"Never mind the work, Sally—I only wanted to have you with me."
Sally was silent, but happy, and Mark proceeded to overthrow the next shock.
When they were again seated face to face, he no longer bent so steadily over the stalks, but lifted his head now and then to watch the gloss of the moon on her black hair, and the mellow gleam that seemed to slide along her cheek and chin, playing with the shadows, as she moved.
"Sally!" he said at last, "you must ha' seen, over and over ag'in, that I like to be with you. Do you care for me, at all?"
She flushed and trembled a little as she answered,—"Yes, Mark, I do."
He husked half a dozen ears rapidly, then looked up again and asked,—
"Do you care enough for me, Sally, to take me for good and all? I can't put it into fine speech, but I love you dearly and honestly; will you marry me?"
Sally bent down her head, so choked with the long-delayed joy that she found it impossible to speak. Mark finished the few remaining stalks and put them behind him; he sat upon the ground at her feet.
"There's my hand, Sally; will you take it, and me with it?"
Her hand slowly made its way into his broad, hard palm. Once the surrender expressed, her confusion vanished; she lifted her head for his kiss, then leaned it on his shoulder and whispered,—
"Oh, Mark, I've loved you for ever and ever so long a time!"
"Why, Sally, deary," said he, "that's my case, too; and I seemed to feel it in my bones that we was to be a pair; only, you know, I had to get a foothold first. I couldn't come to you with empty hands—though, faith! there's not much to speak of in 'em!"
"Never mind that, Mark,—I'm so glad you want me!"
And indeed she was; why should she not, therefore, say so?
"There's no need o' broken sixpences, or true-lovers' knots, I guess," said Mark, giving her another kiss. "I'm a plain-spoken fellow, and when I say I want you for my wife, Sally, I mean it. But we mustn't be settin' here, with the row unhusked; that'll never do. See if I don't make the ears spin! And I guess you can help me a little now, can't you?"
With a jolly laugh, Mark picked up the corn-cutter and swung it above the next shock. In another instant it would have fallen, but a loud shriek burst out from the bundled stalks, and Joe Fairthorn crept forth on his hands and knees.
The lovers stood petrified. "Why, you young devil!" exclaimed Mark, while the single word "JOE!" which came from Sally's lips, contained the concentrated essence of a thousand slaps.
"Don't—don't!" whimpered Joe. "I'll not tell anybody, indeed I wont!"
"If you do," threatened Mark, brandishing the corn-cutter, "it isn't your legs I shall cut off, but your head, even with the shoulders. What were you doin' in that shock?"
"I wanted to hear what you and Sally were savin' to each other. Folks said you two was a-courtin'," Joe answered.
The comical aspect of the matter suddenly struck Mark, and he burst into a roar of laughter.
"Mark, how can you?" said Sally, bridling a little.
"Well,—it's all in the fam'ly, after all. Joe, tarnation scamp as he is, is long-headed enough to keep his mouth shut, rather than have people laugh at his relations—eh, Joe?"
"I said I'd never say a word," Joe affirmed, "and I won't. You see if I even tell Jake. But I say, Mark, when you and Sally get married, will you be my uncle?"
"It depends on your behavior," Mark gravely answered, seating himself to husk. Joe magnanimously left the lovers, and pitched over the third shock ahead, upon which he began to husk with might and main, in order to help them out with their task.
By the time the outside row was squared, the line had reached the bottom of the slope, where the air was chill, although the shadows of the forest had shifted from the field. Then there was a race among the huskers for the fence, the girls promising that he whose row was first husked out, should sit at the head of the table, and be called King of the Corn-field. The stalks rustled, the cobs snapped, the ears fell like a shower of golden cones, and amid much noise and merriment, not only the victor's row but all the others were finished, and Farmer Fairthorn's field stood husked from end to end.
Gilbert Potter had done his share of the work steadily, and as silently as the curiosity of the girls, still excited by his recent adventure, would allow. It was enough for him that he caught a chance word, now and then, from Martha. The emulation of the race with which the husking closed favored them, and he gladly lost a very fair chance of becoming King of the Corn-field for the opportunity of asking her to assist him in contriving a brief interview, on the way to the house.
Where two work together to the same end, there is no doubt about the result, especially as, in this case, the company preferred returning through the wood instead of crossing the open, high-fenced fields. When they found themselves together, out of ear-shot of the others, Gilbert lost no time in relating the particulars of his encounter with Sandy Flash, the discovery he had made, and the mysterious assurance of Deb. Smith.
Martha listened with the keenest interest. "It is very, very strange," she said, "and the strangest of all is that he should be that man, Fortune. As for his words, I do not find them so singular. He has certainly the grandest courage, robber as he is, and he admires the same quality in you; no doubt you made a favorable impression upon him on the day of the fox-chase; and so, although you are hunting him down, he will not injure you, if he can help it. I find all that very natural, in a man of his nature."
"But Deb. Smith?" Gilbert asked.
"That," said Martha, "is rather a curious coincidence, but nothing more, I think. She is said to be a superstitious creature, and if you have ever befriended her,—and you may have done so, Gilbert, without your good heart being aware of it,—she thinks that her spells, or charms, or what not, will save you from harm. No, I was wrong; it is not so very strange, except Fortune's intimacy with Alfred Barton, which everybody was talking about at the time."
Gilbert drew a deep breath of relief. How the darkness of his new fear vanished, in the light of Martha's calm, sensible words! "How wonderfully you have guessed the truth!". he cried. "So it is; Deb. Smith thinks she is beholden to me for kind treatment; she blew upon my palm, in a mysterious way, and said she would stand by me in time of need! But that about Fortune puzzles me. I can see that Barton is very shy of me since he thinks I've made the discovery."
"We must ask Betsy Lavender's counsel, there," said Martha. "It is beyond my depth."
The supper smoked upon the table when they reached the farm-house. It had been well earned, and it was enjoyed, both in a physical and a social sense, to the very extent of the guests' capacities. The King sat at the head of the table, and Gilbert Potter—forced into that position by Mark—at the foot. Sally Fairthorn insisted on performing her duty as handmaiden, although, as Betsy Lavender again and again declared, her room was better than her help. Sally's dark eyes fairly danced and sparkled; her full, soft lips shone with a scarlet bloom; she laughed with a wild, nervous joyousness, and yet rushed about haunted with a fearful dread of suddenly bursting into tears. Her ways were so well known, however, that a little extra impulsiveness excited no surprise. Martha Deane was the only person who discovered what had taken place. As the girls were putting on their hats and cloaks in the bedroom, Sally drew her into the passage, kissed her a number of times with passionate vehemence, and then darted off without saying a word.
Gilbert rode home through the splendid moonlight, in the small hours of the morning, with a light heart, and Mark's money-belt buckled around his waist.
GILBERT ON THE ROAD TO CHESTER.
Being now fully prepared to undertake his journey to Chester, Gilbert remembered his promise to Alfred Barton. As the subject had not again been mentioned between them,—probably owing to the excitement produced by Sandy Flash's visit to Kennett Square, and its consequences,—he felt bound to inform Barton of his speedy departure, and to renew his offer of service.
He found the latter in the field, assisting Giles, who was hauling home the sheaves of corn-fodder in a harvest-wagon. The first meeting of the two men did not seem to be quite agreeable to either. Gilbert's suspicions had been aroused, although he could give them no definite form, and Barton shrank from any reference to what had now become a very sore topic.
"Giles," said the latter, after a moment of evident embarrassment, "I guess you may drive home with that load, and pitch it off; I'll wait for you here."
When the rustling wain had reached a convenient distance, Gilbert began,—
"I only wanted to say that I'm going to Chester tomorrow."
"Oh, yes!" Barton exclaimed, "about that money? I suppose you want all o' yours?"
"It's as I expected. But you said you could borrow elsewhere, and send it by me."
"The fact is," said Barton, "that I've both borrowed and sent. I'm obliged to you, all the same, Gilbert; the will's as good as the deed, you know; but I got the money from—well, from a friend, who was about going down on his own business, and so that stone killed both my birds. I ought to ha' sent you word, by rights."
"Is your friend," Gilbert asked, "a safe and trusty man?"
"Safe enough, I guess—a little wild, at times, maybe; but he's not such a fool as to lose what he'd never have a chance of getting again."
"Then," said Gilbert, "it's hardly likely that he's the same friend you took such a fancy to, at the Hammer-and-Trowel, last spring?"
Alfred Barton started as if he had been shot, and a deep color spread over his face. His lower jaw slackened and his eyes moved uneasily from side to side.
"Who—who do you mean?" he stammered.
The more evident his embarrassment became, the more Gilbert was confirmed in his suspicion that there was some secret understanding between the two men. The thing seemed incredible, but the same point, he remembered had occurred to Martha Deane's mind, when she so readily explained the other circumstances.
"Barton," he said, sternly, "you know very well whom I mean. What became of your friend Fortune? Didn't you see him at the tavern, last Monday morning?"
"Y-yes—oh, yes! I know who he is now, the damned scoundrel! I'd give a hundred dollars to see him dance upon nothing!"
He clenched his fists, and uttered a number of other oaths, which need not be repeated. His rage seemed so real that Gilbert was again staggered. Looking at the heavy, vulgar face before him,—the small, restless eyes, the large sensuous mouth, the forehead whose very extent, in contradiction to ordinary laws, expressed imbecility rather than intellect, it was impossible to associate great cunning and shrewdness with such a physiognomy. Every line, at that moment, expressed pain and exasperation. But Gilbert felt bound to go a step further.
"Barton," he said, "didn't you know who Fortune was, on that day?"
"N-no—no! On that day—NO! Blast me if I did!"
"Not before you left him?"
"Well, I'll admit that a suspicion of it came to me at the very last moment—too late to be of any use. But come, damme! that's all over, and what's the good o' talking? You tried your best to catch the fellow, too, but he was too much for you! 'T isn't such an easy job, eh?"
This sort of swagger was Alfred Barton's only refuge, when he was driven into a corner. Though some color still lingered in his face, he spread his shoulders with a bold, almost defiant air, and met Gilbert's eye with a steady gaze. The latter was not prepared to carry his examination further, although he was still far from being satisfied.
"Come, come, Gilbert!" Barton presently resumed, "I mean no offence. You showed yourself to be true blue, and you led the hunt as well as any man could ha' done; but the very thought o' the fellow makes me mad, and I'll know no peace till he's strung up. If I was your age, now! A man seems to lose his spirit as he gets on in years, and I'm only sorry you weren't made captain at the start, instead o' me. You shall be, from this time on; I won't take it again!"
"One thing I'll promise you," said Gilbert, with a meaning look, "that I won't let him walk into the bar-room of the Unicorn, without hindrance."
"I'll bet you won't!" Barton exclaimed. "All I'm afraid of is, that he won't try it again."
"We'll see; this highway-robbery must have an end. I must now be going. Good-bye!"
"Good-bye, Gilbert; take care o' yourself!" said Barton, in a very good humor, now that the uncomfortable interview was over. "And, I say," he added, "remember that I stand ready to do you a good turn, whenever I can!"
"Thank you!" responded Gilbert, as he turned Roger's head; but he said to himself,—"when all other friends fail, I may come to you, not sooner."
The next morning showed signs that the Indian Summer had reached its close. All night long the wind had moaned and lamented in the chimneys, and the sense of dread in the outer atmosphere crept into the house and weighed upon the slumbering inmates. There was a sound in the forest as of sobbing Dryads, waiting for the swift death and the frosty tomb. The blue haze of dreams which had overspread the land changed into an ashy, livid mist, dragging low, and clinging to the features of the landscape like a shroud to the limbs of a corpse.
The time, indeed, had come for a change. It was the 2nd of November; and after a summer and autumn beautiful almost beyond parallel, a sudden and severe winter was generally anticipated. In this way, even the most ignorant field-hand recognized the eternal balance of Nature.
Mary Potter, although the day had arrived for which she had so long and fervently prayed, could not shake off the depressing influence of the weather. After breakfast, when Gilbert began to make preparations for the journey, she found herself so agitated that it was with difficulty she could give him the usual assistance. The money, which was mostly in silver coin, had been sewed into tight rolls, and was now to be carefully packed in the saddle-bags: the priming of the pistols was to be renewed, and the old, shrivelled covers of the holsters so greased, hammered out, and padded that they would keep the weapons dry in case of rain. Although Gilbert would reach Chester that evening,—the distance being not more than twenty-four miles,—the preparations, principally on account of his errand, were conducted with a grave and solemn sense of their importance.
When, finally, everything was in readiness,—the saddle-bags so packed that the precious rolls could not rub or jingle; the dinner of sliced bread and pork placed over them, in a folded napkin; the pistols, intended more for show than use, thrust into the antiquated holsters; and all these deposited and secured on Roger's back,—Gilbert took his mother's hand, and said,—
"Good-bye, mother! Don't worry, now, if I shouldn't get back until late to-morrow evening; I can't tell exactly how long the business will take."
He had never looked more strong and cheerful. The tears came to Mary Potter's eyes, but she held them hack by a powerful effort. All she could say—and her voice trembled in spite of herself—was,—
"Good-bye, my boy! Remember that I've worked, and thought, and prayed, for you alone,—and that I'd do more—I'd do all, if I only could!"
His look said, "I do not forget!" He sat already in the saddle, and was straightening the folds of his heavy cloak, so that it might protect his knees. The wind had arisen, and the damp mist was driving down the glen, mixed with scattered drops of a coming rain-storm. As he rode slowly away, Mary Potter lifted her eyes to the dense gray of the sky, darkening from moment to moment, listened to the murmur of the wind over the wooded hills opposite, and clasped her hands with the appealing gesture which had now become habitual to her.
"Two days more!" she sighed, as she entered the house,—"two days more of fear and prayer! Lord forgive me that I am so weak of faith—that I make myself trouble where I ought to be humble and thankful!"
Gilbert rode slowly, because he feared the contents of his saddle-bags would be disturbed by much jolting. Proof against wind and weather, he was not troubled by the atmospheric signs, but rather experienced a healthy glow and exhilaration of the blood as the mist grew thicker and beat upon his face like the blown spray of a waterfall. By the time he had reached the Carson farm, the sky contracted to a low, dark arch of solid wet, in which there was no positive outline of cloud, and a dull, universal roar, shorn of all windy sharpness, hummed over the land.
From the hill behind the farm-house, whence he could overlook the bottom-lands of Redley Creek, and easily descry, on a clear day, the yellow front of Dr. Deane's house in Kennett Square, he now beheld a dim twilight chaos, wherein more and more of the distance was blotted out. Yet still some spell held up the suspended rain, and the drops that fell seemed to be only the leakage of the airy cisterns before they burst. The fields on either hand were deserted. The cattle huddled behind the stacks or crouched disconsolately in fence-corners. Here and there a farmer made haste to cut and split a supply of wood for his kitchen-fire, or mended the rude roof on which his pigs depended for shelter; but all these signs showed how soon he intended to be snugly housed, to bide out the storm.
It was a day of no uncertain promise. Gilbert confessed to himself, before he reached the Philadelphia road, that he would rather have chosen another day for the journey; yet the thought of returning was farthest from his mind. Even when the rain, having created its little pools and sluices in every hollow of the ground, took courage, and multiplied its careering drops, and when the wet gusts tore open his cloak and tugged at his dripping hat, he cheerily shook the moisture from his cheeks and eyelashes, patted Roger's streaming neck, and whistled a bar or two of an old carol.
There were pleasant hopes enough to occupy his mind, without dwelling on these slight external annoyances. He still tried to believe that his mother's release would be hastened by the independence which lay folded in his saddle-bags, and the thud of the wet leather against Roger's hide was a sound to cheer away any momentary foreboding. Then, Martha—dear, noble girl! She was his; it was but to wait, and waiting must be easy when the end was certain. He felt, moreover, that in spite of his unexplained disgrace, he had grown in the respect of his neighbors; that his persevering integrity was beginning to bring its reward, and he thanked God very gratefully that he had been saved from adding to his name any stain of his own making.
In an hour or more the force of the wind somewhat abated, but the sky seemed to dissolve into a massy flood. The rain rushed down, not in drops, but in sheets, and in spite of his cloak, he was wet to the skin. For half an hour he was obliged to halt in the wood between Old Kennett and Chadd's Ford, and here he made the discovery that with all his care the holsters were nearly full of water. Brown streams careered down the long, meadowy hollow on his left, wherein many Hessian soldiers lay buried. There was money buried with them, the people believed, but no one cared to dig among the dead at midnight, and many a wild tale of frighted treasure-seekers recurred to his mind.
At the bottom of the long hill flowed the Brandywine, now rolling swift and turbid, level with its banks. Roger bravely breasted the flood, and after a little struggle, reached the opposite side. Then across the battle-meadow, in the teeth of the storm, along the foot of the low hill, around the brow of which the entrenchments of the American army made a clayey streak, until the ill-fated field, sown with grape-shot and bullets which the farmers turned up every spring with their furrows, lay behind him. The story of the day was familiar to him, from the narratives of scores of eye-witnesses, and he thought to himself, as he rode onward, wet, lashed by the furious rain, yet still of good cheer,—"Though the fight was lost, the cause was won."
After leaving the lovely lateral valley which stretches eastward for two miles, at right angles to the course of the Brandywine, he entered a rougher and wilder region, more thickly wooded and deeply indented with abrupt glens. Thus far he had not met with a living soul. Chester was now not more than eight or ten miles distant, and, as nearly as he could guess, it was about two o'clock in the afternoon. With the best luck, he could barely reach his destination by nightfall, for the rain showed no signs of abating, and there were still several streams to be crossed.
His blood leaped no more so nimbly along his veins; the continued exposure had at last chilled and benumbed him. Letting the reins fall upon Roger's neck, he folded himself closely in his wet cloak, and bore the weather with a grim, patient endurance. The road dropped into a rough glen, crossed a stony brook, and then wound along the side of a thickly wooded hill. On his right the bank had been cut away like a wall; on the left a steep slope of tangled thicket descended to the stream.
One moment, Gilbert knew that he was riding along this road, Roger pressing close to the bank for shelter from the wind and rain; the next, there was a swift and tremendous grip on his collar, Roger slid from under him, and he was hurled backwards, with great force, upon the ground. Yet even in the act of falling, he seemed to be conscious that a figure sprang down upon the road from the bank above.
It was some seconds before the shock, which sent a crash through his brain and a thousand fiery sparkles into his eyes, passed away. Then a voice, keen, sharp, and determined, which it seemed that he knew, exclaimed,—
"Damn the beast! I'll have to shoot him."
Lifting his head with some difficulty, for he felt weak and giddy, and propping himself on his arm, he saw Sandy Flash in the road, three or four paces off, fronting Roger, who had whirled around, and with levelled ears and fiery eyes, seemed to be meditating an attack.
The robber wore a short overcoat, made entirely of musk-rat skins, which completely protected the arms in his belt. He had a large hunting-knife in his left hand, and appeared to be feeling with his right for the stock of a pistol. It seemed to Gilbert that nothing but the singular force of his eye held back the horse from rushing upon him.
"Keep as you are, young man!" he cried, without turning his head, "or a bullet goes into your horse's brain. I know the beast, and don't want to see him slaughtered. If you don't, order him to be quiet!"
Gilbert, although he knew every trait of the noble animal's nature better than those of many a human acquaintance, was both surprised and touched at the instinct with which he had recognized an enemy, and the fierce courage with which he stood on the defensive. In that moment of bewilderment, he thought only of Roger, whose life hung by a thread, which his silence would instantly snap. He might have seen—had there been time for reflection—that nothing would have been gained, in any case, by the animal's death; for, stunned and unarmed as he was, he was no match for the powerful, wary highwayman.
Obeying the feeling which entirely possessed him, he cried,—"Roger! Roger, old boy!"
The horse neighed a shrill, glad neigh of recognition, and pricked up his ears. Sandy Flash stood motionless; he had let go of his pistol, and concealed the knife in a fold of his coat.
"Quiet, Roger, quiet!" Gilbert again commanded.
The animal understood the tone, if not the words. He seemed completely reassured, and advanced a step or two nearer. With the utmost swiftness and dexterity, combined with an astonishing gentleness,—making no gesture which might excite Roger's suspicion,—Sandy Flash thrust his hand into the holsters, smiled mockingly, cut the straps of the saddle-bags with a single movement of his keen-edged knife, tested the weight of the bags, nodded, grinned, and then, stepping aside, he allowed the horse to pass him. But he watched every motion of the head and ears, as he did so.
Roger, however, seemed to think only of his master. Bending down his head, he snorted warmly into Gilbert's pale face, and then swelled his sides with a deep breath of satisfaction. Tears of shame, grief, and rage swam in Gilbert's eyes. "Roger," he said, "I've lost everything but you!"
He staggered to his feet and leaned against the bank. The extent of his loss—the hopelessness of its recovery—the impotence of his burning desire to avenge the outrage—overwhelmed him. The highwayman still stood, a few paces off, watching him with a grim curiosity.
With a desperate effort, Gilbert turned towards him. "Sandy Flash," he cried, "do you know what you are doing?"
"I rather guess so,"—and the highwayman grinned. "I've done it before, but never quite so neatly as this time."
"I've heard it said, to your credit," Gilbert continued, "that, though you rob the rich, you sometimes give to the poor. This time you've robbed a poor man."
"I've only borrowed a little from one able to spare a good deal more than I've got,—and the grudge I owe him isn't paid off yet."
"It is not so!" Gilbert cried. "Every cent has been earned by my own and my mother's hard work. I was taking it to Chester, to pay off a debt upon the farm; and the loss and the disappointment will well nigh break my mother's heart. According to your views of things, you owe me a grudge, but you are outside of the law, and I did my duty as a lawful man by trying to shoot you!"
"And I, bein' outside o' the law, as you say, have let you off mighty easy, young man!" exclaimed Sandy Flash, his eyes shining angrily and his teeth glittering. "I took you for a fellow o' pluck, not for one that'd lie, even to the robber they call me! What's all this pitiful story about Barton's money?"
"Oh—ay! You didn't agree to take some o' his money to Chester?" The mocking expression on the highwayman's face was perfectly diabolical. He slung the saddle-bags over his shoulders, and turned to leave.
Gilbert was so amazed that for a moment he knew not what to say. Sandy Flash took three strides up the road, and then sprang down into the thicket.
"It is not Barton's money!" Gilbert cried, with a last desperate appeal,—"it is mine, mine and my mother's!"
A short, insulting laugh was the only answer.
"Sandy Flash!" he cried again, raising his voice almost to a shout, as the crashing of the robber's steps through the brushwood sounded farther and farther down the glen, "Sandy Flash! You have plundered a widow's honest earnings to-day, and a curse goes with such plunder! Hark you! if never before, you are cursed from this hour forth! I call upon God, in my mother's name, to mark you!"
There was no sound in reply, except the dull, dreary hum of the wind and the steady lashing of the rain. The growing darkness of the sky told of approaching night, and the wild glen, bleak enough before, was now a scene of utter and hopeless desolation to Gilbert's eyes. He was almost unmanned, not only by the cruel loss, but also by the stinging sense of outrage which it had left behind. A mixed feeling of wretched despondency and shame filled his heart, as he leaned, chill, weary, and still weak from the shock of his fall, upon Roger's neck.
The faithful animal turned his head from time to time, as if to question his master's unusual demeanor. There was a look of almost human sympathy in his large eyes; he was hungry and restless, yet would not move until the word of command had been given.
"Poor fellow!" said Gilbert, patting his cheek, "we've both fared ill to-day. But you mustn't suffer any longer for my sake."
He then mounted and rode onward through the storm.
ROGER REPAYS HIS MASTER.
A mile or more beyond the spot where Gilbert Potter had been waylaid, there was a lonely tavern, called the "Drovers' Inn." Here he dismounted, more for his horse's sake than his own, although he was sore, weary, and sick of heart. After having carefully groomed Roger with his own hands, and commended him to the special attentions of the ostler, he entered the warm public room, wherein three or four storm-bound drovers were gathered around the roaring fire of hickory logs.
The men kindly made way for the pale, dripping, wretched-looking stranger; and the landlord, with a shrewd glance and a suggestion of "Something hot, I reckon?" began mixing a compound proper for the occasion. Laying aside his wet cloak, which was sent to the kitchen to be more speedily dried, Gilbert presently sat in a cloud of his own steaming garments, and felt the warmth of the potent liquor in his chilly blood.
All at once, it occurred to him that the highwayman had not touched his person. There was not only some loose silver in his pockets, but Mark Deane's money-belt was still around his waist. So much, at least, was rescued, and he began to pluck up a little courage. Should he continue his journey to Chester, explain the misfortune to the holder of his mortgage, and give notice to the County Sheriff of this new act of robbery? Then the thought came into his mind that in that case he might be detained a day or two, in order to make depositions, or comply with some unknown legal form. In the mean time the news would spread over the country, no doubt with many exaggerations, and might possibly reach Kennett—even the ears of his mother. That reflection decided his course. She must first hear the truth from his mouth; he would try to give her cheer and encouragement, though he felt none himself; then, calling his friends together, he would hunt Sandy Flash like a wild beast until they had tracked him to his lair.
"Unlucky weather for ye, it seems?" remarked the curious landlord, who, seated in a corner of the fireplace, had for full ten minutes been watching Gilbert's knitted brows, gloomy, brooding eyes, and compressed lips.
"Weather?" he exclaimed, bitterly. "It's not the weather. Landlord, will you have a chance of sending to Chester to-morrow?"
"I'm going, if it clears up," said one of the drovers.
"Then, my friend," Gilbert continued, "will you take a letter from me to the Sheriff?"
"If it's nothing out of the way," the man replied.
"It's in the proper course of law—if there is any law to protect us. Not a mile and a half from here, landlord, I have been waylaid and robbed on the public road!"
There was a general exclamation of surprise, and Gilbert's story, which he had suddenly decided to relate, in order that the people of the neighborhood might be put upon their guard, was listened to with an interest only less than the terror which it inspired. The landlady rushed into the bar-room, followed by the red-faced kitchen wench, and both interrupted the recital with cries of "Dear, dear!" and "Lord save us!" The landlord, meanwhile, had prepared another tumbler of hot and hot, and brought it forward, saying,—
"You need it, the Lord knows, and it shall cost you nothing."
"What I most need now," Gilbert said, "is pen, ink, and paper, to write out my account. Then I suppose you can get me up a cold check, [Footnote: A local term, in use at the time, signifying a "lunch."] for I must start homewards soon."
"Not 'a cold check' after all that drenching and mishandling!" the landlord exclaimed. "We'll have a hot supper in half an hour, and you shall stay, and welcome. Wife, bring down one of Liddy's pens, the schoolmaster made for her, and put a little vinegar into th' ink-bottle; it's most dried up!"
In a few minutes the necessary materials for a letter, all of the rudest kind, were supplied, and the landlord and drovers hovered around as Gilbert began to write, assisting him with the most extraordinary suggestions.
"I'd threaten," said a drover, "to write straight to General Washington, unless they promise to catch the scoundrel in no time!"
"And don't forget the knife and pistol!" cried the landlord.
"And say the Tory farmers' houses ought to be searched!"
"And give his marks, to a hair!"
Amid all this confusion, Gilbert managed to write a brief, but sufficiently circumstantial account of the robbery, calling upon the County authorities to do their part in effecting the capture of Sandy Flash. He offered his services and those of the Kennett troop, announcing that he should immediately start upon the hunt, and expected to be seconded by the law.
When the letter had been sealed and addressed, the drovers—some of whom carried money with them, and had agreed to travel in company, for better protection—eagerly took charge of it, promising to back the delivery with very energetic demands for assistance.
Night had fallen, and the rain fell with it, in renewed torrents. The dreary, universal hum of the storm rose again, making all accidental sounds of life impertinent, in contrast with its deep, tremendous monotone. The windows shivered, the walls sweat and streamed, and the wild wet blew in under the doors, as if besieging that refuge of warm, red fire-light.
"This beats the Lammas flood o' '68," said the landlord, as he led the way to supper. "I was a young man at the time, and remember it well. Half the dams on Brandywine went that night."
After a bountiful meal, Gilbert completely dried his garments and prepared to set out on his return, resisting the kindly persuasion of the host and hostess that he should stay all night. A restless, feverish energy filled his frame. He felt that he could not sleep, that to wait idly would be simple misery, and that only in motion towards the set aim of his fierce, excited desires, could he bear his disappointment and shame. But the rain still came down with a volume which threatened soon to exhaust the cisterns of the air, and in that hope he compelled himself to wait a little.
Towards nine o'clock the great deluge seemed to slacken. The wind arose, and there were signs of its shifting, erelong, to the northwest, which would bring clear weather in a few hours. The night was dark, but not pitchy; a dull phosphoric gleam overspread the under surface of the sky. The woods were full of noises, and every gully at the roadside gave token, by its stony rattle, of the rain-born streams.
With his face towards home and his back to the storm, Gilbert rode into the night. The highway was but a streak of less palpable darkness; the hills on either hand scarcely detached themselves from the low, black ceiling of sky behind them. Sometimes the light of a farm-house window sparkled faintly, like a glow-worm, but whether far or near, he could not tell; he only knew how blest must be the owner, sitting with wife and children around his secure hearthstone,—how wretched his own life, cast adrift in the darkness,—wife, home, and future, things of doubt!
He had lost more than money; and his wretchedness will not seem unmanly when we remember the steady strain and struggle of his previous life. As there is nothing more stimulating to human patience, and courage, and energy, than the certain prospect of relief at the end, so there is nothing more depressing than to see that relief suddenly snatched away, and the same round of toil thrust again under one's feet! This is the fate of Tantalus and Sisyphus in one.
Not alone the money; a year, or two years, of labor would no doubt replace what he had lost. But he had seen, in imagination, his mother's feverish anxiety at an end; household help procured, to lighten her over-heavy toil; the possibility of her release from some terrible obligation brought nearer, as he hoped and trusted, and with it the strongest barrier broken down which rose between him and Martha Deane. All these things which he had, as it were, held in his hand, had been stolen from him, and the loss was bitter because it struck down to the roots of the sweetest and strongest fibres of his heart. The night veiled his face, but if some hotter drops than those of the storm were shaken from his cheek, they left no stain upon his manhood.
The sense of outrage, of personal indignity, which no man can appreciate who has not himself been violently plundered, added its sting to his miserable mood. He thirsted to avenge the wrong; Barton's words involuntarily came back to him,—"I'll know no peace till the villain has been strung up!" Barton! How came Sandy Flash to know that Barton intended to send money by him? Had not Barton himself declared that the matter should be kept secret? Was there some complicity between the latter and Sandy Flash? Yet, on the other hand, it seemed that the highwayman believed that he was robbing Gilbert of Barton's money. Here was an enigma which he could not solve.
All at once, a hideous solution presented itself. Was it possible that Barton's money was to be only apparently stolen—in reality returned to him privately, afterwards? Possibly the rest of the plunder divided between the two confederates? Gilbert was not in a charitable mood; the human race was much more depraved, in his view, than twelve hours before; and the inference which he would have rejected as monstrous, that very morning, now assumed a possible existence. One thing, at least, was certain; he would exact an explanation, and if none should be furnished, he would make public the evidence in his hands.
The black, dreary night seemed interminable. He could only guess, here and there, at a landmark, and was forced to rely more upon Roger's instinct of the road than upon the guidance of his senses. Towards midnight, as he judged, by the solitary crow of a cock, the rain almost entirely ceased. The wind began to blow, sharp and keen, and the hard vault of the sky to lift a little. He fancied that the hills on his right had fallen away, and that the horizon was suddenly depressed towards the north. Roger's feet began to splash in constantly deepening water, and presently a roar, distinct from that of the wind, filled the air.
It was the Brandywine. The stream had overflowed its broad meadow-bottoms, and was running high and fierce beyond its main channel. The turbid waters made a dim, dusky gleam around him; soon the fences disappeared, and the flood reached to his horse's belly. But he knew that the ford could be distinguished by the break in the fringe of timber; moreover, that the creek-bank was a little higher than the meadows behind it, and so far, at least, he might venture. The ford was not more than twenty yards across, and he could trust Roger to swim that distance.
The faithful animal pressed bravely on, but Gilbert soon noticed that he seemed at fault. The swift water had forced him out of the road, and he stopped, from time to time, as if anxious and uneasy. The timber could now be discerned, only a short distance in advance, and in a few minutes they would gain the bank.
What was that? A strange rustling, hissing sound, as of cattle trampling through dry reeds,—a sound which quivered and shook, even in the breath of the hurrying wind! Roger snorted, stood still, and trembled in every limb; and a sensation of awe and terror struck a chill through Gilbert's heart. The sound drew swiftly nearer, and became a wild, seething roar, filling the whole breadth of the valley.
"Great God!" cried Gilbert, "the dam!—the dam has given way!" He turned Roger's head, gave him the rein, struck, spurred, cheered, and shouted. The brave beast struggled through the impeding flood, but the advance wave of the coming inundation already touched his side. He staggered; a line of churning foam bore down upon them, the terrible roar was all around and over them, and horse and rider were whirled away.
What happened during the first few seconds, Gilbert could never distinctly recall. Now they were whelmed in the water, now riding its careering tide, torn through the tops of brushwood, jostled by floating logs and timbers of the dam-breast, but always, as it seemed, remorselessly held in the heart of the tumult and the ruin.
He saw, at last, that they had fallen behind the furious onset of the flood, but Roger was still swimming with it, desperately throwing up his head from time to time, and snorting the water from his nostrils. All his efforts to gain a foothold failed; his strength was nearly spent, and unless some help should come in a few minutes, it would come in vain. And in the darkness, and the rapidity with which they were borne along, how should help come?
All at once, Roger's course stopped. He became an obstacle to the flood, which pressed him against some other obstacle below, and rushed over horse and rider. Thrusting out his hand, Gilbert felt the rough bark of a tree. Leaning towards it and clasping the log in his arms, he drew himself from the saddle, while Roger, freed from his burden, struggled into the current and instantly disappeared.
As nearly as Gilbert could ascertain, several timbers, thrown over each other, had lodged, probably upon a rocky islet in the stream, the uppermost one projecting slantingly out of the flood. It required all his strength to resist the current which sucked, and whirled, and tugged at his body, and to climb high enough to escape its force, without overbalancing his support. At last, though still half immerged, he found himself comparatively safe for a time, yet as far as ever from a final rescue.
He must await the dawn, and an eternity of endurance lay in those few hours. Meantime, perhaps, the creek would fall, for the rain had ceased, and there were outlines of moving cloud in the sky. It was the night which made his situation so terrible, by concealing the chances of escape. At first, he thought most of Roger. Was his brave horse drowned, or had he safely gained the bank below? Then, as the desperate moments went by, and the chill of exposure and the fatigue of exertion began to creep over him, his mind reverted, with a bitter sweetness, a mixture of bliss and agony, to the two beloved women to whom his life belonged,—the life which, alas! he could not now call his own, to give.
He tried to fix his thoughts on Death, to commend his soul to Divine Mercy; but every prayer shaped itself into an appeal that he might once more see the dear faces and bear the dear voices. In the great shadow of the fate which hung over him, the loss of his property became as dust in the balance, and his recent despair smote him with shame. He no longer fiercely protested against the injuries of fortune, but entreated pardon and pity for the sake of his love.
The clouds rolled into distincter masses, and the northwest wind still hunted them across the sky, until there came, first a tiny rift for a star, then a gap for a whole constellation, and finally a broad burst of moonlight. Gilbert now saw that the timber to which he clung was lodged nearly in the centre of the channel, as the water swept with equal force on either side of him. Beyond the banks there was a wooded hill on the left; on the right an overflowed meadow. He was too weak and benumbed to trust himself to the flood, but he imagined that it was beginning to subside, and therein lay his only hope.
Yet a new danger now assailed him, from the increasing cold. There was already a sting of frost, a breath of ice, in the wind. In another hour the sky was nearly swept bare of clouds, and he could note the lapse of the night by the sinking of the moon. But he was by this time hardly in a condition to note anything more. He had thrown himself, face downwards, on the top of the log, his arms mechanically clasping it, while his mind sank into a state of torpid, passive suffering, growing nearer to the dreamy indifference which precedes death. His cloak had been torn away in the first rush of the inundation, and the wet coat began to stiffen in the wind, from the ice gathering over it.
The moon was low in the west, and there was a pale glimmer of the coming dawn in the sky, when Gilbert Potter suddenly raised his head. Above the noise of the water and the whistle of the wind, he heard a familiar sound,—the shrill, sharp neigh of a horse. Lifting himself, with great exertion, to a sitting posture, he saw two men, on horseback, in the flooded meadow, a little below him. They stopped, seemed to consult, and presently drew nearer.
Gilbert tried to shout, but the muscles of his throat were stiff, and his lungs refused to act. The horse neighed again. This time there was no mistake; it was Roger that he heard! Voice came to him, and he cried aloud,—a hoarse, strange, unnatural cry.
The horsemen heard it, and rapidly pushed up the bank, until they reached a point directly opposite to him. The prospect of escape brought a thrill of life to his frame; he looked around and saw that the flood had indeed fallen.
"We have no rope," he heard one of the men say. "How shall we reach him?"
"There is no time to get one, now," the other answered. "My horse is stronger than yours. I'll go into the creek just below, where it's broader and not so deep, and work my way up to him."
"But one horse can't carry both."
"His will follow, be sure, when it sees me."
As the last speaker moved away, Gilbert saw a led horse plunging through the water, beside the other. It was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. The horseman and the loose horse entered the main stream below, where its divided channel met and broadened, but it was still above the saddle-girths, and very swift. Sometimes the animals plunged, losing their foothold; nevertheless, they gallantly breasted the current, and inch by inch worked their way to a point about six feet below Gilbert. It seemed impossible to approach nearer.
"Can you swim?" asked the man.
Gilbert shook his head. "Throw me the end of Roger's bridle!" he then cried.
The man unbuckled the bridle and threw it, keeping the end of the rein in his hand. Gilbert tried to grasp it, but his hands were too numb. He managed, however, to get one arm and his head through the opening, and relaxed his hold on the log.
A plunge, and the man had him by the collar. He felt himself lifted by a strong arm and laid across Roger's saddle. With his failing strength and stiff limbs, it was no slight task to get into place, and the return, though less laborious to the horses, was equally dangerous, because Gilbert was scarcely able to support himself without help.
"You're safe now," said the man, when they reached the bank, "but it's a downright mercy of God that you're alive!"
The other horseman joined them, and they rode slowly across the flooded meadow. They had both thrown their cloaks around Gilbert, and carefully steadied him in the saddle, one on each side. He was too much exhausted to ask how they had found him, or whither they were taking him,—too numb for curiosity, almost for gratitude.
"Here's your saviour!" said one of the men, patting Roger's shoulder. "It was all along of him that we found you. Want to know how? Well—about three o'clock it was, maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later, my wife woke me up. 'Do you hear that?' she says. I listened and heard a horse in the lane before the door, neighing,—I can't tell you exactly how it was,—like as if he'd call up the house. 'T was rather queer, I thought, so I got up and looked out of window, and it seemed to me he had a saddle on. He stamped, and pawed, and then he gave another yell, and stamped again. Says I to my wife, 'There's something wrong here,' and I dressed and went out. When he saw me, he acted the strangest you ever saw; thinks I, if ever an animal wanted to speak, that animal does. When I tried to catch him, he shot off, run down the lane a bit, and then came back as strangely acting as ever. I went into the house and woke up my brother, here, and we saddled our horses and started. Away went yours ahead, stopping every minute to look round and see if we followed. When we came to the water, I kind o' hesitated, but 't was no use; the horse would have us go on, and on, till we found you. I never heard tell of the like of it, in my born days!"
Gilbert did not speak, but two large tears slowly gathered in his eyes, and rolled down his cheeks. The men saw his emotion, and respected it.
In the light of the cold, keen dawn, they reached a snug farm-house, a mile from the Brandywine. The men lifted Gilbert from the saddle, and would have carried him immediately into the house, but he first leaned upon Roger's neck, took the faithful creature's head in his arms, and kissed it.
The good housewife was already up, and anxiously awaiting the return of her husband and his brother. A cheery fire crackled on the hearth, and the coffee-pot was simmering beside it. When Gilbert had been partially revived by the warmth, the men conducted him into an adjoining bed-room, undressed him, and rubbed his limbs with whiskey. Then, a large bowl of coffee having been administered, he was placed in bed, covered with half a dozen blankets, and the curtains were drawn over the windows. In a few minutes he was plunged in a slumber almost as profound as that of the death from which he had been so miraculously delivered.
It was two hours past noon when he awoke, and he no sooner fully comprehended the situation and learned how the time had sped, than he insisted on rising, although still sore, weak, and feverish. The good farmer's wife had kept a huge portion of dinner hot before the fire, and he knew that without compelling a show of appetite, he would not be considered sufficiently recovered to leave. He had but one desire,—to return home. So recently plucked from the jaws of Death, his life still seemed to be an uncertain possession.
Finally Roger was led forth, quiet and submissive as of old,—having forgotten his good deed as soon as it had been accomplished,—and Gilbert, wrapped in the farmer's cloak, retraced his way to the main road. As he looked across the meadow, which told of the inundation in its sweep of bent, muddy grass, and saw, between the creekbank trees, the lodged timber to which he had clung, the recollection of the night impressed him like a frightful dream. It was a bright, sharp, wintry day,—the most violent contrast to that which had preceded it. The hills on either side, whose outlines he could barely guess in the darkness, now stood out from the air with a hard, painful distinctness; the sky was an arch of cold, steel-tinted crystal; and the north wind blew with a shrill, endless whistle through the naked woods.
As he climbed the long hill west of Chadd's Ford, Gilbert noticed how the meadow on his right had been torn by the flood gathered from the fields above. In one place a Hessian skull had been snapped from the buried skeleton, and was rolled to light, among the mud and pebbles. Not far off, something was moving among the bushes, and he involuntarily drew rein.
The form stopped, appeared to crouch down for a moment, then suddenly rose and strode forth upon the grass. It was a woman, wearing a man's flannel jacket, and carrying a long, pointed staff in her hand. As she approached with rapid strides, he recognized Deb. Smith.
"Deborah!" he cried, "what are you doing here?"
She set her pole to the ground and vaulted over the high picket-fence, like an athlete.
"Well," she said, "if I'd ha' been shy o' you, Mr. Gilbert, you wouldn't ha' seen me. I'm not one of them as goes prowlin' around among dead bodies' bones at midnight; what I want, I looks for in the daytime."
"Bones?" he asked. "You're surely not digging up the Hessians?"
"Not exackly; but, you see, the rain's turned out a few, and some on 'em, folks says, was buried with lots o' goold platted up in their pig-tails. I know o' one man that dug up two or three to git their teeth, (to sell to the tooth-doctors, you know,) and when he took hold o' the pig-tail to lift the head by, the hair come off in his hand, and out rattled ten good goolden guineas. Now, if any money's washed out, there's no harm in a body's pickin' of it up, as I see."
"What luck have you had?" asked Gilbert.
"Nothin' to speak of; a few buttons, and a thing or two. But I say, Mr. Gilbert, what luck ha' you had?" She had been keenly and curiously inspecting his face.
"Deborah!" he exclaimed, "you're a false prophet! You told me that, whatever happened, I was safe from Sandy Flash."
There was a shrill tone of surprise and curiosity in this exclamation.
"You ought to know Sandy Flash better, before you prophesy in his name," Gilbert repeated, in a stern voice.
"Oh, Mr. Gilbert, tell me what you mean?" She grasped his leg with one hand, while she twisted the other in Roger's mane, as if to hold both horse and rider until the words were explained.
Thereupon he related to her in a brief, fierce way, all that had befallen him. Her face grew red and her eyes flashed; she shook her fist and swore under her breath, from time to time, while he spoke.
"You'll be righted, Mr. Gilbert!" she then cried, "you'll be righted, never fear! Leave it to me! Haven't I always kep' my word to you? You're believin' I lied the last time, and no wonder; but I'll prove the truth o' my words yet—may the Devil git my soul, if I don't!"
"Don't think that I blame you, Deborah," he said. "You were too sure of my good luck, because you wished me to have it—that's all."
"Thank ye for that! But it isn't enough for me. When I promise a thing, I have power to keep my promise. Ax me no more questions; bide quiet awhile, and if the money isn't back in your pocket by New-Year, I give ye leave to curse me, and kick me, and spit upon me!"
Gilbert smiled sadly and incredulously, and rode onward. He made haste to reach home, for a dull pain began to throb in his head, and chill shudders ran over his body. He longed to have the worst over which yet awaited him, and gain a little rest for body, brain, and heart.
MARTHA DEANE TAKES A RESOLUTION.
Mary Potter had scarcely slept during the night of her son's absence. A painful unrest, such as she never remembered to have felt before, took complete possession of her. Whenever the monotony of the drenching rain outside lulled her into slumber for a few minutes, she was sure to start up in bed with a vague, singular impression that some one had called her name. After midnight, when the storm fell, the shrill wailing of the rising wind seemed to forebode disaster. Although she believed Gilbert to be safely housed in Chester, the fact constantly slipped from her memory, and she shuddered at every change in the wild weather as if he were really exposed to it.
The next day, she counted the hours with a feverish impatience. It seemed like tempting Providence, but she determined to surprise her son with a supper of unusual luxury for their simple habits, after so important and so toilsome a journey. Sam had killed a fowl; it was picked and dressed, but she had not courage to put it into the pot, until the fortune of the day had been assured.
Towards sunset she saw, through the back-kitchen-window, a horseman approaching from the direction of Carson's. It seemed to be Roger, but could that rider, in the faded brown cloak, be Gilbert? His cloak was blue; he always rode with his head erect, not hanging like this man's, whose features she could not see. Opposite the house, he lifted his head—it was Gilbert, but how old and haggard was his face!
She met him at the gate. His cheeks were suddenly flushed, his eyes bright, and the smile with which he looked at her seemed to be joyous; yet it gave her a sense of pain and terror.
"Oh, Gilbert!" she cried; "what has happened?"
He slid slowly and wearily off the horse, whose neck he fondled a moment before answering her.
"Mother," he said at last, "you have to thank Roger that I am here tonight. I have come back to you from the gates of death; will you be satisfied with that for a while?"
"I don't understand you, my boy! You frighten me; haven't you been at Chester?"
"No," he answered, "there was no use of going."
A presentiment of the truth came to her, but before she could question him further, he spoke again.
"Mother, let us go into the house. I'm cold and tired; I want to sit in your old rocking-chair, where I can rest my head. Then I'll tell you everything; I wish I had an easier task!"
She noticed that his steps were weak and slow, felt that his hands were like ice, and saw his blue lips and chattering teeth. She removed the strange cloak, placed her chair in front of the fire, seated him in it, and then knelt upon the floor to draw off his stiff, sodden top-boots. He was passive as a child in her hands. Her care for him overcame all other dread, and not until she had placed his feet upon a stool, in the full warmth of the blaze, given him a glass of hot wine and lavender, and placed a pillow under his head, did she sit down at his side to hear the story.
"I thought of this, last night," he said, with a faint smile; "not that I ever expected to see it. The man was right; it's a mercy of God that I ever got out alive!"
"Then be grateful to God, my boy!" she replied, "and let me be grateful, too. It will balance misfortune,—for that there it misfortune in store for us. I see plainly."
Gilbert then spoke. The narrative was long and painful, and he told it wearily and brokenly, yet with entire truth, disguising nothing of the evil that had come upon them. His mother sat beside him, pale, stony, stifling the sobs that rose in her throat, until he reached the period of his marvellous rescue, when she bent her head upon his arm and wept aloud.
"That's all, mother!" he said at the close; "it's hard to bear, but I'm more troubled on your account than on my own."
"Oh, I feared we were over-sure!" she cried. "I claimed payment before it was ready. The Lord chooses His own time, and punishes them that can't wait for His ways to be manifest! It's terribly hard; and yet, while His left hand smites, His right hand gives mercy! He might ha' taken you, my boy, but He makes a miracle to save you for me!"
When she had outwept her passionate tumult of feeling, she grew composed and serene. "Haven't I yet learned to be patient, in all these years?" she said. "Haven't I sworn to work out with open eyes the work I took in blindness? And after waiting twenty-five years, am I to murmur at another year or two? No, Gilbert! It's to be done; I will deserve my justice! Keep your courage, my boy; be brave and patient, and the sight of you will hold me from breaking down!"
She arose, felt his hands and feet, set his pillow aright, and then stooped and kissed him. His chills had ceased; a feeling of heavy, helpless languor crept over him.
"Let Sam see to Roger, mother!" he murmured. "Tell him not to spare the oats."
"I'd feed him with my own hands, Gilbert, if I could leave you. I'd put fine wheat-bread into his manger, and wrap him in blankets off my own bed! To think that Roger,—that I didn't want you to buy,—Lord forgive me, I was advising your own death!"
It was fortunate for Mary Potter that she saw a mysterious Providence, which, to her mind, warned and yet promised while it chastised, in all that had occurred. This feeling helped her to bear a disappointment, which would otherwise have been very grievous. The idea of an atoning ordeal, which she must endure in order to be crowned with the final justice, and so behold her life redeemed, had become rooted in her nature. To Gilbert much of this feeling was inexplicable, because he was ignorant of the circumstances which had called it into existence. But he saw that his mother was not yet hopeless, that she did not seem to consider her deliverance as materially postponed, and a glimmer of hope was added to the relief of having told his tale.
He was still feverish, dozing and muttering in uneasy dreams, as he lay back in the old rocking-chair, and Mary Potter, with Sam's help, got him to bed, after administering a potion which she was accustomed to use in all complaints, from mumps to typhus fever.
As for Roger, he stood knee-deep in clean litter, with half a bushel of oats before him.
The next morning Gilbert did not arise, and as he complained of great soreness in every part of his body, Sam was dispatched for Dr. Deane.
It was the first time this gentleman had ever been summoned to the Potter farm-house. Mary Potter felt considerable trepidation at his arrival, both on account of the awe which his imposing presence inspired, and the knowledge of her son's love for his daughter,—a fact which, she rightly conjectured, he did not suspect. As he brought his ivory-headed cane, his sleek drab broadcloth, and his herbaceous fragrance into the kitchen, she was almost overpowered.
"How is thy son ailing?" he asked. "He always seemed to me to be a very healthy young man."
She described the symptoms with a conscientious minuteness.
"How was it brought on?" he asked again.
She had not intended to relate the whole story, but only so much of it as was necessary for the Doctor's purposes; but the commencement excited his curiosity, and he knew so skilfully how to draw one word after another, suggesting further explanations without directly asking them, that Mary Potter was led on and on, until she had communicated all the particulars of her son's misfortune.
"This is a wonderful tale thee tells me," said the Doctor—"wonderful! Sandy Flash, no doubt, has reason to remember thy son, who, I'm told, faced him very boldly on Second-day morning. It is really time the country was aroused; we shall hardly be safe in our own houses. And all night in the Brandywine flood—I don't wonder thy son is unwell. Let me go up to him."
Dr. Deane's prescriptions usually conformed to the practice of his day,—bleeding and big doses,—and he would undoubtedly have applied both of these in Gilbert's case, but for the latter's great anxiety to be in the saddle and on the hunt of his enemy. He stoutly refused to be bled, and the Doctor had learned, from long observation, that patients of a certain class must be humored rather than coerced. So he administered a double dose of Dover's Powders, and prohibited the drinking of cold water. His report was, on the whole, reassuring to Mary Potter. Provided his directions were strictly followed, he said, her son would be up in two or three days; but there might be a turn for the worse, as the shock to the system had been very great, and she ought to have assistance.
"There's no one I can call upon," said she, "without it's Betsy Lavender, and I must ask you to tell her for me, if you think she can come."
"I'll oblige thee, certainly," the Doctor answered. "Betsy is with us, just now, and I don't doubt but she can spare a day or two. She may be a little headstrong in her ways, but thee'll find her a safe nurse."
It was really not necessary, as the event proved. Rest and warmth were what Gilbert most needed. But Dr. Deane always exaggerated his patient's condition a little, in order that the credit of the latter's recovery might be greater. The present case was a very welcome one, not only because it enabled him to recite a most astonishing narrative at second-hand, but also because it suggested a condition far more dangerous than that which the patient actually suffered. He was the first person to bear the news to Kennett Square, where it threw the village into a state of great excitement, which rapidly spread over the neighborhood.
He related it at his own tea-table that evening, to Martha and Miss Betsy Lavender. The former could with difficulty conceal her agitation; she turned red and pale, until the Doctor finally remarked,—
"Why, child, thee needn't be so frightened."
"Never mind!" exclaimed Miss Betsy, promptly coming to the rescue, "it's enough to frighten anybody. It fairly makes me shiver in my shoes. If Alf. Barton had ha' done his dooty like a man, this wouldn't ha' happened!"
"I've no doubt Alfred did the best he could, under the circumstances," the Doctor sternly remarked.
"Fiddle-de-dee!" was Miss Betsy's contemptuous answer. "He's no more gizzard than a rabbit. But that's neither here nor there; Mary Potter wants me to go down and help, and go I will!"
"Yes, I think thee might as well go down to-morrow morning, though I'm in hopes the young man may be better, if he minds my directions," said the Doctor.
"To-morrow mornin'? Why not next week? When help's wanted, give it right away; don't let the grass grow under your feet, say I! Good luck that I gev up Mendenhall's home-comin' over t' the Lion, or I wouldn't ha' been here; so another cup o' tea, Martha, and I'm off!"
Martha left the table at the same time, and followed Miss Betsy up-stairs. Her eyes were full of tears, but she did not tremble, and her voice came firm and clear.
"I am going with you," she said.
Miss Lavender whirled around and looked at her a minute, without saying a word.
"I see you mean it, child. Don't think me hard or cruel, for I know your feelin's as well as if they was mine; but all the same, I've got to look ahead, and back'ards, and on this side and that, and so lookin', and so judgin', accordin' to my light, which a'n't all tied up in a napkin, what I've got to say is, and ag'in don't think me hard, it won't do!"
"Betsy," Martha Deane persisted, "a misfortune like this brings my duty with it. Besides, he may be in great danger; he may have got his death,"—
"Don't begin talkin' that way," Miss Lavender interrupted, "or you'll put me out o' patience. I'll say that for your father, he's always mortal concerned for a bad case, Gilbert Potter or not; and I can mostly tell the heft of a sickness by the way he talks about it,—so that's settled; and as to dooties, it's very well and right, I don't deny it, but never mind, all the same, I said before, the whole thing's a snarl, and I say it ag'in, and unless you've got the end o' the ravellin's in your hand, the harder you pull, the wuss you'll make it!"
There was good sense in these words, and Martha Deane felt it. Her resolution began to waver, in spite of the tender instinct which told her that Gilbert Potter now needed precisely the help and encouragement which she alone could give.
"Oh, Betsy," she murmured, her tears falling without restraint, "it's hard for me to seem so strange to him, at such a time!"
"Yes," answered the spinster, setting her comb tight with a fierce thrust, "it's hard every one of us can't have our own ways in this world! But don't take on now, Martha dear; we only have your father's word, and not to be called a friend's, but I'll see how the land lays, and tomorrow evenin', or next day at th' outside, you'll know everything fair and square. Neither you nor Gilbert is inclined to do things rash, and what you both agree on, after a proper understanding I guess'll be pretty nigh right. There! where's my knittin'-basket?"
Miss Lavender trudged off, utterly fearless of the night walk of two miles, down the lonely road. In less than an hour she knocked at the door of the farm-house, and was received with open arms by Mary Potter. Gilbert had slept the greater part of the day, but was now awake, and so restless, from the desire to leave his bed, that his mother could with difficulty restrain him.
"Set down and rest yourself, Mary!" Miss Betsy exclaimed. "I'll go up and put him to rights."
She took a lamp and mounted to the bed-room. Gilbert, drenched in perspiration, and tossing uneasily under a huge pile of blankets, sprang up as her gaunt figure entered the door. She placed the lamp on a table, pressed him down on the pillow by main force, and covered him up to the chin.
"Martha?" he whispered, his face full of intense, piteous eagerness.
"Will you promise to lay still and sweat, as you're told
"Now let me feel your pulse. That'll do; now for your tongue! Tut, tut! the boy's not so bad. I give you my word you may get up and dress yourself to-morrow mornin', if you'll only hold out to-night. And as for thorough-stem tea, and what not, I guess you've had enough of 'em; but you can't jump out of a sick-spell into downright peartness, at one jump!"
"Martha, Martha!" Gilbert urged.
"You're both of a piece, I declare! There was she, this very night, dead set on comin' down with me, and mortal hard it was to persuade her to be reasonable!"
Miss Lavender had not a great deal to relate, but Gilbert compelled her to make up by repetition what she lacked in quantity. And at every repetition the soreness seemed to decrease in his body, and the weakness in his muscles, and hope and courage to increase in his heart.
"Tell her," he exclaimed, "it was enough that she wanted to come. That alone has put new life into me!"
"I see it has," said Miss Lavender, "and now, maybe, you've got life enough to tell me all the ups and downs o' this affair, for I can't say as I rightly understand it."
The conference was long and important. Gilbert related every circumstance of his adventure, including the mysterious allusion to Alfred Barton, which he had concealed from his mother. He was determined, as his first course, to call the volunteers together and organize a thorough hunt for the highwayman. Until that had been tried, he would postpone all further plans of action. Miss Lavender did not say much, except to encourage him in this determination. She felt that there was grave matter for reflection in what had happened. The threads of mystery seemed to increase, and she imagined it possible that they might all converge to one unknown point.
"Mary," she said, when she descended to the kitchen, "I don't see but what the boy's goin' on finely. Go to bed, you, and sleep quietly; I'll take the settle, here, and I promise you I'll go up every hour through the night, to see whether he's kicked his coverin's off."
Which promise she faithfully kept, and in the morning Gilbert came down to breakfast, a little haggard, but apparently as sound as ever. Even the Doctor, when he arrived, was slightly surprised at the rapid improvement.
"A fine constitution for medicines to work on," he remarked. "I wouldn't wish thee to be sick, but when thee is, it's a pleasure to see how thy system obeys the treatment."
Martha Deane, during Miss Lavender's absence, had again discussed, in her heart, her duty to Gilbert. Her conscience was hardly satisfied with the relinquishment of her first impulse. She felt that there was, there must be, something for her to do in this emergency. She knew that he had toiled, and dared, and suffered for her sake, while she had done nothing. It was not pride,—at least not the haughty quality which bears an obligation uneasily,—but rather the impulse, at once brave and tender, to stand side by side with him in the struggle, and win an equal right to the final blessing.
In the afternoon Miss Lavender returned, and her first business was to give a faithful report of Gilbert's condition and the true story of his misfortune, which she repeated, almost word for word, as it came from his lips. It did not differ materially from that which Martha had already heard, and the direction which her thoughts had taken, in the mean time, seemed to be confirmed. The gentle, steady strength of purpose that looked from her clear blue eyes, and expressed itself in the firm, sharp curve of her lip, was never more distinct than when she said,—
"Now, Betsy, all is clear to me. You were right before, and I am right now. I must see Gilbert when he calls the men together, and after that I shall know how to act."
Three days afterwards, there was another assemblage of the Kennett Volunteers at the Unicorn Tavern. This time, however, Mark Deane was on hand, and Alfred Barton did not make his appearance. That Gilbert Potter should take the command was an understood matter. The preliminary consultation was secretly held, and when Dougherty, the Irish ostler, mixed himself, as by accident, among the troop, Gilbert sharply ordered him away. Whatever the plan of the chase was, it was not communicated to the crowd of country idlers; and there was, in consequence, some grumbling at, and a great deal of respect for, the new arrangement.
Miss Betsy Lavender had managed to speak to Gilbert before the others arrived; therefore, after they had left, to meet the next day, equipped for a possible absence of a week, he crossed the road and entered Dr. Deane's house.
This time the two met, not so much as lovers, but rather as husband and wife might meet after long absence and escape from imminent danger. Martha Deane knew how cruel and bitter Gilbert's fate must seem to his own heart, and she resolved that all the cheer which lay in her buoyant, courageous nature should be given to him. Never did a woman more sweetly blend the tones of regret and faith, sympathy and encouragement.
"The time has come, Gilbert," she said at last, "when our love for each other must no longer be kept a secret—at least from the few who, under other circumstances, would have a right to know it. We must still wait, though no longer (remember that!) than we were already agreed to wait; but we should betray ourselves, sooner or later, and then the secret, discovered by others, would seem to hint at a sense of shame. We shall gain respect and sympathy, and perhaps help, if we reveal it ourselves. Even if you do not take the same view, Gilbert, think of this, that it is my place to stand beside you in your hour of difficulty and trial; that other losses, other dangers, may come, and you could not, you must not, hold me apart when my heart tells me we should be together!"
She laid her arms caressingly over his shoulders, and looked in his face. A wonderful softness and tenderness touched his pale, worn countenance. "Martha," he said, "remember that my disgrace will cover you, yet awhile."
That one word, proud, passionate, reproachful, yet forgiving, sealed his lips.
"So be it!" he cried. "God knows, I think but of you. If I selfishly considered myself, do you think I would hold back my own honor?"
"A poor honor," she said, "that I sit comfortably at home and love you, while you are face to face with death!"
Martha Deane's resolution was inflexibly taken. That same evening she went into the sitting-room, where her father was smoking a pipe before the open stove, and placed her chair opposite to his.
"Father," she said, "thee has never asked any questions concerning Alfred Barton's visit."
The Doctor started, and looked at her keenly, before replying. Her voice had its simple, natural tone, her manner was calm and self-possessed; yet something in her firm, erect posture and steady eye impressed him with the idea that she had determined on a full and final discussion of the question.
"No, child," he answered, after a pause. "I saw Alfred, and he said thee was rather taken by surprise. He thought, perhaps, thee didn't rightly know thy own mind, and it would be better to wait a little. That is the chief reason why I haven't spoken to thee."
"If Alfred Barton said that, he told thee false," said she. "I knew my own mind, as well then as now. I said to him that nothing could ever make me his wife."
"Martha!" the Doctor exclaimed, "don't be hasty! If Alfred is a little older"—
"Father!" she interrupted, "never mention this thing again! Thee can neither give me away, nor sell me; though I am a woman, I belong to myself. Thee knows I'm not hasty in anything. It was a long time before I rightly knew my own heart; but when I did know it and found that it had chosen truly, I gave it freely, and it is gone from me forever!"
"Martha, Martha!" cried Dr. Deane, starting from his seat, "what does all this mean?"
"It means something which it is thy right to know, and therefore I have made up my mind to tell thee, even at the risk of incurring thy lasting displeasure. It means that I have followed the guidance of my own heart and bestowed it on a man a thousand times better and nobler than Alfred Barton ever was, and, if the Lord spares us to each other, I shall one day be his wife!"
The Doctor glared at his daughter in speechless amazement. But she met his gaze steadily, although her face grew a shade paler, and the expression of the pain she could not entirely suppress, with the knowledge of the struggle before her, trembled a little about the corners of her lips.
"Who is this man?" he asked.
Dr. Deane's pipe dropped from his hand and smashed upon the iron hearth.
"Martha Deane!" he cried. "Does the d—— what possesses thee? Wasn't it enough that thee should drive away the man I had picked out for thee, with a single view to thy own interest and happiness; but must thee take up, as a wicked spite to thy father, with almost the only man in the neighborhood who brings thee nothing but poverty and disgrace? It shall not be—it shall never be!"
"It must be, father," she said gently. "God hath joined our hearts and our lives, and no man—not even thee—shall put them asunder. If there were disgrace, in the eyes of the world,—which I now know there is not,—Gilbert has wiped it out by his courage, his integrity, and his sufferings. If he is poor, I am well to do."
"Thee forgets," the Doctor interrupted, in a stern voice, "the time isn't up!"
"I know that unless thee gives thy consent, we must wait three years; but I hope, father, when thee comes to know Gilbert better, thee will not be so hard. I am thy only child, and my happiness cannot be indifferent to thee. I have tried to obey thee in all things"—
He interrupted her again. "Thee's adding another cross to them I bear for thee already! Am I not, in a manner, thy keeper, and responsible for thee, before the world and in the sight of the Lord? But thee hardened thy heart against the direction of the Spirit, and what wonder, then, that it's hardened against me?"
"No, father," said Martha, rising and laying her hand softly upon his arm, "I obeyed the Spirit in that other matter, as I obey my conscience in this. I took my duty into my own hands, and considered it in a humble, and, I hope, a pious spirit. I saw that there were innocent needs of nature, pleasant enjoyments of life, which did not conflict with sincere devotion, and that I was not called upon to renounce them because others happened to see the world in a different light. In this sense, thee is not my keeper; I must render an account, not to thee, but to Him who gave me my soul. Neither is thee the keeper of my heart and its affections. In the one case and the other my right is equal,—nay, it stands as far above thine as Heaven is above the earth!"
In the midst of his wrath, Dr. Deane could not help admiring his daughter. Foiled and exasperated as he was by the sweet, serene, lofty power of her words, they excited a wondering respect which he found it difficult to hide.
"Ah, Martha!" he said, "thee has a wonderful power, if it were only directed by the true Light! But now, it only makes the cross heavier. Don't think that I'll ever consent to see thee carry out thy strange and wicked fancies! Thee must learn to forget this man, Potter, and the sooner thee begins the easier it will be!"
"Father," she answered, with a sad smile, "I'm sorry thee knows so little of my nature. The wickedness would be in forgetting. It is very painful to me that we must differ. Where my duty was wholly owed to thee, I have never delayed to give it; but here it is owed to Gilbert Potter,—owed, and will be given."
"Enough, Martha!" cried the Doctor, trembling with anger; "don't mention his name again!"
"I will not, except when the same duty requires it to be mentioned. But, father, try to think less harshly of the name; it will one day be mine!"
She spoke gently and imploringly, with tears in her eyes. The conflict had been, as she said, very painful; but her course was plain, and she dared not flinch a step at the outset. The difficulties must be met face to face, and resolutely assailed, if they were ever to be overcome.
Dr. Deane strode up and down the room in silence, with his hands behind his back. Martha stood by the fire, waiting his further speech, but he did not look at her, and at the end of half an hour, commanded shortly and sharply, without turning his head,—
"Go to bed!"
"Good-night, father," she said, in her usual clear sweet voice, and quietly left the room.
The story of Gilbert Potter's robbery and marvellous escape from death ran rapidly through the neighborhood, and coming, as it did, upon the heels of his former adventure, created a great excitement. He became almost a hero in the minds of the people. It was not their habit to allow any man to quite assume so lofty a character as that, but they granted to Gilbert fully as much interest as, in their estimation, any human being ought properly to receive. Dr. Deane was eagerly questioned, wherever he went; and if his garments could have exhaled the odors of his feelings, his questioners would have smelled aloes and asafoetida instead of sweet-marjoram and bergamot. But—in justice to him be it said—he told and retold the story very correctly; the tide of sympathy ran so high and strong, that he did not venture to stem it on grounds which could not be publicly explained.
The supposed disgrace of Gilbert's birth seemed to be quite forgotten for the time; and there was no young man of spirit in the four townships who was not willing to serve under his command. More volunteers offered, in fact, than could be profitably employed. Sandy Flash was not the game to be unearthed by a loud, numerous, sweeping hunt; traps, pitfalls, secret and unwearied following of his many trails, were what was needed. So much time had elapsed that the beginning must be a conjectural beating of the bushes, and to this end several small companies were organized, and the country between the Octorara and the Delaware very effectually scoured.
When the various parties reunited, after several days, neither of them brought any positive intelligence, but all the greater store of guesses and rumors. Three or four suspicious individuals had been followed and made to give an account of themselves; certain hiding-places, especially the rocky lairs along the Brandywine and the North Valley-Hill, were carefully examined, and some traces of occupation, though none very recent, were discovered. Such evidence as there was seemed to indicate that part of the eastern branch of the Brandywine, between the forks of the stream and the great Chester Valley, as being the probable retreat of the highwayman, and a second expedition was at once organized. The Sheriff, with a posse of men from the lower part of the county, undertook to watch the avenues of escape towards the river.