"That is not for me to say," answered the judge; and his manner of saying it seemed to convey the hint that he could throw light on Isom's past if he should unseal his lips.
Ollie took it to be that way. She recalled the words of the will, "My friend, John B. Little." Isom had never spoken in her hearing that way of any man. Perhaps there was some bond between the two men, reaching back to the escapades of youth, and maybe Judge Little had the rusty old key to some past romance in Isom's life.
"Laws of mercy!" said Mrs. Greening, freeing a sigh of indignation which surely must have burst her if it had been repressed.
"This document is dated almost thirty years ago," said the judge. "It is possible that Isom left a later will. We must make a search of the premises to determine that."
"In sixty-seven he wrote it," said Sol, "and that was the year he was married. The certificate's hangin' in there on the wall. Before that, Isom he went off to St. Louis to business college a year or two and got all of his learnin' and smart ways. I might 'a' went, too, just as well as not. Always wisht I had."
"Very true, very true," nodded Judge Little, as if to say: "You're on the trail of his iniquities now, Sol."
Sol's mouth gaped like an old-fashioned corn-planter as he looked from the judge to Mrs. Greening, from Mrs. Greening to Ollie. Sol believed the true light of the situation had reached his brain.
"Walker—Isom Walker Chase! No Walkers around in this part of the country to name a boy after—never was."
"His mother was a Walker, from Ellinoi, dunce!" corrected his wife.
"Oh!" said Sol, his scandalous case collapsing about him as quickly as it had puffed up. "I forgot about her."
"Don't you worry about that will, honey," advised Mrs. Greening, going to Ollie and putting her large freckled arm around the young woman's shoulders; "for it won't amount to shucks! Isom never had a son, and even if he did by some woman he wasn't married to, how's he goin' to prove he's the feller?"
Nobody attempted to answer her, and Mrs. Greening accepted that as proof that her argument was indubitable.
"It—can't—be—true!" said Ollie.
"Well, it gits the best of me!" sighed Greening, shaking his uncombed head. "Isom he was too much of a business man to go and try to play off a joke like that on anybody."
"After the funeral I would advise a thorough search among Isom's papers in the chance of finding another and later will than this," said Judge Little. "And in the meantime, as a legal precaution, merely as a legal precaution and formality, Mrs. Chase——"
The judge stopped, looking at Ollie from beneath the rims of his specs, as if waiting for her permission to proceed. Ollie, understanding nothing at all of what was in his mind, but feeling that it was required of her, nodded. That seemed the signal for which he waited. He proceeded:
"As a legal formality, Mrs. Chase, I will proceed to file this document for probate this afternoon."
Judge Little put it in his pocket, reaching down into that deep depository until his long arm was engulfed to the elbow. That pocket must have run down to the hem of his garment, like the oil on Aaron's beard.
Ollie got up. Mrs. Greening hastened to her to offer the support of her motherly arm.
"I think I'll go upstairs," said the young widow.
"Yes, you do," counseled Mrs. Greening. "They'll be along with the wagons purty soon, and we'll have to git ready to go. I think they must have the grave done by now."
The women watched Ollie as she went uncertainly to the stairs and faltered as she climbed upward, shaking their heads forebodingly. Sol and Judge Little went outside together and stood talking by the door.
"Ain't it terrible!" said one woman.
"Scan'lous!" agreed the other.
Mrs. Greening shook her fist toward the parlor.
"Old sneaky, slinkin', miserly Isom!" she denounced. "I always felt that he was the kind of a man to do a trick like that. Shootin' was too good for him—he orto been hung!"
In her room upstairs Ollie, while entirely unaware of Mrs. Greening's vehement arraignment of Isom, bitterly indorsed it in her heart. She sat on her tossed bed, the sickness of disappointment heavy over her. An hour ago wealth was in her hand, ease was before her, and the future was secure. Now all was torn down and scattered by an old yellow paper which prying, curious, meddlesome old Sol Greening had found. She bent her head upon her hand; tears trickled between her fingers.
Perhaps Isom had a son, unknown to anybody there. There was that period out of his life when he was at business college in St. Louis. No one knew what had taken place in that time. Perhaps he had a son. If so, they would oust her, turn her out as poor as she came, with the memory of that hard year of servitude in her heart and nothing to compensate for it, not even a tender recollection. How much better if Joe had not come between her and Curtis Morgan that night—what night, how long ago was it now?—how much kinder and happier for her indeed?
With the thought of what Joe had caused of wreckage in her life by his meddling, her resentment rose against him. But for him, slow-mouthed, cold-hearted lout, she would have been safe and happy with Morgan that hour. Old Isom would have been living still, going about his sordid ways as before she came, and the need of his money would have been removed out of her life forever.
Joe was at the bottom of all this—spying, prying, meddling Joe. Let him suffer for it now, said she. If he had kept out of things which he did not understand, the fool! Now let him suffer! Let him hang, if he must hang, as she had heard the women say last night he should. No act of hers, no word——
"The wagons is coming, honey," said Mrs. Greening at her door. "We must git ready to go to the graveyard now."
Mint grew under the peach-trees in Colonel Henry Price's garden, purple-stemmed mint, with dark-green, tender leaves. It was not the equal of the mint, so the colonel contended with provincial loyalty, which grew back in Kentucky along the clear, cool mountain streams. But, picked early in the morning with the dew on it, and then placed bouquet-wise in a bowl of fresh well-water, to stand thus until needed, it made a very competent substitute for the Kentucky herb.
In that cool autumn weather mint was at its best, and Colonel Price lamented, as he gathered it that morning, elbow-deep in its dewy fragrance, that the need of it was passing with the last blaze of October days.
Yet it was comforting to consider how well-balanced the seasons and men's appetites were. With the passing of the season for mint, the desire for it left the palate. Frosty mornings called for the comfort of hot toddy, wintry blasts for frothing egg-nog in the cup. Man thirsted and nature satisfied; the economy of the world was thus balanced and all was well. So reasoned Colonel Price comfortably, after his way.
Colonel Price straightened up from his mint-picking with dew on his arm and a flush of gathered blood in his cheeks above his beard. He looked the philosopher and humanitarian that he was that morning, his breast-length white beard blowing, his long and thick white hair brushed back in a rising wave from his broad forehead. He was a tall and spare man, slender of hand, small of foot, with the crinkles of past laughter about his eyes, and in his face benevolence. One would have named him a poet at first look, and argued for the contention on further acquaintance.
But Colonel Price was not a poet, except at heart, any more than he was a soldier, save in name. He never had trod the bloody fields of war, but had won his dignified and honorable title in the quiet ways of peace. Colonel Price was nothing less than an artist, who painted many things because they brought him money, and one thing because he loved it and could do it well.
He painted prize-winning heifers and horses; portraits from the faces of men as nature had made them, with more or less fidelity, and from faded photographs and treasured daguerreotypes of days before and during the war, with whatever embellishments their owners required. He painted plates of apples which had taken prizes at the county fair, and royal pumpkins and kingly swine which had won like high distinctions. But the one thing he painted because he loved it, and could do it better than anybody else, was corn.
At corn Colonel Price stood alone. He painted it in bunches hanging on barn doors, and in disordered heaps in the husk, a gleam of the grain showing here and there; and he painted it shelled from the cob. No matter where or how he painted it, his corn always was ripe and seasoned, like himself, and always so true to nature, color, form, crinkle, wrinkle, and guttered heart, that farmers stood before it marveling.
Colonel Price's heifers might be—very frequently they were—hulky and bumpy and out of proportion, his horses strangely foreshortened and hindlengthened; but there never was any fault to be found with his corn. Corn absolved him of all his sins against animate and inanimate things which had stood before his brush in his long life; corn apotheosized him, corn lifted him to the throne and put the laurel upon his old white locks.
The colonel had lived in Shelbyville for more than thirty years, in the same stately house with its three Ionic pillars reaching from ground to gable, supporting the two balconies facing toward the east. A square away on one hand was the court-house, a square away on the other the Presbyterian church; and around him were the homes of men whom he had seen come there young, and ripen with him in that quiet place. Above him on the hill stood the famous old college, its maples and elms around it, and coming down from it on each side of the broad street which led to its classic door.
Colonel Price turned his thoughts from mint to men as he came across the dewy lawn, his gleanings in his hand, his bare head gleaming in the morning sun. He had heard, the evening before, of the arrest of Peter Newbolt's boy for the murder of Isom Chase, and the news of it had come to him with a disturbing shock, almost as poignant as if one of his own blood had been accused.
The colonel knew the sad story of Peter marrying below his estate away back there in Kentucky long ago. The Newbolts were blue-grass people, entitled to mate with the best in the land. Peter had debased his blood by marrying a mountain girl. Colonel Price had held it always to Peter's credit that he had been ashamed of his mesalliance, and had plunged away into the woods of Missouri with his bride to hide her from the eyes of his aristocratic family and friends.
Back in Kentucky the colonel's family and the Newbolt's had been neighbors. A few years after Peter made his dash across the Mississippi with his bride, and the journey on horseback to his new home, young Price had followed, drawn to Shelbyville by the fame of that place at a seat of culture and knowledge, which even in that early day had spread afar. The colonel—not having won his title then—came across the river with his easel under one arm and his pride under the other. He had kept both of them in honor all those years.
On the hopes and ambitions of those early days the colonel had realized, in a small way, something in the measure of a man who sets to work with the intention of making a million and finds himself content at last to count his gains by hundreds. He had taken up politics as a spice to the placid life of art, and once had represented his district in the state assembly, and four times had been elected county clerk. Then he had retired on his honors, with a competence from his early investments and an undivided ambition to paint corn.
Through all those years he had watched the struggles of Peter Newbolt, who never seemed able to kick a foothold in the steps of success, and he had seen him die at last, with his unrealized schemes of life around him. And now Peter's boy was in jail, charged with slaying old Isom Chase. Death had its compensations, at the worst, reflected the colonel. It had spared Peter this crowning disgrace.
That boy must be a throw-back, thought the colonel, to the ambuscading, feud-fighting men on his mother's side. The Newbolts never had been accused of crime back in Kentucky. There they had been the legislators, the judges, the governors, and senators. Yes, thought the colonel, coming around the corner of the house, lifting the fragrant bunch of mint to his face and pausing a step while he drank its breath; yes, the boy must be a throw-back. It wasn't in the Newbolt blood to do a thing like that.
The colonel heard the front gate close sharply, drawn to by the stone weight which he had arranged for that purpose, having in mind the guarding of his mint-bed from the incursions of dogs. He wondered who could be coming in so early, and hastened forward to see. A woman was coming up the walk toward the house.
She was tall, and soberly clad, and wore a little shawl over her head, which she held at her chin with one hand. The other hand she extended toward the colonel with a gesture of self-depreciation and appeal as she hurried forward in long strides.
"Colonel Price, Colonel Price, sir! Can I speak to you a minute?" she asked, her voice halting from the shortness of breath.
"Certainly, ma'am; I am at your command," said the colonel.
"Colonel, you don't know me," said she, a little inflection of disappointment in her tone.
She stood before him, and the little shawl over her hair fell back to her shoulders. Her clothing was poor, her feet were covered with dust. She cast her hand out again in that little movement of appeal.
"Mrs. Newbolt, Peter Newbolt's widow, upon my soul!" exclaimed the colonel, shocked by his own slow recognition. "I beg your pardon, madam. I didn't know you at first, it has been so long since I saw you. But I was thinking of you only the minute past."
"Oh, I'm in such trouble, Colonel Price!" said she.
Colonel Price took her by the arm with tender friendliness.
"Come in and rest and refresh yourself," said he. "You surely didn't walk over here?"
"Yes, it's only a step," said she.
"Five or six miles, I should say," ventured the colonel.
"Oh, no, only four. Have you heard about my boy Joe?"
The colonel admitted that he had heard of his arrest.
"I've come over to ask your advice on what to do," said she, "and I hope it won't bother you much, Colonel Price. Joe and me we haven't got a friend in this world!"
"I will consider it a duty and a pleasure to assist the boy in any way I can," said the colonel in perfunctory form. "But first come in, have some breakfast, and then we'll talk it over. I'll have to apologize for Miss Price. I'm afraid she's abed yet," said he, opening the door, showing his visitor into the parlor.
"I'm awful early," said Mrs. Newbolt hesitating at the door. "It's shameful to come around disturbin' folks at this hour. But when a body's in trouble, Colonel Price, time seems long."
"It's the same with all of us," said he. "But Miss Price will be down presently. I think I hear her now. Just step in, ma'am."
She looked deprecatingly at her dusty shoes, standing there in the parlor door, her skirts gathered back from them.
"If I could wipe some of this dust off," said she.
"Never mind that; we are all made of it," the colonel said. "I'll have the woman set you out some breakfast; afterward we'll talk about the boy."
"I thank you kindly, Colonel Price, but I already et, long ago, what little I had stomach for," said she.
"Then if you will excuse me for a moment, madam?" begged the colonel, seeing her seated stiffly in an upholstered chair.
She half rose in acknowledgment of his bow, awkward and embarrassed.
"You're excusable, sir," said she.
The colonel dashed away down the hall. She was only a mountain woman, certainly, but she was a lady by virtue of having been a gentleman's wife. And she had caught him without a coat!
Mrs. Newbolt sat stiffly in the parlor in surroundings which were of the first magnitude of grandeur to her, with corn pictures adorning the walls along with some of the colonel's early transgressions in landscapes, and the portraits of colonels in the family line who had gone before. That was the kind of fixings Joe would like, thought she, nodding her serious head; just the kind of things that Joe would enjoy and understand, like a gentleman born to it.
"Well, he comes by it honest," said she aloud.
Colonel Price did not keep her waiting long. He came back in a black coat that was quite as grand as Judge Little's, and almost as long. That garment was the mark of fashion and gentility in that part of the country in those days, a style that has outlived many of the hearty old gentlemen who did it honor, and has descended even to this day with their sons.
"My son's innocent of what they lay to him, Colonel Price," said Mrs. Newbolt, with impressive dignity which lifted her immediately in the colonel's regard.
Even an inferior woman could not associate with a superior man that long without some of his gentility passing to her, thought he. Colonel Price inclined his head gravely.
"Madam, Peter Newbolt's son never would commit a crime, much less the crime of murder," he said, yet with more sincerity in his words, perhaps, than lay in his heart.
"I only ask you to hold back your decision on him till you can learn the truth," said she, unconsciously passing over the colonel's declaration of confidence. "You don't remember Joe maybe, for he was only a little shaver the last time you stopped at our house when you was canvassin' for office. That's been ten or 'leven—maybe more—years ago. Joe, he's growed considerable since then."
"They do, they shoot up," said the colonel encouragingly.
"Yes; but Joe he's nothing like me. He runs after his father's side of the family, and he's a great big man in size now, Colonel Price; but he's as soft at heart as a dove."
So she talked on, telling him what she knew. When she had finished laying the case of Joe before him, the colonel sat thinking it over a bit, one hand in his beard, his head slightly bowed. Mrs. Newbolt watched him with anxious eyes. Presently he looked at her and smiled. A great load of uncertainty went up from her heart in a sigh.
"The first thing to do is to get him a lawyer, and the best one we can nail," the colonel said.
She nodded, her face losing its worried tension.
"And the next thing is for Joe to make a clean breast of everything, holding back nothing that took place between him and Isom that night."
"I'll tell him to do it," said she eagerly, "and I know he will when I tell him you said he must."
"I'll go over to the sheriff's with you and see him," said the colonel, avoiding the use of the word "jail" with a delicacy that was his own.
"I'm beholden to you, Colonel Price, for all your great kindness," said she.
There had been no delay in the matter of returning an indictment against Joe. The grand jury was in session at that time, opportunely for all concerned, and on the day that Joe was taken to the county jail the case was laid before that body by the prosecuting attorney. Before the grand jury adjourned that day's business a true bill had been returned against Joe Newbolt, charging him with the murder of Isom Chase.
There was in Shelbyville at that time a lawyer who had mounted to his profession like a conqueror, over the heads of his fellow-townsmen as stepping-stones. Perhaps it would be nearer the mark to say that the chins of the men of Shelbyville were the rungs in this ladder, for the lawyer had risen from the barber's chair. He had shaved and sheared his way from that ancient trade, in which he had been respected as an able hand, to the equally ancient profession, in which he was cutting a rather ludicrous and lumbering figure.
But he had that enterprise and lack of modesty which has lately become the fashion among young lawyers—and is spreading fast among the old ones, too—which carried him into places and cases where simply learning would have left him without a brief. If a case did not come to Lawyer Hammer, Lawyer Hammer went to the case, laid hold of it by force, and took possession of it as a kidnaper carries off a child.
Hammer was a forerunner of the type of lawyer so common in our centers of population today, such as one sees chasing ambulances through the streets with a business-card in one hand and a contract in the other; such as arrives at the scene of wreck, fire, and accident along with the undertaker, and always ahead of the doctors and police.
Hammer had his nose in the wind the minute that Constable Frost came into town with his prisoner. Before Joe had been in jail an hour he had engaged himself to defend that unsophisticated youngster, and had drawn from him an order on Mrs. Newbolt for twenty-five dollars. He had demanded fifty as his retainer, but Joe knew that his mother had but twenty-five dollars saved out of his wages, and no more. He would not budge a cent beyond that amount.
So, as Mrs. Newbolt and Colonel Price approached the jail that morning, they beheld the sheriff and Lawyer Hammer coming down the steps of the county prison, and between them Joe, like Eugene Aram, "with gyves upon his wrists." The sheriff was taking Joe out to arraign him before the circuit judge to plead to the indictment.
The court convened in that same building where all the county's business was centered, and there was no necessity for taking the prisoner out through one door and in at another, for there was a passage from cells to court-rooms. But if he had taken Joe that way, the sheriff would have lost a seldom-presented opportunity of showing himself on the streets in charge of a prisoner accused of homicide, to say nothing of the grand opening for the use of his ancient wrist-irons.
Lawyer Hammer also enjoyed his distinction in that short march. He leaned over and whispered in his client's ear, so that there would be no doubt left in the public understanding of his relations to the prisoner, and he took Joe's arm and added his physical support to his legal as they descended the steps.
Mrs. Newbolt was painfully shocked by the sight of the irons on Joe's wrists. She groaned as if they clamped the flesh of her own.
"Oh, they didn't need to do that," she moaned.
Joe doubtless heard her, for he lifted his face and ran his eyes through the crowd which had gathered. When he found her he smiled. That was the first look Colonel Price ever had taken into the lad's face.
"No," said he, answering her anguished outbreak with a fervency that came from his heart, "there was no need of that at all."
They followed the sheriff and his charge into the court-room, where Mrs. Newbolt introduced Colonel Price to her son. While Joe and his mother sat in whispered conversation at the attorney's table, the colonel studied the youth's countenance.
He had expected to meet a weak-faced, bony-necked, shock-headed type of gangling youngster such as ranged the Kentucky hills in his own boyhood. At best he had hoped for nothing more than a slow-headed, tobacco-chewing rascal with dodging, animal eyes. The colonel's pleasure, then, both as an artist and an honest man, was great on beholding this unusual face, strong and clear, as inflexible in its molded lines of high purpose and valiant deeds as a carving in Flemish oak.
Here was the Peter Newbolt of long ago, remodeled in a stronger cast, with more nobility in his brow, more promise in his long, bony jaw. Here was no boy at all, but a man, full-founded and rugged, and as honest as daylight, the colonel knew.
Colonel Price was prepared to believe whatever that young fellow might say, and to maintain it before the world. He was at once troubled to see Hammer mixed up in the case, for he detested Hammer as a plebeian smelling of grease, who had shouldered his unwelcome person into a company of his betters, which he could neither dignify nor grace.
The proceedings in court were brief. Joe stood, upon the reading of the long, rambling information by the prosecuting attorney, and entered a calm and dignified plea of not guilty. He was held without bond for trial two weeks from that day.
In the sheriff's office Mrs. Newbolt and the colonel sat with Joe, his wrists free from the humiliating irons, and talked the situation over. Hammer was waiting on the outside. Colonel Price having waved him away, not considering for a moment the lowering of himself to include Hammer in the conference.
The colonel found that he could not fall into an easy, advisory attitude with Joe. He could not even suggest what he had so strongly recommended to Mrs. Newbolt before meeting her son—that he make a clean breast of all that took place between himself and Isom Chase before the tragedy. Colonel Price felt that he would be taking an offensive and unwarranted liberty in offering any advice at all on that head. Whatever his reasons for concealment and silence were, the colonel told himself, the young man would be found in the end justified; or if there was a revelation to be made, then he would make it at the proper time without being pressed. Of that the colonel felt sure. A gentleman could be trusted.
But there was another matter upon which the colonel had no scruples of silence, and that was the subject of the attorney upon whom Joe had settled to conduct his affairs.
"That man Hammer is not, to say the least, the very best lawyer in Shelbyville," said he.
"No, I don't suppose he is," allowed Joe.
"Now, I believe in you, Joe, as strong as any man can believe in another——"
"Thank you, sir," said Joe, lifting his solemn eyes to the colonel's face. The colonel nodded his acknowledgment.
"But, no matter how innocent you are, you've got to stand trial on this outrageous charge, and the county attorney he's a hard and unsparing man. You'll need brains on your side as well as innocence, for innocence alone seldom gets a man off. And I'm sorry to tell you, son, that Jeff Hammer hasn't got the brains you'll need in your lawyer. He never did have 'em, and he never will have 'em—never in this mortal world!"
"I thought he seemed kind of sharp," said Joe, coloring a little at the colonel's implied charge that he had been taken in.
"He is sharp," admitted the colonel, "but that's all there is to him. He can wiggle and squirm like a snake; but he's got no dignity, and no learnin', and what he don't know about law would make a book bigger than the biggest dictionary you ever saw."
"Land's sake!" said Mrs. Newbolt, lifting up her hands despairingly.
"Oh, I guess he'll do, Colonel Price," said Joe.
"My advice would be to turn him out and put somebody else in his place, one of the old, respectable heads of the profession here, like Judge Burns."
"I wouldn't like to do that, colonel," said Joe.
"Well, we'll see how he behaves," the colonel yielded, seeing that Joe felt in honor bound to Hammer, now that he had engaged him. "We can put somebody else in if he goes to cuttin' up too many didoes and capers."
Joe agreed that they could, and gave his mother a great deal of comfort and assurance by his cheerful way of facing what lay ahead of him. He told her not to worry on his account, and not to come too often and wear herself out in the long walk.
"Look after the chickens and things, Mother," said he, "and I'll be out of here in two weeks to help you along. There's ten dollars coming to you from Isom's; you collect that and buy yourself some things."
He told her of the order that he had given Hammer for the retaining fee, and asked her to take it up.
"I'll make it up to you, Mother, when I get this thing settled and can go to work again," said he.
Tears came into her eyes, but no trace of emotion was to be marked by any change in her immobile face.
"Lord bless you, son, it all belongs to you!" she said.
"Do you care about reading?" the colonel inquired, scarcely supposing that he did, considering the chances which had been his for development in that way.
Mrs. Newbolt answered for Joe, who was slow and deliberative of speech, and always stopped to weigh his answer to a question, no matter how obvious the reply must be.
"Oh, Colonel Price, if you could see him!" said she proudly. "Before he was ten years old he'd read the Cottage Encyclopedy and the Imitation and the Bible—from back to back!"
"Well, I'm glad to hear you're of a studious mind," said the colonel.
As often as Joe had heard his mother boast of his achievements with those three notable books, he had not yet grown hardened to it. It always gave him a feeling of foolishness, and drowned him in blushes. Now it required some time for him to disentangle himself, but presently he looked at the colonel with a queer smile, as he said:
"Mother always tells that on me."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," comforted the colonel, marking his confusion.
"And all the books he's borrowed since then!" said she, conveying a sense of magnitude by the stress of her expression. "He strained his eyes so when he was seventeen readin' Shuckspur's writings that the teacher let him have I thought he'd have to put on specs."
"My daughter and I have a considerable number of books," said the colonel, beginning to feel about for a bit more elegance in his method of expression, as a thing due from one man of culture to another, "and if you will express your desires I'm sure we shall be glad to supply you if the scope of our library permits."
Joe thanked him for the offer, that strange little smile coming over his face again.
"It wouldn't take much of a library, Colonel Price, to have a great many books in it that I've never read," said he. "I haven't been easy enough in my mind since this thing came up to think about reading—I've got a book in my pocket that I'd forgotten all about until you mentioned books." He lifted the skirt of his short coat, his pocket bulging from the volume wedged into it. "I'll have a job getting it out, too," said he.
"It don't seem to be a very heavy volume," smiled the colonel. "What work is it?"
"It's the Book," said Joe.
Colonel Price laid his hand on the lad's shoulder and looked him straight in the face.
"Then you've got by you the sum and substance of all knowledge, and the beginning and the end of all philosophy," said he. "With that work in your hand you need no other, for it's the father of all books."
"I've thought that way about it myself sometimes," said Joe, as easy and confident in his manner with the colonel, who represented a world to which he was a stranger from actual contact, as a good swimmer in water beyond his depth.
"But if you happen to be coming over this way in a day or two you might stop in if it wouldn't trouble you, and I could name over to you a few books that I've been wanting to read for a long time."
"I intend to lighten your brief period of confinement as much as it is in my power to do," declared the colonel, "and I can speak for my daughter when I say that she will share my anxiety to make you as comfortable as human hands can make you in this place, Joe. We'll come over and cheer you every little while."
Mrs. Newbolt had sat by, like one who had been left behind at a way-station by an express-train, while the colonel and Joe had talked. They had gone beyond her limited powers; there was nothing for her to do but wait for them to come back. Now the colonel had reached her point of contact again.
"You'll be rewarded for your kindness to the widow's son," said she, nodding her head earnestly, tears shining in her eyes.
When he was leaving, Colonel Price felt that he must make one more effort to induce Joe to discharge Hammer and put his case into the hands of a more competent man. Joe was firm in his determination to give Hammer a chance. He was a little sensitive on the matter under the rind, the colonel could see.
"If I was to hire the best lawyer I could find, Colonel Price, people would say then that I was guilty, sure enough," said Joe. "They'd say I was depending more on the lawyer than myself to come clear. Well, colonel, you know that isn't the case."
That seemed to settle it, at least for the present. The colonel summoned the sheriff, who took Joe to his cell. As the colonel and Mrs. Newbolt passed out, Attorney Hammer appeared, presenting his order for the money.
Mrs. Newbolt carried her savings with her. When she had paid Hammer she had sixty cents left in her calloused palm.
"That's egg money," said she, tying it in the corner of her handkerchief. "Oh, colonel, I forgot to ask the sheriff, but do you reckon they'll give my Joe enough to eat?"
"I'll see to that," said Hammer officiously.
Hammer was a large, soft man in an alpaca-coat and white shirt without a collar. His hair was very black and exceedingly greasy, and brushed down upon his skull until it glittered, catching every ray of light in his vicinity like a bucket of oil. He walked in long strides, with a sliding motion of the feet, and carried his hands with the palms turned outward, as if ready instantly to close upon any case, fee, or emolument which came in passing contact with him, even though it might be on its way to somebody else.
Mrs. Newbolt was not unfavorably impressed with him, for he seemed very officious and altogether domineering in the presence of the sheriff, but her opinion may have been influenced perhaps by Joe's determination to have him whether or no. She thanked him for his promise of good offices in Joe's behalf, and he took her arm and impeded her greatly in her progress down the steps.
After Mrs. Newbolt had taken some refreshment in the colonel's house, she prepared to return home.
"If I had a hoss, madam," said the colonel, "I'd hitch up and carry you home. But I don't own a hoss, and I haven't owned one for nine years, since the city grew up so around me I had to sell off my land to keep the taxes from eatin' me up. If I did own a hoss now," he laughed, "I'd have no place to keep him except under the bed, like they do the houn'-dogs back in Kentucky."
She made light of the walk, for Joe's bright and sanguine carriage had lightened her sorrow. She had hope to walk home with, and no wayfarer ever traveled in more pleasant company.
The colonel and his daughter pressed her to make their home her resting-place when in town, even inviting her to take up her abode there until the trial. This generous hospitality she could not accept on account of the "critters" at home which needed her daily care, and the eggs which had to be gathered and saved and sold, all against the happy day when her boy Joe would walk out free and clear from the door of the county jail.
THE SUNBEAM ON THE WALL
The sheriff was a mild-mannered man, whose head was shaped like the end of a watermelon. His hair was close-cut and very thin at the top, due to the fact that all the nourishing substances both inside and outside his head, or any way appertaining thereto, went into the maintenance of the sheriff's mustache, which was at least twice as large as Bill Frost's.
This, of course, was as it should have been, for even the poorest kind of a sheriff is more than twice as important as the very best sort of constable. In those days it was the custom for sheriffs in that part of the country to train up these prodigious mustaches, perhaps in the belief that such adornments lent them the appearance of competence and valor, of which endowments nature had given them no other testimonial. In any event it is known that many a two-inch sheriff took his stand behind an eight-inch mustache, and walked boldly in the honor of his constituents.
The sheriff of Shelbyville was a type of this class, both in mental depth and facial adornment. He was exceedingly jealous of his power, and it was his belief that too many liberties permitted a prisoner, and too many favors shown, acted in contravention of the law's intent as interpreted by the prosecuting attorney; namely, that a person under the cloud of accusation should be treated as guilty until able to prove himself innocent. Therefore the sheriff would not allow Joe Newbolt to leave his cell to meet visitors after his arraignment.
The meeting between the prisoner and his mother in the office of the jail was to be the last of that sort; all who came in future must see him at the door of his cell. That was the rule laid down to Joe when he parted from his mother and Colonel Price that day.
As a cell in a prison-house, perhaps Joe's place of confinement was fairly comfortable. It was situated in the basement of the old court-house, where there was at least light enough to contemplate one's misery by, and sufficient air to set one longing for the fields. There was but one other prisoner, a horse-thief, waiting for trial.
This loquacious fellow, who was lodged directly across the corridor, took great pains to let Joe see the admiration and esteem in which he held him on account of the distinguished charge under which he was confined. He annoyed Joe to such extent that he asked the sheriff that evening to shift them about if possible.
"Well, I'll move him if you say so, but I left him there because I thought he'd be company for you," said the sheriff. "I don't mind talkin' in this jail when there's no more than two in it."
"I don't want to talk," said Joe.
So the horse-thief was removed to the farther end of the corridor, where he kept up a knocking on the bars of his cell during the early hours of the night, and then turned off his diversion by imitating the sound of a saw on steel, which he could do with his tongue against his teeth with such realism as to bring the sheriff down in his nightshirt, with a lantern in one hand and a shotgun in the other.
Joe's second night in jail passed very much like the first, when they had brought him there all bewildered and dazed. There was a grated window in the wall above his reach, through which he could see the branches of an elm-tree, blowing bare of leaves; beyond that a bit of sky. Joe sat on the edge of his cot that second night a long time after the stars came out, gazing up at the bar-broken bit of sky, reviewing the events leading up to his situation.
There was no resentment in him against the jury of his neighbors whose finding had sent him to jail under the cloud of that terrible accusation; he harbored no ill-feeling for the busy, prying little coroner, who had questioned him so impertinently. There was one person alone, in the whole world of men, to blame, and that was Curtis Morgan. He could not have been far away on the day of the inquest; news of the tragic outcome of Ollie's attempt to join him must have traveled to his ears.
Yet he had not come forward to take the load of suspicion from Joe's shoulders by confessing the treacherous thing that he had plotted. He need not have revealed the complete story of his trespass upon the honor of Isom Chase, thought Joe; he could have saved Ollie's name before the neighbors; and yet relieved Joe of all suspicion. Now that Isom was dead, he could have married her. But Morgan had not come. He was a coward as well as a rascal. It was more than likely that, in fear of being found out, he had fled away.
And suppose that he never came back; suppose that Ollie should not elect to stand forth and explain the hidden part of that night's tragedy? She could not be expected, within reason, to do this. Even the thought that she might weaken and do so was abhorrent to Joe. It was not a woman's part to make a sacrifice like that; the world did not expect it of her. It rested with Morgan, the traitor to hospitality; Morgan, the ingratiating scoundrel, to come forward and set him free. Morgan alone could act honorably in that clouded case; but if he should elect to remain hidden and silent, who would be left to answer but Joe Newbolt?
And should he reveal the thing that would bring him liberty? Was freedom more precious than his honor, and the honor of a poor, shrinking, deluded woman?
No. He was bound by a gentleman's obligation; self-assumed, self-appointed. He could not tell.
But what a terrible situation, what an awful outlook for him in such event! They hung men for murder on the jail-yard gallows, with a knot of rope behind the left ear and a black cap over the face. And such a death left a stain upon the name that nothing would purify. It was an attainder upon generations unborn.
Joe walked his cell in the agony of his sudden and acute understanding of the desperate length to which this thing might carry him. Hammer had protested, with much show of certainty, that he would get him off without much difficulty. But perhaps Hammer was counting on him to reveal what he had kept to himself at the inquest. What should he do about that in his relations with Hammer? Should he tell him about Morgan, and have him set men on his track to drag him back and make him tell the truth? Granting that they found him, who was there to make him speak?
Could not Morgan and Ollie, to cover their own shame and blame, form a pact of silence or denial and turn back his good intentions in the form of condemnation upon his own head? How improbable and unworthy of belief his tale, with its reservations and evasions, would sound to a jury with Morgan and Ollie silent.
The fright of his situation made him feverish; he felt that he could tear at the walls with his hands, and scream, and scream until his heart would burst. He was unmanned there in the dark. He began to realize this finally after his frenzy had thrown him into a fever. He gave over his pacing of the little cell, and sat down again to reason and plan.
Hammer had made so much talk about the papers which he would get ready that Joe had been considerably impressed. He saw now that it would require something more than papers to make people understand that he had a gentleman's reason, and not a thief's, for concealing what they had pressed him to reveal.
There was a woman first, and that was about all that Joe could make of the situation up to that time. She must be protected, even though unworthy. None knew of that taint upon her but himself and the fugitive author of it, but Joe could not bring himself to contemplate liberty bought at the price of her public degradation. This conclusion refreshed him, and dispelled the phantoms from his hot brain.
After the sounds of the town had fallen quiet, and the knocking of feet on the pavement along his prison wall had ceased, Joe slept. He woke steady, and himself again, long before he could see the sun, yellow on the boughs of the elm-tree.
The sheriff furnished him a piece of comb, and he smoothed his hair by guess, a desperate character, such as he was accounted by the officer, not being allowed the luxury of a mirror. One might lick the quicksilver from the back of a mirror, or open an artery with a fragment of it, or even pound the glass and swallow it. Almost anything was nicer than hanging, so the sheriff said.
Scant as the food had been at Isom's until his revolt had forced a revision of the old man's lifelong standard, Joe felt that morning after his second jail breakfast that he would have welcomed even a hog-jowl and beans. The sheriff was allowed but forty cents a day for the maintenance of each prisoner, and, counting out the twenty-five cents profit which he felt as a politician in good standing to be his due, the prisoners' picking was very lean indeed.
That morning Joe's breakfast had been corn-pone, cold, with no lubricant to ease it down the lane. There had been a certain squeamish liquid in addition, which gave off the smell of a burning straw-stack, served in a large tin cup. Joe had not tasted it, but his nose had told him that it was "wheat coffee," a brew which his mother had made sometimes in the old days of their darkest adversity.
Joe knew from the experience of the previous day that there would be nothing more offered to fortify the stomach until evening. The horse-thief called up from his end of the jail, asking Joe how he liked the fare.
Reserved as Joe was disposed to be toward him, he expressed himself somewhat fully on the subject of the sheriff's cuisine. The horse-thief suggested a petition to the county court or a letter to the sheriff's political opponent. He said that his experience in jails had been that a complaint on the food along about election time always brought good results. Joe was not interested in the matter to that extent. He told the fellow that he did not expect to be a permanent occupant of the jail.
"You think you'll go down the river for a double-nine?" he asked.
"I don't know what you mean," said Joe.
"To the pen for life, kid; that's what I mean."
"I don't know," said Joe gloomily.
"Well, say, I tell you, if they give you the other," said the friendly thief, lifting his naturally high voice to make it carry along the echoing passage, "you'll git plenty to eat, and three times a day, too. When they put a feller in the death-cell they pass in the finest chuck in the land. You know, if a feller's got a smart lawyer he can keep up that line of eatin' for maybe two or three years by appealin' his case and dodges like that."
"I don't want to talk," said Joe.
"Oh, all right, kid," said the thief flippantly. Then he rattled his grated door to draw Joe's attention.
"But, 'y God, kid, the day's comin' to you when you will want to talk, and when you'd give the teeth out of your mouth, and nearly the eyes out of your head, for the sound of a friendly human voice aimed at you. Let 'em take you off down the river to Jeff' City and put you behind them tall walls once, where the best you hear's a cuss from a guard, and where you march along with your hands on the shoulders of the man in front of you; and another one behind you does the same to you, and their eyes all down and their faces the color of corpses, and then you'll know!
"You'll hear them old fellers, them long-timers, whisperin' in the night, talkin' to theirselves, and it'll sound to you like wind in the grass. And you'll think of grass and trees and things like that on the outside, and you'll feel like you want to ram your head ag'in' the wall and yell. Maybe you'll do it—plenty of 'em does—and then they'll give you the water-cure, they'll force it down you with a hose till you think you'll bust. I tell you, kid, I know, 'y God! I've been there—but not for no double-nine like they'll give you."
The man's voice seemed to be hanging and sounding yet in the corridor, even after he was silent, his cruel picture standing in distorted fancy before Joe's eyes. Joe wiped the sweat from his forehead, breathing through his open mouth.
"Well, maybe they won't, though," said the fellow, resuming as if after considering it, "maybe they'll give you the quick and painless, I don't know."
Joe had been standing at his cell door, drawn to listen to the lecture of his fellow prisoner, terrible, hopeless, as it sounded in his ears. Now he sat on his bedside again, feeling that this was indeed a true forecast of his own doom. The sun seemed already shut out from him in the morning of his day, the prison silence settling, never to be broken again in those shadows where shuffling men filed by, with eyes downcast and faces gray, like the faces of the dead.
Life without liberty would be a barren field, he knew; but liberty without honor would yield no sweeter fruit. And who was there in the world of honorable men to respect a coward who had saved his own skin from the fire by stripping a frail woman's back to the brand? A gentleman couldn't do it, said Joe, at the end, coming back from his sweating race with fear to the starting-place, a good deal cooled, not a little ashamed.
Let them use him as they might; he would stand by his first position in the matter. He would have to keep on lying, as he had begun; but it would be repeating an honorable lie, and no man ever went to hell for that.
The sun was coming through the high cell window, broadening its oblique beam upon the wall. Looking up at it, Joe thought that it must be mid-morning. Now that his panic was past, his stomach began to make a gnawing and insistent demand for food. Many a heavy hour must march by, thought he, before the sheriff came with his beggarly portion. He felt that in case he should be called upon to endure imprisonment long he must fall away to a skeleton and die.
In his end of the corridor the horse-thief was still, and Joe was glad of it. No matter how earnestly he might come to desire the sound of a human voice in time, he did not want to hear the horse-thief's then, nor any other that prophesied such disquieting things.
There was a barred gate across the corridor at the foot of the stairs which led up to the sheriff's office. Joe's heart jumped with the hope that it was his mother coming when he heard the key in the lock and voices at the grating.
"Right down there, to the right," the sheriff was directing. "When you want to leave just come here and rattle the lock. I can't take no chances bringin' such desperate fellers as him up to the office, colonel. You can see that as well as me."
What Colonel Price replied Joe could not hear, for his low-modulated voice of culture was like velvet beside a horse-blanket compared to the sheriff's.
"I'm over on this side, colonel, sir," said Joe before he could see him.
And then the colonel stepped into the light which came through the cell window, bringing with him one who seemed as fair to Joe in that somber place as the bright creatures who stood before Jacob in Bethel that night he slept with his head upon a stone.
"This is my daughter," said Colonel Price. "We called in to kind of cheer you up."
She offered Joe her hand between the bars; his went forward to meet it gropingly, for it lacked the guidance of his eyes.
Joe was honey-bound, like an eager bee in the heart of some great golden flower, tangled and leashed in a thousand strands of her hair. The lone sunbeam of his prison had slipped beyond the lintel of his low door, as if it had timed its coming to welcome her, and now it lay like a hand in benediction above her brow.
Her hair was as brown as wild honey; a golden glint lay in it here and there under the sun, like the honeycomb. A smile kindled in her brown eyes as she looked at him, and ran out to the corners of them in little crinkles, then moved slowly upon her lips. Her face was quick with the eagerness of youth, and she was tall.
"I'm surely beholden to you, Miss Price, for this favor," said Joe, lapsing into the Kentucky mode of speech, "and I'm ashamed to be caught in such a place as this."
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," said she; "we know you are innocent."
"Thank you kindly, Miss Price," said he with quaint, old courtesy that came to him from some cavalier of Cromwell's day.
"I thought you'd better meet Alice," explained the colonel, "and get acquainted with her, for young people have tastes in common that old codgers like me have outgrown. She might see some way that I would overlook to make you more comfortable here during the time you will be obliged to wait."
"Yes, sir," said Joe, hearing the colonel's voice, but not making much out of what he was saying.
He was thinking that out of the gloom of his late cogitations she had come, like hope hastening to refute the argument of the horse-thief. His case could not be so despairing with one like her believing in him. It was a matter beyond a person such as a horse-thief, of course. One of a finer nature could understand.
"Father spoke of some books," she ventured; "if you will——"
Her voice was checked suddenly by a sound which rose out of the farther end of the corridor and made her start and clutch her father's arm. Joe pressed his face against the bars and looked along at his fellow prisoner, who was dragging his tin cup over the bars of his cell door with rapid strokes.
When the thief saw that he had drawn the attention of the visitors, he thrust his arm out and beckoned to the colonel. "Mister, I want to ask you to do me a little turn of a favor," he begged in a voice new to Joe, so full of anguish, so tremulous and weak. "I want you to carry out to the world and put in the papers the last message of a dyin' man!"
"What's the matter with you, you poor wretch?" asked the colonel, moved to pity.
"Don't pay any attention to him," advised Joe; "he's only acting up. He's as strong as I am. I think he wants to beg from you."
The colonel turned away from him to resume his conference with Joe, and the horse-thief once more rattled his cup across the bars.
"That noise is very annoying," said the colonel, turning to the man tartly. "Stop it now, before I call the sheriff!"
"Friend, it's a starvin' man that's appealin' to you," said the prisoner, "it's a man that ain't had a full meal in three weeks. Ask that gentleman what we git here, let him tell you what this here sheriff that's up for election agin serves to us poor fellers. Corn dodger for breakfast, so cold you could keep fish on it, and as hard as the rocks in this wall! That's what we git, and that's all we git. Ask your friend."
"Is he telling the truth?" asked the colonel, looking curiously at Joe.
"I'm afraid he is, colonel, sir."
"I'll talk to him," said the colonel.
In a moment he was listening to the horse-thief's earnest relation of the hardships which he had suffered in the Shelbyville jail, and Joe and Alice were standing face to face, with less than a yard's space between them, but a barrier there as insuperable as an alp.
He wanted to say something to cause her to speak again, for her low voice was as wonderful to him as the sound of some strange instrument moved to unexpected music by a touch in the dark. He saw her looking down the corridor, and swiftly around her, as if afraid of what lay in the shadows of the cells, afraid of the memories of old crimes which they held, and the lingering recollection of the men they had contained.
"He'll not do any harm, don't be afraid," said he.
"No, I'm not," she told him, drawing a little nearer, quite unconsciously, he knew, as she spoke. "I was thinking how dreadful it must be here for you, especially in the night. But it will not be for long," she cheered him; "we know they'll soon set you free."
"I suppose a person would think a guilty man would suffer more here than an innocent one," said he, "but I don't think that's so. That man down there knows he's going to be sent to the penitentiary for stealing a horse, but he sings."
She was looking at him, a little cloud of perplexity in her eyes, as if there was something about him which she had not looked for and did not quite understand. She blushed when Joe turned toward her, slowly, and caught her eyes at their sounding.
He was thinking over a problem new to him, also—the difference in women. There was Ollie, who marked a period in his life when he began to understand these things, dimly. Ollie was not like this one in any particular that he could discover as common between them. She was far back in the past today, like a simple lesson, hard in its hour, but conquered and put by. Here was one as far above Ollie as a star.
Miss Price began to speak of books, reaching out with a delicate hesitancy, as if she feared that she might lead into waters too deep for him to follow. He quickly relieved her of all danger of embarrassment on that head by telling her of some books which he had not read, but wished to read, holding to the bars as he talked, looking wistfully toward the spot of sunlight which was now growing as slender as a golden cord against the gray wall. His eyes came back to her face, to find that look of growing wonder there, to see her quick blush mount and consume it in her eyes like a flame.
"You've made more of the books that you've read than many of us with a hundred times more," said she warmly. "I'll be ashamed to mention books to you again."
"You oughtn't say that," said he, hanging his head in boyish confusion, feeling that same sense of shyness and desire to hide as came over him when his mother recounted his youthful campaign against the three books on the Newbolt shelf.
"You remember what you get out of them," she nodded gravely, "I don't."
"My father used to say that was one advantage in having a few," said he.
The colonel joined them then, the loud-spoken benediction of the horse-thief following him. There was a flush of indignation in his face and fire in his eyes.
"I'll expose the scoundrel; I'll show him that he can't rob both the county and the helpless men that misfortune throws into his hands!" the colonel declared.
He gave his hand to Joe in his ceremonious fashion.
"I've got some pressing business ahead of me with the sheriff," he said, "and we'll be going along. But I'll manage to come over every few days and bring what cheer I can to you, Joe."
"Don't put yourself out," said Joe; "but I'll be mighty glad to see you any time."
"This is only a cloud in your life, boy; it will pass, and leave your sky serene and bright," the colonel cheered.
"I'll see how many of the books that you've named we have," said Alice. "I'm afraid we haven't them all."
"I'll appreciate anything at all," said Joe.
He looked after her as far as his eyes could follow, and then he listened until her footsteps died, turning his head, checking his breath, as if holding his very life poised to catch the fading music of some exquisite strain.
When she was quite out of hearing, he sighed, and marked an imaginary line upon the wall. Her head had reached to there, just on a level with a certain bolt. He measured himself against it to see where it struck in his own height. It was just a boy's trick. He blushed when he found himself at it.
He sat on his bedside and took up the Book. The humor for reading seemed to have passed away from him for then. But there was provender for thought, new thought, splendid and bright-colored. He felt that he had been associating, for the first time in his life, with his own kind. He never had seen Alice Price before that day, for their lives had been separated by all that divides the eminent from the lowly, the rich from the poor, and seeing her had been a moving revelation. She had come into his troubled life and soothed it, marking a day never to be forgotten. He sat there thinking of her, the unopened book in his hand.
How different she was from Ollie, the wild rose clambering unkept beside the hedge. She was so much more delicate in form and face than Ollie—Ollie, who—There was a sense of sacrilege in the thought. He must not name her with Ollie; he must not think of them in the measure of comparison. Even such juxtaposition was defiling for Alice. Ollie, the unclean!
Joe got up and walked his cell. How uncouth he was, thought he, his trousers in his boot-tops, his coat spare upon his growing frame. He regarded himself with a feeling of shame. Up to that time he never had given his clothing any thought. As long as it covered him, it was sufficient. But it was different after seeing Alice. Alice! What a soothing name!
Joe never knew what Colonel Price said to the sheriff; but after the little gleam of sun had faded out of his cell, and the gnawings of his stomach had become painfully acute, his keeper came down with a basket on his arm. He took from it a dinner of boiled cabbage and beef, such as a healthy man might lean upon with confidence, and the horse-thief came in for his share of it, also.
When the sheriff came to Joe's cell for the empty dishes, he seemed very solicitous for his comfort and welfare.
"Need any more cover on your bed, or anything?"
No, Joe thought there was enough cover; and he did not recall in his present satisfied state of stomach, that his cell lacked any other comfort that the sheriff could supply.
"Well, if you want anything, all you've got to do is holler," said the sheriff in a friendly way.
There is nothing equal to running for office to move the love of a man for his fellows, or to mellow his heart to magnanimous deeds.
"Say," called the horse-thief in voice softened by the vapors of his steaming dinner, "that friend of yours with the whiskers all over him is ace-high over here in this end of the dump! And say, friend, they could keep me here for life if they'd send purty girls like that one down here to see me once in a while. You're in right, friend; you certainly air in right!"
* * * * *
Colonel Price had kindled a fire in his library that night, for the first chill of frost was in the air. He sat in meditative pose, the newspaper spread wide and crumpling upon the floor beside him in his listlessly swinging hand. The light of the blazing logs was laughing in his glasses, and the soft gleam of the shaded lamp was on his hair.
Books by the hundred were there in the shelves about him. Old books, brown in the dignity of age and service to generations of men; new books, tucked among them in bright colors, like transient blooms in the homely stability of garden soil. There was a long oak table, made of native lumber and finished in its natural color, smoke-brown from age, like the books; and there was Alice, like a nimble bee skimming the sweets of flowers, flitting here and there in this scholar's sanctuary.
Colonel Price looked up out of his meditation and followed her with a smile.
"Have you found them all?" he asked.
"I've found Milton and The Lays of Ancient Rome and Don Quixote, but I can't find the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," said she.
"Judge Maxwell has it," he nodded; "he carried it away more than a month ago. It was the first time he ever met an English translation, he said. I must get it from him; he has a remarkably short memory for borrowed books."
Alice joined him in the laugh over the judge's shortcoming.
"He's a regular old dear!" she said.
"Ah, yes; if he was only forty years younger, Alice—if he was only forty years younger!" the colonel sighed.
"I like him better the way he is," said she.
"Where did that boy ever hear tell of Marcus Aurelius?" he wondered.
"I don't know." She shook her head. "I don't understand him, he seems so strange and deep. He's not like a boy. You'd think, from talking with him, that he'd had university advantages."
"It's blood," said the colonel, with the proud swelling of a man who can boast that precious endowment himself, "you can't keep it down. There's no use talking to me about this equality between men at the hour of birth; it's all a poetic fiction. It would take forty generations of this European scum such as is beginning to drift across to us and taint our national atmosphere to produce one Joe Newbolt! And he's got blood on only one side, at that.
"But the best in all the Newbolt generations that have gone before seem to be concentrated in that boy. He'll come through this thing as bright as a new bullet, and he'll make his mark in the world, too. Marcus Aurelius. Well, bless my soul!"
"Is it good?" she asked, stacking the books which she had selected on the table, standing with her hand on them, looking down at her smiling father with serious face.
"I wouldn't say that it would be good for a young lady with forty beaus and unable to choose among them, or for a frivolous young thing with three dances a week——"
"Oh, never more than two at the very height of social dissipation in Shelbyville!" she laughed.
He lifted a finger, imposing silence, and a laugh lurked in his eyes.
"No, I'd not say that such a light-headed creature would find much fodder in the ruminations and speculations and wise conclusions of our respected friend, Marcus," said he. "But a lad like Joe Newbolt, with a pair of eyes in his head like a prophet, will get a great deal of good, and even comfort, out of that book."
"We must get it from Judge Maxwell," said she conclusively.
"A strange lad, a strange lad," reflected the colonel.
"So tall and strong," said she. "Why, from the way his mother spoke of him, I expected to see a little fellow with trousers up to his knees."
She sat at the table and began cutting the leaves of a new magazine.
Colonel Price lifted his paper, smoothed the crumples out of it, adjusted the focus of his glasses, and resumed reading the county news. They seemed contented and happy there, alone, with their fire in the chimney. Fire itself is a companion. It is like youth in a room.
There was between them a feeling of comradeship and understanding which seldom lives where youth stands on one hand, age on the other. Years ago Alice's mother had gone beyond the storms and vexations of this life. Those two remaining of the little family had drawn together, closing up the space that her absence had made. There seemed no disparity of years, and their affection and fidelity had come to be a community pride.
Alice was far from being the frivolous young thing that her father's banter indicated. She had a train of admirers, never thinning from year to year, to be certain, for it had been the regular fate of adolescent male Shelbyville to get itself tangled up in love with Alice Price ever since her high-school days. Many of the youngsters soon outgrew the affection; but it seemed to become a settled and permanent affliction in others, threatening to incapacitate them from happiness, according to their young view of it, and blast their ambitions in the face of the world.
Every girl, to greater or less extent, has her courtiers of that kind. Nature has arranged this sort of tribute for the little queen-bees of humanity's hives. And so there were other girls in Shelbyville who had their train of beaus, but there was none quite so popular or so much desired as Alice Price.
Alice was considered the first beauty of the place. Added to this primary desirability was the fact that, in the fine gradations of pedigrees and the stringent exactions of blood which the patrician families of Shelbyville drew, Colonel Price and his daughter were the topmost plumes on the peacock of aristocracy. Other young ladies seemed to make all haste to assuage the pangs of at least one young man by marrying him, and to blunt the hopes of the rest by that decisive act. Not so Alice Price. She was frank and friendly, as eager for the laughter of life as any healthy young woman should be, but she gave the young men kindly counsel when they became insistent or boresome, and sent them away.
Shelbyville was founded by Kentuckians; some of the old State's best families were represented there. A person's pedigree was his credentials in the society of the slumbering little town, nestled away among the blue hills of Missouri. It did not matter so much about one's past, for blood will have its vagaries and outflingings of youthful spirit; and even less what the future promised, just so there was blood to vouch for him at the present.
Blood had not done a great deal for Shelbyville, no matter what its excellencies in social and political life. The old town stood just about as it was finished, sixty years and more before that time. Upstart cities had sprung up not far away, throwing Shelbyville into hopeless shadow. The entire energies of its pioneers seemed to have been expended in its foundation, leaving them too much exhausted to transmit any of their former fire and strength to their sons. It followed that the sons of Shelbyville were not what their fathers had been.
Of course, there were exceptions where one of them rose once in a while and made a streak across the state or national firmament. Some of them were eminent in the grave professions; most of them were conductors of street cars in Kansas City, the nearest metropolis. There was not room in Shelbyville for all its sons to establish themselves at law, even if they had all been equipped, and if a man could not be a lawyer or a college professor, what was open to him, indeed, but conducting a street-car? That was a placid life.
It is remarkable how Kentuckians can maintain the breed of their horses through many generations, but so frequently fall short in the standard of their sons. Kentuckians are only an instance. The same might be said of kings.
Not understanding her exactions in the matter, nor her broader requirements, Shelbyville could not make out why Alice Price remained unmated. She was almost twenty, they said, which was coming very close to the age-limit in Shelbyville. It was nothing unusual for girls to marry there at seventeen, and become grandmothers at thirty-seven.
If she wanted better blood than she could find in Shelbyville, the old gentlemen said, twisting their white old heads in argumentative finality, she'd have to go to the nobility of Europe. Even then she'd be running her chances, by Ned! They grew indignant when she refused to have their sons. They took it up with the colonel, they remonstrated, they went into pedigrees and offered to produce documents.
There was Shelley Bryant's father, a fine, straight-backed old gentleman with beard as white as the plumage of a dove. His son was a small, red-faced, sandy-haired, pale-eyed chap with spaces between his big front teeth. He traded in horses, and sometimes made as much as fifteen dollars on a Saturday. His magnitude of glory and manly dignity as compared to his father's was about that of a tin pan to the sun.
When Alice refused Shelley, the old general—he had won the title in war, unlike Colonel Price—went to the colonel and laid the matter off with a good deal of emphasis and flourishing of his knotted black stick. If a woman demanded blood, said the general, where could she aspire above Shelley? And beyond blood, what was there to be considered when it came to marrying and breeding up a race of men?
Champion that he was of blood and lineage, Colonel Price was nettled by the old gentleman's presumptuous urging of his unlikely son's cause.
"I am of the opinion, sir," Colonel Price replied, with a good bit of hauteur and heat, "that my daughter always has given, and always will give, the preference to brains!"
General Bryant had not spoken to the colonel for two months after that, and his son Shelley had proved his superiority by going off to Kansas City and taking a job reading gas-meters.
Colonel Price went to the mantel and filled his pipe from the tobacco-jar. He sat smoking for a little while, his paper on his knee.
"The lad's in deeper trouble, I'm afraid, than he understands," said he at last, as if continuing his reflections aloud, "and it may take a bigger heave to pull him out than any of us think right now."
"Oh, I hope not," said Alice, looking across at him suddenly, her eyes wide open with concern. "I understood that this was just a preliminary proceeding, a sort of formality to conform to the legal requirements, and that he would be released when they brought him up before Judge Maxwell. At least, that was the impression that he gave me of the case himself."
"Joe is an unsophisticated and honest lad," said the colonel. "There is something in the case that he refused to disclose or discuss before the coroner's jury, they say. I don't know what it is, but it's in relation to the quarrel between him and Isom Chase which preceded the tragedy. He seems to raise a point of honor on it, or something. I heard them say this afternoon that it was nothing but the fear that it would disclose his motive for the crime. They say he was making off with old Chase's money, but I don't believe that."
"They're wrong if they think that," said she, shaking her head seriously, "he'd never do a thing like that."
"No, I don't believe he would. But they found a bag of money in the room, old Chase had it clamped in the hook of his arm, they say."
"Well, I'm sure Joe Newbolt never had his hands on it, anyhow," said she.
"That's right," approved the colonel, nodding in slow thoughtfulness; "we must stand up for him, for his own sake as well as Peter's. He's worthy."
"And he's innocent. Can't you see that, father?"
"As plain as daylight," the colonel said.
The colonel stretched out his legs toward the blaze, crossed his feet and smoked in comfort.
"But I wonder what it can be that the boy's holding back?"
"He has a reason for it, whatever it is," she declared.
"That's as certain as taxes," said the colonel. "He's a remarkable boy, considering the chances he's had—bound out like a nigger slave, and beaten and starved, I'll warrant. A remark-able lad; very, very. Don't you think so, Alice?"
"I think he is, indeed," said she.
A long silence.
A stick in the chimney burned in two, the heavy ends outside the dogs dropped down, the red brands pointing upward. The colonel put his hand to his beard and sat in meditation. The wind was rising. Now and then it sounded like a groan in the chimney-top. Gray ashes formed, frost-like, over the ardent coals. The silence between them held unbroken.
Both sat, thought-wandering, looking into the fire....
UNTIL THE DAY BREAK
Although Isom Chase had been in his grave a week, and Judge Little had been cracking his coat-tails over the road between his home and the county-seat daily, the matter of the will and the administration of the estate remained as in the beginning.
Judge Little had filed the will for probate, and had made application for letters of administration, which the court had denied. Under the terms of the will, it was pointed out, he was empowered to act in that capacity only in case of the testator's death before the majority of the legatee. The date of the document proved that the heir was now long past his majority, and the only interest that remained to Judge Little in the matter seemed to be the discovery of the testator's unknown, unseen, and unbelieved-in son.
If Isom ever had fathered a son, indeed, and the child had died in infancy, the fact had slipped the recollection of the oldest settler. Perhaps the proof of that mysterious matter lay in the hands of the two witnesses to Isom's will. They should know, if anybody knew, people said.
One of these witnesses, Thomas Cogshawl, had died long since, and there remained behind neither trace nor remembrance of him save a leaning, yellowed tombstone carrying the record of his achievements in this world. They were succinctly recounted in two words: Born and Died. His descendants were scattered, his family dispersed.
The other witness, John Owens, was in the county poorhouse, deaf, dumb, and blind, his children dead, his money gone. Communication with him, except by prods and thumps, had been out of the question for ten years and more.
On the advice of her neighbors, Ollie had engaged a lawyer to guard her interests, and make a fight in the courts, if it came to that, in an effort to retain the property. It was a shame, said the neighbors; Isom never had a son, or, if he did have one, he had no business to do any such surreptitious fathering.
While they denounced Isom, Judge Little was advertising in the metropolitan papers for the mysterious legatee, for there is no man so faithful to his trust as the administrator of another's estate. Although the property had not yet succeeded to his hands, the judge was proceeding in confidence. If the existence of Isom Chase's son could not be proved, neither could it be disproved.
And there stood the will in Isom's writing as plain as cow tracks, naming him as administrator. It would all work into his hands at the end, and there were rewards and emoluments for an administrator who understood his business, in that estate.
That is true in the case of any executor in the affairs of dead men, or receiver in the muddled business of the living. That accounts for such men's inflexibility in carrying out the provisions of unfeeling testators and the decrees of heartless courts. The law must be applied to the letter, the wishes of the deceased fulfilled to the last hateful particular, for the longer the administrator or receiver is in place, the longer flows the soothing stream of fees.
Ollie had passed out of the brief tranquillity which had settled on her after the inquest and funeral. Worry had overtaken her again, and a longing for the return of Morgan, which seemed destined never to be quieted.
There was not so much concern for her in the ultimate disposal of Isom's estate, for she had consoled herself all along, since the discovery of the will, that she would soon be above the need of his miserly scrapings and hoarded revenues of stint. Morgan would come, triumphant in his red-wheeled buggy, and bear her away to the sweet recompense of love, and the quick noises of life beyond that drowsy place. For Morgan, and love, she could give it all over without one regret, or a glance behind.
Yet, with the thought of what she already had given for Morgan and love a quick catching of pain, a troubled stirring bordering on panic, rose in her breast. Where was Morgan, why did he remain away when he might come boldly now, like a man, and claim his own? What if Morgan never should come back? What if she should find herself a double widow, bereft of both the living and the dead?
During her days she watched for him, straining her eyes up and down the dust-white road. At night her cheek burned upon her pillow, and her tears ran down, yearning for the man who had her heart's love in his keeping and seemed unworthy of the trust.
At such times her anger would flame hot against Joe. If he had not come into her affairs and muddled them, like a calf in a kitchen, all of this uncertainty and longing would have been spared her. And it would be like the fool now, the miserable, bleating bull-calf, to turn back on his word and betray her. In that case, what should she do? Bow her head, meekly, and bear him out? She did not think so. There was little chance that anybody would credit Joe if he should turn now on his own evidence, less if she should maintain that his first version of the tragedy was true. For what he had done by his impertinent meddling between her and Morgan he deserved to suffer. He must grin and bear it now, said she.
Besides this feeling of revenge on Joe's luckless head, Ollie had her reasons of selfishness and security for desiring him out of the way. With him in prison for a long time—people said it would be for life—the secret of her indiscretion with Morgan would be safe. And then, if Morgan never came back, perhaps another.
But she recoiled from the thought that they might hang Joe for the murder of Isom. She did not want him hung, for through her gathering cloud of blame for his too faithful guardianship of his master's house, she had gleams of tenderness and gratitude for him. She could not help comparing him with Morgan in such moments of softness. Morgan had let that boy drive him away; he seemed to have gone with such a terror of him that he never had looked back. Joe, on the other hand, had stood by her through the storm. No, she did not want them to hang Joe, but it would be quite easy and comfortable with him out of the way for a long, long time.
Public opinion was framing toward giving her the relief that she desired. If anybody suspected that Ollie was concerned in her husband's death, it was some remote person whose opinion did not affect the public mind. The current belief was that Joe alone was to blame.
No matter how severe the world may be upon a woman after she is down in the mire, there is no denying that it is reluctant to tumble her from her eminence and throw her there. A woman will find more champions than detractors in the face of the most serious charge; especially a young and pretty one, or one whose life has been such as to shape sympathy for her in itself.
All her neighbors knew that Isom's wife had suffered. That year of penance in her life brought Ollie before them in a situation which was an argument and plea for their sympathy and support.
In spite, then, of the coroner's attempt at the inquest to drag Ollie into the tragedy, and to give foundation for his shrewd suspicion that there had been something between Isom's wife and bondman which the husband was unaware of, no sensation nor scandal had come of that. The case was widely talked of, and it was the hope of every voter in the county that he would be drawn on the jury to try the boy accused of the murder. Even the busiest farmers began to plan their affairs so they would have at least one day to spare to attend the trial at its most interesting point.
The date set for the trial was approaching, and so was election day. The prosecuting attorney, being up for reelection, hadn't time, at that busy hour, to try a homicide case. He had to make speeches, and bestir himself to save his valuable services to the state. The man penned in jail, growing thin of cheek and lank of limb, could wait. There would be other homicide cases, but there never would be another prosecuting attorney so valuable as that one offering himself, and his young ambitions, on the altar of public service. That was according to his view. So he notified Hammer that the state would not be ready for trial on the day set.
This pleased Hammer well enough, for the greater the delay the wider the notoriety of the case would spread, the larger his audience would be. By mutual agreement, the case was put over for one month.
Joe protested against this delay in vain. Hammer said that they would profit by it, as the ferment of the public mind would settle meantime, and prejudice would not be so sharp. He talked a great deal about "character witnesses," which Joe couldn't see the need of, and took down the names of all the people whom Joe could name as having known him all his life. Then Hammer went his way, to make speeches in the campaign in support of the worthy sheriff.
So Joe found himself with another month ahead of him before he could even hope to walk out into the sun again.
Jail was wearing on him. The disgrace of it was torture to his sensitive mind, without the physical chafing to pull him down to bones. Those two weeks had taken off his frame a great deal of the flesh that he had gained during the summer. His gauntness was more pronounced than it ever had been before.
Mrs. Newbolt walked in twice a week to see him, carrying with her a basket of biscuits and other homely things dear to her son's palate. All of which the sheriff speared with knitting-needles, and tried on various domestic animals, to make certain that the Widow Newbolt did not cheat the gallows out of its due by concealing saws in pies, or introducing poison to her hopeless offspring in boiled eggs.
But all of her tempting relishes, or such of them, at least, as reached Joe, were powerless to fill his hollow cheeks, growing thinner and paler day by day. He could not eat with relish, he could not sleep with peace. If it had not been for the new light that Alice Price had brought into his life, he must have burned his young heart to ashes in his restiveness.
Twice again the colonel and Alice had visited Joe, once to carry to him the books for which he had expressed a desire, and again to bring the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which Alice herself had gone after to Judge Maxwell's house. Each time Joe fancied that she left a radiance behind her that brightened and warmed his cell for days.
Nobody else in the town troubled himself about the prisoner's welfare, for nobody else knew him. Two of the ministers had called at the jail in the first days of Joe's incarceration, in a sort of urging-to-penitence state of mind, just as if they were assured of Joe's guilt by reason of his very obscurity. Joe had told them that he had a religion of his own which seemed to fill all present needs, and did not want to make any change. He was respectful, but lofty in his bearing. So they put him down as a stiff-necked son of Belial, and went away, leaving him to save himself if he thought he was equal to the task, in a manner of challenge.
In the face of this clerical abandonment, people wondered over the deep interest that Colonel Price and his daughter seemed to have in the Widow Newbolt's son, who had neither pride of family nor of possessions to recommend him.
Joe had not yet brought himself to the belief that it was necessary to take his lawyer into his confidence, although Hammer had made it unfeelingly plain to him that the withholding of any vital fact would be fatal to his cause. Although Joe was beginning to experience a deep and disquieting concern about the outcome of the trial, he was disposed to give Morgan an honest man's chance to come forward and take his share of it upon himself. If he should do that, then Joe felt that he would be morally free to disclose all that took place in the kitchen on the night Isom lost his life.
In case that Morgan did not come, or that he had gone beyond the reach of Hammer or anybody else to fetch him back, then there would not be one word of evidence to uphold him, or justify his seemingly ridiculous stand of reticence. Yet, perhaps Morgan was waiting until the trial day; perhaps he knew all about it, and would appear in time. So argued Joe, in his great desire to be just to everybody.
He reviewed the matter in this wise with ceaseless repetition, always arriving at this same end, from which he drew the comfort of hope. Perhaps Morgan would come in time. At any event, he would wait until the last minute of the last hour, and give him a man's chance to do what was honorable and fair.
The talkative horse-thief had been tried and condemned, and had gone his cheerful way to the penitentiary to serve three years. Before leaving he had taken pains to sound again his forecast of what was waiting Joe "down the river," in case they did not give him the "quick and painless." He never had forgiven Joe his unwillingness to gossip with him in jail. The fellow's vindictiveness was evident in the sneering delight that he took on his last night in jail in calling Joe out of his sleep, or pretended sleep, to hear his description of the terrors waiting a man condemned to prison for life.
Now that he was gone, Joe felt that his words lived after him, like mold upon the walls, or a chilling damp between the stones. The recollection of them could not be denied his abnormally sharpened senses, nor the undoubted truth of their terrifying picture shut out of his imagination by any door of reasoning that he had the strength to close. Condemnation to prison would mean the suspension of all his young hopes and healthy desires; it would bring him to the end of his activities in the world as suddenly as death. Considering ambition, love, happiness, men in prison were already dead. They lived only in their faculty for suffering.
Would Morgan come to save him from that fate? That was his sole speculation upon a solution of his pressing trouble. Without Morgan, Joe did not consider any other way.
Colonel Price had received lately a commission for a corn picture from a St. Louis hotel, upon which he was working without pause. He had reached that state of exalted certainty in relation to corn that he never was obliged to put aside his colors and wait the charge of inspiration. His inspirational tide always was setting in when corn was the subject. Work with the colonel in such case was a matter of daylight.