CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
Author of The Call of the Cumberlands, Etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Copyright, 1916, by W.J. Watt & Company
OTHER BOOKS BY CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
THE KEY TO YESTERDAY THE LIGHTED MATCH THE PORTAL OF DREAMS THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS THE BATTLE CRY THE CODE OF THE MOUNTAINS
THE LAND OF PROMISE
Outside the subtle clarion of autumn's dying glory flamed in the torches of the maples and smoldered in the burgundy of the oaks. It trailed a veil of rose-ash and mystery along the slopes of the White Mountains, and inside the crumbling school-house the children droned sleepily over their books like prisoners in a lethargic mutiny.
Frost had brought the chestnuts rattling down in the open woods, and foraging squirrels were scampering among the fallen leaves.
Brooding at one of the front desks, sat a boy, slender and undersized for his thirteen years. The ill-fitting crudity of his neatly patched clothes gave him a certain uniformity with his fellows, yet left him as unlike them as all things else could conspire to make him. The long hair that hung untrimmed over his face seemed a black emphasis for the cameo delicacy of his features, lending them a wan note of pathos. On his thin temples, bluish veins traced the hall-mark of an over-sensitive nature, and eyes that were deep pools of somberness gazed out with the dreamer's unrest.
Occasionally, he shot a furtively terrified glance across the aisle where another boy with a mop of red hair, a freckled face and a mouth that seemed overcrowded with teeth, made faces at him and conveyed in eloquent gestures threats of future violence. At these menacing pantomimes, the slighter lad trembled under his bulging coat, and he sat as one under sentence.
Had any means of escape offered itself, Paul Burton would have embraced it without thought of the honors of war. He had no wish to stand upon the order of his going. He earnestly desired to go at once. But under what semblance of excuse could he cover his retreat? Suddenly his necessity fathered a crafty subterfuge. The bucket of drinking water stood near his desk—and it was well-nigh empty. Becoming violently thirsty, he sought permission to carry it to the spring for refilling, and his heart leaped hopefully when the tired-eyed teacher indifferently nodded her assent. He meant to carry the pail to the spring. He even meant to fill it for the sake of technical obedience. Later, some one else could go out and fetch it back.
Paul's object would be served when once he was safe from the stored-up wrath of the Marquess kid. As he carried the empty bucket down the aisle, he felt upon him the derisive gaze of a pair of blue eyes entirely surrounded by freckles, and his own eyes drooped before their challenge and contempt. They drooped also as he met the questioning gaze of his elder brother, Ham, whose seat was just at the door. Ham had a disquieting capacity for reading Paul's thoughts, and an equally disquieting scorn of cowardice. But Paul closed the door behind him, and, in the freedom of the outer air, set his lips to whistling a casual tune. He could never be for a moment alone without breaking into some form of music. It was his nature's language and his soul's soliloquy.
Of course tomorrow would bring a reckoning for truancy and a probable renewal of his danger, but tomorrow is after all another day and for this afternoon at least he felt safe.
But Ham Burton's uncanny powers of divination were at work, and out of his seat he slipped unobserved. Through the door he flitted shadow-like and strolled along in the wake of his younger brother.
Down where the spring crooned softly over its mossy rocks and where young brook trout darted in phantom flashes, Ham Burton found Paul with his face tight-clasped in his nervous hands. Back there in the school-house had been only terror, but out here was something else. A specter of self-contempt had risen to contend with physical trepidation. The song of the water and the rustle of the leaves where the breeze harped among the platinum shafts of the birches were pleading with this child-dreamer, and in his mind a conflict swept backward and forward. Paul did not at once see his brother, and the older boy stood over him in silence, watching the mental fight; watching until he knew that it was lost and that timidity had overpowered shame. His own eyes at first held only scorn for such a poltroon attitude, but suddenly there leaped into them a fierce glow of tenderness, which he as quickly masked. At the end of his silent contemplation he brusquely demanded, "Well, Paul, how long is it going to take you to fill that bucket with water?"
The younger lad started violently and stammered. Chagrined tears welled into his deep eyes, and a flush spread over his thin cheeks.
"I just—just got to thinkin'," he exculpated lamely, "an' I fogot to hurry. Listen at that water singin', Ham!" His voice took on a rapt eagerness. "An' them leaves rustlin'. It's all like some kind of music that nobody's ever played an' nobody ever can play."
Ham's face, looking down from the commanding height of his sixteen years, hardened.
"Do you figure that Pap sends you to school to set out here and listen at the leaves rattlin'?" was the dry inquiry. "To hear you talk a feller'd think there ain't anything in the world but funny noises. What do they get you?"
"Noises!" the slight lad's voice filled and thrilled with remonstrance, "Can't you ever understand music, Ham? There's all the world of difference between music an' noise. Music's what the Bible says the angels love more'n anything."
Ham's lips set themselves sternly. He was not one to be turned aside with quibbles.
"Look here, Paul," he accused, "you didn't come out here to get water and you didn't come to listen to the fishes singin' songs either. You sneaked out to run away because you're scared of Jimmy Marquess an' because you know he's goin' to punch your face after school."
The younger lad flushed crimson and he began an unconvincing denial. "I ain't—I ain't afraid of him, neither," he protested. "That ain't the truth, Ham."
"All right then." The elder boy filled the bucket and straightened up with business-like alacrity. "If you ain't scared of him we might as well go on back there an' tell him so. He thinks you are."
Instinctively Paul flinched and turned pallid. He gazed about him like a trapped rabbit, but his brother caught him roughly by the shoulder and wheeled him toward the school-house.
"But—Ham—but—" The younger brother's voice faltered and again tears came to his eyes. "But I don't b'lieve in fightin'. I think it's wicked."
"Paul," announced the other relentlessly, "you're a coward. Maybe it ain't exactly your fault, but one thing's dead certain. There's just one kind of feller that can't afford to run away—an' that's a coward, like you. Everybody picks on a kid that's yeller. You've got to have one good fight to save a lot of others an' this is the day you're goin' to have it. After school you've got to smash Jimmy Marquess a wallop on his front teeth an' if you don't shake 'em plumb loose I'm goin' to take you back in the woods an' give you a revelation in lickin's that'll linger with you for years." Ham paused and then added ominously, "Now you can do just exactly as you like. I don't want to try to influence you, but that Marquess kid is your softest pickin'."
Facing the dread consequences of such a dilemma, Paul went slowly and falteringly forward with the unhappy consciousness of his brother following warily at his heels.
"Come to think of it," suggested Ham casually, "I guess you'd better write a note before we go in—it seems a kind of shame to treat Jimmy like that without givin' him any warnin'." He set the bucket in the path and fumbled in his pocket for a scrap of paper. "I'll just help you out," he volunteered graciously. "Start with his name—like this—'James Marquess; Sir—.'"
Paul hesitated, and Ham took a step forward with a cool glint in his eyes before which the other quailed. "I'll write it, Ham," he hastily whimpered.
"James Marquess; Sir—" continued the laconic voice of the directing mind. "If you think I am afraid of you, you have erred in judgment. I don't like you and I don't care for your personal appearance. If you so much as squint at me after school today I intend to change the general appearance of your face. It won't be handsome when I get through, but I guess it will be an improvement, at that.
The coerced writer groaned deeply as he scrawled the signature which pledged him so irretrievably to battle. He felt that his autograph to such a missive was distinctly inappropriate, and invited sure calamity. Ham, however, only nodded approval as he commanded, "When you take the bucket up, lay that on his desk and be sure he gets it."
Yet as Paul plodded on, a piteous little shape of quaking terror, Ham let the glance of militant tenderness flash once more into his eyes, and his voice came in sympathetic timbre.
"Paul, I can't always do your fightin' for you. If I could I wouldn't make you do it—but you've got to learn how to stand on your own legs. It ain't only the Marquess kid you're fightin'. You've got to lick the yeller streak out of yourself before it ruins you." He paused, then magnanimously added, "If you trim him down good and proper, I'll get you a new violin string in place of the one you busted."
It was a very unmilitary shape that huddled in its seat, watching his adversary read the ultimatum. As for the heir of the house of Marquess, he allowed his freckled face for a moment to pucker in blank astonishment, then a smile of beatitude enveloped it. It was such beatitude as might appear on the visage of a cat who has unexpectedly received a challenge to mortal combat from a mouse.
An hour of the afternoon session yet intervened between the present and the awful future and upon Paul Burton it rested with its incubus of dire suspense. It was an hour which the Marquess kid employed congenially across the aisle. Whenever the tired eyes of the teacher were not upon him he gave elaborate pantomimes wherein he felt the swelling biceps of his right arm, and made as if to spit belligerently upon his doubled fist. Sometimes his left hand seemed struggling to restrain the deadly right, lest it leap forth untimely in its hunger for smiting. These wordless pleasantries were in no wise lost on the shrinking Paul in whose slight body slept the spirit of the artist unfortified with martial iron of combat.
The world of boyhood has little understanding or sympathy for a soul like Paul's; a soul woven of dreams and harmonies which knows no means of attuning itself to the material. This lad walked with his head in the clouds and his thoughts in visions. His playmates were invisible to human eyes and he heard the crashing of vast symphonies where others felt only the silences. Now in a little while he was to have his face punched by a material and normal young savage whose very freckles shone with anticipation.
Ham Burton, looking on from his desk, recognized that in the frail lad who "wouldn't stick up for himself" burned the thin hot fire of genius without the stamina that alone could fan it into effective blaze. For Ham, whose face revealed as little of what went on back of his eyes as an Indian's, was the dreamer, too, though his dreams were cut to a different pattern. As he dealt in visions, so William the Conqueror may have dealt when a boy in his father's bakeshop; so Napoleon may have dreamed before the world had heard his name. The younger lad dreamed as the hasheesh-eater, for the vague and iridescent glory of visioning, but the elder dreamed otherwise, in preface to achievement.
The teacher rose at length to dismiss the classes, and as the children piled out into the crisp air, the Marquess kid was first on the hard-trodden soil of the school-yard—for there triumph awaited his coming. Paul was less impulsive. He collected his books with the most deliberate care, dusting them off with an unwonted solicitude. Then he spent an indefinite period searching for a stub of slate-pencil, which at another time would not have interested him. He hoped against hope that Jimmy Marquess would not have time to wait for him.
At last, the laggard in war felt Ham's strong hand on his coat-collar. Vainly protesting and sniffling, he was hustled toward the rotting threshold and catapulted upon his enemy so abruptly and skillfully that to the casual eye he might have seemed bursting with impatience for battle.
And as he stumbled, willy-nilly, upon the Marquess kid, the Marquess kid joyously gathered him in and began raining enthusiastic rights and lefts upon the blanched and blue-veined face.
Suddenly Paul Burton woke to the fact that at his back was an extremely solid wall; on his right an equally impassable fence; on his left his implacable brother and at his front—nothing but the Marquess kid.
Of the four obstacles Jimmy seemed the most vulnerable, and upon him Paul hurled himself with the exalted frenzy of a single idea: an idea of boring his way out of an insupportable position. That Jimmy's blows hurt him so little astonished him, and under the spur of fear he fought with such abandon that to Ham's face came a slow grin of contentment and to that of the Marquess kid an expression of pained amazement, followed by one of sudden panic. Of this particular mouse, the cat had had enough and amid jeers of derision the cat withdrew with more of haste than of dignity in his departure.
But five minutes later as Paul trudged along the forest path toward his home, the unaccustomed light of battle that had momentarily kindled in his eyes began to fade. There glowed in them no such lasting triumph as should come from a boy's first victory. Instead, they wore again the far-away look of dreamy pensiveness. Already, his thoughts were back in their own world, a world peopled with fancies and panoplied with imaginings. Suddenly he halted, and threw back his head, intently listening. High and far away came the honking cry of wild geese in flight; travelers of the upper air-paths, winging their way southward. Distance softened the harshness of their journeying clamor into a note of appealing wanderlust.
Paul's lips were parted and his eyes aglow. The memory of the fight he had dreaded was effaced; the bruises on his sensitive face were forgotten. His heart was drinking an elixir through his ears, and at the sounds floating down from the heights new fancies leaped within him.
Ham with his eyes shrewdly fixed upon his brother swung his books to his other hand and shrugged his shoulders. He, too, was looking in fancy beyond the misty hills, but not to the flight of geese. He saw cities with shaft-like structures biting the sky and dark banners of smoke floating above the clash of conflict. His heart was burning to be at the center of that conflict.
He, too, heard a song of sirens, but it was such a song as Richard Whittington heard when bare-footed in Pauntley the notes of the Bow bells stole out to him:
"Sang of a city that was blazoned like a missal-book, Black with oaken gables, carven and inscrolled; Every street a colored page, every sign a hieroglyph, Dusky with enchantments, a city paved with gold."
Then he gazed about the desolate country where morning wore to night in a sequence of hard chore upon hard chore, and he groaned between his set teeth.
Here and there along the way stood deserted houses where the wind searched the interiors through the eyeless sockets of unglazed windows and where the roof-trees were broken and twisted. They were blighting symbols of this soul-breaking existence in a land of abandoned farms where Opportunity never came. They were mutely eloquent of surrender after struggle. They summed up the hazard of life where to abate the fight and rest meant to lose the fight and starve.
His heart told him that no other battle-field was hard enough or desperate enough to spell his defeat. The world was his if he could go out into the world to claim it, but here in this meager land of barrenness his soul would strangle without a fight. The things that had long flamed in his heart had flamed secretly, like a smothered blaze which gnaws the vitals out of a ship whose hatches are battened down. He, too, had kept the hatches of silence battened. But through many wakeful nights the voice that speaks to those whom the gods have chosen cried to him with the certainty of a herald's bugle. "What the greatest have been, you can be! Of the few to whom impossibility is a jest, you are one! Nothing can halt your onward march save—want of opportunity. You have kinship with the world's mightiest, but you must go out into the world and claim your own." For that was how Ham Burton dreamed.
As the Burton boys came to the farm-house where they had been born, the sun was sinking behind the ragged spears of the mountain-top, and its last fires were mirrored in the lake whose name was like an epitome of their lives—Forsaken.
The house seemed to huddle in the gathering shadows with melancholic despair. Its walls looked out over the unproductive acres around it as grimly as a fortress overlooks a hostile territory, and its occupants lived with as defensive a frugality as if they were in fact a beleaguered garrison cut off from fresh supplies. This was the prison in which Ham Burton must serve his life sentence—unless he responded to that urgent call which he heard when the others slept. Tonight he must share with his father the raw chores of the farm, and, when his studies were done, he must go to his bed, exhausted in body and mind, to be awakened at sunrise and retread the cheerless round of drudgery. Every other tomorrow while life fettered him here held a repetition of just that and nothing more.
The white fire of rebellion leaped mutinously up in Ham's heart. He would go away. He would answer the loud clarion that called to him from beyond the horizons. The first line of hills should no longer be his remotest frontier. And if he did that—a whispering voice of loyalty and conscience argued insistently—who would wear the heavy harness here at home? His father would never leave, and upon his father the infirmities of age would some day come creeping. There was Paul—but, at the thought of Paul with his strong imagination and his weak muscles, Ham laughed. If he went away he must go without consent or parental blessing; he must slip away in the night with his few possessions packed in his battered bag. Very well; if that were the only way, it must be his way. The voices were calling—always calling—and it might as well be tonight. Destiny is impatient of temporizing. Yes, tonight he would start out there, somewhere, where the battles were a man's battles, and the rewards a man's rewards.
But at the door his mother met him. There was a moisture of unshed tears in her eyes, and she spoke in the appeal of dependence—dependence upon her eldest son who had never failed her.
"Son, your father's in bed—he's had some sort of stroke. He's feelin' mighty low in his mind, an' he says he's played out with the fight of all these years. I told him that he needn't fret himself because we have you. You've always been so strong an' manly—even when you were a little feller. You'd better see him, Ham, an' cheer him up. Tell him you can take right hold an' run the farm."
Ham turned away a face suddenly drawn. A lemon afterglow hung above the hills, and where it darkened into the evening sky, a single star shone in a feeble point of light. It was setting—not rising—and to the boy it seemed to be his star.
"I'll go in and see him," he said curtly.
Thomas Burton lay on his bed with his face turned to the wall. When his son entered, he raised it and shifted it so that the yellow light of an oil lamp shone on it above the faded quilt.
It was a hopeless, beaten face, and for the first time in his life Ham saw the calloused hand which crept out to his own shake feebly.
He took it, and the father said slowly:
"Ham, somehow I feel like an old hoss that just goes as long as he can an' then lays down. Right often he don't get up no more. It's a hard fight for a boy to take up, this fight with rocks and poor soil, but I guess you'll have to tackle it. I didn't quit so long as I could keep goin'."
The boy nodded. He composed his face and answered steadily: "I guess you can depend on me."
But outside by the barn fence he set down his milk-pail a few minutes later and in the coming night his face twitched and blackened.
"So after all," Ham told himself bitterly, "I've got to stay."
He reached out mechanically and began loosing the top bar from its sockets, while he called in the cows to be milked. So many times had he taken down and put up that panel of bars that his hands knew from habit every roughness and knot in every rail.
"Mornin' an' evenin' for three hundred and sixty-five days a year;" the boy said to himself in a low and very bitter voice. "That makes seven hundred and thirty times a year I do this same, identical thing. I ain't nothin' more than servant to a couple of cows." He stood and watched the two heifers trot through the opening to the water-trough by the pump. "By the time I'm thirty-five," he continued, "I'll do it fourteen thousand and six hundred times more—When Napoleon was thirty-five—" But there he broke off with an inarticulate sound in his browned young throat that was very like a groan.
Mary Burton was eleven. Of late, thoughts which had heretofore not disturbed her had insistently crept into the limelight of consciousness. One morning as she stood, dish-towel in hand, over the kitchen table, her eyes stole ever and anon to the cracked mirror that hung against the wall, and after each glance she turned defiantly away with something like sullenness about her lips. Elizabeth Burton, the mother, and Hannah Burton, the spinster aunt, went about their accustomed tasks with no thought more worldly than the duties of the moment. It never occurred to Aunt Hannah to complain of anything that was. If her life spelled unrelieved drudgery she accepted it as the station to which it had pleased God to call her, and conceived that complaint would be a form of blasphemy. Now as she wielded her broom, her angular shoulders ached with rheumatism, and, in a voice as creaking as her joints, she sang, "For the Master said there is work to do!" Such was Aunt Hannah's creed, and it pleased her while she moiled over the work to announce in song that she acted upon divine command. To Aunt Hannah's mind, this lent an august dignity to a dust-rag.
When Mary savagely threw down her dish-towel and burst unaccountably into tears, both women looked up, startled. Mary was normally a sunny child and one not given to weeping.
"For the name of goodness!" exclaimed the mother in bewilderment. "What in the world can have struck the child?" It was to Aunt Hannah that she put the question, but it was Mary who answered, and answered with a sudden flow of vehemence:
"Why didn't God make me pretty?" demanded the girl in an impassioned voice. "They call me spindle-legs at school, and yesterday Jimmy Marquess said,
'If I had a sister Mary that had eyes like that, I'd put her out of pain with a baseball bat.'
"It ain't fair that I've got to be ugly."
Mrs. Burton, confronted with a situation she had not anticipated, found herself unequipped with a reply, but Aunt Hannah's face became severe.
"You are as God made you, child," she announced in a tone of finality, "and it's sinful to be dissatisfied."
But, if dissatisfaction was wicked, Mary was resolved upon sin. For the first time in her eleven years of life she stood forth mutinous. Her eyes blazed, and she trembled passionately through her slender child-body, with her hands clenched into tight little fists.
"If God made me this way on purpose, He didn't treat me fair," she rebelliously flamed out. "What good can it do God to have me skinny and white, with eyes that don't even match?"
Aunt Hannah's face paled as though she feared that she must fall an innocent victim to the avenging bolt which might momentarily be expected to crash through the roof.
"Elizabeth," she gasped, "stop the child! Don't let her invite the wrath of the Almighty like that! Tell her how wicked it is to complain an' rebel against Infinite Wisdom."
They heard a low, rather contemptuous laugh, and saw Ham standing in the door. His coarse lumberman's socks were pulled up over his trousers' legs and splashed with mud of the stable lot.
"Aunt Hannah, what gave you the notion that there's anything wrong about complainin'?" he demanded shortly, and Mary knew that she had acquired a champion.
"Complainin' against God's will is a sin. Every person knows that." Aunt Hannah spoke with the aggrieved uncertainty of one unexpectedly called upon to defend an axiom. "An' for a girl to fret about her looks is worldly."
"Oh, I see," the boy nodded slowly, but his voice was insurgent. "I guess you think Almighty God wants the creatures He made to sit around and sing about there bein' work to do. I wonder you don't feel afraid to eat buckwheat cakes that He doesn't send down to you by an angel with His compliments. My idea is that He wants folks to do things for themselves and not to sing about it. As for being discontented, that's the one thing that drives the world around. I think God made discontent just for that."
Aunt Hannah moistened her lips. For decades she had been the member of a God-fearing, toiling family whose righteousness was the righteousness of stagnation. Now she stood face to face with radical heresy.
"But," she argued with some dumb feeling that she was defending Divinity, "the Scriptures teach contentment an' it's worldly to be vain."
"Why not be worldly?" flared the boy with a new and indomitable light in his eyes. "As for me I'm sick of this life in a place that's dry-rotting. What I want is the world—the whole of it, good an' bad. I want what you can win out of fighting. Mary wants to be pretty. Why shouldn't she? What does any woman get out of life except what men give her—and what man gives much to the ugly ones?"
"It ain't what men give that's to be counted a prize," came the pious rejoinder. "It's what heaven gives."
"Heaven gave you a dust-rag and rheumatism. If they suit you, all well and good. I'm going to see that the world gives Mary what she wants. If a girl can be made pretty Mary's going to be pretty. It's what a woman's got a right to want and I'm going to get it for her."
With a violent gesture the boy flung himself from the room and slammed the door behind him.
Because it was Saturday and there was no school that day, Ham left the house and turned into the woods. He tramped with his brow drawn and a hundred insurgent thoughts swirling in his brain.
He passed across hills holding to their final flare of color, where leaves were drifting down from trees of yellow and crimson. He threaded alder thickets and passed through groves of silver birches that shivered fastidiously in the breeze. Wild apple trees raised gnarled branches under which the "punches" of hooves told of deer that had been feeding. At last, he came to a clearing where fire had eaten its way and charred the ruins of the forest. There a large buck lifted its antlered head among the berry bushes and stood for a moment at startled gaze. But Ham made no movement to raise the rifle that swung at his side, and as the red-brown shape disappeared with a soft clatter, the boy did not even throw a glance after it. He was saying to himself: "William the Conqueror was a baker's son; Napoleon was the friend of a washer-woman; Cecil Rhodes was a poor boy—but they didn't stay tied down too long."
Now and again, a rabbit scuttled off to cover, and often with the whir of drumming wings a grouse rose noisily and lumbered away with spread tail into the painted foliage. But all the beauty of it was a beauty of wildness and of nature's victory over man. For such beauty Ham felt no answer of pulse or heart.
Of the cabins he passed, most were empty and those quiet vandals, Weather and Decay, were noiselessly at work wrecking them. Here a door swung askew; there a chimney teetered. Every such tenantless lodging was an outpost surrendered on a field scarred with human defeat; a place where a family had fought poverty and been put to flight. Once he paused and looked down a long slope to a habitation by the roadside. The miserable battle was just ending there, and, though he stood a quarter of a mile away, he stopped to watch the final act. The family that had dwelt there for two generations was leaving behind everything that it had known. John Marrow was at that moment nailing a padlock to the front door, a lock at which the quiet vandals would laugh silently.
In a farm wagon was heaped the litter of household effects. These people were whipped, starved out, beaten. Ham Burton turned on his heel and trudged away. His father's farm was little more productive than this one, but his father had that uncompromising iron in his blood that comes from Pilgrim forebears. He would hold on to the end—but to what end and how long?
* * * * *
That Saturday afternoon, Mary was walking along the sandy road that led to the village. She had no purpose, except to be alone, and she carried an old fashion paper which she meant to con. This newly discovered necessity of beauty was a very serious affair, and since she meant to devote herself to its study she conceived that these pages should give tidings from the fountain head.
She did not expect to meet anyone, and she was quite content to spend that Indian-summer afternoon with her companions of the printed page. These were beautiful ladies, appareled in the splendid vogues of Paris and Vienna. There were delightful bits of information concerning some mysterious thing called the haute monde and likewise pictures that instructed one how to dress one's hair and adorn the coiffure with circlets of pearls. Mary's sheer delight in such mysteries was not marred by any suspicion that the text she devoured told of fashions long extinct and supplanted by newer edicts.
On the great rock which jutted out from the wooded tangle into the margin of Lake Forsaken, with lesser sentinel rocks about it, she sat cross-legged until she glanced up at last to see that the west was kindling, and that she must start back to the duller realities of home. She had been interrupted by no break in the silence except the little forest twitter of birds and now and then the cool splash where a bass leaped in the lake.
But as she made her way along the twisting road she heard the rattle of wheels on the rocks and turned to see a vehicle driven by a man who obviously had no kinship with stony farms or lumber camps. She paused, and the buggy came up. Its driver drew his horse down, and in a singularly pleasing and friendly voice inquired:
"Can you tell me, little sister, how I can get to Middle Fork?"
Middle Fork was the village at the end of the six-mile mountain descent, and Mary, who knew every trail and woodland path, told him, not only of the road, but of a passable short-cut.
The girl had come to judge human faces through the eyes of her own circumstance, and those of the men and women about her wore for the most part the resignation of surrender and hardship, but this man's face was different. He was a man to her eleven years, though a more experienced eye would have seen that he was hardly more than a prematurely old boy. Lines traced a network around his eyes, but they were whimsical lines such as come from persistent laughter—the sort of laughter that insists on expressing itself even in the face of misfortune. His open mackinaw collar revealed a carelessly knotted scarf decorated with a large black pearl, and as he drew off a glove she noticed that his brown hand was slender and that one finger wore a heavily carved ring, from whose quaint setting glowed the cool, bright light of an emerald. Her frank curiosity showed so plainly in her face that the fine wrinkles about the young man's eyes became little radiants of amusement centering around gray pupils and his lips parted in a smile over very even teeth.
There are a few men in the world whom we feel that we have always known, when once we have seen them, and upon whom we find ourselves bestowing confidences as soon as we have said, "Good-day." Perhaps they are the isolated survivors of knight-errant days, whose business it is to listen to the troubles of others.
It was only the matter of minutes before Mary was chatting artlessly with this traveler of the mountain road, and since she was a child she was talking of herself, while he nodded gravely and listened with a deference of attention that was to her new and disarmingly charming.
He, too, was just now an exile here in the hills, he explained, but before he came he had lived all over the world. He had studied under tutors while traveling about the Continent, and being prepared to take up his work in the banking house which his grandfather had established and his father had extended in scope. Then it had happened.
"What happened?" The child of Lake Forsaken put the question eagerly, and his reply was laconic, though he smiled down from the buggy seat with a peculiarly naive twist of his lips. "Bugs," he told her.
"What kind of bugs?" It seemed strange to Mary that a man would let such small creatures as flies or spiders or even big beetles stand between himself and a great bank.
"I beg your pardon," he laughed. "I forgot that you lived in a world unsullied by such argot. You know what a lunger is?"
That she did know. It is a term familiar enough in the mountains to which come refugees from the white plague, seeking in the tonic air a healing for their sickened lungs.
"And so you see," said the strange young man, "I have built me a log shack back in the hills where I amuse myself writing verses—which, fortunately, no one reads—and doing equally inconsequential things. Now I'm going down for a few days in the city. I can only go when the weather is fine and when winter sets in, I must come back and bury myself with no companions except some books and a pair of snowshoes."
"Are you going to die?" she asked him in large-eyed concern.
"Some day I am," he laughed. "But I'm rather stubborn. I'm going to postpone that as long as possible. Several doctors tell me that I have an even chance. It seems to be a sort of fifty-fifty bet between the bugs and me. I suppose a fellow oughtn't to ask more than an even break."
She stood regarding him with vast interest. She had never known a man before who chatted so casually about the probable necessity of dying. He grew as she watched him to very interesting and romantic proportions.
"What's your name?" she demanded.
"My last name's Edwardes," he told her. And it was only her own out-of-the-world ignorance that kept her from recognizing in the name a synonym for titanic finance. "In front of that they put a number of ridiculous prefixes when I was quite young and helpless. There is Jefferson and Doorland and others. At college they called me Pup."
In return for his confidence, the girl told him who she was and where she lived and how old she was.
"You say your name is Mary Burton? I must remember that because in, say ten years, provided I last that long, I expect to hear of you."
"Hear of me? Why?" she demanded.
The stranger bent forward and coughed, and when the paroxysm had ended he smiled whimsically again.
"I'll tell you a secret, though God knows it's a perilous thing to feed a woman's vanity—even a woman of eleven. Did anyone ever tell you that you are possessed of a marvelous pair of eyes?"
Instinctively little Mary Burton flinched as though she had been struck and she raised one hand to her face to touch her long lashes. Silent tears welled up; tears of indignant pain because she thought she was being cruelly ridiculed.
But the stranger had no such thought. If to the uneducated opinion of Lake Forsaken, Mary's face was a matter for jest and libel, the impression made on the young man who had been reared in the capitals of Europe was quite different. He had been sent, on the verge of manhood, into the hermit's seclusion with the hermit's opportunity of reflecting on all he had seen, and digesting his experience into a philosophy beyond his years.
Perhaps had Mary been born into her own Puritan environment two centuries earlier, she might have faced even sterner criticism, for there was without doubt a strange uncommonplaceness about her which the thought of that day might have charged to the attendance of witches about her birth. The promise of beauty she had, but a beauty unlike that of common standards. It was a quality that at first caught the beholder like the shock of a plunge into cold water, and then set him tingling through his pulses—also like a plunge into an icy pool.
To the farmer folk Mary was merely "queer," but as the man in the buggy sat looking down at her he realized the promise of something strangely gorgeous. As she shifted her position a shaft of mellow sunlight struck her face and it was as though her witch—or fairy—godmother had switched on a blaze of color.
"I wasn't making fun of you," declared the stranger; and his voice held so simple and courteous a note that Mary smiled again and was reassured.
The child was still thin and awkward and undeveloped of line or proportion, but color, which many painters will tell you is the soul-essence of all beauty, she had in the same wasteful splendor that the autumn woods had it in their carnival abundance.
Her hair was heavy, and its gold was of the lustrous and burnished sort that seems to tangle in its meshes a captive fire glowing between the extremes of amber and tawny copper. Yet hair and cheeks and lips were only the minors of her color scheme. The eyes were regnantly dominant and it was here that the surprising witch-like quality held sway. The school-children had said they did not match, and they did not, for with the sun shining on her the man in the buggy realized that the right one was a rich brown like illuminated agate with a fleck or two of jet across the iris, while the left, its twin, was of a colorful violet and deeply vivid. Young Edwardes had read of the weird beauty of such mismated eyes, but had never before seen them.
"Jove!" he exclaimed, and he let the reins hang on his knees as he bent forward and talked enthusiastically.
"There are eyes and eyes," he smiled down. "Some are merely lenses to see with and some are stars. Of the star kind, a few are lustrous and miraculous, and control destinies. I think yours are like that. One can flash lambent fire and the other can soften like the petals of a black pansy—it has just that touch of inky purple—and in their range are many possibilities."
"But—but," she stammered for a moment, irresolute and almost tearful, "they aren't even mates and anyway eyes aren't all." For a moment she hesitated, then with childish abandon confided, "I'd give anything in the world to be pretty."
The stranger threw back his head and laughed. "And when they are misty, let men beware," he commented half-aloud, then he went on: "What makes you think you'll be ugly?"
"They call me spindle-legs at school and—and—" she broke off, failing to particularize further.
The man glanced smilingly down at the slight figure.
"Well, now," he conceded, "in general effect you are a bit chippendale, aren't you? But that can be outgrown. The rarest beauty isn't that which comes before the 'teens. If you never have anything else, be grateful for your eyes—and remember this afterward. Be merciful with them, because unless I'm a poor prophet there will come times when you will do well to remember that."
"I'm going to tell the boys and girls at school that I'm not ugly after all." She spoke with no trace of vanity, merely with a frankness which had yet to learn the arts of coyness.
"No," counseled her new adviser, "don't do anything of the sort. Simply wait and after awhile everyone will be telling you."
"But nobody ever told me before that having eyes that didn't match was pretty," she argued.
"Some day, if you happen to live where men make fine phrases, which after all may not be such a blessing," he assured her, "they will whisper to you that you are a miraculous color-scheme. It's a bit hard to express, but I can give you examples—" He broke off suddenly and laughed at himself. "After all," he began again in a different voice, "what's the use? I forgot that the things I should compare you with are all things you haven't seen. They would mean nothing."
"Tell me, anyhow," she commanded.
"Very well. There is a style of architecture in the Orient: The Temple of Omar at Jerusalem has it. The Taj Mahal has it. Interiors crusted with the color of gems and mosaics and rich inlay; the Italian renaissance has it; splashed from a palette that knew no stint—no economy. It's a brilliant, triumphant sort of paean in which the notes are all notes of color. You have it, too—and now I'm going to drive on. But don't forget that it's easier to be kind when people call you spindle-legs than it will be when they come with offerings of flattery."
"You must have seen a lot of things." Mary Burton's voice was that of admiring wonder, and the young man's face became grave, almost pained for an instant.
"In a way," he answered, "I have. But I may not see much more. Most men look back on life when they are old and wise, but I am doing it while still young and perhaps the backward glance is the same in age or youth. It's a summary."
"I don't understand half of what you are saying," she confessed a little regretfully. It seemed to her from what she did grasp that the rest would be well worth while.
"If it were otherwise," he laughed with a return of the whimsical glint to his pupils and the little wrinkles about the corners of his eyes, "I should not have said half of it. A good part of my conversation has been in the manner of soliloquy. Hermits often talk to themselves. I shall now say something else you won't understand. Wield leniently the dangerous gift of your witchcraft—the freakish beauty of your perfect unmatched eyes."
And all the way home Mary Burton walked on air, and the lonely woods seemed to have grown of a sudden spicy and glorious. When she stole up to the room under the eaves and looked again into the little mirror, she did not turn away so unhappy as she had been. The brown eye dared to meet the brown eye in the glass—and the violet eye, the violet.
Under her breath she repeated over and over, lest she forget some of its polysyllables, a sentence which was half-incomprehensible to her, yet which was sonorous enough and grandiloquent enough to impress her deeply. At last, also lest memory prove illusive, she wrote the sentence down: "Wield leniently the dangerous gift of your witchcraft—the freakish beauty of your perfect unmatched eyes."
* * * * *
Down the road, two miles from the Burton home, was the wayside church with its small and unpretentious organ, and this afternoon Paul had been pumping its wheezy bellows while the young woman who contributed the Sabbath music practised. As he came out of the small building and took his way across the hills, Paul was exalted as he always was by music.
Once he had passed through the gates of dream, which swung wide to a key of sound, he wandered on, fancy led, until some actuality broke the spell, bringing him back with a shock and an inward sigh for the awakening.
But when he drew near the house, a footstep crackled in the underbrush, and Ham emerged from the woods. As the elder boy came up, Paul, roused out of his dreams, gave a start and then fell into step.
"Been out there listenin' to the leaves fallin' again?" inquired Ham shortly.
"I've been pumping the organ." Paul's reply was half-apologetic.
"You don't think about much except music, do you, Paul?"
"Isn't music all right?" For once the lad spoke almost aggressively in defense of his single enthusiasm.
"I wasn't exactly finding fault, Paul. Only, I don't see much hope for a feller in this country that doesn't think about anything else. You're in pretty much the same fix as an Esquimo that can't be happy without flowers. Grand opera doesn't come as often as the circus, and some years the circus doesn't come. Listen!" He put one hand into his trousers' pockets, and noisily rattled a handful of coins. "That music is understood everywhere. Even in this God-forsaken place, they know how to dance to its tune."
"Where did you get it?" For an instant Paul halted in his tracks and forgot his air-castles. Money was so rare a thing in their narrow little world that even to his impracticability it partook of magic.
Yesterday Ham's pockets had been as empty as his own and today there emanated from them the clash of silver—not the tinkle of light nickels and dimes, but the substantial clatter of halves and dollars.
"I sold some lambs to Slivers Martin," was the succinct reply, "and I got ten dollars for 'em."
"Some lambs?" Paul's face puckered with perplexity. "But, Ham, you haven't got any lambs."
Ham laughed with a debonair indulgence. "Sure I haven't," he cheerfully acquiesced, "but I've got the ten."
Paul shook his head, baffled. "I don't see," he persisted, "how you could sell something you didn't have." They were drawing near the house now, and Ham stopped him in the road.
"Who sells more wheat than all us farmers, Paul? Men in Wall street, don't they? And how much wheat do you suppose those fellers have got amongst the lot of them? Not enough to feed a sick pigeon with. I sold these lambs first—for ten dollars. Then I bought them off of Bill Heffers, an' Henry Berry an' Ben Best—for seven dollars."
He paused a moment, then added, while a grin of satisfaction spread over his face: "What's more, Slivers Martin had to go an' get 'em, an' he had to go in three directions. If he'd had sense enough, he could have got 'em himself in the first place for seven instead of ten. The three dollars I got clear was my margin of profit, Paul, an' a margin of profit is what a feller gets by turnin' his margin of brain into money."
The younger lad looked up with a mist of perplexity in his deep eyes. He realized vaguely that Ham had accomplished a feat somehow savoring of business acumen, which was a matter he could not hope to comprehend. Yet some comment seemed expected of him, so out of a slack interest he inquired, "Were they good lambs, Ham? What were they like?"
The embryonic speculator favored his brother with an indulgent laugh. "I guess they were all right," he enlightened casually. "As for me, I didn't see 'em—any more than the Wall-street men see the wheat they buy an' sell."
"Oh!" The little boy with the cameo face found himself still more at sea. For a while they trudged along in silence; then, with an impulsive, almost impassioned gesture, Ham clapped his hand on the other's shoulder and halted. Paul, too, stopped, and, looking up, was startled to behold features set in a rapt expression and dominated by eyes glowing with an inward ardor.
"Listen to me, Paul," began Ham in a voice which carried an electric thrill into the dreamy soul of the listener. "You love music and you live in a place where they don't know the difference between Tannhaeuser and a tom-tom. Mary would like to be pretty and she lives in a place where if she was as beautiful as Cinderella, nobody but a bunch of hill-bullies would ever see her. I want power, power that the world's got to bow down to and acknowledge—and I might just as well be locked up in somebody' hen-house. Well, maybe it's enough for you only to dream about the music you don't ever expect to hear, but as for me, I dream, too, and a dream ain't much use to me unless I can turn it into facts. I'm going to make your dreams come true—every one of 'em. I'm going to make Mary's dreams come true. There ain't no better blood in the world, Paul, than you an' me have got in our veins an' I'm goin' to see that we get what we're entitled to."
Paul's pale cheeks colored for an instant and something deep within him stirred in response to the trumpet-like confidence of the voice which spoke with such assurance of the absurdly impossible. Suddenly he awoke to the innate music of the inspired human tongue, and there was that in the face and figure of the taller stripling which abashed him, as though he had intruded on a prophet in his moment of exaltation. Ham was listening to voices silent to other ears, and in his eyes glowed such resolve and invincible purpose as must have characterized the minute men when they steeled their hearts to meet and conquer the seemingly unconquerable.
"Out there beyond them piled-up rocks and God-forsaken fields," swept on the other, "there's a real world where the tides are tides of gold, an' for me they are goin' to sweep in with a plunder of riches an' power that all hell can't stop! Out yonder there are cities where men are doing things an' ships are lyin' at the wharves with stuff that comes from the ends of the earth—an' those ships are goin' to go an' come when and where I tell 'em! They're goin' to carry cargoes at my biddin' an' my people are goin' to have what they want. Instead of a wheezy little bellows organ that acts like it had the asthma and cracked voices singin' hymns out of tune, you're goin' to listen to operas, an' Mary's goin' to have men that the world knows come courtin' her—in the place of ignorant lumber-jacks." The young speaker paused for breath, and when he spoke again it was in a voice that defied contradiction or doubt. "I'm goin' to make the name of Hamilton Montagu Burton the best-known name in the United States of America!"
"How do you know you can do all them things, Ham?" The question stole from lips that trembled excitedly under the hypnotic spell of the announcement, and the answer came quickly, unfalteringly, gravely.
"I know it by something that tells me. It don't say 'maybe you can': it says 'there isn't power enough between heaven an' hell to stop you.'"
Paul's eyes were large, but as his brother paused he timidly inquired: "Where did the Montagu come from, Ham? I didn't know you had any middle name."
"I took it," announced Ham imperiously. "I took it because it's the name of one of the biggest financiers the world ever knew, but not as big as I'm goin' to be. I took it because I'm a brother to men like that—but I'm going to go beyond 'em all, an' I'll carry the name further than it was ever carried before. I haven't ever talked about this to any livin' soul else. Folks wouldn't understand. First of all, I'm goin' to leave this country an' get out into the world."
"Will Pap let you go?"
Ham laughed again. "Pap can't stop me. Nobody can't ever stop me. You can't hold a river back from the ocean. That's the difference between a river an' a pond. It's the difference between followin' a star of destiny an' just goin' on livin' the same as an animal in a God-forsaken country like this."
"This ain't such a bad country, Ham," argued Paul weakly, with the timid demurrer of one who sees only the difficulties. "There are some mighty-good people here, an' out there in the big cities a feller's got to fight mighty hard to get along, I guess."
"It's a good country to come from," was the swift and contemptuous rejoinder, "and a damn' poor one to stay in. They've got raw material here that's all right—like us—but you've got to take it away to finish it up. As for the hard fight you talk about, Paul, that's what I'm huntin' for. No man's ever lived that had it in him to be greater than me."
Upon Paul, with his measureless faith in his brother and his passion for dreams, the mad arrogance of the declaration was lost. The ecstasy with which Ham spoke tinged the promise with a fire of conviction—so that Paul wondered and believed.
In the Burton household that fall, a leaven was working. Mary's mismatched eyes held a tranquillity of quiet self-satisfaction. She had found somewhere a second fashion magazine and often when she was alone in the little room under the eaves she snipped industriously away at the imaginary patterns of gorgeous gowns, or listened to the fervent pleadings of make-believe suitors.
But the secret was all her own of how something in her had awakened. This little girl would never again be precisely the same Mary Burton who had started out that Saturday afternoon with a heart full of rebellion and who had come back appeased.
And Ham, his mother feared, was finding his burdens too heavy for young shoulders. He had made no complaint, but an expression of settled abstraction had come into his face and at home he was always silent.
After the falling of the first heavy snow neither Paul nor Mary ventured out to school, but Ham's avid hunger for education lost no coveted day of the term. When his morning work was ended, wrapped in patched mackinaw and traveling on snowshoes, he made the trip across the white slopes, where only the pines were green, and came back at the day's end for his evening chores. The trip was a bit shortened now because the lake was ice-locked and he could cross between the flag-marked holes of the pickerel-fishers. He had been afraid to speak of those things which were burning consumingly in his mind; afraid that if once he let slip the leash of restraint he would be carried away on a tide of passion. But some day he must speak, and, strangely enough, the match that lighted the train of powder was the second coming of the young man who had met Mary on the road.
He came near nightfall, on snowshoes, and when he knocked it was the girl who opened the door. At first, she did not recognize him because the mountain tan had given way to a pallor of recent illness and the face was very thin. But as soon as he smiled, the whimsical eyes proclaimed him.
"You—you haven't died yet," Mary Burton spoke instinctively, and stood holding the door open to the blustering of the sharp wind, quite forgetful that she was barring his way. But the young man who had come out of the thickening twilight laughed. He shook the snow off his mackinaw, for a fresh downfall was making the air almost as white as the drifts below.
"Not yet," he assured her, "but unless you let me come in out of the cold I shall probably perish on your doorstep."
Tom Burton, the father, sat gazing at the stove in the center of the room. He was propped in a heavy chair with cushions about him, and he, too, had grown thinner and rawer of joint. He had been for some time thus silently staring ahead with a pipe long forgotten and dead of ash in his hand and an old newspaper—so old as to be no longer a newspaper—lying where it had dropped near his side. A painter might have seen in the pose a picture of the felled and beaten fighter; the burden-bearer chafing under enforced idleness and the imprisonment of an irritable convalescence.
"Yes, come in, or go out, whoever you are—and shut the door!" There was no hospitality in the irascible greeting of the manor's lord, and the face he half-turned to inspect the stranger was devoid of welcome. It was mirthless from its deep eyes to the lips and chin that were hidden in a patriarchal spread of beard.
Mary for some reason flushed deeply as she stood aside and timidly smiled as though in amends of courtesy.
The young man went straight to the stove and began loosening the collar of his heavy mackinaw. For a moment, without rising or taking any notice beyond a curt nod, old Tom Burton bent upon him eyes of incurious gravity.
"I take it you are Thomas S. Burton," began the young stranger. "My name's Edwardes and I have a shack back in the hills. The snowstorm has delayed me and I must throw myself on your hospitality for the night."
"Yes." Thomas Burton spoke slowly and dully, and this, too, was a result of his illness, for in past days his voice had rung stentorian above the blows of axes in the timber. "Yes, I've heard of you. You're the millionaire hobo. When a man's got plenty of money and chooses to live alone in a country that 'most everybody else is leavin', he's tolerable apt to be heard of."
The comment was not softened with the modification of banter, but rasped with the twang of suspicion as though the speaker expected to give offense—and did not care. Young Edwardes received it with a peal of laughter so infectious that the man in the chair looked up, surprised.
"So that's how they figure me out, is it?" inquired the traveler. "I suppose though," he added as if in answer to his own question, "no man knows what portrait public opinion paints of him. At all events I'm a harmless hobo and quite willing to pay when I put my fellow-man to inconvenience. I live in the mountains by the sentence of my doctors."
"Lunger, eh?" Burton nodded his head comprehensively, but quite without sympathy; and the guest bowed his assent.
"Some folks turns lungers away," commented the host reflectively, "but that's only in the summertime when the vacation boarders kicks on 'em. As for me, I don't take in boarders summer nor winter, but when the snow drives a man in I don't drive him out."
"So they accept us in the winter, do they, and cast us out in the summer when the ribbon-clerks come?" Edwardes spoke musingly, yet amusedly, and in his accustomed manner of self-communion. "After all, men are much alike everywhere, aren't they? The lepers must not walk the streets of Jerusalem, but they may sit in full concourse at the Jaffa and Damascus gates where their wrappings are brushed by every caravan that goes in or out."
Ham, who was just entering, stood on the kitchen threshold in time to hear a man, whom he had never seen before, talking casually of the world beyond the seas. Perhaps this man knew, too, the cities that brought conquerors as well as prophets into their own; perhaps to him the sepia-tinted monuments of Rome and the great tomb in the Place des Invalides were familiar spots! And the man was young himself—almost a boy. For an instant, Ham stood there while his eyes traveled around the room, contemptuously taking in the cheap lithographs and offensive ornaments which he knew so well and hated so sincerely. He straightened resolutely, and his hands clenched. There would be a time when the earth's greatest artists should contribute paintings for his walls, and palaces give up to him their bronzes and tapestries.
When a half-hour later Ham Burton was alone with the stranger he found himself asking and answering many questions. He had not meant to impart his secret of discontent, but just as Mary had confided her troubles at the roadside, so Ham told his as he sat on the edge of the bed in the chilly attic-room of the farm-house. Perhaps it was because this man had actually seen the things that existed beyond the sky-line, and had walked through the veil of mystery which the boy himself so burned to penetrate. At all events it transpired. Ham had shown his little store of greedily conned books and had bared to the gaze of the other his naked and scorching torture of ambition. The lad knew something of the men who had made themselves masters of the world and wished to know more. Edwardes had not even laughed when Ham declared with naive conviction: "None of them men ever did anything I couldn't do, if I got the chance." It was impossible to laugh, though listening to such boundless egotism, in the face of so deep a sincerity and such an implicit self-belief as shone from those young eyes.
"Sometimes the great man knows his greatness in advance," said the visitor gravely. "Sometimes it surprises himself. But most of the mightiest made their own chance."
"I know that. I'm going to make mine. Power is what I want an' it's what I'm goin' to have. But I've got to get away from here. Julius Caesar couldn't do nothin' here."
When Jefferson Edwardes came down stairs Mary, who had slipped timidly away, edged into the room, bashful and adorned. She had put on her best dress, and her lustrous hair was braided and coiled on her head, after the instruction of one of her fashion plates. As the visitor saw her he once more checked his inclination to laugh, for the marvelous mismated eyes were fixed on his face and they held an almost passionate anxiety to be approved by the man who had prophesied her beauty. The thin child with her hair so inappropriately dressed in the style of her fashionable elders—or what she fondly believed to be their style—would have been a ludicrous little figure had she not been, in her eagerness, too serious for humor. The one detail in which she thought she could follow the dictates of Fashion's decree was this arrangement of her hair, and that she had attempted. Now she stood first on one foot then on the other, watching in suspense to see if she had succeeded.
So the stranger slipped over unobserved and with a courtier's smile raised a tiny hand to his lips.
"I am a good prophet," he assured her, and now he let the suppressed merriment dance at will in his pupils, "but don't forget that a queen's queenliest necessity is—kindness."
And so, while Mrs. Burton and the elderly aunt busied themselves over the stove and the father napped restlessly, the sleeping thing that had not heretofore given warning was ripening for its outburst.
When the evening meal was finished and the family sat listening to the stranger's talk, Thomas Burton suddenly demanded: "Are they still quittin' over your way?"
Young Edwardes nodded.
"Except for one or two shiftless fellows like myself," he responded, "my immediate section is deserted. A half-dozen families moved out this fall. The general verdict seems to be that the fight's not worth while."
Tom Burton growled deeply. "The country mayn't be much," he grudgingly admitted, "but how do these fellers that are leavin' all they own behind 'em expect to better themselves? Ain't a few rocky acres better'n none at all? That's what I asks 'em and they ain't got no answer to give me. Ain't a little bit better than nothin' whatsoever?"
The visitor did not immediately reply. He seemed to be reflecting, and, when his answer came, Ham straightened himself in his seat and sat rigid as if struggling to fix a seal on his own lips and remain a silent listener.
"Perhaps so and perhaps not," suggested Edwardes. "The open sea doesn't offer much prospect in a storm, but it may be better than a sinking ship."
Tom Burton's eyes lighted with the same stubborn glint that had given his Pilgrim forefathers kinship with the granite of their shores.
"My ancestors have lived here since they ran the Indians out," he said quietly. "They're buried here an' they fought for this country an' won it. I guess what they bled for is worth holdin'."
"Your forefathers fought for the whole land, not only this section of it," suggested Edwardes mildly. "Right here the acres are stony and unproductive. You can't hope to compete with the farmer whose crops grow near arteries of transportation."
"All we need is roads—an' aqueducts—an' some day they'll come."
"Perhaps," admitted the younger man. "The question is how many can hold out till then?"
Tom Burton looked up and for an instant his eyes blazed. "Well, for one, I can! By God, I don't mean to be run away from my home by a panicky notion of hard times. I can stay here an' fight to a finish—an' when I'm licked, my boys can go on fightin'."
His eldest son rose and paced the floor with the restlessness of a caged leopard. At the black window he halted to gaze out on the bitterness of the night. The ultimatum of his father's obstinacy galled him beyond endurance. He heard himself pledged to the emptiness and futility of a life-sentence which he loathed; from which he was seeking escape and his soul clamored to rise in its vehement repudiation. Yet he felt that just now his heart was in too hot a conflagration to make speech safe. If he spoke at this moment he must speak in violent passion and bitter denunciation, and so with his hands tautly clutched at his back he held his counsel and paced the floor. Old Tom Burton's unaccustomed hours in the confinement of convalescence had left him petulant. The courtesy of the stranger's argument was lost upon him. All he saw was that it was argument, and he was in a condition to be irritated by little things.
For a while he watched the restless wanderings of his son from window to stove and from stove back to window, then his voice broke out sharply in dictatorial peevishness.
"What ails you, boy?" he demanded. "Have you got St. Vitus' dance? Sit down an' quit frettin' people with your eternal trampin' about."
Even then, though his face was white with suppressed feeling, Ham held hard to the curb of silence and took a chair, apart, where he sat rigid.
"It's them that sticks to their guns that wins out," declared the bearded man, looking around as if challenging contradiction, and, when none came, frowning on in silence. Then suddenly his eyes fell on the figure of little Mary, who sat behind the table with her thin face resting in her hands and her eyes burning with thoughts of that great wonder-world which their visitor knew so well. His presence in the room seemed to the child to bring its marvels almost within touch. For the first time the father recognized the ludicrous massing of coils on the top of the little head instead of the simple braids that should be falling over her shoulders, and, in his mood of irritation, the affectation of grown-up adornment angered him inordinately.
"What damned foolishness is that?" he demanded. "What started you to putting on a lot of new airs all of a sudden? Do you think you're the Queen of Sheba?"
The girl shrank back into the shadows at the edge of the room, and, as young Edwardes glanced that way, he heard a muffled sob and knew that she had fled up the stairs in chagrin, a pitiful little would-be princess whose dream splendor had been shattered with a reprimand. His intuition told him that she already lay curled up on her bed, sobbing bitterly against the pillow where the coiled hair—now angrily torn down from its burnished coronal—lay heaped and tangled about her head.
"I'm afraid," volunteered the guest with deep embarrassment, "I'm to blame. I met Mary on the roadside once as I went down to the city, and she told me how the children had been teasing her because she wasn't pretty, I tried to comfort her with a prophecy that her wonderful eyes and hair would establish her claims to beauty."
"So it was you, was it?" demanded Tom Burton shortly, "that set her thoughts upon vanity—well, I don't thank you."
The boy, sitting with every nerve under painful control, felt his breath come quick and deep until his chest heaved, and words leaped to his lips which, with a supreme effort, he bit back. This whole intolerable fallacy of outgrown and hard-shelled narrow-mindedness was spurring him to outbreak, yet for a moment more he held himself in check.
But to the father the incident of Mary's offending was closed, his mind was already back with his problem and his next words were a stubborn reiteration: "Yes, sir, me an' my boys will fight it out here where we belong."
Suddenly spots of orange and red swam before Ham's eyes. Deep in his being something snapped, and, as a fuse spark reaches and ignites its charge, so something fired the eruption that broke volcanically in each nerve.
He rose suddenly and stood before his father, and his words came with the molten heat of overflowing lava.
"An' when you've fought yourself to death an' I've fought myself to death, an' we're both licked, what in hell have we been fightin' for?"
The passionate question fell with the sudden violence of a bursting bomb, and the father's jaw stiffened. For an instant, amazement stood out large-writ in every feature. Ham had thought much, but, in his home, he had never before voiced a syllable of his fevered restlessness.
"We're fightin' for our rights. We're fightin' for what the men that came in the Mayflower fought for," said Tom Burton gravely. "Our homes an' our rightful claim to live by the soil we till." Strangely enough, for the moment, the older man's voice held no excitement.
"That may suit you." Now the boy's vehemence was fully unleashed. "You may be willin' to die fightin' for a couple of cows and a few hundred rocks that you bump your knees on when you try to plow. As for me, I ain't! When I fight, I want it to be a fight that counts, for a reward that's worth winnin'."
The bearded face darkened with the hard intolerance of the patriarchal order; an order which brooks no insubordination. But the lad spoke before the words of discipline found utterance.
"Let me finish, father, before you say anything. What I've got to say is somethin' that ain't just come into my mind. It's somethin' that's kept me awake of nights an' I've got to say it. I've sat here an' listened, an' I ain't put in my oar, but I can't be muzzled, an' you might as well hear me out—because there ain't power enough in the world to stop me."
"An' supposin'—" Tom Burton spoke brusquely, yet with something more like amusement in his eyes than had previously shown there—"supposin' I ain't inclined to listen to you?"
"Then you'll just force me to leave you here—an' you can't hardly get on without me."
"You mean you'd run away?"
"I'd hate to, but once I was going to. I stayed because you needed me."
"I guess I could keep a watch on you, if I had to," announced the father shortly.
"You couldn't keep a ball an' chain on me," retorted the son. "I wouldn't be much use that way about the farm."
The elder Burton very deliberately lighted his pipe. Like many men who fly suddenly into passions at nothing, he had the surprising faculty of remaining calm when anger might be expected. Now he said only, "Let's hear your notion, son. What's been keepin' you awake of nights?"
"It hasn't been just thinkin' about myself that's done it," began Ham, steadying his voice, though it still held a throb of fervor which neither his father nor mother had ever heard before. "I've been thinkin' about all of you. You an' mother are workin' your fingers to the bone an' your hearts to the breakin' point—for what? Just now you sent Mary away cryin' to bed because she wanted to be pretty. Why shouldn't she want to be? Isn't it part of a woman's mission? You call a thing vanity that's just havin' some life an' ambition in her heart. What's life got in store here for Mary or for Paul or for me? We're startin'—not endin' up. We have our ambitions. If we stay here Mary will be drudgin' till she dies. Paul's got the soul of a great musician, an' he might as well be dead right now as to stay here, an' as for me I'd a heap rather be dead."
"Oh, I see," commented Tom Burton very drily. "You figure that it'll be pleasanter for us to move into a palace somewhere, an' have a dozen or two servants waitin' on us. All right, where's the palace comin' from?"
Ham spoke in absolute confidence. "I'll get it for you—as many palaces as you want," he declared with steady-eyed effrontery; "if only you give me the chance. All I ask is this. For God's sake, take the chain off me—let me get into the fight."
Ham Burton was a tall and well-thewed lad for his age. His muscle fiber had drawn strength from the ax and the log-pole, but as yet it had not become heavy with decades of hard labor. He still stood slender and gracefully tapering from shoulders to waist and just now there was something trance-like in his earnestness which made wild prophecies seem almost inspired. The hard-headed father eyed him with good-humored irony.
"And how do you figure to get us all these things, son?" he inquired.
"I'll show you," came the quick and undoubting response. "All I want you to do is to leave this place and educate me. Every year you stay here you're spending part of what you've laid by, an' none of it ever comes back. Gamble it on me, an' I'll attend to all the rest."
At that the bearded farmer broke into a loud laugh.
"I reckon you're fixed to give me a written guarantee, ain't you?" he demanded. "But maybe just for the sake of makin' talk you'd better tell how you know you can swing such a man-sized contract."
"I know"—the lad's voice mounted into a positive crescendo of conviction—"I know by somethin' that tells me, an' it's somethin' that can't lie. The prophets knew that God had picked 'em out because He told 'em so in visions. I haven't just heard voices in dreams I've had the voice in me and I know—know I tell you—that, with a chance, I can be as great a man as any man ever was. I'm not guessin' or deludin' myself. I tell you, I know! I've always known."
"I reckon, Ham," said the father gravely, "I can tell you the name of this thing that's been informin' you how great a man you can get to be. It ain't nothin' under God's heaven but self-conceit."
But the boy swept on. "Napoleon's first friends were folks that ran a laundry, but afterward kings couldn't talk to him unless he gave 'em permission. John Hayes Hammond, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick, were all poor boys. None of those men had any better blood in their veins than I've got in mine, an' if you want to call it that, none of 'em had more self-conceit."
"I reckon you've got good enough blood to have better sense," observed the father shortly. Then with a very human inconsistency he added, "I don't often brag about it, but my middle name is Standish and Miles Standish was an ancestor of mine."
"And my name," retorted the boy, "is Hamilton, and Alexander Hamilton's family were ancestors of my mother's. I reckon neither of those men would feel very proud to see us settin' down here, wearin' our lives away in a country where the ends won't meet."
"This damned foolishness has gone far enough," ruled the elder in a voice of finality, his amusement suddenly giving way once more to sternness. "I've listened to you because you seemed to be full of talk an' I was willin' to let you get it off your chest, but I don't need counsel from any cub of a boy. I'm nigh onto fifty years old an' I've run my family all these years. I had enough brains to get on with before you was born an' if you've got all the sense you think you've got, you got it from me an' your mother. Until you get to be twenty-one, you'll do what I bid you. Heretofore you've done it willin'ly. I hope you'll go on doin' it that way—but if you don't, I guess I'm still man enough to make you. Now go to bed—an' go quick."
The lad flushed to his cheekbones and for a moment he made no move to obey. Under the tyrannizing manner of his father's voice his spirit rose in rebellion. Tom Burton strode over and his attitude was threatening. "Did you hear what I said to you?" he inquired. "Are you going by yourself, or have I got to take you upstairs?"
Slowly and with a strong self-mastery, Ham came to his feet. "I'll go to bed now," he replied quietly, "because it would be a pity for us to quarrel—but I've got a few more things to say, and, after awhile, I guess you'll have to listen to 'em. We'll talk about this thing some more."
"We'll talk about it some more—when I get good an' ready—if I ever do—an' if I don't we won't never talk about it any more. Go to bed!"
When the lad disappeared up the stairway, he left a long and constrained silence behind him. From the mother's chair came a sound that hinted at secret weeping, and at last Tom Burton straightened his hunched shoulders and gazed across at young Edwardes, whose eyes were no longer smiling, but very sober.
"I hope you're satisfied now," said the host bitterly. "You've played merry hell with this family. Yesterday my son did my bidding without question. My daughter was an obedient child an' a natural one without foolishness. You've been under my roof three hours an' my house rises rebellious against me in my old age. And you bear a name that's always stood for order an' wisdom—not for stirrin' up trouble. I reckon I ought to turn you out in the snow, but I won't—I only hope you're satisfied."
"Mr. Burton," answered the young millionaire quietly, "I should be sorry to have you think that. If I have kindled a spark in little Mary that you never saw before it is nothing of which either you or she need feel ashamed. As for the boy, it was not I who incited him. He has been suppressing thoughts until now that reached the point of eruption, that's all." He paused, then added very thoughtfully: "Even if I did influence them both, it was as the unconscious tool upon which the hand of Destiny chanced to fall. The boy only seeks fulfilment; fulfilment that will make life better for all of you—if he succeeds."
"Yes—if he succeeds. All he's got to do is to start out empty-handed and lick the world to a frazzle. All I've got to do is to gamble the little savings of twenty-five years of frugal living on his being able to do it."
"That," said Edwardes, "was hardly what I meant. If you'll let me make one suggestion, since you credit me with already having done so much, it is this. That boy may be, or may not be, the genius he thinks himself, but he's got a brain that drives and torments him. He thinks! If you will treat him as a counsellor and argue with him without sternness it will pay you. The final decision will rest with you, but let him argue. Don't choke him off and make a vassal of him instead of a son. His type of brain can't be leashed."
The father sat moody and did not at once reply. Finally he shook himself out of his reverie and repeated: "Argue with him? How can a man argue with a boy that thinks he's a genius and a miracle-worker? Besides, while he's gabbin' nonsense he can look at you with somethin' in his eyes that makes you feel like a fool."
"Let me remind you of one thing." The young man from the outer world spoke very quietly. "The chapters of history that stand out in boldest relief are chapters dealing with men who were miracle-workers, men who had something in their eyes that dominated other men. I have been reared close enough to the center of financial achievement to have seen something of that. Perhaps that boy of yours is born with the stamp of victory upon him—who knows? Given the chance, he may fulfill his own visions. Both of your sons are dreamers, but the elder may be a doer of dreams as well as a dreamer of dreams. He's an unquenchable flame. Don't force him to smolder until he bursts into blaze. Give him a chance to talk. Give him a safety-valve."
Tom Burton drew his brows close over perplexed and baffled eyes; eyes full of foreboding and anxiety. His voice was full of bewilderment. "What does it all mean?" he murmured half-aloud. "What's the cause of all these voices an' protests where everything's been quiet an' peaceable up to now? Why ain't we never heard nothin' about all this before if it's such a big thing an' a thing that the Lord intended?" He gazed about him helplessly and with the face of one who sees omens and cannot construe them, but who feels a nameless fear of their portent.
"At all events," reiterated the guest, "you will do well to hear what the boy wants to say, and now I will bid you good-night."
When he had gone, the older man sat in thought for awhile, and, when next his voice broke the silence, it was in a much softened timbre, a voice tinged with tenderness.
"Mother," he called in an undertone, and the woman who had borne his children and stood shoulder to shoulder with him through the years of fight, came over and knelt at his knee. He took her hand and held it for a while in silence, and then he said a little brokenly: "Mother, when we first came here from the little church down there, this house looked pretty good to us, didn't it?"
"To me, Tom," she said softly, "it has always looked good."
"Do you remember," he went on irrelevantly, "when we brought that slip of vine from the mountain and planted it by the porch? It's over the roof now."
The woman only pressed his hand; and after a moment he went on.
"There are a couple of graves out there in the churchyard that I'd hate mightily to leave."
"The two we lost," she whispered.
"An' yet maybe if we stay here we'll lose 'em all." Tom Burton was making a decided effort to hold his voice steady.
"Don't—don't, Tom," protested the woman.
"When you married me, Elizabeth," he went on with the air of one resolved to take full account, "I reckon you could have done a good deal better, it's been a long fight here an' a hard one."
"I've been happy," she told him.
"Your hand was right slim then, an' now it's hard from work. To me, there ain't no other hand as beautiful, mother, but there's no use denying that we can't hold out much longer, unless the children stand by an' help us."
"They will, Tom. They will. Ham may talk, but he won't desert."
"I know that, but the question is, have we got the right to hold them here? Is Ham raving, or is he right? That's the question you an' me have got to decide, mother."
"Do you think, Tom," she demanded, rising and anxiously looking at him, "do you think that even if we had all the things money could give us—we'd be any happier in the long run? Life's been hard with us, but it's always been wholesome."
"I'm contented, mother, but what does well enough for old blood may not satisfy the young. It ain't the first time I've thought about this thing. They're quittin' all round us, an' they're quittin' because they're beat. I've always thought this country could be redeemed. If boys like Ham thought so, too, it might be done, but it takes young blood, and if a feller's heart ain't in it, he can't do it."
Her only answer was a sigh, and he continued: "We've still got enough laid by in the bank to live somewhere for a few years an' give the children decent educations. If we stay here too long maybe we can't even do that. What shall we do?"
For a while they sat without talk, and then the mother brokenly suggested: "Let's hear what Ham says an' let's make up our minds slow."
Together they rose, and, blowing out the lamp, went up the stairs. As they passed Ham's door they paused, and the father whispered, "I don't want the boy to think I'm hard on him."
Inside, there was no light, but they could hear the eldest son thrashing restlessly about in his bed, and they knew that he was not sleeping.
Outside the snow was still falling with quiet relentlessness. It was wrapping deeper and deeper the white slopes of the mountains and piling feathery drifts against the windward sides of the sighing pines. Here and there a burdened branch creaked under its travail. Now and then the wind that drove the snow rose to a gusty whisper, and a stark limb scraped the eaves of the house with grating, lifeless fingers. But between the occasional stress-cries of the storm, there came the low, dirge-like monotony of the sifting snowfall. And as always in old houses there were the little voices and the minute nameless stirrings of the night. The ghost-moan of drafty chimneys and the creak of warped timbers became audible accentuators of the silence.
Ham heard them all and to him they were like the wretched echoes of a jail where the small clicking night-sounds creep into dreams and poison them with reminders of confinement. His brain was hot with a fever of restiveness and beyond his cell-like room he saw the world from which he was barred: the world which the tongueless voice in his heart kept heralding to him as his own world to conquer.
In another bed across the carpetless floor rose and fell the even breath of Edwardes, who was sleeping as a man sleeps after fighting a blizzard. Under the boy's own hot cheek was the roughness of a slipless pillow and his limbs thrashed between coarse sheets that covered a lumpy mattress.
Out beyond the barriers of the snow-stifled mountains stretched endless continents and seas inviting his soul. Men of alien races and alien thought trod lands where palm trees nodded along white beaches and where the sea was blue as sapphire. Thousands of miles away were deserts agleam with gold and caravans swinging between the burning arch of the sky and the scorching sands. Great cities rose before his eyes, beckoning him, calling to him: brooding cities of gray turrets and foggy streets; strange cities lit with sunset fires on domes and minarets; laughing cities gay with festivals. All these things he was hungry to see; to see as a master of the world walking its varied ways, achieving its affairs. Through his waking dreams marched a parade of great figures, Hannibal, Caesar the Corsican, Talleyrand, Disraeli, Montagu, Pitt, the men with whom this tongueless voice proclaimed his brotherhood; the men who had found life's granite as hard as that which lay heaped about him, who had conquered it and chiseled it into monuments of history. His hand slipped under his pillow and closed on the dollars he had made. His troubled face smoothed into a smile.
"Slivers Martin paid me ten dollars," he murmured to himself, "an' I bought the lot of 'em for seven."
When young Jefferson Edwardes set out the next morning for his winter's imprisonment in the shack where he must fight the white specter of slow death, amid the white isolation of the snow, he left behind him a household to all outward seeming as quiet as it had ever been. But all that morning and afternoon while Ham was away at school, Tom Burton sat deeply engrossed in calculations involving scraps of paper upon which he was laboriously figuring, and frequent consultation of a slender bank-book. And Ham, as he trudged back across the snow, came with a face set for combat. Hitherto he had obeyed and now the time had come when his inherent power of leadership must assert itself. If the world could not conquer him—and he was utterly certain it could not—he must not flinch from the task of riding down the first opposition he met—even though it be the opposition of his own blood. Afterward his family should know only tenderness and ease and luxury, but now they must acknowledge his mastery.
Of the possibility of failure he never dreamed. His star was in the heavens and Destiny had spoken. Just as the cork plunged to the bottom of the pail must inevitably rise to the top, so he must rise. He was of the oligarchy of the great, of the chosen of the gods, and now the voices of Destiny were calling him to the undertaking of his mission. Tonight the question must be thrashed out, yet when he arrived at the house he went quietly about the round of monotonous chores and after that sat through the evening meal with no mention of the things in his heart. It was his father who first broached the subject and he broached it bluntly while the family sat about him, in the spirit of the primitive family council.
"Ham," he said slowly, "I've been sittin' here all day turnin' your notions over in my mind. You want to go away from here and to abandon this place where you was born; where your mother and me started housekeepin'; where we've lived for twenty years. If we decided to do that—an' it wouldn't be no easy thing for either your mother or me—what plans would you aim to carry out?"
The boy shook his head. He did not shake it in the abashed fashion of one confronted with a question for which he has no answer, but with the frank manner of one brushing aside a trivial and irrelevant question.
"I don't know yet. First I've got to have an education, then I'll decide what I'm going to do, and when I decide I'll succeed."
The father's brows knitted themselves gravely and with displeasure. "Then, after all your talk and bragging, you haven't got no definite plan. All you argue for is cutting loose from the roof over us an' livin' up our little savin's."
"I know that I can give you big things in the place of little things." The lad's voice again mounted and into his face came the flush of assured inspiration. "The thing that tells me is something you wouldn't understand. I can't any more put it into words for you than I can tell you why the moon swings the tides, but it's just as dead sure as that an' I can feel it here." He clapped his hands over his heart and went on with quiet certainty: "I don't know no name to call it by except a feelin' of power. There's only one thing in God's whole world that can stop me, an' that's ignorance and lonesomeness. You call it all dreamin'—well, give me a chance and I'll make it all so real that you can't have any more doubts."
"I thought," said Tom Burton a bit wearily, "that maybe you might have some sensible argument, but all you've got is moonshine. I've been settin' here figurin' all day so that, if you could convince me, I'd know where I stood with the bank, but it don't hardly seem worth talkin' about."
"I can't make you understand," declared the boy unwaveringly, "because you're thinkin' in hundreds where I'm thinkin' in millions. You ask me about details. All I know is that I've got a destiny to be as great as any man can be an' that success is goin' to be my slave. I don't know what I'm going to do because I haven't seen yet what battle-field is best worth winnin'. When I see what's the biggest—I'll win it."
"So you want us to take what we've saved and gamble it all on your good opinion of yourself. Do you realize, my son, that we ain't got much and that we've saved what we have got by goin' without all our lives? When that's gone, we won't have nothin' left to gamble with a second time. Ain't it a good deal to pay for learnin' the folly of self-conceit?"
The boy's answer was direct and swift and confident. "One chance is all I need. It's only a coward that wants a guarantee of more chances, if he fails once. What sort of a farmer do you think Paul will ever make? He couldn't heft a second-growth log of timber. But out there in the world where a man's rated higher than a mule maybe Paul's got it in him to be great. Some day Mary's goin' to be a woman and a beautiful woman. She's got a right to life. Don't you ever see the difference between life an' just livin'? It's the difference between havin' a soul and havin' nothin' but a belly."
"Do you suppose"—the father spoke petulantly despite his resolution to hear his son to the end—"do you suppose we've always been poor because we liked it?"
"If you stay poor," came the prompt retort, "it's because you won't let me change it. We're stayin' here an' slowly starvin' our hearts an' brains an' souls because Money's got us bluffed. I'm goin' to make money my slave an' not my master—an' if you'll trust me you can have it to play with."
"You tell me that you are one of the almightiest great men that was ever born, an' that somethin' keeps on tellin' you so. You tell me that I can't understand the voice you hear," said Tom Burton slowly. "Don't you know that all the lunatic asylums are full of Emperors of Germany and Kings of England—an' they all hear them same kind of voices? That's why they're there."
"But there's one Emperor of Germany and one King of England outside them places—an' they're on thrones. All the masters of the world have felt their power an' folks have laughed at 'em—at first." Ham spoke with desperate seriousness that made his eyes glow steadily and forcefully. "And yet the big things have been done by those men, and from the first they knew that they were different. You say I've been braggin'. Did you ever hear me say one word before yesterday about bein' different from any other boy? I'm sayin' it now because there isn't any use in lyin'. I know just as well as if I'd already done it, that I can look down on other successful men as far as a mountain-top looks down on a little hill. I've done my work here on this farm, an' I haven't ever shirked. Now I want my chance—an' I don't want my family to go to seed. I want the blood of the Standishes and the Hamiltons to climb up and not to run down hill and die out in a rotting puddle at the bottom. I want these things and I'm goin' to have 'em—This farm an' you have fought for a lifetime an' the farm's whipped you. I tell you there is just one thing in God Almighty's world that can whip me—just one thing that I'm afraid of—an' it's this farm. If you stay here I reckon I can't hardly desert you, but I'd rather you'd kill me outright. That's all I've got to say."
Tom Burton rose from his chair and took two or three turns across the frayed strips of carpet. His eyes were no longer the eyes of a father irritated by the insubordinate fret of a fledgling son begging permission to test his wings. His bearded face bore the seamed uncertainty of his deeply vexed spirit. Perhaps in that moment there came to him some sense of conversion to the prophet-like assurance of his son. Perhaps he felt the dread of transplanting and a vague wonder whether the gifts of wealth, if they came, might not bring disaster in their wake. At last he turned, cramming his hands into his trousers' pockets, and swept the little family circle with eyes in which flashed something of patriarchal fire.
"Mother," he demanded, "you have heard what the boy says. Does it sound like reason to you, or is it just a stripling's restlessness?"
Elizabeth Burton looked from her husband's face to that of her eldest child. It seemed to her that the father's eyes were wistful and sorely distressed, and that the son's face was tightly drawn with a feverish burning of the eyes. Suddenly she felt like an arbiter called to judge between them. Her boy with his Caesar's ambition was breaking his heart to go. Her husband, with much of life behind, could only yield with something like a break in his own. Her eyes moistened.
"If he feels called into the world, Tom—" she began, then halted. The husband waited, and she went on again. "If he feels it so strong, maybe it must mean something. It's mighty hard to say. But, Tom, I know Ham better than anybody else does. He's not the kind of boy to leave us alone. If we need him he'll stay."