"Damme, and so you shall, Dad!" the son exclaimed, relapsing into his customary swagger, as the readiest means of flattering the old man's more amiable mood. It was an easier matter to encounter Dr. Deane—to procrastinate and prolong the settlement of terms, or shift the responsibility of the final result from his own shoulders. Of course the present command must be obeyed, and it was by no means an agreeable one; but Alfred Barton had courage enough for any emergency not yet arrived. So he began to talk and joke very comfortably about his possible marriage, until Ann, descending to the kitchen in her solemn black gown, interrupted the conference.
That afternoon, as Alfred took his way by the foot-path to the village, he seated himself in the shade, on one end of the log which spanned the creek, in order to examine his position, before venturing on a further step. We will not probe the depths of his meditations; probably they were not very deep, even when most serious; but we may readily conjecture those considerations which were chiefly obvious to his mind. The affair, which he had so long delayed, through a powerful and perhaps a natural dread, was now brought to a crisis. He could not retreat without extreme risk to his prospects of inheritance; since his father and Dr. Deane had come to an actual conference, he was forced to assume the part which was appropriate to him. Sentiment, he was aware, would not be exacted, but a certain amount of masculine anticipation belonged to his character of lover; should he assume this, also, or meet Dr. Deane on a hard business ground?
It is a matter of doubt whether any vulgar man suspects the full extent of his vulgarity; but there are few who are not conscious, now and then, of a very uncomfortable difference between themselves and the refined natures with whom they come in contact. Alfred Barton had never been so troubled by this consciousness as when in the presence of Martha Deane. He was afraid of her; he foresaw that she, as his wife, would place him in a more painful subjection than that which his father now enforced. He was weary of bondage, and longed to draw a free, unworried breath. With all his swagger, his life had not always been easy or agreeable. A year or two more might see him, in fact and in truth, his own master. He was fifty years old; his habits of life were fixed; he would have shrunk from the semi-servitude of marriage, though with a woman after his own heart, and there was nothing in this (except the money) to attract him.
"I see no way!" he suddenly exclaimed, after a fit of long and unsatisfactory musing.
"Nor I neither, unless you make room for me!" answered a shrill voice at his side.
He started as if shot, becoming aware of Miss Betsy Lavender, who had just emerged from the thicket.
"Skeered ye, have I?" said she. "Why, how you do color up, to be sure! I never was that red, even in my blushin' days; but never mind, what's said to nobody is nobody's business."
He laughed a forced laugh. "I was thinking, Miss Betsy," he said, "how to get the grain threshed and sent to the mills before prices come down. Which way are you going?"
She had been observing him through half-closed eyes, with her head a little thrown back. First slightly nodding to herself, as if assenting to some mental remark, she asked,—
"Which way are you goin'? For my part I rather think we're changin' places,—me to see Miss Ann, and you to see Miss Martha."
"You're wrong!" he exclaimed. "I was only going to make a little neighborly call on the Doctor."
"On the Doctor! Ah-ha! it's come to that, has it? Well, I won't be in the way."
"Confound the witch!" he muttered to himself, as she sprang upon the log and hurried over.
Mr. Alfred Barton was not acquainted with the Greek drama, or he would have had a very real sense of what is meant by Fate. As it was, he submitted to circumstances, climbed the hill, and never halted until he found himself in Dr. Deane's sitting-room.
Of course, the Doctor was alone and unoccupied; it always happens so. Moreover he knew, and Alfred Barton knew that he knew, the subject to be discussed; but it was not the custom of the neighborhood to approach an important interest except in a very gradual and roundabout manner. Therefore the Doctor said, after the first greeting,—
"Thee'll be getting thy crops to market soon, I imagine?"
"I'd like to," Barton replied, "but there's not force enough on our place, and the threshers are wanted everywhere at once. What would you do,—hurry off the grain now, or wait to see how it may stand in the spring?"
Dr. Deane meditated a moment, and then answered with great deliberation: "I never like to advise, where the chances are about even. It depends, thee knows, on the prospect of next year's crops. But, which ever way thee decides, it will make less difference to thee than to them that depend altogether upon their yearly earnings."
Barton understood this stealthy approach to the important subject, and met it in the same way. "I don't know," he said; "it's slow saving on half-profits. I have to look mighty close, to make anything decent."
"Well," said the Doctor, "what isn't laid up by thee, is laid up for thee, I should judge."
"I should hope so, Doctor; but I guess you know the old man as well as I do. If anybody could tell what's in his mind, it's Lawyer Stacy, and he's as close as a steel-trap. I've hardly had a fair chance, and it ought to be made up to me."
"It will be, no doubt." And then the Doctor, resting his chin upon his cane, relapsed into a grave, silent, expectant mood, which his guest well understood.
"Doctor," he said at last, with an awkward attempt at a gay, confidential manner, "you know what I come for today. Perhaps I'm rather an old boy to be here on such an errand; I've been a bit afraid lest you might think me so; and for that reason I haven't spoken to Martha at all, (though I think she's smart enough to guess how my mind turns,) and won't speak, till I first have your leave. I'm not so young as to be light-headed in such matters; and, most likely, I'm not everything that Martha would like; but—but—there's other things to be considered—not that I mind 'em much, only the old man, you know, is very particular about 'em, and so I've come up to see if we can't agree without much trouble."
Dr. Deane took a small pinch of Rappee, and then touched his nose lightly with his lavendered handkerchief. He drew up his hanging under-lip until it nearly covered the upper, and lifted his nostrils with an air at once of reticence and wisdom. "I don't deny," he said slowly, "that I've suspected something of what is in thy mind, and I will further say that thee's done right in coming first to me. Martha being an only d—child, I have her welfare much at heart, and if I had known anything seriously to thy discredit, I would not have permitted thy attentions. So far as that goes, thee may feel easy. I did hope, however, that thee would have some assurance of what thy father intends to do for thee—and perhaps thee has,—Elisha being established in his own independence, and Ann not requiring a great deal, thee would inherit considerable, besides the farm. And it seems to me that I might justly, in Martha's interest, ask for some such assurance."
If Alfred Barton's secret thought had been expressed in words, it would have been: "Curse the old fool—he knows what the old man is, as well as I do!" But he twisted a respectful hypocrisy out of his whisker, and said,—
"Ye-e-es, that seems only fair. How am I to get at it, though? I daren't touch the subject with a ten-foot pole, and yet it stands both to law and reason that I should come in for a handsome slice o' the property. You might take it for granted, Doctor?"
"So I might, if thy father would take for granted what I might be able to do. I can see, however, that it's hardly thy place to ask him; that might be left to me."
This was an idea which had not occurred to Alfred Barton. A thrill of greedy curiosity shot through his heart; he saw that, with Dr. Deane's help, he might be able to ascertain the amount of the inheritance which must so soon fall to him. This feeling, fed by the impatience of his long subjection, took complete possession of him, and he resolved to further his father's desires, without regard to present results.
"Yes, that might be left to me," the Doctor repeated, "after the other matter is settled. Thee knows what I mean. Martha will have ten thousand dollars in her own right, at twenty-five,—and sooner, if she marries with my approbation. Now, thee or thy father must bring an equal sum; that is understood between us—and I think thy father mentioned that thee could do it without calling upon him. Is that the case?"
"Not quite—but, yes, very nearly. That is, the old man's been so close with me, that I'm a little close with him, Doctor, you see! He doesn't know exactly how much I have got, and as he threatens to leave me according to what I've saved, why, I rather let him have his own way about the matter."
A keen, shrewd smile flitted over the Doctor's face.
"But if it isn't quite altogether ten thousand, Doctor," Barton continued, "I don't say but what it could be easily made up to that figure. You and I could arrange all that between our two selves, without consulting the old man,—and, indeed, it's not his business, in any way,—and so, you might go straight to the other matter at once."
"H'm," mused the Doctor, with his chin again upon his stick, "I should perhaps be working in thy interest, as much as in mine. Then thee can afford to come up fair and square to the mark. Of course, thee has all the papers to show for thy own property?"
"I guess there'll be no trouble about that," Barton answered, carelessly. "I lend on none but the best security. 'T will take a little time—must go to Chester—so we needn't wait for that; 't will be all right!"
"Oh, no doubt; but hasn't thee overlooked one thing?"
"That Martha should first know thy mind towards her."
It was true, he had overlooked that important fact, and the suggestion came to him very like an attack of cramp. He laughed, however, took out a red silk handkerchief, and tried to wipe a little eagerness into his face.
"No, Doctor!" he exclaimed, "not forgot, only keeping the best for the last. I wasn't sure but you might want to speak to her yourself, first; but she knows, doesn't she?"
"Not to my direct knowledge; and I wouldn't like to venture to speak in her name."
"Then, I'll—that is, you think I'd better have a talk with her. A little tough, at my time of life, ha! ha!—but faint heart never won fair lady; and I hadn't thought of going that far to-day, though of course, I'm anxious,—been in my thoughts so long,—and perhaps—perhaps"—
"I'll tell thee," said the Doctor, seeming not to notice Barton's visible embarrassment, which he found very natural; "do thee come up again next First-day afternoon prepared to speak thy mind. I will give Martha a hint of thy purpose beforehand, but only a hint, mind thee; the girl has a smart head of her own, and thee'll come on faster with her if thee pleads thy own cause with thy own mouth."
"Yes, I'll come then!" cried Barton, so relieved at his present escape that his relief took the expression of joy. Dr. Deane was a fair judge of character; he knew all of Alfred Barton's prominent traits, and imagined that he was now reading him like an open book; but it was like reading one of those Latin sentences which, to the ear, are made up of English words. The signs were all correct, only they belonged to another language.
The heavy wooer shortly took his departure. While on the return path, he caught sight of Miss Betsy Lavender's beaver, bobbing along behind the pickets of the hill-fence, and, rather than encounter its wearer in his present mood, he stole into the shelter of one of the cross-hedges, and made his way into the timbered bottom below.
Little did Dr. Deane suspect the nature of the conversation which had that morning been held in his daughter's room, between herself and Betsy Lavender.
When the latter returned from her interview with Gilbert Potter, the previous evening, she found the Doctor already arrived. Mark came home at supper-time, and the evening was so prolonged by his rattling tongue that no room was left for any confidential talk with Martha, although Miss Betsy felt that something ought to be said, and it properly fell to her lot to broach the delicate subject.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, therefore, she slipped up to Martha's room, on the transparent pretence of looking again at a new dress, which had been bought some days before. She held the stuff to the light, turned it this way and that, and regarded it with an importance altogether out of proportion to its value.
"It seems as if I couldn't git the color rightly set in my head," she remarked; "'t a'n't quiet laylock, nor yit vi'let, and there ought, by rights, to be quilled ribbon round the neck, though the Doctor might consider it too gay; but never mind, he'd dress you in drab or slate if he could, and I dunno, after all"—
"Betsy!" exclaimed Martha, with an impetuousness quite unusual to her calm nature, "throw down the dress! Why won't you speak of what is in your mind; don't you see I'm waiting for it?"
"You're right, child!" Miss Betsy cried, flinging the stuff to the farthest corner of the room; "I'm an awkward old fool, with all my exper'ence. Of course I seen it with half a wink; there! don't be so trembly now. I know how you feel, Martha; you wouldn't think it, but I do. I can tell the real signs from the passin' fancies, and if ever I see true-love in my born days, I see it in you, child, and in him."
Martha's face glowed in spite of herself. The recollection of Gilbert's embrace in the dusky glen came to her, already for the thousandth time, but warmer, sweeter at each recurrence. She felt that her hand trembled in that of the spinster, as they sat knee to knee, and that a tender dew was creeping into her eyes; leaning forward, she laid her face a moment on her friend's shoulder, and whispered,—
"It is all very new and strange, Betsy; but I am happy."
Miss Lavender did not answer immediately. With her hand on Martha's soft, smooth hair, she was occupied in twisting her arm so that the sleeve might catch and conceal two troublesome tears which were at that moment trickling down her nose. Besides, she was not at all sure of her voice, until something like a dry crust of bread in her throat had been forcibly swallowed down.
Martha, however, presently lifted her head with a firm, courageous expression, though the rosy flush still suffused her cheeks. "I'm not as independent as people think," she said, "for I couldn't help myself when the time came, and I seem to belong to him, ever since."
"Ever since. Of course you do!" remarked Miss Betsy, with her head down and her hands busy at her high comb and thin twist of hair; "every woman, savin' and exceptin' myself, and no fault o' mine, must play Jill to somebody's Jack; it's man's way and the Lord's way, but worked out with a mighty variety, though I say it, but why not, my eyes bein' as good as anybody else's! Come now, you're lookin' again after your own brave fashion; and so, you're sure o' your heart, Martha?"
"Betsy, my heart speaks once and for all," said Martha, with kindling eyes.
"Once and for all. I knowed it—and so the Lord help us! For here I smell wagon-loads o' trouble; and if you weren't a girl to know her own mind and stick to it, come weal, come woe, and he with a bull-dog's jaw that'll never let go, and I mean no runnin' of him down, but on the contrary, quite the reverse, I'd say to both, git over it somehow for it won't be, and no matter if no use, it's my dooty,—well, it's t'other way, and I've got to give a lift where I can, and pull this way, and shove that way, and hold back everybody, maybe, and fit things to things, and unfit other things,—Good Lord, child, you've made an awful job for me!"
Therewith Miss Betsy laughed, with a dry, crisp, cheerfulness which quite covered up and concealed her forebodings. Nothing pleased her better than to see realized in life her own views of what ought to be, and the possibility of becoming one of the shaping and regulating powers to that end stirred her nature to its highest and most joyous activity.
Martha Deane, equally brave, was more sanguine. The joy of her expanding love foretold its fulfilment to her heart. "I know, Betsy," she said, "that father would not hear of it now; but we are both young and can wait, at least until I come into my property—ours, I ought to say, for I think of it already as being as much Gilbert's as mine. What other trouble can there be?"
"Is there none on his side, Martha?"
"His birth? Yes, there is—or was, though not to me—never to me! I am so glad, for his sake,—but, Betsy, perhaps you do not know"—
"If there's anything I need to know, I'll find it out, soon or late. He's worried, that I see, and no wonder, poor boy! But as you say, there's time enough, and my single and solitary advice to both o' you, is, don't look at one another before folks, if you can't keep your eyes from blabbin'. Not a soul suspicions anything now, and if you two'll only fix it betwixt and between you to keep quiet, and patient, and as forbearin' in showin' feelin' as people that hate each other like snakes, why, who knows but somethin' may turn up, all unexpected, to make the way as smooth for ye as a pitch-pine plank!"
"Patient!" Martha murmured to herself. A bright smile broke over her face, as she thought how sweet it would be to match, as best a woman might, Gilbert's incomparable patience and energy of purpose. The tender humility of her love, so beautifully interwoven with the texture of its pride and courage, filled her heart with a balmy softness and peace. She was already prepared to lay her firm, independent spirit at his feet, or exercise it only as her new, eternal duty to him might require. Betsy Lavender's warning could not ripple the bright surface of her happiness; she knew that no one (hardly even Gilbert, as yet) suspected that in her heart the love of a strong and faithful and noble man outweighed all other gifts or consequences of life—that, to keep it, she would give up home, friends, father, the conventional respect of every one she knew!
"Well, child!" exclaimed Miss Lavender, after a long lapse of silence; "the words is said that can't be taken back, accordin' to my views o' things, though, Goodness knows, there's enough and enough thinks different, and you must abide by 'em; and what I think of it all I'll tell you when the end comes, not before, so don't ask me now; but one thing more, there's another sort of a gust brewin', and goin' to break soon, if ever, and that is, Alf. Barton,—though you won't believe it,—he's after you in his stupid way, and your father favors him. And my advice is, hold him off as much as you please, but say nothin' o' Gilbert!"
This warning made no particular impression upon Martha. She playfully tapped Miss Betsy's high comb, and said: "Now, if you are going to be so much worried about me, I shall be sorry that you found it out."
"Well I won't!—and now let me hook your gownd."
Often, after that, however, did Martha detect Miss Betsy's eyes fixed upon her with a look of wistful, tender interest, and she knew, though the spinster would not say it, that the latter was alive with sympathy, and happy in the new confidence between them. With each day, her own passion grew and deepened, until it seemed that the true knowledge of love came after its confession. A sweet, warm yearning for Gilbert's presence took its permanent seat in her heart; not only his sterling manly qualities, but his form, his face—the broad, square brow; the large, sad, deep-set gray eyes; the firm, yet impassioned lips—haunted her fancy. Slowly and almost unconsciously as her affection had been developed, it now took the full stature and wore the radiant form of her maiden dream of love.
If Dr. Deane noticed the physical bloom and grace which those days brought to his daughter, he was utterly innocent of the true cause. Perhaps he imagined that his own eyes were first fairly opened to her beauty by the prospect of soon losing her. Certainly she had never seemed more obedient and attractive. He had not forgotten his promise to Alfred Barton; but no very convenient opportunity for speaking to her on the subject occurred until the following Sunday morning. Mark was not at home, and he rode with her to Old Kennett Meeting.
As they reached the top of the long hill beyond the creek, Martha reined in her horse to enjoy the pleasant westward view over the fair September landscape. The few houses of the village crowned the opposite hill; but on this side the winding, wooded vale meandered away, to lose itself among the swelling slopes of clover and stubble-field; and beyond, over the blue level of Tuffkenamon, the oak-woods of Avondale slept on the horizon. It was a landscape such as one may see, in a more cultured form, on the road from Warwick to Stratford. Every one in Kennett enjoyed the view, but none so much as Martha Deane, upon whom its harmonious, pastoral aspect exercised an indescribable charm.
To the left, on the knoll below, rose the chimneys of the Barton farm-house, over the round tops of the apple-trees, and in the nearest field Mr. Alfred's Maryland cattle were fattening on the second growth of clover.
"A nice place, Martha!" said Dr. Deane, with a wave of his arm, and a whiff of sweet herbs.
"Here, in this first field, is the true place for the house," she answered, thinking only of the landscape beauty of the farm.
"Does thee mean so?" the Doctor eagerly asked, deliberating with himself how much of his plan it was safe to reveal. "Thee may be right, and perhaps thee might bring Alfred to thy way of thinking."
She laughed. "It's hardly worth the trouble."
"I've noticed, of late," her father continued, "that Alfred seems to set a good deal of store by thee. He visits us pretty often."
"Why, father!" she exclaimed, as they, rode onward, "it's rather thee that attracts him, and cattle, and crops, and the plans for catching Sandy Flash! He looks frightened whenever I speak to him."
"A little nervous, perhaps. Young men are often so, in the company of young women, I've observed."
Martha laughed so cheerily that her father said to himself: "Well, it doesn't displease her, at any rate." On the other hand, is was possible that she might have failed to see Barton in the light of a wooer, and therefore a further hint would be required.
"Now that we happen to speak of him, Martha," he said, "I might as well tell thee that, in my judgment, he seems to be drawn towards thee in the way of marriage. He may be a little awkward in showing it, but that's a common case. When he was at our house, last First-day, he spoke of thee frequently, and said that he would like to—well, to see thee soon. I believe he intends coming up this afternoon."
Martha became grave, as Betsy Lavender's warning took so suddenly a positive form. However, she had thought of this contingency as a possible thing, and must prepare herself to meet it with firmness.
"What does thee say?" the Doctor asked, after waiting a few minutes for an answer.
"Father, I hope thee's mistaken. Alfred Barton is not overstocked with wit, I know, but he can hardly be that foolish. He is almost as old as thee."
She spoke quietly, but with that tone of decision which Dr. Deane so well knew. He set his teeth and drew up his under-lip to a grim pout. If there was to be resistance, he thought, she would not find him so yielding as on other points; but he would first try a middle course.
"Understand me, Martha," he said; "I do not mean to declare what Alfred Barton's sentiments really are, but what, in my judgment, they might be. And thee had better wait and learn, before setting thy mind either for or against him: It's hardly putting much value upon thyself, to call him foolish."
"It is a humiliation to me, if thee is right, father," she said.
"I don't see that. Many young women would be proud of it. I'll only say one thing, Martha; if he seeks thee, and does speak his mind, do thee treat him kindly and respectfully."
"Have I ever treated thy friends otherwise?" she asked.
"My friends! thee's right—he is my friend."
She made no reply, but her soul was already courageously arming itself for battle. Her father's face was stern and cold, and she saw, at once, that he was on the side of the enemy. This struggle safely over, there would come another and a severer one. It was well that she had given herself time, setting the fulfilment of her love so far in advance.
Nothing more was said on this theme, either during the ride to Old Kennett, or on the return. Martha's plan was very simple: she would quietly wait until Alfred Barton should declare his sentiments, and then reject him once and forever. She would speak clearly, and finally; there should be no possibility of misconception. It was not a pleasant task; none but a vain and heartless woman would be eager to assume it; and Martha Deane hoped that it might be spared her.
But she, no less than her irresolute lover, (if we can apply that word to Alfred Barton,) was an instrument in the hands of an uncomfortable Fate. Soon after dinner a hesitating knock was heard at the door, and Barton entered with a more uneasy air than ever before. Erelong, Dr. Deane affected to have an engagement with an invalid on the New-Garden road; Betsy Lavender had gone to Fairthorn's for the afternoon, and the two were alone.
For a few moments, Martha was tempted to follow her father's example, and leave Alfred Barton to his own devices. Then she reflected that this was a cowardly feeling; it would only postpone her task. He had taken his seat, as usual, in the very centre of the room; so she came forward and seated herself at the front window, with her back to the light, thus, woman-like, giving herself all the advantages of position.
Having his large, heavy face before her, in full light, she was at first a little surprised on finding that it expressed not even the fond anxiety, much less the eagerness, of an aspiring wooer. The hair and whiskers, it is true, were so smoothly combed back that they made long lappets on either side of his face; unusual care had been taken with his cambric cravat and shirt-ruffles, and he wore his best blue coat, which was entirely too warm for the season. In strong contrast to this external preparation, were his restless eyes which darted hither and thither in avoidance of her gaze, the fidgety movements of his thick fingers, creeping around buttons and in and out of button-holes, and finally the silly, embarrassed half-smile which now and then came to his mouth, and made the platitudes of his speech almost idiotic.
Martha Deane felt her courage rise as she contemplated this picture. In spite of the disgust which his gross physical appearance, and the contempt which his awkward helplessness inspired, she was conscious of a lurking sense of amusement. Even a curiosity, which we cannot reprehend, to know by what steps and in what manner he would come to the declaration, began to steal into her mind, now that it was evident her answer could not possibly wound any other feeling than vanity.
In this mood, she left the burden of the conversation to him. He might flounder, or be completely stalled, as often as he pleased; it was no part of her business to help him.
In about three minutes after she had taken her seat by the window, he remarked, with a convulsive smile,—
"Apples are going to be good, this year."
"Are they?" she said.
"Yes; do you like 'em? Most girls do."
"I believe I do,—except Russets," Martha replied, with her hands clasped in her lap, and her eyes full upon his face.
He twisted the smoothness out of one whisker, very much disconcerted at her remark, because he could not tell—he never could, when speaking with her—whether or not she was making fun of him. But he could think of nothing to say, except his own preferences in the matter of apples,—a theme which he pursued until Martha was very tired of it.
He next asked after Mark Deane, expressing at great length his favorable opinion of the young, carpenter, and relating what pains he had taken to procure for him the building of Hallowell's barn. But to each observation Martha made the briefest possible replies, so that in a short time he was forced to start another topic.
Nearly an hour had passed, and Martha's sense of the humorous had long since vanished under the dreary monotony of the conversation, when Alfred Barton seemed to have come to a desperate resolution to end his embarrassment. Grasping his knees with both hands, and dropping his head forward so that the arrows of her eyes might glance from his fat forehead, he said,—
"I suppose you know why I come here to-day, Miss Martha?"
All her powers were awake and alert in a moment. She scrutinized his face keenly, and, although his eyes were hidden, there were lines enough visible, especially about the mouth, to show that the bitter predominated over the sweet, in his emotions.
"To see my father, wasn't it? I'm sorry he was obliged to leave home," she answered.
"No, Miss Martha, I come to see you. I have some thing to say to you, and I 'in sure you know what I mean by this time, don't you?"
"No. How should I?" she coolly replied. It was not true; but the truest-hearted woman that ever lived could have given no other answer.
Alfred Barton felt the sensation of a groan pass through him, and it very nearly came out of his mouth. Then he pushed on, in a last wild effort to perform the remainder of his exacted task in one piece:
"I want you to be—to be—my—wife! That is, my father and yours are agreed about it, and they think I ought to speak to you. I'm a good deal older, and—and perhaps you mightn't fancy me in all things, but they say it'll make little difference; and if you haven't thought about it much, why, there's no hurry as to making up your mind. I've told you now, and to be sure you ought to know, while the old folks are trying to arrange property matters, and it's my place, like, to speak to you first."
Here he paused; his face was very red, and the perspiration was oozing in great drops from every pore. He drew forth the huge red silk handkerchief, and mopped his cheeks, his nose, and his forehead; then lifted his head and stole a quick glance at Martha. Something in his face puzzled her, and yet a sudden presentiment of his true state of feeling flashed across her mind. She still sat, looking steadily at him, and for a few moments did not speak.
"Well?" he stammered.
"Alfred Barton," she said, "I must ask you one question, do you love me?"
He seemed to feel a sharp sting. The muscles of his mouth twitched; he bit his lip, sank his head again, and murmured,—
"He does not," she said to herself. "I am spared this humiliation. It is a mean, low nature, and fears mine—fears, and would soon hate. He shall not see even so much of me as would be revealed by a frank, respectful rejection. I must punish him a little for the deceit, and I now see how to do it."
While these thoughts passed rapidly through her brain, she waited until he should again venture to meet her eye. When he lifted his head, she exclaimed,—
"You have told an untruth! Don't turn your head away; look me in the face, and hear me tell you that you do not love me—that you have not come to me of your own desire, and that you would rather ten thousand times I should say No, if it were not for a little property of mine! But suppose I, too, were of a similar nature; suppose I cared not for what is called love, but only for money and lands such as you will inherit; suppose I found the plans of my father and your father very shrewd and reasonable, and were disposed to enter into them—what then?"
Alfred Barton was surprised out of the last remnant of his hypocrisy. His face, so red up to this moment, suddenly became sallow; his chin dropped, and an expression of amazement and fright came into the eyes fixed on Martha's.
The game she was playing assumed a deeper interest; here was something which she could not yet fathom. She saw what influence had driven him to her, against his inclination, but his motive for seeming to obey, while dreading success, was a puzzle. Singularly enough, a slight feeling of commiseration began to soften her previous contempt, and hastened her final answer.
"I see that these suppositions would not please you," she said, "and thank you for the fact. Your face is more candid than your speech. I am now ready to say, Alfred Barton,—because I am sure the knowledge will be agreeable to you,—that no lands, no money, no command of my father, no degree of want, or misery, or disgrace, could ever make me your wife!"
She had risen from her chair while speaking, and he also started to his feet. Her words, though such an astounding relief in one sense, had nevertheless given him pain; there was a sting in them which cruelly galled his self-conceit. It was enough to be rejected; she need not have put an eternal gulf between their natures.
"Well," said he, sliding the rim of his beaver backwards and forwards between his fingers, "I suppose I'll have to be going. You're very plain-spoken, as I might ha' known. I doubt whether we two would make a good team, and no offence to you, Miss Martha. Only, it'll be a mortal disappointment to the old man, and—look here, it a'n't worth while to say anything about it, is it?"
Alfred Barton was strongly tempted to betray the secret reason which Martha had not yet discovered. After the strong words he had taken from her, she owed him a kindness, he thought; if she would only allow the impression that the matter was still undecided—that more time (which a coy young maiden might reasonably demand) had been granted! On the other hand, he feared that her clear, firm integrity of character would be repelled by the nature of his motive. He was beginning to feel, greatly to his own surprise, a profound respect for her.
"If my father questions me about your visit," she said, "I shall tell him simply that I have declined your offer. No one else is likely to ask me."
"I don't deny," he continued, still lingering near the door, "that I've been urged by my father—yours, too, for that matter—to make the offer. But I don't want you to think hard of me. I've not had an easy time of it, and if you knew everything, you'd see that a good deal isn't rightly to be laid to my account."
He spoke sadly, and so genuine a stamp of unhappiness was impressed upon his face, that Martha's feeling of commiseration rose to the surface.
"You'll speak to me, when we happen to meet?" he said.
"If I did not," she answered, "every one would suspect that something had occurred. That would be unpleasant for both of us. Do not think that I shall bear malice against you; on the contrary, I wish you well."
He stooped, kissed her hand, and then swiftly, silently, and with averted head, left the room.
When Dr. Deane returned home, in season for supper, he found Martha and Betsy Lavender employed about their little household matters. The former showed no lack of cheerfulness or composure, nor, on the other hand, any such nervous unrest as would be natural to a maiden whose hand had just been asked in marriage. The Doctor could not at all guess, from her demeanor, whether anything had happened during his absence. That Alfred Barton had not remained was rather an unfavorable circumstance; but then, possibly, he had not found courage to speak. All things being considered, it seemed best that he should say nothing to Martha, until he had had another interview with his prospective son-in-law.
At this time Gilbert Potter, in ignorance of the cunning plans which were laid by the old men, was working early and late to accomplish all necessary farm-labor by the first of October. That month he had resolved to devote to the road between Columbia and Newport, and if but average success attended his hauling, the earnings of six round trips, with the result of his bountiful harvest, would at last place in his hands the sum necessary to defray the remaining debt upon the farm. His next year's wheat-crop was already sowed, the seed-clover cut, and the fortnight which still intervened was to be devoted to threshing. In this emergency, as at reaping-time, when it was difficult to obtain extra hands, he depended on Deb. Smith, and she did not fail him.
Her principal home, when she was not employed on farm-work, was a log-hut, on the edge of a wood, belonging to the next farm north of Fairthorn's. This farm—the "Woodrow property," as it was called—had been stripped of its stock and otherwise pillaged by the British troops, (Howe and Cornwallis having had their headquarters at Kennett Square), the day previous to the Battle of Brandywine, and the proprietor had never since recovered from his losses. The place presented a ruined and desolated appearance, and Deb. Smith, for that reason perhaps, had settled herself in the original log-cabin of the first settler, beside a swampy bit of ground, near the road. The Woodrow farm-house was on a ridge beyond the wood, and no other dwelling was in sight.
The mysterious manner of life of this woman had no doubt given rise to the bad name which she bore in the neighborhood. She would often disappear for a week or two at a time, and her return seemed to take place invariably in the night. Sometimes a belated farmer would see the single front window of her cabin lighted at midnight, and hear the dulled sound of voices in the stillness. But no one cared to play the spy upon her movements very closely; her great strength and fierce, reckless temper made her dangerous, and her hostility would have been worse than the itching of ungratified curiosity. So they let her alone, taking their revenge in the character they ascribed to her, and the epithets they attached to her name.
When Gilbert, after hitching his horse in a corner of the zigzag picket-fence, climbed over and approached the cabin, Deb. Smith issued from it to meet him, closing the heavy plank door carefully behind her.
"So, Mr. Gilbert!" she cried, stretching out her hard, red hand, "I reckon you want me ag'in: I've been holdin off from many jobs o' thrashin', this week, because I suspicioned ye'd be comin' for me."
"Thank you, Deborah!" said he, "you're a friend in need."
"Am I? There you speak the truth. Wait till you see me thump the Devil's tattoo with my old flail on your thrashin'-floor! But you look as cheery as an Easter-mornin' sun; you've not much for to complain of, these days, I guess?"
"Take care!" she cried, a kindly softness spreading over her rough face, "good luck's deceitful! If I had the strands o' your fortin' in my hands, may be I wouldn't twist 'em even; but I ha'n't, and my fingers is too thick to manage anything smaller 'n a rope-knot. You're goin'? Well, look out for me bright and early o' Monday, and my sarvice to your mother!"
As he rode over the second hill, on his way to the village, Gilbert's heart leaped, as he beheld Betsy Lavender just turning into Fairthorn's gate. Except his mother, she was the only person who knew of his love, and he had great need of her kind and cautious assistance.
He had not allowed his heart simply to revel in the ecstasy of its wonderful fortune, or to yearn with inexpressible warmth for Martha's dearest presence, though these emotions haunted him constantly; he had also endeavored to survey the position in which he stood, and to choose the course which would fulfil both his duty towards her and towards his mother. His coming independence would have made the prospect hopefully bright, but for the secret which lay across it like a threatening shadow. Betsy Lavender's assurances had only partially allayed his dread; something hasty and uncertain in her manner still lingered uneasily in his memory, and he felt sure that she knew more than she was willing to tell. Moreover, he craved with all the strength of his heart for another interview with Martha, and he knew of no way to obtain it without Betsy's help.
Her hand was on the gate-latch when his call reached her ears. Looking up the road, she saw that he had stopped his horse between the high, bushy banks, and was beckoning earnestly. Darting a hasty glance at the ivy-draped windows nearest the road, and finding that she was not observed, she hurried to meet him.
"Betsy," he whispered, "I must see Martha again before I leave, and you must tell me how."
"Tell me how. Folks say that lovyers' wits are sharp," said she, "but I wouldn't give much for either o' your'n. I don't like underhanded goin's-on, for my part, for things done in darkness'll come to light, or somethin' like it; but never mind, if they're crooked everyway they won't run in straight tracks, all't once't. This I see, and you see, and she sees, that we must all keep as dark as sin."
"But there must be some way," Gilbert insisted. "Do you never walk out together? And couldn't we arrange a time—you, too, Betsy, I want you as well!"
"I'm afeard I'd be like the fifth wheel to a wagon."
"No, no! You must be there—you must hear a good part of what I have to say."
"A good part—that'll do; thought you didn't mean the whole. Don't fret so, lad; you'll have Roger trampin' me down, next thing. Martha and me talk o' walkin' over to Polly Withers's. She promised Martha a pa'tridge-breasted aloe, and they say you've got to plant it in pewter sand, and only water it once't a month, and how it can grow I can't see; but never mind, all the same—s'pose we say Friday afternoon about three o'clock, goin' through the big woods between the Square and Witherses, and you might have a gun, for the squirls is plenty, and so accidental-like, if anybody should come along"—
"That's it, Betsy!" Gilbert cried, his face flashing, "thank you, a thousand times!"
"A thousand times," she repeated. "Once't is enough."
Gilbert rode homewards, after a pleasant call at Fairthorn's, in a very joyous mood. Not daring to converse with his mother on the one subject which filled his heart, he showed her the calculations which positively assured his independence in a short time. She was never weary of going over the figures, and although her sad, cautious nature always led her to anticipate disappointments, there was now so much already in hand that she was forced to share her son's sanguine views. Gilbert could not help noticing that this idea of independence, for which she had labored so strenuously, seemed to be regarded, in her mind, as the first step towards her mysterious and long-delayed justification; she was so impatient for its accomplishment, her sad brow lightened so, her breath came so much freer as she admitted that his calculations were correct!
Nevertheless, as he frequently referred to the matter on the following days, she at last said,—
"Please, Gilbert, don't always talk so certainly of what isn't over and settled! It makes me fearsome, so to take Providence for granted beforehand. I don't think the Lord likes it, for I've often noticed that it brings disappointment; and I'd rather be humble and submissive in heart, the better to deserve our good fortune when it comes."
"You may be right, mother," he answered; "but it's pleasant to me to see you looking a little more hopeful."
"Ay, lad, I'd never look otherwise, for your sake, if I could." And nothing more was said.
Before sunrise on Monday morning, the rapid, alternate beats of three flails, on Gilbert's threshing-floor, made the autumnal music which the farmer loves to hear. Two of these—Gilbert's and Sam's—kept time with each other, one falling as the other rose; but the third, quick, loud, and filling all the pauses with thundering taps, was wielded by the arm of Deb. Smith. Day by day, the pile of wheat-sheaves lessened in the great bay, and the cone of golden straw rose higher in the barn-yard. If a certain black jug, behind the barn-door, needed frequent replenishing, Gilbert knew that the strength of its contents passed into the red, bare, muscular arms which shamed his own, and that Deb., while she was under his roof, would allow herself no coarse excess, either of manner or speech. The fierce, defiant look left her face, and when she sat, of an evening, with her pipe in the chimney-corner, both mother and son found her very entertaining company. In Sam she inspired at once admiration and despair. She could take him by the slack of the waist-band and lift him at arm's-length, and he felt that he should never be "a full hand," if he were obliged to equal her performances with the flail.
Thus, his arm keeping time to the rhythm of joy in his heart, and tasting the satisfaction of labor as never before in his life, the days passed to Gilbert Potter. Then came the important Friday, hazy with "the smoke of burning summer," and softly colored with the drifts of golden-rods and crimson sumac leaves along the edges of the yet green forests. Easily feigning an errand to the village, he walked rapidly up the road in the warm afternoon, taking the cross-road to New-Garden just before reaching Hallowell's, and then struck to the right across the fields.
After passing the crest of the hill, the land sloped gradually down to the eastern end of Tuffkenamon valley, which terminates at the ridge upon which Kennett Square stands. Below him, on the right, lay the field and hedge, across which he and Fortune (he wondered what had become of the man) had followed the chase; and before him, on the level, rose the stately trees of the wood which was to be his trysting-place. It was a sweet, peaceful scene, and but for the under-current of trouble upon which all his sensations floated, he could have recognized the beauty and the bliss of human life, which such golden days suggest.
It was scarcely yet two o'clock, and he watched the smooth field nearest the village for full three-quarters of an hour, before his sharp eyes could detect any moving form upon its surface. To impatience succeeded doubt, to doubt, at its most cruel height, a shock of certainty. Betsy Lavender and Martha Deane had entered the field at the bottom, and, concealed behind the hedge of black-thorn, had walked half-way to the wood before he discovered them, by means of a lucky break in the hedge. With breathless haste he descended the slope, entered the wood at its lower edge, and traversed the tangled thickets of dogwood and haw, until he gained the foot-path, winding through the very heart of the shade.
It was not many minutes before the two advancing forms glimmered among the leaves. As he sprang forward to meet them, Miss Betsy Lavender suddenly exclaimed,—"Well, I never, Martha! here's wintergreen!" and was down on her knees, on the dead leaves, with her long nose nearly touching the plants.
When the lovers saw each other's eyes, one impulse drew them heart to heart. Each felt the clasp of the other's arms, and the sweetness of that perfect kiss, which is mutually given, as mutually taken,—the ripe fruit of love, which having once tasted, all its first timid tokens seem ever afterwards immature and unsatisfactory. The hearts of both had unconsciously grown in warmth, in grace and tenderness; and they now felt, for the first time, the utter, reciprocal surrender of their natures which truly gave them to each other.
As they slowly unwound the blissful embrace, and, holding each other's hands, drew their faces apart until either's eyes could receive the other's beloved countenance, no words were spoken,—and none were needed. Thenceforward, neither would ever say to the other,—"Do you love me as well as ever?" or "Are you sure you can never change?"—for theirs were natures to which such tender doubt and curiosity were foreign. It was not the age of introversion or analytical love; they were sound, simple, fervent natures, and believed forever in the great truth which had come to them.
"Gilbert," said Martha, presently, "it was right that we should meet before you leave home. I have much to tell you—for now you must know everything that concerns me; it is your right."
Her words were very grateful. To hear her say "It is your right," sent a thrill of purely unselfish pride through his breast. He admitted an equal right, on her part; the moments were precious, and he hastened to answer her declaration by one as frank and confiding.
"And I," he said, "could not take another step until I had seen you. Do not fear, Martha, to test my patience or my faith in you, for anything you may put upon me will be easy to bear. I have turned our love over and over in my mind; tried to look at it—as we both must, sooner or later—as something which, though it don't in any wise belong to others, yet with which others have the power to interfere. The world isn't made quite right, Martha, and we're living in it."
Martha's lip took a firmer curve. "Our love is right, Gilbert," she exclaimed, "and the world must give way!"
"It must—I've sworn it! Now let us try to see what are the mountains in our path, and how we can best get around or over them. First, this is my position."
Thereupon Gilbert clearly and rapidly explained to her his precise situation. He set forth his favorable prospects of speedy independence, the obstacle which his mother's secret threw in their way, and his inability to guess any means which might unravel the mystery, and hasten his and her deliverance. The disgrace once removed, he thought, all other impediments to their union would be of trifling importance.
"I see all that clearly," said Martha, when he had finished; "now, this is my position."
She told him frankly her father's plans concerning her and gave him, with conscientious minuteness, all the details of Alfred Barton's interview. At first his face grew dark, but at the close he was able to view the subject in its true character, and to contemplate it with as careless a merriment as her own.
"You see, Gilbert," were Martha's final words, "how we are situated. If I marry, against my father's consent, before I am twenty-five"—
"Don't speak of your property, Martha!" he cried; "I never took that into mind!"
"I know you didn't. Gilbert, but I do! It is mine, and must be mine, to be yours; here you must let me have my own way—I will obey you in everything else. Four years is not long for us to wait, having faith in each other; and in that time, I doubt not, your mother's secret will be revealed. You cannot, must not, press her further; in the meantime we will see each other as often as possible"—
"Four years!" Gilbert interrupted, in a tone almost of despair.
"Well—not quite," said Martha, smiling archly; "since you must know my exact age, Gilbert, I was twenty-one on the second of last February; so that the time is really three years, four months, and eleven days."
"I'd serve seven years, as Jacob served, if need be," he said. "It's not alone the waiting; it's the anxiety, the uncertainty, the terrible fear of that which I don't know. I'm sure that Betsy Lavender guesses something about it; have you told her what my mother says?"
"It was your secret, Gilbert."
"I didn't think," he answered, softly. "But it's well she should know. She is the best friend we have. Betsy!"
"A mortal long time afore I'm wanted!" exclaimed Miss Lavender, with assumed grimness, as she obeyed the call. "I s'pose you thought there was no watch needed, and both ends o' the path open to all the world. Well—what am I to do?—move mountains like a grain o' mustard seed (or however it runs), dip out th' ocean with a pint-pot, or ketch old birds with chaff, eh?"
Gilbert, aware that she was familiar with the particular difficulties on Martha's side, now made her acquainted with his own. At the mention of his mother's declaration in regard to his birth, she lifted her hands and nodded her head, listening, thenceforth to the end, with half-closed eyes and her loose lips drawn up in a curious pucker.
"What do you think of it?" he asked, as she remained silent.
"Think of it? About as pretty a snarl as ever I see. I can't say as I'm so over and above taken aback by what your mother says. I've all along had a hankerin' suspicion of it in my bones. Some things seems to me like the smell o' water-melons, that I've knowed to come with fresh snow; you know there is no water-melons, but then, there's the smell of 'em! But it won't do to hurry a matter o' this kind—long-sufferin' and slow to anger, though that don't quite suit, but never mind, all the same—my opinion is, ye've both o' ye got to wait!"
"Betsy, do you know nothing about it? Can you guess nothing?" Gilbert persisted.
She stole a quick glance at Martha, which he detected, and a chill ran through his blood. His face grew pale.
"Nothin' that fits your case," said Miss Lavender, presently. She saw the renewal of Gilbert's suspicion, and was casting about in her mind how to allay it without indicating something else which she wished to conceal. "This I'll say," she exclaimed at last, with desperate frankness, "that I do know somethin' that may be o' use, when things comes to the wust, as I hope they won't, but it's neither here nor there so far as you two are concerned; so don't ask me, for I won't tell, and if it's to be done, I'm the only one to do it! If I've got my little secrets, I'm keepin' 'em in your interest, remember that!"
There was the glimmer of a tear in each of Miss Lavender's eyes before she knew it.
"Betsy, my dear friend!" cried Gilbert, "we know you and trust you. Only say this, for my sake—that you think my mother's secret is nothing which will part Martha and me!"
"Martha and me. I do think so—am I a dragon, or a—what's that Job talks about?—a behemoth? It's no use; we must all wait and see what'll turn up. But, Martha, I've rather a bright thought, for a wonder; what if we could bring Alf. Barton into the plot, and git him to help us for the sake o' his bein' helped?"
Martha looked surprised, but Gilbert flushed up to the roots of his hair, and set his lips firmly together.
"I dunno as it'll do," continued Miss Betsy, with perfect indifference to these signs, "but then it might. First and foremost, we must try to find out what he wants, for it isn't you, Martha; so you, Gilbert, might as well be a little more of a cowcumber than you are at this present moment. But if it's nothin' ag'inst the law, and not likely, for he's too cute, we might even use a vessel—well, not exackly o' wrath, but somethin' like it. There's more 'n one concern at work in all this, it strikes me, and it's wuth while to know 'em all."
Gilbert was ashamed of his sensitiveness in regard to Barton, especially after Martha's frank and merry confession; so he declared himself entirely willing to abide by her judgment.
"It would not be pleasant to have Alfred Barton associated with us, even in the way of help," she said. "I have a woman's curiosity to know what he means, I confess, but, unless Betsy could make the discovery without me, I would not take any steps towards it."
"Much would be fittin' to me, child," said Miss Lavender, "that wouldn't pass for you, at all. We've got six weeks till Gilbert comes back, and no need o' hurry, except our arrand to Polly Withers's, which'll come to nothin', unless you each take leave of other mighty quick, while I'm lookin' for some more wintergreen."
With these words she turned short around and strode away.
"It had best be our own secret yet, Martha?" he asked.
"Yes, Gilbert, and all the more precious."
They clasped hands and kissed, once, twice, thrice, and then the underwood slowly deepened between them, and the shadows of the forest separated them from each other.
SANDY FLASH REAPPEARS.
During the month of October, while Gilbert Potter was occupied with his lonely and monotonous task, he had ample leisure to evolve a clear, calm, happy purpose from the tumult of his excited feelings. This was, first, to accomplish his own independence, which now seemed inevitably necessary, for his mother's sake, and its possible consequences to her; then, strong in the knowledge of Martha Deane's fidelity, to wait with her.
With the exception of a few days of rainy weather, his hauling prospered, and he returned home after five weeks' absence, to count up the gains of the year and find that very little was lacking of the entire amount to be paid.
Mary Potter, as the prospect of release drew so near, became suddenly anxious and restless. The knowledge that a very large sum of money (as she considered it) was in the house, filled her with a thousand new fears. There were again rumors of Sandy Flash lurking around Marlborough, and she shuddered and trembled whenever his name was mentioned. Her uneasiness became at last so great that Gilbert finally proposed writing to the conveyancer in Chester who held the mortgage, and asking whether the money might not as well be paid at once, since he had it in hand, as wait until the following spring.
"It's not the regular way," said she, "but then, I suppose it'll hold in law. You can ask Mr. Trainer about that. O Gilbert, if it can be done, it'll take a great load off my mind!"
"Whatever puts the mortgage into my hands, mother," said he, "is legal enough for us. I needn't even wait to sell the grain; Mark Deane will lend me the seventy-five dollars still to be made up, if he has them—or, if he can't, somebody else will. I was going to the Square this evening; so I'll write the letter at once, and put it in the office."
The first thing Gilbert did, on reaching the village, was to post the letter in season for the mail-rider, who went once a week to and fro between Chester and Peach-bottom Ferry, on the Susquehanna. Then he crossed the street to Dr. Deane's, in order to inquire for Mark, but with the chief hope of seeing Martha for one sweet moment, at least. In this, however, he was disappointed; as he reached the gate, Mark issued from the door.
"Why, Gilbert, old boy!" he shouted; "the sight o' you's good for sore eyes! What have you been about since that Sunday evening we rode up the west branch? I was jist steppin' over to the tavern to see the fellows—come along, and have a glass o' Rye!"
He threw his heavy arm over Gilbert's shoulder, and drew him along.
"In a minute, Mark; wait a bit—I've a little matter of business with you. I need to borrow seventy-five dollars for a month or six weeks, until my wheat is sold. Have you that much that you're not using?"
"That and more comin' to me soon," said Mark, "and of course you can have it. Want it right away?"
"Very likely in ten or twelve days."
"Oh, well, never fear—I'll have some accounts squared by that time! Come along!" And therewith the good-natured fellow hurried his friend into the bar-room of the Unicorn.
"Done pretty well, haulin', this time?" asked Mark, as they touched glasses.
"Very well," answered Gilbert, "seeing it's the last time. I'm at an end with hauling now."
"You don't say so? Here's to your good luck!" exclaimed Mark, emptying his glass.
A man, who had been tilting his chair against the wall, in the farther corner of the room, now arose and came forward. It was Alfred Barton.
During Gilbert's absence, neither this gentleman's plan nor that of his father, had made much progress. It was tolerably easy, to be sure, to give the old man the impression that the preliminary arrangements with regard to money were going on harmoniously; but it was not so easy to procure Dr. Deane's acceptance of the part marked out for him. Alfred had sought an interview with the latter soon after that which he had had with Martha, and the result was not at all satisfactory. The wooer had been obliged to declare that his suit was unsuccessful; but, he believed, only temporarily so. Martha had been taken by surprise; the question had come upon her so suddenly that she could scarcely be said to know her own mind, and time must be allowed her. Although this statement seemed probable to Dr. Deane, as it coincided with his own experience in previously sounding his daughter's mind, yet Alfred's evident anxiety that nothing should be said to Martha upon the subject, and that the Doctor should assume to his father that the question of balancing her legacy was as good as settled, (then proceed at once to the discussion of the second and more important question,) excited the Doctor's suspicions. He could not well avoid giving the required promise in relation to Martha, but he insisted on seeing the legal evidences of Alfred Barton's property, before going a step further.
The latter was therefore in a state of great perplexity. The game he was playing seemed safe enough, so far, but nothing had come of it, and beyond this point it could not be carried, without great increase of risk. He was more than once tempted to drop it entirely, confessing his complete and final rejection, and allowing his father to take what course he pleased; but presently the itching of his avaricious curiosity returned in full force, and suggested new expedients.
No suspicion of Gilbert Potter's relation to Martha Deane had ever entered his mind. He had always had a liking for the young man, and would, no doubt, have done him any good service which did not require the use of money. He now came forward very cordially and shook-hands with the two.
Gilbert had self-possession enough to control his first impulse, and to meet his rival with his former manner. Secure in his own fortune, he even felt that he could afford to be magnanimous, and thus, by degrees, the dislike wore off which Martha's confession had excited.
"What is all this talk about Sandy Flash?" he asked.
"He's been seen up above," said Barton; "some say, about Marlborough, and some, along the Strasburg road. He'll hardly come this way; he's too cunning to go where the people are prepared to receive him."
If either of the three had happened to look steadily at the back window of the bar-room, they might have detected, in the dusk, the face of Dougherty, the Irish ostler of the Unicorn Tavern. It disappeared instantly, but there was a crack nearly half an inch wide between the bottom of the back-door and the sill under it, and to that crack a large, flat ear was laid.
"If he comes any nearer, you must send word around at once," said Gilbert,—"not wait until he's already among us."
"Let me alone for that!" Barton exclaimed; "Damn him, I only wish he had pluck enough to come!"
Mark was indignant "What's the sheriff and constables good for?" he cried. "It's a burnin' shame that the whole country has been plundered so long, and the fellow still runnin' at large. Much he cares for the five hundred dollars on his head."
"It's a thousand, now," said Barton. "They've doubled it."
"Come, that'd be a good haul for us. We're not bound to keep inside of our township; I'm for an up and down chase all over the country, as soon as the fall work's over!"
"And I, too," said Gilbert
"You 're fellows after my own heart, both o' you!" Barton asserted, slapping them upon the back. "What'll you take to drink?"
By this time several others had assembled, and the conversation became general. While the flying rumors about Sandy Flash were being produced and discussed, Barton drew Gilbert aside.
"Suppose we step out on the back-porch," he said, "I want to have a word with you."
The door closed between them and the noisy bar-room. There was a rustling noise under the porch, as of a fowl disturbed on its roost, and then everything was still.
"Your speaking of your having done well by hauling put it into my head, Gilbert," Barton continued. "I wanted to borrow a little money for a while, and there's reasons why I shouldn't call upon anybody who'd tell of it. Now, as you've got it, lying idle"—
"It happens to be just the other way, Barton," said Gilbert, interrupting him. "I came here to-night to borrow."
"How's that?" Barton could not help asking, with a momentary sense of chagrin. But the next moment he added, in a milder tone, "I don't mean to pry into your business."
"I shall very likely have to use my money soon," Gilbert explained, "and must at least wait until I hear from Chester. That will be another week, and then, if the money should not be wanted, I can accommodate you. But, to tell you the truth, I don't think there's much chance of that"
"Shall you have to go down to Chester?"
"I hope so."
"In ten or twelve days from now."
"Then," said Barton, "I 'II fix it this way. 'Tisn't only the money I want, but to have it paid in Chester, without the old man or Stacy knowing anything of the matter. If I was to go myself, Stacy'd never rest till he found out my business—Faith! I believe if I was hid in the hayloft o' the William Penn Tavern, he'd scent me out. Now, I can get the money of another fellow I know, if you'll take it down and hand it over for me. Would you be that obliging?"
"Of course," Gilbert answered. "If I go it will be no additional trouble."
"All right," said Barton, "between ourselves, you understand."
A week later, a letter, with the following address was brought to the post-office by the mail-rider,—
"To Mr. Gilbert Potter, Esq. Kennett Square P. O. These, with Care and Speed."
Gilbert, having carefully cut around the wafer and unfolded the sheet of strong yellowish paper, read this missive,—
"Sir: Yr respd favour of ye [Footnote: This form of the article, though in general disuse at the time, was still frequently employed in epistolary writing, in that part of Pennsylvania. [ed note: The r in Yr and e in ye, etc. are superscripted.]] 11th came duly to hand, and ye proposition wh it contains has been submitted to Mr. Jones, ye present houlder of ye mortgage. He wishes me to inform you that he did not anticipate ye payment before ye first day of April, 1797, wh was ye term agreed upon at ye payment of ye first note; nevertheless, being required to accept full and lawful payment, whensoever tendered, he hath impowered me to receive ye moneys at yr convenience, providing ye settlement be full and compleat, as aforesaid, and not merely ye payment of a part or portion thereof.
"Yr obt servt,
Gilbert, with his limited experience of business matters, had entirely overlooked the fact, that the permission of the creditor is not necessary to the payment of a debt. He had a profound respect for all legal forms, and his indebtedness carried with it a sense of stern and perpetual responsibility, which, alas! has not always been inherited by the descendants of that simple and primitive period.
Mary Potter received the news with a sigh of relief. The money was again counted, the interest which would be due somewhat laboriously computed, and finally nothing remained but the sum which Mark Deane had promised to furnish. This Mark expected to receive on the following Wednesday, and Gilbert and his mother agreed that the journey to Chester should be made at the close of the same week.
They went over these calculations in the quiet of the Sabbath afternoon, sitting alone in the neat, old-fashioned kitchen, with the dim light of an Indian-summer sun striking through the leafless trumpet-vines, and making a quaint network of light and shade on the whitewashed window-frame. The pendulum ticked drowsily along the opposite wall, and the hickory back-log on the hearth hummed a lamentable song through all its simmering pores of sap. Peaceful as the happy landscape without, dozing in dreams of the departed summer, cheery as the tidy household signs within, seemed at last the lives of the two inmates. Mary Potter had not asked how her son's wooing had further sped, but she felt that he was contented of heart; she, too, indulging finally in the near consummation of her hopes,—which touched her like the pitying sympathy of the Power that had dealt so singularly with her life,—was nearer the feeling of happiness than she had been for long and weary years.
Gilbert was moved by the serenity of her face, and the trouble, which he knew it concealed, seemed, to his mind, to be wearing away. Carefully securing the doors, they walked over the fields together, pausing on the hilltop to listen to the caw of the gathering crows, or to watch the ruby disc of the beamless sun stooping to touch the western rim of the valley. Many a time had they thus gone over the farm together, but never before with such a sense of peace and security. The day was removed, mysteriously, from the circle of its fellows, and set apart by a peculiar influence which prevented either from ever forgetting it, during all the years that came after.
They were not aware that at the very moment this influence was profoundest in their hearts, new rumors of Sandy Flash's movements had reached Kennett Square, and were being excitedly discussed at the Unicorn Tavern. He had been met on the Street Road, riding towards the Red Lion, that very afternoon, by a man who knew his face; and, later in the evening came a second report, that an individual of his build had crossed the Philadelphia Road, this side of the Anvil, and gone southward into the woods. Many were the surmises, and even detailed accounts, of robberies that either had been or might be committed, but no one could say precisely how much was true.
Mark Deane was not at home, and the blacksmith was commissioned to summon Alfred Barton, who had ridden over to Pennsbury, on a friendly visit to Mr. Joel Ferris. When he finally made his appearance, towards ten o'clock, he was secretly horror-stricken at the great danger he had escaped; but it gave him an admirable opportunity to swagger. He could do no less than promise to summon the volunteers in the morning, and provision was made accordingly, for despatching as many messengers as the village could afford.
Since the British occupation, nearly twenty years before, Kennett Square had not known as lively a day as that which followed. The men and boys were in the street, grouped in front of the tavern, the women at the windows, watching, some with alarmed, but many with amused faces. Sally Fairthorn, although it was washing-day, stole up through Dr. Deane's garden and into Martha's room, for at least half an hour, but Joe and Jake left their overturned shocks of corn unhusked for the whole day.
Some of the young farmers to whom the message had been sent, returned answer that they were very busy and could not leave their work; the horses of others were lame; the guns of others broken. By ten o'clock, however, there were nine volunteers, very irregularly armed and mounted, in attendance; by eleven o'clock, thirteen, and Alfred Barton, whose place as leader was anything but comfortable, began to swell with an air of importance, and set about examining the guns of his command. Neither he nor any one else noticed particularly that the Irish ostler appeared to be a great connoisseur in muskets, and was especially interested in the structure of the flints and pans.
"Let's look over the roll, and see how many are true blue," said Barton, drawing a paper from his pocket. "There's failing nine or ten, among 'em some I fully counted on—Withers, he may come yet; Ferris, hardly time to get word; but Carson, Potter, and Travilla ought to turn up curst soon, or we'll have the sport without 'em!"
"Give me a horse, Mr. Barton, and I'll ride down for Gilbert!" cried Joe Fairthorn.
"No use,—Giles went this morning," growled Barton.
"It's time we were starting; which road would be best to take?" asked one of the volunteers.
"All roads lead to Rome, but all don't lead to Sandy Flash, ha! ha!" said another, laughing at his own smartness.
"Who knows where he was seen last?" Barton asked, but it was not easy to get a coherent answer. One had heard one report, and another another; he had been seen from the Street Road on the north all the way around eastward by the Red Lion and the Anvil, and in the rocky glen below the Barton farm, to the lime-quarries of Tuffkenamon on the west.
"Unless we scatter, it'll be like looking for a needle in a haystack," remarked one of the more courageous volunteers.
"If they'd all had spunk enough to come," said Barton, "we might ha' made four parties, and gone out on each road. As it is, we're only strong enough for two."
"Seven to one?—that's too much odds in Sandy's favor!" cried a light-headed youth, whereat the others all laughed, and some of them blushed a little.
Barton bit his lip, and with a withering glance at the young man, replied,—"Then we'll make three parties, and you shall be the third."
Another quarter of an hour having elapsed, without any accession to the troop, Barton reluctantly advised the men to get their arms, which had been carelessly placed along the tavern-porch, and to mount for the chase.
Just then Joe and Jake Fairthorn, who had been dodging back and forth through the village, watching the roads, made their appearance with the announcement,—
"Hurray—there's another—comin' up from below, but it a'n't Gilbert. He's stuck full o' pistols, but he's a-foot, and you must git him a horse. I tell you, he looks like a real buster!"
"Who can it be?" asked Barton.
"We'll see, in a minute," said the nearest volunteers, taking up their muskets.
"There he is,—there he is!" cried Joe.
All eyes, turned towards the crossing of the roads, beheld, just rounding the corner-house, fifty paces distant, a short, broad-shouldered, determined figure, making directly for the tavern. His face was red and freckled, his thin lips half-parted with a grin which showed the flash of white teeth between them, and his eyes sparkled with the light of a cold, fierce courage. He had a double-barrelled musket on his shoulder, and there were four pistols in the tight leathern belt about his waist.
Barton turned deadly pale as he beheld this man. An astonished silence fell upon the group, but, the next moment, some voice exclaimed, in an undertone, which, nevertheless, every one heard,—
"By the living Lord! Sandy Flash himself!"
There was a general confused movement, of which Alfred Barton took advantage to partly cover his heavy body by one of the porch-pillars. Some of the volunteers started back, others pressed closer together. The pert youth, alone, who was to form the third party, brought his musket to his shoulder.
Quick as lightning Sandy Flash drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it at the young man's breast.
"Ground arms!" he cried, "or you are a dead man."
He was obeyed, although slowly and with grinding teeth.
"Stand aside!" he then commanded. "You have pluck, and I should hate to shoot you. Make way, the rest o' ye! I've saved ye the trouble o' ridin' far to find me. Whoever puts finger to trigger, falls. Back, back, I say, and open the door for me!"
Still advancing as he spoke, and shifting his pistol so as to cover now one, now another of the group, he reached the tavern-porch. Some one opened the door of the barroom, which swung inwards. The highwayman strode directly to the bar, and there stood, facing the open door, while he cried to the trembling bar-keeper,—
"A glass o' Rye, good and strong!"
It was set before him. Holding the musket in his arm, he took the glass, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, spinning a silver dollar into the air, said, as it rang upon the floor,—
"I stand treat to-day; let the rest o' the gentlemen drink at my expense!"
He then walked out, and slowly retreated backwards towards the corner-house, covering his retreat with the levelled pistol, and the flash of his dauntless eye.
He had nearly reached the corner, when Gilbert Potter dashed up behind him, with Roger all in a foam. Joe Fairthorn, seized with deadly terror when he heard the terrible name, had set off at full speed for home; but descrying Gilbert approaching on a gallop, changed his course, met the latter, and gasped out the astounding intelligence. All this was the work of a minute, and when Gilbert reached the corner, a single glance showed him the true state of affairs. The confused group in front of the tavern, some faces sallow with cowardice, some red with indignation and shame; the solitary, retreating figure, alive in every nerve with splendid courage, told him the whole story, which Joe's broken words had only half hinted.
Flinging himself from his horse, he levelled his musket, and cried out,—
Sandy Flash, with a sudden spring, placed his back against the house, pointed his pistol at Gilbert, and said: "Drop your gun, or I fire!"
For answer, Gilbert drew the trigger; the crack of the explosion rang sharp and clear, and a little shower of mortar covered Sandy Flash's cocked hat. The ball had struck the wall about four inches above his head.
He leaped forward; Gilbert clubbed his musket and awaited him. They were scarcely two yards apart; the highwayman's pistol-barrel was opposite Gilbert's heart, and the two men were looking into each other's eyes. The group in front of the tavern stood as if paralyzed, every man holding his breath.
"Halt!" said Sandy Flash. "Halt! I hate bloodshed, and besides that, young Potter, you're not the man that'll take me prisoner. I could blow your brains out by movin' this finger, but you're safe from any bullet o' mine, whoever a'n't!"
At the last words a bright, mocking, malicious grin stole over his face. Gilbert, amazed to find himself known to the highwayman, and puzzled with certain familiar marks in the latter's countenance, was swiftly enlightened by this grin. It was Fortune's face before him, without the black hair and whiskers,—and Fortune's voice that spoke!
Sandy Flash saw the recognition. He grinned again. "You'll know your friend, another time," he said, sprang five feet backward, whirled, gained the cover of the house, and was mounting his horse among the bushes at the bottom of the garden, before any of the others reached Gilbert, who was still standing as if thunder-struck.
By this time Sandy Flash had leaped the hedge and was careering like lightning towards the shelter of the woods. The interest now turned upon Gilbert Potter, who was very taciturn and thoughtful, and had little to relate. They noticed, however, that his eyes were turned often and inquiringly upon Alfred Barton, and that the latter as steadily avoided meeting them.
When Gilbert went to bring Roger, who had quietly waited at the crossing of the roads, Deb. Smith suddenly made her appearance.
"I seen it all," she said. "I was a bit up the road, but I seen it. You shouldn't ha' shot, Mr. Gilbert, though it isn't him that's born to be hit with a bullet; but you're safe enough from his bullets, anyhow— whatever happens, you're safe!"
"What do you mean, Deborah?" he exclaimed, as she almost repeated to him Sandy Flash's very words.
"I mean what I say," she answered. "You wouldn't be afeard, but it'll be a comfort to your mother. I must have a drink o' whiskey after that sight."
With these words she elbowed her way into the barroom. Most of the Kennett Volunteers were there engaged in carrying out a similar resolution. They would gladly have kept the whole occurrence secret, but that was impossible. It was known all over the country, in three days, and the story of it has not yet died out of the local annals.
THE HUSKING FROLIC.
Jake Fairthorn rushed into Dr. Deane's door with a howl of terror.
"Cousin Martha! Betsy!" he cried; "he's goin' to shoot Gilbert!"
"None o' your tricks, boy!" Betsy Lavender exclaimed, in her most savage tone, as she saw the paleness of Martha's face. "I'm up to 'em. Who'd shoot Gilbert Potter? Not Alf Barton, I'll be bound; he'd be afeard to shoot even Sandy Flash!"
"It's Sandy Flash,—he's there! Gilbert shot his hat off!" cried Jake.
"The Lord have mercy!" And the next minute Miss Betsy found herself, she scarcely knew how, in the road.
Both had heard the shot, but supposed that it was some volunteer discharging an old load from his musket; they knew nothing of Sandy's visit to the Unicorn, and Jake's announcement seemed simply incredible.
"O you wicked boy! What'll become o' you?" cried Miss Lavender, as she beheld Gilbert Potter approaching, leading Roger by the bridle. But at the same instant she saw, from the faces of the crowd, that something unusual had happened. While the others instantly surrounded Gilbert, the young volunteer who alone had made any show of fight, told the story to the two ladies. Martha Deane's momentary shock of terror disappeared under the rush of mingled pride and scorn which the narrative called up in her heart.
"What a pack of cowards!" she exclaimed, her cheeks flushing,—"to stand still and see the life of the only man that dares to face a robber at the mercy of the robber's pistol!"
Gilbert approached. His face was grave and thoughtful, but his eye brightened as it met hers. No two hands ever conveyed so many and such swift messages as theirs, in the single moment when they touched each other. The other women of the village crowded around, and he was obliged, though with evident reluctance, to relate his share in the event.
In the mean time the volunteers had issued from the tavern, and were loudly discussing what course to pursue. The most of them were in favor of instant pursuit. To their credit it must be said that very few of them were actual cowards; they had been both surprised by the incredible daring of the highwayman, and betrayed by the cowardly inefficiency of their own leader. Barton, restored to his usual complexion by two glasses of whiskey, was nearly ready to head a chase which he suspected would come to nothing; but the pert young volunteer, who had been whispering with some of the younger men, suddenly cried out,—
"I say, fellows, we've had about enough o' Barton's command; and I, for one, am a-goin' to enlist under Captain Potter."
"Good!" "Agreed!" responded a number of others, and some eight or ten stepped to one side. The few remaining around Alfred Barton began to look doubtful, and all eyes were turned curiously upon him.
Gilbert, however, stepped forward and said: "It's bad policy to divide our forces just now, when we ought to be off on the hunt. Mr. Barton, we all know, got up the company, and I am willing to serve under him, if he'll order us to mount at once! If not, rather than lose more time, I'll head as many as are ready to go."
Barton saw how the tide was turning, and suddenly determined to cover up his shame, if possible, with a mantle of magnanimity.
"The fellows are right, Gilbert!" he said. "You deserve to take the lead to-day, so go ahead; I'll follow you!"
"Mount, then, all of you!" Gilbert cried, without further hesitation. In a second he was on Roger's back. "You, Barton," he ordered, "take three with you and make for the New-Garden cross-road as fast as you can. Pratt, you and three more towards the Hammer-and-Trowel; while I, with the rest, follow the direct trail."
No more time was wasted in talking. The men took their guns and mounted, the two detached commands were told off, and in five minutes the village was left to its own inhabitants.
Gilbert had a long and perplexing chase, but very little came of it. The trail of Sandy Flash's horse was followed without much difficulty until it struck the west branch of Redley Creek. There it suddenly ceased, and more than an hour elapsed before some one discovered it, near the road, a quarter of a mile further up the stream. Thence it turned towards the Hammer-and-Trowel, but no one at the farm-houses on the road had seen any one pass except a Quaker, wearing the usual broad-brimmed hat and drab coat, and mounted on a large, sleepy-looking horse.
About the middle of the afternoon, Gilbert detected, in one of the lanes leading across to the Street Road, the marks of a galloping steed, and those who had a little lingering knowledge of wood-craft noticed that the gallop often ceased suddenly, changed to a walk, and was then as suddenly resumed. Along the Street Road no one had been seen except a Quaker, apparently the same person. Gilbert and his hunters now suspected the disguise, but the difficulty of following the trail had increased with every hour of lost time; and after scouring along the Brandywine and then crossing into the Pocopsin valley, they finally gave up the chase, late in the day. It was the general opinion that Sandy had struck northward, and was probably safe in one of his lairs among the Welch Mountains.
When they reached the Unicorn tavern at dusk, Gilbert found Joe Fairthorn impatiently waiting for him. Sally had been "tearin' around like mad," (so Joe described his sister's excitement,) having twice visited the village during the afternoon in the hope of seeing the hero of the day—after Sandy Flash, of course, who had, and deserved, the first place.
"And, Gilbert," said Joe, "I wasn't to forgit to tell you that we're a-goin' to have a huskin' frolic o' Wednesday night,—day after to-morrow, you know. Dad's behindhand with huskin', and the moon's goin' to be full, and Mark he said Let's have a frolic, and I'm comin' home to meet Gilbert anyhow, and so I'll be there. And Sally she said I'll have Martha and lots o' girls, only we shan't come out into the field till you're nigh about done. Then Mark he said That won't take long, and if you don't help me with my shocks I won't come, and Sally she hit him, and so it's all agreed. And you'll come, Gilbert, won't you?"
"Yes, yes, Joe," Gilbert answered, a little impatiently; "tell Sally I'll come." Then he turned Roger's head towards home.
He was glad of the solitary ride which allowed him to collect his thoughts. Fearless as was his nature, the danger he had escaped might well have been cause for grave self-congratulation; but the thought of it scarcely lingered beyond the moment of the encounter. The astonishing discovery that the stranger, Fortune, and the redoubtable Sandy Flash were one and the same person; the mysterious words which this person had addressed to him; the repetition of the same words by Deb. Smith,—all these facts, suggesting, as their common solution, some secret which concerned himself, perplexed his mind, already more than sufficiently occupied with mystery.
It suddenly flashed across his memory, as he rode homeward, that on the evening when he returned from the fox-chase, his mother had manifested an unusual interest in the strange huntsman, questioning him minutely as to the latter's appearance. Was she—or, rather, had she been, at one time of her life—acquainted with Sandy Flash? And if so—
"No!" he cried aloud, "it is impossible! It could not—cannot be!" The new possibility which assailed him was even more terrible than his previous belief in the dishonor of his birth. Better, a thousand times, he thought, be basely born than the son of an outlaw! It seemed that every attempt he made to probe his mother's secret threatened to overwhelm him with a knowledge far worse than the fret of his ignorance. Why not be patient, therefore, leaving the solution to her and to time?
Nevertheless, a burning curiosity led him to relate to his mother, that evening, the events of the day. He watched her closely as he described his encounter with the highwayman, and repeated the latter's words. It was quite natural that Mary Potter should shudder and turn pale during the recital—quite natural that a quick expression of relief should shine from her face at the close; but Gilbert could not be sure that her interest extended to any one except himself. She suggested no explanation of Sandy Flash's words, and he asked none.
"I shall know no peace, child," she said, "until the money has been paid, and the mortgage is in your hands."
"You won't have long to wait, now, mother," he answered cheerily. "I shall see Mark on Wednesday evening, and therefore can start for Chester on Friday, come rain or shine. As for Sandy Flash, he's no doubt up on the Welch Mountain by this time. It isn't his way to turn up twice in succession, in the same place."
"You don't know him, Gilbert. He won't soon forget that you shot at him."
"I seem to be safe enough, if he tells the truth." Gilbert could not help remarking.
Mary Potter shook her head, and said nothing.
Two more lovely Indian-summer days went by, and as the wine-red sun slowly quenched his lower limb in the denser smoke along the horizon, the great bronzed moon struggled out of it, on the opposite rim of the sky. It was a weird light and a weird atmosphere, such as we might imagine overspreading Babylonian ruins, on the lone plains of the Euphrates; but no such fancies either charmed or tormented the lusty, wide-awake, practical lads and lasses, whom the brightening moon beheld on their way to the Fairthorn farm. "The best night for huskin' that ever was," comprised the sum of their appreciation.
At the old farm-house there was great stir of preparation. Sally, with her gown pinned up, dodged in and out of kitchen and sitting-room, catching herself on every door-handle, while Mother Fairthorn, beaming with quiet content, stood by the fire, and inspected the great kettles which were to contain the materials for the midnight supper. Both were relieved when Betsy Lavender made her appearance, saying,—
"Let down your gownd, Sally, and give me that ladle. What'd be a mighty heap o' work for you, in that flustered condition, is child's-play to the likes o' me, that's as steady as a cart-horse,—not that self-praise, as the sayin' is, is any recommendation,—but my kickin' and prancin' days is over, and high time, too."
"No, Betsy, I'll not allow it!" cried Sally. "You must enjoy yourself, too." But she had parted with the ladle, while speaking, and Miss Lavender, repeating the words "Enjoy yourself, too!" quietly took her place in the kitchen.
The young men, as they arrived, took their way to the corn-field, piloted by Joe and Jake Fairthorn. These boys each carried a wallet over his shoulders, the jug in the front end balancing that behind, and the only casualty that occurred was when Jake, jumping down from a fence, allowed his jugs to smite together, breaking one of them to shivers.
"There, that'll come out o' your pig-money," said Joe.
"I don't care," Jake retorted, "if daddy only pays me the rest."
The boys, it must be known, received every year the two smallest pigs of the old sow's litter, with the understanding that these were to be their separate property, on condition of their properly feeding and fostering the whole herd. This duty they performed with great zeal and enthusiasm, and numberless and splendid were the castles which they built with the coming money; yet, alas! when the pigs were sold, it always happened that Farmer Fairthorn found some inconvenient debt pressing him, and the boys' pig-money was therefore taken as a loan,—only as a loan,—and permanently invested.
There were between three and four hundred shocks to husk, and the young men, armed with husking-pegs of hickory, fastened by a leathern strap over the two middle fingers, went bravely to work. Mark Deane, who had reached home that afternoon, wore the seventy-five dollars in a buckskin belt around his waist, and anxiously awaited the arrival of Gilbert Potter, of whose adventure he had already heard. Mark's presumed obligations to Alfred Barton prevented him from expressing his overpowering contempt for that gentleman's conduct, but he was not obliged to hold his tongue about Gilbert's pluck and decision, and he did not.
The latter, detained at the house by Mother Fairthorn and Sally,—both of whom looked upon him as one arisen from the dead,—did not reach the field until the others had selected their rows, overturned the shocks, and were seated in a rustling line, in the moonlight.
"Gilbert!" shouted Mark, "come here! I've kep' the row next to mine, for you! And I want to get a grip o' your hand, my bold boy!"
He sprang up, flinging an armful of stalks behind him, and with difficulty restrained an impulse to clasp Gilbert to his broad breast. It was not the custom of the neighborhood; the noblest masculine friendship would have been described by the people in no other terms than "They are very thick," and men who loved each other were accustomed to be satisfied with the knowledge. The strong moonlight revealed to Gilbert Potter the honest heart which looked out of Mark's blue eyes, as the latter held his hand like a vice, and said,—
"I've heard all about it."
"More than there was occasion for, very likely," Gilbert replied. "I'll tell you my story some day, Mark; but tonight we must work and not talk."
"All right, Gilbert. I say, though, I've got the money you wanted; we'll fix the matter after supper."
The rustling of the corn-stalks recommenced, and the tented lines of shocks slowly fell as the huskers worked their way over the brow of the hill, whence the ground sloped down into a broad belt of shade, cast by the woods in the bottom. Two or three dogs which had accompanied their masters coursed about the field, or darted into the woods in search of an opossum-trail. Joe and Jake Fairthorn would gladly have followed them, but were afraid of venturing into the mysterious gloom; so they amused themselves with putting on the coats which the men had thrown aside, and gravely marched up and down the line, commending the rapid and threatening the tardy workers.
Erelong, the silence was broken by many a shout of exultation or banter, many a merry sound of jest or fun, as the back of the night's task was fairly broken. One husker mimicked the hoot of an owl in the thickets below; another sang a melody popular at the time, the refrain of which was,—
"Be it late or early, be it late or soon, It's I will enjoy the sweet rose in June!"
"Sing out, boys!" shouted Mark, "so the girls can hear you! It's time they were comin' to look after us."
"Sing, yourself!" some one replied. "You can out-bellow the whole raft."
Without more ado, Mark opened his mouth and began chanting, in a ponderous voice,—
"On yonder mountain summit My castle you will find, Renown'd in ann-cient historee,— My name it's Rinardine!"
Presently, from the upper edge of the wood, several feminine voices were heard, singing another part of the same song:—
"Beware of meeting Rinar, All on the mountains high!"
Such a shout of fun ran over the field, that the frighted owl ceased his hooting in the thicket. The moon stood high, and turned the night-haze into diffused silver. Though the hollows were chill with gathering frost, the air was still mild and dry on the hills, and the young ladies, in their warm gowns of home-made flannel, enjoyed both the splendor of the night and the lively emulation of the scattered laborers.
"Turn to, and give us a lift, girls," said Mark.
"Beware of meeting Rinar!" Sally laughed.
"Because you know what you promised him, Sally," he retorted. "Come, a bargain's a bargain; there's the outside row standin'—not enough of us to stretch all the way acrost the field—so let's you and me take that and bring it down square with th' others. The rest may keep my row a-goin', if they can."
Two or three of the other maidens had cut the supporting stalks of the next shock, and overturned it with much laughing. "I can't husk, Mark," said Martha Deane, "but I'll promise to superintend these, if you will keep Sally to her word."
There was a little running hither and thither, a show of fight, a mock scramble, and it ended by Sally tumbling over a pumpkin, and then being carried off by Mark to the end of the outside row of shocks, some distance in the rear of the line of work. Here he laid the stalks straight for her, doubled his coat and placed it on the ground for a seat, and then took his place on the other side of the shock.
Sally husked a few ears in silence, but presently found it more agreeable to watch her partner, as he bent to the labor, ripping the covering from each ear with one or two rapid motions, snapping the cob, and flinging the ear over his shoulder into the very centre of the heap, without turning his head. When the shock was finished, there were five stalks on her side, and fifty on Mark's.
He laughed at the extent of her help, but, seeing how bright and beautiful her face looked in the moonlight, how round and supple her form, contrasted with his own rough proportions, he added, in a lower tone,—