HotFreeBooks.com
The Heart's Kingdom
by Maria Thompson Daviess
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"There is no water as soft as open-top cistern water, aerated by a chain and bucket," father had informed me, and he and Dabney consumed buckets of it, while Mammy refused anything else for cooking purposes and insisted on a nightly bath of it for my face. A white clematis in full bloom clambered over the eaves of the low stone house and a blush rose nodded at its door, beside which was placed a rough bench made of square stones and two large slabs, equally moss-covered and worn.

"It is growing to be perfectly wonderful, Nickols," I said, as if I had seen it for the first time, while my eyes followed the sweep of the flagstone walk from the well house beneath the old graybeard poplars out past stretches of velvety lawn, with groups of shrubs and trees casting deep shadows even to the kitchen garden, whose long rows of vegetables, bordered with old-fashioned blooming herbs and savories, led the observer out into the meadows to the Home Farm and beyond to the dim line of Paradise Ridge. "It is different and distinctive and—and American," I added.

"After this garden and the school are finished and a few of the unfortunate restorations taken away from some of the old houses, like the porch at Mrs. Sproul's and that bathroom addition of Morgan's, I am going to bring Jeffries down in his private car and it will be difficult to keep him from offering to buy Goodloets and have it all shipped up the Hudson. Really, Charlotte, we have seen a vision of the future materialize here and we ought to stand with hats off."

"Whose vision?" I asked, as I stood and let the truth of his statement sink in.

"The parson's spiritual vision perhaps filtering through your father's mentality, which has welded past, present and future. At least, that is the way I see it with the material eye, which is all I have to view it with—if we can call the recognition of beauty and completeness material."

"Now Mikey is nice and clean and we can go to Minister to play, thank you, Aunt Charlotte," at this point young Charlotte broke in to say, thus flinging us a line to haul us out of depths that were slightly over our heads. "Isn't he lovely?" And she gazed upon her new-found comrade with open admiration and self-congratulation.

And small Mikey was indeed a bonny kiddie attired in the very stylish trousers and blouse of small James and shining with Dabney's valeting. His nicely plastered red mop to some extent mitigated the effect of the bare and scratched feet and his rollicking blue eyes over a nose as tip-tilted as Charlotte's own bespoke his delight.

"Anyway, me mother made the togs fer Jim," he asserted with great independence, as he rammed his hands into the diminutive pockets in the trousers.

"Yes, she did, and Auntie Harriet paid her for a present to Jimmy. She sews for us and not for Mikey and her other children, because her husband drinks up his money and our husband don't. Come on, let's go help Minister!" was the shot that Charlotte fired, as she departed down the garden path with her cohorts.

"What about that for democracy?" demanded Nickols, as he and father and I all laughed together.

That night at a dinner party Nell was giving I sat next to the Harpeth Jaguar and talked to him for the first time in many weeks. I had been avoiding him and I didn't mind admitting it to myself. There was something disturbing and puzzling in his serene eyes and free, strong, beautiful body that gave me a queer haunting pain back of my breast. Into my scheme of doing those things in life that give pleasure and not doing those things that give pain he somehow would not fit. He had become as much a part of the social fabric of Goodloets as was I, and he came to our dinner parties, motored with us in his long, gray car and was as happy with us seemingly as he was with that same gray car full of small fry from the Settlement or going about the business of the chapel. The car had always reminded me of his evening clothes, which were straight and simple in line with the black silk vest cut up around the collar buttoned in the back, but which were so fine in texture and perfect in cut and fit that they seemed to be some kind of super clothes that ought to be called by a name of their own, just as the people in the Settlement had decided to call the car the "Chariot" as soon as they had stopped resenting a parson's having it, from finding out how easy were its cushions and how swift its ministrations in time of need.

"Parson's Chariot, quick!" had moaned poor old Mrs. Kelly, when she had slipped on Mrs. Burns' wet doorstep and dislocated her hip. Little Katie Moore had been driven home as swiftly as if on wings after old Dr. Harding had been overtaken, ten miles out on Providence Road, and had used the back seat for an operating table while he put her small splintered ankle in place between splints improvised by a long knife from the car's kit.

And from a distance I had wondered at the Reverend Gregory Goodloe, wondered at his freedom from all resentment because of his ministerial and spiritual failures and at his loving serenity and enjoyment of us all. He partook of the joy in almost all of our adventures in pleasure, and when we did things that in the nature of the case would seem to merit his disapproval, he never administered it; he simply was not with us, but was serenely about his business at the other end of the town from the Country Club or the Last Chance, at whichever resort the entertainment that did not interest him was in progress. He seemed especially to enjoy coming to our dinner parties and he was such a delight with his keen-bladed wit, his flow of joyous laughter and high spirits and the music that bubbled up without accompaniment or denial whenever we asked for it, that not a woman in town would invite the rest to dine until she was sure of securing him first.



"He's so economical," said Nell Morgan, as I helped her arrange her guests for Mark's birthday dinner. While she talked I paused to consider where to put Harriet Henderson and then dropped her card beside Mark's with a little ache in my heart as I tucked Cliff Gray in by Jessie Litton and left the place next Nell vacant for Billy. "People never empty their champagne glasses when Mr. Goodloe gets to talking, and you can put the extra bottles back in the cellar for next time. Do you suppose he does it on purpose?"

"Nobody could be as completely happy as he was at Jessie's Friday night on purpose," I answered, as I laid the last card and went with Nell to greet her first guests.

After the soup I turned toward the Reverend Mr. Goodloe, whose card I had placed next my own, and found him looking at me with a particular softness in his eyes under the dull gold.

"Charlotte's and Mikey's nine won twenty-eight to eighteen against Tommy Braidy and Maudie Burns. Thank you for getting the pitcher into his togs," he said, as he squared his shoulders slightly against the rest of the world, the rest of the diners in particular, and bent toward me in just that deferential angle that a man uses when he wants to signal to the others that for a limited time he desires sole possession of the woman dining next to him.

"Your mixing of water and oil in the educational scheme is interesting me greatly," I answered him with a laugh. "Do you really think it will succeed?"

"Any kind of kingdom can be built in the heart of a child, an oligarchy, a democracy or a republic," he answered quickly. "Your name-daughter is a born socialist."

"She and James are murderers and liars and thieves and are wholly engaging. Sue is fast learning from them the habits of their underworld and is asleep upstairs now with Harriet's silver and jade chain, which she brought home with her without the knowledge of the owner this afternoon. What are you going to do about them? I take it you intend to build a kingdom in and of their hearts."

"Weed 'em, like Dabney and I did your dahlia bank ten times at least this spring. You didn't help with the dahlias, but maybe you will with the young Tenderloiners." His eyes entreated mine with a soft radiance that almost made me dizzy.

"I wouldn't know weeds from flowers, 'Minister,'" I answered with prompt denial of his plea, but with a soft use of the children's name for him.

"I don't always know. Let's study botany—together," he again hazarded daringly, and from the tenderness that suddenly curved his strong mouth I knew my soft answer had hit its mark. "Are you coming to the dedication of the chapel a week from Sunday?" He asked me the question directly and with all his softness gone and a commanding note in his voice and direct look. His jeweled eyes were so deep back under their dull gold brows that between the bars of black lashes they looked like stars shining down through a radiant night. They threw their rays directly down into my heart and I could see that their owner was reading the hieroglyphics of my uncertainties and that I could not hide them from him.

"I am not," I answered him with the frankness that his gaze compelled.

"I'll not dedicate it until you help me do it and—" he was saying quietly and positively, when Billy broke in over the excluding shoulder. Billy really adores Gregory Goodloe, but he enjoys going to the limit of his ministerial endurance. Over that limit he has never stepped and he never will; none of them ever will, for there is that in the Harpeth Jaguar which commands the very essence of respect for himself as well as his cloth.

"Say, Parson, what's that about the dedication of the chapel?" he asked, as he twirled his champagne glass to break a few bubbles. "Charlotte and Nickols are going to give Harriet and me that tennis dressing down Sunday week if you don't need us to dedicate with."

"No, I won't need you," answered the Reverend Mr. Goodloe, in an easy agreeable voice, but that had in it the note that he always uses to make Billy halt. "I'm not going to dedicate it yet."

"Why?" came in a perfect chorus.

"I've been working night and day on that altar cloth because I depended on you to know the date of the dedication of your own church. I have danced only once this week," said Letitia Cockrell, with her usual bland directness.

"The communion service from Gorham's has been packed away unopened in my office a week," Hampton added in an aggrieved voice. "They hurried it for us and it has to be sent back, piece at a time, to be marked."

"The baptismal font is perfectly beautiful and I want the Suckling sprinkled from it first. If you don't hurry she will get old enough to misbehave herself. I know I promised, but I have decided that I can never have the others baptized now, they are too bad," said Nell, as she paused and listened for some sort of explosion from above as she did every minute or two.

"I'll rope Charlotte and drag her to the altar for you, and Mark can sit on her feet while the parson sprinkles," offered Billy, and they all laughed at the picture that he conjured, which seemed to be in keeping with many scenes we had witnessed in the life of small Charlotte.

"That won't be necessary. She will stand before me with folded hands when her time comes," answered Mr. Goodloe, after he had laughed as heartily as anybody else at Billy's threat. "The greatest difficulty will be in persuading her to allow me to conduct my own services."

"But what did you put off the dedication date for?" demanded Letitia, with the hurry over the altar cloth still rankling.

"I put off the dedication of the chapel until all of the people for whom I cared deeply, whose cooperation with me is positively necessary, should be ready to come and help me in the services. When that time comes I will have the dedication. It may be a year and it may be a—day," the parson answered with cool directness.

"If you mean Charlotte, the offer I made for young Charlotte holds good," said Billy with positive glee. "If you want her I'll rope her and drag her in and the rest of you can bid for who holds her down while being branded."

"And my answer to your generous offer, Billy Harvey, is—" Mr. Goodloe paused and looked at me, and Jessie giggled with nervousness—"the same that I made to your offer about the constraining of young Charlotte."

"Still it would be great sport to see both the Charlottes—" Billy was saying, when a servant brought a note on his tray and handed it to Mr. Goodloe, who glanced at it and then hurriedly opened and read it.

"I am sorry, Mrs. Morgan, but will you let me answer this summons?" he asked, and there was the regret in his rich voice of a great boy at being snatched from a feast. "I am so hungry," he added with a laugh.

"Come back later. I'll save some of everything for you," said Nell pleadingly.

"I will if I can," he answered. There was an excited smoulder in the stars under the dull gold that made me restless and my eyes sought and claimed his for a second in which a quick flash of the jeweled tenderness of comprehension was flashed into my depths.

"Good-bye, everybody," he said, and in a second was out of the dining room and we could hear him running down the steps.

"Oh, dear, if he just wasn't a preacher," sighed Harriet. "I suppose somebody in the Settlement is dead or borned or drunk, and he has to go and see about it. I wish—"

"Great Jehovah!" exclaimed Billy, as he suddenly jumped to his feet. "Ensley is fighting drunk and has the gang around the Last Chance. Parson's life isn't worth a tinker's damn if he runs foul of them with all that talk about Martha Ensley and Jacob's threat. She came back last night and Goodloe threatened to have Jacob arrested for beating her. Come on, Nickols, and let's follow him. We'll be enough. The rest of you go on eating, drinking and merrying because old Mark was born. We'll come right back just as soon as we see that all is serene on the Potomac of the Last Chance." And with a last hasty gulp at his wine glass Billy followed Nickols out of the room. Nickols was both white and livid and the expression of his face frightened me, for I knew that Billy would minimize any kind of danger in the presence of a woman while Nickols would not take that trouble.

It was with a queer breathlessness that we all sat before our wine glasses in the midst of the perfume from the rich food and dying flowers and waited—for what we didn't know.

Then it came!

A shot rang out clear and clean in the darkness and was quickly followed by three barking echoes from a repeater.

And there seated in my chair in the brilliantly lighted room, blocks away from the scene, I felt a bullet thud against dull gold.



CHAPTER XI

A BIT OF RAW LIFE

I don't know by what means of personal transportation my body was carried down the street to the public square and to the pavement in front of the courthouse, but I found myself standing there over a woman who had raised Gregory Goodloe's head on her arm and was drawing deep, hard sobs as she held a handkerchief to stanch a flow of blood that showed crimson in the flash from Nickols' electric cigar lighter.

"'When men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake—'" I quoted to myself softly as I stood and looked down on the prostrate figure of the big lithe Harpeth Jaguar while Billy struggled with a man a little way off in the darkness and Nickols shut off the light and went to his aid. I didn't know exactly where the words that rose so suddenly from my heart to my lips had come from, and I only vaguely understood them, but I seemed to be saying them without my own volition.

"Yes, my God, yes, that's what they've done to him," sobbed Martha as she looked up, peering at me through the darkness. "Pa is drunk, Miss Charlotte; and the rest egged him on. This is the only friend I've got and they've killed him."

"Not by a good deal, Martha," came in a hearty grand opera voice just as I dropped on my knee, and in time to stop me from taking that bleeding gold head on my own breast and—"Jacob's bullet just clipped me but its impact was as good as his fist would have been, which I wish he had used." And as he spoke the wounded parson sprang lithely to his feet and left us two women kneeling before him. In an instant a thought of Mary and the Magdalen flashed through my brain as he bent to raise me to my feet, while Martha crouched away from us in the dark.

"Charlotte?" he questioned softly, as if not willing to believe the witness of his hands and eyes, muffled by the starry darkness.

"Young Charlotte stones you and Jacob shoots you, and I—" I both sobbed and laughed as I clung to his hand just as I heard Billy and Nickols throw the cursing, panting man to the ground not ten feet away.

"Now then, Parson, we've got Jacob down and out. Nickols has got his foot on his neck and I've got his pistol. What do you want done with him?" Billy interrupted me pantingly to demand.

"Let him up," answered Mr. Goodloe, as he gently extricated himself from my clinging hand and went over to the scene of the conflict. "Had enough, Jacob?" he asked just as gently as he had unhanded himself from me.

"I'll have had enough when I put you where you can't entice my girl again," answered Jacob as he rose slowly to his feet. As he spoke Billy went and stood beside the parson and Nickols stepped behind them into the shadow in which Martha crouched.

"You know that is not true, Jacob. I helped Martha to go away to a place of safety to earn her living and keep her honesty. Isn't that so, Martha?" the rich voice softly asked the woman crouching in the dark.

"I told him that but he wouldn't believe me and the others don't," she answered with a sob that was almost a shudder of fear.

"What did she come back fer then?" demanded Jacob. "Answer me that. And didn't she go straight to your preaching and praying joint like all the other women, fine and sluts, do?" The liquor was still burning in Jacob's head but at those words he got a response from the impact of Billy's fist that again laid him low.

"Oh, I dasn't say nothing. I dasn't," moaned Martha, as she clutched at my skirts just as Nell and Hampton began to arrive on the scene of action, followed by Harriet and Mark and the others. They were all panting and wild with anxiety. They had taken the wrong turning at the end of the square and had gone around the block, thus giving the little tragedy time to enact itself before a mercifully small audience.

"Go away quickly, Martha, in the shadow," I bent and whispered to the trembling woman, and I didn't know where the sympathy in my voice came from as I stood between her and the rest while she slipped behind an old horse block before the court house gate and off in the darkness towards the Settlement before they had noticed her presence.

"Anybody hurt? What's the matter?" gasped Mark as he seized hold of the Reverend Mr. Goodloe's arm.

"Nothing serious," answered the parson in a voice that calmed the others like oil on choppy water. "Jacob Ensley is out on a drunk and Billy had to knock him down to quiet him. All of you go back to dinner quickly, for I don't see why Sergeant Rogers should get Jacob this time. Billy will help me get him home and I'll remonstrate with him when he is sober. I'd rather do it at the Last Chance than at the jail. Jacob is a leading citizen and I don't want a jail smirch on him. I intend to use him later. Now all of you go. Go!" His voice was as gently positive as if he had been speaking to a lot of children and nobody seemed even to think of rebelling but we all began to fade away into the starlight as rapidly as we had assembled and more quietly.

"Thank you, and bless you," he said to me, as I went past him in the darkness, and for just a second I suspected that his hand was laid on my black braids but I was not sure. I knew the gratitude was for my getting Martha off the scene of action so quietly and swiftly.

"A bit of raw life for you, Charlotte," Nickols remarked as he went with me through the fragrant night back to Mark's and Nell's feast. "The eternal girl, two-men melee."

"In this case it was girl—three men, the third skunking it," I answered in words as coarse and as forcible as the scene I had just witnessed. "I'd like to get my bare hands around the throat of the man who is hiding behind Martha and that little child."

"That remark from you, my dear Charlotte, just goes to show that when women get even the smell of bloodshed they become fiercer than the male," said Nickols with a cool laugh that further infuriated me.

"Yes, I do feel like a female jaguar," I answered hotly and then collapsed inside at the use of that name for myself in conjunction with my secret title for the Reverend Mr. Goodloe.

"It would be better if you felt yourself in the character of a ferret if you intend to go out on a still hunt for all unacknowledged paternity, even in dear, simple, little old Goodloets," Nickols further jeered as we came up the steps of the Morgan house from where the others were just going into the dining room to resume their eating and drinking and being merry.

"I'll find that one man," I answered as I swept into the dining room, seated myself in my place and drained my glass of flat wine.

"Heaven help him!" laughed Nickols wickedly, and he raised Mr. Goodloe's full glass as he slipped into his place beside me.

For a week after the shooting fray my soul sulked darkly in its tent and meditated while I went on my usual gay rounds of self-enjoyment. The garden was being brought to a most glorious mid-August triumph and the inhabitants for miles around were coming to see it. All of father's old friends, from whom he had shrunk in the last years, hung around him in the old way. He sat with them under the old graybeard poplars around which had been planted a plantation of slim young larches by the wizard of White Plains. From discussions about gardening and Americanisms all the old Solons of the local bar, and even of the towns around, gradually led their fallen leader back into his place and were battling with him over politics and jurisprudence as they had in past days. The day I went into his library to ask father about employing another likely black garden boy that Dabney had discovered, and found him, Judge Monfort from over at Hillcrest in the third district, Mr. Cockrell and Mr. Sproul around his table deep in huge volumes from the shelves, buried in a cloud of tobacco smoke and argument in which Latin words flew back and forth, I went up to my room and stood helpless before my window looking out towards Paradise Ridge.

"I want to thank somebody and there is nobody to thank," I whispered, with a great emptiness within me. That was the bitterest cry of need my heart had ever given forth, and I went swiftly down to Nickols in the garden and told him what I had seen and heard.

"It really is a remarkable come-back, sweetheart," he said, with the most exquisite sympathy in his voice and face. "Mark Morgan told me just an hour ago that they want to have him appointed back to his old place on the bench and Mr. Cockrell answered the President's inquiry for a man from this section for the Commerce Commission with the judge's name. It'll be great to see the old boy on one of the seats of the mighty again, thanks to the sweat of his brow and mind in this village manifestation of American nationalism which has grown out of our little old garden plan."

"What can a man or woman do to render gratitude if there seems to be nobody to take it, Nickols?" I asked him, not expecting, as usual, that he would understand me. For once he did.

"The philosophies all teach 'hand it on' in that case," he answered me.

"I'll hand it on to Martha Ensley and help her and her child to their place under the sun," I said slowly, thus by having a reason and an obligation back of it, ratifying the vow I had already taken.

"That is an impossibility," answered Nickols with easy coolness. "The one 'come-back' that is impossible is the woman in that kind of a situation."

"I'll never admit such an injustice as that," I said, and I had a queer premonition that I would be held to that declaration.

The very next morning after my declaration of purpose to "hand on" my father's "come-back" I went down into the Settlement to hunt for Martha Ensley, not that I was really suffering about her, but because I felt a kind of obligation to begin at once a thing that it appealed to my sense of justice to accomplish.

Sometimes in mid-August there comes down a night over the hot, lush, maturing Harpeth Valley which is like a benediction that sprinkles cool dew on a thirsting heart. And now the morning was cool and brilliant, with the sun evaporating the heavy dew in soft clouds of perfume from the grain fields, the meadows and the upturned soil out where the farmers were breaking ground after the first harvests. I felt strong and calm and full of an electric energy, which I found I needed before I had more than started my quest.

I put on my tennis clothes, snowy from collar to shoe tips, like the trappings of the White Knight, and started to walk down into the Settlement to find Martha. I intended to stop at Mother Spurlock's "Little House Beside the Road," and some vague idea was in my mind of having her dispatch a messenger to summons Martha to the interview I was about to bestow upon her. That is not the way it all happened and I was hot and dusty and sweat-drenched before I had been on my quest more than a few hours.

Mother Elsie was not at home. The door to the Little House was wide open, as it always is when cold or rain does not close it, and huge old Tabby with one eye purred on the doorstep in the sun. A bird was nesting in the wisteria vine above the door and her soft whirring bespoke an interesting domestic event as near at hand. It did not in the least disturb Tab, and I wondered at the harmony between traditional enemies that I met on Mother Spurlock's very doorstep. I went in and drew myself a drink of fresh cool water from the cistern at the back door, looked in a tin box over the kitchen table and took three crisp tea cakes therefrom. I picked up a half knitted sock from beside the huge split rocker in the shade of the gnarled old apple tree, which was a rooftree in every sense of the word, for it crowded close against the door and hovered in the whole tiny house. Just before I left I put all the loose change I had in my white linen skirt pocket in an old lacquered tea canister which had a slit in it cut with a can opener, and that stood on the shelf of the old rock chimney in the low living room. I had never heard that canister mentioned by Mother Spurlock and I don't know how I knew that out of it came the emergency funds for many a crisis in the Settlement. Then last I picked a blush rose from the monthly bloomer trailing up and over the window and laid it on the empty, worn old Bible on the wide arm of the rocker beside a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. Then I hesitated. I had been so sure of finding Mother Spurlock at home and having her hunt up Martha for me that I found it difficult to adjust myself to my first complexity of plans. And while I hesitated a resolve came into my mind with the completeness of a spoken direction.

"She lives at the Last Chance and I'll go right down there and find her," I said to myself, as I started along the peony-bordered path to the front gate of the Little House, over which a huge late snowball was drooping, loaded down with snowy balls that would hold their own until almost the time for frost. At my own decision I had a delicious little feeling of fear, which was at least justifiable when I thought of that huge drunken figure wrestling with Billy in the darkness and whom I knew to be the proprietor of the resort into which I had determined to penetrate. Also, from my early youth I had heard Jacob Ensley and the Last Chance spoken of in tones of dread disapproval. Before I should become really frightened I hurried down the hill, past the squalid and tumble-down mill cottages which I had never really seen before, where it seemed to me millions of children swarmed in and around and about, and at last arrived at the infamous social center of the Settlement.

And my astonishment was profound to find that the Last Chance sign hung over a very prosperous grocery with boxes and barrels of provender out on the pavement under an awning and with huge, newly-painted screen doors guarding the wide entrance, at which I hesitated.

"Come right in, lady, come right in," called a cheerful, booming man's voice, and the door was swung open by a large man in a white apron, with blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, a wide smile and white hair. "What can we do for you to-day? We've a nice lot of late dewberries just in from over on Paradise Ridge."

"I'm—I'm looking for the—the Last Chance Saloon," I faltered, because I was too astonished to utter anything but the truth to the delightful and tenderly solicitous man standing before me in his huge, clean white apron over his blue shirt that matched his eyes.

"Well, lady," the nice Irish voice faltered a trifle, about as mine had, though plainly with controlled astonishment tinged with amusement, "could I get you anything to—to cool you off and bring it out here in the grocery? It is cooler than it is back at the bar. I said to myself jest last week, so I did, I said to myself, 'Jacob, you ought to get a sody-water fountain for the ladies what has the same right to thirst as a man.' And I will, too, if my bad luck just leaves me. How about a nice cool bottle of beer sitting comfortable here before the counter?"

"Are you—you—Jacob—I mean—Mr. Jacob Ensley?" I further gasped. This daylight materialization of the grewsome beast of the night was too much for me.

"Jacob Ensley at your service, Miss," he answered with easy dignity. "Now, will it be the bottle of beer I shall bring you? Or there's a new drink I might mix fer you that a young gentleman friend of mine from New York has taught me, and with a good Irish name of Thomas Collins—the drink, not the young gentleman." Nickols had been living on Tom Collins for the last month and I instantly knew that I recognized the young friend from New York. Also my wits were at a branching of the road and I didn't know just what to do or say as Jacob waited with easy courtesy for my decision. And again I was too much perturbed for invention and had to speak out the truth.

"I'm Charlotte Powers, Mr. Ensley, and I came down to see your daughter, Martha," I said, looking directly into his clear friendly eyes which I saw instantly darken with a storm as the smile left his nice mouth and it hardened into a straight line.

"I'm sorry, Miss Powers, but my Martha ain't at home right now to you, and I don't know when she will be. Is that all I can do for you? These berries now, from over at Paradise Ridge?" And with the ease of a man of the great upper world Jacob Ensley of the lower walks of life put me out of the door of his private life into the ranks of the meddler and shut it in my face. I acknowledged to myself that my rebuff was justifiable and I was about to make an exit from the scene as gracefully as possible with a box of the really delicious berries under my arm when a cry of terror in a child's voice came from somewhere at the back of the grocery and together the grocer and I ran to see what the matter could be. And at the heels of the proprietor I then penetrated the blind of the grocery and entered the Last Chance.



CHAPTER XII

THE TENACIOUS TURTLE

"It's Martha's Stray," the big man gasped in a kind of impatient alarm. "I just left him here a minute ago to go front." Together he and I started around the long room with its bar on the one side backed up by a mirror whose gilt frame was swathed in mosquito netting and on either side of which were shelves bearing pyramids of bottles. On the bar at one end were piled oranges and at the other lemons and limes whose sophistication seemed out of place somehow in the Settlement in the Harpeth Valley. All the trappings that I judge would go with the dispensing of liquor were present, but our eyes could discover no small child and we stood together and waited anxiously.

"He's got me toe, me toe, and won't let go. He's chewing it off!" at last came a lusty yell from just outside a back door that led out into a side yard from behind the bar, and with one accord the proprietor of the Last Chance and I ran to the scene of the devouring. And as we ran I heard a door slam in the rooms back of the bar and we met Martha face to face on the scene of action. I shall never forget the picture that confronted me there in that little back yard upon which the bar of the Last Chance opened, and I somehow never want to.

On a little grass plot a small boy danced and yelled and firmly to one of the capering feet was hung a large mud turtle which was flapped this way and that by the strenuous young leg, but which held on with apparently every intention of letting only the traditional thunder loosen its grasp on the pink prize.

"Stand still, you Stray, and let me get at the varmint," commanded Jacob impatiently.

"Let mother get the beast, sonny," Martha pleaded as she knelt on the grass and caught the dancing boy by his arm and brought his dervish gyrations to a halt.

I stood unconscious of intrusion and absorbed with interest and watched the operations begun on the tenacious turtle and the writhing toe. Neither of the three principals in the action noticed me at all as Martha held the boy and Jacob bent and took hold of the turtle in his hard brown spotted shell. And as the operations for his liberation were begun the small boy became both still and quiet and I was able to get a good view of him as he leaned against his mother's shoulder and held out the foot to Jacob.

As I looked at him something queer stirred in me with a sharp pain and then was quiet. He was the most delicious bit of five-year-old humanity I had ever beheld and I doubt if any childless woman could have seen such a child cuddle to another woman's breast and shoulder and not have had something of the same thrill of pain. His whiteness and pinkness and sturdy chubbiness were like many another infant's charms but his jet black top-knot that ascended on one side and cascaded over his ear on the other in a hauntingly familiar way, his violet eyes under their long lashes and his clear-cut, firm, commanding mouth, that curled into the bud of a rose as he sobbed and then unfolded into lines of beauty and strength as he hushed at his mother's comforting, were not like any other young human that I had ever beheld.

"It hurts. It hurts!" he sobbed.

"Hush, you mustn't cry!" commanded Martha, and there was a little bitter emphasis on the "you" that cut me, I didn't exactly know why.

And immediately the curled mouth was set in a firm line and the long lashes winked back tears.

"The beast will not leave go at all," was Jacob's verdict as after a careful twisting and turning of the ugly turtle he rose to his feet. "And they do say to kill it lets a venom into the place it is holt of. I dunno what to do." And in his uncertainty Jacob's eyes sought my face while at the same instant Martha lifted her wistful eyes to mine. It was the instinctive turning of the masses to the domination of my class in the time of need of leadership.

"You git it, lady," suddenly demanded the kiddie, and in his voice and glance there was none of the deferring to a superior force that I felt in the others but a decided command of that force. And as he spoke he stretched out an imperious hand that caught and clung to mine. "Git down and git it," he again commanded.

"Have you any ammonia, Martha?" I asked, my wits responding gallantly to the sudden demand upon their biological knowledge.

"I've some in the chist behind the bar. Times I uses it strong on heavy drunks," responded Jacob and he went quickly into the bar and returned with the bottle. "It's customers in the grocery and customers at the bar that I'm keeping waiting fooling along with the brat and the varmint," he grumbled.

"I can manage the turtle and you can go and attend to the customers," I answered, thus assuming calmly the command of the craft of the Last Chance. Jacob immediately took me at my word and disappeared into the bar.

"Let's take him and lay him on the bed so we can muffle the turtle in a towel while we use the ammonia," I said to Martha.

"Yes," answered Martha, "that will be best. Let mother carry you, sonny!" and Martha bent as if to lift him in her arms.

"I kin hop," the young sufferer announced. "I'm too big to carry, I am," he added with proud consideration in his glance at Martha's frailness.

"I'll carry you and mother can carry the turtle," I answered, and to prevent further delay I lifted him in my strong arms while Martha took the turtle in her hands, protected by the gingham apron that she wore. The black head wilted against my breast and the serious young violet eyes were raised to mine in frightened confidence.

"It's a mighty big turkle," he faltered and snuggled closer.

"We'll get him," I reassured, as I laid him on a bed in a room that opened, as did the bar, out on the tiny yard.

And as I had promised we performed upon that stubborn turtle. With a convulsion, as the ammonia fumes entered his nostrils, if he had such things, he let go of the toe, shuddered and withdrew into his shell, to die, I supposed, though I afterwards learned that he crawled off in the night, much to the kiddie's grief.

"That's a bad smell, poor old turkle," was all the thanks I got as the sufferer climbed down from the bed and proceeded to seize his late enemy in intrepid and sympathetic hands. His mother rescued both him and the turtle by placing the latter in a bucket on a table at the window and giving the rescued another bucket to get me a drink of water from the well in the yard.

"Northeast, bottom corner," he promised me with hospitality shining from his entire face as he experimentally hopped out into the yard, then forgot me and the water entirely in making the acquaintance of a very dirty little dog that was barking at him through the fence.

"Oh, he's lovely, Martha," I said, speaking from pure impulse in a way that could not fail to carry conviction and melt the heart of any woman who possessed a treasure like that.

"I know he is, Miss Charlotte," Martha answered with gentle bitterness, "and that makes it all the worse for him."

"It doesn't; it can't be worse for anybody to be born as beautiful and strong as that boy is," I answered her and felt somehow I had fallen head foremost into my mission. "I came down here to see you, Martha, and now that I have seen him—I—it's—it's a shame, all of it," I ended by faltering with a total lack of the eloquence that I felt.

"Yes, it's just that—a shame," Martha admitted to me with a great hopelessness in her black eyes. "And nothing can make it better."

"Something can be done!" I answered hotly. "You are young, Martha, and he's a baby. You can get out of it all and you can get him out and begin all over. I—I'll help you." And as I spoke I took her hand in mine. Mine was brown and hard from tennis and Martha's from toil, but they met and clung.

"I—I tried that, Miss Charlotte. I had to come back," answered Martha, and a bitter passion suddenly lit her pale face. "I'm too young to be let go—yet."

"What do you mean, Martha?" I asked, and suddenly I felt that some kind of chasm had yawned at my feet that I had never suspected to exist before.

"Don't ask me, Miss Charlotte," Martha answered as the passion died out of her face and voice and the sorrow fell over her like a shadow.

"Do you remember that afternoon at Mother Spurlock's when we were ten, and you climbed the tree and got the apples, while I picked them up for her to make apple turn-overs for us?" I asked her suddenly as I held on to her hand when she tried to draw it from me. "I cried for a week to go and see you, Martha, and it was all wrong that I wasn't allowed. My mother would have let me come if she had been alive, but Mammy was an ignorant negro and didn't understand."

"I cried for you, too," answered Martha, as the saddest smile I had ever seen came across the darkness of her face. "And when you was a young lady I crept up to the south window of the Poplars and saw you in your dress for the big coming-out party. You were like an angel from Heaven and I loved you. I wanted to be like you. All us girls did. They have always envied you and watched you, but I loved you. I did! I did, but—what chanct has a girl like me got against a man who's like—like you are? But I did love you; I did!"

"It doesn't seem right to—to either of us to have kept us apart," I faltered, as Martha suddenly slipped to the floor at my feet and put her head in her hands.

"Don't be kind to me—I can't stand that. You mustn't, you mustn't! You wouldn't if you knew," she sobbed.

"I am going to be—that is, I am going to help you, Martha, and you have got to show me how," I answered her as a kind of determination that was stronger than any like emotion I had ever had came over me. "Tell me what to do, Martha, for you and—and for the kiddie," I commanded her with my usual imperiousness.

"Miss Charlotte," said Martha, as she suddenly rose to her knees, looked up into my face and bared her shoulder with one motion of her hand, "that black bruise is from the licks father gave me when I wouldn't tell him why it was I came back after I went away and why it was I went. He beat me three times to make me tell whose that boy is—when he wasn't a month old. He knew that Mr. Goodloe helped me to go away three months ago and—and begin again, and he don't really believe that the parson enticed me back. The gang just put that in his head when he was drinking. He does think that Mr. Goodloe knows about it all and I'm afraid—afraid that some time when he's drunk he'll try to make him tell and—and—there'll be murder, maybe double murder. I can't tell you anything. I'm a fly caught in a web and I'm being drawn down to hell. I thought there was a way out; the parson prayed with me and I saw it. I saw myself right and honest again, but—but at a word I—I came back. Even the good of the child couldn't hold me when the—the calling came. Please go and leave me, and forget about me and—and don't come down here again."

"No, Martha, I must help you," I answered, decidedly. I had never been able to bear any kind of frustration and this made me doubly determined.

"It's too late, Miss Charlotte, but, Oh, it ain't too late for some of the others. Luella May and Sadie Todd and the rest. Miss Charlotte, make the Town men let 'em alone, and stop the Saturday night games and dances down here. You can do it. Pa would kill me for saying it, for it is then he makes his money, but it isn't fair, it isn't fair. You Town women do the same things, but you are protected and looked after. When Grace Payne gets drunk at your Country Club you take her home yourself and see no harm comes to her, and the men she's with protect her from themselves, but it's not the same with Luella May Spain and—and me."

"How did you know about Grace, Martha?" I faltered with terror in my heart. I felt a kind of class nakedness that made me burn with positive physical shame.

"They all watch and talk about what you do, Miss Charlotte, you especially, because you are more beautiful and more—more strong than the rest. They all said you'd smash our going to the church meetings with the Town folks at the Country Club when you got home. But I always stand up that you are right and you are. The Town on the hill and the Settlement in the valley are better—better apart. That's why I'm begging you to go and leave me to fight it out or go under. Please go!"

"Oh, but, Martha, I didn't—I don't—" I was beginning to falter a denial to what had suddenly struck me as a truth when we were interrupted by the advent of Martha's child, the Stray, as I afterwards found was the only name he possessed, one cruelly indicative of his relation to the social structure of the world into which he had involuntarily been born.

"Bottom of the well, northeast corner," he said, as he set a bucket of water at my feet with a jolt that dashed a small wave over my white buckskins, and he held out a dipper full to me with a little twirling motion that sent another wave on my skirt and which had an unmistakably professional knack to it. I have seen old Wilks set down beer steins and cocktail glasses with exactly that twirl ever since he has officiated at the lockers and sideboard at the Club, and I now know that his motions had the latest Last Chance style to them. Thus, by gossamer links and steel cable, the Town and the Settlement seemed to be held together.

"Excuse me for spilling the water on you," added the young scion of the bartender with grave courtesy, as he held a very dirty little paddie under the drip of the dipper and elevated the drink for me in such a way that I had to steady the small hand that held the handle with mine as I drank.

"Oh, son, how careless!" Martha was just exclaiming when a call in Jacob's sharp voice interrupted her.

"Martha, grocery!" it commanded her and I was not sure whether he was ignorant of the fact that I was still her caller or was interrupting her on purpose. I think Martha shared the same uncertainty; she blushed and looked both ashamed and frightened.

"I'll go now, Martha, out this door that leads onto the street," I hastened to say to relieve her of the dilemma. "But I'm coming back to you," I added with determination, as I made ready to slip out the side door of the Last Chance in regular underworld style.

"Please don't, Miss Charlotte," she called, as she was passing through the other door into the world from which I was escaping. The sad significance of our two exits struck me so forcibly that I was two blocks away before I really became conscious of things around me, and then I was brought back to the squalid street of the Settlement and its surroundings by feeling a damp little hand slipped into mine as I strode along.

"Please take me with you, Miss Lady," the Stray pleaded, as he ran along beside me, trying to keep up with my long steps. "I've got me a dog now to keep off turkles from me and you." And the slinking brindle bunch of ears and tail and very little else, at our heels, regarded me with the same brave entreaty. He and the Stray, indeed, presented a picture of chivalrous attention as they stood regarding me.

"But what will your mother say?" I asked of my small human attendant with conscientious contention against my desire to take them both with me on out of the dirt and heat and flies and other swarming young humans up into the coolness and shade and—loneliness—of my own life.

"She groceries all day and has to forget me," he answered calmly. "You can bring me back to bed when she is through." And to this plea was added a pathetic wag of the brindle tail.

"Well, I'll take you up as far as Mother Spurlock's and give you both a tea cake," I capitulated as I started again up the street of the Settlement towards the haven of the Town.

And as my escort and I progressed through the Settlement I could see the most violent signs of interest being manifested in all of us. Dirty, sweaty women, with their sleeves rolled up, came to the doors to look at us, and as I greeted them one and all with a nod they smiled back with pleased astonishment. I had never been down in the Settlement before, but most of them spoke to me by name and one toothless old woman hastily broke off a bloom from a struggling geranium, came to her rickety gate and offered it to me with an admiring smile.

"Bless my soul, Miss Charlotte, be you a-kidnappin' Martha's Stray?" she asked, as I accepted it with enthusiasm.

"He and the dog are kidnapping me as far as Mother Spurlock's, and then they'll let me go and come back," I answered, with a laugh, as we started on. Not once had the strong little fingers let go of my hand as we stood and talked and they only held the closer as we started climbing the long, hot dusty hill to the Little House by the Side of the Road. But in the long climb not once did the sturdy little legs lag or the small arm drag on my strength. The clasp was one of equality and affectionate attraction, not of dependence.



CHAPTER XIII

THE SHORT-CIRCUIT

And at last we arrived at the old snowball guarding the open gate of the Little House and we went under its low boughs and up the walk. But we did not march to an undisputed and stealthy raid on the tea cake box above the kitchen table. The Little House was no longer the deserted scene I had left it, but was teeming with human and juvenile activities which streamed out to meet us at the door.

"You can't come in here, Auntie Charlotte," was the command that greeted me at the very doorstep as young Charlotte faced me with short skirts outspread determinedly, while behind her Mikey of the red head, Jimmy, Sue, Maudie, the sister of Mikey, and other known and unknown juveniles, presented a solid support of defiance. "We are doing some Lord's work and we don't need you, but we'll let the nice little boy and the lovely dog come in. We do need them. Come in, little boy!" and as she spoke Charlotte held out a welcoming hand to the Stray, who faltered and looked up into my face to see if he might accept the invitation which evidently swayed him by its commanding tone.

"Couldn't I come in for just a second?" I asked with all due meekness.

"Not for even a second," answered Charlotte sternly. "You'd interrupt Minister. You go away and leave the boy."

"Then how'll I get him back to his mother?" I pleaded, but as I spoke I allowed the little fingers to slip from mine and I pushed the waif towards Charlotte with the greatest confidence, which evidently communicated itself to both him and the dog, for they left me simultaneously and went towards the enemy's camp.

"Shoo, it's only little Stray Ensley. I'll take him home when I go," the redoubtable Mikey assured me with a wide smile at the kiddie, which was answered with a rapture of hero worship.

"What's his name?" demanded Charlotte as if seeking a passport.

"Just Stray," answered Mikey in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. "He ain't got no father, dead or alive."

"Then Stray is just short for stranger, because everybody else has fathers, dead, alive or drunk," said Charlotte, in the same matter-of-fact tone that Mikey had used, and he in no way seemed to feel her remark personally derogatory to his paternal parent.

"Well, let's take him to Minister to be learned his verses of the song and dance. Come on, for we are keeping him and the Lord waiting," said Charlotte as she marshaled them all into the Little House and calmly shut the door in my face and left me standing alone in the middle of the walk. Even the yellow pup had squeezed into the door before it was shut and only I was left in the outer darkness away from the grand opera voice that I could hear booming with a juvenile chorus out at the back of the cottage where I knew the rehearsal was being held under the twin of the old apple tree from which the front roof tree over my head was eternally separated by the Little House. With actual sadness and a queer feeling of shut-outness I did the only thing left to me and sauntered slowly on up the hill under the tall old elm trees that the Town had planted a century ago to keep the heat from the heads of the like of me while the toilers down in the Settlement had no such proof of ancestral care.

"They are producing in the sweat of their brows while I—saunter," I said to myself, as I stretched out my bare arm from which the white silk sleeve had been rolled away after the prevailing mode of the sport for which it was designed, and flexed and regarded the bunch of muscles that knotted themselves on my smooth, tanned forearm.

"It could swing a wash tub as well as the best racquet this side of the Meadowbrook Club," I added aloud with a queer kind of primitive shame mixed with my physical pride in myself.

"Or juggle a heavy baby and a kitchen stove into a square meal?" added a laughing voice as the Jaguar padded up beside my shoulder on his tennis shoes before I had heard him at all, so deep was my absorption in my own judgment and absolution of myself.

"Still I was put out just a few minutes ago by a woman half my size," I laughed in return as the long strides shortened into harmony with mine.

"I heard about it and ran after you to ask you to come back or, if you refused, to let me go with you wherever you are going. I left Mother Spurlock in charge of the newly installed Epworth Leaguers. Charlotte disapproved of my coming and said so," and we both laughed in delight over my strenuous name-daughter.

"Are you asking me quo vadis?" I demanded, with a look at him out of a corner of my eye that got in return a glint of the jewels under dull gold that always infuriated as well as interested me.

"'Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge—'" the parson suddenly chanted under his breath, using the old Gregorian measure for the few words of the oldest song of impersonal love extant. "Thank you for bringing Martha's boy up to the Little House. Jacob has refused both Mother Spurlock and me to let him come."

"I didn't bring him. He and the pup brought me and then he was stolen from me into the fold, as it were," I answered as I paused at the front gate of the Poplars, which had a white clematis drifting over its tall stone pillars and clutching at the straight iron bars as if trying to keep me out of even my own fold. "Will you come in with me?" I asked with a laugh, as I flung the old gate wide in spite of the tendril fingers.

The parson laughed, whistled a strain of his "whither thou goest" chant to me and followed me across the lawn to the foot of the poplars. On the bench surrounding their trunks I found my basket with the fine seam I was sewing for the Suckling in it and I dropped upon the thick mat of grass on the very edge of the shadow from the silver branches above and began to hunt for my thimble, leaving the Jaguar standing over me.

"Stop looking down on me and come tell me what particular religious incantations were going on from which Charlotte so violently barred me," I laughed up at him, as I threw a flat grass cushion a little way from my skirts, upon which he immediately sank and seemed to curl up at my feet.

"I had the whole bunch rehearsing the children's part in the dedication services of our chapel. Do you know that small Sue can really sing? The rest stagger well but Susan sings. It is delicious. It is going to be hard on you women folks to hear her chant her responses to me on that great day." And as he spoke he looked beyond me over to his beautiful shimmering gray chapel and there was not a glint in his eyes that showed me he was trying to sound out my intentions about attendance on that ceremony.

"Please, Mr. Goodloe, don't be serious in saying as you did last night that you are not going to dedicate your chapel until I—I help you," in all gentleness I said.

"I can't do it until you come," he answered me with just as great gentleness and he turned his head away from me, but not before I saw a glow in his eyes that made me suddenly strong and calm and curiously humble.

"I—I could go as your guest," I faltered, offering a compromise which I felt sure would not be accepted.

"I can't, I just can't dedicate the chapel until you echo my ceremony in your heart," he answered me with his eyes still turned away from me and looking with the greatest sadness out on Paradise Ridge.

"Why?" I asked with a simple directness that the situation demanded and with no trace of the coquetry the question might have held.

"Shall I tell you all of the reason with no reservations?" the parson asked, as he swung around on his mat and faced me, with his eyes looking straight into mine.

"All," I answered.

"In every community there is one soul which holds the real leadership of the souls of those surrounding them. God seems to appoint captains of the regiments of His people to lead them along the way, Christ the captain of all the hosts. Spiritually you are more evolved than any other person in this town and with you doubting I cannot get the others to see. You are so gorgeous and so brilliant that you blind them all. They have always followed your lead—up or down. There are a few like Mother Spurlock who have gained their Christ knowledge through suffering, but they are not of the calibre to help others to gain theirs. With your hand in mine I can make this whole community see and know; separated from you, you going one way and I another, I can do nothing. You simply short-circuit my force and I am helpless without you." He spoke very simply and directly down into my heart.

"That is not true; no one person is responsible for any spiritual decision that another makes," I answered hotly with an awful sense of having had a burden placed on my shoulders that they could not carry.

"The old 'brother's keeper' question will never be settled in any but the right way," he answered me straight from the shoulder. "You are responsible for the attitude of this whole town towards the cause I represent and they'll have to wait for your eyes to be opened and for you to make them see."

"You minimize yourself," I answered quickly, for in some curious way it hurt me to see that great strong man sit at my feet baffled by a force that he declared to be in me but which I did not acknowledge or understand.

"They were listening to me—from a distance, as it were—and I might have made them hear if you had not come home and thrown them back into the old pleasant groove of non-action and non-belief. In a week you had swept away all I had builded in six months." He spoke with simple conviction and not a trace of the bitterness that might have been in the arraignment.

"Everybody in this town adores you," were the words that gushed out of my heart for his comforting before I could stop them. "That is one reason I have acted as I have. I do not, I cannot believe that the religion which is great enough to bring the redemption of the whole race into a desirable immortality can be composed of nine-tenths emotion, with which all of them were following your beautiful voice and beautiful eyes and beautiful church and beautiful words. If I am to be saved it will be by something sterner than that; it will be something that makes me sweat drops of blood from my mind, take up a hard cross of duty and work, work to make the fibre of my soul strong enough to enjoy the robust kind of immortality that alone seems worth while to me. Your Son of Man walked from town to town in the hot sun and taught the people, healed the multitude and yet had not where to lay his head to rest. His church has lost His vigor. Your whole scheme hasn't enough action in it. Your organization is too easy and too full of surface observances. It is conducted with slipshod business methods and there is no force in it to help me. If I join any church ever it will have to be a new one that can compare with modern business in its efficiency. Your scheme of redemption to immortality through an efficient mediation is perfectly sound, but you don't back it up."

"The Church of Christ has stood, endured and done business for almost two thousand years," he answered quietly. "It is in some ways all you say of it, but it has at least proved its vitality. Why seek to found a new organization with a new head and a new scheme of immortality if you recognize this scheme as good? The place to reorganize a business is from the inside, not the outside. These people must get their vision now. Will you come and help me?" As he spoke he looked again down into the depths from which I had been trying to translate some of the hieroglyphics to him and he held out his long powerful hand to me in an entreaty that shook my very foundations.

"You make me want to do as you ask me, but I do not see what it is we should strive for, what it is from which we should be saved. There are tears in my eyes but do you want my emotions without my reason?" And I asked my question with a quiver almost of timidity.

"No, both!" he answered me, as he dropped his hand and arm from their attitude of entreaty, shook his head sadly and again turned from me and looked out on the dim distance of Old Harpeth. Suddenly I had the feeling of having a great door shut in my face, and a terror of being left all alone in the world came over me. Without knowing what I did I stretched out my hand and caught at his arm and moved closer to him, suddenly cold in the sunshine.

"I'm frightened," I whispered, as I bowed my head on my hand, clutching his arm.

"Poor little wandering, hunting lamb," he crooned to me as he laid a tender hand on my bowed head. "Keep watch over her, Lord Jesus," he prayed under his breath and then as suddenly as I had felt the fear I found again my courage.

"That cry was woman to man, not child to priest. It is only honest to tell you so," I said, as I suddenly raised my head and threw another gauntlet that I knew would bring on another battle. "I hate myself for it."

"I wanted to win you for God and have you come to me then as a gift from Him, but it may have to be the other way round," was the answer he struck out at me with, and as he spoke he clasped my hand in his with a force that seemed to create the great silent, untenanted space around us as it had that night he had sung the Tristan music to me in the moonlight. "I'm going to save you and—and have you."

"No, no!" I cried, as I tried to draw my hand away, found it held beyond my effort and then suddenly released.

"I knew the first minute I looked into your eyes, but I'll wait," he said softly into the silence around us.

"No, no, don't even think such a thing," I exclaimed, and I wanted to rise to my feet and break the spell of that space around us, but I could only cower closer to him on the grass beneath the rustling silver leaves. "I'm going to marry Nickols in a few months and then I'm going out of this world of yours and you can lead them all to—to safety."

"No, it's in God's hands. He'll keep you and give you to me when the time comes. It all may mean suffering to us both, probably does, but I accept the cup—in His good time," and as he spoke he looked again into my eyes with a lonely sadness that I could not endure.

"I want to get away from you," I gasped and I felt that I must get out of the aloneness with him.

"We are in God's hands," he said again, as his warm hands found and held mine. "We must wait on Him with—" Then suddenly the world closed in on us again and we were on our feet—apart.



CHAPTER XIV

ABIDE WITH ME

"Auntie Charlotte, you stole Minister away from us in a no-fair way," stormed Charlotte as she came around the young larches and wild swamp root that had formed the world apart for the dangerous Jaguar and me. "Mother Spurlock can't sing to any good and Sue is so little we gets the key away from her. Let him come right back!" As she made this peremptory demand for the release of my prisoner, my name-daughter stood her ground with her cohorts, who had been scrambling around and over and through the shrubbery, massed behind her. There were Mikey of the red head, small James, the musical wee Susan, Maudie Burns and Jennie Todd, besides several more of the Burns family, a few Sprouls and Paynes and a very ragged young Jones, and they all looked at me with hostile and accusing eyes as Charlotte hurled a final invective at me. "You are wicked and the devil will burn you up," she threatened.

"He won't neither, at all. Hush up!" came a defense and a command in a very imperious young voice, and the Stray followed the voice from around the large trunk of the oldest graybeard. He had arrived late on the scene of action because his impedimenta had been the wriggling puppy of brindle hue, which he immediately released as he came over and stood between the Reverend Mr. Goodloe and me, with my hand in his own small paddie and defiance and defense to the limit in his high-held young head with its black crest and snapping violet eyes. At last I felt Charlotte had met her match and I trembled for the result.

"She never stoled nothing," he further declared, looking Charlotte full in the eye.

"I meant she tooken him away, Stranger," parleyed Charlotte with extreme mildness for her and giving to the Stray the name that she had decided upon by translating the cognomen of his state into that of another almost equally forlorn. "My father told my Auntie Harriet that Aunt Charlotte would git Minister yet and I'll call the devil to stop her if she tries to get him away."

"I'll bust that devil's head with a rock and a bad smell," answered the Stray as he held tighter to my hand and hurled back his threat that held a remembrance of the conquering of the tenacious turtle.

"Auntie Harriet answered father that Auntie Charlotte and the devil could do most anything that—" small James was contributing to the general assault when with a wave of a calming hand Mr. Goodloe took the field.

"That will do, youngsters," he commanded with extreme mildness it seemed to me, considering the appalling situation. "I thought you had had about enough practice for to-day and Charlotte could have taught the little boy—er—"

"Stranger," prompted Charlotte.

"You could have taught him up to the point you knew so I could have a nice rest here under the lovely trees. Are you being kind to me in not helping me a little bit? You know what you promised me." And the beloved "Minister's" voice was just as grave and just as serious as if he had been reproving one of his deacons.

"Is talking to Auntie Charlotte and holding her hand the Lord's work?" demanded Charlotte, looking him straight in the face.

"Yes," answered Mr. Goodloe, gravely, looking her as straight in the eye as she had looked him.

"Then come on, Stranger, and learn the march without any tune but Sue," she said as she stretched out her hand to the Stray, who ignored it and clung to me with his serious eyes raised to mine.

"I'll go with you now over in the chapel and play for you on the organ and then we can all teach him," said the parson, and he picked wee Susan, the music box, up in his arms and buried his lips in the curls on the back of her fragrant little neck.

"Are you all done with Auntie Charlotte?" asked young Charlotte, with the extreme of consideration for him, not for my feelings.

"Yes, for the present," he answered, and he held out his free hand to the Stray, who was still clinging to me.

"Go with him, sonny, and Mikey will take you home," I said to my small champion, using the tender name that I had heard Martha give him. As I spoke I laid his hand in that of Mr. Goodloe and I didn't raise my eyes to his but turned from them and left him standing in the midst of his flock of lambs under the silver leaves and out in the bright light, while I went into the cool dark hall and on up to my own room which was also cool and dark.

"I am lost and blind and I don't know what to do," I murmured as I flung myself down on my window seat and looked through the narrow opening of the shutters out to the everlasting hills across the valley. "I know I am ineffective and perfectly worthless as I am but I will not, I will not be swayed by—"

"Charlotte," called father's voice with its commanding note which had apparently come into it now to stay.

"Yes," I answered, and went down immediately, glad of the interruption to my self-communion and arraignment.

I found father and Nickols and Mark Morgan and Billy Harvey and Mr. Cockrell down in father's study and I could see from their faces that something unusual had happened.

"City Council voted the appropriation to meet Cockrell's and my donation for the schoolhouse, contracts have been signed and dirt is to be broken to-morrow by Henry Todd and thirty workmen Nickols has ordered down from the city," father announced, with jubilation in his voice. "We thought Goodloe was here in the garden with you."

"He was, but he has taken the children with him over to his chapel," I answered, and for some reason I blushed, for I saw Mark Morgan's eyes laughing at me and I also saw a glint I didn't like in Nickols' eyes.

"School to be opened on September twelfth and then let the kids fight it out," said Billy. "I bet on Charlotte to beat out the whole Settlement the first day if allowed full swing."

"If Goodloe didn't stand behind this mixing of—of social oil and—water, I'd be scared to death," said Mark.

"Mike Burns and Henry Todd and Spain had better be afraid of a loss of progeny," jeered Billy. "I bet Charlotte and James and the scions of the Sprouls and Paynes can lead the Settlement scions into by-paths of iniquity of which they never dreamed."

"I wish you had ten, blast you, for being so sensible as to have none," Mark answered him, and I felt rather than saw the bolt of pain that shot through Billy's heart. It's because Nell and her children are not his that Billy is bad, and what is going to help him?

"Well, let's go over to the parsonage and tell Goodloe all about it," father suggested, and the other men followed him out into the garden path that led through the Eden of my foremothers straight into that little Methodist chapel. Only Nickols remained with me upon the wide high vine-shadowed porch.

"I'll marry you the first of October, Nickols, and then we can go to France as you want to," I said to him without any preamble, and as I spoke I drew close to him as if for protection from something I didn't understand.

"Fleeing from the wrath to come?" questioned Nickols with a tender jeer as he took me in his arms and his lips sought the kiss I had been keeping from him. Again I refused it and he laughed as he pushed me from him and there was still more of the jeer in the laugh though the passion in his eyes was devouring and glad.

"Suppose we go north, right after Mr. Jeffries has finished his visit. Let's have the ideal village wedding. We'll have out the school children if any are left from the mix-up, and Goodloe can make us man and wife out here under the trees in our own garden. Then we'll go away from the whole show, the Christian religion included, and live happy ever after." And as he spoke Nickols again drew me to him and sought the kiss I still could not give him.

"Nickols, Mother Spurlock and poor little Mrs. Burns and—and Mr. Goodloe have something very real that we haven't," I faltered and, utterly weary, I laid my head down against his strong shoulder.

"That's what they say, but they can't prove it. They can't pass it on, so it mustn't really be anything. They are not tightwads, so they wouldn't hold back on us with their salvation, would they? Well, then, they haven't anything. It's all just a substitute for love, dear. Mother Spurlock fell back on it when she lost her husband. The little Burns woman wouldn't have it any more than Nell has if Mike Burns was like Mark Morgan. And Goodloe would lose it in a week if—if he could get you in his arms." As Nickols spoke, his arms about me trembled and strained me to him.

"No!" I exclaimed as if I had heard blasphemy uttered.

"It is, dear, it is just suppressed sex. The scientists agree on that and all the religions are just that, from the most primitive to the most evolved. Some are more frank about it than others. The Igorrotes when they have their religious dancing at the mating season are more open than the Methodists about their being one and the same thing, but it all sums up alike. You can't get away from those facts."

"Then I want to be dead," I said as I drew myself from his arm and stood on the edge of the porch.

"Or you want to love," muttered Nickols under his breath as he watched me sullenly for a second. "Then it's October, is it?" he asked with one of his infectious, delicious laughs that have always broken across my serious moods and made them froth.

"Yes," I answered steadily.

"Then we'll tell Nell and Harriet and Jessie and Mrs. Sproul all about it, as I see them coming, on gossip bent I feel sure," he said as he went halfway down the walk to meet the girls before I could restrain him.

I shall always have with me the picture that Nickols made as he stood tall and handsome and smiling against the background of the wonderful garden he had helped to create, with the women smiling and clinging to him as he looked up at me with a great laughing light in his face. In some ways he was the handsomest man I had ever seen and his distinctions sat upon him as easily as the college honors of a boy. A wave of race pride and love swept up in my heart as I looked at him and I felt that in him must be the refuge that I sought. His sophistries always sank deep into me.

"Charlotte, my dear," said Mrs. Sproul, as I led her to a seat beneath the vines in a shady corner, "I wish I was sure that your mother knew of this safe happiness of yours. She adored Nickols and nothing could have given her a greater joy. And, my dear, for you to have held him against the world, as it were, is a triumph, I assure you. Always remember that men of his kind are—are desirable. I'll have a long talk with you before you go away with him." And I didn't know why, but the smile with which Mrs. Sproul whispered and patted my hand made me burn all over with protest.

"I wouldn't have you for a husband unless we were both convicted together to a chain gang for at least five years after the ceremony, Nickols Powers," said Harriet, with a laugh for which Nickols raised her hand to his lips as he responded.

"You like husbands in safety deposit vaults, don't you, Harriet?" At which sally they all laughed as they seated themselves around Mrs. Sproul and me.

"Why will women want husbands to be as stationary as—as hitching posts, Mrs. Sproul?" demanded Nickols as he leaned against one of the tall pillars and lighted a cigarette for himself after having lighted one for her and Jessie. Jessie Litton had always smoked, in secret until the last year or two, and Mrs. Sproul had frankly taken up the habit as a comfort for old age, she insisted. I suspect that she had had it for a long time in advance of the fashion. It was a really delicious sight to see the old world grace with which she accomplished it.

"Women have the nestling habit and that is why they want to believe men to be sturdy oaks in whose branches they can safely anchor a family as well as twine around in their affectionate gourd fashion," answered Mrs. Sproul, as she daintily puffed a smoke ring at Nickols.

"A lot of times the gourd vine grows so strong that she doesn't realize she is supporting her family by her own strength long after the oak has faded away in her coils and sprouted up from an acorn in some other locality," said Jessie, as she, too, puffed a ring of smoke in Nickols' direction.

"Is this agriculture, biology or religion we are discussing?" demanded Harriet with a laugh as we all rose and went to the edge of the porch to meet Billy and Mark and father, who had with them the beloved "Minister."

"Congratulations and condolences, Mr. Powers," said Mrs. Sproul as she laid her hand in father's.

"On what score, my dear madam," he demanded.

"You know I asked for Charlotte on my fifteenth and her tenth birthday, Judge," Nickols said, with his ready grace in any situation, and he came and stood beside father and took his hand in his with the gentle affection a girl might have shown the older man. "You said 'yes' then and it has taken all these years to make her echo the word," and as he finished speaking he held out his arm and drew me close to father and himself.

"Hurrah!" exclaimed Mark, but I saw him exchange a glance of amusement with Harriet, and Nell gave him a warning little squeeze of the arm.

"Bless you both," said father, as he gave us both a hug.

All this I saw and noted before I raised my eyes to meet the jeweled eyes under dull gold that I knew were gazing straight at me as Gregory Goodloe stood in the background against the dark vine while the rejoicings over the announcement of my betrothal were enacted. Somehow I felt I could not make myself face their gaze, which yet I knew I must. I met a flash that burned down into the very darkest spots in my nature and illuminated them all. There was not a trace of male anger or demand in the gaze but a cold valuation of me and the entire situation that burned me as ice burns raw flesh, then over all of us there suddenly poured from the same source a tenderness that was as radiant as the summer sun.

"Yes, God bless us all!" he exclaimed, as he held out his hands to all of us, one of which Nickols took, with a swift challenging glance that in the radiance softened to confidence, and the other father took and fairly clung to in his happiness. I was glad, glad that I didn't have to endure the touch of his hand on mine after that glance, but not for one instant did my heart accuse his radiance of being dramatics. I rather felt that it came from a warmth within him by which everybody else in the world might be comforted but for which I would forever be cold.

"I want to be worth her, old man," Nickols said to him with a curiously pleading note in his voice, and he, too, seemed to me to be clinging to some of the strength that was not for me.

"Then God help you," was the answer given with the very essence of gentleness, but with a level glance into Nickols' eyes that was profoundly sad.

"And now let's hear the wedding plans," demanded Harriet. "This marrying and giving in marriage is the best way I know of to make time pass, and let's make Charlotte give us full measure. I'm matron of honor, of course, and I suggest only twelve bridesmaids. I intend to be preceded to the altar by Sue in an embroidered silk muslin I will provide, with a bonnet of tulle in which nestles a pink rose to match the ones in her basket. There will also be a display of pink knees that will be ravishing and—"

"Just let me remind you, Harriet, that this is Charlotte's wedding and not that of my daughter, Susan, and her often-mentioned knees," said Mark with a laugh that they all echoed.

"I am going to marry Susan's pink knees when they are ripe," remarked Billy and his suppression lasted long enough for me to attain command enough of myself to manage the plans of my own wedding.

Later when they had all gone by way of the chapel to help Mr. Goodloe decide on some designs for a memorial window to his father he was having made by a great artist he and Nickols had selected, I went in to make my announcement to Mammy and Dabney.

"Well, ram in the cork to the demijohn, honey, and it'll be all right," was Dabney's semi-cordial consent, but Mammy went on industriously beating her biscuits for supper the one hundred and twenty licks prescribed by her reputation as a cook and her conscientious guarding of that same reputation.

"What do you say, Mammy?" I insisted on her giving her opinion.

"Of course, if you want to eat plain biscuits instead of the showbread from before the mercy seat—one hundred and two, one hundred and three—" was the answer given between the licks upon the white dough, and I fled before I should get a clearer manifestation of the disappointment I felt raging in her faithful old heart.

That night a young crescent moon was hung over the very crown of Old Harpeth as I threw the shutters of my window wide to the night breezes after I had put out my light and was ready for bed. I stood in its soft light and looked across to the dark mass of the chapel opposite and saw that a dim light was still burning from the window by the organ loft. And as I stood and looked, the empty place that I had felt in the very center of my heart grew colder and more bleak until suddenly across the garden on perfumed waves of sound came the Tristan love song and filled my emptiness with a pain that was both hot and cold. I stood and let the flood dash over me as long as I could and then with a sob I sank on the floor and rested my head on the window seat and began to weep as only women such as I know how to weep. Then into my sorrow very quietly there again stole another strain after the Tristan song had sobbed away into the night and suddenly my own weeping was stilled and again something within me was healed by the great tender voice singing out in the darkness beyond the hedge:

"Abide with me; fast falls the eventide— ... ... ... ... Help of the helpless, O abide with me!"

"I don't know what to do, I don't know," I cried, and sobbed myself to sleep on my pillow after I had watched the light across the garden go out and after all in the little parsonage beyond the hedge was dark and quiet.



CHAPTER XV

A CLANDESTINE ADVENTURE

It seems a strange, almost savage thing that the few months before a woman's marriage are always filled so full of the doing of thousands and tens of thousands of small things that she has no time to think of the hugeness of the responsibilities she is assuming. Perhaps if she were given time to realize them she would never assume them. Once or twice in the long two, nearly three months that I had given myself to get ready to marry Nickols, I paused and found myself thinking of the weighty things of life, but I soon was able to shake off the thought of the future. The time I felt it press most heavily was one morning that Jessie Litton and I sat quietly sewing on some sort of fluff she and Harriet had planned for my adornment, and very suddenly Jessie laid down her ruffle and looked at me as she said:

"Charlotte, I would be frightened, positively frightened, at the prospect of marrying Nickols Powers."

"I am; but why would you be?" I asked her directly.

"I read that long resume of his work in the Review last night and for the first time I really realized what an important person he is to the development of American art. He really is a huge national machine and you'll be one of the important cogs on which the whole thing runs. You'll be ground and ground by his life and you'll have to make good or be responsible for some sort of a crash."

"No," I answered, slowly drawing my thread through the sheer cloth. "No, Nickols will live his own way regardless of the cogs on which it grinds. I shall have an enormous task in keeping up with the social side of his life, but Nickols is not the kind of a man who takes a woman into his work."

As I made my answer I was stabbed by the memory of the words that Gregory Goodloe had said to me on that day in the garden: "Separated from you, you going one way and I another, I can do nothing. You short-circuit my force—I am helpless without you." And he had been inviting me into the work for which he had been ordained into the holy Church of Christ. I felt myself groping blindly into the futility of my own life, and I was sick at heart.

"And if that is so, I would be still more frightened," Jessie said, gazing at me with dismayed and honest affection.

"Don't let's talk about it," I answered her and took up my sewing. At that moment and from that moment I cast myself into the whole whirl of activities in Goodloets and gave myself no more time or strength for self-communion. I was fleeing, and from what I dared not know.

And it was a busy month that stretched from August through September. Nickols said it would be his last fling at the old town and he proposed to leave his mark on its mossy sides. And he did.

In the first place money was pouring into little old Goodloets from three huge sources. The little one-horse tannery down by the river beyond the Settlement doubled, tripled and then quadrupled its capacity and next to it the little old saddle and harness factory in which Mr. Cockrell and old Mr. Sproul had been making saddles and harness since the days of the Confederacy, did the same and sent out consignment after consignment of saddles and bridles which were paid for in huge checks of Russian origin which almost paralyzed the Goodloets Bank and Trust Company and which worked pale Clive Harvey into the night until he managed to get young Henry Thornton in to assist him. His salary was raised three times until it was large enough to harbor Bessie and any number of small editions of them both, only she preferred to drink and dance and joy-ride with Hugh Payne, who could not have supported such a flowering by his own effort to have saved his own life and soul.

And then to burden poor Clive still further, Hampton Dibrell and Mr. Thornton hastily built huge pens over by the railroad and in these assembled hundreds and thousands of mules to be shipped through to France, which brought in return a steady stream of French francs to be translated into American dollars. Still further, Billy and Mark and Cliff, with Nickols' assistance, and the telegraph system, speculated in War Brides down on Wall Street until their individual bank accounts began to mount to giddy sums. Father and Mr. Sproul and more of the other men did likewise and Buford Cunningham got some spectacular returns from copper in Canada that Billy said would make Mrs. Buford Cunningham try to buy the Country Club outright for a summer home. And while there was prosperity in the Town the Settlement also had its share. Wages rose higher and higher and many of the women went to work at the machines in the saddle factory, leaving the care of the children to the old dames, which resulted in an added pandemonium in the Settlement streets.

"I don't know what is the matter. Goodloets is money mad," wailed Mother Spurlock, as she sank with weariness into the rocker on my porch one hot August afternoon. "The girls and the women are all at work and two babies have died this week from pure lack of mother's care, I might say mother's milk. Ed Jones' wife weaned her six-months'-old baby so she could go in the factory, and left it on condensed milk with old Mrs. Jones, who fed it incessantly and not at all cleanly. Now it is not expected to live. And they dance at the Last Chance until one o'clock almost every night. Is the world mad?"

"No, just prosperous, Mother Elsie," I answered her as I gave her a large fan and Dabney brought her a tall glass of very cold tea. "Little old Goodloets is having the same boom that the rest of America is getting from feeding and furnishing the rest of the warring world."

"Nickols Powers told me just last night that over two hundred thousand dollars would be spent on the improvements to this town in the next two months, counting the new schoolhouse, the restoration of the courthouse, the paving of the public square and the enlargement of the electric light plant. That doesn't count the money everybody is putting on their own private homes. That camp of workmen down by the river that Nickols has had sent down from the city has a hundred men in it now, and that is one thing that demoralizes the Settlement. Jacob Ensley has had that dance hall enlarged twice and he has employed George Spain to stand behind the bar. It is breaking Mrs. Spain's heart, but she is helpless, for George is being paid three dollars a day for being just where he wants to be. I don't know what to do. I firmly believe the town is mad, with only Gregory Goodloe to stand between it and God's wrath."

"What is he doing to stem the joy tide?" I asked with a laugh, for it did seem in a way funny to see one of the leading citizens of old Goodloets so distressed over its improvement and modernization through its enormous prosperity.

"He was down in the workmen's camp last night having a song service and seventy-five of them stayed there singing until midnight. Jacob had to put out his lights at eleven o'clock because there were not enough to pay to keep open. The chapel was full Sunday night and Jacob closed the Last Chance at six o'clock for the first time in its existence. The men passed it on to him to do it and he came and sat in a back pew himself. They all call Mr. Goodloe 'Parson,' and he walks in and around and about this town night and day shedding a kind of peace and good will even into the darkest corners. He lends a hand here and there with the work, eats out of the men's dinner pails when that Jefferson is too lazy to cook for him, or takes a bite off some stove down in the Settlement out of some old woman's pork and cabbage pot with just as much grace and heartiness as he eats at Nell Morgan's or Harriet Henderson's most elaborate dinners. And outside of his pulpit he never preaches; he just lives. This is what I heard Jacob say to him just yesterday:

"'Sure, and I wint up to set in one of your pews to see if your action in your own job was as good as it is in the many you lend a hand to week about.'

"'Well?' asked Mr. Goodloe, as he picked up, one of those rosy apples from the box Jacob keeps out on the sidewalk to blind the Last Chance.

"'I knows when to run and not be caught,' Jacob answered, as he put another apple in the parson's pocket and went back into the grocery door."

"Do you ever see Martha?" I asked with a kind of impatience. I had been three times down to the Last Chance and each time Jacob's excuses for Martha had been positive though courteous, and I had come away baffled, with the green groceries I had purchased as a blind to my visit. I had written to her and had had no response. At that I had stopped, with a self-sufficient feeling of a duty well done, but through it all I also felt that she was on the other side of a prison wall crying to me.

"Never," answered Mother Spurlock, with real pain in her voice. "She stays in that back room and cooks for Jacob, and the child stays with her and has only the small yard back of the bar in which to play. Jacob only let him come up to sing with Mr. Goodloe and the children a few times and now he is kept as near in prison as his mother. Jacob's attitude grows more morose about her and the child every day. I don't understand it. I never will. Martha was the loveliest girl that ever bloomed in the Settlement, and now she has been plucked and thrown into the dust. And the child is too young to share her prison fate. He must be got out and away."

"He will," I answered, with a calm confidence. I didn't tell Mother Spurlock, and I didn't know exactly why I didn't, but I was deeply involved in a clandestine affair with the Stray which was fast becoming one of the adventures of my life. It had begun in a positively weird manner and was continuing along the same lines. One morning several weeks after my first acquaintance and turtle adventure with him I had waked up at dawn and gone to look out of the window just as the morning star was fading over Old Harpeth. In the dim light I had spied a small figure down in the garden, hopping along by a row of early young rose bushes, with a can in one hand and a long stick in the other. Hastily getting into a few clothes I crept down through the silent house and out in the garden to find the Stray busily engaged in knocking large slugs off into a can.

"I feed 'em to mother's bird in the cage, 'cause he can't get out to get 'em," he explained. "They all sleep hard 'cause they work so late and I crawl out the window and go back while they don't wake up. I like your yard better than I do mine." The statement was made simply, without envy of apology.

And from that morning a queer kind of dawn life went on between the small boy and me. Morning after morning he threw a pebble to waken me and I hurried down to our tryst, which extended through the hour that lies between the crack of day and the first glint of the awakening sun. At first I had carried sweetmeats to our tryst, which were accepted with moderate pleasure, but one morning I had taken a huge volume of Rackham's Mother Goose which Nickols had brought me, and from then on our hour had been one of spiritual communion. I found the young mind insatiate and I had to ransack the library for stories and poems and pictures suitable to his years, though he rapidly developed a very advanced taste. The morning I read him the Shakespearian lines woven around the little Princes in the Tower, having suitably connected up the story for him with words of my own, we forgot the time and he overstayed his limit, for Dabney was opening the house when he fled. For five mornings he did not come and I could find no way to get news of him. I asked Mikey and got a maddening response.

"They shut up Stray in the back yard because he's a shame to old Jake," was his answer to my question. "Jake would shoot anybody that climbed that fence."

"I bet I could get over and the bad man not see if I could get out in the dark," Charlotte declared as she stood listening to my questioning. "And I am going after Stranger that way, too, if ever they leave the front door to my house unlocked. It is wicked to shut up a little boy, and the devil would help me get him out." Charlotte's purpose was high if she did slightly mix her theology.

That night a wonderful thing happened in my moonlit room. I was dead asleep when I felt a soft hand stroking my face, and then my hair, and I awoke to find the Stray standing by my bed.

"They tied me in bed when they found out I had runned away in the mornings to see you, but I gnawed the rope that he put, because I wanted to tell you that I can go to the big school when it opens because Minister told him that he would be put in jail if I didn't. It is a law. I heard him last night, and mother cried a long time, for what, I don't know. Was she glad or sorry? Do you know?"

"No, darling, I don't know, and I wish I did," I answered him as I put my arms around him while he snuggled his black-crested head down beside mine on the pillow.

"My mother is sick, she cries so much," he said with a manly struggle that drowned the sob in his throat. "I don't know what to do. Do you know?"

"I'll find out," I said with a sudden fierceness as I strained him against my shoulder for an instant and then sat up in bed as if I must do something at once.

"I must run right back and tie myself before he wakes up and whips me," the Stray said, and it sickened me to see him wrap the gnawed rope around his little arm.

"No!" I exclaimed, and held out my arms to him.

"I must, but I don't mind whippings if I can read books in school and you make mother not cry," and before I could stop him he ran out of the dim room and I could hear his cautious bare feet patter down the long stairway and hall.

That moonlight tryst was the last of the adventure, but I did not worry, for I knew that the school would be opened formally in ten days, and I had laid my plans for Stray in an interested friendship with the very competent young woman who had already come down from the state normal college to teach the amalgamated young ideas of Goodloets to shoot. Also, I had vague plans that hurt me, of getting Jessie or Harriet to continue the trysts for me after the wedding, whose details they were all pushing to completion by a mid-September day.

And added to the strenuosity of the laying of my plans for at least a year's absence, I had to help father make his arrangements for a six months' stay in Washington, for he had accepted the President's appointment on the Commerce Commission, and night and day he was at his library desk. The silver-topped decanter still stood on the sideboard in the dining room, and the silver ice bowl was formally filled before every meal by Dabney. The mint glass was kept fresh and fragrant but apparently father had forgotten entirely about all three. He ate twice as much as I had ever seen him consume and the worn lines in his face were slowly filling out into a delicious joviality. Mr. Hicks, the little tailor who had always clothed him, had little by little made over the outer man with new garments as the old ones grew restrictive, and Mother Spurlock had carried his entire discarded wardrobe, garment at a time, down to the Settlement for the clothing of some of her most needy friends.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse