"And you will go back to him?"
"Never! God forbid. Love him? No!"
"Yet you think he will look you up again. Why? To get help in this lawsuit?"
"You do not know him. He knows that all his hope in this lawsuit was gone long ago. He's not a fool. But he is going to hunt me up some day. He's going to find me; and then—he's going to kill me. He's killed Delphine, and he's going to kill me."
The two white hands, trembling now as though with a palsy, fell on the table in front of her. Her eyes, not seeing Eddring, gazed staring straight in front of her. The horror of her soul was written upon her face. Remorse, repentance, fear for the atonement—these had their way with her who was lately known as Alice Ellison, woman of fortune, and now served ill by fortune's hand.
All at once she broke from her half-stupor, her overstrung nerves giving way. A cry of terror burst from her lips. "You!" she cried, "you will not love me, you will not save me! Oh, Lady, girl—oh, is there no one, is there no one in all the world?"
John Eddring took her firmly by the shoulders, and after a time half- quieted her.
"Wine," she sobbed; "brandy—give me something."
Eddring threw open the door. "Jack," he cried; "Jack, come here. Run across the street for me. When you come back order a carriage. This lady is ill."
She sat for a time, trembling. Eddring, himself agitated, completed his hurried writing. She signed. He called a notary, and she made oath with a hand that shook as she uplifted it.
John Eddring, possessed at length of the last thread of his mystery, helped down the stairs the trembling and terror-stricken woman who had been the final agent of a justice long deferred. "Madam," he said, as he assisted her into the carriage, "I thank you for Miss Lady. If you ever have any need, address me; and meantime, keep careful watch. Take care of yourself, and be sure this knowledge will never be used against you. We shall not see you want."
She seemed not to hear him. Her eyes still stared straight in front of her. "He's coming," she whispered. "It will be the end!"
THE LID OF THE GRAVE
In a little room of a poor hotel situated on a back street of the city of New Orleans, a man bent over an old trunk which had that day been unearthed from a long-time hiding-place. It had for years been left unopened. It was like opening a grave now to raise its cover. The man almost shuddered as he bent over and looked in, curious as though these things had never before met his gaze. There was a dull odor of dead flowers long boxed up. A faint rustling as of intangible things became half audible, as though spirits passed out at this contact with the outer air.
"Twelve years ago—and this is the sort of luggage I carried then," he mused. "What taste! What a foolish boy! Dear me. Well—what?" His bravado failed him. He started, fearing something. Yet presently he peered in.
It was like a grave, yet one where some beneficent or some cruel process of nature had resisted the way of death and change. "Foolish boy!" he muttered, as he peered in and saw Life as it had been for him when he had shut down the lid. "God! it's strange. There ought to be a picture or so near the top." He touched the tray, and the dead flowers and dry papers rustled again until he started back. His face, tired, dissipated, deeply lined, went all the paler, but presently he delved in again.
"Pictures of myself, eh? the first thing. I was always first thing to myself. Nice, clean boy, wasn't I? Wouldn't have known it was myself. Might have been a parson, almost. Here's another. Militia uniform, all that. Might have been a major, almost. Uh-hum! High school diploma here—very important. Eighteen—great God, was it so long ago as that? University diploma—Latin. Can't read it now. Might have been a professor, mightn't I? Diploma of law school; also Latin. Certificate of admission to the bar of—. Might have been a lawyer. Might have been a judge, mightn't I? Might have a home now; white, green blinds, brick walk up to the door, paling fence—that kind of thing. Might have had a home—wife and babies—eh! Baby? Children? What? Well, I couldn't call this much of a home, could I, now?"
He unfolded some old newspapers and periodicals of a departed period, bearing proof of certain of his own handicraft. "Might have been a writer—poet—that sort of thing!" He smiled quizzically. "Not so bad. Not so bad. I couldn't do as well to-day, I'm afraid. Seem to have lost it—let go somewhere. I never could depend on myself—never could depend—ah, what's this? Yes, here are the ladies, God bless them—la-ladies—God bless 'em!"
The lower tray was filled with pictures of girls or women of all types, some of them beautiful, some of them coarse, most of them attractive from a certain point of view. "God! what a lot!" he murmured. "How did I do it? By asking, I reckon. Six—six—six of one—six of another. Women and men alike, eh? Well, I don't know. Ask 'em, you win. Or, don't ask 'em, you win."
His hand fell upon the frame of a little mirror laid away in the old trunk. He picked it up and gazed steadily at what it revealed. "Changed," he said, "changed a lot. Must have gone a pace, eh? Lawyer. Judge. Writer-man. Poet. I thought these beat all of that,"— and he looked down again at the smiling faces. He picked them up one at a time and laid them on the bed beside him. "Alice, Nora, Clara, Kate, Margaret—I'll guess at the names, and guess at some of the faces now. It's the same, all alike, the hunting of love: the hunting—the hunt—ing—of—love! Great thing. But of course we never do find it, do we? Ladies, good night." This he said in half- mocking solemnity.
He bowed ironically; yet his face was more uneasy now than wholly mocking. He looked once more at the trunk-tray, and found what he apparently half-feared to see. "Madam!" he whispered. "Madam! Alice!" He gazed at a face strong and full, with deep curved lips, and wide jaw, and large dark eyes, deeply browed and striking, the face of a woman to beckon to a man, to make him forget, for a time—and that was Alice Ellison as he had known her years ago, before—before—He turned away and would not look at this. He tried to laugh, to mock. "Bless you, ladies," he said, "I've often said I would like to see you all together in the same room. Eh—but the finding of it—oh, we never do find it, do we? Not love. I never could depend on myself.
"What! What's this!" he exclaimed, as his hand now touched something else, a hard object in the bottom of the trunk, beneath the tray. "Why, here's my old pistol. Twelve years old. I thought I'd lost it. Loaded! My faith, loaded for twelve years. Wonder if it would go off."
He sat on the edge of the bed, looking into the trunk, the revolver in his hand. Slowly, slowly, as though against his will, his face turned, and he found himself looking down at the pictured smiling faces that stared up at him. The last picture seemed to frighten him with its smile. All the pictures smiled. "Alice!" he whispered.
"My God!" cried Henry Decherd, suddenly. "They're alive! They're coming to life!"
They stood about him now in the little room, smiling, beckoning; Alice, Nora, Kate, Jane, Margaret, all the rest, as he addressed them. They smiled and beckoned; but he could not reply, whether to those honest or not honest, to those deceived or undeceived.
The face of Alice Ellison, strong-jawed, dark-browed, large-eyed, stared at him steadily from behind a certain chair. He could see that her hair was wet. It hung down on her neck, on her shoulders. It clung to her temples. Her eyes gazed at him stonily now. He saw it all again—the struggle! He heard his own accusations, and hers. He heard her pleading, her cry for mercy; and then her cry of terror. He saw her face, staring up at him from the water. As he gazed, the other faces faded away into the darkness. He stood, staring, Henry Decherd, murderer of the woman whom he once had loved.
The porter of the hotel said on the next day that he remembered hearing late in the night a sort of crash, which sounded like the dropping of a trunk lid. He did not know what it was. The lid of the grave had fallen again for Henry Decherd!
THE RED RIOT OF YOUTH
The rim of the ancient forest still made the boundary of the little world of Miss Lady. Still she looked out beyond it in query, yearningly, longingly, though now she found herself more content than ever in her life before.
It was the daily habit of Miss Lady to ride for a time the big chestnut saddler which Colonel Blount had devoted to her special use. Mounted thus on Cherry, she cantered each day over the fields, where a renewed industry had now set on again. The simple field hands looked upon her as a higher being, and as their special messenger. If a baby was sick at a distant cabin, Miss Lady knew of it, and had the proper aid despatched. If the daughter of this or the other laborer needed shoes and could not wait until Christmas accounting time, it was Miss Lady who interceded with the master of the Big House.
"I couldn't get along here without you now," said that stern soul to her gruffly. "But I reckon you'd better run away again, for I'm afraid of people that I can't get along without. Besides, you're spoiling all my dogs, a-honeying of 'em up the way you do."
Miss Lady only laughed at that; though each day she looked out at the edge of her world.
Sometimes so wistfully did Miss Lady look out beyond the rim of the forest that she felt interest in the railway trains which carried her now and then to the cities north or south of her. Sometimes, even, girl-like she would mount Cherry, jump the front fence in violation of Colonel Blount's imperative orders, and scurry down to the station to have a look at the incoming trains. The conductors of all these trains knew her well, and often the brakeman or the conductor would hand out to her some package from the city as she rode up close to the car step, after the train had paused. The picture of Miss Lady and Cherry was a pleasant one, and more than one passenger peered out of a car window to see the tall girl who rode so well and who seemed so sure that all the world meant well and kindly toward her.
Miss Lady was now fully worthy to be called beautiful. She rarely rode otherwise than bare-headed, and the high-rolled masses of her hair had grown tawnier and redder for that reason. Her figure gave perfect lines to the scarlet jacket which so well became her. Her gauntlets fitted well the small, firm hands, and her foot was ever well-shod. Ah, indeed, in those days, when Miss Lady for the time forgot her past unhappiness, almost at times ceased to wonder what lay out beyond the forest, almost resigned herself to the mere happiness of a glorious young womanhood—she did indeed seem well- named as Lady, thoroughbred, titled as by right. Her eyes were wide and trustful, her lips high-curved, her cheeks pink with the rush of the air when Cherry galloped hard; her head was high, her gaze direct. And if, now and again, when the train had departed, Miss Lady, having come swiftly, she knew not why, rode back again slowly, she knew not why; if at times her eyes grew pensive as she listened to the mockers gurgling in the dogwood or on the honeysuckle, her spirits rose again, and her face was sure to brighten when she came near to the house and hurried Cherry up to the mounting block. She was the high-light in all the picture, unconsciously first in the gaze and thought of all. No woman ever was more worshiped; no, nor was ever one more fit for worship. Again, as old Jules once had said, she had become a religion!
One morning Miss Lady, her hair in its usual riot of tawny brown, her face flushed, her lips laughing as she urged Cherry's nose up to the car side, was met by the conductor at the step, who called out to her gaily, "Company to-day." Miss Lady did not fully understand, and so waited, looking excellently well turned out in the bright jacket and the dainty gloves which lay on Cherry's tugging rein, as she sat easily, with the grace of a born horsewoman. And so, before she understood this speech, the train passed on; and as it passed it showed to these newly arrived passengers upon the platform this picture of Miss Lady, one not easily to be surpassed in any land, fit long to linger in any eye.
It was John Eddring who now gazed at this picture, and who felt rise to his lips the swift salutation of his soul, tenderer than ever now in its instantaneous homage. He had not dreamed that she could grow so beautiful. He had not known that love could mean so much—that it could mean more than everything—that it could outweigh every human interest and every human resolve! His heart, long suppressed by an iron determination; his whole nature, gone a-hunger in the long fight for success, now at once rebelled and broke all shackles in one swift instant of its mutiny. He knew now how unjust he had been to himself, for that he had worked and had not lived. The years broke from him, and he was young. For with him youth had not been lost, but set aside, unspent. Now it came to him all at once—the red riot of youth and love. It must have shone in his eyes, must have trembled in his touch, as he hurried over the rails at which Cherry's dainty forefeet now were pausing, and reached up his arms to her, murmuring he knew not what.
He helped her dismount, and caught then her gaze directed behind him. John Eddring had forgotten that his mother was with him. She came forward now, reaching out her hand, then reaching out her arms.
"Child," said the white-haired old lady, "I've heard it all, all your strange story. My son has come to tell you that you have succeeded at last. Your case is won!"
She touched Miss Lady's tumbled tawny hair with her own gentle hand. "My girl," said she, "my dear girl; and you never knew your own mother? You never knew what that was? My dear, it is very sweet to have a mother."
Miss Lady, knowing no better thing, kissed her impulsively, and the older lady drew her close, in such communion as only women may understand. Mrs. Eddring again touched lightly the red-brown hair. "I never had a daughter," said she. "I've only a boy. That's my boy there."
Eddring, who had meantime taken Cherry's bridle rein, was now walking on in advance toward the lane that led to the house. The girl caught the old lady's hands in her own, and then threw her arms about the thin figure in a swift embrace. So, arm in arm, they also turned toward the lane; and which was then welcoming the other home neither could have said.
"Well, what do you want, boy?" Blount gruffly asked of Eddring on the morning after his arrival. "Are you on a still hunt for that Congressional nomination?"
"No, it's of a heap more importance than that," said Eddring.
"Humph! Maybe. Bill, oh, Bill! Here, you go and get the big glass mug, and a bunch of mint. Come out here, Eddring. Sit down on the board-pile in the shade—I've been going to build a roof on my doghouse with these boards as long as I can remember."
They had just seated themselves upon the board-pile, and were waiting for Bill with the mint when Eddring looked up and smiled. "Who's that coming?" he asked, pointing down the lane.
"That? Why, I reckon that's Jim Bowles and his wife, Sar' Ann. They come up once in a while to get a little milk, when they ain't too durn tired. Their cow—why, say, it was a good many years ago your blamed railroad killed that cow. They never did get another one since. And that reminds me, Mr. John Eddring—that reminds me—"
He fumbled in the wallet which he drew from his pocket, and produced an old and well-creased bit of paper. "Look here," said he, "you owe me for that filly of mine yet. That old railroad never did settle at all. Here it is. Fifty dollars."
"I thought it was fifteen," said Eddring, with twinkling eyes.
"That's what I said," replied Blount, solemnly, as he tore the paper in bits and dropped them at his feet. "I said fifteen! Anyway I'm in no humor to be a-quarreling about a little thing like that. Why, man, I'm just beginning to enjoy life. We're going to make a big crop of cotton this year, I've got the best pack of b'ah-dogs I ever did have yet, and there's more b'ah out in the woods than you ever did see."
"I suppose your ladies leave you once in a while, to go down to New Orleans?" inquired Eddring.
"No, sir! New Orleans no more," said Blount. "Why, you know, just as a business precaution, I bought that house down there that Madame Delchasse used to own. It's sort of in the family now. Shut off that running down to New Orleans."
"Well, how does Madame Delchasse like that?" asked Eddring.
"Man," said Blount, earnestly, "there's some things that seem to be sort of settled by fate—couldn't come out no other way. Do you suppose for one minute that I'm going to allow to get away from me the only woman I ever did see that could cook b'ah meat fit to eat? Well, I reckon not! Besides, what she can do to most anything is simply enough to scare you. She can take common crawfish, like the niggers catch all around here—and a shell off of a mussel, and out of them two things she makes what she calls a 'kokeeyon of eckriveese,' and—say, man! You bet your bottom dollar Madame Delchasse ain't going to get away from here. Don't matter a damn if she ain't got over putting hair-oil in her cocktails, like they do at New Orleans—we won't fall out about that, either. I don't have to drink 'em. Only thing, she calls a cussed old catfish a 'poisson.' That's when we begin to tangle some. But taking it all in all—up one side and down the other—I never did know before what good cooking meant. Why she's got to cook—she'd die if she didn't cook. Her go back to New Orleans?—well, I reckon not!
"Why, say," continued Blount, "don't it sometimes seem that luck sort of runs in streaks in this world? All cloudy, then out comes the sun—lovely world! Now, for one while it looked like things were pretty cloudy down here. But the sun's done come out again. Everything's all right, here at the Big House, now, sure's you're born. We'll go out and get a b'ah to-morrow. Come on, let's go see the dogs."
"Well, you know, I must be getting back to business before long," began Eddring.
"Business, what business?" protested Colonel Blount. "Say, have you asked that girl yet?" He was fumbling at the gate latch as he spoke, or he might have seen Eddring's face suddenly flush red.
"Whom do you mean?" he managed to stammer.
Blount whirled and looked him full in the eye. "You know mighty well who I mean."
Eddring turned away. "I told you, Cal,"—he began.
"Oh, you told me! Well I could have told you a long time ago that Miss Lady had this whole thing straightened out in her head. Do you reckon she's a fool? I don't reckon she thinks you're a thief any more. I reckon like enough she thinks you're just a supreme damned fool. I know I do."
"Turn 'em loose, Cal!" cried Eddring, suddenly. "Open the gates! Let 'em out! I want to hear 'em holler!" The pack poured out, motley, vociferous, eager for the chase, filling the air with their wild music, with a riot of primeval, savage life. "Get me a horse saddled, Cal, quick," cried Eddring. "I want to feel leather under me again. I want to feel the air in my ears. I've got to ride, to move! Man, I'm going to live!"
"Now," said Blount, rubbing his chin, "you're beginning to talk. The man that don't like a good b'ah chase once in a while is no earthly use to me."
But Eddring did not ride to the far forest that day. A good horseman, and now well mounted, he made a handsome figure as he galloped off across the field. As he rode, his eye searched here and there, till it caught sight of the flash of a scarlet jacket beyond a distant screen of high green brier. He put his horse over the rail fence and pulled up at her side.
"You ride well," said Miss Lady, critically. "I didn't know that. Why didn't you tell me?"
"There have been a good many things about me that you didn't know," said Eddring, "and there's a heap of things I haven't told you."
Knowing in the instant now that a time of accounting had come, she looked at him miserably, her eyes downcast, her hands fiddling with the reins.
"But then, Miss Lady, you didn't know; it wasn't your fault," he added quickly.
"Oh," said the girl, impulsively taming toward him, her face very red, "I am so sorry, I am so sorry! To think of all you have done for us, for me. Why, every bit of safety and happiness in my life has come through you. I have felt that, and wanted so long to tell you and to thank you. You—you didn't come!"
"Never mind, never mind," said Eddring, wishing now nothing in the world so much as that he might have spared her this confession. "I've come now—oh, my girl, I've come now."
"All this time," said she, evading as long as she might, "you were trying, you were working, all alone. Mr. Eddring, it was not merely kind of you, it was noble!" And now poor Miss Lady flushed even more hotly than ever, though her heart was lighter for the truth thus told.
Eddring looked straight on down the road ahead of them, the road which broke the rim of the forest toward which they had now unconsciously faced. At length he turned toward her.
"Miss Lady," said he, simply, "I have loved you so much, so very much. I've always loved you. I didn't dare admit it to myself for a long time; but it's run away with me now, absolutely and for ever. I can't look at life—I can't turn any way—I can't think of anything in which I don't see you. It's been this way a long time, but now I'm gone. I can't pull up. Miss Lady, I couldn't go back now and begin life over again alone. I couldn't do that now. I wouldn't want to make you unhappy, ever. Do you think, oh, don't you think that you could depend on me? Don't you think you could love me?"
Miss Lady's eyes were cast down, and her hands were busy at the reins which she shifted between her fingers. Cherry walked slowly and still more slowly, until at length Eddring laid his hand upon the bridle, and Cherry turned about an inquiring eye. He reached out his hand and took in it the small, gray-gloved one which had half-loosed its grasp upon the rein.
"Miss Lady," he whispered. And then slowly the girl lifted her eyes and looked full at him—her eyes now grown soft and gentle.
"Yes," said she, "I can depend," Her voice was very low. Yet the woman-whisper reached to the edge of all the universe—a universe robbed of its last secret by the woman-soul. "I can see you clearly," said Miss Lady, softly. "I see your heart. Yes. I am sure. I understand—I know now who I am. And I know—I know it all. All!"
"But do you love me!" he demanded; and now Cherry's nose was drawn quite over the neck of Jerry. Miss Lady would not answer that, but turned away her face, which was now very pink. "Tell me," he demanded, frowning in his own earnestness, and catching the bridle hand in a stern clasp, "may I depend? Tell me, girl. I can not wait."
There was a gentle breeze among the tree-tops. A mocker near by trilled and gurgled. Eddring leaned forward. It seemed to him he heard a whisper which told him that he might be sure.