"You are kind, my friend; you have a good heart, and you are generous," said Father Orin; "but I wish you could earn your money in another and a better way. Somehow it grates—"
"Now, look here!" cried Tommy Dye, bristling at once, and jamming his hat back on his red head. He was always cowed at the very sight of the gentle Sisters; but as man to man—even though one be a priest—he was up again at once, and quite ready to hold his own. "Every man to his own notion," he blustered and swaggered. "I've got mine and you've got yours. That's my way of making a living, and I dare anybody to say it ain't honest. Just let any man come out flat foot and tell me so, face to face. I play fair, and I bet as square as the next one. I take my chances the same as the other man. I may fight rough and tumble, but I always give warning, and I never gouge. If any man's got anything to say against my honesty or fairness, he's only got to come on and say it."
"Come, come!" said Father Orin, too sad to be amused at the outburst, as he might have been at another time. "I beg your pardon if I have offended you. I had no thought of doing that. But I wish I could induce you to think before you go into danger. All who go over yonder will not come back. The Shawnees have been getting ready for this test of strength for a long time. There is great danger. I beg you, my friend, to think. Will you come back with me to the chapel? Just for a little while. There is no one there, and we can have a quiet talk."
"Now, what's the use of raking all that up again? We've gone over all that—and more than once—haven't we? You thought one way and I another, when we had it out the other day. And we've both got the same right now that we had then, to think as we like about something that neither of us knows the first blamed thing about, haven't we? Well, I think just the same now that I did then, and I reckon you do, too. I haven't seen any reason to change, have you? I haven't had any fresh news from up yonder"—pointing heavenward—"and I don't suppose you have either. So you see one of us is bound to be most damnable mistaken—"
"Shut up," shouted Father Orin, "you unmannerly rascal! I have a great mind to jump down and pull you off that horse and give you a thrashing to teach you some respect for religion, and how to keep a civil tongue in your head. And you know I could do it, too!"
They looked fiercely at each other for a moment. Father Orin was of a fiery spirit, and all his goodness could not always subdue it. Tommy Dye was a ready and a good fighter, but he paused now, and silently regarded the priest. He looked at his large, sturdy form, at his brawny shoulders, at his deep chest and his long arms, remembering suddenly that he had seen him roll, with his own hands, the largest logs in the little chapel which no one else could move.
"I reckon you could," Tommy Dye finally conceded frankly.
Father Orin burst into his good-humored, chuckling laugh, and Tommy Dye grinned, but their faces sobered instantly. The pity of it touched and moved the priest through his sense of humor. The gambler was softened and ashamed, he hardly knew why. With one simultaneous impulse they sent their horses forward, and coming closer together clasped hands.
"God bless and guard you, my friend," said Father Orin. "You can't keep me from saying that, and you can't help my praying for your safety," trying to smile.
Tommy Dye found nothing more to say and, laughing very loud, he put spurs to his horse and galloped away through the darkening forest. Father Orin and Toby stood still looking after him till he had passed out of sight. And then they turned to go on their way. They went along in silence for a while, and at last Father Orin began the conversation with a heavy sigh. "Well, old man, there's another bad failure that we have got to set down in our book—you and me. That was another of the times when we didn't know what to do. That is to say, I didn't. I suppose you did—you always do. You never make mistakes and lose your temper like I do nearly every day. If I could do my part as well as you do yours, we wouldn't fail so often, would we, old man?"
Toby quickly turned his head with a friendly, encouraging whinny, as if he saw his co-worker's trouble and wanted to give him what comfort he could. He always seemed to know as well when his friend needed encouragement as when he required to be kept up to his duty. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing, this bond between the good rider and the good horse! It is so wonderfully close and strong; the closest and strongest binding the human being to his brute brother. It is infinitely more subtle too, than that which binds any other, even the kindest master to the most faithful dog; for the man and his horse are not merely master and servant, they are friends and even equals in a way. Neither is nearly so complete or powerful without the other; but together—with body and spirit coming in living, throbbing contact—they form the mightiest force in flesh and blood. Along the marvellous electric currents of life there flashes from the man to the horse, intelligence, feeling, purpose, even thought perhaps, so that to the true horseman the centaur can never be wholly a fabulous creature.
One of the greatest things about this wonderful bond is that it reaches all classes of riders and horses. Every good rider and every good horse may rely upon it, no matter which of the many roads through life they may travel together: all may trustingly rely upon it till one or both shall have breasted "Sleep's dreamy hill." The horse of the fox-hunter, of the race-rider, of the mounted soldier—every one of these noble beasts has the fullest understanding of his rider's calling, and gives it his completest sympathy with the greatest assistance in his power. Who that has known the horse at his best can have failed to observe and recognize and be moved by this fact? We have all seen that the hunter hardly needs the touch of his rider's knee to be off like the wind and to go without urging from whip or spur on to the end of the chase; never flagging, no matter how long or hard it may be; never flinching at the deepest ditch nor fouling at the highest fence; straining every sinew to the last, for his rider's defeat is his own failure, his rider's success his own victory. And we have all seen the gallant response of the race-horse to every movement of his rider's body—a loyal gallantry that ennobles even the merely mercenary; and the sight of these two—now one—flying toward the goal, always makes the heart beat faster and grow warm with its brave showing of this magical bond. And above all, we have seen the trooper's horse, which comes closer to him than the comrade fighting by his side; for it is to his horse more than to his sword that the soldier must owe any glory that he may hope to win; and when strength and courage can no longer serve, it is his horse that often gives his own body to shield his rider from death.
And if all this be true, as all horsemen know it to be—even when the bond is strained by cruelty and tainted by gain and stained by blood—how much closer and stronger must have been the tie between this priest of the wilderness and his friend. Toby's loyalty was never tried like the hunter's by seeing some dumb brother tortured and slain—and that the hunter feels the test keenly, no one can doubt after seeing the horror in his eloquent eyes. Toby never had to suffer from a broken heart because of a lost race, or because he shared the disgrace of his rider's dishonesty, and many noble beasts have seemed to suffer something strangely like this. Toby never had to lend his strength to the taking of human life, like the trooper's horse; and the soldier's horse does not need the power of speech to tell that he suffers almost as much in the spirit as in the flesh from the horrors of the battle-field. Toby and his friend worked together solely for peace, kindness, and mercy, for the relief of suffering, and the saving of bodies and souls; all and always, solely for the good of the world, of their fellow-creatures, and the glory of God.
Think of what it was that Father Orin and his partner did! They had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over a strip of country which was more than fifty miles wide and little less than four hundred miles long. This lay on both sides of the Ohio River, much of it being the trackless forest, so that Father Orin and Toby used the Shawnee Crossing oftener than the Shawnees themselves. They went unharmed, too, where no other pioneers ever dared go. Some mysterious power seemed to protect them, as the rude cross drawn on a cabin door is said to have saved the inmates from the savages. Father Orin and Toby thus travelled about two hundred miles each week all the year through, without stopping for heat or cold. There was only one church when they first began their labors, and this was the little log chapel; but the members of that small and widely scattered congregation were served with the offices of their religion by the priest at many private houses which were far apart and called "stations." There were about thirty of these in Kentucky, several in Indiana and Illinois, and one or two in Tennessee, and Father Orin and Toby visited them all, some as often as once a month and the others as often as possible. To say Mass and to preach constituted but a part of the duty which called them from place to place. They went wherever the priest was needed to administer baptism to infants or older persons; they went wherever any one, old or young, required instruction in religion; they went wherever the priest was needed to hear confession; they went far and wide, so that the priest might solemnize marriage for Protestants as well as Catholics; they visited the sick, no matter how distant, in summer and in winter alike, and Toy day or by night; they went at any summons to bury the dead; and they tried to go again, so that the priest might do what he could to comfort the living. Yet with all this untiring zeal for the soul's welfare, there was also a ceaseless care for the body's welfare, and a divine disregard of any narrow line of faith; for wherever Toby carried Father Orin that good man's heart was always moved by compassion for any distress of mind, body, or estate, always overflowing with a deep, wide pity infinitely greater and more Christian than any creed.
It is not strange, then, that the good man and the good horse had become almost one in mind and body, and that they were quite one in spirit. It is not in the least strange, certainly, that Toby came to know the nature of their errand almost as well and nearly as quickly as Father Orin himself. He easily knew a sick call by the haste with which they set out, and he knew its urgency by their going with the messenger. He seemed to be able to tell unerringly when they were bearing the Viaticum, and it was plain that he felt the responsibility thus resting upon his speed and sureness of foot. Then it was that he would go like the wind, through utter darkness, through storm and flood and over an icy earth, without a pause or a misstep. Many a time, after such a struggle as this, has Toby turned his head, as if trying to see why Father Orin was slow in doing his part when the rain, freezing as it fell, had frozen the priest's poor overcoat to the saddle, and his ragged leggins were heavy and clumsy with icicles. But the apologetic tone in which Father Orin always said, "Well, here we are, old man," and the explanatory pat that he always gave Toby's neck, after going through the respectful form of hitching him, never failed to make this right. And when the priest came out of the house, he always had something in his pocket for Toby, if any one had remembered to give himself anything to eat.
But their errands were not all so sad as this. Sometimes there were weddings to attend, and Toby entered into the happy spirit of that lively business quite as heartily as Father Orin. The only thing that Toby was strict about then, was that his friend should not forget to wear his best clothes, which he was too apt to do, even if he had not given them away, and that there should not be a speck of mud on his own coat, which had to be neglected in more urgent cases. Father Orin used to declare that Toby eyed him from top to toe when he knew they were going to a wedding; and that if there were a spot on his cassock, or a hole in it, Toby's eye never failed to find it. At such leisurely times he was indeed so exacting as to his own proper appearance that he would not budge until the last "witch's stirrup" had been combed out of his mane and tail. He was only a degree less particular when he knew they were going to the christening of an infant. It was then plainly Toby's opinion that, while they might not take quite so much time to christen as to marry, there was still no need to rush off with the priest's vestments out of order and his own fetlocks weighted with mire. The two had many friendly contests on these occasions, but Toby's will was the stronger, and his temper was not quite so mild; and as it is always the less amiable who wins, it was commonly he who won, in the long run.
Whenever the way before them was not quite clear, Father Orin would let Toby lead, and only once in all their long pilgrimage together did he ever fail to lead aright. It was on a wild winter's night, and neither could see either heaven or earth; yet on against the bitter wind went the priest and his horse, Toby stretching his fullest length at the top of his speed, and Father Orin bending low to escape the boughs of unseen trees; and thus they sped through the stormy blackness. Faster still they went, up hill and down hill, leaping fallen trees, flying across the hollows made by the uptorn roots, swimming swollen streams, while the priest knelt on the saddle, holding the Viaticum high above the rushing water which dashed over his knees. At last they stopped, utterly exhausted, only to find that they were lost in the icy, dark wilderness; and they went on groping blindly for any kind of shelter under which to wait for the first glimmer of dawn. They finally came upon a ruined cabin, and although the whole front of it was gone, some of the roof and a part of the walls were left, and Father Orin led Toby into the driest, corner. Taking off the wet saddle and the soaked, half-frozen blanket, he laid them on the ground. He patted Toby as he did this, and Toby's responsive whinny said it was all right, just as plain as if he had been able to talk. But Father Orin was not quite satisfied, and moving a little farther over in the corner, where it was so dark that even Toby could not see what he was doing, he pulled off his poor old overcoat, from which the water was dripping, but which was still warm and partly dry on the inside. Stealing back to Toby, he laid the coat over his shivering shoulders, chuckling to think that Toby would never know that it was not the saddle-blanket. Feeling now that he had done his best for his friend, he buttoned his cassock closer and laid down on the freezing ground, with the frozen saddle for a pillow, and tried to get what rest and sleep he could.
At times like this—and they were not a few—it was hard for Father Orin to believe that Toby had no soul. It was indeed so hard now and then, as on that night, that he could not believe it; that he could not think there would be no reward of any kind for such service as Toby was giving the Faith. It was service as faithful as his own; he could not have given his without Toby's help. Looking upward toward his own reward, even this bitter, black winter's night became as nothing; but Toby—what was there for Toby? He did not remember that he often gave Toby the food which he needed himself, as he had just given him the warmth from his own shivering body. He thought only of the things that Toby did for him and for the Faith. And so thinking, very strange fancies about Toby would now and then come to him with the profoundest reverence. And on that dreary night, when their dauntless spirits seemed to touch, while their exhausted bodies thus dozed side by side, a pleasant vision vaguely blended Father Orin's half-conscious dreams with his perplexed waking thoughts.
Of a sudden, all was bright and warm, and he felt himself going up, up, up, through flawless blue space. He thought he had no wings, but he did not miss them, nor even think about them; he was missing and thinking about Toby, and wondering, where he was, and what he was doing. But ah! there he was all ready and waiting close to the gate of paradise. Yes, there was Toby after all! There he was, standing by a celestial manger overflowing with ambrosia, already blanketed with softest zephyrs, saddled with shining clouds, and bitted with sunbeams—quite ready and only waiting for the touch of his friend's hand on the bridle—to canter up the radiant highway walled with jasper and paved with stars.
THE WEB THAT SEEMED TO BE WOVEN
The fancy pleased Father Orin, and he spoke jestingly to Toby about it, reminding him, however, seriously enough, that it was only in visions that there could be any such direct passing from earth to heaven.
"For you see, old man, there's a place on the way where most of us must tarry a while. Maybe you might be able to pass by and go straight on. I am afraid there wouldn't be much of a chance for me."
But they were both still far from their long, hard journey's end on that gloomy November evening. They were merely turning a little aside from their usual broad path for a still wider service to humanity. They had not seen the doctor that day, and there was always reason to fear that he might at any moment fall a victim to the epidemic which he was ceaselessly fighting, so that they were now going in some anxiety to see what had kept him away from the places in which they were used to seeing him. They were both very tired, yet Toby, nevertheless, quickened his weary pace at a gentle hint from Father Orin, and they got to the doctor's house just as the sun went down behind the cottonwoods on the other shore.
The cabin stood near the river bank. It was a single room of logs, rough without and bare within. The doctor was not very poor, as poverty and riches were considered in the wilderness, having inherited a modest fortune. But he was generous and charitable, and had gone from Virginia into Kentucky with an earnest wish to serve his kind. And then his acquaintance with Father Orin had brought him in close contact with want as well as suffering, and would have given him good uses for larger means than his own. Yet rude and empty as the cabin was, there were traces of refinement here and there, as there always must be wherever true refinement dwells. A miniature of his mother, whom he could not remember, hung against the logs at the head of his bed. There were a few good books on a rough shelf, and a spray of autumn leaves lay on the table. The beauty of the leaves had drawn him to break the spray from the bough and bring it home. But he had forgotten it as soon as he had laid it down on the table, and the leaves were withering as he sat beside them with his head bowed upon his hands.
The man of conscience, who cares for the bodies of his kind, bears almost as heavy a burden as he who cares for their souls. He must everywhere, and unrestingly, fight ignorance and prejudice with one hand, while he strives to heal with the other, and this double strife was fiercer in the wilderness, just at that time, than almost anywhere else within the furthest reach of science. On first coming he had found more people being killed by calomel and jalap than by the plague. At every turn he encountered this bane of the country which was called callomy-jallopy, and at that moment he was utterly worn out, body and soul, by a struggle to save the life of a man who had ignorantly poisoned himself by drinking some acid after taking the dose. This was not his first experience of the kind; but he had met the other trials with the high courage of a light heart and a free mind. It was only within the last two days that he had been weighed down by discouragement, by heaviness of heart, and depression of mind. He was so weary and absorbed now in disheartened thought, that he did not hear Toby's approach, and he was startled when Father Orin appeared in the open door. He greeted him with a warmly outstretched hand, but did not say that he was glad to see him; they were too good friends for empty phrases, such good friends that they sat down silently, neither needing a word to know the other's sadness. It was the priest who finally broke the silence.
"You are troubled, my son," he said, quietly and gently. "I see there is something besides the trouble which touches us all—this terror of what is coming on the other side of the river. I see that there is something else—some closer trouble of your own. If you wish to tell me about it, I will do what I can to help you; but you know this without being told."
He had spoken at the right moment, for there are moments in the lives of the most reserved and self-reliant when the heart must speak to ease the mind. Paul Colbert was a Protestant, and so firm and strong in his faith that he was ready at all times to defend it, to fight for it; yet this moment, which has nothing to do with any creed, had come to him, and he spoke as one man speaks to another whom he trusts and knows to be his friend. He told what he was suffering, and the cause of his wretchedness. He spoke of his first meeting with Ruth, and of the love for her that had leapt up in his heart at the first glimpse of her face, before he had heard her voice, before he knew her name. He said how happy he was when chance put her in his arms through that wild night's ride. He described his visit to her on the next day, and said how far he was from suspecting that William Pressley was more than a member of the same family. He went on to speak of the other visits which he had paid to Ruth, telling how fast his love had grown with every meeting. He ended with the revelation at the dance in the woods.
"But it wouldn't have made any difference had I known sooner. It couldn't have made any difference in my loving her," he said. "I must have loved her just the same no matter when or how we might have met. Nothing ever could have altered that. I am afraid that I couldn't have helped loving her had she been another man's wife. I am keeping nothing back, you see, Father. I am telling you the whole truth. But perhaps it wouldn't have been quite so hard to bear, had I known at the very first. It can hardly be so hard to give up happiness when we have never dared long for it. And I knew no reason why I might not try to make her love me. As it is, from this time on, every thought of her must be like constantly trying to kill some suffering thing that can never die!"
He dropped his head on his arm which lay on the table. The priest gently laid his hand on the thick, brown hair.
"My son," he murmured.
"If the man that she is to marry were only different," Paul groaned. "If he were only more worthy, if I could only think that she would be happy."
He did not know that he was merely saying what every unfortunate lover has thought since love and the world began; and it was a sad smile that touched the sympathy of Father Orin's face.
"William Pressley is not a bad young fellow," the priest said. "He means well. He lives uprightly according to his dull, narrow ideas of right. And none of us can do any better than to live up to our own ideals. It's a good deal more than most of us do. I am afraid he is selfish," with the hesitation which he always felt in pronouncing judgment upon any one; "but then most of us men are, and maybe he will not be selfish toward her, for he must be fond of her. Everybody loves the child."
"But about her—is she fond of him? How can she be?"
"I can't answer for that. There's no telling about a girl's fancy; in fact, I have never given the engagement a thought. It was all settled; it seemed a good, suitable arrangement—"
"Arrangement!" groaned Paul.
Father Orin shook his head. "It was most likely Philip Alston who brought it about. He doubtless thought it a wise choice for both the young people. He certainly never would have consented if he had not believed it to be for Ruth's happiness—that always comes first with him in everything."
Paul Colbert sat up suddenly, throwing back his hair, and looked at the priest with a clearing gaze. All the questions which he had been wishing to ask now rushed to his lips. What was Ruth's relation to Philip Alston? What right had he to choose her husband? What was his influence over William Pressley? What was his hold upon Judge Knox? What was this power that he wielded over the whole family of Cedar House?
"He is no relation to her, is he? He isn't even her guardian. And William Pressley is an honest man, isn't he, even though such a solemn, pompous prig? He can hardly be a confederate of counterfeiters, forgers, robbers, and murderers. And a single look at the judge's face shows him to be the most upright of men; his open, unswerving honesty of thought and deed, cannot be doubted. How is it, then, that Philip Alston can move all these honorable and intelligent people to suit his villanous purposes, as if they were pawns in a game of chess?"
"Ah, you don't know much about Philip Alston. You have met him only once—yet that must have made you feel the wonderful charm of the man, his singular power. You have seen how he looks," laughing at some recollection. "Sometimes when he has talked to me, looking me straight in the face with his clear, soft, gentle, blue eyes, I have doubted everything that I ever had heard against him. Things that I know to a moral certainty to be true seemed a monstrous slander. You must have felt something of this, though you have seen him but once; and the more frequently you meet him the more you will feel it. The power of the man is past words and past understanding. Did you know that he once held a high office under Spain? Oh, yes, for years he controlled the arrogant, treacherous, local government of Spain as absolutely as he controls the simple family of Cedar House. He was living in Natchez then, and was apparently a very devout Catholic, too, about this time. But the church which he attended was mysteriously robbed; its altar was stripped of everything precious,—gold, jewels, paintings,—when none but himself had had access to the church unobserved. That is the story. I do not vouch for its truth. There was no evidence against him—only suspicions in this as in everything else. It was shortly afterward that he suddenly appeared in this country a stanch Protestant; and then almost immediately the present reign of crime began. Yet he has never been seen in the company of any known law-breakers. Many mysterious visitors are said to come to his house over the Wilderness Road, and to go as mysteriously as they come. But no one claims to know who or what they are, where they come from, or where they go. It is said that these men who carry out his orders hardly know him by sight, that he sees only the leaders, and that they never dare go to his house unless they are sent for. It is believed that he rarely goes into detail, and does not wish to know what they do in carrying out his wishes. It is said that he is sickened by the slightest mention of bloodshed or cruelty, like any delicate, sensitive woman, but is perfectly indifferent to all sorts of atrocity that go on out of his sight and knowledge. There is, indeed, a general opinion that he actually does not know half of the time what his tools are guilty of; that he purposely avoids knowing. I have heard it said that the boldest of the band would no more venture to tell him of the crimes they commit while executing orders, than he would put his head in a lion's mouth. It is understood that Alston simply points to a thing when he wants it done, leaving all shocking details to his tools. But this is mere hearsay. No one really knows anything about him; that is to say, no one outside his band—if he actually has one. It is very generally believed, however, that he has only to blow a single blast on a horn at any hour of the day or night, and that from fifty to a hundred armed men will instantly appear, as if they had sprung out of the earth. It is also generally believed that he makes all the fine counterfeit money with which this country is flooded, and that he does the work with his own delicate, white hands. Yet not a dollar has ever been traced to him, although its regular sale goes steadily on at a fixed rate of sixteen bad dollars for one good dollar. It is generally believed, too, that he keeps his money, both the good and the bad, buried somewhere in the forest near his house, presumably for the double purpose of guarding against robbery by his tools and against surprise by the officers of the law. This, of course, is also mere speculation; nobody really knows anything about what he does. I only know that his house is a bare log hut, which is singular enough, seeing what a fine gentleman he is, and what luxury he has surrounded the girl with. But I know that to be true, because accident once took me to his house, and greater courtesy I never found anywhere, though I was not invited to come again. It is known that he owns a fleet of flatboats, and one of them is usually seen waiting near Duff's Fort when horses are stolen, and it is always gone before the dawn of the next day; but there is no proof of this, either. Boats belonging to other people have a hard time getting past Duff's Fort. More often than not, they are never seen or heard of after reaching that fatal point, and the passengers vanish off the face of the earth. That is what happened to Ruth's parents, as nearly as any one but Alston knows. Most likely he knows nothing more."
"And knowing this, she loves him, and the judge and his nephew trust him?"
"The child doesn't know anything about it. Who would tell her? He is like her father—he could not have been more tender of her had she been his own child. There is nothing strange in her loving him; it would be far more strange if she did not. She is a gentle, loving nature, and he has done everything to win her love, and you know what he is."
"How can any creature in human form be so utterly unnatural—so wholly a monster? How can he endure to see her, much less profess fondness for her, knowing what he has done?"
"I have thought a good deal about that, and I have never been able to make up my mind. You see we don't know that he has done anything wrong. Yet it may be an unconscious expiation. Who knows? The human heart is a mysterious thing. But it is most likely that he simply began to love her when she was a baby, just because she was so lovely that he couldn't help it. She won all hearts in her cradle—the little witch. I remember very well how she used to keep me from my work, by curling her rose leaf of a hand around one of my rough fingers, before she could talk."
"But why—loving her—should he wish to marry her against her will?"
"We do not know that it is against her will. That is to say, I know nothing of the kind, and I have no reason even to think it."
There was a silence after this. Paul Colbert was suddenly realizing that he also had no reason to think her unwilling; but this did not comfort him or change his feeling. It is the delight and misery of love never to have anything to do with reason.
"It is not likely that Alston would approve anything that he did not believe was for her happiness," Father Orin went on after a brief silence. "But there may have been other inducements. With the judge's nephew under his thumb, he need not have much fear of the law or the court. That was the reason most generally assigned for his patronage of William Pressley in the first place, before there was any engagement between the young man and Ruth. But that will, as a matter of course, bind him closer to Alston's interests, through her fondness for him. And on yesterday I heard of a scheme to put Pressley in Joe Daviess' place. It has been kept quiet, but is said to be well on foot, and I should not be surprised if it were true. Pressley is politically ambitious above anything, so that there are several reasons why he and Alston should hold together. In the event of Pressley's securing the appointment, there would not be much danger of the law's interference with any unlawful plans that Alston might have. Mind you, I don't say that he has any. I don't know that he has, and I am not even sure that I am right in telling you these things, which are merely rumor, after all. Well, at all events he has his good points. He is very generous, and always ready, open-handed, to help any good work of the Sisters. I have had scruples about letting them accept his gifts, but I have hesitated to speak for they know nothing against him, and there is always danger of doing injustice. We have no right to accuse anyone of anything that we cannot prove."
Paul was not listening to his friend's scruples. He had risen from his chair, and was walking up and down the room. Presently he paused and faced the priest with the air of a man who sees his way and has made up his mind. His voice rang clear with decision.
"Then this is the net that has been woven about her—the innocent, helpless little thing! She is to be made a victim through her tenderest and most natural affections. It's like seething a kid in its mother's milk. And how utterly unprotected she is! Think of her father! Look at the judge—for all his kindness! What is there to expect from him? And Philip Alston, who pretends to love her? He is using her affection for himself to bring about this marriage, so that she may bind this dull tool—this pompous fool, Pressley—to the service of an organized band of robbers and assassins."
"You are rushing to conclusions, my son. There is no reason, is there, to think that she doesn't love the young man? We haven't the slightest right to assume that. I certainly have not—have you?"
Father Orin spoke with a keen look at the pale, agitated young face, which flushed painfully. Seeing this the priest went on more gently without waiting for any reply.
"And I must again remind you that we do not know that Philip Alston has anything to do with the lawlessness of the country,—we merely suspect him. Suspicion and evidence are different things; so widely different, indeed, that I may have done grave wrong in even mentioning the first to you."
"Then we must try to find out the truth—try to lay our hand on the evidence which will prove Alston's innocence or his guilt. Doing that cannot harm her—if she is happy in this engagement," with a strong effort, "and it may help her—if she is not."
The priest shook his head. "You forget that many able men have already tried hard to do what you suggest, and that every attempt has failed."
"That hasn't a straw's weight with me. I shall not fail, because I am going to try harder than any one else ever can have tried," with the confidence and courage that belong to love. "I think I can do something to aid the officers in gathering evidence. My work, carrying me over the whole region where these villains do theirs, gives me opportunities to know what is going on. I shall speak to the attorney-general early to-morrow morning. Every honest man owes it to the state to give such help as he can in this extremity."
"Take care," said Father Orin, gently. "I am doubting more and more the wisdom and right of having told you these stories about Philip Alston. Remember, they are merely rumors, widespread and generally believed, it is true, yet still wholly unsupported by evidence. We must be careful. There is a bare possibility that we may be wrong, that we may be doing a terrible injustice to an innocent man. I do not believe that anything can be long believed by a great many honest people unless there is some truth underneath for it to rest upon; and this about Philip Alston has been believed by the best men of this country for a good many years. But the fact that it hasn't been proven remains, nevertheless. There has never been a shadow of real evidence, and we, as fair-minded men, are bound to remember that." He hesitated for a moment, and looked at the young doctor as if uncertain whether to say something else that was in his kind, wise thoughts. "There is another thing that you would do well to bear in mind, my son. Any one bringing any charges, supported or unsupported, against Philip Alston, will break that little girl's heart. She would never credit the strongest proof. A woman like that,—a tender, soft, clinging, unreasoning little thing,—who is all affection and trust, could not be reached by testimony that would convince any jury. That is one of the merciful dispensations; that is one of the reasons why men get so much more mercy here below than they deserve. This gentle girl not only would never believe, but she would never, never forgive you for breathing a word against Philip Alston. That is the way with women of her kind. And you would not wish to hurt her, even though—"
"And then you must not forget that the young man whom she is to marry is also more or less involved. And you must remember that he is essentially an upright, well-meaning, well-trained young fellow. There is no reason to think she doesn't love him. His conceit is the only thing against him, and she may not mind that. A gentle, yielding nature like hers is often attracted by a dominant, overbearing one like his. I have often noticed it. Maybe it is intended by nature and providence to keep the balance of things. What would become of the world if all the strong ones or all the good ones were to come together, and leave all the weak ones or all the bad ones by themselves? You can see at once that that would never do—everything would be at once unbalanced. It's hard on the good and the strong; but then, many of nature's provisions are hard on the individual, and yet they all work for the welfare of creation."
He said this with a smile and a chuckle, hoping to win his friend to the half-earnest, half-jesting talk with which they sometimes tried to lighten the heavy burdens that both were constantly bearing. But he saw that Paul could not respond, and he went back at once to the grave sympathy with which he had been speaking.
"At all events, this young couple have chosen one another for better or worse, and we, as honest men, and Christians, cannot allow ourselves to discuss, or even think of anything else. I wish I could help you, my son, but I can only beg you to hold to your own road in life, to press straight on upward as steadily and as bravely as you can. And you must put all thought of Philip Alston, too, out of your mind. You and I must work for the saving of men's bodies and souls—we have nothing to do with their punishment. Work, my son! Work, work for others, that is the secret of happiness! And if we work hard enough for the help and the healing of others, it may be that after a while we will be allowed to find help and healing for ourselves."
And the young man looking sadly in the face of the old man promised that he would try—that he would do his best.
Ruth, meantime, was still waiting and watching the forest path, and wondering why he did not come back. He nearly always passed Cedar House more than once during the day, but he did not return now, although she waited and watched from early morning till the sun went down. She was tired of hearing the old ladies wrangling over the hearth, and going outside the door she had played with the swan, and had grown tired of that. Looking listlessly about for something else to do, she caught sight of David sitting alone under the willows on the river bank. He thought himself safely hidden for the reading of his book, but the foliage was thinner now on the slender golden wands; some of them were quite bare, and hung like long silken fringes of shining yellow. The first frost had touched them on the night before; the soft breeze was freighted with drifting leaves, and there was a fresh sparkle in the crystalline air.
She had put on a long coat of dove-colored cloth—one of the fine garments that Philip Alston was always finding for her—on account of the cool weather, and she was wearing her gypsy bonnet tied down with its three-cornered handkerchief of white lace, so that she was all ready for going further from the house. In another moment she was skimming down the river bank toward the boy. He saw her coming; but she moved so like a darting swallow that he barely had time to hide his book under the mossy log on which he was sitting before she fluttered into a seat beside him, nestling against his arm.
"There now!" she sighed, smoothing down her skirts. "Now we can have a nice long talk about love."
The boy moved with the uneasiness that every boy feels at any abstract approach to the great topic. The girl went straight on, with all the serenity of the least experienced of her sex. Her big blue eyes were gravely fixed on his reddened face. Her own was quite calm, and very serious indeed. Her soft lips were set as firmly as one rose leaf may be folded against another. The tips of her little fingers met in wisdom's gesture.
"Listen, David, dear. Listen well, and think hard. I have been thinking a great deal about love lately. It is right, you know, that all young people should. I will tell you everything that I have thought, and then you must tell me what you think. For there are some things that I can't find out by myself, though I have tried and tried. And boys ought to know more than girls about love. But I don't believe they do!"
The blue eyes gazed at him rather severely from under the gypsy hat. It was the woman arraigning the man with the eternal challenge. The boy looked down at the ground, and tried not to feel guilty, as the challenged always do. Ruth saw how it was, and relented, as the woman always does. She ran her arm through David's, and gave it an affectionate teasing little squeeze.
"You can't help not knowing anything, can you, poor dear?" she said, with sweet laughter. "Well, then, never mind. We will try to find out together. There are only three things that I really must know—that I can't possibly do without knowing."
The smile faded. She sat silently gazing across the wide, quiet river.
"Only three really very, very important things," she presently went on. "The first is this: How may a girl tell what people call 'true love' from every other kind of love? You see, dear, there are so many kinds of love, and they are all true, too. When a girl like me has loved every one ever since she could remember—because every one has always been so good and loving to her that she couldn't help it—she knows, of course, when another kind of love comes; but she doesn't know whether it is truer than all the rest. How can she tell? That is one of the things I want to find out—the first of the three really important things that I most wish to know," checking it off on her small forefinger.
Resting her elbow on her knee, and her chin in the palm of her hand, she fell suddenly silent again, and sat gazing across the river. Her blue eyes seemed to be wistfully seeking the secret of love among the rosy mists which the sunset had left beneath the shadowy trees. She did not observe that the boy made no reply. Her lovely head was intently bent to the other side, as if listening to hear some whisper from her own heart. When she spoke, it was in a low, absent tone, as though she were whispering to herself, or thinking only half aloud.
"And what are the signs of true love? That is the next thing. What are the sure signs that true love may be known by, so that there can be no danger of making a mistake, no risk of taking one kind of love for another? That is the question. How do the signs of true love look? How do they feel, I wonder? Can it be one of the sure signs of true love to feel at the first sight of a face that it is the one you have most wanted to see all your life? Can it be one of the sure signs of true love to have your heart leap at the first sound of a voice, so that you are glad to be alive—glad—glad as you never were before, although you have always been happy? I wonder—I wonder! And can it be another of the sure signs of true love to feel utter content in one presence, to feel that, walled in with it forever away from all the rest of the world, there would be nothing left outside on the whole, wide earth to wish for? Do you think so, David? I wonder if it can be. And then can it be yet another of true love's sure signs to have a warm, sweet glow come around the heart, as it never did before, and to have something tell you that it will grow warmer and sweeter and brighter as long as you live? I wonder—wonder—wonder. And could it be the surest sign of all, that you don't know why any of all these things are so; that you only know that everything some one is and says and thinks and does—satisfies and delights your eyes and mind and heart and soul."
Two heavy tears, like sudden drops from a summer shower, fell on her clasped hands, although her lips were smiling and she was still softly thinking aloud.
"And yet there is another kind of love—quite, quite different from this—and that, too, must be true. A feeling that you have had ever since you could remember must be true, surely. And you are always thinking about this one—always arguing with yourself about how right and reasonable it is. There isn't any trouble in finding one the reasons for this love. The only trouble about this kind of love is in your own unworthiness. It's somehow disheartening and tiring to be always looking up, higher than you can see, as though you stood all the time on your tiptoes. And then when you are always feeling how unwise and childish you are, it is hard to love wisdom and dignity as they deserve to be loved."
Saying this, Ruth turned suddenly upon David. Her soft eyes were flashing through her tears.
"Why do you sit there like a stone and never say a word!" she demanded. "I knew you didn't know the first earthly thing about love, but I didn't know you were dumb. Why don't you speak? Can't you say what a fine fellow William is? You know it, just as well as I do! Everybody knows it. Everybody respects William and looks up to him. Everybody is bound to do it. He always does what is right and sensible. He isn't forever doing and saying things that he has to be sorry for, as I am. He always goes steadily straight ahead. He isn't moved by every heart-beat and swayed by every fancy like you and me. Why even uncle Robert defers to William, because he is so dignified and right-minded. He always knows just what to do and say. Uncle Philip often speaks of it. He appreciates William. He never criticises him for being serious when other people are joking. And I've seen you do it many a time, when you didn't know I was looking. Yes, and uncle Robert, too. I've seen his eyebrow go up when he didn't know that it did. And I won't have it! Do you hear? I won't have people laughing at William, just because he never laughs. I like him all the better for it. I think all the more highly of him because he never understands my silly, light little ways. I do—I tell you I do!"
She sprang up and stamped her foot, and then, sitting down again, burst into helpless sobbing, and laid her head on the boy's shoulder. He could only draw her closer, and hold her in silent tenderness, having no words that he dared utter. After a time her sobs ceased, and lifting her head, she looked round, dimpling and smiling through the tears which were still heavy on her dark lashes.
"Well, then, since you don't know anything about love, sir, look and see what your silly old book says. Oh, you needn't pretend that you haven't got it," she said gayly. "If it isn't in your hand, it is in your pocket, or you have hidden it. Get it instantly," pretending to shake him.
The boy bashfully drew the book from beneath the log, while Ruth bantered him with sweet, bubbling laughter that made him think of awakening birds and blossoming orchards. He turned the leaves in embarrassed haste.
"I don't find anything about love," he stammered. "But here is something about marriage."
"As if they weren't one and the same!" cried Ruth. "Read it. Let's hear what it says. Read every word carefully and distinctly."
David then read aloud what the Knight of the Oracle said to the Most Fair Constantia:—
"They are truly married that have with united hearts plighted promise of perpetual friendship, electing one another by true love and not by outward ceremony; for where true love is not there can be no perfect marriage, though the outward ceremony be never so well performed."
"As if everybody didn't know that already!" scouted Ruth. "Any gosling of a girl knows that without having to be told. There isn't a single word there to tell what true love is, and what its signs are. If I didn't love you so dearly, David, I couldn't love you at all when you are so dull. What do you mean by reading anything so tiresome out of that foolish book? I think worse of it than ever."
Her smiles vanished like watery sunbeams. David trembled for fear she might begin crying again. But she looked fondly up in his face, and beamed brightly when she saw how frightened he was.
"But you know I do love you, David, dear. You know that you are all I have, of my very own," she said. "I am unreasonable—I know that well enough; but I couldn't help being hurt at your injustice to William. Could I, dear?"
"Oh, no! No indeed!" responded the boy, with vague eagerness.
"Well, then, I will forgive you if you promise never to do it again. And do you know any more about birds than you do about love, you poor dear? Look at that one flying over the river. Why do they always cross the stream in a slanting direction? Why do they never fly straight across? And why do birds sing so seldom in the depths of the forest? And is it true that none of the singing birds were here till the settlers came? It is said that they came with the settlers. I've heard many persons state that as a fact. But how does anybody know? Did any bird say so? Those paroquets could tell if they would; but they never will. They only chatter to scold one another. Just listen! I am sure they could tell lots of things if they liked. They are not so green as they look—not half so green as you, my dear. I shall have to ask Mr. Audubon if there were any birds here before the settlers came. He will know; he doesn't go round all the time with his head in the clouds, as you do. You don't even know how old a snow-goose has to be before it turns from gray to white. And you really ought to know that, because you are a goose yourself. I saw a pure white snow-goose the other day on the pond back of Cedar House, and when the snow-goose comes, then winter is here, and it isn't long till Christmas."
She suddenly stood up shivering, and said she was cold; but it was the thought of Christmas Eve, not the frost in the air, that sent the chill to her heart.
THE ONCOMING OF THE STORM
On entering the great room of Cedar House they found the rest of the family in a most unusual state of excitement. The lamps and candles had not been lighted, as it was not yet quite dark, but the firelight was bright, and they could plainly see the anxiety on every face.
Miss Penelope was in her accustomed place, which she could no more get away from than a planet could leave its orbit. But her attention was wandering, as it rarely did, and she was silently casting uneasy glances at the judge and his nephew who sat on the other side of the room, talking to each other in a loud, excited tone. The widow Broadnax, also, was in her usual seat in the chimney-corner, yet looking now and then at the two men; and the mere fact that she thus allowed her gaze to stray for a moment from what her half-sister was doing, indicated the uncommon disturbance of her mind.
Ruth and David hardly knew the judge as he looked and spoke now, for it was he who was speaking as they came in. He had just motioned his nephew to silence with a sternness which was not to be disobeyed. His voice rang with a decision and severity, such as none of the household had ever heard from him, who was commonly so carelessly mild and abstracted.
"No one shall, with my consent, or even my knowledge, go from my house to Duff's Fort on any account whatever."
"Pardon me, sir," began William, stiffly.
He was keeping his self-control with the air of one who does it under great provocation, and who has scant respect for those who lose it; but his face was flushed, and his eyes were angry. The strained coldness of his tone and manner were like oil to the flame of his uncle's wrath. The judge's hand went out in a gesture that had almost the force of a blow.
"Stop!" he shouted. "I refuse even to discuss the matter. It is enough for me to tell you again that no one shall go from under my roof to the place where robbers and cutthroats congregate. It's a disgrace that I haven't been able to break up their den. I have done my best, and I am still doing it, but the reproach of this band's existence, here at my very door, nevertheless rests on me more than on any one else. I am the representative of the law—the law, good God! with the country in the murderous clutches of that lawless gang! Keep away, I tell you! And I will ask Alston what he means by even seeming to give countenance to those scoundrels by going nigh them. Business! What business can he or any other decent man have with the nest of rattlesnakes that we can't drag out from under that bluff?"
"It is a very simple matter, sir, if you would permit me to explain," William said more coldly and deliberately than ever. "Mr. Alston is merely making a trade for a boatload of horses, and simply asked me, as his attorney, to meet him at Duff's Fort to draw up the contract with Mason and Sturtevant."
The judge stared blankly for a moment, so overwhelmed by surprise that he forgot his anger. "Mason and Sturtevant," he repeated. "Do you mean to tell me that a man of half Alston's intelligence doesn't know that those men never have a horse that they haven't stolen?"
William Pressley said nothing more; he suspected that his uncle had been drinking a little more heavily than common. Moreover, it scarcely seemed worth while to argue with blind prejudice, drunk or sober.
"Then if you've got nothing more to say, it's with Alston that I will settle this matter. But all the same, I forbid you to go near Duff's Fort. I have a right to forbid you, as a member of my household. I have a right to forbid any one belonging to my family to do anything that touches my own honor, my good name. And this touches both to the quick."
"Very well, sir. I shall tell Mr. Alston what you say. I must, of course, give some reason for breaking a professional engagement," said William.
"I shall tell him a few things myself," stormed the judge. "It's all very well for him to put on his high-and-mighty tolerant air about the state of things hereabouts, and to keep on saying, soothingly, that everything will come right after a while, as it does in all new countries; but neither he nor any honest man can afford to handle pitch. It sticks to the cleanest hands. See that you keep yours out of it. Nobody belonging to me shall be smirched—and just now, too, when we are going to cleanse the whole country of it at last, thank God! We have only been waiting for a chance to carry out the plan which was arranged while General Jackson was here. Joe Daviess has now found the opportunity, and our campaign has already begun. He is determined to put it in motion before he leaves for Tippecanoe—"
"Then he is really going?" broke in William, quickly, with a marked change of tone and manner.
The judge paid no attention to the question. He seldom noticed what his nephew said, and his thoughts were now solely of the undertaking which absorbed him heart and soul. After thinking deeply in silence for a few moments, he spoke of the plan more fully, even freely, as he was in the habit of speaking in the bosom of his own family. There was no one else present; even the servants were gone out of the room. Moreover, he had been drinking, as his nephew suspected, and the stimulant, together with the excitement, carried him beyond all prudence. He did not even lower his tone.
"Yes, we begin the good work this very night. We've got the chance we have been waiting for—the chance to catch those cutthroats red-handed! We had news yesterday that three men were coming over the Wilderness Road, bringing a large sum of money to buy land. The negotiation has been under way for weeks. We have learned that this fact, and the time when these men are expected to pass through here, are both as well known at Duff's Fort as they are to us. We have also had news of the coming of a large flatboat with a rich cargo, which is due to pass down the river by Duff's Fort some time during to-morrow night. Those hungry demons are said to be ready and waiting for the travellers by land and water—and we are ready and waiting for them! Just let them lift a hand to rob or murder, and we will be on hand, too! The attorney-general has sent a large posse of picked men down the river to come up overland on the further side of the fort. Another posse has gone round by the swamp to guard that quarter, and there is a boat in readiness on the other side of the river, well armed and fully manned. Yes, we've got the scoundrels safe enough this time! We've run them to earth at last. There is only one loophole, and the attorney-general himself is to guard that—the path round Anvil Rock. That is the band's highway. The rock is their rallying-point and we couldn't see at first how we were to watch it without putting the scoundrels on their guard. To send any number of men, even two or three, in that direction, would have been to give the alarm at once—as the moon is about full. After consultation, it was decided that the attorney-general alone should attend to this delicate part of the plan. It was his own suggestion that he should go to Anvil Rock immediately after dark to-morrow night, and wait there in the shadow—watching everything that passes—till his men join him, after beating the bushes and going over the country with a drag-net. It's a dangerous task that he has taken on himself, notwithstanding that the posse guarding the swamp should be in hearing of his voice by the time he reaches Anvil Rock. I told him so; but he said that it must be done by some one man, since more than one would defeat our whole undertaking, and that it was the duty of no one but himself. However, he has ordered all his men—the different posses sent out in various directions—to draw in toward Anvil Rock, so that he will not be there long alone, and not at any time beyond the hearing of his men, should he find it necessary to call for help. Anyway, I couldn't dissuade him from going alone. It was no more than General Jackson had done, he declared, when I protested; and he also thought that being alone made it unlikely that he would be observed. The main object was for him to be near by when his men should need him, and that purpose would be best served by his waiting in the shadow of Anvil Rock. I said what I could, and urged him to let me go with him, but he stuck to it that only one man must go." The judge spoke anxiously, wearily now, all anger forgotten. "And he will be there. He never knew what fear was, in doing his duty; he would walk straight into the devil's den and attack him single-handed, without the quiver of a nerve."
"Allow me to congratulate you, sir," William Pressley said distantly, with an air of polite concession to somewhat foolish enthusiasm. "I think you have perhaps been rather more troubled over certain outbreaks of lawlessness than you need have been. They are to be expected, I suppose, in all new countries, and they gradually disappear before the advance of civilization, as Mr. Alston says. All that is in the natural order of human events. However, since you have been so much disturbed, I am truly pleased that you are so soon to be relieved of all uneasiness from this source. May I ask, sir, if you can tell me the precise date of the attorney-general's departure—for the seat of war, I mean—for Tippecanoe?"
The judge shook his head, hardly hearing the inquiry. The agitation which had shaken him was leaving him greatly spent. The old look of abstraction came back, quickly dulling his gaze, and, sinking down in his chair, he very soon began to nod and doze.
"With your permission, sir," William went on with a touch of sarcasm in his cool, slow voice, "I should like to call upon Mr. Alston to-morrow. You have, I presume, no objection to my going to see him in his own house. It is impossible to drop a matter of business without a word of explanation. And if you have no objection, I will mention to him the matters of which you have just been speaking. No one has a deeper interest in the public welfare, and certainly no one could be more eminently discreet. However, I shall, of course, speak in the strictest confidence."
The judge bent his head, but it was in nodding not in assent, for he had not heard a word that his nephew said. And William saw nothing but the nod with a sidewise glance of aversion at the signs of his uncle's weakness.
It was the boy who heard and saw everything, and remembered and weighed it, with a feeling of alarm that he knew no reason for, and could not explain to himself. It was his instinct to dislike anything that William Pressley said or did, and to distrust everything in which Philip Alston was concerned. He looked round at Ruth to see if she shared his feeling, and saw that she was gazing at William Pressley with troubled eyes.
They had scarcely exchanged a word since their quarrel, although she had made many timid advances toward a reconciliation. It was conscience and not love which had moved her in all that she had done, but this fact was not yet clear to her own mind. She was beginning to see it, but she tried to shut her eyes to the truth, being a loyal soul, and firm in her high regard for the man whom she had promised to marry. There had been no opportunity to tell him what she felt; and she was still more distressed to see that he avoided seeing her alone. It was of this cloud between them that she was thinking now, and it was that which shadowed her face. She had not noted very keenly what was going forward about her. She had shrunk from the judge's excitement and agitation, as she always did from all violence; but the meaning of his words had not impressed her deeply or even clearly. Her gentle nature and her tranquil life were too far from strife, cruelty, and crime for her to grasp the full purport of the story. She had heard William Pressley speak of telling Philip Alston, without giving the matter a thought. It was right in her eyes that he should be told everything. The mention of his name caused her to think that it would be well to tell him of her quarrel with William and of her regret and self-reproach. He was wise and kind, and would know what was right and best to do. Perhaps he might even see some way by which the engagement could be broken without wrong or hurt to William's feelings. A measure of peace came with the hope, and she was presently gazing into the fire, dreaming more than thinking, and feeling assured that the doctor would stop when he went by on the next morning.
The boy saw how absorbed she was, and felt that there was no use in waiting to speak to her, to tell her of the vague alarm which had seized him. And then what was there to tell her or any one? He would only be laughed at for fancying things, as he often had been before, and remembering this, he crept off to his own cabin and went to bed. But he could not go to sleep for a long time, and when he awoke at dawn the formless dread was still dark in his mind, like some fearsome shape behind an impenetrable curtain. And there it stayed all the day through, never quite coming out into the light, but growing steadily larger and darker and more terrible as the long heavy hours wore on. When—at last—the dusk began to creep down the river, he grew so restless in his nameless misery that he wandered into the forest, and there met the doctor riding along the path on the way to his lonely cabin.
Paul's face brightened at the sight of the boy; he had always liked him, and had been drawn to him before knowing of Ruth's existence. Still the thought of her was now foremost in his mind as he looked at David. We are all glad to see those who are near the one whom we love; we are even eager to seek those whom we would otherwise avoid when they are near our beloved from whom we are parted. This eagerness was in Paul Colbert's face as he looked at the boy and asked with some hesitation if he was in haste.
"If you are not," he said, "I should like to have a little talk with you. Let's sit down on that fallen tree."
Dismounting, he led his horse along the path, with the boy following in silence. They sat down side by side on the tree-trunk, the doctor holding his horse by the bridle. There were new lines in his face which did not belong to youth, and which had not been graven by his fierce struggle with the Cold Plague. The boy noticed them and knew that they had not been there when he had last seen the doctor's face. Its look of gloom also had come back. That had lifted at the moment of meeting, but it was too deep to go so suddenly, and it had now returned. He turned to the boy uncertainly, for there had been no clear purpose in his speaking to the lad. He had spoken on an irresistible impulse to learn something of Ruth, blindly clutching at a possible bond between her and himself. It seemed years rather than days since he had heard from her. But in a single glance his trained eyes saw that David was in trouble, and by asking a few adroit questions he brought out all that the boy knew. The doctor sat so still for an instant after hearing what had passed between the judge and William Pressley, that David looked up in surprise to see what was the matter. Paul Colbert was very pale, and his eyes were glancing round, searching the deepening shadows of the forest. He made a gesture, warning the boy to speak lower, and his own voice was scarcely above a whisper.
"What time to-day did Pressley leave Cedar House? Had he come back when you came away? Tell me again just what he said about telling Philip Alston. Try to remember every word—a valuable life may hang upon it. Keep as cool as you can—and be careful, don't be alarmed, but be quick. Every word now—once more."
The boy repeated everything as accurately as he could. While he was speaking, the doctor, rising to his feet, gathered up the bridle-reins, and hastily bending down, was tightening the girth. When the last item of information had been gathered, he vaulted into the saddle.
"There isn't any time for our talk. I must gallop home for a fresh horse. This one is too tired for the speed we need." He saw the surprise and, the alarm in the boy's gaze, and leaning over, took his trembling hand. "Don't be troubled. You are in no way to blame, whatever happens. You have done the very best thing possible in telling me this. It may not be too late. I shall try. I am going at once to do all that I can to warn or to guard a great man's life. The delay in getting the fresh horse is the worst; but," hastily grasping his hand again, "if I am too late, if I fail and never come back, tell Ruth that I did my best. Tell her that I have done my best ever since I have known. I have kept away from Cedar House—have only seen her far off, feeding the birds. But that was all I could do. I couldn't help thinking of her, I couldn't help what I felt. You will remember—and tell her?"
He looked down in the boy's frightened face with a strange smile, and then touching his horse with the spur, he flashed out of sight among the trees.
THE GENTLEST ARE THE BRAVEST
The boy stood staring after him in dazed alarm. He could not comprehend the cause of his friend's sudden agitation and abrupt departure, but they filled him with vague, helpless terror. He did not know what to do till he suddenly felt the urgency of the message to Ruth, and the thought of her made him turn and start running back to Cedar House.
As he went, he instinctively tried to calm himself; he was fast learning to hide the emotion which was always shaking him. On reaching the door he paused for a moment, and strove hard to control his panting breath. He almost hoped that this might prove to be merely one of the fancies which were constantly swaying him. And then there was an instinctive feeling that it would be best not to tell any one except Ruth what had occurred. The meaning of the message to her was not yet clear to him, but he nevertheless felt it to be something which she might not wish others to hear. He did not remember that the message was not to be given her unless Paul failed to come back. There had not been time for Paul to impress this upon him, and it was natural enough that the boy, startled and frightened, should not have noted all that was said.
His one aim now was to get a word alone with Ruth, and hastily looking round the room, he saw her sitting near the hearth. But there was no chance to approach her, or to speak without being overheard by the whole family. Every member of the household was present, it being the evening hour when all households come closest together around the fireside. The supper-table was laid, and a servant moved about lighting the lamps and candles. William Pressley was sitting near Ruth, but it was she who had last taken a seat and he was silent, save as some timid advance from her compelled him to make a coldly civil reply. His resentment was as implacable as ever; the wound to his self-love had only grown deeper with nursing, as it always does with a nature like his. The breaking of the engagement was with him, now, merely a question of timeliness, of discretion and expediency. In these matters he was not considering Ruth's feelings as she was considering his, despite her own most eager wish to be free. He was thinking first of the light in which he, himself, would be placed. After this he was considering Philip Alston's view of his conduct. Knowing that he wished the marriage to take place, William Pressley felt reasonably sure that Philip Alston would be displeased at any breach, and that he would make his displeasure felt, should the first movement toward the breaking of the engagement come from himself. The displeasure of Philip Alston was not a thing to be lightly incurred at any time. No one knew this better than William Pressley, and he saw it to be particularly undesirable to displease him and possibly incur his enmity, just at the moment when his good-will might be useful in the matter of the appointment. William Pressley did not believe Philip Alston's influence to be at all essential—merit was in his opinion the only essential. Still it seemed best, under the circumstances, to let the engagement stand till a time more auspicious for breaking it. And then his sore self-love found some balm in the girl's self-reproach, which he saw plainly enough, without understanding it in the least. It was like him to consider the effect which the breaking of the engagement might have on his political prospects, and to postpone it on the bare chance of its affecting them adversely. But it was still more like him merely to postpone it with an immovable determination in his mind, utterly unaffected by all the girl's winning gentleness and open regret. And it was most of all like him never for an instant to allow any thought of Philip Alston's fortune to make him waver. All the gold in the world could have done nothing to make William Pressley forget, or forgive, the wound which his self-love had received.
She continued for a while in her shy, gentle efforts to win him back to something like the old friendliness, which had existed between them before they had become engaged to be married. It was this which she longed to have restored, with her craving for affection and her dread of hard feeling. But despairing at last, she arose with a sigh and went to the hearth, and began talking to the two old ladies, who left off quarrelling when she came, as they nearly always did. From the hearth she turned to the supper-table, to give it the delicate finishing touches, and then there was a general movement as the family settled into their places.
It seemed to David that the meal would never end, that he should never be able to tell Ruth. As he sat looking down at his untasted food, and had time to think, he came gradually to understand something of the meaning of the young doctor's sudden agitation, his solemn message, and his hurried departure. The boy could not keep his distress out of his face, and Ruth saw it in her first glance at him across the table. In the shadows of the room she had not seen him distinctly until now, and the sight of his trouble touched her as it never failed to do even when she believed it to be imaginary. As soon as possible she left the table and went to the door, glancing at him over her shoulder. He followed instantly and, passing her swiftly as she stood in the doorway, he beckoned her to come outside.
"What is it?" she asked, running to him.
She grasped his arm and turned white and began to tremble, not knowing what she feared. There was something in his look, and something in her own heart, which told her that this was no boyish whim or fancy, such as she was often called to comfort and beguile for him. She could not see his face distinctly enough to gather anything from looking at him; they were standing beyond the broad band of light streaming from the open door. But there was no need for sight; he poured out the story almost in a breath, ending with Paul's message to her. And she understood more than he had said, far more than he could ever say or understand, before the words had fairly left his lips. The divination of a woman's love—that marvellous white light—flashed the whole truth, and she uttered a smothered cry as she saw it. So crying out, she shrank away from him, and threw off his hand and struck at him fiercely, like some soft little wild thing suddenly hurt.
"How could you? Why did you tell him?" she cried. "I hate you. I'll hate you for this as long as I live. You have sent him to his death—you meddler, you simpleton! And you don't even know what you have done. You have sent him to his death, I tell you! Yes, that's what you have done, and I will never forgive you while I breathe. He has gone to warn the attorney-general, and he will be killed, too. You heard what uncle said about the danger. What are the robbers or the country to me—beside him? What do I care about what happens to the attorney-general? I wouldn't care if every other man in the world was lying dead, this minute, if I could know that he was safe. Oh! Oh! And you knew that he and the attorney-general were friends. You knew he would go to help him. And yet you told him—and he is gone—"
She broke into a helpless passion of weeping so pitiful that the boy could do nothing but go to her and take her in his arms. She did not resist; her anger was instantly melted in grief. Her arms went round his neck, and she sobbingly implored his pardon.
"Forgive me—forgive me. I didn't know—I don't know what I am saying. Oh! my heart is breaking, David! Help me—help me to think! We must do something—we mustn't stand here crying like this. Think! Think! Help me to think what we can do."
She pushed him away and stood pressing her trembling hands hard against her temples, trying desperately to clear her thoughts. The thought of calling on any one in the house did not cross her mind. There was nothing to expect from the judge; he had fallen asleep in his chair at the table. William Pressley would not believe there was any danger. He never believed in any trouble or agitation. It would only annoy him. Indeed, she scarcely thought of him at all. She caught the boy's arm wildly, with her tears suddenly dried.
"Why don't you say something—do something!" she cried bitterly, "You are no better than, a girl yourself."
She turned toward the house and ran a few steps only to come flying back.
"I have thought of something—you must go after him! That's what you must do! He may be wounded. He may need you to help him. Surely you could fight if you tried. I could, myself! And you will try, dear, I know you will, for my sake. Come! Run! Run! Let's go to the stable and get the pony. He goes fast."
Her passionate excitement swept them along, and she and the boy were now running toward the stable, hand in hand, hardly knowing what they did. Her head was bare, her white dress and her delicate slippers were very thin, and the chill of the autumnal night was already coming on. But she thought of none of these things, felt none of them, and did not stop at the door of the stable, although she had never entered it before, and it was now very dark within. But there was nothing for her to fear, she knew all about the horses, as every girl of the country did, since riding was a part of the life of the wilderness. Keeping close to David's side, she followed him to the pony's stall, and when she heard him take down the saddle and bridle that hung overhead, her hands eagerly went out in the darkness to help him buckle the girth.
"There! You will ride as fast as you can—I know you will. And you will help him fight. Make haste. Why didn't we think to get your rifle? Oh, why! You are very slow. There! Isn't it ready?"
But as the boy started to lead the pony from the stable, a sudden thought flashed through her mind, and she acted upon it as quickly as she grasped it.
"Let me have the pony," she gasped. "You can get one of the other horses for yourself. Make haste! I must have the pony because he is all ready. Hurry! Hurry! I have just thought—uncle Philip will help us. He can do anything. He will do anything in the world for me if I can only reach him. He is nearly always coming to Cedar House about this time. I am going to meet him. Everything will be safe and right if I can find him and tell him. Help me up to the saddle, quick! quick!"
They were now out of the stable and could see each other dimly. He exclaimed in affright, grasping her skirt and holding her back when she attempted to mount.
"It's my saddle, too, you couldn't ride that!" he cried.
"What difference does the saddle make? I have ridden it many a time—and many a time without any. If you will not—"
She caught the pommel, and he, seeing how utterly useless it was to contend further, now held out his hand and she set her foot in his palm. With a leap and a swift, lithe turn of one knee under the other she was seated in his saddle as easily and firmly as if it had been her own, and grasped the reins.
"Follow as quickly as you can," she called back over her shoulder. "I am going to meet uncle Philip in the buffalo path beyond Anvil Rock."
And then the pony sprang away and was running into the falling night.
UNDER THE HUNTER'S MOON
It was not very dark, and all the cleared country rolling widely away from Cedar House could be dimly seen. A gusty wind was driving wild clouds across the stars, and tall cloud mountains rose on the north covering the great comet; but higher in the dark blue dome of the firmament the Hunter's Moon swung full and free, casting its wonderful crystalline light over the darkened earth.
This most marvellous of crystal lamps always appears to be shining by its own living radiance, and never to be beaming by the merely reflected glory that gilds the lifeless Harvest Moon. The Hunter's Moon has indeed no rival among all the lights which heaven lends to the world of night. It is the whitest, the brightest, the most sparkling that ever falls on the darkness, and it was in truth the hunter's very own. By its light he could see how to go on with his hunt hours after the close of the short November days, and far into the long November nights, and still find his way home through the deep heart of the mighty wood.
So that even on this dreary November night, when its clearness was dimmed by the flight of the wind-hunted clouds, it was able to lighten in a measure the furthest and darkest reaches of this wild new world. It touched the mystery of the burial mound; it lifted the misty winding sheet spread by the swamp; it raised the pall laid along the horizon by the sable tops of the cypress trees; it reached almost to the darkness hanging over Duff's Fort—that awful and mysterious blackness—which the noonday sun could never wholly remove.
But the girl's gaze was not following the moonbeams. Looking neither to the one side nor the other, she gave a single glance ahead. This was only to see that she was going straight toward Anvil Rock by the shortest road. And the one look was enough for she knew that the great shadowy mass glooming in the dark distance must be what she sought. And then bending forward and low over the pony's neck, she sent him onward by an unconscious movement of her own body. She had known how to ride almost as long as she had known how to walk—the one was an easy and as natural as the other. Instinctively she now bent still lower, and still farther forward over the pony's neck, as a boy does in riding a race; for she also was riding a great race, and for the greatest of stakes. She did not stop to think how great the stake was; she had not yet realized that it was the life of the man she loved; she had not yet had time to face the truth, and to know that she loved Paul Colbert. She only realized that she must reach Anvil Rock before Philip Alston could pass it on his way to Cedar House, or turn into another path. Raising her head, she flashed another look into the dark distance, where the goal was and grew sick with fear, seeing how far off it was. And then rallying, she began to use her voice as well as the reins, to urge the pony to greater speed.
"That's it! Good boy. But faster—faster!"
Thus crying she silently prayed that Philip Alston might be within hearing of the sound of her voice. She never doubted that he would come at her first cry. It never once crossed her mind that he could hesitate to do what she wished in this. He had never in all her life refused her anything, and she knew of no reason to fear refusal now. The only fear that she felt was the dread of reaching Anvil Rock too late. She tried to still the quivering of her nerves by reminding herself that he nearly always came to Cedar House at this hour, if he had not been there earlier in the day. But she could not help remembering that there were times when he did not come. If he should not be on the way now, if she should fail to meet him, if he should be still at his far-off home, or have gone elsewhere—But she threw the paralyzing thought from her and suddenly began to strike the pony again and again, with her soft little open hands.
"Faster! You must go faster—you must! Surely you can. Please! It isn't very far. We must be almost there!"
It would have been hard to tell whether the short, sharp strokes were blows or caresses, and they ceased almost as abruptly as they had begun. She was now nearly lying across his straining shoulders, and her soft, bare arms were around his rough, shaggy neck. She did not know what she was doing, the boy had taught her to ride so—barebacked in the fields—when she was a child. And she did not know that the pony's mane was wet with her tears. There was no sound of weeping or faltering in the tone with which she urged him on. That rang clear and strong with the invincible courage and strength which love's miracle gives to the most timid and the weakest.
She was not holding to the saddle, but was clinging to it as unconsciously as the mist clung to her skirts. Her long black hair, fallen away from its fastenings, streamed in the wind; but she gave it no heed except to toss it out of her eyes so that she might see the pony's head, and try to look beyond toward Anvil Rock. How far off it still seemed! Would she never reach it? The night seemed to be growing darker, and she could not make out the mass glooming through the darkness as she had seen it at first. But she was not afraid of the growing blackness. This timid, gentle girl, who had hitherto been afraid of her own shadow, was now suddenly lost to all sense of fear. She thought nothing of the wild darkness into which she was thus flying blindly and alone. She had forgotten the terror of the time, and the dangers of the wilderness. She was oblivious of the utter silence, which wrapped the region in awful mystery. She heard nothing but the rush of the pony's running feet, and felt nothing but the leaping of her own heart. Her only thought was to reach the goal in time; her only fear was that she might fail.