The Kentuckian beckoned to Horton, and, as he surrendered the receiver, left the room. He was thinking with a smile of the unconscious humor with which the girl's voice had just come across the wire:
"I knew that, if you two met each other, you would become friends."
"I reckon," said Samson, ruefully, when Horton joined him, "we'd better look around, and see how bad those fellows are hurt in there. They may need a doctor." And the two went back to find several startled servants assisting to their beds the disabled combatants, and the next morning their inquiries elicited the information that the gentlemen were all "able to be about, but were breakfasting in their rooms."
Such as looked from their windows that morning saw an unexpected climax, when the car of Mr. Wilfred Horton drove away from the club carrying the man whom they had hoped to see killed, and the man they had hoped to see kill him. The two appeared to be in excellent spirits and thoroughly congenial, as the car rolled out of sight, and the gentlemen who were left behind decided that, in view of the circumstances, the "extraordinary spree" of last night had best go unadvertised into ancient history.
The second year of a new order brings fewer radical changes than the first. Samson's work began to forge out of the ranks of the ordinary, and to show symptoms of a quality which would some day give it distinction. Heretofore, his instructors had held him rigidly to the limitations of black and white, but now they took off the bonds, and permitted him the colorful delight of attempting to express himself from the palette. It was like permitting a natural poet to leave prose, and play with prosody.
Sometimes, when his thoughts went back to the life he had left, it seemed immensely far away, as though it were really the life of another incarnation, and old ideas that had seemed axiomatic to his boyhood stood before him in the guise of strangers: strangers tattered and vagabond. He wondered if, after all, the new gods were sapping his loyalty. At such times, he would for days keep morosely to himself, picturing the death-bed of his father, and seeming to hear a small boy's voice making a promise. Sometimes, that promise seemed monstrous, in the light of his later experience. But it was a promise—and no man can rise in his own esteem by treading on his vows. In these somber moods, there would appear at the edges of his drawing-paper terrible, vividly graphic little heads, not drawn from any present model. They were sketched in a few ferociously powerful strokes, and always showed the same malevolent visage—a face black with murder and hate-endowed, the countenance of Jim Asberry. Sometimes would come a wild, heart- tearing longing for the old places. He wanted to hear the frogs boom, and to see the moon spill a shower of silver over the ragged shoulder of the mountain. He wanted to cross a certain stile, and set out for a certain cabin where a certain girl would be. He told himself that he was still loyal, that above all else he loved his people. When he saw these women, whose youth and beauty lasted long into life, whose manners and clothes spoke of ease and wealth and refinement, he saw Sally again as he had left her, hugging his "rifle-gun" to her breast, and he felt that the only thing he wanted utterly was to take her in his arms. Yes, he would return to Sally, and to his people—some day. The some day he did not fix. He told himself that the hills were only thirty hours away, and therefore he could go any time—which is the other name for no time. He had promised Lescott to remain here for eighteen months, and, when that interval ended, he seemed just on the verge of grasping his work properly. He assured himself often and solemnly that his creed was unchanged; his loyalty untainted; and the fact that it was necessary to tell himself proved that he was being weaned from his traditions. And so, though he often longed for home, he did not return. And then reason would rise up and confound him. Could he paint pictures in the mountains? If he did, what would he do with them? If he went back to that hermit life, would he not vindicate his uncle's prophecy that he had merely unplaced himself? And, if he went back and discharged his promise, and then returned again to the new fascination, could he bring Sally with him into this life—Sally, whom he had scornfully told that a "gal didn't need no l'arnin'?" And the answer to all these questions was only that there was no answer.
One day, Adrienne looked up from a sheaf of his very creditable landscape studies to inquire suddenly:
"Samson, are you a rich man, or a poor one?"
He laughed. "So rich," he told her, "that unless I can turn some of this stuff into money within a year or two, I shall have to go back to hoeing corn."
She nodded gravely.
"Hasn't it occurred to you," she demanded, "that in a way you are wasting your gifts? They were talking about you the other evening —several painters. They all said that you should be doing portraits."
The Kentuckian smiled. His masters had been telling him the same thing. He had fallen in love with art through the appeal of the skies and hills. He had followed its call at the proselyting of George Lescott, who painted only landscape. Portraiture seemed a less-artistic form of expression. He said so.
"That may all be very true," she conceded, "but you can go on with your landscapes, and let your portraits pay the way. With your entree, you could soon have a very enviable clientele."
"'So she showed me the way, to promotion and pay, And I learned about women from her,'"
quoted Samson with a laugh.
"And," she added, "since I am very vain and moderately rich, I hereby commission you to paint me, just as soon as you learn how."
Farbish had simply dropped out. Bit by bit, the truth of the conspiracy had leaked, and he knew that his usefulness was ended, and that well-lined pocketbooks would no longer open to his profligate demands. The bravo and plotter whose measure has been taken is a broken reed. Farbish made no farewells. He had come from nowhere and his going was like his coming.
* * * * *
Sally had started to school. She had not announced that she meant to do so, but each day the people of Misery saw her old sorrel mare making its way to and from the general direction of Stagbone College, and they smiled. No one knew how Sally's cheeks flamed as she sat alone on Saturdays and Sundays on the rock at the backbone's rift. She was taking her place, morbidly sensitive and a woman of eighteen, among little spindle-shanked girls in short skirts, and the little girls were more advanced than she. But she, too, meant to have "l'arnin'"—as much of it as was necessary to satisfy the lover who might never come. It must be admitted that learning for its own sake did not make a clarion- tongued appeal to the girl's soul. Had Samson been satisfied with her untutored, she would have been content to remain untutored. He had said that these things were of no importance in her, but that was before he had gone forth into the world. If, she naively told herself, he should come back of that same opinion, she would never "let on" that she had learned things. She would toss overboard her acquirements as ruthlessly as useless ballast from an over-encumbered boat. But, if Samson came demanding these attainments, he must find her possessed of them. So far, her idea of "l'arnin'" embraced the three R's only. And, yet, the "fotched-on" teachers at the "college" thought her the most voraciously ambitious pupil they had ever had, so unflaggingly did she toil, and the most remarkably acquisitive, so fast did she learn. But her studies had again been interrupted, and Miss Grover, her teacher, riding over one day to find out why her prize scholar had deserted, met in the road an empty "jolt-wagon," followed by a ragged cortege of mounted men and women, whose faces were still lugubrious with the effort of recent mourning. Her questions elicited the information that they were returning from the "buryin'" of the Widow Miller.
Sally was not in the procession, and the teacher, riding on, found her lying face down among the briars of the desolate meeting-house yard, her small body convulsively heaving with her weeping, and her slim fingers grasping the thorny briar shoots as though she would still hold to the earth that lay in freshly broken clods over her mother's grave.
Miss Grover lifted her gently, and at first the girl only stared at her out of wide, unseeing eyes.
"You've nothing to keep you here now," said the older woman, gently. "You can come to us, and live at the college." She had learned from Sally's lips that she lived alone with her mother and younger brother. "You can't go on living there now."
But the girl drew away, and shook her head with a wild torrent of childish dissent.
"No, I kain't, neither!" she declared, violently. "I kain't!"
"Why, dear?" The teacher took the palpitating little figure in her arms and kissed the wet face. She had learned something of this sweet wood-thrush girl, and had seen both sides of life's coin enough to be able to close her eyes and ears, and visualize the woman that this might be.
"'Cause I kain't!" was the obstinate reply.
Being wise, Miss Grover desisted from urging, and went with Sally to the desolated cabin, which she straightway began to overhaul and put to rights. The widow had been dying for a week. It was when she lifted Samson's gun with the purpose of sweeping the corner that the girl swooped down on her, and rescued the weapon from her grasp.
"Nobody but me mustn't tech thet rifle-gun," she exclaimed, and then, little by little, it came out that the reason Sally could not leave this cabin, was because some time there might be a whippoorwill call out by the stile, and, when it came, she must be there to answer. And, when at the next vacation Miss Grover rode over, and announced that she meant to visit Sally for a month or two, and when under her deft hands the cabin began to transform itself, and the girl to transform herself, she discovered that Sally found in the graveyard another magnet. There, she seemed to share something with Samson where their dead lay buried. While the "fotched-on" lady taught the girl, the girl taught the "fotched-on" lady, for the birds were her brothers, and the flowers her cousins, and in the poetry that existed before forms of meter came into being she was deeply versed.
Toward the end of that year, Samson undertook his portrait of Adrienne Lescott. The work was nearing completion, but it had been agreed that the girl herself was not to have a peep at the canvas until the painter was ready to unveil it in a finished condition. Often as she posed, Wilfred Horton idled in the studio with them, and often George Lescott came to criticize, and left without criticizing. The girl was impatient for the day when she, too, was to see the picture, concerning which the three men maintained so profound a secrecy. She knew that Samson was a painter who analyzed with his brush, and that his picture would show her not only features and expression, but the man's estimate of herself.
"Do you know," he said one day, coming out from behind his easel and studying her, through half-closed eyes, "I never really began to know you until now? Analyzing you—studying you in this fashion, not by your words, but by your expression, your pose, the very unconscious essence of your personality—these things are illuminating."
"Can I smile," she queried obediently, "or do I have to keep my face straight?"
"You may smile for two minutes," he generously conceded, "and I'm going to come over and sit on the floor at your feet, and watch you do it."
"And under the X-ray scrutiny of this profound analysis," she laughed, "do you like me?"
"Wait and see," was his non-committal rejoinder.
For a few moments, neither of them spoke. He sat there gazing up, and she gazing down. Though neither of them said it, both were thinking of the changes that had taken place since, in this same room, they had first met. The man knew that many of the changes in himself were due to her, and she began to wonder vaguely if he had not also been responsible for certain differences in her.
He felt for her, besides a deep friendship—such a deep friendship that it might perhaps be even more—a measureless gratitude. She had been loyal, and had turned and shaped with her deft hand and brain the rough clay of his crude personality into something that was beginning to show finish and design. Perhaps, she liked him the better because of certain obstinate qualities which, even to her persuasive influence, remained unaltered. But, if she liked him the better for these things, she yet felt that her dominion over him was not complete.
Now, as they sat there alone in the studio, a shaft of sunlight from the skylight fell on his squarely blocked chin, and he tossed his head, throwing back the long lock from his forehead. It was as though he was emphasizing with that characteristic gesture one of the things in which he had not yielded to her modeling. The long hair still fell low around his head. Just now, he was roughly dressed and paint-stained, but usually he presented the inconspicuous appearance of the well-groomed man—except for that long hair. It was not so much as a matter of personal appearance but as a reminder of the old roughness that she resented this. She had often suggested a visit to the barber, but to no avail.
"Although I am not painting you," she said with a smile, "I have been studying you, too. As you stand there before your canvas, your own personality is revealed—and I have not been entirely unobservant myself."
"'And under the X-ray scrutiny of this profound analysis,'" he quoted with a laugh, "do you like me?"
"Wait and see," she retorted.
"At all events"—he spoke gravely—"you must try to like me a little, because I am not what I was. The person that I am is largely the creature of your own fashioning. Of course, you had very raw material to work with, and you can't make a silk purse of"—he broke off and smiled—"well, of me, but in time you may at least get me mercerized a little."
For no visible reason, she flushed, and her next question came a trifle eagerly:
"Do you mean that I have influenced you?"
"Influenced me, Drennie?" he repeated. "You have done more than that. You have painted me out, and painted me over."
She shook her head, and in her eyes danced a light of subtle coquetry.
"There are things I have tried to do, and failed," she told him.
His eyes showed surprise.
"Perhaps," he apologized, "I am dense, and you may have to tell me bluntly what I am to do. But you know that you have only to tell me."
For a moment, she said nothing, then she shook her head again.
"Issue your orders," he insisted. "I am waiting to obey."
She hesitated again, then said, slowly:
"Have your hair cut. It's the one uncivilized thing about you."
For an instant, Samson's face hardened.
"No," he said; "I don't care to do that."
"Oh, very well!" she laughed, lightly. "In that event, of course, you shouldn't do it." But her smile faded, and after a moment he explained:
"You see, it wouldn't do."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I've got to keep something as it was to remind me of a prior claim on my life."
For an instant the girl's face clouded, and grew deeply troubled.
"You don't mean," she asked, with an outburst of interest more vehement than she had meant to show, or realized that she was showing—"you don't mean that you still adhere to ideas of the vendetta?" Then she broke off with a laugh, a rather nervous laugh. "Of course not," she answered herself. "That would be too absurd!"
"Would it?" asked Samson, simply. He glanced at his watch. "Two minutes up," he announced. "The model will please resume the pose. By the way, may I drive with you to-morrow afternoon?"
* * * * *
The next afternoon, Samson ran up the street steps of the Lescott house, and rang the bell, and a few moments later Adrienne appeared. The car was waiting outside, and, as the girl came down the stairs in motor coat and veil, she paused and her fingers on the bannisters tightened in surprise as she looked at the man who stood below holding his hat in his hand, with his face upturned. The well-shaped head was no longer marred by the mane which it had formerly worn, but was close cropped, and under the transforming influence of the change the forehead seemed bolder and higher, and to her thinking the strength of the purposeful features was enhanced, and yet, had she known it, the man felt that he had for the first time surrendered a point which meant an abandonment of something akin to principle.
She said nothing, but as she took his hand in greeting, her fingers pressed his own in handclasp more lingering than usual.
Late that evening, when Samson returned to the studio, he found a missive in his letter-box, and, as he took it out, his eyes fell on the postmark. It was dated from Hixon, Kentucky, and, as the man slowly climbed the stairs, he turned the envelope over in his hand with a strange sense of misgiving and premonition.
The letter was written in the cramped hand of Brother Spencer. Through its faulty diction ran a plainly discernible undernote of disapproval for Samson, though there was no word of reproof or criticism. It was plain that it was sent as a matter of courtesy to one who, having proven an apostate, scarcely merited such consideration. It informed him that old Spicer South had been "mighty porely," but was now better, barring the breaking of age. Every one was "tolerable." Then came the announcement which the letter had been written to convey.
The term of the South-Hollman truce had ended, and it had been renewed for an indefinite period.
"Some of your folks thought they ought to let you know because they promised to give you a say," wrote the informant. "But they decided that it couldn't hardly make no difference to you, since you have left the mountains, and if you cared anything about it, you knew the time, and could of been here. Hoping this finds you well."
Samson's face clouded. He threw the soiled and scribbled missive down on the table and sat with unseeing eyes fixed on the studio wall. So, they had cast him out of their councils! They already thought of him as one who had been.
In that passionate rush of feeling, everything that had happened since he had left Misery seemed artificial and dream-like. He longed for the realities that were forfeited. He wanted to press himself close to the great, gray shoulders of rock that broke through the greenery like giants tearing off soft raiment. Those were his people back there. He should be running with the wolf-pack, not coursing with beagles.
He had been telling himself that he was loyal, and now he realized that he was drifting like the lotus-eaters. Things that had gripped his soul were becoming myths. Nothing in his life was honest—he had become as they had prophesied, a derelict. In that thorn-choked graveyard lay the crude man whose knotted hand had rested on his head just before death stiffened it bestowing a mission.
"I hain't fergot ye, Pap." The words rang in his ears with the agony of a repudiated vow.
He rose and paced the floor, with teeth and hands clenched, and the sweat standing out on his forehead. His advisers had of late been urging him to go to Paris He had refused, and his unconfessed reason had been that in Paris he could not answer a sudden call. He would go back to them now, and compel them to admit his leadership.
Then, his eyes fell on the unfinished portrait of Adrienne. The face gazed at him with its grave sweetness; its fragrant subtlety and its fine-grained delicacy. Her pictured lips were silently arguing for the life he had found among strangers, and her victory would have been an easy one, but for the fact that just now his conscience seemed to be on the other side. Samson's civilization was two years old—a thin veneer over a century of feudalism—and now the century was thundering its call of blood bondage. But, as the man struggled over the dilemma, the pendulum swung back. The hundred years had left, also, a heritage of quickness and bitterness to resent injury and injustice. His own people had cast him out. They had branded him as the deserter; they felt no need of him or his counsel. Very well, let them have it so. His problem had been settled for him. His Gordian knot was cut.
Sally and his uncle alone had his address. This letter, casting him out, must have been authorized by them, Brother Spencer acting merely as amanuensis. They, too, had repudiated him—and, if that were true, except for the graves of his parents the hills had no tie to hold him.
"Sally, Sally!" he groaned, dropping his face on his crossed arms, while his shoulders heaved in an agony of heart-break, and his words came in the old crude syllables: "I 'lowed you'd believe in me ef hell froze!" He rose after that, and made a fierce gesture with his clenched fists. "All right," he said, bitterly, "I'm shet of the lot of ye. I'm done!"
But it was easier to say the words of repudiation than to cut the ties that were knotted about his heart. Again, he saw Sally standing by the old stile in the starlight with sweet, loyal eyes lifted to his own, and again he heard her vow that, if he came back, she would be waiting. Now, that picture lay beyond a sea which he could not recross. Sally and his uncle had authorized his excommunication. There was, after all, in the entire world no faith which could stand unalterable, and in all the world no reward that could be a better thing than Dead-Sea fruit, without the love of that barefooted girl back there in the log cabin, whose sweet tongue could not fashion phrases except in illiteracy. He would have gambled his soul on her steadfastness without fear—and he bitterly told himself he would have lost. And yet—some voice sounded to him as he stood there alone in the studio with the arteries knotted on his temples and the blood running cold and bitter in his veins—and yet what right had he, the deserter, to demand faith? One hand went up and clasped his forehead—and the hand fell on the head that had been shorn because a foreign woman had asked it. What tradition had he kept inviolate? And, in his mood, that small matter of shortened hair meant as great and bitter surrender as it had meant to the Samson before him, whose mighty strength had gone out under the snipping of shears. What course was open to him now, except that of following the precedent of the other Samson, of pulling down the whole temple of his past? He was disowned, and could not return. He would go ahead with the other life, though at the moment he hated it.
With a rankling soul, the mountaineer left New York. He wrote Sally a brief note, telling her that he was going to cross the ocean, but his hurt pride forbade his pleading for her confidence, or adding, "I love you." He plunged into the art life of the "other side of the Seine," and worked voraciously. He was trying to learn much—and to forget much.
One sunny afternoon, when Samson had been in the Quartier Latin for eight or nine months, the concierge of his lodgings handed him, as he passed through the cour, an envelope addressed in the hand of Adrienne Lescott. He thrust it into his pocket for a later reading and hurried on to the atelier where he was to have a criticism that day. When the day's work was over, he was leaning on the embankment wall at the Quai de Grand St. Augustin, gazing idly at the fruit and flower stands that patched the pavement with color and at the gray walls of the Louvre across the Seine, His hand went into his pocket, and came out with the note. As he read it, he felt a glow of pleasurable surprise, and, wheeling, he retraced his steps briskly to his lodgings, where he began to pack. Adrienne had written that she and her mother and Wilfred Horton were sailing for Naples, and commanded him, unless he were too busy, to meet their steamer. Within two hours, he was bound for Lucerne to cross the Italian frontier by the slate-blue waters of Lake Maggiore.
A few weeks later Samson and Adrienne were standing together by moonlight in the ruins of the Coliseum. The junketing about Italy had been charming, and now, in that circle of sepia softness and broken columns, he looked at her, and suddenly asked himself:
"Just what does she mean to you?"
If he had never asked himself that question before, he knew now that it must some day be answered. Friendship had been a good and seemingly a sufficient definition. Now, he was not so sure that it could remain so.
Then, his thoughts went back to a cabin in the hills and a girl in calico. He heard a voice like the voice of a song-bird saying through tears:
"I couldn't live without ye, Samson.... I jest couldn't do hit!"
For a moment, he was sick of his life. It seemed that there stood before him, in that place of historic wraiths and memories, a girl, her eyes sad, but loyal and without reproof. For an instant, he could see a scene of centuries ago. A barbarian and captive girl stood in the arena, looking up with ignorant, but unflinching, eyes; and a man sat in the marble tiers looking down. The benches were draped with embroidered rugs and gold and scarlet hangings; the air was heavy with incense—and blood. About him sat men and women of Rome's culture, freshly perfumed from the baths. The slender figure in the dust of the circus alone was a creature without artifice. And, as she looked up, she recognized the man in the box, the man who had once been a barbarian, too, and she turned her eyes to the iron gates of the cages whence came the roar of the beasts, and waited the ordeal. And the face was the face of Sally.
"You look," said Adrienne, studying his countenance in the pallor of the moonlight, "as though you were seeing ghosts."
"I am," said Samson. "Let's go."
Adrienne had not yet seen her portrait. Samson had needed a few hours of finishing when he left New York, though it was work which could be done away from the model. So, it was natural that, when the party reached Paris, Adrienne should soon insist on crossing the Pont d' Alexandre III. to his studio near the "Boule Mich'" for an inspection of her commissioned canvas. For a while, she wandered about the business-like place, littered with the gear of the painter's craft. It was, in a way, a form of mind-reading, for Samson's brush was the tongue of his soul.
The girl's eyes grew thoughtful, as she saw that he still drew the leering, saturnine face of Jim Asberry. He had not outgrown hate, then? But she said nothing, until he brought out and set on an easel her own portrait. For a moment, she gasped with sheer delight for the colorful mastery of the technique, and she would have been hard to please had she not been delighted with the conception of herself mirrored in the canvas. It was a face through which the soul showed, and the soul was strong and flawless. The girl's personality radiated from the canvas —and yet—A disappointed little look crossed and clouded her eyes. She was conscious of an indefinable catch of pain at her heart.
Samson stepped forward, and his waiting eyes, too, were disappointed.
"You don't like it, Drennie?" he anxiously questioned. But she smiled in answer, and declared:
"I love it."
He went out a few minutes later to telephone for her to Mrs. Lescott, and gave Adrienne carte blanche to browse among his portfolios and stacked canvases until his return. In a few minutes, she discovered one of those efforts which she called his "rebellious pictures."
These were such things as he painted, using no model except memory perhaps, not for the making of finished pictures, but merely to give outlet to his feelings; an outlet which some men might have found in talk.
This particular canvas was roughly blocked in, and it was elementally simple, but each brush stroke had been thrown against the surface with the concentrated fire and energy of a blow, except the strokes that had painted the face, and there the brush had seemed to kiss the canvas. The picture showed a barefooted girl, standing, in barbaric simplicity of dress, in the glare of the arena, while a gaunt lion crouched eying her. Her head was lifted as though she were listening to faraway music. In the eyes was indomitable courage. That canvas was at once a declaration of love, and a miserere. Adrienne set it up beside her own portrait, and, as she studied the two with her chin resting on her gloved hand, her eyes cleared of questioning. Now, she knew what she missed in her own more beautiful likeness. It had been painted with all the admiration of the mind. This other had been dashed off straight from the heart—and this other was Sally! She replaced the sketch where she had found it, and Samson, returning, found her busy with little sketches of the Seine.
* * * * *
"Drennie," pleaded Wilfred Horton, as the two leaned on the deck rail of the Mauretania, returning from Europe, "are you going to hold me off indefinitely? I've served my seven years for Rachel, and thrown in some extra time. Am I no nearer the goal?"
The girl looked at the oily heave of the leaden and cheerless Atlantic, and its somber tones found reflection in her eyes. She shook her head.
"I wish I knew," she said, wearily. Then, she added, vehemently: "I'm not worth it, Wilfred. Let me go. Chuck me out of your life as a little pig who can't read her own heart; who is too utterly selfish to decide upon her own life."
"Is it"—he put the question with foreboding—"that, after all, I was a prophet? Have you—and South—wiped your feet on the doormat marked 'Platonic friendship'? Have you done that, Drennie?"
She looked up into his eyes. Her own were wide and honest and very full of pain.
"No," she said; "we haven't done that, yet. I guess we won't.... I think he'd rather stay outside, Wilfred. If I was sure I loved him, and that he loved me, I'd feel like a cheat—there is the other girl to think of.... And, besides, I'm not sure what I want myself.... But I'm horribly afraid I'm going to end by losing you both."
Horton stood silent. It was tea-time, and from below came the strains of the ship's orchestra. A few ulster-muffled passengers gloomily paced the deck.
"You won't lose us both, Drennie," he said, steadily. "You may lose your choice—but, if you find yourself able to fall back on substitutes, I'll still be there, waiting."
For once, he did not meet her scrutiny, or know of it. His own eyes were fixed on the slow swing of heavy, gray-green waters. He was smiling, but it is as a man smiles when he confronts despair, and pretends that everything is quite all right. The girl looked at him with a choke in her throat.
"Wilfred," she said, laying her hand on his arm, "I'm not worth worrying over. Really, I'm not. If Samson South proposed to me to-day, I know that I should refuse him. I am not at all sure that I am the least little bit in love with him. Only, don't you see I can't be quite sure I'm not? It would be horrible if we all made a mistake. May I have till Christmas to make up my mind for all time? I'll tell you then, dear, if you care to wait."
* * * * *
Tamarack Spicer sat on the top of a box car, swinging his legs over the side. He was clad in overalls, and in the pockets of his breeches reposed a bulging flask of red liquor, and an unbulging pay envelope. Tamarack had been "railroading" for several months this time. He had made a new record for sustained effort and industry, but now June was beckoning him to the mountains with vagabond yearnings for freedom and leisure. Many things invited his soul. Almost four years had passed since Samson had left the mountains, and in four years a woman can change her mind. Sally might, when they met on the road, greet him once more as a kinsman, and agree to forget his faulty method of courtship. This time, he would be more diplomatic. Yesterday, he had gone to the boss, and "called for his time." To-day, he was paid off, and a free lance.
As he reflected on these matters, a fellow trainman came along the top of the car, and sat down at Tamarack's side. This brakeman had also been recruited from the mountains, though from another section—over toward the Virginia line.
"So yer quittin'?" observed the new-comer.
"Goin' back thar on Misery?"
Again, Tamarack answered with a jerk of his head.
"I've been layin' off ter tell ye somethin', Tam'rack."
"Cut her loose."
"I laid over in Hixon last week, an' some fellers that used ter know my mother's folks took me down in the cellar of Hollman's store, an' give me some licker."
"What of hit?"
"They was talkin' 'bout you."
"What did they say?"
"I seen that they was enemies of yours, an' they wasn't in no good humor, so, when they axed me ef I knowed ye, I 'lowed I didn't know nothin' good about ye. I had ter cuss ye out, or git in trouble myself."
Tamarack cursed the whole Hollman tribe, and his companion went on:
"Jim Asberry was thar. He 'lowed they'd found out thet you'd done shot Purvy thet time, an' he said"—the brakeman paused to add emphasis to his conclusion—"thet the next time ye come home, he 'lowed ter git ye plumb shore."
"Much obleeged," he replied.
At Hixon, Tamarack Spicer strolled along the street toward the court- house. He wished to be seen. So long as it was broad daylight, and he displayed no hostility, he knew he was safe—and he had plans.
Standing before the Hollman store were Jim Asberry and several companions. They greeted Tamarack affably, and he paused to talk.
"Ridin' over ter Misery?" inquired Asberry.
"'Lowed I mout as well."
"Mind ef I rides with ye es fur es Jesse's place?"
"Plumb glad ter have company," drawled Tamarack,
They chatted of many things, and traveled slowly, but, when they came to those narrows where they could not ride stirrup to stirrup, each jockeyed for the rear position, and the man who found himself forced into the lead turned in his saddle and talked back over his shoulder, with wary, though seemingly careless, eyes. Each knew the other was bent on his murder.
At Purvy's gate, Asberry waved farewell, and turned in. Tamarack rode on, but shortly he hitched his horse in the concealment of a hollow, walled with huge rocks, and disappeared into the laurel.
He began climbing, in a crouched position, bringing each foot down noiselessly, and pausing often to listen. Jim Asberry had not been outwardly armed when he left Spicer. But, soon, the brakeman's delicately attuned ears caught a sound that made him lie flat in the lee of a great log, where he was masked in clumps of flowering rhododendron. Presently, Asberry passed him, also walking cautiously, but hurriedly, and cradling a Winchester rifle in the hollow of his arm. Then, Tamarack knew that Asberry was taking this cut to head him off, and waylay him in the gorge a mile away by road but a short distance only over the hill. Spicer held his heavy revolver cocked in his hand, but it was too near the Purvy house to risk a shot. He waited a moment, and then, rising, went on noiselessly with a snarling grin, stalking the man who was stalking him.
Asberry found a place at the foot of a huge pine where the undergrowth would cloak him. Twenty yards below ran the creek-bed road, returning from its long horseshoe deviation. When he had taken his position, his faded butternut clothing matched the earth as inconspicuously as a quail matches dead leaves, and he settled himself to wait. Slowly and with infinite caution, his intended victim stole down, guarding each step, until he was in short and certain range, but, instead of being at the front, he came from the back. He, also, lay flat on his stomach, and raised the already cocked pistol. He steadied it in a two-handed grip against a tree trunk, and trained it with deliberate care on a point to the left of the other man's spine just below the shoulder blades.
Then, he pulled the trigger! He did not go down to inspect his work. It was not necessary. The instantaneous fashion with which the head of the ambuscader settled forward on its face told him all he wanted to know. He slipped back to his horse, mounted and rode fast to the house of Spicer South, demanding asylum.
The next day came word that, if Tamarack Spicer would surrender and stand trial, in a court dominated by the Hollmans, the truce would continue. Otherwise, the "war was on."
The Souths flung back this message:
"Come and git him."
But Hollman and Purvy, hypocritically clamoring for the sanctity of the law, made no effort to come and "git him." They knew that Spicer South's house was now a fortress, prepared for siege. They knew that every trail thither was picketed. Also, they knew a better way. This time, they had the color of the law on their side. The Circuit Judge, through the Sheriff, asked for troops, and troops came. Their tents dotted the river bank below the Hixon Bridge. A detail under a white flag went out after Tamarack Spicer. The militia Captain in command, who feared neither feudist nor death, was courteously received. He had brains, and he assured them that he acted under orders which could not be disobeyed. Unless they surrendered the prisoner, gatling guns would follow. If necessary they would be dragged behind ox-teams. Many militiamen might be killed, but for each of them the State had another. If Spicer would surrender, the officer would guarantee him personal protection, and, if it seemed necessary, a change of venue would secure him trial in another circuit. For hours, the clan deliberated. For the soldiers they felt no enmity. For the young Captain they felt an instinctive liking. He was a man.
Old Spicer South, restored to an echo of his former robustness by the call of action, gave the clan's verdict.
"Hit hain't the co'te we're skeered of. Ef this boy goes ter town, he won't never git inter no co'te. He'll be murdered."
The officer held out his hand.
"As man to man," he said, "I pledge you my word that no one shall take him except by process of law. I'm not working for the Hollmans, or the Purvys. I know their breed,"
For a space, old South looked into the soldier's eyes, and the soldier looked back.
"I'll take yore handshake on thet bargain," said the mountaineer, gravely. "Tam'rack," he added, in a voice of finality, "ye've got ter go."
The officer had meant what he said. He marched his prisoner into Hixon at the center of a hollow square, with muskets at the ready. And yet, as the boy passed into the court-house yard, with a soldier rubbing elbows on each side, a cleanly aimed shot sounded from somewhere. The smokeless powder told no tale and with blue shirts and army hats circling him, Tamarack fell and died.
That afternoon, one of Hollman's henchmen was found lying in the road with his lifeless face in the water of the creek. The next day, as old Spicer South stood at the door of his cabin, a rifle barked from the hillside, and he fell, shot through the left shoulder by a bullet intended for his heart. All this while, the troops were helplessly camped at Hixon. They had power and inclination to go out and get men, but there was no man to get.
The Hollmans had used the soldiers as far as they wished; they had made them pull the chestnuts out of the fire and Tamarack Spicer out of his stronghold. They now refused to swear out additional warrants.
A detail had rushed into Hollman's store an instant after the shot which killed Tamarack was fired. Except for a woman buying a card of buttons, and a fair-haired clerk waiting on her, they found the building empty.
Back beyond, the hills were impenetrable, and answered no questions.
Old Spicer South would ten years ago have put a bandage on his wound and gone about his business, but now he tossed under his patchwork quilt, and Brother Spencer expressed grave doubts for his recovery. With his counsel unavailable Wile McCager, by common consent, assumed something like the powers of a regent and took upon himself the duties to which Samson should have succeeded.
That a Hollman should have been able to elude the pickets and penetrate the heart of South territory to Spicer South's cabin, was both astounding and alarming. The war was on without question now, and there must be council. Wile McCager had sent out a summons for the family heads to meet that afternoon at his mill. It was Saturday—"mill day"—and in accordance with ancient custom the lanes would be more traveled than usual.
Those men who came by the wagon road afforded no unusual spectacle, for behind each saddle sagged a sack of grain. Their faces bore no stamp of unwonted excitement, but every man balanced a rifle across his pommel. None the less, their purpose was grim, and their talk when they had gathered was to the point.
Old McCager, himself sorely perplexed, voiced the sentiment that the others had been too courteous to express. With Spicer South bed-ridden and Samson a renegade, they had no adequate leader. McCager was a solid man of intrepid courage and honesty, but grinding grist was his avocation, not strategy and tactics. The enemy had such masters of intrigue as Purvy and Judge Hollman.
Then, a lean sorrel mare came jogging into view, switching her fly- bitten tail, and on the mare's back, urging him with a long, leafy switch, sat a woman. Behind her sagged the two loaded ends of a corn- sack. She rode like the mountain women, facing much to the side, yet unlike them. Her arms did not flap. She did not bump gawkily up and down in her saddle. Her blue calico dress caught the sun at a distance, but her blue sunbonnet shaded and masked her face. She was lithe and slim, and her violet eyes were profoundly serious, and her lips were as resolutely set as Joan of Arc's might have been, for Sally Miller had come only ostensibly to have her corn ground to meal. She had really come to speak for the absent chief, and she knew that she would be met with derision. The years had sobered the girl, but her beauty had increased, though it was now of a chastened type, which gave her a strange and rather exalted refinement of expression.
Wile McCager came to the mill door, as she rode up, and lifted the sack from her horse.
"Howdy, Sally?" he greeted.
"Tol'able, thank ye," said Sally. "I'm goin' ter get off."
As she entered the great half-lighted room, where the mill stones creaked on their cumbersome shafts, the hum of discussion sank to silence. The place was brown with age and dirt, and powdered with a coarse dusting of meal. The girl nodded to the mountaineers gathered in conclave, then, turning to the miller she announced:
"I'm going to send for Samson."
The statement was at first met with dead silence, then came a rumble of indignant dissent, but for that the girl was prepared, as she was prepared for the contemptuous laughter which followed.
"I reckon if Samson was here," she said, dryly, "you all wouldn't think it was quite so funny."
Old Caleb Wiley spat through his bristling beard, and his voice was a quavering rumble.
"What we wants is a man. We hain't got no use fer no traitors thet's too almighty damn busy doin' fancy work ter stand by their kith an' kin."
"That's a lie!" said the girl, scornfully. "There's just one man living that's smart enough to match Jesse Purvy—an' that one man is Samson. Samson's got the right to lead the Souths, and he's going to do it—ef he wants to."
"Sally," Wile McCager spoke, soothingly, "don't go gittin' mad. Caleb talks hasty. We knows ye used ter be Samson's gal, an' we hain't aimin' ter hurt yore feelin's. But Samson's done left the mountings. I reckon ef he wanted ter come back, he'd a-come afore now. Let him stay whar he's at."
"Whar is he at?" demanded old Caleb Wiley, in a truculent voice.
"That's his business," Sally flashed back, "but I know. All I want to tell you is this. Don't you make a move till I have time to get word to him. I tell you, he's got to have his say."
"I reckon we hain't a-goin' ter wait," sneered Caleb, "fer a feller thet won't let hit be known whar he's a-sojournin' at. Ef ye air so shore of him, why won't ye tell us whar he is now?"
"That's my business, too." Sally's voice was resolute. "I've got a letter here—it'll take two days to get to Samson. It'll take him two or three days more to get here. You've got to wait a week."
"Sally," the temporary chieftain spoke still in a patient, humoring sort of voice, as to a tempestuous child, "thar hain't no place ter mail a letter nigher then Hixon. No South can't ride inter Hixon, an' ride out again. The mail-carrier won't be down this way fer two days yit."
"I'm not askin' any South to ride into Hixon. I recollect another time when Samson was the only one that would do that," she answered, still scornfully. "I didn't come here to ask favors. I came to give orders— for him. A train leaves soon in the morning. My letter's goin' on that train."
"Who's goin' ter take hit ter town fer ye?"
"I'm goin' to take it for myself." Her reply was given as a matter of course.
"That wouldn't hardly be safe, Sally," the miller demurred; "this hain't no time fer a gal ter be galavantin' around by herself in the night time. Hit's a-comin' up ter storm, an' ye've got thirty miles ter ride, an' thirty-five back ter yore house."
"I'm not scared," she replied. "I'm goin' an' I'm warnin' you now, if you do anything that Samson don't like, you'll have to answer to him, when he comes." She turned, walking very erect and dauntless to her sorrel mare, and disappeared at a gallop.
"I reckon," said Wile McCager, breaking the silence at last, "hit don't make no great dif'rence. He won't hardly come, nohow." Then, he added: "But thet boy is smart."
* * * * *
Samson's return from Europe, after a year's study, was in the nature of a moderate triumph. With the art sponsorship of George Lescott, and the social sponsorship of Adrienne, he found that orders for portraits, from those who could pay munificently, seemed to seek him. He was tasting the novelty of being lionized.
That summer, Mrs. Lescott opened her house on Long Island early, and the life there was full of the sort of gaiety that comes to pleasant places when young men in flannels and girls in soft summery gowns and tanned cheeks are playing wholesomely, and singing tunefully, and making love—not too seriously.
Samson, tremendously busy these days in a new studio of his own, had run over for a week. Horton was, of course, of the party, and George Lescott was doing the honors as host. Besides these, all of whom regarded themselves as members of the family, there was a group of even younger folk, and the broad halls and terraces and tennis courts rang all day long with their laughter, and the floors trembled at night under the rhythmical tread of their dancing.
Off across the lawns and woodlands stretched the blue, sail-flecked waters of the Sound, and on the next hill rose the tile roofs and cream -white walls of the country club.
One evening, Adrienne left the dancers for the pergola, where she took refuge under a mass of honeysuckle.
Samson South followed her. She saw him coming, and smiled. She was contrasting this Samson, loosely clad in flannels, with the Samson she had first seen rising awkwardly to greet her in the studio.
"You should have stayed inside and made yourself agreeable to the girls," Adrienne reproved him, as he came up. "What's the use of making a lion of you, if you won't roar for the visitors?"
"I've been roaring," laughed the man. "I've just been explaining to Miss Willoughby that we only eat the people we kill in Kentucky on certain days of solemn observance and sacrifice. I wanted to be agreeable to you, Drennie, for a while."
The girl shook her head sternly, but she smiled and made a place for him at her side. She wondered what form his being agreeable to her would take.
"I wonder if the man or woman lives," mused Samson, "to whom the fragrance of honeysuckle doesn't bring back some old memory that is as strong—and sweet—as itself."
The girl did not at once answer him. The breeze was stirring the hair on her temples and neck. The moon was weaving a lace pattern on the ground, and filtering its silver light through the vines. At last, she asked:
"Do you ever find yourself homesick, Samson, these days?"
The man answered with a short laugh. Then, his words came softly, and not his own words, but those of one more eloquent:
"'Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather "'Than the forecourts of kings, and her uttermost pits than the streets where men gather.... "'His Sea that his being fulfills? "'So and no otherwise—"so and no otherwise hillmen desire their hills.'"
"And yet," she said, and a trace of the argumentative stole into her voice, "you haven't gone back."
"No." There was a note of self-reproach in his voice. "But soon I shall go. At least, for a time. I've been thinking a great deal lately about 'my fluttered folk and wild.' I'm just beginning to understand my relation to them, and my duty."
"Your duty is no more to go back there and throw away your life," she found herself instantly contending, "than it is the duty of the young eagle, who has learned to fly, to go back to the nest where he was hatched."
"But, Drennie," he said, gently, "suppose the young eagle is the only one that knows how to fly—and suppose he could teach the others? Don't you see? I've only seen it myself for a little while."
"What is it that—that you see now?"
"I must go back, not to relapse, but to come to be a constructive force. I must carry some of the outside world to Misery. I must take to them, because I am one of them, gifts that they would reject from other hands."
"Will they accept them even from you?"
"Drennie, you once said that, if I grew ashamed of my people, ashamed even of their boorish manners, their ignorance, their crudity, you would have no use for me."
"I still say that," she answered.
"Well, I'm not ashamed of them. I went through that, but it's over."
She sat silent for a while, then cried suddenly:
"I don't want you to go!" The moment she had said it, she caught herself with a nervous little laugh, and added a postscript of whimsical nonsense to disarm her utterance of its telltale feeling. "Why, I'm just getting you civilized, yourself. It took years to get your hair cut."
He ran his palm over his smoothly trimmed head, and laughed.
"Delilah, Oh, Delilah!" he said. "I was resolute, but you have shorn me."
"Don't!" she exclaimed. "Don't call me that!"
"Then, Drennie, dear," he answered, lightly, "don't dissuade me from the most decent resolve I have lately made."
From the house came the strains of an alluring waltz. For a little time, they listened without speech, then the girl said very gravely:
"You won't—you won't still feel bound to kill your enemies, will you, Samson?"
The man's face hardened.
"I believe I'd rather not talk about that. I shall have to win back the confidence I have lost. I shall have to take a place at the head of my clan by proving myself a man—and a man by their own standards. It is only at their head that I can lead them. If the lives of a few assassins have to be forfeited, I sha'n't hesitate at that. I shall stake my own against them fairly. The end is worth it."
The girl breathed deeply, then she heard Samson's voice again:
"Drennie, I want you to understand, that if I succeed it is your success. You took me raw and unfashioned, and you have made me. There is no way of thanking you."
"There is a way," she contradicted. "You can thank me by feeling just that way about it."
"Then, I do thank you."
She sat looking up at him, her eyes wide and questioning.
"Exactly what do you feel, Samson," she asked. "I mean about me?"
He leaned a little toward her, and the fragrance and subtle beauty of her stole into his veins and brain, in a sudden intoxication. His hand went out to seize hers. This beauty which would last and not wither into a hag's ugliness with the first breath of age—as mountain beauty does—was hypnotizing him. Then, he straightened and stood looking down.
"Don't ask me that, please," he said, in a carefully controlled voice. "I don't even want to ask myself. My God, Drennie, don't you see that I'm afraid to answer that?"
She rose from her seat, and stood for just an instant rather unsteadily before him, then she laughed.
"Samson, Samson!" she challenged. "The moon is making us as foolish as children. Old friend, we are growing silly. Let's go in, and be perfectly good hostesses and social lions."
Slowly, Samson South came to his feet. His voice was in the dead-level pitch which Wilfred had once before heard. His eyes were as clear and hard as transparent flint.
"I'm sorry to be of trouble, George," he said, quietly. "But you must get me to New York at once—by motor. I must take a train South to- night."
"No bad news, I hope," suggested Lescott.
For an instant, Samson forgot his four years of veneer. The century of prenatal barbarism broke out fiercely. He was seeing things far away— and forgetting things near by. His eyes blazed and his fingers twitched.
"Hell, no!" he exclaimed. "The war's on, and my hands are freed!"
For an instant, as no one spoke, he stood breathing heavily, then, wheeling, rushed toward the house as though just across its threshold lay the fight into which lie was aching to hurl himself.
The next afternoon, Adrienne and Samson were sitting with a gaily chattering group at the side lines of the tennis courts.
"When you go back to the mountains, Samson," Wilfred was suggesting, "we might form a partnership. 'South, Horton and Co., development of coal and timber.' There are millions in it."
"Five years ago, I should have met you with a Winchester rifle," laughed the Kentuckian. "Now I shall not."
"I'll go with you, Horton, and make a sketch or two," volunteered George Lescott, who just then arrived from town. "And, by the way, Samson, here's a letter that came for you just as I left the studio."
The mountaineer took the envelope with a Hixon postmark, and for an instant gazed at it with a puzzled expression. It was addressed in a feminine hand, which he did not recognize. It was careful, but perfect, writing, such as one sees in a school copybook. With an apology he tore the covering, and read the letter. Adrienne, glancing at his face, saw it suddenly pale and grow as set and hard as marble.
Samson's eyes were dwelling with only partial comprehension on the script. This is what he read:
"DEAR SAMSON: The war is on again. Tamarack Spicer has killed Jim Asberry, and the Hollmans have killed Tamarack. Uncle Spicer is shot, but he may get well. There is nobody to lead the Souths. I am trying to hold them down until I hear from you. Don't come if you don't want to—but the gun is ready. With love,
Samson, throwing things hurriedly into his bag, heard a knock on his door. He opened it, and outside in the hall stood Adrienne. Her face was pale, and she leaned a little on the hand which rested against the white jamb.
"What does it mean?" she asked.
He came over.
"It means, Drennie," he said, "that you may make a pet of a leopard cub, but there will come a day when something of the jungle comes out in him —and he must go. My uncle has been shot, and the feud is on—I've been sent for."
He paused, and she half-whispered in an appealing voice:
"You don't mean that," he said, quietly. "If it were you, you would go. Whether I get back here or not"—he hesitated—"my gratitude will be with you—always." He broke off, and said suddenly: "Drennie, I don't want to say good-by to you. I can't."
"It's not necessary yet," she answered. "I'm going to drive you to New York."
"No!" he exclaimed. "It's too far, and I've got to go fast——"
"That's why I'm going," she promptly assured him. "I'm the only fool on these premises that can get all the speed out of a car that's in her engine—and the constables are good to me. I just came up here to—" she hesitated, then added—"to see you alone for a moment, and to say that teacher has never had such a bright little pupil, in her life—and—" the flippancy with which she was masking her feeling broke and she added, in a shaken voice as she thrust out her hand, man-fashion—"and to say, God keep you, boy."
He seized the hand in both his own, and gripped it hard. He tried to speak, but only shook his head with a rueful smile.
"I'll be waiting at the door with the car," she told him, as she left.
Horton, too, came in to volunteer assistance.
"Wilfred," said Samson, feelingly, 'there isn't any man I'd rather have at my back, in a stand-up fight. But this isn't exactly that sort. Where I'm going, a fellow has got to be invisible. No, you can't help, now. Come down later. We'll organize Horton, South and Co."
"South, Horton and Co.," corrected Wilfred; "native sons first."
At that moment, Adrienne believed she had decided the long-mooted question. Of course, she had not. It was merely the stress of the moment; exaggerating the importance of one she was losing at the expense of the one who was left. Still, as she sat in the car waiting, her world seemed slipping into chaos under her feet, and, when Samson had taken his place at her side, the machine leaped forward into a reckless plunge of speed.
Samson stopped at his studio, and threw open an old closet where, from a littered pile of discarded background draperies, canvases and stretchers, he fished out a buried and dust-covered pair of saddlebags. They had long lain there forgotten, but they held the rusty clothes in which he had left Misery. He threw them over his arm and dropped them at Adrienne's feet, as he handed her the studio keys.
"Will you please have George look after things, and make the necessary excuses to my sitters? He'll find a list of posing appointments in the desk."
The girl nodded.
"What are those?" she asked, gazing at the great leather pockets as at some relic unearthed from Pompeian excavations.
"Saddlebags, Drennie," he said, "and in them are homespun and jeans. One can't lead his 'fluttered folk and wild' in a cutaway coat."
Shortly they were at the station, and the man, standing at the side of the machine, took her hand.
"It's not good-by, you know," he said, smiling. "Just auf Wiedersehen."
She nodded and smiled, too, but, as she smiled, she shivered, and turned the car slowly. There was no need to hurry, now.
Samson had caught the fastest west-bound express on the schedule. In thirty-six hours, he would be at Hixon. There were many things which his brain must attack and digest in these hours. He must arrange his plan of action to its minutest detail, because he would have as little time for reflection, once he had reached his own country, as a wildcat flung into a pack of hounds.
From the railroad station to his home, he must make his way—most probably fight his way—through thirty miles of hostile territory where all the trails were watched. And yet, for the time, all that seemed too remotely unreal to hold his thoughts. He was seeing the coolly waving curtains of flowered chintz that stirred in the windows of his room at the Lescott house and the crimson ramblers that nodded against the sky. He was hearing a knock on the door, and seeing, as it opened, the figure of Adrienne Lescott and the look that had been in her eyes.
He took out Sally's letter, and read it once more. He read it mechanically and as a piece of news that had brought evil tidings. Then, suddenly, another aspect of it struck him—an aspect to which the shock of its reception had until this tardy moment blinded him. The letter was perfectly grammatical and penned in a hand of copy-book roundness and evenness. The address, the body of the missive, and the signature, were all in one chirography. She would not have intrusted the writing of this letter to any one else.
Sally had learned to write!
Moreover, at the end were the words "with love." It was all plain now. Sally had never repudiated him. She was declaring herself true to her mission and her love. All that heartbreak through which he had gone had been due to his own misconception, and in that misconception he had drawn into himself and had stopped writing to her. Even his occasional letters had for two years ceased to brighten her heart-strangling isolation—and she was still waiting.... She had sent no word of appeal until the moment had come of which she had promised to inform him. Sally, abandoned and alone, had been fighting her way up—that she might stand on his level.
"Good God!" groaned the man, in abjectly bitter self-contempt. His hand went involuntarily to his cropped head, and dropped with a gesture of self-doubting. He looked down at his tan shoes and silk socks. He rolled back his shirtsleeve and contemplated the forearm that had once been as brown and tough as leather. It was now the arm of a city man, except for the burning of one outdoor week. He was returning at the eleventh hour—stripped of the faith of his kinsmen, half-stripped of his faith in himself. If he were to realize the constructive dreams of which he had last night so confidently prattled to Adrienne, he must lead his people from under the blighting shadow of the feud.
Yet, if he was to lead them at all, he must first regain their shaken confidence, and to do that he must go, at their head, through this mire of war to vindication. Only a fighting South could hope to be heard in behalf of peace. His eventual regeneration belonged to some to-morrow. To-day held the need of such work as that of the first Samson—to slay.
He must reappear before his kinsmen as much as possible the boy who had left them—not the fop with newfangled affectations. His eyes fell upon the saddlebags on the floor of the Pullman, and he smiled satirically. He would like to step from the train at Hixon and walk brazenly through the town in those old clothes, challenging every hostile glance. If they shot him down on the streets, as they certainly would do, it would end his questioning and his anguish of dilemma. He would welcome that, but it would, after all, be shirking the issue.
He must get out of Hixon and into his own country unrecognized. The lean boy of four years ago was the somewhat filled out man now. The one concession that he had made to Paris life was the wearing of a closely cropped mustache. That he still wore—had worn it chiefly because he liked to hear Adrienne's humorous denunciation of it. He knew that, in his present guise and dress, he had an excellent chance of walking through the streets of Hixon as a stranger. And, after leaving Hixon, there was a mission to be performed at Jesse Purvy's store. As he thought of that mission a grim glint came to his pupils.
All journeys end, and as Samson passed through the tawdry cars of the local train near Hixon he saw several faces which he recognized, but they either eyed him in inexpressive silence, or gave him the greeting of the "furriner."
Then the whistle shrieked for the trestle over the Middle Fork, and at only a short distance rose the cupola of the brick court-house and the scattered roofs of the town. Scattered over the green slopes by the river bank lay the white spread of a tented company street, and, as he looked out, he saw uniformed figures moving to and fro, and caught the ring of a bugle call. So the militia was on deck; things must be bad, he reflected. He stood on the platform and looked down as the engine roared along the trestle. There were two gatling guns. One pointed its muzzle toward the town, and the other scowled up at the face of the mountain. Sentries paced their beats. Men in undershirts lay dozing outside tent flaps. It was all a picture of disciplined readiness, and yet Samson knew that soldiers made of painted tin would be equally effective. These military forces must remain subservient to local civil authorities, and the local civil authorities obeyed the nod of Judge Hollman and Jesse Purvy.
As Samson crossed the toll-bridge to the town proper he passed two brown-shirted militiamen, lounging on the rail of the middle span. They grinned at him, and, recognizing the outsider from his clothes, one of them commented:
"Ain't this the hell of a town?"
"It's going to be," replied Samson, enigmatically, as he went on.
Still unrecognized, he hired a horse at the livery stable, and for two hours rode in silence, save for the easy creaking of his stirrup leathers and the soft thud of hoofs.
The silence soothed him. The brooding hills lulled his spirit as a crooning song lulls a fretful child. Mile after mile unrolled forgotten vistas. Something deep in himself murmured:
It was late afternoon when he saw ahead of him the orchard of Purvy's place, and read on the store wall, a little more weather-stained, but otherwise unchanged:
"Jesse Purvy, General Merchandise."
The porch of the store was empty, and as Samson flung himself from his saddle there was no one to greet him. This was surprising, since, ordinarily, two or three of Purvy's personal guardsmen loafed at the front to watch the road. Just now the guard should logically be doubled. Samson still wore his Eastern clothes—for he wanted to go through that door unknown. As Samson South he could not cross its threshold either way. But when he stepped up on to the rough porch flooring no one challenged his advance. The yard and orchard were quiet from their front fence to the grisly stockade at the rear, and, wondering at these things, the young man stood for a moment looking about at the afternoon peace before he announced himself.
Yet Samson had not come to the stronghold of his enemy for the purpose of assassination. There had been another object in his mind—an utterly mad idea, it is true, yet so bold of conception that it held a ghost of promise. He had meant to go into Jesse Purvy's store and chat artlessly, like some inquisitive "furriner." He would ask questions which by their very impertinence might be forgiven on the score of a stranger's folly. But, most of all, he wanted to drop the casual information, which he should assume to have heard on the train, that Samson South was returning, and to mark, on the assassin leader, the effect of the news. In his new code it was necessary to give at least the rattler's warning before he struck, and he meant to strike. If he were recognized, well—he shrugged his shoulders.
But as he stood on the outside, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, for the ride had been warm, he heard voices within. They were loud and angry voices. It occurred to him that by remaining where he was he might gain more information than by hurrying in.
"I've done been your executioner fer twenty years," complained a voice, which Samson at once recognized as that of Aaron Hollis, the most trusted of Purvy's personal guards. "I hain't never laid down on ye yet. Me an' Jim Asberry killed old Henry South. We laid fer his boy, an' would 'a' got him ef ye'd only said ther word. I went inter Hixon, an' killed Tam'rack Spicer, with soldiers all round me. There hain't no other damn fool in these mountings would 'a' took such a long chance es thet. I'm tired of hit. They're a-goin' ter git me, an' I wants ter leave, an' you won't come clean with the price of a railroad ticket to Oklahoma. Now, damn yore stingy soul, I gits that ticket or I gits you!"
"Aaron, ye can't scare me into doin' nothin' I ain't aimin' to do." The old baron of the vendetta spoke in a cold, stoical voice. "I tell ye I ain't quite through with ye yet. In due an' proper time I'll see that ye get yer ticket." Then he added, with conciliating softness: "We've been friends a long while. Let's talk this thing over before we fall out."
"Thar hain't nothin' ter talk over," stormed Aaron. "Ye're jest tryin' ter kill time till the boys gits hyar, and then I reckon ye 'lows ter have me kilt like yer've had me kill them others. Hit hain't no use. I've done sent 'em away. When they gits back hyar, either you'll be in hell, or I'll be on my way outen the mountings."
Samson stood rigid. Here was the confession of one murderer, with no denial from the other. The truce was of. Why should he wait? Cataracts seemed to thunder in his brain, and yet he stood there, his hand in his coat-pocket, clutching the grip of a magazine pistol. Samson South the old, and Samson South the new, were writhing in the life-and-death grapple of two codes. Then, before decision came, he heard a sharp report inside, and the heavy fall of a body to the floor.
A wildly excited figure came plunging through the door, and Samson's left hand swept out, and seized its shoulder in a sudden vise grip.
"Do you know me?" he inquired, as the mountaineer pulled away and crouched back with startled surprise and vicious frenzy.
"No, damn ye! Git outen my road!" Aaron thrust his cocked rifle close against the stranger's face. From its muzzle came the acrid stench of freshly burned powder. "Git outen my road afore I kills ye!"
"My name is Samson South."
Before the astounded finger on the rifle trigger could be crooked, Samson's pistol spoke from the pocket, and, as though in echo, the rifle blazed, a little too late and a shade too high, over his head, as the dead man's arms went up.
Except for those two reports there was no sound. Samson stood still, anticipating an uproar of alarm. Now, he should doubtless have to pay with his life for both the deaths which would inevitably and logically be attributed to his agency. But, strangely enough, no clamor arose. The shot inside had been muffled, and those outside, broken by the intervening store, did not arouse the house. Purvy's bodyguard had been sent away by Hollis on a false alarm. Only the "womenfolks" and children remained indoors, and they were drowning with a piano any sounds that might have come from without. That piano was the chief emblem of Purvy's wealth. It represented the acme of "having things hung up"; that ancient and expressive phrase, which had come down from days when the pioneers' worldly condition was gauged by the hams hanging in the smokehouse and the peppers, tobacco and herbs strung high against the rafters.
Now, Samson South stood looking down, uninterrupted, on what had been Aaron Hollis as it lay motionless at his feet. There was a powder- burned hole in the butternut shirt, and only a slender thread of blood trickled into the dirt-grimed cracks between the planks. The body was twisted sidewise, in one of those grotesque attitudes with which a sudden summons so frequently robs the greatest phenomenon of all its rightful dignity. The sun was gilding the roadside clods, and burnishing the greens of the treetops. The breeze was harping sleepily among the branches, and several geese stalked pompously along the creek's edge. On the top of the stockade a gray squirrel, sole witness to the tragedy, rose on his haunches, flirted his brush, and then, in a sudden leap of alarm, disappeared.
Samson turned to the darkened doorway. Inside was emptiness, except for the other body, which had crumpled forward and face down across the counter. A glance showed that Jesse Purvy would no more fight back the coming of death. He was quite unarmed. Behind his spent body ranged shelves of general merchandise. Boxes of sardines, and cans of peaches were lined in homely array above him. His lifeless hand rested as though flung out in an oratorical gesture on a bolt of blue calico.
Samson paused only for a momentary survey. His score was clean. He would not again have to agonize over the dilemma of old ethics and new. To-morrow, the word would spread like wildfire along Misery and Crippleshin, that Samson South was back, and that his coming had been signalized by these two deaths. The fact that he was responsible for only one—and that in self-defense—would not matter. They would prefer to believe that he had invaded the store and killed Purvy, and that Hollis had fallen in his master's defense at the threshold. Samson went out, still meeting no one, and continued his journey.
Dusk was falling, when he hitched his horse in a clump of timber, and, lifting his saddlebags, began climbing to a cabin that sat far back in a thicketed cove. He was now well within South territory, and the need of masquerade had ended.
The cabin had not, for years, been occupied. Its rooftree was leaning askew under rotting shingles. The doorstep was ivy-covered, and the stones of the hearth were broken. But it lay well hidden, and would serve his purposes.
Shortly, a candle flickered inside, before a small hand mirror. Scissors and safety razor were for a while busy. The man who entered in impeccable clothes emerged fifteen minutes later—transformed. There appeared under the rising June crescent, a smooth-faced native, clad in stained store-clothes, with rough woolen socks showing at his brogan tops, and a battered felt hat drawn over his face. No one who had known the Samson South of four years ago would fail to recognize him now. And the strangest part, he told himself, was that he felt the old Samson. He no longer doubted his courage. He had come home, and his conscience was once more clear.
The mountain roads and the mountain sides themselves were sweetly silent. Moon mist engulfed the flats in a lake of dreams, and, as the livery-stable horse halted to pant at the top of the final ridge, he could see below him his destination.
The smaller knobs rose like little islands out of the vapor, and yonder, catching the moonlight like scraps of gray paper, were two roofs: that of his uncle's house—and that of the Widow Miller.
At a point where a hand-bridge crossed the skirting creek, the boy dismounted. Ahead of him lay the stile where he had said good-by to Sally. The place was dark, and the chimney smokeless, but, as he came nearer, holding the shadows of the trees, he saw one sliver of light at the bottom of a solid shutter; the shutter of Sally's room. Yet, for a while, Samson stopped there, looking and making no sound. He stood at his Rubicon—and behind him lay all the glitter and culture of that other world, a world that had been good to him.
That was to Samson South one of those pregnant and portentous moments with which life sometimes punctuates its turning points. At such times, all the set and solidified strata that go into the building of a man's nature may be uptossed and rearranged. So, the layers of a mountain chain and a continent that have for centuries remained steadfast may break and alter under the stirring of earthquake or volcano, dropping heights under water and throwing new ranges above the sea.
There was passing before his eyes as he stood there, pausing, a panorama much vaster than any he had been able to conceive when last he stood there. He was seeing in review the old life and the new, lurid with contrasts, and, as the pictures of things thousands of miles away rose before his eyes as clearly as the serried backbone of the ridges, he was comparing and settling for all time the actual values and proportions of the things in his life.
He saw the streets of Paris and New York, brilliant under their strings of opalescent lights; the Champs Elysees ran in its smooth, tree-trimmed parquetry from the Place de Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, and the chatter and music of its cafes rang in his ears. The ivory spaces of Rome, from the Pincian Hill where his fancy saw almond trees in bloom to the Piazza Venezia, spread their eternal story before his imagination. He saw 'buses and hansoms slirring through the mud and fog of London and the endless pot- pourri of Manhattan. All the things that the outside world had to offer; all that had ever stirred his pulses to a worship of the beautiful, the harmonious, the excellent, rose in exact value. Then, he saw again the sunrise as it would be to-morrow morning over these ragged hills. He saw the mists rise and grow wisp-like, and the disc of the sun gain color, and all the miracles of cannoning tempest and caressing calm—and, though he had come back to fight, a wonderful peace settled over him, for he knew that, if he must choose these, his native hills, or all the rest, he would forego all the rest.
And Sally—would she be changed? His heart was hammering wildly now. Sally had remained loyal. It was a miracle, but it was the one thing that counted. He was going to her, and nothing else mattered. All the questions of dilemma were answered. He was Samson South come back to his own—to Sally, and the rifle. Nothing had changed! The same trees raised the same crests against the same sky. For every one of them, he felt a throb of deep emotion. Best of all, he himself had not changed in any cardinal respect, though he had come through changes and perplexities.
He lifted his head, and sent out a long, clear whippoorwill call, which quavered on the night much like the other calls in the black hills around him. After a moment, he went nearer, in the shadow of a poplar, and repeated the call.
Then, the cabin-door opened. Its jamb framed a patch of yellow candlelight, and, at the center, a slender silhouetted figure, in a fluttering, eager attitude of uncertainty. The figure turned slightly to one side, and, as it did so, the man saw clasped in her right hand the rifle, which had been his mission, bequeathed to her in trust. He saw, too, the delicate outline of her profile, with anxiously parted lips and a red halo about her soft hair. He watched the eager heave of her breast, and the spasmodic clutching of the gun to her heart. For four years, he had not given that familiar signal. Possibly, it had lost some of its characteristic quality, for she still seemed in doubt. She hesitated, and the man, invisible in the shadow, once more imitated the bird-note, but this time it was so low and soft that it seemed the voice of a whispering whippoorwill.
Then, with a sudden glad little cry, she came running with her old fleet grace down to the road.
Samson had vaulted the stile, and stood in the full moonlight. As he saw her coming he stretched out his arms and his voice broke from his throat in a half-hoarse, passionate cry:
It was the only word he could have spoken just then, but it was all that was necessary. It told her everything. It was an outburst from a heart too full of emotion to grope after speech, the cry of a man for the One Woman who alone can call forth an inflection more eloquent than phrases and poetry. And, as she came into his outstretched arms as straight and direct as a homing pigeon, they closed about her in a convulsive grip that held her straining to him, almost crushing her in the tempest of his emotion.
For a time, there was no speech, but to each of them it seemed that their tumultuous heart-beating must sound above the night music, and the telegraphy of heart-beats tells enough. Later, they would talk, but now, with a gloriously wild sense of being together, with a mutual intoxication of joy because all that they had dreamed was true, and all that they had feared was untrue, they stood there under the skies clasping each other—with the rifle between their breasts. Then as he held her close, he wondered that a shadow of doubt could ever have existed. He wondered if, except in some nightmare of hallucination, it had ever existed.
The flutter of her heart was like that of a rapturous bird, and the play of her breath on his face like the fragrance of the elder blossoms.
These were their stars twinkling overhead. These were their hills, and their moon was smiling on their tryst.
He had gone and seen the world that lured him: he had met its difficulties, and faced its puzzles. He had even felt his feet wandering at the last from the path that led back to her, and now, with her lithe figure close held in his embrace, and her red-brown hair brushing his temples, he marveled how such an instant of doubt could have existed. He knew only that the silver of the moon and the kiss of the breeze and the clasp of her soft arms about his neck were all parts of one great miracle. And she, who had waited and almost despaired, not taking count of what she had suffered, felt her knees grow weak, and her head grow dizzy with sheer happiness, and wondered if it were not too marvelous to be true. And, looking very steadfastly into his eyes, she saw there the gleam that once had frightened her; the gleam that spoke of something stronger and more compelling than his love. It no longer frightened her, but made her soul sing, though it was more intense than it had ever been before, for now she knew that it was She herself who brought it to his pupils—and that nothing would ever be stronger.
But they had much to say to each other, and, finally, Samson broke the silence:
"Did ye think I wasn't a-comin' back, Sally?" he questioned, softly. At that moment, he had no realization that his tongue had ever fashioned smoother phrases. And she, too, who had been making war on crude idioms, forgot, as she answered:
"Ye done said ye was comin'." Then, she added a happy lie: "I knowed plumb shore ye'd do hit."
After a while, she drew away, and said, slowly:
"Samson, I've done kept the old rifle-gun ready fer ye. Ye said ye'd need it bad when ye come back, an' I've took care of it."
She stood there holding it, and her voice dropped almost to a whisper as she added:
"It's been a lot of comfort to me sometimes, because it was your'n. I knew if ye stopped keerin' fer me, ye wouldn't let me keep it—an' as long as I had it, I—" She broke off, and the fingers of one hand touched the weapon caressingly.
The man knew many things now that he had not known when he said good- by. He recognized in the very gesture with which she stroked the old walnut stock the pathetic heart-hunger of a nature which had been denied the fulfillment of its strength, and which had been bestowing on an inanimate object something that might almost have been the stirring of the mother instinct for a child. Now, thank God, her life should never lack anything that a flood-tide of love could bring to it. He bent his head in a mute sort of reverence.
After a long while, they found time for the less-wonderful things.
"I got your letter," he said, seriously, "and I came at once." As he began to speak of concrete facts, he dropped again into ordinary English, and did not know that he had changed his manner of speech.
For an instant, Sally looked up into his face, then with a sudden laugh, she informed him:
"I can say, 'isn't,' instead of, 'hain't,' too. How did you like my writing?"
He held her off at arms' length, and looked at her pridefully, but under his gaze her eyes fell, and her face flushed with a sudden diffidence and a new shyness of realization. She wore a calico dress, but at her throat was a soft little bow of ribbon. She was no longer the totally unself-conscious wood-nymph, though as natural and instinctive as in the other days. Suddenly, she drew away from him a little, and her hands went slowly to her breast, and rested there. She was fronting a great crisis, but, in the first flush of joy, she had forgotten it. She had spent lonely nights struggling for rudiments; she had sought and fought to refashion herself, so that, if he came, he need not be ashamed of her. And now he had come, and, with a terrible clarity and distinctness, she realized how pitifully little she had been able to accomplish. Would she pass muster? She stood there before him, frightened, self-conscious and palpitating, then her voice came in a whisper:
"Samson, dear, I'm not holdin' you to any promise. Those things we said were a long time back. Maybe we'd better forget 'em now, and begin all over again."
But, again, he crushed her in his arms, and his voice rose triumphantly:
"Sally, I have no promises to take back, and you have made none that I'm ever going to let you take back—not while life lasts!"
Her laugh was the delicious music of happiness. "I don't want to take them back," she said. Then, suddenly, she added, importantly: "I wear shoes and stockings now, and I've been to school a little. I'm awfully— awfully ignorant, Samson, but I've started, and I reckon you can teach me."
His voice choked. Then, her hands strayed up, and clasped themselves about his head.
"Oh, Samson," she cried, as though someone had struck her, "you've cut yore ha'r."
"It will grow again," he laughed. But he wished that he had not had to make that excuse. Then, being honest, he told her all about Adrienne Lescott—even about how, after he believed that he had been outcast by his uncle and herself, he had had his moments of doubt. Now that it was all so clear, now that there could never be doubt, he wanted the woman who had been so true a friend to know the girl whom he loved. He loved them both, but was in love with only one. He wanted to present to Sally the friend who had made him, and to the friend who had made him the Sally of whom he was proud. He wanted to tell Adrienne that now he could answer her question—that each of them meant to the other exactly the same thing: they were friends of the rarer sort, who had for a little time been in danger of mistaking their comradeship for passion.
As they talked, sitting on the stile, Sally held the rifle across her knees. Except for their own voices and the soft chorus of night sounds, the hills were wrapped in silence—a silence as soft as velvet. Suddenly, in a pause, there came to the girl's ears the cracking of a twig in the woods. With the old instinctive training of the mountains, she leaped noiselessly down, and for an instant stood listening with intent ears. Then, in a low, tense whisper, as she thrust the gun into the man's hands, she cautioned: