The Right of Way

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851

Mr. Edward Bolton had purchased a farm for himself, and taken possession thereof. Once, while examining the premises, before deciding to buy, he had observed a light wagon moving along on the extreme south edge of the tract of land included in the farm, but it had occasioned no remark. It was late in the afternoon when he arrived with his family at their new home. On the morning that followed, while Mr. Bolton stood conversing with a farm-hand who had been on the farm under the former owner, he observed the same vehicle passing across the portion of his land referred to.

"Whose wagon is that, Ben?" he asked, in the tone of a man who felt that another had trespassed upon his rights.

"It is Mr. Halpin's," was replied.

"Halpin--who owns the next farm?"

"Yes, sir."

"He takes a liberty with my premises, that I would not take with his," said Mr. Bolton, who was annoyed by the circumstance. "And there he is himself, as I live! riding along over my ground as coolly as if it belonged to him. Truly, some men have impudence!"

"They always go by that road," replied Ben; "at least, it has been so ever since I have worked on the farm. I think I once heard Mr. Jenkins, from whom you bought, tell somebody that Mr. Halpin's farm had the right of way across this one.

"The right of way across my farm!" exclaimed Mr. Bolton, with strongly-marked surprise. "We'll see about that! Come! go with me. I want to take a look at that part of my forty acres."

And Mr. Bolton strode off, accompanied by Ben, to take more particular note of the extreme south edge of his beautiful tract of land. The shape of this tract was somewhat in the form of a triangle, with the apex at the southern boundary, near the verge of which ran a stream of water. Beyond this stream was a narrow strip of ground, some thirty feet wide, bounded by the fence enclosing the land belonging to another owner; its length was not more than two hundred feet. It was along this strip of ground that Mr. Bolton had observed the wagon of Mr. Halpin pass. The gate opening upon his premises was at one end, and now, for the first time, he discovered that there was a gate at the other end, opening from his farm to that of Mr. Halpin, while the ground was cut up with numerous wheel-tracks.

"Upon my word!" said Mr. Bolton. "The right of way across my farm! we'll see about that! Ben, get four good rails and put them firmly into the gate-posts on Mr. Halpin's side. Throw the gate over into his field."

Ben looked confounded at this order.

"Do you understand me?" said Mr. Bolton.

"Yes, sir; but--"

"But what?"

"There's no other way for Mr. Halpin's folks to get to the public road."

"That's none of my business; they've no right to make a public highway of these premises. Did you hear what I said?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then let it be done!"

Ben muttered, as Mr. Bolton turned and marched away with long and hasty strides, "But if there isn't trouble before tomorrow morning, my name isn't Ben Johnson."

Before reaching his house, Mr. Bolton's excitement had cooled a trifle, and it came into his mind that possibly he might have acted a little hastily; but the order had been given to cut off the right of way, and he was not the man to "make back-tracks" in anything.

"Do you see that, Edward?" said Mrs. Bolton, as her husband entered the house, pointing to a table on which stood a pitcher of sweet cream and two pounds of fresh butter. "Mrs. Halpin sent these over, with her compliments, this morning; isn't it kind in her?"

Mrs. Bolton's countenance was glowing with pleasure.

"I always heard that she was a neighborly, good woman," added Mrs. Bolton.

"I don't think much of her husband," returned Mr. Bolton, coldly, as he passed from the room after pausing there for only a moment. He could not look at the lumps of golden butter and the pitcher of cream without feeling rebuked, and so he got away as quickly as possible.

"Have you done as I directed?" said Mr. Bolton, with knit brows, on meeting Ben, some time afterwards, returning from the part of the farm where he had left him.

"Yes, sir," was the answer of Ben.

"What did you do with the gate?"

"I threw it into the field, as you told me."

"You didn't break it?"

"No, sir."

"Very well."

"There'll be trouble, Mr. Bolton," said Ben.

"How do you know?"

"Mr. Halpin's a very determined man."

"So am I," replied Mr. Bolton.

"Mr. Dix says the right of way belongs to Mr. Halpin, and no mistake."

"When did he say so?"

"Just now. He came down from his house, when he saw me at work, and asked what I was doing; and when I told him, he said you were wrong, and would only get yourself into trouble; that Mr. Halpin's farm had the right of way through yours."

"Tell Mr. Dix, when you see him again, not to meddle in my affairs," replied Mr. Bolton. "I am entirely competent to manage them myself; I want no assistance."

As Mr. Bolton turned from Ben, on uttering this speech, he saw Mr. Dix, who owned another farm that adjoined his, approaching the place where he stood.

"I want none of his interference," muttered Bolton to himself. Then forcing a smile into his face, he met his neighbor with a pleasant greeting.

"You will excuse me," said Mr. Dix, after a few words had passed between them, "for a liberty I am about to take. I saw your man, a little while ago, closing up the gate that opens from your farm into Mr. Halpin's."

"Well?" Mr. Bolton's brows contracted heavily.

"Are you aware that his farm has the right of way through yours?"

"No, sir."

"Such, however, let me assure you, is the case. Mr. Halpin has no other avenue to the public road."

"That's his misfortune; but it gives him no license to trespass on my property."

"It is not a trespass, Mr. Bolton. He only uses a right purchased when he bought his farm, and one that he can and will sustain in the courts against you."

"Let him go to court, then. I bought this farm for my own private use, not as a public highway; no such qualification is embraced in the deed. The land is mine, and no one shall trespass upon it."

"But, Mr. Bolton," calmly replied the other, "in purchasing, you secured an outlet to the public road."

"Certainly I did; but not through your farm, nor that of anyone else."

"Halpin was not so fortunate," said Mr. Dix. "In buying his farm, he had to take it with a guarantied right of way across this one. There was no other outlet."

"It was not a guarantee against my ownership," doggedly replied Mr. Bolton.

"Pardon me for saying that in this you are in error," returned the other. "Originally both farms were in one; that was subsequently sold with a right of way across this."

"There is no such concession in the deed I hold," said Bolton.

"If you will take the trouble to make an examination in the clerk's office in the county court, you'll find it to be as I state."

"I don't care anything about how it was originally," returned Bolton, with the headiness of passionate men when excited. "I look only to how it is now. This is my farm; I bought it with no such concessions, and will not yield it unless by compulsion. I wouldn't be the owner of a piece of land that another man had the right to enter."

"That little strip of ground," said Mr. Dix, "which is of but trifling value, might be fenced off as a road. This would take away all necessity for entering your ground."

"What!" said Bolton, indignantly; "vacate the property I have bought and paid for? I am not quite so generous as that. If Mr. Halpin must have a right of way, let him obtain his right by purchase. I'll sell him a strip from off the south side of my farm, wide enough for a road, if that will suit him; but he shall not use one inch of my property as a common thoroughfare."

Mr. Dix still tried to argue the matter with Bolton, but the latter had permitted himself to get angry, and angry men are generally deaf as an adder to the voice of reason. So the neighbor, who called in the hope of turning the new occupant of the farm from his purpose, and thus saving trouble to both himself and Mr. Halpin, retired without effecting what he wished to accomplish.

It would be doing injustice to the feelings of Mr. Bolton to say, that he did not feel some emotions of regret for his precipitate action. But, having assumed so decided a position in the matter, he could not think of retracing a step that he had taken. Hasty and positive men are generally weak-minded, and this weakness usually shows itself in a pride of consistency. If they say a thing, they will persevere in doing it, right or wrong, for fear that others may think them vacillating, or, what they really are, weak-minded. Just such a man was Mr. Bolton.

"I've said it--and I'll do it!" That was one of his favorite expressions. And he repeated it to himself, now, to drive off the repentant feelings that came into his mind.

At dinner-time, when Mr. Bolton sat down to the table, he found, placed just before him, a pint of the golden butter sent to his wife on that very morning by Mrs. Halpin. The sight annoyed and reproved him. He felt that he had been hasty, unneighborly, and, it might be, unjust; for, as little gleams of reflection came breaking in one after another upon his mind, he saw that a right of way for Mr. Halpin was indispensable, and that if his deed gave it to him, it was a right of which he could not deprive him without acting unjustly. Passion and false reasonings would, it is true, quickly darken his mind again. But they had, in turn, to give place to more correct views and feelings.

"Just try some of that butter. It is delicious!" said Mrs. Bolton, soon after they were seated at the table.

"I don't care about butter at dinner-time," replied Mr. Bolton, coldly.

"But just try some of this. I want you to taste it," urged the wife. "Its flavor is delightful. I must go over and see Mrs. Halpin's dairy."

To satisfy his wife, Mr. Bolton took some of the butter on his plate. He would rather have thrown it out of the window.

"Now try it on a piece of bread," said Mrs. Bolton. "I declare! You act as if you were afraid of the butter. What's the matter with you?"

There was no reason why Mr. Bolton should not do as his wife wished--at least no reason that he could give to her. It wouldn't do to say--

"I won't touch Mrs. Halpin's butter, because I've cut off her husband's right of way across my land. I have nailed up the only outlet there is from his property to the public road."

No, it wouldn't do to say that. So, nothing was left for Mr. Bolton but to taste the delicious butter.

"Isn't it very fine?" said his wife, as she saw him place it to his lips.

"Yes, it's good butter," replied Mr. Bolton, "very good butter." Though, in fact, it was far from tasting pleasant to him.

"It's more than very good," said Mrs. Bolton, impatiently. "What has come over you? But wait a little while, and I'll give you something to quicken your palate. I've made some curds--you are so fond of them. If you don't praise the sweet cream Mrs. Halpin so kindly sent over this morning, when you come to eat these curds, I shall think--I don't know what I shall think."

The dinner proceeded, and, at length, the dessert, composed of curds and cream, was served.

"Isn't that delicious?" said Mrs. Bolton, as she poured some of the cream received from Mrs. Halpin into a saucer of curds, which she handed to her husband.

Bolton took the curds and ate them. Moreover, he praised the cream; for, how could he help doing so? Were not his wife's eyes on him, and her ears open? But never in his life had he found so little pleasure in eating.

"Do you know," said Mrs. Bolton, after she had served the curds and said a good deal in favor of the cream, "that I promise myself much pleasure in having such good neighbors? Mrs. Halpin I've always heard spoken of in the highest terms. She's a sister of Judge Caldwell, with whose family we were so intimate at Haddington."

"You must be in error about that."

"No. Mrs. Caldwell often spoke to me about her, and said that she had written to her sister that we talked of buying this farm."

"I never knew this before," said Mr. Bolton.

"Didn't you! I thought I had mentioned it."


"Well it's true. And, moreover, Mrs. Caldwell told me, before we left, that she had received a letter from her sister, in which she spoke of us, and in which she mentioned that her husband had often heard you spoken of by the judge, and promised himself great pleasure in your society."

Mr. Bolton pushed back his chair from the table, and, rising, left the room. He could not bear to hear another word.

"Is my horse ready, Ben?" said he, as he came into the open air.

"Yes, sir," replied Ben.

"Very well. Bring him around."

"Are you going now?" asked Mrs. Bolton, coming to the door, as Ben led up the horse.

"Yes. I wish to be home early, and so must start early."

And Bolton sprang into the saddle.

But for the presence of his wife, it is more than probable that he would have quietly directed Ben to go and rehang the gate, and thus re-establish Mr. Halpin's right of way through his premises. But, this would have been an exposure of himself to his better-half that he had not the courage to make. So he rode away. His purpose was to visit the city, which was three miles distant, on business. As he moved along in the direction of the gate through which he was to pass on his way to the turnpike, he had to go very near the spot where Ben had been at work in the morning. The unhinged gate lay upon the ground where, according to his directions, it had been thrown; and the place it formerly occupied was closed up by four strong bars, firmly attached to the posts.

Mr. Bolton didn't like the looks of this at all. But it was done; and he was not the man to look back when he had once undertaken to do a thing.

As he was riding along, just after passing from his grounds, he met Mr. Dix, who paused as Bolton came up.

"Well, neighbor," said the former in a tone of mild persuasion, "I hope you have thought better of the matter about which we were talking a few hours ago."

"About Halpin's right of way through my farm, you mean?"

"Yes. I hope you have concluded to reopen the gate, and let things remain as they have been, at least for the present. These offensive measures only provoke anger, and never do any good."

Bolton shook his head.

"He has no right to trespass on my premises," said he, sternly.

"As to the matter of right," replied Mr. Dix, "I think, the general opinion will be against you. By attempting to carry out your present purpose, you will subject yourself to a good deal of execration; which every man ought to avoid, if possible. And in the end, if the matter goes to court, you will not only have to yield this right of way, but be compelled to pay costs of suit and such damages as may be awarded against you for expense and trouble occasioned Mr. Halpin. Now let me counsel you to avoid all these consequences, if possible."

"Oh, you needn't suppose all this array of consequences will frighten me," said Mr. Bolton. "I don't know what fear is. I generally try to do right, and then go ahead."

"Still, Mr. Bolton," urged the neighbor mildly, "don't you think it would be wiser and better to see Mr. Halpin first, and explain to him how much you are disappointed at finding a right of way for another farm across the one you have purchased? I am sure some arrangement, satisfactory to both, can be made. Mr. Halpin, if you take him right, is not an unreasonable man. He'll do almost anything to oblige another. But he is very stubborn if you attempt to drive him. If he comes home and finds things as they now are, he will feel dreadfully outraged; and you will become enemies instead of friends."

"It can't be helped now," said Mr. Bolton. "What's done is done."

"It's not yet too late to undo the work," suggested Mr. Dix.

"Yes, it is. I'm not the man to make back-tracks. Good-day, Mr. Dix."

And speaking to his horse, Mr. Bolton started off at a brisk trot. He did not feel very comfortable. How could he? He felt that he had done wrong, and that trouble and mortification were before him. But a stubborn pride would not let him retrace a few wrong steps taken from a wrong impulse. To the city he went, transacted his business, and then turned his face homeward, with a heavy pressure upon his feelings.

"Ah me!" he sighed to himself, as he rode along. "I wish I had thought twice this morning, before I acted once. I needn't have been so hasty. But I was provoked to think that anyone claimed the right to make a public road through my farm. If I'd only known that Halpin was a brother-in-law to Judge Caldwell! That makes the matter so much worse."

And on rode Mr. Bolton, thinking only of the trouble he had so needlessly pulled down about his ears.

For the last mile of the way, there had been a gentleman riding along in advance of Mr. Bolton, and as the horse of the latter made a little the best speed, he gained on him slowly, until, just as he reached the point where the road leading to his farm left the turnpike, he came up with him.

"Mr. Bolton, I believe," said the gentleman, smiling, as both, in turning into the narrow lane, came up side by side.

"That is my name," was replied.

"And mine is Halpin," returned the other, offering his hand, which Mr. Bolton could but take, though not so cordially as would have been the case had the gate opening from his farm into Mr. Halpin's been on its hinges. "I have often heard my brother-in-law, Judge Caldwell, speak of you and your wife. We promise ourselves much pleasure in having you for neighbors. Mrs. Halpin and I will take a very early opportunity to call upon you. How is all your family?"

"Quite well, I thank you," replied Mr. Bolton, trying to appear polite and pleased, yet half averting his face from the earnest eyes of Mr. Halpin.

"We have had a beautiful day," said the latter, who perceived that, from some cause, Mr. Bolton was not at ease.

"Very beautiful," was the brief answer.

"You have been into the city," said Mr. Halpin, after a brief pause.

"Yes, I had some business that made it necessary for me to go into town."--Another silence.

"You have a beautiful farm. One of the finest in the neighborhood," said Mr. Halpin.

"Yes, it is choice land," returned the unhappy Mr. Bolton.

"The place has been a little neglected since the last occupant left," continued Mr. Halpin. "And since your purchase of it, some ill-disposed people have trespassed on the premises. Day before yesterday, as I was passing along the lower edge of your farm--you know that, through some ill-contrivance, my right of way to the public road is across the south edge of your premises. But we will talk of that some other time. It's not a good arrangement at all, and cannot but be annoying to you. I shall make some proposition, before long, about purchasing a narrow strip of ground and fencing it in as a road. But of that another time. We shall not quarrel about it. Well, as I was saying, day before yesterday, as I was passing along the lower edge of your farm, I saw a man deliberately break a large branch from a choice young plum-tree, in full blossom, near your house, that only came into bearing last year. I was terribly vexed about it, and rode up to remonstrate with him. At first, he seemed disposed to resent my interference with his right to destroy my neighbor's property. But, seeing that I was not in a temper to be trifled with, he took himself off. I then went back home, and sent one of my lads over, in company with a couple of good dogs, and put the property in their charge. I found all safe when I returned in the evening."

"It was kind in you--very kind!" returned Mr. Bolton. He could say no less. But, oh! how rebuked and dissatisfied he felt.

"About that right of way," he stammered out, after a brief silence, partly averting his eyes as he spoke. "I--I--"

"Oh, we'll not speak of that now," returned Mr. Halpin cheerfully. "Let's get better acquainted first."

"But, Mr. Halpin--I--I--"

They were now at the gate entering upon Mr. Bolton's farm, and the neighbor pushed it open, and held it for Bolton to pass through. Then, as it swung back on its hinges, he said, touching his hat politely--

"Good-day! Mrs. Halpin and I will call over very soon--perhaps this evening, if nothing interferes to prevent us. If we come, we shall do so without any ceremony. Make my compliments, if you please, to Mrs. Bolton."

"Thank you! Yes--yes! Mr. Halpin--I--I--Let me speak a--a--"

But Mr. Halpin had turned his horse's head, and was moving off towards the place of entrance to his own farm.

Poor Bolton! What was he to do? Never had he felt so oppressive a sense of shame--such deep humiliation. He had reined up his horse after passing through the gate, and there he still stood, undetermined, in the confusion of the moment, what to do. Briskly rode Mr. Halpin away; and only a few moments would pass before he discovered the outrage perpetrated against him, and that by a man for whom he had entertained the kindest feelings in advance, and even gone out of his way to serve.

"Oh, why did I act with such mad haste!" exclaimed Mr. Bolton, as he thought this, and saw but a moment or two intervening between him and the bitterest humiliation. He might repair the wrong, and, in his heart, he resolved to do it. But what could restore to him the good opinion of his neighbor? Nothing! That was gone forever.

So troubled, oppressed, and shame-stricken was Mr. Bolton, that he remained on the spot where Mr. Halpin had left him, looking after the latter until he arrived at the place where the obstruction had been thrown in his way. By this time, the very breath of Bolton was suspended. Unbounded was his surprise, as he observed Mr. Halpin leap from his horse, swing open the gate, and pass through. Had he seen aright? He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Mr. Halpin had closed the gate, and was on the other side, in the act of mounting his horse.

"Have I done right?" said a voice at this moment.

Bolton started, and, on looking around, saw Mr. Dix.

"Yes, you have done right!" he returned, with an emotion that he could not conceal. "And from my heart I thank you for this kind act. You have saved me from the consequences of a hasty, ill-judged, ill-natured act--consequences that would have been most painful. Oblige me still further Mr. Dix, by letting this matter remain with yourself, at least for the present. Before it comes to the ears of Mr. Halpin, I wish to let him see some better points in my character."

To this, Mr. Dix pledged himself. After repeating his thanks, Mr. Bolton rode away a wiser and a better man.

When Mr. Halpin, some weeks afterwards, made reference to the right of way across Mr. Bolton's land, and asked if he would not sell him a narrow strip on the south edge of his farm, to be fenced off for a road, the latter said--

"No, Mr. Halpin, I will not sell you the land; but as it is of little or no value to me, I will cheerfully vacate it for a road, if you are willing to run the fence."

And thus was settled, most amicably, a matter that bid fair, in the beginning, to result in a long and angry disputation, involving loss of money, time, and friendly relationships. Ever after, when disposed to act from a first angry impulse, Mr. Bolton's thoughts would turn to this right-of-way question, and he would become cool and rational in a moment.