But the most reborn person I had ever seen was Dabney. The little black man had lived so long under the shadow of father's moroseness that when the pressure was lifted from his bent black shoulders he rebounded to an amazing extent. His reaction took the form of gala attire in which Nickols encouraged him to the extent of silk hosiery of the most delicate shades from his own wardrobe, with ties to match, not to mention his own last year's Panama hat, pressed over into the extreme of the prevailing style for youthful masculine head adornment. Also Nickols bestowed upon him a very up-to-date Palm Beach suit, purchased at the Hicks shop, and on his first appearance in the kitchen for his wife's inspection I was present.
"Go take them clothes off, nigger, and put 'em along of my black silk shroud in the bottom drawer of the chist," she commanded, as she put her hands on her sixty-inch waist and stood before him with arms akimbo. "Folks is got no business to dress in life so fine that they shames they burying clothes."
"Shoo fly, I'm jest going to Washington, not to Heaven, in this here rig. When I git into Heaven it'll be 'cause I'm hiding behind that black silk skirt of your shroud, honey, if I'm as naked as borned," was the admiring, wily and also wholly sincere answer to Mammy's fling at the gorgeous raiment.
And while the Poplars teemed with wedding plans Nickols kept the whole village steamed up to be in readiness for the visit of Mr. Jeffries, which was dated for just a week before the wedding, and the village festival at the opening of the new school was to be the most important ceremonial of the whole visit. Father was to give him a dinner at which all of the Solons of the Harpeth Valley were to be present, and a ball at the Country Club was being planned by Billy with all enthusiasm. But the center of the buzz was down at Mother Spurlock's Little House, where Mr. Goodloe daily, and it seemed almost hourly, drilled the children for the ceremonial of the opening of their house of learning across the way from the Little House by the Road. Only echoes of the orgies reached the outside, and gossip ran high in the Settlement as well as the Town at the fragments that the delighted scions brought home, of curious folk dances mixed with fragments of weird tunes.
"Sure, a minister of the gospel to teach me Mikey to stand on one leg and spin around on the other with his hands over his head is a quare thing, but the Riverend Goodloe is no ordinary man," said Mrs. Burns to Mother Spurlock, who answered:
"You can trust him, Mrs. Burns, even with Mikey's legs."
And during all the long weeks of activity not once did I have a word alone with the Harpeth Jaguar. We met constantly at dinner at the tables of our friends and he came and went at the Poplars with the same freedom that Nickols enjoyed. He was long hours in the library with father, and somehow I felt that he was strengthening the structure that he had builded on the ruined foundation and something passionate rose in my heart and filled it with pain every time I heard his ringing laugh come from the library table, accompanied by father's booming chuckle. Also, he worked early and late in the garden with Nickols and the young man from White Plains, and I saw that Nickols' artistic ideas flowed at top speed when Gregory Goodloe was standing by.
It was the same thing over at the new schoolhouse. Mr. Todd and the men worked miracles with their stone and mortar and wood and iron when he was standing by or lending a hand. The school was built partly of stone like the chapel and partly of old purple-pink brick like Mother Spurlock's Little House, and it was beamed with heavy timbers. It was roofed with heavy colonial clapboards which made it look as if it had already stood a century before the floors were laid or the very modern desks installed. It was built to house increasing generations, though only about fifty children would open its portals of education.
"It speaks of education de luxe, doesn't it?" Billy asked as Nell and Harriet and I stood with him and Nickols and the parson watching Mr. Todd directing the men in screwing down the desks just a few days before the opening.
"There is scarcely a village in England to compare with old Goodloets now, and nothing at all like it," said Nickols, as he looked first up the hill to the Town and down the hill to the Settlement. "I know that it is the first spot in America to express what the full grown nation is going to be. When we add beauty to the materially perfected mode of existence we are enjoying, life will be too short in the living. That schoolhouse ought to produce some results in art cultures in the infant mind of Goodloets."
"Yes, America is learning that the foundation of its national existence, trait upon trait, must be laid in the lives of the children," said Mr. Goodloe, slowly, and he smiled as across from the Little House came wee Susan's exquisite treble in a waltz song which was backed up by Mother Spurlock's bumble and Charlotte's none too accurate accompaniment. And we all smiled with him.
Always it seemed to me I was with him and a part of a number of people who felt the radiance of his loveliness, and not once had I for a second come into personal touch with him. I had, like the rest, got my smiles and friendliness from the dark eyes under dull gold, but the door to the land in which I had been with Tristan when he sang his death song had vanished and there were no traces of its portals. The only sign that was between him and me was his continued evasion of setting a date for the dedication of the chapel. He always answered inquiries by saying that the opening of the school must come first and when the dedication was mentioned he never looked in my direction. My soul seemed to be standing still and listening for something that never came.
And then Mr. Jeffries arrived on the scene of action.
That night of Billy's ball for the magnate, who was having the time of his gray-headed life under Billy's and Nickols' enthusiastic direction, the strange alien thing that had been developed in my depths, part unrest and part rebellion, since I had first looked into the eyes of the young Methodist parson, who had intruded himself and his chapel into my existence, got its death blow. In my presence Nickols made his formal request of the Reverend Mr. Goodloe to officiate at our marriage.
"Of course, Greg, old fellow, you are going to marry us next Tuesday, aren't you?" asked Nickols, as we stood on the steps of the Poplars after dinner, chatting with him as he was leaving to go over to the chapel while we went out to the dance. "I suppose there is some sort of formal way to make the request, but I don't know it."
"If there is I don't know it, either," was the kindly answer, which both Nickols and I took for assent.
"Thank you, sir," said Nickols, as he turned away towards father and Mr. Cockrell and Mr. Jeffries, who had come out on the porch with their cigars, and left him and me standing alone in the starlight.
"God guard you!" he said to me without taking the hand I held out to him in the darkness with a kind of desperation that seemed that of a drowning woman. "Good-bye!" and he was gone out into the night, leaving me, I knew, forever outside of his life.
"Wait, Oh wait!" I pleaded, but he was gone and I didn't even know if he heard the cry out into the velvet darkness.
That night was the most brilliant night that Goodloets had ever known. The Town was full of guests who had motored over from all the towns around in the Harpeth Valley. The Governor had come down from the capital in his huge touring car to congratulate father on his appointment and to meet Mr. Jeffries. His adjutant-general and several of his aids were with him in their showy State Guard uniforms and all of the girls were rosy with excitement at the presence of so many rows of brass buttons. Mr. Jeffries opened the ball, and to the delight and amusement of us all, he succeeded in leading out with him Mrs. Sproul, who turned the opening dance into a stately old Virginia reel, which so delighted the tango dancers with its novelty that the dance was repeated several times during the evening by enthusiastic requests.
And while the Town reveled in celebration of the new Goodloets, down in the Settlement like rejoicings were being held at the dance hall of the Last Chance. In fact, the whole small city was in the throes of a great rejoicing. Why shouldn't all Goodloets revel when it was enjoying a prosperity beyond anybody's dreams of two years before? Everybody had been generous to the old town with the money that had come so easily from other suffering people's necessities, and security and good fellowship and prosperity reigned supreme. In each heart there was the feeling that now the old town and their personal lives were founded on solid rocks of peace and plenty and it was the time to eat, drink and be merry.
At supper the Governor's first toast, after that to the town itself, was to father and his distinctions. Then Mr. Jeffries toasted Nickols and me. He called Nickols the "American Wizard of Habitations," and, amid cheering and clapping hands, announced his intention to have Nickols build the American town on the Hudson. He called me the "Heart of the Achievement," and father's pride as he looked down the long table at Nickols and me was very wonderful and beautiful; and as great a pride rose in my heart as I saw him lift his glass of water to pledge me, leaving the bubbles breaking in his champagne.
It was very near dawn when we all motored home and it was upon the verge of the crack of day by the time Dabney and Nickols had got the Governor and Mr. Jeffries and the other guests settled under the wide roof of the Poplars, which had never hovered a more distinguished or brilliant house party.
For a few quiet minutes after they had all gone to their rooms Nickols and I stood alone on the front porch in the cool darkness with its hint of the dawn, while old Dabney shut up the back part of the house.
"The school festival will be over to-morrow, sweetheart, and the next day they will all be gone. The photographers are all through with the photographing and to-morrow night all the extra workmen go back to the city. There'll be three whole quiet days for you to get ready to give me that kiss, which I won't take when you are as tired as you are now," said Nickols, as he put a limp arm around me and leaned against the tall door post.
"To-morrow the old makes way for the new. Goodloets is dead! Long live Goodloets!" I answered, as I in turn leaned against Nickols' jaded arm for only a second before we preceded Dabney up the stairs to our rooms.
In my room I went immediately to the window and opened wide the heavy shutters. I found myself looking down on Goodloets, which lay below the darkness of the Poplars like a long glowworm, brilliant with the lights from the homes of the revelers who were going to bed with a sense of perfect security. Still farther down the hill the lights from the Settlement glowed with scarcely less brilliancy and I felt sure that the Last Chance was still harboring a last fling of joy.
Suddenly over my spirit came a deep wave of depression that amounted to a great fear and then as I stood trembling in the darkness, a broad ray of morning light shot up over Paradise Ridge and spread rapidly into a crimson glow that was reflected against a black cloud hanging low over the head of Old Harpeth. A flash of lightning darted from the cloud and spread its gold fire through the crimson of the coming day, and then the sullen-pointed cloud sank rapidly below Paradise Ridge, over which it had risen, as if reconnoitering. Positively shuddering, I knelt against the window seat and watched the day come with a hitherto unknown terror. Then as I watched the dawn begin to drive away the sullen clouds a rich voice began to sing out beyond the old poplars as a window of the gray chapel was thrown open:
"Arise, my soul, arise, Shake off thy guilty fears; ... ... ... ... Before the throne my Surety stands My name is written on His hands."
The calmness that came into my frightened heart was like the peace of a deep sleep, and with its strength I faced the day that was to be that of my humiliation and which was to be the crest of the wave of the high tide of Goodloets.
THE JEWEL IN THE MATRIX
When I awoke from a few hours of deep and exhausted sleep I found my room fast filling with the strenuosities of the day. In fact, I opened them upon Harriet Henderson, up, dressed and briskly doing. She had a large pasteboard box with her and the minute I brushed repose from my eyes she opened it and held up for my inspection a very short tulle garment besprinkled with tiny silk rosebuds, along with a bonnet and other wee but distinctly feminine paraphernalia to match. A basket adorned with a huge bow of tulle came from another box and I was forced to voice my admiration with the greatest vigor.
"How I'll ever keep from eating Sue up before she gets to the altar, I can't see," said Harriet, as she held the wee frock for a second against her breast. It hurts me to the quick of my own breast to see Harriet's eyes when she broods over Sue. I don't see how she is going to live life always as hungry as she is now.
"I suppose I might just as well wear my tennis things, because the guests will be already as completely enraptured as is humanly possible before my entry upon the scene of action of my own wedding," I said, as I sat up and took the small bonnet in my own hand. "It is too bad that Jessie and Letitia should worry themselves over my own wedding frock, if Susan is—" I was just saying when Nell arrived beside my bed with the Suckling in the very act of obtaining her early luncheon from the maternal fount. The nurse has always had to follow Nell about with her successive hungry offspring.
"Girls, I really don't know what to do, but young Charlotte has given every single presentable garment that Jimmy possessed to different unclothed children in the Settlement, who were needed in the pageant, and Mark and Billy are laughing at her, while Jimmy is howling. I just ran in to see Harriet a minute and ask her if she—"
"Yes, Jimmie's wedding garments came home from Mrs. Burns' yesterday and I'll lend them to you just to spite those men, who are simply ruining Charlotte by the day," said Harriet, as Nell handed her the replete Suckling wrong end foremost and picked up the small tulle bonnet with a gurgle of maternal rapture that was in some ways as young as the happy gurgle that the Suckling gave as she settled into Harriet's dependable arms for her morning nap. Harriet cradled her against her own round, firm breast and for a second brooded then joined in Nell's rapture over the garments for the bedizening of wee Susan.
"If Harriet didn't dress and discipline my children I feel sure they would be found naked in a reform school," Nell said, with a happy and careless gratitude. There are some women to whom life is incidental and maternity the most casual adventure of all. The happy-go-lucky variety are apt to produce just such children as Charlotte or young James or Susan, and it is well if into their young lives there comes the hungry woman with a brooding mission.
"Young Charlotte will probably be the first woman governor of the state and—" Harriet was saying with a laugh when Letitia and Jessie arrived precipitately. Letitia had a parcel which contained a lingerie garment of mine, whose lace and embroidery and ribbon combined would have enraptured most women, and Jessie carried in her hand a package of belated wedding cards. They were followed closely by Mammy, who was in turn followed by the meek Sally. Mammy's address was delivered to me first.
"Git up quick, honey; the men folks has begun on the second round of waffles and they'll be calling for you. The day is on its shanks and a-going," she admonished, while Sallie turned on my bath.
"They are having breakfast out in the garden and the day is perfect. Do you want blue or pink ribbons in this Valenciennes set, Charlotte?" said Letitia, as she seated herself on the foot of my bed and drew out a ribbon bag whose contents were of many colors.
"A fashionable wedding is a white lie; you invite all the people you especially want to stay away," sighed Jessie, as she seated herself at my desk and lighted a cigarette, at which Mammy rolled her black eyes and departed with her nose in the air.
And while they all chatted over the sealing of my fate I arose and had my toilet made in my dressing room, in full hearing of the discussions about the best groupings of bridesmaids and the horror at the count of the cases of wine Billy had ordered from the city for the dinner to the groomsmen the night before the wedding.
"I adore Mark seven-tenths full, but I don't like to endure the end of the jag next morning," laughed Nell, as she began to put ribbons into the bodkins for Letitia. I saw Harriet give her a long look from under her half-lowered eyelashes as she hugged the Suckling closer to her breast. Billy had told Harriet and me casually a few nights before that "old Mark's drinking to a double-decker liver and a sidestep in his heart."
"Oh, gentlemen always drink in moderation. I never worry over Cliff," said Letitia complacently, as she tied a decorative shoulder knot.
"You expect to give him a daily dose of three drops on a lump of sugar, Letitia?" asked Harriet, as she exchanged glances with Jessie. One evening last week Jessie and Harriet had motored Cliff in from the Club just in time to save him from going over the riffles and Letitia had been dancing with him without noticing his staggers.
"There, that is the very last stitch to be taken on your trousseau, Charlotte," said Letitia, as she laid down the filmy garment she had been adorning with blue bowknots. "Press it, Sallie, and lay it with the rest of the set in the second tray of the medium-sized trunk. You can lock it and give me the key."
"I just can't stand it, Charlotte," said Jessie to me in a low voice, as I came from the hands of the skillful Sallie and stood beside the window next to the desk. "You are all I have got and only you—you understand. I can't give you up. I'm frightened."
"Hush—so am I," I answered her, as my hand gripped her shoulder under her heavy linen frock until I felt it must bruise it. Then I turned to the others, collected them and descended to finish breakfast with the Poplars' guests.
Never a more radiantly beautiful morning had spread its loveliness over the Harpeth Valley than the one I found out in the garden that twenty-seventh day of September, the gala day in the history of Goodloets. Huge white clouds drifted back and forth in a deep blue sky and they were rosy at times with the sunlight, but from some of the largest little tongues of lightning darted, while others were lit by what seemed to be an internal glow of fire. Cool winds, perfumed with the harvests and the ripening orchards and the vineyards out in the valley, rustled in the treetops and flaunted in the vines. The ardent sun seemed to be drawing from the bosom of the earth a hot mist which lay over the town like a filmy bridal veil, only stirred gently by the vagrant veering gusts of wind. Nature seemed to be holding herself in leash and only breathing upon the earth gently, as if to stir some latent lushness into autumnal activity.
"A perfect Harpeth day for Mr. Jeffries," said the Governor, as he came from his seat at the table to greet the girls and me. The rest of the masculine breakfasters followed and I could see from the devastation of the table that they had all breakfasted well and to repletion. I also detected the worthless Jefferson, whom Mr. Goodloe had evidently loaned to his parents for the occasion, lift father's full glass of julep and drain it with one gulp, grab the half glass that Nickols had left, gulp it and begin on the finger or so in Billy's tumbler before Dabney could forcibly but quietly restrain him. In fact, I felt there would have been a riot among my servitors if Mr. Goodloe had not stepped aside and spoken a low word to Jefferson, which sent him busily at the table with his tray.
And from that moment Nickols' triumphant procession of inspection of Goodloets began. Mr. Jeffries stood in the middle of the reincarnated old garden, looked for a long time at the Poplars, which was like a green encrusted gem with its old purple red brick under the vines, glanced again and again at the chapel with its weathered stone that stood beyond the silver-leafed graybeards, then let his eye wander down the broad elm-bordered main street past the courthouse and past the Settlement to the river bending around it all.
"Money couldn't build anything like it, Powers," he said to Nickols at his side. "Time and gentle living have formed it as a jewel is made in a matrix. I was born in a mining camp, but I want you to start something like it all for my great grandchildren to live in. How many generations will it take?"
"Give me five years, Mr. Jeffries," laughed Nickols in answer. "Greg Goodloe's great great grandfather and mine fought off the Indians from a stockade which stood where his chapel does now, but a year of modern life about represents a generation of pioneer endeavor."
"Not too fast, youngster, not too fast," said Mr. Jeffries, and I saw him exchange a grave glance with father. "What we Americans must have is stabilizers now that we have annihilated time. Without the discovery of something of that sort we will hurl along to destruction. What say you, Mr. Goodloe?"
"We have the same 'covert of wings' that David used when things spun too fast for him," answered Mr. Goodloe with the jeweled radiance that always came from his face when he spoke of his faith even casually. "Only 'where there is no vision the people perish,' and a people who invent flying machines and hold international law to account have vision. We don't know how much we've got, but it'll save us."
"After the material glass through which we see darkly is completely smashed for us," said father, with a curious sternness coming into his face that made me wonder. "But we must take Mr. Jeffries for a nearer inspection of our metropolis, be with Mrs. Sproul in time for luncheon and then help Mr. Goodloe open the institute of learning for young Goodloets."
In the motor cars parked before the tall gate of the Poplars all of the guests embarked for their review of the beauties of Goodloets. Nickols remained behind them while the half sober but skillful Jefferson wrestled with a slight tire trouble of his slim blue racer. For a few minutes we were alone in the center of the wonderful garden, which had never seemed so lovely as upon the day in which it had fulfilled its own and Nickols' destiny.
"To-day has brought just what I have longed for, have worked for and waited for, the commission for the spending of millions of dollars to make a little corner of the earth beautiful. Not a bad religion, that," said Nickols, as he told me that Jeffries had spoken a few words of decided business to him as he had packed him into Mr. Cockrell's car with father and Mr. Goodloe. "We'll take a honeymoon wander on the other side, as far from the machine guns as possible, and then I'll come home to begin my masterpiece." And as Nickols spoke his wonderful eyes glowed as he looked out at Paradise Ridge as if he were gazing into a radiant future—perhaps he saw a city not made with hands and did not—recognize it. "I see it all," he said, and put his arm around me while we started down the front walk as Jefferson pressed the horn to signal the readiness of the tire.
"I'm too busy to go with you, but I'll meet you at Mrs. Sproul's," a sudden impulse made me say, for I had intended until that instant to accompany him.
"A man can't eat his bride and have a trousseau, too," he laughed, as he drove off rapidly, leaving me standing by the old gate watching him. Then I turned and slowly walked out into the garden and down to the old graybeards. And seated on one of the grass mats I found the reason I had unconsciously been drawn back. Martha was waiting for me there.
"Why, Martha," I exclaimed, startled without understanding just why. "I might have gone and not known you were waiting. Why didn't you come and tell me you were here?"
"I couldn't—I found I couldn't," she answered me, looking up into my face with her strange, sad eyes. "I—I suppose I just came to peep in on you like I did to the coming-out party." She laughed softly, with a note of self-scorn in her voice.
"Is anything the matter with—with Sonny?" I asked quickly, again unconsciously using the name for the Stray that her tenderness had given him. Her white face and desperate manner frightened me.
"No, he's dressed in one of Jimmy Morgan's old suits and he is going to be taken from me this afternoon forever," she answered with the note of bitterness deepening.
"But you want him to go to school, don't you, Martha?" I asked patiently, as I sat down on a mat beside her. I spoke to her as one speaks to the limited intelligence of a child and I was slightly impatient at her distress.
"He asked me yesterday why everybody called him Stray and if it did mean Stranger like Charlotte said, and if he would always be called that or have an everyday name like Jimmy. Soon he'll know and then I'll lose him as I'm losing everything else."
"Why won't you let me help you to—to begin over again?" I asked her, this time with less patience. "Why have you—you locked yourself away from me?"
"I can't—I won't ever tell you. I must go back, now I've seen you in—in your happiness. But I don't hate you—I never have." And as she spoke Martha rose and began to walk rapidly away from me.
"Oh, please don't go, Martha," I said. "In just three days I'll be going away for a long time, you know, and I want to help you in some way before I go. You ought to let me, and it worries me that you don't, now of all times," and as I put my selfish plea for ease to my conscience, something that was hot and rebellious made me want to stop the woman who was hurrying away from me.
"I won't, I won't make you unhappy—but I must go. I must! I'll—I'll be happy—and good now—if you'll only be happy. Good-bye!" And as she called back at me over her shoulder, Martha ran from me down through the hedge and into the door of the chapel, which always, night and day, rain and storm, stood slightly ajar. A queer pain smote me to see that she had run from me into the only place in all the broad, smiling Harpeth Valley where I could not—or would not, follow her. And the sanctuary that she sought was for every man, woman or child who wanted it—only I could not and would not seek it.
"'The covert of wings,'" I whispered to myself, as I went down the street to Mrs. Sproul's as rapidly as possible to be rid of my own company. As I repeated the words that the parson had used to Mr. Jeffries I noticed one great white cloud with a dark center flash fire into another, to a great crashing and rumbling. "I wonder if it is really going to storm," I speculated gloomily, as I turned into the Sproul gate, but the brilliant sunshine seemed to fling me a dazzling denial from every petal of the white clematis that wreathed itself across the front porch, under which Mrs. Sproul, arrayed in all the midday magnificence of good form, sat and waited for her guests. Mrs. Cockrell sat beside her and they were delighted to see me and demanded happiness from me which it was hard for me to give from the depths that had been stirred by my strange interview with Martha, to which I felt I ought to have a key, but could not find it anywhere.
"We were just saying, Charlotte dear, that this absurd school affair has completely overshadowed your wedding day," said Mrs. Cockrell, as she rocked back and forth in tune with her Irish point rose she was constructing. "It seems to me a wedding ought to come before a school festivity."
"Social law requires that marriage take precedence of schooling," said Mrs. Sproul, as her mischievous old eyes snapped at Mrs. Cockrell's placid conventionality. "The correct order is for women to take husbands and then school children should be the inevitable outcome. They are not, however, in this day and generation, which is about to be the last, I'm thinking."
"There will be thirty-nine kiddies from the Settlement and eleven from the Town to feast on reason and flow soul together in the new school," I laughed, as I sat down between them. "Also I'm thinking that a lot more will be forthcoming from the Settlement by next week. Young Charlotte and Mother Spurlock clothed as far as they could, but they will keep at it, I feel sure. I feel guilty at the idea of taking three trunks of clothes away from the watchful eye of Mother Elsie, only I'm leaving the accumulation of years for her distribution."
"The passport to Elsie Spurlock's heart is a condition composed of rags, hunger and unhappiness. She has no sympathy or time for a sanitary and contented friend," said Mrs. Sproul with a decided tartness that was only a reflex of the deep affection she bore the mistress of the Little House, which had existed since childhood and would endure.
"I hear some of the cars coming," announced Mrs. Cockrell, as she began to crochet furiously at the last petal of a rose. "Is my cap straight? I do so want to finish this row and can't go in to look."
"You'll put out St. Peter's eye with a crochet needle while he's unlocking the pearly gates for you, Lettie Cockrell," said Mrs. Sproul, as she rose and stood with ceremony at the head of the steps to meet the Governor and Mr. Jeffries and father as they came up her front walk.
Mrs. Sproul always has the most delightful old world sort of midday dinners and it was two o'clock before we all arose from her long table, at one end of which had been demolished a spiced ham and from the other end had disappeared two fat summer turkeys. A saddle of lamb had been passed in between and we had wound up with sweet potato custards, apple float and ice cream.
"I understand now," said Mr. Jeffries, as his keen old eyes twinkled down the table at Nickols. "This food should produce geniuses. The South feeds for it."
"Yes, we eat, drink, are merry and do it all over again to-morrow," said Mark, as he walked beside Mrs. Sproul from the devastated dining room. "And we must all hurry if we are to see your young ideas begin to shoot. This day isn't really hot, but just thinks it is. Look at those clouds boiling up back of Old Harpeth as if wanting to storm, but afraid to begin it. There's not a breath of air stirring. Wish it would shower, for I believe the colors of Goodloe's pageant would run and I'd like to see the true hue of this melee of his come out in the wash. It would do Charlotte good to fade a bit. She has been hectic since daylight and the rest of my juvenile family with her. Jimmy is S and Z in the alphabet and Sue has got a huge A sewed on her back. Goodloe intends that education shall be nailed to 'em."
And at his admonition to hurry and the alluring description of the entertainment to come, we all betook ourselves on foot toward the schoolhouse down the street a few blocks, halfway between the Town and the Settlement.
And as we went all the rest of the Town hurried out of wide, high, vine-covered doors, down broad, flower-lined walks, and joined us from under bowers of blooming roses, honeysuckle and clematis. We actually approached the schoolhouse in the form of quite a large procession, and as we wound our way down the hill we met a like procession winding itself up the hill from the Settlement, a procession arrayed in its best bib, tucker and boiled shirt, just as we were adorned in silk, lace, fine muslin and linen.
"It looks like two armies approaching each other—Greek is going to meet Greek," said Billy.
"Rather Greek meets Vandal, and there stands Goodloe to do the interpreting," Nickols jeered in answer.
And as we all flocked into the wide gate of the school yard I was again struck with the great beauty of the tall, broad, lithe, free man who stood in the middle of the walk just inside, welcoming Town and Settlement alike. And while he greeted us, his enthusiastic flock of older children seated the groups of guests on the long rough benches which were placed facing the door of the schoolhouse, leaving a wide space at the foot of the steps, which was roped off with golden chains of black-eyed daisies and which was evidently to be used as a stage for the pageant.
"Just look how Goodloe is failing to mix his oil and water," Nickols whispered to me, as we observed all of the Settlement groups gravely gravitate to the left side of the walk while all the Town in chattering parties took seats on the right. "That's right, Burns, take off my last summer coat," he added, still in a whisper to me as the Burns parent struggled out of the unendurable gift garment and thus gave a signal that whipped off every coat on the left side of the walk in the twinkling of an eye, to the evident distress of the tightly girted and uncomfortable but more formal feminine members of the Settlement contingent. Conjugal strife was about to make its appearance when Mother Spurlock, who was seated beside poor little Hettie Garrett, holding the Mother Only in her arms with never a glance for Mrs. Sproul, who had beckoned her to a seat next to her own beruffled silk skirts, passed the word around that such comfort was to be accorded the masculine guests. Even with such sanction, however, Luella May Spain looked pained at her father's gay new red suspenders, and I could see that Mr. Todd's striped shirt was hurting the feelings of Sadie Todd dreadfully, and she and Luella May returned Billy's gallant salute with the greatest embarrassment. And in all the buzz I found myself looking anxiously for Martha Ensley's pale face and dark eyes, but failed to find them.
"This is one place she ought not to have to peep into; here she has the rights of her citizenship and her motherhood," I said to myself.
But if the Town and the Settlement sat in the seats of the audience, divided by the walk as were the walls of waters by the dry path along which Moses led his chosen people out of the darkness of Egypt, such a division was not noticeable among the performers of the pageant who were supposed to be in hiding with their costumes behind a tall screen of shrubs at one side of the schoolhouse, but who bubbled out on all sides. Charlotte appeared once holding small Maudie Burns in a comforting embrace and guided her to her mother for some sort of attention to the very short skirts of blue gingham which were draped with about ten yards of green crepe paper, while both Harriet and I gasped as we saw Mikey jauntily hand the Suckling, tightly wrapped in brown swaddlings, into the rapturous and tender embrace of Katie Moore, who had blue wings sewed to her small gingham shoulders.
"Great Guns! They've got Sucks in it, too!" gasped Billy. "That child is too young to educate and Goodloe ought to be restrained from cradle-snatching like—"
But just here Billy was interrupted and the audience all quieted down as Mr. Goodloe, in his white flannels and with his gold head ablaze in the sun, which suddenly shone out fiercely from behind a white cloud which was sheeting internally with electricity, mounted two of the front steps of the schoolhouse and held up his hand for silence.
"Mr. Todd," he said with beautiful deference, "will you lead us in prayer?" There was a perceptible rustle of feeling on the Settlement side of the walk, for Mr. Todd was one of the parson's deacons, but he had also been the master workman in the building of the schoolhouse, and his neighbors were quick to respond to the tribute offered him before the distinguished men present. He rose, gaunt and grizzled in his shirt sleeves, but what he said was brief and as square-cut and to the point as any nail he had ever driven. I saw the Governor and father exchange glances and I noticed when the Governor responded to his call he was much less ornate of speech than usual and much more universal. They all spoke, from Nickols along the line to father, and after repeated urgings Mother Spurlock rose to the occasion, and by way of making the Town and Settlement at home in its new joint quarters announced that the tea canister with its slit would hereafter be nailed just inside the schoolhouse door.
The laugh and delighted applause that was given her seemed to have been the last straw to the actors behind the shrubbery, restrained by their young preceptress, for the pageant broke upon us.
First Mikey, with huge white cambric stork wings, hopped upon the stage of sward and deposited the brown-wrapped Suckling in a hollow log in the center, and departed flapping. After that the ceremonial developed itself into the education that was to flow down upon her defenseless head at the waving of the wand of Minerva, who was Charlotte with a tinsel star of wisdom resting rampantly upon her brow. And it came down upon the Suckling with a vengeance. A whole troop of young letters of the alphabet, led by small Susan with the large red A upon her fat back, danced around the Suckling's helplessness and finally backed up to the audience to spell the word "Reading." Next in hopped a flock of numerals led by the indefatigable Mikey, which backed up and presented themselves from one to ten to thus imply the hated science of "Arithmetic."
The Suckling slept on amid delighted gurgles from her mother and Harriet. She slept through a presentation of the script letters of "Writing" and was still unconscious when "Geography" in crepe paper, with flags of all nations, grouped around her. She only awoke when, all by himself, sturdily, with his head in the air and fairly radiant with beauty and courage, the Stray marched upon the scene, rolled into a white roll of paper and girt about with a broad red ribbon sealed upon his back to represent "Diploma." Silently and intent upon his duty he walked straight to the Suckling in her log crib, bent over her, crooned to her reassuringly a second, lifted her in his white arms and backed off behind a tall laurel bush with her nodding in delight over his shoulder. The boy was so beautiful and the little scene so tender that the entire audience caught its breath at its—audacity. A gauntlet had been thrown into the faces of both the Town and Settlement and they both understood.
They sat perfectly still with astonishment while the performers were being massed in the schoolhouse by the young teacher for their final march out to the steps for the hymn singing with the beloved "Minister," which was to conclude the ceremonials.
And while the audience sat awaiting the further presentations to be made them by their offspring, Mr. Goodloe came out the door and halfway down the steps. Then suddenly he stopped and looked out over the valley with such an expression on his face that with one accord his audience rose and looked with him. And as it looked a groan came that was a chorus melted into one voice of terror, while all of them stood helpless with amazement. While we had all been sitting in the curious sweltering heat, watching with pride a future for our children being foretold for them by themselves, death had reared itself behind Old Harpeth, coiled itself into a huge black spiral of thunder and lightning and was driving down the valley upon Goodloets with a velocity that defied the eyes to follow. For a long second every man and woman stood rooted to his foothold on the earth and watched the tornado strike the edge of the Settlement, smash down the saddlery as if it were a house of cards, and churn the little tannery into the river. Then as it grasped the roof of the Last Chance and began twisting it with a roar that grew in volume every instant, Gregory Goodloe suddenly raised his hand and spoke in a perfectly calm voice that rang out above the groan of the tortured shanties of the Settlement which were crashing down against each other.
"Oh, God, we trust in the covert of thy wings," he prayed for a second and then commanded: "Fall to the earth, all of you, and let it pass over you!"
"The children!" came a cry that was a wail of parenthood, as we all sank to the ground just as the terrible black monster tore the roof from the Little House and hurled it toward us across the street. I saw a huge rafter hurtle through the air and strike down Mark Morgan as he started toward the steps of the schoolhouse, and by not a half inch did it miss drunken, useless Mike Burns as it fell beside him. Then I covered my eyes as the cloud and the wind passed over me and I only heard it strike and rend and crash and tear the schoolhouse, beam from beam and stone from stone. An eerie wail of the voices of little children was mixed with the roar of the monster which crashed on up through the Town, laying low the homes of our pride and prosperity, leaving us with our faces to the ground while upon us began to pour a deluge of cold rain.
"Mark! Mark!" I heard Harriet moan beside me and I saw her crawl under the wind toward where Mark had fallen.
"My babies, Oh, my babies!" came a wail in Nell's voice, and I saw her try to rise, be knocked over by the wind and then begin to crawl toward the wrecked mass that a second before had been the schoolhouse and from which now could be heard the screams and cries of the children. Then as suddenly as it had laid us low the cruel wind left us and with one accord we all sprang to our feet and surged toward the children's calls and cries that came out to us in the semi-darkness that still enveloped us, though both the wind and the rain were abating.
But before a huge slab that had been the top step of the schoolhouse we were all halted by a voice so stern and commanding that even the agonized mothers and fathers paused.
"Stop! Not a man or a woman must come a step nearer," said the parson, with the authority in his voice that must always be obeyed when used by one human being to another. "The roof of the house has split and sunk in the middle and only one side beam is supporting it. If it is touched by so much as a hand it may lose its balance and fall on the children. Only one man must come forward and put his shoulder under the beam at the other end while I hold this. The children must come out one by one, so as not to shake anything on them. The beam may fall. Do you all understand me? One man!"
"Me, Parson, me!" demanded Mr. Todd.
"A broader, younger man, Todd," answered the parson, and he was casting his eye over the huddled people before him when a wail came clear and distinct from within the ruin.
"Stranger is caught and bleeding! Hurry, hurry!" were the words that Charlotte sent forth with all the strength of her young lungs.
"It's my child, Oh, it's mine!" came an answering, cry, and from behind some hiding place Martha Ensley flung herself across the front of the huddled group of the Settlement people and against the defense of Gregory Goodloe's strong arm which held her from the tottering doorway he was supporting. "Let me get him out!"
"No, Martha," the parson said calmly and tenderly, as he held her back.
"Then you come and get him," Martha said, as she suddenly straightened herself and looked out among us of the Town. "He's yours—come and save him!" But even in her agony she was cautious in her appeal, which came without the demand of a name. We all held our breath for an instant, Settlement and Town. Who would answer her?
"Yes, Martha," came the answer after an instant's pause, and Nickols Powers stepped from my side to that of Martha Ensley and took her wrung hands in his. For another long moment we all stood tense at the acknowledgment that the tragedy had forced to the surface. I stood beside father like a woman of ice, yet on fire with a contemptuous humiliation. The eyes of all my world were for an instant turned on me, then they were all called back to the tragedy that was tottering over us.
"Hurry, hurry!" came another wail from within the ruins in Charlotte's voice. "He's bleeding!"
Again Martha started to fling herself past Nickols and the parson with a scream of terror which was faintly echoed from within.
"Somebody come to Martha," commanded Mr. Goodloe, as he held her off with one hand while he eased the beam on his shoulder so that Nickols could slip in past him to the other end.
Suddenly a great, beautiful warmth melted the horror of pride and humiliation that had frozen my heart as Nickols had stepped from my side to that of Martha in acknowledgment of her claim upon him for the saving of the child. All fear for her or us or the babies passed from me. My soul had gone out into a darkness, called on some great Power that must be there directing such a thing as was happening to us, and calm and clear the answer of courage flowed into me.
Then without another moment's hesitation I stepped forward and held out my arms to Gregory Goodloe for Martha. He put her into their strong embrace and I pressed her head down upon my shoulder in a great tenderness I had never felt before, while Nickols, with a long, hunted look at us both, crawled into the crumbling ruin and crouched under the beam as Gregory Goodloe directed him.
The wind had died down, the clouds were rolling away the darkness and the rain had almost stopped as we all stood and waited for Gregory Goodloe to bring from that ruin, in the way his superior judgment thought best, either life or death. From within there came sobs and smothered little moans that were so mingled that they could not be identified by even the mother hearts held at bay by the faith that made them obey the parson's command.
And then as I stood there with the mother of the child of my lover cowering against my breast, with the man who in a few days was to have been my husband, crouched under almost certain grinding death, and looked into what at any moment might be the grave of all the babies of the women I held dear, a light was flooding into my darkness and all of the obscure, untranslatable writings on my nature became clear and I received my consciousness of my Master, the Lord Jesus, with a cry that I sent up for His mediation for the lives of the little ones. It was my first prayer.
"O Christ in Heaven, help save them!" I pleaded. "Quick, Gregory, quick!" I added another supplication in the next breath.
"Sue is bleeding, too!" again came a wail in Charlotte's voice. "Mikey's got the baby, but he's caught."
Nell had been kneeling beside Mark's prostrate form, but at Charlotte's call she laid his head on Harriet's breast and flung herself against my arm outstretched to receive and restrain her.
"Now, Nickols, steady! I'll lift them past the beam," said the parson, as he braced himself in the door space which had been crushed into a narrow opening.
"Charlotte, take the baby from Mikey and hand her to me first," he commanded. "Where are you caught, Mikey?"
"Me leg," wailed Mikey and his wail was echoed by poor little Mrs. Burns.
"Here," said the parson, as he handed the brown swaddled bundle to Nell, who caught it in her arms and sank shuddering to my feet.
"Now, Charlotte, I want you to get all the other children who are not caught into line and make them walk carefully, just as you did here to me," said the parson in a perfectly calm voice, the one he had used to command his small congregation in the weeks of the drill.
"They are all crying and got their heads covered up," answered Charlotte in despair. "They won't get up and march." Loud wails of fear and anguish accompanied this statement, as if to corroborate it.
"Sing with me, Susan, sing the march," came the command without an instant's delay from the lips of the beloved Minister.
"Onward, Christian soldiers Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before—"
came wee Sue's high, sweet voice which rose from the cavern and joined with the parson's in the old song that has led strong men through many a death watch.
For a long moment we all waited and then out of the hole in the mass of stones and timbers and bricks, led by wee bleeding Susan, crawled a slow stream of bloody, bruised, sobbing infant humanity to be absorbed with cries of rapture into waiting arms.
"Hurry, Goodloe, get the boy and Charlotte; my God, hurry, the beam is sinking!" came in Nickols' smothered voice.
Martha started, but I held her tight against my breast.
"I've got Mikey's pants loose with my teeth," came in Charlotte's voice, as a creaking of the timbers made a shudder run through the waiting crowd as every man and woman who held a restored treasure close, waited to see what would happen to the three left in the settling ruins.
"Come out, Mikey, come out," called the Burns paternal parent.
"I won't! I'm going to help Charlotte git out Stray," was the undutiful response of courage to the craven.
"Where is he caught, Charlotte?" asked the parson, as he edged a little farther under the beam, which tottered and brought him to a cautious standstill.
"His middle. Mikey's pushing and I'm pulling, but he's all bluggy. He's dead all but his toes that wiggle."
"Hurry, Goodloe, hurry!" groaned Nickols, with what seemed a final inspiration of breath.
"Pull him loose and come quick, Charlotte, you and Mikey. Never mind the blood," was the firm command and in a few seconds Charlotte and Mikey squeezed through the fast closing opening, bloody and torn, but with the limp Stray dragged between them. A great cheer went up as Martha turned and caught the unconscious boy in her arms, then it froze in the throats that had been uttering it. Slowly, but more rapidly than could be stayed by human hands, the whole heavy roof crushed down upon the rest of the ruin; and under it and the beam went Nickols Powers with only one deep groan. Mr. Goodloe tried to hold up the whole side of the roof on his own shoulders and only staggered out from the very brink of being involved in the crash. Martha sank to the ground and hid her head in my knees and sobbed while I heard a great cry break from my father's lips. Nickols was the last of his race and our pride was blasted when he fell.
"Now forward, every man of you, but lift and dig carefully," commanded the parson, as he stood on the very edge of the ruin. "Todd, you stand at the corner and show them how to roll back the timbers to the right. Carefully, men, but quick, quick, and with the help of God!"
It seemed hours that the men wrestled with the timbers and tore away brick and stone and steel, but it was only a few minutes before they pried up a section of the heavy roof and lifted Nickols from the debris beneath.
"He's breathing," said Mr. Todd, as he laid him in the parson's great, strong, outstretched arms open to receive him and which bore him out through the crowd swiftly and laid him across the seats of Nickols' car. Doctor Harding had just put Mark, a limp, heavy body, into his own car, with Harriet to support the bleeding head, and Nell crouched beside him with the Suckling in her arms, and sent them on up into the devastated Town. Now he came and helped us settle Nickols on his cushions.
"Shall I send my car and Colonel Leftwick for surgeons and nurses from the Capital?" asked the Governor. "How is it with Morgan?"
"He is dead," answered the old doctor with the calm serenity that he had acquired after so many years of giving up his friends. "This case is another matter. There may be a chance and I'll need help. We don't yet know how many more are injured in the whole town. We'll need help."
"Then I'll drive for it myself," answered the Governor, as he swung into his powerful car and started it out into the valley. "I'll make it back in six hours. No other man can drive this car as fast as I can."
And true to his promise, he was back within the time with nurses and surgeons and supplies of all kinds. By that time the whole Harpeth Valley had heard of our tragedy and all who could find a way were hurrying to our rescue or comforting.
The dawn of the beautiful new day found Nickols still alive, stretched on his bed in his own wing of the Poplars, which alone of all the homes in the Town had not been touched by the storm monster. The old house stood unharmed in all its beauty in its garden which had hardly a leaf or a branch broken, and hovered under its roof the last of the name of its builders. He lay quiet and unconscious while his life jetted itself away from a great hole in his lung made by a splinter from the beam he had held up until old Goodloet's children had been given back to its future. The great surgeon who had come down with the Governor, watched, shook his head and went at his task again and again with a dogged courage. For an hour he would leave him to go and help Dr. Harding with some of the other injured, but back he would come to his fight for Nickols' life.
And all over the stricken town there were similar tragedies being enacted. Over at the Morgans Mark lay cold and still in the long parlor, which was almost the only part of the handsome old house left intact by the tornado, and Harriet sat beside him while Nell nursed maimed wee Susan and torn Jimmy, and restrained Charlotte from injuring her sorely twisted ankle.
Down at the Last Chance, Jacob Ensley was stretched upon a bed in the bar with a sheet drawn straight and decorously over his bruised white head. He had been killed by a blow from a roof timber, while from right beside him young George Spain had been rescued unharmed. When he had crawled from the ruins he had held in his hand a bottle of whiskey which he had just uncorked for his own and Jacob's refreshment when the tornado tore at the East Chance, and scarcely a drop had been spilt. And the tornado had displayed the vagaries of its kind.
Old Granny Todd had been lifted in her rocking chair and carried halfway over the Town and left beside the Spain cottage with her feeble life intact, while Mrs. Spain, upon whose shoulders the burden of mothering all seven of the Spains rested heavily, had had one of those valuable shoulders broken and was left crushed and bleeding beside the rocking chair in which the helpless old dame arrived for her enforced visit. The household goods of one family had been torn from them and thrown into the melee of another, and the Jamison clock was found ticking busily away over on the roof of the Todd's chicken house. A girl mother in a little cottage on the edge of the river bank was found floating against the shore in her wooden bedstead, drowned, while near her the little two days' old life had been perfectly preserved upon the pillow in the rocking chair where it had been sleeping when the great storm beast had made its raid.
And all Goodloets mourned, crying for her children, and would not be comforted. The second day after the storm the dead were buried. Mr. Goodloe, with old Mr. Stokes, the Presbyterian minister, on one hand, and the Baptist student preacher on the other, stood in the center of the beautiful city of the dead, over which the storm had passed unheeding, and had services for the rich and the poor alike. With the same ceremonial were buried Mark Morgan and Jacob Ensley, and the girl mother, Ted Montgomery, who had been struck down by the falling sign of the Bank and Trust Company on Main Street, and a score of others.
Then after all the tears had been shed and the sobs had ceased, all the flowers strewn and the reluctant feet had left the silent city, I went over behind the tall cedars into a corner and knelt beside Martha Ensley, who had flung herself down across the new-made grave that held all that was left of Jacob Ensley, the man who had bulwarked sin in his Settlement and menaced all of Goodloets for many a year. The wide-eyed boy crouched beside her and I took his hand in mine.
"Martha," I said, as I bent beside her in the twilight. "I want you to come home with me, you and Sonny. Your place is there now and you must bring him." All day I had thought and I had prayed to be aided in doing what I knew was best.
"Oh, no, Miss Charlotte, no," she said, and shrank from my arms.
"Yes, Martha," I said, and drew her closer.
"It happened the summer we were all first grown and you were in Europe. I couldn't fight him off. I knew he belonged to you and I loved you, but I couldn't fight him off," she sobbed and the Stray's little arms went around her neck.
"I'll fight fer you—I'll fight," he said, with brave, wonderment in his eyes and voice.
"I went away this summer and I wanted to stay. Mr. Goodloe tried to help me, but Nickols found where I was and made me come back. It was wrong to you and I knew it. I stayed shut up in my room, but he would come. And I sent him to his death. He was yours and I killed him for you! Please go away and leave me!" And again Martha cowered away from me.
"Nobody need know you are in the house, Martha, but you must come with me," I said, and I spoke with such quiet authority that she rose and followed me out of the shadows into the starlit night which had come down over stricken Goodloets. I found Billy waiting for me in his car and he spoke gently to Martha and settled her and the boy on the back seat with never a question in his kind eyes.
"God, you women!" he said to me under his breath, but I avoided his eye and he drove us silently to the Poplars. The long halls were quiet and empty in the anxious hush of the whole house which was keeping its life—or death watch. I led Martha to the room that opened into mine, in which all of the girl guests of the Poplars always slept, and made her take off her hat and make the boy comfortable. Then I went for Dabney and asked him to take food to them.
"Yes'm, I will. God love my little miss," was his answer, and I knew that I could trust his kindness to Martha and the boy.
Then I went into the library to father. I found Mr. Goodloe with him and father's calm under his anxious suffering gave me a thrill at the thought of the regained strength it implied. The parson's face was grave, but full of a white light from the fire burning back under the dull gold brows. His warm hands took my cold ones in them and pressed them palm to palm in the attitude of prayer and very tenderly, from his soul to mine, he said:
"'The Lord is good, for his mercy endureth forever.'"
"Forever?" I asked him, looking up with the child's faith that had been born in my heart shining in the confidence in my eyes.
"Forever," he answered me with quiet authority.
"Yes," said father solemnly, as if himself reassured after doubts. Then, after a second's pause: "Daughter, Nickols is conscious and is asking for you. Will you go to him?"
I took my hands out of those which had given to mine the strength of prayer and went.
THE SPARK AND THE BLAZE
I found Nickols lying in his own dim and high bedroom, perfectly motionless under the white sheet, as he had been for two days, the only difference that now his great dark eyes burned into mine and on his mouth there rested a faint trace of the old mocking smile. I sat down close beside his pillow on a low chair which the nurse placed for me as she gave me a warning look and left us alone.
"This is your wedding day, Charlotte, and the license is over on the desk to destroy," he said, with the mocking light in his eyes flaring up into greater strength. "I suppose you are duly grateful for the merciful escape accorded you."
"Please don't, dear," I said, and I reached out and took his burning hand in mine.
"You never really cared, Charlotte. You cold women make havoc in a man's life. I've no excuses to make, but I wish I could hear you say that you forgive me. I'd go out more contentedly." And the light that sprang up into his face showed me just what a hold I had on his loyalty and the thing a man calls his honor. And it came to me on the wings of a quick, silent prayer, prayed in a heart unlearned in the forms of petitions, that I must make a fight to give him the peace of his heritage of immortality before he entered it.
"I do forgive you, Nick dear, as I hope to be forgiven by the Master for the wrongs I have done others—the wrong of accepting your life—in coldness," I answered, looking him steadily in the eye as I made my simple declaration of my new-found faith to him.
"You?" he faltered. "Do I behold you entered into the creed?"
"Listen to me, Nick, for the time is short," I said, as I held his hand close in mine. "We were blind—blind. When you and the children were in that death house I found that I must ask help. I cried out in my blindness and was answered, as Christ gave his promise that the eyes of those who ask should be opened. And you must ask so that you will have a vision to help—help you go to the blessed immortality that awaits you. Ask, Oh, Nick, ask with me. Please, Lord Jesus, help us!" And as I uttered my few faltering words of petition I fell on my knees beside the bed.
"It's too late now," he answered, but a helplessness came into his bitterness. "I've done all the damage I could and I'm not going to whimper. You'll help poor Martha?" he questioned softly, and I could have cried out in thankfulness for the ray of tenderness that came across his white face.
"God has given you time to right the worst wrong, Nick," I said, as a sudden thought came to me that gave to me a healing which I knew I must pour out upon his wounds. "Marry Martha and give the boy your name and your money to grow good and great with. Jacob is dead. They are alone in the world. Give them to me that way, Nick, give them to me to care for for you until we are all together where everything is made right."
For a long moment he lay perfectly still and looked into my eyes and I saw a wonder grow in his that spread all over his whole face.
"Some kind of a God must have created a woman like that in you. Almost I believe. Call Goodloe quick, and your father." And then he closed his eyes and I could see a deathly weakness stealing over him. I called the nurse and sent her for father and Gregory Goodloe, and to old Dabney who had come to wait by the door I whispered to bring Martha and the boy and keep them in the room beyond. Then I went back and knelt by the pillow and took the hand which was beginning to grow cold in mine.
"Could it be possible?" the white lips muttered.
"Say it, Nickols; say, 'Lord, help thou my unbelief,'" I begged him.
"Amen," he whispered with a quick smile just as father and Gregory Goodloe came into the room.
"Goodloe, what was the exact story about that skulker of a thief on the cross?" Nickols asked with a sudden strength in his voice as he opened his eyes and looked straight at the parson.
"'The thief said unto Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." And Jesus said unto him, "Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise,"' are the exact words, Nickols," the parson answered him.
"Charlotte, ask the judge if he is willing that I should wipe the slate clean as you propose in case there really is a door and an old Peter to present a purified passport to," the dying man said to me with a touch of his old whimsicality. "I give up, Greg; the soul that Charlotte possesses can't be put out into nothingness; and if she's got one I have too," he said, after a moment's fight for breath. "Hurry, all of you, to get my passport made out and bring the girl here to me. Quick, get her. There is very little time."
"She's here, Nick," I answered, and after a few words to father and the parson, to which they both gave assent, I called Martha and the boy into the room.
Straight as a bird to its nest Martha flew to the bedside and the dying arms found strength to lift themselves and take her and the child into their embrace.
"Will you forgive me and let me make it as right with the world for you and him as I can, Martha?" he asked. "I love you, but I'd have drawn us all down into hell."
"Oh, no, no!" exclaimed Martha, looking up at me with positive fear of me and of father and of our world in her wild face.
"Yes, Martha," I said, as I knelt beside her and took the Stray in my arms, toward which he in his terror at the scene strained. "Father is a justice and he'll make the license over there in the desk right. You must, Martha, you must! It gives you and the boy to me to care for."
"Yes, Martha," echoed Nickols' voice, out of which the strength was quickly going. "Help me wipe off as much of the slate as you can," and the wandering hand suddenly encountered the boy's wee paddie resting on the edge of the bed and clasped it close.
And with the three of us crouched there beside him, father and Mr. Goodloe bound them legally and in the name of God, just as the last flicker of strength flared up in Nickols' body. Immediately I rose with the child in my arms and Martha took Nickols' head on her faithful breast while the life ebbed away.
"Amen, Charlotte, amen," were his last whispered words and I understood that he was ratifying again my prayer for light to lead the way of his faltering steps.
And then came a stillness in which we all stood with bowed heads while Martha sobbed.
The death of Nickols Morris Powers was an event of national interest and telegrams and letters and representatives of the press poured into Goodloets from all parts of the country. Mr. Jeffries and the Governor stayed with us until it was all over, and when Mr. Jeffries left he pressed into father's hand a large check of five figures.
"To help them build again, those who need it, in memory of him," he said.
The Governor and his staff spent time and effort in helping to reorganize Goodloets, but through it all it was the powerful Harpeth Jaguar on whom we all leaned. He came and went day and night, tireless, quiet, commanding, and with that great light shining from back of his eyes upon us all. And in his ministrations down in the Settlement he took Martha with him day after day. He forced her to use up all of the strength that she possessed each day so that she would drop with exhaustion at night. To me he left most of the comforting of Nell—and Harriet. Like all women of buoyant and shallow nature, Nell soon began to rebound from her tragedy and it was hard to keep Billy within decorous bounds in his comforting of her. It would have been impossible to have done it at all with the former Billy, but the quiet, steady light that shone in his honest eyes whenever he helped with Nell and the children spoke well for a reformed and perfectly satisfactory future for them all.
"Billy," I said to him one afternoon when he had taken all four of the kiddies out in his car to get wild grapes, when Harriet had counted on having wee Susan to herself for the afternoon, while Nell was interestedly busy over somber but much needed winter clothes for herself. "You have just got to make up your mind that Harriet is going to absolutely possess Sue for the future. I don't know about any legalities but I am going to see that Harriet gets Susan."
"What you say goes, Charlotte, as it always has," he answered me, with honest adoring in his young eyes that had lost their reckless hunger. "And if you aren't careful you'll lead us all into Kingdom Come in blind bridles. Be careful not to over-fill Goodloe's fold. I don't want to crowd you. I'll take my turn when it comes." He was laughing as he spoke but there was a depth to the laughter that I understood.
"Thank you, Billy, for your consideration," I answered him, as I took small Sue's hand and turned in at the Sproul gate.
Harriet sat on the steps in the fading sunlight and the small music box flung herself into the outstretched arms with a force that was alarming. It was easy to see that Susan was most temperamental and would be a handful of anxieties in the years to come, anxieties that Harriet needed.
"Of course, she doesn't belong to me and I'm a fool," Harriet muttered as Susan darted away to see what treasure for her lurked in the pocket of Mrs. Sproul's beflowered silk skirt.
"I started plans to get her for you, just five minutes ago, dear," I said, as I sat down beside her. "I laid down the law to Billy on the subject."
"Charlotte," answered Harriet, as she looked with brooding into my eyes, "do you really believe that—that we will find them again and—and—do you really believe?" And the question was so hungry and haunted and so like what had driven me for years that my heart ached in my breast for her, but I knew that I could only stand fast and pray that she be comforted. I couldn't make her see.
"Yes, dear, I know—but I can't make you know. Just go on—on hungering like you are and you'll be fed," I answered.
"You've always understood, Charlotte, and if you say that the pain will some day be eased I'll—I'll believe it. Yes, I'll make a start by believing in you and there's no telling where it will land me."
The confidence with which she raised her comforted eyes to mine made a stab of pain hit me full in the breast. Words that Gregory Goodloe had spoken to me out under the old graybeards were the weapon used. "With your hand in mine I can make this whole community see and know; separated from you—" In all humility I now understood what he meant.
And in all the weeks in which he and I had worked together Gregory Goodloe had given me not one single personal word or look. The priest had comforted and strengthened me but the man had forever shut me out of his heart. My suffering was intense, and yet, and yet I knew that in my heart there was strength to endure the want of him with all cheerfulness even to the end. At last I had found the key to my own hieroglyphics and I could be honest with myself. I knew that I loved Gregory Goodloe as it is seldom given to a woman to love a man, but I also knew that the awakening of spirit I had found was not in any way connected with my woman's love for him, but had come to me from the years of suffering I had had while I sought it. I refused to acknowledge that a sex spark had in any way set off the blaze; the fire had been laid in my soul and it would burn on without any of his tending. But even in that honest surety Nickols' mocking words "religion is suppressed sex" haunted me. I knew it could not be true, so I put it all out of my mind as I left Harriet and walked down the street towards the Poplars.
I was due in the library to help father in the packing of some of his papers, for I had insisted that he go on to Washington to fulfill his appointment. Martha and the boy would be with me and if he only left me Dabney I could be safe and busy for the winter. Strange to say, Mammy's disappointment at Dabney's loss of a sojourn in a strange clime was greater than his own.
"I don't believe in glorifying men by needing of them to any great measure," she declared. "With me in the house and the preacher across the fence it don't make no difference how good looking you are, Miss Charlotte, you won't be too much for our protection. Dabney can jest go on with the jedge."
"Of course, little miss, you don't need me, but I sorter got rheumatics in my homesick and I begged off from Mas' Nickols," Dabney replied with the wily soothing that had made his conjugal life both pleasant and possible.
I was thinking of the argument and smiled with tenderness as I saw the old grizzled white head bent over a hoe down in the dahlias, which he was bedding. The young man from White Plains had stayed to put the garden to bed as far as possible, and had left with perfect confidence in Dabney and the likely yellow boy he had found.
And now in late October the garden was in a conflagration of blossoming glory. The borders of the walks blazed with the red and blue and gold and purple of chrysanthemums and asters and zinnias and dahlias, while long tendrils of russet autumn vines trailed in and over and around the flowers and shrubs and hedges. The tang of ripening and falling seed was mixed in all the perfume, and gorgeous leaves were beginning to rustle on the green grass. It was Nickols' first harvest of beauty, and somehow I felt that there was no need to regret that his eyes were not mortally there to gather the fruits.
I went from the front porch up to my room to take off my hat and see if Martha had come from a day with Mother Spurlock down in the Settlement. I found instead of Martha or the boy or Mother Elsie, Jessie Litton seated at my desk and looking out the window across to Paradise Ridge.
"I came up to wait, Charlotte, because—because I'm in deep water and need a hand out. You have always helped and somehow I feel that you have so much more to give me now than you ever had. Clifton Gray told me last night that he loved me and is going to break his engagement with Letitia Cockrell. He had heard Letitia and Nell talk over Nell's mourning trousseau for the winter and he was disgusted—that, and—and I think it has been coming some time. He is with Mr. Goodloe a lot lately in getting things about the town started to going again and he is—is thinking. I don't know how to help him think; it's a thing I've never done. I am at sea myself but I know that he must not throw Letitia over. Will you talk to him?"
"I couldn't help him if—if Mr. Goodloe can't," I faltered, simply sick with distress.
"Cliff said not a week ago that your eyes made him feel like a light he saw ahead on a wooded island after he had drifted without a paddle two days in a canoe one time in Canada. You'll have to talk to him. Give him a little life kernel; I've only got shells for myself. I'm going down to Florida suddenly next week and when I come back I—I, well, I'll either go into the movies or study with Mother Spurlock to get a deaconess' cap." As she spoke I saw that the fight was on in Jessie's soul, and it would be to a finish.
"God bless and keep you, dear," I held her back long enough to say as she picked up her sweater and left me. Hampton Dibrell has been constantly with Bessie Thornton since Ted Montgomery's death, and I knew that Jessie's time of trial had come, for her love for him had grown through her denial because of the taint of her mad mother. And somehow I felt sure of the outcome, that she would find strength to let him go. I didn't know why I felt so sure; but I did, and I went down to the library with a great peace in my heart that I knew later would be in hers.
And I made my entry into father's den in the midst of a scene of great moment. I paused and listened with profound respect. Tradition was on trial and the result I felt would be momentous. Father sat in his huge chair before a small crackling fire in the wide chimney, and Martha's boy stood before him with a large, profusely illustrated volume of Hans Christian Andersen clasped passionately to his little breast. He had the floor.
"And Charlotte said they is no fairies anywhere and I say they is," he declaimed, while father listened attentively. Suddenly I saw what I had never seen before, that father's white hair rose in a crest on one side and descended in a cascade on the other at exactly the same angle as the black locks of the young arguer before him, and as they calmly regarded each other I thought I had never seen such a likeness in personality as well as form of feature. Love flooded all over me and I wanted to hug them both but was restrained to silence by the gravity of the situation.
"And why did you argue that there are fairies?" father interrogated calmly and judicially.
"Charlotte said they ain't here 'cause she and me had never saw one, and I said, 'How could a book and pictures be about nothing at all?' I showed her this book that Lady gaved me and she said, 'Maybe, but ask Minister.' I said, no, I'd ask you 'cause you are older and mighter saw one onct. Did you?"
"Well, sir, you argued from a positive, about ten pounds of positive, I should judge from the size of that volume, while Charlotte certainly argued from a negative viewpoint," said father, and his eyes twinkled as he gave me an almost imperceptible wink. By his answer he also avoided answering the question of faith put to him.
"Did you see one?" came back the question in a tone that demanded an answer.
"Here comes Minister now and you can ask him," father said in all cravenness as Mr. Goodloe came in the door behind me and came and stood at my side. He had a huge yellow plume of goldenrod which he handed me without looking at me directly. I buried my nose in its crispness and watched to see him meet the issue.
The boy put the question carefully just as he had put it to father, but there was a quaver in his voice as he ended with his plea.
"Is they no fairies, 'cause you can't see 'em?"
"Do you feel them in your heart?" was the counter question that came gravely from the lips of the Reverend Mr. Goodloe.
"Yes, here," answered the pleader as he laid his hand carefully on the pit of his stomach, which is nearer the seat of heartache than many a perturbed older person has come.
"Then for you there are fairies, right there in your heart, even if Charlotte has lost them out of hers," was the answer, with a theology that staggered me and set father smiling back into his youth.
"I'll go tell her and maybe give her some of mine," exclaimed the boy as he ran from the room.
THE COVERT OF WINGS
"Oh, the faith of youth, the faith that reaches out to give itself," sighed father as he turned to his papers.
"Can faith give itself?" I asked, as I raised my eyes to the stars under dull gold through which Gregory Goodloe was pouring a great smile down into my depths.
"Sometimes—just sometimes I think that perhaps it can—it does," he answered me slowly and took my hands in his and held them with their palms together prayerwise, a thing he had done several times in the weeks past. Then he turned and walked over to father's desk and stood looking down at him.
"I want to dedicate the chapel on Sunday, Mr. Powers, as that is your last Sunday before you go to Washington," he said, and as he spoke he smiled first down into father's eyes raised to his and then into mine—impersonally. I couldn't trust myself to speak but turned and went up to my room to weep with a hurt that soon sent me to my knees, blind for the comfort that came—that I knew always would come now, no matter what the hurt.
"He knows it has come to me, and he's thankful—but he doesn't care," I sobbed and then laughed at my own contradictions.
Martha found me kneeling beside my window seat when she came in with Mother Spurlock and she shielded me until I could wipe away the tears and be as glad to see them both as I really was.
They were full of the plans for the dedication, which it gave me another stab to find they had been discussing with Mr. Goodloe for several days. In the hard weeks that had passed I had been their confidant, adviser and many times their helper in the reconstructing around the tragedies in the Settlement, but in this matter I had not been consulted. In fact, Mother Spurlock showed an embarrassed hesitation as she talked of it that still further hurt me and made me unenthusiastic and cold to their plans.
And why should I have been hurt that the surety in my heart had not declared itself to them without words? So wonderful did it seem to me that I thought it must be in my every word and deed and look and I was confounded that as yet I was considered to be an outsider and not entitled to plan for the ceremonial of the dedication of the material fold for the Reverend Mr. Goodloe's flock. And then suddenly my hurt was swept away by my sense of humor and I laughed to myself when I saw that to Mother Spurlock, who had hungered and thirsted for my conversion, I would have to prove it, tell it and repeat it.
"Instead of the festal ceremonies in the dedication Mr. Goodloe is going to have the simplest dedication ritual and then immediately hold the memorial services for our—our dead," said Mother Spurlock, as she took Martha's hand in hers and stroked it. "We want everybody to be there and I could use a few more of those trunks full of colored new clothes, Charlotte. The people down in the Settlement can use and wear after a dye pot when you can't, bless your sweet heart," and as she made her ruling request, which was still strong in death, she stroked the fold of dull black silk over my knee which was cut from the same material as the straight black widow's gown which Martha wore.
"Make Martha buy you some things for some of them," I said lightly and watched Martha as I spoke. She had never by word or deed showed that she felt anything but adoringly dependent on me and my bounty, and had put the check book I had given her from Mr. Cockrell away in my desk without looking at it. I could see that my words both hurt and shocked her.
"No, Oh, no," she faltered and turned away toward the window.
"But, Martha," I was beginning to say, when an interruption burst into the room. Young Charlotte stood before us and at her side the boy stood his ground with the huge book still in what must have been very tired arms. Their faces were belligerent and small James had upon his countenance the alarm he always shows during Charlotte's most serious and dangerous outbursts. Mikey was along, with his mischievous eyes dancing with delight at the fray.
"Auntie Charlotte, I think somebody ought to whip Stranger for saying that Minister said he had fairies in his stomach. It is a lie."
"I'll lick him fer you, Miss Charlotte," offered Mikey, with a pass at the boy that I knew was only an affectionate threat.
"I'll knock a stuffing out of you if you touch him," answered Charlotte, taking Mikey's offer with her usual literal directness. "When he's whipped, nobody but Auntie Charlotte can do it. Are you going to do it now, Auntie Charlotte? We don't want the devil to get him for badness." And as she spoke she took the boy's hand and held it tightly as if willing to defend him from the flesh, the devil and the world, only excepting myself.
"But he did say that I had them here when I put my hand on it, didn't he, Lady?" demanded the accused, with more courage than I would have felt at meeting the accusation for him. I simply couldn't face the explanation and I became craven.
"Mr. Goodloe is down in the library. Go ask him what he did say," I suggested hopefully.
"We looked everywhere for him and that is the place we skipped. I felt sure you wouldn't know anything at all about it, Auntie Charlotte, but Stranger said you know just as much as Minister, which is another thing I am going to ask him about. Come on, Stranger." And with her usual lightning rapidity, Charlotte began to marshal her forces out of the room.
"Please don't!" were the words I sent faltering after her determination to question Mr. Goodloe about his and my relative erudition, but I felt that they made no impression.
"Sonny thinks about you just as Charlotte does about Mr. Goodloe, and he'll say so to everybody," said Martha, with a sad smile after the door had closed with vigor enough to startle the household.
"He's a fine child," said Mother Spurlock, with a great tenderness in her smile at Martha. "Did you ask Mrs. Todd if that big hulk of a Jones boy could get into the coat that Dabney got me from the judge's closet?" she said, continuing the subject in hand, which lasted her for another hour. When she went she took Martha with her to carry half the bundles down to the Little House, the roof of which was the first thing to be patched in stricken Goodloets.
That night I felt the hands of the Stray on my face in the darkness and his soft cheek cuddle to mine.
"You say they is fairies, Lady," he coaxed.
"There are fairies and there always will be for you," I answered, as I drew him close and kissed the fragrant mouth so near mine. "Go back to mother now," I added, as I felt the sleepy huddle of his little shoulder against mine. He went and I promised myself that no matter how lonely I was to be I would always send him back to his mother and not ever forget that her claim was first. Tears were in my eyes as I turned my face into the pillow, but suddenly the refrain of the song I had once heard in the night, "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide," sung itself in my heart until I again fell to sleep.
The dedication day for Goodloe Chapel arrived upon Goodloets just one month from the day upon which the beast of storm had ravaged it, and as that fateful morning dawned with an extraordinary grandeur, so that Sunday in mid-October came up from behind Paradise Ridge with unusual beauty, only with the difference of calmness instead of splendor and peace instead of tumult. The sun was warm and benignant, with not a cloud in the deep blue sky to obscure its blessing. A gentle breeze blew in from the fields and meadows laden with rich harvest odors and every shrub and flower and vine which had been hiding back a few late buds let them burst forth in honor of the day, and in many instances they bloomed from a new growth thrown over the scars in the sides of the old town. In one short month most of the ruins had been reduced to orderly piles of material to be used in rebuilding, and a great many of the deepest gashes had been healed completely and covered with merciful vine and blossom. And it had also been like that with most of the scars in the lives of the bereaved; they ached, but they had been covered with a courage to go on building again until the new structure could be complete.
I think something of this feeling was in the minds of most of the people as they began to assemble around Goodloe Chapel long before the time for its opening. And as had happened once before, the procession from the Town met the procession from the Settlement, only this time they were not divided so completely from the right to the left. A tall mill woman, whose husband had gone down in the crash at the saddlery, came and took Nell's hand in hers and laid a strong arm around her shoulders, while Harriet went over and took from the arms of the young father the little motherless mite who had been rescued from the pillow floating on the river. Billy shook hands with a young tanner in tight but wholly new clothes, to whom Luella May Spain introduced him as her imminent husband.
In times of stress women are apt to seize and cling to the arm of masculine protection, and Luella May had chosen to forget the fascination of Billy's hesitation and two-steps and secure for herself a life of thorough normality. She would probably never forget those dances with Billy, and they would lend a kind of reminiscent glow of pleasure over her boiling cabbage pots, but it would be no worse than that.
Mr. Todd was shaven and habitated in the neat black coat he had thrown off as he went at the ruin of the schoolhouse a month before, and with a tender smile on his lean old face he came over and stood beside Martha, as if to be watchful of her in the new order of her life.
And it was for quite a half hour that most of the inhabitants of Goodloets stood around in the yard of the chapel and waited for the formal opening of the doors. We all knew that the chapel would not hold the half of us, for the small Presbyterian congregation had been dismissed by Mr. Farraday to come over and join us in the dedication, and after a short service the boy Baptist divine had brought his flock to do honor to the opening of the new fold. In fact, by count almost every citizen in Goodloets stood before the chapel doors and waited for them to be thrown open. And in the crowd who waited there was this difference from the last time we had been together: All the children were with us and not separated from us by walls that crash. I think that the second meeting of Town and Settlement would have been impossible if each parent had not had the confidence inspired by the small hands in theirs.
And for still more minutes we were patient while the delicious autumn sun beamed upon us with Indian summer warmth and Old Harpeth looked down on us from out on Paradise Ridge with its crown wreathed with purple and gold and russet, all veiled in a tender haze.
Then as the old clock on the courthouse up on the square boomed the hour of eleven, Dabney with ceremony opened wide the tall doors and stepped back into the shadow, Jefferson bowing and smiling behind him. With one accord the people started toward the door, and then everybody again stood still and seemed to be waiting for something.
I knew for what they waited and I took Martha's hand in mine, with the boy's in hers on the other side, and slowly we walked through the path made for us between our friends and neighbors and in at the chapel door. As I passed Harriet I motioned to her and she put her arm around Nell and followed us, while Billy came behind them with father and the children. And behind them walked all of those who had been bereaved by the storm, and those who had been lamed and were suffering came with them.
My entry into the chapel had been accomplished and I felt like a storm-torn bird who finds its sanctuary among the green leaves of a great tree, while with Martha and the boy I went up to the very chancel rail itself.
Then I lifted my eyes and looked up into Gregory Goodloe's face, from which the white light of a great joy tinged with a great sorrow, looked down upon us. And as had been the case for all the long weeks stretched out behind me there was in his eyes no glance to me of a personal understanding; all the passion was that of a shepherd for his flock, and in its greatness I humbly acquiesced as I fell upon my knees in the front pew with Martha beside me, while he lifted his hands for the opening prayer of his service.
And in his short prayer he made the dedication of the pile of stone and mortar which had stood before the face of the wind as sturdily as old Harpeth itself. His words held the simplicity of those of a great poet and each was a separate jewel that could be imbedded in the hearts of his people to last for the span of their lives. He made a grateful acknowledgment of the safety of the chapel and of the spared lives of those before him, and in a few ringing sentences he prayed that we all be delivered from the blindness of the prosperity which was upon us when the disaster had made us halt in our rush and give time for brother to face and call upon brother in affliction. So ringing and vivid was the self-accusation of heedlessness in the few sentences when he dealt with the condition of all of us when sorrow had come upon us, that we all held our breath with almost a groan of conviction, and his promise of our humbled and contrite hearts was ratified with a breath of relief.