Blount groaned as he swung about on his heel. "Good God! man," he said, "don't! To hell with your lawsuit! What do we care about mixed names, or all this underhanded work? Never mind about me and my affairs—I'll take care of that. Man, it's Miss Lady we want. We don't know what has happened to her. The rest don't make any difference."
"Yes," said John Eddring, "it's Miss Lady. The rest makes little difference."
"Go on, then," said Blount, fiercely, smiting on the table. "Now, find out about this Louise Loisson. Maybe then you'll hear something, somewhere, that'll give you track of our Miss Lady. Start to New Orleans at once—I'm going down home, to watch that end of the line. We're going after those levee-cutters. As I said, we may want you, and if I send for you, get to my place as fast as you can. Never mind how you get there, but come. And man! if we could only get Miss Lady back! If she—"
"If we could!" said John Eddring, reverently.
THE RELIGION OF JULES
Eddring made his journey to New Orleans, as he had promised. On the morning following his arrival he took his breakfast at one of the quaint cafes of the city, a place with sanded floors and clustered tables, and a frank view of a kitchen in full though deliberate operation. One Jules, duck-footed, solemn and deliberate, served him, and was constituted general philosopher and friend, as had for some time been Eddring's custom in his frequent visits to this place.
"Jules," said he, tapping the newspaper in his hand, "how about this? It seems you have a new dancer at the Odeon, very beautiful, very mysterious, very interesting!"
"Ah, Monsieur, all the young gentlemen they grow crezzy, that is now four, five month, Monsieur."
"Who is she, then, Jules, and what? Is she indeed very beautiful?"
"It is establish', Monsieur. No one has ever seen her face. As to her grace and youth, it is not to doubt. She dance always in the domino, and no man may say in truth he has pass' word with Louise Loisson. She is the idol, the nouvelle sensation of the city."
"Goes masked, eh? Young, beautiful, eh? Well, I should say that's not bad advertising, at least."
"Monsieur," said Jules, earnestly, "do not say it at the club. It would provoke discussion, and the young gentlemen might have anger. Mademoiselle Louise is worship' in this town. At first, non! It was thought as you say. But soon this feeling of the young men it has shange'. It has go into devotion. Now it is religion!"
"Well, that is a pretty state of affairs, isn't it?"
"But I say to you that this Louise Loisson, she dance not like the othair femmes du ballet—absolument non." Jules became excited, spreading out his hands and letting fall his napkin.
"It is different, the quality of the dance of mademoiselle," said he. "It is quelque chose, I do not know what. It is not to describe. It make you think, thass all. As I say, she has come to be a religion."
"But where does this divine creature live, Jules? Who is she? Come, now? you ought to tell me that much,"
Jules went on polishing a glass. "Ah, Monsieur, why you h'ask?" said he. "I may say so much, like this; she live with a lady in the French town—very fine, very quiet, very secret. It is the house of old family which was bought by Madame Delchasse. Madame, you have know, perhaps? She was long time the bes' cook in New Orleans. She make plenty money. When Mademoiselle Louise she first come here, she is very poor, she have no friend. Somehow she is found by this Madame Delchasse. Monsieur and Madame Delchasse, they have once together the res'traw. Monsieur is very fond of the escargot a la Bourgogne, and one day he eat too many escargot. Madame, she run the res'traw, sell great many meal to the dam-yankees; sell the cook-book to the dam- yankees aussi. Thus she get rich—very rich, and buy the house on l'Esplanade. But madame is lonely. She is not receive' by the old French familles. Monsieur Delchasse is dead, her shildren are dead— she is alone. She take Louise Loisson home to live. My faith! she is watch her like the cat."
"But how about this dancing? Why does she need to dance?" queried Eddring.
"Ah, she has dance two, t'ree time in the house of Madame Delchasse. 'It is zhenius,' exclaim Madame Pelchasse at this dance; and always, and always, tou-jours, she tell of the zhenius of this jeune fille who has come live with her. Thass all. The proprietaire of the Odeon, he fin' it hout. He insist, this jeune fille shall dance. She riffuse. He insist, he offer much money. At las', she say she dance if she have always the masque. 'Bon!' he cry, and so it is determine'. She dance always in the domino. It is most romantique, most a'mirab'. So this is now the religion of all the young men, mais, oui, this jeune fille, Mademoiselle Louise Loisson!"
"And how does Madame Delchasse regard this public dancing by her jeune fille?"
"Monsieur, she worship' Mademoiselle Louise. But she say, 'This is art, and of art the world it is not to be deprive!' It is well for both madame and for Mademoiselle Louise. The luxury of those room in those old house, they far surpass the best of what one find in the new hotel. Mademoiselle have the best cook in New Orleans. She come in her carriage, she go the same. She drive up to the gate on l'Esplanade, and the gate is close! Behold all! You know so much as any gentleman of Nouvelle Orleans—you have the tenderloin of trout?"
After breakfast Eddring strolled over to the box office of the Odeon; but though he made diligent inquiry of the young man who met him at the window, the latter could give him no satisfaction beyond the mention of the address on the Esplanade where dwelt Madame Delchasse. He was very lukewarm in regard to further inquiries from the stranger.
The flavor of this little adventure began now to appeal to Eddring, and thus left to his own resources, he determined to assume a bold front and call in person at the old house on the Esplanade. It being still early, he wandered for a time about the strange old city; but the crooked streets and their quaint shops had lost their charm. The ancient Place d'Armes, the old Cabildo, the French market, the tumble-down buildings which house the courts of justice ceased to interest him. He was relieved when finally he felt it proper to turn up the old Esplanade, which wandered away with its rows of whitened trees, out among the dignified and reticent residences of the vieux carre.
The flavor of another day came to him. This, indeed, was the same Nouvelle Orleans, he reflected, from which in an earlier day the first Louise Loisson had set sail for France! He, by virtue of this old volume now resting in his pocket, was concerned with the fortunes of that earlier Louise Loisson. And yet, he acknowledged the growing feeling that in this matter there was coming to be for him something more than a professional interest. This thought he put away as best he could, chiding himself as perpetually visionary, though old enough now to dream no more.
In time he arrived at the street number to which he had been directed, and paused at the iron street gate which shielded even the carriage drive from the public. Through the bars of the gate he could see a well-kept, formal lawn and the peaked roof of the close- shuttered, green-balconied dwelling beyond. There could not have been a better abode, he reflected, for this mysterious personage who had called him hither on this fantastic, will-o'-the-wisp journey. Yet he pulled himself up with disgust. He dared not hope! He reproved himself sharply. No doubt he was to see presently a gushing or garrulous or ignorant young woman, whose pretended modesty was but an artifice, whose real soul was set upon the adulation of the public and the pecuniary gain received thereby. He was almost of a mind to turn away, and end his quest then and there.
He was not prepared for what was soon to happen. There came a hum of wheels along the old roadway, and a carriage pulled up at the walk. There alighted quickly the figure of a young girl, tall, slender, round, full-chested, abounding in health and vigor. So much could be seen at a glance. As to the face of the new-comer, the eyes were shielded by a dark blue domino, or short mask. Eddring saw beneath, this concealment a strong, round, tender chin; above, a pile of red- brown hair. He caught the flash of a sweeping bunch of scarlet ribbons, heard a quick rustling of skirts, saw an inscrutable face turned toward him; and then, before he had time to think or speak, a servant had swept open the great iron gate and the young woman had stepped within. She did not look back, but passed on rapidly up the gravel walk toward the house. And John Eddring, foolish, stunned, abashed, knew that he had seen the mysterious Louise Loisson! Ah, he had seen more—he had seen another!
He turned as he heard a footstep and a soft voice at his elbow. The passerby accosted him smiling, and he recognized Jules, the duck- footed.
"Ah, Monsieur," said the latter, "I see you have also discover' the shrine. Is it not beautiful, Monsieur—this worship of a pure jeune fille?"
The words brought Eddring back to his own proper senses. Forgetting all else, he sprang through the big gate, past the servant, and hastened up the walk. "Miss Lady! Miss Lady!" he cried.
"Miss Lady!" cried Eddring, yet again; and even as the hurrying figure before him reached the gallery steps, she heard the entreaty of his voice and turned. As she did so she tore from her face the concealing mask and stood before him, Miss Lady indeed—tall, straight, young and beautiful. Eddring moved forward impetuously, feeling all the thrill of her presence; all the lambency of woman, planet-like, far-off, mysterious. Eagerly he looked, and questioningly, doubtingly, and then there came a quick content to his heart. In spite of all, in spite of what might have been, this was Miss Lady herself and none other! Sweet as of old, and ah, fit indeed for worship! Ah, here, he cried out to himself, was that friend of his soul, lost now for a time, but found, now found again!
But even as he pressed forward, holding out his hands, his emotion shining in his eyes, there came a change upon Miss Lady's face.
"Ah, Mr. Eddring, it is you?" she said, and her voice had the upward inflection, as though she carelessly addressed an inferior. "I remember you very well, but I hardly thought to see you. Indeed, I should hardly have expected to see any one in just this way."
All that Eddring could do was to falter and cry out, "Yes, I have come! I have found you!"
"Indeed? But we do not receive callers. Our plan of life has been arranged otherwise. You might be observed even now. It would cause talk."
"Talk!" cried Eddring, now suddenly breaking into flame. "Why, let them talk! It is time there was talk—time you talked to some of your old friends—you, Miss Lady, who had so many friends."
"Friends!" said the girl, bitterly. "Friends!"
"Yes, friends!" cried Eddring. "Surely you know that Blount and I have moved heaven and earth trying to find you. Why you should go, why you should leave every one in ignorance and take up with mummery like this—it is something no sane person can tell. You have not done right, Miss Lady. You have not done right!"
The girl raised her head, a flame of anger upon her own cheek at this presumption. Yet she reserved her speech, and by gesture led Eddring to a spot concealed by the ivy-covered lattice. Her cheeks burned all the more hotly as Eddring went on.
"What mockery!" he cried.
"Yes, what mockery!" repeated Miss Lady. "What mockery that you should say these things to me! What had I up there? What was I? I was a servant, a dependent. Besides all that, things came up which would have driven any decent girl away. I could do nothing else but go. Oh, you don't know all. You can't be just, for you don't know."
"But your mother?"
"You mean Mrs. Ellison? She was not my mother, Mr. Eddring. I thought you knew that. That is one reason why I am here."
"She was not your mother? Then that was true?"
"She never was. She disappeared out of my life, and I know little about her now, excepting that she was the only mother I ever knew. There has been deception of some sort. There were so many sad and troublesome things that I could no longer endure my life as it was. I went away. I came here, I found a home."
"But Colonel Blount?"
"Sir, he was my friend. I can only say that in justice it was better for me to go. He is a noble man. If ever I pained him I am sorry. But as to friends—" she dangled the little domino on her finger, "this has been my only friend. It has kept me from seeing even myself. Without it I should have died." There were no tears in her eyes as she spoke. Eddring felt that he had now to do with a woman grown, sad, not light and unstable. There crowded to his tongue a thousand things.
"That!" said he. "You, Louise Loisson—you have indeed been masquerading. Tell me, how did you get that name?"
"It was an accident purely," said Miss Lady. "I found it in a book, years ago. It was unusual, and I took it for that reason. I wanted to get as far away from any possibility of detection by my friends as I possibly could. See," she smiled bitterly, "I am Louise Loisson now, the common dancer! I make my living in that way. But for that, and for the kindness of Madame Delchasse here, I might have starved. I am no longer any one you ever knew. Behind this mask sometimes I forget."
Eddring looked at her with strange earnestness. "You don't know how true is every word you speak," said he. "There is absolute fatality under all this. On my honor, I believe you are Louise Loisson, born over again! But look how fate brings you and me together: I did not know where Miss Lady Ellison had gone; I did not know who Louise Loisson might be; by chance, by the merest chance, I wished to learn— for other reasons only. Now, see! Why, it is fate, Miss Lady! I have found you both. Miss Lady, my dear girl, see! I have found everything else in the world at the same time." The pent-up yearning of his soul was in his voice, his eyes. The girl caught swift warning.
"I shall go in," said she; but he stopped her. She tore loose the hand which he would have taken. "Go!" said she, "and never must you come through that gate again. You were unasked, and never will be asked. You, to talk of friends! Why, you were the very last of any I ever knew whom I should have cared to see again."
"What—what is that?" He stumbled under this sudden blow.
"Oh, I have enough of men," said the girl, bitterly, "enough of humanity. But I will tell you this much, a friend of mine must first of all be an honest man. You talk to me of masquerading; take off: your own mask, and let me set my foot upon it, as I have set foot upon all my past! Sincerity, truth—I wonder if there is such a thing left in all of God's world. I did not ask you here, I do not welcome you here. Good-by. You must go."
He stood dumb, simply gazing at her, not understanding; and his absolute horror she took to be his mere confusion. Yet her eyes were more sad than angry as she went on.
"You've prospered, Mr. Eddring, I know," said she. "What a difference for you and me! A girl must walk so carefully, but a man may do as he pleases. You talk about fate, and that sort of thing, but no man with a life like yours can come into my life, mere dancer though I be. Before you go I want to say to you that I know the story of your discharge from the railroad. I know how you profited by your knowledge of the company's affairs—know other things not public regarding you. Since I do know these things, for you to dare to come to me in this way seems to me the worst of effrontery."
Still Eddring stood uncomprehending, stunned. "I—I do that?" he whispered, half to himself. "Did you think—could you believe—"
"I could believe nothing else."
"Who told you these things?" blazed he at length, as at last his heart once more sent the blood back through his veins.
"If you wish to know, I will tell you. It was Henry Decherd. I imagine he could furnish proof enough." She spoke defiantly, if perhaps wearily.
"Henry Decherd!" exclaimed Eddring. "Henry Decherd! Miss Lady, is it possible that you can stand alive under the sun of heaven and say these things to me? Is he here? Tell me, what right—"
But now the anger of Miss Lady herself was blazing, and all the cruelty of her sex was in her tone as she answered. "I need not tell you," said she, "but I will. Mr. Decherd is the only friend of my former life who cared enough for me to follow and find me. And so he has the right—"
"For what? Tell me, is there any truth in this newspaper paragraph— 'There is talk about the marriage of the mysterious Louise Loisson'? Don't tell me that he—that Decherd—" He gazed steadily into her eyes, but saw there that which made him forget all his purposes, forced him to remember nothing in the world but his sudden personal misery. And so for an instant he stood and suffered—until the sheer bigness of his soul began to reassert itself. All his love for her came back, and he forgot even his deadly hurt in the great wave of pity and tenderness which swept over him.
"Miss Lady," said he simply, after a time, "for myself it doesn't make so much difference, after all, I am one of the unlucky. But for you, as you say, it is at least your due that you should have honest men for your friends, and an honest man for your husband. I wanted you to trust me. I loved you. I wanted you to believe in me. I wanted you to marry me, Miss Lady—I will say it—and I wanted to tell you that long ago, before you left us. That is over now. You are unjust and cruel beyond all toleration—beyond all belief. You could by no possibility ever love me. But listen. You shall never marry Henry Decherd."
Ah, but it was a sweet and wonderful thing to see La Belle Louise dance; a strange and wonderful thing. She was so light, so strong, so full of grace, so like a bird in all her motions. She swam through the air as though her feet scarce touched the floor, her loose silken skirts resembling wings. Now on one side of the lighted stage, now back again, nodding, beckoning, courtesying to something which she saw—this spectacle must have moved any one of us to applause, as it did these thousands who came to witness it. The stage has no traditions of any dance like this of La Belle Louise. It is now danced no more, this dance which a maid or a lily or a tall white stork might understand, each after its own fashion.
Scores of times had La Belle Louise given this dance, each time with but trifling variations, each time to thunders of applause, with an art so free of effort that it was above all art. But what had now, for the first time, come to La Belle Louise? Did her bosom labor in the physical exertion of these measured steps? Was the quality of lightness and freedom lacking? Was the self-absorption, the abandonment, the impersonal, bird-like quality less to-night than before? And was the subtile, cruelly just sense of the public right in its hesitation, in its half-applause? Had there been actual change in the dancing of La Belle Louise?
The dancer looked from side to side, as though in search of some face or figure; as though in fear, in distress. Was she actually panting when she left the stage—she, La Belle Louise, the ethereal, the spirituelle, the very imponderable dream of the dance itself? This might have been; for presently she cast herself into the arms of Madame Delchasse in a state bordering upon actual panic.
"Auntie!" she cried, "I can not dance! I am done with it! I shall never dance again. I can not! I can not!" She trembled as though in actual fear or suffering as she spoke.
"Now, now, my cherished!" said the old French lady, gathering her to her ample bosom, "what is it that has come to you? You have illness? Come, we'll go at 'ome."
The dancer was slow in laying aside her silken skirts and putting on her street attire. Madame waited some time before thrusting her head through the half-open door, "See! my dearie," she cried, "I have the surprise for you. Monsieur shall ride home with you. He has ordered for to-night the second carriage, which I shall myself take—since you are so soon to ride with monsieur all the time, is it not?"
The head of madame disappeared. The girl, when at last ready to depart, sat with her gaze fixed on the door; yet she started when presently there came a knock. Henry Decherd entered.
"Louise!" he cried, "Louise!" and would have caught her in his arms. She repulsed him and stood back, pale and trembling.
"Oh, I say," protested Decherd, "one would think I had no right."
"You have no right to touch me," she replied. "You shall not. Go on away with auntie in the other carriage. I will follow you home."
"Come, now," said Decherd, approaching; "this sort of thing won't do. I don't understand what you mean."
"No, you don't understand a girl," she said.
"At least I understand how a girl ought to treat the man she is to marry."
"Marry!" said Miss Lady, whispering to herself. "Marry!" There was silence between them for a time, but she turned to him at length.
"I shall never dance again," said she. "Neither to-morrow, nor at any other time, shall I set foot upon the stage again."
"You will not need to do so, when once we are married," said he. "I shall be willing—but tell me, what's the matter to-night? You are only tired. You will wake up again."
"Wake up!" cried she, "that is the very word. I feel as though I had suddenly awakened, this very night." She pressed her hands to her reddening cheeks. "Can't you see?" she cried. "To-night for the first time I felt them! I felt their eyes. I felt them, out there in front, as though there were many; as though there were more than one. I felt that they were women-that they were men!"
"Well, they have been there all the time," said Decherd. "It's odd you should just realize that."
"I never did before," said she. "It kills me. Why, can't you see? I have been selling myself—my body, my face, my eyes, myself, a little at a time, a little to each of them. I've been selling myself. They paid to see me. Now I can dance no more. Yes, you are right, I am awake at last; and I tell you I am some one else. I have been in a dream, it seems to me, for years. But now I can see."
"Well, let the dancing go," said Decherd, rising and coming toward her. "Never mind about that."
"Let everything go!" cried Miss Lady, fiercely. "Let everything go! Marry you? Why, sir, if indeed you understood a girl, you would not want me to come to you feeling as I do now. Can't you see that a girl must depend on the man she loves? I have tried to feel sure. I have tried to see you clearly. Now, to-night, it is just as it was that time years ago when you spoke to me; something comes between us. I can not see you clearly. I can not understand. And so long as that is true, I can never, never marry you. I can not talk about it. Go! I do not want to see you!"
A sudden alarm seized upon Henry Decherd. "Listen," he said; "listen to me. I can not have you talk this way. Why, you know this sort of thing is absolutely wrong."
"Everything's wrong!" cried Miss Lady, burying her face in her hands as she sank on a couch. "Everything is wrong! I am ashamed, I can not tell you why. I don't know why, but I have changed, all at once. I'm not myself any more. I'm some one else. I don't know who I am! I never knew. Oh, shall I never know—shall I never understand why I am not myself!"
Decherd caught her hands. "We shall not wait," said he, "we'll be married to-morrow." His voice trembled in a real emotion, although on his face there sat an uneasiness not easily read. "Dearest, forget all this," he repeated. "Go home and sleep, and to-morrow—"
Her eyes flashed in the swift, imperious anger wherewith upon the instant sex may dominate sex, leaving no argument or answer. Yet in the next breath the girl turned away, her anger faded into anxiety. She wavered, softened in her attitude.
"Oh, he told me, he told me!" murmured she to herself. "I can not—I can not!" She seemed unconscious of Decherd's presence. But soon she forgot her own soliloquy. Once more she looked Decherd squarely in the face.
"I can not marry you," she said. "I will not!"
"I'll not allow you to make a fool of yourself, or of me," said Decherd. "What do you mean—who is 'he'?"
He had his answer on the moment, not from her lips, but by one of those strange freaks of fate which often set us wondering in our commonplace lives.
There came a tap at the door, and a call boy offered a card. "It's against orders, I know, ma'am," he began, "but then—"
Decherd, full of suspicion, sprang at the messenger and caught the card before Miss Lady saw it. His swift glance gave him small comfort.
"Eddring!" he cried. "By God! John Eddring! So—"
"Yes," she flashed again at him. "You are rude; and there is your answer; and here is mine to you, and him." She turned to the call boy.
"Tell the gentleman that Miss Loisson can not be seen," said she.
A ghastly look had come upon Henry Decherd's face at these words. His features were livid in his rage. "So Eddring is here, is he!" said he, "and he has been talking to you! By God, I'd kill him if I thought—"
"Carry my wrap, sir!" said Miss Lady, rising like a queen. "You may do so much for the last time. At the gate I shall bid you good-by. Open the door!"
As though in a dream, Miss Lady followed Decherd to the entrance, near which stood a carriage in the narrow little street. She scarcely looked at his face, and did not note his hurried words to the driver. Silent and distraught, she took no note of their direction as the wheels rattled over the rude flags of the medieval passageway. The carriage turned corner after corner in its jolting progress, and finally trundled smoothly for a time, but Miss Lady, hoping only that this journey might soon end, scarce noticed where it had ended. She saw only that it was not at the gate of Madame Delchasse's house, and, startled at this, expostulated with Decherd, who reasoned, argued, pleaded.
Meantime, at the gate of the old house on the Esplanade, Madame Delchasse waited uneasily alone. Perhaps half an hour had passed, and madame could scarce contain herself longer, when finally she heard the rattle of wheels and saw descending at the curb a stranger, who hurriedly approached her carriage window.
"Pardon, Madame," said he, as he removed his hat, "this carriage is, perhaps, for the house of Madame Delchasse?"
"It is, Monsieur," said madame, frigidly. "I am Madame Delchasse."
"Pardon me, Madame," said the new-comer, "my name is Eddring, John Eddring. I would not presume to come at such an hour were it not that I have a message, a very urgent one, for Miss Loisson. She refused to see me at the theater, and I came here; she must have this message. It is not for myself that—"
Madame drew back into her carriage. "Monsieur," said she, "I say to you, bah! and again, bah!"
"You mistake," said Eddring, hurriedly. "It is only the message which I would have delivered. It is only on her account." Something in his voice caught the attention of madame, and she hesitated. "It is strange mademoiselle do not arrive," she said. "Monsieur Decherd should have brought her 'ome before this."
"Decherd!" cried Eddring.
"Mais oui. He is her fiance. What is it that it is to you, Monsieur?"
"Listen, listen, Madame!" cried Eddring, "We must find them. This message is one of life and death. Come, your carriage—" and before madame could expostulate the two were seated together in madame's carriage, and it was whirling back on the return journey to the Odeon.
Eddring fell on the doorkeeper. "Miss Loisson! Where is she? When did she leave?" he demanded; and madame added much voluble French.
"Mademoiselle left with a young gentleman a half-hour ago," said the doorkeeper. "I heard him say, 'Drive to the levee.' Perhaps they would see the high water, yes?"
"That's likely!" cried Eddring, springing back into the carriage, "but we will go there, too." Hence their carriage also whirled around corner after corner, and presently trundled along the smoother way of the levee. Passing between the interminably long rows of cotton-bales they met a carriage coming away as they approached, and Eddring, upon the mere chance of it, accosted the driver.
"Did you bring two persons, a young lady and a young man, here a moment ago?" said he.
"Not here," said the driver, pulling up. "But I took them lower down on the levee. They went on board the Opelousas Queen. You'll have to hurry if you want to catch, them. She's done whistled, an' 'll be backin' out mighty quick."
Eddring hardly waited for the end of his speech. "We must find them," said he to madame at his side, who now was becoming thoroughly frightened. "There is something wrong in this. I must get this message to Miss Loisson, and I must find out what all this means."
A few moments later their own carriage brought up with a jerk, and Eddring, dragging madame by the arm, hurried across the stage plank almost as it was on the point of being raised.
"What do you mean?" growled the clerk to the hurried arrivals, as the Queen slowly turned out into the stream.
"Did a couple come aboard just now, a few minutes ahead of us?" cried Eddring, taking him by the shoulder in his excitement.
"Why, yes. But they didn't come in such a hurry as you do. Where are you going?"
"Wait," said Eddring. "What was the girl like? Tall, dark hair, wore a cloak, perhaps? And the man—was he rather thin, dark—had oddish eyes?"
"Why, yes; I reckon that's who they were," grumbled the clerk.
Eddring paid no attention to him. "Madame," said he, "they must be on the boat.
"Now look; here is my message, Madame," he resumed, as he led her apart to avoid the clerk. "You will see why I have brought you here, and why I had to find Miss Loisson and this Mr. Decherd." He handed to her two pieces of paper—messages from Colonel Calvin Blount addressed to him at New Orleans. The first one read: "We are organized; come quick. More levee-cutting."
"That is three days old," said Eddring. "Here is one sent yesterday. It must have gone out by boat to some railway station, for the roads are washed out for miles in all the upper Delta. 'Shot bad in levee fight. Come quick. We have caught Delphine, ring-leader. More proof implicating Decherd. Louise Loisson our Miss Lady. Find her; bring her. Watch Decherd. Come quick.—Calvin Blount.'
"Madame," said Eddring, "Miss Louise Loisson was once Miss Lady Ellison, at the Big House plantation of Calvin Blount, in the northern part of Mississippi. Her friends have been looking for her for years, but in some way have missed her. I will say to you that she is a young woman lawfully entitled to property in her own name. This Henry Decherd is unfit company for her, if not dangerous company. As to this marriage, it must not be. Madame, take this message to Miss Loisson; if you can, induce her to go to her old and true friend, Colonel Blount,—if it be not too late now for that. I am sure you will be thankful all your life; and so will she. Find her; I will find Decherd. We must get up to Blount's place then. He's hurt. He may be killed."
Madame stood troubled, fumbling the papers in her hand. She scarce had time to speak ere there came from the ladies' cabin a sudden rush of footsteps, and in an instant Miss Lady and she were in each other's arms.
THE STOLEN STEAMBOAT
"My shild! My soul!" cried madame. "What is it? Where have you been? What is this!" She patted Miss Lady with one plump hand, even as she wept; and all Miss Lady could do in turn was to put her face on the older woman's shoulder and sob in sheer relief.
"Why you don' come at 'ome?" cried madame, severely. "We have wait' so long. See, this boat, she don' stop. Why do you come to the boat, when you say you come at 'ome to me? Ah, Mademoiselle, you have never deceive' me before."
"I have not deceived you," said Miss Lady. "I did not know that we were coming to the river-front in the carriage—I thought we were going home. When we got here he pleaded, he begged—it was just to ride across to Algiers, and come back, he said. He said it was the last time, the last hour that we would ever spend together. He threatened—what could I do, Madame? You would not have me make a scene; it was dark out there, I thought it safer to come aboard the boat—where there were lights—and other ladies. I went back to the ladies' cabin. O Madame, Madame—"
Madame Delehasse threw her arms about the girl and they passed down the long cabin of the boat. Eddring turned to the clerk, grieved and wondering.
"Can you put these ladies ashore at Algiers across the river?" asked he. "There has been a mistake. They don't want to go up river."
"They'll have to go, now," said the clerk. "We'll put them out at the ferry, up above a few miles. Best we can do. Algiers! Do you think we are running a street-car?"
"Very well," said Eddring. "Get two state-rooms, then. We'll go on up the river. You can put us ashore sometime after daylight. We wanted to catch a train up country, but if we can't do that to-night, we'll try it from some stopping-place up river."
There had come to Eddring the lightning-like conviction that he was now suddenly flung into the chief crisis of his life. He looked hard at the widening gap of black water between him and the shore, and at the hurrying floods into which the boat was now beginning steadily to plow; but the night and the floods gave him no answer. He knew that he had taken upon himself responsibility for two women, one of whom he believed to have been practically a victim of abduction—this woman whom he had loved for years, had lost, and lost again, but who was now here, under his care, dependent on his own courage, his own resolution and decision. It was but for a moment that Eddring hesitated. The heart of the great boat throbbed on beneath him, but even with her strong pulse there rose his own resolve. He left the forward deck and passed back to seek out the clerk.
"Go tell the captain of this boat to come to me," said he.
"What do you mean? Who are you?" the clerk asked.
"I must see the captain," Eddring answered with a wave of the hand, and again turned away. Perhaps it was the very stress of that moment which finally indeed brought Captain Wilson of the Opelousas Queen into the presence of his enigmatical passenger.
"Well, sir?" cried Wilson, as he approached, "what can I do for you?"
"Captain Wilson," said Eddring, quietly, "I want to take your boat off her regular run. I have got to get up the river, and I am afraid the roads are wiped out."
The river-man's astonishment at this bade fair to end in explosion. "My boat!" he ejaculated. "Quit my run?"
"Yes," said Eddring. "I'll explain to you later the necessity I have for getting up the river quickly—and why it means that I have got to have your boat."
"Have my boat!" said Wilson, his voice sinking into an inarticulate whisper. "And me with mail, and passengers, and freight to leave from Plaquemine to St. Louis! Have my boat! Have my——"
"Put your passengers off at Baton Rouge in the morning. Transfer your mails there. Let everything get through the best it can. It can wait. As for me, I can't wait; I must go through direct."
Wilson endeavored to look at him calmly. "If you talk that way to me much longer," said he, "I'll say you're surely crazy."
"I'll see you about it in the morning," said Eddring, quietly. His singleness of purpose had its effect. Captain Wilson abruptly turned on his heel.
Meantime Miss Lady and Madame Delchasse had drawn apart in their own excitement, exclaiming only against the fact that this boat, so far from crossing the river, was now forging steadily upstream. Along the distant bends there could be seen the black masses of shadow, picked out here and there by the star-like points of the channel lights; while the low banks of the western shore, dimly indicated by the ferry lights, slowly slipped away.
"We are h'run away," cried Madame Delchasse. "It is not to Algiers. Ah, my angel, what fortune I am here!" Miss Lady silently pressed her hand, and they moved farther forward on the guards.
Eddring heard them talking, and knew the cause of their uneasiness. He sat apart on the forward guards planning for a further attempt with Captain Wilson, and planning also for another meeting which he knew he might presently expect. He needed all his faculties at that moment, as he sat with his back to the rail, and his eyes commanding the approaches to the deck. He was waiting for what he knew would be the most exacting situation he had known in all his life—the encounter with Henry Decherd.
As for the latter, it had been his plan to absent himself from Miss Lady until after the boat should have swung well into the up-stream journey; then, he meant to do whatever might be necessary to carry out his main purpose. Abduction, compulsion, force—none of these things would have caused Henry Decherd to hesitate at this time of desperation. Miss Lady's sudden desertion and flight to the ladies' cabin disconcerted him. The sound of Eddring's voice and that of madame filled him with dismay. He tried to compose himself, but found his nerves trembling. Hurrying to the bar, he sought aid in a glass of liquor. He knew there must be a reckoning. As he returned from the bar he met Madame Delchasse with Miss Lady, and was obliged to speak.
"Madame, how did you come here?" he stammered. "Why, where is this boat going?"
"It is not go to Algiers, no?" said madame, freezingly. "By this time, Monsieur Decherd, I have expect mademoiselle to be at my 'ome."
"Why, we only wanted to run across the river together. We were coming home," protested Decherd. "We did not know this was an up-river boat."
Madame Delchasse drew herself up magnificently. "I, Clarisse Delchasse," said she, "have arrive'. I shall take care of mademoiselle." Decherd again began, but she interrupted him. "If it is not for this stranger, this Mr. Eddrang," said madame, "I am not here this moment to care for mademoiselle. What care have you take? People would not talk, no? You to protect! Bah!" She slammed the glass door of the cabin in his face.
Decherd stood irresolute, ill-armed in the injustice of his quarrel. He had not a moment to wait.
"Decherd!" The voice was John Eddring's.
Decherd turned. The silent watcher beside the rail had risen and was coming straight toward him.
Henry Decherd paused under the steadfast gaze which met him.
"Decherd," said Eddring, simply, "I want to talk to you. Come and sit down." They moved a pace or two forward, Eddring taking care that the other should sit facing the light which streamed through the glass doors of the cabin.
"Stop! Decherd, I wouldn't do that." Eddring glanced at the hand which Decherd would have moved toward a weapon. Eddring's own hands hung idly between his knees as he leaned forward in his chair.
"I would like to know what you mean by meddling in my affairs," began Decherd. "You are interfering—"
"Yes," said a voice, soft but very cold, "I'm interfering. I am going to spoil your chances, Decherd. Sit down." The man thus accosted involuntarily sank back into a seat. Then a sudden rage caught him, and he half-started up again. This time he saw something blue gleaming dully in the idle hand which hung between Eddring's knees.
"Be careful," said the latter. "I told you not to do that. Sit down, now, and listen." An unreasoning, blind terror seized Henry Decherd, and in spite of himself, he obeyed.
"In the first place, Decherd," said Eddring, "I want to say that it was not lucky for you when I got hold of your valise by mistake at the Big House wreck—the time I found that list of claims, and the little old book in French. I have studied all those things over carefully, together with other things. I've been thinking a great deal. That's why I am going to spoil your chances."
"Does she know?" whispered Decherd, hoarsely.
"No, she knows nothing about it at all. She doesn't know who she is— not even why she happened to take the name of Louise Loisson." Decherd gasped, but the cold voice went on. "You might have told her some of these things. You might have told her who her real mother was, and who her false mother. You might have given her a chance to know herself. I don't fancy that you did. I don't think you told her anything which did not serve your own purposes."
"We were going to be married," began Decherd.
"We are going to be married—"
"You were, perhaps," said Eddring, "but not now. Oh, I don't doubt that you are willing enough to marry Louise Loisson, and to deceive her after your marriage as you did before. I don't doubt that in the least."
"What business is it of yours?" said Decherd, now becoming more sullen than blustering.
"I can't say that it was my business at all," said Eddring. "It's accident, largely; and surely it was not your fault that I blundered on these matters. It was rather fate, or the occasional good fortune of the innocent. You covered up your trail fairly well; but a criminal will always leave behind him some egotistical mark of his crime, either by accident or by intent. You left marks all along your trail, Decherd—there, there, keep quiet. I don't want to use force with you. I'm not going to be the agent of justice. But it won't be altogether healthy for the man on whose shoulders a great many of these things are finally loaded. You were enterprising, Decherd, and you were an abler man than I thought, far abler; but you undertook too much.
"Now, here's a message from Colonel Blount," Eddring resumed. "It looks as though things were coming pretty nearly to a show-down up there. We are going to find out all about that. Incidentally, we are going to find out everything about this poor girl here, whose name and reputation only the mercy of God kept you from ruining this very night." The two now sat looking each other fairly and fully in the eye. For the first time in many years Henry Decherd recognized the whip hand.
"I might as well tell you," said Eddring, "that I know about the old Loisson estate—a great deal more than its lawful heiress does. I know who paid the taxes on the lands. I know as well as you do about the suit in the United States Supreme Court, where you won and lost at the same time. In that case you proved your client, Delphine, to be Indian, and therefore not French—in plain language, you proved that she was the heiress of the Indian, Paul Loise, and therefore could not inherit certain valuable lands of which we both know. Before you found yourself on that account forced to pin your faith to the descendants of the French Comte de Loisson, you were willing to use either line of descent, provided it made it possible for you to get possession of these lands. You were willing to deal with a woman of mixed blood, or with one of pure blood, of noble descent. Let me be frank with you, Decherd. You were playing these girls one against the other. It was Delphine against the descendants of the Comte de Loisson—a delicate game; and you came near winning."
Decherd passed a hand across his forehead, now grown clammy, but he could see no method either of attack or of escape, for the cold gray eye still held him, and the blue barrel hung steady beneath the idle hand, as the same steel-like voice went on:
"I will just go over the proof once more, Decherd," said Eddring, "and see if we don't look at it about alike. For instance, if Delphine is Indian, she isn't white. Uncle Sam's Supreme Court says she's Indian. That's record, that's evidence. Take the two girls, one of noble blood, the other of questionable descent, and they are together equal, in posse, as we will say, to these valuable lands. Do you follow me? Oh, give up thinking of your gun. I'll kill you if you move your hand.
"Very well, then, my friend, it comes simply to a case of cancelation. No matter what you have told or promised either, there can be but one heiress. Mark out one girl, and the other is equal to that estate, we'll say. You yourself marked out Delphine when you proved her to be of Indian descent. That leaves Miss Lady as the heiress of the estate of the Comte de Loisson, doesn't it, Decherd?
"It leaves, also, two ways of getting the estate. You could marry the girl, or kill her. You might possibly get a tax-title in the latter case; if you killed the girl the tax-title would mature in your name. You may count that string as broken. Mrs. Ellison, we will say, wanted your paramour, Delphine, canceled, and wanted also to put the remaining claimant out of sight. Then, as mother of this heiress— the false mother, as you and I know—she thought that she would inherit the lands—and you.
"That was Mrs. Ellison's plan—a very ignorant plan. Then the simple matter of a marriage—or of no marriage—between Mr. Henry Decherd and this Mrs. Alice Ellison, would enable them comfortably to share this estate. That was the way Mrs. Ellison wanted it, perhaps. But you preferred to marry the true claimant, and get rid of Mrs. Ellison. That was your plan. You wanted to cancel every possible claimant except Miss Lady, and then you wanted to force Miss Lady into a marriage with you. Do I make myself clear to you, Mr. Decherd? And do I make myself clear that this country isn't big enough for both of us? Keep quiet now. You've come to your show-down right here.
"Meantime, it was part of your scheme, as I now see, to keep Miss Lady away from her friends, to poison her against those friends. You had to live, and you were a lawyer, or a sort of a lawyer. You got hold of these judgment claims against the railroad which discharged me. You told this girl that I stole those claims. You know you lied. For a time you deluded this poor girl, poisoning her mind, killing her nature with your deceit. None the less, you left behind you open proofs, ready-made for your own undoing. Why, this very name, this stage name of Louise Loisson, was banner enough to bring her real friends to her side. But you didn't know, did you, Mr. Decherd, that I had read the little book, and that I knew the Loisson history? I said it was by chance I found the book. I am ready now to say it was by fate—by justice. It's like the fetish mark on the church-door— that negro church in the woods—like the sign on Delphine's handkerchief. Guilt always leaves a sign. Justice always finds some proof.
"Now, I have a message from Colonel Blount. Here it is. He says, 'Louise Loisson our Miss Lady.' He has found out something, too, at the other end of the line, hasn't he, Decherd? Notice, he says, 'our Miss Lady.' She is ours, not yours. I am going to take her along with me, back to the Big House, and to her friend, Colonel Blount. He says, 'Watch out for Decherd.' I am watching out for him. He also says that they have caught the leader who has been making all the trouble up there in the Delta, near the Big House plantation."
"Delphine!" gasped Decherd, from tightened lips, a pale horror now written on every feature. "Has she talked?"
"Yes, Delphine! You were able to guess that, were you, Decherd? Thank you. You were right. I do not know whether or not Delphine has talked. But whether she has or not, there will presently be no chance for you. You are at the end of your string, Decherd.
"And now, get up," said Eddring to him sharply, rising. "Get up, you damned hound, you liar, you thief, you cur. This boat's not big enough for you and me. The world will be barely big enough for a little while, if you're careful. We are not afraid of you, now that we know you. Go back to Mrs. Ellison, if you like. You can't go back to Delphine now, and you can't speak to Miss Lady again. She is our Miss Lady. You can't stay on this boat tonight, where that girl is."
"So you—you're trying to cut in?" began Decherd.
Eddring did not answer.
He caught Decherd by the collar, wrenched the revolver from his pocket and pushed him down the stair, then dragged him along the lower deck. They passed a line of sleeping deck-hands too stupid to observe them. Dragging astern of the boat, high between the two long diverging lines of the rolling wake, there rode a river skiff at the end of its taut line.
"Those lights below are at the ferry, eight miles from town," said Eddring. "Get into the boat."
"For God's sake, can't you get them to slow down?" whined Decherd; but Eddring shook his head. Decherd let himself over the rail of the lower deck, and for an instant the strained line bade fair to hold his weight. Then his feet and legs dropped into the water as he and the boat approached. Desperately he clambered on, and so fell panting and dripping into the bow of the skiff. A moment later the boat and its huddled occupant dropped back into the night, tossing in the wake of the churning wheels.
From above there came pouring down the somber flood of Messasebe, bearing tribute of his wilderness, in part made up of broken, worthless and discarded things.
Eddring gazed after the disappearing boat. He was relaxed, silent, worn. The grip of a great loneliness seized upon him. What had he gained? Why had he interfered? The world about him seemed void and vacant. He felt himself, no less than the other man, a worthless and discarded thing—a bit of flotsam on the flood of fate.
"As to the law, Captain Wilson," said Eddring, to the master of the Opelousas Queen the following morning, as he sat in the cabin; "I'm a lawyer myself, and I want to tell you, the law is a strange thing. It will, and it won't. It can, and it can't. It does, and it doesn't. It's blind, crosseyed and clear-sighted all at the same time. It offers a precedent for everything, right or wrong. Now, as you say, it is unlawful for us to stop the delivery of these mails. I know it—big penalty for non-delivery. But let's talk it over a little."
The Opelousas Queen was now plowing steadily up-stream, far above Baton Rouge, meeting the crest of the greatest flood she had ever known in all her days upon the turbid waterway. Her master now, surly but none the less interested, out of sheer curiosity in this strange visitor, sat looking at him without present speech.
"Are you a married man, Captain Wilson?" said Eddring. "Have a cigar with me, won't you?"
"What difference is it to you?" said Wilson, waving aside the courtesy.
"Yes; but are you?"
"Wife died six years ago," said Wilson, gruffly. The muscles ridged up along his jaw as he closed his lips tightly.
"Any children?" said Eddring.
"Daughter, eighteen years old; and a beauty, if I do say it."
"I reckon you love her some, don't you, Captain? Thought a heap of your wife, too, maybe, didn't you?"
Wilson half-rose, one hand upon his chair back, as he pounded on the table in front of him with the other. "Now look here, Mister Who- ever-you-are, I've stood a lot of foolishness from you already," said he, "but those are my matters, and not yours. Get on out of here." Yet Eddring only looked at him smiling, and into his eyes there came a flash of pleasure.
"I'm mighty glad to hear you say those very words, Captain," said he; "because now I know you'd do anything in the world to help a good girl out of trouble, or to keep her out of it. Now, about the law. I'm sure, Captain, you believe in the higher law—the supreme law— the chivalry of the southern man, don't you?" Wilson waved him away again, but still gazed at him curiously. "Now listen, Captain," Eddring persisted.
"I am listening," blurted out Wilson. "Say, man, if I had your nerve, and what I know about poker on this river, I'd own the country."
"No. I just want to set here and admire you a few minutes before I tell the deck-hands to throw you into the river."
"Captain," said Eddring, pulling up his chair, "after I'm done with what I have on hand, you may throw me into the river, if you like. I don't think it will make much difference. But now, don't you think you're running this boat. The real commander of this boat, Captain Wilson, is the supreme law of this land—that law under which the gentlemen of the South are bound at any time and all times to give courtesy and comfort to a woman when she needs them." Wilson looked at him mutely, the muscles on his jaw straining up again. He jerked his head toward the aft state-rooms with a gesture of query. Eddring nodded.
"She's a beauty, too," said Wilson, sighing. "Reminds me of my own wife, the way she used to look—the way my own girl looks now. You're a lucky man."
"Captain Wilson, I don't figure in this thing personally at all. But now I'll tell you the whole story, and let you decide for yourself."
He went on speaking slowly, evenly, gently, impersonally, telling what had been the case of Miss Lady upon the very night preceding; telling how great was the stress of events at the head of the Delta, very far away, and impossible now of access. He made no offer of pecuniary reward, but stated his case simply and asked his auditor to put himself in his own position.
As he spoke, the chair of Captain Wilson began to edge toward his own. In the eyes of the old steamboat man there came a glisten strange to them. His hand unconsciously reached out. "Stop!" he roared. "Give me your hand. The boat is yours! Of course she is."
Eddring was silent, for there came a lump in his own throat, as he felt Wilson's assuring hand clap him on the shoulder.
"You're what I call a thoroughbred," said the latter. "Man, can you play poker? You certainly can make a pair of deuces look like a full house. Get up an' shake hands. You're right. The boat's yours. Uncle Sam can wait—the whole damned North American continent can wait—"
Eddring rose and took him by the hand.
"Well, that's my case, Captain," said he. "We've both one errand, and that's to protect the white people of the Delta; and to get hold of the truth which will put this girl where she belongs. Public necessity is the greatest of all laws; unless it be the unwritten and general law which I know you've respected all your life."
"Well, man—" Wilson broke into an uproarious laugh, "you certainly are the yellow flower of the forest. It's mighty seldom I've laid down to a line of talk, but I ain't ashamed to do it now. Here's the boat, and we'll run her express, as soon as we can get rid of the mail and passengers up above. Any river-man knows what levee-cutting means, and what it means if the niggers get out of hand. I'll take you in—why, I know Cal Blount myself—and I couldn't look my own daughter in the face again if I didn't do just what you say."
Between the cities of Memphis and Vicksburg there lies a great battle-ground. It has known encounters between red men and red, between red men and white, and has known the shock of arms when white has been arrayed against white. Most of all, it is a battle-ground yet to be, whereon perhaps there shall be waged a conflict between white and black. Always, too, it will be the battle-ground between civilized man and the relapsing savagery of nature; between man and the wilderness; between the white race and great Messasebe, Father of the Waters.
Father Messasebe is, after all, but weakly bound to the ways of commerce. His voice is always for the wild; his wish is for the ancient ways. Here in the far wild country—a part of which even to- day is a more trackless and a less known wilderness than any in the heart of our remotest mountain ranges—the great river reaches out a thousand clutching fingers for his own, claiming it as a home even now for his savagery; asking it, if not for a wild red race, then for the black one which may one day prove its savage successor.
Here is the reekingly rich soil of the great Delta—that name not meaning the wide marshes of the actual mouth of the Mississippi, but the fat accumulated soil of centuries caged in by that long, incurving dam of the hills which, far inland from the current of the swift water-way, begins at the head of the vast body of tangled Yazoo lands, and drops down, pinching in at the base of a great "V," where the bluffs converge near Vicksburg. These hills spreading out on either side hold in their wide arms an empire, the richest and most fertile land, though perhaps still the least known, of any to be found in this America. They hold also a population little understood; a people bold, undaunted, American. These arms of the hills hold also a vast problem; the problem of black and white, less settled to-day than it has been at any time these one hundred years.
Here in this land, more than two hundred miles in length and half as much in width, Father Messasebe extends his fingers. Sluggish bayous run across the waste as their fancy leads them, their current depending upon the whim of the river, or perhaps on that of the streams from the hill country which constitutes the great dam of the Delta. The crooked Yazoo is marked on the maps as crossing almost from the north to the south of this wilderness; yet the Yazoo can scarce claim a bed all its own, for it passes through many ancient bayous, and is fed by many of the old "hatchees" which the canoes of the red man explored long ago. Upon one side of the Yazoo comes the Sunflower, deep cut into the fathomless loam; yet sometimes the Sunflower is reversed in current; and the Sunflower and the Hushpuckenay may be one stream or two; and the latter may run as the levees say, or as the floods dictate; while above them both, at the head of the Yazoo, are bayous and "passes" which make a water-way once continuous from the great river into its lesser parallel.
Messasebe sometimes flows peacefully through channels marked out for him by man, yet this is but his whim; for a thousand years are as naught to the Maker of Messasebe, and Messasebe therefore may bide his time. But when the sport of the floods begins, and the currents are reversed, and the streams hurry down with cross tributes from the hills, and the wild waters have forgotten all control—then is when Messasebe the Mighty grasps and clutches with his wide fingers, and exults as of old in his wilderness!
Here in the heart of the Delta lay the Big House, a dot on the face of things; having, however, its problems, personal or impersonal, small and great. As John Eddring knew, there was trouble at the Big House now. The hours passed slowly enough on the journey up the turbulent flood of the great river. The railways were in places gone for miles. All that Eddring could do was to get by steamer as nearly as possible opposite the Big House plantation, and then win through by small boat as best he might, across the overflow.
Even the most diligent makers of maps can not keep pace with Father Messasebe. Along its southernmost course there are thousands of arms and lakes and bayous where for a time the river ran until it tired, and sought new scenes, new ways across the forests and cane-brakes. The charts may show you that this river is the boundary of a certain state; but who shall tell where or what that boundary may be? Who can trace the filum aquae of the most erratic and arrogant river in all the world? The river is not now as it was ten years ago, nor the same to-day as it will be ten years hence. Channel and cut-off and island and main current go on in their juggling, and will do so when generations shall have been forgotten. When the floods are out, and when Messasebe is at his ancient game, there is no channel; there is no map, no chart; there is a wilderness.
It was across this watery wilderness that John Eddring and his ally, Captain Wilson, urged their way on the wildest journey ever known even in the mad times of this great river. In a half-delirium which set aside all reason and all reckoning, the bow of the sturdy boat was driven against the down-coming seas, opening up one after another of the channel marks; parting one after another of the massed groups of shadows; churning round bend after bend, faster and faster, day and night, until, far up in the welter of the new waters, she forsook all charts and guides in the fury of her quest, and steamed forward in her own fashion, black smoke belching continually from her flues, and the pant of her fuming engine bidding fair to tear out the inadequate covering of her sides. Pilot and captain let go all track of the miles behind, looking only at those ahead. They got contempt for ordinary dangers. So, pushing her way on, against and across currents, shaving the bends, essaying every cut-off, the boat in her strange race hurried on, running express for the purposes of justice, and in the cause of the permanency of society.
At last they were far up the river, above the mouth of the Arkansas, and opposite the great swamps which lie between the Arkansas and the White upon the western side; so that now the greater portion of the journey was well-nigh done. Eddring and Wilson, both haggard with fatigue, stood on the bridge together and gazed out over the watery prospect.
"This overflow means millions in losses to the planters in the Delta," said Wilson. Eddring nodded.
"If levee-cutters started this flood up in Tullahoma, and the planters ever get hold of them, I shouldn't think it would be exactly healthy," added Wilson. "This means everything under water, clean to the Yazoo. Looks like those fellows in there had had their share of trouble lately."
"Nothing but trouble for four or five years," said Eddring. "Black politics."
"Yes," said Wilson, sighing, "when Mr. Nigger gets the notion that he'd like to be school superintendent or county treasurer, or something of the kind, he's goin' to be mighty willin' to lay down the hoe. I even think he would be willin', if he was asked, to let the white man do the hoein', and him do the governin'." Eddring made no answer, but gazed steadily out over the racing seas of tawny water.
"At any rate, we'll soon be there now," said he at length. "How can I pay you, Captain Wilson? How can I thank you?"
"Well," said Wilson, thoughtfully, "you might give me your note, the way a friend of mine, Judge Osborn, down at New Orleans, did once. That was in the war, you know, and Judge Osborn was a Confederate colonel. He had to take passage on a river boat, and they got hung up somewhere, and he and the Cap'n played a little poker for several days. Colonel couldn't win nohow. At the end of the week he owed the Cap'n four hundred thousand dollars—Confederate money, of course. At last says he, 'See here, Cap'n, now I owe you this four hundred thousand dollars, and I can't pay you by about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Now, what am I going to go? Shall I give you my note?' The Cap'n he looks at the Colonel, and says he, 'Ain't I treated you all right, Colonel? Ain't I fed you good enough? Did I ever do you any harm?' The Colonel 'lowed he had been treated all right. 'Well, then,' says the Cap'n, 'what have you got against me? What do you want to give me your note for? Take everything I've got; take my boat, but please, sir, don't give me your note.' Now that's the way I feel. I don't want your thanks, and I don't want your note."
Eddring laughed frankly. "Well, Captain," said he, "let it go that way. I won't give you my note, nor my thanks; but when you are in my part of the world, come and live with me. After I get through with these things in there, I shall see you again sometime. There are some gentlemen of the Delta who will never forget Captain Wilson."
"Well," the gruff old Captain answered him, "I'll tell my little girl about it, and I reckon I'll get my pay from her. But now I shall have to be leavin' you before long," he resumed, as he studied again the appearance of the country into which they had now come. "We're raisin' the Old Bend landin', or the place where it ought to be."
"Wait a minute, Captain," said Eddring, "we'll need a skiff. Put in two or three blankets and something for coffee, if you will. It looks pretty rough in there, and we might not get through before dark." Eddring swept a hand toward the submerged forest, which, shoreless and all afloat, appeared upon their right, stretching away in every direction as far as the eye could reach through the evening haze.
"I will fix you up the best I can," said Wilson. "But now, do you know that country in yonder? Are you safe in going in?"
"I have hunted bear and deer all over there," said Eddring. "The main current across this big bend ought to carry us inland into a bayou that runs not far from the Big House. It is not more than twenty miles or so to the plantation. If I can strike the course of the Tippohatchee bayou, a few hours ought to take us through. If it comes dark before we get there, we shall have to camp, that is all about it. If a fellow tried to travel through in the night-time, he might land at Greeneville, or Vicksburg, or anywhere else."
"Well," said Wilson, "if you must go, I won't try to stop you. I'll have the skiff fixed up."
So, finally, after her journey up the river, the Opelousas Queen rounded the thin neck of the long river bend, and with a hoarse growl of relief, rather than of signal, slowed down and reversed, plowed up the yellow waters into billows half-white, and so lay breathing heavily, with just enough way to hold her against the current.
During the entire course of the journey, Eddring had not approached either Madame Delchasse or Miss Lady in personal conversation, and the latter had proved quite as willing to avoid him. Madame Delchasse had taken great and voluble interest in matters about the boat, and was often seen on deck. To her Eddring now sent his message, which brought both the ladies to the lower deck, for the first time in two days.
"What," cried madame, "we go in that leedle boat! Ah, non! I stay by the ship; also mademoiselle."
Miss Lady said nothing; she looked at the frail skiff, the turbulent river, and the great woods beyond, already growing mysterious beneath the veil of coming evening.
"Madame," said Eddring, "I can't argue about it. You must go." He turned upon her the stern face of one who, having assumed all responsibility, exacts in return implicit obedience.
"We shall drown," said madame.
Eddring turned gravely to the girl. "There is no danger. I can assure you of that. I shall do my best. I am sorry that it is so. But we must go. It is the only way to reach Colonel Blount's."
Upon Miss Lady's pale face there sat the look of one resigned with fatalism to whatever issue might appear. She made no further speech, but was the first to step into the boat. Madame Delchasse, still grumbling, followed clumsily. Eddring helped them in, took up the oars, and the two deck-hands, who had been holding the skiff, clambered back aboard the Queen. Eddring settled himself to the oars, and they cast off. The little skiff rocked, tossed, turned, and headed toward the shore under the strong stroke of the oars. Presently the set of the inbound current aided the oars, so that soon they were at the fringe of the forest. Eddring rose and waved a hand back to the watchers who were looking after them from the guards of the steamer. The Queen roared out a deep salute, and then the little skiff passed out of sight into the wilderness.
THE HOUSE OF HORROR
"Me, I have thought never to cook again," said Madame Delchasse, "but now I shall have the honger. See! if I had the coffee-pot and the what-you-call the soss-pan, I should make of this the grand peok-neek. This journey through the h'wood, it is fine."
As madame spoke, the little boat was hurrying forward through the half-submerged forest, and the party had by this time reached a point some miles distant from their embarkation at what had formerly been the river-bank. Of shores along the river proper it could hardly be said that any remained, and at this point of pause, near to one of the long ridges which still here and there remained above the water, there appeared small trace of the accustomed landmarks. Here, deep in the forest, the inset of the main current through the broken levee was arrested by the forest itself, and by the channels of many intersecting bayous. It was not a river, but a vast, shallow lake that lay about them. Water was everywhere, and in this wide expanse Eddring confessed to himself that he had lost his course and had no definite knowledge of the way to find it. It gave him pleasure to see that the spirits of madame were buoyant, and that even Miss Lady, silent as she was for the most part, seemed to lose a portion of the apathy which had at first oppressed her.
Hoping that he might at any time reach country familiar to himself, Eddring sought to maintain the spirits of his companions by pointing out to them the unfamiliar objects of the world in which they now found themselves. Explaining that they were quite safe in their little craft, he showed to them the repulsive moccasin snakes, whose rusty forms lay wreathed on the logs or on such dry ground as here and there appeared. Again he showed them the log-like bulk of the alligator, lying motionless and invisible to the unpractised eye; or called their gaze to a group of noble wild turkeys, which craned out their necks from their perch on a tall dead tree.
"The game is all driven to the dry ridges," said he. "You will see that the birds and beasts are afraid to move. Their fright makes them almost tame. Do you see that little fellow there?"
He pointed out a wild deer, cowering beside a log on the little island near which they were passing. Here he stopped, and disembarking, soon called out to them that he had seen the track of a bear, fresh in the loam near-by. They being terrified at this, he returned to the boat, and skirted the muddy edge of the ridge, showing them the footprints of the raccoon, small and baby-like, the round tread of the timber wolf, the pointed footmark of the wild hog.
"Look," said he, "here is where an otter has been playing,"—and he showed them a little huddle of twigs and dirt scraped together at the end of a log which projected over the water. "Why does he do it?" he said. "I don't know. It's his way of playing. There are a great many strange ways in the world of wild things. By to-morrow I shall have made good hunters of you both."
"To-morrow?" cried Madame Delchasse; and Miss Lady also turned upon him a startled and supplicating look.
"Yes," said he, "it's no use to promise what one can't be sure of doing. I know that we are not very far from the Big House station. We can't miss it, because we can't cross the railroad without knowing it, and you know the railroad would lead us directly to the place. At the same time, for us to attempt traveling in the night might mean that we should get hopelessly lost. I assure you, you have no need to be alarmed. There is plenty in the boat to keep you comfortable, and, as madame says, we will just make a picnic of it. I am sure none of us will be the worse for a night out in the woods."
Eddring bent steadily to his oars. He was forced to admit that their case showed small improvement as the shadows began to thicken. He stood up in the boat at length and gazed steadily at a little ridge of dry land which appeared before him. "I think we'll land here," said he, "and make our camp for the night." Miss Lady edged toward madame and laid a hand upon her arm.
"My shild," murmured madame, "yes, yes, it is the grand peek- neek; I, Clarisse Delchasse, will protect you." Rejoiced that matters were at least no worse with his passengers, John Eddring helped them from the boat, and as he did so caught sight of the tears which stood in Miss Lady's eyes. The strain of the last few days had begun to tell, and as she looked into the dense shadows of the forest in this precarious spot of refuge, it seemed to her that all the world had suddenly gone dark, and must so remain for ever. Eddring was wretched enough without this sight, but he went methodically about the work of making them both comfortable.
"First, the fire," he cried gaily; and presently under his skilled hands a tiny flame began to light up the gloom. He worked rapidly, for now night was coming on. "Watch me build the house," he cried; and soon he was absorbed in his own work of making an out-door structure, hunter fashion, as he had done many times in his expeditions in this very region. He cut some long poles and thrust their sharpened ends into the ground, and bending over the tops, wove them together. Then he thatched this framework with bundles of fresh green cane cut near at hand, and in a few moments had a sort of wickiup. On the bottom of this he threw brush and yet more cane, and then spread down the blankets. The opening of the little house was toward the fire, and presently both the women were sitting within, their fears allayed by the sparkle of the cheering flame.
"But, Monsieur, where you yourself sleep?" asked madame.
"Oh, my house is already built," replied Eddring, and pointed to a giant oak-tree some fifty yards away in the little glade. "You see how the knees of the big tree stand out. Well, I just get some pieces of bark, and put them down on the ground, and then I lean back against the tree-trunk, and the dew doesn't bother me at all. Of course, the main thing is to keep dry."
"Sir," said Miss Lady, almost for the first time accosting him, "do you mean to say that you sit up and do not lie down to sleep at all during the whole night? Why, you would be wretched. You must take one of the blankets, at least."
"Not at all," said Eddring. "I have sat up that way many a night on the hunt, and been glad enough of so good a chance. Now, you ladies begin to get ready for supper, if you please. Madame, I am sure that to-night you will prepare the best meal of your career. I think we can promise you that it will be enjoyed. Excuse me now for a while, and I will go and see about some more wood. An open fire eats up a lot of wood during a night."
He disappeared down a faint path which he had detected opening into the cane at the end of their little glade. His real purpose was to explore this path; for there now came upon him the growing conviction that he had seen this place before. He found the path to be plainer than the usual "hack" of the mounted cane-brake hunter, and here and there he caught sight of a faint blaze upon a tree. Hurrying along through the enveloping foliage of the cane, he had traversed some three or four hundred yards of this tangle before he saw a thinning of the shadows ahead of him, and came out, as he had more than half expected to do, at the edge of a little opening in the forest.
There, near the edge of the cleared space whose surface showed even now the prints of many feet, he saw a long, low house of logs. It was as he had seen it years ago! It was now, as then, the temple of the tribesmen. Around it now swept, open and uncontrollable, Father Messasebe, building anew his wilderness.
The white men had spared this temple. Perhaps they knew that sometime it would serve as a trap. And so it had served.
That there had been fateful happenings at this spot Eddring felt even before he had stepped out into the opening before him. He was oppressed by a heavy feeling of dread. Yet he went on, looking down closely in the failing light at the footprints which marked the ground.
These footprints blended confusedly, leading up to the door of the house, disappearing in the rank growth all about. And crossing these human trails from one side to the other of the narrow island left by the rising waters, there ran a strange and distinct mark, as though one had swept here with a mighty broom, or had dragged across the ground repeatedly some soft and heavy body! In this path there were marks of feet deeply indented, with pointed toes. This trail, these foot-marks, horrid, suggestive, led up to the open door. Eddring hesitated to look in. He knew the tracks of the alligators, but guessed not why these creatures should enter a building, as was never their wont to do. It required determination to look into the door of what he knew was a house of mystery, perhaps of horror.
Within the long room, now lighted faintly by the late twilight which filtered through the heavy growth about, he saw dimly the long benches fastened to the walls, as they had been when he first saw this place years before. In spite of himself, he started back in affright. The benches were tenanted! He could see figures here and there, a row of them.
Some of them were bending forward, some sitting erect. But all of them were motionless, the postures of all were strained, as though they were bound! The house had its tenantry. But there was no central figure here now, no leader, no exhorter, no priest nor priestess. There was no shouting, nor any note of the savage drum. The drum itself, its head broken in, the drum of the savage tribes, lay near the door, its mission ended. This audience, whoever or whatever it might be, was silent, as though sleep had made fast the eyes of all!
Eddring sprang back as he heard the scuffling of feet at the farther end of the hall. His teeth chattered in spite of himself, as this Thing, this creature of terror, came shuffling forward in the darkness, and with clanking jaws pushed past him, to disappear with a heavy splash in the water which now stood close at hand.
It was a house of horror. It was the place of the black man's savage religion and of the white man's savage justice. Here the white man had wrought sternly in the name of his civilization, and his keel, departing like that of the fierce Norseman in the ancient past, had left no trail on the waters lapping the shore which had known his visitation.
THE NIGHT IN THE FOREST
It was some time before Eddring could trust himself to appear before the companions whom he had left at the little bivouac. Night had practically fallen when he finally emerged into the little glade, now well-lighted by the fire. He paused at the edge of the cover and looked at the picture before him. Sick at heart and full of horror as he was from that which he had seen, none the less he felt a swift burst of savagery come upon his own soul. What was the world to him, its strivings, its disappointments, its paltry successes? Almost he wished, for one fierce instant, that he might exchange the world beyond for this world near at hand. A little fire, a little shelter, and the presence of the woman whom he loved—what more could the world give? He gazed hungrily at the figure of the tall young woman, defined well in the bright firelight. Yearning, he coveted the endurance of the picture, saying again and again to himself, "Would this might last for ever, even as it is!"
Madame Delchasse meantime was adding support to her well-founded reputation as artist in matters culinary. When presently Eddring joined them at the fire, he was invited to a repast in which madame had done wonders. It seemed to him that even Miss Lady began to revive under the summons of these unusual surroundings. Once, he noted, she actually laughed.
As they sat on the rude floor of cane-stalks, engaged with their evening meal, there came suddenly from across the forest the sound of a long, hoarse wail, ending in a tremulous crescendo; the cry of the panther, rarely heard in that or any other region. In terror the women sprang to each other, and Eddring felt Miss Lady's hand close tight upon his arm in her unconscious recognition of the need of a protector.
"What—what was it?" she cried.
"Nothing," said Eddring; "nothing but a cat."
"A cat?" cried madame. "Never did I hear the cat with voice so big like that."
"Wasn't it a panther?" asked Miss Lady. "Will it get us?"
"Yes, Madame Delchasse," said Eddring, "it's a cat about eight feet long—a panther, as Miss Lady says. But it's a mile away, and it doesn't want to get any wetter than it is; and it wouldn't hurt us anyhow. I assure you, you need have not the slightest fear. Water and fire are not exactly in the panther's line, so you can rest assured that he will not trouble you. He wouldn't even have screamed that way if his disposition hadn't been spoiled by all this water."
Inwardly he noted the fact that Miss Lady did not again remove to a greater distance from him. His heart leaped at her near presence, and again there came the fierce demand of his soul, the wish that this night might last for ever.
Finally, building anew the fire, and showing the two how they might best use their blankets to make themselves comfortable, Eddring withdrew for his vigil at the tree-trunk. Now and again he dozed, wearied by the strain and the physical exertion lately undergone. Madame Delchasse slept heavily.
Upon her couch Miss Lady lay, and watched the flickering of the fire and the heavy masses of the shadows. She could not sleep. There came upon her the feeling of unreality in her surroundings which is experienced by nearly all civilized human beings when thrown into the uncivilized surroundings of nature. It all seemed to her like some rapid and fevered dream. She wondered what had become of Henry Decherd, what had been the cause of his sudden departure from the steamer. She resolved to summon courage on the morrow and to accost this uninvited new-comer upon the scenes of her life. She pondered again upon this strange man; asked herself why he had sought her out, why he had left her so soon and had since then been so frigidly aloof, even though he still carried her with him forward, virtually a prisoner. By all rights a thief, a dishonest man, ought not to be a gentleman; yet strive as she might, she could recall no single instance where the conduct of this man had been anything but that of a gentleman, delicate, kindly, brave, unselfish. Miss Lady could not understand. The shadows hung too black over all—the shadows of the past, of the future. About her there were vague, mysterious sounds, rustlings, coughings, barkings, sometimes sullen splashes in the water not far away. Terrors on all sides oppressed Miss Lady's soul. She had no hope; she could not understand. Her thoughts were in part upon that silent figure sitting in the darkness beside the tree. And then there came again the voice of the great panther, wailing across the woods. Miss Lady could endure it no longer. She sprang up.
"Sir!" she cried, "Mr. Eddring, come!" And so he came and comforted her once more, his voice grave and quiet, fearless, strong.
"I will build up the fire," said he, "and then I will sit by another tree, closer to the camp and just back of your house. I shall be between you and the water, and you need not be afraid."
And then there came about a wonderful thing, which not even Miss Lady herself could understand. She ceased to fear! She found herself wondering at the meaning of the word "depend." In spite of herself, in spite of all the evidence in her hands to the contrary, she felt herself growing vaguely sure that she could depend upon this man. Gradually the night lost its terrors. The whispers of the leaves grew kindly and not ominous. The fire seemed to her a reviving flame of hope. Presently she slept.
In the night the wild life of the forest went on. The barkings and rustlings and splashings still were heard, and the great cat called again. But all these savage things went by, passing apart, avoiding this spot where the White Man, most savage and most potent of all animals, had made his lair and now guarded his own.
In the night the voice of the wilderness spoke to John Eddring: "Old, old are we!" the trees seemed to whisper: "Only the strong! Only the strong!" This seemed the whisper of the wind in its monotone. He sat upright, rigid, wide-awake, his eyes looking straight before him in his vigil, his heart throbbing boldly, strangely. All the fierceness, all the desire, all the sternness of the wilderness in its aeons ran in his blood. His heart throbbed steadily. Peace came to his soul now as never before; since now he knew that he was of the strong, that he was ready for life and what combat it might bring.
AT THE BIG HOUSE
The fire lay gray in ashes at the dawn, when Eddring awoke, and the gray reek of the cane-brake mist was over everything. The leaves of the trees and of the cane dripped moisture, and the dew stood also in heavy beads upon the roof of the little green-thatched house. A short distance apart Eddring built another fire. Presently the sleepers in the little house awoke, and he saw emerge madame, tucking at her hair, and Miss Lady, in spite of all fresh and rosy in the wondrous possession of youth, as though she were a Dryad born of these surrounding trees. There seemed to sit upon her the primeval vigor of the wilderness. She came to him gaily enough and said good morning as though there had been but recent friendship and not aloofness. She pushed back her hair, and smoothed down her skirt and combed out with her fingers the bunch of bright ribbons at her waist. She and madame, having made ablutions at the island brink, returned, all the fresher and more laughing. Eddring's heart quickened in his bosom as he saw Miss Lady smile once more.
"Come," said she, "let's explore our desert island; yonder's such a pretty little path,"—and she pointed down the path which Eddring had already investigated.
"No," he said, "the cane is very wet; you'd better sit close by the fire, so that you will not feel the damp. Now, I will get the breakfast; and I promise you, this is to be our last meal in the forest."
"Our last?" said madame. "What you mean?"
"In a couple of hours we shall be at the Big House," said Eddring. "I have looked about, and I know this place perfectly. We are only four or five miles from the station, and the way will be plain."
"Monsieur," said madame, "I shall be almost sorry. It is the fine peek-neek. Never have I slept so before."
"I, too, have slept nicely," said Miss Lady, "and I want to thank you. Shall we be out of the wood so soon?" There was small elation in her own voice, after all. In her soul there was a wild, inexplicable longing that this present hour might endure. Fear was gone, in some way, she knew not how. What there might be ahead, Miss Lady did not know. Here in the forest she felt safe.
The hurried breakfast was soon despatched and Eddring, taking aboard his passengers once more, pushed out into the broad sea which lay through all the heavy forest. The nearest road to the station was under water, and, as it offered few obstructions, Eddring for the most part followed its curves for the remainder of his boat journey. At length, as he had said, he brought up within sight of the telegraph poles along the railway. He passed by boat even beyond the little station-house, and landed at the edge of what had been the Big House lawn.
On every side there was ruin and desolation. The rude fence of the railway track had caught and held a certain amount of wreckage. Most of the field cabins were above the water, but others were half out of sight, deep in the flood. Fences were well-nigh obliterated. Half of the Big House plantation was under water. Above all this scene of ruin, high, strong and grim, the Big House itself stood, now silent and apparently deserted. Toward it the voyagers hurried. It was not until they knocked at the door that they met signs of life.
In response to repeated summons there appeared at the door the gaunt figure of Colonel Calvin Blount himself, shirt-sleeved, unshaven, pale, his left arm tightly bandaged to his side, his hawk-like eye alone showing the wonted fire of his disposition. Each man threw an arm over the other's shoulder after their hands had met in silent grasp.
"I am not too late," said Eddring. "Thank God!"
"No, not quite too late," said Blount. "There is a little left—not much. Who's with you?"
"The one you sent for," said Eddring, stepping aside, "and this is Madame Delchasse, the one woman, Colonel, whom you and I ought to thank with all our hearts. She has been the friend of Miss Lady when certainly she needed one."
Blount stepped forward, a smile softening his grim face. "Oh, Miss Lady, Miss Lady," he cried, extending his unhampered hand. "You ran away from us! You didn't do right! What made you? Where have you been? What have you been doing?" Miss Lady's eyes only filled, and she found no speech.
"But now you're back," Blount went on. "You need friends, and you've come back to the right place. Here are three friends of yours. Madame Delchasse—" this as Miss Lady drew her companion toward him with one hand, "I am glad to see you. It you ever befriended this girl, you are our friend here. Come in, and we will take care of you the best we can, though we've not much left—not much left.
"You see," said he, turning toward Eddring, "that boy Jack of yours came down with the news of this uprising that I mentioned in my message. He brought along his woman; and I must say that though I don't much mind this—"—he pointed to his injured arm—"if I have to eat that woman's cooking much longer, I'm going to die."
Then it was that Clarisse Delchasse arose grandly to the occasion. "Monsieur Colonel," she said, as she divested herself of her bonnet, "I have swear I would cook no more; but me? I am once the best cook in New Orleans. I cook not for money, ah, non! but from pity! Sir, humanity it is so outrage' by the poor cook that I have pity! So, Monsieur, I have pity also of you. Show me this girl that can not cook, and show me also the kitshen. Ah, we shall see whether Clarisse Delchasse have forget!"
"Show her, Miss Lady," said Blount. "Show her. The place is yours. Oh, girl, we're glad enough to have you back. Go get that gold- toothed woman of Jack's, go get 'em all, if you can find any of 'em around. Get Bill, he's around somewhere—get any of 'em you can find, and tell 'em to take care of you. Child, child, it's glad enough we all are to have you back again. Ah, Miss Lady, what made you go away?"
Even as he spoke, Madame Delchasse, rolling up her cuffs, was marching down the hall. "By jinks!" said Blount, looking after her admiringly. "By jinks! It looks like things were going to happen, don't it?" His strained features relaxed into a smile.
"But now come on, son," he said, turning to Eddring, "you and I have got to have a talk. I'll tell you about some of the things that have happened. We've been busy here in Tullahoma."
Drawing apart into another room, Blount met Eddring's hurried queries as to his own safety, and heard in turn the strange story of the late voyage and the incidents immediately preceding it. He told Blount of the discovery of Miss Lady living in the care of the old Frenchwoman, Madame Delchasse—Miss Lady, as they had both more than suspected, none other than Louise Loisson, the mysterious dancer in the city of New Orleans; told of the plot which he was satisfied had been the motive of Henry Decherd in inducing Miss Lady to accompany him upon the steamer. Blount added rapid confirmation here and there, and presently they came to a topic which could no longer be avoided.
"I know what was done," said Eddring at length, after a slight pause in the conversation. "I found the place where it all happened. That's where we spent the night, on the ridge, near the house."
"Did they see? Did they know?" asked Blount, nodding toward the place where the two women had disappeared.
"No," said Eddring. "I did not tell them. Blount, it's awful. Where's the law gone in this country?"
"Law?" cried Blount, fiercely, "we were the law! We sent for that nigger sheriff—the one they elected for a joke—hell of a joke, wasn't it?—and he wouldn't come. We had with us the old sheriff, Jim Peters, a good officer in this county, as you know, before now. We had with us every white voter in this precinct, every tax-payer. We found them, these levee-cutting, house-burning fools, right at their work. We left some of them dead there, and run some into the cane, and we took the balance over to that church of theirs which you saw. The water wasn't so high then as you say it is now. There was a regular fight, and the niggers were plumb desperate. They had guns. Jim Bowles, down below here, was shot pretty bad, though I reckon he'll get well. I was shot, too—not bad, but enough to make me some dizzy. Jim Peters—and I reckon he was the real officer of the law— was shot, too, so bad that he died pretty soon. Now I reckon you can tell what we found to be at the bottom of this, and who it was that's been making all this deviltry here for years."