most damaging to Mr. Barney's prospects. Had his favorite leader grieved him by unruly conduct? Had a faithful patron been overlooked on the route ? Could it be possible that the conveyance itself had met with harm broke an axle, or lost a wheel, or, horrible to contemplate ! had tumbled over complete into some way-side ditch? Or had the madness of speculation, that then ruled the hour, run an air-line of rail-road clean along the route, that had so long been sacred to comfort and safety? It was indeed a fair presumption, that this extraordinary man might properly have attained to the fever-heat of excitement, over any one of these calamities. But in justice to his Spartan fortitude, it should be distinctly understood, that it was not one, nor a combination of all of these, that had disturbed Joe Barney's peace of mind, and given alarm to a host of Joe Barney's watchful friends.
and I have Barney's word for it. and it was with a groan that he confessed it, and perhaps you will smile, as I did, reader it was THAT WINK. What wink? Whose wink? That's what I asked Joe, and that's what Joe was all adrift about, and that's what I shall presently go adrift about, too, if I don't go on another tack.
'What time is it, my dear ?' asked the widow Hilgar rather smartly, and with not a little impatience, of Miss Jane Atkins, whose board and lodging by strict interpretation stood for services as Mrs. Hilgar's house-maid; but whose kindly disposition, superior age, and administrative talent, gave her plenary powers in the capacity of the widow's elder sister.
'It wants five minutes of the hour, Sarah, and I hope that blessed concern will be along soon, if it's coming at all. Lor! how you do fuss and worry about that bundle!'
'It is n't the bundle, Jane — that is, I mean I would n't miss those papers for the world, but I want to see Mr. Barney. Let me see, he ought to certainly to be round the corner by the willows by this time.'
"Oh! I dare say,' returned the too-familiar Miss Atkins, with as sharp an edge as she could give to the words, 'I dare say you do want to see Mr. Barney ;
all the ladies like to see him, if he is an old bachelor except me; I'm sure I would n't stir from here to see him, if I could be hired to, this blessed moment. And he wants to see you, of course, or else he would n't be coming in such a hurry now, I reckon.' And Miss Atkins a little belied her words by running to the window, and pointing down the road, where the coach had just come into sight, with an extra load of boxes, trunks, and passengers, jolting about promiscuously on the top, and the gentleman who figures so largely in the conversation, in a scientific posture on the box in front, looking as happy as a five-year-old on a rocking-horse.
The pretty widow somehow did not mind at all the intimation which seemed to lurk in her house-maid's reply, but tripped out upon the lawn in front, to give the flying conveyance a signal to stop. But none was needed. The horses, as if by instinct, came thundering over the short plank bridge that crossed the brook, and with a graceful sweep from the main road, brought the coach to a halt in front of the cottage-door.
'So you have a heavy load to-day, Mr. Barney; and have n't you something for me, Sir ?' asked the widow with one of her sweetest smiles, scanning each of the passengers in turn, and gazing into Joe's face all the time.
“Yes, mem,' replied that individual, taking off his hat, and rubbing his forehead violently with a yellow and red handkerchief, that looked like the Spanish and British ensigns mixed in together. · Here is a little bundle, as I took precious care on, knowin' as it deserved it; and,' he continued, evidently with an idea that he was progressing toward a climax, 'I may say, mem, was entitled to it.'
And with this, which was meant for the most delicate of compliments, Mr. Barney proceeded to extricate from beneath the seat a small parcel, neatly tied up, and sealed with wax, which he handed off to the widow in the most gracious manner possible.
* You are very kind, Mr. Barney ; very kind indeed, I am sure,' and she smiled again, as if to suggest: ‘Don't you think it well worth driving for miles, under the broiling sun, to get such a reward as this ?' And Mr. Barney looked as though she had really said the words, and as if he were trying to reply, 'Yes, certainly, mem;' and so he could n't help looking very foolish, and then he put on his hat, gathered up the reins, and looked over his shoulder at Miss Jane Atkins, who was standing in the door-way laughing in the most provoking and wanton manner, so that Mr. Barney did n't like to stare at her broad grins, but stole a last glance at the widow. Mrs. Hilgar, half-sad and half-merry, gave Joe Barney a WINK. At least Joe Barney said so, and he could n't understand it. Crack went the whip, and away flew the stage — was the driver beside himself ? — up the long steep hill, which always before it had been the inalienable right of horse-flesh to plod over at their ease.
'I wonder how it is ?' muttered the astonished Barney to himself, gazing anxiously that evening upon a kindly mug of ale, as though he expected to get some slight information from that quarter. Whatever it is, is more 'n I can fathom. I do n't know as I'm aware of ever having done any thing particular as could warrant it, and yet it won't stand to natur' that it's all for nothin'. What's more 'n all is that direction as was on the package, which I could take my oath on :
For MRS. HILGAR,
P. S. - In haste. Robson says that Mr. BARNEY will make you a fair proposal in a day or two. You must take him up on it. All's working right.
Now, who's Robson? I'd like to know. Do n't know any such man in the town. The package mebbe came through from beyond.
He's a low, good-for-nothin', skulkin' feller ; thinks he's a knowin' chap, do n't he? I do n't know nothin' about handlin' my own team, do I ? and have to get Robson to show me! Them's my observations. I ray-ther think,' continued the speaker slowly, as he took a pull at the home-brewed, 'that the widder an't got
Barney yet, with all her calculations, and winkin' and smilin'. That must be the idea. Now, if it ha' been Miss Jane, you know, that would ha' been different, entirely something else — for I might as well own, that I allers did think considerable of that ’ar Jane, as a gal. But I could n't never dare to be social with the widder, you see; but for her, a fine lady as she is, to go and ah! I do n't understand it,' and Joe got all adrift again, and so concluded with the same sentiment that he began with, working himself into a mental perturbation that was fearful to witness.
And he continued to think it over, and to speculate and observe,' and his happy face was gone, and dark care' sat with him, as the poet places it behind the horseman. It was indeed an abstruse problem. He could n't see the bearings of it. He was lost in the recesses of his own imagination ; that is to say, he was half-crazy, and the other half quite the same thing; troubled about
in fact about two, he did n't know which. Four days had passed since the extraordinary connivance had taken place, and Sunday had come. Joe had watched with eagerness each time he drove by the widow's cottage, but not a glimpse of the inmates did he catch, not a glance of the eye that had worked him such discomfort and torture. Mr. Barney, whose peculiar desire was always that of penetrating to the real cause of phenomena, was well determined that justice to his own miserable condition demanded that he should at once repair to the author of his troubles, and seek proper explanation. Neatly ensconced in a blue coat of the rarest glossiness, with buttons that shone like golden mirrors ; pants of the same cerulean shade, and a vest of buff, (in fact, a 'blue and gold' edition of humanity ;) he put on a nicely-brushed white hat, that was the very text-book of careful keeping; and taking a short thick cane under his arm, turned his steps in the direction of Joppa-Hill Cottage, just about three-quarters of a mile distant.
* Yes, that's what I'll do,' says the determined man to himself, accompanying the words with a firmer grasp upon his stick, and the shaking of his head at almost every point of the compass. • Widders are allers cutting and fixing and contriving, and think themselves mighty cunning, but I reckon I can knock all her plans in the head.' Possibly he might have taken that club of a cane along with him for some such sanguinary purpose ; but at any rate, he continued : ‘Proposals from Joe Barney! Ha, ha ! There mebbe proposals made in that house this arternoon, I do n't say that there won't; but I can observe one thing, that if I do happen to slip a word into Jane Atkins' ear, it won't be altogether 'cause I do n't want to spite people as set their traps on an honest man--and them people widders.'
'Lor sakes, there comes Mr. Barney, the stage-driver, as sure as I am a sinner,' exclaimed Miss Jane Atkins with a confidence that from her original and forcible manner of statement, could not by any possible supposition be open to misapprehension ! 'I wonder what on earth possesses him to travel down here of a Sabbath-day! My gracious, do n't he look gay in that splendid coat of his, and -- why he's looking as sober as a blackbird.' Miss Jane Atkins, like a good many people, found her stock of comparisons rather meagre, just then, when most needed.
Mr. Barney was not much accustomed to walking, and under a load of mental perplexity, his rolling gait, as he turned in from the road, awakened not a little surprise in the Hilgar establishment. He knocked at the door with a feeble attempt at boldness, which told every body within hearing the extent of his nervous agitation. He was admitted by the buxom house-maid, who had got all ready the same horrid grin which had so nonplused the poor man the last time he had seen her. She was the very picture of health and contentment, and set off by her best attire, was fair enough to storm far stronger furtifications than those under Joe Barney's waistcoat. Now, she had more than half an idea that Mr. Barney's Sunday toggery might have been called into active service partly on her account; and Mr. Barney himself, of course, had his own special opinion beside upon the subject.
But that gentleman had presence of mind enough to recal some slight circumstances connected with the mistress of the house; and as he had always believed that the straight line was the nearest road to any desired point, he removed his broad-brimmed hat in a gentle and soothing manner, and looked down into its depths, as if addressing the American eagle that glittered with all the conventional amount of 'spread' below.
‘Miss Jane Atkins, I allers tho't a good deal of you as a gal, but it is your missis as I wants to see this arternoon, and as it's an article of considerable value as I wants to observe about, it would be convenient for you to tell her as I wants to see her, that is,' concluded the speaker with characteristic delicacy, 'allers provided as she was willing to allow of it.'
The house-maid drew a long breath, and looked straight into Mr. Barney's face with such determination, that she brought his eyes out of the business of gazing into his hat-lining, and got him to look directly at her. Could Joseph Barney, Esq., be deceived ? Was he metaphysically obfuscated ? He thought not. Yet, there was the fact palpable enough. The individual before him was archly and very deliberately winking at him!
“Good heavens!' thought the astounded man to himself, are all the women-folks arter me?'
With his feelings under as much control as could reasonably be expected, he walked into the front sitting-room, where he was greeted with a pleasant • Good afternoon, Sir,' from the widow Hilgar. Our friend went right to work, evidently proceeding upon a regular plan, well-digested and committed to memory; the fruit of many toilsome hours, the dictate half of duty and half of the tender passion, no matter in what direction. He withdrew to a corner of the neat little parlor, where he carefully deposited his hat and walking-stick, and then coming slowly forward, as if to get well into range, he threw up his arm, like an old-fashioned well-sweep, and commenced a series of winks and grins, which he had no doubt calculated would prove highly magnetic in their action.
So ho, mem,' chuckled the animated knight of the whip.