Mississippi-born and Dartmouth-educated Ben Ames Williams published 38 novels and nearly 400 short stories in his lifetime, many of the latter appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. His stories were adapted into movies like The Strange Woman with Hedy Lamarr and Adventure’s End, starring John Wayne. Many of his stories take place in the fictional town of Fraternity, Maine. In “They Grind Exceeding Small,” a miserly lender goes about his cynical existence until he meets a shocking, ironic fate.
Published on September 13, 1919
I telephoned down the hill to Hazen Kinch. “Hazen,” I asked, “are you going to town today?” “Yes, yes,” he said abruptly in his quick, harsh fashion. “Of course I’m going to town.”
“I’ve a matter of business,” I suggested.
“Come along,” he invited brusquely. “Come along.”
There was not another man within 40 miles to whom he would have given that invitation.
“I’ll be down in 10 minutes,” I promised him; and I went to pull on my Pontiacs and heavy half boots over them and started downhill through the sandy snow. It was bitterly cold; it had been a cold winter. The bay — I could see it from my window — was frozen over for a dozen miles east and west and 30 north and south; and that had not happened in close to a score of years. Men were freighting across to the islands with heavy teams. Automobiles had beaten a rough road along the course the steamers took in summer. A man who had ventured to stock one of the lower islands with foxes for the sake of their fur, counting on the water to hold them prisoners, had gone bankrupt when his stock in trade escaped across the ice. Bitterly cold and steadily cold, and deep snow lay upon the hills, blue-white in the distance. The evergreens were blue-black blotches on this whiteness. The birches, almost indistinguishable, were like trees in camouflage. To me the hills are never so grand as in this winter coat they wear. It is easy to believe that a brooding God dwells upon them. I wondered as I plowed my way down to Hazen Kinch’s farm whether God did indeed dwell among these hills; and I wondered what He thought of Hazen Kinch.
This was no new matter of thought with me. I had given some thought to Hazen in the past. I was interested in the man and in that which should come to him. He was, it seemed to me, a problem in fundamental ethics; he was, as matters stood, a demonstration of the essential unrightness of things as they are. The biologist would have called him a sport, a deviation from type, a violation of all the proper laws of life. That such a man should live and grow great and prosper was not fitting; in a well-regulated world it could not be. Yet Hazen Kinch did live; he had grown — in his small way — great; and by our lights he had prospered. Therefore I watched him. There was about the man the fascination which clothes a tightrope walker above Niagara; an æronaut in the midst of the nose dive. The spectator stares with half-caught breath, afraid to see and afraid to miss seeing the ultimate catastrophe. Sometimes I wondered whether Hazen Kinch suspected this attitude on my part. It was not impossible. There was a cynical courage in the man; it might have amused him. Certainly I was the only man who had in any degree his confidence.
I have said there was not another within 40 miles whom he would have given a lift to town; I doubt if there was another man anywhere for whom he would have done this small favor.
He seemed to find a mocking sort of pleasure in my company.
When I came to his house he was in the barn harnessing his mare to the sleigh. The mare was a good animal, fast and strong. She feared and she hated Hazen. I could see her roll her eyes backward at him as he adjusted the traces. He called to me without turning:
“Shut the door! Shut the door! Damn the cold!”
I slid the door shut behind me. There was within the barn the curious chill warmth which housed animals generate to protect themselves against our winters.
“It will snow,” I told Hazen. “I was not sure you would go.”
He laughed crookedly, jerking at the trace.
“Snow!” he exclaimed. “A man would think you were personal manager of the weather. Why do you say it will snow?”
“The drift of the clouds — and it’s warmer,” I told him.
“I’ll not have it snowing,” he said, and looked at me and cackled. He was a little, thin, old man with meager whiskers and a curious precision of speech; and I think he got some enjoyment out of watching my expression at such remarks as this. He elaborated his assumption that the universe was conducted for his benefit, in order to see my silent revolt at the suggestion. “I’ll not have it snowing,” he said. “Open the door.”
He led the mare out and stopped by the kitchen door.
“Come in,” he said. “A hot drink.”
I went with him into the kitchen. His wife was there, and their child. The woman was lean and frail; and she was afraid of him. The countryside said he had taken her in payment of a bad debt. Her father had owed him money which he could not pay.
“I decided it was time I had a wife,” Hazen used to say to me.
The child was on the floor. The woman had a drink of milk and egg and rum, hot and ready for us. We drank, and Hazen knelt beside the child. A boy baby, not yet two years old. It is an ugly thing to say, but I hated this child. There was an evil malevolence in his baby eyes. I have sometimes thought the gray devils must have left just such hate-bred babes as this in France. Also, he was deformed — a twisted leg: The women of the neighborhood sometimes said he would be better dead. But Hazen Kinch loved him. He lifted him in his arms now with a curious passion in his movement, and the child stared at him sullenly. When the mother came near the baby squalled at her, and Hazen said roughly:
“Stand away! Leave him alone!”
She moved back furtively; and Hazen asked me, displaying the child: “A fine boy, eh?”
I said nothing, and in his cracked old voice he mumbled endearments to the baby. I had often wondered whether his love for the child redeemed the man; or merely made him vulnerable. Certainly any harm that might come to the baby would be a crushing blow to Hazen.
He put the child down on the floor again and he said to the woman curtly: “Tend him well.” She nodded. There was a dumb submission in her eyes; but through this blank veil I had seen now and then a blaze of pain.
Hazen went out of the door without further word to her, and I followed him. We got into the sleigh, bundling ourselves into the robes for the six-mile drive along the drifted road to town. There was a feeling of storm in the air. I looked at the sky and so did Hazen Kinch. He guessed what I would have said and he answered me before I could speak.
“I’ll not have it snowing,” he said, and leered at me.
Nevertheless, I knew the storm would come. The mare turned out of the barnyard and plowed through a drift and struck hard-packed road. Her hoofs beat a swift tattoo; our runners sang beneath us. We dropped to the little bridge and across and began the mile-long climb to the top of Rayborn Hill. The road from Hazen’s house to town is compounded of such ups and downs.
At the top of the hill we paused for a moment to breathe the mare; paused just in front of the big old Rayborn house, that has stood there for more years than most of us remember. It was closed and shuttered and deserted; and Hazen dipped his whip toward it and said meanly:
“An ugly, improvident lot, the Rayborns were.”
I had known only one of them — the eldest son. A fine man, I had thought him. Picking apples in his orchard, he fell one October and broke his neck. His widow tried to make a go of the place, but she borrowed of Hazen and he had evicted her this three months back. It was one of the lesser evils he had done. I looked at the house and at him, and he clucked to the mare and we dipped down into the steep valley below the hill.
The wind had a sweep in that valley and there was a drift of snow across it and across the road. This drift was well packed by the wind, but when we drove over its top our left-hand runner broke through the coaming and we tumbled into the snow, Hazen and I. We were well entangled in the rugs. The mare gave a frightened start, but Hazen had held the reins and the whip so that she could not break away. and set it upon the road again. I remember that it was becoming bitter cold and the sun was no longer shining. There was a steel-gray veil drawn across the bay.
When the sleigh was upright Hazen went forward and stood beside the mare. Some men, blaming the beast without reason, would have beaten her. They would have cursed, cried out upon her. That was not the cut of Hazen Kinch. But I could see that he was angry and I was not surprised when he reached up and gripped the horse’s ear. He pulled the mare’s head down and twisted the ear viciously. All in a silence that was deadly.
The mare snorted and tried to rear back and Hazen clapped the butt of his whip across her knees. She stood still, quivering, and he wrenched at her ear again.
“Now,” he said softly, “keep the road.”
And he returned and climbed to his place beside me in the sleigh. I said nothing. I might have interfered, but something had always impelled me to keep back my hand from Hazen Kinch.
We drove on and the mare was lame. Though Hazen pushed her, we were slow in coming to town and before we reached Hazen’s office the snow was whirling down — a pressure of driving, swirling flakes like a heavy white hand.
I left Hazen at the stair that led to his office and I went about my business of the day. He said as I turned away:
“Be here at 3.”
I nodded. But I did not think we should drive home that afternoon. I had some knowledge of storms.
That which had brought me to town was not engrossing. I found time to go to the stable and see Hazen’s mare. There was an ugly welt across her knees and some blood had flowed. The stablemen had tended the welt, and cursed Hazen in my hearing. It was still snowing, and the stable boss, looking out at the driving flakes, spat upon the ground and said to me:
“Them legs’ll go stiff. That mare won’t go home tonight.”
“I think you are right,” I agreed.
“The white-whiskered skunk!” he said, and I knew he spoke of Hazen.
At a quarter of 3 I took myself to Hazen Kinch’s office. It was not much of an office; not that Hazen could not have afforded a better. But it was up two flights — an attic room ill lighted. A small air-tight stove kept the room stifling hot. The room was also air-tight. Hazen had a table and two chairs, and an iron safe in the corner. He put a pathetic trust in that safe. I believe I could have opened it with a screwdriver. I met him as I climbed the stairs. He said harshly:
“I’m going to telephone. They say the road’s impassable.”
He had no telephone in his office; he used one in the store below. A small economy fairly typical of Hazen.
“I’ll wait in the office,” I told him.
“Go ahead,” he agreed, halfway down the stairs.
I went up to his office and closed the drafts of the stove — it was red-hot — and tried to open the one window, but it was nailed fast. Then Hazen came back up the stairs grumbling.
“Damn the snow!” he said. “The wire is down.”
“Where to?” I asked.
“My house, man! To my house!”
“You wanted to telephone home that you — ”
“I can’t get home tonight. You’ll have to go to the hotel.”
I nodded good-naturedly.
“All right. You, too, I suppose.”
“I’ll sleep here,” he said.
I looked round. There was no bed, no cot, nothing but the two stiff chairs. He saw my glance and said angrily: “I’ve slept on the floor before.”
I was always interested in the man’s mental processes.
“You wanted to telephone Mrs. Kinch not to worry?” I suggested.
“Pshaw, let her fret!” said Hazen. “I wanted to ask after my boy.” His eyes expanded, he rubbed his hands a little, cackling. “A fine boy, sir! A fine boy!”
It was then we heard Doan Marshey coming up the stairs. We heard his stumbling steps as he began the last flight and Hazen seemed to cock his ears as he listened. Then he sat still and watched the door. The steps climbed nearer; they stopped in the dim little hall outside the door and someone fumbled with the knob. When the door opened we saw who it was. I knew Marshey. He lived a little beyond Hazen on the same road. Lived in a two-room cabin — it was little more — with his wife and his five children; lived meanly and pitiably, groveling in the soil for daily bread, sweating life out of the earth — life and no more. A thin man, racking thin; a forward-thrusting neck and a bony face and a sad and drooping mustache about his mouth. His eyes were meek and weary.
He stood in the doorway blinking at us; and with his gloved hands — they were stiff and awkward with the cold — he unwound the ragged muffler that was about his neck and he brushed weakly at the snow upon his head and his shoulders. Hazen said angrily:
“Come in! Do you want my stove to heat the town?”
Doan shuffled in and he shut the door behind him. He said: “Howdy, Mr. Kinch.” And he smiled in a humble and placating way.
Hazen said: “What’s your business? Your interest is due.”
“Yeah. I know, Mr. Kinch. I cain’t pay it all.”
Kinch exclaimed impatiently: “An old story! How much can you pay?”
“Eleven dollars and 50 cents,” said Doan.
“You owe 20.”
“I aim to pay it when the hens begin to lay.”
Hazen laughed scornfully.
“You aim to pay! Damn you, Marshey, if your old farm was worth taking I’d have you out in this snow, you old scamp!”
Doan pleaded dully: “Don’t you do that, Mr. Kinch! I aim to pay.”
Hazen clapped his hand on the table.
“Rats! Come! Give me what you’ve got! And Marshey, you’ll have to get the rest. I’m sick of waiting on you.”
Marshey came shuffling toward the table. Hazen was sitting with the table between him and the man and I was a little behind Hazen at one side. Marshey blinked as he came nearer, and his weak nearsighted eyes turned from Hazen to me. I could see that the man was stiff with the cold.
When he came to the table in front of Hazen he took off his thick gloves. His hands were blue. He laid the gloves on the table and reached into an inner pocket of his torn coat and drew out a little cloth pouch and he fumbled into this and I heard the clink of coins. He drew out two quarters and laid them on the table before Hazen, and Hazen picked them up. I saw that Marshey’s fingers moved stiffly; I could almost hear them creak with the cold. Then he reached into the pouch again.
Something dropped out of the mouth of the little cloth bag and fell soundlessly on the table. It looked to me like a bill, a piece of paper currency. I was about to speak, but Hazen without an instant’s hesitation had dropped his hand on the thing and drawn it unostentatiously toward him. When he lifted his hand the money — if it was money — was gone.
Marshey drew out a little roll of worn bills. Hazen took them out of his hand and counted them swiftly.
“All right,” he said. “Eleven-fifty. I’ll give you a receipt. But you mind me, Doan Marshey, you get the rest before the month’s out. I’ve been too slack with you.”
Marshey, his dull eyes watching Hazen write the receipt, was folding the little pouch and putting it away. Hazen tore off the bit of paper and gave it to him. Doan took it and he said humbly: “Thank’e, sir.”
“Mind now,” he exclaimed, and Marshey said: “I’ll do my best, Mr. Kinch.”
Then he turned and shuffled across the room and out into the hall and we heard him descending the stairs.
When he was gone I asked Hazen casually: “What was it that, he dropped upon the table?”
“A dollar,” said Hazen promptly. “A dollar bill. The miserable fool!”
Hazen’s mental processes were always of interest to me.
“You mean to give it back to him?” I asked.
He stared at me and he laughed. “No! If he can’t take care of his own money — that’s why he is what he is.”
“Still it is his money.”
“He owes me more than that.”
“Going to give him credit for it?”
“Am I a fool?” Hazen asked me. “Do I look like so much of a fool?”
“He may charge you with finding it.”
“He loses a dollar; I find one. Can he prove ownership? Pshaw!” Hazen laughed again.
“If there is any spine in him he will lay the thing to you as a theft,” I suggested. I was not afraid of angering Hazen. He allowed me open speech; he seemed to find a grim pleasure in my distaste for him and for his way of life.
“If there were any backbone in the man he would not be paying me 80 dollars a year on a 500-dollar loan — discounted.”
Hazen grinned at me triumphantly.
“I wonder if he will come back,” I said.
“Besides,” Hazen continued, “he lied to me. He told me the 11.50 was all he had.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “There is no doubt he lied to you.”
Hazen had a letter to write and he bent to it. I sat by the stove and watched him and considered. He had not yet finished the letter when we heard Marshey returning. His dragging feet on the stair were unmistakable. At the sound of his weary feet some tide of indignation surged up in me.
I was minded to do violence to Hazen Kinch. But — a deeper impulse held my hand from the man.
Marshey came in and his weary eyes wandered about the room. They inspected the floor; they inspected me; they inspected Hazen Kinch’s table, and they rose at last humbly to Hazen Kinch.
“Well?” said Hazen.
“I lost a dollar,” Marshey told him. “I ‘lowed I might have dropped it here.” Hazen frowned.
“You told me 11.50 was all you had.”
“This here dollar wa’n’t mine.”
The money-lender laughed.
“Likely! Who would give you a dollar? You lied to me; or you’re lying now. I don’t believe you lost a dollar.”
Marshey reiterated weakly: “I lost a dollar.”
“Well,” said Hazen, “there’s no dollar of yours here.”
“It was to git medicine,” Marshey said. “It wa’n’t mine.”
Hazen Kinch exclaimed: “By God, I believe you’re accusing me!”
Marshey lifted both hands placatingly.
“No, Mr. Kinch. No, sir.” His eyes once more wandered about the room. “Mebbe I dropped it in the snow,” he said.
He turned to the door. Even in his slow shuffle there was a hint of trembling eagerness to escape. He went out and down the stairs. Hazen looked at me, his old face wrinkling mirthfully.
“You see?” he said.
I left him a little later and went out into the street. On the way to the hotel I stopped for a cigar at the drug store. Marshey was there, talking with the druggist.
I heard the druggist say: “No, Marshey, I’m sorry. I’ve been stung too often.”
Marshey nodded humbly.
“I didn’t ‘low you’d figure to trust me,” he agreed. “It’s all right. I didn’t ‘low you would.”
It was my impulse to give him the dollar he needed, but I did not do it. An overpowering compulsion bade me keep my hands off in this matter. I did not know what I expected but I felt the imminence of the fates. When I went out into the snow it seemed to me the groan of the gale was like the slow grind of millstones, one upon the other.
I thought long upon the matter of Hazen Kinch before sleep came that night.
Toward morning the snow must have stopped; and the wind increased and carved the drifts till sunrise, then abruptly died. I met Hazen at the post office at 10 and he said: “I’m starting home.”
I asked: “Can you get through?”
“I will get through,” he told me.
“You’re in haste.”
“I want to see that boy of mine,” said Hazen Kinch. “A fine boy, man! A fine boy!”
“I’m ready,” I said.
When we took the road the mare was limping. But she seemed to work out the stiffness in her knees and after a mile or so of the hard going she was moving smoothly enough. We made good time.
The day, as often happens after a storm, was full of blinding sunlight. The glare of the sun upon the snow was almost unbearable. I kept my eyes all but closed, but there was so much beauty abroad in the land that I could not bear to close them altogether. The snow clung to twigs and to fences and to wires, and a thousand flames glinted from every crystal when the sun struck down upon the drifts. The pine wood upon the eastern slope of Rayborn Hill was a checkerboard of rich color. Green and blue and black and white, indescribably brilliant. When we crossed the bridge at the foot of the hill we could hear the brook playing beneath the ice that sheathed it. On the white pages of the snow wild things had writ here and there the fine-traced tale of their morning’s adventuring. We saw once where a fox had pinned a big snowshoe rabbit in a drift. Hazen talked much of that child of his on the homeward way. I said little. From the top of the Rayborn Hill we sighted his house and he laid the whip along the mare and we went down that last long descent at a speed that left me breathless. I shut my eyes and huddled low in the robes for protection against the bitter wind, and I did not open them again till we turned into Hazen’s barnyard, plowing through the unpacked snow.
When we stopped Hazen laughed.
“Ha!” he said. “Now, come in, man, and warm yourself and see the baby! A fine boy!”
He was ahead of me at the door; I went in upon his heels. We came into the kitchen together.
Hazen’s kitchen was also living room and bedroom in the cold of winter. The arrangement saved firewood. There was a bed against the wall opposite the door. As we came in a woman got up stiffly from this bed and I saw that this woman was Hazen’s wife. But there was a change in her. She was bleak as cold iron and she was somehow strong.
Hazen rasped at this woman impatiently: “Well, I’m home! Where is the boy?”
She looked at him and her lips moved soundlessly. She closed them, opened them again. This time she was able to speak.
“The boy?” she said to Hazen. “The boy is dead!”
The dim-lit kitchen was very quiet for a little time. I felt myself breathe deeply, almost with relief. The thing for which I had waited — it had come. And I looked at Hazen Kinch.
He had always been a little thin man. He was shrunken now and very white and very still. Only his face twitched. A muscle in one cheek jerked and jerked and jerked at his mouth. It was as though he controlled a desire to smile. That jerking, suppressed smile upon his white and tortured countenance was terrible. I could see the blood drain down from his forehead, down from his cheeks. He became white as death itself.
After a little he tried to speak. I do not know what he meant to say. But what he did was to repeat — as though he had not heard her words — the question which he had flung at her in the beginning. He said huskily: “Where is the boy?”
She looked toward the bed and Hazen looked that way; and then he went across to the bed with uncertain little steps. I followed him. I saw the little twisted body there. The woman had been keeping it warm with her own body. It must have been in her arms when we came in. The tumbled coverings, the crushed pillows spoke mutely of a ferocious intensity of grief.
Hazen looked down at the little body. He made no move to touch it, but I heard him whisper to himself: “Fine boy.”
After a while he looked at the woman. She seemed to feel an accusation in his eyes. She said: “I did all I could.”
He asked: “What was it?”
I had it in me — though I had reason enough to despise the little man — to pity Hazen Kinch.
“He coughed,” said the woman. “I knew it was croup. You know I asked you to get the medicine — ipecac. You said no matter — no need — and you had gone.”
She looked out of the window.
“I went for help — to Anne Marshey. Her babies had had it. Her husband was going to town and she said he would get the medicine for me. She did not tell him it was for me. He would not have done it for you. He did not know. So I gave her a dollar to give him — to bring it out to me.
“He came home in the snow last night. Baby was bad by that time, so I was watching for Doan. I stopped him in the road and I asked for the medicine. When he understood he told me. He had not brought it.”
The woman was speaking dully, without emotion.
“It would have been in time, even then,” she said. “But after a while, after that baby died.”
I understood in that moment the working of the mills. And when I looked at Hazen Kinch I saw that he, too, was beginning to understand. There is a just mercilessness in an aroused God. Hazen Kinch was driven to questions.
“Why — didn’t Marshey fetch it?” he asked.
She said slowly: “They would not trust him — at the store.”
His mouth twitched, he raised his hands.
“The money!” he cried. “The money! What did he do with that?”
“He said,” the woman answered, “that he lost it — in your office; lost the money there.”
After a little the old money-lender leaned far back like a man wrenched with agony. His body was contorted, his face was terrible. His dry mouth opened wide. He screamed!
Halfway up the hill to my house I stopped to look back and all round. The vast hills in their snowy garments looked down upon the land, upon the house of Hazen Kinch. Still and silent and inscrutable. I knew now that a just and brooding God dwelt among these hills.