"And if I were anybody else, I suppose, you would let me walk along that fence, and even be polite enough to keep the dogs from eating me up?" "If you were anybody else and didn't injure my tobacco—yes."
"But as it is I must keep away?"
"All I ask of you is to stay on the other side." "And if I don't?" she questioned, her spirit flaring up to match with his, "and if I don't?" All the natural womanhood within her responded to the appeal of his superb manhood; all the fastidious refinement with which she was overlaid was alive to the rustic details which marred the finished whole—to the streak of earth across his forehead, to the coarseness of his ill-fitting clothes, to the tobacco juice staining his finger nails bright green. On his side, the lady of his dreams had shrunken to a witch; and he shook his head again in an effort to dispel the sweetness that so strangely moved him. "In that case you will meet the hounds one day and get your dress badly torn, I fear." "And bitten, probably." "Probably." "Well, I don't think it would be worth it," said the girl, in a quiver of indignation. "If I can help it, I shall never set my foot on your land again." "The wisest thing you can do is to keep off," he retorted. Turning, with an angry movement, she walked rapidly to the fence, heedless of the poisonous oak along the way; and Christopher, passing her with a single step, lowered the topmost rails that she might cross over the more easily. "Thank you," she said stiffly, as she reached the other side. "It was a pleasure," he responded, in the tone his father might have used when in full Grecian dress at the fancy ball. "You mean it is a pleasure to assist in getting rid of me?"
"What I mean doesn't matter," he answered irritably, and added, "I wish to God you were anybody else!" At this she turned and faced him squarely as he held the rails. "But how can I help being myself?" she demanded. "You can't, and there's an end of it." "Of what?" "Oh, of everything—and most of all of the evening at the cross-roads." "You saw me then?" she asked. "You know I did," he answered, retreating into his rude simplicity. "And you liked me then?"
"Then," he laughed, "why, I was fool enough to dream of you for a month afterward." "How dare you!" she cried. "Well, I shan't do it again," he assured her insolently. "You can't possibly dislike me any more than I do you," she remarked, drawing back step by step. "You're a savage, and a mean one at that—but all the same, I should like to know why you began to hate me." He laid the topmost rail along the fence and turned away. "Ask your grandfather!" he called back, as he passed into the tobacco field, with her fragrance still in his nostrils.
Maria, on the other side, walked slowly homeward along the new road that had ended so abruptly. Her lip trembled, and, letting her skirt drag in the dust, she put up her hand to suppress the first hint of emotion. It angered her that he had had the power to provoke her so, and for the moment the encounter seemed to have bereft her of her last shreds of womanly reserve. It was as if a strong wind had blown over her, laying her bosom bare, and she flushed at the knowledge that he had heard the fluttering of her breath and seen the indignant tears gather to her eyes—he a boorish stranger who hated her because of her name. For the first time in her life she had run straight against an impregnable prejudice—had felt her feminine charm ineffectual against a stern masculine resistance. She was at the age when the artificial often outweighs the real—when the superficial manner with a woman is apt to be misunderstood, and so to her Christopher Blake now appeared stripped even of his physical comeliness; the interview had left her with an impression of mere vulgar incivility. As she entered the house she met Fletcher passing through the hall with the mail-bag in his hand, and a little later, while she sat in a big chair by her chamber window, Miss Saidie came in and laid a letter in her lap. "It's from Mr. Wyndham, I think, Maria. Shall I light a candle?" "Not yet; it is so warm I like the twilight." "But won't you read the letter?" "Oh, presently. There's time enough." Miss Saidie came to the window and leaned out to sniff the climbing roses, her shapeless figure outlined against the purple dusk spangled with fireflies. Her presence irritated the girl, who stirred restlessly in her chair. "Is he coming, Maria, do you think?"
"If I let him—yes." "And he wants to marry you?" The girl laughed bitterly. "He hasn't seen me in my home yet," she answered, "and our vulgarity may be too much for him. He's very particular, you know." The woman at the window flinched as if she had been struck. "But if he loves you, Maria?" "Oh, he loves me for what isn't me," she answered, "for my 'culture,' as he calls it—for the gloss that has been put over me in the last ten years." "Still if you care for him, dear—" "I don't know—I don't know," said Maria, speaking in the effort to straighten her disordered thoughts rather than for the enlightenment of Miss Saidie. "I was sure I loved him before I came home—but this place upsets me so—I hate it. It makes me feel raw, crude, unlike myself. When I come back here I seem to lose all that I have learned, and to grow vulgar, like Jinnie Spade, at the store." "Not like her, Maria." "Well, I ought to know better, of course, but I don't believe I do—not when I'm here." "Then why not go away? Don't think of us; we can get along as we used to do." "I don't think of you," said the girl. "I don't think of anybody in the world except myself—and that's the awful part—that's the part I hate. I'm selfish to the core, and I know it."
"But you do love Jack Wyndham?" "Oh, I love him to distraction! Light the candle, Aunt Saidie, and let me read his letter. I can tell you, word for word, what is in it before I break the seal. Six months ago I went into a flutter at the sight of his handwriting. Six months before that I was madly in love with Dick Bright—and six months from to-day—Oh, well, I suppose I really haven't much heart to know—and if I ever care for anybody it must be for Jack—that's positive."
Standing beside the lighted candle on the bureau, she read the letter twice over, and then turning away, wrote her answer kneeling beside the big chair at the window.
CHAPTER II. The Romance that Was
Waking in the night she said again, "I love him to distraction," and slipping under the dimity curtains of the bed, sought his letter where she had left it on the bureau. The full light of the harvest moon was in the room—a light so soft that it lay like a yellow fluid upon the floor. It seemed almost as if one might stoop and fill the open palms.
She found the letter thrown carelessly upon the pincushion, and holding it to her lips, paused a moment beside the window, looking beyond the shaven lawn and the clustered oaks to where the tobacco fields lay golden beneath the moon. It was such a night as seemed granted by some kindly deity for the fulfillment of lovers' vows, and the girl, standing beside the open window, grew suddenly sad, as one who sees a vision with the knowledge that it is not life. When presently she went back to bed it was to lie sleepless until dawn, with the love letter held tightly in her hands.
The next day a restlessness like that of fever worked in her blood, and she ran from turret to basement of the roomy old house, calling Will to come and help her find amusement.
"Play ball with me, Will," she said; "I feel as if I were a child to-day." " Oh, it's no fun playing with a girl," replied the boy; "besides, I am going fishing in the river with Zebbadee Blake; I shan't be back till supper," and shouldering his fishing-rod he flung off with his can of worms. Miss Saidie was skimming big pans of milk in the spring-house, and Maria watched her idly for a time, growing suddenly impatient of the leisurely way in which the spoon travelled under the yellow cream. "I don't see how you can be so fond of it," she said at last. "Lord, child, I never could abide dairy work," responded Miss Saidie, setting the skimmed pan aside and carefully lifting another from the flat stones over which a stream of water trickled. "And yet you've done nothing else all your long life," wondered Maria. "When it comes to doing a thing in this world," returned the little woman, removing a speck of dust from the cream with the point of the spoon, "I don't ask myself whether I like it or not, but what's the best way to get it done. I've spent sixty years doing things I wasn't fond of, and I don't reckon I'm any the less happy for having done 'em well." "But I should be," asserted Maria, and then, with her white parasol over her bared head, she started for a restless stroll along the old road under the great chestnuts. She had reached the abandoned ice-pond, and was picking her way carefully in the shadow of the trees, when the baying of a pack of hounds in full cry broke on her ears, and with the nervous tremor she had associated from childhood with the sound, she stopped short in the road and waited anxiously for the hunt to pass. Even as she hesitated, feeling in imagination all the blind terror of the pursuit, and determined to swing into a chestnut bough in case of an approach, a small animal darted suddenly from around the bend in the sunken road, and an instant afterward the hounds in hot chase broke from the cover. For a single breath the girl, dropping her parasol, looked at the lowered branch; then as the small animal neared her her glance fell, and she saw that it was a little yellow dog, with hanging red tongue and eyes bulging in terror. From side to side of the red clay road the creature doubled for a moment in its anguish, and then with a spring, straight as the flight of a homing bird, fled to the shelter of Maria's skirts. Quick as a heart-beat the girl's personal fears had vanished, and as an almost savage instinct of battle awoke in her, she stooped with a protecting movement and, picking the small dog from the ground, held him high above her head as the hounds came on. A moment before her limbs had shaken at the distant cries; now facing the immediate presence of the danger, she felt the rage of her pity flow like an infusion of strong blood through her veins. Until they dashed her to the ground she knew that she would stand holding the hunted creature above her head. Like a wave the pack broke instantly upon her, forcing her back against the body of the chestnut, and tearing her dress, at the first blow, from her bosom to the ground. She had felt their weight upon her breast, their hot breath full in her face, when, in the midst of the confused noises in her ears, she heard a loud oath that rang out like a shot, followed by the strokes of a rawhide whip on living flesh. So close came the lash that the curling end smote her cheek and left a thin flame from ear to mouth. The lessening sounds became all at once like the silence; and when the hounds, beaten back, slunk, whimpering, to heel, she lowered her eyes until she looked straight into the face of Christopher Blake. "My God! You have pluck!" he said, and his face was like that of a dead man. Still holding the dog above her head, she lay motionless against the body of the tree. "Drive the beasts away," she pleaded like a frightened child. Without a word he turned and ordered the hounds home, and they crawled obediently back along the sunken road. Then he looked at her again. "I saw them start the dog on my land," he said, "and I ran across the field as soon as I could find my whip. If I hadn't come up when I did they would have torn you to pieces. Not another man in the world could have brought them in. Look at your dress." Glancing down, she followed the long slit from bosom to hem. "I hate them!" she exclaimed fiercely. "So it was your dog they started?" "Mine!" She lowered the yellow cur, holding him close in her arms, where he nestled shivering. "I never saw him before, but he's mine now; I saved him. I shall name him Agag, because the bitterness of death is past." "Well, rather—Look here," he burst out impulsively, "you've got the staunchest pluck I ever saw. I never knew a man brave enough to stand up against those hounds—and you—why, I don't believe you flinched an eyelash, and—by George the dog wasn't yours after all." " As if that made a difference!" she flashed out. "Why, he ran to me for help—and they might have killed me, but I'd never have given him up."
"I believe you," he declared. She was conscious of a slight thrill that passed quickly, leaving her white and weak. "I feel tired," she said, pressing hard against the tree. "Will you be so good as to pick up my parasol?" "Tired!" he exclaimed, and after a moment, "Your face is hurt—did the dogs do it?" She shook her head. "You struck me with your whip." "Is that so? I can't say after this that I never lifted my hand against a woman—but harsh measures are sometimes necessary, I reckon. Does it smart?" She touched the place lightly. "Oh, it's no matter!" she returned. "I suppose I ought really to thank you for taking the trouble to save my life but I don't, because, after all, the hounds are yours, you know." "Yes, I know; and they're good hounds, too, in their way. The dog had no business on their land." "And they're taught to warn off trespassers? Well, I hardly fancy their manner of conveying the hint." "It is sometimes useful, all the while."
"Ah, in case of a Fletcher, I presume."
"In case of a Fletcher," he repeated, his face darkening. "do you know I had entirely forgotten who you were?"
"It's time you were remembering it," she returned, "for I am most decidedly a Fletcher."
For an instant he scowled upon her.
"Then you are most decidedly a devil," was his retort, as he stooped to pick up her parasol from the road. "There's not much left of it," he remarked, handing it to her.
"As things go, I dare say I ought to be grateful that they spared the spokes," she said impatiently. "It does seem disagreeable that I can't go for a short stroll along my own road without the risk of having my clothes torn from my back. You really must keep your horrid beasts from becoming a public danger."
"They never chase anything that keeps off my farm," he replied coolly. "There's not so well trained a pack anywhere in the county. No other dogs around here could have been beaten back at the death."
"I fear that doesn't afford me the gratification you seem to feel—particularly as the death you allude to would have been mine. I suppose I ought to be overpowered with gratitude for the whole thing, but unfortunately I'm not. I have had a very unpleasant experience and I can't help feeling that I owe it to you."
"You're welcome to feel about it anyway you please," he responded, as Maria, tucking the dog under her arm, started down the road to the Hall, the tattered parasol held straight above her head.
At the house she carried Agag to her room, where she spent the afternoon in the big chair by the window. Miss Saidie, coming in with her dinner, inquired if she were sick, and then picked up the torn dress from the bed.
"Why, Maria, how on earth did you do it?"
"Some hounds jumped on me in the road."
"Well, I never! They were those dreadful Blake beasts, I know. I declare, I'll go right down and speak to Brother Bill about 'em."
"For heaven's sake, don't," protested the girl. "We've had quarrelling enough as it is—and, tell me, Aunt Saidie, have you ever known what it was all about?"
Miss Saidie was examining the rent with an eye to a possible mending, and she did not look up as she answered. "I never understood exactly myself, but your grandpa says they squandered all their money and then got mad because they had to sell the place. That's about the truth of it, I reckon."
"The Hall belonged to them once, didn't it?"
"Oh, a long time ago, when they were rich. Sakes alive, Maria, what's the matter with your face?"
"I struck it getting away from the hounds. It's too bad, isn't it? And Jack coming so soon, too. Do I look very ugly?"
"You're a perfect fright now, but I'll fix you a liniment to draw the bruise away. It will be all right in a day or two. I declare, if you haven't gone and brought a little po'-folksy yellow dog into the house." Maria was feeding Agag with bits of chicken from her plate, bending over him as he huddled against her dress.
"I found him in the road," she returned, "and I'm going to keep him. I saved him from the hounds."
"Well, it seems to me you might have got a prettier one," remarked Miss Saidie, as she went down to mix the liniment.
It was several mornings after this that Fletcher, coming into the dining-room where Maria sat at a late breakfast, handed her a telegram, and stood waiting while she tore it open.
"Jim Weatherby brought it over from the crossroads," he said. "It got there last night."
"I hope there's nobody dead, child," observed Miss Saidie, from the serving-table, where she was peeling tomatoes.
"More likely it points to a marriage, eh, daughter?" chuckled Fletcher jocosely.
The girl folded the paper and replaced it carefully in the envelope. "It's from Jack Wyndham," she said, "and he comes this evening. May I take the horses to the crossroads, grandpa?"
"Well, I did have a use for them," responded Fletcher, in high good-nature, "but, seeing as your young fellow doesn't come every day, I reckon I'll let you have 'em out."
Maria flinched at his speech; and then as the clear pink spread evenly in her cheeks, she spoke in her composed tones. "I may as well tell you, grandpa, that we shall marry almost immediately," she said.
CHAPTER III. Fletcher's Move and Christopher's Counterstroke
Not until September, when he lounged one day with a glass of beer in the little room behind Tom Spade's country store, did Christopher hear the news of Maria's approaching marriage. It was Sol Peterkin who delivered it, hiccoughing in the enveloping smoke from several pipes, as he sat astride an overturned flour barrel in one corner.
"I jest passed a wagonload of finery on the way to the Hall," he said, bulging with importance. "It's for the gal's weddin', I reckon; an' they do say she's a regular Jezebel as far as clothes go. I met her yestiddy with her young man that is to be, an' the way she was dressed up wasn't a sight for modest eyes. Not that she beguiled me, suh, though the devil himself might have been excused for mistakin' her for the scarlet woman—but I'm past the time of life when a man wants a woman jest to set aroun' an' look at. I tell you a good workin' pair of hands goes to my heart a long ways sooner than the blackest eyes that ever oggled."
"Well, my daughter Jinnie has been up thar sewin' for a month," put in Tom Spade, a big, greasy man, who looked as if he had lived on cabbage from his infancy, "an' she says that sech a sight of lace she never laid eyes on. Why, her very stockin's have got lace let in 'em, Jinnie says."
"Now, that's what I call hardly decent," remarked Sol, as he spat upon the dirty floor. "Them's the enticin' kind of women that a fool hovers near an' a wise man fights shy of. Lace in her stockin's! Well, did anybody ever?"
"She's got a pretty ankle, you may be sho'," observed Matthew Field, a long wisp of a man who had married too early to repent it too late, "an' I must say, if it kills me, that I always had a sharp eye for ankles."
"It's a pity you didn't look as far up as the hand," returned Tom Spade, with boisterous mirth. "I have heard that Eliza lays hers on right heavy."
"That's so, suh, that's so," admitted Matthew, puffing smoke like a shifting engine, "but that's the fault of the marriage service, an' I'll stand to it at the Judgment Day yes, suh, in the very presence of Providence who made it. I tell you, 'twill I led that woman to the altar she was the meekest-mouthed creetur that ever wiggled away from a kiss. Why, when I stepped on her train jest as I swung her up the aisle, if you believe me, all she said was, 'I hope you didn't hurt yo' foot'; an', bless my boots, ten minutes later, comin' out of church, she whispered in my year, 'You white-livered, hulkin' hound, you, get off my veil!' Well, well, it's sad how the ceremony can change a woman's heart."
"That makes it safer always to choose a widow," commented Sol. "Now, they do say that this is a fine weddin' up at the Hall— but I have my doubts. Them lace let in stockin's ain't to my mind."
"What's the rich young gentleman like?" inquired Tom Spade, with interest. "Jinnie says he's the kind of man that makes kissin' come natural—but I can't say that that conveys much to the father of a family."
"Oh, he's the sort that looks as if God Almighty had put the finishin' touches an' forgot to make the man," replied Sol. "He's got a mustache that you would say went to bed every night in curl papers."
Christopher pushed back his chair and drained his glass standing, then with a curt nod to Tom Spade he went out into the road.
It was the walk of a mile from the store to his house, and as he went on he fell to examining the tobacco, which appeared to ripen hour by hour in the warm, moist season. There was no danger of frost as yet, and though a little of Fletcher's crop had already been cut, the others had left theirs to mature in the favourable weather. From a clear emerald the landscape had changed to a yellowish green, and the huge leaves had crinkled at the edges like shirred silk. Here and there pale-brown splotches on a plant showed that it had too quickly ripened, or small perforations revealed the destructive presence of a hidden tobacco worm.
As Christopher neared the house the hounds greeted him with a single bay, and the cry brought Cynthia hastily out upon the porch and along the little path. At the gate she met him, and slipping her hand under his arm, drew him across the road to the rail fence that bordered the old field. At sight of her tearless pallor his ever-present fear shot up, and without waiting for her words he cried out quickly: "Is mother ill?"
"No, no," she answered, "oh, no; but, Christopher, it is the next worse thing."
He thought for a breath. "Then she has found out?"
"It's not that either," she shook her head. "Oh, Christopher, it's Fletcher!"
"It's Fletcher! What in thunder have we to do with Fletcher?"
"You remember the deed of trust on the place—the three hundred dollars we borrowed when mother was sick. Fletcher has bought it from Tom Spade and he means to foreclose it in a week. He has advertised the farm at the cross-roads."
He paled with anger. "Why, I saw Tom about it three days ago," he said, striking the rotten fence rail until it broke and fell apart; "he told me it could run on at the same interest."
"It's since then that Fletcher has bought it. He meant it as a surprise, of course, to drive us out whether or no, but Sam Murray came straight up to tell you."
He stood thinking hard, his eyes on the waving goldenrod in the old field.
"I'll sell the horses," he said at last.
"And starve? Besides, they wouldn't bring the money."
"Then we'll sell the furniture—every last stick! We'll sell the clothes from our backs—I'll sell myself into slavery before Fletcher shall beat me now!"
"We've sold all we've got," said Cynthia; "the old furniture is too heavy—all that's left; nobody about here wants it."
"I tell you I'll find those three hundred dollars if I have to steal them. I'd rather go to prison than have Fletcher get the place."
"Then he'd leave it in the end," remarked Cynthia hopelessly; adding after a pause, "I've thought it all out, dear, and we must steal the money—we must steal it from mother."
"From mother!" he echoed, touched to the quick.
"You know her big diamond," sobbed the woman, "the one in her engagement ring, that she never used to take off, even at night, till her fingers got so thin."
"Oh, I couldn't!" he protested.
"There's no other way," pursued Cynthia, without noticing him. "Surely, it is better than having her turned out in her old age—surely, anything is better than that. We can take the ring to-night after she goes to bed, and pry the diamond from the setting; it is held only by gold claws, you know. Then we will put in it the piece of purple glass from Docia's wedding ring—the shape is the same; and she will never find it out. Oh, mother! mother!"
"I can't, "returned Christopher stubbornly; "it is like robbing her, and she so blind and helpless. I cannot do it."
"Then I will," said Cynthia quietly, and, turning from him, she walked rapidly to the house.
Later that night, when he had gone up to his little garret loft, she came to him with the two rings in her outstretched hand—the superb white diamond and the common purple setting in Docia's brass hoop.
"Lend me your knife," she said, kneeling beside the smoky oil lamp; and without a word he drew his claspknife from his pocket, opened the blade, and held the handle toward her. She took it from him, and then knelt motionless for an instant looking at the diamond, which shone like a star in her hollowed palm. Presently she stooped and kissed it, and then taking the fine point of the blade, carefully pried the gold claws back from the imprisoned stone.
"She has worn it for fifty years," she said softly, seeing the jewel contract and give out a deeper flame to her misty eyes.
"It is robbery," he protested.
"It is robbery for her sake!" she flashed out angrily.
"All the same, it seems bitterly cruel."
With deft fingers she removed the bit of purple glass from Docia's ring and inserted it between the gold claws, which she pressed securely down. "To the touch there is no difference," she said, closing her eyes. "She will never know."
Rising from her knees, she gazed steadily at the loosened diamond lying in her hand; then, wrapping it in cotton, she placed it in a little wooden box from a jeweller of fifty years ago. "You must get up to-morrow and take it to town," she went on. "Carry it to Mr. Withers—he knows us. There is no other way," she added hastily.
"There is no other way, I know," he repeated, as he held out his hand.
"And you'll be back after sundown."
"Not until night. I shall walk over from the cross-roads."
For a time they were both silent, and he, walking to the narrow window, looked out into the moist darkness. The smell of the oil lamp oppressed the atmosphere inside, and the damp wind in his face revived in a measure his lowered spirits. He seemed suddenly able to cope with life—and with Fletcher.
Far away there was a faint glimmer among the trees, now shining clear, now almost lost in mist, and he knew it to be a lighted window at Blake Hall. The thought of Maria's lace stockings came to him all at once, and he was seized with a rage that was ludicrously large for so small a cause. Confused questions whirled in his brain, struggling for recognition: "I am here and she is there, and what is the meaning of it all? I know in spite of everything I might have loved her, and yet I know still better that it is not love, but hate I now feel. What is the difference, after all? And why this eternal bother of possibilities?" He turned presently and spoke:
"And you got this without her suspecting it?"
"She was sleeping like a child, and Lila was in the little bed in her chamber. Often she is restless, disturbed by her dreams, but to-night she lies very quiet, and she smiled once as if she were so happy."
"And to-morrow she will wear the ring with its setting of purple glass."
"She will never know—see, it fits perfectly. I have fastened it carefully. After all, what does it matter to her—the ring is still the same, and the value of it was for her in the association." Again he looked out of the window, and the distant glimmer gathered radiance and shone brightly among the trees. "I am here and she is there, and what is the meaning of it all?"
CHAPTER IV. A Gallant Deed that Leads to Evil
Two days later Christopher met Fletcher in the little room behind the store and paid down the three hundred dollars in the presence of Sam Murray. Several loungers, who had been seasoning their drinks with leisurely stories, hastily drained their glasses and withdrew at Fletcher's entrance, and when the three men came together to settle the affair of the mortgage they were alone in the presence of the tobacco-stained walls, the square pine table with its dirty glasses, and the bills of notice posted beside the door. Among them Christopher had seen the public advertisement of his farm—a rambling statement in large letters, signifying that the place would be sold for debt on Monday, the twenty-fifth of September, at twelve o'clock. "I want the money right flat down. Are you sure you've got it?" were Fletcher's first words after his start of angry surprise. For answer Christopher drew the roll of bills from his pocket and counted them out upon the table. "Here it is," he said, "and I am done with you for good and all—with you and your rascally cheating ways," "Come, come, let's go easy," warned Sam Murray, a fat, well-to-do farmer, who was accustomed to act the part of a lawyer in small transactions. Fletcher flushed purple and threw off his rage in a sneering guffaw. "Now that sounds well from him, doesn't it?" he inquired "when everybody knows he hasn't a beggarly stitch on earth but that strip of land he thinks so much of." "And whose fault is that, Bill Fletcher?" demanded the young man, throwing the last note down. "Oh, well, I don't bear you any grudge," responded Fletcher, with an abrupt assumption of goodnatured tolerance; "and to show I'm a well-meaning man in spite of abuse, I'll let the debt run on two years longer at the same interest if you choose."
Christopher laughed shortly. "That's all right, Sam," he said, without replying directly to the offer. "I owe him too much already to hope to pay it back in a single lifetime." "Well, you're a cantankerous, hard-headed fool, that's all I've got to say," burst out Fletcher, swallowing hard, and the sooner you get to the poorhouse along your own road the better it'll be for the rest of us." "You may be sure I'll take care not to go along yours. I'll have honest men about me, at any rate." "Then it's more than you've got a right to expect."
Christopher grew pale to the lips. "What do you mean, you scoundrel?" he cried, taking a single step forward. "Come, come, let's go easy," said Sam Murray persuasively, rising from his chair at the table. "Now that this little business is all settled there's no need for another word. I haven't much opinion of words myself, anyhow. They're apt to set fire to a dry tongue, that's what I say." "What do you mean?" repeated Christopher, without swerving from his steady gaze. Tom Spade glanced in at the open door, and, catching Fletcher's eye, hurriedly retreated. A small boy with a greasy face came in and gathered up the glasses with a clanking noise. "What do you mean, you coward?" demanded Christopher for the third time. He had not moved an inch from the position he had first assumed, but the circle about his mouth showed blue against the sunburn on his face. Fletcher raised his hand and spoke suddenly with a snort. "Oh, you needn't kick so about swallowing it," he said. "Everybody knows that your grandfather never paid a debt he owed, and your father was mighty little better. He was only saved from becoming a thief by being a drunkard." He choked over the last word, for Christopher, with an easy, almost leisurely movement, had struck him full in the mouth. The young man's arm was raised again, but before it fell Sam Murray caught it back. "I say, Tom, there's the devil to pay here!" he shouted, and Tom Spade rushed hurriedly through the doorway. "Now, now, that'll never do, Mr. Christopher," he reasoned, with a deference he would never have wasted upon Fletcher. "Why, he's old enough to be yo' pa twice over."
A white fleck was on Fletcher's beard, and as he wiped it away he spoke huskily. "It's a clear case of assault and I'll have the law on him," he said. "Sam Murray, you saw him hit me square in the face."
"Bless your life, I wasn't looking, suh," responded Sam pleasantly. "I miss a lot in this life by always happening to look the other way."
"I'll have the law on you," cried Fletcher again, shaking back his heavy eyebrows.
"You're welcome to have every skulking hound in the county on me," Christopher replied, loosening Sam Murray's restraining grasp. "If I can settle you I reckon I can settle them; but the day you open your lying mouth to me again I'll shoot you down as I would a mad dog—and wash my hands clean afterward!"
He looked round for his harvest hat, picked it up from the floor where it had fallen, and walked slowly out of the room.
In the broad noon outside he staggered an instant, dazzled by the glare.
"Had a drop too much, ain't you, Mr. Christopher?" a voice inquired at his side, and, looking down, he saw Sol Peterkin sitting on a big wooden box just outside the store.
"Not too much to mind my own business," was his curt reply.
"Oh, no harm's meant, suh, an' I hope none's taken," responded the little man good-naturedly. "I saw you walk kinder crooked, that was all, an'it came to me that you might be needin' an arm toward home. Young gentlemen will be gentlemen, that's the truth, suh, an' in my day I reckon I've steadied the legs of mo' young beaux than you could count on your ten fingers. Good Lord, when it comes to thinkin' of those Christmas Eve frolics that we had befo' the war! Why, they use to say that you couldn't get to the Hall unless you swam your way through apple toddy. Jest to think! an' here I've been settin' an' countin' the bundles goin' up thar now—"
"I'm looking for a box, Tom," said a clear voice at Christopher's back, "a big paper hat-box that ought to have come by express—"
He turned quickly and saw Maria Fletcher in a little cart in the road, with a strange young man holding the reins. As Christopher swung round, she nodded pleasantly, but with a cool stare he passed down the steps and out into the road, carrying with him a distasteful impression of the strange young man. Yet from that first hurried glimpse he had brought away only the picture of a brown mustache.
"By George, I'd like to see that fellow in the prize ring," he heard the stranger remark as he went by. "Do they have knock-outs around here, I wonder?"
"Oh, I dare say he'd oblige you with one if you took the trouble to tread on his preserves," was the girl's laughing rejoinder.
A massive repulsion swept over Christopher, pervading his entire body—repulsion that was but a recoil from his exhausted rage. In this new emotion there were both weariness and self-pity, and to his mental vision there showed clearly, with an impersonal detachment, his own figure in relation to the scenes among which he moved. "That is I yonder," he might have said had he been able to disentangle thought from sensation, "plodding along there through the red mud in the road. Look at the coarse clothes, smelling of axle-grease, the hands knotted by toil and stained with tobacco juice, the face soiled with sweat and clay. That is I, who was born with the love of ease and the weakness to temptation in my blood, with the love, too, of delicate food, of rare wines, and of beautiful women. Once I craved these things; now the thought of them troubles me no longer, for I work in the sun all day and go home to enjoy my coarse food. Is it because I have been broken to this life as a young horse is broken to the plough, or have all the desires I have known been swallowed up in a single hatred—a hatred as jealous and as strong as love?"
It was his nightly habit, lying upon his narrow bed in the little loft, to yield some moments before sleeping to his idle dreams of vengeance—to plan exquisite punishments and impossible retaliations. In imagination he had so often seen Fletcher drop dead before him, had so often struck the man down with his own hand, that there were hours when he almost believed the deed to have been done—when something like madness gripped him, and his hallucinations took the shape and colour of life itself. At such times he was conscious of the exhilaration that comes in the instants of swift action, when events move quickly, and one rises beyond the ordinary level of experience. When the real moment came—the supreme chance—he wondered if he would meet it as triumphantly as he met his dreams? Now, plodding along the rocky road, he went over again all the old schemes for the great revenge.
The small cart whirled past him, scattering dried mud drops in his face, and he caught the sound of bright girlish laughter. Looking after it, he saw the flutter of cherry-coloured ribbons coiling outward in the wind, and he remembered, watching the gay streamers, that the only woman he had ever kissed was eating cherries at the moment. Trivial as the recollection was, it started other associations, and he followed the escaping memory of that boyish romance, blithe and short-lived, which was killed at last by a single yielded kiss. At sixteen it had seemed to him that when he caught the girl of the cherries in his arms he should hold veritable happiness; and yet afterward there was only a great heaviness and something of the repulsion that he felt to-day. Happiness was not to be found on a woman's lips he had learned this in his boyhood; and then even as the knowledge returned to him he found himself savagely regretting that he had not kissed Maria Fletcher the day he found her on his land—a kiss of anger, not of love, which she would have loathed all her life—and have remembered! To have her utterly forget him—pass on serenely into her marriage, hardly remembering that he hated her—this was the bitterest thing he had to face; but with the brutal wish, he softened in recalling the tremor of her lip as she turned away—the indignant quiver of her eyelashes. Again came the thought: "I know in spite of everything I might have loved her, and yet I know still better that it is not love, but hate I now feel." Her fragrance, floating in the sunshine, filled his nostrils, and involuntarily he glanced over his shoulder, half expecting to find a dropped handkerchief in the road. None was there—only a scattered swarm of butterflies drifting like yellow rose-leaves on the wind.
Upon reaching the house he found that his mother had asked for him, and running hastily up to change his clothes, he came down and bent over the upright Elizabethan chair. "I have been worrying a good deal about you, my son," she said, with a sprightly gesture in which the piece of purple glass struck the dominant note. "Are you quite sure that you are feeling perfectly well? No palpitations of the heart when you go upstairs? and no particular heaviness after meals? I dreamed about you all night long, and though there's not a woman in the world freer from superstition, I can't help feeling uneasy." Taking her hand, he gently caressed the slender fingers. "Why, I'm a regular ox, mother," he returned, laughing, —my muscle is like iron, and I assure you I'm ready for my meals day or night. There's no use worrying about me, so you'd as well give it up." "I can't understand it, I really can't," protested Mrs. Blake, still unconvinced. "I am an old woman, you know, and I am anxious to have you settled in life before I die—but there seems to be a most extraordinary humour in the family with regard to marriage. I'm sure your poor father would turn in his grave at the very idea of his having no grand-children to come after him." "Well, there's time yet, mother; give us breathing space." "There's not time in my day, Christopher, for I am very old, and half dead as it is—but it does seem hard that I am never to be present at the marriage of a child. As for Cynthia, she is out of the question, of course, which is a great pity. I have very little patience with an unmarried woman—no, not if she were Queen Elizabeth herself though I do know that they are sometimes found very useful in the dairy or the spinning-room. As for an old bachelor, I have never seen the spot on earth—and I've lived to a great age—where he wasn't an encumbrance. They really ought to be taught some useful occupation, such as skimming milk or carding wool." "I hardly think either of those pursuits would be to my taste," protested Christopher, "but I give you leave to try your hand on Uncle Tucker." "Tucker has been a hero, my son," rejoined the old lady in a stately voice, "and the privilege of having once been a hero is that nobody expects you to exert yourself again. A man who has taken the enemy's guns single-handed, or figured prominently in a society scandal, is comfortably settled in his position and may slouch pleasantly for the remainder of his life. But for an ordinary gentleman it is quite different, and as we are not likely to have another war, you really ought to marry. You are preparing to go through life too peacefully, my son." "Good Lord!" exclaimed Christopher, "are you hankering after squabbles? Well, you shan't drag me into them, at any cost. There's Uncle Tucker to your hand, as I said before." "I'm sure Tucker might have married several times had he cared about it," replied Mrs. Blake reprovingly. "Miss Matoaca Bolling always had a sentiment for him, I am certain, and even after his misfortune she went so far as to present him with a most elaborate slipper of red velvet ornamented with steel beads. I remember well her consulting me as to whether it would be better to seem unsympathetic and give him two or to appear indelicate and offer him one. I suggested that she should make both for the same foot, which, I believe, she finally decided to do." "Well, well, this is all very interesting, mother," said Christopher, rising from his seat, "but I've promised old Jacob Weatherby to pass my word on his tobacco. On the way down, however, I'll cast my eyes about for a wife." "Between here and the Weatherbys' farm? Why, Christopher!" "That's all right, but unless you expect me to pick up one on the roadside I don't see how we'll manage. I'll do anything to oblige you, you know, even marry, if you'll find me a good, sensible woman." The old lady's eyelids dropped over her piercing black eyes, which seemed always to regard some far-off, ecstatic vision. Three small furrows ran straight up and down her forehead, and she lifted one delicate white hand to rub them out. "I don't like joking on so serious a subject, my son," she said. "I'm sure Providence expects every man to do his duty, and to remain unmarried seems like putting one's personal inclination before the intentions of the Creator. Your grandfather Corbin used to say he had so high an opinion of marriage that if his fourth wife —and she was very sickly—were to die at once, he'd marry his fifth within the year. I remember that Bishop Deane remarked it was one of the most beautiful tributes ever paid the marriage state—especially as it was no idle boast, for, as it happened, his wife died shortly afterward, and he married Miss Polly Blair before six months were up." "What a precious old fool he was!" laughed the young man, as he reached the door, passing out with a horrified "What, Christopher! Your own grandfather?" ringing in his ears. In the yard he found Cynthia drawing water at the well, and he took the heavy bucket from her and carried it into the kitchen. "You'd better change your clothes," she remarked, eyeing him narrowly, "if you're going back to the field." "But I'm not going back; the axe handle has broken again and I'll have to borrow Jim Weatherby's. There's no use trying to mend that old handle any more. It'll have to lie over till after tobacco cutting, when I can make a new one." "Oh, you might as well keep Jim's altogether," returned Cynthia irritably, loath to receive favours from her neighbours. "The first thing we know he will be running this entire place." "I reckon he'd make a much better job of it," replied Christopher, as he swung out into the road. On the whitewashed porch of the Weatherbys' house he found old Jacob—a hale, clearly old man with cheeks like frosted winter apples—gazing thoughtfully over his fine field of tobacco, which had grown almost to his threshold. "The weather's going to have a big drop to-night," he said reflectively; "I smell it on the wind. Lord! Lord! I reckon I'd better begin on that thar tobaccy about sunup—and yet another day or so of sun and September dew would sweeten it consider'ble. How about yours, Mr. Christopher?" "I'll cut my ripest plants to-morrow," answered Christopher, sniffing the air. "A big drop's coming, sure enough, but I don't scent frost as yet—the pines don't smell that way." They discussed the tobacco for a time—the rosy, genial old man, whom age had mellowed without souring—listening with a touching deference to his visitor's casual words; and when at last Christopher, with the axe on his shoulder, started leisurely homeward, "the drop" was already beginning, and the wind blew cool and crisp across the misty fields, beyond which a round, red sun was slowly setting. Level, vast and dark, the tobacco swept clear to the horizon. Between Weatherby's and the little store there was an abrupt bend in the road, where it shot aside from a steep descent in the ground; and Christopher had reached this point when he saw suddenly ahead of him a farm wagon driven forward at a reckless pace. As it neared him he heard the wheels thunder on the rocky bed of the road, and saw that the driver's seat was vacant, the man evidently having been thrown some distance back. The horses—a young pair he had never seen before—held the bits in their mouths; and it was with a hopelessness of checking their terrible speed that he stepped out of the road to give them room. The next instant he saw that they were making straight for the declivity from which the road shot back, seeing in the same breath that the driver of the wagon, not falling clear, had entangled himself in the long reins and was being dragged rapidly beneath the wheels. Tossing his axe aside, he sprang instantly at the horses' heads, hanging with his whole powerful weight upon their mouths. Life or death was nothing to him at the moment, and he seemed to have only an impersonal interest in the multiplied sensations. What followed was a sense of incalculable swiftness, a near glimpse of blue sky, the falling of stars around him in the road, and after these things a great darkness.
When he came to himself he was lying in a patch of short grass, with a little knot of men about him, among whom he recognised Jim Weatherby. "I brought them in, didn't I?" he asked, struggling up; and then he saw that his coat sleeves were rent from the armholes, leaving his arms bare beneath his torn blue shirt. Cynthia's warning returned to him, and he laughed shortly. "Well, I reckon you could bring the devil in if you put all your grip on him," was Jim's reply; "as it is, you're pretty sore, ain't you?" "Oh, rather, but I wish I hadn't spoiled my coat." He was still thinking of Cynthia. "God alive, man, it's a mercy you didn't spoil your life. Why, another second and the horses would have been over that bank yonder, with you and young Fletcher under the wagon."
Christopher rose slowly from the ground and stood erect.
"With me—and who under the wagon?—and who?" he asked in a throaty voice.
Jim Weatherby whistled. "Why, to think you didn't know all along!" he exclaimed. "It was Fletcher's boy; he made Zebbadee let him take the reins. Fletcher saw it all and he was clean mad when he got here—it took three men to hold him. He thinks more of that boy than he does of his own soul. What's the matter, man, are you hurt?"
Christopher had gone dead white, and the blue circle came out slowly around his mouth. "And I saved him!" he gasped. "I saved him! Isn't there some mistake? Maybe he's dead anyway!"
"Bless you, no," responded Jim, a trifle disconcerted. "The doctor's here and he says it's a case of a broken leg instead of a broken neck, that's all."
Looking about him, Christopher saw that there was another group of men at a little distance, gathered around something that lay still and straight on the grass. The sound of a hoarse groan reached him suddenly—an inarticulate cry of distress—and he felt with a savage joy that it was from Fletcher. He looked down, drawing together his tattered sleeves. For a time he was silent, and when he spoke it was with a sneering laugh.
"Well, I've been a fool, that's all," was what he said.
CHAPTER V. The Glimpse of a Bride
The next morning he awoke with stiffened limbs and confusion in his head, and for a time he lay idly looking at his little window-panes, beyond which the dawn hung like a curtain. Then, as a long finger of sunlight pointed through the glass, he rose with an effort and, dressing himself hastily, went downstairs to breakfast. Here he found that Zebbadee Blake, who had promised to help him cut his crop, had not yet appeared, owing probably to the excitement of Fletcher's runaway. The man's absence annoyed him at first; and then, as the day broke clear and cold, he succumbed to his ever present fear of frost and, taking his pruning-knife from the kitchen mantelpiece, went out alone to begin work on his ripest plants.
The sun had already tempered the morning chill in the air, and the slanting beams stretched over the tobacco, which, as the dew dried, showed a vivid green but faintly tinged with yellow—a colour that even in the sparkling sunlight appeared always slightly shadowed. To attempt alone the cutting of his crop, small as it was, seemed, with his stiffened limbs, a particularly trying task, and for a moment he stood gazing wearily across the field. Presently, with a deliberate movement as if he were stooping to shoulder a fresh burden, he slit the first ripe stalk from its flaunting top to within a hand's-breadth of the ground; then, cutting it half through near the roots, he let it fall to one side, where it hung, slowly wilting, on the earth. Gradually, as he applied himself to the work, the old zest of healthful labour returned to him, and he passed buoyantly through the narrow aisle, leaving a devastated furrow on either side. It was a cheerful picture he presented, when Tucker, dragging himself heavily from the house, came to the ragged edge of the field and sat down on an old moss-grown stump. "Where's Zebbadee, Christopher?" " He didn't turn up. It was that affair of the accident, probably. Fletcher berated him, I reckon." "So you've got to cut it all yourself. Well, it's a first-rate crop—the very primings ought to be as good as some top leaves." "The crop's all right," responded Christopher, as his knife passed with a ripping noise down the juicy stalk. "You know I made a fool of myself yesterday, Uncle Tucker," he said suddenly, drawing back when the plant fell slowly across the furrow, "and I'm so stiff in the joints this morning I can hardly move. I met one of Fletcher's farm wagons running away, with his boy dragged by the reins, and—I stopped it." Tucker turned his mild blue eyes upon him. Since the news of Appomattox nothing had surprised him, and he was not surprised now—he was merely interested. "You couldn't have helped it, I suspect," he remarked.
"I didn't know whose it was, you see," answered Christopher; "the horses were new." "You'd have done it anyway, I reckon. At such moments it's a man's mettle that counts, you know, and not his emotions. You might have hated Fletcher ten times worse, but you'd have risked your life to stop the horses all the same— because, after all, what a man is is something different from how he feels about things. It's in your blood to dare everything whenever a chance offers, as it was in your father's before you. Why, I've seen him stop on the way to a ball, pull off his coat, and go up a burning ladder to save a woman's pet canary, and then, when the crowd hurrahed him, I've laughed because I knew he deserved nothing of the kind. With him it wasn't courage so much as his inborn love of violent action—it cleared his head, he used to say." Christopher stopped cutting, straightened himself, and held his knife loosely in his hand. "That's about it, I reckon," he returned. "I know I'm not a bit of a hero—if I'd been in your place I'd have shown up long ago for a skulking coward—but it's the excitement of the moment that I like. Why, there's nothing in life I'd enjoy so much as knocking Fletcher down—it's one of the things I look forward to that makes it all worth while." Tucker laughed softly. It was a peculiarity of his never to disapprove. That's a good savage instinct," he said, with a humorous tremor of his nostrils, "and it's a saying of mine, you know, that a man is never really—civilised until he has turned fifty. We're all born mighty near to the wolf and mighty far from the dog, and it takes a good many years to coax the wild beast to lie quiet by the fireside. It's the struggle that the Lord wants, I reckon; and anyhow, He makes it easier for us as the years go on. When a man gets along past his fiftieth year, he begins to understand that there are few things worth bothering about, and the sins of his fellow mortals are not among 'em." " Bless my soul!" exclaimed Christopher in disgust, rapping his palm smartly with the flat blade of his knife. "Do you mean to tell me you've actually gone and forgiven Bill Fletcher?" "Well, I wouldn't go so far as to water the grass on his grave, "answered Tucker, still smiling, "but I've not the slightest objection to his eating, sleeping, and moving on the surface of the earth. There's room enough for us both, even in this little county, and so long as he keeps out of my sight, as far as I am concerned he absolutely doesn't exist. I never think of him except when you happen to call his name. If a man steals my money, that's his affair. I can't afford to let him steal my peace of mind as well." With a groan Christopher went back to his work. "It may be sense you're talking," he observed, "but it sounds to me like pure craziness. It's just as well, either way, I reckon, that I'm not in your place and you in mine—for if that were so Fletcher would most likely go scot free." Tucker rose unsteadily from the stump. "Why, if we stood in each other's boots, "he said, with a gentle chuckle, "or, to be exact, if I stood in your two boots and you in my one, as sure as fate, you'd be thinking my way and I yours. Well, I wish I could help you, but as I can't I'll be moving slowly back."
He shuffled off on his crutches, painfully swinging himself a step at a time, and Christopher, after a moment's puzzled stare at his pathetic figure, returned diligently to his work.
His passage along the green aisle was very slow, and when at last he reached the extreme end by the little beaten path and felled the last stalk on his left side he straightened himself for a moment's rest, and stood, bareheaded, gazing over the broad field, which looked as if a windstorm had blown in an even line along the edge, scattering the outside plants upon the ground. The thought of his work engrossed him at the instant, and it was with something of a start that he became conscious presently of Maria Fletcher's voice at his back. Wheeling about dizzily, he found her leaning on the old rail fence, regarding him with shining eyes in which the tears seemed hardly dried.
"I have just left Will," she said; "the doctor has set his leg and he is sleeping. It was my last chance—I am going away to-morrow—and I wanted to tell you—I wanted so to tell you how grateful we feel."
The knife dropped from his hand, and he came slowly along the little path to the fence.
"I fear you've got an entirely wrong idea about me, "he answered. "It was nothing in the world to make a fuss over—and I swear to you if it were the last word I ever spoke—I did not know it was your brother."
"As if that mattered!" she exclaimed, and he remembered vaguely that he had heard her use the words before. "You risked your life to save his life, we know that. Grandpa saw it all—and the horses dragged you, too. You would have been killed if the others hadn't run up when they did. And you tell me—as if that made it any the less brave that you didn't know it was Will."
"I didn't, "he repeated stubbornly. "I didn't."
"Well, he does, " she responded, smiling; "and he wants to thank you himself when he is well enough."
"If you wish to do me a kindness, for heaven's sake tell him not to," he said irritably. "I hate all such foolishness it makes me out a hypocrite!"
"I knew you'd hate it; I told them so," tranquilly responded the girl. "Aunt Saidie wanted to rush right over last night, but I wouldn't let her. All brave men dislike to have a fuss made over them, I know."
"Good Lord!" ejaculated Christopher, and stopped short, impatiently desisting before the admiration illumining her eyes. >From her former disdain he had evidently risen to a height in her regard that was romantic in its ardour. It was in vain that he told himself he cared for one emotion as little as for the other—in spite of his words, the innocent fervour in her face swept over the barrier of his sullen pride.
"So you are going away to-morrow, "he said at last; "and for good?"
"For good, yes. I go abroad very unexpectedly for perhaps five years. My things aren't half ready, but business is of more importance than a woman's clothes."
"Will you be alone?"
"Who goes with you?" he insisted bluntly.
As she reddened, he watched the colour spread slowly to her throat and ear.
"I am to be married, you know," she answered, with her accustomed composure of tone.
His lack of gallantry was churlish.
"To that dummy with the brown mustache?" he inquired.
A little hysterical laugh broke from her, and she made a hopeless gesture of reproof. "Your manners are really elementary," she remarked, adding immediately: "I assure you he isn't in the least a dummy—he is considered a most delightful talker."
He swept the jest impatiently aside.
"Why do you do it?" he demanded.
"You know what I mean. Why do you marry him?"
Again she bit back a laugh. It was all very primitive, very savage, she told herself; it was, above all, different from any of the life that she had known, and yet, in a mysterious way, it was familiar, as if the unrestrained emotion in his voice stirred some racial memory within her brain.
"Why do I marry him?" She drew a step away, looking at sky and field. "Why do I marry him?" She hesitated slightly, "Oh, for many reasons, and all good ones—but most of all because I love him."
"You do not love him."
"I beg your pardon, but I do."
For the first time in her life, as her eyes swept over the landscape, she was conscious of a peculiar charm in the wildness of the country, in the absence of all civilising influences—in the open sky, the red road, the luxuriant tobacco, the coarse sprays of yarrow blooming against the fence; in the homely tasks, drawing one close to the soil, and the harvesting of the ripened crops, the milking of the mild-eyed cows, and in the long still days, followed by the long still nights.
Their eyes met, and for a time both were silent. She felt again the old vague trouble at his presence, the appeal of the rustic tradition, the rustic temperament; of all the multiplied inheritances of the centuries, which her education had not utterly extinguished.
"Well, I hope you'll live to regret it," he said suddenly, with bitter passion.
The words startled her, and she caught her breath with a tremor.
"What an awful wish!" she exclaimed lightly.
"It's an honest one."
"I'm not sure I shouldn't prefer a little polite lying."
"You won't get it from me. I hope you'll live to regret it. Why shouldn't I?"
"Oh, you might at least be decently human. If you hadn't been so brave yesterday, I might almost think you a savage to-day."
"I didn't do that on purpose, I told you," he returned angrily.
"You can't make me believe that—it's no use trying."
"I shan't try—though it's the gospel truth—and you'll find it out some day."
"Oh, when the time comes, that's all."
"You speak in riddles," she said, "and I always hated guessing." Then she held out her hand with a pleasant, conventional smile. "I am grateful to you in spite of everything," she said; "and now good-by."
His arms hung at his side. "No, I won't shake hands," he answered. "What's the use?"
"As you please—only, it's the usual thing at parting."
"All the same, I won't do it," he said stubbornly. "My hands are not clean." He held them out, soiled with earth and the stains from the tobacco.
For an instant her eyes dwelt upon him very kindly.
"Oh, I shan't mind the traces of honest toil," she said; but as he still hung back, she gave a friendly nod and went quickly homeward along the road. As her figure vanished among the trees, a great bitterness oppressed him, and, picking up his knife, he went back doggedly to his work.
In the kitchen, when he returned to dinner some hours later, he found Cynthia squinting heavily over the torn coat.
"I must say you ruined this yesterday," she remarked, looking up from her needle, "and if you'd listened to me you could have stopped those horses just as well in your old jean clothes. I had a feeling that something was going to happen, when I saw you with this on."
"I don't doubt it," he responded, woefully eyeing the garment spread on her knees, "and I may as well admit right now that I made a mess of the whole thing. To think of my wasting the only decent suit I had on a Fletcher—after saving up a year to buy it, too."
Cynthia twitched the coat inside out and placed a square patch over the ragged edges of the rent. "I suppose I ought to be thankful you saved the boy's life," she observed, "but I can't say that I feel particularly jubilant when I look at these armholes. Of course, when I first heard of it the coat seemed a mere trifle, but when I come to the mending I begin to wish you'd been heroic in your everyday clothes. There'll have to be a patch right here, but I don't reckon it will show much. Do you mind?"
"I'd rather wear a mustard plaster than a patch any time," he replied gravely; "but as long as there's no help for it, lay them on—don't slight the job a bit because of my feelings. I can stand pretty well having my jean clothes darned and mended, but I do object to dressing up on Sundays in a bedquilt."
"Well, you'll have to, that's all," was Cynthia's reassuring rejoinder. "It's the price you pay for being a hero when you can't afford it."
CHAPTER VI. Shows Fletcher in a New Light
Responding to a much-distracted telegram from Fletcher, Carraway arrived at the Hall early on the morning of Maria's marriage, to arrange for the transfer to the girl of her smaller share in her grandfather's wealth. In the reaction following the hysterical excitement over the accident, Fletcher had grown doubly solicitous about the future of the boy—feeling, apparently, that the value of his heir was increased by his having so nearly lost him. When Carraway found him he was bustling noisily about the sick-room, walking on tiptoe with a tramp that shook the floor, while Will lay gazing wearily at the sunlight which filtered through the bright green shutters. Somewhere in the house a canary was trilling joyously, and the cheerful sound lent a pleasant animation to the otherwise depressing atmosphere. On his way upstairs Carraway had met Maria running from the boy's room, with her hair loose upon her shoulders, and she had stopped long enough to show a smiling face on the subject of her marriage. There were to be only Fletcher, Miss Saidie and himself as witnesses, he gathered, Wyndham's parents having held somewhat aloof from the connection—and within three hours at the most it would be over and the bridal pair beginning their long journey. Looking down from the next landing, he had further assurance of the sincerity of Maria's smile when he saw the lovers meet and embrace within the shadow of the staircase; and the sight stirred within his heart something of that wistful pity with which those who have learned how little emotion counts in life watch the first exuberance of young passion. A bright beginning whatever be the ending, he thought a little sadly, as he turned the handle of the sick-room door.
The boy's fever had risen and he tossed his arms restlessly upon the counterpane. "Stand out of my sunshine, grandpa," he said fretfully, as the lawyer sat down by his bedside.
Fletcher shuffled hastily from before the window, and it struck Carraway almost ludicrously that in all the surroundings in which he had ever seen him the man had never appeared so hopelessly out of place—not even when he had watched him at prayer one Sunday in the little country church.
"There, you're in it again," complained the boy in his peevish tones.
Fletcher lifted a cup from the table and brought it over to the bed.
"Maybe you'd like a sip of this beef tea now," he suggested persuasively. "It's most time for your medicine, you know, so jest a little taste of this beforehand."
"I don't like it, grandpa; it's too salt."
"Thar, now, that's jest like Saidie," blurted Fletcher angrily. "Saidie, you've gone and made his beef tea too salt."
Miss Saidie appeared instantly at the door of the adjoining room, and without seeking to diminish the importance of her offense, mildly offered to prepare a fresh bowl of the broth.
"I'm packing Maria's clothes now," she said, "but I'll be through in a jiffy, and then I'll make the soup. I've jest fixed up the parlour for the marriage. Maria insists on having a footstool to kneel on—she ain't satisfied with jest standing with jined hands before the preacher, like her pa and ma did before she was born."
"Well, drat Maria's whims," retorted Fletcher impatiently; "they can wait, I reckon, and Will's got to have his tea, so you'd better fetch it."
"But I don't want it, grandpa," protested the boy, flushed and troubled. "You worry me so, that's all. Please stop fooling with those curtains. I like the sunshine."
"A nap is what he needs, I suspect," observed Carraway, touched, in spite of himself, by the lumbering misery of the man.
"Ah, that's it," agreed Fletcher, catching readily at the
suggestion. "You jest turn right over and take yo' nap, and when you wake up well, I'll give you anything you want. Here, swallow this stuff down quick and you'll sleep easy."
He brought the medicine glass to the bedside, and, slipping his great hairy hand under the pillow, gently raised the boy's head.
"I reckon you'd like a brand new saddle when you git up," he remarked in a coaxing voice.
"I'd rather have a squirrel gun, grandpa; I want to go hunting." Fletcher's face clouded.
"I'm afraid you'd git shot, sonny."
With his lips to the glass, Will paused to haggle over the price of his obedience.
"But I want it," he insisted; "and I want a pack of hounds, too, to chase rabbits."
"Bless my boots! You ain't going to bring any driveling beasts on the place, air you?"
"Yes, I am, grandpa. I won't swallow this unless you say I may."
"Oh, you hurry up and git well, and then we'll see—we'll see," was Fletcher's answer. "Gulp this stuff right down now and turn over."
The boy still hesitated.
"Then I may have the hounds," he said; "that new litter of puppies Tom Spade has, and I'll get Christopher Blake to train 'em for me."
The pillow shook under his head, and as he opened his mouth to drink, a few drops of the liquid spilled upon the bedclothes.
"I reckon Zebbadee's a better man for hounds," suggested Fletcher, setting down the glass.
"Oh, Zebbadee's aren't worth a cent—they can't tell a rabbit from a watering-pot. I want Christopher Blake to train 'em, and I want to see him about it to-day. Tell him to come, grandpa."
"I can't, sonny—I can't; you git your hounds and we'll find a better man. Why, thar's Jim Weatherby; he'll do first rate."
"His dogs are setters," fretted Will. "I don't want him; I want Christopher Blake—he saved my life, you know."
"So he did, so he did," admitted Fletcher; "and he shan't be a loser by that, suh," he added, turning to Carraway. "When you go over thar, you can carry my check along for five hundred dollars."
The lawyer smiled. "Oh, I'll take it," he answered, "and I'll very likely bring it back."
The boy looked at Carraway. "You tell him to come, sir," he pleaded. His eyes were so like Fletcher's—small, sparkling, changing from blue to brown—that the lawyer's glance lingered upon the other's features, seeking some resemblance in them, also. To his surprise he found absolutely none, the high, blue-veined forehead beneath the chestnut hair, the straight, delicate nose; the sensitive, almost effeminate curve of the mouth, must have descended from the "worthless drab" whom he had beheld in the severe white light of Fletcher's scorn. For the first time it occurred to Carraway that the illumination had been too intense.
"I'll tell him, certainly," he said quietly after a moment; "but I don't promise that he'll come, you understand."
"Oh, I won't thank him," cried the boy eagerly. "It isn't for that I want him—tell him so. Maria says he hates a fuss."
"I'll deliver your message word for word," responded the lawyer. "Not only that, I'll add my own persuasion to it, though I fear I have little influence with your neighbour."
"Tell him I beg him to come," insisted the boy, and the urgent voice remained with Carraway throughout the day.
It was not until the afternoon, however, when he had tossed his farewell handful of rice at the departing carriage and met Maria's last disturbed look at the Hall, that he found time to carry Will's request and Fletcher's check to Christopher Blake. The girl had shown her single trace of emotion over the boy's pillow, where she had shed a few furtive tears, and the thought of this was with Carraway as he walked meditatively along the red clay road, down the long curves of which he saw the carriage rolling leisurely ahead of him. As a bride, Maria puzzled him no less than she had done at their first meeting, and the riddle of her personality he felt to be still hopelessly unsolved. Was it merely repression of manner that annoyed him in her he questioned, or was it, as he had once believed, the simple lack of emotional power? Her studied speech, her conventional courtesy, seemed to confirm the first impression she had made; then her dark, troubled gaze and the sullen droop of her mouth returned to give the lie to what he could but feel to be a possible misjudgment. In the end, he concluded wisely enough that, like the most of us, she was probably but plastic matter for the mark of circumstance—that her development would be, after all, according to the events she was called upon to face. The possibility that Destiny, which is temperament, should have already selected her as one of those who come into their spiritual heritage only through defeat, did not enter into the half-humorous consideration with which he now regarded her.
Turning presently into the sunken road by the ice-pond, he came in a little while to the overgrown fence surrounding the Blake farm. In the tobacco field beyond the garden he saw Christopher's blue-clad figure rising from a blur of green, and, following the ragged path amid the yarrow, he joined the young man where he stood at work.
As the lawyer reached his side Christopher glanced up indifferently to give a nod of welcome. His crop had all been cut, and be was now engaged in hanging the wilting plants from long rails supported by forked poles. At his feet there were little green piles of tobacco, and around him from the sunbaked earth rose a headless army of bruised and bleeding stubble.
So thriftless were the antiquated methods he followed that the lawyer, as he watched him, could barely repress a smile. Two hundred years ago the same crop was probably raised, cut and cured on the same soil in the same careless and primitive fashion. Beneath all the seeming indifference to success or failure Carraway discerned something of that blind reliance upon chance which is apt to be the religious expression of a rural and isolated people.
"Yes, I'll leave it out awhile, I reckon, unless the weather changes," replied Christopher, in answer to the lawyer's inquiry.
"Well, it promises fair enough," returned Carraway pleasantly. "They tell me, by the way, that the yellow, sun-cured leaf is coming into favour in the market. You don't try that, eh?"
Christopher shook his head, and, kneeling on the ground, carelessly sorted his pile of plants. "I learned to cure it indoors," he answered, and I reckon I'll keep to the old way. The dark leaf is what the people about here like—it makes the sweeter chew, they think. As for me, I hate the very smell of it." "That's odd, and I'll wager you're the only man in the county who neither smokes nor chews." "Oh, I handle it, you see. The smell and the stain of it are well soaked in. I sometimes wonder if all the water in the river of Jordan could wash away the blood of the tobacco worm." With a laugh in which there was more bitterness than mirth, he stretched out his big bronzed hands, and Carraway saw that the nails and finger-tips were dyed bright green. "It does leave its mark," observed the lawyer, and felt instantly that the speech was inane. Christopher went on quietly with his work, gathering up the plants and hanging the slit stalks over the long poles, while the peculiar heavy odour of the freshly cut crop floated unpleasantly about them. For a time Carraway watched him in silence, his eyes dwelling soberly upon the stalwart figure. In spite of himself, the mere beauty of outline touched him with a feeling of sadness, and when he spoke at last it was in a lowered tone. "You have, perhaps, surmised that my call is not entirely one of pleasure," he began awkwardly; "that I am, above all, the bearer of a message from Mr. Fletcher." "From Fletcher?" repeated Christopher coolly. "Well, I never heard a message of his yet that wasn't better left undelivered." "I am sure I am correct in saying," Carraway went on steadily and not without definite purpose, "that he hopes you will be generous enough to let bygones be bygones." Christopher nodded. "He feels, of course," pursued the lawyer, "that his obligation to you is greater than he can hope to repay. Indeed, I think if you knew the true state of the case your judgment of him would be softened. The boy—who so nearly lost his life is the one human being whom Fletcher loves better than himself—better than his own soul, I had almost said."
Christopher looked up attentively. "Who'd have thought it," he muttered beneath his breath. Judging that he had at last made a beginning at the plastering over of old scars, Carraway went on as if the other had not spoken. "So jealous is his affection in this instance, that I believe his granddaughter's marriage is something of a relief to him. He is positively impatient of any influence over the boy except his own—and that, I fear, is hardly for good." Picking up a clod of earth, Christopher crumbled it slowly to dust. "So the little chap comes in for all this, does he?" he asked, as his gaze swept over the wide fields in the distance. "He comes in for all that is mine by right, and Fletcher's intention is, I dare say, that he'll reflect honour upon the theft?" "That he'll reflect honour upon the name—yes. It is the ambition of his grandfather, I believe, that the lad should grow up to be respected in the county—to stand for something more than he himself has done." "Well, he'll hardly stand for more of a rascal," remarked Christopher quietly; and then, as his eyes rested on the landscape, he appeared to follow moodily some suggestion which had half escaped him. "Then the way to touch the man is through the boy, I presume," he said abruptly.
Arrested by the words, the lawyer looked down quickly, but the other, still kneeling upon the ground, was fingering a plant he had just picked up. "Fine leaves, eh?" was the remark that met Carraway's sudden start.
"To touch him, yes," replied the lawyer thoughtfully. "Whatever heart he has is given to his grandson, and when you saved the lad's life the other day you placed Fletcher in your debt for good. Of his gratitude I am absolutely sure, and as a slight expression of it he asked me to hand you this."
He drew the check from his pocket, and leaning over, held it out to Christopher. To his surprise, the young man took it from him, but the next moment he had torn it roughly in two and handed it back again. "So you may as well return it to him," he said, and, rising slowly from the ground, he stood pushing the loose plants together with his foot.
"I feared as much," observed Carraway, placing the torn slip of paper in his pocket. "Your grudge is of too long standing to mend in a day. Be that as it may, I have a request to make of you from the boy himself which I hope you will not refuse. He has taken a liking to you, it appears, and as he will probably be ill for some weeks, he begs that you will come back with me to see him."
He finished a little wistfully, and stood looking up at the young man who towered a good head and shoulders above him.
"I may as well tell you once for all," returned Christopher, choking over the words, "that you've given me as much of Fletcher as I can stand and a long sight more than I want. If anybody but you had brought me that piece of paper with Bill Fletcher's name tagged to it I'd have rammed it down his throat before this. As it is, you may tell him from me that when I have paid him to the last drop what I owe him—and not till then—will I listen to any message he chooses to send me. I hate him, and that's my affair; I mean to be even with him some day, and I reckon that's my affair, too. One thing I'm pretty sure of, and that is that it's not yours. Is your visit over, or will you come into the house?"
"I'll be going back now," replied the lawyer, shrinking from the outburst, "but if I may have the pleasure, I'll call upon your mother in the morning."
Christopher shook the hand which he held out, and then spoke again in the same muffled voice. "You may tell him one thing more," he pursued, "and that is, that it's the gospel truth I didn't know it was his grandson in the wagon. Why, man, there's not a Fletcher on this earth whose neck I'd lift my little finger to save!"
Then, as Carraway passed slowly along the ragged path to the sunken road, he stood looking after him with a heavy frown upon his brow. His rage was at white heat within him, and, deny it as he would, he knew now that within the last few weeks his hatred had been strengthened by the force of a newer passion which had recoiled upon itself. Since his parting with Maria Fletcher the day before, he had not escaped for a breath from her haunting presence. She was in his eyes and in the air he breathed; the smell of flowers brought her sweetness to him, and the very sunshine lying upon the September fields thrilled him like the warmth of her rare smile. He found himself fleeing like a hunted animal from the memory which he could not put away, and despite the almost frenzied haste with which he presently fell to work, he saw always the light and gracious figure which had come to him along the red clay road. The fervour which had shone suddenly in her eyes, the quiver of her mouth as she turned away, the poise of her head, the gentle, outstretched hand he had repulsed, the delicate curve of her wrist beneath the falling sleeve, the very lace on her bosom fluttering in the still weather as if a light wind were blowing—these things returned to torture him like the delirium of fever. Appealing as the memory was, it aroused in his distorted mind all the violence of his old fury, and he felt again the desire for revenge working like madness in his blood. It was as if every emotion of his life swept on, to empty itself at last into the wide sea of his hatred.
VII. In Which Hero and Villain Appear as One
A month later Christopher's conversation with Carraway returned to him, when, coming one morning from the house with his dogs at his heels and his squirrel gun on his shoulder, he found Will Fletcher and a troop of spotted foxhound puppies awaiting him outside the whitewashed gate.
"I want to speak to you a moment, Mr. Blake," began the boy, in the assured tones of the rich man to the poor. The Blake hounds made a sudden rush at the puppies, to be roughly ordered to heel by their master.
"Well, fire away," returned the young man coolly. "But I may as well warn you that it's more than likely it will be a clear waste of breath. I'll have nothing to do with you or your sort." He leaned on his gun and looked indifferently over the misty fields, where the autumn's crop of lifeeverlasting shone silver in the sunrise.
"I don't see why you hate me so," said the boy wonderingly, checking the too frolicsome adventures of the puppies in the direction of the hounds. "I've always liked you, you know, even before you saved my life—because you're the straightest shot and the best trainer of hounds about here. Grandpa says I mustn't have anything to do with you, but I will anyway, if I please."
"Oh, you will, will you?" was Christopher's rejoinder, as he surveyed him with the humorous contempt which the strong so often feel for the weak of the same sex. "Well, I suppose I'll have my say in the matter, and strangely enough I'm on your grandfather's side. The clearer you keep of me the better it will be for you, my man."
"That's just like grandpa all over again," protested the boy; and when it comes to that, he needn't know anything about it—he doesn't know half that I do, anyway; he blusters so about things."
Christopher's gaze returned slowly from the landscape and rested inquiringly upon the youthful features before him, seeking in them some definite promise of the future. The girlish look of the mouth irritated him ludicrously, and half-forgotten words of Carraway's awoke within his memory.
"Fletcher loves but one thing on this earth, and his ambition is that the boy shall be respected in the county." A Fletcher respected in the very stronghold of a Blake! He laughed aloud, and then spoke hurriedly as if to explain the surprising mirth in his outburst.
"So you came to pay a visit to your nearest neighbour and are afraid your grandfather will find it out? Then you'll get a spanking, I dare say."
Will blushed furiously, and stood awkwardly scraping up a pile of sand with the sole of his boot. "I'm not a baby," he blurted out at last, "and I'll go where I like, whatever he says."
"He keeps a pretty close watch over you, I reckon. Perhaps he's afraid you'll become a man and step into his shoes before he knows it."
"Oh, he can't find me out, all the same," said the boy slyly. "He thinks I've gone over to Mr. Morrison's now to do my Greek—he's crazy about my learning Greek, and I hate it—and, you bet your life, he'll be hopping mad if he finds I've given him the slip."
"He will, will he?" remarked Christopher, and the thought appeared to afford him a peculiar satisfaction. For the first time the frown left his brow and his tone lost its insolent contempt. Then he came forward suddenly and laid his hand upon the gate. "Well, I can't waste my morning," he said. "You'd better run back home and play the piano. I'm off."
"I don't play the piano—I'm not a girl," declared the boy; "and what I want is to get you to train my hounds for me. I'd like to go hunting with you to-day."
"Oh, I can't be bothered with babies," sneered Christopher in reply. "You'd fall down, most likely, and scratch your knees on the briers, and then you'd run straight home to blab to Fletcher."
"I won't!" cried Will angrily. "I'll never blab. He'd be too mad, I tell you, if he found it out."
"Well, I don't want you anyhow, so get out of my way. You'd better look sharp after your pups or the hounds will chew them up."
The boy stood midway of the road, kicking the dust impatiently ahead of him. His lips quivered with disappointment, and the expression gave them a singularly wistful beauty. "I'll give you all my pocket money if you'll take me with you," he pleaded suddenly, stretching out a handful of silver.
With a snarl Christopher pushed his arm roughly aside. "Put up your money, you fool," he said; "I don't want it."
"Oh, you don't, don't you?" taunted the other, raging with wounded pride. "Why, grandpa says you're as poor as Job's turkey after it was plucked."
It was an old joke of Fletcher's, who, in giving utterance to it, little thought of the purpose it would finally be made to serve, for Christopher, halting suddenly at the words, swung round in the cloud of dust and stood regarding the grandson of his enemy with a thoughtful and troubled look. The lawyer's words sounded so distinctly in his ears that he glanced at the boy with a start, fearing that they had been spoken aloud: "His grandson is the sole living thing that Fletcher loves." Again the recollection brought a laugh from him, which he carelessly threw off upon the frolics of the puppies. Then the frown settled slowly back upon his brow, and the brutal look, which Carraway had found so disfiguring, crept out about his mouth.
"I tell you honestly," he said gruffly, "that if you knew what was good for you, you'd scoot back along that road a good deal faster than you came. If you're such a headstrong fool as to want to come with me, however, I reckon you may do it. One thing, though, I'll have no puling ways."
The boy jumped with pleasure. "Why, I knew all the time I'd get around you," he answered.
"I always do when I try; and may I shoot some with your shotgun?"
"I'll teach you, perhaps."
"When? Shall we start now? Call the dogs together—they're nosing in the ditch."
Without taking the trouble to reply, Christopher strode off briskly along the road, and after waiting a moment to assemble his scattered puppies, Will caught up with him and broke into a running pace at his side. As they swung onward the two shadows— the long one and the short one—stretched straight and black behind them in the sunlight.
"You're the biggest man about here, aren't you?" the boy asked suddenly, glancing upward with frank admiration.
"I dare say. What of it?"
"Oh, nothing; and your father was the biggest man of his time, Sol Peterkin says; and Aunt Mehitable remembers your grandfather, and he was the tallest man alive in his day. Who'll be the biggest when you die, I wonder? And, I say, isn't it a pity that such tall men had to live in such a little old house—I don't see how they ever got in the doors without stooping. Do you have to stoop when you go in and out?"
"Well, I shouldn't like that," pursued Will; "and I'm glad I don't live in such a little place. Now, the doors at the Hall are so high that I could stand on your shoulders and go in without bending my head. Let's try it some day. Grandpa wouldn't know."
Christopher turned and looked at him suddenly. "What would you say to going 'possum hunting one night?" he asked in a queer voice.
"Whoopee!" cried the boy, tossing his hat in the air. "Will you take me?"
"Well, it's hard work, you know," went on the other thoughtfully. "You'd have to get up in the middle of the night and steal out of the window without your grandfather's knowing it."
"I should say so!"
"We'd tramp till morning, probably, with the hounds, and Tom Spade would come along to bring his lanterns. Then when it was over we'd wind up for drinks at his store. It's great sport, I tell you, but it takes a man to stand it."
"Oh, I'm man enough by now."
"Not according to your grandfather's thinking."
"What does he know about it? He's just an old fogy himself."
"We'll see, we'll see. If he wants to keep you tied to nurse's strings too long, we must play him a trick. Why, when I was fourteen I could shoot with any man about here—and drink with him, too, for that matter. Nobody kept me back, you see."
The boy looked up at Christopher with sparkling eyes, in which the eternal hero-worship of youth was already kindled.
"Oh, you're splendid!" he exclaimed, "and I'm going to be just like you. Grandpa shan't keep me a baby any longer, I can tell you. All this Greek, now—he's crazy about my learning it—and I hate it. Do you know Greek?"
Christopher laughed shortly. "Where does he live?" he inquired mockingly.
For a moment the boy looked at him perplexed. "It's a language," he replied gravely; "and grandpa says it comes handy in a bargain, but I won't learn it. I hate school, anyway, and he swears he's going to send me back in two weeks. I hope I'll fall ill, and then he can't."
"In two weeks," repeated the other reflectively; "well, a good deal may happen, I reckon, in two weeks."
"Oh, lots!" agreed the boy with enthusiasm; "you'll let me chase rabbits with you every day—won't you? and teach me to shoot? and we'll go 'possum hunting one night and not get home till morning. It will be easy enough to fool grandpa. I'll take care of that, and if Aunt Saidie finds it out she'll never tell him—she never does tell on me. Here, let me take the gun awhile, will you?"
Christopher handed him the gun, and they went on rapidly along the old road under the honey locusts that grew beyond the bend. They were nearing the place where Christopher, as a child of twelve, had waited with his birdgun in the bushes to shoot Fletcher when he came in sight, and now as the recollection returned to him he unconsciously slackened his pace and cast his eyes about for the spot where he had stood. It was all there just as it had been that morning—the red clumps of sumach covered with gray dust, the dried underbrush piled along the fence, and the brown honeyshucks strewn in the sunny road. For the first time in his life he was glad at this instant that he had not killed Fletcher then—that his hand had been stayed that day to fall the heavier, it might be, at the appointed time. The boy still chatted eagerly, and when presently the hounds scented a rabbit in the sassafras beyond the fence, he started with a shout at the heels of the pursuing pack. Swinging himself over the brushwood, Christopher followed slowly across the waste of lifeeverlasting, tearing impatiently through the flowering net which the wild potato vine cast about his feet.
Through the brilliant October day they hunted over the ragged fields, resting at noon to eat the slices of bread and bacon which Christopher had brought in his pocket. As they lay at full length in the sunshine upon the lifeeverlasting, the young man's gaze flew like a bird across the landscape—where the gaily decorated autumn fallows broke in upon the bare tobacco fields like gaudy patches on a homely garment—to rest upon the far-off huddled chimneys of Blake Hall. For a time he looked steadily upon them; then, turning on his side, he drew his harvest hat over his eyes and began a story of his early adventures behind the hounds, speaking in half-gay, half-bitter tones.
In the mild autumn weather a faint haze overhung the landscape, changing from violet to gray as the shadows rose or fell. Around them the unploughed wasteland swept clear to the distant road, which wound like a muddy river beside the naked tobacco fields. Lying within the slight depression of a hilltop, the two were buried deep amid the lifeeverlasting, which shed its soft dust upon them and filled their nostrils with its ghostly fragrance.
As he went on, Christopher found a savage delight in mocking the refinements of the boy's language, in tossing him coarse expressions and brutal oaths much as he tossed scraps to the hounds, in touching with vulgar scorn all the conventional ideals of the household—obedience, duty, family affection, religion even. While he sank still lower in that defiant self-respect to which he had always clung doggedly until to-day, there was a fierce satisfaction in the knowledge that as he fell he dragged Will Fletcher with him—that he had sold himself to the devil and got his price.
This unholy joy was still possessing him when at nightfall, exhausted, dirty, brier-scratched, and bearing their strings of game, they reached Tom Spade's, and Christopher demanded raw whisky in the little room behind the store. Sol Peterkin was there, astride his barrel, and as they entered he gave breath to a low whistle of astonishment.
"Why, your grandpa's been sweepin' up the county for you!" he exclaimed to Will.
"So he's found out I wasn't at the Morrisons'," said the boy a little nervously. "I'd better be going home, I reckon, and get it over."
Christopher drained his glass of whisky, and then, refilling it, pushed it across the table.
"What! Aren't you man enough to swallow a thimbleful?" he asked, with a laugh. His face was flushed, and the dust of the roads showed in streaks upon his forehead, where the crown of his straw hat had drawn a circle around his moist fair hair. The hand with which he touched the glass trembled slightly, and his eyes were so reckless that, after an instants' frightened silence. Peterkin cried out in alarm: "For the Lord's sake, Mr. Christopher, you're not yourself—it's the way his father went, you know!"
"What of it?" demanded Christopher, turning his dangerous look upon the little man. "If there's a merrier way to go, I'd like to know it."
Peterkin drew over to the table and laid a restraining hold on the boy's arm. "Put that down, sonny," he said. "I couldn't stand it, and you may be sure it'll do you no good. It will turn your stomach clean inside out."
"He took it," replied the boy stubbornly, "and I'll drink it if he says so." He lifted the glass and stood looking inquiringly at the man across from him. "Shall I drink it?" he asked, and waited with a boyish swagger.
Christopher gave a short nod. "Oh, not if you're afraid of it," he responded roughly; and then, as Will threw back his head and the whisky touched his lips, the other struck out suddenly and sent the glass shivering to the floor. "Go home, you fool!" he cried, "and keep clear of me for good and all."
A moment afterward he had passed from the room, through the store, and was out upon the road.
CHAPTER VIII. Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
There was a cheerful blaze in the old lady's parlour, and she was sitting placidly in her Elizabethan chair, the yellow cat dozing at her footstool. Lila paced slowly up and down the room, her head bent a little sideways, as she listened to Tucker's cheerful voice reading the evening chapter from the family Bible. His crutch, still strapped to his right shoulder, trailed behind him on the floor, and the smoky oil lamp threw his eccentric shadow on the whitewashed wall, where it hung grimacing like a grotesque from early Gothic art.
"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it," he read in his even tones; "if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned."
The old lady tapped the arm of her chair and turned her sightless eyes upon the Bible, as if Solomon in person stood there awaiting judgment.
"I always liked that verse, brother," she remarked, "though I am not sure that I consider it entirely proper reading for the young. Aren't you tired walking, Lila?"
"Oh, no, mother."
"Well, we mustn't take the Scriptures literally, you know, my child; if we did, I fear a great deal of trouble would come of it—and surely it is a pity to magnify the passion of love when so very many estimable persons get along quite comfortably without it. You remember my remarking how happy Miss Belinda Morrison always appeared to be, and so far as I know she never had a suitor in her life, though she lived to be upward of eighty."
"Oh, mother! and yet you were so madly in love with father—you remember the fancy ball."
"The fancy ball occupied only one night, my dear, and I've had almost seventy years. I married for love, as you certainly know—at my age, I suppose I might as well admit it—but the marriage happened to be also entirely suitable, and I hope that I should never have been guilty of anything so indelicate as to fall in love with a gentleman who wasn't a desirable match."
Lila flushed and bit her lip.
"I don't care about stations in life, nor blood, nor anything like that," she protested.
The old lady sighed. "We won't have any more of Solomon, Tucker, "she observed. "I fear he will put notions into the child's head. Not care about blood, indeed! What are we coming to, I wonder? Well, well, I suppose it is what I deserve for allowing myself to fall so madly in love with your father. When I look back now it seems to me that I could have achieved quite as much with a great deal less expenditure of emotion."
"Now, now, Lucy, " said Tucker, closing the gilt clasps of the Bible, "you're not yet seventy, and by the time you reach eighty you will see things clearer. I'm a good deal younger than you, but I'm two-thirds in the grave already, which makes a difference. My life's been long and pleasant as it is, but when I glance back upon it now I tell you the things I regret least in it are my youthful follies. A man must be very far in his dotage, indeed, when he begins to wear a long face over the sharp breaths that he drew in youth. I came very near ruining myself for a woman once, and the fact that I was ready to do it—even though I didn't—is what in the past I like best to recall to-day. It makes it all easier and better, somehow, and it seems to put a zest into the hours I spend now on my old bench. To have had one emotion that was bigger than you or your universe is to have had life, my dear."