Part 7 out of 8
Maria threw out her hands with a gesture of revolt.
"Oh, it is a terrible story," she said, "a terrible story."
"It is an old one, and belongs to terrible times. You have drawn
it from me for your own purpose, and be that as it may, I have
always believed in giving a straight answer to a straight
question. Now such things would be impossible," he added
cheerfully; "then, I fear, they were but too probable."
"In your heart you believe that it is true?" He did not flinch
from his response. "In my heart I believe that there is more in
it than a lie."
Rising from her chair, she turned from him and walked rapidly up
and down the room, through the firelight which shimmered over the
polished floor. Once she stopped by the window, and, drawing the
curtains aside, looked out upon the April sunshine and upon the
young green leaves which tinted the distant woods. Then coming
back to the hearthrug, she stood gazing down upon him with a
serene and resolute expression.
"I am glad now that the Hall will be mine," she said, "glad even
that it wasn't left to Will, for who knows how he would have
looked at it. There is but one thing to be done: you must see
that yourself. At grandfather's death the place must go back to
its rightful owners."
"To its rightful owners!" he repeated in amazement, and rose to
"To the Blakes. Oh, don't you see it--can't you see that there is
nothing else to do in common honesty?"
He shook his head, smiling.
"It is very beautiful, my child, but is it reasonable, after
all?" he asked.
"Reasonable?" The fine scorn he had heard before in her voice
thrilled her from head to foot. "Shall I stop to ask what is
reasonable before doing what is right?"
Without looking at her, he drew a handkerchief from his pocket
and shook it slowly out from its folds.
"Well, I'm not sure that you shouldn't," he rejoined.
"Then I shan't be reasonable. I'll be wise," she said; "for
surely, if there is any wisdom upon earth, it is simply to do
right. It may be many years off, and I may be an old woman, but
when the Hall comes to me at grandfather's death I shall return
it to the Blakes."
In the silence which followed he found himself looking into her
ardent face with a wonder not unmixed with awe. To his rather
cynical view of the Fletchers such an outburst came as little
less than a veritable thunderclap, and for the first time in his
life he felt a need to modify his conservative theories as to the
necessity of blue blood to nourish high ideals. Maria, indeed,
seemed to him as she stood there, drawn fine and strong against
the curtains of faded green, to hold about her something better
than that aroma of the past which he had felt to be the intimate
charm of all exquisite things, and it was at the moment the very
light and promise of the future which he saw in the broad
intelligence of her brow. Was it possible, after all, he
questioned, that out of the tragic wreck of old claims and old
customs which he had witnessed there should spring creatures of
even finer fiber than those who had gone before?
"So this is your last word?" he inquired helplessly.
"My last word to you--yes. In a moment I am going out to see the
Blakes--to make them understand."
He put out his hand as if to detain her by a feeble pull at her
skirt. "At least, you will sleep a night upon your resolution?"
"How can my sleeping alter things? My waking may."
"And you will sweep the claims of twenty years aside in an hour?"
"They are swept aside by the claims of two hundred."
With a courteous gesture he bent over her hand and raised it
gravely to his lips.
"My dear young friend, you are very lovely and very
unreasonable," he said.
CHAPTER VIII . Between Maria and Christopher
A little later, Maria, with a white scarf thrown over her head,
came out of the Hall and passed swiftly along the road under the
young green leaves which were putting out on the trees. When she
reached the whitewashed gate before the Blake cottage she saw
Christopher ploughing in the field on the left of the house, and
turning into the little path which trailed through the tall weeds
beside the "worm" fence, she crossed the yard and stood
hesitating at the beginning of the open furrow he had left behind
him. His gaze was bent upon the horses, and for a moment she
watched him in attentive silence, her eyes dwelling on his
massive figure, which cast a gigantic blue-black shadow across
the April sunbeams. She saw him at the instant with a
distinctness, a clearness of perception, that she had never been
conscious of until to-day, as if each trivial detail in his
appearance was magnified by the pale yellow sunshine through
which she looked upon it. The abundant wheaten-brown hair, waving
from the moist circle drawn by the hat he had thrown aside, the
strong masculine profile burned to a faint terracotta shade from
wind and sun, and the powerful hands knotted and roughened by
heavy labour, all stood out vividly in the mental image which
remained with her when she lowered her eyes.
Aroused by a sound from the house, he looked up and saw her
standing on the edge of the ploughed field, her lace scarf blown
softly in the April wind. After a single minute of breathless
surprise he tossed the long ropes on the ground, and, leaving the
plough, came rapidly across the loose clods of upturned earth.
"Did you come because I was thinking of you?" he asked simply,
with the natural directness which had appealed so strongly to her
"Were you thinking of me?" her faint smile shone on him for an
instant; "and were your thoughts as grave, I wonder, as my reason
"So you have a reason, then?"
"Did you think I should dare to come without one?"
The light wind caught her scarf, blowing the long ends about her
head. From the frame of soft white lace her eyes looked dark and
solemn and very distant.
"I had hoped that you had no other reason than kindness." He had
lost entirely the rustic restraint he had once felt in her
presence, and, as he stood there in his clothes of dull blue
jean, it was easy to believe in the gallant generations at his
back. Was the fret of their gay adventures in his blood? she
"You will see the kindness in my reason, I hope," she answered
quietly, while the glow of her sudden resolution illumined her
face, "and at least you will admit the justice--though belated."
He drew a step nearer. "And it concerns you--and me?" he asked.
"It concerns you--oh, yes, yes, and me also, though very
slightly. I have just learned--just a moment ago--what you must
have thought I knew all along."
As he fell back she saw that he paled slowly beneath his sunburn.
"You have just learned--what?" he demanded.
"The truth," she replied; "as much of the truth as one may learn
in an hour: how it came that you are here and I am there--at the
"At the Hall?" he repeated, and there was relief in the quick
breath he drew; "I had forgotten the Hall."
"Forgotten it? Why, I thought it was your dream, your longing,
your one great memory."
Smiling into her eyes, he shook his head twice before he
"It was all that--once."
"Then it is not so now?" she asked, disappointed, "and what I
have to tell you will lose half its value."
"So it is about the Hall?"
With one hand she held back the fluttering lace upon her bosom,
while lifting the other she pointed across the ploughed fields to
the old gray chimneys huddled amid the budding oaks.
"Does it not make you homesick to stand here and look at it?" she
asked. "Think! For more than two hundred years your people lived
there, and there is not a room within the house, nor a spot upon
the land, that does not hold some sacred association for those of
your name." Startled by the passion in her words, he turned from
the Hall at which he had been gazing.
"What do you mean? " he demanded imperatively. "What do you wish
"Look at the Hall and not at me while I tell you. It is this--now
listen and do not turn from it for an instant. Blake Hall--I have
just found it out--will come to me at grandfather's death, and
when it does--when it does I shall return it to your family--the
whole of it, every lovely acre. Oh, don't look at me--look at the
But he looked neither at her nor at the Hall, for his gaze
dropped to the ground and hung blankly upon a clod of dry brown
earth. She saw him grow pale to the lips and dark blue circles
come out slowly about his eyes.
"It is but common justice; you see that," she urged.
At this he raised his head and returned her look.
"And what of Will?" he asked.
Her surprise showed in her face, and at sight of it he repeated
his question with a stubborn insistence: "But what of Will? What
has been done for Will?"
"Oh, I don't know; I don't know. The break is past mending. But
it is not of him that I must speak to you now--it is of yourself.
Don't you see that the terrible injustice has bowed me to the
earth? What am I better than a dependent--a charity ward who has
lived for years upon your money? My very education, my little
culture, the refinements you see in me--these even I have no real
right to, for they belong to your family. While you have worked
as a labourer in the field I have been busy squandering the
wealth which was not mine."
His face grew gentle as he looked at her.
"If the Blake money has made you what you are, then it has not
been utterly wasted," he replied.
"Oh, you don't understand--you don't understand," she repeated,
pressing her hands upon her bosom, as if to quiet her fluttering
breath. "You have suffered from it all along, but it is I who
suffer most to-day--who suffer most because I am upon the side of
the injustice. I can have no peace until you tell me that I may
still do my poor best to make amends--that when your home is mine
you will let me give it back to you."
"It is too late," he answered with bitter humour. "You can't put
a field-hand in a fine house and make him a gentleman. It is too
late to undo what was done twenty years ago. The place can never
be mine again--I have even ceased to want it. Give it to Will."
"I couldn't if I wanted to," she replied; "but I don't want to--I
don't want to. It must go back to you and to your sisters. Do you
think I could ever be owner of it now? Even if it comes to me
when I am an old woman, I shall always feel myself a stranger in
the house, though I should live there day and night for fifty
years. No, no; it is impossible that I should ever keep it for an
instant. It must go back to you and to the Blakes who come after
"There will be no Blakes after me," he answered. "I am the last."
"Then promise me that if the Hall is ever mine you will take it."
"From you? No: not unless I took it to hand on to your brother.
It is an old score that you have brought up--one that lasted
twenty years before it was settled. It is too late to stir up
"It is not too late," she said earnestly. "It is never too late
to try to undo a wrong."
"The wrong was not yours; it must never touch you," he replied.
"If my life was as clean as yours, it would, perhaps, not be too
late for me either. Ten years ago I might have felt differently
about it, but not now."
He broke off hurriedly, and Maria, with a hopeless gesture,
turned back into the path.
"Then I shall appeal to your sisters when the time comes," she
Catching the loose ends of her scarf, he drew her slowly around
until she met his eyes. "And I have said nothing to you--to you,"
he began, in a constrained voice, which he tried in vain to
steady, "because it is so hard to say anything and not say too
much. This, at least, you must know--that I am your servant now
and shall be all my life."
She smiled sadly, looking down at the scarf which was crushed in
"And yet you will not grant the wish of my heart," she said.
"How could I? Put me back in the Hall, and I should be as
ignorant and as coarse as I am out here. A labourer is all I am
and all I am fit to be. I once had a rather bookish ambition, you
know, but that is over--I wanted to read Greek and translate 'The
Iliad' and all that--and yet to-day I doubt if I could write a
decent letter to save my soul. It's partly my fault, of course,
but you can't know you could never know--the abject bitterness
and despair of those years when I tried to sink myself to the
level of the brutes--tried to forget that I was any better than
the oxen I drove. No, there's no pulling me up again; such things
aren't lived over, and I'm down for good."
Her tears, which she had held back, broke forth at his words, and
he saw them fall upon her bosom, where her hands were still
"And it is all our fault," she said brokenly.
"Not yours, surely."
"It is not too late," she went on passionately, laying her hand
upon his arm and looking up at him with a misty brightness. "Oh,
if you would let me make amends--let me help you!"
"Is there any help?" he asked, with his eyes on the hand upon his
"If you will let me, I will find it. We will take up your study
where you broke it off--we will come up step by step, even to
Homer, if you like. I am fond of books, you know, and I have had
my fancy for Greek, too. Oh, it will be so easy--so easy; and
when the time comes for you to go back to the Hall, I shall have
made you the most learned Blake of the whole line."
He bent quickly and kissed the hand which trembled on his sleeve.
"Make of me what you please," he said; "I am at your service."
For the second time he saw the wonderful light--the fervour--
illumine her face, and then fade slowly, leaving a still, soft
radiance of expression.
"Then I may teach you all that you haven't learned," she said
with a happy little laugh. "How fortunate that I should have been
born a bookworm. Shall we begin with Greek?"
He smiled. "No; let's start with English--and start low."
"Then we'll do both; but where shall it be? Not at the Hall."
"Hardly. There's a bench, though, down by the poplar spring that
looks as if it were meant to be in school. Do you know the place?
It's in my pasture by the meadow brook?"
"I can find it, and I'll bring the books to-morrow at this hour.
Will you come?"
"To-morrow--and every day?"
For an instant he looked at her in perplexity. "I may as well
tell you," he said at last, "that I'm one of the very biggest
rascals on God's earth. I'm not worth all this, you know; that's
"And so are you," she called back gaily, as she turned from him
and went rapidly along the little path.
CHAPTER IX. Christopher Faces Himself
When she had gone through the gate and across the little patch of
trodden grass into the sunken road, Christopher took up the ropes
and with a quick jerk of the buried ploughshare began his
plodding walk over the turned-up sod. The furrow was short, but
when he reached the end of it he paused from sheer exhaustion and
stood wiping the heavy moisture from his brow. The scene through
which he had just passed had left him quivering in every nerve,
as if he had been engaged in some terrible struggle against
physical odds. All at once he became aware that the afternoon was
too oppressive for field work, and, unhitching the horses from
the plough, he led them slowly back to the stable beyond the
house. As he went, it seemed to him that he had grown middle-aged
within the hour; his youth had departed as mysteriously as his
A little later, Tucker, who was sitting on the end of a big log
at the woodpile, looked up in surprise from the anthill he was
"Quit work early, eh, Christopher?"
"Yes; I've given out," replied Christopher, stopping beside him
and picking up the axe which lay in a scattered pile of chips.
"It's the spring weather, I reckon, but I'm not fit for a tougher
job than chopping wood."
"Well, I'd leave that off just now, if I were you."
Raising the axe, Christopher swung it lightly over his shoulder;
then, lowering it with a nerveless movement, he tossed it
impatiently on the ground.
"A queer thing happened just now, Uncle Tucker," he said, "a
thing you'll hardly believe even when I tell you. I had a visit
from Mrs. Wyndham, and she came to say--" he stammered and broke
"Mrs. Wyndham?" repeated Tucker. "She's Bill Fletcher's
granddaughter, isn't she?"
"Maria Fletcher--you may have seen her when she lived here, five
or six years ago."
Tucker shook his head.
"Bless your heart, my boy, I haven't seen a woman except Lucy and
the girls for twenty-five years. But why did she come, I wonder?"
"That's the strange part, and you won't understand it until you
see her. She came because she had just heard--some one had told
her--about Fletcher's old rascality."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Tucker beneath his breath. He gave
a long whistle and sat smiling at the little red anthill. "And
did she actually proffer an apology?" he inquired.
"An amendment, rather. The Hall will come to her at Fletcher's
death, and she walked over to say quite coolly that she wanted to
give it back to us. Think of that! To part with such a home for
the sake of mere right and justice."
"It is something to think about," assented Tucker, "and to think
hard about, too--and yet I cut my teeth on the theory that women
have no sense of honour. Now, that is pure, foolish, strait-laced
honour, and nothing else."
"Nothing else," repeated Christopher softly; "and if you'll
believe it, she cried--she really cried when I told her I
couldn't take it. Oh, she's wonderful!" he burst out suddenly,
all his awkward reserve dropping from him. "You can't be with her
ten minutes without feeling how good she is--good all through,
with a big goodness that isn't in the least like the little
prudishness of other women--"
He checked himself hastily, but not before Tucker had glanced up
with his pleasant smile.
"Well, my boy, I don't misunderstand you. I never knew a man yet
to begin a love affair with a panegyric on virtue. She's an
estimable woman, I dare say, and I presume she's plain."
"Plain!" gasped Christopher. "Why, she's beautiful--at least, you
think so when you see her smile."
"So she smiled through her tears, eh?"
Christopher started angrily. "Can you sit there on that log and
laugh at such a thing?" he demanded.
"Come, come," protested Tucker, "an honest laugh never turned a
sweet deed sour since the world began--and that was more than
sweet; it was fine. I'd like to know that woman, Christopher."
"You could never know her--no man could. She's all clear and
bright on the surface, but all mystery beneath."
"Ah, that's it; you see, there was never a fascinating woman yet
who was easy to understand. Wasn't it that shrewd old gallant,
Bolivar Blake, who said that in love an ounce of mystery was
worth a pound of morality?"
"It's like him: he said a lot of nonsense," commented
Christopher. "But to think," he added after a moment, "that she
should be Bill Fletcher's granddaughter!"
"Well, I knew her mother," returned Tucker, "and she was as
honest, God-fearing a body as ever trod this earth. She stood out
against Fletcher to the last, you know, and worked hard for her
living while that scamp, her husband, drank them both to death.
There are some people who are born with a downright genius for
honesty, and this girl may be one of them."
"I don't know--I don't know," said Christopher, in a voice which
had grown spiritless. Then after an instant in which he stared
blankly down at Tucker's ant-hill, he turned hurriedly away and
followed the little straggling path to the barn door.
>From the restlessness that pricked in his limbs there was no
escape, and after entering the barn he came out again and went
down into the pasture to the long bench beside the poplar spring.
Here, while the faint shadows of the young leaves played over
him, he sat with his head bent forward and his hands dropped
listlessly between his knees.
Around him there was the tender green of the spring meadows,
divided by a little brook where the willows shone pure silver
under the April wind. Near at hand a catbird sang in short,
tripping notes, and in the clump of briars by the spring a rabbit
sat alert for the first sound. So motionless was Christopher that
he seemed, sitting there by the pale gray body of a poplar,
almost to become a part of the tree against which he leaned--to
lose, for the time at least, his share in the moving animal life
At first there was mere blankness in his mind--an absence of
light and colour in which his thoughts were suddenly blotted out;
then, as the wind raised the hair upon his brow, he lifted his
eyes from the ground, and with the movement it seemed as if his
life ran backward to its beginning and he saw himself not as he
was to-day, but as he might have been in a period of time which
had no being.
Before him were his knotted and blistered hands, his long limbs
outstretched in their coarse clothes, but in the vision beyond
the little spring he walked proudly with his rightful heritage
upon him--a Blake by force of blood and circumstance. The world
lay before him--bright, alluring, a thing of enchanting promise,
and it was as if he looked for the first time upon the
possibilities contained in this life upon the earth. For an
instant the glow lasted--the beauty dwelt upon the vision, and he
beheld, clear and radiant, the happiness which might have been
his own; then it grew dark again, and he faced the brutal truth
in all its nakedness; he knew himself for what he was--a man
debased by ignorance and passion to the level of the beasts. He
had sold his birthright for a requital, which had sickened him
even in the moment of fulfilment.
To do him justice, now that the time had come for an
acknowledgment he felt no temptation to evade the judgment of his
own mind, nor to cheat himself with the belief that the boy was
marked for ruin before he saw him--that Will had worked out, in
vicious weakness, his own end. It was not the weakness, after
all, that he had played upon--it was rather the excitable passion
and the whimpering fears of the hereditary drunkard. He
remembered now the long days that he had given to his revenge,
the nights when he had tossed sleepless while he planned a
widening of the breach with Fletcher. That, at least was his
work, and his alone--the bitter hatred, more cruel than death,
with which the two now stood apart and snarled. It was a human
life that he had taken in his hand--he saw that now in his first
moment of awakening--a life that he had destroyed as deliberately
as if he had struck it dead before him. Day by day, step by step,
silent, unswerving, devilish, he had kept about his purpose, and
now at the last he had only to sit still and watch his triumph.
With a sob, he bowed his head in his clasped hands, and so shut
out the light.
CHAPTER X. By the Poplar Spring
The next day he watched for her anxiously until she appeared over
the low brow of the hill, her arms filled with books, and Agag
trotting at her side. As she descended slowly into the broad
ravine where he awaited her under six great poplars that
surrounded the little spring, he saw that she wore a dress of
some soft, creamy stuff and a large white hat that shaded her
brow and eyes. She looked younger, he noticed, than she had done
in her black gown, and he recalled while she neared him the
afternoon more than six years before when she had come suddenly
upon him while he worked in his tobacco.
"So you are present at the roll-call?" she said, laughing, as she
sat down on the bench beside him and spread out the books that
she had brought.
"Why, I've been sitting here for half an hour," he answered.
"What a shame--that's a whole furrow unploughed, isn't it?"
"Several of them; but I'm not counting furrows now. I'm getting
ready to appall you by my ignorance." He spoke with a determined,
reckless gaiety that lent a peculiar animation to his face.
"If you are waiting for that, you are going to be disappointed,"
she replied, smiling, "for I've put my heart into the work, and I
was born and patterned for a teacher; I always knew it. We're
going to do English literature and a first book in Latin."
"Are we?" He picked up the Latin grammar and ran his fingers
lightly through the pages. "I went a little way in this once," he
said. "I got as far as 'omnia vincit amor' and stopped. Tobacco
conquered me instead."
She caught up his gay laugh. "Well, we'll try it over again," she
returned, and held out the book.
An hour later, when the first lesson was over and he had gone
back to his work, he carried with him a wonderful exhilaration--a
feeling as if he had with a sudden effort burst the bonds that
had held him to the earth. By the next day the elation vanished
and a great heaviness came in its place, but for a single
afternoon he had known what it was to thrill in every fiber with
a powerful and pure emotion--an emotion beside which all the
cheap sensations of his life showed stale and colourless. While
the strangeness of this mood was still upon him he chanced upon
Lila and Jim Weatherby standing together by the gate in the gray
dusk, and when presently the girl came back alone across the yard
he laid his hand upon her arm and drew her over to Tucker's bench
beside the rose-bush.
"Lila, I've changed my mind about it all," he said.
"About what, dear?"
"About Jim and you. We were all wrong--all of us except Uncle
Tucker--wrong from the very start. You musn't mind mother; you
musn't mind anybody. Marry Jim and be happy, if he can make you
"Oh, Christopher!" gasped Lila, with a long breath, lifting her
lovely, pensive face. "Oh, Christopher!"
"Don't wait; don't put it off; don't listen to any of us," he
urged impatiently. "Good God! If you love him as you say you do,
why have you let all these years slip away?"
"But you thought it was best, Christopher. You told me so."
"Best! There's nothing best except to be happy if you get the
"He wants me to marry him now," said Lila, lowering her voice.
"Mother will never know, he thinks, her mind grows so feeble; he
wants me to marry him without any getting ready--after church one
Putting his arm about her, Christopher held her for a moment
against his side. "Then do it," he said gravely, as he stooped
and kissed her.
And several weeks later, on a bright first Sunday in May, Lila
was married, after morning services, in the little country
church, and Christopher watched her almost eagerly as she walked
home across the broad meadows powdered white with daisies. To the
reproachful countenance which Cynthia presented to him upon his
return to the house he gave back a careless and defiant smile.
"So it's all over," he announced gaily, "and Lila's married at
"Then you're satisfied, I hope," rejoined Cynthia grimly, "now
that you've dragged us down to the level of the Weatherbys and--
the Fletchers? There's nothing more to be said about it, I
suppose, and you may as well come in to dinner."
She held herself stiffly aloof from the subject, with her head
flung back and her chin expressing an indignant protest. There
was a kind of rebellious scorn in the way in which she carved the
shoulder of bacon and poured the coffee.
"Good Lord! It's such a little thing to make a fuss about," said
Tucker, "when you remember, my dear, that our levels aren't any
bigger than chalk lines in the eyes of God Almighty."
Cynthia regarded him with squinting displeasure.
"Oh, of course; you have no family pride," she returned; "but I
had thought there was a little left in Christopher."
Christopher shook his head, smiling indifferently. "Not enough to
want blood sacrifices," he responded, and fell into a detached
and thoughtful silence. The vision of Lila in her radiant
happiness remained with him like a picture that one has beheld by
some rare chance in a vivid and lovely light; and it was still
before him when he left the house presently and strolled slowly
down to meet Maria by the poplar spring.
The bloom of the meadows filled his nostrils with a delicate
fragrance, and from the bough of an old apple-tree in the orchard
he heard the low afternoon murmurs of a solitary thrush. May was
on the earth, and it had entered into him as into the piping
birds and the spreading trees. It was at last good to be alive--
to breathe the warm, sweet air, and to watch the sunshine
slanting on the low, green hill. So closely akin were his moods
to those of the changing seasons that, at the instant, he seemed
to feel the current of his being flow from the earth beneath his
feet--as if his physical nature drew strength and nourishment
from that genial and abundant source.
When he reached the spring he saw Maria appear on the brow of the
hill, and with a quick, joyous bound his heart leaped up to meet
her. As she came toward him her white dress swept the tall grass
from her feet, and her shadow flew like a winged creature
straight before her. There was a vivid softness in her face--a
look at once bright and wistful--which moved him with a new and
"I was a little late," she explained, as they met before the long
bench and she laid her books upon it, "and I am very warm. May I
have a drink?"
"From a bramble cup?"
"How else?" She took off her hat and tossed it on the grass at
her feet; then, going to the spring, she waited while he plucked
a leaf from the bramble and bent it into shape. When he filled it
and held it out, she placed her lips to the edge of the leaf and
looked up at him with smiling eyes while she drank slowly from
"It holds only a drop, but how delicious!" she said, seating
herself again upon the bench and leaning back against the great
body of a poplar. Then her eyes fell upon his clothes. "Why, how
very much dressed you look!" she added.
"Oh, there's a reason besides Sunday--I've just come from a
wedding. Lila has married after twelve years of waiting."
"Your pretty sister! And to whom?"
"To Jim Weatherby--old Jacob's son, you know. Now, don't tell me
that you disapprove. I count on your good sense to see the wisdom
"So it is your pretty sister," she said slowly, "the woman I
passed in the road the other day and held my breath as I did
before Botticelli's Venus."
"Is that so? Well, she doesn't know much about pictures, nor does
Jim. She has thrown herself away, Cynthia says, but what could
she have waited for, after all? Nothing had ever come to her, and
she had lived thirty years. Besides, she will be very happy, and
that's a good deal, isn't it?"
"It's everything," said Maria quietly, looking down into her lap.
"Everything? And if you had been born in her place?"
"I am not in her place and never could be; but six years ago, if
I had been told that I must live here all my life, I think I
should have fretted myself to death; that would have happened six
years ago, for I was born with a great aching for life, and I
thought then that one could live only in the big outside world."
"And now?" he questioned, for she paused and sat smiling gravely
at the book she held.
"Now I know that the fulness of life does not come from the
things outside of us, and that we ourselves must create the
beauty in which we live. Oh, I have learned so much from misery,"
she went on softly, "and worst of all, I have learned what it is
to starve for bread in the midst of sugar-plums."
"And it was worth learning?"
"The knowledge that I gained? Oh, yes, yes; for it taught me how
to be happy. I went down into hell," she said passionately, "and
I came out--clean. I saw evil such as I had never heard of; I
went close to it, I even touched it, but I always kept my soul
very far away, and I was like a person in a dream. The more I saw
of sin and ugliness the more I dreamed of peace and beauty. I
builded me my own refuge, I fed on my own strength day and night
--and I am what I am--"
"The loveliest woman on God's earth," he said.
"You do not know me, "she answered, and opened the book before
her. "It was the story of the Holy Grail," she added, "and we
left off here. Oh, those brave days of King Arthur! It was always
He touched the page lightly with a long blade of grass.
"Read yourself--this once," he pleaded, "and let me listen."
Leaning a little forward, she looked down and slowly turned the
pages, her head bent over the book, her long lashes shading the
faint flush in her cheeks. Over her white dress fell a delicate
lacework from the young poplar leaves, flecked here and there
with pale drops of sunshine, which filtered through the thickly
clustered boughs. When the wind passed in the high tree-tops, the
shadows, soft and fine as cobweb, rippled over her dress, and a
loose strand of her dark hair waved gently about her ear. The
life--the throbbing vitality within--her seemed to vivify the
very air she breathed, and he felt all at once that the glad
thrill which stirred his blood was but a response to the fervent
spirit which spoke in her voice.
"For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May,"
she read, "in something to constrain him to some manner of thing
more in that month than in any other month--for then all herbs
and trees renew a man and woman, and in likewise lovers call
again to mind old gentleness and old service and many kind deeds
that were forgotten by negligence."
The words went like wine to his head, and he saw her shadowy
figure recede and dissolve suddenly as in a mist. A lump rose in
his throat, his heart leaped, and he felt his pulses beating
madly in his temples. He drew back, closing his eves to shut out
her face; but the next instant, as she stirred slightly to hold
down the rippling leaves, he bent forward and laid his hand upon
the one that held the open book.
Her voice fluttered into silence, and, raising her head, she
looked up in tremulous surprise. He saw her face pale slowly, her
lids quiver and droop above her shining eyes, and her teeth gleam
milk white between her parted lips. A tremor of alarm ran through
her, and she made a swift movement to escape; then, lifting her
eyes again, she looked full into his own, and, stooping quickly,
he kissed her on the mouth.
An instant afterward the book fell to the ground, and he rose to
his feet and stood trembling against the body of the poplar.
"Forgive me," he said; "forgive me--I have ruined it."
Standing beside the bench, she watched him with a still, grave
gentleness before which his gaze dropped slowly to the ground.
"Yes, you have ruined this," she answered, smiling, "but Latin is
"It's no use," he went on breathlessly. "I can't do it; it's no
His eyes sought hers and held them while he made a single step
forward; then, turning quickly away, he went from her across the
meadow to the distant wood.
BOOK FIVE. The Ancient Law
CHAPTER I. Christopher Seeks an Escape
A clump of brambles caught at his feet, and, stumbling like a
drunken man, he threw himself at full length upon the ground,
pressing his forehead on the young, green thorns. A century
seemed to have passed since his flight from the poplar spring,
and yet the soft afternoon sunshine was still about him and the
low murmurs of the thrush still floated from the old apple-tree.
All the violence of his undisciplined nature had rushed into
revolt against the surrender which he felt must come, and he was
conscious at the instant that he hated only a little less
supremely than he loved. In the end the greater passion would
triumph over him, he knew; but as he lay there face downward upon
the earth the last evil instincts of his revenge battled against
the remorse which had driven him from Maria's presence. He saw
himself clearly for what he was: he had learned at last to call
his sin by its right name; and yet he felt that somewhere in the
depths of his being he had not ceased to love the evil that he
had done. He hated Fletcher, he told himself, as righteously as
ever, but between himself and the face of his enemy a veil had
fallen--the old wrong no longer stood out in a blaze of light. A
woman's smile divided him like a drawn sword from his brutal
past, and he had lost the reckless courage with which he once
might have flung himself upon destruction.
Rising presently, he crossed the meadow and went slowly back to
his work in the stables, keeping his thoughts with an effort upon
his accustomed tasks. A great weariness for the endless daily
round of shall things was upon him, and he felt all at once that
the emotion struggling within his heart must burst forth at last
and pervade the visible world. He was conscious of an impulse to
sing, to laugh, to talk in broken sentences to himself; and any
utterance, however slight and meaningless, seemed to relieve in a
measure the nervous tension of his thoughts.
In one instant there entered into him a desperate determination
to play the traitor--to desert his post and strike out boldly and
alone into the world. And with the next breath he saw himself
living to old age as he had lived from boyhood--within reach of
Maria's hand, meeting her fervent eyes, and yet separated from
her by a distance greater than God or man could bridge. With the
thought of her he saw again her faint smile which lingered always
about her mouth, and his blood stirred at the memory of the kiss
which she had neither resisted nor returned.
Cynthia, searching for him a few minutes later, found him leaning
idly against the mare's stall, looking down upon a half-finished
nest which a house-wren had begun to build upon his currycomb.
"It's a pity to disturb that, Tucker would say," he observed,
motioning toward the few wisps of straw on the ledge.
"Oh, she can start it somewhere else," replied Cynthia
indifferently. "They have sent for you from the store,
Christopher--it's something about one of the servants, I believe.
They're always getting into trouble and wanting you to pull them
out." The descendants of the old Blake slaves were still spoken
of by Cynthia as "the servants," though they had been free men
and women for almost thirty years.
Christopher started from his abstraction and turned toward her
with a gesture of annoyance.
"Well, I'll have to go down, I suppose," he said. "Has mother
asked for me to-day?"
"Only for Jim again--it's always Jim now. I declare, I believe we
might all move away and she'd never know the difference so long
as he was left. She forgets us entirely sometimes, and fancies
that father is alive again."
"It's a good thing Jim amuses her, at any rate."
An expression of anger drew Cynthia's brows together. "Oh, I dare
say; but it does seem hard that she should have grown to dislike
me after all I've done for her. There are times when she won't
let me even come in the room--when she's not herself, you know."
Her words were swallowed in a sob, and he stood staring at her in
an amazement too sudden to be mixed with pity.
"And you have given up your whole life to her," he exclaimed.
appalled by the injustice of the god of sacrifice.
Cynthia put up one knotted hand and stroked back the thin hair
upon her temples. "It was all I had to give," she answered, and
went out into the yard.
He let her go from him without replying, and before her pathetic
figure had reached the house she was blotted entirely from his
thoughts, for it was a part of the tragedy of her unselfishness
that she had never existed as a distinct personality even in the
minds of those who knew and loved her.
When presently he passed through the yard on his way to the
store, he saw her taking in the dried clothes from the old
lilac-bushes and called back carelessly that he would be home to
supper. Then, forgetting her lesser miseries in his own greater
one, he fell into his troubled brooding as he swung rapidly along
At the store the usual group of loungers welcomed him, and among
them he saw to his surprise the cheerful face of Jim Weatherby, a
little clouded by the important news he was evidently seeking to
"I tried to keep them from sending for you, Christopher," the
young man explained. "It is no business of yours--that is what I
"Well, it seems that every thriftless nigger in the county thinks
he's got a claim upon you, sho' enough," put in Tom Spade. "It
warn't mo'n last week that I had a letter from the grandson of
yo' pa's old blacksmith Buck, sayin' he was to hang in
Philadelphia for somebody's murder, an' that I must tell Marse
Christopher to come an' git him off. Thar's a good six hunnard of
'em, black an' yaller an' it's God A'mighty or Marse Christopher
to 'em every one."
"What is it now?" asked Christopher a little wearily, taking off
his hat and running his hand through his thick, fair hair. "If
anybody's been stealing chickens they've got to take the
"Oh, it's not chicken stealin' this time; it's a blamed sight
worse. They want you to send somebody over to Uncle Isam's--you
remember his little cabin, five miles off in Alorse's woods--to
help him bury his children who have died of smallpox. There are
four of 'em dead, it seems, an' the rest are all down with the
disease. Thar's not a morsel of food in the house, an' not a
livin' nigger will go nigh 'em."
"Uncle Isam!" repeated Christopher, as if trying to recall the
name. "Why, I haven't laid eyes upon the man for years."
"Very likely; but he's sent you a message by a boy who was
gathering pine knots at the foot of his hill. He was to tell
Marse Christopher that he had had nothing to eat for two whole
days an' his children were unburied. Then the boy got scared an'
scampered off, an' that was all."
Christopher's laugh sounded rather brutal.
"So he used to belong to us, did he?" he inquired.
"He was yo' pa's own coachman. I recollect him plain as day,"
answered Tom. "I warn't 'mo'n a child then, an' he used to flick
his whip at my bare legs whenever he passed me in the road."
"Well, what is to be done?" asked Christopher, turning suddenly
"The Lord He knows, suh. Thar's not a nigger as will go nigh him,
an' I'm not blamin' 'em; not I. Jim's filled his cart with food,
an' he's goin' to dump the things out at the foot of the hill;
then maybe Uncle Isam can crawl down an' drag 'em back. His
wife's down with it, too, they say. She was workin' here not mo'n
six months ago, but she left her place of a sudden an' went back
Christopher glanced carelessly at the little cart waiting in the
road, and then throwing off his coat tossed it on the seat.
"I'll trouble you to lend me your overalls, Tom," he said, "and
you can send a boy up to the house and get mine in exchange. Put
what medicines you have in the cart; I'll take them over to the
"Good Lord!" said Tom, and mechanically got out of his blue jean
"Now don't be a downright ass, Christopher," put in Jim
Weatherby. "You've got your mother on your hands, you know, and
what under heaven have you to do with Uncle Isam? I knew some
foolishness would most likely come of it if they sent up for
"Oh, he used to belong to us, you see," explained Christopher
"And he's been an ungrateful, thriftless free Negro for nearly
"That's just it--for not quite thirty years. Look here, if you'll
drive me over in the cart and leave the things at the foot of the
hill I'll be obliged to you. I'll probably have to stay out a
couple of weeks--until there's no danger of my bringing back the
disease--so I'll wear Tom's overalls and leave my clothes
somewhere in the woods. Oh, I'll take care, of course; I'm no
"You're surer of that than I am," returned Jim, thinking of Lila.
"I can't help feeling that there's some truth in father's saying
that a man can't be a hero without being a bit of a fool as well.
For God's sake, don't, Christopher. You have no right--"
"No, I have no right," repeated Christopher, as he got into the
cart and took up the hanging reins. A sudden animation had leaped
into his face and his eyes were shining. It was the old love of a
"risk for the sake of the risk" which to Tucker had always seemed
to lack the moral elements of true courage, and the careless
gaiety with which he spoke robbed the situation of its underlying
Jim swung himself angrily upon the seat and touched the horse
lightly with the whip. "And there's your mother sitting at
home--and Cynthia--and Lila," he said.
Christopher turned on him a face in whose expression he found a
mystery that he could not solve.
"I can't help it, Jim, to save my life I can't," he answered. "It
isn't anything heroic; you know that as well as I. I don't care a
straw for Uncle Isam and his children, but if I didn't go up
there and bury those dead darkies I'd never have a moment's
peace. I've been everything but a skulking coward, and I can't
turn out to be that at the end. It's the way I'm made."
"Well, I dare say we're made different," responded Jim rather
dryly, for it was his wedding day and he was going farther from
his bride. "But for my part, I can't help thinking of that poor
blind old lady, and how helpless they all are. Yes, we're made
different. I reckon that's what it means."
The cart jogged on slowly through the fading sunshine, and when
at last it came to the foot of the hill where Uncle Isam lived
Christopher got out and shouldered a bag of meal.
"You'll run the place, I know, and look after mother while I'm
away," he said.
"Oh, I suppose I'll have to," returned Jim; and then his ill-
humour vanished and he smiled and held out his hand. "Good-by,
old man. God bless you," he said heartily.
Sitting there in the road, he watched Christopher pass out of
sight under the green leaves, stooping slightly beneath the bag
of meal and whistling a merry scrap of an old song. At the
instant it came to Jim with the force of a blow that this was the
first cheerful sound he had heard from him for weeks; and, still
pondering, he turned the horse's head and drove slowly home to
his own happiness.
CHAPTER II. The Measure of Maria
When, two weeks later, Christopher reached home again, he was met
by Tucker's gentle banter and Lila's look of passionate reproach.
"Oh, dear, you might have died!" breathed the girl with a
"So might Uncle Tucker when he went into the war," was his
retort. He was a little thinner, a little graver, and the sunburn
upon his face had faded to a paler shade. After the short absence
his powerful figure struck them as almost gigantic; physically,
he had never appeared more impressive than he did standing there
in the sunlight that filled the kitchen doorway.
"But that was different," protested Lila, flushing, "and this-
this--why, you hardly knew Uncle Isam when you passed him in the
"And half the time forgot to speak to him," added Tucker,
laughing. His eyes were on the young man's figure, and they grew
a little wistful, as they always did in the presence of perfect
masculine strength. "Well, I'm glad your search for adventures
didn't end in disaster," he added pleasantly.
To Christopher's surprise, Cynthia was the single member of the
family who showed a sympathy with his reckless knight errantry.
"There was nothing else for you to do, of course," she said in a
resolute voice, lifting her worn face where the lines had
deepened in his absence; "he used to be father's coachman before
She had gone from the kitchen as she spoke, and Christopher,
following her, threw an anxious glance along the little platform
to the closed door of the house.
"And mother, Cynthia?" he asked quickly.
"Her mind still wanders, but at times she seems to come back to
herself for a little while, and only this morning she awoke from
a nap and asked for you quite clearly. We told her you had gone
"May I see her now? Who is with her?"
"Jim. He has been so good."
The admission was wrung shortly from her rigid honesty, and there
was no visible softening of her grim reserve, when, entering the
house with Christopher, she found herself presently beside Jim
Weatherby, who was chatting merrily in Mrs. Blake's room.
The old lady, shrivelled and faded as the dried goldenrod which
filled the great jars on the hearth, lay half hidden among the
pillows in her high white bed, her vacant eyes fixed upon the
sunshine which fell through the little window. At Christopher's
step her memory flickered back for an instant, and the change
showed in the sudden animation of her glance.
"I was dreaming of your father, my son, and you have his voice."
"I am like him in other ways, I hope, mother."
"If I could only see you, Christopher--it is so hard to remember.
You had golden curls and wore a white pinafore. I trimmed it with
the embroidery from my last set of petticoats. And your hands
were dimpled all over; you would suck your thumb: there was no
breaking you, though I wrapped it in a rag soaked in quinine--"
"That was almost thirty years ago, mother," broke in Cynthia,
catching her breath sharply. "He is a man now, and big--oh, so
big--and his hair has grown a little darker."
"I know, Cynthia; I know," returned Mrs. Blake, with a peevish
movement of her thin hand, "but you won't let me remember. I am
trying to remember." She fell to whimpering like a hurt child,
and then growing suddenly quiet, reached out until she touched
Christopher's head. "You're a man, I know," she said, "older than
your father was when his first child was born. There have been
two crosses in my life, Christopher--my blindness and my never
having heard the voices of my grandchildren playing in the house.
Such a roomy old house, too, with so much space for them to fill
with cheerful noise. I always liked noise, you know; it tells of
life, and never disturbs me so long as it is pleasant. What I
hate is the empty silence that reminds one of the grave."
She was quite herself now, and, bending over, he kissed the hand
upon the counterpane.
"Oh, mother, mother, if I could only have made you happy!"
"And you couldn't, Christopher?"
"I couldn't marry, dear; I couldn't."
"There was no one, you mean--no woman whom you could have loved
and who would have given you children. Surely there are still
good and gentle women left in the world."
"There was none for me."
She sighed hopelessly.
"You have never--never had a low fancy, Christopher?"
"Thank God; it is one thing I could not forgive. A gentleman may
have his follies, your father used to say, but he must never
stoop for them. Let him keep to his own level, even in his
indiscretions. Ah, your father had his faults, my son, but he
never forgot for one instant in his life that he was born a
gentleman. He was a good husband, too, a good husband, and I was
married to him for nearly forty years. The greatest trial of my
marriage was that he would throw his cigar ashes on the floor.
Women think so much of little things, you know, and I've always
felt that I should have been a happier woman if he had learned to
use an ash-tray. But he never would--he never would, though I
gave him one every Christmas for almost forty years."
Falling silent, her hands played fitfully upon the counterpane,
and when next she spoke the present had slipped from her and her
thoughts had gone back to her early triumphs.
She wandered aimlessly and waveringly on in a feeble vacancy, and
Christopher, after watching her for an agonised moment, left the
room and went out into the fresh air of the yard. He could always
escape by flight from the slow death-bed; it was Cynthia who
faced hourly the final tragedy of a long and happy life.
The thought of Will had oppressed him like a nightmare for the
last two weeks, and it was almost unconsciously that he tuned now
in the direction of the store and passed presently into the
shaded lane leading to Sol Peterkin's. His mood was heavy upon
him, and so deep was the abstraction in which he walked that it
was only when he heard his name called softly from a little
distance that he looked up to find Maria Fletcher approaching him
over the pale gray shadows in the road. Her eyes were luminous,
and she stretched her hand toward him in a happy gesture.
"Oh, if you only knew how wonderful I think you!" she cried
He held her hand an instant, and then letting it fall, withdrew
his gaze slowly from her exalted look. The pure heights of her
fervour were beyond the reach of his more earthly level, and as
he turned from her some old words of her own were respoken in his
ears: "Faith and doubt are mere empty forms until we pour out the
heart's blood that vivifies them." It was her heart's blood that
she had put into her dreams, and it was this, he told himself,
that gave her mystic visions their illusive appearance of
reality. Beauty enveloped her as an atmosphere; it softened her
sternest sacrifice, it coloured her barest outlook, it
transformed daily the common road in which she walked, and hourly
it sustained and nourished her, as it nourished poor, crippled
Tucker on his old pine bench. The eye of the spirit was
theirs--this Christopher had learned at last; and he had learned,
also, that for him there still remained only the weak, blurred
vision of the flesh.
"You make me feel the veriest hypocrite," he said at the end of
the long pause.
She shook her head. "And that you are surely not."
"So you still believe in me?"
"It's not belief--I KNOW in you."
"Well, don't praise me; don't admire me; don't pretend, for God's
sake, that I'm anything better than the brute you see."
"I don't pretend anything better," she protested; "and when you
talk like this it only makes me feel the more keenly your
"I haven't any," he burst out almost angrily. "Not an atom, do
you hear? Whatever I may appear on top, at bottom I am a great
skulking coward, and nothing more. Why, I couldn't even stay and
take my punishment the other day. I sneaked off like a hound."
"Your punishment?" she faltered, and he saw her lashes tremble.
"For the other day--for the afternoon by the poplar spring. I've
been wanting to beg your pardon on my knees."
Her lashes were raised steadily, and she regarded him gravely
while a slight frown gathered her dark brows. She was still
humanly feminine enough to find the apology harder to forgive
than the offense.
"Oh, I had forgotten," she said a little coldly. "So that was,
after all, why you ran away?"
"It was not the only reason."
"And the other?"
He closed his eyes suddenly and drew back.
"I ran away because I knew if I stayed I should do it again
within two seconds," he replied.
A little blue flower was growing in the red clay wheel-rut at her
feet, and, stooping, she caressed it gently without plucking it.
"It was very foolish," she said in a quiet voice; "but I had
forgotten it, and you should have let it rest. Afterward, you did
such a brave, splendid thing."
"I did nothing but run from you," he persisted, losing his head.
"If I hadn't gone to Uncle Isam I'd have done something equally
reckless in a different way. I wanted to get away from you--to
escape you, but I couldn't--I couldn't. You were with me always,
night and day, in those God-forsaken woods. I never lost you for
one instant, never. I tried to, but I couldn't."
"You couldn't," she repeated, and, rising, faced him calmly. Then
before the look in his eyes her own wavered and fell slowly to
the ground, and he saw her quiver and grow white as if a rough
wind blew over her. With an effort he steadied himself and turned
"There is but one thing to do," he said, holding his breath in
the pause; "it's a long story, but if you will listen
patiently--and it is very long--I will tell you all." Following
him, she crossed the carpet of pine needles and sat down upon the
end of a fallen log.
"Tell me nothing that you do not care to," she answered, and sat
"It began long ago, when we were both little children," he went
on, and then going back from her into the lane he stood staring
down upon the little blue flower blooming in the wheel-rut. She
saw his shadow, stretching across the road, blurred into the pale
dusk of the wood, uncertain, somber, gigantic in its outline. His
hat was lying on the ground at her feet, and, lifting it, she ran
her fingers idly along the brim.
For a time the silence lasted; then coming back to her, he sat
down on the log and dropped his clasped hands between his knees.
She heard his heavy breathing, and something in the sound drew
her toward him with a sympathetic movement.
"Ah, don't tell me, don't tell me," she entreated.
"You must listen patiently," he returned, without looking at her,
"and not interrupt--above all, not interrupt."
She bent her head. "I will not speak a word nor move a finger
until the end," she promised; and leaning a little forward, with
his eyes on the ground and his hands hanging listlessly between
his knees, he began his story.
The air was so still that his voice sounded strangely harsh in
the silence, but presently she heard the soughing of the pine
trees far up above, and while it lasted it deadened the jarring
discord of the human tones. She sat quite motionless upon the
log, not lifting a finger nor speaking a word, as she had
promised, and her gaze was fixed steadily upon a bit of dried
fern growing between the roots of a dead tree.
"It went on so for five years," he slowly finished, "and it was
from beginning to end deliberate, devilish revenge. I meant from
the first to make him what he is to-day. I meant to make him hate
his grandfather as he does--I meant to make him the hopeless
drunkard that he is. It is all my work--every bit of it--as you
see it now."
He paused, but her eyes clung to the withered fern, and so quiet
was her figure that it seemed as if she had not drawn breath
since he began. Her faint smile was still sketched about the
corners of her mouth, and her fingers were closed upon the brim
of his harvest hat.
"For five years I was like that," he went on again. "I did not
know, I did not care--I wanted to be a beast. Then you came and
it was different."
For the first time she turned and looked at him.
"And it was different?" she repeated beneath her breath.
"Oh, there's nothing to say that will make things better; I know
that. If you had not come I should never have known myself nor
what I had been. It was like a thunderclap--the whole thing; it
shook me off my feet before I saw what it meant--before I would
acknowledge even to myself that--"
"That?" she questioned in a whisper, for he had bitten back the
"That I love you."
As he spoke she slipped suddenly to her knees and lay with her
face hidden on the old log, while her smothered sobs ran in long
shudders through her body. A murmur reached him presently, and it
seemed to him that she was praying softly in her clasped hands;
but when in a new horror of himself he made a movement to rise
and slip away, she looked up and gently touched him detainingly
on the arm.
"Oh, how unhappy--how unhappy you have been!" she said.
"It is not that I mind," he answered. "If I could take all the
misery of it I shouldn't care, but I have made you suffer, and
for the sin that is mine alone."
For a moment she was silent, breathing quickly between parted
lips; then turning with an impulsive gesture, she laid her cheek
upon the hand hanging at his side.
"Not yours alone," she said softly, "for it has become mine,
Before the wonder of her words he stared at her with dazed eyes,
while their meaning shook him slowly to his senses.
"Maria!" he called out sharply in the voice of one who speaks
from a distance.
She met his appeal with a swift outward movement of her arms,
and, bending over, laid her hands gently upon his head.
"Mine, too, Christopher--mine, too," she repeated, "for I take
the blame of it, and I will share in the atonement. My dear, my
dear, is love so slight a thing that it would share the joy and
leave the sorrow--that it would take the good and reject the
evil? Why, it is all mine! All! All! What you have been I was
also; what I am to-day you will be. I have been yours since the
first instant you looked upon me."
With a sob he caught her hands and crushed them in his own.
"Then this is love, Maria?"
"It has been love--always."
"From the first--as with me?"
"As with you. Beloved, there is not a wrong on this earth that
could come between us now, for there is no room in my heart where
it might enter. There can be no sin against love which love does
Falling apart, their hands dropped before them, and they stood
looking at each other in a silence that went deeper than words.
She felt his gaze enveloping her in warmth from head to foot, but
he still made no movement to draw nearer, for there are moments
when the touch of the flesh grows meaningless before the mute
appeal of the spirit. In that one speechless instant there passed
between them the pledges and the explanations of years.
Suddenly the light flamed in his face, and opening his arms, he
made a single step toward her; but melting into tears, she turned
from him and ran out into the road.
CHAPTER III. Will's Ruin
Blinded by tears, she went swiftly back along the road into the
shadows which thickened beyond the first short bend. Will must be
saved at any cost, by any sacrifice, she told herself with
passionate insistence. He must be saved though she gave up her
whole life to the work of his redemption, though she must stand
daily and hourly guard against his weakness. He must be saved,
not for his own sake alone, but because it was the one way in
which she might work out Christopher's salvation. As she went on,
scheme after scheme beckoned and repelled her; plan after plan
was caught at only to be rejected, and it was at last with a
sinking heart, though still full of high resolves, that she
turned from the lane into a strip of "corduroy road," and so came
quickly to the barren little farm adjoining Sol Peterkin's.
Will was sitting idly on an overturned wheelbarrow beside the
woodpile, and as she approached him she assumed with an effort a
face of cheerful courage.
"Oh, Will, I thought you'd gone to work. You promised me!"
"Well, I haven't, and there's an end of it," he returned
irritably, chewing hard on a chip he had picked up from the
ground; "and what's more, I shan't go till I see the use. It's
killing me by inches. I tell you I'm not strong enough to stand a
life like this. Drudge, drudge, drudge; there's nothing else
except the little spirit I get from drink."
"And that ruins you. Oh, don't, don't. I'll go on my knees to
you; I'll work for you like a servant day and night; I'll sell my
very clothes to help you, if you'll only promise me never to
"You a servant!" said Will, and laughed shortly while he looked
her over with raised eyebrows. "Why, your stockings would keep me
in cigarettes for a week."
A flush crossed Maria's face, and she glanced down guiltily,
letting her black skirt fall above the lace upon her petticoat.
"I have bought nothing since coming home," she responded
presently with quiet dignity; "these belong, with my old
luxuries, to a past life. There were a great many of them, and it
will fortunately take me a long time to wear them out."
"Oh, I don't begrudge them," returned Will; a little ashamed of
his show of temper; "fine clothes suit you, and I hope you will
squeeze them out of grandpa all you can. It's as good a way for
him to spend his money as any other, and it doesn't hurt me so
long as he'll never let me see the colour of a cent."
"But your promise, dear? Will you promise me?"
He lifted his sullen face toward her kind eyes, then turning
away, kicked listlessly at the rotting chips.
"What's the use in promising? I wouldn't keep it," he replied.
"Why, there are times when but for whisky I'd go mad. It's the
life, I tell you, that's killing me, not drink. If things were
different I shouldn't crave it--I shouldn't miss it, even. Why,
for three months after I married Molly I didn't touch a single
drop, and I'd have kept it up, too, except for grandpa's
devilment. It's his fault; he drove me back to it as clear as
His weak mouth quivered, and he sucked in his breath in the way
he had inherited from Fletcher. The deep flush across his face
faded slowly, and dropping his restless, bloodshot eyes, he dug
his foot into the mould with spasmodic twitches of his body. His
clothes appeared to have been flung upon him, and his cravat and
loosened collar betrayed the lack of neatness which had always
repelled Maria so strongly in her grandfather. As she watched him
she wondered with a pang that she had never noticed until to-day
the resemblance he bore to the old man at the Hall.
"But one must be patient, Will," she said helplessly after a
moment's thought; "there's always hope of a mending--and as far
as that goes, grandfather may relent tomorrow."
"Relent? Pshaw! I'd like to see him do it this side of hell. Let
him die; that's all I ask of him. His room is a long sight better
than his company, and you may tell him I said so."
"What good would come of that?"
"I don't want any good to come of it. Why should I? He's brought
me to this pass with his own hand."
"But surely it was partly your fault. He loved you once."
"Nonsense. He wanted a dog to badger, that was all. Christopher
Blake said so."
"Christopher Blake! Oh, Will, Will, if you could only
She turned hopelessly away from him and looked with despairing
eyes over the ploughed fields which blushed faintly in the
"So your spring ploughing is all done," she said at last,
desisting from her attempt to soften his sullen obduracy, "and
you have been working harder than I knew."
"Oh, it's not I," returned Will promptly, his face clearing for
the first time. "It's all Christopher's work; he ploughed that
field just before he went away. Do you see that new cover over
the well? He knocked that up the last morning he was here, and
made those steps before the front door at the same time. Now,
he's the kind of friend worth having, and no mistake. But for him
I'd have landed in the poorhouse long ago."
Maria's gaze left the field and returned to Will's face, where it
"Have you ever heard what it was all about, Will?" she asked,
"the old trouble between him and grandfather?"
"Some silly property right, I believe; I can't remember. Did you
ever see anybody yet with whom grandpa was on decent terms?"
"He used to be with you, Will."
"Only so long as I wore short breeches and he could whack me over
the head whenever he had a mind to. I tell you I'd rather try to
get along with Beelzebub himself."
"Have you ever tried peace-making in earnest, I wonder?"
Twirling a chip between his thumb and forefinger, he flirted it
angrily at a solitary hen scratching in the mould.
"Why, shortly after my marriage I went over there and positively
wiped up the floor with myself. I offered him everything under
heaven in the shape of good behaviour, and, by Jove! I meant it,
too. I'd have stopped drinking then; I'd even have given up
"Did you tell him that?"
"Did I ever tell a thunderstorm I'd run indoors? It was enough to
get away with a whole skin--he left me little more. And the day
afterward, by the way, he sent me the deeds to this rotten farm,
and warned me that he'd shoot me down if I ever set foot at the
"And there has been no softening--no wavering since?"
Will shook his head with a brutal laugh. "Oh, you heard of our
meeting in the road and what came of it. I told him I was
starving: he answered that he wasn't responsible for all the
worthless paupers in the county. Then I cursed him, and he broke
his stick on my shoulders. I say, Maria," he wound up
desperately, "do you think he'll live forever?"
She kept her eyes upon him without answering, fearing to tell him
that by the terms of the new will he could never come into his
share of Fletcher's wealth.
"Has he ever seen Molly?" she asked suddenly, while an
unreasonable hope shot through her heart. "Does he know about the
"He may have seen her--I don't know; but she's not so much to
look at now: she's gone all to pieces under this awful worry. It
isn't my fault, God knows, but she expected different things when
she married me. She thought we'd live somewhere in the city and
that she'd have pretty clothes to wear."
"I was thinking that when the child came he might forgive you,"
broke in Maria almost cheerfully.
"And in the meantime we're to die like rats. Oh, there's no use
talking, it's got to end one way or another. There's not a cent
in the house nor a decent scrap of food, and Molly is having to
see the doctor every day. I declare, it's enough to drive me
clean to desperation!"
"And what good would that do Molly or yourself? Be a man, Will,
and don't let a woman hear you whine. Now I'm going in to see
her, and I'll stay to help her about supper."
She nodded brightly, and, opening the little door of the house,
passed into the single lower room which served as kitchen and
dining-room in one. Beyond the disorderly table, from which the
remains of dinner had not yet been cleared away, Molly was lying
on a hard wooden lounge covered with strips of faded calico. Her
abundant flaxen hair hung in lusterless masses upon her
shoulders, and the soiled cotton wrapper she wore was torn open
at the throat as if she had clutched it in a passion of childish
petulance. At Maria's entrance she started and looked up angrily
from her dejected attitude.
"I can't see any visitors--I'm not fit!" she cried.
Marie drew forward a broken split--bottomed chair and sat down
beside the lounge.
"I'm not a visitor, Molly," she answered; "and I've come to see
if I can't make you a little easier. Won't you let me fix you
comfortably? Why, you poor child, your hands are as hot as fire!"
"I'm hot all over," returned Molly peevishly; "and I'm sick--I'm
as sick as I can be. Will won't believe it, but the doctor says
"Will does believe it, and it worries him terribly. Here, sit up
and let me bathe your face and hands in cold water. Doesn't that
"A little," admitted Molly, when Maria had found a towel and
dried her hands.
"And now I'm going to comb the tangles out of your hair. What
lovely hair! It is the colour of ripe corn."
A pleased flush brightened Molly's face, and she resigned herself
easily to Maria's willing services. "There's a comb over there on
that shelf under the mirror," she said. "Will broke half the
teeth out of it the other day, and it pulls my hair out when I
"Then I'll bring you one of mine. You must be careful of these
curls. They're too pretty to treat roughly. Do I hurt you?"
As she spoke, a bright strand of the girl's hair twisted about
one of her rings, and after hesitating an instant she drew the
circle from her finger and laid it in Molly's lap.
"There. I haven't any money, so that's to buy you medicine and
food," she said. "It cost a good deal once, I fancy."
"Diamonds!" gasped Molly, with a cry of rapture.
Her hand closed over the ring with a frantic clutch; then
slipping it on, she lay watching the stone sparkle in the last
sunbeams. A colour had bloomed suddenly in her face, and her eyes
shone with a light as brilliant as that of the jewel at which she
"And you had--others?" she asked in a kind of sacred awe.
"A great many once--a necklace, and rings, and brooches, and a
silly tiara that made me look a fright. I never cared for them
after the novelty of owning them wore off. They are evil things,
it seems to me, and should never be the gifts of love, for each
one of those foolish stones stands for greed, and pride, and
selfishness, and maybe crime. That was my way of looking at them,
of course, and whenever I wore my necklace I used to feel like
asking pardon of every beggar that I passed. 'One link in this
chain might make a man of you,' was what I wanted to say--but I
never did. Well, they are almost all gone now; some I sold and
some I gave away. This one will buy you medicine, I hope, and
then it will give me more happiness than it has ever done
"Oh, it is beautiful, beautiful," sighed Molly beneath her
breath, and then went to the little cracked mirror in the corner
and held the diamond first to her ear and then against her hair.
"They suit me," she said at last, opening the bosom of her
wrapper and trying it on her pretty throat; "they would make me
look so splendid. Oh, if I'd only had a lover who could give me
things like this!"
Maria, watching her, felt her heart contract suddenly with a pang
of remembrance. Jewels had been the one thing which Jack Wyndham
had given her, for of the finer gifts of the spirit he had been
beggared long before she knew him. In the first months of his
infatuation he had showered her with diamonds, and she had grown
presently to see a winking mockery in each bauble that he tossed
her. Before the first year was ended she had felt her pride
broken by the oppressiveness of the jewels that bedecked her
body, like the mystic princess who was killed at last by the
material weight of the golden crown upon her brow.
"They could never make you happy, Molly. How could they? Come
back and lie down, and let me put the ring away. Perhaps I'd
better take it to town myself." But Molly would not open her
closed hand on which the diamond shone; and long after Maria had
cooked supper and gone back to the Hall the girl lay motionless,
holding the ring against the light. When Will came in from
milking she showed it to him with a burst of joy.
"Look! Oh, look! Isn't it like the sun?"
He eyed it critically.
"By Jove! It must have cost cool hundreds! I'll take it to town
to-morrow and bring back the things you need. It will get the
baby clothes, too, so you won't have to bother about the sewing."
"You shan't! You shan't!" cried Molly in a passion of sobs. "It's
mine. She gave it to me, and you shan't take it away. I don't
want the medicine: it never does me any good; and I can make the
baby clothes out of my old things. I'll never, never give it up!"
For an instant Will stared at her as if she had lost her senses.
"Well, she was a fool to let you get it," he said, as he flung
himself out of the room.
CHAPTER IV. In Which Mrs. Blake's Eyes are Opened
Before the beauty of Maria's high magnanimity Christopher had
felt himself thrust further into the abasement of his
self-contempt. Had she met his confession with reproach, with
righteous aversion, with the horror he had half expected, it is
possible that his heart might have recoiled into a last
expression of defiance. But there had been none of these things.
In his memory her face shone moonlike from its cloud of dark
hair, and he saw upon it only the look of a great and sorrowful
passion. His wretchedness had drawn her closer, not put her
further away, and he had felt the quiet of her tolerance not less
gratefully than he had felt the fervour of her love. Her
forgiveness had been of the grandeur of her own nature, and its
height and breadth had appealed, even apart from her emotion, to
a mind that was accustomed to dwell daily on long reaches of
unbroken space. He had been bred on large things from his
birth--large horizons, large stretches of field and sky, large
impulses, and large powers of hating, and he found now that a
woman's presence filled to overflowing the empty vastness of his
Reaching the yard, he saw Tucker sitting placidly on his bench,
and, crossing the long grass, he flung himself down beside him
with a sigh of pleasure in the beauty of the scene.
"You're right, Uncle Tucker; it's all wonderful. I never saw such
a sunset in my life."
"Ah, but you haven't seen it yet," said Tucker. "I've been
looking at it since it first caught that pile of clouds, and it
grows more splendid every instant. I'm not an overreligious body,
I reckon, and I've always held that the best compliment you can
pay God Almighty is to let Him go His own gait and quit advising
Him; but, I declare, as I sat here just now I couldn't help being
impertinent enough to pray that I might live to see another."
"Well, it's a first-rate one; that's so. It seems to shake a body
out of the muck, somehow."
"I shouldn't wonder if it did; and that's what I told two young
fools who were up here just now asking me to patch up their first
married quarrel. 'For heaven's sake, stop playing with mud and
sit down and watch that sunset,' I said to 'em, and if you'll
believe it, the girl actually dropped her jaws and replied she
had to hurry back to shell her beans while the light lasted.
Beans! Why, they'll make beans enough of their marriage, and so I
Tapping his crutch gently on the ground, he paused and sat
smiling broadly at the sunset.
For a time Christopher watched with him while the gold-
and-crimson glory flamed beyond the twisted boughs of the old
pine; then, turning his troubled face on Tucker's cheerful one,
he asked deliberately:
"Do you sometimes regret that you never married, Uncle Tucker?"
"Regret?" repeated Tucker softly. "Why, no. I haven't time for
it--there's too much else to think about. Regret is a dangerous
thing, my boy; you let a little one no bigger than a mustard seed
into your heart, and before you know it you've hatched out a
whole brood. Why, if I began to regret that, heaven knows where I
should stop. I'd regret my leg and arm next, the pictures I might
have painted, and the four years' war which we might have won.
No, no. I'd change nothing, I tell you--not a day; not an hour;
not a single sin nor a single virtue. They're all woven into the
pattern of the whole, and I reckon the Lord knew the figure He
had in mind."
"Well, I'd like to pull a thread or two out of it," returned
Christopher moodily, squinting his eyes at the approaching form
of Susan Spade, who came from the afterglow through the
whitewashed gate. "Why, what's bringing her, I wonder?" he asked
with evident displeasure.
To this inquiry Susan herself presently made answer as she walked
with her determined tread across the little yard.
"I've a bit of news for you, Mr. Christopher, an' I reckon you'd
ruther have it from my mouth than from Bill Fletcher's. His
back's up agin, the Lord knows why, an' he's gone an' moved his
pasture fence so as to take in yo' old field that lies beside it.
He swars it's his, too, but Tom's ready to match him with a
bigger oath that it's yours an' always has been."
"Of course it's mine," said Christopher coolly. "The meadow brook
marks the boundary, and the field is on this side. I can prove it
by Tom or Jacob Weatherby tomorrow."
"Well, he's took it " rejoined Mrs. Spade flatly.
"He won't keep it long, I reckon, ma'am," said Tucker, in his
pleasant manner; "and I must say it seems to me that Bill
Fletcher is straining at a gnat. Why, he has near two thousand
acres, hasn't he? And what under heaven does he want with that
old field the sheep have nibbled bare? There's no sense in it."
"It ain't sense, it's nature," returned Mrs. Spade, sitting
squarely down on the bench from which Christopher had risen; "an'
that's what I've had ag'in men folks from the start--thar's too
much natur in 'em. You kin skeer it out of a woman, an' you kin
beat it out of a dog, an' thar're times when you kin even spank
it out of a baby, but if you oust it from a man thar ain't
nothin' but skin an' bones left behind. An' natur's a ticklish
thing to handle without gloves, bless yo' soul, suh. It's like a
hive of bees: you give it a little poke to start it, an' the
first thing you know it's swarmin' all over both yo' hands. It's
a skeery thing, suh, an' Bill Fletcher's got his share of it,
sho's you're born."
"It has its way with him pretty thoroughly, I think," responded
Tucker, chuckling; "but if I were you, Christopher, I'd stick up
for my rights in that old field. Bill Fletcher may need exercise,
but there's no reason he should get it by trampling over you."
"Oh, I'll throw his fence down, never fear," answered Christopher
indifferently. "He knew it, I dare say, when he put it up."
"It's a fuss he wants, suh, an' nothing else," declared Mrs.
Spade, smoothing down the starched fold of her gingham apron;
"an' if he doesn't git it, po' creetur, he's goin' to be laid up
in bed befo' the week is out. He's bilin' hot inside, I can see
that in his face, an' if the steam don't work out one way it will
another. When a man ain't got a wife or child to nag at he's
mighty sho' to turn right round an' begin naggin' at his
neighbours, an' that's why it's the bounden duty of every decent
woman to marry an' save the peace. Why, if Tom hadn't had me to
worry on, I reckon he'd be the biggest blusterer in this county
or the next."
Leaving her still talking, Christopher went from her into the
house, where he lingered an instant with drawn breath before his
mother's door. The old lady was sleeping tranquilly, and,
treading softly in his heavy boots, he passed out to the friendly
faces of the horses and the cool dusk of the stable.
As the days went on, drawing gradually toward summer, Mrs.
Blake's life began peacefully to flicker out, like a candle that
has burned into the socket. There were hours when her mind was
quite clear, and at such times she would talk unceasingly in her
old sprightly fashion, with her animated gestures and her arch
and fascinating smile. But following these sanguine periods there
would come whole days when she lay unconscious and barely taking
breath, while her features grew sharp and wan under the pallid
It was when she had just passed through one of these states that
Lila came out on a Sunday afternoon to find Christopher at the
woodpile, and told him, with a burst of tears, that she thought
the end had come.
"She's quite herself and wants us all," she said, sobbing. "And
she's even asked for the house servants, every one--for Phyllis,
and Tobias, and so many of them who have been away for years.
It's just as if she knew that she was dying and wanted to say
Throwing the axe hurriedly aside, Christopher followed her into
the house, and then entering the old lady's room, stopped short
beside the threshold in a grief that was not unmixed with wonder.
The sunshine fell straight through the window on the high white
pillows, and among them Mrs. Blake was sitting rigidly, her blind
eyes sparkling with the last fitful return of her intelligence.
She was speaking, as he entered, in a natural and lively tone,
which brought back to him his earliest memories of her engaging
"Are the servants all there, Cynthia? Then let them come and
stand inside the door--a few at a time."
"They are here, mother," replied Cynthia, choking; and
Christopher, glancing round, saw several decrepit Negroes leaning
against the wall--Uncle Boaz, Docia (pressing her weak heart),
and blear-eyed Aunt Polly, already in her dotage.
"I wish to tell you good-by while my mind is clear," pursued the
old lady in her high, sweet voice. "You have been good servants
to me for a long time, and I hope you will live many years to
serve my children as faithfully. Always remember, Christopher--is
"I am here, dear mother."
"Always remember that a man's first duty is to his wife and
children, and his second to his slaves. The Lord has placed them
in your hands, and you must answer to Him how you fulfill the
trust. And now, Boaz--where is Boaz?"
"I'm yer, ole miss; I'm right yer."
"You may shake my hand, Boaz, for it is a long good-by. I've
always promised you your freedom, and I haven't forgotten it,
though you asked for it almost fifty years ago. You did something
that I praised you for--I can't quite remember what it was--and
when I asked you what you would like as a reward, you answered:
'Don't give me nothin' now, ole miss, but let the gift grow and
set me free when you come to die.' It is a long time, Boaz, fifty
years, but I give you your freedom now, as I promised, though it
is very foolish of you to want it, and I'm sure you'll find it
nothing but a burden and a trouble. Christopher, will you
remember that Boaz is free?"
Christopher crossed the room, and, catching her hands in his own,
sought to force her back upon the pillows, but with an effort
that showed in every tense line of her face she pushed him from
her and sat erect and unsupported.
"Let me dismiss them first," she said with her stately manner.
"Good-by, Phyllis and Polly--and--and--all the rest of you. You
may go now. I am a little tired, and I will lie down."
Cynthia put the weeping servants from the room, and, filling a
glass with brandy, held it with a shaking hand to her mother's
"Take this, dear, and lie down," she said.
Mrs. Blake sipped the brandy obediently, but as she felt her
strength revive from the strong spirit the animation reawoke in
her face, and, turning toward Christopher, she stretched out her
hand with an appealing gesture.
"There is so much to say and I haven't the space to say it in, my
son. There is so much advice I want to give you, but the time is
"I understand, mother; I understand. Don't let it trouble you."
"I have had a fortunate life, my child," resumed the old lady,
waving him to silence with a gesture in which there was still a
feeble sprightliness, "and when one has lived happily far into
the seventies one learns a great deal of wisdom, and there is
much good advice that one ought to leave behind. You have been an
affectionate son to me, Christopher, and I have not yet given up
the hope that you may live to be a worthy husband to another
woman. If you do marry--and God grant that you may--remember that
the chief consideration should be family connection, and the next
personal attractiveness. Wealth counts for very little beside
good birth, and after this I regard a small foot and hand as most
essential. They have always been a mark of our breeding,
Christopher, and I should not like the family to lose through you
one of its most distinguished characteristics."
"It is not likely I shall marry, mother. I was cut out for
"One never knows, my son, and at least I am only doing my duty in
speaking to you thus. I am a very old woman, and I am not afraid
to die, for I have never to my knowledge done anything that was
unbecoming in a lady. Remember to be a gentleman, and you will
find that that embraces all morality and a good deal of
He kissed her hand, watching anxiously the mounting excitement in
"And if you do marry, Christopher," she went on, harping fitfully
on her favourite string, "remember that keeping in love is as
much the profession for a man as it is the art for a woman, and
that love feeds on little delicacies rather than on meat and
drink. Don't forget the little things, dear, and the big ones
will take care of themselves. I have seen much of men and manners
in my life, and they have taught me that it is the small
failings, not the big faults, which are deadliest to love. Why,
I've seen a romantic passion survive shame, and treachery, and
even blows, and another wither out of existence before the first
touch of bad breeding. 'A man's table manners are a part of his
morality,' your Great-grandfather Bolivar used to say."
She laughed softly while her hand played with the white fringe on