Gordon thought again of Lettice Hollidew as he was sitting for the last evening on the porch of the dwelling that had passed out of his hands. Twilight had poured through the valley, thickening beneath the trees, over the stream; the mountain ranges were dark, dusty blue against a maroon sky. He recalled the sympathy, the plea for comprehension, in Lettice's gaze, lifted, for the first time, frankly against his own.
Hers was not the feminine type which attracted him; he preferred a more flamboyant beauty, ready repartee, the conscious presence and employment of the lure of sex. His taste had been fed by the paid women of Stenton, the few, blowsy, loose females of the mountains; these and the surface chatter of the stage, and Clare, formed his sole knowledge, experience, surmising, of women. He recalled Lettice condescendingly; she did not stir his pulses, appeal to his imagination. Yet she moved his pride, his inordinate self-esteem. It had been on his account, and not Clare's, that she had come to the funeral. The little affair with Buckley Simmons had captured her attention and interest; he had not thought Lettice so impressionable.
It was, he remembered, Wednesday night—there would be prayer-meeting in the Methodist Church; the Hollidews were Methodists; women, mostly, attended prayer meeting. If he strolled about in that vicinity he might see Lettice at the close of the service, thank her for attending poor Clare's funeral.
He rose and negligently made his way through the soft gloom past the Courthouse to the Methodist Church. The double doors were open, and a flood of hot radiance rolled out into the night, together with the familiar tones of old Martin Seeker loudly importuning his invisible, inscrutable Maker. There were no houses opposite the church, and, balanced obscurely on the fence of split rails against the unrelieved night, a row of young men smoked redly glowing cigarettes; while, on the ground below them, shone the lanterns by the aid of which they escorted the various maidens of their choice on their various obscure ways.
The prayer stopped abruptly, and, after a momentary silence, the dolorous wail of a small organ abetted a stridulent concourse of human voices lifted in lamentable song, a song in which they were desirous of being winged like the dove.
The sound mounted in a grievous minor into the profound stillness, the peace, of the valley, of the garment of stars drawn from wall to wall. There was something animal-like in its long-drawn, quavering note—like the baying of a dog out of the midst of his troubled darkness at the remote, silver serenity, the disturbing, effortless splendor, of the moon.
The line of figures without, sitting on the fence with their feet caught under the second rail, smoked in imperturbable, masculine indifference. There was, shortly, a stir within, a moving blur of figures in the opened doors, and the lanterns swung alertly to the foot of the steps, where, one by one, the bobbing lights, detached from the constellation, vanished into the night.
Almost immediately Gordon saw Lettice Hollidew standing at the entrance, awaiting a conversing group of older women at the head of the aisle. She recognized him, and descended immediately with a faint, questioning smile. The smile vanished as she greeted him; her eyes were dark on a pale, still countenance. He noticed that she was without the heady perfume which stirred him as the other girls passed, and he was silently critical of the omission.
He delivered quickly, with a covert glance above, the customary period about seeing her home. Immediately she walked with him into the obscurity, the mystery, of the night.
"It was certainly nice-hearted of you to come to Clare's funeral," he began.
Close beside him she shivered, it might be at the memory of that occasion. She was without a hat, and he was able to study her profile: it was irregular, with a low, girlish brow and a nose too heavy for beauty; she had a full under lip and a strongly modelled chin, a firm line ending in a generous throat, milk-white in the gloom. Her figure too, he judged, was too heavy for his standard of feminine charm. His interest in her burned low, sustained only by what he recognized as a conquest.
She walked slowly and more slowly as he dallied by her side. Almost subconsciously he adopted the tone by which he endeavored to enlist the interest of the opposite sex: he repeated in a perfunctory manner the stereotyped remarks appropriate for such occasions.
She listened intently, with sudden, little glances from a momentarily lifted gaze. He grew impatient at the absence of the flattering responses to which he was largely accustomed. And, dropping abruptly his artificial courtesy, he maintained a sullen silence, quickened his stride. He drew some satisfaction from the observation that his reticence hurt her. Her hands caught and strained together; she looked at him with a longer, questioning gaze.
"I wanted to tell you," she said finally, with palpable difficulty, "how sorry I am about ... about things; your home, and—and I heard of the stage, too. It was a shame, you drove beautifully, and took such care of the passengers."
"It was that care cost me the place," he answered with brutal directness; "old Simmons did it; him and his precious Buckley."
She stopped with an expression of instant, deep concern. "Oh! I am so sorry ... then it was my fault. But it's horrid that they should have done that; that they should be able; it is all wrong—"
"Right nor wrong don't make any figure I've ever discovered," he retorted; "Valentine Simmons has the power, he's got the money. That's it—money's the right of things; it took my house away from me, like it's taken away so many houses, so many farms, in Greenstream—"
"But," she objected timidly, "didn't they owe Mr. Simmons for things? You see, people borrow, borrow, borrow, and never pay back. My father," she proceeded with more confusion, "has lost lots of money in that way."
"I can tell you all about that," he informed her bitterly, proceeding to mimic Simmons' dry, cordial tones, "'Take the goods right along with you, pay when you like, no hurry between old friends.' Then, when Zebener Hull's corn failed, 'I'll trouble you for that amount,' the skinflint says, and sells Zebener out. And what your father's lost," he added more directly still, "wouldn't take you on the stage to Stenton. Your father and Simmons have got about everything worth getting in the county; they've got the money, they've got the land, they've got the men right in their iron safes. Right and wrong," he sneered, "it's money—"
"Oh! please," she begged, "please don't be so unhappy, so hard. Life isn't as dreadful as that."
"It's worse," he declared somberly. They turned by Simmons' store, but continued in the opposite direction from the one-time Makimmon dwelling. They passed a hedge of roses; the perfume hung heavy-sweet, poignant; there was apparently no sky, no earth, only a close, purple envelopment, imminent, palpable, lying languidly, unstirring, in a space without form or limit and of one color.
Lettice walked silently by his side; he could hear her breathing, irregular, quick. She was very close to him, then moved suddenly, consciously, away; but, almost immediately, she drifted back, brushing his shoulder; it seemed that she returned inevitably, blindly; in the gloom her gown fluttered like the soft, white wings of a moth against him.
"It's worse," he repeated, his voice loud and harsh, like a discordant bell clashing in the sostenuto passage of a symphony; "but it's all one to me—there's nothing else they can take; I'm free, free to sleep or wake, to be drunk when I like with no responsibility to Simmons or any one else—"
Her breathing increasingly grew labored, oppressed; a little sob escaped, softly miserable. She was crying. He was completely callous, indifferent. They stood before the dark, porchless facade of her home.
"I thought life was so happy," she articulated, facing him; "but now it hurts me ... here;" he saw her press her hand against the swelling, tender line of her breast. His theatrical self-consciousness bowed him over the other hand, pressing upon it a half-calculated kiss. She stood motionless; he felt rather than saw the intensity of her gaze. "I wish I could mend the hurt," he began, appropriately, professionally.
He was interrupted by a figure emerging from the obscurity of the house. Pompey Hollidew peered at them from the low, stone lintel. "Letty," he pronounced, in a voice at once whining and truculent; "who?—oh! that Makimmon.... Letty, come in the house." He caught her arm and dragged her incontinently toward the door. "... rascal," Gordon heard him mutter, "spendthrift. If you ever walk again with Gordon Makimmon," the old man, through his daughter, addressed the other, "don't walk back here, don't come home. Not a dollar of mine shall fall through the pockets of that shiftless breed."
Clare's funeral deducted a further sum from the amount Gordon had received for the sale of his home, but he had left still nine hundred and odd dollars. He revolved in his mind the disposition of this sum, once more sitting with chair tilted back against the dingy wooden home of the Greenstream Bugle; he rehearsed its possibilities for frugality, for independence, as a reserve ... or for pleasure. It was the hottest hour of the day; the prospect before him, the uneven street, the houses beyond, were coated with dust, gilded by the refulgent sun. No one stirred; a red cow that had been cropping the grass in the broad, shallow gutter opposite sank down in the meager shadow of a chance pear tree; even the children were absent, the piercing, staccato cries of their games unheard.
To Gordon Makimmon Greenstream suddenly appeared insufferably dull, empty; the thought of monotonous, identical days spun thinly out, the nine hundred dollars extended to its greatest length, in that banal setting, suddenly grew unbearable.... There was no life in Greenstream....
The following morning found him on the front seat of the Stenton stage, sharing with the driver not his customary cigarettes but more portentous cigars from an ample pocketful. "Greenstream's dead," he pronounced; "I'm going after some life."
Late that night he leaned across the sloppy bar of an inferior saloon in Stenton, and, with an uncertain wave of his hand, arrested the barkeeper's attention. "I'm here," he articulated thickly, "to see life, understand! And I can see it too—money's power." The other regarded him with a brief, mechanical interest, a platitude shot suavely from hard, tobacco-stained lips.
Later still: "I'm here to see life," he told a woman with a chalky countenance, a countenance without any expression of the consciousness of the sound of his voice, a vague form lost in loose draperies. "Life," he emphasized above the continuous, macabre rattle of a piano.
In a breathless, hot dawn pouring redly into the grey city street, he swayed like a pendulum on the steaming pavement. His side was smeared, caked, with unnamable filth, refuse; a tremulous hand gripped feverishly the shoulder of a policeman who had roused him from a constrained stupor in a casual angle. "I wan' to see life," he mumbled dully, "I got power ... money." He fumbled through his pockets in search of the proof of his assertion. In vain—all that was left of the nine hundred and sixty dollars was some loose silver.
Again sober, without the resources of the citybred parasite, and without money, his instinct, his longing, drew him irresistibly into the open; his heredity forced him toward the mountains, into familiar paths, valleys, heights.
He avoided the stage road, and progressed toward Greenstream by tangled trails, rocky ascents, sharp declines. By late day he had penetrated to the heart of the upland region. He stood gazing down upon the undulating, verdant hills, over which he could trace the course of a thunder gust. The storm moved swiftly, in a compact, circular shadow on the sunny slope; he could distinguish the sudden twisting of limbs, the path of torn leaves, broken branches, left by the lash of the wind and rain. The livid, sinister spot on the placid greenery drew nearer; he could now hear the continuous rumble of thunder, see the stabbing, purplish flashes of lightning. The edge of the storm swept darkly over the spot where he was standing; he was soaked by a momentary assault of rain driving greyly out of a passing, profound gloom. Then the cloud vanished, leaving the countryside sparkling and serene under a stainless evening sky.
The water dripped down his back, swashed in his shoes; he was, in his lowered vitality, supremely uncomfortable. The way was slippery with mud; wet leaves bathed his face in sudden, chill showers, clung to his hands. He fell.
When he arrived at the rim of Greenstream night had hidden that familiar, welcome vista. The lights of the houses shone pale yellow below. A new reluctance to enter this place of home possessed him, a shame born of his denuded pockets, his bedraggled exterior. He descended, but turned to the left, finding a rude road which skirted the base of the eastern range. He was following no definite plan, moving slowly, without objective; but a window glimmering in a square of orange light against the night brought him to a halt. It marked, he knew, the dwelling of the Jesuit priest, Merlier. In a sudden impulse he advanced over a short path, and fumbling, found the door, where he knocked. A chair scraped within and the door swung open. The form of the priest was dark against the lighted interior which absorbed them.
The room was singularly bare: a tin lamp with a green glass shade, on an uncovered deal table, illuminated an open book, wood chairs with roughly split, hickory backs, a couch with no covering over its wire springs and iron frame; there was no carpet on the floor of loosely grooved boards, no decorations on the plastered walls save a dark engraving of a man in intricate armor, with a face as passionate, as keen, as relentless, as a hawk's, labelled, "Loyola."
Merlier silently indicated a chair, but he remained standing with his gaze lowered upon the floor. He was a burly man, with a heavy countenance impassive as an oriental's, out of which, startling in its unexpected rapidity, a glance flashed and stabbed as steely as Loyola's sword. His hands were clasped before him; they were, in that environment, strangely white, and covered with the scars of what, patently, were unaccustomed employments.
"It feels good inside," Gordon observed tritely. He noted uneasily the muddy tracks his shoes had printed upon the otherwise spotless board floor, "I got caught in a gust on the mountain," he explained awkwardly, in a constraint which deepened with the other's continued silence; "I ought to have cleaned up before I came in ... it's terrible dark out." He rose, tentatively, but the priest waved him back into the chair. Opening a door opposite the one by which Gordon had entered, and which obviously gave upon an outer shed, Merlier procured a roughly made mop; and, returning, he obliterated all traces of the mud. Suddenly, to Gordon's dismay, his supreme discomfort, he stooped to a knee, and began to remove the former's shoes.
"Hey!" Gordon protested; "don't do that; I can tend to my own feet." He was prepared to kick out, but he recognized that a struggle could only make the situation insufferable, and he submitted in an acute, writhing misery to the ministrations. The priest rose with Gordon's shoes and placed them, together with the mop, outside the door. He then brought from an inner room an immaculate, white cambric shirt, a pair of trousers, old but carefully ironed, and knitted, grey worsted slippers.
"If you will change," he said in a low, impersonal voice, "I will see what there is for you to eat." He left the room, and Gordon gratefully shifted into the fresh, dry clothes. The trousers were far too large; they belonged, he recognized, to the priest, but he belted them into baggy folds. The other appeared shortly with a wooden tray bearing a platter of cooked, yellow beans, a part loaf of coarse bread, raw eggs and a pitcher of milk. "I thought," he explained, "you would wish something immediately; there is no fire; Bartamon is out." The latter, Gordon knew, was a sharp-witted old man who had made a precarious living in the local fields and woodsheds until the priest had taken him as a general helper. "There are neither coffee nor tea in the house," Merlier stated further.
He closed the book, moved the lamp to the end of the table, and stood with his countenance lowered, his folded hands immovable as stone, while Gordon Makimmon consumed the cold food. Once the priest replenished the other's glass with milk.
If there had been a gleam of fraternal feeling, the slightest indication of generous impulse, a mere accent of hospitality, in the priest's actions, Gordon, accepting them in such spirit, might have been at ease. But not the faintest spark of interest, of curiosity, the most perfunctory communion of sympathy, was evident on Merlier's immobile countenance; his movements were machine-like, he seemed infinitely removed from his charitable act, infinitely cold.
Gordon's discomfort burned into a species of illogical, resentful anger. He cursed the priest under his breath, choked on the food; he was heartily sorry that he had obeyed the fleeting impulse to enter. But even the anger expired before Merlier's impassivity—he must as well curse a figure carved from granite, cast in lead. He grew, in turn, uneasy at the other's supernatural detachment; it chilled his blood like the grip of an unexpected, icy hand, like the imminence of inevitable death. The priest resembled a dead man, a dead man who had remained quick in the mere physical operations of the body, while all the machinery of his thoughts, his feelings, lay motionless and cold within.
Gordon found relief in a customary cigarette when the uncomfortable repast was finished. The priest removed the dishes, and reappeared with bed linen, with which he proceeded to convert the bare couch into a provision for sleeping. Then he returned the lamp to the center of the table, opened the book and seated with his back squarely toward the room, addressed himself to the pages.
Gordon Makimmon's head throbbed, suddenly paining him—it was as though sharp, malicious fingers were compressing the spine at the base of his brain. That, and the profound weariness which swept over him, were disconcerting; he was so seldom ill, so rarely tired, that those unwelcome symptoms bore an aggravated menace; it was the slight, premonitory rusting, the corrosion of time, upon the iron of his manhood.
In an instinctive need for human support, the reassurance of the comprehension of his kind, he directed an observation at the broad, squat, somber back. "I might have been drunk a month," he asserted, "by the way I feel." The priest paused in his reading, inserted a finger in the page, and half turned. Gordon could see the full, smooth cheek, the drooping gaze, against the green radiance of the lamp.
"If you will drink," Merlier said in a bitter, repressed voice, "if you will indulge the flesh, don't whimper at the price." He made a gesture, indicating the bed, then returned to his reading.
"The man doesn't live who's heard me whimper," Gordon began loudly; but his angry protest trailed into silence. There was no comfort, no redress, to be obtained from that absorbed, ungainly figure. He slipped out of the baggy trousers, the worsted slippers, and, extending himself on the couch, fell heavily asleep.
When he woke the room was bright with narrow strips of sun, already too high to shine broadly through the doors and windows. His clothes, dry and comparatively clean, reposed on a chair at his side, and, washing in the basin which he found outside the door, he hastily dressed. He looked, tentatively, for the priest, but found only his aged helper in the roughly-cleared space at the back of the house.
Bartamon was a small man, with a skull-like head, to the hollows of which, the bony projections, dark skin clung dryly; his eyes were mere dimming glints of watery consciousness; and from the sleeves of a faded blue shirt, the folds of formless, canvas trousers, knotted, blackish hands, grotesque feet, appeared to hang jerking on wires.
"Where's the Father?" Gordon inquired.
The other rested from the laborious sawing of a log, blinking and tremulous in the hard brilliancy of midday. "Beyond," he answered vaguely, waving up the valley; "Sim Caley's wife sent for him from Hollidew's farm. Sim or his wife think they're going to die two or three times the year, and bother the Father.... But I wouldn't wonder they would, and them working for Hollidew, dawn, day and dark, with never a proper skinful of food, only this and that, maybe, chick'ry and fat pork and moldy ends of nothing."
He filled the blackened ruin of a pipe, shaking in his palsied fingers, clasped it in mumbling, toothless gums: he was so sere, so juiceless, that the smoke trailing from his sunken lips might well have been the spontaneous conflagration of his desiccated interior.
"Hollidew's a terrible man for money," he continued, "it hurts him like a cut with a hick'ry to see a dollar go. They say he won't hear tell of quitting his fortune for purgatory, no, nor for heaven neither. He can't get him to make a will, the lawyer can't. He was telling the Father the other day, sitting right in the house there, 'Pompey Hollidew,' he says, 'won't even talk will....' He'd like to take it all with him to the devil, Pompey would." He turned with a sigh to the log. A cross-cut saw, with a handle at either end, lay upon the ground; and Gordon, grasping the far handle, helped him to drag the slim, glittering steel through the powdering fiber of the wood.
As he worked mechanically Gordon's thoughts returned to the past, the past which had collapsed so utterly, so disastrously, so swiftly upon his complacency, robbing him of his sustenance, of Clare, of his home. The complaining voice of the old man finally pierced his abstraction. "If you are going to ride," Bartamon complained, "don't drag your feet."
The two men consumed a formless, ample meal, after which Gordon still waited negligently for the priest. The sun sank toward the western range; the late afternoon grew as hushed, as rich in color, in vert shadows, ultramarine, and amber, as heavy in foliage bathed in aureate light, as the nave of a cathedral under stained glass.
In a corner of the shed Gordon found a fishing rod of split bamboo, sprung with time and neglect, the wrappings hanging and effectually loose. A small brass reel was fastened to the butt, holding an amount of line. He balanced the rod in his grasp, discovering it to be the property of the old man.
"What'll you take for it?" he demanded. His store of money had been reduced to a precarious sum of silver; but the longing had seized him to fish in the open, to follow a stream into the tranquil dusk.
"I got some flies too." The other resurrected a cigar box, which held some feathered hooks attached to doubtful guts. "They are dried out," Gordon pronounced, testing them; "what will you take for the whole worthless lot?" Bartamon demurred: the rod had been a good rod, it had been given to him in the past by a mayor, or had it been a senator? It was not like common rods, made of six strips of bamboo, but of eight, the line was silk.... He would take sixty cents.
Delaying his expression of gratitude to the priest—he could stop on his return with trout—Gordon was soon tramping over the soft, dusty road to where he bordered a stream skirting the eastern range. A shelf of pasturage ran, deep blue-green sod, against the rocky wall; to the left, through scattered trees, the valley was visible; on the right the range mounted precipitant, verdant, to its far crown. The stream, now torn to white foam on a rocky descent, now swept with a glassy rush between level, green banks, now moved slowly in a deep-shaded pool, where gleaming bubbles held filmed sliding replicas of the banks, the trees, the sky.
The sun, growing less a source of light than a brilliant circle of carmine, almost touched the western range; the shadow troop swept down the slope and lengthened across the valley; cut by the trunks of trees the light fell in dusty gold bars across the water. Gordon drew the line through the dipping tip, knotting on three of the flies. Then he quietly followed the stream to where it fell into a circular, stone-bound basin. He made his cast with a quick turn of the wrist, skilfully avoiding the high underbrush, the overhanging limbs. The flies swung out and dropped softly on the water. On the second cast he caught a trout—a silvery, gleaming shape flecked with vermilion and black, shaded with mauve and emerald and maroon.
In a shallow reach he waded, forgetful of his clothes. He caught another trout, another and another, stringing them on a green withe. He cast indefatigably, but with the greatest possible economy of effort; his progress was all but soundless; he slipped down stream like a thing of the woods, fishing with delicate art, with ardor, with ingenuity, and with continual success.
The sun disappeared in a primrose void behind the darkening mountains; the hush deepened upon the valley, a hush in which the voice of the stream was audible, cool—a sound immemorially old, lingering from the timeless past through vast, dim changes, cataclysms, carrying the melancholy, eloquent, incomprehensible plaint of primitive nature.
Gordon was absorbed, content; the quiet, the magic veil of oblivion, of the woods, of the immobile mountains, enveloped and soothed him, released his heart from its oppression, banished the fever, the struggle, from his brain. The barrier against which he still fished was mauve, the water black; the moon appeared buoyantly, like a rosy bubble blown upon a curtain of old blue velvet. He cast once more, and met his last strike, a heavy jar that broke the weakened line, in a broad, still expanse where white moths fluttered above the water in a cold, stagnant gloom. He saw the rotting wall of a primitive dam, the crumbling, fallen sides of a rude mill. Night fell augustly. The whippoorwills cried faint and distant.
He sat on a log, draining his shoes, pressing the water from his trousers, and smoked while the light of the moon brightened into a silvery radiance in which objects, trees, were greyly visible; reaches sank into soft obscurity. He recognized his position from the ruined mill—he was on the edge of that farm of Pompey Hollidew's of which Bartamon had spoken. Hollidew, he knew, seldom visited his outlying acres, then only in the collection of rents or profits—they lay too far from his iron chest, from the communication of the Stenton banks. Gordon knew Sim Caley, and, suddenly, he decided to visit him; the trout would afford the Caleys and himself an ample repast.
He crossed the road, made his way through a fragrant tangle of field grass, over shorn and orderly acres of grazing. The moon rose higher, grew brighter; the vistas were clear, unreal, the shadows like spilled ink. The house toward which he moved stood sharply defined, and enclosed by a fence, flowers, from the farm. As he approached he saw that no lights were visible, but a blur of white moved in the shadow of the portico. He decided that it was Sim Caley's wife; and, opening the gate, advanced with a query for Mrs. Caley's health forming on his lips.
But it was Lettice Hollidew.
She retreated, as he advanced, within the deeper obscurity of an opened door but he had seen, in the shimmering, elusive light, her features, gathered the unmistakable, intangible impression of her person.
"It's me, Gordon Makimmon," he said. He paused by the step, on which he laid the trout, shining with sudden, liquid gleams of silver in the moonlight.
"Oh!" she exclaimed in a low voice; "oh!" She moved forward, materializing, out of the dark, into a figure of white youth. Her face was pale, there were white ruffles on her neck, on her arms, her skirt clung simply, whitely, about her knees and ankles.
"I stopped to see Sim," he explained further, "and took you for Mrs. Caley. I reckoned I'd bring them some trout: I didn't know your father was here."
"Won't you sit down. Mrs. Caley is sick, and Sim's on the mountain with the cattle. Father isn't here."
He mounted to the portico, mentally formulating a way of speedy escape; he thought, everywhere he turned Lettice Hollidew stood with her tiresome smile. "I come out here every summer," she volunteered, sinking upon a step, "and spend two weeks. I was born here you see, and," she added in a stiller voice, "my mother died here. Father Merlier calls it my yearly retreat."
"I'd be pleased if you'd take the fish," he remarked; "I guess I'd better be moving—I've got to see the priest."
"Why, you haven't stopped a minute," she protested, "not long enough to smoke one of your little cigarettes. Visitors are too scarce here to let them go off like that."
At the implied suggestion he half-mechanically rolled a cigarette. The chair he found was comfortable; he was very weary. He sat smoking and indifferently studying Lettice Hollidew. She was, to-night, prettier than he had remembered her. She was telling him, in a voice that rippled cool and low like the stream, of Mrs. Caley's indisposition. Her face, now turned toward the fields, was dipped in the dreaming radiance; now it was blurred, vaguely appealing, disturbing. Her soft youth was creamy, distilling an essence, a fragrance, like a flower; it was one with the immaculate flood of light bathing the world in virginal beauty.
A new interest stirred within him, a satisfaction grew from her palpable liking for him, and was reflected in the warmer tones of his replies; a new pain ordered his comments. The situation, too, appealed to him; his instinct responded to the obvious implications of the position in the exact degree of his habit of mind. The familiar, professional gallantry took possession of him, directing the sensuality to which he abandoned himself.
He moved from the chair to the step by her side. Nearer she was more appealing still; a lovely shadow dwelt at the base of her throat; the simple dress took the soft curves of her girlish body, stirred with her breathing. Her hands lay loosely in her lap, and the impulse seized him to take them up, but he repressed it ... for the moment.
"I saw Buckley Simmons, yesterday," she informed him, "his face is nearly well. He wanted to come out here, but I wouldn't let him. He wants to marry me," she continued serenely; "I told him I didn't think I'd every marry."
"But you will—some lucky, young man."
"I don't think I like young men, that is," she qualified carefully, "not very young. I like men who are able to act ever so quickly, no matter what occurs, and they must be terribly brave. I like them best if they have been unfortunate; something in me wants to make up to them for—for any loss," she paused, gazing at him with an elevated chin, serious lips, intent eyes.
This, he told himself complacently, was but a description of himself, as pointed as she dared to make it. "A man who had had trouble couldn't do better than tell you about it," he assured her; "I have had a good lot of trouble."
"Well, tell me," she moved toward him.
"Oh! you wouldn't care to hear about mine. I'm a sort of nobody at present. I haven't anything in the world—no home, nothing in the whole world. Even the little saving I had after the house was sold was—was taken from me by sharpers."
"Tell me," she repeated, "more."
"When Valentine Simmons had sold my place, the place my grandfather built, I had about a thousand dollars left, and I thought I would start a little business with it, a ... a gun store,—I like guns,—here in Greenstream. And I'd sharpen scythes, put sickles into condition, you know, things like that. I went to Stenton with my capital in my pocket, looking for some stock to open with, and met a man in a hotel who said he was the representative of the Standard Hardware Company. He could let me have everything necessary, he said, at a half of what others would charge. We had dinner together, and he made a list of what I would need—files and vises and parts of guns. If I mailed my cheque immediately I could get the half off. He had cards, catalogues, references, from Richmond. I might write there, but I'd lose time and money.
"None of the Makimmons have been good business men; we are not distrustful. I sent the cheque to the address he said, made out to him for the Standard Hardware Company, so that he would get the commission, the credit of the sale." He drew a deep breath, gazing across the moonlit fields. "The Makimmons are not distrustful," he reiterated; "he robbed me of all my savings."
His lie would have fared badly with Pompey Hollidew, he thought grimly; it was unconvincing, wordy; he was conscious that his assumed emotion rang thinly. But its calculated effect was instantaneous, beyond all his hopes, his plan.
Lettice leaned close to him with a sobbing inspiration of sympathy and pity. "How terrible!" she cried in low tones; "you were so noble—" He breathed heavily once more. "What a wicked, wicked man. Couldn't you get anything back? did it all go?"
"All." His hand fell upon hers, and neither of them appeared to notice its pressure. Her face was close to his, a tear gleamed on her young, moon-blanched cheek. A sudden impatience seized him at her credulity, a contempt at the ease with which she was victimized; the effort was almost without spice. Still his grasp tightened upon her hand, drew it toward him. "In Greenstream," he continued, "men don't like me, they are afraid of me; but the women make me unhappy—they tell me their troubles; I don't want them to, I keep away from them."
"I understand that," she declared eagerly, "I would tell you anything."
"You are different; I want you to tell me ... things. But the things I want to hear may not come to you. I would never be satisfied with a little. The Makimmons are all that way—everything or nothing."
She gently loosened her hand, and stood up, facing him. Her countenance, turned to the light, shone like a white flame; it was tensely aquiver with passionate earnestness, lambent with the flowering of her body, of dim desire, the heritage of flesh. She spoke in a voice that startled Gordon by its new depth, the brave thrill of its undertone.
"I could only give all," she said. "I am like that too. What do you wish me to tell you? What can I say that will help you?"
"Ever since I first saw you going to the Stenton school," he hurried on, "I have thought about you. I could hardly wait for the Christmas holidays, to have you in the stage, or for the summer when you came home. Nobody knows; it has been a secret ... it seemed so useless. You were like a ... a star," he told her.
"How could I know?" she asked; "I was only a girl until—until Buckley ... until to-night, now. But I can never be that again, something has happened ... in my heart, something has gone, and come," her voice grew shadowed, wistful. It carried to him, in an intangible manner, a fleet warning, as though something immense, unguessed, august, uttered through Lettice Hollidew the whisper of a magnificent and terrible menace. He felt again as he had felt as a child before the vast mystery of night. An impulse seized him to hurry away from the portico, from the youthful figure at his side; a sudden, illogical fear chilled him. But he summoned the hardihood, the skepticism, of his heart; he defied—while the sinking within him persisted—not the girl, but the nameless force beyond, above, about them. "You are like a star," he repeated, in forced tones.
He rose and stood before her. She swayed toward him like a flower bowed by the wind. He put his arms around her, her head lay back, and he kissed the smooth fullness of her throat. He kissed her lips.
The eternal, hapless cry of the whippoorwills throbbed on his hearing. The moon slipped behind a corner of the house, and a wave of darkness swept over them. Lettice began to tremble violently, and he led her back to their place on the veranda's edge. She was silent, and clung to him with a reluctant eagerness. He kissed her again and again, on a still mouth, but soon her lips answered his desire. It grew constantly darker, the silvery vistas shortened, grew blurred, trees merged into indistinguishable gloom.
Lettice murmured a shy, unaccustomed endearment. Gordon was stereotyped, commonplace; he was certain that even she must recognize the hollowness of his protestations. But she never doubted him; she accepted the dull, leaden note of his spurious passion for the clear ring of unalloyed and fine gold.
Suddenly and unexpectedly she released herself from his arms. "Oh!" she exclaimed, in conscience-stricken tones, "Mrs. Caley's medicine! I—forgot; she should have had some long ago." He tried to catch her once more in his embrace, restrain her. "It would be better not to wake her up," he protested, "sleep's what sick folks need." But she continued to evade him. Mrs. Caley must have her medicine. The doctor had said that it was important. "It's my duty, Gordon," she told him, "and you would want me to do that."
He stifled with difficulty an impatient exclamation. "Then will you come back?" he queried. He took her once more close in his arms. "Come back," he whispered hotly in her ear.
"But, dear Gordon, it is so late."
"What does that matter? don't you love me? You said you were the sort of a girl to give all; and now, because it is a little late, you are afraid. What are you afraid of? Tell me that! You know I love you; we belong to each other; what does it matter how late it is? Beside, no one will know, no one is here to spy on us. Come back, my little girl ... my little Lettice; come back to a lonely man with nothing else in the world but you. I'll come in with you, wait inside."
"No," she sobbed, "wait ... here. I will see ... the medicine. Wait here for me, I will come back. It doesn't matter how late it is, nothing matters ... trust in you. Love makes everything good. Only you love me, oh, truly?"
"Truly," he reassured her. "Don't be long; and, remember, shut Mrs. Caley's door."
She left him abruptly, and, standing alone in the dark, he cursed himself for a fool for letting her go—a boy's trick. But then the whole affair did not desperately engage him. He sat in the comfortable chair, and lit a cigarette, shielding it with his hand so that she would not see it, recognize in its triviality his detachment. A wave of weariness swept over him; the night was like a blanket on the land. Minutes passed without her return; soon he would go in search of her; he would find her ... in the dark house.... He shut his eyes for a moment, and opened them with an effort. The whippoorwills never for a moment ceased their melancholy calling; they seemed to draw nearer to him; then retreat, far away. His head fell forward upon his breast.
Lettice Hollidew! little fool; but what was that beyond her, blacker than night?
He stirred, sat up sharply, his eyes dazzled by a blaze of intolerable brilliancy. It was the sun, a full two hours above the horizon. He had slept through the night. His muscles were cramped, his neck ached intolerably. He rose with a painful effort and something fell to the floor. It was a rose, wilted, its fragrance fled. He realized that Lettice had laid it on his knee, last night, when the bud had been fresh. He had slept while she stood above him, while the rose had faded. On the step the fish lay, no longer brightly colored, in a dull, stiff heap. The house was still; through the open door the sun fell on a strip of rag rug. He turned and hurried down the steps, unlatched the gate, and almost ran across the fields to the cover of a wood, fleeing from an unsupportably humiliating vision.
He made his way to where Greenstream village lay somnolent beneath the refulgent day. The chairs before the office of the Bugle were unoccupied, from within came the monotonous, sliding rattle of the small footpress. Gordon sat absently revolving the possibilities held out by the near future. Hay, he knew was still being made in the valley, but the prospect of long, arduous, days in the open fields, in the hot, dry chaff of the sere grass, was forbidding. He might take his gun and a few personal necessities and disappear into such wild as yet remained, contracting steadily before the inexorable, smooth advance of civilization. He was aware that he could manage a degree of comfort, adequate food. But the thoughtless resiliency of sheer youth had deserted him, the desire for mere, picturesque adventure had fled during the past, comfortable years. He dismissed contemptuously the possibility of clerking in a local store. There was that still in the Makimmon blood which balked at measuring ribbands, selling calico to captious women.
The large, suave figure of the Universalist minister, in grey alpaca coat and black trousers, approached leisurely over the street, and stopped before Gordon. The minister had a conspicuously well-fed paunch, his smooth face expressed placid self-approval, his tones never for a moment lost the unctuous echo of the pulpiteer.
"You have not worshipped with us lately," he observed. "Remiss, remiss. Our services have been stirring—three souls redeemed from everlasting torment at the Wednesday meeting, two adults and a child sealed to Christ on Sunday."
"I'll drop in," Gordon told him pacifically.
"A casual phrase to apply to the Mansion of the Son," the minister observed, "more humility would become you.... God, I pray Thee that Thy fire descend upon this unhappy man and consume utterly away his carnal envelope. What are you doing?" he demanded abruptly of Gordon.
"Nothing particular just now."
"There are some small occupations about the parsonage—a board or so loose on the ice house, a small field of provender for the animal. Let us say a week's employment for a ready man. I could pay but a modest stipend ... but the privilege of my home, the close communion with our Maker. You would be as my brother: what do you say?"
Gordon was well aware of the probable extent of the "small occupations," the minister's reputation for exacting monumental labors in return for the "modest stipend" mentioned. However, the proposal furnished Gordon with a solution for immediate difficulties; it secured him a bed and food, an opportunity for the maturing of further plans.
He rose, queried, "Shall I go right along?"
"Admirable," the other approved. "My beloved helpmate will show you where the tools are kept, when you can begin immediately."
Gordon made his way past Simmons' store to the plaster bulk of the Universalist Church, its lawn shared by the four-square, shingled roof of the parsonage. Back of both structures reached a small field of heavy grass, where Gordon labored for the remainder of the day.
Late in the afternoon an aged, gaunt man drove an incongruous, two wheeled, breaking cart into the stable yard behind the parsonage. After hitching an aged, gaunt white horse, he approached the field's edge, where Gordon was harvesting. It was the minister's father-in-law, himself a clergyman for the half century past, a half century that stretched back into strenuous, bygone days of circuit riding. His flowing hair and a ragged goatee were white, oddly stained and dappled with lemon yellow, his skin was leather-like from years of exposure to the elements, to the bitter mountain winters, the ruthless suns of the August valleys. He was as seasoned, as tough, as choice old hickory, and had pale, blue eyes in which the flame of religious fervor, of incandescent zeal, were scarcely dimmed.
A long supper table was spread in a room where a sideboard supported a huge silver-plated pitcher swung on elaborately engraved supports, a dozen blue glasses traced with gold, and a plate that pictured in a grey, blurred fashion the Last Supper. The gathering ranged variously from the aged circuit rider to the minister's next but one to the youngest: he had fourteen children, of which nine were ravenously present. The oldest girl at the table, a possible sixteen years, had this defiant detachment under her immediate charge, acquitting herself notably by a constant stream of sharp negations opposed to a varied clamor of proposals, attempted forages upon the heaped plates, sly reprisals, and a sustained, hysterical note which threatened at any time, and in any youthful individual, to burst into angry wails.
Opposite Gordon Makimmon sat a slight, feminine figure, whom he recognized as the teacher of the past season's local school. She had a pallid face, which she rarely raised, compressed lips, and hands which attracted Gordon by reason of their white deftness, the precise charm of their pointed fingers. During a seemingly interminable grace, pronounced in a rapid sing-song by the circuit rider, Gordon saw her flash her gaze about the table, the room; and its somber, resentful fire, its restrained fury of impatience, of disdain, of hatred, coming from that fragile, silent shape, startled him.
The Universalist minister addressed the company in sonorous periods, which, however, did not prevent him from assimilating a prodigious amount of food. Between forkfuls of chicken baked in macaroni, "I rejoice that my ministrations are acceptable to Him," he pronounced; "three souls Wednesday last, two adults and a child on Sunday."
The aged evangelist could scarcely contain his contempt at this meager tally. "What would you say, Augustus," he demanded in eager, tremulous triumph, "to two hundred lost souls roaring up to the altar, casting off their wickedness like snakes shed their skins? Hey? Hey? What would you say to two hundred dipped in the blood of the lamb and emerging white as the Dove? Souls ain't what they were," he muttered pessimistically; "it used to be you could hear the Redeemed a spell of miles from the church, now they're as confidential as a man borrowing money. The Lord will in no wise acknowledge the faint in spirit." Suddenly, "Glory! Glory!" he shouted, and his old eyes flamed with the inextinguishable blaze of his enthusiasm.
The minister's wife inserted in the door from the kitchen a face bright red from bending over the stove. "Now, pa," she admonished, "you'll scare them children again."
The "board or so" to be replaced on the ice house, as Gordon had surmised, proved to be extensive—a large section of the inner wall had rotted from the constant dampness, the slowly seeping water. The ice house stood back of the dwelling, by the side of the small barn and beyond a number of apple trees: it was a square structure of boards, with no opening save a low door under the peak of the roof with a small platform and exterior flight of steps.
In the gloomy, dank interior a rough ladder, fastened to the wall, led down to the falling level of soggy sawdust, embedded in which the irregular pieces of ice were preserved against the summer. From the interior the opening made a vivid square of blue sky; for long hours the blue increased in brilliancy, after which, veiled in a greyer haze of heat, the patch of sky grew gradually paler, and then clear; the suggestion of immeasurable space deepened; above the dark hole of the ice house the illimitable distance was appalling. Gordon was resting from the sullen, muffled knocking of his hammer when a figure suddenly blotted out the light, hid the sky. He recognized the sharply-cut silhouette of the school-teacher.
"What a horrid, spooky place," she spoke with a shiver, peering within.
"It's cool," Gordon told her indifferently.
"And quiet," she added, seating herself upon the platform with an elbow in the opening; "there's none of the bothersome clatter of a lot of detestable children." She raised her voice in shrill mimicry, "'Teacher, kin I be excused? Teacher!... Teacher—!'"
"Don't you like children?"
"I loathe them," she shot at him, out of the depths of a profound, long-accumulated exasperation; "the muddy little beasts."
"Then I wouldn't be vexed with them."
"Do you like nailing boards in a rotten ice house?"
"Oh, I'm dog poor; I've got to take anything that comes along."
"And, you fool, do you suppose I'd be here if I had anything at all? Do you suppose I'd stay in this damn lost hole if I could get anywhere else? Do you think I have no more possibilities than this?"
He mounted the ladder, and emerged upon the platform by her side, where he found a place, a minute, for a cigarette.
The woman's face was bitter, her body tense.
"I'll grow old and die in places like this," she continued passionately; "I'll grow old and die in pokey, little schools, and wear prim calico dresses, with a remade old white mull for commencements. I'll never hear anything but twice two, and Persia is bounded on the north by,—with all the world beyond, Paris and London and Egypt, for the lucky. I want to live," she cried to Gordon Makimmon, idly curious, to the still branches of the apple trees, the vista of village half-hid in dusty foliage. "I want to see things, things different, not these dumb, depressing mountains. I want to see life!"
Gordon had a swift memory of a city street grey in a reddening flood of dawn, of his own voice in a reddening flood of dawn, of his own voice mumbling out of an overwhelming, nauseous desperation that same determination, desire. "Perhaps," he ventured, "you wouldn't think so much of it when you'd seen it."
"Wouldn't I?" she exclaimed; "oh, wouldn't I?—smart crowds and gay streets and shops on fire with jewels. That's where I belong; I'd show them; I've got a style, if I only had a chance! I've got a figure ... shoulders."
He appraised in a veiled glance her physical pretensions. He discovered, to his surprise, that she had "shoulders"; her body resembled her hands, it was smoothly rounded, provocative; its graceful proportion deceived the casual eye.
With a disdainful motion she kicked off a heavily clumsy slipper—her instep arched narrowly to a delicate ankle, the small heel was sharply cut. "In silk," she said, "and a little brocaded slipper, you would see." She replaced the inadequate thing of leather. The animation died from her countenance, she surveyed him with cold eyes, narrowed lips. Her gaze, he felt, included him in the immediate, hateful scene; she gained fresh repugnance from his stained, collarless shirt, his bagging knees coated with sawdust.
She rose, and, her skirt gathered in one hand, descended the precarious flight of steps. She crossed the grass slowly, her head bent, her hands tightly clenched.
Later, in the yard, Gordon saw, at a lighted, upper window, the silhouette of her back, a gleam of white arm. The window cast an elongated rectangle of warm light on the blue gloom of the grass. It illuminated him, with his gaze lifted; and, while, standing in the open window, she saw him clearly, she was as indifferent, as contemptuous of his presence, as though he had been an animal. A film of cambric, golden in the lamplight, settled about her smooth shoulders, fell in long diaphanous lines. She raised her arms to her head, her hair slid darkly across her face, and she turned and disappeared. He moved away, but the memory rankled delicately in his imagination, returned the following morning. The thought lingered of that body, as fine as ivory, unguessed, hidden, in a coarse sheath.
His miscellaneous labors at the minister's filled nearly a week of unremitting labor. But, upon the advent of Sunday, mundane affairs were suspended in the general confusion of preparation for church. It had rained during the night, the day was cool and fragrant and clear, and Gordon determined to evade the morning's services, and plunge aimlessly into the pleasant fields. He kept in the background until the cavalcade had started, headed by the minister—the circuit rider had driven off earlier in his cart to an outlying chapel—and his wife. It was inviting on the deserted veranda, and Gordon lingered while the village emptied into the churches, the open.
Finally he sauntered over the street, past the Courthouse, by Pompey Hollidew's residence. It was, unlike the surrounding dwellings, built of brick; there was no porch, only three stone steps descending from the main entrance, and no flowers. The path was overgrown with weeds, the front shutters were indifferently flung back, half opened, closed. The door stood wide open, and, as he passed, Gordon gathered the impression of a dark heap on the hall floor. He dismissed an idle curiosity; and then, for no discoverable reason, halted, turned back, for a second glance.
Even from the path he saw extending from the heap an arm, a gnarled hand. It was Pompey Hollidew himself, cold, still, on the floor. Gordon entered, looking outside for assistance: no one was in sight. Pompey Hollidew wore the familiar, greenish-black coat, the thread-bare trousers and faded, yellow shirt. The battered derby had rolled a short distance across the floor. The dead man's face was a congested, olive shade, with purple smudges beneath the up-rolled eyes, and lips like dried leaves. His end, it was apparent, had been as sudden as it was natural.
Old Pompey ... dead! Gordon straightened up. Simultaneously two ideas flashed into his mind—Lettice and Hollidew's gold. Then they grew coherent, explicable. Lettice and the gold were one; she was the gold, the gold was Lettice. He recalled now, appositely, what Bartamon had told him but a few days before ... Hollidew would consent to make no will; there were no other children. The money would automatically go, principally, to Lettice, without question or contest. If he had but considered before, acted with ordinary sense ... the girl had been in love with him; he might have had it all. He gazed cautiously, but with no determined plan of action, out over the street—it lay deserted in the ambient sunlight.
He quickly left the house, the old man sprawling grotesquely across the bare hall, forcing himself to walk with an assumed, deliberate ease over the plank walk, past Simmons' corner. As he progressed a plan formulated in his mind, a plan obvious, promising immediate, practicable results ... Lettice had told him that she would remain for two weeks at the farm. It was evident that she was still there. His gait quickened; if he could reach her now, before any one else.... He wished that he had closed the door upon the old man's body; any one passing as he had passed could see the corpse; a wagon would be sent for the girl.
He commenced, outside the village, to run, pounding over the dusty way with long-drawn, painful gasps, his chest oppressed by the now unaccustomed exercise, the rapid motion. When he came in sight of the farmhouse that was his objective, he stopped and endeavored to remove all traces of his haste; he rubbed off his shoes, fingered his necktie, mopped his brow.
There was a woman on the porch; it proved to be Mrs. Caley, folded in a shawl, pale and gaunt. Suddenly the possibility occurred to him that Lettice had driven into church. But she was in the garden patch beyond, Mrs. Caley said. Gordon strolled around the corner of the house as hastily, as slowly, as he dared.
He saw her immediately. She wore a blue linen skirt, a white waist, and her sleeves were rolled up. The sun glinted on her uncovered hair, blazed in the bright tin basin into which she was dropping scarlet peppers. She appeared younger than he had remembered her; her arms were youthful and softly dimpled; her brow seemed again the calm, guileless brow of a girl; her eyes, as she raised them in greeting, were serene.
"I wanted to explain to you," he began obliquely, "about that—that falling asleep. It's been worrying me. You see, I hadn't had any rest for three or four nights, I had been bothering about my affairs, and about something more important still."
Bean poles, covered with bright green verdure, made a background of young summer for her own promise of early maturity. She placed the basin on the ground, and stood with her arms hanging loosely, gazing at him expectantly, frankly.
"The most important thing in my life," he added, then paused. "I thought for a while that I had better go away without saying anything to you, and more particularly since I have lost everything." He could hear, coming over the road, the regular hoof-beats of a trotting horse, and he had the feeling that it must be a messenger from the village, dispatched in search of Lettice with the news of her father's death. For a moment the horse seemed to be stopping; he was afraid that his opportunity had been lost; but, after all, the hoof-beats passed, diminished over the road. Then, "Since I have lost everything," he repeated.
"Please tell me more," she demanded, "I don't understand—"
"But," he continued, in the manner he had hastily adopted, "when the time came I couldn't; I couldn't go away and leave you. I thought, perhaps, you might be different from others; I thought, perhaps, you might like a man for what he was, and not for what he had. I would come to you, I decided, and tell you all this, tell you that I could work, yes, and would, and make enough—" He paused in order to observe the effect of his speech upon her. She was gazing clear-eyed at him, in a sort of shining expectancy, a grave, eager comprehension, appealing, incongruous, to her girlhood.
"But why?" she queried.
"Because I'm in love with you: I want to marry you."
Her gaze did not falter, but her color changed swiftly, a rosy tide swept over her cheeks, and died away, leaving her pale. Her lips trembled. A palpable, radiant content settled upon her.
"Thank you," she told him seriously; "it will make me very happy to marry you, Gordon."
With a fleeting, backward glance he moved closer to her, his arm fell about her waist, he pressed a hasty, ill-directed kiss upon her chin. "Will you marry me now?" he asked eagerly. "You see, others wouldn't understand, you remember what your father said about the Makimmon breed? They would repeat that I had nothing, or even that I was marrying you for old Pompey's money. You know better than that, you know he wouldn't give us a penny."
"It wouldn't matter now what any one said," she returned serenely.
"But it would be so much easier—we could slip off quietly somewhere, and come back married, all the fuss avoided, all the say so's and say no's shut up right at the beginning."
"When do you want to be—be married?"
"Right away! now! to-day!"
"Oh ... oh, Gordon, but we couldn't! I haven't even a white dress here. I might go into Greenstream, be ready to-morrow—"
"No, no, no, I'm afraid it must be now or never; something would take you from me. I knew it, I was afraid of it, from the first ... I'll shoot myself."
She started toward him in an excess of tender pity. "Do you care as much as that?" She laid her palms upon his shoulders, lifting her face to his: "Then we will do what you say, we will go, yes, we will go immediately. You can hitch up the buggy, while I get a little thing or two. I have my beads, and the bracelets that were mother's ... I wish my white organdie was here. You mustn't think I'm silly! You see—marriage, for a girl ... I thought it would all be so different. But, Gordon dear, we won't let you be unhappy."
He wished silently to God that she would get the stuff in the house, that they would get started. At any minute now word would come of the old man's death, there would be delay, Lettice would learn that he had lied again and again to her. With a gesture of impatience he dislodged her hands from his shoulders. "Where's Sim?" he demanded.
"In the long field. I'll show you the stable; it won't take me a minute to get ready."
He hitched, in an incredibly short space of time, a tall, ungainly roan horse into the buggy; his practised hands connected the straps, settled the headstall, the collar, as if by magic. He stood in a fever of uneasiness at the harnessed head. Lettice was longer than she had indicated.
When, at last, she appeared, she carried a neatly pinned paper bundle, and a fragrant mass of hastily pulled roses. Bright blue glass beads hung over the soft contours of her virginal breasts, the bracelets that had been her mother's—enamelled in black on old, reddish gold—encircled her smooth wrists.
He would have hurried her at once into the buggy, but she stopped him, and stood facing him with level, solemn eyes:
"I give myself to you, Gordon," she said, "gladly and gladly, and I will go wherever you go, and try all my life to be what you would like." As she repeated her simple words, erect and brave, with her arms filled with roses, for a fleeting second he was again conscious of the vague menace that had towered darkly at her back on the night when she had laid in his grasp that other rose ... the rose that had faded.
"Let's get along," he urged. The whip swung out across the roan's ears, and the horse started forward with a vicious rush. The dewy fragrance of the flowers trailed out behind the buggy, mingling with the swirling dust, then both settled into the empty road, under the burning brightness of the sun, the insensate beauty of the azure sky.
In the clear glow of a lengthening twilight of spring Gordon Makimmon sauntered into Simmons' store. The high, dusty windows facing the Courthouse were raised, and a warm air drifted in, faint eddies of the fragrance of flowering bushes, languorous draughts of a countryside newly green.
A number of men idling over a counter greeted him with a familiar and instantly alert curiosity. The clerk behind the counter bent forward with the brisk assumption of a business-like air. "Certainly," Gordon replied to his query, pausing to allow his purpose to gain its full effect; "I want to order a suit of clothes."
"Why, damn it t'ell, Gord!" exclaimed an individual, with a long, drooping nose, a jaw which hung loosely on a corded, bare throat; "it ain't three weeks ago but you got a suit, and it ain't the one you have on now, neither."
"Shut up, Tol'able," Buckley Simmons interposed, "you'll hurt trade. Gordon's the Dandy Dick of Greenstream."
"Haven't I a right to as many suits of clothes as I've a mind to?" Gordon demanded belligerently.
"Sure you have, Gord. You certainly have," a pacific chorus replied.
"I want one like the last drummer wore through here," he continued; "a check suit with braid on all the edges."
The clerk dropped a bulky volume heavily on the counter. "The Chicago Sartorial Company," he asserted, "have got some swell checks." He ran hastily over the pages, each with a sample rectangle of cloth pasted within a printed gold border, and a cabalistic sign beneath. Finally, "How's that?" he demanded, indicating a bold, mathematical design in pale orange, blue and grey.
A combined whistle rose from the onlookers; comments of mock amazement crowded one upon another. "Jin ... go! He's got the wrong book—that's rag carpet. Don't look at it too long, Gord, it'll cross your eyes. That ain't a suit, it's a game." A gaunt hand solemnly shook out imaginary dice upon the counter, "It's my move and I can jump you."
"Gentlemen! gentlemen!" the clerk protested; "this is the finest article woven, the very toniest."
Gordon dismissed the sample with a gesture. "I'm a man," he pronounced, "not a minstrel." His attention was held by a smaller pattern, in black and white, with an occasional red thread drawn through. "That's it," he decided; "that's it, with braid. What will that damage me?"
The clerk consulted the sign appended to the sample, then raced through a smaller, supplementary volume, where he located the item in question. "That cloth you picked out," he announced importantly, "is one of the best the Chicago Sartorial Company put out. Cut ample, with sleeves lined in silkaleen and back in A1 mohair, it'll stand you thirty-eight dollars. Genuine Eytalian thread silk lining will come at four and a half more."
"She'll do," Gordon told him, "with the silk and the braid edge."
The clerk noted the order; then with a tape measure affixed to a slim, wooden angle, came from behind the counter. "Remove the coat, please."
Gordon, with a patent self-consciousness, took off his coat, revealing a flimsy white silk shirt striped like a child's stick of candy in vivid green.
The whistle arose with renewed force; gnarled and blackened fingers gingerly felt the shirt's texture. "Man dear! The lily of Lebanon. Arrayed like a regular prostitute ... silk shirt tails."
The clerk skilfully conducted a series of measurements, noting results on a printed form; outer and inner seams were tallied, chest and thigh and knee recorded, the elbow crooked. "Don't forget his teeth," the clerk was admonished; "remember the braid on the pants."
Gordon resumed his coat, the clerk returned the books to their shelf, and the factitious excitement subsided. The light faded, the depths of the store swam in blue obscurity, but the fragrance of the spring dusk had deepened.
"When are you going to get the dog, Gord?" Tol'able asked.
"What dog?" another interposed curiously.
"Why, ain't you heard about Gord's dog," the chorus demanded. "Where have you been—up with the Dutch on the South Fork? Gord's got a dog coming he give two hundred dollars for. Yes, sir, he paid for a dog, he give real money for a four-legged, yelping wire-hound. It ain't a rabbit dog, nor a sheep dog, nor even a bull-dog; but just plain, stinking dog."
"Ah, he did like hell, give two hundred for a dog!"
"Yes, he did. That's right, didn't you, Gord? Two hundred! I saw the cheque. God dam' if he didn't!"
Gordon admitted the facts as far as they had been stated. "But this dog," he explained, "is different from the just happen so hounds around here. This dog has got a pedigree, his parents were united by the church all regular and highly fashionable. He ain't expected to run rabbits nor mangy sheep; he just sits on the stoop eating sausages and syrup, and takes a leg off any low down parties that visit with him without a collar on. He'll be on the Stenton stage this evening," he added. "I got word last night he was coming."
They lounged to the entrance of the store, gazing over the still road, in the direction from which the stage would arrive. Valentine Simmons was in his office; and, as Gordon passed, he knocked on the glass of the enclosure, and beckoned the other to enter.
He greeted Gordon Makimmon cordially, waving him to a seat. Valentine Simmons never, apparently, changed; his countenance was always freshly pink, the tufts of hair above his ears like combed lamb's wool; his shirt with its single, visible blue button never lacked its immaculate gloss.
"You're looking as jaunty as a man should with the choice of the land before him. Lucky! lucky! charming little wife, large fortune at your disposal.... Pompey left one of the solidest estates in this section. Opportune for you, very ... miraculous, if I may say so. But there, you ornament the money as well as any other. You are right too—a free hand; yours is the time for liberality, no cares—they come later. Ah, Gordon, have you examined the details of your late father-in-law's property? Have you searched through all the items, made yourself familiar with all the—er, petty and laborious details?"
"No, not just yet, I have been intending—"
Simmons stopped him with an upraised palm. "No more, I understand your thought exactly. It's a tiresome business. Yours is the time for liberality, no cares. However, I had a slight knowledge of Pompey Hollidew's arrangements. He was accustomed to discussing them with me. He liked my judgment in certain little matters; and, in that way, I got a general idea of his enterprises. He was a great hand for timber, your father-in-law; against weighty advice at the time of his death he was buying timber options here and there in the valley. Though what he wanted with them ... beyond ordinary foresight.—No transportation, you see; no railroad nor way of getting lumber out. But then, he had some visionary scheme or other. He held some thousand acres, most of it bought at a nominal figure. No good to anybody now; but I have got the timber fever myself—something may turn up in the far future, perhaps in another generation.... What would you say to a flat eight dollars an acre for the options, the money banked right to your credit? A neat little sum for current pleasures. Ah—" in spite of himself, Valentine Simmons became grave at the contemplation of the amount involved. "I don't say I would take all, but the best, certainly the greater part."
"Why, I don't know," Gordon spoke slowly from an old-time suspicion of the other. "It's my wife's property."
"But such a dutiful little wife—the husband's word. Remember, the money in your hand."
"It certainly sounds all right. Lettice would have the cash to show. I'll speak to her."
"Better not delay. There are other options; owners are glad to sell. I have given you the privilege first—old friend, old Presbyterian friend. The time is necessarily limited."
As he mentally revolved the proposal Gordon could find no palpable objection: the options, the timber, was obviously standing fallow, with no means of transportation to a market, in exchange for ready money. Lettice would easily see the sense in the deal; besides, he had brought in her name only for form's sake—he, Gordon Makimmon, held the deciding vote in the affairs of his home.
"I don't rightly see anything against it," he admitted finally.
"Good!" Simmons declared with satisfaction; "an able man, you can see as far as the next through a transaction. I'll have the county clerk go over the options, bring you the result in a couple of weeks. Don't disturb yourself; yours is the time for pleasures, not papers."
"Hey, Gord!" a voice called thinly from without; "here's your dog."
Gordon rose and made his way to the platform before the store, where the Stenton stage had stopped. A seat had been removed from the surrey, its place taken by a large box with a square opening, covered with heavy wire net at one end, and a board fitted movably in grooves at the other. There were mutters incredulous, ironic, from the awaiting group of men; envy was perceptible, bitterness "... for a dog. Two hundred! Old Pompey hollered out of the dirt."
"There he is, Gord," the driver proclaimed; "and fetching that dog palace'll cost you seventy-five cents." The box was shifted to the platform; and, while Gordon unfastened the slide, the men gathered in a curious, mocking circle.
The slide was raised, the box sharply tilted, and a grotesquely clumsy and grave young dog slid out. There was a hoarse uproar of gibing laughter, backs and knees were slapped, heavy feet stamped. The dog stood puzzled by the tumult: he had a long, square, shaggy head, the color of ripe wheat; clear, dark eyes and powerful jaw; his body was narrow, covered with straight, wiry black hair; a short tail was half raised, tentative; and his wheat colored legs were ludicrously, inappropriately, long and heavy.
He stood patiently awaiting, evidently, some familiar note, some reassuring command, in that unintelligible human clamor. Gordon regarded him through half-closed, indifferent eyes. "Here, doggy," a hoarse, persuasive voice called; a hand was stretched out to him. But, as he reached it, "Two hundred dollars!" the voice exclaimed, and the hand gave the animal a quick, unexpected thrust. The dog sprawled back, and fell on the point of his shoulder. He rose swiftly to his feet without a whimper, standing once more at a loss in the midst of the inexplicable animosity. He watched them all intently, with wrinkles in his serious young brow. When, from behind, another hand thrust him sharply upon his jaw, he rose as quickly as possible, swaying a little upon the inappropriate legs. Another suddenly knocked his hind legs from under him, and he sat heavily upon his haunches. The laughter ran renewed about the circle.
The sum of money that had been expended upon that single dog—a dog even that could neither hunt rabbits nor herd sheep—had, it appeared, engendered a bitter animosity, a personal spite, in the hearts of the men on the store platform. They were men to whom two hundred dollars was the symbol of arduous months of toil, endless days of precariously rewarded labor with the stubborn, inimical forces of nature, with swamp and rock and thicket. Two hundred dollars! It was the price of a roof, of health, of life itself.
A hard palm swung upon the dog's ribs, and, in instant response, he fell upon his side. He rose more slowly; stood isolated, obviously troubled. He drew back stumbling from a menacing gesture; but there was no cringing visible in his immature, ill-proportioned body; his tail drooped, but from weariness, discouragement; his head was level; his eyes met the circle of eyes about him.
Gordon took no part in the baiting; he lit a cigar, snapped the match over his shoulder, carelessly watched his newest acquisition. A heavy, wooden-soled shoe shoved the dog forward. And Buckley Simmons, in an obvious improvement upon that manoeuver, kicked the animal behind the ear. The forelegs rose with the impact of the blow, and the body struck full length upon the platform, where it lay dazed. But, finally, the dog got up insecurely, wabbling; a dark blot spread slowly across the straw-colored head.
No one, it was evident, was prepared for the sudden knifelike menace of Gordon Makimmon's voice as he bent over the dog and wiped the blood upon his sleeve.
"Kick him again, Buck," he said; "kick him again and see how funny it'll be."
"Why, Gordon," Buckley Simmons protested, "we were all stirring him up a little; you didn't say anything—"
Makimmon picked the dog up, holding him against his side, the awkward legs streaming down in an uncomfortable confusion of joints and paws. "I paid two hundred dollars for this dog," he pronounced, "as a piece of dam' foolishness, a sort of drunken joke on Greenstream. But it's no joke; the two hundred was cheap. I've seen a lot of good men—I'm not exactly a peafowl myself—but this young dog's better'n any man I ever stood up to; he's got more guts."
He abruptly turned his back upon the gathering, and descended to the road, carrying the limp, warm body all the way home.
It was his own home to which he returned, the original dwelling of the Makimmons in Greenstream. He could not, he had told Lettice, be comfortable anywhere else; he could not be content with it closed against the living sound of the stream, or in strange hands. Some changes had been made since his marriage—another space had been enclosed beyond the kitchen, a chamber occupied by Sim Caley and his wife, moved from the outlying farm where Lettice had spent her weeks of "retreat" throughout the passing summers. The exterior had been painted leaden-grey, and a shed transformed into a small, serviceable stable. But the immediate surroundings were the same: the primitive sweep still rose from the well, a cow still grazed in the dank grass; the stream slipped by, mirroring its stable banks, the foliage inexhaustibly replenished by nature; beyond the narrow valley the mountain range shut out the rising sun, closed Greenstream into its deep, verdurous gorge.
High above, the veil of light was still rosy, but it was dusk about Gordon Makimmon's dwelling. Lettice, in white, with a dark shawl drawn about her shoulders, was standing on the porch. She spoke in a strain of querulous sweetness:
"Gordon, you've been the longest while. Mrs. Caley says your supper's all spoiled. You know she likes to get the table cleared right early in the evening."
"Is Mrs. Caley to have her say in this house or am I? That's what I want to know. Am I to eat so's she can clear the table, or is she to clear the table when I have had my supper?"
"When it suits you, Gordon, of course. Oh, Gordon! whatever are you carrying?"
"I didn't know you wanted a dog." An accent of doubt crept into her voice, a hesitation. "I don't know if I want a dog around ... just now, Gordon."
"He won't do any harm; he's only a young dog, anyhow. Ain't you a young dog, a regular puppy? But, Lettice, he's got the grit of General Jackson; he stood right up against the crowd at the store."
"Still, Gordon, right now—"
"I told you he wouldn't do any harm," the man repeated in irritated tones; "he will be with me most of the time, and not around the house. You're getting too cranky for living, Lettice." He set the dog upon his feet. "What I'll call him I don't know; he's as gritty as—why, yes, I do, I'll call him General Jackson. C'm here, General."
The dog still wavered slightly. He stood intently regarding Gordon. "Here, here, General Jackson." After another long scrutiny he walked slowly up to Gordon, raised his head toward the man's countenance. Gordon Makimmon was delighted. "That's a smart dog!" he exclaimed; "smarter'n half the people I know. He's got to have something to eat. Lettice, will you tell Mrs. Caley to give General something to eat, and nothing's too good for him, either."
Lettice walked to the door of the kitchen and transmitted Gordon's request to the invisible Mrs. Caley. The latter appeared after a moment and stood gazing somberly at the man and dog. She was a tall, ungainly woman, with a flat, sexless body and a deeply-lined face almost the color of her own salt-raised bread. "This is General Jackson," Gordon explained out of the settling dark; "he'd thank you for a panful of supper. Come on, General, come on in the kitchen. No, Mrs. Caley won't bite you; she'll give us something to eat."
The room next to the kitchen, that had been Clare's, had been stripped of its furnishing, and a glistening yellow pine table set in the middle, with six painted wood chairs. The table was perpetually spread on a fringed red or blue cloth; the center occupied by a large silver-plated castor, its various rings filled with differently shaped bottles and shakers. At the end where Lettice sat heavy white cups and saucers were piled; at Gordon's place a knife and fork were propped up on their guards. On either side were the plates of Simeon and Mrs. Caley. Each place boasted a knife and formidable steel fork—the spoons were assembled in a glass receptacle—and a napkin thrust into a ring of plaited hair plainly marked with the sign of the respective owner.
Mrs. Caley silently put before Gordon a pinkish loin of pork, boiled potatoes and a bowl of purple, swimming huckleberries; this she fortified by a vessel of gravy and section of pie. There was tea. "Where's Lettice?" Gordon demanded. Apparently Mrs. Caley had not heard him. "Lettice," he raised his voice; "here's supper."
"I don't want anything to eat, thank you, Gordon," she returned from another room.
"You ought to eat," he called back, attacking the pork. Then he muttered, "—full of ideas and airs. Soft."
Beyond the dining room was their bedroom, and beyond that a chamber which, for years in a state of deserted, semi-ruin, Gordon had had newly floored and rendered weather-proof, and now used as a place of assemblage. He found Lettice there when he had finished supper.
She was sitting beside a small table which held a lighted lamp with a shade of minute, woven pieces of various silks. Behind her was a cottage organ, a mass of fretted woodwork; a wall pierced by a window was ornamented by a framed photograph of a woman dead and in her coffin. The photograph had faded to a silvery monotony, but the details of the rigid, unnatural countenance, the fixed staring eyes, were still clear. Redly varnished chairs with green plush cushions and elaborate, thread antimacassars, a second table ranged against the wall, bearing a stout volume entitled "A Cloud of Witnesses," and a cheap phonograph, completed the furnishing.
It was warm without, but Lettice had shut the window, the shawl was still about her shoulders. She was sewing upon a small piece of white material.
"Here, General, here," Gordon commanded, and the dog followed him seriously into the room. "Pat him, Lettice, so's he'll get to know you," he urged.
"I don't think I want to," she began; but, at her husband's obvious impatience, she experimented doubtfully, "Here, puppy."
"Can't you call him by his name?" he interrupted. "How ever'll he come to know it?"
"I don't want to call him at all," she protested, a little wildly. "I don't like him to-night; perhaps to-morrow I will feel different."
"Well, do or don't, that dog's a part of the house, and I don't want to hear Mrs. Caley say this or that about it, neither."
"Mrs. Caley isn't as bad as you make her out; it's me she's thinking about most of the time. I tell her men are not like women, they never think about the little things we do. Father was like that ... you are too. That's all the men I have known." Her voice trailed off into an abrupt silence, she sat staring into the room with the needlework forgotten in her hand.
Gordon turned to the dog, playing with him, pulling his ears. General Jackson, in remonstrance, softly bit Gordon's hand. "That's a dandy dog. Making yourself right at home, hey! Biting right back, are you! Let me feel your teeth, phew—"
"Gordon," Lettice exclaimed suddenly in a throaty voice, "I'm afraid.... Tell me it will be all right, Gordon."
He looked up from the dog, startled by the unaccustomed vibration of her tones. "Of course it will be all right," he reassured her hastily, making an effort to keep his impatience from his voice; "I never guessed you were so easy scared."
"I'll try not," she returned obediently. "Mrs. Caley says it will be all right, too." She seemed, he thought, even younger than when he had married her. She was absurdly girlish. It annoyed him; it seemed, unjustly, to place too great a demand upon his forbearance, his patience. A wife should be able to give and take—this was almost like having a child to tend. Lately she had been frightened even at the dark, she had wakened him over nothing at all, fancies.
He decided to pay no further attention to her imagining; and moved to the phonograph, where he selected one of a small number of waxy cylinders. "We'll see how the General likes music," he proclaimed. He slipped the cylinder over a projection, and wound the mechanism. A sharp, high scratching responded, as painful as a pin dragging over the ear drum, a meaningless cacophony of sounds that gradually resolved into a thin, incredibly metallic melody which appeared, mercifully, to come from a distance. To this was presently joined a voice, the voice, as it were, of a sinister, tin manikin galvanized into convulsive song. The words grew audible in broken phrases: