... was a lucky man, Rip van Winkle ... grummmble ... never saw the women At Coney Island swimming ...
General Jackson sat abruptly on his haunches, and lifted a long, quavering protest. As the cylinder went round and round, and the shrill performance continued, the dog's howling grew wilder; it reached a point where it broke into a hoarse cough, then again it recommenced lower in the scale, carrying over a gamut of indescribable, audible misery.
Gordon slapped his leg in acute enjoyment. "The General's a regular opera singer, a high-rolling canary. Go after it ... a regular concert dog."
"Gordon," Lettice said, in a small, strained voice. Apparently he had not heard her. "Gordon," she repeated more loudly. She had dropped the piece of sewing, her hands were clenched, her face wet and pallid. "Gordon!" she cried, her voice cutting through the sound of the phonograph and the howling dog; "stop it, do you hear! I'll go crazy! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"
He silenced the machine in genuine surprise. "Why, everything works you up to-night. I thought you'd like to hear General Jackson sing; he's got a real deep barytone."
Lettice sat limply in her chair. "I stood it just as long as I could," she half whispered.
Gordon walked to the unshuttered window, gazing out; above the impenetrable, velvety dark of the western range the stars gleamed like drops of water. He felt unsettled, ill at ease; dissatisfaction irked his thoughts and emotions. His unrest was without tangible features; it permeated him from an undivined cause, oppressed him with indefinable longing. He got, he dimly realized, but a limited amount of satisfaction from the money now at his command. He was totally without financial instinct—money for itself, the abstraction, was beyond his comprehension. He had bought a ponderous gold watch, which he continually neglected to wind; the years of stage driving had sated him of horses; his clothes were already a subject of jest in Greenstream; and he had seriously damaged his throat, and the throat of Sim Caley, with cigars. He had been glad to return to the familiar, casual cigarettes, the generous bag of Green Goose for five cents; Sim had reverted to his haggled plug. He had no desire to build a pretentious dwelling—his instinct, his clannish spirit, was too closely bound up in the house of his father and grandfather to derive any pleasure from that.
After he had spent a limited amount, the principal at his disposal lay untouched, unrealized. He got a certain measure of content from its sheer bulk at his back; it ministered to his vanity, to his supreme self importance. He liked negligently to produce, in Simmons' store, a twenty or even fifty dollar currency note, and then conduct a search through his pockets for something smaller. He drank an adequate amount of whiskey, receiving it in jugs semi-surreptitiously by way of the Stenton stage; Greenstream County was "dry," but whiskey in gallons was comparatively inexpensive. He would have gambled, but two dollars was a momentous hazard to the habitual card players of the village. He thought, occasionally, of taking a short trip, of two or three days, to nearby cities outside his ken, or to the ocean—Gordon had never seen a large body of water; but his life had travelled such a narrow course, he was so accustomed by blood and experience to the feel of the mountains, that, when the moment arrived to consider an actual departure, he drew back ... put it off.
What he was subconsciously longing for was youth. He was instinctively rebelling, struggling, against the closing fetters of time, against the dilution of his blood by time, the hardening of his bones, the imperceptible slackening of his muscles. His intimate contact with the vigorous youth of Lettice had precipitated this rebellion, this strife in which he was doomed. He would have hotly repudiated the insinuation that he was growing old; he would still, perhaps, have fought the man who said that he was failing. And such a statement would be beside the fact; no perceptible decay had yet set up at the heart of his manhood. But the inception of that process was imminent; the sloth consequent upon Lettice's money was hastening it.
Lettice's youthful aspect, persisting in the face of her approaching motherhood, disconcerted him; it was inappropriate. Her freshly-flushed, rounded cheeks beside his own weather-beaten, lean jaw offered a comment too obvious for enjoyment. He resented, from his own depleting store, her unspent sum of days. It created in him an animosity which, as he turned from the window, noted almost with relief faint lines about her mouth, the sinking of her color.
She was sitting with her eyes shut, the sewing neglected in her lap, and did not see Mrs. Caley standing in the doorway. The woman's gaze lingered for a moment, with an unmasked, burning contempt, upon Gordon Makimmon, then swept on to the girl.
"Lettice!" she exclaimed, in a species of exasperated concern, "don't you know better than to sit up to all hours?"
The following morning, "Oh, Gordon!" Lettice cried, "I like him ever so much; he played and played with me."
Gordon had gone to the post-office, and was descending the slope from the public road to his dwelling. He found Lettice sitting on the edge of the porch, and, panting vigorously, the dog extended before her, an expression of idiotic satisfaction on his shaggy face. They were, together, an epitome of extreme youth; and Gordon's discontent, revived from the night before, overflowed in facile displeasure.
"Don't you know better than to run him on a warm morning like this?" he complained; "as like as not now he'll take a fit; young dogs mustn't get their blood heated up."
The animation died from her countenance, leaving it almost sullen, her shoulders drooped dejectedly. "It seems nothing suits you," she observed; "you're cross when I don't like the dog and you're cross when I do. I can't satisfy you, anyhow."
"There's some difference in making over the dog and playing him out. Come here, General Jackson." The animal rose and yapped, backing playfully away. "Don't you hear me? Come right here." The dog, sensitive to the growing menace in the voice, moved still further away. "C'm here, damn you," Gordon shot out. The dog grew stubborn, and refused to move forward; and Gordon, his anger thoroughly aroused, picked up a large stone and threw it with all his force, missing General Jackson by a narrow margin.
"It seems to me," Lettice observed in a studiously detached voice, "I wouldn't throw stones at a dog I had paid two hundred dollars for."
Gordon was momentarily disconcerted. He had not intended to tell Lettice how much the General had cost. And yet, he reflected, since the village knew, with Sim Caley's wife in the house, it had been folly to hope to keep it from her.
"It's his pedigree," he explained lamely; "champion stock, imported." His temper again slowly got the better of his wisdom. "What if I did pay two hundred dollars for him?" he demanded; "it's harmless, ain't it? I'd a sight better do that than some other things I might mention."
"I only said," she repeated impersonally, "that I would not throw stones at a dog that had cost so much money."
"You're getting on the money now, are you? Going to start that song? That'll come natural to you. When I first married you I couldn't see how you were old Pompey's daughter, but I might have known it would come out. I might have known you weren't the daughter of the meanest man in Greenstream for nothing.... I suppose I'll hear about that money all the rest of my life."
"Perhaps I will die, and then you will have no bother."
"That's a nice way to talk; that makes me out a fine figure of a man ... with Mrs. Caley in the kitchen there, laying right over every word; the old vinegar bottle."
"Don't you say another word about Mrs. Caley," Lattice declared passionately; "she nursed my mother in her last sickness; and she took care of me for years, when there wasn't anybody else hardly knew if I was alive or not. If it wasn't for Mrs. Caley right now I guess I'd be in an early grave."
Gordon Makimmon stood silenced by the last outburst. The tall, meager figure of Mrs. Caley appeared upon the porch. She was clad in black calico, and wore grey felt slippers. Her head was lowered, her closed lips quivered, her bony fingers twitched. She never addressed a word to Gordon directly; and, he decided, when she did, it would be monumental, dumbfounding. The present moment was more than usually unpropitious; and, discovering General Jackson at his heels, he picked the dog up and departed for the stable, where he saw Sim Caley putting the horse into the buggy.
"I thought I'd go over to the farm beyond the priest's," he answered Gordon's query; "Tol'able's an awful slack hand with cattle."
"Your wife ought to run that place; she'd walk those steers around on a snake fence."
Simeon Caley preserved a diplomatic silence. He, too, was long and lean. He had eyes of the most innocent and tender blue imaginable in a countenance seamed and scarred by protracted debauch, disease, abuse. It was said of him that if all the liquor he had consumed were turned loose on the mountain it would sweep Greenstream village to the farther end of the valley.
His voice, like his eyes, was gentle. "Come right along, Gord; there's some draining you ought to see to. It's a nice drive, anyways." Gordon took the reins, slapping them on the rough, sturdy back of the horse, and they started up the precarious track to the road. General Jackson's head hung panting, wild-eyed, from the side of the vehicle.
It was late when they returned from the farm. Gordon left the buggy at the Courthouse. The thought of his dwelling, with Lattice's importunate fancies and complaints, was distasteful to him. A long-drawn-out evening in the monotonous sitting room, with the grim form of Mrs. Caley in the background, was insupportable. There was no light in the office of the Bugle, but there was a pale yellow blur in the lower windows of Peterman's hotel. It might be that a drummer had arrived, and was entertaining a local circle with the pungent wit of the road; and Gordon made his way toward the hotel.
It was a painted, wooden structure, two stories in height, with a wing that ran back from the road. The rooms in the latter section were reached from an outside, uncovered gallery, gained by a flight of steps at the back. Contrary to his expectation no one was in the office; a lamp shone on an empty array of chairs. But some one was on the gallery above; he could see a white skirt through the railing, make out the dark blot of a head upon the night. The illumination from within shone on his face.
The form above him leaned forward over the railing. "Mr. Makimmon," a woman's voice said, "if you want Mr. Peterman, I'll call him. He's at the back of the house."
Gordon was totally unaware of her identity.
"No," he replied, hesitatingly, "I wasn't after him in particular—"
"You don't know me," she challenged, laughing; "it's Meta Beggs; I teach the school, you know."
Instantly the memory returned to him of a woman's round, gleaming shoulders slipping into a web of soft white; he recalled the school-teacher's bitter arraignment of her life, her prospects. "I didn't know you," he admitted, "and that's the fact; it was the dark." He hesitated once more, conscious of the awkwardness of his position, talking upward to an indistinguishable shape. "I heard you were back," he continued impotently.
"Yes," she assented, "there was nothing else open.... Won't you come up and smoke a cigarette? It's pleasant here on the gallery."
He mounted the steps, making his way over the narrow, hollow-sounding passage to her side. She was seated overlooking the rift of the valley. "I'll get you a chair," she said, rising. At her side a door opened into a dim room. "No, no," he protested, "let me—in here?"
He entered the room. It was, he divined, hers. His foot struck against a chair, and his hand caught the back. A thin, clinging under-garment rested on it, which he deposited on a vague bed. It stuck to his fingers like a cobweb. There was just room on the balcony to arrange the chairs side by side.
The spring night was potent, warm and damp; it was filled with intangible influences which troubled the mind and stirred the memory to vain, melancholy groping. Meta Beggs was so close to Gordon that their shoulders touched. He rolled a cigarette and lit it, resting his arms upon the railing. Her face was white in the gloom; not white as Lettice's had been, like a flower, but sharply cut like marble; her nose was finely modelled, her lips were delicately curved, but thin, compressed. He could distinguish over her the paramount air of dissatisfaction.
She aroused in him unbidden thoughts; without the slightest freedom of gesture or words she gave the impression of careless license. He grew instinctively, at once, familiar, confidential, in his attitude toward her. And she responded in the same manner; she did not draw back when their arms accidentally met.
An interest, a vivacity of manner, such as Gordon had not experienced for weeks stirred in him. Meta Beggs called back into being the old freedom of stage-driving days, of the younger years. Her manner flattered his sex vanity. They progressed famously.
"You don't like the children any better than you did?"
"They get more like rats every year."
"I thought about you, held against your will."
"Don't tell lies; I went right out of your mind."
"Not as quick as I went out of yours. I did think about you, though—" he stopped, but she insisted upon his finishing the remark. "Well, I remembered what you said about your shoulders, and I saw you that night at your window...."
"Men, somehow, are always curious about me," she remarked indifferently; "they have bothered me ever since I was a girl. I make them mad. I never worry about such things myself—from the way women talk, and men go on, there must be something left out of me ... it just seems silly to get all red in the face—"
He almost constructed her words into a challenge. Five years ago, he continued, or only two, he would have changed her conception of living, he would have broken down her indifference, but now—His mental deliberations ended abruptly, for, even in his mind, he avoided all reference to Lettice; they studiously omitted her name in their conversation.
"Are you going to the camp meeting on South Fork next week?" she demanded. "I have never seen one. Buckley Simmons says all sorts of things happen. He's going to take me on Saturday. I wish—" she broke off pointedly.
"I was going to say that I wish, well—I wish I were going with somebody else than Buckley; he bothers me all the time."
"I'd like a lot to take you. It's not fit for you to go, though. The best people in Greenstream don't. They get crazy with religion, and with rum; often as not there's shooting."
"Oh! I had no idea. I don't know as I will go. I wish you would be there. If I go will you be there to look out for me?"
"I hadn't thought of it. Still, if you're there, and want me around, I guess that's where I will be."
"I feel better right away; I'll see you then; it's a sort of engagement between you and me. Buckley Simmons needn't know. Perhaps we can slip away from him for a while."
Voices rose from below them, and they drew back instinctively. Gordon found in this desire to avoid observation an additional bond with Meta Beggs; the aspect of secrecy gave a flavor to their communion. They remained silent, with their shoulders pressed together, until the voices, the footfalls, faded into the distance.
He rose to leave, and she held out her hand. At its touch he recalled how pointed the fingers were; it was incredibly cool and smooth, yet it seemed to instil a subtle fire in his palm. She stood framed in her doorway, bathed in the intimate, disturbing aroma of her person. Gordon recalled the cobwebby garment on the bed. He made an involuntary step toward her, and she drew back into the room ... the night was breathlessly still. If he took another step forward, he wondered, would she still retreat? Somewhere in the dark interior he would come close to her.
"Good night." Her level, impersonal voice was like a breath of cold air upon his face.
"Good night," he returned hastily. "I got turned right around." His departure over the gallery was not unlike a flight.
The memory of Meta Beggs was woven like a bright thread through the monotonous texture of the days which immediately followed. She was never entirely out of his thoughts; she stirred him out of all proportion to any assignable cause; she irritated him. He remembered that she said she made men "mad." He recalled how ridiculous he had felt as he had said, "Good night." He wished to repay her for that injury to his self-esteem.
At the same time, curiously, he was more patient with Lettice, he had a more ready sympathy for her intangible fancies. Perhaps for the first time he enjoyed sitting quietly on the porch of his house with her and General Jackson. He sat answering her endless queries, fears, assenting half-absently to her projections, with the thought of Meta Beggs at the back of his mind. He wanted to be as nice as possible to Lettice. Suddenly she seemed a little removed from him, from the world in general, the world of the emotions and ideas that centered about the school-teacher.
Lettice was—superior; he recognized it pridefully. Behind her temporary, rational vagaries there was a quality of steadfastness. It was clear to him now from its contrast to his own devious mind. But he found a sharp pleasure in the mental image of the Beggs woman. He recalled the burning sensation that had lingered in his palm from the touch of her hand, the pressure of her shoulder against his as they had drawn back from the vision of those below.
He went early to the camp meeting on the Saturday appointed.
He drove over the road that lay at the base of the western range away from his dwelling and Greenstream village. The mature spring day had almost the appearance of summer; the valley was flooded with sparkling sunlight; but the young leaves were still red, the greenery still translucent, the trees black with risen sap. The buggy rolled through the shallow, rocky fords, the horse's hoofs flinging up the water in shining drops. The road rose slightly, turning to the right, where an intermediate valley lay diagonally through the range. Save for small, scattered farms the bottomland was uncultivated, the tangled brush impenetrable.
Gordon passed other vehicles, bound toward the camp meeting, usually a single seat crowded with three, or even four, adult forms. He passed flat wagons with their bottoms filled with straw, on which women sat with stiffly-extended legs. The young women wore gay colors, their eyes sparkled in hardy faces, their hands, broad and red and capable, awkwardly disposed. The older women, with shawls folded about their stooped shoulders, were close-lipped, somber. The men were sparely built, with high, prominent cheek bones, long, hollow cheeks and shaven mouths touched with sardonic humor, under undented, black felt hats. There were an appreciable number of invalids and leaden-faced idiots.
The way grew wilder, the natural forms shrunk, the valley became a small plain of broken, rocky hillocks matted with thorny bushes, surrounded by marshes of rank grass, flags, half-grown osiers. The vehicles, drawn into a single way, crowded together, progressed slowly. Gordon saw in the back of the buggy before him two whiskey jugs. Some one far ahead began to sing a revival hymn, and it ran along the line of carriages like a trail of ignited powder. A deep bass caught it behind Gordon Makimmon, then the piercing soprano of a woman farther back.
The camp meeting spread over a small, irregular plateau surrounded by swamp and sluggish streams. Gordon turned off the road, and drove over a rough, short descent to a ledge of solid ground by a stream and fringe of willows. The spring torrents had subsided, leaving the grass, the willows, covered with a grey, crackling coat of mud; the air had a damp, fetid smell; beyond, the swamp bubbled gaseously. The close line of hitched teams disappeared about an elbow of the thicket; groups of men gathered in the noisome shadows, bottles were passed, heads thrown back and arms bent aloft.
Above, a great, sagging tent was staked to the obdurate ground. To the left a wooden floor had been temporarily laid about a four-square, open counter, now bare, with a locked shed for storage. Before Gordon was the sleeping tent for women. The sun seemed unable to dispel the miasma of the swamp, the surrounding aspect of mean desolation. The scene was petty, depressing. It was surcharged by a curious air of tension, of suspense, a brooding, treacherous hysteria, an ugly, raw, emotional menace. A service was in progress; a sustained, convulsive murmur came from within, a wordless, fluctuating lament. Suddenly it was pierced by a shrill, high scream, a voice tormented out of all semblance to reason. The sound grew deeper and louder; it swung into a rhythm which formed into words, lines, a primitive chant that filled the plateau, swelled out over the swamp. It continued for an incredible length of time, rising to an unbearable pitch, then it died away in a great gasp.
A thin, sinister echo rose from among the willows—emotional, shrill curses, a brief, raving outburst of passion, sharply punctuated with double shots, and falling abruptly to heavy silence. Gordon saw men obscurely running below.
The curtained entrance to the tent was pushed aside, and a woman walked stiffly out, her hands clenched, and her glassy eyes set in a fixed stare. Her hat was gone, and her grey hair lay upon one shoulder. She progressed, stumbling blindly over the inequalities of the ground, until she tripped on a stone. She lay where she had fallen, with her muscles jerking and shuddering, until a man appeared from behind the counter, and dragged her unceremoniously to the women's shelter.
Gordon entered the tent where the service was in progress. A subdued light filtered through the canvas upon a horde that filled every foot of space; they sat pressed together on long, rough boards nailed together in the semblance of benches. On a platform at the farther side a row of men and women sat against the canvas wall; to their left a folding organ had been erected, and was presided over by a man with a blurred, greyish countenance; while, standing at the forefront of the platform, a large, heavy man in a black frock coat was addressing the assemblage. He had a round, pallid, smooth face with long, black hair brushed back upon his coat collar, and great, soft, white hands.
"... it's rising," he proclaimed, in a loud, sing-song voice, "the flood is rising; now it's about your pockets—praise God! now it's above your waists. It's rising! it's rising! Hallelujah! the sea of redemption is rising," his voice rose with the figurative flood. "At last it's about your hearts, your hearts are immersed in the Sacred Tide."
A man beside Gordon groaned and dropped upon his knees. A woman cried, "God! God! God!" A spindling, overgrown boy rose fumbling at his throat. "I can't breathe," he choked, "I can't—" His face grew purplish, congested. The tumult swelled, directed, dominated, by the voice of the revivalist. He dropped upon his knees, and, amid the sobbing silence, pled with an invisible Judge hovering, apparently, over a decision to destroy at one bloody blow the recalcitrant peoples of the earth, the peoples of His making.
"Spare us," he implored; "spare us, the sheep of hell; lead us to Thy shining pasture ... still water; lead us from the great fire of the eternal pit, from the boiling bodies of the unsaved...."
Gordon Makimmon indifferently regarded the clamor. The process of "getting religion" was familiar, commonplace. He saw Tol'able sitting on a back bench; with a mutual gesture the two men rose and left the tent.
"I had to bring m'wife," Tol'able explained; "did you see her sitting on the platform? She's one of the main grievers. I got some good licker in the wagon—better have a comforter."
They walked down to a dusty, two-seated surrey, where, from under a horse blanket, Tol'able produced a small jug. He wiped the mouth on his sleeve and passed it to Gordon; then held the gurgling vessel to his open throat. "There was some hell raised last night," he proceeded; "a man from up back had his head busted with a stone, and a drunken looney shot through the women's tent: an old girl hollered out they had Goddy right in there among 'em."
"They were shooting a while back," Gordon observed indifferently. "Have you seen Buck Simmons here?"
"No, I hain't. He wouldn't be here noways."
Gordon preserved a discreet silence in regard to his source of assurance of Buckley's presence at the camp meeting.
"Have another drink, Gord."
The services were temporarily suspended, and the throng emptied from the tent. A renewed sanity clothed them—girls drew into squares of giggling defense against the verbal sallies of robustly-witted young men. Women collected their offspring, gathering in circles about opened boxes of lunch: a multitude of papers and box lids littered the ground. A hot, steaming odor, analogous to coffee, rose from the crowded counter. A prodigious amount of raw whiskey was consumed among the vehicles by the stream and mud-coated willows.
Gordon slowly made his way through the throng, in search of Meta Beggs; perhaps, after all, she had decided not to come; he might easily miss her in that mob. It was not clear in his mind what he would do if he saw her. She would be with Buckley Simmons, and there was a well recognized course of propriety for such occasions: he would be expected merely to greet in passing a girl accompanying another man. Any other proceeding would be met with instant resentment. And Buckley Simmons, Gordon knew, must still nurse a secret antagonism toward him. However, he had disposed of Buckley in the past ... if necessary he could do so again.
At the entrance to the service tent the organist, his countenance still livid in the sunlight, blew a throaty summons on a cornet, and the crowd slowly trailed back within. In the thinning groups Gordon saw the school-teacher, clad in a bright blue skirt and a hat with a stiff, blue feather. She was at Buckley's side, consuming a slice of cake with delicate, precise motions of her hand, and greeting with patent abstraction his solicitous attentions.
Meta Beggs saw Gordon at the same moment; and, without observation on the part of her escort, beckoned him to her. She said promptly:
"Mr. Makimmon, please take care of me while Buckley goes down by those carriages, where we saw you a little while ago, and gets his share of the refreshment there. I'm certain that dusty road made him as dry as possible."
Buckley grinned; such frank feminine acknowledgment and solicitude for the masculine palate was rare in Greenstream. "Why, no, Miss Beggs," he rejoined; "I'm in good shape for a while yet. I got a flask under the seat of the buggy—"
"I insist on your tending to it at once. I know just how it is with men—they have got to have that little refreshment ... don't you call it 'life preserver'? I'll be right by the counter; if Mr. Makimmon will be so kind—"
"Well," Buckley agreed, "a drink don't go bad any time; the road was kind of dusty. If you insist, Miss Beggs."
"I do! I do!" He turned and left them, striding toward the lower level. Then:
"The fool!" she exclaimed viciously; "my arm is all black and blue where he pinched it. My skin is not like the hides on these mountain girls, it tears and bruises dreadfully easy, it's so fine. Let's go back there," she pointed to where, behind the platform and counter, a path was trampled through brush higher than their heads. Gordon glanced swiftly in the direction in which Buckley Simmons had vanished. "He won't be back," she added contemptuously, "for a half hour. He'll stay down there and drink rotten whiskey and sputter over rotten stories." Without further parley she proceeded in the direction indicated; and, following her, Gordon dismissed Buckley from his thoughts.
Meta Beggs wore a shirtwaist perforated like a sieve; through it he saw flimsy lace, a faded blue ribband, her gleaming shoulders. In an obscure turn of the path she stopped and faced him. "Just look," she proclaimed, unfastening a bone button that held her cuff. She rolled her sleeve back over her arm. High up, near the soft under-turning, were visible the bluish prints of fingers. "You see," she added; "and there are others ... where I can't show you."
"Buck's pretty vigorous with the girls," he admitted; "I once dropped him down a spell for it."
He was fascinated by her naked, shapely arm; it was slender at the wrist, and surprisingly round above, at a soft, brown shadow. He was seized by a desire to touch it, and he held her pointed elbow while he examined the bruises more minutely. "That's bad," he pronounced; "on that pretty skin, too." He was confused by the close proximity of her bare flesh, the pulse in his neck beat visibly.
For a moment she stood motionless; then, with her eyes half closed, sulky, she drew away from him and rearranged her sleeve.
The brush ended on a slope where pine trees had covered the ground with a glossy mat of bronzed needles; and his companion sank to a sitting position with her back against a trunk. They were outside the influence of the camp meeting, beyond its unnatural excitation. The pine trees were black against the brilliant day; they might have been cast in iron, there was no suggestion of growth in the dun covering below; it was as seasonless where they sat as the sea; the air, faintly spiced and still, seemed to have lain unchanged through countless ages.
Meta Beggs sat motionless, with a look of inexpressible boredom on her pale countenance. Her hands, Gordon thought, were like folded buds of the mountain magnolia.
She said, unexpectedly, "You're rich now, aren't you, one of the richest men in the county?"
"Why I—I got some money; that is, my wife has."
She dismissed, with an impatient gesture, the distinction. "Money is life," she continued, with a perceptible, envious longing, "it's freedom, all the things worth having. It makes women—it's their leather boxes full of rings and pins and necklaces, their dresses of all-over lace, their silk and hand scalloped and embroidered underclothes; it's their fascination and chance and power—"
"I would like to see you in some of those lace things," he returned.
"Well, get them for me," she answered hardily.
Utterly unprepared for this direct attack he was thoroughly disconcerted. "Why, certainly!" he replied, laboriously polite, "the next time—I'll do it!—when I'm in Stenton again I'll bring you a pair of silk stockings."
"Black," she said practically, "and size eight and a half. You will like me in black silk stockings," she added enigmatically.
"I'll bet," he replied with enthusiasm. "I won't wait to go, but send for them. You would make the dollars dance. You are different from—" he was going to say Lettice, but, instinctively, he changed it to, "the women around here. You've got an awful lot of ginger to you."
"I know what I want, and I'm not afraid to pay for it. Almost everybody wants the same thing—plenty and pleasure, but they're afraid of the price; they are afraid of it alive and when they will be dead. Women set such a store on what they call their virtue, and men tend so much to the opinion of others, that they don't get anywhere."
"Don't you set anything on your—your virtue?"
"I'd make it serve me; I wouldn't be a silly slave to it all my life. If I can get things with it that's what I'm going to do."
Gordon Makimmon found these potent words from such a pleasing woman as Meta Beggs. Any philosophy underlying them, any ruthless strength, escaped him entirely. They appealed solely to him as "gay," highly suggestive. They stirred his blood into warm, heady tides of feeling. He moved over the smooth covering of pine needles, closer to her. But with an expression of petulance she rose.
"I suppose we must look for Buckley," she observed. Gordon had completely forgotten Buckley Simmons' presence at the camp meeting. The school-teacher, swaying slimly, led the way over the path to the plateau.
They saw Buckley Simmons at once: he was talking in an excited, angry manner to a small group of men. A gesture was made toward Gordon and his companion; Buckley turned, and his face flushed darkly, Gordon, stood still, Meta Beggs fell behind, as the former made his way toward them. Buckley spoke loudly when he was still an appreciable distance away:
"You were mighty considerate about my dusty throat," he began with heavy sarcasm; "I ought to have seen at the time that you had it made up between you. This is the second time that you have broken in on me, Makimmon. I'm not a boy any longer. You can't tread on me. It's going to stop ... now."
"There's nothing for you to get excited about, Buck. Miss Beggs and I took a little stroll while you were away."
"A 'little stroll.'" Buckley produced a heavy gold watch, the highly chased cover of which he snapped back. "Over half an hour," he proclaimed; "you stayed too long this time."
Gordon was aware of a form at his back. He turned, and saw Tol'able.
"What's the trouble, Gord?" the latter asked. Two or three others were compactly grouped behind him.
"Why, Buckley's hot because I walked with Miss Beggs while he took a drink."
The men about Buckley Simmons closed up. "Don't let Gordon crowd you down," they advised their principal; "put it up against him."
"Haven't you got enough at home," Buckley demanded, "without playing around here?"
Anger swiftly rose to Gordon Makimmon's head. His hand fell and remained close by his side. "Keep your tongue off my home," he commanded harshly, "or you will get more than a horsewhipping."
"By God," Buckley articulated. His face changed from dark to pale, his mouth opened, his eyes were staring. He fumbled desperately in his pocket. Gordon's hand closed smoothly, instantly, about the handle of his revolver. But, before he could level it, an arm shot out from behind him, and a stone the size of two fists sped like a bullet, striking Buckley Simmons where his hair and forehead joined. Gordon, in a species of shocked curiosity and surprise, clearly saw the stone hit the other. There was a sound like that made by a heel breaking a scum of ice on a frozen road.
Buckley said, "Ah," half turned, and dropped like a piece of carpet.
The belligerent attitude instantly evaporated from the group behind the stricken man. "Gracious," some one muttered foolishly. They all joined in a stooping circle about the prostrate figure. It was seen immediately that the skull was broken—a white splinter of bone stood up from a matted surface of blood and hair and dirt. Buckley's eyelids winked continuously and with great rapidity.
A mingled concern and deep relief swept through Gordon Makimmon. He knew that, had the stone not been thrown, he would have killed Buckley Simmons. He wondered if Tol'able had done him that act of loyalty. It had, probably, fatally wounded its object. He turned with a swift, silent look of inquiry to Tol'able. The other, unmoved, dexterously shifted a mouthful of tobacco. "Whoever did that," he observed, "could sure throw a rock."
A crowd gathered swiftly, cautious and murmuring. Simmons was lifted on a horse blanket to the flooring by the counter. There was an outcry for a doctor, but none was present, and it was agreed that the wounded man must be hurried into Greenstream. "He won't get there alive," it was freely predicted; "the top of his head is crumbled right off."
Gordon found Meta Beggs on the outskirt of the throng; she was pale but otherwise unshaken. "I was sure you were going to shoot Buckley," she told him.
"So was I," he returned grimly.
"Will he die?"
"It looks bad—his head's cracked. You didn't see anybody throw that stone!" His voice had more the accent of a command than an inquiry.
"I really didn't; the men were standing so closely ... nobody saw."
"That's good. You'll drive home with me, for certain."
"I'm glad you didn't kill him," she confided to Gordon in the buggy. She was sitting very close to him. "It would have—upset things."
"I don't believe you were a scrap frightened," he asserted admiringly.
"I wasn't. I thought how foolish you would be to spoil everything for yourself."
"I would have gone into the mountains," he explained; "a hundred men would have kept the law off me. I was a year and a half there, when—when I was younger," he ended lamely.
"I like that," she replied, "I understand it. I've wanted to murder; but it would have been silly, I would have had to pay too dearly for a passing rage." There was a menace in her even voice, a cold echo like that from a closed, empty room, that oppressed Gordon unpleasantly.
"I guess you're not as dangerous as that," he responded, more lightly. He wondered, unable to decide, if she were consciously pressing her body against him, or if it were merely the jolting of the buggy? They were passing through the valley that led into Greenstream; the sun was lowering behind them, the shadows creeping out. They dropped from the rough, minor forms into the bigger sweep—it was like a great, green bed half filled with a gold flood. Gordon's horse walked, and, in their slow progress, the stream of light flowing between the ranges changed to a stream of shadow. A miraculous pink rose opened in the east and scattered its glowing petals across the sky. The buggy wound, like an infinitesimal toy, over the darkening road.
He passed his dwelling, a long, irregular roof against the veiled surface of the stream; a light shone from the kitchen window. The streets of the village, folded in warm dusk, were empty; the white columns of the Courthouse glimmered behind the shafts of the trees on the lawn. Supper was in progress at Peterman's hotel; as Gordon and Meta Beggs left the buggy they heard the rattle of dishes within. She walked a few steps, then stopped, was about to speak, but she saw that Gordon had followed her, and turned and led the way to the steps giving to the gallery above.
Gordon Makimmon followed her without reason, without plan, almost subconsciously. He walked close behind her to where she opened the door to her room: it was grey within, a dim curtain swelled faintly with an unfelt air.
"Black," he repeated stupidly, "size eight and a half."
She stepped into the room, and faced him; her lips were parted over a glimmer of teeth. He took her roughly in his arms, and she turned up her face.
"For the stockings," she said, as he kissed her.
He kissed her again, and she murmured, faintly, "Two pairs."
It enraged him that she was so collected; her body, pressed against him from knee to shoulder, was without a tremor, her breast was tranquil. She might have been, from her unstudied, total detachment, a fine, flexible statue in his straining embrace, under his eager lips. Suddenly, with no apparent effort, she released herself.
She removed the hat with the blue feather, calmly laid it on the indistinct bed, and moved to the mirror of a small bureau, where her hands glided over her smooth hair.
"Men are so—elementary," she observed, "and all alike. I wish I could feel what you do," she turned to Gordon, "just once."
"What are you made of?" he demanded tensely; "stone?"
"I often wonder."
She crossed the room to the gallery, where she glanced swiftly about. "You must leave, and I'll go down to supper. Next Sunday I am going to walk ... in the morning."
"If you go out by the priest's," he suggested, "and turn to the right, you will find a pretty stream; further down there's an old mill."
She drew back, waiting for him to descend to the ground below.
Simmons' clerk was standing on the platform before the store, and Gordon drew up. "How's Buckley?" he inquired.
"Bad," the other answered laconically. "They sent to Stenton for help. His head's cracked. It's funny," he commented, "with a hundred people around nobody saw that stone thrown 'tall."
"It don't do sometimes to see this and that," Gordon explained, tightening the reins.
He unhitched the horse in his shedlike stable by the aid of a hand lantern. He was reluctant to go into the house, and he prolonged the unbuckling of the familiar straps, the measuring of feed, beyond all necessity. Outside, he thought he heard General Jackson by the stream, and he stood whistling softly, but only the first notes of the whippoorwills responded. "The night's just come down all at once," he said. Finally, with a rigid assumption of indifference covering an uneasy heart, he went in.
Lettice was asleep by the lamp in the sitting room. She looked younger than ever, but there were shadows under her eyes, her mouth was a little drawn as if by the memory of pain. A shawl, he saw, had slipped from her shoulders, and he walked clumsily on the tips of his shoes and rearranged it. Then he sat down and waited for her to wake.
The flame of the lamp was like a section of an orange; it cast a warm, low radiance through the room. His gaze rested on the photograph of Lettice's mother in her coffin. He imagined that paper effigy of inanimate clay moved, turned its dull head to regard him. "I'm getting old," he told himself contemptuously, repressing an involuntary start of surprise. His heart rested like a lump of lead in his breast; it oppressed him so that his breathing grew labored. His mind returned to Meta Beggs: coldness like hers was not natural, it was not right. He thought again, as men have vainly of such women since the dawning of consciousness, that it would be stirring to fire her indifference, to ignite a passion in response to his own desire. The memory of her slender, full body, her cool lips, tormented him.
Lettice woke abruptly.
"Gordon!" she cried, in an odd, muffled voice; "you're always late; your supper is always spoiled."
"I had my supper," he hurriedly fabricated, "at Peterman's. It's nice in here, Lettice, with you and all the things around. It has a comfortable look. You're right pretty, Lettice, too."
The unexpected compliment brought a flush to her cheeks. "I'm not pretty now," she replied; "I'm all pulled out." General Jackson ambled into the room, sat between them. "Let's hear the General sing," she proposed.
Gordon wound the phonograph, and the distant, metallic voice repeated the undeniable fact that Rip Van Winkle had been unaware of the select pleasures of Coney Island. The dog whimpered, then raised his head in a despairing bay.
A time might come in a man's life, Gordon Makimmon realized, when this peaceful interior would spell complete happiness.
On Sunday he strolled soon after breakfast in the direction of the priest's. Merlier was standing at the door to his house. Gordon noted that the other was growing heavier, folds dropped from the corners of his shaven lips, his eyes had retreated in fatty pouches. His gaze was still searchingly keen, but the priest was wearing out. Gordon stopped in response to his silent nod.
"You ought to let up on yourself a little," he advised.
"Why?" the other briefly queried.
"'Why?', so's you will last longer."
To this the priest made no reply. A short, awkward silence followed during which Gordon grew restive. "If I looked so glum about Greenstream," he continued, "I'd move out." It was as though he had not spoken. "I'd go back where I came from," he persisted sharply. The priest's lips moved, formed words:
"'Che discese da Fiesole ab antico.'"
His imperturbable manner offered Gordon not the slightest opening; and he continued uncomfortably on his way. There was a quality about that thick, black-clad figure which cast a shadow over the cloudless day, it blunted the anticipated pleasure of his meeting with Meta Beggs. There was about Merlier a smell of death like the smell of sooty smoke.
The stream lay shining along its wooded course; the range greenly aflame with new foliage rose into radiant space; flickers hammered on resonant, dead wood. Gordon banished the somber memory of the priest. He was conscious of a sudden excitement, a keenness of response to living like a renewal of youth. He wished that Meta Beggs would appear; his direction to her had been vague; she might easily go astray and miss him. But he saw her, after what seemed an interminable period, leaving the road and crossing the strip of sod that bordered the stream. She had on a white dress that clung to her figure, and a broad, flapping straw hat wound with white. She saw him and waved. The brush rose thickly along the water, but there was a footway at its edge, with occasional, broader reaches of rough sod. In one of the latter she stooped, made a swift movement with the hem of her skirt.
"See," she smiled; "I said you would like me in them."
He attempted to catch her in his arms, but she eluded him. "Please," she protested coolly, "don't be tiresome.... We must talk."
He followed her by the devious edge of the stream to the ruined mill. He could see the blurring impress of the black silk stockings through the web of her dress; the dress had shrunk from repeated washing, and drew tightly across her shoulders. She walked lightly and well, and sat with a graceful sweep on a fallen, moldering beam. Beyond them the broad expanse of the mill pond was paved with still shadows; a dust of minute insects swept above the clouded surface. The water ran slowly over the dam, everywhere cushioned with deep moss, and fell with an eternal splatter on the rocks below.
Gordon rolled a cigarette from the muslin bag of Green Goose. "Why do you still smoke that grass?" she demanded curiously. "You could get the best cigars from Cuba." He explained, and she regarded him impatiently. "Can't you realize what possibilities you have!"
"I might, with assistance."
"If you once saw the world! I've been reading about Paris, the avenues and cafes and theaters. Why, in the cafes there they drink only champagne and dance all night. The women come with their lovers in little closed carriages, and go back to little closed rooms hung in brocade. They never wear anything but evening clothes, for they are never out but at night—satin gowns with trains and bare shoulders."
He endeavored to picture himself in such a city, amid such a life, with Meta Beggs. He felt that she would be entirely in place in the little carriages, drinking champagne. "That's where they eat frogs," he remarked inanely. In the tensity of her feeling, the bitterness of her longing, her envy, she cursed him for a dull fool. Then, recovering her composure with a struggle:
"I would make a man drunk with pleasure in a place like that. He would be proud of me, and all the other men would hate him; they would all want me."
"Some would come pretty near getting you, too," he replied with a flash of penetration; "those with the fastest horses or longest pockets."
"I would be true to whoever took me there," she declared; "out of gratitude."
He drew a deep breath. "What would you say," he inquired, leaning toward her, "to a trip to—to Richmond? We could be gone the best part of a week."
She laughed scornfully. "Do you think I am as cheap as that—to be bought over Sunday?" She rose, and stood before him, sharply outlined against the foliage, the water, the momentary, flittering insects, taunting, provocative, sensual.
"Five years ago," he told her, "if you had tried this foolery, I would have choked you, and thrown what was left in the dam."
"And now—" she jeered fearlessly.
"It's different," he admitted moodily.
It was. Somewhere the lash had been lost from the whip of his desire. He was still eager, tormented by the wish to feel her disdainful mouth against his. The recrudescence of spring burned in his veins; but, at the same time, there was a new reluctance upon his flesh. The inanimate, obese mask of the priest, Lettice's sleeping countenance faintly stamped with pain, hovered in his consciousness. "It's different," he repeated.
"You are losing your hold on pleasure," she observed critically aloof.
He leaned forward, and grasped her wrist, and, with a slight motion, forced her upon her knees. "If you are pleasure I'm not," he challenged.
"You are hurting my arm," she said coldly. His grip tightened, and a small grimace crossed her lips. "Let go," she demanded; and then a swift passion shrilled her voice. "Let go, you are crushing my wrist. Damn you to hell! if you spoil my wrist I'll kill you."
For a moment, as he held her, she reminded Gordon of a venomous snake; he had never seen such a lithe, wicked hatred in any other human being. "You are a gentle object," he satirized her, loosening his hold.
She rose slowly and stood fingering her wrist. The emotion died from her countenance. "You see," she explained, "my body is all I have to take me out of this," she motioned to the slumbering water, the towering range, "and I can't afford to have it spoiled. You wouldn't like me if I were lame or crooked. Men don't. The religious squashes can say all they like about the soul, but a woman's body is the only really important thing to her. No one bothers about your soul, but they judge your figure across the street."
"Yours hasn't done you much good."
"It will," she returned somberly, "it must—real lace and wine and ease." She came very close to him; he could feel the faint jarring of her heart, the moisture of her breath. "And you could get them for me. I would make you mad with sensation."
He kissed her again and again, crushing her to him. She abandoned herself to his arms, but she was as untouched, as impersonal, as a stuffed woman of cool satin. In the end he voluntarily released her.
"You wouldn't take fire from a pine knot," he said unsteadily.
Her deft hands rearranged her hat. "Some day a man will murder me," she replied in level tones; "perhaps I'll get a thrill from that." Her voice grew as cutting as a surgeon's polished knife. "Please don't think I'm the kind of woman men take out in the woods and kiss. You may have discovered that I don't like kissing. I'm going to be honester still—last year, when you were mending the minister's ice house, and hadn't a dollar, I wasn't the smallest bit interested in you; and this year I am.—Not on account of the money itself," she was careful to add, "but because of you and the money together. Don't you see—it changed you; it's perfectly right that it should, and that I should recognize it."
"That sounds fair enough," he agreed. "Now the question is, what are we going to do together, you and me and the money?"
"Would you do what I wanted?" she asked at his shoulder.
"We might try Richmond."
"Don't fool yourself," she returned hardily; "I know all about those trial trips. Any man I go with has got to go far: I don't intend to be left at some pokey little way station with everything gone and nothing accomplished."
"But," he objected, "a man who went with you could never come back."
"Back to this wilderness," she scoffed; "any one should thank God for being taken out of it."
"I've always lived here, my father too, and his before him; and back of that we came from mountains. We're mountain blood; I don't know if we could get used to anything else, live down yonder."
"I'd civilize you," she promised him.
"Perhaps—" he assented slowly.
Suddenly from beyond the ruin came the stir of a horse moving in harness, the sound stopped and the voices of men grew audible. Instinctively Gordon and Meta Beggs drew behind a standing fragment of wall. Gordon could see, through the displaced, rotting boards, a buggy and two men standing at the side of the road. One, he recognized, was Valentine Simmons; he easily made out the small, alert figure. The other, with his back to the mill, held outspread a sheet of paper. There was something familiar about the carriage of the head, a glimpse of beard, a cigar from which were expelled copious volumes of smoke. Gordon vainly racked his memory for a clue to the latter, elusive personality. He heard Simmons say:
"... by the South Fork entrance ... through the valley."
The stranger partially turned, and Gordon instantly recalled where he had seen him before—it was the man he had driven from Stenton with the surprising foreknowledge of the County, who had been met by Pompey Hollidew. He replied to Simmons, "Exactly ... timber sidings at the principal depots."
They were, evidently, discussing a projected road. Gordon subconsciously exclaimed, half aloud, "Railroad!" A swift illumination bathed in complete comprehension the whole affair—the connection, of Simmons, old Pompey's options and the stranger. This railroad, the coming of which would increase enormously the timber values of Greenstream County, had been the covert reason for Simmons' desire to purchase the options held by the Hollidew estate; it had been, during Pompey Hollidew's life, the reason for the acquisition of such extended timber interests. Hollidew, Simmons and Company had joined in a conspiracy to purchase them throughout the county at a nominal sum and reap the benefits of the large enhancement. The death of the former had interrupted that satisfactory scheme; now Valentine Simmons had conceived the plan of gathering all the profit to himself. And, Gordon admitted, he had nearly succeeded ... nearly. A slow smile crossed Gordon Makimmon's features as he realized what a pleasant conversation he would have with Simmons at the latter's expense. He had never conceived the possibility of getting the astute storekeeper into such a satisfactory, retaliatory position. He would extract the last penny of profit and enjoyment from the other's surprise.
The men beyond re-entered the buggy and drove toward the village.
"What is it?" Meta Beggs asked; "you look pleased."
"Oh, I fell on a little scheme," he replied evasively; "a trifle ... worth a hundred thousand or more to me."
Her eyes widened with avidity. "I didn't know the whole, God forsaken place was worth a thousand," she remarked. "A hundred thousand," the mere repetition of that sum brought a new shine into her gaze, instinctively drew her closer to Gordon's side.
"Just that alone would be enough—" she said, and paused.
He ignored this opening in the anticipated pleasure of his coming interview with Valentine Simmons.
A palpable annoyance took possession of her at Gordon's absorption. "It must be near dinner at Peterman's," she remarked; "on Sunday you've got to be on time."
In response to her suggestion he turned toward the road. They walked back silently until they were opposite the priest's. "I'd better go on alone," she decided. Her hands clung to his shoulders and she sought his lips. "Soon again," she murmured. "Don't desert me; I am entirely alone except for you."
She left him and swiftly crossed the green to the road.
Gordon carefully explained the entire circumstance of the timber to Lettice. "I just happened to be by the stream," he continued, "and overheard them. Your father and Simmons evidently had arranged the thing, and Simmons was going to crowd you out of all the gain."
"You see to it," she returned listlessly; "you have my name on that paper, the power of something or other." She was seated on the porch of their dwelling. A low-drifting mass of formless grey cloud filled the narrow opening of the ranges, drooping in nebulous veils of suspended moisture down to the vivid green of the valley. The mountains seemed to dissolve into the nothingness above; the stream was unusually noisy.
"I might see him this evening," he observed; "and I could find out how Buck was resting."
"However did he come to get hurt?"
"I never knew rightly, there we were all standing with Buckley a-talking, when the stone flew out of the crowd and hit him on the head. Nobody saw who did it."
"I wish you hadn't been there, Gordon. You always seem to be around, to get talked about, when anything happens."
He saw that she was irritable, in a mood for complaint, and he rose. "You mean Mrs. Caley talks wherever I am," he corrected. He left the porch and walked over the road to the village. The store, he knew, would be closed; but Valentine Simmons, an indefatigable church worker, almost invariably after the service pleasantly passed the remainder of Sunday in the contemplation and balancing of his long and satisfactory accounts and assets.
He was, as Gordon had anticipated, in the enclosed office bent over his ledgers. The door to the store was unlocked. Simmons rose, and briefly acknowledged Gordon's presence.
"I was sorry Buckley got hurt," the latter opened; "it wasn't any direct fault of mine. We were having words. I don't deny but that it might have gone further with us, but some one else stepped in."
"So I was informed. Buckley will probably live ... that is all the Stenton doctor will say; a piece of his skull has been removed. I am not prepared to discuss it right now ... painful to me."
"Certainly. But I didn't come to discuss that. I want to talk to you about the timber—those options of Lettice's."
"She doesn't agree to the deal?" Simmons queried sharply.
"Whatever I say is good enough for Lettice," Gordon replied.
An expression of relief settled over the other. "The papers will be ready this week," he said. "I have taken all that, and some expense, off you. You will make a nice thing out of it."
"I will," Gordon assented heartily. "And that reminds me—I saw an old acquaintance of Pompey Hollidew's in Greenstream to-day. I don't know his name; I drove him up in the stage, and Pompey greeted him like a long-lost dollar."
A veiled, alert curiosity was plain on Simmons's smooth, pinkish countenance.
"I wonder if you know him too?—a man with a beard, a great hand for maps and cigars."
"Well?" Valentine Simmons temporized.
"Could he have anything to do with those timber options of the old man's, with your offer for them?"
"Well?" Simmons repeated. His face was now absolutely blank; he sat turned from his ledgers, facing Gordon, without a tremor.
"It's no use, Simmons," Gordon Makimmon admitted; "I was out by the old mill this morning. I saw you both, heard something that was said. That railroad will do a lot for values around here, but mostly for timber."
Instantly, and with no wasted regrets over lost opportunities, Simmons changed his tactics to meet existing conditions. "Your wife's estate controls about three thousand acres of timber," he pronounced. "What will you take for them?"
"How much do you control?" Gordon asked.
"About twenty-five hundred at present."
Gordon paused, then, "Lettice will take thirty dollars an acre."
"Why!" the other protested, "Pompey bought them for little or nothing. You're after over two hundred per cent. increase."
"What do you figure to get out of yours?"
"That doesn't concern us now. I've had to put this through—a tremendous thing for Greenstream, a lasting benefit—entirely by myself. I will have to guarantee a wicked profit outside; I stand alone to lose a big sum. I'll give you ten dollars for the options."
Gordon rose. "I'll see the railroad people myself," he observed; "and find out what I can do there."
"Hold on," Simmons waved him back to his chair. "If there's too much talk the thing will get out. You know these thick skulls around here—at the whisper of transportation you couldn't cut a sapling with a gold axe. It took managing to interest the Tennessee and Northern; they are going through to Buffalo; a Greenstream branch is only a side issue to them." He paused, thinking. "There's no good," he resumed, "in you and me getting into each other. The best thing we can do is to control all the good stuff, agree on a price, and divide the take."
Gordon carefully considered this new proposal. It seemed to him palpably fair. "All the papers would have to be made together," he added; "what's for one's for the other."
Now that the deal was fully exposed Valentine Simmons was impatient of small precautions. "Can't you see how the plan lays?" he demanded irritably. "We'll draw up a partnership. Don't get full and talk," he added discontentedly. It was evident that he keenly resented the absence of Pompey Hollidew from the transaction.
"A thing like this," he informed the other, "ain't put through in a week. It will be two or three years yet before the company will be ready for construction."
Minor details were rehearsed, concluded. Two weeks later Gordon signed an agreement of partnership with Valentine Simmons to purchase collectively such timber options as were deemed desirable, and to merchandise their interests at a uniform price to the railroad company concerned.
When Gordon returned to his dwelling he found Sim Caley and his sister's husband taking the horse from the shafts of a dusty, two-seated carriage. Rutherford Berry was a slightly-built man with high, narrow shoulders, and a smooth, pasty-white face. He was clerk in a store at the farther end of Greenstream valley, and had flat, fragile wrists and a constant, irritating cough.
"H'y, Gord!" he shouted; "your sister wanted to visit with you over night, and see Lettice. We only brought two—the oldest and Barnwell K."
The "oldest," Gordon recalled, was the girl who had worn Clare's silk waist and "run the colors"; Barnwell K. Berry was, approximately, ten.
"That's right," he returned cordially. He assisted in running the carriage back by the shed. Lettice and his sister were stiffly facing each other in the sitting room. The latter had a fine, thin countenance with pale hair drawn tightly back and fastened under a small hat pinned precariously aloft; her eyes were steady, like his own. She wore a black dress ornamented with large carmine dots, with a scant black ribband about her waist, her sole adornment a brassy wedding ring, that almost covered an entire joint. She spoke in a rapid, absent voice, as if her attention were perpetually wandering down from the subject in hand to an invisible kitchen stove, or a child temporarily unaccounted for.
"Lettice looks right good," she declared, "and, dear me, why shouldn't she, with nothing on her mind at all but what comes to every woman? When I had my last Rutherford was down with the influenza, the youngest was taken with green-sickness, and we had worked out all our pay at the store in supplies. You're fixed nice here," she added without a trace of envy in her tired voice. "I suppose that's Mrs. Hollidew in her shroud. We have one of James—he died at three—sitting just as natural as life in the rocker."
"Where's Rose?" he asked.
"In the kitchen, helping Mrs. Caley. I wanted to ask that nothing be said before Rose of Lettice's expecting. We've brought her up very delicate; and besides there's a young man paying her attention, it's not a fitting time—she might take a scare. I had promised to bring Barnwell K. the next time."
They could hear from without the boy and the hysterical yelping of General Jackson. "That dog won't bite?" Mrs. Berry worried. Gordon, patently indignant, replied that the General never bit. "Barnwell might cross him," she answered; and, moving to the door, summoned her offspring. It was the sturdy individual who had burst into a wail at Clare's funeral, his hair still bristling against a formal application of soap.
"C'm on in, doggy," he called; "c'm in, Ginral. I wisht I had a doggy like that," he hung on his mother's knees lamenting the absence from their household of a General Jackson. "Our ol' houn' dog's nothing," he asserted.
Lettice, worn by her visitor's rapid monotone, the stir and clatter of young shoes, remarked petulantly, "Gordon paid two hundred dollars for that single dog; there ought to be something extra to him."
Mrs. Berry received this item without signal amazement; it was evident that she was prepared to credit any vagaries to the possessors of Pompey Hollidew's fabulous legacy.
"Just think of that!" she exclaimed mildly; "I'll chance that dog gets a piece of liver every day."
Rose, from the door, announced supper. She was an awkward girl of seventeen, with the pallid face and blank brown eyes of her father, and diffident speech. Gordon faced Lettice over her figured red cloth; on one side Barnwell K. sat flanked by his mother and Simeon Caley, on the other Rose sat by an empty chair, the place of the now energetically employed Mrs. Caley. The great, tin pot of coffee rested at Lettice's hand, and, before Gordon, a portentous platter held three gaunt, brown chickens with brilliant yellow legs stiffly in air. Between these two gastronomic poles was a dish of heaped, quivering poached eggs, the inevitable gravy boat, steaming potatoes and a choice of pies. Gordon dismembered the chickens, and, as the plates circled the table, they accumulated potatoes and gravy and eggs. Barnwell K., through an oversight, was defrauded of the last item, and proceeded to remedy the omission. He thrust his knife into the slippery, poached mass. At best a delicate operation, he erred, eggs slipped, and a thick yellow stream flowed sluggishly to the rim of the plate. His mother met this fault of manner with profuse, disconcerted apologies. She shook him so vigorously that his chair rattled. Simeon Caley lifted the heavy coffee pot for Lettice.
Mrs. Caley's service was abrupt, efficient; she set down plates of hot bread with a clatter; she rattled the stove lids from without, and complained of General Jackson, faithfully following her every movement.
Sim Caley wielded an adroit knife; but, under the extraordinary pressure of this bountiful repast, Rutherford Berry easily outdistanced him. He consumed such unlimited amounts that he gained the audible displeasure of his wife.
"You're not a camel," she truthfully observed, "you don't have to fill up for a week; you get something home. What Lettice'll think of you I can't make out."
Substantial sections of pie were dispatched. Barnwell K., valiantly endeavoring to emulate his father, struggled manfully; he poked the last piece of crust into his mouth with his fingers. Then, in a shrill aside, he inquired, "Will Aunt Lettice have the baby while we're here." His mother's hand rang like a shot on his face, and he responded instantly with a yell of appalling volume.
Lettice's cup struck sharply upon its saucer. The delicate Rose flushed appropriately, painfully. The culprit was hauled, incontinently, dolefully wailing, to bed. The three men preserved an embarrassed silence. Finally Gordon said, "Have a cigar." His brother-in-law responded with alacrity, but Sim preferred his plug tobacco, and Gordon Makimmon twisted a cigarette. Sim and Rutherford were patently uncomfortable amid the formality of the dining room; and, at Gordon's suggestion, trooped with relief out to the shedlike stable. There they examined critically the two horses. Facing the stalls was an open space, and on boxes and the remnant of a chair they found places and smoked and spat informally.
"You could study a life on women," Rutherford Berry pronounced, "and never come to any satisfaction. It seems to me the better they be the more sharp-like they get. There's your sister, Gord—the way she does about the house, and with all the children to tend, is a caution to Dunkards. She does all you could ask and again. But it just seems she can't be pleasant with it. Now there's Nickles, next place to me, his old woman's not worth a pinch of powder, but she is the nicest, easiest spoken body you'd meet in a day on a horse. You mind Effie when she was young, Gord—she just trailed song all over the house, but it wasn't hardly a year before she got penetrating as a musket. Rose is just like her—she's all taffy now on that young man, but in a little spell she'll clamp down on him."
Gordon had a swift vision of Lettice sharpening with the years; there sounded in prospect on his ear an endless roll of acidulous remarks, accompanied by the fretful whine of children, intensified by Mrs. Caley's lowering silence. He thought of the change that had overtaken his sister Effie, remarked by her husband, the change from a trim, upright figure to the present stooped form, the turning of that voice brimming with song to a continuous, shrill troubling.
The cool, disdainful countenance of Meta Beggs returned to him: time, he divined, would not mark her in so sorry a fashion; to the last she would remain slimly rounded, graceful; her hands, like magnolia flowers, would never thicken and grow rough. He thought of Paris, of that life which, she said, would civilize him; he tried in vain to form an image of the cafes and little carriages, the bare-necked women drinking champagne. He recalled a burlesque show he had once seen in Stenton, called "The French Widows"; the revealed amplitude of the "widows" had been clad in vivid, stained pink tights; the scene in which they disported with a comic Irishman, a lugubrious Jew, was set with gilded palms, a saloon bar on one side and a tank on the other from which "Venus" rose flatly from a cotton sea. He dismissed that possibility of resemblance—it was too palpably at variance with what Meta Beggs would consider desirable; but, somehow, pink tights and Paris were synonymous in his thoughts. At any rate it was certain to be gay; the women would resemble Nickles' wife rather than his sister ... than Lettice as she would be in a few years.
He recalled suddenly a neglected rite of hospitality, and from an obscure angle of the shed, produced a gallon jug. Drinking vessels were procured, and a pale, pungent whiskey poured out. Rutherford Berry sputtered and gasped over his glass; Sim Caley absorbed a brimming measure between breaths, without a wink of the eye; Gordon drank inattentively. The ceremony was repeated; a flare of color rose in Berry's pallid countenance, Sim's portion apparently evaporated from the glass. The whiskey made no visible impression on Gordon Makimmon. The jug was circulated again, and again. All at once Rutherford became drunk. He rose swaying, attempted to articulate, and fell, half in a stall. Simeon Caley pulled him out, slapped his back with a hard, gnarled palm, but was unable to arouse him from a profound stupor.
"He ain't right strong," Sim observed with a trace of contempt, propping the figure in a limp angle against the wall. It was dark now, and he lit the hand lantern, cautiously closing the door. Outside the whippoorwills had begun to call. A determined rattling of pots and pans sounded from the kitchen.
"How much is in her, Gord?" Sim asked.
Gordon Makimmon investigated the jug. "She's near three quarters full," he announced.
An expression of profound content settled upon Simeon Caley. The jug went round and round. Gordon grew a shade more punctilious than customary, he wiped the jug's mouth before passing it to Sim—at the premature retirement of Rutherford the glasses had been discarded as effete; but not a degree of the other's manner betrayed the influence of his Gargantuan draughts of liquor. The lantern flickered on the sloping, cobwebby roof, on the shaggy horses as they lay clumsily down to rest, on the crumpled figure of Gordon's sister's husband.
The potations were suddenly interrupted by a sharp knocking from without. An expression of concern instantly banished Sim's content; he gazed doubtfully at the jug, then, as Gordon made no move, rose and with marked diffidence proceeded to open the door. The lantern light fell on the gaunt, bitter countenance of his wife framed in imponderable night. Her eyes made liquid gleams in the wavering radiance which, directed at Gordon, seemed to be visible points of hatred.
"It's ten o'clock," she said to her husband, "and if you hain't got enough sense to go to bed I'll put you."
"I'm coming right along," he assured her pacifically; "we were just having a drink around."
"Mrs. Berry's asking for her husband," she added, gazing at that insensate form.
"He must be kind of bad to his stomach," Sim remarked; "he dropped with nothing 'tall on him." He bent and picked the other up. Rutherford Berry's arms hung limply over Sim's grasp, his feet dragged heavily, in unexpected angles, over the floor. "Coming, Gord?"
Gordon made no reply. He sat intent upon the jug before him. Simeon considerately shut the door. At regular intervals Gordon Makimmon took a long drink. He drank mechanically, without any evidence of desire or pleasure; he resembled a man blindly performing a fatiguing operation in his sleep; he had the fixed, open eyes of a sleep-walker, the precise, unnatural movements. The lantern burned steadily, the horses slept with an audible breathing. Finally the jug was empty; he endeavored to drink twice after that was a fact before discovering it.
He rose stiffly and threw open the door. Dawn was flushing behind the eastern range; the tops of the mountains were thinly visible on the brightening sky. His dwelling, with every window closed, was silvery with dew. He walked slowly, but without faltering, to the porch, and mounted the steps from the sod; the ascent seemed surprisingly steep, long. The door to the dining room was unlocked and he entered; in the thinning gloom he could distinguish the table set as usual, the coffee pot at Lettice's place glimmering faintly. He turned to the left and passed into their bedroom. The details of the chamber were growing clear: the bed was placed against the farther wall, projecting into the room, its low footboard held between posts that rose slimly dark against the white counterpane beyond; on the right were a window and high chest of drawers, on the left a stand with a china toilet service and a couch covered with sheep skins, roughly tanned and untrimmed. A chair by the bed bore Lettice's clothes, another at the foot awaited his own. By his side a curtain hung out from the wall, forming a wardrobe.
He vaguely made out the form of Lettice sitting upright in the bed, her hands clasped about her knees.
"Your brother-in-law," he observed, "is a powerful spindling man." She made no rejoinder to this, and, after a short pause, he further remarked, "How he gets on sociable I don't see."
His wife's eyes were opened wide, gazing intently into the greying room; not by a sound, a motion, did she show any consciousness of his presence. He was deliberate in his movements, very deliberate, laboriously exact in his mental processes, but they were ordered, logical. It began to annoy him that his wife had made no reply to his pleasantries; it was out of reason; he wasn't drunk like Rutherford Berry.
"I said," he pronounced, "that Berry is a nubbin. Didn't you hear me? haven't you got an answer to you?"
She sat gazing into nothingness, ignoring him completely.
His resentment changed to anger; he moved to the foot of the bed, where, in his shirt sleeves, he harangued her:
"I want a cheerful wife, one with a song to her, and not a dam' female elder around the house. A good woman is a—a jewel, but when your goodness gives you a face ache it's ... it's something different, it's a nuisance. I'd almost rather have a wife that wasn't so good but had some give to her." He sat down, clutching a heavy shoe which came off suddenly. Lettice was as immobile as the chest of drawers.
"Goddy knows," he burst out again, "it's solemn enough around here anyhow with Sim Caley's old woman like a grave hole, and now you go and get it too.... Berry might put up with it, and Sim's just fool-hearted, but a regular man wouldn't abide it, he'd—he'd go to Paris, where the women are civilized and dance all night." He muttered an unintelligible period about French widows and pink.... "Buried before my time," he proclaimed. He stood with his head grizzled and harsh above an absurdly flowing nightshirt. In the deepening light Lettice's countenance seemed thinner than usual, her round, staring eyes were frightened, as though she had seen in the night the visible apparition of the curse of suffering laid upon all birth.
"You look like you've taken leave of your wits," he exclaimed in an accumulated exasperation; "say something." He leaned across the bed, and, grasping her elbow, shook her. She was as rigid, as unyielding, as the bed posts. Then with a long, slow shudder she turned and buried her head in the pillow.
Rutherford Berry and Effie, Barnwell K. and the delicate Rose, left after breakfast. Sim drove off behind the sturdy horse and Mrs. Caley was audibly energetic in the kitchen. When Gordon appeared on the porch Lettice was seated in the low rocker that had so often held Clare. She responded in a suppressed voice to her husband's salutation. "You went and spoiled Effie's whole visit," she informed him, "making Rutherford drunk."
"Why," he protested, "we never; he just got himself drunk."
"It was mean anyway—sitting drinking all night in the stable."
"You'll say I was drunk too next."
"It doesn't matter to you what I say, or what I go through with. I've stood more than I rightly ought, more than I'm going to—you must give me one thought in a day. You just act low. Father was self-headed, but he was never real trashy. He never got into fights at those common camp meetings."
"I threw the stone that hit Buck, didn't I! I busted his head open, didn't I! Oh, of course, I'm to blame for it all ... put it on me."
"Well, how did you get in it? how did you get mixed up with the school-teacher?"
"I got Mrs. Caley to thank for this, and I'll thank her." He hotly recited the obvious aspect of his connection at the camp meeting with Meta Beggs.
"It sounds all right as far as it goes," she retorted; "but I'll chance there's a good deal more; I'll chance you had it made up to meet her there. You would never have gone for any other reason; I don't believe you have been to a revival for twenty years. You had it made up between you. And that Miss Beggs is too smart for you, she'll fool you all over the mountain. I don't like her either, and I don't want you to give her the satisfaction of making up to you. It's what she'd like—laughing at my back!"
"Miss Beggs never spoke any harm of you."
She made a gesture, hopeless, impatient, at his innocence. Her resentment burst out again, "Why does she want to speak to you—another woman's husband? Anybody knows it's low down. When did you see her? What did you talk about?"
"Of course when I see her coming I ought to go 'round by South Fork," he replied, heavily sarcastic.
"Well, you don't have to stand and talk like I warrant you do. There's something deep about her look."
"I've taken care of myself for some years, and I guess I can keep on."
"You can if you want to go to ruin, like you were when I married you, and you only had one shirt to your name."
"Throw it up to me. It's no wonder a man drinks here, he's got more to forget than to think about." He stepped from the porch, preparing to leave.
"Wait!" she commanded; "I'll put up with being left, and having you drink all night with the beasts, and fooling my money away, but," her voice rose and her eyes burned over dark shadows, "I won't put up with another woman, I won't put up with that thin thing making over my husband. I won't! I won't! do you understand that.... I—I can't."
He went around the corner of the house with her last words ringing in his ears, kicking angrily at the rough sod. His house, between Mrs. Caley's glum silence and Lettice's ceaseless complaining, was becoming uninhabitable. And, as Rutherford Berry had pointed out, the latter would only increase, sharpen, with the years. Lettice was a good wife, she was not like Nickles' old woman, worthless but the pleasantest body you'd meet in a day on a horse. She was not like Meta Beggs. He had never seen any other like the latter. Lettice had said that she would fool him all over the mountain ... but not him, not Gordon Makimmon, he thought complacently.
He was well versed in the ways of women; he would not go a step that he did not intend, understand. This business of Paris, for example: he might tell Meta Beggs that he'd go, and then, at—say, Norfolk, he would change his mind. Anyhow that was a plan worth considering. He recalled the school-teacher's level, penetrating gaze; she was as smart as Lettice had divined; he would have difficulty in fooling her. He felt obscurely that any step taken with her would prove irrevocable.
Lettice kept at him and at him; after the baby arrived it would be no better; there would be others; he regarded a succession of such periods, a succession of babies, with marked disfavor. He had been detached for so long from the restraints of commonplace, reputable relationships that they grew increasingly irksome, they chafed the old, established freedom of morals and action. Meta Beggs blew into fresh flame the embers of dying years. And yet, as he had told her by the stream, an involuntary lassitude, a new stiffness, had fallen upon his desire. Although his marriage was burdensome it was an accomplished fact; Lettice's wishes, her quality of steadfastness, exerted their influence upon him.
They operated now to increase his resentment; they formed an almost detached disapproval situated within his own breast, a criticism of his thoughts, his emotions, against which he vainly raged, setting himself pointedly in its defiance.
He lounged past the Courthouse, past Peterman's hotel, to the post-office. It was a small frame structure, with the wing of the postmaster's residence extending from the back. At the right of the entrance was a small show window holding two watches with shut, chased silver lids, and a small pasteboard box lined with faded olive-colored plush containing two plated nut crackers and six picks. The postmaster was the local jeweller. Within, beyond the window which gave access to the governmental activities a glass case rested on the counter. It was filled with an assortment of trinkets—rings with large, highly-colored stones, wedding bands, gold pins and bangles engraved with women's flowery names; and, laid by itself, a necklace of looped seed pearls.
The latter captured Gordon's attention, it was so pale, and yet, at the same time, so suggestive of elusive colors; it was so slender and graceful, so finished, that it irresistibly recalled the person of Meta Beggs.
"Let's see that string of pearls," he requested.
The postmaster laid it on top of the glass case. "The jobber sent it up by accident," he explained; "I can't see anything to it—for the price; it's too slimsy. I wouldn't advise it, Gord. Why, for thirty dollars, and that's what it costs—diamond clasp, you can get a string of fish skin pearls, experts can't tell 'em from original, as big as your finger end that would go twice about the neck and then hang some."
The necklace slipped coldly through Gordon Makimmon's hand; it reminded him of a small, pearly snake with a diamond head; it increasingly reminded him of Meta Beggs. She loved jewelry. If she had kissed him for a pair of silk stockings—
"I think I'll take it," he decided slowly; "I don't know if I've got her right here in my pants."
"Now, Gordon," the other heartily reassured him, "whenever you like. Of course it's a fine article—all strung on gold wire. I won't be surprised but Lettice'll think it's elegant. I often wondered why you didn't stop in lately and look over my stock; ladies put a lot on such little trifles."
Meta Beggs would have to wear it under her dress in Greenstream, he realized; perhaps she had better not wear it at all until she was out of the valley. He would clasp the pearls about that smooth, round throat.... The postmaster wrapped the pearls into a small, square package, talking voluminously. A new driver of the Stenton stage had lost a mail bag, he had lamed a horse—a satisfactory driver had not been discovered since Gordon ... left. He had heard of a law restraining the sale of patent medicines, of Snibbs' Mixture, and what the local drinkers would do, already deprived of the more legitimate forms of spirituous refreshment, was difficult to say. The postmaster predicted they would take to "dope." Then there was to be a sap-boiling over on the western mountain, to-morrow night, at old man Entriken's.... Everybody had been invited; if the weather was ugly it would take place the first clear spell.
Sap-boilings, Gordon knew, held late in spring in the maple groves, lasted all night. Baskets of food were driven to the scene; the fires under the great, iron kettles were kept replenished; everybody stirred the bubbling sap, ate, gabbled; the young people even danced on the grass.
It was a romantic ceremonial: the unusual hours of its celebration, the mystery of night in close groves lit by the stars temporarily unsettled life from its prosaic, arduous journey toward the inevitable, blind termination. It moved the thoughts into unwonted fantasy, the heart to new, unguessed possibilities. For that night established values, life-long habits, negations, prudence, were set at naught.
Gordon wondered whether Meta Beggs would be there? He would like to be with her at a sap-boiling, in the sooty shadows. With the necklace of seed pearls in his pocket he walked over the street revolving in his mind the problem of asking her to accompany him. He could not hope to hide it from Lettice; and, to-day, he had recognized a note of finality in his wife's voice with regard to the school-teacher. If he went with Meta Beggs serious trouble would ensue in his home ... he wished to avoid any actual outbreak with Lettice. He remembered, tardily, her condition; it would be dangerous for her. He might, conceivably, at some time or another, go away; even to Paris—yet, at that latter thought, the wish, almost the necessity, of a return lingered at the back of his brain—but he would not goad her into an explosion of misery and temper. He acknowledged to himself, with a faint glow of pride, that he was not anxious to encounter Lettice Makimmon's full displeasure; she possessed the capability of tenacity, an iron-like resolve, inherited from old Pompey.
In the outcome his difficulty was unexpectedly solved for him—a large farm wagon, with boards temporarily laid from side to side, was to convey a quantity of people, and among them Meta Beggs, from the village to the sap-boiling. He learned this from the idlers before the Bugle office. Sitting with his chair canted against that dingy wooden facade he thought of the school-teacher and the coming night. It was late afternoon of the day on which he had bought the necklace. The small package still rested in his pocket. It had been his intention to give the pearls to Meta Beggs before he returned to his home, but no opportunity had offered. After school she had passed the seated row of men, uneasily stirring their hats in response to her collected greeting; and, with Mrs. Peterman, gone into the body of the hotel. Gordon could not follow her. Anyhow, the presentation could be made with better effect in the obscurity of the maples to-morrow night ... her gratitude could have fuller sweep.
He made his way finally, reluctantly, home. There, alone in the bedroom, he swiftly withdrew the necklace from its pasteboard box, and dropped it into the pocket of a coat hanging in the curtained wardrobe. It was, he noted, the checked suit with the red thread, the one he would wear to the sap-boiling. He heard approaching footsteps, and, hastily crumpling the paper and small box into a compact unit, he flung it into a corner of the wardrobe, behind a heap of linen.
It was comparatively a short distance to the elder Entriken's farm, and, rather than invent a laborious explanation of the horse's absence all night, Gordon walked. Numberless excuses offered him plausible reason for his own delayed return home.—It was better to say nothing to Lettice of his actual intention; she was already suspicious of his sudden interest in local gatherings.
The road beyond Greenstream village crossed a brook and mounted by sharp turns the western range. The day had faded to amethyst, pale in the translucent vault of the sky, deepening in the valley; the plum-colored smoke of evening fires ascended in tenuous columns to an incredible height. He walked rapidly, with the oppressed heart that had lately grown familiar, the sense of imminence, the feeling of advancing into a vague, towering shadow. That last sensation was at once new and familiar—where before had he been conscious of a vast, indefinable peril, blacker than night, looming implacably before him? He summoned his old hardihood and advanced over the still, bosky side of the mountain.
He descended, beyond the ridge, into the fact of evening accomplished. At the base of the range he crossed a softly-swelling expanse of close-cropped grass, skirted a bog and troop of naked-seeming birches, and came in view of the maple grove toward which he was bound.
The maple trees towered compact and majestic over the level sod, holding their massed foliage black against the green sky. Low in the right the new moon hung like a gold fillet above the odorous, crepuscular earth; and, at the base of the trees, the fires were like bubbling, crimson sealing wax poured into the deeper, indigo gloom.
As Gordon advanced he saw a number of vehicles, from which the horses had been taken and tied to an improvised railing. Figures moved darkly against the flames; beyond familiar features flickered like partial, painted masks on the night. In the grove the sap, stirred in the great iron kettles, kept up a constant, choking minor; the smooth trunks of the trees swept up from the unsteady radiance into the obscurity of invisible branches looped with silver strings of stars.
Blurred forms moved everywhere. He searched for Meta Beggs. She was not by the kettles of sap; beyond the trees, by covered baskets of provisions lanterns made a saffron pool of light, but she was not there. He felt in his pocket the cool, sinuous necklace. Finally he found her; or, rather, she slipped illusively into his contracted field of vision.
"You didn't tell me you were coming," she reproached him.
She wore a red dress, purple in the night, with a narrow, black velvet ribband pinned about her throat; her straw hat was bound in red. She gained an extraordinary potency from the dark; it almost seemed to Gordon Makimmon that her skin had a luminous quality; he could see her pointed hands distinctly, and her small, cold face. All her dresses strained about her provocative body, an emphasis rather than a covering of her slim maturity. They drifted, without further speech, out of the circles of wavering light, into the obscurity beyond.
They sat, resting against a hillock of sod, facing the sinking visible rim of the moon. From the bog the frogs sounded like a continuously and lightly-struck xylophone. Meta Beggs shivered.
"I'll go mad here," she declared, "in this—this nothingness. Look—the moon dropping into wilderness; other lucky people are watching it disappear behind great houses and gardens; women in the arms of their lovers are watching it through silk curtains."
He gazed critically over the valley, the mountains, into the sky scarfed by night. "I'm used to it," he returned; "it doesn't bother me like it does you. Some people even like it. A man who came here from the city to die of lung trouble sat for weeks looking up Greenstream valley; he couldn't get enough morning or evening."
"But I don't want to die, I want to live. I'm going to live, too; I've decided—"
"To stop teaching. When the term's over, in a few weeks, I'm going to take the money I make and go to New York. It will be just enough to get me there and buy me a pretty hat, with a few dollars over. I am going with those into a cafe and get a bottle of champagne, and pick out the man with the best clothes. I'll tell him I'm a poor school-teacher from the South who came to New York to meet a man who promised to marry me, but who had not kept his word. I'll tell him that I'm good—I can, you know; no man has ever fooled anything out of me—and that I bought wine to get the courage to kill myself."
"It sounds right smart," he admitted; "you can do it too, you can lie like hell. But," he added importantly, "I don't know that I will let you." This, he assured himself, was purely experimental. He had decided nothing; his course in the future was hidden from him absolutely. He thought discontentedly of his home, of the imagined long, dun vista of years.
He was now, he realized dimly, at the crucial point of his existence: with Meta Beggs, in that world of which Paris was the prefigurement, he might still wring from life a measure of the sharp pleasures of tempestuous youth and manhood; he might still dance to the piping of the senses. With Lettice in Greenstream he would rapidly sink into the dullness of increasing age.
He was vaguely conscious of the baseness of the mere weighing of such a choice; but he was engulfed in his overmastering egotism; his sense of obligation was dulled by the supreme selfishness of a lifetime, of a lifetime of unbridled temper and appetite, of a swaggering self-esteem which the remorseless operation of fate had ignored, had passed indifferently by, leaving him in complete ignorance of the terrible and grim possibilities of human mischance.
He had suffered at the loss of his dwelling, but principally it had been his pride that had borne the wound; Clare's death had affected him finally as the arbitrary removal of a sentimental object for his care, on which to lavish the gifts of his large generosity.
He sat revolving in his mind the choice of paths which seemed to open for his decision in such different directions, which seemed to await the simple ordering of his footsteps as he chose. The night deepened to its darkest hour; the moon, in obedience to its automatic, fixed course, had vanished behind the mountains; the frogs, out of their slime, raised their shrill plaint of life in death.