What he suffered as the afternoon faded and the ticking of the clock thudded on his senses, no one could ever know.
We may leave retribution for sin out of our scheme of things-as-they-should-be for others. Each sin takes care of itself, and burns and blisters as it strikes in. Men may suffer without giving outward sign. Justice is never cheated, and we may trust her workings alone. Jared suffered. Suffered until nerves and body could bear no more, and then he went down to the Black Cat to face the situation Joyce had created and deal with it in his own fashion.
When Joyce went with bowed head from the only semblance of a home that had ever been hers, she carried with her, in the rough basket, all that she could rightfully call her own in personal effects. The load was not heavy and she scarcely noticed it as she walked rapidly through the maple thicket which divided her father's garden-place and the Long Meadow.
She felt like an exile, indeed. A friendless creature who had no real hold upon any one.
She thought of Gaston—but he no longer suggested safety to her. She thought of Lauzoon, and a wave of fear and repulsion swept over her. She knew she was driven to him. She knew she must accept whatever fate he offered, but with the remnant of her intuitive belief in her personal charm and beauty, she paused at the edge of the wood, to plan some sort of attitude that would secure Jude's admiration as well as his protection. She must not call upon him in a moment of weakness and defeat. That would be putting a weapon in his hand that no St. Ange man could be trusted to wield mercifully.
She must hide all traces of outraged feeling; she must find a vantage point from which Jude might take her. He must come to her; she must not go to him. Thus she pondered. For one wild instant she turned her face toward Hillcrest. There were those over the hill who might give her work—what work? What could she do? But granting that she obtained work, how long could she retain a position, with her father and Jude in pursuit? No; she was a product of St. Ange and had all the faltering distrust of other environments common to the shrinking childhood of the poor village.
Down beside the last tree of the thicket the girl crouched with her shabby basket beside her.
The elemental woman in her saw, as clearly as any cultivated sister might have seen, that if she hoped for success in her married life, she must not throw herself upon Jude crushed and downed. A brave front must be the breastwork behind which she was to fight.
When she had told her father she was going to Isa Tate, she had spoken wildly; but the inevitable closed upon her. Every one went to Leon Tate in trouble. Leon, like the old gods, first made mad whom he wished to destroy; for the trust that all St. Ange put in Leon's bland generosity was nothing short of madness. When any difficulty arose, private or public, it was carried to the Black Cat for adjustment and final settlement. By putting every individual under deep obligation to him, Leon controlled money, loyalty and obedience. Every man in St. Ange was in his debt, and every woman had accepted, in some form or other, his wife's services. The difference between Isa and her husband was, however, vital. Tate was a friend to man in order that he might draw his victims into his net. Isa had a woman's soul hidden under her rough exterior and, while she played the part assigned her by her diplomatic lord, she found comfort for her own lonely nature in giving comfort.
Joyce, in going to Isa for protection, would in no wise interfere with her father's welcome at the tavern. Leon would arrange that, and bring about a brilliant climax for himself; at least he always had done so in emergencies.
Crouching under the tree, as the sun went down behind Beacon Hill, Joyce saw the future unfold itself. There was nothing to do but go to Isa. Then Leon would, by his subtlety, make it seem that she had come there to get ready for her marriage to Jude. He'd even arrange, perhaps, the marriage, and so clutch Jude and her closer to his power. He'd smooth the way for her father, too, and hush tongues and smile—oh, how he would smile on them all!—and no one would ever know.
The sun went down and the stars came out. Still the girl sat there; but presently a healthy appetite was the call that roused her. She had not eaten since noon of the day before. She was weak and suffering. She thought with a kind of comfort that perhaps it was hunger alone that was now causing her mental and physical agony. After she had eaten, all would be well with her. She could control Jude and her own fate. She would never let any one think—Gaston above all—that she was not mistress of her own shabby little life.
She got up dizzily, and was shocked to find how heavy the basket was; still, with a constant shifting from hand to hand, she could manage it.
Lola's giddy little lark song sprang to memory out of the ashes of her hurt and pain, and rose and rippled in the fragrant darkness as she entered the Long Meadow.
Beacon Hill stood gloomily to the west, and above it gleamed a particularly bright star. Across Long Meadow the lights in the houses flickered from open windows, and the Black Cat's glare seemed to control her motions. It drew her on and on. It was to play a part in her future as it did in the futures of all—sooner or later.
Wearily she mounted the steps of the tavern and went to the side door that opened into whatever there was of privacy in Leon's establishment. Isa was washing the supper dishes. She was a tall, gaunt woman with a kindly glance that Nature had, for a safeguard, hidden under heavy black brows.
"You, Joyce?" she said, going on with her task. "I thought maybe it was some one else."
"Isa," the girl stepped cautiously forward, "I want to tell you something."
The gathering hilarity in the tavern made this moment secure. Isa put down her dish and faced the girl.
"What?" she asked bluntly.
Quickly, breathlessly the truth, with all its hideous colouring, truth bald, and yet with a saving clause for Gaston, was whispered in Isa's ear.
When the parting with Jared was confided, the woman put her arms about the girl.
"Now you hush, Joyce, I've heard enough. This is a man's world, God help us! Us women, when we can, must cling together. Me and Tate pull in harness because we find it pays—we'll help you out—Tate in his way, me in mine, but, Lord a-mighty, don't I hope there'll be a heaven just for women, some day!
"Sit down, you poor, little haggled thing, I don't believe you've eat a morsel. You look fagged out. They ain't worth it, Joyce, men ain't. Father, husband—not one of them. But since we've got to use them, we must make out some kind of game. Here!"
She set food before the wan girl, and the readjustment of life, in her masterful hands, seemed already begun.
It was comparatively easy, later on, to go into particulars with Isa. With the roar and clatter growing hourly more deafening in the tavern, Isa and Joyce, sitting on the back porch under the calm stars, spoke freely to each other.
Isa, like a dutiful wife, had, while Joyce satisfied her hunger, confided as much of the girl's trouble to Leon as she thought advisable. Leon had recognized the opportunity as one by which to capture what was left of Jared's independence, and rose to the emergency.
"Leave it to me," he said. "Everything will be blooming to-morrow like—like a—garden—er—Eden."
So now Isa had only Joyce's sore little heart to deal with.
"Come, girl," she began at last; "tears never yet unsnarled a knot. Be you, or be you not, going to marry Jude?"
"Yes—I am." There must be no doubt upon that score and Joyce sat up stiffly and faced her helper.
"Well, then, look at the thing sensible. In a place like St. Ange, where there ain't women to spare, you either got to be a decent married woman or you ain't. Long as I've lived in St. Ange, and that's been more'n twenty years, I ain't never yet seen a comfortable, respectable, satisfied, old maid—they ain't permitted here, and you know it. In season, of course, you'd marry—that's to be looked for. It chances to be Jude—and after you get over the strangeness, he'll do as well as any other. They are all powerfully alike when they have their senses. The sameness lies in their having their faculties. The only man as was ever different in St. Ange was Timothy Drake. He got smashed on the head by a falling tree up to Camp 3, and his wits was crushed out of him. But do you know, what was left of Tim was as gentle and decent and perticerlar as you'd want to find in any human. He never drank again, never cussed nor stormed, and I've laid it by as an item, that the badness and sameness of men lies in their wits—if you want a companionable, safe man, you've got to turn to sich as are bereft of their senses—and most women is that foolhardy they prefer wits and diviltry, to senselessness and decency."
Joyce smiled feebly at this philosophy.
"You are the one to decide," Isa went on. "Now see here, girl, I ain't lived fifty years for nothing. I ain't been in and out of my neighbour's houses, in times when all the closets are open, without learning a heap about things. Men is men and there's no getting around that. So long as you can, you better let them think they amounts to something even when you own to yourself they don't. Private opinions ain't going to bring on trouble; it's only when they ain't private. Now granting that man is what we know he is—it's plain common sense to get as much out of him as you can. Make the place you live in the best thing he's got; and just so long as you can, keep yourself a little bit out of his reach—tantalize him. There ain't nothing so diverting to a man as to claw after a woman, when he's got the belief in himself that when he wants to clutch her, he can.
"I know the kind of naked feeling you've got when you sense your power with men first; but that wears off when you get your bearings and find out that it's only a shuffle in the game, anyway. Land of love! if man and woman was all, then when they came face to face with life they would get smashed; but housework tempers the matter powerfully; and man's work out among other men; and then when children come and you have to contrive and pinch, why you just plod along and don't ever get flustered. It's just the first dash of cold water in the face, child; after that all lives is pretty much the same."
Joyce had grown quieter as Isa's words droned on. It was, for all her commotion, a very humdrum thing that had happened to her.
As it was she, Joyce, was going to be very respectable. She'd manage, and Jude would always find her worth his while to be decent for. She would wrench what she could from him and St. Ange and be a commonplace married woman.
Now that all the fuss and fury were over, it seemed quite a silly exhibition she had made of herself. She almost wished that she had stayed at home.
"The little loft room is yours, Joyce, for as long as you want it," Isa was saying, through the sobering silence. "I ain't going to side with Jared Birkdale when a woman's sense of right has been roused. Jared's wits are the keenest and the cruelest round here, and the poison in his tongue is the deadliest; I guess I know. Are you coming in, child? The bed's made, but you best carry a pitcher of fresh water up with you."
"I'll be there in a minute, Isa, and the cracked pitcher's by the well, isn't it?"
"Yes," Isa replied; "and I'll leave a lighted candle for you, the ile is pretty low in the lamp. Good night, child, and don't fuss. I never saw fussing hurt any one but the fusser."
Joyce rose stiffly and stood by the open door. She stretched her limbs and winced at the pain in them. Then she clasped her aching hands above her head and permitted her tired spirit one long, heavy sigh.
She stood for some time in that relieved state. The chill of the deepening night soothed her, and the late new moon looked down through the pines at her—then she turned sharply. Some one was near!
Her startled glance fell upon Jude Lauzoon. He was crouching upon the step of the porch.
"I thought you was sleeping, standing up," he whispered hoarsely. "I didn't want to scare you none."
"Why are you here?" Joyce's heart fluttered. Had he heard all?
"Why are you?" Jude turned the tables.
"Where else should I be—to—to—" she looked at him appealingly, "to get ready to be married?"
Jude was master of the situation in a way Joyce did not know. He could afford to be condescendingly gracious. He, of all who had taken part in this poor little drama, now held the centre of the stage, and the knowledge gave him a certain manliness highly becoming.
"Stay here until we get married—is that it?"
Jude felt a pity for her that would have been contempt had not her beauty and charm mastered him. He was going to clutch her once and for all, but he was willing to let her see that he only meant, since he must have her, to clutch close enough to bind her to him. He was not going to strangle her: he meant only to stifle her. Jude was cool now, and alert.
"I've got something to say to you, Joyce, and it better be said and done with. I slept on it last night and most of to-day. I went to your father's this evening to have it out, but you wasn't there. I met Jock Filmer in the Long Medder and he told me where you was, and why. Your father had aired his affair in the tavern."
Joyce clasped her cold fingers nervously. There was nothing for her to do but wait Jude's pleasure. Leon had not been able to overpower Jared's personality evidently.
"I saw you go to Mr. Gaston's shack night before last! I'd been there before you, and I was lying off in the pine grove when you came a-visiting."
The widening eyes of the listener were the only sign that this information was startling.
"Do you know," Jude gave a chuckle, "up to that minute when I saw you a-knocking, and him taking no heed, I had thought 'twas him as had been shining up to you. I was actually hard agin him, and once went so far as to go up there with my gun!" Joyce shivered. "Yes, by gosh! with my gun. Just suppose I'd killed him, and him not to blame either?
"Now there be some men, Joyce, that wouldn't have you after knowing what I know, but I ain't one as goes off the handle without looking on both sides. Since I know he's all right, I can manage you proper enough—and I own up to wanting you, and I'm willing to let bygones be bygones, only—and you might as well know this—once I've had my eyes open, I ain't going to shut them again. I'll always be within call if you should forget yourself, and take to attracting Mr. Gaston's attention. He's my friend now, by gosh! He's going to stand by me. He's the real stuff and shows up to me in the finest colours, never once hinting that your seeking him had made you cheap. He's a bigger feller than I ever thought, and I ain't going to have no foolishness. You understand?"
"Yes; oh, yes; I understand!" Again the shivering seized Joyce.
"I should think to have a man turn a deaf ear to you like that, would end any nonsense without more fuss."
"It—it will." The low voice shook.
"But you see, protecting a young girl agin herself is one thing. He might feel different if a married woman wanted to turn fool. Now, Joyce, I ain't ever going to say anything more about this, 'less it's necessary. I know you're pretty and maybe a bit more flighty along of that, but being married and having your own work, may tone you down. If you'll stick by me, I'll stick by you; and in time Mr. Gaston can be a friend to both of us and no harm done. You understand, don't you? I ain't hard, I'm only letting light in on the whole thing."
"I—I understand, Jude."
"And now, as to marrying. Mr. Gaston is going to lend me money, and I'm going to put up an addition to my shack, and get some fixings over to Hillcrest. If you want, we'll get married over there and rough it together before the buildin's done."
"I—I'd rather wait, Jude if you're willing. I want to get some—some things." Joyce's teeth were chattering. "But if a minister should happen in St. Ange in the meanwhile, I'd—I'd marry you." This seemed a reasonable request—"I don't like the minister over at Hillcrest, he's so fearful in his sermons, he makes me afraid."
"Well," Jude rose, "when the house gets along, we'll see. Things are tight and trim now. Good night! Go to bed—and forget it."
He put his hands on her shoulders and bent and kissed the cold, upturned face. Then he laughed: for he had got what he wanted, and she was very sweet and pretty.
"Go to bed now—trot on!"
Joyce staggered indoors and hurriedly bolted the door behind her. She took the spluttering candle and mounted the steep stairs. Once alone in the small stifling room, she gasped, and put her hands to her throat as if to remove a pressure that was there.
Presently she blew out the light, set the shutters wide to the pale moonlight, and undressed herself quietly and methodically.
Already she seemed used to her lot. It was very ordinary, tame and familiar.
She had received the first dash of cold water in the face, and had accepted the new situation.
There was no longer even the excitement of trying to dangle a little above Jude. He had her close in his grip. She must accept whatever he doled out to her—and that was the fate of all respectable married women in St. Ange.
The late September afternoon held almost summer heat as it flooded St. Ange. The breeze gave a promise of crispness as it passed fitfully through the pines; but on the whole a calmness and silence pervaded space which gave the impression of a summer Sunday when a passing minister had been prevailed upon to "stop over."
However, it was not a summer Sunday, as St. Ange well enough knew, for every able-bodied man in the place had that day signed a contract with the Boss of Camp 7 for the lumber season; and the St. Angeans never signed contracts on Sunday.
The calmness was accounted for by the fact that Joyce Birkdale was to be married. The circumstances leading up to this event had been sufficiently interesting to demand sobriety. St. Ange did not believe in putting on airs, but it had its own ideas of decorum; things had sort of dovetailed lately, and, according to Leon Tate, "it was up to them to spread eagle and plant their banner for knowing a good thing from a rotten egg."
Leon was above consistent figures of speech. He had power of his own that controlled even language.
After Jared Birkdale had defied Leon in his own stronghold, and, instead of agreeing with Tate that Joyce had come to Isa as to a mother, had insisted upon bare, unglorified fact, he had betaken himself into oblivion. Tate was confronted with the predicament of having a helpless girl on his hands to do for—unless another man was forthcoming.
Jude rose to the occasion. He confided to Jock Filmer his desire for immediate marriage, and good-natured Jock, his system permeated by gossip, consented to send down to the Junction—since Joyce objected to the hell-fire minister at Hillcrest—and bring a harmless wayfarer of the cloth, who Murphy, the engineer of the daily branch train, had said, was summering there.
"He's a lean, blighted cuss," Murphy had explained; "what God intended for an engineer, but Nature stepped in and flambasted his constitootion, and so he took to preaching—that not demanding no bodily strength.
"He comes pottering round the engine, using the excuse of saving my soul, and I don't let on that I see through him. I give him pints about the machinery; and if I tell him he can ride in the cab with me anywhere, he'd marry a girl, or bury a tramp, if he had to go to hell to do it."
So Jock detailed Murphy to decoy the side-tracked gentleman at the Junction up to St. Ange.
The stranger was expected on the afternoon train, and Tate had the guest room of the Black Cat in readiness.
Jock had lazed about the Station since noon. The wedding preparations bored him, and the train's delay angered him.
"See here!" he exploded to Tom Smith, the agent, "ain't it stretching a point too far when that gol-durned train gives herself four hours' lee-way?"
Tom spat with dignity, and remarked casually:
"Long as she ain't likely to meet any train going down, seems to me there ain't any use to git warmer than is necessary."
"If she keeps on," drawled Jock, "she'll have a head-on collision with herself some day. Is that the dying shriek of the blasted hussy?"
Tom stopped the imminent expectoration.
"It be," he announced, and went out on the track to welcome the guest.
"She do look," he contemplatively remarked, "like she had an all-fired jag on."
The train came in sight, swaying unsteadily on its rickety tracks. Puffing, panting and hissing, it reached the platform and stopped jerkily.
Murphy sprang from the engine; the conductor strode with dignity worthy a Pullman official, to the one passenger coach behind the baggage car, and assisted a very young and very sickly man to alight.
Tom Smith, with energy concentrated on this single activity of the twenty-four hours, began hurling mail-bag and boxes about with the abandon that marks the man whom Nature has fitted to his legitimate calling.
Filmer eyed the passenger with disapproving interest; Murphy, after looking at some part of the machinery, lolled up to Jock.
"Is that it?" Filmer nodded toward the stranger, who sat exhaustedly upon a cracker-box, destined for the Black Cat, with his suit-case at his feet.
"It ain't, then," Murphy returned. "It got on the Branch 'stead of the Mountain Special, by mistake. It's a lunger bound for the lakes, and some one gave him a twist as to the track an' we caught 'im. But shure, the rale thing, the parson, when I was after tellin' 'im of the job what was at this end of the game, he up and balked—divil take 'im!—an' said he wasn't goin' to tie for time and eternity, two unknown quantities. What do ye think of that?"
Jock thought hotly of it, and expressed his thought so fervidly that the boy on the cracker-box gave attention.
"Say," Murphy continued, "give it straight, Filmer; does it be after meanin' life or death for Birkdale's girl? What's the almighty hurry, anyway?"
He leered unpleasantly. Jock squared himself, and faced the engineer.
"Come off with that guff!" he drawled. "What hurry there be is my hurry, you blamed idiot! And my reasons are my own, confound you! I've set my mind on having that affair come off to-morrow, gol durn it, and I'm going to have a parson if I have to dangle down to the Junction on that old machine of yours, myself."
A few added words of luridly picturesque intent gave force and colour to this declaration.
The stranger on the cracker-box rose weakly and drew near.
"Excuse me," he began, in a voice of peculiar sweetness and earnestness, "I wonder if I can be of any service? I am a minister!"
Filmer reeled before this announcement, took the stranger in from head to foot, then remarked in an awed tone:
"The hell you are!"
"I am. My name's Drew, Ralph Drew."
Murphy beat a rapid retreat. The scene was too much for him. Filmer, in doubt as to whether this was a joke or not, stood his ground.
The young fellow laughed good-naturedly.
"I know what you think," he said, and coughed sharply; "I got my credentials all right. I nearly finished myself in getting them, but they're all right. Graduated last June, went under soon after, got on my feet two weeks ago, and am making for Green Lake. I got side-tracked at the Junction through my own stupidity, and landed here. Perhaps you can direct me to a quiet place for the night, and I'll be glad to help you out in any way along my line, if I can."
This lengthy explanation was interrupted by short, hacking coughs, and Filmer's eyes never dropped from the eager boyish face through it all.
Presently he leaned down and took the dress-suit case from the other's hand.
"Drop that," he drawled, "and you follow me. There's the Black Cat Tavern, but I guess that ain't your kind. Do you think you can make my shack? It's a half-mile, and pretty uppish grade."
The boy began to thank Filmer.
"Hold on!" Jock commanded. "Keep your wind for the climb, and stop gassing."
The two started on, and the climb was a silent one. Filmer appreciatively strode ahead, speechless. Drew, panting, accepted the situation gratefully, and made the most of his position and his leader's silence.
Filmer's shack was a lonely place, standing on a little pine-clad knoll facing the west. It had four small rooms, a broad piazza, and a thrifty garden at the rear.
The room assigned to Drew had a cot-bed and rough, home-made toilet accommodations that suggested comfort and a sense of refinement. When Filmer made him welcome to it, he said quietly: "Now kid, you make yourself trim and dandy. Come out on the piazza when you get good and ready, and we'll have supper out there later." It was evident that Jock's sympathies had been touched.
Once alone, Drew sank upon the low bed, and permitted the waves of weakness and weariness to engulf him.
The young face grew pinched and blue, a faintness rose and conquered him. The eyes closed, and the breath almost stopped. But it was only momentary, and with returning consciousness came renewed hope and sudden strength.
From the broad open window the boy could see the western hills, already gay with glistening autumn colour, shining under the glowing sunset sky. The tall pointed pines, standing here and there in clumps, rose sharply dark in the early gloaming of the valley.
"It's my chance," thought the boy, his eyes widening with enjoyment of the beauty; "and, by Jove, I believe I've caught on!"
He got to his feet. The giddiness was gone. He flung off his dust-stained garments, as if they held all of his past weakness and misery. He plunged his head into the clear, cold water in the big basin on the pine table; when he emerged, colour had mounted to his pale face, and depression was a thing of the past.
"Hang it!" he exclaimed, rubbing his face and head with the rough towel that he took from the back of a chair; "this is good enough for me. No Green Lake in mine! I'll send for my trunk"—he had begun to whistle in the pauses of his thought—"and put up my fight right here. Filmer's good stuff; and there's a job ready-made for me, I bet! This is where I was sent, and no mistake. What's that?"
It was the odours of supper, and Drew stood still, inhaled the fragrance and grinned broadly.
"Gee whiz!" he cried; "I'm as hungry as a ditch digger." He dashed over to his suit-case, opened it and pulled out the contents. A pair of flannel trousers, a heavy flannel shirt and thick shoes were selected, and soon Drew, radiant and revived, went forth from the disorder he had created, eager for the meal that he heard Filmer placing on the piazza table.
Drew was to eat many of Filmer's meals in the future; he was to learn that Jock was a master-hand at cooking, but he was never again to know just the positive joy that he felt during that first meal; for he brought to it an appetite made keen by the hope of recovered health—the health he had squandered so foolishly, poor fellow, while he was making for his goal at college.
At last he tilted his chair back and laughed.
"I haven't eaten like that," he said, "nor with such enjoyment, since I went tramping up in the Maine woods when I was a youngster."
Filmer was removing the empty dishes. There was a sense of delicacy about his host that was compelling Drew's notice. He watched him passing from kitchen to piazza, and he saw that he was big, strong and handsome, but with a certain weakness, of chin, and a shyness of expression that came and went, marring the general impression.
Filmer's shyness was increasing. Never before in his life had he been brought into close personal contact with "the cloth" as he termed it, and even this "swaddling garment" was having a slow-growing hold upon him.
Presently Jock came timidly out, after his last visit to the kitchen, with pipes and a tobacco-box.
"I'm not certain," he began, "how your kind takes to tobacco, but if I don't get my evening smoke, I get a bad spell of temper—so, if you don't object—I'll light up."
"If you'll wait a moment," Drew returned, "I'll join you. I always smoke my own pipe—I've got sort of chummy with it—but I'll share your tobacco."
Filmer grinned, and the cloud passed from his face.
"I calculated," he said, "that your kind classed tobacco with cussing and jags. Light up, kid."
They were soon lost in the fragrant smoke, the bliss of satisfied appetite, and a peaceful scene. The sun went down, and left the hills and valley in an afterglow of glory. The beauty was so touching that even Filmer succumbed, shook the ashes from his pipe and delayed refilling. Presently he looked at Drew's face. It had paled from emotion, and shone white in the shadow of the porch.
"You look peaked." Filmer's words brought the boy back to earth. "Been through a long siege, maybe?"
"Oh, overstudy and weak lungs!" Drew spoke cheerfully. "Bad combination, you know, and I didn't pull in as soon as I should have. I crammed for exams. Made them, and then collapsed. I'm all right now, though. All the struggle's over. I've only to reap the reward. There was a big doctor down in New York who told me that the air up here was my one chance. I'm going to take it. A few months here, and a life anywhere else I may choose, he said.
"What do you say to letting me have your room and company—you needn't give any more of the latter than you want to, you know—for a spell? You'll find me easy to get on with, I fancy, no one has ever complained of me in that way. I don't care what Green Lake is like, I like this better. I like this, way down to the ground. I've gone daffy over the whole thing." He drew in a long, happy breath. "What do you say?"
"I'd like to ask, if it ain't too inquisitive," Jock inquired, ignoring the boy's eagerness, while he put forth his own claims, "why in thunder a chap like you took to the preaching business? Somehow you look like a feller that might want to enjoy life."
Drew laughed heartily.
"Why, I mean to enjoy life," he replied, "and I chose this profession because I like it. I believe in it. You see, I was born to be a fighter. If I'd had a big, lusty body like yours, I might have been—anything. As it is, I had to choose something where I could fight with other weapons than bone, muscle and bodily endurance. I'm going into the fight of helping men and women in the best way I can, don't you see? I suppose I must sound cheeky and brazen to talk this way, but I'm full of the joy of it all, and I've made the goal, you see, and for all the breakdown I've come out ahead. It's enough to stir one, don't you think?
"The night I graduated, I don't mind telling this to you, I went down on my knees when all the excitement was over and the lights were out, and I said, 'I am here. I've got money; the good God need not have me on his mind along that line; he can send me where he chooses, to do his work; I'm ready.'
"It was like consecrating myself, you know. Well, when the sickness came, I thought perhaps he didn't want me or my money either; but I came out of the Valley and here I am now, and I tell you—it seems good."
Filmer folded his arms across his chest, and looked steadily ahead of him.
"Do you know," he said at length—"and I hope you'll excuse me—I think you're the most comical cuss that ever happened."
Drew met this frank opinion with the boyish laugh that was having the effect of clearing up all the dull places in Filmer's character. He had never heard that laugh equalled but once, and he rarely went back to that memory—the path was too hard and lonely.
The reserves were down between the two. Without reason or cause, perhaps, they had fallen into a confident liking.
"Have you done much marrying and burying yet?" The question startled Drew, then he recalled the conversation on the Station platform.
"Well, no," he said, "practical demonstration comes after graduation generally. I've substituted for ministers—preached a Sunday, now and then, you know; but of course, I can perform the marriage ceremony, or read the burial service."
"You look pretty young," Jock spoke slowly; he was noting the strange dignity of his guest. Any reference to his profession brought with it this calm assurance that held levity in check; "but it's this way. There's a wedding fixed for to-morrer. I've set my heart on it coming off, and there ain't a durned parson to be had, that the girl favours. Now under these circumstances, you can't afford to look a gift horse in the mouth so to speak, and no offence intended. I can give you a tip or two before you trot in, and as for you, why you know, there ain't nothing equal to being thrown neck and crop into a job.
"The first time I went logging I got one leg broke and my head smashed, but I haven't ever regretted it. That accident, and the incidental scare, did more for me than any two successful seasons could have done. Now, your plunging right into a marrying may prove providential. Sermons and infant christenings will seem like child's play after. What do you say?"
Drew was laughing and the tears stood in his eyes.
"I'll—I'll do my level best," he managed to say through his spasms of mirth. "This seems like a horrible approach to anything so serious, but it is the way you put it, you know, and—and the air, and the supper. The laugh comes easy, you see."
"Oh! enjoy yourself." Filmer waved his pipe aloft. "I'm glad you can take life this way, with the handicap of your trade, I don't quite see, by thunder, how your future parish is going to account for you, but so far as I'm concerned you can laugh till you bust."
Filmer was delighted. Not in years had he been so taken out of himself.
"Now this here town," he explained, "likes to have its buryings and weddings set off with a sermon with the principal actor as text. They like to get their money's worth. See? This girl, what I want spliced, is a devilish—" he paused—"you don't mind moderately strong language, do you?" he asked. "We all get flowery up here. What is lacking in events, talk makes up. I'll hold back when I can—in reason."
"Don't mind me!" Drew was trying to control his mirth.
Filmer nodded appreciatively.
"Well, as I was remarking—and I've got to be open with you—this here girl will be safer married, and so will some other folks. I ain't much of a reader of character, but I sense things like all creation, and I feel that getting the girl in harness as soon as possible is the only plain common-sense method. She's mettlesome, you know, the kind that kicks over the traces, and slams any one happening to be handy. She ain't never done it yet—but she's capable of it."
"Is—is the girl a relation or——?"
"Neither. Nor the man. The feller—Jude Lauzoon is his name—I don't care a durn for, but he's all gone over this girl, and if any one can steer him straight she can, and when she gets the reins in her hands, I believe she's going to keep her head, in order to steer straight.
"The girl's name is Joyce Birkdale. Mother dead; raised sort of promiscuous on the instalment plan. Father an old buck who only keeps sober because he want's to see what's going on. He lit out and made himself scarce a time back, and this here Joyce took refuge after a hell of—excuse me! after a row with the old man—up to the Black Cat. Leon Tate acts the father-part to any one in a fix—it helps his trade—keeps folks in his debt, you know, but he ain't going to hamper hisself past a certain point, and if this here Jude Lauzoon should get a beckon from old man Birkdale he'd skip as quick as thunder—that's what is troubling Tate, and, by gosh! it's troubling me, but for another reason what needn't enter into this here conversation.
"If it was trusting you with a funeral or a christening," Filmer felt his way gingerly, "I wouldn't care a durn. You can't hurt the dead and the kid might outgrow it; but when it comes to tying folks together tight, it's a blamed lot like trusting something brittle in a baby's hand. It mustn't be broke, you see, or there'll be h—I mean trouble, to pay."
"See here!" Drew sat up straight, "I'm not much younger than you, if the truth were known. So let us cut extreme youth out of the question."
"Maybe you are about my age, kid," Jock gazed indulgently upon him, "and don't let your necktie choke you; but you're pretty raw material, and I'm seasoned. That's the difference. It ain't anything against you. It's the way you've been handled. Burying is looked upon by young and old, solemn-like; but I didn't know how you looked upon—marrying."
"It's the solemnest thing in life." Drew spoke clearly and impressively. "I think death is a light matter in comparison. I've always thought that—since, well—for several years."
"Now you're talking!" Jock leaned over and gave Drew a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Now you're getting on the right course, and I want to give you this tip. Lay it on thick with Jude. Tell him he'll be everlasting blasted in kingdom-come if he don't act clean and hold on. Specially slap it on about holding on. Jude's intentions are good enough. He's powerful promising at the start, but he's the d——, the gol-durndest quitter anywhere around.
"Every new boss bets on Jude when the season begins, but every man of them would like to kick him out of camp before the spring sets in. All the hell-fire threats that that religion factory of yours drilled in you, you plank on Jude to-morrow, when you make him and Joyce man and wife. How fervent was that factory of yours? There is a difference in temperatures among them, I've heard."
"Oh! mine was mild," Drew was again helplessly convulsed, "so mild that I'm afraid you'd call it frigid. But that doesn't matter. Future damnation is a poor threat when every man among us knows that a present hell is a much worse affair. It's the awakening of a soul to that fact, that is going to save the world of men and women."
A full moon was sailing high in the heavens now, and Drew's animated face showed clear in the pale gleam. Jock hitched his chair nearer.
"Do you mean to insinuate," he asked, "that you've been wasting your time and health studying a line of preaching that hasn't got a red-hot hell in the background for sinners?"
"I mean just that." Drew threw back his head proudly.
"What in thunder do you do with them, then?"
"We try—by God's help I'm going to try—to take fear from them. Make them want to be decent. Make them want to use the powers they have in themselves. Make them want to work with God, not alone for God."
Jock's face was a puzzle. Admiration, pity, bewilderment, and a desire to laugh, waged war. Finally he drawled:
"Well, I'll be eternally durned, if I ain't sorry that a bright chap like you has wasted his youth, and pretty nearly drowned the vital spark, in arriving at such a cold-storage conclusion as this here one you've been airing. Why any one with half an eye can see that if hell-fire can't stir sinners, a slow call to duty ain't going to get a hustle on them. I swear if it wasn't so late, I'd get Gaston over here to listen to your views. Gaston is open to all kinds of tommy-rot that has a new mark on it. I'll be jiggered if I don't believe Gaston will want to pay you a salary to keep you here just for a diversion. But take my advice, and keep to old-fashioned lines, to-morrer 'specially, when you come to the marrying. Lord! Lord! But Jude would be having a picnic if he grasped that rose-coloured streamer of yours."
Drew made no reply. He was thinking, and his thoughts led where he knew Jock could not follow.
Presently a thin, blue-veined hand stole out in the darkness and found Filmer's.
"I—I—didn't know such men as you—such a place as this—existed," said the low, eager voice. "It's like having died and awakened in a new atmosphere, where even the people are different. It's—it's quite an inspiration."
Jock kept the hand, delicate as a woman's, in his strong, rough palm.
"You're somewhat of an eye-opener yourself," he said. "I've always held that mixing is learning on both sides. As long as you've got strength and inclination to stretch out, you'll always find something stretching out to you.
"And now as to that proposition of yours a time back, about bunking here for a time. I'm agreed, with this understanding: I've got a devil of a disposition, but it ain't ever going to be no better and them as don't like it can find new quarters. I came here over ten years ago to indulge my disposition, and I'm going to indulge it. When I don't want folks, I take to the forest, or, if the weather is bad, I shut and lock my door. If, after knowing this, you care to take that room I gave you this afternoon, it's yours for as long as you want it. I like you. I'm sudden in my likes, but I don't like your hell-less doctrine. I advise you not to turn that loose in St. Ange. We're none too good now, but if a soothing syrup was poured out, them as valued their lives would have to navigate to the Solitudes."
"I don't believe it!" cried Drew. "As God hears me, I believe it is just the place to try it."
"Oh! Get to bed." Jock stood up and laughed good-naturedly. "Go to bed and get up steam for to-morrer. When you see the whole collection you'll warm up your ideas. You're a terrible plucky kid to trust your own soul on a trifling little raft like this religion of yours. You better not overload it with more souls, though; the risk's too tremendous.
"Go sleep on your fairy story, boy. I don't see for the life of me how your health could have broken studying such a mild mixture as that. You must have been real run down at the start. But never mind, don't lay the laugh up against me, kid, I ain't enjoyed myself so much in ten years as I have to-night."
The two parted the best of friends. Drew fell quickly into a deep, undisturbed sleep, but Filmer tossed about till morning. The grim Past gripped him; he pulled the flask, that stood ever ready, nearer; but the cowardice of the act swayed him, and he flung the bottle to the floor.
Then he swore, and tried to sleep again, but the Spectre jeered him.
"The powers they have in themselves." The words struck again and again on Filmer's aching brain.
What powers? Oh! he had had powers. He might have been—what? He might have been where? If—if——
The sunrise of Joyce's wedding day was just breaking when Filmer's Spectre gave up the struggle and sleep came. The only trophy of the victory was the discarded flask, which lay untouched where the hand of the master—for that time at least—had flung it.
The word had passed along, and all St. Ange knew that Jock Filmer had a raw specimen of a parson up at his shack, in safe keeping for the Sunday events. For Joyce's wedding-day fell upon a Sunday.
"He's fattening him up," said Tom Smith, "and the Lord knows he needs it! Such a spindling youngster I never saw—a parson!" The contempt was too deep for Smith's expression, so he gave up. "And to think," added the train conductor, stretching his long legs in Tate's tavern, "there he was on my car, and I never sensed his ideas. Talk about entertaining angels unaware, it ain't in it! He even cussed mild when I told him his ticket was punched for Green Lake, and he was headed for St. Ange. I never would have took him for anything but a plain milksop till he let forth his opinions."
"I don't call it a proper attitude," broke in Tate, mixing a glass of vile dilution for Murphy's consumption. "I don't call it a proper attitude for a parson to appear so much like other folks that you can't tell 'im. It's suspicious, says I. How do we know as he is a parson?"
This suggestion caused the company a moment's pause.
"He better be!" muttered Peter Falstar. "He'd better be what he claims to be, even if it is a parson. We don't stand for any tricks from strangers."
This lifted the spirits somewhat. Looked at that way, they had the matter in their own hands.
"I wonder"—Tate's face assumed its cheerful placidity—"if his marrying of Jude and Joyce would hold in any court o' law?"
At this the listeners laughed.
"Who ever heard of a marriage in St. Ange getting to a court o' law?" asked Tom Smith.
"But Jared ain't never had a daughter married before." Tate nodded his head sagely. "Jared's a deep one, and, taken off his guard, shows he knows more about law and order than any one man I ever let my eyes fall on."
"He must be all-fired off his guard," jeered Falstar, "when he talks order of any kind. Where is he, anyway?"
"Exactly." Tate held his own glass high and firm. "Where is he? Here is his daughter's wedding day—Where is he? I tell you if that marriage ain't hard and fast, it's my opinion Birkdale will trifle with it to suit his own ends. Jude's taking chances when he annexes Jared to his responsibilities, and don't you forget it! If that marriage ain't hide-bound, or if Jude don't provide for Birkdale, it's going to be broke if Jared has to raise all damnation to do it. He's got his eye to a knothole somewhere, you bet your life on that."
By superhuman sacrifice St. Ange had kept itself sober the Saturday night preceding the wedding but it did not sleep much. The male population discussed the day's doings and the women searched their meagre belongings for appropriate trappings for the next day's festivities.
Their resources were limited, and the day being Sunday, added to the difficulty.
"You can't," said draggled Peggy Falstar, "put on real gay toggings in a church and on a Sunday."
Isa Tate, as leading lady in the place, solved the problem.
"We've got our mourning," she said to Peggy and the others gathered in Peggy's dirty kitchen. "We always have that on hand. Now we can leave off the long veils and put some false flowers on our bonnets—real spruce ones. They will lighten up the black. Them as has black gloves can wear them, but by carrying a clean handkercher real conspicuous, the gloom will be brightened some."
"I ain't had a pair of gloves in seventeen years," moaned Peggy.
"Well, you can sort of wind yer handkercher around your hands," comforted Isa.
"My feelings may be overcome," said Peggy; "they generally is in public, and then I'll have to use my handkercher and show my hands."
"You'll have to control yourself." Isa looked grim. "And, land o' love, a wedding ain't no place for wailing. Tate and me has given Joyce a real smart white dress, and she's trimmed her old hat all up with little frost flowers. She's a dabster at fixin' things. She's going to look real stylish. You know her mother was that way, though it was sorter knocked out of her, but the last thing she said to me was, 'Isa, I want you to put my grandmother's specs on me when I'm gone. Specs is dreadful stylish, and I've always looked forward to my eyes giving out so I could wear them. My eyes,' says she, 'has lasted better than me, but I want to be buried in my specs'; and so she was!"
The women all wiped their eyes.
"She was a powerful impressive corpse," whimpered Peggy, "but them specs gave me a terrible turn when I saw them first. The second look sorter took away the shock. I do hope," Peggy sighed, "I do hope them specs was long-distance ones. The good Lord knows Mrs. Birkdale had favourable reasons for seeing as far off as possible!"
"They was," Isa nodded. "I tried 'em, and things was all blurred to me."
And then the women parted gloomily, to meet again at Joyce's wedding.
It was such a day as only the mountains know. A hushed, golden day with a mysterious softness of outline on the distant hills.
The little crumbling church was open to the beauty of the morning, and John Gaston had decked it within with every flowering thing he could gather from wood and meadow.
Jock came early and stood in one of the narrow doors of the church, opening upon the highway. His hands were plunged in his pockets, and a look of concentration was on his handsome face.
He was going to "set," so he thought, his baby parson on to Jude. There was excitement in the idea. While he stood there Gaston came and took his stand at the other narrow door. The architect of the St. Ange church had had ideas of propriety in regard to established rules.
"Looks—some! don't it?" Jock asked.
"Yes," Gaston replied; "I was bound to have it look as wedding-like as possible."
"You did the decorating?" Jock asked, and a curious frown settled between his eyes. "I thought it was the women."
"They're thinking of themselves. Is your parson on to the game, Filmer?"
"He's all right. Gone off to commune with Nater. There he is now."
Drew had entered the rear door, and went at once to the small bare pulpit.
"Umph!" whispered Gaston. "Looks like a picture of John the Baptist."
"He don't act like it." Jock was in arms at once against any suspected criticism. "He's got more sand than many a blasted heavyweight. You ought to hear his gab—it's the newest thing in soul-saving. Sort o' homeopathic doctrine. Tastes good, but bitter as pisen under the coating. Real stuff inside, and all that. Get's working after it's taken, and the sweet taste lasts in your mouth while your innards are acting like—"
The people were gathering. They passed by Jock and Gaston without recognition. Social functions in St. Ange ignored all familiar intimacies.
Jude and Joyce came through the rear door, and sat in the front pew.
The girl moved with the absorption of a sleepwalker beside Jude whose shufflings bespoke nervous tension. Every now and then he glanced sheepishly at Joyce. Even to his senses, accustomed as they were to the girl's beauty, there was a slight shock of surprise.
The little round hat was gracefully wound with frost flowers until it looked like a wreath upon the pale gold of the glorious hair. The face was white and luminous, and the eyes looked as if they were expecting a vision to appear.
The white dress, home-made and cheap, had the unfailing touch that innate taste always gives, and it fell in soft lines about the slim, girlish figure. The little work-worn hands were folded loosely. They were resting a moment before taking up the labour of the new, untried life.
Drew glanced down as the two came in, and when he saw Joyce he started, and leaned forward.
He tried to take his eyes from that pale, exquisite face, but could not. It moved him powerfully not only by its beauty, but by its expression of entranced expectation.
Could the crude fellow at her side inspire such emotion? It was puzzling and baffling, but it roused Drew's sympathy, and held him captive. The rough faces of the men, the pitiable, worn faces of the women, the sprinkling of freckled, childish faces were blotted out for him. Like a star in blank space shone that one sweet, waiting face with its wreath of fairy-like flowers.
* * * * *
She was waiting for something she expected him to give. Drew became obsessed with this thought. Not the consecration of marriage—No! but something she—the soul of her—wanted.
Out among the pines in the early morning Drew had made a few notes, these he clutched in his feverish right hand. When the hour fixed upon arrived, he arose and stood beside the rickety pulpit stand. He made a short prayer; he knew it was feeble and rambling.
"Scared to death," thought Gaston, and he heard Filmer breathe heavily. Then Drew lifted his notes to the desk; tried to fix his eyes and attention upon them, failed and gazed helplessly at that one face in the appalling vacancy. Presently the bits of paper fell from his nerveless hand and fluttered to the floor.
Back in his college days he had had his dream of the vital word he would say to his people—his people—on that first day when he was to come to his own. Strangely enough he felt that his time had arrived. Called only by God, to a people who would never think of desiring him, he must say his word though only that pale, wonderful face thrilled to his meaning. If only he could make her understand, he would take it as a sign from on high that his mission was not to be an unworthy one.
Drew always had the power, even in his weakest moments, to utilize his panic to more intense concentration. It was the faculty that had made his college president point to him on more than one occasion as a success. Now, with the anchor of his notes fluttering in the September breeze, he put out to sea.
"We brought nothing into this world, and it's certain we can carry nothing out."
"He's mistaking this for a funeral," thought Gaston, and he struggled to conquer his inclination to laugh.
But what was happening? The boy up aloft was refuting the statement. His voice had a power wholly out of proportion to the frail body. He was getting hold of the people, too, Peggy Falstar was crying openly, and slow, hard-brought tears were dimming many eyes.
They were being told, those plain, dull people, and by a mere boy, too, that they had brought something into the world. A heritage of strength and weakness; of good and evil, bequeathed to them by those who had gone on. From these fragments their souls must weave what is to be taken with them when Death comes. The effort, the struggle, the success or failure, will be the part that they leave behind for them who remain, or who are to come later. In words strangely adapted to his listeners, that frail boy, with glorified face, was beseeching them, as they valued their future hope, as they desired to make better the ones who must live later, to gain a victory over their heritage of weakness and sin by the God-given elements of strength and goodness, and to blaze the trail for themselves, and to leave it so free behind them that weak, stumbling feet might easier find the way.
He was speaking to fathers and mothers for the sakes of their children. He was urging the two about to marry to see to it that they prepare by their own consecration, the path on before.
A silence filled the little church. The boy, pale and exhausted, was asking Jude and Joyce to come forward.
Gaston saw them go, side by side, Jude shambling as usual, Joyce stepping as if hastening to receive something long-desired.
It was the briefest of services. Simple, unadorned, but dignified and solemn.
It was over. Jude and Joyce were married! The people were stirring; were moving about. The sodden, familiar life was awaiting every one of them. No; something had happened in St. Ange. Gaston knew it. Filmer knew it. Peggy Falstar had hold of her little Billy's hand, and Peter followed with his little daughter Maggie drawn close to him.
Leon Tate was red in the face, and Isa looked stern and thoughtful. Yes; something had happened in St. Ange. It would never be the same.
Drew went outside the church and joined Filmer. He had seen the uplifted expression on Joyce's face. He had had his answer from on high; and he was strangely moved.
He stood beside Filmer, motionless and flushed. Jock contemplated him from his greater height as if he were a new and startling enigma.
"Say, kid," he drawled presently, striving to hide the excitement that was causing the perspiration to stand on his forehead; "what got into you?"
"I reckon it was something getting out of me," Drew replied with the short cough.
"I don't know as them few words you spoke are capable of holding Jude and Joyce eternally. What you think?"
"If they cannot, no others could." Again the quick, harsh cough.
"But that sermon!" Jock shrugged his shoulders nervously; "that's what's shook the foundations of this here town. Leaving out the fact of you being you, standing up there handling folks's feelings as you did, I want to know if you stand by them ideas you passed out?"
"With all my mind!"
"Not elocuting and acting?"
"Why, see here, kid, if what you said is true—which, by thunder it ain't!—don't you see that doctrine, 'bout coming with an outfit, adding to it, and taking away what you want, and leaving what you must; blazing trails, clearing away underbrush and what not; why, don't you see that's worse, by a confounded lot, than the old-fashioned hell?"
"Much, much more solemn." Drew leaned against a tree. His new strength was exhausted. Jock was too absorbed to notice the weakness and pallor.
"Why," he went on excitedly, "when you know you're going to frizzle at the end—just you, yourself, you can see the justice of it, and respect what sent you there, but to eternally be thinking of others, and messing up their lives—why that's durn rot."
"Filmer," the tone was low and faltering; "we're all one with God, no matter how you put it. All working together; all bound on the same journey. Think back; was there never one you loved who suffered with you and for you? Have you ever considered how much of that one's life you were hampering, when you dragged him—or her—down?"
Filmer's face twitched.
"Now, see here," he blurted out, and his eyes flashed, "the folks round here ain't going to stand for this rot, and I don't blame 'em. When they think it over, they'll get drunker than ever, and they'll even up with you later. You've got to learn more than you've learned already. Feelings are private property and outsiders better keep off. Come home to dinner. You look like a pricked bladder. This here gassing 'bout things what ain't worthwhile don't pay. Here, lean on me. It's all gol-durned nonsense using yourself up so."
He took Drew firmly by the arm, and led him away.
Drew was too weak to continue, even had he desired to do so, the conversation Filmer had forced upon him, but when they were smoking in the late afternoon Jock returned to the subject.
"I was just wondering," he said, through the haze; "ain't there never no let up to that new-fangled idea of yours?"
"None. That's the beauty of it."
"Beauty? Huh! Well, we'll drop it. Feel like toddling down to Gaston's?" Drew rose at once.
They passed down the pine-covered path slowly, and as they neared Gaston's shack, Filmer paused.
"Wherever you be," he began slowly, "as occasion permits, you're going to air them sentiments?"
"I'm going to live them. I may never have a chance to preach them. I'm a bit discouraged about the weakness that followed my first attempt."
"Oh, thunderation! You're going to pick up flesh and strength fast enough—it's that slush you've got on board that's getting my grouch. I'd rather you had a natural death, kid. I've taken a liking to you; and you don't know St. Ange."
Joyce stopped her wild little song, and stood still to listen. Then she stepped to the window, drew aside the white muslin curtain, and looked out upon the white, white world.
She had thought she heard a step on the crisp snow, but probably it was the crackling of the protesting trees, for the weight of ice was almost more than they could bear.
The lights in the scattered houses shone red and steady in the still glitter. A full moon dimmed the stars, but a keen glance showed that every one was in its place and performing its duty in the glorious plan.
A white, holy night! Only such a night as comes to high, dry places where the cold is so subtle that its power is disguised; where the green-black pines stand motionless in the hard whiteness, and where the silence is only broken by mysterious cracklings and groanings, when Nature stirs in the heart of the seeming Death, while she weaves the robe of Spring.
Joyce was beginning to feel the wonders of her little world; she was timidly feeling out the meaning of things. Sometimes the sensation hurt and frightened her; often it soothed and thrilled her to deep ecstasy.
Presently she left the window, and turned to the warmth and glow inside.
Jude's old cottage had been transformed, and Joyce was developing into one of those women who are inherent home-makers. Such women can accomplish more with the bare necessities of life than others with the world's wealth at their command. It is like personal magnetism, difficult to understand, impossible to explain.
Comfort, grace, colour and that sweet disorder which is the truest order. Chairs at the right angles, tables convenient, but never in the way. A roaring wood fire on a dustless hearth; pictures hung neither too high nor too low, and no sense of emptiness nor crowding. A room that neither compelled attention, nor irritated the nerves—a place to rest in, love in, and go out from, with a longing to return.
On the south side of the room, Jude, with Gaston's financial and personal assistance, had added a bay window.
That innovation had quite stirred St. Ange. Ralph Drew had designed it and, through the summer, while the building was in process, the inhabitants had watched and expressed their opinions freely and enjoyably.
"Up to Joyce's," Billy Falstar, that indefatigable gatherer and scatterer of news, announced, "they are smashing a hole in the off side of the house."
An hour later, a good-sized audience was occupying the open space on the south side of the garden.
"Why don't you have it run in, instead of out?" Peter Falstar suggested. "It's just tempting Providence to let out more surface to catch the winter blasts."
"And it's wasteful as thunder," added Tom Smith. "Just so much more heating of out-door space enclosed in that there semi-circle."
"There ain't nothing to see from that side, anyway," Leon Tate remarked, as if possibly the others had not considered that. "If you want a more extended, and rounded outlook, you'd better smash the north side out. From that hole you could see the village, and what not."
"And the Black Cat," Jock Filmer drawled.
"It's no kind of an outlook at all that don't include the Kitty, eh, Tate?"
Tate scowled. He held a grudge against Filmer. It was he who had discovered, sheltered, and abetted the young minister who had so interfered with trade a time back. Tate held his peace, but he had never forgotten.
The laugh that followed Jock's interruption nettled the tavern-keeper.
But the pretty window had been finished before Drew and the autumn went. It was Joyce's sanctuary and pride. In it stood the work-basket, a gift from the mystical sister of Drew, who lived off somewhere beyond the Southern Solitude, a girl about whom Drew never tired of talking, and about whom events seemed to cluster as bees round a hive.
In that nook, too, hung the three wonderful pictures—Gaston's wedding gift.
There were spaces between the sides and centre of the window, and in the middle place hung a modern Madonna and Child. This Joyce could comprehend. Gaston knew the older, rarer ones would be beyond her.
That pictured Mother and Child were moulding Joyce's character. Gaston had wondered how they might affect her.
To the left of the Madonna was an ocean view. A stretch of sandy shore, an in-rolling, white-crested wave—with a limitless beyond.
To the wood-environed mind of the girl this picture was simply a breath-taking fairy fancy.
It existed, such a thing as that. Gaston had sworn it, but it was incomprehensible. However, it led the new-born imagination to expand and wander, and when Joyce was at peace, and the sun shone, she went to that picture for excitement and worship.
To the right of the Madonna hung a photograph. Gaston had taken it himself long ago. A foreground of rugged, cruel rock; black where age had stamped it; white where snow traced the deep wrinkles of time. But out of this rough light and shade, rose a glorious peak, sun-touched and cloud-loved. A triumphant soul reaching up to heaven out of all the time-racked rock.
The dwarfish peaks, that had surrounded Joyce's outlook all her life, made one understand the girl's love for this picture. As this was great, compared to the small things she knew, so life held possibilities that her life hinted—she might struggle with that ideal in mind.
The ocean scene was her fancy's fairy space; the towering peak, her philosophy.
But Joyce knew nothing of all this, consciously. Marriage, as Isa had foretold, brought its many cares and new interests. The strangeness and importance dwindled. No one considered the matter different from any other joining of St. Ange forces into a common life—the girl herself grew to take it for granted and sometimes wondered why she imagined her lot different.
She piled on more wood now, and laughed at the roar and glow. Then she drew up the arm-chair that Jude liked; he would be cold and tired when he returned. With a little laugh she pulled her own chair, a low, deep rocker, from the bay window, out into the fire's warmth, opposite Jude's spacious chair. Between them she placed a hassock—it was nearer her rocker than Jude's chair.
This she evidently noticed after a moment's contemplation, for the smile faded, and with strict impartiality she moved the stool to a position exactly between the two chairs, and directly in front of the fire's full light and heat.
"There!" she said, as if satisfied with her own sense of justice and propriety. "That ought to suit everybody."
The smile returned, and the little neglected song was taken up where the imagined footsteps had interrupted it.
The room was rosy and warm; even the window that was to tempt Providence was cosily heated, and the box of plants that fringed its outer edge stood in no danger of the frost's touch.
A plate of deep-red apples on the table sent forth a homely fragrance, and they were almost as beautiful as a vase of roses would have been.
Presently there was no mistake—steps were approaching. The crusted snow gave way under the heavy tread, the steps of the little porch creaked under the weight of strong bodies. It was Gaston's voice that came first to Joyce.
"It's too late, Jude. Past nine."
"Come in! Come in!" Jude was stamping noisily. "It ain't never too late, when I say come. Maybe Joyce can tempt you with a mixture she's a dabster at. After the walk you need it, and so do I."
The outer door was pushed back, the waiting cold rushed in with the two men, but the home glow killed it as the kitchen door swayed inward, and Jude and Gaston stepped toward Joyce.
She stood with her back to the fire, a pale straight figure against the red light.
"Hello! Joyce." Jude was energetically pulling off his short, thick jacket. "Get busy at that 'mix' of yours. Put plenty of the real thing in and don't be sparing with the tasties. Off with your coat and hat, Mister Gaston. Make yourself comfortable. To folks as is already up, what's an hour or two?"
Gaston had taken Joyce's hands in welcome.
"It's too bad," he said, "to set you to work after your stint's over. The room looks as if you'd bewitched it. I tell you, Jude, there never was a man yet who could juggle with a house and put the soul in it."
Joyce flushed happily, and took Gaston's hat from him, as he pulled off his coat.
"I'll have everything ready in a jiffy," she said briskly. "Sit down, and tell me about it, while I mix the brew."
Jude sank, without giving Gaston a choice, into his own chair. Gaston took Joyce's—he knew her fancy for the stool when he and Jude were both present.
"Well," said Jude, stretching his legs out toward the blaze, and putting his heavy, snow-covered boots so near the fire that an odour of scorching leather filled the room; "we got some men over to Hillcrest, and we've bargained for lumber and other materials; we're going to begin at once, clearing, and soon as the cold lets up, we'll start building."
"Just think!" Joyce stirred the concoction in the jug jubilantly. "Just think of Mr. Drew coming here and bringing folks with him. Isn't it wonderful?"
She was all aglow with interest, excitement and pleasure. Gaston looked at her musingly.
"I used to think," she went on, coming forward with the jug and setting it on a low table near the hearth, "that nothing could ever happen here in St. Ange. Nothing that hadn't already happened over and again. Isa has always said the place would get a jog some day. She always seemed to sense that," the girl smiled; "and she was right. Didn't you have to put money down for men and things, Jude?"
"Sure!" Jude spoke from the depths of his mug.
"Did Mr. Drew send money?"
"Send nothing." Jude laughed foggily from the depths. "That's how I got the deal so prompt, I told him I'd undertake the job without any settlement till he got here to boss the doings."
"But where did you get the money, Jude?"
"It's partnership, Joyce," Gaston broke in. He set down his own emptied mug, and drew a little farther from the fire's revealing light. "Lauzoon, Filmer and Gaston, Contractors and Builders.' How does it sound?"
"But the money?" There was a little line of care, now, between the girl's deep eyes.
"Oh, that's all right! When Drew planks down the dollars, Mr. Gaston will get them back." Jude wiped his heavy lips on the back of his hand.
"But—it must have taken—a good deal?"
"Come, Joyce," Jude scowled, "you creep back to your corner. When women get to tangling up money with their own doings, it's the devil. You keep to your business, girl, and leave deeper matters alone."
Gaston frowned. Something lay back of that care-traced line on Joyce's forehead. Something lay back of her questioning—what was it? And Jude's assumption of the male superiority over his young wife disturbed Gaston. He had not noticed it so sharply before.
Presently Joyce took the low stool, and clasped her knees in her enfolding arms. The two men had filled their pipes, and now, through the dim haze, looked at the fair, dreamy face between them. Then Jude laid his pipe aside—and snored. The clock ticked softly. The logs fell apart in a red glow. In drawing away from the flying sparks, Joyce placed her stool nearer Gaston, and the pretty bent head came within easy distance of the hand lying inert on the chair arm.
"Jude gets awfully sleepy in the heat," Joyce whispered; "you don't mind?"
"No, why should I? But I ought to be going. You are tired, too?"
"No." The sudden upward glance was all a-quiver with alertness. "I don't ever seem tired now. Keeping one's own house—is great! and it seems like everything is waking up every minute. Sometimes I hate to go to sleep for fear I'll miss something."
And now Gaston's hand touched the heavy curves of pale, gold hair.
"You have made a home," he said; "I wonder if you know what a great achievement that is? I wonder if Jude knows?"
"Oh! if he's a bit cross with me," she whispered softly, "don't you mind. He thinks that's the way, you know. I understand."
"I suppose you do," Gaston smoothed the silken hair, "but make him understand, Joyce. It takes understanding on both sides, you know."
"And, Mr. Gaston"—the girl changed the subject as adroitly as a more worldly wise woman might have done—"you helped me make this home. I ain't ever going to let you forget that. These pictures," her loving glance took them all in, "and the books coming and going just fast enough to keep me nimble. It seems like you'd opened a gate and let some of the big world in."
"There's plenty of it on the other side of the two Solitudes, Joyce." Gaston's hand fell gently along the warm throat and rested on the bent shoulder.
Jude gave another gurgling snore. The two did not change their positions, but there was silence for an instant.
"That mountain-top, all jagged and high—my! how it just makes me want to climb; climb through my work all day long; climb to getting somewhere out beyond. And that great empty picture with the awful white wave coming from nowhere—it just makes me hold my breath. Sometimes it seems as if it was going to swallow up everything and—me. It don't ever do that, does it, Mr. Gaston?"
"It has done damage of that kind in its time; but generally it obeys orders and stops at the safety line." Gaston smiled into the wondering eyes.
"I like the—picture—I like it terribly," breathed the girl, "but I'd hate the real thing. I am sure it makes a terrific noise." Gaston nodded, and old memories seemed beating in upon him. "It would wear me out by its own——"
"Restlessness." Gaston's thought ran along with the cruder one. "Its restlessness is at times—unbearable, unless—one is very young and happy."
"But I am young—and happy." Joyce spoke lingeringly and her eyes grew fixed upon the heart of the coals. "Still I would hate it—and be afraid of it. It's beautiful—but it's awful. I don't like awful things. I like to look up at that brave old mountain, and know—it will always be the same no matter what happens down below."
Suddenly Gaston felt old, very old, beside this girl near him with her intuitive soul-stretches and her hampered life.
"So the mountain is your favourite picture, Joyce?"
A grandfatherly tone crept into his voice, and the caressing hand touched the round, pale outline of cheek and chin with the assurance of age and superiority—but the girl tingled under it.
"No," she said, almost breathlessly, "I like that best of all." And she pointed a trembling finger toward the Madonna and Child.
Gaston was conscious of a palpitating meaning in the words and gesture.
"Why?" he asked softly.
"Because," the fair head was lowered, not in timidity, but in deep thought, "because I want it—my baby—to look like that one. I look and look at the picture, and I dream about it at night. I know every little dimple and the soft curls—and all. I pray and pray, and if God answers—then—" a gentle ferocity rang through the hurried words—"I'm going to keep it so. It's going to be different from any other little child in St. Ange. And it all fits in, now that Mr. Drew is coming back. It's just wonderful! It was Mr. Drew that set me thinking about leaving something better for them as come after. He said terrible strange things—but you can't forget them, can you? I've been—well, sort of weeding out my life ever since he was here—and there can't be so much—for my baby to do—if I clear out my own faults. Can there?"
The girl's absolute ignoring of any reason for withholding this confidence from him at first staggered Gaston, and then steadied him.
Never before had Joyce so appealed to him, but the sacredness of the position she had thrust upon him for a moment appalled him. He looked intently at the girlish, innocent face. What he saw was a blind woman, groping through the child, seeking a reality that evaded it.
Never greatly impressed with his own importance, Gaston became cruelly aware, now, that in a marked way he still was the one being in the girl's world to whom she looked for guidance. The knowledge made him withdrawn for an instant.
Drew had appealed to her spirit—but he was elected Father Confessor, Judge and General Arbiter of her daily life. For a moment Gaston's sense of the ridiculous was stirred. Suppose they—those—people who inhabited the Past, and peopled the possible Future—suppose they should know of this? The eyes twinkled dangerously, but the girl in the glow of the red fire was terribly in earnest.
"You are perfectly happy, Joyce?" It was an inane question, but like some inane questions it touched a vital spark.
"Why, if I get on the top of the things that might make me unhappy if they conquered me; and if I shut my ears and eyes—why, then, I guess I'm perfectly happy. I won't let myself feel sad any more, and I make believe a lot—about Jude. You have to when you've been married long; and I guess he has to about me. So you see, living that way it comes out all right. And then when you have beautiful things, like this house, and the books and pictures, and some one ready to help—like you—why those things I just hold up in the light all the time. Isn't that being happy?"
"What a philosopher!" Gaston bent forward and again pressed the slim shoulder. The piteousness of this young wife getting her happiness, all unknowingly, by self-imposed blindness of the inner soul, clutched at his heart.
"Hold hard to that, Joyce," he said. "Hold fast to that. Let all the light in that you can upon your blessings, and as to other things, why, don't acknowledge them! You're on the right track, though how you've struck it so early in the game, beats me."
"Well," Joyce was all aglow, "Mr. Drew helped. He was so funny and jolly. Just a big boy, but he had the queerest ideas about things. When I think of him, sick and weak like he was, and yet living out all his brave thoughts just as if he was a giant—why, sometimes I go off and cry by myself."
Jude from his shadow and aloofness was staring dumbly at the pair opposite while the low-spoken words sank into his drowsiness. Jude was primitive. Actions were things to him; things that admitted of no shades of meaning. What the two were saying in no way modified the situation. Gaston's hand was caressing his wife—his woman, Jude would have expressed it—and the bald fact was enough.
A hot anger rose in him—an anger calculated to urge a personal assault then and there, upon the two who dared, in his own house, set his rights—his alone—aside.
The sleepy eyes widened and closed; the teeth showed through the rough beard—and then, like a smarting blow, came the memory of all that Gaston meant to him. Money! Gaston's money. There had been loans, trifling, but many, and now Gaston stood ready to advance money for this new building project. Money enough to make Jude master of the situation. But with this thought came others that crushed and bruised him.
He had been wrong. It was not his wife's folly alone that stood between him and her. Gaston had been using him. He was lending him money—hush money! And while he had gone his stupid way, thinking he held the whip hand over Joyce, the two had had their laugh at him. Money has done much for good and evil in this world, but it saved Gaston that night from a desperate attack.
A low cunning crept into Jude's thoughts. Very well, two or three could play at the same game.
More money! More! More! and who knew? Why he might make a choice in the future—a choice for himself.
He settled back and snored long and deep. Then he stretched and yawned and gave ample notice of his advance, in order that the conspirators might cover their tracks.
When he opened his eyes, Gaston was leaning forward with clasped hands stretched out toward the fading glow, and Joyce, crouched upon her stool with huddled knees, gave no sign that confusion held part in her thoughts.
"Say," Jude had already adopted the guise of the man with a purpose, "you don't suppose, do you, that that young parson is coming up here with any idea of saving souls?"
"Only his own, I fancy." Gaston replied, without turning. "He wants to keep his soul and body together. Seeking his lost health, you know."
"What makes him fancy he lost it up here?"
"He doesn't. He lost it down there among books, bad air, and foolish living. His physicians tell him his only chance for life is up in this region. Some day more of the big doctors will shut down on drugs and give Nature a try."
"Umph!" Jude shook himself. "Put a log on," he commanded Joyce. Then: "He preached a durned mess of nonsense the last time he was visiting us," he continued. "I didn't have any inclination to take his guff myself, but I don't half like the idee, now that I've slept on it, of his coming in here as a disturbing element, so to speak. Living and minding your business, is one thing; interfering with other folks' business is another. Filmer, he told me a time back that he ain't had a comfortable spree since that young feller was here. He sort of upset Jock's stomach with his gab. The women, too, was considerable taken with him—he's the sort that makes fool women take notice. It ain't pleasant to think of that sissy-boy actually setting up housekeeping here, and reflecting upon old established ways, with any tommy-rot about clearing trails and such foolishness."
Joyce smiled. So that thought rankled in more lives than her own?
"Going to retire from the contractorship, Jude?" Gaston got up and crossed the room for his coat and hat.
"Not much!" Jude rose also. "Only beginning right is half the battle, and I say for one, and Tate he was saying the same this morning, that we'd better stamp out any upraisings in the start, now that it's likely to be a staying on, 'stead of a visit. When I select a teacher," Jude was following his guest to the outer door, "I ain't going to take up with no white-livered infant. See you to-morrow, Mr. Gaston?"
"Oh, certainly. Good night, Jude. Good night, Joyce." Gaston looked back at the little figure by the fire, and he saw that the upturned eyes were fixed on the Madonna and Child.
"Why don't you speak, Joyce? Mr. Gaston is saying good night." Jude's words reached where Gaston's had failed. The girl rose stiffly.
"Good night," she said slowly, and a great weariness was in her face.
When Jude returned she still stood in the middle of the room, her hands hanging limply by her side.
Something had gone out from her life with Gaston's going. But she was still thrilled and her soul was sensitive to impressions.
Jude came close to her and stared boldly into the large, tired eyes.
"You ain't so spry as when—there's company."
"It's late—you've had a nap. I'm dead tired."
"That's it," Jude laughed coarsely. "I've slept and kept out of mischief—you've been too durned entertaining—you're feeling the strain. See here, Joyce, maybe you better not be so—amusing in the future. Maybe you better leave Gaston to me—business is business and I guess we can do without petticoats in this camp."
He was losing control of himself.
"Jude," Joyce came close and tried to put her hands on her husband's shoulders. "Jude, I want you to pay Mr. Gaston back as soon as you can. It's been on my mind for quite a spell. We must owe him a lot. How much, Jude?"
"None of your—durned business."
"And Jude—don't borrow any more. I know Mr. Drew would advance anything for the building. His family is terribly rich. Mr. Gaston knows about them. I'd rather owe Mr. Drew than Mr. Gaston. Please, Jude!"
For a moment the sweet, quivering face put forth its appeal to the lower nature of the man. The girl was young enough, and new enough to sway Jude after a fashion, but the charm died almost at birth.
"See here." Jude slipped from the clinging hands, and glared angrily. "You ain't ever properly learned your place. You better let go any fool idee that you can budge me with your wiles. I don't have to buy your favours—they're mine. What I do, I do, and you take what I choose to let you have. See? If you get more than what is rightfully yours, don't get sot up with the notion I don't know what I'm permitting. I guess I've got to let you see what you're up against a little plainer. I had a kind of dim idee that your schooling and book-learning made you a bit keener than most about the real facts of the case, but you're all alike. Don't you question me in the future, girl, and you go your way—the way I let you go—and be thankful, but don't you forget you and me is man and wife, and that means just one durned thing in St. Ange and only one."
Joyce staggered back as if the man before her had dealt her a blow.
What had happened? Then she remembered that Jude was always irritable when he had been roused from sleep, or when he was hungry.
The blindness was mercifully clouding her soul now; but its duration was brief. It only gave her time to stand upright.
"Did you think I was asleep to-night?" Jude almost hissed the words.
The suddenness of the question had all the evil power of reducing the girl to an appearance of guilt.
"You were asleep," she whispered back.
Jude laughed cruelly.
"With my eyes opened," he snarled—"It pays to seem asleep, when you want to catch on to some kind of doings. Your old man, Joyce, ain't half the fool you'd like him to be. I wasn't napping when Billy Falster blabbed his warning. I wasn't napping when I saw that hand-holding and kissing from the top of Beacon Hill. I wasn't snoozing that night when you went crawling to Gaston's shack just after you'd given your word to me, and"—Jude had worked himself into a quivering rage—"I wasn't sleeping when you and him sat there to-night, blast ye!"
The convincing knowledge broke upon Joyce with full force. She would never be able to ignore the fact again. Try as she might, dream as she could, she was but a St. Ange woman, and he a St. Ange man.
There was only one way. She must deal with the rudest of materials.
"Jude," she said slowly, "you pay Mr. Gaston back all that you owe him—I'll stint here in the house—and I'll promise never to speak to him again. Could anything be fairer than that?"
She was in deadly earnest; but Jude laughed in her face.
A fear grew in the girl's heart at the sound. Not even an appeal to his selfishness could move him. She had lost the poor little power she once possessed. He did not care! And when that happened with a man like Jude—well, there was reason for fear.
"I'm the boss, girl, and you better hold to that knowledge. Keep your books, your pictures and what not as long as I say you can, and let that do you for what I am getting out of it. See?"
"Yes—I see!" And so she did, poor girl; and it was a long barren stretch on ahead that she saw. A stretch with hideous possibilities, unless luck were with her.
"Don't you let on." Jude was striding toward the bedchamber beyond. "I guess you're smart enough to hold your tongue, though. Pile on a log or two, before you turn in; and you better draw the shutters to the north window—it's getting splitting cold."