"Where is Ging?" I asked as the old man got out of the buggy.
"Gone to the telegraph office. Come in and I'll tell you all about it."
We entered the office and I stood there impatient at his delay, for instead of telling me, he was silent, walking up and down the room with his hands under his coat behind him.
"Did you say he had gone to the telegraph office?"
"Yes; said he had to communicate with his partner. Think he must have been somewhat startled at my knowledge of mica; but if he should spring the subject on me a week from now he would be still more startled—at my ignorance. In this instance I have been what is termed a case lawyer."
And still I waited and still he continued to walk up and down the room, his hands behind him.
"Communicate with his partner. Did he make an offer?"
"Well, he hunted around in that neighborhood, but his gun hung fire. The truth is I set the price myself. There is no doubt as to the value of the mine—finest in the world, I should think."
"What did you tell him he could have it for?"
"Well, I suppose we could get more for it, but I told him that he might have it for six hundred thousand dollars. I—why, what's wrong with that offer? Isn't it enough?"
"Enough! It is more than I dared to dream!" I cried.
"Ah, hah. And because you don't know anything about mica. It didn't startle him; simply remarked that he would telegraph to his partner. He'll take it. He'll give you a check and I'll send it over to Knoxville, Tenn.—don't want this little bank to handle that amount. What are you going to do with the money?"
"I'm going to buy the old Morton place for Alf, give the old man as much as I can compel him to take, and I'm going to build a home on a high bluff overlooking the St. Jo river, in Michigan. And I don't know yet what else I may do. It is so overwhelming that my mind is in a tangle. But I am going to give you——"
"I don't charge you anything for my services," he broke in, humorously winking his old eyes. "You are to be my law partner, you know."
"Ah, that was reserved for time to bring about, in the event that I should ever become a lawyer, but that possibility is now removed. I'm not going to study law. The law is very forcible and very logical, but it is too dry for me. I don't believe that I am practical enough for a lawyer. I would rather read poetry and luminous prose than to study rules of civil conduct. I am going to bejewel my house with books and then I am going to live. I heard you say that the poet was the only man who really lives, but he is not—those who worship with him live with him. Yes, I am going to buy old books—I don't like new ones—and in my library I will rule over the kingdoms of the earth. But I am going to give you ten thousand dollars."
"You wouldn't make a very good lawyer, Bill. I suspected it, and now you prove it. My dear fellow, I have no children, and am getting old, therefore I have no use for money. Wait a minute. I believe there is a five thousand dollar mortgage on my house. Well, you may lend me ten thousand, but I don't believe I'll ever pay it back. I can't afford to violate the rule. When a man lends me money it's gone. And that's right, for if I thought I had to pay it back I might dodge you. Yes, sir. As I was driving back to town I came within one of permitting myself to look upon this happening as a strange affair, but it is not; it's perfectly natural. Yes, sir. And as soon as the news spreads around, nearly every man in the community will turn out to hunt for mica, and not a speck of it will be found. A reminder of the imitators that clamor when the clear voice of a genius has been heard. If I keep on fooling with this subject I will regard it as strange, after all. Just think of the ten thousand things that led to the discovery of that mine. Suppose we could trace any occurrence back to its source. Take my sitting here, for instance. Caused, we will say, by a dead cat. My father, a very young fellow at the time, found a dead cat lying on his father's door-steps, and he threw it over into a neighbor's yard. The neighbor saw him, came over and demanded that he be whipped. He was whipped, according to the good, old religious custom, and he ran away from home, went to many places, came into this state as a clock peddler, fell in love, married, and here I am, sitting here—all caused by a dead cat. My mother was the daughter of a very proud old fellow. She ran away with my father and never again was she received at home. I may have dreamed it, but it seems that I remember my mother holding me in her arms, pointing to an old brick house and telling me that my grandfather lived there. Yes, sir, if we permit our minds to drift that way, everything is strange. Here comes our man."
Ging stepped in, mopping his face with a handkerchief. "I'll take it," he said, and it seemed to me that the room began to turn round. "Let us fix it up at once," he added. "I have engaged a man to drive me to the station and I want to take the next train."
Evening came. The day had been filled with tremors and whirls, so dazed was I, dreamily listening to details, now startled, now seeming to be far away—shaking hands, signing papers; and now it was all settled, and I, on a horse, rode toward home to seek a night of rest in the country. The moon was full. I heard the sharp clack of hoofs, and, looking back, I saw a man riding as if it were his aim to overtake me. I jogged along slowly and Etheredge came up.
"How are you, Mr. Hawes? I have heard of your wonderful luck and I congratulate you. I intended to see you in town to-night, but learned that you had come out here, so I rode fast to overtake you. I have sold out and will leave here to-morrow morning."
"What! Then you won't be here at the trial?"
"I shall not be needed, sir. Now I am going to tell you something and I hope that in your mind, and in the mind of the public, the good which it will do may in some measure atone for the wrong——"
His horse stumbled, and he did not complete the sentence. I was afraid to say anything, was afraid that eagerness on my part might stir the vagaries of his peculiar mind and drive him into stubborn silence. So I said nothing. He rode close to me, reached over and put his hand on my arm. "Mr. Hawes," he said, leaning toward me, and in the moonlight his face was ghastly, "Mr. Hawes, Alf Jucklin did not kill Dan Stuart."
"What!" I cried, bringing my horse to a stand-still and seizing his bridle-rein.
"Let us be perfectly calm now, and I'll tell you all about it. Turn loose my bridle-rein and let us ride on slowly."
Down the moon-whitened road the horses slowly walked. I waited for him to continue. "No, sir, Alf didn't kill him. I found him in the road, after Alf had called me, and I took him into my house and there was not a mark on him, not one. I stripped him and nowhere was his skin broken. Dan was born with organic disease of the heart, and for years I had been treating him. He was sensitive and never spoke of his ailment and I was the only one who knew the extent of it. Two years ago I told him that he was likely to die at any minute, and I repeatedly warned him against fatigue or any sort of agitation. And it was rage that killed him when Alf's pistol fired. The hammer of Dan's pistol caught in his pocket and his failure to get it out threw him into a rage and he died. I told the coroner that he was shot through the breast, and I slyly contrived not to be placed upon my oath. They had Alf's confession, and that was enough. And no one cared to strip the dead man to examine the wound. It was a piece of humbuggery, as all coroners' inquests are, and so the verdict was given. I am a mean man; I acknowledge it—I am narrow and vindictive, but I would have made a confession of the manner of Dan's death rather than to see Alf hanged. I knew that there would be a new trial; I intended to leave the community and I resolved to defer my statement until just before going. That about covers the case, I think."
"Will you go with me to a justice of the peace, write out your statement and swear to it?" I asked, striving to be calm.
"Certainly. Old Perdue is a justice. We'll go over there."
The moon was still high as I galloped toward town with the statement in my pocket. I went straightway to Conkwright's house and with the door-knocker set every dog in the town to barking.
"Why, what on earth is the matter?" the Judge asked as he opened the door. "Oh, it's you, is it, Bill? I've got a negro here somewhere, but Gabriel might blow a blast in his ear and never stir his wool. Come into the library."
He lighted a lamp, and I handed him the doctor's statement. He read it without the least show of surprise; and, putting the paper into his pocket, he sat down, closed his eyes, and with his thumb and forefinger pressed his eye-lids.
"Etheredge is going to leave in the morning," I said.
"He ought to be sent to the penitentiary. But let him go. Penitentiary is better off without him. In the morning we will have several of our leading doctors exhume the body to verify the statement. I'll attend to it. Yes, sir. A certain form must be observed. A jury will be impaneled, the statement will be read, and the judge will, in a sort of a charge, declare that the prisoner is innocent. Some things are strange after all. A venomous scoundrel, but let him go. Yes, I'll attend to everything in the morning. You'd better sleep here."
"No, I'm going to the jail and then to the telegraph office."
How soft had been the day, how tender the tone of every voice. The road under the moon was white and from a persimmon tree in an old field came the trill of a mockingbird. Two happy men were riding toward an old home.
"And here is where he fell," said Alf. "I am tempted to get down and pray. Bill, you don't know what it is to be freed from the conviction that you have killed a man. He might not have died then if it had not been for me, but, thank God, I didn't kill him. Yes, here is where I eased him down. I remembered afterward that I had not seen a drop of his blood and I was deeply thankful for it. We can almost see the General's house from here. You saw the old man to-day when he came up and shook hands with me. He hardly knew what he was about, and he said, 'Alf, what's your father doing?' But his eyes were full of tears and he had to wipe them when I told him that I was going to buy the old Morton place. He thinks you are a great man, Bill, and I honor him for it. To-night we will sleep in our room and early to-morrow morning I'm going over to see Millie. Do you think I ought to go to-night? No, I will wait and dream over it."
In the old room we sat and peacefully smoked our pipes. And after I had gone to bed, and when I thought Alf was asleep, I heard him talking to himself. No, it was not talk, it was a chant, and it reminded me of his mother. I said nothing and I sank to sleep, and strange, mystic words were in my ears, soothing me down to forgetful slumber.
We were aroused early at morning by the rattle of a wagon at the door. The old people—Guinea had come back. Alf dressed quickly and ran down stairs, and I stuffed my ears that I might hear no sound from below. After a long time, and while I sat looking out of the window, the old man came up.
"By jings, I must have got that dispatch of yourn before you sent it. Mighty glad to see you again. But don't go down stairs yet. Everybody down there is as foolish as a chicken with his neck wrung. I tell you the Lord works things out in his own way. Sometimes we may think that we could run things better, but I don't believe we could! and, thurfore, I say, kiver to kiver. Ah, Lord, what a time we have had. Yes, sir, a time if there ever was one. Alf has jest told me what you intend to do, but if you think that you are goin' to crowd a lot of money off on me you are wrong. Give us this old house and see that we don't need nothin'—but, of course, you'll do that. I thought I'd let 'em fight to a finish up yander, but I didn't. They looked at me so pitiful that I called an old feller that happened to be passin' along and told him that he might have 'em. I've got to have a Sam and a Bob. Old Craighead, that lives about ten miles from here, has some of the finest in the world. Always wanted 'em, but they were so high that I couldn't tip-toe and reach 'em. Reckon you could fix it so I could git a couple?"
"You shall have as many as you want—all of them."
"I'm a thousand times obleeged to you. Yes, sir; sometimes we think we could run things better than He does, but I don't reckon we could. We seen young Lundsford as we driv along jest now. And I think he'll be over here putty soon, but don't you worry. No, sir, we ain't got nothin' to worry about now. Believe it would push us to scratch up a worry, don't you? By jings, though, I hardly know what to do; I step around here like a blind sheep in a barn, as the feller says. Well, it's gettin' pretty quiet down there now. Alf got away as soon as he could, and has gone over to the General's. Hush a minit. Thought I heard Chyd's voice. Well, I'm going to poke round a little, and it's not worth while to tell you to make yourself at home."
He went out, and I heard him humming a tune as he tramped slowly down the stairs. I took a seat near the window. Voices reached me, and, looking down through the branches of a mulberry tree, I saw Guinea sitting on a bench, and near her stood Chyd Lundsford. In his hand he held a switch and with it he was slowly cutting at a bloom on a vine that grew about the tree. He was talking. Guinea's face was turned upward and her hands were clasped behind her head. I could look down into her eyes, but she did not see me, and I felt a sense of self-reproach at thus watching her, listening for her to speak, and I thought to get up, but my legs refused to move, and I sat there, looking down into her eyes. Her face was pale and her lips, which had seemed to me in bloom with the rich juice of life, were now drawn thin.
"Of course, I was wrong," he said, "but I'm not the first man that ever did a wrong. And I should think that as a broad-minded and generous woman you could forgive me. I don't think that you can find any man who would take any better care of you than I would. I've got no romance about me, and why should I have? I can just remember seeing the trail of that monster called advancement—that mighty thing called progress, though in the guise of war, and that thing swallowed the romance of this country. I say that I can remember seeing the fading trail, but I know its history and I know that if it did not swallow romance it should have done so. I don't suppose I could ever think as much of any woman as I do of you, and I know that no woman could make my house so bright and cheerful. I was afraid of any complication that might hurt my prospects as a physician, my standing in the opinion of a careful and discriminating public; so, influenced by that sense of self-protection, I broke our engagement. But now I beg of you to renew it."
"On your knees!" she said, without looking at him.
"Now, Guinea, that's ridiculous. I am willing to make all sorts of amends——"
"On your knees!" she said.
"I see that there is no use to appeal to your reason. I suppose, however, that the way to reason with a woman is to gratify her whim and then appeal to her sense. It is a foolish thing to do, but in order to secure a hearing I will do as you say."
He sank upon his knees. She glanced down at him and then looked up at the sky. He began to talk, but she stopped him with a motion of her hand.
"You have heard the preacher say that we must be born again," she said. "I have been born again—born into the kingdom of love, and I find myself in a rapturous heaven. Get up." He obeyed, and she continued. "And you are so far from this kingdom that I cannot see you—you are off somewhere in the dark, and to me your words are cold. But there is one who stands in the light and I must go to him."
I sprang from my seat and hastened down the stairs. My heart beat fast, and I trembled. I was frightened like a child, like a timid overgrown boy, who is called to the table to sit beside a girl whom he slyly worships; and I ran away—down the path to the spring. I heard her calling me, and I stood there trembling, waiting for a holy spirit that was searching for me; and worship made me dumb. She came down the path, and, seeing me, hastened toward me with her head bent forward and her hands held out. And I caught her in my arms, swept her off the ground and held her to my beating heart.
And over the stones the water was laughing, and the strip of green moss-land flashed in the sun. I saw the old man walking up the ravine, with his hands behind him, and I caught the faint sound of a tune he was humming. Slowly her arms came from about my neck, and hand in hand we walked toward the house, she in the shining path, I on the green sward; and as we drew near we saw Alf and Millie, standing under a tree, waiting for us.
Transcriber's Note: Variations in hyphenated words and inconsistencies in dialect have been retained as they appear in the original publication.