The room into which she ushered Madelon was accounted the grandest sitting-room in the village. When Burr's father had built his fine new house he had made the furnishings correspond. He had eschewed the spindle-legged tables and fiddle-backed chairs of the former generations, and taken to solid masses of red mahogany, which were impressive to the village folk. The carpet was a tapestry of great crimson roses with the like of which no other floor in town was covered, and, moreover, there was a glossy black stove instead of a hearth fire.
"Please be seated," said Mrs. Gordon. She indicated the best chair in the room. When her guest had taken it, she sat down herself in the middle of her great haircloth sofa, and folded her long hands in her lap. Mrs. Gordon had the extremest manners of the old New England gentlewoman—so punctiliously polite that they called attention to themselves. She had married late in life, having been previously a preceptress in a young ladies' school. She was still the example of her own precepts—all outward decorum if not inward composure.
Madelon Hautville, opposite her, in her snow-powdered cloak, with her face like a flash of white fire in her snow-powdered silk hood, seemed in comparison a female of another and an older race. She might well, from the look of her, have come a nearer and straighter road from the inmost heart of things, from the unpruned tangle of woods and undammed course of streams, from all primitive and untempered love and passion and religion, than this gentlewoman formed upon the models of creeds and scholars.
Madelon looked at the other woman a second with fierce questioning. Then she sprang up out of the chair where she had been placed, and stood before her on her sofa, and cried out, abruptly, "I have come to tell you about your son. He is not guilty. I, myself, stabbed Lot Gordon!"
"Please be seated," said Elvira Gordon, and her folded hands in her lap never stirred.
"Seated!" cried Madelon, "seated! How can you be seated, how can you rest a moment—you, his mother? Why do you not set out to New Salem now—now? Why do you not walk there, every step, in the snow? Why do you not crawl there on your hands and knees, if your feet fail you, and plead with him to confess that I speak the truth, and tell them to set him free?"
"I beg of you not to so agitate yourself," said Elvira Gordon. "You will be ill. Pray be seated."
Madelon bent towards her with a sudden motion, as if she would seize her by the shoulders.
"Are you his mother," she cried—"his mother—and sit here, like this, and speak like this? Why do you not move? Why do you not start this instant for New Salem—this instant?"
"I beg you to calm yourself," replied Elvira Gordon. "I have been to New Salem to visit my son. I have prayed with him in his prison."
"Prayed with him! Don't you know that he is innocent, and in prison for murder—your own son? You stop to pray with him; why don't you act to save him?"
"You will make yourself ill, my dear."
"Don't you believe that your son is innocent?" demanded Madelon. "Don't you believe it?"
Her eyes blazed; she clinched her hands. She felt as if she could spring at this other woman with her gentle murmurings and soft foldings, and shake her into her own meaning of life. If her impulse had had the power of deed, Elvira Gordon's little cap of fine needle-work would have been a fiercely crumpled rag upon her decorous head, her sober bands of gray hair would have streamed like the locks of a fury, the quiet clasp of her long fingers would have been stirred with some response of indignant defence if nothing else. Madelon, with her, realized that worst balk in the world—the balk of a passive nature in the path of an active one—and all her fiery zeal seemed to flow back into herself and fairly madden her.
"I hope," said Elvira Gordon, "that my son will be proved innocent and set free."
"Proved innocent! Don't you know your own son is innocent?"
"I pray without ceasing that he may be acquitted of the crime for which he is imprisoned," replied Elvira Gordon, over her folded hands.
Madelon looked at her. "You are a good woman," said she, with fierce scorn. "You are a member of Parson Fair's church, and you keep to the commandments and all the creed. You are a good woman, and you believe in the eternal wrath of God and the guilt of your own son. You believe in that, in spite of what I tell you. But I tell you again that I, and not your son, am guilty, and I will save him yet!"
Madelon Hautville gathered her red cloak about her, and Mrs. Gordon arose as she would have done when any caller was about to take leave. It would scarcely have seemed out of keeping with her manner had she politely invited Madelon to call again. However, her quiet voice was somewhat unsteady and hoarse when she spoke to Madelon on the threshold of the outer door, although the words were still gently formal. "I am grateful to you for the interest you take in my son," she said; "I hope you will not excite yourself so much that you will be ill."
"I will die if that can save him," answered Madelon Hautville, and went down the snowy steps over the terraces.
Elvira Gordon, when she had closed the door, drew the bolt softly. Truth was, she thought the girl had gone mad through grief and love for her son. Believing, as she did, that the love was all unsought and unreturned, and being also shocked in all her delicate decorum by such unmaidenly violence and self-betrayal, she regarded Madelon with a strange mixture of scorn and sympathy and fear.
Moreover, not one word did she believe of Madelon's assertion that she herself was guilty. "She is accusing herself to save my son," thought Elvira Gordon, and her heart seemed to leap after the girl with half-shamed gratitude, in spite of her astonishment and terror, as she watched her go out of the yard and across the road to Lot Gordon's house. Mrs. Gordon stood at one of the narrow lights beside her front door and watched until Madelon entered the opposite house; then she went hastily through her fine sitting-room to her own bedroom, and there went down on her knees, and all her icy constraint melted into a very passion of weeping and prayer. Those placidly folded hands of hers clutched at the poor mother-bosom in the fury of her grief; those placid-lidded eyes welled over with scalding tears; that calmly set mouth was convulsed like a wailing child's, and all the rigorous lines of her whole body were relaxed into overborne curves of agony. "Oh, my son, my son, my son!" lamented Elvira Gordon. "Have mercy, have mercy, O Father in heaven! Let him be proved innocent! Let Lot Gordon live! Oh, my son!"
Elvira Gordon had the stern pride of justice of a Brutus. She would not without proof discover even to the passionate pleading of her own heart that she believed her son innocent, but believe it she did. Every breath she drew was a prayer that Lot Gordon might yet speak and clear Burr. This morning she had some slight hope that that might come to pass, for the sick man had passed a comfortable night except for his old enemy, the cough.
"It's my belief," Margaret Bean had told Elvira, when she had sped across the road in the early morning to inquire, "that it's his old trouble that's going to kill him when he does die instead of anything else."
"Has he spoken yet?" asked Elvira, eagerly.
"No, he ain't; but there's none so still as them that won't speak." Margaret Bean nodded shrewdly at Elvira. Her voice was weak and hoarse as if from a cold or much calling, but there was sharp emphasis in it. She gave a curious impression of spirit subdued and tearfully rasped, like her face, yet never lacking.
"You—think he—could?" whispered Elvira Gordon.
"'Tain't for me to say," replied Margaret Bean. "He lays there—looks most as if he was dead." She wiped her eyes hard, with a handkerchief so stiff that it looked on that cold morning frozen as with old tears. Margaret Bean was famous for her fine starching in the village; it was her chief domestic talent, and she was faithful in its application in all possible directions.
"I wish he would speak if he could," said Mrs. Gordon.
"I do, if it's for the best," returned Margaret Bean. She hesitated; there were red rings around her tearful eyes, like a bird's. "I can't believe your son did it, nohow, Mis' Gordon," said she.
"I hope if my son is innocent he will be proved so," returned Elvira Gordon. She was too proudly just herself not to use the word if, and yet she could have slain the other woman for the sly doubt and pity in her tone.
"It's harder for you than 'tis for him, layin' there," said Margaret Bean, nodding towards the house. There was an odd gratulation of pity in her tone. She rubbed her eyes again.
"We all have our own burdens," replied Elvira, with a dignified motion, as if she straightened herself under hers. "I hope he will be able to speak—soon."
"I hope so, if it's for the best," said Margaret Bean.
Elvira Gordon had gone home hoping that Lot might yet speak. She had heard his rattling cough as she picked her way out of the icy yard, and Madelon also heard it when she entered it. She knocked at the side door, and Margaret Bean opened it. She had a gruel cup in her hand.
"I want to see him," said Madelon.
Margaret Bean looked at her. Her starched calico apron flared out widely over her lank knees across the doorway.
"I'm afraid he ain't able to see nobody this morning," said she, and the asperity in her tone was less veiled than usual. Her voice was not so hoarse. She was mindful of this girl's former conduct at her master's bedside, and herself half believed her mad or guilty. A suspicious imagination had Margaret Bean, and Madelon would have found in her a much readier belief than in others.
"I've got to see him, whether he's able or not," said Madelon.
"The doctor said—"
"I'm going to see him!"
Madelon pushed roughly in past the smooth apron and ran through the entry to Lot's room, with the housekeeper staring after her in a helpless ruffle of indignation.
"She's gone in there," she told her husband, who appeared in the kitchen door, dish-towel in hand. Margaret Bean's husband always washed the dishes and performed all the irresponsible domestic duties of the establishment. He was commonly adjudged not as smart as his wife, and little store was set by his counsels. Indeed, at times the only dignity of his man's estate which seemed left to this obediently pottering old body was the masculine pronoun which necessarily expressed him still. However, even in that the undisturbed use was not allowed. "Margaret Bean's husband" was usually substituted for "He," and nothing left of him but the superior feminine element feebly qualified by masculinity.
Margaret Bean's husband's name was Zenas, but scarcely anybody knew it, and he had almost forgotten it himself through never being addressed by it. Margaret herself spoke of her husband as "Him," but she never called him anything, except sometimes "You." However, he always knew when she meant him, and there was no need of specification.
Now he half thought she was appealing to his masculine authority from her bewildered air. He stiffened his meek old back. "Want me to go in there and order her out?"
"You! Go back in there and finish them dishes."
Margaret Bean's husband went back into the kitchen, and Margaret followed Madelon with a sly, determined air, to Lot's room.
The great square northwest room was warm, but the frost had not yet melted from the window-panes. The room looked full of hard white lines of frost, and starched curtains, and high wainscoting; but the hardest white lines of all were in Lot Gordon's face, sunken sharply in his pillows, showing between the stiff dimity slants of his bed-hangings as in a tent door. He looked already like a dead man, except for his eyes. It seemed as if the life in them could never die when they saw Madelon. She bent over him, darkening the light.
"Speak now!" said she.
Lot Gordon looked up at her.
"I tell you, speak! I will not bear this any longer. I am at the end."
Still Lot Gordon looked up at her silently.
Then Madelon made a quick motion in the folds of her skirt, and there was the long gleam of a hunting-knife above the man in the bed. Margaret Bean, standing by the door, shrieked faintly, but she did not stir.
"I have tried everything," said Madelon. "This is the last. Speak, or I will make your speaking of no avail. I will strike again, and this time they shall find me beside you and not Burr. My new guilt shall prove my old, and they will hang me and not him. Speak, or, before God, I will strike!"
Then Lot Gordon spoke. "I love you, Madelon," said he.
"Say what I bid you, Lot Gordon; not that."
"All your bidding is in that."
"I will clear—Burr."
Madelon slipped her knife away, and stood back. Margaret Bean slunk farther around past the bedpost. Neither of them could see her.
"On one condition," said Lot Gordon.
"That you marry me."
Madelon gasped. "You?"
Lot laughed faintly, stretching his ghastly mouth. "You think it is an offer of wedlock from a churchyard knight," he said.
"What are you talking about, Lot Gordon?"
"Marry you? I am going to prison to-day for stabbing you. If you die, I die for your murder. Marriage between us? You are mad, Lot Gordon."
Lot Gordon opened his mouth to speak, but he coughed instead. He half raised himself feebly, and his cough shook the bed. Madelon waited until he lay back, gasping.
"You are mad to talk so," she said again, but her voice was softer.
"No madder—than—my ancestors made me," Lot stammered, feebly. Great drops of sweat stood on his forehead.
Madelon stood looking at him. He lay still, breathing hard, for a little; then he spoke again. "Say you will marry me, and I will clear him," he said, "or else—strike as you will. But all will believe that Burr struck the first blow and you the second for love of him, and though he be not hung, the mark of the noose will be round his neck in folks' fancies so long as he draws the breath of life."
"I will marry you," said Madelon.
"Don't cheat yourself," Lot went on, in his disjointed sentences, broken with the rise of the cough in his throat. "This wound may not be—mortal—after all, and a man lives—long, sometimes, when he's sore put to it for breath. The spark of life dies hard, and you may fan it into a blaze again. All the doctor's nostrums may not stir my poor dying flesh—but give the spirit—what it craves—and 'tis sometimes—strong enough—to gallop the flesh where it will. Lord, I've seen a tree blossom in the fall, when 'twas warm enough. It may be a long life we'll—live together, Madelon. Don't—cheat—yourself into—thinking you'll be my widow, instead of—my wife. My wife you may be, and—the mother of my children."
Madelon moved towards him with a curious, pushing motion, as if she thrust out of her way her own will. She bent over him her white face, holding her body aloof. "I will marry you, come what will. Now, set him free."
Great tears stood in Lot's eyes. "Oh," he whispered, "you think only of him. I love you better than he does, Madelon."
"Set him free," said she, in a hard voice.
Lot heaved a great sigh, and rolled his eyes feebly about towards the door.
"Find—Margaret Bean," he began; and with that Margaret Bean, who had kept the door ajar, slid out softly, "and tell her—to send her husband to—Parson Fair, and—Jonas Hapgood, and she—must go the other way for—the doctor. Tell them to come at once."
With that Lot fell to coughing again, but Madelon went out quickly, and found Margaret Bean in the kitchen mixing gruel.
"Mr. Gordon wishes your husband to go at once for Parson Fair and Jonas Hapgood, and you for the doctor," said she.
"Is he took worse?" asked Margaret Bean, innocently, with a quick sniff of apprehension.
"No, he is no worse, but he wishes to see them. He said to go at once."
Margaret Bean cast an injured eye at the window, all blurred with the clinging shreds of the storm. "I don't see how I can get out in this awful storm nohow," she said. "I've got rheumatism now. Why can't he go to see 'em all, I'd like to know?"
"The doctor lives a quarter of a mile the other way. It will save time."
Margaret Bean looked at the gruel. "I've got to make this gruel for him."
"I will make it. Get your shawl, quick."
"It ain't b'iled."
"I tell you I will make it."
"Why can't he go to both places?"
"I will go myself!" Madelon cried, suddenly. She had been bewildered, or that would have occurred to her before. She had never been one to send where she could go, but for the time Lot Gordon's will had overcome hers. "Tell your husband to go to the parson's and the sheriff's, quick, and I will go for the doctor," said she, and was flashing out of the yard in her red cloak before Margaret Bean had time to turn herself about from the prospect of her own going. Then she ordered her husband imperiously into his boots and great-coat and tippet, and sent him forth.
She finished the gruel, and took it in to the sick man, and fed him with hard thrusts of the spoon. Lot looked about feebly for Madelon, and Margaret Bean replied to the look, in her husky voice, "She's gone, instead of me. I've got rheumatism too bad to venture out in such a storm and get my petticoats bedraggled." She spoke with a little whine of defiant crying, but Lot took no notice. He was exhausted. After he had eaten the gruel, he pointed to the chimney-cupboard.
"What is it ye want?" said she.
"How do I know what ye want when ye jest p'int like that?"
But there came then a look into Lot Gordon's eyes as expressive as a word, and Margaret Bean crossed over to the chimney-cupboard, and got out the brandy-flask and a wine-glass and some loaf-sugar. She mixed a little dose of the brandy and sugar, and would have fed it to the sick man as she had the gruel, but he motioned her aside, raised himself with an effort, and drank it down eagerly. Then he lay still, and soon a faint flush came into his face. Margaret Bean went back into the kitchen and mixed some bread, with her eye upon the window.
Presently there was a wild gallop and great clash of bells past the window, and a shout at the door. Margaret Bean put on her little blue shawl and opened it when the shout had been twice repeated. Old David Hautville sat there in his sleigh, keeping a tight rein on his tugging roan. "My daughter here?" he shouted. "Whoa, there!"
"There's sick folks here," said Margaret Bean, shivering in the doorway. "You hadn't ought to holler so." Her tearful eyes were more frankly hostile than usual. She had always looked down from her own slight eminence of life upon these Hautvilles, and now was full of scorn that her master was to marry one of them.
"I want to know if my daughter is here," said David Hautville, and he did not lower his voice. It sounded like a hoarse bellow of wrath, coming out of the white whirl of snow. His fur coat was all crusted with snow, his great mustache heavy with it; the roan plunged in a rising cloud of it.
"No, she ain't here," replied Margaret Bean, and her weak voice seemed by its very antithesis to express the utmost scorn and disgust at the brutality of the other.
"Has she been here?"
"Yes, she's been here." Margaret made as though to shut the door, but David Hautville stopped her.
"Did she start for home?"
"You'd better ask somebody that knows more about it."
"Where did she go?"
"You'd better ask somebody that knows about it!" repeated Margaret Bean, in her malicious meekness. Then she shut the door.
David Hautville, with a great "whoa!" leaped out of the sleigh. He led up the roan with a fierce pull to the fence, and tied her there. Then he strode into the house, and through the entry to Lot's room, with no ceremony.
"Where is my daughter?" he demanded, standing at Lot's bedside in his great fur coat, all bristling with points of snow.
"She'll be back presently," answered Lot. His voice was a little stronger; there were two red spots on his cheeks.
"Where's she gone?"
"For the doctor."
All at once David Hautville gave a great start. "Why, you're talking!" he cried out. "You couldn't speak."
Lot nodded vaguely.
"You're better, then?" cried the other, with a sharp look at him.
Lot nodded again.
"When did she come here?"
"Same damned nonsense, I suppose. She's gone mad. If the law don't finish that fellow, I will!"
Lot motioned towards a chair. "Sit down," he whispered.
"She coming back with the doctor?"
"Yes," Lot coughed.
David Hautville settled into a chair with a surly grunt. He watched Lot cough, holding to his straining chest, and thought that he must be worse, else he would not have sent for the doctor. He resolved to wait and take his daughter home with him, by force if necessary, but with no more disturbance of this man, who might be sick unto death. Seeing Lot cast his eyes about as if looking for something, and make a motion towards the table at his side, he rose up quickly and got him a spoonful of the cough mixture in a bottle thereon, and administered it to him gently.
"Don't you touch my wet coat," said David Hautville, "or yo'll get a chill," and he held himself carefully away from the sick man.
When Lot lay back, panting, he returned to his chair and did not speak again. The two remained in silence until there came the jingle of bells, the tramp of horses' feet, and the voice of men out in the yard.
Lot lay still, with his eyes closed. David Hautville raised his head and looked at the window, thick with frost. Presently the door was opened softly, and the doctor came in, with Parson Fair and Jonas Hapgood. Madelon, in her snow-powdered red cloak, came last. David started up fiercely when he saw her; then he stood back and waited. The doctor bent over Lot and began counting his pulse. He eyed him sharply.
"The pendulum still swings," said Lot.
The doctor started. "You can speak, then!" he cried out, brusquely.
The doctor was old, and his long struggle with birth and death had begun to tell upon him. He had already visited Lot that morning, after a hard night with a patient, back in the hills. His face was haggard under its sharp gray bristle of beard; his eyes fierce, like an old dog's, with fatigue and hunger. He had just reached home and sat down to his breakfast when this new call came. He had thought Lot was dying from Madelon's imperative summons, and she had not undeceived him. She was growing cunning in her desperate efforts to save Burr Gordon.
"What in thunder did ye send for me again for?" he snapped. This old country doctor was never chary of plain speaking, and his brusqueness had increased his popularity. Many of his patients were simple countrywomen, who had greater belief in that which they feared. They repeated his half-savage speeches to each other, and added, "He's a good doctor, if he does speak out."
Lot only smiled that covert smile of his, which seemed to imply some wisdom of humor beyond the ken of others. "I ought to be dying," he said, with grim apology. "I ought not—to have disturbed you all for a less reason than to witness my final exit, but I want you to witness something else." Lot Gordon spoke quite strongly and connectedly.
"What?" asked the doctor, irritably.
"I want to make a statement," said Lot Gordon.
There was a pause. Jonas Hapgood, with his look of heavy facetiousness, slightly tempered now with curiosity, stood lounging into his great snowy boots at the foot of the bed. Parson Fair, the consolation for the dying which he had thought to administer still in his mind, which could not swerve easily, his slender height in his black surtout inclined towards the sick man with gentle courtesy, waited. Margaret Bean peered around the bed-curtain. Madelon stood near the doctor, her face white as if she were dead, and a look of awful listening upon it. In the background David Hautville, wrathful and wondering, towered over them all.
"I wish to declare in the presence of these witnesses," said Lot Gordon, "the doctor here testifying that I am in my right mind"—the doctor gave a surly grunt of assent—"that it is my firm belief that all mortal ills come to man through his own agency, and this last ill of mine is no exception. I declare solemnly before you all that my cousin Burr Gordon is not guilty of administering this wound which I bear in my side."
The sheriff started forward. "Who did do it, then?" he cried out.
"I myself," replied Lot Gordon.
There was a gasp of astonishment from the company. Jonas Hapgood began to speak, but Madelon's soprano drowned out his thick bass.
"How dare you," she cried out, "swear to that lie? Liar! You are a liar, Lot Gordon!"
Then, before Lot could reply, David Hautville came forward with a mighty plunge, and grasped his daughter by the arm, and forced her to the door.
"Get ye out of this," growled David Hautville; but Madelon turned her face back in the doorway for one last word. "Don't you know," she shrieked back to Lot Gordon, in her pitiless despair—"don't you know that I would rather have seen the inside of my prison-cell to-night and the gallows to-morrow than this, Lot Gordon?"
"Quit your talk!" shouted David Hautville; and she followed his fierce leading out of the house into the yard.
"Get ye into this sleigh," ordered her father; and she obeyed. Suddenly the fire of passion and revolt seemed to die out in her; it was like a lull in a spiritual storm. She rode home with her father, and neither spoke. David Hautville now considered the matter as past any words of reasoning. He was convinced that his daughter's fair wits were shaken, and that nothing but summary dealing, as with a child, could avail anything. When they reached home he bade her, with a kind of stern forbearance, to get into the house at once and see to her work there, and she obeyed again.
All that day, and many days after that, poor Madelon Hautville, who had been striving like any warrior against the powers and principalities of human wills and passions, and had grounded her arms after a victory which had left her wounded almost to death, carried her bleeding heart and walked her woman's treadmill. She scoured faithfully the pewter dishes and the iron pots. She swept the hearth clean and baked and brewed and spun and sewed. Her lot would have been easier had her woe befallen her generations before, and she could, instead, have backed her heavy load of tenting through the snow on wild hunting-parties, and broken the ice on the river for fish, and perchance taken a hand at the defence when the males of her tribe were hard pressed. Civilization bowed cruelly this girl, who felt in greater measure than the gently staid female descendants of the Puritan stock around her the fire of savage or primitive passions; but she now submitted to it with the taciturnity of one of her ancestresses to the torture. Week after week she went about the house, and neither spoke nor smiled. Burr Gordon was set free, fully acquitted of the charge against him; Madelon's denial of Lot's false confession had gone for nothing. Half the village considered her hysterical and irresponsible, and Lot Gordon, it was agreed, was just the man to lay violent hands upon his own life, steal and use his cousin's knife, and keep mute to fasten the guilt upon him, as he had confessed.
A week after Burr's release Louis and Richard Hautville came home. They had been trapping on Green Mountain, they said, camping in the little lodge they had built there. When they came in laden with stark white rabbits and limp-necked birds, and one of them with a haunch of venison on his back, Madelon faced them with sudden fierceness, as if to speak. Then she turned away to her work, without a word of greeting. The boy Richard stared at her with a quiver, as of coming tears on his handsome face. He whispered to Eugene, when she went into the pantry.
"Best let her alone," said Eugene. "She's been so ever since."
Not one of them knew of her promise to marry Lot Gordon, and Lot had bound Margaret Bean over to secrecy. All the village was as yet ignorant of that, but there was enough besides to afford a choice bone of gossip to folk sunken in the monotony and isolation of a Vermont country winter. The women put their heads together over it at their quilting-bees, and the men in their lounging-places in the store and tavern. This mystery, which endured as well as their hard-packed snows, and kept their imaginations always upon the stretch, was a great acquisition to them. Plenty of mental activity was there in Ware Centre that winter, and the brains of many were smartly at work upon some of those problems whose conditions, being all unknown quantities of character and circumstance and fate, are beyond all rules of solution.
Would Burr Gordon marry Dorothy Fair, or would he, after all, turn again to his old love, who had shown such devotion to him that it had almost turned her brain? Unless, indeed—for there is room in gossip for all suspicion, and surmise can never be quite laid at rest—her brain had not been turned, and she had struck the blow, as she said. But, in that case, why had Lot taken her guilt upon himself? Why had he cleared Burr at his own expense, and saved her? If he had done it for love of Madelon, he had also set his rival free to woo her, and had established her innocence in his eyes.
Lot still lived. Would he die, finally, of his wound or of his disease? Would he recover and come out of his house alive again? Time went on, and the people knew no more than they knew at first; but they continued to watch, crossing the gleams of all the neighboring window-panes with sharp lines of attention, hushing conversation in the store if a Hautville or a Gordon entered, and rolling keen eyes over shoulders after meeting one of them upon the country roads. But especially they were alert in the meeting-house upon Sabbath days. Their eyes were slyly keen upon Dorothy Fair, softly wrapped in her blue wadded silk and swan's-down, holding up her head with gentle state in the parson's pew; upon Burr Gordon, somewhat pale and moody in his smart Sunday coat; and Madelon, up in the singing-seats. They never, in those days, saw Madelon elsewhere. She went to meeting every Sabbath day and sang as usual, but between the hymns she sat with her beautiful face as irresponsive to all around her as a painted portrait, and more so, for the eyes of a portrait will often seem to follow an ardent gazer. Madelon's father and brothers, except Richard and Louis, who kept their own counsel, were much bewildered among themselves at her strange mood, and were inclined to hold the opinion that her wits were a little shaken, and, moreover, to keep it quiet and secret from everybody until she should be quite restored. They said little to her, treating her with a kind of forbearing compassion; but the indignation of them all was fierce, although held well in check, against Burr Gordon. Him they held accountable for all.
Burr Gordon might well have been quit of any charge of cowardice had he shrunk from facing the male Hautvilles on those days. They passed him in the road with the looks of surly dogs in leash. None of them except Eugene gave him a nod of recognition. Eugene bowed always, with his unfailing grace of courtesy, but he hated him more than all the others, for he was jealous on his own account as well as his sister's. It was said that Burr Gordon, since his acquittal, was courting Dorothy Fair steadily, although they had not been seen out together.
Burr had been to the Hautville house twice since his return from New Salem, but had not been admitted. Once when he called Madelon had been alone in the house, and caught a glimpse of her old lover coming into the yard. She had sprung up, letting her needle-work slide to the floor, and fled with her face as white as death and her heart beating hard into the freezing best room, and stood back in a corner out of range of the windows, and listened to the taps of the knocker and finally to Burr's retreating steps. Then she crept across to a window and peered around the curtain, and watched him out of sight as if her soul would follow him; then she stole out the door and looked up and down to see if anybody was in sight; and then she flung herself down upon her knees and kissed her lover's cold footprint in the snow.
The second time Burr came was on an evening, when her father and all her brothers except Richard were at the singing-school. She knew Burr's step when he drew near the door, and bade Richard shortly to answer the knock, and say she was busy and could see nobody, which he did with all the emphasis which his fiery young blood could put into words of dismissal. The boy, of all the others, alone knew a reason why he should be more lenient with Burr; and yet this very reason seemed to swell his wrath and hold him more deeply responsible for a deeper disgrace. When he had shut the door hard upon Burr, he turned to his sister. "I would have killed him rather than let him in," said he.
Madelon took another stitch in her work. Her face looked as if it were carved in marble. Richard stood staring at her a second; then he flung out of the room, and the doors closing behind him shook the house. Richard's manner towards his sister was sometimes full of a fierce sympathy and partisanship, sometimes of wild anger and aversion. He looked ten years older in a few weeks. Both he and Louis appeared to avoid the other members of the family, and kept much together, and yet even in their close companionship they also seemed to have a curious avoidance of each other; one was seldom seen to look in his brother's face, or address him directly.
One morning, a month after Burr's release, Margaret Bean came to the Hautville door. She was well wrapped against the cold, her head especially being swathed about with lengths of knitted scarf over her silk hood; there was only a thin sharp gleam of face out of it, like a very lance of intelligence. Margaret held out the stiff white corner of a letter from the folds of her shawl. "He sent it," she said to Madelon, who came to the door.
Madelon opened the letter and read it. "I can't come," she said, shortly. "I'm busy. Tell him he must write what he wants to tell me."
Margaret Bean's eyes were sharp as steel points. She had not known what was in the letter. "Hey?" said she, pretending that she had not heard, in order to make Madelon repeat and perhaps reveal more.
"I can't come," said Madelon. "He can write what he wants to tell me."
Suddenly a great red flush spread over her pale face and her neck. She lowered her eyes before the other woman as if in utter degradation of shame, and shrank back into the house and closed the door in Margaret Bean's face.
Margaret Bean stood for a moment, a silent, shapeless figure in the cold air. "Pretty actions, I call it," said she then, quite loudly, and went out of the yard with a curious tilting motion on slender ankles, as of a balancing bale of wool.
Madelon slipped her letter into her pocket as she entered the kitchen. Her father and all her brothers were there. It was shortly after breakfast, and they had not yet gone out.
"Who was it at the door?" her father asked. He sat by the fire in his great boots.
"What did she want?"
"Lot Gordon sent for me to come over there."
"He wanted—to—tell me something."
"You ain't going a step. I can tell ye that."
"I—told her I couldn't go," said Madelon. Her voice was almost breathless, and still that red of shame was over her face. She bent her head and turned her back to them all, and went out of the room. The male Hautvilles looked at one another. "What's come over the girl now?" said Abner, in his surly bass growl.
"She's a woman," said his father, and he stamped his booted feet on the floor with a great clamp.
Madelon meantime fled up-stairs to her chamber, with her first love-letter from Lot Gordon in her pocket. Until this the reality of all that had happened had not fully come home to her. Without acknowledging it to herself she had entertained a half-hope that Lot might not have been entirely in earnest—that he might not hold her to her promise. And then there had been the uncertainty as to his recovery. But here was this letter, in which Lot Gordon called her—her, Madelon Hautville—his sweetheart, and begged her to come to him, as he had something of importance to say to her! He used, moreover, terms of endearment which thrilled her with the stinging shame of lashes upon her bare shoulders at the public whipping-post. She lit the candle on her table, snatched the letter out of her pocket, crumpled it fiercely as if it were some live thing that she would crush the life out of, and then held it to the candle-flame until it burned away, and the last flashes of it scorched her fingers. Then she caught a sight of her own miserable, shamed face in her looking-glass, and flushed redder and struck herself in her face angrily, and then fell to walking up and down her little room.
Her father and brothers down below heard her, and looked at each other.
"There was that Emmeline Littlefield that went mad, and fell to walking all the time," said Abner.
The others listened to the footsteps overhead with a gloomy assent of silence.
"They had to keep her in a room with an iron grate on the window," said Abner, further, with a pale scowl.
Then David Hautville took down his leather jacket from its peg with a jerk, and thrust his arm into it. "I tell ye, she's a woman," he said, in a shout, as if to drown out those hurrying steps; and then he went out of the room and the house, and disappeared with axe on shoulder across the snowy reach of fields; and presently all his sons except Eugene followed him. Eugene remained to keep watch over his sister.
After his father and brothers were gone, Eugene got Louis's fiddle out of the chimney-cupboard and fell to playing with an imperfect touch, picking out a tune slowly, with halts between the strains, as if he spelled a word with stammering syllables. Eugene's musical expression was in his throat alone; his fingers were almost powerless to bring out the meaning of sweet sounds. A drunken crew on a rolling vessel might have danced to the tune that Eugene Hautville fingered on his brother's fiddle that morning while his sister walked back and forth overhead, running the gantlet, as it were, of an agony which his masculine imagination could not compass, well tutored as it was by the lessons of his Shakespeare book.
When Margaret Bean came to the door the second time she heard the squeak of the fiddle, and clanged the knocker loud to overcome it. Madelon and Eugene reached the door at the same time, and Margaret Bean extended another letter. "Here's another," said she, shortly, to Madelon. She tucked the hand which had held the letter under her shawl and hugged herself with a shiver, ostentatiously. "I'm most froze, traipsin' back and forth, I know that much," she muttered.
Eugene stood aside with a flourish and a graceful, beckoning wave of his hand. "Won't you come in and warm yourself?" he said, and he smiled in her face as if she and no other were the love of his heart.
But Margaret Bean had a shrewd understanding which no grace of flattery could dazzle, and felt truly that nowadays her principal claim to masculine admiration lay in her fine starching specialty of housewifery; and of that she gave no show, bundled up against the cold in her shapeless wools. So she put aside the young man's smiling courtesy scornfully, as not belonging to her, and spoke in a voice as sharp as an edge of her own well-stiffened linens. "No, sir," said Margaret Bean; "I've got bread in the oven and I can't stop, and I ain't coming in for two or three minutes and set with my things on, and get all chilled through when I go out. I'll stand here while your sister reads that letter. He said the answer would be just 'yes' or 'no,' and I shouldn't have to wait long. 'She ain't one to teeter long on a decision,' says he; 'she finds her footin' one side or the other.' He talks queer, queerer'n ever sence he was hurt. I pity anybody that gets him."
"Tell him 'yes,'" said Madelon, abruptly; and then she wheeled about and went into the house.
"Well," said Margaret Bean, harshly. The door closed before her; Eugene had forgotten his courtesy, and followed his sister into the house without a good-day to the guest.
Margaret Bean stood for a minute looking at the house, with its yawn of blank windows in her face; then she went out of the yard, bearing her message to Lot Gordon.
Eugene Hautville was startled at the look on Madelon's face when she went into the house. "Madelon, what is it?" he said, softly. But she did not answer him a word; she ran across the room and thrust Lot Gordon's letter into the fire. Eugene followed her and turned her about gently, and looked keenly in her white face.
"What was in that latter?" said he.
Madelon shook her head dumbly.
"Wait. You will know soon. I can't tell you," she gasped out then.
"Was it from Lot Gordon?"
"What is he writing to you about? You are my sister, and I have a right to know."
"Wait," she gasped again. "Oh, Eugene, wait. I—can't—"
Suddenly Madelon hung heavy on her brother's arm. "Madelon," he cried out loudly to her, as if she were deaf—"Madelon, don't! You needn't tell me. Madelon!"
Eugene almost lifted his sister into the rocking-chair on the hearth, and hastened to get her a cup of water; but when he returned with it she motioned it away, and was sitting up, stern and straight and white, but quite conscious.
"Hadn't you better drink it, Madelon?" pleaded Eugene.
"No. What do I want it for? I am quite well," said she.
"You almost fainted away."
"I don't want it."
Eugene set the cup on the dresser; then he came back to Madelon, and stood over her, looking at her, his dark face as pitiful as a woman's. "Madelon, why can't you tell me what new thing is making you act like this?" he said. Madelon made an impatient motion and started up, and would have gone out of the room, but Eugene flung an arm around her and held her firmly. "What is it, poor girl?" he whispered in her ear.
Madelon had soft woman's blood in her veins, after all. Suddenly she shook convulsively, and would have kept her face firm, but she could not. She put her head on her brother's shoulder, and sobbed and wept as he had never seen her do, even when she was a child, for she had never been one to cry when she was hurt. Eugene sat down in the rocking-chair with his sister on his knee, and smoothed her dark hair as gently as her mother might have done. "Poor girl! poor girl!" he kept whispering; but, softly caressing as his voice was, his eyes, staring over his sister's head at the fire, got a fierce and fiercer look; for he was thinking of Burr Gordon and cursing him in his heart for all this. "Good Lord, Madelon, can't you put that fellow out of your head?" he cried out, sharply, all at once.
Then Madelon hushed her sobs, with a stern grip of her will upon her quivering nerves, and raised herself up and away from him. "That has nothing to do with this," she said, coldly. "Let me go now, Eugene."
But Eugene held her strongly with a hand on either arm, and scanned her keenly with his indignant eyes. "He is at the root of the whole matter," said he, "and you know it. I wish—"
"I tell you Burr Gordon has nothing to do with this last. He knows nothing of it. Let me go, Eugene."
But Eugene still held her and looked at her. "Madelon—"
"What? I can sit here no longer. I have work to do. There is nothing the matter with me. I have nothing to complain of. What I do I do of my own free will."
"Madelon," whispered Eugene, with a red flush stealing over his dark face, his eyes dropping a little before her, "you don't—think she will—marry him?"
"Of course she will—marry him, Eugene Hautville."
Eugene set his sister down suddenly and got up. "All I've got to say is, then," he cried, with a movement of his right arm like a blow, "it's a damned shame that the child can't be taken care of among us all."
"What do you mean, Eugene Hautville?"
"I mean that she had better lie down in her grave than marry that—"
"Take care what you say, Eugene."
"I say she had—"
"Better lie down in her grave than marry him—than marry Burr Gordon? What do you mean? Who are you, that you talk in this way? He is better than you all; not one of you is fit to tie his shoe."
"Madelon, are you mad? He is a lying villain, and you know it, and—God knows it's only on her account I speak. Some one ought to tell her."
"Tell her, tell her! What do you think I would tell her if I were to speak? If she were to come to me and ask me if Burr ever courted me and played me false for her, I would tell her, no, no, no! If she were to ask me if Burr ever kissed me, or said a fond word to me, or gave me a fond look, I would tell her, and this last is the truth, that he never gave me more than a passing thought, and 'twas only my own short-sightedness and conceit that made me think 'twas more than that, shame to me! Isn't he a man, and shouldn't a man look well about him among us to be sure his heart is set? I'd tell her 'twas something for her to hold up her head for among other women all the days of her life, because he chose her. That's what I'd tell her."
"Dorothy Fair shall not cheat Burr now, when he has set his heart upon her. It would be worse than all that has gone before. I tell you I won't bear that. He shall have her if he wants her. He has suffered enough."
"But you—you," gasped Eugene. "I thought you—I thought you wanted him yourself, Madelon."
"I've gone past myself. All I think of now is what he wants," said she, shortly. She turned to go out of the room; then she stopped and spoke to him over her shoulder: "There's no need of talking any more about it." She added: "I know what I've set out to do, and I can go through with it." Then the door shut after her, and Eugene sat down with his Shakespeare book. But he could not read; he sat moodily puzzling over his sister, whose unfulfilled drama of life held his mind better than them all.
But puzzle as he might, he never once dreamed of the truth—that his sister Madelon had promised to marry Lot Gordon in a month's time, and sent her "yes" by word of mouth of Margaret Bean that morning. Somehow, even with the ashes of the letter of proposal before his eyes on the hearth, and his sister's "yes" ringing in his ears, knowing as he did that Lot as well as Burr had lost his heart to her, he could not conceive of such a possibility. He was too well acquainted with Madelon's attitude towards Lot, and she had never been one to walk whither she did not list for any man. He could not imagine the possibility, well versed as he was, through his Shakespeare lessons, in the feminine heart, of his sister's yielding her proud maiden will to any man. He would as soon have thought of a wild-cat which he had trailed in the woods, which knew him as his mortal enemy, whose eyes had followed him with stealthy fury out of a way-side bush, to unbend from the crouch of its spring and walk purring tamely into his house at call, and fall to lapping milk out of a saucer on the hearth. But no man can estimate the possibilities of character under the lever of circumstances, and there is power enough abroad to tame the savage in all nature. Madelon Hautville had yielded to a stress of which her brother knew nothing, and he therefore scouted the idea, if it crossed his mind like a wild fancy, of her yielding at all. He rather came to the conclusion that the letter had announced Burr's engagement to Dorothy Fair, and that Madelon's "yes" had signified proud approval of it. He leaned to this conclusion the sooner because of the miserable tendency which a jealous heart has to force all suspicions to open its own sore. "He's going to marry Dorothy Fair," Eugene told himself. "It was like Lot to tell Madelon, and ask her if she was pleased with it. And that was why she acted so. Her heart broke at first and she cried, and then she stood up and hid it. He's going to marry Dorothy Fair!"
Eugene had a strong imagination, whereby he could suffer a thousandfold, if he would, every woe of his life. Sitting now by his hearth fire, with his Shakespeare book, full of the joys and sorrows of immortal lovers, disregarded upon his knees, he let his fancy show him many a picture which tore his heart, although look upon it he would. He saw Dorothy Fair in her wedding-gown; he saw her blush like a rose through her bridal lace; he saw her following Burr up the meeting-house aisle the Sabbath after her marriage with a soft rustling of silken finery, and a toss of white bridal plumes over her fair locks. He saw those glances, which he swore to himself boldly enough then had first been his, turned upon his rival; he imagined sweet words and caresses which he had never tasted, and were perchance the sweeter for that, bestowed upon Burr.
Suddenly he started up and flung down his book upon the settle, and put on his fur cap and was out of the house. "The first turn of her heart was towards me, and I was the first man she coupled with love in her thoughts, and nothing can undo it," he said, aloud, fiercely to himself as he went up the lonely snowy road; and he believed it then. Those soft blue glances of Dorothy's came back to him so vividly that he seemed to see them anew whenever his eyes fell upon the way-side bushes, or the cloud-shadowed slopes of white fields, or the dark gaps of solitude between the forest pines.
For the first time a fierce insistence of his rights of love was upon him. Straight to the village he went, and to Parson Fair's house. But he did not enter; his madness was not great enough for that. He did not enter, but he went past with a bold, searching look at all the windows and no pretence of indifference, and up the road a little way. Then he returned and passed the house again, and looked again; and this time Dorothy's face showed between the dimity sweeps of her chamber curtains. He half stopped, and then came another glance of blue eyes which verified those that had gone before, straight into his, which replied with a dark flash of ardor, and then Dorothy's face went red all of a sudden, and there was a vanishing curve of blushing cheek and a flirt aside of fair curls, and the space between the dimity curtains was clear.
Eugene stood still beneath the window for a few minutes. There were watchful eyes in the neighboring windows. In the tavern-yard, farther down the street, Dexter Beers and old Luke Basset stood, also fixedly staring at Parson Fair's house.
"Wonder if he thinks there's any trouble—fire or anything," said Dexter Beers.
"Don't see no smoke," said old Luke.
Eugene Hautville, rapt in that abstraction of love which is the completest in the world, and makes indeed a world of its own across eternal spaces, knew nothing and thought nothing of outside observers. He was half minded for a minute to enter Parson Fair's house. Had Dorothy appeared outside, the impulse to seize her and bear her away with him and fight for her possession against all odds, like any male of his old savage tribe when love stirred his veins, would have been strong within him. But she did not come, nor appear again in the window. She stood well around the curtain and peeped; but he did not know that, and presently he went away.
When he passed the tavern Dexter Beers hailed him. "Say, anythin' wrong to the parson's?"
"No," returned Eugene, sharply, and strode on.
"Didn't know but you see smoke, you were lookin' up at the house so stiddy," called Beers, conciliatingly; but Eugene swung down the road without another look. All his grace of manner was forgot in the stir of passion within him. What had Dorothy Fair meant by that look? Was she betrothed to Burr Gordon? Was she playing with him for her own amusement? And what was he to do, what could he do, for the sake of his love, with honor?
Eugene left the road after he had cleared the village, and struck off across the fields for a long tramp through snowy solitudes as well known to him as, and better suited to him for perplexed thoughts than, any place in his home. In a way, out-doors was the truest home of all these Hautvilles, with the strain of wild nomadic blood in their veins.
The sight of the little fireless dwellings of woodland things, the empty nests revealed on the naked trees, the scattered berries on leafless bushes, the winter larders of birds, the tiny track of a wild hare or a partridge in the snow, disturbed less the current of their inmost life, as being more the wonted surroundings of their existence, than all the sounds and sights and savors within four domestic walls.
Eugene tramped on for miles over paths well known to him, which were hidden now beneath the snow, pondering upon himself and Dorothy Fair, and never gave his sister, whose guardian he had been, another thought.
Madelon, half an hour after Eugene had left, put on her cloak and hood, and went down the road to Lot Gordon's. "I want to see him a minute," she said to Margaret Bean when the woman answered her knock, and went in with no more ado. Her face was white and stern in the shadow of her hood.
Margaret Bean recoiled a little when she looked at her. "He's up," said she, backing before her, half as if she were afraid. "I guess you can walk right in."
Madelon went into the sitting-room, and Lot's face confronted her at once, white and peaked, with hollow blue eyes lit, as of old, with a mocking intelligence of life.
He was sunken amid multifold wrappings in a great chair before the fire, with a great leathern-bound book on his knees. Beside him was a little stand with writing-paper thereon, and sealing-wax and a candle, a quill pen and an inkstand. All the room was lined with books, and was full of the musty smell of them.
Madelon went straight up to Lot and spoke out with no word of greeting. "I have sent your answer," said she. "I will keep my promise, but have you thought well of what you do, Lot Gordon?"
Lot looked up at her and smiled, and the smile gave a curiously gentle look to his face, in spite of the sharp light in his eyes.
"The thought has been my meat and my drink, my medicine and my breath of life," said he.
"If I were a man I would rather—take a snake to my breast than a woman who held me as one—"
"Two parallel lines can sooner meet than a woman know the heart of a man. What do I care so I hold you to mine?"
Madelon stood farther away from him, but her eyes did not fall before his.
"Why did you lie" said she. "You knew I stabbed you, and not yourself. You are a liar, Lot Gordon."
But Lot still smiled as he answered her. "However it may be with other men, no happening has come to me since I set foot upon this earth that I brought not upon myself by my own deeds. The hand that set the knife in my side was my own, and I have not lied."
"You have lied. Tell them the truth."
"I have told the truth that lies at the bottom of the well."
"Call them all in now, and tell them—I—did it, I—"
Lot Gordon raised himself a little, and looked at her with the mocking expression gone suddenly from his face. "What good do you think it would do if I did, Madelon?" he said, with a strange sadness in his voice.
She looked at him.
"I shall not die of the wound. You can't escape me by prison or a disgraceful death, and as for me, do you think it would make any difference to me if all the village pointed at you, Madelon?"
Madelon looked at him as if she were frozen.
"All the way to be set loose from your promise is by your own breaking it," said Lot.
"I will keep my promise," said Madelon, shutting her lips hard upon her words. She turned away.
"Madelon," said Lot.
She went towards the door as if she did not hear.
She turned her white face slightly towards him and paused.
"Won't you come here to me a moment?"
"I cannot until I am driven to it!" she cried out, passion leaping into her voice like fire. "I cannot go near you, Lot Gordon!"
She opened the door, and then she heard a sob. She hesitated a second, then looked around; and Lot Gordon's thin body was curled about in his chair and quivering with sobs like any child's.
Madelon closed the door, and went back and stood over him. She looked at him with a curious expression of pity struggling with loathing, as she might have looked at some wounded reptile.
"Well, I am here," she said, in a harsh voice.
"All my life my heart has had nothing, and now what it has it has not," moaned Lot, as if it had been to his mother. He looked up at her with his hollow blue eyes swimming in tears. He seemed for a minute like a little ailing boy appealing for sympathy, and the latent motherhood in the girl responded to that.
"You know I cannot help that, Lot," she said. "You know how you forced me into this to save the one I do love."
"Oh, Madelon, can't you love me?"
She shrank away from him and shook her head, but still her dark eyes were soft upon his face.
"Does not love for you count anything? I love you more than he—I do, Madelon."
"It is no use talking, I can never love you, Lot," she said, but gently.
"It ought to count. Love ought to count, dear. It is the best thing in the world we have to give. And I have given it to you; oh, God, how have I given it to you, Madelon!"
"Lot, don't—it's no use."
"Listen—you must listen, dear. You must hear it once. It can't turn you more against me. You don't know how I have loved you—you don't know. Listen. Never a morning have I waked but the knowledge of you came before the consciousness of myself. Never a night I fell asleep but 'twas you, you I lost last, and not myself. When I have been sick the sting of my longing for you has dulled all my pain of body. If I die I see not how that can die with me, for it is of my soul. I see not why I must not bear it forever."
"Lot, I must go!"
"Listen, Madelon; you must listen. When I have taken my solitary walks in the woods and pried into the secrets of the little wild things that live there in order to turn my mind from my own musing, I found always, always, that you were in them—I cannot tell you how, but you were, Madelon. There was a meaning of you in every bird-call and flutter of wings and race of wild four-footed things across the open. Every white alder-bush in the spring raised you up anew before me to madden me with vain longing, and every red sumach in the fall. When I have sat here alone every book I have opened has had in it a meaning of you which the writer knew not of. You are in all my forethoughts and my memories and my imaginations. The future has your face, and the past. My whole world is made up of you and my vain hunger. Oh, love, and not toil, is the curse of man!"
"You knew about Burr," Madelon said, in a quiet, agitated voice. "Why—did you?"
Lot gave a sharp cry, as if he had been wounded anew. "Oh," he cried, "you are blind, blind, blind—a woman is born blind to love! If I had had the face and the body of him it would have been me you would have turned to, Madelon. Don't you know? can't you see? He has been false to you, he cares no more for you. But if he had? In the end it is love and love alone that sweetens life, and what could his love be to mine?"
Madelon turned away again. "I can't stand here any longer, Lot," she said, and moved towards the door.
But Lot called her piteously: "Madelon, come back! If you have any mercy, come back!"
She stood irresolute, frowning; then she went back. "What is it?" she asked, impatiently.
"Madelon, kiss me once."
"I can't—I can't! Don't ask that of me, Lot."
Madelon bent over him, keeping her body stiffly aloof, and kissed him on his hollow forehead. Lot closed his eyes and smiled like a contented child; then suddenly he opened them upon Madelon, and the look in them was not a child's. She shrank away with a strong shudder, flushing with anger and shame, and made resolutely for the door again. She looked back and spoke out sharply to him, with her hand on the latch: "Mind you do not say one word about—what I said I'd do, until the last." Then she went out, flinging to the door quickly lest she hear Lot's voice again.
When she got home there was no one there. Eugene had not returned. She went about preparing dinner as usual; it was on the table when the men, all except Eugene, came home, and none of them dreamed she had left the house. They inquired where Eugene was, and she replied that she did not know. They did not suspect that she had taken advantage of this lack of guardianship, and yet there was something unwonted in her manner which led them to look at each other furtively when they first noticed it. The perfect poise of decision at which she had arrived affected their minds in some subtle fashion. Eugene, when he returned late in the afternoon, noticed the change in her, in spite of his own perturbation. He looked hard at her staid face, fixed into a sort of unquestioning and dignified acquiescence with misery, but he said nothing. Madelon, in this state, was not to be questioned even by her father. He simply muttered to himself, as he strode out of the room, that she was a woman.
Madelon's manner was the same as the days went on. There ceased to be any question as to her sanity among her father and brothers. She no longer paced overhead like a wild thing. She no longer made fierce outbreaks of despairing appeal. They no longer kept watch over her lest she commit some folly, and became easier in their minds about her.
They made no objections when, three weeks later, she asked for the sleigh and the roan to go to New Salem and make some purchases for herself. She went early in the afternoon, and returned in good season with her parcels. They did not dream that she had been in a strange spirit of bitterness and shameful misery and feminine pride to purchase her wedding-gown for her marriage with Lot Gordon.
Her frantic and unreasoning impulse of concealment was still strong. It was almost as if the whole horror of it were not so plainly thrust upon her if none but she knew it; then there was the agony of shame which made her fain to turn her back and deafen her ears to her own self, let alone all these others.
They rather wondered, the next morning, when they saw Madelon seated at work upon some shining lengths of silk, at the magnificence of her purchase in New Salem; but they knew that she had a little private fund of her own, which they had never questioned her right to spend.
"Guess she's been saving her egg-and-butter money," Abner said, when she went out for something.
His father nodded. "Glad she's got a new gown. Guess she'll show folks she ain't quite done for on account of that fellow," he said.
When Madelon was seated at her work again, and he passed her to leave the room, he laid a heavy, caressing hand on her black head. "Glad ye've got ye a handsome gown," said he. "It's money well spent."
That day there was a great snow-storm—the last of the season. There had been many such that winter. Snow fell upon snow, and the bare ground was never seen. This time the storm lasted two days. On the morning of the third the sun came out and the wind blew. There was a northern gale all day. The new snow arose like a white spirit from its downfall, and was again all abroad in the air. It moved across the fields in great diamond-glittering shafts; it crested itself over the brows of hills in flashing waves; it lengthened its sharp slants of white light from hour to hour against the windward sides of the fences and houses.
On the morning of the next day everything was still. The snow lay transfixed in blue whirlpools around the trees; the fields were full of frozen eddies, and the hill-tops curled with white wave-crests which never broke. There was a dead calm, and the mercury was fourteen degrees below zero. Everything seemed in the white region of death after the delirium of storm. That morning Madelon Hautville, after her household tasks were done, sat down again to sew her wedding-dress. The silk was of changeable tints, and flashed in patches of green and gold as it lay over her knee and swept around her to the floor.
All the others had gone, but presently, as she sewed, Richard came in with some parcels. He had been on an errand to the store. He tossed the packages on the dresser, then he went and stood directly in front of his sister, looking at her.
"I want to know if it's true," said he.
Then Madelon knew that he had heard. "Yes," said she.
"And that is—" Richard pointed at the silk.
Richard continued to look at his sister and the gorgeous silk. There was consternation in his look, and withal a certain relief. Boy as he was, he reasoned it out astutely. If Madelon married Lot Gordon the merest shadow of suspicion that her confession had been true would not cling to her, and Richard hated Burr, and was fiercely triumphant that he should not think his sister dying for love of him; and then Burr would lose the Gordon money.
All at once Madelon rose up, let her silk breadths slip rustling to the floor, and took Richard by the shoulder. "Richard," she said, "why could you not have told the truth about the knife, and not forced me to this? Why could you not?"
The boy looked aside from her doggedly. "I don't know what you mean about a knife," said he, but his voice shook.
"Yes, you do know, Richard! It is all over now. I must marry Lot. I have promised. I shall not try to escape it—I shall not try again to make people believe it was I. If you were to tell the truth now it would do no good. But you must tell me this, Richard. How came Burr Gordon's knife there instead of yours?"
The boy hesitated.
"Richard, you know you can trust me."
"Well," said Richard, slowly, in a low voice, "I came right up behind Burr before you were hardly out of sight. I'd got uneasy about your going home alone, and I'd thought I'd follow you unbeknown to you, and turn 'round and go back when you were safe in sight of home. Burr pulled my knife out of the wound quick and wiped it on the snow. 'Take it quick,' says he, and I knew what he meant, and put it in my pocket, and slid out of sight in the bushes; and then he whipped out his knife and laid it in the pool of blood, and the others came up, and 'twas all done in a second. That's how."
"He did it to save me," said Madelon, and her voice was fuller of exultant sweetness than it had ever been in a song.
"He's a rascal, that's what he is!" said Richard. "If he hadn't treated you so, it wouldn't ever have happened."
"He did it to save me," said Madelon, as if to herself; "it's worth all I'm going to do to save him." She sat down again, and took up her wedding-dress, and resumed sewing. Richard stood looking at her a minute; then he got his gun off the hooks where he kept it, put on his fur cap, and went out.
Madelon sat and sewed, in a broad slant of wintry sunshine, for an hour longer. Then a shadow passed suddenly athwart the floor, the door opened, and Burr Gordon was in the room. He came straight across to her, but she sat still and drew her needle through her wedding-silk.
"Madelon!" he cried out, "is this true that I have just heard? Madelon!"—Burr Gordon's handsome face was white as death, and he breathed hard, as if he had been running—"Madelon! tell me, for God's sake, is it—true?"
"Yes," said Madelon. She took another stitch. The self-restraint of her New England mother was upon her then. Burr Gordon, betrothed to Dorothy Fair, loving her not, yet still noble enough and kind enough to have perilled his life to save hers, should know nothing of the greater sacrifice she was making for him.
"You are going to marry—Lot?"
"Oh, my God!"
Burr Gordon stood a moment looking at the girl sewing the breadths of shining silk. Then he went over to the settle and sat down there and bent over, leaning his head on his hands. He knew no more at that moment of Madelon's mind than an utter stranger.
It well might be, he thought, that she no longer cared for him. It was not long since she had seemed to, but women, he had always heard, were fickle, and he had so treated her that it might have turned any woman's heart cold. And his cousin Lot had the family wealth, and if she married him she would inherit it, and not he. What could he say to her, sewing so calmly upon her wedding-dress, seemingly in utter acquiescence and content with her fate? Could he take another step without going deeper into the slough of shame and distress where it seemed to him he already stood? And there was Dorothy.
Madelon never glanced at him as she sewed. Presently he arose and went over to her again. "Madelon," he said, hesitatingly, coloring red, "tell me you do not have any hard feelings towards me? I know I deserve it."
"You deserve nothing; it is I," she said, in a low voice.
"I know what you did to save my life," she said. Her voice gave out a rich thrill, like a musical tone, as she spoke. She bent lower over her work.
"That was nothing. Madelon"—he paused a moment; she was silent—"Madelon, tell me. Are you—are you satisfied—with this step you are going to take?"
"There is nothing I can do? You know I would do—anything to— You know if you wished—I would do whatever you said."
"You will marry Dorothy Fair," Madelon said, in such a tone of calm assertion that he quailed before it.
"Then you—are satisfied to—marry Lot— It is your wish?"
"Oh, my God!" said Burr, and went out, while Madelon took another stitch in her wedding-gown.
However the tale of Madelon's and Lot's engagement had found mouth—whether Margaret Bean had vented her knowledge when it grew too big for her or not—it was scarce one day before the whole village was agape with it. With that tendency of the human mind born of involuntary self-knowledge which leads it to suspect a selfish motive in all untoward actions, many gave unhesitatingly a reason for Madelon's choice.
The women nodded astutely at each other, and the men exchanged shrewd affirmative grunts. "She's goin' to marry Lot to pay off Burr," they all agreed. "She'll get all the money."
Madelon herself had never thought of that. She had never considered the fact that her marriage with Lot would rob Burr of his prospective wealth; and, if she had, she would have dismissed the thought as of no moment. Capacity for revenge of that sort was not in her; even the imagination of it was lacking. She would simply have resolved to give the property to Burr if she should outlive Lot, and she would have carried out her resolution. Consciously, perhaps, this consideration was no more evident to her father and her brothers than to herself. The Hautvilles were not mercenary, and retaliation, involving personal profit at the expense of an enemy, was not of their code. They did have, however, a consideration no less selfish, in a way, and no less acute when they heard the news. One and all thought, "Now Madelon will be cleared of all suspicion that she may have brought upon herself. Nobody will believe that Lot Gordon would marry a girl who attempted his life. Every hint of disgrace will be removed from her and us all by this marriage."
Louis, when he heard the news, gave an involuntary glance at his own hands at the thought of Madelon's crimsoned ones, to which he had tried to blind his memory. "Well, maybe it's the best thing that could happen," he said, grimly, but his wonder over it was great. He knew well enough, however he tried to hide the knowledge from himself, that Madelon's story had been true. He looked at his brother Richard, and Richard looked back at him; and one's knowledge for once faced the other's boldly in their utter astonishment. Then they nodded at each other in a stern understanding of assent. It was best their sister should cover her crime and avert the disgrace, which she had seemed to hang over all of them, in that way.
When the male Hautvilles came home to dinner, on the noon of the day after Burr called, Madelon knew at once that they had all heard. They sat down to the table and ate in silence. None of them spoke a word to Madelon on the subject, but she knew they had heard. After dinner they all went out again except her father. He stood on the hearth, filling his pipe moodily, with an automatic motion of his fingers, his eyes aloof. Madelon moved about with quick, decided motions, clearing the dinner-table. David, when the tobacco was well packed in his pipe-bowl, turned his eyes mechanically upon the glowing coals on the hearth, but made no motion to light it. He looked slowly and furtively about presently at Madelon's wedding-silk, which lay heaped in a chair with a green and gold shimmer, as of leaves and flowers. All unmoved by, and oblivious of, the splendor of woman's gear was David Hautville usually, but this silk, radiant with the weaving of party-lights, affected him with a memory of old happiness, so vague that it was scarce more than a memory of a memory. In splendid silken raiment had Madelon's mother gone as a bride years ago. It had been in reality widely different from this gown of Madelon's, but still, looking at this, David Hautville's masculine eyes saw dimly beyond it another dapple of gorgeous tints, and heard a soft rustle of silken skirts out of the past. He would not have said that this bright mass of silk in the chair made him think of his wife's wedding-gown, but he knew by that thought it was Madelon's. He stared at it, scowling over his great mustache. Then he looked slowly around at his daughter. She was just coming out of the pantry, and faced him as he spoke.
"I suppose this is true I've heard," said he.
Madelon's face blazed red before his eyes, but her mouth was firm and hard, and her eyes unflinching. "Yes, sir," she replied; and she took a dish from the table and turned about, and went again into the pantry, carrying it.
David Hautville, rearing his great height before the fire, casting a long shadow over the room, stood, holding his unlighted pipe, and staring again at the wedding-silk, until his daughter returned. Then he brought his gaze to bear upon her again.
"I suppose you've thought over what you're going to do, and feel it's for the best," said he, with a kind of stern embarrassment. David Hautville felt no resentment because his daughter had not confided her engagement to him. From his very lack of understanding of the feminine character, and his bewilderment over it, he was disposed to give his daughter a wide latitude in a matter of this kind. Not comprehending the feminine gait to matrimony, but recognizing its inevitability, he was inclined to stand silently out of the road, unless his prejudices were too violently shocked. He had also a mild respect for, and understanding of, reticence concerning one's own affairs, and was, moreover, furtively satisfied with the match.
"Yes, I have," answered Madelon, calmly.
"How soon were you calculating—" asked her father, pressing the tobacco harder into the pipe-bowl, and casting a meditative eye at the coals.
"He said a month—that was three weeks ago Monday. To-day is Wednesday." Madelon Hautville spoke with her proud chin raised, and her eyes as compelling as a queen's; but in spite of herself there came into her voice the tone of one who counts the days to death.
Her father looked at her sharply. She turned again towards her task at the table. "Well, Lot Gordon can give ye a good home," said he. "His health ain't very good, that's the most I see about it. But he may last a number of years yet—folks in consumption do sometimes; and I hear he's gettin' over that cut he give himself. I suppose he did that because he thought you wouldn't have him."
Madelon, moving about the table, did not say a word.
"It must have been that," said David Hautville. "I suppose he thought you favored—" he was about to speak Burr's name; then he stopped short. He was usually one to plunge upon dangerous ground, but this time something stopped him—perhaps a look in his daughter's face. He laid his pipe carefully on the mantel-shelf, went over to Madelon, and laid a heavily tender hand on her shoulder.
"D'ye want any money to buy your wedding-fixings with?" he said, in a half-whisper.
"I've got all I want," replied Madelon, wincing as if he had struck her.
"Because I've sold some skins, lately, and wood." David plunged a hand into his pocket, and began to pull out a leather pouch jingling with coins.
"I've got all the money I want, father," said Madelon, catching her breath a little, but keeping her face steady. Could her father have understood, if she had told him, the pretty maiden providence, almost like one of the primal instincts, which had led her to save, year after year, little sums from her small earnings, towards her wedding-outfit? Could he, with his powerful masculine grasp of the large woes of life, have sensed this lesser one, and fairly known the piteous struggle it cost Madelon to spend her poor little wealth, which was to have furnished adornment for her bridal happiness with her lover, for such a purpose as this? Had she turned upon him then and there, and told him that she hated Lot Gordon, and would rather lie down in her grave than be his wife, he might have grasped that indeed, although not in her full sense of it, for the same sense of misery of that kind comes not to a man and a woman; but the other he would have puzzled over and solved it by his one sweeping solution of all feminine problems—by femininity itself.
However, he continued to stand beside his daughter, looking at her across that great gulf of original conceptions of things which love itself can never quite bridge. Tears came into his keen black eyes, and his voice was hoarse when he spoke again. "Well, Madelon," said David Hautville, with a firmer laying on of his heavy hand on his daughter's shoulder, "ye've been a good daughter and sister, and we're all of us glad you've got over this last foolishness, and we don't lay it up against ye, and—we'll all miss ye when ye're gone."
Madelon moved quietly away from her father's roughly tender hand. "I thought maybe the Widow Scoville would be willing to come here and live," said she. "She's a good cook and a good housekeeper. I'm going to see her about it."
"Well, we'll see," said David Hautville, huskily—"we'll see." He turned away, and looked irresolutely at the shelf whereon his pipe lay, at the wedding-silk on the chair, at his great boots in the corner at the outer door, then at his bass-viol leaning in the corner which the dresser formed against the wall, and a light of decision flashed into his eyes.
He drew his old arm-chair nearer the fire, carried the viol over to it, set it between his knees, flung an arm around its neck and began to play. His great chest heaved tenderly over it; its sweetly sonorous voice spoke to his soul. Here was the friend who vexed David Hautville with no problems of character or sex, but filled his simple understanding without appeal. These chords in which the viol spoke were from the foundations of things, like the spring-time and the harvest and the frosts; they abided eternally through all the vain speculations of life, and sounded above the grave. No imagination of a great artist had David Hautville, but his music was to him like his woodcraft. He traced out the chords and the harmonies with the same fervor that he followed the course of a stream or climbed a mountain-path. A great player was he, although the power of creation was not in him, for he fingered his viol with the ardor of a soul set in its favorite way of all others. As David Hautville played his great resonant viol he forgot all about his own perplexity and his daughter's love-troubles; but she, listening as she worked, did not forget.
Madelon, swept around with these sweet waves of sounds, never once had her memory of her own misery submerged. A strange double consciousness she had, as she listened, of her senses and her soul. All her nerves lapsed involuntarily into delight at the sounds they loved, and all her soul wept above all melodies and harmonies in her ears. The spirit of an artist had Madelon, and could, had she wished, have made the songs she sung; and for that very reason music could never carry her away from her own self.
She finished her household tasks and sat down again to sew upon her wedding-gown. After a while her father ceased playing, and leaned his viol tenderly back in its corner, pulled on his great boots, put on his leather jacket and his fur cap, lighted his pipe, shouldered his gun, and set out with his eyes full of the abstraction of one who follows alone a different path.
Then Madelon sat alone, sewing, setting nice stitches in her green-and-gold silk. Like other women, heretofore when she had sewn a new gown she had builded for herself air-castles of innocent vanity and love when she should be dressed in it. Now she builded no more, but sat and sewed among the ruins of all her happy maiden fancies. She had given herself no care concerning any other arrangements for her wedding than this gown—she felt even no curiosity concerning it. She left all that to Lot, as a victim leaves the details of his death to the executioner. She supposed he would send for her and tell her before long. When she heard a scraping step at the door she knew instinctively that the message had come.
Margaret Bean's husband's simple old face confronted her when she opened the door. The weather was moderating fast that morning. The sun had the warmth of spring, and the old man stood in a shower of rainbow drops from the melting icicles on the eaves. He handed her a letter, backed clumsily and apologetically from under the drops, then retreated carefully down the slippery path, his clumsy old joints jolting.
Madelon, back in the kitchen, stood for a second looking at the letter. Then she opened it, and read the message written in Lot Gordon's strange poetic style:
"Madelon,—The rose waits in the garden for her lover, because he has wings and she has none. But had the rose wings and her lover none, then would she leave her garden and fly to him with her honey in her heart, for love must be found.
Enough strength of New England blood Madelon had to feel towards Lot a new impulse of scorn that he should write her thus, instead of bidding her come, simply, like a man, displaying his power over her that they both knew.
Small store of honey did she bear in her heart when she set out to obey Lot's call. She hurried along, indeed, with her cloak flying out at either side, like red wings in the south wind, but not from eagerness to see her lover. She was in constant dread lest she meet Burr on the road; but she gained Lot's house without seeing him or knowing that his miserable, jealous eyes watched her from an opposite window.
Burr was up in his chamber when Madelon went into his cousin's house. Presently he went down-stairs, where his mother was, with a face so full of the helpless appeal of agony that she looked at him as she used to do when he came in hurt from play.
"What is the matter, Burr, are you sick?" she said, in her quiet voice. She was sitting in a rocking-chair in the sun with her knitting-work. She swayed on gently as she spoke, and her long, delicate fingers still slipped the yarn over the needle.
"Yes, I am sick, mother; I am sick to death," Burr groaned out. Then he went down on the floor at his mother's feet, and hid his face in her lap, as he had used to do when he was a child in trouble. Mrs. Gordon's stern repose of manner had never seemed to repel any demonstration of her son's. Now she continued to knit above his head, but he apparently felt no lack of sympathy in her.
She asked no more questions, but waited for him to speak. "She's just gone in there," he half sobbed out, presently. "Oh, mother, what shall I do—what shall I do?"
"You'll have to get used to it," said his mother. "You'll have to make up your mind to it, Burr."
"Mother, I can't! Oh, God, I can't see her every day there with him. Mother, we've got to sell out and move away. You'll be willing to, won't you? Won't you, mother?"
"You forget Dorothy. She can't leave the town where her father is."
"I wish I could forget Dorothy in honor!" Burr cried out.
"You can't," said his mother, "and there's an end of it."
"I know it," said Burr. He got up and stood looking moodily out of the window.
"You know," said his mother, still knitting, "how I have felt from the very first about Madelon Hautville. I never approved of her for a wife for you; I approve of her still less now, after her violent conduct and her consent to marry Lot, whom she cannot care for. Still, since you feel as you do about it, I should be glad to have you marry her, if such a thing could be done with any show of honor; but it cannot. You know that as well as I. You must marry Dorothy Fair, and Madelon is going to marry Lot. Leaving everything else out of the question, it is out of your power to say anything on account of the money which you will lose by her marriage with him. You know what she might think."
"Curse the money!" Burr cried out. "Curse the money and the position and all the damned lot of bubbles that come between a man and what's worth more, and will last!"
"Burr, don't talk so!"
"I can't help it, mother. I mean it. Curse it, I say, and the infernal weakness that makes a man see double on women's faces when there's only one woman in his heart! Mother, why didn't you know about that last, so you could tell me when I was a boy?"
His mother colored a little. "I never taught you to be fickle," she said, with a kind of shamed bewilderment.
"I never have been fickle. This is something else worse." Burr looked at his mother again, with the old expression of his when he had come in hurt from play. No matter how long Burr Gordon might live, no matter what brave deeds he might do—and there was brave stuff in him, for he would have gone to the gallows rather than betray Madelon—there would always be in him the appeal of a child to the woman who loved him. "Mother, I don't know how to bear it," he said.
"You must bear it like a man."
"It is hard to bear the consequence of unmanly conduct like a man," said Burr, shortly; then he went out, as if the old comfort from his mother had failed him. As for her, she finished heeling her stocking, and then went out into the kitchen and made a pudding that her son loved for his dinner.
Burr went back up-stairs to his cold chamber, and watched for Madelon to come out of Lot's house. It seemed to him she was there an eternity, but in reality it was only a half-hour.
She had found Lot sitting as usual before the fire with a leather-covered volume on his knees. "I have come," she said, standing just inside the door; then she started at the look he gave her. There was a significance in it which she could not understand.
He did not say a word for full five minutes while she waited. He did not even ask her to be seated. "Do you know the date?" he asked then, harshly. There was no hint of roses and honey in his speech and manner to offend her like his letter.
"Yes, I do."
"You know the month is up on Monday?"
"I am not likely to forget."
"True," said Lot; "it is the last thing a girl will forget—the day set for her happy marriage." He laughed.
Madelon's face contracted. She set her mouth harder, and looked straight at Lot. "When you have done laughing," said she, "will you tell me what you want of me? I have to go home and get dinner."
Lot still looked at her with his mocking smile. "I wished to inquire if you are ready to become my bride on Monday," said he.
"Yes, I am ready. Is that all?"
"I wished also to inquire if you have any plans concerning the ceremony which you would like carried out."
"I have none."
"Then will it suit you to come here on Monday at two o'clock in the afternoon, since the doctor tells me I shall scarcely be able to go out myself, and be united to me by Parson Fair?"
"I am ready to carry out any plans you may make."
"Your father and your brothers and my cousin Burr and his mother will, of course, be present at our wedding," said Lot, with wary eyes upon her face.
Madelon looked at him as proudly as ever. "Very well," said she. She waited a minute longer; then she laid her hand on the doorlatch.
"Wait a minute!" Lot cried. He looked at her hesitatingly. A flush crept over his white face. "Madelon," he began; then his cough interrupted him. He tried to force it back with fierce swallowings, but had to yield. He bent over double, and shook with rattling volleys. Madelon waited, her eyes averted, without a sign of pity. The near approach of her wedding-day caused a revolt of her whole maiden soul towards him so intense that it was as a contraction of the muscles. She was utterly hard to his suffering. At last he raised himself, panting, and cast a pale look around at her.
"Well, what do you want?" she said.
He motioned feebly towards is desk on the other side of the room. "Top drawer," he whispered, hoarsely; "left-hand corner—find—leather case—bring to me."
Madelon crossed the room to the desk, opened the drawer, found the leather case, and carried it to Lot. "Here," said she.
"Open it," Lot whispered.
Madelon pressed the spring in the case, and held it out open towards Lot without a glance at its contents.
"Look," he said.
Madelon glanced at the little gold watch, curled round with a long gold chain, which the case contained, and continued to hold it out towards Lot. "I've looked," said she. "Here, take it; I must go home."
"Oh, Madelon, it's for you."
"I don't want it."
"Take it—Madelon, won't you have it? I got it for you."
"No, I don't want it. Shall I put it back in the drawer?"
"Don't you think it's a pretty watch?"
"Yes. Shall I put it back?"
"You haven't any watch, Madelon."
"I don't want one." Madelon closed the case impatiently, and turned away.
"Oh, Madelon, won't you take it?" Lot begged, piteously.
"I told you no—I do not care for it." Madelon put the case back in the desk drawer. Then she drew her cloak together, and went to the door again.
"Oh," said Lot Gordon, weakly, in his hoarse voice, "the hardest thing in the whole world for Love to bruise himself against is the tender heart of a woman, when 'tis not inclined his way."
"Good-bye," said Madelon, and shut the door behind her fiercely. That last speech of Lot's, which, like many of his speeches, seemed to her no human vernacular, added terror to her aversion of him. "He's more like a book than a man," she had often thought, and the fancy seized her now that the great leather-bound book upon his knees, and all those leather-bound books against his walls, had somehow possessed him with an uncanny life of their own.
And she may have been in a measure right, for Lot Gordon, during his whole life, had dealt indirectly with human hearts through their translations in his beloved books rather than with the beating hearts of men and women around him. Still, although he spoke like one who learns a language from books instead of the familiar converse of people, and his thoughts clothed themselves in images which those about him disdained and threw off as impeding their hard race of life, poor Lot Gordon's heart beat in time with the hearts of his kind. But that Madelon could not know because hers was so set against it.
She hurried out of the house and the yard, dreading again lest she should encounter Burr. But her haste was of no avail, for he came straight down his opposite terraces, and met her when she reached the road.
She would have pushed past then, but he stood squarely before her. "Madelon, can't I speak with you a minute?" he pleaded. Madelon saw, without seeming to look, that Burr's handsome face was white as death and haggard.
"Are you sick?" she asked, suddenly. "Why do you look so? What is the matter with you?" and she put a half-bitter, half-anxiously compassionate weight upon the you.
"I believe I am going mad," Burr groaned, with the quick grasp of a man at the pity of the woman he loves. "Oh, Madelon!" He held out his hands towards her like a child, but she stood back from him, and looked straight at him with sharp questioning in her eyes.
"Do you mean—" she began; then stopped, and questioned him with her eyes again. She was seized with the belief, which filled her at once with agony and an impulse of fierce protection like that of a mother defending her young with her own wounded bosom, that Burr had had a falling out with Dorothy.
"Oh, Madelon!" Burr said again, and then he could say no more for very shame and honor. He had run out, indeed, in a half-frenzy.
"She shall not play you false!" Madelon cried out. "Dorothy Fair shall keep her word with you."
Burr looked at her, bewildered.
"Marry her at once," Madelon cried, with a quick rush of her words—"at once. Do you hear me, Burr Gordon? It's all the way to do with a girl like that. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I hear you," Burr said, slowly, as if he were stunned.
"Dorothy Fair shall keep her promise to you—I will make her. She shall marry you whenever you say. I will go this very day and see her."
"There is no need for you to do that, Madelon. I will marry her at once, as you advise. I think she will be willing," Burr said, slowly and coldly. Then he left her without another word, and went up his terraces with his back bent like an old man's. He was holding hard to his heart the surety that Madelon no longer cared for him, for it is scarcely within the imagination of either man or woman that one can love and yet give away. But by the time he entered the house his spirit had awakened within him, and he made a proud resolve that since Madelon so advised and was herself to marry that he would marry Dorothy Fair as soon as she should be willing.
As for Madelon, she went home with her mind diverted from her own unhappiness by Burr's, and, in spite of his assurance, might have gone to visit her righteous anger upon Dorothy had she not heard that very night that Burr and Parson Fair's daughter were to be married in a month's time.
The next day Lot sent again for her, and she obeyed, with her proud sense of duty to her future husband, although every step she took towards him carried her farther away. His conduct began to puzzle her more than ever. Again he sent her to the desk drawer, and this time for a roll of precious rose-colored satin stuff, fit for a queen's gown; but she would have none of that either, although he pleaded with her to take it. When she started to go away he called her back, and called her back, and when she came had nothing to say, until she lost patience and went home.
And the day after that he sent again, and there was a great carved comb for her in the desk drawer, and some rose-colored satin shoes; but she thrust them back indignantly. "Understand once for all, Lot Gordon," said she, "you I will take, as I would take my death, because I have pledged my word; but your presents I will not take."
"I have been buying them and treasuring them, against the time you would have them, for years," pleaded Lot.
"I tell you I will not have them," said she.
That day, as the day before, he called her back again and again, and looked at her as if he had something on his mind which he would and could not say; and she went home at last resolved not to go again until she was obliged to for the marriage ceremony.
The next day was Sunday, and Madelon went to meeting and sang, as usual. Burr was not there, but pretty Dorothy was, and looked up at Madelon with a kind of wondering alarm when she sang. Madelon had the heart of one who sings her death-song, and there was something of it in her face that morning. Unconsciously people looked past her, when her voice rang out, to see some dead wall of horror at her back to account for the strange tones in it and the look in her face. She had never looked handsomer, however, than she did that day. Her cheeks had the bloom of roses, and her black eyes seemed to give out their own light, like stars.