As Number 4 rolled out to the southward, the usual little comedy of a railway train at night-time began. An old lady asked the porter a dozen times what time the "kyars would get to N'Yawlns." Two florid gentlemen leaned together in one seat and discussed cotton, cotton, cotton. In yet another berth two young farmers were having their first experience in high life, and were eager to try the experience of actually going to sleep upon the cars while the same continued their forward progress—a thing which had seemed impossible to them. Not removing their clothing, they venturesomely pulled off their shoes, and thereafter, in some fashion, managed to squeeze together into the same berth. "Why, I'm a-layin' mighty comf'table now," exclaimed one presently, to his own evident surprise and gratification.
"So'm I," exclaimed the other. Silence then for a little while, when again the first voice was heard: "Why, my feet's right wahm!"
"So's mine!" replied his friend, in equal delight and surprise.
"I reckon I'll take my shoes inside," said the first speaker, presently.
"So'll I," said the second; after which there came silence.
In another part of the car was a lady with a little child, which jumped and squirmed about, and made eyes at all mankind, including James Thompson. The latter made eyes in turn, and waggled his fingers at the youngster, which trilled and gurgled as it danced up and down, now hiding its face, again springing up into view above the back of the plush-covered seat.
"I have three of my own back home, madam," said Mr. Thompson, going up to the mother of the child. "Come here, baby, and give me a kiss; because I'm a poor man who can't be kissed by his own little girl." The child kissed him gleefully and sweetly a dozen times; and perhaps, after all, that was shriving and absolution for James Thompson. Not all of us go down into the valley of the shadow with the kiss of innocence on our lips.
Number 4 steamed on to the southward. She crossed the flat bottoms where the great river was hedged out by the levees; edged off again toward the red clay hills and finally, leaving this fringe of little eminences, plunged straight and deep into the ancient forests of the Delta, whose flat floor lay out ahead for many miles. Number 4 was now in the wilderness. Panther, and fox, and owl went silent when the wild scream of Number 4 was heard; of Number 4, carrying its burden of the ancient comedy and tragedy of life, its hates, and loves, and mysteries, its sordid, its little and its tremendous things.
Later in the night Number 4 groaned and creaked and protested at the stop for the little siding of the Big House plantation, eighty miles from the point where she had begun her flight. Her brake shoes ground so sternly that the heavy oaken beams whined at the strain put on them; yet obedient to the hand of man, she did stop, though it was but to discharge a single passenger.
Henry Decherd hurried out into the darkness like some creature hard pursued. Number 4 swept on, clacking, rumbling, screaming. The shriek of her whistle, heard now and again, was loud, careless, imperious, self-assured.
But what meant this hoarse and swiftly broken note, as though Number 4 were caught in sudden mortal fear? What meant this broken, quavering wail, as though the monster were suddenly arrested by an utter agony? What, sounding far across the sullen forest, was this rending and crashing roar? Number 4 had been here, hurrying onward. But now—now where and what was Number 4?
Meeting her fate, Number 4 plunged, ground, shivered, shortened and then fell apart, shattered like a house of toys. For an instant the wilderness heard no sound, until there arose, terrible in its volume, the wail of a general human agony. There was no answer save that, borne far upon the humid air of the night, there came the solemn calling of the deep-throated hunting pack of the Big House kennels. Each night the pack called out their defiance to Number 4 as she swept by with her roar and rattle and the imperious challenge of her whistle. She was their enemy. But now they knew that evil had been done, that life was in jeopardy; even as they knew that the mighty at last had fallen.
It was a strange party that took breakfast at the Big House table on the morning after the railway wreck. All these guests, injured or well, crippled or whole, were gay and talkative. Gestures, hysterical smiles marked their conduct. Their faces showed no spell of horror. Men had looked at the long row of dead on the platform at the station. "That is my father," said one; and another, "This is my sister," but they spoke impersonally, and only to satisfy the curiosity of others. There was no room for an individual terror. A woman with both arms broken and her head heavily bound sat laughing, and again raised her voice in a hymn of thanksgiving.
The broken-hearted search, the frenzied efforts at relief occupied all comers far into the morning. It was long before any one thought of asking the cause of the disaster; yet presently reason sufficient was discovered. The broken railway train covered with its wreckage the immediate cause of the accident: a pile of timbers erected carefully and solidly between the rails. Seeing this, after a time, there began to mount in the jarred and dazed senses of these human beings a sullen desire for justice or revenge.
Among the first to seek the head of the train where the wrecking timbers lay was John Eddring, who arrived on the early train from the city. By virtue of his office as agent of the personal injury department, he at once began to possess himself of such facts as might be of use later on. With face pale, but steady, he traversed the entire length of the shattered train, examining, inquiring, making a record of the dead and injured, and in some cases examining papers and effects for purposes of identification.
There was in particular one victim, a large, well-looking man, who had been killed in the forward compartment of one of the sleeping cars, he being the only one who suffered death or extreme injury in that car. Close by was his hand-bag, but this bore no card and offered no distinguishing mark serving to identify its owner. The porter could remember only that this gentleman had got on at the city and had not yet been "checked up." The porter was sure that this was his valise, for he had himself brought it in from the platform.
"Thompson, James Thompson," said a newspaper worker, one of those who mysteriously appeared before the accident was many hours old. "Here's his accident insurance card. Got it in his pocketbook. It's twelve thousand to his wife, anyhow, I reckon. Davenport, Iowa; that's his home."
Eddring felt it his duty to examine more thoroughly the effects of this victim. The hand-bag held absolutely no items of personal equipment. Its sole contents were a small and curiously bound little volume, printed in the French language, and a bundle of papers of legal size, typewritten and backed in the form of railway documents. Eddring could not conceal a start as he glanced at these papers. Hurriedly he thrust into his pocket papers, book and all.
He had reason for surprise. Here, in this nameless package in the care of this stranger, James Thompson of Davenport, Iowa, was a full list of the outstanding judgment claims against the Y. V. railway throughout his own division; a list of whose existence he supposed no one except himself had any knowledge whatever! Attached to the package of papers there was a letter written in a woman's hand. Hasty and professional as was his glance, and much disturbed as he was by the discovery which accompanied his finding of the letter, the words which met his eyes carried a shock such as he had not known in all the years of service in his eventful calling.
"Dearest," ran the communication, not wholly ill written: "Dearest, you said you would come last week, but you did not. I am uneasy. Are you forgetting me? Does that girl mean more to you than I do—does either of them? Why, they don't know how to love. You know I would do anything for you if you kept on in the old way, but you shall not leave me. You say you have to 'keep things in careful shape.' I have wished a thousand times that girl had been out of the way long ago. Then you would have to depend on me now for everything, love and all. You say you will divide it all with me when we get it. What do I care about that? Let it all go, and let us go and live somewhere together and be happy as we were.
"Now if you are not telling me the truth, you are getting yourself into trouble, and you will have enough of that anyhow. As for madam, it's not you she wants any more. Yet she can't bear to have you look at the girl. You don't know women very much. Now she has forgotten her part, let her make it up with old man Blount and let the girl go. You and I can fight it out the way we started to before they ever came down here. I say one string to a bow is better than two. You will have to choose between these strings.
"If I ever feel certain that you are lying to me, I'll do what ought to have been done, and then I won't care. You can have all the money if you ever get it, but I am going to have all of you, and no dividing with anybody. I have no place in the world here, and am standing everything and waiting and hoping. Sometime people will hear from me. Sometimes I hate myself and you, and all the world. I would do big things if I once started. The best thing you can do is to come down here to me right soon. We must have a talk, and, besides, I want to see you."
The letter bore no signature, save a scrawled mark or sign, which Eddring did not pause to examine at the moment. Indeed he had no time to ponder or to speculate, for even as he folded the letter and placed it in his pocket with the other articles taken from the valise, he heard a sudden cry, and, going forward, joined again the group that had formed about the pile of fatal timbers at the head of the wreck. Some one showed him a handkerchief, a sodden bit of linen which had been taken from under the heap of logs. It was a woman's handkerchief, and as Eddring spread it out on his hand he noted in one corner a curious embroidered mark. At this he gazed intently, with a vague feeling that somewhere he had seen a similar mark before. It was like some rude monogram or crest.
"If you don't mind," said he, quietly, "I should like to have that handkerchief. It might be useful with other evidence which I have in my possession." None offered objections, and Eddring presently moved away. He felt a certain mental uneasiness which he could not fully formulate; but presently all speculation was carried from his mind by the crowding of events about him.
There had by this time appeared the sheriff of Tullahoma County, who brought with him the most practical agencies of justice possible for that peculiar country, three dogs known widely as skilled followers of human trails. To the sheriff Eddring now offered the newly discovered handkerchief. The latter held it out to the dogs, which sniffed at it gravely, and sniffed also at the place where it had been found under the derailing timbers. The sheriff went about his duties methodically, now moving back all the spectators so that the dogs might have full opportunity in their work.
The tail of the lead dog at length began to move slowly from side to side. He walked a pace or so down the bank and paused, the other two coming to him. The sheriff pointed silently. Distinctly marked in the soil was the print of a shoe—a woman's shoe, long, narrow. All three of the dogs now moved toward a gap in the row of stumps which formed a rude hedge for the cleared right of way. At this little gap the narrow footprint was seen again, with others made by bare feet. At the edge of the wood, there came a long, low, sobbing call from the lead dog, and presently the others wailed their confirmation; so that the trail was now steadily begun.
They followed the dogs for miles, across glade and ridge and opening, through jungles of vines and matted cane; and presently they came upon paths which converged, separated and converged again, as might have been in the jungle about a village of the Black Continent. They went on and on, and finally they came out, as John Eddring in his heart knew they presently would, at the edge of a little hidden opening, surrounded by a wall of deep green cane. There before them stood a long, low, log structure, which he himself could have described in advance. Upon the door, done in the blind, morbid egotism of crime, which so often leaves open sign and signal for its own undoing, there showed, cut deep in the jamb, a rude sign, cabalistic, mysterious, fetish-like. To Eddring it seemed for the instant to be the same mark as that upon the handkerchief. He could not explain these things in his own mind. Others of the party were more interested in pointing out once more, in the confusion of footprints before the building, the imprint of the same narrow shoe. Eddring was striving to connect this imprint with the mark on the handkerchief and on the door, with certain things which he had heard on this very spot long before; and with that glimpse of a woman's garb in the darkness at the time of the night attack on the Big House.
There was no time to ponder upon these things. The dogs passed over the trampled ground in front of the building, sniffed at the door, circled the building, sniffed at the windows, passed slowly into the empty room when the door was opened for them. Then they drew apart again, and, wailing once more solemnly, headed back along a path which presently brought all into the plain road to the railway station. The procession moved more rapidly now, and presently it had crossed the railway track and turned into the lane which led up to the Big House, the dogs threading without hesitation the maze of footprints which covered all the ground thereabout. They came on with heads down and tails slowly moving, now and again giving utterance to their long and mournful note, until presently they and those who followed them were met at the yard gate by Colonel Blount, who came down to greet the sheriff of the county, whom he knew very well.
"Jim," said he, "I know you and your dogs, and I know what you're doing. It's all right, but I want to warn you to be mighty careful about my own dogs. They won't run with any other pack, and they'll kill a strange dog just as sure as they can get to him."
The sheriff looked at him and shook his head, as if to say that justice must have its course. Blount made no further objection, and the three trailing dogs, entering the gate, now crossed the lawn and passed around the corner of the house toward the quarters of the servants, beyond which lay the kennels of the fighting Big House pack. The baying of these dogs, penned up, had been incessant. They could tolerate no thought of intelligence other than their own at this work. They were born and trained to fight, and knew no kinship with their species. It had been better for Jim Peters, sheriff of Tullahoma, had he taken the advice of the master of the Big House; for as he turned into the yard at the rear of the house, the prediction of the latter came true, and so swiftly that none saw how it chanced.
Who loosed the gate no one ever knew; but certainly it was opened, and the fighting bear-pack came boiling out, eager for any foe. There was ineffectual shouting over a mass of writhing, snarling creatures of many colors. In a moment the solemn-faced emissaries of justice lay dead and mangled on an unfinished trail. Blount caught the sheriff's hand as it moved toward his revolver.
"It's no use shooting the dogs, Jim," said he. "You've run the trail fair to here, and you know I'll help you run it to the end. I don't know what to say. Hell's broke loose in the Delta."
The sheriff turned upon Blount his grave face, and for a time made no answer. "You're right, Cal," said he, at length. "Things are bad down here. It's no nigger planned this thing. But if it wasn't, then who did?"
"I don't know," said Blount. "Some day, my friend, we'll find out, and then we'll see whether or not there's any law left in the Delta for people who do things like that." He pointed toward the spot where a long line of men were now busily engaged in removing from the rails the fragments of what had been train Number 4.
"Come into the house, men," said Blount, presently. "Let's get something to eat." There had been more than a hundred persons taken in as guests at the Big House that day, but even yet the hospitality of the old planter's home was not quite exhausted. The two ladies of the house had abundance to do in caring for the injured, but the servant, Delphine, had become the presiding spirit of the household in these hours of stress. In some way Delphine brought partial order out of the chaos, and the great table still was served.
By this time there had begun the pitiful procession which was to empty the Big House of its company. The tracks were nearly cleared by the wrecking crew, and long rows of fires were consuming the broken evidences of the ruin that had been wrought. The injured had been cared for as best might be by the physicians of the relief train, and this train, with its burden of the living and the dead, now started on its journey northward. The day of Number 4 was done. The iron way would soon again have its own. Another Number 4, screaming, exultant, defiant, would again pursue its course across the wilderness.
Naturally, in hours so crowded with perplexities, the master of the Big House had had small time to specialize his hospitality. The demands of the living, the needs of the suffering, the eagerness of all in the search for the author of this disaster, kept him, as well as others, so occupied that he scarce knew what was going forward. He had not known that Henry Decherd was about the place until he saw him seated at his own table. He made no inquiries, supposing that Decherd might have been a passenger on the train; yet he greeted this uninvited guest none too warmly, even in that sanctuary. Deeherd thought best later to explain his presence. He had been on the wrecked train, he said to Colonel Blount, but had by some miracle escaped. He was on his way to New Orleans, and wished to take the first train down as soon as traffic was resumed. He hoped that he was not intruding too much if he once more dropped in on his old friend. To this Colonel Blount listened grimly and said no word, only sweeping his hand toward the table. "Eat," said he, and so turned away. He would have done as much for a strange hound in his yard, and Decherd knew it.
It was well on in the afternoon when John Eddring, still busy with his confused mass of papers, was in turn approached at the table where he sat by this same Henry Decherd. The latter carried in his hand a traveling-bag which he extended toward the claim agent. "Mr. Eddring." said he, "I found this bag in my room, but it isn't mine. They tell me you've got track of a lot of things. Did you see anything of an alligator bag about like this?"
"Why do you ask?" said Eddring, quietly.
"Well, I know you're claim agent on the road," said Decherd. "You seem to be getting ready for a lot of trouble later on. I didn't know but you might have seen my bag among others. Nothing in it much—a few collars and brushes, you know; things I could use now if I had them."
"Would you let me see this bag?" said Eddring. Decherd, somewhat uneasily, as it seemed to Eddring, opened the valise and displayed its contents. "This seemed to belong to some fellow by the name of Thompson," said he, as he rummaged among the articles. "Maybe he has gone back to the city—maybe he's got my bag. See, here's a letter addressed to him, 'James Thompson, Davenport'—" Eddring glanced at the handwriting. It bore no resemblance to that of another letter which at that moment rested in his own pocket. His face half-flushed. He begged the dead man's pardon. This, he felt assured, was from James Thompson's wife. The other letter, he felt with swift conviction, was from a woman different. Yes, and to a different man. Yet he held his own counsel as to this.
"I shouldn't wonder if it were your bag that I've got in my own room, Mr. Decherd," said he. He rose and led the way, and Decherd, perforce, must follow. "Is this yours?" He held up to Decherd's view the valise which had once contained the book and papers earlier mentioned. Eddring looked narrowly into Decherd's face. He saw it suddenly change color, going from pale to sallow.
Decherd made a distinct effort at recovering himself. "Y-yes, that's it—it looks like it, anyhow," said he.
Eddring handed him the valise. Decherd pressed the spring of the lock and looked into the interior.
"Why, it's empty!" cried he. "What in—"
"Yes," said Eddring, simply, "it's empty." Decherd cast at him one swift, veiled look, under which Eddring saw all the covert venom of a dangerous serpent that is aroused. "It's not my bag, anyhow," said Decherd, regaining his composure. "I thought it was, but mine had my name on the plate."
"Yes?" said Eddring. "I am sorry I can't help you. Well, if the bag isn't yours, I'll just keep it. I don't doubt the owner will be found in time." The eyes of the two met fairly now; and from that instant there was issue joined between them.
MISS LADY AND HENRY DECHERD
Why Henry Decherd should have remained so long at the Big House at this particular time might have found plausible answer in any of a dozen ways. There were reasons indeed why Decherd should be covertly pleased at matters as he now found them. Colonel Blount touched his pride keenly enough by practically ignoring his presence, yet he made amends by continuing moody and aloof, spending little time about the house. John Eddring had long since taken his departure for the city. Mrs. Ellison was rarely visible about the house. There was an atmosphere of uneasiness, an unsettled discontent over all things. Yet, for the oblique purposes of Henry Decherd, matters could not have been better arranged. So much being established, he played his chosen part at least with boldness. In spite of all this recent stress and strain, in spite of this continuing trace of sadness and anxiety which lay over all, Henry Decherd none the less knew very well that there was now at hand the best and perhaps the last opportunity which, he might expect for the carrying out of a certain intention which, above all other purposes, worthy or unworthy, had long possessed his soul. At times he was absent from the Big House, none knew where; for in the careless bigness of that place there were no locks upon the doors and no hours for the spreading of the table. Each came and went as he pleased. In no other situation could Decherd have found things shaped better to his plan.
That plan, the sole motive which could have kept him at that time in that certain locality, was to speak alone with Miss Lady. Even thus favored by circumstances, he found this purpose difficult to accomplish. Now it was Colonel Blount who passed moodily across the yard; or it was Mrs. Ellison who accosted him just as he started to follow the young girl down the hall or out on the gallery. Once or twice the girl Delphine stopped him in some such errand and held him on one pretext or another in some corner of the place. Yet Decherd, involved as was the game he played, persisted and at length had his more immediate wish.
He came upon Miss Lady at last in the twilight on the big gallery, when the birds were chirping all about and the insects were attuning their nightly orchestra. He walked directly up to her.
"Miss Lady," he said suddenly, without parley or preface, "ah, Miss Lady, how glad I am to find you at last!"
The girl drew back from him, at once divining the import of his air and tone; but he went on.
"I've waited so long," said he. "There's always been some one about. Couldn't you see—don't you see what it is that brings me to you!" He would have caught her hand in his own feverish one, but again she drew away, looking at him with startled eyes.
"Dearest," he went on, "listen. I can't do without you. I have loved you ever since first I saw you. Come, tell me—"
Even the icy silence of the girl scarce served to check him. There was, indeed, evident on his face the existence of an emotion as genuine as could be conceived in a soul like his. It was, moreover, the very devil's instant for approaching this poor girl, hopeless, outcast, overstrung, altogether and piteously in need of comfort. At that time Miss Lady could count upon no friend in all the world. She had no confidante, no counselor. That, of all possible moments, was the most fortunate time for a man like Henry Decherd, even had the sweet beauty and helplessness of this girl not wrung from him respect as well as an unrestrained and passionate regard. What was it, then, which at that moment intervened between these two? What was the hidden guidance that came to Miss Lady at that time? She herself could not explain. She could not have told what caused her to tremble as though of an ague—could not have told why, though she sought to see clearly the face of this man who came to her with the words of a lover, there seemed to fall between them some interposing veil, rendering his features uncertain, indistinct. Craving and needing a friend at this hour of her life, none the less she saw not now that friend.
"No," she called out, frightened. "No! Do not!" And that was all that she could think, as all that she could do was to move yet farther away.
He would not accept repulse, but followed on with eager and impassioned words. "I love you!" he whispered. "Come, what is this place to you? There's a big world full of things to see and do! We'll be married, we'll travel, we shall see the world. You shall know what love can mean—what life really is! Miss Lady, dearest—"
After all, by the will of the immortal gods, who sometimes have in care the welfare of the Miss Ladys of this earth, Henry Decherd erred in these very proofs of a passion sincere as he was capable of feeling. A too hasty ardor failed where a calmer friendship had gone further toward winning a heart-sore, helpless girl. The balance of the issue, for a moment trembling in his favor, was, within the instant, quite destroyed.
"Sir," said Miss Lady, and he paused as she freed her hand and stepped back from him, strangely cold and calm, "I have given you no possible right—"
"But you don't understand. Listen, I tell you," he began again.
"I can not listen; it is not right for me to listen. I am too troubled with many things to listen to you now. You don't know who I am. I do not know, myself, who I am. You've been deceived by her—you don't know. I have no mother, as I thought I had. I am going away from here to-morrow. I don't know where I shall go, but I know I shall not stay here. It's wrong for me to stay. It's wrong for me to listen to yon. I can't tell you all I've heard." Miss Lady's lip trembled.
"Did she tell you? Has Mrs. Ellison—" cried Decherd, suddenly flushing. But Miss Lady was too much disturbed to notice his speech or his changed expression. She could only reiterate, "I am going away."
"Oh, come now," said he, his voice again gaining confidence and his face showing relief as he glanced about him. "Come, you are only tired. I ought not to have troubled you this way, this evening, but I could not help it—I could not wait. I was afraid—but then to- morrow—I'll see you to-morrow. Think, Miss Lady, think—"
"I have thought," said Miss Lady, with sudden decision. "I have thought; and as for to-morrow, there'll be none for me at this place. I'm going away at once. I must begin life all over again. It has been wrong for me to live here at all. Why did you ask us to come here? We would have been better off where we were, even if we were poor and helpless."
"It's been heaven here since you came."
"Oh, it was kind of you to get mamma and me a home here. It has been home. It has been so sweet. I love it—I shall always love it. It is big and free here for everybody. One can live here—one could live here if it were right. Colonel Blount is a splendid man, a grand man— "
"Yes, yes, a splendid man."
"But you'll not stay here?" There was well-nigh as much eagerness as regret in his tone. She did not note it.
"No, I can not," she replied. "I can't tell you everything—I don't want to tell you everything. No one is to blame, I suppose. It's all because I have just grown up, and find I'm in the wrong place. I have been living along here just—just like one of the blacks out there in the fields—without—without taking thought. If it were honest, if I could do anything, if I belonged to any one and could feel that in some way I earned the right to—to—not take thought, then it would be different."
"That's what I say! That's as I want to have it," he began; but she would not listen.
"But it isn't right," she went on. "I can't tell you everything. I can't even tell you about Mrs. Ellison. Perhaps you have been deceived. Ask her. Go ask Colonel Blount, and he may tell you what he likes. But for me, just forget me. I couldn't love you—I couldn't love any one now. I am cold, all through."
The plaintiveness of her speech touched even this man. He held out his arms. "No, no," she cried, as she drew back. "I tell you, the world has gone to pieces. I must find a new one. I am not myself, I am lost; I don't know what I am." Again for a half-instant, touched as he was, Decherd went near to forgetting the lover. There was almost exultation on his face as he saw how fortune was now favoring him in his plans. There was nothing he wished so much as that Miss Lady might leave the Big House at once and for ever.
"I can't tell who I am!" the girl repeated, as though in an agony of entreaty. "I'm some one else! It's so strange. I must go—"
"But where would you go?" said he.
"I do not know; somewhere."
"But then? Why, what could you do, alone? Think—here am I offering you all you need, a home in some other place, comfort, safety, some one to care for you—why, perhaps it might mean riches before long—I will tell you—you'll find it hard enough alone."
"Yes, it will be new and hard," said Miss Lady, with a wan smile. "I have never thought very much for myself. Some one has always seemed ready to do things for me. I can't do very much. But then, you know, sometimes the things you can't do show you the way to things that you can."
"You are obstinate," cried Decherd, angry now, as only a weak man would have been. "I'll follow you, wherever you go! The time will come when you will be glad enough to see me."
"Mr. Decherd," said Miss Lady, straightening into a quick aloofness, "you said you loved me. That sounds to me as if in some way you were threatening me."
"Well, I will," he reiterated sullenly. "You'd better think."
Miss Lady shook her head slowly from side to side. "I am frightened," she said. "Perhaps some girls would not be. But, in some way, though I am easy to frighten, I don't seem easy to frighten from things that I think I ought to do."
Knowing now that he had found obstacle in this girl's will not thus to be overcome, Decherd allowed his anger to get the better of him.
"Go, then!" he cried brutally.
"Sir," said Miss Lady, "you yourself may go now, if you please;" and she stood so unagitated, so composed and certain of herself, certain as well of his obedience, that Decherd knew here was a woman different from any with whom he had hitherto had to do. Flinging out his hands in anger at his own mistake, his own folly, he turned and strode away. Miss Lady, sinking into the chair, gazed out at a world now grown indistinct and shadowy, full of the terrors of uncertainty.
Decherd knew himself beaten for the time, when he left her. But though he promised it to himself, he did not follow Miss Lady at that time; for before another moon had lit the mysterious realm of the forest beyond which lay an unknown world, Miss Lady was indeed gone. Carrying with her not even a clear knowledge of her own past, doubting her own parentage, doubting almost her own identity; helpless, unprepared, and all too ignorant of the world from which such as she should for ever be shielded and protected, she had left the only spot on earth she knew as home, the only place where she could claim a friend, and fared out into the unknown! It was as if some evil harpy of the air had swooped down and borne her into the pathless sky, as though the earth or the waters had closed over her and left no trace. The simple and the sincere, those most direct and frank, ofttimes are most difficult to follow in their actions when they take counsel wholly of themselves. Miss Lady had no involved motive, none but the one direct and imperative, no means except the one immediately at hand. Hence, so impelled, so guided, she disappeared completely, impossible as that might have seemed. Not even in the piteous little note which Colonel Calvin Blount later crushed in his hand, did she give any clue to her destination.
Henry Decherd did not take the down train on that day. Had he taken Miss Lady's declarations seriously, and suspected a deliberate intention on her part, he might have watched the only avenue of escape possible for her. But this he did not do.
In truth the plans of Henry Decherd himself, quasi guest at the Big House, guest tolerated, guest under suspicion, were at that time of a nature singularly intricate, and demanding all his skill and resources. It was certain that Decherd did not disappear with Miss Lady—so much was left to comfort Colonel Calvin Blount. It was certain also that he said no adieus to his long-time host, nor gave any hint as to his own departure. Yet it was clearly proved by many of the servants about the Big House that Decherd was seen mounted and riding to the westward at an early hour of the same morning in which Miss Lady was thought to have left the place.
This fact, indeed Decherd himself, was well-nigh forgotten in the grief which now came to the master of the Big House. Troubled as Colonel Calvin Blount was, there was born, and there remained, in his mind the unshakable belief that Miss Lady had not of her own will gone with Henry Decherd.
How narrow and inefficient are sometimes all the ways of fate and life! By how small a margin, passing upon the crowded ways of life, do we ofttimes miss the friend who comes with running feet to meet us! The very train which bore Miss Lady from the Big House brought down from the northward John Eddring, eagerly bent upon an errand of his own—John Eddring, for weeks restless, harried and driven of his own heart, and now fully committed to a purpose whereon depended all his future happiness. He must find Miss Lady, must see her once more; must tell her this one thing indisputably sure, that the paths of earth had been shaped solely that they two might walk therein for ever! He must tell her of his loneliness, of his ambitions; and of this, his greatest hope. Desperately in haste, he scarce could wait until the train pulled up at the little station. He sprang off on the side opposite from the station, and ran up the lane.
Ah! blind one, not to see, not to feel, not to know that the dearest dweller of the Big House was here, directly at hand upon the platform, unseen, but upon the point of stepping aboard the train which had brought him, and which was now to carry her away. Miss Lady, laying her plans well, had practically concealed herself until the very moment of the arrival of the train. And so now these two passed, their feet thereafter running far apart.
Colonel Blount received his guest with a strikingly haggard look upon his face; yet at first he made no explanations. He saw Eddring glancing round, and knew whom he sought.
"She isn't here," the planter said very quietly, and handed him the note which he had but a few moments earlier discovered. Eddring's face went as bloodless as his own as he read the few simple lines.
"What's the reason of this?" he cried fiercely. "When did she go?"
"I don't know," said Blount, "unless it was right now. She may have been right by you—right there at the train for all I know; and I reckon like enough that's just how it happened."
"I don't know—gone somewhere. He didn't go with her."
"But Mrs. Ellison?"
"She's not gone," said Blount, grimly, "but she's going. I don't count her in any more. Here's the key to Mrs. Ellison's room. It's better she shouldn't see any one this morning."
"But Blount—why, Cal, my friend—what does all this mean?"
"I don't know. All I can say is, hell's broke loose down here."
They passed down the hall together toward Blount's office room.
"By the way," said the latter, "here's a telegram that got here just before you did. It's come from the city on a repeat order and must have passed you on your way. It's railroad business, I reckon."
Eddring tore open the sleazy gray envelope and read the message. His face was hardened into deep lines as he looked up at his friend, and without comment handed over the bit of paper. The message read as follows:
"Eddring, Division Superintendent Personal Injury Department,——-: You are temporarily relieved duties your office by Allen, of Hillsboro, pending investigation irregularities charged your division. Strong developments of claims long considered abated. Letter. Dix, Agent."
The two men looked at each other for a moment. Blount extended his hand, and Eddring, gulping, took it.
"God!" he gasped, as he looked at the two bits of paper in his hand. "Did more wrong and misery ever come to a fellow all at once than I've got here in these?"
"I know what this telegram means," he said, "and it's all a mistake. In a week or so I'd have put the whole thing before them. But now, they suspect me of being a thief, and I'll never work another day for them, exonerated or unexonerated."
"Well, what of that?" Blount speke hotly. "You're lucky to lose that job—I've been hoping for a long time that cussed railroad would fire you. There's bigger things in the world for you than drudging along on a salary. You just go ahead and set up office for yourself—fight 'em every chance you get; give 'em hell; I'll stake you till you get on your feet. But damn it, boy, that's not what's bothering me—it's that girl—she's got to be found."
"She's got to be found," Eddring repeated. Even Calvin Blount, little used as he was to searching beneath the surface, knew that Eddring had ceased to give the railroad a thought.
Blount looked at him keenly.
THE MAKING OP THE WILDERNESS
In the northern pine-lands Father Messasebe murmured to himself, whispering among his rush-environed shores.
"You have taken from me my own," murmured Father Messasebe. "You have swept away my children. You have made child's roads for yourselves along my courses. You have had freedom with me, the Father of the Waters. You, small, have had your liberties with me—with me, who am great, ancient, abiding. But now, since you have taken away my red wilderness, I shall make for myself a black wilderness. In time between these two there shall lie a wilderness of that which once was white!"
And so Father Messasebe, the mighty, the ancient, the abiding, called upon the spirits of the air, which are his kin, and upon the spirits of the earth, which are his friends, and these made cause. The small drop of dew, which hung upon the green beard of the wild rice-plant, dropped down into the hands of Father Messasebe. It did not tarry, as had once been its wont, upon the mossy floor of the wilderness, but hastened on. It met rain-drops shaken from the trees, these drops also hastening. The fountains, once slow and deliberate among the roots of the ancient forest floor, tarried not now upon their beds, but hurried on to join the dew and the rain in a great journeying. The ravaged forest gave up its springs. The brooks ran dry, and left barren the penetralia of the tamaracks and cedars. All these hurried on, little flow meeting little flow, and they joining yet others; and so finally a great flood joined itself to others great, and this volume coursed on through lake and channel, and surged along all the root-shot banks of the great upper water-ways.
The floods passed on, making a merriment which grew more savage and exultant. The scarred and whitening trees stood silent, watching the waters pass; and the round hills smiled not as their feet were washed high with the hurrying floods. And when Father Messasebe at length came into the country where tall hills stood, neither did these hills protest, but joined in that which was now forward, and sent down red and gray and brown trickles of their own to augment the tawny waters. And then the country of low hills, which had no trees, sent out its sluggish streams also, across the deep loam-lands, to stain still further the once clean stream of Messasebe. And word went abroad that Father Messasebe had rebelled—word that reached the white-topped mountains far in the West; and these mountains, loyal, sent their white waters down until they, too, grew red, but still tarried not, and rolled on to meet the general stream. And the green mountains in the East, also loyal, sent their floods as well; until Father Messasebe, hating gathered all his armies, marched on and on, to make anew a wilderness of his own.
Thus the floods came at length to a wide land covered with great trees, a land deep and rich, filled with all manner of growing and brooding things; a land of fat soil carried thither no one knows whence; a land apart and prepared. So Messasebe, having traveled many miles, came to a country inhabited by the slow snake, by the otter, and the beaver, the panther, the deer, the bear—many children whom he long had loved.
Along the edge of this lower land there ran low earthen fences made by the white man, who had laid claim upon the kingdom of the Father of the Floods—vainly-builded fences of earth, hopelessly seeking to hedge out the imperious flow of Messasebe, the ancient, the enduring. Father Messasebe, seeing these things, called back to the following legions of his children that here was time for sport. And all the waters laughed loud and long, dallying with their prey.
"In the North they have robbed me," said Father Messasebe to his legions. "Here in the South they would bind me. Ho! now for the game of letting in the floods, of making anew my wilderness.
"For a wilderness," said Father Messasebe, "the world has ever had. And whether gentle overpower barbarian, or barbarian in turn overcast the gentle, always there will be a wilderness, and out of it will come combat.
"But the World is ancient and abiding," said Father Messasebe to his children, "and the World cares no whit for those things sometimes called good and new. In the years, that which is new becomes old. Only the World and its children endure. Only the old prevails. Only the wilderness, and the combat of weak and strong, remain for ever.
"And at all combat," said Father Messasebe to his children, "the World smiles, knowing that the strong must win; and knowing that in time the strong will become weak. Wherefore let us build our wilderness for a time, like to that which will one day rise again along all my shores, great trees growing where cities are to-day.
"Only in the ages," said Father Messasebe to his children, "do the weak come to be the strong. Wherefore must the strong prevail, each in his own day. It is the Law!"
EDDRING, AGENT OP CLAIMS
Some three years subsequent to that mysterious departure of Miss Lady in search of a world beyond the rim of the confining forest, there sat in his office, one fine morning in June, no less a person than John Eddring, formerly claim agent of the Y.V. railway. Eddring looked older, more wearied. He seemed disappointed in his years of fruitless search, in the following of false clues, in the death of new hopes. And yet from the man's clear eye there shone a certain grim comfort of accomplishment.
He was now surrounded, as before, with the customary paraphernalia of a business office. A few desks, a cabinet letter-file, a typewriter stand or two, a chart, a picture askew upon the wall—this might still have been the office of the Y.V. railway. Indeed, there was printed upon the office door the modest sign, "John Eddring, Agent of Claims."
Yet this was no longer the office of Eddring, claim agent of the railway. There had been change. Eddring, agent of claims, was in business for himself, and upon the other side of the pretty game of cross purposes. That which he had taken for calamity had proved good fortune. The world had loved him, even as it tried him. The advice of his old mother he had discovered to be almost prophetic. At last he found himself making use of that legal profession which had formerly been but one of the adjuncts of his earlier occupation. He had opened office for himself, and now paid service to no man.
Eddring had made it his especial care, from the beginning of this work, to undertake that less esteemed branch of the law which has to do with the collection of claims, and, naturally or by choice, he found himself concerned more commonly with the claims of the weak against the strong. Collection law is little esteemed as against the better paid and vaster practice of the corporation law; yet Eddring had succeeded. To his own surprise, and that of others, he began to find his humble way of life pleasant and desirable. His business had widened rapidly, and, to his own wonder, now began to offer him a view into wide avenues of employment. Occupied not only with many minor matters, but with more considerable prosecutions, John Eddring, agent of claims, was possessor of a business yielding him four-fold the yearly value of his former salary on the Y.V. road.
As to the latter, it had promptly withdrawn charges which presently it found impossible to prove. The head men of the railway were keen enough, after all. They studied the growing list of judgments collected against the road throughout the Delta country, but they could find no trace of John Eddring behind these claims. No system of detectives, no hired espionage could belie the truth. Finally convinced, they did the unusual and somewhat handsome thing of writing their former claim agent a full letter of apology and of asking his return to his late employment, at a salary precisely double that which he had resigned. Eddring had replied to this that, though agent of claims, he could not find it in his heart to serve as a corporation claim agent. So, he had labored on, prosperous to a just extent, and happy as only that man can be who finds work which gives him delight in the doing, and which offers a future built upon the honest accomplishment of the present.
On this morning Eddring, humming contentedly as he went about his work at the humble desk before him, heard a knock and a shuffling tread which by instinct he knew belonged to some member of the colored race. "Come in," said he, without looking up.
"Good mawnin', Mas' Edd'ern," said the newcomer.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Jack?" said Eddring. "Well, come in."
Jack by profession was a local expressman, owner of a rickety wagon and a tumble-down mule. He was coffee-colored in complexion. His feet projected quaintly behind as well as in front. His lips projected also, as did his eyes, wide-rimmed and bulging. His trousers were too long for him, and his coat hung limp from his stooped shoulders. His speech was low and soft. Not an heroic figure, you would have said, yet, as it seemed, a person possessed of a certain history.
"Where did you come from, Jack?" said Eddring. "I thought you were in jail up at Jackson."
"No, sah, Mas' Edd'ern," replied Jack. "Dem folks up thah never did put me in jail at all. I got tired of it, an' at las' I jest walked on home."
As to the case of Jack, there had recently been enacted, on the public square of this southern city, a tawdry little tragedy in brown and coffee color, having to do with the fascinations of a certain damsel known in her own circles as the "gold-tooth girl." The latter had, in her earlier days, drifted northward, where she had learned many things, among these the fact that the white race is exceedingly difficult to imitate, desirable though such imitation may seem. The mistress of Sally chanced to be the possessor of a gold-crowned tooth, and nothing would do Sally herself except the same ornament. Having persuaded a dentist to sacrifice one of her splendid bits of ivory, she became so enamored of her own dazzling smile that perforce she must return again to the South, where such radiance would in all likelihood meet with a better reception. To such charms it was small wonder that Jack, a man of certain solidity and stability of business among his kind, should have fallen victim. Jack and Sally had lived together some six months before Jack had come into Mr. Eddring's office and asked for the loan of a six-shooter. This latter he had returned a couple of hours later, with the calm remark that he had just shot a "yaller nigger" who had been "pesterin' 'round his wife." Jack's arrest and trial followed quickly. Eddring, out of friendship, took his case, and promptly lost it, it being the argument of the prosecuting attorney that "we can't have shooting here on the streets by niggers." Pending the argument for a new trial, Jack had been sent to Jackson jail, where he met with the difficulty of one for whom there seems to be no place in the social system.
"Dem white folks up thah never would let me in jail at all," said he, complainingly. "When I got thah, de jailah man and his wife wuz right sick, and dey warn't no one to take care o' things. I ain't bad at nussin' folks, so I jest turned in an' nussed dat jailah man an' his folks fer 'bout six weeks. I soht o' run dat jail, up dah, fer a while, myself. De jailah was too po'ly to enjoy wu'kkin' vehy hahd, so I tuk de keys, an' when dey didn't need me at nights, ovah at his house, I allus locked myse'f in reg'lar every night, so's to feel I wuz doin' right, you know. In de mawnin', right early, I made breakfast foh dem, an' fix dem up like. Fin'lly, dey got well, an' I giye de keys to de jailah er de she'iff, er whoever he wuz, and I sez I reckon he bettah lock me up now, and he sez to me, 'Go long, you damn nigger, I ain't a-goin' to lock you up at all. I couldn't,' says he to me. It looks like dere ain't no place fer a nigger."
"Well, Jack," suggested Eddring, trying not to smile, "why don't you walk across the bridge there, over into Arkansas, and get clear of this whole thing for good?"
"Now, Mas' Edd'ern, whut makes you talk like dat? You know I wouldn' do dat an' leave you heah, 'sponsible fer me."
"Well," said Eddring, "in some ways your case does seem a little irregular, but perhaps the court would fix it up now and let you stay right where you are. You go and get your mule and wagon, if you can find them, and go to work again. I'll see Judge Baines this evening, and tell him just what you have told me. Go on, now. I suppose you are going to take that woman back to live with you?"
"Oh, yessah. I kain't help dat nohow. I done licked her dis mawnin', fust thing I done. She's a heap more humble and con-trite now."
At this Eddring grumbled and turned back to his work. Still Jack hesitated. A certain gravity sat on his face.
"Mas' Edd'ern," said he, finally, "kin you tell me why de rivah is out all ovah de lan' down below, and why dere's so many people wu'kkin' tryin' to stop de breaks?"
"No," said Eddring. "I know there's a big overflow, and it's getting worse."
"Mas' Edd'ern," said Jack, stepping close to him, "dar's been a heap of devil-ment to wu'k down dah."
"What do you know about it?"
"I knows a heap about it. De niggers all over in dah is gittin' mighty bad. Now, my wife she done tol' me dat dis mawnin',—she's a-feelin' mighty con-trite."
"What did she tell you about it?"
"Well, Mas' Edd'ern, you know, sah, dere's a heap o' things about black folks dat white folks kain't understand an' nevah will. You know fer ovah fifty yeahs black folks has been thinkin' sometime dey'd run dis country. All de time dere's some 'ligious doctah, or preacheh or other, tellin' dem dat. Now, dat sort o' thing been goin' on down dah fer long while. Dere's a sort o' woman, conjuh woman, 'mongst dem. Dey call her de Queen now.
"Now, while I wuz up at Jackson, my wife she done had a heap o' truck wid dem niggers f'om down in dah. My wife tol' me all about dis yer Queen. She tol' me all about the devil-ment dat's been goin' on and is a-gwine to go on down in dat country. Hit's right in whah Cunnel Blount lives. I've knowed for yeahs, o' co'se, how frien'ly you two is to each otheh. Now, Mas' Edd'ern, you've been right good to me. I dess thought—seein' dat I couldn't pay you nohow—I'd tell you dis heah, and you could do whut you liked. De trufe is, niggers down heah been gittin' mighty biggoty lately, dey get so much 'couragement f'om up Norf. Massa Edd'ern, dey sho'ly do think dey gwine ter run dis country atter while. O' co'se every nigger whut's got any sense knows diff'rent f'om dat, but it seem like dey allus wuz a heap o' triflin' niggers whut ain't willin' to wu'k, but is willin' to make trouble. I dess thought I'd tell you 'bout dis heah."
Eddring turned at his desk for a moment. "Take this over to the telegraph office at once, Jack," said he. "It's a message to Colonel Blount. I want to see him; and I want you to stay around, so I can get you when he comes up."
THE OPINIONS OF CALVIN BLOUNT
It was nearly noon of the following day before Colonel Calvin Blount, in response to the summons of Eddring, presented himself at the office of the latter. He was Calvin Blount grown still more gaunt and gray and grizzled, though his eye lacked nothing of its accustomed fire. He seated himself, and cast one long leg across the other, as he threw his hat into a chair, in response to Eddring's invitation.
"First," said Eddring, "tell me about yourself. It has been quite a while since I've been down at your place, hasn't it?"
"Well, as to the place," replied Blount, "it's pretty much gone to pieces. You know my idea is that the chief end of man is to go b'ah hunting, and he oughtn't to be guilty of contributory negligence by staying at home too much. There's been no one to run the place, and I haven't cared. Least said about it, the best, I reckon."
"Who is your housekeeper now?" asked Eddring.
"No one, unless you call it that girl Delphine that used to work for Mrs. Ellison. She came back there a while ago, and said she hadn't any place to live, and wanted to go to work, so I told her to take hold. I don't care. I've been livin' out in the woods most of the time. There's more b'ahs now than you ever did see. You ought to come down and have a hunt. The high water has driven 'em all up to the ridges, and we can just get all of 'em we want."
"Well, I like to hunt once in a while," said Eddring, placing the tips of his fingers together judicially, "but, you see, I'm a poor man, and I have to do a little work once in a while, Now, you've got that big plantation of yours—"
"Plantation!" snorted Blount; "yes, about half my fields are grown up in sassafras brush. I rented out a thousand acres to the best niggers I had, and I give 'em mules and machinery and a stake at the store, and I told 'em to go ahead, and we'd split even at the end of the year. It's no use. I've got to begin all over again, the same as I did when I first started in there. It don't take long for that country to slide back into brush, if you don't keep after it. It would be cane and sassafras and cat briers all over to-day, so far as the niggers are concerned. Why, man, if you opened the gates of Heaven and showed them to Mr. Nigger, yon couldn't get him in, unless you kicked him in."
"You don't seem exactly in accord with the modern idea of uplifting the colored race, this morning, do you, Colonel?"
"No, I don't. Now, I wish our friends from the North would do one of two things, either leave Mr. Nigger alone, or else take him up North, and live with him themselves. You know what happened down at my place last month?"
"No, anything new?"
"No, nothing new, only another one of them investigatin' parties from up North. They had a good fat new educator, half-nigger, half-white, this time—educated a heap more'n I am. He was the king bee in that lot of evangelizers and elevators. Well, I took them out over my farms and showed them the sassafras shoots coming up where the cotton ought to be. 'Gentlemen,' said I, 'here's an instance of what an intelligent and industrious race can do. Here's the best plantation in the Delta turned over to these people to make or break. This is the richest soil in the world. They had half of all they could raise, and they had their living guaranteed them. Nobody guarantees me a living, not even God A'mighty. They didn't put up a dollar, nor an ounce of brains, nor a bit of worry. Now, did they work, or did they sit in the shade and loaf? You look around and tell me.'
"The big half-white man began to preach to me, and I says to him, 'Before you go on, I just want to ask you two questions. First, how much of you is nigger, and how much is white? Second, do you want to quit running a college up North, and come down here and take hold of this plantation, and so help out three hundred fellow-citizens of yours who are a heap more interested in the nigger question than you are yourself?' I asked that fellow that. That's when he shrunk some."
Eddring smiled, but it was a serious smile, for the South has small inclination to jest over questions such as these.
"Well, about all the fellow could do was to fall back on his old song about education uplifting the race. 'That's all right,' I said to him. 'I'll pay my share of that. But we've got to wait until your millennium comes. It's no use saying it has come, when it hasn't. It's going to take a long time before you get the real useful educating done.'
"I got riled, talking to him, and at last I called up one of my field hands—he had ruined twenty acres of the best cotton land I had—and I took him by the ear and pulled out a bunch of his hair. Said I to him, 'Sam, is your hair like mine! Would it ever get like mine?' 'No, boss,' said he, 'not in a hundred yeahs.' He laughed at me.
"Then I said to that white fellow from the North, 'How hard do you work? I want to know that.' He began to swell up a little at that. Well, I put it to him this way. Says I, 'There was a man came down through here a few years ago, and he got plumb rich. He told all these poor black people all around that for fifty cents he'd sell them a bottle of stuff that would make their hair straight like a white man's, in less'n a month. He always put it about a month ahead, so that he'd have time to get away. Now, that hair tonic man was what I call a professional benefactor of the nigger race,' said I. 'He got paid for it, just the same as you do. And,' says I, 'he'll straighten out their hair with his hair tonic just about as soon as you'll straighten out their problem with your particular kind of ointment— for which you are getting better paid than he did.'
"That riled the fellow plenty, but I went on talking to him. 'The only difference between you and him,' says I to him, 'is that he was whole white and was running a straight bluff, and you are part white, and are running a half-way sort of bluff. You pray to God A'mighty so much about this that you have just about got yourself half-persuaded that you're honest. Do you reckon that you have got God A'mighty persuaded that way, too?' said I to him. That made an awful disturbance in the evangelizing and elevating outfit, and finally I got out of patience. Says I to them, 'I don't want to forget that you are visitors at my place. You white folks can come to my table, if you want to, or you can eat with the oppressed and downtrodden out in my kitchen, if you like that better. Your fellow-citizen, with the specialty of elevating the downtrodden, can't eat at my table. After you get it fixed up the way that suits you best, and have had your dinner, I want you-all to go out and take one more look at the sassafras that's growing on as fine a cotton land as ever lay out of doors. If you can elevate my niggers so that they'll work, why go ahead and do it. God knows they need it. Learn 'em geometry, learn 'em to write poetry, send 'em to Europe to learn painting, but please put somewhere in your college a department showing how to dig up stumps and chop sassafras roots. 'You'll pardon me,' says I, 'for I'm a plain man; but I just want to say that that's the kind of elevating that the black race in America needs most. But whatever you do, don't be foolish. Don't say to me that that's done which you and I both know ain't done.'"
Both Eddring and Blount were silent for a time. "Those folks stayed in around our country for quite a while," resumed Blount, "and they succeeded in stirring up the niggers to thinking that they were not getting a square deal, but ought to break into politics once more. A few of us planters got together, and we were so stirred up about it that we thought we would do something right funny. Our county election was coming on, and you know we have got about ten black voters to one white down there. Under the Constitution we couldn't elect a white man down there in a hundred years—not if we followed the Constitution. This time, just for a joke—but listen—do you know what we did?"
"Well, it's pretty hard to tell just what Cal Blount would do, sometimes," said Eddring, "but I don't doubt you did something foolish."
"No, we didn't. We just had a joke. We let them elect a nigger sheriff for Tullahoma County! We just 'lowed we'd give 'em a touch of law as a sort of object lesson to the Northern elevators. Thought we'd take a shot at the educating business ourselves. The fellow's name is Mose Taylor, and say! he's the tickledest nigger you ever did see! He's about half-white, too, and he always did want to break into politics one way or another. Now, he's done broke in. We let him, just for a joke. Of course, when there's any need for a real sheriff, we white people allow that we'll have to use the old one— Jim Peters."
"Well, these things aren't always just exactly the best kind of jokes," said Eddring. "You have been having nothing but trouble down there for a long time."
"Trouble!" said Blount, "I should say we have. We've tried to keep it a white man's country, but it's been a fight every day of the year. Niggers stole and killed all the cattle of my neighbors down in there, and we hung two or three niggers last month for stealing cows. We put a sign on them, 'You stole a cow, cow killed you.' You've got to make things sort of plain, you know, to these people, so's they can understand 'em. Now, you know the trouble we had down there about that train wreck. It's morally sure the niggers were at the bottom of that, one way or another. That ain't all. I told you we were having a big overflow now. Well, the fact is, we found out a day or so ago that this overflow is mostly hand-made. They've been cutting the levees—"
"Blount," said Eddring, quietly, "that's just why I telegraphed you to come up here. I've got a boy here who knows about the whole proposition. They're organizing, as sure as you're born, and they've got a leader. They've got a Queen, they say."
"A Queen!" snorted Blount, jumping to his feet. "Queen, eh? Well, now! you look here, if we ever do get hold of that Queen, I want to tell you, she'll have the uneasiest head that ever did wear any kind of crown. Queen, eh!"
"And you've got a nigger sheriff now! Fine machinery for the law to have in that part of the Delta just at this time, isn't it?"
"Sheriff! What do we need of a sheriff, if we get down to the bottom of this devilment? We have got to put it down, and that's all there is to it, as you know very well. There's no two ways about it. These disturbances, most of them due to politics, have upset our whole country. Now, it is for us to set it right again. We've got to cut politics out, and get down to common sense, down to business. The South can't wait for ever on politics, Northern or Southern. This country's bigger than politics, and bigger than politicians. You know we can count on every white man in my part of the Delta. Can we count on you?"
Eddring hesitated, but finally looked his friend in the face. "I'm a white man," said he. Blount went on.
"What you tell me is not altogether news. We're going after these people, and we're going to put an end to this thing once for all. We're going to have a country. Now, we want as large a number of white gentlemen as possible. We will want you.
"Now, no matter what you are doing, or where you are, will you come when I send for you!"
Eddring repeated simply, "I am a white man, too."
"It's for the law, Eddring—for the country."
"Yes. I think it's for the law."
REGARDING LOUISE LOISSON
"Come out and eat with me, Cal," said Eddring. "I've some other matters to put before you. A great many things have been so confused in my mind that I have hardly known where to begin to straighten them out."
"I reckon you've got some new lawsuit or other on your hands," said Blount.
"You're right. At least it may be a lawsuit, and it certainly bids fair to be a puzzling study, lawsuit or not."
After they were seated at table in an adjoining cafe, Eddring tossed over to his friend a late copy of a New Orleans newspaper. "You see that headline?" said he. "It's all about a dancer, Miss Louise Loisson. You ever hear that name before?"
"Why, no, I don't seem to remember it, if I ever did."
"Well, that name is bothering me mightily just now. You know something of the history of those old Y. V. damage judgments, after I left the road?"
"Yes, I reckon I heard something about it. Some one seems to have got hold of the list of claims, and pushed them for all they were worth. Of course, I know you hadn't anything to do with that."
"It was an odd sort of thing," said Eddring, "and it has led up to a number of other things still more strange. Now, no one knows how that information regarding the claims got out. I told you that I found that complete list of the claims in the valise of the mysterious man, Mr. Thompson, who was killed in the train wreck at your place. Of course I turned over all this material to the company at once. But there must have been a duplicate list out somewhere. I had my own suspicions. I knew, or thought I knew, why the dogs ran that trail right up to your house. Here's one reason I had for that." He threw on the table before Blount a soiled and wrinkled bit of linen, the same mysterious handkerchief which he had put in his pocket at the train wreck long ago.
"Did you ever see that before?" asked he. Blount sat up straighter and looked closely at the object, but shook his head.
"It might be Delphine's," said Eddring. At this the other man shut his mouth hard and his face grew suddenly serious.
"Now, I say I had suspicions," resumed Eddring. "That list of claims was never written out by that traveling man, Thompson. It might have been done by Henry Decherd, might it not?"
"What makes you think so?"
"Nothing, except that I believe those papers were in Henry Decherd's valise. In fact, I know it. He did not want to claim the valise when he saw that I had it. This letter might very possibly have been written by Delphine to Decherd. See here." He placed before Blount the unsigned letter which he had preserved ever since the time of its discovery. Blount read it through in silence, flushing a bit to see his own name mentioned by a servant in such connection; but without comment he looked quietly at Eddring, now eager in the instinct of the chase.
"I'll tell you frankly, Cal," said the latter, "I guessed all along that these two were concerned in all this business, but I couldn't speak. I didn't dare tell my suspicions when I had no better proof than was possible to get at that time. I didn't want to tell the sheriff. I didn't dare tell even you what I thought. Now there was something else in that valise which I did not turn over to the company, because I did not think it was their property."
He took from his pocket the mysterious little volume, the same which had so strangely appeared at different times and in the hands of different parties, not all of whom were at that time known to himself. Blount turned it over curiously in his hand.
"Funny sort of book for a traveling man to have in his valise," said he. "You reckon he was some sort of book collector?"
"Well, I don't reckon that Thompson was. Upon the other hand, Henry Decherd might have been, for certain reasons. Let's see.
"Now, here is this little French book. It tells about a certain journey made from America to France in the year 1825 by several Indian chieftains. They went with one Paul Loise, interpreter. With them was a young girl, Louise Loisson—don't you see the name?—and she is carefully described as a descendant, not of Paul Loise, but of the Comte de Loisson, a nobleman who came to St. Louis shortly before 1825."
Blount sat up still straighter in his chair. "This here is mighty strange," said he. "Names sound right near alike."
"Yes," said Eddring. "But that Louise Loisson must have been dead, buried and forgotten half a hundred years ago. If so, what is she doing dancing down at New Orleans to-day? As soon as I saw that name in the newspaper, I looked it up again in my little book. Then I put together my suspicions about the letter, and the list, and the valise. If I hadn't seen the name in the newspaper, I might never have been so much interested in it; and certainly I should never have put the matter before you."
"I am mighty glad you did. There may be a heap under all this that I want to know about."
"There is. And now I want you to follow me closely; because this very same thing has come to me from another direction.
"You know that in my work I have to examine papers in all sorts of claim cases. Now, within the year, I ran across a United States Supreme Court brief, a case which came up from the Indian Nations, and which was decided not long ago. It seems that the plaintiff used to be on the Omaha pay-rolls. Some one in the tribe, apparently as a test case, covering certain other claims, objected that the claimant was not all Indian, indeed not Indian at all, and hence not entitled to be on the rolls; although you know Uncle Sam recognizes Indian blood to the one-two-hundred-and-fiftieth part.
"I might never have taken much interest in that suit, which I happened to be going over for other reasons, if I hadn't caught sight, in the testimony, of the names of Loise and Loisson, and if I hadn't found the name of Henry Decherd among counsel for the plaintiff!"
"Well, by jinks, that's mighty curious!" said Blount. "I didn't know he was a lawyer."
"Yes. He was a lawyer; so much the more dangerous, as I'll show you. Now Paul Loise was official interpreter for the United States government at St. Louis in 1825. He was of absolutely no kinship to the Comte de Loisson, the similarity of names being a mere coincidence, though one which has made much trouble in the records since that time, as I have discovered. The confusion of these two names was one of the most singular legal blunders ever known in the South. It was this entanglement of the records that gave Henry Decherd his chance.
"The Comte de Loisson was a widower, and he brought with him from France a young daughter. He pushed on up the Missouri River in search of adventures, but he left this daughter, as nearly as can now be learned, in charge of the half-breed interpreter, Paul Loise, perhaps with the understanding that the latter was to obtain suitable care for her from officials in the government employ. That was about the time the Redhead Chief—Clark, of Lewis and Clark, you know—was Indian commissioner at St. Louis.
"Now Paul Loise, at that time engaged in the government treaty work with the tribes, was moving about from tribe to tribe, and he seems to have had an Indian wife in pretty much every one of them. He also had a white wife, or one nearly white, whom he left at his headquarters in St. Louis; and it was with this woman, white or partly white, that the young daughter of the Comte de Loisson was left, at least for a time. Paul Loise himself on one journey went up the river to the place where the Omaha tribe then lived. Whether he took this white child with him, or whether he left her in charge of his white wife at St. Louis, is something now very difficult to prove. This United States Supreme Court case hinges very largely on that same question; and hence it is of great interest to us, as I will show you after a while."
"Well, now, couldn't this dancer down at New Orleans—some sort of Creole like enough—have been a descendant of this Loise family of St. Louis?" asked Blount.
"That we can't tell," replied Eddring. "As I said, the similarity of the names set me looking up the whole matter as soon as I could."
"Well, didn't the French girl's father ever come back after her?"
"Wait. We'll come to that. The one thing certain is that he never came back down the Missouri River. He disappeared absolutely, no doubt killed somewhere by the Indians. His daughter grew up as best she might. She went to France, as our book shows. After a time Paul Loise, her erstwhile protector, died also. Here Louise Loisson disappears from view. She left behind her a very pretty legal question for others to solve, and a mightily mixed set of records to aid in the solution.
"Out of the uncertainty regarding the descendants of Paul Loise there arose a great deal of litigation. This lawsuit, which I have mentioned, no doubt originated by reason of that very confusion. Now, the attorneys in that suit had a knowledge of the existence of this very book which you have in your hand. They stated in this brief that there was but one copy of this book existing in America, that in the Congressional Library at Washington. They won their case by means of this book as evidence; for here is full proof, printed in Paris in 1825, that these Indians went to Paris, accompanied by Paul Loise, and by one Louise Loisson, a white girl, noble, and not his daughter; which meant that he had a mixed-blood daughter elsewhere, from whom the claimant had descent.
"How this book got into the possession of Henry Decherd—of course it did not belong to the man Thompson-is something I can't tell. He no doubt intended to use it for his own purposes, as I will try to show you after a while. As to this Supreme Court case from the Indian Nations, it simply proves that the claimant did have a status on the pay-rolls; and it stops at that. The case is irrefutable evidence on the Paul Loise descent question. Perhaps Decherd, for reasons which we shall possibly find out, was not willing to let the matter rest quite there.
"As to our little book, it is a gay one enough. It says that the chieftains from America were received with distinguished honors in the city of Paris. They had so much champagne that three of them died. A titled woman of France fell in love with one of them, and there were all sorts of high jinks. As to the young girl—La Belle Americaine they called her—it seems that Paris could not have enough of her. She was all the rage. She taught them the dances of the 'sauvages.' 'Tres interessantes' the Frenchmen thought these dances, it seems. That's all we know of her—she danced. Well, if Mademoiselle Louise Loisson, down at New Orleans to-day, is as successful with her line of dancing as her possible mamma or grandmamma was in Paris years ago, it would certainly seem she has no reason for complaint."
Blount sank back in his chair with a deep sigh. "You were right," said he. "It is a little hard to understand all this at first, but I'm beginning to see. And unless I'm mistaken, this thing is going to come home mighty close to us. Decherd has surely been mixed up in this, if this was really his book, or in his valise, as you think. Delphine is in it, too, if that letter to him means anything. But now, what was Decherd after?"
"I'll tell you," said Eddring, "or at least, I'll show you what I have discovered so far, and you can guess at the rest.
"When I got thus far along I was pretty deeply interested, as you see, and I followed it on out, just for the love of the mystery. Now I have unearthed the fact that the Comte de Loisson did leave some property when he died. Soon after his arrival in the neighborhood of St. Louis, he bought a good-sized tract of land, down in what is now St. Francois County, below St. Louis. The lands at that time were thought valueless, but perhaps the Comte de Loisson had more scientific knowledge than most of the inhabitants of St. Louis at that time. Perhaps he intended to develop his lands after he returned from his adventures up the Missouri River. He never did return, and the lands seem to have lain untouched for a generation or more, still for the most part considered valueless.
"Now, when I had got that far along, I took the trouble to look up the numbers of the sections of this land. Cal, I want to tell you that that land to-day is in the middle of the St. Francois lead region, which is full of this new disseminated lead ore, which everybody for a time thought was only flint!"
"On Jordan's strand—" began Blount, suddenly bursting into song.
"I don't blame you for being disturbed," said Eddring, himself smiling. "As you see, there is something under all this. Maybe Mr. Decherd is a bigger man than we gave him credit for being. Maybe this little book is a bigger book than we thought it was.
"Now, you know, the entail has been abolished in the state of Missouri. So we come directly to the question of the descent of these lead lands under a certain name. Of course, a single heir in each of three generations would carry the title down clear till to-day; provided, of course, that there was no escheat to the government— that all the taxes had been kept up. Very well. That means that it is at least a legal possibility for a living heir to-day to have title to those Loisson lead mines, which are very valuable. Cal—" and here Eddring rose, tapping with his finger on the table in front of him, "the Louise Loisson who went to France in 1825 was the owner of those lead mines! Now I have looked up the tax record. The taxes on these lands for several years back have been paid by Henry Decherd!"
Blount himself rose and stood back, hands in pockets, looking at the speaker. "—I'll take my stand!" he continued with his hymn.
"For a long time," went on Eddring, "these lands, not supposed to be worth anything, were not listed by any assessor, and hence did not appear upon the tax-rolls. Thus they were not forfeited by the original purchaser, who must have had his title pretty nearly direct from Uncle Sam himself. Louise Loisson, the first, the French noblewoman dancer, owned those lead mines. If this dancer at New Orleans be a relative of hers, a daughter or granddaughter, she won't have to dance unless she feels like it. For I am here to tell you, as a lawyer, her claim to this tract can be proved, just as readily as the claim to a place on the Omaha pay-rolls for a descendant of Paul Loise was proved in the United States Court five years ago, by means of this same book on the table there before you!"
"Well now, my son, that's what an ignorant fellow like me would call a mighty pretty lawsuit," said Blount, turning over the curious little red-bound volume in his hand.
"It's more than pretty," said Eddring, "it's deep, and it's important—important to you and me, for more reasons than one. There has been a heap of trouble down in the Delta, and there has been a head to all this trouble-making. We are now entitled to our guess as to whether or not we have in this curious way located the head. If we are right, we have at least connected Henry Decherd with an attempt to secure, either for himself or some one else, the title to these lands.
"Now, whether the rightful heir, if there be any heir, knows of the existence of these lands, or ever heard of this book, or ever heard of that Indian lawsuit, is something which we don't know. There may not be any living descendant of the Loisson family. All we know is that there is some one using the Loisson name; and that there is some one else who is after the Loisson estates. Now, just why this latter has had certain associates, or just why he has done certain other acts, you and I can't say at this time. But we'll know some time."
"The first thing to do, of course, is to go to New Orleans to see that dancer woman."
"Of course," said Eddring. "I shall start tomorrow. As for you, Blount, you've got hint enough about what's going on in your own neighborhood. You'd better watch that girl Delphine. What are you letting her stay around there for, anyway?"
"Because I've got to eat," said Blount, "and because I've got to have some one to run that place. As I told you, I haven't been there much of the time till lately. I reckon she's been boss, about as much as anybody. You know there wasn't a white woman on the place, not since Miss Lady left. I couldn't ever bear to try to get anybody else in there. I just let things go."
"What became of Mrs. Ellison, after she left your place?"
"I don't know; don't ask me. I was an awful fool ever to get caught in any such a way. I heard Mrs. Ellison went to St. Louis, but I don't know. As I look at it now, I believe Decherd was more than half willing to make up to Miss Lady. I reckon maybe Mrs. Ellison didn't like that, though why she should care I don't know. Don't ask me about all these things—I've had too much trouble to want to think about it. All I know is that the girl was as fine a one as ever lived. She was good—now I know that, and that's all I do know. I always thought she was Mrs. Ellison's daughter; but when the break-up came, they allowed it wasn't that way. I never did try to figure it all out. When Miss Lady disappeared, and we-all couldn't find her nowhere, I just marked the whole thing off the slate, and went out hunting."
"Cal," said Eddring, quietly, "did you ever stop to think that there is quite a similar sound in those three names, Loise, and Loisson, and Ellison?"
Blount threw out his hands before him. "Oh, go on away, man," said he. "You've got me half-crazy now. I don't know where I'm standing, nor where I've been standing. I don't feel safe in my own home—I haven't been safe. My whole place has gone to ruin, and all on account of this business. It's nigh about done me up, that's what it has. And now here you come making it worse and worse all the time."
"But we've got to see it through together."
"Oh, I reckon so. Yes, of course we must."
"Well, now, let's just look over the matter once more," said Eddring. "Let us suppose that Decherd has stumbled on this knowledge of the unclaimed Loisson estate. He works every possible string to get hold of it. He tries to get tax title—and that is where he uncovers his own hand. Meanwhile, he tries the still safer plan of finding a legal heir. We will suppose he has two claimants. From this letter here we may suppose that Delphine was one of them, his first one. He seems to have learned from this Indian lawsuit, whether or not he was concerned other than as counsel in that lawsuit—and the record does not show whether or not he was—that Delphine, or his claimant, whoever that was—we'll say Delphine, for we don't know Delphine's real name, perhaps—could and did stick on the pay-rolls of an Indian tribe. That meant that she was Loise, and not Loisson. The United States Court records hold that absolute evidence, res adjudicata— stare decisis; which means, in plain English, that ends it. It also means that that Indian claimant could not inherit the Loisson estate!
"Now here is an unknown woman, whom we will call Delphine, begging Decherd not to forsake her. There would seem to have been a failure on this line of the Decherd investigation. Perhaps the result of the test case didn't please Decherd very much, although he was on the winning side. At least, it marked the Loise claimant off the Loisson slate. So much for claimant number one. So much for Delphine, we'll say.
"But now, at some time or other, Miss Lady and Mrs. Ellison appeared on the scene. I don't know, any more than you do, how these three happened to know each other, or why Decherd happened to appear so steadily at your place, after you had so eagerly taken his suggestion and employed Mrs. Ellison as your household supervisor. But now, we will say, Decherd takes a great notion to Miss Lady. All the time Delphine is there watching him. She puts on a heap more airs than a colored mistress. Along about the time of the train wreck, she begins to charge him with faithlessness. She refers vaguely, as you see in the letter, to his interest in this other woman. Now, can that be our Miss Lady?
"We don't know. None of us can tell, as yet, who that mysterious other person is. Mrs. Ellison might tell us, if we could find her, or if we cared to find her."
"No, you don't," said Blount. "That woman stays off the map. The only one of the three we want to find is Miss Lady."
"Yes," said Eddring, "if we had Miss Lady, and if we could get Mrs. Ellison and Henry Decherd to tell the truth as Miss Lady would, then we would learn easily a great many things which perhaps it will cost us a great deal of trouble to uncover."
"Well," said Blount, sighing, as he walked moodily across the room, "my own little world seems to be pretty much turned upside down. I can't say you make me any happier by all this. The only thing I can see clear is that you've got to get to New Orleans as soon as you can. There's reasons plenty for you to go."
The two men looked at each other for a moment, but said nothing. "Give me my little book," said Eddring, finally. "I fancy Mr. Henry Decherd would be glad enough to have that back in his own hands again. There's his evidence. This is the key to his plans, whatever they are."