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The Deliverance; A Romance of the Virginia Tobacco Fields by Ellen Glasgow

Part 8 out of 8

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"I can recall now the sympathy I felt for Matty Gordon," she
pursued, "a great belle and beauty who ran off and married that
scamp, Aleck Douglas. He turned into a perfect rascal, they said,
though I must admit that he made a very amiable husband, and
never stinted her, even if he stole from other people. Well, she
stuck to him through good and evil report, and was really from
all appearances a most contented woman. When he died at last,
people said that it was just in time to escape the penitentiary,
but to see Matty you would have thought she had lost nothing
short of pure perfection. Poor old Bishop Deane, who always would
speak his mind, in the pulpit or out of it, went to call on her,
he told me, and took occasion to reprove her for such excessive
grief over so unworthy an object. 'He was not an upright man,
Matty, and you know it,' he began quite boldly; 'he was a
libertine, and a gambler, and an open scoffer at religion.' But
Matty went on sobbing harder than ever, and at last, getting
angry, he said sternly: 'And more than this, ma'am, he was, as
you know, a faithless and disloyal husband!' Then the poor girl
drew out a pocket handkerchief with a three-inch black border and
mopped her pretty blue eyes. 'Ah, but, Bishop, I had so much to
be thankful for!' she said. 'He never chewed tobacco!' Well,
well, she may have been a fool, as the Bishop insisted, but he
was a man, in spite of his cloth, and could never learn to
understand a woman's sensibilities."

She finished, and, turning, touched him gently on the hand.

"It is the little things that count in marriage, Christopher,"
and after a moment she added thoughtfully: "Promise me that you
will always use an ash-tray."

"Anything, dear mother; I promise anything."

With a contented sigh she closed her eyes, and, still holding his
hand, fell into a broken and troubled sleep, from which she awoke
presently in a gentle delirium. Her lost youth had returned to
her, and with it something of her old gaiety of manner. Suddenly
he felt a strange thrill pass through her, and raising herself
with a last great endeavour, she sat erect, staring into the blue
sky that showed through the window.

"I am engaged for this set, sir," she said in her winning voice,
while a girlish smile transfigured her wan face, "but if it
pleases you, you may put your name down for the next."

Rising, he bent quickly over her, but before he touched her she
had fallen back upon the pillows and lay with her arch smile
frozen upon her face.

CHAPTER V. Christopher Plants by Moonlight

At midnight they left him to watch alone in her chamber, and
while he sat in the shadow beside the tester bed his thoughts
encircled the still form on the white counterpane. On the mantel
two candles burned dimly, and the melted tallow dripped slowly
down into the tall brass candlesticks. The dimity curtains of the
bed fluttered softly in the breeze that blew through the open
window, and in his nostrils there was the scent of the single
rose standing in a glass vase upon the table. Tucker had brought
her the rose that morning and she had held it for a pleased
moment in her trembling fingers. Everything in the room around
him was ready for her use--her nightcap lay on the bureau, and in
the china tray beside it he saw her brush and comb, in which a
long strand of white hair was still twisted. On her hands, folded
quietly upon her breast, he caught the flash of Docia's piece of
purple glass, and he remembered with a throb of pain that she had
asked that her betrothal ring might be buried with her.

"Well, she knows all now," he thought in bitterness. "She knows
the theft of the diamond, and the deception that lasted nearly
thirty years." In the midst of his sorrow a sudden shame
possessed him, and he felt all at once that his heart was pierced
by the unearthly keenness of the dead eyes. "She knows all now,"
he repeated, and there was a passionate defiance in his
acknowledgment. "She knows all that I have hidden from her, as
well as much that has been hidden from me. Her blind eyes are
open, and she sees at last my failure and my sin, and the agony
that I have known. For years I have shielded her, but she cannot
shield me now, for all her wider vision. She can avert my fate no
more than I could hold her back from hers. We are each
alone--she, and I, and Maria, and the boy whom I have ruined--and
there is no love that can keep a man from living and dying to
himself."

It seemed to him, sitting there in the shadow, that he felt as he
had felt before in grave moments--the revolutions of the wheel on
which he was bound. And with that strange mystic insight which
comes to those who lead brooding and isolated lives close to
Nature, he asked himself if, after all, these things had not had
their beginning in the dawn of his existence so many million
years ago. "Has it not all happened before as it happens now--my
shame and my degradation, the kiss I placed on Maria's lips, and
the watch I keep by the deathbed of my mother? It is all familiar
to me, and when the end comes, that will be familiar, too."

A night moth entered, wheeling in dizzy circles about the candle,
but when it went so near as to scorch its wings he caught it
gently in his hollowed palms and released it into the darkness of
the yard. As he leaned out he saw the light shining clear in
Maria's window, and while he gazed upon it he felt a curious
kinship with the moth that had flown in from the night and
hovered about the flame.

As the days went on, the emptiness in the house became to him
like that of the grave, and he learned presently that the peevish
and exacting old lady who had not stirred for years from her
sick-bed had left a vacancy larger than all the rest of them
could fill. Cynthia, who had borne most of the burden, began now
to bear, in its place, the heavier share of the loss. Released
from her daily sacrifice and her patient drudgery, she looked
about her with dazed eyes, like one whose future has been
suddenly swept away. There was nothing for her to do any longer
--no risings in the gray dawn to prepare the day's stealthy work,
no running on aching feet to answer unreasonable complaints, no
numberless small lies to plan in secret, no stinting of herself
that her mother might have her little luxuries. Her work was
over, and she pined away in the first freedom of her life. The
very fact that deception was no longer necessary seemed to sweep
her accustomed moorings from beneath her feet. She had lied so
long that lying had become at last a second nature to her, and to
her surprise she found almost an indecency in the aspect of the
naked truth.

"I don't know how it is, Uncle Tucker," she said one day toward
the end of June, when the deadly drought which had kept back the
transplanting of the tobacco had ended in three days of heavy
rain--"I don't know how it is, but the thing I miss most--and I
miss her every minute--is the lying I had to do. It gave me
something to think about, somehow. I used to stay awake at night
and plan all sorts of pleasant lies that I could tell about the
house and the garden, and the way the war ended, and the
Presidents of the Confederacy--I made up all their names--and the
fuss with which each one was inaugurated, and the dresses their
wives and daughters wore. It's all so dull when you have to stop
pretending and begin to face things just as they are. I've lied
for almost thirty years, and I reckon I've lost my taste for the
truth."

"Well, it will come back, dear," responded Tucker reassuringly;
"but I think you need a change if a woman ever did. What about
that week you're to spend with the Weatherbys?"

"I'm going to-morrow," answered Cynthia shortly. "Lila is sick
with a cold and wants me; but how you and Christopher will manage
to get on is more than I can say."

"Oh, we'll worry along with Docia, never fear," replied Tucker,
hobbling into his seat at the supper table, as Christopher came
in from the woods with the heavy moisture dripping from his
clothes.

"It's cleared off fine and there's to be a full moon tonight,"
said the young man, hanging up his hat. "If the rain had come a
week later the tobacco would have been ruined. I've just been
taking it up out of the plant-bed."

"You'll begin setting it out to-morrow, I reckon, then," observed
Tucker, watching Cynthia as she cut up his food.

"Oh, I'm afraid to wait--the ground dries so quickly. Jacob
Weatherby is going to set his out to-night, and I think I'll do
the same. There's a fine moon, and I shouldn't wonder if every
farmer in the county was in the fields till daybreak."

He ate his supper hurriedly, and then, taking down his hat, went
out to resume his work. At the door he had left his big split
basket of plants, and, slipping his arm through the handle, he
crossed the yard in the direction of the field. As he turned into
the little path which trailed in wet grass along the "worm"
fence, Jacob Weatherby came stepping briskly through the mud in
the road and stopped to ask him if he had got his ground ready
for the setting out. "I've been lookin' for hands myself," added
the old man in his cheery voice, "for I could find work for a
dozen men to-night, but to save my life I can't scrape up more'n
a nigger here an' thar. Bill Fletcher has been out ahead of me,
it seems."

"Well, I'll be able to help you to-morrow, I think," answered
Christopher. "I hope to get my own work done to-night." Then he
asked. with a trifling hesitation: "How is Lila's cold?"

A sudden light broke over old Jacob's face, and he nodded in his
genial fashion.

"Ah, bless her pretty eyes, I sometimes think she's too good to
put her foot down on this here common earth," he said, "an' to
think that only this mornin' she was wantin' to help Sarah wipe
the dishes. Why, I reckon Sarah would ruther work her fingers to
the bone than have that gal take a single dishcloth in her hand.
Oh, we know how to value her, Mr. Christopher, never fear. Her
word's law in our house, and always will be."

He passed on with his hearty chuckle, and Christopher followed
the wet path and began planting his tobacco plants in the small
holes he bored in the moist earth.

It was the most solemn hour of day, when the division between
light and darkness seems less a gradation than a sudden blur. A
faint yellow line still lingered across the western horizon, and
against it the belt of pines rose like an advancing army. The
wind, which blew toward him from the woods, filled his nostrils
with a spicy tang.

Slowly the moon rose higher, flooding the hollows and the low
green hills with light. In the outlying fields around the Hall he
saw Fletcher's planters at work in the tobacco, each man so
closely followed by his shadow that it was impossible at a little
distance to distinguish the living labourer from his airy double.
All the harsh irregularities of the landscape were submerged in a
general softness of tone, and the shapes of hill and meadow, of
road and tree, of shrub and rock, were dissolved in a magical and
enchanting beauty.

Several hours had passed, and he had stopped to rest a moment
from his planting, when Maria came in the moonlight along the
road and paused breathlessly to lean upon the fence beneath the
locust tree.

"It is the first time I've been out for two weeks," she said,
panting softly. "I twisted my ankle, and the worst part was that
I didn't even dare to send you word. What must you have thought?"

"No harm of you," he answered, and threw down the fence-rails
that she might cross. "Come over to me, Maria."

Putting her hands in his, she passed over the lowered fence, and
then stood at arm's length looking into his face, which the
moonlight had softened to a beauty that brought to her mind a
carving in old ivory.

"I still limp a little," she went on, smiling, "and I had to
steal out like a thief and run through the shadows. To find me
with you would be the death of grandfather, I believe. Something
has occurred to put him in a fresh rage with you."

"It was the field by the pasture," he told her frankly. "You know
it belongs to me, and pure justice made me throw down his fence;
but if you wish it I will put it up again. I'll do anything you
wish."

She thought for a moment with that complete detachment of
judgment from emotion which is so rarely a part of a woman's
intellect.

"No, no," she said; "it is right that you should take it down. I
would not have you submit to any further injustice, not even a
little one like that."

"And this will go on forever! Oh, Maria, how will it end?"

"We must wait and hope, dear; you see that."

"I see nothing but that I love you and am most miserable," he
answered desperately.

A smile curved her lips. "Oh, blind and faithless, I see only
you!"

He was still holding her hands, but, dropping them as she spoke,
he threw his arms wide open and stood waiting.

"Then come to me, my dearest; come to me."

His voice rang out in command rather than entreaty, and he stood
smiling gravely as, hesitating a breathless instant, she regarded
him with eyes that struggled to be calm. Then slowly the radiance
which was less the warmth of colour than of expression flooded
her face, and she bent toward him as if impelled by some strong
outside force. The next moment the storm swept her roughly from
her feet and crushed back her pleading hands upon her bosom;
bewildered, flushed, and trembling, she lay upon his breast while
their lips clung together. "Oh, my friend, my lover," she
murmured faintly.

He felt her resistance dissolve within his arms, and it was a
part of the tragedy of their love that there should come to him
no surprise when he found her mouth salt from her tears. The
shadow of a great evil, of a secret anguish, still divided them,
and it was this that gave to their embraces the sorrowful passion
which he drew from her despairing kiss.

"You cannot love me, Maria. How can it be true?"

Releasing herself, she put her hand upon his lips to silence him.

"You have made your confession," she said earnestly, with the
serene dignity which had impressed him in the first moment of
their meeting, "and now I will make mine. You must not stop me;
you must not look at me until I finish. Promise."

"I promise to keep silent," he answered, with his gaze upon her.

She drew away from him, keeping her eyes full on his, and holding
him at arm's length with the tips of her fingers. He felt that
she was still shaken by his embrace--that she was still in a
quiver from his kisses; but to all outward seeming she had
regained the noble composure of her bearing.

"No, no. Ah, listen, my friend, and do not touch me. What I must
tell you is this, and you must hear me patiently to the end. I
have loved you always--from the first day; since the beginning.
There has never been any one else, and there has never been a
moment in my life when I would not have followed you had you
lifted a finger anywhere. At first I did not know--I did not
believe it. It was but a passing fancy, I thought, that you had
murdered. I taught myself to believe that I was cold, inhuman,
because I did not warm to other men. Oh, I did not know then that
I was not stone, but ice, which would melt at the first touch of
the true flame ."

"Maria!" he burst out in a cry of anguish.

"Hush! Hush! Remember your promise. It was not until afterward,"
she went on in the same quiet voice; "it was not until my
marriage--not until my soul shuddered back from his embraces and
I dreamed of you, that I began to see--to understand."

"Oh, Maria, my beloved, if I had known!"

She still held him from her with her outstretched arm.

"It was the knowledge of this that made me feel that I had
wronged him--that I had defrauded him of the soul of love and
given him only the poor flesh. It was this that held me to him
all those wretched years--that kept me with him till the end,
even through his madness. At last I buried your memory, told
myself that I had forgotten."

"We will let the world go, dearest," he said passionately. "Come
to me."

But she shook her head, and, still smiling, held him at a
distance.

"It will never go," she answered, "for it is not the world's way.
But whatever comes to us, there is one thing you must
remember--that you must never forget for one instant while you
live. In good or evil, in life or death, there is no height so
high nor any depth so low that I will not follow you."

Then waving him from her with a decisive gesture, she turned from
him and went swiftly home across the moonlit fields.

CHAPTER VI. Treats of the Tragedy Which Wears a Comic Mask

As she hastened on, Christopher's presence was still with
her--his arm still enveloped her, his voice still spoke in her
ears; and so rapt was the ecstasy in which she moved that it was
with a positive shock that she found herself presently before the
little area which led into the brick kitchen in the basement of
the Hall. Here from the darkness her name was spoken in a stifled
voice, while a hand reached out and clutched her by the shoulder.

"I say, Maria, I've been waiting hours to speak to you."

Forcing back the cry upon her lips, she opened the door and stole
softly into the kitchen. Then, turning, she faced Will with a
frightened gesture.

"How reckless--how very reckless!" she exclaimed in a whisper.

He closed the door that led up into the house, and coming over to
the stove, where the remains of a fire still smouldered in a deep
red glow, stood looking at her with nervous twitches of his
reddened eyelids. There was a wildness in his face before which
she fell back appalled, and his whole appearance, from the damp
hair lying in streaks upon his forehead to his restless feet
which he shuffled continually as he talked, betrayed an agitation
so extreme as to cause her a renewed pang of foreboding.

"Oh, Will, you have been drinking again!" she said, in the same
frightened whisper.

"And why not?" he demanded, throwing out his words between thick
breaths. "What business is it of yours or of anybody else's if I
have been? A pretty sister you are--aren't you?--to let a fellow
rot away on a tobacco farm while you wear diamonds on your
fingers."

She looked at him steadily for a moment, and his shifting glance
fell slowly to the floor.

"If you are in any fresh trouble you may as well tell me at
once," she said. "It is a mere waste of time and breath to
reproach me. You can't possibly make me angry to-night, for I
wear an armour of which you do not dream, and so little a thing
as abuse does not even touch me. Besides, grandfather may hear us
and come down at any moment. So speak quickly."

Her coolness sobered him instantly, as if a splash of icewater
had been thrown into his face, and his tone lost its
aggressiveness and sank into a whimpering complaint.

It was the same old thing, he went on, only worse and worse.
Molly had been ill again, and the doctor ordered medicine he
couldn't buy. Yes, he had tried to take the diamond from her, but
she flew into hysterics at the mere mention of selling it. Once
he had dragged it off her finger, and had given it back again
because her wildness frightened him, "Why on earth did you ever
let her have it?" he finished querulously.

"Well, I never imagined she would be quite so silly," returned
Maria, distressed by what she heard. "But it may be that jewels
are really her passion, and the bravest of us, I suppose, are
those who sacrifice most for their dearest desire. I really don't
see what is to be done, Will. I haven't any money, and I don't
dare ask grandfather, for he makes me keep a strict account of
every cent I spend. Only yesterday he told me he couldn't allow
me but two postage stamps a week, and yet I believe that he is
worth considerably more than half a million dollars. Sometimes I
think it is nothing short of pure insanity, he grows so miserly
about little things. Aunt Saidie and I have both noticed that he
would rather spend a hundred dollars--though it is like drawing
out an eyetooth--than keep a pound of fresh butter from the
market."

"And yet he likes you?"

"Oh, he tolerates me, as far as that goes; but I don't believe he
likes anything on earth except his money. It's his great passion,
just as Molly's love of jewelry is hers. There is something so
tremendous about it that one can't help respect it. As for me, he
only bears with my presence so long as I ask him for absolutely
nothing. He knows I have my little property, and we had a
dreadful scene when I refused to let him keep my check-book. I
gave you all the interest of the last six months, you know, and
the other isn't due until November. If he finds out that it goes
to you, heaven help us!"

"And there's not the faintest hope of his coming to his senses?
Have you spoken of me again?"

"I've mentioned your name twice, that was all. He rose and
stamped out of the room, and didn't speak for days. Aunt Saidie
and I have planned to bring the baby over when it comes. That may
soften him--especially if it should be a boy."

"Oh, the bottom will drop out of things by that time," he
returned savagely, tearing pieces of straw from his worn
hat-brim. "If this keeps up much longer, Maria, I warn you now
I'll run away. I'll go off some day on a freight train and hide
my head until he dies; then I'll come back to enjoy his precious
money."

She sighed, thinking hopelessly of the altered will.

"And Molly?" she questioned, for lack of a more effectual
argument.

"I can't stop to think of Molly: it drives me mad. What use am I
to her, anyway, I'd like to know? She'd be quite as well off
without me, for we do nothing but quarrel now night and day; and
yet I love her--I love her awfully," he added in a drunken
whimper.

"Oh, Will, Will, be a man for her sake!"

"I can't; I can't," he protested, his voice rising in anger. "I
can't stand the squalor of this life; it's killing me. Why, look
at the way I was brought up, never stopping an instant to ask
whether I could have a thing I wanted. He had no right to
accustom me to luxuries till I couldn't do without them and then
throw me out upon the world like this!"

"Hush! Hush! Your voice is too loud. It will bring him down."

"I'll be hanged if I care!" he retorted, but involuntarily he
lowered his tone.

"You mustn't stay here five minutes longer," urged Maria. "I'll
give you a diamond brooch I still have left, and you may take it
to town yourself and sell it. Only promise me on your honour that
you will spend the money on the things Molly needs."

"Oh, I promise," he replied roughly. "Where is it?"

"In my room. I must get it now. Be perfectly quiet until I
return."

Opening the door and closing it carefully behind her, she stole
noiselessly up the dark staircase, while Will, twitching
nervously, paced restlessly up and down the brick floor. A pile
of walnuts which Miss Saidie had been shelling for cake lay on
the hearth, and, picking up the heavy old hammer she had used, he
cracked a nut and ate it hurriedly. Hungry as he was--for he had
not been home to supper--he found difficulty in swallowing, and,
laying the hammer down upon the bricks, he rose and stood waiting
beside the stove. Though the night was warm, a shiver ran
suddenly through him, and, stirring the fading embers with a
splinter of resinous pine, he held out his shaking hands to the
blaze.

In a moment Maria entered and handed him the brooch in a little
box.

"Try to keep up courage, Will," she said, pushing him into the
area under the back steps; "and above all things, do not come
here again. It is so unsafe."

He promised lightly that he would not, and then told her good-by
with an affectionate pat upon the arm.

"Well, you are a bully good chap, after all," he added, as he
stepped out into the night.

For a while Maria stood looking after him across the moonlit
fields, and then, even as she turned to enter the house, the last
troubled hour was blotted from her consciousness, and she lived
over again the moment of Christopher's embrace. With that
peculiar power to revive and hold within the memory an instant's
emotion which is possessed by ardent and imaginative women, she
experienced again all the throbbing exhilaration, all the fulness
of being, which had seemed to crowd the heartbeats of so many
ordinary years into the single minute that was packed with life.
That minute was hers now for all time; it was a possession of
which no material loss, no untoward fate could defraud her; and
as she felt her steps softly up the dark staircase, it seemed to
her that she saw her way by the light of the lamp that was
burning in her bosom.

To her surprise, as she reached the dining-room a candle was
thrust out before her, and, illuminated by the trembling flame,
she saw the face of Fletcher, hairy, bloated, sinister, with the
shadow of evil impulses worked into the mouth and eyes. For a
moment he wagged at her in silence, and in the flickering
radiance she saw each swollen vein, each gloomy furrow, with
exaggerated distinctness. He reminded her vaguely of some hideous
gargoyle she had seen hanging from an early Gothic cathedral.

"So you've taken to gallivanting, like the rest," he observed
with coarse pleasantry. "I'd thought you were a staid and
sober-minded woman for your years, but it seems that you are of a
bunch with all the others."

"I've been out in the moonlight," answered Maria, while a
sensation of sickness stole over her.

"It is as bright as day, but I thought you were in bed long ago."

"Thar's not much sleep for me during tobacco planting, I kin tell
you," rejoined Fletcher; "but as for you, I reckon thar's more
beneath your words than you like to own to. You've been over to
see that young scamp, ain't you?"

"I saw him, but I did not go out for that purpose."

"It's the truth, I reckon, for I've never known you to lie, and
I'll be hanged if it ain't that I like about you, after all.
You're the only person I kin spot, man or woman, who speaks the
truth jest for the darn love of it."

"And yet I lived a lie for five years," returned Maria quietly.

"Maybe so, maybe so; but it set on you like the burr on a
chestnut, somehow, and when it rolled off thar you were, as clean
as ever. Well, you're an honest and spunky woman, and I can't
help your traipsing over thar even if I wanted to. But thar's one
thing I tell you now right flat--if that young rascal wants to
keep a whole skin he'd better stay off this place. I'd shoot him
down as soon as I would a sheep-killing hound."

"Oh, he won't come here," said Maria faintly; and, going into the
dining-room, she dropped into a chair and lay with her arms
outstretched upon the table. The second shock to her emotional
ecstasy had been too much, and the furniture and Fletcher's face
and the glare of the candle all spun before her in a sickening
confusion.

After looking at her anxiously an instant, Fletcher poured out a
glass of water and begged her to take a swallow. "Thar, thar, I
didn't mean to skeer you," he said kindly. "You mustn't mind my
rough-and-ready ways, for I'm a plain man, God knows. If you are
sure you feel fainty," he added, "I'll git you a sip of whisky,
but it's a pity to waste it unless you have a turn."

"Oh, I'm all right," answered Maria, sitting up, and returning
his inquiring gaze with a shake of the head. "My ankle is still
weak, you know, and I felt a sudden twinge from standing on it.
What were you looking for at this hour?"

"Well, I've been out in the air sense supper, and I feel kind of
gone. I thought I'd like a bite of something--maybe a scrap of
that cold jowl we had for dinner. But I can't find it. Do you
reckon Saidie is such a blamed fool as to throw the scraps away?"

"There's Malindy, you know; she must eat."

"I'd like to see one nigger eat up half a jowl," grumbled
Fletcher, rooting among the dishes in the sideboard. "Thar was a
good big hunk of it left, for you didn't touch it. You don't seem
to thrive on our victuals," he added bluntly, turning to peer
into her face.

"I'm a small eater; it makes little difference."

"Well, we mustn't starve you," he said, as he went back to his
search; "and if it's a matter of a pound of fresh butter, or a
spring chicken, even, I won't let it stand in your way. Why,
what's this, I wonder?"

Ripping out an oath with an angry snort, he drew forth Miss
Saidie's walnut cake and held it squarely before the candle. "I
declar, if she ain't been making walnut cake agin, and I told her
last week I wan't going to have her wasting all my eggs. Look at
it, will you? If she's beat up one egg in that cake she's beat up
a dozen, to say nothing of the sugar!"

"Don't scold her, grandfather. She has a sweet tooth, you know,
and it's so hard for her not to make desserts."

"Pish! Tush! I don't reckon her tooth's any sweeter than mine.
I've a powerful taste for trash myself, and always had since the
time I overate ripe honey-shucks when I was six months old; but
the taste don't make me throw away good money. I'll have no more
of this, I tell you, and I've said my say. She can bake a bit of
cake once a week if she'll stint herself to an egg or two, but
when it comes to mixing up a dozen at a time, I'll be darned if
I'll allow it."

Lifting the plate in one hand, he stood surveying the big cake
with disapproving yet admiring eyes. "It would serve her right if
I was to eat up every precious crumb," he remarked at last.

"Suppose you try it," suggested Maria pleasantly. "It would
please Aunt Saidie."

"It ain't to please her," sourly responded Fletcher, as he drove
the knife with a lunge into the yellow loaf. "She's a thriftless,
no-account housekeeper, and I'll tell her so tomorrow."

Still holding the knife in his clenched fist, he sat munching the
cake with a relish which brought a smile to Maria's tired eves.

"Yes, I've a powerful sweet tooth myself," he added, as he cut
another slice.

CHAPTER VII. Will Faces Desperation and Stands at Bay

Rising at daybreak next morning, Will's eyes lighted in his first
glance from the window on Christopher's blue-clad figure
commanding the ploughed field on the left of the house. In the
distance towered the black pines, and against them the solitary
worker was relieved in the slanting sunbeams which seemed to
arrest and hold his majestic outline. The split basket of plants
was on his arm, and he was busily engaged in "setting out" Will's
neglected crop of tobacco.

Leaving Molly still asleep, Will dressed himself hurriedly, and,
putting the diamond brooch in his pocket, ran out to where
Christopher was standing midway of the bare field.

"So you're doing my work again," he said, not ungratefully.

"If I didn't I'd like to know who would," responded Christopher
with rough kindliness, as he dropped a wilted plant into a hole.
"You're up early this morning. Where are you off to?"

Will drew the brooch from his pocket and held it up with a laugh.

"Maria gave me this," he explained, "and I'm going to town to
turn it into money."

"Well, I'll keep an eye on the place while you are away,"
returned Christopher, without looking at the trinket. "Go about
your business, and for heaven's sake don't stop to drink. Some
men can stand liquor; you can't. It makes a beast of you."

"And not of you, eh?"

"It never gets the chance. I know when to stop. That's the
difference between us."

"Of course that's the difference," rejoined Will a little
doggedly. "I never know when to stop about anything, I'll be
hanged if I do. It's my cursed luck to go at a headlong gait."

"And some day you'll get your neck broken. Well, be off now, or
you'll most likely miss the stage."

He turned away to sort the young plants in his basket, while Will
started at a brisk pace for the cross-roads.

The planting was tedious work, and it was almost evening before
Christopher reached the end of the field and started home along
the little winding lane. He had eaten a scant dinner with Molly,
who had worried him by tearful complaints across the turnip
salad. She had never looked prettier than in her thin white
blouse, with her disordered curls shadowing her blue eyes, and he
had never found her more frankly selfish. Her shallow-rooted
nature awakened in him a feeling that was akin to repulsion, and
he saw in imagination the gallant resolution with which Maria
would have battled against such sordid miseries. At the first
touch of her heroic spirit they would have been sordid no longer,
for into the most squalid suffering her golden nature would have
shed something of its sunshine. Beauty would have surrounded her,
in Will's cabin as surely as in Blake Hall. And with the thought
there came to him the knowledge, wrung from experience, that
there are souls which do not yield to events, but bend and shape
them into the likeness of themselves. No favouring circumstance
could have evolved Maria out of Molly, nor could any crushing one
have formed Molly from Maria's substance. The two women were as
far asunder as the poles, united only by a certain softness of
sex he found in them both.

The sun had dropped behind the pines and a gray mist was floating
slowly across the level landscape. The fields were still in
daylight, while dusk already enshrouded the leafy road, and it
was from out the gloom that obscured the first short bend that he
saw presently emerge the figure of a man who appeared to walk
unsteadily and with an effort.

For an instant Christopher stopped short in the lane; then he
went forward at a single impetuous stride.

"Will!" he cried in a voice of thunder.

Will looked up with dazed eyes, and, seeing who had called him,
burst into a loud and boisterous laugh.

"So you'll begin with your darn preaching," he remarked, gaping.

For reply, Christopher reached out, and, seizing him by the
shoulder, shook him roughly to his senses.

"What's the meaning of this tomfoolery?" he demanded. "Do you
mean to say you've made a beast of yourself, after all?"

Partly sobered by the shock, Will gazed back at him with a dogged
misery which gave his face the colour of extreme old age.

"I'm not so drunk as I look," he responded bitterly. "I wish to
Heaven I were! There are worse things than being drunk, though
you won't believe it. I say," he added, in a sudden, hysterical
exclamation, "you're the only friend I have on earth!"

"Nonsense. What have you been doing?"

"Oh, I couldn't help it--it wasn't my fault, I'll be blamed if it
was! I did sell the breastpin and get the money, and wrapped it
in the list of things that Molly wanted. I put them in my
pocket," he finished, touching his coat, "the money and the list
together."

"And where is it?"

For a moment Will did not reply, but stood shaking like a blade
of grass in a high wind. Then removing his hat, he mopped feebly
at the beads of sweat upon his forehead. His eyes had the dumb
appeal of a frightened animal's. "I haven't had a morsel all
day," he whimpered, "and the effect of the whisky has all worn
off."

"Speak up, man," said Christopher kindly. "I can't eat you."

"Oh, it's not you," returned Will desperately; "it's Molly. I'm
afraid to go home and look Molly in the face."

"Pish! She doesn't bite."

"She does worse; she cries."

"Then, for God's sake, out with the trouble," urged Christopher,
losing patience. "You've lost the money, I take it; but how?"

"There was a fair," groaned Will, his voice breaking. "I met Fred
Turner and a strange man who owned horses, and they asked me to
come and watch the racing. Then we had drinks and began to bet,
and somehow I always lost after the first time. Before I knew it
the money was all gone, every single cent, and I owed Fred Turner
a hundred and fifty dollars."

Christopher's gaze travelled slowly up and down the slight figure
before him and he swore softly beneath his breath.

"Well, you have made a mess of it!" he exclaimed with a laugh.

"I knew you'd say so, and you're the only friend I have on earth.
As for Molly--oh, I'm afraid to go home, that's all. Do you know,
I've half a mind to run away for good?"

"Pshaw! Accidents will happen, and there's nothing in all this to
take the pluck out of a man. I've been through worse things
myself."

"But Fred Turner!" groaned Will. "I promised him I'd pay him in
two days."

"Then you'll do it. I'll undertake to see to that."

"You!" exclaimed the other, with so abject a reliance upon the
spoken word that it brought a laugh from Christopher's lips. "How
will you manage it?"

Oh, somehow--mortgage the farm, I reckon. At any rate, in two
days you shall be clear of your debt to Fred Turner; there's my
word. All I hope is that you'll learn a lesson from the fright."

"Oh, I will, I will; and by Jove! you are a bully chap!"

"Then go home and make your peace with Molly. Mind you, if you
get in liquor again I warn you I won't lift a hand."

With a last cheery "good night" he swung on along the road,
dismissing the thought of Will to invoke that of Maria, and
meeting again in fancy the rich promise of her upturned lips.
Body and soul she was his now, flame and clay, true brain and
true heart. "I will follow you, for the lifting of a finger,
anywhere," she had said, and the words reeled madly in his
thoughts. Her impassioned look returned to him, and he closed his
eyes as a man does in the face of an emotion which proclaims him
craven.

When Christopher's footsteps had faded in the distance, Will, who
had been looking wistfully after him, shook together his
dissolving courage and started with a strengthened purpose to
bear the bad news to Molly. A light streamed through the broken
shutters of her window, and when he laid his hand upon the door
it shot open and she stood before him.

"So you're back at last," she said sharply; "and late again."

"I couldn't help it," he answered with assumed indifference,
entering and passing quickly under the fire of her questioning
look. "I was kept."

"What kept you?"

"Oh, business."

"I'd like to know what business you have!" she retorted
querulously; and a minute later: "Have you brought the medicine?"

He went over to the table and stood looking gloomily down upon
the scattered remains of supper upon the sloppy oilcloth, the
cracked earthenware teapot, and the plate half filled with soppy
bread. "Give me something to eat. I'm almost starved," he
pleaded.

A flash shot from her blue eyes, while the anger he had feared
worked threateningly in the features of her pretty face. There
was no temperateness about Molly; she was all storm or sunshine,
he had once said in the poetic days of courtship.

"If you've brought the things, where are they?" she demanded,
driving him squarely into a corner from which there was no escape
by subterfuge.

A sullen defiance showed in his aspect, and he turned upon her
with a muttered curse. "I haven't them, if you want the truth,"
he snarled. "I meant to buy them, but Fred Turner got me to
drinking and we bet on the races. I lost the money."

"To Fred Turner!" cried Molly. "Oh, you fool!"

He made an angry movement toward her; then checking himself,
laughed bitterly.

"You're as bad as grandfather," he said, "and it's like jumping
from the frying-pan into the fire. I'll be hanged if I knew you
were a shrew when I married you!"

Molly's eyes fairly blazed, and as she shook her head with an
enraged gesture, her hair, tumbling upon her shoulders, flooded
her with light. Even in the midst of his fury his ready senses
responded to the appeal of her dishevelled loveliness.

"And I'll be--anything if I knew you were a drunkard!" she
retorted, pressing her hand upon her panting breast.

"Well, you ought to have known it," he sneered, "for I was one.
Christopher Blake could have told you so. But if I remember
rightly, you weren't so precious particular at the time. You were
glad enough to get anybody, as it happened!"

"How--how dare you?" wailed Molly, in the helplessness of her
rage, and throwing herself upon the lounge, she beat her hands
upon the wooden sides and burst into despairing sobs. "Why, oh,
why did I marry you?" she moaned between choking gasps.

"Some said it was because Fred Turner threw you over," returned
Will savagely, and having hurled his last envenomed dart, he
seized his hat and rushed out into the night.

The scene had worked like madness on his nerves, and in the
darkness of the lane, where the trees kept out the moonbeams, he
still saw the flickering lights that he had left behind him in
the room. He had eaten nothing all day, and his empty stomach
oppressed him with a sensation of nausea. His head spun like a
top, and as he walked the road rocked in long seesaws beneath his
feet. Yet his one craving was for drink, drink, more drink.

Running rather than walking, he reached the store at last, and
went back to the little smoky room where Tom Spade was drawing
beer from the big keg in one corner.

"Give me something to eat, Tom; I'm starving," he said; "and
whisky. I must have whisky or I'll die."

"It's my belief that you'll die if you do have it," responded
Tom. "As for bread and meat, however, Susan will give you a bite
an' welcome." Nevertheless, he poured out the whisky, and,
leaving it upon one of the dirty tables, went hastily out in
search of Mrs. Spade.

Lifting the glass with a shaking hand, Will drained it at a
single swallow, feeling his depleted courage revive as the raw
spirit burned his throat. A sudden heat invaded him; his eyes saw
clearer, and the tips of his fingers were endowed with a new
quality of touch. As his hands travelled slowly over his face he
became aware that he was looking through his finger ends, and he
noted distinctly his haggard features and the short growth of
beard which made him appear jaded and unwashed. Then almost
instantly the quickness died out of his perception, and he felt
the old numbness creeping back.

"Another glass--I must have another glass," he called out
irritably to the empty room. His hands hung stone dead again at
his sides, and his head dropped limply forward upon his breast.
He had forgotten his quarrel with Molly; he had forgotten
everything except his own miserable bodily condition.

When Susan Spade came in with a plate of bread and ham, he roused
himself with a nervous start and inhaled quickly the strong odour
of the meat, endeavouring through the sense of smell to reawaken
the pang of hunger he had felt earlier in the evening. But in
place of the gnawing emptiness there had come now a deadly
nausea, and after the first mouthful or two he pushed the food
away and called hoarsely for more whisky. His head ached in loud,
reverberating throbs, and a queer fancy possessed him that the
sound must be as audible to others as to himself. With the
thought, he glanced about suspiciously, but Tom Spade was
stopping the keg that he had tapped, and Susan was wiping off the
table with energetic sweeps of her checked apron. Relieved by
their impassiveness, he braced himself with the determination to
drink to the dead-line of unconsciousness and then lie down
somewhere in the darkness to sleep off the effects.

"Whisky--give me more whisky," he repeated angrily.

But Mrs. Spade, true to her nature, saw fit to intervene between
him and destruction.

"Not another drop, Mr. Will," she said decisively. "Not another
drop shall you have in this room if it's the last mortal word I
speak. An' if you'd had me by you in the beginning, I'm not
afeard to say, things would have held up a long sight sooner than
this."

"Don't you see I'm in downright agony?" groaned Will, rapping the
glass upon the table. "My head is splitting, I tell you, and I
must have it."

"Not another drop, suh," replied Mrs. Spade with adamantine
firmness of tone. "I ain't a weak woman, thank the Lord, an' as
far as that goes, you might split to pieces inside and out right
here befo' my eyes an' I wouldn't be a party to sendin' you a
step nearer damnation. I ain't afeard of seein' folks suffer. Tom
will tell you that."

"That she ain't, suh," agreed Tom with pride. "If I do say it who
shouldn't, thar never was a woman who could stand mo' pain in
other people than can Susan. Mo' than that, Mr. Will, she's
right, though I'd be sayin' so even if she wasn't--seein' that
the only rule for makin' a woman think yo' way is always to think
hers. But she's right, and that's the truth. You've had too
much."

"Oh, you're driving me mad between you!" cried Will in
desperation. "I'm in awful trouble, and there's nothing under
heaven will make me forget it except drink. One glass more--just
one. That can't hurt me."

"May he have one glass, Susan?" asked Tom, appealing to his wife.

"Not another drop, suh," returned Mrs. Spade, immovable as a
rock.

"Not another drop, she says," repeated the big storekeeper in a
sinking voice. Then he laid his hand sympathetically on Will's
shoulder. "To be sure, I know you're in trouble," he said, "an'
I'll swear it's an out-an'-out shame, I don't care who hears me.
Yes, I'll stand to it in the very face of Bill Fletcher himself."

"Oh, he's a devil!" cried Will, stung by the name he hated.

"I ain't sayin' you've been all you should have been," pursued
Tom in his friendly tones, "but as I told Susan yestiddy, a body
can't sow wild oats in one generation without havin' a volunteer
crop spring up in the next. Now, yo' wild oats were sown long
befo' you were born. Ain't that so, Susan?"

Mrs. Spade planted her hands squarely upon her hips and stood her
ground with a solidity which was as impressive in its way as
dignity.

"I've spoken my mind to Bill Fletcher," she said, "an' I'll speak
it again. 'How's that boy goin' to live, suh?' That's what I
asked, an' 'twas after he told me to shut my mouth, that it was.
Right or wrong, that's what I told him. You've gone an' made the
meanest will this county has ever seen."

"What?" cried Will, springing to his feet, while the room whirled
round him.

"Thar, thar, Susan, you've talked too much," interposed Tom, a
little frightened. "What she means is just some foolishness yo'
grandpa's been lettin' out," he added; "but he'll live long
enough yet to change his mind an' his will, too."

"What is it about? Speak louder, will you? My ears buzz so I
can't hear thunder."

Tom coughed reproachfully at Susan.

"Well, he was talkin' down here last night about havin' changed
his will," he said apologetically. "He's tied it up, it seems, so
you can't get it, an' he's gone an' left the bulk of it to Mrs.
Wyndham."

"To Maria!" repeated Will, and saw scarlet.

"That's what he says; but he'll last to change his mind yet,
never fear. Anger doesn't live as long as a man--eh, Susan?"

But Will had risen and was walking quite steadily toward the
door. His face was dead white, and there were deep blue circles
about his eyes, which sparkled brilliantly. When he turned for a
moment before going out, he sucked in his under lip with a
hissing sound.

"So this was Maria's trick all along," he said hoarsely.

CHAPTER VIII. How Christopher Comes Into His Revenge

"So this was Maria's trick all along," he repeated, as he lurched
out into the road. "This was what she had schemed for from the
beginning--this was what her palavering and her protestations
meant. Oh, it had been a deep game from the first, only he had
been too much of a blind fool to see the truth." A hundred facts
arose to drive in the discovery; a hundred trivial details now
bristled with importance. Why had she been so willing--so eager,
even--to give away her little property, unless she intended to
divert him with the crumbs while she reached for the whole loaf?
Why, again, had she shrunk so from mentioning him to his
grandfather? And why, still further, had she always fearfully
postponed a meeting between the two? He remembered suddenly that
she had once drawn Molly behind the trees when the old man passed
along the road. Poor, defrauded Molly! Forgetting his bitter
quarrel with her, he was ready to fall upon her neck in maudlin
sympathy.

Yes, it was all plain now--as clear as day. He saw one by one
each devilish move that she had made, and he meant to pay her
back for all before the night was over. He would tell her what he
thought of her, freely, fully, in words that she would never
forget. The names that he would use, the curses he would utter,
spun deliriously in his head, and as he went on he found himself
speaking his phrases aloud to the darkness, trying upon the
silence the effect of each blighting sentence.

The lights of the Hall twinkled presently among the trees, and,
crossing the lawn, he crept into the little area under the back
steps. If Maria was not in the kitchen, the servant would be, he
argued, and he would send up a peremptory summons which would
bring her down upon the instant. It was not late enough for her
to be in bed, at least, and he chuckled over the thought of the
sleepless night which she would spend.

Pushing back the door cautiously on its old, rusty hinges, he
entered on tip-toe and glanced suspiciously around. The room was
empty, but a lamp with a smoked chimney burned upon the table,
and there were the glimmering embers of a wood fire in the stove.
It was just as he had left it the evening before, and this
aroused in him a feeling of surprise, so long a stretch appeared
to cover the last twenty-four hours. The same basket of chicken
feathers was in the sagging split-bottomed chair, the same pile
of black walnuts lay on the hearth, and the rusted hammer was
still lying where he had dropped it upon the bricks. Even the
smell was the same--a mixture of baked bread and burned feathers.

Going to the door that led into the house, he opened it and
looked up the dark staircase; then a sound reached him from the
dining-room, and with nervous shiver he turned away and came back
to the stove. A dread paralysed him lest the meeting with Maria
should be delayed until his courage oozed out of him, and to
nerve himself for the encounter he summoned to mind all the
evidence, which gathered in a cloud of witnesses, to prove her
treachery. Once it occurred to him that after a few minutes of
waiting he might tighten the screw upon his nerves and so pluck
up the audacity, if not the resolution, to ascend the stair
boldly and denounce her in the presence of his grandfather. But
the memory of Fletcher's face wagged before him, and, quaking
with terror, he huddled with open palms above the stove. Then,
pacing slowly up and down the room, he set to work frantically to
lash himself into the drunken bravado which he miscalled courage.

Of a sudden his hunger assailed him, violent, convulsive, and,
going over to the tin safe, he rummaged among the cold scraps he
found there, devouring greedily the food which lead been set by
for the hounds. A bottle of Miss Saidie's raspberry vinegar was
hidden in one corner, and he tore the paper label from the cork
and drank like a man who perishes from thirst. His energy, which
had evaporated from fatigue and hunger, surged back in spasms of
anger, and as he turned away, invigorated, from the safe, he
realised as he had never done before the full measure of his rage
against Maria. At the moment, had she come in upon him, he felt
that he could have struck her in the face.

But she did not come, and the slow minutes fretted him in their
passage. A flame shot up in the stove, and, catching a knot of
resinous pine, burned steadily, licking patiently about the
fading embers. The air became charged again with the odour of
burned feathers, and he saw that a handful, with the dried blood
of the fowl still adhering to them, had been scattered upon the
ashes. As he idly noted the colours of red and black, he
remembered with bitterness that he had raised game-cocks once
when he was a boy at the Hall, and that Maria had smashed a
nestful of his eggs in a fit of passion. The incident swelled to
enormous proportions in his thoughts, and he determined that he
would remind her of it in the interview that was before them.

The door into the house creaked suddenly behind him; he wheeled
about nervously, and then stood with hanging jaws staring into
the face of Fletcher.

"So it is you, is it?" said the old man, raising the stick he
carried. "So it is you, as I suspected--you darn rascal!"

But the power of speech had departed from Will in the presence
that he dreaded, and he stood clutching tightly to his harvest
hat, and shaking his head as if to deny the obvious fact of his
own identity.

"I thought it was you," pursued Fletcher, licking his dry lips.
"I heard a noise, and I picked up my stick, thinking it was you.
I'll have no thieving beggars on my place, I tell you, so the
quicker you git off the better. When were you here last, I'd like
to know?"

"Yesterday," answered Will, speaking the truth from sheer
physical inability to frame a lie. "I came to see Maria. She's
cheated me--she's cheated me all along."

"Then she lied," said Fletcher softly. "Then she lied and I
didn't know it."

"She's cheated me," insisted Will hoarsely. "It's been all a
scheme of hers from the very beginning. She's cheated me about
the will, grandpa; I swear she has."

"Eh? What's that?" responded the old man, shaking back his heavy
eyebrows. "Say your say right now, for in five minutes you go off
this place with every hound in the pack yelping at your heels.
I'll not have you here--I'll not have you here!"

The words ended in a snarl, and a fleck of foam dropped on his
gray beard.

"But it was all Maria's doing," urged Will passionately. "She has
been against me from the first; I see that now. She's plotted to
oust me from the very start."

"Well, she might have spared herself the trouble," was Fletcher's
sharp rejoinder.

"Let me explain--let me explain," pleaded the other, in a
desperate effort to gain time; "just a word or two--I only want a
word."

But when his grandfather drew back and stood glowering upon him
in silence, the speech he had wished to utter withered upon his
lips, blighted by a panic terror, and he stood mumbling
incoherently beneath his breath.

"Give me a word--a word is all I want," he reiterated wildly.

"Then out with your damned word and begone!" roared Fletcher.

Will's eyes travelled helplessly around the room, seeking in vain
some inspiration from the objects his gaze encountered. The tin
safe, the basket of feathers, the pile of walnuts on the hearth,
each arrested his wandering attention for an instant, and he
beheld all the details with amazing vividness.

A mouse came out into the room, gliding like a shadow along the
wall to the pile of walnuts, and his eyes followed it as if drawn
by an invisible thread.

"It's Maria--it's all Maria," he stuttered, and could think of
nothing further. His brain seemed suddenly paralysed, and he
found himself tugging hopelessly at the most commonplace word
which would not come. All his swaggering bravado had scampered
off at the first wag of the old man's head.

"If that's what you've got to say, you might as well be gone,"
returned Fletcher, moving toward him. "I warn you now that the
next time I find you here you won't git off so easy. Maria or no
Maria, you ain't goin' to lounge about this place so long as my
name is Bill Fletcher. The farther you keep yourself and your
yaller-headed huzzy out of my sight the better. Thar, now, be off
or you'll git a licking."

"But I tell you Maria's cheated me--she's cheated me," returned
Will, his voice rising shrilly as he was goaded into revolt.
"She's been scheming to get the place all along; that's her
trick."

"Pish! Tush!" responded Fletcher. "Are you going or are you not?"

Will's eyes burned like coals, and an observer, noting the two
men as they stood glaring at each other, would have been struck
by their resemblance in attitude and expression rather than in
feature. Both leaned slightly forward, with their chins thrust
out and their jaws dropped, and there was a ceaseless twitching
of the small muscles in both faces. The beast in each had sprung
violently to the surface and recognised the likeness at which he
snarled.

"You've left me to starve!" cried Will, strangling a sob of
anger. "It's not fair! You have no right. The money ought to be
mine--I swear it ought!"

"Oh, it ought, ought it?" sneered the old man, with an ugly
laugh.

At the sound of the laugh, Will shrank back and shivered as if
from the stroke of a whip. The spirit of rage worked in his blood
like the spirit of drink, and he felt his disordered nerves
respond in a sudden frenzy.

"It ought to be mine, you devil, and you know it!" he cried.

"I do, do I?" retorted Fletcher, still cackling. "Well, jest grin
at me a minute longer like that brazen wench your mother and I'll
lay my stick across your shoulders for good and all. As for my
money, it's mine, I reckon, and, living or dead, I'll look to it
that not one red cent gits to you. Blast you! Stop your
grinning!"

He raised the stick and made a long swerve sideways, but the
other, picking up the hammer from the hearth, jerked it above his
head and stood braced for the assault. In the silence of the room
Will heard the thumping of his own heart, and the sound inspired
him like the drums of battle. He was in a quiver from head to
foot, but it was a quiver of rage, not of fear, and a glow of
pride possessed him that he could lift his eyes and look Fletcher
squarely in the face.

"You're a devil--a devil! a devil!" he cried shrilly, sticking
out his tongue like a pert and vulgar little boy. "Christopher
Blake was right--you're a devil!"

As the name struck him between the eyes the old man lurched back
against the stove; then recovering himself, he made a swift
movement forward and brought his stick down with all his force on
the boy's shoulder.

"Take that, you lying varmint!" he shouted, choking.

The next instant his weapon had dropped from his hand, and he
reached out blindly, grappling with the air, for Will had turned
upon him with the spring of a wild beast and sent the hammer
crushing into his temple.

There was a muffled thud, and Fletcher went down in a huddled
heap
upon the floor, while the other stood over him in the weakness
which had succeeded his drunken frenzy.

"I told you to let me alone. I told you I'd do it," said Will
doggedly, and a moment later: "I told you I'd do it."

The hammer was still in his hand, and, lifting it, he examined it
with a morbid curiosity. A red fleck stained the iron, and
glancing down he saw that there was a splotch of blood on
Fletcher's temple. "I told him I'd do it," he repeated, speaking
this time to himself.

Then instantly the silence in the room stopped his heartbeats and
set him quaking in a superstitious terror through every fiber. He
heard the stir of the mouse in the pile of walnuts, the hissing
of the flame above the embers, and the sudden breaking of the
smoked chimney of the lamp. Then as he leaned down he heard
something else--the steady ticking of the big silver watch in
Fletcher's pocket.

A horror of great darkness fell over him, and, turning, he reeled
like a drunken man out into the night.

CHAPTER IX. The Fulfilling of the Law

Christopher had helped Tucker upstairs to bed and had gone into
his own room to undress, when a sharp and persistent rattle upon
the closed shutters brought him in alarm to his feet. Looking
out, he saw a man's figure outlined in the moonlight on the walk,
and, at once taking it to be Will, he ran hastily down and
unbarred the door.

"Come in quietly," he said. "Uncle Tucker is asleep upstairs.
What in thunder is the trouble now?"

Stepping back, he led the way into what so short a time ago had
been Mrs. Blake's parlour, and then pausing in the center of the
floor, stood waiting with knitted brows for an explanation of the
visit. But Will, who had shrunk dazzled from the flash of the
lamp, now lingered to put up the bar with shaking hands.

"For God's sake, what is it?" questioned Christopher, and a start
shook through him at sight of the other's face. "Have you had a
fit?"

Closing the parlour door behind him, Will crossed the room and
caught at the mantel for support. "I told you I'd do it some
day--I told you I'd do it," he said incoherently, in a frantic
effort to shift the burden of responsibility upon stronger
shoulders.

"You might have known all along that I'd do it some day."

"Do what?" demanded Christopher, while he felt the current of his
blood grow weak. "Out with it, now. Speak up. You're as white as
a sheet."

"He struck me--he struck me first. The bruise is here," resumed
Will, in the same eager attempt at self justification. "Then I
hit him on the head with a hammer and his skull gave way. I
didn't hit hard. I swear it was a little blow; but he's dead. I
left him stone dead in the kitchen. "

"My God, man!" exclaimed Christopher, and touched him on the
shoulder.

With a groan, Will put up his hands and covered his bloodshot
eyes. "I didn't mean to do it--I swear I didn't," he protested.
"Who'd have thought his head would crush in like that at the
first little blow--just a tap with an old hammer? Why, it would
hardly have cracked a walnut! And what was the hammer doing
there, anyway? They have no business to leave such things lying
about on the hearth. It was all their fault--they ought to have
put the hammer away."

A convulsive shudder ran through him, ending in his hands and
feet, which jerked wildly. His face was gray and old--so old that
he might have been taken, at the first glance, for a man of
eighty, and in the intervals between his words he sucked in his
breath with a hissing noise. Meeting Christopher's look, he broke
into a spasm of frightened sobs, whimpering like a child that has
been whipped.

"I told you not to drink again," said Christopher sharply as he
struggled to collect his thoughts. "I told you liquor would make
a beast of you."

"I'll never touch another drop. I swear I'll never touch another
drop," groaned Will, still sobbing. "I didn't mean to kill him, I
tell you. It wasn't as if I really meant to kill him; you see
that. It was all the fault of that accursed hammer they left
lying on the hearth. A man must have a lot of courage to murder
anybody--mustn't he?" he added, with a feeble smile; "and I'm a
coward--you know I've always been a coward; haven't I--haven't
I?" he persisted, and Christopher nodded an agreement.

"You see, I wasn't to blame, after all; but he flew into such a
rage--he always flew into a rage when he heard your name."

"So you brought my name in?" asked Christopher carelessly.

"Oh, it was that that did it; it was your name," replied Will
breathlessly. "I told him you said he was a devil--you did say
so, you know. Christopher Blake was right; he called you 'a
devil,' that was it. Then he ran at me with his stick, and I
jerked up the hammer, and Oh, my God, they mustn't hang me!"

"Nonsense!" retorted Christopher roughly, for the other had
dropped upon the floor and was grovelling in drunken hysterics at
his feet. "It makes me sick to see a man act like an ass."

"Get me out of this and I'll never touch a drop," moaned Will.
"Take me away from here--hide me anywhere. I'll go anywhere, I'll
promise anything, only they mustn't find me. If they find me I'll
go mad--I'll go mad in gaol."

"Shut up!" rejoined Christopher, listening with irritation to the
sound of the other's hissing breath. "Stop your infernal racket a
minute and let me think. Here, get up. Are you too drunk to stand
on your feet?"

"I'm sober--I'm perfectly sober," protested Will, and, rising
obediently, he stood clutching at the chimney-piece. "Get me out
of this--only get me out of this," he repeated, with a desperate
reliance on the other's power to avert the consequences of his
deed. "I've always been a good friend to you," he went on
passionately. "The quarrel first started about you, and I stood
up for you to the last. I never let him say anything against
you--I never did!"

"I'm much obliged to you," returned Christopher, and felt that he
might as well have wasted his irony on a beaten hound. Turning
away from the wild entreaty of Will's eyes, he walked slowly up
and down the room, taking care to step lightly lest the boards
should creak and awaken Tucker.

The parlour was just as Mrs. Blake had left it; her highbacked
Elizabethan chair, filled with cushions, stood on the hearth; the
dried grasses in the two tall vases shed their ashy pollen down
upon the bricks. Even the yellow cat, grown old and sluggish,
dozed in her favourite spot beside the embroidered ottoman.

On the whitewashed walls the old Blake portraits still presided,
and he found, for the first time, an artless humour in the
formality of the ancestral attitude--in the splendid pose which
they had handed down like an heirloom through the centuries.
Among them he saw the comely, high-coloured features of that
gallant cynic, Bolivar, the man who had stamped his beauty upon
threegenerations, and his gaze lingered with a gentle ridicule on
the blithe candour in the eyes and the characteristic touch of
brutality about the mouth. Then he passed to his father, portly,
impressive, a high liver, a generous young blood, and then to the
classic Saint--Memin profile of Aunt Susannah, limned delicately
against a background of faded pink. And from her he went on to
his mother's portrait, painted in shimmering brocade under rose
garlands held by smiling Loves.

He looked at them all steadily for a while, seeking from the
changeless lips of each an answer to the question which he felt
knocking at his own heart. In every limb, in every feature, in
every fiber he was plainly born to be one of themselves, and yet
from their elegant remoteness they stared down upon the rustic
labourer who was their descendant. Degraded, coarsened,
disinherited, the last Blake stood before them, with his poverty
and ignorance illumined only at long intervals by the flame of a
soul which, though darkened, was still unquenched.

The night dragged slowly on, while he paced the floor with his
thoughts and Will moaned and tossed, a shivering heap, upon the
sofa.

"Stop your everlasting cackle!" Christopher had once shouted
angrily, forgetting Tucker, and for the space of a few minutes
the other had lain silent, choking back the strangling sobs. But
presently the shattered nerves revolted against restraint, and
Will burst out afresh into wild crying. The yellow cat, grown
suddenly restless, crossed the room and jumped upon the sofa,
where she stood clawing at the cover, and he clung to her with a
pathetic recognition of dumb sympathy--the sympathy which he
could not wring from the careless indifference of Christopher's
look.

"Speak to me--say something," he pleaded at last, stretching out
his hands. "If this keeps up I'll go mad before morning."

At this Christopher came toward him, and, stopping in his walk,
frowned down upon the sofa.

"You deserve everything you'd get;" he said angrily. "You're as
big a fool as ever trod this earth, and there's no reason under
heaven why I should lift my hand to help you. There's no reason
--there's no reason," he repeated in furious tones.

"But you'll do it--you'll get me out of it!" cried Will, grasping
the other's knees.

"And two weeks later you'd be in another scrape."

"Not a single drop--I'll never touch a drop again. Before God I
swear it!"

"Pshaw! I've heard that oath before."

Strangling a scream, Will caught him by the arm, dragging himself
slowly into a sitting posture. "I'll hang myself if you let them
get me," he urged hysterically. " I'll hang myself in gaol rather
than let them do it. I can't face it all I can't--I can't. It
isn't grandpa I mind; I'm not afraid of him. He was a devil. But
it's the rest--the rest."

Roughly shaking him off, Christopher left him huddled upon the
floor and resumed his steady walk up and down the room. In his
ears the incoherent phrases grew presently fainter, and after a
time he lost entirely their frenzied drift. "A little blow--just
a little blow," ended finally in muffled sounds of weeping.

The habit of outward composure which always came to him in
moments of swift experience possessed him so perfectly now that
Will, lifting miserable eyes to his face, lowered them, appalled
by its unfeeling gravity.

"I've been a good friend to you--a deuced good friend to you,"
urged the younger man in a last passionate appeal for the aid
whose direction he had not yet defined.

"What is this thought which I cannot get rid of?" asked
Christopher moodily of himself. "And what business is it of mine,
anyway? What am I to the boy or the boy to me?" But even with the
words he remembered the morning more than five years ago when he
had gone out to the gate with his bird gun on his shoulder and
found Will Fletcher and the spotted foxhound puppies awaiting him
in the road. He saw again the boy's face, with the sunlight full
upon it--eager, alert, a little petulant, full of good impulses
readily turned adrift. There had been no evil upon it then--only
weakness and a pathetic absence of determination. His own
damnable intention was thrust back upon him, and he heard again
the words of Carraway which had reechoed in his thoughts. "The
way to touch the man, then, is through the boy." So it was the
way, after all .

He almost laughed aloud at his prophetic insight. He had touched
the man vitally enough at last, and it was through the boy. He
had murdered Bill Fletcher, and he had done it through the only
thing Bill Fletcher had ever loved. From this he returned again
to the memory of the deliberate purpose of that day--to the
ribald jests, the coarse profanities, the brutal oaths. Then to
the night when he had forced the first drink down Will's throat,
and so on through the five years of his revenge to the present
moment. Well, his triumph had come at last, the summit was put
upon his life's work, and he was--he must be--content.

Will raised his head and looked at him in reviving hope.

"You're the only friend I have on earth," he muttered between his
teeth.

The first streak of dawn entered suddenly, flooding the room with
a thin gray light in which the familiar objects appeared robbed
of all atmospheric values. With a last feeble flicker the lamp
shot up and went out, and the ashen wash of daybreak seemed the
fit medium for the crude ugliness of life.

Towering almost grotesquely in the pallid dawn, Christopher came
and leaned above the sofa to which Will had dragged himself
again.

"You must get out of this," he said, "and quickly, for we've
wasted the whole night wrangling. Have you any money?"

Will fumbled in his pocket and brought out a few cents, which he
held in his open palm, while the other unlocked the drawer of the
old secretary and handed him a roll of banknotes.

"Take this and buy a ticket somewhere. It's the money I scraped
up to pay Fred Turner."

"To pay Fred Turner?" echoed Will, as if in that lay the
significance of the remark.

"Take it and buy a ticket, and when you get where you're going,
sit still and keep your mouth shut. If you wear a bold face you
will go scot--free; remember that; but everything depends upon
your keeping a stiff front. And now go--through the back door and
past the kitchen to the piece of woods beyond the pasture. Cut
through them to Tanner's Station and take the train there, mind,
for the North."

With a short laugh he held out his big, knotted hand.

"Good--by," he said, " and don't be a damned fool."

"Good--by," answered Will, clinging desperately to his
outstretched arm. Then an ashen pallor overspread his face, and
he slunk nervously toward the kitchen, for there was the sound of
footsteps on the little porch outside, followed by a brisk rap on
the front door.

"Go!" whispered Christopher, hardly taking breath, and he stood
waiting while Will ran along the wooden platform and past the
stable toward the pasture.

The rap came again, and he turned quickly. "Quit your racket and
let me get on my clothes!" he shouted, and hesitated a little
longer.

As he stood alone there in the center of the room, his eyes,
traversing the walls, fell on the portrait of Bolivar Blake, and
with one of the fantastic tricks of memory there shot into his
head the dying phrase of that gay sinner: "I may not sit with the
saints, but I shall stand among the gentlemen."

"Precious old ass!" he muttered, and unbarred the door.

As he flung it open the first rays of sunlight splashed across
the threshold, and he was conscious, all at once, of a strange
exhilaration, as if he were breasting one of the big waves of
life.

"This is a pretty way to wake up a fellow who has been planting
tobacco till he's stiff," he grumbled. "Is that you, Tom?" He
glanced carelessly round, nodding with a kind of friendly
condescension to each man of the little group. "How are you,
Matthew? Hello, Fred!"

Tom drew back, coughing, and scraped the heel of his boot on the
topmost step.

"We didn't mean to git you out of bed, Mr. Christopher," he
explained apologetically, "but the truth is we want Will Fletcher
an' he ain't at home. The old man's murdered, suh."

"Murdered, is he?" exclaimed Christopher, with a long whistle,
"and you want Will Fletcher--which shows what a very pretty
sheriff you would make. Well, if you're so strong on his scent
that you can't turn aside, most likely you'll find him sleeping
off his drunk under my haystack. But if you're looking for the
man who killed Bill Fletcher, then that's a different matter,"
he added, taking down his hat, "and I reckon, boys, I'm about
ready to come along."

CHAPTER X. The Wheel of Life

Throughout the trial he wore the sullen reserve which closed over
him like a visor when he approached one of the crises of life. He
had made his confession and he stood to it. "I killed Bill
Fletcher" he gave out flatly enough. What he could not give was
an explanation of his unaccountable presence at the Hall so
nearly upon midnight. When the question was first put to him he
sneered and shrugged his shoulders with the hereditary gesture of
the Blakes. "Why was he there? Well, why wasn't he there?" That
was all. And Carraway, who had stood by his side since the day of
the arrest, retired at last before an attitude which he
characterised as one of defiant arrogance.

It was this attitude, people said presently, rather than the
murder of Bill Fletcher, which brought him the sentence he heard
with so insolent an indifference.

"Five years wasn't much for killin' a man, maybe," Tom Spade
observed, "but it was a good deal, when you come to think of it,
for a Blake to pay jest for gettin' even with a Fletcher. Why, he
might have brained Bill Fletcher an' welcome," the storekeeper
added a little wistfully, "if only he hadn't put on such a nasty
manner afterward."

But it was behind this impregnable reserve that Christopher
retreated as into a walled fortress. There had been no sentiment
in his act, he told himself; he had not even felt the romantic
fervour of the sacrifice. A certain staunch justice was all he
saw in it, relieved doubtless by a share of his hereditary love
of desperate hopes--of the hot--headed clinging to that last
shifting foothold on which a man might still make his fight
against the power of circumstance. And so, with that strange
mixture of rustic crudeness and aristocratic arrogance, he turned
his face from his friends and went stubbornly through the
cross-questioning of the court.

>From first to last he had not wavered in his refusal to see
Maria, and there had been an angry vehemence in the resistance he
had made to her passionate entreaty for a meeting. When by the
early autumn he went from the little town gaol to serve his five
years in the State prison, his most vivid memory of her was as
she looked with the moonlight on her face in the open field. As
the months went on, this gradually grew remote and dim in his
remembrance, like a bright star over which the clouds thicken,
and his thoughts declined, almost without an upward inspiration,
upon the brutal level of his daily life. Mere physical disgust
was his first violent recoil from what had seemed a curious
deadness of his whole nature, and the awakening of the senses
preceded by many months the final resurrection of the more
spiritual emotions. The sources of health were still abundant in
him, he admitted, if the vile air, the fetid smells, the
closeness as of huddled animals, the filth, the obscenity, the
insufferable bestial humanity could arouse in him a bodily nausea
so nearly resembling disease. There were moments when he felt
capable of any crime from sheer frenzied loathing of his
surroundings--when for the sake of the clean space of the tobacco
fields and the pure water of the little spring he would have
murdered Bill Fletcher a dozen times. As for the old man's death
in itself, it had never caused him so much as a quiver of the
conscience. Bill Fletcher deserved to die, and the world was well
rid of him--that was all.

But his own misery! This was with him always, and there was no
escape from the moral wretchedness which seemed to follow so
closely upon crime. Fresh from the open country and the keen
winds that blow over level spaces, he seemed mentally and
physically to wither in the change of air--to shrink slowly to
the perishing root, like a plant that has been brought from a
rich meadow to the aridity of the close--packed city. And with
the growing of this strange form of homesickness he would be
driven, at times, into an almost delirious cruelty toward those
who were weaker than himself, for there were summer nights when
he would brutally knock smaller men from the single window of the
cell and cling, panting for breath, to the iron bars. As the year
went on, his grim silence, too, became for those around him as
the inevitable shadow of the prison, and he went about his daily
work in a churlish loneliness which caused even the convicts
among whom he lived to shrink back from his presence.

Then with the closing of the second winter his superb physical
strength snapped suddenly like a cord that has stood too tight a
strain, and for weeks he lingered between life and death in the
hospital, into which he was carried while yet unconscious. With
his returning health, when the abatement of the fever left him
strangely shaken and the unearthly pallor still clung to his face
and hands, he awoke for the first time to a knowledge that his
illness had altered for the period of his convalescence, at least
the vision through which he had grown to regard the world.

A change had come to him, in that mysterious borderland so near
the grave, and the bare places in his soul had burst suddenly
into fulfilment. Sitting one Sunday morning in the open court of
the prison, with his thin white hands hanging between his knees
and his head, cropped now of its thick, fair hair, raised to the
sunshine, it seemed to him that, like Tucker on the old bench, he
had learned at last how to be happy. The warm sun in his face,
the blue sky straight overhead, the spouting fountain from which
a sparrow drank, produced in him a recognition, wholly
passionless, of the abundant physical beauty of the earth--of a
beauty in the blue sky and in the clear sunshine falling upon the
prison court.

A month ago he had wondered almost hopefully if his was to be one
of those pathetic sunken graves, marked for so brief a time by
wooden headboards the graves of the men who had died within the
walls--and now there pulsed through him, sitting there alone, a
quiet satisfaction in the thought that he might still breathe the
air and look into men's faces and see the blue sky overhead. The
sky in itself! That was enough to fill one's memory to
overflowing, Tucker had said.

A tall, lean convict, newly released from the hospital, crossed
the court at a stumbling pace and stood for a moment at his side.

"I reckon you're hankerin', he remarked. "I was sent down here
from the mountains, an' I hanker terrible for the sight of the
old Humpback Knob."

"And I'd like to see a level sweep--hardly a hill, just a clean
stretch for the wind to blow over the tobacco."

"You're from the tobaccy belt, then, ain't you? What are you here
for?"

"Killing a man. And you?"

"Killin' two."

He limped off at his feeble step, and Christopher rubbed his
hands in the warm sunshine and wondered how it would feel to bask
on one of the old logs by the roadside.

That afternoon Jim Weatherby came to see him, bringing the news
that Lila's baby had come and that she had named it Christopher.
"It's the living image of you, she says," he added, smiling; "but
I confess I can't quite see it. The funny part is, you know, that
Cynthia is just as crazy about it as Lila is, and she looks ten
years younger since the little chap came."

"And Uncle Tucker?"

"His old wounds trouble him, but he sent you word he was waiting
to go till you came back again."

A blur swam before Christopher's eyes, and he saw in fancy the
old soldier waiting for him on the bench beside the damask
rose-bush.

"And the others--and Maria Wyndham?" he asked, swallowing the
lump in his throat.

Jim reached out and laid his hand on the broad stripes across the
other's shoulder.

"She was with Mr. Tucker when he said that," he replied; "they
are always together now; and she added; Tell him we shall wait
together till he comes."

The tears which had blinded Christopher's eyes fell down upon his
clasped hands.

"My God! Let me live to go back!" he cried out in his weakness.

>From this time the element of hope entered into his life, and
like its shadow there came the brooding fear that he should not
live to see the year of his release. With his declining health he
had been given lighter work in the prison factory, but the small
tasks seemed to him heavier than the large ones he remembered.
There was no disease, the physician in the hospital assured him;
it was only his unusual form of homesickness feeding upon his
weakened frame. Let him return once more to the outdoor life and
the fresh air of the tobacco fields and within six months his old
physical hardihood would revive.

It was noticeable at this time that the quiet tolerance which had
grown upon him in his convalescence drew to him the sympathy
which he had at first repulsed. The interest awakened in the
beginning by some rare force of attraction in his mere bodily
presence became now, when he had fallen away to what seemed the
shadow of himself, a friendly and almost affectionate curiosity
concerning his earlier history. With this there grew slowly a
rough companionship between him and the men among whom he lived,
and he found presently to his surprise that there was hardly one
of them but had some soft spot in his character--some particular
virtue which was still alive. The knowledge of good and evil
thrust upon him in these months was not without effect in
developing a certain largeness of outlook upon humanity--a kind
of generous philosophy which remained with him afterward in the
form of a peculiar mellowness of temperament.

The autumn of his third year was already closing when, being sent
for one morning from the office of the superintendent, he went in
to find Cynthia awaiting him with his pardon in her hand. "I've
come for you, Christopher," she said, weeping at sight of his
wasted figure. "The whole county has been working to get you out,
and you are free at last."

"Free at last?" he repeated mechanically, and was conscious of a
disappointment in the fact that he experienced no elation with
the words. What was this freedom, that had meant so much to him a
month ago?

"Somebody in Europe wrote back to Maria," she added, while her
dry sobs rattled in her bosom, "that the boy had confessed it to
a priest who made him write it home. Oh, Christopher!
Christopher! I can't understand!"

"No, you can't understand," returned Christopher, shaking his
head. They would not understand, he knew, none of them--neither
the world, nor Cynthia, nor his mother who was dead, nor Maria
who was living. They would not understand, and even to himself
the mystery was still unsolved. He had acted according to the law
of his own nature; this was all that was clear to him; and the
destiny of character had controlled him from the beginning. The
wheel had turned and he with it, and being as blind as fate
itself he could see nothing further.

Back once more in the familiar country, fresh from the strong
grasp of friendly hands, and driving at sunset along the red road
beneath half-bared honey-locusts, he was conscious, with a dull
throb of regret, that the placid contentment he felt creeping
over him failed in emotional resemblance to the happiness he had
associated with his return. Had the sap really gone dry within
him, and would he go on forever with this curious numbness at his
heart?

"Maria wanted you to go straight to the Hall," said Cynthia,
turning suddenly, "but I told her I'd better take you home and
put you to bed at once. It was she who went to the Governor and
got your pardon," she added after a moment, "but when I begged
her to come with me to take it to you she would not do it. She
would not see you until you were back in your own place, she
said."

He smiled faintly, and, leaning back among the rugs Cynthia had
brought, watched the white mist creeping over the ploughed
fields. The thought of Maria no longer stirred his pulses, and
when presently they reached the whitewashed cottage, and he sat
with Tucker before the wood fire in his mother's parlour, he
found himself gazing with a dull impersonal curiosity at the
portraits smiling so coldly down upon the hearth. The memory of
his mother left him as immovable as did the many trivial
associations which thronged through his brain at sight of the
room which had been hers. A little later, lying in her tester
bed, the fall of the acorns on the shingled roof above sent him
into a profound and untroubled sleep.

With the first sunlight he awoke, and, noiselessly slipping into
his clothes, went out for a daylight view of the country which
had dwelt for so long a happy vision in his thoughts. The dew was
thick on the grass, and, crossing to the old bench, he sat down
in the pale sunshine beside the damask rosebush, on which a
single flower blossomed out of season. Beyond the cedars in the
graveyard the sunrise flamed golden upon a violet background, and
across the field of lifeeverlasting there ran a sparkling path of
fire. The air was strong with autumn scents, and as he drank it
in with deep drafts it seemed to him that he began to breathe
anew the spirit of life. With a single bound of the heart the
sense of freedom came to him, and with it the happiness that he
had missed the evening before pulsed through his veins. Much yet
remained to him--the earth with its untold miracles, the sky with
its infinity of space, his own soul--and Maria!

With her name he sprang to his feet in the ardour of his
impatience, and it was then that, looking up, he saw her coming
to him across the sunbeams.

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